Tuesday, April 29, 2008

In Memory of Pooka Morrow

Pooka Morrow with her Boss

A Dog Has Died

by Pablo Neruda
Translated, from the Spanish, by Alfred Yankauer

My dog has died.
I buried him in the garden
next to a rusted old machine.

Some day I'll join him right there,
but now he's gone with his shaggy coat,
his bad manners and his cold nose,
and I, the materialist, who never believed
in any promised heaven in the sky
for any human being,
I believe in a heaven I'll never enter.
Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom
where my dog waits for my arrival
waving his fan-like tail in friendship.

Ai, I'll not speak of sadness here on earth,
of having lost a companion
who was never servile.
His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine
withholding its authority,
was the friendship of a star, aloof,
with no more intimacy than was called for,
with no exaggerations:
he never climbed all over my clothes
filling me full of his hair or his mange,
he never rubbed up against my knee
like other dogs obsessed with sex.

No, my dog used to gaze at me,
paying me the attention I need,
the attention required
to make a vain person like me understand
that, being a dog, he was wasting time,
but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
he'd keep on gazing at me
with a look that reserved for me alone
all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.

Ai, how many times have I envied his tail
as we walked together on the shores of the sea
in the lonely winter of Isla Negra
where the wintering birds filled the sky
and my hairy dog was jumping about
full of the voltage of the sea's movement:
my wandering dog, sniffing away
with his golden tail held high,
face to face with the ocean's spray.

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.

There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,
and we don't now and never did lie to each other.

So now he's gone and I buried him,
and that's all there is to it.

Bebe Barron (1925-2008)

Scored the Science Fiction Film "Forbidden Planet"

Bebe Barron, a pioneering composer who started manipulating sounds after receiving a tape recorder as a wedding present and later scored the 1956 science-fiction film “Forbidden Planet," the first full-length feature to use only electronic music, has died. She was 82.

Barron died April 20 of complications related to old age at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said her son, Adam Barron.

With her engineer husband, Louis Barron, she created “a soundscape for 'Forbidden Planet' that no one could ever have imagined," Jon Burlingame, a film music historian who teaches at USC, told The Times. “It was hugely ground-breaking." (more)

Village people

From Kolchak:

The forthcoming remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still promises to be a Richter-scale disaster. The new version of The Andromeda Strain, coming soon to A&E, is only slightly less offensive. And don't get me started on how Will Farrell is turning Land Of the Lost into a comedy....

Despite this tidal wave of mediocrity, though, there may be reason for optimism.

Yes, really.

ITV, the British television network, has announced that it will be producing a six-episode version of The Prisoner,, the genre-bending series from the late 1960s starring Patrick McGoohan. So far, the only name associated with the new show is the writer, Bill Gallagher. However, there is a persistent rumor that Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who) may star.

Meanwhile, director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins and Momento) is supposedly working on a feature-length version of The Prisoner, with a script from Janet and David Peoples ( Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys ).

I think this new burst of interest in The Prisoner carries some interesting implications with it, beyond Hollywood’s fascination with remakes. To explain this properly though is going to require some background.

In this series, McGoohan plays a British secret agent who resigns from his job without warning. or explanation. (Although it is never mentioned specifically in any episode, most fans of the show believe that McGoohan was still playing John Drake, the character he introduced in an earlier show, Secret Agent.) However, before he can leave London, this former agent is abducted and taken to the Village, a prison for individuals--seemingly from around the world, not just England--who have too much classified information in their heads to be allowed their freedom.

The Village appears to an aggressively quaint seaside community, but the Victorian architecture hides high-tech surveillance devices and brutal mind-control experiments. Attempted escapes are often dealt with the by the Rovers, huge white spheroids that look like they escaped from a really big lava lamp.

Day-to-day operations in the Village are controlled by an individual known as Number 2. Usually, there was a different performer in this role every week, but one or two were called back for an encore. The new arrival is designated Number 6, and is told that he is being held because the Powers That Be--the people Number 2 is reporting to--want to know why he resigned. Number 6's response has become the show's mantra::

" I am not going to be pushed, filed, indexed, stamped, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own."

The remainder of the series-- there was a total of 17 episodes--becomes a battle of wills as the Village tries to break Number 6, and he tries to escape.

