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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 14, 2011

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


Source Code, Hanna, Spam, and Port 80

Winter is over! Two weekends in a row, a movie opened that was worth seeing. It's been a long drought, but it's finally raining.

Source Code seems, at first glance, to be a cross between Inception (all kinds of fake-science mumbo-jumbo that lets the characters do cool-but-impossible things) and Groundhog Day (keep going back to the same moment in time and do it over till you get it right).

Heck, that's probably how it was pitched to the studios. Except that Inception hadn't opened. So they probably said, "It's 'Groundhog Day meets The Matrix.' 'Nuff said!"

The studio gave the go-ahead, and they were right. Because the script by Ben Ripley is very, very smart.

The science in the script is beyond stupid, of course, but that's because it deals with computers, and Hollywood writers figure that nobody in the audience actually knows how computers work, so you can do any stupid thing and it will work.

Tron: I rest my case.

But really. "Source code" has a specific meaning in computer programming. It's the set of comprehensible, editable statements that programmers actually write; it is then compiled into machine code that the computer can understand. In other words, the computer never actually looks at the source code, it looks at the machine-language translation.

So the poor actors have to make completely idiotic statements about "source code" which cannot possibly have anything to do with the absurd virtual time travel stuff that the story depends on.

It goes beyond terminology, though. Even if it were true that eight minutes' worth of a dead person's memory persisted, that doesn't mean that even a fraction of a second of it could actually be accessed by a computer. And even if it could, that doesn't mean that a person whose mind was accessing a dead person's mind could possibly get any data that the dead person did not know at the time of death.

So let's face it. Source Code depends on such deeply impossible stupidity that it makes you want to cry.

And it doesn't matter. Because the science stuff is all mumbo-jumbo anyway. We sci-fi writers do this all the time. Faster-than-light or lightspeed travel; space warps; time travel -- aw, come on. We know its bogus. We do it anyway because we love the stories.

And why do we love them? Because, just like ancient myths about the gods and heroes, in these stories people can do fantastical things that are wonderful to conceive of.

So Jake Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens, a soldier who is in combat one moment and the next moment finds himself sitting across from a total stranger named Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) on a passenger train heading into Chicago.

He doesn't know her, but she knows him. No, wrong -- she knows another guy but keeps calling Colter by his name. And when he checks in a mirror and looks at his i.d., he is the other guy. Then the train blows up.

He's not dead. He's inside what seems to be the cockpit of something, and a woman is talking to him through a porthole. Or a computer screen. And she's talking about this train and how he has to go back and find the bomb.

Oh! I'm going to save the train by finding the bomb!

No, Colter. You can't save the train. It already blew up. Everyone on the train died. That's the only reason we can send you back: They're already dead. But by finding the bomb, maybe you can help us find the bomber, because we think he has a dirty bomb that he's going to use to make a mess of Chicago.

No, says Colter. I'm falling in love with this woman and I'm going to save her.

Maybe in some alternate universe, but not this one!

OK, that's the whole setup. Like most sci-fi stories, it sounds dumb when you just tell it like that. But when you have a masterful writer of relationships and characters -- as Ripley seems to be -- you can end up with something quite wonderful. A human story that first intrigues you, then moves you.

For a moment, at the end, it looks like Source Code is giving us an Inception ending: Nanner, nanner, we're not telling you how it actually turned out.

Then they repent of such folly and let us see the end, and then make us "believe" it -- that is, accept that it "really" happened within the context of the fake universe the story takes place in.

OK, look, just trust me on this: As long as you switch of the part of your brain that monitors whether movies have anything to do with the real world, chances are you'll like this movie.

There are those who think that Vera Farmiga, who plays the woman who talks to Colter Stevens when he's back in that compartment in the science lab, isn't given much to work with in the way of character.

Those who think that are half-right. She isn't given much, because the story's not about her, the story's on the train. But she's given a little to work with, because Ripley's a good writer. And she's Vera Farmiga, who did such a brilliant job of holding together Up in the Air a couple of years ago, so she takes that little bit and turns it into Something. Farmiga has the chops to be a great actress. Now somebody get her the roles!

Source Code: Not a great movie, but a pretty darn good one. Worth going to the theater for.

