Thursday, December 10, 2009

VIDEO- Free Hugs

I was genuinely and deeply moved by this silly little video. What a wonderful idea!

A life is a little soap bubble. It might sometimes bump up against the other little soap bubbles and even stick for a while. But the advantage that soap bubbles have over lives is that no matter how close your life comes to another persons, the bubbles never merge.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

MOVIES- Primer

The first thing I have to say is- SEE THIS MOVIE! It’s available for instant viewing on Netflix.

So many movies nowadays are not so much dumbed down as downright stupid. You’d think that even if you are a moron, if you are going to spend 100 million dollars (or 200 or 300 million) making a movie then you’d want to spend a buck ninety-five on having somebody with a couple of neurons to rub together have a look at it to make sure you weren’t being stupid. But the great advantage of stupidity is that it makes it’s own circuit- it’s both conductor and insulator. So every year the majority of movies made are of an intellectual level that makes the average Marvel comic look like Dostoevsky. Even most SF movies, movies modeled on the literature of ideas, are abysmal logical failures.

Primer is exactly the opposite. It’s challenging. In fact, it’s a mystery that doesn’t tell you the solution. It’s also the first movie I’ve seen in a long time that I watched twice in the same day. After having done so I can vouch that the movie is at least internally consistent and that it makes perfect sense. I wasn’t sure at first. I was so used to movies that you had to make excuses for rather than having to understand. But trust me, the answer is all there.

But it isn’t plain. In fact, it’s purposefully not plain. That’s one of the problems. Another is that the main motivation of the characters is rather weak. And there are characters referred to that are never (or only briefly) seen and that further muddies the narrative. There are even loose ends that are never explained and can’t be deduced from the clues provided. Finally, some of the pivotal action takes place off-screen and has to be inferred. I’m sure all of this was intentional on the part of the writer-director-star of this first attempt movie. But considering how convoluted the story is and how involved the central conceit is to start with, it’s perhaps too much. Had the story been told as plainly as possible it still would have required far more from the viewer than the average movie.

Without giving away too much (because this is a movie that simply has to be experienced) I’ll set the stage. (A plot synopsis would be impossible.) A group of engineers who work for a high-tech company are working on a side project trying to build a new technology in their garage so they can form their own start-up company. At first they think they’ve found a way to deflect gravity, and spend some time trying to figure out practical applications of the new technology. But while they are doing that they realize there is an unexpected side effect. Gravity isn’t the only thing affected by the machine they have built. Things inside the machine also have their passage of time changed. (The rate of the passage of time is affected by acceleration and gravity so it makes perfect sense. Einstein, bitches!) Without trying to, they have invented a time machine. But one that only lets the object inside cycle between the time the machine is turned on and off. If you put your watch into the machine for a minute over 22 hours passes during that minute for the watch. But if you put a person inside the machine he can leave at the moment the machine was turned on, no matter how much later he enters.

It’s more complicated than that, but that’s the basic premise. So, what do you do with a machine that will let you relive any amount of time that’s passed since you turned it on? From this simple (?) beginning the story starts to twist in unexpected directions and take on multiple levels.

My own problem with the story was that I couldn’t believe the motivation for the characters. The event that most of the movie centers on is rather trivial compared to the lengths the characters go to in order to change it. They even as much as admit it at one point. But if you can accept that it’s important to them then you can go on to delve into the more interesting parts of the puzzle.

And it is, basically, a puzzle. The movie was made by a fellow named Shane Carruth for $7000. As a first attempt by a fledgling director/writer/actor it is a tour de force. Even if you don’t cherish the intellectual puzzle box that he’s built, the movie is involving and while it starts slow, it continues to build gradually until you find yourself sucked into the lives of the characters. But be prepared. There are scenes that are poorly focused, others that have overlapping dialog that makes it hard to tell what’s going on, and the whole thing indulges in poor color balance and editing tricks that obscure an already obtuse narrative. In spite of this it has the many of the benchmarks of good independent cinema. Compositions are strong, dialog is naturalistic, and the acting is understated and realistic. But while most independent films rely on emotion and drama to make up for expensive production values, this story relies on internal consistency and rigorous ideas to make up for lack of special effects. A SF movie without a single alien, explosion, space battle, or fantastic vista yet is more SF than a dozen or a hundred such movies usually manage.

This isn’t a movie for people who think SF is Star Whatever (Wars or Trek). This is a movie for fans of Phillip K. Dick’s writing, Cornwainer Smith’s stories, and who aren’t afraid to test their powers of observation and reason to gather the reward of a little neocortical exercise. I can’t believe how much I loved this movie. I wouldn’t want every cinematic experience to be this one, but when you’ve seen too many GI JOES and toys that turn into cars and robots in the last year it’s nice to find a movie that actually challenges you rather than simply appealing to the reptilian need for sex, carnage, and bright colors.

Have you noticed a tendency for me to swear for emphasis in my writing? I hope not.

SEE THIS FUCKING MOVIE!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TELEVISION- Neverwhere

Neverwhere is a television series Neal Gaiman wrote for the BBC that originally aired in 1996 and is now available on Netflix. Like most geeks I’ve had affection for Gaiman’s writing since he was working on Sandman. But to be perfectly honest, his writing has never really grabbed me the way it does some people. Watching Neverwhere I was reminded of why.

Let me start by saying that I enjoyed the program. Considering how much really dreadful SF and Fantasy gets produced and put on TV, it was nice to see something that was interesting and didn’t insult the viewers’ intelligence. True, it has that “BBC look” that has come a long way in the last few years but was still pretty dreadful in the mid-1990s. You know what I mean- the sets look like they were built by a repertory troupe in an abandoned warehouse somewhere and everything is lit blue on one side and green or red on the other like the only lighting equipment they had was left over from some discotheque of the 1970s. Occasionally there will be a matte painting and when there is you almost can’t see the line where it begins. Still, the production values are much better than the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series’, or the earlier Dr. Who programs’ where often things looked so bad it would interfere with your enjoyment of the story.

The acting is also an obvious intermediate step between what passes on BBC genre television today and what they were doing in the 70s and 80s. It isn’t quite as natural and what they are doing on Dr. Who nowadays, but it’s far better than the line readings from a decade earlier. I won’t say that anybody here is exceptional but Patterson Joseph, who plays the Marquis de Carabas, does stand out.

But now, back to the heart of all this. What is it about Neil Gaiman’s writing that keeps me from considering him as great as my all time favorites? Tell me if you’ve heard this one: an ordinary fellow makes an unusual decision on the spur of the moment and as a result meets someone who takes him on and amazing adventure into a world he was completely unaware of, filled with strange, dangerous characters that are vaguely familiar yet oddly different from the way one would normally think of them.

I’ve just told you the plot to everything Neil Gaiman has ever written.

Oh, he does it well. In Death: The High Cost of Living it was easy to get caught up in Death’s personality and how different and appealing it was compared to any other personification of Death. In American Gods it was fun traveling all over the country visiting with the aged visages of familiar deities, some who had gone sour and weird in their dotage. In Sandman it was intriguing to see Morphius travel from heaven to hell in the DC Universe visiting with familiar characters of the macabre who were all as fun-house (of Mystery) distorted as he himself was from the guy in the 1940s with the gas-mask and squirt gun we remembered The Sandman as being.

But I digress.

In Neverwhere we watch a clerk in some soulless London company help a homeless girl lying on the street, drawing the ire of his yuppie shrew girlfriend who stomps off and leaves the pair to draw a door on a brick wall (Betelgeuse! Betelgeuse! Betelgeuse!) and step into a journey through the London Underground (Subway for us Yanks) that will wind up determining the fate of an angel. (Ghad! I ought to write blurbs for book jackets!) Along the way we will meet a pair of eternal assassins, the owner of the cat named Puss-in-Boots, a cadre of female vampires, the traveling miracle fairs of the underground, and lots of other stuff that is imaginative and strange but really doesn’t have anything to say about anything other than “Look at us! We’re imaginative and strange!!”

In fact, the closest thing to a moral in the story is ‘how you can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree’ (or in this case the London subway system), or ‘you can’t go home again’. That is if there is a moral at all, which really there doesn’t seem to be. And the cleverest bit of allegory is that the Undergrounders can travel in the world of normal London because the mundanes “don’t pay any attention to them”, which makes them effectively invisible. It’s clever and glib, which is better than most television, but still not much.

