360 Photos, Ricoh Theta V

I bought a new camera recently, a Ricoh Theta V. It’s a 360 camera, which uses two fisheye lenses on a small thing about the size of a TV remote, and software inside stitches together the two images into a 360-degree sphere, which can then be hosted on various online things like Facebook or Flickr or whatever, with a viewer where you can drag around your viewpoint.

The camera is neat; it’s a small form factor and easily pocketable. It’s very good at removing them seam from the two images it glues together. It can also do video, and does the stitching on-the-fly, so you could also stream these spherical images to YouTube or some VR app. The camera has no removable battery, no video card, just a USB connector to charge or tether, and a mount for a tripod.

One of the reasons I wanted this camera was to port images into Google Street View. If you look at google maps, and drag the little GSV guy onto a map, all the roads Google has traversed will be blue, but you’ll also sometimes see little blue dots, which are where people have taken a spherical photo and uploaded it to Street View. I like to take these with my phone sometimes, which works but is not optimal; you have to spin around and take a bunch of pictures in each direction, and the stitching is slow and distorted. One of the cameras recommended by Google is the Theta V, so that’s what I got.

The workflow for using the camera is a bit goofy. It tethers to your phone by becoming a WiFi hotspot which you connect to, and then you can use an app to take pictures. Then you transfer the pictures to your phone or PC and post them elsewhere. You can take snapshots or recordings without a phone, but there’s no viewfinder, and the camera doesn’t have a built-in GPS; it only geotags when connected to a phone. The connection process is a bit goofy, and it takes a few seconds, but it mostly works.

The big problem is it’s impossible to take a 360 photo without ending up in it. If you hold the camera, your thumb ends up in the bottom of the shot, and looks gigantic and weird. There are tricks to get around this, like if you put the camera on a tripod and go hide behind something, using your phone as the remote. Or take two pictures and stand in different places, then merge them in Photoshop. You can also just be in the picture, but that’s not an option for me, because I look like a goofy idiot.

The other problem is that I bought this camera with hopes of taking a lot of great outdoor photos in the bay area, and almost immediately, we went into the dark gray sky season where it always looks dreary outside. And we’re getting a hint of the smoke in the air, too. So the light is all wrong and it’s time for seasonal depression to kick in. Time to drag out the light box.

I do think this will be a good camera for vacations. Of course, there are none on the horizon. I wish I would have had it when I was in Alaska last spring. I also would love to get out to the land in Colorado, which is very sparsely mapped – there’s a road about a half-mile from my place that did get captured by Google, but they didn’t turn down the dirt road, so maybe it’s time to get back there (when it’s not freezing out.)

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Solo

I’m in bachelor mode for the week because Sarah is out of town, so I decided to see Solo last night, the latest Star Wars movie. I’ve largely dropped the thread on Star Wars movies as of late. The first trilogy, of course, was a big part of my childhood. The prequels in 00 were largely garbage, and pretty much threw me. I went back and watched The Force Awakens, and it was very exciting to see a Star Wars movie on the big screen and gave a certain nostalgic jolt for me. But ultimately, I did not like it; it was a bunch of stunt casting into what was essentially a remake of the first trilogy for millennials. I didn’t see the one after that, do not care. It was the first Star Wars movie I did not see in the theaters, and I felt bad about that, but whatever.

I like the idea of the anthology films, though; films in the sandbox of the others, but different plot lines, different characters, different directors and styles. I really liked Rogue One, maybe as much as the original trilogy. It had a roughness to it, and was not as associated to the big merchandising arm of the main canon, not as wired into the usual summer blockbuster bullshit tactics. It was like when George Harrison did a solo album that had none of the baggage or bubblegum of a proper Beatles album, none of Paul McCartney’s bullshit involved. It was also more of an “adult” movie and (my own theory) had to do more with modern conflict, ala Syria, than the usual good guys wearing white against bad guys wearing black. (I guess stormtroopers wear white, whatever.)

