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Inside Out review


This weekend we watched Inside Out, the latest full-length feature from Pixar studios. And it was fine.

Riley is an 11-year-old girl undergoing the stresses of moving from Minnesota to San Francisco. In her head, five emotional managers, with Joy as their informal leader, more-or-less take turns at the controls in Riley’s mind, simultaneously expressing Riley’s personality and constructing her future personality as each experience produces a new memory to be sorted and filed.

Memories are represented as glowing glass spheres, color-coded by the dominant emotion experienced attached to the memory. In a rough metaphor for the stress of moving and of nascent pubescence, Riley’s emotions go awry as the routine of the central office breaks down, and Joy and Sadness are sucked up a tube into the memory vault, amid the dangers of the memory dump, abstract thought, and subconscious fears, desperately trying to return to central command and restore order before everything goes to h-e-double-hockey-sticks.

Unfortunately, Inside Out didn’t go much father than “fine.” Setting aside whatever triumphs of animation Pixar tackled—for I don’t appreciate the technical challenges of animation any better than any other general audience, just the results—the film seems to continue a Pixar trend of drifting slowly from the layered, nuanced experiences that brought adult audiences to Toy Story or The Incredibles in favor of simpler exploration of the human condition.

Not that Inside Out eschews adult material entirely. There was a joke about artistic deconstruction during a brief trip through a chamber devoted to abstract thought. There’s arunning gag involving a jingle from a chewing gum commercial, an earworm joke that adults will appreciate more than children could. And Riley’s invisible childhood friend is the vehicle for the by-now familiar Pixar fixation on the bittersweet nature of departure from childhood.

But for the most part, Inside Out sticks to simple expressions and simple explorations of its themes. Happy memories are good; anything else is a problem. The five emotions running the show basically get along and agree on everything, including the desirability of nothing but happy memories, which seems odd. And even though Sadness finds a reconciliation and welcoming into Riley’s emotional staff, the functional importance of sadness is barely explored, and never explained. Crises which adults know to be passing worries are presented as permanent catastrophes in a very child-like framing, which drama loses its bite when problems are fixed by mechanisms undepicted.

Depicting the reconstruction of Riley’s internal state might have been too dull, or strained the metaphor too hard, so perhaps skipping that sequence was for the best. The punning metaphors, such as catching a ride on the train of thought or the disposal of fading memories into the memory dump, get confusing when persisting in scenes past their introduction. The script could have used the dextrous genius of Norton Jules (author of The Phantom Tollbooth), nimbly keeping all those balls—metaphorical and literal—in the air, and in sight, only so long as they make sense, and never dragging a metaphor out too far. But the likes of Jules are admittedly hard to find.

If that sounds like Inside Out was a failure, or a downer, then it sounds harsher than it should. The tears jerk, the roller-coaster ride roller-coasts, and I laughed out loud several times, mostly during brief visits to other characters’ five-emotion control rooms. (“Girl! Girl! Girl”) Inside Out is, as I say, fine. It’s a good movie for children, with sufficient scraps tossed to their grown-up chaperones. Speaking personally, however, I find it ironic that for all the attention Pixar lavishes on the idea of growing out of childhood, and its reputation for treating that transformation with an adult perspective, Pixar movies seem to slide ever-nearer towards simply being kids’ films, and that saddens me. Animation needs all the champions it can find for the idea that animation is not (just) for children, that children’s movies aren’t animation, and that “family entertainment” doesn’t mean “for kids.”

Bach Pranks Bach

About a month ago, I listened to the first volume of the Great Lectures treatment of Bach and the high baroque. I say “the first volume” because the second still hasn’t returned to the library. As a fan of Bach, I expected some interesting anecdotes about Bach himself, which I got, but didn’t expect any eye-openers from the discussion of the music itself. A few points of interest, perhaps, but nothing remakrable.

