Peter (hujhax) wrote,

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... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Capitalism and Socialism (audiocourse), Found in Translation, The Prime Number Conspiracy
Movies:  Frozen 2
TV:  Chernobyl, The Witcher (season one)

Capitalism and Socialism: Comparing Economic Systems by Edward F. Stuart
This is the 2018 Teaching Company course about comparative economic systems.

This is a very promising topic for an audiocourse.  American political discourse, more than ever, is all about the relative merits of capitalism and socialism.  And most American political discourse is, intellectually, garbage.  So, a slow, patient, full-length Teaching Company course explaining the subject in detail feels like just what the doctor ordered.

The course feels like a bit of a bait and switch — like "capitalism versus socialism" is a marketing-gimmick angle to get people to listen to fairly standard and staid course on comparative economics.  In the early lectures, the prof does a fine job of describing capitalism and socialism, and touches on the relative advantages of each, but this course is mostly history.  Most of the 'description' of the two main economic systems is spent recapping the history of the ideas, and much of the 'socialism' section is devoted to communism.

And then for almost every one of the remaining lectures, he picks a country and goes through its economic history, and maybe touches lightly on what works and doesn't in that economy.  You can gleam bits and pieces from it of "here's what capitalism is good at" and "here's what socialism is good at", but that's not really the focus.

That said, the course does succeed on its own terms.  You come away from this with a good bird's-eye view of the economic history of a number of countries.  Most of those countries are in Europe, though he does devote time to the Soviet Union and China, too.

The delivery is dry, but serviceable.  It's very clearly the "reading an essay aloud" school of lecturing, but Professor Stuart is a pleasant reader.  The material is clearly written, and allows his dry sense of humor to peek around the edges here and there.

For pretty much every lecture, when the lecture ends, it feels like there was something wrong with the audio feed — you think it must have cut off accidentally.  There's no summary, no "here's what we learned in this lecture", just: poof, done.  And that hints at a larger problem that there isn't a lot of structure to each lecture.  There's not that familiar structure of "here's what I'm going to say, here's what I'm saying (and how it relates to the overall point of this lecture), here's what I said".  It feels a bit like a random selection from the wikipedia article for "Economic History of <country>".

Still, I'm glad I gave this a listen.  It was nice to get a rehash of some basic economic principles, and I think some of the notions of economic history will stick.  It's kind of mind-blowing, if self-evident, that "the law of supply and demand" had to be *discovered* by economists.  And, in fact, it was discovered so late in the game that the Bolsheviks who overthrew the Russian government and designed a Communist economy from scratch hadn't even heard of it yet.

(Revolutionaries rarely make good bureaucrats.)

Bits like that should, if they're not useful in and of themselves, help provide context for economic and historical material I study in the future.  Recommended for people who are into economics, but perhaps not for the general public.

Found in Translation: How Language Shapes Our Lives and Transforms the World by Nataly Kelly and Jost Zetzsche
This is a 2012 collection of essays about the work that professional interpreters do.

I'm glad this book exists.  The work of translators is ubiquitous, fascinating, and largely unseen.  This book sets out to explore this world, and in that, it succeeds.

That said, if you're not already kind of a linguistics nerd, this is not the book for you.  It feels like a collection of articles or blogposts of varying length and quality.  The book is split into xx chapters, and the hundred or so essays are distributed among them, vaguely by subject matter.  A surprising number of the essays feel like sales pitches from some translation-consulting company: lots of stats about how hiring translators translates into favorable business outcomes, which... I mean, I guess I'll keep that in mind if I'm ever the CEO of a large corporation?  Thanks?

The best essays really shine.  The piece about Peter Less, the German translator at Nuremberg whose entire family was exterminated by the Nazi regime, or the beleaguered Finnish translator of The Simpsons (how do you translate "Homerpalooza" in a culture where "Lollapalooza" is not a thing?), would be the best piece in many a magazine.  And there's lovely trivia throughout the book — for instance, the "Chevy Nova" not selling in Spanish-speaking countries is an urban myth (it broke sales projections in Venezuela), whereas the "Mitsubishi Pajero" — in some countries, that's roughly "Mitsubishi Wanker" — definitely faced problems.  (I'm sure I'll use this book for lots of facts-of-the-week.)

But there's a lot of dross — a lot of bland "yay translation is important", and a lot of articles that never really capture your interest more than a wikipedia article would.  You wind up feeling like you listened to an album that would have made an excellent EP, if they'd just stuck to the greatest hits.

