Sequels Part Two: The Matrix (Matrices?)

Remember the anticipation of the second and third Matrix movies? People seemed to love the first one and expected to like the rest of them just as well. As with many sequels, that did not happen. Nate’s comments are a pretty good example.

Why didn’t they work?

Before I answer, I should mention that I had much lower expectations for them than most people. What people seemed to love about the first one was the mixture of philosophy, the discovery of the world, the anime/kungfu style of action, and the sheer coolness of the look of the movie (the old west style black leather costumes). The combination impressed people.

I was not as impressed. Having watched various forms of anime and kungfu films, that style wasn’t new to me. Owing to the fact that I’d read a largish chunk of the writings from the cyberpunk movement (and run a cyberpunk-based role-playing campaign), the combination of black leather, virtual reality, and martial arts action didn’t seem new to me either. Finally, as someone who’d been a religion major (with a strong intrest in medieval theology/philosophy), the philosophical aspects didn’t seem particularly deep (Plato anyone? Or Indian philosophy’s concept of Maya?) and the “Neo as messiah” theme felt kind of tired.

Worse, as someone who’s spent time in writing workshops, I found the idea that machines would use humans as power generating devices a gigantic plot hole. Scott Kurtz phrased the same idea in a much funnier way just a few months later.

From what I just wrote you might think that I didn’t like it. You’d be wrong. I enjoyed it. Its just that I would have enjoyed it a lot more when all the ideas were new to me–10 years earlier as a Hope College sophmore.

Nonetheless, when you remove all of the cool ideas from the mix, all you’ve got left is a reasonably well done science fiction action movie.

With a massive plot hole.

My observations of the second and third movies go as follows:

Matrix Reloaded: Not bad. Certain scenes seemed unnecessarily long (the burly brawl, the car chase, the Zion orgy) or just plain unnecessary (the bit where the Oracle’s protector tested Neo by fighting him). By the time Neo ended up unconscious with Bane (possessed by Agent Smith) lying unconscious next to him, I realized that I was supposed to care about this, but I didn’t.

Matrix Revolutions: Ok. No worse than any of the others. Some clunky dialogue. Some plot holes (Zion should have EMP devices everywhere…). Some scenes that went on too long (Trinity’s death). Some bravery on the part of the writers–they did kill off two popular characters. If they’d humanized them a bit more, it might have been moving. One plot criticism: Having Agent Smith’s death as the climax of the movie felt a bit off to me. Smith taking over the Matrix didn’t seem like the main tension in the series. Zion’s destruction was also pretty low on my list of anxieties. I felt more tension about the machines holding humanity captive in an illusion of reality.

Miind you, the way the series ended is perfectly consistent with the “coexistence and co-dependence” theme that entered in the second movie. So, it did at least wholistically fit together.

How could that not work?

My general belief is that if you want a sequel to work, you shouldn’t have it be a sequel. It should be a continuation of the story, planned as part of the story from the very beginning.

The Matrix’ sequels greatly test my beliefs. My theory as to why it didn’t quite work goes like this:

1. If you found the setting and ideas new in the first movie, you will not find them new in the second movie. The first third of a science fiction or fantasy novel is generally spent introducing the world. After that, the world is background and you need good (enough) characters and plot to pull things off. All three Matrix movies had rough spots in these areas.

2. A four year gap between the first movie and the other two. This allowed the first movie to become more than the first third of a story. It was an entire story. We, the movie going public, were expecting something that fullfilled the themes of the first movie, not something that simply included the first movie, changed some assumptions and went merrily onward. Agent Smith’s metamorphosis from agent of the Matrix to common enemy of both human and computer potentially works in the second situation.

3. Finally, I blame the clunky dialogue, bad pacing of some scenes, and the somewhat “unfullfilled and unresolved” feeling I had upon watching the last two on one thing: process.

By that, I mean the process of making the last two movies. During the first movie all they had to worry about was making the first movie (which is quite a lot). The second two movies were shot together with the video game. A collection of short Matrix animations was created around the same time. Actors were involved in both the video game and the movies. So were the directors/writers.

