I drafted an outline of this post, and I found myself wondering: what the hell is it with me and telephones? I hate talking on them--for the usual reasons (hi bright) and more--and maybe that's what chafes my inner Andy Rooney. Dwelling three generations behind the technology curve--I am just starting to enjoy the web access feature of my corporate Blackberry--makes all this moaning about the voice features rather quaint, but I tell myself some of the issues are universal, even if they're befuddled among cliches that were boring back when they were confined to my grandfather's latest theory on the remote control. I'm not complaining about the tangled wires, but man, I'm getting down there. Oh wait, I am whining about the wires. I mean, I'm supposed to be a technologist of some kind. I can only conclude that fogeyhood is finally setting in.
1. First, let's address the getting old part.
This summer marks my tenth wedding anniversary, and I've been looking at some of the old photos. They're animated with a youthful sheen that depresses me to realize I've lost. I've been living in the same place for over 80% of that decade, and still somehow employed at the same hated job. The milestones just crept up on me, and like many an incipient geezer, I'm scratching my gray-kissed head as to how it happened so quickly. This last span of years was a vastly different experience from all the ones before. It used to be that the life markers flew by at a yearly pace, if not faster (grades, birthdays I was excited about, a new place to live every single goddamn year for a decade), with a reliable quadrennial shift to a completely new setting. It's a little disappointing to think how much all that was scripted for me, but even when I was allegedly allowed off the treadmill, the piped-in scenery kept rolling along into grad school, then kids, postdoc, job. Lately, however, the video's been on a loop (or maybe they just ran out of billboards?). Without going through any conveniently-placed "phases of my life" wickets, I discover that life has passed by just the same. I meet the new kids here, and it's weird to realize that I don't have anything in common with them, even though we're both in our First Real Job.
Of course I'd prefer to remain young, or at least stay youthful. Impermanence may be a part of early life, even though the idea has been abused by the relentless marketing of a standard package of experience, but I think society exploits our fear of settling down to a similar and maybe more detrimental degree. I have mixed feelings about the value of our connection with place and community, but there is certainly a quiet beauty in permanence, and even if we prefer to wander, there is a wisdom to be found in remembering our fundamental connection to the solid earth. You shouldn't have to grow roots, even if it can be good for you, but it shouldn't be excluded from the narrative of our culture, and this endless succession of expensive hydroponic strip-mall communities isn't really the answer to a question that matters. Eight years is a good stretch. Few jobs are so stable these days, and I'm especially surprised that mine has been. In my more radical moments, I suspect that normalizing our sense of impermanence and insecurity serves our elite class well, relaxing the oblige of our various nobles. Someone get out the folk guitar, I need a new ringtone.
2. Make-work pay?
Confusing issues generally arise on Saturdays. Although the mail still comes, every other official agency or call center is as reliably closed on the weekend as a Puritan state liquor store or a local bank. Last Saturday, I got a government check in the mail, which would have been more warmly received if I knew why the hell I was getting it. There was no explanatory letter that came along too. After having to scrounge up a $2000 payment, nickel and diming for every nonexistent deduction, I'm not really convinced at the moment on the mathematical precision of the bureaucratic process. It would have been nice to just exempt the sum at the beginning.
When Monday came, I called the IRS. There was a time when you could defeat a phone tree by pressing zero, but these information systems only get more byzantine as customers learn them. (For questions about your refund, press seven, to get your full tax history, press C, to repeat this message, press π, for other questions please digitize your ZIP code, and calculate the first root to the spherical Bessel function of that order, followed by the pound sign.) It's like those rebate programs where the seller wants to give the illusion of a discount without actually offering the savings, and so you mail in highly specific proofs of purchase, under highly complicated rules, and in the off chance you manage to get everything right, they will just forget to send the damn thing anyway. The provider of the phone tree answer system would similarly like to appear helpful without the difficulty of actually supplying you with useful specific information. Like a troubleshooting guide for the latest gizmo, it is designed to toss out the laughably obvious questions, and prevent any other ones from being answered at all. As the customer gets wiser, the tree gets more complicated, with more dead ends and tempting signs to see the fabulous egress. I like the bit where I call it an arms race, but of course that's stolen from the Hitchhiker's Guide.
It took three climbs up the phone tree, and then 45 minutes hold time to get my question answered (they were helpful when finally cornered), wherein I discovered that it was from president Obama's Making Work Pay program (part of ARRA). On the paper filing form, it's listed on line 63 as: "Making work pay and government retiree credits. Attach Schedule M." I see why I missed it--I'd say it was another rebate scam, buried under language like that, but they fixed it for me. They want to get 'em out.
Belatedly, I'm remembering the marketing campaign. It was to reduce witholding and free up the cash over time. (Since my witholding is predictably fucked up year to year as the nature of our second income constantly changes--my wife hasn't been so stranded by stasis as me--I was thinking uh-oh.) And this is what prompts Obama's refrain for cutting taxes on family incomes under $250,000 from every campaign stop. I take it as the same bullshit vote-grabbing buyoff that Bush used a couple of times, that ought to highlight how much the usually considered adjustments in tax rates don't affect people's standard of living (especially if you withhold it), that is, not people working and making less than $250k a year, but somehow never actually imparts that lesson. The Bush PR team was better in promoting the thing though, or the press was more behind it. Whatever.