Then this past weekend a movie opened that I had heard absolutely nothing about: Hanna. The premise: A 16-year-old girl was raised in isolation in the woods near the Arctic Circle. It was her father raising her, because her mother was assassinated when Hanna was two years old. And he spent every moment of her life training her to be a brilliant, capable killer.

So she is deeply educated in a very limited range of subjects, and completely naive in other ways. At age 16, she decides -- and he lets her decide -- that it's time to join the rest of the world and accomplish the mission she was raised for: to kill the person who killed her mother.

But no, it's not a vengeance story, or not just a vengeance story. The thing is, the murderer of her mother will do anything to finish the job and kill Hanna and her father, as soon as they reenter the world. So the only way Hanna can possibly have any kind of life is if she kills this implacable enemy.

I'm not going to tell you even a speck of the rest of the plot because it's so wonderful to learn things when Hanna learns them. The science in this movie is way more plausible than the "science" in Source Code, but that's not what makes this a better movie.

1. The script is even better. Seth Lochhead and David Farr put together a story that is filled with suspense, humor, deadly action, and human compassion.

2. Saoirse (SEER-shuh) Ronan, who plays Hanna, is not just an ethereal and other-worldly beauty. Her face and eyes are always full of exactly the right emotion and intensity; her lines are spoken perfectly. She can act. She's going to be a huge star, and she deserves it. If this weren't an action flick, she'd be in line for an Oscar nomination already.

3. Director Joe Wright brings the sensibility of his moody creation of period in Pride and Prejudice to this decidedly contemporary film. He never makes the audience notice the camera work. Each shot feels like the only possible view to yield the perfect blend of clarity and emotion.

My 17-year-old especially noticed a brief scene between Hanna and a friend who are conversing late at night under a blanket. The camera is so close it feels like we're under the blanket, too, sharing in the moment of intimate friendship. Yet I didn't even notice the camera technique; I simply experienced the moment.

Eric Bana and Cate Blanchett and Jessica Barden and Olivia Williams and Jason Flemyng and Tom Hollander and -- oh, I give up. The whole cast is brilliant and they're doing their best work in this film. Nobody overacts or juices things up; everybody is completely real and they rely on the story to work our emotions.

The result is an astonishingly powerful film. No jagged handheld camera, no confusion of quick cuts to give us the illusion of energy and action, as in the Bourne movies. Nothing stands between us and a moving, powerful story of love and sacrifice, survival and injustice. At the end, I wasn't thinking "what a cool sci-fi movie" (though it was) or even "what a great action flick" (though it was). I was thinking: "All the sacrifices -- were they worth it? I think so. I think that's what you do for children in danger."

In other words, it was not the art that I was thinking about, it was the story -- what happened and why.

And that, my friends, is what separates great art from pretention. If it leaves you thinking about its artistry, then it's not good art -- it's just a peephole through the fence they build around a construction site.

Good art brings you inside -- no barriers -- and lets you live inside the story so it becomes part of your memory.

See Hanna. Really. It may be about a kid, but it's a grown-up film. The first this year.

*

Back when I was in college, a friend of mine was having a Halloween party at a house she shared with several roommates. She called me up and asked me to help her play a prank. "Come over and scratch at our screens, moan, turn the doorknob -- give them a scare!"

I was a theatre student. This was a performance. And nobody had invited me to any Halloween parties, so this was as close to a party as I was going to get.

So my roommate and I went over there, on schedule, and started doing what she had requested. We could hear the panicked voices inside the house. It was working! None of them dared to open the door or even look outside to realize it was just me and my roommate.

We figured that we'd struck the right note of terror and that my friend, the hostess of the party, would now calm everybody down by saying that she had arranged it. So my roommate and I ran around the house and knocked on the door of another friend who lived in the other half of the duplex. (Yes, we knew everybody in the building.)

Then we heard a man's voice outside and there was a stern knock on the door. Our friend shoved us into a closet under the stairs and then answered the door. It was a policeman. The hostess of the party had called the cops because of an intruder, and the cop had seen my car parked nearby and had run the license plate. He was looking for me.

The friend who was concealing us explained the whole situation and then chewed out the hostess. "You had no right to call the cops! You asked him to do that stuff!"

