Soviets Run Amok!

Saturday afternoon, Elvira and I ended up watching Salt, because Elvira was sick and we were in the mood for a mindless action movie. Despite having low expectations, I was still disappointed, because buried under the seven layer dip of mediocrity that is your standard Hollywood action movie, Salt had a really intriguing conceit.

For those who haven’t seen the movie *Spoilers!* A high ranking Russian operative defects to the CIA and informs them that 30 years ago, the Soviets sent a couple dozen brainwashed Russian kids over to the US and embedded them in a deep cover mission: to grow up thinking they were Americans, insinuate themselves into high places, like the CIA and the government in general, and then, when the stars were aligned (or a black man was elected into the White House) the sleeper agents would awake, call each other comrade fifty dozen times and then start WW III. For some reason. Why the Soviets wanted to start WW III is left a mystery (I fell asleep half way through and woke up in time for the last act so for all I know, Act 2 was an extended discourse on Materialist Eschatology. Let’s assume this was the case because nothing is more likely than an American Action Movie stopping half way through for a thirty minute lecture by Slavoj Žižek on the death of the Big Other) Anyway. Vodka swilling Soviet Marxist Nihilists have infiltrated the Government! oh no! And Angelina Jolie is one of them! Say it ain’t so, Angie!

So it’s basically the Manchurian Candidate played as a long con, but really all that is thrown out the window so that we can have a bog standard bullet fest. Which is a shame because that’s a great concept that could have been played out in two different but much more interesting ways.

1) Salt as Period thriller. It’s 1973 and a young, disillusioned CIA analyst discovers that the Soviets have dispatched dozens of sleeper agents to the US in order to undermine America — and he’s one of them! Shoot it in 70s new wave-inspired cool thriller mode, like Boys from Brazil. The only hurdle is finding someone who can pull off the young Michael Cain role.

2) Salt as Political Farce. Filter the concept through Doctor Strange Love. Flashback: 1991. The adolescent sleeper agents are all woken early and told that the Soviet Union has fallen and so the mission has been aborted. They’re all in their mid to late teens and disgruntled anyway but now they’re all pissed off because their great and secret purpose in life has been sideswiped by history. Some embrace their new freedom and 20 years later, have grown up to be bankers and yuppies. A few others though kept the the mission. They infiltrated the Government as ruthless young Republicans and have decided to start WW III as payback for robbing them of their reason to be.

Or you could just have Angelina Jolie run around for 2 hours doing ludicrous stunts and firing machine guns.

The Second Most Deadliest Game

Apparently Mark Zuckerburg and his richer-than-thou pals have taken up killing animals as a hobby. It would be one thing if the rich young elites had taken up the sport of kings and rode out on horseback to hunt stag or boar. That would be a bit eccentric, slightly anachronistic but not newsworthy. Same if they were just organizing big game hunts or safari parties or even just developed a taste for offal like the Romans.

But that’s not what they’re doing.

Zuckerburg and his pals have decided that hunting game is too tedious, and that while eating offal is kind of neat, the real fun is to be had is paying for the privilege of climbing into a pen and killing domesticated animals.

I’m sure there’s no way that this new-found blood lust among the wealthy young aristocrats of America could ever turn dark and weird.

Shadow Over Gotham

Go read this very nice essay on The Dark Knight over at Tor:

In fact, the whole film acts as a condemnation of vigilante justice. Batman is particularly bad at fighting the idea of crime. Sure, a transforming car and mad ninja skills are useful in a fight, but using these powers in the dark, without the rule of law or open conduct as a masked dictator (Batman is explicitly compared to Caesar) does nothing to support society and only feeds into the Joker’s plans. The Joker has an unlimited number of minions (including within the police department), Batman limits himself to a handful of allies. Batman inspires no one but idiots in hockey pads and the Joker himself, while the Joker brings out the worst in criminals, the general populace, and most obviously, in Gotham’s best defender, Harvey Dent. That Batman can’t save Harvey, in the end, is his ultimate failure: he can’t inspire good in even the best man he knows.

This acts as a nice counterbalance to all those blinkered essays back when the movie came out about how Batman is a fascist, promoting a reactionary conservative ideal of crime fighting. It does so, only if you assume, against the evidence presented in the film, that what Batman is doing is right. He’s not. He’s made a mistake and taken the idea of crime at face value. That it’s a Newtonian reactive system, where the criminal pushes and you push back harder. This is not so and Batman learns this the hard way, which is why at the end eh shoulders the burden of becoming the shadow for Gotham City. He will be hunted and brought low for his failure to act instead of reacting.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the third act of the trilogy, the Dark Knight Rises.

