Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Let The Dominoes Fall: The Great, Underrated Audio Masterpiece of the '00s

Excuse me for having a bit of a complicated relationship with the punk-rock band Rancid. They made some of the catchiest and best pop-punk anthems of the '90s and were miles ahead of their contemporaries (Green Day and The Offspring specifically) in terms of songwriting, passion and, you know, musicianship. I still think that the first ten or so songs of ...And Out Come The Wolves amount to one of the strongest halves of an album released during my lifetime, and once you start with it it's tough to stop (well, at least until "Old Friend" kicks in and lets us know that the party is breaking up, and it's time to go get our coats from Matt Freeman's bedroom). What's more, unlike a lot of punk bands led by dudes from the suburbs, Rancid actually speaks with some authority when it comes to talking about squalor and oppression, since the core of the group is three white guys from Oakland who were, um, not well off. These are guys who actually have something to say about this stuff, and deserve to be heard.

The problem with Rancid is often that while they obviously demand more attention than, say, blink-182, I don't think they've ever quite come together in the way they wanted to, or needed to. Rancid is easily able to have fun and write unstoppably catchy, well-written songs, as hit singles like "Ruby Soho" can attest to. They can also be politically astute and passionate in the classic left-wing punk tradition*. Their problem has been the lack of synthesis between these two objectives. I consider the band's first two albums to be mostly a warm-up, and ...Wolves, their third full-length, features political content, though much of it is fairly shallow when you think about it. "Roots Radicals" is the most political song on the album, but its political content is mostly invoking the names of other radicals and signaling solidarity with them. Life Won't Wait, the follow-up, is much more political and deliberately tries to evoke comparisons with The Clash's London Calling, but the songs don't quite take off as much as on the previous album. The exception is the title track, which gloriously melds island reggae and punk energy in the service of a blistering social justice message:

This is, unfortunately, the exception on the album. It generally sounds good, but its best moments are the least political, like the old-school punker "Leicester Square" and "Who Would've Thought", a surprisingly adept love ballad that evokes The Ramones' "Baby, I Love You" as an unlikely but delightful melodic surprise. One should never trivialize the difficulty of writing a good song in either of these styles--unless you've written a bunch of hits yourself--but much of Life Won't Wait is an attempt to try to meld social consciousness with verve and fun, and it doesn't quite all come together the way it should have. It's hardly a bad album, but not the masterpiece that "Life Won't Wait" pointed to.

In any event, the next three Rancid albums smacked of flailing. The next album was the self-titled Rancid and found the band moving in a hardcore direction, and was followed up by the groove-and-hangout vibe of Indestructible and the clearing-out-the-cabinets B-Sides And C-Sides. Indestructible was released six years before they'd come out with Let The Dominoes Fall, during which point people seem to have moved on from Rancid entirely. After nearly a decade of flailing to define themselves (or even put out new content at all) I can hardly blame them. So little of an event did the band's most recent release make that my Rancid-loving friends hardly mentioned it, and perhaps didn't even bother to purchase it. Dominoes opened to lukewarm reviews generally, with only IGN sounding particularly favorable:
With punk now more than ever a fashion statement keeping the likes of retail shops such as Hot Topic afloat, it's refreshing to see seasoned vets like Rancid back on the scene to show the new kids how it's done. Rather than merely resting on its considerable laurels, the band continues to cross boundaries, genres and scenes, all while retaining its punk core. Let The Dominoes Fall is full testament to that.
I think this is right, but it doesn't go far enough. I've listened to the album five times now, and every time I become more convinced that the album is a real breakthrough for Rancid, and a bona fide masterpiece that perfectly captures the full flavor of the present time. Rancid leaves a lot of stuff off the table here--the fixation on their place in punk and the obsession with copying The Clash particularly--and instead makes an album that's mostly about how they're feeling these days. That might not sound like much, but it is not only their most authentic record (not just an "authentic" record, whatever that means to audiophiles) and it's the most urgent and compelling thing they've ever done.

Things get started with "East Bay Night", very much a hard-charging (but very, very fun!) Rancid tune in the classic fashion. It hints at the album being another Indestructible, though that turns out to be a complete head-fake. It is meant to lull you in for the kill:

The big show-stoppers here are "New Orleans", which songwriters should study as the way to make a song about a traumatic disaster without overplaying it. No angry tirades, just telling details ("a scar across her velvet face") and an undertone of sadness that still manages to rock.

Then there's "Civilian Ways", which is the emotional center of the record. It's basically about a soldier trying to fit back into civilian life after coming back from fighting overseas, which might not be a completely original idea for a story, but it's executed well here. The band goes for an unusual for them mandolin- and drum-centric arrangement, and imbues the song with a pathos that goes beyond politics. We are living in a time when America is still fighting wars overseas that everyone who doesn't watch Fox News regrets as mistakes and that most people (myself included, regrettably) rarely think about. But Rancid thinks about them, and "Civilian Ways" is as straightforward and honest an attempt to come to grips with our state of affairs as you're likely to hear:

This is followed up with "The Bravest Kids", which continues in much the same vein, with Tim Armstrong offering a tribute to the titular kids, the ones who went over there to fight.

