Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Are We Having Fun Yet?

The last few weeks have been rough. Not so much in terms of work, although I have been getting less sleep than I need and haven't been writing and, having finished the Temeraire series, also not reading. Mostly, I've been finding myself staying up late doing work alone and being correspondingly miserable. Around the middle of last week I realized that the lack of contact with people who give a damn about me when I'm not useful was driving me stir-crazy and I set up various social engagements for the weekend: Skyping with a friend who is abroad, making dinner with the people I was closest with in freshman year, lunch at home on Memorial Day.


3005 - Childish Gambino

The concept of delayed gratification has been hugely important in how I live my life. Although I've gradually become more relaxed about work, I still prefer to left-justify i.e. start things as soon as possible and give myself plenty of time to finish the work I need to do. Friday nights are not always the most productive, but I do try to get at least some low-level assignments done before the weekend properly starts.

Friday evening I ran into a friend with whom I haven't really talked in a while as we walking by the lake, coincidentally within earshot of the frat parties that were just getting started. Both of us could fairly be called workaholics, and we discussed our growing feelings of disillusionment, futility, etc. That is to say, we asked ourselves and one another: why are we working so hard? We're doing fine. If we put in less effort we'd still get decent grades, and employers don't actually care that much. We'd both like to go to grad school at some point, but still--we could be firing on fewer cylinders and still get where we want to go. Between us we'd been to maybe 10 parties in college, ever. Who has time for that?

This year, I took four engineering classes in both fall and winter. Next year, I need four classes total to finish my major. I had reasons for this and I'm glad I did it this way because now I have lots of time to put into staffing and extracurriculars, but even though I'm feeling content now, there have been many moments of misery, exhaustion, and emptiness of the soul in the past year. Nothing really bad has happened in my life: all my sadness has stemmed from working to exhaustion and working to the exclusion of doing things that make me happy. Also politics, but that's a different story.

Since the end of winter quarter I've been sorting through ideas of work-life balance and how to be happy while working hard. I call myself, and other people call me, a workaholic--and yes, that's somewhat self-congratulatory--but what happens is that during breaks, I crash, do nothing but sleep and eat and read, and frequently get up after noon. That's not sustainable.

On the other hand--I keep coming back to what I want to say to my residents. What is the takeaway? Because, after all the angst and Angst I had early in my undergrad career over whether or not I'd ever become the person I want to be, I am on my way there. I was terrified of turning out to be not as smart as people think I am, and while impostor syndrome is probably chronic, I am proud of my work and do know some things. Would I be as confident in my abilities if I had bsed my way through my undergrad classes?

I have a hard time being content with "good enough," although I'm working on my perfectionist tendencies. But something I do get is the idea of opportunity cost, and sometimes the extra hour spent working an assignment over one more time just isn't worth it.

Realistically, I am not going to chill. The past two quarters were the most academically challenging I've had and I got through them, so I don't see myself lowering my academic standards. On the other hand, I have a lot more flexibility next year so I may just take an easier course load. There's more to life than school, and a whole lot of life has passed me by while I've been inside hitting the books.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Film Reviews

This past week was probably the most exhausting one of the quarter so far. What am I thinking about? I hardly know. I don't want to be overdramatic because it's really not that bad, last quarter there were much worse weeks, but my energy levels are low and I can't wait for this year to end.


Alright - Kendrick Lamar

At the beginning of Winter Quarter I had intended to write a post about the films that I'd seen since Thanksgiving. Work on my current project is going slowly, and thinking in stories will help. So here are the much-belated film reviews, including for ones I've seen since then. There will be spoilers.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Characters: I liked the main characters. My favorites were Jacob and Tina, because of course my favorites would be the friendly comic relief guy and the awkward but competent career woman. I didn't connect much with the character of Queenie but I enjoyed her interactions with the other characters. Call me boring but I am a fan of kind, sweet character dynamics. Each character's character design seemed to fit their personality well, except Grindelwald. The treatment of black characters in the film was decidedly underwhelming. Having the president of MACUSA be a black woman but also giving her a very flat character and including pretty much no other minorities with speaking roles? It felt a lot like they were fishing for diversity points--"look, we have a black woman in a position of power! We're not racist!"--without actually giving a damn about representation.

Tone and Pacing: Mood whiplash everywhere. There was no sense of harmony between the light-hearted "Newt goes to America!" scenes and the very heavy, dark plot with Credence and his abuse and manipulation at the hands of various adults. The two started alternating early on, true, but without much of a sense of rhythm.

Plot: I did not like the way the Credence plot was resolved because to me, it wasn't actually resolved. The immediate threat was destroyed, yes, but that immediate threat was an abused kid who had been built up as redeemable. What was the point of building up Newt and his crew as good, nice, decent people if that goodness and decency wasn't going to brought in in the big, obvious, plot-relevant way? There was no emotional resolution.

