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Playoffs vs. Bowls

January 7, 2011

Here’s a subject I’ve been thinking about, but it had to wait for the right time of year to get posted. Guess what, now is the time.

 

I consider myself a college football fan. I watch a lot of different sports, but college football is one of my favorites. So it tends to surprise people when I say that I prefer the current BCS (“Bowl Championship Series” for those that don’t follow it) over any system of playoffs for determining a national champion.

 

The argument for a playoff basically comes down to “settle it on the field.” There are 120 Division I teams, and they only play 12-14 games a year. This creates a situation where most of the best teams don’t play each other during a season, and all that’s left is for fans to argue about whose team is better. Playoffs would theoretically settle some of those debates, and at the very least would make sure that every deserving team would have an opportunity to play for the championship.

 

But while that might create a couple of dramatic games at the end of the season, it would take away all the drama from the regular season, and the regular season is what sets college football apart from other sports. Under the current system, a team basically has to go undefeated to be elligible for the championship. That means that every game is an elimination game, from the beginning of the season to the end. Every game has that playoff drama.

 

What’s the quintessential image of a college football game? The students rushing on to the field after a big win. What inspires them to do that? When an underdog school happens to knock off a powerhouse, on that day the underdog matters. They had an impact on the championship picture and ruined the powerhouse school’s season. If there was a playoff, then the game is much less significant. The powerhouse school probably just gets a lower seed. That’s hardly worth celebrating.

 

I could also argue that college football doesn’t need a national champion at all. That kind of contradicts the idea that you have to go undefeated to qualify for the championship, and that being the foundation of the drama of the regular season. But college football is structured to create plenty of other things for teams to play for, with conference championships and different bowl games. As I said before, it’s impossible for all the teams to play each other to really determine who’s best, so does it really matter if one team is declared champion at the end of the year?

 

Pro football is strictly an entertainment business, and as such it makes sense for them to have a playoff structure and a championship to play for. College football is supposed to be an activity that complements a student’s education, and maybe an opportunity to get that education for some who couldn’t afford it otherwise. Those would be good things in theory, but in practice too many schools are putting football first and education second. Not that that’s likely to change any time soon, but pro-style playoffs would only make it worse. I think we’d all be better off if colleges kept education as their top priority. Tuitions have been rising at a ridiculous rate lately, and I have to believe that the costs of college sports are playing a role in that.

 

College football isn’t perfect, but it’s plenty entertaining the way it is. If we want to address its problems, address them in the classroom first. Trying to add a playoff system would just make everything worse.

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Hugo Follow-up and Other Book Items

September 26, 2010

One thing I like about the Hugo awards is that they release the complete voting and nomination results–see them here. This particular year I think it’s interesting to see that the top two novels started out in a tie, shifted around a little bit as others were eliminated, and then ended in a tie again. It felt like justice was done, as both The City & The City and The Windup Girl are deserving winners.

(If you haven’t looked at the process before, basically each round the lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated and the votes are recounted for the ones that are left, until one gets over 50%)

I think you can also see fan-base voting in the numbers. Sawyer, for example, got a lot of first-place votes, but he didn’t go up very much in the subsequent rounds, meaning that he didn’t get as many high rankings from the other voters. There’s kind of a similar effect for Scalzi in the novella category and for Stross in novelette. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t good, just that opinions are divided on them.

Also, I said something about Dr. Who splitting votes in the short-form drama category, but in this voting system, as long as the Dr. Who fans vote all three of their choices on top, the split doesn’t hurt them and they still win.

Nomination counts I think also give an indicator of fan-base and of what people were reading when there wasn’t an award at stake.

Last week I went to a reading/book signing by William Gibson, for his new novel Zero History, and he made one comment that I thought was very interesting. Since he is known for predicting the effects of new technologies, someone asked him about the future of books, reading and writing. His answer was that when the Internet and HTML started to get popular, people predicted stories full of hyperlinks which would either take you to definitions and explanations of what you were reading, or would allow you to take multiple paths through the story. Nothing like that really caught on, but what did happen was the advent of search engines. Search engines have affected books because now there’s no terminology, idiom, landmark, or anything else so obscure that you can’t look it up on line. So books being written now tend to have less explanations of things because they assume that curious readers can Google. But what’s really interesting is that this affects all books retroactively, so older books are being looked at in new ways. And going forward, we can’t assume that some unknown future technology won’t affect books being written today.

