Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"you hit your head pretty hard."

i can't say in all honesty that i did a lot of work this weekend. i probably should have, but my brain kind of shut down on me and i went with it. this was probably an error, but it's too late now!

instead, i went to see the new fast and furious and read jonathan schneer's london 1900

academic (-ish) stuff first. this is the book my ever-so-friendly-and-charming commentor (commentator?) recommended i read. originally, i was just going to ignore it, but then curiosity got the better of me and since it was on the shelf at nu, i got it. it should probably go along with cultural histories like judith walkowitz' city of dreadful delight and antoinette burton's burdens of history and so forth. both of which are better, i think. schneer ignores or denigrates what he doesn't agree with -- i can see why my commentor liked the book! -- and, for a book published in 1999, his analysis doesn't seem wildly exciting. 

from my point of view, he gets the irish thing more than a little skewed; his work on gender issues (which isn't a phrase i like anyway) is limited to a chapter-long analysis of four individual women, all of whom are upper middle class or aristocracy and completely unique even within that subset. it's rather like saying margot asquith was totally representative of all women in england and since she did it, why didn't the rest of them just haul up their socks and get rich husbands and big houses and social influence and influential newspaper jobs, too? he disses josephine butler who i kind of have a sneaking affection for. emily hobhouse is absolutely nowhere which is just a huge shame because analysis of her anti-boer war work and involvement would have given the book much more depth since she was (really and truly) one of the big moving forces behind getting the english public informed about the south african camps. he also tries to do a little literary analysis on the way by and chooses conan doyle's sherlock holmes stories as a focus which is fine, but he then doesn't give them a lot of time. and i think the stories are a little more complex than he gives them credit for.

and so the slightly more fun stuff -- the new fast and furious movie. i have to say, i was seriously dubious about this the first time i heard about it (pre-teaser/trailer) 'cause tokyo drift is just...not really good. (what's with the girl who looks more like michael jackson the more times you watch the movie?) and drift isn't "not good" in a fun, shiny, entertaining way which the other two are ("i ain't goin' back to barstow!"). but apparently what the franchise needs to be successful is the presence of either paul walker or vin diesel and then things are okay again. and i was actually really impressed by the actor -- whose name i have now totally forgotten -- who played the major contact for the "bad guys." 

the plot is basically unimportant -- it struck me as being kind of strangely '80s, actually: mexican drug dealers and heroin and fbi doublecrosses and the like. casino royale choreographed the second big action sequence -- not that this is a bad thing! and the price of converse is going to go up again because i swear that's all paul walker ever wears for shoes. i was amazed that he had dress shoes on once. 

the driving sequences were -- as always -- awesome to watch. there are a couple that will look better on a small screen 'cause the cgi got a little whacky, but on the whole things moved too fast to keep track of which helped! i'm a little confused as to what the hell brian was driving in the end of the film -- it looked very strange and i think he deserved a car that at least looked a little spiffier given what he's driven in the past, but presumably there was some kind of reason for it. and, really, they could have just done one more little thing in the end sequence and i would have been really happy. since i don't want to spoiler it (inasmuch as you can spoiler f&f), i won't say, but it would've been fun!

on the whole, i could've lived without the two or three guys behind me in the theatre who insisted on doing a kind of live mst3k experience to the scenes they felt were particularly ridiculous. i mean, c'mon, guys -- what did you come to this movie for? great character development? nuanced acting? subtleties of plot? hannah montana is right next door -- why don't you head on over there?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

conferences, sessions, and commentors, oh my!

so i spent yesterday at the new england historical association's spring conference in portland, maine. i got to attend two sessions (apart from the one i was presenting in) and got a truly awful lunch into the bargain. (really, guys, vegetarians do not live on salad. i assure you that we have moved beyond this. and i had no faith that the catering people were keeping beef burgers apart from veggie burgers.)

anyway, the first session i went to -- on communities and conflict in germany and yugoslavia -- was interesting. one panelist was a very nervous speaker; i wanted to reassure her that, if the audience did suddenly turn into brain-devouring zombies, she was really closest to the door and had the best chance of escape bar the chair of the panel who was a few inches closer. a professor for whom i ta'd last fall gave an excellent paper on community conflict in yugoslavia.

