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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Moving Pictures
Thoughts on movies, big and small, that I've seen recently:
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron - Last year, I fully bought into the whole Marvel mania. Cap 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy were wonderful, and after the dozenth rewatch of the first Avengers, I have to admit that it does some extraordinary things. But that's the thing with the first Avengers. It does some things very poorly. It has low lows. But it dos some things so well, the highs are so very high, that the lows are drowned out by the awesomeness of a single, perfectly placed line of dialog ("Hulk... Smash!" or a dozen other high points). Age of Ultron, by contrast, is a more even movie. The lows aren't as low, but the highs aren't as high either. It remains to be seen whether or not this will be as compulsively rewatchable as the first Avengers, but I suspect it will improve on further rewatching... and as Marvel continues their run through phase 3.

    Here's the thing with these movies: they're really leaning into the comic-bookness of it all. Where phase 1 and most of phase 2 were mostly isolated, standalone movies with some connective tissue weaved in, this movie seems more intertwined and less independent. The never-ending serialized nature of comic books are coming to the screen, fraught with all the attendant baggage that entails. Age of Ultron has a core thread, but dozens of other threads are weaved in, some so blatantly unnecessary that they must have been mandated as setup (see Thor's incomprehensible little detour to some weird underground memory lake), some more seemlessly incorporated. These movies have been going on long enough that many of the things people complain about with comics are starting to emerge. Characters die, but does anyone ever really die in the comics? How does that impact the stakes of the movie you're currently watching? For now, I'm going with the flow, but I can see the strain. How long can they keep this up? Only time will tell.

    I really loved the opening of this movie, with the Avengers already assembled and taking on a Hydra base, followed by an absolutely delightful party at Tony Stark's apartment (where, among other things, several heroes try and fail to lift Thor's hammer - a seemingly throwaway bit that is actually called back later in the film to tremendous effect, a very Whedony thing). Hawkeye, of all people, gets a great little spotlight this movie (it's about time) and that's just another one of those comic bookey things - a character who seems superfluous in the extreme, but turns out great when you give him something to do. Some of the other character stuff is not as fleshed out or contianed. Then things devolve a bit, and we get conflict within the team (seemingly the seeds of Civil War) and a sorta muddled climax. In the end, I still had a ton of fun with this movie, and I suspect it will only get better upon rewatching, and as various unfinished plot threads get resolved or expanded upon in future movies. Some may complain about the comic bookeyness of all this, but they'd be missing the point. The reason Marvel has been so successful is that they've really leaned into that and created something we haven't really seen on film before. I'm looking forward to seeing more.
  • Maggie - An Arnold Schwarzenegger zombie movie that entails approximately nothing like you'd actually expect from such a description. There aren't really any action scenes, no hoards of zombies (only a handful are really seen), no explosions or histrionics. Instead, we get a father/daughter relationship piece. The daughter (Abigail Breslin) has been infected and will inevitably become a zombie, and the father stands by her side during the transformation, torn by impossible choices (Deliver her to quarantine? Give her painful medical treatment that will only delay the inevitable? Put her out of her misery?). It's something that we've seen as a beat in a lot of zombie movies, stretched out to feature length. Unfortunately, while an admirable approach, it's perhaps a little too dour and drawn out. Still, it's artful and well done, and Arnold gives a surprisingly tender and effective performance. It's funny, I was reminded of the opening scenes of Commando... if Alyssa Milano was turning into a zombie. Or something. It is otherwise nothing like Commando, of course, so I probably shouldn't have brought that up. It's certainly worth a watch, but don't expect anything too exciting.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road - Holy hell, I need a cigarette or something. This is the most propulsive action film of the year, and probably the past few years. There's not much explicit plot, and the dialogue is functional at best, but who cares, the pursuing hoard has something called the Doof Wagon, a giant truck that has a bunch of stacked speakers and a guitarist who is bungie corded to it so that he can provide a diegetic heavy metal soundtrack for the militia's attacks. His guitar doubles as a flame thrower. If that sort of thing appeals to you, you will love this movie. It's one of the more visually impressive films of the year as well, relying primarily on practical effects and communicating more through action and visual cues than dialogue or exposition (which is why the dialogue and exposition that does make its way into the film feels a bit stunted). It could almost work as a silent movie... if it wasn't for the impact and bombast of all the revving cars and explosions. The world is so detailed that the visual approach works shockingly well, and it also means that the film can support many readings in terms of thematic depth. I mean, it's an action movie, through and through, and it works perfectly on that level, but many have searched for and found deeper meaning, from the simple plot of women attempting to escape their sexual slavery, to redemption and survival, to the way Charlize Theron's Furiosa relates to Tom Hardy's Max, and more. Whatever, the action is so engrossing and so intense that it scarcely matters. As long as you care about our intrepid heroes, and how could you not, you'll have fun going along for a ride. And what a lovely ride it is! See this on the largest screen possible, as soon as you can.
  • What We Do in the Shadows - I almost don't want to say anything about this movie because it's possible that you could have a great blind viewing of it. It's about a group of vampire roommates in New Zealand, but it's a comedic faux documentary. It works really well and is definitely recommended!
  • Tomorrowland - Not to cop out on you here, but Matt Singer wrote a great intro that nails my feelings on the movie:
    The best argument for Tomorrowland is its release date; one week after Mad Max: Fury Road, a film about a world destroyed by an oil war, and a week before San Andreas, in which an apocalyptic earthquake destroys half of North America. Less a blockbuster action film than a stern but well-intentioned lecture accompanied by an elaborate audiovisual presentation, Tomorrowland argues that rampant cynicism is actively poisoning our future. People become so convinced by movies like Mad Max and San Andreas that the world is doomed that they start to believe it really is. So they give up, and dystopia becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tomorrowland tries, through sheer force of will and a heaping helping of bright, shiny special effects, to reverse that trend; to convince people that there’s hope for tomorrow. It doesn’t want to entertain; its goal is nothing less than to inspire an entire generation. But it might have been easier to achieve the latter if it had worked a little harder to accomplish the former.
    A lot of people are kinda down on the movie, and it's true that it's too didactic in its execution, but it is still a Brad Bird movie, and there are bits when you can see his personality come through. Not as much as, say, his animated work (and I was never as much of a fan of MI4 as everyone else either), but there are some isolated moments here and there that hit really well. It's funny though, this movie has a sorta dystopic premise... one that is subverted, to be sure, but it's still not all that different from, say, Mad Max - a bunch of characters are just trying to survive. Tomorrowland certainly engages the problem with more optimism, but it does so in such a direct manner that it almost opposes itself. Still, it's very much worth watching, despite what all the haters are saying about it.
That's a pretty fantastic run of movies, even the ones that I don't love are things that are trying new and adventurous things and are always interesting to watch and discuss.
Posted by Mark on May 24, 2015 at 10:11 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Link Dump
The usual roundup of interesting things from the depths of the internets, because Mad Max won't watch itself later tonight and I'd like to be around for that.
  • "I Am Not Backing Off Anything I Said" - This interview with Seymour Hersh (about his questioning of the Bin Laden story) is utterly weird:
    Chotiner: OK but here is my question about journalism, since you have been doing this longer than I have-

