Saturday, January 20, 2007

This Blog Is Going To Outer Space

As of today, this blog is going intergalactic. Yes, this blog and you and your comments are welcome to travel into space as well.

You'll notice a little badge on the left side of the page for Blog In Space, a project which regularly collects the blog posts of members, bundles them together and transmits them into the vast reaches of the universe, sending them out into the stars and planets.

I am positive aliens will find much to enjoy here, though I am not sure if our primitive operating systems are compatable. But why wait for them to contact us? Along with the gazillion radio and television signals already hurtling through the vast and immeasurable universe, now this blog and those whose comments are herein will now reach beyond this beautiful and fragile globe.

Now, in addition to being world-wide, we have intergalactic distribution. About time, I say.

I don't have the $20 million fee so I can be a Space Tourist. My lifelong hopes of seeing human outposts on the Moon or Mars are still unrealized. So for now this will have to do.

So --

Greetings to the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri, or Omicron Perseid 8, or maybe to the flying gas-bags of HammaGammaJamma 12 and any and all who find this page of words and images. And a fine howdy to you all.

Here is a video to sort of tell you where you can find us. It is narrated by a human named Morgan Freeman who has a nice calm voice and should not scare you. If anything here, today or ever, does scare you, relax. We are all pretty darn harmless, except to ourselves. The video starts with an image of what we call a hula hoop in a place called Venice and goes from there. Oh, and Klaatu barada nikto.

And keep this in mind, advice from the Blog In Space folks, who say: "
Bloggers who use this site are urged to keep their blogs devoid of any language, comments or content that might offend, taunt or provoke alien life forms in any way. Let's not start an intergalactic war :)

(And thanks to Ginger, where I discovered this whole Space Blog dealie.)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Camera Obscura - Cyberpunk TV, Weird P.I.s, The Descent

Like most of us, I start the year with great expectations. Hopeful, even. And some years, the results exceed the expectations. Since it's still January, expectations are quite high. So some news today about what's ahead and what's being planned, and my take on one of the best reviewed horror films of 2006.

I was most impressed to read that George Clooney will try and bring the Hugo Award winning novel "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson to life in a mini-series for the Sci-Fi Channel. And it's because that is one fantastic novel, and Stephenson is writing the script. "The Diamond Age" is one of the best science fiction novels I've ever read - and I mean ever. No matter if the genre isn't something on your regular reading list - this richly detailed look into the future explores very likely expansions of current tech, has elements of a great mystery novel, near-Dickensian characters and social history all in one.

Stephenson has a massive cult following for his earlier work too, "Snowcrash", which has been mulled over as a movie, but again, it's the book itself that provides a detailed and highly entertaining world in which most readers can get easily lost. I've probably read "Snowcrash" half a dozen times and never get bored. It's very funny and satiric in it's approach to a world future. Computer gaming, franchise-businesses as nation-states, and language as code, the book is the origin of much computer and web slang, as well as the longtime online world of the Metaverse.

And yes, I've read all his books - he's one of the best American writers today.


Speaking of the shows on Sci-Fi, they present a new show based on Jim Butcher's books, called "The Dresden Files." Basically, a master wizard as detective show, it airs on Sunday. I've always liked the supernatural detective/private investigator idea, and this one shows some promise.

In fact, for the last year, I've been reading the very pulp-fiction adventures of one Repairman Jack, hero of ten novels by F. Paul Wilson. Jack is a down-and-dirty outsider, a fixer, who gets drawn into a full blown multi-dimensional power struggle for reality itself. It all tends to start normally, as he P.I.'s his way into seemingly normal crime cases, but with each book, he learns he is part of some nebulous cosmic battle.

Very pulpy style helps this out and yeah, it's a guilty pleasure. But I've read 5 or 6 of the books and can't stop. Jack is too much fun.


I sat down this week at long last to watch "The Descent", which friends and critics alike all cheered as one of the best horror films of 2006 and of the whole darn '00 decade. I was more than skeptical of such praise.

But it does deliver all the goods and will scare the bejesus out of you, even long before the monsters in the dark appear onscreen.

The set-up: An all-female group of adrenaline junkies/extreme sportsters follow a friend who's organized a cave exploration. She is not a nice person. She takes them into unmapped areas without telling them and of course they get lost. It's a cinematic marvel of near-darkness and claustrophobia which gets the suspense cranked into high gear.

The horror: Lost and scared and bickering, one member of the gang, already in a spiral descent of madness before even going into the cave, starts seeing people in the dark. Scampering, oozing creatures who melt into shadows. And there's not just one - there's a dang colony of these things. Building on the first half-hour's tensions, the movie gets feral for the remainder of the journey and so do the women.

The verdict: It's a first-rate thriller. Writer/Director Neil Marshall of Scotland already had B-movie fame for a movie called "The Dog Soldiers" about a half-assed military squad encountering werewolves, lives up to his early hype and delivers the goods with "The Descent". His frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sam McCurdy, is part of the reason for success here. He gets impossible shots inside that cave's nooks and crannies, and the viewer feels as lost as the gals.

