Empire of the Summer Moon

Empire of the Summer Moon is a somewhat sad but gritty account of the last Native Americans to roam the plains. It’s set against the American frontier’s brutal expansion to finally fulfill its “Manifest Destiny”, the bitter and violent fight with the Native Americans, an abducted white girl who became a full Comanche and the mother to one of the greatest warriors and leaders of the tribe in its waning days and his transition into reservation life.

The book is remarkable for its brutal yet balanced account of the frontier skirmishes. He doesn’t romanticise Native Americans who frequently gang-rape women, scalp their enemies and execute their victims in the most brutal ways imaginable. At the same time he doesn’t gloss over the two-tongued promises of a corrupt American government that could care less about the welfare of Native Americans once they are successfully subdued.

It’s a fascinating book that looks at how European-American settlers, Texas Rangers, Army Generals, Mexicans, and Native Americans formed a fluid society on the frontier. It’s the familiar story of how technology and savage ambition to conquer ultimately wins out over any previous territorial claims against the backdrop of a family, the Parker clan, torn apart by destiny and crossing paths on opposite sides. Many men are made but more are broken in the fight against Native Americans. Aside from Quanah Parker there are many colorful characters that form a rich quilt of successes and tragedies on the frontier.

The account of Quanah Parker’s life, though a minor part of the books’ volume but one the most significant parts, alone is priceless. The tales of bravery on the field and the amazing horsemanship of Comanches are stirring. It’s the non-fiction version of a dime Western with just as much excitement but thick on substance.

Millennium Trilogy

Around a week and a half a go I took up the first book of the Millennium Trilogy and went on a wild ride through the entire series that ended just now. The series takes us into the lives of a suave disgraced middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander, a young, anti-social hacker who scrapes by with odd jobs from a private investigation and security firm. They begin their journey with Mikael working on an old and retired industrial magnate’s personal pet project to find out what happened to his troubled niece. As things heat up a chance reference puts Lisbeth at Mikael’s disposal to wrap up a strange tale that takes on a crazy life of its own, leading to a life and death crisis for our heroes. The trilogy takes a roller coaster ride through international espionage and the dark underbelly of Swedish government.

I don’t recall ever being on the edge of my seat for three volumes of non-stop adrenaline. The heroine Lisbeth Salander is a petite, tattoo-ed, cyber punk with much more than meets the eye. Stieg Larsson breathes life into her like a master where the reader is presented with a morally ambiguous anti-hero that they can’t help but love for her fiestiness and resourcefulness. Throughout the books we get taken on a tour of her dark past that explores what makes her tick. We are shown her personal journey as she matures in hew own way. While she is morally ambiguous to any outside observer if not an outright crook, we see that she never compromises her principles and lives by her own code of vendetta justice that commands its own brand of respect. Larsson pulls off an amazing feat by creating a character so unique and fantastic yet so vibrantly real.

Mikael Blomqvist is a middle-aged journalist that still embodies the high ideals of youth and boyish charm he entered the profession with. He is at once a shrewd journalist careful to play his cards right yet so stupidly naive and unflinching in his beliefs. Outside of his untiring dedication to uncovering the truth and willingness to put everything on the line, he is almost like a baby that needs strong and smart women to keep him on course.

These two characters and the ensemble cast form such a potent mixture that readers are easily lost in a potent mix of journalism, cyber crime, and law. Stieg Larsson may have died before his legacy saw the light of day but the trilogy couldn’t have been more complete. As I embarked on the last volume I was touched by a pang of sadness that the journey would be over and over for good. Larsson died before his first book reached the press and became an international sensation. A largely complete but not quite finished manuscript in the series lies on the hard-drive of a computer in his common-law wife’s possession as she is locked in an acrimonious battle with Larsson’s family that would not be out of place in his own novels. Although I wish Larsson could have lived to see this and would gladly read another installment in this fabulous series, I can only say that the trilogy as it stands is a beautifully complete work that deserves to stay in its perpetual state of perfection. It’s the stuff legends are made of. An astounding work of art, an artist dead before his time without seeing its success, just like the story of Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium Trilogy.

