Review: Spiderman: Far From Home

[Warning: spoilers in abundance ahead!]

My friends and I went to see Spiderman: Far From Home yesterday.  The trailers showed me Peter Parker ignoring Nick Fury’s calls so he could go on a class trip and try to Make A Move on MJ; the trip involves a monstrous creature attacking various sites in Europe, while a mysterious caped fellow fights it with magical green smoke.

Thus far the trailer – but the real story and intrigue of Far From Home is a movie-within-a-movie about objective reality and how it can be framed or obscured.

Post-Endgame, post “Blip” (when half the population disappeared for 5 years, then returned as if no time had passed), Peter Parker’s hoping to take the summer off from Avenger duties so he can process his grief over Tony Stark’s death, as well as act on his crush in Venice and Paris.  Fury summons him to help fight the new threat of Elementals (“cyclones with faces,” which manifest in earth, water, air, or fire in their attacks), giving him Tony’s bequest of EDITH: a pair of glasses that grant access to an AI controlling Stark Enterprises databases and drones.  Uncertain of his place in a post-Tony world, Peter gives them to Quentin Beck, seeming fighter of Elementals from another dimension.EDITH glasses.jpg

Unfortunately, Beck is not what he seems.  As Aldrich Killian resented Tony in Iron Man III, as Adrian Toomes resented both Tony and the Department of Damage Control in Spiderman: Homecoming, so Quentin Beck and his crew of former Stark Industries

B.A.R.F

Binarily Augmented Retro-Framing: a disrespectful acronym from a disrespectful employer, I guess

employees resent Tony’s lack of appreciation for their intelligence and their labors.  Beck had developed the holographic projection technology Tony used solely for therapy, while maligning it and failing to understand or present its power and possibilities to the world.

It turns out that holographic projections can create the illusion of an “Avengers level” monster, as well as project a magical caped crusader to conquer it with green swirls of smoke.  Beck’s crew find it ridiculous that a mysterious fellow in a cape has more attention and clout than a number of scientists and engineers, but figure that they can use the power of visual illusion to craft their narrative, getting their revenge on Tony by proxy in the process: they’ll claim EDITH for their own, and kill Peter, along with any other inconvenient witnesses.

EDITH’s weaponized droids do a whole lot of damage to London before Peter is able to break them, reclaim control of EDITH, and witness Beck getting killed by a stray drone shot.  The dust settles, Peter and MJ kiss, things return to normal.

Except.

Beck died, but his crew haven’t.  They choreographed the cyclone monsters, and use footage from Beck’s final minutes to set Peter up – framed for Beck’s death and the drone attacks on London, and named on the news.  Good-bye, secret identity, and hello, trying to disseminate the truth when people believe the fake news they heard first.classmates

This is a fitting cap to all the moments throughout the film of characters trying to discern the truth: Ned telling Betty about what he saw on the news or the internet; Brad jumping to conclusions about what Peter’s up to, snapping a picture for evidence; Peter trying to communicate with Fury in a secure environment, only to be slammed into a bunch of holographic nightmares that taunt him with vertigo, MJ in danger, and Tony Stark’s desiccated corpse.

Watching these illusions and framed tales unfold as though they’re real, on a screen that can only ever show pictures, not reality: there’s something delicious about it.  Of course it is happening inside your head, dear viewer, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?

One wonders how it felt to be a moviemaker working on a film wherein illusionists are crafting, choreographing, and displaying their fight scene to the world.  The filmmakers get their paycheck and whatever satisfaction comes from their creative work; what does Beck’s crew get, other than revenge and some slight satisfaction in filling a fraction of the gap Tony Stark left?  How long before the group would dissolve in in-fighting, or before they’d all pack up their scientific progress for Hollywood?

Perhaps we’ll find out in whatever Spiderman film comes next, as this group remains at large.  In the meantime, Far From Home was an interesting and amusing follow-up to Spiderman: Homecoming, and a necessary step back in scope from Endgame.  Watching it again should prove rewarding, if only to anticipate Beck’s moves (or to analyze how Fury behaves when he isn’t actually himself).  That said, the movie will probably provoke further thought than that, considering the extent to which visual and aural manipulation goes on in the external world.  The shadow of Orwellian oversight, the specter of Big Brother, and the threat of history being rewritten are familiar menaces, but no less foreboding for it.

More Religious Characters, Please

I concur with most everything said here, especially Katie’s note about 21st century literature. As I read, I strained my memory for “books [with religious/Christian characters] other than just The Shack and weird Amish-romances.”

