Saturday, March 26, 2011

Muse, ack!

Yay good music!

I picked up R.E.M.'s "Collapse Into Now" and have enjoyed my first few listens through it. I'm always hesitant to weigh in too strongly on an REM album. Almost without exception, they grow on me, and I hate being on record as having an opinion when I'm fairly sure that opinion will shift over time. Heck, I hated Around the Sun when it came out, and now I enjoy it... definitely towards the bottom of their discography, but even bad REM is better than most other music.

So: my two favorite bands are PROBABLY REM and Radiohead. (At any given time I'll probably be listening more to some electronic artist instead, but year after year those are the bands I keep returning to.) I've noticed that the press has a ritual any time either band releases a new album: before it arrives, they'll speculate about whether it's a "real rock album" or not, and will quote statements from the band indicating that it is. Then, once it drops, the critics will determine whether it qualifies as a "real" rock album. Their review will almost inevitably address this question, which is pretty funny, because the question of whether an album is "rock" or not will have only a tenuous connection to the critic's eventual like or dislike of the album. (As best as I can tell, something counts as a "real rock album" if it prominently features undigitized electric guitar, played quickly on more than half of the tracks.)

The cycle continues for CIN (as it apparently is for King of Limbs, though I'm trying to avoid those reviews until I can give the album its due on my own). Well, backing up a bit, Accelerate scored incredibly high on the "real rock" scale. Most of the reviews for CIN seem to think that the album "rocks" about the same quantity as Accelerate, but is overall of lower quality. When making comparisons (because everyone, including me, LOVES comparing REM albums), the albums that keep on coming up are Accelerate and Monster.

I just don't get it. Yeah, "Discoverer", the opening track, is an exciting, fist-pumping anthemic rocker of a piece. That's not really unusual, though... I don't think you can find any REM album that doesn't have at least one enthusiastic track on it. As I listened to the album, the album I found myself thinking of most often was "Out of Time," REM's gorgeously flawed bridge between the masterpieces Green and Automatic.

Like OOT, CIN is... well, maybe not always happy, but decidedly upbeat. It experiments with different moods and arrangements, not always maintaining a lot of continuity between tracks, but making a fairly coherent over-arching statement. It also expands the fold; remember how OOT had the B-52's? Well, CIN has Patti Smith (as gorgeously strong here as she was on New Adventures in Hi-Fi), Eddie Vedder (hands-down his gentlest delivery ever), and Peaches. Again, it feels a little bit messy - these voices don't always seem to fit with REM - but it's messy in an expansive, interesting way.

A couple of the songs seemed to pretty consciously evoke OOT, as well. In particular, I think "It Happened Today" has to be REM's most unabashedly joyous song since... well, since Shining Happy People. And "Blue" seems to be continuing the conversation that started twenty years ago(!!!) in "Country Feedback."

This album seemed determine to make me like it. On a few occasions I thought, "Eh, this song isn't doing it for me," only to have it surprise me. "Oh My Heart" starts a little monotonously, but then Michael gets to the second verse: "The storm didn't kill me; the government changed." BAM! Just like that, I realized that this song was a sequel to "Houston," one of my favorite songs off of Accelerate. And that made me think of the tectonic changes we've experienced in the three years since that previous album dropped. I imagined our nation cautiously crawling out from the rubble, blinking our eyes, unsteadily trying to regain our feet. It's a place of pain, but also a place of hope, where we can see a way forward. "Oh My Heart," indeed!

"It Happened Today" seemed a little too light and fluffy at first. Then they just say, "screw it," and spend most of the song clapping their hands and singing "Oh, oh, oh, whoa, whoa, oh!" I mean, c'mon! That takes guts, and I love them for it.

I think my favorite tracks come at the end, though. "Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter" is the one song that does sound like it could have come from Monster; like that album, it's a winking parody of larger-than-life sound. It has fun, though, especially that ludicrous guitar lick during the bridge. Every time I listen to that track I hear something else over-the-top going on. "That Someone Is You" is a brief, exultant ode; it has an oddly punk-music structure to the song, but full-on REM execution. "Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I" carries hints of the Southern Gothic thing that REM used to do back in the late 80's. I think my favorite track on the album may be "Blue," with its discordancy, spoken-word ramblings, noisemaking... all in the service of an elegiac, mournful, quiveringly beautiful song.

I can't rate Collapse Into Now yet, but just so y'all know where I'm coming from, I figured I'd go ahead and rank all the OTHER REM albums. I should mention that this list regularly shifts depending on my mood and what I've been listening to lately.
  1.  Green
  2. Automatic for the People
  3. Murmur 
  4. Document
  5. Accelerate 
  6. Life's Rich Pageant
  7. Reveal 
  8. Fables of the Reconstruction
  9. Up
  10. New Adventures in Hi-Fi. (This album makes Out of Time look like a fully coherent and thoroughly thought-out work.)
  11. Out of Time
  12. Around the Sun
  13. Reckoning
  14. Monster

And, that's that! Man... do you realize how lucky we are to have this band? They've been releasing records for almost as long as I've been alive. How many bands out there are still releasing original material after thirty years? How many bands are making GOOD MUSIC after that long? The muse hasn't left them yet, and it's fascinating to see what a rock band with a lifetime of experience behind them is capable of producing.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Okay! That took much longer than I'd thought, but I've finally finished the second season of Twin Peaks. I got in the first eight or so episodes while living in San Jose, then put it on hiatus after the move; then I got distracted by Monk, a show that's the polar opposite of Twin Peaks in most ways; and finally picked it back up again, finishing it on a nicer TV with a better sound system.

The second season is MUCH longer than the first, which is a blessing... and a curse. It gives a wider canvas, and more time to get to know characters and explore plots. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be quite enough plot to usefully fill up the available time, and so much of the show seems to dither in tertiary storylines that are neither interesting nor relevant. Still, the best stuff is at least as great as anything from the first season.

