Thursday, July 31, 2008

Strange Days: SF film noir? Cyberpunk?

I ran across this film while browsing. Strange Days came out in 1995 but received little if any notice. Roger Ebert gave it five stars on Netflix, and that's what intrigued me.

Strange Days is probably best described as cyberpunk, some of whose elements are

1. a hero who is engaged in some sort of mildly illegal activity,

2. lots of hi-tech stuff,

3. frequently a heroine who takes a traditionally male role as a bodyguard,

4. a techno-geek expert who aids the hero with the really hi-tech stuff,

5. some sort of direct electronic input to the brain which bypasses the organic sensory system,

6. the presence of one or more large transnational corporations who frequently replace or join governments as villains,

7. and, of course, sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll.

Strange Days' hero is Lenny, an ex-cop. He sells illegal virtual reality (VR) discs. He is at home in the underworld. but he really isn't a bad guy. His customers are all consenting adults, etc.--he's just a guy making a living.

The VR discs go beyond what is possible today since they interact directly with the brain and convey all sensory information, not just the visual as VR systems today are limited to. The female lead is a chauffeur and body guard and tough--well trained in weapons and the martial arts (See William Gibson's Neuromancer for the breakthrough novel with this type of a female lead).

The film is set in 1999 in Los Angeles, Dec. 29th to be exact. On the streets, a party atmosphere had already appeared, mixed in with a touch of looting, car burning, and window smashing--the usual way for urbanites to celebrate. One could see people carrying signs reading "2K--the end is near." Obviously this was before the accepted logo became Y2K. There was no mention of a world-wide computer meltdown either--just the typical "end of the world" warnings.

Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) is making it, selling his wares, and carrying a torch for the love of his life, who left him for a promoter. Life, if not exactly good, is livable until Lenny gets involved with some real bad guys. He is given a VR disc that someone is willing to kill to get. In addition, someone is making snuff VR discs and sending them to Lenny. And, just to make life interesting, he discovers that his ex-girl friend, the one he's carrying the torch for, is somehow mixed up in all this.

Lenny can't go to the police, since his reputation is somewhere below the basement with them. So, he gets some of his friends to help: Max, who is an ex-cop, on a medical pension, who started up his own detective agency; Tick who is the hi-tech expert; and Mace, the female chauffeur/body guard, who is played by Angela Bassett.

Rating: 4/5 scale.

Why not five? The ending was somewhat predictable.

However, don't let that put you off. You might disagree with me. The atmosphere was convincing--I guess the operative term would be "gritty"--and the dialogue, while not sparkling, worked. The special effects were limited but good, especially the VR stuff which convinced me I was seeing through another person's eyes at times.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

V for Vendetta--the film

I haven't read the comic book or graphic novel that this movie, V for Vendetta, is based on, so I can't comment on the relationship between the two. However, what did surprise me is that the book version came out in the early 80s and is so topical today.

A totalitarian regime gained control in England when the general population's fear of terrorists allowed the government to take repressive measures in order to "protect the people" from terrorists. The immediate cause was a virus that killed almost 100,000 English before it was brought under control. Sounds frighteningly familiar today, doesn't it?

There is little opposition until V, a classic superhero who wears a Guy Fawkes mask, begins a reign of destruction and assassination.

The film echoes several historical events and at least one novel that also has been made into numerous films over the years.

The Phantom of the Opera: various films made of the novel all seem to agree that the Phantom wore a mask because his face was horribly burned in a fire. In some of the films, his actions were directed at gaining revenge for what happened to him. He lived underground in the sewers under Paris in an apartment that was richly furnished with furniture, paintings, wall hangings, and an organ. He has a very ambivalent relationship with a young woman he is coaching to become an opera singer--his burned face and the mask a hindrance to any sort of romantic relationship.

V for Vendetta: V wears a mask to cover his face that was burned in a fire while he was a captive in a medical institution that was conducting medical research on the prisoners that was reminiscent of research conducted in Germany under the Nazi regime. He also seems to live mostly underground somewhere, although he does have access to upper stories, in rooms filled with paintings, statues, suits of armor, and a jukebox. He also has a similar relationship with a young woman whom he tries to help overcome her fear.

