Sunday, November 30, 2008

Zack And Miri Make A Porno

Toward the end of his career, Blake Edwards made a bunch of comedies that were widely regarded as not as good as the films he had made previously. But what you could count on in those '80s movies was that while he was going to introduce farcical elements into the topic, he was also going to seriously address some topic that was usually glossed over.

For example, Skin Deep looks at the Casanova-type both from the "good times" aspect of having a lot of unattached sex, but then from the more serious aspect of the effect those "good times" can have. Micki + Maude looks at when a couple's urge to have children (or not) are in conflict, and it doesn't gloss over the ending. Switch takes a look at misogyny inside of the body-switch-style farce.

I mention this because Kevin Smith, at his best, does something similar. (And he's also often steeped in his time heavily that, like Edwards, you wonder if some of his "better" works aren't going to age well.) Chasing Amy takes an unflinching look at the problems of expectations and desires in the post-sexual revolution world.

Also, like Edwards, he's not afraid to go to the custard pie (or in Smith's case, the fecal matter) for a joke, lest you think he's overly full of himself.

And this brings us to Zack And Miri Make A Porno, the tale of Zack (Seth Rogan) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), long term friends who, on the eve of their 10th High School reunion, find themselves without power, water and heat in the brutal Pennsylvania winter.

Let me take a moment to say that one thing I admire about the Smith kid is that he grows. Each movie he makes is a little more like a real movie. From the early days of setting the camera down for 10 minutes while a couple of characters talk in Clerks to actual camera movement and letting the visuals tell the story in Clerks II, he's come a long way. One of the comments on Dogma was something like "It looks like a real movie." And we've had a running gag about that ever since.

This really looks like a real movie. There's some excellent visual work, like a withdrawing shot of a distraught Miri as Zack heads down the hallway to have sex with Stacey. She gets smaller and smaller and the shot gets darker, and finally on the side, we see the bedroom door close.

Great work.

Besides Smith, there's Rogen as (again) the lovable slacker--hey, it works well for him--and Banks as his platonic friend. Banks has real range, and she plays a character that's fairly far removed from her sex-freak persona in 40 Year Old Virgin, her secretary-with-a-heart-of-gold in the Spiderman movies, or even her damsel-in-distress turn in Slither, just to name a few. Craig Robinson (the bouncer in Knocked Up and hotel staff in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) gets a meatier role here.

I have no idea what the Apatow connection is, except that there's a superficial similarity between Smith and Apatow.

Meanwhile we have some Smith regulars doing some acting: Mrs. Smith as the too peppy high school reunion coordinator (she always does a good job, but she does tend to be cast as a bitch, hmmmm); Jeff Anderson as a-sarcastic-and-world-weary-but-not-really-Randall-esque cameraman; and Jason Mewes not being Jay. Also, going full frontal.

That's right. Full frontal male nudity is here, for your viewing enjoyment.

There was also Tyler Labine, who is not Ethan Suplee, and Tom Savini, who is not Brian O'Halloran. Sorry, you tend to look for these guys when you know Smith's movies and both of them confused me. (Savini's gotta be 20+ years older than O'Halloran, too, but I just figured it was a good acting job.) Actual porn star Katie Morgan is in the movie, and she doesn't look like a Smith regular, but she sounds like Joey Lauren Adams.

Rounding out the cast is former child actor Ricky Mabe and new mother Traci Lords. Traci looked a little tired in this movie but she's got the acting-without-dialogue thing down. Justin Long and Brandon Routh play gay lovers. Long is hilarious. But what is up with Superman going on to doing gay kissing roles? That's just what Reeves did!

It's a good cast. One thing I like about the Smith kid is that he tends to keep his movies short. Brutally so, sometimes. Short and fast-moving. They're not boring. This isn't boring. But.

He's trying to cram two things into one short movie here, and neither exactly work. First, there's a love story between Zack and Miri--did you doubt it? (If someone could do it, it'd be him, I guess.) The dramatic tension is created through the fact that they're going to have sex for the first time and it's on camera, but it's supposed to be "just sex". But they're also supposed to have sex with others which, well, you know, it's not "just sex".

Their transition from completely convincing platonic friends to being in love isn't really built-up. Rogen and Banks sell it, though, so it does work. Their sex scene is intensely intimate; the antithesis of the porn they're trying to make. The transition between the vulgar and the romantic reminded me strongly of Edwards better work.

The other thread, though, is the "let's make a movie" part. This is a condensed encapsulation of Smith's own experiences making "Clerks" but there just isn't enough time for the camaraderie to really resonate.

Overall, it seems like one of his best movies. It's not boring, it's made with considerable attention to detail, and the dialogue is fun without being too much in Smith's strangely idiosyncratic soliloquy style. It is, of course, vulgar, but not unexpectedly so. I'm a little surprised it didn't take in a bit more money at the box office--though they really didn't advertise it much, presumably because of the "porno" in the title.

Don't leave before the stinger.

An Atheist In Church

What better time to contemplate God than on the biggest shopping weekend of the year? (Even if it isn't really.) Hector and I have been having an ongoing discussion about religion and once again, he touched on all kinds of interesting things. So here are some choice quotes and some responses.

I liked the Carlin bit. He's right, that a certain amount of exposure to dirt and germs are required to get the immune system started. Something that bugs me (hah! bugs!) is when people who obviously have a cold insist on shaking my hand. Keep it to yourself, can't you? At church they do this thing called "sharing the peace." If germs and virus were big enough to see, people would realize that this is the same kind of thing as snake-handling, counting on God to protect you from danger. I think it's asking too much of God. He made those snakes and those germs dangerous. A little respect, please! A couple of years ago, the pastor said that since the flu was so bad that year, the "sharing the peace" would be suspended for a few weeks. [Sounds like "The snakes are especially venomous this season, so we won't be handling them for a month or so."] That was sensible, and should have continued indefinitely, but no, here we are back again with the coughers and snifflers extending their hands and feeling snubbed if I won't grab them. And then the backbiting starts: "He's so full of himself, he won't shake your hand!"

There is a process called science through which we know things. Then there's a thing called "science" which could be described as "things portrayed as science". (Yes, it's confusing, since the two words look and sound exactly alike and mean almost the exact opposite.) Back in the 19th century, you could find "science" which made claims on the order of "We pretty much know everything and it's just the details we need to work out."

Politicized scientific groups, the media, educational groups and the government tend to perpetuate this absurd notion to the extent that most of us walk around thinking we have a clue. And our very safe environment gives us the luxury of not having the truth slapped in our faces. This leads to a lot of superstitious behavior.

Diseases are a good example of us not having a clue. Germ theory posits that microorganisms cause disease. But that leaves a lot of holes. Why are there outbreaks? Why do some people get sick while others don't? There is a science (epidemiology) but it only works at the macro level. There are too many factors at the micro level--where we all live--to make it seem other than God playing dice.

I'm not sure about what "sharing the peace" is, exactly, but it sounds like something that is incidentally unsanitary as opposed to an attempt to test one's faith (like snake-handling). If it's incidental (not intrinsic), you could suggest more sanitary approaches.

But of course, you don't win friends by breaking tradition, regardless of sanitary (or sanity) issues.

The test of faith issue is probably more interesting.

Well, that's enough about that. Yes, I'm an atheist; yes, I go to church now and then; so what. It's a social thing.

Heh. Well, it's no skin off my nose. And I've found that religious folk don't necessarily lump all unbelievers together. If you're there, they might see you as a fellow traveler who's just farther back down the road.

(Several hundred words deleted.) … I place a great deal of value on the social networking that arises from church membership. It would please me greatly if I could see somewhere else for this kind of caring to come from, that was not mediated by the State; since State-mediated caring is not really caring at all, it's somebody's job. The reason I love my daughter, or feel concerned about my neighbor, is not because I am paid to do so; I do those things because they are part of myself. They are not things I can give up if I get another job at the highway department or investment bank.

Secular social networking tends to be about individuals hooking up for their mutual, individual benefit. It seldom, from what I've seen, goes beyond fairly immediate needs and rarely does it create a group. But it does sometimes.

The American Revolution, for example. created a fairly strong secular group. Religion was involved and influential, but not the primary driver. The Revolutionary movement was primarily philosophical, though it had plenty of violence and hardship that, up until about 50 years ago, was enough to unite Ameicans as a people even when they disagreed.

Military service, especially actual battle time, unites people.

