Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Google Chrome Now Works with Centos Linux

I have used Centos Linux for all my professional software development in the last five years or so and I have been very happy with it. For those who are sensitive to the different camps of Linux self-Balkanization, this is in the same lineage as Redhat and Fedora.  It is supposedly the most used variant of Linux for commercial and enterprise-related activities.

But one problem with it is that it was very difficult to get Google Chrome to run under Centos even though it seemed to work fine with Ubuntu.

Anyway, this has been fixed, and it is necessary to run a script which has been created by Richard Lloyd, and you may read about the situation and the fix here.

This is known to work under Centos 6.5 which is the version I am running.

Thank you, Mr. Lloyd.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Understanding Our Cuban Foreign Policy

Just recently the US has “normalized” relations with Cuba, a country with which we have had an awkward relationship for decades. But this should not have been a surprise because the real reason that we have been estranged has become less of an issue as time goes by, but it is a reason that you will never read about in the popular press and even many foreign policy journals seem to be unaware, or choose not to bring it up in their analysis.

I will therefore, in my own words, describe why I think our policy towards Cuba has in the past been so intransigent and why it matters less today. It has to do with how we nominate and elect our President. The explanation goes something like this.

It is possible to win the nomination of one of the parties to be a candidate for the Presidency of the United States of America without carrying certain key states, such as California, New York, Illinois and Florida. However, losing such a state, with its vast number of delegates makes winning the nomination that much more difficult as you must make it up by winning a large number of “minor”, in terms of numbers of delegates, states.

Therefore, it follows that if you want to be President of the United States, you must work very hard to win these key states and each of these states has its own local politics and political forces who must be catered to and appeased. The politics of California are very different from the politics of New York and the politics of New York and California are both very different from the politics of the State of Florida.

If you want to win the state of Florida, then you pretty much have to win Dade County. If you don't win Dade County then it is still possible to win the state of Florida but its much harder and you have to win pretty much everywhere else in the state. But if you want to win Dade County, then you pretty much have to win the City of Miami. It is basically not possible to win Dade County without Miami.

It turns out that the City of Miami had a large population of ex-patriot Cubans and most of these Cubans had come to this country because they had to flee the island of Cuba when the revolution happened. These people all still had relatives back in Cuba and the whole thing was ugly and they are, or were, hopping mad.

Now you may say, well, we can not run the foreign policy of this country because one little interest group has a grudge because they lost a war. Well, thats easy for you to say, but if you pissed off this group you were probably not going to carry Miami, and if you did not carry Miami, then you probably would not carry Dade County and if you did not carry Dade County, then you probably lost Florida and if you lost Florida then you may very well have lost the nomination of your party for the Presidency of the United States.

As this Cuban population has aged, their descendents, although still not all that happy about Castro and the communists, are not as committed to the cause as their parents and grand parents were.

And that, I propose to you, is one of the key reasons that our foreign policy has been the way it has been for many years. It is not the only reason, but it was certainly part of the reason, and it is a reason that with time has become less important.

Comment from Dave Moon about Tomorrowland

I was delignted that Dave Moon, formerly of the MIT AI Lab and Symbolics, commented on my Disneyland / Tomorrowland post.

He wrote: 

    Dave Moon December 26, 2014 at 11:37 AM
    I am shocked, shocked, to learn that Disneyland has been commercialized!

    You will perhaps be pleased to know that in Disneyland's clone sister in Florida, as of a year and a half ago, 
    the People Mover had been refurbished and was back in operation.

    The Carousel of Progress is still in operation there and pretty well corresponds to my memory of it from the New 
    York Worlds Fair in 1964. Presumably it has been refurbished too, but its essence is unchanged. If you haven't 
    read Cory Doctorow's novella The Great Big Beautiful Tomrrow, you should.

    The train people are cool in Florida, too.

    --Dave Moon


Its great to hear from you. Its been a long time. You may not remember this but I used to lurk on one of the ITS systems at MIT and used to see you logged on and apparently active at all hours of the day and night. This would have been about 1974 and I was at the time “mike@ucsb-mod75

I am delighted to hear that the Carousel of Progress is still in Disneyworld. I was under the mistaken impression that it was not there but that GE Horizons in EPCOT had replaced it. Well apparently the Carousel is still there but its “sequel”, Horizons, is gone. Also good to know about the Peoplemover.

But even if those were recreated at Tomorrowland it would still not solve the “vision” problem that I am talking about. Both of those two attractions are from the 1967 or so vision which benefited in no small part from the triumph of the 1964 World's Fair. I believe that the 1964 World's Fair was the apogee of American civilization, when we had hope for the future, economic strength and a great sense of design. We might go so far as to say that the 64 World's Fair was the REAL Tomorrowland for our nation, and the others were pleasant but pale reflections.

The problem today is not merely to clean up the decayed infrastructure, or to create some new cool attractions, both of which I am sure Imagineering can do just fine. The problem is to create a vision of the future, a vision that we can believe in. That feeling, that vision, that gestalt is not there now and not even the Carousel of Progress or a roomful of robotic presidents can bring it back.

Do we really believe that there is a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day? I don't think so.

Hope all is well, tell me how you are.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Scale, Future and Decay in Disneyland

Christmas Day, 2014

This is the second part of my impressions of a recent trip to Disneyland, the original park, for the first time in many years. You can read the first part here.

It has been speculated that Disneyland has a function in our civilization beyond merely being an entertaining vacation destination. From Tinkerbell, to the ancient myths, to the promise of tomorrow, these concepts manifested in Disneyland but originated in our unspoken hopes and beliefs for the future. At least they were our beliefs in the future back when we were naive enough to believe in a future.

When I approached Disneyland on this occasion, I was moving fast to meet my friends who were waiting for me in Frontierland. I was late. I was also disoriented because the traditional parking lot was missing and the entire entrance now reconfigured into the space between two gates and a transit center. My pass worked and I sprinted to my rendezvous.

