Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain – David Gerard

An investor once gave advice to a man invested in a speculative bubble. “Enjoy the party, but dance near the door.” If you own bitcoin, litecoin, or ethereum, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain will make you want to dance near the fire escape. Author David Gerard argues (successfully, I think) against virtually every technology derived from blockchains.

His view can be summarised as “blockchains fail at solving nonexistent problems.” They are speculative and sexy, making them flypaper for con artists, but that’s not the point – even good-faith implementations don’t work.

No major company utilises blockchain-based technology at scale. Ten years after the Satoshi Nakamoto paper, and after five years of loud media hype, cryptocurrency has few visible uses except as an asset (and perhaps it’s already time to remove “except as an asset” from that sentence). In light of this, dramatic fiascoes like the Mt Gox collapse seem more like irrelevant sideshows, distracting from the pervasive pointlessness of the technology. The problem isn’t “suppose your money is stolen.” It’s “suppose it isn’t. Then what?”

The book covers fifteen years of cryptocurrency, from the cypherpunks to the Satoshi whitepaper to the rapidly deflating bubble. It mixes tales of hilarious Wolf of Wall Street-style misadventures with serious analysis of the mathematical and economic weaknesses of blockchains. Bitcoin was supposed to be decentralised. In practice, it is chokepointed by a handful of big exchanges, subjecting their users to increasingly onerous KYC requirements. Bitcoin was supposed to limited to 21 million coins. In practice, any keyboard equipped with Ctrl, C, and V keys can fork the coin, defeating the purpose. Bitcoin’s tamper-proof ledger is frequently cited as a strength, but there are times when you want to tamper with the ledger. Transactions might be made by mistake, for example. The difficulty and risk of bitcoin has all but deep-sixed its small economy of legitimate users, leaving a small number of defiant “HODLers”, convinced that wide adoption is around the corner and things will be better tomorrow.

Gerard also discusses blockchain-based “smart contracts”. Again, they’re hip, and happening, but don’t appear to actually solve any problems with real world contracts, which have always been interpretation (what does “anticipatory breach” mean?) and enforcement (how do you punish anticipatory breach if it happens)?

A famous example: Robin Williams voiced the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, he stipulated that the genie’s likeness not take up more than 25% of the space on any poster associated with the film (he didn’t want to be typecast as a cartoon character). Disney famously screwed him by making the Genie take up 25% of the space…and making the other characters significantly smaller. Williams joked that they drew Mickey Mouse with three fingers so he couldn’t pick up a cheque. How would putting his contract on a blockchain have helped Robin Williams?

These case studies, and many more, give the impression that blockchains aren’t a viable asset so much as a melon dropping towards the pavement. The book is comprehensive, and well written. Certainly out of date date by now, but that’s hard to avoid – in fast-moving fields, a book can easily be out of date before it reaches publication.

The most interesting parts (which could have been elaborated on more) were the mental psychographies of bitcoin’s users. Cryptocurrencies are a selection filter for unusual brains. The concept is futuristic. The very name sounds Gibsonian. They massage your preconceptions and ideologies: you’re John Galt, Johnny Mnemonic, and . Sadly, they’re also attractive to scammers: the concept is complicated enough that you can bamboozle laypeople, but not so complicated that you can’t fake the jargon with a little practice.

I’ve seen bitcoin evangelists in action. They’re like robots. They probably aspire to be robots – robots that don’t need to eat or sleep or do anything except refresh market depth charts twenty four hours a day. Their arguing styles are almost thrilling in their casuistry and dishonesty. “Blockchains might be used for x” is equated to “blockchains are used for x”, which in turn is equated to “blockchains are the best solution for x”. Sometimes they bust out tu quoque arguments. “Fiat money is imaginary, too!” I don’t follow the logic. All money is worthless…so buy bitcoin?

But they’re making money. Or at least, they used to, and they’re convinced they will again, if they weather the storm of negativity and FUD stirred up by the enemies of freedom. In short, they’ve fallen prey to self deception. “I have invested in bitcoin. This can’t possibly be a bad decision, because this would mean I am stupid. And I’m not stupid, so investing in bitcoin was smart.” I think many of them will look back after the crash and wish they could erase every single post and Tweet they ever typed about bitcoin. But that day is not today.

When the Hindenburg fell, it fell hard, billowing fire across many acres. By then, its failure was obvious, but for the people on board this knowledge came too late to save them. Why not get ahead of the curve? Why not stay clear of the Hindenburg altogether? Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain has all the information you need not to throw your money into the blockchain bubble, or at least to be very cautious if you do.

