Friday, October 2, 2015

"The Martian" Review

Okay, I'll admit it: I've never watched a single episode of MacGyver. I'm almost afraid to do it at this point, considering how deeply woven into my code the ethic of the show has become.  I'm worried that the 80s cheese will taint that Mojo of Inventive Improvisation that so guides my approach to the problems that can so pretzel up my days.

Indeed, there have been times when, in the process of tackling one of those problems, I have arrived at a "MacGyvered" solution, using available materials (Madame 'Cyte frequently...errm...laments the heaps of bric-a-brac that I keep around, expressly for its utility as a pool of raw materials for such projects...till the moment when they allow me to construct --like a Master Builder in Lego World-- a Fix)...only to find a purpose-specific tool for the job...and experience actual disappointment over that, and the sudden obsolescence of my jury-rigged solution.

If that Moment rings any kind of bell in you, then you are just the sort of person who will groove HARD on "The Martian."

The novel --the first by engineer Andy Weir--  had sat in my Kindle queue for a couple of years, after it had been recommended to me by someone who'd read and enjoyed (and written a lovely review of) my novella, Night Music. She'd said that it bore strong affinities to my book, in its scrupulous attention to technical detail, its inventive use of technology, and its celebration of the human mind as a problem-solving engine. Naturally, I was intrigued (and more than a little flattered/honored to have communicated so successfully that she so clearly Got what I was going for). 

Finally read it over the Summer (before I found out that it had been optioned as a film, let alone  that it was nearing completion....with Ridley-Freakin'-SCOTT at the helm!)....and immediately re-read it as soon as I was finished (and I almost never do that). I was even MORE flattered/honored at the comparison!

As for the film....Yay. Just Yay.

As I say, this is not a movie that will speak with too loud a voice to those with not even a whisper of tech-geek in their souls. It is very faithful to the book, though with some notable exceptions which are all in service of making it work better as a film (successfully. The "Iron Man" beat comes most vividly to mind).  It moves at a deliberate pace. It explains many things (usually via the protagonist, Mark Watney's video log).  It sets up problems, establishes the stakes, and walks us through the solutions (and setbacks. OY! Such setbacks!).

The situation is that Watney --played superbly by Matt Damon-- finds himself left alone on Mars after his fellow crew members on an exploration mission need to abort very early, due to a terrible storm that jeopardizes the crew's ability to leave safely (gotta give a Mulligan here; the actual atmosphere on Mars is so thin that even a hurricane-speed wind would exert little more dynamic force than a stiff breeze at Earth-level atmospheric pressures. But whaddya gonna do; gotta tell a story here). While trudging to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) to evacuate to orbit, Watney is struck by a fragment of the high gain antenna and hurled into the Martian night, very plausibly killed in the process.

But, it turns out, he is not dead....but will be if anything breaks down, and when the food supply runs out.

So, as the trailers say, he's gotta "Science the shit outa this!"

And Science he does!  It is a JOY to watch him attack problems, inventorying his assets and liabilities (rather bigger column, that one), apply scientific principles in solving them, fail to be defeated by the odds and the obstacles, and maintain a wry, profane sense of humor about the whole affair (wait for the whole "Space Pirate" thing..).

All Hail Duct Tape. 'Nuff said.

One of the characteristics of Scott's films that most stands out is his eye for breathtaking visual design. This film is no exception.  The surface of Mars is rendered with heart-stoppingly stark, majestic beauty. Being something of a Mars Geek, I was impressed at how precisely the color palate of the 4th rock from the Sun is reproduced. "You Are There" doesn't begin to cover this! The space scenes are stunning, conveying the brain-melting vastness of the distances in every direction, while also preserving the paradoxically claustrophobic quality of hurtling through that Vastness in a succession of pressurized tin cans.

Probably set in the early 2030s, the technology is marvelously realistically designed. Things are functional and plausible, treated in the matter-of-fact way that tech is treated by real people (when was the last time that you described your computer as a "silicon-CPU information processing node?"). It was the little things: the big outboard thermal radiator vanes on the aft end of the mothership, Hermes, glowed orange while the ion engines were active (and those low-but-constant-thrust engines glowed a realistic arc-blue-white, with no dramatic flares like you'd see with chemical rockets). Also, things fell on the Martian surface at rates and on trajectories that accurately depicted what it would look like at .38-gee. Most folks wouldn't notice these things consciously, but the dividends in verisimilitude pay off quite nicely in the hind brain.