And although Gibson didn’t pursue this idea any farther, the Internet also serves as a platform for fan sites which can also affect the understanding of a book. You can find interactive maps of Middle Earth, class schedules for Hogwarts, and just about any moderately popular book probably has some kind of fan site somewhere. So even writers working with completely made-up material can have their work fully analyzed and annotated on-line, and I wouldn’t be suprised if sometimes the fan’s version could become more “canonical” than the author’s.

To bring this back to the topic of Hugo voting, you also have the effect of on-line criticism. Between blogs, Amazon reviews, and who knows what else, there are lots of recommendations and reviews to be found on-line. Some are well thought-out, but many are just fans expressing their fan-hood, and some are amateur reviewers trying to be “right”, basically agreeing with the majority as a way to demonstrate that they are discerning reviewers (or along the same lines, the derisive trolls who go against the majority as a way to convince themselves that they are smarter than everyone else). The question is, do the same symptoms affect award voters? Do they form opinions based on whose fans shout the loudest? Do they vote for a candidate perceived to be a front-runner, just so they can say they picked the winner? Or maybe they vote more fairly because there’s more information about all of the nominees.

This year, I think all of the Hugo winners are deserving. Next year, who knows? Although even if there is an occasional glitch, I don’t think it will diminish the award overall. But I think the increased availability of information does impact the votes in ways we haven’t figured out how to measure yet.

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A New Hugo Ballot

September 5, 2010

Last year I offered my “virtual” Hugo ballot since I failed to read everything before the voting deadline. But this year I did all the reading so this is my actual ballot. Although the importance of the award is debatable, for me the value of voting is that it makes me read new books & new authors (although lately I’ve been buying more books than I have time to read). So, lets see what we have.

Short Story

1. “The Moment” by Lawrence M. Schoen

2. “Spar” by Kij Johnson

3. “Bridesicle” by Will McIntosh

4. “Non-Zero Probabilities” by N. K. Jemisin

5. “The Bride of Frankenstein” by Mike Resnick

These were generally good stories but very dissimilar so it was hard to choose. I went with “The Moment” because I thought it was an interesting take on how aliens might perceive human history. “Spar” was pretty powerful, though, if a bit disturbing. And “Bridesicle” could turn out to be the one I remember best of those three. Also, a story I would have like to see nominated was “The Consciousness Problem” by Mary Robinette Kowal. “Spar” won the Nebula so I suspect it’s the frontrunner here, but you can make a case for all of them to win.

Novellete

1. “Eros, Philia, Agape” by Rachel Swirsky

2. “One of Our Bastards Is Missing” by Paul Cornell

3. “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” by Eugie Foster

4. “It Takes Two” by Nicola Griffith

5. “The Island” by Peter Watts

6. “Overtime” by Charles Stross

“Eros, Philia, Agape” was definitely my favorite out of this group. The rest had some interesting ideas but also some flaws, or just lacked the same impact. One story that I really liked that didn’t get on the ballot was “This Wind Blowing and This Tide” by Damien Broderick. “Sinner, Baker…” won the Nebula, but I think “The Island” is the favorite here. Not that the story wouldn’t be worthy otherwise, but I think Watts is going to pick up some sentimental votes due to his misadventure with U.S. Homeland Security.

Novella

1. Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow

2. “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s” by Kage Baker

3. “Palimpsest” by Charles Stross

4. “Vishnu at the Cat Circus” by Ian McDonald

5. “Act One” by Nancy Kress

6. The God Engines by John Scalzi

I changed my mind several times on this group, and I would probably change it again if there was another vote tomorrow. Shambling Towards Hiroshima and “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s” I thought were more entertaining, but “Palimpsest” probably had the biggest impact for me, closely followed by “Vishnu at the Cat Circus.” I think Scalzi has the biggest fan base, but Baker has the sentimental vote, and Kress surprised me by winning last year, so I am not going to attempt to predict this category.

