Sunday, 26 of February of 2017

Category » Nonfiction Mondays

Nonfiction Monday: Pixar’s Brave

This started out as a comment on MGK’s Single-Sentence Review of Brave, wherein a short positive statement about the movie spawned a comment thread full of people trying to pin down what exactly it was that bothered them about the movie. One commenter (comatose_chameleon) said:

[C]an you tell me what was the protagonist’s WANT? What was her goal, her objective? […] The fact that [we couldn’t] answer this question was at the root of most of our objections to the film.

Spoilers:

I don’t see it, frankly. Merida’s goal was never hard to pin down, though it changed through the movie. She started out with a very generic teen angst “NO! I don’t wanna!” which then changed to “Okay that was a mistake. I need to fix this somehow!”

I think the movie would have been better for me:

  1. if her initial mistake* had been more understandable, e.g. if the witch had tricked her, rather than simply standing there and blinking confusedly while she tricked herself, and
  2. if she had expressed the flip side of the overwrought teen melodrama experience, “Oh, woe! I have done something thoughtless and cruel which has consequences I should have foreseen that will ruin my life and the lives of those I love! I want to crawl in a hole and die, because I am clearly dumber than a sack of hammers!”,** and then _overcome_ that. “Well, I’m the only one who can fix this, so I’d better get on that. Self pity later.”

I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie. I did. I think most of my disappointment comes from the fact that, for the first time in… ever, there’s a Pixar movie that’s clearly inferior to its closest stylistic equivalent from Dreamworks.*** I’m referring, of course, to How to Train Your Dragon. I mean, compare the nadir points of both plots. In Dragon, after Toothless is discovered and captured and Stoick sails off with him and all the grownups to their quite probable deaths, Hiccup stands watching them go, knowing in his bones that this is all his fault. Then there’s an exchange with Astrid where she sums up all the ways that everything is screwed and gets Hiccup to face the situation and his actual role in it. Then:

Astrid: What are you going to do about it?
Hiccup: Eh… probably something stupid.
Astrid: Good, but you’ve already done that…
Hiccup: Then… something crazy! *runs off
Astrid: That’s more like it.

…and just like that we know we’re in Act 3. Things have gotten as bad as they can get, our hero has faced the darkness and decided to run back in and try to redeem himself despite the voices in his head telling him he can’t possibly do anything but continue to make things worse. From the outside, nothing has changed, so it’s not clear to an in-universe observer that things will go any better this time. But we know that Hiccup has changed on the inside, and that change is what allows him to succeed in Act 3 where he failed in the first two.

By contrast, the nadir of Brave… well, I’m not sure where the low point actually is. There’s the fakeout right before the inevitable happy ending, there’s the revelation of the ticking clock before the spell becomes permanent, but I think from a structural standpoint it has to be when Merida’s locked in the castle while her father goes charging off to kill her mother. There’s very little emotional content to that scene. Merida just annoyed that she can’t get on about what she wants to do; she might as well be stuck in traffic. I’m not saying there should be an exchange like Hiccup and Astrid’s. That’s not what Merida needs. Hiccup needed to stop trying to be good at the things he thought everybody else wanted him to be good at and start being good at the things that he was actually good at. Merida needed to learn that choosing your own fate doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to those around you. And we’re given no indication that she has. There’s no change in her character, so no real change in the way she approaches problems. She just keeps banging her head against things until eventually it works. It’s like watching a guy throwing darts for an hour, with no change in technique and no noticeable improvement in his accuracy, until eventually, by sheer luck and the Law of Large Numbers, he throws a bulls-eye. Then the music swells, he cries tears of joy, and we roll credits.

It’s not lost on me that I’ve been complaining for more than eight hundred words about a movie that was merely good when I wanted it to be great. Pixar doesn’t work for me, and although we talk about Pixar making movies that are actually good, instead of just good kids’ movies, Brave was not made for me. It’s just that I can’t think of another example of a Pixar movie where the main character is so consistently flawed right through the end of the movie. Even Cars had Lightning McQueen learning an Important Lesson. (I haven’t seen Cars 2, so it’s possible that Mater is the proto-Merida.) It’s frustrating, especially when it’s so easy to see how it could have been done. The Pixar Rules are great, but I propose an addition:

#23: Stories are about character growth. If your main character is the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning, you either chose the wrong main character or the wrong story.


