10 simple rules for a healthy aquarium

four-in-formation

Clockwise from top: Chad, Wagatha, Pearl (trailing a truly impressive string of poop), and Miss Chanandler Bong. Spot was enjoying some alone time down at the bottom of the tank.

In a comment on my first aquarium post, Mike wrote,

I just skimmed the page about cycling an aquarium. This was a healthy reminder of why I don’t attempt to keep fish — the whole process seems terrifyingly complex.

I commented that fishkeeping only seems terrifyingly complex – it actually runs on a handful of guidelines that almost always work. I started writing them out in the comment, and when I got them all down, I cut them out and pasted them here. Without further ado:

Matt’s 10 Rules for a Happy Aquarium

  1. Be patient. Start small, with many fewer fish than the tank will ultimately support, until the nitrogen cycle is up and running (I guess knowing about the nitrogen cycle is step 0).
  2. Start with hardy, inexpensive fish, that can withstand some swings in temperature and water chemistry. In practice this often means fish that evolved in crappy environments, and fish that are good at establishing new populations. Ancestral platies are from shallow streams in Mexico, and there are introduced platy populations in Florida (expected), Singapore, Hong Kong, and Montana (whut), so they’re pretty tough. Get a fish book and learn the basics about some prospective boarders.
  3. Make sure the temperature of the tank suits the fish. Goldfish do best in the 50s and 60s Fahrenheit, tropicals in the 70s to low 80s. Some fish are picky and have narrower ranges – those fish are usually picky in other ways and are not good starter fish. See the fish book.
  4. Give some thought to how fish get along with others, or fail to. For schooling fish, get small groups rather than individuals. Don’t keep fin-nippers like tiger barbs with long-finned fish like angelfish and bettas. How will you know which are which? See the fish book.
  5. Realize that almost all pet-store fish are young juveniles and they will grow, so plan for the adult size, not the size-at-time-of-purchase. For the adult sizes – see the fish book.
  6. Don’t overcrowd – one inch of fish per gallon of water is a good target once the tank is fully up and running. If you want 15 to 20 fish, get a 15-to-30 gallon tank, start with 5 fish, and build up patiently. See the fish book.
  7. Don’t overfeed – give only as much food as the fish will entirely consume within 5 minutes. See the fish book.
  8. Do filter heavily. IME it’s hard to over-filter. I started out running big-ass filters because I was keeping aquatic turtles that generated a lot of waste, but those big filters kept the tank looking good even when I had no turtles. The more biological filtration – letting the water run over or through filter media with crud growing on it – the better. See the fish book.
  9. Keep live plants, the more the better. First because they’ll outcompete the algae and you’ll spend much less time scraping the tank. If you have live plants and a snail or plec, your scraping time may be zero. I’ve never scraped algae in my life, and I never will. I’d rather buy a cheap bundle of anacharis and a snail and never worry about it again. Second, because the more complex and diverse the tank ecosystem is, the better it will be buffered against all kinds of maladies, from chemical imbalances to bacterial blooms to parasites. Not all fish books push readers to keep live plants, but most do.
  10. Accept that even if you do all of that stuff, you’ll still lose the occasional fish, especially when you’re first starting out. Those hardy fish from crappy environments are strongly R-selected so although they are tough they are also evolutionarily disposable and they die at odd times, often for no detectable reason. Accept it and move on. In the same way that one builds a body of work by publishing one thing after another, one remains a fishkeeper by not quitting when fish die.

I rather snarkily added “See the fish book” to as many entries as possible because all of this stuff is covered in any intro fishkeeping book. There are zillions of these on the market, and any of them are probably good enough for someone starting out. I prefer older, more comprehensive works. A printing of Exotic Aquarium Fishes by William T. Innes from the 1960s or 70s can usually be had for a buck or two (example), and it will have a LOT more useful biological data than the newer, flashier titles.

