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Star Trek Into Darkness

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With Star Trek: The Next Generation fresh in our minds, Tara and I decided to go see the new Star Trek movie.  After all, the last one, though mindless, was a decent distraction.  This one has Benedict Cumberbatch in it, so it's gotta be even better, right?

Absolutely wrong.  There's so many things wrong with this movie.

Captain, That Course of Action Is Highly Cornball
Hope you didn't want subtlety, because this movie ain't got it.  Scotty runs around like a madman, Chekov runs around like a Scotty, and Uhura and Spock fight ridiculously because Market Research Says All the Fans with Vaginas Need Some Romance Because They Couldn't Possibly Be Smart Enough to Figure Out the Plot.  The first half of the movie is entirely people who nobody cares about dying or characters spouting unfunny self-referential humor.

And it's not strictly because of the TV heritage of this series.  My friend said it when talking about Bond films, but it holds here too: The Original Series wasn't campy because it was trying to be campy, it was campy because it was the 60s, and that's how action was done.  Something about the campiness is lost in translation when you layer it over cutting edge visuals and make it high-res.  Shit, son, if you want to do it campy, your film better have a stuntman in a repurposed Godzilla costume chucking styrofoam rocks around.  Don't feed me terrible one-liners and pretend that you Get Camp.

To Boldly Go Where Michael Bay Has Gone Before
In the opening scene alone, our main characters

  1. Are chased by bloodthirsty natives (Yup, seriously).
  2. Duck spears chucked at them by those same natives (Again, yup).
  3. Jump off a 300-foot cliff into the ocean.
  4. Are beamed off of an exploding shuttlecraft.
  5. Survive a fusion bomb detonation about 5 yards away.
  6. Fall from a broken rope INTO AN ERUPTING VOLCANO.

Of course, they survive all of it because Hollywood.  Jesus, I know most moviegoers are going to know who Kirk and Spock are, and that means the filmmakers can be a little bit fast and loose with character development, but if I wanted to see Transformers 8: The Bro-gasm I would just go see it.  I'm an old-fashioned guy, give me a little Plot Development Wine and a bit of Character Background Entree before you take me home to see your Engorged Explosion.

Dammit Jim, I'm a Sequel, not a Miracle Worker!
The movie has sequelitis in a real bad way.  You can practically see everybody involved thinking that they're going to do everything that worked last movie, only bigger.  Kirk jumping off of cliffs in the opening scene!  Kirk clashing with Starfleet authority!  Enterprise picked on by bigger and better spaceship!  Scotty saves the day from someplace that's not the Enterprise!  Gigantic spaceships plummeting toward Earth!  

Of course, the novelty factor is gone, so things like a cameo by Leonard Nimoy don't really work this time around.  If it quacks like a rehash, then it's a rehash.

Star Trek Philosophy
Love it or hate it, the thing that makes Star Trek different from any other science fiction is its adherence to often simplistic philosophy.  This is most obvious in the extended diplomacy of The Next Generation, but it also makes itself felt many times in the original series.  Star Trek has a bedrock philosophy that conflict can always be solved peacefully, cultural differences can be resolved through mutual education, and empathy can always win the day if we give it the time to do so.

When Khan shows up in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the plot works because it takes care to fit itself into this framework.  Khan is a parable about being careful what you wish for, an admonishment against genetic engineering of humanity.  When Khan shows up in Into Darkness, he's just The Ultimate Badguy who can't be hurt and can't be stopped, except when he can.  There are vestigial elements of the old philosophy, but they feel strange and out of place, and mostly just copped from the old movie.


Star Trek Into Darkness has easily claimed the spot of worst movie I've seen in theaters this year, and it's going to take a real stinker to unseat it.  (To be fair, I thought that about Prometheus last year, then Step Up 4volution came along to nab the dubious honor.  It could happen again this year.)  Do not see this movie.

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A Rebuttal to Michael Lopp's "The Engineer, the Designer, and the Dictator"

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I just got back from DrupalCon Portland. I loved it, as I've loved every DrupalCon that I've had the good fortune of attending.

