Saturday, December 17, 2011

The unhealthy love at the root of our economic ruin

[This post is based on a comment I made to a Facebook friend, where he'd asked, "Is there anything good and/or hopeful in the current economy?" My reply was shorter than this, but basically makes the same point]

A reason for hope in this economy? Yes. I think there is. I'm beginning to see signs that people are wakening to realization that the real question is not "how much?" but "why?" when it comes to the idea that money is the quintessential measure of human value.

Since the Baby Boomers hit adulthood (see: Yuppies, Reagan, "The Secret of My Success"), there has been (mostly from the Right, but also from the technocratic left) a growing belief that the chief purpose of being an American is to contribute economically. Perhaps it is even the sole purpose. Success as a human is a measurement of wealth, and vice versa.

The kids of the Boomers are now becoming young adults, and have grown up seeing how this attitude affects their parents; divorce, depression, disillusionment. I've read a couple articles about how Boomer parents, having raised their kids to be super-achievers, are surprised to learn that their children want to do things related to community, education, non-profits, service, etc.

Let's get one thing straight before this goes any further: I am a capitalist. I believe in the free market, venture capitalism, the general sensibility of the model and the idea that people should benefit from their work. I believe that the universe is unfair, and that it is not the job of the government to even everything out. I don't want the government involved in any area of my life where I'd be better off on my own or working with folks in the private sector who have their own reasons -- economic or otherwise -- for being involved. That being said, I do think that we're all better off when we cooperate on certain large-scale projects that have national or very widespread influence. We can argue about which of those projects is sensible -- armed forces, healthcare, education, highways, etc. -- but I don't hear anyone sensible arguing that we need no government; just that we need smart government.

So what's my beef? If I like capitalism and I like money (and I do), why would a benefit of a shitty economy be the realization that money ain't the be-all and end-all of existence? Is it just sour grapes on a class level? Moral justification or compensation for being less well-off than we thought we be? I don't think so. I think it's deeper than that.

Money, as we know, is useful stuff. I like my gadgets as much as anyone. When we look at the Cold War, we can see lots of justifications for our economic model vs. socialism; money helps not just be a counter in the game, but it's the score. If a company can build the same product for less money, it's doing something better. That's the basic idea of a market economy.

Again: no argument that money and capitalism is good. But it's not the only good, and it certainly isn't the chief good. Why? Here's the first quotable moment for you:

When the central idea of a country -- or a life -- becomes fixated on economic value,  we greatly reduce our potential for learning, friendship, creativity and joy.

Example: I think that the Web is, at its heart, a wonderfully enabling technology across many levels of participation. Yes, it helps giants like Amazon be more efficient. But it also lets me, personally, do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with making myself (or, really, anybody else) rich.

I've made new friends on these here tubes . I've written more poetry in the last 10 years than in the previous 20 before that, chiefly because I have found people to share it with. I used Lulu/Amazon to layout and print my father's book of meditations before he died, which was a great happiness to him and our family.

None of these things has anything to do with being wealthier. A couple of them cost me a few bucks, but I never did any of them with the idea of making more money.

The Web helps us realize: we are more than the sum of our bank accounts.

Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood are scared of us figuring that out; hence all the DRM, "three strikes," SOPA nonsense. If we find more and more ways to be content, productive, accountable, flexible, transparent, engaged, creative, vocal and -- dare I say, happy -- that do not involve spending money, they lose a hold on us. They lose power and the ability to monetize our self worth.

Part of the current reaction to our growing income inequality isn't just "it's not fair that you have so much and I/we/they don't," but another, more visceral objection: "It's not doing you any damned good to be that rich. It's toxic. It's stupid. It's not making you happy, and the systems you've set up to defend your inexplicably unhealthy attitude are robbing others of some really important stuff like education, health, human rights and basic economic security."

My Dad, the shrink, used to say, "Neurotics build castles in the air. Psychotics live in them." For the last 30 years or so, we've been operating on a collective neurosis that says money is what makes an individual worthwhile, what makes our nation great, and is what deserves authority. What we've begun to see in the last few years is how that neurosis -- which manifests in a variety of unhealthy ways for those suffering from the disorder -- has progressed to psychosis: a loss of contact with reality. And when those with the most economic power are enabled to act on their delusions, they impact us all.

Cue the second quotable bit:

It's one thing to make the argument that my riches are more important than yours. It's another to defend the idea that maintaining my psychoses takes precedence over your basic welfare.

That's what we're seeing in the OWS movement; a questioning of the basic order of systems that no longer make sense unless you buy into a highly structured, almost magical set of rationalizations about money. This isn't class warfare; nobody is saying it's bad to be rich. What we're saying is that it's unhealthy to try to frame every challenge in terms of promoting personal (and corporate), monetary wealth. Let's look at some examples:

  • Newt Gingrich's recent ideas about child labor. What's most distressing to me is not that he thinks children should work, but the assumed ideal that work is the cure for what ails needy children. It's as if you went to your mom because you were being bullied, and she suggested you pay them off. It's a focus on economic value, even as a hallmark of development.

  • The Copyright Term Extension Act (aka, "The Mickey Mouse Extension Act"). In order to protect fictional works from possible loss of future profit, we borked the entire system that our Founding Fathers put in place -- the one that, you know, helped make the US one of the greatest hotbeds of invention in the history of the world.