Now, compare all that to what far too many aspiring fishkeepers actually do: get some crappy little 1- or 2-gallon nano tank or betta bowl, put in a couple of goldfish – which would maximally stress an established, cycling 5-gallon tank, let alone a brand new nano tank – and no live plants, with probably inadequate filtration and no temperature control, and then be shocked and disappointed when the fish get sick, get parasites, and die. When 5 minutes of online investigation would have led them to any of a zillion advice pages like this one.

It’s just like stargazing or most other hobbies – you can avoid most of the frustration for a trivial outlay of research time.

Posted in aquarium | 4 Comments

Aquarium update 2: the personalities of the platies

Four days on and all five platies are still alive. I spent about an hour yesterday trying to photograph them. It’s a HUGE pain in the rear. Both the iPhone and the Coolpix have 0.5-1.0 second delays while they autofocus, which is necessary because the fish are always moving through the depth of field, but it also means that I can only get a clean shot when (1) a fish decides to stay put for a whole second, which is rare, or (2) I just get lucky and one of the fish happens to pause when the camera fires. I did get a few keepers, but man, it took throwing out a lot of duds. The ones you see here are radically cropped and otherwise tweaked.

London and I gave them names today.

wagatha

The green one is a wag – a platy with darker fins than body – so we named her Wagatha. She is so far the smartest. She is always the first to figure out when we’ve put food in the tank, for example, and the other fish tend to follow her lead. But she is much less gregarious than the others – they seek out her company, but not vice versa.

chad-and-spot

The orange ones are two males and two females, each with one larger and one smaller example. The big male is a bully – he chases off the smaller male, shamelessly courts the big gold female, and staunchly ignores the green female and the small orange female. We named him Chad in honor of his frat-boy antics.

The big orange female is very gravid – we’ll have fry soon, I reckon a week at most – and just wants to be left in peace. She tries to get off on her own, but she’s not as well camouflaged as the green female, and both males are constantly seeking her company, so it’s a challenge. Sometimes she gets five minutes’ peace hiding behind a root or plant. We named her Spot, because of the single black scale in front of her tail on either side.

miss-chanandler-bong

The small male is kind of pathetic. He just wants to hang out with either of the two larger females, but neither of them will tolerate his company. And because they’re bigger, they can out-swim him or chase him off. His name is Miss Chanandler Bong.

You can see in this photo the gonopodium that lets us recognize the males – it’s the backwards-pointing tube behind the pelvic fins, where females have a broad anal fin. The gonopodium is in fact the anal fin, modified into a sperm-delivery device. I’ve been intrigued to see that the males still use their gonopodia when changing directions, flipping them out sideways to help make turns. It’s really cool that the gonopodium has acquired a new function delivering sperm, without completely losing its old function of helping the fish maneuver.

pearl

The small orange female has shown the least inclination for anything in particular. She seems to be content to school with the others, without trying to intrude on anyone or get away by herself. Sometimes she ends up alone when everyone else is off doing other things, and she seems fine with that. She’s the smallest of the lot and probably the youngest, so this may be juvenile behavior. We named her Pearl.

butterball

The mystery snail is Butterball. Not much to say about it – it roams, it eats. It was gone all day yesterday. Apparently it got lost inside the big artificial root decoration in the center of the tank, which is hollow. But it was back today.

Watching all of these behaviors is for me about 90% of the fun of keeping fish. And every time new fish go in the tank, the social order gets stirred and new behavior patterns emerge. We won’t add any more for a few weeks, to let the nitrogen cycle settle down, but I’m already curious about the new behaviors we’ll see.

Posted in aquarium | 5 Comments

Starting a new aquarium

tank-with-fish-day-1

I asked for money for Christmas, and used my haul to set up a 15-gallon tank in our living room. It’s good to be back to this – I’d missed it.

I had a series of small tanks right after Vicki and I got married, which rapidly culminated in a 44-gallon room-corner tank that I ran from 1997 to 2001 in Norman, Oklahoma, from 2001-2006 in Santa Cruz, California, and from 2006 to 2007 in Berkeley. I didn’t try to set it up during our one year in Merced, and made only one brief, abortive stab at it after we moved to Claremont in 2008. That tank sat in our garage until I sold it last year.