Turn off all the lights, crank up the sound and prepare for nerve-jangling fun.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

3 Things to Do Before I Shuffle Off

When Stephen King was asked about the 3 things on his "must-do list" I think he spoke for most of us when he said:

""I'd like to outlast George W. Bush's second term of office."

I ponder that notion daily. I hope it is survived by many and grieve for those who have not and won't make that mark. HIs 3rd wish:

"3. To see "American Idol" canceled."

Also in this Newsweek report (hat-tip to R. Neal at KnoxViews for the story) the former Tennessee senator listed these 3:

"1. Continue yearly trip to African regions without health care to perform needed surgery.
2. Fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and work to provide clean drinking water to poor areas.
3. Treat heart problems in gorillas at D.C.'s National Zoo."

No mention of running for Governor. Maybe it's number 4. I personally fear for those gorillas.

My list of 3 Must Do's?

1. Travel and stay for extended periods in Europe, Japan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Egypt, and even more countries around the globe. This plan is all on hold until W. leaves office. The write a book about what I saw and heard.

2. Make the scariest horror movie anyone has ever seen.

3. Employ some of my longtime friends making said movie and sharing huge profits with them all.

What's on your list?

The Surge Effect

What prompted the turnaround in the Bush administration so that say they've decided to follow the law and end warrantless wiretaps?

The question is tackled by Glenn Greenwald, who sums up:

This is what the Bush administration does and how it always operates. It has not conceded anything and it has certainly not done anything that mitigates its lawbreaking -- its crimes -- over the past five years with regard to eavesdropping without warrants. The president has been committing felonies on purpose and systematically for the past five years because he wants to. The fact that he might have decided he should stop does not excuse his lawbreaking and must not be allowed to shield him or anyone else from accountability."

The new hearings in Congress to provide oversight (their Constitutional responsibility) hasn't altered the thinking of The Decider. I have to think this is yet another delaying tactic by an administration which has ignored laws by the handful.

Call it the Surge Effect. A pretense of change which changes nothing, but further extends a single-minded desire to act with no accountability.

Or call it too little and too late.

Another example -- DOD lawyer Charles Stimson goes on the radio to name a list of legal firms which have been tackling the cases of detainees at Guantanamo, but after he's maligned and threatened them, his bosses refute him and then Stimson himself "re-defines" his statements in a letter to the Washington Post.

But this change of view occurs only after Stimson named these firms and their attorneys as possible collaborators with terrorists.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lower The Voting Age?

A bill in the state legislature would lower the voting age to 17 if the person were to turn 18 by the date of the general election itself. A report on the bill is here.

I understand the desire to increase voter turnouts. Already we in Tennessee and most other states have extended or early voting to encourage more people to vote. I'm not aware of any studies which show that these increased time-periods to vote have in fact increased turnout. However, I am rather positive it has increased the number of absentee ballots, where most voter fraud actually occurs.

The plain fact is - we are all offered ample opportunities to vote but we are ultimately given the freedom to not participate or vote at all. There's the saying that if you vote, you have a right to complain about outcomes. Nonsense. We have the freedom to not vote and still complain like mad if we wish it.

Is that hypocritical, to not vote but to complain? Perhaps. But the right to complain is just there, and Americans love to complain.

If the wish of the state is to encourage more young people partcipate in elections, why not create the opportunity of school credits if a high-school or college student works in an election office? Too often, election officials stay in their posts for so long it leaves little room for new blood. But a credit and/or mentoring program would surely increase participation best.

Another bill is mentioned in the above article to extend early voting by another week. It seems to me that due to the time involved and long lines of voters due to equipment malfunctions or large turnouts, it would serve the state best if voting days were also a day off from work and school, as with many federal holidays.

Extending voting days also means decreased days of campaigning by candidates.

Why not make the day an official day off?

Would some just take the holiday and not vote? Probably. But most would take advantage of the time off to participate.

Failure, Humiliation Drive "American Idol"

The ever-intrepid Cinemonkey provided the following in yesterday's post about the television show "American Idol", which I want to see ended forever:

As an inveterate Devil's Advocate, how do you explain AI's popularity (& to this day, to me, AI means "Artificial Intelligence"), &, what "reality shows" do you find entertaining, if any."

Fair question. Here's my response.

The Popularity: I believe it was reporter H.L Mencken who once said "No one ever lost a dollar underestimating the taste of the American public."

The audience at home are told they can participate in the voting process for selecting winners. I don't buy that for a minute. Producers of such show carefully construct who is to win, and while audiences may temper that decision, it is definitely not theirs to make. But the "participation factor" does attract viewers.

I think most viewers tune in to see who loses, not who wins.

That explains why each "season" begins with a wide range of "auditions" and the focus is on the people who fail miserably. And don't kid yourself -- most of those who fail and appear on television have been carefully selected - in fact I am sure they are likely coached or created by the show's producers. The object of these shows is to allow the audience to again feel as if they are participating and because viewers want to see people fail.