I really do not like comic book movies, do not like Marvel movies at. all. Every Marvel movie is the same, and has the same mechanics: “we’re rebooting something we just did, and we’re going to spend half of the movie setting up the character origin, just to make the fanboys happy and/or piss off the purists to generate more buzz.” It’s like a magician who spends all their time showing you how they are going to do the trick, as if that makes them cool. It bores me. I don’t really care about comics that much, but I really don’t care about the annual Spider-Man reboot, and how they slightly change the origin story this time, or how it’s tangentially related to all the other Marvel movies written with the same exact template. So I was a little worried about that type of movie when I heard about a Han Solo origin movie.

This movie was directed by Ron Howard, but it wasn’t really “his” movie – he’s just a hired gun that was pulled in when the original co-directors shit the bed. It doesn’t feel like a Ron Howard movie, aside from stunt casting his crazy brother in one small scene. The movie goes into the origin of Han and Chewbacca and Lando and the Millennium Falcon, but there’s absolutely nothing about the Skywalkers or the force or any of that, and I wasn’t that off-put by the mechanics of that. Woody Harrelson plays Han’s smuggler mentor, but doesn’t fuck things up. The kid who played the cowboy actor in Hail Cesar plays Han, and does a decent enough job. The story is pretty straightforward, just a standard three-act adventure burn-through, pretty textbook but enjoyable.

What I liked about the movie was that it’s not overly sentimental, or cartoony, like if Lucas had been involved. It doesn’t have the wooden acting, the incredibly obvious good versus bad, and has a slight bit of the more “adult” feel that Rogue One had. It also isn’t too JJ Abrams-y, with tons of CGI and smash cut editing. I think Lucas had minimal involvement and Abrams had none, which was a big plus for me. I really like the idea of different directors doing completely different things with these films. Like I’d love to see Tarantino or someone do a spaghetti western or mobster-like Boba Fett movie.

I don’t have anything bad to say about the movie. I think the main issue is that the movie just sort of is. No high concept, no camp, no big drama, no big theatrics. It just is. It doesn’t perform well as a standalone blockbuster, and doesn’t have the power of any of the main films. And that would be fine if it was a low-budget thing, or a Showtime original. But it’s the sixth most expensive movie ever made, costing something like $275 million, and there’s no way it’s going to pull a half-billion dollars to break even. So it will have a bad legacy because of that. I’d expect it to drop out of theaters this week or next, and then there will be a hard push for VOD and home release, so maybe the completists will buy all the various box sets and they will break even. At any rate, it was a meh for me. Glad I saw it, glad I didn’t go out of my way to see it.

 

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Take Care of Scabbard Fish

This entry is a bit of a placeholder, in hopes that somebody will find it in a google search and maybe chip in more information. It’s very odd that searching on “Take Care of Scabbard Fish” brings up almost no results. Even more weird that it doesn’t come up on sites like discogs or allmusic.

Take Care of Scabbard Fish is a 1994 compilation released by Japanese record label Scabbard Fish (I think?)  Its claim to fame is that it contains the first track released by the band Boris.

Track listing (song title/band/time):

  • Children Of The Revolution – REAL BIRTHDAY 3:31
  • Access – Speeeedway Baby 5:31
  • 50 Times – Puka Puka Brians 8:34
  • Mother Drive Sky – Romeo 5:55
  • Golden Finger – 50’s Junk 5:29
  • Papillon – Jam-Jack 6:25
  • Spacetime – Hula 7:34
  • I Can’t Stop Laughing – Long Fish,But,Blue 2:16
  • Eventualy – 20.000 Dope Disk-Junkie 3:50
  • Maria – Love Sick Lovers 3:09
  • Water Porch – Boris 5:27
  • I Never need – Ja-Dow 9:05

A general description would be that this stuff is Japanese noise/rock from the mid-90s. Lots of feedback, lots of jangly guitar, some stuff bordering on surf rock. But not a lot of it is noise-noise, like beatless, screeching, experimental noise; a lot of it has a heavy groove to it, like basement alt-rock without commercial goals. It’s good stuff.

I haven’t googled through all the band names or songs, although a lot of these seem like dead ends. (How many bands named Romeo are out there?) I don’t have a physical copy of the album, but accidentally found the MP3s on a deep-dive for something else. (Of course, I immediately deleted them and called the police, because piracy is wrong.)