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Judas Priest – Firepower

Remember how people said that Judas Priest is old? Obsolete? Yesterday’s news? Irrelevent?
Remember how this was thirty years ago?

Judas Priest is now so cartoonishly old that it’s difficult to know how to relate to them. They formed a year before the first Black Sabbath album, and their story encompasses every single rock cliche in the book. The young, scrappy upstarts (the first album), the creative prodigies (the next few), the complacency and artistic rot (the few after that), the inspirational rally (Screaming for Vengeance and Defenders of the Faith), the immediate collapse into self-parody (Turbo and Ram it Down), the even more inspirational comeback (Painkiller), the years in the wilderness following the loss of their singer (Jugulator and Demolition), the awkward picking up of pieces (Angel of Retribution), the self-indulgence Spinal Tappery (Nostradamus), and now we have their eighteenth album, Firepower, for which no storyline seems to apply.

The album’s firepower risks being overshadowed by the fireworks happening behind the scenes. Glen Tipton simultaneously revealed that a), he will not be touring with the band, and b), that he has Parkinsons, thus precipitating a). Additional controversy was provided by former guitarist KK Downing, who started rumors that Glen didn’t even play on the album. You know there’s a problem when your gay singer isn’t the most dramatic person in the band any more.

Firepower is hard to draw a bead on. On one hand it embraces nostalgia, mostly for the band’s Killing Machine and Painkiller sound. The title track and “Evil Never Dies” are both quite fast, and feature a downtuned approach to the angular E minor riffing that characterised Painkiller. But “No Surrender” and “Firepower” are quite consonant and radio-friendly, to the point of sounding like something from Rob Halford’s solo albums.

There’s no experimentation, and little blues (which is something I’ve always wanted Priest to revisit).

This contrast is found in the production job, which finds the band’s venerable early producer Tom Allom paired with veteran of the loudness wars Andy Sneap, who brickwalls Judas Priest relentlessly and leaves the listener little room to breathe among the overcompressed guitars. The overall package is entertaining and powerful, and even benefits a little from its fetishistic excess.

I wish it was shorter, but I also can’t pick which songs should be cut. They all have appealing moments, and good performances. Special attention must go to Halford, who sounds ridiculously good. The credits assure me the band still has a bass player, and I will take them at their word. Glen Tipton’s soloing (if it is really him) feels a little compromised. Probably the worst case is “Necromancer”, where he sounds like he’s wearing oven mitts. Ritchie Faulkner is more confident and poised, and strangely now one of the stronger points of the band.

As the final notes of “Sea of Red” fade like a bleached photograph, I’m left with a strange feeling: that this will never end. Judas Priest have always depicted fantasy in their lyrics and album covers. Perhaps the most fantastical was Stained Class, which depicted an android with a projectile embedded in its head. It’s not fantasy because of the android. It’s fantasy because it suggests Judas Priest can die.

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Capitalschism

Bitcoin (as conceived by the vaguely Galt-like figure of Satoshi Nakimoto) was supposed to be the next evolution of money. What were the earlier evolutions?

Once, money didn’t exist, and nobody needed to it exist. Early man was apparently a fission-fusion society, with all of its members able to provide the means of their own survival.

Then our brains grew bigger, our toolmaking more sophisticated, and a problem emerged: some new skills took a long time to learn. It was no longer possible for one person to be good at everything. We began to specialise – some dug storage pits, some wove nets, some fashioned spears. Humanity went from being freestanding pylons to a truss-frame bridge, each member relying on the other members to not fall down.

We began to trade our skills, establishing the first economy. Contrary to common belief, there isn’t much reason to think early man made use of a “barter” economy, with goods traded directly for other goods. The more common scenario was likely a economies based on gift-giving (as is seen in hunter gatherers today). Either way, with lots of gifts, and lots of giving, everyone received what they need.

But barter and gift based economies have a weakness: some things can’t be easily swapped or traded. If I make hats and you make houses, how are we supposed to transact? Do I get a house and you get a hundred hats? Do you get a hat and I get a half a retaining wall? Suppose you can’t begin building my house for six weeks, when the weather improves, but you want your hat right now? Is there any way we can conduct business?

