Friday, February 27, 2009

30's movies marathon - part 19

Captains Courageous (1937, USA) - A spoiled rich kid learns the joy of honest labor. The star here isn't Spencer Tracy, but the kid, Freddie Bartholomew, who manages to be both obnoxious and likeable. Watched it all.

Charlie Chan at the Olympics (1937, USA) - This is the most stupid crime movie I've ever seen. Charlie Chan, a Chinese-American detective who speaks easternish platitudes in broken English, travels to the Berlin Olympics to retrieve a stolen gizmo. Watched: 43 minutes, in hope of seing a portrayal of Nazi Berlin, but the movie takes place in an alternate universe where Hitler never happened.

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937, USA) - The British really sucked at movies in the 30's, didn't they? A scientist invents a giant death ray, hoping thereby to end all war, presumably by obliterating the enemy. Watched: 9 minutes.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, USA) - Grown-up children don't care about their sad, lonely, old parents. Watched: 32 minutes. IMDB reviewers say not to watch this if you feel suicidal.

Heidi (1937, USA) - Opens with Shirley Temple stripping(!), followed by Shirley Temple being cute. I loathe Shirley Temple, and I suspect her fans. Watched: 8 minutes.

Black Legion (1937, USA) - Didactic drama about the rise of a KKK-like movement of working class fascists. Not good, but it's the first 30's movie I've seen so far to deal with the most relevant subject of the decade. Watched: 38 minutes.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

A map of linguistic incomprehension

View the whole thing at Strange Maps.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not a girl, not even a person, just an empty hat

A new Joss Whedon series can be taken on faith. There's no point in hyping it, because we all know what he can do. There's no need to fear a flop, for the same reason. You can simply take it for what it is, and wait for the magic.

That is so rare on television.

In Dollhouse, a company rents out brainwashed operatives to act out scenarios for their clients, from being the perfect girlfriend for a weekend, (ie. prostitution), to being the world's greatest hostage negotiator. After every mission their minds are wiped, ready for another imprint.

In other words, they're a sort of shady Phoenix Foundation, a Section One for hire, providing the series with both a universal plot generator and plenty of arc opportunities. I like it when Joss Whedon has options. Joss Whedon should always have options.

"So, is it any good?" Wrong question. It would be the right question for, say, the next J. J. Abrams series, but not for the next Joss Whedon series. There is a time for every event under heaven. A time to be skeptical and ask if the premise really makes sense, and a time to just believe and put on your "Joss Whedon is my master now" t-shirt.

Well, okay then, for ye unbelievers: It's good.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Do you take off your wooden leg before you make love to your wife?

I like the part of the counterculture that was offensive, funny and nutty. People like George Carlin, Robert Crumb - and Paul Krassner.

Krassner was editor of The Realist, a satirical underground magazine best known for the 1967 hoax The Parts That Were Left Out of The Kennedy Book, a supposedly censored excerpt from a Kennedy biography where Lyndon Johnson is caught fucking the bullet-hole in the neck of Kennedy's corpse. I think that's pretty funny. I think the aftermath is funnier: Some people, including Daniel Ellsberg, seriously considered that the story might be true. (The same issue contained the equally famous Disneyland Memorial Orgy cartoon.)

Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut collects these and other stories from Krassner's life: about his friendship with Lenny Bruce, how he introduced Groucho Marx to LSD, his bizarre time as editor of Hustler, and his career with the Yippies.

Once, as an experiment, he decided to stop laughing, which triggered an onset of P. K. Dickian paranoia, and he spent a year in a world of cosmic conspiracies.

Well, maybe the drugs played a role too. Anyway, he got over it, (the paranoia and the not laughing, that is) - and he still performs stand-up comedy.

The book also contains my all-time favourite opening line of an autobiography: "I first woke up at the age of six." When did you wake up?


Sunday, February 22, 2009

[Insert random meaningless lyrics here]

There's good music, and there's bad music, and then there's eurobeat, which is both.

You know McDonald's strawberry milkshakes? I love McDonald's strawberry milkshakes. It both isn't food and transcends food, creating a delicious synthetic world of its own.

Now imagine a 0,4l cup of espresso that tastes like strawberry milkshake. That's eurobeat. Sometimes, when I really, really need to get things done, I listen to this stuff at work for hours. Days, even, but that's putting a strain on my sanity.

There are only two possible reactions to this music: 1) God, that's terrible. 2) God, that's terrible, (but I still haven't pressed stop.)