This year, as with every year, there were a couple of keynotes by big-name speakers outside of the Drupal community. This year, the speakers were Karen McGrane, who was great, and Michael Lopp (aka Rands) who was... definitely somebody who spoke at this conference.

From what I saw on Twitter and heard throughout the conference, I'm not the only Drupalista who was less than thrilled. But I also heard some attendees express that they felt that he had good ideas, and that we as a community should pay attention to them.  To that I say: What good ideas?

Briefly, Lopp's thesis states that there needs to be somebody in three different roles in order for any project to be a success, and these three roles are the titular engineer, designer, and dictator. The engineer brings order and solves problems, the designer humanizes the project, and the dictator provides vision and keeps the project on track.

The talk itself contains a lot of misleading rhetorical tricks and sloppy stereotyping, but I want to focus on what bothered me the most: the third role, the Dictator. The Dictator is the person who imparts vision to a project, gives it coherent direction, and basically makes sure that all parts of the project stay focused on basic goals. It's not hard to draw a line between this fictionalized role and the role of the CEO in the business world. Lopp himself does this. Bill Gates, he says, was a dictator. Steve Jobs was a dictator. I can follow Lopp this far. Those two were extremely visible CEOs of companies that came out with revolutionary products.

But Lopp also provides a bunch of counterexamples. He comes up with a bunch of companies and CEOs which he claims don't have dictators. Following Lopp's own logic, these are the companies that don't have successful products, because they don't have dictators.

Steve Ballmer's Microsoft is first up.  Since Bill Gates left Microsoft, everybody's favorite evil empire has gotten significantly less sexy, but they continue to put out solid numbers and good products.   Windows 7 was a critical and sales success, and Windows 8 has even jumpstarted a graphic design trend. Even Lopp himself allows that the Xbox was a good product, though he handwaves that away by saying that there must be a Dictator somewhere else in Microsoft which sounds an awful lot like affirming the consequent to me.

Oracle, IBM, and HP are next for non-dictator companies. According to Lopp, these companies' success (or non-success, in the case of HP's fallen valuation) is due to them using business models, not creating products.  I'm not sure what Lopp thinks that IBM and Oracle's enterprise offerings are, but they are most assuredly products, and they are definitely successful.

But the absolute most perplexing examples that Lopp uses are Facebook and Google. According to Lopp, Sergei Brin and Mark Zuckerberg are not dictators -- they're engineers masquerading as dictators. These are the companies behind some of the most successful products of the last 20 years. Facebook's platform drives the social web and has enormous success, and Google's mail, mapping, and mobile devices are assuredly successes. 

And finally, the category that Lopp never brings up (until the Q&A, when he quotes some factually inaccurate figures about Drupal) is the open source model. The various distros of Linux have quietly eaten the server world, and open source languages, frameworks, and databases like php, Ruby/Rails, Wordpress, Drupal, and MySQL run most of the web. None of these companies have anything that can be qualified as a Dictator. The open source model is, in fact, inherently opposed to the idea.  And yet it has proven to be an enormous success.

I understand the conception of Dictator, and I understand why Lopp separates these companies into Dictator haves and have-nots. But how on earth does this arbitrary distinction prove any kind of a point about product success? How does he point at all kinds of successful companies and insist that they don't have successful products?

This brings me back to my original point: What good ideas, exactly, did this keynote have?

The best argument in favor of Lopp's keynote is that the roles he describes aren't meant to necessarily map to a single person, but that there exists some kind of generalization about a project which both allows one person to fulfill several roles and allows one role to be filled by multiple people at the same time.  But, then why does Lopp only use single-person dictators in his examples?  And what's the point of the model, then? Is the model really saying nothing more than that every successful product has a cohesive direction? Isn't that's embedded in the definition of successful already without us having to be spoon-fed that at a keynote?

In the end, it was a keynote that used weak, anecdotal evidence to reinforce lazy oversimplifications, and then overgeneralized those ideas beyond any kind of useful application.  This is really just masturbatory executive self-justification of the Big Man theory.

Donald X. Vaccarino is the Absurd Culmination of the Cult of the New

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I played Dominion, Gauntlet of Fools, and Kingdom Builder tonight.  All three games are designed by Donald X. Vaccarino.  It's not often that I play three of a single designer's games in the space of a month, much less a single evening.  It made me realize something that's been bugging me about his designs: his designs, for all they seem to enhance replayability, actually eliminate what I'm looking for when replaying a game.

