Thursday, July 19, 2018

I Watch Films: Atomic Blonde

Take a standard action spy thriller. Place it in Berlin, November 1989. Make the music and lighting really, really good. Swap out our generic dude protagonist with Charlise Theron.

That’s Atomic Blonde, which has all the regular things you’d expect from the genre – iconic costumes, fight scene with a gimmick, long (probably not really) one-shot action scene, the hero going to bed with the female agent, one more twist and turn than you expect, everyone dubiously betraying everyone else – all done pretty well.

I sound like I’m down on the film, and I’m not, it’s great fun, it lifts itself head and shoulders above the competition with the setting and by placing Theron into the protagonist role, and there’s even a couple of good jokes. What it isn’t is especially innovative or smart. It’s cynical and clever, and that’s what spy films are.

Watch This: For a competent and extremely cool spy film
Don’t Watch This: If you prefer cleverness over violence in your espionage movies

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

I Read Books: Babbitt

Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel prize for literature, and Babbitt was one of the novels mentioned  in the presentation speech. It’s a satire of 1920s, medium sized city commercialism, business and boosterism. Wikipedia claims ‘The word "Babbitt" entered the English language as a "person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards"’.  Okay then.

George Babbitt is a real estate dealer, and he believes in America and Business and Zip and Hard Work and Getting Ahead. There’s not a great deal of plot; we mostly follow Babbitt as he goes about his life. This is quite funny. A change occurs part way through when his best friend Paul shoots his wife; Babbitt takes to hanging around with a widow and her fast set and has the audacity to believe in such radical opinions as hoping that shooting strikers is unnecessary. Then his wife needs an operation and he fall back into his regular life.

The newness of such things as telephones and cars is notable, as is the fact that, despite Prohibition, everyone is drinking like fish. There’s just a touch of the recent tragedy of WW1 hanging about, mostly unspoken, occasionally coming to the surface.

One of the points of interest to me is that Lewis set this novel (and several others) in the fictional Midwestern city of Zenith. More than that, he created an entire fictional state, Winnemac (Zenith, though the most populous city of the state, is not the capital, that honour falling to Galop de Vache), that he returned to as the setting of later novels. I love a good fictional place, mostly so that I can steal it and have it be a background location in my own writing. Lewis invented it because his first novel was set in his hometown in Minnesota; not everyone there appreciated his satire on their home. People living in fictional towns don't make such loud complaints in the real world.

Read This: For a quite funny 1920s novel getting into what’s going on in Midwestern cities and the stifling pressure of conformity
Don’t Read This: If you don’t want an amusing meandering almost non-novel.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

I Watch Films: Planes

Planes! Thanks to the vagaries of babysitting and small relatives, I’ve previously seen Planes 2: Fire and Rescue twice without ever seeing Planes. Well now I’ve put that right. Cropspraying plane Crusty Dockplopper lives in out-of-the-way Propwash Junction and dreams of becoming a racer. He goes to the qualifiers for Wings Around the World, and comes in sixth, just outside qualification. Then one of the planes is disqualified and Husky joins the race.

He gets Skipper, a navy instructor and war hero* to train him, wins over several racers as friends, and has wacky adventures as he flys around the world. Ripslinger, three-times champion, uses dirty tricks on Fusty, because of course he does.

Anyway, charming underdog story, Dusky has to overcome his fear of heights, two guys from Top Gun cameo as the voices of the F/A 18 Hornets, all good stuff.

Watch This: For an animated vehicle film about plane racin’
Don’t Watch This: If you don’t like cartoons

* This means the Cars/Planes universe had a World War 2 which is bonkers to think about. For that matter the USS Flysenhower has eyes on the tower meaning she’s a character, probably. If they ever make Ships it could be absolutely amazing. The Flysenhower (like her model, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower) is over 300m long.

Monday, July 16, 2018

I Read Stories: So It Was Foretold

This story by Mimi Mondal is a luminous tale of destruction and escape; of leaving but finding nowhere home. It’s beautiful, but not for the faint hearted.