Yes, but first we need a way of storing value. Suppose we take all the pebbles from a beach, and distribute them evenly among the tribe. If I make you a hat, you give me a pebble. If you build me a house, I give you a hundred pebbles. If you can’t build my house for six weeks, then I have assumed risk (you might not build the house), so maybe you’ll agree to only take eighty pebbles as payment for your work. Skilled and valuable people will be rewarded with lots of pebbles (proxies for hats, and houses, and fish). If your supply runs low, then perhaps it’s a sign that you’re taking more from the tribe than you are giving.

The system works so long as there are a fixed number of pebbles in circulation. It breaks down instantly if I walk further down the coast, discover a new beach nobody knows about, and put hundreds of pebbles in a wheelbarrow. Now my store of pebbles no longer matches my input of labor to the tribe. The market is distorted, people will lose faith in it, and the stability goes away. Maybe a fish is worth one pebble, maybe a thousand.

The requirements of money are manifest: it must be rare, hard to fake, and testable. In other words, you have to be able to trust it.

Money in the United States is issued by the Federal Treasury, and has sophisticated anti-counterfeiting measures, including a 3D security ribbon, a pair of matching serial numbers, and a watermark visible under UV light. It is hard to copy. I’m reminded of how Egyptian pharoahs would engrave their accomplishments on limestone, and sometimes they’d chisel out the names of the old pharoahs and replace them with their own. The Ramisside Dynasty ensured against this by carving their achievements in five inches deep into the stone. Trust is the heart of everything.

For centuries, most of the world used precious metals and stones. In other parts of the world, work-based currency was used: Oliva carneola snail shells painstakingly ground down to size, and threaded through with beads. They were labour intensive to make that nobody could crash the market with sudden injections of volume.

But using physical items as money has its own problem, and it’s a sneaky one that doesn’t seem obvious at first: deflation.

Economies usually grow. This is a very predictable fact about them. Populations increase (adding extra labour input), technology improves (adding a labour multiplier) and infrastructure improves (facilitating trade). And if there’s a fixed number of snail shells in circulation, each of them becomes capable of buying more and more product.

The result? People start hoarding snail shells, because if they spend them, they’ve traded an increasingly valuable item for a flat line. The economy slows down, because not enough people are actually using the currency.

In recent centuries, most countries have passed from a metallist system (where money is backed by precious metals) to a fiat system, where pieces of paper are valuable essentially because the government has decided that they are. This allows fine-tuning, and intricate control. If the economy is deflating, the government can introduce more money.

The only issue, again, is trust. How much do you trust your government? Do you think they’ll look out for your best interests? And even if they do, how much longer do you think your government will continue to exist for?

The fiat system seems to work. The grass grows and the trains arrive on time. But it’s hard not to feel like Wile E Coyote running off a cliff into empty air.

Bitcoin was supposed to be the next evolution of money. Unfortunately, at some point this new transitional form ended up at the bottom of a tar pit. More later.

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Penni in Vegetaria – Tales from the Ovoid #1

Dillon Naylor is an Australian comic artist. His most remembered comic strip is Da’n’Dill, which I’m still uncomfortable in my ability to pronounce. It’s the verbal equivalent of a missing stair.

Da’n’Dill comics were endemic to Australia’s mid-90s landscape. They appeared in showbags, and were syndicated in newspapers. They were like a disease, apt to infest any blank piece of paper. Everyone read them. The concept was a riff on Mork and Mindy’s “aliens in suburbia”, but with a critical change. Naylor understood that comedy doesn’t come from insanity, it comes from conflict, and instead of a saccharine little girl, he made the Mindy character a thin-skinned, teeth-grinding nerd who was constantly having his plans foiled by the dumb, well-meaning aliens.

Naylor’s comics were funny. And they seemed even funnier when you were riding a sugar high on the train home from Luna Park. There are legends about how casinos hyper-oxygenate the air, to induce euphoria and compulsive gambling in their patrons. Naylor had this same racket all sewn up with the under twelve set.

Penni in Vegetaria is another of Naylor’s works. The setup is cute: it’s dinner time, and Penni doesn’t want to eat her greens. While hiding from her parents, she discovers an alien spaceship under a pile of leaves. She presses buttons, and is whisked away to a far-away planet inhabited by a race of giant sentient plants. The vegetable and fruit races are at war, and Penni is swept up in their conflict.

The story is safe, and layered with moralistic overtones. But there’s also some classic Naylor subversiveness: such as a funny visual gag involving a WWII-style POW camp (the prisoners are tomatoes, of course, because nobody’s sure which side they’re on).

