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Monday, Sep 25, 2006

Science fiction often exploits the fear that we will invent computers that will become smarter than us and then attempt to extinguish our flawed and feeble, morally compromised race. The excellent Battlestar Galactica, whose third season starts soon (expect a like hype barrage like what was recently rolled out for The Wire), does some of the most interesting stuff with this trope, mainly by making the robots indistinguishable from humans and giving them an eschatological worldview. The cylons have a commitment to quasi-spiritual ideals, lending the conflict religious-war overtones have obvious significance for the alleged clash of civilizations currenly taking place in reality. The robots’ unflagging committment to their beliefs underscores the way humans waver and are repeatedly vulnerable to betraying one another. We don’t ever root against humans—as we do in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, in which it slowly dawns on us that the humans are fascists, the real villains of the movie, and the mechanical-looking insects deserve our sympathy—but we can’t fail to see the implication that humankind tends to fracture into warring camps in the face of an implacable enemy. And there’s the usual overtones of human hubris and tampering in God’s domain and that sort of thing.

But eventually sci-fi will need to evolve a response to a phenomenon that’s potentially far more frightening: Rather than robots seeking to eradicate humans, humans become so impressed with the efficency of machines that they voluntarily seek to emulate them. It’s already happening all around us. For example, the book Mind Performance Hacks, recently promoted by BoingBoing, promises “tips and tools for overclocking your brain” and comes fully loaded with a host of other brain-as-processor metaphors. The brain is the hardware and consciousness the output of resident programs. The attraction of computer metaphors is that they seem to solve human problems by allowing us to conceptualize them in a ready-made way that makes them seem easily solvable by the march of technological process. Thus we talk of ideas as computer viruses, taking a biological metaphor that’s been technologized and repatriate it for humans. We see our own minds as programmable, controllable, able to be applied to discrete focused tasks. We talk about plugging ourselves into networks and so on. We imagine social life as a massive operating system in which everything has a deliberate function, so that it can seem comprehensible and managable. By imagining ourselves more like computers, we are to take the value system technology generates—one almost hegemonic in business culture—and apply it to our own behavior.

Well, come to think of it, this humans-wanting-to-be-hyperefficient-computers idea crops up even in the sci-fi I’ve seen (which is not much). There are the hyperintelligent mentats of Dune who drink a special potion to allow them to become human supercomputers. The Matrix depicted Keanu Reeves downloading information directly into his brain that became immediately functional—a kind of patch or software update, as though the brain ran on third-party programs. The human brain was regarded as passive, alien to the person whose head it was in. It was simply a matter of overwriting it with whatever the person was supposed to experience. One becomes configured as an end-user of one’s own brain, a mere consumer of the experiences it can be programmed to spit out. Consciousness is a step removed from the brain, which provides the data that consciousness enjoys, as though it were a film.

The Mind Hacks book takes mind-machinery a step further, promising to make the brain work more like a machine under the user’s conscious direction, which implies the user consciousness aspires to be more machinelike, more relentlessly productive. Rather than receiving data the brain spits out, consciousness merges with “subroutines” it can perform to think more mechanically, more efficiently. No doubt these things work—these kinds of ideas for human perfectibility and increased mental acuity have kicked around before as mnemonics or chisenbop or EST or hypnotherapy, bioengineering, methadrine, etc.—but what seems new is the insistence on the computer metaphor, as if to be a computer would be to live the dream.

My vague hypothesis about this is the following: that our economy’s emphasis on technology as a means to produce perpetual growth and wealth is having the effect of making us think that by becoming more machinelike, we become more human—we move closer to our human potential by mirroring the methods that have enhanced economic potential and productivity. This seems to fetishize information for its own sake. Information, now an unconquerable ocean, tempts us to master it through heroic feats of navigation, exploratory expeditions made purely for glory. Human potential, human experience may come to seem entirely a matter of information processing—and the faster your brain processes information, the more life one is cramming into our alloted time on earth. Efforts to absorb all this information can become a kind of flow experience, a way of entering the “zone” associated with atheltic accomplishment,  and at that point one may seem to merge with the information itself, to become inseparable from its continual transmission. That might be the aspiration anyway, to become the best data you can be, so you still figure in the techno-future world. Social networking sites, which already seek to reduce ourselves (enhance ourselves?) into a flow of routinely updated data, may be the first florescence of this. And the burgeoning popularity of virtual spaces would be the next, integrating the data in a reconsitituted virtual self, bringing people a step closer to having the field for one’s identity laid out as a flexible, benevolent operating system, which lets one be ensconsced in the safety of programming logic, having shifted existence to a space where inhibiting personal anomalies can simply be debugged.

