Chairman of the Board

by wjw on July 16, 2018

IMG_2816A gorilla looking very much the elder statesman, though in fact he’s young.  Viewed at the Twilight ramble, last week.



by wjw on July 13, 2018

El_Ministerio_del_Tiempo_titlecardMy summer entertainment has largely consisted of the first series of El Ministerio del Tiempo, a Spanish science fiction series available on Netflix.  (Don’t worry, there are subtitles.)

It’s smart, it’s clever, and once you accept its (somewhat ridiculous) premise, it explores that premise thoroughly and plays fair with its audience.   More than that, its avoids all the time travel cliches you might expect from TV writers who aren’t familiar with the vast body of time travel literature.

Spain’s Ministry of Time is dedicated to keeping history as she is wrote, and free from interference by other time travelers like, say, Heinrich Himmler, who appears in one episode as someone a little too curious about the possibility of changing the past.   The Ministry recruits people from throughout history as its agents, though sometimes at the cost of acute culture shock.

El Ministerio is allowed only to work within the Spanish borders, which however are a bit flexible— during the Armada episode they’re allowed to go to Lisbon, because Portugal at the time was a part of Spain.  This makes me wonder if they can then legally travel to other former Spanish possessions, like Cuba, Latin America, Sicily, and Guam.  (I imagine the series budget won’t allow for that.)

The agents soon discover that to deal with the fabric of time is to subject themselves to unending tragedy.  They are torn from their own time to a future when the everyone they love is dead, and (by the rules of the Ministry) they are not allowed to interfere to save even their own children.  Yet, to keep the time stream from becoming corrupted, they spend their days saving everyone else.

Yet the series shows its true cleverness in its lighter moments.  One of the Ministry’s agents is the painter Diego Velásquez, who dashes off a sketch to be auctioned whenever the Ministry needs to raise some capital, and who has an unfulfilled, ahistorical desire to meet Picasso. (He also accuses Dalí of plagiarizing his mustache.)  The swashbuckling cavalier recruited from the 17th Century wonders why people keep calling him Captain Alatriste, then finds out after he shoplifts a copy of the novel from a 21st Century bookstore.  One of the Ministry’s stolid bureaucrats bears an alarming resemblance to Tomas de Torquemada.  A melting iPad found in a Dalí painting triggers an investigation.  The team are first shocked to discover an American time traveler interfering with the past, and then are further shocked to discover the Americans have privatized their time travel service.  (“Next they’ll privatize health care!”)

The agents seem to spend most of their missions involved with famous people.  This sort of makes sense— if time travelers interfered with obscure or unimportant people, nobody in the present would ever find out.  So in addition to Dalí and Velásquez, the agents meet Lorca, Buñuel, Isabellas I and II, and Lope de Vega.  I see from episode summaries that subsequent episodes will encounter El Cid, Cervantes, Houdini, J Edgar Hoover, Columbus, and somebody called the Vampire of Raval.

I’ll look forward to meeting them.


Sleepy Kitty

by wjw on July 11, 2018

ocelotThis is not exactly your go-to blog for cute animal pictures, but sometimes even my stony heart has been known to melt.

Tonight’s expedition was the Twilight tour at the local zoo, a chance to visit the animals in small groups led by a docent.  I was able to take this picture of a full-grown ocelot sacking out on a tree limb.

Photographing the animals was challenging, not because they were either indifferent or in motion (though they were), but because I had to photograph them through wire mesh.  If there was any mesh in the photo at all, the Canon’s autofocus would focus on that, and I’d end up with a perfect picture of a fence with nothing but blur behind it.

So, using the camera’s 50-to-1 zoom, I had to zoom through a gap in the mesh, which was a challenge because the gaps in the mesh were less than two inches across.  And because the only way to do that was to really use the zoom, and I hadn’t thought to bring a tripod, the image kept bouncing around and it was difficult to keep it focused.

But here’s where all the various factors lined up, and I ended up with a nice picture.  Enjoy.


Final Revised Version

by wjw on July 10, 2018

Candide1759The other night we made our way to the Santa Fe Opera— the only opera I know of that features tailgate parties— for a tailgate dinner and “Candide,” music by Leonard Bernstein, book and lyrics by a rather complex and storied group of collaborators, all inspired (or not) by the short novel by “M. le Docteur Ralph”, which was one of Voltaire’s hundred-odd pen names.

All clear so far?  It only gets more complex from here.

“Candide” originated not as an opera, but a Broadway show, originally conceived by Lillian Hellman as a play with music.  Bernstein talked her into making a proper Broadway musical, and Hellman wrote the book while poet Richard Wilbur (mostly) wrote the lyrics.  The original 1956 production was a horrific flop, though people generally liked the tunes.  Bernstein plundered his own songs for “West Side Story,” which he wrote at more or less the same time.

Anyway, the play wouldn’t die, and kept undergoing rewrites and revivals.  (Harold Prince revived it at least three times.)  Hellman wouldn’t let anyone change her book, so the play got a brand-new book by Hugh Wheeler.  Dorothy Parker, John Latouche, Stephen Sondheim, John Mauceri, and John Wells took a crack at the lyrics, along with Mr. and Mrs. Bernstein.

With each iteration, “Candide” became longer and more popular, and shifted from Broadway music to operetta to opera, depending on who’s doing it and with what degree of seriousness.  It’s now one of the most popular musical entertainments out there.

What I saw was, I think, the “final revised version” of 1989, the only version where the composer revisited his own music.

