Tuesday, November 24, 2015

From the Rental Vault: Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

For his fifth outing as Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise finds himself up against an organization called the Syndicate, made up of missing, disavowed and presumed dead agents from around the world -- and headed by one of the most brilliant and ruthless. The only problem -- CIA Director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) has convinced the United States Senate that the IMF is out of control and they have shut it down and recalled its agents.

Hunt has to rely on his own abilities and a few trusted friends in order to track down the leadership of the Syndicate and prevent them from gaining the resources they need to spread terror around the globe and create a kind of shadow government that will control everyone else. Along the way he will also team up with Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a discredited agent who may be working for the Syndicate or for her own government. Either way, she is most certainly working for herself and whether or not that helps Hunt is by no means determined. Also undetermined is if Hunt will hold things together long enough to track down and expose the syndicate, or if his desire to beat the Syndicate leader, rogue English agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) has clouded his judgment.

Whatever his shortcomings as an actor, Cruise has always been able to project manic intensity, and he does that again here. Simon Pegg as Benji Dunn, Ving Rhames as Luther Stickell and Jeremy Renner as William Brandt all reprise their roles from earlier movies and hold their places in the choreography. The final third of the movie has some pretty good twisty-turny spy v. spy chess between Lane and Hunt, but up until that it's a series of random action set pieces, only a couple of which really rise to the occasion and some of which are largely repeated from earlier movies. Christopher McQuarrie and Drew Pearce's script does almost nothing new with the characters or universe: Solomon Lane's omniscient game-playing echoes Owen Davian from the third movie; the disavowed Hunt-on-the-run is a repeat from entries one and four; the "rogue" IMF echoes no. four, and so on.

While the contest between Lane and Hunt gains some extra flavor from the personal level of conflict, a lot of the energy behind that comes because Lane shot a young female agent at the beginning of the movie in front of an imprisoned Hunt -- again echoing a move by Owen Davian and another example of a female character existing to be terrorized and killed by the villain and motivate the hero.

Paramount and Cruise have confirmed that a sixth Mission: Impossible movie is in the works. Without some indication that it's going to be something different than what's happened before, this may be the time to join the secretary in disavowing any knowledge of the IMF's actions.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Turn the Pages

Although John Camp (writing as John Sandford) has made most of his name writing about cops investigating crimes, he's had a couple of hits with novels about the computer hacker and thief Kidd that range into the techno-thriller category. It involves a space voyage to Saturn and an encounter with aliens, but his 2015 collaboration with photographer and physicist Ctein (I have no idea how to pronounce it. Or why) Saturn Run is as much in that vein as it is science fiction.

A random set of images from a telescope calibration shows an object moving towards a gap in Saturn's rings and decelerating -- something no natural object could do. The United States has learned of the object first but doesn't really have any ships available to make a journey that long. China has a probe planned for a Mars voyage, so the U.S. must try to repurpose a space station for the voyage and get underway to reach the alien artifact before the Chinese can. They develop a way to do this, crew the ship and get it underway. Even though the Chinese ship has already blasted off for Saturn, the more advanced propulsion of the U.S ship, the USSS Richard M. Nixon, means it will arrive first. If nothing goes wrong, that is, and there's no shortage of people and interest groups who would like to see something do just that.

Since he's set his book about 50 years into the future, Sandford doesn't have to posit a great many cultural changes, One of his protagonists, Sandy Darlington, could stand in for Virgil Flowers in that series of books without too much trouble. There are enough tweaked details to set a different stage than the one we live on in 2015, but not so many we don't recognize the people. In that area, Run reads like a Heinlein or Allen Steele hard sci-fi novel, paying the kind of attention to detail that distinguishes both authors. It of course most resembles Arthur C. Clarke's  2001: A Space Odyssey more than anything else, especially in the first two thirds of the book. This part of the story, concerning the voyage out to Saturn and the crew interactions, makes for interesting reading, even if the final third focusing on the confrontation with the Chinese starts to drift before very long.

Sandford relied on Ctein's technical expertise to create a realistic Saturn voyage set in the late 2060s. All of the principles the pair uses for their ships' propulsion systems are known and the technological advances needed to make them completely possible. In an afterward, Sandford said he didn't want to depend on what Greg Benford calls "wantum mechanics," or the kind of jargonistic deus ex machina that's just several variations on the theme of "reversing the polarity" to haul the plot out of the fire. He succeeds, and his writing skill manages to avoid most of the techno-dumps that some authors of the genre drown in.