Naylor’s art is wonderfully grotesque and expressive. Australian writers (Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman, Andy Griffiths) have always excelled at making twisted and disturbing nightmare fuel that actually isn’t objectionable at all, and Penni in Vegetaria is no exception. The comic itself is printed on incredibly thin A4 pulp, which might be a result of pro-plant lobbying. It’s pretty short and Naylor might have taken the concept further, if he’d had more pages (it’s a disappointment to see the fruit and vegetables fight each other with human weapons, rather than in some funny plant-based way. Also, I just know that Queen Broccoli was busy planning the Final Solution to the Tomato Problem.)

I’m not sure if there were more Tales from the Ovoid, or whether there’s any connection to the Da’n’Dill universe. Memory tells me that Penni is the sister of the aforementioned nerd, but this might not be true. It’s a pretty fun comic, and might be worth tracking down. Luna Park closed in the middle of the 90s, but then came back. Perhaps Naylor’s work is overdue for a similar renaissance.

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Ellen Ullman – The Bug

Mary Shelley wrote a novel called Frankenstein, about a creation overpowering its creator. Unknowingly, she lived out the drama of her story – nothing else she wrote achieved the same fame, and her entire existence is a footnote to Victor Frankenstein. One day, Mary Shelley’s name will be spoken for the last time. Some other day afterwards, Frankenstein’s name will be spoken for the last time. The interval in between might be thousands of years.

Think of “Frankenstein’s monster” and what comes to mind? A shambling green Boris Karloff, with bolts sticking out of his neck? In the original book, the monster’s skin is yellow, and it has long black hair. The public’s conception of the monster changed with the years, to where it bears little resemblance to Mary Shelley’s creation.

It mutated. It evolved. Mary Shelley called it a monster. But perhaps in modern nomenclature it could be called a virus.

Ellen Ullman’s The Bug is a cyberpunk addendum to Frankenstein. A corporate programmer encounters a bug in his company’s software. This bug has a life of its own, resists his efforts to document and eradicate it, and cripples the program to the point of threatening the company’s big IPO.

At first, it’s called U-1017, as it’s the thousandth and seventeenth bug discovered in the program (although you’d think the programmers would use zero-indexing, making it U-1016). Then, matters become personal, and he calls it Jester. The fight against it takes on mythic proportions.

While he struggles against the bug, his personal life is falling to bits. His wife is unfaithful, the company is screwing him, and his neighbors play music too loud. His failure to defeat U-1017 feels like a referendum against his existence on Earth. Programming is literally the only thing he does. If he fails at that, then what’s left? He liberally comments his code with existential angst.

Ullman adds lots of interesting asides about programming, linguistics, and math. One of the book’s most interesting themes is Conway’s Game of Life: an x-y grid where cell-like automata live, breed, and die in accordance with simple rules. This is introduced as a parallel to corporate programming. There’s a brilliant typographical conceit where the beginning of each chapter contains an iteration of the Game. Clever though this is, it spoils the book. The reader can guess the ending after seeing the final iteration.

(John Horton Conway, by the way, is another Mary Shelley. The Game of Life is so visually intuitive and thought-provoking that it overshadows most of Conway’s other work, much of which he feels is more significant.)

The novel is set in 1984, the age of the Apple Macintosh and the IBM. A lot of bands like Van Halen and Quiet Riot are name-dropped. Women are described as having padded shoulders so frequently that it becomes like a tic. A book like The Bug could never have been written today. The programmer would have posted his code on StackExchange and gotten six solutions by his midmorning break.

The Bug evokes a pretty powerful response from modest ingredients. It’s fascinating, and emotionally affecting. And Ullman doesn’t cheat: we actually do learn the solution to the bug in the end.

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Philesystem

Paradox: a perfect sociopath would have a really good sense of empathy.

In CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a devil laments the fact that evil is crippled, unless it also contains a strain of good. Bill Maher expounded upon a similar point: the 9/11 hijackers were courageous. They wouldn’t have been able to fly a plane into a building otherwise.

I see a lot of “low-functioning sociopathy” in the world, where someone attempts shenanigans and fails because they don’t actually understand how normal humans think. To really fuck with someone, you’ve got to be one of them. Or at least, you have to be able to model the way they think. A sociopath with an intact theory of mind would be really dangerous.