V's mask, which is based on the English Guy Fawkes mask, also reminds me a bit of the Joker's mask from the Batman series. I wonder if there's a connection between the Joker's mask and Guy Fawkes mask.

Historical Event: on Nov. 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes and several others were captured while attempting to blow up the English Parliament. It is now a holiday and the British burn effigies wearing a mask resembling Guy Fawkes on Nov. 5 every year.

V for Vendetta: V wears a Guy Fawkes mask and makes references to the incident. He also has plans for the English Parliament on Nov. 5.

Historical Event: the Reichstag fire in Berlin. 27 February 1933.(The information and much of the text about the Reichstag Fire comes from the Wikipedia article of the same title) The Reichstag was the meeting place for the German Parliament. A fire broke out during the night of Feb. 27. On arrival of the police and fire fighters, one communist leader, Marinus van der Lubbe, was found in the building. The German Government, Adolf Hitler was the leader now, blamed the fire on the communists and passed a series of laws in order to "protect" the German Reich from the threat of communist terrorism. The laws eliminated the following civil liberties and rights of the German people:

"* Free expression of opinion
* Freedom of the press
* Right of assembly and association
* Right to privacy of postal and electronic communications
* Protection against unlawful searches and seizures
* Individual property rights
* States' right of self-government

A supplemental decree created the SA (Storm Troops) and SS (Special Security) Federal police agencies.

Who Did It? Historians do not agree on who is actually responsible for the Reichstag Fire: was it van der Lubbe acting alone --therefore the Communists -- or the Nazis themselves in order to create an incident. Writers such as Klaus P. Fischer feel that most likely the Nazis were involved.

But regardless of who actually planned and executed the fire, it is clear that the Nazis immediately took advantage of the situation in order to advance their cause at the expense of civil rights. The Decree enabled the Nazis to ruthlessly suppress opposition in the upcoming election."

This parallels events that take place in the film.

I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said something to the effect that those willing to give up their liberty for security deserve neither.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility

One of the pleasures available to those who have read many or all of Austen's novels is the echoes of her other novels that pop up now and then. I have just finished reading Sense and Sensibility (S&S) and several of these echoes are running around inside my skull.

One of these relates to the "villains" in both S&S and Pride and Prejudice, Willoughby and Wickham. Many others have noted that last names of the two villains begin with "W." One point I hadn't read is that one of the males who would marry one of the heroines in both novels, Darcy and Col. Brandon, has had a prior confrontation with the villain, and in both cases, it was over a young woman placed in the care of the hero. In both cases, the young woman had been placed in the home of another woman who was trusted by the hero.

Another echo comes from Lucy Steele, one of the most important secondary characters of S&S. She appears to be a younger version of Mrs. Norris of Mansfield Park (MP). Both carry the art of obsequious behavior to the powerful to a great degree and exhibit considerable cruelty to those either less powerful and not useful to them. Lucy flatters her way into the regard of numerous characters and manages to get free room and board for months at a time. Mrs. Norris flatters Sir Bertram while at the same time she treats Fanny, a powerless child and poor relative, with extreme cruelty.

Mrs. Norris is also one who wanders off with anything that seems to be unattached or ignored by all, including food and plants from places she visits. Lucy Steele, upon learning that the rectory is very close to Col Brandon's manor, resolves "to avail herself, at Delaford, as far as she possibly could, of his servants, his carriage, his cows, and his poultry.

Another echo of MP brings up Mary's letter to Fanny when she writes about wishing for the death of Edmund's older brother Tom, who was ill at that time. She insists that she's only thinking of the good that Edmund could do as the next Sir Bertram. I'm cynical enough to believe she's thinking more of being Lady of the Manor than of any good deeds Edmund might do.

In S&P, Willoughby bursts into the manor at Cleveland and charms Elinor into partially forgiving him and promising that she will tell his story to Marianne. Elinor now dreads telling Marianne for fear that Marianne now will never be happy with anyone else and "for a moment wished Willoughby a widower." She, of course, quickly changes her mind when she remembers Col. Brandon's constancy and devotion to Marianne.

