Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural Appropriation.

Bloody folkies.

Actually, it's surprisingly funky for such small instruments. I can see my dream of hearing She Watch Channel Zero played by massed comb-and-paper orchestra is not all that far off.

See via Power Pop.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Good At Words

Your Vocabulary Score: A

Congratulations on your multifarious vocabulary!
You must be quite an erudite person.

And I didn't look *any* of them up on the internet while I was taking the test.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

1st Ballardian Festival of Home Movies

I don't actually have a cellphone. Well, I do - someone gave me an old one to sit in the car's glove compartment, since by law they have to be able to call the emergency services even after they're disconnected. It's a minimal, residual function. I've just never had the urge to phone people. No, really, I'm not making that up.

But phoning people is pretty much the smallest thing these units now do. Cellphone - or mobile - is now a misnomer for the article, almost as outdated as its legacy terms ring and dial. They now live on the internet, with a terminal flashing blue in your ear, a connection between the cyber world and your local sensory apparatus.

They also do something much stranger and conceptually unphonelike. They film short movies. I have no idea why. Videophones are an old Skiffy tradition, but cellphones don't do the central function of a Blade Runner-style videophone, which is to show you to the person you're calling and the person you're calling to you. Instead, their cameras face outwards, at the world you're observing. (Or would be observing, if you weren't looking at your phone.) You film that vista in front of you, and then you send it to someone.

To whom?

Simon Sellars at the estimable Ballardian website, of course. He is currently running a Ballardian Festival of Home Movies competition. He wants your Ballardian cellphone movies. By that, he means ones which in some way address the adjective Ballardian, which the Collins English Dictionary defines as:

BALLARDIAN: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (J.G. Ballard; born 1930), the British novelist, or his works. (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

The competition is sponsored by HarperCollins, which means there are prizes. See for details.

I won't be entering. There's a clue to why I won't be in this blog post. The first person to work it out wins a free appearance in my comments section.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

EW Gets All Medieval on Sci-fi's Ass.

Entertainment Weekly – one of the two print magazines I subscribe to – has an article about SF, or as they call it in Hollywood, Sci-fi.

Apparently, Sci-fi is dead (again):

What movie genre is most in need of a savior as the New Year begins? For once, the answer isn't the musical … Instead, let's turn our attention to an unlikely candidate for a heart-and-brain transplant: science fiction.

Sci-fi is in trouble, though it's not the kind of trouble that can be measured at the box office, where it looks as healthy and robust as a T. rex must have seemed five minutes before it realized that there was nothing left to eat. The genre has been around for as long as the movies themselves, and flourished for the last 30 years. The problem is, none of the ideas are getting any newer.

Scratch that: The problem is, there are no ideas.

It goes on to explain that the current big Sci-fi hit is I Am Legend, based on a 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, Alien vs. Predator is a paradigm in its twenties, Battlestar Galactica is from the 70's and the Christmas DVD hit Blade Runner is from 1982, and based on a Philip K Dick novel which is even older.

It's all true, but I can't help thinking that it's not Sci-fi's …I'm sorry, they've got me at it now…I mean SF's problem. I've read some good brand-new books over the past couple of years and none of them was about Will Smith fighting aliens or outlasting the end of the world. You couldn't ask for a more movie-adaptable novel than Charles Stross' Glasshouse, with its middle section set in a prison that is a simulation of family life in the 1950's. What with the Fyoocher and Leave It To Beaver in there, it's IDEAL Hollywood fodder. John Scalzi's Old Man's War has all the Starship Troopers' jolly-ups in there along with a few new twists and some clever insights. His The Android's Dream has interplanetary politics, aliens, spaceships and a fart joke. Peter Watts' Blindsight might be a bit difficult for Hollywood, since it's about the limitations of consciousness in studying the phenomenon of consciousness, [1] but it has a kick-ass chase sequence and a bunch of bizarre aliens in it, so that should go over well. Then there was Robert Charles Wilson's Spin, a Hugo Winner in 2006, about aliens and threats to the Earth and all that stuff, but centered on a family; Ken McLeod's Hugo Nominated Learning the World, about mankind's colonists arriving at a new planet – a first contact story – of exceptional subtlety and imagination.

If Hollywood's out of Sci-fi ideas, it should try reading some SF, because there appear to be some floating around in there.

[1] Today's LA Times has an op-ed article on the study of consciousness that is so undergraduate in nature that any attempt to cover it in film has to be better. What the hell does "the brain is the most complicated object in the known universe" even mean? Scratch the undergraduate. It's a high school op ed piece.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Honing Our Sithly Hate of The Creator.

