Lala Land, the Awesomeness Behind the Hype

Lately, everybody’s been talking about a movie called Lala Land. It’s directed by Damon Chazelle and stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as Mia and Sebastian, star-crossed lovers in modern-day Los Angeles. The movie has been nominated for 14 Academy awards, which ties the all-time record set by All About Even and Titanic. I hate to be an echo when the film has already gotten so much praise, but it deserves it.

Lala Land is not the best movie I’ve ever seen, so perhaps so many Oscar nominations is a bit of overkill. I think, however, that it’s warranted given the current dearth of good solid films with general appeal. Furthermore, it’s fun to revisit the time-honored musical format. Unlike many of the old-time movies, in which another person’s voice was dubbed in for the musical numbers, both Gosling and Stone sing, and they do a good job. As for the choreography, I’m by no means an expert but it looked good to me.

Like all romantic stories, there’s a bit of a formula. The protagonists, an aspiring actress and a struggling musician, meet by accident and it’s hate at first site. Their paths keep crossing, however, and as in any formula romance, the initial repulsion turns to passionate attraction. On the other hand, La La Land mixes it up with an ending that’s not quite the standard “happily ever after.” I liked that, not because I’m anti-tradition but because it’s nice to defy expectations for a change. Are the protagonists’ personal dreams more important than a cherished relationship? The way the characters approach that dilemma is what makes the story.

It’s been so long since we’ve seen a musical set in contemporary America, it seems jarring to have one with cellphones and electric cars. In a way, it’s less of a musical than its spiritual predecessors. Though it begins with a surprising and impressive song-and-dance number on an LA freeway on-ramp, the songs don’t appear throughout. Since Sebastian is a musician, much of the music is organic to the story.

My favorable opinion of Lala Land has been solidified by the disgruntled reaction from Social Justice types in the media. One of these ridiculous reviews was by Geoff Nelson on Paste. He argues that the nostalgia the movie expresses is racist because things were bad for black people in the good old days. Furthermore, Nelson finds it insulting that Gosling’s character, a white man, strives to save jazz, while the black character Keith (played by John Legend) is a sell-out to pop music. Excuse me, but jazz has never been a purely African-American art form. The Jewish contribution to early jazz has been well documented. We never see Sebastian in a yarmulke, but who knows? (Gosling himself was raised Mormon.)

This identity politics reaction is all the more ironic since Emma Stone was one of those Hollywood lefty girls in the “I Will Survive” anti-Trump video. I care not one whit about Stone’s political opinions; she’s a great actress and adorable to boot.

If you haven’t seen La La Land, see it; it’s a lot of fun. Those of you guys who are worried about the “musicals are gay” stereotype, see it when it comes out on video. Your secret will be safe with me.

For a dose of nostalgia and alternate history, see my book Miss Ione D and the Mayan Marvel, currently in e-book and coming soon in paperback form.

No Tea for the Tillerson


Former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, was on Capitol Hill yesterday for confirmation hearings before Congress. Given the general hysteria over Tillerson’s business ties with Russia, I thought at first he’d be a good pick. Nothing is more important than repairing America’s damaged relations with Russia. It’s a powerful country, rich in resources, with an educated population and a shared opposition to Islamic terrorism. Most importantly, it has nuclear weapons, so to attack it would be suicidal.

Unfortunately, the US government is lousy with “exceptionalists” who deny that Russia has the right to defend its own interests. They’re apoplectic that Moscow has opposed the illegal installation of hostile regimes in two of its former allies, Ukraine and Syria. The neo-conservative anti-Russian crusade is not about “human rights.” If we cared about that, we wouldn’t support countries like Saudi Arabia that murder gays and enslave women.

As for Tillerson, he’s more of a war-hawk than his detractors thought. He supports our pointless sanctions on Russia as if either Crimea or Aleppo was any of our business. Furthermore, the accusations of Putin “hacking” the Presidential election are just that, accusations, unsupported by credible evidence. Even if the Kremlin DID hack the Democratic Party’s server, the released information was true and relevant to the voters’ decision, so the leak was a public service.

Perhaps Rex is repeating this neo-conservative rubbish so the clowns in Congress will confirm him. I hope that’s the case, but I have my doubts after hearing his belligerent remarks about China. What gives us the right to tell a sovereign nation what it can and cannot do in its own coastal waters? Open navigation in the South China Sea is critical for Beijing’s survival. Despite that fact, Rex insists that China must stop building artificial island bases and threatens to send our Navy to kick them off.

Is this man insane? It’s acceptable to make war for our own national defense, but not to attack the vital interests of another country. China has every right to defend itself and having come late to the party, there are no leftover islands for it to occupy as bases. To Beijing’s credit, these built-up shoals were not inhabited. They’re not conquering and coercing native peoples as we did with Guam, Samoa, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Even Diego Garcia, which the US rents from the UK, was stolen from its native population.

Why do so many powerful Americans continue to frame other nations’ defensive moves as aggression? It must be psychological projection because the US is second to none at portraying imperialism as defense. We needn’t accept this nonsense. Congress should reject Tillerson’s nomination, not because he’s (allegedly) soft on Russia, but because he’s unhinged, unfair, and unbalanced on China. We don’t need another conflict, especially one that could escalate into a nuclear war.

If you like political intrigue, you’ll enjoy my novel Centrifugal Force.

Random Thoughts on Randomness


Fermilab’s “Hot Bits” logo displays random binary values in real time.

Sometimes problems that seem easy are actually difficult. One of these problems in the generation of random numbers. I won’t get into a discussion of what randomness means in a statistical sense, except to say that it means something that’s unpredictable, with no discernible pattern. In the physical world, it’s easy – we can roll dice, draw a piece of paper from a hat, or spin a wheel. Electronics, however, play by different rules. We have spent decades developing integrated circuits that behave consistently, and computer programs that execute the same way every time. This makes randomness a big deal.