a friend of mine from the gslis dual-degree program and i were presenting -- not together, sequentially -- in a panel on nationalism in ireland, along with a recent post-doc. from amherst (very nice guy -- has his first book coming out in august which i have to remember to put on goodreads). we happened to have both a chair -- introduced all of us and kept time -- and a commentor who just commented on the papers. our chair was very nice, quite gracious, and, all in all, almost silent. i'm not sure he felt he could do much to restrain the commentor who, once he got rolling, had a less than collegial effect.

possibly his commentary can best be described by the fact that i later overheard him ask a colleague of his who was also at the panel, "so, was i mean enough?"

i really don't think this is the best way to judge comments you have delivered on someone else's work. i still think my mother's rule, by way of a friend of hers, applies: "you have to say one nice thing. even if you have to scrape for it. even if it's 'nice margins' or 'gosh, you spell well.' say something nice."

the only other thing i would really like to add is that, on the basis of a single publication in the field, possibly he could have found it in his heart to be just a tad more generous. the assumption that your style is the best is overbearing and unattractive in anyone, i don't give a damn who you are. and, when i spoke to him briefly after the panel to ask a question about a book he had mentioned, his attitude seemed to be that talking to me was a rather low priority on his list and, please, since i was just an annoying little student, could i just go away now? add to that the fact that, within the hour after the panel, three separate people found my friend and me to tell us not to listen to him, that he had a reputation for being ridiculously overpicky, and, honestly, his opinion only weighed that heavily with him, i think perhaps things could have gone better.

having now thought over what he had to say, read his comments, and given them due consideration, i think i can safely say that i have come up with his major objections on my own, have a list of them, and will deal with them in my thesis. so there. (insert appropriate sound of raspberry, if you wish.) other than that -- if he has any clever way in which we can magically somehow comprehend with any degree of certainty what people in the late 19th century were thinking or reading at any given moment in time, i would really like to hear about it. personally, i haven't seen the tardis around lately, so i'm thinkin' the doctor isn't about to intervene.

so, yes. could've been better. 

but the other panels were good -- there was an excellent, though short because one panellist had a family emergency and couldn't come, one on british imperialiam overseas in the afternoon. lots of stuff about metropole and periphery which i would have been better able to cope with had i not been getting an awful sinus headache. as it was, i hung on for the general outlines; both presenters were really impressive, i thought.

the speech at lunchtime, i have to say, i nearly had to take notes on. this guy -- the outgoing president of neha -- and david starkey of a few posts ago should get together and have a little pity party for the death of the white male ivory tower academic.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

random linkness

i'm posting this article by victor keegan from the guardian largely because of the conversation we had in my preservation class the other day. the topic of the day was, theoretically, reformatting. really, most of the class was taken up with two things: microfilm and arguing about digitization. our professor is, somewhat unexpectedly, an absolute and total devotee of digitizing everything in sight because "that's what patrons expect."

i have to admit, i had to bite my tongue to keep from commenting, "well, they can expect it all they want."

our professor was bound and determined that everyone expected everything to be digital all the time and we should really face up to this fact and do--- something. i'm not quite sure what he wanted us to do -- even just in terms of the class -- but he definitely expected something.

one of the other students and i tried rather gingerly to point out that maybe the expectations for digital collections were different depending on what field you were in and what kind of work you were doing -- and that didn't get us very far, but it slowed him down a little. since he seemed to be basing a lot of his argument, at least for the day, on the fact that students pull the bulk of their sources from online databases and the like, i wasn't all that convinced. again a little tongue-biting was involved to keep from saying, "well, of course. we're lazy and busy and you let us get away with it. what do you expect? i would never think of trying to pull that for my history work. shall we have a discussion about differing expectations in differing fields?"

anyway, the actual article i wanted to post is this: victor keegan writing about e-readers for books. the picture alone makes it worthwhile to click in.

in the interests of tossing up a few more interesting things midweek, here's an article i haven't had time to read through fully about the new world digital library. which may seem ironic in light of my summary of class-time yesterday, but i'm okay with irony this morning. or perhaps just too tired to avoid it!

i also found roy foster's review of a new history of the 1916 easter rising. the new history looks quite interesting and i've added it to my goodreads list so, y'know, in eight months or a year or so, i'll remember to read it! but this review is also delightful because foster calmly and seriously uses the tardis as a metaphor for the dublin post office.

