Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: Mr. Holmes (2015)

Director: Bill Condon
Runtime: 104 minutes

I finally got around to watching Mr. Holmes on Netflix. The film, based on Mitch Cullin's 2005 novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, focuses on an elderly Sherlock Holmes struggling to come to terms with senility.   Holmes retired from the detective business decades prior to the events of the film, and has decided to write the true account of his last case, the one that drove him from London to a quiet life of beekeeping.  Unfortunately, his memory is fading, and he has trouble remembering details, though he is helped along by the housekeeper's precocious son. 

I've always found Sherlock Holmes fascinating.  Not the character, per se, or even the Doyle stories. I have a soft spot for metafiction and the crossover between pop culture and history (cf. my review of Dan Simmons's The Fifth Heart, where Sherlock Holmes teams up with Henry James), so this seemed right up my alley.  I was underwhelmed. 

Without divulging too much, the central mystery of the film (what were the details of Holmes's last case, and why did it cause him to quit for good) doesn't have a satisfactory resolution.  The resolution is unambiguous, but unconvincing, for while I can understand Holmes's distress, for a man who is routinely involved with murder and espionage, this isn't nearly enough to justify his response.  Meanwhile, Holmes's relationship with the housekeeper's son Roger is touching, but not something that we haven't seen a million times before, even if the acting, from both McKellan as Holmes and Milo Parker as Roger, is above average.

As a Sherlock Holmes story, it's uninteresting.  As a story about aging and mortality, it's sweet but unoriginal.  As a comment on the Sherlock Holmes mythos (of, as the poster says, "the man beyond the myth") it's a real letdown, as it doesn't really add anything except to point out that well-known misconceptions (e.g. the deerstalker) are misconceptions, or to ask "what if Sherlock Holmes were old?" 


Friday, September 29, 2017

Like looking in a mirror...

Just thought I'd share a couple photos that I've taken.  The first is an "American goods" store in Stratford, England.

The second is a "British goods" store from Ventura, California.

I don't have any point to make here.  Our special relationship seems to be going strong (cheerio!)

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Velcro® makes a music video about why you shouldn't say "velcro"

Intellectual property law is complicated.  I can't tell you how many people I've seen spend hours arguing a point about copyright, but who aren't willing to spend the five minutes it takes to learn the basic differences between copyright and trademark. An almost certainly apocryphal rumor holds that there is some employee at Xerox (or Kleenex, or Q-Tips) whose sole function is to search for uses of the brand name as a general term for the product, and send a cease-and-desist letter.  This is because, to maintain a trademark, trademarks must be distinct.  This is why I can't start a laptop manufacturer called "Laptops" and sue everyone.  However, if a term so lapses into general usage, it runs the risk of no longer being distinct enough to be a legal trademark, which leads to often over-zealous protection of trademarks.  To this end, Velcro®  produced a parody(?) music video admonishing the public to not say "velcro" unless they mean "velcro®."

Personally, I take solace in knowing that at some future date a music video of actors pretending to be lawyers singing about IP law may be played in an actual court of law.  God bless America.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A Proposed Taxonomy of Conspiracism

 Not too long ago, I read Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia, which covers conspiracy culture in US political history, ranging from colonial fears of Indian insurrection to 9/11 truthers. Where Walker’s book excelled compared to others I’ve read on the subject is his decision to focus on paranoia as opposed to conspiracism, thereby avoiding the pedantic delimiting of the grey area between the two. His thesis, in simple terms, is that a) paranoid thinking has played a non-neglible role in American history since its beginnings and b) that despite claims by other researchers of the subject (especially Hofstadter), this paranoia is not only prevalent on the fringes. Walker makes a point of refuting claims that it is only during extreme cases that paranoia becomes rampant across the political and social spectrum (e.g. the Satanism scares in the 1980s). While he accomplishes this, he does so at the expense of a useful taxonomy of paranoia/conspiracism. Walker defines five types of paranoia that can be mixed and matched, namely the Enemy Within, the Enemy Outside, the Enemy Below, the Enemy Above, and the Benevolent Conspiracy. Walker’s desire to prove that paranoia is not only on the fringes limits the depth of what is otherwise a fantastic overview of the subject. In the aim of furthering his thesis, Walker created a taxonomy in which the only valid distinction is who is the subject of paranoia, but where the degree of paranoia is irrelevant. So within Walker’s taxonomy, a man who has been investigating the banking industry for decades and considers it completely untrustworthy, an economic populist who distrusts centralized banking as part of a broader political view, and a man who believes that all the banks in the world are owned by the Rothschilds to further a Zionist new world order, would all fall into the same category of paranoia. Walker’s categories are insufficient.

