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Author: Steve

I live and work in central North Carolina. I am a database engineer by profession but I also enjoy writing, tabletop gaming, reading and thinking about history, binge-watching Netflix, and traveling with my BFF. She lives in Philadelphia and we travel around the East Coast together - we especially like going to the Big Apple to catch a show.
Today’s Workout Album: Audio Elastique

Today’s Workout Album: Audio Elastique

So you go to the fitness center to work out but you don’t want to listen to the music they play there. What to do? Well, easy, in this day and age. You bring your smartphone, some ear buds, and pull up your streaming music app.

This morning’s album was Audio Elastique by De-Phazz. At 53 minutes it’s the perfect length for one of my workouts, which generally is 15 minutes of strength training, half an hour of cardio, and some cooling down time. It has enough tempo changes to accompany the cardio well, and it has the most important quality for a workout album: I like the tracks enough to keep wanting to hear the next one, which gets me over the hump when I start the cardio and it quickly wears me down.

I’m no hotshot, just a middle-aged guy trying to keep his body from falling apart. But like Baby, I need my musical inspiration to stay on task.

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Blade Runner 20-whenever

Science fiction often portrays a vision of a not-too-distant future, but a vision colored by the familiar elements and trends in thought of its own time. My favorite observation about the future as shown on the sci-fi screen is that hairstyles are going to be the same as whatever they were at the time the movie or TV show was made.  When watching an older movie about the near future it’s always fun to see where they got it wrong when that future finally rolls around.

Blade Runner, released in 1982, is set in Los Angeles in 2019. Not the real 2019, of course, but an alternate one where the technology looks like it did in the 1970s and the atmosphere is like a 1940s noir film. It’s a wonderful movie, dark and moody, well written and well acted, and featuring a gorgeous Vangelis soundtrack.

I understand that the point of it is the story and the imaginative vision and that it’s silly to compare it to our time period. Nonetheless, I will. Here are some out of date elements in the scenery, compared to the real 2019:

  • Big honking CRT monitors
  • Neon signs
  • Everyone is smoking in public

Of course, how could the people of 1982 predict that by 2019 smoking would be banished from public spaces (at least where I live; maybe it’s different in L.A.)? And that there would be LEDs, and flat screens, and the one thing that absolutely no pre-2007 sci-fi ever anticipates – smartphones?

To be fair, Blade Runner does get a couple of future technologies right:

  • Voice recognition software
  • Video calls

And then there are the predicted technologies that it might have been natural to assume would be coming in our future, but that our pathetic civilization has yet to achieve:

  • Flying cars
  • Off-world colonies
  • And – oh yeah – Replicants!

It always strikes me how optimistic mid-twentieth century conceptions of the future of space travel are. Back then, it hadn’t been that long since the first orbital launches, and the U.S. space program was still prestigious. But what, no moon colony by 1999? No manned mission to Jupiter in 2001? Well, at least it’s not too late to get that warp drive invented, even if we do have to wait for some time traveler assistance.

As for the artificially created humans, well, they are the crux of the story of Blade Runner, and a sci-fi obsession going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But their presence in the story is not a realistic extrapolation of technological progress.  The closest thing we have to replicants today is artificial hamburgers. Our real world robots are dumb machines, and our real world ‘AI’ is the power of  the Internet to collect and process vast amounts of data.

So I went to see Blade Runner 2049, and first I will report that it is just as good as the original. It has the same feeling of ominous wonder created through beautiful visual effects and an atmospheric soundtrack. It manages to take advantage of the 30+ years of advancement in film special effects (in the real world timeline, I mean) without detracting from suspenseful and meaningful storytelling. If you like science fiction movies in general and Blade Runner specifically then you will love this film.

I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say that it is set in the same timeline as Blade Runner 2019, so there absolutely is no point in waiting until real 2049 to verify its predictions. In the movie’s version of 2049, there are still replicants, and off-world colonies, which is where you’d rather live, because Earth is still a mess, although the color palette of its dreary desolation has been updated a bit.

