War Games, Fail-Safe, Dr. Strangelove

In 1998, there were two movies about a natural catastrophe: Armageddon & Deep Impact.

In 2006, there were two movies about magicians living outside the reality-based community: The Prestige & The Illusionist.

In 1964, there were two movies about systems failure and nuclear war: Dr. Strangelove & Fail-Safe.

You’ve probably never heard of the second one even though it was directed by a director whose movies were widely seen (Sidney Lumet) and starred actors with long careers: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman and (!) Dom DeLuise.

Both movies end with catastrophe – nuclear annihilation – because humans (men, really) can’t get it right before the system they’ve built kills them.

Dr. Strangelove came out first and did better. But I suspect that part of the reason why it’s better known is that it was funnier and used symbols more effectively.

War Games was released almost 20 years after both movies (1983). I consider it iconic and I think many would agree (“Would you like to play a game?”).

Like Dr. Strangelove, War Games is not only funny, it works as both a realistic drama and an allegory.

In War Games, the system is a more developed character: it’s physically embodied as a computer (that gets plenty of close-up’s!) and even has two names. The military calls it WOPR but its inventor names it Joshua – after the creator’s dead son!

One day, Joshua, the computer, strikes up a friendship with a real boy who likes to play with computers and… hijinks ensue!

The relationship beween the computer boy and the real boy not only drives the movie, it gets us to a very different ending.

The human boy teaches the computer that some games are not worth playing. The computer then teaches this lesson to the serious adults in the room by giving them a nuclear war scare (simulation).

In other words, in War Games, humanity survives by letting young people lead the way (as Ally Sheedy convincingly argues: 17 year-olds really want to live).

I just saw War Games again last night and I found it to be just as good for the 45 year-old Jose as for the 12 year-old me. Really, it’s excellent.

The comedy is very dry and the jokes come fast. I think it could be grouped with Dr. Strangelove, for sure, but also Robocop, among others.

I’m in the middle of writing a kind of update and I was pleasantly surprised just how much this movie influenced me.

Images “attached” are scenes from Fail-Safe (1964) and War Games (1983)

 scenes from Fail-Safe (1964) and War Games (1983)

Underground

Magicians show you things you don’t know you’re seeing. Prosecutors tell you things you don’t realize you’re hearing.

Movies use a similar ploy: they make you feel smart and perceptive about details they want you to regard as facts.

In other words, they hide clues in plain sight. (Like the Purloined Letter)

This can make moviegoers feel superhuman; like they can see into the future and under the surface of things.

A great movie will exploit this feeling to hide a greater truth under an obvious fiction.

The moment in Black Panther (2018), when the ship flies into the dusty ground of an impoverished nation and emerges under blue skies, above a hidden kingdom of peace and wealth: that was some deep, deep shit.

GIF from the excellent recap: Wakanda Future Do You Imagine?

the normal

I just scanned the most recent issue of “14 y medio”, a banned / clandestine news digest from Cuba.

You won’t be surprised that the stories are about struggle.

It reminded me of feedback I got recently about a TV pilot I’m writing, set in a Cuban island, with a Cuban protagonist.

The advice came from a good friend, with experience: “There’s so much struggle. You have to give the protagonist some success earlier on.”

I did. But it’s worth noting that middle-class Americans (the idealized audience for TV entertainment) simply don’t understand what life is like for most everyone else.

Moreover, struggle is not depressing, per se. Struggle is not a defeat. Struggle is the baseline – the foundation for comedy, desire, nostalgia, hope, frustration, etc

The extent to which TV is cast from the perspective of people who expect the glass to be full is remarkable. Even when the show depicts suffering, this bias colors the tone: the pain is tragic, all-consuming, debilitating.

In reality, the pain is constant but so is the perseverance. And ingenuity. And passion.

Actual Science Fiction

A hundred years from now half the cops will have psych degrees and we’ll look back on today like a horror show.

