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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (9/16/19) 11:58pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Give People Money, Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany [audiocourse]
Movies:  The Road to El Dorado
TV:  <none>

Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World by Annie Lowery
This is the 2018 book from journalist Annie Lowery about UBI, or "Universal Basic Income", which is what it says on the tin: replacing or supplementing social programs with a regular cash payment, no strings attached, to all citizens.

This is a good bird's-eye view of the subject.  It does a good job summarizing the history of this idea, how it's been tried out and to what effect, and what benefits and challenges it presents.  It never covers any of these subjects in a lot of depth — it's a short book, and it ticks along quickly — but it makes a strong and interesting case for the policy, plus it proposes some theories about why UBI is gaining so much popularity these days, from such disparate political groups.

It uses a lot of effective anecdotes to get its points across.  It opens with fascinating stories from UBI experiements in some of the poorest towns in Kenya.  It has some heartbreaking stories of homeless people fighting with America's weirdly means-testing-obsessed bureaucracy, trying to get the assistance they need.

And I did learn a little bit about the philosophy behind the policies, most notably how a UBI could serve to help address systemic racism in a way that social programs haven't been able to; and on the flip side of that, why systemic racism is a major factor that makes UBI a really, really hard sell.

That said, I guess I was hoping for a more Elizabeth-Warren-like take on UBI — something that went deep into the weeds on theory and policy.  I'm already sold on many of the injustices this would remedy and many of the benefits it would bring.  I'm more keen to see the nuts and bolts.  I'm especially interested in projected effects on markets — both for goods and for labor.  How do all the supply and demand curves move around if everybody gets $1,000 a month?

That said, it's an easy read and a good primer on the subject.  Still, I guess I'll have to (grudgingly) finally read Picketty if I want a better sense of Why Things Are Broken.


Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany [audiocourse] by Prof. Catherine Kleier
This 2018 Teaching Company audiocourse is what it says on the tin: a basic primer on college-level botany.

Botany is a hard subject to teach.

More specifically, it's a hard subject to *make interesting*.

In some ways, it's easy to teach: most of what we know about plants, we can express in lists of data.  These are all the parts of the plant, with their obscure, Latinate names.¹  These are all the families of plants.  These are all the categories we apply to leaves, to seeds, to fruits, to life cycles.  Here's the biochemistry of photosynthesis, and here's what we name each process, and here are the names of the molecules at each step.

A botany class can be nothing more than that: here is a book of lists.  Please memorize it for the text in six months.

But it's hard to make that data come *alive*.  It's hard to find a through-line such that, say, the different class names of various conifers tells a story, or gives you some piece of information that you will use in your life, or answers a question you might have had.  And it's hard to draw out underlying principles that you can apply to other fields of study.

Invariably, gravity draws botany towards "here are lists of arbitrary names that scientists came up with for things."

And so Professor Kleier finds herself up against a formidable challenge with Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany.

The results are a mixed bag.

The professor is a pretty good presenter.  She's clearly enthusiastic about her subject, and makes strong arguments for why it's worth learning, even as a layperson.  She's hit and miss on making her lectures feel engaging — sometimes she falls into "obviously reading an essay" rather than "bringing the listener into the conversation".  So she's no John McWhorter, but she's still leagues better than the dismally-presented Golden Age of Islam course.

The course is often just lists of stuff.  There's no way around that, with botany.  In Language Families of the World, Prof. McWhorter derides "presenting lists" as part of a course, and now I'm starting to see why — if you give me, say, the names of three plants I don't know as part of a plant order that I don't know, that information might as well be gibberish: I can't use it, I won't remember it, and it doesn't help me understand the overall principles being explained.

But on some level, with botany, there's no getting around this.  You can't discuss (say) how a flower works without having terms for all the parts.

The lectures are also a little sludgy from the way they cite research.  On the one hand, I respect that every experiment this course mentioned required a lot of ingenuity, hard work, and funding, and I understand that the people involved should be duly credited.  But on the other hand, if every time you mention a piece of research, you also have to list the university where it happened, and the first and last names of each of the scientists, and often the year as well... look.  This is an audiocourse for a lay audience.  I am a layperson.  I'm not going to go look up the cited paper.  I'm not going to recognize the names or possibly even the university involved.  That information is going to flit out of my head as soon as I hear it.  It only serves to slow the material and dilute it with junk data that resists attention.

