Thursday, April 30, 2009

Beating a Dead Horse is Not a Hate Crime

I've harped about gay marriage before, and I only revisit it now for three reasons: first is an article (with embedded video) about Congresswoman Virginia Foxx referring to Matthew Shepard's brutal 1998 murder as a hoax (specifically, she denies that sexual orientation was a motivation in the murder, not that he was murdered or that he was gay). Second, with Iowa, Connecticut, and New York throwing their hats into the ring, the issues is obviously still relevant.

I'll get to the third reason shortly.

The opposition to gay marriage is--at least at face value--pretty easy to debunk. The reasons are largely rooted in religion, or at least questionable moralizing, and it may simply suffice to say something lofty like "why exactly should I be beholden to your god?" There's also the odd slippery-slope argument, saying that legalizing gay marriage would lead to adult-child marriage or inter-species marriage, and my refutations of those range from "no it doesn't" to "no it doesn't, moron." Moving a boundary is not the same thing as erasing a boundary. In other words, if Mexico wanted to join the U.S., that doesn't automatically mean that we have to admit Guatemala.

That said, legalizing gay marriage is an affront to the status quo rather than a defense, so a few supportive arguments are in order. A handful of them might be:
  • Marriage as an institution predates recorded history, thus it cannot be claimed as a religious institution (at least, not by any specific, modern religion), so it is not for any religion to define it.
  • Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, et al, are allowed to marry, and their non-Christian (or non-Buddhist or non-Muslim) marriages are legally recognized the world over.
  • Marriage is a legal arrangement, not a religious rite (although some weddings are religious ceremonies, but not all). In fact, the earliest marriages were probably inter-family business arrangements having no bearing on god or even love, for that matter.
  • Priests and preachers are granted extra legal powers to perform weddings. Justices of the Peace don't get extra religious powers to perform the same ceremony.
  • Tax laws treat married couples differently and by excluding gay couples, we are engaging in de facto tax discrimination.
  • Married or not, gay couples share property, finances, etc, and it is impractical to not give them legal claim to each others' estate and body in the event of a death or medical emergency.
  • Half of marriages end in divorce, so exactly what is sacred about it?
  • etc
  • etc
  • etc
Pretty solid. We've heard them all before. And, to be fair, most reasonably intelligent people who oppose gay marriage agree with the above reasons. They support civil unions, etc, that provide the legal protections of marriage, but, curiously, they still oppose gay marriage. I've heard this twice in the last month. There are people who are all for equal treatment under the law, but they don't want to share the word "marriage". And this, my friends, is the aforementioned third thing.

Part of me wants to concede. It's a good compromise. Gays get their legal stuff, conservatives get to keep the sanctity of their label. But something about it gnaws at the morally deterministic part of my brain says "nice try, fellas, but I don't buy it."

I mean, what if it wasn't gays? What if it was Jews? What if it was blacks? Better still, suppose we weren't talking about marriage but rather some other area in which religion and the law both dabble. Suppose the Calvinists took over Congress, declared the Pope to be the Antichrist (which--there's a historical precedence for that sort of thing) and said that the U.S. would no longer recognize Catholics as Christians. Oh, they'd still be allowed to have mass, and parishes could still operate tax-free and officiate funeral services or weddings (...pause for irony... end pause). However, because they aren't protestant, they aren't allowed to call themselves "Christians" anymore. Would that be right? Or even sensible? Of course not. Even if public opinion supported the Calvinists, it would still be wrong. So why is "civil union" suddenly a viable alternative to "marriage"?

Think about Brown v Topeka, in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of any kind was unconstitutional, and more importantly that there was no such thing as separate-but-equal. How about an appeal to fear? And by that I mean that compromising with homophobes over nomenclature has kind of a negotiating-with-terrorists air about it. Don't you think? Seriously, I could do this all day.

I digress. So, okay, here it is in a nutshell. This is why I'm convinced that gay marriage should be allowed without alternate labels, without deferring to anyone's religious views, without any of that nonsense. At the end of the day, it's just another way to make people different. The whole argument could be rephrased as: "I can't think of a rational justification to exclude them, but I still don't think they should be allowed in my club." And that is simply, unequivocally wrong.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Open Letter From an Unborn Child to His (Her) Shrink

Found this transcript of a conversation between my future child and his or her psychiatrist:

DOCTOR: Tell me about your childhood.