The 1970s look and feel of much of the technology is still there, which is neat, but here are some additions that reflect modern awareness:

  • Drones
  • Self-piloting flying cars
  • Touchscreens!
  • What if instead of growing a replicant, you programmed a virtual person into a computer, you could call it something else…

I will finish with some thoughts on the subject of artificial intelligence, which is huge in sci-fi film these days, in tandem with news feeds about the growth of the AI industry (which in the real world is building advanced information processing algorithms, not sentient beings).

In the original Frankenstein story, the monster confronts his maker, seeking acceptance, and the scientist creator laments that he has unleashed a destructive force. Both themes are prevalent in subsequent science fiction retellings, reflecting humanity’s yearning to understand its purpose in the universe, and fear that its technological progress has unmoored it from its origins. With Blade Runner (either one) you get all this, along with modern forebodings about overpopulation, ecological catastrophe, wealth inequality, and unbridled corporate power, artfully crafted to satisfy your need for continued myth-making.

Quick Movie Review: From X to Millennial

Quick Movie Review: From X to Millennial

I had an impromptu movie night some days ago and watched two movies which exemplify perfectly the transition from Generation X to Millennial in attitudes about risk and individuality.

The first one was 2008’s Wanted, starring Gen-Xer James McAvoy as a bored office drone who gets recruited into a super secret league of assassins.  As in earlier Gen-X movies that start the story the same way (Fight Club, The Matrix), the protagonist ultimately finds his destiny by breaking out of conventional society and embracing a singular role. It also has a lot of graphic, bloody violence.

Wanted is a cusper movie, and by the end of it the main character has crafted a career for himself which is not unlike being in a real world first person shooter. McAvoy is a late wave Xer, but I imagined he was living the dream of the video game addicted Millennial beta male – perhaps the target audience.

I followed that by watching 2016’s Nerve, in which Millennial Emma Roberts is a shy high school student who decides to court notoriety by joining an underground Internet game of truth or dare – really just the dare part with obligatory smartphone recorded proof. It’s an action movie like the previous one but not murderously violent, rated PG-13 instead of R.

In Nerve the lure of a high-risk, action-packed life isn’t a call to destiny but a trap, and the characters must ultimately test rivalry against loyalty in their quest to find a way out. I also thought it was the better of the two films, with more likable characters and a more sure-footed plot. It belongs in the ranks of films based on juvenile literature in which Millennials band together against a hostile externally imposed system (The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner), but with the notable twist that the system isn’t some sci-fi dystopia but rather a plausible creature of our own social media-driven times.

In summary, they’re both flashy action flicks, but in attitude and message represent the difference between the brassy, individualistic Gen-Xer and the group-oriented, approval-seeking Millennial.

 

 

Monday Night Football Will Never Be The Same

Monday Night Football Will Never Be The Same

Here is what I think about the “NFL players kneeling for the anthem controversy,” which in this bizarre time of psychosocial media warfare is a thing. First off I will say that I have never witnessed this phenomenon live, as I do not watch football. I have only seen images in my social media feeds. Second, I will say that kneeling is not disrespectful. After all, one kneels before royalty, or before God.

In fact, the story as I understand it is that a young man named Colin Kaepernick first sat during the anthem in protest of police shootings of unarmed young black men, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. He began kneeling instead of sitting after a conversation with a former NFL player and veteran, who suggested kneeling as a way to protest respectfully. In other words, the kneeling players are intending to be respectful, while exercising a right to protest.

Now you might question whether a football game is the place for a protest. I have some personal exposure to football fans who are offended by the kneelers, and it seems that mainly they are annoyed about having their game experience tainted. They came for football and they got politics, which is upsetting. That is understandable.

But sometimes they also complain that the protesters are entitled crybabies who are disrespecting the flag and the armed services. This is overblown to me, for the reasons I gave above, but that could just be my bias. Or it could be that people’s outrage is being stoked by social media bots. Those pesky Russians are at it again, undermining our civic order.

