Today, you're safe...

>> Sunday, April 20, 2014

...tomorrow?  And the day after tomorrow?  And the day after that?

Not so much.



But today?  Today, you're safe.

For today.







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Zardoz

>> Saturday, April 19, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I subjected the Scatterkat to Barbarella, Roger Vadim's incomprehensibly poorly-made tribute to his wife's tits.  And I think I broke her.  The Scatterkat, I mean, not Jane Fonda.  The Scatterkat has a very, very high tolerance for terrible movies, but this one left her with a baffled expression that had to be shared with friends via Facebook, and that led to someone asking me if I'd exposed her to John Badham's 1974 opus, Zardoz; which I had to admit I hadn't seen all the way through, though only seeing bits and pieces of it over the years didn't keep me from suggesting Zardoz was a male version of Barbarella with more drugs involved.

I was wrong about that last bit.  Easy enough mistake to make, I suppose, having seen bits and pieces and noting that Sean Connery's Zardoz ensemble--a red diaper, matching bandoliers and thigh-high boots--is more than a little akin to the various kinds of outfits Fonda is forced to wear in Barbarella.  But it's a superficial resemblance.

Oh--we rented Zardoz from Amazon Instant Video last night.  And watched it.  All of it.

I didn't think I'd pop up a post about it, but I'm still trying to process how and why Badham's epic failure--and Zardoz is a failure--isn't a movie I hate or find amusing in a "so-bad-it's-good" way or even a disaster-rubbernecking kind of way.  Maybe you can help me with that.  It's undeniable that Zardoz is a supremely ridiculous movie when taken at face value: Sean Connery (weirdly hirsute, with more hair on his face and chest than on top of his head, yet somehow sporting a ponytail) in the aforementioned fire-engine red diaper; a giant floating stone head that booms things like, "The Gun is good! The Penis is evil!"; a talking diamond; Connery hopping/bouncing/running/floating through scenes shot through a kaleidoscope or inside a mirror funhouse; psychic battles involving jazz hands... I think I'm barely scraping the surface of Zardoz's utter, baffling weirdness.  And yet... it's a movie that's terrible in an engrossing way, a movie that's highly competent in its badness, if badness is even the right word for it.  Zardoz is, for all its insanity and flirtation with camp, a surprisingly smart and serious and thought-out movie; it's in that category of movies that die for their ambitions.  I think.  Maybe.

The plot is... well, sort of simple to the extent it's comprehensible.  In the year 2293, diaper-wearing bandits called "Exterminators" ride around the post-apocalyptic wasteland rounding up people who are oddly well-dressed in business suits and the like (though the suits are dirty and torn, presumably from the rigors of post-apocalyptic life and being chased by Exterminators and all).  The Exterminators are easily recognized by their red diapers and guns, which they get from a big floating stone head, their god, Zardoz, who flies around spitting guns at the Exterminators, who happily pick them up and shoot wildly.  (None of the non-Exterminators ever seem to grab for a gun themselves, despite the fact Zardoz spits out more weapons than there are people.  I guess they're too cowed.)  An Exterminator named Zed (Sean Connery) sneaks onto Zardoz during one of the deity's visits, and rides back to where it came from: a lush, green Irish estate inhabited by immortal psychics who grow food in inflated condoms and dress a little like the space hippies in "The Way To Eden" would have if Star Trek's costume designers had had even a fraction of Zardoz's costume budget to work with.  Shenanigans ensue, with Zed becoming a pawn in a political game being played out by Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), May (Sara Kestelman) and Friend (John Alderton).

And then things get weird.

Okay, it's all very ridiculous when you set it out like that, because it is very ridiculous.  It's also not entirely fair, because director/writer John Badham, who at the time was fresh off Deliverance, and therefore probably at the height of his (considerable) gifts as a filmmaker, shoots the hell out of this movie (with a camera, not a gun or penis; the camera is good).  Zardoz is just a fine looking film, even if what you're looking at is something you're having a hard time figuring out why you're looking at it.

I think this is one of the things that bears special mention just because of the asinine comparison to Barbarella I made several weeks ago.  I don't think I've seen any of Roger Vadim's other films, I don't know if any of them are any good; but Barbarella isn't, and not just because of a lousy script and bad acting.  The nearest thing to competence you can give Vadim for in Barbarella is that I don't think there are any boom mikes popping into the frame; the rest of the time, actors walk in front of things the audience is supposed to be looking at, actors are framed weirdly in shots, the pacing is completely off, etc.--it's hackwork.  It's just lousy direction.  Barbarella would still be a terrible film if you watched it with the sound down, because it's terribly made on top of being terribly written and cast.

But good gravy, Zardoz, on the other hand, is pretty.  Even with a red-diaper clad Sean Connery dominating the foreground of a gorgeous shot of the Irish countryside where the film was shot.  (At least he's dominating it in accord with the rule-of-thirds.)

But okay, a badly-shot film might still be acceptable with a clever script and/or decent acting, right?  And the converse is true--a gorgeous film can stink to the heavens if the script and acting are lousy enough.  So what about Zardoz?  Is it pretty but stupid?

Weeeeelllllll--no, and this is the strangest thing ever and the thing I'm trying to put my finger on.  Zardoz isn't stupid; incomprehensible, kind of.  Incoherent, pretty much.  But it isn't dumb.

This reminds me (forgive the tangent): I recently read a softball interview with Zack Snyder in Forbes, and there's this exchange:
MH: That message was there, and I got it. You’ve said before that you think people misunderstood your films and that they don’t get credit for being as smart as they are. I absolutely agree and that’s the argument I’ve been making for years, including about Sucker Punch, which I think is great.

