Harry Potter and the Two-Hour Prologue

Last week the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings & Half-Baked Ideas and I decided to watch the first Harry Potter movie. It was my first exposure to the franchise. Considering all the hype, and the penetration of the film into pop culture, the movie was surprisingly mediocre. Of course, it’s possible to make a crappy movie no matter how brilliant the source material is, but in this case the biggest problem with the movie was simply in its storytelling. I suspect it is a faithful reflection of flaws in the novel itself.

The biggest storytelling flaw in this flick is that it takes forever for the story to actually begin. I have been accused of “walking to the story” often enough to recognize it when I see it.

We start with a prologue that reveals nothing which isn’t amply explained in short order. Then we have many scenes that do nothing but establish setting. Crappy home life (perhaps more interesting if we didn’t know what we already do), shopping for school supplies, and so forth. As far as the actual story goes, we finally hear a whisper of the name that will shape his young life. But only a whisper, and we proceed with a series of events that aren’t moving anywhere. There are, James Bond-style, offhand mentions of things that conveniently turn out to be important later, but that’s about it.

Once he’s at school, we get closer to a plot, but not very quickly. We get to meet important friends and rivals, but mostly it’s still establishing setting, building a whimsical and magical world. Don’t get me wrong, the movie does a fine job of this, but it’s all done through a series of unrelated events.

One of those disconnected events is that Harry’s natural broom-riding ability leads him to be the “seeker” for his house team in the sport of Quidditch. The game is like this: A bunch of people fly around under very complicated rules, scoring points here and there, then the seeker from one of the teams catches a tiny flying robot-magic-thingie and the game is over, all the rest of the activity having been rendered moot. It makes for some good action scenes, but they are not in service of the story.

The story, what there is of it, is that there’s an important thing that bad guys want to steal. The most interesting part of that story is Snape, a teacher and the head of the “asshole” house at the school. So many things suggest he’s a bad guy, but… when shit gets real his actions are noticeably absent of evil.

When one makes a movie based on a novel, the hardest decisions the screenplay writers face is what to cut. A movie simply can’t contain an entire novel. I wonder, looking at what they decided to keep, looking at scene after scene that did not serve the story, what they decided to chop. More of the same? Or were they worried that rabid Harry Potter fans would riot if the movie didn’t include the gratuitous prologue that was in the novel, and instead cut more interesting things to remain “faithful”?

The next night OSoMR&HBI and I watched the next movie in the series, and now we have consumed two more. So clearly HP-1 was not so awful we walked away from the franchise. This was partly because friends assured us the following movies got better.

Today I realized why. The first movie is ALL prologue. It is the reading you are supposed to do before coming to class. Being a story is a secondary goal, behind introducing us to the world.

Aspiring writers take note: WORLD BUILDING IS NOT STORYTELLING. I recently had the privilege of reading a friend’s draft of a novel, and I realize now I forgot to compliment her on the way she built a really strange world through the telling of her story. She hit the ground running and we got to see the world as the action unfolded, in a natural way. So, just do that.

1

My Last Car

My faithful little Miata is getting long in the tooth; I purchased it new off the lot in the summer of 1999. Eighteen and a half years is pretty old for a car, but these days not exceptional.

Still, after spending the weekend replacing ignition components and discovering oil on my hands more than once, I have to admit that the car is not as mechanically tight as it used to be. It’s only a matter of time before it crosses the line from “reliable transportation” to “hobby”. I don’t need another hobby.

From time to time I peruse the Internet, fantasizing about the car that will replace the Miata. Convertible is an absolute requirement, two seats a preference. There are some pretty cool cars in this space, but the frontrunner remains the Mazda Miata. I could spend a lot more and get a somewhat more exciting car, but the Miata remains an excellent intersection between fun and economy, with no serious challengers.

But boy, that F-type purrs like a kitten. A tiger kitten.

As I consider the expected lifespan of my next car, the expected lifespan of me, and trends in technology, it occurred to me: It’s quite possible that this will be the last car I ever buy. Twenty years from now my driving skills will be degrading, and as long as I live in a town of any size, it’s entirely possible that self-driving on-demand cars will be significantly cheaper than car ownership, especially when you take into account how few miles I drive.

My last car. Wow. But…

I don’t really need to replace the Miata at all. There is almost never a time when both the family cars are out of the garage, and the few times it does happen could easily be handled with transport alternatives. I could rent a convertible for road trips. Perhaps I have already bought my last car. Wow.

