red echo

A web journal by Mars Saxman: my life, reflected and filtered

January entries

Archived Entries for December, 2003

December 27th, 2003

My sister Carolyn is a big Lord of the Rings fan, so we all went to see Return of the King today to celebrate her birthday. It's a fitting end to the film series, and a satisfying realization of the story I spent so many years dreaming about.

It's hard, having read the book so many times, to experience the movie's story on its own terms and not merely as a reenactment of the novel. It has its own emphases and its own sense of flow. As with the previous two installments, I think the story will really only click for me on the second viewing. This time I was frequently distracted with thoughts like "so that's how they decided to handle that part" or "now did they do that in the book or not?" Now that I know how the filmmakers adjusted Tolkien's tale to fit their own presentation, I can watch it again and enjoy it on its own terms.

After a prologue telling Gollum's story and a few minutes spent wrapping up the aftermath of Saruman's war on Rohan from The Two Towers, the movie winds up into what feels like a three-hour climax for the entire story. Everything about this tale is larger than life, and that includes not just the characters and the landscape but the running time, the score, and the sense of drama. I lost count of the times I found myself choking up, thrilling to a furious charge, or tingling with the anticipation of some approaching horror. In the cold cynical daylight it feels a bit excessive, but in the theater it worked well enough.

The battle for Minas Tirith occupies the central third of the film, and its scale is as grand as you would expect for the dark lord's assault on the chief city of the West. Armored trolls, endless columns of orcs, giant steel-plated siege towers, wargs, torches, catapults: the force gathered around the city walls is colossal and terrifying. The gigantic flaming ram wielded against the city gates is as frightening as it felt when I imagined it while reading the books. (In a subtle nod to Tolkien's name and backstory for this device, you can hear the orcs chanting "GROND! GROND!"as it pounds away.) The computer graphics are so skilfully done that you never really notice them; the digital monsters blend right in with what you know must be men in rubber suits and makeup.

Incredibly, amidst the spectacular beasts and terrible monsters, two things went over the top: the orc commander was just a bit too deformed for belief, and the oliphaunts were too big. Extraordinarily large elephants I could have believed; even elephants large enough to crush horses underfoot. But the mumakil here were as big as whales, or brontosaurs, and while they were rendered perfectly they simply didn't feel believable. Sauron is not interested in subtlety, and it makes sense that his army would be as boldly drawn as his ambitions, but I would have appreciated just a bit more restraint here.

Intercut with the battles, Frodo and Sam struggle across Mordor in a trek that feels increasingly desperate, dusty, and hopeless. The movie focuses more on their psychological state and less on the trip itself, so it doesn't feel as drawn out and exhausting as I remember it, but it works well enough. Gollum is as tricksy, ruthless, and believable as ever, and pathetic in his malicious, shrivelled-up way.

Many reviews have talked about the seemingly endless ending, but if anything it was a bit too short. I'd have liked to see more of Gondor after the end of the war: there's a scene in Minas Tirith at the end, and in the background across the Anduin valley you can see that the shadow has lifted from the Ephel Duath, but other than that one is left simply to assume that everything gets fixed up and turned green once again.

We all knew there would be no Scouring of the Shire, of course, but there were plenty of candidates for "Spot the Extended Edition Extras." There's a discussion between Gandalf and Aragorn that feels like set-up for Aragorn's challenge to Sauron via the Orthanc palantir, but the matter is dropped. Denethor's madness is amply depicted but never explained. Faramir disappears from the story after coming back half-dead from Osgiliath, and Eowyn similarly vanishes after her encounter with the Witch-king, but they exchange an unexplained glance later on that suggests they spent some time getting to know one another in the interim. Nothing is said of Aragorn after he convinces the dead army to follow his lead until he shows up in the conquered pirate-boats to rout Sauron's army; it doesn't seem to be Jackson's style to leave such a large piece of the action to the viewer's imagination. I've heard rumors that the original cut was nearly four hours long, and it isn't hard to see room for that much additional material.

In summary: the movie is of a piece with the other two and forms a satisfying end to one of the most extraordinary movie tales I have ever seen. I recommend it to anyone interested in Tolkien's original tale, fantasy stories, or epic heroism in general, and I will definitely see it again.