Worldbuilding: the Harry Potter franchise has always been really good at convincing me of their plausibility. The atmosphere of the film was entirely believable. Although I'm no expert in 20th-century New York, it certainly felt like a real place. I appreciate that, in a film.

Takeaways: balance, harmonize. Let characters use their strengths (e.g. if your main character is a super nice, easy-going guy who earns the trust of all sorts of wild and aggressive animals, let him win when he tries to get through to a scared and angry kid). Characters don't have to be evil to be interesting, complex, and cool. Tokenism doesn't effectively meet the need for diverse representation.

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Coraline

One of my favorite books, although I think this is the first time I'd watched the film.

Comparisons to the book: one of the most noticeable changes was the inclusion of the character of Wybie. Not entirely sure why they did that, but at a guess, if it was just Coraline alone, with no one but the cat to help her out, the atmosphere may not have been able to be as fun as it was. And although it is a creepy and dark story, the film did also have a lot of humor. Adding in some friendly banter with the neighbor kid helped keep it from getting too dark. It's been a few months so I don't remember everything that Wybie did or said, but he could also be a source of information that would otherwise be awkward to convey.

The visual medium of film definitely worked well with this story. Distorted secondary characters, the use or absence of color, etc.

Suburban fantasy is one of my favorite genres, mostly because the underlying message is that you, as you are, can go on an adventure. The world may seem mundane but there's something else, something you're not seeing yet--but you could.

The Other Mother is one of the scariest villains I've encountered. The spiderlike design of her "final form" in the movie really drove home her status as an inhuman being that sits in wait and lures in her prey. In my stories I prefer not to have eldritch things that cannot be reasoned with, but it's good for a creeping sense of implacable horror.

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Before the Flood

Leonardo di Caprio's latest environmentalist film. Fun fact: I am two degrees of separation away from him.

My favorite part of the movie was when he was interviewing a community leader in India, a woman who told him that Americans had to change, that it was hypocritical to assume that Americans couldn't change and that all the progress had to come from the developing world. American society is not static: car and home ownership rates are dropping among young people, probably because we have no money, but also, doesn't that make it a prime time to put in place new ways of living and moving?

The economics of renewable energy always get me hyped because solar and wind are cheap, they are crazy cheap now. Natural gas is killing coal. Am I a coastal elite who isn't thinking hard enough about what impoverished coal miners will do now? Quite possibly. But renewables can go anywhere, are less dangerous, and had better win if we want to survive.

It's been a while so I don't remember exactly the way the film was structured, but I do remember thinking that the huge majestic aerial shots of various landscapes may not have been the best rhetorical move. The big picture is important. The big picture is crucial. But I don't believe that greater environmental consciousness will take root unless it is made relevant to people's everyday lives. And I don't remember the film doing much with that.

Including the part with the Pope was good, and framing everything with the Garden of Earthly Delights was also good. I was going to compare this to An Inconvenient Truth but now I forget what the main points of difference were.

What happens now that Trump is in office? I'm scared for the EPA, and I'm scared for all of us. The problem is so large that it requires international cooperation, and many levers of power are in the hands of people who do not have the long-term habitability of the planet at heart.

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Moana

I really, really liked this one.

Music: Amazing. Auli'i Cravalho has an incredible voice (also, she's sixteen! That's super impressive). The music was really good at evoking emotion, and the threads of continuity among various songs and reprises was well done.

Characters: Moana is one of my favorite main characters ever. Her character arc was believable and had a solid emotional resonance. Moana's sense of responsibility towards and love for her people sat at the core of her character, so that she was another one of those characters whose moral standing is simply good and whose overall personality and character is still complex. The storyline of "girls in leadership positions going off and doing their own thing" made me want to compare her to Elsa, the big difference being, of course, that Elsa went off on her own to avoid her responsibilities while Moana went to fulfill her heritage. No shade at Elsa, that was a different story.

Non-Moana Characters: Te Ka was a great character and the twist at the end was perfect. I suspected it would happen, given my knowledge of geology, but it was done beautifully. The grandmother was also great and her death scene, with the glowing manta ray, was one of the most visually stunning moments in a film that was overall visually very stunning. I cried.

Themes: I liked the tension between change and tradition, the dissonance and resolution of "who you are" as an individual and "who you are" in relation to your people. Not a narrative that I have worked out for myself, but it was satisfying to watch Moana go through it.

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Rome: Engineering an Empire

A history channel documentary that was less about engineering than about various iconic structures throughout Roman history. It was fun and I liked the part about the Pantheon, but they did not mention Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa even once and gave very lurid accounts of emperors such as Nero.

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Jungle Book (live-action)

Definitely took a darker tone than the animated version. Mowgli was a likable main character, and it was fun to see his various inventions. The panther was my favorite because benevolent cats. Shere Khan was also a favorite because cats. The snake and the orangutan (in this version, a Gigantolopithecus) were both very scary, and their scenes were visually well-composed.

