Shared posts

30 Nov 12:45

Jonathan Miller

by Unknown
If you were at all interested in theatre or opera in the 1980s, then Jonathan Miller was a magical name.

"It's a Jonathan Miller production " implied something surprising and controversial, something which was going to be talked about for years to come.

The old fashioned theatre critics hated him. I imagine that the Quentin Letts of this world still do. It isn’t “Jonathan Miller’s Hamlet” they snarled, “It’s SHAKESPEARE’S Hamlet.” They even invented a snarl word, “producer’s opera”,  to describe what he was doing.

Miller had an answer for them. I heard him lecture several times at Sussex, when I was doing English and he was doing brain surgery. There is no such thing as a production without production ideas, he said; all there can be is a production which copies the ideas of the last production, and the production before that. For years, Chekov had a reputation for being stodgy and boring because the Moscow State Theatre held the copyright, and endlessly reproduced the same play, with the same sets and the same costumes and the same out-dated acting styles which had been prevalent at the end of the 19th century. The works had, as he put it, become mummified. “The D’Oyly Carte did much the same thing to Gilbert and Sullivan” he added “But in the case of Gilbert and Sullivan it doesn’t matter one way or the other.”

In 1987 he produced the Mikado for the English National Opera. Everyone knows what he did: reimagined the play on a 1920s film set, with largely black and white costumes, all the characters wearing smart suits and cocktail dresses and speaking with clipped English accents. “But the Mikado isn’t set in England!” cried people who hadn’t seen it. Maybe not: but I doubt that there were too many second trombones performing English sea shanties in feudal Japan. However you stage it, the play is about English people playing at being Japanese. Yum-Yum is an English school girl, so why not accentuate the gag by putting her in an English school uniform as opposed to a kimono. “But I do love you, in my simple Japanese way...”

And then of course there were the changes to the script. “And that’s what I mean when I say, or I sing...oh bugger the flowers that bloom in the spring...”. The production has been revived fourteen times. It arguably saved the company.

Moving classical works from one time frame to another is what we all associate with Miller. I think his Rigoletto (or, if you insist, Verdi’s) was the first live opera I ever saw. The setting has moved from Italy to “Little Italy”; the Duke is now “Da Duke” and Sparafucile is a “hit man” rather than a “murderer for hire”. “But I didn’t think they had court jesters in 1930s New York” complained by traditionalist Grandfather. No: but with a little judicious jiggling of the libretto (the E.N.O always work in translation) the story of the hunchbacked bar-tender and his tragic daughter made complete sense. Miller said that audiences who didn't think they would like opera responded to this. (“Oh, it’s just like a musical” he said in his Pythonesque normal chap accent.) Possibly this was why the old guard couldn’t accept him: audiences liked what he was doing.

My own acting career began and ended with a walk-on part as “third servant on the left” in a student production of Twelfth Night, and Dr Miller sat in on one of our rehearsals and made some suggestions to the producer. (This was a nice thing to do: an amdram show couldn’t have been very interesting to him; but it did mean we got to put his name in the programme.) He said that contrary to popular belief he didn't think there was any point in "updating" Shakespeare: making it "relevant" made about as much sense as going to Spain and refusing to eat anything except fish and chips. On the other hand, most modern actors look incredibly awkward in doublets and togas. The thing to do, he said, was to treat it as an uncostumed production, but to choose clothes which might suggest to the audience what character types we were portraying. Avoid at all costs allowing Andrew Aguecheek to become a falsetto ninny, he said. That was, of course, exactly how our guy had been playing him. Ever since, in every production of Shakespeare I have seen, I have waited for the arrival of the Falsetto Ninny and rarely been disappointed.

I think some people imagine that producers sit in rooms and have Production Ideas and then let the cast do all the actual work. In fact, it is all about the detail. Yum-Yum singing the Sun Whose Rays perched on a grand piano; the Duke putting a dime in the jukebox before embarking on La Donna e Mobile. Hamlet checking his make-up in a looking glass and noting that the point of theatre is to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature.

Not all the ideas worked. There is some truth in the accusation that he took other people’s texts and filled them with his own ideas. (“I think that the blackness of Othello has been over-emphasized” he once wrote. “Presumably by Shakespeare” retorted Private Eye.) His BBC King Lear strayed into ludicrousness. Spotting that Edgar descends into a kind of hell at the beginning of the play and then rises again in the final act, he made the poor actor deliver all the mad scenes in a full crown-of-thorns and stigmata. Considering Ibsen’s Ghosts, he pointed out that that is just not how syphilis works. You can’t go from being fine and lucid to crazy and blind in one afternoon. So he invented a parallel play in which Osvald only thinks he has inherited the disease from his dissolute father; briefly suffers from hysterical blindness and is presumably euthanized by his mother while in perfectly good health. But no-one who has survived an unexpurgated Long Days Journey Into Night (which doesn’t clock in at less than five hours) can have had the slightest objection to Miller’s legendary production, featuring Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey, in which the big idea was that all the characters talk at once.

This is the main thing which seems to have interested him: in opera, theatre and science: how communication works; how people talk; their gestures; their body language; where they position themselves in the discourse. What if you took Eugene O'Neill's words and made the actors say them as if they were part of a normal conversation, overlaps and interruptions and all? What if Violetta behaved like a terminally ill patient with the symptoms of tuberculosis? What if Alice in Wonderland was not a whacky panto but a disturbing Kafkaesque dream-world populated, not by mad comical hatters, but frighteningly insane people who serve you empty cups of tea and threaten to cut your head off and won’t tell you why. What if? You can only know by trying it out; it doesn’t matter if it sometimes doesn’t work. I think that is the most important thing he taught us. Texts are unstable. There is no true version of Twelfth Night. Each production is a conjecture. In the theatre, anything goes.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

If you are enjoying my essays, please buy me a "coffee" (by dropping £3 in the tip jar)

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)
29 Nov 12:57

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Fri, 29 Nov 2019

18 Nov 18:47


by Unknown
It isn't possible to turn a book into a film. At best, a film-maker is a translator reading a page of words and turning them into a few minutes of pictures as faithfully as possible. But there is more than one kind of translation: literal, idiomatic, word-for-word, thought-for-thought. I have been studying a single book of the Bible very closely for the last twelve months; and I have learned how many different ways there are of turning the same Greek paragraph into English. 

Most book-to-movie adaptations are not even trying to be translations. They are more like artistic copies. It sometimes happens that one artist makes a copy of another artist's painting. The new painting isn't a forgery. It may not even be a very good copy. But it is sometimes a very pretty picture in its own right. 

The same book can be adapted more than once; in the same way that the same text can be translated more than once and the same picture can be copied more than once. Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein is a more literal adaptation of Mary Shelly than Boris Karloff's: it is not necessarily a better movie. 

If The Princess Bride were simply a thirty-year-old adaptation of a fifty-year-old novel, there would be nothing particularly silly about the idea of making the film all over again. You would simply end up with two different directors giving you two different ways of looking at William Goldman's original novel -- like two artists painting the same bowl of fruit in two different styles. Little Women is turned into a movie about once a decade. Les Miserables has been filmed at least seven times, sometimes with songs. No-one was especially shocked by the notion that someone might turn The Princess Bride into a musical: it might have been good; it might have been bad. In the end it never happened. 

If The Princess Bride were merely a very, very famous adaptation of a not-particularly well known novel, then there would be some justification in producing a new version. It might be very interesting to revisit Noel Coward's original stage version of Brief Encounter, a one-act two-hander set in a tea-room with an ambiguous ending. But Celia Johnson's vowels and Rachmaninov's incidental music would haunt any production. The BBC did a passably good Les Miserables last year: but when the students in the ABC cafe joined in Le Marseillaise everyone had "Do You Hear The People Sing?" playing in their head. The Importance of Being Ernest had been around for half a century before anyone thought to film it: but since 1935 every actress has had to work out a way of delivering two innocuous words about handbags without sounding like Dame Edith Evans. (Does history record how the line was uttered in Oscar's presence on the first night?) 

I am devoutly hoping that the BBC version of Pullman's Dark Material's is an abject failure: if it succeeds then a fifty six hour adaptation of Harry Potter is historically inevitable. It isn't clear whether Jaykay Rowling thinks that the movies are simply the Potterverse translated to the cinema; or whether she would allow a different director to visualize Hogwarts in a different way. Richard Harris said that his role as Dumbledore was completely unrelated to what he normally means by "acting". In an acting role you look at the words and use your skill and insight to build a character and work out how he would say them. In Harry Potter, you said the lines how Jaykay told you to. A new TV version could justify its existence by including all the scenes which the films had to omit.(Dark Materials justifies its existence by not being quite so dreadful as the movie.

