Bad President! Very bad!

Five Supremes shook a stern finger at Gitmo yesterday, a good three years after the camp’s genesis. I earned my master’s degree faster than it takes this court to clear its throat.

I don’t understand all the press excitement. The suspects won’t get drumhead trials, sure, but they still don’t have fair trials. Their limbo continues unabated. The SCOTUS effectively took a pass.

Frankly, this ruling is going to have as much practical effect as Worcester vs. Georgia in 1832, which Georgia and Andrew Jackson simply ignored. Oh, how beautifully the system of checks and balances functions! It’s America, all right – old school. The Supremes can settle a presidential election but not call for a criminal or POW trial? You better believe it.

When buying milk goes horribly wrong

Still up to my neck in work, but I thought I’d share a good link: an interview with the creators of Postal 2, a classic meta-game of a few years back.
A long, long time ago I wrote about why I like violent video games, why this doesn’t reflect poorly on me or anyone else, and why I don’t roam the streets looking for victims, but I think these guys have a shorter and better retort, which I will quote:

“…the “problem” with POSTAL is that it is too politically correct. What I mean by that is if you play POSTAL 2, what you’ll notice is that none of the missions involve killing anyone. They’re all simple errands like buying milk and cashing your paycheck. And if you look really closely, you’ll see that it’s always possible to complete an errand without killing anyone. You might have to piss in someone’s face and make a getaway while they vomit, but you never HAVE to kill them. We created a reactive environment where the player has some tasks to complete. How the tasks are completed is entirely up to the player. Just like in the real world, weapons exist, but how they are used is left up to the judgment of the individual wielding it. The game does not reward the player for being violent, unless you consider being set upon by police, SWAT teams, military personnel, randomly-armed vigilante bystanders and attack dogs is a “reward”… So the unfortunate situation for us is that what offends people is the concept of a game where you have free will and can choose, if you have that particular bent, to attack innocent bystanders. Apparently in the eyes of some, a game about free will is far more evil than a game bout murdering your way up the crime food chain…”

The unmentioned game is, of course, GTA: San Andreas, which is a fine game in its own right, but not as conceptually rich as the critique of society and violence that Postal 2 managed to pull off. For me, it was a puerile, juvenile, disgusting, and crass experience, but conceptually, it was spot-on and I had a blast. Wikipedia has a decent P2 page for the morbidly curious.

My favorite objective of all the mundane tasks in the game was to get eight signatures on a petition to “make whiny congressmen play violent video games.” This consists of going up to pedestrians with a clipboard and asking for signatures. Sometimes they say yes; other say no politely; others insult and threaten you. If you keep asking the same person, your requests get more and more aggressive – “Look, just sign the petition or I’ll follow you home and kill your dog,” and some devolve naturally into gunplay. It’s especially funny to ask people politely to sign while people that I’d doused in gasoline and set on fire for not signing are still running around and screaming.

What an idea – place the player in frustrating everyday situations, but leave firearms, explosives, and other instruments of mayhem within easy reach. And, of course, as the game progresses, the temptations to snap increase. All in all, a brilliant subversion of the FPS genre, with its crates and health packs and scattered weaponry. I have never even tried to get the “Thank you for playing, Jesus” rating which you recieve at the end of the game if you never killed anyone, though I am a little more mellow than I was several years ago. Perhaps I’ll try the nonviolent approach, which apparently requires the judicious use of a stun-gun and urine.

Work

I have been trying to work today and get caught up with the five billion things that need to be done before the fall semester begins. Next to nothing has gone right, including this post, which I am now retyping as the web development software I was using in the other window succeeded in crashing Firefox.

My reading is about the only thing that I’ve managed to keep up. I finished the second volume of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible today. I find his fiction a snoozefest much of the time, but he’s a good read when he’s lecturing. His primacy focus in this commentary on the New Testament is the historical occurences and dates behind the various verses. The confusion between the various Herods in the gospels, for example, delights him, and allows for pages and pages of thoughtful asides. His approach to the birth narratives is also very good. He is not tough enough on Acts, though; he accepts the speeches at face value, rather than reveal them as Thucydides-style summaries.