*: “You’re a witch who’s clearly obsessed with bears, and you got out of the witching business because you had too many unsatisfied customers? Of course you are the solution to my problem! I will give you extremely vague instructions and rush off without asking any clarifying questions even though I’m under no pressure to leave. I am a genius!”

**: It would help that she’d actually be correct in this. I mean, say what you will about sacks of hammers, they very rarely turn anyone into a bear.

***: I suppose reasonable people can disagree about the merits of Antz vs A Bug’s Life, but I vastly prefer the latter.


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Nonfiction Monday: Writer’s Block

I’ve heard all kinds of things about writer’s block. I’ve heard that it’s a myth. I’ve heard that it’s the convenient name for the difficulties that result from whatever happens to be keeping a writer from focusing at the moment. (Call this the Ebeneezer Scrooge hypothesis: my writer’s block is an undigested bit of beef, a fragment of an underdone potato!) And I’ve heard the more mystical version, that it’s a force that comes along from time to time and that must be appeased through any of a number of superstitious rituals.

Having spent a lot of my leisure time playing games that involve lots of die-rolling, I understand the impulse in otherwise rational people to build up little rituals around the things we can’t directly control. Take a look at my dice some time, all lined up neatly and turned to display their maximum value, and you’ll see what I mean. But I’ve never found a satisfactory way of dealing with writer’s block, rational or not.

I’ve been banging my head against the next Fixer installment, off and on, for almost a year now. In a very real way that’s what caused me to go dark on Digital Busker itself for so long. I had decided that the next podcast needed to be a Fixer installment, but I couldn’t get it written. Feel free to point out how it’s better to put up something you hadn’t planned on writing than nothing at all. Maybe my brain will process that simple fact someday. Anyway, since the podcast is, in my mind, the flagship piece of the website, being stuck on that translated to being stuck on everything else. It wasn’t until I started working on my Month at the Museum application that I started really getting the itch to post something, anything, again, but even that’s getting held up by my block on Fixer.

So here I’m trying something new–I am going to try to exorcise my writer’s block by talking about it. If you recall, I had just gotten to the part of the story where the protagonists are separated. We followed Ransom for a while, and learned a little more about his Deal, but stopped in the middle of him trying to help some people he met along the way. I know basically what I want him to do about Thrist and Wren’s problem, and how it will work, including the hints that the action will contain about the Builders, the Rule, and some things in the world that I haven’t yet named. So I could write that.

I could also check in on Ursula. She disappeared, remember, at the end of Fixer 3, right before Eric and Fixer were captured. I know where she went, whom she’ll meet there, and what she’ll have to do to get back. There’s information about Ursula, the world, the Rule, and the magic system wrapped up in that plot as well. So I could write that.

The last thread there is of course Fixer and Eric. I want to follow them in their captivity for a while. Fixer will try to escape, and although at this point I don’t plan to let him succeed, he’s a pretty capable guy so he might just outsmart me. There are hints about the Rule, Eric, and even Fixer wrapped up in that plot. So I could write that.

The problem is, with the exception of the Fixer/Eric plot (which I decided to leave for last for tension/pacing purposes), I’ve already tried writing them. Ransom’s plot has been started and scrapped a few times, with two different viewpoint characters, and Ursula’s got about as far as the place where she diverges from the rest of the cast before sputtering out. I’m not really sure why I’m having so much trouble moving forward. It’s possible that my outline isn’t detailed enough–this is the first part of the story where the outline is actually important on an installment by installment basis. Always before I just knew which way they were going and wrote the journey. Now I have to juggle three different timelines and make sure everybody has the opportunity to meet up, and that’s more complicated than what I’ve done before. It isn’t really all that complicated objectively, especially not compared to the stories I hold as examples of the level to which I aspire, but it’s more complicated than what’s come before.

Perhaps I need to think more simply. I haven’t tried writing Ransom’s plot from Ransom’s point of view yet. I don’t really want to; I want to have a chance to seem him through the eyes of a character who doesn’t know him, and get a sense of how scary a were-bear can be. But neither Ivan nor Lord Nyard are speaking very eloquently so far. Maybe I can write it from Ransom’s point of view and then use that to write other points of view, either as interjections or as a new draft. It’s a thought, although part of me quails at the extra time being added to the project.

Something’s better than nothing, though, right?

Wish me luck. And if you have any sure-fire block breaking techniques you want to recommend, drop them in comments!


