Dune

[2 stars] [IMDB Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Everybody seems to love this movie except me. Weird. It was free-to-me on Hulu.

I've had a long relationship with Dune, going back to 1965 when I read the second part of the novel-to-be in Analog magazine, with that classic John Schoenherr artwork on the cover. (I wasn't reading Analog when it published the first part in 1964.) I devoured the book when it came out. It was a thrilling tale of adventure, betrayal, and revenge. And big ass worms. What can I say, I was 13.

I recently reread Frank Herbert's six Dune novels (My takes here, here, here, here, here, and here.) To put it mildly, I found my interest waning as the series unfolded. And that seems to have carried over to this movie.

It's long. When Paul and Jessica escape the Harkkonens, only to find themselves lost in the desert, I hit the pause button on the remote. Sheesh, still nearly an hour left? Fortunately, Hulu lets you resume the movie days later. And I finally got through it, but not without napping a bit. Missed Paul's crysknife fight with Jamis. Oh well.

It's moody, pretentious, and arty. (Or, if you're a fan, "visually stunning".) The ornithopters are cool, though.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:04 AM EST

Independence Square

Arkady Renko in Ukraine

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I've been reading Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko novels since‧ well, for a real long time. (I've also dabbled in his non-Renkos, but I'm less of a fanboy there.) So I ordered this one back in November 2022 when it went up on Amazon, and it appeared on my Kindle last month. Yay!

Arkady's still working in the Moscow Office of Prosecution, riding a desk. His boss despises him for his diligence. Tatiana, his girlfriend in a couple recent books has run off to St. Petersburg to work for the New York Times. And his doctor has diagnosed him with Parkinson's (a disease shared by the author). He takes this all with a very Russian stoicism and fatalistic humor.

But things pick up when gangster Fyodor Abakov (nicknamed "Bronson" for his resemblance to the late actor) shows up with a plea: to find his missing daughter, Karina. She is a violinist, but also a political activist, enmeshed with the "Forum for Democracy". That's not the safest position in Putin's Russia. Arkady has (literally) nothing better to do, so…

Soon enough (see the subtitle) he's off to the tinderbox that is Kyiv (this is set pre-invasion). And then hops over to Sevastopol in Crimea. Bodies accumulate: a hacker friend of Arkady's adopted son, Zhenya; the leader of the Forum for Democracy. Suspects include members of the "Wolverines", a pro-Putin motorcycle gang. And there's the FSB, successor to the good old KGB.

Arkady (of course) figures out the culprit, but that only puts him in increased peril.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:04 AM EST

Engineer's Fantasy

John Maynard Keynes Managing the Economy

I'm still on hiatus, but:

[Choo Choo]

That's an image from Robert Graboyes' substack post Viewer, Puzzler, Pleader, Seer; Apparatchik, Engineer, where he discusses the nature of economics. Very insightful stuff, illustrated with the above image, which was generated with (yes) AI at Midjourney.

I encourage you to read Graboyes, or do something equally wonderful at Midjourney, or both.


Last Modified 2024-01-30 5:52 AM EST

Innovation and Its Enemies

Why People Resist New Technologies

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I picked up this book (from Wellesley College Library via UNH Interlibrary Loan) because it appeared in this short video from Adam Thierer showing the books that "had the greatest influence" on his thoughts about "technological innovation/progress". And there it is, between Virginia Postrel's The Future and its Enemies and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. It isn't quite what I was expecting, and it doesn't quite live up to those illustrious neighbors, but that's OK.

I was discouraged by the first chapter where the author, Calestous Juma (originally from Kenya), provides a general essay about innovative products and services, and the forces that they might be up against. Schumpeter's famous insights about "creative destruction" are examined and expanded upon. This intro is vague and (frankly) Juma doesn't have an interesting prose style.

