Movies: Roma, Ni no Kuni
Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Everyday Life by Stephen Ressler [audiocourse]
This is the 2015 course from The Teaching Company about the non-computing infrastructure of modern life.
This is one of the best courses I've seen from the Teaching Company. It covers a fascinating topic in a clear, clever, engaging way.
One way to think of this is that it's a course about "suburban-dad" knowledge.¹ Any time an aging dude in sandals and socks is holding forth to a bored tween about what a camshaft does or what the R-value of the house's insulation should be, that subject is probably covered in this course. Loosely speaking, the course is about infrastructure — the course defines "Everyday Engineering" as "any non-computerized tech that we use all the time without consciously thinking about it".
And so, almost definitionally, every bit of this material hits the sweet spot of "things you've dealt with your whole life" and "things you've never really thought about." For instance, this course taught me why water towers exist. Let's be clear: I am forty-four damn years old. I have been around water towers all my life. Never in my life have I wondered "why would the city build a big tower and store water in it?", let alone sussed out the answer.
And so it goes, with topic after topic. It spends a long time going over how houses are built, then moves on to utility systems (power, water, communications), transportation (cars, roads, trains, bridges), and finally to trash disposal and sustainability.
The presentation of this course does many, many things right. It's clear about its subject matter right from the start. It immediately introduces general themes that crop up over and over again: general ideas like "any engineering design requires deliberate tradeoffs of desired attributes"² that are, yes, very broad, but that help to tie the whole course together.
And it pulls a nice trick I've seen in several science-minded "overview" books: it picks a single, everyday image to center the course around. In this case, it's a short sequence of events: the professor wakes up, takes a shower, gets a phone call from a friend, and goes to his house to watch football. Suddenly, every single topic of the course, from how your HVAC system works to how satellites transmit video feeds, fills in the unseen infrastructure of that scene. And, by extension, it reminds us how even the most abstruse parts of the course underpin everything you're experiencing right this second.
Then, as it drills into the material, it continues to do lots of things very well. It presents new ideas via a variety of media. Yes, sometimes you get a plain lecture, or a lecture with conventional power-point style slides.³ But more often, Professor Ressler finds other ways to get things across. Sometimes we explore computer models of the system in question. Sometimes he does whiteboard animations, or lectures over stock video. But most often, Professor Ressler does Bill Nye-esque experiments and demos in the studio, showing directly (say) how bridges deform and fail given different kinds of support structures.
There were a few places where the material left me behind a little. Once the discussion of HVAC systems got into pressure/temperature diagrams, I started having trouble.⁴ The deepest levels of the automotive material got hard to follow, just because you really can't zone out and miss a step when you're talking about (say) how the drivetrain works. But the course does "degrade" nicely — that is, if you don't grok the most sophisticated material they go over, you can still get the overall gist of how the latest thing works.
And so it goes, diligently filling you in on all the things you didn't know about how civilization stays in one piece. Sometimes I felt a little sad, seeing systems like the byzantine 'planetary gearing' system for an automatic transmission, and thinking that this'll likely all be replaced by computers soon enough. But generally, I was quite happy with this. It does exactly what one of these courses should do: give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world around you.
The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity by Steven Strogatz
This is a basic overview of mathematics, written for a lay audience.
This was not the book for me. This is instead the book for people who are intimidated by math and not very good at it.
And it's a shame, because Professor Strogatz does a fabulous job of explaining difficult concepts. Even the basic concepts, he finds fun ways of explaining in unexpected detail. And it's all the more impressive because, as a pop-math writer, he's hobbled: he can barely use formulas, because formulas scare lay readers.
And honestly, when he gets into some of the advanced topics in the last section of the book, it is really wonderful. It has one of the best explanations of group theory I've ever seen (he explains it in terms of rotating your mattress to ensure even wear), and it's the first time *anyone* has explained differential geometry to me in a way that makes sense.