(the movie “Bright” is not actually science fiction.)

update may 2, 2018

Ben Taub:

According to David M. Kennedy, one of the nation’s leading criminologists, American policing is practiced more as a craft than as a profession. “The kind of thinking that should go into framing and refining what a profession of public safety should be has still not been done,” he told me. Officers are deployed as enforcers of the state, without being taught psychology, anthropology, sociology, community dynamics, local history, or criminology. Lethal force is prioritized above other options…

There’s no training on how to de-escalate tense scenarios in which no crime has been committed, even though the majority of police calls fall into that category…

“This is how situations go so, so badly—yet justifiably, legally,” Skinner said. Police officers often encounter people during the worst moments of their lives, and Skinner believes that his role is partly to resolve trouble and partly to prevent people from crossing the line from what he calls “near-crime” into “actual crime.” The goal, he said, is “to slow things down, using the power of human interaction more than the power of the state.”

Spanishes

Free advice, actually worth a lot.

I’ve been married to a Mexican for almost 20 years and I’ve slowly learned that Mexicans communicate in a way that is very similar to the Japanese.

They do not want the person with whom they are speaking to lose face. They do not themselves want to lose face. Both cultures use context heavily to shade the meaning of their statements so as to convey the truth without hurting the listener’s feelings or fully exposing their own.

In their cultures, this is polite.

In Cuban culture, we say exactly what we’re thinking before we’ve even finished thinking it. This is not impolite because no statement is viewed as final but rather a part of a collective unfolding.

It can be madenning for a Cuban to hear a Mexican say one thing when they mean another. Likewise, it must be madenning for a Mexican to hear a Cuban declare an ultimatum as their first statement.

I have to get to work now but I suspect geography, architecture and traditional cultures play significant roles in this drastic difference between two Spanish-speaking peoples who once traded roles as the Seats of the Spanish Kingdom in the Americas.

Facebook is made out of…

very good critics point out that Facebook is engineered to be addictive.

but they seldom recognize that the pleasure being meted out is OTHER PEOPLE.

for example, in today’s Quartz newsletter:

“…this move was surely carefully designed, with product managers realizing that users who abandon social media are unlikely to return, while a cut-down dose of its drug might keep feed junkies hanging around longer, searching for that scrolling high. Ask any dealer—cutting the product is a better scenario than having users overdose and turn up dead.”

yes, this is true. many of the technologies our society is investing in right now (via ad revenue, stocks, attention) are about behavioral control.

but, again, the high is OTHER PEOPLE.

Facebook replaced email and blogs by combining them. they didn’t invent some new pleasure. ultimately, any technology that BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER will prosper. those that isolate people will perish.

(why the ALL CAPS?)

update january 17, 2018

Zeynep Tufekci:

Humans are a social species, equipped with few defenses against the natural world beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together. We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies. These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite. And Facebook gorges us on them—in what the company’s first president, Sean Parker, recently called “a social-­validation feedback loop.”

Invasions

One of the charms of Star Wars was the contrast of robots and serfs, space ships and lords. High technology and feudalism.

If you follow US politics (don’t, it’s a really really bad season), you’re seeing the beginnings of something quite similar: a 21st century version of medieval culture and power dynamics.

Instantaneous access to every fact – and any fiction disguised as fact. World-ending weapons in the hands of a cabal propping up a cult.

Our popular imaginary for the last ~15 years has been so busy re-staging the 9/11 attacks, (suppressing the invasion of Iraq), that it has failed to express the emerging dystopia.

Every blockbuster ends with the literal destruction of the world, rather than its substitution with a deadly simulacrum.

In short, we’ve had too much of this:

And not enough of this:

A call

Payphone outside bodega in poor neighborhood. White man, late 60s, white hair, white beard, white t-shirt, faded denim jeans. He’s holding a white sheet of paper, crumpled, yelling into the phone. Utter frustration and despair.

Wheels of fortune

Smart people become irrational around technology.

We want absolutes, purity and simple answers; whether it’s being anti-GMO or bullish on AI, the impulse is the same: to eliminate doubt.

We can’t.

Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you religion not reasoning. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The geniuses on Wall Street needed to be bailed out by the working stiffs on Main Street. The brilliant minds of Silicon Valley can’t figure out how to house elementary school teachers.

