Monday, October 31st, 2011

In 1988  James Cawthorne and Michael Moorcock compiled Fantasy: The 100 Best Books — which was more a list of books that had influenced the development of the modern fantasy genre, starting with Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and including a number of important but not-so-good works, like The Castle of Otranto (1765):

There are novels so fundamental to the development of a particular genre that the question of their literary merit is of secondary importance. Horace Walpole did not invent the basic constituents of the Gothic novel, but in The Castle of Otranto he combined them in a manner which became a standard formula for the next two centuries. It was the publisher’s equivalent of sliced bread. Their readers took to its clammy horrors with delight, and in growing numbers as the ‘penny dreadfuls’ set out to wring the last drop of ichor from its lurid lexicon.

(Let me stop to note that my spell-checker doesn’t recognize ichor.)

By then, the Gothic had travelled far from its original sources of inspiration. The prevalence of castles in the literature was no accident, nor was the frequency with which they were built on the iceberg principle, with nine-tenths of their structure consisting of subterranean vaults. These spectre-infested spaces were rooted in the fantasies of an architect, Giovanni Piranesi. A revised edition of his Carceri d’Invenzione appeared in 1761, featuring a series of drawings of prison interiors conceived on a titanic and overpowering scale.

Castles built nine-tenths underground? It all sounds very Dungeons & Dragons. Piranesi‘s work might serve to illustrate Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, I suppose:

Walpole, who had already converted his Twickenham home into a mock-Gothic castle, took from Piranesi the central image of his novel, a black-plumed helmet of monstrous size. Around it he gathered the now familiar cast of wronged and lovesick maidens, unhinged and tyrannical nobles, younger sons of ancient families travelling incognito.

The Gothic novel obviously became a tired cliché — but I doubt most people today have read a single Gothic novel. The bad-but-classic Universal horror films include some of the elements — namely the castles and the rare Carpathian armadillo — but even those passed profoundly out of style long, long ago.

Books That Make Us Human

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Imaginative-conservative Daniel McCarthy kicks off his list of books that make us human with an unusual choice:

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson — It’s an untrue truism that good monster stories are really about humanity, but this one is, albeit in an unexpected way. Matheson’s novella has been filmed many times; the only cinematic treatment worth catching is the 1971 Charlton Heston version, “The Omega Man.” I would go so far as to argue that I Am Legend has inspired even more films than is commonly thought, since the mood and menace of “Night of the Living Dead” owe almost everything to this book. But what do zombies — or vampires, in the book — tell us about being human? The answer lies in the twist ending, which I won’t give away. Suffice to say the story viscerally confronts us with how purblind our self-understanding can be.

Top Shot Season 3 Winner Dustin Ellerman

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Top Shot season 1 winner, Iain Harrison interviews Top Shot season 3 winner, Dustin Ellerman, the Christian camp director from East Texas:

Iain Harrison: Why did you apply for the show?

Dustin Ellerman: It looked like fun! Any time you can get to ride a zipline or a get hauled up on a crane while shooting guns, well I want to play.

IH: What’s the first firearm you’re going to get now that you’ve won?

DE: Actually there are two. That Larue OBR is such a sweet shooter, I had to have one and the 10/22 is one of my favorites, so I had to have one that Volquartsen perfected.

IH: What other plans do you have following the show?

DE: I’m going to be signing a lot of autographs! Seriously, though, I’ve had such great support from kids, that I’m going to be headed to a bunch of schools and churches to talk with the kids and have photos taken with them. I’m also planning on running a youth marksmanship camp in the Spring, once things have died down a little.

IH: Now, for the final episode, tell us about the dueling tree challenge – seems like they threw in a twist this time around.

DE: Yeah, the plates were a little bit bigger, but they were moving. That was the fourth time I’d shot a Glock, so that was cool, and I was kinda glad that Gary beat me because I want people to feel safe & it wouldn’t look good if this DHS agent gets beaten by a nobody from east Texas.

IH: At the HORSE challenge, why did you pick the golf balls as your first target?

