Amazon is a witness to your life and death

Well, this didn’t take long.  This Amazon Echo contraption has only been ordering pizza, shoes, demolition cord, Uber rides, autogyro rides, and aged cheese for just a few months.  Now it’s already being asked to solve a murder.  No pressure little cylinder dude.

Apple at least got to wait a few years before being blamed by the Feds for allowing terrorists to potentially raid a nursery by refusing to give up iPhone data.  Amazon didn’t get any such grace period.  Nor will any other technology company / invention I suspect.

The background here is pretty simple.  Amazon has data, government wants data in the hopes it can help solve crimes, Amazon (citing privacy) refuses to give up data.  How can the Echo do this you ask?  Why just let the BBC tell you, the Echo:

The “always on” machine makes recordings of audio it hears from a fraction of a second before it detects a wake word – either Alexa or Amazon – until it judges the command to be over.

This audio is then transmitted to Amazon’s computer servers, which interpret the request and tell it how to respond.

Although no recordings are meant to be made at other times, the device often becomes activated when it misinterprets speech as being its wake command.

So basically what we have here is it’s become clearer that yes indeed, the Echo is in fact a live listening device that folks (for whatever reason) have installed in their own home.  So when the following things occur, the Echo is listening and potentially recording:

1) You get murdered in your own home

2) Your dogs hijack your internet while you’re at work to purchase more kibble behind your back

3) You say or do intimate things with your significant other

4) You and your kids get in a fight

5) You comment to another human how tasty a meal is

6) You express all your hopes and wildest dreams to another human, your dogs, or an inanimate object such as a painting, piece of artwork, or stuffed animal

7) Aliens kidnap you, repurpose your home’s guest bedroom, and make you write regularly for a shitty blog

8) You say off the record (on the Amazon record) belligerent comments about your boss, the one who employs you and pays your bills

9) You say off the record (on the Amazon record) belligerent comments about your family, the ones who love you and cherish your existence

10) You say (offhand) to your significant other that you’d punch Jeff Bezos in the face and neck, if you met him randomly on the street

In order to conduct its basic functions, why does the Echo even need to store anything on Amazon’s servers (Amazon Web Services)?  That the cops could later get a warrant for?  Even if the Echo needs to talk to Amazon’s servers to best interpret your audio request, why do they store the data for the long term?

Because by storing everything you say on their servers they can run programs to mass analyze what you and everybody else said.  They’ll then use the algorithm output to find better ways to sell you stuff.  It’s not about privacy.  If it was about privacy, Amazon would morally never collect and store things you say in your own home on its private servers.  They want your money.

I’m not saying Amazon should go ahead and hand it over to the Feds, don’t get me wrong.  The government is among the most egregious and worst violators of your privacy there is.  Your local sheriff probably has the power to look up your favorite beer if he so chose.

But I do have a problem with Amazon (or any other company) waving the privacy flag in defense, when in reality the six biggest violators of privacy on the planet are Google, Apple, the NSA, Facebook, the KGB, and Amazon.  Not necessarily in that order.

Know your risk.  I use Google’s products almost every day.  But I understand they’re data hounds.  So I hedge my risks as best as I can.  I knowingly accept some of the badness.  For example, did you know if you’re logged into Gmail that every other piece of browsing activity you’re doing is logged on Google’s servers?  So if you’re checking e-mail (on any browser type) and then tab over to search for directions to Hitler’s death house, Google will know and log it.  It is for this reason that I will check my Gmail, then actually log out and close the browser, before I do any other web related activity.  There are also cookie and history deletion methods I regularly execute with Google.

I’ll never do this Echo thing for any reason.  I don’t need Amazon in my living room.  If for whatever bizarre factor you need an Echo in your already overly complicated life, okay, I guess.  Just be sure you know the intricate details of how that thing works and how you manage your data.  For as it stands, it seems the basic default settings of this snoop cylinder are insane.  Amazon is a witness to your life and death.

amazon-echo

One day, I’m going to come back home from work, and there’ll be an Echo on my dining table.  I didn’t buy it, nobody broke into my house, it’ll just be there.  I will then club it with a bat, grab my dogs and some canned goods, and run for the hills.

White Christmas?

Within the confines of the hovel at my new gig I can hear music played lightly by the gal next door. This is a new concept for me as at the last place playing music without headphones was banned under penalty of confining one to the cubicle overnight while a merger of Bieber and Kanye was played via massive loudspeaker for eight straight hours. Needless to say, nobody violated this regulation. But here it’s considered okay.

This doesn’t bother me as much as I would have expected. Half the time she plays classical music which is soothing to hear as I grind away and contemplate what’d be like to actually one day have a job I enjoy. Sometimes she plays weird pop rock or whatever and I have to break out my headphones to drown it out with music of my own. This is fine too. But being the season, she’s progressed to the occasional Christmas music.

I’m not sure if I can handle this. Christmas is a long 12 days away. A lot of Christmas music is great, classic stuff. But when you really think about it a whole bunch of Christmas music is terrible. The ones where somebody whines about their relationship during the Christmas season are the worst. Nobody cares people, dating is just as much a wheat thresher in May as it is in December. Live with it.