But is violence necessary? Hector goes on:

So, if I'm reading you right, this sort of binding comes from poverty and privation. I'd rather see it come from the kind of self-interest that incorporates the realization that, to use a cliché, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Can we get past the idea that what's good for me has to be bad for you. The world is not a zero-sum process.

I don't think privation and poverty are necessary and they're certainly not sufficient, at the same time it occurred to me recently that without some sort of test, how do you know if someone's going to be there when you need them?

I think a lot of religions are based on notions of fairness. There's all this stuff we don't have a clue about, and life is not only not fair, it seems arbitrarily cruel at time. Religions often tell us that there's a scale that, ultimately, get balanced. Or they tell us we can achieve a state where we don't care.

I just can't make out where a belief in supernatural powers is required to make love work in human lives.

Value, meaning, significance--these are things that are assigned. You can say that a particular thing in the universe has a particular value: The wolf knows that the rabbit has a particular value if he's hungry and he hasn't eaten in a long time.

But what makes the wolf valuable? Ultimately, like cause-and-effect, one ends up with something outside the universe. From the standpoint of the strictly material, "life" is just an accident of physics.

But then: I have long thought that it should be possible to prove ethics by mathematics, i.e., that there must be some way to show that the right thing is also the rational thing. In other words, we don't need threats from a supernatural power to tell us that, for instance, it's wrong to [sin of your choice here, let's use "covet" as an example] covet; a little rational thought will show us that it's counter-productive to covet. Don't covet your neighbor's HDTV, and get indigestion thinking about it; it makes more sense to save your pennies and get one of your own. As simple as that.


Behaving ethically is certainly logical. We could even make a mathematical formula:

(G/E) > 1

That is, the ratio of Good (G) to Evil (E) has to be greater than one for the act to be ethical. I'm being tongue-in-cheek here, but only slightly. We could say:

G1 + G2 + G3.../E1 + E2 + E3...=Ϛ

I'm using the obsolete Greek letter "stigma" because it amuses me. We'll say that the series of Gs represent the positive effects of doing something in various scopes, while E represents the evil.

For example, say you're building a house: We could count as positives the shelter, the social economic activity (assuming you don't do everything by yourself), the increase of your own assets (which might mean being worth more money, being more marriageable, etc), what the house allows you to do (raise children), if it grows a community, and we could even count the aesthetic value of the house, and the dog house and bird feeder in the back yard. We could also count tearing down a structure already on that site, if it's run down and dangerous. (Destruction can be positive, which is why I used the terms "good" and "evil" rather than "constructive" and "destructive".)

On the negative side we could count the loss of assets (if the market crashed), and basically consider the negatives or potential negatives of all the positives previously listed. Like, the house could be ugly, being a negative aesthetic. On top of that, we could posit habitats that are displaced by the construction, destruction of trees for lumber, etc.

Of course, it's easy to come up with butterfly-wing-flapping effects, and much harder to weight them. How heavily do you weight the aesthetics, for example?

So, I agree that ethics can be approached mathmetically. We could even say that given two actions,

Ϛ1 > Ϛ2

we should prefer action Ϛ1. For any given set of actions, we should prefer the one with the highest Ϛ, that is, the highest ratio of Good to Evil. The Devil is in the details, of course, but in most mundane cases finding the right action, or isolating the set of more right actions.

When certain factors are hidden, of course--well, that's when we get into trouble.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

While Jonathan Demme is best known for Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, this Roger Corman alumnus has a broad and diverse resume. Which is another way of saying you don't really know what you're going to see when you see one of his movies.

In Rachel Getting Married, you're going to see Anne Hathaway act, for example. (I'd heard she could act, but I really only know her from Get Smart and that picture that circulates around the 'net of her in the see-through top. (In this movie, her hair is shorn, she looks strung out and she's so thoroughly narcissistic, there's no chance for looks or charisma to carry her performance.)

You also get a lot of shaky cam, so beware. I found this well within my tolerance and The Boy praised it for making you feel like you really were there. There is a minor character, in fact, who is filming the proceedings, and you kind of feel like that while watching this. Adding to this is the fact that all the music is ambient. There's a band that hangs around doing nothing but playing eerily appropriate music, even if such music wouldn't be appropriate an actual wedding. (Heh.)

OK, so the story is that Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt of "MadMen") is getting married to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) and sister Kym (Hathaway) is checking out of rehab to join the festivities. Kym, being an addict and compulsive liar, immediately makes everything about herself.

Kym has done a Bad Thing. The upshot has resulted in her own downward spiral, her parents (Bill Irwin and Debra Winger) divorcing, and alienation galore.

And it was bad. And Kym feels really, really bad about it. But she expresses this by constantly drawing attention to her own suffering. Rachel understandably dislikes this idea, while her father tends to try to defend and protect her, and her strangely serene mother simply absences herself as much as possible.

In order to have a story, though, we need to have some sort of change. And there are only a few that will work. For example, Rachel could make the ultimate expression of self-pity by committing suicide, or she could have an epiphany and be miraculously cured--all in the fine melodramatic tradition, but not necessarily effective in the hyper-realistic form being used here.

Demme rather bravely pursues his climax at the wedding in a way that makes the resolution clear and eschews soap opera style dramatics. And amazingly, this works. The Boy liked it, which says something for a movie that's nearly two hours and primarily about wedding plans.

I've seen some hay being made out of the multi-culti aspect of the family (the bride is white, the groom black), as if their acceptance of diversity and quirkiness doesn't extend to the real quirkiness of Kym, but I don't see it, myself. First of all, the families are largely musicians. Second of all, Kym's not quirky, she's deranged and narcissistic.

No, if I had a problem with this, it was the timeline. The Bad Thing took place when Kym was 16. We don't know how long ago it was, but let's say Kym is now in her early 20s. Meanwhile, Rachel is the older sister (I think, certainly the actress in her 30s), so some of the tension doesn't make much sense to me. (I don't think parents divorcing when you're in your 20s is quite the same as them divorcing when you're a child.)

So I did get a little hung up on that.

But otherwise the movie works, and well.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

It's Hard Being Right All The Time, vol 2: A Rebuttal

Bakakarasu dropped by to rebut my overpopulation post. Though my point was more that the drivers of media-manufactured hysteria (in the service of totalitarianism) will need a new focal point, and that overpopulation is a great boogie man. So, let's play:

Yeah, it must be hard being right almost all the time ;-)

One of the jokes of being a programmer is that you work with tools that constantly point out your stupid mistakes. You make hundreds of mistakes an hour if you're being very productive. And yet, the quickest way to make a programmer bristle is to suggest there's something wrong with his code. (Usually, they'll get mad without even a trace of irony.)

Anyway:

You don't have to hate people to believe in science, statistics, and concepts like carrying capacity limits.

Here come da science!

We’ve already exceeded global carrying capacity. We are now in “overshoot”. Global population is nearing 7 billion. Different theorists using different methods seem to end up agreeing that global carrying capacity is probably about 2 billion. (This assumes some level of social justice and a moderate, low by US standards, standard of living. More is possible if you accept a cattle car / Matrix-esque "life".)

I have a different theory about overpopulation. It's a matter of numbers. Some numbers are simply overwhelming. Billion is one of those numbers. I think people get overwhelmed by numbers and look for justification for their trepidation. (That's why they always use counters.)

Malthus had the science, too: Unchecked, population grows geometrically while food grows arithmetically. So in the time the food supply doubles, population quadruples. Neither of those things are necessarily true, however, and they proved not to be. (Actually, I remember reading an Ancient Roman author bitching about overpopulation. And the kids these days!)

In one of the great ironies--and contrary to the Civilization games--a well-fed population reproduces less than a starving one. If one were to theorize, one might suggest that there are triggers that occur when the body is low on, say, protein, that causes it to kick into reproductive overdrive.

A wealthy population reproduces less as well, too. Life is good and safe, we don't worry about the next generation being there.

Other, less pleasant things suppress population as well. (See USSR.)

As for food growing arithmetically, well, if that were ever true, Norman Borlaug shot it to hell 50 years ago.

"Carrying capacity" is just a modern version of the arithmetic growth of food. The current mathematical expression is slightly more complex, and brought to you by professional doomsayer Paul Ehrlich (check out his quotes and predictions on Wiki):

I = P * A * T

Impact on the environment is Population times Affluence times Technology. This is awesome. Population, okay, that's the bugaboo. Affluence? OK, although as I've pointed out, it is only affluence that gives people the luxury to even care about environmental impact.

