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Friday, November 21, 2014

The Politics Of: WOOL


The "Silo Series" is a post apocalyptic science-fiction trilogy set in a massive 144 story underground silo hundreds of years in the future. The books are something of a sensation, having been optioned by Hollywood and reaching best-seller status. The first part of the post reviews the books. The second talks about them in depth and assumes you have read them (or don't mind being spoiled).

The Silo Series: WOOL
The outside, above-ground world is a churning mass of toxic brown clouds. Humanity--all that is left--lives underground in a "silo." It's not, as you might think, a missile silo--this is a massive, fully self-sufficient habitat. A marvel of engineering, the technology is what we'd think of as 20th century: there are computers--but they are somewhat clunky. Everyone takes stairs: there aren't elevators. The lower reaches have giant, loud generators and grease-covered machines.

Humanity has lived down here for hundreds of years. The world of the past is vaguely remembered in  old books--but what happened or how humanity came to the silo ... is a mystery.

The government isn't a tyranny: there is a mayor. There are elections. There are social groups (the guys down at the bottom are lower-social class than those up top)--but everyone has their jobs and for the most part does them. It's a dreary life with a birth lottery (you can't have too many kids) and endless days of work to keep the machinery of life running. Travel up and down is exhausting endless stair-climbs. When you die, you are recycled.

That dreariness, however, has some darker edges: in the opening we are introduced to the ritual of cleaning. The outside world (a gray-brown crater that rarely shows the sky and has, in the distance, hulks of large above-ground ruins) is viewed only through cameras on massive screens. Those cameras get dirty over time. The dirtier they are, the more restless the populace gets. When a prisoner is condemned to death, they are sent out in an environmental suit to do one last job for humanity before the suit decays--to maybe redeem themselves. That job is 'cleaning'--they are told they are to clean the cameras of dust and grime--and then they can go as far as they are able ... never yet has anyone made it over the edge.

For the people inside, it's a mystery as to why the condemned don't just run off--but they don't. Maybe it's some needed sense of community? Maybe it's something else ... The story opens when the old Sheriff of the silo is near retirement and is thinking about selecting a new one ... and there are some mysteries about the last cleaning he'd like to look into.

Hugh Howey, the Silo series author, is good at his game. His characterizations are strong, he has a sense for having bad things happen to decent people enough that you aren't sure if the protagonists will make it and his story, for the most part, is very sensible. The WOOL books may not show us brilliant innovation in science fiction but the social-structure feels right and the mysteries are deep enough to unfold over three books and still pay off.

WOOL is a phenomena in the publishing world--it came out as a cheap E-Book and then was optioned for hardcover and film. The Wool series is a science fiction book that helped re-define the future of publishing!

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of: WOOL
In the Event of a Failed Cleaning:
  • Prepare for war (From The Order)
The politics of WOOL are the politics of Mutually Assured Destruction without the mutual-assurance. The scenario WOOL postulates is that nano-tech weapons, targeted human "kill-switches," are discovered already in the environment--waiting for an enemy to activate them. The architects of the end of the world decide to strike first. This makes a certain amount of sense: Historical nuclear MAD was based on the idea that we'd have both some early warning and enough surviving missiles to wipe out the Soviet Union (and vice versa).

Hence the massive "overkill" numbers of rockets--we expected most of them to be destroyed in an enemy first strike.  

The problem with MAD, is that if you can't be sure of surviving a first strike, the game-theory incentives to launch one become astronomical (in the 1995 science fiction book The Killing Star, they become literally astronomical where a race of aliens has a policy of light-speed bombardment of any race they can detect because that race might, eventually, do it to them first. Humanity survives ... as a couple of people in an alien zoo).

In the case of WOOL, the nano-soldiers were already in a bunch of our blood-streams: the first strike happened. What now? Their plan looks like this:
  1. Using black-budget funds build fifty massive silos near Atlanta.
  2. Create a book (the Order--World Order Operation L(50)) which will detail how humanity is supposed to act for several hundred years including directives like the cleanings and the various subterfuges to keep the silos both in-line and incurious.
  3. Place one silo as the control silo where the architects of the atrocity will take shifts of cold-sleep to maintain vigilance throughout the centuries of the silo-era. They will communicate with their factions and have the power to cull a silo (killing everyone in it) should it get wise and rebel.
  4. Populate the silos (apparently herding a mass of convention goers in with a series of explosions?). Rely on amnesia drugs created to fight PSTD to make everyone forget the old world.
  5. Selectively breed humanity in the other silos for maximal suvivability.
  6. In the end, kill all but one silo and direct them to an exit. Then the control silo commits suicide (the normal people working in the silo don't know this). These new people will have enough knowledge to get by--but won't understand nano-tech.
Notably, in the 2040's where the plan starts? It's the Democrats doing this. Is there anything especially democratic about this plan? Do the politics of it say anything?

It turns out they kinda do.

Firstly, the architect of the WOOL-plan is senior 'senator Thurman.' This echos real Senator Strom Thurmon--one of the oldest sitting senators and a Democrat turned Republican (he ran as an anti-civil-rights Dixiecrat candidate). In other words, he's as far anti-civil-rights as you can get as a Democrat (probably holding the all-time record, in fact).

In other words, the plan is run by a titular Democrat who is named after the most Republican Democrat ever. That's ... probably not a random coincidence.

Also, while the end of the world plan isn't based on moral judgment of humanity (although the Suicide Pact for the control-silo more or less is) the concept here is a vicious first strike as pre-emption. That, well, that is the Bush Doctrine innit?

Let's also not forget that while the master book isn't exactly a bible it is effectively one. It contains various laws and must me memorized, cited, etc. There is, it turns out, another bible that the priests use--which contains explicit "Be fruitful and multiply" guidance (which is hard to reconcile with their need for a stable population--but the architects were thinking ahead). The overtones of the control strategy are a bit religious (as well, perhaps, as the death-and-rebirth of the cold-sleep for the control-silo).

Certainly, to undertake a literal slaughter of humanity, a selection of a few, and a series of life-and-death decisions for the "flock," one must consider oneself an almost literal god--or at least possessed of god-like judgment over others. Hey, wait, maybe that is liberal.

