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Saying that a show at the ART is a standout is no small thing. Last year's standout was The Great Comet, which is up for a big pile of Tonys this year, now that it's on Broadway. The previous year was Waitress, which likely would have won more Tonys if it weren't for, y'know, Hamilton.

So keep that in mind when I say that this year's standout for me is Arrabal, an innovative, affecting ballet of tango.

I had few expectations going into the show -- while Kate tells me that the article some months ago mentioned that there was little spoken word, I apparently had forgotten that, and certainly hadn't ever realized it was a true ballet. There is only a little bit of speech in it, and what little there is isn't English. (There is some video-over, providing translations of the important bits, and a couple of video clips in English that help provide historical context. But basically, it's a ballet.)

While there is a definite story here, a good deal of it is pretty impressionistic -- this is ballet in the American in Paris sense. It's more narrative than pure classical ballet, but you still need to be prepared to interpret the dance. That said, it proves beyond a doubt that tango is every bit as valid a narrative form as either classical or contemporary ballet -- it isn't hard to understand the story being told.

That story is set on a backdrop of the Argentine dictatorship. The first act is set in 1976, as young Rodolfo leaves his baby daughter with his mother so he can go out for a night of dancing and protest, and is then captured by the forces of the rising police state. Most of the rest takes place in 1994, as his now 18-year-old daughter Arrabal goes to the big city and learns about her father. It's very much a coming-of-age story for her, but also a tale of memory, loss and grief for Rodolfo's mother and friends.

And the dancing -- the dancing is breath-taking. This is ballet for the So You Think You Can Dance age: powerful, vibrant, and enormously creative dance. The performances are delightful, and choreography and direction brilliant.

(I was particularly struck by the way that Arrabal's movement idiom is subtly different from everyone else's: more legato and flowing, almost weightlessly emphasizing the youth of our ingenue protagonist. It was especially striking that, as soon as the show ended and the stage turned into an open dance party, she instantly gained about five years as she started dancing like herself rather than her character. That is great dance direction and performance.)

It is mostly tango, but freely mixes in other forms: Arrabal herself starts off with a little bit of classical ballet (which looks terribly innocent in the tango-centric environment), and there's a lot of contemporary and jazz flavor in here to help the storytelling. And one of the major characters, El Duende, has his own unique style that is a sort of fun, fluid hip-hoppy thing.

I'll caveat here that Kate wasn't as enthralled as I: she thought the music was too loud (it is pretty loud, although not rock-concert loud), and she found the constant tango rhythm repetitive. I didn't especially notice either point -- this may reflect the fact that she is more into musical theater, and I'm more into rock. The music is roughly latin rock: a mix of violin, accordion and electric guitar that comes out sounding like nothing quite so much in my experience as Cirque du Soleil.

Kate is still of the opinion that Fingersmith was this year's best show, and I agree that it was brilliant and fun (and would likely translate better to Broadway, so keep an eye open). But Arrabal is brilliant and well worth seeing, especially if you like dance. It runs through June 18th -- check it out...

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Another day, another use case: I finally got around to taking Kate's and my old "Restaurants we should try" spreadsheet and turning it into a nice rich Querki Space. I've only just started to flesh out the list of places we have already been, and give them ratings, but if you're interested (or simply want a look at a typical Querki use case), you can find it here on Querki. Being Querki, it's all cross-referenced by restaurant type, neighborhood, and so on. (And I've put the Location in for most of them, so there are automatic Google Map links to show where they are.)

And if anybody would like a site like this themselves, just speak up: I haven't gotten around to turning it into an App yet, but it will only take me a minute or two to do so. Once I do so, it will be quick and easy for you to sign up and set up your own Restaurants Space. (I suspect that this is only interesting to the foodies, but we certainly have friends who like this sort of thing...)

Bagels

Feb. 16th, 2017 01:24 pm
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On a lighter note: while I don't entirely want it to be "discovered", the good stuff should be publicized.

While Boston isn't New York, we do have ongoing discussions about where to find the best bagels. After six months of patronizing the place, I now have a clear favorite: Bagelsaurus in Porter Square. (I assume the name started as Bagels 'R Us, but that's just a guess.)

Of course, bagelology is a highly subjective field, and not everybody is going to agree. But Bagelsaurus has a lot going for it:

  • A fine variety of flavors, including most of the traditional favorites. (Onion, Pumpernickel, Everything, Salt, etc.)
  • Remarkably generous toppings: when I buy a six-pack of Everythings, I wind up with a considerable puddle of toppings that have fallen off in the bottom of the bag, and they still look utterly covered.
  • Bagels are large -- not insane, but a generous lunch.
  • Bagels are light -- not the horrible white-bread-pretending-to-be-a-bagel that you sometimes see, but not the typical lumps of lead either.
  • Bagels are well-finished, and wonderfully crisp when toasted.

They also make a variety of tasty-sounding bagel sandwiches, but I always get them takeout to make at home, so I can't speak to those.

There are a couple of downsides to note:

  • Their Onion bagels are the onion-on-the-inside variety, not the onion-on-the-outside that I prefer. (This is a matter of taste.)
  • They can get crazy jammed at lunchtime, especially on weekends. Be prepared for a line if you arrive after noon.
  • They start selling out of flavors during the lunch rush, so if you have favorites, get there before noon.

Overall, though, they're the best bagels I know this side of NYC, and better than most New York bagels I know. More or less my platonic ideal. Check it out...

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I always like to save the best for last -- piling a couple of pieces of pepperoni up on the last bite of pizza, and like that. And so I'll wrap up the current series of reviews with the absolute best.

I think of the mid-1990s as the period when comics began to grow up, moving past its adolescence of the 1980s (full of overly-adjectival anthropomorphics and Grim'n'Gritty) into real stories that stand the test of time. I suspect that most people think of that growing up as being epitomized by Sandman, and I can't disagree -- it's a brilliant series, and won wide-spread attention. But for those of us in the know -- the people haunting the comics shops and buying the black and white comics that the mainstream didn't pay attention to -- the first truly great graphic novel (originally told in 21 issues) was Teri Sue Wood's Wandering Star.

Let's get the disclaimer out of the way first: the author, [livejournal.com profile] the_resa, is an LJ pen-pal of mine. (Hi, Resa!) Indeed, one of the pieces of art in the back of the new edition is a retouched version of a piece she made for me about ten years ago. But I first got in touch with her *because* I was an enormous fan of this book.

Wandering Star, set in the late 22nd century, is the story of Casandra Andrews, daughter of the President of Earth, and starts as she is about to leave to attend the Alliance Academy, the first human to get to join; she isn't there long before war breaks out, and she finds herself in the middle of it.