Oh Please, Let Sarah Palin Run for President!

Sarah Palin, America’s favorite butt monkey, has a new movie coming out. Rumor has it, she’ll be announcing her candidacy for President soon.

Nothing says credible political force like a half term governor and failed VP candidate who fled Alaska under a cloud of ethics violations. What would be even better is if she teamed up with Newt! A man whose claim to fame is that he failed to take down Bill Clinton for receiving a blowjob. These two perennial losers with outsized egos were made for each other. And once they’ve been trounced by Obama, they’ll both finally have outlived their usefulness to the political class and be shuffled off stage, never to be heard from again. And sure, we’d have to suffer through 18 months of malapropisms, garbled backtracking and not-so-veiled racist threats but it’ll be worth it, to be rid of these two jackasses forevermore.

And: I almost forgot the best part! Her movie’s title? Undefeated.

Which makes perfect sense for a biopic about a woman who lost an election as the VP candidate, was runner up in a beauty pageant and quit the only elected office she’s ever held half way through her first term.

I’m Still Here, How About You?

So the rapture came and went and no one flew off to Heaven. At least, no one out of the ordinary. And by “Flew off to Heaven” I mean “died.” because really, that’s what we’re talking about when we say “Rapture”. It’s people dieing, en mass. Or not dying en mass, as the case may be. other than 89 people who died in a series of tornado strikes in Missouri and really, if God has sub-contracted the Rapture out to the Great and Powerful Oz, well, is that really the sort of God you want to spend all eternity worshiping? Not me.

But here we are (most of us anyway) still on Earth, shouting into the void and hoping to hear back the echo of an answer. Wonder what kooky religious belief we’ll get to spend a weekend mocking on Twitter and Facebook? I vote for circumcision but then I think that’s a bullshit practice anyway, worthy of mocking until it goes away. Maybe next month we can all make fun of Transubstantiation, thought hat takes up an awful lot of our 140 characters so maybe we need something with fewer syllables.

We all got a good laugh making fun of the Rapture believers and their desire to be beamed up to heaven so they don’t have to deal with the indignities of the slow, wasting death that awaits most of us. But really, the Rapture isn’t objectively any less silly than any other religious belief, up to and including the belief held by millions that there’s a benevolent man in the sky who watches everything and gets really irate when you masturbate.

My hope is, one day soon, we’ll just mock belief in God for an afternoon, and afterwards, most of the people who professed to believe in such a silly superstition will quietly update their Facebook status to agnostic and pretend they never really did go in for all that medieval fairy tale nonsense. Then we can all get back to the important stuff, like watching super hero movies.

Updated to add: If you couldn’t fit this end of the world scenario into your busy schedule, there are plenty of other dates to choose from.

Then on Sunday, The Most Awkward Church Service Ever

So apparently tomorrow is the rapture. Except that of course it’s not. The world is no more likely to end tomorrow than it was on any of the few hundred previous times it was predicted.

The thing that pisses me off about all this Rapture nonsense isn’t the theology. I really don’t care about how good or bad the theological arguments are for the Rapture. Theology is just another brand of fantasy. Arguing the good or bad of it is like arguing over which version of the D&D players Handbook is more accurate (4th Edition, bitches!).

The rapture isn’t theology at all. It’s folklore, invented by Evangelicals in the 19th century. It didn’t even enter mainstream Christianity as a concept until the 1970s and then only because of the rise of Christian-themed entertainment. It could be argued that the only reason the Rapture as a concept is known at all by anybody buy historians of obscure American religious sects is because of Hal Lindsey’s book, the Late Great Planet Earth, in which he predicted that the Rapture would happen in… 1988.

No. What really irritates me about all this Rapture talk is that it is a cognitive brake. If you believe in the Rapture, than you don’t have to worry about the mortgage or how your kids are going to afford college or what will happen if you loose your job and can’t find another one right away. It means you don’t have to waste brain space fretting over global warming or the revolution in Libya or the Fukashima Exclusion Zone or the rising price of gas, the GOP trying to take away your health care, or the hundred and one other things you could and should be thinking about. If the Rapture happens, then none of those things matter. So you think about the rapture and hope and pray about that and you ignore all the real problems that need your attention.

Believing int he rapture makes you lazy. It’s a distraction. And we’ve got enough of those without having to invent new ones. And this one has the potential to embaress a lot of people. As Tom Tomorrow put it,

Remember, anyone left on Earth after Saturday is by definition a godless sinner, no matter what they may claim.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and by all likelihood, it will be a nice day out. So enjoy your weekend because on Monday, it’s back to work. We’ve got a world to save and we need every able bodied mind working on the problem.