Novel

1. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

2. The City & The City by China Mieville

3. Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente

4. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

5. Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson

6. WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

Last year I thought the Best Novel nominees were easily predictable and I read most of them well in advance. This year I thought there were only two sure things, so I had more reading to do after nominations were announced. The two sure things are at the top of my list, but I’ll start at the bottom.

WWW: Wake revolves around two things, a blind girl gaining sight through technology and the Internet becoming sentient. The blind girl’s storyline was powerful and well done, but the webmind piece I didn’t buy, not that it couldn’t happen but that it wouldn’t happen like that. Julian Comstock also had some interesting characters, but the idea of post-oil society reverting to a Civil War-era aristocracy was another thing that I didn’t buy. Boneshaker was a cool combination of ideas: steampunk, zombies, and the American West. I liked it a lot except that the reveal at the end seemed a little unfair. One character knew the truth all along and just didn’t share it. Palimpsest is worth reading just for the way Valente uses language, creating vivid images of her strange city. The story is interesting but the characters are so obsessive and odd that they are a little hard to relate to.

Those four novels all have some good things about them, but to me the last two separated themselves from the others. I’ll be surprised if one of these two doesn’t win. The City & The City has a totally unique setting, two cities occupying the same physical space. Mieville gets away with never explaining how this happened by doing a great job of making it part of the character’s daily lives. On top of this he sets a pretty good murder mystery, but he structures it so that it couldn’t happen anywhere but this particular pair of cities. The Windup Girl considers at a post-oil world where food becomes the most important resource and power source. Bacigalupi follows several characters from different backgrounds to explore the issues in his world, but he manages to tie the threads together for a powerful ending. You could argue that I’m being a homer by voting for Bacigalupi, since he lives in the same state and usually comes to our local SF convention, but I though The Windup Girl had the biggest impact of any of the novels so I voted it first by a slim margin.

Although it didn’t make the shortlist, I thought Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress was another very good novel from 2009. I probably would have put it 3rd or 4th if it had been nominated.

For movies (“Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form”), I’m guessing that Hugo voters are the type of people who would say Avatar was unoriginal. Moon would by my first choice, but since it had a pretty limited release I think Up or District 9 are more likely to win.

I think the TV show category (“Best Dramatic Presentaiton, Short Form”) is interesting because of what it seems to say about the Hugo voting community. I’ve started to get the impression that there is an American bloc, a British bloc, and a Canadian bloc, with each group tending to favor authors and works from their country. The Canadian bloc may be smaller but they also have fewer candidates to support so they still have an impact. Robert Sawyer (Canadian) tends to get a lot of nominations, and then has a lot of critics saying he’s not deserving. I think most voters do vote honestly based on their opinion of the works, but when they haven’t read everything in a particular category it would not be surprising if they showed a little favoritism.

For this particular year, I think Sawyer’s best novel nomination is reasonable. What’s less reasonable is the nomination of Flash Forward the TV series. When Lost, Fringe, and Battlestar Galactica got no nominations, it’s hard to call Flash Forward deserving. But it’s based on a Sawyer novel so it seems to be a strong indicator of the bloc effect. Then you also have Dr. Who, the favorite of the British bloc. This particular year only three new episodes were shown, and all three were nominated. One nomination would be expected, two would be understandable, three seems excessive since none of them were really outstanding. But with only three to choose from, the British bloc must have been pretty unified in their voting. However it could work against them in the final vote since now the American bloc has only Dollhouse now to focus on, while the British bloc may be splitting their vote three ways. We shall see.

The Hugos will be awarded sometime this weekend, but since Worldcon is in Australia I have no idea exactly when it will be. But good luck to all the nominees.

