Archive for February, 2010

They hate us for our freedoms 2

February 28, 2010

So, here’s the introduction I should probably have started with. I’m writing this because I am seeing a continuing, across the board, attack on most of the things I consider to be vital to personal freedom in the US today. Let me say straight out that I am not a conspiracy theorist. I don’t believe that the members of the Illuminati, or the Bilderberg or the Club of Rome are collectively conspiring to murder us all in our beds. What I see is something worse, the convergence of the goals of many systems, political, economic, societal, psychological. Why is it worse? Because like any other self-generating force, it is likely to be unstoppable. You can compare it to the white settlers populating the American west in the 1800s. There was no plot. There was no secret society. There was just this vast yearning by tens of thousands for land and opportunity. The effect on the Native Americans was the same.

The last half-century has seen a remarkable empowerment of the individual, and the belated scramble by the powers that be to contain it. Not quite fifty years ago, the dirty hippies of my generation started it, with their opposition to the war in Vietnam. (I wasn’t part of their efforts, or my world line would have taken a totally different track. What I did was right for me. What they did was right.) Thirty years ago, the first three nodes of ARPANet were turned on. Roughly twenty years ago, the Internet became open to commercial users. This promoted the most massive explosion of information in the history of mankind. More people know more today, can find out more, and can act on their knowledge than at any time in history. I won’t go into a long hymn of praise for the Internet, you either get it or you don’t, and if you get it, you’ve already read more, and better-written praise than I could hope to write. It changed the world.

One of the things it changed was transparency. There may not be secret societies, but there are secrets. Secret deals, secret crimes, secret abuses of power. How many novels have been written about large families, small towns, or giant corporations where Boss Jones runs things his way, until some outsider wanders in and exposes all the evil? They are myriad, and they are so ubiquitous because they expose a truth about how power works. How are such evils possible? Because detailed knowledge of what is going on has been in the past limited to the local power elite, and general knowledge is limited to people within the power of that power elite. No more.

Now, if a town sets up a revenue-enhancing speed trap, it will be on Twitter within hours. If they rig their traffic lights to have an unsafely quick yellow, it will show up on some blog within days. If the local police feel it’s OK to beat up on some motorist because he didn’t get out of the car fast enough, the YouTube videos will flash ’round the world before they can get the blood off their boots. And that’s just the small evils of small towns. Think about what you have read over the last year, or month, or week about the power abuses of corporations, of countries. The best antiseptic is sunlight, and the Internet has let us shine the light under rocks that have been shaded for ages.

But evil powers aren’t stupid. Well, yes, they are, but they have to be smart about something, or they wouldn’t be powers. The rest of these essays will be me exploring my thoughts about how evil is fighting back, how the fight has spread. Will it include how to stop it? I don’t know. I’m not there yet.

They hate us for our freedoms 1

February 25, 2010

That’s what the worst President in the history of the US said in response to the 9/11 attacks. He wasn’t wrong, he was just looking in the wrong direction. It’s not the billion and a half Muslims out there who hate us, and, at the time, it wasn’t the 31 million Iraqis, nor the 28 million Afghans. Perhaps a few thousand Talibs in AF and PK hate us, but that’s because we have spent nearly a decade in their countries, bombing their wedding parties. The DNI has stated that the Taliban as such does not pose a threat outside of AF. That leaves the hundred or so Al Qaida operatives (who were initially provoked by American boots on the sacred ground of Arabia, not by our ‘freedoms’). There may also be a few thousand local nationalist patriots in countries where we prop up corrupt governments, but they want to be more free — you know, like us — and feel we are standing in their way. Which we are.

Neal Stephenson tells a story about some Pakistani nationals, in Pakistan, who upon their arrest, were indignant that the Pakistani police hadn’t read them their Miranda rights. It seems that the picture of freedom and justice presented on exported American TV shows is generating hope and patriotism and yearning, not hatred. Of course, that was before “24”.

So, if it’s not most of the rest of the world who hates us for our freedoms, who is it? It’s us. Or, rather, it’s some of us. Those who benefit from lack of freedom in others.

The thing is, freedom is scary. Freedom means personal responsibility. Freedom means uncertainty, and nobody likes uncertainty. In particular, businesses don’t like uncertainty. Farmers don’t like it. Politicians don’t like it. A business will willingly take a lower profit rate, if they can be assured that it will continue uninterrupted. Farmers face enough uncertainty from the vagaries of nature that they feel they don’t need any more from the marketplace. For a politician, certainty of re-election is equated with preservation of the country (Lincoln himself is reported to have said that ‘the first job of a politician is to get elected’). The list just gets longer. Parents can’t stand the thought that their children might not grow up while being junior model citizens, just like they did. Bureaucrats hate uncertainty because it makes their job harder. Since freedom equates to uncertainty, you can replace ‘uncertainty’ with ‘freedom’ in all of the above statements and they will still be true, just not politically correct.

