Monthly Archives: December 2010

Tron: Reloaded

The glossy, exorbitantly priced Tron movie preview magazine was a frequent flyer in the 1982-3 edition of my school bag. Its scuffed blue and red pages, all neon, polygons and exclamation marks, spent many cycles amongst the wallpaper-wrapped exercise books and text books. I was the living embodiment of the target demographic for the film: an obsessive teen geek.

The original Tron’s CGI wouldn’t trouble the average modern smartphone but it was ground-breaking in those heady post-Falklands days. The visual design embraced and transcended the technical limitations. The neon-effect, the glow of the costumes – made using a hugely tedious and manual rotoscoping process – set the film apart. Its storyline was novel and imaginative, if not exactly plausible, and contained enough geeky references to keep me happy. A character called Bit who could only answer yes or no! A Master Control Program character, or MCP, whose name wasn’t a million nanometres away from that of a prominent OS of the day, CP/M! And Pacman, chomping away as an Easter Egg in the background!

Skip forward 28 years. CGI is ubiquitous, unnoteworthy – and undetectable in most films by most people. We’re all networked – even our mums have email – and words like modem are not the arcane terms of a malodorous minority; they’ve passed through common usage and now begin to seem antiquated and quaint. Geeks have inherited the Earth.

And along comes Tron: Legacy. How could it possibly seem as new and different as its forebear? Of course it couldn’t. But surely there could be an interesting untold story to tell: a subtle or not-so-subtle allusion to social networking, network neutrality or crowdsourcing, or at least a recognition that several billion more people have come online in those 28 years.

No. Let’s just have a bunch of set-piece chases and action scenes, per usual. Oh, and let’s do it in 3D, because it’s teh future, innit.

The film starts, ludicrously, with what I can only describe as release notes. The gist: “Yeah, well, not all of it is 3D. It’s like totes deliberate, stop your moanin or summin or nuffin.” It turns out that scenes set in meatspace are in 2D, so we spend the entire first act doing Buddy Holly impersonations in our specs for no reason whatsoever. But come on! It’s like UI: if you have to explain it, it’s broken. I suppose we should be grateful that the film-makers took care to make it as realistic in that respect as most software.

That first act opens with a whole bunch of exposition for those unfamiliar with the first film. But I’m afraid I wasn’t paying much attention as the dialogue was washed out by a nerd in the row behind fumbling through his bag to find what sounded like a blaring radio. And visually my brain was going: Welcome to Uncanny Valley! Because here’s where we first see the much-hyped de-aged Jeff Bridges, in a flashback scene. But although we can do CGI buildings, CGI vehicles, CGI water, CGI animals, CGI hair and CGI fur, CGI people still look like freaks, animated zombies, utterly unreal.

An unchallenging plot ensues in which grumpy but doable super-rich implausible hacker totty Sam Flynn, son of Jeff Bridges’ character Kevin, plays at being Batman outside and inside the computer with the all-too-predictable assistance of a ladyprogram I shall call Ruby off Rails.

No, actually, Sam is more of a Luke Skywalker character since Kevin is plainly Obi Wan, Ruby is Leia and Clu – Kevin’s program alter ego – Vader.

Or you could look at it as a Spaghetti Code Western, since the white hats all glow blue/white, and the black hats all glow red.

But even this was too complicated for one nearby patron of the cinema, a dozy cow who spent most of the film annoying her nerd boyfriend (and the rest of us) asking him what was going on. Pay attention! Shut up! Pay attention!

The film is almost entirely devoid of humour. I saw no Easter Eggs; no puns, visual or aural, about the net or computing. There are a few nerdsnickery moments when you see (in Real World scenes) glimpses of a Linux command line, but they don’t count: someone typing “ps -ef” is never funny, unless you type it on Windows. The only intentional comedy is in the obligatory appearance by Michael Sheen, playing a gay nightclub host program (don’t ask) as an odd mash-up of David Frost and Graham Norton: Frost/Nortron, I suppose.

I did enjoy some aspects of the film. The soundtrack by Daft Punk is excellent, and the visuals are superbly realised – modulo uncanny valley. But overall the film offers nothing new, nothing ground-breaking. And, you might wonder, why haven’t I mentioned the Tron character himself? Yes, you might wonder that. I’ll say no more.

There is a film to be made melding the concepts and originality of the original Tron with the seismic changes seen since those primitive days – the expansion of online life, the loss of privacy and secrecy, the slow death of long-cherished business models, the scrambling for control – but Tron: Legacy sure ain’t it.

