Essay: Star Trek Technology for Your Appliances

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On “Star Trek,” Star Fleet officers analyzed problems both medical and technological by scanning with a small, hand held device. The device either gave them the information they needed directly, or connected them to the ship’s computer.  While the science of “scanning” remains a little vague, you yourself can now diagnose problems in your household appliances using a small, hand held device almost everyone owns: your phone.

In the last year, Sears’ house brand, Kenmore Elite, has come out with a line of washers and dryers which have a feature called “Kenmore Connect.” This feature enables the appliance owner to have possible problems diagnosed in real time using just a phone. The owner simply calls the Kenmore number, and is led by voice prompts to a specialist who walks him or her through the diagnostic process.

Essentially, the owner holds the mouthpiece of the phone over the appliance power button, presses and hold the appropriate button (“Wash/Rinse” for washers and “Temp” for dryers), then listens for 3 beeps to indicate the appliance is in contact with the computer on the other side of the phone line. At that point, he or she releases the buttons and holds the phone in place until the process is done. Upon completion, the Kenmore specialist can use the diagnostic data provided to suggest solutions, including giving the owner better operating instructions or sending the information on to the in-home service technician to prepare for a home visit.

Extensive field testing of the feature, which is free of charge, actually showed a significant reduction in the need for at-home visits from a repairman. What’s next in futuristic gadgetry for the home? Kenmore hopes to include the Connect feature in its ovens, and Samsung is already selling refrigerators with Wi-Fi in them. They promise having recipe website, Epicurious, right next to the ice and water dispenser will make dinner a little easier for everyone. Sadly, there’s no sign of everyone’s favorite, the transporter, in sight.

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Essay: What’s Up with the Twilight Phenomenon?

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I’m 43 years old, and I love vampires. I have always loved vampires.

When I was a child, I used to watch Hammer horror movies with my parents, and ask them why everyone hated the vampire. Admittedly, I was a strange child (as I am a strange adult), but I think the reason I rooted for the vampire was because I “got” the connection between sex and death that the vampire represents. Okay, at that age, it was love, not sex, but the connection between death and “sexual love” (if you will) still applies.

For me, the vampire was a far more compelling love interest than some callow young man who just wanted to marry the heroine and give her babies like everybody else. The vampire needed his paramour as much as life itself, and their love would last for centuries. Talk about romantic!

I read a review of Stephanie Meyer’s novel, “Twilight,” in Entertainment Weekly by one of my favorite writers, Stephen King. He said he could understand the appeal of the subject matter – chaste love for young teens – but he didn’t think Meyer could write. With all due love and respect, I think “Uncle Stevie” missed the boat on this one. That’s okay. Uncle Stevie (as he refers to himself when he address us, the “Constant Reader”) has written some damn good stuff about vampires, in “‘Salem’s Lot,” for example, and in the Dark Tower series.

The vampire is a very rich, fertile source of inspiration and association (especially for something that’s undead) for artists of all stripes. King himself is a very good writer, and his thematic exploration of how vampires prey on the living, especially their own living families, is darkly magical and unsettling.

I think, however, that for Uncle Stevie, vampires don’t resonate sexually, and for me they do. A vampire is like the hero in a Gothic novel: you’re not sure if he wants to rape the heroine, kill her, eat her, or all three, in no particular order.

Vampires conjure up almost Jungian associations of breast feeding: the simple, but all-consuming experience we assume newborn babies have when they suckle: the largely benevolent — but scarily omnipotent — power of the mother and the mother’s breast to feed and comfort or to withhold food and comfort, and the possibility of suffocation under the breasts of that much-larger body.

The unself-consciousness of nursing can become emotionally entangled later in life with the unself-consciousness of orgasm; the nurture from a mother’s breast can remind you of a lover’s emotional nurturing, and the sucking for dear life itself. . . best to leave that to your own imagination for now.

I have only read the first novel of Stephanie Meyers’s series, but I would venture to guess that she “gets” it. When I was a teenager — before I was sexually active — the light touch of a boy’s fingers running up and down my inner forearms would make me dreamy and aroused for days. My body felt exquisitely sensitive, which is how “Twilight’s” female protagonist, Bella, feels after the lightest physical contact with Edward, the vampire with whom she falls in love.

The setting of the book is high school, and the wish-fulfillment of “Bella the outcast” becoming “Bella the girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful and popular” will surely appeal to most teenage girls. Many teenagers will also understand the connection between sex and death on a subconscious basis in the age of AIDS, Hep C and the still scary specter of teenage pregnancy. Even if we take the attraction of those elements as a given, however, there’s a whole other level of depth to the novel that may not be apparent to the casual reader.