But also, to me Christmas music is an intensely personal experience. At the height of its powers, it evokes memories of childhood where we would all pile into the van to drive to Grandma and Granddad’s place. In the dark, cold Christmas night my Dad would invariably switch over to Christmas music on the radio for the length of the drive. These are nice memories. All my grandparents and my Dad have moved onto the next realm, so the music is especially poignant. As it is, Christmas music almost becomes kind of sad for me, like a requiem.

Lots of people aren’t in the Christmas spirit either this year I guess. Go ahead and read anything online or in the papers recently and apparently the universe is over. Earth is finished. Christmas is cancelled. You’re a walking bleached skeleton. By June of this year, machines or aliens (or both) shall be our masters, dogs and cats will have lived together and procreated creating a master race of pet, The Walking Dead will have somehow become a good television show, and Trump will have become that guy in Star Wars with the wrinkled creepy monster face.

Gee wiz, I had no idea we were that doomed? Though I sadly suppose it’d be the same hysteria regardless of what loser won this last election. Hey you know I didn’t vote for either of them, both of them were terrible, but I never (and still don’t) had it in my mind that either one of them could actually destroy anything. Go read the Constitution, or contemplate how little Obama has been able to accomplish after eight years.

The way I look at, is to default back to my Grandma and Granddad. For you see, they did four Christmas days at war. Think living under Trump or Clinton would have been bad? Trying living through Christmas Day 1942. Unless you happen to live in Syria, we cannot comprehend the struggle and terror of those Christmases where whole cities and countries were being swallowed whole. My Granddad did Christmas Day 1944 under fire at the front within the Battle of the Bulge. Merry Christmas! Signed, your friend, Adolf.

This was a war that killed 300K Americans, probably around 100 million worldwide. One in nine Americans served in uniform. The equivalent number today is if four years from now 30 million Americans were in the military. This is beyond our comprehension.

So later on in their lives I have this idea that Christmas 1956, 1972, or 1986 was always very special for them. They could go back and look at their kids and grandkids and remember just how bad it’d been. Instead of all that nightmare, they could lean back on the couch, sigh deeply, and truly appreciate the joy of Christmas that surrounded them. More than anything, that war defined a whole lifetime’s existence.

Of this, I offer as further evidence the 1954 movie White Christmas. If you haven’t seen this movie, gather the kiddies and those you love, and watch this movie. It’s just too wholesome good not to watch. It’s got a great fun plot, decent music, good dancing, and is basically just an enjoyable time. But at its heart this is a movie about two guys who got shelled together doing everything they can to aid their former general and his failed business. And they get hundreds of their war buddies to help out. It’s a story where memory of the war bleeds through.

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I think that White Christmas connection lasted about seven decades. In an equally godawful presidential election of 1972, you could have voted for Nixon (liar, lunatic) or McGovern (dreamer, lunatic). But regardless of who won, you would have remembered that after Christmas 1943, it couldn’t be much worse.

And indeed, Nixon rightly got his ass kicked out of office and the country somehow didn’t implode. And if your neighbor in 1973 had voted for the other guy, then that was okay because they’d been 19 miles to your left on the front lines and so they were an alright dude regardless of who they voted for.

Now, 75 years later that type of deep societal connection is just about gone. There is literally nothing holding the vast majority of the American psyche together. This is another bother for me with Christmas music. All the good ones were written with this 1956, 1972, or 1986 mindset. These songs were written for people who’d literally been through hell, and could fully enjoy the Christmas meaning and spirit.

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“Merry Christmas, Motherfuckers!”

Who would write an appropriate hit Christmas tune today? No Kanye rapper or Bieber-like-man-child has it in them. Even if they did, would anybody listen or would people just hear it and get sad because they’re too mentally wrapped up in what Trump said about the percentage of glycerol in Twinkies on Twitter?

Do you hate your neighbor and fellow human? Maybe you should. Let’s hate everybody! Christmas spirit? Nonsense! Christmas is yet another day on the calendar to contemplate how awful everything is.

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“Hmm, 60 million have had Christmas ruined because I should never have run.  Hmm, eh, fuck it.”  [lights cigar with $1K bill inside $27.3M mansion]

I have in mind, to write this Star Trek episode. It’s a Christmas episode special. In it, Kirk, Picard, Spock, and Data roll down to some waste planet accompanied by four Red Shirts. They go exploring around. Red Shirt 1 accidently blows himself up with his own phaser. Red Shirt 2 dies from food poisoning after last night’s failed turkey mole dish (true story). Red Shirt 3 gets dragged behind a rock by what the audience sees as a crab-like shadow.

Red Shirt 4 whilst walking upon a ledge gets scared by a monster neither he or the audience can see, and he falls off the cliff to his death. So then there are Kirk, Picard, Spock, and Data investigating the ledge where Red Shirt 4 fell.

Data scans the area and he’s like, “Captain, my scans show there to be zero evidence of alien activity in this sector. It is thus reasonable to conclude, that Ensign Timmy was alone here. Before he fell.”

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Spock nods, and he’s like, “I agree, Captain. Fascinating. It is thus logical to conclude, that whatever Ensign Timmy saw, was contained solely within the confines of his mind.”

