Archive for March, 2008

  • Rob Spectre
  • 30
  • Mar
  • 08

Imagine my horror when I discovered – through a Virgin Megastore banner no less – that Guy Ritchie had released a movie over two years ago. Being a huge fan of Lock Stock and Snatch, how a new film by one of my favorite directors could fly under my radar made me question my attenuation to reality. Isn’t this the kind of shit Amazon is supposed to be handling for me? Feeling like the high school senior who finally figured out what a dingleberry actually is, I rang it up along with the new record from PotUSA for a weekend double rock block of reacquaintance with creative forces I had loved from the late 90’s.

About an hour into the mess that is Revolver, the problem with Guy Ritchie was glaringly obvious – Madonna has clearly fucked his brains right out. The front and the back of the DVD cover set the expectation of more of the same from the London crime comedies that he had produced in the past. “Guy Ritchie back to his best” the headline declared, with the plot summary on the back promising fast talking British gangsters and razor sharp cinematography. Either the people who wrote the marketing materials for the film didn’t actually see it or their employer’s health care plan is so comprehensive it includes an intensive in-patient course of mental treatment that would allow them to sleep at night after producing such filthy, filthy lies. You can’t pay people enough to live with themselves after delivering such falsehood – prescription medication must be involved.

All the elements that make Guy Ritchie movies great were completely missing. Ritchie’s trademark snappy dialogue full of entendre and wit was replaced with the ham-fisted language of a Kabbalah pamphlet. Characters usually hyperbolic and clever had the former dial turned to 11 and the latter dial turned to Retard. The cinematography which he had produced previously with tight, powerful shots and composition just an inch shy of over-the-top was replaced with a treatment that contained all the subtlety of a Hustler centerfold. By the end of the film, I felt like I had been strapped to chair with a freshman film school movie marathon playing on the screen while simultaneously having graduates of the University of Phoenix Online psychology program read me nursery rhymes aloud. In this the film is impressive – it sucks at so many things concurrently it breaks your brain.

What is truly astonishing is the velocity of the diver the movie takes from promising to implausible to batshit fucking loco. The opening sequence leads one to initially believe that all is well in the universe and this is, in fact, a Guy Ritchie movie. However, sometime between the 7th eastern philosophy quotation hits the screen and when Ray Liotta starts hearing voices in his head for no goddamned reason, the real motivation for the movie sinks in. I took the liberty of preparing this scientific graph:

Revolver Graph

 

 

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 29
  • Mar
  • 08

The door swung slowly as the Sunset’s usual dusk breeze drafted through my open apartment. Returning home to change the oil on my hair before joining my comrades and associates in the celebration of my boy’s thirtieth, my gut clenched as the morning sped on 8x fast forward through my mind. Did I forget to lock the door? Was someone supposed to be working on the house today? The clench boiled over into nausea as I saw the deadbolt hanging on its lock, screws gripping splintered wood as they sagged loosely in protest. The shoebox inside the door I immediately recognized as the one that had formerly served as the crude file for all my important documents. A few feet from that laid my landlord’s boltcutters.

What is the reason for your call? “Burglary,” I declared to the 911 operator. How long ago did it happen? “I don’t know.”

The police officer – a short, gruff woman who, like me, was somewhere in her late twenties – perked her brow as she approached, casting a skeptical look at my hair. Unsure how to start the conversation, I started timidly, “So, my apartment was robbed,” as I walked towards the crowbarred entry.
“What makes you think that?” she interrogated quickly.

Turning back to her, I did a bit of a double take. “Well, the lock is usually attached to the door when I come home.”

They drew their sidearms and did a leisurely walkthrough of my in-law beach house apartment, occasionally shouting SFPD as they surveyed the damage. They took their time, leaving me to pace anxiously for what seemed like an eternity as the second set of total strangers traipsed through my home that day. After an extensive lecture on the need to leave everything untouched, they let me have a look. Frames and doors alike were shattered with my landlord’s old crowbar, left carelessly like some sick pop culture reference to Clue inside his door.