Saturday, February 21, 2009

But how would you kill a million?

It's only looking back on Michael Moorcock's four Pyat novels, ending with The Vengeance of Rome, that I appreciate how funny they are. You wouldn't think that a series about the life of a fascist who spends time in Dachau could (or should) be funny, but it is.

Moorcock has turned the inter-war period into one long orgy of sex and cocaine, a grotesque farce as told by a liar. After moving quickly in and out of favor with Mussolini in Rome, the exiled Russian Jew-in-denial Pyat comes to Munich, where he becomes Ernst Röhm's lover, and, briefly, (in a shocking scene worthy of The Aristocrats), Hitler's cross-dressing dominatrix. Pyat still dreams of a technocratic utopia, he designs gigantic tanks and other impossible weapons for his friends to build. But in the end he's just a drug addict who jumps from one bed to the next.

It's funny, in a very brutal way. But the comedy is not for fun. Moorcock is deadly serious. He's trying to capture the mindset of the people who exterminated the Jews. The preposterous and grotesque events here are not Moorcock's way of playing light with fascism and nazism, they're his way of taking them seriously, while avoiding the clichés of Holocaust fiction. The madness follows naturally from that.

The result is full of insights into fascism, presented with disturbing vividness. I love it. The Pyat Quartet is, as a whole, one of the great novels of our time.


Friday, February 20, 2009

30's movies marathon - part 18

The Lower Depths (1936, France) - A thief, a bankrupt baron, and assorted poor people live in a lodging house. Based on Maxim Gorky's play. I think I rather like socialist realism, especially when it's done with grim humor. Watched it all.

Big Brown Eyes (1936, USA) - Fast-talking crime comedy, with many right ingredients, but I just don't care. Watched: 10 minutes.

Winds of the Wasteland (1936, USA) - These old westerns almost make me not like westerns any more. How dreadful! Watched: 8 minutes.

Mayerling (1936, France) - Wonderful historical romance. The crown prince of Austria-Hungary finds the love of his life in 1880s Vienna. Correct in the outline, though the events are a matter of historical controversy to this day. Watched it all.

Klondike Annie (1936, USA) - Any definition of pornography that doesn't include Mae West's smile is deficient. But she can't act, and neither can anyone else in this movie. Watched: 16 minutes.

San Francisco (1936, USA) - I am prejudiced against movies that begin by solemnly informing you that the uninteresting people (including Clark Gable at his most despiccable) you're about to meet may all die horribly at the end. In this case the disaster is the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but the same applies to, say, the Titanic and Pearl Harbor. Watched: 11 minutes.

Wedding Present (1936, USA) - Cary Grant, the man's man who put modern boy-men to shame, (yes!), plays a boy-man with an annoying sense of humor. Watched: 8 minutes.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Occupational Hazards of Book Critics


Si ja til ansvarlig piratkopiering

Jeg har vokst opp med piratkulturen. Før internet ble utbredt kopierte jeg spill på disketter fra venner. Jeg satt i en time og ventet på nedlastingen av min første stakkars lille mp3-fil, og jeg husker hvordan vi alle måpte da vi så The Matrix i DivX-format.

Hvis du sier nei til piratkopiering, sier det meg først og fremst at du tilhører en annen verden, en annen generasjon. Som påstand gir det meg like lite mening som å si at du er mot fargen blå.

Det mange har oversett er at piratkopiering kan misbrukes. Nettop fordi ingen kan hindre deg i å gjøre hva du vil, ligger det et ekstra ansvar på deg. Hvis du laster ned, og laster ned, og laster ned, og bare en sjelden gang kjøper, så er du en snylter. Ja, jeg snakker til dere, voksne pirater med fast inntekt.

Ansvarlig piratkopiering er å hente ned hva du vil, men kjøpe det du finner som er bra. Med det oppnår du to ting: Du belønner favorittkunstnerne dine. Og du sender et signal til film- og musikkbransjen om at akkurat denne artisten eller regissøren, eller akkurat denne sjangeren, vil vi ha mer av.

Og da får vi det. Er det ikke genialt? Det nytter lite å klage på all den dårlige musikken og de dårlige filmene, hvis du ikke er villig til å betale for det som er bra.

Og hva er det som hjelper oss å finne det som er bra? Nettop: Piratkopiering. Så hent i vei - og kjøp.