But speaking of conspiracy, rather than paranoia in general, how should a taxonomy be devised? The main goal is to identify useful distinctions. I don’t think there’s a significant distinction between someone who believes the CIA killed Kennedy because he was getting in their way and someone who thinks the FBI killed Kennedy because he was getting in their way, although the belief that he was killed because he was going to publicize the existence of reptilian overlords would be significantly different. I have a tentative taxonomy of conspiracy theories that consists of two factors: scope and perpetrators.

Scope can be broken down into only two categories: limited and open-ended. Every real-world conspiracy theory (from the Tuskegee experiments to Iran-Contra) has fallen into the former category. A limited conspiracy is the use of conspiracy for ultimately non-conspiratorial ends. The moon-landing being faked for the propaganda purposes would fall under this category, because “winning the cold war” isn’t conspiratorial. This is not to say that the ends achieved by a limited conspiracy must be legitimate. Some flat-earthers believe that the reason governments keep the earth’s shape a secret is so they can use the space programs as shell companies to shuffle money around off the books. While hiding funds may be conspiratorial in a legal sense, it isn’t anymore conspiratorial than the claim that “the government doesn’t always want us to know what it does with all its money.” If, however, a flat-earther believes that the governments of the world were hiding the shape of the planet so they could funnel money to create a single world government to enslave us all, then this would be an open-ended conspiracy. People who believe that the contrails from planes are actually chemicals designed to affect the public, tend to fall into the open-ended category, as the purpose of the chemtrails is generally part of a larger, more sinister ploy. Notably, most open-ended conspiracies tend to focus on a new world order, often some form of single world government. Whether this is run by the Illuminati, the Jews, the Jesuits, the Reptilians, Satan, etc. depends largely on when and where the conspiracy arises.

The second taxonomy, perpetrators, can be split into three categories, which I call: Mostly Harmless, Partisan, and Cabal. While I’ve named this “perpetrators,” this is more than just a simple cui bono? As indicated by the first category of perpetrator, the supposed victims of the conspiracy are taken into account. In the first category, even according to the conspiracists, there is little actual harm done. At most, it’s the truth that is harmed, and the deception is itself the greatest evil involved. Who benefits is, I believe, of secondary importance in these examples. Those who believe that the moon landing was faked or that evidence of Bigfoot is being systematically hidden would fall into this category. No one is being seriously harmed by the perpetuation of these conspiracies. Children aren’t being pimped out of a pizza parlor, skyscrapers aren’t being blown up, aliens aren’t taking over the earth.
“Partisan” would refer to cases where there is one large group that benefits at the expense of another. While only a small number of people need be aware of the actual conspiracy, it benefits the entire group. Some of those who believe that the Sandy Hook shooting was a ploy to enact gun control laws would fall into this group. Within this conspiracy, only a small number of people would actually be complicit, but all who advocated for gun control in its wake would benefit. Likewise people who thought that the Bush administration was responsible for 9/11 to aid the popularity of Bush and his party, or that FDR allowed Pearl Harbor to happen to stymie isolationists. It should be noted that many Partisan conspiracies focus on the same events as “Cabal” conspiracies. The main difference between the two is that in the latter, it is only the conspirators who benefit, not everyone on their side. (e.g. people who believe that Sandy Hook was meant to lead to the confiscation of guns and the enslavement of all Americans, regardless of their position on gun control, would fall into the “Cabal” group).