I am one of many people around the world who finds the imagery of dominance and submission to be arousing. The typical feminist explanation of a woman’s rape fantasy is that the woman controls the fantasy, so everything that happens to her in the fantasy is of her own choosing, and that the lack of consent frees her from responsibility for her own immoral sexual desire so she can enjoy the fantasy sex without guilt.

Additionally, I find the idea of someone wanting me so much that he has to take me against my will (in exactly the way I want him to, of course) to be very hot. Just for the record, fantasy rape and real rape do not exist in the same universe, and that when a potential sexual partner says no, they really mean it (unless you are playing with safe words, which is a whole different blog entry).

Reading through “Twilight,” I could not help but notice that Edward’s relationship with Bella is often one of loving dominance. He commands her. He compels her. She does what he tells her to against her own judgement because she trusts him. He is as obsessed with her as she is with him, but he’s afraid of losing control because he is just that attracted to her. In addition, she is the only woman who has ever inspired those feelings in him. Pretty heady stuff.

Just when I was starting to find the love story just a tad sedate, however, a threat was introduced that threw all of the qualities of vampire / victim love and dominance dynamics into sharp relief. I’m not going to tell you what it was, in case you haven’t read the book yourself, but having two crazy sexy guys willing to fight to the death to possess you isn’t the worst predicament you could find yourself in, even if at least one of them does want to kill you.

No, “Twilight” has not taken over my life, nor have I bought any fan paraphernalia. However, I have signed up to read the next book in the “Twilight” series at the library, and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. It’s not the next coming, but it is pretty entertaining, and in today’s world, you could do a lot worse.

Themes in the Film “Pitch Black”

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“Though mentioned often in the script, the creatures in “Pitch Black” are seldom seen at length; rather, they are glimpsed, they are heard, they are felt. They are, really, the embodiment of your nocturnal fears: a howling coyote that jars you awake; the painting on the wall that comes to life when stared at too long. . . the sway of your bed just before the earthquake hits. Chimera of the night. The point is made so the reader appreciates that the focus of the finished film will not be on what the creatures do, but on what the creatures do to reveal the inner nature of the characters. For “Pitch Black” is, at its heart, a story of humanity and courage and lack of the same.”

– David Twohy, 1st draft script

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In his science fiction/horror movie, “Pitch Black,” director David Twohy examines the difference between characters who are willing to see what’s around them, and those who are not.

We begin with Richard B. Riddick, locked in his cryochamber aboard the Hunter-Gratzner, an interstellar passenger ship. Until just recently, he had been imprisoned below ground in Slam City. Now he wants his freedom regardless of the cost — to himself or to anybody else.

Riddick’s way of coping with almost any situation is to learn more about it and figure out how it works. Thus he is always striving to see better, further, deeper. When he was sent to Slam City and told he would never see daylight again, he adapted by getting a surgical shine put on his eyes so that he could see in the constant darkness of prison. He also stifled all of his better instincts and became a remorseless killer in order to survive.

Having survived prison, however, Riddick is now in poor shape to deal with the regular world. Outside the darkness of Slam, Riddick’s eyes are blinded by light of any kind, and they are the chink in his armor when it comes to fighting. If his opponent can manage to rip off Riddick’s protective goggles, he becomes almost defenseless. Similarly, the selfish survival instincts that Riddick developed in prison make him an outcast in regular human society. He can adapt to the light by wearing goggles, but he doesn’t know if he will be able to adapt to living in civilized society again. He remains isolated from the other characters because they are unable to perceive his perspective, i.e., see the way he can. This is only a symbol, however, of the fact that no one can understand him or see his point of view.

Riddick’s jailer Johns, on the other hand, doesn’t really want to see the unpleasant reality, so he doesn’t really look. In fact, he’d prefer a little filter between himself and the world, so he shoots morphine right into his eyeball every day. He seems to suffer selective blindness throughout the movie as well, such as when he is unable to find Riddick using his telescope; when Riddick hides above him in the huge animal skeleton, and when Riddick is standing 5 feet away from him in the animal’s ribcage cutting Fry’s hair. The main thing Riddick and Johns have in common at this point in the movie is that they are each concealing their true nature, which will be revealed to the viewer as the plot progresses.

In the beginning of the movie, Riddick is blindfolded in a cryo-sleep chamber. Even without sight, he continues to decipher what he can about his environment by smelling and listening. After the crash, when he is hand-cuffed to a column, he can see through a small tear in his blindfold just enough to figure out how to escape. He tries to encourage the others to pay more attention to their situation as well, such as when the crash survivors are unable to locate Zeke’s body in the cave, and Riddick tells Fry to “Look deeper,” which could easily be his life’s motto. Riddick is also able to see someone’s true nature better than most other people as well. He has to prompt Fry to try to see through the image Johns likes to present to the rest of the party of being a heroic marshal. Riddick is also the one who discovers that “Jack” is really a girl and that she’s being stalked by the aliens because they can smell her menstrual blood.