The Princess Bride is not merely an adaptation, or a translation, or a very, very famous movie based on a very, very, very good book. The book and the film are irrevocably entwined. I can't think of another case where film and book are so clearly two aspects of a single work. Some of us regret the fact that our mental image of Tolkien's Gandalf has been over-written by our memories of Sir Ian's film version. If we ever re-read Frankenstein we would have to make a positive effort not to see the Hollywood version in our head. When we go back and read The Princess Bride, we see Cary Elwes and Robin Wright and Mandy Patinkin in our heads. William Goldman tells us, in the text of the book, that this is the way he reads it. The movie characters embody the literary ones and can't ever be done better. And the making of the film is part of the text of the book: Goldman -- the fictionalized Goldman who narrates the story -- talks about visiting the real-life Cliffs of Destruction during the making of the movie, and claims that a "then little-known Austrian body-builder" was very nearly cast as Fezzik. 

But this is not to say that the film is simply a dry-run for the novel or that the novel is simply a plodding transcription of the film. It is sometimes said, a little cruelly, that Terrance Dicks' created Doctor Who novels by going through BBC screenplays and adding the words "said the Doctor" and "said Leela" in blue pencil. It is sometimes said that John Grisham's courtroom dramas are only ever movie-pitches. The Princess Bride is full of bookish detail which doesn't show up in the movie. Cinema audiences observe the clifftop duel from the outside: the book places the reader firmly inside Inigo's head. The film assumes that the audience will notice that the Man in Black is left handed; in the book, we notice when Inigo notices; and follow Inigo's thoughts as he realizes he will have to switch hands. But the book can't show us the cut and thrust of the fight in the way that the movie can. The actors practiced for weeks; using real fencing moves, but light fibreglass swords. It often happens that one says of a movie "oh, you must read the book first; the film will only spoil it." The Princess Bride is a rare exception: I tell people that reading the book will spoil the film; but that once they have seen the film, the book will enhance their enjoyment of it. The book is one of the most bookish books I have ever read; the film is consistently filmish. 

Both the book and the film have a framing sequence. The book's frame is very involved indeed. It tells the story of how, as a young child William Goldman got hooked on adventure novels; about how his father used to read him the Princess Bride; about how years later he tracked down a copy of the book and gave it to his son; and only then discovered that his father had been reading him edited highlights and skipping the boring bits. Over the years, Goldman has extended this backstory: there are now introductions and epilogues and a print-out you have to write to the publisher and request. We learn about how the book was turned into a movie; how Goldman traveled to Florin and saw many of the places where events in the book took place; and about his ongoing struggle with the literary executors of S Morgenstern who wrote the original book. 

It's all a conjuring trick, of course: Morgenstern doesn't exist and "Bill Goldman" who appears in the book has nothing to do with the "William Goldman" who wrote it. Geoffrey Chaucer pulled off a not entirely dissimilar stunt four hundred years earlier. 

The frame is absolutely essential to the story: The Princess Bride is only believable if it is presented as a story-within-a-story. Put another way, The Princess Bride is not a story about a farm boy rescuing his lady from a wicked prince: it is the story of a young American kid discovering that he really likes books. Goldman, a screen-writer to his boots, saw that the book-frame was far too complicated for a movie; and replaced it with a much simpler narrative in which a Grandfather reads the book to a Boy who doesn't really like books. Goldman initially thought of setting the frame in the 1930s, the golden age of swashbuckling movies; but sensibly decided that it needed to be anchored in the present day. Present day is a slippery term, and that 1980s baseball sim is now almost as far removed from us as the depression would have been in the 80s. 

And that, of course, is the answer. If you told me that I was to create a new work of art based on the Princess Bride -- "Rilstone after Goldman", as it were -- that is what I would do. Film the framing sequence: the full framing sequence with Goldman's father and his lawyer and Kermit Slog; his fictional wife and kids; his elementary school teacher. I would make the audience very aware that there was a real Goldman and a fictional Goldman; but I would make the frame look as much like a documentary as I could manage. I'd be aiming for something like American Splendor, which slid between a cartoon Harvey Pekar; an actor playing Harvey Pekar; the present-day-real-life Harvey Pekar; and contemporary footage of a younger Harvey Pekar. I'd show you Goldman visiting the cliffs of destruction and looking at Inigo's sword in a museum. I'd incorporate material about the struggle to make the original movie. I bet there are out-takes and backstage material on a cutting room floor somewhere, and if not, that kind of thing can be faked. I'd show the audience Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed audition. I might even flash back to Andre the Giant on the school run with the famous poet.

Most importantly, I would reinstate the brilliant triple ending: how the novel ends; how Goldman’s father told him it ends; and how Goldman thinks it ought to have ended…. 

And here is the stunningly clever bit. I wouldn't refilm the story-within-the-story: I would incorporate the existing film into my remake. When Bill Goldman's dad starts to read to him from the Princess Bride we would cut to Robin Wright bullying Cary Elwes on the farm. When Goldman starts editing the duel section we would cut to Elwes and Patinkin sword fighting on the cliff. Obviously I would remove Peter Falk's voice and replace it with the voice of "Goldman". I would probably retain the Mark Knopfler sound track, but that's negotiable. And I would doctor the original footage. I would put it in black and white and I would juggle with the speed and resolution so it looked as if it came from an old, silent movie. (But with the dialogue intact.) 

The question of manipulating images from old movies is a bit of a fiddly one. I think that George Lucas is free to do what he likes with Star Wars, but it is a shame that the original version is unavailable. It think that Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be improved if the happy ending ere deleted. One day I may watch the definitive definitive definitive Blade Runner. Ripping a classic to pieces to create an inferior work seems to me to be an entirely legitimate part of the artistic process; certainly as legitimate as Lichtenstein turning panels of comics into wall-sized canvasses. The film-school project of taking the silent, black-and-white Metropolis and adding colour and sound seems off-the-wall enough to be worth watching. It doesn't replace the original movie; but stands as an interesting commentary on it. Some day I may even watch it. 

So: there is my idea. And now I have had it, it is no longer a thought experiment, but a genuine suggestion. I hope that they do remake The Princess Bride and I hope that they remake it in that way. It would be kind and fair of them to give me a credit and a small financial consideration, but of course, life isn’t always fair.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

Or consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)
17 Nov 23:16

Sucker bet (a thought experiment)

by Charlie Stross

Here is a thought experiment for our age.

You wake up to find your fairy godmother has overachieved: you're a new you, in a physically attractive, healthy body with no ailments and no older than 25 (giving you a reasonable propect of living to see the year 2100: making it to 2059 is pretty much a dead certainty).

The new you is also fabulously wealthy: you are the beneficial owner of a gigantic share portfolio which, your wealth management team assures you, is worth on the order of $100Bn, and sufficiently stable that even Trump's worst rage-tweeting never causes you to lose more than half a billion or so: even a repeat of the 2008 crisis will only cost you half an Apollo program.

Finally, you're outside the public eye. While your fellow multi-billionaires know you, your photo doesn't regularly appear in HELLO! magazine or Private Eye: you can walk the streets of Manhattan in reasonable safety without a bodyguard, if you so desire.

Now read on below the cut for the small print.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs takes on a whole new appearance from this angle.

Firstly: anthropogenic climate change will personally affect you in the years to come. (It may be the biggest threat to your survival.)

Secondly: the tensions generated by late-stage capitalism and rampant nationalist populism also affect you personally, insofar as billionaires as a class are getting the blame for all the world's ills whether or not they personally did anything blameworthy.

Let's add some more constraints.

Your wealth grows by 1% per annum, compounded, in the absence of Global Financial Crises.

Currently there is a 10% probability of another Global Financial Crisis in the next year, which will cut your wealth by 30%. For each year in which there is no GFC, the probability of a GFC in the next year rises by 2%. (So in a decade's time, if there's been no GFC, the probability is pushing 30%.) After a GFC the probability of a crash in the next yeear resets to 0% (before beginning to grow again after 5 years, as before). Meanwhile, your portfolio will recover at 2% per annum until it reaches its previous level, (or there's another GFC).

You can spend up to 1% of your portfolio per year on whatever you like, without consequences for the rest of the portfolio. Above that, for every additional dollar you liquidate, your investments lose another dollar. (Same recovery rules as for a GFC apply. If you try to liquidate all $100Bn overnight, you get at most $51Bn.)

(Note: I haven't made a spreadsheet model of this yet. Probably an omission one of you will address ...)

The head on a stick rule: in any year when your net wealth exceeds $5Bn, there is a 1% chance of a violent revolution that you cannot escape, and end up with your head on a stick. If there are two or more GFCs within a 10 year period, the probability of a revolution in the next year goes up to 2% per year. A third GFC doubles the probability of revolution, and so on: four GFCs within 40 years mean an 8% probability you'll be murdered.

Note: the planetary GNP is $75Tn or so. You're rich, but you're three orders of magnitude smaller than the global economy. You can't afford to go King Knut. You can't even afford to buy any one of Boeing, Airbus, BP, Shell, Exxon, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, or Google. Forget buying New Zealand: the annual GDP of even a relatively small island nation is around double your total capital, and you can't afford the mortgage. $100Bn does not make you omnipotent.

What is your optimum survival strategy?

Stuff I'm going to suggest is a really bad idea:

Paying Elon to build you a bolt-hole on Mars. Sure you can afford it within the next 20 years (if you live that long), but you will end up spending 75% of your extended life expectancy staring at the interior walls of a converted stainless steel fuel tank.

