To use Occam's razor one must first tell the beard from the throat

AFfC + ADwD remix

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For those who don’t yet know, the two acronyms in the title refer to A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, the two latest installments in the realpolitik fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  This is the one and the same series of novels that gave rise to the successful HBO TV-Series that just debuted this April, Game of Thrones.  Now, someone recommended me the series quite a while ago, 2004-5 I think, but I didn’t pick it up until this year, after my friends (shout out to Vinko Lizardsbane) back in Zagreb mentioned it again.  Got through the first book and bit into the second back in February, then dropped it — I found it too focused on court intrigue, a fantasy soap opera, and I wasn’t in the mood.  The TV series brought fixed that, I knew what to expect so I concentrated on its good points, and I couldn’t put it down.  And a few weeks of fevered reading later I am caught up.

So, if you’re not familiar with the series, this post won’t make sense.  If you haven’t read the last book, there will be spoilers, so you probably want to come back to it later.  Anyways I’ll start spoiler-free and indicate when the spoilers start.

Coming off of the reading high is a good time for thought experiments and what ifs.  This one came up to me while I was taking a walk last evening, and has to do with the structural mess & plot delays over the last two books.  It took longer, much longer for GRRM to write these two books than the last three combined, and many fans argue that they’re just not as well written as the first three.  There is a lot of atmosphere and landscape, a lot of inner dialogue, but fewer plot twists and less action compared to the first three books.  Don’t get me wrong, a big part of the charm of the series is in the sense immersion coming from the atmosphere and the inner thoughts of the characters.  The reason the earlier books work so well, though, is that this immersion delivers you raw into the middle of unrelenting, intricate, surprising and often brutal activity.

The last two books, not so much.  The problem is in part structural.  AFfC was released after a long wait, growing unwieldy, and GRRM and his editors made the decision to split the book by character and location.  This made for a more self-contained book, with the downside that three of the strongest characters (AFfC spoiler: Daenerys, Jon and Tyrion) were left out.  Now as one review mentioned, this is like Star Trek without Spock, and I agree with many fans that AFfC is the weakest of the series.  Not to say it was bad — it makes sense in its own way, a melancholy tone of postwar reckoning in late autumn.

Then came ADwD, which is a better and a more substantial book.  What I find extremely annoying about it, though, is that there’s a lot of buildup, but most plot lines stop just as things start getting interesting, or resolve offstage and we’re left guessing.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the first three books are nothing short of extraordinary and set a standard that’s certainly not easy to maintain. This is still a very impressive installment. But when a series in any medium (TV show, novels, movies) starts exhibiting a pattern of: coasting until almost 2/3 into the book/film/season, then speeding up somewhat, then breaking off just as things heat up, this is usually the sign that the enterprise is starting to get tired and run out of steam.

(An aside. The fact that the author has a path plotted out of how the series will reach resolution is often brought up as an argument that he has control of the narrative and that this is a non-issue.  Not necessarily.  It’s not unusual for an author to have an overarching vision for a larger work, but lose her/his way after the first, often the most pessimistic and unredeeming parts are written.  It happens to the best — Gogol’s Dead Souls was supposedly the first in a trilogy that was to start in mud and end in redemption, but Gogol destroyed the second book and never wrote the third.  I guess he got his characters so compellingly deep into the mud that he just couldn’t pull them out 😆   For what it’s worth, however, I do mean this as a constructive criticism.  I do believe GRRM is committed to finishing the series, and as far as I’m concerned he can take all the time he bloody likes and even give up if it pleases him.  I’ll be happy when/if the books come out, I’ve got better things to worry about of in the meantime, and people breathing up his neck to finish should stick to TV, movies and computer games.  Or, preferably, get a life.)

In light of the above issues with AFfC and ADwD, I got to thinking about a shuffling exercise.  After climactic events of the ASoS, most people are happy leaving AFfC slower, with more ambience than action.  However, AFfC is a bit of a rump at only 46 chapters, while the other books count between 70 and 82.  This means that there is room for up to 36 extra chapters to pad AFfC with material from ADwD.  The exercise consists, then, of moving up as much filler as possible from ADwD to AFfC, thereby resulting in AFfC+, a more chronologically accurate novel that also includes most characters.  This would resolve the “Star Trek without Spock” issue and give ADwD room to grow with existing and future chapters from TWoW.  The result would be ADwD+, with some breathing room so the dragons can actually dance.

Spoilers ahead.

Frustrating Plot Lines in ADwD

These are the plot lines in ADwD I found more or less issue with.  I say “or less” because the list is exhaustive; some of these work out better than others.  Many could IMO improve if they were partially or entirely moved to AFfC (Tyrion, Davos).  Some could work better if they stayed in ADwD but had other, more plot-relevant chapters following them (Asha, Theon, Barristan, Victarion).  Surely, one could do without some POVs (most of Quentyn) or shorten and recap in another (Jon/Samwell), but I won’t go there.  I’ll stick to what I think could be gained through rearrangement only.

