The seven movies Roger Corman made from Edgar Allan Poe stories in the 1960′s feel like variations of the same universal Poe story. Most have the same haunted mansion visual style, most star Vincent Price as the victim of neurotic obsessions, and premature burials and stern siblings abound. The plots are different from the stories, but the mood and the themes are as close to Poe as you’ll get. House of Usher (1960) is the first and one of the best. Definitely the spookiest, with its wonderful ghostly dream sequence. Pit and the Pendulum (1961) is another good one. Vincent Price swoons a lot, which doesn’t seem quite right. Premature Burial (1962) probably should have starred Vincent Price, but it does have a lot of premature burials. Tales of Terror (1963) is a bit cheesy. The Raven (1963) is a .. comedy. Yes, they turned Poe’s great poem into camp. I gave up when the raven began to wisecrack like a Disney sidekick. Tomb of Ligeia (1964) is different and interesting. No, the word I’m looking for is ‘bad’, but it’s a pity, because there’s something unique here.
My favourite is The Masque of the Red Death (1964), which stands apart with its sadism, decadence and Satan-worship, and for once a truly evil Vincent Price. Just brilliant, I love it. Its dialogue was sampled beautifully by Theatre of Tragedy, listen and admire, (it’s 3:55 in, I always wondered where that was from):
Det sies at det er bra for demokratiet at du følger med på hva som skjer i verden. Det stemmer – med noen forbehold. Her er formelen: Verdien for demokratiet av å følge med på et emne synker i takt med tiden du allerede har brukt på det, og det synker i takt med antall mennesker rundt deg som også gjør det. Når alle andre vet hva finansministeren heter, er det knapt noe ekstra verdi for demokratiet at du også vet det. Det er riktignok flaut å ikke vite det, slik det er litt flaut å ikke ha sett den siste Batman-filmen, men for demokratiet betyr det ingenting. Derimot har det stor verdi at du bruker femten minutter på å skumlese en NUPI-rapport. Det er kanskje ikke så gøy, og ikke gir det status heller, men det er så få andre som gjør det at demokratiet tjener mye. På samme måte er det lite verdi for demokratiet i at du følger aktivt med på den amerikanske presidentvalgkampen, for den kjenner du allerede godt. Derimot tjener vi alle på at du velger deg ut et bortglemt lite land, og følger med på alt som skjer der de neste månedene. Kanskje blir det pluselig viktig. Igjen er det kanskje hverken moro eller status i det, men vær isåfall ærlig med deg selv om at det er derfor du heller leser om Demokrat-landsmøtet i Denver. Gjør gjerne det, (jeg er ikke noe bedre jeg), men ikke lat som at det er viktig.
Det er to grunner til at jeg sjelden besøker kulturelitens litterære kanon. Den ene er at jeg, som nordmenn flest, er litt skeptisk til finkultur. Det viktige er at du liker det du leser, og så er det ikke så farlig om det er Sandemo eller Solstad. Den andre er at det er noe tilfeldig over utplukkingskriteriene til listen over De Store. Noen slipper inn fordi de fortjener det, andre fordi de er heldige, omtrent som med andre A-lister, så som A-kjendiser og A-bloggere. Det riktige er å se på kulturelitens litterære romaner som en egen sjanger, en av mange, som hver appellerer til sine personlighetstyper og subkulturer. Jeg tror derimot ikke at kvalitet bare handler om personlig smak. Hva du liker, det handler om smak. Kvalitet handler om hva du ville likt hvis du visste at det fantes. De som i år har kost seg med Jo Nesbø’s Hodejegerne, ville nok hatt enda mer glede av å utforske thriller- og krim-forfattere fra utenfor den norske sandkassen. Det er derfor hver subkultur har sin egen kulturelite, som betrakter hverandre med gjensidig nedlatenhet, fordi de som leser mye krim eller horror eller SF har bedre kalibrerte kvalitetssensorer for denne sjangeren enn de som ikke gjør det. Noen forsøker å bryte ned gjerdene, men hvem rekker å sette seg inn i alt? Den norske kvalitetsrelativismen er derfor en sunn tommelfingerholdning: Ikke fordi alt er like bra, men fordi det er mye bra du aldri har hørt om.
