Sunday, December 26, 2010

translating oe

I've read every Kenzaburo Oe book translated into English. Many of these were read several years ago (in some cases as many as 15), so my memory of the translations isn't always vivid. I'm pretty certain, however, that the recent (2010) translation of The Changeling by Deborah Boliver Boehm is the worst.

At least one review has complained about the stiltedness of Boehm's prose. Comparatively, however, Boehm's translation is easily one of the most readable of the Oe works in English. The problem is in convincing oneself that Boehm has been faithful to the Japanese original.

Early in the book, it becomes obvious that she's taken the liberty of inserting expositional material for the non-Japanese reader into the body of the text (instead of into footnotes, where it belongs). For example:
... her voice had a distinct Kansai accent (that is, typical of the Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe area). (63)

On one of the major Japanese television networks there is a popular, long-running late-night program called the Wide Show that offers a combination of celebrity chat and cultural news. One night Goro, who was still working as an actor at the time, was one of the guests. (119)

The term "kansai" and the "Wide Show" would both be so familiar to Japanese readers that there would be no need of exposition. These, somewhat awkward, explanations have clearly been inserted by the translator into the text. Now, for the purist, this would probably already be enough of an offense. The real problem, however, is that there are indeed many asides and oblique references and parentheticals in Oe's writing anyway. So, sometimes, it's unclear whether an aside is his or the translator's.

For example, there is a passage where the main character, "Kogito," a clear stand in for Oe himself, discusses the New Testament's Book of Mark at the dinner table. In particular, the incident where an angel appears to women who have gone to the tomb and tells them to spread the word that Jesus is risen. The women, however, are too scared to tell anyone, and the sequence ends abruptly. Boehm gives us this sentence:

Kogito was particularly intrigued by the writers—the authors of the Bible—whose work seemed to parallel his own, and although he didn't think his own novelist's opinions had any bearing on the interpretation of the Gospel, he felt, personally, that the original author's ambiguous way of ending this particular tale was an effective literary technique. (412)

There is no definite article in Japanese, and it is tempting to think the first part of the sentence originally made the general claim "Kogito was particularly intrigued by writers whose work seemed to parallel his own". In its current form, the parenthetical either identifies the authors of the bible specifically as writers whose work parallels Kogito's own, or quantifies over them. Does Oe intend to tell us that Kogito finds, amongst authors of the bible, those whose work parallels his own interesting? Or that Kogito feels this way about all authors and identifies some of those who wrote the bible as falling into this category? Since the reader is unsure whether the aside is inserted by Boehm or in the original, the author's intent is unclear.

The intent of Oe in terms of what information he chooses to reveal and what not is especially important in understanding The Changeling. This is because Kogito is clearly a stand-in for Oe, and Goro is clearly a stand-in for Oe's brother-in-law, Juzo Itami, who committed suicide in 1997. This book is a very personal memoir about the relationship between the two, and Oe's reaction to his friend's unexpected death. Many many incidents described in the novel occurred almost identically in real life. For example, the attempt on Itami's life by yakuza thugs after his film Minbo no Onna, which ridicules the yakuza attempts at extortion, was released is described exactly as an attack upon Goro. Far more interesting (and helpful) than explaining what the Wide Show is in the above example, might have been a mention of the date of the particular event of Juzo Itami appearing on it which Oe fictionalizes!

The Guardian review, for example, explicitly bemoans the lack of this contextual information, and singles out Boehm for hurting rather than helping the situation:

Unfortunately, the reader's sense of not possessing important chunks of the background to this allusive, personal yet political novel is amplified by Boehm's translation. Her decision to use strongly American English may or may not be defensible, but she often appears to be clumsily incorporating footnote-type information into the text: "'What I'm making here isn't Tora-san, you know,' Goro went on, making wry reference to an immensely popular series of formulaic, feel-good films about a hapless, sweet-natured vagabond," for example. She also seems to have translated book and film titles on the fly, leading to a mention of "Hitchcock's Balkan Express", which I'd guess is the Japanese title of The Lady Vanishes. This raises a question: in Oe's text, are Kogito's novels and Goro's films given subtly different titles from their real-life counterparts, as they often are here? Given the novel's games with identity, it might be useful to know that, but reading Boehm's version it's anybody's guess.

The issue raised at the end by the Guardian is an interesting one, and Boehm's handling of it indeed raises the question of how much she herself understands about the context of the novel. Certainly, at least one of the names of Oe's works has been subtly altered. The novel Man'en gannen no futtoboru (1967), in my opinion Oe's best, was translated into English as The Silent Cry. Literally, however, "man'en gannen" means the first year of the man'en era, which was 1860. "Futtoboru" is just the Japanese pronunciation of football, meant here in the sense of soccer. This, and other textual clues make it clear that Oe has altered has altered the title of this book, changing the word football to some equivalent Japanicization of "rugby" (which Boehm translates as Rugby Match 1860).

But what about other titles? The work rendered as "The Day He Himself Shall Wipe My Tears Away" by John Nathan is titled in The Changeling, "His Majesty Himself Will Wipe Away My Tears." Now, are the discrepancies here due to a subtle change in the Japanese wording? Or to a difference in opinion about how to translate the same words by Boehm? Given the football to rugby change, the natural assumption is that there is an underlying change in the Japanese wording—until we get to A Quiet Life.

Oe has a 1990 novel called Shizuka na seikatsu, translated as A Quiet Life by Kunioki Yanagishita and William Wetherall, which was made into a movie by Juzo Itami in 1995; Kogito has a novel called A Quiet Life which was made into a movie by Goro. Question: did Oe subtly change the name of this novel or not?

Now, "shizuka" means "quiet" in the sense of "peaceful" or "calm"; "shizuka" could easily have been replaced with a word meaning "quiet" in a more literal sense, leaving a subtly different name in Oe's novel, but the same plausible translation. If this were the case, though, then Boehm should have been aware of the earlier translation choice and picked something subtly different for consistency. Of course, it's also possible that Oe deliberately left the title of this particular novel unchanged, but then that fact itself would be significant for interpreting The Changeling. One would have wished for enough clarity in the translation that there would be no ambiguity on this point.

Of course, I've been beating up on Boehm, and certainly the issue of title translation can be pinned on her. Some of the other choices, however, e.g. intratext parentheticals instead of footnotes or Americanized language, may have been the choice of Grove, the publishers. The Guardian astutely points out that Grove has designed the packaging of this book to look much more like the those of the very successful Haruki Murakami, than like past Oe books, in particular the not very popular Somersault (1999 / 2003), last of Oe's books to be translated before this one.

