Sam's Blog

Twenty-four hours is like three weeks!

Check Out my New Blog

Posted by samgr on January 1, 2011

Hey all.  This blog may still be updated occasionally, but you should all check out my NEW blog, which will have a lot more content: http://calamityblog.wordpress.com/

Yeah!

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Interesting/Important Fictional Libraries

Posted by samgr on August 7, 2010

Derry Public Library, from It

Yuriatin Public Library, from Doctor Zhivago

Library of Books Never Written, from The Sandman

That’s all I can think of at the moment.  I know second-hand of some others, in Eco for instance, but I’m not listing them until I’ve read the respective books.  This list will hopefully grow longer.  Kind of sad at the moment.

UPDATE:

Forgot a couple of fairly obvious (and similar) ones-

Hogwarts Library, from Harry Potter

Unseen University Library, from Discworld

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Neal Stephenson’s “The Big U”

Posted by samgr on July 20, 2010

Thought I might try to get back into the swing of things with some reviews.

I recently finished “The Big U” by Neal Stephenson.  I understand that Stephenson is not very proud of this book, but I enjoyed it.  If anything, I was just a little surprised by  how dark and cynical it is.

It’s a satire of university life, where the university in question is based very loosely on BU; it’s basically BU if everyone lived in a nightmarish dystopian version of Warren Towers.

So we follow a bunch of mostly likable — if pathetic — characters through their travails.  And things get odder and odder until a full-scale civil war erupts in the university, and there are giant radioactive rats running all over the place.  It’s all very imaginative and well put-together, even if it’s ultimately kind of unclear what the point is besides the fact that Neal Stephenson must had a dreadful time at BU.

But lots of neat ideas, from early mention of the similarities between pipe organs and computers — which Stephenson goes into great length about in the Cryptonomicon — to great creepy scenes of drug-blasted bros in their dorms worshiping an obvious analog of the Citgo sign.  I would recommend it for the quality of the writing no matter how scattered it is.

Also, I’ve still never actually read “Gormenghast” — tried a few times without success — but “The Big U” seems a bit like what you’d get if you applied sort of the “Gormenghast” approach — big and exaggerated, decaying, and a bit anachronistic — to a University setting, which is interesting, and something I’ve thought about.

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My Top Ten Movies of 2009

Posted by samgr on January 2, 2010

The rules are that I have to have seen them.  Also, I separated them into fiction and documentaries for some reason, despite the fact that I saw fewer than ten documentaries.

FICTION

#10 — Bright Star

A romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne.  Mostly makes it in because everyone in it is an incredibly good actor.  The characters seem like real people without getting caught up in weird speech patterns and silly costumes.  And Paul Schneider gets mad props for his extremely entertaining (and for all I know, accurate) Scottish accent.

#9 — Il Divo

Neat, stylish biopic of Italian PM Giulio Andreotti.  Unflaggingly entertaining, and frequently extremely funny.  Has a killer (and bizarre) hybrid opera/punk soundtrack.

#8 — Sugar

Story of a Dominican who goes to the US to play baseball.  Realistic, interesting, and ultimately unexpectedly optimistic.

#7 — In the Loop

Amazingly funny satire of how we got into the Iraq War in Britain and the US.  Really really grim, or it might have gotten a higher spot, but has the best swearing I’ve ever seen in any movie ever.

#6 — Avatar

Yeah, what the Hell.

#5 — The Hurt Locker

Basically a really well-made action movie about bomb squads in Iraq.  Manages to say something about the Iraq War without being preachy.  All the acting is great, and it has a lot of approximately thirty-second cameos from big stars without being distracting.

#4 — Coraline

Beautiful stop-motion animation, which I really want not to die, and a smart story.  Also 3D!  Hooray for 3D.

#3 — Goodbye Solo

Don’t really know how to summarize this…  A Senegalese cab driver n North Carolina befriends (sort of) an old guy who may or may not be planning to commit suicide.  It’s great.

#2 — Moon

I loved this movie: Sam Rockwell on the Moon with only Kevin Spacey as a computer to keep him company (sort of).  More or less hard science fiction, but smart and funny and beautiful.  All the special effects look amazing despite the film having a very small budget.  ($5 million, considerably less than the overrated District 9!)

