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Processing Endgame IV: Thor (2011)

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

“Shakespearean Drama.” If you read any articles about Thor (2011), it’s hard to miss the choice of Kenneth Branagh, an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, as director. I had been expecting something of the sort when I watched the movie, but as it was happening, I realized that I didn’t really know what that meant.

It seemed to me a very human story, an uncomplicated story of youthful brashness and foolhardiness, leading to a fall from grace, redemption through discovering selflessness. A nice uncomplicated origin story (with one of a thousand faces)[1].

But so well told. It felt good all the way through, it made sense all the way through, the blending of magic & science worked all the way through. This is perhaps because of the way the character was originally conceived:

“Thor, at his best, has always had a classic bent in terms of his history, the way he speaks and the often Shakespearean dramas that surround him. That kind of dialogue and character needs someone who comes from a classically trained background in order for it not to sound forced or artificial. Branagh is the perfect choice.”

โ€”J Michael Straczynski, co-writer of Thor, on Kenneth Branagh

“Thor’s powers are godly, yes … But at the end of the day, he’s a man … Odin sends him to Earth because he’s not perfect. He’s brash, arrogant. Even over-confident … he also bleeds. He struggles. Life kicks him where it hurts the most … You want to feel Thor’s rage when he rages. You want to see him fight like hell, and take as much as he dishes out — maybe more. You want to have a visceral reaction to the guy, and what happens to him. You don’t want his adventures to be clean and antiseptic. You want to see the dirt, and grime and blood. You want to feel every bone crunching moment of every fight. And when he unleashes the storm, you want to feel like you’re seeing the power of a GOD at work.”

โ€”Ashley Miller, co-writer of Thor, about the project

Yes, world-shaking and family-shaking[2] Shakespearean Drama, all in one accessible package. That’s Thor (& his family).

The film opens with Thor triumphant[3], on his way to being named heir to the throne of Asgard, but the jealous younger[4] son Loki organizes an interruption to embarrass him, setting off the chain of events that cascade through most of the rest of the MCU Phases 1->3.[5]

The film does an interesting bait and switch, setting up the frost giants to be the antagonist, but even though Colm Feore[6] does a fine job as Laufey, I never particularly felt threatened by them (perhaps because I had seen the movie before, and we were watching it on a small screen). They could have used more time/space to set them up as a more believeable adversary.

But the bait and switch still worked, as it didn’t occur to me until later, that it was indeed Loki who had orchestrated the original break-in (even fooling the all-seeing Heimdahl), to embarrass his brother. It wasn’t until a little later, that he tipped his hand and fully became the overt antagonist.

But was he really? You can say that Odin had the best interest of the Nine Realms in mind when he kidnapped Loki, to raise him as Asgardian[7], but ultimately, he didn’t do it well enough, perhaps because he didn’t know about the idea of ‘Sevastokrator‘, a power-sharing agreement to help younger children work together with their older siblings (You could also see the ceremony of naming Thor heir being this type of ceremony, but he must have known, after hundreds of years of raising him, how Loki would react…).

So, maybe the real antagonist of Thor (and Phases 1-3) was Odin’s inability to emotionally communicate and connect with his family[8]. This eventually ends the movie, with Loki, unwilling to accept that he has failed his father, voluntarily letting go and falling off the Bifrost into oblivion[9].

But there’s other aspects of toxic masculinity, not just Odin’s inability to communicate, or to defuse competition between his children, there’s the aftereffects of this, Loki’s mocking Thor being ‘soft’ for caring about Earth, because he cares for one of the people there, even trying to turn it against him, to try to get Thor to stop trying to prevent Loki’s genocide of the Frost Giants, by saying ‘you’ll never see her again’ if he breaks the Bifrost bridge[10].

As far as other characters in the movie, we were surprised that Coulson was such a hard-nosed, by-the-book agent (although he did vote for science in allowing Thor to try to wield the hammer), and not really a likeable character (Perhaps J.J.Abrahms made all the difference there, in ‘Avengers’.)

Natalie Portman got to be a strong, intelligent woman, to be the first to really understand what is going on with the Einstein-Rosen (bifrost) bridge[11]

It did feel kind of like an odd couple, with Thor being so massively muscled. It was nice, that he did remember to steal her notebook on the way out, as he had promised.

Darcy also showed indications of how she would be stealing the show in Thor:The Dark World, especially with little comedic timing gestures like getting her taser[12] ready as they’re talking about going to find Thor again.

Later in the movie, we have a touching moment, where Erik Selvig comes to rescue Thor in custody (and pretends that he is ‘Donald Blake'[13], in a fun comic callback). Remembering Thor calling Erik Selvik ‘He is a friend’ when they discover he is under control by Loki has so much more poignancy when you see the scene where he is the one to go drink with him, where Thor opens up about how he is truly feeling about being cast out, that Erik is the one who was there when he needed someone the most.

I also enjoyed the ‘Son of Coul’ moment, where Thor declares himself an ally of Midgard, and promises to return. (Not to be confused with the cute Coulson moment, where he confronts the Destroyer with a megaphone.)

So, what did Thor learn in this film? That he had more to learn…that some humility is in order, that he does not always have the answers, and that his decisions can get people killed. Perhaps some sense of the responsibility of defending all nine of the realms, not just Asgard. Maybe even the sense that even when he is cast out, and at his worst, that there are people who will care about him, just for himself.

There’s also always the danger that every time you surmount another unsurmountable foe/obstacle, it’s another opportunity to become arrogant? This is a common human failing, and also allows second movies (such as Iron Man 2), but is perhaps not as well understood as a concept, and is perhaps why those second movies fail more often[14].