All of this visual and technological wizardry, however, would fall flat without recognizable people in its midst.  The character work in this film is highly effective in its deft, understated clarity. These characters come across as real individuals, into whose lives we have dropped at a critical time. Jessica Chastain's Cmdr. Lewis is someone who takes her job very seriously. She is wracked by leaving Watney behind, even as she clearly knows it was the only responsible choice. The conflict of these realities is at times heartbreakingly manifest in her performance.

The unfolding relationship between Kate Mara's Johannson and  Sebastian Stan's Beck comes across in a series of sweet, almost-imperceptible little beats. Michael Peña's Martinez is a good-hearted, wise-cracking natural counterpart to Damon's Watney.  The Earth-bound cast plays out the politics and practicalities of this extraordinary situation with a recognizable Truthfulness that makes no one the Villain (even Jeff Daniels' NASA Director has defensible motivations for choices that might otherwise have been turned into a stock "Gutless Bureaucrat" cartoon in a lesser script). Honorable mention goes to Donald Glover's Rich Purnelle, the brilliant, quirky, socially inept astrodynamics savant; his description of his rescue plan during the "Project Elrond" meeting (One does not simply walk to Mars...) was high-LARIOUS!

And Damon. Ah, Damon.  He simply LIVES in Mark Watney. It's like how I will never again read LOTR without seeing Viggo as Aragorn. He inhabits that character with such an unforced, real-to-the-marrow way that his voice will sound in my head when I eventually (inevitably) re-re-read The Martian. It's clear (as it actually wasn't in the book) that the wise-cracking persona is a defense against the Dread and Despair that it only very precariously holds at bay. His humanity is a stand-in for our own, speaking to the best aspects of how we might manage any analogously dire situation in which we might find ourselves.

Final note:  Of all the things I love about this film, perhaps the one that lies closest to my heart of hearts is the degree to which it non-preachily extols the virtues of learning and critical thinking as the means by which we can deliver ourselves from the atavistic Fears that lie within us. Lateral, creative thinking, fueled by an intelligent deployment of well-learned lessons about how things work in the 'verse are what allow us to transcend the shadows all around us. The bootstraps by which we can lift ourselves from even the deepest of pits are composed of well-tempered strands of neural fiber, honed by exposure to and flexible recombinations of the DNA of knowledge and logic, informed --but not dominated-- by emotion, intuition, and Love.

"The Martian" not only tells us how we can survive even the most desperate of straits...but why we can and must do so.

Friday, September 11, 2015


14 years.

Many decades.

No time at all.

Lost in the blur and the bustle of the day-to-day, eclipsed by the Meantimes --marvelous and morbid-- overwritten by the business of existing, and --every now and then-- Living......It waits.

The defining Moment of our times.

As with all things of comparably enormous import, the interval seems murky, phenomenologically muddled as to perceived duration, because, although it slips farther and farther away in 'objective time' (whateverthefrak that is), it remains present, because it underlies --at varying depths-- everything else.

"Why should it loom so large, when suffering at least as horrid befalls vastly more people on a daily basis, elsewhere in the world?"

Fair question. And one which is typically answered with far too little depth, such that it appears --alas, all-too-often correctly-- to connote an ugly over-undertone of chauvinism ("Because they were MERRRRcuns!").

But obviously that's not it, or I would hardly have brought it up.

That was the day that asymmetric warfare joined --and soundly upstaged-- Great Powers War (hot and Cold) in the annals of geopolitical mayhem. It was the day that a band of highly disciplined, guilefully canny, chillingly Certain individuals successfully exploited the very best aspects of an advanced, evolving civilization, in order to deliver a withering blow upon it --and, in so doing, force a spasmodic realignment of the vectors of power across the whole skin of this Marble-- for the sake of one that's among the least advanced, and pointedly retrograde in its evolution.

It was the day that decisively cemented into the zeitgeist that which had already been true for some time.

Wars no longer had "fronts."

And they never would again.

Warriors could, once upon a time, come "Stateside," and reflect --in safety-- on the horrors of battle, while "civilians" would seek to comfort them, secretly thanking their deity of choice for the fact that they wouldn't have to face such nightmares, themselves.

And now they would.  Now they would have to bare their muffin-tops at the airport if they should be foolhardy enough to wear metallic belt buckles, expose to public scrutiny their threadbare, swampy socks. All because a caustic ideology had sufficient emulsifying force to yoke the divergent hatreds of myriad factions into a perfect storm of deadly intercontinental venom.

On that day.

Yes, a great many people in this world just might be sufficiently aware of those events to look up briefly and say "Yeah? And?" But everyone that any readers of these words would be likely to encounter did experience a Sea Change on that day.