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Clash of the Machina

May 5, 2010

I saw Clash of the Titans last week. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you that it’s not particularly great. It has a few moments that are kind of fun but that was about it. One thing in particular that bugged me was all the Deus ex Machina, people showing up out of nowhere to save the day and battles turning on a bit of luck. Given that this is sort of based on Greek mythology, and Deus ex Machina is a staple of Greek mythology, you might think that would be all right. Except that the theme of this movie is something about men being self-reliant, not asking the gods to save them. So the self-reliance idea is pretty well undermined at every turn, and when it’s over all you can do is wonder what the point was.

At least I didn’t have to watch it in 3D.

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How Not to Blog

March 23, 2010

I need to give myself permission to write short blog posts. Not everything has to be a cogent, weighty, detailed, insightful essay (thank you thesaurus.com). Nor does everything have to fit into a tweet. I have a bad habit of overanalyzing whatever the subject is to the point where when I’m ready to blog about it, everyone else has moved on to something new. So no more of that. Let’s not let this site go to waste.

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Maybe I Don’t Want the Game to Change

January 4, 2010

“Game-changer” seems to be the favorite term to describe Avatar. Will this usher in a new era of moviemaking? Seamless integration of live actors and digital scenery, anything the director can imagine, and all of it jumping off the screen and right into your lap in three totally realistic dimensions? Maybe so, but the question I have to ask is, do we really want that?

Don’t get all up-in-arms, Avatar fans. I’m not saying it was a bad movie or that I didn’t like it. There were pieces of the story I could quibble with, but I still enjoyed it. For me personally, special effects are about the last reason to see a movie, but I won’t deny that this was an impressive visual experience. I just don’t necessarily want other movies to try to imitate it.

My two favorite movies of 2009 were Moon and The Hurt Locker, which were both fairly low-budget and limited-release. I’m not seriously worried that the independent filmmakers will totally disappear, but I do think that as Hollywood budgets go up, it gets harder for the small studios to reach an audience. This also impacts the independent theaters where those smaller films tend to live. Those theaters tend not to have the state-of-the-art projectors and sound that the multiplex chains use, so the risk is that the independent theaters and films become sort of ghetto-ized (if they aren’t already).

Ironically, I think there’s a parallel to be drawn between Avatar and the low-budget A Scanner Darkly, in terms of how the technology links to the story. A Scanner Darkly was filmed using rotoscope animation so it has a distinctive look to it. But the director didn’t use that technique just for the heck of it. The main characters are all basically on drugs, so everything they see is distorted and doesn’t quite look real. The animation gives the audience that same sensation, helping them identify with the uncertainties the characters face. Similarly, Avatar is about characters getting immersed in an alien world, and the 3D effects let the audience share that experience. You could frame the movie as being about how the avatar “pilots” who go out and experience the planet appreciate it more than the people who stay locked up inside and only watch out the window. In that way, the 3D basically tells the audience who the good guys are. Thus the technology has a valid purpose in this movie. That doesn’t mean that it would be valid, useful, or even desirable in most other movies.

The biggest argument against changing the game actually came during the previews before I saw Avatar. Every 3D movie I guess is obligated to have previews of upcoming 3D movies no matter what, but apparently the pickings were slim this time. After a couple of fairly benign animated movies for kids, they previewed a horror movie about piranhas. This thing looked spectacularly bad. The whole audience was basically laughing at it, although I don’t think it was a parody (and even if it was, it was more stupid than actually funny). But on top of that, the 3D effects were really poorly done, with stuff just floating all over the place instead of creating a true sense of depth. So what I’m afraid of is that the next wave of movies is going to have more piranhas than avatars.

This is not to say that no one should try to do what Avatar did. It’s good for artists to take risks and try new things, even if they don’t always pay off. It’s also not to say that we would be better off without an Avatar to raise the bar. I’m sure Michael Bay and friends are planning new extravaganzas to inflict on the viewing public, but they would be doing that regardless. Where the risk lies is with the Hollywood bigwigs who just have to make their mark on a project, who end up wrecking a perfectly good movie because they insisted that the director make it more like Avatar. That’s what I’m not looking forward to. So it’s not so much that the game is changing, it’s that new games are being added to the menu, and you need to recognize what game you should be playing.