Recently, there was a protest at Columbia University. A few people attempted to frame the protestors as pro-pedophilia by infiltrating their ranks and holding up a “NO PEDO BASHING” banner.

The trouble is, actual pedophiles never never refer to themselves as “pedos”. The word is used as a pejorative. They instead use words like “boylove” and “hebephilia”.

The most visible of such organisations is the North American Man/Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA. A Google search for “pedo”/”paedo” retrieves just seven results (out of 161 total pages) on their website, all of which are either quotes from other people, sarcastic gestures towards the media’s “pedo-hysteria”, or furious negation that the term applies to them.

A pedophile group with a “no pedo bashing” banner is about as believable as an anti-racist group with a “no nigger bashing” banner .

It’s a plant. An obvious plant, unless you’re stupid, or pretending to be stupid. The banner itself is large and attractive, with lots of colours. It’s the best banner at the protest, from what I can see. Someone spent money printing it. Too bad that it’s a sign that nobody actually holding pro-pedophilia views would write.

(Do you imagine that when the sociopath showed the banner to his friends, a couple of them thought “it’s too obvious” but kept their views to themselves? I mean, what benighted soul would chime in with “it should say ‘no boylove bashing'”? You’d be forever marked as “that guy who knows a lot about pedophilia.” It’s like how all men are required by law to mumble and get vague when talking about feminine hygiene products.)

Apparently, this was the same group of waterheads who planted that embarassingly fake Rape Melania sign at a protest outside a Trump International Hotel…angled perfectly towards the camera, even though the rest of the protestors are facing the opposite direction, at the hotel.

I’m torn. I mean, it’s a pretty ignoble thing to do…but since they’re so incompetent at it, maybe they should be encouraged?

(By theory of mind, I mean the one Sally-Anne False-Belief ability that we gain at around four years of age. Tell a child this story: Tweedledee puts a marble in a box and leaves the room. Then Tweedledum enters the room, takes the marble out of the box, and puts it in his left pocket. Tweedledee now wants his marble. Where will he look for it? If the child is three or younger, they will answer “in Tweedledum’s left pocket!” Only as they mature do they realise that although they they know the marble’s correct location, Tweedledee thinks it’s still in the box. Of course, maybe Tweedledee heard Tweedledum enter the room, knows that he likes to steal marbles, and furthermore, knows that he is left handed. In that case, you might expect him to check Tweedledum’s left pocket first. Your theory of mind must reason two levels deep: Tweedledee’s mind -> Tweedledum’s mind -> reality. Or suppose Tweedledum is sneaky and puts the marble in his right pocket to confound expectations. You’re now three levels deep: Tweedledum’s mind -> Tweedledee’s mind -> Tweedledum’s mind -> reality. This can be carried forward an infinite number of steps, minds mirroring minds, until the test subject reaches the end of their ability.)

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My ARma ran over your Dogma

[Forgot to post this. No longer topical.]

Today, as on so many other days, America crouched in fear.

Why must history always repeat? We talk, and wring our hands, and promise to fix the problem, and yet here we are again: the quietness shatters like glass, and the air turns lethal. Once again, The United States is in the grip of an op-ed writing spree.

Right now, there are countless journalists picking firing words at defenseless strangers. Even as you read this, a delusional madman, prompted only by mental illness and a fetishistic need for attention, is about to unleash the terrifying staccato noise of a fully automatic keyboard.

In a just world, there would be a law banning civilians from owning unlicensed opinions. But thanks to lobbying by pro-opinion activists, American still labours under the loathsome “First Amendment”, allowing any psychotic to spray rapid-fire opinions at defenseless people.

Here is one shell casing. The NY Times declares that regulations in cars reduced the number of deaths via car, and that regulation for guns might produce a similar effect.

There’s a joke about economists who try to calculate the value of cows from the price of a steak in a restaurant. The NY Times appears to be doing the same thing, except the steak has already been processed through someone’s lower intestine.

They’ve taken a summary statistic (deaths per 100 million vehicle miles travelled), put it on a bar graph, and are implying that various regulations are the reason for the decrease. This sort of thing is difficult unless you know exactly how the sausage is made (ideally, the process should be reversible, with all the input variables known). Does the NY Times know this? Does anyone?

Urban roads are far safer than those in rural areas: “Based on data from 2009, highways in rural areas have a fatality risk that is 2.7 times greater than that in urban areas. In general the lower average speeds, greater provision of lighting, greater deployment of traffic control devices and fewer curves in urban areas more than compensate for factors such as the greater number of intersections and the presence of pedestrians.” Over the relevant period, the urban population of the US increased from around 50% of the total to nearly 90%. Could this affect anything?

