Oct 18 2010

Tainted Love

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Arts & Letters Daily pointed me to this…

Open Letters Monthly: Against the Wind, by Rohan Maitzen

Conroy’s shift into the present tense here neatly illustrates why the “ancient history” defense cannot stand: I am reading Gone with the Wind not in 1936 but in 2010. While I read it, in the present, I am invited to share its point of view; I enter, today, into its particular pattern of “desire and fulfillment.” The desire it urges on me is a desire for the South to prevail. Of course, this wish cannot be fulfilled, which is why the dominant mood of the novel—one to which even Scarlett finally succumbs—is nostalgia. But it’s a retrograde nostalgia, one that requires me, if I play along, to compromise my commitment to a just and equal world. It does so even in the way it imagines “me,” its reader: to read Gone with the Wind sympathetically, at a minimum you have to be white. The resulting segregation is not a historical phenomenon but something I consent to in the present if I keep reading.

Maitzen here is talking about a phenomenon I’m intimately familiar with … Gone With the Wind was a beloved fixture of her youth, and her go-to book for comfort and solace growing up; but reading it for the first time as a critical adult, she has trouble getting past the reprehensible bits.

Like Maitzen, many of my otherwise-favorite authors have some really loathsome qualities. I’m particularly thinking of Robert E. Howard, who seems to have largely viewed history as a “battle between the races” for supremacy (because obviously living together peacefully and treating each other as fellow human beings was not a viable idea), and of course H.P. Lovecraft, who particularly in his younger days viewed anyone other than educated (i.e., aristocratic) northwestern-European males with fear and loathing. And these ideas often inform their work, occasionally to the point of poisoning it. (A story like “The Street” makes me want to invent a time machine just so I could slap HPL upside the head. Ditto REH with “Black Canaan” or “Vale of Lost Women”.)

And, like Maitzen, at the end of the day I have to decide just how much of such shenanigans I’m willing to hold my nose and tolerate in order to salvage the good bits. As she says:

Although, again, a simpler answer would be more comfortable, I think the only possible answer is ‘it depends’—on the depth and quality of our relationship overall, on all the contexts and complications of history and personality. Don’t we all have an elderly relative who holds fast to some absurd belief, some intractable prejudice? While hating their sins against our own cherished principles, we still manage, most of the time, to love the sinner, ideological warts and all. Of course, while we don’t choose our families, we do choose our books. Still, I think the situation is analogous. Rather than shunning, or censoring, we can be aware and critical, allowing for the good while not excusing the bad. We are capable, after all, of complexity, and often both life and reading demand it. There’s no doubt that intimacy and trust are undermined by such moral compromises, but other factors may compensate, or at least make the relationship worth preserving in its diminished form.

It’s entirely possible that if HPL and REH were around today (and hadn’t gone completely senile due to old age) that they might have very different views about such things, and view their past statements with regret. And even if they didn’t, that doesn’t make something like Tower of the Elephant or The Case of Charles Dexter Ward any less riveting a story. Or for a more contemporary example, I can still see the brilliance of Ender’s Game, even if I wish Orson Scott Card would shut his stupid piehole. It is true that I’ll probably never quite enjoy it the same way I once did, but that’s no fault of the work.

-The Gneech

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Sep 23 2010

Harlan Ellison

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Harlan Ellison, feeling his health fading, will be making his last convention appearance at MadCon.

I got to meet him once, and even got him to break up with a laugh and shake my hand at Dragon*Con, when he was one of the M.C.’s for Iron Artist and I was pulled from the audience to be a judge. (The contestants were Larry Elmore and Don Bluth — and yes, that was a big moment for me, in fact!)

As I don’t expect to be at MadCon, I’ll simply say here that I admire you, Mr. Ellison, and your work has meant a lot to me over the years. Thank you!

-The Gneech

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Jul 12 2010

Murdering the Orient Express

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Some twenty-ish years ago, the BBC (and by extension on this side of the pond, PBS) began running a TV series based on Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, starring David Suchet as the quirky little detective.