As if anyone in Hollywood would ever listen to me.

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Doing the Meme Thing

September 18, 2009

Let me get this out of the way first: you should not tag me with memes. I’ll only do the ones I find interesting anyway, and I’ll take my own sweet time doing them. Of course it’s pretty optimistic on my part to think anyone would consider tagging me, but now I’ve got the official disclaimer, just in case.

Now that’s out of the way, the meme was to think of 15 books in 15 minutes that “will always stick with you.” Officially I think you were supposed to list your favorites first, but I’m not doing that. I didn’t cheat, didn’t look at any bookshelves or websites or anything, it was strictly from memory. I didn’t use a stopwatch but I think I came up with most of them pretty quickly. So let’s go to the scoreboard:

Desolation Road, Ian McDonald

The Book of Three, Lloyd Alexander

The Final Encyclopedia, Gordon R. Dickson

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Hayao Miyazaki

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkein

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card

Dune, Frank Herbert

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Nation, Terry Pratchett

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein

The Rise of Endymion, Dan Simmons

But we can’t just list them without comments, can we? Desolation Road was the second book I read by Ian McDonald, but it was the one that really blew me away with his unique ideas and writing style. The Book of Three could be a stand-in for Alexander’s whole Chronicles of Prydain, but it was the first of the series and the one that got me interested in that world. Nausicaa is a manga, but that hasn’t stopped Nausicaa the character from becoming one of my all-time favorites. To Kill a Mockingbird seems a bit obvious, and maybe the movie is influencing me a bit, but I also didn’t want the list to be all SciFi/Fantasy. I picked The Hobbit over Lord of the Rings not because I think it’s better, but because it “sticks with me” more according to the meme. The Hobbit has more of a sense of fun, where LotR just has a sense of impending doom, so I think that’s why The Hobbit came to mind first. Along the same lines, most people wouldn’t say Speaker for the Dead or Rise of Endymion are the best books by those authors (especially Simmons), but the themes in those books resonated more for me than Ender’s Game or Hyperion, respectively. Nation is the most recent book on the list, so maybe it benefits from being fresh in my mind, but I think it fits in pretty well. I guess I’ll have to do this exercise again in a few years to see how it holds up.

If you were counting, you may have noticed that’s only 14 books. I spent most of the time trying to decide what should be #15, but since nothing really stood out I felt like I had to just stop at 14.

Books I considered for #15:

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman

The Doomsday Book, Connie Willis

Only Begotten Daughter, James Morrow

The Elfstones of Shannara, Terry Brooks

When I finally did start looking at my bookshelves and such, I also came up with

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

Battle Angel Alita (series), Yukito Kishiro

Phantom Tollbooth probably would have joined that group that was just out of the top 15. Battle Angel Alita seems too long to call one story, and no single volume stands out enough to make it.

But then I thought of one more book that really could make the cut: The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. When I was a kid I was a big fan of Baum’s whole Oz series, and I suspect that influenced me in favor of SciFi and Fantasy later on. I still have good memories of reading those books. I need to get new copies since I don’t seem to have them now. The kids today can have their Harry Potter, I’ll take my Dorothy Gale every time.

Except…

One more book just occurred to me as I was writing this. Something you probably haven’t heard of:

There’s a Marmot on the Telephone by Joe Van Wormer

Joe Van Wormer wrote a number of books featuring his wildlife photography, discussing the characteristics of the animals in his pictures and the photographic techniques he was using. Marmot is a little bit different in that it tells the story of a marmot that he and his family kept as a pet. If you were to read it, I’d like to think you’d find it entertaining, but probably not mind-blowing. What sets it apart for me is that Joe Van Wormer was my grandfather, and one of the people in the books is my mother when she was a teenager. To have that little piece of family history preserved like that is just the coolest thing you can imagine. If any book could be said to “stick with me” it would be that.