In the end, though, The Omnivore doesn't know the author's politics--but the guess is that the choice of Democrats is simply window-dressing for what is effectively old-style slash-and-burn governing. The choice of Thurman as a prime-mover antagonist (The Omnivore won't say exactly villain because while he is morally, he's textured enough to be less than a simplistic evildoer--he does plan to die in the final suicide pact, after all) is all you need to know: the party label is less important that how you vote--or what you do with a multi-billion dollar black-budget and an end-of-the-world virus.

A Few Notes
The second book, Shift, pulled a mind-scramble on The Omnivore when, half way through, the main character did the obvious thing and found Thurman sleeping in his pod and shot him. This was like in No Country for Old Men, when the narrative relentlessly drives a showdown between two people and then half of the climactic battle is abruptly killed . . . off screen.

In No Country, it was a jaw dropper. In Shift it was a jaw-dropper until the guy, thanks to nano-re-builders, got better. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--stories work the way they do because they are usually designed for maximal satisfaction--but holy crap, if the author had just killed off the head bad-guy half way through the second book, The Omnivore would have been totally stunned (in a good way).

Secondly, The Omnivore was not all that impressed with the herd-people into silos with explosions as a method of populating them. Firstly, the plan hinges (it seems) on the forgetting-drugs. That's actually clever: create trauma so that the people involved will forget the past--which is your plan. The problem is that it's the kind of thing you will only ever get one shot at and if the people don't disperse equally into the silos, what then? It's not clear (maybe The Omnivore missed this?). If they choose to write down histories of humanity all over the place (and this actually does get addressed in the book--but as a very rare event) your plan will be almost terminally damaged.

For a plan that is literally world-stopping, one would think you'd need a better way of selecting your folks. Maybe an evacuation order from select communities? Maybe ... choose a couple of universities to drain? This might not create the trauma--but it would theoretically be less failure prone.

Finally, there is The Order. It's not clear to The Omnivore how the control group came up with it previous to the event. How did they know a failed cleaning would lead to an uprising? The Order is designed to crush the spirits of the populace enough that they are mostly docile and don't figure out that they are part of a larger world. It acknowledges regular revolutions as necessary--and tries to plan for them--but it seems like they're even required. That's another dice-roll: even though The Order gives the secret society (IT) superior weapons (real rifles) if Snowpiercer taught us anything it's that revolutions are dicey things even if you have superior firepower.

The Omnivore would like to know a lot more about the social engineering that gave the ruling class such faith in the order in the first place.

However, all that said, WOOL is pretty darn well thought through. It isn't an especially political story but it doesn't have to be: the drivers behind it will make sense to anyone. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

#Shirtgate

Shirtlord
That guy is one of the scientists (Matt Taylor) who made the (stunning) comet-landing mission work. He is literally one of the people who has made a humanity-next-level achievement possible. He was one of the guys who was chosen to do the PR interviews with the scientist team.

During his presser he was wearing the shirt seen above. Yeah: apparently the European Space Agency has no dress code? The Omnivore doesn't know. Anyway, he caught some flack for it from women who felt he was dude-broing up the sciences and issued a choked-up apology.

He Was Attacked By Feminist Bullies
The Omnivore could see the dust-up in Twitter with the #hastags #ShirtStorm and #ShirtGate but a quick analysis of these showed almost no anti-Taylor bullying. That's okay: The Omnivore knows that Twitter is an anti-feminist hive of scum and villainy. The Omnivore hunted for the truly bad things that were said to him.

Here is a good round-up of The Horror. The back-lash, however was swift. The Federalist decides it's time to stand-up to the Feminist bullies. In the list of grievances  it gives us:

  • Outrage about The Verg's article's headline "Your Bowling Shirt Is Holding Back Progress." Oh, The Federalist references the revised click-bait headline (which differs from the URL-name indicating it was added after publication).
  • The Federalist comes down on 'shrill' Jezebel's article complaining about people telling an anti-shirt tweeter to "jump off a cliff" (that's right: the grievance  is that Jezebel is calling "jump off a cliff" and die comments death threats--that's the bullying).
  • It links to a list of "outrage-tweets" with a Trigger Warning that may make you ashamed to be human. The tweets are tame.
  • It quotes London's mayor likening the above to the "Show Trials of Stalin."
Seriously?

The Show Trials of Stalin? And this is the The Omnivore went hunting for anti-Taylor articles that could be seen as personal attacks. It's hard because (a) The Omnivore is on slow hotel-room Internet and (b) Google is fairly stuffed with pro-Taylor backlash--but here's what we've got:
This is not the Show Trials of Stalin. Even the hate-tweets are just ... mild. Even the comments are generally mild.

What's Going On Here?
Part of what's going on here is political opportunism. Gender-dialog is seen as decidedly Democratic which brings the Right out in force but part of the fire comes from less politically polarized men who feel under-assault from "feminism" or, perhaps, women in general. The same tectonic cultural forces that are shifting (rapidly) in favor of gay marriage are also having an impact on men's places in the world. Combined with a decline in social capital for men--especially less credentialed ones--this creates a climate of fear.

Fear, as Yoda tells us, leads to anger.

Anger ... leads to hate.

What does that even mean? Consider the following: A woman who dresses in something less than a burka goes out and is, let's say, verbally harassed by a man. We are told that no matter how revealing her outfit, the man is 100% responsible for his choice to, let's say, call her 'a slut.' It's not how she dressed--it's how he responded to it. The harassment is 100% his fault.

On the other hand, women/feminists find Taylor 100% responsible for the hostile climate created by his shirt. He's responsible for his mode of dress--'she' isn't. Is that a double standard?

What if Taylor was an out-and-proud gay man wearing a shirt with half-clad beefcake on it? It seems unlikely the same people would have complained about the shirt in the same way, doesn't it? Certainly the religious right would have had something negative to say--and their libertarian allies might have been 'okay-with-the-gay' but would want to know if gay-Taylor's sexual preference really had to be in-our-faces-all-the-time, right?

Maybe that's a double standard too?

The reason why these things are not the same isn't because it's explicitly an issue of work-place appropriate clothing (although that does come up) but because fundamentally society treats women and gay men differently in many, many ways from straight-white-males--and the specific instances of these hypotheticals happen within those contexts. As society (that's mainstream western society) as a whole treats straight-white-men on the whole better, this is called 'privilege.'

