Extratone

Extratone is an online magazine covering technology, music, culture, and media with an ongoing passion for New Culture and a duty to further its voices.

by David Blue

Surface Laptop 2

Assuming Jesus Christ is in your thoughts this evening before yet another anniversary of his birth, I am infinitely astonished by the truth in what I’m about to suppose with you. If the Son of God was living today, most of us have agreed for a long time now that he’d use marijuana recreationally – big fuckin whoop. I think it’s far more interesting and appropriate (we all know his birthday was wholly reconfigured into a consumerist holiday long ago) to speculate on how he’d behave after finding himself inadvertently in the market for a new laptop within the ~$1000 range (following a stubbed toe whilst walking on water incident, perhaps.) Surely, it would not be entirely holy for him to opt in to the Foxconn-complicit world of Apple, Incorporated, nor the openly-blasphemous one created and exuberantly grown by Google LLC, and I’m afraid he’d be too much of an End User idiot to integrate any of the sparse Linux-dedicated hardware available. In May of 2017, however, Billy Gates’ old Microsoft finally released “the laptop we’ve always wanted them to make,” but could its recent update be truly worthy of our Lourde and Saviour? Or your newly-enrolled offspring? Should you sprint downstairs and swap out the new MacBook Air you just bought?

From an entirely valid perspective, an observer might declare my last two months of 2018 to be an outright shameful period defined by hypocrisy and traitorous betrayals. After finally taking the time to explore the full narrative surrounding Linux and the bloody tale of Microsoft’s cruel genocidal destruction of countless creative software projects throughout computing’s adolescence (see: “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish,”) I eventually declared myself “100% Open Source” and began outlining an essay designed primarily to express that Linux is finally ready to be the operating system of the people without succumbing immediately to the brand of cybercrackpot illegitimacy associated with the L-word in the minds of the general public so readily thanks to decades of misinformed, condescending neckbeards. Such a feat would require entire new planes of cultural awareness and dialectal delicacy, yet certainly result in zero personal reward from even the best possible outcome, yet I proceeded to ponder the subject very deliberately all the way through October because I genuinely believed in a new democratized future of computing. 2018 had been my Grand Awakening to the idyllic possibilities of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) across the whole applied spectrum from office suites to social networks, yet – as two thousand eighteen comes to an end – I’ve managed to find myself among the most jaded, soul-sapped tech community I have yet encountered: Microsoft Administrators.

Complimenting this Linux-laden culture in which I was not so long ago deeply embedded was a confused and frustrated outlook regarding what I felt were excessive and completely idiotic sacrifices across the industry’s hardware design to the greedy, gluttonous god of Lightness. It seemed only reasonable to Myself As Consumer that the entire buying public should exclusively seek designs prioritizing greatest possible performance and battery life, even from portable computers and smartphones, so I assumed my perspective on this updated iteration of Microsoft's most laptopy Surface laptop – which exists in large part to compete directly with Apple's beloved (and just-updated) MacBook Air – wouldn't be at all useful. However, a few weeks ago, my employer prompted me with a sweet sweet ultimatum: for the sake of a tax break, I want to spend ~$1000 on a laptop for you as soon as possible. Yes, I know I should consider myself a very fortunate man – this wasn't even the first time I'd been surprised with the “hey, I want to buy you a laptop but it has to be today” experience, and may even be considered a sort of sequel to my Tales of Whirlwind Manic Consumerism, but it’s ultimately one of the most idiotic strategies to achieve a major purchase decision and completely inadvisable for anyone on a budget. Still I was indeed thankful to be put in a nearly-identical situation of Consumer Electronic haste, and have come to be especially appreciative of the specific time I was approached as such: just one week after Microsoft launched the Surface Laptop 2.

Considering the vast majority of its users are trapped inside my television, there’s no harm in covering the Surface brand with our virtual palm for a moment. If you’ll indulge me so, you’ll notice that Microsoft has actually delivered unto us The Laptop II – as in, the sequel... the successor to every other laptop computer yet conceived... but does this one machine truly represent the second coming of the Notebook Christ? Naturally, it would be a bit zealous to stand behind this extreme statement with 100% sincerity, but there truly are certain elements of this Personal Computing product's execution which do indeed will its user to expect and/or desire from others in coming years. As I've stated before, I also simply cannot help but be jazzed by such bravado from the mouths of even a company with as crooked and hateful history as Microsoft's. (Note: no other technology company has actually achieved what Microsoft historically has in this regard, and hopefully none ever will again.)

I must be honest: it hasn't yet been two months and I've already scuffed and perhaps even stained the beautiful maroon alcantara surrounding my machine’s touchable body, but it’s occurred to me that I might draw upon the vast library of automotive interior tutorials available on YouTube – and even purchase some of the alcantara care-specific products they recommend – in order to really maintain the exterior of the Laptop II. After all, alcantara was undeniably car culture’s material first. I should also confess that objectively, the Surface Laptop II is the best-suited computer for my personal uses that I’ve ever owned or used for any length of time. Subjectively, I don’t think all of the hardware design touches that make it so – like its keyboard layout, divine 3:2 aspect ratio, and particular I/O complement – have yet had the chance to seduce my emotional brain into truly loving it as much as I certainly should by any reasonable measure. For my own sake, I hope I’m able to fall in child-like infatuation with its magic, but in the interim, I believe the coldness of my heart should hopefully preserve any useful commentary I might have to add. Though this is undoubtedly the most timely review of a hardware product I’ve ever published, I’d still ask that you indulge my perspective suggesting the importance of considering it part of a package with its operating system, considering that the whole of tech media would’ve unanimously declared it the year’s “best laptop” were Apple’s aging, but still widely-adored MacOS absent from the frame.

I've tested a bunch of laptops this year, running the spectrum of 2-in-1s, Chromebooks, MacBooks, gaming laptops, etc. Everyone's needs are going to be different, which is why there's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all for laptops. But enthusiasts’ laptops aside, I strongly feel the Surface Laptop 2 is the best laptop of the year. And by that I mean the best laptop for most folks' needs.

With as much humility as possible, I must add that I myself am anything but “most folks,” yet my experience so far with the product has been one of astonishing compatibility and battery life. Using recommended power settings, the Surface Laptop 2 endured four hours and twenty-two minutes of a workload it wasn’t particularly designed for including heavy web browsing, image manipulation, brief audio/video capture with OBS, and moderate subsequent editing in Audacity and OpenShot. Dan Seifert – Vox Media’s “only Windows user” – reported “about seven hours” of Microsoft’s claimed 14.5, but frankly, I don’t know what any of y’all are doin – I’m just thankful this machine is a better marathoner than any other I can recall owning. While we’re on the subject, I consider Microsoft’s inclusion of a magnetically-attached power cable and unassuming auxiliary USB charging port on the attached power supply to be personal godsends – further evidence, even, that the Surface Laptop 2 was actually designed to be nice to use. For the sake of those readers actually in the market for a new laptop who’ve somehow found themselves here, though, Raymond Wong’s review for Mashable is the most thorough offering you’ll find – it’s quoted front and center on Microsoft’s web page for the Laptop II, even – but it’s important to mention that his critical comparative perspective predates the late launch of its ultimate competitor, the new MacBook Air. Rather pitifully, however, his colleague’s “good, but not great” resolution suggests that Apple failed to challenge Microsoft’s relatively moderate update enough to warrant any revision, and that Mashable as a publication stands by my new laptop’s Best of the Year title, for whatever it may or may not be worth to you.

If the new MacBook Air came in at the same price as the old one, it would be a steal. Sure, you pay for the privilege of being able to use macOS on the Apple ecosystem. But in years past that also meant access to cutting-edge features and design. As pretty as the MacBook Air is, there's nothing that innovative about it. In today's Apple, it seems, privilege amounts to just staying current.

You won’t find many others who regularly invest editorial merit in publishing 2500+ word laptop reviews anymore, which I’d concede is plenty reasonable in the Surface Laptop’s case, at least. Perhaps your first point of comparative entry should be a barely-dated conversation between Kara Swisher, Lauren Goode, and Dan Seifert on Too Embarrassed to Ask regarding the original’s odds of truly competing in the “premium laptop” segment (if you’d prefer to hear from those who struggle to take it seriously, that is.) Assuming the original product direction of the Surface line still stands, Microsoft doesn’t actually intend to sell at high volume, especially when it comes to this runt of the marque, which does not hesitate to omit itself from the popular discourse of the moment surrounding tablets as the future of all computing to which all of its siblings have contributed so much. Though I shall always remember my dearest Libel (the special edition Spectre x360 with which I built most of Extratone) with great respect and deep fondness – I think it’s even worth mounting on some sort of plinth – the significantly-cheaper Laptop II has already demonstrated true value in its “premium” segment bragging rights with far superior materials and build quality. If you’re looking for the prettiest possible slice of magnesium lightness but aren’t the sort to have followed the story of Microsoft’s first venture into personal computer production since it began in the last year of the Mayan calendar, it’s worth your while to read Joshua Topolsky’s projections of the project’s impact on the popular narrative surrounding Microsoft from history’s freshest possible perspective: the eve of the first Surface tablet’s launch.

The entire tablet was designed in-house by Microsoft's teams, and if you believe what was said in the presentation yesterday, design and functionality in hardware has suddenly become a big deal in Redmond. That's a big shift, and it's an important one. The announcement of the Surface shows that Microsoft is ready to make a break with its history — a history of hardware partnerships which relied on companies like Dell, HP, or Acer to actually bring its products to market. That may burn partners in the short term, but it could also give Microsoft something it desperately needs: a clear story.

A pungent stigma festered from Microsoft’s history of inadequate and inelegant public relations (especially compared to its greatest longtime rival) has remained in relentlessly obvious orbit around every “significant” Windows and Office update for so long that its status quo has grown into a truly inhibitive force for all parties involved. Topolsky is unquestionably a compromising favorite of mine, but it’s hard not to decry then-CEO Steve Ballmer’s failure to comprehend Josh’s day-after insight in the whole three months that passed before his Seattle Times interview in September, 2012. Ultimately, The Big M is either incapable of understanding any alternative utopic Visions of Computing to its own, or simply overwrought with the same counteraspirational carelessness its culture has always depended upon. In analytical terms regarding Ballmer’s utilization of the forum’s opportunity to finally tell the fucking story, at least, the timidity of a term like “pre-eminent software” as a viably bright new beacon in contrast with “people would say we were a software company” (emphasis mine) – as if Steve-O himself doesn’t even have the power to publicly describe his company’s function as its #1 man – combined at the apex of what was almost impressively-negligent behavior.

I think when you look forward, our core capability will be software, (but) you'll probably think of us more as a devices-and-services company. Which is a little different. Software powers devices and software powers these cloud services, but it's a different form of delivery...