In business, one sure way to achieve certainty is to build a monopoly, to give the customers no choice, no freedom, to decide what to buy. In the early days, kings granted monopolies, and in early America, tycoons built them from scratch. The nice thing about a monopoly is that once you have it, you have done away not only with the uncertainty of customers, but you can also set your prices and services at will. Your certainty denies others their freedom. Of course, monopoly is only one way. Another is to transfer your costs to others – publicize the costs, privatize the benefits.

Then came rules and boundaries (to protect the citizens), and to build an effective monopoly or transfer your costs you had to play so close to the line that you got chalk dust on your socks. Seeing that the rewards were so high, businesses were willing to push those boundaries as hard as they could. As one of my econ professors said, half a century ago, the risk of going to jail became one of the risks of doing business.

At this point, some businessman had a revelation, probably with a bright glowing aura that lit up the entire bathroom, and a choir singing in the background. You didn’t have to play fast and loose with the rules, you just had to change them to suit your purposes. How did you change them? You got the politicians on your side by reducing their uncertainty. Once you own the rule-making process, you own the world. A possibly-eighteenth century phrase with multiple attributions but no firm source says that Democracy “can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.” It turns out, that was wrong. It’s not the majority of the citizens that are doing it, it is those who control the rules, who limit our freedoms.

This essay is a work in progress and will be serialized here as I develop these ideas.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, the anime

February 21, 2010

Unlike previous review subjects, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is an anime movie – 98 minutes instead of 300-600. The visual style is similar to Whisper of the Heart, with realistic backgrounds and real-looking people, but with a slightly lower budget. It’s a girls movie – shoujo – but there are enough boys in it to keep the shonen happy (plus the one obligatory boy’s joke, the same one they used in Windup). Interestingly, the subtitles didn’t work on my older player, but worked fine on a new one.

I liked this movie. A lot. It’s a little lighter than Whisper, and a little heavier. That statement will become clearer in the Summary section. The pacing gets a little slow in spots, but that seems to be a common feature of anime movies — I have seen very few that wouldn’t be better if they were five minutes shorter. I’d recommend this for mid-upper teens, because the younger ones might not have the attention span.

Plot Summary, with spoilers
Konno Makoto is your average HS student — not the brightest girl in the class, but not dumb, either. Hangs out with a couple of guys (Kōsuke and Chiaki), mostly playing bat-the-ball, but is not very good at social relations. Starts the movie with a really bad day. She’s late, she flunks a math quiz, she sets fire to the oil in home ec class, she gets crushed during some other students rough-housing. Later, she carries some notebooks up for storage, and has a strange episode in the physics lab, where she unknowingly picks up an object that lets her travel backwards in time. After school she heads to the museum to give her aunt some peaches, when the brakes fail on her bike and she catapults in front of a train. Or does she?

Well, no. Instead, she finds herself crashed on her bike two minutes and a hundred meters short of the crossing. After a to-be-expected period of befuddlement and experimentation, she figures out how to use a running leap to activate her new power. That’s when the fun begins (some of it due to the fact that her leaps are more controlled than her landings). She reruns the entire day – sleeping in, then getting to school early and acing the quiz, trading places in Home Ec class and letting someone else start the fire, stopping on the sidewalk and doing a backbend while the rough-housing student sails over her. Sometimes things work too well (like singing karaoke for hours while still getting home in time for dinner, but hoarse), and sometimes they don’t quite work (like trying to hook up Kōsuke with a cute girl), and require multiple dashes through time. This is the zany part of the movie, and the time travel logic will tie your head in knots.

Then things take a darker turn. Her relationship with Chiaki goes sour. The student who set the home ec fire gets ostracized and becomes mentally unstable, the student who sails over Makoto, ends up landing on the cute girl instead, and hurting her shoulder. This leads to Kōsuke borrowing Makoto’s bike, with the bad brakes, and ending up right where she did, catapulting into the path of a train, only now it’s both him and his new girlfriend.

The ending is somewhat unexpected, with a certain deus ex tempus machina feel to it. Time stops. Makoto finds out what’s happening in a long expository scene made interesting by the fact that she’s playing hide and seek with her informant amongst a frozen crowd. The situation is saved, but at tragic cost. Or not.

You see, later, she finds a way to unwish most of her wishes, manages to save all of the days, plus find her one true love, who promises to wait for her at the end of time. She promises to come running. Cut to the sky. With a cloud. The same cloud that’s been hanging around in every scene — an example of the low graphics budget or maybe that’s where time travelers live. Afterwards, we see how things work out at home.

Whisper is a somewhat saccharine, linear story, with no great drama. Girl meets annoying boy. Girl falls for annoying boy. Girl almost loses boy through no fault of her own. Girl proves herself in activities not having anything to do with boy. Girl gets boy back due to circumstances not having anything to do with her. GWLTT is different. Actions have consequences, sometimes dire. Goals clash. Attempts to fix things, don’t. People get hurt, in various ways. We find that the future doesn’t have baseball. Altogether a much more complex story, and if Miyazaki had directed it, it would be even more famous than it is. As usual with time travel stories, there are a lot of logical lose ends – like why Makoto can remember prior time, but no one else can, and who did she really see in the physics lab the first time. Of course, the woman shopping with the kid wouldn’t appreciate the memories.

As I said earlier, many anime films run longer than they should. This one does so by having three different end points. It’s like listening to the end of a Beethoven symphony — final chord…more music…final chord…more music…final… It could have ended in tragedy, at the second bicycle accident. It could have had a bittersweet ending, when the time traveler disappears, or a more fun-but-still-bittersweet ending when he disappears…again. Instead, it settles for a ‘happily ever after’ ending with some expostoriness on how things are working out. Candy-box sweet, not dark-chocolate-and-wine.

Finally, there are some interesting social vibes going on in this movie. From this, and a number of other anime, I get the impression that first dates, and boy/girl friends are a much more serious and formal endeavour in Japan than in the US. Girls, and boys, agonize over whether or not to ‘declare’ themselves to someone, and when to do so and how to do so. Friends plot behind their backs to create suitable situations. This apparently uses up a whole bunch of mental and emotional energy in MS and HS. If this is your first anime, you might not quite understand what all the to-ing and fro-ing are about.

Big Windup (part 1), the anime

February 15, 2010

Big Windup is a baseball story. The target demographic is seinen, or late-teen/adult males. Only the first season made it to the US. I can see why, but it’s too bad, because it’s a really good baseball story. As in really, really good.…well, kindof. Plus, at $44 for a half-season of 13 episodes, it’s a little pricey. UPDATE: The second half of the season is out now, and it’s quite a bit better.

Plot Summary, with spoilers
Middle school kid Mihashi comes to HS. Was a pitcher in MS, but was hated by his team because everyone thought he only had the starting pitcher position because his grandfather owned the school. Because of this he has no self-confidence. With the help of his catcher, and the coach, he goes on to win the big game against his old school. This gives him some backbone (well, notochord) and we end Part 1 with his team registering for the big multischool tournament and getting assigned to play their first game against last season’s winners.

You know how some anime are strictly “fan-service”, with only minimal attempts at a plot? Ikki Tousen is the most notorious, but Rosario+Vampire is similar. Well, Big Windup is like that, only instead of panty-flashing or blouse-exploding, it has baseball. The trouble is, there’s still too much plot, or rather, too much character development. Mihashi, the lead character (hero is way too strong a term, protagonist too positive) is an absolute dishrag. All through the first two episodes, every time someone mentions something about his old school, something about his previous experience, something that reminds him of his old team, he bursts into tears. If there was an Annie Award for creating the most spineless character, the writers would have won in a walk. Halfway through the first episode, you realize you have absolutely no sympathy for the dork. He’s just somebody who gets in the way of the real reason you are watching.

The rest of the characters are OK. Lady Coach is typical hard driving woman who makes it in a man’s world by knowing more about baseball than anyone around, and doing things like working a part time job as a high-rise office building window-washer to get money to buy stuff for the team (big boobs also help). Catcher has moments of indecision and inexperience, but mostly acts as if he has a Masters in Psychology. The rest of the team is…the rest of the team.

But that’s enough of the fripperies. What this anime is about is baseball. In most anime, if there’s a sporting event at all, it lasts one episode, and maybe seven minutes of it involve your actual running around on the field. In the Big Windup, the first two episodes set up the situation, and the next five deal with one game. Almost every at bat. Almost every pitch, gets covered. The most common view is through the catcher’s mask, looking up at the batter. There’s a running internal monologue of the catcher’s thoughts. “He chased that fast ball outside. Now he’s dropped his elbow a little. He’s thinking were going to come back inside on him. Let’s try the forkball.” Sometimes it’s the batter. Occasionally, it’s the coach. It’s like a tutorial on how to think your way through a ball game.

In fact, the actions of the faculty advisor (the math/science teacher) and the coach, together present a separate tutorial on how to run a HS ball club. Everything from a lecture to the kids on how their actions during a meal prepares their brain for success on the field (not what they eat but how they think about it), to how to train their peripheral vision. The last few episodes are a look at how tournament play is organized in Japan. I understand the author of the original manga actually spent some time researching the topics at various HS.

This is one of the few anime I have seen that isn’t in ‘anime’ style. No big eyes (well, not very big). It’s also one of the few that comes over better in the English dub than via subtitles. I find that generally the English dubbers overact, on top of the typical action anime overacting, but in this one they hit exactly the right tone. Except for Mihashi, of course. He’s a dork in any language (but he improves in the second half).

Brin on Climate Skeptics and Deniers

February 12, 2010

David Brin is a physicist and author. Here is a well structured discussion of the difference between those who are skeptical abut human generated climate change and those who deny it is happening. It refers back to an earlier essay on the same topic, one that shows how we should be doing all the things needed to counter HGCC, even if HGCC were false, because they are all long-run beneficial.

Still fighting a sprained thumb. I have it braced and am keeping it warm, but I find I can’t simultaneously keep it warm and sit at my computer, so blogging will be even more anemic than usual.