Dec 2019 newsletter

This is the December 2019 edition of the newsletter; previous, November 2019 (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.

1 Writings

2 Media

2.1 Links









2.2 Books


  • Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, Tufte 1997 (less of a hodge-podge than Envisioning Information, Tufte walks through, as usual, graphs: how to show multiple versions of things, such as 4D data, on 2D paper? Key case studies are John Snow’s cholera maps of infections vs location vs time, the Challenger disaster’s obscuration of problems vs temperature over the course of Space Shuttle launches, stage magician diagrams of tricks, which illustrate change over time; Tufte then considers showing parallel versions which differ in some abstract dimension; then graphs which must show change in both space & time, such as sunspots or Saturn’s rings, representing Tufte’s usual concept of “small multiples”; in a final section, Tufte highlights favorite art pieces of his which are diagrammatic or symbolic in some sense akin to the foregoing chapters. As usual, a pleasure to read, and it furnished some examples for my page on rubrication too.)

  • The Elements of Typographic Style (third edition), Bringhurst 2004 (I decided to read this based on Rutter’s web version of it; Bringhurst is unexpectedly amusing—I wish I cared about anything as much as Bringhurst cares about typography. No comparison is too strong to condemn a typographical sin: editing fonts, for example makes it “easy for a designer or compositor with no regard for letters to squish them into cattle trains and ship them to the slaughter”—with another author, one would assume the Holocaust connotations were unintentional, but with Bringhurst… Like Rutter, there is a great of material on ratios and page layout which smacks of numerology, but that can be skipped easily, and the rest of the material is useful. The book itself is, of course, nice typographically, exemplifying the use of sidenotes, and although he surprisingly doesn’t cover it at length like he does what seems like everything else, he even provides two nice examples of rubrication for my page.)

  • Experimenter Effects In Behavioral Research, Rosenthal 1976 (long review; consider also Rosenthal’s own description in “Citation Classic”)


2.3 Film/TV


  • Rurouni Kenshin 2012/Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno 2014/Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends 2014 (Less a trilogy than a movie + duology sequel, this live-action adaptation of the popular Rurouni Kenshin manga/anime, familiar to many Americans from its years as an Adult Swim staple; as Kenshin is so anime, I postponed watching it, fearing it would adapt badly and exhibit the worst tendencies of Japanese live-action movies—bombastic over-acting, sketchy SFX, fish-out-of-water J-pop singers & implausibly effeminate male leads plagiarized from Final Fantasy, that sort of thing. (One would rarely accuse Hollywood movies of being subtle and sophisticated, but in comparison to many Japanese movies…) The first movie is the weakest, with cartoonish villains and an unconvincing casting of Sanosuke Sagara (although to be fair, the casting of Saitō Hajime is great). But the duology is much more striking: with Shishio as a proper antagonist, the fights come to life and live-action permits a heightened sense of realism & horror which offsets the ‘animeness’ of the source material—the opening sequence of Kyoto Inferno truly dramatizes Shishio’s ideology that this world is a hell where the strong eat the weak, and scenes like that offset the threats to suspension of disbelief that the (toned down but still improbable) swordplay present. The production values are high, and scenes often elegant; the fight scenes are of high caliber as well. Worth watching for non-fans, as long as you enjoy action movies, although if you are pressed for time, you might skip the first one: you can probably infer everything you need to know from context or skimming Wikipedia.)

