Sunday, February 12, 2012

Slow down

People don't stumble upon anything anymore. People only ever find exactly what they're searching for.

I love shopping in used book stores. I love the musty scent of hidden treasure. I love going into a place looking for, say, Soccernomics, and finding a dozen interesting books on baseball, 2000 Ford Escorts, science, and film history. When I was a kid, I would look through every single comic in the 25-cent boxes at Golden's and discovered all kinds of crazy and interesting things. Later, I would wade through the boxes at CD Warehouse, listening to U2's War for the first time and discovering the depth of Sister Hazel. I kinda wish I'd had a record store in my home town.

It's a shame. We are too busy, with too much to do, and too little time to do it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Game of Shadows


Recently, the Missus treated me to a movie night: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows at the Studio Movie Grille. I enjoyed the movie, though I hesitate to use the word "thoroughly." At times, I questioned Guy Ritchie's decisions and wondered about where the movie was going, both artistically and plot-wise. But in the end, he took us somewhere cool and fun, and I give it 4 out of 5.

Three Up

1. The Allusions. My absolute favorite part of the movie, hands down, was all the references to the canon.  I have read all 56 stories and all 4 novels. I have spent significant amounts of time thinking about the stories and who Sherlock Holmes "really is."* Anyway, I am very familiar with the Holmesian Universe, as originally imagined. And here's the thing: This movie is so dadgum full of allusions. One of my favorite early moments was when Mycroft said something about "If you don't solve this problem, I'm going to have to go to some rubbishy place called Reichenbach." Knowing my way around Holmesian Europe, I knew exactly where we would end up. And I loved it.

*Here's my thumbnail sketch: He's a fictional recreation of the logical side of the brain. He's sort of the Hyde half of Jekyll, if you traded evil for the Baconian method. Which becomes all the more interesting when you note that Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Watson share a profession.

2. Casting.

2a. Stephen Fry. When Stephen Fry stepped on screen, I thought "No way . . . no effin way!" Simply put, he was amazing as Mycroft and exactly how I imagined Mycroft. All I can say is: Read The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter or The Bruce-Partington Plans. Mycroft was never one of my favorite characters, but to see him played so perfectly by such a charming actor pushed this movie to a new level for me.

2b. Jared Harris. Wait, who? The British guy from Mad Men? One and the same. He has the hands-off brilliance of the literary Moriarty. Again, not one of my favorite characters from the books, but Harris does an amazing job turning Conan Doyle's attempt to escape Holmes into a brilliant, cold, and compelling character. By the way, I heard one group of reviewers complaining about his crime. I say this: At the turn of the 20th century, we didn't have "war crimes" yet. The idea of owning the munitions plant and the bandage factory, then starting a war between two countries that already hate each other? Only Moriarty would have thought of that.

3. The Music. If you saw the first one, this is more of the same. Hans Zimmer is pretty good, I guess.

Three Down

1. Sequelitis. Even with all the good stuff, Ritchie still struggled to avoid doing everything bigger, better, and more explosive. I shouldn't say he struggled with it; he just did it. More narrated slow-motion planning (with the very best saved for last), more steampunk sensibility, more explosions and bullets tearing through the wind. I like it all just fine, but, at times, I felt like he was trying too hard. Which is really a shame, because with a cast like this, you don't even have to try.

2. Lack of Lestrade and Adler. Lestrade happens to be one of my favorite characters from the books, and he was noticeably missing from the movie. Irene Adler I could take or leave, but I never think Rachel McAdams takes away from a movie. These are two major characters in the Holmesian Universe, and they got remarkably short shrift. All I'm sayin is: You should have had Lestrade break up the bachelor's party melee. Maybe next time.