  • Buckley v Valeo. Money = speech in terms of political contributions. For those of us who really believe in the inalienable rights of humans, this one is like a firecracker in the pants. How in heck can money be speech, if there are people (and companies) who have billions of times more wealth than others? It is entirely fair that money = power in terms of economic leverage. That's the point. If you have $100,000 you have the right to buy 100x more stuff than someone with $1,000. But the idea that you have the right to 100x more speech?

That last example is one of those truly bizarre judgments that begins to really point out how we've moved from a widespread, chronic neurosis (the idea that money is the most important thing) to an acute psychosis: those with this mental illness are making changes to the systems we all rely on in order to support their particular, flawed view of value, values and national identity.

I will take just a moment for a quick shout-out to my fellow Christians to ask the following:

Do you really believe this? Do you believe that God loves the rich more? Are you less of a worthwhile person if you have a job that you really enjoy, but that makes less money? Did you have children chiefly so that they would take care of you, monetarily, in your old age? Did you marry your spouse because he/she was a capable breadwinner and apt to provide good cost-benefit balance to the relationship? How often do you smile, laugh or feel warm about "money stuff?" Does spending it really make you happy? Does earning more of it give you particular pride? If, as Christians, we are meant to emulate Christ, can you point to one verse in the Bible that suggests he owned *anything* let alone was wealthy? Were His friends the well-off types? Did he ever say, "Blessed are the dough-makers, for they shall inherit major stock options?" I challenge anyone who calls themselves a Christian to back up the idea that money matters AT ALL to God, except in how we use it to help others.

We all know the end of this scripture, but here's all of 1 Timothy 6:7-10: For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

That's what we're seeing on our national and global stages: ruin and destruction, brought about by the temptations and traps of money-centric morality, philosophy and politics.

I've never cared that much about money. Like I said, I enjoy it. I'm glad I can earn a good living doing something I enjoy. But I truly believe that you can't buy happiness. Some recent research confirms this: beyond a certain point, having more money doesn't make you any happier.

I get the feeling that lots (most) of the people I care about feel this way: money ain't the center of our lives. That it has become the center of our republic is a kind of national schizophrenia that, I hope, we are beginning to recognize and can, therefore, treat.

There are signs that people are wakening to realize that the real question is not "how much?" but "why?" when it comes to the idea that money is the quintessential measure of human value.

Since the Baby Boomers hit adulthood (see: Yuppies, Reagan, "The Secret of My Success"), there has been (mostly from the Right, but also from the technocratic left) a growing belief that the purpose of being an American is to contribute economically. Perhaps the sole purpose. Success is a measurement of wealth, and vice versa.

The kids of the Boomers are now becoming young adults, and have grown up seeing how this affects their parents; divorce, depression, disillusionment. I've read a couple articles about how Boomer parents, having raised their kids to be super-achievers, are surprised to learn that their children want to do things related to community, education, non-profits, service, etc.

I got no problem with money. It's useful stuff, and like my gadgets as much as anyone. But when the central idea of a country -- or a life -- is economic, you so greatly reduce our potential for joy, learning, friendship, creation.

So: hope. I think that the Web is, at its heart, a wonderfully enabling technology across many levels of participation. Yes, it helps giants like Amazon be more efficient. But it also lets me, personally, do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with making myself (or, really, anybody else) rich.

I've made new friends on these here tubes -- witness Bryan Alexander. I've written more poetry in the last 10 years than in the previous 20 before that, chiefly because I have found people to share it with. I used Lulu/Amazon to layout and print my father's book of meditations before he died, which was a great happiness to him and his family.

We are more than the sum of our bank accounts.

Wall Street, Washington and Hollywood are scared of us figuring that out; hence all the DRM, "three strikes," SOPA nonsense. If we find more and more ways to be content, productive, accountable, flexible, transparent, engaged, creative, vocal and -- dare I say, happy -- that do not involve spending money, they lose a hold on us.

On top of all the primary meanings of the Occupy movement, one of the subtler, framing messages I kept seeing/feeling was this: those kids, out there in the snow in rain in tents, are having way, way, way more fun than the 1-percenters up in the boardrooms looking down on them.

Part of the current reaction to the growing income inequality isn't just "it's not fair that you have so much and I/we/they don't," but another, more visceral objection: "It's not doing you any damned good to be that rich. It's toxic. It's stupid. It's not making you happy, and they systems you've set up to defend your inexplicably unhealthy attitude is robbing others of some really important stuff like education, health and basic economic security."

It's one thing to make the argument that my riches are more important than yours. It's another to defend the idea that my psychosis is more important than your welfare.

I get the feeling that lots of the people I care the most about feel this way: money ain't the center of our lives. That it is at the center of our republic is a kind of national schizophrenia that, I hope, we are beginning to recognize and can then treat.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Geek out: the last pockets of geek

Liz Danforth pointed me to the Speak Out with Your Geek Out project. I very much like the idea of people being open and proud of their geekery. It's a great idea and I encourage all my very geeky friends to add their voices to the mix.

I will say, though, that geekery isn't what it used to be. When I was growing up, it was hard to be a geek, nerd, etc. Harder than today, I think. And this isn't just a, "When I was a boy, gravity was heavier," kind of thing. Patton Oswald said it better than I could in his Wired article about ETEWAF (Everything There Ever Was, Available Forever). I'm also not sure that it's just an adult's pining for the past, or the fact that it is generally much easier to be an adult than a child or teen.