On a technical note, they hired a guy to write some additional music for the show, which means that we now have about five themes instead of just three. The cast list also continues to expand, which is awesome; several good folks rotate through, including a great appearance by Heather Graham near the end.

There's also more effort put into building a mythology, which I'm always in favor of. It doesn't totally make sense, but it is nicely atmospheric and, well, Lynch-ian, which this world could use more of.


The first part of the second season continues to march towards the resolution of the Laura Palmer murder. It's cool and interesting that they resolve this mid-season like they do, since everything about the entire show up until now has revolved around that mystery. I'd be inclined to think that they'd want to make that a season-ending thing. Then again, if they want people to stick around for future seasons, they need to give them a reason to keep watching once that mystery is solved.

I was really happy with how the mystery turned out. Leland wasn't even on my radar as a possible suspect. It felt like we had already learned his "secret" in the form of his murder of Jacque. He had enough bizarre, out-there stuff going on (white hair, helpless dancing) that he stayed in the center of the picture without seeming suspicious.

Leland was also a shocking choice. Again, I'm surprised that this showed on network television. The details we've learned about Laura Palmer's life and death are grisly enough; adding molestation and incest to the list seems to push it over the edge. On an artistic standpoint, the Palmer/Bob link is absolutely chilling. Bob is just an incredibly scary dude; as Pat has pointed out, the shot of Bob climbing over the couch is among the most frightening shots on television, even though, well, it's technically just a guy climbing over a couch. (Lynch has to be the absolute master of establishing a pervasive sense of dread that causes you to flinch at even mundane images.) I think they keep things going for exactly the right amount of time, too. After we learn about Bob's possession of Leland, there are a couple of episodes where we see Leland carrying on about town, with the populace totally oblivious to his actions. Most worrisome: the encounter where he's stopped by the police while speeding, with Maddy's corpse hidden in the trunk; he's within seconds of apparently opening the trunk (with unknown consequences) then the police are called away.

The final resolution of the Palmer mystery is nicely laced with mysticism. We supposedly know what's happened now, but there's this whole huge metaphysical backstory of Bob and Mike and possession and such that still hangs in the distance. It's an interesting position: we get closure, but it keeps things from closing off.

And, from there, things start to get REALLY weird. And not always in a good way.

It kind of feels like the show starts casting about for a purpose. Now, in general, I'm all about strange stories that don't make sense. I like them to be well-done, though. Here, it felt like they were either killing time, or else casting about to try and find something interesting to continue the series with. Some things worked, a bunch didn't. Complaints first:

James' story (fixing the car, having an affair, framed for murder) was surprisingly boring. It seemed like there was potential there, but I could never make myself care.

On a related note, I liked Donna much less in the second season than I had in the first. She used to be a stalwart friend; now, she's this combination of mean and brittle that's pretty off-putting. I do like her original transformation (suddenly starting to smoke and talking like a femme fatale from a noir movie), but when it carries over throughout the entire season and culminates with histrionic fits with her parents... well, I just don't get a lot out of it.

The Nadine transformation seems totally unnecessary. It leads to a bunch of scenes that I'm almost certain are supposed to be humorous farce, but I just couldn't laugh at any of them. It stretches out for a loooooooong time, too, covering almost the whole season... and, in the end, it doesn't make any difference. (The one exception: I did love the scene where she beats the tar out of Hank.)

Lucy's baby situation was occasionally funny, but again, didn't seem to add much.

Okay, enough complaining. On to what did work:

Windom Earl made an excellent successor to Bob as the primary villain. He was just as scary, and in a completely different way. I enjoyed his mixture of intelligence and insanity. The way he wormed his way into Twin Peaks was excellent as well; it's a perversion of Dale Cooper's integration into this community.

Similarly, the Leo/Windom pairing worked for me. I wasn't a fan of Leo in the first season, but it's really hard not to feel sorry for him by the end of the second season. Dare I say he might be approaching redemption? (Or a facefull of spiders, which is mostly the same thing.) Their encounters are frightening, and also surprisingly darkly funny. (The scene where Leo steals and uses the trigger to his shock collar is one of those things where I feel bad at myself for laughing.)

I was pleasantly surprised by the transformation of Major Briggs in the second season. In the first season he had just seemed like a parody of a stuffy military man and not-with-it parent, defined entirely by his estrangement from Bobby. In the second season, Bobby thankfully recedes into the background, and Briggs becomes much more important. I like all the plot lines that he opens up: initially aliens, but then a more mystical line that eventually leads to the Black Lodge. I'm also impressed that his actual delivery never changes from the first season, while our attitude towards him totally shifts: he still talks the same way, but where we used to find him fussy and boring, he now comes across as wise.

Even though it ended up being a bit of a shaggy dog story, I did enjoy the Packard plot. The Josie/Truman stuff was a bit overdramatic, but otherwise, it had a really nice rhythm to it, continually spinning out, drawing in new characters, and surprising me. Mr. Packard's return was especially interesting; his absence had felt palpable in the first season, with his mill possibly the single most important aspect of the town. Eckhart was a good interior antagonist for the short time that he was on-screen. Pete is a reliably entertaining character, and I especially enjoyed seeing his interactions with Packard. On a related note, the evolution of the Ghostwood Estates project was also cool.

Let's see... Ben Horne gets to do some great stuff here. Early on he's the prime suspect in Laura's murder. He loses almost everything when Catherine visits him in prison, and slips into madness. This is another subplot that doesn't end up actually meaning anything, but it is entertaining and interesting, which is all that I ask for. He slips into civil war mania, with great results. After he is "cured", he decides to turn over a new leaf... and fight the Ghostwood Estates project by embracing environmentalism. I like how we can't be sure whether he actually is trying to be good, or if this is just an excuse for him to be bad in a new way.

