Month: March 2019

Buster Makes Me Feel Good

Last week I watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

I thought it was delightful -- albeit that uniquely Coen Brothers type of "delightful" that involves some truly horrifying and disquieting stuff happening at various points over a two-hour period.

One of the things I really loved about it was its format: it's an anthology movie, made up of six stories, each running around 15-30 minutes.

I wrote a blog post years ago titled Form and Function where I discussed how the Internet could, hopefully, eliminate some of the rigid page-count and running-time requirements we're used to in print media and on TV. Buster Scruggs doesn't do that itself -- it's a two-hour movie -- but it's a roadmap for how a TV series could do that.

I saw reports, on the film's release, that it was originally planned as an episodic series. That's not actually the case; Josh Rottenberg asked the Coens about that story in an LA Times interview and Joel said it was always intended as a movie. But the rumor about it being a TV series is believable. You could certainly watch the movie that way, switch it off at the end of each story and come back and watch the next one some other time -- the only thing stopping you is that boy, some of those segments are grim, and the Coens have wisely arranged them so that the nastiest stories are followed by something with a little more levity.

There's no reason you couldn't make a TV series where each episode resembled one of Buster Scruggs's stories -- do a fifteen-minute episode, do a thirty-minute episode, do whatever length the story calls for. Traditional TV requires that your story be told in a half-hour or an hour, minus commercials, but there's no such restriction to online streaming (and even basic cable has been tooling around with episodes that have some variation in their lengths, like Noah Hawley's Legion or Fargo -- say, there's another one that comes right back to Ethan and Joel).

Mostly I see this resulting in longer episodes -- maybe a show goes a full hour instead of forty-five minutes, or a full half-hour instead of twenty-two. But why not shorter? Why not fifteen minutes? Why not fifteen minutes one episode and thirty the next?

The new Twilight Zone series would be perfect for a format like that, but I suspect they'll be keeping it around the half-hour mark. Still, it feels like somebody is bound to start playing with the scripted TV format with episodes of wildly varying lengths, and the recent resurgence of anthology-style shows seems like a good place to do it.

Glaivin'

I don't play many new games anymore. I played Spider-Man because it came with my PS4, but since I finished it I've switched to something a couple years older: Final Fantasy 15.

I haven't been playing it long, just...*looks at save file*...Jesus, twelve hours? Anyway, I'm on Chapter 3. And so far I'm really enjoying it.

I dig the setting. Final Fantasy has been doing this "let's juxtapose fantasy with a quasi-modern world" routine since 7, and it's a lot more fully-realized here than it was then. Still not perfect -- city planning does not work that way, guys; you don't pass the limits of a major city and immediately find yourself off in a big empty desert with only an occasional gas station; the transition tends to be more gradual than that -- but still, the dissonance is a lot less glaring than FF7's transition from Midgar to a big empty overworld.

Actually, to a large extent, the dissonance is what I like about it. Taking things that shouldn't go together and then mooshing them together. This is a game that starts off with...well, I can't seem to get the intro to embed (I suspect a music rights thing), but if you haven't seen it, check it out on YouTube.

As I was saying: This is a game that starts out with a barrage of fantasy tropes -- the king in his castle saying farewell to his son, who's leaving to marry a princess to secure peace with the Empire -- and then cuts to the party pushing a broken-down car while Stand By Me plays. It is instantly one of my favorite video game openings ever.

The game doesn't retain quite that level of quality throughout. But even where it falls short, I like it, at least so far. I like ambitious failures. Here's how Brent described it:

As long as you keep the "FF15 has been in development for 10 years" fact firmly in mind the whole exercise is interesting from a how-do-you-make-something-mostly-complete-out-of-this aspect.

Did you notice the one part of the game where there was supposed to be a rad as fuck boss but they only got as far as modeling and not rigging the rad as fuck boss so they had you go and take a look at how rad as fuck the boss's model is and everybody comments on how rad as fuck the model looks and then you get a cutscene explaining why you don't need to actually fight the rad as fuck boss and then you just fuck off?

Not gonna lie, I love stuff like that. It's like the best kind of soup, the "if you've got it, just toss it in the pot" kind.

I love stuff like that too.

And you know what else is overambitious about this game? Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15.