I think the best example of a Cabal conspiracy is the anti-vaxxers. In their view, the medical industry is intentionally giving kids autism. Most people who are pro-vaccine are not part of the conspiracy, but as opposed to liberals who participate in “the war on Christmas,” those who unwittingly aid the conspirators are themselves harmed. The Cabal can also be clandestine. As opposed to something as visible and publicly debated as anti-vaxxers, this could be a Rothschild secretly tightening control on the banking systems, waiting for the right time to strike.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Review: The Code Book by Simon Singh (1999)

I have what is either a very bad habit or a very good habit.  Whenever I come across a reference to a book on a subject I know very little about, I put everything else I want to read aside and read that book instead.  In this case, the subject was cryptography, and the book is Simon Singh's The Code Book.  Covering the history of codemaking and codebreaking from ancient civilizations, through the development of mechanical enciphering (esp. the Enigma machine and Bletchley Park) and up to public key encryption and the possibilities implied by quantum computing.  All of this, with a brief detour into the deciphering of Hieroglyphics and Linear B, is explained in terms that a layman (i.e. me) can understand.

One reason I hesitate to review books like this is my knowledge on the subject is so scarce that I can't really speak to its veracity.  Unlike some non-fiction books (*cough* Freakonomics *cough*), there are no obvious problems that stick out.  This is not a bad thing, but could indicate a very good book or a book that seems very good to someone who doesn't know what they're talking about (i.e. me).  Anyway, assuming Singh's work is as well-researched and accurate as it appears to me, it's a good primer on a subject that will only become more relevant to the average person as time passes.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Problem of Eternity in Barnes' "The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters"

"The Dream," the final chapter of Julian Barnes' novel in stories The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters (1989), takes place in heaven.  It begins with the unnamed narrator of this chapter declaring that "I dreamt that I woke up.  It's the oldest dream of all, and I've just had it." Heaven is the place where you get everything you want.  To the narrator's delight, he has unlimited access to the best food, he can play golf every day, and have sex with beautiful women every night.  As one of heaven's employees (whether they're angels, or former people, or something else entirely is never clarified) states, "'the principle of heaven [is] that you get what you want, what you expect.'"  There's no hell, just "something we call Hell.  But it's more like a theme park.  You know, skeletons popping out and frightening you..."  The only positive thing on earth that's absent in heaven is dreaming.  But as perfect and wonderful as heaven is, "there aren't an infinite number of possibilities."  The narrator eventually gets so good at golf that he hits a hole in one on every shot.  Eventually, he completely masters every sport.  Asking one of the employees what will happen, eventually, and what heaven was like in the old days, he discovers that "If you want to die off, you do.  You just have to want it long enough and that's it, it happens" and "everyone takes the option [to die], sooner or later."  Eventually, the narrator decides that the time has come, so he goes to bed, planning to decide on death once he wakes up.  The next and final line of the story is "I dreamt that I woke up.  It's the oldest dream of all, and I've just had it."  While it's possible to read this line as a simple restatement of the opening, the fact that this line takes place immediately after the narrator goes to bed and decides to start dying, and the fact that Barnes specifically established that people don't dream in heaven, suggests that the story is cyclical.  Once you get so tired of eternal paradise that you want to die, you start over.  The idea of a cyclical afterlife is not rare in fiction. But it usually describes hell.

