Thursday, September 30, 2010

Blood and Oil

Beware of judging a book by its movie ...

It's always dangerous to see a movie before reading the book it's based on, but in the case of There Will Be Blood I did it anyway, compelled by my admiration for Daniel Day Lewis and the critical acclaim the film had garnered. This is not to say I'm sorry, but it's a case where the film turns out to bear little resemblance to the tale told by the novel.

The dark, brooding portrait of a monomaniacal "oil man" in Paul Thomas Anderson's cinematic fantasy is a study in cold calculation. Lewis's restrained anger, which is destined to burst forth into violence, contrasts dramatically with the raving Evangelical foil of a self-declared preacher. The story comes to be a wrestling match between good and evil. The oil man's obsession with the dark fluid under the earth makes him satanic -- particularly so when lit by the flames of his burning well. The character is deepened by his adoption of the orphaned son of one of the oil field workers. This gives him a human side that would have been lacking otherwise, and makes him more complex.

The movie piqued my curiosity about what Upton Sinclair might have had in mind when he published Oil! back in 1926. Unlike some of his other works such as The Jungle and Metropolis, which are available from public domain sources like Feedbooks and Project Gutenberg, OIL! was only available in traditional print form, so I ordered one from Amazon and plunged in.

How to catalog all the differences? To begin with, the "adopted" son of the film turns out to be a plot device to eliminate a whole range of characters. In the book, the "oil man" is known as Dad from the beginning, with the story told from the POV of his natural son and heir. Rather than the solitary loner of the film, Dad is replete with an estranged wife, a daughter, a sister, and mother, all of whom relocate with the father and son to be close to the latest oil field.

Early on Dad delivers a sales speech to a group of hopeful property owners on whose land he hopes to drill. The speech is repeated nearly word for word in the film, and sets the tone for the methodical nature of this entrepeneur. He's a man who can level with you while stealing the ground from under your feet, and not think any the worse of himself in the process. Once this quotation is over, however, the plots diverge immensely.

The chief victim in the wholesale character eliminations of the film is Paul, the brother of Eli, the preacher. Both are portrayed by the same actor in the film, and they never appear together, so we are led to believe they are a case of split personality which adds to the maniacal character of the "healer" as he strays predictably from the straight and narrow path. But in the novel Paul becomes one of the principle characters, the very embodiment of the workers struggling for justice.

What? Workers? Justice? Right. You'd never guess it from the film, but Sinclair created his Capitalist anti-hero in order to advocate his destruction. The genius of this is the way he gets you to like and admire him first. He's portrayed as the model self-made man, parlaying his gut feelings and street sense into a growing fortune while enriching his country by developing its natural resources. He's seen through the halo of his son's admiration, and in the beginning he's even a boss who treats his employees with decency and respect.

This sympathetic treatment continues throughout the story. Even as Dad is called upon to participate in ever more dastardly deeds to protect his growing empire, it is continually shown that even he is a victim of the system forced to comply with the demands of big business even when it goes against his grain as a compassionate human being.

The son goes by the nickname of "Bunny," though he is also "Jim Junior," sharing his father's name. As he grows up, the story continually broadens in reflection of his widening horizons. Early on he forms an attachment to Paul, Eli's secular brother, who impresses him as someone of complete honesty and lack of interest in money.

Paul goes to work for Dad, but soon takes the side of the oil workers as they organize themselves into a union. Then when World War I breaks out he joins the army, only to end up as part of a contingent of US soldiers guarding the Trans-Siberian railway in Russia.

Where? The book is an education on this chapter of our history, which has been largely swept under the rug. During the civil war that raged after the Russian revolution, the US and its allies actively took the side of the Whites against the Reds, aiding and abetting anyone who wanted to fight them, occupying territory, and supplying arms and troops. This foreign counterinsurgency effort continued long after the armistice that ended the war in Europe. (Any wonder why the Soviet Union was so paranoid about the West?)

Paul returns from this duty thoroughly radicalized, having seen the lengths to which the established powers would go in order to curtail the threat that their own workers might rebel in the same way. From then on he takes up the cause of American workers in this global struggle for rights and dignity, with Bunny following eagerly in his wake.