OFFSPRING: It's like this, at some point before I was born, my mother started baking cupcakes. It turns out she was good at it, so she made them all the time. That didn't go so well with my father.

DOCTOR: Your father doesn't like cupcakes?

OFFSPRING: No, he likes them, but he really hates cleaning out muffin tins.

DOCTOR: And he always had to do the dishes?

OFFSPRING: Only for stuff that mom made. But since she was making cupcakes like every week, he was constantly washing the muffin tins. And he hated it, so he started making cupcakes so she would have to wash the muffin tins, you know, to give her a taste of her own medicine. Only it didn't work. So there was this ongoing war of baked goods in my house until I moved out when I was 18. Even then, there were always mountains of confections around when I'd come home to visit.

DOCTOR: And that's why you're heavy?

OFFSPRING: I would think so, yeah.


PS - Abby, I don't actually feel this way about the muffin tins, I just thought it was funny. Love you (don't kill me). -K

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fun on Twitter

Fun on Twitter; for best results, read backwards:

  1. Bob LefsetzLefsetz@kurtharsis Sense of humor is always appealing, worked for Josh Freese!

  2. Kurt Pankau
    kurtharsis@Lefsetz Dear Bob. My band sucks.
  3. Bob LefsetzLefsetzWARNING!-Never ever hype your own material to me, it's the kiss of death.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Filter

Back in the day, it was easy for consumers, hard for producers. If it was on the shelf at your local shop-all, it was worthy of purchase. Maybe it wasn't for you per se, but it had made it past the filter and into the stores, so you it had to be worth something. The Internet leveled the playing field. Suddenly, anyone can publish a book, sell music, distribute merchandise, move product. Only, the thing is, the playing field didn't actually get leveled.

It got reversed. It got easy to produce, but it got difficult to consume.

There's so much crap out there that it gets difficult to sort it all out. These days, one of the most valuable tools of the web is the filter--I'm not talking about a software filter, I mean this: Where do you get your information? What websites do you visit and why do you visit them? Where do you find new music? News?  The filter holds the signal up away from the noise, the rouing from the rabble.

News has been a big one lately--I recently unsubscribed from CNN's breaking news feeds because they informed me that Ashton Kutscher had won the race to a million followers on Twitter and also who won the NCAA basketball tournament, but neglected to inform me that Phil Spector went to jail.

This was a problem for me, because I don't watch television and one needs to get breaking news somewhere, I suppose (this weekend has been a great example of that; there's been this whole swine flu thing that has been elevated to a national health emergency by the CDC, and there are still people who have only vaguely heard--if at all--what's going on because it's happening over a weekend).

Wow. A semi-colon, a couple em dashes and a parenthesis all in one half of a sentence-as-paragraph. Must revisit style guidelines. Anywho.

And television news is worthless, anyway. The nature of the format prevents anything like in depth coverage, and lately it's sunk into sensationalism and tabloid-imitation. Even once-trusted names like the aforementioned CNN are losing their credibility. And newsprint is nearly dead, so how does one keep informed? How does one stay ahead of the curve. The usual suspects for we-of-the-web, Digg and Slashdot and the like, are good but they're tech-slanted in a way that is prohibitive for an audience over 40.

Recently, I've found BNO news, which is essentially a wire service that Twitters. You can't follow them, though--they post way, way too frequently--but I've got their output plugged into my RSS reader, so I'm officially overinformed. Which is how I like to be. This is all well and good, but it's Twitter-centric, so there are a few problems: a) for all the great output, there's still not a page where you can just go and see what's happening or do a convenient news search, that is, if you don't already Twitter, it's not going to be immediately useful to you, and b) as such it falls under the rubric of "Web 2.0", whose future is presently uncertain.

Don't get me wrong, user-generated content is great (actualy 98% of it's shit, but that's another post), there's just no money in it. Which means all these Web 2.0 sites (Facebook, Twitter, et al) may very well come crashing down in five years. Christ, YouTube lost half a billion dollars last year. Billion with a "B".

Ed's note: the word "Christ" is here used as an ephithet. There was no joint venture between YouTube and Jesus Christ. Not that we know of, anyway.

There is no recognized go-to, just lots of aggregators that are as much laugh-factories as they are news outlets. Which, frankly, is what TV news had become anyway, so kudos to the web for not taking too long to arrive at its inevitable conslusion.  So here's the dilemma, and I think it's microcosmic of the whole Internet situation, not just news: there once was a system that worked, it is being replaced by a system that appears to work but has no long-term stability built into it's model and no immediately apparent mode for achieving that stability.