The little NT Greek that I have picked up this summer greatly enhanced my enjoyment of this particular tome, however. Asimov is forever pausing to explain the Greek/Hebrew/Latin/English train wrecks that the NT is full of, and I wouldn’t have understood these comments as well a month ago.

Reading his commentary also reminded me that I haven’t redrafted my paper on agricultural metaphor in the NT and sent it to a journal yet – and this, in turn, prompted me to write out a long list of everything I have to do by late August. It’s a depressingly long document.

The Little Black Box

This is a bit of a rant. I may edit it a little over the next day or so.

In the last year or so, I’ve been thinking we’re both in a golden age of TV drama and a serious pig trough in film.

HBO has put out a tremendous amount of great serialized stuff in the last decade – The Sopranos, Carnivale, Deadwood, Rome, Big Love, etc – that is unequalled in quality. And as for my more esoteric needs, SciFi has brought back Battlestar Galactica in a vastly improved form, and the BBC has even resurrected (well, regenerated) the venerable Doctor Who. And there’s always Lost. It is a happy time for tube addicts. Not if they would only bring back Equalizer, I’d be set.

I can’t think of a really great recent film, though, in the same period. I’ve come to view the silver screen as shtock. Admittedly, I do have a preference for long, serialized stories, and I carry the heavy bias of a ex-film student who knows the classics, but the only movie that I can think of post-2000 that’s an absolute must-see would be Shaun of the Dead.

And that’s really unusual. I have tons of great movies on hand to watch, but when I think of modern quality cinema, I think HBO.

This leads me to the following conclusion; when I see Apple bantering with Hollywood to offer movies for $9.99 downloads, I wonder if films are in trouble.

Now Marconi’s radio has survived the advance of TV, VCRs, cable, and the internet, so I don’t think theaters are in any immediate danger – huge box offices are still quite doable. In particular, the new Superman flick looks like it’s going to print its own money.

But I think there’s going to be an inevtiable moment of critical mass with digitized media when it all escapes the control of not only its creators, but its distributors. This moment will occur when two conditions are satisfied: 1) the divide between speed/bandwidth and anonymity is resolved in P2P networking; and 2) when filesharing becomes user-friendly to the point that anyone can do it (in other words, when it filters out the good files from the bad sufficiently).

Those are really the only roadblocks. Forget legal issues. If everyone had a little black box in their den where they could browse for whatever media they wanted and have it delivered lightning-fast, with complete anonymity, no cost, and with a robust software and hardware package that could handle any file type and media known to man without exploding in typical Windows fashion, then all the copyright issues and debates I’ve heard and read in the last six or seven years would become completely moot, because no copyright law would be enforceable without making digital communication illegal.

That little black box is what filesharing (and to a certain extent, Google and Microsoft) is slowly and logically moving toward. Content by itself would become essentially worthless, as all creative content – film, TV, music, books, whatnot – would be created, stored, distributed through this one system.

Indeed, all content would be eventually be accessible, the good and the bad. You could watch every movie from 1920 on, but also view every bit of porn ever shot since the same year. And the little black boxes’ owners would be unable to tell what you were watching on an individual basis – though they could get a good measure of the popularity of any given bit of media, just as you could.

Alas, the people physically controlling the network would be the only people capable of making money, by charging for access. And they wouldn’t be able to keep up a profit on just a dream archive – they would need fresh content, constantly – the kind of big budget stuff we’re used to seeing coming out of capitalism. Plenty of small independent stuff would appear, like it does on the web these days, but big projects, like with Hollywood and the networks today, could come only the little black box’s masters – an even more consolidated power structure than entertainment is today.

Only a super-corporation could really pull it off running such an arrangement; an organization capable of contracting any kind of fresh content needed. Chain bookstores, theatres, and music stores, would all be swept into its gaping maw. It might develop into a set of channels, as a lot of people like pre-structured entertainment delivered to them in neat chunks. This is how the web works much of the time, with its portals, but it can also be surfed footloose – a talent that the little black box would need, one way or other…

..because a free, unrestricted, anonymous P2P system in the form of a household appliance would need the most elaborate filtering imaginable. It would more or less need a sentient A.I. to run decently. Think of the amount of data it would have to sort. While some people are good at searching – Google has helped the handicapped – most aren’t, and the system would have to either dumb the results down or offer a poor selection.

