Friday Flotsam: Whither Milo Murphy?

1. BW Media Spotlight posted a good piece defending Milo Murphy’s Law, the sequel series to Phineas and Ferb that, alas, failed to find the same audience its predecessor did and lasted only two seasons.

Me, I’m a big fan of Phineas and Ferb: it’s one of my all-time favorites, and I really liked Milo Murphy a lot as well. Both those are very strong, very creative shows and both hit my taste in humor pretty hard with a blend simultaneously weird and intelligent (“Our mascot is Murray the Middleman, who buys products from manufacturers and sells them to retailers at a hefty profit!”). Reading BW’s post made me wonder just why it is that PnF was so much more successful at finding an audience than Milo (this despite Milo starring the priceless Weird Al Yankovic himself in the title role).

2. Part of it, I suspect, is simply a form of sequelitis. PnF set the bar so high in the minds of its fans that it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible for Milo to match it (especially when you remember that PnF actually took a while to get really good: it wasn’t until near the end of the first season at least that they really found their stride). Besides, audiences had four years or more to get to know and love the PnF characters; going from that to a new show set in the same world with all-new characters is just not going to be the same experience.

Come the second season of Milo and the addition of the reformed Dr. Doofenshmirtz as a series regular, there was also the perpetual problem that the creators ran into while trying to spin off Doof and Perry into their own show. Namely, that Doofenshmirtz simply isn’t as much fun as an incompetent good-guy as he is as an incompetent bad-guy. His stupidity and bumbling comes across as less funny and more pitiful when he’s trying to be heroic, and he and Perry don’t play off each other as well when they’re allies (actually, I think their best bet would have been the ‘Doof teaches high school’ option, since then he would be able to show a degree of competence while his brand of mayhem would be livening up a dull and pointless environment rather than causing havoc in an otherwise positive one, but that ship’s long sailed).

But I don’t think either of those were the main reason; if anything, they were only a catalyst exacerbating other issues. Having seen both shows multiple times, I think the main difference comes down to a few rather complicated factors. I’ll do my best to explain.

3. Both these shows are very optimistic, upbeat stories. On reflection, though, I think Milo might be a little too consistently sweet and optimistic. I don’t mean that Milo himself is too optimistic or a flat character or something (he isn’t: he’s actually quite well-written and performed, with a full emotional range). What I mean is that there isn’t enough emotional ‘texture’ going on. I don’t mean just conflict, but a variety of different audience reactions.

I’ll see if I can clarify what I mean.

In PnF, for all its cheery good-will, you had several notable points of conflict and tension among the main cast: Candace was always trying to ‘bust’ her brothers. Buford bullies Baljeet. Isabella is in love with Phineas, who is blissfully oblivious to her feelings. And, of course, Doofenshmirtz is always trying to take over the Tri-State Area or exact petty revenge and Perry tries to stop him without blowing his cover.

These problems were never resolved, or were resolved very slowly and only at the end of the series, and we didn’t expect them to be, but they provided points of interest and what I’m calling emotional texture: points of differing audience reactions to specific characters and with it alternating tension and release.

Candace’s role is especially important in this regard, where she is simultaneously an antagonist and a protagonist, with her antagonism lying on the surface and her sympathetic qualities underneath. If I can judge from my own experience, we the audience come to really like Candace, despite the fact that she’s vain, petty, and kind of a brat. The show, despite being called Phineas and Ferb, is really more about her and her back-and-forth struggles with maturity. The fact that she can be both the main obstacle or threat to the brothers and their loving sister, chief ally, and the show’s heroine helped to keep things consistently interesting. It provided a continual ebb and flow of engagement as she sometimes does the right thing, sometimes doesn’t.

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Doofenshmirtz played a similar role, in that he was a ‘villain’, but we quickly could see that he wasn’t really a bad guy, just an extremely immature and petty one, and you can’t help but feel sorry for him. Like Candace, we soon come to like Doof and want him to succeed, just not to succeed at his stated goal. Plus he has his charming, but strained relationship with his daughter, Vanessa (their relationship being one of the most notable instances of the fact that the characters do develop over the course of the show) and his odd ‘frienmity’ with Perry.

What I’m trying to get at is that, even with a very formulaic structure and relatively static characters, the nature of those characters provides a variety of emotional experiences wherein we’re not really sure which one we’re going to get from scene to scene: is Candace going to be in ‘jerk’ mode or ‘sympathetic’ mode? Are we going to get one of Doof’s petty spiteful moments or one of his loving affectionate moments? This is what I mean by emotional texture: the characters move in and out of eliciting now one reaction, now the other.

4. Now, in Milo, there really isn’t anything like the above, or not to the same extent. Milo has a smoothly comfortable relationship with his friends Zack and Melissa, his family is supportive and loving, his sister patiently puts up with his curse (the closest she comes to antagonizing him is anxiously asking him to stand back), and even most of his classmates are friendly, if cautious towards him. The only hostile characters are Bradley, who is simply a jerk and doesn’t get much development, and Eliot the crossing guard, who does get some development and eventually warms up to Milo, but doesn’t have enough redeeming qualities or enough of a relationship with Milo to make him really sympathetic or interesting. For a while it looked like they were going to do something with Cavendish when he briefly thought that Milo was the villain, but it’s dropped pretty quickly when Dakota suggests that they simply ask Milo if he’s trying to destroy them. Likewise, Cavendish and Dakota have a bit of friction in their bickering, which is fun, but not really the sort of thing described above since it’s usually just standard ‘vitriolic best buds’ stuff, rather than, say, Buford and Baljeet oscillating between genuine friendship and genuine hostility (Dakota’s not going to be flying Cavendish into some cacti just for fun, for instance).

