Author Archives: nate

Laptop Zombies

Via “Slashdot”:http://www.slashdot.org, I found “this article”:http://wifinetnews.com/archives/005325.html about Victrola, a coffeeshop in Seattle, that is now shutting off its wifi on Saturdays and Sundays in order to “take back its culture.”

[The owner] said that the five-year-old cafe added free Wi-Fi when it seemed their customers wanted it a couple of years ago. It initially brought in more people, she said, but over the past year “we noticed a significant change in the environment of the cafe.” Before Wi-Fi, “People talked to each other, strangers met each other,” she said. Solitary activities might involve reading and writing, but it was part of the milieu. “Those people co-existed with people having conversations,” [she said].

But “over the past year it seems that nobody talks to each other any more,” she said. On the weekends, 80 to 90 percent of tables and chairs are taken up by people using computers. Many laptop users occupy two or more seats by themselves, as well. Victrola isn’t on the way to anywhere; it’s in the middle of a vibrant stretch of shops and restaurants on Capitol Hill’s 15th Ave. It’s exactly the kind of place that you want to sit down in, not just breeze through.

My first thought upon reading this was that the “solitary sea of laptops” vibe is exactly the thing I get from “murky coffee”:http://www.murkycoffee.com/ these days. When I stop by with Ella on weekdays, the place has plenty of people, but the background hubbub of conversation is often missing — people aren’t interacting. My second thought was “it wasn’t like that with “Common Grounds”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/2004/09/the_passing_of.html.”

Maybe it’s just kneejerk nostalgia on my part. Common Grounds had wifi too, and I was overjoyed when they got it, but I don’t recall it having the same effect on the vibe/culture. Were those first couple of years, before it got wifi, somehow crucial in establishing a culture and providing a context for meeting other people — one which endured _with_ wifi for a time, but would eventually have eroded? I don’t think so. Even pre-wifi, I still always had my laptop along (and open) when I went there, as did many of the people I met there and eventually befriended.

I think the most you can say is that getting that genuine, cool, community-spirited coffeeshop vibe is much harder than it looks. At CG it happened in large part due to a concerted effort on the part of the staff — something that easily might have resulted in disaster, but in their case worked, and worked well. That’s the sort of thing that makes a place less likely to become a nest of laptop zombies.

I have no idea whether Victrola’s experiment would work at all at murky. But it’s notable that both places, whatever their “culture,” share one principle that sets them apart from your corner Starbucks: that they exist for people to _linger_ in, and that hurrying people along (or disencouraging them from staying long with, say, ridiculously small tables) is anathema.

Sith Links

Don’t miss Gary Farber’s analysis of the scenes that were dropped from ROTS. Start “here”:http://amygdalagf.blogspot.com/2005/05/inevitable-sith-post-mortem.html and go upwards. There’s a good mix of stuff that should have been cut, and missed gems.

Commencement

Congratulations to all the seniors at “Calvin College”:http://www.calvin.edu, my alma mater, who will be graduating tomorrow. Particular congratulations to my cousin Lauren, who’s among them.

Special congratulations, too, to all the members of the Calvin community who aren’t taking the fact that George W. Bush is their commencement speaker lying down. My thoughts are with all who have already voiced their opposition, whether to his presence or his policies, and with those who plan to protest in one way or another tomorrow.

From what I’ve been able to tell from a distance, Bush’s impending arrival on campus has already sparked no small amount of furor, tumult, and debate. There probably won’t be many fireworks tomorrow — the speech will most likely be uncontroversial and unpolitical. But regardless of whether Karl Rove (who engineered this particular gig, as has been widely reported) sees this appearance as a gesture to the Christian right or the Christian center, he’s not getting a warm-fuzzy campaign stop, but a reality-based cross-section of the many different responses that people have to this President, even in West Michigan. And, as a result of what modest nationwide coverage this whole affair has been getting, America is being reminded that Christianity comes in a lot of flavors.

Finally, a side note to every single reporter who’s written on this topic: Calvin College is not a “bastion of evangelical thought,” it’s a bastion of _Reformed_ thought. The Reformed tradition is big on having Christians engage _with_ the culture at large instead of dwelling apart from it, which means a Reformed college is going to do a way better job at preparing its students for, y’know, going out and dwelling in the real world. It’s also a refreshing antitode against developing a “completely irrational persecution complex”:http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2005/05/persecution_con.html.

