Donald Trump In The Big Store

It’s obvious to anyone paying attention that Donald trump does not actually want to be president. I think I have his grift figured out though: the key is his recurring threat to not show up at a debate unless his silly demands are met.

Trump is running a variation on the Big Store con. He gets a bunch of investors to give him money for a sure thing, then it falls apart. He walks away with the money while the marks feel like they were part of something exciting. “Everyone gets exactly what they want.”

The trick to pulling this off in front of the camera though is to orchestrate an out that satisfies all the criteria.Trump has to exit dramatically, while making himself look tough and the GOP like crooks. The last isn’t the hard part.

So he spends months threatening a no-show at his own party, skipping debates unless he gets money, but always showing up. Then, a week before the primary, he follows through and ditches the last debate, counting on low-info voters to assume he’s dropped out. He loses the nomination, cries foul and leaves the party in a huff, announcing that he’s going to run as a 3rd party candidate.

This keeps him in the spotlight, and knocks the feet out from under the GOP. But running as a 3rd party is extra expensive. So Trump sets up a PAC, asks for donations. And gets them by the millions.

Come election day, he of course loses, catastrophically. We all know the elections are rigged against 3rd party candidates. He gives a wowser of a concession speech, pleasing the marks in his crowd, shitting all over the Dems, the GOP and democracy in general. Then he pockets the PAC money, walks away with a couple extra million tax free. He looks like a downtrodden hero to the Trumpettes.

The side effect is that Hillary wins in a landslide, the GOP, who went with Cruz, tank. The Dems even pick up a majority in the Senate.

This also reinforces the conspiracy theory that Trump is a Clinton plant. I doubt that. But the effect is the same as if he is.

Re: The Finale Programme, by Michael Moorcock

Starting in February, Titan Books is reissuing the Cornelius Quartet, as part of their ongoing and much appreciated reprint series of Michael Moorcock’s oeuvre. I got ahold of an ARC for the first book in the series, The Final Programme.

My wife had never seen Casablanca. This struck me as an injustice and so I dutifully sat her down, put int he dvd and teared up when they sang Le Marseilles to drown out the Nazis singing German drinking songs. before we even got to that iconic scene however, my wife in near exasperation exclaimed that she flt like she had seen this movie before, because so much of the dialogue, staging and characters had been referenced, quoted, and parodied in so many other movies and TV shows since 1941.

Reading The Final Programme should have been like that. And judging by the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, for some people it is.

But it’s a testament to Michael Moorcock’s skill as a writer that this book, written in 1965, first published in 1968 doesn’t feel dated. It has all the hallmarks of the early counterculture that it was a harbinger to, the blithe attitude towards sex and drug use, open homosexuality and bisexuality, the fierce social commentary and  everything else that should, by all rights, make this a screaming artifact of a bygone era. Instead, it’s a rich, fun wild ride, full of brain melting ideas, speeches about eternal recurrence and identity, tossed off like casual banter about the weather, and a sly nod and wink to the reader that yeah, this is all a lark, but a serious lark.

(It’s also possible that I have a soft spot for weirdo counterculture fiction form the 60s, as I’m also a big fan of Illuminatus! and Mumbo Jumbo).

What struck as someone who hasn’t read the Cornelius Quartet before (and not much Moorcock at all), is how influential this series really is. Jerry Cornelius is a direct forefather to Casanova Quinn, bent gender and all. I’m honestly surprised his initials aren’t JC, frankly.

I’m not going to talk about the plot, because it’s fabulous pop art kitsch of the highest order. I want there to be a long lost movie made of it, starring John Philip Law, in full on Danger: Diabolik mode. And telling it in spare synopsis form would make it sound even more ridiculous than summaries usually do.

There’s plenty to be had in the Final Programme, for Moorcock enthusiasts, the references to other works about the Eternal Champion’s exploits. But even if you don’t know about the cosmic battle that [lays out, a hundred time sin different guises and permutations over the course of dozens of the author’s novels, there is still a lot of fun to be had. And really, that’s the adjective that best sums up this book: Michael Moorcock clearly had a blast writing it and now, it’s back for you and I to have fun reading it again, for the first time.

Kudos to Titan Books for bringing out these new editions of fantasy and sci-fi classics by a genuine master of the craft. ( I hope they do The Dancer at the End of Time series next, as that one is a personal favorite).

