27 April 2008

Interview with Errol Morris

Despite appearances, the Onion AV Club is actually one of the best movie review and information sites I've seen, and their interviews are top-notch. Not the least of which is this one of Errol Morris, famed documentarian of (among others) Mr. Death and the Oscar-winning The Fog of War. His latest is Standard Operating Procedure about the Abu Ghraib scandal, and it sounds as fascinating as ever.

AVC: They just were foolish enough to be within the frame. Or not even foolish: They didn't think anything was wrong with being in the frame.

EM: I actually think it's neither of that. I think they knew it was wrong. Look at Sabrina's letters. She's constantly writing about how this is immoral. That's another misconception about this, that these guys were void of morality. But see, they're all wrestling with morality. I wonder, do people forget that it's the military? You know, they were following orders. Uh-eh-hem! It's the military! What do you think people do in the military?! Sabrina is constantly saying "This is wrong." She also talks about taking the pictures as proof that the stuff is wrong. Here's another irony. You can take a picture thinking you are providing proof that the army is guilty of A, B, C, and D. And that picture can be used to prove that you are a sadist with respect to A, B, C, and D. In many instances, they took the pictures to protect themselves. That's what's sooooo unbelievably bizarre about all of it. And they at least had some rational reason to believe that. Sabrina Harman, on November 4, 2003, gets into the shower where they've stored a corpse for the night. A corpse of the guy who was killed by the CIA. That's what happened there.

Anyway, it looks fascinating -- this and Taxi to the Dark Side are most definitely on my too-see list if they ever get anywhere near Huntsville.

Open-Source Boobs

This is the best commentary I've seen on the whole "open-source boobs" thing. No excerpts, no further commentary for me, just go read the thing.

(Put under the "Writing and Writers" tab because it's about events at an SF con.)

25 April 2008

Bittergate Through Two Prisms

I'm a few days behind on my RSS feeds as usual, but ran across this column on "Bittergate" from Orson Scott Card, the man who was once a great writer and who still can be a really good writer when his political obsessions aren't destroying his capacity for rational thought. Of course, in these Ornery American columns (began soon after September 11) Card is pretty much all-politics, so reading them is of limited utility. Basically, Card starts off by elevating Obama's "bitter" speech into a kind of religious sermon by "numbering the verses," then moves on to claim that Obama's really a kind of racist (just like everyone else) and eventually circles through calling Obama (and the whole left wing, by extension) an elitist, reminiscing about shootin' rifles down on the farm with Pappy (my words, not his, but that's the implication), gives a moment of worship to his main man Joe Lieberman, bashes Al Gore for believing in scientific consensus, and comes out the other side practically shedding tears over how wonderful John McCain is. Here's a sample bit, plucked out basically at random so you get the flavor of what Card's talking about:

Of course, they're not frustrated. Most people I know who live in small towns do so by choice. They could live in the big city or the suburbs but they don't want to. They often make deliberate sacrifices in lifestyle or convenience precisely in order to stay in the small town. They love it there, or at least they like it better than they imagine they would like city life.

And isn't this a weird list to begin with?

Guns. I don't own one myself, but I grew up in a gun-totin' house. We went target shooting and deer hunting. My dad and brothers and I walked the desert northeast of Mesa, Arizona, with .22 rifles, plinking at rabbits and tin cans. We weren't bitter. We weren't frustrated. We never hit a rabbit and we didn't care. We were simply together and being a good shot was a manly thing. (Since we killed every can we aimed at, we attributed our failure to kill rabbits to rabbit cleverness.)

But that is completely outside Obama's experience.

Except, of course, the point of Obama's "bitter" comments was never really about guns or religion. It was about blame, and how it's manipulated by a bunch of smooth operators in the Republican Party.

If you read the Card essay, use this as a palate-cleanser. He starts with a transcript of a scene from the film version of The Grapes of Wrath, in which Muley is wondering "who to shoot" for taking his farm away, then comments on it thusly:

A host of demagogues these days are eager to answer Muley's question. "Want to know who to blame?" they ask, "We'll tell you."

"Shoot the Mexicans," says Lou Dobbs. "Shoot the lazy blacks on welfare," says Grover Norquist. "Shoot the atheists," says James Dobson. "And the gays," adds his chief politico, Tony Perkins. "Shoot the Islamofascists," say Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the rightwing bloggers. "Shoot 'em all," says Fox News.

None of those suggestions, of course, are of any use to Muley or to his contemporary counterparts, because none of those scapegoats are really the source of their problems. But the demagogues don't give a rat's ass about solving Muley's problems. Their only concern is making sure that he keeps his shotgun pointed somewhere else, somewhere that doesn't threaten the status quo.

Of course, Orson Scott Card is all about the status quo. That's pretty much his political modus operandi, to just Trust in Our President who says all those pretty things about keeping us safe from Evil Arabs out to kill our children.

Clark, on the other hand, talks about how tough it is to expose con artists without looking like you're blaming the victims, and how difficult con artists are to prosecute because of that. Barack Obama knows that people don't worship god or own guns because of economic hardship, but for other more personal reasons that may vary from person to person. But Republican con artists have manipulated those good reasons for their own gain, have made a sport out of blaming the liberals for whatever problems these poor working-class whites face, and have used god and guns as lightning rods in these debates.

Hence, any kind of regulation or restriction on gun ownership isn't discussed on its merits, but is treated with a kneejerk "those evil libruls are coming to take away your hunting rifle and by extension your manhood and your very way of life", and any kind of thought of treating gays and lesbians as actual human beings with an ability to love one another and a desire to share their lives is given a response of "it's taking away from the foundations of society and destroying this great country." It's not about your rifle or your bible, it's about how certain political operators would rather you focus on falsehoods about how some evil government agent is coming to take those away from you than on the very real problems that plague you -- problems that may very well be solved through committed collective action on the part of, you guessed it, government agents.

I keep coming back to this, but it's true: we have real problems in this country. And as long as one of our political parties is so focussed on demagoguing the other by fanning the fires of religion and our news media is focussed on making mountains out of Democratic molehills while completely ignoring the Republican Everests, we're not going to be working on solving them.

17 April 2008

A .22 Not Enough For Zombie-Killing?

Wired has a piece up about how to survive a zombie onslaught. It includes this bit about the disutility of of the .22 round:

It's a questionable choice. While the .22LR has been a favored calibre for gangland killings , such shootings are carried out at point blank range and the victim has to be shot several times in the head to ensure a kill. The preference for .22LR here is probably more to do with being quiet and portable, it is certainly not a powerful round. In one bizarre case a man was actually shot in the head with a .22 while sleeping and did not realize it; the bullet was only found when he went to hospital complaining of a headache (his wife later admitted 'accidentally' shotting him in bed).

Of course it depends very much on what sort of .22LR ammunition you are using, as there are many varieties in this caliber, ranging from subsonic heavy bullets to smaller "hyper-velocity" rounds and they all have different properties. But it's worth remembering that .22LR had not been adopted as a military cartridge, in spite of the large number of conscripts out there using the 'spray and pray' technique, as it is considered more useful against small animals than humans. That's got to raise questions about its use as a zombie-stopper.

Max Brooks recommends a .22 in his Zombie Survival Guide, but he's thinking more in terms of long-term travel through zombie-infested country, whereas the Wired article is referring more to a Zombi-style limited outbreak. Those .22 cartridges probably look a lot more tempting when you're considering trekking cross-country with enough of them to make sure to deanimate any walking corpses in your path.

16 April 2008

One of the Greatest Beers on Earth

Last night I was over at Riverside Beverage with Shana, and happened to run across one of the greatest beers on Earth.

Stone Imperial Russian Stout. At one point BA listed this as the number two beer on their top 100 algorithm, but nowadays the newer system ranks it "only" at number fourteen. Still one of the finest beer experiences I'm ever going to have, and this is the first actual bottle I've had to myself, so I'm saving it for a special occasion.

13 April 2008

A Little Sunday Intolerance

You really shouldn't watch this.

Yes, the wonderful journalism and insightful commentary of Fox's Red Eye, in which that monolithic propaganda house pretends that wingnut conservatism can be just as witty, hip, and urbane as their more blue-stated counterparts, sinks to a new low in essentially standing back and hurling verbal abuse at the "freakshow" that is a person making life decisions alongside a loving partner. Children laugh at and belittle those things in the world that are too complex and frightening for them to properly understand, and this is reasonable, but one of the criteria of adulthood is the ability to rationally evaluate the things in life that you don't understand, and the willingness to treat other human beings with dignity and respect. The persons in the above clip have shown themselves to be emotionally-retarded children. Congratulations, Fox, for once again lowering the public discourse.

Just as an aside, this guy claims that "twenty years ago" this guy would be in a freakshow? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the carnival freakshow complete with a circus geek biting the heads off of chickens wasn't exactly a staple of the Reagan eighties.

(Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)

Canals on Mars

Bibliodyssey has the original drawings made in the late nineteenth century of the mythical canals of Mars. Like this one:

Makes me want to go write a scientific romance or two, how about you?

12 April 2008

Al Gore is Back

Wouldn't it have been nice to have had a reasonable human being with actual knowledge of the world around us as president these last seven years?

The presentation's a little rough (as Gore acknowledges at the beginning), but overall he's got a good message here -- we need to see climate change as our opportunity to do good in the world, not as some imposition on our liberties by a bunch of tree-hugging hippies. I personally think some of the imagery here was a bit off-message, like the time-lapse footage of development in Bolivia with the sound of chainsaws -- it seems like we're making a false dichotomy between economic development and environmentalism, which is clearly not the case, and plays into the hands of the global warming denialists. And that was clearly a focus of this presentation: that economic development and combating the climate problem can go hand-in-hand, i.e. through development of better energy sources and the like. I would have liked to see a bit more emphasis on things like nuclear energy -- I don't see how we're going to get out of this mess without some kind of investment in newer, cleaner, nuclear technologies.

But overall those are just quibbles. This is a wonderful speech, one made by a man who only seems to become more compelling as the years go past. One of my favorite moments in the speech was when he made the explicit comparison to the money spent on the Iraq War versus climate change, which I was thinking of earlier this morning before even watching this video. Libertarian blowhards like Bjorn Lomborg harp on about the economic costs of dealing with climate change, but where was that kind of sober analysis before we decided to spend three trillion dollars plus on a nonsensical war with a country that didn't threaten us in a nonexistent "global war on terror?" Surely if the lives of people around the world are subject to an economic cost/benefit analysis with regard to climate change, we should be able to make a similar analysis with regards to killing lots of brown people for no reason.

Of course, in the short-term sense it's easier for people to see that fighting climate change costs more money than the war, because the large firms that make the weapons and other technology that is used in Iraq get to make money by billing it to the government, which then passes the bill to future generations. What that means is that to pay for the war we're shortchanging our future infrastructure development (one of the things that government is unquestionably good at -- driven on an Interstate or used the internet lately?), whereas by battling climate change and investing in better technology and cleaner energy we'll be helping to build infrastructure on which our economy will rest for decades to come. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Gore is also smart to separate the personal sacrifices that people make (i.e. using cleaner light bulbs) with the kinds of regulatory and social action that combats the larger problems of climate change. One of the problems of the modern-day environmental movement is a lack of perspective, i.e. the actions of a single person in recycling bottles or using cloth shopping bags instead of plastic really doesn't help much in dealing with global pollution, and tars the whole movement with a kind of nannyish scolding attitude towards people at large. Focusing on the future of development, on better technology that paves the road for the rest of the 21st century and beyond rather than browbeating people for personal choices that ultimately are much smaller in scope is a much better direction, and I'm glad that's the way Gore is framing this issue.

Ultimately, conservation isn't about making due with less, it's about doing what you do now more efficiently. When that's the image of conservation that's in people's heads, when that's the way people see environmental movements and regulations, the population will be a lot more supportive of the movement. What's more important, keeping a few bottles out of landfills or making sure the global infrastructure of the developed world isn't ravaged by climate change?

11 April 2008


Hey, check this out:

That's right, new glasses. I can see! Right now I'm still getting used to them, given that my left lens has a significantly higher refractive index than my old ones, and it's messing up my peripheral vision, but that's the sort of thing your brain gets used to after awhile. Hopefully this will cut down a bit on the headaches I'm used to getting when I try to focus on the screen for too long, which will help me actually get more writing done. Whoo-hoo!

On a completely unrelated note, I just bought a new 160 GB hard drive for about sixty bucks from a computer place in the mall, and plan on installing Ubuntu 7.10 and dual-booting. I've long been a Linux fan (although I'm running XP now) but I've never tried Ubuntu, so this should be pretty cool.

Working into the home stretch on my latest short story. It's at 3800 words or so and is planned to be between five and six thousand, but most of the rest is dialogue-heavy, which is easier for me than the longer pages of description and setup, so we'll see how it goes. I've got a nice bottle of Three Philosophers in the fridge which I'm saving as a reward for finishing it.

That's all for now. With any luck I'll be popping that Three Philosophers later tonight or tomorrow afternoon.

06 April 2008

Booklog, The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49, 1965
by Thomas Pynchon
Trade Paperback, 152 pages

Written before V. but published after that novel's success, The Crying of Lot 49 has more in common with the short fiction in Pynchon's Slow Learner than any of his other novels. It is less than half the length of Vineland, Pynchon's second-shortest novel, and unlike any of the other books (mostly) follows a single protagonist down a (reasonably) straightforward plot. Pynchon himself is said to consider this a "journeyman effort," better than the "apprentice" works of his early short fiction but not up to the standard of his later novels.

He's probably too hard on himself. While Lot 49 is comparatively simple for those who have absorbed Pynchon's longer works, it's an excellent introduction to his writing, and stands as a great work in its own right. As the book opens, a young Southern California woman named Oedipa Maas is named the executor of the will of Pierce Inverarity, a former lover of hers. What starts out as a largely formal request ends up leading Oedipa into a twisty maze of maybe-conspiracies involving a shadowy postal service war from centuries past, a possible crime against humanity in the production of cigarette filters, a device that will violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics... in other words, into a crazy world full of the kinds of strangeness that is Pynchon's forte.

In this way, The Crying of Lot 49 provides a sort of introduction to Pynchon's work for those who are not already familiar with it, and a sort of filtering device for those who are. Oedipa Maas falls through the metaphorical rabbit hole into this strange world where no one seems innocent, a world filled with the cast-outs and burn-outs of society, a world denied by the Authorities, whether they be in government, industry, academia, what have you. Or does she? -- there is some indication that Pierce might have set up the whole thing to simply play a trick on poor insulated and isolated Oedipa. It is the spectre of doubt, the sense that at any time the rug could be pulled from under your feet even after the wool has been pulled off of your eyes that makes Lot 49 (and by extension Pynchon's whole oevure) so compelling.

Perhaps we the reader are supposed to treat Pynchon's corpus the way Oedipa treats the sights she sees in the underworld in Crying of Lot 49. Perhaps Oedipa is in that sense a reader stand-in -- if so, the ending of the novel suggests that true understanding is forever out of our reach, that Someone or Something will forever keep us from the Truth. Perhaps. Pinning down exactly what Pynchon wants the reader to take away from any given passage is notoriously difficult, not least because passages often seem to contradict each other, and Meaning is elusive. Just as in life.

The Crying of Lot 49 is also memorable for its sense of fun and games, even if some of the humor is as pitch-black as it gets. In one memorable sequence (which was echoed later on in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse V, whether knowingly or not I can't say) Oedipa watches a movie on TV with a lawyer Paul Metzger which has (maybe) been aired out of sequence. During this scene Metzger is also seducing Oedipa and providing exposition to the reader, in what is one of the most convoluted and strange sequences I've read in any novel. That Pynchon pulls this off with humor, clarity, and Meaning is astonishing and gives indications of what we could expect from him later on.

My recommendation here: read it twice. The original hardcover (and the paperback I own) is 152 pages, and is perfectly able to be read in a single extended sitting. Reading it again soon thereafter helps to make some of the themes of the novel more clear, and to make sense of Pynchon's often obscure prose style. It's a strange read, but definitely worth the time for anyone looking to see what Pynchon is all about -- try Gravity's Rainbow later once you get to the point of this shorter work.

RIP Charlton Heston

Charlton Heston has died. For the last decade and change, he's been pretty much a punchline (to young persons of a liberal persuasion such as myself) or a heroic political activist (to conservatives with strongly anti-gun-control political beliefs). Either way, I think we tend to overlook his obvious qualities as an actor -- aside from his performances in the sandal epics like Ben Hur (which I haven't seen, much to my chagrin) he turned in wonderfully compelling performances in a long string of movies in the sixties and seventies, including Planet of the Apes and Soylent Green.

But I'll best remember him for Touch of Evil.

As you can see even from the trailer above, Heston holds his own against even that master of film acting Orson Welles, and what his performances lack in subtlety they make up in sheer power. I know I'll be catching the 1998 reissue of Touch of Evil soon.

What's sometimes forgotten is the power of his comedy work. Heston used his image to great effect in an episode of SNL, for instance, which included the "Bag Man" sketch.

Manager (Phil Hartman): Look, Elwin. I don't want you to take this personally, but.. we need to make a few staff cut backs, and, well, you seem to be awful close to retirement, so I thought, maybe --

Elwin (Charlton Heston): Whoa. Why - why would I want to retire? I love working here, Captain.

Manager: Well, Elwin.. maybe it would give you more time to relax, maybe work on your hobbies --

Elwin: Yeah, yeah, I do have some hobbies. I collect coins, and I've got a matchbook cover for practically every diner in the southwest area --

Manager: [ chuckles happily ] Well, you see! There you go!

Elwin: Yeah. And there's another hobby I was thinking of taking up, but, uh.. only if I had enough time on my hands. You know, the funny thing is, this one involves you. Yeah, yeah. I was gonna see how loud I could get you to scream, but.. not by using the pliers on you, but on the ones you love the best. Ohhh, I'll bet we can get it so the screams echo off the walls of that remote tool shed for years!

Manager: [ stone-faced, filled with shock and dread ] What the hell are you --

Elwin: Well, if you retire, you gotta keep busy, right, Captain?

The video isn't online anywhere, but I'd love to see it again. Heston and Hartman both give pitch-perfect deliveries and nail what might have been a lackluster sketch.

So yeah, Charlton Heston was a conservative assclown, but he was a talented conservative assclown, and that's good enough for me. Let's remember him for his body of acting work rather than his political activism, at least for today.

05 April 2008

Another World War Z Script Review

Geek in the City has another script review for Straczynski's World War Z script. I fell in love with this book when it was first published, and this is probably the film that I'm most looking forward to right now. Here's the conclusion of this script review:

While based on the novel, Straczynski’s script stands alone as a classic in the zombie genre. Indeed, with the right cast and direction, World War Z could stand as one of the strongest dramas in the last decade. In a way, JMS added a new element to Max Brooks’ initial vision of a global zombie war. With The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z, and the Straczynski script; Max Brooks’ tale is finally complete.

Personally, I'd shoot this as a sort of Citizen Kane of zombies, with a narrator essentially going around and setting up a series of flashbacks that tell the story of the horrible events of the Z-War, and it looks like Straczynski's doing exactly that. Personally, after Children of Men, I'm pushing for Alfonso Cuaron to direct this, but I'm certainly open to seeing any talented director's take on the material.

Saturday Fun

Here's a classic Daily Show bit from 2005. It's the White House Correspondent's Dinner from that year. Part one:

Damn you! Don't humanize Lynne Cheney!

Part two:

It was a male horse.

04 April 2008

Beer Review, Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout

Jefferson's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout

I bought four of these a while back and never bothered to review one. I believe I picked them up from Strong Bros. in Fayetteville, but I may be mistaken. Anyway:

Appearance: Pure black body, completely nonexistent head. This beer is so dark it's completely opaque, even when held up to a strong light source. 4.0/5

Smell: Strong notes of coffee and chocolate. Slight astringency in the aroma, notes of hops and malt far underneath. I let this warm for a bit before tasting -- in the aroma it reminds me a bit of Rogue Shakespeare. 3.5/5

Taste: Nutty, malty, hints of that wooden barrel way down deep. Slightly sweet, very dry, but finishes smooth. It may just be the wood, but it reminds me more of a brown ale than a stout. 3.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thin, watery. Not nearly as high-quality as I'd expect from such a high-alcohol (and high-priced!) beer. Carbonation minimal, slight notes of hops on tongue. Foams a bit upon swishing over the palate. 2.0/5

Drinkability: Goes down clean, and the alcohol is mostly masked by the flavors in the beer. Deceptively easy to drink, overall a decent swiller but nothing worth going out of your way for. 3.5/5

Pretty Speeches

In light of the increasing attacks on Obama as being long on rhetoric and short on substance, in light of the absurd Reverend Wright scandal, in light of those who would use code words or even blatant race-baiting against him....

Keep in mind that there was once another man who was criticized as being all about the rhetoric.

Assassinated forty years ago today. What's not as well known as his work for racial equality is his work for economic justice for all people, black and white, towards the end of his life. Watch that speech and remember, knowing how far we have come, and yet how far we have yet to go.

03 April 2008

Beer Review, Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard Ale

Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale

I love the original Bastard, but have never had the Oaked variety. 12 oz bottle, gotten in trade at a FTH function a couple of months back.

Appearance: Deep, dark red, opaque, almost stout-like in its quality, but tinged a deep crimson. Thick off-white head that leaves significant lacing. Highly enticing. 4.5/5

Smell: Sweet, hints of cherries, but with a strong hoppiness. The oak is very present here, overpowering the more subtle aromas. Still, it helps the sweetness of the overall scent and makes this a different experience from the original. 4.0/5

Taste: It's like drinking an apple tree. No, seriously. Strong fruit overtones, mostly apples but with a touch of citrus, following closely by the oaky undertones (hence the branches) and finishing with that hop bite (the leaves). It has the kind of woodsy flavor that I associate with cider, but this tastes like no cider you can imagine. It's a big off-putting at first, but... what the hell? It's fucking Stone, right? It grows on my palate quickly, just like all the other Stone beers. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Magnificent, as always with Stone. Thick, amazingly so. Like liquid bread. The hops are more subdued than in the normal Bastard, making this go down clean and easy. 5.0/5

Drinkability: It takes a minute to get used to, but this might go down even more easily than Arrogant Bastard. The oak helps to balance the other flavors, and while I don't think this is quite as good as the original beer, I'd definitely like to keep a few of these on-hand for the occasional taste. Fans of the original brew should give it a shot. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.45/5

If Charles Schultz Had Created Watchmen

I'm not sure where I ran across this, but it's thoroughly amusing.

Eerily Familiar

Melissa has a post up regarding one of the rituals she has while sitting at her desk. Which is very similar to a ritual I have whenever I'm at home on mine, except there's less "look at how adorable I look" and more "knocking shit off because it's there and I want you to pay attention to me." And more claws. Way more claws.