Here’s a responsible, pro-technology manifesto: Make society less brittle, invest resources in redundancy rather than trick shots, refuse to pay for silver bullets.

Instead of trying to cheat death, make dying dignified and gentle and graceful.

We should ridicule men who would rather become machines than confront their fundamental, ineffable weakness. That we err, that we die, is our fortune.

Fortunes (fortuna) are made of calamity. (Quite literally in the case of the big short, aka, “betting on the blind side”.)

Learning to lose is our one chance at immortality.

I was reminded of this when Facebook reminded me of a post I’d made four years earlier:

The basic point being that no matter how much we may want to predict the future, software won’t and can’t. “David X Li copula function” is a simple warning / proof. It applies to all fields.

Below is a medieval illustration of a wheel of fortune:

And a contemporary wheel of fortune:

Pleasure and power

Casamigos, Doritos marketing collateral, 2018

A consistent theme in the marketing of Mexico’s grastronomic culture is the erasure of Mexicans.

When Mexicans do appear, they are cast as laborers – honest and authentic producers, but never as consumers.

Mexicans cannot be shown to be enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Why not?

Learn more about Casamigos, Aunt Jemima and Juan Valdez.

The same is true for the fruits of Mexican labor – e.g., “California avocados” – but you already know this. Of course, what applies to Mexicans can similarly be said of producers in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, etc.

Update, july 2017

a gxg rule, unintended consequences

gender fluidity is top of mind. it’s been neglected. it’s revolutionary.

so every discussion of people from latin america must recognize gender fluidity.

ok, then, let’s make it so we can actually talk about the issues.

out loud.

In a recent Twitter discussion about the term “Latinx”, a wise commentator suggested using the vowel “e”, instead.

As in las Comadrites, las Amiges, las Latines.

I find it a much, much more interesting future language and recommend you all consider it as well.

we have already invented so many wonderful things, we can keep going.

To me, Latinx is unacceptably anglosaXon for a term that is supposed to all-inclusive. If you can agree on the pronunciation, it switches Spanish-language conversations to an Anglo-Saxon register. worse, it makes it appear as if gender fluidity is only an issue from an American-speaking standpoint.

It’s unintentional, OK, but it does what it does. Let’s not.

Living with doubt

Real Americans reject fake news. Chain restaurants advertise authentic recipes. Products in automated hypermarkets are touted as organic. Intricately staged and highly edited shows are marketed as reality television.

When a candidate calls for “law & order” in a time of unprecedented peace, the chaos he and his supporters fear is at least partly spiritual. (In addition to being racist.)

The death of God, the complexity of modern institutions, globalization, the plasticity of digital media, the dismantling of colonialism and patriarchy have all contributed to an explosion of doubts.

But the greatest cause of uncertainty for these voters is almost certainly the result of greed. Over the last 40 years, the wealthiest have effectively campaigned to increase the amount of risk and insecurity that others must bear; so that a tiny minority can enjoy more certain returns on their investments, the vast majority must endure greater uncertainty.

This is the terror that drives so many Americans to support Trump. (Expanding social security would probably convert most Trump voters – and maybe even some Trump supporters.)

In this time of uncertainty, the gravest danger we face is to become fundamentalists – not just in our politics but also in our tastes.

It may be that learning to live with doubt is an essential capacity for today.

Rejecting authoritarianism then is not just a political obligation but also a cultural one.

Eyes

disney female protagonists in 1950 vs 2013

male vs female characters in same movie

Spirited Away 🇯🇵 & Princess Mononoke 🇯🇵 vs. Frozen 🇺🇸

Motherhood and the workplace

arrival-alien

The movie Arrival (2016) and the movie Alien (1979) are contrasting takes on motherhood and women in the workplace.

In Arrival, a successful professional woman finds personal realization – and saves the world – by experiencing a bittersweet motherhood. She’s aided by a pair of quirky squid-like aliens as she teaches men how to stop killing themselves.

In Alien, a working class woman fights for her life against a lethal co-worker hired by her corporate employer. The killer is a squid-like alien mother who kills men in order to feed her babies. The hero has to fight to be treated as an equal and ultimately escapes from this hostile workplace by going off, on her own, with a cat.