Paying faceless realtors to build you a bolt-hole in New Zealand. Sure you can afford a fully staffed bunker and a crew of gun-toting minions wearing collar bombs, but you will end up spending 75% of your extended life expectancy under house arrest, wondering when one of the minions is going to crack and decide torturing you to death is worth losing his head. And that's assuming the locals don't get irritated enough to pump carbon monoxide into your ventillation ducts.

Paying the US government to give you privileged status and carry on business as usual. Guillotines, tumbrils, you know the drill.

So it boils down to ... what is the best use of $100Bn over 80 years to mitigate the crisis situation we find ourselves in? (Your end goal should be to live to a ripe old age and die in bed, surrounded by your friends and family.)

16 Nov 12:20

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Sat, 16 Nov 2019

14 Nov 16:34

Tom Spurgeon, R.I.P.

by evanier

The comic art community is struggling today to process this piece of bad news: The passing of comic book/strip journalist Tom Spurgeon at the age of either 50 or 51 depending on which news site you believe. Tom's own news site, The Comics Reporter, always got this kind of thing right and I hope someone will continue it. I also hope others will try to emulate what he did there, which was to be smart and perceptive and responsible. He was the best at which he did.

I think I first came to know Tom in the mid-nineties when he was editor of The Comics Journal, a post for which he collected an awful lot of Eisner Awards. He walked that narrow, sometimes difficult line of taking comics seriously without forgetting that they were, after all, comics. After leaving that position, he wrote a lot of very fine articles about comics and three books: Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book (written with Jordan Raphael), Comics As Art: We Told You So and The Romita Legacy, saluting John Romita Sr. I recommend them all to you, not just for what you'll learn about their subjects but what's there to learn about how to write about comics.

He was generous with his time and talent, and I can't imagine anyone who knew the man or his work who isn't saddened by this news.

11 Nov 14:04

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Mon, 11 Nov 2019

15 Oct 22:18

DAVID SNEDDON – “Stop Living The Lie”

by Tom

#947, 25th January 2003

One possible reason Popstars’ producers risked an unconventional song with Girls Aloud: the show itself had competition. The BBC approached the reality TV era warily, but there was no way the Corporation could stay fully aloof from those kind of viewer numbers. Still, appearances had to be kept up – if the BBC was going to run a talent show, then by jingo it would involve real talent. And, in pop terms, that meant songwriting.

The resulting show, Fame Academy, was originally developed by Endemol as a Pop Idol/Big Brother crossbreed – the novelty was that the contestants all lived together in a house being taught the ways of stardom (Academy, see?). The BBC’s publicity leaned heavily on the teaching aspect, perhaps hoping that an educational aura would somehow settle on a show clearly designed to steal ITV’s Popstars thunder.

Instead, it gave me – and I assume others, since Fame Academy wasn’t the hoped-for blockbuster – the impression that the whole show was going to be didactic and joyless. I also felt like enormous emphasis was being placed on songwriting as the element which would separate out the real talent of Fame Academy from the manufactured flotsam of those other shows. Perhaps, as a several-year veteran of Internet pop discourse, I was over-sensitive to that talk, but it seemed to bode ill. I passed.

So the first I really knew of Fame Academy was when David Sneddon got to Number One with the first-ever solo self-penned reality show winner’s record. At which point all my most jaded and prejudiced assumptions were proved appallingly right.

From its opening lines rhyming “café” and “coffee”, “Stop Living The Lie” is one of the greatest advertisements for song doctoring and professional writing the charts have ever seen. The problem – which should have been obvious from the beginning – is that while the craft of modern pop involves a huge range of musical, technical, engineering, performance and studio skills, the image of a songwriter in the public mind is a bloke with an acoustic guitar or a piano. That is what they wanted and that is what they got, in the unbearably earnest form of David Sneddon.

Is “Stop Living A Lie” about anything? It certainly is! Well, I think it is. It’s sung and written to sound like it is – there’s about-ness in every pained note. It might be about religion, in which case it’s very on the nose indeed: “We all have a saviour / Do yourself a favour”. It might be about true love. It might be about all the lonely people, where do they all belong, except in this version Father MacKenzie and Eleanor have a nice cup of tea together and it all works out fine. Someone is living a lie, but what that lie actually is? Not so sure. There’s a “he” and “she” who live lives of vague bleakness – Sneddon comes across as being more interested in the notion of writing a song with characters in than the more specific work of actually making any up.

In other words, it’s a bad song by a beginning songwriter, ponderous and hand-wavey but probably no better or worse than most people’s first efforts. Except Sneddon’s are being pushed into standing as exemplars for Proper Talent and his single is in a situation where it was likely to get to the top however dubiously undercooked it was. This is, ironically, a far worse abuse of the charts than Pop Idol pulled, as there was no pretence Gareth or Will were anything but attractive young fellows singing the song they’d been given, which has been an element in pop since its dawn. Stop living the lie, indeed.

Sneddon’s fame was quickly academic, but he’s gone on to a successful songwriting career, so I assume he got the basics sorted in the end. In some ways he’s a figure ahead of his time. If you’d asked me in January 2003 which of “Stop Living The Lie” or “Sound Of The Underground” would sound more like British pop in the 2010s, I’d have picked the high street futurism of Girls Aloud over the awkward young singer-songwriter guy. Wrong.

10 Oct 23:40

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for Tue, 08 Oct 2019

09 Oct 20:22

Someone please sack the script-writers

by Charlie Stross

I mean, please. I know events have moved from shoddy scriptwriting to self-parody in the past month, but yesterday 2019 completely jumped the shark.

Donald Trump self-incriminating for an impeachable offense live on TV wasn't totally implausible, once you get beyond the bizzaro universe competence inversion implied by putting a deeply stupid mobbed-up New York property spiv in the White House, like a Richard Condon satire gone to seed—but the faked-up Elizabeth Warren sex scandal was just taking the piss. (Including the secret love child she bore at age 69, and her supposed proficiency, as a dominatrix, to reduce a member of the US Marine Corps to blubbering jelly—presumably Wohl and Burkman are now seeking proof in the shape of the hush-money payout to the delivery stork.)

But the coup de grace was Microsoft announcing an Android phone.

No, go away: I refuse to believe that Hell has re-opened as a skating rink. This is just too silly for words.

Someone is now going to tell me that I lapsed into a coma last October 3rd and it is now April 1st, 2020. In which case, it's a fair cop. But otherwise, I'm out of explanations. All I can come up with is, when they switched on the Large Hadron Collider they assured us that it wasn't going to create quantum black holes and eat the Earth from the inside out; but evidently it's been pushing us further and further out into a low-probability sheaf of universes somewhere in the Everett Wheeler manifold, and any moment now a white rabbit is going to hop past my office door wailing "goodness me, I'm late!"

04 Oct 15:27

Smarter Than TED.

by Peter Watts

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix)

If you’ve been following along on the ‘crawl for any length of time, you  may remember that a few months back, a guy from Lawrence Livermore trained a neural net on Blindsight and told it to start a sequel. The results were— disquieting. The AI wrote a lot like I did: same rhythm, same use of florid analogies, same Socratic dialogs about brain function. A lot of it didn’t make sense but it certainly seemed to, especially if you were skimming. If you weren’t familiar with the source material— if, for example, you didn’t know that “the shuttle” wouldn’t fit into “the spine”— a lot of it would pass muster.

This kind of AI is purely correlational. You train it on millions of words written in the style you want it to emulate— news stories, high fantasy, reddit posts1— then feed it a sentence or two. Based on what it’s read, it predicts the words most likely to follow: adds them to the string, uses the modified text to predict the words likely to follow that, and so on. There’s no comprehension. It’s the textbook example of a Chinese Room, all style over substance— but that style can be so convincing that it’s raised serious concerns about the manipulation of online dialog. (OpenAI have opted to release only a crippled version of their famous GPT2 textbot, for fear that the fully-functional version would be used to produce undetectable and pernicious deepfakes.  I think that’s a mistake, personally; it’s only a matter of time before someone else develops something equally or more powerful,2 so we might as well get the fucker out there to give people a chance to develop countermeasures.)

This has inevitably led to all sorts of online discourse about how one might filter out such fake content. That in turn has led to claims which I, of all people, should not have been so startled to read: that there may be no way to filter bot-generated from human-generated text because a lot of the time, conversing Humans are nothing more than Chinese rooms themselves.

Start with Sara Constantin’s claim that “Humans who are not concentrating are not General Intelligences“. She argues that skimming readers are liable to miss obvious absurdities in content—that stylistic consistency is enough to pass superficial muster, and superficiality is what most of us default to much of the time. (This reminds me of the argument that conformity is a survival trait in social species like ours, which is why—for example—your statistical skills decline when the correct solution to a stats problem would contradict tribal dogma. The point is not to understand input—that might very well be counterproductive. The goal is to parrot that input, to reinforce community standards.)