He tips his hand with technology, though. Technology can harm the environment, but it can also drastically reduce the impact on the environment. Case in point, Borlaug's work, which gives us so much super-productive agriculture that we use less and less soil. How about the Internet, reducing the need to kill trees for reading?

How about factory farming (a bad phrase these days, so you know I'm going to love it)? Terrible nutrition? Maybe. But the Native Americans used to just torch the forests to make more room for buffalo. Technology means we can raise buffalo on a ranch (and order it from commercials on "Red Eye") and not have to burn down forests so that buffalo can thrive.

No, the point is there are too many damn people, and the amount of evidence one can create to back up that point is virtually unlimited.

In any case, we will get to that much-lower-than-7-billion number the hard way (wars, famine, disease, and their accompanying losses of environmental quality, freedom, and social justice) OR the less hard way (immediately and drastically reducing our population voluntarily).

I like this because, well, we're already lower than seven billion. So, if I understand the new angle, the problem isn't that we're going to be overcrowded by over-population, but that we're going to hit a magic number that causes a sudden, drastic drop.

It's a "can't lose for winning" scenario. If the population continues to go up, the Malthusians are right. If it goes down they're still right. What's more, the prescription--immediate and drastic population and lifestyle reduction--brings about the conditions we're trying to avoid, though we're assured in a much less intense manner.

Sound familiar? A slow process--a slowing process, even, because population growth has been steadily slowing--is going to result in sudden, inevitable disaster.

You know what's also funny? Who took the Malthusians the most seriously? Communist China. (Communists really do hate people, though. That's why they kill so many.) And there is no greater threat to the world environment than China.

It’s too late for any “us” vs “them” arguments or any belief that national boundaries will do much to help anyone in the long run. This is a global issue with local and nation-state consequences. For example, immigration is a consequence of overpopulation, not a cause of it. Likewise, global climate change is not impressed by national boundaries.

Global climate change isn't much impressed by humans as near as I can tell. See, this is the beauty of overpopulation: Any environmental problem can be blamed on humans, and overpopulation allows us to reinforce the idea of human-caused (I'm tired of typing "anthropogenic") climate change, whether it's getting warmer or colder.

Again, win-win.

I disagree with the argument that there is some “right to reproduce” that must be accommodated in this scenario. If there is any "right to reproduce" it's in the concept that one has the freedom to nurture a child or children and form some sort of family. Biological reproduction is not necessary to do that and there are many in need of this sort of nurturing.

Well, I hadn't made that argument, but I will: One has a right to surive. One survives as more than an individual. Isn't it interesting, though, that bakakarasu actual states that biological reproduction is not necessary if you want children. As long as there is one child up for adoption somewhere in the world, you have no right to have your own, and it's not necessary. (Ehrlich uses a similar rhetorical device: As long as anyone is hungry in the world--not even starving, which was his original prediction--his predictions are vindicated. Even if those hunger problems are purely political.)

Of course, eventually that runs out. It should go without saying that survival does depend on biological reproduction. I can't help but wonder if the near complete elimination of a people (as they all go adopting 3rd world orphans) might not have some biological implications.

Being a parent is much different from the romantic and oxytocin enhanced notion of “having a baby” (a phrase I always found to be a bit horrifying for its "possessing-an-object" language frame).

The lecturing on what it means to be a parent (which goes on for another paragraph or two) is sort of depressing because it suggests you're not even reading this blog. I would have preferred you address your arguments to me rather than some imagined opponent.

I've heard the "having" argument before, phrased different. "My wife/girlfriend/husband/boyfriend" being offensive because, you know, you can't own anyone, man. Dopey. There are all kinds of definitions of "have", and children actually fall into the category of, "Well, I'm completely responsible for everything they do for eighteen years," so yeah, that's a close to ownership as you can get without actual slavery.

The supertanker analogy is also apt because it was the "one time gift" of oil that allowed us to get this far out on a limb, and peak oil has already happened.

This makes me think the whole post is an early Christmas present from a friend. Look! They even threw in "peak oil".

What kills me about all of this is that, despite failing to predict anything, the tone of urgency never diminishes. There's never any humility. There's never any attempt to, say, predict something small. It's always The End of the World. And always with complete confidence.

And never, ever, ever is it allowed anywhere for human ingenuity to play a role in man's future. Man holds no key to his own salvation. He must stop, stop, stop. Ehrlich and his ilk despise cheap energy. And you know what I say:

Civlization is energy.

This is not a coincidence. A lot of good people--people who would make excellent parents and who would have children that are a credit to the species--end up sucked in by overpopulation. Humanity loses by that. The poisoning of higher education with anti-American, anti-human and fundamentally anti-intellectual ideas means that a lot of our best will never make a permanent mark on the world. It's a formula for Idiocracy.

In his comment, Baka talks about the consensus (he doesn't use that word) of 2 billion being the optimal population of Earth. We've got over 1 billion living in first world countries now, on a tiny bit of land mass (relative to what's available in Asia, where most people live), and the best we can do is double that?

To all and sundry I say, "Prove it."

I guarantee you something else. Should we ever actually reach the 2 billion number, the Malthusians will not be silent. They'll start talking about 500 million being the optimum. (And, in fact, already have.)

Fun fact: 1/2B is about what the population of the Earth during the Middle Ages is estimated to have been. Europe felt crowded then, too. Hence the fleeing to the new world. And the twice as many people living in Europe, USA, Canada and Australia are living better now.

And were we to reach 500 million, 100 million wouldn't be far behind.

If you hate people, two is one too many.

Post Mortem: Death of a Barbarian, pt II

Pity the poor Trooper, out there prepping Lee Lee's Valise for Black Friday and possible movie-stardom, but who took some time to critique my Taylon Doon story. Thanks to Darcy, who also read it. And anyone else who read it, if anyone. It's not clear to me from the WordPress reports.

Trooper gave some great feedback; as a voracious reader, he knows writing like I know biting.

Writing in that style is not as easy as it is cracked up to be. A real pulp writer who wrote great stuff like Robert Howard or John Norman are people with a lot of talent who decide to write in that genre. That's not to say you don't have a lot of talent, but I think it tends in a much more modern post ironic way while the novel you were attempting requires belief in the conventions not a tongue in check bow to it. Someone like Raymond Fiest or SM Stirling or Harry Turtledove writes in a more sedate version of this style, as there are very very few writers who could pull off a full blown saga in the style you were attempting to use.

Hmmm. I really wasn't trying to be "post-ironic" but I suppose I can't exactly help that. I wasn't exactly trying to mimic Howard or Norman because it's hard enough to write in one's own style under the gun.

But what certainly happened was that as I created the story, I had trouble seeing how I was going to get the reader to understand what was going on. Taylon, as a barbarian, by necessity doesn't know what's going on. Doc has a better idea and I figured that using Taylon as a contrast, Doc could let the reader in on what was going on as he learned.

The other way to go would've been to go from Taylon's POV or a neutral 3P but that felt too limited. On the other hand, it directly led to what Troop observed next:

I think the problem was you were describing action rather than just plunging in. You were Robert Altman instead of John Ford. You wouldn't be corny if you weren't afraid to be corny if you know what I mean. Less is more in the action genre. Don't describe, just do.

Yes, I had this problem a lot. The subsequent action scenes were more immediate, but I suspect the problem comes from wanting to keep a little mystery.

That's easy for me to say I have always wanted to write but have never had the time. Although the rise of alternative historical fiction has given me so many ideas that I think my head would explode.

Well, I join Troop's readers in encouraging to take it up as a serious avocation.

It's Hard Being Right All The Time, vol 2.

As the glaciers of the new Ice Age advance, we're starting to hear less about global warming and more about...anyone? Anyone?

Well, what did I say?

That's right, "overpopulation". Can you say "Soylent Green"?

A certain group of people have learned they can get people's attention with impending doom. A few hundred years ago, we were worried (after a fashion) about the rapture. Some percentage of the population relate really strongly--and not in a campy, funny or otherwise entertaining way--to the end of the world (as we know it).

Overpopulation hits a bunch of great button because a lot of environmentalists just hate people. And a lot of misanthropists will happily join the enviro-crowd for a justification for their pre-existing people-hate. And, hey, who doesn't think there are too many of "the wrong kinds" of people? (Present company always excluded, of course.)

Another great thing about overpopulation is that you can always assert that it's either here or imminent. The proof is in the poverty, or the over-crowdedness, or in disease or war--really, it's way better than global warming, because GW can be refuted with a few temperature readings. (In fact, that's a big part of GW's current "problems".)