December 26th, 2003

A hopeful essay by Clay Shirky argues that the RIAA's prosecution of filesharing service users will finally push people to embrace encryption. Strong encryption software has been legally available for years now, ever since the collapse of the Clipper Chip project, but most people simply don't bother. Now that the RIAA is demonstrating just how flimsy Internet anonymity really is, perhaps the equation will finally change and encrypted communications will become ubiquitous.

In response to the RIAA's suits, users who want to share music files are adopting tools like WINW and BadBlue, that allow them to create encrypted spaces where they can share files and converse with one another. As a result, all their communications in these spaces, even messages with no more commercial content than "BRITN3Y SUX!!!1!" are hidden from prying eyes. This is not because such messages are sensitive, but rather because once a user starts encrypting messages and files, it's often easier to encrypt everything than to pick and choose. Note that the broadening adoption of encryption is not because users have become libertarians, but because they have become criminals; to a first approximation, every PC owner under the age of 35 is now a felon.

December 25th, 2003

December 24th, 2003

We spent an hour or so singing carols this evening. There was nothing fancy about it; just four of us sitting around the coffee table with our parents' hymnals, picking out the parts. Andrew took the tenor part; I normally sing tenor too, but tried the bass lines this time (with occasional octave-pops whenever they got too low). Melissa and Olivia are both contraltos, and took turns on the soprano and alto lines. As a performance it lacked a certain polish, but as four of us mostly-grown-up kids carrying on family traditions in our own way, it was a satisfying way to spend Christmas Eve. Singing isn't much a part of modern life, and singing in the classic four-part harmony ten times less so, but it is a part of my heritage I have come to appreciate and enjoy.

December 23rd, 2003

Big Dead Place, "a site devoted to Antarctica and to thinking about Antarctica", has a great Welcome to the Program page whose tone reminds me just a bit of National Park Service employees.

Why am I drawn to big, empty, wildernesses? Mountaintops, deserts, Antarctica, Mongolia, Nevada, and far-off rocks in outer space...

December 22nd, 2003

Hilarious analysis of Sauron's offer to Dain in "Fellowship of the Ring". According to my law student sister, this is written in the exact style of a law exam answer.

December 20th, 2003

It's time to finish packing, which means I need to shut down my faithful Serena and pop her into the suitcase. I'm off to California for a week and a half with my family. It's been years since I've spent that much time with them, but the older my siblings get the more interesting they become. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing my sister Melissa, who lives in Connecticut these days. We talk regularly, but I haven't seen her in something like a year and a half.

Christmas itself isn't a particularly big deal for me. As a kid, it felt formal and forced, more of a religious ritual than a real celebration. The presents were usually fun, but that became decreasingly important over the years. The commercial buy-buy-buy pressure, the overwhelming seas of merchandise and advertising, the endless tacky carols, and the rest of it eventually turned me off completely. After I moved out on my own I really didn't feel like I needed to celebrate Christmas at all.

I think I am starting to see some good in it, though. I still don't care for the holiday's religious roots, and gift-exchanges still feel rather pointless, but it is a good excuse to get together with some people I don't see very often. My mother always cooks up lots of different cookies, and every year puts out a buffet lunch on Christmas day full of crackers, cheeses, and treats. I'm also looking forward to caroling through the neighborhood - as a kid this embarrassed me terribly and felt like a waste of a perfectly good evening, but now it's one of the things I remember most fondly.

I do feel some trepidation; there are many ways this could turn out to be tedious or uncomfortable. I expect, though, that it will go well.

December 18th, 2003

A New York subway musician named Nicholas Thompson shared his recipe for a revitalized music industry based on experiences performing underground and selling his self-published CD. There's nothing particularly radical here to anyone who has been paying attention to the filesharing wars, but the author writes well and has an interesting perspective.

The link in this Metafilter discussion came from the Historic Tale Construction Kit, a Flash application that lets you construct a sort of comic book tale using pieces from the Bayeux Tapestry. The gallery includes people, animals, buildings, and other bits. It is all rendered on over a textile background and looks amusingly medieval.

