Zennis

 

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, and let’s be honest, there aren’t many of you, you’ll recall a post about a 10-K.  In a nutshell, I compared life planning to a government mandated corporate fiduciary responsibility and transparency document for investors. In retrospect, that analogy may have targeted a niche audience that we in the “business world” would call, too small to break-even.  However, despite that, the intention and call for personal exploration that underwrote it make it worth revisiting, if only for me.

In it I talk about revisiting what’s important to you, since as the cliché says, “time is short”.  There is only so much time available to accomplish what it is you want.  That is, until Ray Kurzweil solves the whole mortality problem through the Singularity or some other mechanism – possibly involving mole rats… but I digress.

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I made a list of important things that came up for me.  One of them was to be ranked by the USTA (the United States Tennis Association).  I didn’t have the (tennis) balls to actually pick a ranking to shoot for – i.e. #1 seemed to ambitious/arrogant and #100 would seem like I’m not really committed/invested.  Actually, my sports reel highlight ambition is much less grandiose.  I just want to play in a tournament that actually determines my play RATING.  In tennis, skill levels are defined by ratings from 1.5 = total beginner (baseball-tennis memories anyone?) to 7.0 = world-class player.  At my best, I can play at a 4.5 level which is better than your average bear…. playing tennis.

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When I was younger and more obnoxious (hard for some to believe I know) I used to think that I enjoyed tennis because I was “good” or that I was “competitive” and I would win more often than not – which somehow proved how worthwhile I was as an athlete and as a person.  The fact that I didn’t bother to train consistently however, also proved just how committed I was to any of those things.

What I didn’t consciously realize was why I still wanted a USTA rating in the first place -not until I hit my first tennis ball in 2 years recently.  I had the opportunity to hit with a teaching pro – a talented woman who had made her mark in the southern tennis region of the US back in her day.  She has been teaching for over 40 years and her level of experience and patience is admirable.  Add to this, the fact that she recently had her spine fused to overcome a nasty and painful back condition and her dedication and perseverance become borderline inspirational and heroic.  But it comes down to this – she just loves tennis.  She loves playing it.  She loves teaching it.  She loves being on the court in almost any capacity.  And standing on the court with her, I realized why I love it too.

I don’t and probably never will have her level of skill and experience. I don’t think I will ever derive the joy she gets from teaching, but there is one thing I do get – the joy and wonder of hitting the perfect ball.

One of the “advantages” of not playing regularly for a few years is that the technology of the game changes.   One such change came in the form of a new robot that this pro had purchased recently for training students – the ball machine.

I’ve used ball machines off and on through my adult life, but this one was top of the line.  It was a giant, green box and held at least 100 balls.  It launched projectiles at almost any speed, with wicked spin.  Basically it is the pinnacle of relentless punishment and training futility that one experiences hitting against a wall.  But at least this torturer had a “safe word”.  And it was “remote”.   With a press of a button from across the net I was feeding myself topspin forehands, sliced backhands and overheads.  And when my stamina gave out and I was gasping for air and blood, a button press gave me the reprieve I needed.  It was glorious.

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Most of my shots were ugly and in poor form.  My fitness, already wanting, was also ill suited for the hot/humidity of Florida’s gulf coast.  In short, anyone with a discerning eye could see that I had a ton of work ahead of me if I was going to get into any sort of competitive shape.  But amidst all the mishits and horrible foot placement/body positions were a few moments of perfection.  At unexpected moments, my mind would quiet from all the cacophony of self-doubt and expectations.  In this cathartic, brief silence my mind and body aligned in concert to a single purpose – chaotic motion coming together in a quantum moment of being Present and resulting in the most satisfying THWACK and subsequent ball action.  In those moments, hitting a ball was almost effortless – it seemed like cheating.

It was like the feeling that is described by Zen masters, where there is nothing else but the Now and Life is about being Present every moment.  THIS is why I love to play tennis and ultimately will be rated.  Because being Present is so hard in general that when you experience it, you want more of it.  For some people, this experience may be in martial arts.  For others, it may not be in sport at all, but maybe in programming, where you have a particularly ingenious solution to an intractable problem.  Life just WORKS in that moment – and then it’s gone.  And while some may spend their lives in 坐禅attaining this, I’ve chosen tennis among other methods.  What I’ve realized is that being Present doesn’t just happen – it takes practice – work.  But it’s work worth doing and ultimately/ironically it is the people who take pleasure in the thing itself and not the result who find the greatest success.  Roger Federer embodies this way of being.

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Who knows, maybe I will be ranked someday, but it won’t really matter because I’ll just being enjoying/seeking every moment of Presentness I get while playing.  I wonder what else on my list Being Present will transform for me.  I’ll be sure to report back to the 3 of you when I find out.

Hey, at least this one wasn’t about your 1040 tax return – that’s NEXT week!

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Sci-Fi for the Win

Science fiction has never been easy to pull off in movies.  In some ways it is harder than fantasy.  While often wondrous to the point of the absurd, its roots are usually firmly grounded in the physics and reality we know and love(?).  I make a distinction between the venerable histories which include The Day the Earth Stood Still (NOT the Keannu Reeves version), 2001, and Contact rather than the more operatic/scifi-fantasies like Flash Gordon, Ice Pirates and even Star Wars – still fun, but often blurring the line between fantasy and true science fiction.

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A fantasy movie like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter can beguile with magic and creatures that require no further explanation other than they exist.  The audience/readers make that pact from the beginning. “We are suspending all disbelief!  Just be somewhat logically consistent and throw in a few dragons and we will be there to enjoy it with you!”  … and I’ve spent many a happy hour doing just that.

Over the years, I’ve consumed much of the fantasy that has been written for print and screen.  There are a few fundamental differences between sci-fi and fantasy.  By default, fantasy and scifi-fantasy is more about pure dreaming without constraints AND is meant to be consumed rather than questioned.  Even my current favorite, Game of Thrones, doesn’t really ask us/the reader any meaningful questions about how what happens in Westeros has any implications/consequences to us mortals here on Earth.

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Good science fiction is always more relevant because it says “if you take where we (humanity) are now and then…. “  the edge of the universe and beyond is the limit.   The readers immediately have a stake, whether they want to or not, in the outcome of the story because… that story is THEIR future!

Science fiction is also held to an (admittedly arguable) higher standard of disbelief because things have to look and feel like they will be a reality in a few (or few hundred/thousand) years.  An increasingly tech and (hopefully) science savvy audience contributes to this evolution.   Various actuators need to move correctly and give off a convincing (if somewhat dramatized) hiss or crank.  Aliens and celestial phenomena need to at least be plausible if not probable.  It’s science with a wink and a nudge.

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What I’ve personally enjoyed most about science fiction are the questions that are able to be asked and explored.  For instance;

  • The fundamental nature and evolution of humanity in Theodore Sturgeon’s, More than Human (anything written by him is worth it btw).
  • The ENDPOINT of the universe itself in Stephen Baxter’s The Ring.
  • What would society look like if no one could deceive each other in James Halperin’s The Truth Machine?
  • What are the fundamental purposes and relationships between men/machines/the universe in the Hyperion Cantos?
  • What would you do in a society with technology that, near as to make no difference, was boundless in The Culture books by Ian M. Banks.
  • Dune
  • Blade of Tyshalle
  •  I could go on and on.

In movies, some examples of this type of exploration are Bladerunner, Dune and even the Matrix.

In recent television, Star Trek:TNG (barring some questionable “we ran out of ideas” holo-deck episodes) and Battlestar Galactica (excising the ridiculous angel ending of course) and maybe even Firefly (I said it) are the apex of modern speculative science fiction on screen.  All tackled modern day culture and political issues head-on and with aplomb (not with a plum, which is messier)– often leaving the viewer simultaneously more knowledgeable, but still questioning.

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The best sci-fi asks questions about being human in the present day and throws it into a technologically enabled future social grinder to see if anything interesting comes out.