#1 — Star Trek

Yeah, I know.  The thing is, I think I enjoyed Star Trek more than anything else I saw last year.  There was not a single second that I was watching it when I wasn’t having a really good time.  The acting was good, everything looked cool, it had Leonard Nimoy, there were spaceships and monsters: I dunno.  The plot is kind of stupid if you take a moment to think, but the writing is good enough moment-to-moment that it’s very easy to sit back and happily miss the forest for the trees, which is okay by me.  I feel like I would immediately jump at the chance to see this movie again at almost any time.

DOCUMENTARIES

#1 — Anvil! The Story of Anvil
#2 — Beaches of Agnes
#3 — The Cove
#4 — Tyson
#5 — Every Little Step
# 6 –Under the Sea 3D
#7 — Of Time and the City

BONUS — BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Bruno — This was really a bummer.  I loved Borat, whereas Bruno was just stupid and mean-spirited; you felt like they were missing the point.  Bruno’s character and intelligence-level seemed to vary wildly scene-to-scene.  And it just wasn’t very funny.  Boo.

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Maureen Dowd and Philip K. Dick in Space

Posted by samgr on December 30, 2009

Damn it, Maureen Dowd.  From her column:

Even before a Nigerian with Al Qaeda links tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines jet headed to Detroit, travelers could see we had made no progress toward a technologically wondrous Philip K. Dick universe.

We seemed to still be behind the curve and reactive, patting down grannies and 5-year-olds, confiscating snow globes and lip glosses.

Completely ignoring the fact that this whole column is kind of stupid and pointless — what Philip K. Dick depictions of technological utopias is she referring to, exactly?  Are there any?  He’s not exactly known for his boundless faith in ability of technology to positively transform society.  I hate to be Debbie Downer, but I have some skepticism whether Maureen Dowd has ever read anything by Philip K. Dick.

Namedropping sci-fi authors is fine if you have some vague idea what you’re talking about, but they’re not interchangeable.  Also, technological utopias are pretty clearly the exception, rather than the rule, in science fiction.  Dystopias are more common, probably because they’re more fun to write about.

To transform my irritation into a positive exercise: what are some actual technological utopias in science fiction?  The world of Star Trek is one.  Iain Banks’ Culture novels basically are, although they’re sophisticated enough to challenge their own premise.  Ray Bradbury I think — although he obviously writes about dystopias — has at his heart a pretty profound faith that technology is ultimately positive.  See the story “No News, or What Killed the Dog,” which I think I’ve mentioned before.

***UPDATE***

While I immediately fixated on the Dick thing, other readers are pointing out that the column in question is actually full of utterly bizarre and nonsensical references.

Here’s my new, and incredibly generous take on what she’s trying to suggest, though.  She mentions “Total Recall,” which I think has a scene where Arnold Schwarzenegger walks through a machine in an airport and we see his skeleton and concealed weapons on a screen.  My best guess is that Maureen dimly remembers this scene as some kind of ideal model of airport security, and vastly overestimates the movie’s reliance on Philip K. Dick source material.  That’s what I got, but it’s pretty weak.

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The Killers and Sexual Ambiguity

Posted by samgr on December 9, 2009

So the Killers are awesome.  I’ve known this for a while, but I’ve never paid all that much attention to their lyrics.  And I’m happy to report that a) they’re also awesome and b) they often have something approaching Magnetic Fields levels of ambiguous gender stuff and ambiguity in terms of the sexuality of the narrator.  (This may not be news to anyone else, I knew they were sort of a camp icon.)  This ranges from the obvious — “somebody told me /  you had a boyfriend / who looked like a girlfriend…” — to the slightly less obvious — it’s never actually never made clear in “Mr. Brightside” whether the narrator is jealous of the guy or the girl.  I’m in favor of this.

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Hooray for the New Cambridge Library!

Posted by samgr on November 17, 2009

So I’m taking a couple weeks of vacation to get my affairs in order.  Thought it would be a good time to give the old blog some love.

