From the archives: August 2008

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Wednesday Book Club: Ivanhoe

Wednesday, 27 August 2008 — 6:51am | Book Club, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literature

This week’s selection: Ivanhoe (1819) by Walter Scott.

In brief: Somewhere halfway between Shakespeare and Tolkien resides this beautifully written romance of 12th-century derring-do, an exemplary specimen of literary nostalgia for some good old-fashioned English chivalry. Armed with a healthy measure of Norman-Saxon linguistic hostility, a critique of Christian anti-Semitism, and a bit of Robin Hood here and there, Ivanhoe is, in a word, ideal. While the novel loses its focus as the plot expands in scope, and at least one plot thread feels resolved by divine providence rather than moral action, Scott’s colourful supporting characters and sweeping historical reach keep the story alive at every turn.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Ivanhoe, keep reading below.)

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Monday, 25 August 2008 — 4:19pm

Isn’t it strange that we still refer to desktop backgrounds as wallpaper? Wallpaper doesn’t go on desks. Then again, the desktop metaphor has become such an integral element of user interface design that one hardly thinks about what it represents.

Nevertheless, I would like to draw your attention to the latest addition to the site: the Wallpaper Gallery, a selection of desktop backgrounds that I whipped up from my point-and-shoot travel photographs. I think they are rather good, though they’re nothing that would turn any heads next to the awesome creations at InterfaceLIFT. I only have them in widescreen for now, seeing as how my notebook has a 16:10 monitor, but I’ll get to cooking something for you fullscreen types soon enough.

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Wednesday Book Club: The Emotion Machine

Wednesday, 20 August 2008 — 2:00am | Book Club, Computing, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind (2006) by Marvin Minsky.

In brief: In The Emotion Machine, AI pioneer Marvin Minsky presents his theories on the “big-picture” questions pertaining to the human mind—emotions, consciousness, common sense—in plain English and easy-to-follow diagrams, but one wonders if he goes too far in distilling his ideas for a layman’s audience, at the cost of the specificity and rigour that readers from a more technical background may demand. Minsky’s most insightful philosophical premises appear as corollaries and implications, and beg for further development. Nevertheless, the book fulfills its purpose as an expressly non-technical overview of how one might develop models for decomposing higher-order thought into manageable representations.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Emotion Machine, keep reading below.)

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There is no new Star Wars movie

Friday, 15 August 2008 — 10:14pm | Animation, Film, Star Wars

Before you read any further, observe these choice photographs of costumed Disneyland employees being arrested. They will set the tone.

I’ve noticed a bit of confusion in the air owing to the fact that cinemas are booking something called Star Wars: The Clone Wars this weekend. Lots of cinemas, actually—3,452 at last count, placing it on the order of a big summer release (and take special note of how I’m not going to call it a “film”). Well, the throngs of uninformed consumers out there are the primary audience at the multiplexes anyway, so you might as well cast a wide net.

The fact is, anyone who pays the least amount of attention to Star Wars (and if you aren’t, why would you watch this release?) is, or should be, fully aware that The Clone Wars is nothing more or less than a television pilot for a spin-off series that follows the footsteps of a long line of spin-off series, though the subject matter probably allows for more lightsabre duels and space battles than Droids or Ewoks did back in the ’80s. This might appeal to the individuals who will swallow anything as soon as you stick a Star Wars label on it—refer to your local bookshop’s “Science Fiction & Fantasy Series” shelf for details—but I’m not fooled for a second. I, for one, am quite aware that the seedy underworld of Star Wars spin-offs has historically produced nothing of value whatsoever, with the notable exceptions of Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic, Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2D Clone Wars vignettes, and a couple of choice LEGO sets.

I’m not even speaking to the quality of The Clone Wars, since I haven’t seen it: word has it that it’s dreadful, for all that other people’s opinions matter around here. The fact remains that there is no new Star Wars movie opening this weekend. The film series ended three years ago. Some would go so far as to argue that it ended twenty-five years ago, though they would be wrong.

When the dust settles and the inevitably anemic box office tally comes in, let it be a warning to anybody who thinks projecting television-quality material on underbooked screens confers some sort of legitimacy on the product. It doesn’t. Even Disney found this out years ago in the dying throes of the Eisner regime, when they tried to sneak the likes of Return to Never Land and The Jungle Book 2 under our noses. It confuses the market and dilutes the brand.

This is especially criminal where the Star Wars brand is concerned, because since the inception of the franchise, there has been an invisible line between the core product—the six Star Wars films—and the spin-off money farms of the comics, books, and video games. The existence of The Clone Wars is not news. What is news is the gumption of the folks at Warner Bros. (yes, Warner Bros., not 20th Century Fox) to fire the first salvo across the ceasefire line. It makes a mockery of the possibilities of cinema to remain above and beyond what television and direct-to-video have to offer. Then again, that’s standard practise now, isn’t it?

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Wednesday Book Club: Considering Genius

Wednesday, 13 August 2008 — 1:18am | Book Club, Jazz, Literature, Music

This week’s selection: Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz (2006) by Stanley Crouch.

In brief: Jazz critic Stanley Crouch has a reputation as an abrasive, stodgy curmudgeon of the emperor’s-new-clothes school, beholden to a restrictive aesthetic orthodoxy and unaccepting of experimentation. This anthology of essays from 1982 to 2004 reveals that Crouch’s reputation is well earned, but well defended. In collected form, his controversial views on race—easily misunderstood if read in the context of one piece alone—cohere into an appraisal of America that is at once complex and mature.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Considering Genius, keep reading below.)

Continued »

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