Today that concept, whether in use by that name or not--and whether sometimes used as a rhetorical battering ram or not--is both important and highly controversial for a lot of people. Outside of specific social-science 'technical discussions' it creates an opaque wall that a lot of people when faced with both can't climb over (the presence of 'privilege' in the argument is sometimes treated as a kind of 100% assignment of right and wrong) and can't see through (the hetero-white-male who is awkward around and rejected by women and can't get a job will rightly have a hard time understanding how "he's got all the social capital.")

On the other hand, it defies logic that people on the right really think that feminists bullies are roundly crushing the egos of space-scientists or meaningfully ruining video games or whatever. Anti-violence social forces did damage a swath of Saturday Morning cartoons in the 70's ... Prohibition was a nanny-state style movement that disrupted society for a while. We're not seeing anything like that with video games or hard sciences or anything period. If you stretch it, you could get the CEO of Mozilla stepping down--but you've really got to stretch it.

If you want a line in the sand, here's one: Can you imagine a woman scientist in Matt Taylor's place wearing a similar shirt? Really? The answer if you are being honest is: No, you cannot. A woman scientist, appearing on international television to show off a humanity-level achievement would be as conservatively and professionally dressed as physically possible.

You can point to celebrities for whom exposure (in both the literal and cultural sense of the word) is currency as having had various "wardrobe malfunctions" or appearing with a, ahem, full-moon--but a woman scientist? No--you can't.

And that's your litmus test. It was, really, pretty boggling that a guy-scientist would show up in his bowling shirt too--it's really hard to know what he was thinking and difficult to figure out why no one had a talk with him before the cameras got there--but the fact that he made it through the front doors, in front of his colleagues, and on to TV with no one (including his bosses?) saying anything? That speaks to a certain level of privilege in attire choices that--well, find a woman in your work-place and ask her. See what she says.

See if she thinks she could get through the prep in a sexed-up Hawaiian shirt without someone intervening.

And if she did?

Her clothing choices would be the topic of the mainstream press conversation instead of the further-left.

If you don't think that's true (ask Hillary Clinton), you have your head in the sand.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

De-Trolling The Internet?



Right now it seems pretty likely that Hillary Clinton will run for president. There is a reasonable chance she will win. What does that mean for Twitter?

Huh?

A few weeks ago The Omnivore was looking at the future of #GamerGate--a movement that purports to be about ethics in video-game journalism but is marred by people under it's flag (#hashtag) spending a lot of time attacking female game developers and critics. It's mired in misogyny  and The Omnivore wondered if the misogynistic drivers behind it would, you know, diminish by 2016 if we had our first female president.

Doesn't seem likely. About 50% of whites think race-relations have gotten worse under Obama and 30% of blacks do. Comparatively few think things have gotten better. Now, that may be because Obama is especially divisive--but ask yourself this: isn't winning a national election where the numbers are pretty close to 50-50 going to be divisive almost by nature.

You can also ask yourself if the "flames" of misogyny are going to be fanned by, shall we say, both actual misogynists and either 'grievance seeking Social Justice Warriors' (which will have one segment of The Omnivore's readership nodding its heads) or 'people seeking a tactical advantage' (to appeal to another segment--see? Division!)? If none of this makes any sense, just consider that you don't have to go to conspiracy theory to know that Hillary's gender is going to be part of the discussion pretty much no matter what and not everyone is going be well behaved about it.

This brings us to Twitter.

Does Twitter Have Secret Troll-Silencing Technology?
Well? Do they?
Luciana Berger, a member of British Parliament, has been receiving a stream of anti-Semitic abuse on Twitter. It only escalated after a man was jailed for tweeting her a picture with a Star of David superimposed on her forehead and the text "Hitler was Right." But over the last few weeks, the abuse began to disappear. Her harassers hadn’t gone away, and Twitter wasn't removing abusive tweets after the fact, as it sometimes does, or suspending accounts as reports came in. Instead, the abuse was being blocked by what seems to be an entirely new anti-abuse filter.
The key here is this: Trolling, Griefing, and other tactics are probably statistically identifiable. It is not hard to launch an anonymous harassment campaign if you can get a large enough sub-demographic riled up--but leaderless attacks probably tend to fall into certain patterns. Big data can identify and isolate them. The social-media infrastructure can remove them.

If this technology (and while it's probably technically an "arms race" since Social Media owns both the troll-identification technology and the 'microphone' that the trolls use to get their message out, it's really more of a 'technology') becomes mature and dominant something may happen: The Internet may roll back not anonymity necessarily--but voice.

Today the Internet gives voice to millions who, historically, have never had it. The printing press (books) gave it to few. Newspapers? A few more. Mimeographs and copy shops? Pirate radio? Even more. But today you can hear from people on fringes so far removed from the mainstream--and in such volumes--that it's an actual game-changer.

Until it isn't: the fact of the matter is that society is not better served by hearing from Sandy Hook deniers and 9/11 Truthers (oh, sure, The Omnivore will look stupid when that turns out to be true. The Omnivore is taking his chances).

Turns Out: You CAN Kill An Idea
Just Take Away Their Employee Meals
Time magazine had a list of the most-annoying words of the year (which word to retire). 'Feminist' was winning in a land-slide. They apologized and removed it (it was beating 'bossy,' 'disrupt,' 'basic,' and 'bae' ... The Omnivore is old). Recently #GamerGate was dealt a devastating blow (which, in Internet is 'Actually A Good Thing'TM) when Intel returned to adverting on Gamasutra after they had been chased off by an Internet Hate-Machine campaign. It's not clear why or under what conditions they came back--but they probably assessed that there was actual (a) money to be made and (b) that #GamerGate's reputation was now out and siding with them looked pretty bad. In other words, one of #GamerGate's major victories was rolled back.

Part of that victory was driven by a distributed mass-messaging campaign called Operation Disrespectful Nod. This was a fairly-savvy email campaign that used time-of-day and non-tagged ("Don't use #GamerGate") advise to create an out-sized influence. It was successful electronic guerrilla action and it caught Intel off-guard. They've since, apparently, re-assessed. They've probably also gotten wise to the methods.

The response from #GamerGate (judging from the link above) is to send them various outlets polite emails in such volumes that they disrupt day-to-day operations. Good luck with that. The PR department's probably recalibrated their spam filters.

The point here is not that #GamerGate or feminism will actually go away--it's that weaponizing these concepts in the Age of the Internet may have a shelf-life as the market forces that drive social media learn to recognize disruptive patterns and clamp down on them. If anything convinces us as a society to move away from email, it'll be that: we've learned to filter spam pretty well. We'll learn to filter email-activism next or move to TwitterMail or something.