and a xan brooks article about re-viewing films. i recently tried to re-view a film i've never had much time for, silence of the lambs, and found i didn't have time for it for a variety of excellent reasons and gave up about 40 minutes in.

and, as an a/v treat although i have mostly already discussed this with my friends who i know are doctor who fans, the trailer for the first of the david tennant post-season 4 specials:

it aired in britain on saturday -- so far no sign of it on dvd, although i hope it will only be a matter of months!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

genre puzzlement

what do i have to do with my time on a rainy saturday afternoon while waiting for my pizza to reheat? express my puzzlement with william gibson of course!

so pattern recognition is the second gibson book i've tried -- this one largely because it was $1 at brookline booksmith. the first gibson i tried was spook country, which i believe is still his latest. i couldn't finish that one. i made a game effort but after 150 pages when i still didn't care about any of the characters and i had no idea what the hell was going on, it just seemed like i could find something that would be a better use of my time.

pattern recognition is the book immediately preceding spook country although i don't think there's any connection between the two of them and gibson's personal website provides a highly complimentary blurb from neil gaiman about recognition. i've bought books on the strength of a gaiman blurb alone -- china mieville and martin millar most recently -- and mostly this has worked out really well. this? not so much.

i realise that it's a little unfair to critique it in-depth since i'm only about 60-75 pages into it so let that be my disclaimer. and i do have every intention of finishing the silly thing if only because i paid for it! but i finally had to pull a pencil out of my bag yesterday while reading and start making long and faintly hysterical marginal notes or risk having to buttonhole complete strangers and harangue them at length about how ridiculous what i was reading was and i thought this, on boylston street at 4.30 on a friday afternoon, might be a poor plan even while sitting outside the mhs where you get a fairly reasonable class of passerby.

anyway, the general thrust of recognition so far seems to be centered around the p.o.v character, cayce, who is some kind of brand-name psychic in a faintly futuristic post-9/11 world; i'd say it was meant to be set around now-ish? but gibson isn't clear; the only thing that seems terribly dissimilar from the modern-day is the computing technology which seems to function a little oddly. either that, or gibson is a major mac-addict and he's just describing run-of-the-mill mac tech which i don't recognize. anyway, cayce has uniquely strong reactions to fashion trends; when not engaged in professional "cool-trend-sniffing-out" activities, she is an obsessive follower of something called "the footage" online. "the footage" is made up of over a hundred little clips of film footage posted online anonymously; an entire forum has been built up around these clips, devoted to discussing and deconstructing -- or trying to reconstruct or guess -- what's going on with these film clips.

now, really, my biggest problems with the pages i've read so far are two. 

cayce reads more like a randomly generated rpg character than a real person. gibson writes her very formally -- and then veers into vernacular in the same paragraph. while acknowledging that real people do this all the time, it reads...awkwardly. cayce doesn't seem like the kind of woman who would behave like that and since her characterization is pretty thin anyway, this sort of unevenness really does the narrative no favors. and gibson's writing style is a little -- jarring anyway. the first time i came across a phrase describing a character looking like: "...Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins' blood and truffled chocolates...," i thought it was kind of fun. and then when every single paragraph started to be loaded with pseudo-meaningful analogies of a similar kind....well, it got old quickly.

the second problem is with this "footage" stuff. we're supposed to believe that over 100 clips of varying duration have been posted online over the course of the last however long time. okay, fine. and this forum to which cayce belongs is entirely made up of fans of "the footage," absolutely devoted to talking, arguing, discussing, debating the stuff ad nauseam. (sound familiar?) all right. now, cayce comments at one point: "...If the footage consists of clips from a finished film, of whatever length, every footagehead, for whatever reason, is being toyed with, unmercifully teased, in one of the most annoying fashions ever devised."

uh. no -- that means you have the cross-referencing skills of a squirrel. 

i mean, how long does it take when a leaked clip of something hits the web for it to have been thoroughly dissected, placed in the running time of the film (whether released or not), for everyone in it to have been identified down to the tea lady, nine places where you can download the full film (released or not) linked....? about -- what, thirty minutes? less if it's a known piece -- and you have a whole forum of people backing you up on this "footage" -- and you can't figure it out? the -- what now?

