Sunday, September 28, 2014

Fierce Darwinian Struggle and Proof of Cooperation Between the Facilities in Computer Animation

When a friend made a proposal to try to manage the disaster that is unemployment in visual effects and computer animation in this country, his proposal required that visual effects and computer animation companies work together in some way in the area of labor, somehow sharing people in a way that I did not understand.   Of course.  Sure, makes perfect sense.  After all, the production facilities are well known for cooperating in this and so many other areas.

Just kidding.  The only thing the facilities do to each other is to beat each other over the heads and shoulders and try to get in a killing blow.  I can cite example after example in which the worst human behavior is exhibited by one facility against another.  They see life and the world as a zero sum game, if they win then the others must lose and vice versa.

Well, I was wrong.  To my amazement, three important facilities in animation and visual effects collaborated in an important area for years but they kept it quiet because of their inherent modesty and good will. Their collaborative efforts were directed for the greatest good of society and in the greatest traditions of American industry which aspires to grossly violate labor laws and destroy the economic well-being of their workers.

It all starts about a year ago when a founder of an important early computer animation company made a public proposal to address some of the dilemmas facing employment in this country for the computer animation proletariat. 

My criticisms of his plan were as follows: a. it did not address the subsidies that made certain industries, particularly visual effects, uneconomic in this country. b. it assumed that visual effects and animation companies could be cooperative in their use of labor, which I doubted, and c. it did not address the problem of vast oversupply of people who were qualified or thought they were qualified to work in production, thus driving prices down for labor and making it unlikely that they would be able to earn a living wage or live in security in this field.

Furthermore, my idealistic friend is well aware of the normal competitive nature in the field, as the facility he started and managed for many years was among the worst offenders, 

The normal mode of fierce Darwinian struggle was first expressed to me by my friend's business partner, who pointed out how it was a strategy of their company to drive their competitor out of business by any means possible and then absorb the former employees that they had selected as suitable, thus destroying any ability of the out-of-business company to reconstitute itself. An excellent strategy I think, and filled with all the positive values that I would expect from an executive in the field of computer animation.

I would say that this philosophy so elegantly expressed by my friend's partner does describe the default level of cooperation between the facilities: not only is there *no* cooperation but there are active efforts at all times to destroy the competition (which is to say, any other facility) and devour their flesh, laughing, and reinvent history to demean and despise their former enemy.

But in a shocking reversal, it was recently announced that three important companies in the field not only considered working together in common cause, but had actually been doing so for years. Instead of mere blind competition, red in tooth and claw, these three companies, Pixar, ILM and Dreamworks, were able to set aside their normal competitive nature and demonstrate a noble spirit of collaboration by grossly violating employment laws and conspiring together to see that the mere worker, despised by all corporations in America, are deprived of a fair wage in any sense of the word and in any way competitively determined.   Competition is for when it benefits the rich, not when it benefits the worker, as we all know.

It goes without saying that having worked so selflessly to abuse the worker in a cooperative manner, that those who were found guilty were not punished in any substantial manner.  Why should they be? This is America after all.

Thus we have proof that computer animation (and visual effects) facilities can work together towards a common goal, at least when it involves crime.   So maybe my friend's proposal needs to be rewritten so that it incorporates some gross violation of law and ethics, and then maybe we can get the facilities to cooperate for the common good.  That might work.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Palm Restaurant and the Music Industry in the 1970s

The Palm is a famous “steak and lobster” place on Santa Monica Blvd which is known for many things, including the illustrations and caricatures of famous Hollywood actors, producers, directors. It is also well known as a music industry hang out, or it was, as it is closing at the end of September and moving to Beverly Hills. The illustrations will be taken down and given to the people who are represented, to the extent that they can be found and want them.  The building it is in is one of those cheap Los Angeles buildings of no particular interest except perhaps for the fact that this restaurant was there for so many years.  I presume the building will be torn down.

For some reason, I never ate there that I can recall. I don't know why, to tell you the truth. I certainly lived and worked in the neighborhood and went past it a billion times. Maybe I just thought it was too expensive, or I thought it was steak and lobster only, which it may have been. Not my aesthetic.