What defences against Thanos fall in this movie?
– The Destroyer (would not have stood up to Hela, but would have perhaps allowed some help vs. Thanos’ minions)
– S: “It could rotate like that, because there’s nothing inside.” As a design, it’s a really interesting piece of machinery, and bespeaks some really good industrial design in Asgard’s past.
– The unity of Thor & Loki (really, Loki) as protectors of Asgard & the Nine Realms
– Odin has to enter the odinsleep
– Frost Giants are no longer really possible allies

What alliances/defences are forged?
– Thor & SHIELD/Jane Foster

[1] It might fall under ‘Voyage & Return‘, but it is for sure a ‘Hero’s Journey‘.

[2] I think the key here is to have the world-shaking events, but to also have the family-shaking events happening at the same time, having the family-shaking events be almost a synecdoche or accessible proxy for the world-shaking events.

[3] Well, it starts with him being hit by a van, but that’s beside the point…

[4] ‘Younger brother'[15], the trope of so much fiction (and history), caused by the flawed practice of Primogeniture. Like many older concepts, it might have been one that humans had to pass through on the way to greater enlightenment. Perhaps better than Partible Inheritance[16], but only a stepping stone towards modern republics & representative democracies[17].

[5] One could argue that Loki letting the Frost Giants past Heimdahl, leading to Thor’s overreaction, leading to Thor being banished to Earth, leading to SHIELD increasing activity to deal with external threats, leading to Loki being cast out, to working with Thanos, to the invasion of Earth, to Tony’s PTSD, to Ultron, to the Sokovia Accords, to the Civil War, to the death of Frigga & Odin, to the unpreparedness for the Infinity War, to the eventual resolution, is the main arc of the series. I feel like it is still a point of contention as to whether this was a ‘best’ (or even good) way for this to turn out, but 1 in 14,000,605 should tell you something.

[6] I first heard of Colm Feore as being that famous person performing in Toronto musicals. I’m glad to see him doing so well. ๐Ÿ˜€ Also, he had a super-interesting note about the power of ‘Shakespearean Shorthand’:

“He said the Shakespearean training he shared with Hopkins and director Branagh helped keep production moving briskly, saying that “during the breaks, Tony, myself and Ken would be talking in Shakespearean shorthand about what the characters were doing, what we thought they may be like, and how we could focus our attention more intelligently. These were discussions that took no more than a few minutes between takes, but they allowed Ken, Tony and [me] to understand each other instantly without Ken taking an hour away to explain to the actors exactly what was going on. So that was enormously helpful.”

[7] So much colonialism in this movie, that I don’t have the chops to fully dissect.

[8] Made explicit in conversations between Loki & Thor in Thor:Ragnarok.

[9] Well, ‘Avengers’.

[10] I really enjoyed the portrayal of the Bifrost bridge (the bridge to the sphere where the Bifrost emerges from) as some sort of conduit from some power source in the heart of Asgard to the (probably dangerous) sphere that emits the Bifrost. (Interestingly, there are electrical discharges when making the Bifrost happen, which might be dramatic license, or they may be associated with Thor’s power (or indicate something fundamental about the connection of Thor’s power with the power of Asgard), or they may be something that falls out of Wormhole equations.)

[11] I have all kinds of questions after Thor:Ragnarok & Infinity War about where Thor’s power comes from, and how the Bifrost works after Asgard has been destroyed, even if Stormbreaker is made of Uru metal.

[12] I always took the fact that Thor was susceptible to tasers to be an indication that he had lost his powers (or at least confidence, similar to Thor:Ragnarok, with the control chip).

[13] Interestingly, Marvel seems to really enjoy taking people who have or feel a duality, and then doing the gedanken experiment of ‘what if they were separate people?’, or ‘what if they grew apart?’ We see this with Hulk’s story arc, and apparently it happened in the comic books with Donald Blake.

[14] This could also be selection bias, where 80% (made up number) of all movies fail, so having 80% of sequels fail is not unexpected.

[15] “Loki’s like a comic book version of Edmund in King Lear, but nastier.” (Edmund being an illegitimate son.)

[16] I became most aware of this concept from a problematic book I read a while back, which talked about the Partition of Poland (1138). Others might use more classical examples, such as Clovis, or the Partition of Babylon (or Triparadisus).

[17] One could make an argument here for an analogy with Polytheism -> Monotheism -> Atheism, but that would be outside our scope here.

Processing Endgame III: The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

Music playing: Still “Avengers Theme Remix”, remixed by ‘Approaching Nirvana‘.

CW: suicide

We had originally planned to skip The Incredible Hulk (2008), as many do, but after thinking/hearing about all of the controversy regarding the arguments between Edward Norton & Marvel about scripts, we decided we wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

The movie opened with a strange choice: The film’s editors decided to put the usual character origin story into a short montage at the beginning[1]. S noted at the time that she felt cheated of the best part of one of these superhero movies, the part where they discover themselves for the first time, when they go from zero to one.

The rest of the movie just seemed a bit off. It’s hard (for me) to put my finger on exactly what the issue was. I’m sure part of it seemed to be that the Hulk character seemed a bit inconsistent with the later portrayal, with Norton’s silent & brooding fugitive contrasting with Ruffalo’s more comedic take, some of it was the on-screen depiction of the Hulk, seeming scarier and more visceral, but I think I could have dealt with that, and found my peace with the film, accepting that Banner and the Hulk were learning about each other, and that this movie was all about acceptance of one’s inner Hulk…

…except they never really talked about that. There was a deleted scene in Norton’s edited screenplay that showed Banner trying to commit suicide to get away from the Hulk (a similar scene alluded to by Ruffalo’s Banner in Avengers). This was supposed to be the opening scene, and it might have gone a long way towards justifying an arc through the movie of Banner slowly coming to terms and accepting the Hulk as part of himself, where after trying to remove him, he finally accepts the necessity, in order to defeat Abomination[2].

Some things that were done really well: The chemistry between Tyler & Norton was fantastic, they were really believeable as long-lost lovers (apparently they spent a lot of time discussing their backstory, even though they didn’t talk much about it in onscreen), and Tyler’s character was pretty badass, in one scene, leaping on top of the Hulk to try to save Banner, in another, taking them out of a cab, to reduce Banner’s stress level.

