Monthly Archives: December 2010

Movies – Tron: Legacy

The past several days have been ones absolutely filled with cinematic inputs ranging from amazing to merely mediocre. The new Tron sequel was not among the amazing, but it did have some interesting points to make. I attribute these more probably to chance than intent (it is a Disney production, after all) but none the less, they merit some discussion. On the surface, yes, the movie was visually intriguing, standard cinematic pabulum. The story was formulaic: boy met girl, megalomaniac met his end after coming oh-so-close to ultimate rule and victory, father sacrificed for son, human endeavor comes back to threaten the world and we all got to smirk as the movie quietly poked fun at Microsoft and the characters used Unix commands. Despite its obvious warts, the new Tron has a fair amount to say about computing and how the average person views it (or at least the ability to make one think about such things outside the movie’s actual intent)

The over-anthropomorphism of the “programs” in Tron reflect the belief held by many of the uninitiated that software is a lot smarter than it really is. This effect was much more pronounced in the 80s when the original movie was released but there are still those among us who think that software should somehow intuit our desires and respond appropriately. People really do attribute human characteristics to software and in many cases they’re right. Software does have a personality of sorts, a part of the person who wrote it. The scene in which Kevin creates Clu resonates with me as a programmer. When one sits down to create a program for a specific task, in many ways that program is a reflection of its creator. If we’re sloppy and disorganized, so will be the program. If we’re attentive to every detail and nuance of the task, then so is our result. Personally, I tend to think in a very linear manner. Tell me A, then tell me B, then tell me C, then the result is D. This is reflected strongly in my designs, for better or worse. This is the case with all development, and more largely in all human endeavor. We cannot create anything which is not some reflection or some part of ourselves. Computers cannot change that, but merely act as another medium in which to work. Because of this relationship though, the creator often understands or has power over his creation that seems impossible or miraculous to others. In the movie Kevin simply “wills” things to happen in The Grid. Since The Grid is a reflection of his own psyche, his own way of thinking, he can intuitively do things with it that nobody else can. This is the creator/created relationship that exists with all the things we create as humans. The sculptor knows every crack, scratch and polished surface of his work. That relationship, that intimacy, can appear almost Godlike to others.

More subtly and probably unintentionally, the movie reminds us that human behavior itself is programmatic. If you know enough about a person and their environmental conditions, you can predict with 100% accuracy their reactions to any given stimulus. My religious cohorts will nod and perhaps grin at this since it is one of the classic arguments used to demonstrate how the omniscience of God and free will can co-exist, but ultimately it’s true. Humans are simply “programs” of a highly sophisticated nature with manifold more inputs and more detailed programming. The movie revolves around this concept as it takes an entire human psyche and pushes it into a computational realm with no apparent loss of resolution. I will fail to complain about the obvious technical issues around this concept, but suffice to say that we have more in common with the software than we tend to realize or would like to admit. We often confuse complexity with divinity.

Lastly, and perhaps most mundanely, the movie is one of dozens of examples of the Frankenstein parable. Man creates something, with the best of intents, and that something goes on to destroy him. As with its predecessors, our protagonist is destroyed because of his own lack of wisdom. Clu, like any bit of software, simply does what he’s told with utter exactitude and duty, he is the personification of blind human intent. What was intended initially was atrociously ill defined: “Make a perfect world” and thus the GIGO [garbage in, garbage out] axiom rules the day. The only true perfection to be found would be that of the null resolution. Ultimately though it’s OK because the boy gets the girl, the villain is thwarted and the hero sacrifices himself so he won’t have to do any more sequels. All is right in the world. End of Line.

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Seafood Medley and Other Gastronomic Adventures

Friday night’s dinner, at least as intended, was to consist of a vegetarian black bean dish of Laura’s choosing and a nice quiet evening at home. Unfortunately, as the lid was lifted from the beans, which had percolated quite happily in the slow-cooker all day, the aroma which greeted us was more akin to despair than deliciousness. Having been the first to realize the situation, Laura looked at me with an expression that said, “Please feed me something else…” while I looked back with an equally fervent expression that said, “Please let me feed you something else…” Thus armed with a common resolution to feed the beans to the starlings, we sallied forth in search of other comestibles.

As is the case in all grand dances between two hungry people, after the question of “when” to eat is determined, the next and most difficult question is “where” to eat. As an omnipotent weapon against such inscrutable questions, I’ve taken up the firm view that we should eat everywhere once, in order of proximity to wherever we happen to be. And so we made our way down the street, blatantly ignoring the Menard’s snack bar that completely failed to tempt us. (When life has promised you black beans, hot dogs on rollers are far from a fair substitute.) The first untried establishment that met our eyes was a Korean restaurant that was just entering the 7th month of its ‘Grant Opening’. When we arrived, the establishment was utterly deserted, in exactly that terrifying way that a restaurant that is about to be closed by the health department is deserted. Not to be cowed by potential botulism, however, we pressed onward. The menu was diverse and largely inscrutable and the grill built into the table made us ponder if we would indeed find ourselves cooking our own dinner.