And yet, there *are* moments when this course really shines.  Explanations of how various biological processes work are usually pretty lucid.  Yes, a lot of the facts are dry and statistical, but even some of those are pleasant trivia: the largest mushroom fairy ring is half a mile wide and around 700 years old!  And then there are fun bits of non-statistical trivia that actually feel worth knowing: e.g., conifers are cone-shaped at least partly because that shape evenly distributes the weight of fallen snow on the branches.

So you hold on to those when you can.  You see where the thread goes from there.  And then, with the next arbitrary list of Latinate species names, the thread turns to smoke, and you wait for the course to catch your attention again.

On balance, I can't recommend this, but I respect the hell out of the effort.

And its preponderance of science-y dad jokes is delightful.


The Road to El Dorado
This is the 2000 Dreamworks animated musical about two sixteenth-century Spanish con men who make contact with a secluded pre-Columbian empire.²

Prior to last year's Shazam movie, there was this... thing — a sort of mass delusion that, sometime in the 90s, there was a movie called Shazaam, starring comedian Sinbad as a genie.  Lots of people believed this.  They believed it, even though (1) that movie never existed, and (2) there was not one scrap of evidence that the movie ever existed.  Why did this happen?  There are lots of theories, but one essential part is this: it makes sense for that movie to exist.  It's the movie they *would* have made.  If somebody mentions it, it feels overwhelmingly credible.  It's how your brain spackles in the gaps between the movies that are real.

Watching El Dorado felt like that.  It felt like I was watching a movie that didn't exist, but was instead some millennials' hazy memories of early-2000s Disney knockoffs, when the Disney Renaissance was in full swing, and their imitators were flailing uselessly with Anastasia and the like.³  Of course they'd pick some world culture to set it in — sure, why not some Inca/Maya/Aztec amalgam?  And Kenneth Brannagh and Kevin Kline are innocuous enough — they could star!  And there'll be an animal sidekick, and a love interest, and Elton John will write the songs.

It's like a bot read summaries of all the big animated movies of that era, and mad-libs-ed together this elevator pitch.

And let's be clear: the movie is bad.

Mr. Brannagh and Mr. Kline are very bad choices for the two leads.  They're an object lesson in why you *shouldn't* get "name" movie stars to voice animated characters — these guys just aren't voice actors.  They don't find voices for their characters that work for animation.  They aren't distinctive or interesting.  They don't convey any particular personality.  And on top of that, and even in spite of their respective accents, they sound pretty much the same.

Another disappointment: some parts of the dialog seem improvised... and these actors are *so* not improvisors.  You end up with that rare misfire: improvised dialog that doesn't sound improvised, in that it doesn't have any of the keen listening and interaction and invention you associate with improv.  Instead, it sounds like badly-scripted dialog that's suddenly, for no reason, lost all sense of meter or conviction.

So you have two roughly identical dudes who occasionally trail off into uninteresting yammering.

But all may not be lost.  So long as the script makes them sharply different characters, we'll tell them apart.  But, no.  The dialog occasionally *tells* us that one of them values gold and the other values adventure — (1) the story doesn't strongly bear this out, (2) you shouldn't have to tell me this in dialog, and (3) I have entirely forgotten which dude wanted the gold.  But the nuts and bolts of characterization just aren't there.  The most obvious thing: create a situation, and have dude #1 respond one way and dude #2 respond another, and have immediate conflict over it.  AFAICT, they don't even do that.

Well, okay.  The characters are interchangeable.  But the writing could still save them: if each one has a clear objective, then we'll tell them apart.  If they both have a shared objective, then, fine, they can be kind of a 'shared character'.  And... nope.  Neither one is given a strong objective.  There is no equivalent to an "I want" song in this story.  When they arrive at El Dorado, they give lip service to wanting to bring home a shipful of gold, but that's about as far as it goes.

Sooo.  Here we are, in the adventures of two interchangeable ciphers who want nothing in particular.

That's... not good.