On the contrary, I’m satisfied and feel richer for the experience of reading a work so entertaining and complete. Although I’m curious about what other adventures Larsson had cooked up for Salander, I’m happy to let the Millennium Trilogy stand as it is and can only hope that another modern master steps up to fill his shoes.


Shopgirl takes you on a journey of bittersweet love by Mirabelle, a Vermont girl who finds herself catering to the rich behind the counter of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. She’s a starving artist of sorts, lost in LA. She meets two men. Jeremy, an awkward dreamer with a heart of gold. He’s quirky to say the least. He’s into stencils, typography, rock music, and works as a designer for an amp company. Ray is a much older multi-millionaire that flys around LA, Seattle, and New York. Mirabelle doesn’t think much of Jeremy but seeks him out from loneliness to satisfy her physically. Even that was terribly underwhelming. To Ray she pretty much gives him her everything, laying it out on the table for his taking.

Ray sees her as an object but treats her like a queen, showering her with gifts. Jeremy treats her like an object but really cares for her deeply. While Mirabelle goes on a painful journey of unrequited love, Jeremy is travelling on the road with a band that takes him under their wing and opens his eyes to personal betterment.

The movie is exquisitely shot. You can feel Mirabelle’s pain as the lives of the three characters intertwine. Ray’s character is a bastard but Steve Martin gives him a lonely and fragile shadow that keeps you from hating him out right. Jason Schwartzman gives Jeremy a lovable quality while infusing the character with a quirkiness in his own league. He does a masterful job of transforming his character through self-improvement while keeping enough quirkiness to make it real.

Honestly, while Steve Martin doesn’t ruin the movie, I would have liked to see someone else play his role. Someone less known that could infuse it with depth and more believability. Claire Danes’ performance as Mirabelle is Academy Award winning for all the subtle touches and heart-rending pain she conveys. The movie packs a considerable punch near the end and does a wonderful job exploring the meaning of love across the gaps of age, wealth, and personality.

The Anatomy of an American Teen Comedy

I’ve been watching a lot of comedies lately, meaning to review every single one of them. The problem is, even though I enjoy them immensely, every time I sit down to write a review my mind draws a blank. I’d be lucky to get three sentences that pretty much sum up the movie. These summaries are nothing like the “treatments” given by Hollywood types with slicked-back hair and aviator sunglasses, with a smug grin trying so hard not to laugh at their own jokes, “now get this…” These summaries would reduce the greatest summer blockbuster hit to less excitement than the blurb on a can of dog food. I get the sense that there must be a template, maybe even a Microsoft Word template, for Hollywood teen comedies.

The Cast

Main Guy
The main character is either a nerd or stud but most likely a nerd (preferably a virgin that doesn’t know his true potential yet). He is usually a good-natured guy that is struggling to be accepted or trying to stay true to his love or crush and this usually leads him into an assortment of trouble.

Best Friend
The best friend’s type usually depends on the main character (if the main guy’s a nerd, he’s a nerd). The best friend is the devil on the shoulder providing worldly advice while leading the character astray though never on purpose. The friend is a loyal accomplice and fellow traveller, serving to round out the main character’s persona.

Other Nerd
The other nerd serves a variety of purposes depending on the movie’s requirements. The other nerd is either other-worldly brilliant or borderline disadvantaged, serving as the but of jokes and physical humor. If the main guy’s also a nerd, the other nerd helps him look cooler than he actually is.

The Crew
If the cast is mainly supposed to be college-aged, there will most likely be a crew of friends. They may be fraternity brothers, room mates or simply friends.

The Girl
This is the object of desire. She is either an impossibly hot, popular girl or the main character’s best friend from prehistoric days that he’s been hiding feelings for her the whole time.