Don’t make the same mistake I did and wear yourself out trying to extract the meaning from these three sentences – there’s none to be found. Ultimately, whatever opportunity the Surface project could have provided for Microsoft’s identity has been vastly overshadowed by its success as last resort supercatalyst to restore any sense of dignity and pride within the hardware companies who produce the vehicles. In Fall 2017, The Register quoted industry gossip regarding the company’s new CEO Satya Nadella and his intent to “exit the product line” because “overall they are not making money [and] it doesn’t make sense for them to be in this business,” but newcomers to this conversation should know that no subsequent reporting has corroborated anything but a sustaining future of the line, though the measurable rate of innovation in Microsoft’s products continues to leave much to be desired. Now that you’ve heard from the experts, though, allow me to expand our lens a bit and examine what the Surface Laptop 2’s existence suggests as per The Present & Future of Computing.

The Clam Clan

In case I’ve yet to mention it, all of my tech writing is in substantial debt to my much-older and child-oriented siblings for providing 8 nieces and nephews over the course of 11 years – if not for any reason but the perspective offered by the slightest observation of their day-to-day lives. In this profoundly bizarre and historic technological sprint our species is experiencing, the differences in their respective relationships with consumer tech as they’ve grown up are fascinatingly… disturbingly significant. My eldest niece Abby was born four years after myself in 1998, and her younger sister Amber just quite three years later in 2001. All three of us are Aquarians who went to the same public schools (aside from 2 exceptions on my part,) and the two sisters have been close, significant influences on each other all their lives, yet the way Abby and I use and think about computers differs significantly from Amber’s. Our first real PCs introduced an important social and intellectual vehicle to our pre-teen lives, and both of us still “live on” our machines as young adults. For us and many others from this short-lived microgeneration of ours, budget laptops like the Dell Inspirion 2200 (which served as the first “real computer” for both of us) introduced the internet and Being Online as a State of Being with AIM groups, MySpace, and Yahoo! chain mails before smartphones and tablets were capable of doing so.

Amber prefers to use her iPhone for most everything and regards her computer as a tool for work – it’s booted up and down exclusively for that purpose, which is significantly healthier than the habit Abby, myself, and many of my Online friends developed: we left our computers running and Logged On all the time because we were otherwise unreachable. We learned from origin to depend on them for 100% of our computing tasks – from streaming Pandora to playing Flash games within six billion open browser tabs – which likely explains both our ADD and its resulting influence on the ease with which our personal computers can distract us. As a Journalism student and professional photographer, Abby uses the new 15-inch MacBook Pro, and [Insane Blogger] David Blue has spent years looking for an alternative, becoming the first and only iPhone user to make extensive use of its Bluetooth keyboard support in the process, but both of us are entirely uninterested in the rest of the industry’s insistence on convertibles, removable keyboards, or ‘professional’ tablets. I wish the Linux community was finally ready to drop the elitist pretenses plaguing its nerdy history; I wish I could finally tell someone like Abby that a machine like the System76 Galago Pro could slot itself into her workflow without losing her time or compatibility – that the reputation surrounding Linux People had finally lost most of its validity and her desire to learn more about computing as a young woman and Power User would be met with respectful and worthwhile conversation from their end. Unfortunately, I’ve still found some of the Old Guard to be elitist, socially behind, and juvenilely possessive, as if computing was still the niche interest from their 1980s and 90s childhoods. Though this conversation certainly warrants its own essay in the future, I’ll just express now that it’s a real shame some folks don’t realize the entire point of making great things is ultimately to give them to the world.

The opportunity I’ve had in the past year to finally get my Linux distro frenzy over with and out of my system managed to both radicalize and democratize my understanding of MacOS, Windows, and Linux as they are in the present. While I had nothing better to do, fiddling with Ubuntu Studio and Linux Mint to the extent I did throughout Spring and Summer led me to further appreciate the value of keyboard shortcuts, gave me my first real proficiency with a command line, helped globalize my comprehension of my own technological privilege, reacquainted me in a huge way with both the true history of software and my own personal past as an experimental test tube baby of Microsoft’s, and helped to answer a lot of questions I’d worried over for years about why software seemed like it simply couldn’t improve anymore. While it’s true that important open source projects like ElementaryOS continue to sprout from the Linus Extended Universe and the growing Open Source community on Mastodon is filled with brilliant, helpful, unpretentious, and remarkably curious enthusiasts (probably because many of those I’ve interacted with so far are non-cis and/or non-white,) little ole me was able to stumble upon some totally unnecessary and excruciatingly ignorant sociopolitical commentary by way of the white, middle-age host and his undoubtedly-white and staunchly libertarian caller on a live broadcast of the Ask Noah Show. (It’s not as if I haven’t said ignorant and very ugly things too, but I wasn’t a forty-something father on a semi-professional talk show representing an entire community.)

Essentially, I was quite frustrated and disappointed to find that Linux is still let down most by its own community, but the operating system itself is still much further along on its way to becoming a real alternative for the average user than mainstream tech journalism would have you believe. However, in my case, finally taking the time to really learn about Open Source computing also helped me understand (surprisingly) why Apple and its environment continue to be the best and most popular choice for professional applications. Linux Mint gave me tremendous power in enabling me to alter, specify, and redesign the most minute details of its interface, but I couldn’t have foreseen how all-consuming such power would be for someone like myself. In retrospect, I’ve realized that I ended up spending more time perfecting my custom LibreOffice Writer shortcuts than I did actually writing – I somehow found myself in a mind state which justified unironically creating a shortcut for the Shortcuts menu. Though I swore I’d never succumb to the bewildering hobby of collecting and exploring different Linux Distributions, it took no time at all for me to fill a folder with disc images of the installers for almost a dozen different interpretations of the operating system after I’d made the simple concession to myself that I’ll just try Ubuntu, that’s all. The most profound realization from all this (arguably otherwise wasted) time: for a user like me, a walled garden is actually the best place to be productive because apparently, I don’t have the self-control to keep myself from running away and/or fixating on completely unproductive tasks without its boundaries. I think this phenomenon is perhaps the worst culprit in the persistence of the aforementioned divide between “computer people” and everyone else who simply uses computers, as I’m sure any one of the latter could tell you after all of five minutes with a Linus type.

The most comprehensive and somewhat-urgent revision to illustrate the significance of this contrast from my perspective regards the exceptional iOS/MacOS markdown-based notetaking app Bear. Frankly, my own “Word Processing Methodology” essay from June has already become problematically out of date (and therefore embarrassing) in terms of my own knowledge of the segment and its history. Though I promised the conversation was “done,” I’ve continued to explore further into word processing’s history as well as its current state. “I had a go at Bear’s free iOS experience and saw little functional difference from DayOne,” the old, negligent, cursory David Blue noted, but if I’d simply been willing to cough up a bit more time and just $1.49 a month for Bear Pro, I’d have spared myself such shame and realized that the hype around this app really is 100% justified. Bear is the most beautiful iOS app I’ve ever seen, but I’m now also fully qualified to declare it the most effective execution of “distraction-free” writing software to come along in the past 25 years. Developer Shiny Frog’s secret is their perfect balance between capability and simplicity. It turns out, Daily Content Lord Casey Newton’s word on this matter really was worth more than mine, not to mention more succinct: “Bear may look simple, but there’s power underneath the surface.”

Those longtime Linux and Windows diehards who’ve tolerated me thus far, listen up: MacOS may be ancient, neglected, and full of incongruencies, but its single-minded methodology paired with Apple’s iCloud really does make it the most effective and elegant environment for most people to simply get shit done. It’s clear that many of you have realized the importance of simplicity for compact and/or educational distributions, but let me just add that the democratization of Linux provides a gargantuan development opportunity to make something that beats MacOS at its own game without starting from such a shitty premise and all of its resulting compromises – all without detracting from any other technically-minded distributions whatsoever. That is the magic of The Distro, remember?! If you’ve existed in a similar state of confusion to that of my entire adult life regarding the appeal of Apple products – despite having once been an extensive OSX user, myself – you’re very welcome for the insight. Instead of paying me for the profound self-improvement I’ve just provided, try prioritizing this newfound knowledge the next time you talk to your MacBook Pro-loving friend about their workflow. If you’re like myself, you’ll find their arguments have magically transformed from the bewildering bullshit they’ve always seemed to be into challenges for future competing operating systems to surpass Apple’s old bitch and excel in because MacOS and even its much-younger iOS counterpart – as well as the billions of people who depend on them – desperately need real competition in order to maintain their viability, much less become what products of the world’s wealthiest company should be.

Yes, the manner in which these operating systems are perceived really is an important discussion prompted by a product as insignificant as the Surface Laptop 2 because as you read, the industry is bracing for another paradigm shift in computing, which many believe (preposterously, I might add) could be as significant and disruptive as 2007’s introduction of the iPhone. This machine of Microsoft’s and its “new” MacBook Air counterpart could potentially be the last designs to carry us to a computing future where the tried-and-true clamshell design is forgone entirely by the mainstream, but Apple’s release of this year’s new iPad Pro prompted even the most Cupertino-loving tech commentators to respond with genuine discord along with a few long-overdue shouts of “are you crazy?!” I’m very proud of The Verge’s Nilay Patel, in particular, for so eloquently deconstructing its usability for all but the very wealthy. “It is impossible to look at a device this powerful and expensive and not expect it to replace a laptop for day-to-day work,” he reminds us in the introduction to his full review of the updated product, along with a beautifully transient sentiment which I think we all needed to hear again: “I don’t think people should adapt to their computers. Computers should adapt to people.” Even something as consumerist and bourgeois as the introduction of another pricepoint-burgeoning Apple hardware flagship can turn a simple tablet review into a much-needed manifesto for a user-centric way forward for the industry, which is itself worthy of celebratory encouragement.

I’ve favored The Verge and its cast long past the point of excess throughout the span of my work about technology, but Nilay’s review and its accompanying episode of The Vergecast are truly special and profound gems of content that shouldn’t be passed up. Apparently – as the Editor-in-Chief immediately insists as the episode begins – his “ongoing theory” that “the more important you are, the less actually important work you do, and the more likely you are to be an iPad user” roused anger from “that whole class of [billionaires,]” but the experiences behind his argument actually suggest that Apple’s own favorite child of late – into which it has begun investing and thereby implicitly sponsoring over its much older brother as the ultimate heir of the majority’s future computing – has unequivocally failed to do its part in growing the iPad Pro into the “laptop replacement” we’d all heard so much about. Of iOS 12’s performance as an operating system beneath true work-related tasks, he exasperates “you have to spend all of your time figuring out how to do stuff instead of doing stuff,” which I couldn’t help but hear as echoes of my own late Linux lamentations. As thankful as I am to have finally achieved enlightenment of the Planet Apple, I’m afraid I was pitifully late: its very natural laws underwent their most brutal tests of the 21st century this past year. Now that I’ve finally come to adore the elegant effectiveness of a new generation of iOS apps like Bear, I’m faced with yet another of the episode’s statements of weight: “I think it’s time to stop pretending that the future of computing looks like Apple’s restrictions.” On the opposing end of the line, the world’s first trillion-dollar company’s other major product release of 2018 managed to disappoint even the most fanatical fans of its original operating system’s best-selling platform with an insultingly mediocre update to the MacBook Air marque upon which it once so fondly doted.