Much of the rest of the album is an attempt to grapple with our post-Bush, post-financial crash country. "This Place" mourns corporate power, Armstrong feels "Disconnected" from the country he loves, and "I Ain't Worried" gets the gold prize for irony. Plus, there's "Let The Dominoes Fall", the title track, where Armstrong sighs about his political alienation and the lack of accountability of people in power, which is reprised in "That's Just The Way It Is Now". For a group that has prided itself on being more progressive than your average band, it's surprising just how keyed into the current mindset Rancid gets here. There's no talk about revolution or radicalism, but that actually makes the actual radicalism of the record stand out. And though the album is despairing at times, there are hints of optimism too. This isn't a giving up record, it's a "we lost this one, but we'll be back" record, and it's one that happens to be a nice exponent of left-wing patriotism, which to Rancid means a hell of a lot more than flags and car magnets. The album ends with "The Highway", a subdued song about how making music can ease tensions and provide joy, which seems almost necessary after going through the darkness of our present situation. And then there's the structure of the album, nineteen tracks that cumulatively clock in at about 46 minutes, which means that the average song is a bit over two minutes. Not that unusual for punk rock, but it really works well on this album, since each song constitutes one coherent thought or emotional fragment that speaks to the album's themes. It plays to their strengths, as the group is easily able to find lots of exciting music to put them all too, and it manages to be varied without feeling like a self-conscious attempt to ape the variety of The Clash. What's more, the album sustains its power and listenability the whole way through, and doesn't peter out like some Rancid albums I know. Desperation suits Rancid just fine, and the introduction of real stakes to the proceedings seems to have focused the group as never before. Not that it's all serious: "Skull City" is something of a love song, and "LA River" features bassist Matt Freeman on vocals (as do a few other songs on the album), something of an odd choice that actually fits the record quite nicely. (The only Rancid member missing in action on vocals: new drummer Brenden Steineckert.)

At some point, I'm going to have to stop gushing about the record. It's a masterpiece, with strong lyrics and a great cumulative power that speaks to a lot of things people are working out right now. The irony is in that by not trying to be The Clash, they've put out their Clash-iest record yet: the pointing out of problems coupled with the vulnerability of not being able to fix them is something that American punk doesn't often do (Because what social problem can withstand a blistering punk rant, of course?), but it is quintessentially British. The Clash wrote songs about Britain's problems of the time with urgency, as Rancid does here, but both bands get at anger and frustration that surpass the immediate time and place that incite them. And the image of Rancid that comes through here is one that represents their ambitions fulfilled: a band that can channel the friction and dark energy of society into music, and make the sound of that music accessible, fun, and weighty. The modest, even self-effacing Rancid that made this album is completely different from the Rancid that once blabbed about revolution: they've discovered that the world is a serious place, that behind the abstractions of banksters and politicians are real people who will suffer, and that it's okay to feel as if you can't do it all alone. In other words, with Let The Dominoes Fall, Rancid has finally grown up.


*The most prevalent tradition, anyway. You have your fascist punks and nihilist punks too (Sex Pistols being an example of the latter).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Reconsidering the controversial fifth season of The Wire

I recently decided to revisit the most acclaimed television show of all time, The Wire, because...well, do I need a reason? It's a brilliant show, albeit not the uniform paragon of amazingness that some critics suggest it is. I'd argue that the show's third and fourth seasons are virtually perfect and constitute some of the finest television ever made, while the other three seasons fall short by varying degrees. Of course, all five seasons are extremely high up there in terms of quality--even the weakest season (that'd be number two, with the docks) is classic television, filled with terrific artistry, ideas and observations. Season one is a bit choppy compared to later seasons, as most first seasons usually are. The earliest episodes often include scenes that are a bit clunky--for example, the scene in which McNulty refuses to go on Daniels' raid falls flat because neither of the actors in the scene were quite comfortable with their characters yet to really go too far with it, and then there's the overwrought symbolism of D'Angelo teaching his underlings the rules of "The Game" by analogizing with a chess set--but it rights itself completely by the end of the season, and as far as character development goes, I doubt another season of television will ever match it. We are initially introduced to the characters and see only one side to them, but over the course of the season we see more and more sides in such a way that established character never quite gets broken so much as filled-in. Not only that, but almost everyone at the show has a chance to exceed expectations, though more than a few have chances to disappoint as well. The show handles character and theme so well that you might not even expect there to be a solid plot, though there certainly is. It's absolutely a classic, though with a few rough edges.

Season two marked a different direction for the show. The Wire went from being a cop show that tried to show both sides of the drug war from a variety of angles to a show trying to do something broader about life in America circa 2003. I think the show was successful at doing this, but only partly so. The plotline about the docks was interesting and engaging in a way that demonstrates the show's genius, but the show wasn't really able to balance the docks stuff with the police stuff, so the entire show was the docks that year. This was a little frustrating to people who wanted more season one-esque action and plotting. So little were the characters we met the previous year developed that you can effectively skip the second season, move onto the third, and not really miss too much that can't be quickly picked up, which is the only season that this is true of. McNulty spins his wheels, Daniels and Kima get estranged from their spouses, and we don't see too many new sides to any of our characters. The most relevant thing here is that D'Angelo gets murdered by Stringer. Now, none of this is bad or ineptly managed, so much as it's given too short shrift. As for the docks and dockworkers, they are mostly there to stand in for the beleaguered American middle/lower-middle class, which is fine enough, but the big problem here is that David Simon's anger about these issues is extremely palpable, and when Simon gets angry, he gets propagandistic. Hence the presence of Saint Frank Sobotka, the most noble union racketeer in history. The show portrays him in very favorable terms, as someone who is doing everything for other people and none for himself. He even lives in a normal, crappy house! I think the show ultimately decides that Sobotka's decision was the wrong one and had some bad consequences--dead girls, his son careening off the rails, and ultimately his own demise--but it doesn't seem like he had any other choice but to turn to crime, as the presence of a dockworker as a homeless person in the fifth season seemed to suggest. And the closing montage of season two suggests strongly that all the same stuff was going to happen with or without Sobotka, so why not try to save his union? Every season of The Wire contains a number of arguments, but in season two it all gets muddled. What are we supposed to take away from the second season? That the middle class is screwed, I suppose. This case, though powerful, is made unevenly. Sobotka's parting words about how we used to build shit in this country, but now we're just sticking our hands in everyone's pockets are actually more powerful now than they were back then, but getting there requires being the subject of a fair amount of proselytizing. I'd say it's worth it, but the concept needed a bit more playing around with to work.