The Revenge of the Sith

I was twelve years old when Return of the Jedi came out, and that made all the difference. Had I been a year or two older, the Ewoks would have bothered me. Had I been a little less naive or credulous, I wouldn’t have believed to the depths of my being, as I did, that Luke might turn to the Dark Side, that the Emperor might win, and that it could all go to hell. As it was, I believed it was possible, and I thought the Ewoks were fine, so when they won the fight on the ground and when Darth Vader rose up to toss the Emperor into the pit, it was, for me, an absolutely perfect ending to the best story ever told.

And it’s been all downhill from there, one way or another. The films haven’t held up in subsequent viewings through the years—how could they? But if they lost their lustre, it wasn’t enough for me to lose my optimism about the prequel trilogy. I sat down to see The Phantom Menace on opening night with childhood friends, full of optimism and excitement.

Well, yeah, we all know how that went.

Didn’t stop me from showing up early on opening night for Attack of the Clones, though! I knew it wasn’t likely to be any better, but I held out a candle of hope.

Oh well.

You’d think I would have learned by now. But that place that Star Wars holds in my childhood is simply too strong. For better or worse, it’s a building block of my psyche, and so I found my ears perking to the buzz about Revenge of the Sith and, sure enough, found myself sitting in a theater last night, with butterflies in my stomach as the words “A long, long time ago . . .” appeared on the screen.

(You already know how the story goes, so whether what follows includes spoilers is open to interpretation. But you’ve been warned.)

It’s like you’ve heard: Episode III is better than I and II, but not capital-G Good. It has a stronger narrative thread holding it together, and some really great action sequences, but the dialogue is still abysmal, and Natalie and Ewan’s acting chops can’t salvage the lines, and Hayden doesn’t even having acting chops to begin with. The biggest disappointment is that Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side isn’t convincing enough, and so those first few scenes when he’s turned all bad-ass don’t have they full impact they should.

You may have heard about the political content of the film—there’s a lot of talk about how liberty ends to the sounds of applause, and Palpatine gobbling up power all in the name of peace and security, and Obi-Wan’s line about how it is only the Sith who speak in absolutes. It’s there, and it’s rather ham-handed, so the fact that I found it occasionally refreshing probably speaks more to the ham-handed way all the movie’s themes were dealth with than anything else. I doubt it will occur to the people to whom Lucas is directing these jabs that they’re the targets, in any case.

There’s something a little disturbing about the “he did it all for love” tack that the film ultimately takes with Anakin’s descent. The whole love vs. Jedi Code thing works best if there’s a genuine tension there: Yoda’s right that to do this job best you’ve got to be free from obligations and distractions, but at what point does separating yourself from them take away what makes you human? In IV-VI this is handled rather well: Yoda wants Luke to stay and finish his training and leave his friends to die, but Luke ultimately comes to rely on both the love his friends and on the familial bond with his father—and, in the end, this turns out be the right course. But for Anakin this over-attachment ends up working all to the bad. It would have been better if his descent had also been tied to Palpatine’s line about power—if he had become so convinced that it was necessary to keep it from others that he found himself all-too willingly grabbing it himself, all the whole oblivious to the hypocrisy and contradiction inherent in what he was doing.

The role of the Jedi Council in all of this is an interesting one that doesn’t get explored enough: Yoda’s terrible miscalculation in bringing in the clone troops in Episode II. The questionable wisdom of the emotionless asceticism of the Jedi Code. The fact that, while Palpatine’s rumors about the Council’s thirst for power are clearly a lie, it’s one that works because it contains a germ of truth. It’s all there, but it never gets confronted, either situationally or in dialogue, in way that gives it teeth.

There should have been a bunch of serialized movies just about good ol’ Obi-Wan, gettin’ in adventures. Ewan Macgregor carries the role well, with just the right balance of adventuresome spirit and reserved Jedi wisdom. His chase of General Grievous in Episode III is great, pulpy action fun, and we could have done with more of that.

Giving Chewbacca a cameo was fine, but if they were going to bring him up at all they at least should have given us another beat later in the movie showing him getting taken into slavery.

And would it have killed them to get Liam Neeson back for a quick cameo as a Force ghost in order to drive home that that’s how Obi-Wan learns that trick, instead of shoehorning it into a piece of dialogue in the final moments of the film?

The climactic battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin was the high point of the film. By that time we’ve seen Anakin slicing innocents enough that his evil is believable. This is a battle than an entire generation of people my age have imagined on their own for twenty years, and, up against that high standard, it didn’t disappoint. In particular Obi-Wan’s “I failed you” speech after besting his pupil is one of the few bits of dialogue in the movie that works, and works well.

