Saturday, August 06, 2016

I'm either on to something here or I've just wasted thirty minutes of my life working this out with more thought and detail than I put into ... well pretty much everything.

Andrew Leon's post about Star Wars: Rebels the other day made me think of some revisionist history for Star Wars, which is the kind of thinking I like to indulge in at night when I'm sitting in the boys' room and can no longer dwell on economic inequality or how terrible lawyers are or work on my latest novel which is about superheroes. (Teaser alert!)

Anyway, what Andrew said was this:

What we know about Star Wars in general is that Anakin was the most powerful Jedi ever, even more powerful than Yoda. That is, until Luke was born, and Luke is supposed to be even more powerful than Anakin (even though no one ever took his midi-chlorian count),

That got me thinking. In Episodes I-III, a scientific basis for The Force is laid out: there are midichlorians and Jedis have a school and teach kids, and a library, and are a recognized presence in the universe.

But by Episode IV, some 20-ish years after the events in Revenge Of The Sith, Han is referring to "Hokey religions and ancient weapons," and General Mott tells Vader not to try to scare them with his sorceror's ways and his devotion to an ancient religion.

What if, in the 20 years after the Jedi were stricken down by the events in Revenge Of The Sith, the science of The Force fell away and people began to think of it only as an old legend or hokey magic tricks, forgetting that as recently as two decades ago people understood the basis for the science behind the Jedi and Sith powers?

It's not so farfetched. Think about things we use nowadays like wifi and lasers and laptops. Those were made possible by understandings of quantum mechanics that were so difficult to make a leap to, even Einstein didn't trust them.  Now imagine that someone wipes out every scientist on earth, everyone who has even the most basic understanding of the way to make these things work, leaving only three -- apparently -- scientists in the entire world who have any idea about these things, and two of those are in hiding.  Let 20 years go by, and see if people 20 years from now think wifi is 'sorcery' or so much hokum.

It works even better if you remember that even though it apparently had a scientific basis in the midichlorians, "the Force" couldn't be used by just anyone, and it's likely the Jedi didn't let on how 'the Force' was generated because if they did, people might not regard it with the awe they had otherwise. If we saw a guy flying around, it'd be amazing, but less so if we realized he was just using a jetpack that we couldn't see. (Still amazing, though...)

If that's the case, that "the Force" has a scientific basis, then it could only awaken by having more people with midichlorians found, or perhaps by creating people with midichlorians. Remember, Anakin didn't have a father, and was raised on Tatooine. Luke was raised on Tatooine and is apparently stronger than Anakin/Vader.  Now, we know someone dumped Rey on whatever-that-planet-was (I've forgotten the name.) Could that be to create more midichlorians through some process known only to Jedi?

Friday, August 05, 2016

OK this guy deserves the Nobel Prize for real.

I was skeptical of the article on Jalopnik entitled "I have invented the ultimate food to eat while driving" but I read it because I frequently eat while driving. From last night, where we had to make an emergency trip to the pool for Mr F, who was inconsolable and asking for it so clearly that we decided it was worth it for me to take him instead of sitting down to eat dinner, to the times I'm on the road for up to 8 hours a day and don't want to sit at a restaurant to eat a meal, I have a need of foods that can be eaten one handed, especially while wearing a shirt and tie. (I don't wear my coat in the car. This isn't Victorian England.)

But the guy really did it. Here's the concept art:


I would 100% exist on that if I could. The whole article is worth reading, not just because of the idea, but because of how he worked out why this would be so perfect. I want one with sausage on one side and eggs and cheese on the other for breakfast, and a pizza one for lunch, with the side being cheesy garlic bread. I can't stop thinking about the varieties. Also now I'm hungry.

15,842 New Words: Or it's also the name of an album from a heavy metal band.

It’d be a love like the Siege Perilous.