Cars are safer and more reliable than they were in the 1950s. In some ways this is driven by regulatory requirements, such as the ones in the NY Times article. In other cases, they’re clearly not. Safer cars are more marketable, and I would expect them to out-compete unsafe cars. Early vehicles (such as the 1936 Cadillac had rigid dashboards, studded with knifelike projections. These were replaced with padded polyurethane dashboards, not through law, but apparently largely through market demands.

I’d also wonder about medical care, which is better today than it was in the past. This should have a reductive effect on car mortality, completely orthogonal to government regulation. If I stab someone in the chest in 2017, they’ll rush him to emergency, stabilize the injury, obtain a chest radiograph, perform an orotracheal intubation, clean the wound with saline, and if God is good, he might survive. If I stab someone in 1917, there’s probably nothing anyone can do.

You’ve got a summary statistic generated by a very complicated picture of background facts, and I don’t think we can even learn anything about car regulation from it, let alone gun regulation.

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Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust has many descriptors, but only one matters: filth. People watch it because it’s filth. Midway through, an anthropologist and his guide surreptitiously watch a native ritually rape and sacrifice an adulteress. “Enjoy the show,” his guide advises. The anthropologist throws up, but doesn’t stop watching.

Few films manage to capture such vileness and perversity. The jungle’s heat and humidity seems to press upon you through whatever piece of glass you watch it on. The camera lens itself appears infected, like a petri dish. The soundtrack mixes whimsical Italian pop, eerie tribal percussion, and experimental electronic music, becoming a bleeding and suppurating welt of sound.

The plot is secondary, or tertiary, or duodenary. An anthropologist is in the Amazon, searching for a film crew that went missing many months before. He discovers their tapes, brings them back to civilisation, and watches them. There isn’t much to this movie beyond a powerful impression of sickness. But it’s clever: because it knows to keeps the viewer at arm’s length. Other than one attempt at a moral point (“what if WE’RE the real cannibals?”), the violence happens very far from home, both literally and morally. You don’t feel threatened by the gore and bloodshed, or the fact that you’re enjoying it. It happens in a part of the world so strange that it feels like an alien planet, and everyone who dies is either a primitive native, or a white person who “deserves it” (the missing film crew are established as arrogant and dislikeable). That was Cannibal Holocaust’s “it factor”. Guiltless violence.

There was a “shock jock” radio duo called Opie and Anthony who were famous for their sex-based stunts (such as launching fireworks out of a female fan’s vagina, which sounds very boring over a radio show, but whatever.) At the peak of their infamy, they were interviewed by conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly. They described their on-air hijinks, and he took them to task, calling them disgusting and degrading to women and so forth. Very well, they’d expected that. They gave him stock answers. Mumble, radio show, mumble, entertainment, mumble, First Amendment. Next question, please.

But O’Reilly wouldn’t let the topic go. He kept coming back to it, over and over, like a dog with a bone. The sex. The nastiness. He wanted to hear all about it. He wanted them to describe it. He wanted to register his shock and disgust, repeatedly. They had an epiphany: O’Reilly was exploiting sex in the exact same way they were. But because his audience was made of grandmas and geezers (median age of Fox News’ primetime audience: 68, according to Nielsen), he had to cloak his pruriance in moral disapproval. It was his way of getting filth on the air: he just had to make sure it was coming from someone other than him, with him wagging a disapproving finger.

Everyone loves perversion, but some of us are hypocrites about it. There’s a saying among prostitutes: he who points with one hand is masturbating with the other.

I won’t overstate Cannibal Holocaust’s cleverness. Of course, “awful things happening in foreign lands” is a common trope, even outside cinema. Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden features long, almost slavering descriptions of the tortures supposedly carried out in Cathay, and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels work at a similar level (Marquis de Sade, with typical ballsiness, set all of his atrocity porn within his own nation of France). In fact, Cannibal Holocaust’s portrayal of natives will discomfort modern viewers, even beyond any of the events of the film. You’re not supposed to make indiginous peoples look like savages, and monsters. They’re people!