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Then Picard, looking straight at the camera, earnestly, with campy Christmas music playing, in a scene worthy of 1979 says, “Why, it would seem, that even in this Christmas season, our darkest fears can overcome us, blind us, and lead us across a fatal line. Perhaps, it is time, during this season above all, to look deep within ourselves. For our own optimism, our own guidance, our own Christmas joy.”

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And all four guys nod happily at this revelation as the music reaches its crescendo.

Then, out of nowhere a giant crab monster jumps out from behind a rock. It attacks Kirk and rips open his shirt.

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Then the crab pulls a knife.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJ9FdpLfL98

Kirk spends four and a half minutes going hand-to-hand with the crab monster, ultimately beating him to death with a rock. And Kirk’s screaming and panting over the mangled crab monster corpse. Picard, Data, and Spock are just looking at him, like, “Dude, calm down.”

Eh, either way.

White Christmas? My friends, it is your choice. In the next 12 days you’ll be bombarded with the black, the dark, the unpleasant. Choose the White. Choose optimism, to love your neighbor, to be kind even to your enemies. This is what it’s about. We need more of it. Now more than ever.

from comical Bond villain to dreadful oppressor

For those that make the fervent case that we need Facebook in the business of deleting fake news, I give you in response a perfect example of why we don’t want that. It’s a rather short road from policing fake news to policing all reasonable speech. As we’ve previously written, Facebook (specifically Zuckerberg) has been in the sucking up to China’s dictatorship business for some time now.

And how! Courtesy of the New York Times (who like the Post occasionally bothers to engage in actual journalism):

The social network has quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in people’s news feeds in specific geographic areas, according to three current and former Facebook employees, who asked for anonymity because the tool is confidential. The feature was created to help Facebook get into China, a market where the social network has been blocked, these people said. Mr. Zuckerberg has supported and defended the effort, the people added.

How would this delightful tool of oppression work?

Well, for example, say a belligerent blog author took it upon himself to publish some thoughts on how Xi Jinping, Dictator & Overlord of the Chinese People, rose to power as one of the most corrupt dudes on the planet to the tune of billions in cash. And made the point that Xi’s current anti-corruption campaign is the biggest hypocrisy since Stalin called Hitler “a bad bloke”. Xi and his family made billions, but now Xi’s suddenly a paragon of virtue. So one can only come to the conclusion that he’s using anti-corruption efforts to purge those who oppose him.

Then say said blog author posted that on Facebook. And then say one of that blog’s six demented followers liked that post? Well, using Zuckerberg’s fancy new tool, Xi’s goons could preconfigure the system so that it would automatically purge from the planet. Nobody in China would ever read those words because the following terms would not be allowed in any post seen in China:

Xi Jinping

Dictator & Overlord

Delicious Stout Beer

Hypocrisy

Amateur Jai-Alai Extraordinaire

Kleptocrat

Stalin

Kute Kitties

Hitler

You know, one can occasionally hate Google equally as a partial anti-liberty bully. But on this count, Google’s conduct has been quite admirable. For well over half-a-decade Google has fought China on censorship. The result is Google’s profits and scope in China are in the tank. But at least they’ve made a stand. In contrast Zuckerberg is just drooling for those extra one billion eyeballs, because $. And if freedom of speech loses in the process? Oh well.

I don’t understand this line of thinking. If you’re in the free speech business, how do you ultimately increase your future bottom line by getting into the anti-free speech business? That’d be like Coca Cola sending an employee into the White House to restock the machines with Coke, then he goes into the Oval Office to campaign for an ultra-tax on sugary drinks. Zuckerberg’s behavior makes no sense. That is, unless you see it through the lens of Silicon’s Valley’s cynical elite. As in, Zuckerberg and Xi are both in the extreme 0.1% of all humanity. And that means they have more in common with each other than the rest of us. So they think they can cut a deal, and damn the consequences.

My final point, any company should be wary of selling its soul to do business in China. It’s a trap. If Facebook got into China without restrictions tomorrow, it’d probably get it’s clock cleaned by China’s own businesses. Uber China no longer exists for a reason. If the vicious-rule-breaking-barbarians at Uber can’t even break into the Chinese market, what chance does Facebook (or anybody else) have? WeChat already has 700 million Chinese users and is specifically tailored to China’s users, by folks who live there and understand the culture. Zuckerberg can’t compete with that. But he appears happy to mortgage his honor to try.

Uh [shakes head], the problem with comical Bond villains is that in cold reality, outside the scope of fun movies, they’re actually dreadful oppressors.

Hat tip, to the Facebook employee who’s honor is intact, for leaking this info to the New York Times. We who are free, salute you.

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“Why yes Mr Xi, yes Sir!  I am selling out.  Are you buying?”

who gets to decide what’s fake?

We got through most of this entire lunatic campaign season without nary a word about fake news sites. I find this amusing as for the most part I consider Fox, MSNBC, CNN, etc, etc, to all essentially be fake news sites. They don’t actually report news so much as they seek to shape public opinion to serve whatever interests they champion. There’s also the ever delicious The Onion which is usually a good place for a decent laugh, though even they have an obvious slant they push, but they’re obviously an admitted satire site.