The rest of the characters…well…it felt like they never really fit into the story. I always find it difficult to figure out what drops me out of my suspension of disbelief in a film. Is it the editing, that makes the time between comments feel unnatural? Is it the script? Is it the actors not living their parts? Whatever it was, Thunderbolt Ross felt unnatural, the scientist ‘helping’ them felt absurdly over-the-top, and I can’t even remember the rest of them[3].

The one other shining star was Ty Burell’s Samson, who felt believeable all the way through. You could just picture him understanding Tyler’s character, feeling her inner torn-ness, and choosing to let her go.

Overall, the movie felt like Banner trying to find Betty Ross (eventually successfully), while trying to control and suppress/expurgate the Hulk part of himself. Along the way, he eventually accepted that the Hulk was part of himself[4][5] (which is a long way from liking or trusting the Hulk[6]).

But overall, it didn’t really deliver. It might have been because Norton and the editing team had different ideas about the character, or what movie they were making. It might just not have been put together well.

In my head-canon, I see The Incredible Hulk (2008) as being an alternate universe explanation of how the Hulk came to be, and not really part of Earth-199999 (unless there are cross-overs), and not really informing the Hulk’s (or Banner’s) character moving forward[7]

I would recommend this film only for completionists, or those who like Ed Norton (or Liv Tyler).

Next up: Iron Man 2! Purported to be ‘not as good’ as the first, but we’ll see how well it’s held up.

Other random notes:

Much of the film was shot in Toronto, leading to some interesting cognitive dissonance for the scenes shot on UofT campus, as the terrain/buildings really didn’t connect well with each other. (It’s difficult to know how much of this is because I know how things connect, and how much is because they had a grassy meadow with no buildings visible in the distance right beside a university building with a treed circle and cars.)

(Contrast with Avengers, which had regular establishing shots[8] with Stark tower in the background)

[1] Apparently, there was a test screening where viewers found the original plan (a reboot with flashbacks) too similar to Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003), and that is why they made this decision. 11 years later, it just seems like an odd design decision.

[2] This might also have helped a lot with explaining the ‘leap of faith’ that Norton’s Banner took near the end of the film, to try to transform into the Hulk in mid-air. I didn’t feel that there was anything in the movie that showed that Banner felt guilty enough about being the Hulk to take that action.

[3] Looking at Wikipedia, to check part of this post, I realized that I had forgotten Tim Ross’s Abomination. I felt during the movie that I never really understood where he was coming from. Yes, he said that he a survivor, that wanted to keep fighting (very likely some form of PTSD), but it was a bunch of ‘tell-rather-than-show’ moments, and some sort of flashback would have been much more effective for this character.

[4] This would eventually lead into the ‘Hulk is feeling taken for granted’ storyline from Ragnarok->Infinity War->Endgame

[5] Also, random note. They changed the ‘>200bpm -> Hulk’ to ‘letting yourself be angry’ after this movie, likely for storytelling reasons, but it’s a super-interesting ‘science’ part of the film.

[6] There was a final scene, where Banner is off somewhere hiding, and you see him almost gleefully going to ‘days without incident: 0’, which could have been a super-interesting ‘addicted to Hulk’ story.

[7] I’ll have to wait until Ultron to decide, but I feel that it is unlikely that Banner’s romance with Ross in this movie is consistent with his later romance with Black Widow.

[8] Thanks Ty Templeton for his fantastic Comic Book Boot Camp, which taught me about Establishing Shots, and many other important things!

Processing Endgame II: Iron Man (2008) [SPOILERS]

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

Music: “Avengers Theme Remix

First on the list to watch was Iron Man (2008). I had watched a few of the ‘best of’ scenes on Youtube, including the really impactful opening scene, and when he first takes the Mark II out for a spin.

A lot of the hagiography about Tony Stark talks about how he has a lot of features that make him an effective superhero. They talk about him being a futurist, super-smart, and handy. This movie perhaps emphasizes his handy-ness more than any other, with the extended scene of him building an innovative new Iron Man suit while a prisoner in a cave.

But what I think people perhaps forget is while he goes through a character development arc, his armor perhaps goes through even more of a change. His perhaps greatest ability is to learn from experience, and adapt by changing his actions and the tools he builds.

In this first movie, we see three versions of his Iron Man suit: The first, iconic grey suit that I remember so well from his first appearance in comics in the ’60s[1], the redone silver-coloured Mark II, and the familiar red & gold Mark III.

The suits go from working for a few minutes (Mark I), to almost being able to beat altitude records (Mark II) in what is probably a few weeks (or months).

And that’s when disaster almost strikes[2]. The suit ices up, and Tony has to manually de-ice it[3] in mid-fall. Luckily, he survives, and with this survival comes a small bit of learning.

This learning is used when making the Mark III, and is an important point in the final battle scene.

This learning from experience will be shown in later movies, but looking at it here, from Mark I->Mark II, the suit is streamlined, focus is placed on being able to fly (presumably because if it had been able to fly, Tony would not have had to walk out of the desert), and most of the weapons are removed (apparently because it was a flight test model). Tony also adds an automated way to don the suit[4], perhaps because his friend and compatriot[5] in building the Mark I dies to give him the time required to finish donning it and charging it up.

This learning from trauma, perhaps a source of his perfectionism is another theme that is consistent throughout the series.

From the Mark II to the Mark III, there’s the aforementioned de-icing package, along with the re-addition of some weaponry, as Tony was planning in a semi-revenge fashion to go destroy all of the weapons that bore his name that had made it onto the black market.

But there are two other things that make a huge difference. From the Mark I to Mark II, Tony integrated his home AI J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany) into his suit. It’s difficult to describe how much of a difference it would make to have an AI companion riding along with you, vs. a mere targeting computer with Heads-Up Display. Part of the reason to have it there is very effective in movie terms, as it gives Robert Downey Jr. someone to argue with and be snarky with (also a super-important part of the Iron Man character), but even for someone who is great at multi-tasking, having a separate intelligence there, ready to sort through all of the data to tell you what is important *right now* is invaluable in a life-or-death situation[6].