But the Palm was famous for its Hollywood and rock and roll associations and I have a story from the 1970s that I heard from a friend.  This story should help describe Los Angeles in the 1970s and the role the Palm played in that period.

Now I dont know if you are aware of it, but Los Angeles in the 1960s and the 1970s was famous for being an epicenter of the rock and roll music industry as well as having a reputation for having lots of sex and drugs.   I know this may be a surprise to you given how chaste Los Angeles is today but its true, that was its reputation back then.

I am personally a big fan of infrastructure and procedure.  How did people get from place to place, how did they get those drugs we famously hear about?  Further, how did they get their companies to pay for them and still be able to write them off on their taxes.   So this little story is intended to explain some of that.   The story comes from a friend who was in the music business at the time and everyone will remain nameless in order to protect the guilty.  This all comes second hand to me, I was no where near what is described here.

My friend was at the time a music industry A&R guy for a major record label. You have heard of this record label, and we are going to keep things anonymous here, so I am not going to name it. A&R starnds for “Artists & Repetoire” and it refers to the people who discover bands for the record label, sponsor them inside the company, work with them to develop their careers, and of course help them produce and release their albums. In many ways, an A&R person might be analogous to a “case officer” in the intelligence business. This friend of mine was certainly a member of a very select and powerful team. He lasted a certain number of years in this business which is famous for churning through people and he had a measure of success in his tenure at this company.

The 1970s were the days of the major expense accounts and when you could still write off liquor from your taxes when entertaining for business. So my friend, who at the time was quite overweight from his lifestyle of eating steak and lobster or whatever every day and drinking and going to clubs every night until they closed to listen to bands, would go to the Palms several times a week for lunch.

It was part of his job to entertain people in the music business.  These people could be other executives, producers, managers, and of course the bands themselves.   As part of his job as host he also provided cocaine for the bands in the normal course of business.  Apparently back in the 1970s when you were a known person in the industry this was not so hard to do.   He would just go to lunch with the band or whomever at the Palm and order several bottles of $600.00 champagne and of course when the bill came he would pick it up and expense it to the company as he was expected to. Except some of those bottles of champagne would not be bottles of champagne at all but 1/4 ounces of coke, or whatever $600 would buy back then, as provided by the bar.    It was not clear to me whether this was an independent service of the bartender or whether it was actually a service the restaurant sponsored in an unofficial manner, but it doesn't really matter as long as he could get the proper receipts so that deductions could be made and properly accounted for.  Supposedly he had an (unofficial) $20,000 / month budget from the record company for entertainment purposes.

But as I say, those were more civilized times. It was convenient, the record company could write it off, entertainment was provided and presumably one had a nice if not too healthy lunch at the same time.

But that was in the glory days of the 1970s in the Los Angeles music industry. In general it is said that if they were doing cocaine in the 70s or the 80s, they were doing Prozac in the 90s.

Alas those days of the glamourous music industry are no more.

An article on the closing of The Palm is at 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance, Ambiguity and Annoyance

Spoilers are in orange to make them difficult to read.    But if you are one of those who like to know NOTHING about a work, then stop here.

This is something of a review or a commentary on Jeff vanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance, whose third and final book has just been published.

I will know the hand of the sinner that brings forth the strangling fruit of inconclusive fiction. The wretched of the light will stomp mightily on the sinful authors of ambiguous trilogies and send them screaming into the eternal hell of publishing corruption while the worms giggle and chew energetically on the flesh of the accursed author....

VanderMeer has done two things that I enjoy very much in a work of fiction.  First, he has written what is plausibly described as a mystery story, but cleverly obscures what the real mysteries are. Second he has written something that feels like it could be a fantasy novel, or a novel of the supernatural, that is actually science fiction.  As all devoted readers of science fiction know, SF has rules of its own which are different from the genre of fantasy.