The Prime Number Conspiracy: The Biggest Ideas in Math from Quanta edited by Thomas Lin
This is a 2018 anthology of essays from Quanta magazine about contemporary cutting-edge research in mathematics.

This is one of those rare cases where I stumbled, lord knows how, on the exact book that I was looking for.

I shouldn't have majored in biochemistry.  I should have majored in math.  Since my college studies, I have never once used what I learned about running gels or solving organic-chemistry puzzles or the goddamn Krebs cycle.  But every week or so I find myself wishing I could really understand some mathematical concept I've stumbled across.  But it's just damned hard, I've found, to make real headway learning math on my own — which is bizarre, because it really shouldn't take more than a book, a pencil, some paper, and time.

So this book is perfect: it's a series of long essays about current mathematical research.  It's geared towards... well, me, a smart-enough person who just never got that far in their studies, and can kinda remember calculus on a clear day.  And these magazine writers do some phenomenally lucid explanations, especially given that they seem to work by the Math Writer's Code of "for god's sake never show a formula, formulas are terrifying".

But they cover some pretty far-flung territory with confidence and apparent ease.  Their opening essay covers Yitang Zhang's blockbuster (and out-of-nowhere) paper that was the most significant step forward solving the Twin Primes Conjecture in... well, *ever* really.  And I kid you not, this, exactly this, was something I'd always wanted to know more about, but I couldn't find a resource that didn't bury me in incomprehensible (to me) graduate-level references.  But over about thirty pages, the writer patiently leads you through the history of the field, and how sieves work, and how you find likely places to *put* the sieve to find prime numbers.

I'm sure it's just the most superficial view of it, simplified way down for people with no background (again: me), but it's wonderful to finally have an overall sense of it — the way you can know that Andrew Wiles solved Fermat's Last Theorem by connecting modular forms and elliptic curves, even if you're not 100% sure what either of those are.

And so the book goes on, through more prime-number studies, then through "universality"¹, then it manages to hit the first description of the monster group that actually made sense to me.  After that, I admit, I lose the plot in some of the more advanced stuff — it's just damned hard for me to wrap my head around cohomologies, though the book tries its best to lead me to it step by step.²  And it flags a bit in its coverage of some of the personalities making waves in mathematics today — once the book gets too far away from its core subject matter (crazy math research), it gets a little bland.

Generally, though, The Prime Number Conspiracy was a lovely glimpse of a world I never thought I'd get to see.

Frozen II
This is the 2019 sequel to the Disney musical about two princesses, sisters in a Norse kingdom, one of whom has magical ice powers.  In the film, the call of a mysterious voice from the distant north sends them on a dangerous journey to free those lands from a long-standing curse.

There are individual scenes of Frozen II that I would put up against absolutely anything.  Olaf recounting the entire plot of Frozen was a delight, as was the out-of-nowhere spot-on 80s rock ballad from Kristoff.  "The Next Right Thing" is one of the best-acted Disney-musical songs ever, and the final reconstruction of the meeting above the dam is the perfect combination of horror and "yeah, I guess I saw this coming".

But the weird thing is, I think most of those great scenes work just as well in isolation as they do in the movie.  As impressive as these individual moments are, this has a much less sure hand when it comes to the overall plot.

On a fundamental level, the original film didn't leave them in an auspicious place.  Each character's arc was definitively concluded by the end of the first film.  And so they have to lurch forward, finding new things for them to do.  And that process, in turn, fails in various interesting ways.

A lot happened in Elsa's story, I'll grant.  But on a fundamental level, it felt like "superhero character discovers her powers are even more powerful".  This is a flaw you see in a lot of genre fiction — and come to think of it, a lot of video games.  It was especially obvious in the Star Wars EU (now Legends), where Luke Skywalker just become a more and more über-powerful Jedi, until finally he can, like, blow up planets with his mind and the entire universe is narratively out of whack. 

They didn't really know what to do with Anna, so they didn't really do anything with her, arc-wise.  She reacted to a lot of story elements.  But they didn't see any obvious ways for her to grow or change after the end of Frozen.³  They don't have an obvious direction to go with Kristoff, so they saddle him with sitcom antics — he's trying to propose to Anna, and it keeps going comically wrong.  It's pleasant, and it's amusing, but it's not an arc so much as a running gag.