So imagine my surprise when Professor Greenburg described the enormous pressure Bach’s musicians were under. We tend to de-emphasize the fact that Bach was a virtuoso keyboardist; we tend to forget entirely that he was a virtuoso on many other instruments as well. I, for one, didn’t know he was a master violinist. And he wrote music to the limits of his virtuosity—not so much as Liszt did, to show off, but rather because he wanted the challenge, and because he loved spectacle for its own sake. So his musicians had to play music at or even beyond their ability, unable to grumble about the unrealistic expectations of composers, knowing their boss could play all their instruments better than they could themselves.

Compositions like this, said Professor Greenburg, and played the fugal segment of his Sonata in Gm (BWV 1001). I know the piece, have it on CD, listened to it many times. What I didn’t realize was that this was a violin solo. Three separate voices cranking away at once from a single violin, sounding just as beautiful and natural as somebody else’s fugue for three separate musicians.

Mind? Blown.

Bach set these crazy challenges for himself all the time, just because he could. It’s like a writer who sets out to write a novella without ever using the letter N, or a golfer who decides to play a round using nothing but a 3-iron and a putter. But unlike the writer, who might finish the book but starts to sound oddly stilted after one chapter, or the golfer, who can score pretty well but would never win the PGA, Bach routinely turned out masterpieces while so bedeviling himself, something of a playful break from churning out more mundane oratorios twice a week on contract. Incomprehensible genius.

Aging out of My Own Hobby

The internet revolution is hitting RPGs hard, and hugely for the better. Self-publishing and pdfs and search engines bypass the costs of physical printing and let everyone who wants to get a toe in the waters do so. Of course, there’s a lot of half-baked ideas floating around out there now, but that’s where search engines come in. Search engines and the rapid cycling of word-of-mouth that social networks afford. The internet is magic.

At first I was like a kid in a candy store with the promise of fresh, new, experimental ideas. But more and more that excitement has been replaced by a sense of being overwhelmed. Not because I’m spoiled for choice, which I am, but out of an increasing sense that (1) current trends in RPG design aren’t generally to my taste, and (2) more importantly, those titles which sound inventive and appealing despite current trends won’t engage my fellow players.

Recently—by which I mean a year or two ago—we switched to Fate Core as our preferred go-to system. We still try other things, but Fate is the default. And I can scarcely get this group up to speed on the system. Jen subscribes to the notion that system doesn’t matter, and pretty well ignores system as a matter of principle, to the point of asking endlessly, “so what do I roll?” and occasionally getting upset because the rules won’t support what she wants. (They will, but not if she can’t be bothered to express what she wants. Many systems these days can use different mechanics to represent the same event, depending on how you want the event to affect the story, and so the GM may be powerless to answer the question “so what do I roll?”) Ella is willing, but slightly math-phobic and easily intimidated by the idea of rules. I think she understands more than she realizes, but continues to stumble rather than assert, for fear of being wrong. Dave, bless him, likes to dabble with systems, and he’s into Fate as well. Way, way more into it than I am: he’s contracted with Evil Hat to put a campaign idea into print. A professional Fate writer! Way, way beyond me in what one might expect from his system mastery. And yet… he doesn’t get Fate. His mechanical embellishments break, usually sooner rather than later. And none of my three fellow players are very assertive at the table.

Which is death for Fate. Fate deliberately shares narrative power that traditionally belonged to the GM with players by giving them a pool of points to spend when they want to alter the ongoing story. In my mind’s eye, I see how it should work, and it can be awesome. It was awesome in Dave’s “Bastards!” campaign… because I was on the players’ side of the table, and I did assert myself, and herded the other PCs along with me. But when I’m the GM, the players let the plot drift yet gripe when they aren’t getting xp (which is earned by advancing the plot), spend their fate points like water for massive overkill rolls yet complain that they don’t have enough chips, gripe when I compel their aspects, and generally don’t use the system to its potential, or even their own advantage.

And Fate is otherwise a very traditional RPG, with skill checks and heroic power levels and a traditional GM. I want to try more experimental systems like 1001 Arabian Nights, Dread, the Drama System, Fiasco, and Skullduggery, but I’m afraid they simply won’t fly.

