22 October 2016

Notes on Blackhat

Last night I watched most of the movie blackhat, an international espionage action thriller about computer hackers that was released last year.  Here are my viewing notes.

1.  The way electrical signals are portrayed inside computers is interesting.  It's clearly not a portrait of how electronics actually work, but a portrait of how someone imagines them working.  E.g. as the hacker's code kicks in, there are suddenly tons of impulses everywhere, as if it were the quantity of instructions that caused the meltdown.

2.  The failure of a coolant circulation system in a nuclear reactor would only cause an explosion if the coolant were completely contained without any pressure release, or if the resulting meltdown triggered some surrounding combustibles to ignite.  The reactor shown is clearly not contained in this way, and the fact that there is so much (presumably water) coolant still surrounding the core, and boiling, suggests that there would still be a reasonable amount of time for the technicians at the plant to slow down the reactor before a meltdown actually occurred.  In other words, there's no clear reason why an explosion would happen so quickly after the coolant failure.

3. Even supposing the sort of reaction portrayed in the film happened, the level of burn-related injuries shown in the immediate aftermath seems unlikely.  Most technicians would not be in the immediate vicinity of the reactor core.  The real danger of such an explosion is the long-term, uncontrolled release of radioactive materials into the surrounding environment, leading to radiation poisoning and other (slower) diseases.

4.  Chris Hemsworth's character is reading Rabinow's The Foucault Reader in his cell (you only see the cover for a split second).  Dear hacker dude, you should read The Essential Foucault instead.  It's a better anthology.

5.  The unsteady camerawork (rough doc closeups) is unpleasant.  I can't wait for directors to stop using this technique.

6.  Why is it that the computer nerds in this movie wear cool looking hoodies and are generally unblemished, attractive, and confident?

7.  During the briefing at the FBI about the "RAT", the agent giving the briefing displays a large monitor full of old school-style green code.  There is so much code on the display that it's illegible to anyone not standing directly in front of it.  There is no reason such a thing would be displayed during such a briefing.  It's a waste of time.

8.  Hemsworth's accent is not good.  Why not let him be an Aussie?  Would that be so hard?

9.  Is it not odd that they have "routine surveillance tapes" of the inside of a bathroom?  Maybe it isn't odd.

10.  When they find the West Texan guy dead in his apartment, (of a heroin overdose, which killed him before he finished shooting up?), they have an amusing exchange in which they explain to each other what Tor is.  This sort of exposition, where our "experts" in some field explain something very basic and widely known in that field as if it were new information, is consistently annoying.

12.  The Hemsworth character tells the hackers he's onto them.  Isn't this a terrible idea?

13.  It's very nice to imagine computers as pure black consoles with green text that make satisfying beeping noises as they process code or print out lines of text.  But it's not the 80s anymore.  (The trope has become shorthand for the reality.  Film portraits of computers are part of a well-developed semiotic system that is semi-independent of reality.)

14.  They go to China, so they can visit the ongoing nuclear cleanup site?  Which is somehow still a field hospital?

15.  Extended chase scene followed by shootout.  I feel like we just had a genre switchover.

16.  It's unclear to me what the point of that elaborate bait and escape plan was.

17.  After they stole the NSA guy's login info to use the magic data recovery software, I pretty much lost the thread of the plot.  Satellite shots of Malaysia?  Trips to Jakarta?  Conflicts over identity papers?

18.  The asian tollbooth charged them $55?  Am I misreading?

19.  Now the sister is upset?  Tedium.  This romantic subplot was inevitable.  Couldn't they have just implied it to us and spared the onscreen drama?

20.  What's with this shootout?  We just lost 60% of the main characters.  And these villains seem much more interested in hunting down our heroes than actually doing the job (whatever it is) they're supposed to be doing.

21.  Meanwhile the magic bullet armor on Hemsworth and Sister is really strong.  And there are still forty minutes left in this movie.

22.  Now, dramatic music as they fly on the airplane to Malaysia?

23.  Goodness, it was all to temporarily knock out a drainage system so tin prices would rise?  That's really elaborate.

24.  Now our last surviving hero is buying duct tape and screwdrivers, presumably so he can work some MacGyver magic on the bad guys.