Let's just say it: the premise *sounds* trite. The end results aren't.

Part of the genius of the story is that it is narrated, and continually intercut, by the framing sequence of a 50ish Casi giving an interview to her would-be biographer. This is the quiet account of a melancholy and slightly haunted famous woman, explaining quite frankly what really happened to her, with all the mythology stripped away, and wrestling with those memories. That framing sequence changes the story. The spine of the story isn't about whether Casi survives (she obviously does) or whether the invading Bono Kiri win (they obviously don't) -- it's about how the girl in the story becomes the woman telling it.

I was amused that Carla Speed McNeil, in the Afterword to the new edition, calls it a Space Opera -- which I completely agree with, but for totally different reasons than she gives. As I mentioned a short while ago, Person of Interest is very much science fiction, despite being set in mundane modern-day New York; Wandering Star is *not* science fiction by my lights, despite being all spaceships and aliens and things blowing up. Science fiction is fundamentally about exploring an *idea*; space opera is fundamentally about the *people*. Science fiction is generally about how *different* things could be; space opera is about how much the future could be *like* us. (In this respect, I often find much space opera more like fantasy than science fiction. Neither is more or less worthy; they're just different in focus.) Despite the aliens, this is very much a story about people.

More precisely, this is an exploration of emotion. That's a theme that comes up time and again: from Madison, the empath who can can both sense and influence the feelings of those around him; to the Tul'sar devices that enslave by eliminating emotion; to all of the main characters wrestling with almost unimaginable loss. Casi starts the story a bright-eyed young woman -- this is the tale of her growing up, all too quickly, in the midst of wartime chaos and tragedy, mostly trying not to die or be enslaved, and eventually making her mark.

The obvious comparison here is to The Hunger Games, but Casi is less of a superhero and a bit less broken (and better-rounded) than Katniss. This is the tale of folks doing what has to be done *not* because they are capital-H Heroes, but because *somebody* has to do it.

The art is superb -- an elegant pointillist style that isn't much like anybody else's. The only artist I can think of in the same general area is Matt Howarth, but where he evolved towards ever-angrier angles, Teri's style became delicate curves. It's a remarkably subtle and wide-ranging style, especially compared with the first draft (included in the back of the book), which was terribly *ordinary* in every respect compared to the final result. There are beautiful nuances everywhere, including a usage of shading as leitmotif that I don't think I've ever seen elsewhere. Teri is also notable as one of the only artists I know who truly mastered the use of *lettering* as a key element in the storytelling -- Dave Sim is the one other person I know to use it so effectively to convey the entire range of emotion and tone.

God bless Dover and their new graphic-novel imprint -- the new edition is luscious, a fine doorstop of a hardcover. Printed on higher-quality paper than existed for comics when Wandering Star was first published, it allows the detail of the artwork to shine.

Let's sum up: this one is going on The Shelf, the highest compliment I can pay to a graphic novel. In my estimation, it's one of the dozen finest ever, in the same company as V For Vendetta, Transmetropolitan and, yes, Sandman, and it's wonderful to see it back in print. Get it -- the Dover edition is reasonably-priced to begin with, and it's downright cheap (for a nearly 500-page graphic hardcover) at Amazon at the moment.
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We finally got to the last episode of Person of Interest the other day, so it's time for an overall review of the series.

tl;dr: Person of Interest is the best science fiction TV series of recent years. You should watch it.

At this point, I hear some of you saying, "Wait -- Person of Interest? Science fiction? Isn't that a police procedural or something like that?" Books, covers, and like that -- bear with me.

The best definition I know of "science fiction" is that it is about *ideas*. Great SF takes an idea or two, asks "What if?", and runs from there, exploring the implications of that idea. It's not about spaceships and aliens -- it's about those ideas.

The core idea of PoI is that there is a Machine, a sophisticated and increasingly sentient AI that is plugged into the Internet. It sees all, knows all, and is getting ever-better at *predicting* all. You need to accept that central conceit for the series to work. It's worth suspending disbelief there: while I personally don't think it's plausible *yet* (and there are some chaos-theory reasons to believe it'll never happen to quite this degree), the story pays it off well with a fine exploration of where things could eventually go.

Our primary protagonist is Harold Finch, inventor of the Machine. He built it for the government, and the Machine is feeding the government "relevant" information -- predictions of terrorist attacks, assassinations, and other such matters of Strategic Importance.

The problem is, the Machine sees all, including the far larger number of "irrelevant" matters -- the little deaths and tragedies of ordinary life. So it begins to feed Harold hints of those tragedies, in the form of numbers that identify the relevant people. Harold is a programmer, and an injured one at that, unable to address these problems himself, so he hires Mr. Reese -- ex-military, ex-CIA, cool to the point of scary -- to look into these cases and try to save lives.

That's where the series starts, and season one *is* a something of a procedural. (I gather. I didn't come in until somewhere in the middle of season two. I recommend starting from the beginning; figuring out the moving parts in the middle isn't simple.) As the story progresses, it picks up some of the expected sorts of arc -- the government wanting more control over the Machine, Mr. Reese's past catching up with him, etc -- but it's all fairly ordinary for the first couple of seasons.

And then the network apparently stopped interfering so much, and allowed Jonathan Nolan to tell the story he *wanted* to tell. In season three, the story begins to really explore the ramifications of the scenario: the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance, and the tragedies that can happen when the eyes in the sky get it wrong. Suffice it to say, this series is a bit like Dollhouse: if you're turned off because the scenario makes you queasy, trust me, the show-runner is *way* ahead of you, and the story is *much* darker than it looks at first glance.

That begins to set up in season three; seasons four and five play it out, as we explore just how terrifying the world could be with an omniscient AI trying to save humanity from itself, especially if you get on its bad side. This is a story about a Singularity happening so quietly that almost nobody knows it's even occurring, and the small group who are trying to stop it. I found the final half-season to be utterly gripping, and the writers took the opportunity to bring it to a solid close. (They have left the door open for a possible sequel, but that will clearly be a different story, in different circumstances with different characters.) In terms of flavor, the best comparison I can make to the later seasons is the SF novel Iron Sunrise. No, I won't say why.

The cast is excellent, and it gradually extends beyond those two characters. The first couple of seasons include a pre-Empire Taraji P. Henson, and Amy Acker gets to play the role she was born for, as Root, self-proclaimed high priestess of the Machine -- a badass sociopath who gradually learns how to be human over the course of the story. The writing is solidly good, and they do a good job of varying the tone even in the grimmer later seasons. (My favorite episode is in season four -- told mainly from the viewpoint of the Machine itself, it is weirdly funny and deeply sympathetic, driving home just how differently it sees the world.)