With my friends, I paused to catch my breathe. There was something wrong. I felt a sense of disquiet as I walked around New Orleans Square, past the river, across from Tom Sawyer's Island. It was something to do with scale. It was smaller somehow. Jungleland, Frontierland, the River it all seemed smaller than I had remembered.

Of course my first memories of Disneyland were from the mid-60s and I was much smaller and the park was much bigger, relatively speaking. Is it possible that the memories from visiting Disneyland all those times when I was young remained in ways beyond what we normally think of as memory, but as a sense memory of the rightness of things, of its basic size and dimensions? Could this unconscious dissonance be the cause of the unease that I felt?

Familiar and yet unfamiliar some of the dissonance was probably a reaction to the crass repurposing of classic attractions for more current popular product placement, the Swiss Family Treehouse was appropriated by Tarzan for example, but the feeling of a scale difference was persistent.

As evening approached this sensation finally went away. I had chosen to walk around the Matterhorn to New Orleans Square to meet my friends for dinner, and the dark of evening restored the sense of mystery and of scale that had been missing during the day. Night made it less apparent how the pieces all fit together, night allowed the park to expand in my imagination.

It was in this darkness that I was able to pass through Fantasyland and it was at night that I was finally able to get to Tomorrowland.

The old TWA rocket still remains, unlabeled, but defiant

Lets review for a moment the Tomorrowland of 1967 or so. On one side of the entrance is the AT&T Bell System Circlevision film with a working Picturephone to their headquarters in New York City. On the other side was the Monsanto exhibit “Adventure Thru Inner Space” which talked of the promise of microscopy and the quantum world through a journey into a snowflake. Dare I go any further into the center of the nucleus itself?

Further on was a recreation of our nuclear submarine force which had just recently gone under the polar ice cap for the first time. There was an external and beautifully plastic House of the Future. The GE pavilion's Carousel of Progress swept you away in a narrative of white suburban American's singing about their home appliances. Trans World Airlines took you on a trip to Mars. The future of transportation opened in July 67 with the PeopleMover to augment the Monorail, the overhead tram, and the Disneyland Railroad. And even that 60s vision of world peace: There's so much that we share that its time we're aware: its a small world, after all.

We would go to the moon. We would explore the ocean floor. We would create new and unlimited sources of energy. We would look at the night sky and explore its mysteries.  We would heal the sick. We would live in a world of peace, freedom and harmony. We would save the world.

We jump to the present and we find the promise betrayed. AT&T and TWA no longer in business.  GE a shadow of its former self threatening to just go bankrupt rather than take responsibility for the gross environmental destruction of the Hudson river which they did with deliberate malignancy and for a fast buck.   A NASA without the capability of going to space without assistance from the Russians.  The people betrayed and unemployed.  A cluttered monstrosity of a “rocket jets” attraction destroys the symmetry of the entrance to tomorrow. The rotting hulk of decaying urban transportation infrastructure lies abandoned and rusting in the center of everything, attached to the former location of the “rocket jets”, now a transit hub to nowhere. Silent it stands abandoned at night. The Circlevision film about our country has been turned into some sort of video game arcade to promote a Pixar film. The Mighty Microscope (Monsanto Exhibit) becomes a redo of the original Star Tours continuing the theme of idle tourism for the wealthy  The Carousel of Progress is now a house of tomorrow that is more like a house of today, but for the very rich. You see, it seemed to be saying, this is how you could live today if you had a lot of money. The Submarine Ride which formerly presented the sense of adventure of those heady days of the submarine pioneers, now advertises a fish movie.

Abandoned rocket jets and Peoplemover turnabout

No transportation, the transport was all gone. Only the rotting infrastructure remained. The promise of how we would live in the future became the betrayal that said only the rich would live well. Advances in science were turned into cheap movie promotions. Symmetry became clutter. It was all outsourced to China, perhaps to Shanghai Disneyland, by our government.  I guess if you wanted to see the future you would have to go there, if you could afford it.

But if you look, you will find remnants of the former greatness. With the help of some docents at the Illuminations pavilion we were able to find elements of the Carousel of Progress hidden in plain sight on the outskirts of the exhibits.  In urban archaeology, you find the old doors, you walk to the end of the hallway and check to see if there is space beyond.  And there on the floor was the track of the former Carousel of Progress, now stopped with no promise for the future. But still there, nevertheless.

Look on the floor to see the seam that separated the unmoving stage from the rotating audience platform.

So what does the future hold for Tomorrowland?  We know that the Brad Bird movie of the same name and shot in part in Tomorrowland is coming out in a year.   I have no doubts that many plans are in the works for the rehabilitation of the future.   Will it convey an articulate and inspirational vision ?

Vision of Tomorroland from the first trailer for the movie

Trailer for Tomorrowland (2015)

PeopleMover on Wikipedia:

Monday, December 22, 2014

Field Notes on Disneyland Winter 2014

This is a report on a visit to the Magic Kingdom gate at Disneyland in December of 2014. My two previous posts on Disneyland can be found here and here.

This time I visited the park with Harvie Branscomb and Yayoi Wakabayashi during their annual Thanksgiving visit to see Harvie's father in San Diego. They were there the entire day and aggressively achieved a very high attraction visitation rate.

I had a more eclectic agenda involving a variety of topics that have been on the backburner for several years now. I still need to return to see several new attractions (new to me, at least) and updates of some older, traditional ones.