Teenagers don’t talk and act like they do in Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, but who cares? Veronica Mars-teens make more interesting characters. And everything here apart from that is either real or plausible. The technology is real. Little Brother is the best beginner’s introduction you’ll find to privacy and surveillance. And if you wonder why privacy should matter to you, it explains that too. The politics are thriller-plausible, reality exaggerated for story purposes. So maybe the Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t turn San Francisco into a police state because of a second 9/11, but there’s still an important message here about the friction between being free and feeling safe, about the merely symbolic value of many anti-terror measures, and about the two faces of information technology: One takes our freedoms away, the other gives them back. The main character’s aliases hint at Doctorow’s twin inspirations: W1n5t0n, from Orwell’s 1984, and M1k3y, from Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Little Brother is very similar to The Moon.., with the same mood and the same educational purpose. Doctorow’s message of hope, that a bunch of teenagers can use technology to defend their civil rights from authoritarian grownups, is actually depressing when you think about it. Doctorow implies that in tomorrow’s world you’ll need to be a tech geek to have any privacy. That’s not the argument he wants to make, but it’s not far from the truth: Our governments are sleeping surveillance giants. Everybody be very, very quiet now.
Når markedsliberale snakker om hvor mye flinkere private er enn det offentlige, så er det en regel med flere unntak. Det finnes private firmaer som er vel så fastgrodde og arrogante som det offentlige ofte er. Og det finnes offentlige institusjoner og monopoler som er dynamiske og kundeorienterte. La meg i dag fortelle hvor glad jeg er i Posten Norge. Som en over gjennomsnittet forbruker av nettbutikker mottar jeg pakker rett som det er. For noen år siden måtte jeg hjem tidlig fra jobben for å rekke “Postkontoret”. I dag holder de til på Meny, og har åpent til 21. Enkelte nettbutikker tror de gjør meg en tjeneste når de sender via UPS og DHL, men de leverer kun på dagtid. Posten leverer gjerne på kvelden. Valgmuligheter! Service! Vakkert. Å besøke en bank er derimot like horribelt i dag som for 10 år siden – det er bare webteknologien som har reddet dem fra en imagekatastrofe.
En organisasjon trenger to ting for å være dynamisk: Dødsfrykt og kundebegjær. Dødsfrykt er vissheten om at man ikke kan ta livsgrunnlaget sitt for gitt, og kundebegjær er en kultur som sulter etter faste og fornøyde kunder. Dette er mulig i det offentlige, men det er vanlig i det private. Det er derfor jeg liker privatisering, fordi den beste måten å skape dødsfrykt og kundebegjær på i en organisasjon er å sende den ut i verden uten skattefinansierte støttehjul. Posten har tydeligvis funnet en annen måte, og all ære til dem for det. Men privatisering er den mest pålitelige.
This is how to write pop-sci: Select a theme, a Big Idea, but let it flow naturally from the subject. Dumb it down, but not enough to give the reader a false sense of understanding. Keep your anecdotes few and relevant. After too many Wisdom of Crowds-type books that violate all of the above, it is refreshing to find Fearful Symmetry – The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics by Anthony Zee. Zee aims to present not the details but the flavor of 20th century physics. His two central concepts, symmetry and group theory, are both simpler and more difficult than the formula-oriented physics most of us remember from school, allowing a randomly educated amateur like me to enjoy the book without giving me the idea that I know the first thing about physics. Which is how it should be. Written in 1986, Fearful Symmetry says almost nothing about string theory, and that’s not really a weakness. One step at a time. In line with the Blake reference, Zee refers liberally to Him (the ultimate creator) and Her (mother nature) throughout the book, which is an unintrusive figure of speech, but it also reflects a deism that evades the question of why there are such beautiful patterns in physics in the first place. When all your explanations for a Mystery are bad ones, (“somebody just made it that way”), it may be best not to explain it at all.
Stellet Licht – Attention film-makers: I don’t care that it worked for Kubrick, do not open your film with 9 minutes of silence. Watched: 6 more minutes, and most of them were silent too. IMDB reviewers, on the other hand, were “joyfully, tearfully and emotionally sucked in”.