Years and years ago I posted a chart which attempted to define the sides in the Culture War – the “red zone” and “blue zone” as colored by the contentious 2000 elections. After all this time the war rages on in social media, in a kind of playground shouting match where each side accuses the other of being “snowflakes” for not accepting the other’s point of view, and shelters in the safe space of their media bubble.

Let’s allow that the NFL kneelers are blue zoners, and their detractors are red zoners. Maybe what’s bothering the red zoners is that they’re having to face the blue zone in a public arena which they thought was a safe space for their MAGA reality. Monday Night Football is supposed to be patriotic and all-American! Now they’re seeing all these protesting blue zoners who can’t be easily unfollowed or blocked like on a Facebook feed. The only safe space they have left is a Trump rally.

When I look at the kneelers, I see solidarity and courage in a group of empowered Millennials. It’s fitting that black athletes in professional sports use their prominent position to support justice for other young black men who are less privileged. And the tide appears to be turning in their favor. I’m glad for that, but that’s just my bias showing.

Shin Godzilla: A Movie for Our Times

Shin Godzilla: A Movie for Our Times

I wanted to share my thoughts about a remarkable film: the latest Godzilla flick from Toho, called Shin Godzilla, or Godzilla Resurgence, directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. It is a disaster movie, inspired to a great degree by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake (fourth most powerful on record) and subsequent tsunami and nuclear disaster, which ravaged north-eastern Japan. The movie has turned out to be immensely popular, winning many awards and grossing more than any other Toho Godzilla film.

The original 1954 Godzilla was a reaction to Japan’s World War II experience, particularly the annihilation of her cities by the U.S.’s nuclear-bombing missions. Godzilla was an incarnation of U.S. military power, and Japan was reliving the trauma of her defeat by America in the movie and its sequels. With this new version, the giant monster has become an incarnation of the fury of nature herself, and the film highlights the fragility of civilization and the complications faced by modern governments dealing with disaster in an age of massive urbanization and instant communication.

As such it is a tale of humanity entering the 21st century, leaving behind an earlier age and its wars and legacies, and facing new dangers and difficulties. Natural disasters loom large in an era of climate change and rapid population growth, with coastal megacities – where the bulk of humanity resides – being especially vulnerable. The destruction wrought by the latest form of Godzilla on the screen could be the destruction caused by Japan’s great earthquake, or that caused by the hurricanes which have wrecked the Gulf Coast of America in recent years.

This astonishing and heart-rending video much more compellingly makes the same point:

The key concept for survival in the 21st century threat environment is resilience, and in Godzilla Resurgence the bureaucratically hidebound government lacks this quality. This leads to shake ups in the power structure and a shift in focus from the aged officials to a team of creative young scientists and a savvy young diplomat who makes a deal with the U.S. government. With the risk of saying too much, I’ll just add that this final plot element brings back the specter of nuclear attack.

A final note about the film is to credit its brilliant score, by composer Shirō Sagisu. The music is haunting and powerful, and though difficult to make out under the orchestral instrumentation, on many of the tracks there are stirring vocals. One can easily imagine these lyrics over any of the scenes of horror and destruction that fill contemporary news feeds.

In the United States this movie was not widely distributed in theaters. I was lucky to have the chance to see it twice on the big screen. But you can get it on disc through your usual outlets and I highly recommend it if you like monster movies, or disaster movies, or movies that are relevant to our times.

Enjoying an old TV show – Smallville

Enjoying an old TV show – Smallville

I’m up in PA for a bit and the boy wants to watch as much Smallville as we can get in while I am here. He says it’s his favorite Superman story because Clark Kent is not overpowered compared to his adversaries. The girl mostly likes it because Tom Welling is such a cutie, but she’s so exhausted from her work days that she usually falls asleep during the episodes anyway.