The conflict is almost entirely external, from Milo’s curse and various antagonists. Very rarely are the main characters in opposition with each other or in complicated or difficult positions with each other.

The result is that the emotional landscape of Milo is much flatter than that of PnF. Conflicts get resolved a little too quickly and the characters are uniformly likable and affectionate, except for when they’re supposed to be more or less just plain jerks and villains, or else they grow out of their contentious attitudes within a short amount of time (e.g. Melissa’s dad doesn’t like Milo, but learns to appreciate him over the course of a single episode). It’s all charming and pleasant, but it has considerably less bite than PnF.

The long-term conflicts include Milo’s budding relationship with Amanda (a hyper-organized girl at his school) and Cavendish and Dakota’s various time-related adventures, particularly involving the pistachio plants. There is also a low-key romance between Zack and Melissa that remains largely under the surface until near the end. These are all perfectly fine and charming, but none of them really create enough waves to give the show much texture.

Milo and Amanda in Milo Murphy's Law - YouTube

Now, a show doesn’t have to have this kind of thing – e.g. sympathetic pseudo-antagonists who are also protagonists and move between different emotional responses from the audience – to be good or to gain an audience. But thinking over the two shows, I think that is something that PnF had that Milo lacked and, what is more, lacked anything suitable to replace it with. It’s certainly not bad – again, it’s a very good show – but it’s less interesting.

5. The next factor is even more ephemeral, but I think equally important. It’s that PnF has more of an immediate appeal to it than Milo. It takes the form of an almost generic Saturday morning cartoon: kids have adventures in their backyard while their secret-agent pet battles evil scientists, their mother is oblivious to it all and their sister tries to reveal it. At the same time, that package is used to indulge the fantasy of kids who are able to do what real kids imagine doing: building roller coasters, being superheroes, flying rocketships, etc. Whether by design or accident, you end up with a show that captures the imagination of childhood and of the carefree games of summer, presented in the form of something like the very sort of cartoon that would go along with those imaginary games. The central idea of the show is embodied in its very structure, you could almost say. It’s basically a show all about childhood and the carefree experience of childhood.

Milo, on the other hand, is a bit more specific and less immediately appealing: about a kid who brings impossible disasters down upon himself wherever he goes, but soldiers on optimistically nonetheless. It’s a good premise, touching on optimism, persistence in the face of bad luck, and so on but it doesn’t tap as deeply as the other.

Childhood and childhood imagination is something everyone’s experienced and many people can still remember, and that kind of ‘boy’s adventure’ story is a familiar story-type. It slots neatly into the imagination, allowing its more specific characteristics to shine out better. Milo is a lot less familiar and a lot less ‘apt’ to the imagination; it feels more like a very personal, “let’s just go crazy” kind of story that the creators did because it was what they specifically wanted to make. It’s fun, but it doesn’t make an immediate or clear appeal the same way that PnF did.

6. Adding to these two factors is also the fact that Milo is a much more serialized show than PnF. Each episode follows its own plot and its own pattern and, apart from the three-to-five core characters, (Milo, Zach, Melissa, Cavendish, and Dakota), the casts vary considerably from episode to episode, and most of the characters are introduced piecemeal, coming and going unevenly across the two seasons.

In PnF, the show deliberately follows a fairly tight formula most of the time, and the same main characters recur and play more or less the same roles in every episode (Phineas, Ferb, Candace, Perry, Doof, Isabella, Baljeet, Buford). This was part of the joke, but it also had the effect of giving the show a very strong sense of identity, as well as solidifying the characters in the audience’s mind.

7. The net result of all these points is that Milo felt a lot less focused and a lot less, hm, sturdy than PnF, especially coupled with the aforementioned rapid conflict solving. It came across a little flatter, a little lighter and more superficial (ironically enough, considering how much lower the stakes in PnF tended to be). Both shows are delightfully crazy, but PnF concentrated its craziness through its strictly formulaic episodes, keeping the show familiar and grounded even as it went off the walls. Milo didn’t have that same kind of structure and so feels more fluid and scattershot. It isn’t so much that it does anything much worse than the earlier show, it’s more that it was just harder to connect with.

I still think it deserved to find more of an audience than it did (it’s much better than, say, Gravity Falls, not to mention more wholesome), but that’s my theory as to why it didn’t.

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I’m glad we have them both

Friday Flotsam: Free Thinking, a Review, and the End of the World

1. One of my co-workers has a sticker on his computer that says ‘Danger: Free Thinker’. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, and he seems like a decent guy, but in my experience legitimate ‘free thinkers’ (to the extent that such creatures exist) do not proudly identify themselves as such.

‘Free thinker’ or ‘think for yourself’ tends to be nothing but a form of branding; a way to lend unearned weight to opinions. It’s the intellectual equivalent of ‘organic’ or ‘made with natural ingredients!’: usually not true and of dubious utility when it is.

When someone describes himself as a free thinker, he usually means that he is free of long-outdated forms of popular opinion and instead follows one or another contemporary trends without realizing it’s a trend.

2. It is one of the odd traits of a culture such as ours, which prides itself upon its advanced nature and defiance of ‘established modes’ that its people usually fixate their critical faculties, not on genuinely established opinions or current dogmas, but on those that were or are supposed to have been held several generations before.

