Published on 15 Jan 2015
The death rattle of a dhimmi society.
January 17, 2015
January 8, 2015
Jeff LaSala explains why the films based on JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit must be judged separately from the the books:
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films get a lot of flak for being overwrought and overlong. Many of the criticisms are valid enough (I have some of my own), some are a matter of taste, and some, I feel, are simply misguided. My view, as a fan of Tolkien first and Jackson second, is that the naysayers are judging the films for what they’re not. They are not a cinematic translation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel but an adaptation in the truest sense of the word. And they are specifically an adaptation of events in Middle-earth 60 years prior to Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday party which include those covered in The Hobbit and the appendices of The Lord of the Rings.
To adapt something is to change, alter, or modify it to make it suitable for new conditions, which is where the problems occur for fans of a richly detailed story. No, not merely a story, a whole legendarium (Tolkien himself called it such) that lots of people care a hell of a lot about. The expectation seems to have been that Jackson should have kept to the books closely, should have told the story just as Tolkien did. But ultimately, that’s just not realistic.
It’s not like he didn’t know what’s in the books; in addition to knowing them well, he was surrounded by Tolkien scholars, Elvish linguists, and other literary experts. Rather, he’s an uber-successful director, producer, and screenwriter who has to wrangle massive movie budgets and we’re not. He loves Tolkien’s work but had taken on the self-imposed, if herculean task of maneuvering a beloved tale through the Hollywood machine. Have you ever watched a comic book, novel, or even play adapted to film and thought, “That’s exactly how I would have done it”? If you have, then that’s amazing! If not, well, in this age of Hollywood remakes, reboots, and adaptations, why expect these films to be any different?
It’s been said that “the filmmakers have wrung all they could out of the source material,” but I find that to be a lazy stab because it’s simply untrue. Indeed, to me that’s the irony. While three Hobbit films meant there should be room for some fleshing out of otherwise sparse details — the very thing people are complaining about, that he made a short book longer than they felt it needed to be — Jackson still didn’t actually cover everything. I reserve a more final opinion for when the Extended (i.e. the real) Edition of Five Armies comes out, because it promises to include 30 more minutes, but there are elements of the story simply left off.
I can forgive almost any extension or stretching of characters and themes, so long as they’re not completely antithetical to Tolkien’s ideals, but only if the existing story, including the appendices-based backstory, is exhausted first. Beorn’s house; the Eagles and their eyries (and why they help at all); the drunk Wood-elves and the full interrogation of the dwarves; the thrush and its world-saving delivery of vital information; the aftermath of the battle — all of these have been gutted. In the behind-the-scenes features of the DVDs, you can even see that some of it was filmed (such as the captive dwarves being brought before Thrandruil, not merely Thorin), but never made even the Extended cut. Sadly.
But these are movies; they need to take into account a moviegoer’s patience (and bladder). Of course, short making a full-blown movie series (rather than mere trilogy) there is never enough time to cover everything. Think of all that was removed from The Lord of the Rings, which has a full run-time of just over 11 hours. Given that, are you in the “What, no ‘Scouring of the Shire’?” camp or the “Nah, it’s fine as is” camp?
Well, I still want the Scouring, but I agree that it would have been worse to give it a perfunctory couple of minutes on the screen than to omit it altogether. I’d pay to see it as a stand-alone, but I don’t know if that would be viable commercially.
January 7, 2015
Over at The Register, someone accidentally let Simon Rockman get up on his hobby horse and start yelling nasty things about buses:
A bus is a fantastically efficient way to move a large number of people. Buses however are not. They are a dreadful system for getting people to work.
The difference is not as subtle as that sentence may make it seem. What lies behind it is that when you want to move a large number of people from one place to another all at once, a works outing for instance, a Charabanc makes perfect sense.
But it doesn’t scale. If you want to travel by bus there needs to be a regular service. That means lots of buses have to waft up and down a route in anticipation of there being someone who wants to get on. In a major city, and I live in London, that’s good for some of the time. So long as there is a steady supply of people there can be a good number on the bus. This of course doesn’t work very early in the morning or late at night when there are not enough people.