Sunday, February 15, 2009

All was well in the world, because there were nine planets, and the ninth planet was Pluto

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astronomer who "killed Pluto" (OMG!!) talks about how to define a planet, and why it really doesn't matter how many planets we have.

About why people were so upset about Pluto:
You know what I think it was? Because I put a fair amount of thought into this. When you learn something early in elementary school, and - you didn't learn what things were, you just memorized something - that's really what happened there. If you memorized something, and then later on that breaks, you feel like something attacked you. The memorization of the planets was kind of like an intellectual version of comfort food. All was well in the world, because there were nine planets, and the ninth planet was Pluto. And you memorized it. Had you learned that these were dynamic bodies, that had these properties, and then you learned that there were new objects that had new properties, I don't think people would have gotten upset. [..] My hope is that in the textbooks to come, there will not be an exercise in memorizing planets.
Which is a good excuse to link to Richard Feynman's essay on what science is.

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Han bytte bort kua, fekk fela igjen

I played the violin when I was a kid, for seven years. I gave it up because I didn't want to practice for hours every day. If you want to be a good violin player, you have to practice. A lot. I had other things to do, (what with puberty arriving etc.), so I put it away.

That was seventeen years ago. I haven't touched a violin since, until a few months ago, when I bought a Yamaha SV-150 electric violin. It's sold as a silent violin, which isn't really true - even without a body, violin strings are quite audible. But it's more silent than a normal violin, which makes it neighbour-friendly.

The SV-150 sounds good, is practical to use, and has many nice features. I like it.

Besides, electric violins are awesome.

But here's the amazing part: After all those years, I actually remember how to play. I've forgotten a lot. I don't hit the notes right. I'm nowhere near good enough to perform - like I said, playing the violin well is hard. But I remember enough to enjoy myself. The ability has been stored in muscle memory all these years. I can even almost hear my old violin teacher gently reproaching me.

I still don't want to be a good violin player. It costs too much time. There are other things to do. But I love having the ability to pick up a violin and play something just for myself.


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Krugman and the financial crisis

Paul Krugman talks about the financial crisis:

I don't have an opinion here. The consensus seems to be that governments everywhere need to spend a lot of money in some clever way. I respect economists who believe that, especially those like Krugman here who are honest about the effects: It might not work. Nobody really knows how to solve this, in the end it comes down to luck.

I also respect critics like the libertarians at Reason who point out that governments aren't good at spending huge amounts of money. There's a certain arrogance among economists about how finally, this time, they understand the economy well enough to know how and where to spend. Spring time for Keynes. I'll believe that when they have a track record, not just anecdotes from the last crisis.

But maybe a wild and expensive shot with a hope of success is better than the alternatives. I don't know. I'm not qualified.

Here's what I believe: If this works, it will encourage people to think "hey, if the government can save the economy from a crisis by bluntly manipulating macroeconomic variables, maybe it's also qualified to manage it in detail under normal circumstances." That would be bad. We're feeding a monster here, in the hope that it will help us, but even if it does we'll have to wean it off the taste of blood later. (Alarmist metaphor? We're encouraging politicians to spend huge amounts of money. Think about that for a second.)

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

A crime against art itself

Oh, I love this: My Name is Bruce is a low-budget movie starring low-budget superstar Bruce Campbell as Bruce Campbell, a cowardly actor forced by his fans to fight a real demon.

It's all very self-referential, but the result isn't smug. What comes through is the fan love: This is a movie made for and by people who love Bruce Campbell, a sort of horror response to Galaxy Quest. It's cheap and crappy and adorable.

At this point some readers are saying: Yes, that makes sense. Of course Bruce Campbell should play himself in a low-budget horror comedy, and it would be very bad and very likeable. The rest are saying: Who the hell is Bruce Campbell?! There is little middle ground here.

Actually, the first group aren't saying "yes, that makes sense". They're saying: I've heard about this movie for two years. Why wasn't it released on DVD before this week? I don't know. But it's here now.


Pointing out what is and is not beautiful

When Edward Bernays wrote Propaganda in 1928, the word already had more negative than positive associations, but Bernays thought he could rescue the original, more neutral meaning: The art of propagating your ideas. Bernays's vision of propaganda was essentially what we today call public relations, a euphemism he himself popularized.

Bernays distanced himself from mere advertisers. He wanted to consider the whole relationship between a company and the public, thus enabling a deeper level of manipulation. Don't just tell them to buy. Change their worldview so that they arrive at the decision to buy seemingly out of their own free will.