It's the kind of thing that always lives/lurks, to varying degrees in the background.

How far into the background has a distinct bearing on how we approach these Anniversaries.  Many say that we ascribe an outsized value to That Day's events, and in so doing we create the conditions under which the hatreds that burst like a long-neglected pustule are simply allowed to re-fester. They add that we must strive to live in the kind of world in which such things are not allowed the space to happen ("Be the change you want to see in the world").

A laudable sentiment. However, it is one which perilously papers over the fact that, in the absence of evidence that it is broadly shared, serves essentially the same purpose as a "Gun-Free Zone" sign does to an armed psychotic (Target-Rich Environment [without the irony]).

Which brings us to those for whom it is seldom/never very far into the background (like Yours Truly). For people toward that end of the spectrum, the alarm clock didn't come with a snooze button.  The vigilance which was triggered by an understanding of the full scope of those events' antecedents continues to resonate to the frequencies that reveal their continued presence in the world.

And they grow worse.

Thus, the task incumbent on this magnificent, vulnerable Civilization is to harry and scatter the agents of chaos that struck with such malevolently spiteful brilliance on That Day.  We must discredit and Shame those raging revenants' ideology without respite, without recourse to the precious platitudes with which the typically --though not exclusively-- well-meaning apologists for negotiated, multicultural coexistence seek to minimize the existential threat that it still represents.

As is sometimes said, "We may not be at war with them...but They still are with us."  

That bears reflecting on.

And for those who are gearing up to deliver some retort which suggests (or asserts) that the USGOV was responsible for 9/11 (either via missiles/planted explosives, or via deliberate withholding of actionable threats [e.g., for the sake of ginning up a war, on behalf of Big Oil/the Military-Industrial-Complex/whateverthefrak])....I reckon you might as well Unfriend me instead.    Right now.

I'm not having it.

You see, I have no respect for Troofers. That would seem an uncharacteristically un-nuanced position for me to take. I am pleased to report that this would be an accurate statement. I fully acknowledge that it is not altogether immune to exception (what is?)...but it has sufficiently robust heuristic value that I choose to treat it as a functional Fact.

I do not consider 9/11 conspiracists to be serious people.

The willful dereliction of intellectual rigor which is required in order to partake in an Alex Jones version of that reality is of sufficient magnitude as to disqualify an individual's opinion from my consideration. I don't listen to Scientologists, either.  I'd not presume to infringe on their right to express their opinions, obviously.  But life is short.

You see, there are people in this world who are entirely too invested in the belief that, somehow, they are clever or savvy or well-connected enough to be On To It....which all-too frequently leads them to drift more and more Out Of It.

"Theories" like these are the very definition of such Mission Creep.
Hint: The unfolding of any sufficiently complex occurrence, in nature and/or in human affairs will invariably be riddled with anomalies.

And so will our descriptions of them....even when they are accurate.

A scattered smattering of "hmmm"-worthy, apparently paradoxical factoids do not invalidate the central thrust of events, any more than line noise nullifies the music.

There are no altogether Noise-free Signals in any 'verse that we're ever gonna live in.

But "Paranoid is just Reality...on a finer scale."   (/"Strange Days")

Seriously. Just keep it to yourselves.

Regardless, it's been 14 years.  Or 25 seconds. I go back and forth.

Monday, November 10, 2014

INTERSTELLAR: The Stars and Our Selves

Went to see Interstellar last night, in glorious 70mm IMAX (2-D!) format.

Huge. Still digesting...

This film paints on a VAST canvas. It involves some PROFOUND reflections on high astrophysics, consciousness, ethics and Love. Right away, you can see the potential conflict here: How do you tell a story on such a scale, and not lose the humanity that must comprise its narrative core.

Answer: Like this.

The great achievement of Interstellar is that it folds the humanity of its characters (and its characters as avatars of Humanity) into the very quantum foam of its storytelling.

They are one and the same.

There is an intimacy to the thing that resounds in even the most sweeping of establishing shots, the most mind-bending of theoretical constructs. This is accomplished in subtle ways, like the POV, "rocket-cam" nature of most of the spacecraft sequences (this is happening to You, not to Them). There are really very few of the standard distant, 3rd-person-observer tableaux which are so ubiquitous in spaceborne cinematic SF (though the few that do appear are simply breathtaking!).