To be fair, I’m not open to all the marvelous possibilities, either, except in an abstract devotion to trying things for the sake of trying them. I hated, hated, hated Monster Hearts, and I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the Apocalypse World engine in general, a shame when there’s so much enthusiasm on the net for it. (All of us are having a hard time with Apocalypse World in general. Though Dave remains enthusiastic.) I can get it with practice, but doubt the payoff of potentially improved story will balance the cost of poor story produced while we fumble around learning it. The explosion of new game systems leans heavily toward narrativism and away from gamism or simulationism, which is cool in the abstract, but decidedly not to my tastes or intuitive bent.

So I’m frustrated. Offered a cornucopia of new RPG techniques to try, nowhere near enough time to try them, fellow players who haven’t historically handled them, and—may as well admit it—a sense of my own aging brain finding it harder to keep up. Thanks, internet, for this paradox of choice.

Okay, Okay! Jeez.

The kids were rotten today in class. Not positively confrontational or destructive or any of the various infractions that can earn a trip to the principal’s office. They aren’t stupid enough for that! No, they were just entirely uncooperative, unwilling to do anything at all. Individuals might answer questions, or work very, very briefly on their assignments, but only just so long as I was breathing down their individual necks, and returned to goofing off instantly the moment I had to breathe down a different neck. The “wet noodle” school of cooperation.

I collected a lot of unfinished worksheets today. Small comfort. No grades will depend on today’s worksheet. Bad habits will take their toll eventually. I supposed, but that’s small comfort, too. Another sign of becoming a real teacher: I want the misbehaved kids to do well in the future despite themselves.


I had to buy an onion yesterday. An overpriced Kings onion because Kings is two blocks away and I needed it before the sinigang boiled over. And on the way home, I found myself remembering a passage from Humans.

Humans got rather far afield from its satire of the earnest Ghomes as it went off on a tangent discussing baseball and softball, including a loving paragraph devoted to how “a baseball is designed, irresistably, to be thrown.” It has just the right size to hold comfortably, though not so comfortably that you wouldn’t mind releasing it, light enough to rest easily until you choose a target, but enough heft to promise it will arrive where you throw it.

Turns out, a medium yellow onion is just like a baseball in that respect. A curious coincidence. A baseball might be designed to be thrown, but an onion is designed—well, bred—to look appetizing.

Seriously. Find a medium yellow onion, a good round one. Now carry it outside. Yes, outside. Ideally a warm, spring day. Opening season. Tell me that onion isn’t begging to be thrown humbabyhumbabyhumbabyRIGHT over the plate.

Bar the Shouting

On the subject of e-sports and League of Legends, I have to take a moment to vent a pet peeve concerning LoL casters. It comes in two parts.

First, part of their job is to drum up the excitement and enthusiasm surrounding a game. The game itself doesn’t always cooperate. Sometimes both teams lapse into well-worn strategies. Sometimes the teams flounder about rather than looking like skilled professionals. Sometimes the game is a blowout massacre. And when the game is a blowout massacre, the excitement evaporates. The audience spends ten minutes or more awaiting the inevitable.

Understandably, the casters begin casting about for reasons to treat a blowout massacre as something other than it is. It’s part of the job. So the casters begin spinning fantasy tales of how this game that’s all over isn’t really all over, beginning with the phrase, “If they can…” If they can set up a successful ambush in the top lane, and if the inevitable winners get sloppy and fall for it, and if they can then use the time gained to score two dragons and a baron and two towers…then this could still be anybody’s game. If the blowout is really, really bad, the fantasy scenarios get pretty silly. The casters know more about the game than I do, so they sometimes start spinning scenarios before I realize the game is already over; indeed, that’s one of the first indications I get. And that’s fine. Like I say, it’s part of the job.

But then there’s the second part of the complaint. Once the game is over—every game, blowout or nail-biter—the casters don the analyst hats and explain how even the narrowest victory was inevitable. And if the game was a blowout, this analysis of inevitability may run directly counter to the “anybody’s game” statements they offered ten minutes ago. One of the parts of that commentary wasn’t informative, definitely misleading, and perhaps even deliberately dishonest.

