Friday, January 31, 2014

Reefer Madness

Back in the 60’s college film societies used to show a l930’s film called Reefer Madness as a joke. The film was reminiscent of another jeremiad the famed Olivia de Havilland film about asylums, The Snake Pit In one a drug caused insanity and a host of attendant horrors. The other dramatized the horrors of institutionalization and the medieval attitude towards mental illness that was prevalent in the l940’s, when the film was made. And then there was masturbation. Some just on the cusp of baby boomerdom might remember being threatened with the warning that masturbation caused insanity. The problem is that it’s all true. Does Colorado’s legalization of recreational marijuana use mean that the very strong marijuana sold these days has no deleterious affects both with respect to affect (motivation) and brain chemistry? It’s one thing to argue that making marijuana legal is tantamount to the repeal of Prohibition, but it’s another to justify legalization by claiming that marijuana doesn’t affect the brain. Now what about the masturbating marijuana user? Again no one is claiming that anything is wrong with masturbation. But let’s face facts. Marijuana and masturbation have one thing in common: fantasy. And there are people who have so much trouble living in the real world that they would rather smoke pot and jerk off then navigate the shoals of human interaction. Yes isolating from others by smoking pot and masturbating on a prolonged basis might both be both a prescription for and description of insanity.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

What is an Affair?

Affair is an odd word. In French "les affaires" are business (the business section of Air France is called “Affaires”) and in English the real distinction lies in either attending to (a matter) or going to one (a celebration) or having one (a sexual relationship that sometimes illicit). Attending an affair is innocuous enough unless in the course of attending you meet someone with whom you have an affair. Then there is the meaning of the word which has to do with intrigue. The Profumo affair was a famous British scandal involving a member of parliament and “a model" (Christine Keeler), but affair didn’t refer to the hanky panky necessarily, but to the compromising of the politician because of the fact that Keeler was sleeping with the Russian spy Yevgeny Ivanov (which sounds curiously similar to what Warren Buffett once said about derivatives, “It’s not just whom you sleep with, but also whom they are sleeping with." Similarly we might today speak of the Snowden affair. Using affair in connection with Snowden doesn’t connote anything sexual and indeed it’s unlikely that Snowden had much in the way of sex during the weeks when he inhabited the transit section of the Moscow airport--though Snowden might have fallen in love with someone en route between Hong Kong where he was staying and say Caracas or Quito which were two destinations he’d been heading towards before the Russians granted him temporary asylum. But how did affair come to be used in connection with sex outside of marriage? That’s the question. The Free On Line Dictionary gives 8 definitions of affair and only the eighth (“A romantic and sexual relationship, sometimes one of brief duration, between two people who are not married to each other”) has anything to do with sex. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Driverless Car

photo: Steve  Jurvelson
In an interview in Foreign Affairs, Google’s Sebastian Thrun talks about driverless cars, (“Google’s Original X Man,” November/December 2013)  “If you look at the twentieth century Thrun says, “the car has transformed society more than pretty much any other invention. But cars today are vastly unsafe. It’s estimated that more than a million people die every years because of traffic accidents. And driving cars consumes immense amounts of time…if the car could drive itself, you could be much safer…cars could come to you when you need them; you wouldn’t have to have private car ownership.” Of course the car is like Manifest Destiny. It’s the symbol both of individualization and of the American dream. One’s first car is a rite of passage. The concept of the driverless car is a quid pro quo in which individuality is traded in for expediency. Highways are turned into the equivalent of tarmacs with cars transformed into pods whose movement is dictated by the equivalent of air traffic control. Traffic jams are non-existent since the thermodynamics of viscosity would constantly be mediated by a computer. Of course, along with individuality, privacy would also be sacrificed, since each car or pod would now be a piece of data whose movements were constantly tracked.The driverless car is a concept in robotics. And the real subject is the kind of advanced artificial intelligence that can produce a robot which not only regurgitates the data that’s programmed into it, but which, according to Thrun, can also learn. But the implications are vast. Computers have already proven their superiority to men in everything from math to chess. And when a computer takes on a task and proves its superiority, it leads to the attrition of the concomitant faculty in the human, whether it's long division or writing or even reading. However, what happens when cybernetics intrudes into even higher level thought? What’s the difference between governing a country and driving a  car? The computer will have the cards stacked in its favor. It will know how to push everyone’s buttons since it installed at least the technologically created ones. And what about the integrity of the self in this mix? Human life might be spared by the driverless car, but what ultimately is the destiny of the solitary mind in a world in which the objects of man’s creation rule him by way of a world wide web.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Decline and Fall of the Backseat Driver

