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