Anyone else have any info on this?

 

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Book consumption 2/11/18

I haven’t been using goodreads to keep track of my book consumption, and I need to keep track of it, so here goes.

TL;DR: The Best of Odd Things Considered by Anita Dalton – Dalton’s long-running blog started as I Read Odd Books, a compendium of book reviews of the unusual. It later developed into Odd Things Considered, to cover audio-visual and other media. I’ve followed the blog over the years, and always appreciate finding off-the-beaten-path conspiracy theories and weird fiction and stuff like that, so it’s always been great reading for me. I also appreciate when a review blog isn’t afraid to respond negatively to something, instead of only printing positive reactions and automatic five-star reviews of everything. There was a bit of controversy over this a few years ago, when Dalton went on a tirade about the poor editing and design of several Bizarro books, or her lengthy takedown of Tao Lin (years before the ER Kennedy allegations, when everyone posted a lengthy takedown of his work.)

Full disclosure: Dalton wrote a lengthy review of my book Sleep Has No Master about four years ago, which appears in the book. It’s a little weird to see someone write a long-form review of my work, going through story-by-story. Anyway, regardless of my appearance, I liked having a bunch of her blog archived in 600-some pages of paper, so I can flip open to a random page and start reading about true crime or 19th-century portraits of dead children.

 

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson – A four-story collection that was completed right before Johnson’s death. This, unfortunately, has been marketed as the successor to Jesus’ Son, his absolutely flawless collection of short stories from twenty-five years ago. It isn’t, unfortunately. And it could probably be his last work published, unless Random House decides to pull a Bukowski and re-release another chopped up collection of the same essays and letters each year for the next century. The stories are very good, have a certain depth, but it’s not a five-star collection. It’s like the placeholder he’d release before a major Tree of Smoke-type book. It’s good to see a final book, but bittersweet that it’s a last book.

 

LiarTown: The First Four Years 2013-2017 by Sean Tejaratchi – Liartown is an absolutely incredible blog of expertly photoshopped images: vintage ads for corduroy porn, satirical paperback book covers, bizarre calendars, and other promotional material that at first glance looks professionally done, but contains absolutely absurd running jokes and dark humor. The blog (http://liartownusa.tumblr.com) is excellent, but the book is even better. Full color, 250 pages, complete overload. This is absolutely mandatory.

 

The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird by Richard H. Graham – Every few years, I fall down an aviation k-hole where I end up buying one of these large-format color photo books, and this is the latest. This one is about four and a half pounds of full-color photos of the A-12 and SR-71, a complete summary of the aircraft’s secret testing, missions, and retirement. Lots of facts and stories, plus a bunch of pictures I’ve never seen. Obviously not for everyone, but this is the kind of book I keep on the shelf for cold and flu season, when I’m too out of it to read and want to sit in bed and go through a big tome like this.

 

What Does This Button Do?: An Autobiography by Bruce Dickinson – Every time I swear I will never read pop autobios like this, I fall down some rabbit hole and end up buying one. Iron Maiden was an important bridge in my teenage years between prog rock bands like Rush and thrash metal like Metallica, but I admit I fell off the bandwagon around college, when there were better things to pursue. Dickinson’s led an interesting life, leaving the band to pursue an aviation career, then coming back to it. He allegedly wrote this book, although you know how that goes. (He did write another book of fiction back in the early 90s, so who knows.) What’s odd about this book is that he rushes through the Maiden stuff, and absolutely does not mention family, spouses, lovers, or children. So the pacing here is a bit bizarre, and it makes it seem like a lot is missing. Similarly, his bout with cancer (spoiler alert) doesn’t come up until twenty pages from the end of the book, and then it’s just a quick infodump of his treatment, which seemed almost glued in as an afterthought. Anyway, essential for fans, but a hard sell otherwise.