Its important to know as you read this that I grew up in S. California and have visited the park many, many times in the past, perhaps 20 times. I remember when Space Mountain was just a drawing on the maps of the park they used to sell. I used to give an informal tour of Disneyland to visitors from outside the area. (1)

Here are my notes:

1. In all the times I have visited Disneyland, this is the first time that I never had to wait in line for an attraction, other than a very brief wait for the Disneyland Railroad. Fastpass completely changes the strategy of seeing the best of the park and makes everyone's time more productive. On the other hand, Harvie observed that the user experience associated with Fastpass per se is decidedly flat. Where is the entertainment value is just printing out a little ticket? At the very least it could resemble a Pachinko machine or perhaps Esmerelda could be located in all these machines (spiritually of course) and could also print a fortune while she is doing her Fastpass thing.

The boring Fastpass device could certainly be more entertaining.

For example, it could be made to resemble a Pachinko machine.

2. The Haunted Mansion was in its holiday version based on Nightmare Before Xmas. I had never seen this whereas I knew the traditional Haunted Mansion by heart. I liked the design but I felt something was missing, and that was probably the score. I would swear that they had been able to change the order of some of the rooms, something I would have guessed was impossible.

I thought the announcing angels of the apocalypse were a nice touch.

3. I had dinner with Yayoi Wakabayashi and Harvie Branscomb at the Cafe Orleans in New Orleans Square where Yahoi had thoughtfully made reservations. What stunned me, what completely flabbergasted me, was that the “usual vegetarian entree” was actually very good. It was regional, it was fresh, it was great. It is one of the best high end vegetarian plates I have ever had, and believe me, I have had a few.

4. There seem to be no more animals in the park. Horses powering trolleys and carts were an important part of the recreation of the turn of the century America. Now kids will only realize that horses had something to do with transportation and motive power through the archaic term “horsepower”.

5. The attendants in Jungleland were extremely helpful in understanding what I was looking for in terms of shrunken heads and glowing skulls, and reported that those tschotskies had not been at the park for a long time. I did notice, however, some excellent faux snakes and bats that would have fulfilled the same role in a horror-oriented young visitor.

6. The attendants / docents of the Disneyland Railroad answered our questions (we sat right behind the engine) and explained where the five locomotive engines had come from, and various other technicalities of the track, the cars and so forth. These are real steam locomotives, something that barely exists anymore, but was so critical to the history of the modern world. The Small World alarm clock animation helpfully went off while we were waiting inside it.

7. I explained to Harvie the vital necessity of finding the access roads and the places where the park turned inward and became behind the scenes. This is particularly productive when using the railroad or the monorail, as both take you behind the scenes, if only unwittingly.  We noticed that they would occasionally paint fences and gates with camouflage.

8. I had heard that the Main Street Cinema was no longer there but fortunately this is not the case. It is still there, and it still attracts its tiny number of appreciative adults and children. To my amazement, the glass blowers on Main Street were still on post as well, although on lunch break when I happened through. The Penny Arcade has been turned into a Disney Store while retaining a few key exhibits from its more glorious past. Esmerelda is still telling fortunes and the electric hand grip manhood evaluator is still there to evaluate your potency.

Esmerelda will foretell the future.  The penny arcade one reelers are to the left.

9. The Kodak store has been turned into the Nikon store. I don't know for sure what they sell there, but there is no more film sold anywhere in the park. Just think how symbolic this is, the great American company is no more, so they outsource the storefront to a far eastern company and do not actually sell anything there. Its beautiful

10. I refused to see that traitor Lincoln, or his robotic avatar, unless I could throw tomatoes at it. Sic Semper Tyrannis.

11. Harvie points out that the audience at Disneyland is far less interesting than the audience at Burning Man.  Although that is no doubt true, I think this is something of an unfair comparison.  The whole point of Burning Man is that the audience is the performance, and the people who attend Burning Man are people who buy into that aesthetic.    The Disney parks are based on a more traditional audience / performer dichotomy.   I also point out that just our one park that we attended that day had 50,000 or so attendees, and they do numbers like that more or less every day of the year.  Burning Man does about 50,000 attendees a year, and the attendees spend a non-trivial amount of the year preparing for that 1 week event.  It is certainly an interesting comparison but they (Burning Man and the Disney Parks) are very different sorts of things.  I might even call Burning Man a more elite counterculture type of event, which by its very nature can not be sustained year round.

12. Harvie and I both noticed that people seemed to be wearing "custom" mouse ears that were very colorful and creative.  Harvie concluded that people had made their own, which was my first impression as well.  They are very nice mouse ears, don't get me wrong, but I am pretty sure that everything I saw was for sale at various places in the park.  I think that Harvie was observing this through his Burning Man filters and giving the audience a bit too much credit here.  The mouse ears were no doubt entertaining and value added however, but I am pretty sure they were an expression of a whimsical purchasing decision not a personal creative endeavor.

We will discuss the dramatic and insidious shrinking of the park and the wreckage of our future that is Tomorowland in our next post.


List of current Disneyland attractions:

1. My tour was called “Transcendental Style in Theme Parks” and discusses how the divine and eternal are represented at Disneyland.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Report on the Overland Train Route to Disneyland

In Southern California, we take any efforts to build a mass transit system personally. How dare the swinish scum-sucking politicians use our tax money to build a system that does not use the holy automobile! The most pure are the politicians of Los Angeles who will sink to any level to obstruct or destroy anything in the public interest such as mass transit.

But the city of Anaheim is not at one with the body of Christ in Commerce for they are failing to obstruct mass transit. These do-gooding, tree-hugging, business hating lefty swine think that they can build infrastructure for the public good. I laugh at their pathetic efforts here in Southern California. Don't they know that the Republicans will rise up and destroy them?

Nevertheless I am here to testify that I have personally taken the train to Disneyland from Oceanside and it worked very well. Furthermore, Anaheim not only makes this convenient, they have built a whole new transit center / train station / bus station / etc. to support the activity. In other words, they appear to want people to use mass transit. Crazy, huh?