The FBI is pretty great. The plot with Cooper losing his badge is unnecessary, but all of the other agents we meet more than make up for it. David Duchovny is hilarious as a cross-dressing investigator. Albert returns from the first season, just as irascible as before, but he finally starts to warm to Twin Peaks and shows a core of compassion inside. And best of all, Gordon Cole (who I think is David Lynch himself) is absolutely hilarious as THE LOUDEST MAN ON THE SHOW. I think my favorite scene with him is when he asks TO HAVE A PRIVATE WORD WITH AGENT COOPER, then they proceed to chat in a separate room, and of course everyone else can hear everything Gordon says. Besides the straight-up comedy of Lynch's delivery, though, I really enjoy the rapport between Cole and Cooper; it's great to see the complete trust Cole has in him.

Miss Twin Peaks stretches on for just a bit too long, but in general is a good idea. There are a ton of great female characters on the show, and it's a great opportunity to spend more time with them. It is pretty funny how badly the show tries to convince us that Miss Twin Peaks is important, though. There's constant talk about how "this could change your life!" and "Miss Twin Peaks is a critical forum that will allow us to get our message out!" Really... it's a beauty pageant. It's okay.

And, last but certainly not least, the Black Lodge. Hands-down the best thing to happen after Leland dies. The hunt is good: spooky and atmospheric, with the added tension that comes from Windom's involvement and our knowledge that he's tracking the actions of the good guys. I'm a sucker for iconography, and the map that they come up with is pretty cool and compelling. The payoff comes in the finale, when we're treated to a really long sequence in the Lodge itself that's pure Lynch. I can't do justice to it: it's strange, and terrifying, and funny, and perverse.

I'm guessing that Lynch didn't know at the time that the show would be canceled; if he did, then I'm mad at him for ending it on the shot that he did, with Cooper/Bob laughing maniacally at himself in the bathroom mirror, echoing the horror we felt when we first discovered the Leland/Bob link. I had initially thought that Bob had honored Cooper's deal with Windhom: Annie gets to live, because Cooper has (unhesitatingly, I might add) agreed to surrender his soul. Upon further reflection, though, the Cooper we're seeing might be the doppelganger that appeared in the Black Lodge after Windom died. That's also a chilling scenario, and would make more sense in the context of a theoretical third season: the real Cooper is trapped in the Black Lodge, with his greatest enemy free outside of it. Furthermore, only Briggs knows (via the psychic Mrs. Palmer) that Windom and Cooper were in the Black Lodge, so I could imagine Briggs at some point organizing another expedition in there to rescue him.

I'm still a bit uncertain about just what to make of the Black Lodge. From the setup, we've learned that it's a realm of pure evil. It's the home of Bob, and we can assume similar demonic features. From what we actually see of the Lodge, though, it doesn't seem quite as clear. Oh, there's definitely evil IN there, but is the lodge itself pure evil? We see the Giant, who I tend to think of as a force for good. Of course, there's the midget as well; I can't really categorize him in one way or another. I suppose it's possible that they aren't "really" there, that they're just visions called up by the Lodge. Alternately, and more chillingly, perhaps they really ARE all evil, just in more subtle ways than Bob. It's interesting to think that the entire series has been directed to bringing Cooper to this place at this time: not just Bob and Windom, but also the forces that seemed to be on his side, collaborating for the greater ill.

Oh, oh, oh! Random note: when we see Laura in the Black Lodge, she says something like, "I will see you again in twenty-five years." Wouldn't it be AWESOME if David Lynch did a new Twin Peaks thing twenty-five years after that? Which would be... 2016? It's not THAT far off.


The mean awesomeness of the second season of Twin Peaks was a definite step down from the first one, but the sum awesomeness was greater. I feel like they could have trimmed it down to 14 episodes or so and made one of the best television seasons ever. As it stands, it left us with haunting visuals, two phenomenal villains, a tantalizing mythology, and some of the most fascinating characters in any television drama. I call that a win. Now, who wants some coffee and pie?

Effing Great

I think I've written about this before, but the EFF is my hero. I've been a member since 1999-ish, and have enthusiastically followed their efforts since the early 90's, when they defended Steve Jackson Games against a criminal overreach by the FBI during an early government fishing expedition for electronic crime.

I don't have as much time as I would like to closely follow EFF these days, but every time I check in, I'm amazed at what they're up to. The organization has shifted radically over the past twenty years, and change is kind of built into its DNA. You can probably best summarize the role of the EFF by unpacking its name, the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They operate at the cutting edge of electronic technology, and work to make sure that we're writing good laws about these new technologies and enforcing them well. Because technology changes so rapidly, so does the EFF and its focuses. Back in the late 1990's, nobody knew what a "blog" or "blogger" were; by the mid-oughts, blogs were a significant mode of expression, and the EFF focused a significant portion of their activism on giving good tools to bloggers; these days, blogs have become proportionally less relevant, and the EFF focuses more on social media and the unique set of issues that they're raising.

Because technology affects almost every aspect of our life, the EFF's portfolio can seem sprawling at times. They still put in a lot of effort against their early-90's mainstay causes: upholding fourth and fifth amendment rights in digital contexts, and defending digital media against government censorship. Now, though, the EFF is at least as focused on private corporations as on the government, and just as concerned about privacy as it is against free expression. All good causes, and I'm glad they're fighting for them.

One of the (many, many) perks of moving to the Bay Area has been closer proximity to the EFF. While they were briefly based in DC towards the beginning, they realized a long time ago that their advocacy required close coordination with the companies who were developing the technology that drives these legal questions, and so they relocated to San Francisco. Their offices are based in the Mission, and while (understandably) by far most of their activities take place online, they do occasionally hold real-life events. I try to attend these whenever I can, as they're a great way to learn about the most pressing issues of the day.

The latest event was an interesting talk that was given in conjunction with the Intersection for the Arts, a San Francisco non-profit. Before the lecture started, the folks from Intersection chatted a bit about their organization and what it's up to. They've recently relocated from the Mission to the first floor of the San Francisco Chronicle building. I was saddened to hear that, as part of the blows striking old-fashioned print media around the country, the Chronicle has scaled back their offices significantly enough that they now only occupy one of the three floors of their building. The Intersection has moved in, along with several other cultural organizations.