(Both are great movies.)

Legal or illegal, capital or labor

American-psycho-patrick-bateman

“You’ll get beautiful coverage, believe me, and the Mexicans will pay for it.” – Jeet Heer

This tweet is comedy because “and the Mexicans will pay for it” is referring to the wall that the Mexicans will never pay for and will not be built. (Though some connected families are going to make a killing billing 10x market for more drones, etc.)

This tweet is tragedy because when the ACA is taken away and the wall isn’t built and prices at Walmart are going up because of a trade war and/or instability around a resource threatened by a sudden and unexpected disruption in peace agreements, the Mexicans in the U.S. will be made to pay for it by being constantly harassed and shamed.

And by “the Mexicans” it could be an amalgam of Mexicans, Muslims and anyone else who can take the heat away from the failing kleptocracy.

But first, they’ll be called illegals.

Today, the incoming President referred to Syrian refugees in Germany as “illegals.” He used the same vague category that angry people use to refer to people they want to treat like criminals.

What’s remarkable about this language is that it mostly describes people in the U.S. whose crime is having committed fraud within the context of a business transaction: the sale of their labor.

In America, we usually call this kind of fraud white collar crime. White collar criminals commit some big stakes fraud with falsified documents submitted to the SEC or the IRS or the FDA or the FTC. These white collar criminals typically pay fines and keep on keeping on.

To recap: people who commit fraud while selling contracts or withholding earnings usually get to pay a fine and keep their dignity. People who submit false papers to sell their own labor… they can fuck the fuck off.

Do some people commit fraud to receive government benefits? Absolutely. Some military contractors do it. Some charter school companies do it. Some people without residency papers do it. We treat them all as people unless we think some of them are less than our standard for a person. To those people we refer as illegals.

Image – American Psycho

Facebook users deserve all their feels.

Facebook is software for managing your feelings.

It promises to be a tool for strengthening relationships – primarily, as a replacement for email – but it is engineered to create pleasure.

Facebook software organizes your relationships – your friends and family – in order to precisely administer the release of chemicals like oxytocin in your brain.

It aims to provide a frictionless, fast-loading experience. Facebook thus provides an important byproduct of social activity by stripping away much of what makes social activity meaningful. Consider what refined sugar is to raw fruits.

facebook-feelings

Like all tools, Facebook can be used for unintended purposes. If you want, Facebook will let you get high on anger through the release of dopamine. We have now seen what happens to the body politic when enough of it gets hooked on anger.

Facebook, the company, has no incentive to improve social activity. Its singular goal is to become better at producing pleasure in its users so as to gain a bigger share of their minds and then rent this “mindshare” to advertisers.

Consumers have little visibility into how Facebook is made. You can’t tour the factory. There is little regulatory oversight as to how this sausage is made. We only know about its experiments because of slips (no leaks, as of yet.)

In Europe, where governments are expected to provide for social welfare, there has been talk of opening up Facebook’s plantation of feels to government scrutiny. In the U.S., in the current climate, there will be no such review anytime soon.

As a consumer, you might expect to have finer control over how this software works. For example, you could set it to “help you grow”. Such a setting would expose you to ideas that create a sense of ambivalence – i.e., complicated feelings.

Complicated feelings lead to thinking which leads to new ideas and, usually, better outcomes. A tool that filters out complicated feelings may be profitable for its owners but they are not advancing the art of social communication.

To be truly high-tech, Facebook would have to commit to giving its users access to all the feels. It would commit to making money from stimulating thinking as well as stoking rage and indulging vanity.

Who are the architects?

A curious turn of phrase from Robert Gates as reported by David Ignatius:

“We’ve never had a populist movement or political insurgency quite like this — that actually captured the White House. That means there will be more discontinuities in our foreign policy. I’m telling people: ‘Give us some space here and have some strategic patience. And don’t overreact — even to Trump’s tweets.’”

Who exactly is going to be running foreign policy under the Trump administration?

Note that Trump doesn’t build buildings, he licenses his name to other people and collects rent.