Saturday, April 25, 2009


It's alumni weekend and I'm back in Fulton for the festivities. Only right now it's 8 in the morning and I'm in Columbia. Regardless, I've come up with, like, a dozen things to tweet about but rapid-fire tweeting just seems... I dunno, misplaced? Also, most of them are griping about the hotel room. So I will just list a smattering here:

  • Dear Travelodge: this is not $90 worth of room, included wi-fi notwithstanding.
  • Okay, the room is only moderately scuzzy, at least the door to this one closes.
  • Comfy bed, no outwardly visible cigarette burns (in a non-smoking room no less), dead yellow jacket on the floor. Kind of a mixed bag, here.
  • The shower head comes to my shoulder. My shoulder! I'm used to stooping, but Jesus.
  • I'm tall, but 6'2 is not record-setting, 'sall I'm saying.
  • I find the term "continental breakfast" deceptive. Aren't continents big?
  • Waiting for someone to make a swine flu joke, something about it being apropos that it originated in Mexico.
  • Is it too soon to make swine flu jokes?
  • Ah, ah, ah, Timmy, soylent green are people.
  • Paul Krugman, what are you doing blogging at this hour on a Saturday?
Okay, now I'm boring myself. Good weekend all.


Friday, April 24, 2009

I Got Your LOL Right Here

So the acme of Web 2.0 seems to be (to me, anyway) the user-driven-themed-funny-picture blog.  This seems to have started with I Can Has Cheezburger and broadened to a whole host of weird sites.  Here's a smattering:

  1. I Can Has Cheezburger - the original cat LOL-er
  2. Failblog - owned, pwned, epic fails
  3. Engrish - badly translated signs
  4. Engrish Funny - the cheezburger network's engrish site
  5. This is Why You're Fat - food that will kill you
  6. Pundit Kitchen - LOL politics... LOLiticians?
  7. Photobomb - that guy standing over your shoulder making faces at you
  8. Picture is Unrelated - wtf pictures?
  9. Unnecessary Quotes - what do you mean "unnecessary"
  10. Hot Chicks with Douchebags - 'nuff said
  11. Cake Wrecks - professionally made cakes that look horrific
  12. Graph Jam - fun with numbers (a riff on Jessica Hagy's highly amusing Indexed blog)
  13. Crummy Church Signs
  14. It's Lovely, I'll Take It - horrible real estate listings
  15. Totally Looks Like - x totally looks like y
  16. Loldogs - never got into these
  17. Go Fug Yourself - beautiful people in ugly outfits
  18. ROFLrazzi - LOL celebs
  19. Apostrophe Abuse
  20. Bad Parking
  21. Say What!? - curious signs
  22. License 2 Rant - license plates
Seriously, there's tons of these.  Several are plastered with ads, and I can't help but wonder if they make any money.  Probably not.  Maybe the cheezburger network, but that's about it.

Anybody think of anything I missed?  I'll rephrase, anything good that I missed?


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bye Bye Texas

The governor of Texas made a statement on Tax Day in which he obliquely referred to the possibility of Texas seceding from the union. As a former (dare I say it--seceded) Texan, I feel the need to continue the discussion. First, I will toss a link to a video Ron Paul made saying that secession isn't un-American. He relates some interesting points.

For the sake of semantics, let me just say secession is un-American by definition, however, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Paul's argument is basically that when most of the states joined the U.S.A., they did so with the understanding that they would be able to secede later if they decided that independence would be better. He points out that no one really believes that anymore since the Civil War, and some other nifty tid-bits: that New England came very close to seceding at one point and that the pledge of allegiance was penned in 1892 by a socialist and the word "indivisible" was put in there as a reflection of the author's socialist dogma. Then at the tip of the tail-end of the video, Congressman Paul says that there will be more talk of secession when the dollar collapses.

First, I went to high school in Texas and the idea that Texans feel like they can just secede whenever they want to is not only true, it's grossly understated here. I was taught that very thing in high school. Nevermind that Texas did secede and was forced back in via a brutal and bloody war. The supposed right of secession is a point of pride, and it contributes to that uniquely Texan mindset. Seriously, it's a very different state, and a lot of that has less to do with the "everything's bigger in Texas" cliche than with the fact that it used to be an independent nation. And I'm not being derogatory. Texans are very normal people, but Texas is a world apart (back me up, y'all).