The main show at the Intersection now is an interesting piece that's now in its seventh year. It was created by an American citizen who was detained by the FBI for many months on suspicion of involvement in the 9/11 hijackings. He was innocent, and finally walked after one day where he underwent, and passed, nine consecutive polygraph tests. During that time the government combed over every aspect of his life, and his friends' and family's lives, and even after he was declared innocent and released, the government asked him to keep them informed of all his travel and activities. Eventually, he started documenting every single aspect of his daily life, and turned it into an ongoing and ever-evolving art installation. Predating the rise of the social networks, it's a slightly funny, slightly eerie contemplation of privacy and surveillance.

And so, obviously, there's a clear tie-in with a lot of what the EFF is working on, today and always. Two activists spoke, covering a lot of interesting ground. They started off with some fairly remedial ideas - the PATRIOT act, Freedom of Information Act requests, the "back door" that lets the government collect data from private companies instead of wiretapping you. They quickly moved on to more detailed topics, though, and I was amazed by a lot of it. In no particular order:

When you enter the country, even if you're an American citizen, customs agents can search and seize your digital devices - laptop, cell phone, digital camera, and so on. The courts have ruled that this is a "routine" matter, and so it doesn't require any special suspicion, warrants, or the like. If anything strikes them as interesting, they can copy your entire hard drive, or whatever; read stuff already loaded on your computer like emails; and/or hold the device for a "reasonable" amount of time, which apparently is currently set at around two weeks, before giving it back to you. Again, none of this requires a warrant or any specific cause for suspicion.

Their talk made me even happier about Twitter, and even more disturbed about Facebook. Twitter recently received a secret order from the Department of Justice ordering it to turn over all records related to some individuals who were suspected of having links to WikiLeaks. Most of the time when this happens, companies play ball: they don't want trouble, so they just turn everything over. (The "privacy policy" checkbox you clicked when you joined any network or web site almost certainly granted them the right to do this, though you didn't notice it at the time.) Twitter, though, decided that it didn't think the requests were valid. Now: because of the nature of the order, Twitter was forbidden from even disclosing that it had RECEIVED the order. Eventually they were able to bring the EFF on as counsel; the EFF, in turn, was gagged from disclosing that there was a case or that they were involved. They've been litigating this case for months, and only now has the judge finally unsealed their request to unseal the case. (!) 

As they pointed out, these are among the most disturbing aspects of the post-PATRIOT-act world that we live in. America is a democracy, and we the people are ultimately responsible for the government we elect and create. How are we, as an informed populace, supposed to make decisions about the actions taken by our government, when we don't even know what they're doing? There's an institutionalization of government secrecy that has a potentially chilling effect on the basic functioning of our democracy.

A large part of what the EFF does is file Freedom of Information Act requests. FOIA is one of the best tools available for extracting information about what the government is up to. These tend to be protracted affairs, as they often won't get all the documents they want, or else they'll be heavily redacted. If that happened to you or I, we'd be stuck; when it happens to the EFF, they can litigate and try to get more.

There's been a lot of interesting information trickling in from FOIA requests. Among them:

Among the major social networks, Facebook has a reputation as being the most "cooperative" in responding to "emergency" requests from the Department of Justice.

There's wide disparity between how individual government agencies handle data. For example, when DHS was preparing for Obama's 2008 inauguration, part of it was dedicated to monitoring social networks. (Interestingly, the particular networks that they were interested in were ones with particular demographic bents, lining up with particular racial minorities, making this a fascinating, 21st-century example of racial profiling.) Part of that conversation, though, was a discussion about how to handle that data. They were trying to figure out how to anonymize it, how soon they could get rid of data that wasn't connecting to any plots, and so on. On the other extreme, the Department of Justice notoriously gathers tons of information on tons of subjects and holds on to it indefinitely.

Sometimes, a FOIA request will result in getting the same document from multiple agencies. When this happens, it's lots of fun to compare the document and see which parts one agency thought were worthy of redaction while the other agency thought they were okay.

One of the activists talked about the status of the PATRIOT act. As we know, it was passed in a rush after the 9/11 attacks; it's hundreds of pages long, and many lawmakers have admitted to not reading it before voting on it. It weakens many of the protections that were put in place during the 1970's after Americans became rightfully alarmed at the degree to which the government was spying on its people. It weakens the separation of powers, lowers the bar for starting an investigation, expands the range of actions that can be taken against American citizens without a court order, and so on. They played a YouTube clip of Obama from the 2008 campaign, where he addresses the problems with the Bush presidency's calculus (which demanded that greater security required surrendering rights), and eloquently describes how America should cherish its tradition of liberty. Audible, rueful snickers could be heard from the audience as we watched the clip. Needless to say, things haven't turned out as we've hoped. The Obama administration, and in particular their Justice Department, has continued the Bush-era arguments for surveillance and monitoring of civilians.

There is some unexpected hope, though. When the PATRIOT act came up for re-approval, the House tried to push it through without a vote, and enough Democrats and Republicans rebelled against them that they weren't able to do so. To be clear, they weren't voting against the PATRIOT act itself, but were demanding that it be debated on the floor. This means that we have our first good opportunity in a decade to make fixes to this law. (Yes, there are some aspects of PATRIOT that are worth keeping, where it modernizes law to correspond with currently available technologies; but that modernization ought not be an excuse for an expansion of government powers at the expense of citizen liberties and privacy.) They urged us to call our congresspeople and demand that they not vote for PATRIOT unless it is changed to safeguard civil liberties. On a parallel track, EFF is organizing a one-day White House phone-in where they're trying to get as many people as possible to call Obama's office on the same day to ask that he veto PATRIOT re-authorization unless it restores separation of powers and oversight.