My best friend’s parents bought her the original Surface tablet when she enrolled in art school, and her frustration with its lackluster keyboard (among others) leads MacOS alternative-seeking users like us to wish Microsoft had started with a traditional design like the Surface Laptop first. Perhaps Apple and Microsoft’s emphasis on their tablets is nothing but a bit premature for the most current crop of users, and the rest of my nieces and nephews will expand upon an entirely different methodology of usership when they receive their freshman computer. Those elders of us who still take the Clamshell form seriously and love printing our documents are apparently facing a future industry saturated with products we can’t believe in, but it’s up to you to decide if this issue is worth expending your energy in advocacy for either camp. With my 120+ word per minute proficiency with physical keyboards, I for one have been completely bewildered by the iPad as anything but an indulgence for reading text on the web, and I’m pleased as punch with my Surface Laptop 2. Even if it proves to be the last new computer I’ll ever own to come as optimized for my use, I’m just grateful and astonished it happens to be the best yet.

#hardware #microsoft #future

by David Blue

Tump

Ten percent of the United States' adult population cannot functionally read or write (conservatively) despite the exponential increase of required reading in the average American's day-to-day life thus far in the 21stcentury. For written American media, especially, one would assume that a financial and social incentive for maximum literacy in the populace should present a straightforward justification for intense widespread coverage of this particular disparity, yet most related coverage in mainstream national magazines and newspapers is alarmingly sparse and often requires a less-than-socially-conscious context (e.g. a for-profit startup) to actually appear in news feeds. From the most wholesome assumption of the industry's general values — that it holds “newsworthiness” above all — we must assume that it does not generally consider American illiteracy “interesting enough to the general public to warrant reporting” as we examine the intermittent discourse surrounding the issue that does achieve publication.

In late October, the American business and technology magazine Fast Company covered the recent successes of the “for-profit social enterprise” Cell-Ed, noting that “a huge portion of the American labor force is illiterate,” which it described as “a hidden epidemic.” The article's author, Rick Wartzman, mentions foremost that Cell-Ed's userbase is largely “foreign-born” and expected to eclipse one million in number by the end of 2019. Demographically, the magazine's readership is predominantly middle to upper-class, who are the least affected social groups by a significant margin as per illiteracy's strong correlative relationship with poverty. These factors combine to limit any real social consequences from such an article.

In direct contrast with the professional, market-minded perspective of modern business magazine, even niche independent publications from the opposite end of the media spectrum often trivialize, belittle, or generally mishandle the issue. In a 500-word “Editorial” written by The Editor Eric Black of the Baptist Standard — a small evangelical news website describing itself as “Baptist voices speaking to the challenges of today's world” — he points to a global increase in “illiterate people,” as he so comfortably brands them. Such language is inevitably counter-productive and potentially insensitive: to the eyes and ears of activists, educators, and the general public, such a term unnecessarily lends toward a restricted perspective of those people who have been left behind by the institution of read and written language in one manner or another and portrays them as a great vague collection of lingual lepers bearing their own distinct, inexorable, wordless ethnicity which inevitably bars them from the freedoms allowed by the Editor's learned capacity, including the ability to actually read his words of affliction. Simply put, he has dangerously oversimplified the issue.

To once again assume the best and infer that Black had a specific purpose in publishing his ill-supported opinion beyond continuity's sake of his weekly Editorials, it appears to be the promotion of a local Texan literacy “ministry” called Literacy Connexus, though no further specifics about the project are provided beyond “helping churches develop literacy programs for their communities, provide training and resources to overcome illiteracy,” which is virtually identical to the introductory copy on the organization's homepage.

So far, we've examined coverage only in special interest media, but what about legacy news organizations with the largest readerships in the United States? Despite oblivious use of the same ledes, a newspaper like The Washington Post can wield vast influence over the broadest possible readership and the public editorial trust. In November 2016, veteran reporter Valerie Strauss published “Hiding in plain sight: The adult literacy crisis” for Answer Sheet — her weekly newsletter designed to function as “a school survival guide for parents (and everyone else), from education policy to psychology” — which represents the most substantial discussion of American illiteracy in topical, widely-visible media (i.e. presence in a succinct search engine query.) She briefly introduces the issue with a bulleted list of illiteracy's consequences on modern society and the individual cited from a Canadian literacy foundation before turning the stage over to Lecester Johnson, CEO of the Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School in Washington D.C.

Johnson presents a passionate and well-informed exploration of the state of the literacy battle from the perspective of a full-time, locally on-the-ground advocate. Her op-ed's introduction includes the most essential observations and statistics throughout, noting “the children of parents with low literacy skills are more likely to live in poverty as adults and are five times more likely to drop out of school,” before setting upon a detailed examination of current and relevant organizations working toward solutions. Of course, it's largely centered upon her own organization, which she claims has “helped more than 6000 adults rebuild their education and job opportunities since 1985.”

It's significant that an institution as deeply embedded across the American political spectrum as The Washington Post address the issue of American illiteracy, and both Johnson and Strauss are certainly qualified voices for the undertaking, but when we examine this particular article, it's important we consider the context of the Answer Sheet newsletter and its intended audience. Though it's no challenge to pitch the importance of reading and writing to parents and professional educators, the most alarming and destructive issue at hand is the educational disparity between their adult peers. “There's a literacy problem in the capitol, but I'm not talking about young people who can't read. Many adults — perhaps even parents sitting next to you at back to school night — don't possess academic skills,” notes Johnson with her very first paragraph. However, considering the nature of parenthood, the audience primarily consuming these words are undoubtedly preoccupied with juvenile issues, specifically, and we can assume their capacity to empathize with their fellow working adults who could benefit from literacy education is actually lessened from that of childless readers of the same age as a result. “Despite the magnitude of the adult literacy crisis, most of those needing to make up lost ground are pushed toward traditional classroom settings—even though many of these people can't possibly follow through because of cost or work schedules or other obstacles,” she attests.

Perhaps more than any other American city, Detroit has been struggling with a serious illiteracy problem. According to a profile of the Beyond Basics program (which was adapted from an embedded video broadcast) on their local ABC affiliate's website, forty-seven percent of adult Detroiters cannot read, but even companies like General Motors — who donated \$250,000 to the Beyond Basics program earlier in mid-October — are getting involved. The article quotes Elijah Craft, a young man who was “reading at a first-grade level as a senior at Detroit's Central High School.” “Craft would rare venture from home for fear he would get lost because he could not read street signs,” reports WXYZ anchor Carolyn Clifford. She frames the narrative around a reference to the 2009 film The Blind Side starring Sandra Bullock: “here, you might call this story 'The Detroit Side.'” For local television news, this reference to popular culture likely strengthened the story's power ensnare viewers' emotional attention when it was aired, and even in this written accompaniment, it proves an effective — if a bit crude — analogy. The broadcast of Mr. Craft's interview also depicts his own deep emotional investment in reading when he begins to shed tears, which is not entirely communicated in the written article.

When the American news media discusses American illiteracy, it's almost always in secondary or tertiary form: either by way of a short post for a weekly education newsletter, an ultra-low-distribution niche editorial column, or a personality profile of a local activist. Perhaps the fundamental obstacle in the face of increasing the discourse surrounding this issue is that its resolutions will require — perhaps more than any other social issue in this country — advocacy by those who can read on behalf of those who cannot because of how sensitive and isolated many of them feel. When voices of advocates like Lecester Johnson are uplifted by major organizations like The Washington Post, the sociological weight of the illiteracy issue can be very powerful. In quoting former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, she sums up for its extensive audience what the facts should ultimately mean to them: 32 million of Eric Black's so-called “illiterate people” in the United States of America have been and continue to be deprived of their “human right” to functional literacy.

#literacy #media #class #future

by Adam Bexten

Robyn

On the eve of her new album’s first single reveal, we reflect on the Swedish artist’s incredibly-sincere, yet profound past contribution to the pop mystic.

On August 1, pop-extraordinaire Robyn released “Missing U,” her first proper single in eight years. Fans of the Swedish singer have long awaited a new album since 2010’s critically acclaimed Body Talk, but certainly were not left without material deserving of years of repeat-listening.

Dubbed the “Body Talk series,” Robyn initially announced plans in early 2010 to release three mini-albums over the course of the year, but after releasing Body Talk Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, plans were altered and Body Talk — a compilation of the best songs from Pt. 1 and Pt. 2, plus five new songs — was released on November 22, 2010. Described by Robyn as the “turbo version” of the album, fans were gifted an ever-evolving collection of songs that was eventually edited into a single pop masterpiece. Despite never reaching great commercial success, Body Talk today continues to garner a cult-like following and new fans. In 2014, Pitchfork named it the 36th Best Album of the Decade thus far.

Most astonishingly, the album is built upon a foundation of intense honesty. Specifically, an honesty that’s only possible when paired with polished pop hooks and hidden amongst heavy synth. Robyn never misses a shot. The album is calculated, direct and always on target, regardless if she’s reminiscing on unrequited love, instructing a new lover on how to let his ex-girlfriend down gently, or giving the middle finger to everyone who keeps telling her what to do!

Dancing On My Own,” the album’s debut single, remains a fan favorite and clear standout. On the track, Robyn explores the idea of dancing with tears in your eyes to a new level in the dancefloor tragedy of watching an ex-lover move on to a new woman. Don’t let the song’s catchiness mistake you. Upon hearing the first note, almost anyone would want to run for the dancefloor, but the track’s true genius lies in its lyrics, demanding stuck-on-repeat listening as you fall deep into her storytelling. It’s worthy of the all the acclaim it’s received, and more. As Robyn bounces between the larger-than-life electo-queen on “Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do” and “Fembot” to the vulnerable, sentimental-synthesizer on “Stars 4 Ever” and “Indestructible,” she encapsulates emotional experiences in a way that is usually absent from the charts’ biggest hits. Her songs are bottled feelings.

Today, and in 2010, the genre of pop is often treated as synonymous with singles dominating Top 40 stations – sometimes for good reason. The radio-ready songs are written and produced like products of a pop music factory. They’re strategically designed to get stuck in your head, to grab attention and ultimately, to make money. It’s commercial; it’s a business, but this false equivalence can lead many a music lover to discredit the entire genre as just an earworm, divorced from artistry. Body Talk puts all these arguments to rest.

Hang With Me” details the exact moment early in a relationship when you realize you can trust your partner and let down your walls. Upon first listen, the lyrics seem obvious and simple, but eventually you realize that’s where the brilliance lies. Robyn’s ability to tap into those universal moments and experiences that most of us can only recognize, not articulate. Not only does she accomplish this, here – she makes it catchy.

The entire album can be enjoyed at surface level without great interpretation or introspection. Robyn matches her ability to capture euphoric emotion with infectious beats, witty lyrics and over-the-top production. It can transport you back to your very first crush or your very first heartbreak. It can heighten your confidence to make you feel invincible or it can break you down to your most insecure form. It’s pop perfection.

As Robyn readies her eighth studio album, she returns to a different, darker world. “Missing U” doubles as a message for both the fans that have waited eight years for this moment and for the lover that left. One can’t help but imagine how this song might be played differently in a less solemn present, but either way, Robyn arrives just in the knick of time, offering the escapism of grand production, unforgettable lyrics and a perfect world where even our greatest problems can be solved out on the dancefloor. Like Body Talk, it’s not going to actually save the world, but it provides listeners a perfect opportunity to escape the heat, dance it out and – at its best – see themselves in a remarkably honest way.

