February 22, 2018

Guardians of the Galaxy II

Guardians of the Galaxy is pure space operetta, though with some substance lurking beneath the razzle-dazzle veneer. And it does bother to get one bit of science right. As Kyle Hill explains on Because Science, exposed to the vacuum of space, you would simultaneously asphyxiate and freeze to death. Messy by undramatic. No exploding heads.

That's pretty much the end of the science. The laws of thermodynamics? Orbital mechanics? Fuhgeddaboudit. But we are served up some tried and true science fiction memes. And while I'm all for the-same-only-different, the conflict at the core of Guardians of the Galaxy II struck me as entirely recycled, too much the same and not at all different.

The good stuff (and there is some good stuff) gets short shrift, though it is worth sticking around for.

But first, let's venture back in time to 1965 and the second Star Trek pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a dang good piece of cinematic science fiction for the era (notable for its lack of both monsters and miniskirts).

Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) is the same sort of supercharged human "god" as Kurt Russell's "Ego" (though Gary gets there much quicker). His rule-the-universe end game is the same too. Star Trek returned to this plot device over and again. You'd think that in the process of amassing all the knowledge of creation, these "gods" would learn a thing or two.

Or get more interesting hobbies. A subject of the current season of Lucifer is how immortals entertain themselves for eternity. And the one refreshing idea is that the main character has no desire to rule or reign over anything.

Lucifer is about a dysfunctional (very Greco-Roman) family that functions, also true of Guardians of the Galaxy II. Despite being such a weird bunch, the way they connect to each other says a lot about the human condition.

But I don't include Ego in that group, despite the familial connection. He adds nothing to the mix, and finally turns into a by-the-numbers supervillain.

In the end, Captain Kirk buries Gary Mitchell's divine ambitions under a big rock. Ego meets a similar fate. The screwed up sibling rivalry between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) pays off better than the screwed up father-son relationship between Ego and Chris Pratt's Peter Quill.

Indeed, Nebula's relentless pursuit of Gamora is a sideshow that could have been the main attraction.

The movie begins with an act of pure MacGuffinry, Rocket stealing some "batteries" from a bunch of hilariously condescending and (literally) gilded aliens (who apparently all descended from Niles Crane) with no concept of the sunk cost fallacy.

As the leader of this race of Inspector Javerts, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) is prepared to pursue Rocket to the ends of the galaxy over a couple of Duracells, draining the coffers of the planet in the process. (As in Star Wars, the economics of building—and destroying—these enormous space fleets is never questioned.)

It would have been nice to tie these pair of obsessive quests together into a deeper message. Instead, Ayesha is reduced to playing the relentless paperboy from Better Off Dead, hounding John Cusack with cries of "I want my two dollars!"

The even better story lurking in wings of this movie focuses on the father-son relationship between Peter and Yondu (Michael Rooker), the space pirate who "kidnapped" him and then thought better of turning him over to his real father (Ego).

But like every other laudable element of the movie, it is swamped by volume of digitized material hitting the screen in every frame.

In the end, what's good about Guardians of the Galaxy II manages to surmount the overly busy script and the tidal waves of CGI. Please, Hollywood, just because you can fill every square inch of the screen with 3D SFX doesn't mean you should. Give the audience some moments of calm, a respite now and then to let the story to sink in

But now with all the big backstories dealt with, I can only hope that the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise turns into a goofier version of Firefly. Joss Whedon should be available.

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February 15, 2018

Right to left to right

The Winter Olympics are being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a good enough excuse to discuss how the written word works in that part of the world. (My knowledge of Korean is mostly informed by Wikipedia, so feel free to correct the record.)

Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, and Turkic belong to the Altaic language group. Unlike Chinese, they are not tonal languages. If you can pronounce Spanish, you can pronounce Japanese. What trips up Westerners is speaking Japanese with the iambic metre (da-DUM) common to English.

The proximity of Japan and Korea to China accounts for both adapting Chinese characters into their orthography. Japan and Korea subsequently invented their own "alphabets": kana and hangul. But the two are independent and quite dissimilar creations.

The written Korean language (hangul) is more similar in structure to the English alphabet than to Japanese kana, which is technically a syllabary. Hiragana is an elegant syllabary, but one so tightly bound to Japanese that it can be repurposed for other tasks only with great difficulty.

Like English and unlike kana, hangul separates vowels and consonants. But imagine that in English you could form ligatures with almost any letter combination and do it vertically as well as horizontally.

The squashed-together characters may look like kanji, but they're "letters." To quote Wikipedia: "Each syllabic block consists of two to six letters, including at least one consonant and one vowel. These blocks are then arranged horizontally from left to right or vertically from top to bottom."

Like that "Love" sculpture.

Kanji (Chinese characters) aren't used at all in North Korea, and have fallen out of use in South Korea. All kanji in a defined font take up the same box of space (including punctuation), so they can easily be stacked vertically.

Although Korean was traditionally read vertically and right to left (as was Japanese), the disappearance of kanji and the influence of European languages (including punctuation and spaces separating words) has made horizontal orthography more practical and now universal.

The persistence of kanji in Japanese is why I think vertical orthography (read right to left) continues to predominate. When written horizontally, until fairly recently, Japanese and Chinese and Korean were read right-to-left too but have since switched from left-to-right.

In Japan, the change came abruptly in 1946. Although hangul was developed several centuries after kana, the horizontal left-to-right standard was promoted by Korean linguist Ju Si-gyeong in the late 19th century, which may also account for its wider adoption in Korea.

As a result, manga that preserve the original formatting are read right-to-left while manhwa are read left-to-right.

Chinese can still be written vertically, though horizontally and left-to-right is quickly becoming the standard. In Taiwan, the government now requires that official documents be written horizontally and left-to-right.

Japanese may soon stand alone (vertically written, that is).

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February 08, 2018

"Let it Go" (metal version)

As I observe in my review of Frozen,

"Let it go" sounds like an anthem for the self-esteem movement. Except that, by the end, it's clear that Elsa "being herself" will kill her sister and destroy her kingdom. Elsa doesn't need to "let it go." She badly needs to get over herself.

Actually, it's worse than that. Strip away the family-friendly Disney animation and the lyrics read more like an anarchic scream.

It's time to see what I can do
To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
I'm free!

Hey, there's a nurturing moral code for all you youngsters out there! Nothing against Idina Menzel, but this cover by the goofy and talented Leo Moracchioli better fits the substance of what is actually being said.

What kid doesn't want to believe that the rules apply to everybody but himself? Except these days too many adults are singing that song as well. Yeah, we all do it. But let's not pretend it's a good thing.

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February 01, 2018

Taking natural gas for granted

I can't take natural gas for granted because my apartment is all-electric. Unfortunately, when it comes to generating BTUs, electric resistance heating is the most expensive way to make stuff hot.

If natural gas were part of my personal energy mix, Dominion Energy would be my provider, having merged with Questar. They subsequently ran public service spots reminding everybody that "Questar Gas is now Dominion Energy!"

I've even see Dominion Energy utility trucks driving around.

The name can't help but make me grin, because what immediately springs to my mind isn't an energy company but Dominion Tank Police. One of Masamune Shirow's lesser known works, it's a mostly silly series that can be quite clever and even poignant at times.

Emphasis on the "silly," as in the "Hey, Boy" strip tease scene from the first series (it looks more NSFW than it actually is).

Imagine Blade Runner as a slapstick comedy. With tanks. It deserves a revival. And might even survive a Hollywood adaptation, what with sci-fi comedies being all the rage these days (Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy). Plus a female protagonist!

The second series, New Dominion Tank Police, is available on DVD.

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