The inventory of material wealth in order of descending value crystallized instantly in my mind as I walked into my thrashed one-bedroom.

  1. Guitars? – check
  2. Photos? – check
  3. Computer? – check
  4. Backup drive? – check
  5. Comic books? – check
  6. Cash? – check
  7. Baseball signed by 2007 World Series Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett? – check
  8. Wii? – gone
  9. Documents? – gone

Once the initial shock of seeing one’s home unexpectedly decimated passed, the target of the thieves was easily obvious. Drawers with boxes of old checks were left ajar, the contents of their glossy cardboard brand marketing robbed. Shoeboxes with personal correspondence and identity documentation were spilled out on my bed. The past few years of W2s, my Social Security card, and my birth certificate were conspicuously invisible in the careless heap that constituted my federal, state, and municipal life.

The role of the officers shifted from enforcers to archaeologists, insisting every few minutes to refrain from touching anything. They were escorting me in my own home, now the tour guides in the crime scene that was Rob Spectre. I was an inert passenger on a cheap traveling carney horror ride, staring in disbelief as cliche after cliche was presented for my consumption by operators callous after years of pulling the lever marked “Scare.” The same ritual they conducted with my landlord once he arrived, leaving me to sit on my couch in a home I could no longer disturb.

CSI would arrive two hours of exchanging disbelief and half a cigar later. By this time my expectations of any humanity were basement level, sparing me from the disappointment caused by the crime scene investigator failing to be an extraordinarily attractive female pulling up in a sophisticated Cadillac Escalade. Emerging from a filthy and dented Chevrolet Suburban with a doctor’s bag for the crime scene and a expectation management routine, his principal question was “Anything else?”

After dusting the better part of both of our apartments the only print he was able to pull was likely my own, caught off the handle of a Nintendo Nunchuk the thieves had considerately left behind. He did his part to educate, giving us an example of the fruitless pursuit that was his daily toil after a failed attempt on the boltcutters. He left after listening patiently to some obligatory venting from my landlord, expressing his sympathy casually as he left, much like a Burger King shift manager says, “Thank you for your business.”

The incident came at a time of great coincidence. The primary theme of my quiet consideration on the ride home had been identity in California. With the failures personal and professional that plagued my time in this place, the natural conclusion to draw was that the conflict was rudimentary. I’m not one to believe in signs and portents, but the sheer friction that has associated itself with any endeavor large or small is enough to make one a believer in synchronicity. Was the problem greater than a mean streak of bad luck? Was it that who I am caused fundamentally this conflict?

All the Indian customer service representatives I spoke to for the rest of the night marveled at the circumstances that produced my call. Neither they nor the financial institutions they represent had encountered such a situation before. Materially, we got off easy, one could suppose. All that was stolen with a tangible dollar amount was my Wii.

They had broken in for one thing: our identities. They passed the easily pawned instruments of expression and the big ticket consumer electronics, finding more value in the potentially unlimited carnage that will be caused in taking the down payment on the rest of my financial future. Even my small amount of jewelry remained unmolested, the Wii seeming to be a bonus on their objective for the day. For all the violent violation manifested in the overturned speakers and the splintered doors, they weren’t trying to steal my things. They were trying to steal me.

In many ways, they are the first Californians in a long line. From the night I stepped off the plane this place has been trying to take the best out of me. Whether by screams of psychopathic Silicon Valley executives or pleadings of Market Street lifers begging for change, California has tried to take advantage of my charity, extinguish the intensity of my principles, and wither the daily joy of being the man I always wanted to be. Its disingenuous language, its phony ideas, and its bankrupt emotional investments have tried to quiet my rebellious voice and subjugate a spirit that has powered a life like a rocket away from where it began. They’ve tried to take who I am away from me; they’ve tried to make me one of them.