This, of course, is inevitable; a society needs an established creed to guide its actions and values, and you can’t have the populace legitimately in perpetual revolt against the current climate of opinion, otherwise it wouldn’t be the current climate. So a society that holds independence of thought and rejection of dogma as its defining characteristics and feeds its people on myths of bold reformers who courageously stood against tradition will have to have a kind of false bogey ‘establishment’ for the people to feel they are boldly defying.

Hence the phenomenon of ‘free thinkers’ who all think according to how those in power wish them to think. Hence too the even more ridiculous assertion that children do not learn to think for themselves from their parents, but from the paid indoctrinators of the State.

3. I’d say I’ve only encountered a few writers whom I would class as legitimately independent thinkers. That is, who actually appear to me to subject all or most of the ideas that come under their view to critical examination and draw conclusions from that. They tend to draw the ire of both ‘sides’ of the actual establishment and to critique those assumptions that are held to be unquestionable by all.

In any case, they do not usually boast of being ‘free thinkers’, they simply offer their observations and let them stand or fall on their own merits. Rather like how if you get freshly-slaughtered pork from a homesteader, he doesn’t feel the need to put ‘organic’ on the package.

(By the way, none of that was meant as a back-door attempt to assign myself the label. Though it is hard to declaim it without seemingly invalidating everything I say. “One cannot be too careful not to think about it,” as Prof. Lewis put it).

4. If I were to tell you that I spent some time watching an old man spreading goop around, you would come away with the idea that I had perhaps spent time with a senile relative, or even in a mental institution. You’d likely feel pity and sympathy for me.

If I were to tell you that I had spent time watching M. Bouguereau paint (ignoring the time factor for the sake of the example), however, you would react with awe and envy to find that I had been privileged to see a genius artistic hand at work.

Yet the two statements are both true versions of the exact same subject. Indeed, the first one is a more factually specific, describing the action rather than containing it in the more abstract concept of ‘painting’. Nevertheless, the second is the more accurate way of describing it, because it conveys the nature of the event more correctly and evokes more appropriate responses.

Similarly, I think that, whatever the factual sequence of events that made up the creation of the world and the descent of species, it will always be more accurate to describe it as “in the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth,” and “God formed man out of the clay and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”

5. The Terror has gotten an entirely-too-flattering review from Caroline Furlong. Read it and then check out her blog if you haven’t already.

6. Some people say, and have been saying that it’s the end times. Technically, it’s been the end times for 2000 years now: with the coming of Christ we’re in the final age of the world regardless. But as for whether we’re approaching the actual Last Judgment, well, my own thoughts are, why would that matter? What difference does it make? We’re all heading for judgment, final or personal, and it can come at any time for any of us. We’ve been told that repeatedly. Worrying and wondering about the end times seems to me a waste of time. The important thing is to be ready and have our lamps timed and full of oil when the time comes.

(For what it’s worth, personally I don’t think we are, but again, who cares?)

Friday Flotsam: Fan-Art with Commentary

I started doing some more substantial entries, but I was tired after a long week and didn’t have the energy for it. So, since I don’t feel like talking about religion, philosophy, and such today, the next logical subject is My Little Pony fan-art.

I made these a long time ago and have been meaning to share them. The idea was to Gimp up images of what the mane cast and a few others might look like in live action (and as humans). Presented with commentary.

(I didn’t try to do Spike or the CMC because I was kind of uncomfortable searching for child or adolescent models. Thought it might put me on a watchlist of some kind)

1. Twilight Sparkle

Still pretty pleased with this one, though in retrospect it might have been better to give her glasses. But on the other hand, I think the model captures the reserved, intelligent, slightly-awkward look well enough that she doesn’t really need them.

Biggest problem was that she was wearing a necklace in the original photo, which would have been a disaster to try to remove, so I made it into an Equestrian Crest medallion. Not something I can recall Twilight ever wearing in the show, but it fits her character. Beyond that, it was just a matter of changing some colors, adding in the cutie mark (which I made custom and didn’t pull from a screenshot) and putting her in a library setting. I think I might have also added in the bangs. Owlowicious fills out the scene.

Really, in terms of the style of face and expression, this is pretty much exactly how I picture Twilight.

2. Fluttershy

Fluttershy was actually the first one I did and this photo was the inspiration for the series. Something about the model’s face, pose, and environment made me think ‘Fluttershy!’ So I did a few tweaks to make her fit more and the whole thing snowballed.

Still pretty pleased with this. It helps that she was one of the easier ones, since she’s the only one who didn’t need to be pasted into a new environment. All that was really necessary was to change her hair and dress color, make the hair longer (not that it was short to begin with, just that Fluttershy’s hair is very long), and add in the cutie mark. Then I decided to stick Angel Bunny in there with her, just to add more interest to the scene.

By the way, it’s surprisingly easy to extend hair in Gimp / photoshop. Though it doesn’t always turn out this well as we’ll see in a little bit….

3. Rarity

I think Rarity turned out one of the best of the bunch overall (which is good, since she’s my favorite character). The model had pretty much the exact pose, look, and expression that I wanted, and, of course Rarity’s one of the few whose coat color is likely to be already being worn, so no need to change the dress at all. Again, I changed the hair color and added some length (Rarity’s hair is even longer than Fluttershy’s), added the Cutie Mark and stuck Opal in (with a nice reflection to boot).

Only thing is that I kind of wish I had her in a more opulent environment. This one’s a little bare. Oh, well.