December 16th, 2003

After seeing it linked on Worldchanging, I spent a few minutes browsing Global Giving. Charity projects have never had much appeal to me, since they have always seemed like patching up the symptoms while ignoring the real causes. This site, however, seems like a different thing altogether: there's no "send food to starving Ethiopians" here, but there's plenty of "help Pakistani farmers switch to organic agriculture" and "start up a coffee cooperative in Mexico". They have several ways to search through a database of projects around the globe, plus a little search system that suggests projects you might be interested in. Each project page has email contact information, links about the project, planning documents, and other information so you know exactly what is going on, what the scope of the project is, and how much money they need to complete the job. The scale is small enough that you can easily imagine giving enough money to be a significant help.

Odds are good that I will simply file this away and forget about it, but that's part of the reason I'm linking to it here. In any case, it seems like a good design, the way this kind of work ought to be done. This is the silver lining to globalized capitalism.

Through a series of links I can no longer remember, I ran across this hilarious story called The Bet in which a young motorcyclist on a nonstop haul from Dallas to Pikes Peak and back ends up with an unexpected travelling companion.

December 15th, 2003

This Metafilter thread has some great links about Mongolia.

December 14th, 2003

#Last night we continued the run-up to "Return of the King" with a four-hour showing of "The Two Towers, Extended Edition". While the additional footage again filled in some of the more poorly-supported plot details, strengthened characterization, and smoothed out the pacing in a few sections that had been choppy, the extended parts did not leave as strong an impression on me as they did in "Fellowship of the Ring". This is clearly the definitive version of the film, if you can stand its astonishing length. It is clearer, richer, and better overall.

When I first saw "The Two Towers", Aragorn's fall and return confused me; it seemed like a pointless bit of extra drama, something the filmmakers threw in to spice things up that had nothing to do with the rest of the story. Now I think I see what they were getting at. It marks the change in his life, the point where he begins to embrace his destiny as the heir of Isildur. For years he has been Strider, ranger of the North, secretive, reserved, and wary. When he returns to Helm's Deep, he emerges from the shadows to become a warrior and a leader of men. The crisis has come, and he steps forward to meet it as a lord of Gondor.

Eowyn's infatuaton with Aragorn is played out more clearly in the extended edition. She is not in love with him, exactly, though she mistakes it for love; she admires him and sees in his life the glory and valor she wished to achieve in her own. This felt a bit choppy and tacked-on in the original edition, as though the filmmakers wanted to add a little love triangle for extra drama. It came across more gently this time around.

Faramir makes far more sense in this version. The theatrical release cuts out a long flashback sequence with Boromir, Faramir, and their father Denethor which draws out their relationship in satisfying detail. These scenes elaborate greatly on events Tolkien mentioned only in passing, which was an interesting and skilful way to depict in action a tension that was simply explained outright in the books. When Faramir finds Frodo, you understand why he does not want to let him go, and why he needs to see the corrupting power of the Ring in action before he finds the strength to overcome its allure. Boromir, too, benefits from the additional scenes; even the few minutes he gets here flesh out his motivations and throw the terrible change the Ring wrought on him in the first film into greater contrast.

Some of the extra clips are minor additions that will nevertheless satisfy book-lovers. We see a little more of the tension between Saruman's uruk-hai and the group of Mordor-orcs. Merry and Pippin discover the unusual properties of Treebeard's spring water and are nearly suffocated by a tree (in a scene clearly lifted from the novel's detour through the Old Forest of Buckland, with Treebeard replacing Tom Bombadil). This last prepares us for the trees' assistance at Helm's Deep, which makes more sense than the original cut's implication that the newly-reinforced Rohirrim simply slaughtered the thousands of remaining orcs.

Finally, the movie winds down to a more satisfying close, instead of merely cutting off abruptly after Eomer's charge and Gollum's decision to lead the hobbits into Cirith Ungol. We see more of the battles' aftermath, including Merry and Pippin's very hobbit-like discovery of Saruman's larder, and a few scenes among the survivors at Helm's Deep. Faramir shows the hobbits how to escape from Osgiliath, but his misgivings about their path and their guide are clear.

Once again, it is clear that this was the movie as the writers and director intended it, and that the theatrical cut was shortened to fit the constraints of the multiplex. There were a couple of points where the extra footage made for a somewhat more jarring transition, or where Sam and Frodo's trip to Mordor seemed excessively tedious, but overall this was a clearer, more robust version of the movie which addressed many of my dissatisfactions with the original cut.