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Nonfiction, um, Tuesday: Month at the Museum

I have entered the Museum of Science and Industry‘s Month at the Museum contest. Part of the application was the creation of a one minute video, which I liked enough to share. Enjoy!

Month at the Museum Entry 2010 from Jacob Sewell on Vimeo.


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Nonfiction Monday: Questions and Desires

If one were to construct a profile of me from just what’s appeared on this site so far, there would be some glaring gaps. This is to be expected, of course, and it’s equally to be expected that as the content of the site grows, the gaps in that picture will asymptotically approach zero.

(See? Now you know I like to throw in big mathy words for no reason. Learning is fun!)

In particular, today I’m bringing an anecdote that relates to an important hobby of mine that hasn’t seen much screen time on Digital Busker so far: tabletop roleplaying games. Currently, in any given two week period, I play in two games and run one. This is way down from my lifetime max, which was something like six played and two run every two weeks (I was single then, and not particularly ambitious), but still a time commitment comparable to, say, the amount of time the “average American” spends watching TV in four days.

So back at the turn of the century, I ran a Wheel of Time campaign for a couple years. For those who a) care, and b) don’t already know, which is probably three people in the world, the Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game was a standalone d20-based game published by Wizards of the Coast, using a version of the then current Dungeons and Dragons Third Edition rules (what would later be referred to as 3.0) and based on the then-nine-book-long unfinished eponymous fantasy epic by the now-late Robert Jordan.

(Wow that was a terrible sentence. Good thing only three people in the world need to read it.)

There were a lot of problems with that campaign, both rules issues and things that I as the gamemaster should have done differently, but I remember it as being a lot of fun, and I tried some things back then that I might, from a position of additional experience, shy from now.

For instance: the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn. A little background: In the Wheel of Time books there are a pair of doorways that can each take you into another world, once. One door takes you to the Aelfinn, or colloquially “Snakes,” who will give you true answers to three questions and then send you home. The other door takes you to the Eelfinn, or colloquially “Foxes,” who will grant you three wishes (to the best of their ability) in exchange for a price that you must negotiate. Note that I didn’t say “and then send you home” this time. You generally have to use a wish for that. In the books, these two doorways are in wildly different parts of the world, and only one viewpoint character has related experiences through both. He went through the Snake door first and was unsatisfied with his answers. Later, upon encountering the Fox door, he went through hoping to get some more questions answered. He wound up making three wishes mostly by accident and without negotiating a price, and was hung for his trouble. Only the intervention of another character and some maybe-anachronistic CPR kept him alive to enjoy his boons.

So naturally I wanted to let my characters play around with these things, but I didn’t want to take them to the canonical location of either doorway. So I used another Wheel of Time MacGuffin, the World of Dreams, to get them to a doorway that could go to either place. We ended the session after they had all gone through, and I asked each player to think about whether “questions” or “desires” were more important to their character at that moment.

I wasn’t too worried about the… three? I think it was three, people who chose Questions and went to the Snakes. They might ask questions that would be difficult to turn into cryptic yet true answers, but at least their safe return to the world was guaranteed. So I handled them first, and sure enough, one of them managed to almost kill himself with a question. What was this question? “What is the Dark One currently planning?” The Dark One is a pandimensional being of… I’d say “pure evil,” but really He/She/It is so far beyond humanity that I’m not sure that label really applies. So the Snakes gave this character a glimpse of the view from that particular spot, which should by rights have burned his brain out faster than Lovecraftian slashfic. Only a very lucky die roll saved him from the looney bin. That wasn’t my favorite question, though. My favorite question, another character’s fourth of the agreed-upon three, was “Can I keep asking questions?” They answered that one on the house.

The Foxes, on the other hand, were somewhat more concerning. The only in-text example we have of their interactions with mortals paints them as tricky, not very nice, and unwilling to consider “but I didn’t know that” as a mitigating circumstance. So I started with my one player who was actually a fan of the series and had read all the books, figuring that I could count on him, at least, knowing how to get out of their world safely.

Such was not the case. He barged on through, made his requests, and never thought to negotiate a price or safe passage back home. So they, pretty much as they did in the book, called him an idiot and knocked him out. I was pretty sure that was it for him.

The second character to go through to the Foxes did manage to pick up on the hints I dropped and negotiate a price–he traded away his sense of smell. The third character, on the other hand, basically saved the day. His first wish was safe passage home for himself, his party, and their horses. Yes, he actually remembered the horses. That alone is amazing in an rpg. When it got around to haggling time, the Foxes were feeling a little cocky and tried to rattle him.