I'd love to find books like this on more advanced topics in math, just to give me some taste of what's currently going on in the field. But you kind of hit a wall here: eventually, you can't even hand-wave about a particular part of math without jargon and formulas. Again, those scare people, so there's no real market for the hypothetical book I'm describing.
All that said, it was a pleasant and easy read. And if you've been curious about math but never seemed to get the hang of it, it's worth your time. Just not for me.
Las Grietas de Jara by Claudia Piñeiro
This is Ms. Piñeiro's 20xx novel about a trio of architects in Buenos Aires who have covered up a mysterious death. (I read this in its native Spanish, so I'm sure I didn't catch all the nuances.)
This has one of the most exciting opening scenes of any novel I've read lately. We start in the architects' office, and we see the three members of the firm going about a normal workday. Then a stranger walks in and asks one of them if they knew the whereabouts of someone named "Nelson Jara". It doesn't ring a bell, he responds, but maybe he was a contractor for some project? Lots of people to keep track of.
The stranger goes on her way.
And our viewpoint character — Pablo Simó, one of the architects — thinks no, that was a lie, they knew where Nelson Jara was. Nelson Jara was buried under the entrance hall of the office. And he knew this because, three years before, they had put him there.
So you've got two immediately promising plotlines: how did this unlikely burial happen? and will this mysterious stranger unravel the truth?
YES. I AM HERE FOR THIS THRILLER PLOT.
I definitely did not expect the plot of "I am middle-aged and have ennui. Mayhaps I will have an affair."
And yet, that's where the bulk of the story goes. It closely observes how Pablo feels bored in his marriage and disconnected from the man he was in his youth. It follows all the little chains of association in his mind. And, step by step, it follows how he falls for the stranger who asked about Jara, a 25-year-old lady named Leonor. Pablo, meanwhile, is 42. (Yes, the "middle-aged ennui" character is younger than I am. *sigh*)
And that's... fine, I guess? The storyline is written with a close eye for detail. But it's definitely not what I signed up for with the book, and it's even more definitely a story I've seen a million times before.
Fortunately, the other storylines continue apace. A flashback plot inches bit by bit to where Nelson Jara meets his unfortunate end. In the present day, Pablo tries to learn more about this person meddling around in the affair. And there are some interesting twists to both of those stories.
I see they've made a movie based on this book. Weirdly, I suspect this book might be *better* as a movie. The more exclusively-novelistic aspects of it are the "oh I feel tired of my lengthy marriage" bits, which are honestly better off gone. And the plot setup, again, is incredible, and the payoff, in terms of plot, very satisfying. Plus, it's a nice slice-of-life view of Buenos Aires in either medium.
So: probably a good movie. But all in all I can't recommend the book.
Raising a Thinking Pre-Teen: The "I Can Problem Solve" Program for 8- to 12-Year-Olds by Myrna B. Shure
This is the 2001 parenting book about using the ICPS ("I Can Problem Solve") with pre-teen children.
This has all the usual tics for a self-help book. It spends its first few chapters laying out lots of arguments that its techniques really work. On the one hand, I get why books do this: they want to present their advice with something like scientific rigor, and they'd feel embarrassed if they put something out that was just "hey, maybe try this, who knows if it'll work?" But at the same time, I couldn't help thinking "Yes, okay, I've already bought your book, stop wasting my time."
And eventually it gets around to presenting content. And, because it's a self-help book, it's about five pages of material padded out to an affordable paperback.
The general idea behind the book (and, by extension ICPS) is that it's productive and helpful to encourage children to think for themselves. And that seems admirable, right? And the author contrasts this "ICPS" approach with other techniques:
- Power: "Be nice to the dog because I say so."
- Suggestion: "Why don't you try petting the dog?"
- Explanation: "If you taunt the dog, he might eat you."
Most children, I imagine, respond to this technique by muttering "I dunno" and resuming their ill-advised canine attack runs until you all have a fun trip to the urgent-care center. But the book follows several (fictional) children through exercise after exercise, as they obligingly play along with the questions and learn valuable lessons about self-awareness, planning, and empathy.
