Monthly Archives: November 2010

On age and moderation

It’s said that people grow more moderate and conservative in their beliefs as they grow older.  I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s say it is.

The implication is that this comes from gaining experience.  You start out with all sorts of new ideas, and then you learn that you can’t change everything, that there are hidden forces that resist purposeful change, forces that follow their own rules.  And you learn that beautiful ideas can look horrible in real life, and that things could easily be worse than they are.  Moderation and conservatism is the sane response to that.

That’s the belief, anyway.  I disagree.  I think there’s another factor: Cowardice.  Anyone who becomes more moderate in all things is not becoming wiser, they’re just learning that any time you believe in a principle, or see things differently from everyone else, you risk making a fool of yourself.  So it’s safer not to do that.

What experience actually tells us, if we listen, is that this idea is impractical, and this principle needs to be moderated, but that idea is correct whatever anyone says, and when it comes to that principle there can be no talk of moderation.  Young people are random fanatics, they seize on whatever powerful idea comes their way.  Wisdom is to be a selective fanatic: Moderate in some things, unbending in others.

Experience can help us to calibrate that balance.  Or it can turn us into abuse victims, hiding behind a safe shell of middle-of-the-road beliefs.

Er det noe poeng med presseetikk?

Det pågår en debatt om man burde ha en egen Vær varsom-plakat for bloggere.  Og det er jo en tonedøv men også harmløs idé, for hvem skulle velge å følge en slik “bloggplakat”?

Et mer interessant spørsmål, synes jeg, er: Hva er egentlig poenget med pressens egne etiske retningslinjer?

Jeg vil at journalister skal oppføre seg “etisk”, altså som folk, men jeg lurer på om det er med medier som med andre store bedrifter, at “etikk” blir et skjold mot kritikk, som i praksis senker kravene til oppførselen deres i stedet for å heve dem.  For når det ikke finnes skrevne retningslinjer, må hver og en bruke sin egen moralske dømmekraft, og den er sannsynligvis langt strengere enn Vær varsom-plakaten.

Jeg forventer f.eks. av journalister at de bryr seg om at nyhetene de formidler er sanne.  Men når det kommer klager til PFU på at mediene har slurvet, som i denne klagen fra George Gooding, svarer de at det er ikke dårlig presseskikk å skrive noe som er feil.

Nei vel.  Men hva er poenget med en definisjon av god presseskikk, hvis den ikke dekker det mest grunnleggende kravet jeg som leser stiller til en avis?  Er poenget noe annet enn å kunne si: “Nei, vi har ikke gjort noe galt. Det står her i kjennelsen fra PFU det.”

Alle tabber seg ut i blant.   Men da bør man iallefall være flau over det.  Man må ha yrkesstolthet, noe som lever, ikke en død tekst du kan gjemme deg bak når du gjør en dårlig jobb.

1950s movies marathon – part 2

Harvey (1950, USA, Koster)

The invisible giant rabbit from outer space seeks out lonely drunks and befriends them, making them appear even crazier than they actually are.  I think he’s probably an intergalactic practical joker, but James Stewart doesn’t mind.  He’s reached the part of his career where his previously creepy grin makes him look distinguished, and the touch of rabbit-induced senility he affects here elevates him right up to the realm of saints.  Watched it all.

Federal Man (1950, USA)

He’s from the government, and he’s here to help you stay away from drugs.  Isn’t it funny to watch these old movies from a time when people believed that substance abuse could be stopped by throwing lots and lots of police and jail time at it?  It’s so funny, I’m nearly smiling.  Watched: 4 minutes.

Treasure Island (1950, “UK”, Haskin)

Young Guybrush Threepwood, a likely lad, sets out on a pirrrate adventurrre on the high seas, with the heaving to, and the avast me mateys, and a fantastically shifty-eyed Long John Silver.  Watched it all.   I think this may qualify as the first triple-R pirate movie. It’s also quite brutal for its time.  Disney: Pioneers in movie violence!

American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950, USA, Lang)

Tyrone Power actually was a Marine during the war, and served as a pilot at Iwo Jima, but I still say casting him as a technicolor guerilla fighter is yet another step towards insincerity in war movies.  Watched: 16 minutes.  Btw, read The Jungle is Neutral, a real-life account of similar events in Burma.