4. Applejack

Applejack was another fairly easy one, once I found a suitable model (“Cowgirl model” was at least a meaningful search term). She mercifully has an actually natural hair color! Changing her shirt color was a pain, however, as was positioning her against the fence. As I remember, the model was originally leaning on something else: I think maybe a metal gate leading into a barn. I wanted her in an apple orchard, of course, so first I had to put the fence in, then the model, and then there was a good deal of shifting and adjusting to make them both sit naturally in the scene, then drawing in the shadows (which, now that I look at it, are still off: I didn’t take good account of the direction of the light).

On second thought, I take back what I said about her being an easy one.

Still, all in all, I think she turned out pretty well.

5. Pinkie Pie

Hoo boy, Pinkie was a nightmare!

She’s the only one who’s a composite figure. After a lot of searching, I finally found an excellent image of a laughing redhead…except that it was a portrait and I needed the whole body (and why do so many models pose with that same blank, neutral expression? And if they are smiling, it’s usually an arch, knowing smile of the kind that Pinkie would never use in her life!). So I found another picture of a model sitting on a counter (which worked with the pastry shop background) and stuck the head of the one on the body of the other.

Blending the hair in was extremely difficult, especially since the body model had locks running down her front, and very loose locks too, with a lot of stray individual hairs. It took a lot of work and I eventually gave up trying to color correct those and just covered them up by making the head model’s hair extra long and bushy. The result looks pretty flat and smudged, and you can still see some of the body model’s hairs sticking out.

And to top it all off, Gummy looks really awkward and I forgot to give him a shadow.

(She then caused more trouble just now by stubbornly refusing to upload for a long time).

Oh, well, at least the face is still good.

6. Rainbow Dash

I have mixed feelings about this one. I think the model was a good choice: she’s got a nicely focused, confident look to her that fits Rainbow Dash. But I don’t like the environment. My thought was that her setting was the sky, so I should have as big a sky as possible, but in hindsight I should have put her in a stadium or on an athletic field. It looks too empty and bare like this. Also, Tank is pretty wonky here; he looks like he’s about to fly into her.

Though I think her hair turned out remarkably well, considering how complicated it is. And her cutie mark looks pretty good too, despite having to be assembled almost from scratch.

7. Starlight Glimmer

This is another one that I think turned out almost perfectly. The model’s expression, pose, and whole look seems just right to me! Though I could have done a better job on her stripe….

Still, really pleased with this one.

8. Sunset Shimmer

This is the one I’m least satisfied with. The model’s got a suitable look, and I like the leather jacket, and the fact that I put her Cutie Mark on her chest rather than her hip (reflecting the fact that she’s the only one who spends most of her screen time as a human).

But her shirt looks awful (changing the color when there’s a big dark shadow on part of it is a nightmare) and the image resolution on the model is much too low: I should have found a bigger picture to work with. Oh, and the environment is hideous, and while that fits for a public high school, I don’t like it in my pictures. Should have tried to find one that was at least moderately photogenic.

9. Trixie

So, with Trixie I learned that making hair actually white is all-but impossible. Or at least, it requires a more advanced technique than the ‘desaturate and fill’ one I was using. I remember being really unsatisfied with her when I was done, but looking at her now I don’t think so anymore. Her hair is still off, but it’s got a decently silvery look (though it’s really ugly at the tip), and the model has an excellently smug and mischievous expression. Call this one better than I remember.

10. Derpy

Last but not least, we have darling Derpy. She’s the only one I actually looked for a specific actress for: Rose McIver from I Zombie, whom I’d seen screenshots of and thought to have exactly the right faded-blonde, slightly ditzy look that Derpy needed. So I hunted up a suitably bewildered-looking photo of her (from a Lifetime movie called ‘Petals on the Wind‘ of all things), then I greyed down her clothes, crossed her eyes, and put her in a post office. Presto! Everyone’s favorite animation-error-turned-running-gag!

Friday Flotsam: In the News, Invisible Man, and Folk Song

1. I have barely looked at the news in weeks and have frankly been much happier for it. After all, I have no power to affect anything that is in the news, and it’s going to affect me I’ll find out about it sooner or later. Not to mention that most of it is either outright lies or distortions of one sort of another. So, really, I don’t see much point in keeping up with it.

2. That said, I’ve heard that there was an election in Old Virginia, and that the (comparative) good guys seem to have won big. Good news of any kind is welcome, so hooray for that.

3. Being a Monarchist in a liberal republic is like:

4. You know, I like to call myself a Monarchist, but that’s a bit of an oversimplification. I’m not against Republics, provided they’re set up with some degree of sense (e.g. non-democratic. Actually, the original design for the US was, unsurprisingly, considerably better considered than the current system, but that’s another story). I think ‘Integralist’ is probably the closest active term I’ve found: the idea that, since you have to structure society around some philosophy or another, it may as well be a true one.

Thing is that the quality of a given system of government is largely a question of the quality of the people who operate it. A Monarchy operated by liberals is no better than a republic, and worse than a republic run by Christians (as the Vatican offers daily proof). The problem, as always, is one of conversion.

5. I’d forgotten how good a movie the original Invisible Man with Claude Rains and directed by James “Frankenstein” Whale really is. I got to see it on the big screen in a double-feature with The Wolf-Man (also features Claude Rains, though in a very different role) and I was continually impressed by the writing: how logically everything progresses and how reasonably everyone reacts, except for the people who are supposed to be acting irrationally. The only major gaps I noticed were an unconvincing hand-wave of why they can’t use dogs to catch him (“they’ve lost the scent”) and the fact that no one seems willing to take advantage of the times when he’s actually grabbing someone to catch him by touch, which was a continual problem for the character in the book and even led to his final defeat. But the whole sequence of the story, the reactions of the police and the populace, and the progression of the Invisible Man himself follow a clear and well-considered progression all the way to the conclusion.