Seasons three and four are the show's finest accomplishments, though they are surprisingly different in a lot of ways. Season three is a fulfillment of the show hinted at in season one--it's mostly about drugs, cops and crooks, though with a bit of political material that remains only a minor focus for the season. Fundamentally, season three is about the "Hamsterdam" experiment to tolerate the drug trade, and while the show in no uncertain terms believes that Bunny Colvin's experiment is disastrous, albeit one with a few good side effects (and, coincidentally, it is proof that the show's political viewpoint is decidedly not libertarian), the show treats Colvin as a good guy who tries something desperate with the best of intentions. Unlike Sobotka, Colvin is a real person, you have some idea of where he's coming from and you root for his experiment to be a success. Season four, conversely, is a fulfillment of the show hinted at by the second season, one that explores the city from top to bottom in an allegorical fashion, but one that achieves a much greater sense of balance among its storylines than season two did, and one that has a much greater sense of momentum. The season accurately diagnoses the problems of politics and education effectively, and it is able to turn unlikely things (like government finance) into compelling drama. There's a genius to all that, and The Wire seemed like The Clash after London Calling came out: it seemed like they could do anything. In both cases, that perception was quickly reversed upon the next release, but both cases produced flawed masterpieces that were excessive but packed with genius. Okay, I'm really done with that metaphor. Honest.

Season five is not quite as weak as season two, but it's got similar problems. Simon has often been noted as the angriest man in television, which is probably true, but while he's clearly angry at many things he's also quite good at making us feel empathetic toward people who are clearly pretty bad people, like Avon Barksdale or Stringer Bell. Every institution in The Wire seems to have its comparatively good people and its assholes. Moral comparisons are difficult--someone like D'Angelo is a killer, after all--but D'Angelo is clearly a conscientious guy who isn't comfortable with a lot of what he's been pressed into doing. The show is extremely good at manipulating empathy and showing how complicated people really are--even someone like Bill Rawls, who mostly exists to sabotage good police work and make the department look a lot more effective than it is--is a plausible character that you can identify with at times. I don't think too many other shows even try to show how complicated and contradictory human beings can be, but none are as successful. At least, none that I've seen.

In season five, though, this quality is simply not much in evidence. As in season two, Simon has found a topic that absolutely infuriates him: the state of the media. As in season two, this compromises his arguments, in many cases significantly. The newspaper plotline is clearly the season's albatross: full of unrealistic characters that are more types than people, where the internet doesn't seem to have been invented and that puts its points baldly and preachily. It's David Simon's Network. This isn't to say that all his points are wrong. Simon believes that cutbacks have significantly affected the quality of news, which is by all indications true. He believes that too many news executives care more about prestige and selling papers than saying what's really going on in the world, which seems to be true to me. He doesn't much care for big paper chains, which could be right. But all of these points are made with text (technically, with dialog), which is a problem. What's more, he adds in a fabulist character (a la Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair), which is supposed to tie in by showing that having to do "more with less" means that there's less resources/experience/will to crack down on bad reporting. But this whole story doesn't make much sense. Templeton (the fabulist) isn't able to get away with what he's doing because nobody has time to catch him. His editor is onto him from the start. He's able to get away with it because the paper's bosses are insufferable tools. Which is not really a new problem for news, I suspect, so much as it is grudge-settling for Simon himself after his forced departure from the Baltimore Sun some years ago. Simon doesn't get inside the heads of Klebanow and Whiting because he doesn't really try to. They're liars and idiots who are respectively evil and out of their depth, and no further nuance is required. The newspaper material is less of the season than I recalled, and it's not as prevalent as the port material was in season two, but it unfortunately sets an aggrieved tone for the rest of the season.

Indeed, that anger seeps into many other storylines this season. After spending several seasons hoping that McNulty would get his act together, the show has him backsliding right off the bat. Previously, the show always held that people could change, could be redeemed, with McNulty as the subject of all of this. Can McNulty straighten himself out? At first the answer seemed to be yes, and all of a sudden that is no longer the case? It's just anger, really, though those dramatic beats could have been done convincingly. Anger also in the case of Omar, who breaks his code to go after Marlo when Marlo kills his best friend. Anger in the case of Carcetti, who goes from firing a bad police commissioner for bogus stats to firing one himself for not falsifying stats in the course of less than one season. It's not that none of these character beats make sense, it's that they're all distinctly uncharitable and they're all really sudden. One can blame this on the shortened season, but I think it's just a factor of Simon's anger. That Namond, Carver and Bubbles stay on the straight-and-narrow muddles everything further. Then there is Herc, who seems to be all over the place this season. When the story requires him to be a mole for the cops, he is. When it needs him to be on Levy's side, he is. It's all rather sloppy, and while it does lead somewhere it's hardly satisfying.

It's too bad that this anger is so pervasive, because the major stories here (aside from the newspaper stuff) are actually quite good. Having McNulty and Lester fake a serial killer is a great idea, one that shows the self-righteous and self-immolating martyr sides of their personalities in new light. It's good character development, if not the sort of character development we might have hoped for. Really, it's the other side of the coin to all those sympathetic portrayals of drug dealers--we also have to see the ways in which our heroes are flawed in a way that we can't really relate to them. And then there's the Marlo stuff, which nicely shows his totalitarian impulse in some striking and shocking ways, and the brilliantly ironic ending to his arc is the perfect way to wrap up his story. Some of the final season's "reunion" moments--like Sobotka's nephew yelling at Carcetti--are really lame, while others (like seeing Randy again) are extremely effective. I suppose it makes sense that the most sturdy material of the show is the material that Simon is best able to understand and see multiple sides of, which is to say the cops/criminals material. That shines through in the fifth season, if a lot of other stuff doesn't.