What the “final revised version” shows, I think, is that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

The production clocks in at two and a half hours, which is just too damn long for a comedy, especially a picaresque.   You could read Docteur Ralph’s novella faster than you could watch the stage production.

The music was light and sprightly, and the cast talented and attractive, Laurent Pelly’s direction was inventive, and by the end I was desperate to escape.  I could find nothing particularly wrong with any of the scenes (except for “I Am Easily Assimilated,” which really belongs in a different play, perhaps about the Borg), but since the story’s a picaresque you can just drop a couple of the episodes, or drastically shorten them, and preferably reduce the number of characters while you’re at it, and end up with a perfectly delightful theatrical experience.

Or you could just buy a soundtrack album, and play it, and not be bored at all, because the music is terrific.

As an aside, I note that Voltaire is still getting ridiculous amount of credit for bravely using Candide to satirize the philosophy of Leibnitz.  This was far from the bravest thing Voltaire ever did, since Leibnitz died shortly after Voltaire was born, and there’s nothing easier than satirizing the philosophy of your great-grandfather’s day.  It would be like me taking a brave stand against the contentions of A.J. Ayer.  If Voltaire had gone after David Hume, now that would have been a fight!


From the Robophobe

by wjw on July 3, 2018

More strange, out-of-context critiques from the Toolbox.

“She critiques the god and decides it’s not a good one–maybe 6 out of 10.”
“Your story succeeds in avoiding the Lovecraftian gravity well.”
“I didn’t like the character–she was willing to get rid of her dog in exchange for a robot!”
“The self-aware-robot commercial wars will make the PC-Mac rivalry look like a Sunday brunch.”
“I think I need to clarify my world before I break it.”
“Enough about feelings!”
“This plot reminds me of Shaquille O’Neill playing basketball and missing all the free-throws.”

“Drugs and rum–a reliable source of good decision making.”
“I’m an astronomer and I usually like large numbers–but a word count that has to be expressed in scientific notation?”
“I need to know WHY they are setting huge areas of the South on fire.”
“Launching a satellite isn’t really something you can do in secret.”
“We need to see a normal character interaction BEFORE heads explode.”
“If you give us poison sacs, we need to see them in action–Chekhov’s Poison Sacs.”
“You have emotional resonance at the end, but I just wanted it to make sense.”
“I know he’s a lizard, but he still should have some emotion when his family is revived.”

“Where are the space pigs?”
“Peeling off a strip of the victim’s skin and eating it was so graphic I had to get up, drink some orange juice, and pace around.”
“How do you get hanged by accident?”
“I’m going to blaze past your totally irrational hatred of Rice University.”
“Yes–bringing dystopia to six planets at once!”
“More godpower from testicles.”
“This scene is like a Mack truck going through a Walmart.”
“We’re going to build this godwall and we’ll make the gods pay for it.”
“I could use a demon valet.”
“The dude has a dragon–he should aim higher than kitchen staff.”
“The character seems nuttier than squirrel poop.”
“I love that Babylonia is now located in Arkansas.”

“What does she want besides not getting eaten by multi-dimensional elephants?”
“Drowning in bread dough is a shitty way to die.”
“That’ your third grumpy kitchen lady, and they’re starting to blur together.”
“If I saw someone’s head disappear, I would mention it.”
“I loved the homeless people smoking cheap joints and reminiscing about their days in the software industry.”
“I felt you were torturing me in a comfy chair.”
“I don’t want my tablecloth yelling the news at me while I’m eating.”
“Is he just a nice guy who goes around befriending people who can’t sing?”
“I have sympathy for anyone in any time period who has to drive Route 280.”
“All your characters are nice–what kind of world is that?”
“I hated your protagonist, just hated her, wanted to slap her upside the head–so you got me engaged in the story.”
“I can’t care about the product manual for a tractor.”
“If you need to have a lot of immigrants streaming across the border from Canada, then crash Canada.”
“When you get tenure, you lose your mind.”
“That is a beautiful sentence but I’m not sure what it means.”
“The robophobe in the room is…Walter!”
“People are over-rated.”


Maple Leaf

July 1, 2018

Happy Canada Day to our friends in the North! Y’all keep up that “peace and good government” thing, okay?

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Normal Programming Will Be Resumed Shortly

July 1, 2018

Taos Toolbox 2018 is over.  I drove Nancy Kress to the airport this morning, then went home, enjoyed the air conditioning for a while, and promptly sacked out. Here’s a photo— actually from last week— of us taking guest speaker Carrie Vaughn out for some of the local cuisine. We didn’t get burned up in […]

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Free Accident!

June 28, 2018

There’s a drawing for free copies of The Accidental War on Goodreads. It’s not like the publisher told me about this.  I found out by, well, accident.

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Song of Crit and Fire

June 27, 2018

Fortunately Melisandre brought us back, at what price I shudder to imagine. Behold the Sardenas Canyon Fire, visible from our nest at Angel Fire. Droughtland’s latest fire is small, but has been burning uncontrolled for several days now.  We have to hope that the name of our refuge, Angel Fire, remains metaphorical rather than literal. […]

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The Red Workshop

June 23, 2018

Participants at the 2018 Taos Toolbox Writers’ Workshop, taught by Nancy Kress and Walter Jon Williams and hereafter known as the “Red Workshop,” were lining up for a photo with guest speaker George R.R. Martin when what a spokesman described as “an unfortunate incident” occurred. Among the casualties were David DeGraff, Jo Miles, Brenda Kalt, […]

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