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

Friday (5/15/15) 12:58am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[missed two months as I got started on my new job; catching up....]

Books:  AngularJS: Up and Running, Carry On, Jeeves [audiobook], Thinking, Fast and Slow, You Don't Know JS: Types and Grammar
Movies:  Avengers: Age of Ultron
TV:  Fargo [1x06-1x10], Mad Men [3x01-3x05], The Venture Brothers [season one]

AngularJS: Up and Running by Shyam Seshadri and Brad Green
This is the O'Reilly book designed to get you up to speed with AngularJS, the popular JavaScript web-application framework.

Even the most die-hard fans of AngularJS say, charitably, that "it has a learning curve".  As far as I can tell, nobody involved in the framework put a premium on making the system easy to understand.  Angular isn't as bad as Perl (few things are), but it's doing its best to be cryptic.  For example, angular comes with a number of built-in "filters", designed to process data before putting it into html.  One of the filters is called "filter", and is the only one that does actual filtering.  The different ways of sharing data in angular are denoted by "&", "=", and "@", which should delight fans of arbitrary memorization to no end.  I'm sure some perverse subset of programmers take all this nonsense as a welcome challenge to their 'coding fu'; the rest of us just find angular kind of awkward and tacky.

That said, angular still works really, really well for building web apps, so we have to learn it anyway.

To that end, I've struggled to find a good book about angular, but I've had bad luck.  It's a difficult framework to explain, and what's worse is, none of the instructional books seem willing to accept that fact.  You need to slow down and explain the more cryptic syntax.  You need to explain the broad and perhaps counterintuitive concepts of MVC frameworks early on.  You need to skip a lot of the reference material ("hey, kids, here are the fifteen different built-in angular filters!") that needlessly bogs a book down.

Instead, I see a lot of books that try to explain angular the same way they'd try to explain other, normal, coder-friendly frameworks, and they mostly fall flat.

AngularJS: Up and Running is the first book I'm willing to dub "good enough".  It seems to have a healthy respect for angular's difficulty, and so it keeps its chapters short and its examples simple.  It carefully builds its material, being careful (say) not to throw in a directive before they explain what directives are.  It'll win no awards for prose styling, sure -- it's a run-of-the-mill, dry programming text -- but it gets across its ideas effectively enough.  It's only in the more advanced topics in the later chapters that the material starts to get away from them, and the explanations start failing to explain.

But, true to its title, it gives the reader a good grasp of the basic concepts.

Carry On, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse [audiobook]
This is one of the first short-story collections about genial, foppish aristrocrat Bertram Wooster and Jeeves, his problem-solving valet.  It was one of the first books devoted to the duo.

To my surprise, I read this same book, on audiobook no less, about a decade ago.  This time around, it was fascinating to see how much of a formula Wodehouse had for these stories.  You could practically set your watch by it -- first Wooster would insist on some minor sartorial faux pas, then a disapproving older relative would come by and task Wooster with something, then Jeeves would attempt a solution, then that solution would only make things worse, then Jeeves would employ a second strategy at the last moment that would make things turn out fine, and then Wooster would obligingly stop insisting on whatever awful socks or vest or hat he had been offending Jeeves with.

Yet honestly, having that structure in place was pleasant and reassuring.  Rather than being boring, it lets you focus instead on the world Wodehouse creates -- the constant wit, the fun, heightened characters, the farcical plot convolutions.  All in all, a good start to fifty years of Jeeves and Wooster stories.

I was very happy to see that Martin Jarvis was narrating this edition -- he does splendidly with wide varieties of voices, as I'd already heard in A Tale of Two Cities, and he doesn't disappoint here.  He really digs into the extremes, which is absolutely how Wodehouse writes his stories.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
This is a Nobel-Prize-winning pyschologist's book about our irrational biases, and how they make us act in ways inconsistent with our self-interest.  (And, as a sidebar, how this throws off all the classical models of economics, which assume a population of rational agents.)  One simple example: lab subjects were asked to spin a roulette wheel and then estimate the number of countries in Africa -- and, lo and behold, their estimate tracked the random number they got on the wheel.

This book is a cut above all the usual "ooh, human beings have wacky foibles!" psychiatry books, mainly because it manages to trammel together a very wide range of biases into one consistent explanation -- specifically, that we have two systems: one which makes snap, heuristic judgments, and another which, more often than not, lazily signs off on everything the first system comes up with.  It also gives a very sober assessment of exactly how much we can do to counteract these irrational biases.  Similar to how people who know they're taking a placebo still respond to a placebo, people who know about biases still get led merrily down the garden path by them.