Likewise, Riddick is the person who makes everyone else see that the geologists that settled on the planet before were killed by the aliens, when everyone else would prefer to believe they were taken off-planet by a big drop ship. He is also the first one to see that not everyone is going to make it off of the planet alive.

Riddick doesn’t tell everybody everything he knows, however. He knows that sometimes it is better for your state of mind NOT to be able to see what’s happening. He doesn’t tell everyone they can’t make it back to the skiff, even though he knows they can’t. When Paris and Johns are being slaughtered by the aliens in the darkness, Riddick is the only one who is able to witness their deaths. He doesn’t torment the others with the details of their deaths, even when Fry asks him about it. Later, when they are running the gauntlet of the bone yard and the aliens’ blood is dripping down on them from above, he tells Fry not to look. He knows that seeing the way the aliens are attacking each other will only make her more afraid, and he’s proven right when she looks up anyway.

It is Riddick’s ability to see from someone else’s perspective — that of the aliens who see in the dark — that enables some of the characters to survive. Riddick doesn’t see exactly the same way that the aliens do (through echo-location), but he can use the way he sees to deduce how they must see. His ability to put himself in the aliens’ place is what enables Riddick to formulate his plan to get the others to safety. It also helps him survive a personal close encounter because he was able to intuit that the aliens have a “blind spot.” Riddick is also the only one who notices that the aliens track their prey from blood. Everyone else is unable to see enough to make sense out of what is happening because they are so terrified. Paris, for example, freaks out and crawls into the darkness alone even though he *knows* his only protection against the aliens is the light.

Ironically, none of the characters are able to see Riddick the way he really is at the beginning of the movie; they just take Johns’ word for it that he’s a vicious killer. Similarly, Riddick also seems strangely invisible in several places in the movie, even when he’s not trying to hide, such as when no one sees him sitting in Paris’ chair under the unbrella with his feet propped up after he’s first escaped.

Jack admires and emulates Riddick’s unique perspective and abilities by wearing makeshift goggles and shaving her head to look more like Riddick. She also asks Riddick how she can get eyes like his. Maybe the reason Jack identifies so strongly with Riddick is that she knows how it feels to be imprisoned, since she had to be cut out of her cryosleep chamber where she was trapped after the crash. Perhaps she knows how important it can be to put up a false front for self-defense, since she herself is presenting as male.

Riddick, in turn, encourages Jack to look at things for herself, as he points out a bone ribcage that lurks dangerously over head rather than simply telling her to duck. Later, Riddick tells Jack not to cry for Johns, because Riddick knows what Jack does not, that Johns wanted to kill her. Once again, Riddick knows that seeing too much can be painful, literally, and that Jack doesn’t need to know.

Fry also wants to see, even if what she is looking for is hidden, and finding it is unpleasant. Immediately after the crash, she digs through the ship debris looking for her navigator, Owens, who is buried under the rubble. Soon after, she bravely approaches Riddick and asks to see his eyes when he tells her what happened to Zeke. She is the one who “looks deeper” into the cavern and finds what’s left of his body. She is the first to see the eclipse coming after she looks at the solar system model in the old settlement.

Carolyn Fry is driven to look even when what she sees may hurt her, as when she tries to see the aliens killing Paris and then Johns. In the run through the gauntlet to the skiff, she also cannot help herself and looks up at the aliens killing each other overhead, although Riddick has already warned her not to look. She is also the character who has seen Riddick’s humanity by the end of the film, when no one else really has.

An eye motif is used continually throughout the movie, probably to subconsciously make the viewer think about seeing and perspective. Paris’s glasses get cracked in the crash, which reflects the fact that his character doesn’t have any accurate perspective at all. This is echoed when Riddick finds the broken glasses in the sand at the settlement, and deduces that people don’t evacuate without their eyeglasses. Paris also asks later (somewhat foolishly), “What are my eyes seeing?” when the eclipse occurs. We first see water on the planet as a huge drop next to an extreme close up of the Muslim boy’s eye. The director also uses extreme eye close ups in point/counterpoint to suggest tension between characters.

The film’s focus on seeing is also developed through its cinematography. During the opening crash sequence, some of the shots are distorted, tinted, and/or reversed to demonstrate the chaos of the ship’s crash, suggesting the confused viewpoint of one of the characters. Likewise, the footage on the planet’s surface looks overdeveloped and washed out, suggesting heat and bright light. The exterior shots are also tinted to indicate the different colored suns, which further suggest multiple ways of seeing the same situation. Often during a scene, the camera pulls back to a wide shot of the group — frequently from overhead — when the action gets confusing, in order to give the viewer some perspective.

The desire to look is one of the things that brings Fry and Riddick together, and wedges Johns apart from them. Johns would rather not see things he doesn’t like, and would rather someone else do the looking for him. Thus when he drops a flare into the coring tunnel at the settlement, Riddick pops up between Johns and the camera, showing that Riddick goes down to get a better look, while Johns stays up top, trying not to see too much.