I was a geeky child... but as Patton says in his article, many of the things that set me apart as a geek are now much more mainstream. I liked Dungeons and Dragons. I was one of about nine kids in my HS class of 400 who did. Now something like 10 million people play WoW and another gazillion (including my son and I) play Magic the Gathering. I read Tolkien and Narnia by the 6th grade. I knew one other kid who had done so. Now every kid (and their parents) have read Harry Potter, the Twilight books, the Percy Jackson novels, Lemony Snicket, etc. I played computer/video games when all we had was the TRS-80. Everyone plays the Wii now, including my mom. I programmed computers when that was entirely weird, new, odd. I sang in chorus at school and choir at church and was routinely called a "music fag" by other kids because of it; now "Glee" is incredibly popular, as are all those various talent shows on TV.

As Patton says, I'm not sure if I should be glad because we, the geeks, won... or sad because the geeky kids of today don't have to try as hard at it, and therefore can't feel as much joyful, ironic separation from mainstream culture.

About the only two geeky things I did that still seem somewhat out-there to me are Latin and poetry. And I stopped studying Latin in college when it became clear that I was really very bad at it. Poetry, though I stuck with.

I'm not saying that kids don't take crap for off-kilter pursuits anymore. I'm sure many still do. And I'm not saying that something has to be socially shunned for a hobby or interest to qualify as geekery. You can geek out on something as "cool" as motorcycles, art films or cajun cooking. Being a geek is more, I think, about intense, inward-focused interest than giving a rat's ass either way what others think.

I'm just saying that it's very odd for me that when I tell my friends' teenage kids that I build and play mountain dulcimers, they routinely reply, "That's so cool! Can you show me how? Where can I get one?"

Hunh? First of all, you should be shunning your parents' friends. They are not cool; we are not cool. How did it happen that parents and teens now hang out? It started happening awhile ago. I played GURPS with some friends, and quite a few of their teen kids played with us. We all got along very well. The kids seemed pleased to be allowed into the mix, and the adults were glad to have a new generation to share and play with.

To repeat: hunh? When I was a kid, I had a great relationship with my parents. We did things together, sure. My dad and I loved bad movies and canoeing. That was OK. But having them hang out with my friends while we played Avalon Hill board games? Nope. No thanks. And I think my dad would have felt the same way.

Don't get me wrong; I'm pleased. My son and I play MTG with his friends. I think one of their dads plays, too. We should have a "generation wars" event [They already, Dan and his friends, arrange "Magic the Gathering Gatherings," which cracks me up]. I hope we can continue in this way all through middle and high school. It's nice to be friends with your kid and his friends. It's friendly.

But it, too, takes some of the shine off the geek thing, I think. It just seems too... normal? Happy? Well-adjusted? Functional?

So... I'm left with poetry. For years I didn't mention to people that I wrote poetry, because the face they usually made translated roughly to, "Oh. Sure. Well... you're not going to make me read it, are you?" Then, about fifteen years ago, I would bring it up once in awhile: still got a reaction as if I said that I liked to shave Disney characters into the fur on the back of my dog. Which, frankly, pleased me. As my other geeky pursuits became mainstream, having one, special, lonely thing that set me apart kind of felt... right.

I remember when, around 1995, I started talking about computer games around someone I'd just met and he said, "Oh, I'm a huge fan of 'Sid Meier's Civilization!" And I thought, "Wow. That was unexpected." Since then, I know all kinds of people who game. It's the new normal. Same for fantasy books, music and being computer geeks.

Poetry? Not so much. Once in awhile a student of mine will ask to share some poems they've worked on. Or I'll mention that I write to a friend and they'll confess that they, too, have sometimes dabbled. The people I actively talk about poetry with are ones I've met online in dedicated poetry forums.

Which, I need not remind you, didn't exist when we were kids. Unless, by "we," it turns out someone reading this is actually still a kid. Then... never mind.

Part of what has made me internally (to my mind) strong, morally consistent and emotionally hardy was that I'd spent so many years trying to reconcile the enjoyment I felt in my pursuits with the general disregard in which they were held by the world in general. In the main, I'm "glad we won." I'm glad that my kid can do geeky things without being picked on. That people can pursue a wide range of interests in very odd (seeming) corners, and find like-minded friends pretty easily on the Web. I know that bullying still happens, but it seems that it's more isolated and less tolerated.

But some strange, quiet, secret part of me still enjoys the fact that I get the, "Oh. You're a weirdo," look when I say, "I'm a poet." Not all the time. And less frequently these days. But it's still a joy, some days, to be a weirdo.

My hat's off to those kids (of any age) whose pursuits give them great pleasure, but make them targets of ridicule, abuse or just loneliness. You aren't alone. We were never alone. And we aren't now.

Take some comfort in the fact that your hardship will, one day, be the foundation of your joy.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Chaos and order, cities and corporations, scaling and not

Neat post from JP Rangaswami over at "Confused of Calcutta." I enjoy reading his stuff and he also gave a great ReadWriteWeb talk on gamification (that's mostly about other stuff... in a good way). One of the questions he poses is basically this: "Why do cities scale well, but corporations don't."

This goes back, in many ways, to the great bit from "Forbidden Knowledge: The Gap Into Vision" by Stephen R. Donaldson that do so love to quote. It's long, but this is my blog, so there:

For convenience, history is often viewed as a conflict between the instinct for order and the impulse toward chaos. Both are necessary: both are manifestations of the need to survive. Without order, nothing exists: without chaos, nothing grows. And yet the struggle between them sheds more blood than any other war.