Worse, when discussing the late 19th-century fracas between British old-style "practical electricians" and the young whippersnappers designing things by working out the implications of Maxwell's equations of electrodynamics, Juma states the old fogies "believed that electricity flows through wires the way water flowed through pipes" and the upstarts "showed" that "electricity flowed in a field around the conducting wire".

Um. Well, electrons do flow through a wire. Not like water, but even so: the standard measure of electric current, the ampere, is about 6.2x1018 electrons going past a point every second.

The Maxwell-described field surrounding a current-conducting wire is a magnetic field, not "electricity". No flowing involved there.

(I got the first edition of the book; I notice there's a newer edition, and this might have been fixed.)

But (good news) once I got past the first chapter, things improved markedly. Juma looks at nine case studies, from history up to the present, one per chapter: the introduction of coffee to the West; the Ottoman Empire's prohibition against use of the printing press to reproduce Islamic religious texts; margarine; farm machinery; electricity (the AC/DC wars); mechanical refrigeration; recorded music; transgenic crops; and, finally, AquAdvantage salmon.

Juma does a great job in recounting history, and he's relentlessly fair in looking at the opposition to each innovation. Bending over backwards at times, I'd say. Readers expecting a screed against the reactionaries impeding technological progress will be disappointed. An exception is that chapter about the salmon; Juma describes the "frankenfish" opposition as masterfully using the tools of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. (The AquAdvantage salmon was developed in 1989; thanks to the obstructionism, its first US sales were in 2021.)

Fun facts abound. In Germany, coffee was going up against Big Beer (or, I guess, "Großes Bier"). Which pointed out that coffee had no nutritional value, and beer was, of course, liquid bread. Coffee interests responded by mixing soup in with their brew. As Juma reports with a straight face: this didn't catch on.

In discussing the impact of the printing press, Juma notes perhaps the earliest occurrence of what we now call the Streisand Effect. The church used the press to produce posters listing all the books that needed to be burned. "This inadvertently served as advertising as people went out and bought the books."

So it's a mixed bag, but mostly good. If you get the revised edition, let me know if that electricity thing has been fixed.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:04 AM EST

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

[3.5 stars] [IMDB Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

On the third attempt, I finally made it through this whole movie without falling asleep. It's not that it's not good. It's good. On the high side of OK.

Scott Lang is coasting through life as a revered hero who saved the world from Thanos. He hangs out with girlfiend/superhero Hope/Wasp. Everybody likes him, and how could they not: he's played by Paul Rudd! But daughter Cassie has become a rebellious teen, taken to getting arrested in demonstrations. (And this is San Francisco, where they don't arrest anybody, so you know she has to be pretty obnoxious.) Cassie's also been experimenting with Hank Pym's shrink/grow technology, and checking out the Quantum Realm, where Hank's wife Janet was stranded for decades.

After getting Cassie out of jail, the whole gang (Scott, Cassie, Hank, Janet, and Hope) gather for pizza, and Cassie reveals her magic device for exploring the Quantum Realm. Janet, who's been keeping certain facets of her time in the Realm secret, realizes that the device puts them all in extreme danger… too late, they all get sucked down into the weird and fantastic, and extremely dangerous, world.

They have a heck of a time defeating the menace there and returning home.

I think my sleepiness problem was due to over-reliance on spectacular CGI. Close to everything in the Quantum Realm is CGId. Every so often a human face or form will pop up; otherwise it's difficult to care about the obviously fictitious goings-on with no connection to the Real World.

But it's clever, and funny in spots. It's a setup for another couple of Avengers movies… which I'll probably see, because … Avengers.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:03 AM EST

Liberalism and Its Discontents

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I confess, I've never read anything by Francis Fukuyama before. But I am interested in how "liberalism" has become a punching-bag ideology recently, derided by many on the left and right. Fukuyama does a halfway decent job of looking at that phenomenon. But just halfway.