Could anyone visit Hong Kong or New York and doubt that overpopulation was real? The vast quantities of empty space on this planet notwithstanding, it's something meant for cherry-picking. And the rebuttal when pointing out a Montana or a (say) rapidly emptying Russia, can always be "Well, sure, there's no one there..."

And just like the AGW types, the neo-Malthusians always take their own correctness for granted. This is what people miss about "the science is settled". As far as the AGW believer is concerned, the science is settled in his own mind. Which is what matters.

The advertisers over at Althouse have tied it, rather cleverly, to immigration. (Of course, we could probably absorb our current population in immigrants if our school system worked and we didn't hand out money with our social services.)

Anyway, there's another problem with overpopulation as a threat: All the socialist wealth redistribution plans require an ever-expanding base of young people to fund themselves, but all the people living in socialist countries stop having children.

Heh.

I've decided that the fallout from the current economic crisis is going to work out well, at least in the long run. We simply don't have the money to continue believing that the government can provide a catch-all safety net (and do so with no negative consequences). This is going to cause a realignment that includes disposing of many stupid, observably false ideas.

OK, probably not, but I've decided there's no reason not to be optimistic.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Post Mortem: Death of a Barbarian

I got about 60 pages into my nanowrimo entry before giving up.

There were several factors. Not getting the pages up and formatted, for example. If I had them up and someone had read them, I probably would've gone on in spite of it all. But nobody read even the opening page. Boo-hoo.

No, no, you all have lives, more or less. And it's okay. The main problem is that it wasn't very good. I could easily finish the book even now. But it's unpleasant to do bad work. I think I will put up some other writings later, however. Maybe, if I can get my chops up by next nanowrimo, I'll take another swing at Taylon.

The actual writing was enjoyable. Which probably means I was doing it wrong.

Fur is Murder. Fabulous, sexy murder.

One of the ways we, as a society, went wrong was by buckling into the red-paint-splashing fur-haters.

We can have a debate about the ethics of wearing fur--you'll lose, but we can have it--but the issue should've been removed from the table the instant terrorist tactics were used.

Yeah, pro-oil and pro-fur. And yet, not really conservative. Heh.

I mention this because Malkin is in the new Clare Booth Luce "Conservative Women" calendar. Now, the Luce family was corrupting media long before our current, completely disreputable media was even born. (Henry and Clare dropped LSD--responsibly, under a psychiatrist's careful gaze--back in 1958!) But that's a separate subject.

The subject here--the salient, eternal subject--is women in fur. Mmmmm. There's not much better than a woman wearing a fur. Maybe it's some primal thing, going back to when you had to hand kill the bear. Maybe it's that whatever they think consciously, women seem to respond in a primal fashion to wearing fur. Not too long ago, and for quite some time, the fur coat was the epitome of the luxury romance item, alongside of diamonds and fine chocolates.

Anyway, the pix...are a little disappointing. There's a great shot of Coulter up front, and Malkin's looking good. But they over did the makeup on Mary Katherine Ham--I know what they were going for, but it required more skill and lighting. MKH looks marvellous with a more "natural" makeup. You can see the same thing in the other pictures, too, although for some reason it works on Amanda Carpenter.

Tragically, I couldn't find a picture that really epitomized what I was thinking of while writing this. But how about a little Marilyn? An archetypal woman in an archetypal symbol of romance.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas

As mentioned previously, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was sold out Saturday evening when The Boy suddenly up and decided he wanted to go see something. But we returned for the last show, never to be daunted by the fair-weather moviegoers who sometimes inhabit our cinema.

The story takes place in Germany in WWII and concerns an eight-year-old boy whose Nazi father (literally, not the more common metaphorical "Nazi" you read about these days) gets transferred to a concentration camp. Isolated from his friends, the boy Bruno--looking for all the world to me like a mini-Bud Court circa Harold and Maude days--looks for friends in the area and happens to come across an eight-year-old Jew behind the fence of the camp his father runs.

WWII afficianados assure me this is impossible. But, hey. I'm amused by the fact that "Hogan's Heroes" has made it impossible for anyone in a movie about Nazis to have a German accent. We all just think of that lovable Sgt. Shultz!

What we have here is a fable, an antethesis to Benigni's La Vita E Bella. Only instead of a father trying to keep his Jewish son unaware of the horror they live in, it's a father trying to keep his German son (and whole family) unaware of the horror they're committing.

Heavyhanded? Oh, yeah, without any of the lightness of Benigni. But what the hell else can you do? The mother is the first to figure out what's going on, and the knowledge breaks her. The sister, having a crush on her father's driver, endeavors to be a good Nazi, but even she's taken aback when she pieces it together.

We don't actually know if Bruno ever figures it out.

It's not bad. There's a scene in the beginning where Bruno is playing soldier with his friends that's more than a little trite. And there's a scene in the middle where the sister has gotten rid of her dolls, and the pile looks like a bunch of dead bodies. Other than that, the director spares us most of the really weighty symbolism.

It is in danger of being regarded as important, mind you, like Crash or Babel or any of the other Oscar-baiting crap one sees. But I think Benigni had the harder task.

Ultimately, if there's a flaw in the story--beyond the whether-you-can-suspend-disbelief-this-much, which is your problem, not the movie's--it's sort of that it's a morality tale, a stern warning, a scolding--ultimately directed at long dead people.

I mean, seriously, the odds of me running a genocidal camp while my children are still young enough to be negatively impacted are pretty small. I'm not even in the genocide field so, you know, I'd have to start as camp janitor or cafeteria worker or whatever. It's just too late in life for me to change careers.

Sorry, is that in poor taste? (If you have to ask....)

It's just that the writers are in a corner. There's very little actual death in the movie, but we can't whitewash the Holocaust. Therefore more difficult and challenging endings that respect the complexity of the situation are forsaken for a tidy, less-than-happy ending that really drives home how bad the Holocaut was.

You know, in case you hadn't heard. Or maybe needed driven home to you. (Last year's The Counterfeiters does a pretty good job.)

I guess my point is, I hate Nazis as much as the next guy, but this movie feels like it's lecturing Nazis, and I just didn't think there were many in that theater. Even when it was sold out.

Speaking of Ebb and Flow

The Bit Maelstrom readership is way down. No comments on Taylon Doon at all. Post-election blues? Economic worries? I don't know. Pointy breasts, like large penis, are always welcome*.

And yet.

Ah, well.

I've spun off a new blog, very technical, very programming heavy. I'm not really putting my technical stuff here at the 'strom. There's probably not a huge crossover between here and there.

I may devote another blog (why not, it's not like they cost anything) to writing, art and music. Not commentary on, but actual items. Commentary I'll keep here.



*That's what Atia (Polly Walker) said in "Rome" and I have no reason to think she was lying.

Cinematic Titanic: Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (again)

There are many great episodes of "Mystery Science Theater 3000". There are some, however, that stand out. Manos, The Hands of Fate, for example. Teenagers from Outer Space. And of course, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians.

Redoing a classic is always fraught with peril but the Cinematic Titanic trailer was hilarious, boding well for this particular remake. The verdict?

Somewhat surprisingly, the weakest of the new releases. They did manage not to repeat a single joke, however.

The challenge with all movie riffing is that it ebbs and flows. You can't really blaze your way through 80 minutes with wall-to-wall jokes. Hitting a good rhythm is a challenge. The last several episodes started out all six-guns firing and then tapered off, sometimes too much, surging toward the middle, and usually dragging a bit by the end.

I gotta believe this is the most difficult aspect of riffing. A little ebb is good, particularly at a point where the viewer needs to concentrate on the action or dialogue--as a prelude to setting up jokes later on. Putting a bunch of jokes into a kind of cohesive whole keeps the audience involved when the jokes are looser.

Case in point, the original Claus had a running gag about "lentils". Teenagers had "TORCHAA!" Even Manos had Torgo. This new Claus sorta has Droppo, but the unfunny clown is unfunny no matter how you mock him. (See Catalina Caper, or any other flick where there's someone trying--and failing--to be funny. And also note how few episodes are based on actual, attempted comedies. Far worse and harder to watch than any cheesy horror film is a failed comedy.)

So the good things about this episode were that the jokes were pretty steady. There was less in the way of long ebbs (though a few). At the same time, the jokes were mostly solidly in the chuckle categoy.

