Thursday, December 25, 2008

Blue Christmas

Commander Peary opened the door. Like pitiful blue statues, the remains of Santa and his elves lay huddled before him. He knew it was going to be a ...

Blue Christmas.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Terry Gross has excellent interview with Prof. Lawrence Lessig on Fresh Air today. Lessig's the founder of the Creative Commons and the author of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. Lessig's concerns/obsessions/night terrors are very much my own.

Gross mentioned a quote in Lessig's book from oompa composer John Phillip Souza. Back at the turn of the previous century, Sousa testified before Congress in an effort to ban player pianos and phonographs -- which were cutting into his profits as a seller of sheet music. The quote:

"These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal chord left. The vocal chord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape."

This echoes cartoonist R. Crumb's rant (see Terry Zwigoff's Crumb) that people used to make their own folk music on porch stoops, but today everyone buys their culture canned at the mall, and as a result everything is turning into "a unified field theory of bullshit."

Lessig's point. 21st century media tech favors the spontaneous, street level, creation of culture, as opposed to the top-down 20th century model of culture distributed on plastic discs by media monopolies. Souza couldn't turn back the clock at the turn of the last century. The big media companies can't turn the clock back now.

That's jolly wonderful. But I still want to get paid.

The evil couch

The overstuffed couch resembles a macrophage or giant amoeba. You imagine a slow, painful death sitting down on it as it slowly absorbs you, dissolving the outer layers of skin and then the muscle tissue as you writhe, trapped, screaming helplessly, hardly human anymore, just a gurgling, red mass of anonymous tissue, failing with utter futility, until the divan sucks you in, the paisley pattern heals over, and there was no evidence you were there in the first place.

You do not sit down on the couch.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still - short version

In the 1950s film, the aliens gave humanity an ultimatum.

In the 2008 remake, the aliens gave us a death sentence.

The turgid remake turned the offer of a moral choice into an exercise of amoral power.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Day the Film Stood Still

The title is The Day the Earth Stood Still, a remake of the classic SF film from 1951. But you could've fooled me.

OK, this ain't a bad movie. Give it a B+. It has its moments.

I wanted to like it. But deep down inside, I knew I wouldn't.

The big damn, problem is pacing. Director Scott Derrickson, obviously, takes a page or two from Spielberg. Hell, he took the whole damn book: Spielberg's E-Z Guide to Creating Sense of Wonder in a Big Budget SF Movie through Backlighting and Cute Kids. Basically, ET and Close Encounters had sex and this movie is the result. And it groans under the weight of the sheer ponderous, philosophical signifance of it all. The Big Ideas come crashing down with the weight of Gort's robotic foot. Spielberg would've wanted it that way.

In his zest to ape Spielberg, the director forgets that a movie, even a movie jam-packed with Big Ideas, is still a ride. The film is stuffed with scenes that could be cut, overstuffed dialogue and explanations we don't need to hear. There's lots of show and tell. I.e.: we're going to show you stuff, and in case you weren't paying attention, we're going to tell you what we just showed you. For example ...

The female protagonist is spirited away by government types and rides in the back of a military vehicle with a bunch of other space scientists. (Having the military yank her out of her house would've made a great beginning — but there's a dead scene showing her teaching in a classroom first so we know she's a space scientist. I mean, that drooling idiot in the backrow might not figure it out.) The convoy drives. The various scientists wonder: What the Heck is Going On? Is this a war game, or what? Some dude says something to the effect, "No. This is no war game. I know it's for real." How does he know? He points to the road. There's traffic going in the opposite direction, but their side of the highway has been entirely cleared of traffic. We see it. But, wait, don't forget that idiot in the back row! so the dude says, "The road. It's been cleared of all traffic — except for us. The military cleared it. For us."

A great exercise for a first year student at Berkeley Film School. Cut 20 minutes out of this thing. Hell, cut 40. Make it snap, crackle and pop. Make the ride fun.

If you cut the fat, there's some pretty good stuff here. Unfortunately, there are also glaring logic problems.