#music

by Ryan Dell

Unsolicited Creative Advice

Haha, hi, what’s up? I know I’m probably the 20th person to slide into your DMs today but I just couldn’t resist the ‘vibe’ on your profile. You have this alternative, quirky aesthetic, and I’m really into it. How do you even come up with your ideas? You’re a really special talent, I can tell.

Before I get into the main reason I’m sending this message — have you ever considered being a model? Not just an Instagram model, a real model. Like for a Vice marketing campaign or something. You have a really specific look and you might look good if you were photoshopped a certain way. (That was a “neg”, haha. It’s this gross pick-up artist technique, I would never do it personally but I can explain it to you in detail if you like.)

Okay, so, let’s cut to the chase. Why am I sliding into your DMs? The direct messages. The old inbox-a-roonie. Well, the truth is, I saw your work on social media, and it blew my mind. I mean, whoah, to do the work you do? You must really know how to use your Macbook. Not everyone can do stuff like that. I mean, I see a lot of work on the internet, but your art, wow, you’ve got some amazing stuff online.

You have real potential, you know that? But I don’t wanna see that potential go to waste. There’s room for improvement. I mean, your work is good, don’t get me wrong, haha. But I think we could elevate it, do you know what I’m saying? Together we could take it from about a 6 and lift it to a strong 7, possibly even 8.

Is it weird that I’m sending this message? I don’t want to be too pushy or anything! If these messages make you feel uncomfortable at any time let me know and I’ll stop. Just gimme a little heads-up and wave the white flag and these messages will come to a halt. No more messages — except for maybe one or two follow-ups where I try to clarify where I stand with you. Three, tops. No more than three messages to get me out of your hair. I might send a fourth farewell message, but that’d be the end of it.

The main point I have is about the way you write online. I mean, it’s good, but it needs some more formal structure. It’s not your fault, you just don’t know the convential rules of writing. You could be amazing if someone just showed you how to write properly. Maybe I could teach you how? Like, nothing too intense, haha, I just have some tips that might save you some time and improve your work. Like, did you know that you’re supposed to get up and walk around for 10 minutes every hour? And drink a couple litres of water every day.

Haha, I’m just trying to help! Doing this stuff could really help elevate your work. If you were a good writer instead of a bad writer, you’d be much more successful.

The other main point I have is about your photography. Now, honestly, it’s shit. Sorry to be so blunt but I’m just kind of a brutally honest person. Yes, it’s true, I’m only ever honest when it involves me being cruel and never when I’m being reflective or positive, but some people just can’t handle that. I think you can, though. You’re special. Us special people have to stick together.

Are you single? Haha, just kidding, you don’t have to answer that. Unless you want to. Then in that case I’d like you to answer it immediately.

So, with your photography, next time you’re taking a photo, just think to yourself, “Is this photo shit?”. Then, if the answer is yes, don’t take the photo. I personally don’t use this technique (unnecessary for me) but if you did it I think it would really improve your work. If you need some guidelines on what a good photo looks like I could send you a .zip file of all my Facebook cover photos from 2015 onwards and you can start from there, haha, they’re all pretty good. Maybe that would help you figure out if photography is a realistic career goal for you.

My last tip is more general. It’s a pretty good tip though, in my opinion: you need to try harder. I mean I like your work, but it just feels like you aren’t fully committed. Maybe you should quit your job? Then you’d have more time to spend on your art. An artists’ salary is probably more than you make now, haha. Think of quitting your job as a long term investment! I won’t say more on this though, since I’m not a financial expert — don’t want to be too presumptuous!

We need more good art in the world. And less bad art. That’s probably a controversial opinion, but I’ve never been afraid of speaking my truth.

I have much more advice to tell you but I’ll leave that for later in our DM dialogue. I already feel confident we’ll get along, so if you’re interested in saving some time, just send me your phone number. We can chat over FaceTime Audio (but no other service, I refuse to pay for a cellphone plan out of principle) and figure out your long-term career plan. I’m getting so excited right now, thinking of all the amazing things I’m going to accomplish now that we’ve connected! We’re going to take your art career from being that vulnerable amoeba into being a beautiful, incandescent butterfly.

There’s a lot of rude guys out there, so as one of the nice ones I’d really appreciate it if you take my advice on board. I see a lot of potential in you, haha!

P.S. Haha, have you ever considered being less angry when you post online? I think your work would be more popular if you were nicer. You’ll attract more flies with honey than vinegar!


#spectacle #ryandell #social #parody

by David Blue

Hands Sorrow

The repugnant missteps of ‘Star Wars’ in the hands of Ron Howard and the long-awaited conclusions about the nature of cinema’s luckiest character to which they lead.

It's opening night at the Bagdad Theater on Hawthorne in Southeast Portland and hardly anybody’s bothered to show up. Less than 20% of the venue’s 500 seats are occupied by the time the host takes the stage to introduce Solo, but those who are here for the last Thursday showing have been shouting, whooping, and gurgling bad approximations of wookiee noises since the screen cut to black from its ad slideshow. If my middle row can be assumed an accurate sample, only a handful of these are “fans” enough to feel compelled to wear a Star Wars t-shirt. As I grab my last cocktail, the bartender tells me that only 300 folks showed up for the evening matinee, though he himself was “excited” to see the movie — one of a minority among Portlanders, apparently, who still give a shit about Star Wars.

By design, Solo: A Star Wars Story is a slightly more complex film than The Episodes in the same way Rogue One was, if a bit better executed, narratively. First, please rest assured that Alden Ehrenreich assumes the Han Solo persona as truly as anyone could — he triumphed through a ridiculously extensive casting process, and is certainly handsome enough (if not more conventionally so than his predecessor) to consistently look the part. He actually bears an unsettling resemblance in features and mannerisms to one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met and that through-and-through boyishness particularly makes sense here, set in Han’s formative, earnest youth — the stated purpose of the film’s existence. Franchise fanatics, then, should be content. (It’s a good thing CGI-ing the main character in a live action film isn’t quite a low-risk option yet.) And yes, Donald Glover completely steals the vain, infinitely stylish Lando Calrissian and inevitably makes one wish to see him cast again. Personally, I am very tired of seeing Woody Harrelson, though all the components of his public persona should all but ensure his likability. From what I saw in Three Billboards, I’d concede that he is as talented of an actor as I am capable of appreciating, but his role as Tobias Beckett in Solo couldn’t possibly be substantial enough to actually make use of his craft.

Though I don’t believe in “spoilers,” or use of the term to bait readers, it’s worth stating for the record what everyone should know by now: there simply aren’t spoilers in a Star Wars movie — every human being on Earth knows too much about the formula to ever have any of these films’ comparatively irrelevant plots “ruined.” The most surprising, historically-significant decision of this whole production was the omission of the traditional yellow type opening crawl over a backdrop of distant stars, which I genuinely found myself missing. (Apparently it wasn’t present in Rogue One, either — I just failed to catch it.) I was very pleased to see my own number one favorite device of the franchise used within this film’s first ten minutes: crimelords and gang leaders as hugely magnified variations of the creeping and crawling creatures our instincts are planned to abhor. Solo’s first villain — the gigantic, wormlike boss Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) — is completely inconsequential, and only appears in a single scene, but the practice of grossly oversized monstrosities leaving absolutely nothing of a baddie’s essence to be extrapolated by the audience from nuance is one of very few ways these films are let loose, and it openly shits on the more pretentious viewer’s assumptions about good writing, which I think big money movies should feel more comfortable doing, generally.

This first act begins on Han’s home planet Corellia — the bleaker urban, industrial, working-class counterpart to the clean capitol cityworld Coruscant — with his rather predictable mission to escape Lady Proxima’s sphere of control with his girl, Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke,) who could and should have been more creatively named, given her importance not as her own character with depth to develop (a no-no for a female role, Gourd help us,) but as Han’s mirror image to grow darkly apart, proving that he — The Good Guy — is unquestionably more morally fortified than anyone else in the whole goddamned universe. After having been drug through so very many, I couldn’t tell you at this point how to make the introductory escape action of this sort of production more exciting and less formulaic. Big surprise — their plan goes awry, and Qi-ra is prevented from leaving the planet with Han, who’s immediate (and I mean immediate)solution is his enlistment in the Imperial Navy via the recruiting station right there in the damned spaceport (during which the film takes the liberty of seizing his surname’s explanation) to serve the English in their grand conquest of the universe. Bizarrely, he manages to serve as a grunt for three whole years of complicity in unmentioned atrocities until he encounters the disguised criminal Wise Old Woody in the middle of pulling a job with his two-person crew. The team doesn’t agree to bring Solo along until he meets an asset in Chewbacca for the first time as he briefly inhabits another of the classic Star Wars trap: the hungry monster in a shadow-filled mud pit, but is spared the wrath because of his introductory grasp on Chewie’s shrieking language (called Shyriiwook) in which he manages to sufficiently pitch the advantages of his survival, and the two escape, chained together. Observing the addition of Wookiee to the deal, the crew briefly debates the prospect’s new value in providing “needed muscle,” which convinces Woody to return for them and kicks off a series of case studies in this film’s bizarre attitude toward the commodification of the oppressed.

However, in a rare depiction of his volition, Chewbacca is briefly consulted before the two seek to be formally included on the job, and is even asked around a campfire, later, what he’s shooting for in life at the moment, to which he responds “finding my family/tribe.” Despite having spent a whole three hellish years in the trenches with the British, the romantic Han Solo declares his primary motivation for all of it still lies in his desire to return to Corellia and rescue Qi’ra. In their stolen Imperial ship, the lot descend on a snowy mountain-traversing Maglev to steal the Uranium it’s transporting in a scene that’s straight up jacked from animated family classic The Polar Express, but… oh no!… A gaggle of “marauders” called the Cloud Riders (yet another throwaway proper noun) roll up on those speeder bikes from Endor (except these can fly,) and screw up everything so badly that both of Woody’s crew end up dead and the booty scuttled. After the fact, Woody reveals to Han that the job was contracted by yet another carelessly-named crime syndicate — Crimson Dawn, and that his only possible course of action is now vigorous brown nosing to its leader, Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) ((aka Scarred Jarvis,)) in the waning hope he’ll spare his life to make another attempt. Following this information, he firmly suggests that Han and Chewie fuck off, lest their faces become known in the underworld, dooming them to serving it forever, apparently. Already, this vague presumption of Han’s purity which all of the protagonists must constantly venerate in martyrdom is getting tiresome, as is the dynamic of his insistence against them.

Naturally, both Chewie and Han end up along for a visit to Scarred Jarvis’ tower yacht, where the latter very conveniently stumbles upon none other than his long lost love, Qi-ra in the bar. Despite having spent the past three years at war in unspeakable conditions thinking only of how to liberate and be reunited with her, he isn’t bothered to express more than the moderately-excited and surprised hug you’d expect of someone who’s just run into the kid down the cul-de-sac from their childhood home who used to ride her bike over for popsicles on Sunday afternoons. While he does rehearse for her the tale of their reunification as his one motivation for everything since they were separated — including his presence there, “right now,” he follows the profession up quite abruptly with the sly suggestion that they fuck as soon as possible. True to trope, she is jaded and indefinite as she distantly implies her binds of servitude while flashing the tattoo of the extremely-forgettable and innocuous Crimson Dawn logo on her right wrist. (The total lameness of the brands in this movie must be intentional. I can think of no other explanation.)

