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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 31, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Apocalypto, Lehi Mills, Art of Intrusion

I wasn't going to see Apocalypto.

And not because of any kind of boycott of Mel Gibson after his anti-Semitic diatribe.

I hate almost every opinion I've heard from Barbra Streisand and Jane Fonda, but I still think Fonda is one of our best actresses, and I listen to Streisand and regard her as the best pop singer of my lifetime.

OK, so I don't watch Michael Moore's movies or read Al Franken's books, but that's because Moore's movies are nothing but hatred for everybody, and Franken stopped being funny years ago. But Fonda can still act, and Streisand can still sing.

Anyway, my point is that I loathe anti-Semitism, but that is not, in my view, a reason not to go to a Mel Gibson movie. Are any of his movies anti-Semitic? No. Do any of his characters spout anti-Semitic views? No. Does he promote anti-Semitism in his public appearances? No. He keeps his views to himself almost all the time.

Meanwhile, a lot of the people who pucker up their lips in distaste at Mel Gibson's anti-Semitism are far more anti-Semitic than he is. Oh, they deny it -- they claim they're only "anti-Zionist" or "supporting Palestinian rights."

But the Palestinian and anti-Israel spokesmen in the Muslim world call for the destruction of Israel, blame Jews for every bad thing in the world, lie about what Jews do and have done, and advocate and applaud the murder of Jews anywhere and everywhere in the world.  Thus to support their cause is, for my money, infinitely more dangerous to Jews -- and therefore more anti-Semitic -- than anything Mel Gibson has ever said while drunk in a bar.

Here's my suggestion: Let's boycott Mel Gibson movies starting on the same day when every American and European academic who has made common cause or expressed sympathy with Jew-killing Palestinian terrorist groups like Al Fatah, Hamas, and Hezbollah loses tenure and is denied the right to publish. Fair is fair -- punish one, punish all.

So let's not punish any.

No, my reason for not wanting to see Apocalypto was that Gibson has a history of making hyper-realistic and excruciatingly painful movies about historical events in which people are tortured and killed. Passion of the Christ, Braveheart, The Patriot -- let alone the torture and suffering that figure so large in the Lethal Weapon franchise.

And I did enough research into Mayan and other Mesoamerican cultures for my novel Pastwatch that I have no desire to watch an accurate depiction of the vile cruelty that was at the heart of what passed for "holiness" among them.

Here's where I plead guilty to historical snobbery. I don't believe that all cultures are of equal value. (Neither do the multiculturalists -- they believe that all cultures are of equal value except Western democratic and Judeo-Christian culture, which is evil in every way.)

I think it's a terrible thing that smallpox and other diseases wiped out half or more of the Native Americans who were alive when the Europeans first arrived. Just as I think it was terrible when plagues wiped out so much of Europe centuries before.

But I can't help but think that when the Spaniards brought down the Aztec Empire, with its thousands and thousands of human sacrifices a year, they did a good thing. And the torture that was ritualized within Mayan culture was not "just another way of being human."

It was an offense against humanity, and it needed to be stopped, just the way it was a good thing when the British declared war on slave-shipping in the 19th century, and just the way that terrorist murder of innocents needs to be stopped today.

Frankly, I didn't want the visual memory of Mayan human sacrifice indelibly printed in my brain.

But then a good friend, who knows at least as much about history as I do, asked if I wanted to see it. My honest answer was, "No way."

Then I thought for a couple of days and remembered that Mel Gibson makes good movies and besides, my friend was a great person to see movies with.

So I called him up and we went and ...

It was exactly what I expected. Only better.

Yes. The human sacrifice is there (though it looked a lot more like Aztec religious rites than Mayan to me). It's excruciating, particularly because we're watching it while characters we care about are waiting in line to be the next ones sacrificed.

But there's what makes this movie work: We care about these characters. Even though the whole movie is in subtitles, Rudy Youngblood, as the man Jaguar Paw, brings off a powerful performance and we really don't miss English. Really.

The story is of a village, which is warlike enough and has a very Native American sense of humor (i.e., ridicule-centered), but isn't going around picking fights. They are raided by the great king, and most of them are dragged off to become slaves or to be sacrificed in order to end the drought and plagues that are debilitating the kingdom.

Jaguar Paw manages to hide his heavily-pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and his firstborn son in the village cistern. But they're trapped there, and with the first rain, the cistern will fill up and drown them. Somehow Jaguar Paw has to get free of the murderous priests and reach home in time to save his family before it rains.

The result is a long chase movie: Jaguar Paw is captured, escapes, and must get home before a tropical rainstorm kills his wife and child.

But it was a great chase movie. I could hardly breathe once the action started. And there were beautiful moments in the midst of all the ugliness -- in particular, a few moments of an underwater birth that I will never forget.

Not for one moment did I wish I had lived in those times and in that place. But Gibson's (and writer Farhad Safinia's) achievement was to make me see the common humanity among these cultural strangers -- even among those who capture the slaves for sacrifice.

I can't recommend it for everyone. It's no Pride and Prejudice. It's not your average date movie. But I'm glad I saw it. I admire Gibson and all the rest who worked together to create it. This was a brave and difficult film to make. It will make back its investment -- barely. But that's enough, with a film like this. Congratulations to Buena Vista (Disney) for having the guts to distribute it, but most of all to Mel Gibson's Icon Entertainment International for having the vision to make it.