ZS: Did you see that SlashFilm thing that they did on Sucker Punch? The SlashFilm guy [Adam Quigley] did this little video, it’s about seven minutes long, I think it’s called, “You Don’t Understand Sucker Punch.” And he really breaks it down in a really, really cool way, and I was like, “ Wow!” …His thing is like, you can dislike the film, but you can’t dislike it because it’s “dumb.” That was his argument, you know — it’s fine to not like a movie, but you can’t not like a movie for something that it is not. And it is frustrating, I’ll be 100% honest. Sometimes I do get frustrated. I’m categorized as basically this visualist whose movies don’t mean anything–

Uh-huh.  Sure.  Right.  Y'know, I've seen Sucker Punch and I've seen Quigley's apologia, and Quigley's wrong: Sucker Punch is a stupid movie.  It may be a stupid movie that buries its aspirations to be a serious movie about sexism and fanboyism and objectification beneath a lot of sexism and fanboyism and objectification, becoming exactly the kind of movie it set out to parody, okay.  But even if I accept that premise (I think it's possible Snyder lucked into having people like Adam Quigley and Mark Hughes offer defenses for his film that the film is incapable of raising for itself), Sucker Punch is still a dumb, hamfisted approach to those themes.  I'm inclined to stand by my original post about SP and say that it really isn't anything more than "a big-budget grindhouse flick with no grind," and Quigley and Hughes and Snyder can say I just didn't get it.  My rebuttal, then, would have to be that I'm a fairly experienced and sophisticated viewer of above-average intelligence and feminist sympathies, and if I didn't "get it" the fault in this case is more likely with the messenger--and the message--than the recipient.

And this brings us back to Zardoz, which doesn't fail the way Sucker Punch fails (presuming you accept Quigley's argument for it); Zardoz... isn't actually a stupid movie, even when it's not making any sense and the message is getting garbled by weird editing choices and the surreality of the final third's chase scene involving old people in evening dress, half-naked neohippies and Sean Connery talking to a rock.

Zardoz is trying to say something about God, and the natural order, and technology, and sex, and mortality.  I'm not sure what it's trying to say is necessarily profound in the broadest context--lots of authors have tried to say that death is necessary to give life impetus and meaning, and that God is a social construct created to manipulate the public and channel aggressive tendencies--but it's also kind of deep for a Hollywood film, especially compared to our current era of stupid SF.

Zardoz is the kind of thing Damon Lindelof (a fairly bad writer) was unsuccessfully going for in Prometheus, and the kind of thing Ron Moore (a fairly good writer) unsuccessfully went for in the final season of the revamped Battlestar Galactica; an attempt to be provocative about faith and technology, only one gets the very, very clear sense that John Badham has read a book that wasn't by Syd Field or Blake Snyder.  Prometheus and BSG ultimately don't work because their ideas about their themes are so superficial that they never really grapple with them at all: "I'm a deep piece of pop art because I think about man's relationship with God--see, it's over there; now let's move on."  Zardoz, however, gets down in the mud and wrestles with it: "Man's relationship to God!  I'm going to kick the shit out of it!  Right here!  Right now!  Rrrraaargh!"  If, in the end, Zardoz drowns in the mud with its weighty issues pinning it... well, you have to hand it to Badham that he went down fighting.

Looked at this way, I think Zardoz becomes one of the last really significant pieces of literary science fiction to come out of Hollywood.  There have been other smart, literary SF films since, don't get me wrong: Primer, for a ready, recent example.  But these are, for the most part at least, smaller films--independently produced, unknown casts, etc..  Okay, that's not entirely true, either: Looper is a pretty smart SF film with Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Inception (Gordon-Levitt again!  Oh, and Leonardo DiCaprio, of course) is reasonably smart; though I don't think either of these two tries to go as deep as Zardoz (and, yes, that was a deliberate Inception joke).  But the norm in SF these days is non-literary, pulpy, space opera and toy franchises and comic books: it's kablooey stuff like Transformers movies and the embarrassment that Star Trek's turned into (which, considering how embarrassing Trek could be over the decades, is quite the dubious accomplishment) and the Marvel and DC Universes (which I enjoy, don't get me wrong, but they're ultimately all movies about godlike beings hitting other godlike beings with computer generated simulations of large heavy objects--they're really as substantive as Three Stooges movies were, it's just that Moe never hit anyone over the head with a truck or destroyed a major metropolitan area).

In its daft way, Zardoz is more like Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Ursula le Guin, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock et al. than it's like any of the movies that came afterwards.  It's freakin' New Wave, for better and worse alike, is what it is; it's a goddamn Dangerous Vision on celluloid.   And I don't want to knock a lot of movies that I enjoyed more than Zardoz, like Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  But the unfortunate fact is that these more enjoyable, but undeniably dumber, summer blockbusters have become the template for the modern SF movie, moreso than the psychedelic, sexually adventurous, thematically ambitious New Wave.  There's nothing dangerous about Steven Spielberg's SF visions (not even the Philip K. Dick inspired Minority Report*), even if they're each and every one all more coherent than bleeding Zardoz (yes, AI included).

It's very possible I'd be harder on Zardoz if I had an embarrassment of riches to choose from.  The movie's a fiasco, I want to be clear; I'm not saying you should watch this thing.  But it's also a movie whose reputation for badness has eclipsed it to the point that you have to kind of say the reputation is actually a little unwarranted.  Yes, it's Sean Connery in a red diaper waving a pistol around; but he's making a total ass of himself in the context of making a statement that there's no living without death, that sex and violence are the primal urges that make creativity possible, that the idea that Man invented God is less interesting than the issue of what Man did with Him afterwards.  Again, these aren't really original statements or questions, but they're still serious matters, and Zardoz manages, somehow, to treat them seriously even while James Bond is running around in his underwear.

It's the most interesting failure I've seen in years.  Kind of makes me wish every movie was Zardoz.







*I keep finding exceptions to my rant about stupid SF films, though.  Minority Report, notwithstanding Tom Cruise and the fact that most of the movie is one long chase scene with occasional pauses for plot, is a serious and smart SF film.  It's enough to make me consider deleting the paragraph about dumb SF, at this point.  I'm not quite right about that....

