Friday, December 31, 2010

L'Innomable

Goodbye to the nameless decade.

Going into the 2000s, I thought what !@#$ are we going to call this ten-year period? Figured we're gonna have to call it SOMETHING, right? Can't go around saying "the two-thousands" -- that's just two damn awkward, too much of a mouthful. So, what nickname will catch on? What are we going to call it?

The oughts?
The noughts?
The uh-ohs?
The double zeroes?
The double-ohs?
The zeroes?
The Y2Ks?
The 2Ks?
The ohs?
The zeroes?
The nothing years?
The nothings?

Nothing, ironically, ever caught on.

The decade -- reminding me of Beckett's L'Innomable -- remained unnamable.

I figured that, eventually -- a few years after the decade, it would have to be named when they started pumping out "Greatest Hits" CDs. Nobody's going to want to say "Remember the two-thousands?" -- so they'll have to come up with some clipped, catchy nickname. But, no. CDs seem to be dying. This will probably never happen.

The decade will remain unnamed.

The nameless nothing years.

Symbolic, ain't it?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Quote of the Week

In an irrational world, the pursuit of reason is irrational.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tron Legacy: the Cyberdude abides


Great movie, stuffed with eye candy and surprisingly good writing. Could've been better. I hate saying that, because I enjoyed it so much. But it could've been better.

Quick plot summary: Back in the 1980s, hacker Kevin Flynn (the hero of the first Tron) created a digital world with self-emerging life forms. He's about to announce his discovery, but gets trapped inside his world. His digital doppelganger -- Clu-- stages a coup. (In a bit of irony, Clu resembles Kevin Flynn's 30-year-old self -- who, of course, looks like a 30-year-old Jeff Bridges.) Clu reprograms Tron (Kevin's right hand program) and turns him into his head bad guy. Clu becomes the dictator of the cyberspace realm Kevin created; Kevin remains trapped. Up in the real world, Kevin's 12-year-old son, Sam, deals with abandonment issues. Years later, Sam gets sucked into his dad's cyber world. (This turns out to be Clu's trick to open a portal into the real world -- which he plans to invade with a conquering army of digital stormtroopers.) But Sam manages to evade capture and find his dad. From there it's a race. Sam, Kevin and a digital protector named Quorra, fight to materialize in reality and shut down the portal before Clu and his invading army can enter. Hey, it's more complicated than that, but you get the general idea.

There's much to love, much to geek out about.

Technically? The CGI is gorgeous. The environment/character design behind it nicely evokes both the geeky 1980s source material and the contemporary ethos of gadget design -- as if an entire civilization had sprouted out of iPods and Vaios. The Avatar-style, digital incarnation of Kevin Flynn's 30something double is nearly flawless. The fact that Clu looks a little creepy and wrong actually works, within the story premise.

On a flesh and blood level? The acting is better than it needs to be. Jeff Bridges, as the 70something Kevin Flynn, is basically doing another riff on his Dude character from The Big Lebowski -- but that works, too. Garret Hedlund puts in a solid performance as Sam -- a tough character assignment and easy to screw up. (As Hayden Christensen, in a similar role, once proved.) Olivia Wilde, as Quorra is both fine to look at and fine as her not-exactly-human character. (The Matrix trilogy nearly mined this lode to death -- but she and the other actors managed to find a new spin.) Bruce Boxleitner (the original Tron, and the Babylon 5 commander for four seasons) had his usual no-BS gravitas -- and didn't get enough screentime.

Storywise, I actually cared -- except for a few slow spots -- the movie grabbed me. Screenwriters Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz thought through the original source material -- basically, the instant cliche of making video games real -- which was a lot of fun, but pretty damn thin, if you really study it. They obviously did, and managed to take it to another level.

In terms of fan service, there's lots of interesting texture -- a shot of an Apple iie in Sam's bedroom (makes me wanna freaking cry), haunting riffs from Journey and the Eurythmics playing in the sound system of Flynn's original video game arcade -- a cobwebby, fossilized survival of the 1980s, after all. It's more than good detail. It's loving detail.

So, while I'm not saying the movie sucked, what I am saying is actually sadder. It could have been great. It had moments of greatness. But it fell short of greatness.

It had problems. (Spoiler alert, kids.) These include ...

Pacing problems. Suspense is its own kind of music. You have to grab the audience by the throat and never let go. The first Matrix is the gold standard. Tron: Legacy didn't hit that level.

Joseph Kosinski fell into the trap of many first-time directors. He fell in love with his own material. There are times you have to say: We've got two minutes and 15 seconds of great dialogue, beautiful visuals and important character points that's making the movie drag -- we have to cut it.

I know why he didn't kill his darlings. Clearly, Kosinksi didn't want to do an empty exercise in 3D CGI -- special effects for special effects sake. He wanted a story with heart. He got it -- Sam's struggle to rescue his lost father -- a heroic quest to make Joseph W. Campbell curl his toes with glee. But somewhere along the line, Kosinksi forgot a basic thing: Yes, give us a story with heart. But this is still a geeky action/suspense movie. Ya still gotta make the chase scene and fights exciting. They start out that way -- then they start to drag. At the end of the flick, the train ride and aerial dog fight sequences go on and on. With zero suspense, but punctuated by important speeches.

Logic problems. Obviously, in terms of the big picture, the world of Tron: Legacy is pure rubber science. In a big budget SF movie, fudging the big stuff is forgivable. (Living computer programs; the implication that Flynn's work station can transform matter into energy into code and vice versa.) But the movie got some little things wrong, and that's not so forgivable. One of many examples: Flynn's hideout is a few miles from the city "on the grid." A foot patrol could have found him, but he's been hiding out for years in a lair that remains secret until he gives his location away. Easily explained, but overlooked.

Story and character problems. The movie is called: Tron: Legacy. But the title character never actually appears. Clu has turned Tron into his evil henchman -- though you can't tell that by looking at him, because he wears a face-covering helmet. At the end of the movie, Tron returns to his true, digital good guy self. This should be a turning point, a big moment, a big reveal, but we never see him take off his mask -- or really explain how he regains his true identity. After a fight sequence, Tron drowns -- essentially, thrown away. He's not alone. The movie also gets rid of all the digital beings we're supposed to care about. With one exception, the "programs" all die at the end of the movie. It's the worst example of gratuitous SF cinematic slaughter since This Island Earth.