Overall, it's well worth watching. The individual episodes stand by themselves reasonably well, but by the second half this is a strongly arc-driven story, taking its premise and exploring it richly. I find myself much more eager than I might have expected for HBO's upcoming Westworld series -- also by Jonathan Nolan, and also promising deep explorations of AI and its interactions with mankind...
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The comics industry tosses around the term "graphic novel" a lot. One thing you quickly learn is that most of these really are nothing of the sort: they may be large and lovely, but they're usually Graphic Short Stories, really, because in terms of reading time a typical comic page goes a good deal faster than a typical prose one.

Keep that in mind when I say that Locke & Key is *actually* a very good graphic novel. It takes six volumes, collecting 37 issues that were originally done as six mini-series, but this is *not* a conventional comics series, wandering around episodically until they finally decide to end it. Instead, in structure this is *absolutely* a single novel, and a fairly tight and compelling one. Like many good novels, there *seems* to be a lot of randomness in the early volumes, but pretty much all of it turns out to be far more significant later in the story. This is a story with exceptionally little fat for a three-dozen-issue series: not only do many of the amusing one-off panels turn out to be significant later on, you sometimes have to pay close attention to catch details that will pay off several issues later.

Locke & Key is a horror story, although more of the classic Stephen King sort than the modern all-gore-all-the-time one. Indeed, some of the flavor reminds me a bit of Madeleine L'Engle -- not quite so much "terrifying" as "disturbing", illustrating the thin line between horror and fantasy. That said, this story *does* get bloody at times, so take this recommendation with that in mind: if blood and guts are a serious turn-off for you, this may not be your story.

It actually starts with the most horrifying segment, and that almost turned me off right from the outset. This is the story of the Locke family, and in the first issue Randall Locke, the father, is quite horribly murdered in what appears to be a completely random killing. (But remember, *nothing* in this story is random.) After that bit of mundane tragedy, his family moves back to his family mansion, Keyhouse, in scenic Lovecraft MA. And then things begin to get strange.

For the most part, the story is classic fantasy, as the three kids discover that Keyhouse is, indeed, full of keys -- wondrous magical keys, each of which has its own power. There's the Angel Key that gives you wings; the Ghost Key that opens the back door, which lets you walk right out of your body; the Skin Key that changes your skin color; and many more. There's the Head Key that lets you and others literally look into your own head, and add and remove things from it. (Yes, that's creepy -- the Head Key is central to much of the story.) And more as the story goes on. The history of Keyhouse, both ancient and modern, permeates the story, and the backstory unfolds relentlessly throughout.

This is a story about how to cope with both tragedy and wonder, and how they can distract from each other. The reader only learns the backstory as the family does so, one piece at a time, but we *do* get to see all of what's currently happening as it unfolds -- there's a villain to the piece, frighteningly evil and well-disguised in the best horror-fantasy way, and we see his every step, resulting in a lot of "No -- don't go in *there*!" tension. But it's also a story about heroism, little and big, and the way that family, both born and chosen, can save each other even when they sometimes can't look at each other.

Mind, it's not all grim. Indeed, the tone varies all over the map, as it needs to -- unrelenting darkness just gets boring. There are sections of real joy, a lot of friendship, and a fair amount of just plain humor. (The story takes place over the course of a year: the issue of "February" is downright funny, as the weirdness starts to become second nature to the kids.) One of the delights of the story is that it is seen through the eyes of our three heroes, aged 8, 16 and 17, and is full of the amped-up emotions of those ages.

I always focus mainly on the writing and story, but suffice it to say that the art is gorgeous, and well-suited: intricately detailed and expressive, realistic or thoroughly *not* depending on the needs of the moment.

It's beautiful stuff: a gripping novel that left me reading the last two collections straight through because I couldn't put it down. I'm not sure that it's going to make The Shelf (that's a high bar), but it's definitely a series than I'm going to keep permanently; I suspect it reads quite differently the second time, and I look forward to finding out. Recommended, particularly to anyone who likes thoughtful but somewhat disturbing urban fantasy...
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I've been picking up a lot of great comics collections lately, so it's time for The Review of Obscure Books. Today's review is the first of three classics on my stack: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram.

Phonogram isn't a single graphic novel, it's a series of three, each one collecting a short series. These were written over the course of quite a number of years, and can be thought of collectively as a story about passing the generational torch, in music, and in magic.

It's an odd setting. Phonogram takes place in our world, save that it is a world where music is, subtly, magical. Not magical in the sense of, "people flying through the air and shooting lightning bolts" -- magical in the sense of transformational. The beauty of the series is that it's one of the few urban fantasies where you could actually *believe* that most people don't even know the magic is there. There's a lot of high weirdness going on here, but you can interpret nearly all of it as metaphorical and imaginary, and the story still makes perfectly good sense. This is magic of the heart and mind, more than the physical.

Kieron Gillen is, mind you, my pick for Best Comics Writer currently working, and is in contention for best ever if he keeps going the way he's doing. His major series to date include Loki and Young Avengers (the story that redefined one of Marvel's best villains); Uber (a darkly brilliant examination of superheroes as weapons of mass destruction); Mercury Heat (cyberpunk hard SF -- bloody, violent and kinda fun); and the major fan-favorite The Wicked and the Divine, which he has described as the flip side of Phonogram -- where Phonogram is about music fandom, WicDiv is about music creation. All of them are well worth reading, and the latter three are still in progress. (Uber and WicDiv are explicitly novels, but I'm not sure how long either is intended to run.)

Several of these were done in collaboration with McKelvie, who is the modern archetype of "clean line" art: beautiful, unpretentious, clear and expressive comics. I sort of think of McKelvie as accomplishing what John Byrne was always attempting.

But the first series of Phonogram, collected as "Rue Britannia", was the story that first introduced me to Gillen and McKelvie. It's in a fine greytoned black and white, and is the story of David Kohl (a presence throughout the series), who is investigating the creepy resurrection and mutation of Britannia, goddess of BritPop, the music god who made him who he is. Kohl is tasked with figuring out who is behind it and stopping them before their meddling redefines him into unrecognizability. Written about 15 years ago, it's a bit rough around the edges, and the metaphor is, if it's not obvious, laid on rather thick. But it's still a fascinating story, and a clear case of two rising talents finding their feet.