DE: At home, one of my favorite targets are golf balls; I’d set them at 100 yards & check zero my rifles with them. I’d mentioned this in the house, so when we walked up, Gary said, “Hey Dusty, there’s your golf balls.” When Mike chose the AK one handed we were like, “are you nuts?” I tried to take up the trigger to the end of the first stage, but I was totally unprepared when it went off, but that’s what happens when you have an 8 lb. rifle on the end of your arm.

IH: The final shoot off wasn’t even close. What happened?

DE: Yeah, we had go back and reshoot parts the next day because I left the cameras behind. I caught Mike on the rock throwing part of the course because I’d been practicing back at the house, throwing rocks for maybe an hour a day then it was on to the Benelli. I had to throw in maybe four or five extra shells and then took off. Going into it, I gave Mike an 80/20 chance of winning, but he told me later that buried the front sight in the bottom of the ghost ring on that Benelli instead of centering it and kept repeating his mistake.

IH: Planning on heading to SHOT Show?

DE: Yeah, I read about the party you guys had last year. While I’m not a big drinker, I’m not missing out on that!


Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Making money from online fiction seems… challenging. MCM describes his small successes with serializing — and with what he calls serial+:

Serializing a novel is a great way to build brand loyalty (where the brand is you). It’s largely psychological, but I’ve found that readers who come back to you regularly for two or three months will tend to convert from “casual observer” to something approaching “fan”. But the interesting thing is, they don’t need to be coming back for new stuff, just more of the same. Serializing creates an artificial need to return to your site, thereby boosting your fan levels. For my serialized novel Fission Chips, I’ve seen a great shift in the profile of my readership over the last month and a half. Of my 10,000+ readers, 814 are now in the category I’d call “dedicated fans”, visiting not just that site, but reading my other titles as well. After the first two weeks, that number was only 12.

Another variation on this theme is what I call Serial+. In it, you release your book on a schedule (new chapters every Monday and Wednesday, for example), but put a footnote after the latest chapter informing the readers that at this rate, it will take them until some distant date to finish the story. If they want to skip ahead, they can donate a reasonable sum, and get the full story unlocked right away. In early testing, this model has an astounding conversion rate of 72%. If your writing is compelling, people will probably “upgrade” when they can’t take waiting anymore.

Former MTV VJ Kennedy

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

“Third Wave” MTV VJ Kennedy was the “alternative” VJ. I considered her simply annoying.

Somehow I never noticed — or simply forgot — that she was conservative — and was more or less shunned for it. Now she considers herself libertarian — and hosts an alt-rock morning show in LA, not on the “world famous” KROQ:

When they got around to discussing punk politics, I was hoping for a shout-out to Oingo-Boingo’s “Only a Lad” and “Capitalism”; I was a bit disappointed to hear that Danny Elfman now considers himself a (Hollywood-liberal) Democrat.

Cobblestone Conservative

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Austin Bramwell explains how Jane Jacobs saved New York City’s soul:

In Death and Life, she cited not one paper nor analyzed one set of data.

What she did do was observe. Jacobs had a knack for spotting patterns in commonplace things. Social scientists sometimes call it “field study.” When it works, field study makes what once went unnoticed seem obvious. (Have you ever noticed that people usually laugh just to be polite and not because anyone said something funny? If not, you will now.) Death and Life’s popularity is still growing in part because so much of what Jacobs wrote is confirmed in daily life.

For example, she famously argued, the safety of a city street depends on the number of eyes watching it. The more pedestrians and storefronts a city street has, the more inviting it is to other pedestrians. Casual passers-by contribute more sets of eyes, making the street even safer, and so on in a virtuous cycle. Death and Life develops this simple idea in rich detail.

A mix of residences and stores, for example, creates safety and comfort by giving more people more reasons to use the sidewalks. Parks, playgrounds, and open spaces, by contrast, create menacing vacuums attractive to criminals and perverts. Narrow streets and short blocks, even if inconvenient for cars, enliven a neighborhood by increasing the flow of foot traffic. Large works such as “cultural centers,” by contrast, blight their surroundings by imposing artificial barriers to pedestrians. On page after page, Jacobs showed how the physical environment either facilitates or hinders what she called the “sidewalk ballet.”