December 13th, 2003

Mongolia is a rarity: a Buddhist nation, one of the last places on earth where most of the population retains a nomadic lifestyle, peaceful and friendly to the West. They survived communism with their culture and habits mostly intact. Now, it seems, Mongolia is experiencing a gold rush, and I fear that greed and global capitalism will do what Soviet oppression could not.

It's easy to see why everyone in Mongolia is so eager for an economic silver bullet. "I overhear conversations all the time, people sittingaround, having beers, talking about how they can get a piece of the action," says Layton Croft, who has been in Mongolia for the past seven years - first with the Peace Corps, now with the Asia Foundation - and speaks passable Mongolian. "You know, stuff like, 'My mother's brother's uncle who works in the land title deed office knows a guy who sold a claim to a foreign company for $200,000. If only we could get a deal like that.' There are real stories out there of people winning the lottery - and for a lot of people now, that's what mining is: a lottery. And a not entirely implausible one."

December 12th, 2003

#I spent yesterday evening at the Cinerama with some friends, watching "Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, Extended Edition" (more usually called "the extended Fellowship", of course). I thought I had seen this when it came out on DVD, and some of the additional footage during the introduction was familiar, but there were so many new pieces that I am certain I was mistaken. I can't imagine why I thought I had already seen it.

The extended cut filled in all of the parts that felt choppy in the original theatrical release, provided better explanations for a few plot points that the original cut glossed over, and substantially improved character development. With only two exceptions, the inserted footage felt like a seamless part of the entire picture. This is clearly no hack job; this is the movie the way it was originally written. In spite of its astounding length, it rarely lags, and the phenomenal attention to detail renders a Middle-Earth where every corner of the screen is worth watching.

The novel itself is a bit slow off the mark, spending a good long while wandering around the Shire before eventually showing up in Bree and getting the story itself moving. Unfortunately, the Extended Edition has picked up this aspect of the novel along with some of the other bits that were left out of the theatrical release. Peter Jackson is clearly fond of hobbits and of the Shire, but unless you share his enthusiasm you will find yourself wondering, by the time Gandalf shows up at Bilbo's door, when the story will actually begin.

One notable weakness in the theatrical release was a murky sense of time and distance during the hobbits' trip from the Shire to Rivendell. The Extended Edition fleshes this out nicely. Frodo and Sam spend an evening in the woods of the Shire, where they see a party of elves travelling west; it's a nice scene and a satisfying way to establish the role the elves play in the lives of the Shirefolk. The trip from Bree to Rivendell is similarly expanded: we see an evening around a campfire, with Aragorn returning from some hunting; various weather, the hobbits struggling through Midgewater, and some extra time spent fleeing the ringwraiths. This overall improvement did cause a new plot problem, however; by the time Merry and Pippin get into the discussion with Strider over "second breakfast", it looks like several days have already passed; you'd think they would have figured his methods out already.

The most satisfying improvement in the extra footage was the additional time spent developing the character of Boromir. In the original cut, he seems almost mad, as though proximity to the Ring has bent his thinking. The extended footage plays him as a brave man bearing heavy responsibility, deeply concerned over the fate of his city and his people. He sees in the Ring the power to lift the shadow his people have lived under for so many years, a shadow he has defended them against for his entire life, which is about to overwhelm him. Aragorn's refusal at Rauros to lead the party anywhere near Minas Tirith pushes the conflict between his responsibility to his people and his role in the fellowship beyond what he can bear. He becomes much more sympathetic in this version; he is not insane, not cruel or greedy. He is merely driven to desperation by a hopeless quest that will surely surrender a terrible power to his people's enemy, undertaken out of a needless fear. Even though this was the fourth time I've seen the movie, I still found myself in tears after his battle with the uruk-hai.

December 11th, 2003

I just found this old article in a Metafilter thread; it's a very physics-teacher-like sendup of the surprisingly common belief that economic growth is a necessity:

There was a time, long ago, when people thought that the Earth was flat, but now for several centuries people have believed that the Earth is round . . . like a sphere. But there are problems with a spherical earth, and a now a new paradigm is emerging which seems to be a return to the wisdom of the ancients. A sphere is bounded and hence is finite, which implies that there are limits, and in particular, there are limits to growth of things that consume the Earth and that live on it.