Bernays is unexpectedly honest about his goals - noone in P.R. would be this frank today - but even so, this book is itself a work of propaganda. The foreword by Mark Crispin Miller points out Bernays's real agenda, which was to sell his own services to business and government clients. Bernays was a giant in his field. He convinced women to start smoking. He did it by associating it with women's liberation.

Bernays was a fan of Walter Lippmann. The influence shows in his vision of an elite of benevolent manipulators, kindly guiding their inferiors towards a better, more ordely future. But Propaganda has little of the depth of Lippmann's Public Opinion, which is one of the great and dangerous works of political philosophy. Lippmann did his harm with ideas, Bernays with actions.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

30's movies marathon - part 17

Pépé le Moko (1936, France) - Excellent gangster drama, set in the Casbah in Algiers. Watched it all. IMDB reviewers say it invented noir. I say you should follow up with The Battle of Algiers.

Windbag the Sailor
(1936, UK) - An old man who pretends to have been a sailor is tricked into captaining a doomed vessel. He inevitably ends up king of a cannibal island. Watched it all. Not very funny, but .. it's British humor, finally!

Follow the Fleet (1936, USA) - Who needs medicare and the 35c flat rate fare, when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are dancing through the air? (I'll soon run out of obscure song references, I promise.) Watched it all.

Satan Met a Lady
(1936, USA) - A crime comedy with the actual comedy removed, leaving only unappealing cynicism behind. Watched: 20 minutes. IMDB claims it's based on the The Maltese Falcon. I refuse to believe it!

The Garden of Allah (1936, USA) - It's good to see a 30's movie In Glorious Technicolor (tm) at last, but what a mess the story is. You can't cast Marlene Dietrich in a straight and boring drama. The sprinkle of oriental stereotypes don't make it exotic, just stupid. Watched: 21 minutes.

Libeled Lady (1936, USA) - Some people are trying to frame some other people as part of some intricate plot. Charming nonsense, saved by William Powell and Myrna Loy redoing their parts from The Thin Man. Watched it all.

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Finely versed in the technique of propaganda

The great political problem in our modern democracy is how to induce our leaders to lead. The dogma that the voice of the people is the voice of God tends to make elected persons the will-less servants of their constituents. [..]

No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people express the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion. It is composed of inherited prejudices and symbols and clichés and verbal formulas supplied to them by the leaders. [..]

The political leader of today should be a leader as finely versed in the technique of propaganda as in political economy and civics. If he remains merely the reflection of the average intelligence of his community, he might as well go out of politics. [..]

"When the interval between the intellectual classes and the practical classes is too great," says the historian Buckle, "the former will possess no influence, the latter will reap no benefits."

Propaganda bridges this interval in our modern complex civilization.
- Edward Bernays, Propaganda


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The value of news begins, once again, to have a dollar sign beside it

The essential problem with the newspaper business today is that it is suffering from a huge imbalance between supply and demand. What the Internet has done is broken the geographical constraints on news distribution and flooded the market with stories, with product. Supply so far exceeds demand that the price of the news has dropped to zero. Substitutes are everywhere. [..]

In this environment, you're about as like to be able to charge for an online news story as you are to charge for air. [..]

Now here's what a lot of people seem to forget: Excess production capacity goes away, particularly when that capacity consists not of capital but of people. Supply and demand, eventually and often painfully, come back into some sort of balance. Newspapers have, with good reason, been pulling their hair out over the demand side of the business, where a lot of their product has, for the time being, lost its monetary value. But the solution to their dilemma actually lies on the production side: particularly, the radical consolidation and radical reduction of capacity. The number of U.S. newspapers is going to collapse [..]

As all that happens, market power begins - gasp, chuckle, and guffaw all you want - to move back to the producer. The user no longer gets to call all the shots. Substitutes dry up, fungibility dissipates, and quality becomes both visible and valuable. The value of news begins, once again, to have a dollar sign beside it.
- Nick Carr, Misreading newspapers


What pictures we should admire, what jokes we should laugh at

Who are the men, who, without our realizing it, give us our ideas, tell us whom to admire and whom to despise, what to believe about the ownership of public utilities, about the tariff, about the price of rubber, about the Dawes Plan, about immigration; who tell us how our houses should be designed, what furniture we should put into them, what menus we should serve at our table, what kind of shirts we must wear, what sports we should indulge in, what plays we should see, what charities we should support, what pictures we should admire, what slang we should affect, what jokes we should laugh at?