Basically the most important that has happened in the recent past is the much-awaited opening of the NEW CAMBRIDGE MAIN LIBRARY, which is amazing. The old Richardsonian brick building was completely fixed up, and a new super-green, super-glassy, super-modern wing was also added. Here are my impressions, in no particular order.

1) IT IS HUGE AND BEAUTIFUL
The combined building is really gigantic now, which is awesome. Lots of great spaces for reading and browsing, nice open shelves. The renovated old building is particularly gorgeous, with dark wood-paneling and restored WPA murals that tell the story of the history of books and printing. The new wing is very nice, too. Spacious, with lots of great view to the park outside through gigantic windows which basically make up one huge wall of the building. There’s a great kids section which takes up the whole top floor of the new wing and totally would have been my favorite place in the world when I was 10 or something. There’s also a gerbil cage built into the info desk up there, which I’m sure is great for kids, but possibly not the best thing for the gerbils.

2) BOOK ARRANGEMENT IS SLIGHTLY WONKY
Don’t get me wrong, I love the building and layout, but there are a few exceptions. Why banish adult fiction to the windowless basement, along with graphic novels and sci-fi? That’s kind of sad, since that’s where I’ll be looking the bulk of the time. I think I read somewhere that one of the head librarian’s conditions for the building was not to squirrel away the kid’s section in the basement. I’m all for that, but why do it to fiction instead? Why not put fiction in the nice old building’s second floor, which is now given over to office space that visitors can’t go up to?
The old building also has a big beautiful reading room, which for some reason is where the large print books are. Maybe this is so there won’t be much traffic there to disturb readers (and what traffic there is will be quiet elderly people), but it still seems a little arbitrary. There is a big YA section in the old building, which is a great idea.

3) TEN COMMANDMENTS
The old building also has a truly gigundous ten commandments taking up one whole wall, which is problematic for obvious reasons. The library’s solution is that they have sort of a screen-curtain-thing that they pull over to cover it most of the time. This seems fine, although I wonder how they decide when to pull it down and when to leave it up — just in response to alternating complaints? I almost would rather they just let the ten commandments stay, it’s part of the building and is more or less a historical artifact. But I understand the issue. Maybe they could have put up things from other belief systems to contextualize it? I don’t know; it’s a tricky line to walk.

4) NO BULLETIN BOARD, SAD
The library doesn’t seem to have any kind of community board or wall-space for info about performances and such. This seems like a lost opportunity for a such a great community building.

5) THAT’S ALL FOR NOW
Basically the library is amazing and I’ll be spending a lot of time there. Congratulations to the city and the librarians for putting together something so awesome!

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Dang, Sorry Bobby Jindal…

Posted by samgr on February 25, 2009

So, to be fair, I did think Bobby Jindal’s speech last night was pretty bad. He sounded condescending and dumb, and there was no substance to what he said.

BUT… does he really deserve the pounding he’s getting now, from liberal and conservative commentators? What did they expect? He sounded stupid, but no stupider than, say, Richard Shelby has been sounding for the past several weeks. Or Mark Sanford, or whoever. And to me he sounded a good deal more sensible than Bush ever did.

I don’t get it exactly. Did all the Republicans just expect he would somehow save them from themselves in this one silly speech, and then feel betrayed when he didn’t? Maybe this is like the Fred Thompson situation. GOP unhappy with prospects, GOP sees someone new, SAVIOR, MESSIAH! Oh wait, the messiah is sleepy. Never mind. In this case, everyone gets all hyped up: hurrah, we have our own charismatic brown-skinned policy wonk now! Oh wait, he has no ideas, just like all the rest of us, and he talks like Mr. Rogers. Never mind.

I feel bad for him.