Which they did find in The Singles Club, back in 2010. I wrote a full review at the time -- suffice it to say, this was tied (with daytripper) as my pick for best comic of the year. The story is set in one evening, down at the nightclub, told from seven different viewpoints, and it's a masterpiece of character study. Each of its seven issues is wildly different, featuring a wildly different character, and the same evening looks very different to each of them. From the lovely but self-absorbed Penny to the hip but divided Emily Aster to the nearly wordless story of Kid-With-Knife (who is almost the opposite of what that nickname might imply to you -- he is the avatar of in-the-moment ferocity, and is in some ways the most joyful of the bunch), these tight little stories bring out each personality quickly and brilliantly -- rare in a world of comics that take forever to get anywhere. It's not *quite* Will Eisner level conciseness, but it's close.

The story concluded last year with The Immaterial Girl, which takes the story of Emily Aster -- hinted at in Rue Britannia and given a full issue in Singles Club -- and brings her front and center. Emily is the head of the coven: cool, powerful and utterly cutting. But she got there, when she was young, by selling half of her personality to The King Behind the Screen. That sacrificed half, Claire, has managed to take control again, and wants her revenge by destroying Emily's life utterly, in a story about how our prior choices do and don't control our lives. (And while Emily is dealing with the consequences of this (and running for her life through the music videos of her youth), Laura Black and Mr. Logos, introduced in The Singles Club, are beginning to come into their own, so the series gets a sense of generational closure.)

One side-benefit of the series is that it is an education in music -- Gillen is a *serious* music aficionado, and it shows. Each volume has a glossary of all the musical references in it, and it runs impressively long. And it says something that each volume's music is quite *different*, reflecting the characters and stories told therein. I'm slowly making my way through the glossaries with Spotify, figuring out which of these groups and albums I should be picking up. (The major discovery for me so far seems to be The Arctic Monkeys, who I'd never even heard before.)

Each of the volumes stands reasonably well on its own -- the earlier volumes drop hints that get followed up later, and the later ones refer to earlier events, but you could read any of them individually. If you read only one, it should be The Singles Club, which is on the all-time-greats list. But the series as a whole is a classic, and well worth picking up in collection: fun, thoughtful stories that benefit from an occasional re-read. Check it out...
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[Kate wrote this up for her own records; I'm copying it here for y'all. My comments are in italics.]

J and I went to the Tasting Counter a few weekends ago to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the first time we tried a new restaurant together.

Physical Space - getting to the Tasting Counter is unprepossessing. Behind Esh off Somerville Ave is a network of industrial looking buildings that house a number of small yuppie/hippie businesses (circus, chocolate making, brewery, rock climbing). The Aeronaut Brewery set aside some room in their building for a chocolatier, a small eatery, and the Tasting Counter. So you enter a very business-y door, and on the left is a small entrance to the Tasting Counter.

When you walk in, you're in a square room, with the front of the room to your right. On 3 sides excluding the front (about 1yd from the wall) is a counter, all sides having 6 seats facing into the center of the room. The counter is a nice stone, and the seats are real seats, just taller to be able to put you at the counter. On the inside of the counter is another surface about 6" below the eating surface, which is used to prep the plates before service. Inside the counter is an island with a small heating surface as well as counter space. The front wall is taken up by all the rest of the cooking space, with oven, burners, etc. and a door to a small room behind the front wall with the large fridge (I could see that) and presumably the dishwashing station. On the back and far wall (from the entrance) are lots of shelves and cupboards showing bottles, flatware, stemware, plates, etc.

Service - there seem to be 7 people working a dinner shift (at least when we were there), 3 chefs in the center, 1 dishwasher in the back, and 3 servers/sommeliers. During our dinner, we were served at different points by 2 of the chefs and all 3 of the servers, and everybody was very friendly and seemed very knowledgable.

The service is done something as a show. All seatings are at the same time, and no diner goes to the next course until every diner has been served the previous (you don't have to wait for them to finish, but they do have to be served). We saw groups of 2 (like us) up to 6, but I think more than 4 becomes a little difficult. (4 around a corner looked pretty fun, but 2 was great) The plating is done in front of you, and sometimes a server is trying to hand you your drink pairing and explain it while a chef is trying to prep a plate in the same spot, which is fun to watch.

[The whole place is set up as an interesting little illusion. You really feel like you're around the kitchen, and everything's being made in front of you. But if you pay attention, the *vast* majority of what's going on is final prep and plating: the components have mostly been prepped in advance, and they're just assembling. Of course, "just" is understating it -- what's going on in front of you is such a beehive of activity it's kind of a wonder that nobody collides in a slapstick disaster.

Also, note that, while they didn't let us get too far ahead, we never felt like the meal was dragging. Since it's two full seatings, and they have to turn the entire house at 8pm, they keep the meal at a very carefully-measured pace -- never rushed, but always moving along to the next thing.
]

Food - everybody gets the same thing (there were no allergies or substitutions we saw on our night, but they do ask for it when you sign up so I'm betting they could handle it), and at the end of the meal they give you your menu. I transcribed mine as best I could remember details (they give main flavor notes, but not the full preparation) below:

[Kate observed to me, about midway through, that this meal was shaping up to be a classic French progression, and she began to pretty accurately predict what should come next. This made things particularly interesting for me, getting to compare her predictions based on the classics with what actually came out -- you *could* generally see the relationship, but in all cases it was deeply reinterpreted and innovative.]

Welcoming Bites - fluke in sake gel with rice crisp
ocean trout on a seaweed crisp with grapefruit jelly
almond macaron with black olive spread and rhubarb jam

Appetizer - thin sliced raw sea scallop in shell with pickled radish, snap pea foam, with apple/rose accents

Soup - beef short rib with pastrami cure and rapini in horseradish/shallot cream soup over shallot jam with maple drizzle [Mmm -- why doesn't anyone ever treat pastrami as haute cuisine? This was divine.]

Pasta - hand rolled seaweed pasta around lobster custard with hen of the woods mushroom, dried wakame, and sea urchin/lobster cream sauce [Kate hated pretty much every aspect of this -- she took one bite and handed me the plate. But we agreed that it was convenient that they combined all the flavors she didn't like into a single dish. And I quite loved it: it was a magnificent melange of earthy, smoky, umami flavors.]

Fish - Black bass in 5 spice with spinach; macadamia foam; caper and saffron

Hake marinated in miso and then torched over beluga lentils; charred leek sauce (enoki?)

Palate cleanser - Schisandra berry iced tea with pine nuts and almond/pine nut macaroon [Okay, let's pause and talk about that macaroon. It's just a little tiny cookie, to go with the utterly fabulous iced tea. But we found ourselves going, "This may be the best cookie I've ever eaten". Warm, soft, richly flavored -- pretty much the Platonic ideal of the almond cookie. We told the sommelier that it might be the high point of the meal, and he mentioned that we weren't the first to say that.]