And it's funny that money is being cited as a potential cause right now, because money was a huge motivating factor in Texas' joining the union to begin with. Here's another point of Texan pride: Texas is big, but it used to be bigger! Denver, Colorado, is in a strip of land that used to be part of Texas. But about half the land was sold to pay off debts and Texas joined up because, amongst other reasons, their currency was worthless.

I do think it's interesting that Dr. Paul seems to regard the crash of the dollar as a foregone conclusion. Be that as it may, if the dollar were to crash, that could be seen a strong motivator for states to secede, but it would mandate the creation of regional currencies. Here's where we have a host of problems. The lesson to be taken from Europe right now (and arguably from California as well) is that a government needs to be able to control its own currency in a crisis. The flip side of that is that with multiple currencies, cross-border commerce becomes complicated.

Sidenote: under the Articles of Confederation the U.S. states had control of their currencies and it was supposedly quite hard on commerce. Or so I learned from my high school history teacher. One of the same teachers who taught us that whole Texas-can-secede-if-it-wants-what-do-you-mean-the-Civil-War-contradicts-that bit. I digress.

So one wants to find a happy medium. It might not make sense for Texas to secede, but it might make sense for Texas and a few others to secede. I've long espoused the idea that the U.S. should split into three countries: an East Coast, a West Coast, and the middle. My reasoning is twofold:

  1. The U.S. is large, and that adds a logistical complication to any legislative process.
  2. Most controversial issues are divided along lines that are bound by geography.
  3. Caveat to above: we seem incapable of not handling controversial issues at a federal level.
So I largely agree with Dr. Paul. It's a subject that merits some discussion, and whether or not secession is un-American notwithstanding (it would be different if we had a history of letting people join and leave willy-nillly), the discussion of it certainly wouldn't be.  I guess what I (and a slew of Texans, it seems) resent is that the option is automatically off the table because... well...

Hell if i know why.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Onion Gets Extra Surreal

This is the best one of these yet. There's a link below if you're having trouble with the embed.

Should We Be Doing More To Reduce The Graphic Violence In Our Dreams?


Monday, April 20, 2009

Platformer? I Hardly Know Her

So I spent a healthy dollup of the weekend playing Braid, a game released to much acclaim on XBox Live a year ago that is finally available on PC, care of Steam.  I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and now I know.  Braid is... well, I don't want to label it "great" so much as "intriguing".  It frustrated me beyond belief, but I kept coming back to it.

I don't want to give anything away, so if my description seems vague, sorry.  It's a 2D puzzle-platformer with a time dynamic similar to that of Prince of Persia.  In an added twist, time controls vary per world, in world 3, for example, there are enemies and items that are immune to your rewind controls, persistently moving forward even as the world around them is rewinding.  This is arguably the least-interesting variation, but I'll leave it at that because a big part of the joy of the game is in discovering the gameplay.

Indeed, like Portal, this game is in many ways a prolonged tutorial, gently introducing the player to gameplay elements without ever stopping to tell you how to play.  The game opens with a playable title screen, in which you are standing on a bridge, and the player immediately realizes that this is a 2D platformer.  Most worlds open with a level called "The Pit" that is essentially a sandbox for you to discover and sort out the particulars of the unique time dynamic for that level.  This dynamic is woven thematically into the story of the game--for example, in World 2 the player discovers the rewind function, and the title of the world is "Time and Forgiveness".  Being able to rewind time allows the player to accomplish platforming feats that would be cruelly difficult in a standard platformer.

In this way, Braid seems at all times to be keenly aware of itself--almost mockingly.  You solve platform puzzles and are reward with puzzle pieces.  Plot and gameplay interact thematically, not through cutscenes--for 95% of the it, what you do in the game has absolutely nothing to do with the story, but the concepts being explored in the gameplay are intimately linked to plot themes.  One of the key features is time control, so you start the game in World 2 and have to work towards World 1.  It is first and foremost a platformer, and it pays more than one homage to the genre-defining Super Mario Bros.  Your main enemies (that you defeat by stomping on them) are little brown hairy dudes that bear more than a passing resemblance to goombas.  There are chomping plants that come out of pipes.  There's a sidequest to collect stars.  Also, you're traveling to castles in search of a princess and these castles have flags in front of them.