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Sunday, Sep 24, 2006

He was more of a fashion accessory than a celebrity, a chiseled example of Hungarian beefcake perfectly complementing his wife’s over-sexualized cheese. But there was more to Mickey Hargitay than as brawn to Jayne Mansfield’s buxom beauty. While together they may have resembled biology gone baroque, individually, Hargitay and his much more famous bride were athletics and oranges. She was a considered caricature of the era’s leading visage of sensual beauty. Her talent was never measured in performances, but in appearance. For the rest of her tragically short life, Jayne Mansfield would fight against her summarization as a sex object, trying to avoid being championed solely on her chest. For her foreign born husband however, physicality was all he had.

Born into an athletic family (the Hargitay’s frequently preformed as an acrobatic troupe in their native Hungary), bodybuilding was not young Miklos’ first passion. He was a championship ice skater, and skilled at soccer. It wasn’t until he came to America in the 1940s to escape his country’s compulsory military service that he discovered the joys of muscle training and toning. Considered by most to be an odd, even perverted obsession with the human form, there was very little fame, or fortune, in being a muscleman. Yet the minute he discovered the joys of the gym, Hargitay proved he was a natural at the fledging sport and it wasn’t long before he was winning titles long dominated by Americans. In 1955, Hargitay was crowned Mr. Universe, matching the accomplishment of his inspiration and idol, Steve Reeves.

The surrounding recognition finally placed him within the flickering cultural spotlight. The saucy old school actress and nightclub personality Mae West – never one to pass up a well-built body – immediately hired Hargitay to be part of her revue in New York City. Suddenly, the untrained 30 year old was appearing before cosmopolitan crowds, the leering butt of West’s wicked wordplay and entendres. One night, reigning Broadway novelty Jayne Mansfield came to the Latin Quarter club to catch West’s act. The legend goes that, when asked what she was interested in that evening, Mansfield cooed “I’ll have a steak…and that man on the left”. Soon, Hargitay and his newfound heartthrob were inseparable.

They married in 1958. Hargitay went on to take a few small roles in Mansfield’s movies, including the triumphant big screen translation of her Great White Way hit Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? He even got to mimic his inspiration Reeves by portraying the mythic strongman in 1960’s The Loves of Hercules. It wasn’t long though before the novelty of both Hargitay and his honey started wearing off. After his stint hosting a TV exercise program and her string of unsuccessful starring roles, the couple soon found themselves working within the ridiculed realm of exploitation. In 1963, Mansfield bared all for the camera with Promises! Promises!, and 1964 saw Primitive Love, a sort of sex comedy spoof on the Mondo movie craze sweeping cinema.

Like all pairings that seem more aesthetically than interpersonally pleasing, Hargitay and Mansfield grew apart, then divorced. Taking custody of the three kids (including future Emmy winner and Law and Order star Mariska) and attempting to find a place in the unforgiving realm of fame, the more or less lost 41 year old wasn’t prepared for the shocking news of his ex-wife’s gruesome death in 1967. Reduced to performing a puerile, tacky club act overloaded with insinuation and kitsch, Mansfield was traveling between shows when her car was hit, head on, by a semi-tractor trailer truck. Killed almost instantly, the resulting carnage was brutal, becoming a media milestone in the still developing realm of tabloid journalism. The grindhouse gang even utilized the ghastly accident scene photos for an incredibly distasteful “documentary” on the actress entitled The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield. Of course, a grieving Hargitay and his children were featured in all their devastated sorrow. 

Now totally on his own, celebrity wise, Hargitay tried. He played a sadistic figure of vengeance in the Eurotrash classic The Bloody Pit of Horror, and starred in a few low budget Italian genre efforts. Yet by the mid 70s, his uniqueness had all but worn off. Mission: Impossible had given Peter Lupus (another noted bodybuilder) a shot at stardom, and he had proven much more versatile. Besides, another Eastern European was establishing his muscle man credentials on the circuit, and by the time of Hargitay’s final film role in 1973’s Rites, Black Magic and Secret Orgies in the Fourteenth Century, Arnold Schwarzenegger was on his way to his third straight Mr. Olympia title – and future superstardom. By the ‘80s, Hargitay was nothing more than a footnote, a forgotten figure in the life of an equally lapsed “love goddess”. In one of those ironies that only show business can support, a 1980 biopic of Mansfield featured Schwarzenegger as Jayne’s buff better half.