But what folks are actually talking about are the sites that are totally off the deep end. They have no purpose except to play people for morons to move the election needle. Some of the examples I’ve heard over the last week were popular articles that said something along the lines (my paraphrase) of, but all of these were lies:

– The Pope had endorsed Trump

– Trump had commuted to Valhalla before the campaign ended

– Machines will not be our Masters

– Trump won the popular vote

– Going vegan makes you happy

– Trump was seen at Putin’s dacha alongside six former Olympic gymnasts (I too thought this one 99% accurate)

– The Walking Dead is a good television show

So now that the election is over a whole bunch of folks are stating that these fake news posts were in some way responsible for altering the course of the election. This point of view is mostly for those in the Hilary camp who ascribe some of the last minute push towards Trump as caused by said nakedly vicious pro-Trump fake news. Facebook, Google, and your local school newspaper are now thus under pressure to filter and delete said fake news stories from their feeds. The idea is that you the voter will no longer see this fake news so you can know the news you read online is legit.

First off, I feel sorry for Facebook and Google on this because no matter what they do everybody is going to hate them for it. One side will claim they’re not doing enough to police fake news or hate speech, the other side will claim censorship. Both sides will be simultaneously right and wrong. Facebook and Google will be caught in the middle of the broader cultural wars. Zuckerberg will become progressively more frustrated and insane, thus laying the groundwork for his impending slide into the oblivion of Bond villain darkness.

Because honestly who gets to decide what’s fake? As I understand what Facebook and Google are being asked to do, they have to hire somebody to edit their feeds. Then that person upon viewing some news they deem fake is supposed to delete it so folks can’t see it. Well, what’s fake?

– The Pope had endorsed Trump, fake, delete.

– Okay, what about The Onion? Well, that’s fake too, but that’s satire, so, do not delete? I guess. Well, what’s satire and what’s fake news? Who determines the difference?

– Okay, what about Salon or National Review? Well, they’re flamethrower sites for the acolytes, so it’s analysis and not technically news, so, do not delete? I guess. Who gets to determine the best way for remembering where you put your keys?

– What about that random Facebook post by normal average human that becomes popular but is chock full of lunacy, lies, and opinion? Well, but that’s not from a news site, so, we do not delete? But it’s still fake, so shouldn’t that person be made to shut up? Even if that person is just an average person they’re still shaping public opinion, aren’t they? Who decides who is made to shut up?

– But what if somebody reposted that person’s post as if it was news? Do we delete them too? What about somebody’s random blog post, is that news? Who decides what’s a blog post and what’s fake news? Who decides if Lady Gaga is hot or not?

– What about a 1930’s Looney Tunes cartoon clip with Speedy Gonzalez, is that hate speech worthy of deletion? Who determines what is hate speech, what is stupidity, what is fake news, and what’s just normal average painful human discourse to resolve our problems? Have you contemplated your future bleached skeleton status lately?

– What about a scene from Frozen which falsely gives the impression via fake news that Elsa would not have been put to death by the Catholic Church for witchcraft in real life? Shouldn’t we delete that too?

And on and on and on.

Where does this end? Where do you draw the line on what should be seen and deleted? What is fake and what’s not? The answer always will end up being the opinion of some screener, likely guided by policy that a bunch of folks from Facebook and Google got together and wrote. And thus, a bunch of random people you’ve never met get to determine what you’re allowed to say and read. This is not healthy in any aspect.

Facebook and Google are private companies and can essentially do whatever they want within the law. For example, if Google decided it hated cats and deleted all cat content from its site I’m pretty sure there’s nothing anybody could do to stop them. But Facebook and Google are also so ubiquitous to society you could make an argument they’re becoming an intrinsic part of our culture, infrastructure, lives. Do we really want two of the global Internets backbone sites to be in the censorship business? For any reason at all?

I come down to two points on this:

1) I am an open season kind of person on free speech and thus to all the Internets. Facebook, Google, Twitter should not be in the business of removing content whether it’s fake, hateful, whatever. This means you can post fake Trump news, evil ISIS propaganda, incorrect tips for how to properly cook an egg, Tweet how much you despise [insert anything here], and so on. Dealing with all this nonsense is a price worth paying rather than living in an online society where strangers get to police thought.

2) Humans as free individuals are responsible for what they do and do not read and how they process information they acquire online, in newspapers, from ads, from their neighbors, from their imaginary friend, from their own fears, from their own dreams. If somebody read fake news and believed it, that’s their own problem and responsibility. Living in a free society is hard work. It requires you to think for yourself, do your own research, and make your own decisions. It’s not the responsibility of society to do that job for the citizen. Indeed, if society did, then said citizen would never be truly free.

And I want us all to live free.

we belligerently break down what the hell just happened

1) The outcome: people are pissed

This is a global phenomenon. There is an entire subset of humanity (half the population) in the democratic world who rightly or wrongly feel they’ve been left behind. They’ve got no skin in the game of a modern globalized, multicultural, interconnected world that the politicians, businessmen, and the media have built. Said politicians, etc, have tended to dismiss the concerns of these people as resistant to change on the kind end, and things like racist on the unkind end. Abject dismissal was always going to be a poor way to address the concerns of a substantial portion of society’s citizens. People who genuinely believe their children will have it worse off than they’ve had it don’t appreciate being called backward. The establishment (the other half of the population) have taken it for granted that the newfangled world they’ve built was always the right answer. And so it’s been a only natural that everybody should get aboard and reap the benefits. The problem is that the benefits haven’t trickled down to everybody. Not enough effort was expended to aid workers who lost their future to globalization. Too many elites spend more time worrying about corporate tax policy or transgender bathrooms than a opioid addiction that’s literally bleeding whole areas daily. These things matter. In any democracy, when half the electorate feels that both political parties are essentially ignoring their core interests, don’t be surprised when they get pissed and back fringe lunatics. This happened with Brexit, it happened with Trump, it might happen soon with Marine Le Pen. It will continue to happen until those that govern make it a point to work for all citizens, not just the narrowly defined slice of the country that happens to be inside the system.