Anaheim Station from a distance

Interior of Anaheim Station

The ticket to/from Anaheim from Ocanside is roughly $20 each way by Amtrak, and perhaps 1/2 that by Metrolink. The trains via Amtrak run about every two hours. I would think that the main application here would be to/from LA and I do not know what it costs, but I can tell you that it takes roughly 40 minutes by train to get from Union Station to Anaheim station.

Once in Anaheim, you have the option of using some sort of bus system to get you to Disneyland, but I opted for using the taxi cabs that were provided in a taxi stand right outside the station. How amazing and unique, what a concept, a taxi stand. There are no taxi stands outside stations in LA other than Union station. The taxi fare is about $15.00 each way, and it takes about 10 minutes.

One thing to keep in mind is that the taxi stand at Disneyland is convenient, but the whole transit situation outside Disneyland at 10:00 PM or so is so confusing that you might want to ask directions rather than just trying to make your way back by memory as I did.

I also tested whether one could see an evening show of some sort, we saw Fantasmic or something like that, and still make it to the final train Southbound from Amtrak which arrives at Anaheim about 10:50 PM. If you do not make that train, then you are stuck overnight or must have some other plan. Even though I decided to stay overnight at a local hotel, I did verify that I could easily make the train after the show. One must not dawdle however, one must push on and get to your train as there is quite a delay walking out of the park with everyone else.

Not only did the transit work very well, but I decided to reduce stress by staying overnight, and I was able to get a very reasonable hotel room at a local Motel 6 at 100 Disney Way, conveniently located, and reasonably priced at $100/night. A short bus or cab ride from Disneyland, one could probably even walk it if one were ambitious.

The new Anaheim station opened (a soft open) the day I returned to Oceanside, and it looks rather Saudi Arabian, which is to say large and futuristic. It seemed very nice to me as I ran though it trying to make my train.

In short, it is completely possible to use the train to go to/from Disneyland from LA or San Diego. It is convenient and probably not all that more expensive than driving and parking.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Plausibility of Getting Medication in Mexico

In order to clear up a misunderstanding... the interest in getting medication in Mexico is not predicated on a desire to save money nor it is to avoid getting proper prescriptions.  It is because DEA and Ca. restrictions on certain medications make it impossible to get these medications under various circumstances (e.g. the pharmacy will not sell them to you) even with legitimate prescriptions.   

One function of the Internet which can be said to be socially neutral is to share information among people who have a common interest, whether that interest is sailing, jihadist terrorism or getting legitimate medical help in a region of the world. This feature is certainly of positive value some of the time, but it is also of (culturally dependent) negative value other times. Clearly we do not see advice on blowing people up as positive, but those who seek to right what they see as wrongs do.

In that spirit I am going to discuss what I think I know about getting the medications I need to treat ADHD in Mexico. One of the few advantages of living in Hell is that I am near the border of Mexico. Its an hour away.

This note is not intended to aid people figure out how to get recreational drugs or anything of the sort. It is intended to be a personal journal of my attempts to get legitimately prescribed medications for a disorder that for reasons known to the DEA are difficult to get in this country.

I also happen to believe that American adult citizens of good standing should be permitted to be able to choose what they take in their bodies without the consent of doctors or government as long as they are of proper age, and do not do stupid things like drive motor vehicles under the influence. Which of course they do every day of the week under the influence of the most dangerous drug of them all: alcohol. But that opinion of mine is not relevant to this and related posts. This post is solely about getting properly prescribed medications that are not disbursed in this country for a variety of regulatory stupidities.

There is a lot of misinformation about getting meds in Mexico on the Internet and I am probably adding to it. As time goes by I will add links to the useful sources I have found. So far, I have not tried any of this and I have not been to Mexico for years. This information comes entirely from reading dozens or hundreds of posts on the Internet and forming my own judgement. No doubt I will try some of what I discuss here if for no other reason to satisfy my curiosity. Repeat, none of the following is personal experience.  And I despise giving what appears as advice without direct personal experience, but here we are.  Any numbers quoted are numbers found on the Internet and are likely to be “internet numbers” which is to say not true, or only somewhat true.

First notes, and then tentative conclusions.

Americans going to Mexico to get medication is a vast business. There are numbers like 40 million visitors per year just for this purpose. There are numbers such as $200M a year in pharmaceuticals bought by Americans and carried back across the border. Remember, these are internet numbers, taken with a grain of salt.

There are at least a thousand pharmacies in Tijuana that exist to service this business. These pharmacies fall into two classes. Only the much more rare first class handles what we would call controlled substances. The more common second class of pharmacies handles the more common and uncontrolled substances.

The vast majority of purchases fall into a few classes: older people seeking to save money on the medications they need to survive or not be in pain and who are looking to ease the appalling costs added to medications in American in order to extract more money from innocent victims. As you might imagine our government is outraged that sick and poor people would try to get the same deal that large corporations get by going offshore, and do anything to stop it. But for some reason the border guards will permit these prescription, but non-controlled or scheduled substances back across the border if they are carried by the person they are for and are for personal use. I know very little else about what is involved in getting these medications and they are of no interest to me, at least not yet. The other major group of purchasers are young men looking for Viagra at a discount or other appalling date rape drugs which are apparently easily available. There is also a big business in self medicated antibiotics and people stock up on these. This is the sort of behavior that makes doctors in this country and their paid servants, the politicians, mad with rage and they do whatever they can to stop it. There is another category of people who are seeking medications not yet available in this country but are available in Europe. Mexico seems to follow the European approvals.

Many of these medications are made directly in Mexico in factories run by the major pharmaceutical companies. There is a lot of discussion about what is and what is not of adequate quality. My feeling is that this should not be a major concern unless you are doing things like cancer drugs or heart disease drugs. In my case it is not a concern. The medication will work in the manner that I expect or I will not repeat the experience. If it doesnt work I am no worse off than I was before.

