Movies in October, 2015 featuring Trainwreck, The Walk, Only Lovers Left Alive, Phoenix, Keisatsukan (Policeman), Strange Brew, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

  1. Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation at the Cinema, October 6: Jenn opted out on this excursion, so I went to the double-feature myself. This first film was … okay. It's a very long commercial for BMW … er … I mean, a by-the-book action movie. Who's on whose side? Meh … who cares. The impossible passes for merely implausible, and it's entertainment.
  2. Trainwreck at the Cinema, October 6: I didn't know if I'd like this, as I couldn't avoid noticing comic Amy Schumer's name tossed around the Internet. The writing, while not great from a story perspective, is full of funny lines. And not just from Schumer's on-screen doppelganger. (Although she inserted herself as a bit of a Mary Sue, her weightlifter boyfriend is a bit of a dud with a hilariously executed scene where she tries to get him to talk more during sex.) The humor lands more on crude than sophisticated, but there's good on both sides, and even the homosexual jokes are not as much homophobic as they are validly humorous observations. So the story is about Amy, a charmingly likable party-girl who stumbles into her first true love only to screw it up by stubbornly holding onto her commitment-averse beliefs. In the end it's one of the funniest comedies I've seen in a while, and one I'd like to revisit.
  3. The Walk at the Little, October 9: I had a passing curiosity about this fictional film documenting Philippe Petit's 1974 high-wire walk between the newly completed towers of the World Trade Center. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Petit as both narrator and character, and right from the outset, the film's computer-effects-heavy visuals set the fairy-tale tone. It's mostly a procedural film, showing Petit's early life as a street-performing wire-walker that led to his unquenchable desire to perform his most famous feat. Levitt instills so much charm and drive into the fictional Petit that I found him very likable. Of course, having a palpable fear of heights, most of the very lengthy finale was cringeworthy. But I also realized that, in a way, this is Robert Zemeckis' love story to the towers that once were, and to the America they once inhabited.
  4. Only Lovers Left Alive on DVD at Jenn's house, October 10: Well I finally decided to include non-cinematic movies on this list: solely because of this movie. Jenn and I noted this flick open at the Little on May 9, 2014. Confident that indie-cinema darling Jim Jarmusch's name alone would keep it in Rochester's indie-cinema showcase, we traveled over the weekend and managed to skip the screenings all week only to discover that it's run ended on the 15th. If it weren't for other plans, we would have gone to Cornell to see it in September 2014, but there haven't been any other screenings in 150 miles since then. So DVD it was from the library. Aaaanyway … the film centers on two vampires named *sigh* Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) who are living on opposite sides of the world. They are reunited in person when Eve's immature sister Ava arrives and destroys their temporarily stable niche in the world. I enjoyed the valiant attempt to make the duo appear wise beyond their years, playing off how the few human adults they interact with are so comparatively childish. It's a steadily paced study of the two characters and one I was very glad to have finally seen.
  5. Guidance at the Little, October 15: I picked this comedy to see as part of the ImageOut Film Festival this year. Written, directed, and starring Pat Mills, it's a "satirical spin on his own history as a child actor" since he last worked 10 years prior on the TV show, "You Can't Do That on Television." Clearly exaggerating his own experiences, the film's quick wit can't quite hide the terrible decisions David makes by taking a job as a high-school guidance counselor under astonishingly false pretenses. It's definitely an entertaining movie while simultaneously being quite odd as real-world repercussions of his actions just slide off him with no impact whatsoever.
  6. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films at the Little, October 17: I knew a little bit about Cannon Films as I was a fan of the cheesy, often direct-to-video action films of the 1980s and 1990s. But I found this documentary lacking. The biggest sin is the failure to secure interviews with the Israeli cousins Menahem Golan, and Yoram Globus who bought the struggling studio in 1979. The problem, revealed in a tongue-in-cheek note at the end of the movie, is that the cousins had cranked out their own documentary of the studio titled The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. Despite a few witty talking heads, the documentary slogs through the critically ill-received output of the studio, save for the occasional gem like Breakin', and never manages to make it particularly entertaining. All it really wanted me to do was to seek out Go-Go Boys.