I’ve often found myself defending these prequel movies, even though I’ve found them all tremendously disappointing, mainly because other people still seem to find them worse than they are. Here’s my laundry list of positives and explanations, all of which hold true for Episode III:

1. Star Wars has always been one part space fantasy and one part pulp, and has never been anything else. So, while you may find the name “Count Dooku” stupid, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s perfectly appropriate and in-genre for what these films set out to be. Same goes for the titles of the movies, and the antics of that slippery General Grievous, and a bunch of other stuff.

2. There is a whole lot that is visually compelling in these films. This goes from everything from basic visual design to frame composition to the pacing and editing of the action sequences. I’d love to see a cut of them with the music and sound effects left in but all the dialogue taken out. That would spare us all the groaners, to be sure, but more to the point, enough is conveyed visually that the narrative thread would still be maintained and the films would still be engaging—probably more so.

3. The failures of the films are failures of execution in the particulars. In better hands, the conflict between’s Anakin’s love and his duty, played out against a backdrop of political intrigue and the tension between the overzealous rigidity of the Jedi Council and the slippery machinations of the Sith, could have produced a nuanced, suspenseful, emotionally gripping tale. If I may get all Russian formalist-y for a moment, the fabula of the prequel trilogy—the setting, the characters, the events—aren’t broken, but the sjuzet—the actual arrangement of story elements, the way it’s told—is where the problem lies.

Here’s an encouraging thought: the amount of time that I’ve spent over the years watching Star Wars movies, thinking about them, and talking about them, is as nothing compared to the time I’ve spent inventing stories that inhabit the Star Wars universe. This goes all the way from playing with plastic figurines in the sandbox as a child to marathon collaborative storytelling efforts using the Star Wards roleplaying game in high school and college. And I’m hardly unusual in this respect. Star Wars ultimately means a lot more as a setting, a springboard, a robust fantasy world, than it does as twelve-odd hours of film. There’s no shortage of folks with a knack for storytelling and filmmaking who know and understand and love this world, even now. If George Lucas is smart, he’ll let some of those people create Episodes VII, VIII, and IX on his behalf. Then, like Anakin’s story, his own life’s work will have a chance of ending with redemption.

The Wizard Knight Redux

My experiment in immediate rereading ended today, after more than a few interruptions, though no other actual novels got in the way. I read Gene Wolfe’s The Knight and The Wizard a second time right after the first. And, in retrospect, I’m glad I did, though it should be said that Wolfe is one of the very few writers about whom this might hold true. Had I reread the books at a later date, instead of when they were as fresh as possible, I probably would have missed just how intricately Wolfe weaves his plot, how extensively he foreshadows his future developments, and how my utterly invalid my initial impression of “dream logic” was. All in all, I was struck by how obvious plot points, hints, themes, and other elements seemed on the immediate reread, when none of them had seemed obvious at first.

(spoilers to follow)

The thing is, it’s all right there if you pay attention. Even the fact that Able dwelt among the Aelf and was groomed in order to deliver a message to King Arnthor is discoverable in the first few chapters—and actually seems rather obvious if you’d just read everything like I had. With that in mind, the right-angle plot turn when the Jotunland situation is resolved and Able goes to Thortower is much more understandable, though it’s still a sudden shift. There’s basically enough plot in The Wizard to fill two books, so The Wizard Knight could easily have been a trilogy. Though I appreciate the elegance of having just two: one book for before his time in Skai, and one for after. Still, the rushed pace of the last few chapters, and the unconscionable way that Mani disappears from the story, remain the two biggest flaws of the overall work.

On a reread, the fact that Sir Garvaon killed King Gilling is painfully obvious.

On a reread, Able healing Berthold at the end brought tears to my eyes.

Wolfe’s doing interesting things with the whole concept of knighthood here. He’s not treating it as an outdated artifact or a genre trope, but at the same time he’s not sugar-coating it either. But there’s a definite sense that, at least in this world he’s created, being a knight (for real, by one’s actions, not just by being named one) is, in itself, ennobling. The squires who become knights in the course of the book—Toug, Svon, Wistan—all start off, to one degree or another, as jerks and bullies. Svon, especially, is easy to write off in the early stages of The Knight as a villain or at least a churl. But he comes around, they all do—they become great. And Able himself fits this description—though he is always well thought of by others because of his appearance and strength, we get to see his vindictive, childish (literally!) side quite often, though less and less so as he grows as a knight. Idnn undergoes a similar transformation when she becomes a queen—but there, as with the guys, you get the sense that it was something in her all along the blossoms, not that the post itself does anything inherently.

Anyway, after the reread, my earlier judgment holds up: I prefer The Wizard Knight to The Book of the New Sun, those being the only Wolfe works I’ve read. I’ve no doubt that New Sun is cleverer (though I still need to reread it to appreciate it fully), but TWK is much more emotionally engaging by a mile.