Even over the course of 4 years, that would be a lot to keep track of.

I’d argue that when you’ve got that much going on, you’re going to have a lot less time to edit, reflect and, if necessary, reshoot and revise. I suspect that a lot of details get dropped when a project gets that big.

Unfortunately, details are also what makes a work of art feel right. Fail to pay attention and feel your audience’s wrath.

While certain problems would remain, I suspect that if the Wachowski brothers had concentrated on making 2 movies, we’d all be much more satisfied with the Matrix today.

International Wedding Absurdities

Before the destruction of the World Trade Center Canadians and US citizens could freely cross the border without much bother. After 9/11, the US stopped allowing Canadians special treatment. In response, Canada stopped allowing US citizens special treatment.

What does that have to do with my life? On Saturday night, one of Kristen’s friends married a nice guy who happens to be Canadian. Owing to the sheer hassle, only 5 members of his family could attend the wedding–his parents and an uncle, aunt and cousin.

Wierder yet, the wedding only took place due to bureaucratic changes in the visa program.

Originally they’d been planning to marry in April. Unfortunately, the visa they applied for had been changed. The Canadian government now only allows same sex couples to get married while using that visa.

So they got married yesterday (in a bit of a rush) and have applied for the other available visa. This one allows spousal visits. This should allow the reception in April to work out–assuming the Canadian government believes that they really got married. They were told to take a lot of pictures (from every possible angle) to show that they weren’t faking it for immigration purposes.

They passed out disposable cameras to the crowd to ensure that they had enough proof. Hopefully the constant glare of camera flashes doesn’t damage to the eye. If it did, they should be blind by now.

Amusingly, they might have been able to use the same sex marriage visa after all. Apparently Kristen’s friend has 2 birth certificates. One of them, (owing to bureacratic error) shows her to be male.

Twisted, eh?

Dean’s Scream

Mid-afternoon yesterday my daughter Rebecca (age 19 months) said something that we hadn’t anticipated. Kristen and I were talking about Dean’s much repeated speech to his volunteers. The one that included the yelp heard round the world (I heard it on the BBC about an hour after hearing it on NPR).

In particular we were talking about dance mixes of the speech, sometimes quoting it and laughing. “…And Michigan,” we said. “And then we’re going to Washington D.C. to take back the Whitehouse!” we said.

“Yeagh!” we said.

“Yeagh!’ Rebecca said.

It was then that I decided the media was probably paying too much attention to this.

Saturday Grocery Shopping

Once upon a time, before the arrival of children in my life, Saturday was restful.

Now, Saturday is the day of working on all the things that didn’t get done during the week, but definitely must be done (grocery shopping, for example). Bringing children grocery shopping takes forever. Leaving 2 toddlers with one parent while you go off grocery shopping is unfair to the other parent as 2 to 3 year olds are well… active. And have no concern for life and limb. Or whether they will break things.

So we go together. We strap them in the cart like criminals and push around the grocery store. We might or might not get lattes from the Starbucks inside the store (which has the unpleasant side effect of making any kid that does get loose harder to control).

In the end, it takes something like 3 hours: One for trying to figure out what’s on the grocery list/trying to get kids ready to go, some 40 minutes for traveling to/from the store, and finally about 80 minutes inside store.

The 80 minutes inside includes the actual task of getting groceries, plus controlling children, plus time for running back to get items that you forgot because you were attempting to control children.

I am amazed we get back from the store at all.

Howard Dean’s “I have a Scream” speech

In the end, all I can say is “huh.”

On Monday I listened to the Iowa caucus results. I was amused to listen to the original as NPR played (I assume) live coverage. I thought it was odd that he gave a little bit of a yelp after giving a fairly standard rally the troops sort of speech.

Listening to NPR’s “All Things Considered” later, I discovered that the yelp is the talk of the net.

When the commentor referred to it as the “I have a Scream” speech, I was slowing for a stop light and might have literally died laughing (or at least plowed into a car) if I were just a bit less careful.