And it was brilliant. David Suchet perfectly captured the strange mixture of warm, insightful playfulness and cold calculation that made Poirot so formidable a detective, not to mention nicely embodying Poirot’s long list of idiosyncrasies without becoming quite the grotesque that other actors had tended to turn him into in the past. Hardcore Christie purists might grumble about the way Col. Hastings, Inspector Japp, and Miss Lemon were crammed into every story with a crowbar because they were “part of the regular cast,” and there may have been moments when the series veered a bit towards being a situation comedy that just happened to have detective stories in it. But on the whole, it was brilliant. And many people, myself included, said of this series, “Man, I wish they’d do Murder On the Orient Express!”

But that was twenty years ago. Poirot had a great run in the U.K. and over here, but eventually was cancelled as all good shows must someday be. Like so many other great TV detectives, David Suchet’s Poirot moved on to the occasional “movie special” instead of the regular weekly offering, allowing them to take on Christie’s longer works without abridging the heck out of them. Unfortunately, something changed along the way. Hercule Poirot, the quirky and offbeat Belgian detective who winked and chuckled at English society, became POIROT, ZEALOUS DEFENDER OF LAW AND ORDER! And his cases went from being charming parlour games, to GRIM CRIME DRAMA.

And thus, twenty years later, we are finally presented with David Suchet as Poirot in Murder On the Orient Express … and the series that used to portray Poirot so perfectly, instead gets it all wrong.

We start on a sour note with Poirot solving a case which results in a young and promising military officer blowing his brains out, spattering gore all over Poirot’s face. This scene, while unpleasant, at least has a hint of a precedent in the actual book; the scene that follows, in which Col. Arbuthnot and Mary Debenham happen upon a woman being viciously stoned to death for adultery, not only didn’t appear in the book but is completely contradictory to the deliberately-pedestrian way in which the the book starts. Things keep going from grim to grimmer as Poirot boards the train, meets Ratchett and turns down his job offer, and various characters begin throwing religion at each other and praying all over the place. (Do what now?) And Poirot finds himself telling Mary Debenham that the woman who was stoned to death “knew the rules of her culture” and that by breaking them she invited being brutally stoned to death in the street.

Wait, what?

The train may stay on the rails, but this script sure didn’t. 0.o The screenwriter (or director, or whoever it was making these decisions) was so intent on making a Big Damn Point about “justice” vs. “law” — whatever that point was, I never could quite figure it out — that they were perfectly happy to twist Poirot from a likable ex-cop who did amateur sleuthing as a mental diversion into a cold zealot who cares only about The Law (in capital letters) and believes that the slightest slip leads instantly to anarchy and barbarism. On top of this, all of the charm, all of the pleasant “conversationality” of Christie’s writing is thrown completely away, leaving only a bleak landscape where what little humor there is seems like a bitter jab instead of a friendly nudge. This Murder On the Orient Express has Poirot scowling and barely able to stomach the presence of Ratchett during the job offer and essentially refusing even to speak to him, instead of the book’s lighthearted exchange of, “At the risk of being personal, I don’t like your face.” By the end, both Poirot and the suspects are all nearly frozen to death, croaking at each other in grim darkness, and the presentation of the “right” solution to the Yugoslavian police is an angsty dark night of the soul for Poirot, instead of gently handing the decision to M. Bouc, the director of the line, and “retiring from the case.”

SPOILER ALERT: In one of the most egregious twists of character, even if it is a supporting character, Col. Arbuthnot, the steadfast British officer who was so upset that Ratchett was murdered instead of being sentenced to death by a jury of twelve, “the civilized way,” pulls out a gun with the intent to murder Poirot in order to prevent him from telling the police what actually happened — thus not only perverting the character, but also the whole damn point of the story. This, to me, falls under the heading of the screenwriter (or director, or whomever), putting themselves and their own desires above the work, which is something I always resent in any adaptation.