I enjoy fantasy fiction.

I learn about myself and humanity from science fiction.

Which, in the longest preamble possible, brings me to Neil Blomkamp.  This man is the current avatar of gritty, realistic SF design.  I have been a fan of his work for quite a few years now.  In his Tetra Vaal movie short about a company marketing a security robot for conflict zones, I had a flash back to the sensation of awe and wonder experienced when witnessing the first brontosaurus in Jurassic Park.  When a bullet shattered a wall that the CG robot was taking cover behind, and the machine flinched backwards and responded in an almost frighteningly realistic and human way, I think I had a geekasm.  He followed this up with another brilliantly seductive short about an android on the run in Yellow.  Finally, talks of him helming a live-action movie version of Halo culminated in some impressive, combat shorts but support for it ultimately fell apart.

However, a pattern was emerging.  This guy knows how to merge the real/unreal.  Almost as an exact counter-point/foil to the CG laden MESS that were the Star Wars prequels, here was a leader who intentionally took lo-fi, often hand carried, camera footage and married it with CG that could be mistaken for absolutely real.   The only question was whether he had the writing/director chops for a full length movie.

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Thankfully, we received District 9.  The film is not without its flaws, but overall it is simply a genius film and a pleasure to watch.  It took a carbon copy of apartheid and replaced black people for “prawns” (aliens).  What could have been an inspirational but forgettable movie rehashing the well trodden issues between the oppressor and oppressee, becomes those things AND an exercise in human nature and character development. Blomkamp’s main character is a white middle-aged idiot who is just smart enough to marry his boss’ daughter but too dumb to do more than what he is told, or to question his life or his bigoted beliefs.  His only saving grace is that he is not smart enough to be devious and is endearingly genuine and human, despite his beliefs.  By the end of the movie, and because we got to witness real horror, racism and oppression through the eyes of the opressor, District 9 will remain as one of my favorite sci-fi movies.

This is not up until now mentioning Blomkamp’s REAL talent which is to have designed and filmed a world that feels and looks real – for around $30M.  $30M! In an age when studios toss around $150M like it’s the new cost of entry for special effects movies, this number is simply mind-boggling.  This guy could make 6 great movies for every crappy “blockbuster”, I told myself.

So it is with a heavy heart that I come to watch and review Elysium.   I won’t spend much time on it.  To be honest there isn’t much to it.

DO go see it for the impeccable future world design and production execution.

DON’T go see it for almost anything else.

It is hard not to see a similar theme with Elysium that Blomkamp had in District 9.  What are the issues faced when there are a privelaged minority exploiting the powerless masses? But, where District 9 took a risky, creative move and explored these issues with a privileged character growing and exploring, Elysium isn’t nearly that courageous.  Matt Damon’s character, I have no idea what his name is, is a recovering con-artist/future-car thief.  This serves no other purpose than to dislike and hate him as far as I can tell.  He is one of the masses on Earth, being continuously exploited by the affluent overlords in the floating wagon-wheel called Elysium, in space.  His lower plebian status inherently means we are supposed to like him – but we never do.  His humanity, skill in technology and planning is never on display but is talked about occasionally through pointless side-characters to make us believe he is a real person  – don’t believe them.

Bad decision after ridiculously bad decision somehow results in a shallow “happy ending” which makes absolutely no sense.  Matt Damon, no doubt cast because of his ability to play the “every man” appears to have phoned it in.  I can’t remember one thing that was interesting or worthwhile about his character.  So much was made in the media of how Damon got ripped for this role, but I can’t see a single plot reason why this was even necessary. The supporting cast is little better with Jodi Foster getting a special mention putting in a ridiculous accent and pretentious walk worthy of the shiniest Razzie this year.

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 Why?

But it’s pretty – real pretty.  The design of everything from future Bugatti space-cars, robot security, to human implants implies some of the best/worst that our technology driven society will offer.

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But alas, what could have been an ACTUALLY interesting tale about inequality, privilege and opportunity, turns into a boring “hero’s journey” where the “hero” is a bumbling moron, but not written as one, and his journey is linear with: no surprises, transparent villains in his way, and an ending that rings as soulless and uplifting as an Anthony Weiner apology tour.  Its worst crime though is that it never asks any new or interesting questions of the viewer.  It doesn’t demand him/her to examine their own ideas – in this way it is more fantasy than science fiction. It just asks you to sit back and consume – like Transformers.

In the end, it’s less the Elysian Fields and more like the Plains of Armageddon (and not in a good way).

Neil, I forgive you, but you’re better than this.  Go back to making science fiction.

 

 

Your Next 10-K

 

 

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I recently graduated from business school.  Like any good education, it teaches you more about what you DON’T know than what you do. Ultimately it’s merely enabled me to ask more interesting questions.

Now, more “interesting” is in the eye of the beholder, but just like learning a new language, education, especially one specializing in a certain field like business, gives you access to a new vocabulary.  This new vocabulary in turn enables new ways to describe and interpolate the environment.

So in this vein I wanted to talk about my life’s “10K”.

A 10K in the business world is actually the filing that every public company must provide to the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission).  It is, in a nutshell, everything an investor would supposedly need to know before buying or selling stock in the company.

If you’ve never read a 10-K, you should do it at least once. Aside from the detailed financials, they can be pretty fascinating reads.  They will cover the company’s core businesses.  How it performed this past year.  What challenges/successes they had and what the leadership is planning to do about those challenges.

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Pick a public company that you patronize (with money and/or sarcasm) and check it out.   For instance, did you know that iPad and iPhone sales DWARF all Mac sales for Apple?  About 5 times worth – at least in 2012.  It will probably even be more drastic in 2013.  Or that Coca-Cola shipped 27.7 Billion units of what amounts to mostly sugar-water around the world?  Or that they have a coffee brand in Japan named Georgia, which I actually drank religiously, without knowing it was a Coke product, while I lived there.  Also Kyle McLachlan gives it the David Lynch thumbs up, so it must be awesome.

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A lot of the news articles you see posted about different companies’ health and outlook come directly from reading these annual (10-K) and quarterly (10-Q) reports.  Often, so called “analysts” do nothing more than repeat what is said in the report with little to no insight.   By no means am I suggesting that everyone divert time from their Game of Thrones episodes to read a dry, if interesting, 10-K.  But, especially if you have any interest in investing, reading these reports will put you on par with many of the “experts” who try to sway you about a company’s relative health or seemingly imminent demise.   It will also increase your BS-O-Meter when someone tries to impress you with their business or investment acumen.  Don’t let them get away with it!

But I digress.  I bring up the 10-K for 2 reasons.

The first is that after looking at these for awhile, I started to see how useful this process could be for my own life.  Evaluating every year anew, acting like I’m going to have to JUSTIFY the time I spent to my shareholders (i.e. my co-workers, family, and friends) puts a lot more importance to the decisions I make throughout the year.  A 10-K holds COMPANIES accountable for what they do throughout the year.  A personal 10-K holds ME accountable for how I’ve lived my life.  How am I going to feel if that report mostly involves Angry Birds, eating fast food,  and watching worthless TV shows and movies?  I’m not saying that doing any of those things is wrong or bad, but when I look at the things that I’ve actually accomplished that have had a real impact on the people in my life, those things may not be the best ways to spend my time.

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This brings me to my second reason for bringing up the 10-K.  It just so happens that I recently listened to the much lauded/criticized Malcom Gladwell book, Outliers.  He brings up a somewhat controversial topic that after a certain “threshold”, the only difference between the “good” and “great” people in any field is practice.  Specifically, at about 10,000 hours (or 10K) of practice is when he and a few other researchers start to see fantastic accomplishments emerge.  He uses Bill Joy, one of the founders of the internet, Bill Gates, whom you probably know already, and even the Beatles to illustrate this point.   Now, some of his evidence in the book is anecdotal and susceptible to interpretation and legitimate criticism, but I think Gladwell does a great job at taking common “truths” about the world and people and giving us a different perspective on how genius and greatness might actually work.  He acknowledges that all these people are special, but he also wants us to ponder that timing, culture, and practice played an equally important role in their successes.  Because they had developed a certain expertise before others, when opportunities presented themselves they were able to take advantage of them.