2) Hillary was Donald’s Hillary

The prevailing wisdom of this campaign was that Trump was the perfect candidate for Clinton. She’d sail to victory because he was such a lunatic. I tend to think it was rather the other way around. Clinton was the perfect candidate for Trump to battle against. Where Trump was the anti-establishment guy, you could not have conjured a more inside the system player than Clinton. Where Donald could connect with voters in his own crazy way, Clinton probably couldn’t even properly connect with her own campaign staff. Everybody got aboard the fact that Clinton was going to make history as the first woman president. She even planned her coronation beneath a glass ceiling building. The problem with this line of thinking is that nobody bought it outside the bubble of politics. To the average voter, Clinton was always going to be there just because she was the other Clinton’s wife. The real glass ceiling of this election was that a lot of folks wanted somebody to break the glass on establishment dynasties, be it Bush or Clinton. In an election where well over half the country thinks things are going in the wrong direction, what people were definitely not looking for is more dynasty. They were not looking for a person who’s been in politics for forty years. Imagine if you will, how different this would have all played out had Sanders, Warren, or even poor Jim Webb been on the ticket. Any one of these people would have likely beat Trump. Anybody could have beat Trump. But not Clinton, she was the keen match he needed.

3) The division

After all of this, after all this mess, the answer is 60 million Americans pulled one lever, 60 million Americans pulled another lever, and 6 million Americans (like yours truly) threw their vote away. Statistically speaking, you could not imagine a more divided electorate. This is a rather troubling existence for the nation. The American system is built to produce divided government. But I wonder if it’s built to handle a consistently divided nation. Each side is talking past the other. Nobody wants to listen anymore. If 60 million folks think the other 60 million folks are not just wrong, but nefarious, we’re in for a death spiral. History tells us that tribal alliances can progressively break down and destroy a culture. And what we have here are truly tribal feelings. As an example, for the very, very limited amount of time I watched live election coverage I was troubled to observe:

a) An analyst on PBS who stated that the election was only playing out the way it was because of the “South” and it’s continuing capture of the broader political forces of America. In other words, if you lived in Ohio and voted for Trump, you didn’t do so because you’re protesting that the elites forgot about you. Instead, you were doing so because you were inherently racist. This is the idea that Trump won because a full 60 million Americans were too stupid to vote for anybody else or are just racist, or sexist, or whatever. Everybody surely remembers Hillary’s “deplorables” comment, right?

b) An analyst on Fox who stated that the election was only playing out the way it was because of “Conservatism” and it’s return to recapture America from the dark forces of liberalism. In other words, if you lived in New York and voted for Clinton, you didn’t do so because you were appalled by Trump or believed in the progressive ideas Clinton stated. Instead, you were do so because you wanted to destroy the old America to remake a new one. This is the idea that a full 60 million Americans wanted Clinton to win so they could detonate the country and remake it at the expense of the other 60 million. Or that 60 million Americans only want to milk the nation of the other 60 million. Everybody surely remembers Mitt’s “47 percent” comment, right?

I don’t know how you resolve the feelings of (a) and (b) without a lot of turmoil. I do worry, friends.

4) The reality

As stated, the American system is built to produce divided government. Whoever you voted for, either Clinton or Trump was going to run against the brick wall of this reality. The American President might be the least powerful Executive in the modern democratic world. It was designed to be this way from the beginning. People who think Trump’s going to rule as some unhinged dictator should not forget that the system is constructed specifically to prevent such a thing from happening. However badly you thought about Clinton or Trump, I assure you, American has previously survived far, far worse than these two idiots. I suspect, either way, that we’ll be sitting here four years from now with much the same situation on our hands. I could be wrong, but if you remember back in 2008, the Democrats were equally in control of all the arms of government power. What came of all that? You could say Obamacare, a few key Supreme Court decisions, etc. But largely, I don’t think most folks would say in the last eight years America has undergone earth shaking radical change. I loosely predict it’ll be the same result by 2020 or 2024.

Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, I just don’t see much changing for the average man or woman on the street. Trump voters are going to be rather disappointed to realize that their local mayor has far more power over their lives than Trump. They’ll be disappointed to see they can’t have problems that have taken decades to create wished away by a maniac who shouts loudly. Clinton voters are going to be rather relieved to see that even this guy can’t do the level of damage they feared. The needle will move, but for the most part people’s lives aren’t going to change. The system, the broader waves of our culture, are bigger than this election or Trump or Clinton. Where is our reality headed? As I’ve stated above, I’m worried, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you this, in the broader path of where we are bound, this election is little more than a rounding error. I wish, I wish we’d take a step back and think about the bigger picture. Instead, I fear, we’ll soon be wrapped up talking about small fry nonsense like the intricate details of Executive Order Whatever or Senate Filibuster Verbiage. This is disappointing, but also, rather comforting. One way or the other. Life goes on.