The Prisoner starts as a peculiar twist on the spy shows popular in the 1960s but eventually turns into a surrealistic parable about identity, integrity and the possible misuses of technology. As the show evolves, McGoohan starts to write and direct segments, as well as star in them. (He is also credited as co-creator.) In order to tell his story, he borrows symbols and techniques from a wide variety of genres and styles, which both fascinated and alienated his audience Some viewers probably had both reactions at the same time.

While the original "Prisoner" isn't shown regularly on TV, it's never really gone away, either. It's usually available on home video--whatever this week's hot new format is--and it clearly influenced other creators. References to the series can be found in Babylon 5; the original run of the Fantastic Four comic book; the current version of Battlestar Galactica and The Simpsons.

That's right, The Simpsons

The Prisoner was a groundbreaking series in a lot of ways, but here are two that I don't think are mentioned as often as they should be:

  • Before Lost, before The X-Files, before Twin Peaks, McGoohan and his associates were producing stories with questions that were carried over from week to week. How these questions were finally answered produced some strong reactions--both positive and negative--but it may be one the reasons why the show is still talked about today. (More on this shortly.)

  • There's a long-standing belief that it takes decades for an idea to migrate from written science fiction to sf television and movies. That wasn't the case for The Prisoner, however. Many people consider it a part of the "New Wave" school of sf writing, which was gaining in popularity in England at the time. (Basically, New Wave writers emphasized psychology and literary technique more than their American counterparts) This link was made stronger when Thomas Disch, one of the leading New Wavers, wrote a "Prisoner" novelization. In addition, Anthony Skene, who wrote the first episode of the original show, has been collaborating with Michael Moorcock, another leader of the New Wave.

  • As for me, I was in high school when The Prisoner debuted in America. I was fairly familiar with Secret Agent , but this show caught me completely by surprise. It quickly took up permanent residence in my imagination. For a long time, I didn't see any real need for a remake, even though some of the elements of the original hadn't aged very well.

    Now, though, I'm not so sure.

    Here at the Daily Blatt, handrummer ran a photo of what can only be called a propaganda poster promoting the increased use of video surveillance in England. The poster promises that the public will be "secure beneath the watchful eyes" of the television cameras.

    When this sort of sentiment becomes a real poster in the real world, I think you can draw only one of two conclusions: either The Prisoner has been totally eclipsed by reality or it's time to do a remake Really really time. This may be one of those rare occasions where Hollywood's perpetual quest for pre-sold properties actually matches up with a contemporary issue.

    Hey, it could happen. It may already be happening, with movies like V For Vendetta or comics like Marvel's Civil War, which takes a metaphorical look at fighting terrorism and excesses of government power.

    However, if either of the "Prisoner" remakes are going to be as intense as the original, a number of difficult creative decisions are going to have to be made., over and above things like casting a new Number Six.

    For example, in the original series, McGoohan went to Portmeirion, a resort community in Wales, to shoot the exterior shots of the Village. The fanboy side of me says that it won't really be The Prisoner unless they go back to Portmeirion. On the other hand, technology has changed so much over the years, that it may no longer be necessary to give a prison a geographic location. In this world of GPS and electronic house arrest, it may be the Prisoner carries his jail cell around with him in some way.

    Finding an appropriate resolution to the story is going to be tricky too, particularly since McGoohan's own conclusion left a lot of people frustrated and annoyed.

    According to the various books about the show, McGoohan wanted to produce six, maybe eight, episodes. However, when he pitched the idea to Lew Grade, the president of ITV, Grade wanted enough for a standard syndication package (which, according to which source you use, was anything from 24 to 32 episodes.) ITV did finance the show, but there was constant tug-of-war about how many episodes there were going to be.

    "Once Upon a Time," the next-to-last episode in the original series, deals with Number Six giving Number Two (Leo McKern, one of the actors who played the role more than once), a nervous breakdown during a bizarre psychodrama called Degree Absolute. The episode ends with another member of the Village staff asking Number Six what he wants.

    The Prisoner replies he wants to see Number One, and he leaves with the staffer. This was apparently McGoohan's original idea of how the series should end.