The architects of urban renewal saw none of this. Instead of preserving short, narrow streets, they were combining blocks into “superblocks” with parks and “promenades.” Instead of permitting shops and stores, they were segregating residents in towers and forbidding “incompatible” commercial uses. Instead of expanding sidewalks, they were adding playgrounds and planting grass. Instead of nurturing small-scale street life, they were erecting freeways and public centers.

Jacobs called their practices “bloodletting,” after the discredited notion of treating disease by draining the patient’s blood. The theory of bloodletting — that destruction must precede the cure — recurs all too frequently in the West. Idealists and reformers find it irresistible. Just a few years ago, many thoughtful people argued that to rid the world of terrorism, we must “drain the swamp” of the Middle East by toppling every government within it. So too, 60 years ago, many thoughtful men believed that to eradicate poverty and social dysfunction, we must raze the cities where they persist.

He calls her a cobblestone conservative, despite her rather liberal reputation:

On the left, some are disturbed by her choice of protagonists. Jacobs’s evocation of the “sidewalk ballet” sounds like nostalgia for the good old days of white middle class America; her “eyes on the street” like a technique of enforcing conformity; her loathing of rowdy misbehavior like fear of difference. Her writing and activism, meanwhile, killed off federally financed programs to house the poor. Though she lived in Greenwich Village in the 1950s, Jacobs never mentions the countercultural heroes, such as the Beat poets, who lived next door. She does, on the other hand, have kind words for housewives and shopkeepers. Put it all together, and Jacobs sounds suspiciously reactionary, a Bohemian Ronald Reagan.

Well, yes. Jacobs was reactionary. She fought to preserve a certain way of life — city life — that had come under attack. Like any good reactionary, she romanticized it somewhat. Further, she loved cities not because they harbored the poor but because they welcomed entrepreneurs, middlemen, and small manufacturers. In her peculiar book-length dialogue Systems of Survival Jacobs contrasted the commercial values (honesty, thrift, initiative, enterprise, collaboration, trade, and optimism) found in cities to the “guardian” values (tradition, hierarchy, loyalty, largesse, love of fate) found anywhere that territory requires defense. While Jacobs admits that civilization requires both sets of values, and even adopts the Platonic solution of segregating the “guardians” from the “traders,” she clearly admires commercial values the most. She was bourgeois in every sense of the word. She even voted against Franklin Roosevelt.

Spherical Flying Machine

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

This spherical flying machine developed by Japan’s Ministry Of Defense is pretty awesome:

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Iron Man 3 to Shoot in NC

Friday, October 28th, 2011

For Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios considered locations in Los Angeles, Michigan and New Mexico before deciding Wilmington, North Carolina had the right mix of space, talent, and taxpayer incentives:

North Carolina this year increased its tax breaks for movie and television productions to up to 25 percent. That means movie producers could write off up to 25 percent of their in-state spending — up to $20 million — from their state taxes. The tax break is refundable, which means a producer who qualified for a $20 million write-off but didn’t owe that much in North Carolina taxes could collect the difference with a multi-million-dollar check from taxpayers.

The incentive has helped make 2011 a big year for the state’s film industry. Twenty-nine productions had set up offices in North Carolina as of early September, spending more than $200 million and at least temporarily employing 3,000 crew members, Perdue’s office said. The year’s productions include the feature film “The Hunger Games” and the television series “Homeland,” “Eastbound and Down” and “One Tree Hill.”

The Guns of James Bond

Friday, October 28th, 2011

When Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale, he had Bond carry a .25 Beretta. Back then, Britain still had gun nuts, and one of them wrote in suggesting that Bond carry what would become his signature gun, the Walther PPK.

In this BBC documentary clip, Sean Connery introduces that British gun nut, Geoffrey Boothroyd, who discusses the guns of James Bond:

Sunny Arrakis

Friday, October 28th, 2011

Visit Sunny Arrakis:

That travel poster is by DrFaustusAU.