Fowl - Squab breast roasted to rare with rest of squab roasted and shredded, stuffed in potato fried in squab fat and topped with torched green garlic with foie gras sauce [So good. So, so good. Perfectly prepared squab is a rare treat itself, and this was basically Squab Three Ways. My pick for the best dish. Aside from the cookie.]

Meat - Venison tenderloin rolled in cacao shells with rhubarb cooked in vanilla; burdock; blood orange sauce

Sorbet(ish) - green tea sponge with avocado custard and grapefruit jam(ish) with lime leaf custard and red amaranth

Dessert - chocolate log with preserved orange, pistachio ice cream and coffee jam [Very good, especially the coffee jam, but almost a bit pedestrian compared with how innovative the rest of the meal was.]

Mignardises - coffee meringue, blood orange chew, duck liver bonbon

All diners also have a beverage pairing of wine, sake, beer, or non-alcoholic. All 4 were served while we were there, and I'd thrown a curve asking for wine pairing with no reds which was handled very well. All courses except the iced tea and the final mignardises had their own pairing, many of which were very good. (The pours were small, which was good given how many courses. And the nonalcoholic pairing sounded really interesting from what I heard, with lots of in-house made fruit-ades and teas.) [The sake pairings are recommended if you, like me, are fond of sake but want to learn more about it. Note that it's a different pairing for every dish, so you get to try a *lot* of interesting stuff.]

Price - you sign up for a reservation by buying a ticket for $180, which feels steep, but they really are very serious about you not having to have your wallet once you have a ticket, so the $180 covers the food (which would generally go for a little over $100 at that kind of quality), the beverage pairings ($40-60), the tax and the tip, so the $180 is very reasonable. I would do this again (and may have to as my mother seems very inclined to go when she visits in August).
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Indiegogo is the new "As Seen on TV": the place where you find the gadgets that are almost ridiculously mundane, and yet often innovative and useful. Today's example is the Tubshroom.

The Use Case: thanks to the genetic combination of a father who started balding at 21 and a mother who still has a fine head of hair (plus my own lifestyle choices), I have longish hair that is, let's not mince words, continually falling out. A shower hair-catcher is a necessity, but I've long struggled to find one I really like. The ones that sit inside the drain tend to quickly fill up and clog; the ones that sit over it tend not to stay in place. For the past several years I've been using one of the latter, an Oxo that mostly works well, but I've had to reset the suction cups that hold it down before each shower.

Along comes the Tubshroom, which is a clever twist on the problem. As the name suggests, this looks like nothing so much as a bright-green silicone mushroom (other colors are now available) that you drop into the drain. The "stalk" is highly perforated -- the hair wraps around that, but since it has a lot more surface area, it doesn't clog up as quickly as the traditional in-drain models. (And the cap has more holes, to serve as an emergency valve if things start to clog.)

It looks like I need to clean it every 4-5 days. It's easy to pull out by the cap, and while the hair winds up tightly wrapped around the stalk, the bendable silicone makes it easy to pull it all off.

Overall, the best solution I've found to this particular problem. Recommended to anyone with long hair, who needs to deal with the resulting shower issues...
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As I've mentioned before, I've become a devotee of cold-brew coffee in recent years. Conventional coffee is too hard on my stomach, and frankly I don't care for the bitter edge that much anyway. So cold-brew -- coffee soaked at room temperature for many hours, instead of quickly and harshly in near-boiling water -- suits me well. A good cold-brew produces a strong concentrate that you dilute with water, or in my case milk -- the result is a lovely, smooth iced latte.

So when I came across the IndieGogo for BodyBrew last year, I decided to give it a shot. The idea of a bespoke device for cold-brew seemed a bit frivolous (you can do it reasonably well in a standard french press), but I like the stuff enough that it seemed worth a flyer. I've now had mine for several weeks, and it's a keeper.

The BodyBrew produces a *lot* of cold-brew: you start with 40 oz of water, which results in 24 oz of concentrate. This may not sound like much, but the stuff is *ferociously* strong. Between the recipe (1/2 lb of coffee per batch), a long brew time (you can do as little as 12 hours, but up to 72 for a really strong brew), and the device designed to give it a really good soak, the flavor is at least twice as strong as my traditional french-press brew, as is the caffeine. Indeed, the latter is what reminded me to write this review. Traditionally, I dilute cold-brew with milk as a 1:2 ratio, and that's nice. This stuff, I've been diluting at somewhere over 1:3, and I'm *still* winding up downright jittery if I'm not careful. It's the strongest cold-brew concentrate I've ever come across.

It also specifically allows for re-brewing a second time with the same grounds, which gets you another three cups of conventional-strength coffee; I've been mixing that with the concentrate to stretch it a bit. It's a minor detail, but when I'm using this much coffee per batch, it's helpful.

The design is thoughtful and clever in a number of ways. For example, the top of the hourglass-shaped device unscrews and becomes the decanter, which you keep in the fridge. There's a screw-on decanter lid for that, as well as one for the bottom half in case you do the re-brew thing. It comes with a shotglass for measuring your concentrate. For extra money you can buy a travel canteen for the concentrate, and a timer for tracking how long it's been brewing; IMO, both of those are pointless, and not worth the extra $10 each.

Overall, the device isn't cheap ($60), and it does use a lot of coffee grounds. OTOH, the concentrate is tasty and strong, and I get over a week's worth (maybe more once I tune the strength down a bit) for $5 worth of coffee, so the ongoing cost isn't bad. Assuming it holds up (which it's done decently well so far, including a run through the dishwasher), I suspect it'll prove a good investment. Recommended if you like cold-brew enough to make it regularly, as I do in the warmer months...
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The thing about streaming series is that you get to watch them at your own pace, without the pressure of, "OMG, my DVR is about to explode!" So it's taken me a while to get around to Netflix' recent series Sense8. I kind of regret that, because I would have started talking it up sooner if I'd realized how good it was.

Sense8 is written by JMS (of Babylon 5) and the Wachowshi brothers (of The Matrix). So I went into it with a nervous concern of, "this might be the most bombastic thing ever written". The reality is quite the opposite: this is by far the most *human* thing I've seen from any of them, possibly JMS' best writing to date. It isn't big, loud and special-effects-laden; instead, it is very much about normal people dealing with human (if dramatic) concerns, who are finding that their lives have just changed in a rather weird way.

At its heart, Sense8 is a deep exploration of telepathy -- a topic often covered in written science fiction over the years, but rarely done well in the visual media. The premise is straightforward: these 8 people, scattered around the world, are beginning to find themselves as mentally linked. They can talk to each other; moreover, they begin to find that they can share skills with each other. It's a lot more mundane than spaceships and monsters, but the story shows just how powerful it can be.

