Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hidden Figures (movie)

I'm a sucker for pretty much anything to do with space travel. Hidden Figures takes place at NASA in the 1960s, so it definitely falls into that category. But it's the extraordinary story of black women overcoming racial and gender stereotypes that really drives this film.

Three women standing in the foreground. In the background a rocket is launching.
As a computer nerd with a moderate interest in history, I'd heard of Dorothy Vaughan, a supervisor and self-taught programmer who worked with the first computers at NASA. Only the basic outlines, though, without much of the personal detail that the movie shows. And the stories of Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson were entirely new to me.

There's a lot of casual racism and sexism portrayed in the film, as you'd expect when the setting is the early 1960s. In quite a few spots, I found myself thinking "I'm sure glad we're past that" - segregated fountains, separate coffeepots, refusing to let a woman into meetings, colored-only bus seating, etc. But then there were other parts that I think haven't changed as much as I'd like. Mistaking Katherine for a janitor, for instance. Or high-level decisions being made in meetings consisting entirely of white men. Anyone who thinks that society has moved past the issues portrayed in this film needs to look a bit more closely - there's been progress, but there's still plenty to be done.

The tension of the space race and cold war is worth noting, too. For people of my generation and older, it's not all that remarkable - we grew up with the Soviet Union always out there, with nuclear holocaust looming if either side blinked. But anyone who can't remember the world before 1991 has never known that tension, so references to "duck and cover drills" and the fierce patriotism felt by the entire country when opposing the Soviets has got to be an alien concept. I thought the movie did a good job of portraying this, though of course I'm not exactly the target audience.

As with most historical movies, not everything is perfectly accurate. I'm no expert, but I did read a few articles afterward about where the movie made some changes. From what I found, I think the film makers did a fine job of making sure the concepts were communicated, even when they couldn't use the exact people or events. And when they did follow the historical record, everything I read said that they did an outstanding job.

I really enjoyed Hidden Figures, and recommend it to anyone. I hope it's a part of inspiring the next generation of mathematicians and engineers, regardless of who they are or what they look like.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept.

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. tells a story of politics, intrigue, and long-lost royal scions on a vaguely old-world-European fictional continent (shaped for some reason like a bird).

ACCA Volume 1 Manga Cover.jpg
The series takes place in the kingdom of Dowa, which is divided into 13 territories which are mostly autonomous. An organization called ACCA provides most of the essential services in the entire kingdom, operating mostly independently of the monarchy. The main character, Jean, is an ACCA inspector who visits each of the 13 territories in the course of his job.

Each of the territories is a themed caricature - a desert region with only mining industry, a super-fertile region where everything grows to huge size, a Las-Vegas-like tourist region with casinos, etc. Much of this is just side flavor in the story, but two territories in particular have more significance. One is Furawau - a Middle-East-style region with large oil reserves, made very rich by that bounty of natural resource, and controlled by a single large family. The other is Suitsu, where travel restrictions and a very strict division between nobility and commoner have resulted in economically poor conditions and rebellion.

The story takes enough twists and turns that it's not easy to talk about it without spoilers, but it's probably no surprise to anyone that Jean gets caught up in intrigue that affects the entire kingdom. This takes the form of a coup, timed to prevent the ascension of a new ruler to the throne. Prince Schwann, the heir apparent, is dismissive of ACCA and plans to dismantle it. The powerful figures behind ACCA have no intention of going quietly.

In the last few episodes, particularly the last one, the path the story took isn't particularly credible. There are a lot of plot twists, which are very exciting but not very believable. Perhaps with a bit more explanation and/or groundwork to set up the sudden shifts, it would have felt more realistic. As it was, it felt like deus ex machina at the end.

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. has some fairly pointed commentary on social and political systems. Condemnation of the restriction of freedoms in Suitsu is an obvious one. Strength through diversity is emphasized, as ACCA incorporates people and resources from all 13 territories. The dangers of autocratic rule is a central theme, both in terms of the kingdom monarchy and the hereditary control in Furawau and Suitsu. At the same time, there's a heavy emphasis on maintaining culture and tradition, exemplified by the fact that no one advocates actually overthrowing the monarchy - just replacing the prince.

There are some fairly silly side themes in ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept., too. Many of the characters have a fascination with sandwich bread, which for some reason is only made in the Badon territory. Jean is a heavy smoker in a society where almost no one else smokes, and giving him gifts of territory-specific cigarettes becomes a plot device. These sorts of things add a lighter side to the series - silly, yes, but I think it mostly worked well to balance out the heavier intrigue plot points.

I thought ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. was reasonably good for a short series, despite what felt like clumsy writing in the plot twists at the end. Not bad if you like the intrigue theme.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Man in the High Castle (novel)

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently read Phillip K Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle . Re-read, technically, though the first time was more than twenty years ago, so my recollection was hazy at best.

I'm writing here about the novel, not the video series on Amazon Video. That's a good show, but it doesn't actually have a lot in common with the novel. It borrows the name of the novel and high-level world-building concept (the Axis powers won World War II), but little else. Character names, locations, and various plot elements from the book are present in the show, but almost none of them are used in the same way. The show uses much more of the world, has a much wider cast of characters, and describes a more detailed narrative than the book.