  • Dany + Barristan (10+4 chapters) — though Dany’s arc is significant and arguably complete, it’s marred by the neverending build up to the fight for Mereen
  • Jon + Mel (13+1 chapters) — the only really complete major story arc, ending in an effective but somewhat unsatisfactory cliffhanger
  • Tyrion (12 chapters) and Victarion (2 chapters) — they never reach Dany, their stories stop just before they do
  • Asha + Theon (3+7 chapters) — Theon completes his arc, but the big fight it all leads up to happens offscreen
  • Davos (4 chapters) — the first 3 chapters tell us what we already know from AFfC, the 4th sets a new course but never goes anywhere
  • Quentyn (4 chapters) — understandable and occasionally interesting, but kind of pointless
  • Jaime (1 chapter), Cersei (2 chapters) and Arya (2 chapters) — simple wrap-ups from AFfC

Other Plot Lines in ADwD

These are ADwD plot lines that IMO have decent resolutions, though they could still be moved around or split to fit with other stories, or for the sake of the chronology.

  • Varamyr + Bran (1+3 chapters)
  • Connington + Areo + Kevan (2+1+1 chapters)

What to Do

A tentative proposal for A Feast for Crows on steroids.  The numbers in parentheses indicate possible breakpoints, expressed as the number of chapters to move to AFfC, separated by dashes.  The breakpoint I’m (often weakly) preferring is in bold, and the total number of chapters is after the slash.  So (0-3-4-6-9/10) means that the possible breakpoints come after none, 3, 4, 6, or 9 of 10 chapters, and that I’m arguing for splitting after 4.  Chapters are in ADwD unless indicated otherwise.

First, short and relatively independent plot arcs.

Jaime (0-1/1 chapter).  Leave in ADwD. Jaime’s single chapter contains a hint to the resolution of Brienne’s AFfC predicament, which was kind of trite to begin with, and him willingly disappearing into the forest to meet someone who wants his head is IMO a better cliffhanger for AFfC. This would argue in favor of moving it back to AFfC. However, Jamie would then run ahead of the timeline, and his finish in AFfC is a good response to Cersei’s, so I’m for keeping Jaime’s chapter in ADwD.  (As a variant, Brienne’s last AFfC chapter could be brought forward to ADwD, as her encounter with Rorge and Biter is IMO a better cliffhanger than crazy Stoneheart.)

Cersei (0-2/2 chapters).  Could go either way.  For: we suspected she was too important a villain to just keep in a cell or execute, and we also knew that Qyburn was working on FrankenGreg.  Uniting the beauty and the beast is a sweet way to end the story.  It would also open up the possibility (and a possibly terrible idea) for Kevan as ADwD+ prologue.  Against: this would all run ahead of the timeline, and AFfC is already very Cersei-heavy.  Going with caution.

Arya (0-2/2 chapters).  Ditto.  For: the story arc continues smoothly, and her predicament at the end of AFfC works alright as a cliffhanger, but people didn’t take it too seriously.  Against: her timeline is reportedly ahead of others.  I’d err on the side of caution and keep her split.

Davos (3-4/4 chapters).  At the very least, the first 3 chapters need to be moved to AFfC+ before Cersei gets the report from Manderly that he’s killed.  Reading through them was alright because I like Davos, but it was also a bore as I knew things had to come to a head at some point, and pretty much in exactly this way.  Letting this happen onscreen in the previous novel is a decent cliffhanger.  The last Davos chapter starts a new story arc so better keep it in ADwD+.

Bran (0-3/3 chapters) and Varamyr (0-1/1 chapter).  Either move them all to AFfC+, or keep them in ADwD+.  Bran’s arc is complete, fits with the timeline, and feels like it won’t go anywhere for some time, so it makes sense to get it out of the way early.  Varamyr is a prologue but a great intro to Bran’s arc, with important hints for Jon.  Alternatively, the story is so independent of others that it may well stay in ADwD, and the prologue could stay the same.  Weakly prefer move.

7 new chapters in AFfC+ from short plot arcs.  Next, the Big Three characters.  What happens to them determines the rest.

Tyrion (6-7-9/12).  The most frustrating arc of all of the main ones, an unending travelogue.  Break either when Jorah captures him, when they get passage on the Stinky Steward, or after they sight slavers.  Erring on the side of caution.

Daenerys (0-3-4-6-9/10).  As with Jon (next), it makes sense to keep Dany’s arc in one piece.  However, moving it all to AFfC+ would make the book too long, and leaving it in ADwD+ would leave her behind, dominating the early chapters.  The most logical break is when it’s almost complete, after she flies flies away from the dirty fighting pit, but this comes too late.  There are several decent compromise break points, though. First, end her AFFC+ arc early, just after Qarth declares war. Second, end it one chapter later, when her options are clear: the Hizdahr marriage vs. return to Westeros vs. the butcher queen. Third, end it after she hooks up with Daario.  This is tempting, as it comes after she’s tended to flux victims (another feast for crows) and agreed to marry Hizdahr, but just before the wedding & meeting Quentyn — having a good time as her situation starts unraveling.  This still leaves her a bit too far ahead, though, so I weakly prefer the middle road.

Jon (0-3-4/13).  Jon’s arc is the hardest to split, as it’s IMO the strongest in the book and it also makes sense to keep it in one piece. It is also the longest. If split for chronology’s sake, it needs to be done relatively early to preserve the continuity of the story.  The 3rd chapter, although somewhat anticlimactic, works fine because by then Jon has established itself as a Lord Commander who can enforce his orders and stand up to Stannis.  Until this point, Jon mostly reacts.  After it, he is proactive, especially in recruiting the free folk to guard the wall, in a continuous progression to the final cliffhanger.  Alternatively, Jon’s arc can be split after his 4th chapter, when he successfully advises Stannis on his next military move.  This would start ADwD+ with Jon in charge of the Wall without Stannis, and could move Asha & Theon a little ahead as well.  Weakly prefer breaking after Jon 4, to nudge the Northern timeline a little further.  It does leave Jon a bit behind in the game, but not by much.