The book makes a sensible argument that the best we can do, and what we must do, is to have a vocabulary for these mistakes, and to try to bring them up as we're making decisions.  It's written with remarkable clarity -- it had a spot-on explanation, for example, of the "regression to the mean", a fundamental concept in probability that even I had never had a firm grasp of.  That said, I doubt it'll make me any smarter about my decision-making -- I'll probably blunder just as hard in the future as I have in the past.  But it was still an entertaining read.

You Don't Know JS: Types and Grammar by Kyle Simpson
This is the latest in Kyle Simpson's series about the obscure, scary corners of the JavaScript computer language, and it continues the run of my favorite computer books in some time.  This time around he takes on types and grammar -- most notably, this includes coercion in JavaScript, which is notoriously thorny, and the source of many bizarre "gotcha" questions from technical interviews.  For example, "{} + []" is zero, while "[] + {}" is the string "[object Object]".  So, just like with every other book in the series, Simpson rolls up his sleeves and gets to work, elucidating the mess as clearly as he can, serving as a wonderful counterpoint to Douglas Crockford's books, which skew more towards "this part of JavaScript is confusing -- JUST AVOID IT".

As usual, you come away from the book thinking, yes, this arcane corner of JavaScript is complicated, but it's not incomprehensible.  There really are understandable rules that govern the language's behavior.  And even coercion, arguably the weirdest, most unpredictable part of JavaScript, has its uses.

Fargo [1x06-1x10]
This is the second half of the first season of FX's improbably successful adaptation of the classic Coen Brothers film.

I don't have much to say here that I didn't say in the first half -- it's still shocking that this series works at all.  What surprised me the most was that they managed to really dig into the characters in this second half.  The show could have easily gone in a direction that was kind of acerbic and detached from the characters.  Instead, the show settles in with the tentative romance between Molly Solverson and Gus Grimley.  When the show winds up being about, yes, a pregnant policewoman who's married to a postman, it feels like a heartwarming character development instead of a cutesy way of matching up with the film unexpectedly.  Eventually, they can even do the cliché "begging your spouse not to go after the bad guy because it's dangerous" scene, and it actually hits emotionally, just because they've done the groundwork digging into these characters and relationships.

The anthology format of the show made the end of the first season a real nail-biter.  I genuinely wouldn't have put it past Noah Hawley to have Gus end up dead by the end, so I basically watched his entire approach to Malvo's cabin through my interlaced fingers.  Yes, the show indulges a bit in making the villain's convoluted, stupid plans actually work flawlessly, but those plans are clever-seeming enough (getting an undercover-cop-looking used car was a nice touch), and the cast sells it well enough, that it comes off as certain doom for the good guys.

I doubt I'll really hurry back to the second season of Fargo -- I feel like this show has said what it needs to say, and the surprise factor of "Wow, this actually works" is gone.  But I'll get to it eventually, and I'm sure it'll be entertaining when I get there.

Mad Men [3x01-3x05]
And so begins season three of AMC's prestige drama about a successful ad exec living through the tumultuous 1960s and beyond.

It's always very challenging for me to say anything about Mad Men.  (See my earlier posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.)  It's especially hard for me to say anything *new* about it -- I suppose it's been a long time since I've seen seasons one and two, but it feels like season three delivers more of the same.  In this case, "more of the same" means "more of one of the best TV dramas of all time, at the top of its game", so I have no complaints, but I don't come away from it thinking of any topics to write about.

I do note with some amusement that, with each new season, and each leap forward through the 1960s, the show becomes more and more vaguely familiar to me.  I ascribe this to being born in the 1970s in both a town and a family that were somewhat lagging the times culturally.  So the show is punctuated by moments of "OH GOD I RECOGNIZE THAT OVEN FROM MY HOUSE".

So obviously, I'm appreciating the show on a somewhat shallow level.  I still like how so many of its characters keep painful secrets to themselves, lending so many mundane scenes nail-biting tension.  I love how the show keeps playing off the growing cultural divide between Don's generation and the new kids at the firm.  And I'm sure the set and costume design are as impeccable as ever, but I don't have a sharp eye for such things (outside of the occasional kitchen appliance).

But beyond that, I can't really get a bead on the show -- it just seems to kind of 'happen'.  I guess Mad Men shows me where my limits are as a TV critic.

(Side note: "as useless as a Mad Men logline" really ought to be a common simile.  Every episode description is so vague as to be hilariously useless: "Don meets a new client, and Cosgrove deals with a personal problem while Joan makes plans."  That sort of thing.)

The Venture Bros. [season one]
This is the cartoon send-up of old adventure shows like Jonny Quest.

I was happy to learn that this show features a lot of the creative team from The Tick.  That feels right in a lot of ways; both shows create a rapidly expanding bench of secondary characters, draw from a wide, affectionate field of reference in their chosen genres, and play the genre's traditional, heightened style of acting against puzzled or bemused 'straight men' from the normal world.  The Venture Bros. just plays things a little more cynical than the goofy, big-hearted 90s show did -- and that's fine.