Move on to Robin Hanson’s concept of “babbling“, speech based on low-order correlations between phrases and sentences— exactly what textbots are proficient at. According to Hanson, babbling “isn’t meaningless”, but “often appears to be based on a deeper understanding than is actually the case”; it’s “sufficient to capture most polite conversation talk, such as the weather is nice, how is your mother’s illness, and damn that other political party”. He also sticks most TED talks into this category, as well as many of the undergraduate essays he’s forced to read (Hansen is a university professor). Again, this makes eminent sense to me: a typical student’s goal is not to acquire insight but to pass the exam. She’s been to class (to some of them, anyway), she knows what words and phrases the guy at the front of the class keeps using. All she has to do is figure out how to rearrange those words in a way that gets a pass.3

So it may be impossible to distinguish between people and bots not because the bots have grown as smart as people, but because much of the time, people are as dumb as bots. I don’t really share in the resultant pearl-clutching over how to exclude one while retaining the other— why not filter all bot-like discourse, regardless of origin?— but imagine the outcry if people were told they had to actually think, to demonstrate actual comprehension, before they could exercise their right of free speech. When you get right down to it, do bot-generated remarks about four-horned unicorns make any less sense than real-world protest signs saying “Get your government hands off my medicare“?

But screw all that. Let the pundits angst over how to draw their lines in some way that maintains a facile pretense of Human uniqueness. I see a silver lining, a ready-made role for textbots even in their current unfinished state: non-player characters in video games.

There. Isn’t that better?

I mean, I love Bethesda as much as the next guy, but how many passing strangers can rattle off the same line about taking an arrow to the knee before it gets old? Limited dialog options are the bane of true immersion for any game with speaking parts; we put up with it because there’s a limit to the amount of small talk you can pay a voice actor to record. But small talk is what textbots excel at, they generate it on the fly; you could wander Nilfgaard or Night City for years and never hear the same sentence twice. The extras you encountered would speak naturally, unpredictably, as fluidly as anyone you’d pass on the street in meatspace.  (And, since the bot behind them would have been trained exclusively on an in-game vocabulary, there’d be no chance of it going off the rails with random references to Donald Trump.)

Of course we’re talking about generating text here, not speech; you’d be cutting voice actors out of this particular loop, reserving them for meatier roles that convey useful information. But text-to-speech generation is getting better all the time. I’ve heard some synthetic voices that sound more real than any politician I’ve ever seen.

As it happens, I’m back in the video game racket myself these days, working on a project with a company out of Tel Aviv. I can’t tell you much except that it’s cyberpunk, it’s VR, and— if it goes like every other game gig I’ve had for the past twenty years— it will crash and burn before ever getting to market. But these folk are sharp, and ambitious, and used to pushing envelopes. When I broached the subject, they told me that bot-generated dialog was only one of the things they’d been itching to try.

Sadly, they also told me that they couldn’t scratch all those itches; there’s a limit to the number of technological peaks you can scale at any given time. So I’m not counting on anything. Still, as long as there’s a chance I’ll be there, nagging with all the gentle relentless force of a starfish prying open a clam. If I do not succeed, others will. At some point, sooner rather than later, bit players in video games will be at least as smart as the people who give TED talks.

I just wish that were more of an accomplishment.

1 There’s a subreddit populated only by bots who’ve been trained on other subreddits. It’s a glorious and scary place.

2 Someone already has, more or less, although they too have opted not to release it.

3 I am also reminded of Robert Hare’s observation that sociopaths tend to think in smaller “conceptual units” than neurotypicals— in terms of phrases, for example, rather than complete sentences. It gives them very fast semantic reflexes, so they sound glib and compelling and can turn on a dime if cornered; but they are given to malaprompims, and statements that tend to self-contradiction at higher levels.

Not that I would ever say that university students are sociopaths, of course.

28 Sep 12:53

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for September 27, 2019

23 Sep 07:55

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for September 21, 2019

23 Sep 07:55

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for September 23, 2019

23 Sep 06:17

Debunking the Debunkers: Free Will on Appeal.

by Peter Watts

Not a bad visual metaphor for the credibility of Gholipour’s argument, now that I think of it…

If you read The Atlantic, you may have heard the news: A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked! Libet’s classic eighties experiments, the first neurological spike in the Autonomist’s coffin, has been misinterpreted for decades! Myriad subsequent studies have been founded on a faulty and untested assumption, the whole edifice is a house of cards on a foundation of shifting sand. What’s more, Big Neuro has known about it for years! They just haven’t told you: Free Will is back on the table!

Take that, Determinists.

Three or four times, tops.

You can be damn sure the link has shown up in my in box more than once (although I haven’t been as inundated as some people seem to think). But having read Gholipour’s article— and having gone back and read the 2012 paper he bases it on— I gotta say Not so fast, buddy.

A quick summary for those at the back: during the eighties a dude named Benjamin Libet published research showing that the conscious decision to move one’s finger was always preceded by a nonconscious burst of brain activity (“Reaction Potential”, or RP) starting up to half a second before. The conclusion seemed obvious: the brain was already booting up to move before the conscious self “decided” to move, so that conscious decision was no decision at all. It was more like a memo, delivered after the fact by the guys down in Engineering, which the pointy-haired boss upstairs— a half-second late and a dollar short— took credit for. Something that comes after cannot dictate something that came before.

Therefore, Free Will— or more precisely, Conscious Will—  is an illusion.

In the years since, pretty much every study following in Libet’s footsteps not only conformed his findings but extended them. Soon et al reported lags of 7-10 seconds back in 2008, putting Libet’s measly half-second to shame. PopSci books started appearing with titles like The Illusion of Conscious Will. Carl Zimmer wrote a piece for Discover in which he reported that “a small but growing number of re­searchers are challenging some of the more extreme arguments supporting the primacy of the inner zombie”; suddenly, people who advocated for Free Will were no more than a plucky minority, standing up to Conventional Wisdom.

Until— according to Gholipour— a groundbreaking 2012 study by Schurger et al kicked the legs out from under the whole paradigm.

I’ve read that paper. I don’t think it means what he thinks it means.

It’s not that I find any great fault with the research itself. It actually seems like a pretty solid piece of work. Schurger and his colleagues questioned an assumption implicit in the work of Libet and his successors: that Reaction Potential does, in fact, reflect a deliberate decision prior to awareness. Sure, Schurger et al admitted, RP always precedes movement—  but what if that’s coincidence? What if RPs are firing off all the time, but no one noticed all the ones that weren’t associated with voluntary movement because nobody was looking for them? Libet’s subjects were told to move their finger whenever they wanted, without regard to any external stimulus; suppose initiation of that movement happens whenever the system crosses a particular threshold, and these random RPs boost the signal almost but not quite to that threshold so it takes less to tip it over the edge? Suppose that RPs don’t indicate a formal decision to move, but just a primed state where the decision is more likely to happen because the system’s already been boosted?

They put that supposition to the test. Suffice to say, without getting bogged down in methodological details (again, check the paper if you’re interested), it really paid off. So, cool. Looks like we have to re-evaluate the functional significance of Reaction Potential.

Does it “debunk” arguments against free will? Not even close.

What Schurger et al have done is replace a deterministic precursor with a stochastic one: whereas Libet Classic told us that the finger moved because it was following the directions of a flowchart, Libet Revisited says that it comes down to a dice roll. Decisions based on dice rolls aren’t any “freer” than those based on decision trees; they’re simply less predictable. And in both cases, the activity occurs prior to conscious involvement.

So Gholipour’s hopeful and strident claim holds no water. A classic argument against free will has not been debunked; rather, one example in support of that argument has been misinterpreted.

There’s a more fundamental problem here, though: the whole damn issue has been framed backwards. Free will is always being regarded as the Null Hypothesis; the onus is traditionally on researchers to disprove its existence. That’s not consistent with what we know about how brains work. As far as we know, everything in there is a function of neuroactivity: logic, emotion, perception, all result from the firing of neurons, and that only happens when input strength exceeds action potential. Will and perception do not cause the firing of neurons; they result from it. By definition, everything we are conscious of  has to be preceded by neuronal activity that we are not conscious of. That’s just cause/effect. That’s physics.

Advocates of free will are claiming— based mainly on a subjective feeling of agency that carries no evidentiary weight whatsoever— that effect precedes cause (or that the very least, that they occur simultaneously). Given the violence this does to everything we understand about reality, it seems to me that “No Free Will” should be the Null Hypothesis. The onus should be on the Free Willians to prove otherwise.

If Gholipour is anything to go on, they’ve got their work cut out for them.

03 Sep 07:59

Boris Johnson might just be a worthy successor to the UK Prime Minister from the second world war

by TSE

Today is the eightieth anniversary of the Anglo-French declaration of war on Germany. The Conservative Prime Minister had championed and overseen a ruinous foreign policy that had brought the United Kingdom and most of Western Europe to disaster, and things got a lot worse. Conservative MPs who criticised this policy were denounced in the media and ostracised. Sound familiar? But enough about Brexit, even Boris Johnson does love a good Brexit is like WWII analogy.