when she follows this up by commenting that " might be being generated via some sort of CGI, actors, sets and all..." and i'm presumably expected to take this seriously when the previous clip of "footage" that we have watched with cayce involves two actors kissing -- no. i'm sorry, but cgi doesn't look that good yet and, since, the pub date on recognition is 2003 and i'm not given any particular frame of temporal reference other than post-9/11 (because everything is freaking referenced back to it!) and everything seems pretty familiar, then no, i don't buy that the cgi looks that good. maybe if the clip is really short and probably doesn't involve people but a close-up of two people kissing? no. you'd be able to tell.

like i said, i'm going to keep going and i'm going to finish the book -- probably not this weekend -- but so far, i'm not really impressed. as far as cyberpunk goes, neal stephenson still gets my vote. a sense of humor and jack the vagabond king win out every time.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

all righty then

so, in the interests of not sitting here and angsting for the rest of the night over the 3-page paper my preservation professor desires me to rewrite (seriously, man -- 3 freakin' pages -- couldn't you at least have given it to me earlier or waited 'til i was off the decongestant and stopped seeing swirls?), i have a couple of amusing links for your evening.

the first is something that anna passed on to me from city journal. never heard of it? me neither. heard of it? you're ahead of me. i had to do some poking around on the website to reassure myself it was real. i think it is. 

anyway, the thing is this article called how science fiction found religion ('cause apparently it was lost. or sci-fi was lost. or, as the scifi channel would have us believe, syfy was lost. i wonder if they thought they could do that and keep the geek contingent. anyway. not the point.)

please, do go ahead and click on in and enjoy the insanity. far be it from me to ruin the fun for you, although i do just have to say that he presents the messianic plot of the matrix as though he, benjamin a. plotinsky, had just discovered it fresh and new on his shelf in 2009. sir? i think most of us noticed it back in 1999 about...oh, say...20 minutes in? maybe 30? if you were really blown away by all the latex and the guns and lost track of things for a few minutes.

he manages to dismiss c.s. lewis and tolkien -- both as authors and as film adaptations -- in one paragraph -- well done. nicely put. not that he missed the point at all there.

and then, inevitably, unavoidably, and, oh, so wrongly, we get to star wars because, well, we had to. we can ignore pretty much everything he has to say about the new trilogy because i realise it's a matter of taste. i happen to like the new movies; i don't particularly want hayden christensen or jake lloyd or george lucas, for that matter, burned at the stake over them; and, really, jar jar binks didn't annoy me all that much. but i have to take issue with two things in mr. plotinsky's ever-so-skilful dissection of the original trilogy: his characterization of luke as "gifted" and his dismissal of obi-wan in empire and jedi.

describing luke as "gifted" is both really complimentary and staggeringly wrong. if he were honestly, actually gifted -- as in overtly talented, immediately skilled at anything he tries to do, if he picked up a lightsabre and knew exactly how the whole thing worked absolutely perfectly, etc., etc. -- what would be the point of the story? you wouldn't have a campbell-style "hero's journey" where he has to learn the odd thing or two -- you'd have something more like "wander around after the irritatingly 'good at everything' kid and see what happens." much less gripping. a big part of the original trilogy is the learning curve -- and what happens when you fall off it or try to rush it.

and the whole obi-wan thing. plotinsky clearly just misses the boat on the ghost idea: "After his death, Obi-Wan does nothing more than appear as a ghost from time to time." (or words to that effect) true -- i imagine he wouldn't be a whole lot of use if, say, your car was stuck in the mud or you needed to move a couch but, if i remember correctly, minus the timely appearance of obi-wan, luke would be dead in the first fifteen minutes of empire and we'd just follow han around for awhile 'til he ends up as a wall decoration and leia gets carted off to some fairly imaginable and probably dreadful fate. end of story. thank you and good night. to say nothing of numerous other interventions at what we might describe as the "critical moment" -- my personal favorite being his last discussion with luke on dagobah in jedi, since i've always pictured part of the unspoken conversation in luke's head being something like, "god, i wish i'd hit him with a brick when i had the chance."