But these fuckers are going to fail. I’m not going to lower my standards one more notch for these people. I’m not going to eat one more shitend of a stick for these people. I’m not going to surrender an inch of myself, an iota of what I believe, or a second of my time for these people anymore. I am stronger and smarter than you, California. I’ve been doing this longer and harder than you, California. And you can break into my house and take my papers or steal into my inbox and jack my ideas or work your weasely way into my heart and piss on the brilliant glow I know lives there and I *will* endure. There is plenty fucking more where all of that came from and you are not so big or numerous enough to get it all.

Fuck *you* California. I’m going home.

Case #080 326 848 – Photos by Daniel Austin

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 26
  • Mar
  • 08

I walked up the dingy red carpet stairs to the banquet room in a Dim Sum joint in Chinatown. Inside several dozen geeks were hunched over indulgent plates doing what it is they do best, scarfing cheap Chinese food and talking code. It was the March meeting of the Bay Area Linux Users Group and despite the celebrity of its guest speaker it was true to form. Hawaiian and ThinkGeek shirts hid poorly the soggy mid-sections of dorks young and old for whom these kind of nights were why they got into open source. It was a circus of the frighteningly brilliant and opinionated with an open buffet, an inexpensive bar and the barest agenda to contain it all. At each of the tables of eight and ten long haired software lifers argued with newjack sysadmins about package management and source control. Wild eyed idealists showed off their XO laptops with the latest release candidate for Hardy Heron while squinting cynics regaled the first time they installed Slack on their toasters. It was the kind of meetup that only free and open source software can create, the kind of dinner I adore most.

I’d never been at a BALUG meeting before, but I got the sense that the night’s talk drew a lot of newcomers. Mark Shuttleworth had come up from a day of conferencing in the valley to deliver a few words to the real dorks driving the innovation the businessmen in Silicon Valley spend their days talking about. Shuttleworth is a South African technologist of no small accomplishment, founding Thawte, a company pioneering digital certificates and cryptography on the web. Following its sale, he started HBD Venture Capital as the premier firm funding innovation to take South African technology ideas to the world. He also is the second private citizen and the first African to go into space. But he wasn’t invited to this group of geeks for any of that. The professional merit that earned his invitation to this group was his pivotal role in FOSS as the CEO of Canonical and the passionate advocate for Ubuntu.

As typical of the LUG format, the introduction spared ceremony. Eschewing PowerPoint as the tool of marketing people, Shuttleworth instead elected to deliver the good, bad and ugly of open source as it stood today without a microphone and only the weight of ideas to carry its message. Calling it “the crazy artistic endeavor called software,” the good came easy as Sunday morning for phones, laptops, desktops, and servers. He lined the extraordinary opportunity of Linux on mobile devices. It’s size and extensibility makes immediate sense on the back ends of these small devices, the real excitement, he submitted, was with the interface – the software that one can touch. Similarly, that size and extensibility extended to the One Laptop Per Child project where a whole new market of cheap, connected Linux based hardware is emerging entirely from its effort. With the scale OLPC proved can exist, Shuttleworth posited that Linux was changing what a desktop experience constitutes. If a desktop is less productivity applications and more connectivity to the Internet, Linux is clearly winning. The superiority he described was “compatibility with the web, not compatibility with .doc.” His brief description of the good concluded with the promise of virtualization and the revolution it was carrying to the datacenter. While likening it to the creative economic destruction offered by the Internet is a bit of a stretch for even an idealist, the CEO of Canonical called Linux rightfully the leader in the field.

After a few thoughts on the laudable, the talk quickly turned to the lamentable state of applications on Linux. “We have to figure out how to reenergize OpenOffice,” he declared flatly. “Because we just aren’t there yet.” The domination of proprietary software in codecs was additionally called out as limiting. An exciting opportunity in his view was a free alternative to H.264; doing what Ogg Vorbis did for music for QuickTime. Describing the current predicament facing the RIAA, he fell short of calling out Apple by name saying, “[t]he music industry gave control to a company that told them exactly what they wanted to hear.” Shuttleworth suggested that the RIAA was discovering that closed codecs and DRM were an impediment for good business and only now finding out how dearly a price they were paying for their desperation.

