Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Read It, Watched It, and Heard It, 2017 Wrap-Up

Today is Monday, January 1st, 2018.

Well, we made it. 2017 is gone at last, and good riddance. It’s been a year from hell. There were bright spots — we managed to close on a house and move — but there were so many difficulties, including my infant daughter’s open-heart surgery. (She is doing very well, fortunately, off all medications and practically walking).

Looking back over my notes, I realize that I’ve been sick to some degree for nearly half the year. It’s gotten better and worse, but through some combination of allergies and respiratory infections, I’ve been coughing every day for months. I am now seeing a doctor and I’ve been using an asthma inhaler for a couple of weeks. That has helped, and in combination with some extra rest over the holidays, it seems like I’m getting on top of it. I’ve had ten days off, and that’s been a great blessing. Tomorrow morning I head back to work.

Pottscasting

One bright spot this year has been my collaboration with Grace on the Grace and Paul Pottscast. We’ve produced over 24 hours of new conversations this year. We’re putting the show on hiatus until January 21st so that we can spend some time doing behind-the-scenes preparation. Grace and I both want to do some writing for the show, and I want to work on our technical capabilities. For example, I want to get us set up to have live guests over Skype, in such a way that we can all hear each other clearly and get as clean a recording as possible.

I don’t have much of a budget for new hardware, and I’ve been trying to use my existing gear as much as possible. My existing recording setup is an antiquated Mac Mini, with an old Roland FA–66 interface. The interface is “prosumer” rather than “professional” quality, but it doesn’t sound too bad. When I get it all set up and working, I just leave it that way, and don’t even power it off. It’s perfect for the recording setup as it is now. I have two microphones, that go into Cloud Lifter preamps, and then into the two XLR inputs of the FA–66. Logic records the raw audio from these inputs. My Logic project also has some compressing and panning on these channels, to make a “control room mix.” This goes to the computer output channels 1 and 2 of the FA–66, which drives the headphone output.

From the headphone output jack of the FA–66, I’m using a stereo (1/4" TRS) cable to drive the stereo input of my ART HeadAMP V headphone amplifier. This takes advantage of a nifty feature of the HeadAMP V: it is rated to handle unbalanced line-level inputs all the way up to +18dBV. The nominal level for consumer audio gear is –10 dBV, or about 0.316V. Professional audio gear usually uses +4dBu, which translates to +1.78dBV, or about 1.228V. +18dBV is almost 8V RMS, which is much higher. That’s a lot of gibberish to most people, but what it means is that I can use the FA–66 headphone output, which is meant to drive the small speakers in a pair of headphones, not line-level inputs, to drive the headphone amplifier input instead, without overloading it. (I wish more headphone amps had this feature, because the used HeadAMP V isn’t going to last forever.) This means that Grace and I have a decently loud and clear control room mix in our headphones while we record, but I still have access to the line outputs for channels 1 and 2 on the back of the FA–66.

It seems like it ought to be easy to just run Skype on the same computer I’m using to record, and configure Skype’s input to be the control room mix, so that the person we’re talking to can hear us. Skype’s output should then get recorded in raw form, the same way our microphone audio is recorded. Then we want a second mix, a “control room + Skype output” (possibly with plug-ins on the Skype output, if necessary), and we should send the “control room + Skype output” to our headphones (but not to the Skype input).

In practice, it’s not really that easy. This is because both the hardware and the software are not as flexible as we might want. Some sound-producing and sound-consuming applications let you choose which audio device they use. Some programs let you set the input and output device separately. Some programs let you choose which channels on a given device they will use. Skype is not one of them. The developers assume that most people will be using the built-in microphone and speakers (or headphone jack) on their computers, and there is not really an “expert” mode.

There used to be some programs you could use to create a special software-based audio device, a special configurable mix bus just to solve the problem of sending audio from one program to another, entirely in software. There was a free program called Soundflower, and I used to use Soundflower a lot, but years ago it stopped working right. Since I have some experience developing Mac audio drivers, I always intended to take a look at it and see if I could fix it, but it’s one of those things that always got pushed down the priority list, and my driver development experience was back in 2003 or so, and a lot has changed. I see there is now a 2.0 beta 2 version that came out in 2014. It might work. There’s also a program called Jack, and a MacOS X version exists. I used to use Jack with some success, but that was a long time ago. I see there’s a “version 0.9 beta 32” released in 2014. That also might work.