And yet....

And yet I also know I'm not the only one who has this perception.  That if I asked most people about whether Hollywood makes smart SF anymore, they'd most likely shake their heads and perhaps rant about how Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich have destroyed the genre before they remembered Minority Report or Primer or District 9, all of which are fairly smart SF films even if they're vastly less mind-expanding than 2001: A Space Odyssey, or than Zardoz attempts to be.

I'm trying to talk my way through this until I understand any of it.  I may have changed my mind about all of it by the time you read it.  Or not.



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An open letter to "Masahiro Okafuji", or should I say... Satan?!

>> Friday, April 11, 2014

RE‏
semerak@satan.cz (semerak@satan.cz)

5:21 AM
semerak@satan.cz
From:     semerak@satan.cz
Sent:    Fri 4/11/14 5:21 AM
To:  
  

5-1, Kita-Aoyama 2-chome
Minato-ku,
Tokyo 107-8077,
Japan.
Tel: 81-345-790-379
http://www.itochu.co.jp

I am Mr.Masahiro Okafuji ,President and Chief executive officer (CEO) of
ITOCHU Corporation based in Japan. We specialized in
Textile,Machinery,Aerospace ,Electronics, Metals & Minerals E.T.C. We are
searching for representatives who can help us establish a medium of
getting to our customers in the Canada/America/Africa/Europe and other
nearby countries as well as making payments through you to us.You do not
have to leave your present job for this one because this job offer will
be on a part time basis as it comes once in a while and remuneration is on
a percentage basis of 11% of the total amount you receive from my
customers at any time on our behalf.

Please to facilitate the conclusion of this transaction if accepted,do
send us your CV, We sincerely appreciate your willingness in transacting
this business project with us. Contact us for more information.Subject to
your satisfaction you will be given the opportunity to negotiate your mode
of which we will pay for your services as our payment receiving agent.If
interested forward information below to us via email
(mrmasahirookafuji@gmail.com)

Your full Names:
Contact Address:
Tel Number:
cell Numbers:
Fax Number:
Occupation:
Company Name (IF ANY):

Thank you for your time.

Respectfully Yours
Masahiro Okafuji,
President and Chief executive officer



Dear Mr. Okafuji--or should I say... Satan!

Oh, ho-ho, no, you don't!  Get behind me!

I'm not falling for this one, you old deceiver, you.  It's right there in your bleedin' e-mail address.  You may call yourself "Masahiro Okafuji", and I have no idea what that means, but your sender's address reveals the real you: semerak@satan.cz, Satan in the Czech Republic, eh?

Well let me tell you, (Beelze-)Bub, you got the wrong guy.  Because I'm someone who has spent way too much of his time reading old horror comics.  I've been collecting the Dark Horse hardcovers collections of old Eerie and Creepy comics from the 1960s and 1970s for more than a year now, and I knew they would pay off somehow.  And now it has, oh yes, now it has.

Because, as you doubtlessly know, those old horror comics varied a lot in quality, and frankly there were quite a few stories, especially early on, where you and your deceptive ways would make an appearance.  You know the story: you show up in the guise of some "harmless" guy operating under a poorly-anagrammed or simply-reversed pseudonym--you know, like, "Mr. Natas" or "Lee Z. Bubb"--or maybe some lousy play on words like "Louis Cyphre".  And you'd get some poor schlub to do your bidding and then there would be some Chick Tract-style betrayal at the end, only much better drawn.  And that poor bastard would get dragged down to Hell, right?  Because Hell is scary and not nearly as much fun as Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury led the pious to believe during his brief conflict with King Richard IV of England.

This brings us to the one thing that baffles me about your transparently obvious solicitation: you always use thin pseudonyms, but when I run "Masahiro Okafuji" through the Internet Anagaram Server, it doesn't immediately come up with "HAIL SATAN!" or anything like that; in fact, "Masahiro Okafuji" is missing  the requisite "T" for "Satan", the "L" I need for "Lucifer", the "B" for "Beelzebub", the "D" for "Asmodeus", etc..  What gives?

The best I can come up with is "A Ouija Marks Of Hi," because I distinctly remember from the 1980s that Ouija Boards were totally satanic, just like Dungeons & Dragons, heavy metal music, witches, comic books, day care centers, trees, movies, most television programs, Jews, Catholics, Stephen King, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, trick-or-treaters, Europe (the band), Europe (the continent), atheists, agnostics, Playboy magazine, and non-heavy metal music (with the possible exception of pre-Heart In Motion Amy Grant).  A Ouija Board planchette that spelled out the word "Hi" (or, if the spirits were lazy, just used the "Hello" in the lower left corner to similar effect) would definitely be satanic, because Ouija Board.  And because the Devil is very amiable and likely to greet strangers in the hopes he can steal their souls.

There's also "A Ouija Ark Of Hims," which has the Ouija Board theme (Satan!) and a hint of a gay vacation cruise, which is also satanic, and the Bible is quite clear that the only proper sexual relations are those that occur amongst a very small family of inbred humans and animals eking out survival in a damp post-apocalyptic wasteland of drowned corpses and flotsam.  Maybe it could be "A Fakir Ouija Mosh," which, you know, um, could mean... like, there are fakirs (which are like witches and therefore satanic) and they have Ouija Boards (also satanic) and... they're... in, like, a mosh pit?  Which is, um, related to secular music, unless, like, I guess the mosh pit at an Amy Grant show is kind of non-satanic as long as people only mosh to her early stuff and she doesn't play anything anyone might actually like dancing to.

I don't know, maybe you can explain it to me.  As long as it doesn't cost me my soul or anything.