The last couple of posts have been about the internet's exciting way of keeping despair alive by ensuring that no won argument ever stays won, and no unwinnable argument ever goes away, because it provides fresh clueless to join the fray as fast as older hands disappear.

A very specialized form of internet argument is the endless kvetching about a Fandom issue. As a Star Wars fan, I have participated in many of these myself. Why, I daresay at once point I might myself have been clueless and posted crap about Star Wars. I'm sure it's dropped off the end of the internet now though. These posts have a finite lifespan, right? Right?

Most of my Star Wars obsessions centered around Darth Vader (Sithly good guy, before the revisionist prequels made him out to be a good guy, after which I was less interested), and Queen Amidala. See, most people could not see why such a strong character should eventually just, like, die of lack of will to live, while giving birth to twins who might have presented, y'know, some slight reason to live on a bit longer. (The dialogue makes it explicit that there's nothing physically wrong with her.) Whereas I found it perfectly reasonable that she should die at the same instant as her husband Anakin. The fact that he immediately took another breath as the newly-created Lord Vader didn't disprove that to me - in fact it added fuel to my belief. Clearly they died together, as is entirely appropriate in a sacred marriage of that kind.

Possibly Lord Vader did kill her, as his master Palpatine said. Perhaps he sucked the last drops of her will to live for his own needs.

It wasn't a popular viewpoint. The popular viewpoint was that she was a wimp. We had an argument about it. Most people thought Lucas sucked by making a strong female character into a wimp, and were very vocal about it.

An article in Jive Magazine was pointed out to me today, which reminded me how much everybody hated Star Wars, particularly Star Wars fans, who hate it more than any non-fan possibly could.

It begins:

Star Wars fans hate Star Wars.
The primary fulcrum for the Star Wars fan’s hate (including my own) is George Lucas, creator of Star Wars. Unlike Trekkies/Trekkers who adore Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, Star Wars fans hate the father of their obsession. We hate the fact that George Lucas got it wrong from the beginning, creating incest between Luke and Leia. We hate the fact that he wrenched Return of the Jedi off of Kashyyyk and set it on Endor with those tiny, furry Hobbit bitches he called “Ewoks”, which is a syllabic anagram of Wookiee if you’re obsessed enough. We despise the entire existence of literally half of the Star Wars movies, blaming George Lucas’ greed and flawed ‘vision’ for everything.
We believe George Lucas’ ideal death time was 2:07am, 14 November, 1990.

And it goes on from there, to detail exactly why we hate it so much. It inexplicably leaves out the bit about Queen Amidala being a wimp at the end, or indeed anything about how much female Star Wars fans hate George Lucas for not having any strong women characters in the movies (except Princess Leia, Queen Amidala, half the Jedi, Aunt Beru, Shmi Skywalker and Mon Mothma who don't count for reasons I've forgotten but are very important). Otherwise, it's a fun introduction to the topic of Star Wars hate by Star Wars fans.

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (DVD)

Today's movie had the unpromising title Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? It turned out to be a documentary about an elderly female truck driver who bought a painting from a thrift store for $5 and her efforts to convince the art world that she has a genuine Jackson Pollock.

The documentary is straightforward enough, avoiding any sly innuendo or in-your-face opinions. It just recounts her story, the testimony of forensic experts who verified the painting, the opinions of a master forger - and the art world's rejection of the picture because it has no "provenance" (a written history of where it has been since the 1940s).

Although it appears to take no sides, it works as a high-impact revelation of the class structure in the US. It's pretty plain that the millionaire art dealers and the Harvard educated art experts are NOT going to buy a painting from a truck driver who lives in a trailer, for reasons which are nothing at all to do with the picture and are entirely concerned with trailer living vs. millionairing. One of the final scenes, where the owner sits in a Veterans of Foreign Wars bar drinking Bud and eating KFC with her working class friends as her son plays a C&W ballad based on the saga of her painting, is a Studs Terkel-like moment in capturing a class in a few words and images.

Sorry, lady, the film says. You're not one of us. Get lost and take your matching-fingerprints-in-the-paint and matching-paint-flakes "forensic proof" with you. Who are you going to believe, the man wearing a thousand-dollar suit or your own lying eyes?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Groundhog Day/ Internet Discussions

Yesterday I posted about the perpetual internet discussions, which like Douglas Adams' perpetual party, stay in flight forever, despite the death or brain damage of the older participants, simply by kidnapping new ones to carry on the tradition.