    Hersh: Oh poor you, you don't know anything. It is amazing you can speak the God's English.
    It's not the Onion, I swears, and this is pretty indicative of Hersh's crankiness level throughout the interview.
  • Anne Hathaway will meet a Kaiju in Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal - If you don't know who Nacho Vigalondo is, you should (though I still haven't seen Open Windows, because I'm the worst). This new effort is described as "Godzilla meets Lost in Translation". Sold!
  • What Is Your Dog Telling You? - Pretty interesting read about dogs' body language:
    For the same reason that Eskimos purportedly have 50 different words for snow, dogs have a vast repertoire of gestures for appeasement and propitiation. The Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas has identified some 30 "calming signals" - movements offered to deflect trouble (which may also relieve stress in both giver and receiver). Supremely subtle, sometimes so quick we don't notice them, these appeasing signals include a flick of the tongue; turning the head or gaze away; suddenly sniffing the ground or sitting; yawning; shaking off; or approaching on a curve.
    We're pretty bad at interpreting doggie language...
  • Marty McFly is a diabetic - A strangely fitting fan theory for Back to the Future.
  • Why can't we read anymore? - I didn't really finish the article because it was too long. Just kidding, of course, and I'm not sure I even really buy into this notion that digital media makes us want to read less. Even the author admits that when he forced himself to sit down and read, it was surprisingly easy to do so. As with a lot of things, it's getting started that's the difficult part.
That's all for now.
Posted by Mark on May 17, 2015 at 08:18 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Non-Hugo Book Queue
As I wind my way through this year's Hugo nominees, I've realized that there are several books coming in the near future that I really, really want to read. It's almost enough to want to opt out of the Hugos (what with all the lame controversy), though I suppose there's a fair chance that two of these will be eligible next year (and one the following year). There's also the fact that I've already read 3 of the Hugo novels and am halfway through another, so I guess that's still on the table. Still, These 4 books make me want to drop everything and read them first:
  • Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (May 19, 2015) - So close I can almost taste it, this is coming in the mail next Tuesday. Stephenson is my favorite author, so I don't even really need to know what it's about, but if you do want to know, I posted the official synopsis a while back.
  • Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (February 2016) - Just recently announced, this is most exciting news. Bujold is my other favorite author, so this is another almost blind buy. Details are sparse, but Bujold has stated that the main protagonist is Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, which is most exciting. She's also stated that "It is not a war story. It is about grownups." which doesn't really narrow it down much, though it may suggest that this novel takes place long after Cordelia's previous entries in the series (Shards of Honor and Barrayar, both great) and perhaps during her stint as Vicereine of Sergyar (will Aral be there?) Honestly, this one is probably the most exciting on the list to me, if only because I have so much already invested in the series.
  • The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (May 19, 2015) - Finally! Barker has been talking about this story since 1993. 1993! I know he doesn't owe his fans anything, but it's been 20+ years, which is a bit excessive... It supposedly features Harry D'Amour (from The Last Illusion and Everville) and Pinhead (from The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser). This gets on the list simply because it's been so damn long, but since it comes out on the same day as Seveneves, it will have to wait!
  • The End of All Things by John Scalzi (Serial, August 11, 2015)- I was a huge fan of The Human Division... right up until it ended on a cliffhanger. Well Scalzi's finally gotten around to publishing the second volume (which supposedly will finish off the overarching story), which is supposed to happen in serial form over the next few months, but I'll probably wait until the full collection is released in August.
There are tons of other books in the queue, but these are some of my favorite authors and they deserve special attention. Can't wait for some of these!
Posted by Mark on May 13, 2015 at 09:23 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hugo Awards: The Goblin Emperor
Among high fantasy tropes, the goblin is not a particularly prized character. What you're thinking of when I say "goblin" is probably some combination of attributes from J.R.R. Tolkien's grotesque orcs in Lord of the Rings, the bumbling, low-level scamps from D&D (or, more recently, World of Warcraft), and maybe the terrifying codpiece of David Bowie in Labyrinth (amongst other, even more ridiculous 80s movies). Even more sympathetic portrayals, such as the goblins of Harry Potter, generally portray goblins as mischievous and greedy. For the most part, goblins are evil, villainous monsters that are, nevertheless, little more than cannon fodder in larger conflicts.