The objective here is not to point out how puny we are compared to All Of It. It is to establish that, puny as we surely are, we are still the heroes (and villains) of ANY story that involves us. Our hope and dread and resolve and Connection and Love are what propel us into the Big Black (or what SHOULD, so long as we 'do not go gentle into that good night,' so long as we do not succumb to complacency and despair, so long as we preserve and nurture our Explorer's Heart, our Will to survive). We bring the good and evil and valor and cowardice and nobility and cravenness with us, no matter how immense the journey.

"No matter where you go.....there you are."

And, in the end, in the funny things that happen to spacetime when its physics are pushed to their breaking point, we find that the nature of our consciousness, the purity (or putridity) of our intentions and motivations become (or, rather, reveal themselves to have always been) PART of the equation.

The most important part, really.

For the particles that form us still swarm in their entangled dance, indifferent to distance, be it a micron or a mile. Or a million-million light years.

We are, each of us, a world unto ourselves, and yet our trajectories through the N-Dimensional topographies we traverse are perturbed (and --if we are VERY lucky-- defined) by the gravitational forces that bind us to the Other(s) who travel with us.....even if they are separated by blood-freezing distances and durations.

It is LOVE --variously defined-- that sculpts space and makes a tinker-toy of time.

I suppose I could quibble about such unsplit hairs as coriolis forces in spin-simulated gravity if too short a moment-arm is utilized, I could bellyache about the VICIOUS radiation environment around a black hole with a luminous accretion disk, about the orbital dynamics that would have to pertain, in order for certain time-dilation ratios to apply, could grouse about a few overly-chatty scenes and a smattering of instances of strained dialog.....but all of that would miss the point by such a wide margin that the point would not be a naked-eye visible object from such a course.

And that Point is embodied in the gentle Hope that permeates even the darkest moments of despair in this film. It lives in the bitter tears that fall from the eyes of frustrated Love, in the serene but steely resolve that shines from those eyes at the chance to be of Service to that Love....even if the fruits of that Service might never be seen.

For if each of us is a world.....then our world is each of us.

And so long as the Blights that might afflict its soil are allowed to settle, uncontested, on the surfaces of our souls...that world begins to die, and inexorably to bury us in that very soil, while we watch in numb helplessness.

But so long as we rage against the dying of the light, remember who we are and to whom we are bound in Love, then that light may yet coalesce into luminous spherical portals, which resolve into the eyes of those whom we carry with  us.....wherever we go.

And that is a very encouraging thought.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I've got nothing.

Every year, I steep myself in the memory of That Terrible Day. Every year, I strive to find something Meaningful, heartfelt, and as non-political to say as I can muster.

But I've got nothing.

In truth, 9/11 has barely been on my mind today. Every client's receipt I filled out made me utter a little "huh."  I scrolled down past Facebook posts about Remembrance (most quite lovely and, to a heart which was differently disposed than mine today, quite moving).

I was largely unmoved.

Jimmy Carter was responsible for the foolish appeasement and empowerment of the USSR with his prattle about our "Irrational fear of Communism." He demoralized a nation with his defeatist cardigans, appalling fiscal policies and blather about "malaise." He oversaw the gutting of our military, and of our Intelligence-gathering capabilities (particularly the HUMINT which would have saved so VERY many lives).

And the Soviets invaded Afghanistan ("They lied to me!"). And the Shah of Iran was overthrown by Khomeini's goons. And NOBODY saw either one coming, or could do a blessed thing about it. Good Marines and Delta Force operators died in fire, in the desert outside Teheran, because our helos were ill-equipped to fly in sandy conditions, in order to rescue the hostages who should never have been taken in the first place. In a poorly-conceived scheme to make things difficult for the Soviets, what would become the Taliban was trained, armed, and empowered.

Communism enjoyed a burst of propaganda enthusiasm at the impotence of the Capitalist US, both Sunni and Shiite Islamopaths were emboldened and equipped to take their previously-merely-irksome Jihads into the realm of full-blown Global Asymmetric Insurgency.  And oceans of blood were spilled (are still being spilled!) because that imbecile miscreant was somehow elected to be President of the United States.

And he still won't shut that gangrenous hole in his half-melted, smarmily-grinning/sneering face about the dark fantasies he harbors in that singularity where a heart is generally thought to reside, when he belches forth about Israel and the "Palestinians."

And yet, at this moment, I almost feel nostalgic for the Carter years.

The unmitigated HASH which the 44th occupant of Penna Ave has made of this Nation's foreign policy, the sheer, mind-numbing amateurishness of it simply boggles what little of my mind I can stand to direct toward it (have ya noticed that I've been blogging about movies and tech lately...when at all?).