Not the peripheral shit like, say, a mountainclimber on a snow-blasted mountaintop taking off his glove for more than five seconds.

Foundational story logic problems.

As the movie opens, an alien ship comes blasting at earth like a bullet, aimed straight at Manhattan. Homeland security thinks it's a doomsday asteroid -- which is why they've snatched up the scientists 'cause, you know, space scientists are good at cleaning up after asteroids. So, the scientists hover in helicopters over New York Harbor, waiting for the thing to hit as The Clock Ticks. (Ain't worried about that shockwave are you? Nah.) The asteroid turns out to be a spherical spaceship (paging Michael Crichton) that lands gently (but spectacularly) in Central Park. The purpose: Klaatu (Keanu Reeves this time) is going to deliver an alien ultimatum (hug the planet — as opposed to ban the nukes.)

Now, this is sorta like staging a home invasion — breaking down somebody's front door — then giving them a needful piece of advice. You're going to seem like a threat, dontcha think? Shooting the home invader is a logical response, dontcha think? Shoulda occured to the aliens if they had any knowledge of the human species ...

Well, gee, one of the soldiers shoots Keanu. Surprise.

Now, with all their unimaginably advanced alien tech, these dudes from space couldn't manage, say, a planetary TV broadcast first? One second you're watching a beer commercial. The picture crackles. It's Keanu Reeves!

KLAATU: Woah, human dudes. Destroying the ecology is like way not cool.

Easily script-doctored. Let's say the aliens do send a plantary broadcast. The US military decides it's a fake. Some nation or group is staging a pseudo alien scarecrow for whatever purpose. We invite the "alien" to land. We do, then shoot him. A suckerplay —

Which would explain why Keanu stepped out in a placenta suit as opposed to, say, inpenetrable nanotech armor.

Big logic problem #2:

The aliens, for all their tree-hugging righteousness, are genocidal. Their message, essentially: Stop global warming or we'll fucking kill you. All of you. Ain't exactly ethical, is it? The first movie got around the problem by making the Gort robots an automatic protection system designed to eliminate galactic nuclear proliferation. By design, the robots aren't under anyone's control. They obey their prime directive (Ban the Nukes!) and can't be intimidated, reasoned with or bribed. The original Klaatu was simply trying to give humanity the picture of the threat we were under. If humanity triggered an attack, it'd be the robots killing us, not Klaatu. But, in this movie, Klaatu himself is holding the trigger. To me, that's not exactly sympathetic.

The movie wanted Klaatu to give the reprieve. Obviously, there's no way to do that if it's an automatic system — so that got cut. It's a cheat to set up a bogus story point. Script doctor's prescription: Have Klaatu turn out the lights. Then let the lights come back on -- and have humanity shut off our various dirty power stations voluntarily. The robot backs off. We saved ourselves.

Big Logic Problem #3:
It's a remake of a Cold War era movie. The problem with remakes: you can't just swap the labels on the soup cans and expect the soup to taste the same. Cold War nuclear brinkmanship doesn't map to eco-catastrophe. It's not a one-to-one correspondence. It needs to be a different story, based on its own inner logic. Aside from the label-switching and better special effects, they stuck to the original story fairly slavishly. As a result, the logic doesn't work.

Still, all in all. Not a bad movie. It had its moments.

Even so. If you're going to the time, trouble and expense to make a movie, why not make it insanely great?

It bugs me. I think we need a race of killer robots to destroy all movies that fall short. I'm sure that thought has occured to ...


You have been warned.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Tingles the Christmas Tension

A brilliant comic parody by Rob Smigel. Enjoy ...

Now listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of someone who brings certain feelings once a year.
It happens each winter, you'll hear his name mentioned:
Tingles the Christmas Tension.

Yo-dee-yo-die-deedle, deedle-ee-dee.
Awkwardness and anxiety.
Yeedle-dee-doo-deedle, dee-deedle dension.

"I'm Tingles the Christmas Tension!"