The books or authors that most immediately come to mind when I think of good Christian fiction (whether they feature practicing Christians or not) are either Inklings (Lewis, Tolkien), Catholic literary revivalists (Waugh, Percy, Greene, O’Connor), or somewhat-adjacent folk (Sayers), all publishing ca. 1920-1980. And, you know, I’ll go on recommending the Lord Peter books, The End of the Affair, Brideshead Revisited, or the Cosmic Trilogy until my mind dissolves. I’ll commend anything by L’Engle even if it’s technically 20th century writing and I still have yet to read most of it.

But as Katie says, it’s harder to find representation in contemporary books. The field seems ripe for some solid idea-wrestling – what does it look like to be Orthodox in 2019?  What tension exists between you, the culture at large, and individuals around you when you’re a Calvinist?  How does your Catholicism manifest, and how do you reconcile confessing “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” with the abuses wrought by some priests and hidden by others? – all of which is to say, maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. Perhaps, as with stories about contentedly single women, I’d have to write it myself.

Some possibilities that occur:

The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. 1996, set in 2019/2060. Features Jesuits, Judaism, and agnosticism, in the context of interstellar travel.

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson. 2004, set 1956. A Congregationalist minister’s theological and philosophical struggles as he looks back on his life and his family history.

Flavia de Luce series, Alan Bradley. 2009-2019, set in 1950. Not about faith so much as it’s about crime-solving via chemistry, but it at least depicts Catholics and Anglicans going about their lives.

The Awakening of Miss Prim, Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera. 2013, set…well, sometime after 1970. Depicts a woman entering a community in the style of the Benedict Option.

I’d also like to mention Luci Shaw again. She’s a poet, not a novelist, so insofar as her work discusses faith, it does so directly rather than mediated through a character. She’s been publishing since the 1970s.

Edited to add:  Krysta of Pages Unbound has talked about this on multiple occasions, and one of the Pages Unbound readers has assembled this list of titles which feature POF, ie, People of Faith.

What books do you know of that represent Christianity in any depth?

What books do you know that represent Judaism, Islam, or other religions with nuance?

Never Not Reading

Today I’m going to talk about something that a lot of people are going to disagree with me about. This is something that has been quietly bothering me for some time, but came to a head in recent months, and I hope you’ll give me a chance to have my say.

There’s a lot of talk about representation in literature. Most often in 2019 we talk about diversity in terms of race/ethnicity and sexuality, however there is a growing movement calling for positive representation of mental health and people with disabilities. You don’t hear much about diversity in terms of religion. And if you do, you expect to hear about Muslim characters.

However, I am here to tell you, friends, that in 21st century literature, religious characters are highly underrepresented.


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Review: World Without Mind

I finished reading World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech last week.  Given the Zuckerberg hearings in the past fortnight…this book is certainly of-the-moment, which means that (among other things) it’s overdue at the library.

In some respects, Franklin Foer strikes me as Neil Postman’s heir.  As Technopoly warned, technology has changed and expanded (and continues to do so) so quickly that it is difficult for anyone to be certain exactly what ideas, mores, or other cultural artifacts might be jettisoned as a matter of course.  There is no time to appreciate, much less anticipate, all the changes technology can wreak.

Foer alternates his attention between the tech itself and those who wield it.   GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple), he says, have “imperiled the way we think” by leveraging their “intoxicating convenience” to “press [people] into conformity.”  He discusses the power of GAFA’s curation as manipulation of knowledge and an erasure of free will, but I’m convinced that Amazon making it easy to click on a book does not mean Amazon has forced me to buy it.  The gap between consideration and action is still, thankfully, large.

Among Foer’s other concerns is the fact that, increasingly, decision-making – and, perhaps, more creative work – is being given over to algorithms instead of humans.  Given his profession (staff writer/editor), one can understand why he’d feel threatened by the specter of automatically-composed reports.  He also seems somewhat concerned by Google’s pursuit of AI.  I don’t believe AI is actually possible, despite what Descartes thinks about humans as complex organic machines, so it seems to me that the bigger problem is Google’s tendency to ignore copyright law in its quest to digitize all published books as grist for the AI mill.

Foer is also Postman’s heir in that the solutions he proffers are weak in the face of the huge problems he diagnoses.  He describes how much these corporations lobby in Washington, details some of the strategies they’ve used to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes, notes how the overlap of data and personal transparency is three steps away from a certain sort of authoritarianism, and notes again the ascendancy of algorithms – then states a need for antitrust legislation to break up this new type of monopoly, and a Data Protection Agency to force GAFA to give consumers a way to purge their data.