This time I wanted to go for something a little more modest. Plus, we have a pretty full house already so whatever tank I got had to fit into existing space. This one sits on a (very sturdy) living room table that was otherwise only holding whatever laptops and tablets no-one was using at the moment.

I bought the tank and set it up on Monday, with gravel I’d saved from my old setup and some new aquarium decorations and a few strands of anacharis (Egeria densa). I’ll add more plants in the future, but I wanted to stick with something cheap and hardy during the run-in period. On Wednesday London and I went back to the store to get some fish. We settled on five platies (Xiphophorus sp.) and one little plec (Hypostomus plecostomus).

The plec died today. Not super surprising, since the tank will still be cycling for the next few weeks and it’s natural to lose a few fish, even of the very hardy varieties, until things settle down. The plec had been behaving oddly from the first minute – it spend most of its time lying on the bottom positively panting, despite being in a well-oxygenated tank. And I never saw it eat at all, which is in my experience extremely odd for a plec. Fortunately the store reimbursed us and we got a little gold mystery snail (Pomacea bridgesii) to munch algae and the odd bit of missed food.

The platies are all doing great. They’re all very active, have immense appetites – that we are careful not to indulge – and show lots of interesting behaviors. More on them next time.

Posted in aquarium | 3 Comments

LEGO Star Wars – Project 30279

lego-30279-kylo-ren-shuttle

London and I like LEGO, Star Wars, and LEGO Star Wars, but we’re especially fond of the little polybag sets that pop up in department store checkout lanes. And our favorite thing to do with them, once we’ve built the models as intended, is to hack them. The goal is to come up with alternative builds that use only the pieces from the polybag set, but still look like they might plausibly be vehicles from Star Wars. Our latest round of builds is based on LEGO set 30279, a miniature version of Kylo Ren’s Command Shuttle.

Before I get into our alternative builds, I should say one thing about the Command Shuttle when built as intended: it sucks. It looks pretty much like the one from the movie, but the wings are fixed in the vertical position, which is not how the one from the movie flies around. This is like having a Lambda shuttle with wings that don’t swing or a B-wing with S-foils that don’t open. It was an embarrassing oversight when it happened on the big Command Shuttle set, and it’s simply inexcusable here. It would have been an easy fix, too, with a pair of hinges. Mediocre!

MOC 1 – Matt’s fighter

Here was my first attempt at an alternative build:

project-30279-mjw-fighter-1

If I’m super-picky, it looks more like something from Wing Commander or Renegade Legion than Star Wars, but I dig it anyway. Here are some instructions:

project-30279-mjw-fighter-1-instructions

MOC 2 – Matt’s cruiser

project-30279-mjw-cruiser-1

Next I tried a Star Destroyer-type capital ship, with a powerful axial laser. The bridge tower is elevated to get the sensors and comm gear up away from the weapons. This one’s a mixed bag, probably a little more obviously Star Wars-y than the fighter, but a less elegant and unified design. Instructions:

project-30279-mjw-cruiser-1-instructions

MOC 3 – London’s gunship

project-30279-lcw-gunship-1

While I was building my fighter and cruiser, London was steadily working away on something I couldn’t see clearly. When he showed me the finished product, I was blown away. I love this thing. Using the grey wedge pieces to make a double-tier cockpit would not have occurred to me in a million years, and the outriggers give it a rounded, Millennium Falcon-esque aspect ratio. It looks very swooshable, and I think it would make a killer gunship for Rebel special forces or a well-heeled smuggler.

This instruction set is actually interesting, because it shows some clever bits of building, like having the grey ridged bricks at the back only snapped in at the top (they’re just balanced on the smooth parts of the wing pieces in step 3, below), and hiding all of the little colored plates inside as structural elements.

project-30279-lcw-gunship-1-instructions

So, I think London wins this round. If anyone out there wants to play, leave a comment, and you can have space to show off your creation in a future post.