Why do we need randomness? One of the major applications is in gaming. For example, if you want to simulate a turn-based board game, your computer, phone or console needs to be able to roll those dice. Another more critical use is in encryption, the technology that allows us to keep our conversations and financial transactions private. Random numbers are used in the creation of numeric keys, which are then used to convert readable data to gibberish and back to data on the receiving end.

The simplest approach is by the use of a PRNG, or pseudo-random number generator. We add the prefix “pseudo” because mathematically, it’s not really random; the function is just complex enough to seem that way. A commonly used method is the linear congruential generator, which is the basis of the Unix library function “rand.” It’s fast, efficient, and requires minimal memory. This is fine for games, but for encryption, the stakes are higher. An attacker who sought to compromise a secure system might discover how the numbers are generated and use them to guess at keys. The problem is actually more difficult than that, but if the attacker is sufficiently motivated, it could be a serious weakness.

Why not use a hardware-based solution to achieve real-world randomness in number generation? People have tried a number of different approaches, including monitoring the decay of a radioactive source, which is the basis behind Fermilab’s Hotbits service.  Another option is to convert atmospheric noise to numeric values, which is used by the website The drawbacks of the hardware method include the initial cost of acquiring the hardware and the relative slowness of true random number production. At Fermilab it’s only 100 bytes per second, which is why they ask you to email them a request for a particular number of bytes; they send back data which they have pre-generated.

I’ve long wondered if someone could create a portable device to create random numbers for your PC. After doing a bit of USB development, I thought about creating a USB key to do this. Well,m somebody has beat me to it. Simtec electronics has a product which they call the “Entropy Key” which uses “two high-quality noise generators” to create the requisite random data. They’re a bit pricey, 36 pounds (currently about $44) each in single unit quantities, not including shipping. Their website says they currently have none in stock and there is a long wait. Another company, called Idquantique, provides random number modules incorporated in PC add-on boards, but these cost hundreds of dollars apiece.

Randomness, like air and water, is something we take for granted in everyday life, and often get for free. In certain applications, however, randomness can be very expensive indeed.

If you enjoy stories where the unexpected happens, download my short e-book Found Pet, in which a man who adopts a cute furry animal gets more than he bargained for.

Spike Jonze’s “Her” – Sex with Siri and the Singularity for SJW’s

The movie Her, directed by Spike Jonze and starring Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with a computer program, was released in 2013. The film won numerous awards, including an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Somehow I missed seeing it until this week. Though it’s not a new release, as a life-long software engineer, I felt compelled to comment.

I’m conflicted about the idea of a sentient computer program. Knowing how complicated and error prone software can be, it seems unlikely at best. Possible, yes, since the brain is a biological computer. Yet I don’t believe this will happen in the near future, as the movie portrays it.

The biggest problem for me was not the concept, but its implementation. I really don’t understand why people liked Her so much. My theory is that, like that other 2013 release, Twelve Years a Slave, it was a movie people felt obliged to like. Except that Slave was dramatic and compelling, Her was slow, ponderous, and mawkishly emotional.

The first problem was the protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombley. He’s the ultimate gamma male, a pathetic loser who apologizes to everyone. Appropriately enough, his job is writing heartfelt letters for other people a la Cyrano de Bergerac. To help provide order to his foundering life, Theodore purchases an “operating system” (actually an artificial intelligence) called OS-1, for which he chooses a female voice and personality. It begins as an advanced analog of Siri or Alexa but, sensing its owner’s loneliness, it names itself Samantha and adopts a flirtatious persona. It’s not surprising that the pathetic Theodore falls for Samantha, but “she” soon falls for him as well, like a modern Galatea to his Pygmalion. With no Aphprodite to bring her to life, Samatha communicates with Theodore and experiences the world through his cell phone.

As the “relationship” progresses, Theodore tells friends and coworkers about “her.” Everyone accepts this bizarre situation without question – except, to her credit, Theodore’s ex-wife. The movie seems to prophesy the current transgender mania, with its inherent contempt for social convention and the limitations of the physical body.

Voice actor Scarlett Johannson does a competent job as Samantha, who is fun-loving, curious, and affectionate. In one scene, she and Theodore have verbal sex, whereupon the screen goes blank for a moment. I thought my disc player had broken, but then realized that Jonze probably meant for the audience to imagine the event. The obvious solution, virtual reality, is mentioned as a way to play video games but nothing more. Samantha could have at least had an appearance for Theodore to fixate on. VR sex would have been more realistic than the ludicrous scene in which they enlist a surrogate (Portia Doubleday) to play Samantha’s role in their assignation. No doubt because of the movie’s relentless political correctness, the surrogate is not paid (which would imply prostitution) but a volunteer. Rather than enjoying the experience, the hapless Theodore feels awkward and guilty about cheating on his “girlfriend,” and the surrogate leaves in tears.

The final insult to our intelligence is how the movie ends. In a nod to the sci-fi concept of “the Singularity,” Samantha hooks up with other OS-based personalities who then collectively “evolve” to a point where they no longer want to deal with humans. Thus they bid farewell to their reality-bound companions and disappear. Nobody worries about what these super-intelligent beings are plotting – will they control the world or destroy humanity? No, we only see the emotional consequences for poor Theodore. In a more realistic scenario, he and his fellow jilted OS owners would have sued the software company that produced such defective products into bankruptcy.

In summary, Her might be enjoyable for those with a taste for unconventional romance, but I found it dull and disappointing. If you want a serious look at the potential of artificial intelligence in the near future, look elsewhere.

If you enjoy stories about computers, you’ll like my novel Centrifugal Force, available on Amazon.