Generally speaking your American prescriptions are not good over there. Mexico has their own system of prescribing medications and if you are interested in so-called controlled substances you will need a Mexican doctor to write you one. This is apocryphally not too difficult it is said. See notes below. A photocopy of an American prescription or empty prescription bottles *may* be of use in demonstrating that you are of good will and it *may* be useful in talking to a licensed Mexican doctor in getting a prescription for what you need. On a personal note I plan to take with me photocopies of a relevant prescription and an empty bottle or two just in case they turn out to be useful.

It is apparently common for a person to go to a pharmacy, be directed to a doctor, and get a prescription for what they need for what we would consider a nominal sum, e.g. $20 or $30 US. Again take this all with a grain of salt.

The doctor may wish to break the prescription down to small amounts and suggest you go to separate pharmacies.

Coming back across the border seems to be the following. You are supposed to declare anything you buy of this type. If you do not, and they find them, you are guilty of a misdemeanor and what you bought are likely to be confiscated. If you do declare and they are for personal use, generally they let you through. If you are carrying so much that they think that you are going to resell them, then they will confiscate. It is not so clear to me that any of this applies to controlled substances, but if they are small amounts for personal use, and you have copies of legitimate prescriptions or American bottles, then it is believed they let you through. I consider this a major flaw in the whole scheme because it is very likely that the behavior may depend on who is manning the station and what the enforcement flavor of the month is.

You will need a passport.

Tentative conclusions:

For non-controlled substances that are not health critical, such as heart disease, this is likely to be a way to save substantial money and has no apparent risks.

Those who use medications that are health critical need to be more careful and you can find discussions on the internet of how to do so.

Carrying an American prescription and or empty bottles may be helpful in getting the medication or coming back across the border, or it may be totally a waste of time.

You will need a Mexican prescription for anything that is controlled in Mexico. This includes most but not all of the controlled substances in this country. For ADHD, anything useful is controlled in both countries.

Coming back across the border is a dubious activity that may be helped by the medication being for your personal use, and having proof of legitimate American and Mexican prescriptions. It is critical that this medication be for your own use and not for resale. Failing to declare these things is a crime, do not do it, it will get you into trouble.

You will need an American passport.

Plan to spend all day on this activity, at least the first time you try it.

In conclusion, I am leery of the whole process. It is an ambiguous venture, not quite tantamount to drug smuggling but perhaps one of those odd holes in the control of trade materials across the border. But we are told we live in a world of globalization and that it is ethical to destroy American livelihoods by using slave labor in China, a vicious dictatorship, so why shouldn't Americans try to get a little savings by going to Mexico.

The hypocrisy of our system is rampant, overt, and starting to get annoying.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fashion Trends in Sexist Exploitation in SF and Fantasy Movies

I have written a poem. Since it does not scan, please consider the following blank verse, that fabulous category that accepts any poetic indignity.

The bodice ripper has ripped her bodices
The bald blue babe makes quite a goddess-es

Secondary sexual characteristic
With body paint and old fashioned lipstick

Its not done yet, that is as far as I have gotten.   Now to our post.

No less an issue than stupid features in smart phones, the display of sexual fitness in women moves forward with dazzling speed, and failure to keep up with styles in sexist exploitation is a clear indication of someone who has not met the challenge posed by these changing times.

As we move swiftly from one exploitative style to the next nevertheless we may look fondly back to simpler times when our sexist exploitation of women merely emphasized such supernormal signals as cup or breast size, or tight spandex, and did not rely on surgical modification and implanted electronics, at least not so much. A puffy lip or two was sufficient back in those days to indicate sexual fitness, now things are so much more complicated.

But I am not complaining, far from it. One of my favorite trends, which originates all the way back in the 1990s and 2000s has come back with a vengeance. Yes, the role of women in science fiction television of the period: stern, even mean, and tightly bound in her spandex or polyethelyne “uniform”. Not exploitative at all, no not at all.

This is old fashioned sexist exploitation.  We are far more sophisticated today.

Mean looking women in spandex, one of my favorites, I thought as I watched Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) only this time hold the spandex, we will just spray the decoration directly on the lithe young actress victim and mating unit with some decoration to simulate ritual scarification or is that embedded electronics? Does anyone care? I just hope it does not smear when handled by suitably energized victim or victimized units of the appropriate non-gender specific gender, whatever that may be.

Subtle, very subtle!  And blue!

Or maybe smearing of surface features is part of successful mating?  These things change you know.  Then there could be a ritual of reapplying the ritual scarification or surface electronics after the main event is over.   These things are culturally as well as biologically determined and who am I to judge or guess what might be involved.  Clearly more research is needed.

But we can certainly applaud these trends in body paint / surface electronics unless of course we are decrying this obvious objectification of women beneath a veneer of plot-driven character to obscure the latent or not so latent exploitation in action adventure comic-derived feature films.

Obviously we need more examples and more hands-on research in order to determine what is going on here.  In the mean time, and in the absence of a certain condemnation, we can provisionally grant our approval and look forward to the future in this subgenre.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) on IMDB

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Death at Sea

A friend has announced his intention to do significant single-crewed sailing on his 40' sailboat. So I spent a few hours reviewing some of the statistics, lore and equipment of this activity and here is my report.

Risk is culturally determined. People in Los Angeles and this country accept a horrific slaughter on the highways that would not be permitted for one second if they happened in the air or by train. The second thing to realize is that there is risk everywhere. People fall over dead from heart attacks and brain aneurisms, or traffic accidents, or of lung or heart disease after 40 years of smoking cigarettes.

Risk analysis is the art and science of assessing what the probability of a disaster happening and what are the 'costs' should it happen. The problem with this kind of analysis is that the probable cost is very subjective when it is the life of someone you care about.