Special thanks to Chris Young.

Growing Up In Guantanamo Bay

My first professionally published essay, about growing up in Cuba is now up!

There was this story that all of the American kids who lived on GTMO knew—the Cubans didn’t map their minefields. We’d heard it from someone’s brother, who’d heard it from one of the Marines stationed along the fence line, who’d seen it with their own eyes. Prisoners were marched out of a gate on the Cuban side and into the no-man’s land between one country and another until . . . Boom!

Continue reading at The Establishment

The Rebellion Awakes

Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, where have you been living, under a rock? Because it’s been out for like 3 weeks already.

One of the recurring jokes during the run up to the premier of The Force Awakens was about how Star Wars told the tale of a young man’s journey to Jihad. Luke has all the hallmarks of the nascent terrorist: no family to speak of, isolated, idealistic. He even grew up in a desert, and is converted to a little-understood religion by a bearded radical. This is a funny, because like most jokes, it contains a bit of truth.

In the original Star Wars trilogy, the terrorists are called Rebels, because they have tacit support from a disenfranchised branch of the government, but they use asymmetrical tactics and seek to overthrow a government they see as illegitimate. When we meet Leia, she’s smuggling data hacked by spies and is on a desperate mission to recruit a religious fanatic so well-known for his military prowess, that he is currently living as a hermit under an assumed name.

So why do we root for a ragtag army of rebels led by religious fanatics fighting to rebuild a semi-mythic state? To the Rebellion, the Old Republic is the “shining city on a hill,” that “more civilized time” Obi Wan tells Luke about, filling his head with promises of a past golden age that, thanks to the prequels, we know is bullshit.

One of the (many, many) reasons the Prequel trilogy fails is that the heroes of that story aren’t the underdog radicals, but unwitting agents of the burgeoning Empire. They don’t realize until too late that they’ve been manipulated by a despot into helping him overthrow the established order and install himself as the supreme ruler of a crypto-fascist regime. It’s hard, on an emotional level, to get behind that cause. And we know, going in that this is the end game, because these are prequels and we already know what needs to happen. The Republic must fall and here, Lucus presents us with the agents of that downfall: our hero’s younger selves. Told in reverse, it’s the story of youthful idealism failing to the realpolitik of middle aged compromise. We can understand why this might be a resonant theme for George Lucus, but for the audience at large, it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Despite all the British accents, Star Wars is an American myth and as such, it holds to its heart an unrepentant admiration for the rebel with a just cause.

Part of the the narrative of the founding of the American Republic is that we were and still consider ourselves to be the scrappy underdogs of history. Americans are exceptional because we were the one case when the rebels were the good guys, and so our stories reflect this. We identify with the myth of the righteous rebel because once upon a time, it gave birth to the American dream. That it was, from a certain point of view, as Obi Wan would say, also a bloody insurrection on the part of colonial subjects to the British Empire is one of those implicit truths we prefer to ignore. It doesn’t do well for national moral to admit that we are a country founded by traitors. But they were successful traitors!

Which brings us to The Force Awakens.

Thirty years after what we were led to believe was another instance of successful rebellion in the name of greater freedom from tyranny, we find the galaxy far far away still rent by civil war.

The factions in this version are a bit ill-defined. Obviously the First Order are bad guys, because like all bad guys, they have snappy uniforms and like to recreate Leni Riefenstahl films. But the Resistance is a bit harder to pin down. They aren’t officially part of the New Republic, which gets nuked by the Starkiller. We’d feel bad for them, but we didn’t even know they existed until about five minutes before the sun-gobbling ray gun that’s totally not a Death Star blasts them to space debris.

So the Resistance are The Rebellion: The Next Generation, fighting the good fight against the First Order so the Republic doesn’t have to? I guess? Anyway, it’s never really been clear just what the political structure of this galaxy has been. The Old Republic was a unicameral senate comprised of democratically elected royalty, so, yeah. Vague hand wavy ideas about democracy grafted onto a fairy tale structure that requires a royalist backbone. It’s problematic, to say the least.