It looks like Rogue Amoeba has a commercial product called Loopback, and I like their software, but it seems like I would need to update my 2009 Mac Mini to MacOS 10.10, which would very likely break everything. It seems more like the kind of thing I would want to try if I was setting up a new computer with the latest everything. But new computers don’t have FireWire interfaces, so I’d have to replace my recording interface anyway. And so I’m back to “Hey, it’s old, but like my 15-year-old Honda Element, it’s paid for, and it is working reliably, so enjoy it while it lasts, and try not to break it!” Because even if I get the software-routing concept working, there’s an element of risk. They use CPU, and my old Mac Mini is not all that fast. And the failure mode of these software audio routing tools is usually like this: it worked fine in testing. On the day you are doing a critical recording, you are partway into a great interview, and the audio locks up and starts buzzing or stuttering. If you are lucky, it crashes noticeably, so that you realize something went wrong. If you are unlucky, it seems fine until you realize that the finished recording is unusable.

So, let’s see what other options are available. We might be able to put a second audio interface right on the same Mac Mini, and configure Skype to use the second interface, and then hook them together. But again, it’s an old computer, and that might be pushing what it can handle. So I’m more inclined to do what I can with a second computer.

It just so happens that I have a freshly purchased ThinkPad laptop with an SSD, running Windows 10. I’ve gotten it configured the way I like it and it seems to be very reliable so far. So I started considering adding an audio interface to this laptop (since it has only a headphone audio output, which will not support line level output, and no audio jack of any kind, just a built-in microphone).

It doesn’t have FireWire, so I can’t use my second Roland FA–66 (and besides, that’s currently set up on the computer I use to do the actual production of the finished audio files). But it does have USB, and there are plenty of USB audio interfaces out there, and it seemed like I ought to be able to find a cheap used device.

Since I’m using the headphone output of the FA–66 to send my “control room mix” to the headphone amplifier, the FA–66 still has balanced +4dBu 1/4" TRS output jacks for channels 1 and 2, and I’m not currently using these. In fact there are also similar spare hardware outputs for channels 3 and 4. So it looks like if I sent the “control room minus Skype” mix out those jacks, I could send that mix Skype’s input, if I had something to plug them into. The balanced outputs are industry-standard so that should be pretty easy to find something that will accept them.

The inputs to the FA–66 (for the Skype output) are a problem, though. I have unused jacks for input channels 3 and 4, but they are unbalanced RCA connectors of the type you find on consumer audio gear like CD players. So I will need a way to accommodate –10 dBV levels.

One option would be to find a USB audio interface that has balanced +4dBu inputs on channels 1 and 2, but unbalanced –10dBV outputs on channels 1 and 2. Why 1 and 2? Because Skype on the PC laptop is also not flexible in its audio routing: it looks like it will allow me to specify the output device, but will default to channels 1 and 2, with no option to change it. I have not looked into using Jack or some equivalent tool to create a virtual audio device, but for now let’s not make things more complicated than they have to be.

I looked at a lot of used USB audio interfaces, but could not find one with those specs.

Finally, the FA–66 does have S/PDIF digital optical connectors. I have played with S/PDIF over optical on my Mac Pro, which has connectors built-in, and they worked fine. Some Mac laptops used to have built-in digital optical connectors, and if I had one of those I’d be trying to get this working first, since I already have optical cables, but I don’t, and it looks like Apple has gotten rid of this hidden option on newer models. There are USB audio interfaces that have S/PDIF connectors. I might have been able to find something that was just a 2 in, 2 out USB to S/PDIF adapter. However, the two interfaces have to run at the same clock rate, and I’m not sure I want to limit my clocking options unnecessarily. I’m also not sure such a solution would really be reliable when using a USB adapter. I really don’t want to be in the middle of a session and discover that my audio is crackling because the clocking is unreliable, and I have to try to diagnose and fix the problem on the fly.

So with all this cluttering up my brain, I went to the Ann Arbor Music Go Round to see if they had some used piece of gear that might solve my problem. I thought they would probably have a number of low-end USB audio interfaces to choose from, but in fact they didn’t have much (maybe they were cleaned out by people looking for things for Christmas). But buried in a rack, with no tag on it, I did find a Tascam US–2000. Tascam gear is usually pretty good-sounding and reliable, it seemed like there were recently updated drivers available for Windows and Mac, and they wanted only $150 for it, so I brought it home.