“We don’t have the money,” he admitted plainly when turning to the ugly of FOSS. Calling the movement a “fundamentally scrappy army that collaborates well,” the bit that appears to be sticking in Shuttleworth’s craw is interoperability. Citing the example of Microsoft’s insanely successful Sharepoint product, the radical difference of user experience from project to project is just inelegant. The version control on which all these projects depend needs greater distribution as well, he suggested. The problem Canonical’s Launchpad is attempting to solve is one that could use some note taking from proprietary firms with Shuttleworth making the observation that a tighter coding experience would likely result in a tighter user experience.

And then the night turned into something really magical. At the pleading of BALUG’s MC for the evening, Shuttleworth began to relate his experience traveling to space. From the initial work learning Russian (which is “like testosterone and ballet distilled”) and doing the medical examinations in Star City to the terrifying night before launch, he gave the anecdotes and jokes one would expect he had probably delivered to crowds a million times before. But somehow, after coming to this kind of meeting, after spending time talking about the software we’ve devoted our professional and personal lives to, it became very personal. This wasn’t some uber rich sod squaking casually about the millions he dumped so he could get a one of a kind view. This was one of our own confiding about his extraordinarily personal journey into space.

The Q&A that followed hung on his space trip for some time.

“Is there really a gun in the Soyuz capsule?”

Yes, one barrel for bears and another for birds.

“How on target was your landing?”

Spot on.

“Did you see Debian in space?”

No Linux, but I saw Solaris, DOS, and Windows 98 on a 4 megabit coaxial network.

We continued on it for some time and eventually got back around to asking the questions about the software we had come to discuss. And in that telling the evidence of the phenomenon that is Mark Shuttleworth became clear. I’m sure he has a routine for the investors and for the analysts and for the marketers and for the channel partners and all the parrot people that make the work we do keep the lights on and pay the rent. But even with our most fan boy questions, he answered with patience, relying on the power of these ideas and the convictions of these principles we call open source over the jargonese that has taken over technology in the 21st century.

He stood around after the talk for 45 minutes as a group huddled around him, seeking his observation and input on this idea and that, his preference on Gnome or KDE, his idea about this or that new technology. He was like Lou Gehrig waiting after a game making sure all the autographs were signed.

As he was shuffling out, I got a photo with him and asked a fan boy question of my own.

“With your experience in selling Thawte, your work in venture capital, and your trip to space, I think its clear you can work with whomever you like in the whole world, Mark. Why do you choose to work with geeks?”

His grin was wry, his answer careful and unrehearsed. “Because I am one.”

Flickr: Testosterone and Ballet Distilled – Photos by Daniel Austin

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 24
  • Mar
  • 08

Last week the Cyberathlete Professional League announced it was pulling the plug after a decade of operation. One of the first to open and one of the first to close its doors in the field, the CPL was chief among the original organized attempts to make a spectator sport out of video games. Professional grade pwnage with purses matched to a livable wage made the CPL stand out among the first eSports competitions. While others were limited to festivals in major metros or televised events from Seoul or Tokyo, CPL tried to make an honest-to-God sport out of playing games. Their motivation was very clear from the start: make video games bigger than pro wrestling.

The Cyberathlete League set out specifically to make all other eSports promotions look low rent. Now just another in a long line of graveyard markers for those who make deals before making business models, the CPL didn’t merely outspend all comers in making gamers superstars, they outsold all comers by locking up exclusives with cable and satellite TV stations, game publishers and developers, and game press. The strategy, it seemed, was deliver huge prizes to attract the talent, use the talent to grab the media coverage, and then make the game industry foot the bill for the whole thing through sponsorship.

However, big prizes and big productions, as we all discovered, do not necessarily make big television. While the feeding of Survivor or Big Brother may seem forced to the now reality weary consumer of broadcast television, watching a naked dude from Rhode Island eat a rat is still more entertaining than watching a n00b bitch suck on a rocket. Why? Because everybody knows what the naked dude is eating.