Now Tingles appears on the 23rd,
Disguised as a phone bill, your home he's entered.
He leaps out from hiding, up into the air,
Sprinkling tension dust 'round everywhere.

A dash can make Daddy a walking time bomb.
He'll fly off the handle and yell at your Mom.
A smidgen for Mom when Dad wants to snuggle
Can make Yuletide sex quite a struggle.

Tingles is there at the office celebration
Inflating reminders of last night's frustration.
When Dad sees an intern that he's never noticed,

Joe from Sales says, "I'd sure like to fill all her quotas."

And then, before you know it, oh Christmas is here.
Relatives gather, drink, and look severe.

And you kids may wonder, sometimes when you play,
Why your parents can't take it around Christmas Day.
It's all thanks to Tingles and his merry bag of dreams
That turns whispers into screams.

On Grandma, on Grandpa, on drunk Uncle Otto,
On Cousin Kate with her little out-of-wedlock mullato.

Spoodle-dee-spoo, and asky-pasky-penshion.
"I'm Tingles the Christmas Tension!"

"Oh you let your kids do that," says ol' Auntie Rose.
And Mom's Mother-in-Law looks down her nose.
Now you children, so happy and bouncing with glee,
Are in for surprises from your family.
Now Christmas is over but kids don't you fear,
Tingles will be back spreading his vibes next year.
He must make his way so we can all give attention
"To Moples the Day After Christmas Depression."

Yo-dee-yo-lee-doodle, doodle-ee-dent.
Emptiness and disappointment.
Yoodle-dee Tingles and Moples, too.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Thanks for the memories

From Science Daily --

A team at Rice University has determined that a strip of graphite only 10 atoms thick can serve as the basic element in a new type of memory, making massive amounts of storage available for computers, handheld media players, cell phones and cameras.

The core idea: exploiting graphene's conducting properties. According to the article, graphene-based storage expands the memory capacity in a 2-D array by a factor of five. Individual bits could be smaller than 10 nanometers. Memory could also be stacked in a 3-D array. Graphene memory puts out little heat. Best of all, it's cheap. The stuff of cyber dreams ... is the stuff of pencils.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dune Roamin'

OK. Ploughing through the fourth season DVDs of Battlestar Galactica.

Not bad. But the jury is still out in my mind.

The series is rotten with religion. Prophecies, dreams, temples, voices in the head, the clash of civilizations, yattayatta.

SF writers are reluctant to drag religion into the picture for a very good reason. It ain't the fear of God's vengeance. It ain't the fear of the vengeance of God's pointy headed followers. Religion, to an SF writer, is like duct tape. You can fix anything with this stuff.

And that's what's wrong with it.

If you take the Voices in the Head seriously, it's Deus Ex Machina time. Yes, everyone's favorite SF cliche -- the God in the machine!!! "I, RoboChrist, command you to settle on Alpha Centauri!" Yes, Lawd! What other response is there?

Ya gotta any plot holes, problems with the character arc, logical contradictions, violations of the laws of physics — no problem! Just drag the Voice of Gawd into it. God said it, the readers believe it, that settles it, amen.

On the other hand ...

If you're fixing to whack the Old Time Religion with a crowbar, it's Gene Roddenbery time. Y'know. Star Trek's original producer had one basic plot: God from the machine, literally. Deus ex Mechanoman. God is a robot that eats pineapples. God is a robot that thinks like a fundamentalist. God is a robot that did the nasty with another robot and turned into V'Ger.

So, simplistically put, simple-minded SF writers have two options:
A simplistic hallelujah for religion. In space.
A simplistic attack on religion. In space.

The harder, more complicated, more ambiguous, less rabble-rousing, less feel-good (for either atheists or Bible-thumpers) approach is to take religion seriously — as a force in its own right — and seriously consider the implications of a wave of religious hysteria in the universe. And to do so — regardless of the implication of whether it's true or not.

And we're basically kneeling before Frank Herbert's Dune.