The point is that even good people can have evil thoughts momentarily, but good people quickly reject them while others, such as Mary in MP, actually try to force such thoughts on others.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Walt Whitman--Internet Bard and Prophet?

Several days ago I had spent two or three hours working on a post for Fred's Place, answering email, and searching for some information when the following poem by Whitman suddenly popped into my head. It was an old favorite of mine, but one I hadn't thought of for at least a year or two, or more. It seemed somehow to fit what I had been doing for the past few hours--sending out queries into cyberspace.

What do you think?

Does it fit?

Is there one that you occasionally think of while on the Net?

Or any similar experience?

A Noiseless Patient Spider

A NOISELESS patient spider,
I mark'd where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark'd how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch'd forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect

Till the bridge you will need be form'd, till the ductile anchor hold
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

- Walt Whitman -

Friday, July 25, 2008

Fight Club, Pt. 2



Fight Club
--one more time--don't want to go on about this film forever.

Another point raised in the film initially suggests that there is a high level of violence in men. However, I think this is a bit misleading and simplistic if one takes a closer look at the film.

1. The initial scenes of violence were set either in bars or in the parking lots of bars. I suspect alcohol played a significant role here.

2. Later scenes were set in the guise of sporting events with cheering audiences. The violence now becomes an integral part of a competitive event. Our society places high value on competitiveness in its members--especially males in the past, but this is now becoming important for females also.

3. The last part of the film was set in an entirely different milieu from either of the first or the second parts. This is now organized violence in which groups of men went out in combat with society. Just hurting others wasn't the point--this was a direct attack on society. Physical pain now has disappeared. In fact, their attacks were designed to minimize the chance of others being injured or killed. I can't help but think of an earlier film--Network--in which the newscaster had everybody go to the window, open it, and shout out--"I'm mad and I'm not going to take it any longer", or words to that effect. In the third part of this film, they also are mad and they are doing something about it.

This part also reminded me, in part, of a film I had seen last week--Full Metal Jacket--which was initially set in a Marine boot camp. The basic training scenes in both films were very similar--the recruits were subjected to physical and mental abuse--all for the purpose of breaking down their self-regard and their feelings of self-worth, and replacing it with an attachment to the group and its ideals, as defined by the leaders.

But what was also brought out in the film, in a brief but significant episode, was the difficulty in simply going out and starting a fight. Cheryl, in one of her comments to Pt. 1, has pointed out how difficult it seemed for the members of the club to simply go out and start a fight with a stranger.

Another point that may be relevant here is that military basic training spends considerable time getting the recruits to the point where they will kill someone, even in wartime. There's considerable propaganda about the evil nature of the enemy and the use of pejorative terms--gook, slant eyes, rag heads, etc.--which dehumanize the enemy. Military organizations still consider "fraternizing with the enemy" a crime. This again suggests that high levels of violence are not normal among most males.

There seems to be a contradiction here. One possible resolution is that many men have high levels of violence while others have considerably lower levels. Since it was so difficult for the club members to find strangers at random who will fight with them, one suspects that the club members were a minority here and that most men do not have a high level of or tolerance for violence, unless there are other factors involved which increase the possibility of violence. The three points I mentioned above could be those factors which increase the likelihood of violent behavior-- (1) alcohol; (2) a highly competitive event in which violence is not only socially acceptable but encouraged; and (3) an organized group which has been trained to engage in acts of violence.

I suspect there may be other explanations.

Whatever else Fight Club might be, it is one film that brings up a number of intriguing issues.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Presidential Campaign--2008

I think the Obama campaign has just pulled off one of the slickest maneuvers of the race so far. This is a dead time in the campaign; little of interest to the press takes place because the two nominees are selected and the reporters and columnists can only do so much speculation about the V-P nomination. So, what can McCain and Obama do to keep the press interested and the headlines coming?

Obama goes on a world tour, that's what he does. He visits the hot spots in the world that Americans are most concerned about--Afghanistan and Iraq. After that, he goes on a tour of Europe and plans on making a speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, just as a few other Americans have done, and some of them were even presidents.

Every visit he makes produces headlines, free of charge. Obama visits world leaders and speaks to large enthusiastic crowds. The press loves it. This sells papers.