It seems even to me that I’m being unduly harsh. After all, it’s just a friendly romp through a fantasy landscape. And at six half-hour installments, it moves quickly and has way more structure than crap like Lost and Heroes that just meander around everywhere in hope of doing something interesting eventually and take an investment of a significant piece of your life for you to get anything from them. In fact, I think this format- shorter (3-6 hour) self-contained stories as miniseries- is a much better way to tell genre stories on television. And if you have Netflix then it’s free through their streaming service. So if this were a review I’d recommend it. And if this were a critique I’d be wondering if Neil Gaiman has anything else up his sleeve.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

POLITICS- Political Reality

Well, I was going to sit down for a few minutes and meditate before going to work, but I made the mistake of seeing if Matt Taibbi had said anything lately and- poof- no meditation for me.

Read the article for yourself. Basically what Matt is saying, better and more specifically, is what I’ve been saying for years: both the political parties in America work for the same people and those people aren’t the American Middle Class. Whether you are Obama supporter or Tea-bag Republican, if you think that the primary purpose of your party’s elected officials is to advance your agenda then you don’t perceive enough about how politics really works in this country to be shooting your mouth off about anything.

For years the Red States had both houses of the legislature and the presidency. Do they have an anti-abortion amendment? Flag burning amendment? Organized prayer in schools? The Ten Commandments in public buildings? A stop to illegal immigration? Lower taxes?

Hell no.

And the Blue Staters, who took the presidency and both houses last fall. Are they any better off? Has the surveillance of America e-mails, phone calls, bank records, and (for heaven’s sake) library use stopped? Are the troops out of Iraq? Is Guantanamo closed? Are gay rights being strongly protected by new laws?

Hell no.

It may sound cynical, but in modern America the opposite of cynicism is naivete. It isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you. And it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s paying attention that the rich and powerful in this country have been strengthening their powerbase for the last few decades. At the expense of the rest of us, many of which have been manipulated into endlessly arguing with each other about issues that don’t really matter to the people in charge. And while we’ve done it, they’ve been robbing us blind. Both parties are engaged in a classic game of “Let’s you and him fight” with the American people so they can pick all our pockets and put the necessary fortifications in place so that when we do finally wake up and realize that the house is on fire we won’t be able to do anything about it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

BLACK FRIDAY- Sit on the porch and feed all the kangaroos

It was this or the latest crop of pyromaniacal videos of turkey fryer accidents.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Random Quickies

Fast roundup of some cool stuff from over the last few days.

David Saltzburg is a name you might not know, but he’s the science advisor for the most nerdtastic sit-com since everybody on Gilligan’s island was waiting for The Professor to build a working shortwave out of coconuts and Tina Louise’s spaghetti straps. The Big Blog Theory is a great basic science blog and I think you’ll be surprised how far we’ve come since those seven stranded castaways were on the TV show Lost. FWIW, the comic book and sci-fi geek stuff is just as accurate.

The perfect gift for that multi-tasker on the go who you don’t like very much- The Laptop Steering Wheel Desk! Notice the later pictures of the product and the user comments.

Tennessee passed laws earlier this year to allow guns in restaurants, parks, and bars. I’ve given a lot of thought to what kind of mindset it takes to think you need a gun on your hip no matter where you go. No conclusions yet, but it’s been interesting to wonder what the world looks like to these people.

Am I the only person that, when told that a medium movie popcorn has the same caloric and nutritional value as three Big Macs, immediately thinks- well, what the hell, might as well have three Big Macs?

I also wonder if I’m the only person who watches the Apple computer ad campaign and thinks that John Hodgeman is smart, funny, and cool and that Justin Long is a dimwitted hipster douchebag? Learning that Apple computers are such soap bubbles that they can be broken by a little cigarette smoke only reinforces this idea. And learning that Apple voids your warranty if anyone has smoked in the house with your precious little computer-like status symbol just reaffirms that the douchebaggery goes all the way from the user to Steve Jobs in an unbroken line of vinegar and water.

And the iPhone sucks (bandwidth).

When I think of the Shroud of Turin I immediately free associate pareidolia and a line from the first Ghostbusters movie, “No human being would stack books like this.” Oh faith, why are you so faint?

What is the chance that two old women in Kentucky would try to decide for everybody else what books should be in the library? About the same as the Alaska governor thinking she was elected to tell people what to read. That is- about 100%. Here’s a hint, if you don’t read books and you don’t want anyone else to read them you are not contributing to the advancement of humanity.

Don’t believe in evolution? I’ve got news for you, nobody cares what you believe. The great thing about science is that no belief is required for it to work. Guess you also don’t believe in Doberman Pinschers.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

MOVIES- Zombieland isn't bad

Not since SHAWN OF THE DEAD has there been a funnier and more unserious movie about the unserious idea of a zombie apocalypse than ZOMBIELAND. A lot of reviewers didn’t care for the tone and I wasn’t impressed by the ad campaign but I found myself amused and pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t just a long tribute to mayhem. In fact, if you’re in the right mood it’s a pretty entertaining couple of hours. True, if any of your critical faculties are engaged you are going to be frustrated- where do they get the unlimited supplies of gasoline they seem to have access to and why does the electricity still work after everyone has been turned into the cannibalistic living undead- but if you simply take the movie on its own terms it has a pretty good mix of pathos and carnage, just a little teenage angst, and a wonderful turn by Woody Harrelson playing what could be easily imagined as a version of his breakout character, Woody Boyd, driven insane by the end of the world. The direction is unremarkable, the acting is fine, the dialog is predictable and not terribly witty, and the special effects are anything but special. Yet I didn’t find myself getting bored and the movie managed never to insult my intelligence too much. And there are times when it’s actually funny. (Rule One for surviving a zombie holocaust: Cardio!) Not a great movie, but for a mindless romp through a decimated civilization that never tries to be anything else the damn thing worked! If you have an evening to kill and a big bag of microwave popcorn then give it a try.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

PERSONAL COMEDY- Just Dessert

I have no plans to talk about my ongoing divorce. It's not that I feel it's private or that I'm embarrassed, it's just that I don't really have anything to say. But a friend sent me this and it's funny enough to share. (FWIW, the line about not being a "licensed therapist" is especially funny in light of the fact that she's been lying on her resume for as long as I've known her about having a BA in business when she never finished high school and flunked out of community college because she couldn't pass remedial algebra.)

BIG QUESTIONS- The Meaning of Life (part 1 in a series)

I think I’m in love.



Oh yes, definitely I have fallen in love. She’s funny, smart, uncompromising, and very nice to look at. I admit, she’s picking the low hanging fruit. But even the staunchest Christian has to admit that there’s nothing more tempting than an attractive woman picking fruit. And I have always had a soft spot for smart asses.

As I’ve said previously, I frequent the HairyFishNuts blog, mostly because the writer is often knee slapping funny. But over the years I’ve watched him fight a tireless battle against religion. I admire his stamina, but watching the non-believers who wander into the site from time to time and often following them home to their blogs I’ve come to believe that he is, as the bible would say, kicking against the pricks. (works on so many levels;-) Of course, he isn’t alone. The Internet is full of people like him- K-rina in the Youtube.com video above, endless Fark.com flame wars, it seems that every time religion is mentioned the same types show up to offer the same arguments that Voltaire and Thomas Aquinas voiced centuries ago and said far better.

I also reflect on my own personal discussions concerning things like science and evolution with believers. And my conclusion is that the problems isn’t so much that members of the two sides have been convinced by differing information and might change their minds if they came to understand the other side of the argument, it’s that the people on the two sides of the divide have fundamentally different ways of looking at reality and are completely intransigent. I think that a lot of these debates are held for the benefit of the people who are debating- to sure up their own thinking- and the only people who might be swayed are the spectators who haven’t made up their minds yet.

When I look back on my life I’ve got to admit that I’ve always been of a scientific mindset. Not only in the case of being fascinated by science and learning all I can about the world, but also as a matter of intrinsic philosophy. I can’t remember a time when, even as a little child, I didn’t question things and discard ideas when convinced that they were erroneous. Long before I had been taught the scientific method in school I was already a devout practitioner. I question everything, especially my own conclusions. And I'm a firm believer that Voltaire was right when he said that you can tell more about a man from his questions than his answers.

But, having said that, I also can’t remember a time, even as a small child, when I wasn’t fascinated by religion. I was a born seeker, looking for answers, and religion claimed to have them. I’ve explored a great number of religions. And practiced a number of them to ‘try them on’ as it were. I feel that I can see both sides of the debate. But I can’t help being logical and questioning. I understand the need to feel like part of something grander than yourself, and I deeply feel that connecting with other people is part of being human. As far as we can tell, humanity is the only creature on the planet that can feel empathy. And that's the basis of religion- feeling for others. Jesus called it loving your brother as you love yourself.

