Monday, March 22, 2010

Crime against art

I was curious to see "Alice in Wonderland". Tim Burton's works generally have a degree of quality, and Johnny Depp is always watchable. I'd heard that it was a quite different story from the original, featuring a 19-year-old Alice revisiting a land populated by critters from both books; but, I reasoned, how can you go far wrong filming the Mad Hatter's Tea Party?

In a surprising number of different ways, it turns out.

First, you can set the whole thing in a kind of fantasy version of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where everything is broken and dusty and looks vaguely poisonous. You can explain this by introducing a conventional good-versus-evil story in which the Red Queen (modelled superficially on the Queen of Hearts, but really owing more to the Wicked Stepmother) and the White Queen (modelled mostly on Generic Disney Queen Number 3, the Exiled Wise Benefactor, and resembling nothing in either of the books even physically) are duking it out for control of "Underland".

Add in an unexplained and pointless prophecy about Alice slaying the Jabberwocky (the noun is "Jabberwock", by the way, as anyone who's read the freakin' poem could have told you). Scene set for a final battle, because what's a fantasy movie without a climactic battle? Add in romantic tension between Alice and the Mad Hatter. Convert Tweedledum and Tweedledee into an underplayed comic sidekick with almost no audible lines - then they can fight in the final battle with their own unique martial art which involves one riding the other piggyback (whaddya mean, "stupid"? - it worked in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey). Oh, and make sure there's a talking dog, because without a talking dog how would we know it's Disney?

Next, take out all the bits that don't fit into this infantile new narrative. All those Victorian nursery rhymes, they've got to go. All that clever mathematical and satirical stuff, we don't want anything in the script that you need to be over 12 to understand. Take out the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle, the White Knight, the Dodo and the caucus-race, Humpty Dumpty, the Sheep. Take out the Pool of Tears, Giant Alice in the house - in fact, everything relating to Alice's difficulty in controlling her own size is reduced to some feebly predictable dilemmas about her clothing (and despite having reworked the rules of size changing, the writers haven't bothered to make them coherent). Take out the jokes, and don't replace them with anything; after all, there's no point trying to be funny without Jim Carrey, is there?

Finally, turn the caterpillar into some kind of oracle (and, of course, the obligatory "transformation" metaphor), turn the Cheshire Cat into a deus ex machina, forget about the trial and the chess game. Oh, and tell Johnny Depp he's still playing Willy Wonka.

Put it all together, and we have what might well stand as the worst crime against literature ever perpetrated. It's hard to be sure, but it's definitely a contender.

What's even more pointless is the framing narrative, in which Alice runs off and falls down the world's biggest rabbit-hole...

The child Alice is seen talking to her father, Charles. Their surname, bafflingly, is neither Dodgson nor Liddell, but Kingsley (or, IMDB insists, "Kingsleigh"). They live in London, not Oxford, because obviously that's the only place in England that a young American audience might have heard of (and ratings forefend that we should be thought to be trying to Educate...).

Thirteen years later Charles is dead, and Alice is being proposed to by a young aristocrat - which is odd, since it's clear neither one of them can stand the other. She feels the pressure of expectation upon her, everyone from Jemma Powell to Frances de la Tour is confidently willing her to say yes, so what could be more natural than that she runs off after a rabbit in a waistcoat?

Later in the film, she's feeling exactly the same communal pressure of expectation to take up the vorpal sword and slay the monster. That time, to nobody's surprise, she caves in. This is a blessing, because I have to admit the warrior Alice looks very fetching in her silver armour. Sad to say she doesn't wear it long, before being transported "home" to reject her pompous, patient swain in the gratingly anachronistic language of post-feminist empowerment.

Lewis Carroll's Alice, lest we forget, is no diffident, oppressed Victorian flower:
'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. 'The idea of having the sentence first!'
'Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.
'I won't!' said Alice.
'Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
'Who cares for you?' said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) 'You're nothing but a pack of cards!'
Tim Burton's Alice says none of this. She's an entirely conventional Disney heroine, all trace of individuality or independence wrung out of her not by Victorian social convention, but by the far more deadening hand of a Hollywood focus group.

With due thought and consideration, I give this film an F. F for Failure. As a visiting friend put it: "Never in the field of human cinema has so much talent been so squandered by so many for so little."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Caveat venditor

I've just been reading perhaps the most thoughtful essay I've ever seen come out of a Microsoft source. It describes why computer security is a waste of time.

Not "waste of time" in the normal colloquial sense, that it does no good. "Waste of time" in the strict economic sense, that the costs (in time) associated with basic security measures outweigh the plausible economic benefit. Basically, if (in any given year) 0.1% of computer users suffer direct monetary losses averaging $5,000 to computer-based fraud attacks, then the expected benefit to the average user of protecting themselves from such attacks is $5.00 per year - or, about half an hour of time at a low wage. Since it's impossible even to read the current set of security advice, much less implement it, in so little time - and since it provides no guarantee of safety anyway - most users, quite rationally, ignore it.

