The end of an age

Last night, a rather significant era in my life ended. And it’s the end of an era that I am sharing with a lot of people all around the world, though when they experience it wasn’t necessarily last night. For some, it probably ended a week or two ago. For most, it’ll probably be in the next few months.

I suppose “significant” isn’t really that true in the grand scheme of things. But it is something that has definitely influenced one part of my life for at least the last 15 years. So, what happened last night? I finished reading A Memory of Light, the final book in the Wheel of Time series. For those of you who know the series, you understand already the significance, even if you’re not a fan of the series. For the rest of you, let’s just say that this is a moment that a lot of people didn’t expect would ever occur.

Robert Jordan began writing the Wheel of Time in the 1980s, and the first book, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990. Five more books followed, each one year after the previous. Book 7 slipped to a year and a half. Number 8 to two and a half. Book 9 took two morw. Book 10, just over two. With each book at least 650 pages, and most over 800, this is a prodigious amount of writing that Jordan accomplished. And the world he created was understandably complex. The initial cast of three expanded quickly to dozens and the plots expanded even more so. Corralling all of this made it understandable when book 11 took 3 years (though Jordan also publish a short prequel in 2004). By this time, a lot of people had already began to feel that the story was suffering because of its complexity, that a lot of nothing was happening in all of the pages being written. Two months later, in December 2005, Jordan was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis with cardiomyopathy, a disease with no cure. The twelfth book Jordan promised, would finish the series, even if it had be over 2,000 pages long. He died just less than 2 years after his diagnosis, book unfinished. But he left behind extensive notes, hoping that someone would be able to finish the story for him. Jordan’s wife and his publisher chose Brandon Sanderson to be that someone in December 2007. Sanderson is a prodigious and prestigious fantasy author in his own right. But even so, it was a year and a half before any real update on the final book, A Memory of Light, was given. In early 2009, it was announced that the finale to the series was going to be split into three books! The first of those came out six months later in October 2009 and part two just a year later in November 2010. But A Memory of Light itself was not released until just ten days ago, January 8, 2013. 22 years, 358 days after the publication of The Eye of the World.

My introduction to the series came around 1996 or 1997. My mother, wonderful woman that she is, got me the first 6 books in the series in a pair of box sets for Christmas. I tore through the books in just a few short weeks. I devoured the world that Jordan created. The adventure, the magic, the new ideas and depth of the history, cultures, mythology, and characters all combined in a way I absolutely loved. While the later books attenuated some of that love as the story became overly complex and slowed down, I still have those first six paperbacks, and the number of times I have read them has worn their bindings down and leaved their pages. When each of the new books came out, I usually re-read the whole series from start to finish. The characters became very well-known to me. When the first of the Sanderson finished books was coming out in 2009, I reread the whole series of 11 books in the span of a month. That was almost three and a half million words.

I picked up A Memory of Light last Sunday and I reviewed brief plot summaries of the last three or four books just to remind myself where things stood before I began reading it on Tuesday. I’m still not sure how late I stayed up that evening, but I was somewhere between a third and two-fifths through it. Yesterday after work, I did very little other than read and finished the book around midnight. And I experienced moments of joy and happiness as the characters achieved great things and moments of hurt and sadness as they suffered or died. 16 years of familiarity and wondering “What next?” and “Will they survive?” was finally brought to a resolution. But I know that A Memory of Light was not the ending to my relationship with these characters or novels. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was an ending.

Remakes and adaptations in the movies, an analysis

Last week, Jami Noguchi posted a brief bit about Cowboys & Aliens, The Smurfs, Captain America and Harry Potter. He brought up an rather frequent complaint from movie fans: That Hollywood prefers to remake old movies or adapt movies from other media formats (novels, tv shows, comic books, etc). And I think pretty much everyone understands why. Generally, it’s easier to adapt something than write something new and good, and something with a proven track record in another medium is probably going to have a better chance at doing well financially.

It’s a common complaint, and one I’ve made myself in the past. But this time it got me curious, so I went to look at just how many of the movies last year were original properties. I started going through the full list of movies originally released in the US, but too many of them never really got major releases, so I decided to just focus on the top 10 worldwide grossing movies originally released in the US (because it’s what Wikipedia charts). This was my conclusion for the decade of 2001-2010:

For the last 10 years, 28 of the 100 highest grossing films were original screenplays. Of the other 72, all but 16 were reboots or sequels or later in film franchise.

I’m going to expand that a bit here, and take it a bit farther back in time if I can. So let me define my categories. First, “Original”. Pretty simple. Original screenplays that aren’t directly adapted from other sources. Second, “Remake”. Again, simple. Screenplays which are revisionings of earlier movies. Third, “Franchise”. These are films which are sequels/prequels or later in a series of movies. Fourth, “Adaptation”. Movies which are adapted from other forms of media.

So, for a bit more clarification, if a movie is the first of a series of books, then it counts as an adaptation, such as the first Harry Potter, Twilight and Lord of the Rings movies. If a movie is a reboot of a franchise, such as Batman Begins, then it counts as a remake. The movies that follow a reboot (The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) are counted as franchise films. A movie that is a loose revisioning of a fairy tale is an adaptation (think Tangled -> Rapunzel), but a movie that plays on cultural memes, like 2012, but isn’t directly adapted from a book (despite there being books about the 2012 prophecy) is an original screenplay.

A few movies have complicated ancestry, so I will document how I counted them here.

  • Sherlock Holmes, 2009 – remake (of the multiple earlier franchises, based on the series of books)
  • Transformers, 2007 – remake (of the cartoon movie, based on the cartoon, based on the toys
  • 300, 2007 – adaptation (of the comic, based on a movie)
  • Casino Royale, 2006 – remake (of the original, based on the book)
  • Troy, 2004 – adaptation (of The Iliad)
  • Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, 2001 – adaptation (of the book, despite the existence of the animated film)
  • A Bug’s Life, 1998 – remake (loosely of Seven Samurai, influenced by one of Aesop’s fables)
  • Speed, 1994 – original (loosely inspired by some Japanese films)
  • Bram Stoker’s Dracula, 1992 – remake (of the earlier movies, based on the book)

Now, onto the data!

I tallied up the numbers for every year 1981-2010, and the results are pretty clear.

As you can see, from 1981-1990, only a single movie of the top 10 yearly grossing movies was a remake of an earlier movie. And from 2001-2010, franchise movies have dominated the top grossing charts. But that doesn’t really clearly indicate any trends.

The numbers of remakes and direct adaptations have slight changes, but have for the most part stayed the same. But franchises have skyrocketed and original movies have taken a nose-dive.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t give the full picture of the movie industry as a whole. Without looking at the full yearly releases, we can’t really draw any solid conclusions. We’d have just as much reason to assume the rest of the top 20 movies are all remakes as we would to assume they are all original screenplays (neither of which is particularly likely). Also, if you split things differently — say counting original screenplays against adaptations (both new and franchised) against remakes — or counted as adaptations the remakes of movies where the original movies were adaptations, you might have a rather different count. At some point I might actually take the time to do all of that and more.

Reader Fail

My primary source for news is my RSS feed. Like a lot of people, I use Google Reader to maintain it. But for a while now, I’ve noticed a glitch where embedded videos occasionally get propagated down through the feed, replacing later videos and other embedded frames. Some of them are occasionally amusing juxtapositions.

As such, I decided to create a tumblr to document those video and headline mismatches. It’s called Reader Fail. You should check it out. But here’s a sample:

Reader Fail example

Review: Wise Man’s Fear

In the land of fantasy literature, fans are pretty much guaranteed of a few things. Rule number one is that if they really, really, really like a series of books, they are going to have to wait longer than they originally expected for the next book in the series to be published. Another good rule of thumb is that it is pretty safe to assume that when a new book comes out, it is going to be a rather oversized tome (gone are the days of the less than 200 page novel).

For the average person, this phenomenon is best seen in the Harry Potter series. For the folks who are more invested in the fantasy literature genre, over the last 10-15 years two names have been synonymous with big books and long waits between them: Robert Jordan and George RR Martin. Four years ago, Patrick Rothfuss quietly introduced himself to the fantasy genre with his novel Name of the Wind, and it definitely fulfilled the second of the two characteristics of fantasy lit. And the name of that book was passed through the fan community almost as quickly as the wind itself, propelling it onto the NYT bestseller list. And fans of the book quickly learned (told by the main character of the novel, no less) that it was the first book in a trilogy. And Rothfuss told the world that the rest of the story was already written. More or less.

That’s where rule number one comes into play. Fans were hopeful that book two would be out within a year or two, because it was “already written”. But two years turned into three. And three years turned into four. And a wind rose in the backwoods of Wisconsin, and the wind was a beginning, but it was not the beginning. Er, sorry there, started channeling my inner-Jordan. The name of that wind was the anticipation that mounted and mounted over the publication of Wise Man’s Fear. It is safe to say that the only more anticipated fantasy novel is George RR Martin’s A Dance With Dragons (recently announced to have a July 11, 2011 publication date, 6 years after the previous book in the series), and depending on who you ask, they may argue the point.

Well, let me tell you something folks, Rothfuss delivers. In spades. In buckets and buckets of stew. Released on March 1, I swung by one of the two Barnes & Nobles in DC. I knew that the book was going to be popular, so I skipped trying a local store, because I figured that B&N would have copies in stock. No dice. Sold out in two hours according to the employee I talked to, who called the other store which was also sold out. So I tried one of the local stores. Also sold out. So on the third I called up B&N to reserve a copy and picked it up on my way home.

I got home around 6 and read until 2. I was only about halfway through the book. That tells you 1) the size of the book (there’s that other pesky rule of thumb again), and 2) the density and quality of the writing. (In comparison, I knocked off the last book in the Harry Potter series in 6 hours.) Rothfuss’ writing is complex, but clear; engaging and absorbing. I need to break out a thesaurus to be able to describe his ability to produce quality dialogue (clever and sparkling), descriptions of the world (elaborate and elegant), characters (multidimensional and necessary) and societal behaviors and political intrigues (inventive and detailed) without repeating myself.

And all of this is combined in a narrative that, despite the length of the novel, is so tightly wrapped and bound together that it doesn’t seem that a single word is wasted. The interweaving of the external narrative of Kvothe and Bast and Chronicler and the story which Kvothe is telling are producing a world which, while we, as readers still lack the full story, is extremely well-developed and hints at the story which we don’t yet know. In itself, the anticipation it creates for the resolution of both Kvothe’s story and the larger narrative and how the two are connected is almost maddening.

What really amazes me is the way that Rothfuss is able to take various standard tropes of fantasy literature and adapt them and turn them on their head. Sure, we’ve got the “hyper-competent” boy hero, but we see his doubt, his failures, his innocence. And we see him learn to overcome them and begin to grow from boy to man; it is a true process, not just a sudden “thing” which is so common. And how many of these other things have you seen before? He goes to a school for magic. He searches through an excessively large library. He trains with a special warrior society. He dabbles in palace intrigues. Yet, all of these are turned on their heads. But I’m not telling you how because I don’t want to ruin the story and the surprises.

What Rothfuss did in Name of the Wind was to introduce himself to the fantasy literature world by slapping it upside the head with a sea bass and saying, “I love this genre and a lot of the things about it, but dammit I’m doing it my way.” And he has definitely continued in that vein. A week or two ago, there was a bit of a brouhaha over the state of fantasy literature and it’s supposed degradation from the glorious high fantasy of Tolkien to the blackened, rotting husk of authors such as Joe Abercrombie*. No one can read Wise Man’s Fear and accept that claim as true. As good at Name of the Wind was, Wise Man’s Fear is even better. I don’t like to rank “best” books, so I can’t really tell you where it places, but Wise Man’s Fear is easily one of the best fantasy novels of all time. And if The Doors of Stone (book three’s working title) improves as much on Wise Man’s Fear as Wise Man’s Fear did on Name of the Wind, I will be hard pressed to find a better fantasy novel.

