Saturday, 5 July 2014

In which I belatedly experience the cultural products of the 1980s, Part I: Die Hard

I work in the computer industry, with a lot of dudes. This means— cultural stereotyping being in this case reliable— that I end up learning about, for example, GTA 5 and Peperami, which were not things previously on my cultural/gastronomic radar. One afternoon, one of my co-workers made an offhand reference (probably a joke about exhaustion due to too much intense coding) to feeling like Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard. And I had no idea what they were talking about. I knew of the existence of the film. That was it. They were astounded. They listed a bunch of other films from the '80s. I hadn't seen any of them. Oh, I had seen Aliens. But not Alien.

Then when I left the job, my colleague Ib bought me the film on iTunes as a farewell present. At the time I was moving into a new house, the first house I've owned, and I got a bit preoccupied and sort of forgot about it. But then this week my partner went to Canada and I had a crazy week of work involving quitting a truly terrible job and starting up as a sole contractor. So on my quiet Friday night alone at home, with my pasta and wine, I thought to myself: "This is it. Now is the time. What I need at this very moment is some escapist, unchallenging cultural experience that, viewed through the lens of time and context, will nevertheless be possible to reimagine in a way that lets me comment on culture and society, and how they have changed and developed since the film was made." As you do.

So I watched it.

My first reaction was: surprise. Surprise that it had a plot. I didn't really expect plot. I thought it would be 90 minutes of shooting, punctuated by explosions. I guess they don't pick the plot bits for the poster, though, do they?

And it's set at Christmas. Of course. What could be more American than shooting at Christmas?

Next, I noticed: Oh yeah, I remember, in the 1980s America was obsessed with Japan. So of course our business titan (whose immense wealth is the MacGuffin driving the plot) has to be Japanese. And America was also still angry at Germany. So of course the bad guys have to all be hilariously Euro, with the long hair and accents and all named Hans or whatever. Because they're 'foreign' and it's the 1980s, you know that they're all going to be killed. Really, there doesn't seem to be any plot-based reason at all for Nakamoto to be Japanese except to make him easier for the writers to kill off.

Rules of Hollywood #1: You can only kill people who are 'other'.

Another thing I noticed: We have gotten so much 'richer' since the 1980s. By which I mean, we've started pretending that everyone is middle-class unless they are actually desperately poor. The specific thing that got me thinking about this is McClane's line to his wife about how he plans to stay at the home of a retired police captain during his visit. Not a hotel. Not a B&B. This grown man is staying with a friend. Which is how life should work: you don't need to shell out money to stay in a hotel if you can avoid it. Staying in a hotel is a lot of money. Why stay in a hotel when you don't have to? Why spend that money? And yet, I don't think that line would be written into a movie today. We, as an audience, would be uncomfortable with the thought of a fictional character making the kind of normal financial decisions that anyone should be making. If he were a college kid, he could stay with friends. If he were a 'poor character' we might see him trying to get into a homeless shelter. If he were a sort of loveable loser we might see him annoying a friend by staying there too long. But a self-sufficient, fully-employed cop? Asking for a favor? From another person? If we as a culture have lost something since the film's release in 1988, this line might be a key to figuring out what that thing is.

Another class thing: the other sort-of-good-guy to get killed is cokehead negotiator Harry. He is the kind of slick rich businessman that the 1980s loved to hate. He's introduced doing a line of coke in Holly's office, at which point we know: obviously, he is going to get killed. Of course. That and the fact that he's kinda-sorta-hoping to get with Holly. Don't do drugs, kids. And don't engage in extramarital sex. Or else terrorists will shoot you. In the head.

Note: writing about race is hard. I am going to do my best in the next paragraph.

Now an interesting contrast is the way the three main black characters are portrayed. Argyle, the young limo driver character, is a sort of comic-relief stereotype. But Sgt. Al Powell, the "buddy" cop, is so much more human than his character would be if it were written today. He looks normal in a way people did in movies in the '80s, and in a way that they don't anymore. He acts in a way that is 'culturally black' while not veering into stereotype. (Cop stereotype, a bit, with the twinkies. But not black stereotype). It seems that there was a sort of '70s-'80s peak of mainstream black cultural expression in the United States, when we'd moved out of the '50s-'60s strife but hadn't yet moved into the '90s-'00s ghettoisation of black culture [citation needed].