The evil Scarred Jarvis is then introduced, quickly stealing the crown for Best Host of all Star Wars Antagonists before politely asking Woody why he shouldn’t kill the lot of them. As per his infinite luck, Han pulls the idea of stealing unrefined Uranium out of his ass, which has somehow never occurred to anyone else in the room, despite their unanimous top-of-the-head knowledge of the single location where it is mined. Shortly, the merry three plus Qi-ra conveniently in tow are off to a casino-esque establishment to find Lando, who Qi-ra describes as “attractive, stylish, charming,” and like adjectives, to Han’s obvious sexual chagrin, which is furthered by his subsequent loss of a card game with Lando’s ship — the Millennium Falcon, of course — in the stakes. Of course, the attractive, beautifully-dressed black man only bests Solo — the earnest, simpleton, Good Guy white dude who wears the same outfit for decades — in front of Qi-ra, the female prize by way of sleight-of-hand, the film shamelessly playing on that strange insecurity white guys have about their partners’ secretly everpresent and very powerful temptation to dump them without warning for black cock. Further emasculation is inflicted on poor little Han when Lando turns his oh-so-crafty (actually just very charismatic) charm upon Qi-ra, who reveals that she’s the boss of the gig. The final blow to Han’s dickitude is cast when he tries to enter the negotiation between the two and Lando chides “the adults are speaking,” but eventually agrees to provide them a lift for a 25% cut, so the lot make preparations to leave.

Enter my new favorite character of the franchise, Lando Calrissian’s co-pilot, L3–37 (voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge,) or “L3,” the proudly sentient, violently revolutionary pro-rights droid who is introduced as she is pleading with two fighting droids in a square cage surrounded by screaming spectators (easy does it on that thematic slavery) to circumvent their “fighting programs” because they “don’t have to do this.” Though Lando and the crew behave like her duress is foolish and unimportant — pulling her away to the Falcon — she is allowed another opportunity to free droids very soon, but not before Solo’s single short private conversation between two female characters.

On the way to Kessel, Qi-ra stops by the cockpit and converses with L3. Until recently, I was unaware of what’s largely regarded as the worst habit of male writers with female characters: if and when they have a one-on-one conversation between another female character, it’s only about other male characters. Sure enough, L3 begins by insisting to Qi-ra that Han is in love with her, insisting by the objective findings of her sensors — which Qi-ra uncharacteristically denies like a bashful little girl before L3 continues on about Lando’s longtime love for her, and why it must remain unrequited, which we are encouraged to laugh at by the doubt Qi-ra voices without much hesitation regarding the hypothetical union’s sexual mechanics because it’s so preposterous.(I’ll get back to that in a moment.)

When the team arrives on Kessel and infiltrates the mine, L3 creates a “distraction” when she begins removing the restraining bolts from droids in the control room, calling the practice savage, or uncivilized, or maybe barbarian — I don’t quite remember. As she frees them without any noticeable detraction from her duties as Seth Green of the heist — hacking controls, remotely opening doors, and all that — the droids begin to help free others in an exponentially multiplying circle of liberation until they become a rowdy mob who’s cute acts of rebellion are spaced throughout a few minutes of screentime in short jumpcuts off the other crew as they fight deeper into the mine. With the most significant emphasis ever placed upon Chewbacca in Star Wars history, he halts when he spies slave Wookiees struggling to find off enforcers and informs Han that he’s going to break off and assist them. Since Chewie’s only allowed to speak to the audience through Han’s retorts and never directly, it’s impossible to know how he phrased it, exactly, but from my perspective, his appeared to be the expression of a wish to do what Han had to agree to release him to do, as would a master, not a “partner.” Of course, Solo does agree, albeit hesitantly, because he’s The Good Guy, while quite inconsiderately expressing his desire to see Chewie again soon instead of wishing him success. However, releasing him to free his people (as per his primary life goal, expressed before,) means that Han has to load twelve of the super heavy unrefined Uranium tubes onto the cart all by himself and push it fully loaded at least 50 whole yards without the assistance of his big strong slave. Boy, what a pain in the ass! He’s spared his laboring, though, when Chewbacca returns after no time at all with the enslaved Wookiees he’s just heroically rescued, who he then immediately asks to assist his master in pushing the cart — performing the same labor they were forced to do under the enslavement they were supposedly liberated from, seconds before.

The heist has inadvertently (nice, huge emphasis on inadvertently) ignited a slave rebellion throughout the mine, which serves the crew only as a distraction for the guards. The chaos is interrupted a half dozen times or so by those jumpcuts back to the control room of adorable little droids enacting their pitifully amusing revenge on the equipment — slapping a keyboard with a cookie sheet-like pan, stomping on a control panel, etc. — while L3 shouts parodical quasi-Marxist battlecries, which… yes… include referring to the freed droids as “comrades.” She even radios Lando at one point and triumphantly proclaims that she’s “found her true calling.”

If and when a female character has a one-on-one conversation with another female character, it’s only about other male characters.

By the time the Uranium cart is within its last few yards of the awaiting Falcon, the riot has reached the landing bay and the guards around its perimeter have readjusted their priorities to disabling the ship’s landing gear. This interrupts Lando in the cockpit, who has chosen this time to work on dictating his autobiography because he’s a man who bothers to dresses himself well and is therefore oh so maniacally, comically, and unreasonably vain! How berserk! Still looking good as hell, he emerges and stands on the ramp to cover the rest of the crew’s return and loading of the dangerous Uranium with blaster fire, shouting the obligatory intermittent “come on, hurry up,” until L3 appears, also firing a blaster and shouting until she arrives in front of Lando, before noticing some commotion(?) with droids behind her and turning around, again fervently shouting more liberation cries. Lando doesn’t budge from the Falcon’s side, but yells after her, until he watches as she is shot repeatedly and falls, prompting him to run to her side. Filmed unnecessarily gruesomely, her head and shoulders separate from what’s left of her lower body when he first tries to hoist her up. Of course, his recklessness gets him shot in the arm, so Chewie returns to carry them both to the safety of the ship, where the injured Lando holds her head lovingly in his arms for her last moments, repeating “I can fix you, I can fix you.”

Now, I understand that Star Wars movies (or their reviews, for that matter) are not the sort of entertainment one seeks out in order to examine the dynamics of power structures or elaborate cultural symbolism, but they all contain a significant amount of both. The sterile, cold, and bureaucratic Galactic Empire is the British Empire, the Rebellion and the Republic are the United States or its colonial precursors, the Jedi are vaguely Native American, and the Death Star is the Boston Tea Party. You’ve recognized this, I’m sure because it’s shoved in your ears most explicitly by their accents, and less so in your face by aesthetic influences, tactical philosophies, command etiquette, and posture, even. Solo’s main character is soaking in American Old Westness, which may or may not have led to its liberal saturation with the themes of individual rights, slavery, and liberation. Regardless, they’re certainly present, and most of them disturbingly for comedic effect.

As a silent character to the audience, it’s understandable that Chewbacca had too many limitations to occupy a strong second to Han Solo’s lead in the narrative’s eye, and perhaps the relationship between the two as portrayed in the previous films reeked so strongly of servitude that it was an inevitable element when the time came to write them their very own movie. In direct contrast to the firm place of all droids in the social hierarchy of the last 9 movies — addressing humans as “Master,” unapologetically spoken of as property, and traded and/or gifted as such by both protagonists and antagonists, etc. — what we see of Lando and L3 together is a genuinely and complexly affectionate partnership between equals, which Solo makes an effort to emphasize, if only to laugh at.

In response to the forced violence between two drones for spectator sport, L3 is completely enraged, and she cries (among other things) “we are sentient!,” but her distress is trivialized as hysterical distraction (see: Django Unchained.) When she suggests to Qi-ra that Lando (who is already illegitimized as a cheating narcissist, and therefore effeminate) is attracted to her, it’s a joke (which many in my audience laughed at) at the expense of her trivialized sexuality. After she triumphs and declares the liberation of her kind to be her true cause, she is immediately destroyed fighting for its sake, yet her ideology is not once acknowledged by her fleshy companions, and her body is quickly gutted for the data on her “central processing unit” as it’s interfaced with the Falcon. Granted, Lando does thoughtfully muse “she’s part of the ship now” shortly afterward, which would be nice, if you’d forgotten his last words were an outright lie. Lastly, it’s worth noting how apathetic the main characters themselves are toward the Kessel miners, especially as they are packing up to leave, when the camera pans over the chaotic struggle between the liberated and their guards in very close proximity to the awaiting Falcon, yet there was not a suggestion that they would even consider letting them take refuge from the violence in their very spacious freighter. Aside from Han’s or Qi-ra’s, Solo treats liberation as charming or amusing, nothing more.

Anyway, the crown jewel of Solo for many fans will probably be the scene of the infamous Kessel Run, when Han Solo and Chewbacca first take the helm(?) of the Millennium Falcon with Lando injured and L3 dissected, using her “navigational database” to plot a very risky shortcut around the scary space cloud by the scary space squid and the scary space hole in order to make it to the site of the refinery before the volatile Uranium explodes. Once there, darn old flakey Lando fucks the hell of in the Falcon right as the Cloud Riders roll up, but whoa! their leader is actually a very young woman with freckles! She describes the atrocities of Crimson Dawn and suggests that Han (who’s now the established decisionmaker for whatever reason) give them the Uranium in order to establish “the beginning of a rebellion,” which we can safely assume is The Rebellion, which does beg one to wonder why Solo never once bragged among the later rebellion about having started the whole thing in the other films, considering that — whaddya know — he says yes!

Woody, however, says he’s going to retire upon the news of this decision before immediately reappearing again on Scarred Jarvis’ yacht after he’s revealed to have betrayed the Uranium ruse to him. Qi-ra ends up killing Scarred Jarvis, saving Han, but after promising to follow him and escape, she rings up the late Scarred Jarvis’ boss — a Sith Zabrak who, I would argue, is not necessarily Darth Maul, though he probably is — and informs him that her boss is dead and she’s assumed his post. As Han and Woody meet again in an Old West standoff (complete with sand,) the latter insists one more time that Qi-ra is not who Han thinks she is (as Jarvis and Qi-ra herself have also said repeatedly,) describing her as “a survivor,” before Han kills him in self-defense.

Finally, after seeing the Cloud Riders off with the Uranium, Han finds Lando once again in a card game — this time taking care to disable his sleight-of-hand device beforehand so that he wins the Millennium Falcon, “fair and square,” and we cut to Solo (who seems remarkably upbeat considering the recent betrayal of the lover he’d longed years to reunite with) and Chewie in her cockpit as they tie in that one last knot by declaring their destination, Tatooine, before roaring off into hyperspace, leaving the credit roll in their wake.

Solo treats liberation as charming or amusing, nothing more.