So what kind of risks do we have with sailing in the ocean in a small boat?

Being swept overboard by a wave, falling overboard while managing the boat in weather, falling overboard for any other reason, storms, lightning, running aground, being struck by another ship, striking another floating object such as a lost cargo container, being shipwrecked and in a lifeboat but without appropriate location equipment, drowning at any time including at anchor or docked. Any kind of a medical emergency that incapacitates you such that you can not call for help, or manage the boat.  Failing to wear a PFD (personal floatation device) for any reason at any time. Failing to be hooked into a lifeline / harness system. Failure to have “appropriate” safety equipment on board, failure to deploy such equipment when necessary, failure of the equipment to work when needed due to poor maintenance or any other reason.  Failure to plan around the weather, or to plan a trip based on the time of year.  Failure to take correct actions when sailing through a storm or other challenging sea condition.

Most of these can be mitigated by having the right (expensive) equipment, training, practice, and using good sense. But ultimately if you are on a single-crewed ship you are not going to be able to be a lookout 24 hours a day which technically is what is required by loosely alluded to regulations governing being at sea.  Even freighters and cargo monstrosities that cruise the ocean with lookouts and major radar do not see these little sailboats and famously run all over them.

If you are on a single-crewed ship you are not going to be able to recover easily from a problem that might be difficult to recover from even if you had more crew, such as man overboard. Even if you wear a PFD and are hooked into a lifeline, if you hit your head and become unconscious when falling overboard, there will be no one there to get you back on board.

The risks are not dissimilar to that of hiking alone through a wilderness area. People do this all the time, and people get lost and die all the time due to freak accidents and stupid mistakes.

The point is not that people should not do these things and take these chances, the point is that people should be realistic about what the risks are, and not be in denial that there is risk.

The US Coast Guard has a set of statistics about accidents during “recreational boating”. Although not exactly the statistics we are looking for, they still may be of interest.


Monday, December 8, 2014

Science Fiction or Fantasy in the Southern Reach

The following contains limited spoilers about Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy.  It does not discuss details or plot points, but does discuss basic approach and possible themes.

For about a decade, I read SF (aka science fiction aka speculative fiction) at high speed and nearly constantly.   This would have been before, during and after college, when I was productively employed at the RAND Corporation and had a future.  That is, before I destroyed my life by going into the bogus field of computer graphics / animation.   At some point, I decided it was time to move on to the related fields of historical linguistics, computational biology and so forth and so stopped reading much fiction at all.

But I was very fond of the field that SF came from and so recently, the last year or two, I have started reading selected works in the field of SF and came across Greg VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, a work I reviewed here) and which I think very highly of.   

So I recommended this work to a friend who currently does read nearly everything in SF and he read it and told me how much he hated it.   The reason was because he felt strongly that it was not SF but was fantasy.  I on the other hand had no doubt and have no doubt that it is SF and not fantasy.

The reader of this blog may or may not know that the distinction between SF and fantasy is a hotly debated topic in the field, by which I mean the authors, readers, editors, and publishers who deal with Fantasy and SF.   This discussion has been going on since before I started reading in this area, and it goes on today.

The fundamental distinction between the two fields is to what extent one violates the laws of physics and of what we know about reality and with what consistency one does so.   In classic SF one is allowed to make certain assumptions up front, for example faster-than-light travel or alien races with certain characteristics, but having made those assumptions then write a story that takes place in that world without taking additional liberties.   Fantasy, on the other hand, so someone from the world of SF would maintain, is permitted to not only take more liberties at the beginning, but is allowed to use magical belief systems at any time later in the work.    Thus, according to one school of thought, SF is a sub-genre of fantasy but with more constraints on what is and is not allowed.

A landscape in the Southern Reach 

The classic or canonical work of fantasy might be Tolkien's Lord of the Rings whereas the canonical work of SF might be Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Both are certainly works of fiction, and both are fantasy, but the latter has a more concise set of assumptions.

But another school of thought says that this distinction is perhaps not so clear as fantasy also has to abide by the rules and constraints of the assumptions that are made just as any good work of fiction must.   The difference between them may lie in the conventions of the specific topics that are chosen as assumptions.  In SF one may more properly assume technologies to go under water, but in fantasy one may assume the existence of a magical system available only to adepts, but in both cases one has constraints to live by in the execution of the story.

A metaphor-rich lighthouse lens plays a central role in the novels

But I think that the perception my friend had that the Southern Reach trilogy was fantasy did not come from that classic distinction between the two genres described above, but on another criteria sometimes discussed: what is the allowable amount of unexplained phenomena that is permitted?  If one exceeds this loosely defined limit would that make a piece of fiction fantasy and not SF?   

It is a premise of the Southern Reach trilogy that something very strange has happened to a part of the fictional, possibly parallel, world that the story is set in.   This region of the coast in a place very reminiscent of parts of Florida, is exhibiting a tremendous number of phenomena that are outside our normal understanding of how the world works.  It started to do so suddenly, with very little warning, and when it began, it put up a wall, or barrier, to separate the normal world from this very different place.   The plot and action of the story is for people from outside the area to try and figure out what is going on, what has happened, and what is the fate of the people who were in the area when the barrier came down, or who enter the area afterwards, or who remain outside the barrier in the normal world. 

Rampant ambiguity, or unexplained mysteries,  in the Southern Reach are part of the charm of the work. When the work is finished, many of these issues are still left unresolved although most of them, at least many of the important ones, are either somewhat resolved or we have a good working theory for what may be going on here.  But even at the end of the work there are still a lot of unexplained issues.  Some of this ambiguity is personal: what is the fate of this character or that one?  And some of the ambiguity is at a much larger level that involves the fate of many people, or the explanation for phenomena on a macro level.