The series is the most diverse I've ever seen -- so much so that it has to have been quite deliberate. Our protagonists, in a nutshell, are:
  • The Icelandic musician, living in London to try to forget her past.

  • The Nigerian bus driver, whose focus on earning enough money to keep his mother healthy is going to make him some dangerous friends.

  • The lesbian hacker from San Francisco. (In pretty much the only solidly-healthy relationship in the story.)

  • The East German safecracker, about to make a big and risky score.

  • The Indian bride-to-be, whose future would look perfect if she actually loved her prospective groom.

  • The Chicago cop. (Because there had to be one generic whitebread guy, but he is no more the "lead" than anybody else.)

  • The macho latin movie star, closeted from the entire world (especially himself), who accidentally finds himself in a sweetly odd poly relationship.

  • And my personal favorite: the tightly-wound South Korean businesswoman, with her own distinctive mode of blowing off steam, whose family problems are about to explode.
Oh, and one of those characters is trans, but the series doesn't even bother to mention that until halfway though. There's something refreshingly modern about that simply being a background detail.

Each character is the center of their own story, and Season 1 is mainly telling those stories, as they slowly weave together with each other. It's quite faithful to its premise, though: while the protagonists are gradually accepting the reality of this link, and figuring out how to help each other with it, they stay quite separate -- only two of them even meet physically during Season 1. So each character gets their own story, each a sort of movie unto itself, with the rest as their friends, associates and helpers as they do so.

Of course, there is also an Evil Shadowy Conspiracy that is out to get them (this *is* a modern science fiction story, after all), and interestingly, the two American characters don't really have much plot aside from it -- there may be a statement about the American media there. But it's more a lurking presence in the first season, driving a bit of plot but not really defining the story.

There are no obvious special effects here, but you have to pay *close* attention as the camera dances back and forth between characters and stories. The series doesn't bother with a great deal of expository dialog; it assumes that the viewer is smart enough to keep up with what's going on. (Instead of plot exposition, we get a fair amount of heart-to-heart emotional discussion, as each of our heroes tries to help the others grapple with their problems.) It starts pretty slow, and the first couple of episodes are difficult going as you try to figure out what the hell is going on, but by its midpoint the season is *rocketing* along -- it starts getting hard not to binge through the rest of it as the plots begin to climax.

Note that, being an unrated series on Netflix, there's a fair amount of violence -- not terribly gory, but it's a significant undercurrent to several of these plots. There's also a moderate amount of explicit (and given these characters, mostly gay) sex: not terribly gratuitous, but it's important to some of these characters and the story doesn't shy away from it. The mood is often dark, but nicely cut with some very funny subplots.

Overall, highly recommended -- possibly the best TV show I've watched in the past year. Particularly recommended to fans of Orphan Black, which is the closest analogue I can think of in flavor. If you've got Netflix, check it out, and give it three episodes to get the hang of it...
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[Oh, right -- posted this to Facebook last week, but forgot to mention it here...]

OMG -- when I wasn't looking, Sundown came out! Time for a burble.

I first encountered Sassafrass a few years ago at Arisia, and was blown away. Unlike the usual filk, they perform the music of Ada Palmer: complex harmonized a capella with far more depth than you'll usually encounter.

And I heard several tracks from their then-upcoming album, Sundown, which apparently came out sometime last year. Sundown is unlike anything else you'll ever find: the core Norse myths retold as an intricate a capella opera. I've been waiting for the full album ever since, and it's brilliant. (For those who have heard Sassafrass' previous albums: this one's different. Studio-quality, with proper mixing and everyone really practiced. This is what the music *should* sound like, and which the previous, mostly-live albums could only aspire to.)

I love the whole album, but particular standouts include:
  • "My Brother, My Enemy" (a bitter duet for Odin and Loki)

  • "Hearthfire" (beautiful and heartbreaking)

  • "Ice and Fire" (a duet for dueling Eddas, the entire history of the universe in 11 minutes -- this one is hilarious live, with Powerpoint presentation in the background)

  • "The Futhark Song" (essentially the traditional alphabet song, for Futhark)
Highly recommended in general, especially to SCAdians. The music can be challenging, and won't be to all tastes, but I recommend listening to a few of the above at the website to see if you are into it.

Also notable is the album Make Them All Real, which is a bunch of their other songs, remastered from their rough earlier albums. It's not quite as polished as Sundown, but includes "Somebody Will", which I generally think of as *the* anthem of classic science fiction -- a beautiful, melancholy song of the patience required to build the future. And several other lovely songs, including the period Ideo Gloria: it's also well worth getting.

Check it out, and spread the word...
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Most of my posts tend to be either programming topics, which are mainly intended for the engineers, or more generally spread over a lot of topics. This one's a bit unusual: it's a book review, partly for the engineers and partly for everybody. This will make more sense as we go.

tl;dr: How to Bake Pi, by Eugenia Cheng, is a delightful ride through the topic of Math. I recommend it to everyone over the age of twelve, but *why* I recommend it somewhat depends on who you are.
Review 1: for Everybody )Review 2: for Programmers )Finally )
So, to summarize: this is one of the best books I've ever read in the sciences -- clear, fun, and passionate. I wish she lived nearby, because I think I'd love to audit some of her courses...
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Been meaning to mention this for ages now, but I don't seem to have done so. So let's do a review of the best science fiction show currently on TV, and really one of the best ever: Person of Interest.

"What?" (I hear you say.) "Isn't that a police procedural or something?"

It certainly looks like one, and that's part of its genius. We tend to get so wrapped up in space opera that we think that's what science fiction is supposed to look like. But really, much of that is closer to fantasy -- it's showing a world that is arbitrarily different from our own. The very best science fiction has always been the stuff that takes the modern real world, adds a very limited number of very specific changes, and explores what happens next. That's Person of Interest.

The series certainly starts out looking like a simple episodic heroes-save-people-rah-rah. Our initial protagonists are Harold and John. Harold invented an AI, plugged into the Internet, that sees pretty much everything, and is powerful enough to make generally accurate predictions about what's going to happen next. (The AI is a bit improbably good at predicting human actions; that's the science fiction part, and you need to suspend that particular disbelief. Suffice it to say, there is a brilliant episode in Season 4 that shows what the world looks like from the Machine's point of view, that somehow makes it all feel more realistic.) The government uses this to deal with terrorists and the like, and ignores the threats to ordinary people who are, in the grand scheme of things, irrelevant. So Harold brings John (an ex-military type) on board to figure out what's going on with those "irrelevant" people and generally try to save lives.

There's arc from the beginning, but it starts out fairly obvious -- bad guys in the government, a few secret plots, and so on. I came in late in season one, and found season two fine but not obviously thrilling.