It turns out that Fukuyama has his own bones to pick with liberalism. For example, he derides "neoliberalism", a label applied retroactively to ideas propounded by Milton Friedman, Hayek, von Mises, et al, implemented by not only Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but also (you may be surprised to hear) Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Like "capitalism", it's a term invented by its opponents.

But, to Fukuyama, neoliberalism is "liberal ideas taken to extremes". (Amazon's "Look Inside the Book" search feature counts up 23 occurrences of various forms of "extreme" in this short book. Fukuyama doesn't like carrying things to extremes.)

He also dislikes the "consumer welfare standard" of antitrust litigation, first promulgated by Robert Bork. It is another example of how "neoliberalism has shifted the pendulum" too far.

Fukuyama also (somewhat surprisingly) takes potshots at John Rawls and his "veil of ignorance" justification of liberal policy. Rawls' "absolutization of autonomy, and the elevation of choice over all other human goods is "philosophically objectionable and has had "problematic" results.

Basically, Fukuyama seems to dislike arguing from principles. He's in favor of good results, though: dignity, prosperity, tolerance, pluralism, freedom of expression, individualism over identity politics, federalism. All good things, if not (once again) "taken to extremes".

An interesting discussion, and a worthwhile argument for non-dogmatism. I'm not sure how coherent it is in terms of resolving conflicts over deeply-held values. It seems that such things are irreducibly messy, and the best you can do is throw up your hands. Or, at best, engage in persuasion and evidence-based rational argument to sway people to your side.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:03 AM EST

Rock Me on the Water

1974-The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

A readable look at American culture, circa (see the subtitle) 1974, with focus on (again, see the subtitle) the denizens of Los Angeles. It has twelve chapters, conveniently titled January, February, …

But that turns out to be kind of misleading. Many of the events the author, Ronald Brownstein, describes slop into years both before and after 1974. And the monthly chapter titles are cute, but not really relevant.

Brownstein writes as an unabashed fan about the showbiz folks, musicians, and politicians he admires. On TV, he liked M*A*S*H, All in the Family, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, … Movies: Chinatown, Shampoo, Jaws, Nashville, … Musicians: Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, … Actors: Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, … Politicians? Just Jerry Brown, really. Tom Hayden, sort of.

The politics of the book are slanted left, reflecting the outlook of nearly all the subjects. Somewhat discordantly, since just about all those folks were propelled to fame and fortune by their active partnership with capitalist corporations, and their participation in the market economy. Nevertheless, Brownstein reserves his most fulsome praise for efforts that "expose" the corruption, racism, militarism, etc. of 70s America. He also describes (from his 21st century vantage) the overwhelmingly white-male control of 70s culture. (There's a side tour into the "blaxploitation" movie phenomenon, which caused me to stream the Pam Grier movie Coffy a few days ago.)

And cocaine. Lots of cocaine.

Brownstein details the "Icarus"-like career of Bert Schneider. He produced The Monkees! Also Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show. His anti-Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds won him an Oscar, and his acceptance speech at the 1975 ceremony cheered that "Vietnam is about to be liberated". Yes, by becoming a Communist dictatorship. He then proceeded to read a telegram from the head of the North Vietnamese delegation to the Paris peace talks. Before that, in 1974, he was deeply involved in a scheme to fly Huey Newton to Cuba, in order to avoid arrest and prosecution for shooting a 17-year-old prostitute in Oakland and assaulting a tailor fitting him for a suit.

Brownstein tut-tuts about Schneider's bad-boy behavior with sex and drugs, but can't seem to condemn his pro-Communist sympathies.

Brownstein really likes the adjective "brilliant": Amazon's "Look Inside the Book" search finds 30 occurrences. OK, we get it, Ron: you think they're brilliant.

Brownstein also gets a little too inside-baseball with his history. Do we really need to know about all these CBS vice chairmen and associate VPs?