I don’t know enough about the industry to know whether this is even possible, much less likely.  If these corporations are already guilty of tax evasion on a huge scale, how would you force them to play nice with data, and why would you expect them to obey new laws about it?  “Google’s leadership doesn’t care terribly much about precedent or law,” according to one of the company’s attorneys (regarding the book digitizing effort in particular, but surely it applies more broadly).  Wired’s writeup of the hearings seems to agree: “Because these businesses operate differently from those in more traditional industries, they must be regulated differently. Congress, and by extension regulators, don’t understand enough about these businesses to regulate them, and risk further entrenching their power by attempting.”

Silicon Valley apparently believes that regulations or anti-trust efforts can’t threaten Facebook’s dominance, that privacy controls won’t make Facebook more appealing to consumers, and that those currently at the helm have good intentions.

I’m skeptical as to that last point.  As Lewis put it:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

So, what do we do about this, aside from government-based solutions that will probably fail in the face of an army of attorneys?  Foer has some recommendations for fighting at the grassroots level.  The popularity of organic, whole foods (and similar food-based trends) gives him hope that people who care about what they put in their mouths will also come to care about what they put in their brains, and where it came from.

He also proposes that “cultivated” people pay to keep journalism alive, that the pursuit of objectified cultural capital would draw sufficient funding to support journalism as a livelihood.  I rather think he conflates journalism with any and all writing or publishing, but either way the point stands.

(An aside: reading this book in between movements of Verdi’s Requiem was curiously appropriate and beneficial.  It gives one hope for the continuation of the arts; it reminds the soul of God, of religion, of miracles; and it also grants some perspective: no wonder how much control these companies have, they cannot destroy my inheritance.)

 

Some may find Foer too liberal for their taste; others might long for an orderly history of technological development that reads less like an old boys’ club.  Some, like me, might find Foer unable or unwilling to discuss humans as humans: interested in convenience until the tipping point where other considerations take precedence; stubborn; guided by the intangible and the numinous, not merely by what Big Tech serves up.  But overall, World Without Mind is a warning well worth reading, illuminating how privacy is all too often the price paid for convenient consumption.  Hopefully it is a timely admonition, rather than a moment too late.

2¢ on AI

Before I begin, let me put a disclaimer here: these are hastily assembled thoughts, engaging with the subject at hand before spending hours or days reading up on it, pondering it, and defining all my terms more effectively.  If you like, consider this whole post a placeholder for later thought.

Personality, the will, sentience is solely a product of the breath of life, given by God, rendering wholly artificial intelligence impossible to create.

If you took a human person, replaced his limbs with prosthetics, compensated for the destruction of his nerves with some manner of electronic signals, gave him other replacements for his original organs or viscera, rigged up an elaborate support system for his brain: all this still would not make the intelligence itself, the person, artificial.  It isn’t all mechanical.  I disbelieve in a mechanical mind (though certain aspects of a generic human brain, to a certain extent, give physical or mechanical evidence of the processes occurring therein).

If a neural network produces anything, it does so through training.  It doesn’t actually have its own intelligence to go on, just the promptings of an actual human (or, perhaps, a whole lot of data gleaned from a great many actual humans).

Can it, per se, ever recognize humor?  Consider the InspiroBot Inspirational Images Generator.  The generator generates; the human looks at the image and caption together, and that interaction is where the humor happens.  It is humorous because the human mind recognizes the absurdity.  It is humorous because of the human mind being struck by the unexpected.

I suppose you could argue that the generator creates the humor by presenting the unexpected.  But I would then argue that the generator generates as it is trained to generate, making this ultimately a human creation.

Review: This Close to Happy

Daphne Merkin, formerly of The New Yorker, spent at least a decade assembling this memoir, subtitled A Reckoning with Depression.  She labors to exorcise her own demons while shedding light on this murky condition:

If there is something intangible about mental illness generally, depression is all the harder to define because it tends to creep in rather than announce itself, manifesting itself as an absence – of appetite, energy, sociability – rather than as a presence.  There is little you can point to: no obscene rantings, no sudden flips into unrecognizable, hyper-energize behavior, no magical belief systems involving lottery numbers or fortune cookies.  It seems to me that we are suspicious of depression’s claim to legitimacy in part because it doesn’t look crazy.  

After 2.5 months without finishing a book, I tore through this one in less than a week.  This Close to HappyMy own mild depression has contributed to how few books I’ve read of late, so it was a relief to complete this one promptly (not least because I am one in a long list of folks requesting it from the library, and I’d feel guilty making those after me wait).

Merkin’s stated goal was to give “a report from the battlefield,” “to describe what it feels like to suffer from clinical depression from the inside” – without making depression out to be some rare, elegant condition that only proves incapacitating on occasion for dramatic effect, but rather “as the all-too-common, unexotically normal psychological albatross it often is, against which one tries to construct a flourishing self.”  

