Friday, February 27, 2015

Fundmentalism and art

     A news item today (27 February 2015) reports on ISIS attacking Assyrian Christians, and destroying ancient artworks. Al Qaeda destroyed ancient art in Afghanistan. The Puritans defaced and destroyed religious art during the English Civil War. In Europe, Protestants defaced Catholic churches during the Counterreformation. The Nazis attacked what they called Degenerate Art. Maoists and Stalinists imprisoned artists who produced unofficial art. All kinds of fundamentalists have attacked literature and poetry and drama that they didn't like, often murdering the authors.
     And so on.
     Why do fundamentalists, secular and religious, destroy and deface artworks? Why are they so enraged by literature? One could write a lot of analysis about each case, pointing to doctrines, beliefs, attitudes and values. But it boils down to a very simple fact: Art records and expresses how someone knows the world.
     We understand an artwork to the extent that we are able to imagine being someone else. More than that, the artwork makes it possible to do that. Through art we can imagine different values, attitudes, feelings.
     And that's why fundamentalists hate art. Art is proof that it's not only possible to be different from you, but that it's inevitable.
     Fundamentalism is the inability to tolerate the diversity of humankind.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Codebreaker (2011)

     Codebreaker (2011) [D: Clare Beavan and Nic Stacey. Ed Stoppard, Henry Goodman, and contemporaries and family of Turing] Short documentary about Alan Turing, about his work as code breaker at Bletchley Park, his seminal papers on computing, and his conviction for gross indecency and his eventual suicide. He was sentenced to receive stilboestrol, a synthetic oestrogen, which among other things messes up the brain. The title is ambiguous: Turing broke two codes.
     Alternating between voice-over narration of Turing’s life and dramatised sessions with Franz Gr├╝nbaum, the psychiatrist who treated Turing (and who became his friend), the film is an effective indictment of the attitudes that destroyed one of the most brilliant minds we’ve been privileged to know. We are somewhat less benighted now, but there are discouraging signs of increasing acceptance of hostility towards those who depart too far from current norms. It’s depressing to watch a story about the destruction of human being.
     The movie reminded me of how the Turing Test has evolved over time. For a while, I participated in a newsgroup about artificial intelligence. We ascribe awareness, self-awareness, personality, etc, because of the  behaviours of our fellow creatures. Sometimes, we go too far: I don’t think a snail is aware of pain, even though it recoils from flame. But it is certainly capable of learning, if by that we mean changes in behaviour that depend on the history of the individual. Since learning is an essential component of intelligence, the snail has some degree of intelligence. And since we see intelligence of varying complexity in many different creatures, it’s no stretch at all to expect that machines will exhibit intelligence. It’s when we conflate intelligence with self-awareness, with consciousness, that we get into trouble. More precisely, “intelligence” as a cognitive trait is far too stretchy a term. For many people, it includes creativity, for example. For many others, it requires not only problem solving, but also awareness that one is solving a problem. And so on.
     Recently, I came across a fact I’d ignored, and a comment that reframes Turing’s Test.
     The fact is that Turing machines are incredibly inefficient compared to brains. We can compute “that’s Uncle Fred, and he’s happy” in a fraction of a second expending a few joules of energy. A machine needs longer and expends many kilojoules of energy to compute that “That’s Uncle Fred”, and it can’t (yet) compute that he’s happy.
     The comment is that the Turing Test is really about humans, not machines. It tests whether the human can be fooled by a machine. And since the program is devised by a human, it really tests whether one human can fool another one. But we already knew that.
     It’s mark of Turing’s gift to us that even as we mourn him, we want to think about the things that mattered to him. ***

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Anti-terrorism and Bill C-51