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What I took from his book is not that 10,000 hours of focused practice is the Holy Grail number to become wildly successful, but that reaching for that expertise is a clear indication of you separating yourself from your peers.  If his number is to believed, this breaks down to about 20 hours a week for about 10 years.   Looking at life in this way is an interesting exercise and one I encourage you to try on, if just for the novelty of it. 

For me it looked like this.  10K hours is a lot of time.  There are only so many hours in a day and so many years in a lifetime.  There is literally no TIME to learn them all.  So I really have to CHOOSE.  What do I want to be an expert at?  What kind of opportunities do I want to be prepared for when they present themselves?  My answers to these questions are not iron clad and still a little rough, but here they are anyway.

  1. I would like to be considered a “pro” by the USTA (US Tennis Association) – not because I want to compete in the US Open (but wouldn’t that be awesome?!) but because it’s a sport I love and I have some talent that I’ve never fully realized.
  2. I want to eventually become a writer (which outlets like this blog help give me the practice and feedback necessary to realize that goal)
  3. I want to position myself to capitalize on the next great paradigm shifts that will come to society through the dramatic changes wrought by technologies like AI, bio-engineering etc..

These are goals outside of being the best son, brother, husband, father and friend that I can be – all seemingly full-time jobs.  However, it does start to focus the mind on what ultimately I find important and how little time there is to accomplish these things – especially without a plan.  A life spent in pursuit of excellence is one well spent in my opinion.  Now that I have another novel way to look at how to get there, I can schedule and figure out a way to make that happen.  I may even schedule an annual report, of sorts, with all my stakeholders, so that they are as involved in my success as I am in theirs.  I don’t see me succeeding any other way.

Here are some interesting reactions to Malcom Gladwell’s theory, including a bit from Tim Ferris,  another fascinating person who has broken down how to learn just about anything – and may have something to say about that ridiculously high 10K number.  Check him out too.

What are some great insights YOU have in navigating what you want out of life?  What are your secrets?  How are you going to spend your next 10,000 hours?

 

Read: Blade of Tyshalle and Heroes Die

If you like your books uncompromising, with equal parts philosophy, imagination, wit, humor, sarcasm, epic battles, great characters, and gut punching drama, stop reading and buy/download these two books.   If you need more convincing, read on.

 

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Many authors have tried to do the anti-hero “thing”, Moorcock’s Elric saga (pic above) being one of the earliest and best-known genre examples.  This is a character who is not your typical hero.  He’s fallible, tragically flawed and with a moral code that often would leave you cringing.  The movie Pitch Black did a decent job of this with its protagonist, Riddick.

 

Most authors fail.  It is an inherently difficult thing to do.  How do you create a character that is kindof an asshole – to other people, to objects, to Gods… to himself, but still be likeable/interesting enough that you want to go on the journey with him? It takes a good author to take a hero archetype and create a compelling story…. It takes a great one (or a good one free-basing some serious Muse) to take an anti-hero and elevate him till he resides in the hushed whispers of myth and legend.

 

caine

 

Enter Caine.  Caine is about as close to a force of nature that a human being can get without being an actual hurricane- with a sharp, intelligent, sarcastic wit that would fit perfectly on FYM Planet.  He’s also an asshole (so again… he would fit in).  More importantly he’s one of the most bad-ass characters I’ve ever read in fiction or seen on screen.  Keep in mind that I don’t often use that term, but it’s appropriate here.  This quality is not even mostly due to his lethality – which is more than potent, but more his state of mind.  Caine is wracked by internal struggles buttressed by a fierce intelligence and personal code that propels him through these 2 novels like a boar shot out of a howitzer.   Oh, he also spends much of Blade of Tyshalle in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic.  And he’s still a bad-ass. Trust me.

 

But it’s not just the character, Matthew Stover creates worlds that are frightening but so fantastically interesting that you can’t help but want to live in them.

 

Blade of Tyshalle and Heroes Die are literally sci-fi/fantasy novels.  There are actually two worlds.  One, a future Earth that was so decimated by a virus that the entire planet’s culture, in recovery, became one dominated by corporations with a caste system built solely to protect those in influence and power.   Caine grew up as a Laborer (the lowest caste) and in this crucible became hard and tough as graphene.  It is a dark, cold, ruthless place that has many of the luxuries/advances that you’d imagine from future technology, but these predominantly only benefit the few at the expense of the many.

 

The other, called Overworld, with elves, dwarves, trolls, dragons and yes… humans -is a harsh/alien place.  Elves aren’t Orlando Bloom with Vulcan ears.  They are creepy ancient creatures who wield knowledge and magic that would give Gandalf pause.  Humans are viewed on with fear/pity because of all Overworld’s races, only humans are fundamentally unaware of their connection with nature.  The elves describe this phenomenon by saying humans “worship the Blind God”.  This is a useful term I’ve actually used in the “real world” many times to describe the sometimes self-destructive nature humanity has to the universe around it.

 

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Now I may have lost you at “sci-fi” AND “fantasy”, but hear me out.   It’s possible, even likely, that many of you are Firefly/Serenity fans.  If someone had come up to you and told you that there was this great TV show that was a sci-fi-western you would have politely/impolitely nodded and ignored that the conversation ever took place.  If so, you would have been completely wrong.

 

It’s a similar phenomenon here.  Science fiction and fantasy should not go together as a rule.  It is just too much disbelief to suspend.  However, Stover has done the impossible and weaved these two Worlds together in a way that makes sense and is thrilling.  The supporting cast around Caine, from gods to girlfriends, all feel real and consistent with their own internal motivations and idiosyncrasies.  He pokes fun/celebrates all the typical sci-fi/fantasy literary clichés while making them new and exciting.

 

I could go on and on, but I will conclude with why I recommend experiencing these two novels out of order.  Some of you may have already checked and Heroes Die is actually the first book in the series.  By starting with Blade of Tyshalle you start in the middle of the story, which could be a negative in any other series.  It begins though with a middle-aged Caine, who is crippled and past his prime, reminiscing/suffering over old adventures and triumphs.  When characters reverentially reference Ma-elKoth or the epic battle on Assumption Day, the reader is titillated by wondering what REALLY DID happen!?  Caine’s injury was inflicted by his nemesis, Berne, wielding the great blade Kosall.  Berne who is referenced as one of the most brutal and fierce opponents Caine ever faced doesn’t appear except as a stuffed mannequin in a museum of Caine’s past exploits.

 

Each one of these references piques your interest without being unsatisfying.  Since Blade of Tyshalle is the more complex, nuanced, and ambitious novel, it is more rewarding and actually makes reading Heroes Die more enjoyable since you are finally reading the stories that were told like myths in the previous novel.  Heroes Die, while still excellent, is a much more straightforward story and benefits from the depth of Blade of Tyshalle.

 

In short, these two books of fiction are hard to recommend highly enough.  There are only a few caveats I will mention to those interested.   If you have an aversion to awesome things, especially things that are fantasy/sci-fi or just an aversion to reading in general, then these books aren’t for you.  That said, these stories are extremely violent. Unlike Mark Milar comics though, the violence usually isn’t an end unto itself.  It’s usually to express revulsion or fear or a variety of things that have a purpose other than to be brutal or gruesome.  If you are squeamish about descriptions of broken bones or extreme situations then avoid please.

 

If you’ve made it to the end of this recommendation, I hope you’re intrigued enough to check these novels out.  When you do, leave a comment and/or message me, I’d love to talk about Hari and Kris’s unlikely friendship and their near-death experience at Acting school, one that harkens to Ender’s choices at Battle School.