One bit of sloppiness I noticed: on page 74, Linda Ronstadt is quoted as referring to "Jennifer Warren, who was a great singer." Boy, I'm 99.9% sure she was talking about Jennifer Warnes. (Don't know if the error was Linda's or Ron just mistranscribed the interview. As always, this is a warning flag about taking other details in the book with a grain of salt.

I was 23 years old in 1974, and (I confess) owned those musicians' albums, watched those movies and TV shows. I enjoyed reading the anecdotes Brownstein tells. His analysis of the era is simplistic and tendentious, but fortunately easy to ignore.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:03 AM EST

Dead Dead Girls

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I use my Reading Schedule Generator to set daily page goals. But sometimes I exceed the goals, finishing books quicker than the schedule dictates. Most often because I want get to the exciting conclusion.

Other times, because I'm thinking: Good Lord, let's get this over with.

For this book, the latter reason applied.

But it was on the NYT's list of the Best Mystery Novels of 2021! (I've now read six out of the 11 titles there.) To put it as diplomatically as I can, I suspect some Diversity/Equity/Inclusion scoring was at work at the NYT: Black female author, Black lesbian protagonist, and

[Click for spoiler] a serial killer who just happens to be a racist White cop.

I always do a plot summary, so here you go: As a teen in 1916 Harlem, Louise is abducted with three other girls, for some nefarious purpose. But using only her wits, courage, and a sharpened pen, she defeats the kidnapper and leads the other girls to safety. The villain escapes justice, but Louise is lauded as the "Hero of Harlem".

Ten years later, in the roaring 20s, it's the Harlem Renaissance. Louise is a waitress by day, speakeasy dancer by night. She smokes a lot—every cigarette is mentioned, it seems—and has a romance going on with Rosa Maria, one of the inhabitants of her rooming house. And someone is murdering young Black girls. Louise's hot temper lands her in legal jeopardy, but she's offered an out: help the NYC detective with his investigation into the crimes, and she'll avoid jail.

And of course, she does.

I'm not sure how much sense the plot makes. The dialog is wooden, the prose is choppy and cliché-ridden. The ending strains credulity.

The author, Nekesa Afia, writes with an underlying seething resentment and anti-White hostility. In her "Historical Note" at the end:

Every notable contribution to 1920s culture, especially in American cities such as New Orleans, Chicago, and Dead Dead Girls' setting, New York City, was made by Black people, then stolen and repackaged for white consumption.

Um. Arguable, at best. And, yes, Ms. Afia adopts the capitalize-Black/lowercase-white style throughout. A few lines down:

I could have set Louise's story in modern times, with the continuous and excessive murders of Black and Brown bodies by white people, and almost nothing in the story would have changed…

Well, according to this tweet (allegedly based on FBI statistics):

Blacks murder Whites at 4.9x the rate Whites murder Blacks (non-Hispanic)

A Black person is 9.3x more likely to murder a White than a White person is to murder a Black

Blacks murder Hispanics at 3.5x the rate Hispanics murder Blacks

A Black person is 2.8x more likely to murder a Hispanic than a Hispanic person is to murder a Black

So if anything is "excessive"… (Most murders are intraracial, of course.)


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:03 AM EST

Coffy

[2 stars] [IMDB Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

So, I'm currently reading the book Rock Me on the Water: 1974-The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics by journalist Ronald Brownstein. I'll report on the book later this week, but I was intrigued by this paragraph in the midst of a discussion of "blaxploitation" movies made in the early 1970s (footnote elided):