I read the latest installment of one today, and came across the official name for it – apparently not Lyle Hopwood's Douglas Adam's Style Internet Forever War, or whatever I called it. It's called Groundhog Day. Do you remember the movie? Each day the man wakes up to the same day over again, unable to escape until he gets it right.

After about six years of sporadic discussion on one particular board, the topic of Led Zeppelin and S*t*nism came up again - for about the twenty-fifth time. People were polite. Many were well-informed. Things were going fine for the first few weeks and then a new person posted:

i saw a website once where they played songs backwards to reveal "hidden messages" and they had stairway on their. i listened and personally heard nothing but it was supposedly about how they "liked s*t*n" or something. total bs but if you want to hear it just google backm*sking and stairway and it should come up somewhere.

Then the official seen-it-all-before person posted:

Isn't it time something was included on the Rules of the Board to avoid this? I realise some people think it's new, but with a little guidance, they could be much better informed and less likely to create an unwanted Groundhog Day feeling.

And the official meta-seen-it-all-before person, which is to say one who had seen the previous person's stance before, posted:

While I completely sympathize, I'm glad there isn't. I've been on boards with similar rules and they invariably come of as extremely cliqueish and hostile to new members.

Bonus! It's also a meta discussion in another way! Because it's not even a discussion on Led Zeppelin and S*t*nism, but a discussion on how to react to a discussion on Led Zeppelin and S*t*nism.

In between, an officially hadn't-seen-this-all-before person posted:

If it's okay with everyone, I'd like this to be the final word on the subject…[blah blah blah]

Hah! You'll be lucky.
It's not possible to explain the tedium of one of these discussions without being tedious, although it is possible to convey the excitement of being the new person to the discussion who just happens to have the right answer. And the burning need to post it now, to show all your new friends your chops. So, if you happen to be a new person with the right answer on Led Zeppelin and S*t*nism, please remember that I actually have heard it all before, and try to forego explaining it all in my comments section, thanks. Try Usenet instead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Octopuses and my Douglas Adams-Style Theory Of Teh Intarwebs

Found on the internet: the heartwarming story of an octopus who has a pet Mr. Potato Head.

The 1.8m-wide (6ft) creature is so attached to Mr Potato Head that he turns aggressive when aquarium staff try to remove it from his tank.

That's SIX FEET, people! This isn't a baby octopus. The story was broken by the ever amazing (Picture is from there, too.)

You've got to hand it to molluscs - they can be very endearing.

The comments section is fascinating. As all comments threads on Octopuses are required to do by Federal Law, it eventually breaks down into a gigantic argument about the plural of octopus. Variations vigorously defended include octopedes and octopii.

I have a theory, which I call my Douglas Adams-Style Theory Of Teh Intarwebs, which is this: That every type of remark on the internet has to be followed up by hordes (internet spelling: hoardes) of commenters arguing about something that a relatively normal observer thought was settled decisively when he or she was 16. Or possibly 17.

There is a rational explanation for it, which I've carefully worked out with a pencil (like the constipated mathematician). That is, those who are less than 17 argue on the internet because they genuinely do not know the answer. Once they learn the answer, or learn that there can be no right answer, he or she is replaced a new person who is under 17. In a leap year, this process accelerates because there are four Septembers in a leap year.

This ensures a perpetual source of argumentative newbies, most of whom have never taken logic classes or have any idea how to sift evidence. No matter how many oldbies take a philosophy class, or learn what the fossil record says, or what climatologists say, or how to spell the plural of octopus, or that Rod Stewart did NOT have his stomach pumped for reasons too disgusting to go into here, or for that matter grow too old to care whether the Enterprise could beat the Death Star, or whether Picard was better than Kirk, there are always eager new ones armed with Certain Knowledge.

If you're under seventeen and sensible, please don't take this to heart. Under seventeenness is a state of mind, not a birth date. Many of these people are well over 17, and are slow learners.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Gender and SF

Charlie Stross is one of my favorite Science Fiction writers. In fact, he may be my favorite living Science Fiction author, although I would probably choose J. G. Ballard for that position on some days, depending on mood.

Apart from his books, one thing I like about Stross is his natural humanity and intelligence. When he writes non-fiction, as on his blog, I get a feeling of connectedness, a feeling of a living being thinking things through, that I don't get from some much more established authors. One other good thing about Stross is he doesn't usually let that quick-wittedness overcome the story in his fiction. Nobody like a clever clogs.