So, if those choices were made by Grove, or forced upon Boehm by her editor, then the blame should fall on their head. But, surely someone needs to pay attention to the content here—the fact of the matter is that Oe is not like Murakami and will never be as accessible as him. Oe is obsessed with the obscure, and his novels are only going to appeal to those who share this interest and a certain kind of patience with over-intellectualized and convoluted prose. I mean, Somersault is a complex metaphorical novel which (a) references past Oe works (many of which have not been translated into English!), and (b) spends a great deal of time analyzing Keirkegaard's concept of the "leap of faith" in excruciating detail. This is just not going to be as broadly appealing as a hip romantic love story.

On the topic of Oe's other books, at one point in The Changeling, a character remarks to Kogito that none of his novels makes sense unless the reader has read all the other ones. And this is certainly true of Oe: his oeuvre as a whole is itself a coherent work much greater than the sum of its parts. The discussion in Somersault reimagines and dissects the events in Oe's Flaming Green Tree trilogy, which itself builds upon the mythos laid down in The Silent Cry and earlier works. Yet the Flaming Green Tree trilogy has never been translated! No wonder readers and critics couldn't make heads or tails of Somersault! If Grove wants to improve critical reception of Oe's works in English, they would do a much greater service getting his most important works of the 1980s translated into English, than by attempting to market recent works (without any relevant context!) to young hipsters.

A final note on The Changeling: the novel itself is deeply paradoxical. Knowing that so many of the events described are real, one wonders about those which are not. Particularly telling, and puzzling, is a remark made to Kogito by his wife:

I've never asked you this before, but what really happened that weekend? If you don't write down whatever you know—without telling any lies or concealing the truth with embellishments—then I'll never be able to understand what happened. At this point, of course, neither you nor I have very many years left, and it seems to me that just as we want to live the rest of our lives honestly, without resorting to lies, you would want to write that way, too . . . for the rest of your days.

It's a little bit like what Akari said to his grandmother in Shikoku, during her final illness: "Please cheer up and die!" Only in your case, I'm asking you to be brave and write only the truth, until the very end. (163)

Given how many incidents in the novel are indeed real, one has to wonder if this conversation reflects any actual interaction between Oe and his wife following the death of his friend and her brother. If so, is The Changeling's Oe telling the truth? But in what sense? Here I agree with the Guardian: we simply don't have enough information to understand.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

color in black and white

The experience of color television doesn't require a special TV. This is because of the Benham effect, which occurs when the experience of color is produced by rapidly oscillating patterns of white and black. Differences in the phase of this oscillation produce different color experiences.

You can experience the Benham effect for yourself here.

Although we don't know exactly what causes the Benham effect, we do know what relationship between phase and oscillation speed produces which color experience. In 1968, James Butterfield employed this knowledge to broadcast color information from a black and white TV camera to black and white TV sets. The idea is to use a rotating disk, half of which is black, the other half comprising a sequence of filters (in primary colors, red, green, and blue). The filters are placed to ensure that only the relevant color signal (whatever makes it through the filter) is phased appropriately with respect to the rotating disk. The end result is a flickering image which reproduces the sensation of color in the viewer, even though it is projected on a regular black and white television.

Read more about the Butterfield Color Encoder here.

According to Arthur Winfree:
Its first public demonstration was a soft-drink advertisement over station KNXT in Los Angeles. Nothing was said about color, to the consternation of thousands of viewers who seemed suddenly to be hallucinating. Its last public demonstration was in Argentina during political advertisements by Eva Peron.

~ Winfree (1980 / 2001) The Geometry of Biological Time, 2nd ed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

real terrorism

Are Julian Assange and wikileaks "terrorists" as some US commentators have claimed?

I'll reserve judgment on that point. But insofar as "terrorism" includes the use of intimidation and the interruption of normal civilized procedures in order to force one's opponents into following some particular course of action, the response by the US government and, especially, various credit card companies seems to exemplify that attitude.

Issuing an interpol warrant for Assange because his condom broke is patently ludicrous. But downright offensive is the recent decision by Visa and Mastercard to block donations to wikileaks. Of course, the claim that using Visa or Mastercard to donate to wikileaks contravenes the user agreement, in particular, the stipulation that funds not be used for illegal purposes, is completely spurious. Wikileaks has not be convicted of violating any international law—treating them as otherwise constitutes a clear violation of the "innocent until proven guilty" principle (not the first time from either the US government or its cronies - one of the very points revealed in wikileaks leaks).

Although the link for credit card donations on the wikileaks page doesn't currently function, donations can presently be made through xipwire. Donate today, or else you may lose control over how you spend your money entirely.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

how's that for irony?

So, I haven't been following the recent wikileaks fiasco closely enough to make any general comments (yet . . . ?).

Still, a quick browse immediately produced some interesting irony. This security level: CONFIDENTIAL document, 10BERLIN128, urges U.S. officials interested in getting more data from Germany (on German citizens, of course, for "anti-terrorism" purposes, of course) to reassure German officials of U.S. data security, concluding with the sentence: "We need to also demonstrate that the U.S. has strong data privacy measures in place so that robust data sharing comes with robust data protections."

'nuff said: keep your secrets Germany, we'll just lose them.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

kremlin as rorschach

The last volume of Brian K. Vaugn's Ex Machina was finally released last week, so those of us avoiding the single issues and reading the collected volumes could finally see the conclusion.

Overall, an excellent work, though, just as with Vaughn's previous effort, Y: The Last Man, there are two sorts of unevenness. First, digressions from the main plot into side issues which fail to maintain the same level of intensity or interest (significantly less so here, I think, than in Y, though). Second, too quick movement in the conclusion through events which have been foreshadowed for the entire series. Here, again, Ex Machina represents an improvement over Y: although the ending feels rushed, the explanations / reveals, etc. were much more satisfactory than on Vaughn's previous outing.

The basic premise of Ex Machina is that a DIY NYC superhero, Mitchell Hundred, "The Great Machine" (whose super power is the ability to talk to machines), saves the second tower on 9/11, reveals his secret identity, and wins the next mayoral election. The storyline flashes back and forth between his adventures as a superhero and his attempts to right wrongs on a bigger scale as the mayor.

The final issue of Ex Machina contains a very interesting twist, one I think really works and reflects favorably on the series as a whole. Arguably, it conflicts with the character of Hundred as revealed earlier, though it is strongly consistent with the reveal of where his powers come from, and makes for an interesting commentary on the old adage about the corrupting effects of power, especially within the context of superheroics . . .

[Now begin some fairly serious spoilers]

Hundred is assisted in his superhero career by an old family fried, a crotchety old Russian immigrant affectionately referred to as "Kremlin." Kremlin takes his moral code from old school comic books, and is profoundly disappointed when Hundred abandons his career as a superhero in order to go into politics. In the second half of the series, Kremlin's disappointment turns (apparently) radically irrational when he embarks on a plot to ruin Hundred's political career by publicly discrediting him, thereby hoping to force him back into his role as a superhero.

Kremlin's machinations have disastrous and unforeseen consequences in the climax of the series, one would think prompting him to repent. In the final issue, however, he confronts Hundred again several years later, and reiterates his dedication to ruining Hundred's public image in an attempt to force him back into NYC-based superheroics.