That world-building concept is the main draw of The Man in the High Castle. The author works in a good number of details about the alternate history of the world. Germany ended up with the hydrogen bomb, not the United States. Great Britain is portrayed as a major villain, the source of war criminals that committed atrocities in Africa during the conflict. Germany and Japan have divided the USA between them with a narrow buffer state in the Rocky Mountains. The inferiority of non-Aryan, non-Japanese races is accepted by the public at large, and Jews in particular live in fear. It's certainly the picture of a dystopia, but close enough to our own world's history that it's easy to picture as a possibility.

What the book doesn't do particularly well, at least in my opinion, is deliver a consistent and interesting narrative. The characters tend to sort of wander around aimlessly much of the time, with no real connection between them. There's a lot of reference to the I Ching , a Chinese divination text used as an oracle by most of the characters, which it seems to me was largely a crutch they used to deal with their lack of control over their own lives. There are a few major threads, following characters like Mr Tagomi, Juliana, and Frank, but all that really ties them together is a few chance encounters. I think that may have been part of the point, that people and events are influenced by seemingly inconsequential meetings, but in my mind it didn't make for a particularly compelling plot.

That's all right, though, since as far as I'm concerned the real point of the book is the world-building and exploration of how people live in that world. The German empire has expanded and made scientific advances that are the envy of the world, and undertaken great public works projects, including a Mars space program. Japan is the world's other great power, but clearly an underdog in any conflict. Both great empires are harshly oppressive by the standards of our world. Conflict between the two is looming. It's a detailed and coherent picture of the alternate world, though not a particularly bright one.

One major thing that sets The Man in the High Castle apart from many alternate history stories is the presence of "The Grasshopper Lies Heavy", a book that describes a world where the Allies won the war. Most of the characters encounter the book and largely dismiss it as fantasy, which makes perfect sense as that's exactly what the reader is doing with The Man in the High Castle. Mr Tagomi actually has an experience in an alternate world, but his mental state is precarious at best. In any event, the idea of an alternate world has little material impact, but it certainly affects the thoughts and actions of several of the main characters.

I really enjoyed the concepts set forth in The Man in the High Castle, with the alternate end to the war and the world that results. The actual writing wasn't really to my liking, but the ideas came through clearly enough and that makes it a fine read.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Kado: The Right Answer

Kado: The Right Answer is a short anime series that takes alien invasion in a bit of an odd direction.

Kado starts with a giant cube-shaped alien artifact showing up on an airport runway and engulfing a jet and its passengers. Things progress from there through the usual panic, confusion, and eventually communication with an alien being (named Yaha-kui zaShunina). Over time, the plane passengers are all returned safely, but that's just the beginning of the alien encounter. Knowledge of huge scientific advancements follow, starting with unlimited clean energy, and quickly cause infighting among nations across the world. In the end, humanity has to deal with the zaShunina's real interests - I'm sure it's not much of a spoiler to say that it's not necessarily good for the humans involved.

The alien encounter here is framed as coming from higher dimensions, rather than life from elsewhere in our own universe. Not a new idea, but certainly less common than little green men or bugs or whatever from a distant star. The series uses some interesting visuals to emphasize the differences - for instance, zaShunina's arms aren't generally attached to his body and move independently, sometimes appearing and disappearing into thin air. There's also quite a lot of complex moving patterns used on the alien artifacts to give a sense of their strangeness and complexity.

Some of the usual themes in an alien encounter story are turned around in Kado. For instance, there's basically no secrecy involved - the media are fully involved at pretty much every step, at the insistence of zaShunina. He deals specifically with the government of Japan and shows no interest in other authorities, even when the United Nations gets involved. There's effectively no violence at all. The writers did a good job of making all these different themes work within the framework of an alien encounter.

This series moves along fairly slowly. It's only twelve episodes and about 4.5 hours long, and yet it still felt like the plot didn't progress much in places. I think the story could have fairly easily been put into a movie format rather than a series and been handled just as well. The extended time didn't bother me too much, though, since it gives the viewer some time to think about the various odd happenings.

The weakest part of Kado in my opinion is the ending. (Minor spoilers here but nothing too specific.) It turns out that zaShunina isn't the only alien being in the story, and in the end his plans are upset by cooperation between humans and that other alien. I thought the introduction of another non-human force felt contrived, coming into the story as late as it did. If they'd had some indication from the start that zaShunina wasn't alone, I think that would have worked a lot better.

Despite the weakness near the end, I had a fun time with Kado. Definitely not for the action lover or impatient viewer, but it brings up some interesting ideas and the production is excellent. Worth the short watch time if the concepts are at all interesting to you.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Grand Rapids Race to the Bar Crawl 2017

Here's a terrible idea: run 3-4 miles, stopping at five bars along the way to drink a beer at each. So of course I did it.
The Race to the Bar Crawl event is the last in the Grand Rapids Beer Flight Running Series that Trivium Racing started this year. I'd already run in the Growler Gallop Atwater 5k at the end of April, HopCat Extra Time 5k in May (no blog post on that one), and New Holland Pub on 8th 8k in June. Those first three were regular races, mostly about the running, though you did get to drink a beer at the end.