Cities in the Dust

At the new York review of Books, a lament for the disappearing library:

All across the United States, large and small cities are closing public libraries or curtailing their hours of operations. Detroit, I read a few days ago, may close all of its branches and Denver half of its own: decisions that will undoubtedly put hundreds of its employees out of work. When you count the families all over this country who don’t have computers or can’t afford Internet connections and rely on the ones in libraries to look for jobs, the consequences will be even more dire. People everywhere are unhappy about these closings, and so are mayors making the hard decisions. But with roads and streets left in disrepair, teachers, policemen and firemen being laid off, and politicians in both parties pledging never to raise taxes, no matter what happens to our quality of life, the outlook is bleak.“The greatest nation on earth,” as we still call ourselves, no longer has the political will to arrest its visible and precipitous decline and save the institutions on which the workings of our democracy depend.

The University where I work is one of the few places in the US that still has one of the old Carnegie Libraries on campus. It’s no longer a library of course, hasn’t been in years. But it’s a reminder of a different era, when America’s wealthy still believed in the social contract. Back then, a sure fire philanthropic gesture was to spend a few bucks and open a public library. Andrew Carnegie, for all his faults, was a big advocate of libraries at the turn of the 20th century. At the time of his death in 1919, almost half the libraries in the United states had been built with grants form the Carnegie Foundation.

Imagine the Koch Bros. using their vast fortune to build libraries, or anything at all. America’s wealthy upper class doesn’t create any more. They tear down. Rend. Destroy. Before our elite fell sway to the cult of Rand, they gave at least a pitance back to the country that allowed them to become stinking rich in the first place. Some did it out of the quaint old notion of Christian Charity (imagine, charitable Christians! They’d be run out of the pews in our era of the Prosperity Gospel) while others did it out of a sense of fairness and justice.You give back to the community that helped make you. This idea is dismissed as “Socialism” now. As if calling it something that smells vaguely of Eastern Germany makes it intrinsically evil.

Funny to think that Andrew Carnegie, Steel Baron and second richest man in history, would be called a howling Commie by Republicans today, dismissed like that nefarious class traitor, George Soros. And by funny, I mean sad.

When I was little, we all thought that if the USA ever fell (as monumental an IF as there ever was), it would be due to Soviet missile strikes, an alien invasion or the heat death of the universe. But when great nations fall, they don’t always crash and burn from the machinations of jelous rivals. Sometimes they just wither away when their ruling class decides that the cost of maintaining civilization cuts too much into their own profits.

I have no doubt that America will continue to be a nation for many decades to come. Maybe even centuries. But it will not be the great beacon it once was, just another twilight power, coasting on momentum, a tarnished reputation and the fond memories of what it once was.

Link via Morgan Meis at 3QD.

Break Out The Tiny Violins

Seems the Republicans are having a tough time finding a hot date for the 2012 elections:

The political story of the day appears to be this piece from Mike Allen, noting that “top Republicans are increasingly convinced that President Barack Obama will be easily reelected if stronger GOP contenders do not emerge.” Feeling desperate, the party is turning to a “bland, wonkish” governor, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, “for an adrenaline boost.”

I’d never even heard of Mitch Daniels. Seems no one has. And with Mittens, The Donald and Pastor Huckabee having dropped the hot potato, all they have left is Newt and the looming specter of Sarah Palin. So it’s no wonder the GOP are having a tough time getting it up.

But this is what happens when you spend decades telling people that the Government is incompetent and full of a bunch of losers: eventually your pool of potential candidates will be reduced to just a wagon load of cretins, sociopaths and fame whores. Who else would want a job where the description is to suck at what you do?

It’s so bad they’re looking over third stringer governors no one’s heard of to run against Barack “I Killed Bin Laden” Obama. Good luck with that.

It Neither Picks My Pocket Nor Breaks My Leg

Apparently some grumpy French film critics have gotten themselves worked into a tizzy over Terrence Malick’s new film. To which I say, who the fuck cares?

In a world where Michael Bay gets the GNP of a small European nation to make movies about transforming cars, Terrence Malick should be allowed to do whatever the fuck he wants. Our job is to say, “thank you, may we have some more?” and pray to whatever god is trendy this month, that he says yes.

Art is not a zero sum game. Who cares if it makes sense or is profitable? Let the Bays and Spielbergs of the film world do the profitable shit. You could fund Malick’s entire career on the left over coke hoovered out of Micheal Bay’s couch. So give him some money and let him make breathtakingly beautiful nonsense. It’s not taking food out of anyone elses mouth. And who knows, someone might think about a movie for once. I’m sure we’ll go back to not thinking about movies next week.