 

If not, no worries, but I’ll leave you with some advice Duncan gives to his son, Caine.  When things seem like they are at their worst, “keep your head down, and inch towards daylight.”

You want to fix leaks? Change the Plumbing.

It seems we have had a deluge of intelligence scandals over the past few years, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden currently being the most dramatic and visible.  For those of you who actively don’t pay attention to these things, Private Manning dumped hundreds of thousands of pieces of classified and sensitive material to the website Wikileaks in 2011.  Wikileaks then disseminated most of this material, much of it showing the inner-workings of international diplomacy between the US and other nations.  The most disturbing images were from a video of a US attack helicopter that mistook some journalists for enemy combatants, with deadly results.

 

I worked in Air Force intelligence and it attracts an extremely smart if sometimes very eccentric bunch of individuals.  From people who rarely showered and probably had Aspergers to the Wiccans and serial LARPers. I even went to training with 2 people who eventually had gender reassignment surgery.  This is not laying judgement.  I will probably never work in such a diverse environment of people again – and it’s one of the things I miss the most about my service in the military.  All of this is to say that the nature of intelligence work needs people who naturally think outside of the norm.  Good analysts require this trait if they are to put together a cohesive picture of what his happening in the world from many disparate pieces of evidence.  This same trait however often does not conform with the military mantra of conformity and “shut up and color” that is used throughout the regime.

 

My initial, non-professional, assessment of Bradley Manning is that he is a troubled individual.  Gender identity issues aside, Manning was a young man whose father wanted him to have some direction and suggested he join the Army.  It was not a good fit.  Manning’s blanket military clearance gave him far more than his “need-to-know” would warrant.  Combine this with Manning’s depression and dissatisfaction with the way the Army was running the war and this opens up the proverbial can-o-worms.

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Recently Edward Snowden, a Booze-Allen-Hamilton contractor, leaked the existence of disturbing NSA and British programs (PRISM and Tempora) that targeted US and internation citizens’ private data.  Many of us in the public are at least semi-aware of how the era “Big Data” is changing the face of business and consumers.  Increasingly, companies value our personal data over actual transactions.  Lov’em or hat’em but that’s why we have so many “free” online services and games.  We tacitly or explicitly (when we don’t read the terms of agreement) agree to share more private information about ourselves than any populace in history.  And largely, we are ok with this. 

 

I think this is because the imperfect understanding is that most of this information is being driven by capitalism and so, we believe, it is being used to better market products to us.  Many of us, myself included, have decided this is an annoying, but ultimately bearable sacrifice for the power and convenience of having access to software and data at little to no outright expense.  The integration of gmail/google calendar and other services, especially with mobile, has literally changed how I manage my busy schedule.

 

However all of this data collection and sharing has an extra, more insidious, cost when the government gets involved.  Since 9/11, the government has understandably been at war trying to prevent another attack on US soil.  No one would argue that we should not do everything possible to try to stave off such attacks, especially if these attacks involve weapons of mass destruction.

 

However, in a country like the US, which supposedly values freedom and right to privacy, programs that violate both of these values should always be vigorously debated and be transparent.  Having secret courts approve blanket warrants to gather US citizens cell-phone/email data (just some of what the NSA programs do) is NOT consistent with our values as a country.

 

I don’t know how much material damage Bradley Manning’s leak had on National Security, a term so general that it could mean basically anything.  It no doubt had an effect politically, domestically and internationally.  This will affect policy in the future, but it is unclear how that future might have been different if the leaks had not taken place.  I hope it did not lead to any deaths or captures of people in sensitive positions around the world, but we may never know if that is the case anyway.  In the Snowden case, still unfolding, I am glad that his leak is causing a national dialogue about this issue of privacy/security.  It is one thing if the people approve of certain measures to safeguard their privacy and quite another when we have to rely on the assurance from politicians that they are not abusing their authority.

 

But all this is leading to a larger point and one I am more qualified to answer.  I don’t think Manning and Snowden are traitors.  Some do.  But I don’t think either of these individuals consciously betrayed their country.  They were misguided, especially in Manning’s case and they both should probably go to jail since they knowingly and dramatically broke their agreements of secrecy.  Snowden, who is a more educated individual seemed initially to be more methodical in his leaking, but his subsequent country hopping, from Hong Kong to Russia has called both his intelligence and judgement into question in my mind.  But demonizing them as traitorous spies is a distraction from the real issue.

 

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The rash of leaks has shown that there is a problem in the intelligence infrastructure itself that such low level analysts and technical contractors can do such broad and widespread damage to the system.  The government bears equal responsibility and culpability in the types of leaks that have occurred.  How could the government allow a low level analyst, with no higher education/training/experience to put any of these pieces of information in a context that would matter, to have access to such a broad swath of very sensitive knowledge.  Bradley Manning, while probably entitled to at least a SECRET level clearance, should NEVER had access to 90% ( a made up percentage admittedly ) or more of what he leaked.  Most (diplomatic cables? Really? ) had little to no bearing on his job.  His clearance merely gave him blanket access to whole networks of data that have no way to handle “need-to-know” permission.  This is a problem with EVERY person granted a clearance, nearly everyone in the military and many contractors. 

 

Need-to-know has become a joke in practice that only the most secretive of programs can stand muster.  Combine this with the already prevelant bias to OVER classify every document that passes through intelligence hands and classification itself has lost all meaning.  The government, by trying to protect every possible secret has given birth to a system that is chaotic and too unwieldy to manage.  Snowden and Manning are inevitable products of a broken system that needs to change.

 

What fundamentally needs to change is this:  The government should embrace leaks.  Yes. I said it.  In the government’s hasty knee-jerk response to demonize and prosecute Manning and Snowden they have only exacerbated and distracted from the real problem – the system itself.  The government has created an atmosphere of distrust and fear.  This is what led Snowden to flee the states and into the hands of our enemies – whether intentionally or not.   What has followed is a diplomatic/intelligence nightmare of epic proportions.  Snowden will forever be a criminal and a pawn of foreign governments to use as shield against the US.

 

But what if the system encouraged leaking?  Controlled leaking, I mean.  Why shouldn’t the military and intelligence infrastructure actually encourage its members to question and have their concerns addressed?  How else, in a democracy, should this system work?  While not easy to implement and understandably a culture shift from the current paradigm, it would allow concerned parties, who normally would not go to such extreme measures, an avenue to address their concerns in a private and controlled way.  Is it really better that Ed Snowden thought it was better to secretly obtain information about these programs and flee the country into hands unknown?  Unless he really was a spy, this is a case that the government needs to make sure never happens again.  It is hard enough to guard against ACTUAL spies.

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The second part of this solution is to fix the classification system.  This will be a MASSIVE undertaking, likely involving billions of documents and trillions of pieces of data.  But even if it is just a NEW policy and only affects NEW information, it will be well worth the investment.

 

Ultimately, Snowden and Manning are most likely well-intentioned individuals with various levels of bad judgement.  Don’t let that distract from the issue of the very real problem of the government and how it treats its people and its secrets.  In the conversations we have in the future about foreign/domestic policy, let’s not forget about the system that allow these leaks to happen in the most injurious manner possible.  Let’s create a system that is transparent except for the secrets that must be kept.  It will be much more manageable and we will have to rely much less on the goodwill and questionable smarts of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.

 

Thoughts?

Check out World War Z

So you can’t have a summer without a disaster movie.  The warmer months drive Hollywood a little mad and are littered with cinema fodder that rain down like the asteroids and comets caused by aliens/gods/global warming and whatever other swords of Damocles hang over humanity’s head.  All of them are horrible. Yes, including Armageddon though you can enjoy it anyway (leave your comments down below fanboys!).  It is just too hard to make a disaster movie that doesn’t become so ridiculous or unwieldy that it won’t collapse under its own weight.  Too many characters or CG destruction is often counterproductive to the actual storytelling and it’s anathema to an audience’s enjoyment.