  7. Nightcrawler on Netflix at home, October 18: I somewhat wanted to see this when it was at the Little but passed it up. It's the story of Louis Bloom who breaks out of his impoverished thievery by becoming a Los Angeles stringer—filming graphic scenes and selling them to television news organizations. Jake Gyllenhaal captures Bloom's dangerously sociopathic and methodical ability to aggressively win—a combination of skills well-suited to the coldly profiteering nature of the job. He quickly proves himself and breaks a huge story for a last-place news station, only to insert himself into the action without remorse. I found it to be a perfect encapsulation of free-market Capitalism where the most ruthless sociopaths are the most successful as they are unencumbered by the morality and ethics that prevent everyday people from criminal profiteering.
  8. 99 Homes at the Little, October 21: Jenn and I decided to catch this before it left the Little. Dennis (Andrew Garfield), after losing the family home he shared with his mother Lynn (Laura Dern) and son, takes a job with Rick (Michael Shannon) the man who evicted him on behalf of the bank. The movie strives to be the Wall Street of the 2010s but fails to make the conflicts relatable. Dennis ends up an impotent pawn in a systemic game much larger than he, making the resolution largely unsatisfying. I could feel the seething rage in Ramin Bahrani's script and direction, but he was unable to bring the story to anything but a realistic conclusion in which wealth, power, and exploitation are indistinguishable.
  9. Phoenix at the Cinema, October 24: Although I watched Mr. Holmes with Jenn, I already reviewed it and don't have anything to add, so I'll just skip right to the second feature. In it, a concentration-camp survivor tries to piece together a life in post-war Berlin—albeit with a surgically-reconstructed face that makes her former self unrecognizable (although fortunately without any scars or physical deformities.) She eventually finds her husband but he doesn't recognize her and has become something between a numbly desperate opportunist and a traitor. Perhaps both. The film has quite a bit of depth, and writing now—several weeks later—I'm still realizing new ways these individuals were so cruelly damaged.
  10. Keisatsukan (Policeman) at the Dryden, October 27: I went with Jenn and her friends Lindsay and Whitney. It's the story of a policeman getting reacquainted with a childhood friend who is revealed to be involved with the criminal underworld. Although methodically paced, the audience is way ahead of the characters, so it seems rather slow. That aside, it's a very watchable piece of cinematic history.
  11. Strange Brew on DVD at home, October 28: I picked this up along with a couple dozen other flicks at the Record Archive's sale over the weekend—a few years ago I was under the delusion that online movie distribution would make every movie available, but between pathetically small selections and lousy video quality, I'm trying to buy up as many movies I like so I'll at least have access to them. In any case, Jenn didn't show any interest in this oddly popular Canadian film from the 1980s that centered on the fictional MacKenzie brothers played by SCTV alums Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas. The film starts with a quite clever film-within-a-film structure where the disastrous presentation finds the brothers desperate for cash for beer. It's basically a "stoner comedy" but with beer substituted for marijuana in which the two brothers discover a plot at the brewery to drug the world for profit. Despite absurd developments like a ghost-haunted computer, musically-controlled hockey players, and a heroic flying dog, the movie manages to keep perfect balance to maintain its humorous plausibility.
  12. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the Little, October 31: Although Jenn had seen it before, I hadn't. This particular screening was with the Andrew Alden Ensemble who did an okay job of scoring the film—sometimes their music was too far from the mood of the film, and other times the music drew too much attention to the performance, but mostly it worked well. The movie unfortunately started with an image quality that rivaled a badly done animated GIF with digital artifacts and brutal contrast. Although it improved, I was critical of the oversaturation of the film's tinting, the slapdash feel of the video transfer, and the digitally-added English intertitles that mimicked the peculiar style of the originals but whose slow scroll terribly interrupted the pacing. The film itself is about a street-festival attraction of a psychic somnambulist and his sinister handler, Dr. Caligari. The sets and visual design are uniquely brilliant, and I only wish I had seen a worthy rendition.

