MST3K: Werewolf

As an avid Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan (I own nearly 30 of the boxed sets of DVDs), Werewolf is one of my favorites. I saw some references in online material to the episode being a bit edited—which was fairly common for MST3K—and I noticed that I could get the original on DVD inexpensively so I decided to go for it and see what the differences were. Of special concern to me was whether any of the jokes depended on the edits, because that would seem a bit like cheating.

First, I’m happy to report that none of the jokes were cheated. Well, that’s not quite true; there was one joke which had a little bit of context which was edited out, though of course one never knows whether it was the MST3K editors who removed it for the edited-for-TV editors who removed it. That joke was when Natalie tells Paul, “you may just be our last hope” and (IIRC) crow says, “maybe some day they’ll tell us what he’s their last hope for“. Earlier in the film there’s a scene in the original in which Natalie tells Paul that they’re running out of research funding and their efforts to secure more have failed, and Paul offers to use his writer’s talents to try to help them write better grant proposals in order to secure funding. Or maybe to use his connections. It’s not made explicit, as I recall. However, there is also a scene left in the MST3K version where Natalie tells Yuri that Paul is going to try to help them get more research funding, so the editing wasn’t exactly unfair to the movie here, though it certainly wasn’t helpful.

Some of the editing tightened the movie up and made it better; in the original there are some endless driving through the desert scenes a bit reminiscent of the credit-scene-without-the-credits in Manos: The Hands of Fate (though not as long as in Manos). Most of what was cut out were some sub-plots which did make the movie overall better though weren’t related anything Mike and the bots said. For example, there’s a sub-plot where the real estate agent is into Paul and he (gently) rejects her advances and so she tells him to walk home and leaves. This explains why Paul is at the party alone and in a position to meet Natalie. It also somewhat explains what the real estate agent is doing back at Paul’s house later to be brutalized by Paul-as-werewolf.

Overall, my impression was that while the original movie was more complete, it was also more sloppily edited; so, basically, something of a wash. I do recommend watching the original if you get a chance, if for no other reason that you see the raw materials that went into making such a good episode of MST3K. It’s not a high priority item, though, as it’s about 90%-95% the same movie, and certainly the main plot is 99%+ the same. It still doesn’t explain why Natalie became a werewolf at the end of the movie, though. (I’ve never understood why the crew makes fun of how obvious it is that she was a werewolf; the setup as we slowly pan in was a bit telegraphed, perhaps, but nothing in the movie really led up to her being a werewolf.)

Review: The Rage Against God

I just finished reading Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God. It’s an interesting book—and I do recommend it—but it’s very much not what I expected. For one thing, it’s a far more personal book than I expected. Which may well speak more to my expectations than to the book; the subtitle is “how atheism led me to faith.” But what I think I was more legitimately surprised about was how much the book was about culture.

The Rage Against God is divided into three parts:

  1. A Personal Journey Through Atheism
  2. Addressing the Three Failed Arguments of Atheism
  3. The League of the Militant Godless

Chapters 1-5 are about England’s (I suppose technically I should say Brittain’s, but I’m not sure) declining society, and how much Christianity was woven into England’s culture so that as people became disillusioned with their culture they threw Christianity out as well. In many ways in these chapters the eponymous rage against God seems to be primarily a displaced rage against parents. In fact Mr. Hitchens mentions something I’ve seen noted by many other rebels born in the generation he was: they never expected to get away with it. And they seem to carry with them a deep sense of betrayal that the adults let them get away with their rebellion. In essence, they are angry at the authority figures in their young lives for being so small. This is very specific to England, but while America did not suffer the decline of its status as a once-great power, it did suffer from the realization of how awful racism is that had a very similar effect in undermining authority, and at approximately the same time. And I’m told that other european countries had their own losses in confidence because of the authority figures who led them into devastating wars.