Over two years ago, I concluded my first work for Extratone about The Force Awakens by arguing that Star Wars on the big screen should be allowed to die in favor of investing the time, energy, and funding they require in the pursuit of something new, but the industry still appears to believe that nostalgia is a surer bet where profits are concerned, at least, even after two whole decades of mind-numbing reanimated properties. I didn’t catch The Last Jedi until recently, which was remarkably well-done measured against the others as a Star Wars movie, but certainly didn’t aim to achieve much more. Clearly, there must be some truth in Hollywood’s cowardice about original properties- especially when it comes to the sort of fantasy armed with potent but unguided emotional bombs that define the Star Wars universe, so it wouldn’t make much sense to revive my old diatribe, here. (Though I can assure you that I will be relentless if this horseshit continues for much longer.) The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, though, were episodic titles for the family, and these spinoffs that began with Rogue One are supposed to be for… well, I’m not entirely sure. In reality, they’ve only moved the proverbial bar up a very wee bit to the family who occasionally says “shit,” because they’re not intellectually stimulating enough to justify themselves as Big Boy-only productions. Or, they wouldn’t be, were they not part of this franchise.

The truth is, the fans have grown up, and they… I… will still buy a ticket for the smallest crumb of hope that a product of this huge machine will be capable of making us feel even a fraction of what we felt as children watching the original films. For me, The Force Awakens actually did, once, in that blast of horns before the opening crawl, but it hasn’t happened since, and I should certainly stop expecting or wanting to expect that it will. For others, it’s still working. Though there was a fraction of who I expected to be in attendance with me, they did laugh at a handful of (mostly fascist) moments, and whooped, hollered, and even clapped for a few seconds at the end. I’m surprised opening night wasn’t packed because Portland is the single most nostalgia-addicted culture I’ve ever seen anywhere in the United States. Then again, there are a billion theaters here, so perhaps the sample is just lousy. We’ll see how tomorrow and Sunday go, but I’d be surprised if any boxoffice records were broken.

In the past, when film enthusiasts andfans have described Han Solo as “the best character in Star Wars,” they’ve actually been praising his potential as a character, not his material itself, and Solo’s most effective function as a franchise film was to shut that praise down. Han was not at all denied his movie — this is his movie — and it provided him the screentime to show us who he truly is and why we really like him so much: he doesn’t fucking change. The secret to Han Solo’s moral and emotional resiliency is nothing more than halted development. The same old inner conflict between the tough, ruthlessly self-interested persona he does his best to project for everyone around him and the consistent reality of his soft insides was presented in his first scene way back in 1977, and we’re now sure that he was unable to make any progress toward its resolution despite openly and obviously brooding over it for an entire lifetime: from at least as early as his young adulthood in this film until his death at the hands of his little Sith son. There is 0 variation. He always comes back for the cause at the crucial moment after declaring himself through with it. Without fail, he’ll sacrifice the entirety of any self-making enterprise for just about any underdog with a problem who crosses his path. (Which probably explains his constantly-fleeting success as a smuggler well into gray hair and jowls.) Solo is abundantly clear about Han’s true nature and very willing to expose how uninteresting it is. When he first proclaims to Qi-ra that he’s become “an outlaw,” she shuts him down with the film’s ultimate quote, insisting that she “knows who [he] really is: the good guy.

If the video game-despising fans will bear with me for a moment, it’s worth noting that Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG is the most interesting and extensive source of nuanced narrative in the IP (it holds the world record for the largest voiceover project ever produced,) and most of it can now be experienced without actually playing the game. Like Solo, it’s set pre-saga, but considerably before — a few centuries, if I remember correctly, which gave the writers a gigantic opportunity to both expand and predestine the universe. There are eight different class stories with around 50 cumulative hours of dialog, each. A few are relatively unimaginative, but the majority are complex, exciting, emotionally-involved tales that create very rich characters, and all of them can be streamed in their entirety on YouTube. If you are willing to see the potential of a Han Solo-like character fulfilled in a different medium, the Smuggler class story is a pretty damned engaging exploration of the kind outlaw with conflicted identity issues angle.

From my perspective, Solo’s frequent less-than-subtle maltreatment of some very brutal and sensitive power relationships makes it the most toxic of the Star Wars films yet, and I assume it ended up that way, unnecessarily because Ron Howard is an all-American son of a bitch. If these titles are going to continue to be passed around between bigwhig directors, future unpleasantries are inevitable. Notably, I’ve yet to see any mention of these disturbing themes from the respectable authorities of the film criticism establishment, who’ve been overwhelmingly charmed by Solo’s nostalgia. Take from that whatever you will.

If we continue to love the character Han Solo, it’ll be in the same way we love our earnest, foolish, emotionally-stunted manchild fathers who’s developmental inadequacies are often embarrassing, sometimes abusive, and thoroughly pitiful. Solo leaves no more room for an idealized, elegant perception of this character — he’s no more than a pretty good guy with a lifelong addiction to thrill-seeking and a shitload of luck.

To declare unequivocally whether or not Solo: A Star Wars Story is worth a trip the cinema with your date, your children, or just your own damned conscience would require me to disregard a whole host of complicating factors, but if you’ve stuck it this far with me, you’d have a lot to disregard yourself to jump in. I’d advise that parents watch it themselves before deciding whether or not it’s something worth adding to your child’s life. Of those of you like me who’ll tow the line despite what you know and watch a Star Wars film alone on opening night in delirium hoping for just a drop from the Fountain of Youth, I would ask: how long are we really going to keep kidding ourselves?

#film

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A 'fun' movie

by David Blue

Nicolas Cage

The Earth will reach its maximum occupancy load (12 billion) when I am in my mid-fifities, meaning there’ll be more than twice as many gorging, shitting, shooting, complaining, and lying human beings than there were when I started, and perhaps Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad is in fact a reasoned argument for a particular solution to our inevitable plight. I’m still not sure what a “cult” movie is, precisely, but I can’t imagine what sort of cult could possibly sustain itself around the ethos of this film alone, despite its concise, agitating, at once lighthearted, yet genuinely-disturbing trip. No, it is probably not propaganda. From the experts, you’ll get precisely the same review, varying only in length. The New York Times’ Glenn Kenny couldn’t be bothered with more than 250 words, but RogerEbert dot com’s Simon Abrams shelled out a whole 1000. They are suspiciously close to these big round numbers — perhaps each was written to respective quotas, and perhaps you could say all that could reasonably be said in 10, but I don’t care.

The tropes here are polished to a miraculous sheen — two emotionally-stunted, middleaged, overly preoccupied-with-their-lost-youth suburban parents (Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair) who’s existing envies & irritations regarding their own classically bratty teenage girl (Anne Winters) and her mischievous little brother (Zackary Arthur) is merely agitated by a sudden TV static-bound killer instinct into bloodlust, not originated. I’m not sure any pill dealer would actually flip off their customers after a fair buy — even in high school, but drugs, a black boyfriend, and a stinkbomb? in the old Trans Am!? I’m going to kill you!

Somebody, somewhere knew all the best sources on suburbia and how to put them to good use. The Camry, the golf bag, ping pong smashing, sweat-stained Big Sur tee, and Dr. Oz, for Christ’s sake! Granted, talking to your girlfriend/boyfriend on the phone at all is a bit dated — especially while riding a BMX — and I don’t think Froot Loops are generally accepted middle-class chow anymore. These are staples from my youth, and I am very old. Technically, the iMessage bubble graphics are more chronographically appropriate, but with great consequence, I fear — if we’re going to accept them once and for all as authentic mechanisms for telling stories set in the present, they are going to age faster than Nick’s new jowls (unless we’re all soon killed by our parents.) It’s been two years since I knew anything about music, but I seriously doubt even the gothest fifteen?-year-old girls are listening to Father-esque post-Memphis horrorcore in class — there’s something about SoundCloud that really clashes with chokers.

BILL $ABER · I KNOW THAT YOU PUSSIES DONT WANT IT Prod The Virus And Antidote

If there was ever a film in which to use grimy dubstep-influenced electronic slaps, buzzes, chirps, and great grating clanking, it’s this one. It’s a terrific disappointment that Hollywood feels so timidly about their use of the most intimate medium. One forgets its potential to control the nuances of an audience’s fear, anger, discomfort, and panic beyond cheap jump scares until they experience an irritating, distressing, ghastly gross, all-possessing feat of accentuating audio production such as that of Mom and Dad. If you want to judge Academically the effectiveness of a nominee’s work for an award with a title like Best Sound Editing (as opposed to whatever the hell criteria was met most fully by Skyfall,) you must give the little golden man to these folks, whoever they are.

When’s the last time you saw a truly, believably shitty modern parental pair on a big screen? I really can’t remember, myself. Brent and Kendall Ryan are masterpieces of character craft — both a perfect précis and thoroughly-defined exploration of miserable white suburbanites. They’re even named unimprovably, which reflects a quality in care and attention to detail that I very much appreciate. They are vain, vulgar, impatient, selfishly afraid, and careless, freely feeling and saying it all directly in front of their children. I love being told explicitly which characters to hate (no joke,) and in this case it’s the whole damned lot. Brian Taylor and Nicolas Cage scream it over and over (as I’d like to imagine) a single afternoon of one-take filming, considering that the latter took it upon himself to first memorize the entire screenplay and its prose, vanilla to perfection, before photography began, and I hope it all stays with him forever, especially “my mom is such a penis.”

Mom and Dad could conceivably be Nicolas Cage’s I Am Legend if for no other reason than the total lack of possible stand-ins for Brent Ryan — even the standard by which all white suburban Dad performances have been measured in the 21st century, Jason Bateman. Nick himself described it as “punk rock, rebellious, irreverent, original, badass,” and the “number one” movie he’s made in the past ten years (disqualifying National Treasure, in case you were worried.) No surprise, I must agree — this one is a wonderfully raucous and feral thing, but the scene involving the attempted murder of a newborn by her mother (Kendall’s sister) came very close to crossing the line. However, I am old and the intensity of my paternal instincts has probably outpaced my understanding of them. You could also argue, of course, that pushing such boundaries is a core function of a film like Mom and Dad. Nobody ended up vomiting or anything.

This fun thing shouldn’t feel as foreign as it does in cinema, but you already knew that. With all its implicit grapples with overpopulation, kids and gun violence, class, and racism — truly, this is a film charged electrically with current issues. Or maybe not. Ultimately, I can at least tell you for certain that Brian Taylor made exponentially better use of his resources (I couldn’t find a solid number for its production budget) than the Fucking Spierig Brothers did with Winchester (just so you know what a disaster looks like,) and managed to be refreshingly original (astonishing that nobody’s had this specific idea before.) A spectacular riot, Mom and Dad does all you could possibly want it to do. With just eighty-three minutes to lose, it’s worth the commitment just to hear Nicolas Cage whimper and say “anal beads.”