The paper goes on to dissect three popular "security" provisions: password rules (password expiry "will help only if the attacker waits weeks before exploiting the password"), user education about URLs ("a user who conscientiously follows the rules on URL parsing shoulders a considerable burden. The ΔBenefit is that he avoids some subset of phishing sites") to SSL (secure website) certificates ("Ironically, one place a user will almost certainly never see a certificate error is on a phishing or malware hosting site. [...] The rare cases that employ certificates use valid ones.")

Or there's the occasionally-quoted figure that "an unpatched Windows machine connected to the Internet will be compromised within 12 minutes" - the intended message being that you should keep your machine patched. But of course, to patch the machine, you need to connect to the Internet. And it would take considerably more than 12 minutes connected to download the patches on such a hopelessly outdated machine. You could only do it safely from behind a solid firewall - the kind that would make the security patches redundant.

Anti-virus software. What is it good for? It prevents someone else from installing and running software on your machine that you don't want. But it requires you to instal and run - and worse, maintain - software on your machine that you don't bloody want. It protects you from a limited set of types of damage (that might potentially cost you money and time), but it inflicts other costs (in money and time). It updates itself to protect against new threats, but only if you connect to the Internet and thus expose yourself to those threats. (If you haven't connected in a while, your anti-virus will start nagging you to update it - even though "not connecting to the Internet" is far better protection than it can ever offer.)

(Incidentally, most of these objections to anti-virus software also apply to Windows itself.)

The trouble with computer security is that it's been left up to the market. If seatbelts had never been mandated in cars, how many people would choose to pay extra to have them fitted? If there were no government regulation of food safety, how would we think about the steady trickle of deaths from poisoning and disease? Judging by our attitude to computer viruses, the default response would be: "It's their own fault, I always check my Symantec Bacteriograph before eating anything".

The market's solution to such things is not based on making things or people safer: it's based on selling stuff, which is best achieved by making people feel threatened. When the question is about safety, "the market" is not only not the best answer - it's quite possibly the worst.

It's probably too late, now, to try to impose seatbelt laws and driving-license requirements on computers, as well as being way beyond the competence of any government anyway. But there's nothing to stop us passing laws that put the costs where they belong: on the people who sell crappy software. Everyone who sells software should be directly liable for any damage occurring to its users as a result of security holes in that software, and there should be no disclaiming of that responsibility, no matter what contract the buyer signs. After all, it's no more than we expect of people who sell cars, or food, or electrical goods, or drugs.

Of course there are problems with vendor liability (how do you decide which piece of software was at fault? what do we mean by "selling" software? what about "free" software? what about people who charge you to instal or customise someone else's software?) But these are just the sorts of complications that the industry likes to throw up, to make it seem as if the whole idea is impracticable. In fact, once you get over the sheer number of such objections, it's not hard to come up with simple, equitable answers to all of them. Once we've agreed to the principle, the details will be solved in short order.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Eyes on the Tiger

Burning bright

The end of Chinese New Year is party time in Auckland. A truly unbelievable number of people descend on Albert Park to admire the lanterns, eat the food and marvel at the sheer crush of the crowd.

So that we could capture the event properly this year, we invested in a new camera. It's described as a "beginner-friendly" SLR, which means that even though its functions are outrageously complicated, they're not compulsory. It takes a ridiculous number of pixels - the images shown here are scaled down to something reasonable for web viewing, otherwise they'd eat up my storage allowance and bloat your browser into a flubbery widescreen pancake, and nobody wants to see that.

We arrived at Albert Park about six-thirty on Sunday. The smell of deep-fried food was everywhere. Susan's nostrils flared, she vanished into the crowd like one possessed of an insatiable hunger for fish balls; I looked away for a moment, and condemned myself to spend the next 40 minutes combing through the crowd in search of her.

An unusually thin part of the crowd. You can see through it.

Apart from that, we had a great time. There was a Chinese prog-rock group (very 70s - they would have been right at home opening for Hawkwind or Pink Floyd). Unfortunately they only got to play a couple of numbers, before being followed on stage by a marginally rehearsed children's choir. The announcer for this latter act kept telling the audience "This next song is very pretty. You will enjoy it."

China's answer to Rush

Well, Chinese culture does tend towards the authoritarian. Eventually we gave up trying to believe her, and moved off in search of lower culture.

That's why they call it a lantern festival

Hundreds of (lucky) red lanterns hung from the trees, along with various ugly faces and improbably-floating luminous babies. The Tiger, of course, had pride of place among the lanterns; a handful of skittish-looking zebras were in front of him, presumably in case he got peckish. Other set-pieces included animals from previous years (the Ox, the Monkey and others), and the traditional turtle orchestra.

At least they sounded better than the kids

I recommend it, it's a fun evening for all the family. But keep an eye on them.

A bid for freedom