In all these ways, the blaxploitation era created opportunities for Black artists and technicians that remained largely closed to them on television, but the films ignited a two-front war. From the outside, they faced condemnation from civil rights groups, who understandably accused them of projecting a distorted and demeaning view of Black life. Black protesters picketed showings of films such as Super Fly, waving signs that insisted "We Are Not All Pimps and Whores!" The movies defenders countered that the films also constituted a form of Black empowerment. The typical blaxploitation plot showed a confident, dynamic African American star ([Richard] Roundtree's Shaft or Pam Grier's Coffy and Foxy Brown) conquering a complex and dangerous urban landscape while attracting Black and white lovers alike. To the extent that white society touched Black life at all, it was in the form of corrupt cops and politicians and sadistic mobsters, who make the big money while dribbling crumbs to the Black pimps and drug dealers. When Pam Grier's heroic nurse, Coffy, outwits and kills a bigoted white drug kingpin, after first dispatching the corrupt white cops on his payroll, she portrays a form of black empowerment and retribution in the face of racism that Hollywood had rarely shown on-screen. Still, the case for blaxploitation films like Coffy as a form of social subversion was diminished by the fact that Grier also spent much of the movie with her top off and a good deal of her time tearing the tops from other prostitutes working for a "Super Fly"-like Black pimp and pusher who struts through the movie in a gold jumpsuit (until he's brutally murdered by the white kingpin).

Hm. Intriguing! And this is 2023 after all. I went to the trusty Roku and found Coffy offered on a number of streaming services, notably the free-with-ads Pluto. (Which turned out to be free with the same three ads over and over again, but what are you going to do?)

One correction to Brownstein's synopsis: Grier's character does not spend a "good deal of her time tearing the tops from other prostitutes". "Other" implies that Coffy's a prostitute too; she's not, she's posing as a prostitute to infiltrate the pimp-pusher's organization. And that top-tearing thing is just one (epic) fight scene where Coffy runs afoul of the actual hookers and needs to defend herself. And those tops are pretty flimsy anyway.

All in all, a very guilty pleasure. An intricate plot, lots of imaginative violent action. But also mediocre acting (sorry, Pam!). And a painfully awful soundtrack. (Opinions on that differ, but I'm right.)

Question about that first scene: where was she hiding that shotgun?

Observation about that final scene: she wasn't going to shoot that guy until it turned out he was cheating on her with a white girl.

And, yes, the Brownstein book capitalizes "Black" and keeps "white" lowercase, all the way through. That follows the AP recommendation, see their lame justification here.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:03 AM EST

Et Tu, Domino's?

Actual subject line on my daily spam from Domino's Pizza:

This Father's Day get Dad something they deserve

Yes, "they".

I know there must be an eyeroll emoji somewhere… Ah, here it is:🙄

A Cry from the Far Middle

Dispatches from a Divided Land

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

This is, I think, the late P. J. O'Rourke's final book with new material. (Grove Atlantic brought out a "compendium of quotes and riffs" from his career "on what would have been his 75th birthday." That might be a good buy unless you (like me) already own just about everything the guy wrote. I was a fan of my fellow Granite Stater.

This 2020 book is a collection of PJ's recent essays, mostly from the free online magazine he edited, American Consequences, which I think is now defunct. To be honest, the book is kind of a mixed bag. A number of pieces are cynical and pessimistic without actually being funny. (Maybe I wasn't in the mood for that.)

On the other hand, many essays are insightful and witty. The laugh-out-loud gags are rare, but that's OK. (One, on pp. 161-2, is actually a 51-word quote from a Dave Barry book.) PJ's combination of politics (moderate conservatism/libertarianism) resembles mine pretty closely, and his worldview (disgusted/amused/stoic) is roughly what I aspire to.

He unaccountably, but forgivably, voted for Hillary in 2016. ("She's wrong about absolutely everything, but she's wrong within normal parameters.") I went for Gary Johnson. I'm not sure who I would have voted for if my vote could have actually swung the election, but fortunately it didn't.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:03 AM EST

Farewell My Lovely

[3 stars] [IMDB Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I recently read the book so I figured I would compare and contrast with this 1975 movie, which was free-to-me on Peacock.

In very broad strokes, the plot is similar: private eye Philip Marlowe gets involved with the very large Moose Malloy, who wants to find the love of his life, Velma. Who has dropped out of sight while Moose was cooling his heels in prison for a bank robbery years back. The only clue is that Velma used to work at Florian's as a songbird. When Malloy and Marlowe visit Florian's, they discover it's now owned and operated by people of color, persons of pallor are unwelcome. Malloy leaves some death and destruction, while Marlowe continues his detective work.

