They Live

You’re a drifter — down on your luck, roaming from town to town with a bedroll and a tool chest strapped to your back. Everywhere around you, other people seem to be getting the breaks — although, admittedly, many more seem to be just as up against it as you are. You find a job as a scab laborer on a construction site, and a squatter’s village that at least offers a hot meal and a place to sleep. Despite all this, you don’t let it get you down. You still believe firmly in the lessons you learned as a kid: that the world is fundamentally a fair place, that people will treat you well if you treat them well, and that working hard and playing by the rules will one day get you to a place of comfort and security; maybe not the mansion on the hill, but not the squatter’s camp either. America still works, you tell yourself, and that gives you the strength to pick yourself up and keep trying.

Then one day you put on a pair of sunglasses and see things you never saw before, and your world goes to shit.

John Carpenter’s They Live looked unflinchingly at the underside of Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America. While Gordon Gekko was rhapsodizing about the goodness of greed, migrant worker George Nada trawled through a stunted shadow economy that grew like a fungus on America’s underbelly. They Live presents an America that seems decent enough to justify George’s faith: the squatters’ camp where he finds shelter runs on compassion and good old American hard work, a true expression of the generosity we hold as one of our core values. The problem, as it turns out, is the ultimate viper in the garden: the elite feeding on America’s underclass are actually aliens in human form, hopscotching rapaciously across the galaxy like a cross between Gordon Gekko and Galactus. Even more heartbreaking is when George discovers why he was able to maintain his faith in the American dream while it fell apart around him. The aliens have submerged the culture in subliminal messages, with every surface blaring a mute clarion of stasis and conformity. Thanks to a pair of sunglasses invented by the revolutionaries fighting the aliens, George walks through L.A. and finally sees, in literal black and white, the new guiding principles of America. SLEEP 8 HOURS A DAY. MARRY AND REPRODUCE. WATCH T.V. STAY ASLEEP. CONFORM. OBEY.


What makes They Live resonate so much for me, a decade after I first saw it and well after it was first released, is what it reveals about paranoia and the comforts of conspiracy. While the film bears the trappings of a sci-fi-based horror movie, its central conceit — that American society is being undermined by alien invaders — is actually more comforting than frightening, because it supports the premise that people are too fundamentally decent to create the kind of society depicted in They Live. Suddenly, we didn’t do it — it was done to us. This preserves our ideas of our own goodness while offering a tantalizing promise of redemption. An alien menace is a menace that can be fought and destroyed; what came from outside can be sent back outside. Sure, defeating a technologically advanced alien race is not going to be a walk in the park. But if there’s one thing we know how to do as humans, it’s kill those who are different from us. Whether the solution proved to be sunglasses, computer viruses or red anti-alien virus powder, we’d find a way. If, however, the problem turns out to be us — if we, not alien invaders, made the world around us, with all its greed and its waste and its callousness — then we’re probably screwed.

Click to continue reading “They Live”

Lordy Lordy.

I am 40 years old today.

When I was growing up, 40 was the official over-the-hill birthday. A 40th birthday party involved novelty canes, ear trumpets, black armbands, walkers and other unfunny, made-to-be-thrown-away crap that occupied a dedicated shelf at Spencer’s Gifts. It still does, somewhat, but as I’ve aged I’ve noticed that culturally, we have tacitly agreed to move back the point beyond which “it’s all downhill from here.” As more Baby Boomers edge closer to the abyss, we have grown less willing to draw the line at which we must admit to ourselves that we are, finally, old.

I am a bit unsure of what to make of it all. Statistically, the odds are that my life is more than half over. When I think of all the things I would like to have done by this age – mostly involving writing and traveling, neither of which I’ve done to anything like the extent I once hoped – I am torn between two competing realizations: that youthful dreams rarely come true and mostly aren’t even meant to, and that I have squandered too much of the only existence I will ever have.

How badly should I feel that I have never lived abroad (well, apart from that semester in college), written a novel or been to Italy? That I work in the corporate world and have often substituted workplace ambition for personal or artistic goals? Is there any point in regretting the many mistakes I’ve made — situations where I sacrificed my happiness for someone else, gave into fear and laziness or knowingly made a bad decision to spare someone’s feelings?

I tell myself that any mistake is worth making as long as I learn from it. I tell myself that it is never too late to do the things that matter to me: to live in a place I don’t know, to use my talents for my own ambitions rather than for my bosses’, to live a life I will be grateful for once it’s over. I think these are valid views — but I would, wouldn’t I?