14 Big Ones, net subtotal 21 new chapters.  Now the stragglers, driven by the decisions about the Big Three.

Theon (0-2/7).  Another tough one (and, arguably, another Big One).  Reek/Theon’s arc is very self-contained, so it makes sense to keep it in one book.  The only logical place to split it is just after the surrender of Moat Cailin and after he meets fake Arya, foreshadowing the rest of his and her story.  The break makes sense in terms of the timeline, and if Jon 4 is also in AFfC+.  Between them, these two chapters set the Boltons and Stannis marching toward each other.

Asha (0-1/4).  The end of Asha’s first chapter is great, but it makes sense to include it in AFfC+ only if Jon 4 is in as well.  Asha/Theon make for a single converging arc, so it would also make sense to keep them in one book.  Splitting after Asha 1 doesn’t do much damage, though, as her road to Theon begins thereafter.

Quentyn (0-2/4).  Quentyn arrives to Slaver’s Bay and marches toward Mereen, to meet up with Dany late in ADwD but early in ADwD+.

Connington (0-1-2/2).  Having discovered who Young Griff thinks he is, it makes sense to follow up on his next move, and to reveal why Connington is on borrowed time.

Areo (0-1/1).  This would segue from Connington’s first chapter and round out the Dornish AFfC stories nicely.  However, it’s considerably ahead in the timeline.  Weak keep in ADwD.

Melisandre (0/1), Victarion (0/2), Barristan (0/4), Kevan (0/1).  Governed by Jon’s, Tyrion’s, Dany’s, and Connington’s timelines, respectively.

6 stragglers, net total 27 new chapters.  This would put AFfC+ at 73 chapters, on a par with ACoK and current ADwD.

AFfC+ Summary

Major plot arcs in the “big” AFfC would be:

  • Pate + Samwell + Arya + Jon (1+5+3+4 = 13 chapters): The Wall, Braavos, and Oldtown (added Jon).
  • Cersei + Brienne + Jaime (10+8+7 = 25 chapters): KL and the Riverlands (no change).
  • Tyrion + Connington (6+1 = 7 chapters): Pentos and Rhoyne (new).
  • Dany + Quentyn (4+2 = 6 chapters): Meereen (new).
  • Varamyr + Bran (1+3 = 4 chapters): Beyond the Wall (new).
  • Davos (3 chapters): The Sisters and White Harbor (new).
  • Sansa (3 chapters): The Vale (no change).
  • The Ironborn (2 Aeron + 2 Asha + 2 Victarion + 2 Theon = 8 chapters): The Kingsmoot and repercussions (no change), Ironborn defeat in the North (new).
  • The Dornish (1 Areo + 2 Arianne + 1 Arys + 2 Quentyn = 7 chapters): Myrcella’s abduction and repercussions (n0 change), Quentyn’s journey to the Slaver’s Bay (new).

This structure would advance the story in the North, at the Wall, and Beyond (14 chapters for Jon, Davos, Asha, Theon, Varamyr and Bran), setting things into motion for the fake Arya wedding and the showdown at Winterfell, and showing what’s behind events echoed elsewhere (e.g. by Sam and Cersei).  Similarly, it would move ahead the happenings in the East (13 chapters for Tyrion, Dany, Quentyn and Connington) toward the Battle of Meereen, setting Connington’s course to the Griffin’s Roost and Quentyn’s to the Windblown.

These locations would still not quite catch up with the South, but would finish much closer.  The North and East timelines would end about 10 chapters behind the ADwD Areo POV, which likely just precedes or roughly coincides with the end of AFfC.

What’s Gained

Here is what I think would be gained with respect to the problematic plot lines above.

  • Dany+Barristan, Victarion, Tyrion — room for the battle of Meereen in ADwD+ and for whatever Dany ends up doing in the Dothraki Sea
  • Quentyn — his somewhat pointless chapters are mercifully split between two books
  • Jon+Mel — room for at least an immediate followup to the Ides of Marsh in ADwD+, if necessary; if not, the Ides can happen relatively earlier in the book followed by silence, making them more ominous
  • Asha+Theon — room in ADwD+ for the battle of the snows of Winterfell
  • Davos — room to actually set off on the voyage to find Rickon
  • Samwell and Sansa — room for some followup in ADwD+

In ADwD+, the timeline in Riverlands and KL could basically stay the same, with Kevan as epilogue if the timeline allows it, although with Varamyr moved the question of the prologue is open.  Could be Quentyn, in some combination of his last 2 chapters, although this would require advancing Dany through the wedding & escape in AFfC+.  The timeline on the Wall could be untouched as well.  Importantly, though, there would be room to handle the battles in Winterfell and Meereen, and to give further hints to the destinies of many characters, including ones that barely make an appearance in ADwD (Davos, Samwell, Sansa, Brienne, Jaime).