Like the new iteration of Battlestar Galactica, Dune was also rotten with religion — primarily as a form of manipulation and social control, but also as a form of social adaptation. So, to the Zen-Sunnis of Dune, their religion (which centered on the life cycle of the sandworm and its hallucinatory byproducts) was an adaptation to harsh living conditions on a desert planet. The Bene Geserit, meanwhile, have been engaged in a covert genetics program and spreading religious bullshit as a cover story. Paul Atreides messes up their plan. He's a sport Messiah, arriving ahead of schedule. In Herbert's universe (as Herbert has said in many interviews) a Messiah is a tsunami; a natural disaster that wrecks civilizations. (This is somewhat clear in the SciFi channel mini series adaptations, not at all in David Lynch's Eraserhead in Space version.)

Battlestar Galactica walks the razor's edge between Religion-is-Crap and Religion-is-Dead-Serious. The Cylon skinjobs believe in the One True God; the freaking humans (or, let's say, the frakking humans) are polytheists. Go figure. Give them a light and they'll follow it anywhere.

The core concept, of course, is an exodus to the promised land. Jews in Space, as Mel Brooks would say.

Everyone's running around with sugarplum visions in their heads and disembodied songs in their ears. Dylan's All Along the Watchtower pops into the minds of four Cylons who figured they were all-too-human. Gaius Balthar, the quisling, sumbitch, self-centered, narcissistic, hetero Dr. Smith, becomes a bloody Christ figure. Starbuck comes back from the dead.

Jesus H. Tapdancing Christ.

Herbert suckered us into a Messianic vision of grandiose religiosity — only to undercut it with Dune's sequels. Ultimately, the force behind it all ain't God, it's human beings (however changed and evolved) playing God. And the result is disaster. Herbert, ecologist that he was, would probably also say that result was inevitable. Playing God is what our species does.

I'm seriously hoping Battlestar has the same honesty when dealing with its core concept.

Lord forgive me, but I'm seriously hoping that, at journey's end, all this religion shit turns out to be a scam. Having scoped ahead to the convenient Episode Guides, I know that — at the cliffhanger midpoint of season 4 — both Cylons and humans all come back to Earth and it's been, apparently, blown to hell. The interpretation I would like to see: all this God shit is a mental implant by some Unknown Force manipulating both sides — perhaps the entity responsible for the hallucinatory Cylon babe in Balthar's head — as a means to get them all back to the ruined earth to clean up the mess. The man behind the curtain reveals himself and says: Wake up. The truth is, in this world, you're on your own, and that applies to humans and Cylons alike.

It's been a long strange trip.

I'm expecting a big fucking hat and a big fucking rabbit when we get to the end.

So say we all.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Snowglobe of death

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some 7,000 jumbo-sized snow globes were recalled by Hallmark Cards Inc. because the holiday decorations can act as a magnifying glass when exposed to sunlight and ignite nearby combustible materials, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said on Tuesday.

The snowman-shaped snow globes were sold in October and November at Hallmark Gold Crown stores nationwide for about $100 each.

The consumer agency said Hallmark has received two reports of the snow globes igniting nearby materials but no injuries have been reported.

Consumers who bought the snowglobes, which measure 11 by 12 by 17 inches (28 by 30 by 43cm), should immediately remove them from exposure to sunlight and return to a Hallmark Gold Crown store for a full refund.

Details about the recall were posted at the government agency's web site at:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some 7,000 jumbo-sized snow globes were recalled by Hallmark Cards Inc. because the holiday decorations can act as a magnifying glass when exposed to sunlight and ignite nearby combustible materials, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said on Tuesday.

The snowman-shaped snow globes were sold in October and November at Hallmark Gold Crown stores nationwide for about $100 each.

The consumer agency said Hallmark has received two reports of the snow globes igniting nearby materials but no injuries have been reported.

Consumers who bought the snowglobes, which measure 11 by 12 by 17 inches (28 by 30 by 43cm), should immediately remove them from exposure to sunlight and return to a Hallmark Gold Crown store for a full refund.