I watched this one more recently than the films listed above, but honestly I don't remember a whole lot about it.

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The Nice Guys and Face Off

Two dumb action movies with lots of shooting and car chases. Watched as part of movie night with my competition team.

I have issues with the way black characters were portrayed in The Nice Guys: namely, as only villainous, and of course they made a comment about the black woman villain's hair.

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Phoenix

Ein deutscher Film. Watched for my German class and wow. Wow.

Characters: the main character, Nelly, was hard to get a grasp on. Her desperation to get her old life back was entirely understandable given what had happened to her, but I also kept cringing at the power imbalance in her interactions with her husband. He was clearly using her, the whole time, and she deserved better.

The friend, Lene, was my favorite character, and I am disgruntled at the writing choices made in relation to her. Supposedly, she commits suicide, but there is no build-up to that previously. It was out-of-character and also lazy writing. They needed to get her out of the picture, but there were so many other and better ways to do it. The Chekhov's gun of her having planned a trip to Poland would have worked perfectly; hell, even have her move to Palestine earlier. I don't mean to imply that people can't commit suicide without showing conspicuous prior signs of it, but her death was unnecessary and also not given enough narrative weight. There was no grieving over her; she just disappeared from the plot. Part of my anger is also because I thought (and apparently the others in my German class also thought) that she was coded as being in love with Nelly, and killing off a queer*-coded character is highly suspect.

*I used this word because I don't know of a more concise way to put it while not losing accuracy. I'm still ambivalent about its use.

The husband, Johnny, was the actual worst--as a personality, that is. As a character? I don't know. We didn't really see enough into his head for me to see him as anything but a villain. I wanted something, Spüren, of his guilt, of any complex feelings he may have had towards his wife and the woman he thought was impersonating her. He was perceptive enough to know how people would react, how they wouldn't want to know about the camps, and that may have shown some hidden depths of mind, although not of conscience. I don't know. I tend to place too much stock into how much I like characters, but the whole time I was thinking that he wasn't worth it.

Music: the last scene of the film involves the song "Speak Low" and left me with chills. Don't watch it if you want to spoil the ending but ach, mein Herz.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung: German movie set right after WWII with a main character who is a survivor of the camps. Okay. I thought it interesting, and respectful, that they didn't show anything from the camps, but rather how Nazism broke and shattered the country and the people. The rubble of the buildings, the busy streets. Even when I was in Berlin, in 2016, you could tell it was a city with scars. That sense of desperation and brokenness was everywhere in the movie.

Something that's sticking in my head is Nelly asking Johnny--"and will people believe it? No one comes out of the camps looking like that--with a red dress, and make-up done, and Parisiener Schuhe." And his response, that people wanted a fantasy that she would be back just like before. Ignoring trauma as a way of trying to move forward, shoving it under the rug if it does not directly pertain to you. I remember my host dad telling me, "Every family suffered under National Socialism."

If there's one film in this whole list that I would want more people to watch, it's this one.

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GBF

Now for something lighter.

It's been ages since I watched a high school movie or even thought about high school, so it was a little strange to be dropped into a cinematographic world where prom is the most important thing ever. But once I got with the program, it was fun. The straight people in the movie are much creepier and fetishizing than the straight friends I have, but it was uncomfortably easy to imagine people like that.

Characters: Tanner, the main character, was likable in a decent Everyman kind of way. Sophie, the goth journalist friend, was the only one who didn't get annoying at some point. There were a couple of nods to diversity but it was predictable that the clique leader who was white and blonde would end up getting the most character development--although I still wasn't entirely convinced by her, or really any of the clique leader characters. They felt like stereotype + twist rather than complex characters. But it was also a high school movie, so what do you expect.

In terms of representation, I'm not gay but my gay friend who showed me the movie commented that he appreciated that the gay guys in the movie were not all "stereotypically" gay, because he finds that stereotype frustrating to have projected onto him. There was a lot of realistic, believable jackassery from the other characters. As a complaint, possibly misplaced: I know the movie is GBF and not LBF or BBF or TBF. But there were throwaway lines about lesbians, the possibility of the main character being bi was played for laughs, and transness wasn't mentioned (aside from another throwaway line about drag queens, which is I suppose a trans-adjacent topic). I don't know. I wondered if the film was building up to either Sophie or Fawcett (the blonde clique leader) being lesbian or bi, but nope. Well. It may be a single-issue movie but it did cover a lot of ground in that single issue.

I liked the dose of realism with the high school shutting down hate speech rather than playing it off for laughs. The parents being accepting was nice, and the violent homophobia was shut down before anything serious happened. I don't know how realistic this is, given what I've heard from some people who are more out than me, but for a teen movie, muting the "standard" expressions of homophobia to focus on the hypocrisy and objectification that can come from people who are "allies" was a choice I can get behind. They were trying to tell that story, not another one.