While Run may avoid wantum mechanics, it's rather full of wantum characterizations and wantum twists as well as a lot of dramatic setups that never really pay off. Sandford spent plenty of time getting his tech right, so knowledgeable folks won't roll their eyes at his rocket science. But they'll do it plenty at the coincidences and contrivances that litter the book, especially the last third. And these weaknesses leave Saturn Run an ultimately unsatisfying voyage.
Peter Decker and his wife Rina are settling in to their lives in an upstate New York college town, where Peter works for a small town police department and Rina teaches part-time. The longtime Angelenos aren't sure about the winters in their new home, but the closeness to their adult children and distance from LA's hectic pace make up for it.

The discovery of a body in the woods near the end of the fall semester challenges the small department, but it seems to be a pretty clear-cut suicide. As Peter and his sometime partner, Tyler McAdams, probe the insular world of the math department where the young man was a star, they find plenty going on beneath the surface but no reason to discount the coroner's ruling of a suicide. Until a second body is found, and then it turns out that the world of higher math can have just as many devious twists and turns as any other when people start dying, in Faye Kellerman's 23rd Decker-Lazarus novel, The Theory of Death.

As is often the case with long-running series, Kellerman has found a comfortable groove with her characters. Her relocation of them to upstate New York offers some new ways to consider them and the move to a small-town setting provides several new stages on which they can perform. Rather than direct a team of detectives to investigate a crime, Peter works his own shoe leather. Used to quick responses from large nearby forensic facilities, he chafes at the delays his current bucolic locale offers. Rina herself -- Rina Lazarus when the series began but Rina Decker since entry #4, Day of Atonement -- finds herself with enough time on her hands she can accompany Peter on some of his official business. Her presence proves a great help, as does that of McAdams, in town to study before his first semester law school finals.

Much of the first half of the series turned on Peter's study of and assimilation into Judaism, Rina's faith and that of his biological parents. The second half so far has turned on the couple's seemingly irresistible urge to parent and mentor teens and young adults. Peter and Rina welcome Tyler's presence and Peter is grateful for his help, but they both are firm in their direction that he study for his law school exams. Peter also continues to guide Tyler in his work as a detective, even though the younger man may not stay with the force, and the couple also play the yenta a little for him and an eligible young woman.

Theory revolves around a lot of somewhat esoteric math, but Kellerman uses her detectives -- who have no idea what the students and professors are talking about -- as a stand-in for those readers who have no idea what the students and professors are talking about so the mathematicians can explain their fields in more lay terms. Theory manages to take its new locations, situations and cast members and put an excellent shine on a well-known series.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Alien Planet We Live On

This is a year old, but Wired magazine's photo slideshow of some out of this world sights that nobody had to leave the planet to shoot is still pretty cool.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

There Are No Words...

Let's say you lived in England sometime just before calendars needed four digits instead of three, and you had a hankering to describe an amount of things. You had, for whatever reason, found a thousand somethings and it turned out there were a thousand of the thousand somethings. You could write "a thousand thousand," but you were about out of paper and didn't have the room for it.

According to this article by Pierre Bienaimé at Nautilus, you would have been out of luck, because "million," the word we would use, didn't exist yet. Language researchers suggest that there wasn't a need for the word because most people rarely encountered anything in that kind of quantity. Most people's worlds were pretty limited. Rich people might have thousands of certain kinds of animals and kings might have thousands of men in their armies. But at least in Old-English-speaking areas, you could account for almost every number you'd regularly run across by referring to multiples of those thousands.

Bienaimé's article points out that the word "million" was probably imported from French along with a lot of words we use today, in the years following William the Conqueror's 11th century invasion of the British Isles. Advances in mathematics and encounters with wider regions of the world than those known before meant people ran across the idea often enough that they grabbed a word to use to replace the clumsy "thousand thousand." The doubled phrase retains a kind of archaic flair and that seems to be the usual purpose if it's used today.