Katherine Addison's novel The Goblin Emperor challenges this starting with the title of the novel itself. We're clearly going to delve into the world of goblins here. While I'm not going to claim anything near a comprehensive knowledge of high fantasy, I know enough to be intrigued by the concept, and the possibilities are endless. The novel doesn't quite deliver on that axis of potential, but rather tries for a more subtle novel of characterization. There is, of course, nothing wrong with characterization, but when that's all there is, I'm usually left unsatisfied. This novel makes overtures towards a more gripping story, but generally seems content to stick with its character sketch.

Our protagonist is a reasonably likable fellow, well-mannered, self-aware, and honorable, though in no way perfect. In fact, he's alarmingly passive throughout most of the story, and as our sole viewpoint character, the reader is forced to confront his naivety and ignorance a little too often. I never stopped liking the guy or rooting for him, but did find myself frustrated by the frequent misunderstandings or whining about this or that court intrigue. But I get ahead of myself.

The novel starts of promisingly enough. Maia is the youngest son of the Emperor, but lives in exile because of his half-goblin heritage. The Elven Emperor married Maia's Goblin mother out of political expedience rather than any real desire, so when she died, Maia was sent off to a distant castle under the "care" (i.e. abuse) of his cousin while the Emperor took a more desirable Elven bride. When events conspire to kill the Emperor and his three eldest sons in a freak airship "accident" (i.e. sabotage), Maia quickly learns that he has unexpectedly ascended to the throne by default. The race is on to get to the court and establish himself before the Chancellor and other sycophants jockey themselves into power.

After an immediate charge of energy from these events and the introduction to the world, the novel quickly bogs down into repetitive, tedious, and repetitive meditations on court intrigue and decorum. And honestly, "intrigue" is too exciting a word to use for these machinations. Most readers will pinpoint the troublemakers in an instant, and yet Addison drags out the inevitable coup attempt (spoiler, I guess, but have you ever read a story about a freshly minted Emperor that didn't involve a coup or assassination attempt?) for nearly 2/3 of the novel, and not in a tension-building way either. When it happens, it is less thrilling than it is simply a relief to be reading something entertaining rather than how lightheaded Maia is at the thought of politics or how he grips his chair so hard out of nervousness that he bruises his hands (seriously, that last one happens multiple times). Also, I hope you like the word "Serenity" because that's the honorific bestowed upon the Emperor and thus it appears approximately 2,000 times in the novel. The final third of the novel, at least, delivers on some of the potential suggested earlier in the piece, even if I don't think it wholly compensates for the plodding nature of the story that preceded it...

Of course, part of the point is that the title of Emperor is not a particularly pleasant one. Much is made of Maia's loneliness, and he is, indeed, in a very vulnerable and scary situation. Fourth in line for the throne, he was not prepared for any of this, he has come to the court lacking any real knowledge of politics or etiquette, and he has no friends, no one he can really trust. Even most of his servants, loyal to the previous Emperor, seem to only grudgingly tolerate him at first. I don't generally like whiny characters, but it helps when they have something legitimate to whine about. There is something to be said for a story where the new Emperor learns to win over his detractors and learn how to rule, but as mentioned earlier, Maia seems entirely too passive to really accomplish that. Even his response to the coup attempt is a situation that he barely has any influence on (I was far more impressed by Maia's cousin Idra during this event). He seems to win people over simply by existing, which is not particularly satisfying, especially when it takes so long to occur. Things are looking up a bit in the end, with Maia ham-fistedly dubbed the "bridge builder" because he actually did something decisive (though seriously, that's a pretty clunky metaphor).

There is some exploration of race and class here, and Addison wisely shies away from histrionics on that front, revealing a less overt influence that is perhaps more insidious because of its subtlety. On the other hand, we learn very little about goblins or elves, so while it seems clear that Addison did a fair amount of worldbuilding to make this story work, much of it is not really on display. All of the characters essentially act like human beings, rather than different races. As a human being myself, that's not the worst thing in the world, I guess, but one of the things I like about Fantasy and SF is trying to extrapolate human characteristics in different contexts. This book made me want to either read actual historical accounts of court intrigue, or better fictional versions (the ones that come immediately to mind are Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar as well as her Chalion books, and naturally, Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, all of which I enjoyed a great deal more than The Goblin Emperor).

I'm decidedly mixed on this book. I can appreciate much of what it accomplishes and it is certainly a well written piece of work. It's got a surprisingly pleasant and empathetic protagonist and the final third has an actual plot (if a derivative one) that winds up hopeful in tone and even uplifting rather than the more typical grimmness. It's the dreary, overlong slog in the middle that sunk me and I was never really able to recover. Of the 3 novels on the Hugo ballot that I've read, I'd put this at about on par with Ancillary Sword and far behind The Three Body Problem.
Posted by Mark on May 10, 2015 at 08:50 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Ms. Elizabeth Halsey's Rotten Apple, Hot for (Bad) Teacher Summer Movie Quiz
After yet another long hiatus, Dennis Cozzalio of the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule blog has posted another of his famous movie quizes, and as usual, I'd like to play along. Previous installments answering questions from Professor Hubert Farnsworth, David Huxley, Professor Fate, Professor Russell Johnson, Dr. Smith, Professor Peabody, Professor Severus Snape, Professor Ed Avery, Dr. Anton Phibes, Sister Clodagh, Professor Arthur Chipping, Miss Jean Brodie, Professor Larry Gopnick, and Professor Dewey Finn are also available.

1) Name a line from a movie that should've become a catch phrase but didn't *

There's a line from Pulp Fiction that I reference pretty frequently, yet is almost never recognized and usually treated as a general challenging declaration. In response to drug dealer Lance's assertion that his shit can go up against that Amersterdam shit, Vincent quips: "That's a bold statement." It's an obscure line and I can see why no one else would get the reference, but for whatever reason, it stuck with me.

