Evan’s first twelve months (in binary)

Because I’m that kind of dad.

Poor kid.


Almost a year old

I don’t mean to brag … okay, yeah I do

The Chicago Manual of Style is to copyediting what Gray’s Anatomy is to medicine, what the Gospel of John is to Christianity: not the only textual authority, but one of the best known and most respected. Chicago is the kind of reference that proofreaders pull out to settle disputes, the kind of reference that can make even a seasoned editor say, “Huh. Guess I was wrong.”

To paraphrase Ron Burgundy: it’s kind of a big deal. For a certain flavor of geek, anyway.

When I started my editing career a few years ago, Chicago was on its 16th edition. At one point I read it cover to cover (well, mostly) and took careful notes. After all, I was brand-new to the field and had no formal training. I wanted to get it right.

In the course of my reading and note-taking, I came across section 5.220, which clarifies the usage of some commonly misused words. Among them were benevolence and beneficence:

You can click the screenshot to enlarge, but the gist is that beneficence is a tendency (in a person) to do good, whereas benevolence is the act of performing a good deed. Intention vs. action, in other words.

My prior understanding of these words was a bit fuzzy, so I had no reason to doubt the wisdom of Chicago. I did, however, notice something odd. A later entry states that maleficent means evil in deed, whereas malevolent means evil in mind. This is odd because you’d expect the “good” words and the “bad” words to be parallel; you’d expect -evolent and -eficent to mean the same thing in both. But they’re switched.

Puzzled by this apparent inconsistency, I checked my dictionary. And then another dictionary. And Garner’s Modern American Usage. And every other source I could find.

They all said the same thing: the “good” and “bad” words were, in fact, parallel, just as you’d expect. Chicago was wrong. They had gotten benevolence and beneficence mixed up.

I was stunned. And kind of excited. Had I really found an error in the big C?

After triple- and quadruple-checking that I was right, I finally sent them a note:

To be sure, it was better formatted when I sent it. The line breaks and such apparently got lost somewhere along the road.

Anyway, I awaited their response with bated (not baited) breath. And pretty soon, it arrived:

Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.

Nothing new happened for a while. And then, about a month ago, a new (17th) edition of Chicago came out. And in the section on word usage (now renumbered as section 5.250) we find:


Taking pride in things like this is strange, because on the one hand, it’s really exciting, but on the other hand, the set of people who will be excited with you when you tell them the story is relatively small.

But y’all are pretty cool. I think you’ll pick up what I’m throwing down.

After all — that’s what the internet is for, right?

In about a decade

Having recently finished reading Other Minds (good book), I’ve embarked on a book called Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, by Nick Bostrom. As you’d guess from the title, it’s about what to do in the increasingly likely event that we create an AI that is much, much smarter than we are.

I’m still at the beginning, but so far it’s utterly fascinating. Usually when I talk to people about an AI exponential intelligence explosion, the whole conversation turns into a debate over whether that’s likely to happen at all. With this author, I feel like I’m finally talking (or rather, listening) to someone who really gets it, who’s gotten past the “Will it happen?” question and is ready to talk about “What happens when it (probably) does?”

One bit in particular struck me. He has a section on games — which ones AI can beat humans at, which ones they can’t. He notes that AI now performs at superhuman levels (beating even world champions) at checkers, chess, and Scrabble, among others. Regarding the game of Go, he says the best AI is currently “very strong amateur level” but advancing steadily, and makes this prediction:

If this rate of improvement continues, [AI] might beat the world champion in about a decade.

The book was published three years ago, in 2014.

A Go-playing AI beat the world champion four months ago.

Wherever AI is headed, it’s going to be a wild ride.



I mean, I get what they’re saying. But … phrasing, y’know?

What it’s like being married to Brian

Betsy: I’m going to the store, you want anything special?

Me: Yep.

Betsy: What do you want?

Me: Doesn’t matter.

Double-feature postmortem: Kubo and the Two Strings & Interstellar

Yesterday I was sick and ended up with a whole day home alone (quite a rarity in this phase of my life). I watched two movies I’d been wanting to see for a long time: Kubo and the Two Strings and Interstellar.

Kubo is animated, ostensibly a kids’ movie, full of bright colors, Asian-themed, bouncing with energy, heavy on fantasy and magic, while Interstellar is very adult, bleak and somber, America-centric, slow-paced, heavy on sci fi. Very different films.