So for the next few posts I’m going to retrace the steps that I’ve taken to come to my (tenitive) conclusions. Perhaps an even handed exploration by someone who isn’t antagonistic to either side is a good idea. There seems to be far too much acrimony in the debate. Both sides show their worst sides as they contend with each other. It's time for a dispassionate look at the question from the middle.

SCEINCE- Carl Sagan ADDENDUM


I watched a couple of episodes of Cosmos yesterday and was once again taken with the beauty of Sagan's ideas and the poetry of his writing. The video posted in the last entry is genuinely moving. If you didn't watch it, you should. I came across a couple of other things he said that I thought were interesting and wanted to share them here. Over the next few postings I'm going to be exploring a few big questions which my mind was set turning around while watching his program. These might set the tone.


A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise
But a galaxy rise
A morning filled with four hundred billion suns
Rising with the Milky Way

A couple more pertinent quotes from Carl Sagan-

I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
- Carl Sagan, Demon Haunted World


You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it's based on a deep seated need to believe.
- Dr. Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact

If we long to believe that the stars rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?....For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World


Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science?
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World


Is it fair to be suspicious of an entire profession because of a few bad apples? There are at least two important differences, it seems to me. First, no one doubts that science actually works, whatever mistaken and fraudulent claim may from time to time be offered. But whether there are any miraculous cures from faith-healing, beyond the body's own ability to cure itself, is very much at issue. Secondly, the expose' of fraud and error in science is made almost exclusively by science. But the exposure of fraud and error in faith-healing is almost never done by other faith-healers.
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

There are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths.
- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

Monday, November 9, 2009

SCIENCE- Carl Sagan

A couple of months ago I was browsing through Half Price Books in Lexington, Ky and came across an almost complete library of Carl Sagan’s writing in hardcover. I had read several of his books in high school but had long since lost the copies that I had owned, so I decided to buy the store clean. Within a couple of weeks I noticed that the Science Channel was sporadically re-broadcasting the old Cosmos television show and had my TIVO start trolling for it. But I didn’t realize until this morning that today would have been his 75th birthday if he were still alive.

Carl Sagan remains to this day perhaps the greatest popularizer of science in my lifetime. Since his death there are others who have attempted to fill his shoes- Neil Degrasse Tyson comes immediately to mind, along with Bill Nye, and even the Mythbusters, although personally I think Timothy Ferris comes closest to his style and range of subject material- but no one has really come close. In addition to explaining science he was widely known for his views on history, politics, religion, superstition, skepticism, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the human condition. His was a popular guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (of all places) and even debated William F. Buckley after the original showing of Nick Mayer’s movie about nuclear war, THE DAY AFTER. (Famously saying that the nuclear arms race was like two men standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches and the other with five.)

His books included:

Dragons of Eden- an exploration of the evolution of human intelligence that explained the triune brain architecture, dividing the brain into R-Complex, Limbic, and Cortical levels and explaining how each controlled different sets of behaviors and expanded on the lower levels.

The Demon Haunted World- an examination of the evidence for the paranormal, including everything from UFOs to ghosts, and a plea for using the same tools of logic and reason to evaluate all claims whether they seem natural or supernatural.

Broca’s Brain- about his love affair with science. A book that opens with a rather macabre anecdote about his trip to the Musee de L’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris where, while exploring a room filled with jars containing human heads, he chanced upon the preserved brain of Paul Broca- the foremost expert on the anatomy of the brain in the 19th century.

But perhaps Sagan’s crowning achievement was the television series Cosmos. Produced for PBS in 1980 and capitalizing on the popularity of STAR WARS, Cosmos put Sagan on the bridge of an imaginary spaceship by which he could explore the wonders of the universe. But it was no dreary travelogue of roadside attractions throughout the galaxy. Sagan used it as a platform for everything he found interesting, from history to philosophy. In the first episode he recounted the story of Eratosthenes calculating the circumference of the earth over two hundred years before the birth of Christ by measuring the shadows of two sticks, one in Alexandria and the other in Syene; conducted a tour of the universe through the solar system, galaxy, neighboring galaxy M31, and the local group; discussed pulsars and light years; visited a fictional inhabited planet in the Orion Nebula; flew down the Valles Marinaris on Mars; toured the ancient library at Alexandria during its height; and condensed the history of the universe down into the space of one year.

And that was the first episode.

The second episode told the story of life on Earth, explaining evolution through the example of Heike Crabs, which seem to have the faces of Samurai on their shells, and touched on biochemistry and biology. Episode five told the story of Mars, including both Percival Lowell and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Episode nine explained atomic physics with an apple pie and went on to talk about wormholes in space and remind us that we are “made of starstuff”.

And that’s one of the things that set the series apart from most science documentaries. If you are used to the standard History or Discovery channel docs then you are in for an awakening. This is not an hour of your life spent watching two teams of scientists using PET scanners to unlock the mystery of whether or not early Etruscan wine mugs were designed to be right or left handed. This is a 13 hour exploration of the universe as we understand it and man’s place in it as we might conceive it to be. And it’s written with poetry, perspective, and passion. Under Sagan’s probing eye we see even the most mundane things in a new light. He called libraries “communal repositories of memory”. And on the subject of books he said:

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree, with flexible parts, on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you are inside the mind of another person. Maybe somebody dead for thousands of years, across the millennia, an author speaking clearly and silently inside your head, only to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions. Binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. Books are proof that humans are capable of working magic.
Cosmos episode 11, The Persistence of Memory

And in the last episode he contemplated the final destiny of our species. In the late seventies the great threat of annihilation was a full-out nuclear exchange between the superpowers. But even here, Sagan’s thoughtfulness went beyond that possibility to examine the underlying danger.

I saw east Africa and thought a few million years ago we humans took our first steps there. Our brains grew and changed. The old parts began to be guided by the new parts. And this made us human, with compassion and foresight and reason. But instead we listened to that reptilian voice within us counseling fear, territoriality, aggression. We accepted the products of science but we rejected its methods.
Cosmos- Who Speaks for Earth?

It’s hard to put it more succinctly and beautifully. Today we might not fear an attack from the former Soviet Union, but the forces of ignorance and superstition are even more active now than they were then. Trying to destroy our society by turning their backs on the science that allowed it to become great, turning the technology that science gave us against it and us.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Sagan.





Cosmos is available from hulu.com for free and on Netflix streaming if you are a member. Sagan’s books are in your local library and available from Amazon.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

WTF- Of All the Videos Online

...this is the funniest one I've seen in a long time.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

MOVIES- Seven Pounds

Will Smith seems to have settled into a rhythm. Every three movies he does includes a Sci-Fi movie, a comedy, and a serious film. There’s no question he’s done all right with the sci-fi genre. Sure there is crap like WILD, WILD WEST and I, ROBOT. Crap that would be unforgivable if not for MEN IN BLACK, and INDEPENDENCE DAY. Well, OK, not so much INDEPENDENCE DAY. But I didn’t think Hancock was too bad. And I AM LEGEND wouldn’t have been so bad without the focus-group ending the studio tacked on.

His comedies like HITCH and, well, MEN IN BLACK have been entertaining. Although he was pretty much just a straight man for Kevin James in HITCH, and we’ve already used MIB once already so it really doesn’t count. And OTOH there are such non-classics as BAD BOYS- with or without Roman numerals- and the aforementioned WWW.

Well, at least he’s made some serious dramas such as ALI and SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. But when you really think about it, ALI wasn’t really a high point for either him or director Michael Mann even though it was a dearly held project for both of them. And SIX DEGREES is really more of a party game than a movie- talk talk talk talk talk. And every other serious thing he’s attempted isn’t really very serious. LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE is a milquetoast example of what somebody once called the Magic Negro genre. ENEMY OF THE STATE isn’t bad but it’s Bruckheimer and Tony Scott so you could have put Ben Affleck in the role instead and nobody would have noticed. THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS got a lot of props from Oprah. But if she had James Frey back on for a public bitch slapping over A Million Little Pieces being a bunch of BS, then she should have saved a few backhands for the makers of this “based on a true story” film which completely ignores Chris Gardner’s infidelity, drug use, child abandonment, and spousal abuse and which takes the “magic Negro” idea to a new level.

Wow, now that I think about it, Will Smith hasn’t made many very good movies.

Don’t get me wrong. He also hasn’t made many bad movies. None of the films mentioned are actually bad. And I think they’ve usually made some money. But if you take out MEN IN BLACK they are a steady run of three out of five stars. Pure mediocrity. Nothing challenging, nothing inspired, no great breakout performances, just a long string of nice movies.

