Sunday, 29 March 2009

On Being The Right Size

I always thought that ants were cheating somehow. It couldn't be through sheer industriousness that they were able to lift many times their weight. You don't see ants working out. They're just born that way, and, according to an article, we would be just as strong were we to be shrunk to a tiny size:

In stumbling across that article, which examines giant movie monsters, I was reminded of what was, in all probability, the best article written about throwing animals of various sizes from buildings I ever read:

There's something of the curmudgeon about both these pieces, as grumpiness and insistence on verisimilitude are often twin characteristics. But there's another theme which rises above both, and that is a very pure passion for the pulling apart and the putting together, which becomes fascinating for its own sake. You can see it in Fast, Loose and Out Of Control, and in very finely crafted objects. You become drawn in to the swirling subject. The expert passes on not just his expertise, but how it feels to dwell within, to be seated in the control room, to pull on this lever and that and lo! a great truth is revealed. It is very rare, and very valuable, to be granted such fluent access to a mind.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

I Like This Picture

Rampage, going all-out
Honestly, officer, I blacked out for a few minutes, and...


I'm an Anteater


Raccoons in a storm drain
Rabies waiting to happen


Passive-aggressive coffee mug
Well, now it's nobody's mug. You see what you made me do?


I like carrots
I like carrots


Sweet sweet internet
The intertubes are calling. I hear their sweet siren song in my ear. No. Must work.


Pop culture explosion
I strongly identify with both these men. This is an existential conflict.


Godzilla set photograph
This is charming in a very children's-book sort of way.


Put-upon bulldog
It's possible he's happy on some level.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Critical Mass Gathers Speed

Think of how stupid the average person is,
and realize half of them are stupider than that.

~ George Carlin

When I think about the general stupidity of large elements the general population—the people you see when you go to the movies, or to a public concert, or to vote—I wonder, who are these people? And how the hell do they survive? And why are they breeding in such vast numbers?
But mostly I wonder: how can they live inside their tiny, tiny heads? How little can you know and still maintain an adult existence?
And then I ponder: does intelligence make life better? Does it even help? Is there a point at which it—like height—becomes ungainly, unwieldy, and an awkward imposition to life?

It certainly is prized, and celebrated. But only to a point, and that point is about 22 years of age. Intelligence is then rapidly overtaken by Success, and its minions Determination and Consistency. An intelligent man with no Success becomes, with age, a Fool. There are two buffoons in popular culture, and they are the Hapless Schlub and the Airy Intellectual. The schlub is the target of all modern culture's desire to break with a monocultural, monolithic past, and the intellectual is a parody of our own unwillingness to mix with the groundlings and measly mire of daily detritus.

Perhaps that is the foe of intellectual life: the sturm und drang of meaningless melodrama, and the grinding quotidientry of quislinghood. It is the desire to float free of such earthy bonds that turns the thinker into a clay pigeon for half-hour shows following Shortland Street.

But all this is to reduce the intellectual life into a feudal ivory tower, barricaded against the very farms which support it for fear that contact may prove muddying. It purports a seething mass of humanity, hoi polloi, which plots schemes as dense as clotted cheese. But this is the contradiction that saves: all are swaddled in their own coddling troubles. There is no sense of urgency to rise as one against a meek intelligensia. If anything, it would be pleasingly convenient to dismiss intellectual pursuits out of hand than to connive and contrive.

And now, somehow, I have arrived at this: the stupid wish me no immediate ill; or if they do, they would not enact it; or if they did, they would be too distracted to complete it.

This may be why there is no such term as 'underlord'.

It is a curious place, the inside of my head. My ideas are tightly coiled.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Hofstede & Cultural Differences

Geert Hofstede is a Dutch writer who wanted to measure cultural differences. He came up with five continuums:
Low vs. High Power Distance
Individualism vs. collectivism
Uncertainty avoidance
Masculinity vs. femininity
Long vs. short term orientation
This is interesting for me because, while cultural differences are clear, actually measuring them makes obvious what is normally passed on through personal experience or anecdote.