Incidentally, the flags at said castles are international maritime flags.  This is not hugely pertinent; it's there for those who notice.  But the flag meanings are part of the story, if you care to look that deep.  In fact, there is an incredible amount of depth to the story and it's totally optional.  There's the functional story: find your princess.  Then there's the narrative, which has a rather startling twist if you pay attention during the final stage.  But then the narrative can be interpretted as a metaphor for something else that is hinted at at various points in the game.  Again, it's there to add to the richness, but it never gets in the way.

Braid is confounding and philosophical, it's at once a celebration and repudiation of its predecessors, and it's simultaneously unique and familiar.  It's gorgeously artistic, and at the same time it's a friggin' 2D platformer.  But check it out anyway, because it is one of the most singularly interesting games you'll ever visit.


Friday, April 17, 2009

We've Got Spirit, Yes We Do

So Frank Miller shat on a page and called it a script, then filmed it using style elements that he ripped off (badly) from Robert Rodriguez (who's not exactly a stellar director to begin with), pissed a millions dollars worth of bad make-up and CGI into it, had the whole sh'bang seared to celluloid in the flames of Hell and called it a movie.

Put another way, Samuel L. Jackson escaped the Star Wars prequels with his uber-cool intact, but even he couldn't emerge unscathed from The Spirit.

Somehow the stench off this turd wasn't quite foul enough to keep me away, so it found its way into my Netflix queue, was delivered by some poor, unsuspecting postman (...or woman... post-person...?), and placed, as if by accident, in my wholly unprepared DVD player. Okay, in all honesty, it was the train-wreck aspect that drew me to it, like a moth to a flaming bag of poo, but at least I knew what I was getting into.

And the best I can say for it is that it's not painful to watch. It was never claw-your-eyes out painful, at least. But it was really, really, really bad. Curiously bad, even. Almost humorously bad, actually. But not bad enough to warrant multiple viewings (read as: "not Ed-Wood bad"[the director, not the Tim Burton film (woo, too many nested braces{!})]), but pretty damned bad.

I don't want to "review" it. In a way, I already have, just look at the first paragraph. But it's a curious failure. When it tried to be cool, it came across as stupid. When it tried to cut loose and be a little stupid, it came across as really, really stupid. Shots were painstakingly composed, but even when that sort of worked the narrative would get in the way. Case in point, I remember a flashback scene in which a young Sand Seriff is walking away down an alley, her figure in black silhouette against a red background. It was striking, although a bit jarring coming off an orange-ish-brown dialog sequence. But if we could have lingered there, and if perhaps the transition had been a bit more subtle, it might have worked. But then the camera cut away to the other character and then back. Narrative gets in the way.

Which is a shame, because at no point in this film does the narrative ever work on its own right.

After finishing the movie, I started the commentary track. I was curious. Will Miller have the stones to own up to making a horrible film? Short answer: no. Longer answer: after five minutes it became evident that the film's merits were a foregone conclusion. They handled its awfulness by simply ignoring it. If Miller had turned around and said "look, I perhaps bit off a little more than I could chew" or "this is what I was trying to do and I realize now that it didn't pan out the way I'd planned" or "maybe I could have spent a little less time storyboarding and little more time directing my actors," he might have earned back a little of my respect.

For great examples of this in action, check out the commentaries for UHF and Mallrats, both very entertaining commentary tracks for movies that underperformed. In both cases, the talent talks about why things didn't work out, what they were trying to do, what things worked well and why they were or weren't happy with the finished product. Incidentally, both of those films scored in the 50's on RottenTomatoes and now have cult followings. I doubt The Spirit will earn a cult following, and it's RT score is, last I checked, 14%. If you can't admit that it wasn't well-received, then you're wasting all of our time.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Open Letter to the Scattered Conservatives Re Cuba

Dear Conservatives:

You may have heard that President Obama is taking steps that may lead to normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba. This may alarm you, but before you immediately lash back, think of the positives. All those cigars you smoke will become legal, for instance. Furthermore, the sanctions we enacted to force the Communists out of power may very well have prevented Cuba from ever Democratizing, which means Obama may ultimately achieve what you've been trying for years (and failing) to achieve by way of the CIA and economic torture. Did I mention failure? Bay of Pigs? Failure. All those assassination attempts? Failure. Yeah, all that shit.