Overall, she succeeds.  There is no glamour surrounding her battles.  The three chief facets of her particular struggle with depression are how it arose chiefly as a consequence of her childhood; how it has resulted in at least three stays in psychiatric hospitals; and how, despite a plethora of drugs and hundreds or thousands of hours of therapy, the thought of suicide (whether idle or longing) is never too far away.

“I can’t tell anymore whether it’s my chemistry acting up or the ancient griefs I carry with me rearing up in response to a present provocation…I only know it hurts to have to go on,” she writes, after pondering whether she is doomed to depression by her genetics or by her upbringing.  The latter sets the stage for a life of grieving and anxiety: well-to-do parents who hand their six children off to a grim nanny (chosen so that she would not usurp the mother’s place in her children’s affections); scarcity of food and paucity of clothing despite a household with a cook, chauffeur, nanny, et al; a general lack of attention or comfort or encouragement.  “With all that bothers me about myself,” Merkin says, “it is too large a stretch to imagine myself as someone else, sent into the world on a current of love.”  Phillip Larkin’s most famous line has never been truer than in her case.

The shadow of Daphne’s mother hangs over the entire book, as over her whole life.  Her desire for closeness, affection, comfort, and love – never satisfied in childhood – manifested in a clinging adolescence and adulthood: always and everywhere sharing her thoughts, her doings, her sex life, and the best of her writing with her mother (who, as described, reminds me of nothing so much as the Other Mother from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline).  I do not often regard a piece of media with the thought “Daddy issues,” but it is impossible to read This Close to Happy without summing up at least a portion of it with “Mommy issues.”

Accounts of depression must be as many and varied as those suffering from it, which means that Merkin’s mother, her Jewish background, her home of New York City, her reading and writing, and her work in publishing are as much a part of the story as anything else.  So though it is an account from the trenches, bravely and openly assembled, it is not the report I look for – though I would be unsurprised to learn that what I seek is my own account: milder, less suicidal, but still given to the occasional numbness, the apathetic listlessness, the oxymoronic nature of a joyless Joy.

I came away with a sense of relief that I have not had to live Daphne’s life, but also questions: is my own dysthymia strictly a product of genetics, or is my own family somehow more dysfunctional than I’d thought?  My Christian faith, if not as vibrantly faithful as it ought to be, is not Merkin’s etiolated fragments of her Orthodox Jewish childhood; should I in fact have “a dazzling sense of purpose” because I still believe in God?  If my faith were stronger, would the cross of my own neurotransmitters be easier to bear?

I’ll report back when I know.  In the meantime, it’s safe to say that I’m even closer to happy than Merkin.

2048, and other dated thoughts

In a world of hot takes and instantaneous reactions, where we’ve generally moved on from thinking about United Airlines and April the giraffe already…I keep having idle thoughts better suited to 3 years ago, when Frozen and “Pompeii” and 2048 were more freshly on our minds.

So.  Idle question the first: did Elsa control all snow or just that which she caused?  If my car is buried under a foot of snow, can she magically shift it?  Honestly, what are the limits to her powers?  How much effort would it take her to freeze an entire lake or ocean?

Second: Are there any youth pastors who got really into Bastille and did more overthinking of “Pompeii” than I did?  The line Oh, where do we begin?  The rubble or our sin? BEGS to be made into some kind of ridiculous Bible study, all “In a broken world full of distress, is it most needful to address physical needs and realities, or first see to spiritual wounds?”  Or something.  This is preposterous and I want it.

heu

Latin memes = best memes.  Yes, even in 2017.  Even when this song was overplayed so much you stopped hearing it.

Third and lastly: 2048.  When this first became a nationwide (worldwide?) phenomenon, I got really into it for a while – to the point of adding squares in my sleep, you know how it goes – until I gave it up for Pentecost.  As you do.

Lately I’ve gotten back into playing it, and thus keep ruminating on the following: 2048 is like a microcosm of relationships and personality.

You’re young.  You’re a 2.  There are so many people and ideas for you to meet with, and any 2 will combine with you.  You’re a 4, an 8, a 16.  The combinations flicker by so fast, it’s hard to keep up.  And all around you the same: 4s, 8s, 16s.  The 32s fall into line beside each other.

At first, it’s harder not to run into a match, or a fit.  Even a 64 or 128 can match up.  There’s space to maneuver, 2s and 4s are doubling up 8s and 16s all the time.  It’s quite fun, and nearly mindless, because very nearly anything will work out.