Perhaps the problem isn't really anger so much as it is taking it personally. Simon is clearly angry about the drug war, but he doesn't take it personally and can view the whole thing with journalistic restraint. When it comes to the struggling middle class, or the even more struggling news industry, he can't quite find the distance to be objective. The generosity and empathy that Simon is usually able to find become scarce when things get personal. But while there are a number of problems here, I do feel like the pro's easily outweigh the cons here, and that a lot of the bellyaching really is because people didn't want to see Omar die, or McNulty fall off the wagon, instead of out of an objective view of what the show set out to do. Despite the angrier tone, the season really is a great accomplishment--perhaps not a masterpiece like its two preceding seasons, but still a show with something to say and some ability to say it. I can't say I'm sorry that season six of The Wire never happened, considering the trend here, but season five is still worth your time.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Worst Job Interview

For some reason, recently, I've been thinking about the worst job interview I've ever been on. I've been on a number of them in my day for programming positions, and the experience is usually about the same. There's usually a general portion that's similar to a garden-variety interview anywhere, and then often a part that seeks to test your technical knowledge by asking how you'd solve various technical problems. For example, you might be asked how you detect if there's a loop in a linked list of items. This stuff is usually more analytical than skills-based, and it's meant to tell if you can think like a programmer. Some companies switch this up, but most software shops do something along these lines. But few experiences in my life compare quite so negatively with an experience I had as a grad student checking up on a job prospect in San Diego, for a startup whose name I don't particularly want to mention.

Basically, the moral of this story is that I was young and stupid (and desperate to find a job after graduation). There's no other real explanation for why I endured such shabby treatment and didn't see so many obvious red flags. I'm not bitter about this experience only because it's quite obvious that these people had no idea what they were doing. Their recruitment process was amateurish to the extreme, and I generally attribute that to the ramshackle nature of the company. Most of the people I met there were nice, and the project, which was for a web-based OS, interested me. The leader seemed like a smart guy with some good ideas. I checked the interwebs and they're still around despite the economy, which doesn't bother me. In fact, I wish them luck. I'm just glad I didn't work for them.

Okay, the interview. The first sign of trouble was the itinerary. I was called out of the blue by someone from Company X (not its real name). The recruiting guy and I talked for a bit, and he asked some basic questions about projects I'd been on, languages I'd used, and so on. Evidently it went well enough for him to invite me to a proper interview over at the company's headquarters in San Diego. I thought this was really cool. In fact, my excitement was somehow not moved by the little fact that the plane left from SLO Airport at 5:15 AM. Now, that's early. But it meant I had to get up at around 3:00 AM, since I was living about 20 miles away from SLO at the time, in Atascadero. I'm not a morning person under the best of circumstances, but waking up at 3:00? Before an all-day job interview? I should have made an issue of it. I didn't know better then, I guess. I figured that this new company was cash-strapped and wanted to avoid having to pay for a hotel room for me, but I was really being set up to fail from the start.

But I went ahead with the plan. Got ready, drove really fast to SLO Airport. I actually rather enjoyed driving there at 4:00 AM, despite the tiredness. I encountered literally not one car on the 45-or-so minute drive, and I got to pretty much set my own speed limit. Quite a bit like Montana in many ways. I got there with not too much time to spare, paid for my parking for the day in advance (SLO has a weird system), and got on my plane to Los Angeles Airport. Yes, little SLO Airport doesn't do direct to San Diego. It felt a little silly to connect through LA to San Diego, but it wasn't that big a deal. I arrived at San Diego at around 8:00 or so. Needless to say there wasn't a car waiting for me. Needless to say the recruiting guy didn't even bother to tell me how I was to get there. I had an address, at least. Took a cab to the place. I was there an hour early, so instead of going in I just walked around San Diego for a while. I really liked what I saw. Every city has certain rhythms that are just embedded in its DNA, as well as its own look and feel. I really liked what I saw of San Diego, which put me in a good mood for the day. In retrospect, it would have been better if it had been a terrible, rainy, ugly day to put me in a skeptical mood, but it's San Diego! They never get those. I liked San Diego more than any city I'd been to since New Orleans. I was actually easily able to visualize myself there fairly easily, despite my non-partying ways. My impression was that it's a city full of outsiders, which is something I can definitely relate to.

I arrived at Company X's headquarters at the specified time. Met the recruiting guy. The first hour or two involved a tour of the facilities and meeting some people there. Not too much interesting here, though the tour guide had a tendency of talking up things as being more impressive than they were. It wasn't like she was talking about how awesome it was that they finally got flatscreen monitors or anything, but sort of in that vein. It just looked like a typical software shop to me. After all that, I listened to the bossman talk about their project. As I stated before, this was fairly interesting. He talked numbers and it certainly seemed like the business was growing fast. Considering how much stuff is done online now, the guy seems pretty prescient with his web-based OS (this was 2008 or so). Before lunch I did a paper exam sort of thing that was like the standard technical interview material I've described before.