It all sounds so eerily familiar: An unnecessarily-empowered Russia, under Czar Vlad I, Iran inching toward nuclear arms, Syria gassing its citizens and launching cyber attacks against Western news agencies, China arming up, Eastern European allies left to twist after risking Moscow's wrath by agreeing to host subsequently-"Reset" anti-missile batteries against the aforementioned Iranians, oil prices unnecessarily high (and the aforementioned Islamopaths and Putin Syndicate kleptocrats rolling in the lucre), because gargantuan domestic energy supplies can't be tapped for fear of angering petulant environmentalists, a hard-won victory in Iraq slipping into ignominious defeat due to inexcusable neglect (thus further empowering both Shiite and Sunni Islamopaths)...

Again: Mind. Boggled.

The task of undoing the damage that two terms of an Obama Presidency have already wrought (and threaten to deepen further) will be the work of generations. Indeed, I am none-too sanguine that some of it can ever be undone.

And I think back to the 90s and the wholesale turning-away from geopolitics which the End Of The Cold War made everyone think they had the luxury to enjoy. And I think of how I've felt all day. And I shudder at the horrors which will all-but inevitably sprout from the seeds that have been planted over the last 5 years. And I try to find the words for my dread and anticipatory grief.

But I've got nothing.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Another Bold Go

Returned a while ago from the 11:00 showing of "Star Trek Into Darkness" (really liking the omission of the obligatory colon), with friends, old and new. It is difficult to believe that it's been four years since I reviewed its predecessor.

Clearly, JJ Abrams and his team have been using the time wisely and well!

There have been reviewers (who I am feeling heartily unmotivated to search out, and who, frankly, I do not believe deserve the traffic) who have decried this as a smashing action movie which has nothing to do with The Spirit Of Star Trek.

I can state with unassailable Trekker credentials that, whatever it is they have been smoking should be tested forthwith for all manner of unsavory additives.

This impeccably-paced, visually arresting piece of cinema is positively redolent with all that is finest in Trek. And I'm not just talking about the cornucopia of deft homages (I'll get back to that). It's all here: the Prime Directive, the needs of the many, the emerging triumvirate of Spock (Reason), McCoy (emotion/empathy), and Kirk (Will), the spectre of the Kobayashi Maru, the moral balance between expediency and justice, the triumph of the competent get the picture.

This. Is. Trek.

End of report.

Yes, the story blazes through set-piece after set-piece...but not in a jagged, fragmented way, and not just for action's sake. The fact that Star Trek may now be painted on a broader, more frenetic canvas does not diminish its fidelity to the franchise one jot. Sheesh!

One of the things that has (to coin a phrase) fascinated me about this new Trek is the way that the alternate time-line allows for the opportunity to explore the Deep Question of what sorts of things will tend to diverge from an altered set of initial conditions (a la Butterfly Effect), and what sorts of things will display a more durable tendency to occur, despite those altered conditions.

Toward the end of the first movie, the characters' personalities --despite wildly different life histories, as a result of Nero's rending of the Trek Prime timeline-- had begin to coalesce into their familiar configurations (with a number of twists). The promise of this has put my fears to rest by receiving a wildly satisfying payoff in this second iteration of the new franchise. Each of the beloved characters is given something Important to do, something which allows us to see how they are both known and new.

Similarly, there are aspects of the Federation which resonate in familiar ways to those who are conversant in the various series and movies from the Trek Prime universe. But the rippling consequences of the changes which spawned this new timeline have had far-ranging consequences whose implications become clear as the film reveals its secrets (a privilege I am resolved to not usurp in this review!). There are resonances with the Trek which we know....but they are just that: resonances. These are not retreads, nor slavish repetitions. Echoes of events which unfolded as we know them from the familiar Trek universe are present (and many more foreshadowed). But they all bear the stamp of the new conditions under which they arise, and so they retain their ability to surprise. And surprise they do!

Naturally, this makes my inner Chaos/Complexity Theory Geek emit all manner of undignified SQUEES!

All that said, this is a very entertaining film! I had the pleasure of seeing a special preview of the first 9 minutes of it, attached to The Hobbit, back in December. Although the Peter Jackson Extravaganza that followed all-but obliterated those 9 minutes, enough of a trace remained that I was TERRIBLY excited to see what would follow. And I was not the least bit disappointed. The blend of genuinely funny humor and jaw-dropping eye and ear candy is very much still in evidence here.

You. Will. NOT. Be. Bored.