And if you can’t trust the commentary, what’s the commentary for? I mean, apart from whipping up a frenzy over nothing.


When Benjamin Netanyahu spoke before Congress back in the beginning of March, it was widely recognized as a snub against President Obama, an embrace of the Republican party, a gesture to Israeli hardliners of strengthened military ties, and, perhaps most significantly, an attempt to shackle Republican leadership to perpetual and limitless military support for Israel. The Republican party as a whole has long supported military aid to Israel, for reasons ranging from sober realpolitik to millennialist paranoid fantasy, but Israel’s militant factions, including Netanyahu’s Likud party, will surely benefit if it becomes one of the knee-jerk acid test issues to which no Republican dare appear any less than fanatically devoted, like tax cuts or deregulation or states’ rights or “Christian” values. Once an issue becomes both article of faith and primary acid test for the right wing in this country, look out!

And when Netanyahu pulled his little stunt, I was offended, both for the impact it was liable to have on US politics and for the blatancy with which a foreign official was allowed—nay, smirkingly encouraged—to interfere with the US political process. I still feel that way.

But there’s another side to that coin. Two curious factoids made last month’s Harper’s Index. First, that 90% of the funds for Netanyahu’s own primary election back home came from the US. Ninety percent! The thought of buying elections is offensive enough; Israelis should be incensed that their elections are being bought by foreign money. Second, that 30% of those same funds came from just three American families. Again, it’s bad enough that a handful of super-rich donors like the Kochs buy American elections; for three American plutocrats to buy an Israeli election is horrifying. Republicans are working hard to manufacture outrage over Chinese corporations donating to a charity linked to Hillary Clinton; imagine the outrage if she received 90% of her election funds from China! (For a Republican to receive 90% of his money from China, of course, would be different. The rules are always different for Republicans.)

Money as business capital went international long ago, and it seems that political funding is increasingly going international, as well. I suppose it’s only to be expected, a corollary to the accelerating transformation of election money into simply part of the cost of doing business. Want to make obscene profits at the expense of the general public? Buy a few senators for pennies on the dollar. While you’re at it, buy a few foreign countries’ governments. Just as they’re buying ours.

Future Sport

Over the course of my journaling hiatus, Eileene’s sister managed to hook us both into watching League of Legends as a spectator sport. LoL is, at heart, a capture-the-base game. Five-man teams choose characters with different strengths and weaknesses, and attempt to destroy the enemy base before their own is destroyed. There’s a lot more to it than that—LoL and its genre are enormous kluges of game design, and explaining the game would be more akin to explaining baseball than soccer.

It may seem strange to call a computer game a sport. Admittedly, playing LoL is nothing like playing football or jai alai or golf or what-have-you. But watching LoL is just like watching any professional athletic event. And I defy anyone to argue that a video game is somehow less manly or athletic or sport-like for its spectators than any traditional sport is for its spectators: you sit in your chair and whoop for your team’s successes and gripe at their failures. Beer and chicken wings optional. The video athletes are considerably less fit than physical athletes, I suppose, but that doesn’t make any difference to the couch potato, and one could make a case even for the athleticism of LoL pros on the grounds that their reflexes and reaction times must surely lie at the peak of human potential. Staggering.

Indeed, I can find only three differences between watching an e-sport and a traditional sport, two meaningless and one significant.

First, the sportscasters are younger. The caster’s desk is not occupied by overweight fifty-year-old former players still yearning for their glory days. No, the caster’s desk is occupied by thirty-year-old former players, washed up at twenty-five when their reflexes are no longer insanely high. But the banter is exactly the same: the citing of meaningless statistics, the previews and reviews of the same game you could just watch yourself, the breathless way that they describe every single play as possibly deciding! The whole! Game!