Shortly before he died, Christopher Hitchens said, “You have to choose your future regrets.” We can never fulfill all our dreams — not if our dreams are worth the name. I haven’t fulfilled all that many of mine. But I do have a beautiful, intelligent and fantastically talented woman to share my life with; reasonably good health; and that persistent, nagging urge to do something more than show up to a job every day — to make something lasting that reflects who I am.

Yes, I wish I had more time ahead of me. But do I wish I were younger? Not a chance. What wisdom I have has been very dearly bought. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else than where I am today.

Happy birthday? Why, yes it is, thank you.

And My Dream of a Better iPod Takes Another Blow

Good news, everyone! Oh wait — not so good news:

If you want to buy an iPod shuffle or iPod classic from Apple, you should do it sooner rather than later. We’ve heard those two iPods are getting the axe this year. (Courtesy TUAW)

Assuming this is true, is it likely that Apple is going to release a 128-gigabyte iPod touch this Christmas, so that die-hard music lovers might find something in their stockings that comes close to suiting their needs? I’m guessing not. The mp3 player market is dead. They are to this young decade what digital watches were in the ’80s: formerly sleek emblems of progress reduced in price and stature until they ended up being sold out of gumball machines.

Time was that Apple needed to offer a high-capacity iPod model to stand out from the competition. Now that race is run, and music playing is just one more function on a smart phone, or a handheld gaming and Internet device (to describe the iPod touch accurately). If the rumor is true and the shuffle is in line for the axe along with the classic, that means that the iPod nano will be the only remaining device Apple makes whose primary function is to store and play music — and i think it’s reasonable to assume that the nano will itself continue to exist only until Apple can price an iPod touch below $199. (Side bet: if the above rumor comes to pass, watch the nano drop to $99.)

So why is this a big enough deal that I keep harping on it? Because there is no smartphone or iPod touch that can do what an iPod classic does: hold a library of songs numbering in the tens of thousands, all stored locally and accessible without a network connection. And it does not offer a hardware interface optimized for playing music.

Don’t mistake this for sentimentality or Ludditism. (Ludditery?) I recently started using Rdio and was sufficiently taken with it that I thought it might obviate the need for my iPod classic. It offers a sizable library to choose from, the mobile app is pretty slick and it has some nice music discovery tools. But it doesn’t offer the granularity of iTunes: the ability to rate songs, tag songs, construct dynamic playlists or change metadata. In short, it doesn’t afford the kind of advantages that come from owning and curating your own music files. So Rdio on my iPhone is like having two different, mutually incompatible music libraries, one of which has everything by the Beatles (in mono, even) and not much else, the other of which is so ungainly it has 12 different songs called “Learning to Fly,” just because I wanted to see how many there are. (There are more than 12, but it was starting to get ridiculous.) And if I want to, say, make a playlist with “Flying” and Kate Earl’s “Learning to Fly”? Well, that ain’t happening. I can put Kate Earl on my iPod, but I can’t put the Beatles on Rdio.

If the classic is going away, then I and thousands of others like me are marooned. Our choices are to either keep our devices operating until Apple offers a new product that can serve our needs (mine is already three years old and on its second battery), or jump ship for something else. Such a change, for all I know, may not be possible, or if it’s possible, it may not be worth the trouble. Leaving the iPod will also mean leaving iTunes, and the information that app has stored about my music — my ratings, my playlists, which songs I’ve played or skipped in a given time — is, given the nerd-tastic way I listen to music, almost as valuable as the music itself.

So while I am chagrined to arrive at the end of the road with my iPod, I am hopeful that some competitor out there will finally seize the opportunity to build a music player that offers us what Apple will not. People are still buying vinyl records, for god’s sake. You mean to tell me there is really no return on catering to rabid music listeners — people who have already demonstrated their willingness to devote a lot more of their income to music than the average person?

Anyone want to sell me an mp3 player?

The Unelucidated Facebook Tragedy

You’re scrolling your Facebook news feed, populated with friends, acquaintances, relatives, that guy you met waiting in line to get into a concert, coworkers you never speak to, and so on. Down the list you come to that old high school friend you haven’t seen since graduation. (That is a long time ago. You are approaching 40, like me. And you are probably losing your hair, and you really ought to do something about that belly. But I digress.) Next to her name you see something like this:

To our beloved Cassie [for example] — you would have been 16 years old today. Daddy and I miss you so much and we carry you in our hearts every day. We love you!