1950s movies marathon – part 1 of .. at least 134

Side Street (1950, USA, Mann)

A postman tries his hand at being dishonest, which he’s not very good at.  Then he tries being honest, which turns out even worse.  It all takes place in that same hard, unforgiving universe as all the rest of Anthony Mann’s movies.  Watched it all.  Featuring possibly the earliest exciting car chase put on film.  Oh and that’s a fantastic movie intro, above.  Corny, but I love that kind of stuff.

Francis, God’s Jester (1950, Italy, Rossellini)

St. Francis and his band of masochists roam the medieval countryside, looking for opportunities to be abused and humiliated.  Watched: 11 minutes.  Look, I’m not judging.  I just personally find religious fetishes a bit freaky.

The Men (1950, USA, Zinnemann)

There was a moment during the war when you got down to earth war movies, honest movies, with actors so real that many of them were fresh off the battlefield, and no fake Drama.  This is kind of a follow-up to that, but now all the soldiers are paraplegics, who’ve ended up in some dead-end hospital while the rest of the world moved on without them.  Watched it all.  Featuring young upstart Marlon Brando in his first role, setting his mark on the decade right from the start.

Paid in Full (1950, USA, Dieterle)

I can forgive many things of a movie, but starting with an interesting event, and then doing a flashback to the boring backstory, is not one of them.  Watched: 8 minutes.

William H. Patterson Jr – Robert Heinlein, Volume One

William H Patterson Jr - Robert Heinlein, Volume I, Learning Curve

Robert Heinlein is one of my idols.  He wrote good stories, some of the best, but that’s not all of it.  He had good ideas, some of the best, but that’s not all of it either.  What I find personally inspiring is the idiosyncratic path he cut through the jungle of 20th century ideologies.  It’s inspiring because that precise path can not be copied, only his independent way of walking it.

That’s why I believe no person has ever encountered a Heinlein story and come off the worse for it.

The first volume of William Patterson’s biography of Heinlein traces the first half of that journey.  It shows how many of the beliefs Heinlein revealed publicly in his later years can actually be traced back to his time first as a socialist, and then as a Democratic activist.  He practiced culturally liberal beliefs long before becoming associated with the libertarian right.

There are also interesting, and sad, counterpoints between the lives of Heinlein the author and Heinlein the person.  He was not one of his own larger than life characters.  He was physically unwell, and mentally near the breaking point at times.  His second wife Leslyn became an alcoholic, causing their divorce.

Some would say Heinlein could have revealed more of that vulnerability in his writing.  Not me. Artistic honesty is about being true to a vision. Heinlein’s vision was of better worlds, with better people. Something to live up to.

The pleasure of programming – if such a pleasure exists

I’m reading an interesting review of The Social Network aka the Facebook movie, by Zadie Smith, and see this:

Or is it possible [Mark Zuckerberg] just loves programming? No doubt the filmmakers considered this option, but you can see their dilemma: how to convey the pleasure of programming—if such a pleasure exists—in a way that is both cinematic and comprehensible?

If such a pleasure exists?  Did I just read that?  This is where I realize that neither this writer nor probably the movie understand the world they’re trying to describe.  They’re looking through a telescope, reporting that they can see something red, or maybe blue, over on that distant world of “software technology”, and it’s doing something, for some reason?

I haven’t seen the movie.  I don’t even like Facebook.  I hate having all my family, friends and coworkers gathered in one place.  Help me keep my multiple identities separate, please.  But I know what motivates programmers to make software that changes the world: It’s really really fun.  All programming is fun, at least to programmers.  I didn’t mention it in my essay on how software is made, because it seems so obvious, but it is.  Programming is like being paid to play with Lego.

And if you don’t understand that, then all technological change today is a mystery to you.  The central – and potentially tragic – fact of software is this: Anything that is possible, somebody is going to make, maybe for money, maybe for fame, but mostly just because it’s fun.


Year: 2007-2010

Creator: Damian Kindler

Premise: Supernatural investigators roam the CGI world of who cares where or when, it’s just a show and you should really just relax

Primary audience: Stargate Atlantis fans whose knees go a little wobbly at the thought of Amanda Tapping speaking the Queen’s English

Worth watching: Yes, if you can appreciate visionary stupidity

There’s a line in TV sci-fi, and on one side are those shows that hide their stupidity behind a Serious Mood and Serious Plotlines, and on the other are those that understand that they need to embrace their stupidity in order to be truly unique and visionary.  (Genuinely non-stupid hasn’t done since Babylon 5). It’s Battlestar Galactica and Lost vs Doctor Who, Stargate Atlantis – and Sanctuary.