 

Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness by Chris Kraus – A collection of essays about the art scene in LA from the author of the book I Love Dick, which has recently blown up in popularity due to a Netflix series based on it. These were columns written in the mid/late 90s, and waver between buzzword-laden critical academic writing, and crazy stories of her personal adventures in the gritty world of the end-of-century LA, when too much dotcom money was floating around a pre-gentrified Los Angeles. That academic bits are exactly that, and I felt myself skipping past some of them. But the parts about her experience as a transplanted New Yorker in this weird world can be interesting. There’s a specific mid-90s pomo voice to this writing, which can now seem dated, but it’s an interesting time capsule of a city where I lived long after this was all over, and I liked that.

 

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier – by Mark Frost – a nicely-designed, nicely-printed book filled with Agent Tanya Preston’s notes to her FBI superiors about the goings-on of the sleepy Washington town where weird things are going down. The material sits between the second and third series of the TV show, so it covers things that were briefly recapped in S3, but in much more detail. Good stuff, but it mostly made me realize I need to go buy the S3 BluRay and watch it a few more times in more detail.

 

That’s it for now. I’m still working through a pile of holiday books, and getting other things for review, so I should do this again in a month.

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Paul Auster – 4 3 2 1

Paul Auster’s new book, 4 3 2 1, was a slog. It had a payoff in the last dozen pages, but it took some effort to stay with this for the other 850.

I’ve been reading a lot of Auster recently for some reason, and in the last six months have probably read at least six of his other works. So I threw his latest, still in hardcover, on my wish list for the holidays, and got a copy. I started wading through it a few weeks ago, and initially thought it was a heavy piece of dead tree, but the deckle edges and thick paper add to it, and it felt like it was maybe a 400-page book, but it’s really double that. And I remember twenty-odd years ago, a certain thousand-page book filled with footnotes made the news because of its absurd length and thickness and heft, but now it seems like 600+ page works are becoming pretty common.

Anyway, 4 3 2 1 is the story of a young man named Archie Fergusun, starting with his grandfather’s arrival at Ellis island. The big twist is that the story follows four different instantiations of Archie’s life, and detail how he would have grown, matured, and ended up if little circumstances had changed. It’s basically four parallel books, each with the common characters of parents and aunts and uncles and so forth, but as the back story changes, the four lives fork into much different directions. Each chapter is numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so forth. It’s like an extremely complex choose-your-own-adventure, where you are watching each branch of a tree unfold in completely different realities.

So, simple example, without too many spoilers, is that one Archie has a dad who struggles in the appliance business, has brothers who run the business into the ground, and he goes from job to job as the family lives in semi-poverty. Another has a dad who strikes it rich in the same family business, and the brothers go fuck off to different states as his kingdom flourishes, affording that Archie a much more lavish wife, but a mother who also is “encouraged” to close up her photography store and become a bored socialite drunk, and Archie is much more resentful toward his distant father who is always working. You end up with four very different Archies, all born in 1947, but heading into different versions of the turbulent Sixties, becoming involved in different angles with the youth movement of the era.

The style and stage of the writing is very familiar Auster. Like I said, I read Moon Palace and Invisible right before I read 4 3 2 1, and they all bled into each other. One thing I like about Auster is he has a familiar field he often works with, and I don’t know if the events are based on his own life, or just random things he keeps coming back to. I mean, it’s a known thing that he went to Columbia, and then moved to France, and both of those happen frequently in his stories. 4 3 2 1 has no shortage of these themes, and his modernist portrayal of New York in the Sixties is deep within his canon here.

Auster is also big on using a “gimmick” of some sort to frame his traditional writing about the city or his youth and bend it around into a meta, postmodern structure. This was a big thing in the four-part narrative of Invisible, and this one uses a different approach to take this even further. I don’t mean that a “gimmick” is a bad thing — it’s something I’m always searching for when I try to write something nonlinear or outside the narrative box like this. So it’s interesting to see what he used and how he extended it into such a big book.