And there was some excitement CT was trying to generate over the fact that they could show the whole movie, whereas on MST3K, they had to cut parts to fit into the format. (No worries, though, the episode is still under 90 minutes.) But by the end? They were just bitching about how long the movie was.

This is a fine line, but it's not really riffing to bitch about how bad or long a movie is. It's just complaining. "You're coming in too cheap!" in the trailer is funny--funny even when you see it a 4th or 5th time in the movie. And there's a point about 2/3rds of the way through where they act like the movie's ended and then get pissed when it's not: It's an old gag, but it works well.

Joel's Christmas gifts segment was awesome. I think it's a mistake for CT not to exploit the wild creativity that was a good third of MST3K's charm. And we are seeing more personality and a bit more of the backstory, so this is good.

I don't want to harp on it, but there were about five political jokes. One of these, paralleling John McCain's Vietnam adventures, was hilarious. There was another really good bit, too.

The rest, though, sort of fall into the clap humor. "Why can't they do that to Ann Coulter?", for example. Yeah, okay. Why not reference Rush Limbaugh when they're taking the pills, while you're at it? (Actually, I think they did take a shot at Limbaugh....)

As I've said before, this stuff leads to comedic laziness.

Anyway, overall amusing but far from hilarious. (The Boy liked it better than I but I didn't hear that much laughing coming from him, either.)

The Preface

Henceforth and until further notice, all announcements must be preceded by the following phrase, or an acceptable variation thereof:

"In these difficult economic times..."

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's Hard To Be Right All The Time

Gas here has dropped to under $2/gallon.

I said this was going to happen. Nobody believed me.

This guy claims the high cost of oil is what caused the economic, eh, glitches we're having right at the moment.

True or not, it is true that oil prices going up suppresses the economy. The suppressed economy reduces demand for oil. The economy is fragile enough that something like this can (and often does) result in enough economic contraction that the countries that jacked up the price in the first place end up getting a lot less per barrel than a slow increase would have.

Oil: Delicious and ironic. Or is it karmic?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pajamas and Poison

Went to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas tonight and it was sold out! Second week in a row, they said. (Well, not exactly sold out, but they said the only seats were front row and The Boy likes to sit in the back. In the corner. Go figger.)

Also recovering from some kind of food poisoning. It happens every few years with something that a normal person would throw up. I don't throw up so a temporary discomfort turns into several days of that not-quite-right feeling.

It's weird because it often feels like I'm hungry but sorta not, then I'll get a fever for a few hours, then it closes out with stiffness in my neck and shoulders. The intestinal discomfort moves lower and lower, but usually disappears before, em, the end of the line.

I'd think it was flu, except for not really having the symptoms, and it never spreads. I actually don't get sick very much. I went from April of 1997 to December of 2005 without so much as a sniffle. Then in 2006 I got three colds in eight months. And I haven't been sick since.

But all three of those colds went from me to the kids. They crawl all over me. They're not sanitary in the least. They also do it when they're sick and I'm not, but I scoff at their puny child germs.

WebMD's symptom checker--and isn't that a little bit of awesomeness, especially for hypochondriacs--says I may have gastritis or indigestion (both of which I'd probably classify in my non-doctorial way as "food poisoning") but there's also this little gem called Giardia.

Dovetails nicely with the parasite discussion over at Althouse.

But if I'm going to have parasites, I want these.

Sidney White and the Seven Dorks

Revenge of the Nerds meets Snow White. You just know that's how the Amanda Bynes vehicle Sydney White was pitched. What's interesting is that the Snow White parts work a lot better than the Nerds parts.

Amanda Bynes got to be famous when I wasn't paying attention to kid shows, particularly girl-oriented kid shows--that narrow window--and so when she starred in What A Girl Wants I was like, "Ooh! Amanda Bynes in a movie! Wow! Who's Amanda Bynes?" And, honestly, I've had the same reaction every subsequent time she impinged on my consciousness.

These channels, particularly Nickelodeon and Disney, act as grooming areas for the next generation of stars--quite effectively, I think. You know, when they remade all those horror movies after Scream, while the movies weren't very good, the one thing they had over the old movies is that the acting was a zillion times better.

Take the not very good late '90s horror film Disturbing Behavior. Not a great movie, but the kids include Katie Holmes (Thank You For Smoking), James Marsden (who would go on to be in Hairspray with Bynes), Nick Stahl (of the late, lamented "Carnivale" series) and Katharine Isabelle (who's not as big a star but a fine actress nonetheless).

Of course, the adult cast (Bruce Greenwood, Steve Railsback, William Sadler) and the production also kick ass over the old ones, which suggests there was a lot more money in the new movies. But I think there were also a lot fewer young adult actors who had been through the day-to-day grind of TV shows production.

Disturbing Behavior, by the way, was written by a chief writer on one of Trooper York's new favorites: Life on Mars. Interesting that the whole movie isn't much better.

Anyway, Bynes is sufficiently charming. More than sufficient. She does the "adorable but accessible" thing perfectly. Her foil is Sara Paxton, who does a good "Evil Queen" even though she's been a convincing protagonist in her own right in such tweenie fare as Aquamarine. (And she's going to be in the remake of Last House on the Left...[shudder].)

The premise is that tomboy Bynes raised by widowed plumbing contractor John Schneider (who's career has finally recovered from his success as a Duke boy) goes off to college and to the sorrority her mother used to belong to. The Evil Queen running the sorrority drums her out, and she ends up in the wilderness.

That's when the seven dorks living in the run-down house at the end of Greek Row invite her in. She does some Snow White-style cleaning up, and runs a campaign against the Evil Queen to get her and the dorks into the student council.

What makes the movie watchable is really the little references to Snow White. For example, the magic mirror is a "Hot or Not" list, and Paxton is pretty hilarious with her over-the-top outrage over Bynes climbing up the rankings. The poisoned apple turns out to be a virus-infected Mac. "Hi ho!" becomes "Hi, ho."

And of course, you find yourself going, "Oh, that one's Sleepy. That one's Sneezy." Happy is, for this updated version, Horny. And Arnie Pantoja as George does the most overt imitation of Dopey from the movies.

Just as these clever interpretations liven up the proceedings, using the Revenge of the Nerds framework drags it down. Although I liked Nerds, it's far from a great movie, and when this film does the "I'm a nerd" scene at the end as "I'm a dork," it's pretty weak. They sort of punted on the whole framework of the movie.

The film isn't really raunchy, and Matt Long, who plays the Prince Charming character, manages not to come off like a douchebag. Most of the naughty bits are on the level of comments you might hear in a primetime sitcom. (The Flower basically misses them.)

Apparently Bynes lost her hair doing a short role in Hairspray and so wears a wig throughout, also, her makeup reminds me of Juilanne Moore in Boogie Nights.

Little things like this aside, the movie turns out to be a not unpleasant 1:45.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Week 13

Friday: 123 minutes

Saturday: 170 minutes

Sunday: 83 minutes

Monday: 100 minutes

Tuesday: 157 minutes

Wednesday: 300 minutes

Thursday: 92 minutes

1025 minutes. I backed off a bit because of foot pain. I'm getting a lot fewer incidents like this, but I may break down and buy some real shoes...

The New Bond Girls: Pointy and Rounded

We're #1! The Maelstrom is now #1 in Google if you search for "pointy breasts"! And they said I'd never amount to anything.

Eva Green (left, and below depending on how you've got your browser scaled) played Vesper in Casino Royale, with the retro breast shape that made this blog famous!

Still, Olga Kurylenko (right) is all kinds of cute in Quantum of Solace.

Bond actually manages a sort-of platonic relationship with Olga in Solace.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Taylon Doon and the Impending Deadline

Hoo-boy, I'm way behind. Waaay behind. May not even be possible for me to finish.

Well, that's not true. I certainly can. But is it worth it?

It's funny. For a guy who never did much rewriting when I was making a serious go at it, I'm finding myself rewriting like crazy.

Anyway, as it turns out WordPress doesn't screw up the format, so here's the start. Comment away.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bond: A Small Amount of Comfort

Quantum used to be used to mean a small amount. Really. I'm just positive. Somewhere in the '80s it started to be used to mean a large amount, as in, "a quantum leap", playing on the idea of electrons moving from one position to the other without traversing the space in-between.

And now, with Quantum of Solace, we have Quantum being....well, I'm not exactly sure. OK, it's a play on words: Bond, having lost love of his life, pointy-breasted Eva Green, must console himself with round-breasted Olga Kurylenko. (Actually, and fortunately, it's not that obvious, though that's sort of how it would've worked in the old Bond series.)