None of this is something I can relate to; having grown up in the 1980s there was no longer anyone left to respect so it was not possible to lose my respect for them, and I think that this is true of others of my generation as well. It is an interesting window into the atheism of an older generation, though.

Interestingly the three arguments which Hitchens addresses in part 2 are largely cultural ones:

  • “Are conflicts fought in the name of religion conflicts about religion?”
  • “Is it possible to determine what is right and what is wrong without God?”
  • “Are atheist states not actually atheist?”

The second question need not be cultural, but his answer is largely cultural, in that he draws the answers from failed societies. Which is, of a course, a legitimate and persuasive answer, but it is a social answer rather than a personal one.

The third part is a more in-depth look at what the viciously atheist regime of the Soviet Union was like, and the degree to which modern atheists seem to be calling for exactly what was done there, though without being willing to admit that it’s what they’re calling for. This is a problem I’ve encountered with atheists myself. They’re generally quite unwilling to think through their ideas and more infuriatingly often pat themselves on the back for being unwilling to do so, though usually with some sort of positive spin. But Mr. Hitchens brings up, if obliquely, a very pressing problem in a democracy, or really anywhere with changing demographics: how people behave when a minority may have no predictive value whatsoever as to how they will behave if they are in the majority. And as any even casual student of history knows, every regime requires an executive branch—whatever it is named—and that executive branch will be staffed not by the general population but by people who desire power. The question, therefore, is not what the average person will do if given power, but what they will tolerate a co-believer with power doing.

Review: A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto

In a sense this is a companion review to my review of How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead.(check it out for disclaimers/full disclosure). You can get Ed Latimore’s A Not So Friendly Guide to The Ghetto in a bundle with How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead for $9.97 (at the time of this writing) here.

A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto is an interesting book. Of course, I suspect I would find anything Ed writes interesting, so that’s not really saying anything which distinguishes it from his other books. However, unlike Ed’s other books, I’m not sure how to review this one. It seems to be one part travel guide, one part ethnography, and eight parts social commentary. The social commentary is about a community I’m not now, nor have ever been, a part of, so I don’t really have anything to say about it. It’s interesting to read because Ed is a thoughtful guy, but that’s about it, for me specifically.

The travel guide aspect of the book can be summarized very briefly: don’t go there. That’s also nearly a direct quote.

The ethnography aspect of A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto is probably the most interesting part to an outsider like me, or at the very least the most accessible part. And it does not paint a pretty picture. The most noticeable characteristics described in the ghetto is the presence of extremely violent people who make life difficult and dangerous for everyone else. They are violent on a very high level precisely because they don’t lead long-term sustainable lives. Ed mentions that many of these violent people have a life expectancy of about 23. He doesn’t say so explicitly, but one gets the sense it’s that long in part because such people spend most of their time after the age of about 16 in prison where they don’t get to shoot or stab each other (nearly so often).

This reminds me of the Coolio song, Gangsta’s Paradise. All of it is an interesting song, but I’m especially reminded of the lyric, “I’m 23 now will I live to see 24 the way things is going I don’t know.”

Where this hyper-violence comes from is an interesting question. Ed doesn’t give answers, but he seems to (implicitly) reject the cycle-of-violence answer which a lot of people like. I don’t mean that he suggests it’s causeless, but rather he doesn’t seem—and this is my read of him, not anything he said explicitly—to believe that the violence is an unavoidable trap that those trapped by it can do nothing to escape. Some of the social critique may be relevant here, and can be more broadly applicable than just to the specific community being directly discussed by considering what behaviors and trends in the reader’s community—whatever community that might be—might lead to similar encouragements to violence in the least stable members of that community.