Often, when I take the old girl out for a spin, I first have to remove the tool boxes and other items piled on top. Home repair and crafts projects lead me to pull items off the shelving next to the car and put them on the top or on the hood for access.

A typical look at the Miata

Perhaps the next four-wheeled item to occupy that slot in the garage will be something like this:

The next thing to live on the right side of the garage?

1

Time for the Stars

Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.

I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.

I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.

The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and even governments can’t justify.

It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)

So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.

Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.

This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.

The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.

So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.

Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.

Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.

Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.

Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.

Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.

“When will we get there?” Tom asks.

“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.

They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.

There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.

My 2018 Resolutions

Last year I made several ambitious-but-attainable resolutions. I failed at all of them.

For 2018, my goal is much simpler: do better at everything than I did in 2017. The bar is pretty low.

4

Fun With NORAD

The United States has a massive array of detection equipment all around the world, watching with never-blinking (we hope) vigilance to detect attacks on the US or our allies. Each year that massive network is also put to the much-more-fun purpose of tracking Santa Claus as he makes his way around the world.

The official tracking site is here, and now sports a fun and interactive way to watch the jolly elf’s progress. What a great opportunity to sit down with youngsters over a globe or an atlas and find Santa’s current location, tracking him over places the kid has heard of but may not appreciate as actual places on Earth. What a fun way to have a little geography lesson!

While you’re at it, you might enjoy reading about how this all started. NPR has a short article about how the Continental Air Command got into the Santa-tracking business. It all started with a red phone ringing on the desk of a man whose job it was to be the first to know if we were under attack. A red phone whose number was top secret. It’s a fun story.

8

Rober Mueller is Getting Slammed – Why?

Over the last couple of weeks, the Republicans in power have launched a massive campaign to discredit special prosecutor Robert Mueller. The Trump administration, the Republican establishment, and Fox News have started a non-stop “nothing to see here” feedback loop. The complaints they are throwing around are not new; Watergate and Whitewater investigators heard the same things.

The Democrats spent a year complaining about Kenneth Starr, and the complaints about Archibald Cox (Watergate) are even more similar to what we are hearing today. Neither party is above suppressing the truth for its own purposes. Notably, in both those examples impeachment proceedings followed.

So, maybe “Why?” is not the interesting question. Maybe it’s “Why now?” Why has the bashing been turned up to eleven? Mueller’s investigation is moving with historical quickness — after Manafort and Papadopolous turned, I thought we wouldn’t hear more before January, using past investigations as a guide. But even bigger news has followed, and things are now very close to the White House. So, “why now” might be because the Trump administration and their Republican apologists realize that there is something even bigger coming, and they want to get ahead of it, to rally the party faithful ahead of some damning news. If they already know impeachment is in the wind, getting the party to close around a few points of resistance makes sense.

Perhaps.

It’s also possible that Trump and his administration have nothing to hide. Perhaps they realize that their own hound dog, Kenneth Starr, was allowed to expand the Whitewater investigation into realms that had absolutely nothing to do with the original charges, fruitlessly looking under rock after rock, until they finally caught the president not wanting his wife to find out he’d gotten BJ’s in the oval office. Even then it wouldn’t have amounted to anything, but Slick Willy was too slick for his own good, and tried to play word games with his questioners.

When looking for infractions on that scale, you know that Trump — the pussy-grabber and philanderer and liar and serial bankruptcy artist — will trip over something.

So is the Republican message machine afraid of the truth, or are they afraid the Democrats are paying them back for Starr? My guess is that there is an ugly truth coming, and they are girding for a fight that threatens the very relevance of their party. But it may be they’re just about to reap what they have sown. Either way, I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for them.

7

“I haven’t … since I got married.”

I had a quiet chuckle the other day when I thought to myself, “I haven’t showered since I got married.” Immediately I came up with several other personal-hygiene-related phrases I’d had a chance to use: “I haven’t brushed my teeth since I got married.”

But what of other parts of my life? It seems like there should be plenty of opportunities for a newlywed to find humor with the phrase. “I haven’t eaten since I got married” only lasted a short time for me, but would have been pretty good.

I get the feeling that I’m missing some pretty good ones. Any thoughts from the bloggcomm?

9

So, I’m Married Now

Yep, my best friend in the whole world, my sweetie, my soul mate and I tied the knot today. I’m more than a little pleased by that.

