peteg's blog

Ralph Steadman: The Joke's Over: Bruised memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson and Me.

/noise/books | Link

Well, Thompson was right: Steadman shouldn't try to write, or in any case I shouldn't try to read it. Much preferrable would have been more art and less prose, and certainly less indulgent self-contradiction.

Neal Stephenson: The Diamond Age

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This is an old Stephenson that I stole from mrak's shelf a while ago. It seems to lack the cachet of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, but I get the impression that this author's prose is systemically flawed, so I won't be reading another. In some ways he reminds me of Philip K. Dick in that the ideas are not so hot, or have been absorbed into the ambient culture, or whatever.

At the centre of this book is a purported marriage of Victorian values with a nanotechnological society that is mostly hanging off the ex-colonial coastline of China. The aesthetic is borderline steampunk at times, more fantasy than futuristic, with some dodgy and somewhat tedious analysis of the ethics of the "Victoria I" era and Confucianism. I came away thinking that Stephenson must have recently visited the place, with his lack of Gibson's perceptiveness, the ability to scope the locality to the novel and vice-versa, resulting in this occasionally xenophobic, sometimes sinophilic melange.

This being scifi or cyberpunk or something, he is obliged to slip in some unerotic deviant sexuality. Strangely enough, the three heroines (one somewhat fleshed out, the other two skeletal) are virginal for all we know, even though the fleshy one works as an overblown architect of narrative in a high-class brothel. Possibly virginal until the sexual assaults, anyway, that are presented as a fait accompli to the sort-of revolutionary Chinese Fists. In any case, all the characters seem to be bound in overweening power relationships that lack personality.

The nanostuff is fairly plausible but not too imaginative: it generally behaves like programmable organics, and the story could have been told using biochemists rather than nangineers. Indeed, the nanostuff seems to largely bioactive in effect, apart from producing horrendous architecture and justifying an entirely predictable making-stuff-by-hand-for-rich-people unicorns and blacksmiths district.

Stephenson uses Turing machines as a plot point, firstly by having the "young lady's illustrated primer" be one, for the most part, and secondly by portraying vast numbers of young chinese girls as being entirely programmable. I found it ironic that he pronounces that Turing machines have no soul, and cannot do what a human can (yadda yadda), even while railroading his shallowly characterised actors into overly predictable fates. "Castle Turing" read like a high schooler's account of a book by Raymond Smullyan, missing the logic for the scenery. Neologism ahoy, how cheap.

The narrative stalled something fierce in the middle, and entire plotlines are left hanging variously through the novel. The children's stories from the primer are jarring rubbish. Anyway, why didn't they commercialise the book? Surely they could have been more broadly subversive without too much additional cleverness, and there'd be a huge market for it, just like TVs as "educational" child-pacifiers. Also Stephenson seems to believe in the DRM fantasy, that you can control what a user does with a digital artefact through some clever encryption: I found it impossible to believe that Dr X could not fabricate more books after he has created the first.

I never really got a handle on what the Fists were trying to achieve, or what the Seed was supposed to be. In some ways the Feed reflects the current internet: centralised to some extent, but distributed enough that the paranoid can get enough redundancy, privacy, etc. for the most part. If each Matter Compiler logs too much info, well, compose your artefact out of many things and use many Matter Compilers...

The text itself tends towards patronising flabbiness, with a subtext that the author is uncertain his jokes and allusions are going to be understood, possibly because he lacks faith in his audience, but more likely due to him not really grasping what he's trying to talk about. The section titles telegraph the action to the point where there is no tension or subtlety to be found. Ultimately this is more fantasy that scifi or cyberpunk or whatever, and not a patch on Brunner's world-building.

The Black Balloon

/noise/movies | Link

Ah, suburban Australia in the late eighties and early nineties of my childhood. As a coming-of-age story it ambles along OK, though with some more continuity and contextualisation, such as giving Thomas some male friends, the narrative may have flowed more credibly.

Up the Yangtse

/noise/movies | Link

A Canadian reality-movie doco about some young Chinese people working on a hefty cruiser tripping up the Yangtse. Also charts the impact of the Three-Gorges Dam on the peasants. A bit heart-wrenching at times, such as when the family is moving from their hut on the banks of the river to a seemingly tiny house in the city. I pitied the poor kitten getting a right scrubbing by Shui Yu and hope she has more opportunity to crank geometry now.