    However, he eventually added one more episode, "Fall Out." He may have been under pressure to provide a tidy, straightforward conclusion to the show. If he was, though, he managed to withstand it. "Fall Out" is filled with surrealistic images, overlapping dialogue and strange musical combinations. Calling it psychedelic is an understatement.. McGoohan (who also wrote and directed the episode) does provide some answers, but I think it takes multiple viewings to find them.

    handrummer and I, along with several of our friends, once saw "Fall Out" dubbed into French, while attending a world science fiction convention in Toronto. It actually turned out to be a good experience. Since neither drummer nor I could speak French, we weren't even tempted to try and follow the dialogue. It allowed us concentrate on the images.

    As I've said though, the episode didn't sit well with audiences at the time, and I'm not sure how well that approach would go over with most modern audiences. On the other hand, it's going to be difficult to come up with a realistic ending that hasn't already been seen on the news. In the late 1960s, the possibility that the Good Guys were running the Village was shocking. Now, though, we've seen smaller versions of the Village in the real world: the CIA's "safe houses" for suspected terrorists. Maybe one of the remakes will be called The Prisoner: Extraordinary Rendition.

    In general, I imagine both production companies are going to be tempted to make changes just to keep the two versions distinct from each other, never mind whether it enhances the story. It's going to be a tricky balancing act, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it's all going to....um, fall out.

    For more information about the original "Prisoner," check out www.theprisoneronline.com.

    Monday, April 28, 2008

    Hundreds of Iraq reconstruction projects 'failed'

    from BBC:

    An audit of US-funded reconstruction projects for Iraq has found millions of dollars have been wasted because many schemes have never been completed.

    The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction blamed delays, costs, poor performance and violence for failure to finish some 855 projects.

    Many other projects had been falsely described as complete, found the audit of 47,321 reconstruction projects.

    Iraq reconstruction has cost US taxpayers more than $100bn so far.

    USAID, the body responsible for overseeing Iraqi reconstruction, has responded that the database used for the review was incomplete.  

    The audit by Senator Stuart Bowen found US officials had terminated at least 855 projects before completion.

    Of this number, 112 were ended because of the contractors' poor performance.

    Danielle Brian, executive director of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said: "The report paints a depressing picture of money being poured into failed Iraq reconstruction projects.

    "Contractors are killed, projects are blown up just before being completed, or the contractor just stops doing the work."

    Last year, congressional investigators said as much as $10bn (£5bn) charged by US contractors for Iraq reconstruction had been questionable.

    Friday, April 25, 2008

    By the Numbers

      from Jim Hightower: 

    The economy under the current "adminstration'.                     2001         2008

    Median pre-tax household income                                           $49,158        $48,201
    decrease for African American households under Bush                                 $2,766
    decrease for Asian American households                                                          $1,381
    decrease for Hispanic households                                                                      $1,043
    decrease for white households                                                                               $745

    Salary of full-time minimum-wage earner in 2007                                       $12,168
    Increase in productivity of American workers under Bush                                 18%
    Increase in real earnings of American workers under Bush                                   9%
    Total # manufacturing jobs                                                  17.3 million     14.2 million
    National unemployment rate                                                            3.5%                 5%
    Number unemployed Americans                                          5.6 million        7.7 million
    Number including discouraged or underemployed             9.9 million     13.5 million

    Americans living in poverty                                                  31.6 million     36.5 million
    Americans going hungry according to USDA                       31 million        38.2million
    Cost of a gallon of milk                                                                          $3               $3.79
    Cost of a loaf of bread                                                                       $.98                $1.32
    Rent, 2-bedroom home, Los Angeles (month)                         $1,658              $2,229
    Rent, 1-bedroom home, Boston (month)                                  $1,453              $2,000
    Total consumer credit debt                                                 $7.65 trillion   $12.8 trillion
    Personal savings rate                                                                     +2.3%                 -0.5%

    Increase in number of home foreclosures from 2006                                     68%
    Households currently at high risk of foreclosure                                         2 million
    Households paying more than half their income for housing                    13 million
    Households unable to afford
    even the lowest-priced home rentals
    in the U.S.
                          2.8 million

    Monday, April 21, 2008

    The Simple Arithmetic of Republican Failure

    from Huffington Post:

    John McCain is a "deficit hawk"? These days, that's about as accurate as saying Donald Trump is homeless. Let's cut through the nonsense and talk about real numbers.