I started reading the Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance) a year ago without realizing it had not all been published yet, something I swore to never do again after a bad experience in my youth involving Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. (1)   But having started reading this series and finding it compelling, I ordered books two and three from Kindle and binge read them when they were released.   I was right to suspect that this was going to be a messy ending.   What does messy mean?  It means that many of the mysteries of Area X and the three books of the Southern Reach Trilogy are not resolved by the end of the third book.  In fact, new mysteries are added by the third book extending the cause of anxiety-producing lack of closure.

The worms will dance in the brain of the sinners who fail to resolve important plot points and bring forth the seeds of the annoyed who will jump up and down and never forgive ... 

These are not the real covers, these are alternate covers I found on the Internet, somewhere.

VanderMeer is perfectly happy to spin a narrative all the way up to page 295 of a 300 page book, then throw out some perfectly plausible world-shattering solution that wipes away the mirage of normalcy and in itself poses another dozen or more questions and then stop. Oh, I guess we are done. Some things in life are ambiguous, I can hear him thinking, thats just the way life is. That may be true in life, but in fiction there is more control and we can point the finger of responsibility if we care to, something that is much harder to do in real life.  

None of this would matter except that VanderMeer is very talented and has done an excellent job of creating a fascinating mystery or ten and characters that I care about.   Pretty much all of them are 'fucked with' hard by Area X which may or may not realize or care what it is doing to them.   And the author rather heartlessly leaves truly sympathetic characters as well as sympathetic readers hanging.

The seeds of the annoyed will emit glowing clouds of vengeance that will plotz on the author and cause him/her/it to rue the day....

After a moment of vocal displeasure for the son-of-a-bitch, a series of possible solutions presented themselves to me. Perhaps by carefully rereading the book(s), one can discover clues that resolve seemingly unresolved issues.  Perhaps there is a subtext or structure to what is answered and what is not.  Perhaps some of the questions are more important than others and that this will become clear upon reflection.  

So in other words, on top of the mysteries left apparently unresolved is the new mystery of why he did this. What was he thinking? Is he a sadist?  Is there a sequel planned? Has he been transformed by Area X?  Is he working for them?

Those who have read the trilogy or do not mind spoilers may read a partial list in the notes (2).

But as time has passed (we are in the third or fourth day since the final book was published) and as I reread the first and second books, I realize that there are some answers in descriptions and events previously described but whose significance was not apparent at the time.  I find that I am somehow going ahead with my life in spite of the ambiguity, that I have "accepted" the fact that we are all completely victimized by forces beyond our control and understanding.   

You can read the first few pages at the link below, annotated by the author.

And here is an annotated excerpt of the second novel.

The unknown plant will bring forth the seeds of the dead who will stomp on the fingers of the readers who believed that there is meaning and rational causation in the universe that they can understand but that is not the case.



1. When I first read Nine Princes in Amber I am pretty sure it was just a single book.  Then presumably something happened, it got popular, whatever, and a series of sequels started getting published perhaps one per year for a decade.  I was screwed and never did read the final books.

2. The following is an abbreviated list of just some of the issues either left very ambiguous or completely unanswered.

None of the questions or issues are about the specific technologies or “how things work”, although there is a huge amount of mystery there. I am completely willing to accept that somehow they do work.  Some of the questions below may have answers in some form in the book, but its subtle. Other questions could be added to this list.  

Should you care to read the spoilers, remember that most browsers will increase type size with control-+.  Hit that a few times and the following will be readable.