The forgetting the main point and killing the sequel problem. At the climax, Kevin Flynn sacrifices himself to kill Clu. Like matter and antimatter, they merge and explode, destroying everything in the digital realm, turning it all to a primordial sea below a digital sun. Tragic -- but deeply unsatisfying. If you take the trailers seriously, the movie sucks you in with the promise that it's the saga of Flynn's son entering Tron-world to rescue his lost dad. Killing Sam's dad is a cheat. It also cheats us of the possibility of a sequel in which Sam returns to the digital world to rescue his dad. Killing all the digital characters just makes it worse.

My suggestion: the third movie should be Tron: Reboot.

Have the digital universe reconstitute. The digital beings are all alive, Kevin and Clu included -- possibly separate, or possibly merged. Sam still needs to rescue his father. While you're at it, find a way to write Yori back in.

Call me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hello, I must be going

Hey, y'all. I'm paying attention. Any friend of mine is a friend of mine. I'm sure you feel the same way about me. That's a conscious decision. Heck, it's an unconscious decision. As we gather for the holidays, it's time to think about separating after the holidays. This is why we should do as much drinking as possible during the holidays. From my post-apocalyptic vantage point, I recall the happy days of high school. And, boy, did we put the "high" in high school. As Frank Zappa once said, "I'm losing status in the high school." The process has continued to this day. Along with relentlessly mounting credit card debt. I cherish my friends and family. My best friends treat me like a guest, even if I do stink after three days. Who's counting? I get to use the nice towels, that's what's important. I know that you, Big Brother, and Santa, will be watching. I'm glad you're a part of my life. Batckatcha with the "thank you." Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Kewl Kwanza. Super Saturnalia. All rights reserved. God bless us everyone. Much love.

-- Groucho

Our story so far

OK, kids. Remember the middle class? ‘Course not. You young’ns grew up after that. But Gramps remembers. Gather round the fire burning in the dead TV set. I’ll tell you all about it.

After WWII, America experienced an unprecedented wave of prosperity. That prosperity was based on manufacturing, technology and, believe it or not, farming. I know it’s hard to believe! But, once upon a time, Americans made stuff and grew stuff. We produced things, we were good at it, and so – compared to the rest of the planet – we were living pretty good.

America had a broad middle class with purchasing power. A broad segment of our economy was devoted to making and selling stuff to the middle class. I’m talking about folks like us – I’m serious! We used to drive cars and live in houses and eat three meals a day. We had jobs that paid real money! See, we made stuff – and that meant folks with money needed us. I ain’t lying to you! It was a consumer economy, but it was based on a production economy.

In the 1970s, we went into a long, painful slide. The reasons are complicated.

The top reasons …

The military industrial complex. As Eisenhower warned, it kept growing like Topsy, sucking up talent and resources – and burning stuff up in periodic wars that justified the military budget.

Industrial dinosaurs. Auto companies refused to adapt, leaving us vulnerable to competition from Japan and oil embargos in the Middle East. One of many examples. Basically, America started making crap and the rest of the world kicked our ass.

Massive corruption. There was a three-card monte game going on – both the public and private sectors were in on the take. It’s too complicated to talk about. Con games work that way. But corruption is the enemy of production and innovation.

Globalization. Hey, why pay workers a living wage and worry about pollution? Shut down your factory over here, and open a sweatshop in the third world. Off-source your Triangle Shirtwaist Factory!

Garbage in, garbage out. Democracy only works if people aren’t idiots. A free press was supposed to prevent that. Once upon a time, boring news magazines and boring news programs did. Then everybody started screaming at each other. News based on boring “facts” was replaced by Manichean ideology on the intellectual level of professional wrestling scenarios. Politicians took their ideological bullshit seriously. Bad information crowded out good information. Bad decisions resulted. Pragmatism died.

Lots of reasons for the ruin. Folks still argue about that.

But you can’t argue about the results.

By the early 1980s, America’s industrial sector was shutting down; America’s farms were consolidating like mad. The con artists sold America on the notion we could be “a service economy” and still be prosperous. But a service economy is an economy of servants, ain’t it?

The GNP expanded. The pie got bigger – but the slices stayed small for average slobs.

Wealth began to concentrate.

In 1980, America’s top 1% earned 8.46% of the nation’s reported income. By 2010, that went up to 22.8%. Now – well, folks like us can’t get that kind of information anymore. My guesstimate would be sortof along the lines of everything.

Middle class Americans experienced incredibly shrinking purchasing power. Most of them, after all, weren’t actually making anything – they next to zero clout with employers. Real wages stagnated or fell. The hours most Americans worked went up, up, up.

You’d expect a typical feedback loop – average slobs would kick back and demand more money. (Hey, you work your ass off for 60 hours a week, you don’t want to live on rice and peanut butter.) The system would correct.

Instead, the system started handing out E-Z credit. The production economy dried up. But the consumer economy kept roaring along. Only now, we were buying crap from China – with borrowed money.

Starting in the Reagan years, the cult of conspicuous consumption came back with a vengeance. Everything was “select” this, “elite” that. The Invisible Hand – that used to distribute affordable stuff to the Middle Class – started going for the high end of the market. $200 tennis shoes. Bottled water. $30,000 compact cars – in the 80s! Average slobs couldn’t afford it. But they bought it anyway. WITH BORROWED MONEY.

Rhetoric aside, the greed-is-good cult of the 1980s never went away.

By the 1990s slobs were driving around in Hummers and living in Mega-Houses. The top 1% made the money.

But most of the money the top 1% made didn’t come from making stuff or selling stuff like Hummers and houses. Most of the money came from moving money around.

Back in ’78, the average CEO made 35 times what a working stiff did. That shot up to 262 times in 2005. Theoretically, that was a reward for competence, but it didn’t always work that way.

Due to the quarterly report effect, this resulted in relentless consolidations, downsizings, layoffs and closures in every sector of the economy. Efficiency went up! Which, basically, meant you worked harder for less money because you were scared shitless about losing your job.