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On Corporate Personhood (Finally)

On September 12 I headed over to Goergen Hall on the University of Rochester Campus for a panel discussion titled "Block that Metaphor? Corporate Personhood Before and After Citizens United". The panel consisted of Lynn Stout from Cornell Law School, Greg Urban of the University of Pennsylvania, and Elana Shever from Colgate University. It was moderated by Robert Foster at the University of Rochester.

Lynn Stout studies corporations from a legal perspective. She started off by emphasizing that corporations are real, not a metaphor. The term "personhood" refers to a set of legal rights that allow a corporation to, for instance, have the right to own property in its own name. She's enamored of the idea of corporations which give people the ability to perform long term projects that human beings would never do.

The key to this is the ability to lock up capital assets — the ability to hold money indefinitely, and prevent any stakeholder from reclaiming any part of jeir investment. As such, they need some first amendment rights to protect their property from expropriation. But, she added, corporations should never have the right to vote, for instance, and should not have a right to privacy.

As such, it is not simply an association of people: it is a separate kind of entity. And being a unique kind of entity, it does not have the same rights as an association of people.

Greg Urban brought an anthropologist's view of corporations. To him, they are cultural constructions that look like tribes or social groups and act as powerful agents or actors. They are part of a broader human tendency to form groups such a guilds, universities, and towns. He agrees, therefore, that a corporation has a right to exist as an entity unto itself.

Historically, corporations were once chartered which required political clout. And like other kinds of human groupings, they have rituals — business meetings, for instance.

Viewed from the outside, social groups appear as agents: things which exist in perpetuity. This is similar to things like family groups (i.e. family names) or clans which are comprised of — but separate from — their constituent human beings. Precedent exists for treating a group in place of the actions of an individual, for when a group acts, we do not look to the individuals in that group. They are agents with practical efficacy. And for any of these groups to move, it must be done so by discourse and agreement.

Economics had a hard time dealing with corporations what with being a new and separate agent, and in finance they are commodities with assignable values. In neither model are corporations considered persons. The concept of personhood is only in the popular culture and in the legal culture. And the corporate metaphor is dangerous when it is comprised of a single person rather than an aggregate for how would such a corporation exist separate from its sole constituent?

Elana Shever began by noting Michael Polan's work on examining himself as a group of organisms rather than a single entity, coining the term "first person plural". For what is an individual? Theoretically it is that part that remains constant in an ever-changing group. Thus, we can think of both humans and corporations as "ecologies" that contain organisms as well as goods and byproducts. As such, it's a false belief that shareholders define corporate action. Stout responded favorably to the "super-organism" model, adding that it is damaging to think of corporations as the property of shareholders.

Urban spoke of the Shell corporation in Argentina. Internal to Shell's management, there is a belief they are doing good, but many layers away, the people who operate the plants see the external populace as a nuisance. There are actually a series of separations — divisions between managers and workers — that cause this. It is an efficiency in the system that makes good business sense but it is not allowing Shell to work towards a unified goal.

Activists opposing Shell were often strongly reinforcing the idea of it as an individual citizen, and this popular idea is influential in increasing corporate power. So to take a different tack, could it be politically beneficial to rethink "personhood" as it relates to humans?

He said that there must be some kind of communication and common goals within the "divided corporation" model, adding that corporations should benefit society.

People from the audience had a chance to ask questions. Would more regulations be helpful? It seems that corporations are like a "monster that will devour the planet": do we have a super organism that can combat it?

Stout responded, noting that it's common to blame problems on the misbehavior of human beings, but we behave differently inside a group, and institutional environments create bad decisions. Government is probably more broken because lobbying can buy a corporation new rights yet the government needs to be a check on power.

The event organizers began taking questions three at a time (which I thought to be a mistake). I asked, given the way people's behavior changes inside a group, is there a way to make better members of corporations? Another person asked about ontology: if a person is an actor, then what about thinking of functional assemblages, since the parts may change but the unit endures. It seems transparency is key, but giving free speech rights to groups inexorably creates obfuscation. And finally, another person noted that it's less about rights than about responsibilities: how far does responsibility go?