Okuribito (Departures)

/noise/movies | Link

A well-made Japanese flick on the topic of helping people get on with their afterlives. Sentimentality threatens to swamp the other, more carefully wrought aspects at times, and the humour dries up as business is gotten down to in the last third. The acting is all-round superb, and the director makes Japan look like paradise (even during the season of peak business).

/noise/beach/2009-2010 | Link

Early-afternoon snorkel with Rob at Gordons Bay. Beautiful day for it, quite warm in the sun, and even alright in the wind. The water was quite cloudy and got a bit rough close to the sea. I didn't see much.

John Brunner: Stand on Zanzibar

/noise/books | Link

The fattest Brunner I've yet read, and I doubt he topped these 515 pages. This, not Jagged Orbit, was his first fat book. It is deservedly tagged as his must-read novel.

Brunner must have been on some very good drugs in the late 1960s, and I guess those of the earlier 60s had had time to settle in and make his brain their own. One must wonder if these sorts of books furthered the cause of liberated recreational drug use that the author favours, for at this point in history, none of his fantasies seem to have come through. Indeed I would expect that the late-in-life Brunner was doing the same stuff as the Brunner who wrote this book.

This book is expansive, being perhaps the most holistic attempt at world building I've read. Apparently this sort of thing is called social science fiction. The author's voice, and sometime deus ex machina, is the sociologist Chad Mulligan, whose "hipcrime dictionary" channels Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, and more broadly runs a line echoing the technoculturalists of the day, Alvin Toffler and Marshall McLuhan in particular. The news flashes, the limited attention spans, the population pressure: as speculation, it is top notch.

Let us not dwell on the plot any longer than the author did.

I find it amusing that all the old-school models of computers were way off, positing some small number of humongous machines with incredible IQs that managed the affairs of the world. I reckon we'll only have general-enough AI for this sort of thing after almost everyone has enough computing power to run private instances, totally changing the dynamics of these speculations.

There's lots of racial commentary here, especially on post-colonialism and within the borders of the U.S. These issues were massive in the late 60s but seem to have been stage-managed into timidity now. The eugenics in this book remains as unappealing now as it probably was then, though I do note that choosing the sex of your offspring is becoming socially acceptable.

Here's another review.

The Deer Hunter

/noise/movies | Link

I've seen this before, probably back in the days of VHS. At three hours it's a real slog. The opening 80 minutes or so is something like the wedding scene in The Godfather slowed down and drained of any moment. It does pick up around the 2 hour mark though.

Version 1.0: The Bougainville Photoplay Project — A slideshow with fireside chat

/noise/theatre | Link

I figured it might be worth heading back to the Old Fitzroy Hotel on the strength of the last Version 1.0 show I saw, viz The Wages of Spin. (I felt this theatre lost the plot a few years ago.) The company's schtick is to highly orchestrate and slickly integrate multi-media with traditional theatrical mechanisms, exploring topics in more depth than the average Smage article without being precious.

Well, pretty much as billed. Paul Dwyer's solo performance is heartfelt, effective and convincing. It is a bit indulgently sentimental, but forgivably so as the stories are deeply personal, often focussing on Dr Dwyer senior's visits to Bougainville as an orthopedic surgeon in the 1960s. The production was as I expected, seamlessly stitching the monologue to video, photographs, newspaper clippings, and miscellaneous props. Even with all this stuff, the skillful lighting made it clear where one's attention should be.

Unlike East Timor, the story of Bougainville goes mostly untold in Australia, perhaps because few really want to think about our, or anyone else's, post-colonial activities, but more likely because it is now generally unknown that Papua New Guinea was a colony of Australia until 1975. Roughly the troubles in Bouganville during the 1980s and 1990s were all-too-familiarly due to the locals not receiving an adequate share of the mineral wealth of their own land.

This show promised to explore the mechanics of restorative justice and reconciliation in the rapidly changing cultures of that part of the world. I felt this came off less successfully than the treatment of other topics, and was a bit disappointed that the theatrical recreation of such an event was the limit of the substantive material. It left me with no clear idea about what makes these processes possible, or how much they might be at odds with Western culture and notions of justice.

Ultimately this monologue is a show-and-tell public lecture, albeit more immersive and performative. I guess this is something that might strike a chord with an older audience that directly experienced town-hall style activities that don't take one to be a fool or party hack. As such it felt a bit weird to pay to attend it, and for there to be no question-and-answer at the end.