Yes, they’re people. But at real life digging sites, all around the world, anthropologists find human bones in ominous proximity to camfires. Sometimes they’re roasted and split, the marrow sucked out. The events portrayed in the film have really happened, sometimes shockingly recently (the Fore people of Papua New Guinea were practicing cannibalism as late as the 1960s). The truth is, you don’t need to be a monster to eat another person. Even we would do it, if circumstances required. If we are only three missed meals away from anarchy, how far away is cannibalism? Four missed meals? Five? The day might come, and then we will see how much ironic distance Cannibal Holocaust has.

It’s shot well. It has a strong atmosphere. It has all the grace and subtlety of a flint axehead crunching through your parietal lobe. There are some good performances. It is a good movie, by many categories.

But it’s filth. Not just at the surface, but right the way through. After a wave of bannings, censored cuts of it were released, but they did no good. You can’t wash clean a pair of hands that are made of dirt.

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A Clockwork Orange

A teenage delinquent is arrested for murder. To avoid a lengthy prison sentence, he submit himself to experimental medical treatment. It quashes all of his violent impulses, along with his ability to enjoy classical music: the thing that gave his life fulfillment and meaning. He emerges from prison a changed man, and perhaps not a man at all. Should the state be allowed to do this?

I think so. I also think Burgess stacks the deck against the state by not asking some obvious and important questions. Here’s one: “if not the Ludovico Technique, what should happen to Alex?”

Should he receive life in prison? The electric chair? Or should he be allowed to resume his crime spree? Jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet only seems like a bad idea until you notice the smoke spiraling from the engines, and Burgess cheats by not considering the even worse alternatives. Much is made of Alex’s lost ability to enjoy classical music (a metaphor for his humanity), but there are worse things. The woman he murdered is now incapable of enjoying music of any style.

A Clockwork Orange‘s theme is stated within the book itself: Alex is like an orange, once bursting with juice and sweetness, changed by the state into a piece of machinery. The natural, turned into the unnatural. But to what extent was Alex’s behavior ever natural? At the start, he and his gang drink “milk-plus” to fortify themselves for a night of carnage. The inference is that this is stimulant-laced milk. Alex chose to put a mind-altering substance into his body…just like he chose the Ludovico Technique. Why is the first an act of free choice, but the second isn’t? Beyond that, it opens the question as to whether “natural” is even a defensible word, or “free will” a tenable concept.

Oranges are a poor choice of metaphor, because they are clockwork to begin with. No wild oranges exist, and they were presumably bred from some other citrus fruit. That fruit was probably bad tasting, and perhaps inedible or toxic. Through a combination of genetic mutations, planned breeding programs, and hybridization, we have the modern orange. Many kinds, in fact! You can get a Valencia orange, which is sweet with a lot of juice. Or a blood orange, a tarter fruit with an attractive red color. None of this is natural. The orange was guided towards its present forms by mankind’s hand.

In the same way, Alex didn’t sprout from the forehead of Zeus – he was created and shaped by factors beyond his control. Alex’s “free will” is actually the genes of his mother and his father, the prenatal environment in his mother’s womb, and the society he was raised in. Some think that the increase in crime in the latter 20th century was fuelled (literally) by the presence of leaded gasoline in the soil. After gasoline became unleaded, crime rates dropped. Imagine if Alex’s sociopathy came from lead – a mistake by the government. The Ludovico Technique is an attempt to correct that mistake. Why confuse the mistake as Alex’s free will, and the correction as abhuman meddling?

As a novel, the book is very good. I wish it had only tried to be a novel. It moves quickly, except for the prison scenes in the middle part. The depravity is as nasty as it is exciting, and Burgess’s dystopian England is fleshed out just enough to seem realistic, leaving the attention on Alex (as he surely would have wanted.)

Most of Burgess’s other work are comic novels, and there’s lots of humor here: after Alex finally suffers some consequences for his actions, he writes “this is the real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning.” That was a Good laugh. (Unfortunately, the book also contains a Bad Laugh: at the start, Alex is beating up a stewbum who suddenly launches into a melodramatic speech worthy of Hiawatha.) Burgess’s most brilliant concept here is nadsat, an argot based on Russian, schoolboy talk, and Cockney rhyming slang. It adds an alien, disaffected quality to Alex’s mind, as though we’re seeing the world through a Babelfish translation. It also might have been a tactical move on Burgess’s part. Harder to get outraged over in-out-in-out performed on a devotchka then rape performed on a woman.

Even so, the US version of the book didn’t escape a critical (and notorious) edit, the omission of the final chapter. Alex, having broken through the Ludovico Technique, nonetheless decides that ultra-violence isn’t for him. In other words, he grows up. This chapter was cut over Burgess’s objections by his US publisher, probably for marketing reasons. Readers are used to the storytelling convention of “fall, then rise, then fall”, or “rise, then fall, then rise”. The uncut version of A Clockwork Orange is more like “fall, then rise, then fall, then rise”. For decades, only the 20 chapter version was available in the US. In 1986, the full 21 chapter book was published for the first time.

The extra chapter completely transforms A Clockwork Orange, and I don’t know which version I prefer. The 21 chapter version is didactic, and feels like Burgess tying too neat a bow on the story. “Well, Alex grows up anyway, so that proves it was all for nothing.” At 20 chapters, A Clockwork Orange falls more into line with the film. And I strongly dislike the film.

Say what you will about Burgess, but he never tries to make Alex your pal. Never, ever, ever. He’s an evil kid, and you are supposed to dislike him. Stanley Kubrick almost seems to hero-worship Alex, even modifying his crimes so that they’re less awful (instead of raping a pair of ten year old girls, Film-Alex has consensual sex with two adult women). You can go over the film scene by scene, and note the shots Kubrick takes of Malcolm McDowell, making him look dashing, romantic, even darkly Messianic. You can also note the way he portrays Alex’s victims as bug-eyed goons and creeps. Burgess’s book seems to say “Alex is evil, but was it right for the state to alter his brain?” Kubrick’s film seems to say “hey, don’t harsh Alex’s flow, man.”

Films have an annoying habit of colonising the books they’re based on. Now it’s hard to read A Clockwork Orange and not see Kubrick’s milk-plus bar, or Kubrick’s Durango ’95 speeding down the highway. The Ludovico Technique is now the Kubricko Technique. The film amplified the very parts of the story that Burgess had tried so hard to tamp down, and this may have been why he later disowned it. Once, he could have claimed ownership of A Clockwork Orange. But now, in the minds of millions, Burgess’s most famous work is…someone else’s!

On its own, the book is a great story. Very dark. Too bad Burgess also wanted it to be a gedankenexperiment, because it doesn’t have much gedank.

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Impellitteri – Venom

The power of Christ Impels you! This album completely surprised me, as I’d always classed Impellitteri as one of the flock of 80s shred metal bands: long on guitar sonatas, short on songwriting ability or actual hooks. Venom proved to be one of the most powerful, focused, and concise albums of its year. The LD50 for this album is very low.

What to expect? Savagely fast and technical riffwork, which runs all up and down the neck while still remaining tight and groove-laden. Guitar solos that throw away any notion of “taste”, “musicality”, or “wearing pants” and just eviscerate the listener with almost unimaginably fast blurs of notes. Soaring vocals that bend and weave around the guitar lines. A bass and drum rhythm backdrop that crushes you hard enough to undergo atomic fusion.

With ten songs that are all around three minutes long, this is a shred metal album LARPing as a punk rock LP. There’s an immediateness and directness to the music that can’t really be compared to other shred metal. This is the anti-Yngwie. It doesn’t get right to the point – it starts at the point, from the moment the needle touches down. The songs fly by with alarming efficiency, verses and choruses and solos appearing and evaporating just at the point where they’ve got you intrigued.

Chris Impelliteri’s guitar sound is like the glass shards from a dirty window. Smooth, glassy, but also throat ripping, full of points seeking out the body’s softness. His tone is so thick and suffocating that he must have quadtracked the rhythm parts, despite the agility and tightness of all these songs.

And the tempo is very fast: the album strings so many uptempo songs together that the thirty-three minute runtime soon seems like a necessity, before the listener taps out. “Venom”, “Empire of Lies”, and “Nightmare” are progress at a gallop. “Face the Enemy” is perhaps the album’s slowest song, a Virgin Steele style uptempo rocker with a big chorus.

“Domino Theory” is a rolling thunderstorm of a track that might be my favourite from Impellitteri’s work here. “Jenovah” and “Rise” have hard-edged choruses with some surprising progressive sensibilities in their construction. The album closes with “Time Machine” and “Holding On”, which are equally ominous but perhaps more melodic. The European edition has a bonus track called “Rock Through the Night”, which is fine on its own, but takes the album to the point where there’s too much of the same and it starts to become a bore.

But Impellitteri astonished me with what they accomplished on this album. A shred metal album that you can listen to in one sitting, and still want more…wasn’t this always the endpoint for the genre?

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