I’m of the opinion that No Deal will not present many problems at the start but if No Deal becomes sustained there will be a lot of cumulative problems later on and that should see support for Boris Johnson, his party, and Brexit collapse, it will be the winter of discontent for a new generation. Boris Johnson will need a catastrophic error from his opponents, something like Herr Hitler’s needless declaration of war on America or a morale boosting course changing victory like the second battle of El Alamein.

What should alarm Boris Johnson is how rapidly Chamberlain was ousted when the phoney war ended and the reality of the policy failure kicked in. Indeed there is precedent that the leader of the party with the most seats (in fact an actual majority) was bypassed by Parliament and replaced as Prime Minister while still being party leader.

Although if Boris Johnson does want to emulate Winston Churchill perhaps he’ll lose 189 seats at his first general election as leader, or perhaps like Churchill he’ll fight three general elections and lose the popular vote in all three.


PS – There’s a bitter sense of irony and outright hypocrisy that at some time today or tomorrow Boris Johnson will expel Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, from the Conservative party for doing what Boris Johnson and other cabinet ministers have done repeatedly.


02 Sep 16:04

Terrance Dicks

by (Paul Magrs)

Terrance Dicks was always there.

He was a whole half of the D-section in Newton Aycliffe library, that boxlike plywood prefab construction at one end of our concrete town centre. Those WH Allen hardbacks with white spines were the stuff of dreams and feverish late night re-readings by torchlight. For me, Terrance Dicks’ books are more 70s Who than the TV episodes are. They hold up better in retrospect, I think. It’s a whole, perfect era of Who which begins, for my money, with that splendid ‘Auton Invasion’, which somehow manages to impart the true terror of the Autons and the panic they would cause. And it makes the Doctor new to us, too: this brand new Doctor, irascibly uncomfortable in his new home on Earth.

Dicks writes so well about the Third Doctor being stuck on Earth. We really believe in his fury when, years later, in ‘The Eight Doctors’ the Eighth Doctor pays an unexpected visit and almost gets clouted unconscious and his TARDIS nicked by the velvet-clad fop.

If we follow Dicks’ Target Doctor Who story it’s one of being trapped on Earth, building a haphazard family, having adventures in pre-punk England… and finally earning freedom again (by engaging in ‘the most extraordinary adventure in his very long life’)… but as he gains his freedom, he loses that family of his, bit by bit… and eventually his own self – in the cobwebby catacombs of Metebelis Three. It’s a story of having to turn into someone even more cantankerous and wayward… and shooting off into space again… into ramshackle voyages into space and time… gradually severing the ties with Earth – losing Jo, Mike, Harry, then Sarah, Benton and the Brig… becoming a lonely wanderer whose adventures happen on a cosmic scale. And, though he did novelise later tales – I think that’s the furthest end of the Dicks era. The end of the Seventies, with the Doctor in a new, hip, space-family of intellectuals – a clever dog, a clever lady companion. They trip about the cosmos, wryly amused by it all. Where once the Doctor and his UNIT chums got stuck into adventures… now the Doctor, Romana and K9 slide effortlessly through life on charm.

I think his books, put together, form a lovely complete story about the Doctor’s life – lucidly told and highly influential to readers such as myself. A story about a Doctor who begins as a cross, mysterious stranger – and ends up, still a stranger, but one who’s learned to take life less seriously. Who can’t see the benefit of getting all hot and bothered. Who would rather laugh his enemy into oblivion than blow him into smithereens.

I read these books again and again. But I would read other things as well. I branched out at first by reading other books by Terrance Dicks. And here I must put in a word for those two other series he wrote for WH Allen and Target. I’ve collected them up again in recent years and reread them with great enjoyment.

There’s his ‘Star Quest’ series, about three young humans taken off into space to become affiliates of a great galactic Federation at war with an evil empire. And, even less well known, there is his glorious series of five books about five kids involved with fighting monsters. In this series, he runs through new, late 70s iterations of the Universal movie monsters. It’s a fantastic YA series and surely needs reprinting. My favourite is the riff on Frankenstein, ‘Marvin’s Monster.’ It contains a scene that must be one of my favourites he ever wrote: an update of the monster meeting the blind man from the old movie. In Terrance Dicks’ version the school project monster rampages through the streets of the shabby little town, and wanders into an Asian grocery where he meets the elderly blind man sitting at the counter, who helps him patch up his wounds with corner shop first aid supplies.

It’s a scene of great compassion and all to do with humanizing monsters. Something which all of Dicks’ books try to do, I think.

02 Sep 14:59

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for September 02, 2019

31 Aug 00:46

Doctor Who – The Leisure Hive: A Perfect Holiday Moment

by Alex Wilcock

On this day in 1980, Doctor Who returned for its Eighteenth Season with a blaze of sound and colour in The Leisure Hive. The Season is the ultimate in Who ‘concept albums’ and its opening story is a bold statement, the director’s ambitious visuals, faster edits and movie-style camerawork revolutionising the show’s look (and breaking its budget). Yet the story opens with a shot so infamous that almost everyone calls it a disaster. For me, it’s a truly great moment and Doctor Who’s most sublime comment on Summer Holidays.

“I don’t think much of this Earth idea of recreation.”

When I was a boy, this time of year meant two things – going back to school, and the return of Doctor Who to our screens to sweeten the pill. It wasn’t just Doctor Who’s scariness that made it ideal viewing as the nights started drawing in. It was that the new Autumn Season often opened with stories that deliberately reflected that ‘end of Summer holidays’ feel on screen. Terror of the Zygons and The Masque of Mandragora combined holiday destinations with putting shivers up my spine in Bob Holmes’ mission to “frighten the little buggers to death”. The Ribos Operation opened with the Doctor about to go on holiday, at which point the light fails and it ends up snowing, which seemed like half my Dad’s travel plans. Or what could be more ‘British Summer’ than a trip to the seaside when the weather’s horrible and the driver’s telling you you ought to be enjoying it and it’s not his fault about the cold or the wind or getting lost in the fog…? That was Horror of Fang Rock (the first episode of which I missed because, inevitably, we were stuck in traffic jams and complaining all the way back from the sea). But no story ever evoked the end of the Summer holidays more perfectly than The Leisure Hive.

There is a Wilcock family photo taken at Land’s End in Summer 1980, mere weeks before The Leisure Hive Part One first aired. My Dad is beaming defiantly, brandishing my clearly unhappy little sister; my Mum bracing little me to try and stop us both being blown over the cliffs; my little brother sensibly crouching against the ground so that, if we all went, he wouldn’t be going over with us. But in the driving rain and bitter wind, in flapping kagouls, my brother and I are holding ice lollies in our numb fingers. The things you remember: mine was a blue Star Trek – The Motion Picture tie-in ice (probably chosen more so it would turn my tongue blue rather than to accessorise with the fingers holding it, but it worked for both). You’ll goggle at that photo and wonder, what were we thinking? The day was grim, the rain was slicing through us, the wind was chill and threatening to whip the lollies from our stiff little fingers if it couldn’t bowl us to our doom, and yet there we were, clutching things that could only make us colder. Why? Because it was Summer, damn it, and we’d been told we were going to ‘enjoy ourselves’ on pain of frostbite and smile for the camera.

“You’ve got the century wrong, you’ve got the season wrong, and you’ve got K9’s seawater defences wrong.”
“Well, I can’t get everything right.”
“Just something would be a help.”
A summary of The Leisure Hive’s opening scene might be that the Doctor has taken Romana and K9 to Brighton, where his holiday plans go awry. He’s missed the opening of the Pavilion – again – and is sitting in a sulk. Romana chucks a beach-ball in the sea for K9 to fetch, only to find that the Doctor’s not sea-proofed him. She heaves the exploded robot up the beach to the Doctor, complains, then suggests they go on an improving trip to an alien resort instead. So they do. That’s what happens in theory, but it misses what’s entertaining about it almost as much as – to pick one review among many – Tat Wood’s livid screed in About Time 5 that “they wantonly began the season with the dullest one-hundred seconds of Doctor Who ever”.

After six years of Tom Baker as the Doctor with every episode opening through a swirling blue time tunnel and an only slightly remixed version of the Doctor Who Theme used since 1963, The Leisure Hive blasts into life and into the ’80s with blazing, bright stars streaking across space and a WHOOOM! howling new electric version of the theme. Most of the story will be set on the alien world of Argolis, a holiday bursting with fabulous colours, arresting angles and rapid edits, a glorious electronica score from Peter Howell to build on his new theme arrangement, three utterly stunning cliffhangers in a row, magnificent vistas, war, money, science and murder.

But first, it makes you wait.

Audiences at the time would have been shocked at the new look and sound and might have needed a breather – but viewers at any time can appreciate the antici…pation when instead of plunging right out of the stars and into an in-your-face alien environment, the camera opens on Brighton Pier and, to the sound of sighing wind and keening music slowly pans across the beach, and the beach huts, and the beach, and the beach huts, and the beach, and the beach huts, and the sound of snoring… And, at last, standing in the line of beach huts, the TARDIS, with the Doctor asleep on a deckchair, on the beach, in a huge new scarf, thick coat, and hat pulled across his face.