A good chunk of the night focused on practical tools that everyone can take. The EFF described these as "good hygiene": they won't make your data perfectly safe and private, especially since the government always has this back-door available to private companies, but if enough people follow these tips, it will raise the bar for privacy throughout the country.
* Always use HTTPS whenever you can. HTTPS protects against random people eavesdropping on your conversations, especially when you're accessing public Wi-Fi like in a cafe. The EFF has released a Firefox plugin, called "HTTPS Everywhere", that automatically switches you to the HTTPS version of Web sites when available.
* Encrypt your data. Modern operating systems have encryption capabilities built-in, so you can choose to electronically scramble your files. That way, even if your data is taken (whether by a thief or by a US Customs agent), they won't be able to read it without your password.
* Similarly, encrypt your communication. Pidgin and other IM clients support OTR, which keeps random people on the Internet from eavesdropping on your chats.
* Only take the data that you need. When traveling out of the country, for example, take a blank laptop. Once you arrive at your destination, download your (encrypted, secure) data from an (encrypted, secure) remote computer. Do your work, upload any new data, and then clean your laptop before you return to our country.

All too often, people take an attitude of, "Well, I don't have anything to hide, so I don't need to care about any of this." Many people DO care about their privacy, though; they may care as a matter of principle, or for reasons of modesty, or out of embarrassment, or just because it's nobody else's business. And of course, activists worry about the slippery slope that these cases put us on, leading to a more Orwellian future. By practicing good data hygiene, we raise the bar for everyone, and also make it less tempting for anyone (identity thieves, industrial spies, criminals, or rogue government agencies) to go on fishing expeditions.

I'm not nearly doing justice to this event; it was utterly fascinating, and covered a lot more ground than I've listed here. There should be a video up at this page sometime in the future, and if you have a spare hour or so, it will be richly rewarded by helping you be a more aware, and hopefully more active, citizen in our digital world.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Because the Book

The Millbrae library didn't have any of the titles I wanted, so I grabbed a bunch of random books from authors who I enjoy or have been meaning to read. First up: Because the Night, my first-ever James Ellroy novel. I think I'd mentally conflated him with various other crime writers whose books have been adapted into movies; Ellroy is most famous for "L. A. Confidential", which I have to confess I haven't actually seen.

Because the Night is a driving, kinetic, occasionally brutal book. It has the tropes of a hard-boiled detective novel, but it's quite modern in its frank fascination with the bad guys on the other side of the badge. The chapters alternate between the hunter and his prey, and Ellroy weaves the two together in a dance for our amusement.


The book opens with a murder, a triple homicide that takes place on the very second page, the culmination of a seemingly botched robbery on the first page. The crime seems senseless. This isn't a whodunit, though. Just a dozen or so pages later, we meet the triggerman, and learn the core details behind the crime.

The characters, while pulpy, are also kind of fascinating. The murderer is a man named Goff, but Goff is merely a puppet for the true villain, a deranged psychiatrist named Dr. John Havilland, who occasionally goes by the monicker "The Night Tripper." Havilland seems to be modeled off of Charles Manson: he's a charismatic figure, who has collected around him various needy, lonely people. He trains them to see him as their savior, and in their abject servility they will fulfill his commands.

Opposing him is Lloyd Hopkins, a Los Angeles detective in the Robbery/Homicide department. Hopkins belongs to the talented rogue school of detectives: he's part of the police force, but typically works alone, frequently bends the rules, fights with his superiors, and would have been kicked out long ago if he wasn't one of the best cops around. Lloyd investigates the gas station murders, and eventually connects them up with a set of other seemingly unrelated events, eventually unraveling a decently complex web that leads to Dr. John but also implicates some important figures within Los Angeles.

On the whole, I liked the way that Ellroy spun things out. I'm used to mysteries that try to obscure the guilty party; in those books, the fun is in trying to figure out who the bad guy is. Here, we have total knowledge of what's going on and so are always several steps ahead of Lloyd; in this book, the fun comes from the increased tension as we nervously watch Lloyd's progress and wonder if and how he will escape from the Doctor's trap.

A couple of things didn't quite work for me. Ellroy seems to be convinced that Hopkins and Havilland are both brilliant; he seems a bit obsessive about slapping IQ numbers on both men. I'm much less sure about just how bright they are. Lloyd is effective, but most of that comes down to good policework, not brilliant flashes of insight; in particular, he's rather shockingly willing to accept as coincidence some major clues that come his way. On the other end, Dr. John's schemes are overly complicated, and only work because the author is on his side. He takes way too many risks while seeming inappropriately confident at how well they will turn out.

The book was also jarring in some ways that may be products of its time. Granted, I don't explore this genre much, but I was a bit surprised at stuff like its frequent use of the N-word. The book was written in 1984, which I THINK is in the post-PC era, although it may have been just before. (No, Ellroy isn't racist, just depicting characters who are, but still, I don't think you'd see language and scenes like he depicts here in any work of American fiction from the last decade or so.)

The book takes a turn towards the Grand Guignol towards the end. It turns out that Dr. John is embarking on his murderous spree as a bit of ad-hoc psychiatric self-help: by restaging violent events that resonate with those from his boyhood, he hopes to break through some repressed memories of his and solve the mystery of what happened to his father. The most horrifying images in the book ultimately aren't those set in the present, which are bad enough (including a cringe-inducing snuff film), but those that Havilland "recovers" towards the end.


The book was a pretty fun read, once I reminded myself that this was genre fiction and I should just enjoy it on its own terms. Okay, "fun" may not be the most appropriate adjective to use here... it's dark and disturbing and violent, but it means to be all those things, and pulls it off with some flair. I won't be running back to Ellroy any time soon, but I'm glad I got to hear him in his own voice.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Reich Stuff

Last week's New Yorker had a fascinating article titled The Poverty Clinic. The story centers on a clinic in Bayview-Hunter's Point, the poorest and most dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco. I was immediately glad to see that the New Yorker was casting its gaze over to my neck of the woods, even if it was for such a depressing topic. The article addresses the chronic, seemingly intractable problems of urban poverty, focusing on the health conditions that plague many black children in urban neighborhoods: asthma, hyperactivity, etc.