Read This: For a short piece about a past that is gone
Don’t Read This: If overblown strangeness is not for you
Although Speculative Fiction: Mondal, a Dalit woman, uses some of the history in it.

Friday, July 13, 2018


In this piece, which is part of the background of my fictional Deep Patrol space opera series, I treat the simulation hypothesis with more respect than I do in non-fiction.


The simulation hypothesis is simultaneously the most complete explanation for the Event, the Wavefront, and all subsequent history, and the most useless. By placing the apparent space-time continuum within an arbitrarily large AI simulation the impossibilities of the Wavefront become permissible. The Unknown Powers are the simulation controllers in this scenario.

Of course this is has no better predictive power than positing the Unknown Powers as gods – their motives remain unknown, their capability unlimited.

Attempts to detect any simulation, and to alter or even end it have foundered on several points. The nature of the universe was not accurately known before the Wavefront passed, and has almost certainly changed in its wake. Tracing the fine grain differences between a real and simulated space-time run up against our ignorance of what a real space-time would be like, and human capability to resolve fundamental aspects to a close degree of inspection.

Running multiple, parallel and nested simulations in an effort to overload the master simulation have foundered; no human culture has been able to construct powerful enough computers and AIs have declined to do so, in some cases pointing out that a simulation able to recreate human history would be poorly designed if it was unable to cope with the antics of primitives at such an early stage. What exactly they mean by that is a matter of debate.

Although it is idle speculation, the nature of the simulation would be useful to understand something of the nature of the universe. An historical simulation would be an attempt to recreate a past event in the wider universe. In this case the people and cultures we know would be approximations of previously existing entities.

A predictive simulation is an attempt to understand the ramifications of making, or not making, a change to the system. Though some have suggested that the most likely choice is the Big Bang, the obvious difference would be the change that causes the Wavefront. In this scenario, people and cultures are extrapolations of existing entities in the wider universe.

An experimental simulation is just that, an experiment for research or even mere curiosity. In this case the simulation would have no particular relationship with the wider world and those within would – and could – exist only there.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

I Read Books: The Hinges of Battle

The sequel to Durschmied’s The Hinge Factor has my favourite of his anecdotes*.

The focus on older battles is perhaps a little disappointing. To generalise, I find the chapters where he has a personal stake most interesting. For example, the Stalingrad section is clearly important to him as his father served on the Eastern front. The Afghan section has a handful of interesting details (though maybe not as many as the book length treatments The Return of a King or Signal Catastrophe) from his time as a war correspondent there in the 80s. And the Diên Biên Phu section is clearly improved due to his having interviewed General Giap.

(This despite the fact that he’s not that impressed with Giap as a general)

Read This: For another set of interesting historical stories.
Don’t Read This: If historical hinge points and battles are of no interest to you.

* Reproduced below.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

I Watch Films: Now You See Me

Four stage, or in fact mostly street, magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) are recruited to make a super team called the Four Horsemen. At the climax of their first show in Las Vegas they rob a bank in Paris. A grumpy FBI agent (Mark Ruffalo) gets the case, teamed up with a French Interpol Agent (Mélanie Laurent). Michael Caine is the wealthy backer of the shows, Morgan Freeman is the professional magic debunker.

So a good cast, a lot of good magic tricks (always easier when pre-recorded), a fairly clever way of teaching you to look for the moment in a scene when something is not what it seems. Also a couple of good heists.

I enjoyed this a lot. It’s not the best or cleverest heist film, and maybe making it about magicians talking about distraction and how things aren’t what they seem and being all about preparation was trying to be a little too clever? On the other hand not everyone is a semi-professional crime writer who has watched dozens of heist films and TV episodes and it seems audiences liked it enough for them to make a sequel so I’m maybe fussing a bit much there.

Watch This: For a very fun crime-magic film.
Don’t Watch This: if you don’t like magic or tricks or heists.