Hundred: I'm trying to protect the entire world, you stubborn old asshole!

Kremlin: How, by pushing papers? Politics is no different from games out on that boardwalk. Is just carney's taking money from rubes!

Hundred: That's why I'm trying to give voters another choice!

Kremlin: Ha! That is what Russians were told during perestroika . . . but nothing really changed. Choice is just illusions powerful create to make the weak think they are not. Republican, Democrat, Independent, whatever. These are just Coke and Pepsi, different names for same watered-down shit.

Here's the twist [mega super-duper spoilers]: Kremlin responds to Hundred's continued insistence he'll go one with politics by threatening suicide and Hundred kills him by telling his gun to shoot. Thereby, however, preventing the leak of the information in Kremlin's possession which would have forever ruined Hundred's chance at political office.

Here's the connection with Watchmen: one of the central (of course there are many) ethical dilemmas in Watchmen is a version of the classic utilitarianism v. deontology dilemma: is the right act the one that's best for "the greater good," or the one which follows a higher moral code? Rorschach represents deontology, unwilling to allow Veidt's crime to go unpunished, no matter what the greater good; whereas Veidt represents utilitarianism, sacrificing the entire population of NYC in order to ensure world peace.

One of the most despicable features of the movie version of Watchmen is that it completely shortchanges Rorschach's position on this dilemma. The book builds up support for the deontological position by (a) following a collection of inhabitants of NYC, building them up into sympathetic human characters before their deaths, for the entire saga, and (b) presenting the violent carnage of NYC in shockingly graphic detail. Both these key features of the central moral dilemma of the work were elided in the film.

In the case of the Hundred / Kremlin encounter, the moral dilemma is similar, though the representation quite different. In both stories, a crime goes unpunished. In the case of Hundred, however, unlike Veidt, who facelessly annihilates a city from a distance, he kills his closest, most long standing father-figure face to face and personally.

Kremlin, much like Rorschach, is clearly a nutjob. Rorschach, for most of Watchmen, at least seems to have his heart in the right place, even though his methods are perhaps too extreme. Kremlin, however, is essentially a "bad guy" for the latter half of Ex Machina, his stubbornness at the very end seems irrational, though we've already been primed for the idea that power has begun to corrupt Hundred by earlier events in the final issue.

And it's the very issue of corruption which makes the case of Hundred qualitatively very different from that of Veidt. Veidt operates outside the law with cold detachment. Hundred operates within the system, attempting to bring reason to an unreasonable system by approaching each issue with a pure heart and a level head. His power as mayor is that he isn't tied to a particular platform or agenda, he can approach any given issue with a clearheaded moral sense.

Yet it is these very features of Hundred which make his "decision" (we see him express disbelief at his own action) to kill Kremlin so much more reprehensible than that of Veidt. Cold calculation is cold calculation. But a man guided by his moral compass who lets that compass slip no longer retains the very virtue he supposedly protects with the utilitarian act.

Of course, I've always sympathized with Rorschach. I'm not sure I'd say I sympathize with Kremlin, but his final rant reflects my own views, I'm afraid. If anything, though, the lingering feeling here is emphatically not that Hundred's period as mayor was all a lie, and we have now seen his true character, but rather that it was temporary, as all periods of virtuous power are temporary. Of course, this is an old message, but one elegantly and powerfully portrayed here.

Final thoughts: Is the deontological position tenable?

In the case of Ex Machina, would "the Great Machine" really have done greater good by remaining a local hero than by pursuing a political career? Certainly not, though, he might have been more sure that his actions were in fact good. Interestingly, this is a theme throughout the story—as the Great Machine, Hundred often doubts his own choices, or fails to convince the people he attempts to help that he is in fact helping them. Of course, Hundred is also beset by doubts during his term as mayor, but he experiences periods of profound satisfaction and self-confidence unequaled in his Great Machine days. Nevertheless, remaining the independent hero would have allowed Hundred to retain a moral high ground which he surely has lost by the end of the series.

In the case of Watchmen, as with all great art, it is shocking how closely life imitates art. Though it was written 15 years before 9/11, it is difficult not to reflect on the moral aftermath of that catastrophe when revisiting Watchmen today. At the end of Watchmen, the one hope the deontologist receives that Rorschach's moral vision (and the truth of NYC's demise) has not perished is the delivery of Rorschach's journal to an obscure far right journal. Although the novel stops here, and does not portray the reception of Rorschach's journal, it surely would have been qualitatively similar to that of the 9/11 truth movement: derision, disbelief, and embarrassment. Once a belief enters the public sphere with enough conviction, the truth or falsity of a radical enough dissenting view is irrelevant, it hasn't a hope of being treated seriously.

Does that mean the radical deontological position is untenable? That there is no place in this world for principles in the face of certain failure? I sure hope not. I'd like to think that placed in the position of Rorschach, I'd have the courage to fight for truth to the end. But then, I'd have to find myself in a position where I was certain of the truth . . . an all too rare occurrence.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

probability in popular culture

"So you're telling me it's a matter of probability and odds; I was worried there wasn't chance involved."

"Well only if you assume the player with the best hand wins."

"So that would be what you call bluffing?"

"You've heard the term. Then you'll also know that in poker you never play your hand; you play the man across from you."

~ Casino Royale (2006)

James Bond discussing poker with his government sponsored financier. Blind faith that skill can overcome the roll of the die (or deal of the cards, as the case may be).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

thoughts on andrew loeb

[Spoilers, but given how long and complex Cryptonomicon is, they shouldn't diminish future reading enjoyment.]

One of the most enigmatic characters in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is Andrew Loeb. The character pops up only occasionally throughout the sprawling epic narrative, always in connection with some extremely negative experience of the main characters. Unlike our heroes, we are never given access to the inner workings of Andrew Loeb, his motivations are never explained, and they are just as puzzling to the reader as they are to the primary characters in Stephenson's novel.

The interesting thing about Andrew Loeb is that he's not a self-interested, money-grubbing crook (like, for instance, my ex-landlords), although his actions do often take on this appearance. He sues Randy Waterhouse for the rights to software he's written (with the justification that the idea behind the software was based on Loeb's own research into the diet of hunter-gatherer societies). Many years later, he sues Randy's company at the instigation of high-powered corporate badguy "The Dentist." This frivolous law suit jeopardizes the benevolent, future-holocaust-preventing plans of our heroes. Finally, Loeb appears again in the novel's final scenes, sneaking through the jungle and shooting arrows at our protagonists as they attempt to recover stolen WWII Japanese gold.