And while the book is certainly an interesting one, it is not without flaws. In the copy I bought the typography changed in chapter 7 and from then on the chapters had two numbers, both their correct number and a number starting over from 1. I asked Ed and he said that he would probably fix this going forward. It also feels like chapter eight might have originally been meant as the first chapter, in that it reads like an introduction that was not re-written when it was moved. I found that a bit jarring. It is also a short book—distributed in PDF format it has 35 pages, and would have fewer if the last third wasn’t double-spaced. And while I’ve certainly read enough business books to be appreciative of  an author not padding them out in order to justify a higher price, there were things I wish that Ed had covered. For example, he discussed in some detail how little money many of the bad-decision-makers he talks about come into possession of each year, but he never explains how they make it work. A person who takes in $5000 per year and has to pay $250 per month in rent has only $166 per month left over to afford food. If they make further bad decisions such as buying $2000 rims for their aged lexus, it’s unclear how they can survive since they now have $-0.67 per month for food and can’t photosynthesize. (Further, even if they could photosynthesize, the year-round uniform of sweatshirt, jeans, and timberland boots Ed describes would prevent sufficient light from reaching their skin.) Some explanation of how this actually works out in practice would have been very interesting.

Another fascinating question which gets no treatment here is why the normal human tendency in chaotic situations towards organization by a warlord doesn’t operate here. This of course is the problem with anarcho-capitalism, or really any form of anarchism. The moment you have anarchy, you will get government emerging in the form of weak people supporting the best warlord around, making him strong enough to subdue the other war-lords or keep them at bay so that the important parts of life which require stability (growing food, raising children) can happen. After a generation or two, the warlords will provide enough functions of government as to be indistinguishable from government. After a few more generations, they will simply be government.

The suggestion that no one in the hood has a job (which I take to be painting with a very broad brush) may account for not needing peace to grow food, but however critical Ed is of the parenting which goes on in the hood, parenting does go on, which means that a fair number of people have a huge incentive to support whoever will bring enough peace to let that parenting happen. So why doesn’t this work? Does the presence of police from outside the hood remove the preferable warlords inside the hood? Do the skills required to be such a warlord also enable one to just ditch the whole problem, leaving behind only those incapable of such organization? This last possibility has some resonance with Ed’s advice on how to deal with loud bad-decision-makers in a movie theater: go to a different movie theater. I think it would be grossly unfair to demand Ed have all the answers to why things are they way they are, but some speculation on the subject would have been very welcome since he’d probably have come at the problem from an interesting angle.

It would also have been interesting had there been a section on how people who don’t make exclusively bad decisions but who nevertheless grow up in the hood—people like Ed himself—navigate the violent environment they can’t escape from until later in their lives.

Before I conclude, the modern world being what it is, there is a warning I should probably give about A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto. A good introduction to that warning is the disclaimer found at the beginning of the book:

Please note that the use of the term “nigga”, “nigger”, and other close synonyms are in reference to uneducated, unemployed, unmotivated, ignorant black individuals, not the African American race as a whole.

On the plus side, if this bothers you, I can report that according to my calculations the word “nigga” only makes up 2.5% of the words used (by contrast, 3.8% are “the”). That’s slightly misleading in that I didn’t count usages of variants such as “niggernomics” or “nig worth”, but it gives you a rough idea, I think. Basically, this is not a book for people with delicate eyes. (Nor delicate ears, if you tend to sound words out to yourself, I suppose, but in that case you could probably put your fingers in your ears when you see the words you dislike coming up.)

And all joking aside, it did make me uncomfortable. I’m not used to language like this and it is jarring to hear it used frequently. If you can’t guess, I’m a white guy who grew up in the suburbs where most everyone over the age of 14 got along with each other well enough that for the most part that the only thing the police did was give people traffic tickets. This fortunate circumstance does come with some limitations of experience, and in my relatively sheltered youth it would have been less shocking to hear someone declare their fealty to their lord Satan than it would have been to hear somebody sincerely use racial epithets as a criticism. However incomplete—or if you prefer, unrealistic—a view of the world this gave me as a child, it should speak to how weird it felt to me to read a book where at least 2.5% of the words were some variant of “nigger”. On the other hand I’m confident that Ed is not a racist and I was willing to trust him that there were good reasons for his choices. And having finished the book, I think that there were. I’d say it kept it real, but I don’t know if that would be using the phrase correctly. So instead let me quote the movie A Man for All Seasons, where Will Roper asked Sir Thomas More for permission to marry More’s daughter:

More: Roper, the answer is no and will be no as long as you’re a heretic.