What should we take?
Let us take his ears!
Let us take his memories of home!
Let us take his sense of sight!

At this point, frustrated, the character broke in with “You’re about to get my sense of humor.”

Agreed!
It is done.

On paper, that character lost the least of any that went to the Foxes–the character who didn’t negotiate wound up losing his dark side, a la The Enemy Within, complete with evil doppleganger–but he roleplayed it so well that we all felt his loss.

And that’s why, seven or eight years later, I don’t remember what they actually wished for, and I certainly don’t remember what the other characters asked, but I remember taking Gavril’s sense of humor, because that informed his character for the rest of the game.


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Nonfiction Monday: Avatar

So I saw Avatar yesterday.

It was very pretty.

For whatever reason, that wasn’t enough to distract me from the rest of it. I’ve heard from people that loved it for its visuals alone, were even moved by them emotionally. Perhaps my own ‘meh’ response is because we were promised something revolutionary, but the nicest thing I can say about it is that the performance capture cgi aliens weren’t all creepy. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t watch the Polar Express or Beowulf without getting squicked out, so non-creepy performance capture avatars (so to speak) is a huge step. But you can’t tell me that you couldn’t have given the same amount of money to Pixar and gotten better aliens with traditional computer animation methods.

More detailed and SPOILERy comments after the cut.

Read more »


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Nonfiction Monday: Panini Portabella

I remember years ago seeing an Iron Chef battle with “jumbo mushrooms” as the key ingredient (I don’t know what kind of mushrooms they were, but they looked like portabellas). One of the Iron Chef’s dishes was a burger served in a pair of mushrooms, rather than a bun.

You heard me. Take a look (The Iron Chef’s dishes start at 6:13, and the mushroom burger starts at 6:25).

Since then I’ve always wanted to try something similar, and now I finally have. Nonfiction Mondays is proud to present: Panini Portabella!

Allez Cuisine!


Panini Portabella

hardware

  • Panini press
  • (You can substitute a skillet over medium heat and a foil-wrapped brick that’s been heated in a 400 degree oven for half an hour, if you’ve got heavy enough gloves to safely handle it.)

software

  • Portabella caps, preferably in pairs of similar size
  • Kosher salt
  • Olive oil
  • Sliced ham
  • Roast pork tenderloin, cut into medallions
  • Sliced Swiss cheese
  • Dill pickle slices or chips
  • Yellow mustard

Preparation

At least a few hours ahead of cook time, sprinkle the undersides of your mushroom caps with kosher salt and drizzle them with a very small amount of olive oil. Let these sit in the refrigerator until it’s time to cook.

At cook time, heat your press and arrange your ingredients for a smooth work flow. Some of you may have identified the panini filling here as a standard Cubano, which is not really a panini (the Cubano is usually pressed on a flat sandwich press, rather than a ridged panini press–those of you using the skillet/brick combo for this dish are striking a blow for authenticity). I started with Cubano fillings because the Cubano is a known quantity and I was curious to see how much the mushrooms changed it.

Assemble your sandwiches, with an eye to architechture. (I did mustard->pickles->ham->pork->cheese.) Assembled sandwiches go into the press for at least three minutes, longer if they’re not browned yet. You don’t need to char them, but a little browning will vastly improve the flavor and texture of the final device.

A note of caution: the heat and pressure will liberate a lot of water from these mushrooms, so this step is apt to get messy. If your press has a nifty little drain spout in one corner of its lower plate (like mine), make sure you don’t lose the little drip-catcher that’s supposed to go under it (like I did).

When your paninis look done (firm, browned surface, gooey melty cheese) remove them from the heat and let them sit, preferably on a draining rig of some kind (a cooling rack or small grill over paper towels, for instance) for a few minutes to let everything inside come to equilibrium. After that, dig in.

Final Thoughts

I don’t think the Cubano filling was well served by this substitution. The mushroom kind of overwhelmed it. Next time I’ll definitely try something a lot stronger for a counterpoint. Bleu cheese, bacon, and pickled pork spring to mind, although probably not all on the same sandwich. Oh, and be careful with condiment control–things which drip out of the gills of a mushroom tend to pick up a color change, if you know what I mean. Nothing that affects the flavor, but it doesn’t look good.