Anyway, knowing who you are, Prince of Lies, gives me a great idea as to what this job of "help[ing] us establish a medium of getting to our customers in the Canada/America/Africa/Europe and other nearby countries as well as making payments through you to us" really consists of.  You want me to be a middleman in your notorious soul trade, and I want no part of it.  Again, I've read comic books (and also seen relevant episodes of The Twilight Zone) and I know that entering into a business relationship with you will ultimately lead to me being dragged down to Hell for nothing more awful than encouraging a Congressman to go ahead and do to an underage goat whatever it was he was seriously thinking about doing already and getting him to sign a contract exchanging his soul for freedom from getting caught at it.  It's not even entrapment, just license, but then I end up in the eternal flames, listening to Amy Grant records and spending time with other people, and phooey to that, I say.  Phooey!

I'm already in enough trouble with you entities for being a lawyer as it is.  I'm pretty sure there's some things that not even a deathbed opt-in conversion will cover, and doing direct business with you is probably on the list somewhere.

So thanks, but no thanks.  Find some other minion to do your bidding.  I suggest you start in D.C..


Sincerely,
R. Eric VanNewkirk


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The best and worst things about Hillary Clinton's presidency, which hasn't happened yet and she hasn't even announced she's running, but apparently it's a slow news day

>> Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Maybe what these results [of a Gallup poll asking "Suppose Hillary Clinton is elected President in 2016.  In your view, what would be the best or most positive thing about a Hillary Clinton presidency?", published March 21st] really illuminate is how thoughtless Americans can be about politics. A combined grand total of 16 percent of Americans balk at specific Clintonian policies rather than her vague “lack of qualifications.” Likewise, just 13 percent of respondents said they were rooting for Hillary because of her stance on a particular issue, such as health care or immigration. Read this aside from the researchers (and weep):
A little less than half of Americans did not give a substantive answer in response to the positive question, and about the same percentage didn't give a substantive answer to the negative question. This is in large part because the majority of Republicans have no specific thoughts about the best thing about a Clinton presidency, and a majority of Democrats do not have specific responses to the question about the worst aspects of a Clinton presidency.
In other words, a lot of Republicans cannot dream up a single upside to having Hillary Clinton in the White House, and a lot of Democrats cannot fathom a single drawback. Step up your game, electorate!

Oh, if only the people who responded to the Gallup poll knew what I knew!  For I have been to the far-flung future year of 2017, and I do not have to imagine the best or most positive thing about a Hillary Clinton presidency--I know that the best thing about President Clinton's presidency is our contact with the aliens from Vega XIV in the Morbius Nebula!  Thanks to Ms. Clinton's heroic efforts for our country, we will have the cure for seven different kinds of cancer!  We will have agricultural miracles that end hunger throughout the world!  We will have direct wireless connections to the Internet through our brains!  And the Vegans have promised to give us their ultimate secret, thanks to the positive impression President Clinton made upon them: the ability to synthesize hydrogen nuclei from the quarks that spontaneously emerge from energy decay in the quantum foam, and to assemble those nuclei into more complicated atoms and then into molecules, rendering scarcity obsolete! 

The best thing about a Clinton presidency was--I'm sorry, will be--that she is the greatest human being in all of history.



No!  No, no, no!  If only the version of myself from the past/future who responded to the Slate writer who responded to the Gallup poll asking the stupid hypothetical question had known what I know!  For I have been to the far-flung future year of 2018, and I do not have to imagine the worst thing about a Clinton Presidency!  She was/will be a fool!  Deceived by the nefarious and evil monsters from Vega XIV in the Morbius Nebula!  What they gave/will give with one floopy tentacle they took/will take away with another!

It is exactly like that old Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man":  the Vegans won't be coming to help us, they'll be coming to farm us.  They gave us the cure for seven cancers so we'll be healthy, and the Internet brains and quantum foam synthesizers so we'll be fat and happy and stupid--well-marbled meat for their roving abattoir tanks to scoop up and harvest.  The streets have been awash in blood since the culling began!  The President has disappeared, though we don't know if it's cowardice or if she was one of the first to be butchered and rendered up on a platter for the demonic hordes of aliens in their silver ships!

Doomed!  We are doomed!  People of America, when it comes time to elect one of the exactly two viable candidates presented for election, vote for the one who won't betray our entire species, even if he promises to repeal Obamacare and invade Iran!



I have been premature, I'm afraid.  Because things were horrific, I assumed they were even worse than they were.  Do not mistake me--it was awful, and five billion people will have died.  But the best thing about a Clinton Presidency was not that she made a deal with the Vegans from the Morbius Nebula and it more than makes up for their inevitable betrayal.

In the year 2019, we had given up hope.  Many human beings even willingly let themselves be slaughtered like cattle, roaming naked in the grasslands and mentally surfing Buzzfeed with their psychic wifi links.  But then she came, like a goddess, a savior--yes, her, President Clinton.

We do not know if she became the heaven-sent, celestial creature who redeemed us from the Vegans simply by the mastery of the quantum foam synthesizers, or whether she gained some kind of aid from a Vegan splinter group, guilty for what their kind had wrought in turning this blue planet into a bloody red dot.  But Hillary Clinton emerged from the rubble a divine cyborg, spiritually and intellectually linked to all of us via the direct-brain Internet connection.  And she will be more than human, yes: forty feet tall, with interlinked biomechanical implants that can heal an entire army of her transcended human followers with antideath radiants while simultaneously bisecting a Vegan Orbship in lunar orbit with her isoquantum desiccator.

We will be a common personhood of humanity, the Singularity led by a gleaming womanmachine of hope and doom.



No!  What was I thinking!  She raised taxes in 2020!



To fight the Vegan reinforcements in 2021.  I guess that's alright, then.