The invisible government tends to be concentrated in the hands of the few because of the expense of manipulating the social machinery which controls the opinions and habits of the masses. To advertise on a scale which will reach fifty million persons is expensive. To reach and persuade the group leaders who dictate the public's thoughts and actions is likewise expensive.

For this reason there is an increasing tendency to concentrate the functions of propaganda in the hands of the propaganda specialist. This specialist is more and more assuming a distinct place and function in our natural life.
- Edward Bernays, Propaganda


Monday, February 9, 2009

To Baldeziwurlekistanians, dog is a delicacy

With short stories it's a short distance between the fascinating and the simply pointless. With little time to build characters or plots, the focus is often on cleverness, confusion and mood. Something weird and moody happens. Then it gets weirder and moodier. THE END.

Kelly Link illustrates this problem with Magic for Beginners. The two stories I finished are original and well written, possibly even brilliant. But it's a kind of brilliance that does little for me. The stories are merely .. inventive. Pointless. I'm not looking for a moral, or adventure, just something to pull me in. It's not far off, it just doesn't click.

I've read a lot of bad short stories by writers who want to be Ray Bradbury, but that isn't the problem here. Kelly Link follows that same genre-agnostic SF tradition, but unlike just about everybody else she does it really well. If you are going to read a modern SF short story collection, it should probably be this one. It's won her prizes and a lot of fans.

But how about trying some older stories instead?


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Life on the outside ain't what it used to be

Superjail is the most psychotic cartoon I have ever seen. Superjail is the world's toughest jail, run on a hobby basis by The Warden, the evil Willy Wonka of prison reform. "Violent" feels like such an empty word to describe this with. You've seen violence. This isn't violence. It's pscyhotic pychedelia.

Words .. superflous. Except, if I may: LOL.


30's movies marathon - part 16

My Man Godfrey (1936, USA) - A hobo with a Harvard degree gets hired as a butler for a family of rich assholes. Darker than Wodehouse, lighter than Blackadder. Best scene: The opening, where New York's wealthiest decadents go on a scavenger hunt for "lost men" in the city dump. Watched it all.

Things to Come (1936, UK) - Powerful anti-war science fiction. In the distant year of 1940, war drags the world down a seemingly neverending spiral of violence and disease. Eventually a strong but peaceful world government arises, creating a new world order based on reason, science and preposterous clothing. Watched it all.

Next Time We Love (1936, USA) - Bloodless romance, with James Stewart back when he was so young his best smile just made him look sleazy and stupid. Watched: 9 minutes.

Ceiling Zero (1936, USA) - Dedicated to the brave young men in the U.S. Air Mail Service. Watched 8 minutes. IMDB reviewers say the rest sucks too.

Swing Time (1936, USA) - Wave your hands in the air / And wave 'em like you just don't care / Like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire / My main man Yogi Bear. Not as good as Top Hat. Watched: 55 minutes.

Desire (1936, USA) - Con woman Marlene Dietrich hooks up with regular joe Gary Cooper. It'll never last! But I do wish they'd shown the scene where he gives her a spanking for being a perl thief. Watched it all.

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Fecal dust blowing off Lake Texcoco

A slum is characterized by poverty, informal housing, and lack of public utilities. Which means you're hungry and sick, and you walk around in shit. You get a slum when hundreds of thousands or millions of poor people want to live in a city that has no room for them. Cities can only grow so fast. When they grow faster, you get slums.

Mike Davis's Planet of Slums is a bird's-eye view of the slum problem, full of facts and numbers. There are no individuals here, no sentimental stories. There are only masses of people, breaking like waves on the urban shore.

But it's not a dry account. Planet of Slums is an angry book. Davis's anger is a cold anger, aimed at everyone. He is angry with the colonial powers for leaving a mess, with Third World elites for making it worse, with the World Bank and the IMF for forcing ivory tower doctrines upon their debtors, and with global NGO's for bulldozing local initiative.

It's an interesting approach to popular sociology: Academic in content, moralistic in tone. One reviewer thinks Davis is too bleak, leaving no room for hope, and maybe he is. For my own part, I notice ignorance about the liberal policies he attacks. They may not have worked, but Davis finds even their purpose incomprehensible. He seems to think that market pricing, for instance, is a conspiracy to squeeze the poor.

