Thursday, April 17, 2014

La Mer Avait Embrassé Moi

Living in New York can make you forget about the realities of this country. It's a different culture here, more like medieval Germany with all the little ethnic enclaves at each others throats all the time. It's an honest antagonism, so different from the flat homogeneity of the suburban sprawl that makes up the majority of this country. Seeing it all again like I did this weekend brings the existential wretchedness of American existence into sharp focus.

And it made me finally understand the appeal of big budget noisefests like Transformers and The Avengers. Because it's a noisefest and because it's so very different from everyday life out there in the barren suburban landscape. It's two hours of being forcefully plucked out of the all-American drudgery that you can never admit to in this country. Escapism that doesn't allow you any thought or ironic distance, because such things might lead you to really think about your own nothing life in a nothing town where not even your petty tyrant of a boss has a future.

Which brings us to Noah.

Better learn to swim...

It's as big and loud as any other blockbuster, but it's loaded to the gills with real thoughts and ideas. Russell Crowe's Noah isn't the kindly bearded gentleman from those Catholic kid's books, he's a hard scrabble survivor with more questions than answers concerning the Creator's grand plan of purging the world. There's little about this fiction that's "inspirational" as it's called by publishers. Noah views his work as a grim duty, all the more so as he listens to the screams of those still clinging desperately to the outside of his ark or on nearby mountain tops. The film follows a confusing and challenging morality, much like that suggested in Kierkegard's Either/Or. Noah, as the antecedent of Abraham, is presented with the Will of God and must fight his own moral instincts to obey. Depending on your point of view, he ultimately fails.

Much has been made by the Fox News crew about all the liberal bias and evulz of the film and like a stopped clock they're right. Noah is absolutely environmentalist, presenting conservation and sustainable living as not only good but Godly. Noah and his family are even strict vegetarians, because killing and eating animals is presented as defiling Creation - a view shared by some Egyptian Copts, if you didn't know. If that weren't enough, the climate change analogy is inescapable, though unlike many other parables on the subject it offers no easy out. Man has defiled Creation and shall now be destroyed by the elements, forces beyond the scope of the Will to Power so celebrated by Ray Winstone's snake-eating villain.

All of this is delivered in a visually brilliant manner. From the swirling sky to the to the industrial blight of the cities of Cain to the endearingly grotesque fallen angels, Aronofsky's Noah is both familiar and alien in a way not seen in fantasy film since Army of Darkness or Willow. And even with its grim thesis, it champions above all the human capacity for love. Noah believes the Creator intends for all of humanity to die, believes that he and his were chosen to preserve the innocent beasts not because they are any better but simply because they can get the task done. But when presented with the continuation of humanity in the form of his own grandchildren, Noah cannot bring himself to "do what must be done" because of love. And in keeping with its own self-critical morality, it's because of love that the inconstant Ham slays Tubal-Cain and likely starts the cycle all over again. Humanity is purged but not cleansed and the film makes clear Man can still be as much a detriment to creation as a steward, the latter only possible not through blind duty to some inscrutable deity but through compassion for one another and a humble acceptance of our limitations in contrast to the infinite cosmos.

A stirring film... And utterly lost on the audience. Outside the theater where I saw this were four places serving bacon cheeseburgers and a Cold Stone. The people who left the theater stuffed their faces with easy fats - the only legal pleasure allowed in this wasteland, besides petty malice - before driving massive money-hole cars back to their depreciating homes, Aronofsky's work just one more spectacle to distract from the flatness of their lives. Another day spent growing fatter and sicker and meaner.

The rains can't come soon enough.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Critical Rhetoric Failure

You ever think about the talking points that get tossed around in this culture? I mean, really think about them? I do, because my day job is about as stimulating as oatmeal. And I have to say, a lot of 'em don't make a lick of sense.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

This has been a favorite since Reagan cut taxes before raising taxes. It's supposed to illustrate how enriching the already rich will make everyone rich, but whoever came up with that was not the most poetic of souls. Because the phrase as it stands merely claims a rising tide, which would represent the economy at large. That everyone benefits from a growing economy is one of those "no shit" assertions.

Whereas if we try to fit the supply-side argument into the metaphor... Well, are the big yachts the supply and the little canoes the demand? Are we making the yachts bigger or filling them with more cocaine and strippers? Increased weight could lead to greater water displacement, raising the canoes marginally but nothing comparable to a "rising tide." And technically, those 1% yachts not only didn't rise but just sank a little.