You can basically go nuts with this method, though, so long as your fillings are either cooked or edible raw (the panini process isn’t sufficient to cook fillings, aside from melting cheese), and they can play well enough together structurally to keep the sandwich from sliding apart before the press can do its work.

Here are some pictures I took of my first Panini Portabella experiment. I didn’t plan ahead, so I had to use my cameraphone. The quality is poor, but you can get a sense of the experience.

Panini Portabella 1
Panini Portabella 2
Panini Portabella 3
Panini Portabella 4


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Nonfiction Monday: Sell Out With Me, Oh Yeah

I’ve created some ads for the site. They’ll be running through the Project Wonderful network starting now. Websnark and Wondermark (rhyme totally unanticipated, I assure you) are among the first places to be graced with these lovely images.

Those websites are both quality reads, by the way. I’m trying to pick places that I enjoy in hopes of attracting people who will enjoy my stuff.

090831 dbnet rectangle


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Nonfiction Monday: Picture Pages

Today I thought I’d share a couple pictures that made me chuckle.

The (non)Invisible Sedan

Ah, yes, the Ultravision filter on my cameraphone is working nicely.
 

Customers who purchased this item have secrets.

(Look at the items at the bottom under “Also Bought,” vs. the item featured.)
I can’t decide if this is due to Valentine’s Day, closeted customers, or Jason Statham’s unexpected crossover appeal.


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Nonfiction Monday: Pork Fajitas

I don’t know why, but I never really considered pork as a fajita meat until recently (something about being engaged to a person who really likes pork). Cooking with pork’s always been a challenge for me. See, I get in trouble when I eat overcooked meat–it has a tendency to get stuck on the way to my stomach (and let’s not discuss that further), and everybody knows pork has to be cooked to well done or you’ll get the eeeevil trichinosis! (dramatic music)

Except, well, no.

Still, pink in pork is scary to most Americans and it’s not good presentation to open your meal with a lecture on why your diners are wrong and dumb. So I try to cook pork until it looks safe, which means it’s overdone and causes me trouble unless I’m very careful with it. Care like I took in the preparation of this fajita recipe, which came out tender and flavorful.


Pork Fajita #1

hardware

  • One large skillet with a tight-fitting lid
  • One large skillet, lid optional

software

  • One bell pepper (color of your choice, but I like yellow)
  • One half of a large onion
  • Two pork chops or pork steaks
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • salt, pepper, chili powder, ground cumin, chili oil, dried parsley

procedure

Thaw pork, cut into strips. Rub with salt, pepper, chili powder, and ground cumin. (I’m not going to give you specific amounts for the seasonings because there are too many variables, but I will say I usually have about equal parts of these things, and the pork winds up looking noticeably darker but not yet saturated.) Lay these out with as little intra-pork contact as possible, cover and let them rest in the fridge for at least an hour (more if you can swing it–up to about a day).

French the onion and bell pepper (i.e. cut them into thin, uniform strips–a mandolin is great for this if you have one, otherwise it’s time to work on your knife skills). Peel and crush the garlic (I use the flat side of a chef’s knife on a cutting board, but please don’t slice off your hand doing this). Put the onions and peppers in the lidded skillet over medium heat with 2tbsp chili oil and 1tsp salt. After about a minute or when the onions are visibly softening, add the garlic along with 1tsp chili powder, 1tbsp ground cumin and 1tbsp dried parsley. Cover this and leave it on medium heat until the lid starts to rattle. When that happens turn the heat to low (or on an electric range just turn it off–the residual heat in the burner will do what needs doing) and leave covered.

Put a little chili oil, just enough to skim the bottom, in the other skillet and heat it to medium-high. When it’s hot add the pork strips and sear them for about two minutes. This will not cook them through, you’re just adding texture and flavor.

Add the par-seared pork strips to the veggie skillet and bring it back to medium heat. Cover and wait for the lid to rattle again. When it does, lower the heat as before and wait five minutes. Check the pork’s temperature then and every five minutes after that until it’s where you want it. Serve with warm tortillas.

options

As always, remember that the science in cooking is all in the technique, not the ingredients, so feel free to change up the proportions of any of the software in this recipe, or substitute other similar flavors. Want veggie fajitas? Use slices of portabello mushrooms instead of pork. Want less heat? Use olive oil or safflower oil instead of chili oil. More garlic, less onion, cilantro instead of parsley, whatever you want, just have fun with it.


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