At another point, Johns asks Riddick to look ahead for him to see if any aliens are waiting ahead. Riddick says that it “Looks clear,” but it isn’t, as an alien flies out to attack Johns. He yells at Riddick, “You said clear!” Riddick corrects him by saying, “I said it *looks* clear.” Johns doesn’t learn from this experience, however. He’d rather ask Riddick *again* whether the way is clear than use his own hand light to see for himself. Riddick looks ahead again and shrugs innocently, then repeats, “Look clear,” as if to say “see for yourself.”

The contrast between the two men is highlighted again when Johns suggests to Riddick that they kill one of the others and drag the body behind them as bait to distract the aliens. Riddick’s first impulse is to look at the little group behind them and ask Johns which one he has in mind. Johns quickly tells Riddick *not* to look and won’t look himself. He won’t even say the name of his intended victim, because he can’t face what he is suggesting.

Fry comes into conflict with Johns several times when she tries to point out his short-sightedness. First she disagrees with him when he plans to screw Riddick and suggests an alternative. She also calls out Johns for blaming his fear of going to the skiff on Jack, and his suggestion that they wait out the eclipse in the crash ship. Johns retaliates by reminding her of her own failings with a Biblical-flavored quote when he says, “Look to thine own eyes first, right, Carolyn?” (Or is it “thine own ass?” Similar, anyway.). The Biblical quote goes something like, “When you look to help your neighbor take the mote of dust from his eye, it is best to remove the wooden beam from your own first.” He’s reminding Carolyn that she almost jettisoned all the passengers during the crash in an attempt to save herself.

Eventually Johns’ refusal to look is his downfall. When he is wounded in his fight with Riddick, he can’t shoot the aliens who come after him because, in the dark, he loaded a red cartridge containing morphine into his shotgun instead of a real cartridge. He’d had relied on his morphine to such an extent that he confused it with real self-defense.

The characters’ desire to see can be thwarted when the object in question is hidden. Riddick’s humanity, for example, is like water in the desert, as Imam says. “It only waits to be found.” Riddick’s better nature is hidden deep inside of him along with his darker urges, and the viewer waits anxiously to see which one will eventually rise to the surface.

In a way, Riddick’s humanity is like Carolyn when she is trapped in the cavern, unable to come out but crying, “I’m here! I’m here!” and wanting someone to find her and bring her to the surface. Both Carolyn and Riddick’s humanity are unable to uncover themselves without help from the others, and even then they are subject to being sucked back down into the darkness. Carolyn and Riddick are tied together visually in this sequence as well, as we cut back and forth between Carolyn trapped in the cavern, and Riddick trying to break his chains. This sequence helps the viewer realize a connection between the two characters, as he is freaking out in the same way as she is at the same time.

Just as it can be painful to see too much, it can also be painful to have your hidden secrets revealed. The secret Fry is hiding — that she wanted to jettison the passengers during the crash — is agonizing to her when Johns reveals it, and her shame is one of the things that leads her to sacrifice herself for the others in the end.

Johns tries unsuccessfully to hide both his uncaring, selfish nature and his secret morphine addiction, which only Riddick and Fry can see. The revelation of Jack’s secret also turn out to be painful, both literally and figuratively. She attempts to disguise her gender to make herself seem less vulnerable to predatory adults. Her menstrual cycle makes her more vulnerable to the aliens, who can smell the blood, and menstruation is often painful in and of itself.

For Riddick, revelation is doubly painful. Physically, it is not so much “looking” that hurts his eyes, as it is the light that illuminates them. He avoids light for that reason, but he also avoids it to keep from *being seen.* If eyes are the window to the soul, Riddick guards his carefully. Even when Riddick’s eyes are visible, most people never see beyond their mirrored surface to the man beneath. Carolyn is the only one who really tries, when she asks to see his eyes and trusts what she sees there enough to give him a chance.

Ironically, Riddick doesn’t want Carolyn to see his eyes at first, and makes her come to him before he will show them to her. He doesn’t want her to uncover his biggest secret, which is the vulnerable, hurt, caring nature he has buried beneath his ruthless exterior. Riddick believes that if someone actually sees his humanity, they will take advantage of it and he will suffer for it in the eventually.

When Carolyn finally dies in the end, Riddick at last allows his better nature to come to the surface, if only for a moment. Her sacrifice inspires him to be a better person, a person worthy of her sacrifice. Now Riddick will have to justify his existence for the rest of his life by trying to be a better person and rejoining the human race. He buries the man he was when he arrived on the planet, and becomes a new one for Carolyn. Accordingly the last line of the movie belongs to him:

“Riddick’s dead. He died somewhere back on that planet.”