Roper: Now that’s a word I don’t like, sir Thomas.

More: It’s not a likable word; it’s not a likable thing.

Ultimately, so long as people know what words mean, unlikable things will be described by unlikable words. So there’s some value in using unlikable words; it keeps one from getting too complacent in the mere sound of speech and forgetting what is really meant. Ed is describing the sort of people who have attacked him throughout his childhood and nearly killed him more than once. That’s not something one should be comfortable with. Plus, as Ed said later in his disclaimer:

Besides, I’m black. I think that means I can get away with it.

In summary, though it is a book with some production issues which is ultimately disappointing in its brevity, I recommend A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto. Half of $9.97 is not much money to get a perspective on a part of America which (statistically) most of us have never experienced, written by someone who’s read Aristotle extensively. Unless you’re a superhero of thrift, you will probably have often spent more money to get less value. If you’re interested in following my advice and buying the bundle, instructions are here.

Review: How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead

Ed Latimore’s book How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead is an interesting book. Currently it’s only available as an ebook bundle with A Not So Friendly Guide to the Ghetto, which I haven’t read yet. (As of this writing the bundle costs $9.97, available at the link above.)

To give context to my review, like many people, I’ve become familiar with Ed through Twitter. He largely tweets about what you might call self-improvement, if you can get past the hackneyed phrase. But to put this in context, I once asked him if he had a favorite Greek philosopher and he replied that he’s only read Aristotle and Seneca extensively. In my reading of him, he’s about achieving excellence (ἀρετή) by dominating one’s passions through reason, not blowing sunshine up people’s asses in the form of “motivation.” I rather like that. Also, he did an interview with me about making wisdom intelligible. So, if you can’t guess, I’m a fan of his. If you want to call that a bias, I won’t object to the term. I am, in general, biased in favor of anyone with wisdom to share.

How to Catch and Kill a Crackhead is, if the title didn’t give it away, not a serious book. It is properly called farce, I believe. Certainly much of its humor is intentionally absurd, which I enjoyed because I delight in absurdity. Ed also delivers it in a deadpan style somewhat reminiscent of British comedy like Monty Python. I happen to be very fond of deadpan humor, as well, so I laughed out loud while reading it more than a few times. In fact he pulled this dead-pan tone off so well that it took me a little while to figure out that it wasn’t merely an attention-getting mechanism prior to getting down to the serious part. Once I figured that out I started thoroughly enjoying myself.

The basic conceit of the book (stated nearly on the first page) is that crackheads are not mere drug addicts, but in fact an alternative sort of vampire. He takes this premise completely seriously throughout the book, describing the crackhead’s powers of flight and sleeping upside-down by their feet, and how to deal with the problems that can cause when one is in areas they inhabit. The  later part of the book is for aspiring vampire crackhead hunters, giving tips on required equipment as well as the ideal party to assemble for battling vampires crackheads.

There are amusing references to pop culture as well as role playing games, comic books, and literature, generally used to good effect, though I missed some of the pop culture references. A few of them are also dated; I asked Ed and he wrote his circa 2007. That also means that he wrote the book in his very early 20s, which does show occasionally in the humor. That is to say, the jokes are occasionally a little juvenile, though mostly I think in cases where Ed couldn’t resist the joke rather than as a crutch, which makes them less cringey since there’s a sort of innocence to them. (At he time of this writing I’m in my late thirties, so naturally I only have limited appreciation for jokes which speak most to late teenagers. We all have our weaknesses.) That said, this is a small minority of the jokes and I think the humor will appeal to most everyone with a sense of humor.