The phrase still makes me giggle.

Anyway, while I’m at it, here’s a remix or two:
Jonathon Barlow’s
James Lilek’s

It would be interesting to know why people care about it at all. Personally I just find it funny and, unlike some, I bear no ill will toward the candidate. I’ve got to admit, however, that I can’t really call myself a supporter.

I’m just an observer for the moment.

Sequels: Part One

Why do sequels seem to almost always suck? I’ll grant you that that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it does seem that way sometimes.

There are sequels that work like the original Star Wars trilogy. Or for that matter, how about the Godfather 2? That was at least as good as the original. Wish the same could be said about Godfather 3, Matrix 2/3, the second Star Wars trilogy and well… almost all sequels.

Problems with sequels are so consistent that I’d wonder why people even bother–except that I already know the answer. Cash. There’s already a market for a sequel to a successful work of art. Plus, artists need to make a living. Even successful ones aren’t making that much (with the exception of the odd multi-millionaire…).

Also, I suspect that the artists as well as the readers want to find out what happens next. When you write a novel, you come to like the characters. I suspect most artists want the chance to fiddle with things a little bit more or didn’t include some really cool stuff the first time around. At least I hope so.

So, having thought about why they’re made… Why do sequels suck?

First, I think that the first time through, both the artist and the reader are discovering the characters and setting for the first time. The excitement is both contagious and almost impossible to keep up. In a sequel the reader will be coming back both for the excitement of discovery and also with nostalgia for the original.

It’s hard to do both. Too little new stuff and you end up with endless rehashing (Gor, anyone?) and too much new stuff and you end up asking, “Where’s the stuff I liked?” I don’t have a great example of the second, but “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” has elements of that problem. Too little of the contrast between Dr. Jones the professor and Indiana Jones the adventurer. Dr. Jones barely appears at all.

Second, in all honesty, no artist can be at the top of their game all the time. If everything comes together, allowing someone to produce something incredible, well, chances are they just aren’t going to be at that level again. People just aren’t that consistent. Circumstances aren’t always right.

Third, stories take place in the most important periods of the characters’ lives. Sequels must either take place in a less important period (probably boring…) or a period even more important than the one before. In science fiction, characters so often:

1. save the world
2. destroy the empire
3. become all powerful

in the first novel/movie, what can they do in the second? Do it again? Change the back story so that it turns out that the hero didn’t really do it and now has to do it for real?

In Dune Messiah, Herbert has the hero lose it all. That worked. Children of Dune continued the story. It worked too, but only (I suspect) because all three of those books were planned to be one story from the beginning. It just grew too large to fit in one book. In short, it worked because it wasn’t really a sequel. Just a continuation.

The next four books after that (the fourth exists only in notes) were still good, but didn’t appeal to me as much as the originals. I suspect that there was too much new stuff and too little of what was cool about the original Dune to make me entirely happy.

That being said, I still enjoyed them overall.

From what I understand however, the Herbert’s son’s prequels are beneath contempt. I must admit that just flipping through the pages in bookstores has scared me away from them.

In any case, when sequels work well it seems that they often do exactly what Herbert did in the first three Dune novels, what Lucas did with the first Star Wars trilogy, and what Tolkein did in Lord of the Rings–tell a story too big for one novel or movie.

Some sequels/series I hope to hit in thinking about this topic are Zelazny’s Amber series, the Matrix, Star Wars, and most likely, the Lord of the Rings movies. Look forward to it. Or not.

Filesharing

The state of things on the distributed computing front goes like this:

The project of the team that I’m on will definitely be a file sharing program. I’m going to mostly be in charge of the gui and Casey will primarily be in charge of the actual sharing part of the code. We’re both still talking about the general architecture of the filesharing network.

The goal is to make it work without a centralized server. One way to do this is to use multicasting. Multicasting, at its most basic and least technical, amounts to sending everyone in a group. Basically, the clients would announce themselves via multicasting and continually add to the list of possible clients by saving the IP addresses announced via multicast.