Over at Borklog, there's a simple but sweet grammar quiz [via Flutterby].

December 10th, 2003

Random web-discovery today: Flemming Funch's Weblog: Ming the Mechanic. I'm not quite sure what's up with the title, but he writes long posts on interesting subjects, and his title quote caught my eye: "An old rigid civilization is reluctantly dying. Something new, open, free, and exciting is waking up." That sounds like the way I feel on good days...

An article in the October 2003 issue of Metropolis Magazine contends that the construction and operation of buildings accounts for around half of U.S. energy consumption. We're used to thinking of energy usage in terms of industry and transportation, but apparently we've been trying to solve the wrong problem at the wrong source:

What all of this means for Mazria is that the environmental movement has been scapegoating the wrong targets. "Look at SUVs," he says. "All the cars and trucks on the road account for about 6.5 percent of energy consumption in this country. If you figure SUVs as half of that, that's 3, maybe 3.5 percent. So even if you doubled the gas mileage of every single SUV on the road, you're talking about a marginal impact in a marginal area, all things considered. That kind of misguided focus actually keeps us from addressing the real issue." In other words, we're worrying about cars when we should be worrying about buildings.

This article reminds me of the mental processes you learn to use when optimizing a piece of code. The newbie will dive right in, rewriting whatever they think must be slowing everything down, but most of the time their intuition is wrong and they put a lot of energy into sections of the code that don't really matter that much. After a while, you learn to spend a long time measuring first. Once you find out what's actually going on, you usually discover that the hotspots were nowhere near where you thought they were and that you can speed your program up by an order of magnitude or two with some simple, standard techniques.

Jerry Kindall found a novel word game called RouteWord, based on graphs where each letter is a node and an edge joins each consecutive pair of letters. It was developed by accident; the author was just using words as test data for the graphing library he was developing.

I had to give notice by today if I was going to move out at the end of the month. Unfortunately, I spent a few hours last night doing the arithmetic, and it just doesn't make sense right now. I am disappointed; I have been stuck in a rut all year, and have been looking toward a New Years' move as the most visible of the life changes I am in the process of making. I have been telling myself "you have to get moving again by the end of the year" for at least six months, and missing that deadline feels like failure. It's arbitrary, of course, and another month really isn't that long, but it's disappointing nonetheless.

December 7th, 2003

Santarchy is really something else: a mob, fifty to a hundred strong, dressed in santa costumes descends on unsuspecting bars, shops, bars, and more bars. This year there was a bit less of the "terrorize the unsuspecting" mayhem than last year, which was a bit disappointing but probably inevitable given the increasing popularity of the event. Still, it was a big, happy, raucous pub crawl with costumes, and that was alright. The night had its surreal touches: a dozen or so clowns decided to come along with the Santas, and proceeded to be obnoxious and confusing in a very clown-like way. In a back room at the Cha-Cha Lounge, the mob of Santas spilled in only to discover a dozen and a half women dressed up as nurses, and a man in a bunny suit... not ten minutes later, outside the Cha-Cha, we were attacked by a group of men in blue monkey masks wielding Super-Soakers from the back of a pickup truck. I have no idea.

This particular Santa had a great time reprising and elaborating on last year's Evil Anti-Santa from the South Pole concept; my black leather coat was trimmed with tinsel this time, not marabou, and I had strings of decorative beads looped around my neck like some kind of Mardi-Gras-Yuletide fusion. Ahh, it was fun: but if I do this again next year I'll have to try something different.

December 6th, 2003

This solo studio work is great fun, but I miss playing live with other human beings. I went down to Guitar Center yesterday to pick up a lesson book, and of course while I was there I spent a while poking around their synth demo room. They had a Korg MS2000 set up; my friend Paul has one of these, and I can see why he likes it. It's a nice responsive virtual-analog synth with a good range of punchy sounds. While I was playing around, someone else wandered in and started banging on a percussion sampler; his friend found the vocoder on another synth - a mini-Moog, I think - and just like that we had a little improv session. What fun! It's been nearly a year since the last Doll Factory show, and I haven't even practiced with another human being in that time. I need to find some way to work more of this into my life.