But the dust bowls and breadlines didn’t kick in right away.

America bought time with the software/PC/Internet revolution. But we blew it.

Cheap oil fueled the whole illusion. America refused to kick its addiction. But this meant getting involved in the psychotic family squabble of Middle East politics. Which meant propping up plutocratic petro dictators. Who, as it turned out, maintained their tenuous hold on power and wealth by paying off the Islamic world’s lunatic fringe by subsidizing the madrassas where they spread their totalistic, apocalyptic, lunacy.

So, instead of spending three trillion dollars to fund a Manhattan Project for alternative energy.

America spent three trillion dollars on two wars in the Middle East.

Which, not counting the dead and wounded, had the same effect as setting it on fire.

The three trillion dollars was, of course, money the government borrowed.

Back on the home front, as the actual productive sector of the economy shrank to almost nothing, the top 1% convinced the average slobs that they could create wealth by taking out a second mortgage, or if they were really clever, housing speculation. They also convinced ‘em they could fund the government by cutting taxes and lowering tax rates for rich people. It never worked – when’s the last goddamn time a rich person paid you for something? -- but they kept selling it and the dumbass idjitheads kept buying it.

Back in 2007, the three-card monte shuffle stopped. The Mark pointed at the card. The Dealer lifted it up. Sorry, pal. You lose.

Guess that’s it kids.

Way I see it, it’s all Obama’s fault.

You gonna eat that rat?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lacunae

There are things I remember I can't verify. Drives me crazy. One of many things that do.

Example #1

There's a poem -- I think by a beat poet -- I first encountered it in high school. (I think the point of the poem was abandoning stuff in your life that's over or doesn't work anymore.) The lines I remember are --

The taxi will not go.
The tires are flat.
The engine is shot.
The taxi is dead.
Burn the taxi.


More to it than that. But that's what I recall. Made an impression on me; encountered it several times. Now, all record of this poem seems to have been scrubbed from the face of the earth. Google pops up a poem by Amy Lowell that ain't it and references to Mexican taxicab drivers burning a would-be carjacker alive.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

Bullshit or not?

Based on early childhood conditioning, I'm one of those people who obsessively squirrels away fun facts to know and tell inside their heads. Here's a fun fact: many of the fun facts that make it into print are utter bullshit. Sorta along the lines of Lucy telling Linus the music in the radio comes from a tiny orchestra inside. Some damn writer just made shit up.

Here are a few fun facts I've read (and passed on) that turned out to be steaming piles of fabrication:

The "King's English" -- aka received pronunciation -- originated when all the fops at the British court started imitating King George III's speech -- a Hapsburg monarchy who spoke English with a thick German accent.
Gee. Sounds so plausible. Bullshit.

In addition to creating the Statue of Liberty to America, sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi had originally planned to create a Statue of Equality and a Statue of Fraternity.
Cute story. Bullshit. Have found no confirmation anywhere.

The word "Butterfly" was originally "Flutterby." The word got flipped around due to a fad amoung 18th century fops (those damn fops again) for flipping words around.
Makes sense, but no. The real word origin isn't nearly so cute. "Butterfly" derives from Germanic words meaning "Butter shitter."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

And another thing ...

Just to make things nice and sparkling clear, I’m not saying, “The Nanny State knows best” or arguing for a more energetic state security apparatus. By all means, bind that sucker like Gulliver. Citizens and a free press should hold their elected officials accountable. Dig up the dirt! Go for it! I hold to that principle.

I'm not questioning WikiLeaks on principle — for now. I'm asking what's the point? What actual effects will its leaks have on democratic governments?

A few Daniel Ellsbergs keep politicians on their toes. A network of anonymous Daniel Ellsbergs who can leak gigabytes of state secrets with a mouse click will just make them paranoid.

Democratic governments will adapt; the leaks will dry up.

The G.W. Bush White House will remain the gold standard for clamping down on leaks and keeping even internal communications robotically on-message. The screw-ups that result from that kind of secrecy and paranoia will also be there norm.

That's what I'm saying.

Wiki Finks


Some thoughts on WikiLeaks. Reluctant thoughts. I follow the argument where it leads, not where I want it to go. I was raised on Brazil and All the President's Men. My heart believes in dynamiting walls of secrecy. My head isn't so sure. Here's where its cold logic took me ...

First, the leaks are all very one-sided.

Funny how WikiLeaks doesn't leak Al-Qaeda's list of strategic goals behind the 9-11 attack, their manual on how to turn depressed and angry teenagers into suicide bombers, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ten-year plan to develop a nuclear weapons program. Or China's manual for putting logic bombs in the USA electrical grid, for that matter.

Julian Assange blows the whistle, but only against one team: the open, if flawed societies, that might attempt to smear his reputation. But probably won't chop him into pieces and feed him into a wood chipper.

To be fair, police states are better at keeping secrets. That's what they do. But democratic governments are WikiLeaks' target of choice.

OK. Should democratic governments have secrets in the first place? In a world of benevolent Care Bears and Teletubbies, no. In a world of corrupt, dangerous human beings fighting for the same resources and dominance over each other, that’s a big yes. All governments need secrecy and deception to function. Even the good guys.

As Sun Tzu famously said …

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Sun Tzu was talking about war, but the principle applies to all state conflicts. (I.e., America and China fighting for economic hegemony.) Life is conflict. Politics is war by another means. And all warfare is based on deception.

This becomes impossible if some dude in Sweden is splashing your playbook across the Internet.

Imagine WikiLeaks in WWII ...

Brainboys in Bletchley Park crack Nazi sub cipher with thinking machine. To preserve secret, Churchill refuses to warn civilians of Nazi attacks.

Soldier-slapping General Patton is now in charge of a phantom army... of inflatable tanks and plywood planes. Calais is the fake target. The real invasion will happen in Normandy.

New Mexico installation packed with scientists working on death device based on Einstein's theories. A cosmic bomb? Some believe may destroy atmosphere, all life on earth.

Some state secrets are necessary. That doesn’t mean they all are.