-- Boy, Snow, Bird: A Novel (Oyeyemi, Helen)

I guess it’s not actually a new word, so much as a phrase, but when I read that in this book, I had to know what the Siege Perilous was.
The “Siege Perilous” is the empty seat at King Arthur’s Round Table. Merlin reserved that seat for the knight who would one day find the Holy Grail, and the rules about who could sit there were so serious that if you sat in it but hadn’t found the Holy Grail, you would die.
The narrator was saying it of a man who loves her but who she can’t love because he would love her too much and give her nothing imperfect to complain about.
A love like the Siege Perilous would be a terrible love -- unless you were the one it was meant for.




Thursday, August 04, 2016

Books 56 and 57: It's not what you write, it's who you know.

There's little in common between the subjects of The Nest and The Racketeer.

The Nest is the story of four overprivileged-ish kids who were awaiting an inheritance when the youngest turned 40; each in his own way had more or less built a life around waiting for the money, but when the eldest, Leo, gets into a car accident and has to pay off the young waitress who lost her foot as a result (he was fooling around with her and drunk), "the nest," which is the kids' shorthand term for their "nest egg" is used (mostly) to pay off the waitress.

The book jumps from kid to kid and barely touches on each enough to give a real glimpse into their life: Melody, the youngest, has two daughters and lives in an overpriced suburb and wants to pay their tuition to private colleges. Jack has mortgaged his and his husband's vacation home to make ends meet at his antique shop and they're going to lose the house if he can't pay off her loan. Bea, the writer, doesn't really need the money at all.  It's pretty low-stakes stuff, and ultimately the loss of the money doesn't really have much of a negative effect on any of the kids, or the friend of Leo's who [SPOILER ALERT] becomes pregnant with Leo's baby.  What tension there is is built around whether Leo will pay them back using some money he squirreled away, but even that is never really in doubt. [SPOILER ALERT: he doesn't.]

There's more tension and heart in any short story by John Cheever than there is in this entire novel, and even though there was some good stuff here to work with -- the side story of a fireman who stole a statue from the 9/11 ruins, based on a real incident, is good but similarly works out with a sort of they all lived happily ever after feel -- it never amounts to very much. It's pleasant, ultimately meaningless stuff.

Grisham's book, which was a spacefiller for me -- I couldn't find an audiobook I liked and finally just picked out this one from Grisham -- is similarly unimpactful. It's the story of a wrongfully-convicted lawyer (he was caught up in a money-laundering scheme) who hatches a plan to get himself and a friend out of prison. The plan is built around the mysterious murder of a federal judge, and for a story that has murder, intrigue, high-stakes lawsuits, FBI agents, witness protection, drug gangs, yachts, etc., the story is remarkably dull and slow. It feels half like a treatise on federal regulations, and half like a how-to for scheming, as though and IKEA instruction manual got translated into a thriller. I never really cared much about any of the characters, found myself poking the occasional hole in the plot or skeptical about motivations (the lawyer's sadness over his son, who he lost contact with during the five years in prison, comes and goes as needed to add 'emotional depth' *air quotes*), and when the final plot twists take place they feel almost completely unconnected to what has come before.  It took 44 chapters to get through this book, but it felt like 440.

Neither book was awful. I didn't hate read them or give up on them. They just... weren't good. It was hard to see why they were published, at all, unless you really think about why things get published.

All businesses exist to make money. That's a given. Whenever someone writes off something as "oh they're just in it for the money" that person demonstrates how naive they are. I do what I do -- help people save their homes and avoid harassment by debt collectors -- to make money. Everyone does what they do to make money, publishers included.

That said, there's ways to make money and there's ways to make money. My line of work is rare; there are only a handful of lawyers in Wisconsin who do more or less what I do, and most of them don't do it on my scale. I face an uphill battle in many of my cases and most of my clients have trouble paying me.

I could do what many lawyers do, and sell people what they want. That is: I sell people foreclosure litigation, which is something many people don't know exists and if they do they think they can't afford it. I could, instead, sell them the kind of law many lawyers practice: personal injury law, or divorce law, or something. There's a ready-made market for those.  Legal services are a product like any other, but I choose to try to find a market for the kind of services I want to provide.

Publishers have two options, too. They could try to find a market for new, interesting, exciting, intriguing books. Some publishers do this: McSweeney's is one that makes some amazing books and tries creative things, but they don't make a lot of money at it, and don't employ a lot of people.