Randy . . . looks upstream to see that a man is standing in the water about a dozen feet away from them. The man has a shaved head that is sunburned as red as a three-ball. He's wearing what used to be a decent enough business suit, which has practically become one with the jungle now: it is impregnated with red mud, which has made it so heavy that it pulls itself all out of shape as he totters to a standing position. . . . When he gets fully upright, Randy can see that his right leg terminates just below the knee, although the bare tibia and fibula stick out for a few inches. The bones are scorched and splintered. Andrew Loeb has fashioned a tourniquet from sticks and a hundred-dollar silk necktie that Randy's pretty sure he has seen in the windows of airport duty-free shops. This has throttled back the flow of blood from the end of his leg to a rate comparable to what you would see coming out a Mr. Coffee during its brew cycle. Once Andy has gotten himself fully upright, he smiles brightly and begins to move towards Randy . . . In his free hand he is carrying a great big knife: Bowie-sized, but with all of the extra spikes, saw blades, blood grooves, and other features that go into a really top-of-the-line fighting and survival knife. (892)

There are many different "evil" characters in Cryptonomicon, but Loeb's evil is qualitatively different from the rest. Loeb's motive is righteous indignation: he is convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that his cause is just. And it is this very conviction that twists his actions towards evil.

Of course, Loeb is also a nutjob, but he is not a simple psychopath. It is Loeb's misguided sense of righteous indignation that drives his pathology, to allow him to do evil with the conviction that it is good.

Painted first as a luddite, Randy is surprised to discover that Loeb has an active internet presence. This turns out to be as a militant in favor of new ideology based on the concept of a hive mind: we are all one, there is no distinction between you and me. Of course, such a view can only aid and abet his rabid sense of self-righteousness. No longer is it only for his sake that he must act (sue, shoot arrows, whatever), but for all of us, because we are all one and our true morality is that of Andrew Loeb.

Certain features of Loeb are clearly modeled on the Unabomber, but in these post-9/11 times (the book was published in 1999), he takes on a much scarier cast by analogy with muslim extremists.

Just like Loeb, the scariest muslim extremist is the paradoxical fanatic. On the one hand, he purports to be absolutely convinced in a pre-medieval cultural system and moral code; not only that it is right for himself, but for all of us. On the other hand, in order to exercise this self-righteousness, he must embrace the technology of his enemies; technology only made possible by the very value system (Western individualistic capitalism and religious tolerance) he seeks to destroy.

Both Loeb and the fundamentalist terrorist allow their righteous indignation to eclipse their own value systems. They embrace the tools of their enemies precisely so they can end those enemies. Such an "ethos" is inherently self-contradictory. It can never survive in a vacuum, but depends upon defining itself in contrast to the other. Without an object of hate, an object against which the self-righteousness can be directed, there's nothing there, no constant moral or social core upon which to rest a peaceful life.

Of course, from the standpoint of those of us who just want to get on with our friggin lives (because we do have a value system that can support and motivate performing acts without them being directed in hatred against another), the scariest thing about Andrew Loeb is that the inherent paradoxical nature of his character precludes the very possibility of rational discourse. There is no reasoning with a terrorist who already embraces contradiction. This is because reason is founded upon the avoidance of contradictions. Once one embraces them, anything follows. No argument can sway, one has simply opted out of rational discourse.

This realization allows Randy and his compatriots to kill Andrew Loeb with clear consciences: a true them or us moment had been reached. And the same reasoning applies to the fanatical muslim extremist who embraces equivalent contradictions.

So, perhaps just this is the boundary of religious tolerance, the line in the sand to draw at the end of modern relativism: your way of life, your religion, your value system can be as radically different from mine as you like. And it deserves my tolerance. But once your value system ceases to remain coherent on its own terms, once it ceases to be a value system for you and becomes just a blanket "justification" of actions against me, then it really is us or them: me or you.

Monday, November 22, 2010

a hole in the canon

Why have you never heard of Andrzej Żuławski?

Or, perhaps more to the point, why had I never heard of Andrzej Żuławski until encountering his On the Silver Globe (1977 / 1987) by accident two years ago?

Not once in any of the film classes I took in college was Żuławski ever mentioned. Not once did I come across any of his films during numerous (often upwards of 8 per week) art house screenings while living in Boston for several years. Not one of the many film enthusiasts I know has ever mentioned him to me.

Yet, now I have seen three of his films. In addition to On the Silver Globe, L'Amour Braque and Possession, all three of them absolute classics: brilliant composition and editing, astonishing acting, and completely original and compelling stories. (Not to mention the appearance of Isabelle Adjani and Sophie Marceau, two of the most ridiculously beautiful women to ever walk the face of the earth.)

This director's work should have been all over my film classes, all over the art house schedules. His work is like a cross between the best of nouvelle vague and German new wave, and better than most directors in either category. Why is he missing from the canon?

Or has my experience here been totally idiosyncratic . . . ?

jacob bernoulli on luck

The mathematics of probability began in the 1650s with the correspondence between Fermat and Pascal on the problem of points. The crucial question, first proposed to Pascal by the Chevalier de Méré, concerned the question of how to divide the pot if a gambling game had to be interrupted before it could be completed, e.g. suppose $x is the pot, 7 rounds are needed to win, player A has won 6 rounds, while player B has won 5 rounds: if they are forced to interrupt their game at this stage, what constitutes a fair division of the pot?

All early treatises (and even most modern ones) addressed the problem of points in their presentation of the probability calculus. For example, Christiaan Huygens places a discussion of the problem of points near the very start of one of the first treatises on probability, his De ratiociniis in ludo aleae (1657).

In 1713, Jacob Bernoulli's treatise, Ars Conjectandi was published posthumously. This was the first work to prove a limit theorem about probability, as well as extending probability theory to cases where probabilities where unequal, but could be derived from underlying equipossibility. The first of Ars Conjectandi's four section reprints Huygens' treatise with extensive commentary and solutions to all problems. When Huygens presents the problem of points, he points out that only the remaining games need be considered (and not the number of games already played), a remark which Huygens supplements with the comment:
In general, we should take no account of past games when we compute the lots for games that are all in the future. For in any new game the probability that fortune will continue to favor those that it has favored before is no great than the probability that it will favor those who have been the most unfortunate. I observe this in opposition to the ridiculous opinion of the many who think of fortune as some kind of habit, which remains in a person for a while and somehow gives him almost a right to expect similar fortune to continue.

Of course, Bernoulli is absolutely right, a point which can even be empirically determined, e.g. as in the hot hand fallacy.

An interesting question, though, is the balance of opinion on the question of streaks of luck vs. the gambler's fallacy, which expects streaks to reverse, or be balanced by future outcomes. Of course, from both the mathematical and the empirical standpoints, probabilities are not affected by streaks or runs in the outcomes. But, from a sociological standpoint, is belief in luck (good or bad) more common than belief in the gambler's fallacy? Given that they are mutually contradictory, how frequently can both beliefs be found in the same individual? If belief in one statistically dominates belief in the other, why? Underlying optimism (pessimism)? If our beliefs about such matters are derived from our experience with the world, why the tendency to distort rather than simply probability match (especially given that humans can be quite good at probability matching under other circumstances)?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

the words my ex-landlords seem to live by

Being wrong, Mr. Stennings, is not nearly so important as not admitting it. Not these days.
~ high-level CIA official in Peckinpah's The Osterman Weekend (1983)

Monday, November 15, 2010

itunes shutout?