It's in the interests of free governments to keep secrets. It's equally true that it’s in the people’s interest to find out those secrets. For every Bletchley Park, there's a government cover-up of incompetence and corruption. (The precedent for the "states secret privilege" boils down to screwing three widows out of compensation for the deaths of their husbands in a B-29 crash caused by government negligence. See United States vs Reynolds.) The hard part is finding out WHICH secrets to uncover – and of course, you can only judge that after uncovering them. (More on that later.)

But gummint functionaries aren't the only ones with secrets. Corporations have secrets; individuals do. Secrecy is another word for privacy. WikiLeaks attacks much-hated politicians -- but it's part of a larger assault against any notion of security, privacy and confidentiality for anyone anywhere.

I approve of reporters digging dirt. But I also approve of private conversations -- by politicians and everyone else.

Evidently, Julian Assange and friends do not. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, right? They assume that exposing state secrets will lead citizens to rise up in outrage and force democratic governments to clean up their act.

That's unlikely.

What's more likely?

The leaks will poison the internal flow of information.

Whistle-blowers and government sneaks have a co-evolutionary relationship. When something like WikiLeaks offloads an info-dump of secrets, government adapts. It adapts by becoming more compartmentalized, more dishonest, more evasive and equivocating, and more anal about who's allowed to say what to whom. Shedding light is a good thing, but this is a pencil flashlight with a dying battery. The cockroaches will scurry; the cockroaches with the best light-avoiding ability will have an evolutionary advantage. The result: more bullshit, more secrecy, less openness.

In today's America, most public conversations are bullshit. The John Wayne days are over. The plain-spoken American is a thing of the past. An unguarded word can destroy you now. You want to be safe? Bullshit.

If all government conversations are public, they'll be bullshit, too.

If all government conversations COULD be public, it will have the same effect.

So, if you're a diplomat in Pakistan, don't send a cable saying, "These f**ers we're playing ball with are arming the Taliban and spreading plutonium like syphilis." Don't say that. Don't speak your mind. WikiLeaks might intercept your cable. Apply bureaucratic doublespeak with a heavy trowel. "We are confident that our Pakistani allies ... blah, blah, blah."

WikiLeaks won't lead to greater government openness.

Just more government bullshit.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Doctor will Screw You Now

Let's talk about medical care, the skyrocketing costs, what to do, blahblah ...

Tough subject. I was rice-and-peanut-butter poor after college. Youngest son had asthma, constant ear infections. HAD employee-provided insurance, but massive deductibles and co-pays. Every doc visit was a kick in the nuts. Deeply resented the 'Senior Citizen Discount' signs in the drugstores. No "Young Family" discount. Socialized medicine -- for seniors only.

That experience taught me valuable lesson. Medical care is an inflexible demand. It’s sort of like drug addiction. When you’re sick or dying, you will pay any price to get well. (Same applies to your loved ones, naturally.) So, the medical industry charges what the traffic will bear. Say a visit to the ear doctor costs $80 and that’s all you can afford. You've got insurance that pays for it, except for an $80 deductible. They jack up the price to $800 and you wind up paying the $80 anyway.

Like water, the price of medical care will rise to find its level -- which is the maximum amount of money (begged, borrowed or stolen) people can possibly pay for the care they need.

Because PART of the system is socialized – namely medical care for old people – the medical industry can charge more for that portion of the market. It’s analogous to, say, subsidizing car repair for all vehicles over 15 years old. A radiator hose would wind up costing $500. An oil change would cost $1,000. Because, after all, somebody’s cutting those checks, right?


On top of that, private insurance is supposed to spread the cost throughout a collective risk pool. Instead, it winds up increasing the cost. (Yeah, I know the HMOs, PPA's, etc. were supposed to keep costs down. They just wound up ruining the doctor patient relationship in the effort. Care got worse. But costs still went up.) If nobody had insurance, the medical industry could only charge what people could afford to pay. Because most people are insured, it can charge what it likes because the cost is subsidized. And people with insurance STILL wind up paying as much as they possibly can for the care they get anyway. The people without insurance are, of course, screwed.


Add to this, the pyramid effect. The medical care that does the most good and costs the least is at the base of the pyramid. The top represents high-end technology and Hail Mary plays – like say, intestinal transplants, $8,000 heart pills, surgery for people with a week to live, etc. Care at the top-end does the least amount of good for the most amount of money.


The top of the pyramid is a Delta-T approaching infinity.


I.e.: assuming constant advances in medical science, we can keep you alive to 110 years (at a cost of a billion dollars) or 120 years (at a cost of five billion dollars). Or, to be fair, cure a child with Tay-Sachs syndrome with a nano-bot retroviral delivery system that rewrites the DNA in every cell of their body (at a cost of a trillion dollars).

There’s no upper limit to medical advancement. Hey, good news! But the more advanced it gets, the more expensive it gets. (And let’s not forget the inflexible demand driving the process. Nobody wants to get sick. Nobody wants to die.) So, in the process, basic care gets more expensive, too – or not offered at all.
Sure, for a fistful of dollars you could treat worm infestations and diarrhea in the Third World or make sure pregnant women get enough protein in this country. A few do-gooders will. But that’s not where the river of money will flow.

As long as the medical industry is subsidized, that industry will keep chasing the top end. Why run a Motel 6 when you can run a Ritz-Carlton?

Ultimately, there isn’t infinite money to provide infinite care to everybody. The ugly truth is: Health care must be rationed. A single payer system imposing price controls is probably best and politically impossible. Pay for play is another way to go. That’s probably where we’re going.


PS: I don't blame doctors. "The Doctor will Screw You Now" is just funny -- if unfair. I have to go for cheap jokes as I'm not subsidized.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep song

(to the tune of "Greensleeves")

Do androids dream of electric sheep?
Do robots count them as they sleep?
Are they fond of grazing on hillsides steep …
Astroturf cud in their bellies?