Avaragado’s rating: greenbeans.exe

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It’s not about the children

It’s a standard technique in government: use an interview to float an idea to gauge reaction, and to “suggest” a solution lest a more draconian legislative route be hypothetically taken. It’s the governmental equivalent of plonking a horse’s head in the bed. Even better if the interview appears near Christmas, when Paxman et al are hibernating and the fiercest political cross-examination you’re likely to get occurs on a pastel Daybreak sofa between Michael Buble and a Chuckle brother.

Thus it was with weary inevitability that I saw a weekend newspaper interview in which the (Conservative) coalition minister for t’internet Ed Vaizey muttered about making ISPs responsible for filtering adult content, and forcing consumers to opt-in to porn. Of course, since the internet is for porn according to Avenue Q, it should really be the other way round: get the porn by default, and opt-in to the non-porn.

What does Vaizey actually say? “I think it’s very important that it’s the ISPs that come up with solutions to protect children.”

Ah, to protect children. The sainted kiddywinks, the mere mention of which serves to render all argument or dissent invalid. Won’t somebody please think of the children?

Well, it’s not about children, obviously. That’s a standard device used to justify any number of actions (and yet, still, the media laps it up). Here’s a tip: “for the children” means “we have an agenda and we’re deploying the C-bomb to distract you.” If the safety of children were truly the driving factor here, then I could suggest many more pressing matters.

For example, how about a ban on parents smoking around their children, particularly in enclosed environments such as cars?

Or let’s look at religion, where articles of faith are presented as fact, in which children can be indoctrinated with stuff and nonsense about sky fairies of one flavour or another with the full consent of the state, before they are old enough to be able to form their own opinions. And yet religion does not come with a warning sticker. (Don’t get me started on Catholic priests.)

As I said, it’s not about children. But hypothetically, were those proposals to be made, you just have to conjugate the verb: I protect children, you want a nanny state, he looks like a Belgian paedo. It’s all a matter of politics. Politically a government couldn’t win support to ban smoking around children, or the practice of religion. But it looks like it thinks it might be able to get away with the porn thing.

Like Parkinson’s law, the state tends to expand to fill the uncontrolled space available. Politics, or economics, or pragmatism, or other factors, determine whether or not the expansion is achievable in practice. It floats a proposal, to gauge initial reaction. It couches everything in terms designed to press the buttons of the electorate (“for the children”). It “concedes” meetings with those groups who actually know what they’re talking about, and lets the ignorant public Have Their Say. It performs the wildest acrobatics to be seen to “listen” and “engage”.

And then it makes a political decision. Not about the safety of the children, but of its majority. Could a bill pass? Will the Lords kill it? Will the Murdoch press support it? Politics is the art of the achievable, a concept some seem unable to grasp even with a compromise-driven coalition government in office.

Decision made to press on, it legislates with only a passing glance to the consultation with experts and public. There’s now a political agenda at work. The Opposition opposes, not through enlightenment but simply to fulfil its political purpose to oppose and obstruct regardless of the merits. (“We will support the government where it makes sense,” says every opposition leader, and again the media laps it up, frothing about a New Politics, but it never happens.)

How will this sordid dance play out with Vaizey’s hare-brained idea? Well, the ISPs and groups like ORG will patiently explain, with diagrams, that Problem One is to define porn, and that Problem Two is to correctly classify porn according to that definition when a human or algorithm is presented with some content. They will say that in any automatic or manual system there will be both false positives (non-porn wrongly classed as porn, such as educational materials, advice columns or Daily Mail stories about X Factor) and false negatives (porn wrongly classed as non-porn, which will happen for all sorts of reasons up to and including bugs, mendacity and pressing the wrong button). They will strongly recommend a well-defined, transparent corrective mechanism to allow for appeals, and they will ask why the hell are we being asked to be surrogate parents anyway?

The politicians will steeple their fingers and nod politely, making notes including pictures of boobies and willies and giggling amongst themselves. Then they’ll make simplistic analogies to TV watersheds and the controversial and secret Internet Watch Foundation blacklist of what somebody unknown once claimed to be child porn. They will invoke holy phrases like “children are our future” and that pol fave “our children, and our children’s children.”

And then when the experts have rolled their eyes for the nth time and left muttering, chances are we’ll see a bill that establishes an anonymous group of people who will, with only the flimsiest of oversight and a 99-step appeals process culminating in a rubber stamp of the word DENIED, maintain a secret list of verboten URLs. The members of the group will not be named “for their own safety, and to avoid nobbling” (they’ll snigger at the word “nobbling”). The list will be secret “to deter use of technical measures to bypass its restrictions” (despite the experts having told them that security through obscurity is a Bad Idea). The public will be assured that the system is foolproof (despite the experts explaining that the biggest fool is the fool calling any technology foolproof).