Below are three graphs showing where familiar countries fall on three of these continuums.

Uncertainty Avoidance measures a culture's acceptance of ambiguous situations where the outcome is unclear. A more structured, rules-based culture has a low rating; many Islamic countries lie at the low end of this scale. Interestingly, the higher the rating, the generally less acceptable it is to express emotion within that culture.

Countries with a high Power Distance set clear hierarchical boundaries between people with high and low status. In low Power Distance countries like Holland, it is not unusual to see the Prime Minister in the next tent over on a camping holiday. This does not happen in China.

The Individualism continuum measures the importance of collective identity vs. individual identity. Countries like Guatemala have very low ratings, indicating identity 'clumps' (family/village) and far less individual ambition.

Many of these characteristics are driven by a shared religious identity. Catholic nations within Europe are more similar to one another than to a closer Protestant neighbour. Common media and ethnic origin is also key. It is clear on these indicies how similar the English-speaking countries are culturally.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about Hofstede's work in his book Outliers, illustrating how power differences led to airplane crashes: a co-pilot from a high Power Distance culture phrased key information meekly to his superior, only to have it ignored, just minutes before disaster.

The remaining two continuums are less interesting from a Western point of view. In terms of 'Masculinity vs. femininity', Japan occupies one end, Sweden the other. For 'Long vs. short term orientation', China are the ants while Pakistan are the grasshoppers.

I was hoping that the data would shed some light on the differences between American and our antipodean culture, but there is, relatively speaking, very little difference. They are slightly more individualistic, we slightly more relaxed.
Where this data really works hard is in seeing broader trends, similarities and differences. South Koreans, for examples, are far less individualistic than Japanese, and much more regimented than China. I can see that now, looking back on my experiences, but I wouldn't have been able to point it out before. This is one of the key benefits of education: getting more resolution from what you see.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Why I hated 'Watchmen'

Every few years, a film comes along which truly divides communities. The placarding throngs outside The Last Temptation of Christ would not be resolved with those inside; Kung Pow inexplicably landed in the Bottom 100 list of both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic despite the fact it was retarded in a good way; and no-one will admit publicly that Gone With The Wind was truly awful and should be burned in town squares. In 2009, Watchmen is the film which divides the movie-going public.

For those unfamiliar with the graphic novel (n. a comic book purchased by an adult), it breaks down like this: a naked blue god, plus a few people in out-of-fashion costumes, used to be in a crime-fighting squad. One becomes wealthy, another refuses to age, a third remains an enormous douchebag, a fourth is Norman Rockwell gone wrong covered with a Freud-gone-wrong mask, and the fifth represents the homely everyman found most often in his mother's basement. The naked blue superbeing divides his time between dissembling nuclear reactor cores and sitting quietly on the moon.

All of this was hugely popular with the kind of neckbeards who construct anime costumes to wear to conventions, and the success of mainstream superheroes at the box office encouraged Hollywood to throw money at characters not under licence to the cabal of American comic book publishers. They then hired the director of 300 and instructed him to continue in his fine tradition of masochim and slow-motion homoeroticism. Thus was the film adaptation of an unfilmable comic book delivered to ten thousand screens worldwide.

Dr Manhattan in one of his less-nude poses.

The first crime of Watchmen is that it is two hours and forty minutes long. Action movies are usually about the 1:40 length, which is long enough to for cursory character development, back story, blowing up things three times, and a sprawling finish. It is a terrible, terrible sign when a story which originated in marker pen stretches beyond the two-hour mark; it means that somebody, somewhere, decided that this tale was different; that this tale had a sophistication requiring lengthy exposition, and that illustrated a point broader and more resounding than, "Blow up bad guys good, blow up good guys bad." It did not have this point. It had a point in the way that a stoned teenager at a party thinks he has a point. It had a point the way that the idiot lovechild of Ashton Kutcher and Ellen Degeneres has a point. Its point was: - .