You can almost see why some Conservatives root for the Empire. It sweeps away the bureaucratic deadlock of a faux republic full of princes and princesses, which slots neatly between the Tab A of American Rebellion and Slot B of Neocon Imperialism. Plus you know, Darth Vader is pretty cool, as villains go. Better to be ruled by the mechanical iron fist of a strong leader than a committee of girly princesses, am I right?

With his helmet off, he does look a little like Vladimir Putin.

But we had the Rebels and now we have the Resistance, which is very French Underground, and builds on the grafted-on World War II imagery from the original trilogy. It also ties into the romanticized rebel ideal that motivates a lot of American politics today (I’m looking at you, Oregon Militia dickheads).

By making callbacks to the original trilogy, The Force Awakens brings that old school rebellion, DIY ethos into the 21st century. Which is a savvy storytelling decision, as it taps into our cultural mythology, rather than trying to tell a hamfisted political alegory. This in turn reminds us how important the rebel with a cause story is to us. It’s vital and necessary, because democracy is, to a large extent, built on cycles of rebellion.

The devil in the details lies in how the powers-that-be decide to react to that rebellion. Do you try and stomp it out with one Death Star after another? Or do you recognize that gradual change is an inevitable part of human culture and society? Because if there is one thing Star Wars and history both teach us, it’s that if you make gradual change impossible, you make armed rebellion inevitable.

Obviously one makes for good storytelling while the other makes for stable governments and livable planets. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to keep my Nazi analogs in a galaxy far far away.

Against Resolutions

It’s the end of 2014 and everyone is lining up their new year’s resolutions. Everyone but me.

It’s not that I have anything against the idea of improvement, it’s just that time and experience has shown me that on the road to doing better, we look for shortcuts and have a tendency to get lost along the way. You meet that convincing fellow with the nice smile and a best selling book about how to get It Done and before you know it, your bank account is empty, you own more than one velour robe, and someone just handed you a cup of juice that smells like bitter almonds.

Formulaic self-help recipes and nefarious improving gurus aside, wanting to do better next time is an admirable trait. It’s just the continuing cycle of years isn’t really next time, is it?  There’s no discernible difference between this Thursday and the Friday that follows it, other than the fact we’ve decided to measure the circle of our lives beginning somewhere in between. When the clock chimes twelve, you won’t be happier, smarter, thinner, or richer. you will simply continue to be. And then what happens?

That’s the only important question we really need to ask ourselves. Resolutions are like to-do lists: you make them then ignore them. And if your answer is to make a list, you’re missing the point.

Resolutions are the list of things you’d like to do, but know you’ll never get around to. Or worse, will get around to, but in the most haphazard, unintentional way that causes the complete opposite outcome intended. That’s called serendipity, and that’s as it should be.

Serendipity is when you go looking for a particular book on the shelf and find an even better one right next to it. It’s when you go out for a walk and decide to let your feet move you down a path you usually don’t take, just to see what’s at the end. It may be nothing, but it may be your old friend that you haven’t seen in a while.

Serendipity is not possible when following a to-do list full of resolutions you made months ago, half of which no longer make any sense (what does “eat more peanuts” even mean?).

If resolutions serve any purpose, it’s the same purpose disaster movies serve: they get you to think about all the ways the world won’t really end. That way, you can get on with living your life, taking things as they come, and moving forward in ways you never would have thought to put down on your list, but are better for you, and more fulfilling.

Case in point: I resolved years ago never to get married or have kids. I didn’t believe in marriage, didn’t want the burden of feeding, clothing, raising another human being in this crazy old word. See how well that resolution worked out for me?

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Who Made This?

At the end of every episode of the X-Files, there was the production card that identified the show as being created by a particular production company, in this case, Chris Carter’s Ten thirteen productions. I bring this up because the tag line of that production card always stayed with me. A simple statement, spoken by a child: “I made this.” It wasn’t just a boast, but a reminder. Someone made the preceding show. It didn’t just appear on your screen, beamed in from outer space. It was consciously made to sell you an idea.

I started thinking about this when the controversy over The Interview erupted last week. What struck me most was how muddled everything became over something as simple as a movie. Though perhaps simple is the wrong word. Movies are complex, deceptively so. We forget how much time and attention goes into editing them into a coherent narrative, that we overlook the gaps in that editing, and pretend that the real people saying fake things up there on the screen are still conveying some sort of truth, even if that truth is that Seth Rogen and James Franco have clearly smoked more weed than is advisable.