Kingsglaive is a movie that occurs before and during the first chapter of FF15. It fleshes out some major plot points -- in a way that's, frankly, kind of ill-conceived, because there's at least one major scene in FF15 that lacks some pretty important context if you haven't seen the movie.

Spoilers for Kingsglaive and the ending of the first chapter of Final Fantasy 15 follow.

At the end of the first chapter of FF15, the kingdom of Lucis falls. And in the game, you don't really have a lot of context about just what the hell is going on. You've never seen the Emperor or General Glauca before, and you're given little context for who they are. Clearly the big spiky guy stabbing the king is a bad guy, but...you're given no other information on who he is or what his deal is, except that the peace agreement was a ruse and Niflheim has sacked Insomnia.

Do you even see the general again? I don't know. He kinda gets incinerated at the end of Kingsglaive, but maybe he gets better. I don't know for sure, but...it kinda looks like the game shows a scary-looking dude murdering the protagonist's father, never explains who he is, and then maybe he never appears again? That's...not great storytelling. That makes Kingsglaive less an ancillary cross-media spinoff and more an essential part of the story that is neither included with the game nor explained by it.

But I'm underselling just how baffling the entire endeavor is.

Because shunting a major, game-changing event off into a spinoff movie isn't the weirdest thing about it. It isn't even the weirdest thing about that scene.

Because the climax of Kingsglaive -- the betrayal at the signing ceremony, the fall of Lucis -- is intercut with Nyx and Lunafreya fighting a giant monster. And not just any giant monster.

Giant Purple Octopus

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15
© 2016 Square Enix

That's Ultros. From Final Fantasy 6. This guy.

ULTROS: Mwa ha ha! Let's see if Maria can shrug THIS off!

Final Fantasy 3
© 1993 Square Enix
Screencap courtesy of Blastinus at Let's Play Archive

The movie cuts back and forth between the fall of Lucis -- guards being stabbed, bombs dropping on the city, the Emperor pulling a gun on the King -- and the octopus who tried to drop a 4-ton weight on an opera.

It is insanely, spectacularly wrong, and it is absolutely hands-down my favorite scene in the movie.

How did this happen? What was the thought process here? "Newcomers to Final Fantasy will just see a generic monster. But longtime fans will be wracked with the giggles!"

Obviously Final Fantasy is self-referential as all hell, and some of that was to be expected. But there's a pretty big difference between, say, playing the main Final Fantasy theme as background music early in the movie, and introducing Ultros during the climax.

But there's also something quintessentially Final Fantasy about it. This series is chock-full of sudden and inexplicable tonal shifts. I've talked about this before, back in my Final Fantasy 7 and Iconic Images post in 2011: FF7 goes from Barret's somber battle to the death with Dyne straight to chocobo racing. Bombs dropping while the heroes fight a tonally-inappropriate Easter egg? Just like the games!

And something that weird and singular saves the movie from being boring.

Because Kingsglaive is boring. It's very pretty; as a two-hour tech demo, it definitely demos the tech. But the characters are thinly-sketched, the villains' motivations and the plot twists don't make a whole lot of sense, and the climax feels like a Godzilla movie without the fun or the charm. It feels like the movie is focused entirely on showing really cool locations, monsters, and fights. It does that. But not much else.

In its own way, the Ultros fight is one more of those striking juxtapositions I like so much. Final Fantasy 15 starts out with high fantasy tropes and then immediately swerves into being a road trip movie. And Kingsglaive intercuts the serious and the silly. It doesn't really work, exactly, but I still love it.

There's an old Simpsons line where Marge tells Homer she doesn't hate him for failing, she loves him for trying. Whatever FF15's faults -- and I'm sure I'll find more of them as I get farther in the game -- they seem to be the result of overambition. And you know what? That's a good kind of failure. An interesting kind. Square Enix tried some things nobody else had ever done here. In some cases, at least, it turns out that there's a good reason nobody else has done those things. But if you're going to mess up, at least find a new and interesting and, perhaps, spectacular way to do it.

Bones About It

Last week, the Hollywood Reporter Hollywood reported on a $179 million ruling against Fox for underpaying the creators and stars of Bones.