18

Journalistic Bias: Not What, but When

There is a curve when it comes to shocking news about a candidate for office. For a couple of weeks after the damning revelations come out, the candidate takes a hit. Then, gradually, the candidate’s numbers recover. We’re seeing that right now with Roy Moore in Alabama. Voters have had time to rationalize voting for someone they would never let near their own daughters.

We’ve seen the curve with candidates from both parties in the past, from a gleefully corrupt Democrat in Louisiana who had time to charm his way out of the doghouse to a presidential candidate who went down to perfectly-timed accusations.

I think this curve is pretty well-known by now. I’ve heard of it, and I’m the last to hear about anything.

So imagine you’re the editor of the Washington Post. You have an explosive story about a candidate in an election of great importance. That election is six weeks away. The story is ready to go — facts checked, sources cross-referenced and background-checked. It’s legit.

I think it’s safe to say the editors of the Washington Post are not big supporters of the Republican Party in its current incarnation. So if you are an editor at The Post who decides when to run this huge piece, there will be a natural temptation to run it at the most damaging time possible for Moore. There would be a temptation to sit on the story for a couple of weeks, to put the sweet spot of the damage curve right on election day.

The Washington Post did not do that. There’s no way to tell if the timing of the story was based on journalistic integrity or incompetence, but they did not time the story for maximum electoral impact. I think that means something.

5

Flat-Earthers are Punking You

99% of Flat-Earthers actually believe the Earth is round. They’re just being dicks.

They’re taking great pleasure as you prove seventeen different ways that the Earth is round, just to shake their heads afterward and say, “Nope, Earth is flat.” Your continued insistence on proving the Earth is round is just plain funny to them.

Welcome to the 4chan world. 4chan is a place where people will say anything if it pisses someone off. It’s “for the lulz.” 4chan is where gamer gate came from, and the place Bannon recruited at least one of his most poisonous people.

Now they are getting all kinds of attention just for saying the Earth is flat. Virtual high-fives were shared between moms’ basements when a few idiot celebrities jumped on board. Kinda like with vaccines. But here’s what you have to understand: Every attempt to expose them, every attempt to use science to show they are wrong, just feeds them. The better your argument, the more fun the “nope”.

Only an idiot would think the Earth is flat. These people aren’t idiots. They’re assholes.

4

I Got To Use My Router Today

It was a big handyman day at Muddled Headquarters today. Relatively speaking.

For one task I needed to cut some grooves in a couple of pieces of wood. I have the perfect tool for that — a very nice router. The thing is, I haven’t used this machine in well over a decade. So a chore that would take an actual handyman maybe fifteen minutes start to finish took me closer to two hours, stretched over two days. First, I had to go to the store to get the correct bit (after searching for and failing to come up with the correct bit in my storage bins). The shopping trip took longer than necessary because I did self check-out wrong. By the time I got home it was dark, and my workshop is the back patio.

This morning(ish) I was right back at it. I have no idea how many trips I made between the garage and the patio — for instance to change the bit on the router I realized one needs a large wrench. Into the garage I went to grab my inch-based set of wrenches, only to discover that they’re all too small. Back into the garage I went to grab all my plus-sized wrenches from where they hang in an orderly row. That made two trips, just to put the right bit into the router. Then there were trips for clamps and shims and scrap-lumber guides, and a special trip for my ruler-square thingie. Then bizz-bang-buzz I was done.

Putting the router away, I pushed aside the guide attachment that would have rendered much of the other fiddling moot.

But I made the grooves. There is something deeply satisfying about a high-precision cut, the clean square groove at just the right location. Making the cut is almost an anticlimax; getting the cut right happens long before the motor of the power tool starts whirring. Carpentry is in the things you do before the blade touches the wood.

6

The First and Last Mile, and Net Neutrality

The hardest part about installing public transportation in a city not built for it is the first and last mile. That’s the mile one has to go to reach the nearest stop, and the mile they have go on the other end to reach their destination. People just plain won’t walk a mile anymore. Older, denser cities don’t have this problem; there is a tram stop nearby no matter where you live.

If Net Neutrality is torpedoed, we will have a new last mile problem. At least in urban areas, near where you live is The Backbone — the actual internet, the information superhighway. Your ISP is an on-ramp, but they’re about to be given the right to control your access to the highway. If you live in a rural area, the last mile might be more than a mile but the concept is the same.