But that doesn't matter. This is an important book, and leftist outrage is more appropriate here than rightist pollyannaism.


The battle for readers

It's good to have your prejudices tested. I have a prejudice about the literary elite as a somewhat snobbish group of academically trained readers who struggle nervously with their recent fall from the top of the cultural hierarchy.

This video, unfortunately, confirms my prejudice. It's a panel debate on the battle for readers:

One panelist tells a horror story about some official who once suggested that it might be okay for boys to read comic books instead of "serious literature". Another corrects her: Actually, some comic books, like Sandman and Watchmen, are okay, but that's about it.

When somebody brings Sandman and Watchmen into a debate about literature, that's often a sign they've never ventured beyond the respectable end of comic books, (so respectable that they're also known as "graphic novels"). It's like saying Shakespeare is your favourite playwright. Well he might be, but it might also be that Shakespeare is the only playwright you've ever read.

Another panelist complains that reading is popularly thought of as "nerdy". Well, of course it is. Reading is nerdy. What's wrong with that? It's amazing: Here you have this room full of nerds, discussing their nerdy hobby, and they're concerned that they're perceived as nerds.

Reading is also a radical hobby. Expecting mainstream approval and support is to miss the point.


Ingen forsvarer det mot moralismen som herjer

«Vi polstrer rettsstaten med midler som er rettsstaten fremmed,» sa Datatilsynets direktør Georg Apenes til Nationen i fjor. Politikerne vedtar og godkjenner, og folk svelger unna. Apenes mener det skyldes at elektoratet er mest opptatt av sine 50 tv-kanaler, og generelt er «rapende og rallende mennesker som klager på de utroligste ting». Til Bergens Tidende sa han: «Jeg pleier å si det slik når jeg skal muntre mine medarbeidere: Kanskje vinner vi noen slag, men det er helt sikkert at vi taper krigen.»

Noen ganger kan man lure på om Datatilsynets sjef er for mye filosof og for lite politiker, men det er ikke lett å vasse i sirup. Alltid er noe annet viktigere enn hensynet til borgerens frihet, i Apenes’ tilfelle som regel «sikkerhet».

I prinsippet er vi nok enige om at voksne borgere må få gjøre som de vil, unntatt der handlingene er til åpenbar skade for andre. Dette forenklede liberale grunnprinsipp bryter med religionens krav om et overordnet skille mellom rett og galt, ondt og godt. Minst like viktig her i landet; det bryter også med sosialdemokratiets tanke om at individets behov må underordnes fellesskapets. Det liberale prinsipp får ingen verdi i praksis, fordi ingen forsvarer det mot moralismen som herjer.
- Frank Rossavik, Lander der friheten taper.

Via Kle meg naken, som tolker dette som ekstremliberalisme.


A tale of two scifi shows

Stargate Atlantis is a stupid scifi show. It's about some action heroes and scientists from Earth who are off in another galaxy fighting space vampires. Everywhere they go, people speak English. Every episode is a fantastic adventure, usually involving space battles and/or noble savages on the planet of the week. Everybody almost dies all the time.

Battlestar Galactica is a clever scifi show. It's a grim portrayal of the survivors of a nuclear holocaust, who are fleeing robots with the ability to look like humans. It has well-developed characters who are allowed to progress throughout the series. There are no aliens, no natives, just battle-hardened space-soldiers colliding in cramped quarters.

Stargate Atlantis is smart. It plays with its conventions in unexpected ways, capturing your interest even though you know what they're doing. There are silly stories, but they end after 43 minutes, doing no lasting damage to the better stories that follow. It's Star Trek, but it's good Star Trek, and even Star Trek was rarely that. It's fun.

Battlestar Galactica is idiotic. It has gradually built a story arc of monumental idiocy, involving the worst of fantasy cliches: The Five this, and The One that, and some mystical author-force that steps in whenever the yarn-spinners want something Awesome to happen. It's one big silly story, maintaining interest only by promising shocking Revelations down the line. And they're forced to stick with their silly choices, because that's what a serious and arc-based show does.

Lesson: Everybody you've recommended Galactica to now hates you.


Friday, February 6, 2009

Poor people dread high-profile international events

In the urban Third World, poor people dread high-profile international events - conferences, dignitary visits, sporting events, beauty contests, and international festivals - that prompt authorities to launch crusades to clean up the city: slum-dwellers know that they are the "dirt" or "blight" that their governments prefer the world not to see. During the Nigerian Independence celebration in 1960, for example, one of the first acts of the new government was to fence the route from the airport so that Queen Elizabeth's representative, Princess Alexandria, would not see Lagos's slums. These days governments are more likely to improve the view by razing the slums and driving the residents out of the city.

