Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Ghost of Gustave Le Bon

"Wisdom of Crowds" Works For Individuals Too - Slashdot

Back at the beginning of the 20th century a French sociologist gained fame through his research on crowd behavior and what he called the 'crowd mind'. The sociologist was one Gustave Le Bon and his conclusions where that the crowd mind was a far more simplistic and persuadable entity than that of the individual. Oh, and he had a serious authoritarian streak in him which led to his writing on the necessary qualities of a truly powerful leader. In other words, the linked article above is bullshit of the worst kind. It mistakes the distributed minds of open source coders, Wikipedia users and the social networking types for the crowd mind. They are distinct entities and such a mistake is factually costly. At the risk of invoking Godwin's law on this post, I do have to mention that both Mussolini and Hitler, along with their attendant 'intellectuals', were highly influenced by Le Bon. The man is considered a proto-fascist intellectual in that he helped build the intellecutal foundation on which fascism based itself. So be careful when you see articles like this one and make sure the authors aren't getting the crowd mind confused with the distributed mind.

Renaissance: A Review

Just finished watching Renaissance, an excellent cyberpunk film noir done in a brilliant black-and-white rotoscope. I say excellent and brilliant not because of its script but in its execution. Taking a typical film noir story and glossing it in a cyberpunk feel, Renaissance portrays a possible future Paris complete with realistic technology, architecture and philosophical issues. Playing around the edges of the idea of immortality and biotechonology, the movie focuses more on the characters themselves than the setting and technology. One of my pet peeves with most science fiction is its habit of making the setting more important that the plot and the characters. Renaissance fortunately avoids this by playing up the troubled cop meets the femme fatale angle effectively. I'll give you that at times the plot feels somewhat cliqued but those moments are few and expected if only because they've been done so often before that it's hard to avoid them.
Beyond the plot and the character development is the way the movie was filmed. Normally I'm not a fan of rotoscope techniques as they come off as a way to make a movie look interesting in order to disguise its serious flaws. Renaissance lacks those serious flaws even if it does have some minor ones. Thus you are enable to enjoy the visual aspects of the film as much as the plot. The use of nearly complete black-and-white rotoscope intentionally blurs the line between reality and animation. Each sequence has a dream-like quality with points of reality smashed against a constant sureality the lack of color gives the film. Indeed, I would say Renaissance is a truly hyperreal movie as the moments of reality clashing with unreality make reality even more real than the reality we live in. It intentionally pitches you out of your comfort zone and the turns everything on its side. Had the producers and director decided to go with a more typical, color-filled style I think the movie would have suffered to the point of being unwatchable. Yes, the plot does work and the characters are engaging, but without the visual style used Renaissance is not much more than a made-for-TV science fiction tale. This is certainly the kind of film where the visual is just as important as the script and direction. I would highly recommend the film for anyone wanting that Ghost in the Shell feel without needing to actually watch Ghost in the Shell for the hundredth time.

The Impossibility of a Watchmen Movie

Watchmen Shouldn't Be A Movie - Charlie Jane Anders @ io9

Anders makes some excellent points about the in-production movie Watchmen; most importantly, that the comic itself is almost untranslatable into another medium. To read the Watchmen is to read a commentary/celebration of comics that, in Alan Moore's style, wraps in upon itself. While a movie like V for Vendetta worked as a film, it lost much of its little moments that make the original comic a work of genius. The Watchmen takes that insularity even further with its backend material, its use of alternate versions of DC Comic characters and its play on story structure, page layouts and even the single issue format it was originally released in. We take for granted the collected edition of the Watchmen today (I have two hardback copies myself: the Absolute edition and a reading copy). But when the Watchmen was originally published it was in twelve installments over a period of nearly three years. And for a comic twelve issues is an immense amount of material even for the most mediocre of writers.
I realized long ago that the Watchmen would need at least four movies running two to three hours in length each, just to present the story in anything close to a authentic representation. Each part of the story is essential. Moore left little slack in the script while the illustrator Dave Gibbons used the simplest of panel layouts to evoke and most complicated of emotions and narrative. It is a comic of absolute brilliance that any other writer has yet to eclipse, even Moore himself. Granted, Warren Ellis' Planetary does come close but despite its excellence, Planetary is a comic that plays with pulp science fiction of the past as much as it toys with our conventional thinking of contemporary comic characters. It lacks that insularity and parallel narrative structure so effectively employed by Moore.
I expect the movie to come in the form of a sanitized Hollywood script; i.e. stripping away all but the most essential plot elements and leaving the characters empty shells of their former comic selves. While the essential plot does lend itself to the typical Hollywood disaster film, the text itself does not and never will. Much as I, Robot was a filed away script given the title of an Azimov work so too will The Watchmen be the original in anything but name only.