What’s worse is that buses don’t go from where people live to where they work. Unless you live by a bus stop, in which case you have the kinds of people who hang around bus stops hanging around your house, you’ll have to walk to it. The same is true at the other end. Then you have to wait for the bus. If I walk down to my nearest bus stop and a bus arrives as I get there I think it’s a fantastic, special happening. If I walk out of my house and my car is there I think “that’s normal”.
January 4, 2015
Due to various reasons, we only got around to seeing Peter Jackson’s latest (last?) Middle Earth movie this week. As a result, I’ve been consciously avoiding reading too many reviews on the movie beforehand. I’d heard enough negative things that by the time we actually got to see it, it was no where near as bad as I’d been told. It’s not a great movie, but it’s good enough and I quite enjoyed watching it. Last month, Howard Tayler (of Schlock Mercenary fame) reviewed it and I mostly agree with his opinion:
If you did enjoy them, this one pretty much sticks the landing. There were bits I didn’t like much (the Sauron/Necromancer “Jefferson Airplane” visual tops that list) but this didn’t feel overblown or too long. It felt huge, and justly so.
Tolkien tells us that there are battles in Middle Earth. Jackson shows them to us. Tolkien tells us that there are thirteen dwarves in the party. Jackson shows them to us. Tolkien tells us that Laketown gets burnt by a dragon, and the survivors become refugees. Jackson shows us all that. The list goes on — The Hobbit is a short novel (by the standards of epic fantasy) because Tolkien does a lot of telling in between the showing. The Hobbit trilogy of films is a long movie (by the standards of genre-fiction films) because Jackson expands on the tells to give us a big show.
In order to make any of that engaging, we need to be seeing it through people with whom we identify. This is why during previous films we’re introduced to Legolas and Tauriel, Bard’s children, Azog, and the whole host of other named characters. Each of the dwarves is his own distinct character, and Laketown is full of the faces of human people who look like they could be our neighbors.
I’m down with all of this. In fact, I’d be quite happy to see the trilogy with an additional 90 minutes of footage, because some pieces felt a bit short.
December 30, 2014
[Satire] can’t [make a difference in the world]. Not a real difference. It can destroy, but it cannot produce. That’s the problem. You can destroy someone — it’s possible to that, if you’re very good. People have been politically destroyed by humor. But the problem is, you cannot create with it. It’s totally static in that way. It’s an act of demolition. Some things are just stronger than a laugh.
Fran Lebowitz, quoted by Lauren Ingeno in “Fran Lebowitz: I Am Not a Hostess. I Am a Prosecutor”, George Washington Today, 2014-04-20.
December 25, 2014
The poor bastards at Red Letter Media sit through a full showing of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special so you don’t have to.
In America, progressivism focuses on pointing out how terrible American culture is and how much other people’s cultures are better than ours. If we celebrate Columbus Day, we have to spend the whole time hearing about what a jerk Columbus was (disclaimer: to be fair, Columbus was a huge jerk). If we celebrate Washington’s birthday, we have to spend the whole time hearing about how awful it was that Washington owned slaves. Goodness help us if someone tries to celebrate Christmas – there are now areas where if a city puts up Christmas decorations, it has to give equal space to atheist groups to put up displays about how Christmas is stupid and people who celebrate it suck. That’s … probably not the way to maximize cultural unity, exactly?
We are a culture engaged in the continuing project of subverting itself. Our heroes have been toppled, our rituals mocked, and one gains status by figuring out new and better ways to show how the things that should unite us are actually stupid and oppressive. Even the conservatives who wear American flag lapel pins and stuff spend most of their time talking about how they hate America today and the American government and everything else associated with America except for those stupid flag pins of theirs.