Nexus Fours did farming chores
Nexus Fives were sexual toys
Nexus Sixes are sonsofbitches
Who are fond of gouging out eyes

Chorus

They came to LA and ripped out hearts
And lost themselves in Griffin Park
Their lack of empathy set them apart
So they got jobs in the film industry

Chorus

It’s a Blade Runner’s job to track them down
Put slugs in their brains with a bigass gun
I wish I worked as a circus clown
They’re smarter and stronger and faster

Chorus

They nearly strangled me with my tie
Slapped my gun from my hand and made me cry
Punched through walls and busted my balls
I’m really not good at my job

Chorus

I'm constantly getting my ass kicked
While Edward James Olmos acts like a dick
His acne scars make me sick
But I loved him in Stand and Deliver

Chorus

And now one’s chasing me on the roof
With an ironman build and hair like a poof
He quotes William Blake while grabbing a dove
I wish he would fucking shut up

Chorus

At last I'm fleeing with a robot Sean Young
Who broke my nose but still is quite young
She's almost as whiny as Neil Young
But she's really a snappy dresser


Chorus

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Achtung, baby

What's the deal with fascists? Do they have bad taste in art or what?

OK. You'd think the stormtrooper set would go for Frank Frazetta-style warriors and gore. Nah. The actual brown and black shirts went in for art with a classic vibe. Clean cut stuff -- weirdly sexless and austere -- ranging from Norman Rockwell purity, to knock-offs of Greek and Roman classicism. It's as if Klingons had a taste for Vulcan art. Why is that?

From "Chaos to Classicism" at the Guggenheim attempts to answer that question -- a retrospective of Europe's classic revival from the end of World War I to the start of World War II.

This movement began as a reaction to the bad scene of the Great War -- which people didn't realize was part of a numbered series yet. Europe came down with a continental case of PTSD. The shattered visions of the Cubists suddenly looked too much like random arms and legs on the battlefield. People wanted wholesome art -- in the literal sense of art that was whole and complete in itself. They wanted Aristotelian stasis -- formal balance, not nervous kinetic energy. Picasso started painting like Ingres -- as the critics were fond of saying at time. Lots of people did.

This art didn't start out as Nazi art. The goosesteppers just took a hankering to it and adopted it as their own. Those poor damn Futurists over in Italy were cranking out fractured fascist art that looked like David Bowie album covers. Out of nowhere, Il Duce went on a Roman holiday and fire them. They all had to find real jobs.

This exhibit has some arresting images, ranging from some of Picasso's more chunky women (with their eyes in the right place) to Nazi Olympic posters to some weird busts of Mussolini -- including one that looks like a 360 degree motion blur. He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake ...

This creepy perfection hasn't gone away, of course. All those wholesome, perfect bodies survive in the world of advertising. The Ubermensch lives on, selling us crap. Today's Aryan Superman works for the Mad Men.

Is wholesome art is necessarily fascist? Intellectually, I don't think it has to be. Emotionally, the art of Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell and their ilk gives me a strong totalitarian vibe. Give me R. Crumb any day.

A dude plugging his wiener into a light socket?

Now that's the art of freedom.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Android Dreams

OK, just in case you've been on Mars for the last few decades ...

Blade Runner (a movie by Ridley Scott) was an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a book by Philip K. Dick). Saying Scott "adapted" the book is a polite way of putting it. It's kind of like saying you adapted the Bible and made Satan the hero. Scott's movie turned Dick's core concept on its head. (More on that in another post.) Short version: Dick's "androids" were heartless, soulless bastards; Scott's "replicants" were sympathetic slaves fighting to be free.

Now that's out of the way, here's the point: Playwright Edward Einhorn has adapted Dick's novel for the stage -- as in really adapted it. His play is a fresh take that forgets Scott's movie ever existed. (Such was the promise.) Up in NYC, an entity called Untitled Theater Company #61 (UTC61) is producing Einhorn's play at the 3LD performance space. Einhorn is also the director. By an improbable chain of events and the personal sacrifice of Su Byron, I caught the opening night.

First, here's my take on Einhorn's take on Dick's book. As promised, Einhorn's version is much closer to the novel, though he does some retooling of his own. No big thing. The book is a subversive black comedy. The play is, too. It's a book of ideas. Einhorn keeps most of those. Most importantly, he keeps the book's heart: Empathy.

That's right, kids! Einhorn returns to Dick's obsession with empathy as the defining human characteristic. Specifically -- in the context of the original novel's fictional universe -- empathy is a stubborn decision to care for others when not caring is the most logical survival response. In Dick's scenario, Earth is hell. It's a rotten, post-apocalyptic world full of radioactive dust and "kipple." (Dick's private word for random junk.) The humans who qualify are deserting the planet like rats off a sinking ship. The humans who remain stuck (because they don't qualify or can't afford escape) find salvation in a religion called Mercerism. (Devotees enter a virtual reality box and experience the martyr's pain). Stranded humans can also take comfort in owning animals. Most of the real ones are extinct, so most people buy robot beasts. (Electric sheep, etc.) Real animals are expensive status symbols. Androids are too -- but they're a perk reserved for colonists on Mars and illegal on Earth. When they escape to Earth, bounty hunters kill them. That's Deckard's job -- and he's torn up with moral conflict about it. As in the movie, he's forced to confront what it means to be human.

Einhorn's adaptation does justice to Dick's brilliantly dense source material -- without any force-fed exposition. His dialogue sounds like actual people (or androids) talking. His scene construction is good, too. What's happening, what's at stake and where the action is going are all crystal clear. (As they aren't in the novel. No disrespect. Scene-setting wasn't Dick's thing -- any more than it was Joyce's.) 

Scott's movie modified Dick's ideas, then blasted them into the cosmos (or greater LA) like an exploded bolt diagram. Dick's original book was much more inward -- claustrophobic, gnomic and hermeneutic -- an exercise in ratmaze philosophy. This production distilled that nightmare into a dense, multimedia stew, complete with vid screens, an opera singer and a dude playing electric cello. The play's mood remains the same: a really lousy mood, with a tiny drop of hope that's probably bullshit. All credit where credit is due: Dick's complicated and possibly crazy ideas may be depressing, but this production makes them easy to follow. That's not easy to pull off.

Einhorn gets some of the credit, but not all. Henry Akona created the haunting, original operatic score. Neal Wilkinson's set design neatly evokes an entropic world full of decaying consumer junk. Kudos also to the actors, who include Alex Emanuel (Rick Deckard), Yvonne Roen (Rachael Rosen/Pris) vocalist Moira Stone (Luba Luft), Christian Pederson (Roy Baty), Ken Simon (Isidore) and neo-vaudeville performer Trav SD (Buster Friendly). Excellent work all around -- a total investment in their characters. They brought Dick's waking nightmare to life -- and brought me to tears several times.