2) Your second favorite William Wellman film

There are several versions of this question in this quiz, and I get the impression that the idea is to look at a prolific filmmaker (Wellman has 83 directing credits on IMBD) and find the non-obvious choice from their filmography. This is somewhat hampered by the fact that I've only actually seen 2 Wellman movies, so The Public Enemy takes the cake by default. Oh well, at least it's not a mulligan (we'll get to that soon enough).

3) Viggo Mortensen or Javier Bardem?

I think I'll go with Javier Bardem for this one. He seems to take more chances and make better choices than Mortensen, and nothing in Mortensen's filmography really approaches Bardem's top performances. For instance, there's nothing even remotely as memorable or terrifying in Mortensen's performances as Bardem's turn as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. If, perhaps, Eastern Promises was a better movie, Mortensen's performance might have been elevated high enough (dat naked fight scene), but even then, I'm not so sure.

4) Favorite first line from a movie

The Filmspotting podcast has this concept of a Pantheon when it comes to their top 5 lists. Films in the Pantheon cannot be put on a top 5, because they are so great (or there's such a personal connection) that they could pop up on wayyy too many lists. Fortunately, I'm not bound by this notion, so I can go back to the well of The Godfather: "I believe in America." Sets the scene perfectly, not to mention the movie and, indeed, even the sequels.

5) The most disappointing/superfluous "director's cut" or otherwise extended edition of a movie you've seen? *

My first thought was "Which Ridley Scott movie do I pick?" but then I realized that George Lucas's Star Wars edits were pretty glaring, and it seemed like there was just no end in sight. He kept changing things! Some of the initial changes were fine; even sometimes great... Removing the telltale signs of composites, fixing some of the transparencies, these things were minor and barely noticeable, but that's what makes them cool. It's the stuff like Greedo shooting first or the insertion of lame CGI Jabba, etc... that really sunk it. As added in Jedi, "Nooooooooo!" Completely superfluous and boorish. That being said, Ridley Scott's "Director's Cut" of Alien is pretty worthless.

6) What is the movie you feel was most enhanced by a variant version? *

My first thought was "Which Ridley Scott movie do I pick?" because seriously, that guy never seems to release a movie without a director's cut, sometimes a cut that dramatically changes the tone and scope of the movie. My first thought was Blade Runner, but then I realized that there are 5 frigging cuts of that movie, 3 of which are director's cuts, or something like that. I guess I'll go with the "Final Cut", until Scott gins up another cut in a few years...

7) Eve Arden or Una Merkel?

I have to admit that I only have a passing familiarity with either of these actresses, but I'll go with Eve Arden, mostly because I recognized more from her filmography...

8) What was the last DVD/Blu-ray/streaming film you saw? The last theatrical screening?

On DVD/BD, it was Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in preparation for Avengers 2 and also because most of these Marvel movies seem just infinitely rewatchable.

On Streaming, it was WolfCop because come on, he's a werewolf who is also a cop. WolfCop. Plus, it was a Kaedrin Weird Movie of the Week selection a while back, so I had to watch it once it became available... Alas, it doesn't quite deliver on the bananas premise, but it was fine, I guess.

And in the theater, it was Ex Machina, another in a long line of recent, low-budget, fascinating SF films. This one does a decent job getting at AI, though as movies always do, it perhaps goes a bit far in anthropomorphizing the AI. But then, that's one of the big challenges of an AI story, since our puny human brains can't comprehend what a truly alien being an AI would really be. This is partly my hangup though, and not truly the film's fault. It's an admirable film, and it has just enough pot-boilery elements to make up for any lapses. Recommended!

9) Second favorite Michael Mann film

I was expecting this to be more difficult to narrow down, but I pretty quickly settled on The Insider (behind Heat and just ahead of Manhunter). In fact, The Insider might be Mann's best film, as it's a tighter, more focused and complete narrative where something like Heat has this diffuse, byzantine plot structure that I personally enjoy quite a bit, but which doesn't quite adhere as well as The Insider...

10) Name a favorite director's most egregious misstep

The first that comes to mind is the Coen Brothers' The Ladykillers, a movie that I found surprisingly, shockingly joyless, all the moreso because even as I was watching it unfold on screen, I kept thinking to myself: "That bit's kinda clever, I guess. This should work. Why isn't it working?" Unfortunately, I have almost no desire to revisit the movie to develop a theory about why it faired so poorly, but my instinct is that there is something just slightly off about it that taints the entire picture.

11) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?

What is this tomfoolery? A repeat question! As my answer was in 2013: Hands down, Alain Delon. Le Samurai, man. Le Samurai.
Le Samurai
Le Samurai
12) Jean-Luc Godard famously stated that "all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun." Name one other essential element that you'd add to the mix.

How about a story? But then, any attempt to distill storytelling down to an "essence" is doomed to failure. I'm reminded of this opening line from Clive Barker's Imajica:
It was the pivotal teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death. Greater numbers might drift through the drama, of course-thousands in fact-but they could only ever be phantoms, agents, or, on rare occasions, reflections of the three real and self-willed beings who stood at the center. And even this essential trio would not remain intact; or so he taught. It would steadily diminish as the story unfolded, three becoming two, two becoming one, until the stage was left deserted.

Needless to say, this dogma did not go unchallenged. The writers of fables and comedies were particularly vociferous in their scorn, reminding the worthy Quexos that they invariably ended their own tales with a marriage and a feast. He was unrepentant. He dubbed them cheats and told them they were swindling their audiences out of what he called the last great procession, when, after the wedding songs had been sung and the dances danced, the characters took their melancholy way off into darkness, following each other into oblivion.
Sorry for nerding up the proceedings like this, but I thought it funny that this came to mind...

13) Favorite one-sheet that you own, or just your favorite one-sheet (please provide a link to an image if you can)

Assuming we're looking for original one-sheets and not revivals or tribute posters, which thank God, because I'd never be able to pick which Mondo movie poster is my favorite. Not that it's all that easy to do so otherwise, but I was able to settle on Saul Bass' gorgeous one-sheet for Vertigo:
Vertigo
14) Catherine Spaak or Daniela Giordano?