So far in my experiments I’ve determined that it works OK under Windows 10 and the outputs sound fine. I can leave it set up in my recording room and when I need to use Skype, just bring my ThinkPad down and plug it in via USB. I also confirmed that if I use the balanced +4dBu outputs for output channels 1 and 2 to drive the RCA connectors on the FA–66 inputs 1 and 2, it sounds like ass, even messing with the input level control on the FA–66. That’s just a function of the difference in voltage range between +4dBu and –10dBV gear.

So, to try to fix that problem, I also ordered from Sweetwater a couple of Ebtech 2-channel “Line Level Shifters.” These are essentially direct boxes designed for use with line connections instead of instruments. They are passive devices that just use transformers to convert between –10dBV and +4dBu signal levels. It’s not always obvious since direct boxes are usually used to convert to +4dBu audio levels, but passive direct boxes of all sorts can be run “backwards” too. Putting these in the signal chain should solve the audio level mismatch problem. If it sounds OK, I’ll be able to configure the two mixes within Logic on my Mac Mini and then the audio side should be taken care of.

Once the audio side works OK, I will have to try to verify that the Internet side works OK. Right now we have a single coaxial cable drop running to our bedroom, on the ground floor. I have the cable modem and Wi-Fi router in that bedroom. But our recording room is downstairs. The Wi-Fi is OK in the basement, at least for things like e-mail and download files. I have an Airport Express in the basement, set up to extend the upstairs network. But I’m not entirely sure the bandwidth we have down there is really good enough over to maintain a high-quality Skype call. If it isn’t, we might have to consider other options, like running Ethernet cable and/or relocating the cable modem and Wi-Fi router — potentially quite a bit more work just to get us up and running, recording conversations over Skype.

Lessons Learned?

Well, none to speak of. I’ve known for a long, long time now that:

  • Hardware solutions are never quite as flexible as you want them to be, but at least if they follow some standard or de facto standard (like +4dBu balanced audio connections), you can generally make them work somehow.

  • Software solutions are really never quite as flexible as you want them to be, and also much more fragile over time.

My dream audio interface is fully configurable. For example, if it had six input channels, each of those channels should have an XLR connector, a TRS connector, and an RCA connector. Ideally you’d have a hardware switch to convert between –10dBV and +4dBu. To do this without loss of quality might require separate signal paths from each channels DAC. Each output channel should have similar options. Each input should also have a very high quality preamp you can switch in. There should also be an option for +48V phantom power on each XLR connector, switchable per channel. This all ought to be possible, even if costly.

My dream OS is also fully configurable for audio. The functionality of Soundflower, Jack, and Loopback ought to be built in to the OS. The defaults could be simple, but there ought to be an advanced mode that enables fully flexible audio routing including resampling and dither (with appropriate warnings about loss of quality). Any application that uses audio ought to use a standard system facility for selecting its inputs and outputs. These should be at least as standardized between applications as the user interfaces for opening and saving files. Scratch that — they should be more standard.

All this is quite doable, but I think there is little incentive for operating system vendors to provide this functionality. For one thing, it would give you the ability to pirate just about any audio, and so such an operating system could be considered criminal under the DMCA.

This is why we can’t have nice things. (Well, it’s one reason). So much is always broken. For example, I have a nice powered Bluetooth stereo speaker that I quite like, the Altec Lansing Boom Jacket 2. I like to use this when we’re watching a video from the iTunes store on my iPad, for example, an episode of Doctor Who. On the iPad, it works geat. It’s very reliable. I paired it up once, and now if I turn it on anywhere near the iPad, the iPad will recognize it and connect automatically, in just a few seconds.

I tried to get it working with my old, battered ThinkPad, running Windows 7. It is very unreliable. It takes several minutes to connect. Once it is connected, the connection will drop on its own. I’d have to make the whole family wait while I tried disconnected it, reconnecting it, uninstalling drivers, reinstalling drivers, trying to quickly follow the instructions in “how-to” articles and “how-to” videos, etc. Nothing worked, and eventually I gave up.

When I got a brand-new ThinkPad running Windows 10 I thought “maybe this one will work better with my Bluetooth speaker.” But in fact it has exactly the same problems. And in fact it is even worse. I once again turned of Bluetooth on my iPad and wound up making the whole family wait while I struggled to get it connected to my ThinkPad. I only got it working once, for a minute or two. From search results it seems I’m not alone in my frustration with Windows support for Bluetooth devices.