There’s also the still-impressive special effects, which are deployed with a surprising prodigality. For instance, there’s a bit where the Invisible Man goes skipping down the road in a pair of stolen trousers singing ‘Nuts in May’. It adds nothing to the plot, it’s just a joke (and a sign of his continually-deteriorating sanity), but they took the time and money to make it happen in 1932. And whether through lighting or effects, they even took care that Rains’s eyes aren’t visible even on careful examination during close-ups of him in his bandaged-up disguise.

6. By the way, this is a surprisingly brutal film: the Invisible Man has easily the highest on-screen body count of any of the classic Universal Monsters, coming in at over a hundred confirmed kills (he wrecks a train at one point just because he can). Yet even so, and despite only killing one or two people, the character in the book is far more vile than his film counterpart.

7. And let’s end with a Cossack folk song (think I might have posted this video before, but it’s worth revisiting):

Flotsam: Self-Examination, Plot Holes, Halloween-ness, and a Joke

1. I notice that I have a bad habit (and perhaps you do as well) that when I start to pray and try to meditate upon God that I tend to fall into criticism of modernity: thinking of how far the contemporary world is from the majesty of the Divine plan and how many ways we depart from this holy road.

Of course, what I should be thinking about is how far I am from all that. If we’re to do comparisons under such a circumstance, it ought to be regarding the one thing we can actually control and bring a little close to the standard in question. Endlessly thinking about how horrible other people are – however true that may be – is spiritual junk food; it’s momentarily satisfying, but empty at best, harmful at worst. At the end of the day, it’s only ourselves and our own that we’ll be held finally responsible for.

2. Re-reading The Lord of the Rings. Something that occurred to me this go-round is that Peter Jackson introduced a significant plot hole in Fellowship. Namely, that there’s now no reason for Gandalf not to accompany Frodo from the Shire to Rivendell.

In the book, the plan is for Frodo to slip quietly out of the Shire after settling his affairs so as not to attract notice, and Gandalf fully means to accompany him for safety. About midsummer, though, Gandalf is away in Bree when he meets Radagast, who warns him that the Nine are abroad and that Saruman has something he urgently needs to speak to him about. Since he knows it will take the Nazgul many weeks to reach the Shire, Gandalf considers running back to the Shire to warn Frodo to change his plans and leave sooner, but decides he doesn’t have the time since Radagast was already late in finding him, so he tries to send a letter instead. Saruman reveals his true colors (so to speak) and imprisons Gandalf, ad the innkeeper forgets the letter, and the result is that Frodo leaves the Shire much too late, with no help from Gandalf, and with the Nazgul are almost literally at his doorstep.

In the film, Gandalf has Frodo leave almost the moment he confirms what the Ring is, saying that he’ll run off to Isengard to consult with Saruman and then meet him at the Prancing Pony in Bree.

Now, first off this is an example of Jackson’s rather absurd telescoping of Middle Earth, which is severely shrunken from its book form (if you look at a map, Isengard is several hundred miles from the Shire, away at the bottom of the Misty Mountains: that would be like telling someone in Ann Arbor to make for Detroit and that you’ll be waiting for them there after you run to Nashville and back).

Not to mention that Rivendell, obviously the safest place for many miles, is on the way to Isengard. Given how important the matter is, and how much he cares about Frodo, there’s no adequate reason for Gandalf not to first accompany him to safety and then go see Saruman.

3. None of this is to say that the film is bad, of course (though honestly the compression of Middle Earth – and consequently of the timeline – is one of my biggest criticisms, even though I understand why they did it). Just something I thought was interesting to note.

4. Alas, it is again Halloween and I’ve not had the time or attention to sample any good horror films or get into the spirit of the season. I do like Halloween, but it’s a holiday that really takes time and attention to properly soak in: the atmosphere of autumn leaves rustling in a chill wind, cloud-wrapped moons, graveyards, and creaky old houses where, if anything walks there, it walks alone. It’s hard to really feel ‘Halloweeny’ in a populated suburb. You need a small, semi-rural town with woods about it and at least a few hundred years of history to do it properly. Or at least be somewhere you can forget about modern cars and strip malls and the like.

5. Though you could conceivably make a good strip-mall-based horror film out of ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’, assuming you find a way to correct the plot hole of “why would anyone go back for another shift once they realize what the score is?” I don’t think they will, but it could be done (me, I would have it be that the guard realizes something bad happened / is going to happen and is trying to solve the mystery before he gets his head bitten off by the jump-scares. Simple and obvious, so they probably won’t do it).

6. And to finish off, I heard a version of this story many, many years ago and it stuck in my mind, though most of the details are long lost so I had to fill them in myself.

There was a married couple who planned to vacation in Florida one summer. Then, at the last minute, the husband found he had some work to take care of and had to miss the trip. But he insisted that she should go on anyway, since they’d already bought the tickets and she’d been really looking forward to it.

So, she went on the trip. But her flight had hardly left when the husband learned that the work wasn’t going to be nearly as bad as he thought and he decided to text her that he’d be able to follow her almost immediately. Only, he then remember that she’d just gotten a new phone and he couldn’t remember the number. But they had some friends living down there, who were to meet his wife and take her to the hotel, so he called them and asked them to let her know that he’d be coming soon.