Pacing: there were a lot of moving parts, and everything fell into place well. Minor characters got continuous arcs that resolved at the end, which is impressive given how big the cast was.

Filmography: I'm not a film person. My preferred storytelling format is words. I didn't take notes on camera angles or anything. But why did they use extreme close-ups in dramatic lighting only at the very end? It stuck out and in a "that's weird" way rather than a "something dramatic is happening" way. The takeaway here is, I suppose, that deviations from a previously established stylistic vocabulary should be used with caution. Everything else had a well-balanced setup and payoff, echoes &c, so introducing something entirely new in the climax didn't make sense to me.

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Wow, that's a lot of movies. Lots of fodder.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Game: Deutsche Gedichte

The quarter is half over already. I'm less stressed than last quarter, but last quarter set my stress standards pretty high. My sister once wisely told me that at some point in college you stop bragging about how little sleep you get, and instead start bragging about how much. I think I'm reaching that point.

A lot of my time is spent thinking about the future, at various removes--tomorrow, next week, next month, the summer, next year, the rest of my life. But lately I've been feeling nostalgic for last year, when I was in Europe. Whenever I see photos or depictions of the places that I was--looking up a Hamburg StadtRad station for my presentation on sustainability in Germany, photos of the Colosseum, a friend who's in Berlin now posting a selfie in front of Brandenburger Tor--my heart hurts.

Since I haven't been writing much outside of school things lately, here's a game. It's the same format as all the other games I suggest here, namely:

1) pick a song
2) pick one other source of inspiration (in this case, a photo of someplace you have been)
3) write a poem

The format (found after a couple minutes poking around Google) is the Dinggedicht, or object poem, because that seems fun. To quote the linked page:

"The Dinggedicht or Object Poem is a things poem. This is a genre of poetry in which communication of mood or thought is made through acute observation of things and symbolic concentration. It was introduced in the early 1900s by Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke while studying impressionist paintings. It is closely connected to the imagist movement of the same time. It appears the difference may be in the subject of the observation. The dinggedicht appears to be more likely to observe man-made articles while the imagist tends to observe more natural surroundings."

For a little more structure, try the Bar Form, which is:
  • "stanzaic, any number of octaves made up of 2 couplets followed by a quatrain. The 2 halves of the octave are known as Aufgesang and the Abgesang “after song”. (the Abgesang can use portions of an Aufgesang phrase.)
  • metered, at the discretion of the poet as long as the rhythm of the lines of the first couplet is repeated by the 2nd couplet, the following quatrain has a different rhythm in each line which is not repeated within the octave. It might be clearer described in music the first 2 couplets repeat a melody, the quatrain carries a different melody.
  • rhymed, ababccdd"

Los geht's!

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Song: "Liebe ist alles" - Adoro

Photo:

Dinggedict:

Jetzt wachsen die Lindenblättern
Die kleinen Blumen mählen
Grün soll die Stadt aussehen
Grün soll die riechen

Neue Füße auf alten Straßen
Die Kinder schreien, die Denkmäler schweigen
Hör zu, hör zu--
Kannst du die Lindenbäumen hören?

Wilkommen, Frühling, wilkommen, Flüchtling
Egal wer du bist
Under den Berlinerlinden
Ruh dich aus

Thing-Poem:

Now the linden leaves grow
The small flowers paint
The city should look green
The city should smell green

New feet on old streets
The children scream, the memorials are silent
Listen, listen
Do you hear the linden trees?

Welcome, spring, welcome, refugee
Whoever you are
Under the lindens of Berlin
Come rest

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That ended up much less impressionistic and much more political than I intended, probably because I'm relieved that Le Pen was so soundly defeated in the French elections today. Now to try the Bar Form.

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Song: "Dein Weg" - Eisbrecher

Photo:

Gedicht:

Wenn du jetzt gehst, ach du darauf
Dass du mitnimmst, alles das du brauchst
Erst fang an, bete, und lauf
Willst du noch, dass du tieftauchst?
Keine Zeit hast du, alles weg
Kommst du jetzt an: hier, den Steg
Bleibt nur die Ebbe und die Flut
Und frohes Singen in deinem Blut.

Poem:

When you go now, watch out
To take with you all you need
First start, pray, and run
Do you still want to dive deep?
You have no time, it's all gone
You arrive here at the bridge
There remains only the ebb and the flow
And the joyful singing in your blood

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I don't think I can make it rhyme in English without contorting things terribly, apologies that the translated version has no flow. This isn't about jumping off a bridge with harmful intent; the song made me think about selkies/other mythological creatures who stay only a little while in the human world before they want to go home to their own element.