There's a lot of typical self-dealing stuff here -- Fox the studio selling the show to Fox the TV network, insisting it was for a fair market value, but being unable to produce evidence that it actually did due diligence in determining what a fair market value was. But on top of that there are some more egregious examples of fraud. In one instance, when Fox sold the streaming rights to Hulu, which it owns a 30% stake in, the same executive signed the contract as both seller and buyer.

And here's one particularly jaw-dropping grift:

During the show’s run, Bones' profit participants were continually rebuffed in their attempts to argue for more money. [Executive producers Barry] Josephson and [Kathy] Reichs signed releases barring them from challenging license fees for the fifth and sixth seasons upon Fox's word that unless everyone signed these releases, Bones would be canceled. According to [21st Century Fox president Peter] Rice, though, Fox already had committed contractually to keep the show on the air and knew that [stars David] Boreanaz and [Emily] Deschanel would never sign such a release. Nevertheless, Fox kept up the impression the stars would sign, even going so far as to include blank signature spaces for the actors in the releases sent to the producers.

Studios do this sort of Hollywood accounting all the time. And they get away with it, because most creators -- actors, directors, producers, etc. -- choose not to sue. Most don't have the money, and of the ones who do, many don't want to run the risk of pissing off the studios.

This suit was decided in a private arbitration court, so it doesn't set any legal precedent. But it does show everybody that the talent can sue the studio and win -- and I expect that will mean more suits like this.

Unfortunately, I don't expect it will cause the studios to change their behavior. One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, John Berlinski, says, "What we have exposed in this case is going to profoundly change the way Hollywood does business for many years to come." I'm more inclined to agree with arbitrator Peter Lichtman's more cynical opinion:

Slamming the company with a punishment that includes $128 million in punitive damages -- or five times the amount of compensatory damages -- Lichtman points out that the award is 0.6 percent of 21st Century Fox's stipulated net worth.

He muses whether it's really enough.

"In fact, one could question whether a five to one ratio given Fox's financial condition and lack of contrition serves to deter the wrongful conduct at issue here, or whether it will be considered part of the cost of doing business," writes the arbitrator.

I think he's right. This won't make the studios stop ripping off the talent; it will merely mean that the studios will continue ripping off the talent while pricing in the risk of the occasional lawsuit.

Meanwhile, there's another Hollywood accounting lawsuit I've been keeping one eye on: Century of Progress Productions v. Vivendi S.A. et al, more popularly known as the Spinal Tap suit.

In 2016, Harry Shearer sued Vivendi over profits on merchandise and music sales from This Is Spinal Tap. From the filing:

... according to Vivendi, the four creators’ share of total worldwide merchandising income between 1984 and 2006 was $81 (eighty-one) dollars. Between 1989 and 2006 total income from music sales was $98 (ninety-eight) dollars. Over the past two years, Vivendi has failed to provide accounting statements at all.

The other three creators, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Rob Reiner, have since joined the suit. There don't appear to be any updates since August 2018, but the litigation is still ongoing.

Century of Progress could be the suit that finally sets some legal precedents regarding Hollywood accounting. Other artists who have filed suits like this have either wound up in private arbitration, as in the Bones case, or agreed to settle. This is different. Shearer, Guest, McKean, and Reiner don't want to settle. They don't need the money. They're in it to set a legal precedent to make it harder for studios to rip off their artists.

I look forward to hearing more from that case.

Year of the GNU/Linux Smartphone?

I don't much care for Apple's phone ecosystem or Google's.

I've got an old Nexus 5, and it's running LineageOS, an alternative version of Android that doesn't include proprietary Google code. Wherever possible, I use open-source software from F-Droid; where I still need the occasional proprietary app, I use Amazon's app store or Yalp Store, a program which can pull binaries from the Play Store without requiring the Play Store to be installed.

It works pretty well, for the most part, but my phone's showing its age. It doesn't support LineageOS 15, and the regular updates to 14 have slowed to monthly security patches. On top of that, I recently had an issue with the power button and had to take it in for repairs.

But I don't want to get a new Android phone. The reason I fixed my Nexus 5 instead of replacing it is that there are some alternatives coming later this year that are neither Android nor iOS, and I want to wait and see what happens with those.

Before I go any farther, I'm going to get into a note about nomenclature.