I loved the book and loved the play -- to the extent you can love a bizarre allegory of suffering and redemption based on the private religion of exactly one believer. Am I entirely happy? Eh ... no. I wish Einhorn had stuck closer to Dick's harsh vision. The playwright couldn't resist making the "andys" sympathetic and dropping broad hints that Deckard himself was an android. Cool ideas from the movie. They ain't in the book -- and they blunt the point of Dick's twisted gnostic parable. 

OK, OK. Aside from my objections as a Philip K. Dick fundamentalist, yeah, I dug this play. Einhorn twisted a few elements around, but left most of the plot and characters intact. The mood of the source material remains. It's gutsy and honest -- if unrelentingly bleak. The play keeps the promise most plays break. It takes you to another world. Hey, it's a lousy world -- what'd you expect? You want laughs, see Pee Wee Herman. You want irony ...

The taxi that took us to the play skirted the open wound of the World Trade Center. Couldn't help but think of Dick's propecy of a ruined world.

An as an added jolt of PhilDickian irony, technology threatened to sabotage the opening night multimedia production. The waiting audience wound up cooling its heels for about 45 minutes after the theoretical opening time. Various nervous actors (voices cracking with stress) came out to explain that the show had a snag. One of the vid screens wouldn't work; then they all died. Eventually, they got most of 'em working -- and the show went on.

Tech hasn't enslaved us, yet. But we haven't mastered it either.

Somewhere up in heaven (or perhaps VALIS) I think I can hear Phil laughing.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
A UTC #61 production
Through Dec. 11
3LD Art & Technology Center
80 Greenwich St., New York, N.Y.
212-352-3101
3ldnyc.org
Untitled Theater

Monday, November 8, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Apocalection 2012

Just wanted credit for the phrase.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dr. Strangelove's Rainbow

"I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London."
Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is an exegesis of Kubrick/Terry Southern's Dr. Strangelove.

If I had the money to go back to graduate school and write my thesis, that'd be it. Since I don't, this'll be the short version. The really short version.

The message of Gravity's Rainbow -- if you boiled it down to a fortune cookie -- would read: Technocratic society has a hard-on for death.

To expand it a little -- what's wrong with Western European society is a form of sexual perversion.

Cutting through the multitude of subplots, there are two central narratives:

#1) Dr. Blicero, an evil Nazi rocket scientist, runs a weird S&M cult on the side at Peenemunde during the Blitz. At the end of the book -- and after the war -- one of his sex partners willingly enters the nose cone of a V-2 rocket as a living, sexual sacrifice. The evil Nazi scientist fires it off into a movie theater and ruins the show. (It's a V-2 rocket -- but it clearly implies the Cold War nuclear missiles it would spawn.)

2) Slothrop, a horny American out of an R. Crumb comic, was conditioned as an infant by Dr. Jamf, an acolyte of Pavlov. The conditioning created a sexual response to a mystery stimulus -- which turns out to be Imipolex G -- an erectile plastic, an artificial, dead thing that mimics the most organic of responses. In the book, this fictional substance is an essential V-2 rocket component. As a result, Slothrop has precognitive erections when he's stationed in London during the Blitz. He bangs a lot of women. Inevitably -- a short time later -- rockets bang down on the site of his sexual assignations.

OK. So let's compare that to Dr. Strangelove:

As with Gravity's Rainbow, the fortune cookie message is: Technocratic society has a hard-on for death.

The movie opens with a sexual image of planes refueling in mid-air. In case there's any doubt, every character's name is a sexual pun implying some sexual deviance or excess: Merkin Muffley, Jack D. Ripper, Buck Turgidson, etc.

The plot: The USSR has a doomsday machine designed to destroy all living things if they're attacked. They keep it quiet -- saving the surprise for the upcoming party conference. Jack D. Ripper, a rogue American general, sends a wing of B-52s into Soviet airspace because he thinks the commies are polluting "our precious bodily fluids" with fluoridation. (The reason he thinks this -- he's impotent.) Top representatives from the USSR and USA meet in the underground "War Room" and collaborate on recalling the American planes. An evil Nazi rocket scientist -- Dr. Strangelove -- dominates the meeting. The American president and the Soviet premier negotiate on the hotline in a Jules Feifferesque parody of an old married couple having a tiff. The effort succeeds -- all the planes return, except for one that can't communicate. Against all odds, it gets through. Major Kong rides an H-Bomb down like a rodeo cowboy -- triggering doomsday. Down in the War Room, Dr. Strangelove pitches a scheme to preserve the world's elite in salt mines -- in a ratio of one man to fifty women, supermodels all. His paralyzed legs are miraculously healed.

The movie ends with an orgasmic montage of atomic bomb blasts, to the tune of "We'll Meet Again."

It's a brilliant movie, but ultimately, it's pop satire painted with a broad brush. Pynchon took its basic concepts and expanded on them, reaching a complexity worthy of Joyce's Ulysses. But the core ideas and images are all there:

The phallic symbol of the rocket.

The orgasmic symbol of an exploding rocket.

The equation of a highly militarized technocracy with sexual perversion.

An evil Nazi scientist who epitomizes this sexual perversion. The name of the character literally spells it out -- Dr. Strangelove.

Gravity's Rainbow is Dr. Strangelove's lovechild.

I could beef this up to a 20-page paper. But that's basically it.



Republican sweep

Gee. This is sorta like dealing with the 1930s crime wave by electing Al Capone mayor of Chicago.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fugate's 104729th Law

Ugly is truth, truth ugly. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Radical moderation

OK, people. The time has come to strike a radical blow for moderation. Our enemies – well, we don’t have any enemies. We’ve got people we disagree with. That doesn’t make them enemies. Right? Right? hey. For all I know, you don’t agree with me. I’m against big business. I’m against big government. I’m against big anything. I’m 5’6, I can’t help it. I’m psychologically scarred. I’m also in favor of the metric system, space travel, and the elimination of speed limits. Maybe you disagree. That doesn’t make me your enemy. I hope.