The instinct for order is an expression of humankind’s devout desire for safety (which permits nurture), for stability (which permits education), for predictability (which permits one thing to be built on another)—for equations of cause and effect simple enough to be relied upon. Indeed, without resistance to change, growth itself would be impossible: resistance to change creates safe, stable predictable environments in which change can accumulate productively.

The instinct for order is therefore aggressive. It actively opposes any alteration of circumstance, any variation of perspective, any hostility of environment or intention. It fights to create and defend the conditions it seeks.

The impulse toward chaos is a manifestation of humankind’s inbred knowledge that the best way to survive any danger is to run away from it. This instinct focuses on the resources of individual imagination and cunning, rather than on the potentialities of concerted action. Its most common overt expression involves an insistence upon self-determination (freedom from restriction), individual liberty (freedom from requirement) and nonconformity (freedom from cause and effect). However, such insistence is primarily a rationalization of the desire to flee—to survive by escape.

Therefore the impulse toward chaos is also aggressive. The very act of escape breaks down systems of order: it contradicts safety, avoids stability, defies cause and effect. Like the instinct for order, it fights to create and defend the conditions it seeks.

Nevertheless stability and predictability themselves would be impossible without chaos. Chaos exerts the pressure which requires order to shape itself accurately. Without accuracy, order would self-destruct as soon as it came into being.

For these reasons, the struggle between order and chaos is eternal, necessary—and extremely expensive.

Maybe corporations don't scale well because they are top-down, with an over reliance on order (management). Cities grow bottom-up, through chaos (craziness not just tolerated, but nurtured). Crazy = chaos. Management = order. Too much of either, you get no growth. Too much crazy = anarchy. Too much order = stagnation. Maybe corporations start out somewhat chaotic (at the level of entrepreneur), but order ends up being imposed on them both internally  -- as we fight to maintain some kind of status quo -- or externally, as outside forces such as laws, competition, market changes and time push us into more rigid forms.

So... the question may be less, "Why don't corporations scale well?" and more, "How are cities different than individuals?"

It may be that looking at a corporation may be more like looking at any individual in a city. One person (or many) may (will) fail, fall sick or die in the process of a city's growth. We don't say, "The city is bad because it killed one person." And people (as animals) don't scale well. Maybe in this metaphor, the entire industry or the market or an entire economy is the city. And corporations are doomed to live and die, succeed and fail, more as individuals.

So... how do cities differ from individuals? Sounds like an odd question, but if corporations are more like people (and we call them corporations, eh?), maybe understanding the city vs. person dynamic would help corporations grow better/happier.

Perhaps cities scale better because they are made up of many more individuals with very different overlapping, intersecting goals. And those purposes touch/influence each other. In "Emergence" Steven Johnson talked about places like the salons of Europe and scientific coffee houses of the early Industrial Revolution; places where very diverse ideas got a chance to rub up together. Emergence -- that is, major intellectual growth -- needed a hothouse where very different types of thought had to jostle each other. If you read any of James Burke's books ("Connections" is a good start), you'll find that many great inventions were built out of odd, dissimilar mash-ups of ideas.

Which makes me wonder: would a company that did a few (or many) very different things end up doing them all very badly, or get remarkably better at some/all of them? And by very different, I mean like a software company also bottling fruit juice. Or a hospital also running a baseball team.

As long as I can remember reading about businesses, I've heard it accepted as God's truth that you shouldn't (as a company) try to do to many things. "Stick to your core competency," is pretty much gospel. And, "Pick one thing and be great at it." But what if you want your "one thing" not to be product, service or industry-specific... but passion-specific? Or artistic stance-specific? Or metaphor specific?

I read recently (can't remember where; sorry, would love to cite) that the reason Apple has done so well is that it didn't define itself as a "company that made computers," but as a "company that loves to please customers with great industrial design." OK... well... sure. And that's why they could make iEverything and do OK, because people went to that well for one thing -- good, human-centric design. Which could be manifested in desktop computers, laptops, phones, MP3 players, tablets, etc. You're not buying i[Thing]. You're buying design.

What if your company's main product was laughter? Or peace? Or (alternately) fear? Or relaxation? Let's take that last one for a spin...

If I wanted a company that produced relaxation, where would I start? Would I buy a successful bed or furniture company? Or license/produce some really mellow music? Or look into what foods are conducive to relaxation? Or which exercises/meditations work best? Well... I'd probably do all of those things. Eventually. Or work to tie together companies that did them in a way that increased relaxation for all their customers (who wanted to relax, that is). I would probably end up doing lots of very different things, from an industrial standpoint; but if everything I did helped my customers to be more relaxed... we all win. And maybe that would scale better, because it wouldn't rely solely on building more efficient beds or better/cheaper IP lawyers, or working with specific insurance companies. What we used to think of as specific products/services would become part of a more meta (sorry, you can't get a post this long from me without a "meta" thrown in) supply chain with something much less tangible, but much more... important?... vital?... interesting?... at its core.

Maybe corporations don't scale because they make their core competency a *thing* and not an *aspiration.* I do not mean this in any kind of soft-hearted, wishy-washy, hippy-dippy way. I'm not talking about "let's build a joy factory!" I'm talking about a hard-heated approach to a business where the main product... the main metrics... are more about an effect than a widget.

Maybe that's why Starbucks and Disney do so well. Starbucks is mostly about coffee, sure. But it's really about treating yourself to a mini vacation. So you can also get expensive little cookies there and off-beat CD's. And Disney isn't about any single product: it's about fun. Whether that's at the movies, the theme parks, the TV shows or through toys and games. Disney sells fun.