Next stop: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Looking forward to it.

It’s Here!

The Polynesian island of Niue has a population of 2,166. Its capital is Alofi. It exports canned coconut cream, copra, honey, vanilla, passion fruit products, pawpaws, root crops, limes, footballs, stamps, and handicrafts.

Yes, it’s true: the 2005 edition of the “CIA World Factbook”:http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/index.html is online. Hat tip to “Michael at Caveat”:http://www.caveat.net/blog/2005/05/2005-cia-world-factbook-now-online.html.

New Acronym

Two coinages in two days! Yesterday was “airblogging”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/2005/05/air_blogging.html, and today “Robin Laws”:http://www.livejournal.com/users/robin_d_laws/83202.html brings us a new indispensable acronym:

This acronym would reflect the strong possibility that any news story remarkable enough to comment on may well be challenged, debunked, or turned on its head in the course of the next news cycles, thereby making the blogger look like a dope for ever taking note of it in the first place. It would function as a disclaimer, allowing the poster to efficiently reserve a note of skepticism on the story he or she is commenting upon.

The proposed acronym is ATIUBS.

Which, as you have surely intuited by now, stands for Assuming This Isn’t Utter Bullshit.

Keepers of Internet acronym standards take note: ATIUBS has full Polytropian support.

A Letter to the Future

Dear Future Self:

Goodness, you must be bored! I mean, if you’re reading this. I assume that you’ll keep this blog’s archives around in one form or another for posterity, but to actually be _reading_ them . . . present-me isn’t really one to talk, but I’ve got to say, get a life!

Still, I’m glad you came across this particular entry, because I’m writing it specifically for you. See, I’m hoping that you’ll read this late enough in life that time travel has been invented. Because if it has, do your very best to attend the “Time Traveler Convention”:http://web.mit.edu/adorai/timetraveler/ at MIT (via “Slashdot”:http://www.slashdot.org/). In case the World Wide Web doesn’t exist any more, here’s the important info:

May 7, 2005, 10:00pm EDT (08 May 2005 02:00:00 UTC)
East Campus Courtyard, MIT
42:21:36.025°N, 71:05:16.332°W
(42.360007,-071.087870 in decimal degrees)

If you can’t attend, please publicize the Convention in your current time. Theoretically there’ll only ever need to be one Time Traveler Convention, but only if word successfully gets out.

Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to make the trip to Cambridge, so if you _do_ show up, at least give me a call — wait! If you’re going to attend, plan on showing up a couple days early, and give me a call, and I’ll make a special point of attending. Looking forward to hearing from you!

And Ella, if it’s you who are reading this after mom & I are gone, then _definitely_ get a life. But also, if you _can_ travel through time, try showing up early and calling me too.

Sincerely,

Nate ’05

p.s. Come to think of it, _anyone_ from the future who happens to read this should get word to me if they’re planning on attending the Convention. To prove that you’re from the future, call me just after I post this entry — 8:22 A.M., 2 May 2005. My number’s in the Arlington phone book.

UPDATE, 8:30 A.M.: Alas, no bites so far.

Air Blogging

If ever there was a blogging term that needed to be invented, “this is it”:http://winterfell.blogs.com/anacoqui/2005/05/air_blogging.html. Kudos to Ana for coining it.

I seem to do a lot more airblogging than regular blogging these days. 😛

American Idiot

As someone who spends most of his waking hours with a toddler, the times when I’m walking or driving alone are far and few between. When the opportunities do arise, there’s only one thing to do: play kick-ass music just a little bit louder than is probably prudent. And despite the fact that I have plenty of “good new music”:http://www.beck.com/guero.php waiting for just such moments, when it comes time to queue something up on the iPod, I find myself turning again and again to _American Idiot_. I’ve never been a particular Greenday fan and couldn’t tell you thing one about the band, but man, that album rocks. As I “noted in passing”:http://www.polytropos.org/archives/2005/04/adfoo.html a few weeks ago, the lyrics hold no significance whatsoever, but now I wish I had never read them,, because when all you hear is the odd words and fragments that you pick up when you’re mostly just headbanging, it sure _seems_ significant. I mean, can you think of a better expression for post-9/11 angst than the line “Wake me up when September ends?” And yet the song with that title is about something else entirely.

But there’s not a dud song in the bunch, and they’re all meant for playing loud, and the second and penultimate tracks are these glorious nine-minute song sequences with transcendant transitions. Heck, just now I got off the Metro one stop early just so I could be sure to hear it to the end while walking home. Gotta love it.