Posted in homebrew, Lego, MOC, sequels, Star Wars, toys | 2 Comments

Why (and who) your vote for Trump hurts

I originally posted this on Facebook, after some loved ones got upset that I posted links to this article and this one. I’m posting it here now for ease of access, both for my future self and for others who don’t have access to my Facebook feed. Your thoughts are welcome, but be warned I’ll be watching the comment section with extra vigilance.

– – – – – – – – – – –

I’ve heard from friends and loved ones in the Midwest that the things I’ve posted on Facebook in the past few days have hurt their feelings. I don’t take that lightly – but I didn’t post the things I posted lightly, either. I’m posting this now to hopefully open a dialogue. It’s depressingly long, because I lacked the skill to write it shorter.

If you don’t want to hit me back here, that’s fine. I’d actually prefer to have the follow-up conversations one-on-one, in messenger, email, or by phone. This is just a starting point for me. I realize some of the language below may strike you as inflammatory. I went as high as I am capable of going right now, and if it wasn’t high enough, I can only ask you to reach down and try to pull me up.

Part 1 is about why I’m hurt that people I love voted for Trump. If you didn’t vote for Trump, great, skip down to Part 2, which is about why I’ve posted what I have lately.

*** PART 1: Why (and who) your vote for Trump hurts ***

Let’s start with some background.

For Vicki and me, Muslims, Hispanics, LGBTQ folks, and other minorities aren’t abstractions. They’re our friends, coworkers, students, and fellow parishioners (okay, not the Muslims, but our church does participate in an interfaith council and works with mosques to feed the poor, and we love it). People of other ethnicities, religions, and orientations are at our faculty meetings, our star parties, and our barbeques. And every year we have many, many minority students. Some of them are members of multiple minorities. Many of them came to America to escape repressive regimes and religious intolerance overseas (good thing they won’t see any more of that, right!).

The three things to note about this are, first, there’s nothing unusual about this level of diversity out here. It’s been the baseline for us since we moved to California 15 years ago. Second, we freaking love it. We love these people, and we wouldn’t trade the richness and love they bring to our lives for anything. And third, even with all of this diversity, things are far from equal even here. We see and hear about the struggles our minority friends, colleagues, and students have to go through just to be taken seriously or to avoid harassment, even here in lefty California, even in normal years. Just to be treated as full human beings instead of stereotypes. If you think the struggle isn’t real, I’m glad your life is so easy.

(Side question for red-staters: do you encounter these struggling people? Ever have a gay Hispanic kid crying in your office, or try to comfort a Muslim woman who’s worried her hijab will keep her from getting a job? Or is this just theoretical for you? I’m not trying to be snide – I thought I was worldly and tolerant when I lived in Oklahoma, but I had _no idea_ how much of a straight white Christian bubble I was in.)

So when Donald Trump kicked off his campaign by smearing Hispanic people, it didn’t land here as loose talk or something to be celebrated. It caused real pain and fear among people who have struggled their whole lives to be treated fairly. Same for the Muslims, LGBTQ, and other minorities as the campaign went on. Trump wasn’t talking about empty labels, “those people” who live conveniently off-screen. He was talking about the people all around us, in every part of our lives. (Okay, Trump has not said a ton about LBGTQ folks and even waved a Pride flag a couple of times, but Mike Pence, Steve Bannon, etc. are walking gay rights disasters, so he gets no points there.)

Now, Vicki and I are personally insulated from the worst of Trump’s bigotry because we’re still straight white Christians. But precisely because we’re Christians, we feel a responsibility to take seriously the pain of our neighbors, and to use our privilege to stand alongside all the unprivileged people who have been targeted as scapegoats for the past 16 months. (To the unprivileged: if we’ve let you down, we’re sorry – please tell us how to do better.)

So that’s point one: our values, our experiences, and our understanding of Christ require us to resist Trump’s bigotry, which has caused real pain to actual people that we know for almost a year and a half. Flag that for future reference.