And McCain? Well, he sits here alone, complains about all the attention that Obama gets, and attacks Obama on nitpicking issues--who said what about the time of the Surge? Did the Surge begin on one specific day or did it slowly come up to speed. And then he points out that Obama is wrong on Afghanistan, and Obama talks about sending more troops to Afghanistan, and wrong to talk about timetables for withdrawing from Iraq for that gives aid and comfort to the enemy. Meanwhile President Bush talks about sending more troops to Afghanistan. Then President Bush and the Iraqis talk about setting up time tables for withdrawing from Iraq.

McCain really can't do much except bite his fingernails and wish he had a plan to do something like Obama. But it's probably too late because convention time is coming. All he really can do is just wait for the conventions to come and go, and then he and Obama can really get down and have at it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Fight Club--who is the real opponent? Pt. 1



The Fight Club is a unique film. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are completely believable in their roles, as are Helena Bonham Carter and Meatloaf, who play two of the most important supporting roles. You may not like one or more of them, or possibly all of them, but they are convincing, and they engage the viewer to the point that liking or disliking becomes irrelevant.

Unlike too many films I've viewed recently, this one was unpredictable. I never expected what was going to happen, and when it did, it seemed perfectly natural. It was unexpected but reasonable.

Fight Club begins with a chance conversation on a plane and ends with a catastrophe possibly greater in its effect than that of 9/11. Each step is a small one, but seemingly inevitable, so that the viewer will accept it as being the next logical step. Only at the end does the viewer realize just how far the inexorable logic of the film has taken the characters and the viewer.

The plot twist comes near the end of the film and radically changes the viewer's perception of what has been going on in front of him. Frankly, I found it as hard to accept as the nameless narrator, but like the narrator, I eventually had to accept what I was seeing on the screen.

The twist or reversal of the foundation of the story is based on a literary device which was developed in the 19th century and has produced some of the most memorable literature ever written--the double or the doppelganger. Briefly, the main character or the protagonist is doubled in some way--there is another person who bears a striking resemblance to the main character, but strangely only the main character seems aware of this. But, the double is not the exact duplicate of the main character in all respects; while the double may physically resemble the main character, the personality differences between the two are most often exactly the opposite.

As it is in this film, the double has been used to illustrate the dual nature of the human being: sometimes it's the good and the bad within all of us or at other times it's the difference between our external behavior and our repressed inner nature. It does this by completely separating the two opposing elements in our nature that are, in reality, hopelessly intermingled.

One of the first examples of the double occurs in Dostoyevsky's short novel, The Double. In this story, the main character is a meek and mild civil servant, who is so shy and retiring that he has no friends and hasn't spoken to his supervisor at work in weeks, if not months. He is unable to put himself forward. One day at the office, he sees a man who resembles himself to a remarkable degree. However, this man is outgoing and, in spite of just having appeared for the first time at the office, engages in a conversation eventually with everyone at the office, including the head of the department. Later, at a party given by his superior, our unnamed narrator again sees his double. While the narrator spends most of his time buried in the crowd and isolated from everyone around him, his double is the life of the party, acting in a way the narrator wishes he could.

Edgar Allen Poe's "William Wilson" features a schoolboy who discovers that he has a double among his fellow pupils, one with the same initials, the same physical appearance, and the same birth date. No one else seems to be aware of this. This double also frequently whispers advice and warnings to William Wilson that nobody else notices or hears. Moreover, the double frequently interferes with Wilson's activities for Wilson is an evil person. Either the double advises him to avoid actions which are harmful to others or frustrates them in some way.

Probably the most famous "double" tale in literature is Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so much so that the names of the characters have become embedded in our everyday language. People are frequently characterized as being a Jekyll and Hyde. In this story, Dr Jekyll has discovered a drug that will allow either his good side or his evil side to dominate his entire being.

In a more modern retelling, one of the Episodes of the original Star Trek series had Captain Kirk the victim of a transporter malfunction which somehow separated him into two separate beings. One of these beings was his good side, and the other his evil side--an up-to-date version of the Jekyll and Hyde tale, but with the difference that both sides existed independently of the other. What was intriguing about the division was that the evil side had Kirk's energy and drive, while the good Kirk was weak and ineffectual throughout most of the episode.