Order of Chapters

Here are the guidelines I think could make for a decent read of AFfC and ADwD side by side.  AFfC+ would need to follow them as well.

Both books can be read in order, skipping between each other as desired as long as one makes sure to read:

  • AFfC 06 (Sam 1), optionally also AFfC 16 (Sam 2) for minimum spoilers, between ADwD 04 (Jon 1) and ADwD 08 (Jon 2)
  • AFfC 18 (Cersei 4) between ADwD 20 (Davos 3) and ADwD 21 (Reek 2/ Theon 2)
  • AFfC 20 (The Drowned Man/ Aeron 2) before ADwD 27 (The Wayward Bride/ Asha 1)
  • All of AFfC before ADwD 39 (The Watcher/ Areo)

The exception are two ADwD chapters that should be skipped until related events in AFFC catch up:

  • Postpone reading ADwD 07 (The Merchant’s Man/ Quentyn 1) and ADwD 26 (The Windblown/ Quentyn 2) until after AFfC 22 (The Queenmaker/ Arianne 1), optionally after AFfC 41 (The Princess in the Tower/ Arianne 2) for minimum spoilers

Here’s the simplest reading order that starts with AFfC, fits these criteria and the distribution of chapters above, without taking the optional suggestions.  The first four steps constitute a version of “AFfC+”.

  1. AFfC 01-05, ADwD 01-06
  2. AFfC 06 (Sam 1), ADwD 08-20 (Davos 3)
  3. AFfC 07-22 (Queenmaker), ADwD 07 (Merchant’s Man)
  4. ADwD 21 (Reek 2), 23-27 (Wayward Bride), 35 (Bran 3), AFfC 23-end
  5. ADwD 22 (Jon 5), 28-34, 36-end

Enjoy!  I know.  Now I need to get a life.

Written by miranche

19 July 2011 at 21:00

Posted in Nerdy

Solar airships

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A very tentative alternative in air travel, with some prototypes currently in construction. The designs in play can carry up to about 250 kg & move not faster than 60 km/h.  A good start, perhaps.  The three projects that have got some media attention are the Spanish Turtle Airships, the French Projet Sol’R, and the American (I think) Helios Airships.

Helios seems to be the most business-savvy of the three, and a short report about them has been carried by Inhabitat last spring.  They’re trying to lure the big investment by offering their flagship (and currently largely imaginary) craft as an alternative for hauling cargo.  Extra points for snatching the domain name solarairship.net and topping the Google search results.  The other projects seemed to have started earlier, as they were featured in Wired two summers ago.  Sol’R is a student projet that was then going to fly their dirigible over la Manche (the English Channel), but got postponed, and postponed.  They’re still planning to do it and are totally psyched about how historical the flight will be.  Turtle say they are working on a transoceanic craft, and their blog says they hope to fly it long distance this year.  They seem to have the fewest details online about what they’re actually doing, which may be because they’re too busy making their ship, or because they’re too busy getting a clue.  With hope that it’s the former, ¡buena suerte!

Written by miranche

24 March 2011 at 21:23

Posted in Hopeful, Nerdy

“The American Dream Film”

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Fun film.  I’ve actually put together my own story about how money works some time ago, and the first 2/3 of this movie mostly follow it.

There are parts it doesn’t cover — the basic fact that the way $$ is put into circulation (very roughly, about $2 of debt, $1 principal & $1 interest, for every $1 created whenever a person, for example, borrows for college or buys a house) in turn creates artificial scarcity.  This can be alleviated (1) through expanding monetized markets into areas of life where they don’t exist yet, thereby pushing out person-to-person & community exchanges based on gift giving, informal expectations of future favors etc., (2) by actually selling services to the banks who collect the interest, and (3) by bankruptcy & foreclosure.  (2) and (3), in effect, mean that the economy gets structured as a food chain with money lenders on top, while (1) makes sure the needs & wants that drive the markets to expand are not just those to exchange goods & services, but to make money.  By the way, the person who analyzed this very well almost 200 years a go was (surprise surprise) Karl Marx, though of course his analysis of class struggle & predictions of the eventual demise of capitalism proved a fertile source of excuses for a whole slew of dictators, demagogues, petty criminals, idealists turned murderers, and so on.

One thing, well there are several things I disagree with in the movie.  Firstly I think it’s misleading to equate international finance with the IRS.  One way to think about a representative democracy is as a way to formalize collective decision making in a nation state about what resources should be administered in common, and how to put these resources to use to support whatever people agree is the common good.  20th century economies became complicated enough that it was normal for representative governments to form bodies to organize the collection of money & track how it is spent.  It’s certainly a topic for discussion which form of governance can best fulfill people’s interests, what I’m saying is as long as we have a representative democracy in a monetized economy we’ll have an IRS.  The movie does not bring this up, and it would be much more productive if it pointed out how much of our tax payments is paid as interest, a de facto rent the federal government is charging the taxpayers & paying to its lenders.