3. But it says "universal" right there in the name
When various computer manufacturers came together to create a standard for periferal devices, it made consumer life a little better. I have to admit, a discussion of data transfer protocols makes my eyes glaze faster than a discussion of taxes, and when it comes down to the finer details, I care about as much as I do about the workings under the hood of my car. I want to know how to fix some basic problems, confident that I can perform proper maintenance should it come to that, and I'm still turned on by the general principles, but what I really want is for the thing to work. (This isn't the case with all technical things, but when I'm so far from the realm of discovery to talk the benefits of competing industry standards, I can't really pretend to get too worked up anymore. Computer electronics, like cars, also make the mistake of marketing such distinctions, which aren't deeply meaningful to anyone who is not designing around the things, reducing systems to technobabble. Does a 30 mH degaussing magnet affect demultiplex rates faster than a 50 kBd sampling chirper? Who the fuck knows?)
So look, it's a universal connector, with a device standard that is remarkably convenient. So why do they make my life so annoying for the connection on the other end? The cell phone has a different plug than the camera than the mp3 player than the portable drive. In the tangle in the box (see, I do get this pathetic) the cords all look the same, and since they all have a different small end, I take turns nearsightedly jamming the that side into my sensitive electronic device like a particularly slow child figuring out one of those shape puzzles. And if I lose the wrong one, there will be no pictures to share with my friends and family. Also, what's up with these remote controls? If I aim it at the tv, then nothing happens, but when...
4. Why I need to plug that in.
When the battery on my Blackberry gets low, it politely tells me that there is not enough power for radio use. I feel that this is essentially taunting me, as it has enough power to show the picture of me kissing my beautiful wife on our wedding day, to play the worst version of Breakout ever, or, you know, to inform me that the battery is too low for a call, but not enough to actually make the call. This is merely insulting, and therefore an enormous step from the outright hurtful technologies employed by the primitive cell phones that the rest of my family still uses.
One of the most irritating ideas ever is the beep warning for a low cell phone battery. It has the unpleaBEEP!t property of disBEEP!rging high-decible tonesBEEP!n your ear when you're speaking, which only pales in annoyance to the battery's tendency to fail at night. It's like an alarm clock going off in aBEEP!er room. You start drifting back to sleep, anBEEP!ere it is again. It's not yours (or you hope it's not), and you knoBEEP!hat everyone else in the house is waiting for someone else to get upBEEP!d either plug the thing in or pitch it off the nearest cliff. Now which one is the riBEEP! wire? Shut up alreadBEEP!
5. A sufficiently backwards magic is indistinguishable from CGI
M. Night Shyamalan has been dead to me for at least three movies now, two of which I didn't bother to watch. The Sixth Sense was clever, but if there was any gilt left on his lily, this last flick has got to be enough to shake it off, and then light it on fire and stamp it into paste.
It would be a stretch to say I watch the cartoon, but it's on a lot, and for kids' programming I admit I've seen worse. Its best success is in working kung fu along with elemental magic, going so far as to imagine forms, styles, and (unevenly) mysticism that blend in well with the different magical families. They sketch in some nice backgrounds, and have attractively drawn people with recognizable individuality and a good sense of kinesthetics. A whole cartoon series leaves room for a ton of pointless crap, and the entire arc appears to have been truncated and revised as it went along, but just the same, it's passable, the people and world are not so uninteresting that you couldn't glean a worthwhile quantity of metal from the inevitable heap of dirty ore. (Point of reference: when I was a college-age layabout, I programmed my own VCR--some jokes are too low even for me--to record Gargoyles and The Tick every week. The former was, similarly, a lot better than it had to be, and the latter I still think is entertaining. Adults write it all of course, and I'm sure there's got to be some artistic urge here and there, even when they're prostituting themselves for a buck.) It doesn't hurt my feelings that the cartoon was Americanized anime, and even though it was strange that the one white family among a group of vaguely Inuit people ended up the heroes in the live action version, by and large he didn't eschew the vaguely non-Caucasian hues that the cartoon mostly preferred. These things weren't the problem.
It's not in M. Night's favor that we have a whole string of beloved fantasy fare turned into films since he first came on the scene as an auteur director. Lord of the Rings had its flaws with respect to fidelity, but it caught enough of the spirit of the books to make a body comfortable to nitpick a handful of the details. No one really complained about the Harry Potter flicks. [edit: so far as I knew!] The two Narnia movies caught every bit of the vision and the beauty of the children's stories, while toning down those aspects that would bore the crap out of an adult audience. And I admit the kids these days are spoiled with semi-serious filmmaking. I remember that Krull came out when I was ten, and I thought it was amazing. But compare the filmed Telmarines from Prince Caspian (I believe rundeep quoted "straight out of Velasquez," which was spot on) with M. Night's Fire Nation troops, which started out as fairly compelling animation. The principle difference wasn't the source material, it was direction with a sense of pacing and drama, and (much as I love Aasif Mandvi and all) acting that could be coaxed to, you know, sell the essentially goofball stuff going on on the green screens behind them. Instead, the lines were read with the heft of a late George Lucas script. Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo. Shyamalan copied the pivotal scenes from the cartoon almost exactly, but still managed to somehow strip the whole thing of dramatic power. It needed a cleaner exposition, some banter, some reason to care about the characters in any of the events that followed, and a better connection between those events. I really wanted to like it, but even my nine-year-old had complaints.
[Okay, partial credit: the kid who played Aang actually turned in a good performance, and the couple of scenes meant to evoke his innocence produced the movie's only charm. The shipboard settings looked cool, the Tai Chi moves were decent, and some of the scenic shots, borrowed note for note from the original animation, captured the beauty or majesty they were aiming for.]
Well, at least we were able to leave with fart jokes. Air- water- and earth-bending all correspond neatly to amusing bodily functions. We're still working on fire-bending. Spicy food? We'll think of something.