If that's the case, then many corporate metrics are measuring the wrong things. Efficiency is great (in the case of a city), when you're thinking about your commute. Good, fast, safe, short route. Lovely. But when it comes to... dating? Dining? Entertainment? Shopping? Architecture? Friends? Civic spaces? None of those things are judged in terms of efficiency.

In short, maybe corporations are cities made only of roads. Easy to measure, easy to understand. But way less likely to attract tourists, artists, bands, and newlyweds.

Thanks, JP. I haven't blogged in a long time. This was an interesting topic to think-out-loud about.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

New poem: Truce?

I hated lawn work growing up.
The forced, hot chore of green conformity.
Mule to a manual, rotary blade.
Slave to some dim, inbred, feeble sense that
we were long-lost, distant kin
to kings with gardens, gardeners and time.

Time to care for useless weeds.
Time to force conformity.
Time for our mad hierarchy
of measured, soft suburban warfare
fought with gestures, eyebrows, jokes and sighs.

You can't fight. At best you might
retreat the field for condo life or fob the job
on pros and neighbors' kids. But that's not peace.
The grass still wins.

Until the day she lay down flat, barefoot, stretched out
on her back, closed her eyes, tipped back
her head, sighed deeply, smiled and said,

"I love the feel of fresh-mown grass."

An armistice? Perhaps.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

New poem: Ocean Floor

There are rumors of sky.
Last words of swimmers, fallen
from waves. Limbs unkempt,
sleep-sown hair tossed
over wet, windy, winding sheets.

Eyes swollen, pressure kissed,
or eaten by the curious
fish who want to taste last sights.
Synesthesia, second hand.
Pearls of life dissolve,
melt on tiny tongues.

A child's game, the rumors pass
from lips to ears to lips,
stirred by confection, convection, consensus.
Rattle, final, homogeneous,
uninteresting and petty.

"Yes, there is sky. It's where
they make the dead."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Review: Run, Hanna, Run

Hanna is about a girl who runs. She runs very seriously. You can tell she's running seriously, because she holds her hands out flat (like you're going to karate chop a teddy bear or large wheel of cheese with every stride), rather than making fists (like everybody else). This is a sign that she has been trained to run, rather than running in a natural, child-like fashion. She also runs with a look of utter determination... whether she is running to catch deer, running to get the bad guys, running away from the bad guys, or just running to make it to the next scene. She is concentrating. She is running for a reason. Her running has goals. Nay... targets.

Which is kind of a metaphor for the whole film.

I liked Saoirse Ronan's performance in this movie very much, despite the fact that her name confuses my brain. It's Irish for "freedom," though, so points for being ethnically interesting and not just having parents who wanted to make up a u-neek spelling for "Cherise" or something. So the name thing cancels out.

She was good. Fun to watch. Did a nice job. I would *especially* like to thank everyone involved in the film for managing to create a strong, physical, beautiful young girl character who is almost 100% entirely un-sexualized. She is very pretty. She moves very well. You spend almost the entire movie looking at her. She is almost at that age when her prettiness will begin to be an adult beauty, and you can see that coming through. Unfortunately, many moves simply can't seem to show us beautiful, pre-adult girls without turning them into sex objects. That happens in real life, too, of course. And so it's not necessarily inappropriate... especially if one of the film's themes is the over-sexualization of young girls. When it's simply a way too titillate and sell tickets and ramp up the sexy factor of a movie, though... that can be troublesome. I don't have a problem with sexy women in movies. But under-age girls who are gotten up in skin-tight leather or vinyl... I usually find that psychologically or culturally troubling.

"Hanna" doesn't do that. She's a girl, yes. And pretty and physical. But at no time is she presented as a sex object. In fact (mild spoiler), there's a scene where she approaches a sexually charged moment and shies away from it really interestingly.

Now... some will say that the character's lack of socialization is a major part of the story's arc. And that is true. But I can certainly see a universe (it's right over there... yes... there... behind the Denny's. Right. Yes, that one) where this movie got made, kept the story the same, and tarted up the character and made her "innocent seeming sexuality" a major selling point of the movie. Bravo to Joe Wright and David Farr and Seth Lochhead for not doing so. It would have cheapened the movie.

So Saoirse did a great job. And Eric Bana was as dreamy and hunky as ever and did just fine. And Cate Blanchett, whom I adore... well... she's my main problem with this film.

She's the bad guy, which you'll know if you watch the trailer, so don't blame me for any spoilers there. She's a terrific actress, but somehow seems to have pasted this particular performance in on top of herself. There's no depth there, and we don't understand why she's so dedicated to the bad things she wants to do. If she's just following orders... meh. That's never very interesting. And...

The hair and the accent.

Three things all together: 1) a bad, poofy haircut that may be a wig; 2) said hair/wig being bright, screaming, unnatural red; 3) an awful, thick southern accent. Any one of those things I could have taken. Lumped all together, they were a giant distraction every time she was on screen. Much of the rest of the movie seems washed in sepia and the tones of a dull, grey winter. But then in comes Cate and her clown hair and Southern Belle voice and it just totally yanked me out of the magic circle.

Film/art grade: B-. Nothing really wrong with it, but the script could have used some major tightening and some more backstory. Also, while Hanna is supposed to be kinda super-special, that never came out as much as it could have. She seemed special, but not super. And the bad guys were all pretty hollow.