What is Area X trying to accomplish with that part of the Forgotten Coast? In other words, why is the Forgotten Coast there, and whatever replaced it here? What is the purpose of the topological anomaly? What is the crawler doing, what is its purpose, what do the words mean, why are they being written? (There are some clues to this in the third book, not altogether satisfying, but some clues). What is the thing in the sky and why is it so terrifying? What is the significance of the island and the other lighthouse. Is the owl the missing husband? It would seem that Area X can communicate with us if we take the situation in the tunnel/tower and Ghost Bird as communication, which I think it is. So why has it not communicated before? Why only now, possibly also with the cell phone? What is it trying to say? Does the border still exist? Has the entire world been incorporated into Area X? Why did Lowry not transform or did he? What happened to the first expedition that is different from what happened later? Did the S&SB help initiate Area X by somehow stimulating what was trapped and inert in the lens? What is the plan that the director thinks she has with the biologist in the context of the twelfth expedition, and why would the biologist be significant in her plan? Why did the director not transform or did she? What happened when John Rodriquez went through the door? Is he dead? Does anyone really die in this world or are they all available to be cloned later with or without certain memories? What changed when he went through the door? Is Area X now broken? Is Saul/the Crawler dead? When Area X is wherever it is, what is in its place behind the border where the Forgotten Coast used to be? If the entire world is Area X when the border expanded does that mean that it has also been transported to another place, with a mirage to make it think it is still where it was? Why (as in what is the purpose) of transforming everyone and everything? Is it a way of learning about them or interrogating them? Why did the director refuse to help the biologist when she was dying outside the lighthouse? What is it that caused the director to throw herself off the lighthouse to begin with? How do the journals get to the lighthouse, as it seems unlikely that many of the members of the expedition would be able to to put their journals there (given they were dead, or transformed or insane or running for the border).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Science Proves Self-Deception is the Best Strategy

In a new study published in PLOS ONE, evidence is presented that a person who deceives themselves as to their talent and knowledge, and thus is more self-confident, is more likely to be judged by their peers as actually being more talented and thus are more successful than they deserve to be.

The converse is also true. According to this study, if you have low self-esteem, you are judged less talented by your peers and receive correspondingly fewer opportunities, promotions and so forth.

This is an interesting wrinkle on the “fools may go where wise people fear to tread” meme and suggests that the best way to get opportunity and get ahead in life is to be blindingly self-confident beyond all reason and experience.

The problem with this strategy comes when one tries to fake being unreasonably self-confident. Those who are merely deluded are the stronger type because they genuinely believe their bullshit, believe they are God's gift to ... whatever, and thus go further than someone who merely pretends to be delusional and has unreasonable self-confidence. Those that try to fake their delusional self-confidence are not as good at it, apparently, as those who are insane and thus are less likely to be promoted.

This is bitter tea. Many of us would try to fake delusional and unreasonable self-confidence if we thought it would help us, but the evidence does not support this approach. Merely faking it but not actually believing it fails to be convincing to your fellow biped mammals whose judgment you seek to influence.   

But there is a wrinkle that might be an effective strategy. Apparently these self-deluded and successful individuals are also more likely to overestimate the talent and potential of their coworkers. Thus if you feel stymied in your career, and want to get ahead, then by going to work for a deluded and over-confident manager is a way to possibly be given opportunities that you would not otherwise receive or merit.

The conclusion therefore is for all of us to find the most delusional and unreasonably self-confident people we know and go to work for them.

The abstract of the paper is below.

Friday, September 5, 2014

2014 Speculation about Mysterious Aircraft

As readers of this blog know, I am a student of the affairs of the intelligence community, in particular that part of the community that builds incredibly expensive, secret, limited edition devices of one sort or another. Previous posts have discussed whether the “mysterious booms” were evidence of a production vehicle flying and the conclusion of those posts was “maybe, but it isn't proven”. At least not from the evidence at hand.

That is where things have stood for a long time now. It was time for something new to happen and it has. There have been sightings of an unusual aircraft flying over Texas in recent months. The aircraft is an unknown flying wing, perhaps, and its a complicated story of just who saw what, who denied what, and then what was seen in the same flight path. But rather than go over old ground, I am just going to point you to a well-written, and very long, overly long, discussion of the evidence and possible theories.

The theory that I find the most appealing and possibly even plausible is that there was a secret plane built and used in production for 20 years and we kept it secret all that time. The reason we are starting to see it now is well, sort of a mystery.  It might be because they are using it so much what with all the crisis these days.  Or it might be that it is nearing the end of its life so there is less reason to keep it secret  (keeping an operational aircraft secret and yet using it is hideously expensive).  Or maybe it is being leaked now as a warning to those who do bad things that we have this capability.  Or maybe it is just coincidence.