"But I changed my mind and called and left a message that I didn't want him to do it after all."

"Well, he didn't get the message because you didn't call till he was already on the way over!" (This was before cellphones. Heck, we barely had telegraphy back then.)

The cop, we learned later, had entered the house with his gun drawn. What if my roommate and I had leapt out of the closet with a yell, as we had momentarily contemplated? All because somebody decided to call the cops on me for doing exactly what she asked me to do.

Skip forward 37 years or so. People are pulling the same stunt all the time and don't even realize it. It has to do with that report spam button on their email software.

It's getting too easy to call every bit of advertising that arrives in your email inbox "spam." But spam is unsolicited advertising -- mailings you didn't ask for.

How much of the promotional email you get is from websites where you once bought something and in the process checked off that little box that said, "Would you like to be notified of sales events from time to time?"

The moment you did that, the emails you started getting from that site were not spam -- they were asked for.

Admittedly, some of those websites had that box pre-checked for you, and you may have gotten on their list without even realizing it. Still: what they send you is not spam. You're a customer. And you asked them to send you info.

Why does it matter? Because your inbox is filling up. It's hard to find the real emails amid all the ads. So you do the lazy, irresponsible thing -- you click the spam button on ad after ad.

That's exactly the right thing to do with those viagra and porno emails that you never asked for. Report them. Because when your server gets enough spam reports about a particular site or domain name, it bans them. Nothing from that site gets through to anybody.

That's the very reason why it's not just rude, it's vandalism, it's downright mean, when you click the report spam button on email from legitimate websites that you asked for. You're calling the cops to report them and they aren't doing anything wrong.

It's as if you painted over a store's showroom window just because you were sick of seeing their display.

Don't you understand that by clicking spam you're giving them a bad reputation? Various servers will start blocking their emails. And those emails are an important part of doing a perfectly legitimate business -- one that you once used yourself!

It costs them time and money to get those servers to stop blocking their email, so that the customers who do want their promotional emails can still get them.

That's why, in every one of those emails that you no longer want, there's a notice down in the fine print at the bottom that says, "If you no longer want to receive these notices, click here to unsubscribe."

Click there! Go to their little whimpery unsubscribe page ("why are you leaving us?") and confirm that you really want them to stop emailing you.

That's the fair, decent, responsible thing to do. You'll stop getting the emails (within a day or two, whenever they next do a list cleanup), and they won't get reported for a crime they didn't commit.

*

Speaking of unwelcome internet items, Time-Warner cable in the Greensboro area now has an obnoxious new "feature." For the past few weeks, for about ten minutes at a time, several times a day, we can't get cable access to any website whose address begins with http. That includes most of the sites we use, including all our email sites.

It isn't just some weird thing at our house -- one of our employees has the same thing happening at his house, too. This means that Time-Warner's local server is occasionally blocking port 80, the one most commonly used for http addresses. (We can still get to ftp (port 21), pop3 (port 110), and https (port 443) addresses.)

Guess how much luck we've had explaining this to any of Time-Warner's helpful complaint numbers. "Several times a day, our access to http addresses gets blocked. We can still access ftp and pop3, but --"

"Reboot your computer," says the nice Indian woman probably talking to us from Mumbai. She has no idea what ftp, pop3, and http mean. She's just reading from her troubleshooting card.

"We have done that repeatedly."

"Well, let me try something on this end." What she tries, as far as we know, is taking a few bites of her curry-on-rice. Then she says, "Is the internet working now?"

"It was working when I called you. I told you, it only gets cut off for ten minutes at a time, several times a day. This isn't one of those times."

"So you have internet access," she says, in a tone that your boss might use when saying, "So why are we having this conversation?"

"But five or six times a day, we get cut off from email, from websites where we're doing business -- we want you to report to your tech people that something in their server has started blocking port 80 for about ten minutes at a time, several times a day. It started only a couple of weeks ago."

"Very well sir. I will report this." Another bite of curry. "Thank you for choosing Time-Warner."

How long would you keep booking with an airline whose airplanes occasionally lost engine power for even ten seconds at a time?