Look--there are clearly costs and benefits to the election of Hillary Clinton in the event she announces her candidacy, is nominated by her party, runs for President, and is elected in 2016.  But don't think about it in terms of "she's a woman" or "she's a Democrat" or whatever her platform and proposed policies might be, because it won't matter; not because your only alternative will be Rand Paul (he narrowly wins the nomination over Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, and [spoiler redacted]).  You should vote for or against Hillary Clinton because in 2017, a fleet of alien starships will appear over every major city on Earth, the aliens will offer us presents, the aliens will betray us and turn us into food, and then we'll all become psychically uplinked to a giant robot who used to be Hillary Clinton and she'll save the human species.  That's what matters.

Anything else is just, I dunno, like responding to a bafflingly stupid poll question about a hypothetical scenario with insufficient information or something.








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Oh no, Pono

>> Monday, March 24, 2014

Finally.  It's about frickin' time.  For more than a year, ever since Neil Young announced this "Pono" thingie, I've been wondering what the noise was about.

If you haven't been following, here's the deal: back in 2012, Neil Young made a mysterious announcement: not a new album, not a new film, not some other weird neilyoungian arthouse project; no, he announced that he was getting into the music player business, of all things.  Young showed up on The Daily Show and in the music press with this little wedge-shaped doorstopper thing that he swore up and down would be the next greatest and latest thing in digital audio, something that would kick the pants off the MP3 (hardly high-hanging fruit, that) and usher in a new era in consumer sound.  He even had at least one shill at last year's SXSW, a guy seated on a panel about the future of digital music I attended, who talked about how great Pono sounded in Neil Young's car.

And therein lay a great deal of frustration, because nobody--not Neil, not his flacks, not nobody--would say anything else about it beyond how fucking great it sounded in Neil Young's car.  This was the one thing you could say about Pono from 2012 to this year's South-By (which I was sadly unable to attend): it sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Dozens of musicians and musical eminences vouched for it as well, many of them appearing in the video Young put up on his Kickstarter site for Pono: it sounds great in Neil Young's car.

Well what the fuck is it, how does it work?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  What kind of codec or format does it use?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Lossy or lossless?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Compressed or uncompressed?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Christ, can you give me even a hint of what kind of tech specs you people will be using?  It sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Fine, okay--can I take a ride in Neil Young's car?  No.

It was impossible not to detect the whiff of snake oil coming from the back of the huckster's wagon.  It doesn't mean a goddamn thing that something sounds great in Neil Young's car.  Not just because I'm never going to get a chance to take a ride in Neil Young's car, either.  First off, Neil Young's a goddamn guitar god, a goddamn living legend, and if I ever did get to sit down in Neil Young's car, a bitchslap from Neil Young would probably be the best goddamn bitchslap I ever took.  Sure, sure, the Pono sounds great, Mr. Young, now will you autograph my forehead?  There's a whole psychological component to musical enjoyment, and a shitty mixtape played on an off-brand boombox while you're making out with your high school crush may sound a helluva lot better than a live performance in the most precisely-engineered auditorium on Earth for obvious reasons.  But even if you set that aside, what kind of sound system do you think Neil Young has in his car before he plugs in his demo Pono machine?  I'm guessing it's not the factory speakers (though these days the factory standard stuff can be pretty damn good, with automakers licensing their systems from Blaupunkt, Fender, Bose, HK et al.).

But also, third, you know, who's going to be listening to this thing in Neil Young's car all the time?  Just because it's perfectly engineered to provide the optimal Neil Young's car experience really doesn't tell me anything about how it's going to sound in my car, or in my living room, or through headphones while I'm bopping along in my local coffee shop or whatever.

Tech specs do.  Specifically, telling me something about what kind of audio format you're using.  Some data about your DAC might help, too.  Although y'know, this is the thing about digital hardware these days: whether your DAC even matters depends on whether I'm plugging your gizmo into other gear via an audio cable (in which case your gizmo is doing the gruntwork) or whether I'm plugging it in via USB and treating your gizmo as a storage device when I'm at home (in which case my crap is doing the audio processing, and just reading the files from your doohickey).

Well, seems like the mystery was solved at this year's SXSW, where Neil Young showed up in person to flog Pono some more, and on the Kickstarter page I linked to earlier.  It's FLAC.

Which is great.  I like FLAC.  I use FLAC a little, though not too much because my ears are shit and MP3 is a little more versatile even if it's a cruddy format.  But maybe you already see the, I dunno if you'd call it a "problem", with Mr. Young's noise machine?

It's FLAC.  I have FLACs.  You might have FLACs.  You can certainly get FLACs.  You can buy FLACs.  And you can play FLACs.  On your computer, for sure, and probably on your phone (depends mostly on what kind of phone you're using), and maybe even on your digital audio player of choice (probably not your iPod, tho').

FLAC is lovely, but it's been around ages.

Don't get me wrong at all: if Neil Young and his audio experts weren't going to invent a new file format, FLAC was really their best choice for heaps and heaps of reasons.  And if they were going to invent a whole new audio file format, it would raise the question, "Why didn't they just use FLAC?"  FLAC is lossless, so it doesn't throw out bits and pieces of audio the codec thinks doesn't matter, the way MP3 and AAC do (for instance).  FLAC is compressed, so it doesn't take up as much space on a drive as a WAV file and it uploads/downloads faster.  (And FLAC is checksummed, which means it's actually a more reliable format than WAV.)  And FLAC is open source, so you don't have to factor in licensing issues (i.e. fees) when retailing the music and players (e.g. your MP3 players, hardware and software alike, have a licensing fee to Fraunhofer buried somewhere in the retail price).  So this is all good.

But it also pisses me off a little.

Because, you know, the whole thing about Pono was all this oogedy-boogedy business about how this would be a whole new thing in audio reproduction and how great it sounds in Neil Young's car, but the truth is they aren't really offering anything new (except maybe one thing that we'll come back to in a minute).  Hell, if you go to their FAQ, they're still being kind of handwavy about the hardware component, offering useful technical info like, "The DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) chip being used is widely recognized in the audio and engineering community as one of the best sounding DAC chips available today," which, if you think about it, actually tells you nothing at all.

