Story Circles

For those interested in the various abstractions about the “shape of stories” post Freitag’s triangle (or pyramid), I sat down one day to try to graph three of the more popular circles currently, er, circulating.

Composite Story Circles
Composite Story Circles (Click to embiggen.)

Open Source / Public Domain Materials

If you’re in need of free to use, and possibly free to adapt – what the legal types call derive – images and possibly audio, there are two places you should definitely bookmark:

  • Library of Congress
  • Smithsonian Open Access encourages downloading, sharing, and reuse of its millions of 4.4 million 2D and 3D digital items from their collections, with the promise of more to come. This includes images and data from across the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, nine research centers, libraries, archives, and the National Zoo. They note there’s no need to ask for permission.
  • Openverse

Install Briss with Homebrew

If like me you found yourself in need of the PDF-cropping abilities of Briss, but have faced the wall that is Java on Apple Silicon, fear not. Homebrew has your back. For those not familiar with Home-brew, it is a package manager, much like the venerable MacPorts – which I used for years to manage my installation of Python before switching to Mini Conda. All three are package managers which make it easy to install a variety of shell programs and Python, and other scripting language, libraries on your computer. All three work on a Mac. Home-brew also works on Linux, and Miniconda, like its larger sibling Anaconda, works on all three current OS platforms: macOS, Linux, Windows.

Han Shot First

The mid-1970s was a golden time for Saturday morning science fiction, with ARK II and Land of the Lost combining with the animated Star Trek series to fill millions of American children with hopes for not only a technological future, but one where progress (and justice) were part of the fabric of the future. We were encouraged to think this way because the original Star Trek continued to play at various hours of the week in syndication. Shows like Logan’s Run and, for those who had access to public television, The Prisoner warned us that the future always bubbled with dystopian possibilities, but we were largely prone to ignore it, especially when in 1977 the original Star Wars promised us a small band of individuals who saw the importance of justice could strike a blow against the larger force that denied it.

We loved these shows, perhaps in no small part, because of the promise of a meaningful existence for all who wanted it. Children of baby boomers that we were, we had seen our parents work, succeed, but also become ever so slightly hollow. It’s not a coincidence that a few years into the next decade, John Mellencamp would have a hit with his song “Pink Houses,” pointing out that the promise of America had yet to be delivered evenly – not unlike William Gibson’s observation 20 years later that “the future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed.”

So when we piled into cinemas set in suburban strip mall parking lots, we had seen the weeds poking up through the concrete as we dropped our bikes to buy an afternoon matinee ticket. We were pre-teens, teens, and kids in our twenties, and while we hadn’t seen much of the world, we had glimpsed things and we had an adolescent sense of justice, right but usually for the wrong reasons.

We had been encouraged to see things this way by a generation of novels and films that often featured outlaw heroes, anti-heroes who did the right thing, sometimes for obscure reasons, and who regularly punished for their efforts or, when there was a reward, it amounted to them surviving at the end of the story. There was no romantic resolution, no settling down to create something larger in Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. Having done what he could, Clint Eastwood’s character survived the end of the film to ride away. nothing more.

We sensed without really knowing that there was in the works a backlash to the progress we longed for: in a few years, Reagan would be president and ketchup would be a vegetable in our school lunches. We were living through the moment in which the first of what would become big box stores were knocking out local small businesses: the shopping malls to which we biked were anchored by TG&Ys and K&Bs or Kmarts.

We had a sense, then, from both our slightest of experiences as well as from the steady stream of fiction we read and watched that the establishment was not easily defeated, and that there were more facets to the establishment than were readily discussed by our parents at the evening dinner table. We gathered from All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor that there was more to politics and government than was admitted to in press releases. We gathered from The Godfather that money and politics were intertwined, and we knew from listening to our parents of the compromises they had to make regularly to get along.

And so when the original Star Wars came out in theaters, and I mean the original original, we fell in love with Hans Solo precisely because he shot first. Here was a man caught between two bureaucracies, the Empire and the Hut mafia, just trying to make his way. He didn’t, from what we could see of the Millennium Falcon, live the high life. He was making it, but just barely. He didn’t even have big dreams: he wasn’t mooning, like Luke, for the future we all mooned for. He just wanted to get through his day and be alive at the end of it.

And so when some creepy green creature squeezed into the booth at the cantina and threatened Solo, we idolized him for seeing the mortal danger and moving to take it out first. It was precisely what we wished we could do, dispatch the technocrats who regularly hammered on us to make sure we completed our prep work before clocking in or who made us clock out before taking out the cardboard boxes at the end of our grocery store shift or who asked us to look the other way while they snorted coke or while they skimmed a little off the top for themselves.

What did we get for our compliance? Nothing. Based on the lines slowly being etched into our parents faces year by year, we suspected that this would be our fate, always to acquiesce to the corporate creepsters who worked the system, any system, only for their own personal gain and somehow also looked good to management.