But also a lot of similarities. Both revolve around the parent/child bond; both have a lot of darkness; both are visually stunning; both have a twist at the end that redefines everything that’s come before, inviting a re-watch; both, strangely, star Matthew McConaughey (he’s the voice of Beetle in Kubo); both got fairly good Rotten Tomatoes scores (Kubo 97%, Interstellar 71%); both have more heart than brains; and both, ultimately, left me a little disappointed.

Let’s start with Kubo and the Two Strings.

Kubo is a kid with one eye. He lives with his mom. She warns him not to stay out past nightfall, or else his evil supernatural aunts and his evil grandfather the Moon King will steal his other eye. (Ahem. You have my attention.) Of course he does, and the baddies chase him (with grappling hooks!), and a lot of stuff happens but he ends up going on a quest with a monkey and a human-sized beetle samurai thing. (The “two strings” of the title refer to his musical instrument, which has a variety of magical powers and comes to symbolize his family.) It’s probably not a spoiler to say that he triumphs in the end.

As I mentioned, the animation is just gorgeous:

Kubo has magic of his own, which largely involves paper-folding (origami), and that’s cool to watch. The music is great too. And the story is pretty solid. In theory, it seems like an amazing movie.

One problem, for me, is that nearly all the dialogue is just … a little bit … off. It’s a subtle but persistent feeling that’s hard to describe. The rhythm of conversation, the timing, the flow, isn’t quite right. Pauses are just a bit too long, or something. It feels like the story is trying to move a tiny bit faster than the conversation, and it can’t. Legend of Korra had this same problem and it drove me bonkers. I doubt this will bother many other people, though.

Another problem: The way the story unfolds feels haphazard and arbitrary in a lot of places. Kubo and most of his family (good and evil alike) have magical powers of one kind or another, and the magic seems like it can do … well, whatever the story needs for that scene. Likewise, we move from one strange location to another without an overall sense of direction. It’s a problem because, the more arbitrary the story’s path becomes, the less the characters’ choices matter, and character choices are the heart of a story.

Also it gets really sappy near the end. I mean, it’s dark in a lot of places — I mean really dark, by “kids’ movie” standards — but by the end it’s so saccharine that even Disney’s like “Can you turn it down a notch?”

Okay, so. Interstellar.

This story is set in a dystopian, not-so-distant future, where we have (somehow) run out of food and (for some reason) cast aside technical knowledge, instead refocusing ourselves on traditional farming. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s a compelling premise: McConaughey plays Cooper, a pilot-turned-farmer who is raising his son Tom and his daughter Murphy on a dying planet, and yearning to use his engineering know-how to save the human race, and his kids in particular.

Again, the visuals are great:

The plot gets complicated — this is a Christopher Nolan movie, after all — so I’ll just say that Cooper has to leave his daughter Murphy behind to fly this long-shot interstellar mission, and everything he does out there is really all about getting back to her.

It’s a stark, slow, deliberate film, which is both good and bad: It definitely drags in places, especially in the second half, but it also has a sort of unhurried grandeur that seems fitting for a movie about something as huge as a true interstellar journey. (In that third screenshot, the smudge in the very center is actually two astronauts in space suits locked in a fistfight to the death, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The shot is a flash of genius from Nolan.)

It’s also harrowing to watch. The formula for an emotional gut-punch is (deceptively) simple: Just forge a bond of unfathomable love between two people, and then stretch that bond until it screams, and then stretch it some more. Interstellar does this repeatedly with devastating power, with Cooper and his daughter, and it never feels cheap. One scene in particular gave me a new appreciation for McConaughey’s acting abilities.

So there’s a lot to like. But also a number of problems.

For starters, as I said, it’s long — almost three hours — and it feels long. I definitely think some parts could’ve been cut. It also gets into a lot of weird semi-philosophical semi-scientific mumbo jumbo near the end, and the further they drifted into that, the less interested I got. I don’t mind a complicated movie, but it has to feel like a puzzle worth unraveling, and this wasn’t really it. These two problems are linked, and they were probably the biggest obstacle to enjoyment for me.

About the scientific accuracy of the movie — I guess I need to do some more thinking. Last night I subjected my poor wife to a rant about how bad the science was, but today I’m reading about how accurate it is, how painstaking the research was. So I may need to brush up on my own knowledge of relativity and see if some of my criticisms were wrong. None of that matters too much to the story, but I’m a science guy, so I’m interested (and apparently Nolan is interested too).


In summary: I wasn’t really impressed with either movie overall, but both were very impressive in certain particular ways, and both were clearly made with a lot of love. Also, I’m pretty weird, and a lot of my criticisms are things that won’t bother anyone else.

See how helpful I am?