Compare this to olden cultures. If someone in Victorian Britain says “God save the Queen!”, then everyone else repeated “God save the Queen!”, and more important, they mean it. “England expects every man to do their duty” is actually perceived as a compelling reason why one’s duty should be done.
It would seem that the Victorian British are more on the Mormon side and modern Americans more like the Unitarians. And in fact, the Victorians managed to colonize half the planet while America can’t even get the Afghans to stop shooting each other. While one may not agree with Victorian Britain’s aims, one has to wonder what would happen if that kind of will, energy, and unity of purpose were directed towards a worthier goal (I wonder this about the Mormon Church too).
Reactionaries would go further and explore this idea in a depth I don’t have time for, besides to say that they believe many historical cultures were carefully optimized and time-tested for unifying potential, and that they really sunk deep into the bones of the populace until failing to identify with them would have been unthinkable. The three cultures they most often cite as virtuous examples here are Imperial China, medieval Catholicism, and Victorian Britain; although it would be foolish to try to re-establish one of those exactly in a population not thoroughly steeped in them, we could at least try to make our own culture a little more like they were.
Once again, the Reactionary claim is not necessarily that we have to brainwash people or drag the Jews kicking and screaming to Christmas parties. It’s just that maybe we should stop deliberately optimizing society for as little unity and shared culture as humanly possible.
Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.
December 9, 2014
Scott Mendelson reviews the soon-to-open movie by Ridley Scott, and finds it awful:
Exodus: Gods and Kings is a terrible film. It is a badly acted and badly written melodrama that takes what should be a passionate and emotionally wrenching story and drains it of all life and all dramatic interest. It hits all the major points, like checking off boxes on a list, yet tells its tale at an arms-length reserve with paper-thin characters. It is arguably a film intended for adults, with violence that makes a mockery of its PG-13 rating, yet it has far less nuance, emotional impact, and moral shading than DreamWorks Animation’s PG-rated and seemingly kid-targeted The Prince of Egypt.
The film starts with an arbitrary mass battle scene, one which serves no purpose save for having a mass battle sequence to toss into the trailers. The primary alteration to the story is the inclusion of said gratuitous action beats. The film is relentlessly grim yet oddly unemotional, which is a tricky balance to accidentally pull off. The actors (who have all done excellent work elsewhere) are all oddly miscast, and that’s not even getting to the whole “really white actors playing Egyptians” thing. Oh right, that little issue… It’s actually worse than you’ve heard.
In retrospect, it may have been better to just make a 100% white cast similar to Noah. This film instead is filled with minorities in subservient roles, be it slaves, servants, or (implied) palace sex toys. Instead of merely having a film filled with only white actors, what the film does is implicitly impose a racially-based class system, where the white characters are prestigious and/or important while the various minorities are inherently second or third-class citizens almost by virtue of their skin color. I am sure this was unintentional, but that’s the visual picture that Exodus paints.
Now to be absolutely fair, even if Exodus was cast with 100% racial/ethnic authenticity, it would still be a pretty bad motion picture. The screenplay has our poor, miscast actors speaking in various accents and in a bizarre hybrid of “ancient times period piece” English and more modern American English, which leads to lines like “From an economic standpoint alone, what you’re asking is problematic,” which is Rameses’s (Joel Edgerton) response to Moses’s initial plea to “Let my people go!”
November 28, 2014
Michael Pinkus shares a cringeworthy report from a foreign wine writer on a recent winery tour in the Niagara region:
After giving it some thought it came to me as a sports reference: have we hit that expansion team overload amongst the wineries of Niagara? What I mean by that is a watering down of the talent available. For example: when a league (NHL, NFL, CFL, etc.) expands to include more franchises the biggest worry is that there will not be enough high-caliber talent in the pool to feed that new franchise and keep it competitive. Now apply the same theory to the wineries: with more and more wineries opening every year is the talent pool of engaged and conscientious prospective “manpower” really there to staff them? Is that the problem? Or should we just blame training and be done with it?