Yeah, I know. All this come-let-us-reason together talk. That’s kind of a letdown. If you want to energize the base, it’s a lot easier to say the other guy is Hitler. Bush is Hitler. Obama is Hitler. Jon Stewart’s original point — the reasoning behind all this "Rally for Sanity" stuff -- is Hitler was Hitler. Nobody else is Hitler. I AM NOT HITLER. ACHTUNG, BABY! Seriously. That's the point. Unless you’ve got a mustache, a bad haircut and a plan for world domination, you’re not Hitler. Let’s drop the Hitler stuff. Let’s talk. I know how insane that sounds. But let’s talk. Drop the true believer crap. Let’s talk.

See, the Founding Fathers had this nutty assumption. Those guys with the powdered wigs and bad teeth? They assumed we could all talk to each other. I’m not making it up. They really did. Yeah, they accused each other of Satanism, incest and unholy experiments. But they had a dialogue! They were talking! That’s what they had in mind!

What they didn’t have in mind was the political equivalent of championship wrestling. (grabbing crotch -- Yosemite Sam voice) “You can socialize this Obama! I will meet you in a steel cage death match any time anywhere!” Yeah, ha-ha. It’s funny when the other guys do it. (Yosemite Sam voice)“Bush destroyed them there towers. Yeah! Him and Dick Cheney and the Haliburton outfit! They killed all them people on those planes and blew up them towers with missiles! They had dynamite planted inside so’s they could have a war and make shitloads of money!” Ha-ha-ha. Not so funny, is it? No. You conspiracy guys can beat me with tire irons later. As far as the rest of you are concerned … Yosemite Sam should not be our role model, people. Spock should be our role model. Logic, thinking, cool heads. It’s a good idea.

Enough screaming. I hate screaming. I'm really freaking tired of screaming. We need to think. We need to talk.

I realized how boring that is. You wanna get worked up for the big game. We’re the greatest, they suck! That doesn’t work anymore. As sickening as this may sound, you gotta look at those Tea Party people and remind yourself they are people. NO! THEY’RE BRAINWASHED CLONES! THE KOCH BROTHERS CONTROL THEM! No, they’re people. Talk to them. NO! THERE’S NO TEA! THERE’S NO PARTY! I DON’T WANNA TALK TO THEM! Get over it. Talk to them. Take them seriously. Seriously.

They’re afraid of big government and state control. Listen to their fears. Move the discussion to the facts. Talk. Accept the possibility you may be wrong. Drop the assumption that Obama is God in human form. Get specific. Get practical. In the process, somebody’s mind might change. Maybe yours. Maybe theirs. But somebody’s.

It’s a remote possibility. I realize that fact. Next to dirty diapers, the human mind is the hardest thing in the world to change. But talking is the only option. The only way to get there.

Screaming doesn’t work. Demonizing the enemy doesn’t work. They’re not our enemy.

Keep reminding yourself that.

Fear is the enemy.

Fear is the only enemy.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Revenge of the Nerd


Director David Fincher’s The Social Network takes a not-so-promising premise — the story of Facebook — and turns it into an amazing movie. Compare it to, say, The Pirates of Silicon Valley. Good movie, but not great. This was great. And I knew it in the first few minutes.

In the opening scene, Mark Zuckerberg’s intellect rolls over his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend like a tank. He doesn’t even know he’s doing it. He stomps her; she dumps him. “Sorry” doesn’t cut it.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue perfectly captures the way nerds talk and think. Nerdspeak. Sorkin speaks it like a native speaker.

Nerds have more short term memory (a larger RAM buffer) and will refer to earlier conversational threads assumed dropped. Nerds are both anti-social and anti-Machiavellian. In the nerd ethos, thought is code; you follow the argument where it leads; you put all your assumptions on the table — including assumptions about social status, motives and intelligence. Sparing people’s feelings doesn’t enter into it. This sounds like insensitivity, but it really isn’t. If you’ve got an IQ of 170 or so, you insult people without even trying. So you stop trying not to.

To write this smart, you've got to be that smart. Props to Mr. Sorkin.

In the opening scene, you see exactly what kind of brain Zuckerberg has — and exactly what kind of character. The scene is the whole movie in embryo, a logic bomb waiting to explode. Everything flows from there ...

As a result of social rejection, Zuckerberg creates the greatest social network in history.

A college prank to get back at his ex-girlfriend evolves, step by step, into Facebook. We trace this evolution looking back in time from the vantage point of depositions and legal hearings. Zuckerberg’s ex-best friend and two twin, upper class jocks are suing him over the intellectual property rights issues. I.e.; the jocks claim Zuckerberg stole their idea; his best friend claims he cheated him out of partnership in the company. From one perspective, Zuckerberg stabbed them all in the back. From another perspective, he didn’t. Facebook evolved, ineluctably, like so many lines of elegant code.

Zuckerberg may be great with computer code — but he's not so great at moral code. The movie doesn’t dismiss him — or excuse him — as a human computer or autistic savant with a low social IQ. Zuckerberg's not socially unaware. He’s socially indifferent. And proud. His giant, pulsating brain remembers every social slight, every patronizing implication, every sneer. He balances the equation. He gets his payback.

Facebook is the revenge of the nerd.

This film has great performances by Jessie Eisenberg (Zuckerberg), Armie Hammer (playing both twins), Andrew Garfield (as Zuckerberg's dumped partner) and — believe it or not — Justin Timberlake (as Sean Parker, Napster's crash-and-burn founder). Acting that doesn't feel like acting — no milking the scene, no going for the big moment. Director Fincher makes you feel like a voyeur spying in on real people — pretty rare, for a big budget movie these days.

What this film doesn’t have is any detailed investigation of Facebook itself. There a few throwaway scenes — but nothing like those 1960s movies explaining the growth of rock and roll with a montage of teens listening to portable radios on the beach. Facebook is a phenomenon. The movie assumes you know about it — and gets on with the story.