Vaccarino's first design, Dominion, made a huge splash when it came out.  Not only did it introduce the new mechanic of deck building, it  also came with a neat little perk -- there was a lot of replayability in the box.  Besides the base cards, there were 25 different Kingdom cards, and only 10 of them got used in any given game.  Dominion righfully exploded in popularity, shooting into the top 10 on Boardgamegeek and winning a well-deserved Spiel des Jahres.

Vaccarino has come out with several other games now, and he's an established name.  He's even nabbed another SdJ with Kingdom Builder.  His games follow a simple structure.  First, establish an extremely simple framework.  Then, come up with a great number of extremely small variants, variants of the type that are more frequently put in some sort of special card deck (like in Yspahan or Goa),  or are packaged as micro-expansions (like Spielbox expansions or the ones from the Alea Treasure Chest) and randomize these variants so that only a small subset are used in any given game.  Finally, make sure that all players have similar access to these variants, so that the game balances itself, either through an auction, a race, or simple lack of scarcity.

The end result is a boxed game that has a high perceived replayability, because it has a huge number of permutations.  Dominion's choose-10-from-25 leads to an absurd number of more than 3 million different combinations, meaning that you can play just the basegame for the rest of your life and be unlikely to see the same set twice.

But, -- here's where I diverge from the "infinite replayability" hivemind -- Vaccarino's games' frameworks are too simple to support the best parts of replayability.  With Vaccarino's games, the emphasis switches from the framework to the variants, and thus replaying a game is like playing a whole different game.  When I replay a game, I don't want a new game.  I don't want a whole new problem to solve.  I want strategic fine-tuning.  I want to be able to make semi-consistent valuations of actions and resources.  I want to feel that there's a very good chance that something I learn this game can directly teach me something for next game.  

Kingdom Builder is the ultimate expression of Vaccarino's design pattern, and resultant dying of replayability.  The basic framework is so simple it's almost insulting -- take a card, then put three houses on a terrain of that card, playing next to your current houses if possible.  If you settled on one scoring system with that mechanic, the resulting game is more akin to a mass-market children's game than to something you would pull out at game night.

But, like Batman, this is the board game that our hobby deserves, not the one that we need.  This is the absurdist endpoint for the endless procession of new games that come out, get played, and get forgotten almost immediately. Sure the new setup with every game might make it seem like this is one game to play over and over again, but the experience is so different every time that the game has no relationship to itself from session to session. You're almost guaranteed never to see the same setup twice; the game's next session is, once again, tabula rasa. And this is why it's the ultimate expression of cult of the new -- you don't even have to go to the trouble of buying a new game to find the next experience, because this one is designed to be forgotten immediately after the session is played so that you can play a whole different game next time.

Of course, this begs the question: Why hasn't this replaced the buying habit for so many folks? The bitter Ameritrasher in me says that it's because Eurogamers have more money than sense and are particularly vulnerable to the cult-of-the-new, but that seems a bit too pat. After all, the cult-of-the-new was not invented with the Eurogame.  The numerous cookie-cutter hex-and-counter wargames or dudes-on-a-map Ameritrash titles from the 70s and 80s are expressions of cult-of-the-new sameyness when other genres predominated.  For every Panzer Blitz or Dune, there are hundreds of games that time has forgotten.  No, it's not just a symptom of Euro fans.

The real reason is, for all that we gamers trumpet replayability, we crave the novelty of a new game more than we do replaying our favorites.  Breaking the shrink on a new game is exciting, and taking a game through its traces for the first time even more so.  There's never more possibility in a game than when you first buy it.  You can explain that away as Western consumer instinct at work, but it's also more fundamental than that.  A new game represents potential in a way that an old game, even an old favorite, never will.

Vaccarino's games never regain that newness after you play them a few times, for all their variability.  Instead, they hover in this strange in-between, not quite novel, and not quite familiar.  No, keep your Donald X. games, please.  I'll stick to true replayability when I want it, and novelty when I don't.  Vaccarino's split-the-difference approach is the worst of both worlds.

