10 August 2004

announced on twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight July

So is anyone really surprised that the Bush administration would pressure Pakistan to announce the capture of al-Qaeda "high value targets" during the Democrats' convention? Or that the media would complacently shift their attention to the new headline? Or that even the attention they gave the convention would ignore all the substantive issues discussed there?

In fact, this NYT oped mentions all the other news we've been missing. But I think the real stories last week, over which governments deserve much more political heat than over Iraq, are financial:

  • The World Bank considered a proposal to reform and ultimately eliminate its funding for oil and gas development. The NYT, generally pro-globalization, endorsed the proposal, but on Aug 2 the Bank rejected the plan. However, they're reconsidering some kind of watered down version in a few weeks, so the short-term issue is not yet settled.

    For a broader perspective, this recent Foreign Affairs article explains why being rich in natural resources can make a country poorer. (Email me if you don't have lexis-nexis and want the full text.)

  • The WTO talks in Geneva came up with an agreement to agree on opening agricultural markets, mainly by reducing subsidies from rich countries. Though this is widely seen as a good idea, especially for the poor countries that have long been demanding it, it's not clear how much will actually be implemented any time soon. Again an issue that's probably far more consequential than the Iraq war, but it continues to get zero attention from the public. Though there is now a blog devoted to the subject.

feces are people too

NEWSWEEK reports that George W. Bush, appearing before a right-to-life rally in Tampa, Florida on June 17, stated: "We must always remember that all human beings begin life as a feces. A feces is a living being in the eyes of God, who has endowed that feces with all of the rights and God-given blessings of any other human being." Bush repeated his error at least a dozen times, before realizing that he had used the word 'feces" when he meant to say "fetus."

06 August 2004

decades apart

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author talks about how he likes to read to his 11-year old son, Chris, in a way that made me somewhat look forward to having kids myself.
I try always to pick a book far over his head and read it as a basis for questions and answers, rather than without interruption. I read a sentence or two, wait for him to come up with his usual barrage of questions, answer them, then read another sentence or two. Classics read well this way. They must be written this way. Sometimes we have spent a whole evening reading and talking and discovered we have only covered two or three pages. It's a form of reading done a century ago... when Chautauquas were more popular. Unless you've tried it you can't imagine how pleasant it is to do it this way. (p. 46-47)
That was written in 1974. The 1980's brought us, among other things,

Then the narrator talks about the crisp autumn morning air and wanting to share it with those around him.

I'm afraid these other characters will sleep all day if I let them. The sky outside is sparkling and clear, it's a shame to waste it like this.

I go over finally and give Chris a shake. HIs eyes pop open, then he sits bolt upright uncomprehending.

"Shower time," I say.

I go outside. The air is invigorating. In fact--Christ!--it is cold out. I pound on the Sutherlands' door. (p. 48)

I'm sure you know the relevant Calvin and Hobbes strips, but because of copyright laws, all I could find on the web about character building camping trips was this site. This site is better, but less relevant.

Finally, I went to Shaolin Soccer with two physicists, so naturally the conversation turned to some recent heated arguments over the anthropic principle. (Yes, these things are what we get excited about.)

Anyway, I found it a funny coincidence that as soon as I got home and picked up Zen, the page after I had left off contained this passage:

At first he found it amusing. He coined a law intended to have the humor of a Parkinson's law that "The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite." It pleased him to never run out of hypotheses. ... It was only months after he had coined the law that he began to have doubts about the humor or benefits of it.

If true, that law is not a minor flaw in scientific reasoning. That law is completely nihilistic. It is a catastrophic logical disproof of the general validity of all scientific method!

...[If] the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested..., then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge. (p. 115)

04 August 2004

go see these movies

Shaolin Soccer:

Just from the title you can get an idea of how amazing this movie is. It evokes all that is good in Jackie Chan, Tunak, Mortal Kombat, Cool Runnings and middle-school anime. This may sound like faint praise, but the movie is seriously amazing.

Crimson Gold:

The underdog doesn't do quite as well in this movie. If only he knew some kung-fu. Rather than talk about the movie (which showed the ugliness of life as beautifully as anything I've seen) I just want to mention two things about the Q&A session with the director afterwards. (It was directed by Jafar Panahi, who also did The White Balloon, and written by Abbas Kiarostami.)

My respects to the Iranian censorship board
One of the reasons this movie was banned in Iran was the following scene.
Guest: Mind if I smoke?
Host: Go ahead.
Guest: Want a cigarette?
Host: What kind do you have?
Guest: 57's
Host: Oh, those are too strong for me.
Guest: They're too strong for me too.
Doesn't seem too bad, does it? Apparently, since 1957 is the year of the revolution in Iran, this scene was deemed counterrevolutionary. Whatever else you might think about the censors in Iran, at least they're on top of their symbolism. I certainly wouldn't have caught that.

The postmodern condition
Skip this part if you don't like hearing about the plot, though everything I write will be obvious in the first 10 minutes.

The movie is framed by a failed robbery attempt by the protagonist, a pizza deliveryman named Hussein. One way to interpret the entire rest of the movie is as expressing the humiliations and class pressures that lead Hussein to this. During the Q&A, one guy asks the director "why, in your opinion, does Hussein attempt the robbery?"

There's this collective groan from the audience, and in the dark a collective roll of the eyes, as we feel sympathy for the director having to explain through a translator that, unlike Hollywood directors, he doesn't want to force any one interpretation on the movie, but prefers to leave the viewer free to blah blah blah... Ok, maybe it's just me and I'm projecting, but I really think the whole audience had so internalized the postmodern project that what the director said was just part of a no longer questioned canon.

Except that it was obvious why Hussein tried the robbery! The whole movie was classic social realism! When the rich guy invites Hussein to his table (where he later asks if he can smoke), Hussein first says "I'm too dirty for your table" and goes upstairs to wash and shave. Freedom of interpretation, my ass.

What's the moral of the story? Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer? The NYT public editor says that the word "postmodern" appears in the NYT in an average of four article a week. I think it says something about what we take for granted when of course we expect directors to refuse to admit a dominant interpretation of their movie.

Of course, this only holds among the subset of the population that doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at the phrase "they hate us because of our freedom."