The third main black character is Theo, the only non-European baddie. He's the computer expert, and surprisingly the only bad guy to (presumably) survive. Because he wears glasses, he can operate a computer— only people wearing glasses can operate computers in the 1980s, and computers always have ridiculously over-designed displays, for instance a graphical representation of the status of all seven locks in a vault, or arrows creating a flow chart connecting three pieces of information that viewers don't even really need to see:

I was surprised that Theo wasn't double-crossed by Hans and shot once the vault was opened. Maybe it's because I've seen a couple of Batman movies, and that always happens there. But no: Theo is fine. He is a mashup of two stereotypes and therefore doesn't really rise above stereotype status himself, but he moves through the film with a sort of grace that made me want to see the whole movie remade from his point of view: Who he is, how he got there, what he's going to do with the money.

So things have maybe not moved onwards and upwards in terms of class or race relations since this movie was made.

What has gotten better? Sexism. A major plot point is that John and Holly are estranged because she got a job, and moved across the country for it. A woman! With a job! Always causing problems. To be fair, the movie actually treats this very sensitively: Holly is a skilled executive, but isn't shown to be unreasonably consumed by her job; John didn't refuse to move to California with her out of some kind of male entitlement, but rather because he was invested in his own career. It does play up a little more than necessary the significance of Holly going by 'Ms' and using her born name. I get that this is done as a shorthand, a stand-in for their separateness and then reunion. And I have a feeling that it's more a product of the sexism of the time than the sexism of the writers/directors. So while I don't love those bits, they're certainly not nearly as cringe-making as they could be, and they're in the service of illustrating a reasonably functional, if currently strained, relationship.

What else has gotten better? Gay rights. While there are no overtly gay characters in the film, there are a number of lines where a character uses the phrase "up the ass" or "f*cked in the ass" as a dysphemism for shame, embarrassment, or failure. In order for this phrase to work, it assumes that this is a bad thing, this is something that no real man would want or put up with, and that to have this happen would make a person less of a man. Any character saying this in a film made today would be a kind of over-the-top cowboy. Which I suppose, you could argue, these guys are. But they're the main characters in the film, and I don't think main characters would say that anymore.

An interesting counterpoint to this is Bruce Willis' sneaking around throughout the film. He sneaks like a real person: it's awkward and a little bit effeminate. I love that. Even at a time when gender norms were in some sense more heavily policed, they were in another sense looser and more flexible. Maybe it's just production value? But I like that McTiernan didn't insist on a more manly sneak from Willis.

*     *     *

Broadly speaking, as I get older, I find it more and more difficult to enjoy a film that I think is pushing (deliberately or inadvertently) an agenda that I think is making the world worse.  (This is why Jurassic Park is so bad: Oh, the neurotic lawyer? Inept, and eaten for comic effect. The fat guy? Bad, and also eaten for comic effect. Oh, and those are the two Jewish actors, if not characters. Re-watching that movie as an adult I was appalled at Spielberg's conflation of physical attractiveness and moral goodness, and his inherent conservatism. I think these are through-lines in his work. But that's another post.)

Hence the verdict: I am, surprisingly, and aside, obviously, from the anti-Japanese and anti-European sentiments, largely on board with the agenda this movie is pushing. It's important to help the people you love do things that let them develop further as people (Holly), sometimes you make big mistakes in relationships (John), but with some dedication those mistakes can be overcome if both people work toward it. I like that even though it's a bit of a damsel-in-distress plot, Holly doesn't ever sit around needing rescuing, she is running the company the whole time, even when that means representing a bunch of hostages. I like that John is legitimately working-class and isn't bothered by Holly's success, just by their separation. (And it even passes the Bechdel test, albeit with two fairly inconsequential scenes.)

I like— sorta— that the theme is Ode To Joy, which is an extremely European tune. I don't like it as a soundtrack, because it's super distracting and obvious and not-right in a lot of places. But I like that it humanises the bad guys, because it is their music. Contrary to all expectation, when they trick the FBI into cutting the building's power, which allows them to open the final vault lock, the music swells and we cheer for them. The bad guys' plan has worked and we share their moment of glory. This is the kind of human moment that I think would destroy Hollywood and yet make us all kinder, more humane people if our fiction routinely worked like this.

And it's in Die Hard, for god's sake.

Next: Ib has suggested that I watch Alien, immediately followed by Aliens.