The second (and perhaps even more important than anything else here) thing that makes Tony different is his willingness to embarrass himself. You see him videotaping himself testing all of his experiments, presumably so that he can watch the replay and learn from it.

Can you imagine Thor, or Captain America experimenting with repulsor boots so that they flip over and land unceremoniously on the ground? It’s totally out of character for them. Perhaps this is different, because we actually see into Tony’s practice workshop, and we never got the chance to see Thor first learning how to wield Mjolnir.

Next up: Iron Man II, one of the less-well known (and lower rated movies), but we’ll see how it goes on a re-watch!

Other notes: Pepper Potts’ ‘proof Tony has a heart’ moment was really poignant, and the interactions between the two of them were fun and meaningful to watch. I especially liked her bravery, and when she stuck up for herself and gave as good as she got.

Messages: How easy it is to fall into the mental trap of believing that your actions are not hurting others or having unintended consequences, if you never see them… #chardev

[1] I was lucky enough when I was growing up to have access to a few cardboard boxes of old comics from the late ’60s. I still remember the first Iron Man story, I think from before he had his own comic series, the first story where he builds his first suit, and before he paints it. It’s difficult to separate how I felt then about it then from the movie adaptation, and how much of it is from a soft place in my heart, vs. just feeling familiar[8] from childhood….

[2] There are so many places in these movies that disaster almost strikes, that there must be alternate timelines for each of them. Earth-199999 feels super-lucky.

[3] Well Chekov’s gun-d by the ‘cool suit-up montage’ (great multiple-use of a scene) showing the demo of all of the control surfaces.

[4] There are a number of iterations of this, with so many different ways to don the suits, or otherwise adapt to situations, that it almost deserves its own post.

[5] Shaun Toub‘s Ho Yinsen was the most poignant part of the movie for me, as I knew he was going to die (because I remembered enough of the plot), but I had forgotten that he was willing to die partially (or mostly) because his family had already been killed by the group that had captured him and Tony. There’s something here about the necessary sacrifice of good people to thwart evil, and from the (likely deliberate) casting of an an Iranian-American actor, about how people of all races and backgrounds can be good people, and we should be working with them.

[6] And your house robot will bring you your spare arc reactor, so you can put it back in your chest and save your life… ๐Ÿ™‚

[7] This ability to give a voice command and have it followed intelligently will become super important later in the first Avengers movie. #staytuned

[8] I wonder how much of it is that Tony falls into the ‘scientist/inventor’ category of Marvel Superheroes, that speaks to me, or spoke to me especially when I was growing up, and that was how I saw my life/career unfolding.

Processing Endgame I: Preludes

Please note that this is one a series of posts, all of which may contain spoilers for the MCU, and particularly Endgame.

People talk about the cultural phenomenon of Avengers:Endgame, but I don’t know if it’s been fully addressed how the movie, indeed the culmination of the series has, and is continuing to affect viewers.

Trying to avoid lines (and get reasonably good seats), we ended up seeing Avengers:Endgame the Tuesday the week after opening. For various reasons[1], we decided to take the afternoon off to watch it. I laughed, I cried, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I left the theater with a feeling of satisfaction, knowing that they had done the movie justice, that (aside from a few issues[2]) it was a satisfying conclusion to a 22-movie series.

So, it took me a while to realize what was happening in the subsequent weeks. I found myself watching analysis, and re-watching scenes from old MCU movies (mostly Avengers:Assemble), especially scenes of Iron Man. It wasn’t until I watched a youtube video about how Endgame actors reacted to the movie, and read Dave Bautista’s tweet about how he was still processing, almost a week after viewing the movie.

I realized that I was still processing. I also realized that Iron Man was quite my favourite character[3]. It took me a while to notice that I might have been grieving, and re-watching ‘All Iron-Man suitups’ videos wasn’t going to bring him back.

So, perhaps as a way of processing, perhaps as a way of getting closure, perhaps as a way to notice all the things we didn’t see the first time[4], S & I independently came up with the idea of re-watching the MCU, in order[5].

So, please enjoy this series of reviews/processing/introspection.

[1] We really like afternoon movies, as you can fully react to them, then, while still processing, go outside and walk in the sun, perhaps get some dinner. Also, it was much easier to get good seats during the day on a weekday.

[2] I’ll get in to this later, but I was most bothered by the treatment of Black Widow.

[3] Maybe since my youth, but I know I def. recognized him from comics I read when I was growing up. I might have liked Cyclops more growing up, but the X-Men movie version of him was pretty unengaging.

[4] I would mention the Infinity Stones here, but my understanding is that they didn’t intend for all of the movies to be about them, until about GotG:Vol1.

[5] Starting with Iron Man, and probably skipping Hulk, as neither of us are particularly interested in it (even less than Thor:2, that S slept through[6]).

[6] In her defense, she may have been sick, and Dayquil:SEVERE may have been involved.

One Way to Run a Hackathon

A place that I used to work ran periodic ‘Hackathons[1]’. After trying to describe them to various people it became clear that there were a number of different definitions of what a ‘Hackathon’ could (or should) be, so here’s my description, with some thoughts as to why structuring it this way might be a good idea.

Definition?:
What is a ‘Hackathon’? It’s a lot of different things to different people. Most definitions I’ve seen see it as an opportunity to spend a day (often 24 hours, or a weekend) building something that they wouldn’t normally build. The thing built is not necessarily a ‘thing’. It could be a website, and app, some other type of computer program, it could even be an organization. The important thing here is that whatever is created/built is taken from the concept stage to working prototype with at least some useful feature(s) by the end of the hackathon.