December 5th, 2003

I sat down at my keyboard yesterday with a few hours to kill, and by the end of the evening found I had recorded most of a new song. Sometimes I can work at a single theme for days without getting anywhere, and sometimes the music just comes pouring out of my head as fast as I can play it. It's exhilarating when it happens, but I am still frustrated by my overall lack of progress. I have a couple ideas in mind for ways to make my creative impulses easier to capture, though, so perhaps I will be able to do this kind of thing more often.

I've been working on my digital music project for a year and a half now, and I'm finally getting to the point where I feel like I can create a piece of music that actually sounds sort of like the way I imagined it when I started working. I hadn't realized there would be so much to learn; things seemed so much simpler back in college. I am making progress, though, even if it's slower than I'd originally hoped.

One of my recent changes seems to be a success: I've stopped trying to program my own drum loops, and have acquired a library of sampled loops instead. Time after time, I've fired up my sequencer with some idea in mind, only to burn all my enthusiasm out trying to program in a drum track I can play along with. I'm not a drummer, I don't know anything about drumming, and I've finally decided to acknowledge that fact and stick to what I'm good at. It helps: I can pick a tempo, throw in a drum loop, pick an instrument, and start jamming in about three minutes. That leaves plenty of time to play.

December 4th, 2003

There's no wind outside my apartment, but there's wind a few blocks away on the Sound: Elliot Bay is a grey sheet of whitecaps crawling steadily north. It's a cold day, but not too cold, and the sky hangs a mere thousand or so feet above the waterline. I want to get out in a kayak and surround myself in it: paddle out to the middle of the bay, point the prow south, and test my strength against the wind and current. There's a great, adrenaline-fed glee in that: the waves surging and crashing across the bow, the wind pressing me back, flattening my hair against my head, pushing against the paddle as I lift it out of the water. Not today, of course, as I need to spend a few more days resting before I declare myself completely recovered; but I will be back out on the water soon enough.

For all the 419-scam's notoriety, after having an Internet email address for close to ten years I've only just now received my second pitch letter. It's not quite as spy-thriller cool as the last one, but it makes up for that with sheer hilarity: it simply doesn't make any sense. Yo, scammers: think it through and actually come up with a plot next time, will you?

From: Chief Isa Mbeki. Fax: 234 1 4401166

Dear Sir, 

First I must solicit your strictest confidence in 
this transaction. This is by virtue of its nature 
as being utterly confidential and "top secret". We 
are top officials of the Federal Government Contract 
Review Panel who are interested in importation of 
goods into our country with funds that are presently 
trapped in Nigeria. In order to commence this 
business, we solicit your assistance to enable 
us transfer into your account the said-trapped funds. 

The source of the fund is as follows:During the 
regime of the last Military transitional government of 
Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, government officials 
set up companies and awarded themselves contracts 
which were grossly over invoiced in various ministries. 

The present democratic government of President 
Olusegun Obasanjo set up the Contract Review Panel and 
we have identified a lot of inflated contract funds 
that are presently floating in the Central Bank of 
Nigeria ready for payment. However, by virtue of our 
positions as civil servants and members of this panel, 
we cannot acquire this money in our names.My 
colleagues in the panel have therefore delegated me as 
a matter of trust, to look for an oversea partner into 
whose account we would transfer the sum of 
US$31,320,000.00 (Thirty-one Million, Three Hundred 
and Twenty thousand United States Dollars) which we 
hope to use in purchasing Agro Allied Equipment, and 
also to enable us to own properties and invest in the 
stable economy of your country. 

Hence, we are sending you this email message. 
We have agreed to share the money thus: 

1. 20% for the account owner (you) 
2. 70% for us (the officials of the CRP) 
3. 10% to be used in settling taxation and all local 
and foreign expenses. 
Please acknowledge receipt of this message for proper 
briefing on the safe modality for the execution of this project. 

I await your eager response.
Yours faithfully, 
Chief Isa Mbeki.

Please Quote this Reference number (IM/12/03) in your response. 

December 3rd, 2003

still exhausted, but recovering.

November entries


photo © 2001 Stacie Mayes

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2003: Nov

Wanderings in Black and Red (previous site)