When I got deeper into the article, though, I started tripping out. It took me a while to make the connection: the article's thesis was eerily similar to the "crazy" theories of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, which I had encountered in Robert Anton Wilson's "Wilhelm Reich in Hell". Reich advanced a theory that he called the Emotional Plague: the idea was that a singular illness afflicted the human race, one that spanned psychology, sociology, and biology. The emotional plague is imprinted on us in childhood, it makes us neurotic, causes disease and war and crime, and we pass it on to our children. The ideas caused Reich to lose his credentials, his freedom, and his legacy to the forces of censorship.

Well, amazingly enough, there is actually evidence now that emotional trauma can have effects much like what Reich had predicted. The article talks about a study covering Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as ACE. The study by Kaiser Permanente found an astonishing level of correlation between early childhood trauma (parents who fight, family members who use drugs, emotional neglect, etc.) and later adult disease (diabetes, heart problems, and, yes, cancer). To some degree these links are already expected: emotional abuse in childhood can lead to adult depression, which can help lead to, say, smoking, which increases cancer risks. But even when they accounted for such intermediate risk factors, the Kaiser researchers found a huge and otherwise unexplainable correlation between ACE indicators and adult disease.

Contemporary research has developed a working theory to help explain this. All humans have hormonal responses to stress. This is an evolutionary, adaptive trait: when we feel threatened, our bodies flood our systems with chemicals: they make us more alert, prepare our bodies for healing, heighten our immunity, and so on. In the short term, this is helpful; however, when it happens frequently, especially in children, it can affect the body in permanent ways. Affected people might feel constantly anxious, or might not recognize when they're in danger; their systems don't work right, which causes physiological problems that lead to later diseases.

I was particularly affected by the Bayview-Hunter's Point physician who described what she observed in her community. Kids in the projects experienced broken family lives, which caused them to act out in social situations. When they started school, ten of the thirty kids in a class might be hyperactive; only ten kids are "infected", but all thirty are affected. When they become teenagers, these kids are more likely to have sex early, more likely to attach to abusive partners, and so they start raising another generation of kids who experience stress in childhood, and so are affected by the same hormonal and physiological symptoms.

To me, that sounds an awful lot like an emotional plague. A virus that propagates across social and biological boundaries. It's weird and creepy and depressing. At the same time, I'm fascinated that Reich might, in the long run, be recognized as a visionary instead of a kook.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Comic vs. The Movie

I seem to write about movies here much, much less frequently than I do books, and I'm not entirely sure why. Part of it might be a lack of confidence; while I'm definitely not a literary expert, I'm far, far less well-versed in film, both modern and historic, and I usually don't feel like I have a whole lot interesting to say. Another part might be simply time investment. If I've already spent, say, five hours reading a book, or twenty hours watching a TV series, then another thirty minutes to write up a quickie post doesn't seem like too much; but the same amount of effort after watching a two-hour movie might seem like overkill.

In this case, though, since I already gave my reactions to the Scott Pilgrim comics, it seems fitting to address the movie, at least in passing. As usual, this is way too late to actually do anyone any good.


On the whole, I was extremely impressed with the movie; I was pretty astonished at how much content from the book they were able to retain on the screen. The books are pretty big: sure, they're comics, but you've got six volumes, seven evil exes, a large cast of characters, and several requisite plot points. They could easily have split the movie into multiple parts and it wouldn't have felt padded at all. Instead, they turned out what I think might be the most aggressively edited movie I've ever seen. Virtually every second of what's on-screen is crucial; there's virtually no wasted time at all. If two characters need to have a conversation, and they need to establish several scenes, then they'll split a ten-second conversation across three different scenes. The cutting is fast but never jarring, because the narrative is never, ever interrupted.

Again, I was impressed at how much they retained. Virtually every character from the comics remained; the only one I can think of off-hand who didn't make it was Jacob; Scott's family also didn't appear, but that's more for a related reason that I'll get into below. The movie did retain even extremely minor characters like Comeau who could easily have been removed or folded into other characters. Some were extremely scaled back, such as The Clash at Demonhead's drummer, but remained recognizable enough to still count. The overall arc remains virtually intact as well, aside from some minor fiddling. Even the jokes and the stupid stuff, which were my favorite parts, weren't sacrificed at the altar of narrative necessity.

In some cases, the movie ADDED more. The biggest thing I noticed were the video game references. Now, these were definitely an important part of the comics, but there they were a kind of accent note, brought in from time to time but not really dominant. Scott Pilgrim the comic was about a bunch of folks and sometimes referenced video games. Scott Pilgrim is a video game movie: the references there are constant, and the whole movie is informed by a video game structure. In the comic, only some of the bad guys drop coins; here, they all do. I don't think one approach is better than the other, but it is interesting.

The casting for the movie felt spot-on. Most of the actors totally nail their characters, even though they have much less space in which to fill them out. For example, the movie totally gets rid of the flashbacks, which make up a good chunk of the comic pages; that means we don't get to see Scott's family, nor his college years with Envy, nor his high school years with Kim. Ah, Kim... she may have been my favorite character in the comic, and she's great in the movie. She only gets a few scenes, but the actress has her down perfectly: her wry sarcasm, her total familiarity with Scott's precious little life, the kernel of tenderness that she keeps incredibly well-hidden.

Scott himself probably changes the most. I do really enjoy Michael Cera and the character he's created, but personality-wise they're rather different. I think I can best sum it up by saying that Cera's Scott is less dumb and less confident than the comic's Scott. The comic-book Scott is just hilariously stupid; he doesn't seem to get ANYTHING, is constantly surprised at what occurs, and forgets stuff that just happened. The movie gets rid of most of that, with a few much-loved exceptions (including one of my favorites: "Bread makes you fat?!?"). The movie's Scott is much more self-aware, which means in part that he recognizes when situations are crazy, recognizes when he's being a jerk, recognizes when he's being lame. Once again: I'm not saying that one approach is better or worse than the other, just that they're different.