Friday, June 27, 2008

...And All I Got Was A Headache

The Ever-Malleable Obama - Charles Krauthammer @ WaPo

There's nothing amazing about a hit piece on a Democrat by Krauthammer, particularly one running for president. Krauthammer is the sort that still believes war in Iraq somehow makes Israel safer. So for him to trot out the meme that Sen. Obama "threw his grandmother under the bus" as the saying goes is nothing new. Nor is Krauthammer's argument that Sen. Obama is a politician and politicians are amiable to change positions when it benefits them. Personally, I don't like Sen. Obama's shift on the FISA bill either, but for different reasons. I do think it's dishonest of Krauthammer to point a finger at Sen. Obama when he himself supports such actions in the first place. No, instead of praising Sen. Obama for seeing the light on retroactive telecom immunity, he attacks the senator for changing his position.
This is what Krauthammer does; he attacks Democrats (except Joe Lieberman) for not being Republicans and accepting the righteousness of the neo-conservative way. Rational? Not on your life. But it's a dogmatic reaction to anything that might give a Democrat some sort of praise. And it makes even less sense if Krauthammer doesn't want Sen. Obama elected. Praising the senator is more damning to Sen. Obama's image than damning Sen. Obama, which will bring further praise from the left. It's not an argument meant to convince anyone. It's not even an article meant to please the neo-con right. They have Bill Kristol for that. It is a phoned-in article, written with no effort and no thought. Like I said before, dogma provided the answer--a shortsighted one at that--and doesn't actually do anything. It's a waste of words and I think Krauthammer owes me an apology for taking up my time with such trite bullshit.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Mighty Female Blogger

Women and Blogging - Andrew Sullivan

Honestly, I don't buy it. I know just as many women who blog as I do men. This is a rather silly report that doesn't tell you anything substantial while giving grist to those who want to maintain the superiority of men over women. Well, it'll be hard to do that when all the scientists involved have stilettos embedded in their heads.

The Email of Panic

White House Refused to Open Unwelcome EPA Email - Slashdot

Now I've been known to avoid opening an email from a professor that I was pretty sure would contain some ego-bruising words, but for Christ's sake, this is the federal government, not graduate school. Suck it up, open the email and take the hit. What a bunch of fucking cowards.

Atomic Super Kitties

It's roughly an hour before I normally wake up, but doing a favor for my sister involves an early rise and then a drive to the airport. So while the article itself is making little sense to me, I had to give it a try just for the title alone: "Creating Three-Dimensional Qubits in an Atomic Cloud." I really don't know what that means, but it sounds cool in that weird 'we can make atomic monsters' sort of way. But will they have octagonal-shaped bodies and suck blood?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Fall

Review: Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel: Dual Hawks - Stephen M. Deusner @ Pitchfork