And the first URL on the list post-enactment will be the Wikileaks du jour. Because the Act will, of course, contain that other holy phrase of our age, “national security,” which can be applied to anything anyone decides it can be applied to. Additional URLs blocked will try and fail to stop copyright infringement on films, TV shows and recorded music, because some idiots still think that’s possible. And there’ll be a push to ban web sites for violent video games, movies and TV shows, too, because there always is.

For additional Kafka points, you will naturally commit a criminal offence if you access a URL on the list you are not allowed to see.

It’s all “for the protection of children,” you understand.

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A knock at the door

(April 2013 note: I used some of the ideas from the short story below in my novel Disunited, written as Anthony Camber.)  

 

“Come in.”

The door opened, wafting sparkles of dust between the slices of pale December light struggling through the blinds. He approached nervously, like a schoolboy summoned to the Head’s office. But I was the scruffy one, in a training kit smeared with the day’s mud, and he was wearing a designer suit. Too much bling.

“Sit down, son,” I said, tossing some unfinished paperwork onto the desk, with all the rest.

“Cheers boss.” He perched. I hate it when they perch, it means trouble. At his age he should be strutting and sprawling, I thought, flashing back to when I was eighteen. A different world. Back then I didn’t have his salary, that’s for sure. Or his talent.

“Well?” I was still the boss.

An awkward pause. Please, not a transfer request.

“I need to tell you something.” Like I said, he was perching.

“OK.” Keep it light. “Don’t worry, I’ve got Max Clifford on speed dial.”

That forced a weak smile, no more. He stared at his shoes and fiddled with a ring. Fine: the day’s schedule disintegrated in my head, which at least meant the paperwork could be forgotten for another few hours.

“It’s just…”

“Come on lad. What is it? A fight? Paps caught you in a nightclub? Got some girl up the wossname?”

“No!”

“Drugs? Listen, we’ve all done a little–”

“It’s not drugs. I’m not stupid.”

“A sex tape, then.”

“I haven’t done anything wrong.” His eyes blazed, the passion the fans loved him for, the passion that sparked into genius on the pitch. And now I knew there was trouble.

I was leaning forward – being confrontational, as usual. Bad idea. I forced myself to sit back, the leather chair creaking and crackling into the silence.

Calmly, despite my rocketing heart rate: “So tell me why you’re here.” I breathed slowly, deliberately, remembering penalties scored and missed, mine and others.

He hesitated. Mouth open and shut. A decision. Eye contact. “I’m gay.”

Freeze-frame for a second, or five. “I’m not in the mood for jokes.”

Another second. “No joke.”

“Because if this is a wind-up, I’ll–” I was forward again, agitated, visions of hidden cameras, Noel Edmonds, stupid gold-plated laugh-at-the-idiot-footballer trophies.

“Boss. I promise, no wind-up. On my mother’s life.” A pause, another choice made. “I’m not ashamed of it. It’s not a phase. And I’m not gonna hide it.”

I made a noise, some kind of neigh, as the air escaped my lungs. They didn’t cover this at the coaching academy.

Deep breath. Big sigh. I took in the room, not very fancy as these things go: desk, sofa, certificates, all seen better days. And photos of those better days, of a younger, clear-eyed me – shimmying round a defender, that look on his face; the cup-winning team, all scarves and smiles. Jeez, shorts were short then.

And here and now: a boy, no more than that, albeit a hugely talented, highly paid, coiffed and tailored one, perching – still perching – before me. A dust mote flashed in the light and I followed it, carefree, immortal, until it vanished in the shadows. I felt suddenly very old.

“No,” I said.

“Boss, I’m not joking.” I was quite sure of it.

“I don’t care. I will not allow it.”

“You can’t stop me.”

“No. I can’t stop you. I can’t stop you drinking, smoking, clubbing, and all those other things lads your age do. But when it affects your performance, the team’s performance, I can drop you.”

“You wouldn’t drop me.” Standard teenage arrogance.

“Try me.” His next line was knee-jerk, obvious.

“Then I’ll quit.”

This wasn’t getting us anywhere. Time for a different approach.

“Listen, son. There are no gay footballers. There’s a reason for that.”

“I’ve read all about it. Justin Fashanu, he was gay. He played at the top level.”

“One player. One. Who was abused, transferred. Cloughy knew what he got up to, kicked him out. He ended up killing himself, you know that?”