But they could hardly justify selling the thing for $400 if they actually owned up to the fact that you might be able to play the same files on your existing--and possibly superior--hardware.  Or that you might already be able to play on your laptop or home computer.  Or that the core software component is free.

No, the whole thing has been--again--all about how great the bloody thing sounds in the one place you or I will almost certainly never listen to it: in Neil Young's car.

So is the whole thing a waste?  Mostly.  There is one thing that Pono may be offering, that may be worth a look-see.  And that is the fact that quite a lot of existing digital masters are shit but one of Pono's components is an online store offering "Pono certified" downloads.  That is, if Pono is going to have musicians and engineers sitting down to remaster the original studio tapes for FLAC, Pono's music store may offer customers better mixes.  This has nothing to do with Pono magic or Neil Young's car or anything like that.  You may remember that back in the day, a lot of CDs sounded like crap because the labels often took xth generation analog masters that had been made for cutting vinyl or for for duplicating onto cassette, ran them through a DAC, and told consumers that the shittiness was because digital's "higher resolution" would sometimes "reveal" limitations and deficiencies in the "source" recordings.  And then sometimes, if the artist involved was somebody big like Pink Floyd or Dire Straits, they'd actually get someone--maybe an engineer who worked closely with the band (e.g. James Guthrie for the Pink Floyd remasters) or maybe the original artist (I think, though I may be mistaken, Mark Knopfler came into the studio to oversee the Straits reissues)--to take whatever was in the vaults and actually turn it into a legitimate original digital master, and make a big deal about the remastered or reissued series.  Well, same thing.  Hopefully, maybe.  This angle is very dependent on how much trouble the labels want to put themselves to and how much they think they can get out of selling special "Pono Editions" of their catalogues, naturally; and in some cases, frankly, it's going to make zero difference because there are already properly mastered FLACs directly available from the artist (e.g. Trent Reznor has made much of Nine Inch Nails' catalogue available in FLAC directly via the band's website) or through sites like HDtracks.

(I guess the only question I have about that, though, is whether audio engineers will be given access to Neil Young's car so they can set up a mixing board in the backseat or wherever is most appropriate for remixing an album to the demanding audio environment of Mr. Young's hoopty.  "The fact is," one imagines James Guthrie saying, "The Wall is not going to sound the same in your living room at a modest listening volume as it will cranked to the max in Neil Young's car.  And Neil Young's car is the definitive baseline by which the Pono experience is measured.  I've got to tell you, I am really, really excited by how The Wall sounds in Neil's car, now.  The groupie at the beginning of 'One Of My Turns' sounds like she's in the backseat, leaning up in-between the front seats to give directions or add something to a McDonald's drive-thru order.  And, let me tell you, Dark Side of the Moon with the windows up is just unbelievable when the heater's running at, like, '3' with the outside vents closed.  You won't believe it.  Especially if you're in Neil Young's car.")

Anyway.  So there's that.  Maybe.  Better remastering is always a good thing.

Other than that, though?  Basically, this thing's a ripoff--a $400 FLAC player.  Sorry, kids.





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In memoriam: a miserable little amoral dwarf whose failed life will most likely be as quickly forgotten as it is forgettable, and whom we will not speak of by name

>> Thursday, March 20, 2014

This guy is dead.  At least that's the news.  Maybe it's a premature report of his demise, but it's probably true.

We won't name him by name.  Not because his name has any kind of power, like Voldemort's in the Harry Potter books, but because his name has publicity, which is what his grubby little organization was all about.  There were even suggestions that his org's extreme behavior was a kind of performance art thing designed to generate income via lawsuits: show up at a funeral, provoke someone into doing something rash, sue the victim for losing his head, profit.  Nothing to do with Biblical principles or whatnot.  Seems to have worked in at least one case, though.  Publicity was always a part of that.

(I think we used to have a clever pseudonym for these people floating around, but I can't remember what it was.  Oh well.)

Starving them for publicity, anyway, is probably as good as starving them for money.  We won't mention names because, actually, yeah, naming does empower them.  Not empower them over us, but empowers them from the shadow-statehood of being a morally bankrupt and culturally irrelevant parasite.  Whether they're brigands or really just bigots, let them do it in their cavern.

We hear that the dead guy was excommunicated from the shadow org some time ago: how does that happen?  Did they disagree over legal strategies?  Did someone actually believe their own horseshit?  Who knows?  Who cares?

The late great comedienne Moms Mabley once did a bit about an ex-husband where she quipped, "They say you shouldn't say nothin' about the dead unless it's good. He's dead--good!"  It springs to mind for obvious reasons.

You wonder who's going to mourn someone like this.  Some of his family abandoned him and his organization, then his organization abandoned him.  And it isn't like there will be more flattering obituaries than the one I'm writing, that refuses to identify him by name, even.  A lot of people will be glad he's gone and the rest seem unlikely to care.

And will anyone show up at his funeral to make a scene?  Maybe, because some people will consider it too obvious a piece of poetic justice to resist.  And yet, what will that do but draw attention to him one final time?  It would be better (tho' this won't happen, either) to put him in an unmarked piece of ground, or to leave him naked in a wood to be torn to pieces by crows and foxes and recycled into the soil (if anything would grow in the place he lay and festered).  It would be better to take away not just this horrid little man's pestilential name but as much of his having-ever-existed as we could reclaim.  Certainly not an active memory-holing: no need to resort to Stalinist extremes of Photoshopping the dead man out of vacation photos; but an obfuscation by dust and amnesia, an actual forgetting of the little blighter.