Besides working fine with my iPad, it also works fine with my Android phone. So I strongly suspect it isn’t the device. It probably isn’t the PC hardware either. It’s probably Microsoft. And while the control panels look cosmetically different under Windows 10, it doesn’t look like the underlying Bluetooth connectivity support is any better at all.

Indeed, the biggest changes I’ve noticed between Windows 10 and Windows 7 is all the garbage advertising I had to struggle to disable and turn off. That, and the fact that the Windows Edge browser still wants to run at every opportunity, and supposedly can’t be removed.

It seems like not much has changed.

Anyway.

I have some other ideas I want to try on the podcast, but for now I will keep quiet about them. If they work out, they will be a surprise. If not, I won’t have disappointed anyone except myself!

Check back on January 21st. If all goes well and nothing breaks too badly, we should have the first episode of 2018 available! I hope it will be a good one.

Writing

I also had a chance to do some writing. I’ve had some work in progress — actually dozens of pages of notes and a couple of unfinished attempts at essays — about Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? for several years now, but I have not really been able to focus on it and create a coherent essay or monograph. This past week I was able to finish a reasonably coherent essay about the book, using some material from Dick’s published Exegesis to support my ideas. A version of this essay might find its way into a print journal later this year. If not, I’ll probably share it here.

Books Completed

I’ve tried for the last few years to have a general goal of completing a book a week, on average. In 2015 I completed about 52 books. In 2016 I completed fewer, only about 48. This year was disastrous by comparison.

The previously mentioned chronic illness cut into my reading time in a couple of ways. Because my throat was constantly sore, reading out loud had a tendency to produce fits of coughing. So many nights I was not able to read bedtime stories to my kids. Sometimes I would try, and it would just turn into me coughing until I had to give up. Some nights I just knew it was not worth the effort. I also was mildly feverish many days, and woke up feeling exhausted; many mornings I tried to do some reading before work, as has been my habit, but found that because of the fever I just couldn’t concentrate.

Second, the podcast — recording it, producing it, and writing for it — took up a significant amount of time. I don’t really regret scaling back my reading for that reason. The podcast has helped me to focus my reading, and select and read more non-fiction, and read it in greater depth, to prepare to discuss it. That’s been of value.

Third, I spent a lot of reading time on magazine articles this past year — I had a subscription to the New Yorker, and managed to read all of them. I decided, though, to let my subscription lapse and focus more on books.

Anyway. Looking through my stacks and shelves of books, and notes, it seems that I finished the following books in the 2017 calendar year:

  1. Essentialism by Greg McKeown (unabridged CD audiobook)
  2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (unabridged audiobook from iTunes)
  3. Washington by Ron Chernow (abridged CD audiobook)
  4. Hamilton by Ron Chernow (abridged CD audiobook)
  5. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (bedtime story reading)
  6. The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (bedtime story reading)
  7. Wollheim’s World’s Best SF Series 4
  8. White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America by Joan C. Williams
  9. My Struggle, Book 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  10. My Struggle, Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  11. My Struggle, Book 5 by Karl Ove Knausgaard
  12. Revenger by Alastair Reynolds
  13. Redemption Ark by Alastair Reynolds (re-read)
  14. Deep Navigation by Alastair Reynolds
  15. Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds (re-read)
  16. House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (re-read)
  17. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (re-read)
  18. The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross
  19. Proxima by Stephen Baxter
  20. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
  21. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling (re-read, bedtime story reading)
  22. Secret of the Marauder Satellite by Ted White
  23. Our Revolution: a Future to Believe In by Bernie Sanders
  24. A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren
  25. Listen, Liberal! by Thomas Frank
  26. The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White

That only averages out to about a book every two weeks, not a book a week. That’s disappointing. Maybe I should just try to set more realistic expectations for 2017, and try to focus more on quality than quantity. After all, it’s an accomplishment of an entirely different order to finish a book like The Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre than it is to get through an unexceptional science fiction novel like Proxima.

I’ve discussed some of the books above in previous blog posts in 2017, but it looks like some I haven’t mentioned at all. Some of them were books that I have read before. In particular, the Revelation Space novels of Alastair Reynolds, although they are dark space opera, were “comfort reading” for me, because of their familiarity. Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World served a similar purpose.

Rather than trying to rank them, I will just point out some that I didn’t feel were entirely worth my time. These are Essentialism, Wintersmith, Absolution Gap, Proxima, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and A Fighting Chance. I’ve discussed most of these either in blog posts or in podcast episodes. Goblet is of course essential to read if you are trying to complete the Harry Potter books, but it seems to be the worst of the seven original novels, and it didn’t work well as a children’s story because the story moves along with painful slowness.