Quantum is also the reboot's version of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), the super-secret bad-guy organization that was always out to blow up the moon or artificially inflate the retail price of Peeps or whatever.

Anyway, to me the real danger that this new series is has to avoid is campiness, and I give it good marks for that. The Boy noted that in the original (Casino Royale), when James Bond was confronted with an extremely agile suspect fleeing on foot, he made up for his shortcomings with brute force and determination, whereas in this one, he seems to be super-agile and just matching his opponents.

Interesting point. Casino Royale did make Bond seem less super-heroic. And that's a dangerous route to go down. There's a scene where he takes out three agents in an elevator that struck me as a little much.

OK, let's get out of the way first that this is not, in any way, as good as Casino Royale. But it's still better than the other Bond movies on a number of levels: It's not campy. There are virtually no gadgets. (I'm not anti-gadget per se but they're going to have to be oh-so-careful to not lapse into the nonsense the original series went through.) Quantum is both mysterious but has a villainous face that can serve as the focal point of the plot.

Some members of the organization meet at an opera and talk to teach other over something akin to bluetooth, so that they're in the same room but not face-to-face. I've seen some objections to that but I think it's something you could actually pull off with a little money.

The overarching scheme--utility rights in Bolivia--seem somewhat less grandiose than blowing up the moon, and I'm not sure where I stand on that as being a good MacGuffin.

Bond, at least in part seeking revenge for the death of Vesper, ends up tangled up in a plot involving Camille (Kurylenko) who is also seeking revenge on the Bolivian General who's using Quantum to overthrow the government. The CIA wants to get in bed with the future ruler and agrees to "get rid of" Bond on behalf of the Quantum agent (what?).

Can't say I'm crazy about that line. Frankly, I think intelligence agencies are prone to doing bad things--the nature of being able to act in secret with other people's money and official protection--but I didn't need the America-bashing. (Show us as cloddish dunderheads, but at least good-hearted!)

The main shortfall of this movie over the superb Casino Royale is it's relatively unfocused nature. It meanders, relative to the previous film, but it's sort of remarkable in that it manages to suffuse an action film with a certain melancholy without being boring.

Anyway, not as bad as some die-hard fans are suggesting.

Madagascar 2: Back To The Box Office

Of course, the real problem with these Dreamworks movies is I sit there going "Who is that? Is that...?"

It's Alec Baldwin this time. He's the evil lion whose constant haranguing of the king (the late Bernie Mac) is ultimately what results in Ben Stiller's Alex the Lion Cub being kidnapped and ultimately ending up in Central Park Zoo.

This movie takes up where the last left off, basically, with the four characters (lion, zebra, giraffe and hippopotamous played by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith) trying to get back to New York. The Penguins get them to Africa where they find a preserve and many of their own kind, and Alex The Lion is reuinted with his parents.

Before you know it, evil Alec Baldwin is there taking advantage of Alex's ignorance of lion ritual and gets Alex banned from the reserve. Marty finds a bunch of other zebras exactly like him (all voiced by Chris Rock, amusingly enough), Gloria finds hippo love and Melman discovers that his fellow giraffes are also all hypochondriacs.

The plot ends up being more derivative than original, reminding particularly of The Lion King, though never played at that level of seriousness, obviously. Also, no musical numbers. But the jokes are pretty steady and not all bad. Because it's Dreamworks and Katzenberg, there are a few more jokes aimed at the parents than I'd like, including some of that referential stuff that ages poorly.

But The Flower liked it and The Boy didn't hate it, and I had a few laughs, so that's not bad.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

New Word: Phrenetic

Phrenetic: adj., Frantically attempting to read the bumps on someone's head.

ex:

Why's he so phrenetic?
The bunco squad is coming!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Time Machines

Yes, I've said that H.G. Wells Time Machine isn't really apocalyptic or even post-apocalyptic, as it's so far into the future that it's simply a new reality. But I'm only mentioning it as a segue into the real subject.

First of all, I didn't really care for the book. Or for War of the Worlds. I read H.G. Wells in Junior High and I was probably out of my depth, but I found him dull. So imagine my surprise when I saw the George Pal movie a few years ago and found it was great.

Rod Taylor is handsome and heroic and Yvette Mimieux worthy of rescuing, and the whole thing is a lot more engaging than I would have suspected with the rather thin plot of the book. (War of the Worlds is also thin on plot, but the George Pal movie is also better.)

But what we fear about apocalypse is written on the smaller "ends" that we experience throughout our life. Deaths. Growing up. Sexual awakening. All the various acquaintances we make with the universe where the universe goes out of its way to educate us on who the winner is to be most of the time.

We're all in a one-way time machine, with little apocalypses in the form of cell death and senescence.

Cheery thought for a Monday, eh? Yet, the cell death is really just a form of reminding us of what has passed--or is it that we long for what has passed because we were younger then?

Spider Robinson had an early sci-fi story called "The Time Traveller" that took place at Callahan's Saloon. It concerned someone who had been locked up for about 20 years, from about 1960 to 1980, I think. And the world was so different, he's a modern Rip Van Winkle.

And yet, you could draw a line from, say, 1988 to 2008 and again not recognize the world. And while I'd argue that the world is a much better place now then it was then (overall and with plenty of caveats), I wonder about the next 20 years.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Are You There God? It's Me, That Guy Who Doesn't Believe In You

Hector and I were talking in the Smoke thread about the phenomenon of atheists in Church. I think it's not uncommon. I wrote:

Religion serves a purpose that isn't diminished by disbelief. I go to the Jews again here, because they adhere to the roots of religion which are "to bind". Many of the great atheists were Jewish because, of course, Jewish-ness transcends what one believes. Every Jew knows, I think, that when the next round of pogroms start, whether or not they're practicing will not change their fate.

So the outside world binds them as well.

I think the need for the religious binding remains even when we can't see God.

Hector responded with some interesting questions.

1) does Pascal's wager imply some contempt for God's intelligence? Isn't it just a transparent ruse?

Pascal's wager, of course, says (roughly) that there's no penalty for believing in God and a tremendous penalty for not (believing in the Christian God), therefore belief is the safest choice. You can read the various rebuttals and apologetics, but I think the key to Hector's question comes from a subtler view of the wager.

That is, Pascal is not advising anyone to pretend to believe in God; nor do I think that he came up with this wager to win converts. No, I think Pascal's wager is meant to be a comfort to Christians who, like Pascal, lead logic-driven lives and then have to confront the challenges of faith.

2) is there a way that does not involve belief in God (or deities of some sort) to get the sort of social networks that churches promote, in which people care for, and actually help, people outside the group of their blood or marriage relations? Is this commitment of people to care for one another what you mean by "the religious binding?" If so, is belief in a God or Gods required to make it work?

I think people are bound by necessity. I think that's why, for example, bonds are generally less powerful today in the developed world: Lower necessity means a weaker bond. (You can see this writ small on marriage: Women need men less, and men are more likely to see women as an unnecessary enemy.) So I think you do see a binding in, say, frontier towns that isn't necessarily driven by religion. But it's tied to the frontier. It wouldn't survive a diaspora.

Does it need a God? Not exactly, I don't think. If we look at the other things people could bind over (blood ties, geography, philosophy, God, ritual, occupation, military service athleticism, TV shows, etc.), it's clear that some things work better than others. And if we look at the many forms of statism (including communism, socialism, fascism, etc.), you see that it doesn't work at all, and in fact undermines other bonds.

I think that's a clue. Statism places the authority of the state above all. Spiritualism tells Man that he is, in portion, greater than any temporal organization. That there are fates worse than death. And that he has responsibilities that go beyond his own body. (I believe this is what underlies the antagonism between Church and State.)

So, I think you need a powerful abstraction to unite people. People sign on to collectivist ideas because it's fundamentally true that we are interdependent. But the State quickly--like, immediately--reduces to a self-aggrandizing monster, and so fails to bind people. (Except in the same way a natural disaster binds people.)

Modern libertarianism--probably the most logical approach to governance--also fails to unite people very strongly, because it describes a negative. Compare "the virtues of selfishness" to "All Men are created equal...[and]...are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". Both describe the same thing, essentially, yet Jefferson's argument posits a noble Man.

Sidebar: I think this is the reason for Jefferson's ascendance over Adams. Adams was probably a better President, a nobler man, maybe even a better human being than Jefferson, but Jefferson set the gold standard in appealing to our better nature. Adams was wary of us, Jefferson told us we were better than anyone had let on before.