World War Z is less a zombie movie and more a disaster movie.  Its infection storyline owes more to H1N1 and movies like Outbreak than to George Romero.  To be honest, I’m getting a little sick of zombie movies.  It’ll be one of those phases in Hollywood (along with superhero movies <gasp!>) that will be remembered with mostly a bemused fondness and a shaking of the head.  “How did they get to be so popular and mainstream?”  The recent “Warm Bodies” proves that we are trying to squeeze every last demographic out of this phase before it ends…. hopefully soon.  However, that movie, along with most others is forgettable and a waste of time.  If you are going to immerse yourself in zombie mythology, there are a few things you should check out before you go slumming with the dregs of the undead silver screen unprotected.

These are in no particular order:

  1. 28 Days Later (not weeks)
  2. Zombieland
  3. Shaun of the Dead
  4. The Walking Dead (the comic not the tv show. See fellow FYMPer review here)
  5. Fido

Each of these takes a different perspective of the zombie phenomenon, from ground level apocalypse story to a tongue-in-cheek critique on modern society.  What is missing from this list a great high-level zombie apocalypse story – enter World War Z.

Wait. Didn’t I just say WWZ isn’t a zombie movie? Nope. No, I didn’t.  Read again.  It IS MORE a disaster movie, but there are literally BILLIONS of zombies in it – so it’s a zombie flick.  Despite all the rumors of rewrites, internal fights, and giant cost overruns that would be great justification for a disaster-documentary, WWZ pulls together a tightly woven, produced and edited movie that fills out that last piece of the zombie movie pantheon.  It is tightly written and quickly paced.  At just under 2 hours, Brad Pitt visits 4 continents and an aircraft carrier (actually it looks more like an amphibious assault ship but most people don’t know the difference) and possibly saves the human race.  The producers make efficient use of on-screen time, developing characters/scenes/locations with just enough to make you believe what is happening and thrust you to the next plot point.  In other films, this is done poorly and keeps you from playing along with the story, but they do an excellent job here.  Instead of managing 4/5 different characters, they have us journey with Brad Pitt (still ridiculously charming and good looking) ,the uncommon man, from infection-resolution.  This mostly works and is probably the only way to do a movie of this scope without it becoming a 3 hour endurance contest.  I’ll look forward to the extra content/extended scenes in the DVD at home. In theatres, movies over 2 hours long try my patience.

As with most movies, it isn’t perfect of course.  While there are actually a number of great scenes and even pleasant surprises/shocks, the movie plotline isn’t overly creative.  It doesn’t hoe new ground with the disaster movie formula.  Where it makes up for this is in the strength of each scene in each locale which serve their purpose and then the movie drops them and moves on.   It doesn’t dwell, linger, or brood too much, which I appreciated.  It follows a fairly sound logic with how different people and authorities act with a couple of silly exceptions.  Forgivable cinema-luck (we just crash landed right where we needed to be!) and other events work in the guise of how limiting a 2-hour movie is for a storyteller.  The final criticism here is how underutilized Mireille Enos is, who plays Pitt’s wife.  If her work in “the Killing” proves anything, it’s that women characters can have extraordinary depth and intelligence.  While there may be more of her story on the editing room floor and Enos does instill her with a visceral reality a lesser actress couldn’t, her character is mostly relegated to the powerless spouse, waiting for word from her world-saving husband.  Too bad.

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The production is excellent. What could have been a gore-fest, and some will lament its absence, becomes mostly a tasteful cutaway affair, with events meant to be more disturbing than the violence. It is also probably one of the best edited movies I’ve ever seen.  There is little excess baggage in any scene and the movie is better for it – if only to spare you too much time to ponder some of the less believable moments in the film.   There are quite a few memorable characters (a mostly mute but bad ass Israeli female soldier for one). Brad Pitt does an admirable job carrying the entire movie on his magazine wrapped forearms.

So will this be a FYMP classic? It is too soon to tell.  It isn’t overwhelmingly original or thought provoking, but it does enough things really well to make it one of my favorite disaster movies.  There are better, smaller, more intimate plague/zombie stories that can be told, but in the realm of end-of-the-world productions, WWZ is mostly in an undead league of its own.  Let me know what you think.

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Engineering The Animal Kingdom

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, the future is here. In so many ways, our lives are changing and being enabled by technology. Google Voice (Google’s version of Siri) is so accurate at answering simple questions that it leaves me shaking my head and smiling, even after months of using it. Just this morning, I was with a friend and couldn’t remember an author’s name through my brain fog. I double tapped my screen and asked “Who wrote The Cassini Division?”. Within seconds a voice told me that Ken McLeod ( of the clan McLeod) wrote the Cassini division and proceeded to pop up a “card” with his picture, name, links to a wiki and other articles. This is ridiculous and just one of many examples that we are indeed approaching the singularity (more on that in other posts).

One development that is almost equally exciting/frightening is the fast development of robotics.  It is a field that is exploding. According to ABI Research:

The market for consumer robots was $1.6 billion in 2012, dominated by the task and entertainment segments. This will grow to $6.5 billion in 2017 and will still be dominated by the same segments, with security/telepresence becoming more of a significant third segment. iRobot is still the main player, but more Asian-based companies are coming out with competing products and newer products like window-cleaning robots. “We are seeing more personal robot R&D from Western companies and more task robot development from Asian companies,” noted research director Philip Solis, “which is a reversal of past development trends.”

Application processors and the array of sensors used in smartphones and media tablets have achieved great economies of scale for components that consumer robotics will leverage. The market for processors, microcontrollers, sensors, and physical components including actuators, servos, and manipulators was a little over $700 million in 2012 and will grow by five times that amount by 2017. The semiconductor portion of that is well over a third and will grow as products become more complex and capable.

Robotics is starting fulfill needs everywhere from mass production, prosthetics to even mimicking animals.  It is this latter one that we’ll focus on here.

Biomimetic is a term that describes how designers and engineers take their cues from nature and animals to solve problems from solar collecting to efficient motion.  Over the last 10-20 years, the number of credible copies of animals by scientists and engineers has become more and more realistic.  While there are many companies/universities working in this field, Boston Dynamics is always the first one that comes to my mind.  They are partially funded by DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).  Their description on their website is very apt. Boston Dynamics builds advanced robots with remarkable behavior: mobility, agility, dexterity and speed. The breadth of robots BD is developing is truly awe inspiring and the steady progress they’ve made over the years is sobering.  I will embed a few examples here:

Big Dog was one of the first videos I saw that truly blew me away back in 2008.  It is built as a pack mule for military personnel. Its mission is to follow and haul heavy loads so the soldiers/marines don’t have to.  While it’s definitely a prototype, this was the first time I saw a robot that behaved and adjusted like an animal would.  Make sure you at least watch to the point where the engineer kicks it and it adjusts itself to keep on walking.

I hadn’t heard about any progress from the Big Dog team in awhile… and then THIS video came out this past year.  They added an arm and an ability to throw cement blocks!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tqk7fSAjsxM

Now I don’t know about you, but this is starting to get a little frightening.  Imagine a Big Dog chasing you down the street as it offloads cement block ammo from its back and fires it off to explosive effect around you.  Now you’re only saving grace is that you can probably outrun this thing, but then (if you’ve been curious) you see one of BD’s OTHER “pet” projects – the cheetah.  Like the beautifully shot national geographic video below, this cheetah has been designed to replicate how nature has evolved this big cat to sprint so effectively.

Cheetahs on the Edge–Director’s Cut from Gregory Wilson on Vimeo.

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Running away from this beast is no longer an option.  Soon we may find ourselves with robots as useful as they are dangerous.  Half-Life 2 fans may be thinking about “Dog” from that game – a robotic “pet” that could understand speech and lift and throw cars if necessary.

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These are just the very FEW of the developments from just one company funded by DARPA.  If you want to be truly creeped out then watch this PETMAN demo, which shows just how eerily close we are to mimicking the human animal.