To query, they would send a request using udp to everyone on their list. And then only the people with something that fit the query would respond.

This has obvious scalability problems, but should be workable for the scope of this project.

Pancakes

I made pancakes this morning. Now the whole house simply reeks of pancakes. I wouldn’t have expected the smell of oil, flour and heated griddle to permeate the entire house.

Somewhere in here there’s an entry about physics and the sense of smell, but I’m not the person to write it. Alas.

Linux Usability

In December, I was finally introduced to the wonderful world of desktop Linux.

As someone who does technical support for some 20 users, manages 3 servers (1 Freebsd, 2 Windows 2000), and does a bit of web/database programming, I am used to troubleshooting computer problems. This is a good thing because your average Linux desktop has plenty of problems to troubleshoot.

What is not a good thing is that they are more usability problems than technical problems.

Here’s what I mean. My current laundry list of things to fix goes as follows:
1. Make my thumb drive work with Linux (this looks easy, I just haven’t had time)
2. Make my wacom tablet work with Linux (multi-step process, but at least I’ve bookmarked the necesary pages)
3. Make my sound card work (must learn more about ALSA, will probably have to recompile kernel or something. I dread this)
4. Mess around with the unholy trinity of apache/mysql/php a bit more (all of these work, but I’m still configuring certain details…)

Where is the usability problem in this list? Scattered throughout.

Mounting
All I it looks like I have to do is load a kernel module and mount the thumb drive for it to work. I will have to mount the thumb drive every time. Just like I do every time I put a cdrom in.

This irks me. The whole point of USB (at least to my mind) is that it’s a transparent technology. You plug it in and it works. Specifically typing “mount” very seldom offers me options that automatically mounting it wouldn’t. Ninety-nine percent of the time I only want to do one thing–access the drive.

Heck, the Amiga back in 1985 automatically detected a floppy placed into it’s drive. OS X, the BSD based Apple operating system does the same today. Why hasn’t someone done the same for Linux?

Kernel Modules
If people really want Linux to be a contender for the desktop market, they will have to either

1. come up with a very usable gui for kernel configuration,
2. enable the most commonly used modules by default, or
3. figure out some way for Linux to automatically add new modules when needed.

Possibly all three–though I’ve got to admit that option 3 makes me nervous. In any case, kernel configuration is not something that your average user needs or wants to know–but if they want to use all too many devices (some sound cards for example) they have no choice.

Documentation
Man pages suck. Other documentation is not much better. In the process of installing some things related to mysql and php, I was given the option of adding certain lines to the configuration files for apache/mysql/php. I was never told why I should or shouldn’t add those lines. In some cases, I already knew I needed them and happily allowed the installer to add them for me. I’m still tracking down the reason for or against adding certain lines.

The Funny Thing
Despite the annoying problems I’ve just outlined, GNOME/KDE do seem to have moved past the “usable only by geeks” stage. My wife (a social worker) can happily use the Linux box for almost everything she uses a computer for.

At least until she wants to put a cdrom in and listen to music.

Snow

Living in Michigan, you don’t automatically get constant snow every day all winter, but sometimes it feels like it.

We’ve probably gotten 10-12 inches in the course of the last 2 weeks. Granted, some 5 of those inches melted into slush (and now ice) last Sunday/Monday, but that still leaves 6-7 on the ground.

It also means that 6-7 inches are on the driveway.

In past years my tactic for dealing with this problem could be described as “wait for spring.” As a general rule, the driveway would be level with the yard–except for the tire treads from my wife’s car. They’d be about 2 inches thick of a densely packed ice/snow mixture not unlike a glacier–well, at any rate not unlike a small, hard, unmoving glacier.

This year, with the newly found responsibility of a parent of two toddlers who want to walk up the driveway, I’ve shoveled every time it snows. I’ve even shoveled the sidewalks (the city doesn’t).

It’s sad how much of a sense of accomplishment I feel.

I feel so good, I may even mow my lawn next summer.