And so we come to our first mulligan. I got nothing on these two...

15) Director who most readily makes you think "Whatever happened to...?"

Whatever happened to John Carpenter? That man put together a pretty long string of classics throughout the late 70s and 80s, but has done very little in the current century and what he has done has been mediocre at best. He hasn't really done anything good since 1994's In the Mouth of Madness. He has done some work, but he hasn't made anything since 2010's cromulent but decidedly derivative and limp The Ward, and before that, an episode or two from the Masters of Horror TV series (one of which was fine, the other of which was terrible). I suspect it's just that he's getting on in age and filmmaking is a young-mans-game, but still, would love to see him return to his glory days...

16) Now that some time has passed... The Interview, yes or no?

These "yes or no" questions show up with regularity on these quizes, but I don't think I've ever said no. It's not so much that I love the movie in question as that I think most movies have a right to exist. Not that answering "no" would impact anything, but still. It's the principle of the thing.

17) Second favorite Alberto Calvalcanti film

Another blind spot for me, so another mulligan for the quiz...

18) Though both displayed strong documentary influence in their early films, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog have focused heavily on the documentary form late in their filmmaking careers. If he had lived, what kind of films do you think Rainer Werner Fassbinder, their partner in the German New Wave of the '70s, would be making now?

Sorry, but I have no idea. I'd be curious as to what his response to the whole gay marriage movement would be (he was out of the closet, but he also married two women during that time), but who knows if that would manifest in his filmmaking. I'm not familiar with much of his work, but I know he was an odd cat.

19) Name a DVD you've replaced with a Blu-ray. Name another that you decided not to replace. *

I've only replaced a couple, mostly by accident or because of some other factor. The only example I can actually think of is Alien/Aliens, because I got a nice deal on the whole Alien Anthology box set. Pretty much everything else has remained on DVD for me, though there are some classics I might consider upgrading (The Godfather, 2001: A Space Odyssey, etc...)

20) Don Rickles or Rodney Dangerfield?

As a child of the 80s, Rodney Dangerfield speaks more to me. I've never really gotten the love for Don Rickles, but then, I'm probably not familiar with his best work.

21) Director who you wish would hurry up and make another film

It's funny that a lot of the best filmmakers these days seem to take so long between films. Others just feel like a long time. Quentin Tarantino usually puts something out every 2-3 years, but it somehow feels longer. Alright, so to really answer this question, I'll go with Shane Carruth. Two movies in the past 11 years, with nothing on the horizon (that I know of, at least).

22) Second favorite Michael Bay film

This is tough because once you get past my favorite (The Rock), you've got a whole deluge of movies I'm kinda ambivalent about, followed by movies I'm actively hostile about. I'll put it somewhere around Bad Boys II or The Island. I guess.

23) Name a movie that, for whatever reason, you think of as your own

I don't really know what this means, and I don't think of any of these movies as my own, but I will throw out Phantasm as one of my favorites that doesn't get much mainstream love (though it has a huge cult following), and oddly enough, The Terminator. It might not seem like it, because it's such a popular franchise, but I could think of the original Terminator as my own because I'm, like, the only person to think it's far superior to T2 (or any of the dreck after that). I grew up watching Terminator almost every day (even if it was usually only on in the background), one of a couple movies that's hit triple digit rewatches (not something I do very much anymore, but this was a formative movie for me). T2 is a fine action film, but I'm continually surprised by how much love it gets from, well, everybody.

24) Your favorite movie AI (however loosely you care to define the term)

Obviously The Terminator would be a candidate here, but in the interest of variety, I'll choose a more obscure movie: Colossus: The Forbin Project. Not a perfect movie, but it's quite interesting and underappreciated these days. As mentioned above, AI in movies tends to be anthropomorphized, and this movie isn't an exception, but it comports itself well enough for me. Speaking of which, Ex Machina would be a good candidate here, and obviously, movie AIs owe a huge debt to Hal 9000 (even movies that don't explicitly copy the AI gone mad template are often riffing on it or the expectations of it). Also of note, Demon Seed, a little more bonkers and weird, but I haven't seen it in a while. I should revisit!

25) Your favorite existing DVD commentary track *

The best commentaries tend to be for movies that, for some reason, didn't totally succeed. This requires someone to be open and honest, which rarely happens. But Kevin Smith's commentary (with various guests) for Mallrats is exceptional because of Smith's willingness to confront and own up to his mistakes in making that movie. The movie isn't a complete failure, but there are many aspects of it that Smith admits went off the rails or didn't fall into place (I may also be mixing in his commentary on the deleted scenes) and the camaraderie with his co-workers in the commentary is palpable. It's fashionable to bag on Smith these days because of his antics, and to be sure, he's seemingly less forthcoming (also, he's started smoking pot), but I, for one, would love to see a genuine commentary on some of his more recent movies, in particular Zack and Miri Make a Porno (which seemingly broke Smith as a director, to the point where he doesn't even want to talk about it.) As a runner up, I'll mention Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino's commentary on Hot Fuzz. Sure, Hot Fuzz wasn't a failure (in any real way), but Wright and Tarantino are just so in love with movies that it's infectious. Well worth checking out...

26) The double bill you'd program on the last night of your own revival theater

Cinema Paradiso and Sunset Boulevard, because I'm not willing to recognize that my revival theater is dead...

27) Catherine Deneuve or Claudia Cardinale?

Claudia Cardinale, almost solely because of Once Upon a Time in the West.