  • The Magic Flute (Mozart; Met ‘special holiday encore’/cast; this is a re-broadcast of an abridged performance broadcast through Met HD in December 2006, which apparently was the first ever Met HD broadcast. It demonstrates the improvements in Met HD broadcasts over the years, as it is distinctly lower-resolution than current Met HD broadcasts, and lacks all the featurettes that enliven the intermissions. The abridgement of The Magic Flute appears relatively minimal, dropping a few slow scenes such as Pamina alone in a garden, but nothing major; the real change is that it’s an English adaptation instead of using the original German. I had not been expecting that, and I am not sure I appreciate it because they dropped all the closed-captions, making it harder for me to understand than the German would’ve been. Nathan Gunn’s Papageno bird-catcher character is a particular highlight as he athletically crawls or cavorts around the stage, and he seems to be having by far the most fun of anyone on stage. The stage settings and costumes lean heavily into surrealism: the Queen of the Night’s female servants have heads mounted a meter above their blacked-out faces, controlled by sticks, for no particular reason other than it looks cool & they can, and one almost expects the vulture character Monostatos, played by quite a chubby actor, to draw eyes on his chest and a mouth on his belly and make fat jokes. The music is excellent, of course, and the Queen of the Night’s aria is justly famous—one can scarcely believe that any human singer is capable of hitting such high notes, and so loudly, for so long. The flaw is that aside from Papageno & Monostatos, the characters are uninteresting and the plot is bizarrely schematic and completely reliant on lazy deus ex machina & narrative convenience. Further, it can’t quite seem to make up its mind if it’s supposed to be a farce, or ultimately a serious drama. I charitably assumed while watching that perhaps the opera had been brutally cut down in the adaptation process. It is easy to see why people reach for Masonic interpretations: surely all these heavy-handed symbols and out-of-the-blue twists and cardboard characters mean it must be some sort of contemporary mystery play-like allegory, and there is an esoteric interpretation that renders it a satisfying artistic work as opposed to a series of musical set pieces strung together by a threadbare excuse for a plot? But unless Wikipedia greatly misleads me, no, it’s as absurd as it looks. I don’t think I will want to watch The Magic Flute again the way I do other operas like Carmen.)


  • MLP: season 9 (the final season of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic; while it never regained the online buzz it had early on in 2013 or so, the series kept on trucking, and racked up 222 episodes & a movie, in addition to the various spinoffs. It’s not quite over—instead of the expected full reboot with a new cast, Hasbro appears to launching a new series Pony Life which will keep the Mane Six but go all-comedy in a chibi style, & although details are scarce I doubt I’ll bother—but the main mane thing is over, so to speak. So how does it cap the series? It’s… fine. Like most of the later seasons, it’s good but not great. There’s a relative dearth of catchy songs, and many episodes are disconnected from any more ambitious plot. A few loose ends are tidied up which didn’t really need it (did we really need another Daring Do episode, fun as they are, instead of dealing with Applejack’s parents?) but more are left dangling. The occasional callbacks of characters like Quibble Pants or Weird Al’s Cheese Sandwich can’t hide the lack of inspiration in most episodes. The climax is fun as the villains demonstrate the power of evil friendships, but then the resolution is the same tired laser-beams deus ex machina: could the writers really not think of any way to have their evil friendship collapse naturally, thereby demonstrating its flaws compared to true friendship? That disappointment is partially offset by the final episode including the best song of the season, and a flashforward epilogue to answer various questions while illustrating Twilight Sparkle’s character development in a huge nostalgia trip. It would be difficult for any fan to come away too angry about the ending. It could have been much worse. Good episodes: “Sparkle’s Seven”, “Between Dark and Dawn”, “The Last Laugh”, “Daring Doubt”, “The Big Mac Question”, “The Last Problem”.)

  • Owarimonogatari (a puzzling entry in the oft-puzzling Monogatari series: the tables are turned as Koyomi must investigate someone afflicted by an oddity: himself, although he doesn’t realize it, as he investigates a seriously mentally-ill classmate, Sodachi, who turns out to have an extensive history with him that he is amnesiac about. This is interesting and Sodachi gets some great lines, but it’s unclear why this interlude exists. Owari fills in a great deal of backstory on Koyomi, like his love of mathematics—except who knew any of this backstory needed filling in? Certainly I don’t recall wanting an explanation for that, or indeed that he had any deep love for mathematics… Owari awkwardly transitions to the on-going Shinobu arc stemming from Onimonogatari, covering the other half of the story from Nekomonogatari Black/White, and info-dumping even more, explaining why Koyomi encounters all these oddities in the first place. At this point, the whole Monogatari universe has become complicated enough I feel I need to restart from the beginning because I’m not sure what any of this means.)

2.4 Music