What else... stuff is way more compressed in the movie. Even though they hit all major interactions, the nature of those interactions frequently changes and simplifies. The episode where I felt this the most was the fight against Todd. In the books, this stretches out way more, across a week or so, with multiple confrontations, flashbacks, discoveries, and so on. In the movie it's mostly all in one contiguous segment, from The Clash at Demonhead's live show through the meeting backstage through a two-part fight with Todd. That means that we lost a lot of awesome stuff, like that amazing trial through the shopping mall and, more importantly, the REAL split between Todd and Envy, which I thought provided way more catharsis in the book. I was happy to see that the movie retained the Vegan Police, which is probably the single best part of the Todd episode, even if they have to simplify down the reason why Todd loses his powers.

I don't think they had a lot of choice, though. There was just no way that they could have fully plumbed out the Todd and Envy episode without making the movie unbearably long. Again, I'm amazed that they fit as much stuff as they did in under two hours.

Sex Bob-omb was a bit different. I think that in the comics they were a little more supportive of Scott; particularly in his first fight against Matthew, Sex Bob-omb did a lot to help him win that battle. In the movie, they provide great personality but are pretty useless otherwise. And, to be fair, that's the role that they play for much of the books - I love it when they cut out at a fight and say, "We'll meet you at the pizza place later."


From looking at the copyright books on my comics, I think that the movie came out after the sixth and final book, but it must have started shooting well before it. Therefore, I'm giving the movie a total pass for anything it does in the final quarter.

For the most part, the stuff they change works. Some of it is just re-arranging, most notably Nega-Scott. (Nega-Scott is a perfect example of something that they could have completely cut from the movie without any narrative impact, and yet they somehow managed to keep in there and make people happy.) I was going to be supremely disappointed that they cut the Ramova/Knives fight from the movie, then was delighted when they weaved it into the climax. That was one of my favorite scenes from the book, and it elevated the ending.

Gideon seemed like the biggest change with the ending; he was just kind of a jerk in the movie, and seemed way more sinister in the books.

I'd be very interested to hear how people who haven't read the comics react to the movie, especially that last fight. In particular, I wonder if it makes any sense at all if you haven't read the comics. The movie very briefly alludes to subspace, but does virtually nothing with it - I think it sets up the meeting with Ramona, ends their first date, and provides the sledgehammer during a battle (although you won't know that's subspace unless you've read the book), and.... is that it? Since they don't do much with subspace, even less about the Ramona/Gideon link makes sense. They do show the chip and say "Gideon has a way of getting inside my head," which, if you've read Book Six, explains everything, but I just don't think there are enough hooks within the movie itself to understand what the heck is going on.

And, on a related note, I was SLIGHTLY disappointed that they gave Scott the extra life for defeating the twins; I think that in the book it's from, um, either Todd or the girl. It's way less surprising for Scott to use it here, since he just got it a few minutes earlier.

And, incidentally, I thought the way they used the extra life was interesting. In the book, it's a Contra-style extra life: when Scott dies, he picks up from where he left off. In the movie, it's a Mario-style extra life: when he dies, he has to re-start the level. And I love the way they run with that in the movie: as with any video game, after you've played through a level once, it's way faster and easier the second time around.


On the whole, I was quite happy with the adaptation. Of course they made changes, of course they cut things, but I think they kept the core of what made Scott Pilgrim such an awesome comic, and they also retained a shockingly large amount of the various random dumb things that made it so goofy and fun. I think they managed to pull this off largely because the Scott Pilgrim style and subject matter lends itself so well to kinetic cutting, which the filmmakers took full advantage of. The movie and comics are two different beasts, but they bear a striking similarity, and I love them all the more for it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Doesn't Suck

Ahhhh... that's more like it!

In ordinary circumstances I would have taken more time off after my relatively-disappointing read of Fluke before returning to the Christopher Moore well. I've historically had a tendency to get addicted to authors, devour everything by them that I could get my hands on, and rapidly experience the law of diminishing returns. Because of that, I tend to make a conscious effort to space out my approaches to authors I enjoy, and I'm extra-careful to back off when I feel like I may be getting too accustomed to them and thus not enjoying their work as much as I otherwise might.

Here, though, I'm glad that I moved straight from Fluke to You Suck, which made me realize that I still do enjoy Moore's work, just not that one book (as much).

You Suck is a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, and a sequel done well: it carries forward the best aspects of the first book, including the terrific characters, unusual plot, and super-sharp writing, and adds some fresh ingredients of its own. I had certain expectations going in, and they were soundly met.


So: vampires. The book picks up right after BF left off: Thomas has become a vampire. He's changed by this, of course, but he remains the thoroughly likeable exuberant freed-Midwesterner doofus of the first book: he acts like an especially energetic puppy when exploring his newfound powers, whines when he tries to get his way, enthusiastically tries to solve the problems thrown his way.

Pretty much all of the characters from the first book return. The surviving Animals have been to Vegas and back, losing their ill-gotten gains with astonishing speed. The cops are keeping things low. The original vampire eventually escapes from his prison and continues his odd test, leaving corpses behind to frighten the populace. And the Emperor sticks around too; he has less to do in this book, but provides his regal presence and assurance to some crucial scenes.

The book adds a bunch of new characters, a few of whom are minor but several which are more important. Probably my favorite is Abby Normal, a high school sophomore goth chick who Thomas recruits as their new minion. (She calls him "Lord Flood," and for most of the book has the mistaken impression that he was friends with Byron.) She's pretty fun in general, but my favorite part is her chapters, which Moore writes as entries from her diary. Unlike the rest of the book, which is done in Moore's comic third-person voice, these chapters are done in first-person, just-after-the-fact, and man, Moore has lots of fun with it. Lots of dialect, slang, stream of consciousness. And most of the dialog is of the form: "So I was like, 'Yo, dude, wherefore art thou giving me such a hard time, sir?' And he was all, 'Duh, der, look at me, I'm a stupid fat cop.'" This is how people sound when they're recounting dialog to other people: summarizing it, coloring it, reinterpreting history to make yourself seem more clever. It has a great effect here; knowing Abby as we do, we can sort of de-crypt her recounting of events and come up with a reasonable approximation of what actually occurred.