But then -- in season three it started turning into more serious speculative fiction. For instance, it began to explore questions of privacy, and the way that such a Machine can make little mistakes that hurt lives. Not everyone is necessarily happy with this state of affairs.

And then we get to season four, and everything changes. Not to give too many spoilers, suffice it to say the story begins *seriously* looking at the elephant in the room. What really happens if you have a panopticon -- a Machine that can not only see but *predict* most human actions? How powerful would such a Machine actually be? Especially if its opinion of what would be best for everybody doesn't agree with yours?

At this point, after season four, this has become a tale of what it is like when the Singularity is happening all around you, and almost nobody *knows* it's happening aside from you and a few others. On the surface, the world still looks basically pretty normal, but this is now the story of what's happening underneath, and it's the most terrifying thriller I've seen in years. What do you do when there is a malignant god growing all around you, complete with powerful followers who will kill to further its agenda?

It's the best work I've seen from J.J. Abrams, and comes with my highest recommendation. I love Doctor Who and Orphan Black, but by now Person of Interest is IMO just plain better overall. The story is deep, scary and well-told; the direction is solid, as is the acting. (One particular delight is Amy Acker in her best role to date as Root, the self-proclaimed high priestess of the Machine, who is a mix of sympathetic, broken and badass in that way Acker excels at.)

Watch it from the beginning -- while it's a slow build, there is an *enormous* amount of continuity here, and the tension of the later story depends on that build-up. But do watch it...
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... wow.

It's been a busy month for us in terms of going to shows. This past weekend was the new Avengers movie with my mother (review: lots of things blow up), and the weekend before that was Broadway tickets for the revival of On the 20th Century with Kate's family (review: quite a bit of fun, and I'm getting the soundtrack). Those were the ones where I knew roughly what to expect.

Last night, we had tickets at the ART for the world premiere of The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville. And... wow.

I gather the show is the brainchild of its four principals: it stars Taylor Mac as essentially a vaudeville clown who washes up in the last music hall after the world is destroyed in storm and flood, Mandy Patinkin as the bitter compatriot he finds there, with Paul Ford on piano and Susan Stroman as Director / Choreographer. That's serious wattage, and it shows in the most gloriously weird show I've seen in ages.

Our protagonists basically go through the stages of grief in a story told entirely in a wild variety of song, ranging from Freddie Mercury to Sondheim to REM to Gilbert and Sullivan. The first half's a bit more narrative, the second half mostly impressionistic, but this is more an exploration of mood than plot, deeply funny but also deeply melancholy. The humor is deliberately a bit uncomfortable at times (as, for example, they realize that they aren't exactly the stereotypical post-apocalyptic Adam and Eve), but they make it work well.

Make no mistake, this is about as high-concept as you get -- the best way I can describe the style is as if Moulin Rouge had been directed by Terry Gilliam. By all rights, the thing *should* simply be precious, but it is saved from that by the talent and passion of the folks involved. As it is, it's fascinating and affecting, with the songs deployed brilliantly to sweep you along.

It's a short run, and not a huge theater; it's likely to sell out, but there appear to still be some seats to be had. I recommend it in the strongest terms: this is the sort of strange genius that doesn't come along very often...
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The annual Christmastime pilgrimage to Florida is pretty much de rigeur for me and Kate: my parents live on Sanibel, hers on Fort Myers Beach (basically, next island over), so it's the efficient way to see all four of them. However, this year was less of a mob than sometimes -- most of my family wasn't there (the rest had come for Thanksgiving instead, but we couldn't cope with the travel), so Kate and I got a condo to ourselves, and had a mellow time of it. I largely relaxed, and got in some much-wanted reading time -- I finally finished Five Hundred Years After, and got well into The Viscount of Adrilankha, having finally acclimated to the distinctive writing style -- and we mostly got together with parents for meals.

We did have one particular outing with Kate's folks on the last night, though, to see the new film adaptation of Sondheim's musical, Into the Woods.

Summary: quite good, and particularly *much* better than I was fearing. (Note that I hadn't seen the show until this year, at which point Kate took me to the local production *and* showed me the original Broadway version, so it was fairly fresh in my mind.)

For the Sondheim fans, it can be described concisely as, they didn't screw it up. Oh, they needed to trim and tweak it here and there -- I suspect that it would have suffered if they had tried to be too faithful to the stage show, and would have missed some opportunities -- and I'm sure you can argue about any given change. But by and large, it was far more faithful to the original than different from it, and indeed, I didn't even notice most of the tweaks until Kate pointed them out afterwards. That was an enormous relief: I'd been hearing all sorts of rumors, up to and including gutting the emotional punch at the end of the story. None of them proved to be true.

Even more importantly, everything was done well, and with attention to detail. Casting in particular was excellent -- standouts included a *great* portrayal of The Baker's Wife, a remarkably good Jack (they actually got a kid who could sing well enough, so they didn't have to take the usual out of casting him as an adult and portraying him as a simpleton), and Meryl Streep doing a fine job of channeling Bernadette Peters. (Although Kate wondered, quite reasonably, why they didn't simply hire Peters to do it.) The only one I didn't entirely buy was Johnny Depp's Wolf: he was nicely committed to the part, but his singing wasn't as good as the rest, and I found the portrayal almost *too* creepy when paired with an eleven-year-old Red Riding Hood.

Still, it was a lot of fun, with a lot of standout numbers, ranging from competitive shirt-ripping-off in Agony, to a really inspired reimagining of Steps of the Palace. I was quite surprised to find that I would actually consider buying this one on DVD.

Now, for those of you who *haven't* seen the stage show, some additional comments are in order. First and most importantly, this does not fit any standard stereotype of "Disney movie". Yes, it is built around fairy tales, but they tend to be a bit more the original Grimm than the bowdlerized modernisms. Everyone notes that the story is "dark", but that word is too broad. This isn't "dark" in the usual modern sense, of a story that is violent but still hews closely to modern mythology and easy morality. The second act (roughly the last third of the movie) is just plain *real* in a way that is kind of startling in a fairy tale: there is a lot of hard emotional truth that isn't easily wrapped up in platitudes. (Even though some of the characters try.) Granted, my nerves will probably always be sensitive to stories of loss, but it's worth noting that I pretty much always cry through the end of the story.

Also, this is Sondheim at his best. That means that the music (which is omnipresent, even by Disney standards) is both brilliant and challenging -- simultaneously earworm-inducing and relatively tricky to hum.

Overall, worth seeing if you already like Sondheim and *well* worth seeing if you haven't seen the show before. But I'd be thoughtful about bringing kids to it -- you might want to, but I suspect it will occasion some difficult discussions afterwards...
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... you might enjoy The Laundry Files as well, I'm finding.