The ISPs are just an on-ramp, but because they control the last mile (they have wires connected to your house), they control your access. That’s why there are currently laws to prevent them from abusing that power. If net neutrality goes away, we’ll have a new first-mile problem. So much information, so close, but held hostage by the wire-owners. That first step.

Some will pay the ISP’s extortionate fees. Some will be cut off from one of the key assets that decides who gets ahead these days. The rich will get richer. To be more specific, the rich people who floated this whole idea will get richer, and they don’t give a crap about anyone else. It’s not that they want the poor to remain poor, that would be evil. They simply don’t care what happens to those people.

Already here in Silicon Valley there is a company promising to be a neutral ISP, no matter what the law says. They solve the last mile with a radio dish pointed at a tower (if I’m reading their propaganda correctly), but at the moment cost/performance is not close to the guys with wires connected to my house. Even so, if the guys with wires make the slightest move toward controlling my access, They should know now that I will not remain their customer for long.

3

Ah, Irony

In an article at I Fucking Love Science, about strange references in hundreds of scientific publications to a paper that doesn’t exist, is this sentence:

Nevertheless, it seems that the phantom reference is a symptom of wider problems within academic science publishing, such as low-quality control, careless editing, and – the real bugbear – predatory journals.

The article’s actually pretty interesting, and worth the thirty seconds it would take you to read it. But man. Low-quality control, in a sentence about low-quality editing. If you’re ever going to be really, really careful about a sentence you write, it should be the one critical of others’ editorial standards.

2

The Hazing

It was standard at the firm. When a new scientist or engineer was hired, they were given an impossible problem. Sure, it seemed like a reasonable task at first, until it foundered on the fundamental laws of physics. The really bright recruits would catch on in a week or so; most took longer.

Then there was Harper. Six weeks and counting. Burning the midnight oil, submitting massive computation jobs, cursing when she thought no one was listening.

The board had been nervous about Harper. Her academic performance had been good, but not the level the company expected. But Joe Petersen had had a hunch about her. “Give her a shot,” he told the board. “You won’t be sorry.” Now he would have to be the one to eat crow and admit that he had been wrong about her.

It was not the sort of message one gives electronically. It was late but Petersen knew where he would find his latest hire. He knocked gently on her open door before walking into her office. She was sitting back in her chair, her dark hair a mess, deep circles under her eyes, just staring into space, nodding slowly.

“Hello, Alice,” he said.

She seemed to remember where she was. “Hi, Boss.”

“I owe you an apology,” he said. “The task I gave you —”

“I solved it.”

Even worse than he thought. “The task I gave you. It was impossible.”

“Well of course it required super-relativistic interaction between particles with mass,” she said. “Particles going back in time. I saw that right away. But the way you asked the question… It got me thinking.”

“And…?”

Alice Harper shrugged. “And I solved it. I just sent a naked quark back in time to resolve an ambiguous energy state. On paper at least. Can I go home now? I’m very tired.”

“I’ll see you Monday,” Petersen said.

1

It’s the Same Ol’ Lost-Data Story

In the last week I’ve heard from three different friends who all experienced the same heart-stopping, stomach-emptying feeling of doom. The oh-shit-I’m-hosed, no-going-back, if-only feeling of true loss.

Those friends were separated by thousands of miles, and by gulfs of temperament. They are all united in being intelligent, creative people.

In at least two of the cases, the hours of gut-wrenching agony were replaced with vast relief. But even as they expressed their joy to the world, the did not (publicly) resolve to do anything to prevent the same disaster from striking again. They still aren’t backing up their digital files. Two of the three sphincter-clenching moments I witnessed this week were sponsored by lost flash drives.

Aargh! It’s SO DAMN EASY to back your stuff up these days. And free! Dropbox is brain-dead simple and works everywhere. For most people, why do you even have a flash drive? If you DO have a flash drive, why is this little thing that can drop through a hole in your pocket the sole repository of everything you hold dear? I say again, “Aargh!”

Ok, DropBox isn’t the most private cloud storage around (though it isn’t terrible — way better than Google). You can quite easily encrypt your files on DropBox, or perhaps you would prefer tersor.it. Swiss-based DropBox, basically. And speaking of Google, if you don’t mind who reads your stuff, the Goog’s a ubiquitous and free way to back your shit up.

In the IT world, there is a saying: “If it’s not in three places, it doesn’t exist.” I can forgive someone who only keeps their data in two places.

But one place? A flash drive? Sorry, buckaroo, you’re going to have to take my sympathy with an “I told you so.”