Purpose:
Why do you want to have a Hackathon? The ones that I’ve been involved with were an opportunity for people in a software organization to try something a little different for a day. Some reasons they did it:
– Learning a new skill or programming language by building something ‘real’
– ‘Scratching that itch’, solving some problem that they never quite get the time or priority to solve in their day-to-day
– Working with people that they don’t normally work with
– Building a full product (instead of working on a tiny piece of a huge system)
– Building a visualization tool
– Doing something totally different

Those involved generally seemed to greatly enjoy the experience, the chance to work on something different, to push themselves in a new and different direction, and perhaps the chance to receive the acclaim of their peers.

How did it work?:

There was a committee formed to organize the Hackathon. They were responsible for:
– Publicity
– Getting buy-in from management (this had already happened, so this part was relatively easy)
– Convincing judges to judge the competition (These were usually senior people in the organization who were not part of a ‘hack’)
– Organizing the various parts of the event
– The ‘pitch’
– The presentations
– The prizes
– The voting for the ‘Audience Choice’
– A/V and some method for telling presenters their time was up (we used a stop light)
– Finding sponsors for any ‘Sponsored Hacks’
– All of the various other small things required to run an event like this
– Buying the pizza for the party after the presentations

How often did they happen?
– The Hackathons happened once per quarter, generally in the middle of the week

Schedule:

During the weeks before:
– Publicity, book rooms, perhaps plan food, plan A/V, location, etc.

A couple of days before:
– Run the ‘Pitch Session’
– Provide a place (usually a wiki page) for people to join groups following the pitches

The first day of the hackathon (The hackathon would run noon to noon, with presentations 3-4pm the following day):
– Start the hackathon, giving any support where necessary

The second day of the hackathon:
– Collect presentations, so they can be presented in a timely manner
– Collect the judges, so they can judge the competition
– Run the presentations
– Run the ‘Audience Choice’ vote
– Count the ‘Audience Choice’ votes
– Distract the people with pizza while the judges are deliberating
– Help the judges present prizes

Some more details:

A ‘Pitch Session’ is:
– Each person gets one minute to talk about their idea, in the hopes that they can attract a group of people to work on it with them. There was a rule that teams had to pitch something if they wanted to win ‘best hack’, to encourage them to participate in the pitches and include others

How are teams formed?
– Teams can be of any number of people, but we never saw a team of more than 12 people or fewer than 1 person[2].
– To encourage different parts of the organization to work together, each team would be awarded points for each group represented in the team. Including someone from ‘Customer Experience’ or ‘Marketing’ would be worth three points, while including people from Engineering (the expected default for a hackday) would be worth 1 point
– Teams, once formed are added to the hackday webpage, for posterity, and so people can coordinate (and so the organizers can coordinate collecting all of the presentations)

What happened during the 24-hour Hackathon period?
– During the 24 hours of ‘hacking’, people generally put their project work aside and work on their hacks. Some people were given more or less time to do so, depending on their particular management chain and the urgency of their specific work at hand. Of course, if a production issue cropped up in the middle of the day, that would have priority.

How did presentations work?
– Each team was given 3 minutes to present. Luckily, we had a traffic light that was repurposed to give an easily visible signal to presenters when they were running short of time.
– There was generally an audience, of the other people hacking, the judges, and whoever else wanted pizza later

How were they judged?
– ‘Best Pitch’ (a friend of mine routinely won this part, due to his uniquely hilarious presentation style)
– This was generally awarded based on presentation originality and style
– ‘Most Productizeable’ (Which hack was easiest to productize for customers, either internal or external?)
– ‘Best Hack’ (this is the ‘best overall’ category)
– Not necessarily the one that won any other category, but the best overall
– ‘Best Presentation’
– Similar to ‘Best Pitch’, but generally a higher level of polish (and humour) is expected
– ‘Best Sponsored Hack’
– This is like ‘Best Hack’, but restricted to the specific sponsored category
– Hacks would be graded on the criteria above by the judges, IIRC on a 1-10 scale. (There may have been other criteria which were then rolled up into the categories above. That would be up to any event organizers, should someone wish to take these instructions and run with them.)

How did ‘Sponsored Hack’ work?
– This was a later innovation after some people saw the power of the various hacks that had taken place.
– A person or persons within the company would put up money for prize(s) for the best hack that would fulfill certain criteria. There was one hack to link a system to a particular enterprise solution, and one hack to use a new internal API that had been developed
– There was generally only one ‘Sponsored Hack’ per hackathon, and it was a bidding contest to determine which one would be the official ‘Sponsored Hack
– We found that having super-clear criteria about what constituted a ‘successful hack’ was extra important when the prize money for ‘Sponsored Hack’ greatly outweighed the prize money for ‘Best Hack’

What were the prizes?
– Generally gift cards of some type, glory, and a trophy
– The gift cards would be in the $50-100 range for first place. The glory was the really important part.
– Part of the trophy process was the expectation that each group would modify the trophy in some way before presenting it to the next team at the next hackaton
– We had some issues with one of the sponsored hacks when the prize money reached into the hundreds of dollars, because we had not clearly defined ‘When is a hack good enough to be considered a successful hack?’, and the difficulty of the particular hack

What types of ‘hacks’ did you see?
– There were a number of visualizations of various parts of the system
– There were a number of creative front-end interfaces for various parts of the system
– There was a one-line fix to a bug, in a effort to win ‘most productizeable’ by already being in production
– There was a musical number
– Once, the entire team of interns worked together on a hack
– We had an issue with not being able to tell whether our non-bookable meeting rooms were occupied, so one group made some lights with door sensors to quickly communicate down the hall that a room was occupied or not
– And many others…

Pleaes drop me a line if you want to run one of these. They’re a lot of fun, and can really help people get to know others and build an ‘esprit do corps’ in an organization.

[1]Unrelated: ‘Stupid Hackathons‘, which have a *totally* different ethos…

[2]Even the ‘Automated PowerPoint Presentation’ hack required someone to give the presentation.