Makers and Takers or Water Carriers and Water Drinkers

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of consumer economics. Without the takers, the makers would have no reason to make save for their own subsistence. And if that's the standard, nobody's gonna make an iPad or any other inedible gizmo.

Of course that's not what is intended by "takers." The idea is instead that there are those engaged in productive work and the evils of the welfare state force them to subsidize the idleness of the masses. Leaving aside the fact that such a claim is ludicrous in the context of routine 60 hour work weeks for stagnating wages and slashed benefits, this still can't get around the issue that the much maligned "takers" are simultaneously the primary market for the products of the "makers." Unless all that's made is art, but few Hollywood liberals complain about paying for the food stamps of single moms.

So there's the sister phrase differentiating who's carrying the water. The most obvious critique - "Why don't you just drink the water you're carrying?" - is met with dull gruntings of "The Gub'mint!" and "Mah freedoms!" because they feel like victims. Which they are, but it's always easier to bitch about the single mother with the SNAP card than about your boss buying another summer home. He might be listening!

There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

This, oddly enough, is an entirely sensible statement. At the most basic, anything you consume was first produced by a complex process costing a degree of matter or energy. Even if you just eat grass, you're depleting the grass you'll have available for the next day or until more grass can grow.

But then everyone who offers this argument does so in defense of one free lunch or another. Typically it's used to decry welfare on the way to cutting taxes - the goal being a massive tax cut to maximize immediate personal cash. Except the TANSTAAFL crowd still expects roads and the rule of law, things only possible through a tax-funded system. Or they expect the meat they consume is free of pathogens. Or, ever more frequently, they buy commodities manufactured by Third World slaves rather than local blue collar workers, ensuring that big box retailers are enriched while they themselves suffer greater wage stagnation as all the real work is shipped overseas.

Punishing Success

You have to wonder how anyone can take a look at American culture, where even the most vapid bimbos can be celebrated for being celebrities, and then assume that paying a few more percentages in taxes is somehow a punishment. Maybe the people offering up this line spent their childhoods eating only candy and never taking baths, so now they see anything that is not immediate wish fulfillment to be a punishment. I doubt it though, because then their stinky asses would've died of diabetes long before they could get jobs in cable news.

I Never Got a Job from a Poor Person

What kinda slave's logic is that!?

~ ~ ~

Like so much to do with terrible prose, this really comes back to one Thomas Friedman. As his continued relevance shows, the American ruling class doesn't need or want particularly clever sloganeers. Friedman made his bones using similarly daft and dodgy arguments to celebrate globalization and now that America's imperial war machine is out of gas - thanks, Bush! - we're getting the same nonsense treatment at home. And it sells because all those years Friedman and the rest of the 1% nomenklatura were gloating at foreigners, they were really performing for all the heartland rubes. We're not just dumb enough to accept this dodgy rhetoric, we've been conditioned to.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Burn

After listening to the crazy lady explain that the Big Gub'mint knows all and sees all, I went across the street to catch a showing of Pompeii.

I was hesitant with this one. Growing up reading archeology books, things like Pompeii are real for me. I even got to see the original in Italy years ago, which is now a tourist museum, still in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. It's a sobering experience, seeing all those people frozen in their final moments...

So when I heard they were making a movie out of the tragedy, I was initially thrilled. Then I saw a trailer. It looked like a mash-up of 300 and Titanic - cornball star-crossed love for the girls and he-manly stabbings for the boys, with the special effects filling in for any actual acting. But I went to see it anyway and I'm pleased to announce it's more a mash-up of Gladiator and Titanic.

"Winter has come, bitches!"

Sure, it's got the cornball romance angle and everyone Lords and Ladys each other like a Brit melodrama, but it makes up for it in the violence and death. John Snow plays a Celt - because every pasty white dweeb dreams of being a Celt - whose family was exterminated by the film villain, necessitating he be raised as a gladiator. That's how he gets from rainy Londinium to sunny Pompeii, where he meets the fish-faced patrician girl of his dreams!

*Glub!*

Thank god the director put some earthquakes and sword fights in, or I'd have fallen asleep. Speaking of - Paul W.S. Anderson is another reason I was hesitant. He's the man responsible for those awful Alien versus Predator movies but he also did Event Horizon and Pandorum, two of the best sci-fi horror films since the original Alien. Very uneven record...