Matt Damon and Zhang Yimou whitewash their souls

Dark days are ahead for China. There be monsters north of the wall. Winter’s probably already here, or something like that. Everybody’s scared, the army’s not ready, disaster looms. But don’t worry, Matt Damon will show up to save everybody.

 

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Remember when this guy wasn’t an action movie star?

 

Except it’s a big trick. For the monster is not some type of mythical creature that eats life. Instead, it’s the devil incarnate of bad action movies. This hideous demon spawn was born from an unhuman blending of the reproductive organs of Michael Bay’s Transformers and Zach Snyder’s Superman. China doesn’t stand a chance, even with Damon’s purchased-sculpted-boxer-physique.

 

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Just take a gander at the stereotypical bad action flick awfulness that awaits the poor Chinese theater audience.

 

The Great Wall is China’s most expensive movie production ever. It cost $160M in pure gold pressed latinum and is a massive gamble by both Hollywood and the Chinese film industry. Legendary Entertainment does the production as the now full-fledged member of China’s business community since they (sold out to) were bought out by Wanda Group.

Bankrolled by Wanda Group’s overlord, Asia’s richest man, and expert 1930’s style tap dancer Wang Jianlin, this flick’s meant to serve as a key mark on what Wang and many, many Hollywood suits hope will be a very long and lucrative alliance. If it’s not already, China will soon be the world’s largest film market. And you’d better believe Hollywood wants in on all that luscious cash.

This forthcoming epic masterpiece will hit theaters in China this December followed by a February 2017 debut in the States. This is a bit strange, as February is usually second only to January as a dumping ground for garbage films. Maybe they’re hoping a sparse market will help the film perform better? Maybe they’re hoping they can rope in the Valentine’s Day audience as 11th Century Chinese warriors are viciously beheaded by evil monsters?

 

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Eh, I’m pretty sure The Mongols. Why do I need to pay $13 to see a movie when I already know the answer to the poster’s wise quest question?

 

Anyways, in our current modern media culture, we can’t have anything without a race based controversy. And boy does The Great Wall sure have one in the entirely accurate accusation that they whitewashed the cast by adding Damon when an otherwise all Chinese cast would have made a lot more sense.

They claim Damon plays a mercenary or something. Maybe he’s there to assassinate Jason Bourne? It would have to be something specific like that. Because from what I know about the Song Dynasty, I’m pretty sure the Chinese army didn’t lack for limitless raw manpower. So there’s nothing that would require them to hire to creepy white guy from Medieval France who’s on the lam for stealing Her Ladyship’s already stolen virtue.

Whatever. This aspect of the flick doesn’t really interest me. Damon’s presence is really rather simple. Wang and his minions want to make cash worldwide. In order to do that you need a global star. Damon is a global star. There’s not a single Chinese actor that comes even close to his worldwide appeal. That’s why he’s there. There isn’t much else to it. Money!

Except to perhaps ask the question: Why isn’t there a Chinese actor as world famous as Damon? Ah, yes, now we get to the parts I actually care about. First off, let’s take a look at the director in the brilliant Zhang Yimou. I really like Zhang, the dude’s made some incredible movies and knows his craft well. In particular, To Live and Hero are quality movies. To Live even approaches the realm of masterpiece in my mind. But that was then and this is now.

Then, Zhang got himself banned from filmmaking by the Communist goons because To Live did such a great job tearing down the hypocrisy of said dictatorial state. Now, Zhang is their errand boy. So he thus produces flicks of questionable messaging and quality such as The Flowers of War, which also had a conspicuous hunk-white-dude lead in Christian Bale.

Now Zhang is working for Wang. And before he made billions in real estate, Wang was a regimental commander in the PLA. He’s also a mint condition delegate to the rubber stamp National People’s Congress. In other words, Wang’s the consummate Communist team player. Which helps to explain why Wanda Group is so successful given his connections. Although Wang is probably also a genius, so that helps too.

But if you were Zhang and you once made movies of conscience, perhaps you’d hesitate before getting into business with a guy like Wang who is so clearly tied to a Communist Party organization that censors movies like the ones you used to make. Hell, if somebody banned me and my movie, I’d be pissed. Maybe Zhang’s just more forgiving than I?

But you see, as a now Chinese owned studio, Legendary has to get The Great Wall entirely past the censors. This means that every line of dialogue, every scene of horrible computer generated action has to support the message of the Communist Party.

And therein lies the real crime of this movie, not the color of Damon’s skin. If I ran into Wang on the street (as in if I stowed away on his jetcopter) I’d like to ask him straight to his face if all of Legendary’s future movies are now going to have to be approved by the Commie censors?

I ask this because Legendary has made some damn good movies throughout the last fifteen years. I’d like to know in advance before stepping into the theater whether my movie experience got approved by some undersexed-degenerate-apparatchik-tool.

Hollywood (in theory) is supposed to be a land of consummate free speech. After all, it’s freedom of speech, freedom of the arts that enables Hollywood to function. It’s what gave birth to this pinnacle location of the film industry at the start of the movie era a century ago.