Some of the humor also seems to rely on some familiarity with what Ed calls—in this book—the ghetto. I can only say it seems that way since utterly lacking this familiarity I can only guess that such familiarity would help (that is, it would require knowledge I don’t have in order for me to know for sure). However, this is also a minority of the jokes, and though I sometimes felt like I was just missing something, the book was mostly accessible without this background. Certainly, it would be hard to speak English and have less familiarity than I do with “the hood,” so if you also lack such familiarity,  I wouldn’t let it deter you from giving the book a read. It might be better for someone with such familiarity, but it was still quite good without it.

The times being what they are, I probably should mention that there are some jokes which reference what might be called statistical observations about ethno-linguistic groups of people (both people of color and people of transparency). If you use a sensible definition of racism like “regarding an individual not primarily as an individual but primarily as a member of a group”, then there is nothing racist in this book, because Ed is far too sensible a person to make that sort of stupid, elementary mistake. On the other hand, if you use a definition of racism which is basically anything that professional tut-tutters would tut-tut one for, this might not be the book for you. On the third hand, if you use a definition of racism which involves formulas, then the fact that Ed identifies as black might be significant in your calculations, which I will leave to you to work out.

In summary, this is a unique and funny book which I recommend giving a try if you like absurdist humor with the occasional nerdy reference delivered with a straight face that wouldn’t be out of place in a poker tournament.

Predictability vs. Recognizability

Something I didn’t talk about in my post on writing formulas and formulaic writing is that not all predictability is bad. In fact, there is a great deal of any story which one wants to be predictable. If we are reading a murder mystery, we will be irked if there is no murder, and doubly irked if there is no mystery. And if the mystery is not about who murdered the victim, we will be very hard to win over. I think that G.K. Chesterton summarized it when he said that as a boy, he would put down any book which didn’t mention a dead body on the first page. (And once again I can’t track this down. I need to get better at actually sourcing Chesterton quotes.)

Now, while these examples are obvious, they illustrate the point precisely because they are so obvious as to not normally be worth mentioning. When we complain of fiction being predictable, we don’t mean simply that we were able to predict elements of what was in the story. In most cases, that we are able to predict elements in a story is, in fact, a necessary prerequisite to being willing to read the story at all. It is good advice not to judge a book by its cover, in so far as that advice goes, but I think you will find that a book with a completely blank cover (that is, having neither words nor pictures upon it, so that there is no suggestion whatever of what is behind the cover) will not get read very often.

I do not bring this up to be pedantic, but because those cases where we do not say what we mean often conceal interesting truths. Certainly it has been my experience, anyway, that whenever a man says, “everyone knows what I mean” he is wrong. Usually the more certain he is that he is universally understood, the more wrong he is, because the only person who can be completely convinced that everyone understands him is a man who’s never found out what anyone else thought he meant. But, be that as it may, I think that this is a particular interesting topic because what we really mean reveals much about how we enjoy fiction. It also reveals the real reason why books should never be reviewed by people unfamiliar with their genre.

Chesterton once said that an artist is glad of his limitations:

You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. Somebody wrote a work called “The Loves of the Triangles”; I never read it, but I am sure that if triangles ever were loved, they were loved for being triangular. This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.

And so it is with fiction; the elements which we want to be predictable form what sort of story it is. And this can get very specific. Within murder mysteries, there is the sort of story which can be referred to as an armchair cozy, and within those, there is a yet more specific sort of story which can be referred to as a Christie. Armchair cozies tend to feature a very intelligent detective who uses his wits more than his fists, and Christies tend to have that intelligent detective, at the conclusion of the story, gather up all of the witnesses and suspects into a room and explain the facts as he found them and then set them into an orderly and coherent picture, while clearing away red herrings, lies, and mistaken inferences others had been making.