IO9 interviewed him recently about gender and SF. Most of what I read about gender and SF comes from lunatics writing on Live Journal (or being pilloried for it on Fandom_Wank), and I must say it's nice to read someone rational addressing the subject for a change. It's a short interview but interesting. Sciende Fiction is supposed to be a literature of ideas, of 'what if', and it can be stultifying to read a story set in another galaxy a million years in the future which is a girl-meets-boy story in shiny lame astronaut clothing. I exaggerate but not by much. Stross is perfectly capable of imagining a near future where not everyone shares exactly the same gender roles, ethics and family structures as exist in 2008 Southern California. (I believe So Cal to be the Quelle of story, not because I live here, but because this is where Hollywood lives and TV is created.)

Maybe I miss England too much. The following sentiment seemed to be expressible there, but I have rarely seen a statement like this one in all the years I've been in the States:

Segregating people from birth and channeling their life opportunities on the basis of their physical sex seems to me to be every bit as unjustifiable as doing so on the basis of their skin colour. And I'd like to live to see the day when it's as unacceptable to engage in gender stereotyping as it is to engage in racial stereotyping.

(To be fair, most people I know don't do this from birth. Nope, instead they stereotype from the first ultrasound picture of their fetus.)

I really do recommend Glasshouse. It doesn't actually hit you over the head with language like that above. It takes the classic SF writers' dictum to 'show, don't tell' to heart and is funny, clever, informative and well-plotted as well.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A definition of Science Fiction which pleases me.

Thinking musically, science fiction is what you get when fiction goes electric. You plug ideas into an effects box and play with all the settings - adding distortion, harmonics, sustain, feedback and maybe a little echo. Then you turn all the amplifiers up to eleven. - Chris Dolley

Chris Dolley's website is:

Perhaps that should be Chrïs Dölley.

Found at SF Signal, which also prints many more definitions, some rather longer and most less headbangy.

Found via Scalzi's blog.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Help! (DVD)

I got Help! for Christmas. I've seen it before. In fact, I think I saw it in the cinemas in 1965. It's an interesting one to see again. Times have changed almost unimaginably since it was made and there are ways in which a teenager in 2008 probably can't follow what's going on, like me attempting to understand Shakespeare at school. Some of it is minor, like the giant telephones and the long drawn out deadpan joke about dialing a telephone – really dialing it, with a dial; and some of it is cultural. The movie premise is that Indians are unknowably foreign, and could have Thuggees killing for the Goddess Kali's sake. (George Harrison had a shrine to Kali within fifteen years of the film; I have a picture of her on my lunchbox today.)

It isn't that bad, of course. The movie knows full well that Indians are regular people, so much so that a couple of ROTFLAPIMP jokes are based on "foreign/other" tropes and "Indian" tropes being juxtaposed – but it is still a heavy-handed cultural appropriation in today's climate. I also found that watching turbaned men in dhotis carrying Lee Enfields and swarming through the streets of London a little difficult to take for other 21st Century reasons.

 To recap the famous plot: A templegoer and Beatle fan in India has mailed her ring in a fan-letter to Ringo. This is the ring that marks her as today's sacrifice to the goddess Kali. If the ring is not returned, then the wearer will himself be the next sacrifice. The chief of the temple locates Ringo and sends Eleanor Bron, his right-hand woman (an immaculately-dressed Indian Emma Peel) to get the ring back. When that fails, he sends his mujaheddin - I'm sorry – did I say mujaheddin? I must be getting it mixed up with this century again – he sends his regiment (they're called the Kukhri Brigade, so I assume they're Gurkhas) to bring Ringo in for sacrifice. On the way the Fabs meet jewelers, mad scientists, a Bengal Tiger called Roger who loves to snooze to the sound of people whistling famous Beethoven's famous Ode to Joy (from the famous 9th), and on the way they visit Salisbury Plain, European ski slopes and the Bahamas. Hilarity, of course, consistently ensues.

Interspersed with the action are heart-achingly pretty Beatles songs, some filmed in sur/realistic ways (a recording session which has to take place on a freezing Salisbury Plain, ringed by British Army tanks providing protection from the Kukhris) and some of which simply occur in the plot (the Fabs singing to each other in their house):


 I can never tell if these sound great because I first heard them when I was seven, or if they actually are great. Either way, they are a joy to hear. (Although I did think the rhythm guitar was out of tune in You're Gonna Lose That Girl. I must be wrong, though, as I'm sure someone would have brought it up in the intervening forty two years if it was.)

