TV: Deadwood [1x01-1x05]
Books: A History of Russia [audiocourse], Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, Your First Meteor Application
This is David Milch's gritty, philosophical, and profanely-eloquent western about a mining camp in the Old West. It's widely regarded as one of the best television shows ever made.
So far, I'm watching this show grudgingly. Watching it is painful for me: I know that the show is good, I know it's brilliantly written, but it's still very hard to take. The world it depicts makes me feel physical revulsion. You can feel the grime and the mud that covers this world. You can smell the sweat and the vomit. The camera lingers over bad teeth and bodily deformities. The pigs regularly dine on corpses.
And on top of that, I always feel distanced from the show. When Brom Garret first appears onscreen, he clashes sharply with his surroundings -- well-dressed, educated, polite. By comparison to the prospectors, he's an effete dandy, and as the story progresses, he's only good for being conned, duped, murdered, and left floating in the river. And of course, that's the character I identify with -- so already, I'm uncomfortably reminded that this is a town where I would die very, very fast, and very, very painfully.
But that, in and of itself, would be okay. Most of The Wire takes place on streets where I'd be dead before I could ask, "Wait, how'd I get transported to Baltimore?" But with Deadwood, I feel like the show is also *judging* Brom as a worthless human being. I feel like, since Brom falls short of whatever David Milch defines as how to be a properly-masculine man, he *deserves* to be destroyed by the town. And so this show produces a steady headwind of "Unless you are covered in mud, drinking rotgut whisky all day, and willing to stab a man in the face, you are not fit to live."
So that's unpleasant for me.
Meanwhile, one of the best shows ever made is unfolding in front of me. Yes, everything everyone says about its amazing, poetic, intricate, profoundly profane dialog is true. Yes, it reaches for something broad and compelling about the slow, fitful rise of civilization in a frontier community. Yes, it has so many sharp characters and so many simple, compelling stories and so much attention to detail.
Right now I'm stubbornly sticking with it, assuming that I'll soon adjust to its tone and stop wincing so much.
A History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev by Mark Steinberg [audiocourse]
This is a set of audio lectures from The Great Courses detailing the history of Russia. I've been listening to it to prepare for the upcoming run of Nothing and Everything.
I swear, audible's collection of The Great Courses is going to bankrupt me. At any point, I can send about $30 their way, and a 20- or 30-hour audiocourse about just about any subject I could choose appears on my phone for my listening pleasure. Aaaaand there goes all my money.
In any case, these lectures on Russian history are pleasant enough. The lecturer isn't a barnburner of a public speaker, but he presents his ideas very clearly. And what he's presenting feels like the story of a people who just can't catch a break. From scrabbling to make do on cold, unproductive land, to being ruled over by a small, capricious aristocracy, to seeing their idealistic Revolution lead to brutal, murderous fascism, and then to gray, economically-stagnant rule-by-bureaucracy, and then to a collapse into today's Russia of oligarchs and mafiosi, this is not a story full of happy endings.
It was especially fascinating to see how much idealism and goodwill went into its various revolutions. You look at revolutions in Russia, and it feels like they share a lot in common with the American Revolution. And then you wonder how America managed to avoid the dystopian fascist outcome depicted in, say, Bioshock Infinite. After all of that idealism, it was sad to see the corruption and disincentives of the Soviet state lead to a sort of numbed political detachment towards the end of the 20th century -- I suppose that this is where America is headed now.
As usual, history is a challenge for me. There's a catch-22 in play here: I don't know much about history, so I don't really have a framework for new historical information. Ah yes, 1840. What was going on in the US at that time? What was going on in Europe? The answers to that are, for me, "Um" and "I don't know" respectively. And that means the new information doesn't have any existing information to cling to, and it just sort of flits through my head without stopping.
But it was still an engaging story, and I remember vague details about it, and it's provided a wealth of useful context for the Chekhov show.
Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, edited by Kevin J. Anderson
This is a short-story anthology set in the Star Wars Extended Universe. Each of its stories follows one of the characters from the fabled Mos Eisley Cantina scene in A New Hope.
This was a much, much better read than I expected. It's just a fascinating structure for a book, with each story zipping through the cantina scene like a satellite performing a gravitational slingshot around a planet. And, like that strained metaphor implies, what happens in the cantina typically sharply changes the course of each story. The stories reference each other sporadically, but not so much that it makes the whole book a game of spot-the-reference -- they do it just enough to reinforce that this is a shared universe. And the *variety* of stories is lovely, with each story feeling like the opposite of the story that came before it: a story that's essentially an extended breakneck chase is followed by a pulpish villain doing nefarious experiments, and then we see a slow, thoughtful tale about a moisture farmer trying to broker interspeces peace in the Tattooine desert.
All in all, the book adds up to something a lot better than the sum of its parts. The individual stories vary in quality -- the band's tale and the Jawa's tale stood out for me, with strong world-building and lovely dovetails into other stories in the book. The worst of them is probably the pipe smoker's tale -- lots of vague philosophizing -- and even that one isn't so bad.
The ending story was brilliantly chosen. I'll go ahead and spoil it: the last story ends with its protagonist dying at the Battle of Endor and becoming one with the Force. In his memory, the cantina music fades away, decisively closing the door on that single scene, but with a wonderful implication that the stories emanating from that point go on and on and on.
Your First Meteor Application
Meteor is an interesting (and promising) beast. Like angular.js and other MVC frameworks, it makes it easy for you to split up your 'business code' and your 'display code' -- e.g., you stash your "update the number of widgets" code on your back-end server, and your "display the current number of widgets" code on the site visitor's browser, and a system like meteor will know how to automatically update the latter from the former.
Meteor takes things a step further, though, because the system also incorporates the database that runs on the server. And this in turn means you can do things like install a package that will automatically add user logins to your app -- not only is all the code there to give you access to userIDs and such, but it automatically sets up its database with all the tables it needs to maintain that information. Predictably, packages for meteor are sprouting up like mushrooms -- install one, and it adds a whole chunk of functionality to your app. Also predictably, meteor is becoming a favorite framework for prototyping -- e.g., "I have one hour to code a dirt-simple version of this app, just so we can see what it looks like." In cases like that, being able to add most of the app's functionality by installing a smattering of packages is a real boon.
In any case, Your First Meteor Application walks you through making a very simple leaderboard app -- from starting with a blank directory to deploying it on the web. Along the way, it does a commendable job of showing you a lot of meteor's basic features. It's not encyclopedic by any stretch, but honestly, the thorough information about meteor is out there on the web. This instead focuses on walking you through that first app and conveying the framework's most basic concepts as clearly as it can.
Honestly, this was exactly the book I needed for getting into this framework. It walked me from having no idea what I was doing to being ready to make my first (simple) applications using meteor.js.
For next week: more reform-school movies (for the Wayward Girls run), and I'll watch more of season one of Deadwood. Meanwhile, I've started reading Enchanted Objects, a book from an MIT Media Labs professor about the upcoming world of Internet-enabled "smart objects", and What If?, the book where Randall Munroe (of xkcd fame) answers bizarre scientific hypothetical questions.
 ... and if, heaven forbid, you're a woman, well, you're probably only fit to be a whore. I mean, I get that the show is going for historical accuracy, but that honestly feels like the point of view of the show: women are supposed to be subservient, battered commodities, unless they abandon femininity completely (à la Calamity Jane). We'll see what happens with Alma, I suppose...
 ... aaand now I've earwormed everyone with Sam Cooke. I REGRET NOTHING.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none