Next item: Trump has lied to just about every person in his life, has lied obviously to the American public repeatedly during the campaign, cheated on his wives and bragged about it, stiffed the people he hired and bragged about it, and changed his mind on just about every possibly policy position. Until a decade or so ago, he was pro-choice. He’s a billionaire playboy who speaks and acts as if women and their bodies are just playthings for him, and at least a dozen people credibly claim that he sexually assaulted them. So the idea that he’s some kind of principled social conservative is ludicrous. (Although he’s surrounded himself with social conservatives, and in the case of Steve Bannon, white supremacists.)

So here’s my beef with “values voters” who went for Trump in the hope of getting more conservatives on the Supreme Court (if you voted for Trump for economic reasons, this ain’t about you – but let’s check back after bank deregulation and tariffs and see how things are going). Even if I thought a more conservative Supreme Court was a desirable outcome – and I don’t, because I love the people conservatives hurt – that leaves the following problems:

1. Trump has lied or shifted his position on just about everything. He clearly thinks that absolutely everything is open to negotiation, and that sincere people (including you) are suckers to be hustled. He’s already backed down on repealing the most significant parts of Obamacare and on building the wall, so even core planks of his campaign are fungible now that he’s won. He’s suddenly become very conciliatory toward Democrats, including Hillary and Obama, possibly because he knows that Pence is impeachment bait and he needs allies (we know people who voted for Trump for this very reason: they wanted Pence and think they’ll get him). Everything we know about Trump suggests that he would just love to play Republicans and Democrats against each other so neither group is strong enough to control him (see: his flip-flopping treatment of Fox News and CNN on the campaign trail). So what makes you think that he will actually carry through and nominate social conservatives to the Supreme Court? In short, why do “values voters” think that you’re the only group ever that Trump won’t stiff the minute it become advantageous for him – especially if by betraying you he keeps Democrats happy enough to not help impeach him?

2. At what point is _maybe_ getting the person you want on the Supreme Court a Pyrrhic victory? In addition to mocking the disabled and bragging about sexual assault, Trump definitely said that he was going to deport millions of people, take away health insurance for millions more, re-institute torture, and bomb civilians. You can say that was just loose talk on the campaign trail, but one, it had real-world effects on your fellow humans (cue future reference, above) and corroded America’s political and moral standing in the world, and two, if you think Trump wasn’t serious about that stuff, why would you think he’d be any more serious about appointing your preferred justice? Since the election, we’ve had a spasm of hate crimes against all kinds of minorities by people who were definitely emboldened by Trump’s campaign-trail rhetoric, and he’s made an alt-right anti-Semite misogynist (Steve Bannon) his chief White House strategist and senior counselor. Now, _maybe_ Trump will actually appoint a social conservative to the Supreme Court, if it suits him, and _maybe_ a case will come up that will let the court overturn Roe v Wade, and _maybe_ they’ll actually do it. (Although conservative justices can surprise you – John E. Jones [District-level Bush appointee Republican] struck down both a gay marriage ban and the teaching of intelligent design, and John Roberts has declined to participate in opinions condemning Roe v Wade.) But does that string of maybes outweigh the actual fear and pain that millions of people have been experiencing for months and continue to experience? If you’re a Trump voter, I don’t think you’re necessarily racist, but you joined almost all of the actual racists in voting for a bigot, and that legitimized his bigotry whether you meant for it to or not (http://whatever.scalzi.com/2016/11/10/the-cinemax-theory-of-racism/). When I hear from people who voted for Trump because of the Supreme Court, what I hear is, “the actual suffering of real people right now means less to me than the chance for a possible future political victory.” I don’t see how that math adds up for anyone, especially not for people who call themselves Christians. At least when Esau traded his inheritance for a bowl of soup, the soup wasn’t hurting anyone!

I’d love to hear how that added up for you. I’m really trying to actually understand that, despite my exasperation.

*** PART 2: Why I’ve been posting the stuff I have ***

I have more than 600 Facebook friends (at least for now!). About a tenth of them don’t even live in the US. Most of the rest are Left Coasters we met in grad school or work, because that’s who was around when Facebook was taking off. I post on stargazing, paleontology, Dungeons & Dragons, movies, travel, teaching, and, yes, politics. I expect people who subscribe to my feed to be able to figure out which parts are and aren’t aimed at them.