While Pompeii isn't as timeless as those two, it holds its own better than expected. This is due to two factors - or maybe one and a half. The first is the supporting cast, which includes that official villain I mentioned earlier played by Keifer Sutherland. His faux-anglo accent is the worst of the lot but it's so affected that he sounds like a younger Mister Burns, which is appropriate since every chance he gets he goes for the evil option. In any other film it would be obnoxiously two-dimensional but he's only really here so you can enjoy watching him die.

"Ay!"

Next up is the greatest - and most wasted - talent on screen, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Most people remember him as that African guy on Lost, because most people are ignorant swine. Agbaje is John Snow's rival gladiator, which naturally means they're allies once Mount Vesuvius blows its top, with the older and more experienced black guy constantly deferring to the younger white guy. It's annoying because Agbaje's character was far more interesting - one fight away from being legally granted his freedom under Roman law, fatalistic and jolly in equal measure, the sort of character that could have carried the whole movie on his own. But here, so subordinated to the pretty white kids that he makes the expected Noble Sacrifice so they can escape - though there is something impressive about standing to greet the pyroclastic flow with half a sword still in your guts.

So let's use a classy picture.

And if Agbaje were the star instead of just the ethnic sidekick, then that other little positive of the film could've blossomed. The fatalism he expresses at times, the understanding and even acceptance of his own mortality, is both very Roman and very alien to modern sensibilities. It lurks everywhere throughout the film, from Princess Fish-Lips sacrificing herself to Sutherland's Snidely Whiplash to protect her family and the city from Roman domination to John Snow's constant open defiance of his own masters, all of which is eventually blotted out by unconscious nature. Along with the sun.

It's a surprisingly grim subtext for a swashbuckling popcorn flick. Not enough to really make up for the hokeyness but let's say three stars.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Me Nation

I spent the weekend traveling back and forth to Virginia, getting a re-education in the psychology of ordinary fucking people. While getting lunch in Alexandria, a lady with nothing better to do than drink rum and coke alone at noon started sounding off, "The government knows where that plane is! They got those spy satellites!" Because the US government is so very interested in the fate of some plane out of Malaysia. Implicit in her jabber was the assumption that the now infamous airplane is in fact somewhere, as opposed to scattered across the bottom of the sea. You know, the scenario with a 99% probability.

It's the sort of stupid bullshit you hear from functional alcoholics a lot but let's examine the implications. The United States federal government knows all and sees all. Now, if you're worried about terrorists crawling out of your toilet - like the majority of Americans from about 2002 to 2007 - that's actually a comforting thought. Total Information Awareness works! However, that's not the reaction we saw with the PRISM revelations. Because obviously if the government can see everywhere and anywhere, it's going to be focused specifically on you. That's the dominant brainwave of a systemically narcissistic culture.

Further proof can be found here. And if you're averse to clinking blind links, that's one of the stupider articles on Alternet making the case that last year's bombing of the Boston marathon was an inside job. Not with any actual evidence of course, just innuendo and pseudo-skepticism relying on the assumption that of course the Feds would want to blow up an American city. Implicit in the assumption is that only Americans can or even would do such a thing because only Americans are real. Only American interests are real - or rather, the interests of individual Americans. The fact that the Tsarnaev brothers were motivated by revenge for fallen Muslims is dismissed out of hand as too outlandish - because it's not venal and self-serving enough to be understandable to the average American narcissist.

And that's why Americans have been so helpless on the whole Crimea issue. Politico tries to reconcile the two extremes of Putin's character, indulging in the equally prevalent American pathology of only seeing in dichotomies. What only one in a dozen of their own analysts can see is that the two theoretical Putins - the technocrat and the bully - are both entirely consistent with everyday nationalism. Putin is a shrewd tactician and he is grabbing Crimea for the glory of the Russian Empire. And like the Tsarnaevs, Americans just don't get why he would do something that doesn't directly line his pockets. Therefore he's crazy.

For added comedy, as Russian troops were rolling on Ukraine last week, everyone's favorite useful idiot filmed himself in front of the US Constitution's preamble lecturing on the importance of incognito browsing of porn sites. Think it was a propaganda scheme by the FSB? "Before we lay smackdown on Ukraine, we put Comrade Snowden on intertubes to distract yankees."

And Snowden is just dumb enough to think it was his own idea, because he's so grand. Typical American...