The Plot

The plot of a comedy usually revolves around an impossible challenge, usually involving travel by car. The protagonist has to go somewhere by a certain time or is on a quest, usually to lose their virginity or meet some girl. The “road trip” is a marvelous device because it allows an ensemble cast, a buddy pair or a crew, to get involved in a plethora of comedic situations and make an exit before it gets old. Usually, the vehicle of choice is either stolen (such as a taxi or school buss) or borrowed (big brother’s prized sports car, dad’s Cadillac, etc.) and takes an unusual beating. In many cases, if the car is important to the main character’s well-being, it gets restored to mint condition.

Although the journey usually involves a round trip, despite the crazy mishaps and impossible situations on the way there, the return journey is always uneventful and wraps up in the last 15 minutes of the movie as the main character summarizes all the wonderful developments since the fateful trip.

Situations along the way involve an assortment of sexual humor. On a road journey, they usually stop somewhere along the way for a rest or diversion and usually leads to a sexual encounter or being chased around by a villain of some sort.

Despite the impossible odds of completing the quest, the hero of our tale emerges victorious and the laundry list of crimes committed along the way are brushed aside.

The Format of Babel or In Text We Trust

Over the past several days I’ve been wrangling with text of various forms and formats. More specifically I’ve been trying to get various references and documentation into Emacs (more on that some other day). As I was going through all the various sizes and shapes that text came in, I could only marvel at the number of seemingly interchangeable yet arbitrarily unique ways text is molded into one form or another.

Take this “eBook” revolution on our hands. The Epub format used by iPads and Kindles are essentially XHtml wrapped up in a zip file conveniently named “epub”. I’m sure that if this was the 1990s or Adobe had its way, it would be in some kind of a proprietary binary format (like a compiled program) that sends corporate headquarters your device ID and GPS location, ready to transmit your name to the authorities or disable your device on the slightest infringement. I think it’s mostly thanks to the disaster that is PDF and the lucky circumstance that no one company still has the lock down on digital publishing that we were able to adopt a relatively decent format like epub (compared to say PDF).

Yet the road to get here is littered with many forgotten and esoteric standards among some well known. Some of the formats I encountered these past several days range from Latex, HTML, xhtml, txt, rtf, SGML, texi, LyX, rhtml, markdown, and textile, and chm. All of them are formats used to document source code, generated from commenting templates for some of the more well-known open-source projects. All of the formats are used in some capacity by prominent branches of software. For example texi files are used by GNU open source projects after they are compiled into “info” files that can easily be ready by Emacs. All the formats are based on either plain text with modest formatting or HTML. Some of the newer projects use their own templating engine with HTML output for easy publishing to websites (to provide search engine fodder for api documentation). The good thing is that most of the markup is lightweight and it’s essentially text. They are usually designed to make navigation easy by stipulating headers or other standards for cross-linking within the document so you could jump from an index to the relevant documentation quickly.

The problem is each of these formats scratch someones itch and none of them are completely interchangeable. Usually there’s some kind of intermediary format that converts into the final form. PDF is a prominent option but once you transform it into PDF, heaven help you if you misplace the original.

Looking around at some of the more recent HTML based varieties had me thinking. While these documents are decent as HTML documents with minimal, clean design and just enough javascript to make navigation easy, it doesn’t beat having the text in a malleable form at your fingertips. It just can’t compete.

We live in a world where we are surrounded by text, trade in text, yet for the most important pieces we are still too scared to completely let go and resign ourselves to the free flow of ideas and words. We are still coming to terms with the way we are willing to trade text.

One thing I’m glad to see with epub is the resurgence of formats like latex. The problem with pdf, postscript, and any of the Microsoft Office formats (that have opened up quite a bit) is that they try to mix up presentation and content. A lot of us are probably old enough to remember how buggy Microsoft Word used to be. It was like the Wild West where you always had to keep one hand on your gun (the save button) before that pesky Microsoft bandit pissed away your days work with “Word has crashed what would you like to do? [Exit] [Cancel]”. Of course, we all know that pressing [Cancel] takes you right back to the dialog. If you’re lucky you might find a garbled up file with fragments of what you thought you typed amidst what could only look like communication from alien life forms. All you did was type a few words.