There has been a disturbing trend in films to mirror the Peter Parker Principle of Pathetic Primaries: make the main character as inept and tone-deaf as possible so that his transformation to beautiful swan may be more blindingly radiant. The problem is that, as Steven Spielberg continually demonstrates, the perfect form for the neophyte hero is an 8-year-old boy. Older characters are required to be mentally or socially retarded to fit the bill. The bill-fitter in Watchmen is well into his 30's, and wears the puzzled expression of someone who has been hit in the face with a spade.

Very little about the plot development makes sense, nor how the group formed or stayed together. When you have an uber-being who can pop soldiers like microwaved grapes simply by pointing at them, what the hell do you need anyone else for? The characters, perhaps sensing this, undertake a series of ludicrous non-sequiteurs which are presented with a completely straight face as narrative. The agony is akin to sitting through a primary-school violin recital. Oh, there's a false note. Well, maybe... oh, there's another one. Perhaps the next musician will be better--uh oh, they began with a flat sharp, then skidded across two octaves. Time becomes a treacly, visceral thing.

What is shamefully clear about the film is how transparently comics push teenage power fantasies. There is nothing mature about any of the characters--they are punching, shooting, flying and zapping their way through a beige-black world with no more nuance than a Republican talking about Islam. The last film I saw which welled up such a bank of resentment in me was Hulk (the 2003 Eric Bana version), and I am gratified to see Watchmen's box office takings plummet in the same way Hulk's did after the frothy trumpeting of the opening weekend.

The lesson learned--and it is a lot to ask that Hollywood learn anything--is that overwrought, piecemeal tales of marginal fantasy characters do not make for good entertainment. With the two recent Batman films I had hoped that the genre had shaken off the overprecious straitjacket of Clark Kent-style heroes and recognised that a modern, conflicted character was not only good for business, but a genuine statement of our times. The thin motives of the Watchmen world are tumbleweed from the 1950's, and ring hollow.

Crime Pays: $58

A dastardly criminal rooted through our mailbox and stole my new credit card. He then went on a crime spree which comprised the following purchases:

Foodtown: $36
Kentucky Fried Chicken: $22
Cash withdrawal: declined

That's right, the wages of crime are $58 and slightly hardened arteries.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Linux & ease of use

Mark Twain once said,"The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Yesterday, the slowest operating system I ever used was the fastest Linux distro, Puppy Linux.

It was meant to be easy, and fast, and kind of fun. Linux has been around in a staggering variety of forms for years, evolving like Galápogian birds. The open-source code encourages tinkering and reinvention by neckbeards worldwide. This has advantages and disadvantages, and at least one attempt -- Ubuntu Linux -- has been made to create a canonical version with regular releases. Unfortunately, this mentality is precisely what Linux enthusiasts demonize in corporations like Microsoft and Apple, so a plethora of species and sub-species evolve, swarm, mutate, enter death throes, and mildew.

The distro I chose was built for speed. It was created to run as quickly as possible, loading into ultra-fast RAM instead of residing on the slower hard drive. Selections and actions would be instantaneous; everything would be faster, with few lags or bottlenecks. And it was small. Windows XP uses at least 2GB, and Vista more than 5GB, but Puppy Linux was just 130MB. Tiny, fast, purpose-built. It sounded great.

You know what else is tiny and purpose-built? A Russian car.

When a proper company builds something, either an operating system or a vehicle, it brings with it a level of professionalism, of polish, of ease-of-use.
When some random guy assembles a contraption in their basement, it is a hodge-podge collection of compromises, workarounds, and makes glaringly obvious the creator's intimacy with the cold inner workings of the deathless machine.

In Puppy Linux (PL), there are two points of control: the start menu, and the command line.

The start menu has every application on the system, most being single-task and at least half being inscrutable to the new Linux user.

The command line allows you to screw up your system in multiple mysterious ways.

The first thing that a user notices when booting in to PL is the scrolling list of system actions. This takes a long time -- PL was never quicker than a full minute to boot. Suddenly the interface pops into view, without the grinding and cursor-spinning customary with Win/Mac.
Uh, OK, what now?
The taskbar at the bottom of the screen is hidden until I move the cursor over it. This would be fine if PL played nice with the trackpad, but -- no. It's like riding a bull. It flicks off one direction, jumps without warning, sways heavily, and there certainly must be a prize for staying on course for eight seconds or longer. Clicks are created from nowhere. To preserve my sanity, I plug in a wired mouse.

There is an app for everything. To look at files, I open an app -- just to bring up an active USB drive. The icons are closely spaced horizontally, but massively spaced vertically. The scrollbar on the side never goes away. A single click opens files. Control-X deletes.

There's a feeling of being very close to the coalface, of sharing a little too much information about how the computer does things, and not enough helping me do what I want to do. This is the difference between Tools and Interfaces: tools facilitate expert knowledge, but interfaces translate complexity to simplicity. An interface begins with a task: what does the user want to achieve? A tool begins with a process: how much feedback can be given?

Everything I did in PL was quick. Very fast. The slow part was comprehension, and that was all on me. Where was the initrd.gz file located? What kind of boot loader would work? What did that acronym mean? I was struggling to understand the terminology, and I'm someone who regularly EXPLAINS computer terminology to people.

The slowest part of any computer is the user -- the single most significant bottleneck. PL succeeds in raw technical speed, but fails to account for real-world problems. The fastest computer is one you can use.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Washington's Teeth

George Washington had false teeth. The regulation story is that they were made of wood, evidenced by portraits like this.

...even though you can't see his teeth, he don't look happy.

Anyway, the national fetish for preserving obscure relics of canonised leaders lead the National Museum of Dentistry to retain the former President's dentures upon his death, and recently it came to light that President #1 had some pretty weird stuff in his mouth.

Scanning a copy of very old false teeth. This is science, people.

The teeth were made from the following:


Ivory (from hippos).

Lead (poisonous).

Human teeth (probably extracted from soldiers fallen on battlefields).

Horse teeth.

Donkey teeth.

Let's look at that expression again.

Damn right. You'd look like that too if you could play 'Animal Vegetable Mineral' for half an hour based on what was in your mouth.

There's a fine level of bullshit surrounding George Washington's legend. This video will explain everything.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

'70s Films That Don't Suck

The '70s was responsible for a lot of truly weird movies, most of which, like grotesque lab experiments, were contrived by drugged parents under watery inspiration. However, even a busted watch is right twice a day; here are eight films that the '70s clusterfuck served up whole.

Badlands (1973)
Terrence Malick directs one film a decade. (Watch also--from strongest to weakest--The Thin Red Line, The New World, Days of Heaven). He specialises in calm, drifting storylines where characters' foibles are gradually revealed. Badlands stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as a Bonnie and Clyde couple, minus the bank-robbin' and hootin'-an'-hollerin'. It's been described as a great American road movie, and the dusty vistas, quietly viewed through windows and doorways, paint a portrait of forgotten America from South Dakota to Montana that is as eloquent as any story committed to film.

Enter The Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee's greatest movie transports him to an island tournament which descends into a chaotic frenzy of kung fu kraziness. It was the first U.S. studio martial arts movie, so two American 'stars' are tacked on (John Saxon, a journeyman actor with 40 credits under his black belt, and Jim Kelly, A.K.A. Black Belt Jones), but it's Lee's movie. He wades through weapon-wielding minions in the Dr No-like underbelly of the island fortress, and the hall of mirrors finale is iconic. There is little to place the movie in the '70s -- the queasy film tint suggests Tokyo Story and the sheer exuberance has little in common with the decade of Straw Dogs and Dr Strangelove -- but is heady and thoroughly enjoyable in its simplicity.

The Exorcist (1973)
Max von Sydow took a break from Bergman films to serve as a supernatural spitoon for William Friedkin's The Exorcist. The director was fresh from The French Connection, and the muted brown and orange from that film are all the colour that grace the otherwise dark tale of satanic possession. That an almost one-room film can spin out into two hours is a credit to the Oscar-winning script and music of the production, and there are few moments where the tension lags. To lay out the plot is to detract from the viewing, depending as it does on mystery and borderline terror, but it must be said that the director's cut, released in 2000, includes ten minutes of grotesquerie that adds another layer of squirming pleasure to one of the best horror films ever made.

Blazing Saddles (1974)
The Mel Brooks canon is best described as a guilty pleasure. His oeuvre is overt parody: Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, History of the World: Part I; even The Producers is a satire of Broadway backstage dealings. It is no surprise, then, that his broadside at spaghetti westerns is a crass jumble of earthy humour. It is important to recognise, 35 years on, that it is not a racist, sexist film; it is a film about racism and sexism. Once the viewer has leaped this hurdle, he is free to enjoy the film on its own terms. The one-horse town's black sheriff, busty wenches and brawling mercenaries provide ample material to weave into the main narrative: the nefarious Hedley Lamarr plotting to drive out the townfolk in order to run a railroad through the area. Naturally, any narrative is thrown aside when Brooks sees an opportunity to mug for the camera (he himself plays both the Governor and an Indian chief). The story is bumpy, but there's a laugh for every bump.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
There's not a lot to say about Python films; either you get them or you don't. If you hadn't seen this film by the time you were 20, chances are you were cool in high school.

Pumping Iron (1975)
Before he broke out in Conan and The Terminator in '82 and '84, Arnold Schwarzenegger took a series of minor or embarrassing major roles in '70s films: an overdubbed 'Arnold Strong' lead the cast of Hercules in New York. His dominance of the Mr Olympia championship continued unabated, and director George Butler turned a camera on the coterie of musclemen, possibly hoping to cash in on the decade's love of freaks and iconoclasts. In Schwarzenegger he found the latter, showing Arnold as an ambitious and manipulative schemer, toying with his opponents and gliding effortlessly through contests, although his greatest onscreen moments are undoubtedly his discursions on drugs, gays, and how pumping iron transports him to the heights of sexual ecstasy. Hey, it was the '70s.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
Stanley Kubrick laboured over this film, of the rise and fall of Thackeray's Irishman, in typically obsessive detail. And it's a good thing he did, as the groundbreaking lenses he used make the film as fresh and vivid as anything filmed today. The story is largely forgotten today, overshadowed in Thackeray's corpus by Vanity Fair (a worthy version of which was filmed with Reese Witherspoon in 2004) and bearing similar themes: social climber scales the heights of Napoleonic Europe, only to have their self-made success destroyed by personal demons. The cut and thrust of Lyndon's life makes for fascinating storytelling, well above the usual laziness offered up in the period-piece/bodice-ripping genre.

The Warriors (1979)
Lovable, brazen B-movie trash. A gang called The Warriors must battle their way from the Bronx back to Coney Island through a variety of rival gangs who seem to have escaped from an Adam West/West Side Story afterparty (The Boppers, The Baseball Furies, The Hi-Hats, The Gramercy Riffs, The Lizzies; I could go on). The film was re-released in 2005 to accompany the video game, and the plot feels very much like Double Dragon set to experimental music. It is being recreated in 2010 by Tony Scott (The Last Boy Scout, Crimson Tide) much like Death Race 2000 (1975) was recreated in 2008 (as Death Race), but like that original, is far purer at its unpolished, woolly-haired genesis.

All of the films above are guaranteed not to suck, but they're not 100% representative of the decade. The list below are a mixed bag -- they're a kind of '70s medicine, in that (the first time round at least) they're good for you without being automatically charming. But, dammit, you know you've seen a film after you watch them:
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)
Deliverance (1972)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

...and the following are films you should watch under no circumstances:

Straw Dogs
Last Tango In Paris

...just trust me on those. I suffered so you don't have to.