     Do we need protection from those who would attack us? Of course we do. We already have that protection. The laws we have work just fine, when they work. But to make them work requires that CSIS and the Mounties have the resources to do their work. But when you have a government that is more afraid of a deficit than of terrorism, those institutions are unable to do their job.
     Bill C-51 is part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to stoke fear, in the expectation that fear will shift votes in Mr Harper's direction in October.   
      C-51 sets up the framework for a secret police in the service of the government.
     It gives CSIS the power to "disrupt" what they might deem to be a terrorist plot. Sure, a judge must sign an order permitting CSIS to do this, but once they have that order, they can do whatever they think is necessary. C-51 does not indicate any limits.
     It criminalises intent. But intent is the eyes and imagination of the beholder. Anyone who is opposed to the government of the obviously intends to get rid of it, if possible. So who will decide at what point that intent is criminal, and that therefore I should be arrested?
     It criminalises unlawful protest. But lawful protest is that which has permit. If a permit is withheld, then your protest is unlawful. So who decides whether to give you a permit or not? Clearly, if the authority that grants the permit doesn't like the point of your protest, they can withhold the permit and automatically make you a criminal.
     Those who shrug off the dangers of  C-51 either don't know or have forgotten that the secret police forces we think of as the worst ever, the Gestapo and the KGB, both operated within the law. They were give the legal authority to do what they did.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Gently with Class (2012)

     Gently with Class (2012) [D: Gillies MacKinnon. Martin Shaw, Lee Ingleby] Rerun on WGBH. From the series Inspector George Gently, based on books by Allan Hunter : see the Wikipedia entry.
     Moody photography, with elliptical story-telling, cross-cutting and flashbacks, which develop the puzzle and the theme jigsaw piece by jigsaw piece, until the final punch-line that makes the socio-political point: the new rulers of Britain will be just like the old ones.
     DS Bacchus is convinced that James Blackstone, son and heir of Hector Blackstone, drove the upturned car half-submerged in the river, in which a girl drowned. Bacchus has twice arrested James for drunk driving, but James’s  mother has twice drawn him out of harm’s way.
But this time it’s more complicated. Bacchus is itching to take the toffs down. Gently just wants to find out who done what. None of the suspects tells the truth, and when they do begin to spill it, they don’t tell the whole truth. As often happens in such complicated stories, the denouement is a perfunctory exercise in tying up loose ends. If the script follows Hunter’s novel, his real focus was on class and class-driven resentments. That was well done; we almost don’t care who actually did what.
     Gently is an interesting character, oddly detached from his job, the passion to uncover the truth concentrated in Bacchus. But Bacchus doesn’t want the truth for the sake of justice, he wants it as a weapon in the class war. Well done entertainment. **½

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Paradise Express (1937)

     Paradise Express (1937) [D: Joseph Kane. Grant Withers, Dorothy Appleby, et al] I’ve been watching old movies downloaded from the web. This one is a B-movie barely an hour long. A shortline railroad is in receivership because of business lost to a trucking company run by gangsters. The receiver takes his job seriously, he wants to resuscitate the business. But gangsters don’t like having their plans thwarted. Two good men die in a train wreck, and a subsequent race between the train and the trucks almost results in more deaths, but of course the hero gets the girl as well as a railroad with a future. I suppose in 1937 the victory of the railroad was still plausible.
     Writing, acting, and photography get the job done. Characters are cardboard, the wrecked trains are models, and the engineer-in-the-cab shots are made in the studio. But the stock railroad footage looks good, and someone paid attention to continuity. The movie doesn’t require close attention from the audience, but it wasn’t intended as anything more than a pleasant time-filler. If you like trains, you may want to look for this movie. *½

Monday, February 09, 2015

Deadlier Than The Male (1967)

     Deadlier Than The Male (1967) [D: Ralph Thomas. Richard Johnson, Elke Sommer, et al] A James Bond-style thriller, with a wannabe world-class villain pitted against Bulldog Drummond, hero of I don’t know how many pulp fictions of the 1920s and 30s, later updated in the 1950s and 60s. See
     Not the worst of these attempts to cash in on the Bond genre, but lacking the crackle and tension of the Bond movies. The narrative pace is slow, even for its day, when film narration was much slower than nowadays. The villain uses good-looking women to do his dirty work, while Drummond is of course much too gentlemanly to take advantage of them, so that a ploy or two fails. But it provides an excuse to show Sommer and others in bikinis. Scenery and sets suitably exotic, a nicely done chess game using large pieces on a computer-controlled board, a cool hero, and fast cars and boats froth together in a pleasantly entertaining but ultimately uninvolving mix.
     Oh, the McGuffin is the villain’s offer to eliminate bothersome business obstacles in return for a fee, and his tendency to encourage payment by offing people who refuse to pay up when the obstacles succumb to accidents. Drummond almost becomes an accident victim himself, of course. **