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Broken Windows

This week, Chuck Hagel made headlines as the second secdef under the same president to call for budget cuts at the DOD. So now everyone hates him, for the dumbest and most two-faced of reasons. Complaints focus on lies about how any cuts would translate into "standing down" - whatever possible meaning that could have in the context of irregular brush wars - and the usual noise about how we have to spend everything on defense because D-FENS and never mind how many Army and Air Force generals take off their uniforms after twenty or thirty years and go sit on the boards of Lockheed, Raytheon, and all the other welfare cases left over from the Cold War.

Except there's plenty to legitimately criticize in Hagel's budget. It keeps the F-35 billion dollar boondoggle but calls for retiring the good ol' A-10. The Hog has been the most reliable combat aircraft of the past decade, flying close air support in Iraq and Afghanistan with more success than even drones... But it's ugly and USAF brass are a bunch of dumb jocks who want to drive flashy cars and impress the girls. Really, "It's ugly" is the only criticism of the A-10 USAF pilots ever voice and the actual A-10 drivers love the thing. They swear by it and with good reason - the Hog doesn't just have the biggest gun in the sky, it can take the most punishment and still fly back home. One even made it back to base after a successful mission and losing a whole engine. Only the F-15, another solid Cold War design, can make a similar claim, having landed minus a whole wing.

So what can the F-35 do that the A-10 can't? Not a goddamn thing, unless you're a Republican congressman, then the F-35 is your own personal goldmine! Case in point, Michael Turner of Ohio's tenth district. The district that includes Dayton, home to both the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Meaning Turner's entire political career is wedded to USAF contracting, which generates around five billion in annual revenue for his constituency.

If Hagel's cuts go through, Michael Turner will directly suffer. Because "defense" is a racket in this country and a very profitable one to boot. If NASIC and AFRL see their operating budgets reduced, you can bet Turner will be out on his ass in November. Which he deserves, being a water carrier for the biggest scam operation in the world... But Dayton is also turning into a main production center for drones, which will likely get squeezed in the new budget so as to better feed the worthless F-35.

See, this is what's depressing about America. Hagel is right to want to shrink the military into a leaner, more agile force but he's going about it utterly wrong. And Turner is a scaremongering swine who is nonetheless defending one of the few weapon systems that would best serve Hagel's plans. It's oligarchs feuding over how best to soak the peasantry, with the final concerns being nothing more than self-perpetuation and scoring the best blow.

Basically, America is like Ukraine. Without the backbone.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Fiction Friday: Balzac VS. Hemingway

So the Latest Thing is something called "hemingwayapp." It's a site - and a download - that will help you write like Ernest Hemingway. Because you want to do that for some reason. Dreamed up by the Long brothers, it claims to apply Hemingway's style to determine if a given text is clear and concise in its meaning. Nominally developed for business emails "to help us achieve clear writing... [with] short, declarative sentences."

Like a shotgun blast to the face!

So I decided to test this thing out empirically: Copy a shorter work by that gold standard of prose, Honore de Balzac, and paste it into the Papamatic. Naturally, it threw a fit. "150 of 948 sentences are hard to read." "262 of 948 sentences are very hard to read." "Beep-boop this writing is only 23% efficient." Okay, I made up that last one. But I think it captures the spirit of the hemmingwayapp. Or lack thereof...

Just for a lark, I tried to edit The Ball at Sceaux down to something that would plug Hemingway's socket. And what I got was this travesty:

The Comte de Fontaine fought in the war in La Vendee against the Republic. He liked to joke, "I am one of the men who gave themselves to be killed on the steps of the throne." And the pleasantry had some truth in it, as spoken by a man left for dead at the bloody battle of Les Quatre Chemins. Vendeen refused the lucrative posts offered to him by the Emperor Napoleon. He obeyed his aristocratic faith when he thought it fitting to choose a companion for life. He married Mademoiselle de Kergarouet, with no fortune, but belonging to an old Brittany family.

When the second revolution burst on Monsieur de Fontaine he had a large family. He took his wife's advice and moved to Paris. The greed of others made him sad. He received a ministerial dispatch. He'd been nominated as marchel de camp. He then later received the Legion of Honor and Saint-Louis crosses.

This shook him and he wanted to see the king in private. The audience, at once granted, was in no sense private. The royal drawing-room was full of old people. The Count met some old friends who were cold to him. He found the princes ADORABLE. No one asked about his finances. They weren't good. Later, he thought about making a joke at his own expense...