Did it work? Yes and no. I didn’t read anything about the book going into it. I read 1.1, thought okay, it’s a story about this kid, his dad, his grandpa, etc etc. Then I read 1.2, and thought, “why the hell is he telling the same story but just changing one or two things?” It was like someone singing a song where the second verse is the first one with a few words changed. Then 1.3 came up, and I had to stop and go read the wikipedia article to see what the hell was going on. And I have to admit, for my no-attention-span brain, it was hard to keep the four stories straight. Like I’d be reading, and then think “wait a second, is this the rich Archie or the poor Archie? Is Amy the stepsister or the girlfriend in this one?” There are four casts of characters, all with similar names, but all different people. It’s a big investment. And I got about 200 pages into it and thought I needed to just quit and go read something else. But I stuck with it, just forcing myself to read 50 pages a night, or get to the end of the next chapter, and eventually, about 400 pages in, it caught me.

I really want to talk about the ending, but it’s such a huge spoiler, I can’t. I’ll just say that it’s enough of a payoff that I was happy with it, but I could also see that it would really piss off some people, especially those who invested so much time in the reading. Some reviewers were really unhappy with this; Michelle Dean from the Los Angeles Times also called it “a slog” and “a bad joke.” I had the opposite reaction, but yeah, some people didn’t like it.

I’ve often wondered about Auster’s end game, not to be morbid about it, because it took him seven years to write this book, and he’s recently talked about how he’s been out of ideas. At 70, I’d expect him to keep kicking for a while, but what does that mean — another book, maybe two? Like I said, this is a bit morbid, and maybe driven by my own birthday last week and the constant thoughts/fears about how much more I’ll get on the page, especially since I am tragically out of ideas and beating the same dead horse for the last few books.

Anyway. Interesting book, good stuff, but obviously, a heavy investment. If you haven’t read Invisible, you might want to start there, but maybe put some space between the two books, so you don’t get hopelessly confused like I did.

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Oculus Rift Impressions

I stopped in Best Buy on Saturday, because I’ve been meaning to check out the Oculus Rift, and the demo people are only there a few days a week, and I keep missing them. Usual thoughts on the death of the Best Buy I used to know, although they did seem to be semi-busy. Anyway, I tried out the Rift. Impressions:

  • I was worried that the thing would not work with glasses. My glasses fit fine inside the headset, so no problems there. I had to take off my glasses, put them in the headset, then flip the whole assembly onto my head. It was a slightly tight fit, but worked fine for me. The focus was decent, but did make me think maybe it would work better with my reading glasses and not my dailies, which aren’t that great for close-up work.
  • I did not notice the headset weight, and did not experience any fogging.
  • The controllers are interesting. They each have a joystick and a few buttons on the top, but then you also have a trigger and a squeeze button. They are also tracked, so your hand movement goes into the system. The result is that you have a set of virtual hands in the game, which move around and can point at various things and tap around. There’s also a bit of haptic feedback in the controllers, which was nice.
  • You start in a room in a house. Your head movement tracks, so you can look around. You can even turn around, and then see there’s a Koi pond behind you, which makes it very immersive and cool. In front of you is a wall containing tiles or pictures of each available game or program.
  • The immersive feeling of head tracking is something overwhelmingly cool. Just the subtle movements of your head moving around inside this virtual room is amazing.
  • I tried a few things. One was the basic tutorial, how to move your hands and look at things. Then I went into a climbing game, where you put hand over hand as you moved up a rock wall. Once I got the hand of moving and gripping, I was able to move fast and I quickly forgot I was wearing a headset, and felt like I was inside the game.
  • The freaky part of the climbing game was that I was focused on finding the handholds, studying the rock face. At a certain point, the Oculus person told me to stop and look behind me. When I turned, I could see the full display of the terrain behind me. And below me – I looked down and saw how far up I was and had a sudden feeling of depth, from the height. It was amazing.
  • I also did some weird video thing, which was not interactive except for head tracking. It was basically a 360-degree movie, with some African tribe, various scenes where you are surrounded by tribespeople, throwing spears and talking and whatnot. It was a bit boring, but also showed off the video well.
  • The video – it depends on what you are doing. On the tribe thing, I could really discern the pixelation – it was like standing with your face right up to the surface of a standard-definition monitor, or looking through a screen door. For video game or cartoonish things, it was not as noticeable. I do not think I could watch a movie in it.
  • Surround sound was very good too. I noticed that in the circle of tribesmen, how I could hear one to my right, then swing around to look at him and he’d be in the center of the sound stage.
  • I did not have any issues with nausea or fatigue from having the thing on my head, but I was only in it for ten minutes or so.
  • The Rift is now about $400 with a set of controllers, which is pretty amazing for what you get. The real kicker is you absolutely need an all-out machine, a newer-gen i5 or i7, lots of RAM, and a high-end video card. And the video card is the real problem, because Bitcoin mining has created a GPU apocalypse right now. Since Christmas, most GPUs are running about double MSRP, sometimes more for the higher-end ones. And that’s if you can find one, which you cannot. They are sold out everywhere. And you absolutely can’t get it to work on a Mac. My MBP meets all specs by far, except for the video card. I can run an external video card, and an enclosure is maybe $250, but getting the card is the hard part.
  • There probably won’t be an update to the Rift this year, but the Vive has a Pro model with more resolution. (Pricing and availability unknown.) The rub here is that a higher resolution would probably drive back up the pricing, and would require a rig with much more video horsepower.