Stout noted that sometimes an individual commits a crime as part of a group, but often it is the organizational design that causes an undesirable behavior. We need to view them as assemblages. How do we keep the useful ones? Should we have a corporate death penalty? Currently, if you want to sell stock, you need to disclose certain financial information, but we should add a requirement to have political disclosure as well.

Urban responded that he is not so excited about laws. For instance, rating agencies (forged organically) work well, but once the quality of the ratings become law, the goals change and the ratings companies just sell good scores.

Shever added that thinking of corporations as "assemblages" means it can easily become disassembled which is dangerous.

The final question that because of discussion of corporate personhood, are people are starting to think of themselves as little corporations? Urban noted that medieval Italy saw families this way. Stout noted that any thing before the law is some kind of person, and a corporation's property and the human agents that represent it are not invisible.

This discussion certainly offered some new information, but I found it lacking.

Stout expressed a belief that corporations let us make great things like railroads and bridges — things that would be impossible if it were attempted by human beings. I was skeptical that the corporate landscape is dominated by such beneficial behavior. And even when something is a benefit overall, it still has numerous negative repercussions.

In an ideal world, when a corporation is founded, it would have a specific benefit to society that serves as its operating goal — and "to make a profit" is not a concept that should be part of that goal. Making a profit should simply be a side-effect of providing a benefit, or a means to an end where providing the beneficial behavior necessitates continued existence.

Also, it seems to me that the only way to circumvent poor behavior of groups is to have a very shallow hierarchy. It seems necessary to have a small group of people whose sole function is to disseminate and clarify the goals of the corporation. The minimal case beyond that would be an anarchistic group that would organically form around tasks to achieve those goals. As layers of management are added, the communication of the goals is necessarily muddied.

Afterward, Stout encouraged us to look into the American Anti-Corruption Act. Echoing Stouts explanation, I'll quote the website:

The Act was crafted by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter in consultation with dozens of strategists, democracy reform leaders and constitutional attorneys from across the political spectrum.

The Act would transform how elections are financed, how lobbyists influence politics, and how political money is disclosed. It’s a sweeping proposal that would reshape the rules of American politics, and restore ordinary Americans as the most important stakeholders instead of major donors. The Act enjoys support from progressives and conservatives alike.

It is an impressive list of ideas that appears to have been vetted by legal experts to ensure it can be passed. If all the line items are passed, it would indeed mean a tremendous positive shift in the way elections are held and how the country is run.

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The Failure of Capitalism

I keep touching on the subject of political and economic systems and it is constantly a topic of introspection. My prior essay on the topic identified socialism and capitalism and outlined their strengths and weaknesses. One of the questions on the online dating site OKCupid is: "overall, has capitalism made the world a better place?" — yes or no. I went back and forth on my answer and offered the explanation, "umm … yes, weakly. It is ONLY good for fast growth (like building a nation), and once we get to a point that we don't need fast growth, it is very very bad."

But you know, I'm beginning to think it's about as useful as using dynamite to go fishing. Sure it's the fastest way to get all the fish, but aside from that, no good comes from it. So now I declare capitalism a complete failure.

Here's why.

Let's move aside from any system and talk about what kind of standards would define a good system. Kind of like a scientific-ish way of looking at it — to look at how we would measure what makes a great system, or a great society.

My first take would be "everyone is genuinely happy all the time". That's the ideal target which isn't actually possible. So what would be acceptable? I'd lean toward "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time" more than "most people are genuinely happy all the time" — in other words, everyone in the society gets to be happy sometimes is better than some people never get to be happy. I'd further say that it be pretty balanced, so there isn't a group of people who are happy one day a year and another group that are happy 364 days a year.