Sanctuary will never be the subject of academic analysis or “omg the mainstream really respects us” press.  It’s a stupid show about CGI monsters.  Viewers who can’t appreciate that won’t watch beyond the first episode, and good riddance.  The reward for the rest of us is an excellent take on the good old Scooby gang tropes.  It’s partly visual: Sanctuary is shot extensively against a green screen, and they’ve done what George Lucas couldn’t, and actually turned that into a strength.  Even when it looks fake, it feels true, has personality.

The rest is ambition.  Respect for the genre.  Knowing that just because you’re making a show about CGI monsters is no excuse to be a lazy hack.  That’s more than can be said for the writers of certain more prestigious shows.

40′s movies marathon – the most memorable movies of the decade

Before we leave the 1940’s for good, here are not the best movies of the decade, but the ones that stick most in my mind, for some reason:

Jud Süß (1940), for making me feel what it’s like to hate the Jews

Santa Fe Trail (1940), for its shocking defense of slavery

Fantasia (1940), for making me cry

The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), Unfaithfully Yours (1948), really anything by Preston Sturges

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), for that motorcycle scene at the beginning, also A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), really anything by Powell & Pressburger

Day of Wrath (1943), for being the most metal movie of the decade

Mission to Moscow (1943), for showing that there really were some genuine Communists in Hollywood

Victory Through Air Power (1943), for Walt Disney’s insane ambition of changing the course of the war

Henry V (1944), for delivering the St. Crispin’s Day speech at the exact right moment in history

Dead of Night (1945), for being the only genuinely scary movie of the entire decade

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and A Walk in the Sun (1945), for setting the standard in war movie realism

Good News (1947), for that musical number that just makes me really happy

Railroaded! (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), really anything by Anthony Mann

Rope (1948), for being maybe my favorite movie of all time

The Fall of Berlin (1949), for taking the Jerry Bruckheimer approach to Stalin worship

Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Fountainhead (1949), for being unfashionably libertarian, then and now.

The moral legacy of Western civilization

I threw off a phrase in yesterday’s post: “The moral legacy of Western civilization”. It set me off thinking. Why does that phrase have such an odd resonance?

The first reason, I think, is that it places Western civilization as something in the past.  Something that was.  I don’t mean that everything it included is dead, but that using it to describe something in the present is inaccurate.  The layout is different now.  The ideas earlier generations associated with the West are no longer confined there.  At the same time, other ideas are in play.  I’m not saying that we’re all submerged into one big happy world culture, just that “Western civilization” is not a meaningful description of anything in the present.

The second reason is that if Western civilization belongs to the past, then we really can evaluate its moral legacy.  And we can do it more neutrally than before.  We’re still working through the rebellious phase where everything about the West is EVIL, (and then the rebellion against that rebellion, and so on, swerving from side to side).  But it’s a possible next step.  History always has an implied “us”, and what I have in mind is the kind of history of Western civilization where “us” is everyone.  A history that doesn’t exaggerate any one perspective just because that’s the one readers identify with.

I’m not sure if all of this is correct.  But if that harmless-sounding phrase is like a grenade, then this is what comes out of it when it explodes.

Steampunk and ugly politics

Because science fiction is the literature of ideas, when it wants to be, science fiction criticism can head off in some really interesting philosophical directions.  Michael Moorcock’s essay Starship Stormtroopers explains that imaginary worlds aren’t just escapist dreams.  Which fantasies authors choose to create, and their readers choose to live in, say something about us.  “By and large the world we got in the thirties was the world the sf writers of the day hoped we would have — ‘strong leaders’ reshaping nations.”  So never mind that Moorcock was in an angry leftist mood when he wrote that in 1977, condemning an entire generation of SF authors as crypto-fascists – the general idea is good.

That’s the tradition Charles Stross writes in when he attacks steampunk for glorifying Europe’s imperialist and worker-oppressing past.  Steampunk, he argues, is at best a silly fashion, at worst morally bankrupt.

But Scott Westerfeld replies that this picture of steampunk is outdated. Current steampunk novels do precisely what Stross claims they don’t: Tackle honestly the dark side of life and politics in the past.  Stross just hasn’t been paying attention.  The genre is way ahead of him.

I haven’t read much steampunk, and don’t know what to think.  But, see, this is what I love about science fiction criticism: One moment you think you’re discussing a fashionable nostalgia for pocket watches.  The next it turns out you’re dealing with the entire moral legacy of Western Civilization.  And nobody finds that odd.  So wherever this discussion is headed, I’m all for it.