DISCOVERY magazine has a small piece at the end of this month’s number on zombies in the movies. For some reason, there has a spurt of these productions in the last few years.We’ve had 28 Days Later, the sequel 28 Weeks Later, the hysterical British parody Shaun of the Dead ,some video games and a TV pilot. In the Blogging Grouch’s tender youth there were quite a number of bad zombie pictures, all featuring tropical islands, sinister looking characters and at least one naive American, who blunders getting into trouble. Big stars stayed away from zombie pics, which were mostly the playground of the established second stringers. The article muses a little on the Why and Wherefore, something about identity and what makes selfhood and how we define humanity. It all got me to thinking a little, so I pecked around on some web sites and came to an astonishing result. There are hundreds of these things! In many languages! Almost every country that has a film industry, has at least one zombie movie.Most of them are just awful, even granting that zombie flic enthusiasts probably set the quality bar pretty low.Two interesting themes appear in the newer zombie pics: the zombies attack the living and try to eat them, and the cause of this behavior is some deadly but unidentified virus. In the Black and White movie days, zombies stayed around some decaying plantation,walking slowly in the moonlight and doing the bidding of various nefarious controllers all addressed in lugubrious tone as “Mah-ster”. No nightime binging on human flesh,or on anything else. Zombiedom apparently relieved one of all those bodily necessities. But Night of the Living Dead in 1968 introduced this chomping, and it’s been with us ever since. Doesn’t make much sense, if you think about it. But there you are. So what does it all mean? Who knows? This eating thing is interesting. Consuming resources? Our obsession with diet and weight, continuing after Death, even? (Talk about eternal punishment!) Our fears about a viral pandemic? I don’t want to associate Deep Thinking and zombie flics too intimately, but maybe there’s something there.
Sir Joseph Banks had a lot of good luck and a lot of bad luck. On the one hand, he was born rich, and smart, and industrious. On the bad side, he was born in an age so crowded with luminaries, with people of exceptional talent, that he got elbowed to the side while the geniuses performed. Or at least that’s the way it could seem to us. His contemporaries however were full of admiration for his abilities and very respectfull of his influence and power, which qualities came in part from having premier social status and a lot of dough, but much more because the guy loved science and worked hard, all the time. Banks was himself an enthusiatic botanist, became the director of the botanical gardens at Kew, was on friendly terms with the King, advised the Royal Navy’s directors, supported many scholars in their researches out of private means, or by securing some kind of assistance from others. And, all the time, he was writing, writing, writing. Now his scientific correspondence has been gathered, edited and published in an edition of six volumes. Banks was very proud of his three year voyage with Captain Cook in HMS Endeavour, an exploration of the Pacific: a survey of the coast of Australia, and a very close run in with a coral reef in the Great Barrier, that almost sank the ship. Life in London must have seemed pretty tame after all that, but he kept working, and may not have noticed.
The Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765-1820
edited by Neil Chambers
6 vols, Pickering & Chatto , Â£595
We have to do something about energy conservation. No, really. WE that’s all of us. And every little bit helps. So, along come some bright people at a company called BLACKLE,who are pitching an interesting idea: make computer montor screens black. It takes more energy to maintain a white screen than a dark one. The white screen I guess is there to mimic the white page of printed matter on which letters or figures or pictures are displayed. Twas not always so. There was a time when monitor screens were green, or greenish or amber. So, a screen of a different color is not an innovation, in the strict sense, but more of a return to previous standards. I tried it a little, and the white lettering against the black background seemed comfortable and easy to read. See what you think:
RB’ stories and tales were often adapted to film and television, with varying degrees of success. I think the best and probably the most lasting was the 1966 movie version of his novel Fahrenheit 451, starring Oskar Werner as the moody, troubled fireman Montag, living in a future society that values calm and conformity above all. Books only upset people and make them unhappy. So the “firemen” must burn books whenever they are discovered, and the title is a play on the ignition point of paper. Poor Montag begins to get curious about the books, starts hiding them, and worse, reading them. Sure enough, they make him unhappy or unhappier, since he had already been wrestling with a feeling that something off kilter in his life. A heart-stopping Julie Christie played a double role as the vapid Linda, Montag’s wife, who passes her days in front of a giant TV screeen, as do most of the citizens in Dystopia, and as the secret reader and rebel Clarisse. Francois Truffaut directed. Cyril Cusack steals every scene he’s in, as the Fire Captain, whose fanaticism is just barely on the chain. It’s all dreamlike, slow, and really, really creepy, especially when you think about how close we have come to the kind of society the film depicts. The latest insult for me was those big screens in Walmart, with happy,smiling faces talking about enemas or shampoo or green beans. Screens everyplace!
One of the deans of American SciFi turned 87 yesterday. Ray Bradbury has been writing for many, many years, and continues to do so despite limitations following a stroke he suffered some years ago. The NYTimes featured an interview with him, noting that two novellas he had long been working are about to be published. Somewhere a Band is Playing and Leviathan will join Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine and his many other works of speculative fiction, a term I at least encountered for the first time the Publishers Weekly review posted on the AMAZON web site. I prefer to think of him as a writer of the wondrously weird, and let it go at that. He lives in LA, so material for the wondrously weird should be at every hand. At least that’s what they tell me, but the two times I was there, the place seemed pretty straightforward to me. Maybe you have to know where to look. Note to self: 1. Get the new RB, and hide in the Pleasant Bower,while reading it. 2. Get some of the other RB’s and repeat.