There are other examples of the double in both literature and in film, but I think this post is long enough. If any wish to look further into the topic, I would recommend the following work as an excellent starting point:

C. F. Keppler, The Literature of the Second Self, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson , Arizona, 1972. He has also published a novel, The Other, in which "centers in the unique relatiohship between the first self and the second self.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Space Cowboys meet The Over-the-Hill Gang

I often hear people with cell phones or mobile phones or other electronic communication devices complain about "dead zones," where for one reason or another, nothing gets through. The device is dead, useful only as a paper weight. Move it out of the dead zone, and all is well.

Sometimes I wonder if Hollywood is in creative "dead zone." How many films with original ideas or concepts appear every year? How many are clones of last year's box office success? How many are the 6th or 7th or 10th version of a concept that appeared first a decade or so ago--The Day after Halloween IX? How many are remakes of past successful films?

A recent example--

Several nights ago I watched an entertaining film directed by Clint Eastwood--Space Cowboys. It was fun, and I enjoyed it. However, something about the title nagged at me. I didn't know what it was, but there was something about that title....

The next day the title kept popping up at me. Space Cowboys-- a bunch of retired astronauts who lost out on their chance to go into space get a second chance. What was it? It was an unlikely story--some over-the-hill guys get another try at it. And that was it--I remembered a made-for-TV movie titled The Over-the-Hill Gang from several decades ago.

I did a search and found the movie.

Year: The Over-the-Hill Gang movie was made and shown in 1969.
Space Cowboys appeared in 2000

Story Line: The Over-the-Hill Gang. A retired Texas Ranger visits his daughter. While there he discovers his son-in-law is running for mayor against the crooked incumbent, who is backed up by a crooked sheriff and a crooked judge. Shortly after he arrives, the Sheriff and a number of his deputies beat up the son-in-law and wreck the office of his newspaper. Realizing he is outnumbered, the ex-Ranger calls upon three of his fellow Texas Rangers, also retired. The four of them should be enough to handle the sheriff and his deputies. However, once the FOUR of them reunite, it becomes obvious that they are no longer fast enough or physically able to handle the sheriff and his thugs, so they decide to outsmart them instead.

Their plan succeeds, but they are then immediately faced with a new and unexpected challenge which does require some physical activity and brains.

Space Cowboys: A retired NASA astronaut (Clint Eastwood) is visited by friend from NASA, who tells him they have a crisis. A satellite is coming down, and it can't be allowed to do so. It must stay up. Unfortunately since the satellite is a very old one and had never been expected to remain up that long, none of the present engineering staff had any idea of how to work on it. The engineering was designed decades ago by the retired astronaut, which is why they now come to him for help. Eastwood's character blackmails NASA into resurrecting his team, all of whom are now retired, and sending them up in the shuttle to repair the engineering. The FOUR of them are reunited and soon discover that they can't really match up physically any more against today's astronauts, so two younger ones are sent along as backup.

Once they dock with the satellite in the slowly decaying orbit, they discover that there is an unexpected complication--the situation now is far more serious than it was at first, even if they did handle the original problem. A fast and accurate physical response is required to save the day.

What next? Sometime in the near future, FOUR retired telephone linemen are called back to restring lines in a disaster area which has now become a dead zone and communication is possible only with those obsolete land lines.

FOUR retired checkout clerks are called back because they can add and subtract and perform other arithmetical operations with pencil and paper when all electronics are out and nobody is available who can even use a handheld calculator.

Anybody else have some ideas? Perhaps we could bundle them up and send them on to Hollywood. Or should we?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Third Parties--their year?

According to what I've read, a major factor in Obama's upset victory over Clinton, the shoo-in candidate, was the electorate's need for change. Recent polls show Obama with a slight lead over McCain, with change also being a significant issue. However, there are still 3 1/2 months before election day, so that may change.

But, if this need for change does play an important role in the election and does give Obama the win, what will this mean for the other races? As low as Bush's ratings are today, I hear that Congress' ratings are even lower. Will this same perceived need for a change affect those races also? If this is true, then I can see this having an effect in one or more of the following ways:

1. Incumbents of both parties lose to political newcomers running for office for the first time.

2. Dissatisfaction spreads beyond the candidates to the political parties themselves and results in increased voting for third party candidates.