And that seems to be the secret of Will’s personal success. He seems like a nice guy. Not a great artist, doesn’t vanish into a role, just shows up on time and does his job. And boy, has it ever worked for him. He’s done 13 movies in the last decade and his name is attached to 25 projects in development!

Well, there’s the secret of success boys and girls: be nice.

Of course it doesn’t hurt to be good looking, tall, well built, and have a little talent as well.

Being lucky as hell is also a good idea.

Which brings me to his most recent movie SEVEN POUNDS, which is available for streaming via Netflix. I’m not going to say anything about the plot for fear of spoiling any tiny surprises there may be. Smith is charming, he plays a really nice guy, and some melodrama ensues. If you like Will Smith’s movies then you’ll probably like this movie.

But it could just as easily starred Ben Affleck.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

HALLOWEEN 2009- Dracula vs. Frankenstein

There are really two classic monsters- Dracula and Frankenstein. They both touch primal urges in humanity and make those things into archetypal horrors. They bookended the 19th century and spoke to themes that would dominate the 20th. They both were novels that made their authors famous. One was written by a first time author who penned an immediate success while the other was from an established writer and took years to find its audience, And despite superficial similarities it would be harder to find two more different characters or novels. I read both novels when I was in the fifth grade and was immediately taken at what a classic subject for the compare and contrast essays we were writing at the time.

When he wrote Dracula Bram Stoker was an established writer who was also manager of the Lyceum Theater in London. It was published in 1897 during the early days of what would become an increasingly mainstream literary genre- the fantastic. But it wasn’t immediately popular, perhaps being overshadowed by other such novels. Jules Verne had been publishing primeval science fiction for decades and H. G. Wells The Invisible Man was published the same year as Stoker’s magnum opus, while Wells classics The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds were published two years before and one year afterward respectively. Yet the novel was unique enough that it was able to survive until a new artform- movies- would make Dracula known to almost everyone.

Critics were mostly favorable to Stoker’s work. The novel is beautifully written in a epistolary style that immediately brings the reader into the heads of the main characters. This style also makes the story seem more immediate than a first or third person narrative since you never know if a particular character will survive past the story’s end. Stoker spends the first part of the novel building suspense and setting the stage. Jonathan Harker’s trip to Castle Dracul, where he meets the count and his three undead brides, is classic gothic horror. A modern man on a business trip that goes horribly wrong yet is exotically erotic and mysterious. The latter half picks up the pace and delves into themes of science vs. mysticism, the threat of the barbarian invasions into the newly industrial world, the changing roles of women, and the uses of modern technology (a telephone call plays an important role in one scene).

Stoker did years of research for the novel. Modern myth has connected the character with Vlad the Second (Vlad the Impaler or Vlad Tepes- pronounced “tepish”, with the accent on the first sylable) but there is evidence that even if this historical character was the basis for Count Dracula, which is likely, Stoker had little actual information about the historical person. Still, his research filled the novel with real places and their mythology and served to ground the character in a sort of verisimilitude.

But Dracula probably wouldn’t have become so memorable simply because of its structure or historical grounding. Stoker’s prose was a big part of the novel. Much gothic horror to this day owes a debt to his lyrical and evocative writing. It is a truly pleasing read and every page drips with atmosphere.

Dracula wasn’t the first vampire novel, but it was the one that all such novels, before and after, would be measured against.

Unlike the assiduous research that Stoker would do for Dracula, Mary Shelley (nee Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) was a nineteen-year-old girl who wrote Frankenstein almost on a dare. The story of the genesis of the novel is almost as famous as the novel itself but some latter day myths have arisen. Mary was basically raised by her father because her mother died not long after her birth, and grew up with an unusual education for a woman at the beginning of the 19th century- seeing such radical thinkers as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Aaron Burr entertained in her home during her formative years. She was widely traveled and took up with poet Percy Bisshe Shelley while he was still married to his first wife. On a summer trip to Geneva, Switzerland in 1816, before their marriage but after the birth of their first child, they found the weather unusually cold due to the eruption of Mount Tambora (1816 is often referred to as the year without a summer) and had to stay inside rather than enjoying normal lakeside summer pastimes. Their additional company consisted of Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori. The result of such educated company and plenty of indoor time was numerous high-minded discussions. One of which turned to the new experiments of Luigi Galvani into animal electricity, or animism.

Galvani had recently caused dismembered frog’s legs to jump by the application of an electric charge. The combination of this line of though and its implications, along with other late-night conversations on the writing of horror fiction, was the genesis of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. On of the myths that has grown around this story is that the group had seen a presentation of Karl Kapek’s play, R.U.R.. and that had spurred Shelley’s creative muse, but even passing research shows that Kapek’s influential work (it’s credited for coining the word “robot”) wasn’t presented until almost a century later. Nevertheless, Shelley was obviously influenced by the new advances of science over mysticism and from that she wrote a novel that has been as influential for our time as any of Shakespeare’s plays.

Comparing the actual novel to the popular zeitgeist of it is enlightening. Shelley was able to tap into themes that would resonate into our world of biotechnology and computer science as well, if not better, than William Gibson would be able to prefigure global corporations, world wide computer networks, and economic feudalism that would occur a mere twenty-five years later. In the book, Victor Frankenstein is a dedicated experimenter trying to unlock the mystery of death- surely the ultimate goal of medical science that we still ascribe to. Unfortunately, as the subtitle The Modern Prometheus foreshadows, he is brought low by his quest to control powers over life and death that only the Gods have dominion over. Isaac Asimov talked at length about the influence of Frankenstein in this aspect. He said that his own novels about robots, which remain the most influential in the realm of artificial intelligence and may go down in history for all time as the most influential with the advent of Honda’s ASIMO robot, were a direct response to both Shelley’s and Kapek’s dour visions of the consequences of making a humaniform intelligence that is both more powerful and smarter than humanity. Shelley was not unkind to the experimenter trying to expand the boundaries of both technology and human longevity. Her Victor Frankenstein is not so much the ‘mad scientist’ of popular wisdom but instead himself a victim of trying to control forces beyond the purview of man. Asimov tried to balance this with his three laws of robotics but latter day movies such as THE TERMINATOR and THE MATRIX show that humans have an unrelenting fear that they may be sowing the seeds of their own destruction in their endless pursuit of technological advancement. Indeed, an entire philosophy had grown up in the computer science community that the next evolutionary step in the history of earth may not be biological, but rather the successor of mankind may be of his own devising.

But as a novel, aside from the themes of unintended consequences and scientific hubris, Frankenstein is not well written. The plot is better than one would know from the movie adaptations that have been made. Most of those give short shrift to Victor Frankenstein’s attempt to do right by his creation and the climactic destruction of his creature and himself in the wastes of the Arctic. But Shelly’s writing is clumsy and the structure of the novel is amateurish. Almost nothing happens as the stage is set for the first four chapters and then in the fifth chapter Victor gathers his implements of life around him and re-animates his creature. For the rest of the novel the reader is constantly presented with poor prose and bad staging. Yet the novel’s themes of the modern Prometheus and the misunderstood monster continue to resonate.

At first glance it would seem that we are obsessed with vampires. They have become our alter egos in a society fixated on youth, beauty, and sex. No longer an undead creature that inspires horror and dread, the vampire has become hero, a creature to be envied, completely selfish, living forever by night in a world of sexual conquest. Not even the real life horror of AIDS is enough to squelch our love of what the vampire has come to represent. There are even groups of people who have taken vampirism as a lifestyle choice. But while twenty-somethings may be having veneers put on their teeth to accentuate their canines you don’t see anyone having bolts surgically implanted into their necks. Nobody wants to be an ugly, misunderstood giant that is hated by people in spite of his gentle soul. But the Frankenstein myth remains frightening in a way that Mary Shelley could never have imagined. We no longer fear reanimated dead flesh but the idea that our technology may be the end of us is more real than ever. The Frankenstein monster has become biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robots and the likelihood that such technologies might cause the end of our civilization or even our species is far greater than the readers of 1818 could have ever imagined.

SCIENCE- Lightning Strikes Twice

Here’s an amazing statistic: of all the people killed by being struck by lightning in the United States between 1995 and 2008, 82% were men! Now, while men have more iron containing molecules in both size and density (men have higher average values of both hemoglobin- the molecule that contains iron and carries oxygen in the blood- and hematocrit- the amount of iron bearing protein per unit volume of blood- in addition to having more blood in total) that’s not the reason they get struck by lightning more often. (And, yes, for those of you paying attention, the reason blood is red is because it’s rusty. The iron in blood combines with oxygen to form iron-oxide. In other words- rust! That’s also why venous blood is blue, the color you think of regular, non-rusty metals as being. It has been deprived of oxygen for use in the cells that blood feeds.) No. The reason most men are struck by lightening by such a wide margin is the same reason they drive fast cars and try to make a lot of money.