This plane, so the theory goes, was the followon to various technologies being tested in the 1980s that were suddenly cancelled. When something like that happens it is a natural speculation that perhaps they were continued as a black program. One theory is that the plane was a manned, long duration, stealth, tactical reconnaissance vehicle that could penetrate enemy airspace and do a variety of things possibly in conjunction with the F117. Among other things it could loiter in enemy airspace and (for example) direct special forces missions happening below it, perhaps acting as eyes and ears for those missions.

Read the article at the link below.

My posts on mysterious booms can be found here:
<insert link>

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Good Visual Effects in Really Bad Movies

What should we think of excellent visual effects or other exploits of difficult technical filmmaking in the service of a bad movie? Should we hate it? Applaud it because it gives work to our friends? Keep our mouth shut because often the problem starts with the script and it is not our place to say?

The question comes up often in visual effects because of the recent trends in filmmaking that have wisely chosen to reduce costs by eliminating the screenwriter (or any writing of quality) in return for having more pointless, visual effects shots. Furthermore, when in preproduction, when there is still time to turn away from Satan and rewrite the script, who is going to tell the director that his or her ideas are really bad?

Recall that the visual effects industry, if we may flatter it by calling it an industry, is a very competitive work-for-hire, production service business. If anyone were so stupid as to criticize the content of a screenplay when asked to bid on it they would rapidly get the reputation for being “arrogant” and in very short order not be asked to bid on anything. It is not the visual effects facility's job or privilege to judge the director's vision.

Nevertheless we all have our moments of outrage when an expensive Hollywood film or cheap television knockoff egregiously or outrageously abuses our willing suspension of disbelief and we crash to the ground, taken out of the moment, by some appalling or ludicrous cinematic plot point or creative choice. At such times it may be useful to remember that the Hollywood entertainment industries are about, well, entertainment, not about presenting reality. True, the appearance of realism is often used as a technique to make a story more appealing or involving, but it is always in the service of making a project more dramatic or effective and in the service of entertainment. It is rarely, very rarely, about showing “reality”.

As an example of this I want to describe three films with “something that flies” in an unrealistic fashion: two of which I found completely acceptable and one which irritated the hell out of me the first time I saw it and every time since. And yet all three are clearly fantasy movies intended to be entertaining. Why do two of them work for me but the third does not?

In the first example, we have the X Wing and Tie fighters from the original Star Wars (1977). When this movie came out, there were some who criticized it because these spacecraft made whooshing noises as they went by the “camera”. Whoosh! But this never bothered me in the least because I, as a devoted reader of science fiction, knew that in the classic space opera it would be quite normal and correct for such fighters to make whooshing noises as they went by. It worked in the context of the film and the genre.

In our second example, we have the flying carpet in Disney's Aladdin (1992). Now it might be a surprise to you to know that this is pure fantasy, but it is. Flying carpets do not exist in real life. Dont get mad at me, its true, do your own research. But if there were flying carpets, I have no doubt that they might work like the one in Aladdin and it certainly was completely believable to the audience.

But our third example is not so happy.

This is a remake of a French film, a romantic comedy, about a secret agent whose family does not know what he does for a living and think he is boring. Of course, through dramatic and unbelievable plot twists, they discover that he is a secret agent and his daughter likes him again and he has hot sex with his wife. The American remake of this important dramatic masterpiece was called True Lies (1994) of course and it is even less believable overall than either Aladdin or Star Wars. Given this fantastic nature, surely one would not be upset when our hero has a magic carpet of his own, in this case a Harrier jet.

In the movie, the Arnold flies the Harrier right up to the side of a skyscraper to kill the bad guys. Bang ! Bang ! You are dead! At another point in the film, his daughter falls from a crane or a bridge or something, but is able to hang onto the wing of the Harrier. Arnold yells to her, “Hang on!”

This irritated the living bejeesus out of me. I still want to spit whenever I think of it. Why?