Wikipedia, again. We all know about the free, collaborative, volunteer Volksencyclopedie. WP has an “open edit” function which allows anybody to correct, modify or even remove articles written by other people. This was supposed to be a great strength, allowing experts to improve the quality of contributions. But, pretty soon, the Dark Side emerged as lots of readers changed articles on a lark, or out of malice, or just out of the joy of messing up something. A bright lad at Cal-Tech, Virgil Griffith, was brought to wondering by a story that members of Congress or their staff were changing WP articles, and he devised a method to check who else might be doing the same thing. Well, quite a few people in business and academia are using WP’s edit to remove material they don’t like or insert comments they feel ought to be there. His gadget, Wikipedia Scanner, allows Mr. G. to track the source of an alteration or deletion, and some of the sources turned up are enough to make for some head scratching: the CIA, the Vatican? Don’t these people have better things to do? (By the way, if the CIA is a secret agency, why do we hear so much about it? It’s the well-known secret agency). Mr. Griffith is obviously a very clever young man with a good sense of humor and a great future. But you have to ask: what was going through the minds of these people? WP has a system to monitor edits, removals and reinstatements, and they claim that most malicious editing is very quickly detected and reversed. But WP Scanner tells you the machine on which the changes were made and where it is. It’s funny, and scary at the same time. Funny, because you wonder what these guys are doing, at the CIA or the Vatican. Is there some secret Roman office monitoring Wikipedia? Hushed monsignori leaning over laptops, under some magnificent fresco by Titian or even Michelangelo? Scanner may become part of the ordinary tool chest, helping to keep everybody honest. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
At this time, the President of France is vacationing in the USA, has yelled at reporters for filming him while he motorboats around Lake Something or Other up in New England and has shared hot dogs on a picnic at the Bush family fortress in Maine. OK. More interesting to the Grouch, however, is the fact that a Frenchman and one who has long been involved in France’s cultural life, has written a book about culture in America. And, he’s impressed. In France and in other countries, what we shall generically refer to as “the arts” are supported by the State. I picked that “supported” very carefully, because how much aid, given to whom and when can vary. Over here, if you want kultsha, you have to see to it yourself, pretty much. There are some Federal and State agencies in action, but opera, music, literature, drama, painting and whatever floats your cultural boat are very much more the concern of private groups or individuals. Frederic Martel has written a book about this and has even suggested that at least some of what he has found over here could be transported to the French situation without much trouble, and that it would be a good idea if exactly that happened. He likes that municipalities, foundations, citizens groups and artists hash things out among themselves, a situation which he much prefers to one of government meddling and agenda-setting. Some wag, I guess it was Twain, said that once a year every man should take some time to think and if he couldn’t do that, at least take some time to rearrange his prejudices. I think the received view is that here in the States cultural life struggles amid NASCAR and wrestling and disaster movies, while in Europe it is richly supported and flourishes. Mais non, says M. Martel, or at least, the picture is not so simple. Contrary to the convictions of lots of left intellectuals over there, we do a lot of things very well. Hmmmm. Time to go someplace and rearrange my prejudices.
Spam is a contraction for “spiced ham”, the original meat product sent abroad in the thousands of cans to help feed American service personnel. The Hormel company makes it or derives it or whatever the right verb is. The jargon of the Internet reserves the word “spam” for messages or items of low quality or of nuisance value, and this usage seems to go back to a Monty Python skit. All this, and more besides, can be found in an absorbing piece in the New Yorker by Michael Specter who is in a fair way to becoming one of our leading spamologists. It seems the first spam message was sent in 1978, on the then rudimentary ARPAnet. The traffic has grown to a guesstimate of one hundred billion unwanted soliticitations, suggestions, offers, promotions and other insinuations zipping around the Net each day. Ah, what a piece of work is Man! First, come up with something so marvellous, and then use it use it to pitch timeshares in Bermuda, cheap auto insurance, fake drugs, porn and Darwin only knows what else. The Net staggers under the burden, and there is a valiant corps of vigilant workers who try to keep the dike in good repair, but the battle never ends. It’s a good story, and it crystalizes everybody’s everday experience:
Awhile back, in June, we talked about some efforts to redo the Internet, and focused on some work being done at Stanford to come up with “clean slate” designs for the network, which was concieved and launched with some design assumptions, such as benign users all around, that didn’t play out in the world outside the lab or the university. The Chronicle of Higher Educationfor June 29 continues in this vein by reporting on some research at Princeton which is considering the same set of problems. The NSF has launched its own project, the Global Environment for Network Innovations, or GENI. Security, reliability and mobility are important elements in the discussion and planning, as is the impact of handheld devices and the explosion in the use of information dense products such as color video. The old Internet is feeling the strain, and keeping the Old Boy going is getting to be a very expensive proposition. Maybe it’s really time to come up with something new and better.