So, mostly good impressions, but probably not enough to dive in right now. I think I could probably buy a prebuilt that would be on the low end of usable for about $750, slap in some more memory and an SSD I have from my old machine that’s just sitting here. But then I’d just want to upgrade to an all-out gaming rig, and I couldn’t buy an affordable GPU, and ten minutes later, the Rift Pro would be announced. So I guess I’ll wait a minute on this one.

 

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Dü You Remember?

Quick link to a podcast about Hüsker Dü, called Dü You Remember:

https://www.thecurrent.org/collection/husker-du/

(It’s also on iTunes, etc. I just searched for it in the Podcast app, but I’m still on iOS 10, before Apple completely fucked it, so your mileage may vary.)

This was a great five-part audio documentary on the band, from Minneapolis public radio’s The Current. It’s mostly interviews with the band and others (both Rollins and Biafra drop in) and covers the rise and fall of the Hüskers.

I was very late on the scene with these guys, being stuck in heavy metal land and all. I heard a few songs on those SST compilations, which I didn’t discover until right around the time they broke up. By the time I got to college and was surrounded by “college rock,” and later “alternative,” the conversation was more about “have you heard Sugar?” and I had to go backward and hunt down all the old albums.

The whole podcast was apparently conceived before Grant Hart’s passing this year, so there’s a lot of footage of him. Definitely worth checking out.

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Latest reading

I’ve given up on Goodreads, and I haven’t been tracking my reading as of late, and maybe I should be doing that. Here’s a few things I’ve finished recently, in no particular order.

Tim O’Brien – July, July

Probably twenty years ago, I had to read The Things They Carried for an undergrad writing class, and it made me dig into the rest of his catalog. For some reason, I dropped the thread on his writing, and then he popped up in the Ken Burns Vietnam thing on PBS, so I looked him up again. This one is about a 30-year college reunion of a 1969 class of a small university outside of Chicago, and it’s an interesting but slightly problematic character study. It follows a slightly too large cast of characters, showing where their adult lives started and how they got to where they were in 2000. That part can be one-dimensional, and it’s hard to keep track of the various marriages, divorces, lost loves, cancers, heart conditions, careers, and failed careers. There are glances of things that have a lot of depth, like a Vietnam vet who was injured in the war, or another guy who ran from the draft in Winnipeg. It was a fun read and an interesting concept, a good way of just writing about the then-and-now of people. But a lot of reviewers didn’t agree, and it’s not like his other work, so there’s that.