Because a Harrier, which is a very cool airplane, is a very loud jet. Very loud. If you flew it up to a skyscraper closer than 50 feet it would blow all the windows out, and you would probably lose control of the vehicle. You would certainly not be able to calmly shoot out all the bad guys. Maybe you could do something like that by standing off about 500 feet or more, that might work.

Or when the daughter falls to the airplane and hangs on. First off I doubt you could hang on. Second, if you did, you would almost certainly be hurting yourself terribly and you would let go and hopefully die. Third you would probably get burned all to hell. Fourth, and lastly, the Harrier is loud, really loud. Like really damage your ears loud. LIKE REALLY FUCKING LOUD. You would not be yelling to anybody “hang on” because no one would be able to hear a thing.

But why does this irritate me so much? The movie is clearly a fantasy. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the movie is a cynical, derivative, stupid, inane, worthless piece of shit. What difference does it make? I am not sure. Maybe because the Harrier is a real airplane and a very cool one, but its limitations should be respected? Maybe because the movie expects me to take these ridiculous developments as reality and I know it isnt even close to what is possible?

All I can tell you is that whenever I see these sequences from this movie, I start jumping up and down because I can not believe how unbelievably fucking stupid they are.

Not even Jamie Lee Curtis doing a striptease can redeem this horrible movie in my eyes.

But the visual effects are very nice.

Aladdin (1992) on IMDB

True Lies (1994) on IMDB

Star Wars (1977) on IMDB

Le Totale! (1991)

Nuclear Disaster and the Small Time Criminal

As many of you know, TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, has been receiving a very hard time because of events at Fukushima.   Ok, so they made a few mistakes.  But how were they to know a tsunami would happen in Japan?  Its not as if tsunamis have ever happened there, well, at least, not that often.  Ok, so they do happen on a regular basis, but it would be expensive to protect against them, you know what I mean?

And what bad timing!  Just as the world was about to embark on another round of building nuclear power plants, they convince the world that private enterprise could never be competent to run nuclear power. Sure, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima did not work out, but is that enough to turn away from such a great way to extract profits?

And people are so critical about the plans for nuclear waste, or rather the lack of plans.   People are so fickle sometimes.  They do not mind when we dump toxic waste in Africa or plastic in the ocean.  Why should they all of a sudden get so picky about nuclear waste?  It just isnt fair.

But that is not what this post is about.

Its easy to point the finger at large corrupt companies and governments.  After all, they have a lot of money and power which they can use to betray trust and steal things.   But what about the little people?  The individual entrepreneur?  What can they do to exploit the sick or the poor or the frightened and steal money?  Do they also have a role to play in our modern globalized economy?

I believe that they do and this post celebrates the contributions of the little guy and his/her work to make our world even more screwed up than it is.   Our heroes or heroines did not attend the elite schools that prepared them for corruption on the big stage.  No, these are the small-time grifters, the petty thieves, the kind of people who would steal money from the poor or the sick on an individual basis.  The kind of corruption we discuss today is much more personal and demonstrates the lofty spirit of the individual criminal in society.

I have extracted from a Reuters article about the latest TEPCO scandal two comments that are part of a beautiful scam to exploit the unfortunate circumstances of Fukushima.  These comments attempt to exploit the fear of radioactivity to sell the reader some worthless snake oil to protect him or her from its dangers.  What spirit this shows!  What indomitable will!  Our enterprising criminal can not provide a direct link to his product because many comment systems forbid this in order to prevent exactly this kind of abuse.  So our spammer creates a brand/product name and asks you to search for it, so that he may attempt to exploit your ignorance and fear and steal your money.

Here are his/her advertisements masquerading as comments to an article about TEPCO.

We must thank the Internet for providing a medium for bold entrepreneurs like this.  Where would we be without the Internet and its anonymity, so useful and necessary to protect criminals of all types?

What a beautiful example of the beliefs and values of our fellow bipeds!   How clearly it shows us the very best that our society aspires to!  Not in some vast epic of stupidity and corruption like TEPCO but in the actions of the little people we find the true spirit of our civilization and our hope for the future.

The article from Reuters about TEPCO is here.