Newspeak

When you reach a certain age, that is, the age when you start sentences with "When you reach a certain age", you start to think that kids today aren't what they used to be. Which is of course an eternal falsetruth because kids both are, and are not what they used to be. And kids today say "fail".

Actually, kids say many dumb things, including "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but the word "fail" when used as a noun, makes me die a little inside. Like the sound frequency that breaks glass, the mere utterance of the word initiates an intellectual necrosis in my being. It makes me sad, tired, and a little on-edge. Instantly.

It's not so much the meaning, I'm fine with failing. In fact, I do it all the time. Sometimes I even learn from my failures. That's when experience is generated. Yay for that.

It's when the word is used in its impoverished, truncated non-verb form. Fail. It makes me think of George Orwell and Idiocracy. It confirms my fears of the future and amplifies them. We're dumbing down the language to a point where expression is becoming a scarce resource; and this at a time where the tools for publishing said are increasingly numerous and easy to use. Yet time and again expressions are truncated, not even filling the 140 character limit. Poof. Gone with the wind in a cacophany of who cares.

Go start a blog or something, write about your cat or the difficulty of the human condition. If you must use the word "fail", use it in a sentence. On the other hand, if enough people use the noun-form word in a meaningful way — excrutiating as it would be — one day "fail" would be canonized a noun in the dictionary. What would really sanction the word would be if Stephen Hawking used it to describe string theory. That would be the day I embraced newspeak.

Prometheus (2012) Mini-Review

Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi after a decades long hiatus with Prometheus, the story of a space expedition to a planet that was mysteriously mapped in 35,000 years old cave-paintings on Earth. In the vein of the classic Alien movie, what the expedition finds on this planet is not quite what they pictured.

If you follow this blogs Twitter stream, you'll know I've been quite excited for Prometheus. Not only due to Ridley's name being attached — after all, he made Blade Runner — but also because Damon Lindelof co-wrote the movie (who co-wrote Lost). Add to this the fact that Prometheus, while not an Alien prequel, is in fact set in the Alien universe. Making such a movie is a monumental task, and the expectations are huge. So as a mindgame, when I sat down in the cinema I put myself in the screenwriters place and asked myself what kind of movie would I have made, were I given this task. Prometheus hits nearly all the beats I found were necessary for being an Alien-universe movie (and a good one at that). The visuals are completely gorgeous, and there are oodles of Alien references for fans like myself. The movie is long but it doesn't feel too long. The plot twists are not totally expected. The music is good, and I most definitely felt I had received my moneys worth. Go watch it, you have my blessing. It's a worthy Alien successor.

That said, Prometheus is not perfect. Many characters feel under-utilized, and some subplots are either weirdly unsubstantial or just not brought to fruition. I would very much like to see an extended cut once Prometheus hits physical media, to see if something was left on the cutting room floor. I'm pretty sure, though, that most of the unanswered questions were ones that Ridley hopes to address in one or two sequels. Which I'd be fine with.

[rating=4]

Optional Continuity

So, I'm pretty psyched about Ridley Scott's Prometheus. It's a space opera following the crew of the starship Prometheus. And unless Scott has lost it, it'll be a thoroughly enjoyable sci-fi adventure.

I have a thing with sequels: I like continuity. Re-casting an actor takes me out of it. Sometimes a "movie reboot" is the solution to whatever ailed the old series; other times it's a death-knell to a flawed diamond. Turns out there's a third option: the pseudo-reboot.

JJ. Abrams Star Trek (2009) was created in such a way that if you were new to Star Trek, you could disregard 40 years of baggage. On the other hand, if you were a trekkie (( Or trekker, I don't care about the difference. )), the movie gave you a straw to grasp at which would acknowledge those 40 years of continuity. Star Trek did the impossible — provide an entry for new movie-goers yet satisfy (the majority) of the trekkies, all the while actually being a good movie! I don't even need to explain to you what exactly Star Trek did to respect the old continuity, that's the point. If you didn't pick up on it, it's because you don't need to worry about it.