And there you have it, another quiz in the books. Let's hope the next one doesn't take a whole year!
Posted by Mark on May 03, 2015 at 11:42 AM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Action and Reaction
To paraphrase Newton's third law of motion: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It's one of the basic tenets of classical mechanics and it has analogues in other scientific fields. For instance, in chemistry, Le Chatelier's principle indicates how a chemical equilibrium responds to a change in conditions by adjusting itself to account for the difference. In biology, you have Homeostasis. And so on. For the most part, these principles are stable and predictable, but when you raise the complexity, they start to break down.

In physics, Newton's third law appears to fail in situations guided by quantum mechanics. Predictions become probabalistic instead of deterministic. As systems get more complex, their function gets more difficult to predict, and can even start to counteract the effect they were put in place to address. Humorist John Gall generalized Le Chatelier's principle to say that "Any change in the status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system" or, more humorously, "Systems tend to oppose their own proper function."

Examples abound. Over-the-counter nasal docongestant sprays are effective... for about 3 days. After that, the user's continuing stuffiness and congestion are actually caused by the product itself, something called a rebound congestion.

Once you enter even more complex realms like psychology and sociology, forget about it. These systems don't even pretend to be predictable. Take the political movement of Liberalism, as Chris Wenham explains:
Each of the major political movements active today have changed drastically from what they were a few centuries ago. What was called Neoliberalism, for example, whose economic policies of laissez-faire, deregulation, low taxes and restricted monetary supply are now more closely associated with neoconservatism, or just "conservatism" in general. Or how modern Liberals are now said to be in favor of big government and managed economies, while Classical Liberalism, from the time of John Locke and Adam Smith, is about the opposite.
The point here, which Wenham observers, is that:
Engineers have long noted a tendency for complex systems to grow and evolve until they perform the opposite of what they were built for.
He goes on to comment on a frankly bizarre argument against Intellectual Property that compares it to human slavery, but the general idea of a system that opposes what it was built for is a fascinating one that has a basis in scientific fact, and seems to crop up just about everywhere.

An example of this in sociology is known as the Streisand Effect. This is the phenomenon whereby an attempt to suppress a piece of information has the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely. It is named after Barbra Streisand, who mounted a failed attempt to sue a photographer that had released a collection of 12,000 California coastline photographs (meant to document coastal erosion) that happened to include a photograph of Streisand's beachside house. Before the lawsuit, the photo in question had been downloaded a total of 6 times (2 of which were by Streisand's lawyers). In the month following the lawsuit, the photo was downloaded 420,000 times. And some dude from Techdirt coined the phrase Streisand Effect to illustrate the ironic folly of such situations. Somehow, I don't think this is the outcome Streisand was hoping for.

If you've been following along with the current Hugo Awards imbroglio, you can probably see where I'm going with this. A few years ago, an author named Larry Correia, became convinced that the Hugo Awards had become insular and dominated by a left-wing ideology, along with its associated, depressing literary fiction tropes. So he began an effort to counter this perceived imbalanced in Science Fiction's most prestigious award. He called this campaign Sad Puppies (because depressing SF is a leading cause of puppy related sadness), and so far, we have seen three different iterations of the Sad Puppies campaign.

The first was low key and did not gain much traction, so I will not spend much time on that. The second was significantly more successful... from Correia's point of view. I suppose some background is in order. In 2011, a freshly minted Correia was actually nominated for a Campbell Award for Best New Writer (not technically a Hugo, but administered as part of the same process). Correia recently explained his experience:
So I went out on the internet and started searching my name, trying to find out what the buzz was for the Campbell nominees. I started calling friends who belonged to various writer forums and organizations that I didn't belong to, asking about what people thought of my books in there.

You know what I found? WorldCon voters angry that a right-wing Republican (actually I'm a libertarian) who owned a gun store (gasp) was nominated for the prestigious Campbell. This is terrible. Did you know he did lobbying for gun rights! It's right there on his hateful blog of hatey hate hate! He's awful. He's a bad person. He's a Mormon! What! Another damned Mormon! Oh no, there are two Mormons up for the Campbell? I bet Larry Correia hates women and gays. He's probably a racist too. Did you know he's part of the evil military industrial complex? What a jerk. Meanwhile, I'm like, but did they like my books?

No. Hardly any of them had actually read my books yet. Many were proud to brag about how they wouldn't read my books, because badthink, and you shouldn't have to read books that you know are going to make you angry. A handful of people claimed to have my read my books, but they assured the others that they were safe to put me last, because as expected for a shit person, my words were shit, and so they were good people to treat me like shit.
Regardless of what you think of Correia or actually believe these things happened to him, I think you can see why he feels the way he does. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Correia launched Sad Puppies with the explicit purpose of getting authors with the "wrong" politics on the ballot so that the world could see the response.

Sad Puppies 2 was pretty successful in that respect. It got 7 nominees on the ballot, including the dread Vox Day (more on him later, but for now all you need to know is that he is a generally despised man in certain segments of fandom, particularly those who vote on Hugos). The interesting thing about this campaign is that Correia's goal was to provoke a negative response. It wasn't about acknowledging writers that wouldn't otherwise get attention, it was about making "literati heads explode" because he wrote a book where FDR was a nominal villain and got it on the Hugo ballot for best novel. The response was predictable: a massive backlash. Action, reaction. Most of the Puppy nominees last year finished low, and one finished below No Award. Correia claims he's happy with the result, because his goal wasn't to actually win a Hugo, just demonstrate that he'd upset people by getting the wrong works shortlisted. A decidedly pyrrhic victory, if you ask me. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy and totally against the spirit of the awards.

A year later, the torch passes to Brad Torgersen, who ran the third Sad Puppies campaign. Unlike the previous campaigns, Torgersen attempted to put a kinder, friendlier face on Sad Puppies. He spoke of diversity and bringing recognition to authors that are usually overlooked. Some of his arguments are more effective than others and I'm sure we could quibble over details, but it seems clear that he's coming from a place of good faith. Unlike Correia before him, he really wanted to get recognition for the nominees, and wanted to give them a chance to win.