I have to perform some righteous indignation this morning due to this review of Will Johnson's latest albums. Being a fan of Centro-Matic since All the Falsest Hearts Can Try was released, I've found myself increasingly disappointed in each new release after South San Gabriel Song/Music. Perhaps it was the timing of the records, or the feeling of their shows after 9/11, but Centro-Matic lost a bit of their edge then. Before The Distance and Clime came out, the recorded sound of Centro-Matic was raw and grainy, the lyrics were to the point in a roundabout way and the guitars had this live quality rarely found on a studio release. And there have been a couple of excellent songs laid down since then, but none of their ablums past 2002 have recaptured that glory of Centro-Matic's initial years.
It's fairly obvious that Deusner hasn't steeped himself in Will Johnson's early catelog. Had he then he would notice the dramatic shift in production with Distance and Clime. While that record has the same lyrical flair of earlier ones, I found it over-produced and far too clean for a proper Centro-Matic record. Personally, as much as I love Matt Pence and his abilities behind the drum kit, his production values on the last three albums have stolen the fire that made Centro-Matic such an amazing band. And then there's Johnson himself, who for whatever reason (he stopped wearing a wedding ring around 2003) has muted his once raucous mind.
The Centro-Matic of the late 90s and early years of the new century was born out of the ashes of Johnson's previous band, the Funland Band. After being seriously screwed over by Arista the band broke up with Johnson going off to do his own solo work just as lead singer Peter Schmidt took his music in a different direction with Legendary Crystal Chandelier. But those first Centro-Matic released were something to behold. I still have one of his cassette tapes Johnson sold at shows at that time. It was basically a demo tape with Johnson just singing and playing guitar on whatever he could find to record on. Redo the Stacks was similar except with the inclusion of drums, bass and piano along with the help of a local cellist. And so went the succeeding records as Johnson pulled together the line-up that remains today: Scott Danbom on keys and rythmn guitar; Mark Hedman on bass; and Matt Pence on drums. And these guys are still good guys. Hedman bought me a drink once simply because I was wearing one of their t-shirts that night.
These are regular guys and their Denton-based sound was edgy, different and authentic Texas music. Once they started touring the European theater, that sound faded. The greatest show by any band I ever saw was not long after the release of South San Gabriel in June of 2001. After that, the fervor of Johnson's music faded as their production became too clean and radio-friendly. I still love the band, but the magic is gone. Deusner, I think, doesn't know this because he wasn't there for those amazing first years. While his review is focused on Dual Hawks, it troubles me that the reviewer implicitly lacks the knowledge of what Centro-Matic once was. I miss that band and miss them all the more when I see them play now.

Ruth Marucs' Pretty Face is Going to Hell

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Bundlers - Ruth Marcus @ WaPo

It's understandable that those who believe in the power of the federal government to fund presidential campaigns would find Sen. Obama's decision to opt out (thus breaking his pledge with Sen. McCain if both became the respective nominees of their parties) underhanded. I would too, had I not already contributed to Sen. Obama in the primaries. But to attack Sen. Obama for utilizing a campaign contribution system that has relied primarily on single, small donations as being somehow against the very idea of democracy is just stupid. Sen. Obama was breaking fundraising records well before he won his first primary contest so get to the point Mrs. Marcus. Sen. Obama's campaign and platform have pulled in so many people and so much money that it doesn't need the tax dollars of Americans. The dishonesty of Mrs. Marcus' op-ed is only deepened by her failure to mention Sen. McCain's own gaming of the public financing system. Perhaps Mrs. Marcus is annoyed that after overcoming the most powerful political machine the Democratic party ever saw, Sen. Obama now has access to millions more in untapped funding. So Sen. Obama proves his bonafides to his party and suddenly the party wants to give him a shit load of money. And how is this surprising exactly?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

For the Short Haul

Higher Oil Prices Are Starting to Bring Jobs Home - Slashdot

I find this highly amusing. My libertarian senses are tingling.

Electric Gods in Every Pot

As a follow-up to my previous post on the difficulties in implementing mass transit nationwide is this article from Ars Technica on the need for a rollout of gigabit internet access nationwide by 2015. The article discusses a report released by a DC local telecom law firm. The report argues that broadband internet has become as essential a utility as water, electricity and trash services. Again, I can fully agree with this kind of argument but as before the realities of putting a gigabit internet in place across the nation--including the last mile--are hard to overcome. It isn't as simple as running lines along telephone poles but getting those lines to every household, apartment and any other kind of abode (I'm looking at you, trailer parks). I'm not saying it's impossible, just highly problematic in the same ways getting nationwide mass transit is problematic.