There are some evil men you make a point of remembering just in case there's such a thing as reincarnation, actual or merely figurative.  Banal evil men like Richard Nixon and epically evil knaves like Adolf Hitler.  This nameless twit we have come to neither praise nor bury is nowhere along that continuum: evil, yes--he parasitized suffering and grief, and what else is that but evil?--but not someone we should worry our pretty little heads about remembering for the next time.  Anyway, we'll know his miserable heirs by the signs they carry to some other funeral.  (Or, perhaps, even to his.  Snakes have no loyalty, their brains are too small and their blood too cold for it.)  His death is nothing but a chapter closing in a book in which he was never a major character and has long since passed from being an important minor one.

Naturally, if there's a Hell, he's in it.  But so what?  He'd be a nuisance there, too.

In the dead dwarf's country, one third of the states--seventeen of fifty--and the nation's capital have legalized same-gender marriages one way or another.  This is a transformation that would have been inconceivable when I was young, an era in which merely being outted could end a career in entertainment, sports or politics and at the very least damaged one's reputation in other fields.  Celebrities are mostly candid about their sexualities; those who remain coy only do so in a flirty, "What are you really asking and who wants to know?" manner instead of responding with the raw angry panic and speed-dialing of attorneys and agents that one used to see.  Unfamous folks post pictures of their significant others on Facebook, live with them, and (in the seventeen states and District of Columbia) wed them.

The dwarf is losing, in other words; the dwarf has lost.  A tide turned and washed him away.  It is possible he died of obsolescence.  Not that there aren't hateful, awful, tiny people still around who will post tinny little echoes of the dwarf's infamous catchphrase in Twitter posts and Sunday brunch conversations; it's just that fewer and fewer people take them so seriously anymore.  A tide doesn't quite wash away clean: it leaves little puddles behind that dry out, shrivel, shrink and are gone, the wet slimy things that flopped about in the receding muck turning white and crusty with salt and their own desperation.

I don't believe in Hell, myself.  I believe when you're dead, you're dead, and that's it; except, of course, that there's still your memory around, the echo of who you hopefully were that everyone carries around with them for however long, and one hopes one leaves behind a dulcet echo that chimes for a thousand years, passed from chamber to chamber by people who remember you well and with love.  I don't see this dead guy meriting such a fate; I see his memory being a sharp, jarring, cacophonous sound that echoes only as long as people can be bothered to dance on his grave.  And then when that exhilaration wanes, well: he'll be an answer to a trivia question, at best.  A brief sentence in the comprehensive history of how love won out over insecurity and prejudice.

I wrote earlier that if there was a Hell, he'd be in it, but if there was a Hell, that isn't where I'd want him to be: I'd want the miserable little bastard to be a bodiless ghost wandering the streets and alleys of this America, watching his fool's crusade whispering off like the empty candy wrappers whisking through his feet, listening in vain for someone to remember his name or even that he ever was.

Goodnight, you little fuck.

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An open letter to Dr. George Lawrnece Mensa

>> Friday, March 07, 2014

Re: Important Notification.6.7

 

Dr. George Lawrence Mensa (rvaveiculos@msbnet.com.br)      4:39 AM
From:Dr. George Lawrence Mensa (rvaveiculos@msbnet.com.br)
Sent:Thu 3/06/14 4:39 AM
To:



Attn: Beneficiary,

I'm Dr. George Lawrence Mensa, the General Manager of Hsbc Bank. We wish to urgently confirm from you if actually you know one Mrs. Jeanne White who claims to be your business associate/partner.

Kindly reconfirm this application put in by Mrs. Jeanne White - she submitted the under listed bank account information supposedly sent by you to receive the funds on your behalf.

The bank information she applied with are stated thus:

Account Name: Jeanne White

Bank name: Citi Bank NA

Bank address: #1230 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19107, USA

Account Number: 013439887655

Routing Number: 2771722

Swift Code: CITIUS30

The said Mrs. Jeanne White is claiming to this office that you are dead and have Instructed that all relevant documentation/Information regarding your Payment/Transfer, be changed to her as the beneficiary of the payment short-listed among the foreign beneficiaries entitled to receive their payment.

For your Information, our Government have approved the total amount of EIGHT MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS ONLY, in your favor, prior to the Federal Government instructions/mandate to offset all outstanding payments to the various legal foreign beneficiaries around the world and your payment file was affected. We need to confirm from you if it's really true that you are dead as made mention by your Associate.

You should note that, if we do not hear from you; we automatically assume that you are actually dead and the information passed to us by Mrs. Jeanne White is correct. Hence, you are hereby requested to reply this Email immediately for confirmation, before we proceed with this payment and for us to know the true position of things with you so we won't make any mistakes/errors in remitting your out-standing payment to a wrong

person/account.

Lastly, If she's not authorized by you to claim your funds, then be advised to reply back this email with your full information as required below for re-confirmation.

Full name....................................

Direct telephone number......................

Address......................................

Age..........................................

Occupation...................................

Country.....................................

Bank name....................................

Bank address.................................

Bank account.................................

Account type.................................

Your quick response will help us a lot.

Yours, Sincerely,

Dr. George Mensa.
 
 
Dear Dr. Mensa,

Words cannot begin to express my outrage at the outright fraud being perpetrated here.  I am grateful, of course, that you've brought this vital matter to my attention, that I may attempt to correct it before things get any more out-of-hand than they already are.  This is a travesty, and I demand that all proper and necessary steps be taken to address this injury and insult to my interests.

It is impossible for me to wrap my head around the fact you're even having to address this matter to me, personally.  I would have thought it was utterly obvious what is going on here.  I would have thought any decent human being in the world would have seen all of the red flags raised here and directly addressed the problem.  I must conclude, then, that someone here is a fool, or thinks that I am.

Fine, then.  Let's get this over with.  You know as well as I do, Dr. Mensa, that your government owes me EIGHT MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS AND THIRTY-FIVE CENTS.