And that reason is to get laid.

It seems that the genetic imperative for women is safety. This allows them to care for offspring, since they have a greater reproductive imperative to live so that they can see their children reach adulthood. Children which they have invested nine months in gestation before they are even born. Men, OTOH, have a genetic imperative to impregnate as many mates as possible, so they are far more invested in attracting mates. And that involves impressing women with their bravery. Ergo, men are far more likely to stay out in a little inclement weather rather than show cowardice by running for cover. Thus, they get struck by lightning far more often while pursuing pastimes such as golfing, fishing, and other pursuits where they wave a stick in the air during lightening storms.

Thus men get struck by lightning in a whopping over 4 to 1 ratio to women.

Think about that the next time you are about to bitch that your male co-worker makes more money than you do.

Source- Popular Science, October 2009 issue.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

PERSONAL- Divorce

A quick personal note before launching into a longer, more Halloween-appropriate article.

Sometimes the only way you can know where you’ve been is to get to the end of a journey and turn around. Relationships are often like that. And relationships, like everything else in the universe, are of finite duration. There’s a song I particularly like that was written by Cardew Robinson and Roger Whittaker called The First Hello, The Last Goodbye. The lyrics go:

They say when you gain a lover
You begin to lose a friend
That the end of the beginning’s
The beginning of the end
They say the moment that you’re born
Is when you start to die
And the first time that we said hello
Began our last goodbye

We know each summer’s coming
Means the winter’s waiting there
And gold would not be precious
If we all had gold to spare
You only know how low is low
The first time that you fly
And the first time that we said hello
Began our last goodbye

If I could live forever
It is certain I would never know
Another single second so sublime
At the moment of our meeting
When our hands first touched in greeting
How I wanted to hold back the hands of time

When they begin the overture
They start to end the show
When you said: I’ll never leave you
Then I knew that you would go
The sound of all our laughter
Is now echoed in a sigh
And the first time that we said hello
Began our last goodbye

Yesterday I had to tell the woman who is and forever will be the love of my life that I was divorcing her. It isn’t because I don’t love her. I’m as crazy in love with her as I’ve ever been. But there comes a time when you have to give up. I truly believe that the opposite of love isn’t hate. Love and hate sit too close together. No, the opposite of love is fear. Love is brave enough to be vulnerable, giving for the sheer joy of pleasing, intoxicating as any narcotic, consuming like a fire. Fear is protective, greedy, sober. Love is expansive while fear turns inward. Love throws caution to the wind. Fear is caution when none is needed. Love can be the most painful thing in life. Fear avoids pain at all cost.

I’m not going to go into the specifics of my relationship. But looking back at it as I am now from the end, I do have a graphic representation that pretty much explains why I have to finally give up in spite of all the love I have for her.


No matter how much Charlie Brown loves the idea that Lucy is eventually going to do the right thing, sooner or later he’s going to give up. You can only be lied to so many times.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along-Blog reprise

The Return of Dr. Horrible

I’ve been remiss on the blog at not mentioning the Emmys, or more especially a particular segment of the Emmys. I’ve mentioned Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog here previously. I have to say that my fondness for this little 45 minute musical has only grown in the intervening months. In fact, I’d have to say that it’s probably my favorite thing that I’ve found on the net this year. The songs are catchy and well sung. The performances are spot on. The humor is truly funny (not the sad clown antics of Will Ferrel, the retarded man-child humor of Adam Sandler, or the Charlie Brown shtick of Ben Stiller) and grows naturally out of character and situation. And it makes fun of a few things I hold dear- geek culture* and silly romanticism. If you haven’t seen it yet- Shame On You! Go to the previous link and watch it right now. You’ll be glad you did. And if you have but you missed the Emmys, here is the funniest thing in a very entertaining broadcast (for an awards show).



(For those not in the know, I’ll explain a couple of the geekier jokes. (Hey, explaining the obvious is what this blog is all about!) Fill(Capt. Hammer)ion’s comment about CSI: Miami is because he’s currently starring in a show on another network at the same time. It’s titled Castle and I can’t comment on it because I haven’t seen it. Dr. Horrible actually won the Emmy for “Outstanding Special Class - Short-format Live-Action Entertainment Programs” whatever-the-hell-that-means. (It also won a People’s Choice Award.) “Athletic yet luminous hosts” is NPH (figure it out, couch monkey) referring to himself, the host of the Emmys. And at least two (I don’t know how many you actually see on the net) of the pauses for buffering were in the actual Emmys telecast (it was a joke, see?).

Whedon (apologies for spelling it wrong all over the first post on the subject) has said there will be a sequel and that there might even be a movie. I can only hope, since it’s the best thing he or any of the cast has ever done as far as I’m concerned.

*I had a conversation about the terms “geek” and “nerd” with a good friend a few years ago and realized that even though they have become synonymous in common parlance the actual meanings have somehow reversed. I attribute this to the movie REVENGE OF THE NERDS for some reason that I can’t back up. For the record. Geek is the term for a social outcast with antisocial habits. It comes from carnival geeks who were known for biting the heads off chickens in sideshows. Nerd is a term for someone who is also a social outcast but shows unusual single-minded expertise in science or technology. It was actually invented by Theodor Geisel, also known as Dr. Seuss, in his book “If I Ran the Zoo” published in 1950.

Where else can you get such an encyclopedic knowledge of useless facts? I may not be able to remember my own phone number if asked, but if I’ve read it in a book thirty years ago I’ll never forget it.

POLITICS- The Public Option is Dead; Long Live the Public Option

The Public Option is dead. And the Democrats killed it. Even though it was their idea.

The Democrats have a real problem. In the wake of their recent actions on health care- the destruction of the public option, the protection of the insurance industry by mandates and giving government sanction to the disavowal of claims, and their collusion with big Pharma to make sure their profit margins are protected- this problem is becoming a catastrophe. Simply put, democrats aren’t morons. Republicans have solved this problem by expunging anyone with an IQ higher than their age from their voting block. As a result they can depend on their constituents to do things like support paying bonus money to banking industry thieves in spite of their having decimated both the retirement accounts and the value of the homes of those very supporters. They can expect their voters to riot against a president trying to give them health care because it’s too expensive after spending a decade defending massive spending on insane wars and cutting taxes on the people who profit from the economy most. They can somehow convince their mostly fundamentalist Christian followers that government torture, the very method used to kill their savior, is something to support and glorify while at the same time convincing them that taking care of the common good and including the poorest members of that society- something that very savior espoused at length- is the height of evil.

If only the Democrats could have enlisted the dumbest people in the country to their side first!

But unfortunately they didn’t. And unfortunately they took power and decided that they could continue with business as usual, the exact same business the Republicans are engaged with, of selling our government to the wealthy and powerful. I guess they thought that the people who elected them were exactly as blind to their own expectations and best interests as the Republican supporters at the tea parties. They thought that their supporters wouldn’t notice that, in spite of having a majority and then a supermajority, they weren’t really interested in passing the very legislation they had run on. (Hey, the Republicans have been running on things like prayer in schools and criminalization of abortion for decades without having anyone realize they never did squat about either.) They thought that their members would be willing to accept piss poor legislation that didn’t fix anything but instead only solidified the status quo rather than losing to the ‘other side’. (After all, the Republicans had called gutting industry air pollution mandates the “Clean Skies Initiative” and passed huge health care giveaways to big Pharma, in spite of their small government talk, as the Medicare Drug Benefit.) Ah yes. The shuck and jive that the Republicans had sold for years was the way they thought they’d deal with health care, blaming the other side for everything while they screwed their own supporters deeper and harder then ever, and that nobody would notice that their calls for bipartisanship were merely a plea for the Republicans to bail them out of having to do what they had said.

But unfortunately for the Democrats, their supporters aren’t brainless nitwits who are motivated by the same kind of fervor that allows sports fans to support teams in their home towns in spite of decades of disappointment. Their supporters aren’t religious zealots who have abandoned reason in favor of the same understanding of the natural world as desert dwellers 4000 years ago. The majority of citizens who elected the Democrats those few short months ago aren’t committed to the party and it’s current members the way Southern bigots are committed to hating the fags, blacks, and uppity women they feel the other party is comprised of. No, the democrats won because so many Americans were tired of being lied to while their democratic government acted as if they had been appointed by the Plutocrats who were making campaign contributions.

We aren’t any less tired of it now, Democrats. And we aren’t going to support you no matter how badly you serve our interests. Too bad.