3. Comic book style. If I have one over-arching complaint about Ritchie's interpretation of Sherlock Holmes, it is that Ritchie seems to view Holmes as some kind of precursorial superhero, a sort of Superman before Clark Kent. To me, Conan Doyle was doing more than creating a superhero. He was setting forth a way of living and trying to get us to ask ourselves, Would I want to live like that? For Holmes, there is no maybe; there is only yes or no. There is no hope; there is only determinism. There is no value except the obvious and extrinsic value. Watson plays the foil. He is an everyman in every sense of the word. He falls in love; he is loyal; he has hope and believes in people. Conan Doyle sets the two side by side and asks, Who would you rather be? Ritchie, on the other hand, creates a dynamic duo, a sort of Superman and Robin. His Holmes has no weakness.

But that's better than a deerstalker hat and cries of "Elementary, my dear Watson!"

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Masten Hypothesis

I'll make it simple.

Δt = (r1-r2) / r2 * t1

That's right. The amount of time you will save by driving faster is proportionate to the ratio of the difference in speed to the new speed.

No matter how far you have to go, it seems, you will always only save that much. For example, if you are driving 30 mph and think it might save time to go 40 mph, you are right, but maybe not as right as you think. You will cut your driving time by a quarter.

d = rt
t = d / r
t = 20 miles / 30 mph
t = 20/30 h = 2/3 h = 40 minutes

But if you speed up to 40 mph, then:

t = d / r
t = 20 miles / 40 mph
t = 20/40 h = 1/2 h = 30 minutes

As best I can tell, this holds true for any two speeds at any distance.

I had a friend in college who drove 4 hours home. He suggested that his drive was long enough that going 75 mph instead of 70 mph was worth the risk. He thought he was saving a lot of time. We now know he was only saving 1/15, or about 4 minutes per hour. Over 4 hours, that translates to 16 minutes. He would get home at 3:44 instead of 4:00. He could catch the end of Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers.

If he'd pushed it up to 80 mph, he would have saved 1/8 of his time, or 30 minutes. He could have watched the whole episode.

So here's the moral: If you're going to drive faster, drive faster.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Very true

So this is weird.

We all know that the word "really" can be the adverbial version of "a lot": He was really tall.

We all know that "literally" is often misused as an adverbial version of "a lot": He was literally the tallest man I had ever seen.

And we all know that "very" is the traditionally preferred adverbial version of "a lot": He was very tall.

But did you know they all have the same root meaning? "Really" and "literally" both retain their "actually" sense: It's really going to happen. We're not talking about metaphors here. He's literally going to punch me in the face. "Very" doesn't retain that sense any more, but apparently it used to have the same sense:
1200–50; Middle English  < Anglo-French; Old French verai  (French vrai ) < Vulgar Latin *vērācus,  for Latin vērāx  truthful,equivalent to vēr us true (cognate with Old English wǣr,German wahr  true, correct) + -āx  adj. suffix
Sociolinguists of the World: What does it mean that our words for "a lot" are all related to our words for "actually"?

UPDATE: I just saw this quote from Michael Crichton: "Anyone who says he knows God's intention is showing a lot of very human ego." Since you can't (technically) be more or less human, then I guess we do occasionally use "very" to mean "actually."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

TV rots your brain

Watching X-Files with no lights on,
We're dans la maison.
I hope the smokey man's in this one.
- Ed Robertson (c.1999)

I recently began watching The X-Files. When I first started, I couldn't help but notice how terrible some of the effects are. The kind of terrible that might make you stop watching a show or that tear you out of the hypnotic trance a good piece of art puts you in. But as I kept watching, I noticed that the special effects, while terrible, somehow don't pull you out as much as they could. I think it's because the characters are so interesting and engaging. Fox Mulder with his quasi-paranoid search for the truth. Dana Scully with her bewildered attempt to hang on to make sense of everything she's seeing. And, we can never forget, the dozen other characters, both recurring and one-off, who get interesting little backgrounds and add spice to the show.

The characters make the show, not the mysteries or the visual effects. At least through 10 episodes, the creators of The X-Files haven't forgotten that.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

A man and his horse trudge along a country lane. It is early evening, but the sun has gone down and the light of the moon is covered by a thick blanket of clouds. The snow falls steadily, all-but-silently covering first the ground and then itself and then itself again.

The lane dips to meet a frozen lake, and the man and his horse pause to collect themselves before tackling the climb back up. What looked like a hill in the warm sunshine looms ahead like a craggy peak.