And now I guess I understand why there were three throat-clearing chapters of "Really! This works!" Because you follow these invented kids on their ICPS journeys and think, "This can only fail catastrophically in the real world." I do wish the book had sometimes diverged from the "happy path" of children trying their level best, and touched on how to deal with "I dunno, this question is dumb, I'm gonna go punch that dog in the face."
And of course, a lot of the skills it's designed to enhance are the exact things that are nigh-impossible for children on the autism spectrum to get the hang of — but "raising your autistic tween" is at least one whole book of its own.
And none of Raising a Thinking Pre-Teen is fun to read. It's clear, simple sentences, as plain and practical as an instruction manual.
But that said, the writing does its job. The book takes its basic technique in a lot of different directions — handling a lot of common problems for tweens ("YE GODS I DIDN'T GET INVITED TO MURIEL'S BIRTHDAY PARTY AND NOW ALL IS ASH AND RUIN") and helping them develop a lot of the skills (e.g., realizing other people have souls) that can help them throughout their lives, and avoid the worst forms of "I didn't think this through and now a pack of feral dogs is devouring me." And the "sample kids" are a good conceit for demonstrating how some common personality types work through the ICPS program.
I may try some of the simpler techniques in the book, just to see what happens. I'm glad I picked up the information the book has to offer, but I do wish I hadn't had to read the whole book to get there.
[I watched this in Spanish — even though I'm pretty good at reading Spanish subtitles, I'm sure I didn't catch everything.]
This is Alfonso Cuaron's 2018 epic about domestic and civil unrest in 1970s Mexico.
I keep fumbling for the right word for this movie. I keep circling around terms like "greedy" or "voracious", but those sound pejorative and don't quite get at the feeling.
Clearly Cuarón wanted to make a movie about his childhood. But with Roma, you feel how he didn't want to just tell a story set in the world he grew up in — it's more that he wants to somehow pack that entire universe into a single film. Yes, it's a nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, but you can feel, in the film, how that just isn't enough. So you follow different family members through different storylines until the world feels Dickensian in scale.
You touch on the massive student protests in Mexico City, but then the story moves on from that, and it passes by like the "Misty Mountains" in the Lord of the Rings. We start in the family home, but we move on, to a friend's hacienda, to the hospital, to the city, to the martial-arts training camp. Again, there's this restless feeling like we have to pack the whole world into a single movie — there's something intoxicating about watching someone try.
You can feel this in how it's shot, too. Some stories in TV and film are nearly all close-ups. They are just about some few characters, and it follows them with narrow, obsessive focus. This is the exact opposite, and goes in that direction as far as it can. These are full of wide shots, with deep backgrounds, where the shot isn't 'about' any one person, but about depicting *all* the people, and *all* the relationships, and implying a world that goes far beyond the edges of the frame. The sound design includes the distant barking of dogs across the neighborhood. The back of the frame has an airplane slowly flying by.
And somehow, the shot lengths — the durations — contribute to this feeling. I wish I could put my finger on how this works, because it's a powerful effect. He'll go so long without a cut that your brain stops thinking of it as a movie — as a thing, shot on a set, and patiently pieced together — and instead it just feels somehow more like documentary: like this is the world, and we just happened to have caught three minutes in this location, but it goes beyond that in time and space.
Ultimately, the story itself feels almost... slight. You could sum up what happens to the protagonist in a sentence or two without eliding past much in the way of plot-relevant detail. But you'd miss out on the firing range at the hacienda, or the military bands clumsily marching down narrow city streets, or Cleo patiently balancing on one foot at a martial-arts camp. Sometimes a movie needs much more to show you a world than show you a thing that happens. And in some rare cases that movie can still be a treasure.
Ni no Kuni
This is the 2019 netflix animated film set in the same universe as the Ni no Kuni video games. It's about two high-school friends who, after a car accident, find themselves transported into a parallel fantasy universe, where they quickly find themselves racing against the clock to save a close friend in the 'real' world.