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Dik Browne. Hagar the Horrible on the Loose #3 (1974)

     Dik Browne. Hagar the Horrible on the Loose #3 (1974) When Hagar first appeared, he was a lovable overweight naif, unable and unwilling to live the respectable life, addicted to misbehaving, kept on a shortish leash by his wife Hilda, flummoxed by his daughter Loni who wants to be a Viking raider like him, and flummoxed even more by his son Hamlet who reads and writes poetry. He’s been around now for forty years, and not much has changed. Hagar still goes on regular raiding journeys to England, still drinks too much beer and eats to much venison, still gets into scrapes that would destroy a lesser man. Browne makes no attempt to show Viking life realistically. Hagar is a 20th century suburbanite with an unusual career, is all. He’s also shrewd, loyal (usually), and rather sweet on Hilda. That makes the strips comments on contemporary life. Here are some of my favourites in this collection, ones that work as well in straight print as in a strip. Many Hagar strips depend on the drawings, they’re visual puns, bizarre situations, and so on.

Hagar: Don’t you see it? It’s a joke...
    Aw, women have no sense of humor.
Hilda: Oh Yeah? Then how come we marry men?
Hilda: You’re Crazy!!
Hagar: Well, if I’m crazy, you made me crazy.
Hilda: I did not! You were crazy when you married me!!
Hagar: I’ll drink to that! [Hilda grimaces]
Hagar [sucking up soup]: SLURP! SLURP!
Hilda: Oh lovely! Just lovely!
Hagar: Thank you.
Hilda: That’s sarcasm, stupid!
Hagar: Well, whatever it is – it tastes good.
Hagar: What are you looking at?
Lucky Eddy: I never saw you without your hat.
Hagar: So?
Lucky Eddy: How do you get it on over your horns?

OK, so you may not roll on the floor laughing. But Hagar is still worth a look, you’ll spend a pleasant few minutes every time you open a Hagar collection. Warning; this is potato chip reading. **½

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Geopolitics 101: A Machiavellian analysis of ISIS

     The declared aim of ISIS is to re-establish the Caliphate, by which they mean the old Ottoman Empire, probably with additional territories. To achieve this goal, they have started a war against the local Middle Eastern governments, and have seized control of major transportation routes. They have slaughtered whole villages, displaced hundreds of thousands, and done everything they could to put pressure on the regional governments. They initailly formed an alliance with Syria, but I think that is a purely pragmatic move; in the long run they want to displace the Syrian regime as well.
     Correction and update 2015-05-17: ISIS's initial alliance was with the opponents to the Syrian government. It has been short lived.
     Do they want to conquer the West? The answer is no. It’s impossible to do that. They have barely enough manpower and materiel to maintain their hold on the areas they have conquered in the Middle East. Their demand for a $200 million ransom for the Japanese hostages suggests they are running out of cash. So what’s the purpose of their continued provocation of the West?
     Looking at their strategy with a Machiavellian stance, I see two goals for their recruitment of disaffected Westerners, their murder of Western hostages, and their support (almost entirely verbal, not material) of Jihadist actions in Western states.
     First, they want to provoke Western action in the Middle East, which will tend to raise tensions (as the diplomats put it) between the West and its Middle Eastern allies. They know that Western military action relies on conventional weapons, which cause a lot of so-called collateral damage, which will create a backlash against the West. It will also provoke anxiety among Muslims in the West, and when Western casualties mount, anti-war sentiment will increase. And of course they want to disrupt the alliances between the West and  those Middle Eastern States they hope to include in their Caliphate.
     Second, they want to foment political instability in the West by deflecting Western public opinion from their Middle Eastern ambition and making it focus on the danger to Westerners in their own countries. They know the anti-Muslim backlash will increase disaffection and anxiety among Muslims. They want a backlash against Muslims in the West so that they can present themselves as the only true, safe, and Islamist refuge for Muslims worldwide. Hence the beheadings of hostages, and the support of the Charlie Hebdo murders, and the praising of any action that can be even remotely connected to Jihadist beliefs. The reactions by the Canadian and other governments shows that this strategy is having considerable success.
     Today's news out of Jordan indicates that their strategy is having some success in the Middle East also. The killing of a Jordanian pilot has Jordanians wondering whether they should participate in the war against ISIS. If Jordan pulls out, support from other Middle Eastern states will also diminish. This will enable ISIS to conquer those states with relatively little military effort. That, which includes the elimination of Israel, is their first goal.
     Their ultimate goal is to purify Islam of all versions that they believe to be heretical. If they ever reach that point, they will begin to attack the Muslim states in the rest of the world.
   Update 2015-02-04 21:52: Jordan's response to ISIS's murder of the Jordanian pilot was to execute two Al Qaeda prisoners they held, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment. The Jordanian public have turned their rage against ISIS. Seems ISIS miscalculated. Also, the enmity between ISIS-style Islamism and Islam generally has sharpened. Doesn't look good.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Paddington (2014)

     Paddington (2014) [D:Paul King. Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, and  Ben Wishaw voicing Paddington] I like Paddington Bear very much. Created by Michael Bond and starring in several books as well as an animated series for children’s television, he’s a hapless but friendly furry person whose enthusiastic naivete gets him into all kinds of scrapes. Here, sent to England by his Aunt Lucy after an earthquake destroys his home in “deepest Peru”, he yearns for a proper home and a family. He gets both, of course, but not until getting into all kinds of scrapes and being nearly murdered and stuffed by an ice-cold villainess.
     I enjoyed this movie. The makers wisely decided to play Paddington’s naivete for laughs while accepting the improbable premise at face value, and taking Paddington’s predicament seriously. Well done special effects, a narrative pace nicely tuned to children’s need for time to absorb plot-points and adults’ quicker uptake of the subtext, very well done animation, and characters complex enough to make us care for them but simple enough that we recognise the stereotypes immediately. Not the greatest movie ever made, but a well-crafted entertainment with hardly a false note. ***

Sparkling Cyanide (1983)

     Sparkling Cyanide (1983) [D: Robert Michael Lewis. Anthony Andrews, Deborah Raffin, Pamela Bellwood] Transplanted to Los Angeles, with a British private eye and a local cop co-operating on the case, this isn’t Agatha Christie’s story, but it’s close enough to give us what all Christies supply: plentiful red herrings, numerous misinterpretations, and the slow revelation of the essential facts. There’s even the scene in which the sleuth gets all the suspects together and sifts through the clues to arrive at the truth. Ths version was made for TV, which means it softened and even avoided the dark subtexts. This makes for a rather bland movie, competently acted, photographed, and scripted, but lacking the sense of evil that pervades all of Christie’s stories, and which more recent adaptations take pains to show. **

Destry Rides Again (1939)

     Destry Rides Again (1939) [ D: George Marshall. James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich] The town of Bottle Neck is ruled by gangsters. Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich) is in league with them, and assist in defrauding a rancher of his property in a crooked card game. The sheriff who goes to investigate is killed, replaced by a drunk, who calls in Destry (James Stewart), the son of his old friend. But Destry doesn’t like guns. That’s the setup.
     So how will Destry tame the town? He does it by showing he’s a crack shot, but mostly by insisting he will enforce the law, and doing so even when he knows that the law favour the crooks. That insistence on law enables him to arrest the murderer of the previous sheriff, but when it gets out that he’s called in a federal judge to try the case, there is the inevitable gunfight. Frenchy, who is after all an immoral woman, dies protecting Destry.
     A nicely done movie which no longer seems mold-breaking. Hailed as a classic, it offered Stewart his first starring role, Dietrich’s come-back role.A mix of silliness and cliches masquerading as humour, well done photography, and an intelligent script add up to a pleasant hour and a half. It’s supposed to be a comic Western, and it does offer some laughs. But I have no desire to watch it again. **1/2