More proof of that - while viewers number in the tens of millions, the record sales of "winners" or near-winners, are a few million at best. If audiences tuned in to see winners, those sales numbers would be higher.

In the old-timey days of television, talent shows, like the one from Arthur Godfrey, featured actual performers, singers, songwriters, and musicians who found fame based on their talents - Elvis is one case of success. For a fine representation of just how created and orchestrated game shows are and have always been, check out the fact-based "Quiz Show" movie.

These days, the advertising hook on "reality shows" is to "tune in and see who's eliminated this week!"

As for what if any of such shows I watch -- the only show like this I've ever watched from start to finish was the one on the Sci-Fi channel last year, "Who Wants to be a Superhero". The mighty man of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee, was the main reason I watched. It was fun to see him work and the superheroes he provided were most entertaining to me. But it was all very, very carefully crafted and written and had little to do with "reality".

Make no mistake - film and television producers are manufacturers first and last. They make products to sell products. It has always been so. A studio selected a performer, gave them lessons in everything from dance to elocution lessons, created a specific look provided by make-up and other technical effects, created stories to highlight the performer as "heroic" or as an "average person" or as a "villian" or "comedian" or any type needed to create a certain type of performer.

And that brings us to my problem with "American Idol" -- it isn't about excellence. It's about the mediocre attempting to be more than mediocre. It promotes the barely talented into the music world and programmers on radio and television follow the popular trend and feature these mediocre types because they have momentary fame. Actual musicians are sidelined while the flavor of the week is pushed onto audiences as something of value.

I am well aware I am not a typical or average viewer. As a writer, I prefer to see dramas and comedies which are well-written, acted and produced. Television and movies are first and foremost entertainment fantasies -- reality is mimicked not captured whole and intact.

Allow me to share a video with you. It is not manufactured (as far as I can tell, though it is edited from surveillance cameras). We see a would-be thief attempting to rob a liquor store and, yes, he fails and does so in spectacular stupidity. His only success is in getting arrested. It makes me laugh because of his failure.

UPDATE: Not longer after I posted this today, I read Sarcastro's Confession that he tuned into to the "American Idol" against his better judgement and his take underscores what I said -- It's Failure That Drives The Show:

"I want to see abject failure.

I want to see people so self-deluded that they refuse to believe that they can't sing despite all evidence to the contrary. Bring me more people whose friends and family are too spineless to tell them that they have absolutely no talent. Load me up with losers who have placed their entire concept of self-worth on staggeringly unrealistic dreams of stardom."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Dear American Idol -- Please Go Away

An Open Letter .....

Dear American Idol:

Please go away. You are a blight on music itself.

I've endured talk about you for years now, and you are not exciting or entertaining and you wouldn't know what musical talent was if it bit you in the ass. You are an over-glorified night of sing-alongs and it's been a night in hell, enternal and painful.

Three judges whose musical knowledge and experience combined is hardly a footnote in musical history. There's Paula, the dancer who apparently must drink (or drug) herself into near incoherence to participate in the show. There's Simon, whose daddy got him a job at EMI, which he lost, who then founded two recording labels which went bankrupt, then made money recording novelty songs by the Power Rangers and whose only skill is The Obvious Insult. And I have no idea who Randy is.

Those who appear on your show climb up on the talents of others -- songwriters, singers, musicians - who often worked thankless years and in obscurity to develop their talents. Like scavengers, these contestants, enabled by the talentless producers of this show, pick over the achievements of others with greed as the mark of their nature.

You glorify mediocrity as it reaches for the abilities of other far more talented people, with only the aim of theft.

As for the people who actually watch this middle-school popularity contest -- you would be far more rewarded for actually going out in your own communities to see and hear actual musicians, who write their music, play instruments, and perform for the joy of music and the hope of enough money to cover the cost of their efforts. They are in every community and they strive mightily to create something of worth while you endorse and celebrate nothing.

I blame the show and those who faithfully engage in it's dumbed-down exercise in lip-synching for eroding the arts and obscuring the talents of thousands of others. Not only is the world of music maligned and damaged by your efforts, this program has the entertainment value of watching paint dry. (If the paint were stolen from others.)

I urge the world to boycott you.

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Contradictions Of The 'Crack Tax'

It makes no sense. It is not constitutional. Why does it continue? Sadly - the cause may all be about money.

Other states have similar programs, but on Monday, NPR focused their attention on Tennessee's "crack tax":

For a second consecutive year, Tennessee has collected more than $1.5 million in revenue from its so-called "crack tax." The state has been enforcing a tax on illegal substances that drug dealers can report without fear of prosecution.

But once arrested, dealers must prove they've paid the tax or face fines or property seizure. A local judge has called it unconstitutional but the state is appealing saying it will help deter crime and boost tax coffers.

Complete report here.