The scope of the story has gone from the personal to the community -- with Dad greasing the wheels of local politics to get roads built where he wants them -- then to the state and the nation -- as Dad, now a member of a powerful association, plays kingmaker in the Presidential election -- and finally to the global scale of worldwide economic oppression of the masses.

Through all this Bunny is the pivot point, his sympathies for Paul and the workers always at odds with his loyalty to his father and his own inherited wealth and position. As we know, it is not possible to serve two masters, at least not for long. The tension between the two builds as the characters continue to become ever more symbolic of the struggle they are acting out.

The conclusion will be familiar to any student of recent history. Because when faced with the choice between comfort and freedom, which one do we always choose? Yet still we are left with hope, because Bunny -- Jim Junior, his father's son -- was born with a conscience, and the will to exercise it.

Yes, there will be blood, plenty of it, and there's still oil in it.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Life in the Cloud

There is no Cloud, only a silver lining ...

Long ago someone predicted that when computers acheived true commodity status we would no longer speak of "using a computer" any more than we speak of "using an electric motor" while vacuuming the floor.

This is nearly true now, as we use our cell phones, televisions, microwave ovens, and even cars, oblivious to the fact that they all contain microprocessors running operating systems and software. Instead we just call, watch, cook, and drive -- all of these activities enhanced or made possible by the ubiquitous chips within.

A similar development is about to happen to "The Cloud," that overused and constantly hyped buzzword that could easily be dismissed as just the latest in a long series of so-called paradigm shifts or "revolutions" flogged to the public consciousness. Nevertheless, The Cloud is about to achieve commodity status, and the less you hear about it the more certain it is that you'll be using it and relying upon it.

Here are a few cases in point:


CD's may have been the death of LP records, but it took MP3's and the Internet to transform the music industry and its distribution system. The physical package has been replaced by a digital format, no different from anything else that can be turned into packets and sent round the world. But people still buy and collect music. Why? What does it mean to "own" a copy of something so insubstantial?

What we're really buying is a license to listen to it any number of times. But to protect that right we have to carefully store our copies and back them up to protect against loss, because the only way to legally acquire another copy is to buy it again.

But this model is based on the ownership of physical artifacts, and it has nothing to do with listening. How many times can I listen to a favorite song? Dozens, certainly. Hundreds, probably. But thousands? Would have to be a really good tune! And in my own case, with the equivalent of hundreds of CD's and many thousands of tracks (I refuse to call them songs, because most of them aren't), it would take me months of listening 24 hours a day just to hear everything I have just once.

Wouldn't it make more sense to have a license to listen to anything that has ever been recorded, whatever I might choose at the moment? If the price was low enough -- and there's no reason for it to be expensive -- I would happily pay a monthly fee, or even by the hour, for the priviledge. This way I wouldn't have to acquire my own copies and worry about their preservation. And I wouldn't have to limit myself to a single set of performances of the Beethoven Symphonies, when others might be equally interesting. This service should also keep track of my favorite composers and performers so I could easily find them again, and find new things for me as they became available.

Remember what Jean Luc Picard could do on the Starship Enterprise? He could request some music ... make it guitar music ... no, not Spanish, classical ... Bach, perhaps ... by Julian Bream ... something slower ... and whatever his whim, the ubiquitous ship's computer would provide. There are nascent services like Rhapsody and Last.fm that are attempting something like this with pop music. It has a long way to go, but don't be surprised if it happens, and seemingly overnight.


You might think the exact same thing was going to happen to movies -- and certainly the MPAA is afraid that's true. But films are fundamentally different from music in two ways. First, they're much bigger, so storing your own copies presents more of a challenge. But second, and more importantly, there is a much more limited number of times they will be watched. Sure, you might sit through another rerun of Casablanca or Citizen Kane no matter how many times you've seen them before. But let's face it, most films wear thin even the second time around, and most of us will quickly move on from been-there-done-that to something new, even if it's not as good.

The result is that there is more of an impetus to changing the distribution model for movies than there is for music -- meaning that music stores might outlast video rental stores. Within the year there will be multiple choices for internet-based movies and TV from big names like Google and Apple as well as traditional cable and communications companies.

Netflix is pushing to eliminate mailing DVD's back and forth to you. They would rather get you to grab what you want online, even if they have to give much of it away for nothing. The whole idea of seeing what's on the shelf at Blockbuster already seems so quaint that the firm has filed for bankruptcy protection -- despite its own efforts to move online, the firm is bogged down by the weight of its bricks-and-mortar stores.

On the consumer side, permanent storage of the media has been replaced by streaming, which means you don't have to spend hours downloading a DVD but instead can watch it while the data pours in. Temporary storage is available in the form of Tivo-style recorders that let you pause or backup or even play over what you're watching, while recognizing (and incidentally enforcing) the idea that you won't want to see it more than a few times.

The shift to streaming is happening so fast that for many people the upgrade from DVD to Blu-Ray will be skipped over -- the first time a physical format has been trumped by a purely digital one before it achieved wide adoption. Even the idea of consulting a schedule to find out when your favorite show is "on" will soon be a thing of the past. TV by appointment is over.

Once we get used to this with visual content, we'll look again at our music collections and wonder why not to do the same thing with them.


Which brings us back to computers, where we started out. If you live with one or more of these beasts, and most of us do, you have undoubtedly had your share of upgrades, crashes, lost files, and maddening tech support phone calls. Of these, the most insidious is that it is so easy to lose everything we thought we had carefully saved. All those photo albums ... emails ... financial information ... passwords to websites ... music collections (see above) ... cute videos of the kids at Christmas ... all up in smoke, either literally or figuratively, due to the failure of some cheap part on a motherboard, a dead hard drive, a dreaded virus attack, or a catastrophic software failure.

For years I've protected myself against these disasters (and many of us don't even try) by making periodic backup copies to some form of removable disk, or uploading them to a secure place on a server that I had access to.

But recently I began keeping some of my most useful files on Dropbox,* a service that gives you 2 gigabytes of free storage space online, with more available for a low cost. Google offers such space, too, through their Google Docs service -- and for an even lower price. But what makes Dropbox worthwhile is that it gives you a special folder that will automatically replicate everything you put there into your folder on their website. Not only that, but it will also replicate your files onto any other computers that you set up to use with the service. It even keeps the copies in sync and allows recovery of deleted files.

The convenience is eye-opening. What a pleasure to know the files I saved at home are available automatically at my office the next time I log in. The more I've used it, the less reason I see not to put ALL my files there -- at least the ones that don't take up too much space. It would be expensive to back up my vast music library, but not a problem at all to keep all my word documents, spreadsheets, and things I need for working with websites. Once you get used to the idea, you wonder why computers shouldn't just work this way, period.

The answer is, they soon will. Computers (if they're still called that), just like phones and tablets, will become nothing more than platforms to access software, data, and services that will be housed exclusively online. Any local copies you save will be just backups for the real thing. Just as with movies and music, what matters is access, not ownership or physical location.

Right now to save all my files with Dropbox might cost me from $8 to $30 per month (for 50 or 100 gigabytes). That's not cheap, but comparable to what I pay for Internet access. Google will sell you a full terabyte for $20 a month, showing that prices can go much lower. Now imagine that the service is bundled with your Internet package by your provider, just as you get a "free" email account along with it. And naturally your provider will take care of those tedious backups for you. Life is good!

The cloud is upon us, and as soon as it disappears you'll know we're living in it.

*[Like to try Dropbox and get some free extra storage space? Contact me for an invitation.]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Who Am I?

For that matter, who are any of us?

Here's something from the past ... a journal that my mother kept for 28 days back in 1975, and which I discovered recently among her papers.

This is also a demo of Scribd.com, which bills itself as a "YouTube for documents." You can upload your material for publication in a variety of forms (I like PDF), make it public or private, set your copyright terms, even sell it if you want to. Scribd provides an easy set of tools for viewing, and you can choose to allow or disallow downloading and printing. There are even multiple ways to view called book, scroll, or slide. You can determine what the default view will be, but users can change it to suit their preference.

To distribute what you've done you can send a link like this one which will take the user to a full page view, or you can embed it in a web page or blog as I've done below. People can also find your publications by searching either on Scribd or the Internet. How cool is that?

My only complaint is that they don't offer enough categories under which to publish. For example, there is no heading for memoir, which seems like a big oversight. However, you can also add tags of your own choosing to make up for that. And presumably other categories will emerge according to demand.

And now ... ladies and gentlemen ... introducing my mom ...
Who Am I? - A Spiritual Journal by Evelyn Donachie