Now we come to Vox Day, an infamous personality in the field. I will not go into too many details here because I really don't want to wade through all the unpleasant topics that arise in this discussion, but suffice it to say that he appears to be a very successful troll in the classical sense. It would be amusing if it didn't seem so counterproductive. He's got a knack for very carefully wording statements such that they are easily misquoted out of context and lead to easy conclusions that he's a crazy, evil man. It's a deliberate strategy. Where most people would clarify and caveat statements they know will be controversial, Vox leans into them. In the course of this, I think there are plenty of times in which his statements are perhaps not worded as carefully as he thinks, and thus some rather unpleasant ideas are left hanging like a bad curveball. Action, reaction. People hate the guy. Personally, I know enough about Vox to know that I don't want or need to know more. Please don't construe this explanation as an endorsement of anything he's said (incidentally, this clarification that I just made is precisely the sort of thing that Vox wouldn't do).

Vox Day's appearance on Sad Puppies 2 seemed to be the flashpoint of that campaign and drove a lot of negative response. Perhaps recognizing this, Torgersen deliberately left Vox off the Sad Puppies 3 ballot (also of note, Torgersen left himself off the ballot as well). That doesn't mean that Vox can't play along though. He has a huge following, and posted his own splinter list, called Rabid Puppies, on his blog. The two lists overlap considerably, though Vox had more nominees and a much less friendly tone. For instance, Torgersen called for people to read the works and nominate what they felt was worthy. Vox urged people to "nominate them precisely as they are". And so on.

Sad Puppies 3 and Rabid Puppies have been remarkably successful, taking the grand majority of nominees (especially in the main fiction awards) and in several categories, all the nominees are Puppy works of some kind. The response has been remarkably negative. Action, reaction.

One of those reactions is that several high profile members of fandom have vowed to vote No Award in place of any and all Puppy nominees. This means voting No Award instead of works they liked (this seems especially likely in the Best Dramatic Presentation awards), and it also means not even bothering to read the works in question. Action, reaction.

The more successful the No Award voters are, the worse off we'll be. Vox Day has explicitly mentioned that if No Awards wins in 2015, he'll make sure that No Award wins in 2016. This is a despicable tactic meant to bully people, but then, so is voting No Award without reading the work. Even taking Vox out of the equation, I can't imagine a scenario where No Award winning will produce a good result next year. Somehow, this is not against the rules either, which seems odd (there's a reasonable explanation, but what's being deployed this year is not that). If this happens, we can look forward to years of finger pointing and pointless vitriol debating who killed the Hugos. I, for one, am not looking forward to this.

Every system in play here is caught in a negative feedback loop that is subverting the desired result. The Sad Puppies want recognition for the overlooked, but went about it in a way that alienated too many people to be successful. The Noah Ward voters are trying to register their disgust, but in doing so, seem unlikely to achieve their aims. In the meantime, the ostensibly democratic Hugo process is strained to the point of breaking.

Regardless of your stance on the matter, it would behoove us all to consider how easily our ideal scenarios can boomerang back on us, pushing us into a downward spiral that results in the opposite of what we were seeking in the first place. No one is operating in isolation. Action, reaction. While complex systems can sometimes oppose their own proper function, it doesn't need to be that way. But if we continue on the current path, it will be that way, and I don't think any of us want that.

My approach tends to be one of restraint and forbearance. This will not (and should not) be the same for everyone. If you're a die-hard puppy, more power to you, and vote your conscience. I don't like the slate approach, so please don't coordinate so tightly in the nomination process next year. It won't get you what you desire, it will just piss people off further. We're in an unexpected place right now and can't fault you for being more successful than anyone ever thought, but the important thing is what you do next year. If you're a non-puppy or even if you're a Noah Ward voter, more power to you too. I get the distaste for slates and certainly for Vox and don't blame you for wanting to oppose it all in a vigorous fashion, even if that's not my approach.

All that being said, it's worth considering what your goals are, and evaluating whether your actions will actually get you there. There's been a lot of name calling, accusations of bad faith, conspiracy theories, general vitriol, and even abuse being spewed forth of late. On all fronts. I get it, sometimes that feels good, but at some point, we need to take a closer look at what we're doing. People are talking past each other, and the rest of us are caught in the middle. Some might call this tone policing, but I think it's how things get done.

I will leave you with this anecdote about Charles Darwin's rhetorical strategy (emphasis mine):
Darwin, says Slatkin, was like a salesman who finds lots of little ways to get you to say yes before you're asked to utter the big yes. In this case, Darwin invited people to affirm things they already knew, about a topic much more familiar in their era than in ours: domestic species. Did people observe variation in domestic species? Yes. And as Darwin piles on the examples, the reader says, yes, yes, OK, I get it, of course I see that some pigeons have longer tail feathers. Did people observe inheritance? Yes. And again, as he piles on the examples, the reader says yes, yes, OK, I get it, everyone knows that that the offspring of longer-tail-feather pigeons have longer tail feathers.

By the time Darwin gets around to asking you to say the big yes, it's a done deal. You've already affirmed every one of the key pillars of the argument. And you've done so in terms of principles that you already believe, and fully understand from your own experience.

It only took a couple of years for Darwin to formulate the idea of evolution by natural selection. It took thirty years to frame that idea in a way that would convince other scientists and the general public. Both the idea, and the rhetorical strategy that successfully communicated it, were great innovations.
I've blogged about this before, and as I mentioned then, I think perhaps the author simplifies the inception and development of the idea of evolution, but the point holds. I'm sure Darwin and his supporters were infuriated by the initial response to their ideas, and I'm sure plenty of hateful rhetoric was employed at the time. But Darwin didn't allow it to spiral, he knew evolution was important enough that it would have to be accepted if he communicated it in such a way that people could accept it. I, for one, am glad he did. I don't know that the solution to the challenges facing the Hugo are, but I know it's not vitriol. And I hope it doesn't take 30 years!
Posted by Mark on April 26, 2015 at 10:44 AM .: Comments (3) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Link Dump
The usual roundup of links I've found recently lately: And that's all for now folks.
Posted by Mark on April 22, 2015 at 06:22 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.