That story is largely fiction. The filmmakers had access to the broad outlines of the story — and no access to the actual details or characters, wrapped in layers of nondisclosure agreements as they were. The Mark Zuckerberg of this movie has about as much reality as Prince Hamlet or Leopold Bloom, which is just fine with me. That’s probably why this film is so much more than a mere bio-pic. It’s the bio-pic of an idea — an idea that stands for all ideas. It’s a universal story.

Fincher’s movie and Sorkin’s script brilliantly shoehorns two plot threads together: (A) the exciting birth of an idea — as in the discovery of Radium or penicillin (B) the human cost and betrayal associated with the ownership of that idea. Facebook was a brilliant idea. The filmmakers are absolutely clear about that.

Whether the kudzu-like social network Zuckerberg created is such a good idea for society is different question — and a question for a different movie.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Synopsis, Bruce Sterling Vimeo talk

Here's a nice synopsis of Sterling's talk from Scott McCaulay in Filmmaker magazine:


Bruce Sterling -- closing talk Vimeo conference


Closing Keynote: Vernacular Video from Vimeo Festival on Vimeo.

Excellent talk from Bruce Sterling from 9/10/2010. Excellent as in disturbing, insightful, subversive and depressing.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Fugate's 957th Law

In the end, the shit you take is equal to the shit you make.

The facts are in

It's official. This is the grim, dystopian not-too-distant future we've been warned about.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Laika

Subject recovered. Begin scan.

Dead wind light cold frozen space.


Pack animal, unidentified. Quadripedal, mammalian? Massive neural damage.

Random access eidetic association chain. Second iteration.

Pain.

Working.

Pain hunger pain cold fight.


Working.

Sense of threat. Unidentified environment, artificial.

Fight fight.

Death experience, fight response. Pack loyalty.

Association chain cannot be recovered.

Association chain cannot be recovered.

Working.

Association chain cannot be recovered.

Return previous sequence.

Fight!

Loyalty to?

Bipedal mammal, unknown species. Intelligent. Civ 2. Female.

Кудрявка.


Phonetic equivalent: Kudryavka.

Здесь, собака.


Linguistic coding. Deep structure not identified.

Random access eidetic association chain. Third iteration.

Alley snow cold wind food hand warm.

Artificial structures, crystalline dihydrogen oxide. Bipedal female identical second eidetic sequence. Female extends edible substance.

Хорошая собака.

Cannot identify. Working.

Five fingers, opposable thumb.

Spinning and spinning.

Sequence truncated. Artificial environment. Centrifugal chamber?

“Cобака” generic term referent quadripedal mammal.

Dog?

Я огорченн. Нам нужно вы.

Eye. Liquid emerging from eye.

Association chain cannot be recovered.

Association chain cannot be recovered.

Fight response. Loyalty.

Собаки которые гуляют на 2 ноги.

Working.

Dogs who walk on two legs?

Fight!

Pack loyalty response.

No! Let me out of here! Let me fight!

Confined environment.

Auditory evidence other quadripedal mammals.

Out! Out! Let me out!

Bipedal female.

We have to get out! We're all going to die if you don't let me out!


Лайка.

Phonetic equivalent: Laika.

Оно если вы знаете, Лайка. Вы собака, не Иисус Христос. Но я передам вы чего вы хотите.


Lack of oxygen. Hyperbaric chamber?

вы самые сильные, Лайка. То ваше заклятье.

Association chain cannot be recovered.

Association chain cannot be recovered.

Random access eidetic association chain. Fifty-second iteration.

High arousal state. Large assembly bipedal mammals. Primitive visual recording devices. Solid state booster rocket?

Eidetic capture indicates planet with moon in stationary orbit.

Working.

Planet identified. 1029300029292.4 gal arm 6. No int. life. ThermNuc war cycle 12. Restoration possible if suitable subject found.

Вы герой, Лайка.

Bipedal female. Liquid emerging from eye.

Вы сохраните нас все, Лайка.

Quadripedal mammal "Laika" unknown species isolated confined chamber. Massive G-forces.

Unconsciousness.

Repetition first eidetic iteration.

Dead wind light cold frozen. Space.

Working.

Scan complete.

Begin repair.

Fractal rock



Fractals have disturbing implications for design.

The mind likes complexity built out of simplicity. I think that's the appeal of most great art. A great symphony breaks down into simple patterns of chord progressions, fugal counterpoint and motifs. There's an "aha" moment. The mind "groks" the pattern, and goes with the flow of the symphony.

The same is true for great visual art, from paintings to cartoons. However orate, there's a basic simplicity, a hierarchy of form, a visual of logic that tells the eye what's important and where to look. The eye likes that.

The mind likes the notion that there's a underlying order behind the complexity of the universe, a few simple equations running it all, a unified field theory, a cosmic operating system. On a micro level, the mind likes the idea that atoms are the "building blocks of the universe." Atoms can be broken down into smaller building blocks which can be broken down into even smaller building blocks. But there are building blocks, damn it. The mind insists.

Fractal logic doesn't work that way. There's no underlying order. The complexity itself is the underlying order. There's just more and more complexity, whether you're zooming out or zooming in. It's organic looking, but in a creepy, Lovecraftian way. Cthulu's house in Malibu probably looks like this.

The mind recoils

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Man Creates



One of my all-time favorites -- the edifice sequence from Saul Bass' "Why Man Creates."

In the Greek philosophy sequence, somebody asks the question "Who shall rule the state?" People pop out with various answers. Then a chorus says, "The people." Some guy asks "You mean, all the people?" at 1:24, some other guy stabs him.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps

Oliver Stone is still a titan of a filmmaker. Wall Street 2 rocks. It's a sprawling story, but it held my interest. The Gordan Gekko character screw people over, but finds redemption in the end. That's OK by me. If villains eternally stay villains, it's not a story, it's an allegory. As Anthony Burgess once said, people change. Novels are based on that fact. (And movies too, as I once said.)

Stone's movie puts in a serious plug for fusion power. The LA Times ripped this as an "informercial," but screw them. Fusion needs good press. The last movie that mentioned it was Spider Man II -- as the megalomaniac dream of Doc. Ock.

If we'd spent the TRILLION DOLLARS AND COUNTING we've spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to develop commercial fusion power, we'd be riding high on a second industrial revolution.

But I digress.