Facts are funny things. They’ll serve liars just as well as they will crusaders for truth and justice. Sure, Sony spiking the film is a horrible no good very bad thing to do, as is the DPRK (or whomever) hacking Sony and issuing threats of terrorism over a movie. But you know what else is a bad idea? Making a comedy about assassinating a sitting head of state. Even and especially if he is an egomaniacal troll with delusions of grandeur. This is a man who had his ex girlfriend executed by firing squad. What did you think was going to happen when he saw a simulacrum of his own face, with his own name, melting on screen? He’d laugh?

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But what gets left out of the story is how the moviemakers are trying to pull a fast one. The Interview doesn’t get transmuted into gold because it’s become controversial. But by doubling down on the claim their freedom of speech is being trampled, they elevate the status of their stoner comedy, demanding it be respected as an artful political statement, while still claiming it’s just a movie and the dude whose avatar they immolate on film should just chill out.

The Interview is suddenly Schrodinger’s movie, both political art and crass commercial product, all depending upon which side of the dependent clause you’re reading. And all because James Franco and Seth Rogen deserve… something. Attention? I know we white guys have been feeling the sting of the social justice warrior lash of late, but prolonging an international incident because of misplaced privilege is a new low, even for movie stars.

And let’s not kid ourselves, The Interview is a lead-jacketed stone, designed to sink. How could it be anything else given its stars, subject matter, and the tendencies of Hollywood comedies? The famous duo who brought us Pineapple Express were never going to produce a thoughtful, nuanced rendering of a tragic and strange land run by a third generation ninny raised to believe he is a god-king. That movie would be glorious, probably French, and definitely made thirty years ago, but it was never going to be extruded through the marketing-constricted orifice that is Sony Pictures in 2014.

Sony, for their part, were justified in canceling it. Sony is a Japanese based multinational corporation, concerned not with upholding the dubious free speech claims of two wealthy white actors in another country, but with making a profit. And the potential risk presented with releasing a stoner comedy is not great enough to throw against the unknown variable that is North Korea, who has of late been throwing missiles into the Sea of Japan. Still, they handled the situation like utter tools.

And I’m not even sure why the matter required a response from President Obama. A multinational corporation based in Japan gets a bloody nose and the person who holds a press conference isn’t the VP in charge of InfoSec or even the CEO, but the President of the US? If even Obama can no longer tell where a multinational corporation ends and the United States begins, we’re all screwed.

As for North Korea, there’s debate if the DPRK could even pull off such a sophisticated hack. The FBI claims they did it, NK says they were framed. I’ll leave that one to the InfoSec experts:

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The people of North Korea deserve our sympathy, and some of our pity, in everything, but especially this. Before this is all over, someone is going to loose their life in that country, all because Dear Leader looked like a fool in front of the world. That he could look like nothing else is not this dead soul’s fault, and we will probably never even know their name. But sure, let’s pretend, because we’re Americans and have the privilege afforded by distance and willful ignorance, that the real victims are James Franco and Seth Rogan. They’ll have to suffice with crying themselves to sleep on their giant pillows in their shiny mansions, before someone hands them the equivalent of North Korea’s GDP to make another shitty movie.

We’re left with three simple facts: 1. North Korea is run by a dick. 2. Sony execs have their heads up their asses. 3. The Interview is a terrible movie. But none of these facts add up to a greater sum worth anything this overblown. It’s a just a movie, after all.

The problem is, we’ve let movies dictate our perceptions for so long that we have forgotten that someone else’s vision defines what we see or don’t see. And that makes us responsible, as an audience, to stay informed. It’s long past the hour of when you could simply be a passive consumer of moving pictures. It can be argued that this never was a luxury we had, only another idea sold to us, probably in some movie.

By focusing the lens of the story on the famous people who have been temporarily inconvenienced, we’re ignoring the real story: someone exploited Sony’s laughable IT security and made off with a metric shit ton of sensitive data. The powers that be are blaming North Korea, because it’s the sort of story that flatters us and fits a widely accepted geopolitical narrative: a jilted, image-conscious dictatorship spitting in the eye of the noble empire and bastion of civilization over a petty slight, with a pair of hapless but freedom-loving artists caught in the middle. Just ignore the projectionist in the booth, his curtain or the real reasons this particular story is being told at this particular time.