Could I predict a few of the plot twists ahead of time? Sure. Did it telegraph these a bit? Yup. But it was neither insultingly obvious nor maddeningly coy about this. Were there sleeper subplots which languished, unrevisited, till the story required them to re-emerge? Sure. But not every story needs to be told in detail, if the telling will derail the overall tale (that's what Deleted Scenes are for!).

Suffice to say that, long before the iconic Alexander Courage theme rang out at the end, I was SOLD on this New Trek's spirit, its reverence for its roots, and its...well...boldness to grow in truly different (but thematically consistent) directions from those roots.

It appears that the Final Frontier encompasses even wider expanses than we'd thought.

And I could not be any more ready to warp out and explore them!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Obama Champion of Gay Rights? Look Again

Bethany Mandel, at Commentary offers some badly-needed thoughts on the meme that a Romney Presidency will constitute a massive step back for LGBT rights in our society. And yet, prior to the POTUS' "historic" endorsement of same-sex marriage equality, he could hardly be counted among the most staunch advocates of that equality...not till his hand was forced by his running-mate, and an election loomed:

As Obama’s actions both before and after his gay marriage flip-flop have shown, his commitment to gay rights appears to be merely one of convenience. Four years ago, it was politically expedient to be against gay marriage, thus President Obama made statements to that effect. In May, after Vice President Biden blurted out his previously unmentioned support of gay marriage, President Obama found it politically necessary to either repudiate his own vice president or change his stance, and chose to do the latter.
I have no doubt that Mr. Obama personally supports marriage rights for same-sex couples. That is not the point, really. The point is what he can be realistically counted on to do about those beliefs. Obama is a Statist (albeit not quite as radical a one as many of his Conservative critics like to shriek); he believes that the proper role of the Federal Government is to wade in and fix and do things. Given that belief, and the very strong advantage he enjoyed in both houses of Congress, prior to 2010, does his all-but absent posture on the issue really inspire that much more confidence than might accrue to a Federalist, who believes in the distribution of power away from the USGOV, even if he does not share the beliefs of gay advocates?

It is a question worth pondering, and a much-needed moderating salve on the perpetually-reopened wounds of this debate, among those who are invested in promulgating decidedly immoderate assertions on the matter.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Al Smith Dinner: 2012

As lively and bracing as this election has surely been, I've been looking forward to the traditional Al Smith dinner like even the most avid Football fan looks forward to the Superbowl commercials. I just love this thing, for reasons which I'm sure the tapioca between my ears at the moment will likely fail epically to articulate as satisfactorily as I managed during the last go-round.

Obama's comic chops continued to earn honest props. It's a thing to behold, the way he plays against his signature oratorical cadences, executing a really masterful Aikido twirl between what he knows to be perceived as vanity, and the humility of joining in with the mocking of it.

But what really, honestly surprised me was how readily Mittens was able to morph into a very decent comedic groove. His self-referential ribbing of the "Richy Rich: The Android Years" vibe was right in the pocket (and a deep one, at that....badum-CHING). His bit toward the end, about competing without disliking, and his praise of the President and his family were both gracious and conspicuously sincere.

Both candidates, in fact, ended on notes of elevated and edifying good-fellowship, even as the roasty bits before made clear that It was still On. That's what these things do: they sit between the crusty bread slices of the debates, like a nice schmear of Nutella.

Worth taking a bite; leaves a badly-needed good aftertaste.

Monday, October 1, 2012

My Path From Port To Starboard: It's Complicated

So, what business does an agnostic, non-affluent, socially-liberal, post-graduate-educated, Northeast city-born, suburban-dwelling bloke (technically a Minority, to boot) like myself have in calling himself any kind of "Conservative?"

This is a question to which regular readers of these pages (all three of them!) know I have bent my thoughts for a number of years now. After all, in the Summer of 2004, I still defined myself as someone who believed that it was the government's responsibility to engineer society such that the needs of its citizens could never go unmet. Further, I believed that the national nature of that project was a mere stepping-stone toward the time when Westphalian nation-state borders would all-but vanish, and a new World Government would create a seamless, just, and intelligently-designed global community. Even now, the ideas still have appeal.

It is understandable that some might perceive a deep irony in the fact that, having undergone such profound change, I should now subscribe to a domain of thought which is often dismissed as being merely the resistance to change. Further, it is just as understandable that a similar irony could be found in a non-theist aligning himself with a political philosophy which has become so enmeshed with hard theism. Finally, some may see a contradiction in the fact that, as someone who works in a helping profession (Clinical Psychology), I should have thrown in with those who are perceived as being all-too ready to throw the weak to the wolves.