The other side of this argument is that, in a modern monetized economy, if you don’t have an IRS, you don’t have representative democracy.  The cartoon skirts around this, and in so doing it is, in fact, supporting the interests of the very people it aims to criticize.  I mean, the reason international financial interests are as powerful as they are is because most of what they do is legal & supported by national legislation.  One way to resist this is to try electing a government which would try curbing these privileges – people giveth, people taketh away.  How difficult this is to do in practice is, again, a very fertile topic to talk about, but a responsible populist government would need resources in form of money to enforce whatever laws it passes, and hence would need the IRS or its equivalent.  In fact a government could easily use taxation to curb big finance by instituting a Tobin tax.  So, as much as the IRS may now indirectly support big money interests, because they largely own the government, they have every reason to fear it because one day there may be a government that’s less pliable.  So, a good way to preempt a populist government is to channel popular discontent against tax collection.

In short, I don’t like that the movie fails to point out that IRS, as an organ of the social contract mediated through a constitutional democracy, may be used to curb big finance if this is in the interest of citizens.  In this way, I think this film does another thing — it subtly attacks the social contract that underlies U.S. constitutional democracy itself.  Now, there are problems with the 18th century concept of liberal democracy (in the original sense of “liberal”, denoting the combined values of individual freedom and pluralism), and again, it’s a discussion in itself — but liberal democracy has, overall, proven to be more responsive, stable and just than many other ideologies as a basis for culturally and politically diverse societies in industrial nation states.  Sure, it is limited & I certainly think there is room for improvement, but one could do much worse.

Now, note what this movie offers instead: violent action in form of armed rebellion, based on a mythical view of the past in which heroes and villains are larger than life and everybody is either good or bad.  Put these things together: opposition to liberal democratic institutions, emotionally valid criticism of big finance with indirect structural support for it, and a mythical view of national identity — these are all properties of fascism.  You think I’m going too far?  Being brought up in Europe I may be overly sensitive to it, but then again, maybe I’m just less naive about rhetoric invoking national myths than most people brought up in the U.S.  The references to 300, the movie I enjoyed, but which can for many reasons be seen as fascist (another discussion) don’t help.  Ok, you can say this is clearly a metaphor, people aren’t likely to rise up with swords against big banks, but this takes me back to the previous point — for people who take this this movie at its word minus the armed rebellion the first punching bag will be the IRS, which is, for all its faults, a potentially powerful tool against big finance, and in my opinion they would be better advised to try to reclaim it.

Finally, I don’t like the way the film feeds into conspiracy theories regarding the House of Rotschild & Kennedy assassination, though this is a relatively minor point, as I think it’s good for people to be aware these connections, but then think things through and hopefully dismiss them as overly simple.  As I wrote in the Facebook response regarding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, a conspiracy theory is usually a failure in processing complex information.  While the Kennedy assassination certainly came at the fortunate moment for the Federal Reserve, just as 9/11 came at the lucky moment for the neocons, inferring the connection between the two in either case requires actual evidence, of which there’s little or none.  I think it’s better to err on the side of caution than to scare oneself into believing in all-powerful über-villains.

So overall, I agree with many parts of this movie’s message, with additional observations and caveats as described.  I think it makes valid points, which can then to lead to a discussion of more democratic ways money & economic exchange can be organized, such as credit unions, alternative currencies, gift economies and the like, even though they arn’t sexy enough to fuel a call to revolution.  Actually these topics have the right combination of bottom-up initiative, nerdity and wonkishness to keep me pretty interested, so I’ve been following up on them occasionally.   If the cartoon gets people thinking about how to set up these things on a larger scale it’ll do a great public service.

A few links & names: We’ve Got Time to Help, FreeeBay, Transaction.net, David Korten, Bernard Lietaer.  Enjoy 🙂

Written by miranche

18 February 2011 at 19:29

Posted in Contentious, Current

Moore’s Unrequieted Love

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Michael Moore wrote a letter beseeching prez BHO not to escalate the Afghan war.  I am actually somewhat surprised as to how unimaginative the letter is. I’ve followed Moore for years and mostly respected him for saying what many US educated liberals barely seemed to have the guts to think, let alone say out loud. However, in this letter MM chooses to make his statement by openly professing “love” for the Dear Leader and asking him to lead — and ignores the fact that BHO, well, will not and can not “lead”, not in the way Moore wants him to.

Some who agree with MM’s letter may denounce my view as disillusioned and cynical, but I think it is only realistic. Democratic governments and presidents are elected to administer and decidedly NOT to bring about people’s hopes and desires; even at its best, administration is a pragmatic, compromised, dirty affair, even though it’s ideally geared toward fulfilling popular mandates.  But even such a relatively modest ideal depends on the elected officials being aware of their mandate, which they are not: for all the high technology and 24-hour news cycle, or precisely because of it, I suspect that the information environment high officials live in is skewed so much that they’re scattered widely on either side of delusional.

In U.S., the people whose version of events the presidents are likely to hear are much more likely to be corporate bosses and lobbyists than union and consumer reps, military leaders rather than humanitarian workers and civic activists. These imbalances relax somewhat during campaigns, but are always firmly in place in everyday decision making.  Even assuming a president who is keenly aware of this — BHO at least showed he understood it well enough to occasionally sound convincing — what is s/he to do once in office? Confront her/his campaign donors with the necessity of relinquishing access and influence to those with less power and opposing interests, simple because they’re in majority? This would at best be quixotic, and if done in earnest, a sure way to alienate a lot of political allies & make even more enemies, a political suicide in the one-and-a-half party system with more pragmatic hustlers waiting in the wings.

Still, many of us are much better represented by unions, consumer advocates, humanitarians, civic activists and the like.  As a result, even assuming best intentions, a U.S. chief executive — just as most high ranking elected officials anywhere, really — simply do not have enough leverage to lead their countries in a representative manner, and can not get themselves out of this fix alone.  Instead there needs to be a way for them to feel the heat from the groups they represents badly.  Some US heads of state understood this — for example, FDR reportedly suggested to labor reps to force his hand do their bidding — but that was a very very long time ago.  At this moment, when BHO is clearly (for me, at least!) making a colossal but, for him, perhaps inevitable blunder, he should be hearing from everybody, in every possible way. It is amazing that in this situation MM would choose to (a) plead, (b) ask people merely to call the White House, (c) profess his “love” (!!!) for the president.

But what am I saying? Many people say they “love” the guy.

I grew up in a softly dictatorial communist country, and sure enough, much of the rhetoric about the long-serving president had qualities of mild Platonic erotica. In the US today, many people I know profess feelings of warmth — at least, of personal emotional investment — for BHO. For starters, from the point of view of basic mental health, this does not feel right to me.  More importantly, though, I do not think it can in any way be good for democracy.

Every so often it is natural to feel a degree of identification, admiration, even affection for someone famous.  Yet it is easy to see how such feelings can become creepy once they become coupled with expectations.  Expecting someone you only know from the media to bring you personally significant, transformative change — this is usually a case for a shrink.  I’d say this applies just as much when the celebrity is a politician.  Sure, faith and admiration for another, even when asymmetrical, is the core of what makes life meaningful if it is between people who know one another, whose relationship does not rely on third-party mediation.  Conversely, we’re still in the relatively sane territory if we don’t share this world at all with the “celebrity” we admire — I’m talking about Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha & their fellow superstars.  There the medium of interaction is spiritual, ritualized and socially accepted as such, and while I’d argue that religion is problematic in other ways, in this context it provides structured, stable, frequently constructive ways for a person to believe s/he is in emotional communion with an entity not present in one’s reality.

Politicians, however, are neither prophets nor (for the most part) our acquaintances. What they are, first and foremost, is people of flesh and blood who try to do administrative jobs within an imperfect and deeply flawed system but who chose to do so, and we do them and ourselves a disservice by experiencing them as something more. They have to wear charismatic personas in order to get elected, but when the cameras are off, they are just as fragile as everyone else. If they are at all in touch with reality, they should be just as insecure as any other celebrity, caught in the grip of social forces they can only vaguely understand and control.

Politicians are not rock stars, either. Being in the spotlight causes great personal strain, but for showbiz celebrities the trouble can end close to home.  The attention they get in public turns most of their private lives into a mess, yet this usually hurts just them and their loved ones; to us, if anything, it only provides more entertainment.  But politicians affect us all much more profoundly. They’re also confronted with forces largely beyond their control, but at the same time are elected to manage them on the basis of how convincingly they pretend they can do so.  Once elected, they are required to act responsibly, be functional, and inspire confidence.  Rock stars have the option to withdraw, have a breakdown in their own private time and stage a comeback after cooling off in private rehab, but the pols must hide their inadequacies in plain sight.  And so they do, behind expert advisers, policy doctrines and “decisive” actions, which help pols save face and balance conflicting interests at the cost of destroying others’ lives.

Just pleading with politicos to stop acting so is like asking the bed to make itself, and expressing “love” and confidence in their public personas, I think, only exacerbates the problem. We need to get realistic about things we really, desperately, need addressed — peace? climate? health? poverty? — and if the pols cannot, start figuring out — peacefully but assertively — how to take care of it ourselves.  And when the apparatchiks starts freaking out, which they inevitably will, we need to let them know that it’s ok, that we’re trying to save them trouble, and kindly ask them to provide advice rather than get in our way. None of this is easy, our skills and knowledge are inadequate to the task, but if we want there to be a world we can leave to our grandkids we better start learning soon.

Some will say that this is utopian, that we don’t have the wherewithal for such undertakings. Instead, they’d say, we should have faith in the political process, most officials really mean well, and if we put our trust in them, hope hard enough, perhaps wait for the next election cycle, good things will come. But politicians, whether good or bad, operate within sticky webs of power that render them incapable of doing most of those of good things you, I, and probably many of them wish they could do.  To this, some will respond I am being too cynical, and again propose the same remedy.  But look at the track record of governance in the past decades: the elected officials’ ability to deliver on promises & fulfill their mandates has been steadily and reliably shrinking.

Looking back at Moore, and indeed many others dear to me, I see them struggling with an emotional and moral investment in people who cannot possibly live up to their expectations.  I see this dynamic reproduced in staged performances — campaigns, most prominently — in which both sides pretend these expectations are realistic, and get off with enough buzz to last them until the next cycle.  This strikes me as downright unhealthy for all involved — which would be manageable but for the fact it’s taking place smack instead of dealing with real societal issues.  It looks like a sure recipe for a society to devour itself alive.

Still, people insist that their only realistic choice is to keep projecting their hopes onto various, possibly elected, Dear Leaders.  This I see as the real utopia, the real mindless optimism that sadly has no basis in reality.  It is, in turn, is based on a profound pessimism, that constructive change must come from above because we’re not willing, ready, or able to produce it from bottom up.  Persisting in this belief while living in one of the richest, most resourceful societies in history — this, in my mind, is the real cynicism.