Now, despite what the title says, this won't really kill the idea. A hundred years from now, there will be some dude, somewhere, claiming #GamerGate was really about ethics in game journalism--but difference is that by then, no one will hear him.

Trigger Events
Let's get back to Hillary and feminism and the 2016 election. After the 2014 mid-terms, 2016 is the re-match. The GOP is back--they improved with women, Asians, and they won almost unprecedented majorities across the country. The 2016 win is, today, in play. It probably won't be Ben Carson--but the GOP could well pick a firebrand and (today, it seems) have a decent chance.

This is saying the stakes will be high.

Elections are, by their nature divisive and today they divide along fault-lines that already exist. Unless the GOP picks a female candidate (The Omnivore will bet the farm against that) the fault line will be a specific genre of gender war. The specific genre in question will be this: 'Does Hillary deserve to be president more than her record would indicate because she is a woman?'

No one will say this (well, okay, lots and lots of people will say it--and it'll range from straw-men being set up to 'Yes-she-does' discussions of privilege--but the mass media and the official spokespeople for the parties will not say it--or, at the very least, they will not answer it). It will be a key part of the conversation in 2015 and 2016.

This will bring the guys voting down 'feminism' on Time Magazine's poll out in droves. DROVES. And it'll be a problem for everyone:

  • It'll be a problem for the GOP because the War-on-Women charge will still stick to them a little better than the Democrats.
  • It'll be a problem for the media because they have their own history of reporting on Hillary's clothes and won't want to be tarred with the 4chan brush.
  • It'll be a problem for Hillary's people because it risks setting off brush-fires and provoking bad behavior in places they'd rather not.
In short, it'll be incentive for Facebook and Twitter and whatever else is going strong in 2016 to remove people having that conversation.

We might be seeing the emerging weapons in that fight today.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Politics of: Interstellar

Christopher Nolan's film Interstellar is in theaters now. What are its politics? The first section reviews the movie--the second assumes you have seen it (spoilers!).

Interstellar
It's hard to talk too much about Interstellar without spoiling it: it was filmed with baked-in secrecy and even major plot points were held at bay. What you know from the trailer, though, is this: at some point in the future, Earth is dying. Matthew McConaughey is selected to go on an interstellar mission to try and save humanity.

He must leave behind his family and his farm house to go into the depths of space where he will see amazing things and, you know, maybe die ... or not. The movie delivers on all these points--sometimes in a surprising way (McConaughey is not employed as an astronaut in the beginning of the movie--and there is no sign of the space program).

People have criticized (and lauded) the science of Interstellar. To be certain: it isn't a "hard science" narrative even if it kind of looks like it might be one. It does things with black holes, for example, and time-dilation, that seem improbably to the non-astrophysicist eye. On the other hand, it did have theoretical physicist Kip Thorne on-board--so who knows. In any event, the problems are not primarily with the science.

The movie is emotional--and emotionally manipulative--without perhaps having a great deal to say about its topics (love, death, family). That might be because there isn't much to say (would you go on a mission that would mean you'd probably never see your children again? To maybe save them--to save humanity? Uh--yes, and it would suck.). It gives us hardships that are seen in passing inviting us to either not care or possibly care more than the movie deserves (the asthma-ridden boy whose father won't abandon their dust-bowl farm house is a primary one here).

On the other hand, it's a stunning visual ride. If Nolan got the physics of time-dilation wrong, at least he got the look of a super-massive black-hole right. His robots are some of the most personable in sci-fi history and some of the strangest in design. When he has clouds of ominous dust threaten the farm house it really does look like how you'd expect the end of the world to look.

But in the end, it's not as unconventional as it appears. There are patterns to these kinds of movies--in Sunshine (humanities last-ditch attempt to save humanity by stopping the sun from going out) we have a delusion-induced mass murderer for them to fight. In 2001, which notably wasn't about saving humanity, we get a psychotic AI. Usually, in deep space, the vast vacuum, solar radiation, and meteor showers aren't quite enough to make it to the silver screen: we need an antagonist.

That's not too bad a thing though--there's only so long you can worry about the ship falling apart (see any submarine movie) before you just can't take it any more. Interstellar, for all its amazing visuals--and reasonably innovative story-line, does toy with being a more traditional movie.

Nolan has realized he has a really amazing degree of latitude in telling us stories he wants to. He's able to do things that, for example, the Wachowski brothers were not (if only they had been aloud to make the The Matrix's use of humans be for their brain's parallel processing power instead of ... erm ... body heat sources--the movie would have been 100% smarter right there). His use of this to make the nearly 3-hour Interstellar isn't a bad use of his super-powers ... but he left some money on the table.

Interstellar's emotional intelligence doesn't match its visual impact. Interstellar's technical-intelligence doesn't quite carry the weight of its human-experience narrative. It's awesome to look at. It packs a punch. It may not, in the end, quite justify it's 169 minute run-time.

Let's do the politics ...

The Politics of Interstellar
The National Review Online asked if Interstellar was right wing or left wing based on the clip above. It's 1 minute, 11 seconds long. Watch it. The clip shows McConaughey at his daughter's school because she's been insisting the moon landing was real and getting into fights about it. The book she's read--his old text book--is called a "Federal Text book" and the teacher says the school uses the corrected editions that show the moon-landing was faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union.

The point the movie is making is that all of human society is now focused on the earth (where crops, stricken by the blight) are dying. The author wonders if Interstellar will be another environmental disaster movie where leftist Hollywood wags a finger at us for failing to save the planet.

He shouldn't worry: even the scene with the drone (wherein the McConaughey family capture a rogue drone to harvest its power cells) doesn't have the drone doing anything evil. It's just a runaway piece of old technology. It isn't armed, isn't spying, isn't a relic of a surveillance state--nothing. It's empty symbolism--a literal indication that the world has suffered some kind of collapse and while we're not exactly post-apocalypse, we're no longer, for example, building MRI machines (cars run just fine though).

The idea of faking the moon landing is prime conspiracy fodder but it isn't left or right wing, exactly. It's a fringe conspiracy in the way that, for example, Birtherism or even Trutherism, is not. Both of these are nasty and small-minded--but it's considered socially acceptable to "wonder if something is there," right?