"EIGHT MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS ONLY," you write in your missive.  "ONLY"?!  Hardly.  Hardly "only".  You owe me EIGHT MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS AND THIRTY-FIVE CENTS.  I shouldn't have to point out the profound difference between EIGHT MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS AND THIRTY-FIVE CENTS and EIGHT MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND UNITED STATES DOLLARS ONLY.  You know as well as I do, or you wouldn't have had to add the qualifier.

There are some people out there who might become cognizant of our dispute and wonder, "Eight-and-a-half million dollars is a lot of money--is thirty-five cents that big of a deal?"  These people are, of course, cretins.  We have a small thing in this world called "civilization", and this thing, this civilization, is a thing of laws and principles, a thing of ethics, something your government, Dr. Mensa, has lost sight of.  Without laws, principles and ethics, we are nothing but animals.  Animals who have airplanes and nuclear bombs and reality television, yes, but take away those things and tell me you can distinguish one of us from a baboon.  Without looking at the ass, I mean.  Obviously, baboons have a red ass and humans often don't, but I think you see my point.  A chimpanzee could pilot an unmanned drone deep into the heart of an ostensibly neutral country and fire its payload of heavy explosives at a civilian funeral as well as any human could, although you might have to install some kind of microchip in his brain or something, but would he do it ethically?  We are told that a million monkeys, sitting at a million typewriters for a million years would inevitably some day type up the complete works of William Shakespeare: I say, that sure would be something to see, though I hope there's somebody who comes through and cleans up the vast mountains of monkeyshit that would accumulate far more quickly than the Bard's immortal words.  The point of the observation being, of course, that the difference between William Shakespeare and a million monkeys is that Shakespeare had principles, never actually used a typewriter because Mr. Typewriter wouldn't be born until many centuries after Bacon's death, and Shakespeare only wore a diaper as an adult that one time and he never it did again after Queen Elizabeth chastised him (something she never would have done to a million monkeys, because she would've immediately seen the necessity of making sure the monkeys didn't leave feces all over the whole of Europe like a bunch of Spaniards).

Q.E.D., Dr. Mensa.  Q.E.D.

As for Ms. White, my dear friend: yes, I know her quite well, and she has correctly represented my interests as posthumously directed, for I am, indeed, dead, as she so correctly informed you.  She is, in point of fact, quite well aware of my demise as I have it on good authority she was present at my autopsy, where she repeatedly asked the Medical Examiner if he really thought my cause of death was heart failure when the only part of my body recoverable for my exam was the charred and mangled end of my left arm from just below the shoulder to (three of) my fingertips, recovered from a swimming pool many miles from where several hundred survivors observed a rather large and frightening explosion.

"Are you sure it was heart failure?" Jeanne asked.

"Ja, ja!  Who ees ze Herr Doktor here?" replied the Medical Examiner.  "Who hast ze Doktor mooostache in ze room, ja?"

It is, of course, not my place to argue with science, least of all science articulated by a gentleman with such an undeniably fine doctoring moustache as the Medical Examiner's, which is either waxed or oiled, and which frames a marvelously well-manicured Van Dyke.  (Indeed, I am given to understand that this Van Dyke has led to all the Medical Examiners in the world declaring our local Medical Examiner their true liege lord and king of their faerie realm.)  Thus I regret to inform you of my death by heart failure.  Our Ms. White's information is absolutely genuine and correct, and she has full authorization to act on my behalf.

But surely you already knew that.  I mean, she showed you the arm, right?  She was supposed to show you the arm.  And wave it at you and hit you with it if you tried to cheat her out of my thirty-five cents like you obviously tried to do.

I would like to be absolutely clear on this point: I am not prepared to be reasonable about this thirty-five cents nor do I see why I ought to be.  It is, as stated previously, a matter of principle.  And principal, but not interest, though it ought to be and I'm obviously interested in my thirty-five cents.  I will have my whole sum or I will have nothing.  I may be dead, but it hasn't affected my sense of right and wrong.  (Mostly just my sense of direction, as I no longer have semicircular canals.  Or eyes.  Really, I'm just basically an arm at this point, or most of one.  Most of a dead arm.)  I will not be cheated: I deserve thirty-five cents, and I will have thirty-five cents.  At this point, frankly, the thirty-five cents is probably more important than the eight million, five hundred thousand dollars, because we agree on the eight million, five hundred thousand dollars; but as to the thirty-five cents, I am right and you are wrong and I will be vindicated.  Don't even think I won't be.

I realize that a business matter between gentlemen would normally be pursued in private correspondence between the parties, but I am publishing this as an open letter so as to let the whole entirety of the world know what cheap and rotten chiselers you are.  A country that would take advantage of a disembodied, burned and (if we must be frank about all our faults for the sake of fairness) rather past-its-"sell-by"-date arm is a country lacking in decency and honor.  (As to that last bit, it's basically a figure of speech, because really nobody would buy a charred and disfigured arm even if it were fresh.  If you're looking to procure arms, you really want to go with something that hasn't been set on fire and catapulted several miles to land in a swimming pool where it bobbed around a bit for several days, which wouldn't have happened if someone cleaned the pool more often, but possibly I digress at this point.)  You should be ashamed, Dr. Mensa, ashamed.  A man with a medical moustache and no principles, what kind of man is that?  It probably isn't that good a moustache to begin with--yes, this is an unfair attack ad capillum, but what can a man expect when he's siding with villains, cheats and knaves who would deny a man what's due him?  (He can expect to have his moustache insulted.  Just in case you didn't see where I was going with that.)

The list of your treacheries seems endless.  You would cheat a man of his thirty-five cents.  You'd hassle a bereaved and grief-stricken woman.  You'd rob an unarmed man.  What chicanery might be next?  Kicking an orphan?  Leaving a burning bag of poo on a blind nun's doorstep?  Hamster-baiting?  Vile iniquity!  Iniquitous vileness!

You, sir, shall be hearing from my attorneys.  As soon as they finish typing Troilus and Cressida and their handlers change them.

Sincerely,
R. Eric VanNewkirk,

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