A wine writer from another country (who will remain nameless) wrote to me about a visit he recently made to a winery in Niagara (which will also remain nameless). Here were some of his comments about the tour he took:
“Worst tour: Inexperienced tour guide who didn’t understand what she’d been taught and gave a series of garbled ideas … e.g. windmill in vineyard uses propane to heat the vines, grafting is done because it’s too cold here to grow on own roots, [also] told us we wouldn’t enjoy the wines in the tasting and that their barrel fermented and aged Chardonnay was best in a spritzer.”
I’m not saying all wineries are bad, but there are some that leave, for lack of a better expression, a bad taste in the mouth — even when their food (or, for that matter, wine) is delicious. One of the wineries we visited in Niagara-on-the-Lake provided us such a lousy experience that they almost did not make our top five … but their food was just so memorably delicious, it was the thing that saved them — now imagine if they did not have that food, it would have been memorable for all the wrong reasons.
Whether it’s the lollygagging behind the counter, chatting with co-workers to the point where you indicate where to go with your chin (“it’s over there”), ignoring a guest until they approach you, or just being grumpy and surly, it all takes its toll on the winery’s reputation. A bad experience sticks in your mind more and longer than a good one. I especially remember a tasting at a famous Niagara-on-the-Lake winery about 10 years ago where, after buying two cases of wine between the three people I was with, the staff member who served us chased us out into the parking lot for the $5.50 tasting fee … I have never, ever forgotten that one.
I wonder if that last winery was the same one I’ve been avoiding for the last ten years … the experience wasn’t exactly the same, but it soured me on ever having anything to do with them again. Bad customer service in the wine trade has a much greater long-term than it does in, say, the fast food business.
November 25, 2014
Tim Black thinks John Stuart Mill (were he still alive) would be within his rights to sue Chakrabarti for mis-appropriating the title of his famous book:
Given the eponymous nod to John Stuart Mill, Shami Chakrabarti’s On Liberty promises to be a tribute to individual freedom. It promises to be a stirring defence of liberty written by someone who, as the head of the 80-year-old civil-rights campaign group Liberty, has been knee-deep, holding back the tide of aggressive, illiberal legislation. It promises to be an unbowed affirmation of freedom at a time when it has rarely been more devalued.
But the reality of Chakrabarti’s On Liberty, an awkward amalgam of the semi-personal and the mainstream political, never even comes close to realising the promise. Instead, it turns out to be a desperately dull encomium to the human-rights industry, a verveless trudge down Good Cause lane, with every battle against New Labour anti-terror legislation, each scuffle with the ASBO-happy authorities, eventually turning into a victory for the indispensable European Court of Human Rights. Hooray for Strasbourg! If John Stuart Mill wasn’t so liberal (and dead), he’d be within his rights to sue Chakrabarti for calumny.
But first, the prose. Whatever vital impulse there was behind writing this book must have expired long before it reached the page. There’s no life here, no spirit. It as if Chakrabarti has barely thought about the words she’s using. Even when she’s describing the frustrations of her ‘university-educated’ mum, held back ‘by a lack of affordable childcare’, she sounds as if she’s dashing off a policy document, not portraying a loved one. Admittedly, she does prove capable of a geekish whimsy at points — ‘You might say that I am a Jedi Knight who began on the dark side of the force’, she writes of her career beginnings at the UK Home Office. But On Liberty is mainly composed of dead phrases and, worse still, argument-averse legalese. ‘This type of administrative detention by the UK secretary of state’, she writes of the internment of foreign terror suspects at Belmarsh, ‘is not incompatible with the right to personal liberty and the right against arbitrary detention under Article 5 of the Human Rights Convention, as long as it is necessary to the stated purpose, provided for in legislation and subject to scrutiny and appeals in the appropriate courts and tribunals’. Magical stuff.
November 10, 2014
James R. Holmes makes the case that the latest class of US Navy destroyers are already obsolete:
Hie thee hence, sea fighters, to peruse Information Dissemination‘s take on the U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer. Pseudo-pseudonymous pundit “Lazarus” gives a nifty profile of the newfangled vessel. That’s worth your time in itself. Though not in so many words, moreover, he depicts the attention-grabbing DDG-1000 stories of recent weeks and months as a red herring. Sure, Zumwalt features a “tumblehome” hull that makes the ship look like the second coming of USS Monitor. (This is not a compliment.) The hull tapers where it should flare and flares where it should taper. Zounds!
Yet more than cosmetics occasions commentary. Some navy-watchers voice concern about tumblehome hulls’ seakeeping ability in rough waters. Others question their ability to remain buoyant and stable after suffering mishaps or battle damage. That’s a worry in a “minimum manned” ship that relies on automated damage control. (The very idea of automated firefighting and flooding control, and sparsely populated fire parties, sits poorly with this former fire marshal.) In any event, time will tell whether the naval architects got it right.
Even if problems do come to light, Zumwalt would be far from the first fighting ship to undergo modifications to remedy problems baked into her design. The flattop USS Midway, for example, underwent repeated change over her long life — including to correct such maladies. Plus ça change.
Zumwalt‘s secondary armament has made headlines as well. The navy recently opted to substitute lesser-caliber 30-mm guns for the 57-mm guns originally envisioned to empower the ship to duel small boats and light surface combatants. The smaller mount evidently meets performance parameters for close-in engagements that its bigger counterpart misses. This too is a controversy that, in all likelihood, will be settled once sea trials put the ship through her paces. Tempest, meet teapot.
November 7, 2014
That’s another concept that I’m sure must have an eighteen-syllable descriptor in German but doesn’t have a matching name in English. David Friedman has a great illustration of this in the criticism of a nineteenth century anthropologist by Stephen Jay Gould:
The late Stephen Jay Gould was both an evolutionary biologist and a popular essayist. In the book The Mismeasure of Man he argued that scientists unconsciously manipulate their data to fit their preexisting prejudices. As evidence he cited the work of Samuel George Morton, a 19th century physical anthropologist who assembled a large collection of skulls from many parts of the world and measured their cranial capacity in an attempt to answer questions about racial differences. According to Gould, Morton skewed his data in various ways to fit his racial beliefs.
I have just read an article by a group of modern anthropologists who went over Morton’s data and remeasured many of the skulls that Morton measured — something Gould did not do. The authors concluded that most of Gould’s criticisms were poorly supported or falsified. The errors that Gould reported in Morton’s analysis resulted from errors by Gould, not by Morton. Morton did make some mistakes in his work, but they were in the opposite direction from his biases.
The obvious conclusion, not stated by the authors of the article, is that Gould’s central claim was correct. Scientists sometimes bias their work to fit their preconceptions. As Gould demonstrated by doing so.
November 6, 2014
People in ancient societies thought their societies were obviously great. The imperial Chinese thought nothing could beat imperial China, the medieval Spaniards thought medieval Spain was a singularly impressive example of perfection, and Communist Soviets were pretty big on Soviet Communism. Meanwhile, we think 21st-century Western civilization, with its democracy, secularism, and ethnic tolerance is pretty neat. Since the first three examples now seem laughably wrong, we should be suspicious of the hypothesis that we finally live in the one era whose claim to have gotten political philosophy right is totally justified.
But it seems like we have an advantage they don’t. Speak out against the Chinese Empire and you lose your head. Speak out against the King of Spain and you face the Inquisition. Speak out against Comrade Stalin and you get sent to Siberia. The great thing about western liberal democracy is that it has a free marketplace of ideas. Everybody criticizes some aspect of our society. Noam Chomsky made a career of criticizing our society and became rich and famous and got a cushy professorship. So our advantage is that we admit our society’s imperfections, reward those who point them out, and so keep inching closer and closer to this ideal of perfect government.
Okay, back up. Suppose you went back to Stalinist Russia and you said “You know, people just don’t respect Comrade Stalin enough. There isn’t enough Stalinism in this country! I say we need two Stalins! No, fifty Stalins!”
Congratulations. You have found a way to criticize the government in Stalinist Russia and totally get away with it. Who knows, you might even get that cushy professorship.
If you “criticize” society by telling it to keep doing exactly what it’s doing only much much more so, society recognizes you as an ally and rewards you for being a “bold iconoclast” or “having brave and revolutionary new ideas” or whatever. It’s only when you tell them something they actually don’t want to hear that you get in trouble.
Western society has been moving gradually further to the left for the past several hundred years at least. It went from divine right of kings to constutitional monarchy to libertarian democracy to federal democracy to New Deal democracy through the civil rights movement to social democracy to ???. If you catch up to society as it’s pushing leftward and say “Hey guys, I think we should go leftward even faster! Two times faster! No, fifty times faster!”, society will call you a bold revolutionary iconoclast and give you a professorship.
If you start suggesting maybe it should switch directions and move the direction opposite the one the engine is pointed, then you might have a bad time.
Scott Alexander, “Reactionary Philosophy In An Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell”, Slate Star Codex, 2013-03-03.
November 5, 2014
Tim Worstall explains that the so-called Easterlin Paradox — that economic growth did not make people happy — is clearly not supported by the evidence:
As background here: the basic paradox that Easterlin pointed to is that, past a certain level (roughly when we’ve become rich enough to solve the supply of basic creature comforts like food, shelter, clothing etc, something like a GDP per capita of $15,000 say), a country getting richer doesn’t seem to make the population any happier. While we’ve now got rather better data than he could work with, and thus we know that people do keep getting happier but at a much lower rate, that basic idea has proven very popular. Of course it has: for it’s allowed all sorts of people to argue that we don’t have to chase that Great God, GDP, and we can thus do things that make people happier and not richer. It’s a lovely argument to use when someone objects that taxing the heck out of the rich will reduce growth for example. For one can just riposte that more growth wouldn’t make people happier while taxing the heck out of the rich would. It’s used as the opening argument in The Spirit Level in this manner: as higher GDP doesn’t make people happier we can therefore concentrate upon inequality instead. And there’s many other such uses around and about.
I’ve never thought that was quite right and I said so. My argument being that it’s not the level of economic wealth that makes people happy or unhappy (above that basics level that is). Rather, it’s the direction of change of it. If a country is gradually getting richer then people will be happier than if the economy is stagnant or shrinking. And the association of greater happiness with the richer countries is not really because they are richer, but because in becoming rich those countries have obviously had decades, if not centuries, of gradually rising incomes: that very thing that makes people happy.
October 25, 2014
Part of the problem with hugging is that it has become a social convention, rather than what it once was, which was an expression of genuine emotion.
There are some times when a hug is appropriate. Those times are when there’s a marriage proposal in the air or a body in the ground.
Hugging is for celebration, or comforting someone who’s had a setback. Hugging is not for noting that two people have both managed to meet at Chili’s after work. Being at Chili’s is not a cause for celebration, and nor is it quite dire enough to require comforting.
An even more important rule is Men don’t hug. The only time men should hug is when male family members are observing a major life milestone, such as a major promotion, the safe return from overseas deployment, or noting a witty observation in the commentary audio track of Die Hard.
The only exception to these guidelines if a man tells another man, “Boy, I could sure use a hug.” But he won’t say that, because he’s a man, so just stop with the male-on-male hugging.
To be serious, if I could: There are rules of physical distance, and there are meanings to breaches of those rules.
People of course do occasionally touch each other. But those touches have important communicative purposes precisely because of the general rule that we don’t touch each other.
There’s something a little child-like about hugging, too. It’s an innocent gesture — it’s intended to be so.
But it sort of ignores the adult-world meaning of intimate touching.
So I wonder if it’s somehow connected to a growing preference for Child World rules, and an increasing rejection of Adult World rules.
Ace, “Arms Are Not Made For Hugging”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2014-10-10.