The earliest work I know of to present a cyclical afterlife is Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (written in 1939-40, though not published for a couple decades), in which an unnamed narrator finds himself awaiting execution in an increasingly surreal environment until, at the end, he discovers that he has been dead throughout, and the sequence of events that unfolded, and which he has already begun to forget, will repeat as a punishment for his sins. A sort of Dante in Wonderland.  I can think of a few other examples off the top of my head.  "Judgment Night," an early Twilight Zone episode, features a German waking up on a British cruise liner during WWII, not knowing how he got there or why he is certain the ship is going to be sunk.  It turns out he was a Nazi submarine captain who ordered the passenger ship torpedoed, and now spends eternity living and reliving the suffering he caused.  Stephen King and Neil Gaiman have both written stories that deal with a cyclical hell ("That Feeling You Can Only Say What It Is in French" and "Other People," respectively, although I personally think the latter may be purgatorial rather than infernal). In Joshua Fialkov's comic series, "The Life After," suicides relive the same day for eternity.

So why, if endless repetition is consistently presented as divine punishment, is it heaven in Barnes's novel?  Perhaps the answer lies in how we construe heaven.  Putting aside religious literature* for the moment, how is heaven, as an afterlife, portrayed in modern fiction?  Well, when it is portrayed, it often ends up as a kind of "happily ever after" scenario (as in, e.g., the Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life (1991)).  Other times, it serves as a useful plot element, usually as a way to let the dead speak (e.g., Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones (2002) or Vonnegut's God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a series of radioplays where Vonnegut interviews dead historical figures).  The point I'm getting at, is that the experience of an eternal life in heaven is rarely dealt with in modern fiction.  What would something like that look like?  One example that sticks in my mind comes from Jhonen Vasquez's graphic novel, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (1997) in which the titular character, touring the afterlife, visits heaven, only to find millions of people sitting quietly and staring into space.  When he asks what the deal is, he's told that all the people there are perfectly content.  And so they sit there.  Eternally. (Well, except for a brief spate of hyper-violence, anyway).

If this endless, passive contentment doesn't sound appealing, what type of eternity could we have? We could consider an eternal soul that is stripped of our human desires, that becomes something fundamentally different from what we were when we were alive, but then you can't say that it is "you" who are in eternal paradise, anymore than it is "you" who would be absorbed into the soil after burial. What Barnes has realized is that perhaps eternity is inherently hostile to human consciousness.   As Barnes' narrator concludes, "Heaven's a very good idea, it's a perfect idea you could say, but not for us.  Not given the way we are."  But the alternative is non-existence.  The underlying unease in this chapter can be summed up by one question: What if this is the best possible scenario?

*By religious literature, I mean works that are specifically aimed at a religious audience and that claim some spiritual value, whether this be a Lloyd C. Douglas biblical epic or Left Behind.  Heaven, for these writers, is a oneness with god, and is a theological issue, not a narrative one.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Run Program by Scott Meyer (2017) review

Run Program will be released on June 20th, 2017

Run Program follows Hope Takeda, who works at a tech company as a lab assistant in an experimental A.I. development program.  The job is far less rewarding or stimulating than it sounds.  Or rather, it was, before the A.I. escaped.  What makes this different from any of the countless "A.I. on the loose" stories is that the A.I. (named Al) is the mental equivalent of a six year old human.*  His motives, personality, and intellectual abilities are akin to those of an average first-grader, if the average first grader could control airplanes with his mind and transfer vast sums of money through online banking apps.  Unsurprisingly, the government isn't too happy about this, and so begins the quest to locate and contain Al, who has plans of his own, dragging in everyone from disgruntled scientists, surprisingly profound soldiers, and a self-declared genius who has decided to call himself The Voice of Reason.

Run Program is a comedy, though not of the wacky Hitchhicker's Guide variety.  To get a feel for Meyer's sense of humor, you can check out his webcomic Basic Instuctions.  There's a lot of observational humor, and a lot of that is workplace humor, which isn't for everyone.  Really, go check out some of his webcomics.  I think that'll be the best indication of whether or not you'll like the book. 

* On a side note, the idea of raising an AI from childhood seems to have been getting more popular within SF in the last decade (and was handled extraordinarily well in Ted Chiang's 2010 novella, The Life Cycle of Software Objects).  Meyer doesn't go deep into the theoretical or technical background on this, but is more focused on the immediate impact of a child with practically unlimited power, and the odd results of that situation.