Flick/fun grade: B. Solid movie, lots to enjoy, but some pacing issues. The scenes with the nice British family were too long, and could have been replaced by some more training scenes with Eric Bana, as those were terrrific.

Verdict: wait for it on Netflix, but then definitely give it a rent.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Review: Sucker Punch

Review subtitle: Fun, crazy flick, with one major black eye that this review will put some raw meat on to take the swelling down.

One sentence review based on my own imagined dialogue when speaking to the waiter who brought me this movie:

"Very nice, but didn't I order the half-pound sirloin?"

Note: there may be some spoilers in here, depending on your definition of spoilers. I promise not to ruin the ending... except by saying something critical about it that might, actually help you not be as disappointed with it as I was. The ending. Not the movie. Or this review. Anyway...

First of all... should you see this movie? Here's how to decide. Watch the trailer. If you watch the trailer and think, "Sweet. This is something I should see," then you should definitely see it. Unless (and this will come back to haunt us later in the review)...


I was psyched, frankly, when I saw the trailer, because, well... shit. What a great background song for some cool, graphic-novel-esque hyper-violence, eh? It wasn't in the movie. Which helped deliver the stinging blow that, perhaps, this review will help sooth with some words of warning: the ultimate fight scene you are expecting at the end does not show up.

Don't despair! There are lots and lots of fun, antic, dark, disturbing, really well imagined and interestingly filmed bits in this film. A partial list would contain:

  • Insane asylum burlesque shows

  • Clockwork Huns

  • 40-foot tall, Gatling Gun wielding demon samurai

  • Inadvertent sororicide

  • WW2 aircraft-on-dragon violence

  • Ninja chicks on everything violence

  • Naughty schoolgirl uniform ninja chicks on everything violence

  • John Hamm as "The High Roller"

  • John Hamm as "The Lobotomist"

  • Vanessa Hudgens in the latest of a long string of "last role before her first major adult role"

  • Heroes named Baby Doll, Blondie (the raven haired Ms. Hudgens, in a nod to tonsorial irony), Sweet Pea, Rocket and Amber. Yes; it's the Powderpuff Girls Go to Crazy War Teen Style

  • Tomahawk-fu, trench-fu, train-fu, cyborg-fu

  • Ancient Scott Glen wisdom

  • Gratuitous Polish dominatrix

  • Cool 1950's cars

  • Lots of great songs on the soundtrack, including really nice covers of "Sweet Dreams are Made of This," and "Ask Alice.'

See? Plenty of good eatin' on them bones. Like I said... if the trailer appeals to you at all, you should see this. If the trailer leaves you cold, you should avoid it.

If you do think you should see it, though, I expect you will be surprised by some of the depth of darkness and weirdness. I thought, from the previews, that there would be more hi-jinx and less feeling bad about how bad people do bad things to cute girls in short shorts, high heels and fishnet stockings. It's about 60/40 "bad feelings" to "batshit insane violence." I was hoping for more like a 50/50 or even 40/60 the other way split.

If I had to, I would describe this movie as a mash-up of "Brazil," "Sin City," "Girl, Interrupted," and the video game "Shadow of the Colossus." If you read that list and it makes you want to lie down, don't see the movie. If you read it and think, "That sounds perfectly logical," seek help. Then see the movie.

Here's the thing that will help you enjoy it a bit more than I did. As I said above, the fight scene that you are expecting at the end doesn't show up. There are a series of absolutely terrific fights, they are paced nicely through the film, and they build up to what feels like the penultimate battle. After which I knew... KNEW... that the ultimate cutie-pie vs. dude-you-hate-the-most violence would occur soon, and it HAS TO HAPPEN to the awesome, pounding beat of Zep's "Levy Song."

I waited. And there was a moment when... nope. Maybe now, as she's about to... nope. But now! It has to happen now because he's about to...

Nope. [le sigh]

You get your money's worth. And if you liked the visual style of "300" and "Sin City" and the dark, creepy feel of "Brazil," you'll really like this. And the ending isn't bad... it's just 1/4 pound shy of the steak I ordered.

Oh, and the title has nothing to do with the film as far as I can tell. I'm not sure what I thought it might connect to... but it didn't.

This is also not a deep film, though there are some spots where mystery, psycho behavior and general moodiness try to pass for depth.

Final grades:

  • Flick grade: B+ for good, new-fangled, sexy, ass-kicking, visual slickness

  • Film grade: C+ for having the balls to make the story a bit more crunchy than I'd anticipated, but points off for really not understanding the pacing and expectations that were set up. Also points off for some fairly tired dialogue, though Scott Glen tries to save the day with some pith.

Seriously... one more great fight scene at the end, and that would have been an A and a B+. Too bad. Sometimes quantity is an aspect of quality.

PS: I had more fun typing "clockwork Huns" than almost anything I've ever typed in my life. Please note, though, that by "Huns" I mean the pejorative for WW1-era German troops, not the horse-warriors of the Asian steppes. Clockwork Huns of the latter type would make no sense at all.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Review: Battle: Los:: Angeles :::

Two word review: extremely silly.

More than two word review...

I have come to the conclusion that almost all science fiction movies are *not* for fans of science fiction, but for fans of movies that go bang, boom, ping, clank, smack-wallah. Because in almost every sci-fi movie I've seen recently (exception: "Inception"), the whole house of shiny, explodey cards is built on a foundation of... WTF?