The man looks around. "Whose woods these are, I think I know," he mumbles to himself, thinking he might find a warm bed or at least a cup of coffee. But he shakes his head. "His house is in the village though."  There is no one around for miles. "He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow."

The man's mind wanders while he puts off climbing the hill, and he thinks about his horse. "My little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near." Queer indeed. No farmhouse. "Between the woods and frozen lake. The darkest evening of the year." The man closes his eyes and opens them slowly. What a place to stop.

The horse, as if to show that horses know what cold means, "gives his bells a little shake to ask if there is some mistake."

But the man, too cold and too tired to focus on anything for long, doesn't respond. His mind has already wandered on to the loneliness and silence of this particular stretch of highway. "The only other sound's the sweep of easy wind and downy flake."

The near silence. The darkness. The cold. He wants to lie down and sleep. The woods might offer some shelter. They don't look intimidating or scary. In fact, they "are lovely, dark and deep."

"But," he remembers, "I have promises to keep." He turns his face forward. "And miles to go before I sleep."

He puts one foot in front of the other and his horse follows. The words echo in his exhausted mind. He tries to push sleep a little further away. "And miles to go before I sleep."


My wife and I are in the middle--well, the middle of the beginning--of a long, long journey. We finished one long journey a few years ago and promptly started another. Some days feel like the darkest evening of the year, and I wallow in the kind of self-pity that says, "It's so dark! And it's not even 9 o'clock yet!"

But somehow, and I don't understand this, somehow there is comfort in the idea that others have gone through these types of journeys before. I don't know whether Robert Frost finished his, but maybe that's the point.

Maybe journeys aren't about getting where you're going; maybe they're about being where you are.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ruff Crossing

"I shall be telling this with a sigh"of disappointment? of happiness? of nostalgia?"somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and II took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost, c.1920.

There are two things I don't like about that stanza. First: duh. If two roads diverge, taking one instead of the other will make all the difference. If I'm at the crossroads of I-70 and I-95 in Baltimore, and I take I-70, I will never reach Miami or Boston or New York. But if I take I-95, I will never hit Indianapolis or St. Louis Kansas City or Denver. Those are completely different experiences, and those differences result from taking a different road.*

*You may be interested to note that I-70 is probably less traveled by than I-95.

Second, the rhythm gets awkward. The words "hence" and "difference" are only imperfect rhymes. Poetry, for me at least, is all about rhythm and sound. That last line is something like the last note of a song being slightly sharp. Your ear picks it up, even if your conscious mind doesn't. I don't like it.

That said, I like the poem. It's one of two I (currently) have committed to memory. The poem has an interesting irony to it. He claims to have taken the road less traveled by, but says that "both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black." The first stage of the irony is the "equally" part: neither road was particularly less traveled than the other. The second stage is the "no step had trodden black" part: both roads were pretty untraveled. So, really, he didn't take the road less traveled, at least among the two that diverged in the yellow wood. Is he lying to himself?

But then there's the other part, the growing up part, the part about how "way leads on to way" and the slow realization that living involves making choices and regretting them and wondering what might have been and realizing the full depth of not being able to go back. If I could go back, would I try out for football in seventh grade? Would I sign up for band in sixth grade? Would I choose Howard Payne over Mary Hardin-Baylor again? Or Baylor over Texas? Would I still major in political science instead of chemistry? Would I buy this car again or that phone? Would I try harder in calculus?

When I was 16, Hewitt Drive was a well-traveled road. When you hit Spring Valley Road, you could turn right or left. Left was more well-traveled than right. If you went right, you would eventually hit Old Lorena Road, which was a little more traveled than Spring Valley Road. But if you kept going, you would hit Cotton Belt Parkway, less traveled than Old Lorena, Spring Valley, or Hewitt Drive. Cotton Belt Parkway would take you to Church Road. Church Road, at the time, was so untraveled that it had a one-lane wooden bridge. And Church Road would take you to those unnamed county roads.

Maybe Frost started off on Hewitt Drive but ended up on County Road 314.