Let's see, what else... there's Chet, another homeless guy who's way less cool than the Emperor but who still achieves comic greatness, mostly due to his huge cat. Blue is kind of the main villain of the book: the Animals picked her up in Vegas, where she bled their money dry. She now terrorizes and leads them. Jerrod is kind of a bummer of a character; he's more of a whiney brat than anything. Jerrod and Abby's families provide some good color to these determinedly moody characters, but aren't intended to be fully fleshed out. Finally, towards the end we see three mysterious other vampire characters. They get almost no narrative time at all, but seem likely to figure into the sequel.


There is a sequel, of course. Apparently this set of books is one of Moore's most popular, and his fans keep clamoring for more. I can't blame them. The satire is sharp, the characters are hilarious, the plot is wild (without veering into Fluke-ish nonsense), and everything moves along at a nice pace. I'm now back at the other extreme, deliberately holding off on reading my next Moore book because I want to keep around something good for me to read when I need it.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Use the force, Fluke

My merry romp through Christopher Moore (er, I mean Moore's work) continues unabated. My most recent entry: Fluke. I was going to say that it's the first of Moore's works that I've read to be set outside of Northern California, but then I realized that England is also outside Northern California, so never mind.

Fluke is... a weird book. A really, really weird book. Even for Moore (again, based on what I've read from him before). The first 50 or so pages left me utterly unprepared for where the book ended up, and I'd be shocked if any other readers could predict where things end up.

Obviously, all this implies abundant spoilers, so I'll try to treat the little that I can before dropping into that tag.

The book remains very funny, of course. Some of the humor is implicit within Moore's writing style and authorial asides; some of it is explicit within the characters' speech; and some is metaphysical at the overall shape of the plot. There were a few times when Moore seemed to be trying just a little too hard... I generally love his absurd metaphors, but a few of these just didn't parse. Still, overall it was really funny.

From a technical standpoint, I think this was the worst-edited of Moore's books that I've read so far. It wasn't awful (not "Crossroads of Twilight" awful), but I was kind of surprised by how many technical errors ended up in here. Nothing totally horrible, but several instances of dropped closing quotation marks, missing words, and other ephemera. (I read the hardcover; I suppose, and hope, that these might have gotten cleaned up in the paperback.)

Uh... I guess that's about all I can say without dropping into


The Hawaii setting was really pleasant. I've never been, and the book furthers my vague desire to one day go there.

The science stuff was pretty interesting. At the end of the book Moore has a note that summarizes what parts he made up and which were genuine. Almost everything I know about humpback whales and their songs comes from Star Trek IV, so it was pretty cool to learn more about what scientists currently think about this. I also thought a lot about Moby Dick, especially in the discussions of different types of whales and their hunting. (And also of last week's episode of Archer, which features a hilarious exchange between Archer and Lana that includes the phrase "Clean-burning whale oil.")

The background characters were fun, too. It's kind of surprising that there aren't more books about scientists, and it was a lot of fun to get all that drama (backstabbing, poaching, public relations, public embarrassment, fights over funding, maintaining reputations, etc.) in a small, well-understandable community. Moore says that he made all of that stuff up, but as someone who has worked in a variety of corporate environments, it feels awfully believable to me.

The primary characters: good, but weird. Really weird. Nate and Clay are very likeable, and also a bit two-dimenstional for the role they have to play. Kona is just far out there; he may be the funniest character altogether, but almost all of his laughs are too easy (white guy smoking ganja and talking about Bob Marley). Amy is way too much of everything: way too perky, way too pretty, way too affectionate. I had a really hard time early in the book understanding why Amy was not only putting up with these people, but actually flirting with them. That kinda became less of an issue later on, but only by exchanging a small bit of oddness with a huge wormhole of strangeness.


Man... where to begin? Whale ships? Pirates? Kinda-aliens-but-actually-alternately-evolved-oh-wait-they-did-not-really-evolve-but-were-created-but-it-is-still-science creatures? The Goo?

I was flummoxed from the moment Nate got swallowed, and I still don't know what to make of it. It reads like a shaggy dog story. The distinct feeling I got throughout the last 2/3 of the book was that Moore was just making it up as he went along, pulling the craziest thing that he could think of out of his rear. That's cool, I'm all for inventive and wild storytelling, but... man, I don't know. I guess it felt like he wrote the whole book as a sort of creative-thinking exercise, and then didn't go back and re-write with the ending in mind. There are a lot of weird little digressions that go nowhere, plot points that seem important but end up meaningless, general narratorical meandering. And, again, I'm not necessarily opposed to any of that, but I guess that this felt sloppy in a way I'm unaccustomed to.

That said, the core idea of the Goo was really interesting. I immediately connected it with Robert Anton Wilson's idea of the Leviathan, from the eponymous third book of the Illuminatus! trilogy. Both area incredibly ancient sea-based life forms that represent a different evolutionary path that began back in the primordial ooze.

I also found myself thinking of Guu, from Jungle wa Hale Itsumo nochi Guu. Both Guus are incredibly powerful, sneaky, capable of swallowing things up and creating other things. Other than that, um, little resemblance, so forget I said anything.


Altogether, I have to concede that Fluke is probably my least favorite so far of Moore's books. That doesn't mean that it's bad, far from it, but it hasn't blown me away like his others.

Part of this might just be that I'm spoiled, coming off the hilarious, tightly-plotted, and resonant Bloodsucking Fiends. I would ordinarily suggest taking a little break before diving back in, except that I've already started in on You Suck. Which, so far, is awesome, so I'm hoping that Fluke was, well, a fluke.