"Battle: Los Angeles" is about fighting. That's really all it's about. With "battle" in the title, this is to be expected, and I went in expecting what was to be expected. What I would have been delighted with, though, was a reason for the fighting that holds water... Spoiler alert: that's an in-joke for those of us who've seen the movie, as the aliens come to earth to suck up our sea water and use it for fuel.

Yep. They're here for the H20.

As I said: extremely silly.

The idea that you'd expend the kind of energy necessary to travel from another star system in order to spend more energy launching a massive ground attack in order to spend more energy sucking water up into space... insanely silly. Unless these aliens have figured out a way to do some kind of really amazing cold fusion, getting water out of the gravity well would almost certainly take more energy than it's worth. Especially when frozen water has been found on many asteroids in our solar system, and they wouldn't require, well... all that killin'.

At one point in the movie, an expert on the teevee says that the aliens want our liquid water because "Nowhere else does it exist on the surface of a planet... we are unique..." In our solar system, yes... H20 isn't hanging out in great limpid pools anywhere else. But you could use a LOT less energy to melt ice than it takes to go down to a planet, battle a few billion house apes, and lug it back into orbit.

Just... so silly.

ALSO... I would like to know why certain directors feel that an almost constant use of the shaky cam somehow makes things more... realistic. It doesn't. It just gives me a headache. A couple seconds of "Yow! Camera jiggles!" when a bomb hits? Sure. But why when you're doing a close up of the hero? It's just irritating, unhelpful and self indulgent. We've been seeing movies for 100+ years now. We understand how to suspend our disbelief without you making it look like you shot your $100 million movie on an iPhone.

The action? Meh. Some OK firefights, but really... nothing you wouldn't get in a good WW2 movie. The aliens aren't that alien; they're kind ooky and squishy on the inside and wear cool armor and jump around. But they're bilaterally symmetrical bipeds with fingers, feet, big heads, etc. They ride things that look like giant lawn mowers. Their drone fighter ships look like... pincushions. They shoot guns that make gun sounds with a bit of a tracer trail and some extra "radiation" damage (sometimes).

It's all very lazy, frankly. And they didn't even have the cathartic "Wow! They just blew up a huge building!" stuff. You saw broken buildings and lots of rubble... but not while it happened. Just after the fact, from the Marines' standpoint. And, to be brutally honest, the fun of watching sci-fi devastation was more than a bit dulled by all the images that are coming out of Japan after the quake/tsunami. It's not fair, of course, to compare a real world disaster with a sci-fictional one... but it's almost impossible not to.

Aaron Eckhart did OK. He was playing a tight-lipped, hardened Marine sergeant less than a week from retirement... Yes, they played that old saw. And they showed the nice Marine kid kissing his pregnant wife's belly. And the nice Marine kid picking out flowers for his wedding in less than a week. And the nice Marine kid who'd never had sex. All of the above. Yes.

So... the verdicts.

Flick Value (ie, Was It Fun): C-. Some good booms, some good fights, the acting was OK enough to drag you through the truly shallow and silly plot. The aliens were lackluster, but watching the nice veterinarian lady figure out how to kill them more easily was kinda fun. If you have a value cinema (the "Buck Flick" we call ours), I'd wait the two weeks until this swings around if you must see it.

Film Value (ie, Was It Good): D. Just say "no" to excessive, meaningless shaky cam. Do a bit of homework about water. Share the script with a Freshman writing professor. Give me something... anything... new.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

David Ward Havens, MD: 1939 - 2011

For those of you who hadn't heard, my Dad passed away this last Monday... I'm sorry if you're hearing about it this way. We've been personally calling and emailing as many people as possible... but there's lots to do, and so if we didn't reach out to you one-on-one, please accept my apologies.

I'll be writing more about Dad in the weeks to come. One way that writers process important things is by writing about them. It won't feel real, and I won't really know how I feel, until I have a chance to write may way through some stuff.

The quick version, though, is this:

He had a joyful life, well lived, well loved, the way he wanted it. He worked at a job he absolutely loved for more than 40 years, and only retired last December from it. He was respected by his peers, loved by his family and friends, and was deeply connected to God. While there were many conversations we still could have had, there was nothing important left unsaid between us; nothing unforgiven, nothing hidden, nothing to trouble the years between now and when I see him again.

He will be deeply missed. But he will also be well remembered, for his wisdom, humor and, most of all (to me) his great kindness. I have never met a man who more completely embodied the term "gentle-man."

The two best pieces of advice he ever gave me were, "Study what you love," and "Never pet a burning dog."

I wrote his obituary yesterday. I will be continuing his story for many years.

* * * * *

David Ward Havens, M.D., age 72 of Springfield died Monday February 28, 2011 at North Crest Medical Center.  He was born January 21, 1939 in Westhampton, NY to the late Philip Ward and Anna Roth Havens. Dr. Havens was a member of Springfield First United Methodist Church and was a retired physiatrist. He received his bachelor degree in 1960 from University of Rochester, his MD from Harvard Medical School in 1964, was a veteran of the United States Air Force, serving as a Captain at March Air Force Base from 1968-1970. Dr. Havens operated a private psychiatric practice in Boston, MA from 1970-1992, a practice with an emphasis on integrating Christian faith with treatment in Hendersonville and Springfield, TN from 1992-2007.