Before Microsoft, standards like Latex kept the raw content separate from the presentation. You could add content to your heart’s content and then adjust the format when you’re done. You never have to deal with mind-boggling situations like you get with Microsoft Word where shifting a diagram one pixel to the right suddenly turns the preceding paragraph into a 15pt bold headline in bright blue.

Somewhere deep down inside, people are trying to come back to simplicity as seen with the resurgence of “writing programs” that essentially strip away all the bells and whistles to give us a full screen of nothing but our own text so that we can focus on writing.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a delightful comedy starring Michael Caine as a con artist with aristocratic leanings preying on wealthy women. Steve Martin is a petty con scouring Europe for easy marks. When the two cross paths, Caine makes life harder for Martin with an assortment of obstacles when Martin finally snaps and proposes a bet to see who can out con the other.

Michael Caine does a brilliant job as a gentleman and a con who is bound by misplaced notions of honor. Martin is a rather boorish con artist with low standards but plays for much lower stakes. The war of the cons heightens the comedy as they get caught up playing cons within a con to outwit the other and secure their turf. Although the plot is simple there are enough twists and turns to carry it and the performances are masterful to say the least.

Grown Ups

Grown Ups is a feel-good Adam Sandler movie about best friends from junior high coming together for their coach’s funeral. The boyhood friends were part of the only championship winning team from their school and the ones their coach was the proudest of. Despite the coach admonishing them to “live every moment like the final buzzer is about to go off”, only Sandler’s character is a resounding success (as a multi-millionaire Hollywood agent). All the kids are caught up in modern life, playing video games and texting their nannies. Adults are caught up in their own lives not really enjoying or appreciating what they have.

Sandler rents out a lakeside house, the same place they celebrated the championship as a kid, where they show their own kids how to enjoy life old-school style. In the course of their adventures, each of the characters rediscover an appreciation for each other and their loved ones. Kids become kids again. Adam Sandler and his high-powered fashion designer wife unwind.

The movie was family-friendly and good-natured though Sandler likes to haze his cast of regulars with some physical gags. There weren’t any terribly hysterical moments or heavy preaching. It had a good balance of comedic and heart-warming moments.

Wanderlust and Emacs for Your Gmail Needs

Wanderlust is quite a nice IMAP client for Emacs. It’s pretty fast and does a great job of handling email. Unfortunately there isn’t much documentation and some of it is in Japanese. To get started you need to install Wanderlust and its dependent libraries. You’ll probably also need this version of ssl.el for sending email. For a mirror of the latest sources go here. Follow the instructions to install those in order.

Once you have those in place, checkout this sample setting for some defaults to get it working with gmail. Also, wanderlust will not show all your folders by default. You need a ”.folders” file to tell it what folders to show. The good thing about this is you can fine-tune the labels/folders you want to display and even create virtual folders (think saved search). Here’s a sample folder file. Notice that the ”%” denotes IMAP folders and ”!” are used for negative conditions.

You might want to study key bindings to get used to them (since they are not the typical ones you expect) or remap them.

For some reason the default sort order is ascending order. Use this setting for the usual (although you need to sort folders again after fetching with “S !Date”.

(add-to-list 'wl-summary-sort-specs 'rdate)

Here are some of the better articles on setting things up to help you out:

Customising Wanderlust

My Wanderlust setup

E-mail with Wanderlust

wanderlust tips and tricks

wanderlust iii

Once you get it set up and working, it’s quite snappy after the initial download and the saved searches aka virtual folders are really nice because you get easy access to things such as “unread messages in an inbox meeting X conditions” or whatever you can dream of. After, you get yourself authenticated run the code below to store authentication credentials. You can flush them anytime.

M-x elmo-passwd-alist-save

Hope that’s enough to get you started.

Hurt Locker

There are a lot of stressful jobs in this world. Stock broker on a New York trading floor, emergency room surgeon, or a bomb squad in Iraq. Hurt Locker follows three soldiers in a explosives disposal unit. Sergeant James is the team leader flown in to replace Sergeant Thompson after he got blown to bits by a bomb detonated with a cell phone held by a terrorist disguised as a meat vendor. Sergeant Sanborn is a tough veteran and Specialist Eldridge is the youngest of the team and provides support to the other two.