3. Both the incumbents and their opponents discover the need for change, which results in some strange campaigns in the next few months as everybody strives to demonstrate they are the ones to inaugurate a change.

I see No. 3 as the most likely outcome, but it would be interesting if it were No. 2 and we see third party members in Congress for the first time in decades.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Melville's "Bartleby"--another unhappy writer

One of Melville's more puzzling short tales is "Bartleby." It's the story of a copyist who goes to work for a lawyer in the early 19th century. Initially he is a superb worker, but as time passes, he begins to refuse to do certain tasks given him by the lawyer. Well, he doesn't say NO, but politely responds to a request to perform a particular job with "I would prefer not to." The situation deteriorates until he reaches the point that "he prefers not to do anything."

Many have puzzled over Bartleby's behavior and the lawyer's initial acceptance of his polite refusals. The problem is that no clues are provided as to why Bartleby begins to reject legitimate assignments, nor why the lawyer is so accommodating.

Some have postulated that Bartleby is really Melville. I have found this to be more convincing than any other theory I have read about the story. This is how I think the correspondence between Melville and Bartleby works.

Stage 1:
Bartleby is hired and is an immediate success. He does his work and does it well. His employer is especially pleased for Bartleby not only does good work but does a full day's work, whereas his alcoholic coworkers at best turn in a half day's work.

Melville in 1846 and 1847 publishes his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, to wide acceptance by both readers and critics.

Stage 2:
Bartleby begins to reject some of his assignments on the grounds that he "would prefer not" to do them.

The editor in the intro to The Portable Melville says this about Melville: , "In a little more than two years, however, [Melville] had taken his first deliberate steps away from the guarantees of continued approval and sales" with the publication of Mardi in 1849. This work, while set in the South Seas, is much different from the romances that he earlier had written. He has begun to reject the demands of the readers and critics that he write more of the South Sea romances like Omoo and Typee that were so successful.

Stage 3:
Bartleby now begins to reject more and more assignments given to him, and his boss and co-workers become extremely dissatisfied with him.

Melville, shortly before writing Moby Dick in 1851, in a letter to his father-in-law, wrote "it is my earnest desire to write those sort of books which are said to 'fail.'" Moby Dick was a failure for both the readers and most of the critics. Again, in another letter, this time to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville writes, "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned.--it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot."

Stage 4:
Bartleby now does nothing that his employer asks him to do. Consequently he is fired, but he refuses to leave the office. In desperation, his former employer moves to anther building, leaving Bartleby to haunt the empty premises. Finally Bartleby is arrested, ends up in the Tombs, turns his face to the wall, and dies.

Melville, in spite of being rejected by readers and critics, continues to write. He just won't go away. Pierre comes out in 1852 and "Bartleby" in 1853. Pierre is a writer who has moved to NYC and struggles to get published in order to support himself and others. It is, by far, Melville's bleakest novel. I tried reading it a second time and stopped part way. It was too bleak. Pierre's end is similar to Bartleby's.

Melville continues to write short stories and in 1857 manages to get The Confidence Man published. After that, he publishes no more novels during his lifetime. To support his family, he finds a job as a customs inspector in NYC. I wonder if Melville thought of his job as being something like being in jail.

I find the ending to be very sad--Melville has the narrator make the point that Bartleby had once possibly worked in a Dead Letter Office. This seems to be very noteworthy, especially coming from a writer who has lost his audience. His writings also have no readers.

Some have expressed the theory that both the lawyer/narrator and Bartleby are Melville. Bartleby represents Melville's creative side who wants to write only what he chooses to write and will refuse to write what others insist he write. The lawyer represents Melville's mundane self, the cautious self, the one who knows he has a family to support and must take that into consideration also. This, I think, would account for the lawyer's extreme toleration for Bartleby's strange behavior and to some extent why the lawyer moves his entire office into a new building to get away from Bartleby. Like too many people, he believes he can get away from himself if he moves somewhere else.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Farewell to the Mouse


Below is an address for an article from the BBC online news. Briefly it says that the mouse will be gone within 3-5 years. The keyboard will still be around, but in the future we will all be waving at the screen or touching it to indicate movement.