Written by miranche

2 December 2009 at 21:33

Posted in Contentious, Current

Let the trains run on time

with one comment

Response to Garrison Keillor’s “Let war crimes be bygones” on Salon. Gary Kamiya gets it right.

I’m sure someone already noticed this. The title and subtitle of this article admit of war crimes, then call for them to be left unpunished, and finally call for good train service. With no sense of irony, Keillor says, forget about the Nuremberg principles, make the trains run on time. I thought we’ve learned this lesson a couple of generations ago.

Dear author,

I understand the difficult choice that U.S. citizens face at this point in history. As a U.S. resident, someone who worked hard to get his Green Card, I feel a part of this story, though I was lucky to be away from the U.S. during most of the Bush era. The thing is, you see, that this debate does not only concern U.S. citizens and residents now. It concerns the entire world, today and tomorrow.

I hail from a difficult part of the world. Back where I come from, in what used to be called Yugoslavia, we had a pretty ugly war about 15 years ago. I hope people here remember it. While the U.S. can be faulted for a number of things in how it handled the Yugoslav wars, its policy was, largely, consistent about one thing. It called for war criminals to be brought to justice.

The reason for this is simple: war crimes are not only a matter for the perpetrators. Perpetrators always see their actions in a rosy light, through some kind of a semi-rationalization, usually based on national security. The reason they’re “perpetrators”, though, is because their actions affect other human beings. And, at least in the world I was brought up in, it has been recognized that there are standards to what one may do to human beings during wartime, national security or not.

Human nature is tricky. Look up Stanley Milgram. People have a hard time turning down authority. A majority, actually, will kill a human being when directed by a legitimate-seeming authority figure. This is why, in order for the world made of nation states to be a bearable place, there are limits on what national authority figures may order.

What this means is that a war crime is, well, a crime, no matter what the Dear Leader or the President or the Legal Counsel says. If they issue a criminal order, whoever is carrying it out has a right and a duty to disobey. As Milgram found, this is usually difficult to do. The order-executor is usually a patriot, and the order-giver speaks for the state. Once the war crime is committed, then, the criminal is the entire gosh-darned sovereign country.

This creates bad blood. In three ways, at least.

First, war crimes have victims, and they have friends and families. And if the war-crime-order-giver goes scot-free, they often get to hold a grudge against the entire country. So they’re more motivated to fly airplanes into buildings and the works. Perhaps more ominously, there are other wannabe war-crime-order-givers elsewhere in the world. And they love when another of their kind gets off for free. Gives ’em courage to do let their war criminal side come out of the closet. And also, there are wannabe war criminals in the same country, too. In the future.

So the law says, find the individuals. There are standards to what a country can do to human beings, and those individuals who order those standards to be broken, by law, do not speak for their country. Dictators, elected officials or professionals, they forfeit the trust of their people. They become common crooks.

This does, I agree, make it kinda difficult for everyone involved. In a democratic country, a lot of citizens trust the officials. Many people do not mind what is being done, or, perhaps, find it regrettable but necessary. But what they need to do — what, as was recognized after World War II, is their responsibility, to their children, to the survivors, and to everybody else in the world — is to realize what has been done in their name, prosecute it, accept it, regret it, and allow themselves to mourn it.

This is what the U.S. insisted we do in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro. Many resisted. Victor’s justice, some complained. It threatened to tear our countries apart, others said. Some of the countries are in a bad way still. But we’ve faced a lot of what happened, and it makes us sleep better at night.

So yes, facing war crimes is not for the fainthearted. For a rule-of-thumb on what it involves, check out the Kubler-Ross grief cycle. Conservatives seem to be mostly in Denial or Anger. You’re actually pretty well off, you got all the way to Bargaining. You’re in prestigious company: Prez Obama is at the same stage, too.

But please, have courage to move forward. If you and other well-meaning US-Americans do not, and the crooks get off to a comfy retirement, what we saw in the near past can very easily turn out to be just a prelude. If you chicken out now, you’ll open the door to a future that may, I’m afraid, make us reminisce fondly of Bush and Cheney.

I’ll grant you, though, the trains will run on time.

Written by miranche

1 May 2009 at 21:20

Posted in Contentious, Current

The Sava embankment

with 2 comments

Until a few years ago, before I went back West, I lived for a few years in Croatia, in Zagreb.  Occasionally when I went jogging along the Sava embankment and zoned out to the sights around me I would fell a mix of timelessness and unease.  On these evenings there weren’t many people out there, and those that were were after some innocuous task – walking a dog, chatting with a companion, looking for a place to make out in the dark.  The air was damp and smelled of mud and grass, the path dimly lit by streetlights and buildings.  Except for a few details, I felt the scene would have been the same ten, fifteen years before, before and during the breakup of former Yugoslavia.

This jog then and now, I thought, would have been similar – the landscape quiet, peaceful, buildings and people a backdrop to the sounds and scents of the Sava and her floodway.  It would resemble the periphery of any large Yugoslav city before the war.  In the 1980s, the changes, the swell of rock bands in the housing projects, the political upheavals in the capitals along the river, would have been barely noticeable.  The collapse that followed, likewise, would have been apparent only during the mandatory blackouts early on.  The refugee swells, the front lines and the ethnic cleansing camps could have been in a different world, rather than in the same city or a few hours’ drive away.  During the war many came to Zagreb to seek a semblance of calm, and one could do worse than to look for it near the river.

In the calm and comfort of going about the everyday, seen from the embankment, Zagreb in 2004 felt a lot like Zagreb or Skopje or Belgrade or Ljubljana or Sarajevo had felt in 1989, as I remembered or imagined.  Yet in hindsight the scene felt eerie, knowing that chaos was then just behind the horizon.  Practically overnight, forces beyond the control of most of us were about to make it important – down-in-the-gut-life-and-death kind of important – which of these cities we were born, lived or worked in.  I was not there during much of the war, but most of my family was in Croatia, and I had come to know this feeling quite well.

Finally, I sensed pity – I felt sorry that, in most of these places, one would have been ill advised to give in to the comfort of the everyday – to the innocence of sticking by “What I don’t know can’t hurt me” – to the ease or necessity of minding one’s problems and hoping the world can take care of itself.  I felt regret that, while by all rights one should be able to do this, whoever did so then was living on borrowed time. Chilling out in front of the fan while the shit was flying straight at it.

In a few years, if all goes well, I hope to become a father.  I should be happy at the prospect, and most of the time I am.  I am trudging along to a likely future career in science, and I could do worse in terms of means and flexibility I’d like to have as a parent.  Yet perhaps because I have too much time to think, I have very mixed feelings about bringing new people to this world.

Most of us are struggling hard to make things better, each in one’s own way.  But when I think about the actual challenges we face if we want this world to be a place we can with a clear conscience leave to our children and grandchildren, and about what we can and probably should collectively do about them, I feel that we who have means to do so are largely just busy scratching the surface, hoping that talk and small actions will convince the challenges to go away.  It’s like we’re borrowing time and hoping the lease never expires.  I’m pretty certain it will.

Written by miranche

8 March 2009 at 13:15

Posted in Contentious, Personal


with one comment

Hello y’all. A few words of introduction and off we go.

What’s going on here? This blog, like all first attempts, may end up being a throwaway. I’m totally new to the medium, and there’s a BCS saying: “Prvi mačići se u vodu bacaju” – “The first batch of kittens is drowned”, meaning, first attempts should be written off in advance. Yet I hope it will be fulfilling to write, and interesting to read. (BCS stands for Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian. As these Languages Formerly Known As Serbo-Croatian are sometimes hard to distinguish, I use this acronym it whenever it’s not 100% sure which one is in question…)

Then also, the blog is likely to be controversial and somewhat bombastic. This should not perhaps come as a surprise. I like to think that I’ve been around – growing up in 70’s and 80’s socialist Yugoslavia, spent the 90’s and the 00’s going back and forth between the U.S. and Croatia, leading, in many ways, several different lives. Along the way I’ve picked up a number of perspectives that cannot be easily reconciled – and when juxtaposed, the results can sometimes be rough. My hope and one of my aims with this blog is to bring out some of the contradictions, whittle away at them, and perhaps get a glimpse of something new and improved…

In particular, although I have fared fairly well as an educated (ex-)liberal in the U.S., perhaps due to my upbringing in socialist Yugoslavia, perhaps out of witnessing post-socialist transition in Croatia, I have come to some fairly radical positions. Living in the rich world too often I find myself in a one-person minority defending them. This is the place, then, where I hope to outline some of these views and receive feedback on them.

To those who know me as a person with a generally positive outlook some of my views may come as a surprise. They may sound simplistic, hopeless or paranoid, they will frequently be inconsistent, and in some ways, they are bound to be hypocritical, as my talk will certainly venture far beyond where my walk has a chance to reach. I acknowledge this. My thinking is, I’ve been mulling a lot of this stuff for years, I’m tiptoeing into middle age now, and it’s well past time for it to come out. Although some of this may have been more appropriate to discuss at the age 21, I had better stuff to do then, and I’ve got a bit more under my belt to discuss now.

So, since some of this stuff may be rough, a few disclaimers are due. First, I am writing as a private individual. I am currently a graduate student researcher, and though I expect to take risks to say what I think needs to be said, I will also need to take precautions not to unduly affect my work. I will write about science and academia, but I’ll try to keep anything directly related to publishable research out of here. If need be, I’ll start a separate page with academic content.

Second, though I often tend to preach, I write to be challenged and criticized. I will be very thankful for any feedback.

Third, although what I write will sometimes offend some readers, I do not write expressly to offend. I believe it is sometimes important to use strong language to stake out positions – when I see a square, if I can help it, I’ll call it a square rather than an equilateral right-angled parallelogram. If you are offended by what I say, please write – I will attempt to respond by refining, defending or modifying my arguments.

Finally, however radical some of my views may be, I have no ambitions to being a rabble-rouser. I intend to cry foul when I think it necessary, but my aim is to peek behind some barriers that prevent us from, well, dreaming a bit more. I do hope this will help create space to dream up some creative and perhaps practical things. In the off-chance someone wants to use them to motivate action, as long as it is in the spirit of solidarity, awareness and non-violence, I’ll be honored. The blog is common property under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike license – if you like something I say, by all means make it your own.

This is of course assuming anyone reads these pages…

Ready, set, go.

Written by miranche

7 August 2008 at 0:46

Posted in General