peteg's blog

Death Proof

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A turkey, and it is clear why I didn't pay any attention to this movie back in 2007. Tarantino's purpose here is to launch Zoƫ Bell, a long-time stuntette of his, into a career of serious actoring. The film itself is not worth reflecting on, but as beautifully photographed as ever, with all those signature Sergio Leone angles.

Time to pull out some oldie-but-goodie...

William Gibson: Virtual Light

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Another book I stole from mrak's bookshelf a while ago. Definitely by 1993, and probably quite a bit sooner, William Gibson had developed a fairly rigid stucture for his novels: roughly, fibrous chapter-long episodes that climax in entanglement. This is the book that proves the rule.

In essence the plot is cops-and-robbers, without real cops. Well, one of the ex-cops is the Knoxville hero who saves San Francisco from gentrification, and post-book is presumably ravaged by an increasingly cyberspunky pseudo-heroine. The cyberpunk elements are well-used, lending the cities a Bladerunner-ish ambience. There are some clangers though, like having Swiss-style data fortresses and yet requiring some critically-important information to reside on a pair of virtual reality glasses for plot, and probably tax, purposes.

As with most of Gibson's output, I found myself hurrying to finish it, wondering what it is all going to amount to, and afterwards being somewhat saddened that he didn't bother with a take-home message.

Inglourious Basterds

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At The Ritz's early evening session with Dave. Much better than the reviews had led me to believe. Dave observed that Brad Pitt has become his own caricature. Cristoph Waltz was amazing, as was Michael Fassbender, last seen in Hunger.

The Adventures of Barry McKenzie

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An embarassing turkey. Beresford is a decent director, but his partnership with Barry Humphries turned out a moronic celebration of bogan (née yobbo) culture in the mother country. I have no idea who is into his Edna Everidge creation, for she seems to be precisely what John Howard would have found attractive. I grant she is a vehicle for his real achievement, the zero-entendre joke. Philip Adams probably claims to have revived the Australian film scene on the back of this, which seems quite astonishing from this point in history. I hope all involved enjoyed their junkets.

Bruce Sterling, ed.: Mirrorshades

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I pinched this one from mrak's shelf a while ago. This book promises to checkpoint the cyberpunk genre circa 1988 by collecting short stories from some or all of the major players, such as William Gibson and apparently Sterling himself, whom I've never read.

The best, for mine:

  • Tom Maddox's Snake Eyes was cute but inspecific. Available from his website with a lot of other stuff.
  • James Patrick Kelly's Solstice is an adventure in drugs as legitimate experience-enhancers, and as artforms. Definitely the best written story in this collection, but rates meh for cyberpunk. Again, his website has loads of his writing.
  • Paul Di Filippo's Stone Lives had some promise, enough to justify looking at his other stuff. I would say this exceeds the average for cyberpunk in this collection, albeit with a ghost-in-the-corporation that makes the twist somewhat predictable. Shades of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land?

Overall the collection was paint-by-the-numbers: if there's a woman, she is a sex object, deviant at least in apperance and otherwise indistinguishable from the blokes, Trinity from The Matrix being a modern canonical example. If there is politics, there is the 1980s totalitarian against the free American. If there's a book editor, he is into self-aggrandisement.

This book might have lead me to doubt that my conception of cyberpunk, which I take to be pretty much defined by Neuromancer and Bladerunner, coincides with anyone else's... if it weren't for the reviews on Amazon. Hopefully I can jump off from here.

Praise

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I saw this movie ages ago and quite liked it, perhaps essentially due to the lethargic gracelessness of Fenton, who shuffles around with puffer in one hand and fag in the other. The Dirty Three provide a killer soundtrack. Horler is unbelievably good here, and the film sags when she departs the frame for good. Brisvegas gets a bit of a raw deal as the film is mostly set indoors.

Knowing

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Execrable, predictable dreck. For every passable Lord of War, Nick Cage is in ten turds, and Alex Proyas's achievements are now buried under his non-achievements. The premise itself is abstractly interesting — cf Newcomb's paradoxical problem — but this stodgy vehicle is mired in treacly sentimentality. Poor Rose Byrne, her character is incoherent.

/noise/beach/2009-2010 | Link

The BOM forecast a top of 28 degrees for today, so I convinced Rob to come for a snorkel with me. We plumped for Long Bay, as did many others, arriving around 1:30pm. The water was quite clear and not too cold, definitely no worse than our last foray to Watsons Bay. Rob got by with just some trunks and a rashie, but I went in fully suited up, trying to avoid antagonising the cold I caught from Pete R.'s son Jack last weekend. Quite a few fish to see. We headed down to Paris Seafood at La Parouse afterwards, and didn't get lunch until 3:30pm.

In actuality the air temperature only got up to 26 degrees on the coast, and I would believe those who claim the water remains around 18 degrees.

Revanche

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An Austrian bucolic cops-and-robbers flick. Tightly constructed if a tad implausible at a critical juncture or two. Ultimately the narrative evaporates, and life apparently goes on. Beautiful cinematography.

Walkabout

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I passed up on seeing this at a cinema with German-Albert-formerly-at-Optus a few months ago. Find here all the Australian cliches, beautifully photographed and spread as sparsely as the landscape.