But don't get upset, trust us. The democratic process has resulted in the election of a leader who will actually do what you want, in spite of the fact that you don't believe he's an American citizen (doubly ironic when one considers that John McCain was born in Panama). Go back to bed, watch your American Idol, sing your patriotic songs, have some tea (too soon), and let the adults drive for a while.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pirate Application

Dear Sir or Matey:

My name is Kurt "DeathBeard" Pankau, and I am a junior level Java developor in the St. Louis area.  I learned of the opportunity for Ensign Pirate through your ad on Craigslist and I would like to apply for the position.

I have several years experience swabbing decks while working at my parents' bed and breakfast.  I've been studying seamanship and swordplay in my spare time since I was a teenager.  I am adept at singing pirate songs, running people through, and am computer literate.

I think this opportunity could be a good fit for me because I enjoy grog, terror on the high seas, and the outdoors.  I am a quick learner and would be willing to relocate.  Please don't hesitate to contact me at home (or on my mobile) to arrange an interview.

Find my resume attached,

Kurt J. "DeathBeard" Pankau


Monday, April 13, 2009

Things I Did With My Weekend

Wore a Snuggie backwards like a robe, without remorse or irony.

Played chess.  Won.

Taught my mother how to use an iPod.

Figured out a better way to defend the terminal in L4D's Dead Air campaign (don't stay at the escalator, there's a nook across the room with fewer access points and a stock of molotov's--much better).

Slept for eleven hours straight.

Arranged 3 drum parts.

Listened to a new record.  Twice.

Celebrated two birthdays.

...'sabout it.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Not That Kind of Blues Music, Actually

Moving slowly but surely alphabetically through the playlist, we've arrived at the Blues. First, three songs called Blue, one by The Follow, one from Cowboy Bebop, and one by A Perfect Circle. Then we move onto some more obscure stuff with Blue Angel by Squirrel Nut Zippers, Vienna Teng's Blue Caravan, and Five Iron Frenzy's Blue Comb '78.

After that, we get into stuff you might actually have heard of, Cary Brothers' Blue Eyes from the Garden State soundtrack and The Beatles' Blue Jay Way. Finish it off with Bowie's Blue Jean, Orgy's cover of Blue Monday (I don't have the New Order version), The White Stripes' Blue Orchid and finish in obscurity with the Jonathan Coulton track that came out a few weeks ago: Blue Sunny Sky.

Not many more run-together similar titles until we get into the C's, but not before we get through Bring, Bullet, and Burn. B's should end with Red Hot Chili Peppers' By the Way and C's should start with C Moon by Wings (that's post-Beatles' McCartney, for the uninitiated).

Slogging on. Odd that I don't have Blues Power. Huh. Don't really feel like correcting that, though. Whatever.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Reznor on Digg

If you have any interest in the current state of the music industry, check out the Digg Dialogg with Trent Reznor.

It's about 40 minutes long, but it doesn't ever get boring.  My favorite bits were Trent's casual dismissive non-denial of geekdom ("It's been reported," he says) and the fact that on two occasions he accidentally said "permutation" instead of "permeation" and then corrected himself.  Also, he fidgets.  A lot.

That aside, it's very thoughtful and informative.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Thinking About the Future

Back to the Future, Part II is such an awkward middle child, and yet such a great movie.  I like it so much more than Part I, in spite of (perhaps because of) it having no beginning and no end.  Unfortunately, it has not aged well, due in no small part to its depiction of the year 2015.  It got a few things right, such as the wave of 80's nostalgia (anyone see Adventureland this weekend?) and some--though not all--of the advances in cosmetic surgery (i.e., Doc Brown's face job?).  But it's 2009 now and we're getting close enough to see how much Robert Zimeckis and company screwed up.

Now, obviously, this was a fantastical movie that was never intended to be a serious look forward at tech trends; it was escapist fun with--wooooohooooo--hoverboards and a flying DeLorean.  Still, it's an engaging exercise to take a gander at what they got wrong because their assumptions about the future were very reflective of that time, and we can learn a little something about ourselves.  Furthermore, by asking ourselves why certain hot ideas didn't catch on, it might tell us about what will happen.  We can ignore, for now, the giant fake shark in the Marty-attacking preview for Jaws 19.  Digression: anybody catch Monsters vs. Aliens in 3-D last week?

