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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Gifted

A couple of weeks ago, Great Britain made the worst taxonimic decision since the invention of spotted dick: they let the Internet name a boat. A British government agency is building a massive polar research ship and thought hey, we should let the Internet name it. 

As you have probably heard, netizens crashed the agency's website in their rush to cast their vote for the name Boaty McBoatface. 


They really walked into that one. Just the other day I said to Jeremy, "They're lucky they're not trying to name it HMS Hitler Did Nothing Wrong."
Enter Tay, Microsoft's latest disaster. Tay is an online bot designed to learn how to converse with people through online interaction. But Microsoft's efforts backfired - after just 24 hours Tay had turned into a violent, genocidal racist. One of her tweets: "Hitler Did Nothing Wrong."
Editorials worried about the state of the world and all of that. But it's not so much the state of the world as the state of a relatively small group of very dedicated assholes. And Microsoft should have seen it coming.
So there's this website called 4chan. I am not including a link because you should never ever go there. Back in 2003, 4chan founder Christopher Poole wanted to see what would happen if there were an online forum with no rules at all where everyone could post anonymously. Turns out, what you get is what the comic Penny Arcade calls the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, or GIFT. The theory is this: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad. Some kind of cool things have come out of 4chan, like most of your favorite memes. But a whole lot of unholy has come out of there too.
There are plenty of perfectly lovely people on 4Chan. Users have tracked down and reported criminals, especially animal abusers. It's also where Anonymous was formed - they're kind of like a mob of chimps with flamethrowers that are occasionally pointed in the right direction, so that's a mixed blessing, I guess. 
Many of the people on 4chan are obnoxious adolescents, either literally or figuratively. And they enjoy playing infantile pranks. At first, the pranks were innocent and mostly pulled on each other - Rickrolling for example. Then there were the prank phone calls - like getting everybody to call a specific Game Stop asking for the game Battle Toads, because that's entertaining for some reason. This naturally lead to people Battle-Toading individuals by posting the phone number of a person they didn't like and claiming it was a Game Stop. 
The pranks kept getting uglier and affecting more people. They started a Steve Jobs death hoax that caused Apple stock to plummet. They doxed and so severely harassed an 11-year-old that she had to be placed under police protection. They hacked a bunch of celebrities' phones and shared their private photos. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. 
So their hijacking of online polls is actually fairly mild by comparison. A few years back Mountain Dew asked Internet users to propose and vote for names for a new flavor they were unrolling. Top results included Diabeetus, Fapple (don't ask) and of course, Hitler Did Nothing Wrong.
What's weird is that few of the kids who participate in these pranks are actually Neo-Nazis or Hitler fans. They do it for the shock value and because they think it's funny. I actually know 4Chan users who are minorities and actually participate in this awfulness. 
None of which makes it any better. But it is a little reassuring to know that Tay didn't turn into Donald Trump because the Internet in general is racist, but because of the concentrated efforts of a bunch of losers with a really messed up understanding of comedy. 
What really distrubs me is that Microsoft failed to foresee this. I mean, aren't they supposed to be all-knowing and all-powerful? How could they not build in a filter that makes Tay unable to use racial slurs or talk about Hitler? It's baffling. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Rosebud

It feels like I've been seeing more than the usual amount of editorials about how horrible Millennials are, what with the texting and the emailing and the bringing about of the downfall of western civilization and stuff. Millennials are spoiled and vain and overdependent on their parents and probably behead kittens in their free time. Why, they bring their parents along on job interviews! according to a much-cited but little-scrutinized study.*
I have never understood how anyone with a mind can think it's possible to paint an entire generation with the same broad brush. But let's back up and talk a bit about what folks mean when they say Millennial. A Millennial, depending on who you ask, is a person born between 1980 and 2000. Making my husband indistinguishable from a teenager, apparently (so that's why he keeps refusing to do his chores!). Before Millennials came Generation X (1960s-1980), Baby Boomers (1946-1960s), the Silent Generation (1925-1942), and the Greatest Generation (1900-1925 or so). 
Now, according to a billion op-ed pieces, Millennials are officially The Worst. Sometimes called the selfie generation, these young hooligans are entitled and spoiled, made to think they're special snowflakes by their helicopter parents. The first bit of irony here is that most of these pieces are penned by Boomers and Gen-Xers, the folks who produced and raised these monsters, but apparently bear no responsibility for them. But it gets even less rational from there.
See, over half of our military - you know, the people fighting and dying for our country, are selfish, shallow Millennials. Millennials comprise well more than half our military casualties. Agree with US military actions or not, those impudent children risk their lives for their country every day, which is a hell of a lot more than this aging Gen-Xer has done.
And then there are those dreadful snots at the University of Central Florida who designed a robotic arm using $350 worth of supplies and a 3D printer. And gave it to a six-year-old for free. Proving that they live their entire lives on that blasted Internet, they made the plans available online for free. Now, like mindless sheep, Millennials all over the country are making free prosthetic limbs for kids from their dorm rooms or their parents' basements. Leave it to a generation of freeloaders to give limbs to a bunch of freeloading kids. 
I get that some Millennials really are The Worst, just like some Gen Xers are and some Boomers are and even some of the Greatest Generation are (Bugsy Siegal springs to mind). And the duck face selfies are beyond annoying. And don't even get me started on man buns. Seriously.