I'm a MAC user, and I usually use iTunes to play my tunes. Some time ago I decided to never update iTunes on principle. It was clear that burning mixes, playing around with my library, etc. were getting progressively more annoying / restrictive. New features I didn't want appeared, old features I did disappeared. After a recent move, my harddrive crashed and I had to reinstall everything. Best I could do was Leopard, since the computer is a dual G5 (I discovered upon taking it to the Apple store that it is officially classified by them as "vintage" (since it is over 5 years old) and they will not work on it anymore). So, right now, the computer runs Leopard-era iTunes with zero updates. Two days ago, I was unable to access the iTunes store, and haven't been able to since.

(Not only did I access it in the recent past after reinstalling everything, but bought several tracks. Note: the iTunes store remembers your past purchases, but will not let you download them again without re-purchase. This means, for example, if you try to download an album you only owned a couple tracks from in the past, it assumes you want to "complete" it, making redownloading the tracks you lost that much more annoying. Thank you iTunes for making my harddrive loss that much more painful.)

I wonder if this indicates a deliberate attempt to shutout users of older versions of iTunes from acquiring new tracks (which Apple doubtless assumes they will bootleg, because why else would they not want a clutter of useless new features)? Or, is this just the result of some iTunes website update that assumed no one out there could possibly be running Leopard-era iTunes without updates anymore (and so there was no reason to give a fig about backwards compatibility)?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

backwards and downwards

Inevitable progress! Only one more indispensable massacre of Capitalists or Communists or Fascists or Christians or Heretics, and there we are—there we are in the Golden Future. But needless to say, in the very nature of things, the future can't be golden. For the simple reason that nobody ever gets anything for nothing. Massacre always has to be paid for, and its price is a state of things that absolutely guarantees you against achieving the good which the massacre was intended to achieve. And the same is true even of bloodless revolutions. Every notable advance in technique or organization has to be paid for, and in most cases the debit is more or less equivalent to the credit. Except of course when it's more than equivalent, as it has been with universal education, for example, or wireless, or these damned aeroplanes. In which case, of course, your progress is a step backwards and downwards. Backwards and downwards.
~ Uncle Eustace in Aldous Huxley's Time Must Have a Stop, 1944

Monday, November 8, 2010

this is slave training

Even the NY Times is agreeing with Alex Jones? These truly must be end times.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the eye

Alhazen (1083) schematic of the visual system

Thursday, October 21, 2010

best "comic" of 2010?

I'm gonna call it early: Charles Burns' X'ed Out

Of course, it's still early in the game. As the classic pamphlet format of comics slowly dies out, the first to abandon ship have been "art" comics. Even in the heyday of the pamphlet format, art comics had a hard time making their mark. Now that comics, under the more PC / mainstream friendly term "graphic novel," are beginning to infiltrate regular book stores, many of the most "high brow" comics creators have been the first to switch to a yearly (hardcover) book / album format, and many of them seem to pick release dates late in the season. This year has already seen Seth's first such effort, Palookaville 20, but still to come are some hard-hitting front runners as Chris Ware's ACME Novelty Library and, a personal favorite, C.F.'s Powr Mastrs.

Nevertheless, much as I love Ware and C.F., I have a hard time imagining their efforts making the same kind of impact on me as Burns' latest effort. In particular, Burns has broken with past form in a fashion that's produced overwhelmingly positive effect. This takes courage and vision. And it's a damn compelling read.

"old" Cronenberg, The Brood, 1979

It's interesting to compare the development of Burns' style with that of David Cronenberg. Cronenberg started with grotesque horror, always themed around the body, modifying itself and rebelling in bizarre ways, and the effect these distortions have on identity. In his later films, however, the same fascination with body and the perversion of identity have remained, but become internalized. No longer is the grotesquerie on the outside in the form of mutations, now it is thrives on the inside in the form of secrets, confusions, and split personalities (e.g. A History of Violence and Eastern Promises). And, remarkably, as Cronenberg's themes have become internalized and more subtle, the power of his works has increased dramatically.

"new" Cronenberg, Eastern Promises, 2007

Likewise, Burns' oeuvre has always focused on the same collection of themes: self-consciousness and fear of body and the physical, teenage confusion about one's place in the world, conflict and mystery in interactions with parents and members of the opposite sex. In early works like Skin Deep, these themes are represented by surreal metamorphoses of body. As his career progressed, these themes progressively became sublimated. In his most recent epic, Black Hole (1995-2005), much of the action is more "realistic," a scathing tale of teenage fear (and cavalier lack thereof) about a weird sexually transmitted disease. Nevertheless, there are still many surreal and grotesque moments, just more smoothly integrated into a plausible narrative about teenage paranoia.

Hmmm, something in the eggs . . .

Now, in X'ed Out, Burns breaks new ground in several respects. The first, and most striking, is that the work is in color, whereas all Burns' previous work has been in stark black and white. Second, at least so far, the main narrative itself does not feature any "unrealistic" mutations or grotesque body morphing at all. The surreal shows up in a big way, but in the (apparent) drug fueled dreams of the main character. Finally, these dream sequences feature a brilliant and twisted parody of / tribute to Hergé's Tintin, complete with Inky the cat (instead of Snowy the dog).

The plot circles around the same collection of themes which define all of Burns' work: identity crises, teenage angst, self-doubt, twisted sex, poor parental relationships, etc. Just as in the case of Cronenberg, however, the imagery and themes seem to have subtled and deepened with age, feeling more real, and striking harder, here than they ever have before.

Of course, this is just the first chapter of an new extended work, and only time will tell how the story as a whole pans out, but damn I'm hooked here at the beginning!

This guy speaks in calligraphy.

Stylistically, it's remarkable how smoothly Burns has transitioned to color after a career's worth of black and white. Of course, in order to do a proper Tintin homage, it's almost essential. And these are beautiful, old-fashioned, Tintin-style colors, not the sculpted, CG crap which clutters most modern superhero comics. Furthermore, the attention to detail throughout is remarkable. A particular favorite of mine is the language spoken by an early character in the Tintin-parody dream world. Although it is basically unintelligible squiggles to the casual reader, patterns ("words") are obviously repeated (always a sign of attention to detail), though with slight variations (as whenever words are handwritten). Furthermore, the squiggles look suspiciously like Chinese grass-style calligraphy, or certain flavors of Japanese calligraphy.

I sure hope this one doesn't take 10 years as well . . .

Sunday, October 17, 2010

shaken, not stirred?