His latter years were not empty. Hargitay had remarried in 1967, and new wife Ellen would be his last life partner, remaining by his side until his death from multiple myeloma at age 80 on 14, September of this year. Hargitay had also been successful in business, and Schwarzenegger often pointed to him as the role model by which he modeled his professional and athletic career. Daughter Mariska slowly built her resume in Hollywood, and now stands as one of TV’s dramatic powerhouses. And thanks to the archival aspect of the new home video revolution, much of his and Mansfield’s dismissed work has enjoyed a kind of kitschy, cornball nostalgia. Yet lost within all this retro revisionism and show business scavenging is a wholly forgotten fact. Hargitay and Mansfield represented the beginnings of the body objectification that the present day pop culture lives by.

Unlike Marilyn Monroe, or the more obvious examples of sexual stardom to come, Jayne Mansfield was a classic cartoon, carnal in only the way an over-inflated dish like she could be. And in the world of corporeal synchronicity, she required a man large enough to fit her copious and unapologetic feminine fertility. Hargitay, all tight skin sculpting and Greek god idolatry, was the perfect personal accompaniment. He was considered male model of machismo - a manlier Steve Reeves, a less militant Jack La Lanne. Better yet, he proved that a few hours in the gym and some minor consideration for the way one looked could and would land you the sex siren straight out of the pages of those newfangled “men’s” magazines. They were the Tommy Lee and Pamela Anderson of the Eisenhower era, the Nick and Jessica of the pre-Camelot crowd. In a world not ready for outright discussions of lust and physical love, Mansfield and Hargitay represented the possibility, and the problems, associated with same.

Sadly, with his passing, Hargitay takes with him the last vestiges of that time. The couple’s infamous ‘Pink Palace’ – a cheesy mansion complete with a heart-shaped swimming pool – has long been raised by the current owner, and the seemingly outrageous physical forms that the couple carried have been usurped by individuals buying completely into the omnipresent plastic surgery concept of personal success. In a time where overweight businessmen accompanied their haggard housefrau wives to the local hot spot for a few potent potables and a little so-called sophisticated entertainment, Mansfield and Hargitay were said ideal’s illustrated Id. Now, they are just forgotten facets of a pre-revolution sexuality.

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Saturday, Sep 23, 2006

Granted, it’s not the smartest sci-fi action film ever made. Indeed, with Equilibrium helmer Kurt Wimmer in charge, Ultraviolet is nothing more than a surreal slice of future shock that is all approach and pure artifice. Attempting a recreate the look and feel of a comic book come to life (there’s an original idea) and utilizing the fanboys favorite faux action queen – Resident Evil‘s Milla Jovovich - Wimmer wanted to exploit the notion of vampirism without having to deal with all that hoary old mythology. Instead, he envisioned this epic as a deconstruction of health-based racism mixed with Big Brother style government malevolence and a healthy dose of swordplay. He almost succeeded. In fact, Ultraviolet may be the most ambitious, over the top and shamelessly guilty pleasure ever created. Filled with stunning and stupid action setpieces, it’s the kind of craven confection that would have Big Jim McBob and Billy Saul Hurock of SCTV‘s Farm Film Report fame stating – “it blowed up good. It blowed up real good!”

But all predominant pyrotechnics aside, a great deal of Ultraviolet‘s delight comes from the film’s flawless hyperstylized design. Wimmer is someone who believes in a new variation on that old adage, ‘less is more’. In his mind, more is never enough, and extreme excess is the only way to create plausible entertainment pleasure. Why have one villain when you can have 50? Why fire off 10 rounds of ammunition when 10,000 are so much more…ballistic? Vistas need to fill the screen, technological advances require massive amounts of CGI candy coating. True, somewhere in the middle of all this optical falderal is a slightly stupid story about a genetically engineered weapon (who turns out to be a boy) and the super-powered heroine trying to protect him. But the narrative is substantively secondary to all the bells, whistles, sleek surfaces and whiz-bang gadgetry. So sit back, turn off your brain, and let your amusement aesthetic cruise on pure pulp adrenaline. You’ll feel sorry afterwards, but as a mindless, misguide movie, Ultraviolet goes down incredibly smooth.

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Saturday, Sep 23, 2006

Amateur stock picking is generally a bad idea, and every staight-talking guide to personal finance will tell you to invest in low-fee mutual funds that track certain indexes—take the guesswork out of it, since changes in stock prices are generally a random walk that no analyst or fund manager could predict. The theory is that whatever information an investor could act on is already priced in to a security by the time you get your order for it in. But this doesn’t stop financial publications and financial service providers from pimping stocks and urging stock tips on readers. In One Market Under God Thomas Frank describes some of the hoopla about personal investing during the 1990s bubble, and what he calls “market populism.” The idea was that anyone could use the stock market to get rich and that purchasing power rendered political power insignificant and made giant gaps between rich and poor immaterial. Part of the hype of the time regarded wise amateurs who could follow their gut and invest in companies whose products they believed in, as though it were as simple as having a good experience in a Home Depot (I know, a far-fetched example) and then phoning your broker the next day for 100 shares of it. Frank notes that one financial guru advised going to the mall and writing down the names of your favorite stores as a way to generate stock-investment ideas. Then you can have a personal stake in the success of the brands you prefer; you can cheer them on like sports teams, but have a legitimate reason for it.