So what's happy? I'm kind of a fan of Abraham Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs". I learned about in an intro to psychology class in college and it's always stuck with me. The gist is that each human being must first have jeir "Basic needs or Physiological needs" met before jee can be content in having jeir "Safety Needs: Security, Order, and Stability" met before jeir need for "Love and Belonging" before jeir need for "Esteem" (feeling successful in life to yourself and others), and all that before jeir "Need for Self-actualization".

For reference, I'll quote the Wikipedia's chart of needs to identify the specific examples that Maslow defined, adding my own interpretation/clarification where applicable:

  • Physiological — breathing, food, water, sex [physiological sexual release], sleep, homeostasis [rudimentary nutrition and shelter; e.g. letting the body heal itself and not freezing to death], excretion
  • Safety — Security of: body, employment, resources, morality, the family, health, property
  • Love/belonging — friendship, family, sexual intimacy
  • Esteem — self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, respect by others
  • Self-actualization — morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, accepting of facts

I claim this is the path to genuine happiness as it fits with my own life experience. For instance, I find it terribly difficult to have high self-esteem when I feel my life is unstable. I can't say whether the highest layers apply to everyone, in part because they're a bit more nebulous (e.g. everyone needs water, but what fosters "esteem" in one person may do nothing for someone else.) This is also because the "lower" needs are more primitive to a being, and the "higher" ones are more refined by intelligence.

I guess when I talk about being "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time" I mean more specifically that every citizen has a minimal baseline of needs that are consistently met, and that any individual's level of needs that are met does not radically change from day-to-day.

What a society should do, at a minimum, is to not prevent an individual from tending to jeir needs, then to protect each individual's ability to tend to jeir needs from interference by others, and finally that it provide for the needs of all individuals.

But because the needs of an individual are hierarchical, it's the permission, protection, or providing at the lowest level that counts. In other words, if an arbitrarily foolish society does not prevent anyone from having esteem, but does prevent them from having water, then it is only as good as any society that prevents individuals from having water.

I'm going to attempt this line of logic: the minimal society is no structure at all which does nothing to prevent self-fulfillment of needs, but also does nothing to protect individuals from one another, and does nothing to provide. So any society that actively prevents the fulfillment of any need is necessarily worse than the minimal society. Thus, all societies worth considering must not prevent self-fulfillment of any need at any level.

Next, better societies protect a higher level of tending to needs from prevention by others. For instance, a society that protects individuals right to tend to all their basic needs from intrusion by others is better than one that fails to protect an individual's ability to tend to the need for food, even if (because of the hierarchical nature of needs) it protects individuals tending to the needs of safety.

And finally, the idyllic society would technically fulfill all needs, but that is necessarily impossible as some needs are met through introspection, (which curiously, by my read the definition of Christian "heaven" seems to be a society that fulfills all needs in exactly that way). Thus the idyllic achievable society is limited to providing all externally achievable needs (idyllic in that it is unachievable, but intended as a goal to aspire toward).

So now I can finally start comparing systems.

Pure capitalism — pure competition — actively prevents no person's ability to tend to jeir needs, but it provides no protection and fulfills no needs. It is essentially a system predicated on the wild state, and therefore indistinguishable from no system at all.

More realistically, there is the United States flavor of capitalism which, as it stands today, has some socialist elements. In general, it does not prevent tending to needs (although by taxing people who earn less than a minimal living wage, I could argue that it prevents those people from tending to their basic needs.) The laws we have protect individuals tending to most of their basic needs, and a few needs of safety from prevention by others. It provides a bit of a safety net and provides for breathing, food, and water in the form of welfare. On the standard of "everyone is genuinely happy most of the time", it's limited to the most rudimentary basic needs — ergo, "everyone" is guaranteed not to starve to death, although you might freeze to death. By these standards, on the scale of how good things could be, it's pretty lousy.

To try and stay concrete, I'll turn to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. It's a document that outlines a more substantial set of rights for individuals that includes fulfillment of essentially all the basic needs, and nearly all of the safety needs. On brief assessment, I see it as a far superior system, and something worth working towards.