I like the way it neatly bridges the transition from the Gen-X youth era, as exemplified by a similar TV series, into the Millennial youth era. The other series to which I refer is (you may have guessed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which like Smallville has a superpowered chief protagonist who attends high school in a town where weird things happen. In Buffy the preternatural events occur because of a gate to Hell, whereas in Smallville they are because of a meteor impact. In both shows the main characters depend on as well as protect a cadre of loyal peers, and there is ample high school relationship drama.

What’s neat is that the characters in Buffy are from the class of 1999, the last Gen-Xer high school class, while the characters in Smallville are part of the first wave of Millennial high school grads. Granted, Clark Kent is portrayed by a Gen-Xer (Tom Welling was born in 1977), but the supporting cast of friends and love interests are almost all first wave Millennials. Overall the characters seem more well-adjusted, more outgoing and less angst-ridden than the characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Smallville characters with emotional issues who exhibit antisocial behavior turn out to be the episode’s bad guy and often meet unfortunate ends.

You can really see the contrast in the families of the main characters. Buffy has a fraught relationship with her single mother, who is usually too busy to be involved with her daughter’s life and doesn’t even realize she is a Vampire-slayer until later in the series (sorry for the spoiler). But Clark’s Mom and Dad are together, invested in helping him with his powers and fully present in every episode. The Kents are a quintessentially American midwestern family, corny and endearingly wholesome.

I’ve heard that the series changes format and gets darker in later seasons; so far I’ve only seen Season One episodes. For now we’re enjoying what feels to me like part of the early 2000s television coming of age of the Millennial generation. I guess Glee could be next…

 

Solar Eclipse Timing

Solar Eclipse Timing

This is where I went to watch the solar eclipse, up in the mountains in North Carolina.

I didn’t take any pictures of the actual eclipse, just enjoyed it as it happened. I was in the path of totality, but not the center line, so it became dark like twilight, with sunset colors at every degree of the horizon.

Now I am back at my house in Cary, which has *almost* completed reconstruction since the water leak. Just a few little things left. And all my possessions are returned, but still in boxes. So feeling like I am at a crossroads. Going to give it a little thought, with this astrology article in mind.

Reddit Thread of the Week: KKK Starter Pack

Reddit Thread of the Week: KKK Starter Pack

I like to go to reddit to get a feel for the zeitgeist, since that is where, in my estimate, Millennials go to speak their minds. It is one of the Internet’s top sites (in terms of traffic) and is the only site in the ‘discussion forum’ format to reach the traffic rankings of popular social media platforms and search engines.

Reddit’s system of upvoting and downvoting posts causes popular opinions to percolate to the top of the comments, and unpopular ones to be suppressed. In this way a consensus will be reached on the topic of a thread – a phenomenon known as the “reddit hivemind.”

Users register under pseudonyms, disguising their real-world identity, which for a young generation used to intensive scrutiny of their online life, means more freedom to speak openly (one side-effect of this is that conversations often drift into topics that might be described as ‘not fit for polite company’). And heavy modding to expurgate abusive posts makes the site something of a safe-space.

With these considerations, I will occasionally post about a reddit thread which I think is particularly interesting, amusing, or relevant. This week’s thread relates to this weekend’s incidents of protest and violence in Virginia:

The 2017 KKK Starter Pack

You can see this post is making fun of Friday night’s torchlight march in Charlottesville by white nationalists – all young, preppy looking men who could hardly be from an oppressed minority, but apparently think that they are. Further links and comments in the post develop this theme. The image of the “starter pack” (see below) suggests a partisan group of reactionary and unimaginative people who just want to gather together with their own kind.

In fact, Trump-supporting Millennials on reddit do have a safe-space – a “subreddit” (like a discussion category) where they can enjoy their own alternate hivemind. Here is a post about media coverage of the deadly violence which ensued the next day, where you can see that they do indeed feel like an embattled minority.

But don’t they know that it is absurd for men to march, waving swastika flags and shouting ‘Heil Trump!’ in 2017 America? Yet there it is to be seen, in the videos of the Charlottesville protests which are amply available online. Emboldened by their capture of the Presidency, white nationalists are goading their opponents and raising the stakes in the battle for this country’s future.

