Friday, December 31, 2010


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


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.