Major publishers have to make major money. So they can't take a lot of risks, any more than most movie studios or networks can. Places like Netflix and HBO can take chances on TV series because people pay them to exist, through subscriptions. Netflix doesn't have to sell advertisers on its stuff; it has to sell you.  NBC has to convince advertisers to pay it to run a TV show, so the TV show can't be very small.

At a certain point, businesses become too big to take a major risk; a big risk could result in destroying the business. So they stop experimenting, or if they do experiment, it is done in the safest possible way.

Which brings us back to why The Nest and The Racketeer got published. It's obvious in Grisham's case: Grisham, like Star Wars and Stephen King and The Avengers and McDonald's, is a brand: you know what to expect from him, and while he's ventured into other territory (as J.K. Rowling, another brand has done) he still churns out The Racketeer. (I commented to Sweetie that the book felt like he'd done a choose one from column A, one from column B thing: "Let's see, wrongly accused, corrupt judge, drug dealer, and oh, sure, why not a uranium mine lawsuit?") The Racketeer felt, reading, like how a McDonald's cheeseburger tastes if you wait to get home and eat it when it's cold: still recognizable, not really what you came for.

But it still sells. The Racketeer was the 8th-best-selling book in 2012. Eighth. It debuted at number one and has already been optioned for a movie. It did its job, and was well-regarded by some critics, who apparently like stale burgers, I guess.

The Nest is a bit harder puzzle to crack, but the introduction gives a good clue. The author thanks a variety of people for helping get this book off the ground. Those people include, as recognizable names, Amy Poehler and John Hodgman. Lesser-knowns I had to look up include Kate Flannery (Meredith from The Office), Belinda Cape (a New York bigshot), Paul Yoon (a well-regarded author with two books already published), and Jill Soloway (a director of, among other things, Six Feet Under.)

In other words, the author of The Nest appears to be pretty hooked into the entertainment world if all those people (there's more than I listed) helped her with the book.  The Nest was reviewed all over the place, including by big publications, like The Atlantic. The author, Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, got a million dollar advance on it, for her first novel.  In the article where I read that, I learned that her husband is Conan O'Brien's head writer.

Simply being all hooked into the New York entertainment industrial complex wouldn't guarantee a book getting published, but it can't hurt, right? And it explans why such a meh of a book got such a great critical reception. Oh, and it's being made into a movie... with Jill Soloway producing it, big surprise.

Basically, the book was guaranteed to be a big hit. It had a huge industry backing behind it and was almost certain to get reviewed by all the right publications, and after the publicity of paying her a million bucks upfront, and the ad push to make sure everyone heard about The Nest it was almost certain to make the money back, because once you buy a book you can't go back to the publisher and say excuse me I don't see what all the fuss is about can I have my $29.99 back? 

Neither book hurts the world by existing, except for the fact that they kept two other books from being published, or at least noticed, by their own existence, and except for the fact that they lower expectations of what a good book is.  Publishers have to make money, sure, but if they're going to keep churning out the same stuff day after day, at least make it better. Some movie studios have gotten the point: those Marvel movies are generally pretty good, and some obvious care went into things like them and The Force Awakens. Publishers should stop bemoaning the loss of profits they think was caused by Amazon, and start paying attention to the fact that a lot of what they put out simply isn't worth the effort.

Not everyone has to make quirky weird books about squid or whatever. Fast food has its place, and thrillers by John Grisham do, too. But even fast food places have to try to produce something people want;  publishers seem to have moved away from trying to do that, as evidenced by these books.

It reminds me of Jerry and George's pitch to the networks for their TV show on Seinfeld.

"Why will people watch it?" the network head asks.

"Because it's on TV," George says.

People will read these books, because they are books. But they shouldn't: the books shouldn't be, and people shouldn't read them.

So my domain name expired.

If you've found this post, you've already guessed but "Thinkingthelions.com", which was my domain name for the past 10 years or so, expired, and I don't want to pay $10 or $40 or whatever just to have that domain name. So now the 'blogspot' is back. Yay?