It's a twisted tale of depravity, corruption, infidelity, and lies. Robert Mitchum, playing Marlowe, is disgusted but diligent. Also up for a little hanky-panky with Mrs. Grayle (Charlotte Rampling), wife of a fantastically wealthy judge. Eventually, the trail leads to a gambling boat off the coast, run by mobster Laird Brunette (Anthony Zerbe).

Sylvester Stallone is in this, playing a surly and murderous thug. Moose is played by Jack O'Halloran, whose other notable role was playing General Zod's giant flunky in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies.

A number of book characters are jettisoned in this movie, notably Anne Riordan, a writer who gets tangled up in Marlowe's life. A bunch of cops are missing. The phony psychic Dr. Amthor, is replaced by an infamous madam, Frances Amthor, who's equally dangerous. For a while.

I may not have been playing the closest attention, but I'm pretty sure the movie has a number of loose ends and unexplained crimes. Ah well.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:03 AM EST

Confess, Fletch

[4 stars] [IMDB Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I seem to be getting back into watching movies again. At least from my futon.

This movie is based on the second novel in Gregory McDonald's series involving the unique protagonist Irwin M. Fletcher. (I still have the $1.75 paperback from 1976!) Jon Hamm plays Fletch, and that's an excellent casting choice.

Fletch arrives in Boston, where he's arranged to stay at the apartment of Owen Tasserly. Where he discovers the body of Laurel Goodwin, who's been bonked on the head with a sturdy wine bottle. He dutifully calls in the Boston police, and (naturally enough) finds himself under suspicion for the crime. The prime investigator is Inspector Morris Monroe, an unconventional African-American detective.

As it happens, Fletch is in Boston to track down paintings stolen from the estate of Count Clementi Arbogastes de Grassi, who has also been apparently kidnapped. And his kidnappers demand one of the paintings, a Picasso, as ransom. Since the family no longer has that painting, they figure the Count is a dead duck.

There are a number of differences between the book and the movie. For one thing, the murder victim is naked in the book, fully clothed here. And, in the book, the investigation is headed by the very Irish Inspector Flynn. (Who eventually got his own book.)

But the moviemakers got the spirit of the book pretty much exactly right. Acting is first-rate.

Fun fact: This movie has three award nominations, but one of them is "Most Egregious Age Difference Between the Leading Man and the Love Interest" from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. (A mere 17-year difference between Jon Hamm and Lorenza Izzo.) And it lost to Crimes of the Future (Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux: 27 years).

For the record, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists awarded "Most Daring Performance" to Emma Thompson for the movie Good Luck to You, Leo Grande. The age difference between Emma and her boy toy (Daryl McCormack) in this movie is 33 years.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:02 AM EST

Ding Dong

I'm still on low-volume mode, but wanted to share Mr. Ramirez's take on recent legal doings:

[The Witch is Indicted]


Last Modified 2024-01-30 5:52 AM EST

Farewell, My Lovely

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

This was number two on my "Chandler/Marlowe" reading project. And I had a 95¢ paperback that I bought back in the early 1970s. Today, you can get a paperback version from Amazon for $14.54. I'm sure it's nice.

Marlowe falls into this case by accident. While doing a fruitless missing person investigation, he runs into Moose Malloy, a giant who's just finished up an eight-year stint in prison. And he's looking for the love of his life, Velma, who used to sing at Florian's. Which was back then, but now Florian's is an African-American establishment (or, as Moose puts it, a "dinge joint"). And nobody's heard of Velma, but the resulting ruckus sends the bar owner to the morgue, and Moose goes on the lam.