Susan Bennett, the voice of Siri
Spike Jonze’s latest movie Her is about the love affair between a man and a machine, or specifically the voice within a machine. It’s what they used to call high concept in Hollywood, a nifty creative idea that encapsulates a whole world. But the fictional arena the movie describes and out of which the conceit is generated is quickly becoming a reality for the possessor of iPhones, iPads and the simple GPS systems found in most cars. In fact, Susan Bennett, the actress who is the voice of the iPhone’s Siri command system, became a celebrity recently when she outed herself and answered questions about her alter ego for television reporters. Let’s say it’s summer and you pack the family up with tents and sleeping bags for a camping trip to one of the national parks. These kinds of events once fueled a whole genre of satiric comedies about argumentative families. National Lampoon’s Vacation was one of the most famous. The advent of the electronic voice has virtually eliminated a whole genre of comedy. Now there are no longer any bumbling Chevy Chase type fathers losing their way and getting screamed at by their wives and kids. Instead of facing a chorus of complaints when a wrong turn is made, the driver simply hears a value free correction when he’s off course, “please turn right in three tenths of a mile.” This might not result in the kind of passionate phone sex that Spike Jonze envisions. However, if we are apt to criticize technology for reducing the human element in interactions, here's an example of the positive effects of technologic innovation on self-esteem. A new generation of electronically generated voices has made the backseat driver a thing of the past.

Monday, January 27, 2014

American Hustle

Amy Adams’s breasts should be nominated for an Academy Award. Would that there were a category for best supporting (or in this case best unsupported) mammary? The character she plays, one Sydney Prosser from Albuquerque aka Lady Edith Greensley from London says at one point, “My dream was to become anything else than I was.” Reinvention is the theme of American Hustle, David O. Russell’s brilliant take on the American dream and it bears some resemblance to The Wolf of Wall Street in the way it uses the transformation of outer borough type personalities who rise through a roguish form of identity politics. After all what is America about but reinvention? Everything in the movie is a con and one could say that American history whether it’s the Louisiana Purchase or the purchase of Manhattan Island from the Indians by Peter Minuit for the equivalent of $24 is about getting over on someone. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) meets his match in Sydney/Edith and they are off to the races. “We’re all conning ourselves one way or other to get through life,” Irving tells his protégé, who would have been the perfect Galatea were she not the true agent the sophisticated persona she radiates. “I created Edith since I needed to survive,” Sydney tells Rick DiMaso  (Bradley Moore), the FBI agent who falls for her. The movie, which is partially based on the ABSCAM scandal in which convicted con artists were used to entrap a number of congressman and a senator, sports a number of iconic scenes of American life in the 70’s, a studio 54 type disco, an Italian restaurant in the still undeveloped Atlantic City, even the Chelsea Hotel. But there is one which tells it all. Irving has a legitimate business, a chain of dry cleaning establishments, whose unclaimed items act a kind backstage wardrobe. Pressing the conveyor belt, his eyes light up at the prospective guises. Even DiMaso and the US attorney who is running him are con artists and they in turned get conned. They look on in disbelief when they’re informed that  “You got conned by the very conmen you forced to con in the first place." At one point during the movie Rick and Irving visit a museum and gaze up at a masterpiece which Irving knows is a fake. “Who is the master? The painter or the forger?” Irving asks. If an Oscar isn’t given out for breasts, there’s certainly one awarded for screenplays and gems like this definitely put American Hustle in the running