OK, I admit it, that's an extreme example. Plus, the FAA is looking out for you. The FCC, which governs cable, doesn't give a rodent's tush. They're too busy trying to kill conservative talk radio.

So ... how long would you stay with a phone company that cut off your conversations every now and then?

Oh, wait. That happens with our cellphones all the time.

But we hate it! And when we pay for cable modem service, we're supposedly paying for reliable service.

I'm sure that this is something Time-Warner doesn't even realize is happening; it may not be systemwide even here in Greensboro. It may be that at certain times of day, their server simply blanks out some customers from port 80 access without realizing it.

Yet there's no way to get them to realize that this is a serious problem to those of us who do a lot of our important business through email and website contact. They won't send a repairman to my house for a problem that is happening in their computer. Especially one that self-heals in about ten minutes. There's simply no recourse.

Almost as maddening as our anti-virus/firewall software which installed an update on my computer this morning. When it was finished, my computer was really safe -- because I not only couldn't get into the internet, I couldn't even get to the other computers in our home network. How safe is that!

After messing with it, we found that the software update, instead of retaining all the settings we had been using, changed everything to "direct internet access," which is the most dangerous condition you can be in. So it blocked everything.

And when we changed the command that supposedly corrected the setting to "home or small office network," we got the same problem back again the moment I used another piece of software to get onto the internet. It turns out that we also had to change the setting in several other locations.

There was absolutely nothing in their notice about the update that said, "If this changes your settings, you need to correct them here and here and here." They "improved" my "security" by making me and an employee spend a couple of hours fiddling around with unlabeled and unexplained setting on their software. That was lost time. I ended up turning in this column late.

So I understand that Time-Warner may have installed some cool new software update on their local server and they are still trying to figure out why it's blocking port 80. It's a common sort of error in today's bloated, incompetently written software.

But while it's going on, I'm still paying for internet service that I'm not getting.

I've been working with computers -- and with computer programmers and programming languages -- since my first Atari 400 back in the late '70s. I have spent hours debugging programs, trying to find out why they're doing weird unintended things.

But that's the point: I spent those hours. I did the debugging. When I was done, the program ran as intended.

Programs and computers were simpler then. But most of the problems today come from the incoherent, contradictory, chaotic way that software is created, with different teams working on different parts of a program so that nobody knows quite what anybody else is doing.

One team's subroutine does some operation that another team's subroutine forbids, and neither one can find a flaw in its own code.

It's as if the first baseman was unable to see or communicate with the shortstop. Each one throws the ball in the direction he was told to, and every now and then a ball comes to him from that direction, but he doesn't know when it will happen and the direction is never quite right. How could you play baseball like that?

That's why they write such lousy programs today. That's why 90 percent of the cool apps I downloaded onto my Droid-based cellphone screw up something else, until I finally uninstalled them all -- and am waiting only till the new Blackberry Torch comes out to ditch the Android operating system completely.

Programmers and corporations that don't test and debug their software sufficiently make our lives unnecessarily annoying. Computers are brutally simple -- they do what they're told. All you have to do is make sure you give them precise instructions. When a company repeatedly fails to do so -- like Microsoft, whose slogan apparently is, "So? Buy Apple, see if we care," and Apple, whose slogan seems to be, "We're cool and you're not, so eat it" -- by all rights it should go out of business.

And don't tell me to get Linux. It won't run the software I depend on.

Which brings me back to Time-Warner. I know it's probably not their fault -- it's the fault of the company that made some piece of software they just installed or updated.

Yet Time-Warner is charging me for reliable internet service without delivering it, while making it impossible for me to talk to anybody at their company who understands anything about computers. (If there is anybody at Time-Warner who understands the software they're using.)

Here's the cool thing. I write a newspaper column. The nice woman in Mumbai couldn't understand our problem. But now someone in the Time-Warner office who does understand what port 80 is can read my complaint and, because you're reading it too, maybe something will happen.

If the problem gets fixed now, and we get reliable internet service again, I just hope I remember to tell you about it.

If I forget to report their good deeds, though, Time-Warner can call one of my employees in Lagos, Nigeria, to complain about it. They'll be very helpful -- they're all African princes who just can't get access to their funds without the help of a nice American, so they love to help Americans every chance they get.


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