Up until this point, I didn't really have much to complain about. Lunch was okay. There were, by the way, a whole batch of people interviewing with me. I seemed to be the only one from the West Coast, which was bizarre to me for some reason. Lots of people from the East Coast and the Midwest, but not really from the top schools in those regions. Lots of University of Iowa, stuff like that. I'm not being a snob here or anything, it was just curious what pool they were pulling from. And then there was me, geographically isolated. I could tell that the company people were really trying to push this thing about how work for them was a fun place to hang out, and they were really pushing that vibe, but frankly the whole thing was incredibly tedious. It's a job interview! Everybody was on edge, and the attempts to make everyone relax just put me more on edge. There were big stakes here, after all. It would have been better if they'd had an efficient, orderly process to get this done, instead of having me wait for two hours before I went on to the next phase of the interview.

And that next phase is where things started to go south. Keep in mind this was about 2:00 PM. I was already tired. I'd been up for eleven hours, with not a terribly great amount of sleep that past night. My brain was starting to shut down. My temper was starting to get a little more pronounced. I wasn't in a bad mood yet, but I was getting there. So now we were doing one-on-one interviews with their software people. Interminable waiting, as I said. They sent some people home after the written test, so I figured I was doing pretty well. I figured I'd have a quick sit-down with somebody and do a riff on the general questions about work experience, languages I know, and so forth. Most companies would do something like that. Instead, and I'm not making this up, it was an hour of lateral thinking puzzles.


Admittedly, this is a real bete noire of mine. I hate these puzzles because they usually have about fifteen different correct answers, only the "right" answer is the one the person happens to be thinking of, so ultimately it's a matter of whether you can guess what the person is thinking. This is worthless as any sort of measure of intelligence or creativity because it is not fundamentally testing my intellect. It is testing my guessing ability. This stuff might be fun as a game for junior highers but as a test of who you're going to hire? Better to know how quickly a person can learn a new programming language, or how easily they can explain what they've done on a project, or any manner of other things. Instead, we got asked questions like, "If you have two sticks that take 30 minutes to burn, but don't burn at a constant rate, how can you tell when fifteen minutes have passed?" I should have asked this dude if they write a lot of code about burning sticks, but I mostly just sat there for what felt like ten minutes (it was probably about ten minutes) stumbling, trying to get my tired brain to figure out how to burn sticks. It pissed me off quite a bit.

And the fun train didn't stop there. I got another interview after that (evidently we were supposed to have three sit-downs), and it was with this younger guy who thankfully left his Mindwarp book at home, but he asked me some questions that were so cliched and obvious that I wasn't even prepared for them. He literally asked me about overcoming an obstacle. What am I, applying for college admission*? I'm trying to get into UC San Diego or something? Who cares! He literally asked me for an instance when I thought outside the box. Outside the box! The "Where's the beef?" of tech talk. This was clearly a guy who took cliches seriously. What does that expression even mean? Does it just mean being creative? Because yes, I have been creative before. Does it mean taking an unusual approach to a problem? I'm doubtful that that's something to be celebrated in and of itself. As Michael Jackson (the software guy, not the late King of Pop) taught me, the problem with software is very often that it's needlessly messy and complicated. The virtue is finding the simplest, easiest, and best approach to a problem, not the most off-the-wall different one that nobody can even understand, not even the dude whose job it is to write it. Not only was this guy using cliches from 1998 or so in 2008, he didn't even seem to know what these questions were to mean. I froze up on the out-of-the-box one a bit because I was so tired, to my continuing shame. I wish I'd busted out something like this speech back then, but I would have been happier if I'd just left. Which I did shortly after that. Recruiting guy escorted me out, didn't say that I hadn't passed the test, but the fact that hardly anyone else was leaving was kind of a clue.

Here's the problem, though: I finished at about 2:45 or so. My plane left at 6:30. I was quite upset at what had happened and decided I just wanted to get to the airport to go home. Unfortunately, San Diego seems to be the worst place in the world to get a cab. The airport was only a fifteen minute drive from where I was, but the cab companies were not very responsive to my calls. I called one up and they said they'd have a cab over in fifteen minutes. A half hour later I called back. They said a few minutes. This happened a few times until I finally flagged one down myself. I didn't even call the jerky cab company. My mood was so bad by that point I wanted the cabbie to have wasted his time like he wasted mine. I went to the airport and thereby began the final, "adding insult to injury" phase of my journey.

Company X's goal with me was to interview me without paying for a hotel room. After all, I was sorta local. But the return flight to SLO was not as simple as the flight in. I had two connections, which essentially meant I had to catch three flights: San Diego to Phoenix, Phoenix to Vegas, and then finally Vegas to SLO, for five separate flights on the day. Estimated Time to Arrival: about six hours. So, basically, I was spending an equivalent amount of time on the plane as if I were going to New York. I didn't go into this thing very enthusiastically, knowing I'd botched the interview, angry at the inane questions. The whole thing felt like a waste of my time. But I was frankly pissed off at having to set foot in three states because the company was too damn cheap to spring for a hotel room (despite the fact that they were interviewing 30+ people from across the country and they sure as hell wasn't making them get on a plane at five in the morning). There was simply no choice at that point, though. I took the plane to Phoenix, which was fine. I have a very strong reaction to air travel--I wouldn't quite call it fear, because I'm not really that afraid that we'll randomly lose a wing or have a midair collision or something. I do have a fear of crashing, particularly into the ocean, but this is not relevant to the case at hand. I just hate air travel. I hate the police state that is the airport/airplane. I hate the cramped confines, the recycled air, the uncomfortable seats, and the rest of it. If it were a realistic option I'd absolutely take trains everywhere. I absolutely love public transportation.