I don’t know the motivation behind turning Poirot from light whodunnit into bleak melodrama, and honestly I don’t care. But one idea that occurred to me was that they may have done it deliberately to distance themselves from the 1970s Albert Finney version of Murder On the Orient Express. That version is a grand symphony, a tribute not only to Agatha Christie but to the glories of old Hollywood and pre-war Europe, with the Orient Express itself all but waltzing across the screen in its own exuberance. What better way to be different from its exalted elegance than to be harsh and grim, right?

Unfortunately, for all of Albert Finney’s chewing the scenery in the 1970s film, he is at least chewing the scenery in ways compatible with what Agatha Christie actually wrote. The 1970s Murder On the Orient Express is an extremely faithful adaptation; one that even Dame Agatha herself was pleased with, after a lifetime of seeing her works hacked up and generally mucked around with. (And crying all the way to the bank, it’s true.) Admittedly, that leaves the makers of the Suchet version in a tough spot: how do you make a faithful adaptation of such a famous work, without simply doing again the extremely faithful adaptation that’s already been made? The key there I would think would be in letting it ride on David Suchet, with his subtle, nuanced, warm and humorous Poirot taking the stage instead of the eccentric, french-horn-laughing, wild-eyed Poirot of Albert Finney. Twenty years ago, when I was wishing for the David Suchet Murder On the Orient Express, that was what I was wishing for. The 1970s version had everything right except Poirot himself — the new version seems to get everything wrong including Poirot himself.

C’est la vie!

-The Gneech

CORRECTION: I should mention here that Agatha Christie’s Poirot is made by ITV, not the BBC; my apologies. It’s all “British television” to me. 🙂

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May 26 2010

WIRED iPad App: Back to the Drawing Board, Fellas

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Well, I’ve been waiting eagerly to see how the Wired app would perform. After all, if there was ever a magazine set to lead the tablet-mag revolution, Wired should be it.

So it was released this morning, I shelled out my five bucks, and started playing with it. Until I got so annoyed I gave up on it.

The problem isn’t the content — that’s the same standard as you’d expect from Wired, plus a few random movie clips. The problems are all in the interface. In short, it doesn’t do what I want or expect it to do, and worse, does stuff I don’t want or expect it to do.

Start with the most basic function of a magazine: reading. I’ve only been using ebook readers for a few months now, but they’ve already trained me that “tap on the right” = “next page,” while “tap on the left” = “previous page.” Not so, with the Wired app. This app expects you to swipe up and swipe down. Tapping on the right moves you to the next advertisement. (Did I mention that there are LOTS of advertisements? I haven’t counted, so I can’t say for sure that there are more ads than articles, but it sure felt like it.) Tapping on the right seems to be the equivalent of a “next track” button in a music player, because the app uses a model where every item is a column, and you’re moving from column to column when you tap right or left.

If you want to browse through the magazine, you can tap the screen to pull up a slider at the bottom, which just slides you along the columns. Or you can tap a little mystery-meat icon in the upper right corner that looks a little like WiFi signal strength bars to call up a broader layout bar where theoretically you can slide from column to column and pick what you want. Except that the slider always skips the one you’re trying to land on and jumps to the next one unless you get it lined up juuuuuust right — and tapping on the column when it’s not in the center just slides it around. This rapidly goes from irksome to annoying, from annoying to irritating, and from irritating to infuriating. I shouldn’t be fighting against the interface in order to see the column I want to see!

Oh, and forget about zooming. You know how in the iPad web browser and most applications you can pinch or stretch to zoom in or out? Not so in Wired, unless a given article happens to specifically enable it, which you have to tap first to “turn on.”

But those aren’t the only interface fights. There’s a small Quicktime video that lists the various missions to Mars, which has a little icon that reads, “Swipe to see a history of Mars missions.” All well and good, except that if you do swipe it, it thinks you’re doing the “next track/previous track” thing and moves you to an advertisement instead. The only way to see the Mars video is to ever-so-gently tap where it says “swipe” and hope you don’t move your finger a millimeter in either direction when you do so. “Tap” and “Swipe” are not the same thing, guys.