News That Fact Checks

So, a friend of mine posted this video by Keith Olbermann:

“How the Media Needs to Respond to Trump Now | The Resistance with Keith Olbermann | GQ”

The video itself is interesting for a number of reasons, but I want to talk about their reaction to it.

They mentioned that they would greatly prefer to have their news fact-checked. I replied that this was already happening, just on comedy shows, that Jon Stewart started it[0], but now Trevor Noah, Rachel Maddow, Samantha Bee, Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert do.

(Note that this is already starting to seep into ‘real news channels’ with Rachel Maddow and similar.)

But this got me thinking. Why is it that comedy shows can do this and ‘news’ cannot? Why did this start in comedy shows?

One could argue that the stock in trade of comedy is juxtaposition. Juxtaposition of people saying one thing and doing another, or even saying one thing and then saying the exact opposite lends itself very naturally to comedy based on political commentary.

Perhaps because comedy is built on using blunt verbal implements[1] to provoke an audience reaction, provoking audience reactions being their stock in trade. ‘News’ is not about provoking reactions, at least not as their primary goal[2].

Perhaps this blunt type of juxtaposition needed to be started on or as a comedy show, as news shows are used to being much more polite[3].

Perhaps, as Keith Olbermann suggests, the repeal of the ‘Fairness Doctrine‘ is related to all of this, where news organizations are still behaving as if the outside world is still trying to be fair, and that they can cover ‘both’ sides of an issue without checking too hard whether one of them is propaganda.

Perhaps it has to do with fact checking, perhaps it has to do with the proliferation of news coverage of politicians allowing greater opportunities for juxtaposition, perhaps it has to do with news organizations being afraid to offend their advertisers vs. comedy shows being afraid of not offending enough and thereby not getting enough attention…

Perhaps, just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only news comedy could start the juxtaposition fact checking.

[0]Some people say that this was started with SNL’s ‘Weekend Update‘ in 1985. I would argue that there are definite influences, but Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ took itself far more seriously, closer to how news shows take themselves seriously. An example from the Chevy Chase Show in 1993, 6 years before Jon Stewart took over The Daily Show (and 3 years before the Daily Show existed at all):

[1]Many comedians starting out will say offensive things to get attention (or for worse reasons). I’m talking about less verbally offensive methods of getting attention.

[2]I’m not sure what the primary motivation of news is. Perhaps to inform, perhaps to legitimize an otherwise illegitimate TV network, perhaps to sell advertising. I’d say on their best days, their primary motivation is to inform.

[3]#tonepolicing

Enterprise: Broken Bow

So, we finally watched the pilot (Broken Bow) for Star Trek: Enterprise.

I thought it was pretty good. (I’ll try to keep this as spoilers-low as possible.)

The pacing felt good, through the action scenes, I was actually (figuratively) on the edge of my seat, genuinely tense about what would happen to the characters.

I feel like they captured the feeling of exploring into a completely unknown and dangerous galaxy, that any moment, they could be overwhelmed by an alien force, if they should do the wrong thing.

It was also a really interesting choice having the Vulcans being almost reluctant parent allies. Not quite adversaries, not quite obstacles, but always watching and judging…

It’s also interesting to see the first real human/vulcan team start to really learn to work together. To see the first tentative steps towards actual friendship…Two peoples who know they’re better together, but are still learning to trust each other well enough to actually find the synergy they know is there somewhere.

I had been worried about the T’Pol & co. ‘Decontamination Chamber’ scenes, that they would be pure fan service, uninteresting/unrelated to the show. Instead, they were a very odd, fascinating confrontation between the Id (Tucker) and the Superego (T’Pol). I’m not sure exactly how well the scene worked, but it was fascinatingly brave, having two characters who have to rub decontamination gel on each other, a very intimate act, while having an intense emotional argument about Human/Vulcan relations going back decades and discussing the future of the Human species. As the canonical Superego would say: ‘Fascinating’.

Perhaps the most jarring parts of the episode was the slightly too wordy exposition, setting out the political and historical landscape of the early Federation, especially the Human/Vulcan conflict.

At the same time, the Klingon-Human first contact was handled well, with the imperfect universal translator adding a nice touch.

Scott Bakula was a good choice for captain (although the cast felt a little white male focused, with little differentiation between them, even compared with TOS or TNG.) He genuinely seemed a little more afraid, pushing through with more bravado than even Kirk. But perhaps that’s because he didn’t have his Spock yet. Some reviews described him as somewhat of a ‘pirate’, but that hasn’t come out yet.

SPOILER:

I think the Temporal Cold War arc was introduced well, but I could see how it could get old hat if it becomes too commonplace.

Walking into the Rigel X Trade Complex felt like a very Star Trek experience. I couldn’t put my finger exactly on why, but something about the atmosphere of the music (or the visuals!) was very Star Trek.

END SPOILER

Interestingly, this episode also featured the first in canon definition of a specific warp speed[1], when Archer says: “Neptune and back in six minutes”, when describing warp four point five.

(Neptune being around 4.5 billion km from Earth, that puts warp 4.5 as 9e12m/360s, or 83.3c. This is only slightly different from the TNG technical manual, which places warp 4 at 102c, which can be explained by the need to avoid using warp drive while close to gravity wells.)

I also greatly enjoyed the ‘mad scientist’ Doctor Phlox and his menagerie.

Overall, a good episode (and I believe lived up the ‘best Star Trek pilot’ that they were shooting for). It was more dramatic than usual Star Trek, probably more emotionally raw, but it worked well to keep the audience engaged, by having heightened emotion even while arguing important points of philosophy, almost like the best of the lightsaber battles.

4.5 stars, some of the best Star Trek I’ve seen. Even the opening credits, and their message of humans hopefully striving, made me cry[2].

[1]“Warp 6.” “Aye sir, full impulse.” doesn’t count.

[2]Interestingly, very similar to the “Cineplex – 100 Years of Movies” trailer.