Ararat

/noise/movies | Link

I saw this because Eric Bogosian is in it. (I remember seeing Igby Goes Down, which he's also in, more recently than Talk Radio, but must have forgotten to blog it.) It just might be possible that he has done or can do something truly great on film.

Ararat is a worthy movie, necessitating its creation and complicating any commentary on it. The cinematography is occasionally excellent, the acting fairly stodgy, and the present-day story a bit too fantastical and oblique to credit. Some of the historical scenes are brutal, others are deftly handled. The subject matter — the genocide of Armenians by Turks during World War I — required more historical perspective than I had to really get to grips with, and the movie didn't help on that front.

As always, IMDB has many perceptive user comments. There's an article in Foreign Policy on what's been happening there recently.

/hacking/mac | Link

I had my first encounter with an Apple "Genius Bar" today, having been referred to the one on George St in Sydney by the always-helpful staff at CompNOW at UNSW. In brief, the power adaptor for my MacBook was getting dangerous, with the insulation on the wire between the box and the computer wearing through, and sometimes getting quite warm. Apparently these things are known fire hazards.

The genii require booking, and I think I got the final one of the week: 4:45pm on this, a Sunday, afternoon. The machine is still under an AppleCare warranty, so the bloke replaced it on the spot. The CompNOW people said it would take them three to four days to do the same thing, as they had no stock, and moreover would need to hang onto my adaptor for that time.

Moon

/noise/movies | Link

At the dear old Verona with Dave. I don't think the cinemas have been renovated since I've been in Sydney, though their new-ish café-bar is comfortable and cute, especially on a rainy evening.

Moon is a little bit of quite a few movies: Blade Runner, Fight Club, 2001, and some District 9-esque corporation loathing. Sam's vehicle looked like the venerable Moon Patrol. Someone pointed at Alien, though the one where Ripley has her self-encounters is more apposite.

The aesthetic of the moonbase interiors is fine, but the exterior design is a total cliche. Gerty was a bit uninventive, and its motivations remain obscure; Kevin Spacey is not the best choice for voicing a robot. The communication amongst the characters was fairly random, and why they didn't discuss more stuff is unclear. Rockwell's acting is excellent, though.

Overall this was a bit disappointing after the review on the ABC's movie show last night. I just don't see this as a majorly original premise or execution or aesthetic or anything.

The Rebel

/noise/movies | Link

Hong Kong-style kung fu from Việt Nam. Beautifully shot, with a narrative so formulaic that the gaps in it do not need to be filled. The cinematography and scenery are top-notch.

/noise/politics | Link

Computerworld has devoted a page to the National Broadband Network. This is fantastic, seeing all the arguments lined up in one spot. Nothing says awesome quite as much as not doing a cost-benefit analysis, and keeping the dirty paws of the Productivity Commission off our precious tubes which will likely be swinging from the trees (so to speak).

Taking a breath, the arguments Conroy provides when pressed are more to do with pervasive internet than fat pipes. In a parallel universe Telstra's near-enough universal coverage is fairly priced to all comers, and pigs' wings are the new frogs' legs.

Killshot

/noise/movies | Link

Straight-to-DVD schlock thriller. I got this on the strength of the Mickey Rourke revival, and Mr Brick, who unfortunately is merely channelling Brad Pitt at his trashiest. The NRA couldn't have written a better script for more guns in society.

John Brunner: The Jagged Orbit

/noise/books | Link

Brunner is on some good drugs here: it's the end of the 1960s and this is (?) his first fat book: almost 400 pages of splintered narrative and psychedelic scenery. In fact, all the characters are on drugs too.

In essence this is a fairly standard story about a computer that tries to predict the future and goes crazy in doing so. It amounts to something like Arnie in Terminator 2, banging on about a future that is somehow going to be avoided and yet somehow can't be, except in this case it is because the Skynet-equivalent is not so much involved in the killing but is merely trying to maximise sales for its arms cartel owners. Uh-huh.

He has some cute devices but all are entirely dispensible. There are no unattractive women here, and all are geek ideals. Utopia ahoy... barring the urban decay, but that's OK, presumably we're all holed up at home on drugs. The writing is self-indulgently flabby and there's a good chunk of condescending say-don't-show in the latter parts. Can't we have a deus ex machina with a smaller mouth?

Festen

/noise/movies | Link

On Dave's recommendation. Perhaps the epitome of the Dogme 95 style. Extremely well constructed, albeit a little too King Lear at times. #230 in IMDB's top-250.