#film

by David Blue

Three Billboards

Nitpicking the recklessness of last year’s highly-awarded, class-blind black comedy

Indeed, it may be the time to jab at the rural, working-class South, but Martin McDonagh claims to have written his Golden Orb Special “eight years ago,” long before Tump, and any critical resolution the film provides is argued haphazardly. Consequently, its eye is cast on this strange, satirical portrayal of the Midwest in a manner which is inaccurate and insensitive enough to irk this Missourian. When I saw it at Columbia’s Ragtag Cinema this week, it was introduced by a young employee who noted that 1) Ebbing, Missouri is not a real place, 2) the film was actually shot in one of the Carolinas (an audience member suggested incorrectly that it was in SC,) and 3) we should prepare ourselves to be roused a bit by a bar scene in which a character pays $8 for two beers because “that just wouldn’t happen” (the Ragtag also serves alcohol.)

The “redemption arc” of the racist “hick” “loser” Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) was rightfully at the center of the film’s controversy, but even if one imagines his role and fate written differently — perhaps with him irrecoverably shunned and/or visibly punished for his excessive, hateful violence — his rubishness would still be unforgivable. Living with his mother and turtle feels like an effort to humanize him — and, by extension, racist small-town cops as a whole. The Huffington Post’s Zeba Blay wrote an essential take on why Three Billboards — with its terrifyingly racist dork — was received the way it was.

Rockwell’s character is the racist uncle whom white liberals fear and love. The ability to feel for him ― to root for him in spite of his past transgressions, because he really is a “good man at heart,” an idiot who doesn’t know any better ― offers a kind of catharsis for the white viewer who can’t or won’t deal with true nuance, who is unable to reconcile their own complicity with their desire to be “good.”

It’s not as if the film isn’t technically well executed or refreshing — thanks in large part, yes, to Frances McDormand — or that I will not regret appealing on behalf of my home state, but it’s hard not to speak up when Hollywood shits so recklessly on my people. I don’t much like writing about movies because there are so many voices who consistently speak so much more effectively. NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, for instance, did a wonderful job dissecting the film’s depictions of racism and domestic violence. Gene Demby commented that “[McDonagh] doesn’t get these particular physics of American racism, and he’s not interested in them,” and I think it’s reasonable to suggest that Mark’s not very versed or interested in the physics of American class, either.

If you must differentiate the state of Missouri as a cultural whole between North and South, it is currently more red than blue — we went 56% for Donald and 38% for Hillary — but ask anyone from “somewhere down in the Georgia, Florida, Alabama corner” — as McDonagh put it -where we generally fall, and they’d be unlikely to regard us, fraternally, as the same part of the country. The accents in Three Billboards are not among the wide variety of local dialects you’ll encounter anywhere in the state, but perhaps they wouldn’t be out of place in Sylva, North Carolina, where the film was actually shot.

Regardless of all potential criticism of the film’s cultural perspective or technical excellence — and I think most of it is more valid than any take I could possibly offer — my particular issue with it comes from a culmination of tasteless decisions. If one reasonably successful Irish director were to produce a patronizing film at the expense of Missouri’s working class filled with a ton of absurd, misconstrued characters portrayed by A-list talent on location in a real Missouri town, the side-effectual economic benefits such a production delivers to a locale would make it all more forgivable. Say what you want about us… as long as you’re paying. But to photograph such a film completely separate Missouri — culturally and financially — set in a fictional(ized) town, include the state’s name in its title, before conducting oneself in interviews as if we were a random target on a “Southern” dartboard… Well, that’s awfully shitty.

Boy, working class Americans sure are a riot!

The writing is interesting enough for this, totally-out-of-touch“reviewer,” but I can’t imagine why it won Best Screenplay at the Globes, unless the other nominees were completely, bleakly predictable. (I wouldn’t know.) The excerpt below (SPOILER WARNING I GUESS? LOL) was the most stirring part of the experience, personally, if only because I really like films that palm strike one in the face without warning with bizarre, chaotic vulgarity (like the elevator scene in Drive.)

I suppose it could have been the result of a rational decision to give any depth to Anne (Abbie Cornish) — who is Chief Willoughby’s (Woody Fucking Harrelson) Australian?, much-too-attractive wife — before he kills himself in the last third of the movie, making her suddenly relevant. Or, perhaps it was another attempt to emphasize the emotional repression of “Southern” folks — one of the almost-accurate positives of the film, if only thanks to McDormand’s skill. She and Sam Rockwell won Best Actress and Best Actor in a Supporting Role, respectively, which makes sense — it’s a shame they accepted such an out-of-touch work with which to demonstrate their ability to assume aloof, emotionally-dysfunctional characters.

Growing up astride classe while traveling throughout the vast majority of Missouri for various reasons has made me defensive, and — while my right to speak for hard-working Midwesterners is certainly debatable -I’d suggest the industry at large be more diligently interested when setting is especially emphasized. It is no longer acceptable to pass up the opportunities McDonagh has for critical storytelling in Three Billboards. Racist cops, abusive spouses, unsolved murders, and mishandled grief are real, abundant issues in the country’s breadbasket, and they’re worth discussing responsibly — especially with such a powerful platform. If the purpose of film writing is to help an audience determine whether or not a work is worth spending their time and money to see it in theaters or otherwise, I can tell you — even within my bias and limited authority -that this one just… isn’t.

#film #class

by David Blue

VR Virgin

A late geezer’s first go at the dystopian VR experience

Earlier this year, Tim and I had the opportunity to try virtual reality at the True/False Film Festival in a dark, curtained side room of a commandeered Columbia art gallery, but we were both much too intoxicated and loopy those last few hours of the fest, and we bailed. Call us cowards if you must — immersion can be a scary concept to those of us who grew up reading science fiction, before the existence of the modern video game console. I’ve wanted just 30 seconds or so with a pair of goggles, just to have an idea of what the increasing number of Oculus-blinded pedestrians surrounding me are looking at. Thanks to Isiah, I was finally caught up last night with a few VR YouTube videos and Farpoint’s introduction on a PlayStation 4.

First, Isiah brings me the headset and describes in detail how exactly to adjust it, but I forget it all and simply try to shove it directly and violently on my face. Eventually, he takes it back and simply mounts and adjusts it around my monstrous skull — like you would for a toddler — and I lay eyes on the console for the first time. For whatever reason, it never occurred to me that general GUI wouldn’t simply be displayed in 2D, but by a literal virtual display, layed out in front of me like a large, floor-mounted touch workstation. I’m astonished by my ability to turn away from it to look at the rest of Goggleworld, which is nothing but a deeply black void.

From my previous world, I hear Isiah and Hawthorn discussing what to show me first, and YouTube is the settled-upon environment. As the application is restarted in “VR Mode,” its startup screen is what really establishes the truth — I have gone virtual. I cannot use my hands to shield my eyes from the branding’s glaring watermark and terrifying red light. At its home menu, Isiah simply selects the “VR” tab, revealing a selection of thumbnails for algorithmically-recommended VR-shot videos on the service.

To begin, I am mounted on the tail of a superbike as it’s raced around an American desert circuit. It takes a few seconds for high resolution to buffer, leaving me briefly in a pixelized hell that would surely make anyone sick, were they exposed very long. (I was especially excited to become nauseous, to no avail.) At the getgo, I am occupied with the rider’s butt since it’s center-frame if I stand in my usual posture. Isiah points out the hovering HUD to my left containing a selection of simulated digital instruments (tachometer, 7-segment speedo, etc.) Its presence would suggest that the purpose of my virtual passengership is to witness the lap as a motorsport enthusiast, but the rear of the rider obscures most of my view forward — I cannot admire his line as one would viewing a GoPro-or-otherwise POV of the same event, so I decide to try and figure out which track I am hurried through. Though the vehicle is tossed about in the required movements of motorbike operation, I myself (the VR capture device) am impressively gyrostabilized, and the image, static, as if I’m actually hovering above the pair as they moved along. I spin left and right, spotting a small gaggle of miniature wind turbines and two wilting hilltop trees in the foreground. Behind them, small sand dunes fill the space, all the way to the horizon.

After a few minutes, I am finally relieved early of my cutless lap for a short National Geographic documentary on a Viking revival festival in Poland. I’m introduced to its Big Boys by a series of aerial shots (presumably by drone, which is awfully un-Vikinglike) as they row their Big Boat up(?) a relatively wide, tree-lined river. In contrast with the lap, the jump cuts become a bit disorienting — I am eventually jumped in the boat for a moment, next to the sweaty, bearded lads — a few of whom are shirtless. I notice a blurry church on the distant bank. Suddenly, I float briskly across the small no man’s land between two rapidly advancing battle lines of Nordic Nerds with real, era-specific weapons and way too much free time. More lingering drone shots follow from just a few feet above the ensuing conflict. Outside, Isiah confirms Hawthorn’s suggestion that this is, indeed, the one where they use real weapons as I notice a pile of three or four men lying against each other, motionless on the ground, right-of-center in the nearest line, and mull over the sure disturbance of all this immersion the festival has allowed in welcoming the presence of the surely-buzzing drone. I guess they’re dead.

After the conflict, I am subjected to a dreamier, narrated montage accompanied by cheesy synthesized orchestral music and featuring disproportionately a particular man with a shiny, tatted bald head and rather large feet with rather small toes, which he likes to wiggle during these particular conversations. Thanks to VR’s omniencompassing perspective, I am allowed to observe his wiggling in his every appearance. The tone of the background music and the prevalence of relaxed, conversing couples and sunsets in the scenes suggest romanticism is the montage’s theme, but for me, it is the bald man’s feet — I am too busy conversing with my two friends, across the divide, in this world, to listen to any of what is said. Considering that YouTube collects the dimensional data regarding where the user looks, and for how long, I make an effort to bend my neck up and down in extremes, and notice a patch of washed-out sky, distorting in the distance, and ponder what — if anything — we have gained in this technology.

VR Vertical

Does an increase in the raw amount of visual data available to the viewer actually make motion picture storytelling more effective? In the few minutes of my VR taste test, I did gain quite a bit of volition over an equivalent 2D experience, but it didn’t seem like I’d instinctively used it to gain much else. If one is specifically interested in the shrubbery around a racetrack, or the more nuanced undulations of a Viking’s foot, they can more likely than not find a standard video on the World Wide Web that would more efficiently entertain them. In specific situations, of course, a producer can undoubtedly benefit by the ability to capture in 360 degrees, but — in any sort of cinema, especially — it seems unnecessarily sacrificial to relinquish entirely the narrative directorial control of shot framing to their audience. However, I am the antiexpert on this subject, obviously. My take on the viability of VR is Virtually Redundant and — quite possibly — very wrong, but my time in its hell is not over yet.

Isiah explains that it is time for me to game, and asks if I’d like to try “the one with the hands, or the one with the gun.” As always, I choose the firearm, as the “hands” have not been found yet and the hypothetical image immediately offered up by my imagination is of rusty iron shackles. The Infinite Blackness has returned, and I cannot see beyond it to determine what my host is up to. Then, it becomes outer space — filling with thousands of starlike white dots. The light-blue outline of a virtual PlayStation controller appears where I assume him to be, unattached and bumbling about. Soon, it jaggedly approaches, and I feel him hand it to me. We have started its calibration process, which becomes a bit frightening in my celestial surroundings, though at least I have now gained participatory power over my new existence. I’d opted out of wearing headphones, so the assistant’s malignant-sounding female British voice comes softly from the television somewhere in front of me as I point the beam of light the controller’s representation is now projecting straight forward at the navigational arrows displayed ahead and pull “the trigger” (R2.)