Now watch this:

That's continuity. If you want it to be. Did you get it? You might prefer not to read on.

Still here?

Turns out Prometheus is a pseudo-reboot of Alien. Peter Weyland is the co-founder of the Weyland-Yutani corporation, the evil conglomerate and eternal nemesis of Ripley. Which means, if you're an Alien fan, you can consider Prometheus a successor to Alien. If you like, also Aliens. Perhaps even Alien 3, but I would expect most of you to disregard Alien Resurrection (whose only good part was the whiskey cubes). On the flipside, if you don't care about Alien, you're unlikely to watch the above viral video. You're probably unlikely to even care. But there's a chance you might go watch Prometheus anyway because every effort has been made to convince you it's its own thing. The continuity is optional, and I like that.

Pills

While listening to my favorite podcast the other day, one host casually threw out this statement, which is all it takes to infuriate me:

I don't believe in pills

Well good for you. And real fucking good you don't have allergies. Or Pneumonia.

In all fairness, this is a statement that I hear all the time from all sorts of people. It's also a statement that probably shouldn't be taken at face value; I'm sure the host in question was referring to plain headache pills or even vitamin pills. While I'm at it, let me clarify that I harbor a tremendous respect for this particular host, and he does believe in vaccines so he's not a moron. So let's not make this about him. Which is why, in the interest of putting myself in the opposing viewpoint, there are many reasons why you might want to avoid some pills. Multi-vitamin pills may or may not work, and if you eat right: fish, vegetables, meat or chickpeas, you're probably better off without 'em. Also, make sure you get lots of sunlight so you can skip the D-vitamins. It's probably also better to search for the root cause of your headache (did you remember to hydrate?) than to eat a painkiller. Finally, there's a lingering concern that some pills, especially pills involving hormones, have serious side-effects we might not know about until the next generation.

That's all good and well. But the statement still kills me. "I don't believe in pills". Well fuck you: pills can save lives. Pills can cure you. Pills can relieve your pain. Pills can give you a decent life despite chronic illnesses or even ease the passage of someone with a terminal disease. Sure, some of those pills have side-effects, but sometimes you'd rather experience the side-effects than the effects of the illness for which you're eating the pills in the first place. I personally prefer to eat antihistamines and be just a little bit tired all the time over not being able to breathe. In fact, I really love those pills, despite their side-effects, and I sure as hell believe in those pills. Because those pills work.

I'm not out to lambast anyone for this particular brand of ignorance; everyone is entitled to a modicum of stupidity. But I want to shine a light on the fact that saying "I don't believe in pills" makes you sound like a dumb douchebag. It's a simplistic view of life and you could at the very least augment your opinion by clarifying that you prefer not to eat pills if there's a readily available alternative to your particular needs.

Or do you just want me to grind up your pills and put them in some OJ, sport?

Hitch

All my heroes are dead now.

This night, Christopher Hitchens passed. He'd been struggling with cancer for a couple of years, yet he'd kept going despite knowing exactly what was in store for him.

A passing always hits a special part of your body, an organ you did not know was there. It's like losing part of what helped keep your balance. It's going to take some time to find a new balance in absence of that support.

When Arthur C. Clarke passed, he'd lived a lifetime and written more than one lifetimes worth of work. Knowing that, it was somewhat more easy to celebrate his life and work, knowing he'd more than fulfilled his promise. Douglas Adams life, on the other hand, was cut short like now Hitchens was. Surely both Adams and Hitchens have achieved more in their lives than many of us can ever hope to, but it still makes this no less tragic.

Hitch had a profound impact on me. Through his writing and speaking he logically approached the difficulty of the human condition. In no uncertain terms, Hitch managed to make actual sense of what might not have any sense in the first place. Not believing in God is not as easy as it sounds. The notion that this is it and even if you live a life unfulfilled in the end you'll return to the void, that is a hard pill to swallow. Somehow it puts the injustice of the world in an even starker contrast.

Through this, Hitch taught me that what I need to strive for in life is to have more good days than bad days. He taught me what I want for my own deathbed; to have made some impact in the lives of the people I spent it with, to hopefully have been an invisible support to give balance. You were that support to me, Hitch, and like walking a staircase missing a step, I expect to stumble in your absence. I will do my best to find a new balance and help others do so. And I will tell my daughter about you.

The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it — Thucydides

Freemium

If you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold. #

On the face of it there's something rhythmic and sensible about this quote. It rings true. But lately I've seen it used in the same vein as bumper stickers, T-shirts and yoda-isms — as an awesome display of intelligence, so fierce it concludes a discussion by virtue of being an awesome quote. Because surely no-one knowingly wants to be a product, right? Yet almost like a Godwins law for freemium services, this quote is fast becoming a platitude. The statement is like a safe-for-work version of saying "you're a prostitute". It pops up in every discussion comparing native apps to web-apps, Apple to Google or even Facebook to Google+.

I'm here to tell you today that no, smugly uttering that "you're the product being sold" does not put an end of any dispute. The quote itself is like the old adage: "there's no such thing as a free meal", only smugger. Since slavery is abolished, you being the product that's apparently sold for cash value to ensure your continuing free service can't well refer to actually selling people as property. So it must refer to your click, your location, your interests — or even your personal information. Talking ad-supported websites as an example, the freemium scale ranges from showing ads that aren't very personalized such as those from The Deck or Text Link Ads, to contextual ads such as Google AdSense which personalizes ads based on surrounding keywords. Then there are the people that want to scam you, such as the mechanic that legally can't let you drive out of here without four new tires, or the African prince that needs a favor from you. So long as there are suckers there are predators.

The fact that there exists douchebags, is that an indictment of the entire freemium model, though? If you are to take the quote at face value: undeniably yes. The quote, standing on its own, clearly indicates that if you're doing something without paying for it, you're being sold. Right? Which means you're being sold:

  • searching on Google or Bing
  • researching Gutenberg for your school project
  • using an online dictionary to translate "stupidity" into french
  • using Skype to call your grandma
  • bidding on an A-Team lunchbox on eBay
  • reading up on broccoli on Wikipedia
  • watching television
  • tasting free samples with a stick in it at Walmart

All those things are free. So it must mean "you're being sold", right?

Let's flip it on its head. What can you do without being "sold", then? You could:

  • read The New York Times using a paid subscription
  • buy stuff using 1-Click on Amazon
  • buy the Wolfram Alpha app and search the web using only that
  • buying 4 new tires because the mechanic can't legally let you drive away
  • use Skype to call grandma's landline

Because surely none of those services would ever try to milk you for dimes in a non-obvious way, would they?

The truth of the matter is that you're being advertised to all the time. I'll let Fry from Futurama elaborate:

Leela: Didn't you have ads in the 21st century?

Fry: Well sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no siree.

It's difficult for me to put it more simply than this: when ever you see an advertisement, any advertisement, if this quote is to be believed, it means "you're being sold".

I'm not a fan of ads, no siree, but I recognize that they make services possible that would otherwise not be viable. Even the companies that are purportedly not "selling you" have stats packages installed on their webservers and advertise their products to you on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky.

There's a lot of sarcasm in this post, and I'm somewhat apologetic for that. I used the reductio ad absurdum technique to follow the initial quote to absurd consequences and then I criticised the end result. In my mind uttering the quote makes you look inarticulate, but I also acknowledge that it's just not that simple. I use freemium products every day, and while I'm eternally vigilant to douchebags, I happen to live a pretty good life knowing that ads are being targetted towards me. But don't call me a prostitute, until you look at the man in the mirror.

Nitpicky Star Wars Nerds

The Star Wars Blurays are out. I’m not getting them. And not because Darth yells “Nooooooo” or because Greedo shoots first (or whatever). Simply, I’ve seen them enough times now. I’m done. No, not done in that smug, grown-up “Star Wars is for kids” kind of way, trust me I’m as juvenile as ever. I still love lightsabers, I giggle like a schoolgirl whenever someone says “titmouse”, and I listen to the Mega Man 2 soundtrack on repeat. I’m right down with you nerds. I’m just at a point where I’m thinking it’s perhaps time to throw my love on something else.

The amount of energy spent by the Star Wars fan community discussing the Bluray edits is astounding. One fan (or several, I wasn’t paying attention) is taking it upon himself to restore the “non special edition” of Star Wars in HD:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xDMDfUB4Mco

Note how R2s hologram is actually white in the original version, vs. slightly bluish in the “enhanced” version. I totally cancelled my Bluray preorder when I saw this. George Lucas, you ruined my childhood!

That would be me if not for the fact that I discovered other sci-fi television. Turns out, if you have 400 hours to spare, instead of restoring the original version of Star Wars to HD, you could watch every episode of Star Trek ever made! Think about that for a moment.

Don’t get me wrong, Star Wars was good. Especially Empire. That whole Cloud City thing was way better than what they did in Star Trek. Here’s Cloud City:

Cloud_City

And this is Stratos from “The Cloud Minders”:

Kirk_and_Spock_view_Stratos_from_surface

Still, once you’ve seen Cloud City, you’ve seen Cloud City (that is to say, once you’ve seen Cloud City in all three four versions, you’ve seen Cloud City — but don’t worry if you haven’t, they’re pretty much the same save for a tibanna gas refinery). And say what you will about Star Trek, but that Kirk got down with the ladies, even green ones. And not one of them were his sister!

You could also get into Buck Rogers (just pretend season 2 never happened). Listen to them crunchy grooves:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmxXIS2ot8w

But wait, there’s more. Here’s Erin Grey as Col. Wilma Deering:

erin_gray

… and let’s not forget Pamela Hensley as the evil Princess Ardala. Always trying to score with Buck. Silly girl, didn’t she know Buck preferred good girls? And damsels in distress? And Amazon Women? Occasionally bad girls. But not Ardala! Except of course when he was brainwashed, but that’s another story:

ardala

That may not be a metal bikini, but it sure deserves being restored in HD more than the original Star Wars does.

Next time you get an irresistable urge to spend 400 hours on restoring Star Wars to the way it was meant to be, consider if maybe that time was better spent watching Star Trek or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (season 1). You could also watch Space 1999. Or UFO. Or even the original Battlestar Galactica — heck, any Glen A. Larson show. You could even watch Patrick Duffy as The Man From Atlantis! Patrick Duffy! (It’s all in this pamphlet).

You must do what you feel is right, of course. But sometimes we must let go of our pride and do what is requested of us. It all starts with a choice. A choice to spend your credits not on more Star Wars. Instead, roll up your blinds and let in the light! Then roll them down again and put on Buck Rogers. Season 1.

The Cupcake Is A Lie

The wife bought cupcakes the other day. Four of them. Really pretty ones from Agnes Cupcakes. "They were delicious", you'd think this blog post would end with, but no. It only begins with "the top half was delicious".

I consider the cupcake a fundamentally flawed design. It's basically a lavishly frosted and decorated muffin. The end result is a messy eat that gets dull as soon as you've devoured the top. It's like starting with the dessert and once you're full you're given dinner. And not even a good dinner. Sure you can try to improve the cupcake design by carving chunks out of the cupcake-bottom, filling them with interesting curds and whatnot. The Wife tried, and as usual she succeeded. But that still means cutting chunks out of a muffin. Muffins deserve better.

The problem is not the muffin itself. The problem is the stark juxtaposition of the brilliantly inviting cupcake-adornment on the one hand, and the muffin on the other hand, which benumbs the latter into a damp, dreary affair. By focusing on beautiful swirls and delicious embellishments, the cupcake design turns the phrase "icing on the cake" on its head. Instead of being the glorious enrichment of an already delicious treat, the icing on the cupcake has become its sole raison d'être. I doubt even a cherry on top would help. To make matters worse, once you're done eating that which you're so obviously meant to eat first, your sugar intake is likely to be at a point where you'll consider simply throwing the cupcake bottom away. A tragic fate in its own right, but an indictment of the cupcake design if there ever was one.

The cupcake design follows a pattern I see all too often these days. It's the razor focus on presentation and appearance over substance and structure. As soon as you scratch the surface, you'll see it's all a thin veneer, a set piece hiding a lack of usability, functionality or even nutritional value. The prettified product may vastly outsell the more substantial, more usable, more functional, more nutritional alternative, but somehow people will not only not notice they're being fooled, when their error becomes apparent they'll pretend their decision was for the better. It's like a cupcake reality distortion field.

I don't readily have an alternative to the cupcake. I don't have a design handy which alleviates the structural issues with said chow. No, I don't have all the answers. Does that mean I shouldn't be allowed to point out apparent problems? I criticise because I love. That's how it's always been. And even if The Cupcake Defence Brigade comes out in full force, it'll still not change the fact that the cupcake is a fundamentally flawed design.

The donut, on the other hand, is an absolutely brilliant design. I wouldn't be surprised if it follows the basic shape of the universe itself.

The Tip Economy

Celebrating the sale of our previous apartment, The Wife and I had dinner at a restaurant yesterday. It was a mid-range price place — not shawarma cheap, not Noma expensive. We were seated and I had a look at the menu. Everything looked good, so when the waiter came, I asked if he could recommend me something. I was surprised to get a snarky response back, as though my indecision not only annoying but offensive.

I like to ask the waiter for recommendations. I have flexible tastebuds, so I can eat and enjoy the weirdest of meals, and when I go to a restaurant I like to eat something new. I’ve had great success with this strategy during my US travels earlier this year. The waiters have been almost universally accommodating, and my inquiries met with the opposite reaction to the Danish waiter. After all, who better to know what’s good than those that serve the menu on a daily basis.

Denmark is not big on tips. For example, tips are already included in taxi-cab fares, so you’re not expected to give extra. Dinners at restaurants are marked up so that even if you don’t give a tip, no-one will look at you with an evil eye (though you are thanked for an extra tip). In fact, you could live a perfectly normal, not-frowned-upon, life in Denmark, not ever giving anyone a tip.

Let me be clear, I do tip when I’m at restaurants. 10% universally, which due to the already marked up prices is a good tip. When I’m in the US I always ask the locals what the comme il faut for tipping is, and I tip the highest percentage I’m told, usually 20%. I tip the Starbucks lady, I tip the taxi driver, I tip the waitress. I do this because I’m told the US is a tip economy, that wages in many walks of the US life are based on the generosity of the clientele. Minimum wage might be viable simply by virtue of the tip. I suppose the master plan of this system is to reward great service with great tips and not so great service with a not so great or no tip at all.

I’ve never been a fan of this system, not because great service doesn’t deserve a good tip, but because I feel it adds a needless amount of complexity to life. And it feels like an institutional form of reward and punishment, on both sides of the fence. Instead of explaining to your Starbucks-barista-with-an-attitude that in fact everyone has bad days but that’s no reason to let it out on you, you just omit the tip. Instead of the tip being the icing on the cake, something you give for extraordinary service, the tip is expected and not giving a tip becomes a negative signal.

On the other hand, I can’t recall having received anything but great service during american adventures, and yesterday I do wish my missing tip would’ve said “hey, dear waiter, next time I ask for a recommendation, please don’t look at me like I peed in your pool”.