In which I belatedly experience the cultural products of the 1980s: Introduction

Photo credit: Paul Williams

As you probably know, I had an interesting childhood. Through some combination of overprotectiveness and underdeveloped taste, they ended up producing a young adult who was constantly in situations where he hadn't seen or heard or experienced some bedrock cultural thing that seemed to have been a big part of lots of other people's childhoods.

For instance, until I was fully out of university, I had either never experienced or never heard of:

  • Paul Simon's Graceland
  • Michael Jackson's Thriller video
  • Guns 'n' Roses/Aerosmith/Van Halen
  • Elvis Costello
  • Tears for Fears
  • Peter Gabriel
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Alien
  • Die Hard
  • Grease
  • Blade Runner
  • Twin Peaks
You get the idea. This list didn't take very long, but it did take some internet research because of the Cheneyesque nature of attempting to list things you don't know.

Now one of the good things that came out of this (and out of being left-handed) is that it set me up to see culture as optional. One of the core differences between liberals and conservatives is that liberals seem to conceive of culture as arbitrary (which it is) and conditional on the vagaries of time and place. Whereas conservatives seem to think of culture as a fundamental, unshakeable truth through which we live our lives (which it also is). So liberals think of cultural participation as fluid, voluntary and democratic, whereas conservatives think of it as fixed, mandatory and a matter of natural law.

From there it's pretty easy to see why conservatives would be made uneasy by a man wearing a dress, or a woman keeping her name when getting married, or two men choosing what colour to paint their bedroom. Because those are things that our culture didn't used to include, and now they do (sort of) and that means culture is changing. Which is disconcerting, if you think of culture as the right and proper way for things to be.

Anyway, so I didn't see a lot of films growing up and now I feel that it's important for people to consciously engage with and construct their own culture. Not out of whole cloth (because that would be impossible) but by choosing from among the obvious and the not-obvious options in the world. (Another side note: when I was younger and primarily concerned with distancing myself from the mean idiots I went to school with, I thought for instance all TV was bad. I read Neil Postman and was a terrible snob. Now I am not concerned with that; instead I am concerned with forming and maintaining friendships, and understanding how people comment on what's happening in the world by creating popular art about it. So I have watched The West Wing and Buffy, which are the two best shows, and would like to retract everything I said in college about TV being awful. It isn't. Well, some of it is, but everyone knows that.)

My plan, then, is to write about some of these cultural touchstones as I experience them. This will let me combine the goals of experiencing them, doing cultural analysis, and doing more writing. Feel free to suggest things in comments as we go.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Viscount Project, Part III

Woodworking is lots of fun. I made dovetail joints the newfangled way:

Doing this made me feel full of geeky and also full of awesome.
It felt like cheating. A little. Doing it this way. Instead of with a saw. Or a toothpick. Like they did in the old days. But it also made me able to cut dovetail joints, so: compromise accepted!

After gluing all the corners square, and marking and cutting big thin bits of wood for the top and bottom of the box, I cut the sides in half so the box could swing open to reveal the pedals when it was all put together.

Then I made my fatal error.

My plan required the keys to come in from the top of the box. There were supports. The keys would get bolted to the supports, and live happily inside their box. But this, crucially, required attaching the bottom of the box permanently, i.e. with nails and glue, and then attaching the top bit removably, i.e. with screws. That way I could put the box together, finish it, and then take it apart again to get the keys inside.

Instead, I very precisely, meticulously, with no drips of extra glue— and at the very end of class— glued-and-nailed the tops on each half of the box.

Then I rode my bike home through a lovely sunny spring day in Bath.

Then I realised what I had done.

I emailed the instructor— in a state I'd be reluctant to describe as 'panic'— to warn him, but really, deep down, I knew the glue would be set by then, and I'd just have to find another way to get the pedals inside the case.

Thankfully most things are— in life and in woodworking— if not reversible, at least work-around-able. At the next week's class, after following the pedals' electrical traces carefully through the PCB board I determined I could lose the top 1/4" or so off the circuit board, which is the bit that sticks up the highest. I then spent about 40 minutes sanding it down. (PCB board dust cannot be good dust to breathe in. Remind me not to do that again.) Finally I could slide the pedals into the case. Victory!

* * *

One secret of woodworking is: you know those beautiful corners you see on the box? It did not start out that way. After everything else was in place, I planed and sanded to get all the bits aligning perfectly. At the end it looked as though I had really just measured and cut to a degree of precision I am definitely not capable of. I like that aspect of wood, its forgivingness.

During the week I had ordered some hardware online, so that went on the box, again with Paul's don't-do-it-the-dumb-way-here's-how-to-do-it-right friendly guidance and good ideas. As the class finished I took everything home, took the hardware back off, and put some coats of Danish Oil on the wood.

Danish Oil is my new favourite thing. It makes old bleached wood look amazing, it makes new raw wood look amazing, and it makes everything waterproof without making it shiny. (When I bought it, I naïvely thought that it would just be some fancy oil. It is an oil with all sorts of horrible toxic solvents in it that make it penetrate into the wood. This part I like a bit less. I have learned how to save and reuse white spirit, now, though, so I don't have to feel like I'm destroying all aquatic life in Britain every time I clean a brush.)

Here is the final product of the woodworking class. I am very happy with it:

Pedalcase: closed.

Pedalcase: open!

Now you may be thinking one of two things:

  1. Wait, what does this do?
  2. Why are there wires sticking out the side?
These two things are related. There is an Arduino hooked up to the pedals. The next step is to write a nice little bass synth that can be controlled via pedals.

Soon, soon...

Saturday, 22 March 2014

The Viscount Project, Part II

(The second in a series of how-I-am-turning-an-old-electronic-organ-into-some-new-modular-instruments)

Woodworking: A class at Bath City College.

From some friends I heard about this woodworking class.

I had, yes, already bought a ridiculously good saw in fulfilment of the stereotype that the first thing to do when you get interested in some new past-time is to go out and spend some money on pro-level kit.

Now it was time to do something about it.

The class was a bunch of dudes, predictably and unfortunately. (Oh, England. Oh, Western civilisation) On the upside, they were all super nice guys. Also on the upside, my new boss decided to take the class when he heard me talking about it (Paraphrase: "Is it ok if I take that class? It sounds really cool but I don't want to crash your weekends.") so we got to have some casual time together learning how to chisel out a mortice.

Paul, our very capable instructor, quickly got us up to speed on the various tools involved in woodworking. Turns out there are a lot:

  1. Square (two types, a 'normal' one and an engineer's one)
  2. Gauge (two types: Mortise and Marking)
  3. Ruler, duh.
  4. Some kind of bench squaring helper I don't know the name of
  5. Vise
  6. Clamps
  7. Chisels (four sizes) and wooden hammer
  8. Plane (my favourite tool!)
  9. Sander (many kinds)
  10. Tenon saw (the thing I have already)
  11. Dovetail jig
  12. Router
  13. Bandsaw
So with those things at home, I could begin to duplicate this project. It is impressive! I want them all, but also I don't want a home full of tools I never use. Hmm.

Probably the most critical thing I learned in this class is the importance of making a full-scale drawing. This is part of the 'design process' and really forced me to be specific about how things were going to fit together. (Unfortunately no documentation of that drawing exists for blogging purposes.) As we will see, I didn't think everything through and so the design process continues through the time of this writing. :)

Once the drawing was sorted, I got to pick some wood, use an amazing planing machine to get it to the approximate thickness I wanted, and then get starting cutting these badass dovetail joints:

Making sure the keys fit in the bits of box I have cut. (Spoiler: they fit!)

They don't fit that way! Lots of clamps keep things square during gluing.

The college is full of mad things like a 6' stone saw. Definitely do not distract anyone using that thing! Also: Sawyer! Neat.

Paul was great about things like: reminding me to (for instance) mark out where I was going to put nails ahead of time, rather than just pounding them in and hoping they looked okay. Also there were several times when I felt like I had screwed something up irretrievably, and he had some magic trick for fixing it. Most of the time it involved approximately 5 seconds of using some power tool I have never heard of. This made building a nice box with basically no woodworking skills a bit like walking a very low tightrope just over an incredibly reassuring net.

I'll leave this one here, with two future-post teasers:

  1. Wait, how is this thing going to work? What does it do?
  2. I make a nearly-fatal error in the assembly of the box!

Friday, 14 March 2014

The Viscount Project, part I

The first time we lived in Bath, we had an old Viscount organ. Here it is:

This is not an organ. (This is a picture of an organ.)

Around the time we were planning to move to London, something in the keys started dying. The beats were okay, the bass pedals were okay, but something in the connection to the keyboard was dodgy. But  that was fine, because the good bits of the organ were the beats and the bass pedals. What's more, I had an idea:

pull out the brains/guts and make them standalone instruments.

So, just before we moved, I pulled the whole thing apart. This thing was put together by hand, and it was built to last. Persistence paid off, though, and in a couple hours I was looking at this:

There was a lot of dust.

Knowing that I wouldn't be doing anything with this immediately— and also knowing that I have the memory of a fruitfly when it comes to details (unless, weirdly, they are presented to me in the form of dialogue, in which case I will remember them forever) — I was careful to photograph all of the wires' connections before I pulled them apart.

Then we snuck the outside frame bits into a tip (shhhhh), packed up all the electronics into some suitcases, and moved to London!

Our place there was okay. But there wasn't a lot of room to spread out and build stuff.

Then we went to Japan, where Emma got a book deal:

And a bit over a year after we left Bath, we moved back, into a nice house. Where I rekindled the dream of the Viscount-bits-in-a-box. Or rather, boxes.

Next up: I sign up for a woodworking class!

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Iterative Design

This movie is a series of screenshots of everything we tried as we designed and build Shazam for iPad. One thing that I think this demonstrates is the importance of iterating, trying things out and throwing them away when they don't work, are confusing, or conflict with something that works better.

This is hard in any creative endeavour, of course. But there's a specific way that it seems hard for boss-types to let go of the idea that they can see a 'final design' in a meeting, sign off on it, and then have it built by some devs. You don't really ever know what you're building until it's done— sometimes you don't even know until after that— and so things like navigation and user interaction have to be worked through again and again and again.

Neil (@foley), one of the geniuses I work with, says things like "the first time you think you've solved a problem, you have definitely not solved that problem yet." I think there's room in software development methodology for an embrace of this kind of development: get some really good devs and a designer who doesn't mind a two-way street, give them some basic goals like "build something good" and then, possibly, push the process into a "finalizing/release-prep" stage when it needs some sort of release (public or internal) in order to continue maturing.

Friday, 6 December 2013

On the realness of the imaginary

Sometimes you have a thing in the back of your mind forever, and then you read or hear something that sort of jolts it out of the shadows and into the open. This just happened to me with the words "real" and "imaginary" as opposites, and as synonyms/parallels with "true" and "false", or "useful" and "fake" and so forth. There is a thing that has bothered me about the way we use these two words. I'm going to try to unpick what it is. (It came up because I was reading this page about Lacan, which was linked as an aside in a story in The Stranger, which is— perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not— where I get most of my news about the USA since I stopped getting the NYT headlines emailed to me every day. They are my #1 source of news because they syndicate Dan Savage. Good one, The Stranger. You get my pageviews.)

(Of course, our categories of "opposite" are always intricately bound up with each other, or they wouldn't make sense: the opposite of "black" is "white", after all, not "spoon" or "snow" or "quickly". Each is a color, is an extreme and pure color, and is a color that is sometimes thought of as not really a color, not like the colorful ones anyway. The opposite of "man" is "woman"; the opposite of "child" is "adult", and so on. However, even though these opposites need to be in the same category in order to make sense as opposites, they can be thought of as diametrically opposed, or at least as non-overlapping Platonic ideals with which reality can be filtered. One can exist, of course, on the continuum between adult and child, between man and woman, but the continuum itself is linear: it is fairly straightforward to, given one point on the line (and a cultural context), describe something that would move a given person toward or away from a given terminus. And this is how we think and speak of "real" and "imaginary". But this leaves out some fairly important things about the brain, consciousness, and our perception.)

So what we're implying when we say something is "real" is what, exactly? That is can be seen, touched, or moved around? That it has physical existence? What about a dream? People will contrast something that happened in a dream with something that "really" happened, which is a pretty clear distinction. But the dream is also real— it's a real dream. If I imagine a unicorn, it's not a real unicorn, but it is a real imagining of a unicorn. It's a pattern of neural connections and activity inside my head. But then, so is the dream. And so is the sky, the sidewalk, the sunshine... or at least my perceptions of them.

Ok, we're in brain-in-a-vat territory now, so it's time to wrap things up. Our minds are real: they are patterns in our brains. Our brains our real, although we don't have any appreciable direct perception of them most of the time. Everything else is real, and so is (separately) our internal representation of it as a pattern in our mind.

Oh hi, Daniel Dennett, what are you doing here?