None of the things I’ve posted lately have argued that every person in rural America is an incurious fundamentalist, only that there are a lot of incurious fundamentalists in rural America. So if you don’t consider yourself an incurious fundamentalist, why would you assume the article is about you? Or are you denying the idea that there are incurious fundamentalists in rural America? Because that’s a tough sell – it’s my lived experience from having grown up and gone to school and college in Oklahoma.

My intent has not been to hurt anyone, but to call out things that I’ve actually seen and experienced that are a huge problem for the country – people who have been on a steady drip of Fox News for 15 years and Rush Limbaugh for 30, who don’t see the damage their Trump votes caused because they don’t live alongside any of the minorities who are living in fear right now. (Okay, statistically, you almost certainly do have LGBTQ acquaintances. If they haven’t come out to you, it’s probably because they’re _afraid_ of _Christians_. That makes me weep.)

If you don’t think the articles I’ve posted describe you, good – I never intended them to! I didn’t post those articles AT you any more than I posted them AT our fellow scientists who happen to live and work in red states. I know full well that there are a lot of enlightened, compassionate people in Oklahoma – even as I try to grasp how a whole state and a whole region that identify as evangelical just legitimized months (and potentially years) of bigotry and violence by pulling the lever for Trump.

And if you choose to self-identify as an incurious fundamentalist or a bigot, um, I hope you’ve had a good ride? You may be geographically and culturally insulated from the harm your attitudes cause, but that does not mean your attitudes aren’t harmful, and I’m not about to stop calling them out. If that means we can’t be Facebook friends – if my feed is no longer a “safe space” for your intolerance – okay, I’ll do my best not to choke on that irony. Just remember that you left, not me.

If you are offended because you feel like I’m ignoring your individuality and treating you as one of a huge group, well, one, you’re probably wrong, for reasons explained above, and two, if you think this hurts, try and imagine what it would feel like if the President-elect and VP-elect labeled you as an undesirable and then threatened your whole group with registration, deportation, the loss of marriage rights, or electroshock therapy to ‘cure’ your sexuality. Because that’s what Trump voters actually inflicted on my friends, colleagues, students, and neighbors. And right now the real pain and fear my neighbors _can’t escape_ matters to me a lot more than whether privileged people I wasn’t necessarily talking to _choose_ to be offended by what I posted.

I love you. Your move.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Fat and skinny, elegant and brutal

This line of thinking started when Mike pointed me to the Simple Game System, which I had somehow not heard of before. I was prepared to be skeptical, as most minimalist systems leave me cold,* but I like that dice mechanic.

* What I mean by that is that minimalist systems almost always sound appealing at first, but seem to fall flat in actual play. It turns out that what I most often want is a Fat Game from which I can pick and choose which bits I actually want to use. I don’t know that I have ever played a pen-and-paper RPG exactly as written – I always strip out that which strikes me as stupid and bolt on that which strikes me as awesome. After a while I realized that this is what everyone does, and I stopped worrying about it.

Y-Wings in Death Star trench

That gave me a realization about BattleTech vs the X-Wing Miniatures game. Since London and I got into X-Wing minis last fall I’ve been pretty hot on that game and pretty cool toward rusty old B-Tech, which always takes forever. But one of the appealing things about BT is that it’s a box of parts that you can play with – there are rules for making up new mechs and tanks and they allow people to do things that the game’s designers never anticipated. Whereas X-Wing is very, very lean and balanced and playtested to within an inch of its life, but it doesn’t invite experimentation – in fact, it discourages it, at least for me, because tinkering with the stats or the rules is probably going to break the game.

endgame 2

Also, I’ve been thinking lately about how interesting it is when the playstyle of a game mimics the content. Like, the lean rules and quick play of X-Wing really do make it feel more like a dogfight. It’s all desperation and snap decisions and trying to out-guess your opponent on the fly. By comparison, BattleTech is massive and clunky and takes forever. It’s the opposite of lean. But in a way this is good – sometimes you really want to get down in the mud with some clanking, brutal 75-ton monster and stomp someone’s ass in exquisite and excruciating detail. Or at least I do.