If you're going around wondering if they faked the moon landing you're a nut job. Space exploration also isn't primarily right or left. Both sides have factions that like it (remember Gingrich's moon base?) and factions that feel the money would always be better to be spent at home (the 1960's Space Program ... did both!).

The eco-apocalypse isn't a Job-Killing-Cap-And-Trade thing either. The visions of massive clouds of dust call back--explicitly--to the American Dust Bowl (in fact, characters seen on camera speaking about the dust bowl are real people taken from the 2012 documentary The Dust Bowl talking about the real event--and the footage is just applied to the movie). Now, you can say that a sci-film that features a 2nd-helping of the Dust Bowl effect has an environmental message--but in Interstellar it's some kind of disease (the blight) and not explicitly global warming or GMO food or whatever.

No, in this case Nolan's cigars are just cigars.

Conversely, Literary Ecology finds Interstellar decidedly right wing! It gives us unsavory "Luddite" characters (the school staff), has scorn for the life of a farmer vs. an engineer, and it projects a white, masculine Americana vision into outer-space (only one crew member is African American and only one other is a woman!). The author thinks McConaughey's character is out there for his children which, the movie sees, really, as just an extension of him. Uh-huh.

The problem with this analysis is that what it's really talking about is the embedded cultural structure that got the movie produced in the first place--i.e. that Interstellar is a product of its culture. If it's not utterly counter-cultural, gender-bending, transgressive--then it's right-wing. That's okay so far as it goes--but that makes almost everything right-wing (which the author of Literary Ecology would probably agree with--fight the patriarchy, yo!) but instead we should look to The Incredibles: If everything is right wing nothing is (and if you think that changes with 'almost' in front of everything, that's fine--but you also have to then put 'almost' in front of nothing and we're back with that being a useless critique).

Interstellar, like Nolan's Batman movies, just isn't political (despite what you may think of Batman) and this is actually somewhat impressive: It isn't accidental. Nolan could do what many other people do and throw in a Global Warming reference because it'd speak to a lot of his likely audience. No one would bat an eye if we were told that Global Warming (instead of, say, over-farming) had precipitated the blight--we'd all have nodded our heads and gone "Yeah, yeah--we got it."

He uses plenty of images and symbols the audience will recognize: drones, dust storms, and baseball games--but they're not linked to specific key-words like surveillance, global warming, or the American Dream.

But Nolan refuses to "throw the gang-sign." Why? The Omnivore doesn't want to read his mind--but The Omnivore suspects that it's the same reason the Joker's plan to have people on the ships blow each other up fails before Batman gets to them: because the story is about the human heart. Once you put politics on that--even a thin patina--you remove some of that power. Once you're talking about global warming or surveillance drones ("It's a left over Net Neutrality defeater from the Cruz administration!") or whatever, you start excluding people and Nolan doesn't want to do that.

It would damage his story in a way he predicts getting the science wrong won't.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Commodity Congress: Why Most People Don't Vote




Part 1: Red Dawn
Two days ago voters went to the polls and voted for a congress they're not even remotely happy with. Only 7% of the exit-poll voters were enthusiastic about new Republican leadership. Two thirds of the electorate believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. Despite a 53% unfavorability rating for the GOP (the Democrats actually score better at 48% unfavorable) the GOP took control of both houses of Congress.

While the baseline mechanics of this have to do with elderly turnout and demographic collapse (turnout well below predictions for key Democratic constituencies) the broad shape of the election is still this: the people's selections were often the lesser of two evils rather than an enthusiastic adoption of The Brand (we can see this same dynamic played out in the GOP selections McCain and Romney in the past two presidential elections). How can Congress survive with such low approval ratings?

Part 2: Spirit Soars
It turns out the GOP isn't the only most-successful organization with the lowest approval cores! Where else do we see this? Here: The Most Hated US Airline Is Also the Most Profitable. Spirit Airlines has the largest volume of consumer complaints (by a skymile) and makes the most money.
From 2013
Spirit is so hated they actually launched a cheeky consumer quiz (for sky-miles) to find out what people hated and released a report: The State of Hate. Their findings were that people mostly complained about other airlines (which they say, as they released the request their failure to get the most hate means they're great)--but The Omnivore thinks customer complaints tell the real story (people who found the site were already probably Spirit customers).
Maybe Allegiant Scored The Most F-Bombs But Read This
Being the worst of the worst, it turns out, is good money. As Businessweek put it:
“Customer complaints generally have a loose but inverse negative correlation to return on invested capital,” Wolfe Research analyst Hunter Keay says, noting that well-liked JetBlue Airways (JBLU), Virgin America, and Southwest Airlines (LUV) lag financially. “The commitment to make the customer happy costs money.” Keay says the low-cost model rightly treats airfare as a utility. “There really does not need to be a service component attached to consuming airfare.”
The Commodity Congress
Where this comes together is here: If Americans see an electoral choice of candidates not as a premium service but rather as a utility--an undifferentiated commodity--then (a) it makes sense that they'll either vote for the lesser of two evils: Kind of like choosing Comcast over AT&T--The Omnivore has had both and trust The Omnivore, both sucked--but one sucked WAY worse (AT&T Uverse was the worst) or (b) not vote at all.

A "commodity choice" is the "I-Don't-Care" of long-distance carriers*. This perception, whatever the truth (and let The Omnivore tell you: it's more-true than you'd probably like to think), makes real interest in the election for large demographics (and, specifically, large Democratic demographics) seem like a bad investment in time and effort.

Why is this?

There are a few reasons why a potential voter might feel that their choice of representative is basically six of one or a half-dozen of another. It turns out that these also line up with the Airline industry.

Market Forces Are Universal
Spirit may see Greyhound Bus as more its competition than Delta--but the forces of market competition are not restrained by board-room PowerPoint. Everyone in the game has started charging more for extra luggage and seats have gotten smaller across the board. Spirit's success drives that change for the rich and the poor alike (just less so for the rich). The same thing applies to Congress: you can elect whatever bright-eyed and bushy-tailed representative you want--but when they get to Congress the intricate realities of American politics will dash their spirits on the Capitol steps like a tortoise dropped by an eagle. You've seen it happen. So has everyone who ever voted.