Breaking Bad: Season 3

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This season was great from start to finish.  My minor quibble with the second season was that introduced a few I-don't-buy-it storylines, but that penchant is gone, here.  Jesse has finally grown into his own, and is more than just an incompetence foil for Walter.  This season surprised me, compelled me, and made me immediately want to continue, which just goes to prove that it is great TV.

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Jurassic Park 3D

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With the 20th anniversary release of Jurassic Park that's out in theaters, Tara and I copped a couple of 3d glasses and decided to see what changed in 20 years.

I didn't have high hopes.  Jurassic Park is that part of Spielberg that makes me hate Spielberg.  The overly simplistic worldview that other people find charming grates on me to no end.

The movie is good sometimes, and terrible at other times, and one simple question is all that it takes to distinguish one from the other:  Is somebody talking?  See, when somebody is talking, it means they are following the script, which was an atrocious travesty in the mid 90s, and has not been treated well by time.  Not only is the dialogue intensely awkward, but the feminist and racial politics specialize in that truly awkward 90s thinking of "Gender and race proscription is just fine if we ridicule the bigots!"  Meanwhile, the movie's one driving thought is obvious in the introduction to the movie, and reiterated ad-nauseum throughout the movie.  If you didn't get that nature is more powerful than humanity from Dr. Grant telling a child about velociraptors early in the movie, you'll have plenty of chances to get it later, whether when eventually pretty much every other character says something along those lines, or when one of the characters dies because, you know, they weren't respecting nature.

I don't think I realized how much this movie is actually for kids, whether or not anybody pays attention to the PG-13 movie rating.  There's a decent amount of gore, and a lot of tension, but in many ways, this is a horror movie for 8 year olds, from the simplistic plot line to the dinosaur almanac subject matter.

The saving grace of this movie is that Spielberg is a genius, even if he is seemingly allergic to scripts aimed at viewers older than 7.  The kitchen scene with the velociraptors is truly amazing.  Pretty much every time you get to see a dinosaur, or a shot without somebody talking, you are free to marvel at the effects and the craft that Spielberg used.  Very few shots are wasted, and the movie has a way of bleeding beyond the frame, where you feel like you could look left or right and see a bit more of Isla Nublar, if only the camera would follow your vision.

This is the Avatar of the mid 90s, an all-sizzle-no-steak experience with questionable politics.

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The Great Gatsby

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I read this in preparation for watching the Baz Luhrmann movie adaptation. I had read it once a long time ago, not for class, but I think when I was still in high school. That time I wasn't enamored of it, but upon this rereading, it has improved greatly in my mind.

What does one say about a classic? This is well-deserving of its status as rite-of-passage literature. It's a wonderful synopsis of the 20s, but even more, it's a wonderful synopsis of wealth and what it means to have it. Fitzgerald, through his narrator, leaves the perfect amount of information for the reader to discover. The plot is nothing special, certainly, belonging more in a Shakespeare play than in anything written in the last 100 years. But, the atmosphere is powerful, and the philosophy of the characters is even more accessible and powerful for their contrast. Gatsby's yearning for the past, contrasted with Daisy's hedonism and Carraway's detachment. Even the minor characters can be interpreted as manifestations of their philosophies, and the 20s and the American dream is made up of all of these colliding philosophies and characters.

It helps that the prose is often so good that it hurts. If you've somehow never read this book, read it now.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at
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Flight from the Dark (Lone Wolf, #1)

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Cheeseball 80s fantasy at its best. I saw a couple of these at my library when I was a kid, but because they are part of the cultural ephemera of serial paperback novels, there were only a couple books in the series available to me at the time. As this was before ebay and thus before the availability of everything, I couldn't find any of the other books. Fast forward 20 years, and I have now tracked down the first few books in this series.

The gimmick of this series is that it's a roleplaying game masquerading as a book. Not only do you choose the path of your character, much as with the better-known Choose Your Own Adventure series, but this adds some simplistic inventory management and combat systems, aided by a random number generator at the back of each book. There's little skill to be exhibited here, and you'll certainly die a few times by unavoidable choice, but part of the fun of the book is taking a character through several times.