    Numbers tell a story. Especially over time. They compel us to focus on results -- success and failure. Over the short term, maybe a few years, numbers can be manipulated or give false signals. But not over decades, and not over a generation. The numbers over the past 30 years are not refutable. When it comes to creating jobs and managing the nation's finances, Democratic presidents demonstrate success while Republican presidents show failure.

    Job Creation

    Jimmy Carter, 1977-1980: 10.5 million new jobs
    Bill Clinton, 1993-1996: 11.6 million new jobs
    Bill Clinton, 1997-2000: 12.4 million new jobs
    Total: 33.6 million jobs created over 12 years, or 2.8 million jobs per year

    Ronald Reagan 1981-1984: 5.2 million new jobs
    Ronald Reagan 1985-1988: 10.8 million new jobs
    George H.W. Bush 1989-1992: 2.6 million new jobs
    George W. Bush 2001-2004: 0.2 million fewer jobs
    George W. Bush 2005-2007: 5.5 million new jobs
    Total: 24 million jobs created over 19 years, or 1.3 million jobs per year

    Government Spending

    How much did the government spend for every dollar of revenue?
    Jimmy Carter, 1977-1980: $ 1.16
    Bill Clinton, 1993-1996: $1.25
    Bill Clinton, 1997-2000: $1.01
    Democratic Average: $1.16

    Ronald Reagan 1981-1984: $1.31
    Ronald Reagan 1985-1988: $1.38
    George H.W. Bush 1989-1992: $1.34
    George W. Bush 2001-2004: $1.27
    George W. Bush 2005-2007: $1.24
    Republican Average: $1.29

    The difference between $1.16 and $1.29 may not seem like a lot, but the impact on the national debt is huge, especially when you consider that $1.29 applies to 19 years, and the budgets under this president are so much larger.

    Increases in Government Debt

    Growth In Debt Held By the Public [$US trillions]
    Jimmy Carter, 1977-1980: 0.2
    Bill Clinton, 1993-1996: 0.7
    Bill Clinton, 1997-2000: -0.3
    Democratic Total: 0.6

    Ronald Reagan 1981-1984: 0.6
    Ronald Reagan 1985-1988: 0.7
    George H.W. Bush 1989-1992: 0.9
    George W. Bush 2001-2004: 0.9
    George W. Bush 2005-2007: 1.1
    Republican Total: 4.3

    The financial markets only pay attention to the amount of debt held by the public. This is the number that helps drive down the value of the dollar and makes bankers nervous about inflation down the road.

    Growth of Debt Held By "Government Accounts" [$US trillions]

    Jimmy Carter, 1977-1980: 0.00
    Bill Clinton, 1993-1996: 0.4
    Bill Clinton, 1997-2000: 0.8
    Democratic Total: 1.3

    Ronald Reagan 1981-1984: 0.1
    Ronald Reagan 1985-1988: 0.3
    George H.W. Bush 1989-1992: 0.5
    George W. Bush 2001-2004: 0.8
    George W. Bush 2005-2007: 1.4
    Republican Total: 3.0

    Debt held in government accounts is very much a misnomer. Debt, in the real world, is a fixed obligation to make a payment on a specific date. Not so for debt held in government accounts, according to this White House.

    The Bush administration opposes including Social Security and Medicare in the audited deficit. Its reason: Congress can cancel or cut the retirement programs at any time, so they should not be considered a government liability for accounting purposes." USA Today, August 3, 2006

    This subject warrants a separate article, but, there, in a nutshell, is the basis for the Republicans' "Social Security Reform."

    In very simple terms, what happens is that the money contributed by everyone into Social Security, intended to build up a surplus to fund the baby boomers' nest egg for their retirement years, is actually used to reduce the government's reported deficit. Is it a huge scam? You bet. President Clinton, anticipating the problem, proposed some kind of undefined "lockbox" to prevent the pillaging of the Social Security surplus that's taken place under the current White House. Of course, the Republicans shot that down.