David has been active in the United Methodist Church, Bible study, prayer and Christian fellowship his entire life. He was a trained vocal tenor who performed with the Rochester University close-harmony group, “The Yellow Jackets” during his undergraduate days. He was an amateur organist and computer buff, spent much of his life enjoying camping, canoeing, kite building and flying, vintage radio shows and small-carpentry projects. He is also the author of, “A Heart is Healed,” a book of spiritual reflections on the nature of loss, grief and healing.

Memorial services will be held at 4:30 pm on Thursday March 10, 2011 at the Springfield First United Methodist Church, 511 South Oak Street, Springfield, TN 37172, officiated by Dr. Frank Billman and Dr. Fred Hembree, Jonathan Dow will render the musical selections. The family will receive friends at the church beginning at 3 pm on Thursday. In lieu of flowers, please consider a gift to the National Parkinson's Foundation in his name.

Surviving him are his wife of 48 years, Sarah (Sally) Dayton Havens of Springfield, sons and daughters-in-law, Andrew Ward and Christina Rosch Havens of Columbus, Ohio, John Charles and Stacy Derezinski Havens of Maplewood, New Jersey, grandsons, Daniel Ward Havens, Nathaniel Phillip Havens and granddaughter, Sophie Joan Havens.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Once more into the zodiac

An article I read today about how the zodiac is changing reminded me of a post I wrote more than a year ago about how we need new signs.

Under the new system I go from "Cancer" to "Gemini," a change of which I approve.

Under my system, I am a "Duct Tape." A change which I now make official.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Review: World Without End

First review of 2011 is for the novel, "World Without End" by Ken Follet. It is, essentially, a sequel to his earlier historical fiction novel, "Pillars of the Earth." I say, essentially, because events in "World" take place more than 100 years after "Pillars." We meet descendants of the characters from the earlier novel, it takes place in the same town/cathedral, and some knowledge of the first book certainly helps flesh out the enjoyment of the second. That being said, it isn't really necessary to read the first to understand everything that happens in the second; most references to earlier characters/events are fully explained.

I first read "Pillars" shortly after it came out in the early 90's. It was one of the last novels I read, I remember, while living in Massachusetts, before moving to Ohio. It was also one of the first historical fiction novels I'd ever read and really enjoyed. Since then, I've read quite a bit in the genre, and, to some degree, I owe that enjoyment to "Pillars."

Neither books is particularly deep. And that's OK. They are, instead, very entertaining and (to some degree) educational. Follet had done quite a bit of research into medieval life, and it's very interesting to observe his characters motivations and reactions during a time that is much, much different than our own. That being said, some of the characters seem to benefit from a bit more "modern feeling" than perhaps they ought. We, as 21st century readers, have certain sensibilities, and the main, sympathetic characters tend to share more of these with us than do the villains.

Which doesn't distract from the pleasure. No spoilers here, but, as in "Pillar," Follet sets up a series of lifelong actions for the main characters, some of which won't come to fruition for decades. The interwoven plot lines and character developments are, as always in his work, logical, interesting and, often, tragic.

If you enjoyed "Pillars," you will certainly enjoy "World." I re-read "Pillars" before reading this new novel, anticipating that it would be more of a standard sequel. I'm glad I did... but not because it helped with the second book. It was simply a fun re-read.

If I have any complain about "World Without End," it's the title; "Pillars of the Earth" meant something within that story. If there is a deeper meaning in the title of this second book, it escapes me.

Fun grade: A-.
Serious grade: B.
Overall: B+

Note: since this is my first review, I'll explain my grading system. First of all, I like letter grades. We grew up with them, and it simply makes sense to me.

Everything I review will get two grades: a fun grade, and a serious grade. My brother, John, and I used to refer to these, for movies, as the "flick" and "film" grades. You can go see a movie that is a great, entertaining flick ("Zombieland"), but that isn't really in any way an important or interesting film; there's no "meta" there. In contrast, you can see a movie that is very stimulating from an artistic perspective ("The Seventh Seal"), but that is about as much fun to see as orthopedic surgery.

Thus, two grades for everything. That way, if you're looking for a "serious" read, you can ignore the "fun" grade, and vice versa. Hopefully that's more useful to you.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Writing about writing and a review of reviewing

I haven't blogged in awhile.

That's probably the most grippingly boring thing you can write on a blog. It's the textual equivalent of saying, "I had this really weird, long dream last night," at the beginning of a dinner conversation. The listener must despair.

But writing about writing isn't a bad thing. And since this blog is 72% self-directed practice space, I'm not too worried about cheesing off my legion of fan.

I write at work all the time. It's not particularly hard for me. Sometimes it's harder, depending on the assignment. Sometimes it's easier. But,  since it's almost always an assignment from an external source, and since it's a good part of why they pay me, it's never really a case of being able to say, "No."

I've been saying, "No," though, to my personal writing for most of last year. I've pushed out a couple poems and did a bit of work on one of my five perennially-restarted-but-never-completed novels. I can't quite get my head around where I want any of them to go... and so they don't go anywhere.

But I feel like I should be writing more. So I thought about what I could write. And I read a recent blog post from someone I respect who cataloged all the books she read in 2010. And I thought, "That's a good idea. I read a bit. And I could write a short review of everything I read so that I won't forget."

Less about being "reviews to help other people decide what to read," and more "reviews to help me remember what I read."

Towards that end, I'm going to start writing book, movie and video game reviews here on TinkerX. If they're helpful to you, super. If not, it's mostly just to keep the engine warm in case I ever decide to figure out where any of those damned novels are going.