Den Sorte Madonna – Danish take on 80′s action comedy cliches. Watched: 11 minutes. IMDB reviewers frothing, demand that director Lasse Spang Olsen be tried at the International Criminal Court.
Nightwatching – Loved the intro, the rest not so much. Self-aware and theatery in a bad way. Watched: 10 minutes. IMDB reviewers are divided between those who didn’t like it, and those who appear to share the movie’s flaws.
Smother – “Write what you know” does not apply when all you know is that your mom is overbearing and your boss is a twerp. Watched: 5 minutes.
The Wizard of Gore – Ambitious exploitative B-horror, with nudity, blood and guts. This is the most fun I’ve had all night – this is why I do these things. Yes yes it’s crappy, but it’s also unique and stylish and surreal. Watched: All of it. IMDB reviewers say it’s less gory than the 1970 original, which they see as a bad thing, so that counts them out.
A few pages into Halting State by Charles Stross, you realize that a novel written entirely in the second person has a fair chance of being tiresomely intimate. Your relationship with Stross is a bit strained as it is, a mix of admiration for his alpha geek approach to writing, and annoyance with same. Accelerando and The Glasshouse were smart and funny, The Jennifer Morgue was hip and empty, and you realize that it’s now up to Halting State to decide your continued interest in Stross. It doesn’t take long for your fears to subside, and you even find yourself enjoying the second person gimmick. This near-future MMORPG bank heist story, an attempt to bring cyberpunk tropes into the age of World of Warcraft, is the good old Stross. It reminds you why you came to like Stross in the first place: Because all his characters talk like hyper-caffeinated tech geeks who read all the science journals you wish you had time for. Then again, you dislike some of his other books for exactly the same reason. It’s hard to explain – Stross is like the subcultural equivalent of the town you grew up in: It’s a nice place to visit once a while, familiarity greets you everywhere you turn, but it grows tiresome if you stay too long, and it’s hard to explain its peculiar charm to out-of-towners.
When my first thought upon hearing that the Olympics had begun was that it’s time to rewatch Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi-era Olympia, this was not a comment on Chinese oppression. I’m interested in the intersections between Nazi culture and our own, and there are many of them. The strongest fascist undertones and imagery I’ve seen in a recent movie was in 300, but if we stripped our imagination of every fantasy that Nazis tried to impose on reality, we would be culturally poorer. (Star Warscopied from Triumph of the Will, and its story, like much fantasy, is implicitly elitist.) Olympia is the greatest sports movie ever made, and its lack of overt Nazi propaganda has made some people claim that it isn’t “really” Nazi at all. Why, Riefenstahl didn’t even edit out Jesse Owens! Which goes to show how easily confused people are by bad ideas in nice clothes. The Nazism in Olympia is not in the occasional shot of Adolf Hitler, it’s in the athletic ideals themselves, in Riefenstahl’s worship of strength and discipline as something mystical and beautiful. The Nazis imposed these ideals onto real life. We don’t, we just enjoy them on TV. It’s a gradual difference, morally significant but the esthetics are the same. Which to me is a reminder that nazism and fascism aren’t dead, only hiding in our imagination, waiting for new words to escape to reality through. You may not be at risk, but what about your grandchildren?
Kluge by Gary Marcus should have been just right for me. As someone who’s had more than my share of mistaken beliefs, I’m interested in the psychology of bad reasoning and irrational behavior, and so is Marcus. A kluge is an inelegant, but cheap and effective solution to a problem, a bit like a MacGyverism, and Marcus’s Big Simple Idea (can one write pop-sci without one?) is that the human brain is full of evolutionary kluges. Memory, belief, language, decision making, all our effective but flawed abilities reflect nature’s quick-and-dirty approach to the problem of survival. Evolution aims for good enough, not perfect. This is a good pretext to summarize interesting psychological research, but I’ve read it all better and more insightful elsewhere. Marcus’s commentary adds little to the research he cites, and his attempt to connect everything to evolutionary advantage is strained and irrelevant. The nicest thing I can say of Kluge is that it summarizes good books on important subjects, with the intention of helping people think smarter. What you should read instead is How We Know What Isn’t So by Thomas Gilovich, and Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and then just follow the thread from there. (Do it! Please! Help decontaminate the meme pool one person at a time.)