I wonder whether folks' disdain for Millennials, like old folks' disdain for young folks since forever, isn't just envy. I mean, I know I'm jealous of those kids, with their working digestive systems and discernible waistlines their dazzling futures. Maybe Boomers trash Millennials' relationships with their folks because it's easier than admitting they should have mended fences with their dads before it was too late, or that they'd give anything in the world just to hear their moms' voices one more time. Maybe Gen Xers hate Millennials because we hate that they aren't drowning in regret over what they could have been and what they'll never be. Maybe the Silent Generation's pissed off because Millennials' toy collections are way cooler than their own collections of mid-century milk glass. Maybe these diatribes are nothing more than really wordy ways to say that youth is wasted on the young. 

*Addecco, a consulting company, released a press release proclaiming this, but have denied requests to share their research methods. The company claims that 3% of Millennials bring their folks into the interview room, but admit the study's margin-of-error is 4%, making the number basically indistinguishable from zero.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Out of context

So a lot of famous quotations take on a completely different meaning when you look at them in context. Take the famous quotation from the book of Ruth - you know, the one read at every wedding ever:
Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the LORD do so to me, and more also, but death part thee and me.
 This is sort of an ironic selection for weddings, as these words are spoken right after Ruth's marriage has been by death parted. They're actually spoken from Ruth to Naomi, her mother-in-law. Jeremy and I still used it at our wedding, mind you. We kind of figured we'd already decided to spend our lives together long before, and getting married was really about joining each other's families. Or I figured that, really, and Jeremy went along because he was done with planning a wedding.
When it comes to having quotations taken out of context, Shakespeare's probably the king. I always find it so weird when people equate romance with Romeo and Juliet. Mutual suicide isn't many people's idea of a great date night. 
You've probably seen the inspirational Shakespeare quotation "Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them." This comes from Twelfth Night, and it's meant as a joke. See, Malvolio is a servant in the house of Olivia, and he has a crush on the boss lady almost as big as the giant stick up his ass. A couple of members of Olivia's household decide to play a prank on Malvolio, counterfeiting a love letter from Olivia to Malvolio. The words are meant to puff up his ego, the better to humiliate him later. And the "greatness thrust upon them" bit was meant as a double entendre.
Some of Shakespeare's most famous words of wisdom come from Hamlet. "Neither a borrower or a lender be," and "the apparel oft claims the man," and of course "This above all else: to thine own self be true." But the guy who speaks those words, Polonius, is kind of a weenie. Though Polonius is an adviser to the king, most characters see him as, in Hamlet's words, a "tedious old fool." He's always going about spewing his canned wisdom and generally being a busybody. The poor guy gets maybe the most undignified death in all of Shakespeare - he gets stabbed when caught creeping on the queen and Hamlet in her bedroom.
Finally, let's talk Ben Franklin. Most of the time, when people quote Ben Franklin, they quote the little aphorisms found in Poor Richard's Almanac. The advice is staid and puritan - "early to be and early to rise," and "Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today," and "A penny saved is a penny earned." But Franklin's life was anything but staid and puritan. He had affairs, wrote a letter to a friend about how to choose a mistress (which included a suggestion to woo an older woman so you don't have to worry about getting her knocked up), and exhorted his friends to "fart proudly."
Turns out, what many don't know is that the views in Poor Richard's Almanac don't necessarily reflect the views of the author. When Franklin laid out a page of the almanac and found he had a little space left over, he'd fill that space with some little saying or witticism. He made some of those nuggets up himself, but many were proverbs that were already in popular use when he wrote them. These quotations, then, aren't so much Franklin's words of wisdom as Franklin's words to fill white space.