Apparently, 007's request that his martinis be "shaken, not stirred" is not (or at least need not be) shear posturing. Rather, shaking eliminates many bartender-related variables which can affect the quality of a stirred drink. So, insisting on shaking ensures consistency (plus, of course, aeration). See the full explanation here.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

moebius in the desert

Moebius, Angel Claw, 1996

Jean "Moebius" Giraud is one of (perhaps the) greatest surrealists working in the comics medium. He is perhaps best known in America for Arzach or The Airtight Garage. His most surreal work, under the pseudonym "Moebius" is produced via a technique of "automatic drawing", wherein no hesitation or planning impedes the fluid production of the image.

Some of the most compelling and elegant of these automatic visions involve mystical transformations in the desert. intermingling the abstract and the representational, we can often see magickal symbols. Here for example, we see the wand, cup, sword, and shield—the four suits of the tarot deck, and also the symbolic tools of the practicing magician.

Moebius, 1986

Moebius may be influenced in this imagery by his spiritual mentor and collaborator, Alexandro Jodorowsky. Jodorowsky frequently employs alchemical and magickal imagery in his works. For example, the wand, cup, sword, and coin can be seen bestowed upon the initiate at around 2:45 in this clip from his mystical epic, The Holy Mountain.

Of course, lovely as it is for the images to have significance (or semantic value), the sheer beauty and elegance of Moebius' desert phantasmagoria is what elevates them to the status of art. Art, surely, with broader appeal than the arcana of its mystical underpinnings.

Moebius, Le Chasseur Dé prime, 2008

Unfortunately, many of Moebius' most significant works in this genre are not easily available in English. Even in French, many are now out of print, or were only ever issued in small-run deluxe editions in the first place.

What about reprints? Translations? New collections of the beautiful old? Apparently (see comments here) publishers have repeatedly tried to strike a deal with Mr. Giraud for reprinting his work, only to be rebuffed by his wife.

Moebius, 40 Days dans le Désert B, 1999

Thursday, October 7, 2010

the incredible growing man!

Eye of Infinity just finished the serial The Incredible Growing Mancheck it out!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

how fake? / why fake?

Offensive but catchy frat-rap sensation 3OH!3 have released a "documentary" to go along with their most recent album.

Now, anyone who has ever tried to make a documentary before (or any keen observer) can instantly tell that these scenes are staged. On the other hand, some of the drama depicted is relatively plausible given the band's stage in their careers.

For instance, fans have already complained about the apparent switch to a more pop-friendly sound aimed at reproducing past hit success, rather then the result of direct inspiration. And a decision to do such is depicted at the start of this "documentary." Even though the idea comes from a supposed record exec, the 3OH!3 boys are clearly portrayed as desirous of following his advice.

So, one question to ask of the "documentary" is how fake? (Although, embarrassingly, it seems a question which doesn't even occur to many of 3OH!3's fans.)

The most interesting question here though is why fake? 3OH!3's absurd posturing and excessively misogynistic / materialistic lyrics leave one wondering just how sincere the band is in these sentiments, and just how much is a carefully constructed ironic artifice. The decision to stage a "documentary" confirms the careful construction of the 3OH!3 image, but it does not reveal what exactly is being hidden. Was it necessary to fake these scenes because the truth is far more mundane: that the album and its lyrical excesses are simply a subterfuge constructed by subtle and acute businessmen? Or were they necessary to conceal a dark sincerity in the band's rank materialism and abject objectification of women?

Take the opening scene with the executive, for example - are 3OH!3 laughingly revealing a frustrating pressure which helped shaped the album? Or concealing their own cynical machinations?

Of course, a "real" documentary would have shed light onto this puzzling dilemma. The "documentary" on offer, however, merely confirms the worst of both interpretations: on the one hand, the boys' lifestyle can't be anywhere near as frat-party excessive as they portray it in their lyrics (and some of the staged scenes), or else they would a) be unwilling to take time out for such elaborate acting / memorization / staging exercises, and b) produce an even more compelling effect by depicting the actualities of their excess anyway. On the other hand, the fact that so much effort went into such a thing certainly confirms their intention, self-awareness, and complicity in their fabricated image.

Monday, October 4, 2010

authenticity and responsibility

"You've always gotta do things your way, don't you. No wonder Briggs stays on your tail."

"Do things someone else's way and you take your life into your own hands."

~Harry responding to his partner in Magnum Force

Harry seems to be making a counterintuitive remark here. To take one's life into one's own hands is to take responsibility for one's actions in the most extreme way. Yet Harry here implies that it is precisely when you are following the suggestions (in this case explicit orders) of another that you are most responsible for your actions.

Conversely, the claim seems to be that responsibility of the take your life into your own hands sort is avoided precisely by doing things one's own way.

Of course, this goes against common sense attributions of blame and agency, and is a direct converse of the "deep self concordance" model of blame attribution. That model claims that attributions of agency and blame occur when there is an agreement (concordance) between the agent's actions and his deeper commitments and value judgments (i.e. his "deep self").

Here, Harry expounds the opposite - when you act in a way that disagrees with your deeper ideological commitments, then you are the one to blame for the consequences of those actions.

I think the positive suggestion behind Harry's claim is that there is something blameless about acting in accordance with one's deep seated beliefs. If we act against our instincts / values / ideology, then we are violating a fundamental principle of authenticity - we have voluntarily given over control of our actions to another source, one which we, at a deep level, disagree with. This knowing abandonment of authenticity does not free one from blame, but rather that act itself places the weight of responsibility more heavily upon one.

As a corollary, acting authentically, i.e. in accordance with one's deep seated beliefs, frees one from blame—or, at the very least, constitutes itself an explanation and justification for one's actions: "I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do."


Anecdotal evidence, but...

Supposedly, the bathtub is the safest place in the house. If some kind of destructive event occurs (a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, whatever) the single safest place to be is the bathtub. This is because it is the most heavily shielded nook in the house.

Supposedly, the bathtub is the most dangerous place in the house. Statistically speaking, the most household deaths occur in the bathtub. Perhaps this is because it if a nook filled with water to which people go to relax—if that relaxation becomes too serious, whether because of overindulgence in some kind of relaxation enhancer or other

Friday, October 1, 2010

the physics of posters?

A week ago, I put two posters (both from the same source) on my wall with thumbtacks. I was very careful to smooth the posters along the wall so that they would lie flat.

Then, a couple days later, I was very dismayed to notice that posters hanging somewhat slack. I even considered moving the thumbtacks in order to stretch and smooth them more so that they would lie flat.

Luckily, laziness prevailed. Today, the posters are lying flat again, just as I hung them.

So, what's the cause here? When the posters hung slack, I assumed that either a) my recollections of hanging them were inaccurate, or b) the posters were heavy enough to widen the tack holes, and thus hang more loosely.

Now that the posters are lying flat again, the natural assumption is that some kind of expansion and contraction occurred. And, the posters are hung in a small room with a small window that is frequently open, so environment inside changes with that outside.

Here's the puzzle, though: In general, temperature change causes bodies to expand w/ increased warmth and contract with cooling. But, if anything, the intermediary period between the first hanging of the posters and today was cooler than either their hanging or today. What to make of this? Perhaps not temperature, but moisture is to blame? How exactly would this cause such contraction and expansion in a wall poster?

Saturday, September 25, 2010


In the first Dirty Harry movie, one suggestion for Harry's nickname is his hatred for minorities. Ironically, of course, Harry's partner in that film is hispanic, and in the sequel (Magnum Force), his partner is african american.

In the third film in the series, some attempt at emphasizing the essential decency of Harry's character (and its consistency with his hardline conservativism about law enforcement) is made by giving him a female partner. As might be expected, Harry at first spurns her, but gradually grows to accept and respect her. For her part, his partner proves her worth at police work, ultimately saving Harry's life.
Tyne Daly as Harry's partner shooting the bad guys in the climatic scene of The Enforcer.

The message is clearly that women can be just as badass and hard on crime as men and that sexism is not a necessary correlate of conservativism about law enforcement.

How ironic is it, then, that on a documentary about the politics of the Dirty Harry movies (on the Magnum Force DVD), when Tyne Daly is interviewed, she is referred to as "actor"?
I suppose this may be one of those cases where the PC thing to do is not immediately clear. Using "actor" for an actress seems to me to follow the pattern of using a male-marked word for all members of a group (e.g. "mankind" for men and women), so I would have thought it showed disrespect to use it.

Conversely, of course, the "-or" or "-er" marking strictly speaking just denotes agency. The seeming markedness of "actor" or "mister" comes from the existence of a corresponding "-ress" form. "-or" words like prosecutor or perpetrator which do not also seem non-marked.

According to wikipedia, using "actor" for actresses is considered by some the PC thing to do: "As actress is a specifically feminine word, some groups assert that the word is sexist. Gender-neutral usage of actor has re-emerged in modern English, especially when referring to male and female performers collectively, but actress remains the common term used in major acting awards given to female recipients and is common in general usage."

But if we buy this reasoning, should we also call women "mister"? Etymologically speaking, mister derives from Indo-European megh, or "great", via Latin magister ("teacher"), from which also "master". So, historically, the "-er" of mister is also an "-er" of agency, implying we can use it in a gender neutral fashion to refer to women respectfully as well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

cordoba initiative ii

Pat Condell on the proposed mosque at Ground zero again.
"People keep framing this as a religious freedom issue, but there's a difference between practicing your religion which everyone has the right to do and rubbing your religion in people's faces as a triumphalist religious statement, which is what's happening here. . . .

". . . [T]he mosque part of this building will occupy the top two floors, which means it will overlook the scene of conquest, which is why the site was chosen. When the governor of New York offered to help them find an alternative site, they wouldn't even discuss it. Moving it somewhere else would negate the very purpose of building it, which is to rub 9/11 in America's face. If they can't build it there, there's no point in building it anywhere else. . . .

". . . [T]he people behind it clearly don't have the intelligence or the good grace to withdraw the plans even though they know as well as everyone else that if the positions were reversed, and this level of calculated insult were being directed at Islam, there is no way on earth that this project would be allowed to proceed, constitution or no constitution."

Tru dat.

[For references, follow the link to the original video.]

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

9 / 11

. . . Islam had evolved a response to the challenge of a world populated with strangers, though one that has proved fragile under the stresses of more recent centuries. That fragility is not accidental, though. The fact that Islam rapidly acquired impressive military and political strength within a few years of its foundation meant that—unlike Christianity—it never needed to develop a philosophy of compromise with secular authorities and could indulge the ambition of a comprehensive regulation of social life. Its periods of tolerance were, therefore, the product of vast self-confidence and the absence of any real internal challenge rather than an ideology that had adapted to the permanent presence of strangers.

~ Paul Seabright (2010) The Company of Strangers

Monday, August 30, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

Sunday, August 22, 2010

rip schlingensief

Christoph Schlingensief, great German artist and filmmaker died today after a long bout with cancer. One of his most inspiring works was the outrageous political / exploitation satire Terror 2000, starring the incomparable Udo Kier. Hopefully, I've beaten Sasha on this one . . .

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sunday, July 25, 2010

constraint satisfaction

The maximization of dignity and that of social mobility are often at odds.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

on and on and on and on and on

Gerald Jablonski (2008) Cryptic Wit 2

Thursday, July 15, 2010

we no longer support . . .

"We no longer support signing in with your old YouTube password."

Am I the only one who thinks this is insane? It's one thing for Google to buy YouTube, it's another thing entirely for them force pre-takeover users to acquire Google accounts. How is this an instance of "Don't be evil"?


update july 22 2010

Since the above, youtube now seems to sign users out whenever they sign out of gmail. This is can be inconvenient.

Monday, July 12, 2010

screwed up click

Htown OG shit: DJ Screw's freestyle crew, S.U.C. / Screwed Up Click / Soldiers United for Cash. Big Moe, Lil' Keke tha Don, D.E.A. (Dead End Alliance), H.A.W.K, Big Pokey, and the short guy standing in the back is DJ Screw

Sunday, July 11, 2010

philosophy of g livin' . . .

. . . quite simple: blast upon instinct, bust 'em in the temple.

~ SPM and Rasheed, "Loyal Customers" (1999)

Friday, July 2, 2010

the life and times of martha washington

Is Casey a precursor of Martha Washington?

My interest in comics has waxed and waned in several waves, but the first major wave came in the late 80s when I first saw Frank Miller's Ronin. This was a little after it first came out, and I vividly remember the excitement I felt when, finally in the know, I walked away from the comic "shop" (barely more than a kiosk) with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #3 and Watchmen #11, hot off the presses.

After Dark Knight and Watchmen set the bar so high, where to look next? An obvious choice was Give Me Liberty (1990), a four issue miniseries written by Dark Knight's Miller and illustrated by Watchmen's Dave Gibbons.

Now Gibbons' line has always seemed too clean and sterile to me. In fact, I was not that big a fan of his reading Watchmen, but his sheer connection to it (plus the obvious subtlety and detail with which he'd realized that complex project) made me enthusiastic for his work on the collaboration with Miller.

At the time, I had mixed feelings about Give Me Liberty. The story was over the top, the imagery was crazy and powerful, and Miller and Gibbons brought their distinctive personalities together into an explosive synthesis. Nevertheless, something felt unfinished, unsatisfying about the story. It was so sprawling, I felt something was left behind, even if I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

Miller's distinctive personality: gay nazis.

I had a vague sense more stories featuring the hero of Give Me Liberty, Martha Washington, had been published. But this was a period when my interest in comics was waning, and I never really followed her saga after the initial series.

Now, finally, however, the entire story (birth to death!) of Martha Washington, originally told in three miniseries and a handful of special issues, is collected in one place, the 600+ page The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century.