This time the event was much more about the beer. We went to five different bars around downtown Grand Rapids, and had a beer ticket for each. You didn't have to drink them all, or do it while running...some people went back afterward, some just walked between the bars, others didn't drink at all. But you did have to go to each bar, where a volunteer would give you a sticker to show that you'd made it to that checkpoint.

There was no official course, just the start/finish location and five bars. There was a suggested route, but you were welcome to find your own path, as long as you obeyed the traffic laws. There were no streets closed, so we all had to watch out for cars! According to my GPS tracker, I ended up going a total of 5.9 km. I never really got lost, although I did nearly run past one of the bars since I ended up approaching it from the back instead of the front - fortunately they had a sign! I ended up jogging along the river for quite a bit of the run, which was nice.

Being a moron, I both ran and drank at all five bars along the way. That's four and a half pints (City Built Brewing had a smaller size glass) in 50 minutes, which is a lot by itself. Add in the running and I was certainly feeling a bit rough around the edges! I enjoyed it, though. They had plenty of water and snack food at the finish - both pretzels and similar bar food, and granola and bananas and other post-run food. I stayed there for more than an hour, talking with other participants and cheering the award winners, and by the time that was all done I felt fine.

All four of the Beer Flight Series races were a good time. I'll be keeping an eye out to see if they're doing again next year.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Terror in Resonance

Terror in Resonance is set in an alternate modern-day Japan where a series of terrorist attacks are being carried out in Tokyo. It follows the young terrorists and the detective hunting them, through the attacks and the discovery of the reasons behind them.
Terror in Resonance Poster.jpg
It's clear very early on in this series that the heroes of the story are the two young men who are carrying out the terrorist bombings. You don't learn their reasons until nearly the end, but even in the first couple of episodes it's clear that they're not out to do major harm. They're careful to avoid deaths and minimize injuries, and even help to stop one of the bombings when things go wrong. I don't think the writers intended to condone the use of terrorism, but it's certainly not painted as the ultimate evil that we tend to think of in the modern world.

The evil in this series comes largely from governments. The main detective character is an outcast with the police force, having previously been demoted for pursuing the wrong powerful government official. Secret government programs played a large role in our young terrorists' background. The United States sends an armed contingent to "cooperate" with the police, effectively taking over and making things quite a bit worse. The corruption of authority is overwhelming, leading to those terrorist tactics.

Considering how short the series is (only 11 episodes, about 4 hours), I thought the characters were fairly well developed. There's time to get a good feel for the two young men, a girl that they befriend along the way, and their detective pursuer. Most of the other characters have little depth, but that's not really an issue since they don't get a lot of screen time anyhow. The limited length of the series means that it stays focused on the main characters and key story elements without much in the way of tangents, which I appreciated.

The production quality of Terror in Resonance is solid, if not particularly eye-catching. This isn't a series with a lot of flashy action sequences, but what action there was worked well. The voice actors did a solid job, the visuals were well done, and the music was great. (No surprise there, music by Yoko Kanno.)

I was very impressed with Terror in Resonance. It may be short, but that's not a drawback in a series that has a well-crafted story to tell. Definitely worth the watch.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Active Raid

Active Raid follows a police unit in near-future Japan that uses personal robotic suits called Willwear. They're basically miniature mecha, taking on threats that largely come from misuse of technology.
Image result
Active Raid caught my eye primarily because it was broadly in the police/military genre, which I enjoy (one of the many reasons I'm a Ghost in the Shell fan). There are quite a few plot points that revolve around bureaucratic in-fighting, a staple of the genre. The unit members fit broadly into the usual stereotypes: techie handyman, calm but rule-bound fighter, info hacker, hot-headed fighter, and so on. The overall story progresses from seemingly unrelated crimes to tracking down a shadowy mastermind (twice, since it's broken into two seasons). I'd say the series does an adequate job of representing the genre, though nothing particularly new or exciting.

At first glance, Active Raid does very little to make it stand out from any similar series. A bunch of young officers are gathered in a special unit that takes on mecha...I mean, Willwear...threats. Just about every episode makes sure to spend time going through the Willwear-equipping process, making it look like a toy commercial. The villains are caricatures, from bank robbers to love-crazed idol fans. Fan service is minimal as far as these kind of series go, but certainly not completely absent. Not exactly breaking new ground.

That impression never completely goes away, but there's more to the series as it goes along. Quite a few contemporary societal issues are brought up, from government corruption to dealing with dementia to the dangers of widespread malware attacks. It's all done in a fairly light-hearted way, but it seemed clear to me that the writers wanted to give viewers something to think about beyond just the robot suits zipping around. You could pretty easily choose to ignore it, but those themes are there if you're inclined to consider them.

Active Raid is worth the time to watch if you're a fan of the police/military and/or mecha genres, as long as you don't mind that it doesn't take itself too seriously. It's unlikely to change your mind if you don't particularly like those genres, though.