After an extended period of considering the options, Laura chose a beef dish of some sort while I settled on the ‘Spicy Seafood Medley’. As the words, “#41, please” passed my lips, the image of a panoply of fishy denizens of the sea floated passed through my giddy, and hungry, mind. I imagined delicate little shrimps, lovingly cradled from the ocean floor to their imminent deaths in my jaws. Perhaps some fish, so lithe and silvery brought to the surface sole-ly for my enjoyment. Maybe even, if I’m lucky, the luxuriant succulence of some unlucky crab whose exoskeleton gave up its contents just for me. The seconds ticked by. My anticipation grew. I chatted amicably with Laura about her day but inwardly the seconds plodded like they were mired in a tub of treacle because I knew that somewhere, not far away, my dinner was bubbling merrily away.

I should aside here for a moment to point out that as food goes, I am not a prudish man. In my mind, if others have survived it then surely I can as well. And in all honesty, part of my reaction is merely for the sake of drama, but part of me was a bit surprised when my medley turned out to be comprised primarily of tentacles of various shapes and sizes. On the whole, the meal was tasty, but unnerving. In many cases, the source of the tentacles was so small that rather than an appendage, a bite consisted of the entire animal. The variety of shapes, sizes and random seafood parts was more than I would have considered possible. It was as if the sea bottom had been dredged and anything of appropriate size simply flash frozen and shipped to Indiana. In all, I counted several random tentacles, a few small squid(?), a pair of lonely and tiny shrimp and the distributor cap from a ‘72 pinto. On first sitting, the whole presentation was edible and even exciting to begin, but as the meal wore on, my enthusiasm waned to the point where I was untempted to eat the leftovers that were brought home. Luckily, Laura’s meal was much more tame. I tried as much as possible to keep the exact nature of my meal hidden from her more discerning culinary eye.

Finally, after having fortified ourselves internally we made our way from the restaurant to the Korean market next door. Truth be told, the market was at least half of my motivation for wanting to choose this particular establishment for dinner in the first place. As we strolled in, I noted with some chagrin that the market shared several attributes with the restaurant. Most of the written text was inscrutable. The staff had limited fluency in English. And, like its neighbor, we were the only two people in the place not of obvious Asian descent. Being a raging xenophile, this was as near as possible to my image of heaven. After a short perusal, we found many amusing items from candies of completely unknown composition, a variety of flavored soy-milks for my lactose-annoyed girlfriend and even the frozen version of the deep-sea dredgings I enjoyed in my dinner.

After the joy of finding food and cultural nirvana wore off, we both slowly started to realize that there was a chorus of cooking sounds emanating from one section of the market. A quick inspection revealed that the two were not only adjacent, but in fact attached. The kitchen for the restaurant hid itself quite nicely behind a temporary wooden wall constructed around a section of the market. I found this refreshing and convenient. I was even able to identify most of the seasonings and ingredients on the market shelves which comprised my meal from just minutes before. All this brings me back to some of my own recent culinary adventures at home and the reason for seeking out an Asian market in the first place.

From time immemorial, I’ve had a desire to “adopt-a-culture” for a period of time. The optimum length of time has yet to be determined but the point is simple: to live like a person of a different culture for a year, a month, a decade, whatever. So if I chose to be Russian, I’d eat like a Russian, drink like a Russian, learn to speak and write Russian, everything one needed to get the full experience of the culture. I realize, of course, that this is an arduous task, most especially the linguistic aspects of it, but it’s just the sort of obsessive-compulsive thing that I’m likely to undertake. So at the end of November I betook myself unto the kitchenware store, bought a wok and a stir-fry cookbook and sat down to the task of cooking every single recipe in the book to the exclusion of all else. For the most part, this has worked out fairly well, though I did have a brief breach of protocol with some quesadillas just before Christmas.

I’ve always said that the secret to cooking is not memorizing recipes, but rather mastering the ingredients. If you cook mushrooms like you would onions, you’re likely to not have much left, just as an example. So the stir-fry cookbook has introduced me to an amazing variety of new ingredients and methods that I would have found utterly perplexing the month before. During certain stages my refrigerator was an explosion of colors that put my previous mushrooms-olives-peppers-and-onions decor to an absolute shame. Even more interesting to me than the ingredients is the vast difference in preparation technique. Most of my previous cooking background is more Italian or simple “Middle-American” cooking. Throw some stuff into a pot (in the right order) and let it simmer for 4 hours. In the world of stir-fry, most things are done in 4 minutes. Cook it for 30 seconds longer and you would find it inedible. The technique also finds me in dire need of an apron, or a set of clothing specifically devoted to the explosive nature of this type of cooking.

All in all, I’d consider the experiment a vast success. With the exception of the tofu and mushrooms I made most recently, I’ve considered all the results on par with many of my old standards. My freezer, once full of red beans and rice and spaghetti sauce, now blooms with the remnants of a half-dozen new favorite dishes. I will enumerate the results in detail in some later post, but for now, rest assured the Slaven household (and the Zimmerman who sometimes comes to visit) eat well and diversely. (Though without the use of tentacles.)