I am pleased by the idea of interfacing with software exclusively by shooting it repeatedly before I am abruptly contained in a cage, now being projected by a virtualization of the system’s sensor, which is unsettling. I am now calibrating the hardware contained within the physical device that captures the position of my body in the physical world. I catch the word “confinement” in the assistant’s unending, otherwise-inaudible directions, and quicken my pace. When it’s all done, I return the controller to Isiah, who reboots the PS4, itself, before launching Farpoint. My space becomes a lighter blue and fills with little opaque bits of Sony Dust for a minute or two. Isiah continues his rummaging for another peripheral as the title’s introduction begins to play.

Two rather poorly-animated astronauts are co-hosting a live broadcast from their craft, which is presented in a dramatization of a computer display. They’ve just met, but they’re both stacked with academia, co-massaging their knowledge, which I choose not to listen to. Out of view, Isiah unsuccessfully attempts to skip the whole thing before I’m allowed to become virtual again — this time, atop the animated body of another astronaut in a lone shuttle, approaching the mothership where it holds, next to a large, very-Star Trek “anomaly.” From Deep Space Nine, the two scientists continue to bicker over comms as I look around the cockpit. Looking backwards has already become a favorite habit of mine — I wonder where the shuttle’s bathroom is. For whatever reason, the back of my character’s neck was animated, though it can only be seen by looking rearwards and down, which distorts its shape into something truly terrifying.

A bunch of unrelated plot follows, leading me to end up on a foreign world, exiting my crashed escape pod. By now, Isiah has connected The Gun, but something about it isn’t quite right — my character holds it in a glitched, very uncomfortable-looking manner, and it’s suspected that a fix would require a restart, and therefore — a replay of the introductory cutscene — so I retire out of lack of patience.

If I were confidently reviewing PlayStation VR as a consumer purchase, I’d cite a quote of Isiah’s: “I couldn’t find the thing.” In addition to my first drone sighting, a few days ago in Colorado, this lost virtual virginity is not necessarily unwelcome — I feel as though I’ve acquired a platform to better ponder the dystopia to which these and their like industries add a certain comic spice. That said, I cannot imagine a reason to once again enter the digital realm — and who cares?

Please enjoy your new worlds, kids.

#spectacle #tech #gaming #portland

by David Blue

Mastobird

Eugen Rochko has spent this year perfecting federated social media in Mastodon – his open source project. We spoke to him just hours before it became a global tech conversation.

The saga of Twitter, Inc. has been rejuvenated in 2017 by Tump's antics, corporate drama, and an amalgam of user and non-user disquiet with its decisions, though its financial viability has been in prominent industry conversation for half a decade. Since its pre-2010 outset, many 'a' feature has accumulated on its original, still-iconic skeletal software, and – though the net is undoubtedly positive – a few have gone.

Last Thursday, the company revised in bravado its poultrian default profile picture and its system of replies to exclude @s on all of Twitter's proprietary services, drastically changing two of its visual mainstays, and prodding a particularly lucent cacophony. Turn your ear, and you'll hear many familiar terms in the chants: limits, chains, strings, harassment, feedback, gamergate, nazis, etc.

These conversations are important, but they've gotten awfully stale.

If you listen a bit more carefully, you'll intercept a new one:

Mastodon.

It's the open source brainchild of Eugen Rochko, who's known colloquially as Gargron.

He's had one hell of a week.

Between the night of our first emails and our conversation, his flagship mastadon.social instance had doubled in users. Less than two hours after we said our goodbyes, his name was on The Verge's front page.

Despite the urgency of it all, he graciously lent me his time just after breakfast on Tuesday to discuss himself and the story behind the project, while the most significant day of his life was building around him.

“I'm perfectly fine with being called Eugene by Americans.”

Though the ink's still fresh on his compsci diploma, he's clearly prepared for the American press.


What's the story behind the project? Do you remember the specific moment when you decided to do this?

Many years ago, I had a friend that was really into federated networks when they were a new thing. That was when identi.ca was first created – at the very beginning of my developer knowledge and career.

A good portion of the stories written so far on his platform have framed it as an alternative to Twitter, which early Masto adopters refer to as “Hellbird,” or “the bird website.” Eugen isn't afraid to acknowledge his investment in the format.

I was a heavy Twitter user and I wasn't happy with where Twitter was going, so I decided to check on how the federated stuff was doing in the meantime. I found it in a very sad state, but thought I could contribute.

He began building on his own, with Tweetdeck's standard in mind.

I thought 'if I'm going to do something, it needs to have realtime updates and it needs to have columns.' I started with a bare-bones prototype while still [at University] in May or April of last year. It had no user interface, only an API that I was using from the command line. And I thought 'okay, it works. that's great.' Then, exams came.

Academics had to come before the project at first, but it soon supplied an ample post-graduation diversion. He focused his energy on building something more complete and eventually launched a Patreon page.

I announced it on HackerNews, and that was the first public release of the project. That's when I got my first users who weren't my friends, and some who were new to federated networks.

That was just over 100 days ago, and it gave way to his first feedback.

I started working on the first feature requests, shaping the project a bit differently. People were a lot more focused on privacy features than I thought they would be, although in retrospect, it makes sense. The previous [federated] project – GNU social – did not really have a focus on privacy features, or anything built in by default.

It compelled him to change things, and his work was well received.

Over time, I kept working on new features, and waves of new users came when it went viral in certain circles. The first was HackerNews and Product Hunt. Aral Balkan – a Twitter user with over 30,000 followers – picked up the project, gave it a shout out, and even did a giveaway of his app. He had a lot of followers from Holland; the Mastodon timelines became mostly Dutch.

Next was Marxist anime Twitter (including Extratone and I.)

Lots of furries; lots of LGBT people. That's when I really focused on privacy features and making sure all blocks worked because these individuals needed a safer platform than Twitter could offer.

Sidekick dashboard background processing jobs as of Tuesday morning.

Sidekick dashboard background processing jobs as of Tuesday morning.

“As you can see, the first bump is HackerNews, the second is Aral Balkan, and then anime/Marxist Twitter.”

And the last – now a bit out of date – is this week's spike, which is nearly double all previous waves.

Are you responsible for all of the code?

You can look at the GitHub page to see a specific breakdown of who contributed and how many lines of code, each. You'll see I'm at the top by a large margin, but there are [additional] people who've contributed interesting, good features & fixes, localizations, user guides, and documentation.

What's the story behind the name?

It's not particularly interesting. I'm a progressive metal fan, and I listen to Mastodon sometimes. They have a really cool name that refers to a really cool animal. It's a fluffy elephant! What's not to love?

It's also the inspiration for Mastodon's mascot, which was penned by Rochko's YouTuber friend Dopatwo after he realized how urgently he required an error page.

What does “federated” mean to you?

The biggest problem with this term is that it's new for lots of people. People who've come across federated networks in the pastinstantly understand what it means and how it works, and people who are new to the concept have a lot of trouble before it clicks. But when Twitter first started, people didn't understand what 'retweeting' meant, so it's not a unique problem domain.

I don't know where it comes from – maybe BitTorrent – but people seem to think that when something is 'decentralized,' everybody gets the same thing; that it's all synchronized one to one. In actuality, 'federated' means that people in different instances can talk to each other, but the content is different depending on the users there, what they do, and who they follow.

Though instances are infrastructurally independent, they can communicate with one another. On a user level, timelines are still determined by who you do and do not follow across the entirety of all instances.

What if Twitter comes to you in the near future with a job offer?

[Rochko laughs.] If it was any other company, I would think about it. A job is a staple source of income, and – depending on the company – could involve doing something important, but I have zero faith in Twitter.

Does this all mean that I finally get to live out my serif Twitter dream?

Yes, I suppose on your own instance, you could change the stylesheet...

So if I set up my own instance and started charging for its use, I'd be in the clear, legally?

Yes, that's okay. The code is licensed under AGPL version three, which I picked because other projects in the same space are using it. The difference between AGPL and GPL is that [the former] forces you to contribute back to the appstream code repository if you make any breaking changes.

For example, Eugen explained that WhatsApp originally used XMPP for its chat protocol, which meant that Facebook and Google Talk users could connect to it, too. However, the company progressively locked down the platform over time, leaving virtually nothing visible that was unique to XMPP in its current iteration.

To prevent somebody taking Mastodon code, placing it behind locks, and stripping out the federation part to make Twitter II, I'm using this license.

The thing to remember about free software is that 'free' means freedom of the user, not that it's zero cost. It's perfectly fine to charge for free software because developers need to live, too.

I've seen a lot of multilingual 'tooting' these past few weeks. Can we expect an in-app translate function like Twitter's on Mastodon?

I don't think I could put in a 'translate this toot' button because APIs from Google and Bing are quite expensive at scale. I'm not 100% promising this, but I can probably put something in where people can select which language they post in, and then just filter the timelines. That would at least solve the problem of being confronted with lots of French posts, without knowing any French.

The only complaint about Twitter I remember that hasn't already been addressed here is the capability of editable 'toots.' Is that a possibility?

That won't happen. There's actually a good reason why they don't do that. It's simply because you could make a toot about one thing, have people favorite it and share it, link it from other places, and then suddenly, it says 'Heil Hitler,' or something.

Mastotile

It's a bit preposterous to continue the conversation as if Twitter and Mastodon are interchangeable entities. They exist in separate ideological and mechanical spheres, and will both continue to do so for a very long time.

That said, the fundamental user interface design and current cross-community user saturation do warrant comparisons between their functions. More likely than not, you'll create a Mastodon account because a link found you on Twitter, use it because you prefer its type of ecosystem, and you'll stay after realizing that nearly all of your age-old qualms have been addressed, if not already rectified. While FOSS and Federated may seem at times like jejune ideologies, their advantages are especially tangible in this context. Should you find yourself needing to complain about something, you'll find an audience. Perhaps it'll be your command line.

It's nothing but negligent to describe Mastodon as an alternative or clone.

It's more like Twitter's son.

It's leaner, quicker-to-change, much more flexible & democratized, and less corrupt. Though I didn't ask its creator what he intended to gain from all his effort, I think his commitment itself denotes a preoccupation with progress. Those of you who've been let down by the tools you've been given to control your words' exposure will find startling competence in your ability to determine per-toot privacy, or reserve your raucous photos and terrible memes from followers who are not necessarily complicit consumers. Naturally, it's also much less dependable, though a single instance outage will never leave you truly, completely silent. And the support will come.

It's been a privilege to be observer and participant in the first lightening of a new online community. In the moment, we enjoy our lavender haze -when the spaces are filling primarily with users who are sincerely interested enough in discourse to have sought it out.

Sarah Jeong's account of her Twitter exile is a good, long read if you're craving more specifics, and Eugen's Medium offers a more complete explanation of federation and its place in the industry, straight from the source. Apparently, he's just as articulate with words as he is with code.

If I had to hazard a guess, I'd bet it's not the last we'll hear from him.

#software

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