Weirdly, they make their strongest offer with Olaf, who is now afflicted with (of all things) ennui.  That doesn't really flow from his story in the first movie, but it's fun.  That said, it's damn near impossible to tell a story for kids that meaningfully engages with that existential angst, or a story for *anybody* about it that doesn't conclude with The Scream levels of bleakness.

So you've got that going on thematically.  That's the "what's it *really* about?"

It's sensible to ask what's going on just *literally* in the plot — the "what's it about?"  Here, too, it has a meandering feel.  The John Mulaney line, "Sure, that might as well happen," applies frequently.

The setup is competent enough — we see that everybody's happy in xxx, but suddenly Elsa (and only Elsa) hears a strange voice in the distance, calling to her.  And that's a good textbook inciting incident — you put the weird, arbitrary, coincidental thing at the *start* of the story, and you let all the consequences flow from that.

But it bugs me.  And it took a while for me to figure out why.  It bugs me because, in a way, we *aren't* at the start of a story.  We've just had a whole movie with these characters.  So the "arbitrary thing at the start of a story" feels more like an arbitrary thing in the *middle* of a story.  Like whatever is in progress coming out of the last movie, we're just going to ignore, and instead goose the proceedings with some random outside force.

From there, things are... episodic.  The quest changes gears several times — we go from "figure out what the voice is" to "investigate the curse on the northlands" to "uncover the truth about Elsa's grandfather" to "destroy the dam".  And to their credit, you can clearly see how you get from A to B to C to D.  But it doesn't all feel like the same story.  If anything, it feels like they've jammed together a supernatural thriller, then a cheery take on Brigadoon, then a bleak family murder mystery, and then an action movie.

Lots of plot points wander into the story.  There are four elements, so we end up meeting four supernatural beings to represent them.  I'm told they did their homework in making these elements of Sami mythology, so: good on them for that.  But it aggravates this 'meandering' feeling.  Not only is the plot wandering from quest to quest and from genre to genre, but we're also sidetracking to ensure that we include, y'know, a flaming salamander and a water horse.

So the end result is something that holds together in individual moments, but vanishes from the mind as soon as it's over.  When you're watching it, it's a perfect showcase for amazing actors, gorgeous animation, and generally competent and catchy songwriting.  But the cumulative effect is not much beyond "that was neat".  It's not even that much of a bother when the ending fritters away any sense of sacrifice or consequence — magic undoes all the bad stuff and ta-da! we're done — because there wasn't a strong story to pay off.  The movie proceeded prettily with... the signifiers of drama, so it made sense to end it the same way.

I suppose there will be more Frozens.  People like money.  But mostly I come out of this wishing they can stack more animated musicals with brilliant musical-theater ringers, and occasionally throw in a ridiculous 80s ballad to make olds like me laugh.

This is the 2019 HBO miniseries about the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986.

The series tells you immediately that it's not fucking around.  You are watching a take on this material that cares about getting the details right.  You are watching a show that feels searingly, achingly relevant to modern life — hell, to the projected 2020 death count of 246,000 Americans that we're staring down right now.  You're watching a series where every single line feels like... like you watched an average, middling, network-TV take on the event, and after every line you spent an hour coming up with a smarter version of it.

Legasov feeds his cat.  He feeds his cat a collection of table scraps — because this is Russia, the year is 1988, and "pet food" is not a thing in Russia in 1988.  You fed your cat whatever you had lying around.  He feeds his cat four bowls of food, and you have just enough time to start wondering why he'd lay out so much food before it becomes tragically apparent.

But still, the moment that cinched it for me was the first time we see the reactor explode.  It flashes in the distance, the camera viewing it impassively through a residential window.  Then, later, the sound.

I know this is a low bar to clear, but "recognizing that sound takes time to cross distance" is the sort of thing that immediately tells you what kind of show you're watching.  If it's "Woo!  Let's see something cool!!!", then every explosion has the sound and light matched exactly: either it's from a distance and just factually wrong, or more likely they bring you in for a closer 'money shot' of the pyrotechnics.  If the show cares about showing you how an explosion *really* happens, there's a delay.

So: this is a show that cares about telling you what really happened.  It's a show that, like Watchmen, grabs you by the collar and makes you see the details.  Thematically, it's a show about how just *knowing* the truth — just letting it sit, undisturbed and unedited, in your mind — can be a transgressive act.