But money talks, and Hollywood (most, but not all) values money over principle. So Damon and a whole bunch of other people are perfectly happy to climb aboard a production that is essentially bankrolled by anti-free speech goons provided they get their tasty paycheck.

Seeing as how, like most celebrities, Damon does substantial humanitarian and human rights work, if I ran into Damon on the street (as in if I stowed away on his autogryo) I’d like to ask him straight to his face what he thinks about hundreds of Chinese human rights lawyers and activists being rounded up and convicted in show trials? Or that they’re being forced to read Cultural Revolution style confessions to the public like in one of the heart tearing scenes that Zhang used to put into his movies.

Did I also mention that Wanda Group owns AMC Theaters? Do you like movies? I sure do. Do you like free speech? I sure do. Well, as far as I can figure, I think these two concepts go hand in hand. But if you’re Wang, Zhang, or Damon, I guess you can respectfully disagree. Money!

Here’s the problem though. Wang and Zhang are placing a bet that you can have quality movies in a realm without free speech. It’s the same gamble that the Communist Party is taking all throughout China’s culture. For example, the Communist Party is backing efforts to dramatically enhance scientific research and development, but without the freedom of speech and academic liberty that normally comes with it.

I suspect, just as it’s awfully hard to invent cool shit when the censors are all over you, that Wang and Zhang are going to discover that without freedom of creativity that they can’t make decent movies. They might make a lot of money (see Transformers for the ability of bad movies to make billions) but not actual good art.

Until China’s film industry can make consistent, freethinking, actual good art, they’re never going to produce a true global star like Damon. I just don’t see it happening. True art requires true freedom. End of story.

Maybe The Great Wall will be fairly decent. Like I said, Zhang is a superb filmmaker. And I really do like Damon as an actor. But for the future of movies, I hope this film tanks.

the search for identity and vision

By any historical measure the British citizen has never been safer, more prosperous, and capable of fulfilling their potential. Yet the polls predict that roughly half of voters are prepared to leap into the unknown tomorrow. This mirrors the mentality of tens-of-millions of Americans who are ready to walk a path led by Trump or Sanders. Why is this?

Part of it is the harsh cruel reality of modern quarterly report drive capitalism. If you make refrigerators in Indiana you might get fired so a worker in Mexico can do your job for a fraction of the cost thus adding 0.0034% to your company’s next earnings report. Same goes for your average British steelworker who has to lose his life’s work because China’s wise state planners couldn’t do simple math to determine basic supply and demand.

Unfortunate as these kinds of devastating situations are, they are not the majority of voters. They do not explain the society wide shifts in tone or direction. To get the total answer you need to go deeper and consider identity and vision.

Vision

Vision is where you see yourself, your family, and your country going. It’s the broader ideals and goals that propel a people. These things matter even if you’re just shilling cosmetics or sitting in a cubicle every day. It’s a natural human need to be a part of a greater whole. But a coherent society requires competent and inspirational leadership. And if the modern world is lacking in anything, it’s high caliber leadership. Of the G7 group of leading democracies, every single one is currently led by a career politician. None of them have really lived an average normal life outside the world of politics. It shows. It reflects the modern incarnations of machine politics where most major lever pullers in the executive and legislative bodies are rich, connected, and have more in common with each other than the average voter, regardless of political party.

People tend to notice when a leader cannot intellectually relate to them. They pick up on this rather quickly, whether it’s on the factory floor or the presidential podium. Cameron is a cartoon caricature of an elite aloof toff. Clinton has openly admitted she hasn’t driven a car in like two decades. None of these people have ever had real jobs. They’ve never been fired. They’ve never had to struggle with where their next meal was coming from. They’ve mostly never encountered real adversity beyond the typical mudslinging encounters of the political parlor room.

From adversity and failure a human can find themselves utterly crushed. Or, a person can use those dark times to build their character and strength. Using these fortified qualities a leader can thus better relate to the citizen whose pain at one point they might have experienced. And certainly, having undergone their own versions of hell, a leader built from adversity is better able to manage the crises of the day.

When a leader can’t relate to the voter, or when a leader appears incapable or powerless in confronting the evils of the day, then there is virtually no chance that a vision for the future can be imparted upon the minds of society as a whole. And without that, it’s thus left to any number of nutcases to fill the void.

Corbyn, Trump, Sanders, Farage, Le Pen, all these folks have some fairly decent ideas for the future, at least worth discussing. Mostly though, they seem to have a whole bunch of really terrible ideas. But they make up for their insanity by their ability to impart a vision for the future on anybody willing to listen. And people feed off of that because the traditional leaders of the day are otherwise unable or unwilling to provide any compelling vision at all.

Identity

As a subset of vision, identity is what a person feels they are a part of. In the simplest terms of Brexit, it’s does a voter feel that are British, or English, or European, or whatever. Increasingly throughout modern democracies the identity of a person is becoming more local. Scots see themselves as Scottish, Catalonians over Spanish, Texans over Americans, and so on. This is partially tied to the lack of decent leadership already discussed. When remote, aloof, national leadership seems unable to solve the problems of the day, folks are inherently going to look for answers with their local leaders. In part this isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering your local mayor has far, far more impact upon your life then the president does anyways. Are bigger problems created however, if we keep driving ourselves to the local level?