Manilenos have a particular horror of such "beautification campaigns". During Imelda Marcos's domination of city government, shanty-dwellers were successively cleared from the parade routes of the 1974 Miss Universe Pageant, the visit of President Gerald Ford in 1975, and the IMF-World Bank meeting in 1976. Alltogether 160 000 squatters were moved out of the media's field of vision, many of them dumped on Manila's outskirts, 30 kilometers or more from their former homes.
- Mike Davis, Planet of Slums


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Night driving on the motorway

Client - Pornography

Client - Drive

Client - Lights Go Out

Client - Can You Feel

Client - It's Not Over


I hope those studies did not cost too much

Gladwell is fond of quirky factors. The unexpectedness of his explanations often disguises their banality or their error. In his new book, he is particularly interested in examining the amount of time that must be spent honing a skill or a craft, although his larger point is that society frequently plays a role in providing people with the opportunity to do so. "The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise," Gladwell reports. (I hope those studies did not cost too much.)


Gladwell's overarching thesis in Outliers is so obviously correct that it hardly merits discussion. "The people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are." Also, tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of your life. Gladwell writes as if he is the only person in the world in possession of this platitudinous wisdom. The central irony of Outliers is that, Gladwell's discomfort with the self-help genre notwithstanding, he has written a book that conforms to it perfectly. This is a motivational manual. It is larded with inspirational stories, and with interactive games to capture the reader's attention--with handy charts and portentous graphs.
- Isaac Chotiner, reviewing Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Pampered and dependent and pretty

In Scott Westerfeld's Uglies, everyone is made pretty at age 16. Not just beautiful, but far beyond, to the point implied by our evolutionary origins. A point where you look both vulnerable, healthy, wise and attractive. Pretty to a degree not possible by random mutation.

As a minor side effect, the operation turns you into a happy, empty-headed party animal - unless your job requires otherwise. Somebody has to make all the toys work.

Yes, we're in a dissonant utopia here. Everything is perfect, except it isn't. There is no overt oppression in this world of happy, shiny people. You rarely see the Secret Police. But when you do, you obey instinctively, because they have had plastic surgery too, and their beauty is a cruel beauty, the kind that inspires awe and fear.

The story is about Tally, a young "ugly" (ie. pre-operation) girl, who gets involved with freethinkers who want to live normally, like in the old days. It's similar to Tripods and Fahrenheit 451, and the result is very enjoyable.

The Uglies novels are written for the young adult market, which means they are short and easy to read. Isn't it funny how often good writing overlaps with enjoyable writing? You can't be self-indulgent when you're writing for teenagers. Actually, Westerfeld's adult Succession novels were succinct too. The main difference is that Uglies doesn't feel as crammed full of ideas as Succession did, and it is better for it.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Thugs of the media conglomerates

David Denby aims too carelessly in Snark, his attack on the cheap sarcasm he believes dominates our media culture. Snark is an empty, angry attempt at wit, told in the knowing voice of us vs them. It's so easy that everybody can do it, and everybody does. You don't need to know anything, or have any ideas, or stand for anything - in fact it is better if you don't. All you need is a target and the ability to sneer.

Snark, Denby argues, enforces mediocricity, becoming a philistine outlet for resentment against anyone who dares to achieve or believe in anything. Snark embraces the reader. "You and me, we know everything. Everybody else sucks." No wonder it's popular.

Unfortunately, Denby's choice of examples is an EPIC FAIL!! (Uhm, sorry.) He selects Wonkette for particular scorn, but gets all the facts wrong. Besides, I rather like Wonkette's "proudly idiotic" style. If this is snark, I'm not entirely against it.

Tom Wolfe is an even more baffling example. Why him? Even if one could detect snark in his writings, he is not a good representative of the style. Denby seems anxious to select examples many people know about, thus missing the point. The best examples of ugly snark are all to be found below the top tier of writers. The essence of snark is how easy it is to write.

That said, I believe Denby's analysis is correct and valuable. Also, he deserves sympathy for volunteering as the perfect snark bait.


Gammal vise, tunge ord

Khold - Hundre år gammal

Tartaros - The Ruby Mine

Gary Numan - Pure

Seabound - The Promise