Rule systems in video games are dramatically different from sequel to sequel, let alone title to title. The first five hours of any good game is the level design introducing you the concepts that make those rule systems work. If the CPL was supporting four different games – one shooter, one RTS, one racer, and one fighter – the awfully ambitious goal of that TV producer is distilling that 20 total hours of education into some mix of bumpers and commentary that leaves enough in the 23 minutes he’s working with for boobs, shit talk and Nvidia product placement.

A parallel example is the recent success of mixed martial arts on cable TV. Ultimate Fighting Championship began with pornstar card holders and no rules, thinking that blood and guts and T&A would be enough to make ratings. As it turns out, the real money was to be made once they started treating MMA like a real sport. Wonder why Joe Rogan keeps repeating that a guy switched from full guard to half guard? Because without that education it just looks like two dudes rolling around on the ground.

Video games suck to watch because unless you play the game you can’t possibly be expected to have a reasonable clue about what is going on. All major TV sports have two high powered personalities on hand: one play-by-play detailing the action of the moment and one color commentator explaining how that action fits in the big picture of the rules of the game.  Finding the two personalities that fit on TV who can explain the differences between two of the 21 fighters in Dead or Alive 4 and explain why AWPers are cheap bitches in CounterStrike is like asking for two successive genetic combinations of John Nash and Jesus Christ. The pair just doesn’t exist.

Video games are entertaining because they are interactive. They are built to be played. Removing the interactivity from video games and expecting success is like making coffee without a filter. Whatever it is you end up with is fundamentally different than what was originally engineered and tastes like liquid shit.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 22
  • Mar
  • 08

We were in a tiny theatre off the Embarcadero. On the screen, a middle-aged Palestinian farmer was freaking the fuck out. The year was 2003. A handful of Israeli soldiers were scattered around the rocky hill, supervising a few construction workers whose task for the day was cutting down olive trees that stood in the way of Israel’s “security fence.” The shoulder high trees had stood before that farmer’s father and even perhaps the father that tended them before. They were no younger than the grandparents of the young soldiers who kept the tiny village of Bil’in at bay as they were torn down.

The farmer cried out like he was losing his children. The universal paternity every farmer has for his fields was being raped in front of his eyes by those who had little comprehension of the history they destroyed. It took five soldiers to hold him down. Five young soldiers to contain the grief of a single old man. Were that formula applied to the greater regional problem of Palestine, the war would seem lopsided indeed.

We were watching Bil’in Habibti, a film put together by ISM activist Shai Carmeli Pollak, an Israeli jew who documented the construction of the illegal, immoral wall that now seals off Palestine from itself. Focusing on a village of goat farmers called Bil’in, it attempts to capture the non-violent demonstrations of one conservative town against a mighty machine that intended to roll over them.

And, ultimately, roll over them it did. Despite the twice weekly demonstrations broken up by rubber bullets, tear gas, and riot batons, enduring the nightly raids to arrest women and children, and the destruction of livelihood associated with the construction of the wall, the ending is far from happy. As creative and humorous the protesters got with chaining, boxing, building, and welding their own bodies in the way of the construction, it quietly continued, with Israeli soldiers quietly and methodically dispatching those in their way.

The question I left unasked is “is this working?” The non-violent demonstrations are given a few minutes to do their thing, then are broken up with the gleeful violence of the Israeli Defence Force. The activists would scream, their arms zip-tied behind their backs, that the whole world was watching the soldiers as they plyed their ugly trade.

The sad fact is that the whole world isn’t. This little film produced by this little group carries the gravest weight and the lightest gravity. The plight of the Palestinians in Gaza barely reaches the daily consideration of the length of the Muslim world, let alone the Western one. Is non-violence working?

Were those my olive trees on that hill on that day, there wouldn’t be enough rocks in the desert to throw.

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