Denis Johnson – Tree of Smoke

Also related to the Ken Burns thing. I read this when it first came out ten years ago, and ever since Johnson passed earlier this year, I’ve been meaning to get back to it. I think the book held up, and was possibly better the second time. It essentially follows the story of Skip Sands, a CIA operative whose uncle Francis is a retired Colonel and who also works for the agency. I think the first time I read it, I’d recently read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and my brain was still stuck in that version of Vietnam; this time, my mind was within the footage from the Burns documentary, which worked better. It’s amazing to me how the guy who delivered such compact and highly-efficient writing in the 150-some pages of Jesus’ Son was able to belt out 600+ pages with the same line-by-line potency, but of heavily historical and accurate information. It’s like a flyweight boxer who clocks in at 112 pounds gaining a hundred pounds of pure muscle to qualify as a heavyweight, but still fights with the same game as he did half a body ago, but he’s doing that times four. Amazing stuff.

Nick Bonner – Made in North Korea: Graphics From Everyday Life in the DPRK

A full-size flexicover book with color reproductions of the graphic design from within North Korea, as collected by a Beijing travel expert who visits regularly. It’s a strange collection, with all the “store brand” products put out by the government, designed by pen-and-ink pre-digital artists, often cribbing old Soviet designs, and of course working in various patriotic angles and images of Dear Leader. Some of the anti-American comics are a hoot. Plenty of small essays describing Bonner’s travels are nice, but the artwork is the real treat here.

Skylab Reference, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) Press Kit and Flight Plan

This is the kind of crap I read when I’m sick or otherwise can’t pay attention. I fell down a space station k-hole right around the time I came down with a cold, so I got lost in this for a few nights. (The reason for the k-hole: astronaut Paul Weitz from Skylab 2 passed away a few weeks ago.) It’s a three-ring binder with copies of the press kit for the original launch of the Skylab station, with a bonus press kit from the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous mission. Lots of dry government tech writer copy on space toilets and food stowage and time schedules and communication frequencies. Plenty of old pre-computer illustrations of what storage lockers and tools are mounted to what bulkheads, although some of the drawings didn’t reproduce that well. Still, fun stuff.

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Mindhunter

I marathon-ed out Mindhunter over the last few days on Netflix. I couldn’t remember the damn name, and for the first few episodes, kept calling it Brainminder, which sounds like a Tupperware product for zombies. Anyway.

It’s a David Fincher-produced thing – he also directed four episodes. Set in 1977, early days of FBI profiling, a couple of agents are both working active cases and going to prisons to interview notorious “sequence killers” to find out what makes them tick. The big selling point is the spot-on portrayal of Ed Kemper, which has already been discussed to death in every other article about the series. Agreed, but I won’t bore you with the story that he now narrates audio books for the blind in prison.

I liked that this was set in 1977, but it doesn’t burn insane cycles saying “hey look, it’s 1977!” That was one of my criticisms of the one-and-done Scorsese-produced Vinyl, which spent way too much time and money depicting a gritty, punk, New York. Mindhunter has the old cars and the rotary phones and reel-to-reel tape recorders, but they aren’t the main character of the series. This reminded me a bit of Fincher’s work with Zodiac, which I ultimately didn’t love, but I appreciated that the focus wasn’t to make the background the character.

I did like Mindhunter’s character development, which was sort of atypical. There’s the “new guy” Holden Ford, and the “old guy” Bill Tench, a common trope for crime fiction. But it’s not a “the old guy is dumb and the new guy tells him how modern life now works” or “the kid is a newbie, and the old guy lays it all out for him.” It’s very non-binary in that both of the characters have some advanced insights and key knowledge, but also have their own shortcomings. It does both of the tropes, but mixes them together in a more realistic way, with the two characters playing off of each other. There’s also the two sides of the institution, the new, groundbreaking professor, and the FBI old guard, and those are a little less nuanced, especially the FBI, but they do feed in little bits of development, especially with Wendy Carr, the psych professor.

The finale — I won’t go into details, but I read from multiple people that it threw them, and it didn’t bother me. It was no Twin Peaks on the WTF scale of the finale, and it didn’t bother me. But I’m not everyone, so who knows.

It will be interesting to see where the show goes in a Season 2. They were vaguely following the antics of a killer more or less modeled after Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. They were mostly just setting it up, though. Maybe the next season will get into that more.

Standard disclaimer applies to any of these VOD shows: it’s great, I watch it in two or three sittings, and then I have to wait six months or a year to get my next fix. I sometimes wish they could crank out five seasons at once, but obviously that’s not an option. (Unless I find out about it three or four years after it happens.)

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Donald Cried (2016)

Donald Cried is a film in the “you can never go back” camp, but it’s also more about the estranged relationship between two friends who were inseparable as teenagers, but took completely different paths into adulthood.

Originally a short by independent filmmaker Kris Avedisian, this was expanded to a feature-length affair with the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign. The film starts with the protagonist Peter returning to his home town in Rhode Island to handle the affairs of his recently deceased grandmother. He left the small town a dozen years before, and went to New York City to reinvent himself, forget his past, and work on Wall Street. The problem with his quick overnight trip: he’s lost his wallet, so he’s stuck at his grandmother’s old house with no cash, no ID, and a to-do list of funeral home, nursing home, realtor, and everything else involved in closing the last of his involvement with his old life.

With no other options, he turns to his last lifeline, and meets up with his old pal Donald, who he hasn’t seen since high school. Donald is a stoner dropout who lives in his mom’s attic, works part-time at a bowling alley, and is the opposite of Peter, stuck at the same point he was back in the glory days of high school. We quickly find out that Peter was once cut from the same cloth, and had the same love of heavy metal and juvenile delinquency. Peter just needs a ride to pick up his grandma’s ashes and empty out her nursing home, plus a few bucks for bus fare back to the city. Donald is ecstatic about the triumphant return of his old friend. Antics ensue.

I always have a certain nervousness when returning back to Indiana, and that’s captured too well in this film. It’s a mixture of “this could have been me” and flashbacks of the past that bring out the “man, I was an idiot back then.” My nostalgia issues are a bit contrary to Peter’s in the film, though. He’s trying to remain unseen, and not get entangled in the past. For example, the realtor he gets is a woman he went to school with, and that he had some feelings for back in the day, but he initially acts as if he doesn’t remember who she is at all. I’m not saying I seek out people and reunite with them (I did have an ex-girlfriend sighting at a mall a few years ago, and I ducked in another store to escape) but I do seem to seek out old landmarks and get too mentally involved with the ghosts of the past.

The real star of this movie is Avedisian, who plays the character of Donald. He’s this lanky, bearded guy with an awkward Ray Romano-sounding voice and a Keith Moon haircut, and he’s completely cringe-worthy in his total lack of a filter. This starts as a truly hilarious character, like a Mark Borchardt from American Movie, except with no ambition to make films. At first, he’s just the funny guy to the straight guy, but then you become sympathetic to him, feel sorry for him. My feelings bounced between “wow, what is with this dude” to “wow, how could Peter help this dude get his shit together.” And the latter is a strong one for my personal experience, so it really got me.

The small town setting was also big for me. Warwick isn’t a “small” town — it’s the second-biggest city in Rhode Island. But, it’s only 80,000 people, and what is captured in the film is the small town feeling of cruising at night, bowling alleys and convenience stores, little houses, and that feeling that a lot of people never leave, never forget high school, never move on. The duo go, on Donald’s insistence, to visit another one of their high school buddies. When they get there, he’s sitting in bed, unmoving, watching cage fighting matches on TV, like he’s never left the house in fifteen years. Or there’s the bowling alley manager, a burly guy actually played by former WWF wrestler Ted Arcidi, who’s in his office showing a teenaged cashier his grainy VHS tapes of when he used to be a powerlifter back in the Eighties and could bench 700 pounds. It’s an interesting backdrop, and really sets up why Peter left, and why it is such a strange yet compelling place to visit.

Overall, I have only one big problem with this film: I wanted to write a book that was almost exactly this. I started outlining it two years ago, when I went back to Indiana for a weekend. I had the backdrop, and I thought I had the characters. But I never could quite break the story correctly. And Avedisian showed me that I really didn’t have the depth needed to get the characters down. I gave up on the idea a while ago, and now I’m stuck on the thought that I really should do something with it, but of course if I started working on it, I’d unconsciously ape exactly what he did.

Anyway, it’s on iTunes for rent right now. Not for everyone, but I found it pretty entertaining.

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