mr. plotinsky (and the more i write that name, the more i have a feeling i'm getting taken for a ride but there are lots of other columns under that name and they mostly seem to be serious) also manages to nail star trek to a wall, too, but i really have no more rant left for that. i just happen to think that, y'know, categorizing the entirety of next generation as "boring" might be a tad bit harsh. keeping in mind small details like inner light and best of both worlds. just, y'know, small things like that.

there is also this from why sci-fi tv dies at the 7th season. apart from some too-easy slaps at doctor who (don't get bitchy just 'cause it's successful, guys), it's an interesting article. i don't know if we necessarily want f/sf shows that wander on for a year and a day, but an awful lot of them do seem to have sadly short lifespans. they miss some shows which i might've thrown up for comparison, like the sarah connor chronicles which seem to be struggling along gamely; torchwood, which has seasons 3 and 4 bought, if i remember right; sanctuary, which just got renewed for season 2 which is remarkable given that it's a "sci-fi channel original"; reaper. i'm sure there are others i'm missing in the fog of otc medicaments. personally, i think i might just be happier with tighter plotting and more confidence that the screenwriting team knows what's going to happen more than a week or two in advance. quality, not quantity.

the other little fun link i have to toss up here is from the guardian books website and may amuse those of you who read my recent rant about david starkey: and this is what his writing room looks like! look! even his writing room was fitted out by a guy! ;)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

history is a soap opera

because i know -- or strongly suspect -- that there are at least three excellent historians who happen to be female who glance at this blog now and then, i thought y'all might be interested in this link i saw on the guardian this morning. according to david starkey, women historians turn history into a soap opera. our work is substandard and we take emphasis off the real movers and shakers who are, clearly, powerful white men. i wish i were mocking his argument by making it sound stupider than it is but, sadly, i'm not.

honestly, the first thing i thought when i read this -- other than, "wow, he really is as much of a jerk as he sounds in his books" which i've never been able to read although i have tried -- was, "but, mr. starkey sir, history is often a soap opera all on its own. it needs no help from anyone of any gender." i mean, seriously. i spend about half to three-quarters of my time these days considering the situation of a bunch of incarcerated (for a wide variety of reasons spanning the range from murder to being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong name) 18-30 year old men who voluntarily gave up washing, clothes, and, a few of them, eating in order to prove a point. to prove a point. and they kept at it even when it was blindingly obvious to the passing idiot on the street that they wouldn't win! there was no hope in hell of them winning! but they did it anyway! you cannot make shit like this up!

and, really, any historian of tudor england has no room to argue about soap operas. whether you centre-stage henry or his wives, the whole thing is just one great big proto-episode of coronation street. personally, i think part of starkey's miff comes from the fact that he pouted loudly and publicly about the lack of historical accuracy of the tudors and nobody cared.

he had some good points. the screenwriters combined characters, compressed time, simplified events, simplified character -- all on a fairly minor level but enough to be a bit disconcerting if you suddenly realise that three different people have suddenly become the same person. or even if you happen to think that anyone who really behaved with the complete lack of political know-how thomas more (jeremy northam) displays in the series would have been lucky to survive a fortnight, let alone years. but the bones of the events are there and, given the nature of the televisual universe, i think starkey's pet subject got off lightly. would he have been happier had it gotten the deadwood treatment? more historically accurate, yes; probably fewer sales for his books, though, which did get a contact "high" off the series, as did several other well-known tudor historians, at least one of whom is (gasp!) female. (gosh. what will we do.) in any case, not so many people are going to rush out to buy pop histories -- which are what he writes, lets face it, and rather argumentatively in my opinion -- having been shown henry unshaven, rarely washed, rarely in court dress, aggressive, acquisitive, egotistic, self-centred, in a grubby, ill-lit, rubbish-filled castle populated largely by people who look about ten times worse than he does.

but, if nothing else, at this point in time, quibbles about female historians and the "damage" we do to "real" history are ridiculous. i don't think anyone's arguing seriously that henry is unimportant or that work on him is being hurt by work done on his wives -- or on more or suffolk or anyone else in his court. how can you really seriously set your face against a broader reconstruction of events? and it isn't like any of this is taking his job away from him -- i'm pretty sure that, unfortunately enough, his reputation and his ability to do multi-part bbc documentaries more or less on demand is pretty solid.