We also read most of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stories. I’m not counting that as a book we read, but you can find them in The Collected Fiction of William Hope Hodgson, Volume 2: The House on the Borderland and Other Mysterious Places. That book is out of print and hard to find, but they are also available via project Gutenberg as free e-books.

I still have Last Call by Tim Powers on my pile of books to finish. I should just start it over and either finish it, or give it back to the friend I borrowed it from.

Other Books of Note

In addition, I made at least some progress on the following books, and intend to finish them as I am able:

  1. d’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths Ingri and Edgar Parin (bedtime story reading)
  2. The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes by Carolyne Larrington (reference material for talking about the Norse myths)
  3. Unspeakable by Chris Hedges and David Talbot (Grace and I will probably review this book on the podcast)
  4. False Choices: the Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton edited by Liza Featherstone (source material for the podcast)
  5. The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino (bedtime story reading)
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Oliver Ready
  7. Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  8. Oliver Twist
  9. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
  10. I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett (was intended for bedtime story reading)
  11. The Compleat Enchanter L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt
  12. The Once and Future King by T. H. White (I read this as a child, so it’s a re-read; I’m skipping the first part, The Sword in the Stone, and starting with The Queen of Air and Darkness, because I already re-read The Sword in the Stone in standalone form earlier this year)
  13. The Speech: A Historic Filibuster on Corporate Greed and the Decline of Our Middle Class by Bernie Sanders
  14. The Reactionary Mind, Second Edition by Corey Robin
  15. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

Had things gone a little more smoothly this year, I probably would have finished all or most of these. As it stands, we are almost done with d’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. I’m not sure if we will finish Gödel, Escher, Bach as bedtime reading anytime soon — we’ve gotten to the last few chapters, and they are not really made to read aloud, as they are filled with mathematical notation, diagrams, and pictures — they also get pretty difficult for our young audience.

I’m almost done with The Compleat Enchanter and so I’ll probably finish it, just for the sake of compleatness (ha, ha). I got bogged down in Death’s End, and might need to start it over. I’ve barely begun reading The Reactionary Mind and Borne. Whether I make progress on Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist will depend on whether I get my voice back, so that I can read long chapters out loud without triggering a coughing fit.

A couple of these books are unfinished because we have misplaced them — sometimes the kids take books from the “books in progress” piles or shelves. For example, Sam borrowed The Complete Cosmicomics and now he can’t find it. I suspect the next time we can give his room a thorough cleaning, we’ll find it.

I started, and gave up on, Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet by Douglas Adams and James Goss. It certainly was not working to read it out loud as a bedtime story. I might try to finish reading it myself, but it was not promising — the story was very padded. In fact, I will probably give away all three of the recently published novelizations of Doctor Who scripts by Douglas Adams: the other two are Shada and City of Death. They just don’t seem to be worth reading as novels.

I want to mention that I’ve also relied on the following books as reference material for my recent writing:

  1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
  2. We Have Only This Life to Live: The Selected Essays of Jean-Paul Sartre 1939–1975, by Jean-Paul Sartre, edited by Ronald Aronson and Adrian van den Hoven
  3. The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, by Philip K. Dick, edited by Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem

Viewing and Listening

Finally, I’m almost certainly forgetting some notable shows, but we watched a few notable movies and DVDs this year.

  1. Doctor Who: The Pirate Planet (BBC DVD)
  2. Galactica 1980 (the complete series; notable for how hilariously awful it is)
  3. Doctor Strange (2016 DVD)
  4. Thor:Ragnarok (in the theater)
  5. Blade Runner 2049 (in the theater, twice)
  6. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (in the theater, twice)
  7. “Twice Upon a Time” (The 2017 Doctor Who Christmas Special) (downloaded from the iTunes Store)

I’ve written extensively on Blade Runner 2049. I haven’t yet written a full review of The Last Jedi, but I enjoyed this one a lot. I side with the Tomatometer (currently 91%) over the audience score (currently 50%). This movie made bold and unconventional storytelling choices and they paid off. I wrote a few notes for Facebook, extended and adapted here:

Preliminary Notes Towards a Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Episode VII (The Force Awakens) had to do three things:

  1. Reboot the story. After the disastrously bad prequel trilogy, it was not sufficient to just try to continue the story where it left off in Return of the Jedi. And for practical reasons like the age of the original cast, it wasn’t even possible to just do this. And so VII told a story inspired by the original 1977 movie, filled with fan-service moments, as a bridge between the original trilogy (not the prequel trilogy) and the new trilogy.