21st Century Iron Horses

Psychodrilling - Matt Yglesias

This kind of post has become a regular feature for Yglesias' blog: the argument for more mass transit versus increased oil drilling. Now by no means am I in favor of pushing oil drilling into new areas of the American coast line just for the possibility of saving money on gas some time in the future. Still, this idea that mass transit is a cure-all to our energy problems, at least on the transport side of things, is rather ridiculous when you look at all the political, financial and technological hurdles you face just to get a transit program off the ground in a major U.S. city. Moreover, busing alone is not sufficient to get around the need for rail or subway lines. The city of Dallas had a working trolley system for decades until the mid 60s when the city council was convinced that buses were the way of the future. Fifty years later and Dallas is once again forced to admit that light rail and trolley lines are necessary to combat the ridiculous urban sprawl.
I agree that the U.S. needs a serious, nationwide program to implement mass transit in its major cities, but I just don't see that happening without a president expending a huge amount of political capitol to push through a bill that will naturally see billions of dollars in earmarks attached to it. And the cities themselves lack the will and funding.
Mass transit is a wonderful idea and one that I would love to see realized, but the political realities I fear are too great once you move a hundred miles inland from either coast. Until cities end the monopolies they typically give transit providers and the federal government ends its absurd propping up of passenger rail companies like Amtrak, I don't see the possibility of any rapid movement on mass transit. I wish the stance Yglesias takes was shared by more of our city, state and federal leaders, but for all the talk about expanding mass transit these politicians know well the slim chances of anything actually happening.

High School Republicans

Republican Self-Parody Watch - Ezra Klein

This little bit from Klein tells me just how jealous the Republican party is of Sen. Obama in that high school sort of way. Unlike the geeks and freaks of our high school days, Karl Rove apparently was one of those nerds who wanted to hang with the cool kids but was always laughed at. I took a different route: smoked in the parking lot, read a lot and practiced my look of death. Which in turn makes me unafraid of Sen. Obama and relatively not starstruck by him. But apparently Rove is afraid of Sen. Obama, even while he wants to be Sen. Obama.

Ignoring the Mind-Body Gap

George Lakoff: neuroscience of politics - David Pescovitz @ BoingBoing

I always have trouble with books and theories like this. The idea that somehow our political minds are hardwired, either by nature or by nurture, to favor one kind of political thinking over another smacks far too much of biological determinism. While slightly informative on how the brain works in a certain area, this kind of thinking typically ignores the philosophical problem of the mind-body gap by implicitly denying its existence. I will agree that Lakoff's earlier work on how framing a debate will affect the outcome but I think it takes that good idea and stretches it too far into the realm of hard science. We are not born liberals or conservatives (definitions which themselves change with each generation) and nurturing people to think one way or another has had little permanent success; i.e. the French Revolution, fascism and communism.
So take arguments like Lakoff's with a large grain of salt. They are interesting thought experiments but that's all they are.

Monday, June 23, 2008

In Media Res

The last month has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of posts on this blog. I can list a number of reasons for this but most of them are unimportant or terribly personal in a sense that I cannot find it morally acceptable to write a post on it. But there are some things that I can mention which proves just how spastic I am.
First off, I've made a return to comics after more than a year not reading any. I'm still catching up but spending less weekly than I did before, which is a good thing. Still, I missed some good stuff such as the end of and Y: The Last Man and DMZ's ongoing brilliance.
Second, I've actually become a greasemonkey. After receiving a $600 quote on brake pad replacement I said screw it and did it myself for $150. Thus started my journey into the world of Audi performance parts and DIY repair. It's actually incredibly satisfying, if occasionally frustrating. I have a lot to learn, particularly after the 14 hour ordeal of replacing my intake manifold gasket. But my car is slowly improving and fuel economy is increasing as I replace some of the restrictive OEM parts with improved aftermarket ones. There's lots of money to spend and even more work to do (including some of my own ideas about modifications/improvements). I could easily spend as much or more on parts than the car's original price. Even so, it's worth it as I'm going to make that little 1.8L turbocharged engine work better than it ever has.
The third and perhaps most telling part has been the foul-up with my medication alongside the dramatic increase of the typcial work stress. The medication problems were my fault for the most part as I tried moving to a new anti-anxiety medication that failed in spectacular fashion. But I also started using another medication, albeit an expensive one, that has solved a lot of the associated problems with any sort of anti-anxiety regimen. The medication problem is fixed, I'm actually sane and active, and work problems are getting resolved.
This is the trouble with maintaining a blog. This blog is a work of love for me. It is not simply a vainity project or a way to keep my friends and associates up to date on my life. I've never considered my life, in and of itself, worthy of such attention. Instead I've always considered the blog as an outlet for thoughts, opinions and interests that represent my mind more than my life. I hope to make a return to regular posting. I've missed the catharsis of the blog, of the task of writing something short yet still informative and/or interesting. Or ranting from the roof tops, as is my want from time to time. I won't promise regularity, but I'll try to present some more free-form, original posts that I've had kicking around in my head for some time now. It might be fun or a complete disaster, but either way I'll make it interesting.