My fundamental argument pivots on belief in Maslow's hierarchy, and that is the nature of humans to constantly attempt to attain their needs. When all the needs on a particular level are fulfilled, it is in our nature to strive to fulfill the needs at a higher level. And by depriving individuals of fulfilling the needs at a particular level, it is impossible to fulfill needs at a higher level (at least in any sustainable, genuine way). Look to your own life and comment if you can provide a counterexample — specifically that you have not fulfilled your needs on one level yet feel it would make no difference to do so to improve your ability to fulfill your needs at a higher level.

My point is that even if there are some people who will not strive to fulfill needs at a higher level, it is worth it to offer as much opportunity to everyone else who will. That is what makes a society great.

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Discussing Anarchism Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia

For the past three weeks or so, people have been meeting at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) to discuss anarchism. Having not attended the earlier meetings, I can't really tell what constitutes anarchism (e.g. self-rule? using the self-organizing facet of humanity? not having a government?) but I couldn't help but attend the seemingly unusual topic of "Anarchism Against Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia".

I'd say there were about 15 people there, and most of them had attended the other meetings and read the associated articles — it's something of a free-school model. I think everyone expected a more lively discussion because the topics were so emotionally-charged, but the ground we covered between was fruitful and interesting.

In short, Capitalism depends on exploiting value to gain more than is spent. Through that, it seems to demand an underclass: a group of people who are considered lesser and therefore are free to be exploited. (In fact, the only way great wealth and power is achieved is by exploiting others.) And the way to identify the underclass is to tie the "underclass-ness" to a defining characteristic: woman, gay, black, Irish.

Anarchism, by eliminating the presumption of authority, denies the creation of an underclass. In other words, anarchism (when considered "self-defined rule") does not permit the creation of people having authority: it is up to each individual to grant that authority. So there is no way for an authority to declare that you are X and therefore shall be exploited; rather, you as an individual would have to grant an authority that power, and permit yourself to be exploited. Presumably you would never volunteer for that.

The trouble is that the system I live with (that is, in America) will always find a new underclass to exploit. Lately it seems Hispanic people and followers of Islam are the newest targets (not that they were ever considered equals). Although we have also exploited the Chinese in their own land to that end, and I suspect the next source of cheap labor will be on the African continent. I find it a distasteful cycle that I'd like to see end sooner than later.

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Pure -isms

A long time ago, I wrote about political terminology, but I guess I'll give it another spin. Even then I was muddling political terms with economic systems and I'll do it again now. Actually, no: I'm pretty much just talking about economic systems. And pretty much just two of them: capitalism and socialism.

In my opinion, any purely applied economic system is doomed to its obvious point of failure. Pure capitalism leads to de facto slavery wherein a few people own all the necessary resources and everyone else is completely devalued (for instance, consider if one person or group owned all the drinking water — only those who owned water would have any power.) Pure socialism drains the desire to create as all of ones needs are met which, in turn, leads to economic collapse as there are no workers to provide the services.

As such, I think there are two viable alternatives: capitalism tempered by socialism, and socialism tempered by capitalism. At first blush they seem nearly identical, but I argue that there is a critical difference: how it affects personal priorities.

Let me start with a socialist system tempered by capitalism because, at this point that I'm writing, I think doing so will make a more interesting argument with a stronger impact. If someone comes up with a new idea, their socialist side asks, "how will this help people?" They'd tend to favor ideas that help people. Then — as their socialism is tempered by capitalism — an idea that really does help people will lead them to financial reward.

On the other hand, a capitalist system tempered by socialism leads one with a new idea to think, "how can I make money with this?" As such, they'd tend to favor ideas that make money. But tempered with socialism, ideas that are socially costly would necessarily be financially costly to those who manifest that idea.

I find myself frustratingly mired in the latter scenario. In particular, I tire of people telling me, "you could make a lot of money with that." I feel terribly alone making things that I think help people and not getting attaboy'd for that facet of it. When I build a tall bike, people never seem particularly impressed that it makes the world smile — that it makes everyone just a little happier. When I talk about some new bike safety blinker, nobody cares that it might prevent someone from getting hit by a car. [Yeah yeah, I'm on a bicycling kick.] All they seem to care about is money. And they think I am (or that I will be, or that I should want to be) rich because of it.