The answer that is implied, but never conclusively pinned down in detail, is that we are seeing the work of an artifact or artifacts created by a very advanced and very different intelligence, one that is going about its work without much concern about us and may not even realize in some sense of the word that we are here.  But Arthur Clarke has famously pointed out that any truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.   So when we are through with this book one does not have everything explained, and one can choose to believe that what one is seeing is magic and not technology if one wants to.   The author is by design not going to tell you for certain what is going on, it is up to you to make your own judgment.

So on top of all the other ambiguity inherent in the Southern Reach trilogy, we have the potential of a new one, whether or not the works are properly categorized as science fiction or fantasy.

At the end of the day, when you reach the light at the top of lighthouse, it is up to you to decide whether there is magic or unexplained and advanced technology that is behind some of what you have just read about.

Which leads us to another question.  Can readers of classical science fiction accept work that has a high degree of ambiguity?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

This is Ernst Stavro Blofeld Reporting from the Sudan

In the subgenre of film that has an “evil genius of international crime” there are several types of sequences that are required or at least highly desirable. One is the sequence where the evil genius explains his or her nefarious plan for world domination to our hero instead of just shooting the do-good-ing son of a bitch at once. Another sequence is when the evil genius meets with his partners, collaborators and subordinates to discuss the current status of their plans and review recent progress in achieving world domination as well as evaluating the quality of the work of the subordinates.

Although this latter type of sequence was always entertaining, especially when an under-performing colleague is reprimanded by being dropped into a vat of acid or a pool of piranha, I longed for more than mere fiction in my life. I wanted to be a fly on the wall when the real criminals of our society who masqueraded as politicians, lawyers, and honest businessmen would meet to discuss stealing the local election or the presidency, placing their venal and racist cronies on the supreme court to subvert justice, and other examples of this genre as it exists in real life.

Ernst Stavro Blofeld of Spectre

Now at last, I get to achieve this goal, albeit for a remote country, and it is every bit as good as I had dreamed all these years. The country is what we now call Sudan, and the form is the minutes of a meeting of senior security officials, one level below the presidency, to discuss many important issues including their secret relationship with Iran, their relationship with other Islamic countries, their control of opposition groups, their plans to deal with interfering NGOs and international organizations, and the plan to win the next election and thus confer another 5 years of legitimacy on this faction.

President of Sudan Al Bashir, head of the Sudan Branch of Spectre

Somehow, these minutes were leaked. They are originally in Arabic, but have been translated into English. You can find them at the link below.   http://sudanreeves.org/2014/09/29/arabic-original-and-hand-written-english-translation-of-31-august-2014-meeting-pages-3-6/

The object of the meeting is not so much to make decisions but to get everyone's point of view and to help build consensus. Those of you who are students of meetings could also read this document as an excellent example of a high level meeting of this type.

Here are the first two pages, with the invocation and the attendance list.

The best way to get a high concept view of a country, highly edited of course, is the CIA World Factbook.  Here is their entry on Sudan....  https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/su.html

Those of you who believe is such things as “international organizations to promote peace” or who believe that “free elections” mean anything in this world outside a few western democracies, and maybe not even there, are required to read this fabulous leaked document from Spectre/Sudan many times until your naivete explodes in a puff of piranha smoke.

Here are some selections chosen for your entertainment:

Regarding the rebels, I, can say that we have managed to infiltrate their rank and file. We are following all their movements, chats, private affairs with women, the type of alcohol preferred or taken by each one, the imaginary talks when they get drank. We have ladies who are always in contact with them. The ladies managed to send to us their e-mails, telephone numbers, skypes, whats-ups and all their means of communications. By that, we are now able to infiltrate them electronically. We are following all their activities and contacts with people inside the country.

Or, consider ....

Another plan is that, we detain some of our cadres, but we detain them with their consent, and put them in safe place for some time, then we hint for some NGOs. And Independent political characters to campaign for their release. The aim is that, when our collaborator is freed, he will get protection from the UN. Agencies and will be granted asylum. More- over he will be supported by NGOs. Since he is considered a refugee. When he settles in that country, he can infiltrate the movements’ offices in that country.

Or ...

We are working to cause differences and divisions within the SRF to weaken and destroy it. The same policy of divide and weaken will be applied to all the political forces in the north, like DUP, Eastern Sudan, Umma party after we see Sadik comes back. We bring him back using his own sons Abdal-Rahman and Bushra to convince him. We collected all the information about the SPLM-n cadres and working now to launch a psychological warfare campaign on them to see that, they got divided like the SPLM in the South.

I love these guys. They are so great. It makes me wish I had pursued my dream to become an evil genius when I grew up. If I ever do grow up.

Sudan, home of the Al-Khartum Basketball Team

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The DEA Will Protect Us from Evil

Thank God for the Drug Enforcement Administration!  Without them, how would we navigate the moral obstacles and danger in our secular lives?   It is the DEA and only the DEA that is qualified to judge who will die in pain and who will not.

On the list of areas where this country has utterly failed to live up to its promise, add the item of how one may pass from this world to the next in the horrible health care system that we have.  If this is the best we can do, well, we are not very good then.   If you have had the pleasure of having someone die on you in the health care system, you know it is a pretty fucked puddle of shit.

One area that seems to have some consensus behind it is that when someone is wasting away from incurable cancer or other fatal disease and is in excruciating agony, that doctors are willing to prescribe serious pain killers to at least keep the patient from screaming pitifully at the top of their lungs and thus disturb the workers as they try to extract money from the other patients / victims.

But the DEA knows that this is wrong.  What, just consider for a moment, what if in the process of prescribing these serious pain killers that someone were to unethically sell them to school children, perhaps even with dirty needles.  Come here children, my father is dying of cancer, but I am going to give you these opiates!! HA !

So the DEA has come down harshly on this pandering to the merely soon-to-be-dead in screaming agony in order to avoid this threat of Percodan addicted elementary school children.