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Movies: “Precious” – 2009

The most terrifying thing about this movie is simply that I’ve heard it said, by people who would actually know, that it’s fairly faithful to the truth. Like a horror movie that weaves together just a few too many elements of verifiable and believable truth, “Precious” makes its impact because it’s not the story of one woman’s ascent above her circumstances, it’s the story of hundreds of women who deal with the same problems every single day.

Precious, or Claireece Jones for those who prefer names less steeped in irony, is an illiterate teenager in the inner city. The movie’s opening finds her pregnant, for the second time, with her own father’s child. Her mother, driven by jealousy that her own boyfriend finds her daughter more attractive, goes to any length she can to abuse Precious as vengeance for the theft her of lover’s attentions.

The balance of the plot is left as an incentive to the reader, but what struck me most potently was the mother’s blatant addiction to her own depressed way of life. On multiple occasions, she admonishes her own child that she is a “fucking idiot” and that she should “give up on that fucking school and get herself down to the welfare office.” Not only is she uneducated, but she’s also violently opposed to the idea. She is so convinced of not only her child’s worthlessness, but also her own lack of value to society, that she has no outlet but to be the object of charity. Despite this negative self-image, she manages with great skill to maneuver through the system of government to ensure her own continued support, going so far as to bring in Precious’ first child as a prop when the welfare office comes to visit.

It is difficult for me to conceive, as someone so enamored with the idea of knowledge for its own sake, of someone who looks with such disdain on something so fundamental. It is a good reminder that there is much more variety to the human condition than that we see around us each day, or even on the news. There is, below the attention of the average person, a mass of the populous that lives in hopeless desperation. Not quite homeless, but most certainly hopeless.
The movie casts Precious herself as the hero, but really I don’t think that title belongs to her. The real heroes are the people who put her up there and let her actually succeed. From her teacher to her social worker, the movie is a strong reminder of the sad fact that you can’t save people from these situations without yourself sacrificing. It’s not just about handing out money. To really make a difference someone has to sit down and sacrifice part of their lives to make the lives of others better. There is no advantageous exchange rate when it comes to human suffering. You cannot buy your way out of misery. Someone has to spend their life helping the less fortunate, protecting those who cannot protect themselves and putting things right for those who would otherwise be hopeless victims. These are the true heroes. They gave their all so the smallest and weakest among us might triumph.

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Words, Strung Together, in Hopefully Pleasing Strands

Today as I pondered what I was going to make of the year 2011 (In general, my vocation is far, far too unintellectual to consume my full thought processes, so I find myself forced to ponder many things at once) and enumerating said items, it occurred to me that the one most prominent and important thing I needed to do was to simply write.

While I do try from time to time to divert myself along less analytical lines, ultimately I find that I measure my successes and failures using tried and true metrics that are as qualitatively absurd as they are quantitatively irrelevant. How many books did I finish this year? How many blog posts did I manage to publish? How many places did I go and take photos? On balance, this year was an utter failure in the realm of literature but a vast success if you measure it terms of frozen light and shadow. I look back with derision on my posts from this year. For the most part, they constitute statements of duress and misery, sad testaments to a sad person. That said, what posts I did bother to generate do continue to resonate with me. As riddled with despair as I was, I was not forsaken by the ability to turn a simple phrase into one that requires repetition of perusal just to squeeze out its very fundamental meaning. In short, I retain always my talent for making the very simple into the unnecessarily complicated.

Looking back on the year, I regret that I didn’t draw out in minute detail the events that marked the passing of 2010. I recall with great vividness laying under a Catalpa tree with a newfound friend, the grin stretching provocatively and seemingly without end from one side of my face to the other. Because I didn’t record it, all I have is scattered images and the visceral feeling of jubilance. I can still call it up in my mind, and each time recalled, it improves, but I regret that I have no relic of the day, carved from giddy, bubbling words, to look back on.

Later in the year, I found myself out west. Hundreds of photographs capture the days spent in that dusty terrain. The visuals preserved forever for as long as pixels remain pixels, but as each day passes, the feelings, the gentle caress of the desert breeze, the growing anticipation of a reunion, the energy of rising pre-dawn to find whatever is to be found, the loneliness of a desert road at night… they all fade away because they were not recorded. Someday, they will be lost to me utterly, but today… today they remain.

This is the value of the written word. This is what I have thrown away these past two years by not taking the time to record, as best I can, those things that cannot be summed up in a mere photograph. Though the cliché says that a picture should be valued as a thousand words, those words are ill chosen. Those 1000 words are cast in stone and are words of another’s choosing. To really capture a time, a place, a person, you must choose those words and choose wisely. It also helps if you spell enough of them correctly that you can read them later. So it is with this regret, with this sense of indelible loss, that I resolve that I must return to those halcyon days of yesteryear when I actually wrote down what was going on. I make no promises to anyone, save to myself, that anything I write will be of even the most minor interest. In fact, I would find it exceptionally surprising if anyone DID find anything I had to write even the least bit interesting. But none the less, I find that I must write. If for no other reason than to entertain and fulfill the promise to the me of the future, who will cast his mind backwards and wonder what it was, exactly, that went through my mind. I cannot repair the rent in the fabric of my history, but I can at least begin to weave the cloth once again.

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