"C'est quoi ce bordel?"

That's not the whole thing but I'm not desecrating Balzac any further to make my point.

"But hey!" I hear you say. "Aren't you a writer yourself? Don't you have a novel available through fine online retailers like Amazon and Smashwords that can be had for a low low price of 99 cents per download or $9.99 for a paperback, plus shipping and handling?" In fact I have two novels available through fine online retailers but I see where you're going with this. Chapter 1 of Fiend - Hemingway-ized!

I'm a vampire.

Such an improvement...

My point here is that you still can't program writing. The Long brothers, despite their claims, have produced nothing but a very specific grammar check like you have in Microsoft Word. As the New Yorker put it, even Hemingway fails the Hemingway app standards because they're rote, literal, and dreamed up by a pair of chucklefucks in the grips of Dunning-Kruger.

It really highlights something that I've been thinking about lately... Thanks to its hippy-libertarian brainwave, the whole IT industry is turning into a massive circle-jerk for privileged First World dweebs. Open Source - while useful in some respects - has become such an article of faith among programmers that third party software is employed even in corporate environments without respect to utility or stability. Development processes actively discourage documentation and standardization, instead emphasizing a utopian fantasy of "Everyone should be free to program how and what they want because freedom and free software and free porn on Pirate Bay!"

And while the Longs and all the other software "engineers" are faffing around with their glorified spellcheckers,  materials scientists just created a steel-strong polymer with a micro-lattice architecture. You didn't hear about it on Twitter because it has nothing to do with the latest version of Mint.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Unsung Classics: E.A. Robinson

Pointing out the innumeracy of economic reporting in America is like screaming into a clogged toilet. You'll never actually fix the problem and after a while the stench gets to be too much to bear... So let's talk poetry!

I know this isn't the most popular of subjects. Most of you probably haven't read a poem since high school, unless it was in a greeting card. But even those of you who have probably never got around to Edwin Arlington Robinson. And that's a shame because he's probably the last good poet America will ever have.

More of a shame - that mustache isn't cool anymore.

I'd never even heard of him myself until senior year of college when I took Arthurian Literature for a laugh. The professor often referenced Mort d'Arthur as the definitive work in the mythos even though we never read it. Instead we read the moralizing dross of Tennyson, the soppy fanfiction of Marion Zimmer Bradley... And a surprisingly good modernist mock epic by one E.A. Robinson.

Merlin is one of those literary works too good to make it into the Norton anthologies. Instead of Arthur and his knights, it focuses on the complex relationship between Merlin and Morgan le Fay - renamed here Vivian - the femme fatale of Arthurian legend. Under Robinson's hand, she ceases to be the one-dimensional scheming witch and instead becomes a complex figure both enticing and reviling Merlin, who is compelled to chase after her by Fate - so he claims - with their interactions taking on shades of a strained marriage rather than an epic battle between good and evil. It's a synechdoche for Robinson's work as a whole, taking myth and grandeur and making it relatable without losing any power.

Let's take a look at his more well known piece, Miniver Cheevey, which I can present here in full thanks to public domain:

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.
Miniver loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would send him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing:
He missed the medieval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.
Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Something feels off when you read, doesn't it? Robinson's rhythm is out of whack, especially those last lines. But try this - read Miniver Cheevy again, skipping those awkward final lines... Flows much better, don't it? Conveys more pathos, more of that cloying desperation of the All-American Loser. The very American reality we all desperately pretend does not exist.

Because Robinson knew enough to write strategically bad. The whole poem is the titular Cheevy wallowing in self-pity,  a tale told by an idiot for himself. His verse fails because he is such a failure. It's much harder to do than you would think because Robinson had to know enough to write the poem well from the start, then go back and tweak things just so Cheevy's misery and failure is illustrated without just making a bad poem. It's a stunning demonstration of the craft - especially since Robinson was writing in the age of the Verse Libre poets, who liked to indulge in such stylistic quirks but lacked the substance to say anything of import. They were so terrible, they were later celebrated by every beatnik and hippy too dull to write proper pop songs. Robinson actively resisted the "free verse" of his day, explaining with the self-deprecation of a true artist, "I write badly enough as it is."

It's rare for that much humility to go hand in hand with such genuine skill. Rarer still that such writers get read so go pick up a copy of Robinson's poems now. It'll make you a better person.