    Anyone who speaks of a crisis in Social Security is really talking about a problem that can be laid at the Republicans' doorstep. It's not class warfare, just simple arithmetic.

    Job Creation: Bureau of Labor Statistics Seasonally adjusted nonfarm payrolls, calculated on calendar years
    Government Spending: OMB, On-Budget Outlays divided by On-Budget Revenues
    Increases in Government Debt: OMB

    Wednesday, April 16, 2008

    Gotta Stop Slammin' My Head in the Door.....

    STAR TREK™ Casket

    The STAR TREK Casket styling has been inspired by the popular “Photon Torpedo” design seen in STAR TREK II: The Wrath of Khan. Caskets will be available beginning late 2008.

    Wednesday, April 09, 2008

    Admiral Adama's New Clothes

    From Kolchak:

    There's one in every crowd...and, this time, it looks like I'm going to be the one.

    Battlestar Galactica is back on the SciFi Channel, with the first half of its fourth and last season. The show is regularly praised as the best dramatic series on television, regardless of genre. Even the writers at io9.com, who have apparently never met a snarky remark they didn't like, didn't include BSG in its recent poll of overrated sf shows.

    All of this is pretty impressive, but I've never been able to join this particular choir. The charm of the new BSG has, in general, eluded me. For a while, I was intrigued by how the creative staff had turned a show that could charitably be called an oddity into something serious. But then I started noticing things...

    My biggest problem with the new BSG is the new visualization of the Cylons. As I understand it, there are now Cylons who are indistinguishable from human beings. The original Cylons have been producing these organic models for 20, maybe 40, years, since the end of the first war with humanity. To be able to do that would require some major upgrades in technology, I think.

    The real question here, though, is not how the Cylons do it, but why do they do it.It apparently has something to do with the Cylons finding God. Or a god. (Why would the Cylons acknowledge anything as a god, anyway?) But that's all I can tell you. Maybe that's all any viewer can tell you. And I certainly can't tell you why the Cylon god or the new organic Cylons ordered a new invasion of the Twelve Colonies.

    Another thing about the organic Cylons is that they come in sets. Each of them have several duplicates. Why? Don't ask me. Nothing I've seen suggests any sort of link between members of a set/litter/clutch/whatever. No telepathy, no shared knowledge, no group mind.

    By the way, a lot of statements in the piece are going to be qualified with words like "apparently" and "As I understand it." I've not seen every episode, and, at this point, I don't plan to. I've seen the first dozen or so episodes in the weekly series; the occupation of New Caprica and about a half-dozen miscellaneous episodes. I think that's a fair sampling, but there are probably going to be people who think otherwise.

    The other problems I have with the new BSG are harder to explain. They deal more with feelings and impressions, rather than story logic. But I think they're worth talking about.

    Battlestar Galactica is a dark, depressing show. It presents a universe where mankind is totally at the mercy of forces beyond its control, where the best you can hope for is to stay alive and keep running. Some people say this is a needed antidote to the Star Trek universe and maybe it is. However, it doesn't make a show that I want to watch every week.

    The protagonists of Firefly andFarscape are the bottom of the social ladders in their respective universes, but they still win, from time to time. Even when the characters are behaving outrageously (Chiana sleeping with both D'Argo and his son in Farscape) they're still interesting, and understandable. I've never gotten that from "Galactica."

    The show has been praised for its political commentary, but I have mixed feelings about it. I did like the occupation of New Caprica arc, but I thought the episode where abortion was outlawed on the Colonial Fleet was nonsensical, particularly since the decision to prohibit abortions was based on a study of population trends in the fleet that was pulled out of the air for this episode. At least one reviewer has said that choices like this proves BSG's willingness to question the sacred cows of both the right and the left.

    To me, though, it just seems inconsistent, and sloppy.

    All of this may just boil down to one idea: BSG takes itself too seriously. I remember reading one of the BSG producers saying that the show was more serious and realistic than any of the Star Trek shows. (I think the speaker was David Eick, but I can't swear to it now.) I still remember the line because, within a few days of reading it, I saw an episode of BSG that featured a catfight between the new Starbuck and one of the organic Cylon women. I have no real problems with staging catfights,. but I do have a problem when someone tries to label them serious science fiction.