Hmm. I take it something happened.

I am not making light of anyone’s tragedy. Truly — the thought of losing a child is horrifying to me and I don’t even have any children. But being a person who suffers from a degree of social awkwardness, I have a masochistic fascination with this kind of social cul-de-sac. The person who posted about this loss obviously did so in the knowledge that those close to her would know what she was talking about. I have not spoken to her in person in twenty years, and barely even pass the time with her on Facebook, and so I have no idea what she’s talking about, apart from what I can infer. The dilemma, obviously, is this:

Is it appropriate to ask for more details when a distant Facebook friend refers to a personal tragedy you know nothing about?

On the one hand, the simple answer appears to be, why not? If they posted it to Facebook of their own accord, it would seem they are capable of engaging with the subject on at least a limited basis. Imagine the corollary real-world experience: you are making the rounds at your high school reunion. Having already met and greeted this friend earlier in the evening, you find yourself near her in a quiet corner where you can exchange words. And she says to you, My daughter would have been 16 years old today. I still think about her all the time. In this situation, it is obviously completely appropriate to ask for more information — indeed, it would be rude not to, and your friend certainly wants to be able to share with you the pain and loss that she has carried with her.

But Facebook is not real life, and it is really not even close to real life. There is nothing in the real world that maps to Facebook’s strange social stew of acquaintances, ex-boyfriends, bosses, grade-school friends, parents and that really nice gal you met at Subway all bobbing around in the same virtual medium. Unless you take the time to stratify these people into castes and direct certain posts only at certain groups — which, judging by my personal experience, virtually no Facebook user knows how to do — your tragic outpouring is hitting every pair of eyeballs with the same force. It seems crazy to think that someone would compose a reflection on the death of her own child that is equally suitable for both her mother and for a schoolmate she hasn’t seen since Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em came out. Therefore, I think she can’t be doing it on purpose: the Facebook settings that would allow her to target her post to a select group of readers must either be too opaque to figure out or she just doesn’t know about them. Which leaves me thinking, again, that I really ought to not say anything.

I don’t know. I really have no clue what is the appropriate thing to do. But I can tell you this: if you came to this post through a link on my Facebook wall, it’s because I wanted you, and you specifically, to see it. I think I’ve had all the social ambiguity I can take for a while.

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello: Steve Jobs Resigns

If you’re an Apple fan, an Apple user or just a technology enthusiast in general, there is only one story today: Steve Jobs is stepping down as CEO of Apple.

This is not to say he is leaving Apple. He is continuing on as Chairman of the Board, so it seems reasonable to assume he will still exert considerable direct influence on Apple’s products and overall direction. That face-saving news probably helped insulate Apple’s stock from the bad news. As of this writing, it has taken a five-percent hit, much less than the cataclysm many predicted would befall Apple should Jobs have died, quit or otherwise left the company abruptly.

Apart from sadness and a vague sense of unease or disquiet, I have these thoughts on hearing this news.

Whatever health issues Jobs has been dealing with, he has not been able to overcome them. Jobs must have reached a point where he and his doctors realized his recovery would make no more significant progress. It is possible (and I certainly hope) that Jobs has many years ahead of him in which to contribute to Apple and to enjoy life with his family and friends. However, it is just as possible — and knowing Jobs’ concern for his privacy, not at all unlikely — that there may be more bad news about Steve Jobs ahead, and that it will come sooner than anyone wants to accept. I take no pleasure in thinking that. But I do think it.

In a sense, we are about to see the ultimate test of Jobs as a businessman and leader. How well has he inculcated his values and expectations into Apple’s culture? How well, in other words, has he enabled it to continue as though he were still there? The answer to this question will not be apparent for some time; Jobs will, as noted, continue to be involved with Apple, and it will take months or even years for the efforts he has overseen to come to fruition. That will not, alas, stop the tech pundits from clucking over Apple’s “loss of vision” at the first post-Jobs bump in the road to come along. For example, if the iPhone 4’s “Antenna-gate” issue had happened at a post-Jobs Apple, no one would skip a beat before denouncing the scandal as the inevitable result of Apple adrift in the leadership vacuum left by its departed visionary: “This would never have happened if Steve had been there.” There’s going to be a lot of bullshit like this in the months ahead, I’m afraid.