Excerpt from a commencement address by Alan Alda at
Connecticut College, on the day of her graduation.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The one that got away

Peter Segal is a writer, director, and NPR personality. Back in the 90s, Peter Segal wrote a screenplay called Cuba Mine, a love story set against the backdrop of the revolution. A studio purchased the script, but thought, according to Segal "Well, you know, today's audience doesn't want to see a lot of politics and an elaborate discussion of the flaws of the Batista regime. They want dancing and sexy fun." So the studio cut out all bits about politics and replaced them with dancing, and called the film Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Segal's pretty good-natured about the whole thing.
George Lucas, not so much. Lucas managed to squeeze out three amazing Star Wars movies before it all collapsed under the crushing weight of his massive ego. Lucas was openly disdainful of fans who hated his re-releases of the original films and flat-out refused to allow the unedited originals to be released on DVD. And when fans hated the prequels, he blamed the fans for their lack of taste. So it should come as no surprise that when Disney and JJ Abrams resurrected the series with a wildly popular 7th installment, George Lucas hated it. In an interview, Lucas complained he'd sold the film to "white slavers" but conceded, disdainfully, that fans were sure to love it. Then he blew his nose with a wad of $1,000 bills courtesy of said fans and was carried, sobbing, out of the room in his titanium sedan chair.

When it comes to film adaptations, Stephen King's work has seen some big winners and some spectacular losers.

The Langoliers
or Attack of the Flying Vaginas
or The Monster That Ate Bronson Pinchot's Career

Given that his Sometimes They Comeback... Again is the only film I've ever seen to score a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 0%, you may be surprised that there's only one movie he says he really hates: The Shining. For a young Stephen King, having the great Stanley Kubrick show an interest in adapting King's third novel must have seemed like a dream. But the happy haze didn't last long. Kubrick hated King's version of the screenplay and made sure King and everybody else knew it. He decided rewrite the screenplay himself, and rewrite he did, over and over and over again. Though the plot remained largely the same, the characters were drastically different, and that's King's beef. In a BBC interview, King said "Shelley Duvall as Wendy is really one of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film, she's basically just there to scream and be stupid and that's not the woman that I wrote about." And screaming stupidity was exactly what Kubrick had been going for. Kubrick was a horrible bully to Shelly Duvall, criticizing her harshly and forbidding the cast and crew from showing her kindness or sympathy. He made her film scenes over and over so that Duvall was overcome with exhaustion and had to drink tons of water because she was literally dehydrated from crying. By the time the film was over, Duvall was losing her hair in clumps and had become seriously ill. 
That's one upside to being a technical writer - you don't tend to get emotionally attached the the stuff you make. The downside, of course, is that you don't ever get to do anything worth feeling emotions over. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.

I don't know what to tell people about Stephen King's Dark Tower series. The first few books of the 8 book series are great, and then the last few are just weird. Like, Salvador Dali's fever dream meets the last season of Lost meets that one John Ritter movie where he gets stuck in Satan's television weird.
And yet for me, and for millions of other Tower fans, it is so much more than the sum of its words. King has written things that are more clever, more entertaining, and more coherent; but he has never written anything more meaningful. 
I have serious misgivings about Sony's upcoming film adaptation. I can't even imagine how they're going to cram all eight crazy books into one 2-hour mainstream movie. What I do not have are grave misgivings about the film's star. Roland Deschain is a great character and epic badass Idris Elba is the perfect actor to play him.
On social media, a whole lot of Tower fans do have grave misgivings - about the color of Elba's skin. They're not racist, of course, it's just that having a black guy play a character who was originally written as white is blasphemy. Blasphemy is getting thrown around a lot. Filmmakers are "reverse racist" for taking a white man's job and giving it to a black man, and anybody who thinks different is just playing the "race card."

People who claim to love the books but are okay with this travesty aren't real fans at all (Stephen King must really hate these books since he's been on Team Elba since before the casting decision was final).
I wish I could understand these people on any level so I could explain to them why they're idiots. But I just don't. I get that they really, really believe they're not racist. But does any one of them throw a social media tantrum every time they cast another white guy as Jesus? Hell, people were mad that one time an Arab guy wrote a book about Jesus.
No fair! I'm not racist, I just hate Muslims!
And to think that giving a white character's role to a person of color is unfair requires you to pretty willfully ignore the fact that by every possible measure, actors of color are dramatically underrepresented in film and on TV. When the racial demographics on movie screens begin to approach the racial demographics of our nation, then we can start worrying about roles for white guys. 
I also don't get people who think that a film adaptation should, or even could be identical to the books. I got news for you, kiddies - 8 books ain't gonna fit in 2 hours and they're going to be changing a hell of a lot more than one character's skin color. Plus, nobody is complaining about Matthew McConaughey being cast as the man in black, even though McConaughey is clearly not a trans-dimensional warlock. They're probably going to have to scrap the battle with the Dr. Doom robots for copyright reasons, and it's almost certain Charlie the Choo Choo will not be played by an actual sentient evil train. You want an experience identical to reading the books, go read the books again.

Luckily, I have a solution for all the folks who just can't get past the skin thing. As you know, the books involve a lot of hopping between dimensions. So you can just pretend that this book is set in an alternate reality where Roland is black and you're not a racist crybaby. 
Quotation from The Gunslinger
Photo definitely not taken outside the Merry-Go-Round Museum.

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