Words, whether newly minted or not, do seem to crop up as they're needed. When I bought my first computer, it featured an amazing 56K modem, meaning of course that it could transmit 56,000 bytes of data every second. In discussing speeds and file sizes, we often used "K" as a descriptor. "Meg" or "megs" and "gig" and "gigs" get used more often today, and we are probably on our way to whatever shortened version of terabytes and petabytes we will be bragging about in five or ten years. Or sooner.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Graphic Representation

Earlier today a friend posted a like on Facebook of an infographic from a site that loves science almost as much as it loves adolescent vulgarity. It came originally from this article at Vox. None of the following is a reflection on my friend, because she is much smarter than me (her choice of friends notwithstanding) and loves science, the elimination of disease and approppriate vocabulary.

The infographic and article were originally published last summer about the time of the Ice Bucket Challenge meme, in which people challenged each other to have a bucket of ice dumped on them in connection with raising money for research into ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The Vox writer had the laudable goal of pointing out that there are several things more likely to kill more people each year that could use some funding for research as well. She didn't address several of the other problems surrounding social media challenge activism, but that wasn't her purpose.

Critiques of the original infographic, which used circles of different sizes to show which diseases kill more people and which receive the most donations, caused its revision. The version you can currently find at both sites is supposed to have circles re-scaled to have their area represent the figures it's comparing, rather than their diameter. The latter exaggerates the real differences.

A post on this blog notes that problem, as well as several others, with this kind of chart. And as its update points out, the "money raised" category doesn't show the total amount raised to fight the particular disease listed. It shows the amount raised by a particular charity's event. In other words, the $54.1 million figure shown in the blue circle isn't the total raised in the U.S. to fight our number one killer, heart disease -- it's the amount raised by the "Jump Rope for Heart" event. If you donated to some other event that targets research into stopping heart disease then your giving wasn't represented in that $54.1 million. Are the events the same? Do they happen in the same time frame? If all we have is the infographic, we don't know.

You might think you would still be on pretty solid ground guessing that the total amount donated to fight heart disease isn't as much as the total amount given for either of the two causes that top it on the graphic. But science is about testing guesses to see which of them are more accurate. And as this comment on the post at the Statistical Modeling blog points out, figures for 2013 (the graphic dates from 2014, so those are the latest figures at the time) show the total funds raised by the American Heart Association exceed those raised by the Komen Foundation.

Which means that the graphic is accurate but needs a title that better describes what it shows: That the fundraising totals of selected events conducted by certain charities to raise money for their causes don't match up with the rankings number of people killed by those diseases. But not only is that a much more cumbersome title, it's not particularly useful information.

That, though, is par for the course for a site who's "crucial facts to understand the Israel-Gaza crisis" list in 2014 originally included a reference to a bridge between Gaza and the West Bank that would have been one of ten longest road bridges in the world. If it had ever existed -- and that fact, I believe, can be tested by experimentation.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

So Much Is now Clear

George Lucas says that if he could be any character from his Star Wars movies, he would be Jar-Jar Binks.

I am suspicious of this statement. On the one hand, Mr. Lucas knows the near-universal hatred of Jar-Jar and is massively trolling us all. He knows his prequels were widely despised, he knows his decisions to continuously tweak his original movies to meet his current sensibilities (Han shot first!) have been dismissed as hackery, and he knows that many if not most of the people who love the movies now realize how heavily others influenced the story he's claimed was solely his vision. So why not say you would be Jar-Jar, in order to cause all of these people to Force-choke themselves into unconsciousness in their own rage?

On the other hand, Jar-Jar Binks is an unavoidable aspect of the Star Wars universe. Yes, his presence is a painful reminder of the series' worst moments. Yes, he is deeply intertwined with memories of painfully bad dialogue ("Hold me, Ani!") and bad acting (Hayden Christensen). Yes, we cannot see him without remembering the eruptions of wish-fulfillment hackery that dominate the prequel movies (midichlorians, the pod race, Trade Federations, Darth Maul, Jango Fett...) But we can't truly be rid of him or completely divorce him from the story we have in front of us.

So in a real sense, George Lucas is already Jar-Jar Binks. And he always will be.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Thirty Years of Messy Fun

On November 18, 1985, a young man was about to discover the success of his tuna-fish baited tiger trap: