Wednesday, January 27, 2010

When you're your own biggest competitor

I think that most of the choices that Apple made for the iPad (no camera, no videochat, no voice calls) can be explained by the assumption that they see the iPhone as its biggest competitor, and that they were acting in order to avoid a situation where people might try to use the iPad as their only device: phone, writing/correspondence, and media library all in one.

If users could combine that functionality in one easily portable object, then the iPad would be the Holy Grail of 21st century computing. But I think Apple knew better than to attempt such a thing. They're good, but not great, at durability. My iPhone 3g could have used a new battery by the time it was about a year old; and I don't use it heavily in all three of those areas. For consumers who do, I anticipate that the battery would show obvious signs of wear much sooner.

Then again, the emphasis on the green, easily recyclable materials may well indicate that Apple is thinking about a future where people upgrade and replace their tech on a quicker cycle than even the three years implied in the AppleCare warranty.

I'm very happy with my MacBookPro, purchased about six months ago, and even if I weren't, lack of videochat functionality is a dealbreaker for me.

I do find the tablet computer enticing in general though, and the Mac version in particular, because it moves backward as well as forward in a couple of interesting ways:

Touchscreen kills the mouse:

1) it removes the mouse as middleman, making computing a more sensory experience.

I think I could phrase this better; I'm not sure that sensory experience is the phrase I want. But I still remember the first mouse tutorials that I took in 5th grade on an Apple IIGS, which, wonder of wonders, was a computer that lived in my classroom. (Before, there had been three Commodores in the school library.) In that tutorial, one of the first things you learned was that sometimes it was necessary to pick the mouse off of the trackpad, and move it backwards, in order to get more room in which to manipulate it. This is still true of touchpad mice, and it creates a disconnect, however subtle, between you and the data you're manipulating. Making the screen touch-sensitive brings users closer to the experience of being physically involved in a way that's more like moving tangible data.

Of course, we've had this functionality with the iPod Touches and iPhones for a couple of years now. Will it make a difference to people if they're able to go 90-100% touch based? Will it make computing feel different to them? I think it might. It's purely intuition on my part, but it feels to me like it will make a difference. I can imagine learning to let one hand bounce lightly over the screen keyboard, but it's equally easy to imagine typing on a separate keyboard, and reaching up to cut/copy/paste with my hand. And it feels appealing. Tremendously so.

Back to the book
The idea of Apple competing with Amazon's Kindle was so exciting that even recently, I heard today's press conference being described as the point at which Apple would introduce a tablet reader that would compete with the Kindle. In itself, the fact that we've reached the point where a new eBook reader unveiling could be as exciting as a new computer unveiling is an indicator of the progress that eBooks have made in our reading life (if the Kindle sales (and Kindle book sales) hadn't already established that).

The headlines I saw (and the statements from the press conference itself) present the iBook capacity of the iPad as going "a little further than the Kindle" -- by which they mean that it has a "bookshelf-like" store, and that there are a variety of ways that the pages can be turned: not just by tapping, but by dragging the corners of pages; almost like you would with a printed book. For that matter, it looks like iBooks can display like printed books, with two facing pages at a time.

It's an interesting choice. Is it a smart one? Maybe. People with whom I've talked about the iPhone Kindle in the last year have usually wrinkled their noses. "I just can't imagine reading from a Kindle." Then, if I show them the little application, and teach them how to tap pages back and forth, their perspective changes. It looks a lot like a "real" book, they say. They mean, of course, that the b/w (or sepia/cream) contrast looks the same, at first glance. Much more appealing than clunky greyscale.

I was wary of the Kindle for a long time specifically because of the grey scale -- but then I spent a few days reading exclusively on the iPhone Kindle, and nursing the killer eyestrain headache that came with it. I'll keep my greyscale, thanks -- and along with it, the functionality of being able to adjust not only text, but column width. But plenty of people might not read as much as I do, and might not feel that way. For them, the iPad might be the thing that tempts them just enough to try electronic, rather than printed texts, because it looks more like the tradition that they're used to.

Incidentally, a couple of the first questions that entered my mind had to do with academic usage: if the iPad is positioned to be at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts, will iBook texts have better support for footnotes, and citations? Will the question "How do you cite page numbers on a Kindle?" be answered with "Get an iPad, where the page numbers are stable."? For the record, I care more about the footnotes than pages, and I wouldn't mind a little bit of pressure being put on Amazon to improve the footnote linkage systems.

But this is a gamble, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I still see criticisms of the Kindle format as too-proprietary, not convertible, but I don't think that's really true anymore. Sure; you couldn't export your Kindle library to a Sony Reader, but as long as you have a Mac or PC, you're set -- and I have a hard time imagining that Amazon will refuse to add another Kindle application if a new type of system (neither Apple nor PC) emerges, or that your Kindle books won't be compatible with it. And that raises an interesting question about the different styles between Amazon's and Apple's media storefront. Once you download an mp3 from iTunes, you can transfer it, but there's no cloud-based storage or cookie that allows you to redownload if something goes wrong -- unless you beg and negotiate with Apple. (Note: I haven't tried this before, and can't confirm it.) By contrast, once you've paid for a book at Amazon, you can delete it and reload it as many times as you like (albeit within the limit of only having it on five devices at once.) Apple hasn't been keen on this method with iTunes (unlike competitors like eMusic and Audible) -- but perhaps the restrictions on space, and the connectivity with the cloud will cause them to change their strategy?

While the touchscreen entices me (I suspect that Stephen Fry is right on the mark here), the iBook store doesn't. Five publishers signed on, and only one (Penguin) publishes books that I'm inclined to feel are vital to my research. In comparison, at Amazon, Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago and other academic presses have started releasing their titles in Kindle format. Mind you, they're mostly not well-priced. Mary Poovey's Genres of the Credit Economy, at 9.99, was thrilling. The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol, which I would love to own, is 72.00 (marked down from the print price of 90.00). Romanticism and the Gothic is 45.00 (marked down from 99.00)

There's at least one academic Kindle text priced at over 200.00. What I want to know, however, is how the academic presses are responding to this new pricing hierarchy, in which they shift from getting 35% of sales revenue to getting 70% -- provided the book is under the 9.99 price ceiling.

It's not clear, not entirely, whether entering this new pricing scheme is mandatory, or whether you can still sell books at the old 35% of sales revenue system. And I can't predict what the presses will decide to do. Currently, Oxford should be taking home 25.20 every time someone buys The Genealogy of the Romantic Symbol in Kindle format; and if they price it at 9.99, they're only taking home approx. $7. It all comes down to how many people aren't buying a 72.00 eBook, and how many people (how many academics) might buy a 9.99 one. Three purchases would get Oxford $21; four would get them $28.

I own Genealogy, but in print. I'd like to own it in electronic format. How many other people feel the same way (but not so much that they'd spend 72.00? Are there enough of them that the academic presses would see it as a good investment?

In today's demo, the iBook offered for sale was an NYT bestseller priced at 14.99 -- so, $5 up from what it would cost on Amazon. Not terribly appealing -- but people may see that higher price as paying for qualities they like. Whether it's a typical price for Apple's plan is something I'm still waiting to find out. And likewise, I'm looking forward to hearing about whether, as the producers of a gadget that they're associating with the liberal arts, they have goals for sales agreements with Oxford, Cambridge, Chicago, NYU, and everyone else in the academic text market.

"With Apple, under a formula that tethers the maximum e-book price to the print price on the same book, publishers will be able to charge $12.99 to $14.99 for most general fiction and nonfiction titles — higher than the common $9.99 price that Amazon had effectively set for new releases and best sellers. Apple will keep 30 percent of each sale, and publishers will take 70 percent."

Interesting. If I were a publisher who had to choose between the two, based on what I know, I'd have to go with Apple. But it remains to be seen what choice the presses will make.

Monday, January 18, 2010

One more note on Avatar

...because it's especially troubling to me that it took home the Golden Globes for Best Director and Best Picture on the eve of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. New Kid on the Hallway was asking why we haven't yet got the message that it's wrong to bulldoze people's homes, and wondering why we [can't] all get behind that message by now without needing to see a lot of pretty blue people get blown up?

That's part of the issue, but I think the more significant (and equally problematic) message of the film is about what the right course of action is in a situation where territory or homeland is under attack. For all the money and artistry spent illustrating the "peaceful" race of the Na'vi, in Avatar, there's no question (in the narrative) -- the only proper response is violence. The question of the cost in lives isn't even mentioned. The hostility of the sky people forecloses any possibility of negotiation.

If there were any consideration of negotiation, or of the possibility of the Na'vi leaving their territory, the film would raise a terrible question, hearkening back to the early American treatments of native peoples, and the Trail of Tears. Faced with the possibility of violence or forced migration, which is worse?

Cameron and company suggest that forced migration is worse, leaving them no option but returning the violence. And they're able to easily justify this because of the Soul Tree, the Na'vi's most direct link with their god. I believe the line that Our Hero uses is something along the lines of "If the Soul Tree is destroyed, the Na'vi will be destroyed." And this is where I think the film really turns into a conservative masturbatory bit of fantasy: the idea that a culture or community is dependent upon, and tied to, a tangible, non-reproducible, and vulnerable physical object. I'd argue that contemporary white western civilization doesn't have anything like that. Perhaps we used to, sort of, in the form of the Ark of the Covenant (which, I know, is central to more than white western civ.) -- but we haven't now. And even the Ark was transportable. (If it existed.)

But if such a thing existed, it would be the ultimate justification for military force, at no matter what the cost, in terms of casualties. The American flag has this sort of mythic status attributed to it, but it's not quite sufficiently powerful -- after all; it's quite reproducible, and quite transportable. And if Al-Quaeda were attempting to destroy the Constitution, or the Liberty Bell; if we were fighting them based on that goal, it would be obvious how absurd the fight was.

The closest thing to a Soul Tree is the land itself upon which we live. But despite attempts to attack, no one is actually trying to take the U.S. out of American control.

But speaking of land: I keep thinking about the loveliness of Cameron's landscapes, and yet being disturbed by them. I went into Avatar expecting a stereotypical "peaceful" native culture who were "in tune" with their surroundings. That's what I got, sort of. But as I watched, it felt increasingly like the Na'vi relationship with their environment was nothing more than a fantasy created right in line with right/conservative environmental politics. Everything you kill to eat, you bless/pray over. I suppose that's marginally more conscientious than our current supermarket/packaged meat system is. But there's no particular respect/blessing accorded to animals who try to kill you, as Neytiri's treatment of the black hyena things demonstrates. And Eywa manages everything, apparently, so there's no real reason to take care in consumption and resource management -- if there were, then Eywa would provide some sort of obvious and unmistakable sign. It reminds me of nothing so much as the arguments of some fundamentalist groups that the earth was created for the sole benefit of humans, whose responsibility is to make use of it. To advocate awareness of global climate change is thus to play the false prophet, contradicting God's original directives about earth benefiting humankind.

Avatar sends the same message. "Don't worry about the land. Trust Eywa." Even connectivity is facilitated through magical/divine means, by way of that nice USB interface in the Na'vi ponytails. The only sort of "work" that the humanoids have to do to be connected with the various animals is dominate them -- whether that domination is accomplished by a bridle and bit, or by leaping on to the animals' backs.

So while I know that many people saw Avatar and were impressed by its beauty, I feel as though wherever I looked, I saw more violence.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Avatar vs. David Attenborough

Friday afternoon I finished all my work, just in time to go and catch the last matinee of James Cameron's Avatar in 3D. In hindsight, this was a huge mistake. Not just because the film is overflowing with white privilege, though it is -- and I regret sending the message that I support that old plot trope about the nice white man who saves the natives -- because paying for the ticket inevitably does send that message. And the plot really does hinge on the idea that the white guy "going native" means discovering that he can do all the things the natives do even better than the natives can do them on their own.

My objections to the above didn't help my reception of the film, but it was also the sloppiest script and characterizations that I can remember seeing in ages. Sure, I expected it to use some stock character types: the aggressive military leader who wants to exterminate the savages, the rational, more caring, but slightly bitchy female scientist, the marine grunt with the vital skill of "having heart," the strong and beautiful native princess. I also expected it to expand upon those 5-7 word descriptions.

It doesn't. Not once, not at all, no, no, not a single word more. This recap, Avatar, the meta-contextual edition, captures the problem of the lazy writing perfectly, and with considerably more wit than the film itself.

Thank goodness for Twitter and smart phones, because I was able to take out some of my frustration as I finished watching, though I wish I'd just walked out. On Facebook, a friend commented that she had enjoyed it, but kept reminding herself to turn her brain off. She wouldn't be the first person to suggest that I should just chill out and watch the pretty pictures (nor did she actually reprimand me in that way, though plenty of people have before). I kept thinking about it, though, especially as I watched Carmen the next day. After all, opera makes use of stock characters itself -- but there's always room for the actor's interpretation -- in fact, the success depends upon it -- the reviews that I've seen comparing Elina Garanca's Carmen to that of Maria Ewing or Stephanie Blythe show just how different the performance can be.

I kept thinking, though, throughout the day: how do I escape in the way that other people refer to as "turning your brain off?" It didn't actually take that long for me to come up with an answer. I watch marine biology videos. And other nature videos, too, but those focused on marine life, and especially Sir David Attenborough's Blue Planet series, have always been my favorites. I used to have them recorded on battered old VHS tapes, but now they can be streamed through Netflix's instant queue. Watching the fish, their strange bodies, the alien landscapes of the deep ocean, is all I need to draw me out of whatever academic pursuit I need a break from.

And, of course, Attenborough and his videographers can make me feel pity for a fly caught in a Venus flytrap.

So, last night, I turned my brain off -- or at least, turned it away from academics. And watched fish spawning and feeding upon each others eggs and larvae in the open ocean. For some species, and in some areas, sex and reproduction are a vital part of the food chain. I can't help wondering how our human lives and mores would be changed if the same were true for us; how it might complicate the oppositions between liberal and fundamentalist moral creeds, pro- and anti- abortionists -- how it might even effect our psychology of consumption (by which I mean not only purchases, but even just the act of consuming by moving about.

There's a good story lurking there, I think. Strange, but good. But when will I have time to write it?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Opera on the big screen

Though the idea of going to the opera at 9:00 in the morning (for a 10:00 curtain) seems a little odd, today I saw Elina Garanca and Roberto Alagna in Carmen, and it was one of those moments where you suddenly realize that the abstract thing you referred to at 6 or 7 as "the future" has already arrived.

I've been encountering the Met radio broadcasts for years, but rarely been captivated by them: I don't have the same ear for opera that I have for early music, or other symphonic/orchestral pieces; so when I hear opera without being able to see it, I usually feel like I'm missing the point. To be clear, this is my own personal flaw, and not opera's.

Anyway, I'd assumed that the Met simulcasts would be a fixed camera, or a couple of fixed cameras, and that perspective would rotate between them throughout, and that simply didn't win me over. It wasn't until I saw a trailer for the Met HD season, which featured swooping cameras, that I wondered if I'd been wrong. And then when I saw this review of the new production of Carmen, I couldn't resist going, though I still wasn't sure what the camera work would be like. I had imagined that it would be difficult to do anything particularly intimate during a live broadcast.

Of course, I was completely wrong. The perspective allowed by the cameras made me feel as though I was a fly, wandering around the stage, glancing into the orchestra pit, watching from above while the sets were changed. It helped, I imagine, that I was seated in the fourth or fifth row of seats. Even arriving half an hour early, I still found the theatre nearly full, with people waiting to get in on standby. Fortunately, I am not tall. And the theatre seats are extraordinarily cushy. So it was perfectly comfortable to sink down into a reclining position, almost as though I were on a lounge chair at the beach.

The opera itself was as spectacular as the review promised, though I gather that a lot of the praise is directed at the raw sensuality of the production, as opposed to a more stylized and traditional rendition. And since this is my first Carmen, it's hard for me to comment on it in comparison. I loved the set for the first act, which made use of the three concentric turntables on the stage. Between the largest, and the medium turntable, there was a curving chainlink fence, through which I could see brick walls. And as the scene began, I realized that the outermost circle was the inside of the military station; and the city was what I could see, bustling through the chain link fence in the center of the stage. When the action moved towards the town center, the outer turntable simply rotated away, and the scene changed instantly.

At Seattle Opera, season ticket holders have the option for a free upgrade for one show per season, to any available seats in the house. I took advantage of that a couple of years ago to see Jane Eaglen in The Flying Dutchman, and utterly loved it. When an opera is well-choreographed, and well-acted, you can see the acting, even if you're seated at the top of the house, but I like watching facial expressions, and little bits of business, so I loved being able to watch the kids in the opera chorus clambering about for the changing of the guard. I've never really been able to imagine what it would like to be able to be onstage in an opera chorus, but the HD cameras made me feel as though I could. And I liked the fact that I could recognize members of the chorus, and then spot them again later on in the fourth act.

The singing and acting were equally lovely, from all the players involved. The addition of two short ballets, preceding the first and third acts, was lovely, though I don't know if it was really necessary. When I saw Seattle Opera's Pagliacci last year, two ballets had been added to that production as well. I quite love ballet, and in both instances I thought the choreography was beautiful and well-executed. My only doubt is that it's beginning to feel as though the producers are becoming almost gluttonous about adding to the productions -- it's always more, more! -- as though opera wants to establish itself as the medium which encompasses all other sensual mediums. How long will it be until there's a production of L'Italiana in Algeri that includes a Pappataci feast for the audience, so that in addition to dance, music, and acting, there's the gratification of food, as well? Mind you, if such a thing ever comes to be, I think I'd be first in line for tickets.

Though it felt a little strange to attend the opera first thing in the morning, I almost preferred it to attending at night. I found, in the last season of tickets that I bought, that I was often exhausted by midway through the second half; and dead tired by the second intermission, if there was one. Part of that was undoubtedly celiac disease, so maybe I'll find it's not the case anymore -- but getting home from the opera nearly always involved 3 buses, and waiting in between, and it was never terribly appealing, even before Seattle's crime rate started ramping up. Going to and from the opera in broad daylight, and having the rest of the day, on the other hand, feels wonderful. And the perspective that I'm getting for my $22 is so much better than what I can get for more than twice that at Seattle Opera that I suspect I'm much more likely to patronize the Met HD series in the future. I feel a little guilty, but then Seattle Opera frustrates me, because their student rate is limited to students who are under 25 -- as though anyone past that age must be making a decent income, student or not. Not quite, Seattle Opera. Not quite.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Crunchy Cheddar Christ!

My Episcopal parish has very kindly provided gluten-free communion wafers. I'm delighted, though a little leery about their sharing a plate with bread. But I went up to get one tonight, popped it into my mouth, and discovered that it was both very crunchy (unlike the paper-thin communion wafers), and cheddar-flavored! I think I looked decidedly irreverent at the wine station, and on getting back to my seat in the choir, ready to sing the anthem, I turned to my neighbor: "The gluten-free wafers are cheddar-flavored!" And she snorted, silently, in laughter.

I don't mind in the least. On the contrary, I don't think that organized religion finds enough instances for laughter; at least, not enough instances that aren't dependent on making fun of some other community with divergent/opposing beliefs.

In other news, I continue to be amazed, and horrified, at how many "symptoms" of celiac disease are disappearing. The scare quotes are there because I'd assumed that most of these symptoms were just aspects of who I am: someone who suffers from constantly painfully cold hands and joint pain, overactive bladder -- well, most of the symptoms listed on the sidebar here. I put down my mental fogginess to frustration/anxiety with the dissertation -- and it's not as though I had become a complete imbecile. It's just that it had become necessary, most days, to expend all my best energy and mental clarity in the 2-4 hours that I spent dealing with other people, meeting their needs. There were exceptions; days when I had more spoons than others. And days when I had less, too. But I wasn't keeping great track of what was going on, since I wasn't really thinking of myself as ill. It's only in hindsight that it becomes visible -- like today when I looked at my reusable handwarmers, and realized that I hadn't recharged them in a month, or felt it necessary to do so. Or when I steel myself against the urge to frenetically cruise through a bunch of websites that aren't really relevant to what I'm working on -- and then realize that the urge isn't actually there.

It's a little scary, and even writing about it here makes me worry that these, and other symptoms, will return, proving me wrong. But the clarity of my thought feels entirely different -- which is to say, present. I'd put my worries down to the worst case of impostor syndrome of my entire life. Now, it looks as though that may have been incorrect.

But: knock wood, and keep writing. It's too soon to do much more than that.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


Slow posting day, because I'm working on the dissertation chapter that ate my brain.

But I don't want to go postless, so, a quick post on my Christmas present to myself: a Kindle 2. I've wanted one for a while -- in fact, I've been dreaming about the future of ebooks for probably most of the last decade -- or whenever someone first suggested to me that it would be possible to put books on an easily portable device. I've dreamed about it because I can be terribly scattered -- or syncretic, if you'll allow me a more positive term -- in my reading and research. Inevitably, if I want to go and work at a coffee shop, I feel like I need to carry at least 20 books with me -- and even having done that, I have often found that the one I want is one that I neglected to bring.

I've had a sort of Kindle -- the Kindle for iPhone -- for about a year. First purchase: The Serial Garden, by Joan Aiken, if you're curious about that sort of thing. I've been wanting a full-sized Kindle for quite some time, for the purpose of storing 18th century facsimiles in an easily readable/accessible/portable format -- more easy than carrying my laptop wherever I go. But at first, the Kindle 2 didn't have native PDF support, and I knew that my texts would end up garbled. Nor did I feel like spending the extra money for a Kindle DX.

But when an extra teaching gig brought me a small windfall at the end of fall term, I couldn't resist any longer. Or rather, there was no reason to. With more and more academic books that I use becoming available in Kindle format, it made sense, both for immediate research, and for the three month research trip I'll be taking in July of this year. The fact that the Kindle Whispernet is now up and running internationally helped too.

I'd found, in using the Kindle for iPhone, that it helped my reading comprehension because it wasn't conducive to skimming. Often, I feel pressured to try and grasp the big picture and the little picture all at once, and to fly through chapters at breakneck speed. As a strategy, this has definite room for improvement. To my delight, the full-size Kindle has a useful feature in this regard that I didn't even know about: I can alter the width of the column of words, choosing to read in what I think of as MMPB width, or newspaper column width.

It's not the same as a book, and not the same as the iPhone Kindle, which Nicholson Baker prefers. My MLA roommate, playing with it, was irritated by the brief flash of black on the screen as you "turn" a page. I wasn't sure about that myself, at first. But all it took was a little reading for me to forget about it entirely. Highlighting is easy. Annotating is easy. Certain academic titles are so cheap that I barely have to think about purchasing them. And I remain surprised by the fact that more reviewers aren't trumpeting this to the skies. I like the smell of old books, and the feel of them: but if I can trade those sensations for being able to have 59 books with me at a time, and not even notice the weight? There's no contest. No contest at all.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sequiturs and non sequiturs: Fantastic Mr. Fox and Sherlock Holmes

Yesterday, for the first time in a year and a half, I went to see two films back to back. I've made it to very few films, lately -- in fact, only two since the quarter began at the start of autumn term. And usually I like to take more time in between films, in order to think about them more carefully. But part of my goal yesterday was to get out of the house in order to avoid going to bed at 4 as a result of MLA-related tiredness and jetlag. So the fact that Fantastic Mr. Fox and Sherlock Holmes were nicely bookended was awfully convenient. And they're both adaptations, so it seemed a good pairing.

Unfortunately, I have nothing positive to say about Fantastic Mr. Fox, other than that the animation isn't ugly. Wes Anderson seems to chosen to immerse himself even further in the McSweeney's comedy style, which I'm tempted to name post-coherence. I think post-coherence captures what Anderson and Baumbach seem to be trying to achieve: where the non sequitur is not only the ultimate joke, but the formula for the entire plot.

I do love a good non sequitur, but overuse is just painful. The final scene, given the "wild animal" theme running throughout, was flat as could be.

Sherlock Holmes was moderately more successful. Almost every review I've read has praised the UST between Holmes and Watson; what I liked in addition to this was that there was also chemistry between Holmes and Adler -- but the film isn't actually a romantic comedy, and so rather than being dissipated through any number of tired, stale script sequences, the UST simply hangs around, and it felt more interesting -- and utterly more watchable.

As for the plot, it suggested that Ritchie and his screenwriters, Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham, are much taken with the aesthetic of steampunk, and equally insecure about how to craft a plot that actually fits within the conventions of the genre, with its focus on mechanization and alchemy. This is to their detriment, because it meant that they also couldn't work out how to communicate the clues to the audience. I kept thinking about Franco Moretti's analysis, in Graphs, Maps, Trees, of how a plethora of authors writing detective stories and mysteries in the 1890s were forgotten, leaving only the few heavyweights that we know today, with Doyle first among equals. Moretti makes a clear case that success depended on making mystery stories solvable by their readers -- evolving from having no clues at all, to visible (but not decodable) clues, to finally, decodable ones. "The Red-Headed League" and "The Speckled Band" are decodable; "The Five Orange Pips" and "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" are not.

Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes was firmly in the visible-but-not-decodable branch of the tree. If frogs are dead, the viewer can't tell that they were paralyzed before death. A single shot of a leaf/flower in a lab is not decodable to anything but that someone was analyzing said object. Moreover, all the visible clues for the film were delivered in a single scene, which strikes me as shoddy organization. But in hindsight, I think this is part of the point of Ritchie's update to the characters of Holmes & Watson. Jude Law's Watson is great, and for the first time that I can remember, Watson is the character with whom the audience is meant to identify: lover, fighter, efficient pragmatist (he never forgets the gun). If Watson evolves into a hero, though, Holmes has to become a superhero: and by definition, he can perceive things that the rest of us simply can't. Non sequitur is the whole point. He has abilities that the rest of us don't have: one of my favorite scenes in the film was the sequence where Holmes disguises himself, very quickly, while in pursuit of Adler. It was not only completely canonical -- it made an aspect of the canonical Holmes more visible, and vibrant than he had ever been before in my mind.* However, he has to have clear weaknesses, too, lest the plot become a story about the inferiority of the normal human (think of Syndrome in The Incredibles).

This choice made sense to me. I can't help but think of Holmes in contrast with Christian Bale's Batman in The Dark Knight: he was interesting to watch, but I also felt as if Christopher Nolan almost painted himself into a corner, even without the complication of Heath Ledger's death. There's nowhere left to go for Batman, except to become an antihero. Ritchie has different plans for Holmes, I imagine -- and the more I think about it, the more I think that the combination of different strengths and weaknesses among Holmes, Watson, and Adler, in combination with the underlying sexual tension between them, could make for a series of fantastic ensemble-driven caper films. But the creators are going to have to come up with something a little more impressive than a remote control. (If that last sentence doesn't make sense, just see the film).

* And I've been a Holmes fan since age 8, and spent about half of 5th grade reading and producing book reports on the entire canon, and every adaptation that I could get my hands on. Thank you, Mr. Hagin, for allowing me to run amok. It was an utter delight.