Whether we end up in copyright’s version of Blade Runner or not, however, I’m mostly interested in the research aspects. I hate hunting down sources for my research papers. I’m reasonably good at finding even obscure references, but I’d prefer a ironclad system that could tell me, accurately, of every scrap of paper that ever mentioned a certain subject or concept – and if they said anything interesting or original about it. The various scholarly databases are wonderful, but they’re all tightly guarded provinces like Dante’s circles of hell, with demons guarding the passages between. I have to search them all, wondering at the quality of each search, instead of just going to one reliable place. It’s no wonder JSTOR is so popular.

Power

I don’t listen to BBC radio as much as I’d like, but a common theme in their coverage is the lack of electrical power in Baghdad. This got me to wondering earlier today why there are still power issues after three years of occupation. I remember when most of the power in Memphis was knocked out a few summers ago and how a lot of people had to wait a month or so to get their power restored (I was lucky and never lost mine; I believe because I’m close to the university’s grid). Can you imagine intermittent service for three years?

The current situation appears to be a combination of widespread corruption, a lack of skilled workers, a modest increase in megawatts at great cost coupled with a huge increase in demand via vast importation of heavy appliances such as air conditioners since the invasion, and of course the relentless insurgent attacks that require constant rebuilding of existing equipment and huge security measures for any construction.

The best account of the mess I’ve found is in this eye-opening IEEE report. Crack engineers are on the problem of the missing 4000 megawatts, but it appears to be as daunting an engineering task as any ever undertaken.

While the report is refreshingly explicit on the enormity of what must be done, it makes an interesting point when it details how the new political balance in Iraq, with the Shiites on top, has resulted in Basra getting 15 hours of power a day where Baghdad is lucky to get half that – a total reversal of Saddam’s day. And I think it’s safe to assume that American military bases get even more priority on the grid. Couple this with the electricity available being ridiculously cheap and politically impossible to raise the cost of (as after all, the service is pretty lousy) to fund new construction, and the situation seems to be only getting worse.

What a bloody mess – and something to think about when the President talks about measuring the progress in Iraq by megawatts. There are more megawatts, true, but the demand is far beyond Saddam’s day. If Iraq is to transform into the docile puppet state that Bush & company imagined, it’s going to need a solid power grid. I failed to find anything resembling optimism about this in the IEEE report.

Yay.

Earlier today I lamented that I had nothing good to post about. I came home late after pizza with H, though, checked my email, and learned that my first academic article, “Whatever Became of the Paragraph?” is getting published early next year in College English. A small impromptu dance resulted. No animals were harmed, although Kota (my cat) looked alarmed.

Revision is needed, but after looking over the comments, which were very positive on the whole, it doesn’t look like I’ll have to gut it like a fish. That is good. I felt pretty strongly about most of it, and I think the reviewers deftly caught the parts where I was more uncertain or tentative.

I am greatly cheered.

The personification of this site’s title…

…would have to be Karl Rove, who has just escaped prosecution for the five billionth time.

I remember the 2000 election like it was yesterday – in particular the South Carolina primary. Rove & co threw everything and the kitchen sink at McCain – push polls, rumor mills, crazy smears about illegitimate black children, ties to gay groups, an explosive temper, cowardice under fire… and it worked. It was there that the nomination was won, in the land of Bob Jones. I remember thinking that a man who would employ such a man as Rove… well. Everyone’s learned that part by now.

It’s too bad we can’t at least arrange a cell at Gitmo for this guy. It would be appropriate. He’ll just retire and enjoy what’s left of the world that he helped ruin further.

Conquistador

Working my way through the pile of sci-fi paperbacks my father occasionally hands me after digesting them himself, I’ve finished S.M. Stirling’s Conquistador.

As the first work of fiction I’ve read since reading Booth’s book on the rhetoric of fiction, it served to make me more aware of the genre conventions of alternate-Earth sci-fi than ever, though there are some interesting differences. When I think of alt-Earth, I think of Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South first; a great book that makes more than one appearance in this one (Andres Rhoodie and his errant band of South Africian mercs make a cameo, and the book is on the reading list of two characters).