Why the Headphone Jack Must Stay

Yesterday, we had a date night, and over dinner, we thought “Wouldn’t it be nice to watch Contact? Neither of us have seen it since it came out, almost 20 years ago.”

First, we opened up Netflix, and searched for ‘Contact’. It wasn’t available there, but Netflix said it could show us movies similar to it. (It also showed us ‘Star Trek: First Contact” as an option, more on that later.)

So, we try iTunes. We’re trying it on my computer, because S’s Mac has mysteriously stopped talking to our USB speakers. Fast-forwarding through the standard iTunes bad user experience[1], we eventually figure out how to rent ‘Contact’, the movie, in HD for $4.99. It starts downloading. We hook up the projector, start the movie, and we see the following screen:

This is what happens when you try to use iTunes with your projector.  (Not shown: Our USB speakers stopped working just then, too.)
This is what happens when you try to use iTunes with your projector. (Not shown: Our USB speakers stopped working just then, too.)

The movie that we just paid money to rent will not play on a display that iTunes was more than happy to play on just a couple of years ago.

Think about what just happened here. We went to the extra effort of purchasing a movie rental, and it is treating us like we’re trying to pirate it.

Doing some quick googling, we determine that we might be able to get the SD version to work with our setup, but iTunes won’t let us change from HD to SD (and keeps trying to download the HD version, despite the fact that this will overfill the hard drive).

So, back to Netflix. We eventually settle on Firefly (a really interesting concept, more on this in a later post). Netflix just works.

Or at least Netflix tries to work. Somewhere during this process, my Mac has silently decided that it should no longer talk to the USB speakers. There being no useful way to debug this in the ‘System Preferences’ menu, we end up lugging my sound system from my computer, which has a headphone jack connector like so:

Headphone jack to RCA adapter.  The best way to get sound from your computer to serious speakers.
Headphone jack to RCA adapter. The best way to get sound from your computer to serious speakers.

The headphone jack connect works. We finally start to relax, I start watching Firefly for the first time, then we watch the masterpiece which is Star Trek: First Contact, and go to sleep happy.

Apple has a lot of power, through its massive market share and avid user base. This power can be used for good, such as when it is used to push for selling DRM-free music, but it can also be used for evil, such as when Apple Music deletes music that you have composed.

With the iPhone 7, Apple is using this power to no longer include a standard headphone jack. Now all music, audio, Stripe payments, what have you, will be streamed digitally. It will probably work, it might even work perfectly and for a long time. But at some point, someone will decide to add DRM to that stream, and all of a sudden your music will stop working.

All because Apple decided to remove your headphone jack.

Cory Doctorow also has some thoughts about this.

[1]iTunes standard bad experience:
– You have to search twice in the search bar for it to actually search
– The search function has a pre-defined list of types of media, and it will always show them to you in that order. Compare with the Google search for ‘Contact’.
– If you start downloading a rented HD movie, you can’t switch to the SD version, even if you realize you don’t have enough hard drive space, or the HD movie won’t play because of the HDCP DRM.
– And don’t get me started on how slow it always is.

The Art and Words of Comics

What do you look for when you’re reading a comic? The words? The art? Both? Does one interfere with the other?

I was talking with S recently, and I was extolling the virtues of Casey and Andy[1], one of my favourite web comics. S mentioned that she had tried to read it multiple times (often at my behest), but had been unable to get into it because of the art[3].

For me, I had briefly noticed the bad art very early on in the run, but the ideas he played with, especially with non-standard comic framing were more than worth it. (And it didn’t really bother me much at all.)

Thinking about it, I realized that the webcomics I like are generally very simple art-wise. I’m not sure if I actively prefer webcomics with worse art, but I may prefer those with simpler art. Some of the ones I read most often:

Questionable Content (mature themes, sometimes nsfw)
Order of the Stick
XKCD

have very simple art, perhaps well done (I think), but very simple lines and drawing.

Some of my other favourites are still simple, but (I think) most would say that they are reasonable artists:

Freefall
Prequel Adventure
SSDD (sometimes nsfw)

I’ve stopped reading:
Dr. McNinja
Goblins (often disturbing cartoon violence)

perhaps because of the more complex/busy art. I know I stopped reading Goblins because I find the art a little too gory/uncanny valley/disquieting.

I also enjoy:

Cyanide & Happiness (Trigger warnings)
asdfmovie (NSFW/warning/etc.)

But they are both incredibly simple art. Cyanide & Happiness is probably the worst art of any on this list, but I enjoy it because of the humour.

Among the graphic novels I’ve enjoyed are:

Transmetropolitan (nsfw, probably triggers in there too)
Watchmen (natch) (movie was rated R)
Ex Machina (some adult themes)

I feel that all of these, their art enhances the story. In Transmet, it really brings the world alive, and it works that you have a really busy future city, where everything is happening all the time. You also get important information about Spider’s personality and how he treats people. Watchmen is just a work of beauty woven on so many levels, and I like the vibrant colours of Ex Machina. I feel that something more realistic would almost detract, bring things closer to the uncanny valley, perhaps.

Interestingly, I have a perhaps similar reaction to music, that when I’m listening to a piece of music, I can really only listen to the music part of it, the words I can almost never hear, except when they are very clearly in the foreground, and/or I’ve heard them many times before. This may be related to being an instrumentalist in my previous life.

tl;dr: I like the words of web comics. I like it when the art is simple, or when the art if more complex and is cast in a supporting role to the story. Art more than that can detract (for me, at least) from the words, which (in comics) are my favourite part.

[1]This comic is perhaps one of his more bizarre comics, but I think a fair example of his artistic style/talent. He mentioned in his AMA[2] that “I realized I hated doing the artwork. I just liked telling jokes to people and the art was a necessity for it. That was the main reason I stopped making the comic.”

[2]Also, you probably know him as Andy Weir, the guy who wrote ‘The Martian‘.

[3]You can see a takedown of his drawing of a different comic called ‘Cheshire Crossing’ here.

When You Wish Upon a Star…

So, a good friend of mine recently posted the following meme:

Depressing thought...But is it true?
Depressing thought…But is it true?

“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”

It’s a really depressing thought, perhaps even more depressing than the Nietzsche/Kubrick mashup: “God is dead, and you are alone in an uncaring universe.”[1]

At least with an uncaring universe, something with persist after you are gone. If all the stars are dead before you can even see them, would there even be anything left after we are gone?

But extraordinarily depressing statements require extraordinary evidence. So let’s take this sentence apart and define some things.

First: “According to astronomy” means that we get to (and have to) use astronomy in our proof or disproof. It also likely refers to modern astronomy, as it did not specify a time/technology period. (It may be interesting to see if any answers would be different under astronomy from a different time period, but that will be a secondary investigation.)

Second: “when you wish upon a star….” has a few different readings. The phrase seems to come (at least most recently) from the song written for Disney’s Pinnochio. In that movie, Gepetto says the following:


Look! A wishing star!

Starlight, star bright, first star I see tonight…

I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I make tonight.

This is an ‘English language nursery rhyme’ first published in the late 19thC (Wikipedia).

Interestingly, it seems to refer to ‘shooting or falling stars’, or meteors. These would certainly be ‘dead’ (as they are vaporizing in the atmosphere during the ‘wish’, but not for ‘millions of years'[2], as the distance from the viewer to the meteor can be measured in tens or hundreds of kilometers, an insignificant time light distance[3].

But going back to “When you wish upon a star, the meme-maker seems to be clearly referring to the 1940 Disney song and film. Looking at the occurrences of this song in the film:

At 0:34, you can see the image of Gepetto wishing upon the star:

The star is clearly stationary, as can also be seen in the reprise at the end of the film, where Jiminy Cricket is looking upon the same star, still unmoving:

So, this restricts us to the realm of non-moving (or slowly-moving) celestial objects[4]. From the film, the star also seems significantly brighter than the surrounding stars, but the exact extent to which this is true could be dramatic license.

The rhyme mentions ‘first star I see tonight’, which also suggests that the celestial object seen is unusually bright.

So, non-moving (or slowly moving) celestial objects which are bright. This leaves us with comets, planets, and bright stars[4][5].

Comets are objects orbiting through the solar system, and unless they fall into the sun, impact another body, or otherwise breakup, they tend to go on ‘living’ after we see them. (Halley’s comet has been known since at least 240BC.)

Planets could easily look like stars, often like unusually bright stars. Venus was called the ‘evening star‘[6] since antiquity, and it would be bright enough (up to apparent magnitude -4.9) to be significantly brighter than anything else in the sky. Venus could be considered ‘dead’ because it may have once supported life before a runaway greenhouse effect millions of years ago, but this seems an unlikely metaphorical interpretation. Mercury (up to apparent magnitude -2.45) would also be significantly brighter than anything but Venus (and the moon and sun), but has never been ‘alive’, being too close to the Sun[7]. Mars (up to apparent magnitude -2.91) could have been alive at some point, in the same vein as Venus. One or more of the moons of Jupiter (up to apparent magnitude -1.61) or Saturn[8] (up to apparent magnitude 1.47) could have been home to life, under this same metaphorical definition. (The other planets and other bodies in the solar system are too dim to ever be a ‘bright star’.)

So, a planet could be a metaphorical source for this quote, but this seems unlikely, as the quote seems to be referring to the fact that the celestial object is no longer emitting the light itself.

This leaves us with bright stars. Looking at the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius (up to apparent magnitude -1.46), it[9] is only about 8.6 light years away, so we would know in less than a decade if something were to happen there.

The next 91[10] brightest stars are listed here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_brightest_stars

You will note that even the furthest among these, Deneb is still only 2600 light years away, much closer than the ‘few million years’ mentioned above.

Based on all this evidence, it would seem that the original meme:

“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”

is false, which is good, because it would be super-depressing otherwise.

If you enjoyed this sojurn through astronomy, you may like the rest of my blog. Comment below with things you want me to talk about or investigate!

[1]If you have a better source for this, please let me know.

[2]If you want to be pedantic (and I know you do), you could say that meteors are the dead husks of possible (or tidally destroyed) planets, and their burning up in the atmosphere is hundreds of millions of years after they ‘died’.

[3]Much less than a second, even if you assume they impact the Earth’s atmosphere thousands of kilometers away.

[4]A close supernova might also qualify, as it could easily be brighter than anything else in the night sky, would last just long enough to be a ‘wishing star’, and would have been ‘dead’ for some time before it was seen by a human observer. This might indeed be source of this rhyme, where a ‘guest star‘ could inspire wishing and omens. However, looking at this list of supernovae, any supernova which would have been visible as a ‘bright star’ with the naked eye would be at most tens or hundreds of thousands of light years away, not qualifying for the ‘few million years’ mentioned above. I also personally see supernovae more as a seeding of the galaxy with heavier elements, and thus wishing upon one of these would be wishing that the spreading of heavier elements would inspire life to form elsewhere in the universe.

[5]I see no way that any reasonable person could confuse the Sun or Moon with a ‘wishing star’.

[6]Interestingly, the Babylonians had figured out that the ‘evening star’ and the ‘morning star’ were one and the same. It took the Greeks a significant amount of time to discover this themselves, calling them ‘Phosphorus’ and ‘Hesperus’. How many times have there been such dark ages, where knowledge needs to be rediscovered? Was there a Greek ‘renaissance’, or were the Babylonian star charts lost until modern archaeology? Did mere dregs survive to inspire subsequent scientific revolutions?

[7]…unless there was life along the terminator, at some point in the past…

[8]Or [spoiler alert]:

One of the planets themselves!

[9]They, really, as Sirius is a double star, but that is outside the scope of this post.

[10]93, including the Sun, Sirius and the next 91 of magnitude 2.5 or greater.