25.  I like the stunt with pushing a truck off the edge of the building.  Very amusing.

26.  I also like the bit where Sister uses her coffee stained "presentation" to get the guard to plug her USB stick into his computer.  Very amusing.

27.   Hemsworth is wrapping himself in magazines?  And he has a sharp screwdriver?

28.  Hmm.  The Malay people just saw someone stab a guy through the temple with a screwdriver, but they don't care.  They just keep on processing.

29.  Hemsworth and sister seem to have very extensive wardrobes, considering the circumstances.

30.  And it just ended.  Not much resolution there.

19 October 2016

The King in Thule

A translation (my own) of Goethe's Der König in Thule.

There was once a king in Thule
Who was faithful to the grave,
To whom his dying mistress
A golden goblet gave.

To him was nothing dearer,
He drained it when he supped;
His eyes would overflow with tears,
As he tipped the golden cup.

And when the king was dying
He surveyed his domain,
Bequeathed it all unto his heir,
But the goblet he retained.

One day at royal repast
He sat among his knights
In the high hall of his fathers
In the castle on the heights.

There stood the old carouser,
Drained out his life's last glug,
And cast the sacred vessel down
Into the stormy flood.

He watched it, plunging, filling,
Sink deep into the main.
His eyes, with him, were sinking too;
He never drank again.

18 October 2016

The Text of Rhythm and Blues

A poem from peter handke's collection
Die Innenwelt der Außenwelt der Innenwelt.

Everything is in order.
She walks down the street.
Do you feel well?
I would like to go home.

Come closer!
I will go home.
Everything is in order.
She walked down the street.

I feel well.
I am going home.
Don't run away!
She walks down the street.

Early in the morning—
I go home.
She walked down the street.
I feel better.

Here she comes!
Take me home!

Early in the morning—
Come closer!

At midnight—

I can sense it.
Don't run away!
I'm going home.

Come closer!
We are home.
Do you sense it?

At midnight—

Come over.

Early in the morning—
At midnight!

Do you feel it?

I am trying.
At midnight—

Do you feel it?
Here it comes.
Come closer!
I am trying!
Do you feel it?

I'm trying!
Do you feel it?
I'm trying!
Do you feel it?
Do you feel it?

Oh yes.

15 October 2016

The American Experience

PBS was an essential part of my childhood.  The influence played on my intellectual development, interests, and personality by the programming made available on Chicago's WTTW is difficult to overstate.  There are so many things that I know and was made aware of, curiosities inspired, landscapes opened up, because of the different children's and documentary series shown there.

In the past eight years, PBS has morphed into something different.  There is still good programming, but it tends much more often to follow some political or ideological trend line.  WTTW has split into four separate sub-channels, one of which is frequently devoted to mutliculturalist programming with heavy social justice themes.  I do not know why the change has happened.  I don't know why, when Jim Lehrer was still running The News Hour, it was a beacon of impartiality and intelligent commentary (the last light in the TV news establishment), but now that he has left, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff have more or less destroyed it.  I don't know why Nova spun off "Nova ScienceNow" with the awful Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or why Bill Moyers was given so many different weekly talk shows for a Sunday platform, or why Chicago Tonight manages (despite its long broadcast window) to be the worst local news program in Chicago.

What can I say?  We live in a decadent age.  Even PBS can't stay good.

Of course, there is still a lot of good programming.  Some of the cooking shows are still quite good, (although Barbecue University was never among them), there are still some great travel programs (Globe Trekker!), and above all the core news magazine and documentary series (American Experience and Frontline) remain excellent.  They may have killed Arthur by extending the series ten years too long, transforming the characters into degenerate millennials, and cycling out the old voice actors with shrill replacements, but at least they're still making excellent 5+ hour documentaries about the lives of Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.

Which brings me to the very modest point that motivated this post.  I can't help but feel very intense nostalgia when I watch the old opening sequence from American Experience.  It manages, in the space of a minute, to make me feel a kind of piety for this country, and a love for its history.  It is beautifully done.