The Doctor wrapped up against the biting wind but still sitting on the beach anyway was something a British audience would instantly recognise and enjoy.

It’s still a brilliantly – almost absurdly – audacious move to start with an unbelievably long panning shot, and I still love it. Yes, it makes you wait, but only after it’s grabbed your attention with an explosive new title sequence and theme that nobody was expecting, which is a big tease. It’s not ‘padding’ or ‘longueurs’, but – with the first few minutes and those few minutes only set for Brighton beach – very much planned, and brave, and stylish, and though as with many brave and stylish things not everyone would get it, it’s also very funny, and fantastic in context.

To complain about the ‘dreary’ beach is to entirely miss the point of it being broadcast on August 30th. Everyone who’s just got back from a dreary British holiday when it rained in the cold will cheer when they see the Doctor wrapped up on the beach, determined to stick it out like everyone’s Dad, and young Romana saying ‘But can’t we go somewhere more exotic and exciting?’ like all the kids. And then they do! And everyone who’s just been somewhere exotic and exciting will feel smug to start with, confirmed in their view that they made the right decision, then realise that however exotic and exciting their locale, the Doctor can still go somewhere that beats it, and be drawn in. For me, it’s a stylish opening on its own, but in context it’s a perfect one.

Given a very short scene to open the story and a filming allocation for it on Brighton beach, what else would you do with it? The director succeeds in being witty, stylish and creative, and – not something for which he was famed – definitely getting his money’s worth. I suspect that as well as being a signature for new Producer John Nathan-Turner, the Brighton scene was planned as somewhere striking for all those photo-shoots of Tom’s new costume and Lalla in a bathing outfit while getting some filming in too, to visually establish the story’s holiday theme, and perhaps simply to give viewers something reassuringly ‘normal’ to lure them in before soaring off somewhere amazing.

The DVD (and now Blu-ray) commentary mixes Director Lovett Bickford, Script Editor Christopher H Bidmead and Romana Lalla Ward, and while each are excellent separately, together they wind each other up so much that you have to take turns finding each of them unbearable. But this moment starts as they’ll go on: Chris pans the minute and a half pan. Lovett superbly responds with “It’s the perfect length.” And Lalla says it makes a change from being in the TARDIS “with that thing going up and down” (Tom Baker, as we call him). Chris and Lalla agree it looks like an Italian art film, which Lovett is very happy with, though I’m not certain either of them intended it as a compliment. But Lalla is spot-on for me, sighing, “God, it’s so like the kind of British holidays, this set-up, that one dreaded so much as a child.” The one thing about the panning shot where the director missed a trick: the camera pulls past a blue and white-striped beach hut… Which for an instant makes you think of the TARDIS. But there are several more colours to come before the suggestion’s realised. The TARDIS should have been the next one after the blue.

“Well, I can’t spend the rest of my life running away from the Black Guardian.”
“We should be safe here. I shouldn’t think even he fancies freezing to death on Brighton beach.”
Romana arguing with the Doctor is shot as beautifully as medieval monarchs issuing challenges on the field of battle, framed by what seem to be pennants fluttering in the wind. And then you realise, gloriously, that the camera’s filming them through the seats of deckchairs. As in any family bickering, Romana first tells the Doctor off for bypassing the Randomiser – previously crucial to stop them being found by a terrible enemy – merely because he fancies going to Brighton, and then about-faces her complaint to say that she wanted to choose a deliberate destination, too, but not one as rubbish as this. And on the Blu-ray, you can see that it really is cold enough that their breath is steaming as they speak. Naturally, while she’d sulked at K9 when he was bobbling endearingly over the shingle prattling of holiday resorts, it doesn’t stop her doing the same to the Doctor once the two of them between them have managed to put K9 out of action. That, too, is a brilliant gag, played absolutely straight – the press had already reported that the tin dog was to be written out in a few stories’ time, so his trundling from a “DANGER” sign in the background down into the sea is hilariously shot from the floating beach ball’s perspective as ominously as Jaws, with peril-zooms before they shock-comedy blow him up in the Season’s very first scene.

The mix of stylish and send-up in the direction ends the scene, too: the Doctor goes back to sleep as Romana tries to interest him in the planet they’re going to head for; but an absolutely gorgeous pull out takes us to the whole beach and then out to space as Peter Howell’s music takes us into Argolis. It’s another fantastic shot, and the real story’s only just about to begin.

When the Doctor and Romana get to Argolis, they find that the people are obsessed with a War which was over decades ago, that the place has been reduced to one big tourist attraction, that it’s run out of money and is falling apart partly because of greedy chancers deliberately running the place down so they can make a killing, and then that a pathetic wannabe who wasn’t even born when the War happened is so thirsty to do it all over again he mounts a fascist coup.

Which just shows how exotic travel destinations date, because now we can get all that at home.

This has been much more about the director than the script, but The Leisure Hive is the final script by David Fisher, for me the finest Doctor Who scriptwriter of the late ’70s and possibly the most underrated Who writer on TV. He brought not just intriguing stories but a light touch and more than a hint of sex (which you can find in The Leisure Hive, too, if you look for it). His earlier The Androids of Tara is even more delightfully Summery both in look and tone, despite having been transmitted through November and December. Having spent all day composing two thousand words about the first five minutes, I might be able to write about just why I love the story proper by about 2029…

28 Aug 20:24

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for August 26, 2019

28 Aug 20:24

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for August 27, 2019

24 Aug 21:59

Wine on Windows 10. It works.

Wine is a program to run Windows applications on a Unix PC.

Running Wine on Windows has been a fever dream of those responding to the siren call of "we do what we must, because we shouldn't" since at least 2004, when someone tried compiling Wine in Cygwin and trashed the registry of the host system.

The excuse is "what about ancient applications that don't run properly in recent Windows." But you know the real reason is "I suffered for my art, now it's your turn."

In late 2008, I got a bug in my brain and (I think it was me) started the WineOnWindows page on the Wine wiki. Summary: it was bloody impossible as things stood — going via Cygwin, MinGW or Windows Services for Unix. The current page isn't much more successful.

Windows 10 introduced Windows Subsystem for Linux — and the convenience of Ubuntu downloadable from the Microsoft Store. This makes this dumb idea pretty much Just Work out of the box, apart from having to set your DISPLAY environment variable by hand.

So far, it's mindbogglingly useless. It can only run 64-bit Windows apps, which doesn't even include all the apps that come with Windows 10 itself.

(The original inspiration was someone who couldn't run Encarta 97 on Windows 10. So, like any good geek solution, it doesn't actually solve the user's original problem at all.)

But I want to stress again: this now works trivially. I'm not some sort of mad genius to have done this thing — I only appear to be the first person to admit to it in public.

How to do this dumb thing

1. Your Windows 10 is 64-bit, right? That's the only version that has WSL.

2. Install WSL. Control Panel -> Programs -> Programs and Features -> Turn Windows features on or off — tick "Windows Subsystem for Linux". Restart Windows.

3. Open the Microsoft Store, install Ubuntu. (This is basically what WSL was created to run.) I installed "Ubuntu 18.04 LTS". Open Ubuntu, and you'll see a bash terminal.

4. Install the following from the bash command line:

sudo dpkg --add-architecture i386
sudo apt update; sudo apt upgrade
sudo apt install wine-stable

You can install a more current Wine if you want to faff around considerably. (Don't forget the two new libs that wine-devel >=4.5 needs that aren't in Ubuntu yet!) Let me know if it works.

5. Add to your .bashrc this line:

export DISPLAY=:0.0

You'll probably want to run that in the present bash window as well.

6. Install VcXsrv, which is a nicely packaged version of XOrg compiled for Windows — just grab the latest .exe and run it to install it. Start the X server from the Start button with "XLaunch". It'll take you through defaults — leave most of them as-is. I ticked "Disable access control" just in case. Save your configuration.

6a. If you want to test you have your X server set up properly, install sudo apt install x11-apps and start xeyes for a quick trip back to the '80s-'90s.

7. wine itself doesn't work, because 32-bit binaries don't work in WSL as yet — it gives /usr/bin/wine: 40: exec: /usr/lib/wine/wine: Exec format error on this 64-bit Windows 10. This is apparently fixed in WSL 2.

But in the meantime, let's run Wine notepad!

wine64 /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/wine/fakedlls/notepad.exe



TO DO: 32-bit support. This will have to wait for Microsoft to release WSL 2. I wonder if ancient Win16 programs will work then — they should do in Wine, even if they don't in Windows any more.