Pass the word, though, if you find the other person who reads this blog.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

That escalated quickly

Tonight, I read to Sweetie the headline on this article from The Onion: Report: Ground Still Least Desirable Surface For Breaking Fall.

Sweetie is a person, you should keep in mind, who once cried during a Cheerios commercial. She hides her face during horror movies. Old ladies come up to her and tell her how nice her face looks. She is, in a word, sweet.


So I was not expecting this exchange, after I finished that headline:

"What about glass?" she asked.

"Well, sure..." I said.

"Or rocks?" she went on.

I said: "I think those are considered ground..." but she interrupted:

"What about a pile of poop?"

I was by this point speechless. Remember: cried about Cheerios.  But she wasn't done:

"What about a bunch of dead bodies?"

At that point, I'd given up.  But Sweetie still had not. About 10 minutes later, she said:

"What about a pile of dead bodies with the flesh-eating virus?"

...

...



Sunday, July 31, 2016

Book 55: Wednesday morning papers didn't come

Wednesday Comics was another stumble-across book; we went to the library a week ago for a special reading of Horton Hears A Who and some songs from Seussical. Mr F never lasts long at those things, so Sweetie sat in the room with Mr Bunches, while I wandered the library with Mr F after he got restless.

(People may wonder why I make Mr F go to the library if he dislikes it so much. Fair question. I make him go because it's important that he be exposed to things like that. For the most part, Mr F and Mr Bunches have to go to the things one likes but the other dislikes -- although Mr Bunches likes everything, more or less -- and only get excused when there's a very good reason, such as when we go down to the spot on the lake by the University where Mr Bunches can jump off a pier into the lake, which is about 10' deep there. Mr F won't jump, and the lake around the pier is no good for swimming or wading, so when Mr Bunches wants to go there we don't make Mr F go, as he would just sit there with no real chance to participate. At the library, it's different. Whenever we go, I make Mr F read a book with me, and then we do a puzzle or toy thing in the playroom, so he gets some benefit from it.)

Anyway, Wednesday Comics was an interesting idea DC had a while back, publishing comics in a Sunday-comic style format, each story 16 pages long and made to fold out into one large comic page when opened up. This book collects up all the stories, and it's a fun one. Not only is the book huge -- I placed it on our table for a sense of scale in that photo; that's a regular-sized laptop Mr F is sitting behind -- but it's huge in a way that makes sense for comics.  As a big e-reader guy who regrets having to read physical books (mostly), I have to say that sometimes they still make sense, and comics are one of those times. Comics are hard to read on an ereader, and I've tried on several different-sized screens, only to find the experience always less than thrilling. Part of the fun of comics is the layout of the page and that's hard to convey on a small screen. Shrinking comics has never been a good idea.

The stories in the collection are mostly good; a few times I had a bit of trouble following along, but that's mostly due to the sometimes-weird layouts the comics use.  A few of the stories fell back on short-story conventions: twist endings and the like. The Teen Titans story was particularly hard to follow, but again that just may be me not getting comics like I used to.

The art is far more interesting than you see in many comics.  There were some traditional comic drawings, but the better ones (for this format anyway) used more stylized, comic-y drawings.  I particularly liked Wonder Woman:


I have to say, Wonder Woman has been growing on me as a character for the last couple years. As a kid, she was blah, but in Infinite Crisis she was somewhat interesting. She was good in the movie Batman vs. Superman (which I liked, and like more in retrospect) and the preview for her upcoming feature seems pretty good. I might take a look at some Wonder Woman comics in the future.

There were a few characters I'd only vaguely heard of, like Deadman and Kamandi, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the comics that featured them. Probably my least favorite was the one with Catwoman and The Demon; it was The Demon fighting Morgan Le Fay, and I've never been all that interested in Catwoman, let alone yet another rehashing of the trope of an old witch trying to grab a new young body.

(OH. Spoiler alert I guess.)

Anyway, it was a fun read. At $49.99 for the actual hard copy book I can't imagine ever buying it but if I found it in a used bookstore for ten bucks I'd probably buy it just as a neat coffee-table book to have around.