01 October 2016

Some Comments on "Gender Essentialism"

The word "gender" can be used in two ways.  In its older usage, it refers to a kind (a genus or γενος) of things—commonly words, which belong to three differently inflected types (masculine, feminine, and neuter).  Alongside this usage there is a longstanding sense of "gender" that refers to the classification of humans according to their possession of either set of genital organs (male or female).

2.  The basic fact about gender in the second sense is that people are so divided—that by nature (i.e. barring disorder or injury) one's body will be in possession of one set of organs or the other.  There are two basic kinds of human: the male kind and the female kind.  These genera, as a rule, divide the species.

3.  Supposing one were to come upon a set of humans without prior knowledge of such things, one would quickly discover that these two sorts exist, and that various attributes follow for the most part from membership in one sort or another.  Certain bone structures, certain musculatures, certain patterns of maturation, certain distributions of personalities and aptitudes, and so on.

4.  Thinking about the two sorts of humans and what defines them is made more difficult by the fact that humans are social and intelligent.  We develop communal practices and ideas around stable features of our lives, and so the distinction between the two sorts of human is always part of a rich and complex network of behaviors, expressions, and expectations.

5.  For various reasons, we humans (at least in the United States) have of late become fixated on the distinction between what is "natural" and what is "not natural".  We spend a lot of time trying to discover the dividing line between what is an unchosen feature of our existence and what is a malleable construct imposed by self or society.  One of the targets of this distinction is the highly colorful set of social relations and practices that have been built up around the two sorts, male and female.

6.  Now it is obvious to anyone who has studied history that many features of the behavior and social positioning of the two sorts are contingent and not necessary—that they can and do change over time, and that they vary widely from place to place.  This is true of dress, of standards of etiquette, of treatment under the law, and so on.  Because of this fact (along with a number of other factors, which I won't get into here) there is an impulse to say that gender, the distinction of humans into the two kinds with their attendant social behavior and expectations, is in some way not natural.

7.  The claim that gender is not natural is based on a reduction of the natural aspect to merely the possession of various organs.  There are facts about bodies, the idea goes, but that's where nature stops.  The disposition of personalities, the performance of various social behaviors, etc., is not part of nature.  It is disconnected and arbitrary. While the physical presence of organs is natural, the arrangement of behaviors is "socially constructed".

8.  The problem is that the distinction between what is "socially constructed" (note that the term is dangerous here, since it makes it sound as if the things in question were produced by positive design or social engineering) and what is "natural" or "essential" or necessary is not so easily made.  Any sane person will recognize that certain features of personality and aptitude are distributed differently among the two kinds, in a way that is not likely to have been caused merely by social convention.

9.  Social conventions regarding "male" and "female" are, in general, like many other social conventions—the accommodation of a natural set of facts about humans to a particular set of parameters.  The accommodation may be disordered, or it may be beneficial.  It may be highly developed or very primitive.  It can have a strong moral dimension, or it can be morally indifferent.  But the social convention develops as an expression of a set of natural features, features which tend to be sufficiently complex in their manifestation and distribution that they cannot be known and reduced to simple law by abstract reasoning.  Custom legislates around such things in a way that the human mind could not.

10.  That a salt crystal has this shape rather than that one will be a matter of its circumstances, but in either case the particular shape of the salt crystal, the orientation of its faces, its color, and many other features remain expressions of the structure and nature of the salt itself.  As with salt crystals, so with the behaviors and expectations surrounding the distinction between the two kinds of human.  Gender norms may differ between times and places, and may differ in a way that is more or less revealing of human nature, but they tend in general to remain expressions of something real in our nature.

11.  It is for this reason that I believe in what could be called "gender essentialism".  Not that dresses are essentially to be worn by women, or that cars are essentially to be loved by men, but that the nature and meaning of the two sorts is better captured by a living set of behavioral norms and social customs than by a mere biological fact about what organs are hidden between one's thighs.  In short, in distinguishing between the two kinds of human beings (male and female), we have to realize that the social features of the sexes are an expression (in some way natural) of the underlying material differences between their bodies.