Last year, many viewers — including modern-day Russian officials — took the show as an indictment of Communism.  And that is one reading of it, I suppose: this is what happens when a sclerotic Communist bureaucracy, one with no respect for expertise, one with a willful aversion to truth, one with infinite confidence in its own powers, smacks up against the cold equations of science.  The government does the only moves in its playbook: lie, and browbeat anyone who complains, and cut off any reports of the mounting tragedies.  And the equations don't fucking care.  And more and more and more people will die.

So yes, this was a hard show to watch while the US monumentally botched its coronavirus response.

But the level of detail was engrossing.  It was fascinating to see a de facto 'shadow network' of female assistants carefully looking out for each other while the blustery old men they worked for cheerfully led their country to ruin.  It was amazing to see very smart people work out every possible means of averting disaster as the situation at Chernobyl got worse, and worse, and worse.

Historical fiction inherently has situational irony: we know more than the characters in the situation do, because we have history books that tell us all about the events.  The show uses this to agonizing effect.  No one in Pripyat knows how a nuclear reactor works, so they stand out on a bridge in the open air, looking out at the fire, as fallout drifts down from the sky onto their hair.  A fireman absently picks up a piece of reactor-core graphite.

And then, somehow, it all keeps getting worse.  The show does a masterful job of creating these moments where the elevator drops another floor.  We start with a fire in the power plant, but it escalates, step by step, until literally the whole world is in danger.  But it brings you there step by step, with meticulous verisimilitude, so that you can actually *feel* that danger — unlike any number of action movies that have some CGI villain planning to, I dunno, blow up the earth or something.

On some level, the show is so well done I don't really have the tools to critique it — to point out flaws or to explain how it succeeds.  I know that it does staggeringly convincing world-building.  I know it patiently raises the stakes and makes every moment gripping.  I know it has a searing critique of corrupt, opaque government action.

And it almost feels like a genre I haven't yet seen, that I guess I'd call "management horror".  Terrible things are happening, and you know that even worse things are coming, just because you're seeing managers operate so badly.  It's like listening to the black-box recording on a crash that was ruled "pilot error" — the mistakes are terrible, but credible.  Once you understand the kind of people that are running the show, you know that a catastrophe is inevitable.

This is one of the best historical dramas I've seen.  But it may just be too hard to watch, now that we're in the middle of a Chernobyl of our own.

The Witcher (season one)
This is the 2019 netflix TV adaptation of the Andrzej Sapkowski fantasy book series.  It's about a monster-hunter, a mage, and a princess whose destinies are intertwined with the fate of the continent they all live on.

It's really interesting, watching a 2019 take on a 1990s high-fantasy series.  I feel like I know what a very 1990s high-fantasy series is, or at least as written by a dude: it's got a brooding, *dark* hero who doesn't show emotion, and it's got a lot of hard-core battles that are like "yeah war is gritty, *DAD*", and it's got a sort of feminism that includes Powerful Female Characters, but also spends a considerable amount of time describing those characters' boobs, and going on about how they're so, so hot for the gritty antihero.  But he's like "um yeah whatever" and goes on KICKING ASS.

Now, I want to speak precisely here: I'm not saying that the show makes fun of this.  To some extent, this show is *doing* a straight-up 90s-era fantasy story.  But it's not telling it completely straight-ahead.  You can see it tweaking things here and there to make a story that's not quite as simple, and has tension and nuance to it.

For instance, yes Geralt is a dark, brooding antihero that wins lots of fights and has lots of women in love with him.  But also, the show makes it clear that Geralt *feels* emotions, he just suppresses them, hard, from some combination of trauma and pain.  And in Henry Cavill, they have a legit movie star who can actually convey that — which is commendable.  There are many so, so many actioners about hard-ass dudes who nurse some hidden pain, but they come across in performance as nothing more than "frowny man good at punching".  Mr. Cavill, with a monotone and a preponderance of "Hm"s, manages to put just the right spin on the ball that you know there's more going on with Geralt.

Geralt performs his masculinity the same way a zillion other action dudes do, but with Geralt, you see some of the gaps in the armor.  And the show is aware that this act is an act.  And the *characters around him*, too, are aware that it's an act.  Though for the most part — and this is a nice touch — they are generous enough to accept that this behavior is just part of who their friend is.