As I indicated, though, leg one of The Long Journey Home was fine. It was leg two where I really began to feel it, though. For one thing, the Phoenix plane was delayed 30 minutes because we were waiting for other people to board--presumably people whose connecting flight had come in late. I wondered whether my plane in Vegas would behave similarly if I didn't make it there in the fifteen minutes I'd have once the plane landed. But even if that was at the forefront of my mind, I was frequently unable to concentrate, thanks to the baby who cried for every one of the 53 minutes of our flight. I felt myself getting sick (and I did indeed get sick shortly after the trip). Finally, we touched down in Vegas, and I literally ran across the entire airport in ten minutes to make my flight back to SLO. To borrow from Kelly McGillis, by this point my body was writing checks that it just couldn't cash. I made it to the SLO plane feeling like absolute garbage. Of course, the 30 minute wait until our turn to take off made me concerned about whether we would arrive before my car was towed away. I had prepaid the parking for just that day, you might recall. I tried to sleep but I was feeling a bit feverish. My brain wouldn't turn off. I tried to concentrate on the clouds to take my mind off of that day. At least when I arrived my car was still there. I don't remember anything about the drive back. I slept until late afternoon that day, which was lucky, since I only had a 5:00 class on Wednesday. Ah, the life of a grad student. How I do miss it.

And that's pretty much it. I got a call in a few days saying that I wouldn't be getting a job offer. I was less than broken up about it. And my anger subsided when I got a pretty good offer from the company I'm working for now. But this was such an epically bad experience--really, one for the ages--that I no longer felt like keeping it to myself. Hope you enjoyed it.

* For the record, I have never written an honest answer to any of the following questions for college applications: How did I overcome an obstacle? How did I rise above adversity? What was a difficult experience and how did I deal with it? Partly because the truth would be blunt and uncomfortable (i.e. for the first one, "I'm a straight white boy from the suburbs. I have been faced with zero obstacles. Please pick me for your school and help me dodge another one."), but also because I simply don't like this idea of using essays like this as shorthand for character. Having a stable upbringing isn't really a handicap, and while overcoming obstacles is admirable and definitely shows character, it's not the only way to acquire it. Of course, I wound up going to Cal Poly, the one school I applied to that seemingly had no interest in biography, so it was all beside the point.

Monday, April 5, 2010

In which the economy's heavy hand is stayed, at least for a time

I've never been a big fan of golf, despite my father's best efforts. He's always tried to get me into the game, but I've never really seen the appeal. I do like that it doesn't really require special clothing and that it usually takes place in very nice-looking locales, but I don't care for the pace, which is sluggish at best and absolutely intolerable at worst (i.e., when you're behind a slow group), I don't like the lugging of equipment (carts being verboten as somehow a negation of the whole thing as a "sport") and ultimately I can think of better ways to spend six hours. And being outside for that long is often unpleasant for me. When's the weather ever right for golf? In the Summer it's too hot to play, in the Fall it's too windy and chilly, Winter is deeply unpleasant, which I guess just leaves Spring, at least when it's not raining. My guess is that there are only about five or so weeks that are fit for playing a year. The only real reason to play is for the camaraderie, which is admittedly nice, though achievable via other means.

In any event, my dad and I were driving past the old course we used to go to in Roseville, Indian Creek. Which is something of a dump and long has been. There's more weeds than grass, it's only nine holes, barely raked sand traps, etc. My dad dubbed it "Billygoat Acres", which has sort of stuck, and while we have some fond memories of the place (and more than a little nostalgia), I don't really think we'll miss it, since it's been some years since we've gone there. Still, it's been there for who knows how many decades, a beacon of semi-rural continuity, manifested in the form of mediocre golf.

Anyway, The Goat (as it can be called) was sold a while ago to a developer in order to build new homes, which makes sense. You very rarely see new golf courses opened these days in California because they almost never make their money back. The only profitable ones are the ones where some guy bought 100 acres of land back in 1936 or so, when land in California was dirt cheap (pardon my pun) and set up a course. Now, land is just too expensive. California's housing market has been exploding for decades (before imploding a few years ago), land has become expensive, and when it comes to building a big new golf course, the numbers just don't add up. It's unsurprising that some golf course owners are considering dumping the land off to developers to build houses on--golf courses are usually in the nicer parts of town, and the land itself is usually very lovely. It's basic economics.

Except for that little housing downturn a while ago, which wound up ruining a certain developer's plans for The Goat. So, it's still there, in all its glory, and probably will be for some time to come. I have no idea if it's still operating (I sure hope so), but it survives for the time being. Knowing that makes me happy, though I'll probably never actually play another round there again.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Worst Star Trek Movie

No, it's not Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Let's just dispense with that notion once and for all. That movie was hampered by a rather terrible script, but perhaps the most criticized element of the film (i.e. William Shatner's direction) is perhaps the thing that keeps it from being completely unwatchable. Actually, Shatner managed to string together a few memorable action sequences, despite being severely restrained by a tiny budget. But the script is what's wrong here: the first act is cringe-inducing and full of "funny" bits that are just stupid, the second act is incredibly boring, and the third act shows some promise before descending into laughingly bad battles between Kirk and "God", a.k.a. George Murdoch.

Neither is the worst movie in the franchise Star Trek: The Motion Picture nor Star Trek: Nemesis. These are both worthy candidates, but they have the opposite problem of The Final Frontier, in that both have decent plots that are undone by incompetent direction. I'm not sure what effect Eurotrip auteur Stuart Baird was going for in making Nemesis, but my best guess is that he figured it would be a good opportunity to put on his best Lars von Trier impression. That never produces good results, especially when von Trier tries it out himself.

No, the worst Star Trek movie is the one preceding Nemesis, Star Trek: Insurrection. It's a bad film with an incomprehensible storyline and subpar filmmaking. But it's more important for what it represented. The film came out in 1998. In a few months, the franchise's best show since Shatner's original series, i.e. Deep Space Nine, would be over. Star Trek: Voyager would continue its journey into oblivion, followed by the even less-loved Enterprise and the positively hated Nemesis. But the evidence of the franchise's decline is easily seen in Insurrection, which in retrospect marked the beginning of the end of the Next Generation phase and necessitated a full-on reboot a decade later. Before Insurrection, Star Trek was still a viable franchise. After it, it wouldn't remain one for too long.