Sheer curiosity has Marlowe track down the wife of Florian's former owner, who's susceptible to booze-bribery. But nevertheless acts suspiciously when Marlowe asks about Velma. Then a new client pops up, looking for someone to accompany him on a mission to ransom a stolen bit of jade…

Which would be OK, except the client winds up dead, and Marlowe not only plays the sap, he gets sapped.

Marlowe takes a lot of physical and nightmarish mental abuse as the book proceeds. Some from dirty cops, some from a phony psychic and his retinue, some from mobsters. (But, as in The Big Sleep, the main mobster here is actually trying to minimize his violent thuggery—it's bad for his business.)

This book has unending examples of Chandleresque description; including one of the most famous: "It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window."

And the book made me reflect on the current fad of bowdlerizing old books. If they can do it to Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl, why not Chandler? There's plenty for the wannabe censors to red-pencil here.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:02 AM EST

Chopping Mall

[1.5 stars] [IMDB Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Yes, this is the second movie I've watched so far in 2023. Consider it research. I ran across this essay by Marc Andreessen, where he argues against (what he sees as) the panic that AI will one day kill us all. (Aieee!)

[A gloom-and-doom counterpoint to Andreessen's essay is also available from Gideon Lichfield at WIRED: Marc Andreessen Is (Mostly) Wrong This Time. Pun Salad reports, you decide. On whether to be hysterical or sane.]

From Andreessen's essay:

First, a short description of what AI is: The application of mathematics and software code to teach computers how to understand, synthesize, and generate knowledge in ways similar to how people do it. AI is a computer program like any other – it runs, takes input, processes, and generates output. AI’s output is useful across a wide range of fields, ranging from coding to medicine to law to the creative arts. It is owned by people and controlled by people, like any other technology.

A shorter description of what AI isn’t: Killer software and robots that will spring to life and decide to murder the human race or otherwise ruin everything, like you see in the movies.

Well, that last bit sounded interesting. So I clicked over to read all about The Best Killer Robot Horror Movies, Ranked. And this was in first place! I will just snip their entire description:

Chopping Mall is a low-budget Julie Corman-produced sleazefest that tells the thrilling tale of what happens when eight unsuspecting teenagers get trapped in a security-bot-protected mall after hours. Its simple premise sets the stage for a plethora of creative kills, including an extremely memorable laser-induced head explosion. Chopping Mall is not only one of the best killer robot horror movies ever made, but it’s also one of the funniest horror comedies of all time. Director Jim Wynorski imbues the film with just the right amount of wry wit to compliment the scares, which keeps the pace brisk. In a fashion similar to George A. Romero's iconic zombie flick Dawn of the Dead,

Chopping Mall uses its mall setting and sense of humor to comment on consumerism, making the film feel fresh even today. Additionally, the film boasts one of scream queen legend Barbara Crampton’s all-time best performances, as well as cameos by cult legends Dick Miller, Mary Woronov, and Paul Bartel.

My review: it's watchable, barely. Also eminently predictable. (Who will survive? Not those kids having sex in the mall, for certain.)


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:02 AM EST

Highly Irregular

Why Tough, Through, and Dough Don't RhymeAnd Other Oddities of the English Language

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

If you're like me, you make the occasional spelling blunder. And you might occasionally misuse a word or two in conversation, like saying "literally" when you mean "figuratively".

And if you're also like me, you regularly notice other people doing the same thing, and you deride their sloppy ignorance. OK, you're not perfect, but those other people are a lot worse, right?

This book has good news and bad for people like us, reader. Good news: as an English user, you've mastered an extremely tough language. It's something of a miracle that you're just making infrequent mistakes.

Bad news, at least for us language snobs: focusing on language purity is a silly waste of time. English isn't pure and logical. Never was, never will be. OK, maybe you knew that. As George Carlin noted, we park in driveways, and drive on parkways. But Arika Okrent keep piling up examples of how deeply weird things are, Englishwise, things you (almost certainly) have never noticed and taken for granted.