But there are songs!  Yes!  Not just any songs, but songs written by just-became-Sir Elton John and Tim Rice!  Coming right off of The Lion King!  Okay, so: if the dialog and acting aren't giving us an emotionally gripping story, surely the music can step in and make the feelings happen, right?

"No, it won't," you're thinking, "judging by the pattern of this bit."

Or actually, no: more likely, you're thinking, "Wait.  The Road to El Dorado had *songs*?"

I will digress for a moment.  There are a lot of things I hate about Family Guy, but the strangest thing I hate about it is its running gag about Randy Newman.  They depict him as a hack, somebody who just sings out exactly what's happening in the story, adding nothing to it.  And it's infuriating, because Randy Newman is one of the best songwriters we've had, full stop.  And even his late-career film work career is strong — "When She Loved Me" is as affecting as anything he's written, and kind of a shock from someone so often so playful, arch, and snide in his best work.  And the worst of it is, The Family Guy bit is a really funny joke — so now who knows *how* many people just default to thinking of Mr. Newman as a check-cashing artistic failure.

Getting back from the digression: Elton John here is exactly the thing that Family Guy thinks Randy Newman is.  There are songs.  The songs have nothing to do, sonically, with the film's faux-Mayan setting.  The songs have no particular passion behind them, no memorable melodies, no interesting lyrics — it's as phoned-in as it can get.  The best you can say about the lyrics is that they rhyme.  And the songs serve absolutely no purpose to the story.  They convey no emotions.  They don't move the story.  In fact, all they do is (circling back to Fake Randy Newman) narrate to us what we are already seeing onscreen.

They vanish from the mind even as you're hearing them.

I will get to talking about a few things I liked in this story.  But for now, let's do the tough part: even for a twenty-year-old movie, there's a lot about The Road to El Dorado that's pretty racially... yikes.  And it's yikes all the way down.  They're telling a story about the ancient empires of the Americas, and it's white folks producing it, white dudes writing it, white dudes doing the songs, white folks editing it....  There was no particular effort to research the cultures, beyond a few field trips to Chichen Itza and the like.

And that yikes carries right on through to the story.  Yep, it's a white-savior narrative, *crossed* with that narrative where the random incompetent white dude happens to be the chosen one, aided by a woman who is clearly the competent one.  And of course the faux-Mayans are all credulous of their newly-arrived 'gods'.

You can see the script try and fight back against this.  Chel is, in addition to the trope of "hyper-sexualized native woman for the white dude to fall in love with", is also the trope of "overachieving hyper-competent love interest", and sees through the "two gods" ruse instantly.  They imply that the community's chief also sees through it (telling them "to err is human", or something like that), but don't go into any more detail.

Generally though it's all just kind of cringe-worthy.

That said — and hopefully this doesn't make me a terrible person — I did enjoy the relationship between Tulio and Chel.  Or more specifically, I liked seeing a movie where two people meet, and they'd clearly like to make out, and they get together, and the sky doesn't fucking fall on them.  No slasher comes out to give them their moral comeuppance.  No endless trials, culminating in a run to the airport, stand between them and a final kiss soundtracked by a reliable 90s top-40 hit.  They just happily get together and start a relationship.  It's gently coded so an innocent kiddo can ignore it if they like.  But it's there, and it's cute, and it's a relief to see a children's animated feature, of all things, be relatively sex-positive and gently hopeful about relationships.

Now, if only it weren't in that soup of mediocrity and problematic storytelling decisions.


For next week: My Cousin Vinnie is my current DVD.  I'm watching Good Omens and La Casa de Papel, reading some Spanish-language comics, and catching up on podcasts.

_______
¹ Or at least, you pray that they're Latinate.  If they're Germanic names, they'll be some word like "glormpf" that was only used in 13ᵗʰ-century Saxony and linguistically has nothing to do with anything anywhere.
² Technically post-Columbian, but Westerners hadn't encroached on this weird amalgam American empire yet.
³ You could argue that
The Iron Giant is an exception, but that's not a musical.  Plus, almost at the same time, Warners Animation *did* release a musical — Quest for Camelot — which cratered hard enough to destroy the whole animation studio.
⁴ Seth MacFarlane generally knows his way around music, so I'm hard-pressed to figure out where this joke came from.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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