The current state of the two parties are like the Pepsi Challenge- choose between two worthless products that are bad for your health and will take your teeth if you let them.

MOVIES- Pauline Kael

In case you aren’t a student of film history, Pauline Kael was one of the most influential critics of film in its history. She came on the scene just as film was entering a period as the dominant American art form, writing for bastions of American literary tradition such as McCalls, The New Republic, and The New Yorker magazine. She attempted to bring film criticism to the level of criticism of literature or art- a scholarly examination of a creator’s attempt to create art that was complexly satisfying. In fact, she lost her job at McCalls for panning the saccharine THE SOUND OF MUSIC as the high fructose corn syrup that it was long before the chemical sweetener had become a staple of the American diet. She would inspire latter day critics such as Roger Ebert that film criticism might actually elevate the art form, and was no doubt an influence on Gary Groth when he founded The Comics Journal to do the same thing to a new medium that he loved.

I’ve been reading abridged versions of Pauline Kael’s movie reviews for the last two nights and I have to say that, in spite of her historical importance, based solely on her writing, she makes a good example of why film critics are considered both superfluous and irritating more often than enlightening. Getting past the New Yorker’s wildly pretentious style (and even though she was criticized for being ‘too lowbrow’ for the magazine- how times have changed!), her reviews of movies that have stood the test of time are rooted deeply in the periods of her life when she was in touch with the zeitgeist- the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. But as she grows older she gets more and more out of step with the culture and thus the art of movies until one has to wonder if she’s just an anachronism that has burned out on cinema, or an old woman who was a bitch to start with and has grown crabbier and crabbier with age. Perhaps the point of no return was Renata Alder’s review of her compilation of reviews When the Lights Go Down in which it was said that her work after the 1960’s contained "nothing certainly of intelligence or sensibility," In typical faux revolutionary obsequence to fallen idols, Salon.com derided this twenty years later. Obviously without looking at the reviews in question.

The straw that broke the camel’s back (and drove me to write this) was a phrase in her review of John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982): “Carpenter seems indifferent to whether we can tell the characters apart; he apparently just wants us to watch the apocalyptic devastation.” It seems almost impossible to believe that someone who spent their life watching and writing about movies could make such a completely oblivious statement. It’s almost like she wrote the review without seeing the movie.

The other thing that leaps out about Kael’s reviews is that there are damn few movies she likes. It’s the writing of a deeply cynical person, and that’s coming from someone who usually considers cynicism a virtue. Not so much in this case. Reading her reviews makes one think of music criticism written by someone who’s tone deaf or reading literary critique by someone who had their love of books quashed by spending too many years studying them in college. She sees sarcasm where none was intended. And she sometime misses the entire point of a movie. The irony is that she’s a caricature of movie critics herself. She decries bad writing while her writing is clumsy to the point of being almost indecipherable. She faults directors while exhibiting almost no narrative flow in her own prose. She, for fuck’s sake, can’t tell that John Carpenter spent almost the first hour of THE THING trying to establish the characters before the real monster shenanigans started! Yet she calls the 1951 version “wonderfully well staged” and “naturalistic”. Yeah. James Arness, Sheriff Matt Dillon for over twenty years on the television show GUNSMOKE dressed as a giant space potato is “naturalistic”.

Putting all that aside, there are movie insights here. Kael spent her life living in Hollywood and writing about movies, and obviously has an excellent education in literary criticism. She rightly intuits that The World According to Garp is about mutilation rather than sex (either the act or the gender). Instead of fawning over the scope of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns she comments that the director can’t do anything else- even scenes shot in small 19th century hotel rooms look cavernous, as if they were cathedrals (something parodied, whether knowingly or unconsciously in the first indoor scenes of Tarentino’s GLORIOUS BASTERDS). She acknowledges that the main cinematic idea in George Lucas’ STAR WARS was pace rather than special effects. She spots Mel Brooks YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN as being far more coherent than BLAZING SADDLES and thus Brooks’ best comedy. (And I’ll give her props for at least realizing that David Lynch’s movie ERASERHEAD is about a man’s sexual history, something many people who see the admittedly obtuse movie often miss). True, she did champion some movies that later were understood to be seminal- Altman’s NASHVILLE and MASH and Walter Hills THE WARRIORS, but truthfully I have to say that after reading a couple hundred reviews I was left with almost no new ideas about the movies she reviewed or movies in general.

There are basically two kinds of movie reviewers: those who simply recommend a movie because they liked it or didn’t (unfortunately most, your friends included), and those who attempt to illuminate a creator’s vision by expanding on themes and uncovering connections not obviously apparent. The former are usually disdained by the very people they write for as being unnecessary and irritating, since their readers are trying to decide what movie to see and probably already have a pretty good idea what they think they’ll like. And because their reviews are padded by plot summaries and rarely contain more than passing reference to what the movie actually has to offer since they are hobbled by not being able to discuss anything that might actually be interesting in the movie for fear of giving it away- the SPOILER ALERT syndrome. The latter are best read after having actually seen the movie. Like literary criticism, they are a discussion of a work, not a recommendation of it. Plot summaries have no place in this kind of reviewing, if you are unfamiliar with the work then the review probably won’t mean anything to you. The two are as different as telling a friend to go to a movie and having a conversation with a friend just after you’ve seen a movie together. Kael falls firmly into the second category, but falls with such a splat that one wonders if her impact was due more to her magazine’s importance that her own.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

PERSONAL- A Late Night Alone: Three Songs

A late night alone. I sit in a favorite chair, one that has held me so many times that has learned my shape well enough for us to blur together. The lights are off. And in the dark the music coils around me like wafting smoke. I can look inward, into the depths of my soul, and outward, to the heights of infinity.

Once during an interview Mick Fleetwood said that he and John McVie used to stand in the wings and cry every night while Christine sang this song. It’s easy to see why.



Life is sweet. I’ve never understood people who say that hell is here on earth. Someday not too far away, I’ll be gone. I want this song played at my funeral. This rendition is especially sweet. James and Carly were still very much in love when it was done.



And as usual, Steely Dan has said it better than I ever could. Looking back on life you can’t help but think about the things you miss. Fagan and Becker realize that talk comes before sex and that cars and houses are nice but the bridge reminds us that looking back and having loved someone completely, even if “by morning she was gone” makes life worth living.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

PERSONAL- The Nail That Sticks Up

I’ve just finished reading John Scalzi’s articles for AMC back to the beginning of the year and I highly recommend them to anyone who is interested in fantastic films or the ramblings of a great Sci-fi author. As usual I was “late to the boom” in becoming aware of Scalzi, but that’s OK because it allowed me to pick up his first three books all at once. Since I read far faster then most people write (and who doesn’t?) this gave me almost a week of Scalzigasm as an introduction, and I’ve been a fan ever since. His novel Old Man’s War is as good as it gets in Sci-fi, an interesting premise, memorable characters, scattered insight into both military culture and life itself, and a plausible universe if you can believe the incredible luck of the protagonist. The follow-up novels weren’t quite as good, but it’s a rare work that is. Nevertheless, finding a new author who writes in classical SF style so well is always a treat and Scalzi was that.

Just like his blog (one of the older and most read on the net), his column for AMC bounces around a lot, but no matter what the subject he’s entertaining and thoughtful. A few of the better columns deal with things like what makes a Sci-fi movie Sci fi, why 3-D movies don’t work, some of the EPIC FAIL in the design of the STAR WARS and STAR TREK universes, and even a Father’s Day scorecard of SF fathers (titled Who’s Your Daddy? and including an evaluation of Darth Vader’s parenting skills).

But while the AMC column is fun and lighthearted, it’s a particular entry on his blog that is the kind of thing that endears him to me. “Being Poor” is a blog entry that everyone, simply EVERYONE, should read.

Read it now, I’ll wait.

No really, READ IT!

I know all about being poor. When I was nine years old my mother finally left my alcoholic, abusive father; bundling up my seven year old brother and me and taking us to a different state in the middle of the night. It isn’t exaggerating to say that everything in my life changed. I went from living in a big city to living in a small town. I went from a predominantly black neighborhood to a place where black people were almost nonexistent. I went from being a child prodigy who had been tagged to be in the first group of students to go to an experimental school for advanced children to being placed in a class for developmentally challenged children when the officials at my new school misunderstood my mother’s explanation of the “special” school I was supposed to go to. But the biggest change was that I went from being a middle class kid to being poor.