I’m prone to do the opposite. Not that I’m a big-time stock picker, but whenever I read about recommended securities from the retail sector, I’m skeptical, and it has everything to do with my personal bias against brand-name shopping. I rationalize by thinking that it’s foolish to bank on the overtapped American consumer’s propensity to continue on a discretionary spending binge forever, but really it is that I don’t want to believe that American Eagle Outfitters (AEOS) or Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) are simply going to continue to grow; that duping teens with sexed-up advertisements can constitute a business strategy that Wall Street respects. I don’t even want to take them seriously as businesses; I prefer to think of them as dark cultural forces that will be thrwarted once everyone eventually wakes up and realizes how pointless brand-name clothes are. Investing in a company like Chico’s (CHS) or Coach (COH) would not only be hypocritical, it would be against my utopian vision of the world, against what I want to believe about universal common sense. (Maybe this is precisely why I should be buying retail stocks. Never a bad idea to bet against utopias.) Perhaps the behavioral finance theorists have a term for this kind of bias, but I’m fully aware that it is irrational. But rejecting retail stocks because of a reactionary personal philosophy seems no less coherent than picking them because of the weather. And it turns out the weather is one of the most significant economic factor for retail stocks, perhaps more than fashionability or personal belief in the brand or a good feeling about a marketing strategy. Justin Lahart’s column in Friday’s WSJ noted the tendency for September’s weather to determine a retail stock’s fortunes:

September temperatures tend to vary a lot. And September is a crucial month for retailers. That means the weather plays an outsize role in the month’s sales and can trump other economic factors, says Paul Walsh, a meteorologist at weather-analysis firm Planalytics, which advises retailers. September is when retailers, especially in the apparel business, are stocked with fall fare. Cool temperatures early in the season make it easier to sell sweaters and furry boots at full price. Last year, warm weather lasted across much of the U.S. until October, leading retailers to cut prices deeply in an attempt to clear inventory. The jolt of Hurricane Katrina also hurt many, meaning comparisons to last year are especially easy this month.

Obviously, if we follow the money, retailers must be scheming along these lines. Control the weather, control your portfolio. But it’s amazing to me to think of all the sophisticated mathematical tools and speadsheets and models and algorithms, and the vast sums of money at stake, and the myriad of different brokers and analysts who work everyday to try to harness the market, and in the end the kind of logic that is seen retrospectively to have affected the market can run along the lines of “Retail is thriving because September was sort of cold and more shoppers bought sweaters.”

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Friday, Sep 22, 2006

After a series of highly ambitious, but financially unrewarding efforts – including his gross out revamp of The Thing, an adaptation of Stephen King’s classic killer car novel Christine, Starman‘s stellar sci-fi romanticism and that unique take on the martial arts comedy known as Big Trouble in Little China – John Carpenter wanted to get back to his low budget genre roots. His idea? Make a movie using both a theological and a scientific basis for the existence of evil. Mixing physics with the supernatural and arguing that Satan’s potential return to Earth for Armageddon may just be a provable mathematical theorem, we follow a group of graduate students as they try to unlock the secrets of viscous liquid swirling around in an abandoned church basement. Toss in a little unconscious bi-location, rocker Alice Cooper as the leader of a zombie-like clan of homeless people, and a smart, intelligent script, and you’ve got all the makings for a highbrow horror classic. Naturally, it bombed at the box office.

Yet brains are only part of the reason why Prince of Darkness is so special. Throwing away the typical conventions of your standard dumb monster movie, and dealing with fear and evil in engaging philosophical debates, Carpenter created as much a comment on the nature of wickedness as he does an illustration of same. In fact, the last act of the film could easily be mistaken for a standard scarefest, with the possessed servant of Satan (or his actual disembodied son) looking for minions, as well as a way to bring his dethroned Dad back to prominence. With a stellar cast including Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, Carpenter argued that there were still some major motion picture shivers left in the old shockmeister. Sadly, after the fun social satire of They Live, and the uneven if effective In the Mouth of Madness, this would be the last significant Carpenter creepfest. But it is clearly one of his best. 

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