The woman landed and was met by the friends, who told her the good news. She was, of course, delighted and as soon as she got to the hotel she went and texted her husband on her new phone.

Trouble was, she couldn’t quite remember his number either, since she’d just been using the stored contact all this time. But she was a hopeful kind of woman and, after thinking about it a bit decided she could remember it after all and confidently sent her text.

Unfortunately, it was the wrong number. Even more unfortunately, it was actually the number of a preacher whose wife had just passed away. They were holding the wake at his house, and everyone was being very decorous and sad, when suddenly he looked at his phone and screamed.

This is what he read:

“Beloved,

Just arrived. Delighted to hear you’ll be joining me soon.”

Then, just as the assembled guests were wondering what to make of this message from the other world and whether they dared respond, her next text came in.

“It sure is hot down here.”

Friday Flotsam: Software Problems and Jabberwock

1. Missed last week, obviously. Oh, well.

2. For work-related reasons I ended up reviewing many of Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (yes, I’m serious. No, it’s not as interesting as you’d think). In the process I noticed for the first time (or perhaps I had noticed before and suppressed the memory) that the Jabberwock has a waistcoat. And socks.

Also please get it straight that it’s Jabberwock: ‘Jabberwocky’ is the name of the poem

Felt that needed to be pointed out.

3. One cannot become great out of fear, or in order to rub someone’s nose in it. Greatness cannot spring from petty motives.

4. Begun the first steps in actual work, and I’ve discovered something. In the book Clean Code, Robert Martin (Uncle Bob) describes the ‘vicious cycle’ of software development. A company sets upon a certain stoftware platform. Software advances rapidly, so before long it becomes necessary to upgrade it. But the upgrade has to be able to integrate with the earlier system, since that is where the existing information is being kept. Moreover, upgrading takes a lot of time, since we’re dealing with an extremely complicated and delicate machine, and the system has to be completely functional throughout the process otherwise the company loses business.

So by the time the system is updated, the update is already out of date, the already-complicated system has become immensely more complicated, and probably numerous bugs have been introduced that have to be hunted down and corrected.

5. What all this amounts to is that software creates a lot of bloat: you need people on hand to continually maintain and upgrade the system just to keep things functional. It would be as if a law-firm had to keep a staff of scribes on hand to continually re-write all the law-books and hunt up typos. This doesn’t create value (since the system that results is immediately obsolete and in any case has no application outside the company), it only prevents the loss of value that naturally occurs.

This is a flaw in the digital revolution that I don’t think is noticed enough: it creates a natural instability couple with dependency, resulting in an enormous amount of busywork.

6. By the way, if any of you happen to run a company, I have some advice: open-floor plans are one of those things that sound good on paper and make for great sound bites (“we believe in collaboration and teamwork blah, blah, blah”), but are just infuriating to actually experience. People walking by every minute of every day, hovering around your chair because they have to talk to your neighbor, loud conversations going on two feet away that you have no share or interest in. Endless distractions, disruptions, and anxiety, all for the sake of not having to poke your head around a corner to talk to someone, or send an instant message (which we do most of the time anyway).

Not to mention that, frankly, I’m deeply skeptical that my or any one else’s input is so perfectly and unfailingly valuable that all else should be sacrificed to allow it unimpeded scope for expression. Especially when that input is frazzled and distracted by all of the above.

7. Recently had to change my password on a particular service following an apparent security breach. Thoughts upon creating the new one: “Guess that, you bastards.”

UPDATE: If ‘Jabber-Walk’ isn’t the name of a dance, it should be.

Flotsam: Various and Sundry Life Things and the Mario Movie

1. I’m beginning to settle in at last as the final few necessary tasks and purchases are being wrapped up. Having a new apartment is like having a giant toy; there are all sorts of things you can do with it and you can’t wait to get the chance to play with it.

2. Internet is up at last, though I have it on a kill switch (via the simple expedient of plugging the router into a power strip) so I can turn it off it becomes too much of a distraction.

On that note, I’m working out a schedule for myself to hopefully improve my (frankly appallingly slow) output. So far setting up has kept on interrupting, but even so I’ve found an uptick in production. Amazing what sitting down and just doing the damn work can accomplish.

3. Part of my schedule is anticipated to include Saturday movie nights (don’t like watching movies during the week, since they eat up so much time), and last night it was Megamind. I’ve probably mentioned it before, but that’s another film I’ve been meaning to do an essay on, since it ranks high on my list of underappreciated gems. It’s an example of the best kind of satire: the kind that provides the genuine thrills and particular joys of the genre it’s spoofing, even as it uses the material for comedy (The Princess Bride and Galaxy Quest are other examples of this sort of thing). In this case it pokes fun at comic book superhero tropes while also providing some excellent comic-book-style action / adventure heroics.

It’s also almost infinitely quotable: “Warming up? The Sun is ‘warming up‘?!”

4. The voice cast was announced for the upcoming ‘Super Mario Brothers’ animated movie (entrusted to Blue Sky of all people), and no one seems particularly happy about it. I like Chris Pratt, but him as Mario? I don’t know about that. And last time I checked, Charles Martinet was alive and well. Granted you might not want the high-pitched Mario voice for a whole film, but I happen to know that Mr. Martinet can do many voices (e.g. he was one of the dragons in Skyrim): all he has to do is tone it down a bit.