There's an operating system that most people call Linux. More precisely, it uses a kernel called Linux and a collection of userland programs called GNU. The makers of GNU ask that people call the operating system GNU/Linux; here are a few links that explain their reasoning:

GNU founder Richard Stallman's reasons for calling the OS "GNU/Linux" are primarily ideological, but there is a practical reason to call it that, too: Google has released two operating systems that use the Linux kernel but not the GNU userland. Those operating systems are Android and ChromeOS.

So if I say "a Linux phone," that includes Android. But if I say "a GNU/Linux phone," I'm explicitly talking about a phone that doesn't run Android.

With that explanation out of the way, I want to talk about GNU/Linux phones.

The most mature GNU/Linux phone OS is Sailfish, a descendant of Nokia and Intel's now-defunct MeeGo developed by a Finnish company called Jolla. I've looked into Sailfish OS, but its device support is very limited, and the OS has proprietary components. Given that I'm trying to get away from proprietary software as much as I can, I don't see Sailfish as an improvement over LineageOS.

There's also Ubuntu Touch. While Ubuntu parent Canonical is no longer developing Ubuntu Touch, a community called UBports has continued development.

I tried Ubuntu Touch on my Nexus 5 back in 2017. I was impressed by how mature it was and how much I could do with it -- but I couldn't get it to work with Sprint service. I posted a help request on the forums; nobody ever responded. It's been some time and it's possible that whatever issue I was having does not exist in the current version -- but I'm not in a hurry to try again.

I did recently buy a OnePlus One which I'm testing UT out on, and it's really coming along. There are definitely some pain points (the keyboard is terrible), but if I had to use it as a daily driver, I could. Provided I could get it to work with my wireless network.

Course, if I want Ubuntu Touch to get better, that's something I can help out with myself. It's an open-source project, and I'm a computer programmer. I can contribute code myself, and the only thing stopping me from doing it is sitting down and taking the time to do it. I gotta figure at least some of the keyboard design problems are things I could figure out how to fix.

But there are other alternatives besides Ubuntu Touch, too.

postmarketOS is a phone OS based on Alpine Linux and Plasma Mobile. It looks promising, but it's still in alpha; a Nexus 5 running postmarketOS can make phone calls, but the audio doesn't work.

But perhaps most interestingly, there are phones coming out later this year that will run GNU/Linux distros out of the box.

The Purism Librem 5 is an upcoming GNU/Linux phone focused on free/open-source software, privacy, and security; it's built on PureOS, which uses the GNOME desktop environment, but also plans to support Plasma and Ubuntu Touch. It's currently scheduled for release in Q3 2019, though it's been delayed twice already, so that date could slip again.

The biggest barrier is the price. Freedom, as they say, isn't free; the Librem 5 doesn't have the most impressive specs, but it costs $650 for a preorder and will cost $700 after launch. And I'm sure not going to preorder a phone with an untested operating system before any of the reviews are in.

While I greatly appreciate what Purism is doing, $700 is a lot to ask.

That's why I'm more interested in the PinePhone, another forthcoming GNU/Linux phone (this one based on Plasma) expected to sell for $150.

For that price, I don't expect a high-end phone. PINE64 makes low-end single-board computers; think Raspberry Pi -- so I expect this will be pretty close to a Raspberry Pi with a screen attached to it. And for $150, I don't expect it to be a particularly good screen.

But for that price, it's sure tempting to try it out; I'm not expecting a great phone, but I'd be very impressed if it's even an adequate phone. I'll be keeping an eye on this one.

There are a few other entrants here. Necunos Solutions has a mobile device coming that's based on GNU/Linux and Plasma Mobile -- but I wouldn't call it a phone, because it doesn't have a cellular modem. At 1200 euros, it seems more like an expensive boondoggle than a real contender -- but every open-source project helps upstream, and at minimum, the Necunos Mobile should contribute some useful code that other projects can use.

There's also last year's Gemini, an oldschool-style clamshell phone with a full hardware keyboard that's designed for Android but also supports a GNU/Linux dualboot. That said, it looks like it's still pretty early days for GNU/Linux support, and Xfce and LXQT sure don't look like desktops I want to use with a touchscreen.

Ultimately, I think this is a pretty exciting time. With the Librem 5 and the PinePhone hopefully coming this year, UBports getting better all the time, and postmarketOS, er, approaching the point where you should be able to make a phone call and hear the person on the other end, I'm hoping this may be the year that GNU/Linux becomes usable as a daily driver. Not for end users; it's certainly not going to be as fully-featured or easy-to-use as desktop Linux has become (my grandpa uses Linux Mint). But for the sort of power users who were running GNU/Linux on their desktop 15 or 20 years ago. Guys like me.

Fingers crossed. Especially for the PinePhone. Hope my Nexus 5 holds out until then.

Hey, This Stephen King Guy is Pretty Good

I made it to my mid-thirties without ever reading a Stephen King book.

It wasn't some kind of hipster thing; I wasn't consciously avoiding him because he's popular. And it wasn't that I don't generally read horror novels, either, because of course he's got plenty of output in other genres. No, I just never got around to it, even though I've enjoyed movie adaptations of his work for years.

I read On Writing a year or two back, and a few months back I picked up the first three Dark Tower books at Bookmans and I've been working through those. And you know what? I think this guy's pretty good.

He's certainly got a gift for storytelling. And for words. And symbolism, and character, and he's got a real sense for how to juxtapose images in interesting ways. I've never read Ready Player One, or seen the movie, but from what I've read about it I have the impression that Ernest Cline was trying to mix together familiar iconography in the kind of evocative way that King does in Dark Tower, but simply doesn't have King's chops.

But more than anything, I think the reason King's so damn appealing and resonates with so many people is that it's so obvious he's having fun.

Mark Evanier told a story about Harlan Ellison shouting, "I have just written the greatest fuckin' sentence I have ever written!" before running out his front door and dancing naked on his front porch. Evanier mused that this was why Ellison's writing was so good: because he was the sort of person who was so enthusiastic about what he was writing that he'd dance naked on his front porch, and because that enthusiasm was clear in the final product.

I'm not aware of Stephen King ever dancing naked on his front porch. But he's got the same kind of enthusiasm for his work that Ellison did, and it's infectious.

The first three Dark Tower books are all I've got. I finished those and I'm going to take a break from the series before I pick up the rest. I've got plenty else to read -- I just started Good Omens, and I'm also chest-deep into a Valiant Comics bundle, which I'll probably have a lot to say about when I get to the end of it. But I'm glad I finally took the time to read some King. The guy's good, and his popularity is well-earned.

Better Use

Well would you look at that: I've managed a blog post every day for a 5-day week. Even if two of those were written in January.

I don't know what the future may bring, but I'm going to try and do this more often.

I don't know if blogging is a constructive use of my time, but at least it's an enjoyable one. I spend too much time doing shit I don't enjoy.

Obviously in life there are a lot of things you have to do that aren't enjoyable. Paying bills, buying groceries, cleaning up dogshit -- and wouldn't you know it, it's tax season.

But I spend too much time doing things I don't enjoy and don't have to do. For example, I spend way too much time talking to fools and trolls in comments sections.

Yeah, I've discussed this before. See also Somewhere Productive.

I like Techdirt. I like Ars Technica. I like most of the people who post there; they're smart and insightful. But the folks who aren't smart or insightful sure can drag a conversation down.

So I'm going to try, once again, to spend less time talking to them and more time blogging.

What to post about? That's the rub. Gotta prime the pump, find something to get me started. Sometimes I'll start in on something like the Spider-Man game and find I've got two posts out of it. Sometimes I'll try and force it and...wind up with a navel-gazing, blogging-about-blogging post like this one. I don't like these posts very much, but I guess they can't all be winners.

Besides blogging? I'd like to start writing books again. I've got at least three more Old Tom stories bouncing around my noggin, as well as ideas for a series about a programmer who gains psychic powers from an alien brain parasite, a law firm that deals in the supernatural (hopefully something that feels original and not too similar to the late Batton Lash's Supernatural Law), a take on the Narnia-style "children transported to a fantasy world" genre where the kids come back as traumatized adults...plus I'm about halfway through a book-length version of my Tempin' Ain't Easy blog post from 2012, but I may have to start that over, because after awhile it became clear that the format doesn't fit a book as well as it fit a blog post.

What else? Well, there are certainly some interesting open-source projects out there, and I sometimes think hey, I could help out by contributing to this. Something for me to think about.

At any rate, we'll see how long I can keep up my blogging streak. I've got at least two more that are just about ready to go for next week.