Now, there are those who criticized Agatha Christie’s work because it always ending with the detective gathering everyone together and summarizing the plot prior to revealing the solution as being predictable and formulaic. These are, in a sense, the mortal enemies of those who love the form of the Christie and feel the lack in the ending of the Maltese falcon, where the solution to the mystery is a mere afterthought. To those who take these plot elements to be part of the form of the story, a story which does not include them is defective. To someone who does not take these plot elements as part of the form of the story the stories are predictable and formulaic.

Which is to say, whether writing is predictable and formulaic is in no small part a matter of how one conceives of the story before one reads it. If one thinks of science fiction as just plain old literature, all of those space ships and other worlds become very predictable and formulaic. Thought of as romances, murder mysteries sure do use the same old device to bring the couple together—if they even remember to have a couple to bring together. And so forth; in a sense this is just remembering that a thing can only be good when thought of as what it is—hammers make terrible pillows, etc. But things like hammers and pillows are relatively clear in what they are while stories rarely fit perfectly into any genre and thus are always defining new sub-genres. Indeed, the fact that there is a type of murder mystery called a Christie testifies to that very fact since they are named for stories with plot elements like those found in many of Agatha Christie’s stories.

And there is a sense in which even thinking in terms of genres is a mistake with fiction because it implies a comparison; it is always a mistake to allow the goodness of one thing to eclipse the goodness of another thing. Perfect happiness cannot rest on infinite novelty since infinite novelty is not possible. (Perfect happiness must instead come from the ability to appreciate a good which has already been appreciated, whether in some greater good, or in the thing itself already experienced.) That said, in a world with imperfect creatures thinking within genres is unavoidable and so a clever (or charitable) author will help the reader to understand what sort of story he’s getting into and what he may expect, that he will know where to look for surprises. Because a large part of enjoying a story is knowing where to look for surprises in it.

(There is the obvious exception of books with “twists”, that is to say, books which signal that they are one sort of thing and then suddenly reveal that they are something else. Being more a re-reader than a reader of new things, my own opinion is that these are rarely good stories because the twist is typically a gimmick. Having managed one thing to startle the reader, the authors of twists often seem to not bother themselves with putting in anything else which is novel, and so there’s no value to re-reading them. There are exceptions to that, though, where the books are worth reading even if you know the twist, so I don’t mean to over-generalize.)

At this point I suspect that the relationship of this post to whether writing formulas encourage formulaic writing should be clear. If the reader is familiar with the formula and reads stories written according to it as if the formula defines a genre, then formulas will not encourage formulaic writing at all (except in so far as they elevate formulaic writing that otherwise would have been unreadable to the level of being readable, as I discussed  in the post I linked above). On the other hand, if readers do not understand the formulas as a type of writing, there is a good chance that they will find fiction writing according to the formula to be formulaic because they will be looking for novelty in the wrong place.

This same phenomenon can be seen in music appreciation, by the way. A friend of mine who studied music in college pointed out that each type of music has its typical structures (allowable cords, cord progressions, repeats, and so on) inside of which musicians play around and differentiate themselves. Those familiar with these structures hear the music as music, while those who aren’t familiar with these structures will often hear the music simply as noise. This is why new genres often gain popularity with the young, who have not imprinted on already accepted musical structures and who can easily adapt to a new musical structure. Later, they spread as those who need more time to learn new music’s structures finally do.

There’s even something analogous in looking at the “long hair” of the Beetles. By modern standards, their hair is within norms for businesslike hair styles. In fact, on this album cover they almost look like modern bankers:

Not quite; bankers do have an extremely recognizable style that has shifted only very little with the times. But in their time, the Beetles were icons of rebellion. Today, outside of a few niches like banking, we barely have any standard hair styles for men—except possibly that mullets are bad—and so nothing violates those standards. (Again, except mullets, for some reason.) But the curious upshot of those lack of standards is that if anyone’s hairstyle is recognizable, it is therefore derivative and boring. There is, I think, a lesson to be learned there.

Glory to God in the highest.