Stirling’s novel is about an alternate-North America (in particular, California) where Europeans never showed up. An enterprising WWII vet in 1945 discovers a two-way door to this happy hunting ground in his Oakland basement, and builds an precious-minerals empire on his side and a new civilization on the other. That’s the background; a Game and Fish warden stumbles onto his setup during a bust in 2009, which forms the main storyline. It’s a fun little ride.

But Stirling has a different style altogether than Turtledove. GOTS was a more serious book with lit pretensions and telling questions. Stirling mainly has a gift for description – not short description, alas, as half of the 596 pages of this small-print book are devoted to landscape labeling. I can’t say he doesn’t know what California looks like; but I’m not sure the book does more than describe California and provide an entertaining, action-filled plot. It does have a nice structure, though; the story sprawls across time, moving between 1945 to 2009 in thematic rather than chronological order; the main story is in 2009 but frequent flashbacks grant background.

Whereas Turtledove escaped the usual characterization problems of scifi by using mostly historical characters – his Lee and Lincoln are biography-worthy in particular – Stirling creates Californian versions of superheroes. This bugged me. Not two pages in did I realize CA’s current governor would be a shoe-in for the main character. He’s even got a sidekick – who probably would have made a better protagonist, come to think of it. And the love interest – while we’re going through the screenplay slots – is equally disturbing. Adam and Eve romping in Eden got tiring after a bit; it can get boring fast to read about characters that have no real weaknesses or faults.

The book escapes this flaw partially, though, by making the society in this alt-California a problematic one. It’s a neofeudal agrarian paradise with bickering, mob-flavored dynasties, overseen by an aging dictator; in other words, essentially the same politics as your average fantasy novel. The main character debates a bit over which world is best (his 2009 is smoggy and post-Iraq) but is easily distracted by the clean, pollution-free (and mostly Indian-free, victims of smallpox again) landscape, the intrigues trying to kill him, the joys of heavy weaponry and big game hunting, and the kind of incredible, mind-numbing sex that only happens in between paragraphs. You can guess which world he ends up staying in.

Rhetorically, the book feels like an argument for environmental conservatives and a blend of feudalism and libertarian thinking, delivered with a wink, enough melodrama and bloodshed to satisfy all but the most thirsty, and several 55-gallon drums of salt.

Division

I’m thinking perhaps I should take advantage of the categories in this software and separate my posts by subject, as with this post, where I simply want to babble about some academic books I’ve been reading, rather than world affairs or the many subtle intriacies of my navel.

I just finished The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne Booth, which, as you might guess from the title, examines fiction with a rhetorical lens. I don’t think I’d ever thought about authorial decisions in quite those terms before, save in a hazy, non-conceptual fashion, as in the way I thought about metaphor before reading Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By.

Probably the most impressive thing Booth does is confirm what I’d always suspected but never got around to proving at length; that the conventions of realism are just that, conventions – and rhetorical moves at that, with limited scope. I always got peeved when I took fiction classes as an undergraduate and realism was touted as the ultimate goal, when it’s just another box. To paraphrase a phrase Booth uses over and over, the writer cannot decide not to use rhetoric, only what kind; and I think that statement, to an extent, is a good beginning to validating all fiction genres as optional means of persuasion. And if you buy Aristotle’s general disregard of effect (as I think one must), then all the tools in the toolbox are doubly valid.

I’m thinking of science fiction in particular, of course. H and I watched A.I. the other day. She’d seen it, I hadn’t. Not my most favorite movie – too long and too Spielburgian – but it struck me in the first 15 minutes that a realistic work would have a hard time approaching Kubrick’s concept. A.I. wasn’t great sci-fi, but it had the right intentions, in that it was using the genre to approach a question that traditional fiction would have to do more mundanely, instead of just choosing a novel setting.

“What does it mean to be human?” and “What is love?” are common enough themes, but it’s an interesting move from a rhetorical standpoint to shift that question onto robots – and, further, onto a young robot – and further, onto a young robot that is all that remains of humanity.