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George Heymont Headshot

The Empire Strikes

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You know that little game where corporations like Netflix, TiVo and Amazon.com try to "recommend" products they think will appeal to you? That process is based on meticulously crafted algorithms that apply artificial intelligence to retail choices.

One should never forget that the first half of "AI" is the word "artificial." Written and directed by Bryan Horch, Spooners is a delightful new short in which Nelson (Walter Replogle) pays a visit to Drowzy's Mattress World intent on finding a comfortable mattress to replace the aging and heavily stained futon that his overly sentimental husband, Corey (Ben Lerman), refuses to relinquish because that's where Corey's sister gave birth.

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Poster art for Spooners

The inspiration for Spooners came from a real-life incident. As Horch explains:

Occasionally I'm faced with those awkward moments when employees at stores make assumptions about my sexual orientation, asking questions about my 'wife' or 'girlfriend.' When I was shopping for a bed, I was impressed when the computerized mattress analyzer asked me about the gender of my 'sleeping partner.' But when it announced in a booming computer voice: 'YOU ARE A MALE WITH A MALE SLEEPING PARTNER' I wanted to crawl under the bed. It was telling the truth, but I became queasy imagining what it would do with the information, how other shoppers might react and what presumptuous questions about my bed habits were coming next. After bolting from the store, and catching my breath from laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, I kicked myself for not sticking around for the rest of the interrogation.

As recent revelations by data analyst Edward Snowden have made abundantly clear, data collection and data mining are technologies which are ripe for abuse. Taken to extremes, these technologies can feel as invasive as a transvaginal ultrasound device in the hands of a male Republican politician.

Public reaction to Snowden's allegations has included a wide variety of outrage. Writing for Salon.com, Mohamad Tabbaa notes that "Suddenly, White People Care About Privacy Incursions." Consider these three video clips:

For cynics, the NSA scandal is no big surprise. It simply proves the admonition that "If you build it they will come."

  • In 2002, David Korn Brzoza's documentary for French television entitled Echelon, The Secret Power detailed an international electronic surveillance alliance operated key governments (ECHELON) in order to monitor industrial espionage.
  • Built by AT&T for the NSA in the SBC Building at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco, Room 641A went into operation in 2003 and was exposed in 2006.
  • Many Americans have conveniently forgotten the venal efforts of Vice President Dick Cheney and his Chief of Staff, David Addington, to expand the powers (including the use of warrantless wiretapping) of the Executive Branch of the United States Government.
  • According to Cryptonym's Andrew Fernandez, a secret NSA key has been included in all versions of Windows operating systems since Windows 95 OSR2 which makes it "tremendously easier for the NSA to load unauthorized security services on all copies of Microsoft Windows" (once such security services are loaded, they can effectively compromise a computer's entire operating system).
  • Despite growing up in a nation with a long tradition of respecting and protecting an individual's privacy, in 2010 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that the rise of social networking services meant that people no longer had traditional expectations of privacy -- that privacy was no longer the "social norm."

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Two new documentaries offer a stunning contrast by showing what makes some intelligence artificial and one intelligent person shockingly genuine.

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Do you get a sense of foreboding whenever you hear the words "Your call is very important to us"? Do you try to opt out whenever a corporation requests permission to share your data with "interested third parties"? Do you have the slightest understanding of what happens when someone creates a web-based mashup from relational databases?

If you're one of those people who is worried about protecting your privacy, Cullen Hoback's new documentary, Terms and Conditions May Apply, is just the thing to spike your paranoia into the stratosphere. Hoback explains how, as our personal data has become increasingly digitized, all of those user agreements you've signed -- whenever you purchased software, hardware (cell phones, tablets), subscribed to websites like Google, Facebook and other forms of social media, used online banking services or ordered stuff from Amazon.com -- has created a digital footprint that allows marketing firms and government agencies to use data mining techniques to create a shockingly accurate profile of you.

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Do you remember how, in April of 2010, when Twitter signed an agreement which gave the Library of Congress access to all of the company's tweets, that news was considered a media coup for the young tech company? In light of the recent NSA scandal, the statement by the Library's Director of Communication, Gayle Osterberg ("An element of our mission at the Library of Congress is to collect the story of America, and to acquire collections that will have research value") takes on a darker significance.

Hoback demonstrates how easily things can go wrong when a software tag misinterprets someone's Tweet or makes a simple error that can land someone in jail. The filmmaker also tries to interview Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as he goes for a peaceful walk in his neighborhood. Ironically, Zuckerberg (who has come under fierce scrutiny for Facebook's arbitrary changes in its privacy policies) doesn't like anyone invading his privacy.

Terms and Conditions May Apply could easily become the documentary equivalent of George Orwell's prescient novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Big Brother is now watching you in ways (metadata) that even Orwell could not imagine! Here's the trailer:

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As one watches Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, it's impossible to ignore a curious fact about its subject. The prolific writer famous for his historical novels (as well as creating the character of Myra Breckenridge); the man who penned numerous essays and screenplays as well as several Broadway plays (including 1955's Visit to a Small Planet, 1960's The Best Man, 1962's Romulus, and 1970's An Evening With Richard Nixon and...) never learned to type.

Throughout the film, one sees Gore crafting text using an old-fashioned hunt-and-peck technique on a small, portable typewriter. Although his writing tool may seem primitive, his intellect was staggering. Fascinated by politics and history, Gore (an avowed atheist) delighted in offering up opinions guaranteed to rankle those who clung to the status quo. A rare man with the courage of his convictions, Gore had precious little patience with fools like William F. Buckley, Jr. and George W. Bush.

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Gore Vidal

Proudly bisexual (he was briefly engaged to Joanne Woodward) and living in a long-term nonsexual relationship with his close friend, Howard Austen, Gore delighted in the company of world leaders (John F. Kennedy, Mikhail Gorbachev), writers (Tennessee Williams, David Mamet, Christopher Hitchens) and performers (Sting, Tim Robbins, and Paul Newman). Nicholas Wrathall (who wrote, directed, and produced the documentary) notes that:

My inspiration came form the pamphlets Gore put out after 9/11: Dreaming War, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, and Imperial America. At the time these seemed to me like the sanest reaction to what the Bush administration was up to. I was lucky enough to travel with Gore to Italy, Cuba and many cities in America. He let me into his home and his life (though he strained to keep his personal life private from the cameras and media that he so loved to address). Having listened to him speak both privately and publicly many times, I do think that this film represents him in the last years of his life. It represents the Gore I witnessed in his last great act. My hope is that this film will inspire a new generation to be courageous and to demand truth from those who hold power in our society.

Living outside the United States helps gain perspective on the amount of propaganda that we are bombarded with here. In my opinion, one of Gore's greatest attributes was his courage to speak truth to power. He understood power and the motivations and machinations of those who wield it, and he was not afraid to confront it head on or expose the lies that help maintain it. The issues he was focused on in his final years are here in this film: his concern for the Constitution and the loss of habeas corpus, his concern about the voting process, his warnings about the focus on empire building and warmongering, his disgust during the Bush-era and his warnings about the elite agenda and corporate control of America. He was horrified by the direction this country was going and the acceleration of wealth upwards, but he was moved and supportive of the youth movements like Occupy. He loved to point out that America is a class-ruled society, something that is only now being openly discussed in the broader media with the idea of the 99 percent and the 1 percent.

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Gore Vidal

There are no car chases in Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia. The film's only explosions are bursts of wit, intellect, and the high dudgeon of an occasional pompous fool. However, witnessing Vidal slay political dragons from one decade to another is grandly inspiring and highly entertaining. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape

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