It could be only 10 years from now that we see robotic animals/creatures as an obvious/inevitable fact of life.  It hasn’t even been 10 years since the “smartphone” appeared and now a sizeable portion of the planet has one.  Revel in the wonderment of innovation in the field today.

If this has sparked/re-ignited your interest in this field, please comment below with some of your favorite recent developments in the industry.

I have included a few more links to popular science and others if you wanted a quick way to see other amazing robotic creatures.

dog

Cat Robot

Fish and Others

RoboZoo

Why Build Robot Animals

Popular Science

 

Now I saw it. Hope you don’t.

So my wife and I saw Now You See Me last week… and I’m still thinking about it.  Oh no, not because it was thought provoking, almost the polar opposite.  I think I was noodling what exactly it was that bothered me about it, and I think I have it.

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This movie is the perfect vehicle to show why FYMPlanet is necessary.  There are so many people like Pete Hammond, from Movieline, who think that this movie was “highly entertaining, extremely clever & and thrilling to watch”, but he’s wrong, wrong, wrong.  Thankfully, Rottentomatoes, which does a reasonably good job calling out the stink bombs, gives this movie a 46%, which it deserves.

I don’t blame Pete Hammond, who will be a stand-in for everyone who doesn’t really know what “highly entertaining” and “extremely clever” actually are.  What this movie actually IS is a Hollywood ATTEMPT at being those things without actually crossing the threshold.  With such an entertaining/talented cast (Dave Franco and Mark Ruffalo excluded), there was an opportunity to make something special.

Jesse Eisenberg does a great job playing a supposedly smart, pompous, slightly annoying,  <insert any past role here> magician. The more we learn about the actor the more this is clearly less due to his acting ability and more just freebasing what is already there.  Woody Harrelson is the most interesting of the bunch, playing a talented, but seedy mentalist.  However, his power over people is showcased in a way that makes it unlikely he would ever be “down on his luck” or unsuccessful – he can literally make people say or do anything he wants.  With this super power, there are probably much more interesting ways he could be spending his time than faux dodging the FBI in pursuit of membership in some second rate Magic Mason cult. Isla Fisher is always fun to watch but her character bio is about as shallow as the Houdini tank she jumps in in one of the opening scenes.

Oh right, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine are also in this film, proving that old male actors can still get a substantial paycheck for doing basically nothing.  Also there is a French girl, who neither represents Europe or Interpol well.  I should have auditioned my 3 year old daughter for how much intelligence and real world experience the character brings to the table.  The first 10 minutes of the movie hints at greater things through its brief, almost intriguing, character introductions/background sketches.  But like a street artist, the sketch is all there is and it culminates in a silly but admittedly creative bank heist.  If the movie ended there, I actually would have been intrigued and wanted more… but then there actually WAS more.

What follows is so silly and unbelievably orchestrated that all the suspense and enigma of the puppeteer behind the scenes is lost.  There is never a sense of danger or reality to the proceedings.  The plot is just a vehicle for the writers to try to show how clever they are.  The protagonists lose all of their humanity and just become avatars to this end.  The twist at the end, which I THINK was trying to recall much better movies like “the prestige” had none of the weight or consequence of that movie.  It was so yawn worthy and unbelievable that my brain wanted to self-destruct – it’s possible it did and this one is a loaner.

You may ask, what did I expect?  And, true, I didn’t expect a lot.  I still enjoyed the experience because I was spending time with my lovely wife, but that makes the movie irrelevant.  What this movie tells me is that there is still a significant number of people in Hollywood and elsewhere who don’t know what “highly entertaining” and “clever” really are.  If you must constantly state how funny or witty you are, you probably aren’t.  This should be a rule in film and life.  In the season finale of Game of Thrones, Tywin Lannister scolds his nephew in much the same way.  A real king shouldn’t have to remind everyone else of the fact.

Don’t waste your time watching this movie unless it is just a means to another end.  Watch the Prestige ( not the Illusionist) instead.  It’s got its flaws, but there are some real questions about magic, humanity, and commitment that make it worth the trip.

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Good luck out there!

Aging, Body Odor, Sunburn and a Flippant Disrespect for Earth’s Gravity

So, last weekend was my birthday.  No big deal.  Really.  In fact, I’m old enough now that it actually requires effort to remember the exact number of times I’ve circled the sun.  This is no doubt due to the lack of any significant age milestones in between 25 and 40.  Twenty-one was uneventful because I had little interest in drinking.  No, the only birthdays I actually anticipated/dreaded were 17, whereupon my belief that being able to legally drive a car would somehow instantly and miraculously upgrade my “sexy” quotient was shattered (almost) beyond  emotional repair– it was just the new cost of doing business.  No car. No girl.

The other age was 25, which was a surprise.  Up until this point I had unconsciously been operating under the all too cliché notion that I had “all the time in the world” to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.  Twenty-five blind-sided me with a rude awakening that brought that infantile, but wonderfully irresponsible, way of thinking to a morbid halt.  I realized that a full 1/4th of my life was over (if I was fortunate) and that the time to realize whatever nebulous dreams I had was actually finite.  Combine this fact with the somewhat inevitable inverse relationship with age and physical ability and my window for pursuing certain optimistic life-goals was actually smaller than a George R.R. Martin character negotiating with a Frey.

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So while 25 definitely re-aligned my perspective in general, it didn’t change my perspective on birthdays.  This perspective hovered mostly between “it’s just another day” to “cool I get to justify buying myself a cool gadget”.  That is… until this last birthday.

G  = 9.8 m/s/s

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Skydiving has been on my “bucket list” for as long as I can remember making lists and putting them into… buckets.  Ostensibly, most of my adult life.  However, there have always been reasons to NOT go skydiving – money, it’s “dangerous”, friends to go with etc..   However, with this last birthday fast approaching, my usual apathetic approach to what is really just another day for most people turned into a powerful force of will to make it happen – and drag my two best friends along for the ride.  These two friends had their OWN extremely reasonable excuses for not coming.  While I gave them an “out”, I made it my mission for them to experience something new and be a part of realizing one my aspirations as a human being – seeing the world from 15K feet in the open air.  The next step up will hopefully be at 20 times that height.

Skydiving is a personal experience that makes written description pale in comparison but I will share a few of the things I will never forget.

  • I have never signed so many duplicate forms of my personal information for liability purposes in my life – (POSSIBLY with the exception of when I joined the military)
  • The wait from check-in to actual free-fall was about 3 hours
  • My very cool, but poor English speaking, Italian tandem instructor had possibly the worst BO imaginable.  Since smell is the most powerful sense tied to memory, there is a chance I will never forget his particular brand of Stench – by Giorgio
  • I never got afraid.  Not on the ground.  Not in the air.  There was a palpable jump in heart rate and anticipation when the first person disappeared from the plane, but fear never struck me like I expected
  • Initial free-fall is one of the most exhilarating things you will ever experience.  It’s a roller coaster – cubed.
  • My instructor let me pull the cord to our chute (which I was told rarely happens).  This involved groping behind me and finding the hard golf ball sized handle attached to the release mechanism next to Giorgio’s leg. Despite the inherent homoerotic images this immediately presents, having been the direct cause of halting my inglorious plummet to the planet below was an incredibly satisfying thing.
  • Floating at 10K above Monterey Bay is one of the most peaceful/beautiful things I have ever seen/experienced
  • Having my instructor make quick adjustments for landing was also one of the more nauseous things I’ve ever experienced – his English apparently didn’t extend to understanding the words “I’m feeling a little sick” during our rapidly adjusting decent.  It’s ok, Giorgio, I don’t hold it against you – much
  • My kids’ excitement at having witnessed their dad literally fall from the sky was a joy to watch and be the source of
  • Having my friends share the experience with me, despite their initial misgivings, is also something that made the day one to remember

In closing, I don’t just want to impart how truly awesome the experience of skydiving is – which I do.  It is well worth the paperwork, horrible BO and nausea you might experience… and even the 3rd degree sunburn (if you’re as white as I am).  But I’d like to make a larger point.