You Are Not The Target Demo
Rich people don't fly Spirit. Maybe Delta? Most of the big-name carriers have selected businessmen as their target demo. Once in a while you see a sub-carrier go after another non-value-demographic (this is a great article about Song Airlnes targeting women)--but while a lot of candidates brand themselves as serving minority interests (and, in majority-minority House districts, they certainly will) for the state-wide candidates most people have a pretty intuitive sense of who the Senators are "designed for." That, for minorities, usually isn't them. Senate campaigns cost millions and millions of dollars. Whatever the advertising, there's a reasonable expectation that the candidate isn't going to throw that cash-cow into the slaughterhouse.

Selection Options Are Obscure
Today most people shop by ticket-price. The big web-aggregators don't, for example, calculate luggage fees for you (they can't: it depends on what you plan to check), or tell you that Spirit will charge you 3 bucks for water (they advise you can drink out of the bathroom sink!). When you see the lowest price ticket on Kayak you have to do research to figure out what you might really wind up with. Most people don't even think about that--and then they get burnt.

For congressional candidates the situation is similar. Instead of there being a lack of clarity about what they'll do there's too much information and it's hugely conflicting. You can see the candidate's record--yeah--but what about what they're saying now? Can you trust anyone's ad? Probably not--it's all spin. In the end, looking at that ballot is probably about one or two specific issues the voter has a vague grip on and whichever team's jersey they're wearing.

Is it any wonder that the politically under-served aren't rushing to the polls?

Now, You Say That's Not True
Certainly the people who got the Medicare Expansion and went to the hospital or the dentist for the first time in their lives could say that the national choice of election did make a difference. No argument there--for them--but let's look at it another way: if you had to gamble on something like the ACA passing in 2008 how much would you have bet it'd go down? If you say "I'd bet the farm" you're an idiot: it almost didn't happen--and that was with a super majority.

Tell you what: when we get the time machine working, The Omnivore's gonna clean you out on closing Gitmo.

Uh-huh. That was a slam-dunk compared to the ACA. Given the small chances of any specific candidate making a real bright-line difference to most people, is it any wonder they're treated like a commodity utility by, well, most people?

And when, as we've seen, you run a commodity utility, customer service isn't a required part of the equation.

Thankfully, Spirit thinks bathrooms during the flight are pretty much necessary. Where's your congressperson on that?


* As you ought to know, in the great long-distance carrier wars, some companies registered I-Don't-Care and It-Doesn't-Matter as the names of their rip-off long distance services. When an apathetic consumer told the phone operator they didn't give a shit, they got taken for a ride. How this applies to I-Couldn't-Be-Arsed-To-Show-Up-And-Vote is left as an exercise to the reader.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Illuminoimia Ch 30:End Game

In 1975 Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson published The Illuminatus! Trilogy. It remains a seminal work of conspiracy fiction. Today, The Omnivore continues a serial-fiction experiment: Illuminoimia. 

Everything You're Afraid Of Is True.

In the aftermath of the Washington explosion, some things change and some don't.
-----------------------------------------
Previously On Illuminoimia
Ch 12: The Heart Vault  
Ch 13: Last Flight Out 
Ch 14: The World Trade Organization 
Ch 15: Postmortem Interrogation 



Aftermath Part 3: The Georgia Front
Ranger Coyne lay in the medical tent, an IV running into his arm. They had been critically low on supplies when the assault came--when the storm off the coast suddenly started moving and turned north into the sea rather than plowing onto the land.


It was clearly unnatural--the word from Benning was some kind of high-energy square-wave signal from the re-activated HAARP installation in the far north. Apparently global weather could be directed and apparently it was. Coyne had lain in the tree-line and watched the dark man bring the former Senator to his knees while he looked through field-glasses. He was forbidden to touch his weapon unless the dark man killed Mary.


He had orders to kill Mary if he took anything from the man--or tried to go with him. He couldn’t imagine what would make that happen--but it almost had. He had felt the fear and sickness in his bones just watching.


They had adjusted the field glasses to reduce their range--to damage the lens--so that he could not see too much or too well. Stupid, he had thought--but when the two men--or whatever the dark thing was--met, he was suddenly glad he could not see clearly. The flash of the feeling of slime across his skin was so visceral and intense he nearly vomited. He learned later some of the men had.


But then Mary had resisted--and when he got up off his knees he’d returned to their lines, leaving the figure alone. It had stayed, motionless, until they were pulled back.


Then the assault had come. The storm’s winds slowed and the Department of Homeland Security forces had charged forward--a mechanized fist against the front line of the resistance. Coyne had been there to watch it happen. He had been there to join the battle hoping for  reinforcements to come on December 25th.


Enemy Intel said they were calling it the Christmas Day Slaughter.


But Christmas, so to speak, came early. The radios went silent at first and then erupted with news: the destruction of Washington DC. The use of nuclear weapons on American soil. The Speaker of the House is the standing president having been beyond the blast radius when the device went off. His orders are fast and final: DHS is dismantled. The Terror Courts are shut down. Prisoners have been released. The war is over.


There will be an emergency election.


Merry Christmas To All and Goodwill Towards Men.


Aftermath Part 4: Charles Brin. Kill Your Darlings
Brin has floated in the unpleasant nothingness for a long time. There have been visitors--they come as distant chimes and appear to him as tear-drops coming from far blackness and then opening before him--he is helpless--and he knows he can feel pain. He feels it--fleetingly--during diagnostic checks and then they recede.


He is terrified he will be tortured--that the torture will start and never stop. He feels certain They can do it. His ability to retain a meditative state seems fractured by whatever condition he is in now. He can’t feel much of his body but when he can, he feels centipedes that make sounds like soft buzzsaws crawl over his extremities. He waits, unable to do anything else, for them to find open wounds and flood him with high intensity, high fidelity pain.


When a teardrop comes, he holds what he can of his breath--and then the sympathy-less ‘Doctor’ is there.


Doctor (A surgical face-mask with dead eyes above it): “Subject is reactive. Prep for final descent. Tartarus Scenario.”


A voice out of view: “Prepping. We will bring him up to four. Full cognizance and pain. Testing three, two, one.”


Charles: “What--wait--WHAT!?”


He feels it then--not pain--yet. Sensation. Blood, viscera. A sudden dip into a pool of almost-feeling. The intense vulnerability of his shattered body. The crushing helplessness of his immobile form. He knows they can hurt him.


Doctor: “Affirm. When the master arrives, he will be ready.”


Charles: “What--” now his mouth feels dry and he feels thirst--overwhelming--he wants water and knows he can’t really drink. “What day is it?” For some reason, that matters.


The Doctor’s tear-drop is ready to recede, but he is surprised. “Christmas eve,” he says.


Charles coughs. Then there is a noise--very faint--and a sensation of a slight drop.


The blackness becomes deeper. The ‘centipedes’ are abruptly gone. Is this “Level 4”? Is something beginning?


Things change. They are coming to hurt him. For moments there is nothing--and then a shudder as the Doctor’s image dissolves--as though his entire limbo has been shaken exactly once. Then ...


Then he hears water--waves on a shore and he feels … sand. It all feels suddenly, incredibly real. He is laying … on a beach. It’s daylight. Gulls--the sounds of cars. He stands. He’s wearing swim-trunks. His body is healthy and whole. Waves come in and he looks down the beach at a line of hotels rising into the sky. It’s a skyline he vaguely recognizes.


Miami.


Miami Beach. He blinks. It’s a simulation--it has to be--but the waves curl and crash and the grains of sand cling to his body. There are people further down on reclining chairs. He looks up at the road-side and sees large bodied cars. Old cars. Classics. 1970’s? He shakes his head--rubs his eyes. Feels his arms.


Nothing--nothing feels wrong.


He’s thirsty, yes--but not desperately. He starts to walk--south, he thinks. He can hear the traffic. He nods to a woman in a one piece suit. She nods back. She sees him. Her husband, pale and ungainly looking, has white paste slathered thickly across his nose.


Then he sees something that definitely is out of place--and he starts up towards the hotel.


“Charles.”


“I saw you,” he says. The Black Magician is up the beach under a Tiki hut at the edge of a resort hotel property. He holds a drink in his hand and wears a brilliant, absurdly loud Hawaiian shirt and red trunks. Without his bespoke suit he looks like a jolly tourist with, perhaps, overly intense eyes.


Charles approaches carefully. He is afraid that when this ends--they will have him. He slides onto the stool next to the magician. There’s a second drink. Margaritas.


He taste it--the gulps it and wipes at his chin. He’ll drink what he can--enjoying the cool sweet taste of the alcohol down his throat.


“Easy,” says the magician.


“This is a dream?”


“Do you think?” The magician asks--but then “No. Or, at least, not in the way you mean it. This is all--” he raps the wood, “very real.”


“It’s 1970?” Brin asks.


“1973, precisely. Late August. It is my current reside, if you will. In a sense.”


“And me--my body?”


“Your brain maintains quantum activity for years after death,” says the magician. “The what-makes-you-you is, really, quite timeless. States of lucidity after death do exist--sometimes for short periods of time. Sometimes … much, much longer.” He gestures around. “This is one of them.”


“So I’m dead?”


“As I currently understand it, a nuclear weapon--the one you procured--was detonated in Washington DC several minutes ago from your subjective perception. The team that was coming to extract you--and what remained of you--was, I estimate--destroyed in the cave-in.”


Brin drinks--this is the best news he’s heard yet.


“So now? This is … heaven?”


“Not so!” The magician also takes a sip. “This is Miami in the summer of 1973. You are here, in person, because of my interference. The problem with your conceptualizing this is that what you think of as reality is a great deal more like a dream than you generally believe. What you perceive as linear time and cause and effect are your mind’s way of making sense of a world that is almost impossible to fit into human context.”


“You can be dead in the 21st century. Alive in 1973. You can be in the very, very real world--and also preparing for your next consciousness at the same time. Dead--alive--these are a continua and not the black-and-white concepts you generally perceive them to be.”


Brin eyes him. Uncertain as to what to believe.


“So they can’t bring me back--I’m not being hunted?”


“Now? No. And here? Certainly not--this is not a ‘dream’ but it is also not exactly what you’d think of as Miami. The truth is that ‘Miami’ is not what you’d think of as ‘Miami,’ but I expect that further conversation down that path would simply lead to frustration.”


Brin takes a measured drink. Longer.


Then he nods: “At least that last part makes sense.”


The magician grins. “There’s a boat for you--an identity in this hotel. Your room--your name. Probably a bag. The craft is the Sea Change. It departs from the pier in an hour.”--He gestured at a dock extending out into the glittering green waves flecked with bright white foam.


The boat is a large day-fisher. He can see crew working it now--getting it ready for the tourists. He can see the name on the side in cursive: The Sea Change. He is suddenly aware of the breeze cooling his skin.


“What happens when I get on it?” he asks.


“You will depart,” says the magician.


“You mean ‘die?’”


He shakes his head. “Travel. Transition. Move on. Your context with Washington and Benghazi and the Secretary of State is destroyed for you. You cannot go back. This is a different context altogether. You are a different if … analogous … thing here. For you, though, these omens--”


He gestures at the boat--at the name--”they have special meanings that don’t apply to others here. You, in your life--you have probably passed by others sharing your observance in their own liminal state.”


“You mean I’ve met other dead people?”


“Yes--and their experience of transition--and the world they saw full of special meanings and signs and doorways was shared with you, and you, of course, would notice nothing.”


“I’m not real here?”


“You are.”


“But only for a time,” Brin guesses.


The magician shrugs. “It is not a dream, Charles. There is no waking up. This is as real as where you came from. It is simply different. Go to your room--take your bag. The tickets.” He nods up at the resort hotel.


“If I’m real here,” Brin asks, “why don’t I remember anything here?”


“You’re in transition. A sleepwalker. The boat is for you.”


Brin nods. He finishes the drink. Then he asks: “Why? Why help me?”


The Magician smiles, broadly, “You were there--you were clever--and I could. If you mean ‘why’ in the larger sense? Well … I never actually liked the forces arrayed against you to begin with. They were trying to break the universe in their own cancerous fashion.” He shrugs. “They are not here. In a certain sense They ‘never existed here’--but that is an improper use of the past tense.”


The Magician takes another swallow from his glass. “These are complicated realities Charles. And you have a boat waiting for you.”


Brin looks out at the water. “Thanks.”


“Don’t mention it. Think of it as a gift--from one traveler to another.”


Charles rises--out of some sense of propriety he goes from the bar to his hotel room, finding it easily--his memories coming back to him slowly and in pieces like forgetting a dream--but in reverse.


In his room is a single back bag with a change of clothes. Identification (Charles Brin, Coast Guard Investigation Services). He has a Hawaiian shirt in the closet. Comfortable slacks. He dresses.


At the bottom of the bag is a slim .32 caliber handgun. He checks it. Oiled.


He stands at the foot of the pier. The Sea Change rides in the water down at the end. A fat tourist with a camera around his neck stands beside him.


“Ever been fishing?” the fat man asks. “On the ocean, I mean?”


Brin looks out at the boat--his boat. He wonders what will happen when they are out on that sea.


“I have,” he says. He did--a dive trip down in the warm Caribbean waters.


“The missus didn’t want to come,” the man laughs. “Come on--let’s go look at her.” He gestures at the boat.


But Brin just stands there.


“I think,” he says, turning to look up at the white towering hotel behind them, “I might have forgotten something.”


The man looks at him oddly, but Brin doesn’t care.


It’s 1973, he thinks. Castro is out there, isn’t he? The Cold War is still on. Miami is bright and hot and he has a badge and an Id and a gun--he’s remembering more and more.


He starts up the beach, his shoes crunching into the warm sand. His Sea Change, he thinks, it’ll still be there when he wants it. Won’t it? Why rush things? Why rush anything.


Coda
I looked out through the glass doors of our apartment at the gray morning just beginning to get started outside. I could hear birds--faintly--and Sarah’s breathing beside me. In the clear, cool peace of a March morning it was almost possible to believe things had never quite happened the way I remembered them. The past had a growing sense unreality the further we got from it and now three months out, it was, for brief moments in the warm, welcoming dawn I was almost able to shelve it.


But I couldn’t: those hours in the cellar with Rex issuing commands, going through papers that fell apart when exposed to air and were written in a language I couldn’t begin to recognize. Rex spoke to me. I relayed the messages to Hal who sat at a distance, making notes on his tablet, organizing--orchestrating--a media campaign that would take place over weeks and change everything.


Rex had coughed, losing blood--slowing--but he was always perfectly clear, precise, and ordered. Hal would do what he was told: They were in chaos. Washington was in flames. The Georgia Rebellion? The Georgia Rebellion was going to be the Second American Revolution--and if the Speaker of the House had survived the blast … we were under new management.


We worked through the night and into the morning--relentlessly. It became clear what we were doing--what messages were injected into pop-culture, which names--at all levels of every media I could imagine--would be notified of their roles--it was like we were unwinding some giant clock. We were closing doors. We were unspooling secrets.


Finally, Rex had slumped.


He’d looked up, vampire-pale.


“That’s done,” he said. His voice was gone from non-stop talking. “It’s enough: He’ll do it. It’s the only thing that’ll possibly save his family.”


He coughed. “You need to get out of here.”


“What about you?”


I looked down. He wasn’t … dead yet. It wouldn't be long.


Rex grinned. “You’ll need a head start,” he said. “You’ve got to get back to Seattle and you’d better go now because the freeways will be shut down once the government tries to reassert control. There’ll be martial law--for real--for a while.”


“We … can get you help,” I said. It was empty though: I couldn’t imagine what they could do for him. His clothes were soaked, matted--dark red.


“Here,” he said. “Take a look at this--it’s funny. You’ll like it.”


I looked at the sheath of instructions--of symbols and sigils and the archaic type-written commentary. Disposal of a sitting POTUS and next administration: the arming and creation of a terror army practicing the thousand year old practice of decapitation in the Middle East. They would have an easily accessible name in English and the symbol of association would be The Throne.  It was a set of kill-codes for a democratically elected president.


I tossed it aside. Rex was dying and I--I had to leave. There was Sarah to think of.


“What do I--”


“Leave me down here,” Rex said. His voice was weak. “I need … my … second wind. You go--and hurry--Seattle is waiting for you. Go!”


I had a feeling I’d better. In the hours of aftermath it wasn’t clear things were going to get better at all. Travel was shut down--I had his car keys … he said the car would be abandoned. I’d left--the elevator climbing and then out--into the street. The city, on Christmas Eve, had been stunned into emptiness.


It was ghost-town silent.


Now, months later I was here--in the New World--uncharted territory--without Them. With Sarah. Now I could breathe. Soon, I thought, I’d be able to share. The Unwinding was happening--slowly--but surely and I could see it. Clearly President Thomas Mary knew what was going on. He was moving with speed and force against what remained of Them. The enemy was unclear--cabals of bankers, international business concerns, rogue nations, and a private elite that existed above the 1%.


I heard the phone ring. It was a wall unit in the kitchen. I still didn’t trust one in the bed room--for no good reason--and I’d avoided a cell phone even. Old habits. I moved to get it--before it woke Sarah for good.


“Hello?”


“Theo.”


My heart stopped. It was Rex. I felt my mouth go dry.


“I actually wasn’t kidding about the second-wind thing,” he said. “With time and concentration we can seal off a lung and shut down bleeding. It takes a lot to kill one of us … you managed it though.”


He paused.


I felt like the room was tilting around me. Like everything from a past life had just come swarming back into my reality.


Rex continued--”I’m in Washington--I’m helping with the Unwinding … in a Blind Spot position on Mary’s cabinet.”


He paused: “We have a problem, Theo--and I still need you--as my translator … This isn’t something I’m going to be able to do alone.”


I clung to the phone. I couldn't think …


“Remember what I told you about vaults of gold buried under the lunar surface? Yeah--well, that wasn’t a lie and it wasn’t an exaggeration--we’ve had bases up there since after we faked the first landing … and rituals. Remember what I told you about the Elohim? Look--I can’t go into detail but we--meaning the United States--might just have a very, very big problem and I’m probably the only human alive who can go up there and maybe fix things.”


I sat--heavily--trying to make sense of things--but I felt my pulse climbing. The moon?


“What do you mean,” I asked, “Up There?”


Rex paused. “I mean up there, Theo--if you ever dreamed as a kid about being an astronaut today’s your lucky day. Oh--and this time bring Sarah to Washington. It’s time she learned something about what’s really been going on.”


“You’re not kidding are you,” I asked.


“There’s a helicopter to get you to the SST to get you to Washington right now on its way,” he said. “Get her up and grab your toothbrush. This is serious enough not to fuck around with--but you’re gonna see things that will, I promise, Blow. Your. Mind.”


That got my attention.


I could distantly hear chopper blades.


I stood.


“Sarah,” I said … a little more loudly than usual. “You need to get up--and get dressed--real fast. We--we really need to talk.”

--END

Consciousness After Death