Having gotten caught up on The Dresden Files on audiobook in the car (because listening to James Marsters read it is the best way to do Dresden), and then read Charles Stross' Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise (which I dearly wish he was willing to continue, but oh, well), I decided to take a try at The Atrocity Archives, first in The Laundry Files, next. I had previously avoided this because I'd heard it described as Lovecraftian horror, which isn't really my thing, but that turns out to not do it justice at all. In fact, I'm quite reminded of Dresden.

Both are stories of The Wizard as a Young Man, gradually leveling up as the inevitable apocalypse forms around him. Bob Howard's wry first-person wit is similar to Harry Dresden's, but he's actually less of an asshole than Harry, and the story has a slightly more satirical edge to it. (I just got past the brain-eating Powerpoint slide deck.) In the idiosyncratic world of the Laundry, magic, math and computer science are all largely the same thing (I will admit that a grounding in computers is useful to understanding some of what goes on). And the Laundry's bureaucracy (and in-fighting) makes the White Council look downright warm and cuddly by comparison.

The Great Old Ones *are* very much in the background (so far), and some parts of the Laundry Files get *very* creepy. But this is more a story about politics and espionage than about horror: the Laundry are basically the British government agency devoted to protecting the public from Horrors They Must Never Know About, and is often darkly hilarious.

I'm only on the second book, but I'm hooked. Good stuff, and well worth checking out...
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Okay, let me state right out that I was *deeply* skeptical about The Lego Movie. I mean, this is just about the cheeziest-looking thing I have seen in *years*, and screamed money-making horror.

But the rating on Rotten Tomatoes was an astonishing 96%, so we had to check it out. So last night, we had dinner at Flora (which, if you haven't been there, is well worth checking out: a lovely, slightly-high-end restaurant a block away from the Capitol Theater, and one of the pioneers of the "small plates" movement: we always split one app and have two "Medium plates", which is just right for dinner), and went to the 7:30 showing. (Which is just early enough that we could still get to bed at a reasonable hour, but late enough that the theater was all adults.)

The film is... well, I'm largely hearing comparisons to Toy Story, and there is a lot of truth to that, but personally I find it a lot more in the old Looney Tunes tradition. It moves at *breakneck* speed, with the jokes (both spoken and visual) coming almost faster than you can catch, it is *jammed* with cultural referents (most of them aimed at the grown-ups), it is casually violent in the way that only a great cartoon can be. And it is kind of insanely funny -- the first movie in years to get me laughing out loud through much of it. Think of it as the Shrek version of Toy Story: slightly less wholesome, but cleverer and funnier.

It mixes its references with utterly casual glee. The ads give away the fact that Lego Batman is a major character; it's not giving too much away to say that Star Wars makes an appearance as well. But under the hood, without ever *quite* being explicit about it, it is totally obvious that this is a loving pastiche of The Matrix, and basically answers the question of what that trilogy might have been if Wakko, Yakko and Dot had replaced the writing staff.

And wonder of wonders, amidst all the insanity, the movie even turns out to have a Message which, while hammered home a tad bluntly, is nonetheless one that I greatly appreciate, and which is even magnificently matched to the subject matter. (It's actually refreshingly subversive and encouraging to see Lego telling this particular story as their party line.) Perhaps even more astonishingly, by the end of the movie its bizarre logic almost makes sense, if you are willing to view it through the right lens.

I will give one important warning: the theme song is the most dastardly and deliberate earworm I have heard in a long time. It's still worth watching the movie, but keep that in mind. (And stick around for the credits: their soundtrack is delicious.)

Doesn't *have* to be seen in theaters, but I suspect it benefits from the big screen, just for sheer immersion in the lunacy. But one way another, it's a must-see -- hilarious, smart and good...
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As many of you know, I am almost always listening to *something* in the car. Sometimes it's music, sometimes audiobooks, sometimes the news -- and sometimes, it's a course from the Teaching Company.

My TeachCo listening had bogged down in recent months, mostly due to the course I was in the middle of, Reason and Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages. It's not a bad course, mind, and the topic is conceptually interesting and relevant. But in practice, the subject matter proved ethereal, and the teaching style much the same, so I just couldn't get through more than one lecture at a time without getting distracted into something else. It was taking for-bloody-ever to get through.

Finally, I decided to give up. It actually helped that I was *also* in the middle of an audiobook that was proving just plain boring (Moving Pictures, from the Discworld series, the first complete failure I've hit); oddly, deciding to give up on both of them at once turned out to be easier than either individually. So I moved on to the next course in my queue: The Fall and Rise of China. And that one's worth a review.

This is a straight-up history course, and a truly excellent one. It is the story of modern China -- it starts around 1700, but really is focused on the 19th and 20th centuries, especially the career of Mao Zedong. The result is a gripping ride, starting with the decline and fall of the Manchu dynasty, moving through the rise of the competing nationalist and communist movements, and then tracing in lovingly horrified detail the story of the 1950s and 60s before things get put together again in more recent years.

The professor is Richard Baum of UCLA, and he's a hoot. He does not in the slightest pretend to neutral detachment. Quite the contrary: especially in the latter half of the course, he is prone to personal digressions of the "I was there" variety. Having acquired an interest in China in college, he was a grad student in the latter days of the Cultural Revolution, and a veteran "China watcher" by the time of the rise of Deng Xioping. As a result, he was in and around China at a number of significant junctures, and he proves to be a wonderful storyteller in describing what it was like to brush against history as it was happening. (The story of the incident that made his career is worth listening to all by itself, and serves as a fine lesson in the most important skills a grad student can possess: good timing and pilferage.)

He tells the history of modern China in a very personal way, focusing heavily on the leaders who drove and shaped it, illustrating each one's qualities and faults. This is particularly true in the stretch from lectures 14-28, which detail the contradictions of Chairman Mao, showing him neither as purely sinner nor saint, but never papering over the disastrous results of his policies and style. In general, this is a course about politics more than battles: who was doing what, and why.

I gradually got drawn in, eventually to the point of just listening to this straight through and ignoring the other items vying for my attention in the car. I'm not done with the course yet -- I'm up to about 1980, and we'll see whether the economic rise of modern China can possibly be as fascinating as the disaster stories from mid-century. But so far, this one is a winner, one of the best TeachCo courses I've heard to date, and a reminder that little is quite as much fun as a really well-told history lesson...
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[livejournal.com profile] mindways and I went to see Captain America last night. Summary: a solidly good action flick, and a good adaptation of the comic.
More details, with mild spoilers )

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