The flaw in my perspective on birthdays was not in thinking they were just another day – they are.  The flaw was that my birthday doesn’t HAVE to be just another day.  Birthdays and other occasions aren’t just obligations or commercialism at its worst – they are these things of course  More importantly, they are a useful opportunity to make a day memorable – FYMP worthy if you’ll tolerate the conceit.  But how you approach these days is up to you.  Wouldn’t you rather they be awesome?

Now, I still don’t think I’m going to remember/care much about the number that is tied to my actual birthday in the future (it’s going to be 34 or 35 or something).  What I do know is that that day, among many others, is going to be FYMPing awesome!

Star Trek: Into Darkness Or The Remake Dilemma and why this may be good for Star Wars

 

!:Warning:! Spoilers ahead – no major plot points, but a character is revealed (if you haven’t already figured it out by the trailers alone).

Let’s start with the good stuff.  Star Trek: Into Darkness is a looker.  It’s one of the best produced/realized sci-fi worlds that I’ve seen in recent memory.  There are some scenes where the fake “hand cam” and auto-focus effect (first used to great effect in Firefly) is distracting, but the CG and the sets all look incredible and have you believe that this universe exists outside of a lime green studio.  JJ Abrams knows how to make an action packed movie look fantastic.  The cast, especially Chris Pine, does a fine job recreating their characters and there is plenty of personality (aside from Zoe and Zach) to go around.  It’s not a great movie by any means, but it’s a nice diversion.

This movie is also better than the last in many ways. Benedict Cumberbatch\Peter Weller are much better villains though their parts are underwritten and underdeveloped.  I was never a fan of Eric Bana’s Nero, and the overall story arc of that movie, aside from the pleasing origins of Kirk and crew, is pretty Bana-l.  The intriguing setup to the characters and story give way to the truly unbelievable threat that future Nero poses to the Federation.  Also ye ‘ol alternate timeline mechanic allows Abrams to stretch the fiction in ways that don’t seem to violate the established canon.   This is neither good nor bad, but still feels like a cop-out, done to make this series of movies distinct from the originals while stealing liberally from their best parts.  It succeeds and fails for that same reason.

Like its predecessor, Into Darkness struggles to find its own identity.  This is the inherent problem of the Remake, which my wife calls, “the do-over”.  This same plot line was done much better and with more gravitas and emotional punch in a Next Generation episode called “The Wounded“.  I would have almost preferred the movie cutting to that hour long episode rather than relegating Peter Weller’s character into a one-dimensional warmonger.

In my opinion, Remakes are appropriate for comic movies – and little else.  Maybe it’s because comic characters have, since their inception, undergone innumerable makeovers in their fiction to reflect the changes in culture and their readers.  This is expected and even part of the charm of comics.  You don’t like THIS version of Batman? Wait a year or two and they’ll “reboot” the series with a different author and it could be awesome.  They’ve taken this chameleon ability with them to the cinema and I think movie-goers have enjoyed the process – just ask Spider/Super/Bat/man.

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Look to almost any other remake, with few exceptions, and they are horrid.  They are worse than sequels (which are also usually worse with each iteration – Die Harderest anyone?).  Why?  Because they don’t even have the actors and charm from the originals to work from.  Take the recent Total Recall movie for example.  Love it or hate it, but Total Recall, the original, had personality to spare and in Arnold one of the most epic and charismatic action superstars of his generation.  In this modern remake, all the most important plot points are already given away, because well….it’s a remake.  But the creators felt enough responsibility to perform some window dressing to make it seem new and exciting.  i.e. Earth vs. Mars.  Also, Colin Farrell, who I like, is not a big enough character, literally and figuratively, to carry the movie on the weight of his now sober shoulders.  What results is not just a bad movie in its own right, but a movie that is even worse because of its comparison to the original.  Just make a new movie!  There’s enough money and talent here to actually create a great ORIGINAL story without rehashing old ideas or trying to “recreate the magic” or some BS.

Why do some remakes work?  Well, I would say the remakes that do well are the ones that either poke fun at the source material (21 jump street) or its been long enough that an update would look entirely different than the original (The Thomas Crown Affair).  However, it still takes stellar writing and compelling personalities playing the leads to pull these off.  More so when the characters are iconic and part of the modern cultural mythology.  Otherwise, it’s near guaranteed that the remake will be horrible.

Why do studios produce these en masse?  Most likely because no matter what I say, these movies make money.  They are deemed less risky, because there is a built-in audience here that will probably go to see it for nostalgia if nothing else.  In my case, it’s more like nausea – but I’ll still see it (and hate myself).  It also spreads the demographics.  The older crowd will attend to see what’s changed and the younger crowd will hopefully be intrigued enough to jump in for the first time.

Back to Star Trek.  William Shatner, love him or hate him, IS Captain Kirk.  His unique brand of charm and overacting has been parodied so many times it’s hard to imagine the character any other way.  Leonard Nimoy IS Spock.  Nowhere is this more apparent than when Zachary Quinto looks to the viewscreen at his aged self for sage advice.  Zachary does a fine job of playing a Vulcan, but by definition it’s a character that’s stiff and unengaging.  Only Leonard, who’s lived the role for a lifetime could make that character interesting.  The list goes on and on.  Simon Pegg is funny, even with the distractingly/annoyingly thick Scottish accent.  Zoe Saldana is a horrible Uhura. The original broke down racial barriers and never came across as anything other than competent and professional.  Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has erased all social progress and is basically an emotional basket case of female movie tropes.  Karl Urban as Bones?

Ok.. he actually does an amazingly good job considering the birdlike muse of the TV doctor, but here’s the thing.  They’re all aping the original actors.  But this movie isn’t a parody!  It’s a remake.  And this is the shame of it.  If these were all original characters with their own backstories, it actually would be much more interesting.  There would be no comparisons and these writers and actors could develop in their own ways.  Benedict Cumberbatch does a competent job as Khan, but it pales in comparison to Ricardo Montalban’s intense human intelligence and ferocity.  Cumberbatch is too inhuman here and robotic to be truly scary.  Having to compare with Montalban is as disappointing as it is unfair.

In the end, I am glad they made the movie.  It was fun to be back in the Star Trek universe again, even if it feels a little less cerebral and overly action packed for its own good.  It was just done well enough that I could see what could have been.  With these actors and writers given free reign enough to create new stories… the results could have been compelling rather than competent.  Will people remember Pine’s Kirk or Shatner’s? The answer is obvious and a missed opportunity.

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What could be great news is that after watching this movie, I think JJ Abrams has the chops to pull off an impressive Star Wars movie.  One of (the many) things that was missing from the Prequels was a soul and the feeling that that universe existed.  There are enough great scenes, small and large, in Into Darkness that make me think Star Wars could be a place I want to visit again, rather than just be the movies I cut myself to.  There IS still the danger of trying to be “true” to George’s vision.  I heard recently that JJ Abrams spent some time with the iconic director to make sure he had his blessing and he knew where it was leading.  Hopefully this was just lip service to a great legend.  George actually lost his vision almost 30 years ago when he became rich and famous enough to surround himself with sycophants rather than people who would tell him “NO” and actually protect his legacy.  But that is another post!

I’ll leave you with one final thought about remakes.  In a few years, would it be great or silly to have Star Trek the Next Generation rebooted?  Have a bald man with a British accent playing Picard and a perfectly competent actor play Data.  LaForge can wear Google Glass and Warf can be played by Jaden Smith.  It will be all action-y or whatever the kids want to watch then, and will have all sorts of fun ties to the TV series and movies….. BLEH.  No thank you.

Go write some new stories damn you.  That is all.

 

 

Training for the apocalypse: Week 0

The Muscle-Up

So, for better or for worse (only time will tell) I have volunteered to be the guinea pig for my fellow FYMP master, Move Matt.