Posted in BattleTech, wargames, X-Wing Miniatures Game | 2 Comments

Star Wars homework: Brick (2005)

Brick movie poster

Part of the Star Wars homework project.

Star Wars connection: written and directed by Rian Johnson, the writer and director of Episode VIII and writer of Episode IX.

From having seen Looper, I was pretty sure going into this one that (1) it would be a mindfuck, and (2) I would love it. I was not disappointed.

The short-short take is that it’s a noir murder mystery set in a high school. I suppose comparisons to Veronica Mars are inevitable. Both feature unusually smart, well-spoken high school sleuths unraveling histories of iniquity that are surprisingly, satisfyingly complicated. Both are set in towns on the California coast where public high schools bring together teenagers from all levels of an otherwise economically segregated community. They even came out at roughly the same time – VM aired from the fall of 2004 through 2007. But all of these appear to be genuine coincidences, since Rob Thomas (VM) and Rian Johnson were developing both projects independently, and apparently as fairly quiet, personal projects, for a long time before they came to fruition.

And in fact, Brick and Veronica Mars feel very different. From reading around online I see that VM is referred to as a noir mystery but I would not have pegged it as such – more of a teen mystery with noir trappings. Whereas Brick is a noir mystery with teen trappings. It’s so noir that if you’re not familiar with the genre, you may spend the entire movie wondering what the hell is going on (and if you are familiar with the genre, you’ll know that is a central part of the appeal).

It’s so noir that it’s strengths and weaknesses are approximately the same as those of the genre itself.

To me, the major failing of many noir mysteries, including Brick, is that the plot only works because characters – especially the minor characters – behave predictably, almost to the point of being Pavlovian automatons. How many times in one of these stories does one of the main characters leak a specific piece of information to X, knowing that X will go tell Y who will then do Z? It may be fun to watch, but it’s not how real people act.

Also, it must be said – no teenagers in the world are as clever and articulate as the ones in Brick. Hell, no people are that articulate for that long. But that’s a trope of both noir mysteries and most teen fiction, so no surprises there. And indeed, it’s more fun to watch unnaturally clever, pretty people for two hours than to watch plodding, average ones, even in movies where rat-a-tat dialogue isn’t a selling point.

What about the movie’s strenghts? The stock noir characters (mastermind, goon, seductress, etc.) translate over very smoothly. Being set in a sunny California town, the movie sort of perches on the edge of the mid-20th-century Los Angeles noir tradition that served up genre-centric hits like Chinatown and LA Confidential and revisionist send-ups like The Big Lebowski.

A lot of reviewers don’t like the complex lingo used by the characters, and admittedly it does take some time to pick up everything that’s being said. That’s almost a noir trope in itself. And for me, the weird argot spoken by the jaded souls in teenage bodies, combined with the standard noir complexity of the plot, had the cumulative effect of worldbuilding in almost a science-fictional sense. As Stephen King once wrote in one of his “Pop of King” columns for Entertainment Weekly, “It doesn’t bear any resemblance to life as I know it, but damned if I can take my eyes off it.”

It is either ironic or deeply fitting that he was referring to Veronica Mars.

Star Wars verdict: I think it bodes quite well. At this point, Star Wars is kind of a genre unto itself, so Johnson’s ability to make an engaging story within the constraints of a genre with very particular tropes is a good sign. Because Brick is a noir, it’s also a sort of picaresque. Noir characters don’t grow, they just bounce off each other. If mapped out, the web of interactions will be complex but each individual interaction will be simple – indeed, so simple that the sleuth can start reaching in and fiddling with the machinery by the midpoint of the story. That facility with what we might call logistically complex stories will come in handy for Star Wars, and Johnson has shown elsewhere that he can write more complex characters that do develop over time. I am hopeful.

 

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