God, in His various forms, unites people in much the way Santa Claus unites children: There's a guy out there watching and judging your every move. This works because it's true, because minimally you--your Inner Jefferson, if you like--are watching and judging your every move.

In summary, God isn't necessary, but you need something huge--and there has to be some truth. Consider Selma and the Civil Rights Movement: Something huge has to be behind you if you're going to stand up to the awesome power of the State. (See? The State knew the Church was trouble!)

3) do the Unitarian Universalists have the answer to #2? If so, why aren't they more successful? In terms of membership numbers, or any other objective measurement.

Oh, I think the other major part of binding that's necessary is missing with UUs: Sacrifice. Religions require sacrifice. Time. Money. Food. Sex. Public approval. It costs something to be Jewish. If you're born Jewish, you carry that potential sacrifice with you all the time, even if you renounce the faith. If you practice the faith seriously, there are all kinds of things you can do, you can't do, etc.

The modern attitude is "Why do I need all this? Does God really care if I keep my foreskin and eat ham sandwiches?" Thus completely missing the point. If you want to believe that a particular faith is right, you can without any other fuss. But you're not a member of a religion till you make the necessary sacrifices.

Most religions deal with severe persecution. Christians with their lions. Jews with, well, practically everyone. The Druze are so secret, even they don't know what they believe. What do UUs sacrifice? Not only have they no Big Idea, they have no shared sacrifice.

Look at evangelicals: At some level, they're responsible for the soul of every living human. What are Unitarians responsible for? (You can translate this to the marriage debate pretty easily.)

This also explains why disbelief doesn't diminish religion. Even if you're an atheist, you can appreciate religion and what it does. Religious people are usually happy to share their experiences and welcome you in. You can fight alongside them in righteous causes. And the question of whether you are a True Believer is entirely separate from the actual practice of religion. (Consider me the anti-Bill Maher.)

4) Would you like to keep the tone of The Bit Maelstrom a little lighter than this? If so, feel free to delete this comment, I won't mind a bit. (Won't mind a bit! Hah! And I say things about Larry Niven's prose style being telegraphic, when I do it myself all the time.)

You know, I tend to ramble, and I can go on for days about this stuff, which is why I tend to avoid it. I find it fascinating, but pointless without an interested listener.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

And You End Up Despising Walt Disney

Me: Hi, sweetie!
Barbarienne: Shut up and eat your garbage!

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

And your lungs. And your clothing. Hair.

The big fire up in Santa Barbaara is throwing ash all over the place.

Eh. I'm spoiled. When I was a kid, there were days that were like chain smoking. Now there's seldom a day that amounts to a pipe.

Reminds me of Carlin's bit, "WE SWAM IN RAW SEWAGE!"

Lizabeth Scott: Vampire Killer

I haven't done the pointy breast thing in a while--I doubt very much I'll ever pass the more serious results in the Google cache. I mean, come on, "WomensAnswers.Org" and "answers.yahoo.com". I really shouldn't be at the top of the list. People are apparently concerned about the shape of breasts and it's bad to offer them snark and titillation rather when they're in need of real information.

Nooooooooow, having said that, Hector "Rain In The Doorway" linked to an actress who has to be included, even if our only goal is to be taken as third-grade snark.

Film noir actress Lizabeth Scott!

I've never seen any of her pictures, sad to say, though some look pretty good, and a few others look interesting, if not exactly good. (She co-starred with Heston in Dark City and with Martin and Lewis in Scared Stiff.)

But come on. She looks like she could kill two vampires at once if she angled herself properly.

That blouse, by the way, is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about when I first broached this subject. Ms. Scott is covered from the next to the wrists and all the way down, yet for all the dress leaves to the imagination, she might as well be naked.

Something about that combination of repression and naughtiness that's quintessentially '50s.

So, all hail Lizabeth Scott, who celebrated her 86th birthday back in September.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Treadmill Desk, Week 12

Saturday: 100 minutes.

Sunday: 90 minutes.

Monday: 0 minutes

Tuesday: 0 minutes

Wednesday: 270 minutes

Thursday: 360 minutes

Friday: 140 minutes

A paltry ... uh ... sixteen hours? Actually, on Sunday, after the light day on Saturday I started having foot pain that made me think, oh crap, plantar fasciitis. So I backed off and then stayed backed off until it went away.

The plan was to go light on Wednesday and Thursday but that didn't work out. I got busy. I backed off today because the six hours on Thursday made me a little nervous. I may indeed have to go for real shoes. (Real expensive shoes.)

Bit Maelstrom: Tops in Tops and Bottoming Out

As you should know, this blog is the king of the pointy breast. The dominant searches that lead to this site are for "pointy breasts".

But the Bit Maelstrom is #1 for this search as well:

dow jones usually over 10,000 november 2008

Breasts & Bucks here at the Bit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Once I Built A Railroad

So, this guy argues that the economy is worse off than we know, and shows how the various stats have been fudged over the years.

I think there's a lot of truth to that, but isn't the economy what we think it is, ultimately? I mean, there's a little bit of black magic there that what we think about it determines how we act which has actual effect which tends to reinforce what we think.

Some theorize that, for example, the constant negative drumbeat of the press during a Republican administration results in actual economic suppression. (The good thing about a Dem winning the election is that all our economic news will have a positive spin and all our wars will become just.)

But, for example, removing food and energy from the inflation index is something I have mixed feelings about. At some point it matters but, for example, we didn't have 100% inflation because fuel prices doubled, and we didn't have 50% deflation because they've now dropped. I realize it's only one factor, but I can see why it would skew things unreasonably.

Actually, if you were really going to measure inflation in an important way, you'd measure based on how it actually affected people. You know, take a person's actual daily/weekly/monthly costs and compare those items, put them in a sample that reflected the composition of the country, and that people could drill down to see what it is for their particular bracket.

Then when yacht prices went through the roof, we could see that rampant inflation was affecting only the very wealthy.

Then there's this allergy to deflation. I realize deflation is bad if you're in debt, but it seems to me that deflation ought to be part of financial cycles just as much as inflation. I mean, a roughly stable currency seems like a good thing to me, but I could be wrong. Certainly, that's not popular thought.

I dunno. It's a lot nicer thinking that we have record unemployment lows than the numbers are just being fudged--but they do that in all the socialist states as well, to avoid the awful truth, so maybe we should try to keep our noses clean.

An Infinite Number of Monkeys vs. A Finite Number Of Brain Cells

The limits of materialism are evident, at least to me. For example, in the materialist view, there must be a maximum amount of memories one can have, else where are they stored? (This has been calculated at various times, with current models now approaching near infinity for practical purposes.) Then there's the issue of causality. (You can't logically have causality and responsibility if everything is the result of physical laws that dictate behavior.)

And then there's this crap. According to this, the human being can't really care about more than 150 people at a time. (This is an interesting parallel to Aristotle's famous essay on how many friends one can have, I'll grant.) The brain, it is argued, can't handle it. (O! thou organ of limitless and limited power!) He calls this limit the monkeysphere.

It's fun the play spot the assumptions:

People toss half-full bottles of drain cleaner right into the barrel, without a second thought of what would happen if the trash man got it splattered into his eyes. Why? Because the trash guy exists outside the Monkeysphere.

Sure, some people don't think about service guys. But the fact that trash men aren't running around blinded tells you something as well. For example, it might tell you that people sort of figure that the trash guy knows what he's doing and takes reasonable precautions, and that they're right.

The simple fact is it's impossible to act if you weight every person equally in your life. Not only would that not be a commendable thing, it would be downright stupid. Your attention should be on the people who most directly affect your life, like the jerk who pulls out into traffic in front of you without signally, or whose lives you can affect, like the Ethernopian kid you send money to every month.

This next bit is spectacularly off:

Remember the first time, as a kid, you met one of your school teachers outside the classroom? Maybe you saw old Miss Puckerson at Taco Bell eating refried beans through a straw, or saw your principal walking out of a dildo shop. Do you remember that surreal feeling you had when you saw these people actually had lives outside the classroom?

I mean, they're not people. They're teachers.

Of course I've had that experience. But not because I didn't think of my teachers as people--and certainly not because they were outside my alleged monkeysphere. It was because teachers used to have a distance--a kind of altitude--that allowed them to maintain order and teach. It's not that they weren't people. It's that they weren't children.