The writing is better than it really has any right to be, as this is a pretty silly gimmick of a book. There's plenty of fantasy tropes, but the story mostly makes sense, and there's an easy narrative to follow. The simple narrative trick of making the reader choose their actions has a very compelling effect. I found myself rolling my eyes at parts, but still invested in the outcome of my character.

If the concept of book-as-game is interesting to you, by all means, check this out for a bit of simplistic adventure fantasy.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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Slave Revolts in Puerto Rico: Conspiracies and Uprisings, 1795-1873

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This was originally a thesis for a degree, and it shows. The good part is that it means that this book is very well documented and researched, with lots of very rich footnotes and plenty of references to primary sources. The bad thing is that it is extremely dense, given to extremely dry recitation, and often unwilling or unable to synthesize the information into a point of view.

If the brief synopsis on the back cover is to be believed, this was a very influential book -- it revolutionized the image of the 18th and 19th century Puerto Rican slaves from docile coordinators to frequently-unhappy agitators. This may be the case; I'm simply not knowledgeable enough on these matters to say. However, it did seem an odd statement to make. Slavery is linked hand-in-hand with injustice and rebellion in my mind, perhaps because my native country, the United States, fought the bloodiest war in our history over slavery. Slaves that never rebel seem like an inherent contradiction.

If you're really dying for some information on this topic or need to cite this for a paper you're writing, check this out, but otherwise don't bother.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo

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Nobody really knows Bo Jackson, or at least, nobody knows who Bo could have been.  Bo is legendary.  Not only was he the subject of an incredibly influential Nike campaign during his heyday, but he also was incredibly physically gifted, the kind of pure athlete that comes along approximately once per century.  It sounds like hyperbole to compare him to Jim Thorpe, but there was nobody else (with the possible exception of Babe Didrikson Zaharias) who rose so meteorically to the pinnacle of multiple sports. 

There is a place in our culture for the documentary that tells a well-known tale, but tells it with such crystalline structure that you fall in love with the subject all over again, a la the documentaries of Ken Burns.  This is a good example of one of these documentaries.  The exploits of Bo are so incredible that they become almost legendary.  It's no coincidence that Paul Bunyan comes up multiple times in this documentary.  To have them lovingly compiled and present in one exceptionally well-crafted documentary is a treat.

This is one of the best of the series.

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30 for 30: Broke

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Back in 2009, Sports Illustrated published an article entitled "How (and Why) Athletes Go Broke."  Director Bily Corben decided this was a good idea for a follow-up documentary, and this entry in the 30 for 30 series is his work.

Broke is one of the 30 for 30 series that I heard a lot about through channels other than the normal ESPN publicity machine.  By and large, it deserves it.  There's a lot of polish on this documentary, and it's a great example of the style of documentary that doesn't use a narrator, but relies on text and interviewees to provide all of the backbone for the film.

The interviews are very strong.  Not only are there big name athletes like Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison, and Curt Schilling, but there's also a very wide spread of other figures beyond athletes, including financial advisors.  The movie makes some great points, like how this is not something that's unique to athletes, but that it's a reflection of youth and a common story for people who come into money very suddenly.  Possibly the strongest part of the movie is that it doesn't adhere to the "Dumb jocks can't manage their money" sterotype, with all of its racial and social class undertones.  It also makes a few suggestions for how to address the problem, such as intervention by the leagues, players' associations, and NCAA, as well as increased presence of financial advisors in high-profile sports.

There's one place where this documentary falters, and that is its gender politics, which are pretty bad.  The one woman interview is a strip club owner, and there are no women athlete interviews.  Women are portrayed as gold-digging strippers, money-hungry mothers, wives-to-be with intentions to divorce and take all your money, and most repulsively, even women looking to get pregnant from athletes so that they can collect on hild support.  All of those are problematic, but the last is particularly abhorrent.  This goes back to the idea of woman as Jezebel, looking to undertake the enormous difficulty of giving birth to and raising a child just to collect a check.  Ignoring the fact that child support is notoriously difficult to collect, it's just not reasonable to assume that somebody would undertake that level of difficulty just to collect a rather middling check. 

If you can get past that, this is really an exceptional documentary.

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