This will not be a tale of dramatic triumph over adversity or obesity – this isn’t The Biggest Loser.

No.  I’m a 30+ year old who has been a decent athlete all his life.  Fitness, for me, was rarely a stated goal and mostly a way of being.  I played fun sports like tennis and basketball, or had cool competitions (2 Tough Mudders, a tri-sprint, and a Big Sur marathon) to train for to keep me motivated.  Fitness just well, …HAPPENED.

In recent months, if not years, I’ve realized that without these goals, fitness has occurred more as a chore than as a side-effect of daily life. While I have many “excuses” like new responsibilities at work, two young kids, a wife, and a myriad of other reasons for not integrating fitness into my life – they all fall rather flat.  In short, my current fitness is not very FYMP.

What happens when I’m being chased by meth-enhanced criminals who have nothing but burying their brass knuckles into my chest and skull on their minds?  How fast am I going to be? How quickly and smoothly am I going to vault over/under obstacles?  Right now, there’s probably a 50/50 shot that I’m going to get away from the speedy zombies from the documentary “28 Days Later”.  I aim to get that percentage as close to 100% as possible.   Zombieland had it right.  For any post-apocalyptic scenario, a high-level of fitness/dexterity is crucial to my continued survival – something that is very personal to me and mine.

A key skill that will help mitigate my inevitable injuries attempting fymptastic parkour maneuvers is the Muscle-up.  Without this skill, I will be falling back down from walls after embarrassingly pinwheeling my legs and body while attempting to throw myself over an obstacle.

My current muscle up status is more WYMP than FYMP, I’m afraid.  I can do 8 pull-ups reverse grip. 6 pull-ups front grip.  It’s been long enough that I know this is going to hurt over the next couple of days.   That’s what my body gets for neglecting my survival skill-set for so long – suck it up body.

While my fitness may not be FYMP just yet, my mind always has been.  Move Matt – do your worst.

FYMP for life!

Ask the right questions… get better answers

How society asks the wrong questions of our correctional system

You break the law.  You go to jail.  Then what?

Well,“Welcome Home!”, because more than likely you’ll be back again and again to enjoy the best creature comforts and social bum etiquette lessons public money can buy.

It’s more akin to a social experiment than a system of rehabilitation.  It would almost make me feel better to think it was an experiment – almost.  At least there would be an intention rather than the aimlessness of our national correctional policy.

Since the 70’s get tough on crime campaigns the number of inmates has increase five-fold.  The US has the highest incarceration rate in the civilized world – including Russia.  Though I would be very careful not to rush to judgment on the superiority of the Russian correctional system.  It’s just an interesting statistic.

Inmate recidivism approaches 60%.

“So”, I ask, “is this working?“

Well to answer that you’d have to get past all the other personal political fodder people throw in the way.

“It’s because of the rise of the for-profit prison industry!”

“We need to protect our children!”

“We need to set an example!”

“We can’t let people get away with breaking the law!”

All these statements have a point, but they all actually miss the point.

The for-profit industry arose, as most for-profit industries, because of the “need” for more correctional facilities.  Yes, there is evidence of corruption, and the rise of profit centers that make money off of imprisoning our citizens may on the surface be unseemly. But let’s not blame the private corrections industry.  They are answering the question – how do we house all of our criminals?

The cries of protecting society or protecting our children are hard to argue with. This is not because the logic is inviolate but that it is too vague and emotional to be useful.  What does protecting our society and protecting our children actually mean in a practical sense?  And is incarceration endpoint for achieving that?

Protests for not letting people get away with breaking the law or being “soft on crime” is another deceiving argument since no one would agree either of those are acceptable.  People break the law all the time.  We’re all law-breakers.  Ever jay-walk?  Ever speed? Not wear your seatbelt?  However, the supporters of “eye for an eye” judgements answer the question, “what will people think of me if I’m not out for the swiftest, harshest, most “effective” punishment?” These people are more concerned about themselves than the prisoner, the victim, or even the societal problems in question.

There are many others. This is not a comprehensive list.

Rarely do you find sympathy or empathy for the prisoner.  Rehabilitation comes up on occasion, but it’s usually vague and conferred only to the recovering drunkards or drug addicts.  These people, society has taught us, have a disease and should be somewhat pitied but still treated harshly, lest someone think we’ve gone “soft” again.

Why is this discussion important?  While this post will not pretend to answer all the questions about incarcerations, it will deal with the MOST important question – “What is the purpose our correctional system?”

On the Federal Bureau of Prisons website the stated purpose is as follows:

The Federal Bureau of Prisons protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens

This is a very bureaucratic and stale way to say that our system is about Punishment and Rehabilitation.

So I come back to the original question.  What is the purpose of our prison system?

It is a very simple question, but it comes with hard choices.   Just because it is simple does not make it easy.

If our correctional system is purely about punishment, then the system is actually set up pretty well.  We have plenty of things to punish people for, from drugs to theft to rape and murder.  We have lawyers and judges to make sure people have fair trials, and by-and-large, we’ll say the justice system works well to fairly punish people.

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But here is where the system fails.  When you make the purpose of a system to punish people, whether you like it or not, that system will find ways to punish them.  It may seem ridiculous and obvious but you only see it in light of what else might be possible.  By over emphasizing punishment, you are in fact saying, if not out loud, that people are irredeemable and that they must be continuously punished, Sisyphus style.  To what purpose, one can only guess, though I suspect our Judeo-Christian values are somewhat to blame, but that is another post.

What if, instead of punishment you focused on rehabilitation?  If a system is structured to rehabilitate rather than punish, you are answering a fundamentally different question.  Yes, a person is being punished at the moment for the crime that made them a threat to society, but that fundamentally, they ARE redeemable.  This system would look for ways to empower this individual rather than disempower them.

The structure of these two paradigms might appear on the surface to be very similar – i.e. you’d still need laws, police, jails, and correctional facilities.  What would be different would be how society would treat these individuals.   In turn, how these individuals thought of themselves would be different.  They would at least see a POSSIBILITY of a different outcome.

Now our prison system is a little bit of both.  States rights make different state systems have slightly different bents.  But it seems pretty clear that nationwide we have a problem with our correctional system.  We make more and more laws to punish people, which is extremely effective at finding and imprisoning “criminals”.  However, imprisoning people is not a means to an end and the country is spending billions of dollars funding a system that, by its very nature, will never be satisfied.  Can we really say the War on Drugs has done anything but make smoking pot even cooler for teenagers?

The answer is to take a step back and answer the basic question about corrections.  I would prefer to live in a society that truly sets up a system where an inmate has an opportunity at success and not a virtual life-sentence of repeat offending.

I didn’t even get into the reasons why the recidivism rate is so high, but that may be for another post.

The light at the end of the tunnel is that some people “get it”.  In NY they have instituted a partnership with Cornell to provide education to inmates so that they have marketable skills when they leave prison.  This is just one way to combat one of the many reasons why people turn to crime.  This is a system that is wrestling with the real question of rehabilitation and not just punishment.

When money is spent this way, the inevitable protest will always be “that’s not fair” or “why should they benefit from being a criminal?”  These protests say more about the person than the policy they are questioning.  It implies that the criminal should be punished in perpetuity, until such time as you, protestor, decide they’ve suffered enough to justify getting some benefit.  To hell with the damage to society from how we treat our criminals, as long as you get some satisfaction they are being forever punished.

My point is this.  The current prison system, while certainly not a monolith and much more like a hideous Chimera, is flawed and I believe too skewed towards a system that is orchestrated to punish and incarcerate people.  This is why we see the incarceration rates we do and, yes, the number of private penitentiaries exploding.

But “NO” this is not a flaw in capitalism or in our vigilance to justice.

It’s a system that was always destined to fail.

In a few words, the prison system is not very FYMP.  We better correct ourselves before we wreck ourselves.  That is all.