As ever, the reconciliation of apparent paradoxes lies beyond the edges of the screens onto which they're projected.

Uncharacteristically cutting to the chase: I am a conservative because I am a Complex Systems thinker (link, by the way, is to a SPECTACULARLY useful site for the layman to get up to speed on these theories).

As a student of complex, non-linear, edge-of-chaos phenomena, I have learned to look with deep humility on our capacity to characterize --let alone control-- complex, open, evolving systems. From ecosystems to economies (but I repeat myself), nature finds a way to flow like water into spaces that are un-dreamed-of in our philosophies. Flocks of birds self-organize into fantastically elaborate patterns as they swirl through the sky. There is profound meaning to be found in the the fact that they do so without the aid of any rules more complicated than "keep a certain distance from adjoining birds, steer around obstacles, and travel along basically the same path as your fellow-flockers." The pattern is an emergent property of these simple, strictly local rule-sets.

This quality of emergence is apparent throughout nature. Traffic patterns arise from local interactions on the level of individual cars...yet they can achieve complex forms which span miles of roads, reacting to (and anticipating) assorted perturbations as though they were subject to some superordinate intelligence. But they're not. Molecules of oil in a shallow dish can align themselves into a regular lattice of hexagonal columns of fluid  (Bénard cells) when heated. It almost looks like these molecules are executing a pregiven program. But they're not.  Populations of cells act in concert to form and maintain the function of an organism, and those organisms arrange themselves into cooperating and competing biomes and ecosystems, all as though they were cogs in a fantastically-designed clockwork. But they're not.

These collective behaviors arise from the interactions of local agents, whose activities are regulated at a dynamic cascade of system levels...but with nary a Central Planning Authority to be found. Indeed, I have come to see that the most brittle, least adaptive systems are those which are organized around a strictly "top-down," hierarchical architecture of energy and information. A brain (a self-organizing system) can suffer grievous damage, and yet still  regain substantial portions of its previous function by routing around the damage...whereas a computer can grind to a catastrophic crash, owing to a misplaced comma in thousands of lines of code (usually the night before an important presentation is due!).

You see where this is going.

As I said (and meant), the ideas from my Transnational Progressive days still have much appeal. I like the idea that society can be designed in such a way that it can remain viable, yet responsive to the needs of all its citizens. I like the idea that smart people can apply those smarts to engineering a setting in which all people can be positioned --well-fed and educated and healthy-- to thrive and create and live well. What kind of person wouldn't?

The trouble is that those smart people would have to have access to the kind of comprehensive information which the universe simply does not provide, when it comes to the structure and function of complex systems. There is a hard complexity barrier between the unfolding of such systems, and the algorithms we might devise to describe and predict (again, let alone control) that unfolding. As such, all attempts at planning and administering a system as complex as a society and an economy will result in a GARGANTUAN bureaucracy, cobbling together policy after policy, growing and accruing more and more system energy (or, if you prefer, power) to manage the cascade of unintended consequences which it will spawn like metastases as it frantically strives to put even the very noblest of intentions into practice. It happened in the Soviet Union. It's happening in the Euro Zone. I have come (reluctantly!) to the position that it will happen wherever Central Planning is tried.

F. A.  Hayek --pre-dating Complexity Theory by decades-- wrote that it is the Smithian, "Invisible Hand" of myriad individual choice-making agents which enables an economy flexibly to assign value to goods and services, and to enable the most efficient flow of energy/capital through that economy. He wrote (during the days leading up to and closely following WW2, when many of these ideas stood in VERY high relief) that efforts to plan and manage the operation of an economy were subject to insuperable obstacles, owing to the invariably imperfect knowledge to which the Planners would have access. (and, since it seems I can't go a full month without linking to this bit of brilliance, here's another way to discuss this). It was his thesis that a mechanism which would assume such a level of control over what is essentially an evolving system will lead it to steal more and more energy from that system, till it becomes self-perpetuating and parasitical. He posited (again, not in a vacuum) that both economic dynamism and liberty would erode under such conditions.

Now, of course a "purely" non-interventionist government (if such a beast could ever be said to have existed on this planet) would not be a tolerable scenario. There are aspects of human welfare which simply must be placed behind a judiciously-applied set of firewalls, if a society is to be a just one. However, the Social-Darwinist view of free-market capitalism which is so often set up as a straw man by advocates of Planning is by no means a necessary correlate of the thing. The difference, if you will, is in viewing government as the control rod or the reactor core.