Second, the audience is a lot smaller and a log geekier, although sports-jock “bro” personalities are already in evidence among the fans. I’m sure that will change with time. E-sports have one major factor to recommend themselves, namely…

Third, and this is the important one, games are a helluva lot faster than professional sports. A LoL game typically lasts around 45 minutes, with 30- or 60-minute games being noteworthy extremes. And it’s all action. A professional football or soccer game might have an hour or so on the official clock, but once you add the time-outs, the commercial breaks, the referee conferences, the penalty shots, the 7th-inning stretch, the substitutions, the half-time performances, all the tedious time between plays, professional sports last hours, most of which isn’t actually the sport in action.

Which is the biggest reason I never got into watching sports in the first place. Game? Cool. Statistics to pore over? Swell. Watch television five hours for an hour of actual game time? Forget it. E-sports are way more exciting for this reason alone. And why I expect them quickly to mushroom in popularity.

Retirement Plan

Yesterday I wrote that Vetinari is one of the two characters from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series I consider my favorites. It’s also the only fictional character who fits into a recurrent daydream of mine.

I like to imagine an hour with some historical notable, a chance to gauge his reaction to news of the future. An hour to reassure Lincoln in some hour of despair on the progress of the American Civil War that the Union survives and does indeed export representative democracy back to Europe and to many corners of the world, and to learn what he thinks as well of future successes like WWII and failures like the red scare. An hour to chat with Bach, who realized that his music was going out of fashion, to let him know it is now recognized as a cornerstone of western music, and to see what he thinks of a few samples of Benny Goodman or the Beatles. An hour with Archimedes, to test how quickly he can absorb Cartesian geometry, calculus, or special relativity. What would they say? Could they even relate to their legacies?

Lord Havelock Vetinari, patrician of Ankh-Morpork, is the quintessential enlightened despot. He has his citizens imprisoned or executed; he suspends the law; he has spies everywhere and meddles in foreign a well as domestic affairs. And yet, he also governs with as light a hand as possible. He shrugs off unflattering political jokes; he builds up rather than tearing down emergent (and threatening) technologies; he installs a police chief who can and does arrest Vetinari himself. Vetinari explains that he does so out of self-interest: tyrants who simply seize and terrorize, he observes, don’t last long. (Apparently, the Discworld has no equivalent of Fidel Castro…) But is this really so? Whatever self-interest Vetinari indulges isn’t very self-indulgent. Altough he lives in a palace, he works incessantly, eats meagerly, wears simple black—and probably would wear black even without an assassin’s training.

In a few of the more recent books, he claims to seek above all not power but influence. To-may-to, to-mah-to. And influence to what purpose? Racial equality, no mean feat in a city now populated by dwarves and trolls and myriad others in addition to humans. Free market ideals, which includes tearing down businesses which make taxable profits but prey on competition to the consumer’s detriment. A free press. International peace. An honest gendarmerie. All that power focused perpetually on maintaining something very close indeed to a democratic ideal—except for the complete absence of democracy. “One man, one vote,” as Pratchett observes. “And he is the Man, so he has the vote.”

And it all depends on his preternatural political acumen. This being a work of fiction, he can always be absolutely correct in every decision, steering every event to its perfect conclusion within plausible limits set by the fundamental imperfections of humanity (and other fantasy races). Even other master politicians, risen to the tops of their respective states, openly hold Vetinari in awe. Without this unique union of exquisite skill and enlightenment in the broadest theoretical terms possible, Ankh-Morkpork would descend quickly into what it was before the Patrician’s arrival: a cesspit of squabbling cutthroats.

So in my reveries, I wonder: if this autocratic utopia designed by and perhaps for Vetinari depends on this singular person himself, what plans has he for a successor? No such successor or plan is even hinted at in the books. What would he say if I were allowed to interview him for an hour on the subject?

Probably not much. Vetinari plays everything close to the chest, if only to maintain some dramatic tension for Pratchett’s readers. He wouldn’t share his plans with some random yutz like me, anyway. Maybe, just maybe Drumknott, but certainly not me. Or if he did discuss the issue, it would surely be with a casual dismissal, a claim to let the future take care of itself. Some combination of “I’ll be dead, so it won’t matter to me” and “people choose their own course, regardless of their supposed leaders’ wishes.” And both elements of that response would be lies. A man who cares for nothing but influence must surely care about influence beyond his death, because it can be had. And Ankh-Morkpork manifestly dances to Vetinari’s tune.