We were, we realized, doomed to witness the success of assholes over decent people, and it chafed. When Han shot Greedo, we cheered because it was a well-deserved death of an asshole and the ordinary joe was the one who got to do it. It felt triumphant. It felt more triumphant, if I am being honest, than the destruction of the Death Star, because it felt like a personal victory, precisely the kind we never actually ever experienced and worried we never would.

So, in 1977 Han shot first, and it was a win for the little guy, but that kind of win could not be allowed to stand. The kind of morality that power needs to keep us compliance is the kind where you can only strike back if you have been struck first. To strike back as you are slowly being starved … well, that’s a no-no.

And so, as George Lucas himself transcended from a little guy with a dream to a big man with an IP stack that sold everything from action figures to Christmas specials, he became a bureaucracy himself. And one thing a bureaucracy cannot abide is independent action, especially if that action is to stymy one of its operatives. (And, let’s face it, the death of an operative is no more than an inconvenience from a bureaucracy’s point of view: Lucas’ portrayal of Jabba the Hut’s indifference to Greedo’s death is spot on.)

With his newfound position at the top of a merchandising empire, a word I use quite purposefully, it was inevitable that Lucas reached back to re-write history. In doing so in 1997, he let slip what we all knew: Lucas’ sympathies now lay more with the Empire or the Hut than the rebellion or simply guys trying to make it through another day.

The Waning Reluctance of John Wick

The most riveting scene in John Wick is the moment when the Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov tells us John Wick’s story:

John is a man of focus, commitment, sheer will… something you know very little about. I once saw him kill three men in a bar, with a pencil. With a fucking pencil. Then suddenly one day he asked to leave. It’s over a woman, of course. So I made a deal with him. I gave him an impossible task. A job no one could have pulled off. The bodies he buried that day laid the foundation of what we are now. And then my son, a few days after his wife died, you steal his car and kill his fucking dog.

The scene of course stands out from much of the rest of the film in that it is an extended dialogue between two characters who, at least nominally, care about each other. It’s also, as it happens, a father telling his son a fairy tale. (It’s not the right fairy tale, since the film’s writers confused the Russian word for boogeyman, babayka, with the more famous Baba Yaga, but, hey, given licenses for screwing up folk tales in various fictions, it’s acceptable and the series makes up for it by later having Wick check out Afanasyev’s Russian Folk Tales.)

The film needs these quiet moments of talking because it needs breaks between choreographed scenes of violence. What distinguishes the Wick movies from others is that the quiet moments are not light banter but allusions to a prior history that the characters share. Much of what we learn about Wick over the course of the film, and its sequels, is about what he used to do, with the clear indication that this is who he used to be.

The distinction between what he does and who he is is important. If John Wick was only an assassin, especially an assassin working for criminal elements, he would hardly be a sympathetic character. Instead, he is a retired assassin. He is, as Tarasov’s chronicle reveals, more than what he does, which was revealed to him when he met his soon-to-be-wife.

We know from the chronicle, and comments made by other characters, that John Wick was very good at this job. And so, having been a man of action for a very long time, Wick discovers love and retires. And then he loses his wife, who leaves behind a living memory of her in the dog, which Tarasov’s son proceeds to kill, initiating the chain of events, and by that I mean mostly a series of action choreographies, that resolve when everyone, well pretty much, is dead. The movie, the first one anyway, ends with something of a coda, with Wick finding another dog and, having killed the people who killed the memory of his wife, staggers into the distance with a replacement memory that will, it is suggested, perhaps allow him some peace.

The parallels to Reeves’ own history are, of course, quite compelling, with the man behind John Wick having lost a partner and, if not retiring, at least being retiring, or reticent, in general. And so, at least in the case of the first film, one wondered if Keeves wasn’t himself working through things and, perhaps, seeking to put his action-figure days behind him.

In featuring a reluctant protagonist, especially a reluctant protagonist who was once a man of action called into action against his will, the film comfortably fulfills a fairly standard American trope, which has featured in everything from The Equalizer to Gran Torino — though Eastwood perhaps did it best in Unforgiven.

The strength of the reluctant hero narrative is in his knowing the price that must be paid for violence. With that knowledge, the audience understands, and is in fact thankful for, the burden that the hero takes up. We cheer him on because he is doing the dirty work for us — the other side of this particular trope is either individuals or organizations that do such “wet work” despite a lack of gratitude, which featured more in the 70s and 80s than in the present moment.

The resolution is for the reluctant hero to retire once again, as happens at the end of John Wick. That feels right. And it felt right up until John Wick 2 was announced. And then JW3. And now JW4. When you begin to wonder “exactly how many times is this guy going to get dragged out of retirement?” or, at least, “exactly how unkillable is this guy?” At some point, John Wick ceases to be a reluctant hero and is simply the man he used to be, a relentless killing machine, and this is a far less sympathetic character. And yet, as the sequels make clear, there are sympathies to be had.