Also a factor is the almost total loss of a driving national identity in most Western democracies. Before 1945 the British identity was the Empire. Between 1945 and 1991 it was defense of liberal democracy against communism. What’s Britain’s national identity about today? Judging by the major campaign issues of the last general election, it’s NHS fees, bus fares, and tweaking the edges of welfare eligibility payments. These are not the topics that inspire a Scot to remain a fervent Brit.

The same pattern is beginning to take hold in an America that is increasingly unhappy trying to play the thankless dangerous role of world cop. After 15 years of quasi-war it’s still quite possible for the same enemies of September 11th to slay Americans and Afghans at will. If you lost your job to Mexico, or will spend 20 years paying off student loan debt, or pay every check into a Social Security account you know you’ll never see, then it becomes a bit harder to step back and give a pleasing sigh during the Star Spangled Banner. And if all of this be the case, why should you care about the American dream or what happens in Syria?

A more common response to all of this is to turn inward, to seek the answers in a far more local setting, with the people and values closest to you. With the historical roots that are essentially unshakeable no matter how you slice geography or political structure. Maybe there’s just something to be viscerally said for keeping a people together if you share the same time zone, weather, football team, and drinking water supply.

Brexit

The appeal of Brexit is the clear benefits of identity and vision. The identity is pure Britannia. The vision is a United Kingdom unshackled from an incompetent, distant leadership incapable of battling the problems of the day. It’s certainly an appealing vision. But the question at hand is can such a vision and identity actually deliver? I’m not so sure.

Leave aside the possibility if you can, that the Scots might want out of a UK not in the EU, or that the Northern Irish are going to struggle to come to grips with a full EU border to the south. Even if the UK can hold together post-Brexit, what would this new Britannia actually be? What is the UK without an Empire, without a direct tie to Europe, or without the ever-present struggle for freedom?

Without any of these things, I suspect the answer is that Great Britain (and certainly England alone) is a fourth rate nation struggling on the fringes. Britannia, whatever that is today, requires Europe. It isn’t going to magically reappear outside the handcuffs of the EU. Localism isn’t going to somehow deliver the British economy from Brussels. The British economy requires Europe to survive, and that’s a tall order for an angry EU to fulfill post-Brexit.

To which the Leave campaign’s answer seems to be the creation of a new Britannic vision, a new British Singapore, a new island nation trading post free from that old sick man of Europe. I suppose this is possible, I just don’t see how it happens unless the answer lies in totally going all in with the already active policy of sucking up to China to become their Singapore of Europe. Cameron is of course knee deep in courting China, but post-Brexit this effort would have to go into overdrive. And is this new Britannia prepared to sell its soul on human rights, democracy, and freedom in order to economically survive? I’m not sure it’d have a choice.

Take away Brussels tomorrow and the UK doesn’t automatically become a free little bird in an open sky. The dirty little secret of modern Britain is that the dark master of bureaucracy does not reside in Brussels, he resides in London. In the UK, tasks, regulation, and enforcement of major local issues that in America would be handled by local city councils and mayors, are in Britain handled by bureaucrats in London. One of the more beneficial and inspirational efforts of Cameron’s tenure has been to try and remedy this by pushing more power back to the local level, but they are a long, long way from anything approaching what most Americans would consider reasonable local government. In or out of the EU, this problem doesn’t get solved overnight.

Localism

I don’t have a cure for any of this. It’s a creepy scary dark time in our course of history and I fear nobody has any real answers. And that there aren’t any real leaders out there prepared to tackle the major issues of the day. But I’m not sure Trump or Brexit or whatever are the answers either. I just don’t think they provide the solutions that people seek.

The problem with this new localism is it tends to overlook the reality that everything we do in our modern societies depends not on the local but on the global. Whether it’s containerized shipping, call centers, cheap diapers at Walmart, or the nice reality that World War III is not coming tomorrow, our world as it stands today is defined not by Brits being Brits but by the ever increasing connections happening between people worldwide.

It’s a rather jarring situation that nobody’s really ready to handle. It’s uncomfortable for people to wrap their minds around the construct that what could happen to their pocketbook or their way of life is not really guided by them, but also perhaps not their own leadership either. A president Trump would have to wake up real quick once he realized how much of the American economy is wrapped up in China. A post-Brexit led Johnson would have a real hard time solving the economy when so much of Britain’s trade is wrapped up in the ability for Europe simply to say no to him.

Whether we like it or not, we have built a world where our vision and identity are not local but global. We can still be British or American or whatever we prefer, but what we cannot do is pull backward in time. We may not be ready for a true global identity, perhaps not ever, but the allure to reestablish our identity and vision to the local level isn’t the answer. We’re simply too connected for that.

Prediction

Tomorrow’s vote is likely to run very close but I’ll throw my guess that Remain just edges out Leave. When the undecided voter gets into the booth tomorrow, they’ll still have that ever common human trait that fears the unknown. Lots of folks are tempted to dive into the uncertainty but I suspect the small percentage that will turn the vote one way or the other is going to push for stability, for the certainty of the same. So Remain wins, but by just a hair. Then we’re left with the broader issues outlined above. It’ll be quite the long road to solve them.