But listen to the hivemind: they are on the losing side in the long run. Their chosen messiah is so mindbogglingly incompetent that we may just be witnessing their last gasp of self-destruction. That is certainly my hope, and I hope white nationalism expires with as little more violence as possible.

My Summer Vacation

My Summer Vacation

This post is about a long vacation taken with my dear friend Aileen, which included a road trip to Chicago and then a four-day weekend in New York City. We did so many things in two weeks that I am calling it a “craycation” – the opposite of a staycation.

For the trip to Chicago, we rented an SUV, since we were transporting ourselves, three boys, and a large kaiju costume. Why, you ask? We were on our way to G-Fest, the world’s largest gathering of Godzilla and Japanese monster fans! I have to thank Aileen for letting me share her kids, since I don’t have any biological children, but believe that it is fitting in my stage of life to assume some sort of fatherly responsibility for the next generation.

Well I was certainly given that chance, and it was a test of my endurance and my tolerance. It’s a challenge for me to be in a family because I have been alone for almost all of my adult life. Part of the logic of renting a full-sized SUV was knowing we would all be in close quarters for a week and could use the extra space. When the kids asked about its fuel efficiency I said, “It gets ‘Murica miles per gallon!”

We drove to Chicago via Pittsburgh and Cleveland, stopping at no fewer than four different museums on the way. The first was Fort Pitt in Pittsburgh, because I like history – so get you some history, boys!

Pittsburgh skyline
Pittsburgh is quite a lovely city

There was also the Living Dead Museum in Evans City, where George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was filmed, including a visit to the cemetery where the first scene was shot.

In Cleveland we visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is a lot of fun, and if you could make only one of these stops I would recommend this one. As we got closer to Chicago, Aileen discovered this place in a brochure at a rest area, and it became our bonus museum.

Titanosaurus has been spotted on the outskirts of Cleveland!

Once we got to G-Fest, Gavin joined us by plane. Then it was three+ days of monster fun, including movies, art, action figures, our second annual victory in the Kaiju Assault tournament, and of course the costume contest.

The return to PA was accomplished in an epic 13-hour drive in one day, made easier by the audio book of Watership Down.  But there wasn’t much time for rest for Aileen and I, as we next drove to New York City to attend a Broadway teachers’ conference.  This was for her work, and I was attending for companionship, learning, and to see some shows!

There were workshops, including learning dance moves from one of the dance captains from Hamilton, and other kinds of educational workshops which were new to me, although old hat for Aileen. There were talks and chances to learn about what life is like for professionals in the Broadway world.

And then there were shows, the two best of which were Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away.  Oh, and let’s not forget a stop off at Madame Tussauds. 🙂

And just like that two weeks are over and this exhausted bear has to get back to the grind.  Five museums, two conferences, seven stage shows and three movies later the bank account feels starved.

Titanosaurus roaming the halls at G-Fest

I am so grateful to Aileen for letting me into her family, for giving me the opportunity to tell Dad jokes while driving a gas-guzzling SUV down the hot and crowded highways of post-modern America, and experience a family vacation with all its tensions and dramas and excitement and joy. I’ve been alone most of my life, and I feel like I’ve missed out on much of what life has to offer, a fate for which I am fully responsible, since it all came out of choices I have made.

But I look around, and see how lucky we are to be alive right now. Our generation is at its peak in life, and we are making our mark in entertainment and in business and in politics, and it’s messy and it’s scary, but that’s just how my generation grew up to be, so we’ll just have to go down the road and see where it takes us. As my career continues to ascend, new possibilities open up for a life the feels like it has only just begun.

This is why I vacation like I’m running out of time, ’cause there’s a million things I haven’t done. But just you wait.

Reno Has Begun

Reno Has Begun

The renovation of the house is underway as I continue my luxurious hotel lifestyle. At least we picked paint colors to appease the water spirits-