Thus, I choose to align myself, to as great a degree as is practicable within the Real World, with those who work to create an open, fair marketplace, within whose raucous, generative, evolving, and frequently messy parameters prosperity will arise. Since no pure form of such an approach can be found in our political landscape, in anything like a configuration which is tolerable to me (and which stands a snowball's chance on Venus of achieving the White House), I'm stuck with the GOP (and only then, because I live in a State with closed primaries, in which Independents cannot vote).

I recognize that this puts me in the company of folks who hardly see eye-to-eye with me on the position that, say, homosexuality is merely a normal (if relatively rare) variation in natural human pair-bonding (and that, thus, it is absurd to deny people access to a central human pair-bonding ritual and status, just because they so vary). I know that there is a (deeply paradoxical!) thread within the party of insinuating uncomfortably high levels of Christian theology into the laws of the land...which flies in the face of the ostensibly liberty-oriented approach to government's footprint in people's lives which is proper to the party's orientation. What can I tell you? We live in a universe where the Perfect is inevitably and irreducibly the enemy of the good, if we choose to hold out for it.

But the Democratic party has seemingly irretrievably aligned itself with the tradition of Progressives and other Planners. And, for whatever tactical gains it (admirably!) strives to bring about for its constituents, it does so at the price of strategic losses to our society's ability to sustain the benefits it promises. It simply does not fit within my frame of reference that this is a good idea (nor, in the end, particularly humane). So, I ride herd as much as possible on the more pernicious aspects of the GOP's posture (if, the gods forbid, Michele Bachmann, or Rick Santorum had gotten the nomination, I would have had a Very Difficult choice to make...see why I want to be able to vote in the primaries?), while advocating for those parts which move our society in what I judge to be the direction in which it remains most vibrant and viable (which, to paraphrase JFK [who all-but-certainly would have been Liebermanned into obscurity within today's Democratic party] would create the rising tide which lifts all boats).

Yes, conservatives would find a great many of my positions positively heretical (and, of course, the feeling would be mutual). But no complex system is without internal contradictions, even as its overall organization is coherent. Nature is not kind to Purists. So we choose among imperfect options, in as-educated-as-possible hope that the highest-viable good will emerge.

It's the worst possible system you could imagine....except for all the others.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

"Cabin In The Woods"

Just finished watching the Joss Whedon-written, Drew Goddard-directed Cabin In The Woods. Had the misfortune of never having had the chance to see it in theaters, despite most of my therapy clients assuring me that if I missed it, there'd be a strong argument for switching places with them. Now I see what they meant.

Writing a review for this movie is a difficult thing, since what makes it great (along with the crackling, Jossian dialog, the insanely brilliant production design, the surprisingly effective acting, and...stuff) is the way it reveals its secrets, like unlocking levels in a cracking-good video game. Not about to step on that process here.

On the surface, this is as familiar a story as you could imagine. That's the point, really: the "Teens in an Isolated Forest Cabin" simulation has been run so persistently in our culture that even the self-referential, oh, so Po-Mo deconstruction of it (care of the "Scream" series) has become an idiom of its own.

What Whedon's been able to do in "Cabin" would be nothing short of astounding...if it were anyone but Joss. Somehow, he's been able to take not only our familiarity with the assorted horror movie tropes, and fold it in on itself yet again, but he escapes being merely clever in doing so by creating a framework for understanding how  (and why) these meme clouds have become so archetypal in the first place.

Now, that's what Meta's for!

I don't even want to go through the characters and describe their stories and how they fit together here. First of all, I don't have to; you'll know them right away. More importantly, though, going into this with too much foreknowledge would be a disservice to the experience of it, the way it turns your expectations and certainties on their heads (which may or may not be attached to anything at the time...), and forces you to reflect on yourself reflecting on the story as it reflects on itself...then takes you where you least expected to end up.

Now, don't worry: I'm not talking about "Inception"-level complexity here (GODS, did I love that film, but man, was it dense!). You could write dissertations on this movie...but it doesn't try to be one, itself. At a mere 1 hour and 38 minutes (less credits, which [a little surprisingly] do not contain an Easter egg at the end), this thing moves along with no lags or hangs in its masterful, relentlessly entertaining pace. You can't get away with not thinking...but you'll never be bored as you do it!

If you have a penchant for inky-dark humor, a strong stomach (!), and even a casual acquaintance with the vernacular of horror movies (which will be rewarded with a swarm of very excellent visual and thematic homages), you'll see how the seasoned team of Whedon and Goddard have served up a bubbling beaker of Instant Classic.