I think the best way to quantify the film's suckage is to explain what I understand of the film's premise to you. Apparently, at some point months before the film begins, the alien race known as the Son'a (don't worry, more ridiculous names (and apostrophes) abound in this movie) approaches the Federation with a proposal: in exchange for their permission and cooperation in removing a few hundred immigrant settlers from a planet in their space, the Son'a will share technology that will greatly increase human lifespans. This is the first problem in the film, and this (and all subsequent ones) will be footnooted1 because it will be impossible to linearly point out the problems with each one and maintain any sort of narrative cohesion. Anyway, the Federation Council agrees to this idea2. The plan is apparently to place all the "natives", the Ba'ku, into a cloaked3 holoship on the bottom of a nearby, easily dredgable lake4. They then send a (cloaked) survey team to extensively study the planet to make the simulation more convincing. For some reason, they decide that Lt. Commander Data of the Enterprise is essential to the mission, despite the fact that there are probably other officers that understand, um, whatever they're doing who aren't famous androids. I'm beginning to think that Starfleet's planning could use a little bit of work. What they don't do is approach the Ba'ku directly and discuss the situation, despite the fact that they seem entirely reasonable, can easily leave as they are technologically advanced, are migrants to the planet and would presumably be invited to share in the benefits of the project. After all, why should they get a fountain of youth and billions of people be unable to live longer? Evidently this prospect never occurs to the Son'a/Starfleet team, and while there's a good reason why the Son'a don't do this, there's no real reason why Starfleet Admiral Anthony Zerbe shouldn't.

So, in the course of his surveys of the area, Data finds the cloaked holoship (low tide!) and is shot by a Son'a guarding the thing5. Data goes nuts and exposes the entire cloaked operation6, 7. Anthony Zerbe, who always seems drunk in every scene but isn't because that's just how he talks, has to call Picard to save his ass8. Picard does so with the help of Gilbert & Sullivan, in the movie's only good action sequence. Picard then unravels the mystery, falls in love with a 300 year old woman who doesn't figure into the next movie, and confronts the Admiral with it.

And here's where things shift. It's true that Starfleet's shabby, stupid, oddly desperate plan is not exactly defensible. Kidnapping people to trash their planet isn't really good PR for the Federation, and it is established that the Federation does have professional politicians running it.

Like this guy

You know, the sorts of people who might sense the sorts of things that lead to bad headlines (Or blog post titles? It is the future...) Do you really think that the Federation would really like to see something like this being printed in the worlds of potential allies (which, as Picard says, are ultra-important):

The Vulcan Daily Logic Primer

Federation Caught In Kidnapping-for-Youth Scandal: Cabinet In Crisis, President Embattled, Dominion Spokesman Weyoun Comments, "I Told You So!"

This, needless to say, would be an embarrassment. But what's even more embarrassing is Picard's reaction to this situation. His plan is two-fold: the first part is to send the Enterprise to shame the Federation into dropping its plans, which is sound. But the second part is where he decides to gamble his life, his career, his ship, his crew and the lives of the 600 or so civilians on the planet, in the world's most vociferous defense of squatter's rights ever. His assumption--that Admiral Zerbe would be able to keep the admittedly murderous Son'a in check--turns out to be wrong, though it works just long enough for his plan to come together. Zerbe gets killed by head Son'a F. Murray Abraham, who in turn gets killed by Picard9, who is saved by the Enterprise returning at exactly the right moment to save him. Oh, yeah, and the Ba'ku and the Son'a are the same race, the Son'a left the planet for some reason (evidently because they didn't care for the provincial life). Now, everything's fixed, the Son'a are returning home, the end (of footnotes). And the film. Well, sorta10.

The film leaves a lot ambiguous, but the biggest question it doesn't answer is this: why should I care? The moral situation here is confused. On the one hand, it's difficult to defend the right of 600 non-indigenous people to be able to enjoy the benefits of a planet they randomly found once. On the other hand, the Ba'ku could have voluntarily left without injury if only Picard had been responsible and pressed that option. The stakes were literally 600 peoples' eternal lives. It's pretty hard to feel sorry that the Ba'ku would have to die like everyone else--including themselves, had they not found the planet. Ultimately, a big yawn.

There is more yet to be unpacked. The Son'a are presented as sick, disgusting creatures who continually need to have their faces tightened and their bodies flushed. There could have been some sharp social commentary here about vain, greedy Westerners, but it isn't developed. If anything, it's the Ba'ku who should come across as selfish, though in the end it's mostly Picard who looks like an ass because of his very questionable decisions. Admiral Zerbe is a complete cipher, and much of the movie's problems would have been solved had it just been asserted that he had gone rogue and was insane. This is not asserted--in fact, the opposite was asserted at multiple points. There is a scene where the Enterprise jettisons its warp core and blows it up, which is apparently the Star Trek Deus Ex Machina for when the ship is in great peril (see also the most recent Star Trek movie). And, finally, there's the scene where Commander Riker exerts "manual control" over the Enterprise by activating the built-in Graviton Thrustmaster joystick (circa 1998), which basically implies that those shitloads of buttons, screens, and panels needed to control the Enterprise can be supplanted by a $10 product from CompUSA.