Martha is born in 1995. After a difficult youth in the ghetto, she joins "PAX," the near ubiquitous US government peace-keeping force. By the end of the first miniseries, the inevitable corruption of US economic policy, environmentalism as facism, state-instituted medicine as facism, the war on red meat, the oppression of the Apache Nation, and more have all been explored to satiric effect.

Martha had a rough childhood.

The second miniseries, Martha Washington Goes to War (1994), begins during the Second US Civil War. Martha defects to a utopian organization of the intelligent and competent, who have removed themselves from the totalitarian system which has taken over the former US. (Apparently, this story line is based on Atlas Shrugged.) Weather satellites, invisibility technology, giant golden pyramids, evil robot surgeons, and a omnipowerful super computer all play a part.

The third miniseries, Martha Washington Saves the World (1997) goes even farther over the top, pitting alien technology against a worldwide conspiracy. Finally, in 2007, Martha Washington's death was depicted in a final one-shot.

Reading Give Me Liberty again after all these years I've been reminded of just how exciting bizarre the story and its imagery were. I definitely have a greater appreciation for Gibbons' penmanship, and the color is extremely elegant. The same lingering feeling of unease, or of too much craziness and not enough depth in the characters / story remains. Nevertheless, the initial miniseries stands as a remarkable achievement.

Reading the rest of the story, its hard not to be distracted by the dramatic evolution in the coloring style. The second miniseries was a testing ground for a palate of new coloring techniques made possible by the digital computer, including even the flagrant pasting of photographic images into the backgrounds of some panels.

Coloring as digital photo collage.

Here, Washington discovers the utopian hideout and the lush green imagery literally pasted in creates a surreal effect and sharp contrast with the postapocalyptic wastelands we've seen so far in the story. Although tree photos are clearly pasted in to stand for trees, some of the pasting clearly plays a textural role, like the grass image pasted onto the hill, but not matching in scale or feel with the inked outlines of tufts of grass.

The use of digital techniques is even more extravagent in the third storyline, as a rogue asteroid and various astronomical structures are generated completely digitally, with no inked line at all. Here the final confrontation with the omnipresent intelligent computer system takes place within an entirely digital environment.

90s style digital playground.

Frankly, I prefer the colors and look of the first series (airbrush? watercolor?) to that of the later ones. Still, the digital excesses in the art are strangely appropriate to the narrative excesses of Frank Miller—in Martha Washington's epic, we can see the terse social commentary of the early Miller evolve into the carnivalesque self-parody on display in, for example, Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again. In the case of Batman, however, the "world" at stake (Batman's Gotham) was not really large enough to contain Miller's excess. In contrast, the world of Marha Washington is free to expand along with the style in Miller's sequels, consequently these work much better than DK2.

Ultimately, I think Martha Washington is one of the those characters loved a little too much by its creators (the deep affection both Miller and Gibbons feel for the character is attested repeatedly in the volume's liner notes). This makes certain features of her saga overly self-indulgent for my taste. Ultimately, however, the saga is deeply satisfying—perhaps some of their love rubs off on the reader. Or maybe the global vision presented is thought provoking enough to forgive some gaps in motivation or character.

More than that, however, the grandiose vision laid out of the future is so lighthearted and good spirited (despite the dark satire, it's always fun), that one can't help but play along, allow M&G their indulgences, and applaud an epic that manages to be grandiose and silly, brutal and lighthearted, frustrating and entertaining, all at the same time.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

purple censorship

How does one decide what to censor?

Perhaps the most threatening content is the unknown.

Consider the video for the song "Purple Stuff" by Houston singer Big Moe (2002). The song evokes a fun carnival atmosphere celebrating lean and the htown drug culture. The characteristically purple codeine laced cough syrup is euphemistically referred to throughout as "purple stuff".

In the video version, a single line is censored (2:18):

What is this offensive line? What handful of words in the midst of a song about illegally imbibing prescription cough syrup could rise above the rest as demanding censorship?

[Play along at home! (line audible at 2:18)]

Context alone is unhelpful:

...Drank stains on my FUBU and I still feel like a star
Now Ima blow up behind the wheel cause I done woke up
Wrapped around a pol(e) (-ice ?) took a sip from my cup now
Can't slip up,

[censored line]

Catch a playa leanin (impala ?), (wind? one?) up in the trunk now
now hut, two, three to da four
I done slammed up the (floor? four?) wit a crushed pineapple
got it gonna let it on but I ain't sippin wit dat Moe
drinkin wit' the Barre Baby I be way too throwed
And I guess a playa had about enough...

Purple Stuff (etc.)

If the playa "wind up in the trunk", then the previous line may have some violence oriented content. One possible rendering is

My "R"s a clip up

Two possibly offensive sounds in this line are the one rendered above as "R"s, which might also be "whores", in which case something sexual may have been meant; or "clip up" if "clip" is meant in the sense of a bullet dispenser.

Unfortunately, internet sources are unhelpful here. The most common rendering of the offensive line seems to be:

(?) clipper

Some presumably lesser sources omit the "?" leaving the unintelligible (and rhythmically inadequate): Now i can't slip up clipper.

Now, presumably, these transcriptions of the lyrics all originate from the same source, as they are nearly identical in other respects, including, for example, the mistranscription of "drinkin wit' the Barre Baby" (Barre Baby being an old nickname for Big Moe) as "drinkin at the bar baby". This error, simply the result of a lack of familiarity with the singer's previous works, seems to indicate they had no feedback from the actual rappers.

Maybe whoever censored the "Purple Stuff" video did have access to complete and accurate lyrics, discovered there some unsufferable profanity at 2:18, and removed it for our collective public safety. This seems extremely unlikely.

I find it doubtful that the artists provided the TV station with a complete lyrical transcription, OR that the TV station could easily decode said line more definitively than me and the collective internets.

Most likely, it seems to me, is that the line was censored precisely because it could not be understood. And since the censor could not understand the line, he could not discard the possibility that it was profoundly offensive and damaging to the public good.

Of course, I may be mistaken about the theme of the song. Dave Chappelle identifies a (slightly?) less insidious meaning behind "purple stuff":

And, strangely, his analysis is corroborated:

mega radical!
k, mega groceries . . .

However, if Big Moe's Purple Stuff was indeed intended as a song about "grape drink" (and it most certainly was not), then the possibility of a line in it actually worthy of censorship is even less than on the obvious reading.

So, we are left with this: a single, unintelligible line is censored from a song, the entire theme of which is more socially disruptive in its gleeful endorsement of illicit drug consumption than any single line could be. In order to remove this feature of the song by merely silencing isolated phrases, the song as a whole would have to be completely eviscerated and left totally unintelligible.

Much better to just let the unintelligible slide, and trust the wit of the listener clever enough to decipher it to resist whatever profane suggestion it offers.