*I love Joe Abercrombie’s work and am reading through his most recent novel now.

Predictions of physics theories

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean Carroll posted yesterday about a straw poll taken at a small gathering of physicists who focus on the cosmological theory of inflation, asking them what they thought the likelihood of the general principle of the theory being true was. He noted that his estimate of of 75% chance was on the low side compared to the majority of the people attending the conference who put the likelihood of inflation being a fact at around 90%. After the conference, he asked several of his colleagues at Caltech, and found that many of them, none of whom were directly working on inflation, put the likelihood at only 25%.

He then asked his readers to present their own estimate for the probability that inflation was true. And he added a few other major theoretical concepts in physics: supersymmetry, string theory, the Higgs boson, large extra dimensions, WIMP dark matter, and “any non-cosmological-constant explanation for cosmic acceleration.” He left the categories quite vague (for example, does “large” mean, “micro/macroscopic” or just “larger than Planck length”) because there are often multiple theories within each category, but for the most part there is a single unifying concept for each theory.

60+ people with a wide range of backgrounds have responded with their estimates now. And the results are interesting in a couple of ways. The two charts below show the how many people proposed specific percentages of the likelihood of each theoretical concept. The interactive versions are available on GoogleDocs.

Compiled likelihoods of several physics theories, based on predictions given by commenters at Cosmic Variance

Compiled likelihoods of several physics theories, based on predictions given by commenters who indicated an educational/professional background in physics at Cosmic Variance

The first things that jump out at me are that pretty much no one believes that large extra dimensions have any chance of existing (average likelihood being 9.08% with a standard deviation of 15.47), while the Higgs particle is considered quite likely to exist (average = 79.52%, std dev = 26.77), with inflation also having a better than 2/3 chance (average = 67.02%, std dev = 28.81). Amongst those who claimed an educational and/or professional background in physics (and astronomy), large extra dimensions are considered similarly unlikely, but the Higgs boson, inflation, and WIMPs are both considered ~10% more likely than by the commenters as a whole.

On the other hand, the chances given to supersymmetry, string theory, and non-cosmological-constant cosmic expansion are all stable in being considered relatively unlikely by both laymen and scientists alike.

It’s an interesting little bit of meta-analysis, really, which raises some questions about why certain major theories are accepted both in and outside of those educated in physics, why some of those are more accepted within the subset, and why other theories are considered equally less likely, regardless of education. It is likely that “insiders”, as it were, have a firmer basis in the fundamentals of physics and so they are better able to evaluate the theories themselves, which would explain the variation between the insiders and outsiders on certain topics. But I don’t think there is anything about the Higgs boson, or inflation, or WIMPs which differentiates them from the other theories that makes them less comprehensible to those with a physics background.

And since this is a non-rigorous, loosely defined survey, I wouldn’t really want to try to draw any significant conclusions from it. But it is interesting to get a general picture of how various theories are viewed and accepted within the physics community as a whole, and amongst the larger population of laypeople who are interested in modern advancements in the science.

Update 2/11/2011: Over 100 people have commented now.

Inflation SuSy Strings Higgs
Avg Std Dev Avg Std Dev Avg Std Dev Avg Std Dev
Everyone 66.79 28.63 44.07 30.24 30.52 30.47 76.96 27.41
Physics Background 71.43 22.13 45.56 27.99 25.37 26.83 85.32 20.61
Difference 4.64 -6.5 1.49 -2.25 -5.15 -3.64 8.36 -6.8
large xtra D WIMPs non-CC exp
Avg Std Dev Avg Std Dev Avg Std Dev
Everyone 11.76 20.01 58.41 29.36 27.74 28.38
Physics Background 8.54 14.67 60.84 25.48 25.07 25.01
Difference -3.22 -5.34 2.43 -3.88 -2.67 -3.37

Compiled likelihoods of several physics theories, based on predictions given by commenters at Cosmic Variance

Compiled likelihoods of several physics theories, based on predictions given by commenters who indicated an educational/professional background in physics at Cosmic Variance