So last month I played Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom and found it a little wobbly, story-wise. Then I realized the netflix film was out — aha! I could see if this material worked any better as a movie.
And the answer is... eh, not really.
The movie suffers from a lot of the same storytelling problems that the video game had. For instance: the basic gimmick of this universe is that every person in our world has a doppelgänger in this fantasy world. But then the rules of magic for this are vague and arbitrary. Life-threatening scenarios can send people from one world to the other, but it's never clear which people can travel like that, or what makes those people special. Even for these "chosen ones", the skill works very very inconsistently — basically at the convenience of the plot.
It is no better at endings than the video game. Again, they don't really set *up* their ending. There are just a few vague hints at past events, and they blatantly telegraph who the Big Bad is, and then that leaves them with an amateurish third-act monolog where said Big Bad info-dumps a giant explanation of why they're mad, where they came from, what their plan is, and how none of you feeble hyoo-mans can stop meeee mu hu ha ha ha.
Further exposition-fests follow.
The movie is not good at characterization. There is one wholesome aspect I liked: Yu, one of the protagonists, uses a wheelchair. They don't obsess on this — it's just a normal part of Yu's life — and he's still best friends with Haru, the school's best athlete. And yeah, of course as soon as Yu is in magic!land he can walk again, 'cos god forbid a writer try to figure out how someone with paraplegia could still meaningfully contribute to a fantasy story.
Okay, back to the subject at hand: there aren't really strong characterizations, beyond Haru being kind of headstrong and Yu being more calm. Their mutual love interest, Kotona, doesn't get much characterization beyond passivity. Or more precisely, both Kototh and her fantasy equivalent ("Princess Astrid") start out as spiky and determined, but go kind of limp and (at best) reactive once the story gets going and she (in both cases) becomes the damsel in distress.
And deep down, the movie isn't really *about* anything. As far as I can tell, it tries to set up a main conflict around (more or less) different responses to the trolley problem. Kotona is in mortal peril, and Haru and Yu have wildly different strategies for dealing with it. But, as with the "systems of government" theme from the video game, the writers don't seem to have thought a lot about this conflict, or have strong opinions about it.
And this dovetails, too, into the lack of characterization. Nothing we see about Haru and Yu earlier in the story implies that they're bound to have the conflict that they do have. There's just not enough *there*, character-wise, for them to respond differently to things. So the conflict instead shows up wildly out of nowhere, serving nothing but screenwriter-convenience, and you're left thinking, "Okay, they have to battle now. Sure, that might as well happen."
It's a shame — the animation is beautiful, and it's honestly really promising in its initial, 'real world' section, just closely observing these teenagers as they carry on their daily life in Japan. They re-use all the gorgeous Joe Hisaishi music from the games, and clumsily but pleasantly pay off a few game elements. (The zeppelin shows up for no reason whatsoever, but it meant I got to hear the best music cue from the game, so I'll allow it.)
But ultimately it feels like generic and forgettable product.
For next week: slightly smaller backlog to write about — just Watchmen and BoJack Horseman (season 3). I'm now reading a book of essays about interpreters and some of Ta-Nehisi Coates's run on Black Panther. I'm watching The Witcher and that second DVD of Chernobyl. And on The Great Courses, I'm listening to an audiocourse about comparative economics.
¹ Or we could say "suburban-dad knowledge" *minus* "world war II facts". But of course to be clear there are all sorts of people of all sorts of ages and genders know about this stuff — I'm only leaning into the cliché here.
² This particular theme is especially important when he's talking about (say) coal mining. With touchy subjects, he does a good job of explaining the trade-offs: coal is very harmful for the environment, but very very very useful for providing electrical power, so here we are.
³ Even when they're just presenting photos, they do something very useful: they paint over the photos to highlight some piece of the system they're talking about. This was a lifesaver when, for example, talking about all the different and almost-identical-looking bits of a power substation.
⁴ It doesn't help that I'll likely always have some PTSD about thermodynamics from my college experiences.