In essence, I'm mired in the same thing that burns the midnight oil of the anti-socialists: I tire of people lingering around waiting for a cash hand-out. I'm not some goddamned leprechaun with a pot of gold stashed away hoping you don't find it. I'm just trying to have fun. That's among the oldest and most tenacious of my philosophical thoughts (I remember arguing with my high-school guidance councilor that "having fun" was a valid life goal.) So I cannot believe in any alternative. Money is not everything. He who dies with the most toys most certainly does not win. And money can't buy happiness. (Ok, so that last one really is the pacifying aphorism.)

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Seeing a Performance of Rossum's Universal Robots at the MuCCC

I went to see Rossum's Universal Robots (R.U.R.) at The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) with a group from The Rochester Speculative Literature Association (R-SPEC). When I was in high school, I read the play in English class. It seemed okay back then and I did remember it, but it was amused for my feelings for it all those years ago to bubble back up.

The play starts off with Helena, the daughter of the president, visits the robot factory with the intention to liberate the robots as if they were human. In this, we are dumped into the misogynistic world of 1920 Czechoslovakia de Karel Capek (despite it being set in some undefined future). It was intolerable. The Helena character is borderline mentally disabled, a staple of female characters written by men who never listened to a woman. (I even recall hating Helena in my high school reading as well.) The robot factory is on an island, and (naturally) exclusively operated by men. Even the robots were almost exclusively men [which you may have noticed didn't change in storytelling until writers realized that robots were not superior to humans, at which they started being female] except for one: a replica of Helena who was "useless as a worker" because of her whimsical ways.

But okay, I grit my teeth and did my best to not be overwhelmed by that central theme.

The story trundles along, revealing the robots to be organic things akin to super-smart, human-looking, genetically modified animals. It's clear that Capek is making a statement about the ideal worker in either a communist or capitalist world: one that works tirelessly, has no internal drive, and that requires virtually nothing in the form of pay. The robots (naturally) revolt and (despite their intelligence and realization of a finite lifespan) kill off all the humans. Except for those in the factory, at least for a while. They enslave the factory operators in an attempt to extract the formula to make more robots. But all is not lost for humanity and its attempt to be a god, for Helena R. (the robot) apparently has a function after all — at least in not-so-subtle implication.

Aside from introducing the word "robot" into the lexicon, I have to say this play offers really nothing else. It combines man's desire to be a god, the oppressed rising up against their oppressors, and an overwhelming dose of "women are only good for housekeeping and making babies." I want to say that an adaptation would be improved by eliminating the misogynistic overtones, but it so central to the plot that it seems an insurmountable task. At least the actors did their best with it and did a fine job with the script-in-hand reading.

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Listening to Rick Dorschel Sell Cars at Thursday Thinkers

I finally managed to get out of the house and get to The Kate Gleason Auditorium at The Rochester Public Library (115 South Ave.) in time for Thursday Thinkers. Rick Dorschel was there to discuss, Where's My Electric Car? Imagine my disappointment when I found it to not only be a press conference (that is, "way to advertise for free"), but possibly the most ill-informed Thursday Thinkers I've ever attended.

He started out talking about the problems in the latest Toyota recall concerning accelerator pedals sticking. My dad said they showed a diagram of the mechanism on the news, and it was an affront to good design: even a cursory glance reveals to an engineer like him that the mechanism can easily bind. Dorschel, however, said the problem was related to the complexity of synchronizing 4 computers on-board — largely to meet efficiency and emissions standards (implying, in my opinion of his tone, that the days of carburated engines were far better, and further, that government interference in capitalism was to blame more than anything else). As a computer programmer and electronics designer, I can tell you flat out that synchronizing the behavior of 4 computers is not simple, but it is well within modern techniques to make it extremely reliable and to make it fail safely. Dorschel also said that the computer was designed to split user input on the accelerator and brake "50-50". What the shit is that? If you have an accelerator and brake system, if the user attempts to use both, you always pick the brakes! In these days of computer-controlled throttles, there is absolutely no reason to make the car behave like a 1960's muscle car.