Other tweaks are less sophisticated, but equally welcome.  They dispense with the "all white people all the time" casting from the books and the video games.  They give lots of time and attention to their female characters, creating an entire backstory for Yennifer almost out of whole cloth.  They tweak Yaskier from "an inveterate womanizer" to the far more delightful "a guy who just genuinely falls in love with literally every person he meets".

The results are delightful.  It has a "syndicated fantasy show" vibe that's familiar and pleasant.  It leans unapologetically into what appears to be some pretty deep world-building in the novels.  It's not at, like, The Wire levels of "here is a complicated world, sink or swim" — Yennifer and Ciri, for instance, work very well as viewpoint characters who have to get up to speed on convoluted aspects of the Witcher-verse, and we can get up to speed alongside them.  But every scene sits on a thick pile of allusions — other characters, other events, the workings of magic, prophesies, and so on.  You always know generally what's happening in a scene, but the more you understand about all these interconnections, the richer it feels.

On a related note: this show has A, B, and C stories, each of which follows a different character: Geralt, Yennifer, and Ciri.  They almost never interact.  And so, of course, we see the same trick every TV show is doing: the timelines are not contemporaneous.  And yet, this gimmick didn't bug me much here.  First, because it's not an attempt at a mind-blowing surprise — when you see that <x> is offset from <y> by thirty years, it's not "OMG THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING", but more like a bunch of cross-references all slot into place.  (This is why I don't feel bad 'spoiling' this aspect of the story.)

It's not about the surprise of "yeah, we pulled a fast one on you with this storytelling", it's more that this story is interwoven with itself in complicated ways.  Indeed, this is the only way the show can get *at* all the relevant events that are scattered out across several decades.  Part of the theme underlying the show is that you can't escape your destiny, or pretend that you can take actions that don't have consequences — and to see destinies and consequences play out spans a lot of in-universe time.  Seeing how everything affects everything else, even across a lifetime, is a necessary part of the show's DNA.

That said, it's to the show's credit that that's as far as the complexity goes.  Yes, there's a complicated web of interwoven fates and chains of causality that powers this story, but on the surface you're on fairly familiar footing.  Yennifer goes to magic school.  We do understand magic school.  Geralt takes down a monster of the week.  Yup, we get that structure.  And Ciri is on the run from people who want to capture her.  Again: we've seen that before, it's very straightforward.

And the show is very clear about its themes.  It even feels a little like a narrative improv show, where an early scene has one actor literally telling the hero, "This is what your character is all about," so everybody can clearly see what the arc is.  The pilot shows Geralt proudly telling a mage that he never takes sides in human affairs, he just hunts monsters, and you're 95% sure you can see where this story will go.

And that's *good*.  Again, we're building a huge fantasy world, and we're bouncing back and forth in the timeline.  It's great to build simple, strong, clear character arcs that can take us through this and hold our interest.

My only complaint is with the finale, which I will discuss without real spoilers.  It does a fine job of weaving together everything we've seen so far.  It does a fine job of raising the stakes on the conflict at hand.  I just felt a bit sad that it seemed to lose some of that — not irony, necessarily, but a similar sense that the show had opinions about the story.  Geralt thinks he's in a story about doing his job killing monsters; the show knows he's in a story about finding a moral center.  I felt like the finale lost some of that distance between "what the show's about" and "what the show's *really* about".  It was more like the straight-ahead 90s-fantasy story you would have expected it to be.

That said, it sets things up beautifully for the second season, so I'm sure I'll be back to see that, if the entertainment industry ever gets rolling again.

For next week: the backlog is clear!  Meanwhile, I'm watching The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Stroszek (another Herzog film).  I'm reading a book about Hollywood producer Jon Peters and a book about epidemiologists; on The Great Courses I'm listening to an audiocourse about the historical Jesus.

¹ ... which relates to a distribution that's... kind of what a bell curve would be if, instead of adding up independent events, you were adding events that all affected each other in random ways.
² "Well, if equations are like <x>, and the <x>s have <y>s, and all the <y>s <z>, then the <z>s can be put into groups called 'cohomology groups'" — and nope, somewhere in the chain, my brain just loses it.
³ Though Lindsey has wisely pointed out that Anna could learn a thing or two about codependency and being okay with being on her own.
⁴ Surely there will be similar shows about this shitshow, years from now.
⁵ Kudos to Lindsey to pointing out this background, and how it gets tranmuted in the TV version.
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