I adored my grade school and earlier teachers. I had to get to Junior High school before I started getting teachers I didn't like (with a big caveat for my nursery school teachers who scared the bejeezus out of me).

But Mr. Wong has a theory, and he's going to fit all kinds of experiences into that theory whether they belong or not. I can't relate, for example, to this:

That's why you get that weird feeling of anonymous invincibility when you're sitting in a large crowd, screaming curses at a football player you'd never dare say to his face.

I'm not big on attending sporting events but I don't scream curses at the athletes. I root for the winning team and sometimes boo the opposing team because that's what you do. I don't have any real animosity for the opposing side at all. (Sure, some people get into it to that degree, but how many take it personally? Probably about the same percentage of crazies, or maybe slightly fewer, than make the political personal.)
Sure, you probably don't go out of your way to be mean to strangers. You don't go out of your way to be mean to stray dogs, either.
But you're the one making the equivalency, not me.
The problem is that eventually, the needs of you or those within your Monkeysphere will require screwing someone outside it (even if that need is just venting some tension and anger via exaggerated insults).
This just plain isn't true: Except for a statistically insignificant portion, civilization was built by those I've never met and am only vaguely aware of at best. I will be one of those anonymous many for the future. Survival is the exact opposite of a zero-sum game.

This paragraph essentially refutes the entire premise of the essay. Yes, life is in competition with other life. That, much like the sports event, is the game. But the vast majority of the people outside your circle are what make your existence possible, and a great deal of what you do, provided you are not a leech, is what makes others' existences possible.

And, what the hell? Since when is "venting anger via exaggerated insults" screwing someone? How big a pussy do you have to be to believe that?
This is why most of us wouldn't dream of stealing money from the pocket of the old lady next door, but don't mind stealing cable, adding a shady exemption on our tax return, or quietly celebrating when they forget to charge us for something at the restaurant.
Am I a Martian? I've only ever sent checks back for being in my favor. (I also used to tell my teachers when they missed marking me down in school.) And what's with the broad equivalencies?

It just gets worse from there. Check out this gem:
Talk radio's Rush Limbaugh is known to tip 50% at restaurants, but flies into a broadcast tirade if even half that dollar amount is deducted from his paycheck by "The Government." That's despite the fact that the money helps that very same single mom he had no problem tipping in her capacity as a waitress.
See what happens when you reduce everything to the material? A man wanting to decide the fate of his own money is being irrational if he objects to the government taking it from him to perform approximately the same task (at a greatly reduced efficiency, and of course less actual personal freedom).

There's no sense of right or wrong anywhere in this essay. Everyone just gets away with what they can, and they do so because of their brain. But this guy has the answer: Everything is more complicated than it seems, and we're all just primates flinging feces at each other.

There's also no good or evil. You and I are just Osama Bin Laden without the crazy-ass followers. His belief that we're oppressing him is just as valid as our belief that he killed 3,000+ of our citizens.

I tend to think that civilization depends on billions of us acting within a fairly narrow set of parameters suggests that the whole 150 limit is absurd on the face of it. If we were really and truly limited, civilization as we know it never would have emerged. Having SUVs and TVs didn't create the need for civilization, civilization created the possibility of having SUVs and TVs. But that's the typical reversal of a materialist.

I read this years ago and it disgusted me enough that I ignored it, but Ace just linked to another piece by this guy on how the Internet is going to be regulated so that there's no more anonymity, because anonymity empowers trolls and trolls hurt business.

Meh. Possibly. But so far the 'net has resisted a lot of obvious regulation, and things don't have to always get worse.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

RocknRollan on the River

The thing about these English gangster flicks is that it takes a while for the ol' ears to adjust to the myriad accents and quaint sayings and slang and whatnot, and by the time you've adjusted, you don't know who anyone is and have no idea what's going on.

OK, it's not that bad, but I remember getting halfway through Billy Elliot--which had been given an "R" rating for swearing--wondering where all the swearing was before I realized that "fook" and "shite" are naughty.

And so we come to Guy Ritchie's latest production, his divorce from Madonna.

No, wait, it's RocknRolla, the tale of a couple of British "real estate developers" whose deal has gone sour because their partner in crime has prevented the necessary zoning from being passed so that he can get the land from them and squeeze them for his "losses" which ultimately forces them to look for other sources of money which actually ends up causing trouble for the guy who swindled them because of his hot 'n' wild accountant all while searching out the rat who's been turning them in for years.

Phew.

Oh, yeah, and the big guy's son is the titular RocknRolla, a local drug-abusing musician who has a habit of being reported dead. He steals a painting which doesn't quite act as a MacGuffin, but which provides a fun thread throughout the film.

Surprisingly, this movie is a little slow, at least at first. It picks up momentum as it goes and finishes strong, with lots of good moments.

The cast is very good, with Gerard Butler as One-Two and Idris Elba as Mumbles and a bunch of other Brits with equally colorful character names. The music is what you'd expect. And there's a nice combination of whimsy with really, truly abhorrent gang style violence. Sassy!

We liked it. I'm not a big gangster movie guy, but this was fun.

I noticed something interesting: These guys weren't really gangsters in the traditional sense of running drugs and booze or hookers or contraband: The big boss's power came entirely from government. Zoning laws and building codes, in fact. The money came from the change in value of a property based on zoning changes.

[insert "small government rant" here]

But I wonder if that's not something that's just considered normal in the highly regulated world of London.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Reasons to pirate software.

My buddy's a big gamer. Mostly sports stuff, which I don't do, but also Command and Conquer. (Check out the link. It's David Hasselhoff!)

A couple of years ago, he tried to get me and another pal into C&C: Generals. (I almost always buy games long after they come out. I don't have time to play them so, you know, why spend a lot of money on them. "But, Blake!" you say, "Why buy them at all if you don't have time to play them?" To which I remind you, "Shut up.")

"Generals", like so many games today, has so much copy protection, it's absurd. First, of course, it copies its entire contents to your hard drive. It still requires you to keep the CD in the drive, naturally. Also, you've got to enter a serial number and product key. Even if you're just playing over your home network, "Generals" will helpfully check those serial numbers so that you can't (say) play with your kid without buying another copy. Some games add to that, require Internet activation. "Generals" didn't, and I'm not sure if "Red Alert 3" does, but (for example) Spore does: A bunch of people devoted themselves to trashing it on Amazon because of that. (I have mixed feelings about that tactic.)

Meanwhile you can download a cracked version of anything that requires no CD and no Internet activation.

Even when these things work, they're supremely annoying. Your cash outlay is rendered worthless if you misplace the game manual or jewel case or in some cases a little slip of paper. Or if you can't connect to the Internet.

The requirement to keep the CD in the drive results in: a) not being able to play the game when you want, since you have to dig up the CD; b) the CD being damaged.

In the case of Red Alert 3, though, we have a situation where the last number of the product key didn't get printed. The registration helpfully aborts after three tries, so I had to initiate the install procedure five times before I discovered "M" was the magic missing letter.

Also: $60.

I'm opposed to piracy. I think people should be able to get paid for their work and set the price they want to receive for said work.

But the pirates deliver a better product.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: The Monsters Are Due

Can a story be apocalyptic when it's not really apocalyptic?

OK, that's a stupid question. Can a story be apocalyptic when the objective reality is actually not?

Submitted for your approval: "The Twilight Zone". TZ did apocalypse and post-apocalypse better than any one, because whatever they did only had to last 22 minutes. (Let's just forget those over-extended hour shows.) So, they could look at any aspect of a potential apocalypse intensely, and leave the rest of the details to our imaginations.

The particular episode for today is "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street". It's a fiendishly simple premise that given a few banal, but rattling and inexplicable circumstances, people will turn on each other. Presented with a potential apocalypse, in other words, people will act to destroy the world.

This is particularly a propos of last week's election. In any given US election, a substantial portion of the population is convinced the world will end if their guy doesn't get in. In the past eight years, we've heard a lot of screaming that it actually has or did come to an end, if only we'd been paying attention. (Fortunately, whatever damage has been done is instantly reparable by The Other Guy. But now that guy's gonna bring on the apocalypse.)

I don't think that the phenomena in "Monsters Are Due On Maple Street" would bother anyone much today. We're already used to rolling black outs. But our elections herald the new monsters.

The South Park episode airing the day after the election played on this a bit, with the winners celebrating and the losers fearing the post-election world. But in that episode, it only took the night for people to begin to realize that not much is different. And I think in real life, it'll take a minimum of two years for people to get over this one.

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