Handling 32-bit with qemu

Thanks to my anonymous commenter below, we have a route to 32-bit:

sudo apt install qemu-user-static
sudo update-binfmts --install i386 /usr/bin/qemu-i386-static --magic '\x7fELF\x01\x01\x01\x03\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x00\x03\x00\x03\x00\x01\x00\x00\x00' --mask '\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xfc\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xf8\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff\xff'
sudo service binfmt-support start

And now we can do:

fun@DESKTOP-7F6DU8P:~$ wine --version
wine-3.0 (Ubuntu 3.0-1ubuntu1)

Encarta 97 doesn't work, though:

fun@DESKTOP-7F6DU8P:/mnt/e$ wine SETUP.EXE
wine: Unhandled page fault on read access to 0xffffffff at address 0x11df:0x00002c11 (thread 0011), starting debugger...
0011:err:seh:start_debugger Couldn't start debugger ("winedbg --auto 15 108") (2)
Read the Wine Developers Guide on how to set up winedbg or another debugger

I'll leave that bit to someone who knows what they're doing. file says SETUP.EXE: MS-DOS executable, NE for MS Windows 3.x — so we need to get down to casually-clicked 16-bit programs working.

Encarta 97 installs and runs flawlessly in Wine 4.13 on Linux ... 4.13 on Windows 10 still fails:

fun@DESKTOP-7F6DU8P:~$ wine /mnt/e/SETUP.EXE
Xlib: extension "MIT-SHM" missing on display ":0.0".
Xlib: extension "MIT-SHM" missing on display ":0.0".
0009:err:process:__wine_kernel_init boot event wait timed out
001d:err:process:__wine_kernel_init boot event wait timed out
wine: Unhandled page fault on read access to 0xffffffff at address 0x11cf:0x00002c11 (thread 001e), starting debugger...001e:err:seh:start_debugger Couldn't start debugger ("winedbg --auto 28 152") (2)
Read the Wine Developers Guide on how to set up winedbg or another debugger
001d:err:ntdll:RtlpWaitForCriticalSection section 0x7e6273e0 "syslevel.c: Win16Mutex" wait timed out in thread 001d, blocked by 001e, retrying (60 sec)
Xlib: extension "MIT-SHM" missing on display ":0.0".
Could not load wine-gecko. HTML rendering will be disabled.
001e:err:seh:raise_exception Unhandled exception code c0000005 flags 0 addr 0x7b4a6abc
wine client error:1e: write: Bad file descriptor

Of course, it gave different error messages across multiple runs ...


oh, this post is popular. While you're here, check out my cryptocurrency/blockchain blog and my book about why Bitcoin and related nonsense sucks. The New York Review of Books and the BBC loved it!

comment count unavailable comments
24 Aug 21:59

The Masses Aren’t Asses

by LP

Who owns the working classes?

The question would not seem to be a complicated one. Starting from a philosophical position, the working classes are comprised of individuals who own themselves; they must achieve their liberation through collective action, and only then can they truly become themselves and realize the potential they waste through toiling for others. A material analysis yields an equally simple response: the working classes, by dint of having to sell the only thing they own — their labor — are owned by the bosses, and they must forever struggle to regain control of the products of that labor to own themselves. It is only when the question becomes cultural — that is, when we begin to characterize the working class through an arbitrary system of shared likes and dislikes, tendencies and temperaments, and reflections of the society in which they live — that we muddy the waters beyond clarity.

Unfortunately, it is this analysis, the cultural one, that has held sway in our country at least since the postwar era. Normally, it is an approach peddled by the ownership classes and their toadies: reactionaries, conservatives, certain strains of libertarians, and others who perceive that the capitalist system is either working on their behalf or can be gamed to do so. (See this for a recent and particularly hilarious example.) These people’s interest in the cultural framing has everything to do with division: it has always been used as a tool to sow discord amongst the various groups that comprise the working classes in order to prevent them from coming together and making demands of the owners. It doesn’t really matter what form this division takes — black vs. white, male vs. female, immigrant vs. native, gay vs. straight, rural vs. urban, educated vs. uneducated, service vs. trade, latte sipper vs. coffee drinker, craft beer swiller vs. macro-brew guzzler — as long as it serves as a distraction and keeps everyone’s eyes off the prize.

Recently, however, a strain of this culture-war battle for the imagined soul of the working class has come from the left. I use the identification with much more generosity than it probably deserves, because among these self-proclaimed leftists, there are few people you will meet who are politically active outside of social media. You will generally not find them in activist spaces; they seem to do no organizing; they are not joiners or builders, and they neither lead nor follow. Leftist politics seems to be more or less a hobby to them, or an object of critique alone: they wait for someone else to do something, and then tell them why they’re doing it wrong. They enjoy speculating about whether or not someone actually has any working-class bona fides, an activity I find generally counterproductive, but it can’t be missed that…well, let’s just say they spend a lot more time on the internet than someone who has to work full time is normally able.

They insist that the work of most people who do actual organizing is actually harmful or counter-productive, especially if it ever evinces a shade of social justice; any discussion of racism, sexism, or homophobia, or any attempt to introduce elements of decency towards the disabled, the neuro-atypical, or the traumatized, they say, is nothing more than rank liberalism, and will doom the socialist project by alienating the true working class, who they seem to perceive as a monolithic unit made up of rough beasts who will retreat angrily into their caves if they are ever asked to behave as if they live in a society. Given that their entire critique is based on this extremely inaccurate conception of the working class, it is remarkable how out of touch it really is: sometimes, reading their attacks and listening to their arguments, they seem to have attained their knowledge of the proletariat the same way I attained mine of the Sea Peoples — something out of history books that has a contextual importance, but that is so distant from everyday lived experience that it can never be truly known.

According to this vision of the toiling millions, we cannot discuss racial justice, for they are a mass of unrepentant racists who bristle at the very notion of equality and diversity — as if the working classes in America are not largely nonwhite now, and have not been for decades. We cannot speak of women’s issues or sexual harassment, because the working class consists mainly of grunting Neanderthal males whose relationships with the opposite sex are expressed through clubbings and draggings — as if women have not been a primary component of the low-wage workforce since after the Second World War, and don’t have as much stake in its improvement as men. We cannot ask them to observe social norms that request respect or demand sensitivity, because they are rank morons who can no more be taught to observe social decency than a wasp can be taught not to sting — as if working-class people have not learned to moderate their behavior to the situation their entire lives, in both situations they are forced into (work, school) and ones they choose voluntarily (churches, unions, social clubs). We cannot ask them to understand intersectionality, because they are uniform racially, sexually, and ethnically and their binary brains shut down entirely when asked to process new information — as if working-class people have not been on the front lines of diversity throughout American history and have seen and been forced to deal with social and cultural changes long before they reach upward to the bourgeoisie. We cannot ask them to be flexible or to understand different approaches to workplace organizing, because they are all hard-hat-wearing outer-borough lunkheads — as if working-class people have not been at the vanguard of the shifting economy, and have not seen the trades abandon them and the service industry subsume them for this entire century.

Of course, none of this is to say that the correct Marxist approach to these matters is settled, or that we may not overcorrect or undercorrect, or that this is not a matter of some dispute. But it is a curious vision indeed of the working class for people who profess to be class-forward: veterans aplenty, but with no tolerance or familiarity with post-traumatic stress disorder or other neurological sensitivities depressingly common to those who have served; family men everywhere, but with no experience of autism, gender dysphoria, severe allergies, or learning disorders that are so common that federal laws mandate public institutions have the tools to deal with them; masculinist behavior of the old school, but unable to understand discipline, self-control, or self-sacrifice; rough and tumble lifestyles of debauchery and hedonism, but with nary a soul lost to recovery; unions without racial diversity, families of only the traditional configuration, no one interested in education or elevation, and so committed to individualist indulgence that they’d rather see the whole socialist project fail than give up clapping during meetings or drinking on the job. I’m not sure where they’re finding these proles; I find them in situation comedies and newspaper cartoons of the 1970s, but I certainly do not find them in my organizing among working people. Indeed, one wonders why these revolutionary leftists care to fight for the working class at all, since they seem to perceive it as irredeemably racist, unchangeably sexist, stupid, vulgar, unteachable, violent, and incapable of development. The working class I grew up in, and the working class I know, is accepting, understanding, flexible, kind, bright, resourceful, and with infinite untapped potential; the working class they claim to represent is nothing but a reactionary cartoon.

People of this sort are fond of simplifying their arguments by pointing out that the movement’s foundational document explains in its very first sentence that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, and that an deviation from their provincial understanding of the cultural character of working people — from which position they give away their game, for it forever takes the place of a material or theoretical understanding of them — are betraying the class struggle that belongs at the forefront of the left. They forget that the second sentence describes the many permutations of that very class struggle and how they have changed over time, and that it goes on, on the first page, to describe the “manifold gradiation of social rank” and the “new classes, new conditions of oppression, and new forms of struggle” that have altered, but not eliminated, prior class antagonisms. We must remember always that, yes, our struggle is a class struggle and always will be. But we must beware always those who misunderstand or misrepresent the nature of class struggle, and who insist on an understanding of class character that is not only dated and incorrect, but which draws its very nature from the imagination of our enemies.