Killer Whales Molt

Friday, October 28th, 2011

I didn’t realize that killer whales — pardon, orcasmolt, which poses certain problems:

The problem for them and other polar mammals is that molting means losing a ton of body heat, which can be potentially dangerous in such frigid waters.

So they swim 3,000 miles to warmer waters:

Researchers from the US’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracked the movements of five killer whales, all of which moved from the freezing Antarctic waters — average temperature 30 degrees Fahrenheit — to the relatively balmy subtropical waters off the coast of Brazil and Uruguay, where it’s 75 degrees. One whale managed the entire 6,000 mile round trip in just 42 days.

It appears these journeys are pretty much exclusively for regenerating their skin — at those speeds, they wouldn’t have enough time to go hunting or to take care of their young. It’s a trip that takes the whales far outside their natural comfort zone, as evidenced by the fact that the whales went slower and slower the further north they got.

What Is the Best Way to Study?

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

What is the best way to study? Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal reviews the research:

Is New York getting safer?

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Is New York getting safer? Not really, Tyler Cowen says, citing this passage from The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, by William J. Stuntz:

New York is America’s safest large city, the city that saw crime fall the most and the fastest during the 1990s and the early part of this decade.  Yet New York’s murder rate is 80 percent higher now than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century — notwithstanding an imprisonment rate four times higher now than then.  That crime gap is misleadingly small; thanks to advances in emergency medicine, a large fraction of those early twentieth-century homicide victims would survive their wounds today.  Taking account of medical advances, New York is probably not twice as violent as a century ago, but several times more violent.

Little Monsters, Big Bucks

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Unlike the Mario Brothers, the pocket monsters from the Pokémon video game did successfully break out into other media. In fact, when Wizards of the Coast, the folks behind Magic: The Gathering, produced a kid-friendly Pokémon trading-card game, it almost took over the brand. (The card game is now produced by The Pokémon Company, a Nintendo affiliate spun off in 1998.)

The billion-dollar question is how? Pokémon game director Junichi Masuda sees three pillars to its success — solid gameplay, believable characters and the element of communication — but mainly that foundation of unwaveringly excellent videogames:

“A kids’ brand generally doesn’t start with a videogame,” says J.C. Smith, Pokémon Company’s director of marketing. “Because we have that great base that’s a rich experience, it makes the other pieces easier to sell.”

Pokémon was, and is still, the creation of hard-core gamers with an adoration for the medium. Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori started their company Game Freak in the late ’80s, naming it after a black-and-white gaming fanzine the pair used to print up and sell around Akihabara. They started cranking out passionate, well-designed games that today are cult classics: Mendel Palace on the 8-bit Nintendo; Pulseman on the Sega Genesis.

As a kid, Tajiri would throw different species of bugs into bottles and watch them fight. This would eventually inspire 1996’s Pocket Monsters, a game for the aging black-and-white Game Boy in which players searched through tall grass to capture 150 fantastic creatures, then pit them against each other in battle. It was a smash success in Japan, and Game Freak’s days as a maker of low-selling cult games for their fellow geeks and freaks of Akihabara were over.

One of the company’s first hires was Junichi Masuda, whose background in both classical music and computer programming made him an ideal multitasker for a small company. After writing the theme songs to most of Game Freak’s releases, he moved into game directing. His guiding principle in creating appealing games, he says, is sports.

“With Pokémon, what we concentrate on is that the gameplay is really solid — like a sport, like soccer or basketball,” Masuda said in an interview with Wired.com earlier this year. “It’s a game that people can play on and on, and not get bored of it.”

It’s amazing how unusual that focus on a good game really is.

Autistic children have distinct facial features

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Autistic children have distinct facial features:

When researchers took three-dimensional images of the children, they discovered autistic children have a broader upper face with wider eyes, a shorter middle region of the face including the cheeks and nose and a broader or wider mouth and philtrum — the area below the nose and above the top lip.

Aldridge analyzed 64 boys with autism and 41 typically developing boys ages 8 to 12 using the 3-D images of each boys’ head. She also mapped out 17 points on the face, such as the corner of the eye and the divot in the upper lip. When the overall geometry of the face was calculated and the two groups were compared, she noticed statistical differences in autistic children’s faces.