“It doesn’t have to be like that!” He was angry now. I should have tried to calm it down, but…

“That’s just the way it is, kiddo. Get used to it. Get a girlfriend. Get on with your life, forget all this gay nonsense.” Stoking the fire. I regretted it instantly, expected a barrage of abuse in return.

Instead he just laughed, the bitter laugh of a future denied. My head throbbed. I rubbed my temples, filling time, as no words came.

Quietly, he broke the silence. “It’s the twenty-first century, man. I just want to live my life.”

“I know.”

“Gareth Thomas, the rugby guy. He came out, no problems.”

“There was a bit of trouble, but… I know. But rugby’s a different sport, a different crowd.”

“Football’s not so different.”

My turn to laugh bitterly. “You’ve never played at Millwall.”

He grinned. The tension evaporated. Sunshine striped across his jacket, contours of light over his face.

I stood and adjusted the blinds. “You realise the first black players had bananas thrown at them,” I said. “They still do sometimes, despite everything. You still hear monkey chants.”

“People are afraid of difference. But difference is nothing to be ashamed of. No reason to hide away. The more black footballers, the better it got. The more gay footballers, the better it will get.”

“But to be first – it’s bound to affect your game. And the rest of the team.”

He shrugged. “Someone has to be first. I’ll sort the team out. I can do the tabloids, the TV, talk to the fans, get them behind me.”

“It’s not our fans you should be worried about.”

“Sure. But if Viv Anderson could do it, and Brendan Batson, and Laurie Cunningham, and Cyrille Regis, and all the others, including Fashanu, I can do it.”

“They couldn’t hide being black.”

“Damn right. And they didn’t want to either. They weren’t ashamed of being black, and I’m not ashamed of being gay.”

I had to admire his determination, and he knew his footballing history. He was full of surprises, this boy. But he was so young. Could he deal with the abuse when it undoubtedly came? The barracking, the filth, even the death threats? He was so young.

“Why now?”

“You telling me there’s a good time?”

Fair point. “But in a couple of seasons, when you’re more mature…”

“Boss. I’ve read the bio. You were married at 21, kid at 22, and no saint before that. I don’t want to hide away, skulk around in the shadows, spend the best years of my life afraid of being recognised or, worse, not getting any. It was different for you.”

I had to agree.

“And…” he hesitated. “In four years, there’s Brazil. I want to be in the squad. And I want my boyfriend there too, if I have one. One of the WAGs.”

I laughed at that. Footballers are always footballers. But he had more.

“And then in Russia in ’18, I might be married. And captain.”

“Christ, you’re nothing if not ambitious.”

“How do you think I got here, fancy clothes, flash car? I’d never have kicked a ball if I didn’t believe I could do it.”

“So what about 2022? With your attitude you might still be in the team at thirty. But you can’t be gay in Qatar. It’s illegal. You heard Blatter, he says gays should refrain from…” I waved my hand, he knew what I meant.

A look, a defiant smile. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Blatter doesn’t matter. He’s an old man. Old thinking, old ways. We make the world we want to see. If I come out now, be the first, stand up and be counted, be successful, others will follow. They won’t be afraid. It’ll take a few years, but by ’22 there’ll be dozens of us – out, international players. Whether I’m playing or not, I’ll be in Qatar. With a husband, and kids maybe. And I won’t be the only one.”

“It might still be illegal.”

“What are they gonna do? Flog us all? Kick us out?”

I looked at him, the man-boy, the heart of the team, the fire of youth. He wasn’t perching any more. He was right, damn him. He was too young, he was naive, he was hopelessly, recklessly optimistic, but he was right. At some point you have to make a stand. At some point you have to do what you know is right, regardless of consequences.

“OK,” I said finally, slowly, a plan forming. “OK. I’ll talk to people. Max Clifford won’t like it, though.”

“He can get stuffed.”

“Just… don’t say anything yet. Let me arrange things, get the timing right. You – you tell whoever needs to know before it all gets out.”

A grunt. “My family, my mates, they’ve always known. They’re like, whatever.”

I should have expected that by now. “Good. Right. Clear off. Keep quiet. Get ready.”

“I’m ready. Cheers boss. I’m ready.” He stood, face in the light again, as it always was, as it always would be. We shook hands with a smile and he left, flashes of dust billowing again in the echo of the closing door.

I drank in the silence, the room, the discarded paperwork. The rollercoaster of life. Still time to jump off. I picked up the office phone, hesitating over the keypad. A deep breath; time for penalties. I dialled the number.

“Hi darling,” I said. “It’s time for me to come out.”

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