A couple of examples: as the Firesign Theater's Nick Danger asked when the narrator described him as "ruthlessly" walking again by night: "I wonder where Ruth is?" Well, "ruth" used to be an actually-used word, meaning, roughly, "compassion". You can still find it in dictionaries, but it's long vanished from normal usage. Still, "ruthless" hangs around.

And we have a few perfectly good words for things that smell bad: they stink. They reek. Where's the equivalent single word for things that smell good? Dude, there isn't one. Whoa.

And then there's the word (yes, it's a word) "Mrs." Where did that R come from? Probably filched from "Colonel", right?.

Okrent does a fine job of explaining why these oddities came about, using all the tools of the linguist's game. The major problem was Britain's long history of being invaded by various funny-talking forces. The Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did their part by evolving their mostly-Germanic tongue into "Old English". The Vikings introduced their own contributions, and the Norman invaders brought in Latin and French influences. All very messy.

Okrent tells the story of today's English with an accessible style laced with humor. A very fun read.

And "literally"? Reader, it's just a general intensifier now. That's happened to a lot of words. Get used to it.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:02 AM EST

Wild Problems

A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I used to listen to Russ Roberts' Econtalk podcast pretty religiously, back when I listened to podcasts. For a mixture of reasons, I got out of that habit. But I got to know Russ (I call him Russ) as an uncommonly sane and wise voice with persuasive views on a host of topics, not just economics. This book reinforces that impression.

A "wild" problem, in Russ's view, is one that isn't amenable to utilitarian calculus, where we add up the pros and cons, seeing which solution comes out on top. Whether to have children, whether to accept a new job, what sort of hobbies to adopt, etc. His classic example is Charles Darwin's attempt to figure out whether he should marry. Darwin, being kind of a geek even back then, listed arguments for and against, writing them down for posterity to chuckle at. Pluses on the left, minuses on the right. This, Russ argues, was an unsatisfactory decision method. (A number of other historical figures, like Ben Franklin, argued for a similar process.)

Russ urges us to view "wild" problems as posing deeper questions than the utilitarian What will make me happiest? Instead they challenge us to ask: what kind of person am I? What kind of person do I want to be? What are my most important values? At bottom, we're encouraged to make mere "happiness" a secondary factor in decision-making, instead focusing on "flourishing", as it is measured against our unique set of talents and principles.

It's a wise book. I'm at the stage of life where my big life decisions are behind me, so its self-help component is less important in my case. Still, it's valuable advice for life-navigation "even at my age".

If you're looking for a gift idea for high school graduate, I think this would be a better choice than Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go!


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:01 AM EST

The Maid

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Last year, I read a pretty good book, Convenience Store Woman, about Keiko, a Japanese oddball who gives her menial job an obsessive (but impressive) amount of diligence. It looks as if that sort of thing might become a mini-genre, because this book is about Molly, an American oddball also obsessed with her menial job: maid at a swanky NYC hotel.

It was nominated for a "best novel" Edgar, which was my primary reason for grabbing it at the library. I liked it a lot, even though it seems like it's marketed as chick-lit. (All the back-cover blurbs are from female names. Publishers, if you think blurbs help sell your books, why not double their reach by tossing in a few blurbs from guys?)

I don't know if Molly is "on the spectrum" or not, but she's definitely out of step with her urban environment. Nearly all her hotel co-workers consider her to be a weirdo. (One exception: Mr. Preston, the doorman, who treats her kindly, and eventually plays a major role.) Her sunny outlook on her life and job is a gift from her late grandma, now unfortunately passed away. Unfortunately, that outlook makes her extremely gullible, an easy target for "bad eggs". Things get extremely complicated for her when she discovers the corpse of Mr. Black in the hotel's fanciest suite.

The book seems to climax with a few dozen pages left. What's going on there? It turns out there are still revelations and plot twists. Hang in.


Last Modified 2024-01-13 5:01 AM EST