I'm told that they show gains some depth and serialization later on -- that it becomes as much a rumination about regret and middle age as it is a rollicking, satirical romp through 60s spy-fi -- but for now, it's a nice collection of silly, one-off adventures.  And it's fun.  Even when it goes after well-worn targets of satire, it finds fun takes on the material -- lord knows, we've heard comics ask "what would it really be like to be a supervillain minion?", and yet we haven't seen the journey that #21 and #24 go on.

And you can see them laying the groundwork for something deeper.  There's a consistent undertow to these shows -- to Rusty's resentment of his father, to the weary entitlement of villain and hero alike, to the generation gaps that reduce parents and children to mutual incomprehension.  It's a sad world, and the zingers make it bearable.

I'll be keen to see where they go in season two.

Avengers: Age of Ultron
And lo, the juggernaut superhero film franchise powers on, with Joss Whedon directing the second adventure in which our Marvel superheroes assemble to save the world.  The short answer is "I liked it but didn't love it".  More on that in a bit.

Back when I watched The Winter Soldier (which I enjoyed quite a bit), it felt like there were other little movies peeking out from the corners.  You really could have a whole movie about Cap and Widow road-tripping through Jersey, with Natasha gently coaxing Steve towards getting back in the dating game.  You could follow Bucky Barnes past that post-credits vignette and on into his rocky journey towards finding himself again.  It didn't detract from the main film, which was simple and clear and about something -- it just neatly implied that there was more going on in that movie, outside the frame.

In Ultron, it felt like this got out of hand, to the point that most of the movie felt like fleeting glimpses into better movies, all spinning around a main storyline that just wasn't really there.  The plot is clear enough (find magical doodad, accidentally build killer robot, stop killer robot from destroying earth), but the story isn't really *about* anything.  It could be about Tony Stark's... um, fear of aliens? paranoia for earth? faith in computers? -- there could be a good movie about creating a defense system while refusing to acknowledge that you're running unacceptable risks because of your own fear of letting everybody down.  But we only get the briefest glimpse of that before zipping on to the next plot move.

Similarly, we see a beautifully-acted (if perhaps a bit forced, character-wise) flirting scene between Black Widow and Bruce Banner -- one of the longest, most lingering character moments in this spastic, hyperkinetic film -- but then the film hurries off to the next action set-piece.

It's kind of sad.  I like a movie to move forward, but this is the rare case of *too much* forward motion.  I want Ultron to just stop, and breathe, and realize that this moment is good enough.  You don't have to hurry to the next one -- just be here now, and let this moment land.

I can't really blame Joss Whedon for this one.  It seems like the franchise machinery has given him an impossible task.  It's hard enough to create a movie that services six central heroes -- but beyond that, now he has to bring in lots of secondary characters from the film franchises, and set up the plot mechanics for Civil War, and keep Thanos and the Power Glove in play, and somehow repeat the first movie while somehow making the action set-pieces OMG EVAN BIGGAR.

What he's left with is, by necessity, kind of noisy and empty.  Lots of characters are touched on beautifully -- even the quick one-offs like Andy Serkis's arms dealer are sharply-drawn -- but each of them appears so briefly that they don't get to do much before they're hurried off again.  He tries to nail down exactly why Ultron is blowing up the world, but it swishes by in a moment before it's off to the next chase.

And the action sequences are indeed *huge*, but 'more stuff' doesn't necessarily make for a better action scene.  It starts to fall prey to "Star-Wars-prequel blight", where you fill the screen with so much CGI fighting-and-splosions that it becomes a wash of noise.  While I was watching this, I couldn't help but think of the Joker flipping the Mack truck in The Dark Knight -- for that scene, Nolan creates silence, and focus, and space.  There's a good stretch of frames where your only choice is to sit and watch this truck, and work out what's going to happen, and watch it happen.  It's not the size of the truck that gives it weight -- it's the breathing room around the action.  In Ultron, it hits that "tentpole action" un-sweet spot where you eye just skitters around the frame, and eventually you idly wonder if this is what the Ultron video game will look like.

I only complain about this so bitterly because the good parts of this movie were so good.  When the movie unclenched a bit and let the characters hang out and just exist, it became wildly entertaining.  The party scene towards the beginning was as delightful as anything I've seen all year.  Even the quick montage of Bruce and Tony doing three days of lab research was full of wonderful little character touches (and another, better 'side movie' flits by).

But no, this film property has to serve too many masters.  So it runs as fast as it can, and it ticks all the appropriate boxes, and it stays just good-enough.

For next week: I've switched over to Archer as my 'watch while exercising' show.  Meanwhile, I'm reading a book of Star Wars essays.  Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale.  We're watching season two of Community (which is still amazing) and still puzzling over picking a second comedy to start.

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