He went on to reassure the audience that Toyota is still a quality car, and the problems they have encountered have been fixed. No drivers in the Rochester area have reported a stuck accelerator — it is, after all, rare. Alas, he did not say how the design process was changed to add checks to make sure such bad design decisions are not propagated to the public. I can only assume it's "business as usual" at Toyota until, and after, the next problem. Same as all car companies for that matter — there's no reason to buck the system when, as an amoral corporation, it can achieve such easy free publicity at the cost of a few dead customers. Heck, did you see the advertising they're doing about safety? Ride that publicity wave to profit, for that is all that matters.

But on to the actual topic at hand …

Dorschel starts out by referring to electric cars as "golf carts" that are street-legal. Way to kick things off with your GM-based logic — presumably referencing the literal street-legal electric golf-cart from Chrysler-owned Global Electric Motorcars, LLC. Anyway, his discussion was rife with inaccuracy. Dorschel is indeed good at selling cars. But on the topic of cars and transportation, not so much.

He referred to the future of electric cars as being hampered by the battery. In some ways, this is true: with today's technology, it is impossible to replace the quick-fueling internal combustion engine, and electric vehicles are essentially limited to (at best) a 300 mile daily range, followed by hours to recharge. However, he completely misses the boat that things are changing. Many people can get by without owning a car at all, relying instead on public transportation, bicycling, and walking for most trips, and using a car sharing or car rental service for when an automobile is most convenient. Considering the prevalence of car rental and sharing services, one could literally get by on a commuter car. Also, the notion of driving your own private vehicle to a far-away destination is a concept only possible after the middle of the 20th Century. The belief that all things that we have now will be available forever, and new things will only add to that is plain foolish.

He said that ethanol is a failure because it takes more energy to make than it produces which is true, but he went on to claim that hydrogen and the fuel cell is the answer. I had to pick my jaw off the floor on that one: hydrogen is, at present, a mediocre energy storage medium. It will always cost more to buy hydrogen than to buy energy some other way because it's one more step removed. In other words, energy is attained from one source (i.e. petroleum, coal, solar, wind, hydroelectric, or nuclear) and used to convert inaccessible hydrogen (like in water) into accessible hydrogen (like hydrogen gas). Therefore, hydrogen from petroleum will necessarily cost more than petroleum itself — it doesn't just exist in pockets below the earth like oil does. Another way to look at this is that ethanol produced from, say, corn is essentially energy from the sun; harvesting that energy takes more energy than you get out. Hydrogen is guaranteed to be the same way. His statement that we may someday use the hydrogen and fuel cell in our car to power our house may be possible, but it would be excessively costly compared to the energy systems we have now — for that matter, we can leave our car idling in the driveway and run an inverter to run our house today, but who's foolish enough to waste that kind of money?

He gave a sheepish shrug when he said that Americans want giant cars. Someone asked, "if Madison Avenue can make giant SUV's and pick-up trucks desirable, why not energy efficient cars?" He had no answer, but said that all he knew is that they have such a hard time with consumers because they demand big cars when gas is under $2/gallon and small ones when it's over $4. After a grumble of support for gas over $5/gallon, he claimed that it would be yet another way that government interfered with our freedom. I had enough and asked, "why, then, is it okay to pay property taxes to pay for roads, but not for that same amount to come from gas tax?" He said that he hates government interference as well, and we should probably start a tea party (I believe he was talking about the conservative-funded astroturf protest called the Tea Party movement.) I think it's funny that he thinks that subsidizing his industry is called "freedom" but taxing based on use is "government interference".

Alas, in the end, Rick Dorschel struck me as a stalwart buggy-whip salesman. The fundamental business model under which car dealerships operate is eroding as people migrate toward more reasonable, ecological, and debt-free solutions.

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