In all honesty, writing about film is something I have only ever done offline. Reading John DeVore on various film, as well as his take on various facets of American culture, have perhaps made me braver than I should be to try to add to the conversation.

Remembering Lévi-Strauss

As structuralism / grand theory re-emerges in the context of the humanities, I remembered that years ago I had compiled a small reader focused on Lévi-Strauss. I have scanned the items below to (OCRed) PDF if anyone is interested any of the individual pieces or the group as a whole. (I would link directly to the PDF[s], but these items are still under copyright, and I want to keep to fair use.)

Boon, James. 1985. Claude Lévi-Strauss. In The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences, 159-176. Ed. Quentin Skinner. Cambridge University Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1995. Myth and Meaning. Schocken Books.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1971. The Deduction of Crane. In Structural Analysis of Oral Tradition, 3-21. Ed. Pierre Maranda and Elli Köngäs Maranda. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1996. The Story of Lynx. Tr. Catherine Tihanyi. University of Chicago Press.

Nonfiction Books I Wish I Still Had

A list of books I loaned out years ago, and apparently never got back, reminded me of some beloved non-fiction books that I am considering re-purchasing:

Trevor Corson’s Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean

Hayden Carruth’s Sitting in: Selected Writings on Jazz, Blues, and Related Topics

And one book listed as simply as Stonework, and while I remember the small paperback well, I do not remember more. Perhaps it is Charles McRaven’s Stonework: Techniques and Projects.

Installing Git

It’s good to be reminded that things are not easy when it comes to things like analytics. For those already deep into it with well-established setups, it’s easy to forget how hard-won that setup might have been.

I was handed just such a reminder today when I decided that, as part of my effort to re-build my website using GitHub Pages – after a decade and a half on WordPress – that instead of waiting for the web infrastructure to build the site so I could check changes, I would run it locally. This may strike many GH Pages users as obvious, but I was genuinely trying to develop a code-free website that I could then share with colleagues and students to get them started using a text editor and Git. What’s more gratifying than a website? Instant publishing.

GitHub Pages run on Ruby and use the Jekyll gem. A quick web search revealed that the best way to install Ruby on macOS was Homebrew, which is itself written in Ruby. Fine. I use conda to maintain my Python stack. It makes sense. And as an added bonus, people love Homebrew and I know it does a whole lot more.

The convention for installing homebrew is:

/bin/bash -c "$(curl -fsSL https://raw.githubusercontent.com/Homebrew/install/master/install.sh)"

Only that reveals that I have forgotten to install the Xcode Command Line Tools. That’s not so strange to me: when I used to use MacPorts for package management, it was the first step to install MacPorts – which became an almost annual task as Apple increased the frequency with which is released major versions of macOS.

xcode-select --install

Installation done. I re-ran the bash command above. Oops! I forgot to sign the license.

sudo xcodebuild -license

License agreed to, I re-ran the homebrew installation command again. You agree to a few things … and fail. Something about git. I do a few casual web searches that do not solve the problem until I remember to do the obvious: excerpt the error code into the search: xcode-select: Failed to locate 'git'. At some point I stumbled upon the solution:

xcodebuild -runFirstLaunch

I also ended up clearing out the previous homebrew failed installs and starting somewhat from scratch:

sudo rm -rf /usr/local/Homebrew

That’s a bit of a winding path for me, and I have a reasonable amount of patience and an almost reasonable amount of awareness, if not actual knowledge. This would be overwhelming for a lot of new users. I understand now why so many courses in which the basics are taught feature such installations as part of a class meeting. They are just so many weird things that can go wrong, and it helps to have someone who can help you troubleshoot and who can also re-assure you that eventually you will have a working installation and you will not need to worry about any of this … until next time.

Hundred-Page ML Book Companion Website

The Hundred-Page Machine Learning Book has a nice companion website.

Jakobson's Response to Saussure's Cours

From Ladislav Matejka’s “Jakobson’s Response to Saussure’s Cours”:

In the parlance of the octogenarian Jakobson, the decomposition of the phoneme into concurrent distinctive features rejected Saussure’s “linearité du signifiant” and, thereby, one of the general principles of his Cours. In spite of this rejection, it is clear, however, that in the gradual development of distinctive feature theory Jakobson’s decades-long duel with Saussure’s concept of the phoneme had played a crucial role. In fact, it is perhaps not far from the truth to claim that without Jakobson’s life-long dual with Saussure’s Cours, there would not be Jakobson’s distinctive features theory as we know it.

Matejka goes on to note that Jakobson early on rejected the absoluteness of Saussure’s antinomy between synchrony and diachrony: “every system necessarily exists as an evolution, whereas, on the other hand, evolution is inescapably of a systemic nature” (Jakobson 1928).

Matejka, Ladislav. 1997. Cahiers de l’ILSL 9: 169–176.