I really don’t understand why studios do this (it also bugged me when Roger Craig Smith was replaced by Ben Schwartz for Sonic. Schwartz was fine in the role, but it’s annoying nonetheless). Or rather, I understand, but it makes no sense from a fans’ perspective. Studios figure that mainstream audiences will want to see familiar names in the credits, not the relatively obscure voice actors of the games. Filmmakers, and especially studio people, are notoriously out of touch and so don’t realize that the days of star-driven films are largely in the past. No one is going to go see Super Mario Brothers to hear Chris Pratt and Jack Black: they’re going to go see it to see the Mario Brothers (assuming it looks tolerable from the trailers). Keeping Charles Martinet in the title roles would have been a surefire way to garner immediate fan support, which I think is frankly a lot more valuable these days than star power, especially for an animated film.

I still hope the film is good, and I’m not judging it yet, but this isn’t a good sign. Please, please at least be better than the live action film. That should not be a challenge.

(Though for my part, all will be forgiven if they give John Leguizamo and Samantha Mathis cameos. Or if they bring Lance Hendrikson back as the king / chancellor of the Mushroom Kingdom. Come on, people: he never turns down a paycheck!).

5. By the way, I suspect the above is the reason why My Little Pony: The Movie jettisoned most of that show’s fantastic supporting cast in favor of a bunch of new characters with celebrity voice actors. They probably would have re-cast the Mane Six if they thought they could get away with it (“Starring Scarlett Johanson as Twilight Sparkle”).

6. Also, regarding the Mario movie: Dwayne Johnson should have been Donkey Kong. How does one fail to see that?

Flotsam: New Apartment, No Internet, and Rabbits

1. Last week I realized a nearly five-year goal and finally moved back out into my own apartment. I’ve been too busy setting up to settle in yet, but already I feel the enormous relief and joy of having my own space once again.

2. The chief downside, at present, is that I don’t have any internet. My provider sent a router and set up instructions, but after wrestling with it a bit I got a connection…and found it directing me to a different provider. Two different tech support conversations later (one on the phone, one over a live chat at a nearby coffee shop) yielded the information that the wiring in the junction box was overriding the signal with the previous occupant’s provider. So now they’ll be sending someone out in the middle of the week to perform the necessary offices. Until then, I’m down to using coffee shops and other people’s homes (with the owners’ permission, of course; I’m almost sure that’s what they’re trying to say behind their gags).

3. I’m actually rather glad to have taken a break from internet. I’d been far too attached to it lately and an enforced fast is a bit of a relief, particularly with so much else to be done.

4. During and before the move, I read through an old favorite: Watership Down, the epic adventure novel about the founding of a rabbit warren. I was struck even more this time by the military imagery and tone often employed: at times you could almost lift passages out, tell someone they’re from a WWII novel, and no one would be the wiser. At one point, Holly, the upright veteran, ends up escorting Clover, a freed pet rabbit, out onto the grass to feed, appearing for all the world like a well-bred British officer taking charge of a nervous refugee (she ends up as his mate).

5. Which, incidentally, points to another clever touch. Mr. Adams knows and reminds the reader that rabbit breeding is not like human romance: survival and propagation is the main point, and males will fight over available females. When Clover becomes ‘ready for mudder’ (as Kehaar the seagull puts it), we’re told that the bucks in the warren are all fighting over her, but at that point the narrative has moved elsewhere and so we don’t actually see it (Hazel, our protagonist, upon learning of it, simply comments “I suppose it’ll work itself out” and moves on).

This is a good way to present something that you know the reader won’t like to see. No one wants to watch these characters that we’ve been traveling with and cheering on for half the book getting into a petty squabble over who gets to breed with their one available female. That’s something humans, or at least civilized, western humans of the sort likely to be reading the book, would find repulsive, even granting that the characters are explicitly not human. It’s a point where our sympathy for these animals, as animals, simply will not go beyond. So Adams tactfully keeps it off stage, letting us know that it is happening, but not rubbing our faces in it. We are thus allowed to pass it over as another element of the ‘rabbitness’ of the story without being forced to emotionally engage with it.

See, some things have to happen in a story that would be tonally at odds with the emotions we want the audience to experience, or which would be so alien to their experience as to rip them right out of sympathy, even they are necessary for the setting. One solution, therefore, is to simply allude to it, but not to show it in any kind of detail or dwell upon it. The audience thus gets the information they need, but aren’t forced to navigate delicate and disturbing emotional territory unrelated to the main thrust of the story.

The fact that rabbits fight over mates is part of the setting and premise, but has no real relevance to the real point of the narrative, which is the courage, devotion, and selfless loyalty of the heroes. Therefore, the fact is passed over with a nod, while scenes and incidents relative to the real narrative are depicted with great emphasis and feeling.

You don’t have to show everything or give everything equal weight. Keeping irrelevant or off-tone notes out of sight and out of mind is as important a skill as any other.

Flotsam: Councils of the Church and On Underestimating God

1. Moving on Tuesday, so most my time is taken up in packing. Fortunately, I’ve been doing it in increments for months, so there isn’t a whole lot left to be done. Mostly it’s a matter of deciding how to pack up the delicates and deciding what will be needed between now and then.

2. I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on the Church councils on the way to and from work, which is also a handy little summary of Church history (and, consequently, the history of the west). It’s fascinating and, oddly enough, comforting. Yeah, things are bad now, but things have been bad before, and people survived.

Not only survived, but thrived. At the same time as the corruption, petty power plays, and rampant stupidity was operating in the highest levels of the Church, there were also great Saints pursuing piety and working to save souls. The trick, it seems to me, is to focus on your own duty and make sure that, whatever may be said of the rest of Christendom, your own little patch of the kingdom is doing its job.

