Archive for August, 2007

The Rhinemann Exchange

August 29th, 2007

Hot on the heels of the Prometheus Deception comes another Ludlum novel. This one has a rather different ring to it, it's also an espionage plot, but it's set in World War 2. I have to say I did not find it equally gripping at first, rather than the single person focus of the previous book, this one involves a lot of people and their fates. Only later does Ludlum narrow the view a bit and center on the viewpoint of the agent David Spaulding. He needs to develop and introduce Spaulding first, which he does by sending him to Spain on covert missions for four years during the war. This feels like a bit of a hack, but then again it also builds a very nice reference point - the man from Lisbon, which says a lot without speaking a lot.

The whole affair, as usual, is very complex. And credit to Ludlum for keeping a lid on it while he lets small pieces come to light a little at a time. This very precise unveiling seems a bit too mechanical at times, it moves at a very steady pace without any bursts.

Ludlum's premise is carefully crafted, and although he tells you from the beginning what it's all about, the big picture, you can appreciate the nuance and complexity of his story as he fills it in with details. In fact, rather than writing a developing story, it is more in the vein of setting things up so they will unfold in a very specific way. Like an elaborate domino effect. The basic idea is that in an ongoing world war, the two powers Nazi Germany and the not-yet-committed United States have both found themselves cornered on technical limitations. Interestingly, each has what the other needs. An obscene arrangement is drawn up so that basically each party gets what it needs and they can fight it out.

This deal is brokered by the magnate Rhinemann in Buenos Aires, a German Jew expelled from the Reich, who ponders the prospects of his very significant post war influence. His fortune is sure to be sought to rebuild Germany after the war. Meanwhile, both sides have conceived this plot with the maximum of secrecy, and very few people actually know about it. Spaulding, the agent sent to implement the plan, and then eliminate Rhinemann to remove the evidence, knows only half the story.

There is one thing a bit odd about Ludlum's stories. Firstly, he tends to always pick one central character, whose interests are made compelling to the reader, and also makes the direction of the story well defined. This does feel simplistic at times, but it's a fair choice. However, the character's superhero-like ability to survive is a bit exaggerated, and the story always ends in a way that allows him to accomplish most or all of his objectives, without really losing anything for it. Well, of course, he's always injured badly, but the way in which Ludlum always expedites his recovery, you can't really doubt that he will fully recover whatever the circumstance may be.

you don't get points for being different

August 28th, 2007

Creativity is a paramount quality of art, and the quest for creativity never subsides. People are constantly looking for new angles, exploring new ideas. However, creativity is something of a manufactured term that we like to use selectively, it has positive connotations. If someone is doing something different and you like it, you'll call it creative.

However, there is nothing inherently positive or good about doing something different. Different isn't good, there's good different and bad different. This should be fairly self evident. If a theater group decides they need a new angle and they perform their play facing the back of the scene rather than the audience, they are indeed doing something different. Different? Yes. Better? No.

And so it is very odd when people use different as a justification. Ideas are not worth anything solely on the premise of being new or different. For an idea to be successful you have to follow through with it, work it out in detail, and still show that it's worthwhile on its own merit. There is no shortage of ideas that would compel us to accept each new idea as gospel.

And yet it is uncanny how often this notion passes for an argument. People are able to excuse any bad idea on the basis of being different. If you have a friend who's a movie buff, ask him about Quentin Tarantino movies. Most buffs love Tarantino. So he's gonna say Tarantino is brilliant because of blahblah and you say I disagree. Then you keep talking and you find out that you don't agree with any of his arguments. "But he's so original". Ah, the clinching argument.

There is a lot of stuff that can best be described as different. Like Bjørk. Different? Unquestionably. And horrible. Then again, I think music is probably more abstract and subjective than just about anything else. But look at tv. Shows like Curb your enthusiasm, Arrested development and The Office. These shows have little going for them except for being different. The writing sucks, the acting is bad, the stories are stupid, and yet it is different, isn't it. Their success is predicated upon not being the same.

But the critics...

So if these productions are so bad, why do the critics love them, huh? Think about it. If you were watching movies 10 hours a day (or whatever it is they do), day in and day out, what kind of movies do you think would capture your imagination? If you were buried in tv shows, what shows would get your attention? The ones that stand out, most likely.

We are not like critics. We have the luxury of enjoying one work per day. Or per week or month, whatever you want. And no one is going to expect from me to rank every book I read in context of all the other books of this kind. I read books for artistic content, not discernibility.

If I were a critic I'm sure I would agree with them, and I bet they praise the titles that are most likely to be loved by other critics. But the difference in perspective is notable.

But different isn't normal

The whole idea of being different doesn't really go that far anyway. There's only so much different people can take before they get freaked out. And then they run back to normal.

And normal isn't terribly convincing either. Unlike different, it is a plethora of ideas that *have* gained traction, but not necessarily for the right reasons. People have all sorts of stupid ways of doing things because it's normal to them, but it doesn't make them clever. And yet normal is very reassuring. Think about when you're trying to introduce something different to a person who isn't ready for change.

- Oh I can't stand this modern classical music, it's all different. [modern classical? please excuse the contradiction -ed]
- No no, it's just like normal, just with a little twist.

top 10^x+1 useless tips toward a useful goal

August 26th, 2007

I think that if you really have something to say, you'll write it. And when it is supposed to be advocacy or educational, you should also try to make it a) rich in content to be gripping and b) short enough for people to bother reading it. I've read countless of texts along these lines and I enjoy learning something.

On the other hand, when you have nothing to say, you can often obscure your lack of thought by making a list of things. Because then if it's longer than 10 items, each item is so short that there is virtually nothing conveyed by it. And even if at some point there was a rationale to it, the statement has been clipped to the point where all possible nuance is gone and what remains is a tired cliché that doesn't say anything.

Just like this fabulous list of 101 tips to improve your "online presence". What a priceless repository of knowledge this really is. For example what about #16 Tell your friends about your site. It’s free advertising init. By golly, never occurred to me. That should bring another handful of people around, most of whom are probably not interested anyway. Or #15 Add a link to your site in the signature of any forums you post on. The sheer ingenuity of this plot, can you believe it? Quick, register on as many forums as you can! The list as random as it gets, and the ordering is too.

You have your pick of utterly irrelevant things like #40 Avoid proprietary technologies like Java and Active X. Yeah, cause your users really care don't they. That is, they might... not, if they actually knew. It's a bit like saying "don't use a screwdriver to put up that lamp, no one will come to your house". Or why not #43 Contribute to related subject areas on Wikipedia. Well, it's nice to contribute anyway. #42 Learn about CSS. It’s the new HTML. Er... no, it's not.

My favorite has to be #48 Become a leading authority on your chosen subject. That should keep you busy for anything between ten years and a lifetime.

Well, the list goes on like this and it's utterly useless. If you're concerned about your "online presence", you probably know all the factual stuff, and you can safely ignore all the stupid suggestions. #37 Giving away an eBook is an excellent way to generate word-of-mouth about your site. Uh-huh.

Well this list is particularly rubbish, but it's pretty close to the standard. Long lists of tips on web promotion and money management (those seem the most popular), apparently written by people who are superbly successful and for some reason have decided to spend their time making long, useless lists about it.

And how redundant am I for making a point about redundant lists?

"taking a vacation from the computer too?"

August 23rd, 2007

This is a question you're likely to hear from friends or relatives, notably those who don't know a whole lot about computers. It annoys me, because it's such a stupid question. So. You're on vacation. Does that mean you're taking a vacation from the computer too? Sigh. It's like saying. "So, you're on vacation, does that mean you're taking a break from books?" Yeah, as if books were only ever useful in school right. Or how about take a break from your car, because you're not working this month. Yeah, that should score you some points at the Most Pointless Statements awards.

It's annoying, because what it implies, that is if you're not saying it explicitly, is I think you're spending too much time on that computer. Yeah, as if what you're doing is so much more worthwhile. A myth, that's what it is. So what do you do with your time? Spend an extra half hour in the bathroom every day fixing your hair? Cooking fancy meals? Watching tv? Hanging at the mall? Reading books? I would not trade for any of that, in fact I've optimized my time to get the the maximum time doing what I find the most useful. And if you don't agree, tough.

What people don't seem to get is that a computer and a network is good for more than typing an essay. Five hours spent watching tv, and five hours spent at a computer are very different things. With tv you're just a recipient, and you can't decide what you're watching. A computer and the net gives you the possibility to get in touch with people, to learn stuff you want to know, to work, to read, to be creative, and to be entertained. What you choose to make of it is the relevant question, but personally I use it for all the above and much more.

Yes, I should be getting more exercise, that I agree with. And so should you. We should all be getting more exercise, because few people actually do that. In fact, I was getting a lot of exercise when I was a teenager, because people were into that. Now it's really hard to get people to do that with you, cause no one cares about it anymore.

And not only that, we should all be reading fine literature, learning music composition, practicing yoga, attending the opera, and solving math equations for fun. Better, smarter, healthier. But you're not doing any of those, either. You're just wasting more time on menial tasks. What we are and what we want to be are always going to be far apart, because achieving things is hard, but wishing for them is really easy. Fine, you waste your time over there, I'll waste my time over here.

xXx State of the Union: funny and fun

August 22nd, 2007

xxx_state_of_the_union.jpg

It's one thing to put Vin Diesel in an extremely explosive action movie with a lousy plot. He may not look much like a field agent, but he is rough and he's definitely crazy enough to do anything. But Ice Cube as a marine takes the cake.

If you're looking for some mindless action, this is a fun movie. The whole time I'm expecting Ice Cube to start rapping, but somehow he resists the urge. Instead he's shooting guns, jumping, running, fighting, all rather clumsily. And he's not very bright for an agent, none of his sentences are longer than 7 words, none of the words more than 3 syllables, it's such a spectacle.

His foe is played by Willem Dafoe, who really isn't a good actor at all. He's the typical minor part actor you've seen in a ton of mediocre parts, so his lead role is somewhat surprising. Then again, Ice Cube..

The opening sequence tells you all about what kind of movie this is. A squad of professional killers breaks into a super secret NSA facility.... underneath a farm. Samuel L. Jackson, who regrettably doesn't play a big role, is the only one to make it out alive in a modded hot rod, along with his geek-of-the-movie companion. Whom I have to say is a breath of fresh from the typical geek, he's not a teenager, he doesn't talk in puns, and he wears a flannel shirt.

Then they go to pick up Ice Cube, who of course, is in jail. After a break neck escape he jumps off a roof... grabbing onto the chopper piloted by Sammy. A poetic move. Then they go get some wheels, where Ice Cube unveils the most ridiculous ride ever, a truck the height of two cars. Well you can imagine how this movie unfolds...

Don't miss the hilarious scene where Ice Cube and his band of thugs break into a tank and cruise to the White House in it.

"Did the president of the United States just quote 2 Pac?"