So if I could get an honest answer out of him or his authorial creator, what plans, if any, has Vetinari for a successor?

The question takes a more pressing tone with Raising Steam, in which Vetinari shows his first signs of failure: a failure of his faculties in an inability to finish the daily crossword, and a failure of ideals as he delights in that crossword designer’s destruction. If Vetinari deliberately left plans for a successor to a nebulous and unpredictable future, to be improvised, as he so characteristically improves, when the time came and variables could be minimized…well, the time has come. I’m invested in his vision for Ankh-Morkpork. I would dearly like to know he has arranged matters to ensure its continued vitality.

Neither plans nor future will ever be known, of course. Pratchett’s widely-mourned death guarantees that, just as we will never know what Lincoln might think of America’s future or Archimedes’s thoughts on the microchip. Which helps makes the question so interesting. We’ll never know how it all turns out. But I hope somewhere, in the infinite universe, it does all work out, as it does in Pratchett’s novels.


Farewell, Terry Pratchett.

Pushing Steam is his final book, discounting the somewhat ghoulish practice of co-authoring from his notes, as others have done with Tolkien and Asimov. I found it very sad. Not so much because of its explicit content, but as an expression of the approaching end of Pratchett’s life and literary career.

Things were simply too easy for all involved. Pratchett’s better stories thrived on challenge, a competent but outnumbered and outgunned character tackling a corrupt system, often from the awkward position of an outsider forced to work within the system. Pushing Steam features too many old characters who have overcome their foes and risen to their respective peaks of influence—in finance, in law, in news media, etc., etc.—and they share a great deal of world view and mutual respect. There’s no challenge in this story, and thus no drama; rather, we’re given a chance to see old friends ensconced in power and privilege. A chance to say good-bye to them. But it’s not all friendly farewells.

More painfully, Lord Vetinari at last shows the first signs of failing capacities, as he proves unequal to the toughest challenges of the daily crossword. A trivial failing, but in the perfectly competent Vetinari, who depends on his perfect competence to keep all the balls in the air, a powerful indicator. Especially given Vetinari’s exaggerated frustration to his own crossword difficulties, a crack in his perfectly implacable self-control. As Vetinari relishes petty vengeance on the puzzle’s author, we see the first stirrings of the tyrants he replaced, the beginning of the end for the delicate balance, absolutely dependent on Vetinari, that makes Ankh-Morpork anything but a murderous hellhole.

We saw something similar from Commander Vimes in the previous Stiff, which concludes with Vimes sanctioning the assassination of a violent criminal. Not execution after a trial. Not death in the course of apprehension. Assassination, at the hands of Vimes’s personal manservant. A terrible moment for a character who spent several novels leashing his own rage to service of the law, who recognizes that the iron discipline of that service is all that separates himself from the entitled lords he so despises. An appeal to “higher justice” is no avail; Vimes’s internal monologue elsewhere repeatedly acknowledges that a good excuse to take the law into his own hands is the start of a slippery slope that only ends at the bottom. Like Vimes’s alcoholism. Happily, Stiff ends on a note strongly suggestive of retirement. Vimes ends the story setting duty aside, puttering around on a riverboat, playing with his kid, and deciding that this life, a life outside the precinct office, is pretty good too. Okay, Vimes took it too far, albeit for good reason, and now he’ll retire. I was disappointed, then, to see Vimes still in office for Pushing Steam. Still in office, that is, after going bad. Realistic, perhaps, that the chief of police wouldn’t simply vanish from police work after a single, very private lapse, but so what? Plausibility never had any place in the Discworld.

Vimes and Vetinari are my favorite Discworld characters, and I could never quite choose between them. Vimes I identified with; Vetinari I most liked to see in action. Seeing both at long last fail in their defining characteristics hurt. An admission of mortality, coming from a beloved author facing his own mortality.