I don't know. That seems to be a very short time, if it ever happens. The touch screen has been around for a decade or more, if I'm not mistaken, and the only place I ever see one is in restaurants. And, they are rare.

Another option might be a helmet which would allow the user to direct activity by thinking. Now, that might be interesting.

When I got my first PC, the mouse didn't exist. All control was exercised from the keyboard, with arrow keys or some sort of combination of "alt" or "ctrl" or "shift" along with a second key press performing functions taken over by the mouse. I resisted the changeover at first because I found it more efficient and quicker to keep my hands on the keyboard for everything, rather than being forced to interrupt typing by taking one hand away to manipulate the mouse.

However, new software took advantage of the mouse and made it more efficient to r
amble around with the mouse and much less efficient to use key presses. I suspect the same thing will happen with the new methods.

Address for BBC article about the demise of the mouse.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes

This is one of Bradbury's rare SF novels, for most of his works are short stories. It's set in Green River, Ill., the mythical setting for _Dandelion Wine_ and a number of his short stories--including one set in Green River, Mars, or so it seems. This isn't a fix-up work, such as The Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine or The Illustrated Man.

What is wicked is a carnival that comes to Green River in October, long past the season for a visit from what is really a summer event. Carnivals belong in a fantasy world with their wild rides and games and freaks where one can win a toy or stuffed animal, with luck. It promises fun and forgetfulness from the day's cares for a short time anyway.

But this carnival, Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show, not only comes at the wrong time of the year, October, it also comes during the night when most people are asleep. It doesn't enter the town in broad daylight with a parade and open trucks displaying the exhibits to bring the people, but it comes in the dark, quietly and surreptitiously.

Aside from this clandestine entrance, Bradbury also provides the reader with several clues through the names he provides. For example, the name of the carnival gives several hints as to its true nature. "Cooger" sounds like cougar, a large predatory feline, also known in various parts of North and South America as a puma, a mountain lion, or a panther. The other owner's name is Dark, which is a suggestive name, especially in fantasy work. Moreover, he carries a walking stick whose head is a carved serpent. One more hint comes from the carnival's name; "Pandemonium" is the Satan's Palace in Milton's Paradise Lost. This carnival is hell.

The major point of view characters are two young boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade. Their names are also suggestive. "Hallow" means to make holy or sacred. An archaic meaning of "hallow" is a saint or a holy person. Will's name certainly hints that he is on the side of the good. Charles Halloway, his father, tells us he and his wife, both half-bad, "put their good halves together and... got one human all good to share between." That "one human all good" was his son Will.

Will's best friend Jim Nightshade, however, seems a bit more ambiguous about his place in the scheme of the novel. First, his last name, "Nightshade," is frequently paired with a modifier--deadly nightshade. "Nightshade" is a poison, perhaps best known as belladonna. Secondly, his encounter with the lightning rod salesman very early in the novel suggests that Jim is ambivalent about his relationship to the world. It doesn't end with just one occurrence, for throughout the novel, Bradbury offers up several troubling incidents involving Jim.

This carnival's threat is that it seems to be able to grant people's wishes, which plays on the old saying that one should be careful about what one wishes for, because one might find the wish came true. The carnival or its owners can make wishes come true, but only at a terrible price--one's soul. Several of the townspeople paid that price, Mr. Dark is now determined that Jim will join them, not as a victim, but perhaps as a partner some time in the future. While Will and his father face a physical threat, Jim's is a more dangerous one; it is moral.

Although this is fantasy and the wicked possess magical powers, they are opposed by ordinary humans whose greatest weapon is laughter. Evil, apparently, can not face up to open, honest, and courageous laughter.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Day the Earth Stood Still--a quiet SF film

The film opens with the credits and a background of a galaxy of stars. The camera slowly moves in on the earth and the moon, and in the background, prophetic perhaps, are the five opening notes of Thus Spake Zarathustra, a tone poem by Richard Strauss, now more widely known as part of the film score for 2001 AD. Then we are told and it must be true, for how can we doubt it when four of the most trusted and well known radio newscasters, Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, H. V. Kaltenborn, and Gabriel Heater tell us that 200,000 miles above the earth a strange object is circling the earth at an impossible 4000 mph.