But it is true that, at some distant point, people will look at Apple and have to decide, as well as they can, whether the company they see is truly living up to its founder’s standards, or whether it shows the first signs of an inevitable decline. Apple could easily remain unassailable with no input at all from Jobs for at least three years, and probably closer to five. By then, the tech landscape may have shifted sufficiently to allow a smaller, faster competitor to undermine Apple’s dominance or to establish a new computing paradigm ahead of it. This is going to happen eventually; it’s just a matter of when. The only real question is: will it happen sufficiently far in the future that no one can reasonably blame it on Jobs’ absence? Indeed, could Apple remain dominant for so long that Jobs himself one day becomes a hazily remembered, almost mythic figure like Henry Ford, with no direct associations with any of Apple’s then-current products?

I think it could happen. If it does, that will be the true confirmation of Steve Jobs’ genius. He would not have merely started Apple. He would not have merely rebuilt it from a teetering computer company into the world’s most valuable technology company, capable of redefining entire markets at a stroke. He would have given it a soul, and not just a soul but his soul — the one thing even some of his greatest admirers were convinced he could not do. He would have achieved a kind of immortality: a cluster of dedicated people who absorbed his ways of thinking and distilled them into an essence that can be taught and passed on after he was gone. If he succeeds in this, then there is no telling how long Apple could remain in its present dominant position. Jobs came back to Apple 15 years ago. What could Apple be in another 15 years? It could come back down to earth, become just another successful purveyor of computers, gadgets and lifestyle accessories. Or it could be something that no one today can see, an integral part of industries we haven’t yet imagined. We might even one day call it the most powerful and innovative company that has ever been — greater than U.S. Steel, greater than Ford, greater than AT&T or Microsoft — a company so ingrained in our lives that it literally has no precedent.

Knowing what little I do about Steve Jobs, I am guessing that is the legacy he strives for. Will he succeed? I wouldn’t bet against him. How amazing it is to think that for all Jobs has accomplished, today really only marks a new beginning.

Broken Into

Our apartment was broken into last weekend. We arrived home from a weekend away to find our door forced open. Pushing it open, the first thing I noticed were the pieces of the lock on the floor, followed by the wires trailing from our TV stand, to which our Blu-ray DVD player had once been attached.

There is a complicated flood of emotions that arises in this moment. The first was blind fear: was the cat all right? (She was.) There is helplessness, a kind of grief, and in my case at least, a deep, sour rage. I couldn’t keep still, pacing relentlessly back and forth waiting for the police to arrive, and after them, the evidence technician. I prowled our rooms again and again, spotting what was missing, trying to notice everything that had changed. The DVD player was definitely gone. My wife’s laptop bag was rifled, the computer missing. The jewelry dish on the dresser was empty; what was in it again? Her sapphire engagement ring. Maybe her antique watch. Was that bag sitting on the bed when we left? Did I leave that drawer open? “What about your camera?” my wife asked. Checked the windowsill in the office where the camera bag was. Gone.

The initial shock wore off, after a night or two. Our broken door was replaced and fortified with a piercing battery-powered alarm. I called my insurance company and put the wheels in motion to have our stuff replaced, inasmuch as it can be. (If you rent and don’t have insurance, stop reading this and call your agent now.) What remains is the sense of violation — I try not to imagine the burglar actually walking through our apartment, sizing up our possessions for their pawn value, perhaps glancing at the cat regarding him quizzically from her carpeted perch — and the knowledge that we are not safe, at least not from anyone determined to do whatever necessary to steal from us and invade our lives. The worst injustice is not that our stuff was taken; it’s that someone can rob you of your sense of control over your own life, and that they can do it so easily and with so few consequences.

I suppose there is a chance that some of our items will be recovered. The police have told us, that our best bet for finding our things is to check the pawn shops ourselves, on the principle that we are best suited to recognize our possessions when we see them — and a tacit admission that, absent a really lucky break, there’s not much they can do. I am not holding out hope. The things are gone. We’ll get new ones. The sense of security and control is another matter. I’ve been burglarized once before, and I can attest that you do get over it; at any rate, you forget to be afraid. You could argue that we shouldn’t, that illusions of security are ultimately dangerous. But we all know that’s bunk. Living in fear is no life at all, and it’s easy to forget in a time like this that most people actually are decent. I think that setting my alarm when I leave the apartment is a sensible precaution. And I hope I won’t lapse back into the lassitude that had me believing that locking my door was my only responsibility in maintaining my safety. I won’t live in fear, but I really ought not to live in ignorance either.