Fred Kaplan: Wizards of Armageddon

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The passing of Robert S. McNamara has reignited my erratic search for substantive information on this icon of rational methods. (The computer science equivalent might be Dijkstra.) In his rehashed pseudo-obituary, Fred Kaplan made reference to interviewing McNamara for his PhD thesis of 1983, titled Wizards of Armageddon, which I figured might be worth a read given that his polemics on Slate are usually interesting and coherent.

In brief, this book is about the strategic thinking of the civilians entangled in the U.S. war machine immediately following the use of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The 1950s and early 1960s are dealt with in some detail, which makes sense as these were the most interesting periods, and presumably Kaplan had a mountain of newly declassified documents to trawl through, myriad ungagged players to interview. Conversely by the time of Carter and Reagan we're definitely into newspaper clipping territory.

The centerpiece of the narrative is the construction and evolution of the RAND Corporation by the U.S. Airforce, home to many international policy thinkers over the years: Kenneth Arrow and many other illustrious economists have spent some formative time there.

Kaplan alludes to some of the central mathematical concepts, such as game theory, that underpin the strategic analyses that he describes without providing enough detail to be engaging; showing the prisoner's dilemma in extensional form deepens rather than covers this gaping hole. By treating lightly over technical specifics, the book sometimes feels like little more than a laundry list of participants, reports and military obscurities. Perhaps I really should be aspiring to read Machine Dreams.

Interesting were the various views of the Korean war: some took it to be a failure as the U.S. didn't win, whereas others felt it was a success as it achieved limited goals using limited resources. The tension between these views is mirrored in the schizophrenic thinking about the use of nuclear weapons, as portrayed by Kaplan. Roughly, how could the U.S. win in a mutually-assured destruction (MAD) scenario? The two options seemed to be be either not to play, implying more Koreas, or to hope that some sophisticated signalling with nuclear devices (e.g. the "no cities" policy) got read correctly, resurrecting the possibility of a doubtlessly-Pyrrhic victory.

Another perspective (circa p200) is given by Clausewitz's ideas on military objectives: if war is politics by other means, and self-destruction is assured once the bomb comes into play, then using the bomb cannot possibly be sanctioned by a government which notionally has the civic wellbeing in mind, or indeed, derives its sovereignty from the populace. Therefore war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. became impossible to countenance (if we are prepared to grant the Soviet rational self-interest) and the proxy war of Vietnam (and so forth) became inevitable. I wonder if this fed into McNamara's thinking at the time.

I observe in passing that Herman Kahn's escalation ladder (circa p223) is reminiscent of Rapoport's tit-for-tat strategy for the iterated prisoner's dilemma. Kaplan uses exactly that moniker to label Kahn's Type III Deterrence.

Kaplan struggles to distinguish between the policies that make sense while there is a nuclear imbalance — for instance, the U.S. had no need to be particularly subtle in its use of the first atom bombs as no other power could challenge it — and those for the equilibrium state where any of several actors could bring the planet to a biological conclusion. In the latter case MAD is justifiable due to it being something like a Nash equilibrium, and moreover the policy makes it highly unlikely that conventional wars will get out of control if the actors are rational. Kaplan does not even mention Nixon's behaviour in this context.

Concretely (p315), Kahn's theory of escalation clearly leads to an arms race, at least until MAD levels of weaponry are established. After that it makes sense to a military-industrial complex acculturated to constant expansion to pour money into anti-missile defence systems, which up to that point are prohibitively expensive (p322). Kaplan would have done better to tie these arguments to the dynamics of the situation more often.

McNamara has some key roles in this saga, but my desire to get some handle on his methods, some insight into how he dealt with the complexity of the defence portfolio, and specifically the moral ambiguity of the bomb went unsatiated. We get some comments to the effect that he was well aware that the Vietnam War was not right and not ever going to be right; for example (p366) in 1966 he states in a public speech that communism is not always at the centre of conflict in the developing world. His loss of certainty at this time, the end of his stint as Defence Secretary, unraveled his public unemotionalism, giving the impression that his morality was only underpinned by rationality: from his incredibly abstract view of the war, only possible by being so far from the action, it was justifiable on a rational posturing basis and no other. Coupled with the obligation he felt to his country to take his best bite of a shit sandwich, the disaster appears inescapable.

Clearly Kaplan has found his niche in writing for Slate; he has a keen eye for interpreting policy and theory, and reads well in the short popular form. This book needed stricter editing, as it was quite repetitive in some places, but I grant that was not so easy to achieve in the early 1980s.

Public Enemies

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At 10am at The Ritz, on their at-most-$8-for-anyone day. I was sorely disappointed by this movie; the narrative arc rarely strayed from the entirely predictable, the characters were mostly meh, and the spaghetti camera work got too much too often. Johnny Depp tried his best to turn Dillinger into something, anything, more than a cardboard cutout. Christian Bale channelled Keanu Reeves, who at least knows his own limitations.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

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As promised, I sat through this again, and found it just as absorbing as the first time. His strident claims about rationality reveal he had no comprehension of behavioural economics.

Ambiently I'm chugging through Fred Kaplan's The Wizards of Armageddon but have yet to get to the part on Robert S. McNamara's time as Defence Secretary. More when I do.