When you are a kid for the most part such things don’t mean that much. The world is what it is and you don’t make fine distinctions. But even given that, it’s hard not to notice when you go from being a little bit better off financially than most of the kids you go to school with to barely having enough to eat and sometimes not having that. And, no doubt, the change was exacerbated by the southern small-town culture that I found myself in. In a small town everybody knows everybody and in the south everybody knows where they fit in the social hierarchy. Being poor and without a father in the home back then got me labeled as “white trash” immediately. I noticed it right away the first time I walked into the local 5 &10 cent store. The wizened crones that served as clerks only had two questions for me. “What fer ya, boy?” and “Who’s yer daddy?”. This was the same store that had been the highlight of my summer vacations every year when we visited my mother’s family. You see, this dime store had a table full of comic books with the covers half torn off that they sold for 5 cents each, and every year my father would take me there and let me pick out all the comics I wanted, which would then be hidden away in my parent’s closet until Christmas. But after my parents split up the store was different. Now I wasn’t buying a dollar or two worth of comics with my father watching. Now I was a poor kid who would pour through the pile trying to find which of books was worth the investment of my lone nickel or dime, watched over the whole time as if at any point I might suddenly scoop up an armload of the precious (presumed destroyed) books and bolt from the store, thus plunging it into financial ruin.

But the biggest change in my life wasn’t my new caloric intake or even my presumption of guilt whenever I walked across the threshold of a local merchant. The biggest change in my life was at school.

Even after the mistake of putting me with the “slow” children was rectified (a mistake that, looking back on it, was probably abetted by my mother also having to register my brother, who was profoundly mentally retarded, at the same time) (and, yah, we called it “retarded” back then) I was still never looked at the same way again. Luckily the people teaching the “special” class were a married couple of graduate students working on their PhD’s in education who caught on in a couple of days. It took me a week to confront one of them and ask what was going on (I’d been raised to respect my elders but by that time I knew that either some kind of mistake had been made or all the stereotypes I’d heard about inbred southern morons were horribly true). They administered a series of tests and soon my mother was faced with the idea that they wanted me to skip to the 10th grade. Rightly or wrongly, mom figured that I was dealing with enough culture shocks without suddenly finding myself with kids five years older than I was, so she vetoed this plan and I was moved to a regular fifth grade class. But being poor still was what most of my teachers saw.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Fall of Empire- America as Rome- Talking to the Police

The other day at work I had a particularly stupid woman say to me that she wasn't worried about the government looking into her private life. She had nothing to worry about because "I've never done anything wrong." You have to realize that this woman is someone who believes that the world was created in six twenty-four hour days, thinks that a hotel she stayed in once near the equator proves corolis force because two sinks in her bathroom drained different ways, and has been a nurse for over thirty years without knowing what the different sounds a lung makes on auscultation are. The infuriating thing about this moron is that she talks to everyone in a condescending tone without realizing that she is little more than an idiot. Making what Harlan Ellison said about arrogant stupidity all the more relivant.

("There's nothing worse than arrogant stupidity;
arrogance you can tolerate,idiocy you can get around,
outsmart,
but both together are inscrutable," he said.)

I've debunked her ideas about coralis force by siting Snopes.com without depending on the common sense argument (Common sense is not so common.- Voltare) that her two hotel sinks would have to straddle the equator perfectly to display such a thing even if the laws of centrifugal force didn't apply. I've read medical texts to her about lung sounds only to be told that the words "didn't mean that" even though they were plain. Yet here I am again trying to reason with a person who is, obviously, immune to logic. Thus is the fate of someone with more than a high-school-dropout mentality attempting to live in modern America. Every day you have to "suffer fools gladly" in spite of the fact that they are FOOLS.

But on the subject that innocent people are protected by our American system, I defer to a person who is far more aquainted with the workings of the law than I am. Here is what a law professor has to say about talking to the police. Listen to it and remember it if you have any dealings with the law. I've been a police officer and I can tell you that if you think the cops are looking for the guilty you are as naive and gullible as my friend at work.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

WTF- Anti-corporatism, District 9, the Economic Meltdown, Basic Math, and Matt Taibbi. Kitchen Sink Optional.

Another brief moment on District 9, but not really. Actually this is something I rarely do, that popular blog format- the point by point snipe. But it isn’t actually that either. It’s just that something reviewer Daniel Engber wrote in his review of District 9 for Slate.com well and truly pissed me off:

And so the film abandons any pretense of exploring the dynamics of social upheaval. Instead we're treated to yet another take on the evils of corporatism. Could there be a more egregious sci-fi cliché? In Moon we had Lunar Industries Ltd.; in Wall-E it was Buy N Large; Blade Runner featured the Tyrell Corp. And let's not forget the executives from the bio-weapons division of Weyland-Yutani, who cause all the carnage in Aliens.

It's a little odd, if you think about it, that District 9—and the whole sci-fi genre—should be so hung up on this one issue. Especially since creatures that arrive from another planet so clearly stand in for humans who arrive from another country: space aliens, illegal aliens. On the io9 blog, Charlie Jane Anders has argued that the archetypes of science-fiction are refugees; indeed, a long list of sci-fi novels explore the theme of immigration in great detail.

Duh! Most Golden Age SF was written by Jews and the genre emerged just before and after the second world war. How oblivious can Mr. Engber be?

Film directors, too, have in the past used stories of marooned aliens to examine race relations (e.g. Brother From Another Planet, Alien Nation) and assimilation (e.g. The Man Who Fell to Earth, Superman). Yet recent sci-fi cinema continues to dwell on the corporate menace.”

Obviously the answer to my previous questions is: completely. Personally, I don’t find anything odd at all that SF is interested in corporatism. Corporations as they exist in the modern world are a virtually unparalleled organization in human history. Huge completely amoral social structures, without geographic boundaries, immensely influential and wealthy, often more powerful than governments, with no motive other than avarice, and a organizational structure which is basically a meritocracy where merit consists of being Machiavellian in the pursuit of personal ambition and power.

In fact, it seems that if corporations didn’t exist, SF would have had to invent them.

Corporate intrigue really hit mainstream SF with the advent of Cyberpunk. There had been cautionary tales of large business interests in SF before that- Cyril Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl’s classic The Space Merchants pretty much laid the groundwork for the idea that business interests would surpass both government and religion as the dominant organizational structure in human society. But with Cyberpunk, corporations became a SF staple right along with space travel, aliens, and technological advancement. It makes perfect sense. Corporatism has that wonderful Frankenstein monster duality that drama depends on. As technology becomes more complex it requires more resources to improve that technology. Yet as society progresses we expect government (naively) to become more responsive to the citizenry. Thus we become caught in a catch-22 of high-tech capitalism requiring decisive innovative organization while high-tech democracy requires more slow moving bureaucracy. In a Darwinian sense it’s easy to see why the natural selection of the marketplace, which reassesses feedback four times a year, would result in more powerful social organizations than government which are naturally and contrivedly resistant to change even in a democracy.

The result seems to be the system we currently find ourselves in. I haven’t commented for awhile on what Matt Taibbi has been writing in Rolling Stone over the last two months but it is the most cogent and clear explanation of the economic situation over the last 12 months that I’ve found. If I were to consider myself a diminutive Diogenes, Taibbi is perhaps the last honest man I’ve found in the media. He is non-partisan, hellishly smart, unrelenting in his pursuit of a story, and perhaps the funniest writer anywhere in the mainstream media. He often gets compared to Hunter S. Thompson and rails against the comparison. And for good reason. He may be as funny and irreverent as Thompson, but what he is practicing isn’t gonzo journalism- it’s real journalism. It’s just that in our Pepsi drinking, McDonalds eating, GAP wearing, plastic culture, where real debate is ignored and faux debate is ubiquitous, where “news” reporting has the same relationship to real news that the WWF has to real sport, he’s an oddity. Someone who looks deep into the world and reports on what he sees and is flabbergasted that his society is so completely stupid and gullible.

A couple of months ago he wrote an article for Rolling Stone that pretty much laid out one (just ONE) aspect of how the government came to give so much of the American population’s money to a few obscenely rich private organizations for no reason other than that they were a big part of the status quo that is turning this country into a slave state. Since then he’s been shouted down by any number of corporate shills (slate rears it's ugly head again- who says there aren't callbacks in my writing?) defending Goldman Sachs for both infiltrating our government and taking TRILLIONS of dollars out of taxpayer’s pockets. Now it looks like Taibbi may resemble that character in DISTRICT 9 awaiting trial for revealing his company's illegal business.

A democracy cannot stand without an informed electorate. And the lack of basic math skills in America is apalling. Here is a short primer of what you are being told without realizing it:

There are about 330 million people in the US.

An average family consists of 4 people.

So there are 82.5 million American families.

A trillion dollars is a thousand billion dollars. And a billion is a thousand million dollars. So a trillion is a million million. (Yeah, I know this is stupid, but what are you going to do?)