2048gif3

Until the board’s worked up to a 512 or 1024.  Suddenly you’re a 64 or 128 or 256, perfectly reasonable – there’s even another 64 and 128 and 256 on the board.

You can see it.  But you can’t reach it.  You have no idea what would have to shift to bring the two together.  Trying to calculate it – trying to predict whether 2s or 4s will appear (is there a formula?), figuring if it’s easier to reach the Largish Number on the other side of the world, or if you have the space/time to wait for a new one to double up – it all leaves you feeling overcalculating, frustrated and impotent if not outright insane, and, unsurprisingly, makes it all feel like work rather than play.

Sometimes your careful machinations work out (o frabjous day!)  Sometimes they just give you a brief reprieve from Nothing Working Out At All, Ever.  Nothing will move.  Helpless, you know that if you could only shift this thing that way, all would fall into place beautifully.

Maybe you bungled it so many moves ago that you can never arrange things as they’d need to be arranged.  Maybe you were so focused on a strategy involving one piece that you missed the opportunity to find or fashion another double elsewhere.  Maybe you forgot that most elementary of facts about how pieces connect with the first match they run into, leaving that second match alone and forgotten.

Then the regret: if only you’d flicked things up instead of left.  If only there weren’t such a plethora of skinny, pretty little 2s gumming up the works.  All the cunning manipulation you’ve got, navigating all the blasted 2s in the world doesn’t change the fact that sometimes you’re a 256 or 512, and there just isn’t a 256 or 512 in sight for you.

It might all change, and quickly!  Or you might just lose.  Again.

You find you’ve run your battery down to 9%.

You feel that you’ve wasted your time and energy even playing.

…but even so, you wonder: what must it be like, to finally achieve that elusive, shining 2048?

2048 win

Watching this is basically like going through someone else’s album of wedding photos.

Reality and Unreality: Rumblr

Among other odd things the internet has told me recently, I heard of an app for casual fistfights called Rumblr.  As I was sharing this supposed fact with a friend via chat – “Look, it’s for all those times when you need to punch a guy but cannot find one available for punching” – I checked it on Snopes, only to find that it’s not a real app.  Rather, some blokes wanted to start a creative consulting agency, and creating buzz around this fictitious app was part of their portfolio: look!  We can get the whole world talking about a Fight Club app, even though there’s no such thing; imagine what we could do for you and your real company and its real products.  Even though they’re very quotidian and boring.  We have the skills.  Our engagement with the market convinces them to pay very real attention.

As my friend George put it: “This all feels like a disgustingly post-modern subversion of the fight club idea – an imaginary fight club app (already a subversion) that is meant to advertise for a consulting agency (more subversion).  There are so many levels of insincerity piled on top of something that was originally supposed to be about stripping away the false modern facade of life and reducing men to their primal instincts…It’s kind of grand, really.”

I’m putting it in my mental file next to “an e-reader version of 1984 where the text changes as you read it.”

A Few of My *~Absolute Favorite~* Things

It being the Monday after Daylight Savings Time starts, I think it’s fair to say that work  weighs even heavier than normal on company employees today.

That being said, the following lyrics are not really about my job.  But they might well apply to your job.

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well as any children or readers with a more sensitive conscience than mine.  This post contains somewhat strong language, along with a sarcastic refrain, and you may wish to cease reading here.

For anyone else, join me in song:

Meaningless meetings that swallow up mornings
Random-ass deadlines that come without warning
Waiting for Red Bull to give me its wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Idiot systems for logging my hours
Longing for co-worker-Force-choking powers
Clawing my face off each time the phone rings,
Just a few more of my favorite things

Lead gave no feedback regarding my graphics
Please just accept that I’m not telepathic
Dreading each comment the editor brings
These are a few of my favorite things

When I’m crying in the bathroom,
When it’s all quite shit,
I think about nothing but our health insurance
So that I don’t up and quit

Clients: I can’t care enough to go woo them
Tasks went undone since no one said to do them
Tripped up by all these invisible strings
Just a few more of my favorite things

Failure of process: it’s sadly systemic
Nit-picking needlessly: also endemic
Waiting for 5 when the quitting bell rings,
These are a few of my favorite things

Training is but a disorderly jumble
One day I’ll choke as I swallow my grumble
Praying for patience before my fist swings,
These are a few of my favorite things…

Paycheck is smaller than what we agreed on
Tired of having my dignity peed on
Straining to bear Fortune’s arrows and slings
These are a few of my favorite things

When I’m crying in frustration,
When it’s all quite shit,
I simply remember my comp’ny insurance
So that I don’t up and quit!