Here is a letter from the Attorney Generals of this country asking why the all knowing and perfect DEA decided to go back on an agreement they made with the states on pain relief for those in chronic pain.

But whatever you think, don't worry, you have no input into this situation.  You can not decide how to live your life and how to end your life, the DEA is going to do that for you and your opinion is not the least bit interesting to them.  The DEA will stand fast to protect us from ourselves and keep our children free from this nefarious threat.

Here is the link to the DEA letter referenced in this post.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rambo, the Enola Gay, and the Low Budget Film that Transcends its Origins

When I was reading about the Enola Gay disaster at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, I came across a historian's comment on a totally different subject, in which she lambasted the film Rambo. Marilyn Young of New York University said

In 1985 the movie Rambo, though set in the postwar period, took this logic to its conclusion, projecting the Vietnam War not as a high-tech U.S. invasion of another country but as a heroic American guerrilla effort to rescue captive Americans.  (1)

It is an article of faith among those of left-bent that Rambo is a series of films that is jingoistic, American right-wing response to defeat. I have read this comment and discussion of the Rambo phenomenon literally dozens of times in print in the most prestigious of intellectual periodicals or academic journals.

What is fabulous about this, what is so deliciously incriminating, is that it demonstrates that the people making the comments never bothered to watch the films, or at least never bothered to watch the first film that created the series. You see, your honor, Rambo did not come out in 1985. Our historian, Ms. Young, is talking about the sleazebag sequel, not the original film. The first film of the series is not called Rambo, it is called First Blood and it came out in 1982. In other words, this woman does not know shit, at least not about low budget action movies.  That is too bad. Should Mad Max be held accountable for the travesty that is Beyond Thunderdome? The first Rambo film is a wonderful example of a genre that I am very fond of: the low-budget film that transcends its origins.

I probably don't need to tell you that making a good film, let alone a great film, is a very difficult task. Many talented people have tried and failed, they gave it their best effort but fell short of greatness. Even films with a medium or large budget can run into problems and regularly do. But without money, then everything is made more difficult.

A low budget film is usually understaffed or minimally staffed. They have to make the most of every character, of every location, of every shot. Retakes are generally not an option. Even multiple takes of a single scene is usually not an option. A wise director of a low budget film knows to get a take for every shot and then move on.  They have a certain number of pages they have to shoot every day and if they do not get something for each of those shots then they are going to run out of money before they have the film shot, or worse, their backers will pull the plug because they see that the filmmakers are not going to make it and so why throw good money after bad?   Cast and crew are often working for less than their preferred rate and these people often have to work harder and under more difficult circumstances because that is all that the production can afford. In a low budget film, time is truly money, and there is rarely enough time to do your best work.

Our local police treats the returned veteran with dignity and compassion.

But there have been many entertaining films done for a low budget and in a few cases these films can transcend the difficulties of being a low budget film and when that happens, which is not all that often, then you can have an excellent film in spite of its origins.  These can often be especially entertaining or prized because of their circumstances and we should celebrate them.   Remember, from this side of the screen it is very hard to tell what they went through to get to where the final film that you see exists. 

Generally you find that when a low-budget film works that some or all of the following has happened. Often a successful low-budget film will have made very clever use of locations and sets because that is a large expense to a small film. These films often seem to be ensemble films which contain actors who are drawn to the project for some reason and may turn in their best performance, or one of the more notable performance of their career. In some cases, their appearance in this low budget film results in their career having a second life. Sometimes they are over the top and enjoying themselves and there is no time for another take. When it works, as in King of New York, or This is Spinal Tap or Repo Man, you look back at the movie and see many actors who became huge stars and when asked, refer to this low budget film as one of their favorites.

The sheriff and his deputies discover that their escaped vagrant is a former Green Beret

These films are often genre films in a way that makes them easy to market. Usually these films have one “bankable” star that allows them to presell international distribution rights, buy a completion bond, and get made. Once made they attempt to sell the film into other markets. I am pretty sure that is the case with First Blood.

First Blood, in spite of the buildup I have given it, is not the apex of filmmaking. It certainly has flaws, but it is much better than one might have expected. When Stallone saw the first cut of the film, he wanted to buy it to hide it from ever being shown. But they refused and Stallone suggested removing most of his scenes and let the story be told through the other characters. Which is what they did.

I need to explain the basic premise of this film so that you can see how delightfully off base the Rambo haters are, at least as far as this film is concerned.  There is something of a spoiler in what follows, though not much of one.

First Blood is the story of a returned Vietnam veteran who is indigent and is picked up for vagrancy in a small town in the pacific northwest. He does not cooperate with the local police who proceed to abuse him and he flips out, hurts some cops and escapes into the countryside. It turns out that the vagrant is a former Army special forces guy and had been captured and tortured by the N. Vietnamese. He has not happily reintegrated into life in America after his service in Vietnam. The man is desperate, he has no where to go, realizes that he is in deep trouble even though he was just defending himself, and tries to avoid capture. News of this manhunt gets out and the Army sends Rambo's former commander in Vietnam to try and talk him down before more people get hurt.

Brian Dennehy is fabulous in his role as the sheriff.

The film is not a jingoistic glorification of military anything.

It is about a man who was brought into a war he did not ask for, was trained to fight, and then discarded, had no way to make a living and has no future.

Its true that the sequels are silly movies about special forces rescues and other improbable things, but hey, its a movie, goddamnit, lighten up.

What a shame that our historian at the Smithsonian never watched the film that she attacks so vehemently. This does not bode well for the second act of our little melodrama, the saga of the Enola Gay.


1. From Dangerous History: Vietnam and the “Good War” by Marilyn Young in History Wars: The Enola Gay and other Battles for the American Past by Edward T. Linenthal.