Fashion - oddly enough, a lot of Grif's crew and their apparel bore more than a passing resemblance to the goth movement (albeit a highly new-wave influenced goth movement... if such a thing is possible).  The doubled-tie thing was a bit off, but a lot of the street-clothed background characters were normal-ish.  Sort of.  Disregarding style, however, it's the clothing tech that's really far off.  Grif's crew all had electronics worked into their clothes (or their bodies).  Marty's clothes were self-adjusting and self-drying.  Why hasn't this caught on?  Well, one reason is that anything with motors in it is going to add weight to the clothing, and nobody likes heavy clothing.  Also, unless the weight is evenly distributed, their going to be heavy and awkward.  Beyond that, there's not incentive to make size-adjusting clothing when an article of clothing is going to be worn by one person over and over.  It's less costly to just make individual sizes.

Voice Recognition - BTTF2 sported some top of the line voice recognition software, from hats that listened to police officers and displayed their speech in lights on the brim (I wonder if you can turn that off, e.g., if you were sneaking up on a suspect at night) to household appliances and fixtures that took voice commands (side rant: a food hydrator?  And, why wasn't it bigger?).  The tech exists, but getting it to work that precisely and reliably is prohibitively expensive.  Remember when Marty Jr. was turning on the television and asking for all the different channels.  For that to work, the television would have to recognize his voice commands over the noise of channels that were coming on.  Or better yet, the lights.  For that whole "lights on" gag to work, there would have to be a microphone in the wall that could detect Jennifer's voice from the middle of the room, differentiate it from the policewoman's voice, recognize the command and act on it, which it did almost before she'd finished saying "lights on".  Pretty cool, but here's the thing: light switches are cheap, robust, easy-to-install, easy to repair, can be operated by anyone, and save energy (a voice auth system would have to always be on, even if the lights weren't).

Hover Technology - without, it seems, any real fuel (note that Marty's Mattel hoverboard was "unpowered").  George McFly's back brace, there was a hovering dog-walker in the background of one shot.  If the tech exists, I don't know of it.  If it does exist, it's almost certainly prohibitively expensive.  But as futuristic imaginations go, this is probably the one I take the least umbrage with.  And having it in the background helps sell the idea of flying cars.  Oh yeah...

Flying Cars - people often forget that this tech has been around forever.  Yes, even today we have flying personal vehicles.  They're called private jets.  They're loud; they're costly to buy, maintain and fuel.  They require special licensing and, frankly, I can't help but thinking they'd be exceptionally dangerous under the guidance of today's regular car drivers.

Telecom - TV's replaced with bigger, flatter TV's.  Okay, that's pretty true, although the six-screens at once is less a TV thing than a computer thing these days.  Speaking of which, notice the lack of computers?  There were computers in the 80's.  There was CGI in the movie, wasn't there?  But no, instead they had a fax in every room, even the closet.  They had video phones, but, most surprisingly, no cell phones.  This would have been an easy jump to make, since there were cell phones in the 80's, but they were rare and expensive.  Same with portable music players--I wouldn't have expected them to have predicted the iPod, but walkmen were pretty ubiquitous in the 80's.

So, what basic assumptions were wrong?  The film assumed that ubiquitous everyday tech would be taken to "the next level".  Things that ran on wheels would fly.  Audio devices would have video.  Simple devices like switches and shoelaces would be replaced by complex machines with miniature motors.  In all of these cases the film ignores that such leaps would be hugely expensive and in many ways inconvenient.  Can you imagine would life would be like if your shoes needed a power supply?  Can you imagine would life in which snippets of conversation, taken out of context, might turn on and off your lights, television, and appliances?  Can you imagine trying to play a video game without your hands?  Or thinking that video games that required the use of one's hands were a "baby toy"?  Maybe I'm reading too much into it, maybe they play a lot of DDR in the future.

But the things that have exploded and come to dominate modern life (computers, the Internet, cell phones, portable music players) all had 1980's ancestors that were functional and available but rare and pricey (with the exception of the walkman, which was cheap, but low-tech).

And, again, I don't mean to rag on the movie.  Its look at the future was tongue-in-cheek (if they had attempted to be uber-serious, they still would have gotten it wrong and it'd be laughable).  But it does make you wonder what things we're wrong about when looking to our own future.


Friday, April 3, 2009

Brown? After Labor Day?

(photo from the White House home page)
One of these things doesn't look like the others. One of these things just doesn't belong.

This has been your tasteless joke for the day. Thanks for flying.