 Most of the jokes are deadpan, requiring a bit of viewer effort to stay with and appreciate, interspersed with zany Goon-influenced humor and some amazing sight gags. Wrestling my hands away from simply printing all the jokes here (or finding them for you on YouTube), I'll confine myself to the one where the movie sends up its own "Easterners are weird" premise. The Beatles, hoping to find wisdom from an Oriental, go to an Indian restaurant. The man in a turban standing outside confirms that yes, he is an Easterner – he's from Stepney (East London). Not satisfied with this, the Beatles call for a real Easterner. The turbaned man shouts, "Abdul!" and another turbaned man appears from inside. They look at each other, and then after a pause for build up of the requisite number of Comedy Ions, calibrated down to the correct picosecond, Abdul says to the first man, "Yes, darlin'?" in the broadest London accent imaginable. The first man allows that yes, they "did have 'ave one 'ere, din't they, a lad from sunnier climes. East of Suez." "Very nice 'e woz," says Abdul, "I fink 'e's still dahn ver – in ver coal 'ole." And so he proves to be, meditating in the cellar.

Oh, just one more. After the mad scientist's assistant has plugged in a spectacular array of devices designed to remove stuck rings from Ringo's hand, someone asks him what his electricity bill is like. "It's sort of a long counterfoil thingy," he replies thoughtfully.

I loved Eleanor Bron's outfits – pink leather trouser suits, white plastic maxi coat, all the gear. The constant jokes about "I can say no more!" The exciting adventure of Paul on the floor (during which I'm pretty sure the soundtrack orchestra, which is playing drastically slowed down Beatles tunes, plays most of the riff from Smoke on the Water.) Paul on the beach singing Another Girl, with another girl in his arms. The tiger. The sacrificial girl's mother scrubbing the red dye from her and saying, "Yer as bad as yer sister, comin' 'ome from that temple all hours and all colors." She's wearing a nice sari as she says it, too.

And I've wanted a sunken pit-bed like John's from the very first day I ever saw it. I've decided Paul really was the cutest Beatle. He's maximally cute here. George is pretty fetching too (and in Hard Day's Night we see that George knows how to cut a rug, as well). Ringo is his charming self, and certainly the best actor (though none of them can hold a candle to the Monkees). John, who I always used to prefer, now seems to me to be wearing big red biohazard signs all over him saying, 'Keep away – damaged from incorrect childhood handling'. Shame, as he's definitely the brightest. And good looking with it.

 Nice movie to have on the shelf.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

When I get older...

I got my first AARP card in the mail this week. I'm trying to look on the bright side by assuming they send it to you early so you will look upon being retired as a positive.

I wouldn't mind if it was accompanied by, like, a voucher that would actually enable you to retire. I have nothing against staying at home all day.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

I didn't actually do anything today. Well, I did. The new year started at 12:30 am with my company's security phoning to ask me who they should phone since the freezer alarm for PLAS 1 was sounding (i.e. one of the monitored freezers at work was faulty and warming up). That means that I started the year with the choice of selecting who was to be woken up and forced to go into work at 1 am on New Year's Day! Unfortunately I was so sleepy I was honest and gave the name of the person I thought was actually in charge of the freezer contents instead of picking the name of my Biggest Enemy. Oh well.

On my way back on December 31st I passed a nasty accident on the Ortega Highway at approximately the point I was being a Stingray the day before. Good thing I was paying attention today. (Largely because the motorcyclist in front of me was doing a steady 40 mph. But for whatever reason, I was driving safely when we came across the three fire tenders and two ambulances and one twisted up solo spin-out. )

It's lucky no one saw me when I was listening to Echoes in my car that day, too, as the Washington Post (here reported in the Register) says that the RIAA thinks that MP3 players are evidence of criminal activity. (Ripping one copy of your legitimate CD for your own use is stealing, apparently.) CIO Today says that's not the case. It's ripping CDs and putting them into a "share folder" (like a Kazaa folder) that's illegal, not ripping them.

W/E, as the kids say. But it is lucky I was in the car by myself as I'm sure the RIAA would consider ripping a CD and playing it in a car with a passenger as being an unauthorized public performance. At least, that's the law in the UK, as reported in EDP:

Staff at a Norfolk company were stunned to learn they must buy a licence for their radio, even though only one person listens to it. Simnick Supplies, which sells glassware and cleaning products to pubs, was contacted by the Performing Right Society (PRS).

The organisation collects licence fees from anyone playing music in public places, including shops, offices and factories. The caller asked if any music was played on the premises.

Told that warehouse manager David Loveday listened to a radio, she said that a licence costing £87 a year was needed. She also said a licence was needed to cover the music played on the company's phone system.

May 2008 be the year the music companies realize music consumers are their source of income, not their sworn enemies.


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