Seriously, a major disappointment. C’mon, guys, you’re frickin’ Wired magazine! Do better.

-The Gneech

EDIT: Followup! Mover and shaker that I am (/sarcasm) I happen to be lucky enough have a friend who works at Wired. And while he’s not on the creative team directly, he did have some interesting things to say about my rant. With his permission, I’ve posted that conversation here, with identifiers removed. Note that he’s speaking only from his own perspective here, and not as an official voice of the magazine.

My Friend: Hey there.
The Gneech: Hiyas. Sorry to be a bummer on release day.
My Friend: *snickers* You are the first negative I’ve heard, and since I’ve been playing with it for months…
My Friend: (Ads BTW, are EXACTLY equal to what’s in the print magazine, that’s required by ABC (Magazine biz) standards)
The Gneech: That’s as may be; but the ads were a minor irritant at best. They aren’t the problem.
My Friend: The Slider you are right.
My Friend: It seems too sensitive in this issue.
My Friend: BTW: Your feedback IS welcome and wanted.
My Friend: I chatted with the designers and senior editors.
The Gneech: Thanks. I was trying to keep my annoyance with the interface separate from things like the content or even conceptually about an electronic magazine.
The Gneech: ‘cos really, I did want to be blown away, not infuriated. ^.^’
My Friend: Part of the UI was intentionally trying to redefine how to interface with a magazine.
My Friend: So SOME of the things you complained about are intentional. (Articles being vertical while everything else is horizontal)
The Gneech: Yeah, but I think there are certain expectations that need to be dealt with, not the least of which is the page-turning one. Trying to get people used to steering wheels to start using inverted joysticks is a plan for disaster.
The Gneech: I think it would be better to rotate the axis — right-left = turn page, up-down = previous/next article.
The Gneech: That way you’d still get the two-axis interface, without randomly irritating people already used to e-readers.
The Gneech: Or a preference setting to change it.
My Friend: Yup, most people are getting the hang of it, once they play a little. But I can understand the confusion. They tried to get it to work like a webpage for each article, and then swipe for the next bit like an ebook. The reverse would be like ebooks for the articles, but the down swipe would be unlike anything else.
The Gneech: Yeah, but webpages are all one scroll, not bracketed columns. It’s FORMATTED like an e-book, but then tells you to read it like a webpage. Type mismatch.
My Friend: Hmm… You know, I think if you send an email to me I’ll forward it to them, I don’t know if THAT can be fixed at this point, but other things can be.
The Gneech: An e-mail of which? A link to the blog? Transcript of the chat?
My Friend: Hmm, or feedback like the blog but directed specifically to the tablet team.
The Gneech: Well, w/ your permission, I’ll post this in a followup (stripping your name out) and then e-mail a link to the whole thing.
My Friend: Sounds cool. Yeah forward and point to the first post as well.
The Gneech: Okeydoke. Will do.
The Gneech: Thanks.

At this point, I suspect a preferences setting would be the best bet, but without being privy to their code, I’m just making my best guess.

-The Gneech

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May 16 2010

Tanya Huff Coming to Balticon

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Tanya Huff is GOH this year! I wish I’d known that sooner, I would have made some plans around it. I’ve been to Balticon one other time, to see Neil Gaiman; it’s a tiny, tiny con about the size of one of the exhibitor halls at, say, Dragon*Con.

I still might head up there for a day trip … anybody out there who reads this going to be there? For all my famous frothing about being sick of vampires and other monsters-as-protagonists, Tanya Huff gets a pass for doing it before it was cool.

-The Gneech

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May 14 2010

Hark! A Vagrant, by K. Beaton

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Where has this comic been all my life?

Hark! A Vagrant, by K. Beaton

Hark! A Vagrant blends history, literature, and utter goofiness to create something that reads a bit like Edward Gorey doing Black Adder. Do you like history? Do you like things that are incredibly, intensely silly one moment and then wistfully poignant the next? Do you like Canada? Then you’ll like Hark! A Vagrant. Go forth and devour!

Some choice selections:

Enjoy!

-The Gneech

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