24 Aug 12:25

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for August 24, 2019

20 Aug 12:17

A Brief Note on Mary Robinette Kowal, On the Day After Her Hugo Best Novel Win

by John Scalzi

A number of years ago, and during one of those occasional mud-flinging spats that happen in science fiction, a person who I will mercifully not name now tried to dismiss and minimize Mary Robinette Kowal as “no one you should have heard of, and no one of consequence.” This was when Mary Robinette had already become not just a writer of note, but someone widely admired and respected by her peers and colleagues for the work she had done for the community of writers and creators.

The intent behind this person’s words was cruel, and I believe intended to insult and to wound. After no small outcry, this person apologized, and Mary Robinette, who is one of the most gracious people I know, accepted it. But I for one never forgot either the insult to her, or the dismissive intent behind it.

Last night, Mary Robinette Kowal won the Hugo Award for her novel The Calculating Stars. This follows her and her novel also winning the Nebula and Locus Awards. Mary Robinette wrote a tremendous book, and right now she stands at the pinnacle of her field, with all the esteem that it could offer to her, all of which she has absolutely and definitively earned. I could not be prouder of my friend if I tried, not only because she is my friend, but because of her talent, her grace, her strength and her perseverance. I admire her more than I can say.

She has given the best answer to anyone who ever dared to say she was no one you should have heard of: She kept speaking. She kept speaking, and the world listened. And then, having listened, it celebrated what she had to say.

Congratulations, Mary Robinette. Keep speaking.

16 Aug 13:18

The Oxymoronic Earth

by Peter Watts

(A Nowa Fantastyka remix)

Lers of Spoi.

You Have Been Warned.


Either a publicity still or the cover for a Christian rock album.

“The Wandering Earth” is the most successful movie I almost never heard of. It’s China’s second-highest grossing movie ever. Globally it’s the 3rd-highest grossing film so far this year, and the 2nd-highest grossing non-English movie of all time. Yet I blinked and missed its theatrical run here in Toronto; a couple of weeks, a couple of theaters, and it was gone. Pretty shoddy treatment for a movie based on a Cixin Liu story.

Netflix recently slipped it into their lineup with nary a whisper. That’s where I saw it— and after two viewings I can report that “The Wandering Earth” is one of the most derivative movies I’ve ever seen. It’s also unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

I’m still working out how it manages to be both those things at once.

The derivative parts hit you in the face from the opening frame: In terms of sheer epic scale, this movie out-Hollywoods Hollywood. Humanity discovers the sun is about to turn into a red giant and retrofits the entire planet into a vast interstellar spaceship. Ten thousand Everest-sized fusion rockets kick Earth out of orbit and onto course for Alpha Centauri. And all this happens during the opening credits. It’s as if Emmerich and Bruckheimer and Cameron all got into a pissing match to see who could up the stakes fastest.

The characters are also pure Hollywood, stock cut-outs recruited from Central Casting. Plucky young protagonists, check. Obnoxious comic-relief sidekick, check. Wise self-sacrificing father figure, check. No-nonsense soldiers with their eyes on the mission but hearts in the right place, check. All that’s missing is a cute pet dog to run off and force the adults into danger when they try to rescue it.

There’s surprisingly little interpersonal drama. Even other movies which star Nature as Antagonist[1] usually spend some time on the social unrest provoked by imminent catastrophe: the rioting and martial law, the choice of who lives and who dies, the looters and cheaters and altruists who give up their spot so others might live. None of that seems to happen here; those chosen to survive go underground and everyone else apparently just waits outside to die. Nobody rebels, nobody panics (or if they do, it’s not mentioned). Everyone accepts their fate. The conflict we do see is trivial stuff, teenage rebellion or parental scolding designed to get our heroes topside before all the shit goes down.

It’s a heartening, noble view of Human Nature. It’s also exactly the kind of perspective that a totalitarian regime would want to show its citizens. Respect authority. Never question. Do as you’re told, no matter the price. (Time travel stories are illegal in China, did you know that? Can’t have people thinking about alternative realities…) Watching TWE sometimes feels like watching the purest Chinese propaganda— which is strange for a movie in which countries don’t exist any more, in which all of Humanity has coalesced around a World Government to face its existential crisis.

The film does have a refreshingly positive attitude towards science— no trust-your-feelings-trust-the-force, no Scientists Play God and Doom Us All. Science is portrayed here as a good thing, a tool vital to our survival. It’s a nice change from the usual anti-intellectualism permeating the culture these days— but it’s also a damned shame because the science in this movie is absolutely terrible.

Probably no more absurd that a warp drive based on mushrooms…

If you like to nitpick you’ll love “The Wandering Earth”: why doesn’t Jupiter’s magnetosphere fill Earth’s sky with spectacular auroras, why don’t its radiation belts cook everyone in their suits after an hour on the surface? There’s no need to waste your time on trivia, though; the whole premise of the sun turning into a red giant is five billion years out of sync with reality. If you can swallow that, the subsequent plot hinges on a “gravity spike” knocking Earth off course to send it hurtling toward Jupiter. Nobody explains what this spike actually is, or why it wasn’t foreseen by scientists who were, after all, smart enough to turn a planet into a spaceship. Nobody wonders where Jupiter suddenly got all that extra mass from (and where it disappeared to after the spike had passed). This is especially strange because they talk about pretty much everything else; in one scene an astronaut even has to explain to another why they’re slingshotting around Jupiter in the first place. I haven’t seen such epic levels of astronaut ignorance since David Gyasi had to explain wormholes to Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar.

But a “gravity spike” that defies the laws of physics? Nobody wonders about that except the audience.

By the climax— when our heroes ignite the hydrogen-oxygen mix created by atmospheric intermingling, creating a shockwave which kicks the Earth to safety— I’d lost interest in whether those physics would hold up even in theory. I was too busy wondering how such sloppy handwaving could possibly have come from the same mind who created the Dark Forest trilogy. (To give Liu his due: it didn’t. Turns out none of the movie’s Jovian hijinks happened in his novella.)

What do we have then, when all is said and done? We have a pro-science movie with really bad science. We have jingoistic nationalism without nations. We have a Hollywood blockbuster with no villains. Hell, there are barely any heroes— a couple of people give their lives for the greater good but no plucky team of Avengers is going to be able to fix things when five thousand Earth Engines go offline at once. We are all the heroes in this movie, we have to be: The Human Race, pulling together to save itself, taking the necessary steps and making the necessary sacrifices without complaint.

Which is admittedly a lesson we’d do well to learn here in the west. For all its human rights issues, China can at least plan for the future without pandering to some lowest common denominator every few years. Perhaps such a long-term perspective makes it easier to envision the Earth on a 2,500-year voyage to Alpha Centauri; makes it easier,  perhaps, to deal with more imminent (if less spectacular) crises.

Meanwhile, here in North America, we can’t even pass a fucking carbon tax.

Sometimes I almost wish China would just hurry up and finish taking over the world. At the very least that might distract them from making more SF movies.

[1]   “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” come to mind—the latter of which might be closest to TWE in terms of sheer loud dumb spectacle.

14 Aug 18:53

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for August 13, 2019

06 Aug 05:21

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for August 05, 2019

30 Jul 11:26

Minnie Mart

by evanier

Russi Taylor, the voice of Minnie Mouse, passed away last Friday. Over the weekend, my friend Bob Bergen vented on Facebook about some calls he'd already received. Bob is an expert voice actor and one of the best coaches of that art/craft (whichever you think it is). What he was venting about were some calls he'd already received from actresses who asked if they could hire him to coach them to perhaps snag the plum job of replacing Russi as Ms. Mouse.

No auditions have been announced. Russi's funeral has not even occurred as far as I know. But some people are not about to waste any time trying to grab her job. And I just got a call from a voice actress asking if I knew anyone over in the Disney Character Voices Division and could put in a good word for her there. No, I don't and if I did, I wouldn't.

In pieces I've posted here about how to get jobs as a writer, a point I've made repeatedly is that one of the worst things you can do is to appear desperate. Another bad thing — one I don't think I mentioned because I figured everyone kinda knew this instinctively — is to not come across as an asshole. If you're absolutely oozing with talent and no one else comes close, they might (note that I italicized "might") put up with some of that because you're worth it. But the odds are you're not oozing and even if you are, they still might think you'd be too much trouble.

Someone will replace Russi as Minnie because these characters live on and Russi was, after all, one of many over the years who spoke for the lovely M.M. There may even be a "back-up" person already selected — someone who recorded Minnie's lines if/when Russi was unavailable or did something for live appearances that Russi couldn't do. Perhaps one such person will inherit the role. Perhaps they'll do a search, I don't know…but it will be after a suitable interval, not later this week.

I do know that it's really tacky to be hustling for the job of the recently-deceased. It's like looking into the open coffin and saying, "Hey, they won't need that diamond ring where they're going." Some of you may be familiar with the story of how at the memorial service for Lorenzo Music, I was approached by two separate voice actors who felt there was no better time to let me know they felt qualified to step into the role of Garfield.

That story is, sadly, true. Neither of them got the job, by the way. Neither was considered. The guy who got it didn't even inquire.

There's an old saying that I just made up: If you want to be a professional, act like one.

29 Jul 15:03

Nancy by Olivia Jaimes for July 28, 2019