But by far the most tragic material is the attempts to turn tongue into cheek. The film includes such lighthearted gags as having Worf break out with Klingon acne, reuniting Troi and Riker in some of the most ridiculous romantic scenes in Star Trek history (and considering that William frickin' Shatner starred in the first series, that is impressive), and infamously having several jokes about how certain crew members' boobs were firming up. Aside from this sort of thing being the sign that a franchise is about to be laid way low (Superman III is a further example of this trend), it forgets a central fact of the series: that, deep down, Star Trek is really cheesy. But it's also about very serious things. Winking at the audience does not solve this contradiction--indeed, it heightens it. Ever since the beginning of Star Trek, the series has been almost comically self-serious for a reason: without conviction in the product (and its message), Star Trek would never have been popular and would have been completely unloved and dismissible. It's one thing for a movie like Army of Darkness to be tongue-in-cheek, as the movie isn't really about anything aside from fun and silliness. Star Trek isn't The Evil Dead. It's Star Trek. And there are only so many ways to convince people that you're serious about what you're saying, none of which work if you're constantly winking at the audience.

Make no doubt about it, Star Trek: Insurrection was more than just a bad film. It's a bad dream, a nightmare from which Star Trek tried to awake, before they had to blow it up and start over again. It hits many of the correct Star Trek notes but those notes never turn into a symphony, and it mostly shows that the passionate moral stances of the Roddenberry Era of Star Trek had long since calcified into slogans and dogma by the time Rick Berman and Mike Piller hashed out the story for this turkey. Berman is often accused of killing Star Trek, and not without justice. But it wasn't because his reign over Voyager resulted in a bad show with a dull cast that became overdependent on the two developed characters portrayed by people who could act, nor was it because Enterprise wasn't all it should have been. In the end, it was because Roddenberry's heir never really understood: he never understood why people liked Star Trek, and he never understood what made for a good television show (or movie). Now practically everyone versed in such things loathes Berman for his failures, but watching Insurrection only makes the story of his downfall seem tragically inevitable11.

  1. The Son'a apparently do this despite demonstrating extreme loathing for the Federation and being perfectly willing to destroy ships, kill an admiral, murder civilians, etc., to achieve their goals. Additionally, the planet is in the "Briar Patch" which sensors cannot penetrate, and seems to be totally isolated and remote. Considering Starfleet's distracting war with the Dominion, one would figure they wouldn't bother with Starfleet and do their business on their own.
  2. The Federation is always presented as an ethical and competent organizational body, sometimes excessively so. Evidently they think that either (a) kidnapping a bunch of people won't ever pose any political problems, or (b) that people won't care if they get to live a little longer. Because the clear problem in the Next Generation universe is that lifespans are too short.

    This also factors into the film's most ridiculous moment, in which F. Murray Abraham tries to buck up Admiral Zerbe's resistance by insisting that the Federation "is old" and needs what he's peddling. That Zerbe didn't burst into laughter after hearing it just shows how far gone the writers were. The Federation was fighting A FRICKIN' WAR! They need to worry about the people dying from combat duty, not from old age after 147 years.
  3. Evidently the Federation has beaucoup cloaking devices now. According to Deep Space Nine, they only had one, on board the Defiant. But it's much better to put it on a holoship than one of those ships fighting Starfleet's war (which is mentioned as the reason why the Federation is teaming up with the Son'a). It had only been a year and a half of war when the movie was set. It's not like they couldn't have used it.
  4. Why isn't it in space? For some reason, you can easily see it in the water.
  5. Again, you put the thing in space, and there's no need to guard it. The holoship plan is actually a pretty crappy one, as the damn thing never works at any point in the movie, despite the small problem that the holodecks in Star Trek never malfunction. Oh, wait...you're trusting in the infallibility of Star Trek's least reliable technology? This begs the question of what the Federation was going to do with the holoship. After all, when they're not on the planet, they're going to realize they're aging normally. And why did it need to be cloaked? They were trying to fool the people inside of it, not outside of it. Where were they going to keep the ship? Were they going to land it in Warehouse 13?
  6. You'd almost forget that it was often established that the Federation didn't have cloaking technology and that, outside of the Defiant, was pledged not to use or develop any.
  7. Okay, so even if you don't want to tell the Ba'ku you want to use their planet, why secretly spy on them? Why not just ask their permission to conduct a survey of their planet? They are presented as being very reasonable people in the movie. Why wouldn't they have said yes? They aren't presented as xenophobic.
  8. Evidently the Son'a ships that nearly destroy the Enterprise in the movie aren't able to take down a small scout ship piloted by Data. This, of course, is forgotten by the film's climax.
  9. After a gambit using the holoship Picard knew was defective. Nobody in this movie behaves particularly intelligently.
  10. Okay, so at the end of the movie they leave the planet in the Enterprise. Everyone's happy, the planet's been saved, yadda yadda yadda. The final shot is of the Enterprise leaving orbit. I guess this was done in order to make for a cool final shot or something, but it (fittingly) ends the movie in a fit of illogic. Where are they going? They don't have warp drive, at sublight speeds it's going to take them thousands of years to get back to Earth. What are they doing? What's going on? Did George Lucas help with the script this time, instead of just the special effects, as in the previous few Trek films?
  11. Other things the Star Trek people could have made a movie about, that would have been better than fountains of youth and F. Murray Abraham bleeding from the forehead:

    • The Dominion War

    • The Mirror Universe

    • Q

    • The Preservers

    • Nagilum

    • A DS9 crossover

    • A Voyager crossover (perhaps tough to do and leave the status quo ante, and it would likely have sucked, but still)

    • Reanimating Captain Kirk (Shatner sure as shit would have been game--the guy wrote several books about this possibility!)

    • Time travel

    • Space travel

    • Airplane travel

    • Airplane food

    Okay, even a remake of Andy Warhol's movie about paint drying would have been better than this thing.