*

I feel a little guilty that I never remembered to review Lehi Roller Mills before Christmas, because it makes baking mixes that are so good, and so delightfully presented, that they make perfect gifts.

But hey, Valentine's Day is coming up.

OK, maybe a package of pancake mix isn't all that romantic.

Unless it's a really great pancake mix. And you make the pancakes and serve them to somebody in bed. Or in the kitchen while they're still in their jammies and they didn't have to lift a finger to make them or clean up after ...

Look, you're responsible for your own love life. If Scott Yost hasn't turned to me yet for romantic advice, why should you?

What I know about is food. And this is great stuff.

Pancakes, brownies, hot cereal, muffins, brownies, baked apple pudding cake, country corn bread, cobbler topping -- every one of them I've tried has been so good I get a little teary-eyed, like watching a really good chick flick. It's the comfort food you remember growing up on, even if nobody in your life actually cooked this well.

And the packaging is delightful. Instead of your standard plastic-lined boxes, the mixes come in tight-woven floursack bags. They look great, they feel great, and when you mix them up you almost want to keep the bag.

http://www.LehiRollerMill.com. Nuff said.

*

When I first came to Greensboro, it was as book editor at Compute! Magazine. It was pre-IBM PC -- the hot machines were VIC, Commodore 64, Apple, TRS-80, and Atari. In those days, the word "hacker" wasn't a bad word at all -- it was the proud label applied to those who had the chops as programmers to solve problems deftly, finding ways to explore the hidden power of machines.

Since then, though, the word has been twisted. As legitimate programming was taken over by corporate types, who valued being "part of the team," the lone-wolf hackers began to become more famous when they caused trouble, finding secret entry points into other people's computer systems and wreaking havoc.

Detailed explanations of the actual programming skills involved would be mind-numbingly dull to those who don't program. But The Art of Intrusion: The Real Stories Behind the Exploits of Hackers, Intruders, & Deceivers,

by Kevin D. Mitnick & William L. Simon, delivers what it promises: Stories.

The purpose of the book is to serve as a warning to those who want to protect their computers from intrusion. You can enjoy reading it even if you have no idea what programming is. In fact, some of the hackers they write about aren't programmers at all -- they're just persistent users of readily-available hacker software, and they don't give up once they have a target.

They're quite an array of folks. Some were just high school or college students and it all began as a prank. Others are "Robin Hood" hackers, breaking in, not to cause trouble, but to let their targets see how their systems were vulnerable.

There are also tales of former hackers who have "gone straight" and now hire out as security consultants. They still hack their way into corporate and government systems; the difference is that now they have a contract to do it. It's kind of like hiring somebody to rob your bank just to show how it could be done.

Sometimes the methods they use to break in are clever, smart, or downright devious. But almost all the stories in this book reveal a painful truth: People can't break into your system without your help, or at least your carelessness.

For instance, there's the company that spends many thousands of dollars elaborately protecting their sensitive database from intrusion. But their backups -- which consist of all the same information, 24 hours older -- are left sitting in a hallway where anybody could walk off with them.

Hackers are usually able to break into systems because people haven't bothered to change their passwords from the defaults, or because the original programmers of key software left in "back doors" -- points of access that bypass all the elaborate security.

Or they wangle a list of employees, find the paradigm for the usernames (i.e., "John H. Smith" always becomes "JoHSm" or "JohnSmith" or "John_Smith," etc.), and then guess at passwords -- because a shocking number of people use obvious passwords like their own names, their birthdays, or other easily obtained or easily guessed information.

It doesn't take a whole organization of people with ludicrously easy passwords -- it takes only one for a good hacker to get "inside" where he can search out the top-secret files that contain everybody's passwords, at which point security at that site is over.

A favorite story was about how some lazy programming in electronic poker software left the door wide open for a small group of ordinary guys to steal millions from various casinos (though since the premise of casinos is to use gambling odds to steal money from the customers, it kind of seems fairish -- or at least like poetic justice).

One of the most fascinating sections consisted of "social engineering" stories. Here the entry point isn't a computer, it's a door. I've seen this one myself -- somebody uses a passkey to open a "secure" door, then turns around and holds the door open for the guy behind him, without even asking him to show i.d. Talk about an open invitation to steal.

The stories are funny and sometimes sad and often kind of scary. There's really no solution to the password problem: If you have a password you can remember, than it can probably be attacked, if only by brute force (i.e., having the computer try all possible combinations of letters).

But if you have a password that's impossible to hack, there's no way you'll remember it unless you write it down -- and then somebody can steal it from the place where you hid it.

This is a cool book, full of "true crime" stories in which nobody gets killed and the little guy makes idiots out of the big corporate guys. I know that morally this is a nightmare -- it makes heroes out of the crooks -- and I certainly don't want anyone stealing my passwords (no, I don't use my dog's name) (because I don't have a dog) (and because even if I did, I'm not sure I'd remember its name, since I can't remember my children's names as it is).

But those of us who use computers know that we're all the victims of the systematic dishonesty of selling the public software that doesn't work, which is theft as far as I'm concerned. How many thousands of dollars have been stolen from me already by big corporations who don't care if the product they sell is worthless junk?

It's easier to catch hackers -- it's usually just one or two guys -- while the corporate thieves spread the responsibility around until hardly anybody has much of it at all.


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