So every time you hear the word trillion, if you are a member of the average America family needs to think, “They just used TWELVE THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY ONE of my dollars.

That’s right but even that may be a little abstract. So instead, every time you hear trillion on the news remember that your family just bought somebody a 2008 Honda Accord!

(Look it up on kbb.com, the Kelly Blue Book site. I put in parameters for several cars and was non-plussed that last year’s Accord, at the base level, with 60,000 miles (as my top number- basically unlimited mileage on a one year old car), in good shape, resulted in about 13 thousand dollars. It seems a wildly low number. But OTOH I have a confession to make. I’m a middle-aged single man who makes what I consider a decent living and I can’t understand how an average American family lives on 50K a year with kids in school and cell phones for everybody. So I sure can’t realize how our government indebts every family for a year old Honda Accord for every trillion dollars they spend when the average family can’t afford to DRIVE year old Honda Accords.)

Anyway, a trillion dollars is every American family buying a car for somebody who already has more money than they could ever dream of. Last I heard, 50% of the wealth in this country is now controlled by the top 1% of the population. It is nothing short of obscene feudalism. And of all the corporate media, I’ve found only Matt Taibbi and a couple of others with the wavos to call our “representatives” out on it. Read his articles. Read his blog on True/Slant. He’s trying to clue you in.

Anyway, we’ve traveled far and wide in this post. And that’s why this blog has degenerated to movie reviews and random insaneness. The world is a complex place. And to really examine the problems in it takes complexity. A blog may not be the format for that and there may not be any place for it in an America that not only thinks there are simple answers to complex questions but can’t understand complex answers in the first place. Who knows. Matt is trying and SF continues to present cautionary tales of our own excess.

Next: facts about health care and the best superhero movie ever made.

Stay tuned…

Monday, August 17, 2009

MOVIES- District 9 Review


ALIVE IN JOBURG- Neill Blomkamp’s original short film


Bookending the Summer Sci-Fi Sweepstakes, DISTRICT 9 presents a counterpoint to STAR TREK’s optimism and shiny, polished Starfleet Academy 90210 story with a gritty, documentary style action film. Also, ironically, DISTRICT 9 tries to give lip service to the kind of allegorical SF that the Star Trek television show was famous for but the movie didn’t bother with. Unfortunately the lip service is brief. Contrary to a lot of the early buzz, the movie isn’t really about apartheid, first contact with aliens, soulless corporate avarice, the similarities between black market commerce and the legal kind, or any of the other issues touched on. Because the only thing the movie does is touch them while it’s on it’s way to a conventional man-on-the-run-from-the-law plotline. The first twenty minutes are excellent, evoking the feeling of a sympathy for the prejudice against the aliens while still making them seem unreasonably downtrodden. But as soon as the plot gets rolling the mood is buried under a hail of shell casings. It’s not an uncommon flaw in low budget SF. Children of Men also established an interesting SF premise only to abandon it for the sake of making a chase movie. So I guess I can’t gripe too much about it. You have to take a movie on its own terms.

And as an action film DISTRICT 9 is pretty damn good. Neill Blomkamp does a fine job in his feature film directorial debut. The movie is exciting and you don’t really know what to expect next. Yeah, there are a number of silly plot holes (when you are framing an employee, making him the most wanted man in the city, remember to revoke his access to your top-secret lab) and some tired SF cliches (the magic of CGI still hasn’t liberated imaginations from humanoid aliens and if I see one more giant robot in a movie this summer I’m going to scream), but it also has some nice touches (I especially liked the blurb about one interviewee awaiting trial for revealing his company’s illegal experiments) and the pace never slows down. The token attempts to give the movie a little heart to go with all the carnage come off more as jokes than pathos, but Sharlto Copley does an excellent job of transitioning his character from an inept bureaucrat to a desperate man on the run who is literally losing everything, even his humanity. And what the hell, you really came to see people explode like water balloons dropped from the Trump Tower when hit by a lightning bolt from an alien weapon anyway, didn’t you?

So if you’re looking for serious SF that makes thoughtful statements about apartheid with aliens in the role of the oppressed minority, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you want a popcorn movie that has some great special effects and cool Ratchet and Clank weapons then line up and buy a ticket.

TELEVISION- The Most Common Things in the Universe are Hydrogen and Irony

Apparently there is actually a television program where teen-aged girls seduce older men online and get them to come to their house where the men are then publicly embarrassed on television and then arrested.

And it’s called Dateline.

Which I think is also the name of a local singles hotline I occasionally see advertised on late night television.

Can anybody confirm this?

Friday, August 14, 2009

MUSIC- Big Noise, New York

I found Steely Dan at about the same time I found David Cronenberg and William S. Burroughs. I became a believer in synchronicity immediately. Sure, I had been aware of their hit songs while in high school, but while I admired the artistry of songs like Hey, Nineteen, Gaucho, Do It Again, Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number, and Josie, it was at a dance at a friends house that I really turned on to them for the first time. Peg had everything a pop song should have and that includes the depth to make a music geek take notice. I owned a few records but the release of their catalogue on CD was a tipping point. Rarely has popular music demanded the clarity of digital reproduction, but digital masters of Steely Dan’s music revealed myriad nuances. Since then I’ve owned everything they’ve done, introduced every musically inclined friend to their music, and seen them live at Fiddler’s Green in Denver (annoying the poor people in front of me by singing along to every song). Becker and Fagen are sublime, together or apart, like Lennon and McCartney or Elton John and Bernie Tauplin. A musical duo with catchy tunes and real chops.

So I found this on YouTube and nowhere else. I would love to buy the track but can’t find it anywhere for sale. Such is the power of the internet to enhance old business models. There are several chord progressions that are reminiscent of other Fagen tunes here, but the song is still great.

Enjoy.





Since you left me darling
The city doesn't feel right
On the street the music stopped
And the light seem half as bright
Without your love
This old town's no fun at all
Without your love
I only hear the loudest voices
The one's with something new to sell
And now it's all
Big talk, big name, big noise, new york

I walk from the river to west broadway
Every stranger spoke your name
Every sign read 'yesterday'
Without your love

This old town's no fun at all
Without your love
I only see the drifting shadows
Of the losers and the lost
And now it's all
Big talk, big name, big noise, new york

There was a time
When the night was just for dancing
Till the sun rose over the skyline
But now you're gone
And the fear of winter grows
Just a place where the money flows
And there never was a springtime

Another season begins fast and loud
It's supposed to be a party
But to me, it's just a crowd

Without your love
This old town's no fun at all
Without your love
I'm left with all the memories darling
Of words I thought were true
But it was all
Big talk, big name, big noise, new york
Well, it was all
Big talk, big name, big noise, new york

Addendum on 08152010- the original video was taken down so here's another that preserves the song without the wonderful video made by a fan. Unfortunately, the internet can only route around so much censorship as damage. Every immune system eventually succumbs.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

MOVIES- A Serious (Man) Trailer

Ah, the Coen Brothers. Undoubtedly the most innovative and versatile directors working in film today. Is there a genre they haven’t turned upside-down and inside-out? They’ve made cult films (Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski), comedies (Raising Arizona, Burn Before Reading, The Ladykillers), Musicals (O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?), modern westerns (No Country For Old Men), crime dramas (Fargo, Miller’s Crossing), modern satire (Intolerable Cruelty), and period pieces (The Hudsucker Proxy). About the only thing they haven’t done is a Science Fiction story (unless you count The Man Who Wasn’t There) or had a movie that falls neatly into any of those genres (Hudsucker is comedy, No Country and Blood Simple are crime drama, Lebowski is modern satire, O’ Brother is period, etc.) There are only a few filmmakers who are able to stamp their films with a signature that is easily identifiable without resorting to certain stylistic mannerisms. To be unique, identifiable, and somehow completely different in each film seems impossible. Yet the Coen brothers manage it again and again. You might be able to connect Arizona with O’ Brother, or even Hudsucker. You might think that Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and No Country were all made by the same creators. The connection between Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There might be obvious. But to think all these movies were made by the same two people simply boggles the imagination.

There has simply never been a filmmaker like the Coen brothers. (And if you think I messed up the tense of the verb then simply watch the interviews with cast and crew on their disks. The most common statement is that they seem to be two people with the same mind.)

So now we come to the trailer for their next film- A Serious Man. Like most of the trailers for their films you come away with a feeling for the film but no idea what it’s going to be like or about. Just enjoy a preview that doesn’t telegraph every important plot point (as so many trailers made by merchandising departments do nowadays) and stands on its own as a little piece of cinema verite.

Personally, I can’t wait.