End of this day's posts

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Three-Body Problem
The ascension of geek culture in the United States has meant that long marginalized genres like Science Fiction have become more acceptable, or at least tolerated. Ironically, this acknowledgement from the literary mainstream seems to be part of the current culture war, what with Sad Puppies whining about message fiction and anti-puppies trying to counter the surprisingly successful efforts to return SF to the gutter (as it were). While many have cast this as a political issue, and there certainly is a political component, I've always thought that Eric S. Raymond's analysis of the situation, based more on the qualities of literary fiction, was more cogent:
Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.
Into this weary situation comes The Three-Body Problem, by China's most popular science-fiction writer Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu, no relation). In China, the situation is somewhat different. After decades in which Chinese SF was subject to the whims of Communist Party rule, first as a way to "popularizing science for socialist purposes", then as a pariah that was "promoting decadent capitalist elements", it appears that SF is on the rise again. Liu has capitalized on the rising sentiment, and his most popular books are now getting translated and generating buzz amongst SF fandom.

Liu's work is often described in terms of Golden Age SF, and in particular, the work of Arthur C. Clarke. At first, I was not sure if this book would be living up to that promise. There was a great deal of time and attention placed on cultural forces acting on science towards the beginning of the book (in particular, Liu spends a fair amount of time with the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 60s and 70s). Then there are some interesting, but seemingly not SF occurrences, such as a scientist who notices a number in his photographs. It appears to be a countdown, but he cannot account for how the number is appearing or what it is counting down to. There are a host of other, seemingly impossible events. There is a video game that is oddly hallucinatory and difficult to get through. And so on...

It turns out that this is all window dressing. The historical bits set the scene, the seemingly impossible occurrences generate a crisis amongst Earth scientists, and the video game holds the key to explaining what is going on. This episodic and oddly disjointed setup starts to click at some point, and the pieces start to fall together. Sometimes, it's a little clunky or overwrought, but it comes together well in the end.

At its heart, it's a first contact story, and if you're familiar with those, you know that fiction rarely shies away from the inherent possibilities for conflict there. It was again a bit worrying at the start, because one of the main factions on earth are people who want the aliens to come to our planet because they don't think the human race is worthy of existence (or something along those pessimistic lines), but it seems clear that this is not where the series is going, it's just part of a lengthy setup. The aliens themselves are rather interesting, existing in a Tri-Solar system (one of a few references to the titular "three bodies"), a wildly unpredictable state of affairs that has guided their evolution and frequently destroys their civilizations (when, for example, two or three of the suns are in certain configuration, the planet becomes, shall we say, unsuitable to life.)

This is all a bit unconventional from a Western point of view, and why wouldn't it be? It's also one of the things that makes this an interesting book to grapple with. From a plot or character standpoint, it feels a bit lacking, but there are many rich thematic elements that one could explore here. These basically come down to competition and disruption. The conflict between civilizations at this book's core could easily be applied to more mundane struggles, from industrial competition, to the rise of China in relation to the West. Disruption is a key element of business, creating and/or destroying markets, often through the use of technology. It is how people react to such disruptions that are the point, and the rival factions on earth reacting to the coming Aliens is a good example.

There are some fantastical elements that threaten to break it away from SF, especially earlier in the book. As mentioned above, these do come together well enough in the end, though Liu's cleverness is in the way he sets it up. The early, nearly complete lack of realism sets a point of reference such that, when Liu does get around to explaining why these things are happening, it feels acceptable even though it's mostly hokum. Chaos Horizon explains it well:
While some of the scientific sections are sound, others are deliberately exaggerated. Near the end, there's a bravura sequence where an alien civilization "unravels" a proton from 11 dimensions to 1, 2, and 3 dimensions, and then inscribes some sort of computer on that seemingly miniscule space. It's one of the most fascinating pieces of bullshit I've read in years, but it is bullshit nonetheless.
Fascinating bullshit, indeed. I was more than willing to go with it.

This being the first book in a trilogy, little is resolved in the end, though it does finish on a positive note and it leaves you wanting more. The next volume is scheduled to be published next year, and I'm greatly looking forward to it, which says a lot.

I read this earlier in the year as part of my Hugo Award coverage. It came out late last year and was steadily building steam, and once it was nominated for a Nebula award, I thought I should check it out. I'm glad I did, and it made my Hugo ballot, but once the official nominees were released (and this book wasn't on their), I kinda scuttled doing a full review. However, since this year's Hugo awards are so weirdly contentious, one of the Best Novel nominees dropped out of the race. I'm not sure if this is unprecedented or not, but it's highly unlikely nonetheless (authors often refuse their nomination, but are given a chance to do so before the finalists are announced - this situation where an author sees the lay of the year's Hugo land and simply opts out was surprising) and many were expecting this to mean that the Best Novel category would only include 4 nominees. After all, adding the next most popular nominee would tell everyone who got the least nominating votes (info that is only published after the awards are handed out) and honestly, given the current situation, this precedent seems ripe for abuse. Nevertheless, the Hugo administrators opted to fill the open slot with The Three-Body Problem (a non-Puppy nominee, though from what I've seen, the Puppies seem to really enjoy this book). From left off the ballot to potential winner, quite a turn of events. Of the two nominees I've read, this is clearly ahead and could possibly take my number 1 vote. It is a bit of an odd duck, but I quite enjoyed it.
Posted by Mark on April 19, 2015 at 07:54 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.


End of this day's posts



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