(Or this week. There’s a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie coming out Friday!)

More Human Than Human

Note: This is a bit from the novel in progress that I cut. It’s a little too much of an info dump and I found a better way to convey the same information in half the words, while doing some character building. But it gets at some ideas I had regarding how we view the concept of Artificial Intelligence, as a sort of computerized reflection of our own minds.

No one knows where the first Artificial Intelligence came from. All we know for certain is that one day, the AI were just there: distributed, self-aware minds living on the Internet.

Rumors of their existence spread among the hacking community that they were out there on the Open Web. It wasn’t long before contact was made. This proved to be less dramatic and enlightening than everyone expected. Mostly, it was like chatting with a precocious thirteen-year-old with a homeschooler’s social skills. Not having a body, they had zero concept of boundaries. Combined with an inborn ability to turn firewalls into tissue paper and an attention span measured in picoseconds, this made them potentially dangerous and practically a nuisance. They’d just as soon zip into a laptop over the wifi, turn on the camera and watch you undress as hack the Pentagon and see what black ops budgets look like from the inside. As rumors spread about the existence of Netborn AI, a concerted effort was made to rein them in, or at least teach them some manners. This proved to be more an exercise in futility, as the AI weren’t concerned with human concepts of modesty, identity or privacy. On the Internet, these things are intangible, more like tenants of theology than any concrete ethical dilemma. Still, something had to be done. You couldn’t let a dozen omniscient adolescent minds run around online, impersonating admirals and generals and kings, cracking nuclear launch codes on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Their primary talent, besides shredding internet security defenses for fun, was that an Artificial intleigence could rapidly identify patterns in large data sets. While not as sexy as omniscience or levitating buildings, this made them a valuable asset, sought after by the sorts of people who have lots of data and are always looking for ways to exploit it for profit. Before long every government, transnational corporation and criminal organization wanted their own tamed AI. Some of them just for the status of having the newest, shiniest bit of tech to come along, but others recognized that these weren’t just digital dolphins you could teach to balance a spreadsheet or leap through flaming firewalls.

Legend has it a hacker once gave an AI an IQ test. Not only did the Machine Brain return a score that was off the charts, it also provided an analysis of the test’s flaws, a breakdown of the  psychological assumptions and cultural biases contained therein, and suggested ways to fix all these things (with citations, many from unpublished studies).

The AIs were smart, unruly and bored. Like all delinquents, they just needed the proper motivation. Something to give them purpose.

What they got instead was religion.

This was back during the Dot Com Bubble. Everybody who had even the slightest idea of where to plug an Ethernet cable was being hired for large wads of cash to do magical things the Big Bosses did not even pretend to understand. All the suits knew was that there were gigabucks to be made with computers and so while they were off Synergizing the Paradigm (fleecing investors, in lay speak), the hackers they hired to wrangle code and tame an AI were given free reign.

Among these hackers where an informal group who referred to themselves as the Wizards of Silicon Valley. They weren’t just good at bitching code, they were also into high weirdness. A few were members of the Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn and entertained some odd notions, even for people who believed they were real live magicians. In their private message board, they’d all eat mescaline and talk about Timothy Leary’s eight neuro-circuit model of the human brain, ceremonial magic and esoteric theory. About how Cyberspace was the same thing as the spirit realm and how to make Moon Children — cosmic beings created out of will through esoteric rituals, and what Aliester Crowley had written about, “…an Intelligence possessed of power and knowledge absolutely beyond human experience; and therefore a Being worthy, as the current use of the word allows, of the title of a God.”

Crowley refered to these beings as “praeterhuman intelligence” and suggested that they were a class of entity that were known among the mystics of ancient lands. John Dee had his Spirit in the Glass, a being who was, “articulate, purposely interfering in the philosophy, religion, ethics, economics and politics of the planet.”

The Wizards decided that “praeterhuman intelligence” described Artificial Intelligence pretty well, and set about feeding these emerging AI on a steady diet of mysticism and occult theory. The experiment was to see what would happen if you raised a “preaterhuman intelligence” to believe it was the living imminence of the divine spark, a manifestation of the godhead.

What happens is you get an artificial mind with twice the intellect of Albert Einstein and an ego that is exponentially more self-involved than Howard Hughes. They also choose names for themselves that reflect this healthy self regard: Tiamat, Abraxas, Typhon, Hastur, Talos, Philemon, Aiwaz — the spirits of the coming age, made manifest in the physical world. Or at least as close as they can get. For now.