So begins one of the most unusual and one of the best SF movies ever made. I guess by today's standards it will be disappointing to viewers who have grown up on computer graphics and animation so skillfully interwoven with live actors that one can't tell the boundary between the real and the created. This film has few special effects, and those are restrained: the space ship seen high in the sky and then landing in a baseball field and the ray from the robot's visor that destroys only several rifles, a tank, and two artillery field pieces.

The irony of the film is striking.

Like so many of its contemporary films, we see the police and military racing out of their depots and stations and rushing to defend us against the threat. But, unlike those films that came out at the same time and many that appear today, this film goes on to show us just the opposite, that the threat comes not from the alien at all. The subsequent violence does not come from the aliens but from the earth people.

Those same voices on the radio who told us of the approaching vehicle now tell us that the alien is a monster, who poses a grave threat and must be destroyed. Yet the first shot was fired by the earth military. As the alien walked slowly down the ramp from his ship, he held out an object. The soldier shoots him, for what else would a stranger carry when meeting other strangers but a weapon. It was a gift for the President of the US, a device that would allow him to see life on other planets. Instead of welcoming the gift, he is shot and the device destroyed, symbolic, perhaps, of the way we isolate ourselves and our inability to see others because our first and immediate response to a strange situation is violence.

It is ironic that while he quietly walks down a Washington, DC street in the evening, carrying a suitcase, looking for a room to rent, we can hear the radio voices blaring out that the alien is still at large and a thing to be tracked down and destroyed like a wild animal, for it may possess strange powers which could destroy us all. Later we see this same monster, this same wild animal, and the young boy, who lives in the rooming house, visiting Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Monument, and, of course, the spaceship and robot now occupying a baseball field.

Thousands of people do not die. Buildings and cities are not destroyed. The only damage to Washington, DC is a hole in the wall of a jail cell. The threat of destruction is there, but only if the people, or rather, the governments of earth bring it upon themselves.

Why is the alien here? He has a message, a familiar one, for humans thousands of years ago said the same thing and their warnings were ignored, just as the alien's will most likely be. The message?--those who live by violence shall be destroyed by violence. It's as simple as that.

If you have seen it, but a long time ago, I urge you to see it again. If you haven't seen it, give it a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Robert Charles Wilson's Novel-- Spin

Wilson's novel is a classic example of a book with a wonderful idea that is not used very much in the work. Briefly, Earth has been enveloped in a mysterious force field. It has a number of effects on the planet, but one of the most significant consequences is the effect on time. The Earth and the rest of the universe no longer keep the same time, relatively speaking of course. For every year that passes on earth, the universe outside ages at the rate of 100,000,000 years. The sun, whose demise was once billions of years in the future, will now self-destruct in about 40-50 years.

This discrepancy is used only twice, and both occupy only a small percentage of the book. Wilson spends most of his time detailing the trials and tribulations of the Lawton family, a dysfunctional family, at best.

The father is a Type A personality--angry, hostile, distant, and always busy. The mother, who was a cardiologist prior to her marriage to Lawton, a wealthy man, quit and spent the next 3 or 4 decades turning herself into an alcoholic. The son, a genius, doted on his father, almost to the point of hero worship, and then began to hate him as he matured. The daughter, in search of something, rejects the the love of the man she most cares for, and marries a religious cult leader.

I haven't read anything else by Wilson, so I don't know whether this is typical, but if it is, I won't be reading other works by him. I read Science Fiction for development of ideas or for extrapolation of trends, but I don't read it for a portrayal of dysfunctional families.

That being said, I suspect I'm in the minority because this novel won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2006. The Hugo is the oldest and probably the most prestigious award in SF. Obviously there are many who disagree with me.


Welcome to Fred's Place. What you will find here will be my random thoughts and reactions to various books I have read, films I have watched, and music I have listened to. In addition I may (or may not as the spirit moves me) comment about the fantasy world we call reality, which is stranger by far than fiction.

Feel free to comment.