02 April 2017

Some basic thoughts on /r/place

Reddit's annual April 1st stunt is a 1000x1000 pixel public canvas.  The canvas is colored by individual members of the reddit community, one pixel at a time, with a 5-15 minute user cool-down time between pixel placements.

Because of the hard limits on contribution, it's virtually impossible for an individual person to do anything on /r/place.  What's needed are hundreds of collaborators.  And because the creation of something with any degree of order or meaning requires the common adoption of a rule, the way various parts of the canvas are claimed and transformed is reflective of the communities at work.  The rule "expand the blue corner" is easy to follow—everyone on board with this goal simply places blue pixels as often as possible to guard and expand the blue corner of the canvas.  But when the expansion of their territory outstrips the fluctuating number of supporters, the blue corner can collapse and be overwritten by other groups with other rules.  The size, complexity, tidiness, and duration of a given design seem together to be the best measure of the community behind it.  /r/prequelmemes has claimed a huge portion of the canvas for a very tidy quotation from Revenge of the Sith.  The German flag at one point expanded to envelop the adjacent French flag, which was forced to recreate itself by shifting upwards.  The void (an expanding black hole near the center of the canvas) was getting quite large before it became the background for a pink floyd themed piece.  Etc.

Organization, commitment, manpower, clarity of principle — these are the determining factors here.

26 February 2017

Breaking Bad

I’ve had a bad flu for the past six days, and spent much of that time getting bedrest and trying to manage various forms of sinus and throat irritation.  Due to the grogginess and the medication, this hasn't been a very productive time.  Instead of trying to work or read, I've watched TV.  In the past six days I have watched the entirety of AMC's hit series Breaking Bad.

I resisted watching Breaking Bad when it came out, mainly because the premise was distasteful to me (an ordinary man descends into total depravity).  I don't like the Southwest as a landscape—it calls up images of dust and rust and arid clay.  Drug-related crime drama isn't a genre that immediately appeals to me.  But what really set me against the show during its heyday was the fervor of its following: the way everyone kept insisting that it was somehow profound or morally interesting.  I didn't buy it, and I didn't want to have to fight people over it, so I remained aloof.

Before last weekend, the only episode I had seen was the pilot.  So I started with Episode 2 and went from there.  The show was entertaining.  Not always brilliantly written.  The characters were sometimes thin and tended in too many cases toward caricature.  Several multi-episode plot arcs are repeated during the course of the series with little substantial difference.  There are good comedic moments.  There's some really good camerawork, and some very subtle storytelling.  But as the series approached its conclusion, I found myself disliking almost all the characters.  I wanted to be able to root for Walter White in his descent to kingpin status, even if I couldn't approve of his actions.  I wanted him to be a heroic villain, or at least spectacularly evil.  The writers did not indulge me, though.  They provided a Walter White in the end not too dissimilar from the man washing cars after school in the pilot—small, bitter, arrogant, and humiliated.  As much as the show is billed as showing a man's decline, Walter isn't that much more pathetic at the end of his journey than he was at the start of it.  The main difference is that the patina of victimhood concealing his character at the start has been washed away.

One of the most striking features of Walter's character throughout the series is the way he treats his partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman.  Walter seems at times to care about Jesse's well-being.  He takes him to rehab, for instance, and gives him money, and checks in on him.  But during their regular interactions, Walter spends most of his days with Jesse berating him for his stupidity and incompetence.  The writers seem to have created a world in which Walter is respected as a teacher.  Perhaps he is a good classroom teacher—it's hard to say.  Perhaps his behavior toward Pinkman is merely a manifestation of years of pent-up frustration and anger at his students, finally expressed in his secret second life.  I find it odd that this was what ends up grabbing me emotionally about the show, but the murders and machinations and drug dealing bother me much less than the manifest cruelty with which Walter approaches his assistants and proteges. Real cruelty, callous and disdainful. In one of their final confrontations, Walter finally embraces Jesse.  I think this is the first time in the entire five seasons of the show, and by this point the gesture is so late in coming that it cannot but be meaningless.  Pinkman weeps helplessly while Walter looks indifferently into the distance over his shoulder.

Does the show have moral depth?  It does.

[Note: I wrote the above several weeks ago, but for whatever reason didn't publish it at the time.]

16 November 2016

Some Thoughts on the Act of Reading

As I get older, I realize that I do not enjoy the act of reading. I enjoy some of the things I read, but reading itself is not a pleasure to me. I am not sure why this is this case, since for others it seems not to be. There are many things that I would be happy to have read, but which I will never read simply because the act would be so unpleasant or difficult. I regret somewhat that I will never be such a person who has read such and such works, but I am not a glutton for text. I read when I am hungry, and my appetites are (perhaps pathetically) dainty.

06 November 2016

A Rumination on the Foundation of Civil Society

Perhaps, in life, people shouldn't be divided between the useful, who will help you achieve your desired pleasure or ambition, and the rest, who need to be tossed aside or derided for their inadequacy.  Perhaps the division shouldn't be between the knowing in-group and the rest of the world, the promising and the unpromising, the interesting and the passé.  Maybe there are just people, muddled and misguided, frequently wicked, yearning for something good, worthy of politeness and respect, even when their wits are cluttered, or they are stuck in a rut, or whatever.

What is the sine qua non of civil interaction, of affability?  Benevolence and civility.  What are the vices that offend against these necessities?  Irony, malice, rudeness, narcissism.  What does one get from immersing oneself in a culture without civility or benevolence?  One becomes uncivil; one loses the ability to distinguish between acts of malice, indifference, and friendship.  If one can maintain an affable demeanor in such a milieu, that is heroic virtue.  But for the rest of us, we should remember the words of the psalmist:

Blessed is the man 
who does not walk in the counsel of the impious,
or stand in the path of sinners,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but his will is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates by day and by night.

The distinction among men that should be drawn is the distinction between those whose company we can keep without traveling in consilio impiorum, and everyone else.  Whatever other wickednesses there may be, whatever other virtues we may desire, civility and benevolence are at the foundation—if these are absent, whatever other goods we pursue will fail.

22 October 2016

Notes on Blackhat

Last night I watched most of the movie blackhat, an international espionage action thriller about computer hackers that was released last year.  Here are my viewing notes.

1.  The way electrical signals are portrayed inside computers is interesting.  It's clearly not a portrait of how electronics actually work, but a portrait of how someone imagines them working.  E.g. as the hacker's code kicks in, there are suddenly tons of impulses everywhere, as if it were the quantity of instructions that caused the meltdown.

2.  The failure of a coolant circulation system in a nuclear reactor would only cause an explosion if the coolant were completely contained without any pressure release, or if the resulting meltdown triggered some surrounding combustibles to ignite.  The reactor shown is clearly not contained in this way, and the fact that there is so much (presumably water) coolant still surrounding the core, and boiling, suggests that there would still be a reasonable amount of time for the technicians at the plant to slow down the reactor before a meltdown actually occurred.  In other words, there's no clear reason why an explosion would happen so quickly after the coolant failure.

3. Even supposing the sort of reaction portrayed in the film happened, the level of burn-related injuries shown in the immediate aftermath seems unlikely.  Most technicians would not be in the immediate vicinity of the reactor core.  The real danger of such an explosion is the long-term, uncontrolled release of radioactive materials into the surrounding environment, leading to radiation poisoning and other (slower) diseases.

4.  Chris Hemsworth's character is reading Rabinow's The Foucault Reader in his cell (you only see the cover for a split second).  Dear hacker dude, you should read The Essential Foucault instead.  It's a better anthology.

5.  The unsteady camerawork (rough doc closeups) is unpleasant.  I can't wait for directors to stop using this technique.

6.  Why is it that the computer nerds in this movie wear cool looking hoodies and are generally unblemished, attractive, and confident?

7.  During the briefing at the FBI about the "RAT", the agent giving the briefing displays a large monitor full of old school-style green code.  There is so much code on the display that it's illegible to anyone not standing directly in front of it.  There is no reason such a thing would be displayed during such a briefing.  It's a waste of time.

8.  Hemsworth's accent is not good.  Why not let him be an Aussie?  Would that be so hard?

9.  Is it not odd that they have "routine surveillance tapes" of the inside of a bathroom?  Maybe it isn't odd.

10.  When they find the West Texan guy dead in his apartment, (of a heroin overdose, which killed him before he finished shooting up?), they have an amusing exchange in which they explain to each other what Tor is.  This sort of exposition, where our "experts" in some field explain something very basic and widely known in that field as if it were new information, is consistently annoying.

12.  The Hemsworth character tells the hackers he's onto them.  Isn't this a terrible idea?

13.  It's very nice to imagine computers as pure black consoles with green text that make satisfying beeping noises as they process code or print out lines of text.  But it's not the 80s anymore.  (The trope has become shorthand for the reality.  Film portraits of computers are part of a well-developed semiotic system that is semi-independent of reality.)

14.  They go to China, so they can visit the ongoing nuclear cleanup site?  Which is somehow still a field hospital?

15.  Extended chase scene followed by shootout.  I feel like we just had a genre switchover.

16.  It's unclear to me what the point of that elaborate bait and escape plan was.

17.  After they stole the NSA guy's login info to use the magic data recovery software, I pretty much lost the thread of the plot.  Satellite shots of Malaysia?  Trips to Jakarta?  Conflicts over identity papers?

18.  The asian tollbooth charged them $55?  Am I misreading?

19.  Now the sister is upset?  Tedium.  This romantic subplot was inevitable.  Couldn't they have just implied it to us and spared the onscreen drama?

20.  What's with this shootout?  We just lost 60% of the main characters.  And these villains seem much more interested in hunting down our heroes than actually doing the job (whatever it is) they're supposed to be doing.

21.  Meanwhile the magic bullet armor on Hemsworth and Sister is really strong.  And there are still forty minutes left in this movie.

22.  Now, dramatic music as they fly on the airplane to Malaysia?

23.  Goodness, it was all to temporarily knock out a drainage system so tin prices would rise?  That's really elaborate.

24.  Now our last surviving hero is buying duct tape and screwdrivers, presumably so he can work some MacGyver magic on the bad guys.

25.  I like the stunt with pushing a truck off the edge of the building.  Very amusing.

26.  I also like the bit where Sister uses her coffee stained "presentation" to get the guard to plug her USB stick into his computer.  Very amusing.

27.   Hemsworth is wrapping himself in magazines?  And he has a sharp screwdriver?

28.  Hmm.  The Malay people just saw someone stab a guy through the temple with a screwdriver, but they don't care.  They just keep on processing.

29.  Hemsworth and sister seem to have very extensive wardrobes, considering the circumstances.

30.  And it just ended.  Not much resolution there.

19 October 2016

The King in Thule

A translation (my own) of Goethe's Der König in Thule.

There was once a king in Thule
Who was faithful to the grave,
To whom his dying mistress
A golden goblet gave.

To him was nothing dearer,
He drained it when he supped;
His eyes would overflow with tears,
As he tipped the golden cup.

And when the king was dying
He surveyed his domain,
Bequeathed it all unto his heir,
But the goblet he retained.

One day at royal repast
He sat among his knights
In the high hall of his fathers
In the castle on the heights.

There stood the old carouser,
Drained out his life's last glug,
And cast the sacred vessel down
Into the stormy flood.

He watched it, plunging, filling,
Sink deep into the main.
His eyes, with him, were sinking too;
He never drank again.

18 October 2016

The Text of Rhythm and Blues

A poem from peter handke's collection
Die Innenwelt der Außenwelt der Innenwelt.

Everything is in order.
She walks down the street.
Do you feel well?
I would like to go home.

Come closer!
I will go home.
Everything is in order.
She walked down the street.

I feel well.
I am going home.
Don't run away!
She walks down the street.

Early in the morning—
I go home.
She walked down the street.
I feel better.

Here she comes!
Take me home!

Early in the morning—
Come closer!

At midnight—

I can sense it.
Don't run away!
I'm going home.

Come closer!
We are home.
Do you sense it?

At midnight—

Come over.

Early in the morning—
At midnight!

Do you feel it?

I am trying.
At midnight—

Do you feel it?
Here it comes.
Come closer!
I am trying!
Do you feel it?

I'm trying!
Do you feel it?
I'm trying!
Do you feel it?
Do you feel it?

Oh yes.

15 October 2016

The American Experience

PBS was an essential part of my childhood.  The influence played on my intellectual development, interests, and personality by the programming made available on Chicago's WTTW is difficult to overstate.  There are so many things that I know and was made aware of, curiosities inspired, landscapes opened up, because of the different children's and documentary series shown there.

In the past eight years, PBS has morphed into something different.  There is still good programming, but it tends much more often to follow some political or ideological trend line.  WTTW has split into four separate sub-channels, one of which is frequently devoted to mutliculturalist programming with heavy social justice themes.  I do not know why the change has happened.  I don't know why, when Jim Lehrer was still running The News Hour, it was a beacon of impartiality and intelligent commentary (the last light in the TV news establishment), but now that he has left, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff have more or less destroyed it.  I don't know why Nova spun off "Nova ScienceNow" with the awful Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or why Bill Moyers was given so many different weekly talk shows for a Sunday platform, or why Chicago Tonight manages (despite its long broadcast window) to be the worst local news program in Chicago.

What can I say?  We live in a decadent age.  Even PBS can't stay good.

Of course, there is still a lot of good programming.  Some of the cooking shows are still quite good, (although Barbecue University was never among them), there are still some great travel programs (Globe Trekker!), and above all the core news magazine and documentary series (American Experience and Frontline) remain excellent.  They may have killed Arthur by extending the series ten years too long, transforming the characters into degenerate millennials, and cycling out the old voice actors with shrill replacements, but at least they're still making excellent 5+ hour documentaries about the lives of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.

Which brings me to the very modest point that motivated this post.  I can't help but feel very intense nostalgia when I watch the old opening sequence from American Experience.  It manages, in the space of a minute, to make me feel a kind of piety for this country, and a love for its history.  It is beautifully done.