One theory I’ve seen floated is that this is being blown out of proportion by the US Government specifically to give weight to its claims of dire cyber warfare on the horizon, and thus grab back the relative freedoms created by the Internet. I don’t know about you, but if Seth Rogen becomes a dupe for ending net neutrality, I’m going to be pissed.

For all I know, North Korea did the deed, Sony did the best they could under the circumstances, and The Interview is a lost classic of political satire. But I’ve seen that movie and it feels like it needed another rewrite.

All politics is personal. And it doesn’t get any more personal than the images you let people put in your head. This goes double for viral videos, propaganda, or anything that has controversial buzz. Anything that wants your money as much as it wants your attention should be suspect. Never stop asking, “who made this?” because if the answer isn’t, “I made this,” than someone is selling you something and it may not be something you want to buy.

Update 12/23: In the last 24 hours, North Korea was kicked off the Internet by hackers. They’re back, but the hackers showed what some have suspected all along: the DPRK doesn’t have a robust enough Internet infrastructure to perform the sort of sophisticated hack that Sony experienced. Meanwhile, Sony announced they had decided to release The Interview anyway. Guess they decided there was now enough buzz for it to be profitable.

Still no word yet as to why the US is defending the honor of a  corporation against the sickly kid on the international playground.

Gambling With The Future

A few days ago I was on Twitter discussing this terrible headline about AI and libertarianism (it’s from John Stossel so yeah, don’t even bother). This apparently attracted the attention of Zoltan Istvan, Transhumanist author and philosopher, who started following me on Twitter. I followed back and he sent me a link to a free download of his book, The Transhumanist Wager. So I read it. Or tried to anyway.

The problems with The Transhumanist Wager begin with its turgid prose, but they don’t end there.[1] For the unenlightened, Transhumanism is the school of thought that at some near future date, technology will enable humans to achieve a kind of immortality, either by cloning, uploading our minds onto the Internet, or just putting our heads in jars. What sets Transhumanists apart from the science fiction writers who invented these tropes, is that Transhumanists think this is a dandy proposition and we should do everything within our power to make sure that this happens, up to and including bending or breaking a few inconvenient laws.[2] Istvan is a merry proponent of the bending of these laws and moral codes associated with them, on the grounds that well heck, someone is going to do it anyway and the benefits will be pretty cool, so why not?

Because as history has demonstrated time and agin, the primary beneficiaries of technological advances are the 1%. The wealthy elites would get the mind-uploading tech and the customized meat avatars while the rest of us would be left to rot in squaller, if we’re lucky. The unlucky ones would or be press-ganged into becoming indentured code servants for the wealthy. Yes, we’d all get to go live in the Matrix! As some douchebag’s slave, or part of the infrastructure. Instead of being a taxi driver, you’d get to be their car. Or their customized centaur steed. Forever.

Of course Transhumansits claim it will not be so. That ethical progress and libertarian values will prevent this sort of exploitive power play, which as usual, ignores all of human history and seems to apply only to the sort of perfectly spherical humans that exist in these thought exercises. The problem is that true libertarianism can only be attained by a better, more perfect form of human. And they don’t exist. They are is imaginary as the perfected, incorruptible, immortal souls of medieval Catholic theology.

Which is what all this striving for immaculate digital perfection really is, warmed over Christian escapism.[3] Why worry about fixing the world’s problems when we can go hide in the Matrix?

So now my Twitter feed is full of libertarian futurists and their blinkered self-promotion and congratulatory ramblings, all in service of feeding me to the Machine so that the Koch Brothers and Rand Paul can can become immortals. Thanks but no thanks.

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1. All self-described philosophers have a tragic prose style, as if they are trying to sound as “smart” as their ideas and instead, end up sounding like Wittgenstein with a mouthful of marbles.

2. Human cloning has been outlawed in most countries, and by the UN. The sort of experimentation that would be required to create the mind-machine interface technology to allow for mind uploading isn’t illegal because it doesn’t exist, but if it did, would be illegal as it would violate all known guidelines for ethical practices in research.

3. That, mixed with the standard libertarian dream of having middle class vices legalized in order to enjoy them without the guilt of moral transgression.