3. A rather interesting thought: the lecturer on the above happened to touch on Limbo, the section of Hell where those who die in Original Sin, but without grievous personal sins (e.g. infants, the just pagans, etc.) dwell. He commented that when most people describe Heaven – “a place of total happiness, where you meet all the dead and are content forever” – they are actually describing Limbo. The Beatific Vision – that is, Heaven proper – is something quite beyond that.

The way I think of it is that what God wants to do is not simply to make us perfect men, but something well beyond manhood. The Saints are, in the most literal sense, super human: something that is human and more. Which means they are not just happier than those in limbo, but happier in a way and to a degree that a simple human being could not conceive.

4. To take an analogy I think I’ve used before, it’s the difference between the happiness of a dog and the happiness of a human being. Dogs can be thoroughly happy in their doggish way, but the particular happiness of intellect, art, human love, and piety, and so on is simply beyond them. They can just sort of scrape the surface of it through their interactions with human beings, but they can’t go any further.

A saintly life in this world is like being the dog of a good and happy family: we experience the full doggish life, but also touch on something greater that we could never have gotten on our own and cannot fully experience or understand. Becoming a saint would be akin to a dog becoming fully human (except without the evil side of human nature: so, like a St. Bernard becoming the St. Bernard or something).

5. The short version is that, even while acknowledging that God will always be far beyond any conception we have of Him, we have an inveterate habit of vastly underestimating Him.

“That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him” is not hyperbole.

6. Anyway, I recommend that series on the councils. You can find the whole playlist linked below (it’s especially useful for getting a grasp on the Catholic-Eastern Orthodox issue, though further reading is necessary before I’d feel safe really wading into that).

Flotsam

1. I’m currently in the process of preparing to move, something I’ve been looking forward to and trying to achieve for several years now. I’ve been rather surprised at how disruptive the process really is, not just in terms of consuming time and energy, but in the way it creates the sense of ‘no point in starting anything right now; can’t settle to anything at the moment because there’s a huge disruption coming’. Yeah, probably just an excuse there; another one of the ‘infinity of excuses for non-action’, as Theodore Roosevelt put it.

These underlying mental impressions that don’t really follow logically, but are an aggregation of the whole tenor of a time period are probably a lot more responsible for human actions – and thus history – than we usually give them credit for.

2. Do you notice how most non or formerly Christian Americans (and even some continuing to claim the title) seem to still have the idea that going to church is a way to demonstrate virtue rather than to acquire it? That someone praying and fasting and attending Mass is presenting himself as a very good, righteous person, rather than trying to become one?

This seems to me to be a consequence of the fact that we were born a semi-Puritan, or formerly-Puritan nation: since, as I understand it, in the Calvinist tradition good deeds and worship and such are seen as signs that one is saved, not means of seeking and preserving salvation.

This is a big topic, of course: once you start to notice the Puritan thread in the American mind, it pops up everywhere.

3. I’ve heard – can’t remember where at the moment – that in the Middle Ages there really were Thieves’ Guilds and Prostitutes’ Guilds, and their members would attend Mass every week. They wouldn’t receive, of course, being unable or unwilling to give up their sinful professions, but they would pray fervently to be preserved until, say, they could make a big score or find some way out of their lives, or at the very least be granted the chance to confess and repent before death. Everyone knew who they were, of course, and everyone expected them to be there.

That’s the sort of thing that comes from a Catholic understanding of salvation and which the Puritan tradition would look upon with shocked disapproval.

4. I went to an 80th anniversary screening of Citizen Kane tonight. My hot take is that it’s a pretty decent little movie, all things considered. Actually for most of the run time I was grinning uncontrollably at the shear quality of filmmaking, acting, and writing on display. There’s a reason this is often called the best film of all time, and though I personally wouldn’t give it the top spot, it’s certainly a respectable choice.

5. Perhaps it’s just the way my mind is going these days, but I think Orson Welles hit on a key weakness of the Capitalist / Classical Liberal system. See, when Leftists go after capitalism or the United States, they tend to point at poverty, or the striated class system. This is actually it’s greatest strength: nothing alleviates poverty or creates more social mobility than capitalism. But the great weakness is that it tends to starve its adherents of the deeper human needs: of family, community, love, spiritual elevation, and so on, commoditizing and stifling these things so that men are left without roots, culture, or identity, knowing “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” (Of course, Leftist variations of liberalism tend to be even worse in this regard, though that doesn’t stop them from sometimes appealing to it, just as their rotten track record on social mobility doesn’t stop them from appealing to that either. I really have to wonder why anyone takes Marxist doctrines seriously anymore, but I digress).

In the movie, Charles Foster Kane has everything: inexhaustible wealth, social prestige, the power to move governments, but he’s a profoundly lonely man, starved of love, but incapable of giving it himself. All he can do is throw spectacular gifts and extravagant gestures at people, but his fundamental selfishness makes it impossible for him to really love or to accept love in return. He has a massive art collection, but he never looks at it or appreciates it. He has a set of principles that supposedly govern his newspaper, but he abandons them whenever it suits him. He’s a very intelligent, commanding, powerful man, a man who has everything the world can give…but he lacks the ‘spiritual’ dimension entirely and thus remains a hollow, frustrated, pitiable figure.

All the prosperity and material advancement of the liberal west, whatever else may be said of it, cannot replace the spiritual needs of man. “Man does not live on bread alone.”

6. David Stewart touches on some of these same ideas here with regards to the ‘Woke’ religion: