Sunday, December 23, 2012

Expendables 2: What's the point in that?

I just finished watching Expendables 2.  Great movie.  Better than the first, I'd say.  Although to really appreciate it I think you would have to have watched every notable action movie from the 80s.

I know people who think movies like this are cliche and stupid.  Maybe.  ...maybe... but Stallone had one line in Expendables 2 that I think really brought home why the 80s action movies were so great, and why action movies since haven't really captured the same feeling, and, in fact, why apparently it takes action movie stars from the 80s to bring it back again:
Why is it the one of us who wants to live the most, who deserves to live the most, dies, and the ones that don't deserve to live keep on living?  What's the message in that?
I don't know if this was an intentional dig at modern action movies or not, but that's largely how I took it.  In particular, it's why I loved the old action movies and why I really haven't enjoyed anything by Tarantino or movies like No Country for Old Men.

I believe the argument for those movies would be that real life isn't pretty, good guys don't always win and nobody likes cliche bullshit from the 80s.  They want it to be real and gritty with stories that have a deeper tale and

Hey, you know what, fuck you.

I get real and gritty every time I turn on the news.  Bad guys win all the damn time.  Bringing them to justice is a long and arduous task with no clear winners.

People may think that the 80s movies were just about violent killing with shallow storylines and that people like Tarantino just improved on the genre by giving them a fancier spin.  After all, his movies have plenty of blood and gore and that's what it was always about, right?

No.  That wasn't what it was about.

Violent 80s movies were about the good guys winning and the bad guys getting what was coming to them.  I'll grant that they are cheesy and cliche.  But it's a good cliche.  It's a cliche where a guy goes out, maybe rapes, maybe robs, maybe murders and then, later, gets shot in the face with a large gun.  Karma.  Usually delivered by Stallone, Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis, to name a few.  In real life, someone commits a terrible crime and maybe next year there will be closure on it.  Maybe there will never be closure.  In an 80s action film, closure comes in the last 15 minutes of the film, guaranteed.  Maybe it's not right, per se, that the bad who who murdered all those people ends up getting a chain around the neck and a knife in the chest.  Maybe he should have been brought before justice and put on trial and sent to serve his time in a prison until he could perhaps qualify for probation after years of good behavior, but what he gets is closure.

Again with the Pratchett paraphrasing -- people have to engage in the act of make-believe.  We believe in fantasies like justice and mercy and duty and "that sort of thing".  Oh, you don't think those are fantasy, just the same as elves and dwarves and Stallone always winning?  Then show me a single particle of justice.  What is the molecular makeup of mercy?  When will the Large Hadron Collider detect duty?  These are fantasy concepts.

We invented them because we believe in them.  The universe didn't provide them to us so we had to make them up ourselves.

80s action movies were never about violence, per se.  They were about karma.  They were about good guys winning and bad guys losing.  That may not be reality, but it's something I would prefer to believe in, even if it's not true, and I like watching movies where the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose.  Call me a dreamer.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Of lies, Lies, truth and Truth

This is something I picked up by reading too much Terry Pratchett: capitalizing things once they pass some certain threshold of significance. You might tell a bum that you have no change on you and that would be a lie. You might somehow end up convincing the bum and the nearest 20 people to give you $20 each and that would be a Lie. Once you step it up to a grand level, you can capitalize it.

I have known some Liars in my time. Actually, I used to be one, back in my maladjusted teenage years. I was quite proud of my ability to generate entirely plausible statements on the fly, particularly to get me out of something. I wouldn't say I was a liar -- that just implies some petty level of ability. I was a Liar. I was good at it.

And then, one day, someone did something terribly nice for me and I wanted to tell them with all available sincerity what a nice person they were. But shallow compliments are the bread and butter of the liar (and the Liar). So I got to thinking: how does one create a statement which comes across as definitely not a lie? How can truth ever beat lies?

I concluded that the problem with Lies is that they cannot be Explained.

If you want to have a Truth, you just have to take a basic truth and explain it.

Let's take a very simple example:
"I like your hair."

This could be a lie or a truth. We can't tell. Maybe it's the opening line of the common Beer Bellied Douchebag or maybe it was a simple statement of fact.

If you want it to be more of a Truth, then you'll want to Explain it:
"I like your hair. It's very chic style I understand is popular in Europe; and you've got the right color and thickness to pull it off. It's also actually a classic American style, in the manner of Bettie Page and I've always thought it stood out as a good, natural style. You stand out with it and it looks great on you."

That is more of a Truth. Lies, even capitalized ones, have a hard time standing up to scrutiny because there is no ready explanation to back them up. Lying and saying I like your hair is easy but I might be in a pinch if you ask me what, in particular, I like about it. Now I'm going to have to stumble for some reasoning and it is a good Liar indeed who can do that on the fly.

So Truth can beat Lies with the aid of sufficient Explanation.

Ponder that if you ever want to tell someone something and be certain that they know you mean it. Don't just say it. Explain it. You may well learn something about yourself as well. It's always good to find the roots of our own truths -- the Liar can never really know himself because he must necessarily shift and change to suit the latest batch of Lies, but an honest person can always dig for a bit more explanation. Truths from the heart have deep reasons with long histories. (If I really wanted to tell you the full reason for why I like your hair, I would have to start with something like, "I was born in North Carolina..." It would be a very long explanation. Lies are short lived things but Truth has its roots in beginning of the universe.)

Friday, December 30, 2011

Regarding Communication

Methods of communication in reverse order of how much I like them, with ratings:

Desktop Computer Text Chat (1/10)
If I made a complete list, this would actually fall somewhere lower than "smoke signals", "yelling really loudly" and "hiring a courier". Desktop computer text chat is the worst of all worlds. It's intrusive. You generally are expected to reply back quickly. There is no voice or body language. While you are typing, I am sitting there looking at a screen, trapped, doing nothing. While I have had some lovely text chats in the past, I really abhor it as a general method of communication.

Note that I classify "desktop computer text chat" as completely separate from "phone texts". The significant difference between phone texting and desktop computer text chat is that I don't think there's ever a feeling that you need to reply right away to a phone text -- it's non-intrusive and fitting for short exchanges (see more, below). Also, with the phone text you can't see that I'm "online" so there's no feeling of intrusion (or avoidance... as I go offline sometimes purely to avoid having anyone text me...) Plus, it's a phone, in my pocket. I can keep doing other stuff and just check later to see if you replied back.

Voice mail (2/10)
This is like phone calls without the personal element. Also, it is a considerable comfort to me that there is no record of spontaneous dumb things I have said in the past and voicemail threatens this aspect of my happiness. Plus, talking to a machine that is going to record my awkward half-assed "why am I talking to a machine" verbiage just to play it back later just feels weird. (If I've ever called you, got no answer, didn't leave a message and then sent you a text, now you know why.)

Phone calls (3/10)
The phone can be convenient but generally I frown on it because it's so intrusive. It's like knocking on your door for 15 seconds straight until you either answer, I give up or voicemail kicks in. I would rather do an email exchange. Unless my house is on fire or something has exploded or you otherwise need an answer RIGHT NOW, I consider a phone call to be fairly low on the list. If I call you rather than text you it's probably because you have expressed a dislike of text messages in the past and I am trying to honor your wishes.

There is an argument to be made for phone calls and loved ones -- you want to hear their voice. And some might say that "phone calls are more personal" but I would disagree with that one. How is a phone call more personal than a letter (or text message) addressed to you, written for you?

Facebook/email/blogs/forums (9/10)
Anything I can sit down and type up is pretty ideal. In ye olden times, hand-written letters would have been a common way for us to communicate if we didn't live next to each other and these new methods are the same thing without the messy handwriting(*). Like text messages, it's non-intrusive and lets me think of exactly what to say and you can take all the time you want in responding.

(* - handwritten letters aren't entirely dead, though. They're far more personal. There are some things I will still do a handwritten letter for. In general though, email is lovely.)

Phone text messages (9/10)
This might seem odd given how much I hate text chat but it's my second favorite method of communicating. It's brief, it's non-intrusive, you can answer at your convenience and I have all the time in the word to think of what to say. Obviously it's not suited to lengthy conversation but it's ideal for short, remote exchanges. Also, if I'm driving or in the middle of a movie or halfway through killing that dragon, a phone text message is something I can see when I'm done and ready to answer you.

Face to face (10/10)
This is the time honored classic and is the preferred way to talk to anyone. You get voice! You get visual! You get body language and facial expression! The fact that we are both in the same place anyway means I am probably not interrupting anything and if I am, I can probably guess it from the body language. This is the ultimate 3-D communication experience and I highly recommend it. If you really want to chat and don't live 500 miles away, text me what bar you want to meet at and we'll chat in person!

I have yet to do video chat but I suspect it would fall in at around 5/10 as an improvement on the phone call. Maybe even 8/10 if it was arranged ahead of time. Perhaps by text message. Rather than meeting you at the bar, I'd just be meeting you on Skype. Presumably we would bring our own beers.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

This is great! ...where are we going?


My first computer was a TI-99/4A. I think my dad bought it because he was interested in the electronics -- the hardware. I never did gain much interest in that aspect. I loved the software. Here was a device that could do....anything. Its chief limits are your imagination, your skill, your patience, your ability to focus, your problem solving and logic and its speed. It can't fly you to the moon but it can simulate it. (It can fly you to the moon, too, but you'll have to invest in some extra hardware.)

In a way, it must be daunting to get into computer programming now. The TI-99/4A came with BASIC and an instructional book. These days you'll need to go out and buy your own book, and possibly buy an expensive development environment to go with it, and while the languages are far more powerful, they are far more complex. I wonder if the ratio of programmers-to-non has changed much in the last 20 years. Are there more, because the technology is so pervasive, or are there less, because the bar is so high now?

In the 7th grade, I could sit down and write a text adventure game that was just as good as the text adventure games sold in stores. These days nobody would want such a game, and the games they do want are much harder for one person to make. You can easily spend more time on the creation of the graphical elements than on the programming to drive them. I suppose the lesson is that these days, you can't be a solitary geek in your basement. You at least need several geeks, preferably one that's a pro at computer artwork and one that's a pro at sound effects and music, in addition to the whizbang coder.

And then, of course, we are in a global network now. Whatever application you can think of, someone has already written it. In fact, there will be a hundred of them. I can practically feel my motivation for creation draining away in the face of the complexity of the task, the art and sound which takes a lifetime of talent in fields I've not pursued, and the the thought that at the end, I just have one more needle in the pile of needles.

I wonder where the youth of today will find their motivation.

But every great inventor needs to start somewhere. At some point you just have to do things for yourself. The needle may get lost in the stack of needles, but it's your needle. You invented it. You understand how it was made and from that you learn how to make your next needle. Which will also get lost in another stack.

Modern networking may help us collaborate and make even greater things, but a collaboration of unskilled idiots isn't going to produce anything. You at least need a collaboration of competent novices, and the road to competent novice, perhaps in a bit of irony, requires you to be able to shut out the network and learn things for your self. How else will you develop enough competence to collaborate with?


Friday, June 3, 2011

Music, professor.


I like primarily two broad categories:
a) Music with lyrics that speak to me in some personal way
b) Deeply layered music

a) Lyrics:
I love defiance in my lyrics. Defiant lyrics got me through high school, college and pretty much most of my life. When there's sadness or anxiety, I can either find music that fits and tends to amplify my mood, which I do sometimes, or I can find something good and defiant to basically brute force my mood back on track.

For example, there is Front 242's "Animal". It's techno (I guess). More on that in section b. A snippet of lyrics:

It's always the same
It's not easy to keep myself contained
Sit back and relax
How can I when I'm going down in flames?
'Cause all you do is break me
And put me
You put me in a cage
When I look in the mirror
All I can see
A zoo animal that wants to be free
Just get away, get away from me
'Cause I'll never be who you want me to be

Nothing says, "I'm not going to buckle to the shallow whims of society" like a song that involves shouting "I'll never be who you want me to be".

Really, the whole message of the lyrics doesn't have to speak to me, or even entirely make sense (I've decided it's a lot to hope for to have an entire song that makes sense). I just need a little something that perks my ears up and speaks to me in some way. You'd think that this would be a loose enough requirement that I'd like just about anything but really, most songs just don't speak to me at all.

In a similar vein, for a sample of melancholy mood enhancing, I shall direct your attention to Tegan and Sara's "Call It Off": YouTube

Maybe I would'a been something you'd be good at
Maybe you would'a been something I'd be good at
But now we'll never know

Kinda gets ya right there, doesn't it? Well it gets me right there, anyway.

"Lyrically significant" songs like these come and go off my playlist as my mood varies (or, more likely, as I play them to death) but they're always somewhere handy. They say something to me. Musical style is almost irrelevant to me when the lyrics are good and well delivered. I will listen to heavy metal, country music or garage bands if the lyrics hit me just right. (Incidentally, I really like Dethklok. Basically a heavy metal parody band. Listen to "The Lost Vikings" sometime, but pull up the lyrics first because you can barely understand what he's saying. The summary is that it's a metal song about a group of vikings who ride forth to battle, get lost and refuse to ask for directions. Like I said, I'll like just about anything if the lyrics catch me somehow. Humor works.)

b) Layered music
I don't know proper musical terms so I'll just introduce you to my own.

What I'm calling a "layer" is basically an instrument. If you have 2 guitars and a snare drum, you have 3 layers. I tend to love orchestras because the music is deeply layered. The closer you listen, the more you hear. You can focus on just the strings or just the brass or just the violins in the string section, etc. Layers and layers of music -- you can hear the same song 10 times and get a little something new out of it each time, depending on where you decide to focus, or not focus.

Good techno is like that. I say "techno" because I am from the 90s but I suppose broadly speaking I really just mean electronic music, which tends to allow the composer to create as many layers as he feels he needs. The good artists are into deep layering, so the more I listen, the more I can hear.

Back in the day, it was Front 242 that was my favorite. Old Front 242. Anything from the "05:22:09:12 Off" and previous releases. (Later Front 242 is, frankly, crap.)

Front 242 is to the ear as beer is the palette. I admit it's probably an acquired taste. Just like beer can hit the tongue in interesting ways -- an offset to the doldrums of sweet drinks -- so too can Front 242 hit the ear in interesting ways -- an offset to standard musical instruments and formats. I like it a great deal.

I'm not opposed to pure instrumentals if the music is interesting enough. I like a simple song played on a guitar with good lyrics, too. But my absolute favorites always combined lyrics and layered music.

I'm going to put it on the line and suggest that my all time favorite song is actually Front 242's "Crapage" from their "06:21:03:11 Up Evil" album. There are some who may openly scoff at this choice, and to them I say, "Hey, fuck you, you fucking son of a bitch, I'll kill you."

It is layered, full of interesting sounds that tweak the ear, and the lyrics speak volumes to me. Sadly, I cannot recommend a YouTube link for this because it's all crappy versions. The live version of this song is awful. I weep for the massacre of this fantastic song in the live version. You'll just have to get it from Amazon or something. Lyrical high points:

Always ready for another go
Always going for another round
Volunteering for a better try
And preparing for a clever slide

You -- you are kinder than the kind.
You are milder than the mild.

Still, I believe you're gonna hold them tight
I can see you're trying to crush them now
I can feel you're gonna win

Always ready for another start
Always going for another round
You -- you are perfect all the time.
You must please the public line
You -- you are kinder than the kind.
You are milder than the mild.
You are clean in every way.

Still, I believe you're gonna hold them tight
I can see you're trying to crush them now
I can feel you're gonna win

What is there to run for?
What is there to shout for?
What is there to combat?
What is there to push back?

I've always seen this song as being damn close to my view of myself. I am the Nice Guy. When people start sentences with "he's a nice guy, but", they are talking about me. "Perfect all the time" -- not so much a declaration of fact as a statement of eternally unreachable goal and a source of endless torment.

But I feel it should probably be known that I am a nice guy because I choose to be. There are other options. It's not a fear of the law or God or public embarrassment that makes me be the the Nice Guy. I don't expect anything out of it and in fact have a long history of getting nothing out of it. I don't need a sense of power or righteousness. I am the Nice Guy because that's how it's supposed to be. In the ideal universe, this is simply how humanity works. I could alter the orbit of planets easier than I could uproot this idea.

But niceness isn't the same thing as meekness. I choose to be nice because it's how I think things should be, and while I can't change the universe, I can change the bit of it that consists of me. People like me can tend to be ground down in the long run. Ground down by failures, mishaps, mistakes, rudeness, outright human douchebaggery and other pitfalls. Still, I'm going to hold my view of the universe tight. I'm going to crush the forces that work against me. I can feel I'm going to win. There are things to run for. There are things to shout for. There are things to combat. There are things to push back. And I'm always ready for another go.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It

I need to log this in my Registry of Life Philosophies: "if it bleeds, we can kill it!"

Technically this was said by Schwarzenegger's character in Predator in response to an unseen monster that was killing everyone, but had been apparently injured: it bled, ergo, it can be killed.

I decided this is actually a great metaphor for all of life's problems.

Which is to say, given a problem, no matter how insurmountable it may seem, all I need is the tiniest bit of progress on it to make me think that I can eventually get through the whole thing. If it bleeds, I can kill it.

See also: