Monthly Archives: April 2011

Lee Camp vs American Culture

Lee Camp is one of my favorite young, political comedians. I’ve been seeing him do his standup at Living Liberally events for years. Lately he’s been doing short videos which are mostly political, but today’s goes and looks at contemporary American culture, music and art. What he is sees isn’t a lot worth liking.

I have to say that while there’s a lot which resonates with me about pop culture, music, and art, I think Lee is being too hard on culture, music, and art writ large. After all, there’s a world of difference between mainstream schlock like the Black Eyed Peas and almost as mainstream creativity from artists like Radiohead, or well outside the mainstream musicians like Fat Freddy’s Drop or Portugal, The Man. Though he doesn’t touch on it, you could make a similar critique of contemporary comedy. Charlie Sheen’s sitcom Two and a Half Men  was the top rated comedy show on tv for many years running. If I were judging the state of comedy on Sheen, as opposed to, say Zach Galifianakis or Lee Camp, I’d have a pretty pessimistic view too.

I’d also add that Camp’s comment about people driving through machines in automobiles and missing anything relevant unless it’s smacking them in the face reminds me of a passage from Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Portrait.” The story is about a starving Russian artist who is commissioned to paint a portrait by an aristocratic woman who fancies herself an expert on painting:

“Tell me your opinion of the portrait painters of the present day. Is it not true that there are none now like Titian? There is not that strength of colour, that–that– What a pity that I cannot express myself in Russian.” The lady was fond of paintings, and had gone through all the galleries in Italy with her eye-glass. “But Monsieur Nohl–ah, how well he paints! what remarkable work! I think his faces have been more expression than Titian’s. You do not know Monsieur Nohl?”

Implied in the passage is this is a woman who rushed around the galleries – not just some, but all – of them and by virtue of having passingly put her eyes on the works of various artists considers herself an expert. In short, quantity and speed are valued by her more than quality of experience. The result is a warped view of art and art appreciation, not dissimilar to what we have today.

Gogol also said, “You can’t imagine how stupid the whole world has grown nowadays,” which seems pretty much exactly the same point Camp is making.

Advertisements

Early Thoughts on “Game of Thrones”

I’ve watched two episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones series and wanted to share a few quick thoughts (yes, there are spoilers).

First, I think the shows at HBO have created a rich and marvelous version of Westeros. Things look a lot like how I’d imagine them to look like. The Wall is even grander than I’d imagined while reading the books. The visual aspects and attention to detail add a lot to the viewing experience. Yes, a couple scenes have looked pretty clearly like a sound stage, but that doesn’t really bother me too much.

Second, this has been quite true to the early parts of A Game of Thrones. It’s moving incredibly fast, but key scenes are being fairly accurately displayed. Some snippets of dialogue come straight from the book, but many are distillations of longer-running threads in the first novel. But overall, things are being well portrayed and characters largely seem to be who they were in the books.

In fact, the real problem isn’t that the show is insufficiently true to the first novel, but that without the help of a narrator or internal monologue, the show is fairly inaccessible to people who haven’t read the books. Throughout the first episode, I had to pause the DVR to explain what was happening and who was in a scene to my fiance. This happened less frequently in the second episode, but was still a part of the viewing. The opacity of the story through loyalty to the book without explanation reminds me a lot of my experience with the movie Watchmen. The film was a beautiful adaptation from the graphic novel of the same name, but failed to provide the context that was lost from the narrative. While it was easy for me as someone who had read the book to follow along, I knew a lot of people who hadn’t read it and as a result missed out tremendously while watching the movie.

Lastly, the show has faithfully replicated the brutality of Martin’s world. From the direwolf ripping the throat out of Bran’s would-be assassin to Daenerys’ rape at the hands of her husband Khal Drogo to the bloodied body of Arya’s butcher boy friend. Life is brutal for these characters and there is no lack of blood and pain on the screen. A lot of this is intrinsic to any faithful representation of Miller’s writing, but the HBO writers aren’t pulling any punches.

All that said, I’m really enjoying Game of Thrones. The plot is moving fast, but it’s exciting and even though my fiance hasn’t read the books, after the second episode she immediately wanted to see the third, which I take to be a really good sign for the show building support. There’s still a lot that isn’t making it into the show from the book, which is regrettable but predictable. Nonetheless, the first two episodes have been really great television and I’m hungry for more.

Tagged ,

Lego Zombie Apocalypse

Here’s a really awesome Lego/claymation zombie apocalypse movie.

‘No guarantee of justice’

The Atlantic is doing a series of five articles in the lead-up to the premier of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, adapted from the work of George R.R. Martin. The first post is by Alyssa Rosenberg and it treads ground well-worn by Adam Serwer of The American Prospect. Nonetheless, Rosenberg captures some of the uniqueness of Martin’s moral universe as distinct from other examples of the fantasy genre:

The cruelty of Game of Thrones, much like that of The Wire, isn’t transformative—it’s revealing. Just as trying to reduce crime by creating a safe zone for drugs will get a good cop fired, there are grave consequences for Arya Stark, the noble girl who steps outside her sphere to challenge her world’s expectations for how girls should spend their time. Conformity is no certain refuge either: In Baltimore, adhering to an agreement earns an informant a beating, while in Westeros, Arya’s sister Sansa learns that lying for a prince won’t keep her safe. And there are terrible consequences for those who see the truth more clearly than others, whether it’s a plot that gets you thrown off the police force in The Wire, or an encounter with an ancient evil that leads others to think you’re mad—and to kill you for it—in Game of Thrones.

The Wire‘s Omar Little might warn us that “It’s all in the game.” The Game of Thrones‘ black sheep nobleman Tyrion Lannister might tell us that “all dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.” But whether in David Simon’s reportage-informed fictional America or in George R.R. Martin’s fantastical realms, on HBO, there is no guarantee of justice.

Rosenberg also puts Game of Thrones in contrast with contemporary fantasy stories like Harry Potter and Twilight (I’ve never read either books and only experienced the Potter movies). Hopefully the HBO series is as faithful to the books as it appears, but I think Rosenberg’s treatment is likely right. It is a brutal world that Martin has created and while there is “no guarantee of justice” in the sense of the good guys winning and the bad guys getting their just desserts, there is most certainly a uniformity of system to the world Martin has created. Things happen because of the course of events which proceeds them, not because we might wish it otherwise and certainly not because Martin obliges himself of deus ex machina to achieve justice.

To put it differently, Martin’s series is incomplete. The fifth of seven books is slated to be released early this summer. I don’t know how the final three books will end. I don’t know if Martin knows either. But to the extent that there may be justice as Rosenberg seeks it, I would expect that it would only come on the full time line of Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire. It may well be the case that things which appear as injustices in the first book lay the groundwork for justice in the seventh.

Regardless, I think the series presents some of the most interesting and compelling narratives in the fantasy world, fueled by the cold realities that life in Martin’s universe is hard for his characters and not everyone is going to get out alive. He  pulls the rug out from under his audience numerous time in A Game of Thrones and I expect the HBO adaption will seek to do the same. Maybe that’s not what people like Rosenberg want (I find it hard to tell if she’s making a normative judgment about the lack of justice in the HBO series). But I’d hope that this series attracts a critical, thoughtful audience like The Wire and not the same crowd that flocks to Twilight films.

90 square feet in NYC

90 square feet on the Upper West Side of New York City. Definitely minimal, but it feels awfully cluttered and not actually minimal enough. Or rather, it doesn’t seem intelligently designed. All the storage is wire racks, so everything is out in the open. Lastly, for $700/month, I’d just move to an outer borough and have an extra couple hundred square feet. All that said, at least it’s a good example that you can live minimally and well at the same time.

The Guardian Project

orbot

Tor+Android=Orbot

Nancy Scola at techPresident has a long article about The Guardian Project, an effort lead by my friend Nathan Freitas, that seeks to create secure software for mobile communications. Mobile devices are critically important for activists, dissidents, and leaders of change movements. But most are incredibly insecure and using them can put activists at risk. The Guardian Project seeks to make open-source technology that gives people the ability to talk, message, browse the web, and store data securely on their mobile devices.

[T]he Guardian Project is working on tools to make those devices more secure. Their flagship product is Orbot, an implementation of Tor, a network of servers that routes users in ways that obscure where they’re coming from and where they’re going. Freitas built Orbot with computer security expert Jacob Applebaum. And then there’s Gibber, an encrypted, firewall-evading chat application. The Secure Smart Camera App is an innovation in the works with Witness.org, the group that sprang up after the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles that works to document situations where human rights are at risk. The camera app aims to use automatic facial recognition software to obscure identifies on video taken from mobile phones. It uploads the documentary footage extra-slowly. That’s useful not only in low-bandwidth spots on the globe, but for shielding the video from network censors by making it look like any other type of Internet traffic. There are plans in the works for a “poison pill” program that would allow you or an ally to wipe your phone clean in a dangerous situation. (All Guardians apps in progress are listed on their website.)

This is some of the most inspiring and important work I see taking place at the nexus between technology and progressive activism.