  2. Pass the torch. No one wanted to see any of the characters from the prequel trilogy in the new trilogy — and this wasn’t even an in-universe possibility, given the chronology. But given the age of the original cast members, it wasn’t going to be possible to just keep them on as the action heroes of the next three movies. So the film had to involve the characters and start to phase them out of the story, by having them hand off their places in the story to younger actors who can actually be around for more movies.

  3. Raise the stakes. So that the audience might actually feel dramatic tension, it was necessary to convince them that they were not watching a museum exhibit in which the venerable antiques were wrapped in cotton wool just so they could be objects of admiration and nostalgia. The film had to convince the audience that big things were actually at stake, and anything could happen. Dramatically, the death of Han Solo was entirely necessary and in context it felt perfectly right and fitting.

After Episode VII, it was not entirely clear to me what direction Episode VIII would take. Would it just remake The Empire Strikes Back, or would it do something bolder? It would have been a safe choice to follow the story arc of Empire closely, and a lot of fans probably would have enjoyed that, but to really open up the possibilities for future films, it needed to do something bolder. It actually really impressed me and won me over emotionally in scene after scene. In fact I’d say it isn’t just “good for a Star Wars movie,” but actually a good movie even considered outside of the narrowed criteria of Star Wars, or even science fiction, fandom.

I can see how people who were very attached to the structure of the original trilogy found themselves offended. There are indeed some updated politics at play. But I wouldn’t really call them radical. Basically, this film introduces 1990s-era “social justice” ideas into the script, including feminism, disdain for toxic masculinity, and tropes about success through collective action and mutual support rather than extremely high-risk, unlikely individual heroics.

People offended by the idea that Star Wars would have a political agenda forget that the original had a political agenda, not from the 1990s but from a hundred years earlier, including toxic militarism, and the idea that a person’s importance in the galaxy depends primarily on who that person’s parents are.

For every angry reaction, it seems to me like people have forgotten what is in the original film. People are angry about the “jokes” in the movie. They forget that some of the most iconic scenes in the original 1977 film involve sight gags and bad jokes. People are angry about how Finn does not behave heroically. They forget that Han Solo planned to take his reward and get the hell out of danger. Reading complaint after complaint about the new movie, it really seems like people forgot what Star Wars is. Folks are complaining that the force doesn’t work that way, and I hear them saying “but the gleep glop magic fantasy world doesn’t have glop gleep magic! It violates the laws of physics!”

This is a little different than the disastrous retconning that George Lucas did in the prequel trilogy, which to me is not canon. He said that instead of gleep glop magic, your ability to feel and manipulate the Force came from the midichlorians in your blood, which is like saying that achieving sainthood just requires enough vitamins.

I get that arguing about it is not going to fix the movie for anyone who went to see it and found themselves thrown out of the story by the iconoclasm of the new one. All I can say is that each time the director broke with the storytelling tradition, I felt myself puzzled at first, but at each point I felt like he used the breaking of the frame to tell a bigger story, and it worked for me.

The amazing battle sequence at the end of the movie takes place on a white plain of salt crystals with red underneath. When one of the ship’s skis or even a person’s foot touches the surface, the surface turns blood red. (This is not really a spoiler; it’s in the trailer). In this sequence the sacrifices of all those who died fighting the Empire (and the First Order) are literally inscribed on the landscape in blood. It’s moving, and jaw-dropping.

I saw Star Wars before it was called Episode IV, in the initial release — actually in a sneak preview showing before the film officially opened. I saw it at least a dozen times over the next year. I imprinted like a duckling on the movie. But it’s been 40 years. You can’t keep telling the same story in the same way. I think this new movie really does a fantastic job of breaking out of the limitations of the original film, bringing Star Wars to another generation as a world that won’t be constrained by the original cast or the original story. Anything can happen. And Star Wars is great again.

And Finally, Music

The album that most sticks in my mind as the soundtrack of 2017 for me is For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver. It wasn’t released in 2017. It’s not the only thing I listened to, by a long shot, and it’s not even the only Bon Iver album I listened to, but it stands out for its fascinating lo-fi strangeness and uncanny beauty. I also found the Philip Glass composition Itaipu to be cathartic during this dark and strange year.

To the New Year! May she be a damned sight better than the last one.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
January 1, 2017

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