Thompson sets the tone early by ripping off the plywood, designed to keep mortars out, from the windows of his barracks because “wants sunlight”. Plus, it wouldn’t be much help if mortars come in from the roof he notes. James has a different notion of danger that is fearless and pragmatic. He also has trouble falling in with standard procedure.

It’s against this backdrop that the movie progresses as it tracks the days left in their tour. The movie isn’t plot-driven but more a collection of gruesome scenes of suspense in the desert heat. It captures the futility of a war without clear enemies as these soldiers go from crisis to crisis against bombs and locals harboring hostility thinly veiled with apathy. It’s a frightening world where bombs assembled with explosives and Radio Shack parts can be planted anywhere and detonated with a cheap cell phone.

James has a taste for danger that’s borderline reckless as he faces down one bomb after another with steady nerves but it grates on Sanborn who simply wants to play it by the book and get out with minimal damage. Eldridge is the young guy torn up inside as he struggles with the ordeal of war and watching people die before his very eyes, leaving him with guilt. James betrays a sensitive and deeply patriotic side of himself despite his appearance as a weary maverick. He’s a natural leader that doesn’t feel alive unless he’s looking into death’s eyes.

The portrayals of the soldiers are gripping because the soldiers themselves are almost caricatures of your stereotypical soldier yet each actor gives their character a raw but multi-layered depth. While the scenes are surreal they do a great job of keeping suspense and tension at a peak. It’s definitely one to watch.

Superman Returns

Superman Returns definitely got the short end of the stick in the super hero comics reboot extravaganza sweepstakes. It’s a shame really, though understandable. Brandon Routh does an eery job of recapturing Christopher Reeves likeness and carrying on the legacy but that’s probably the greatest flaw of this movie, that it tried to carry on the legacy too much. Rumor has it that Warner Bros. wants to reboot it yet again with more darkness because hey it worked for Batman like a charm, so why not Superman right? Well, Batman was always dark. Even when he was wearing purple briefs and molesting Robin behind the scenes you can’t argue that the premise of losing your parents to violent crime as a child and re-inventing yourself to become a vigillante while living a double life isn’t potent with all kinds of issues.

Superman on the otherhand flew in from another planet, with super human powers. Although he lost his parents and the planet he was on, he was raised by loving parents. Superman represents a wholesome America hell-bent on doing good no matter what extremes he has to go through. Sure, he battles villains but he also spends a lot of time fishing people out of their own messes or brushes with bad luck. He’s a well-adjusted guy with a pure heart.

In Superman Returns, we literally find Superman returning after paying what was left of his planet a visit wandering the galaxy much like how a burnt out high-powered executive might backpack around the world. He goes back to the Daily Planet to claim his unremarkable job only to find that the love of his life, Lois Lane, has moved on to a new love and even has a child. To add insult to injury she won a Pullitzer Prize for an article telling the world why they didn’t need Superman.

Lex Luthor is out of jail and up to no good and the world is in chaos as usual. As Superman struggles with his still strong feelings with Lois Lane, he must carry on saving the world and face Lex Luthor. I thought the movie was well done. Nothing really amazing but not badly written. The Daily Planet is a tough sell in this age when all newspapers are struggling and Clark Kent transforming into Superman in broad daylight is hard to swallow when there are so many cameras around us. Also, the 9/11 attacks change the backdrop of New York so fundamentally and with all the terrorism and minor conflicts in the world, it makes you wonder how many Supermans the world needs.

So, I think the main problem with this movie is with framing the Superman universe in a way that’s relevant to the current audience and making Superman human without sacrificing his wholesomeness. I still struggle to understand Warner Bros. reasons for shelving the Superman franchise. I guess the Darknight success had them expecting big bucks but a $400 million box office on a $200 million budget is nothing to sneeze at and full of potential.