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Oscar Picks

Posted by samgr on February 19, 2009

With two caveats:
    One- Only movies I’ve seen.
    Two- I’ll stick to English-language movies except for the foreign-language category.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
From the nominees:  SEAN PENN in MILK
If I could choose:  SEAN PENN in MILK

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
From the nominees:  HEATH LEDGER in THE DARK KNIGHT
If I could choose:  HEATH LEDGER in THE DARK KNIGHT
(Pretty close between Heath and Eddie Marsan in Happy-Go-Lucky)

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
From the nominees:  MELISSA LEO in FROZEN RIVER
If I could choose:  SALLY HAWKINS in HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
From the nominees:  TARAJI P. HENSON in BENJAMIN BUTTON
(She’s not all that great, but it’s the only one of the five I’ve seen!)
If I could choose:  ROSEMARIE DEWITT in RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
From the nominees: WALL-E
If I could choose: WALL-E

DIRECTING
From the nominees:  GUS VAN SANT for MILK
If I could choose:  MIKE LEIGH for HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
(I’m a broken record)

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
From the nominees:  ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD
If I could choose:  ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
From the nominees:  WALTZ WITH BASHIR
(Only one I’ve seen, weirdly, most of my favorite movies this year were foreign.)
If I could choose:  FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON

MUSIC (SCORE)
From the nominees:  WALL-E
(When I think about it, I liked Wall-E’s score more than Slumdog’s.)
If I could choose:  WALL-E

MUSIC (SONG)
From the nominees:  O SAYA from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
If I could choose:  O SAYA from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

BEST PICTURE
From the nominees:  MILK
If I could choose:  HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

VISUAL EFFECTS
From the nominees:  IRON MAN
If I could choose:  HELLBOY 2
(Actually, the most impressive FX in and of themselves were probably from Benjamin Button, but I thought those of both Iron Man and Hellboy 2 are better used to tell a story.  Hellboy 2 gets street cred for being weird and innovative and having a tiny fraction of the budget of these other movies.)

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
From the nominees:  SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
If I could choose:  SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE

WRITING  (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY):
From the nominees:  HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
(Some love from the academy for Happy-Go-Lucky!)
If I could choose:  HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

I still haven’t seen Wendy and Lucy or the Wrestler, both of which I might like a lot. I’ll update this post if they lead me to change my mind about anything.

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Best Day Ever

Posted by samgr on December 28, 2008

Here’s my outline for the (Cambridge-centered) best day ever:

Sometime in the next twenty to thirty years or so, the AI lab over at MIT (ten-minute walk from my house) succeeds in creating an AI that is convincingly more intelligent than a human.  The self-aware program gives its own press conference, making a formal Turing Test superfluous.  The AI is given access to the internet and a small budget to pursue whatever projects it chooses.  It immediately begins to improve itself.

In response to the human race passing this technological hurdle — which will lead to accelerating advancement and a technological singularity — two extraterrestrial constructs who have been on our planet for the past 10,000 years or so observing the advancement of humanity make themselves known to us.  The universe is teeming with big post-singularity civilizations, but our system was off-limits until we passed this point.  The two ETs were observers and guardians: park rangers.  They appear human (in many ways they are human, having adopted human DNA) with certain modifications to allow for shifting appearances, immortality, improved functionality.  They are both organic and technological, for most of the rest of the universe the distinction has become meaningless.

The ETs signal their presence by posting to the internet a link to an encyclopedia of advanced technology and information about galactic civilization. They simultaneously send a signal to their third team-member, a sentient ship cruising the Kuiper Belt watching for poachers. The ship sets out for Earth, blogging its progress as it goes, it will arrive within weeks.  The ETs announce that they will immediately begin working with Earth governments to implement the technological innovations that will lead the most quickly to immediate benefit.

Disease and natural death will become a thing of the past within the year, and shortages of food and water will quickly be eliminated.  Pollution and environmental degradation will be limited to the fullest extent possible considering Earth’s large population.

Extraterrestrial civilizations do not contact Earth directly, because for the planet’s protection the nearest entrance to the wormhole network is several light years away.  So communications will not be received for years.  But Earth begins its plans for integration into galactic society, and perhaps the eventual construction of a wormhole in our home Solar System.

This would be the best day ever!  And I am enough of a lunatic/optimist to think that there’s a moderate chance of it actually happening.  (The problem that I haven’t mentioned: what if we just made horrible new weapons with the new technology and immediately destroyed ourselves? I dunno, hopefully the intergalactic civilization has figured out how to deal with this.)

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