Monthly Archives: October 2008

Silent movie marathon – part 2 (“comedy” edition)

Shoulder Arms (1918) – In the words of Captain Edmund Blackadder, Charlie Chaplin’s films are “about as funny as getting an arrow through the neck and discovering there’s a gas bill tied to it”. Now I see what he meant, and – dear God – there’s another one coming up. Watched: 18 minutes.

The Pilgrim (1923) – In the words of Private Baldrick, a few seconds later, Charlie Chaplin is “as funny as a vegetable that’s grown into a rude and amusing shape”. Mm .. Blackadder. Now where was I? Oh yes. Watched: 5 minutes.

Safety Last (1923) – On the bright side: Harold Lloyd is funnier than Chaplin, and I did like this movie the first time I saw it. Watched: 40 minutes.

Days of Youth (1929, Japan) – I .. think this is supposed to be funny. I arrive at this conclusion by a process of elimination: It clearly isn’t anything else, so it must be comedy. Watched: 9 minutes.

The Freshman (1925) – Lloyd again. I wish I was watching Horse Feathers. Watched: 8 minutes.

For Heaven’s Sake (1926) – Ha ha, Harold Lloyd’s black driver is stupid! I really should be revisiting the Marx Brothers soon. Watched: 8 minutes.

Dr Pyckle and Mr Pride (1925) – Laurel without Hardy. At last a funny (but short) comedy. Mr Hyde of Stevenson’s novel is an evil and violent man. Mr Pride steals ice cream from children and plays jokes on old ladies. Watched: All of it. All 20 minutes of it.

Silent movie marathon – part 1

It’s a shame that silent movies died. The best of them achieved things that have never been possible in talking movies. In this movie marathon, I’ve dug up a whole bunch of silent movies, most of which I know little about.

Häxan (1922, Denmark) – Part slideshow presentation, part staged documentary about witchcraft beliefs and witch trials. Uses scorn and comic depictions of Satan to expose the foolish ways of the olden days, (why, they even slept naked!) Rationalistic with an aggressive self confidence that will appeal to and embarass modern skeptics. Leans towards exploitation. Watched: All of it.

Our Hospitality (1923, USA) – Buster Keaton comedy with such failed gags as a street with a traffic constable but hardly any traffic(!), and a train where the roof is so low that a gentleman cannot wear a top hat(!!) Watched: 17 minutes.

The Kid (1921, USA) – Tramp Chaplin adopts an abandoned child. The discovery that comedies should be funny must have come later in the decade. Watched: 23 minutes.

Dr. Mabuse (1922, Germany) – Ambitious, unfocused, and very, very long story about stock fraud and gambling. Watched: 25 minutes, out of 4 hours!

Strike (1925, Soviet Union) – Surprisingly funny for a movie that encourages you to lynch capitalists. Watched: All of it.

Glomdalsbruden (1926, Norway) – Love story about a forced marriage in rural Norway. It’s interesting how it’s the simple stories that benefit most from silence. Basic emotions shine in a way they rarely do in talkies. Watched: All of it.


I have a long and troubled relationship with Selling DRM-free MP3′s back when most record companies were still learning how to code HTML, they’ve always had this spark of unfulfilled potential about them. DRM is stupid for a lot of reasons, such as “what do you do when the technology changes“. eMusic is the one company that have always understood this, and yet they always make some mistake that balances out their good intentions. Back in 2001, the mistake was to sell low quality MP3 files. (I asked them why, they said they didn’t have the storage space for higher quality. Well, that’s allright then!) Today it’s their pricing model. doesn’t have prices, they have “credits”. You subscribe to a plan that gives you a number of credits every month. Mistake #1: You’re not allowed to have an audiobook subscription without a music subscription. What if you only want audiobooks? (I do.) Not possible. It says so on the website. Except it is possible, if you send them an e-mail about it. What? Mistake #2: When you’ve finished your one book of the month, there’s no obvious way to buy more credits. The page for doing this is well hidden, and you must spend those extra credits within 90 days, so think carefully. Other stores encourage you to spend money. eMusic have created something closer to a rationing system. And still they’re better than most competitors. Is it any wonder I pirate first, and buy the things I like on CD and DVD afterwards?

But things turned out otherwise

In Imperium, Ryszard Kapuściński presents sketches of the Soviet Union as it breaks apart. To find and understand the “Soviet man”, Kapuściński travels across the empire. He sneaks illegally into Nagorno-Karabakh, nearly freezes to death in Siberia, visits the remains of a labor camp, tests the patience of Kremlin guards, and speaks to a survivor of the Ukrainian genocide. His emphasis is on the everyday. A recurrent theme is the sight of confused, tired, hungry people who spend weeks in airports, waiting for a plane. Where are they going? Where did they come from? Nobody knows, nobody cares, an already broken system has come to a halt. Kapuściński’s sketches span both the everyday and the historic scale. Describing a Gulag town, he reminds the reader of the many thousand human bodies buried beneath its streets. Asking himself if the old men he sees there were victims or perpetrators of the Gulag, he realizes that the question is meaningless. They were of course both. The story he tells of the Palace of the Soviets is strangely infuriating despite the lack of human suffering: Stalin blew up Moscow’s greatest church to build an insane monument to Communism. Running out of funds, Khrushchev turned the building site into a giant pool. (The church has later been rebuilt.) Despite the Imperium’s diversity and geographic span, Kapuściński does find a “Soviet man” of sorts, in the ability to resign yourself to irrational horrors. As one woman tells him, “We breathe!” Rarely has optimism sounded so depressing.

Both the executioner and the victim

One walks along the streets of Magadan through high-walled corridors dug out in the snow. They are narrow, and when another person is passing one must stop to let him by. Sometimes at such a moment I find myself standing face-to-face with some elderly man. Always, one question comes to my mind: And who were you? The executioner or the victim?

And why am I moved to wander? Why am I unable to look at this man in an ordinary way, without that perverse and intrusive curiosity? For if I could summon up my courage and ask him this question, and if he responded sincerely, I might hear the answer: “You see, you have before you both the executioner and the victim.”

This too was a characteristic of Stalinism – that in many instances it was impossible to distinguish these two roles. First someone, as an interrogating officer, would beat a prisoner, then he himself would be thrown into prison and beaten; after serving his sentence he would get out and take revenge, and so on. It was the world as a closed circle, from which there was only one exit – death. It was a nightmarish game in which everyone lost.

- Ryszard Kapuscinski, Imperium

FORA videos on counterterrorism and the Iraq war

From Laura Donohue talks about counterterrorism and surveillance in the US after September 11. She argues that ‘freedom’ vs ‘security’ is the wrong angle, and that one of the overlooked challenges of counterterrorism is the power it gives to the executive branch.
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Peter Galbraith talks about the Iraq war, the prospects of democracy, and why Iran is the victor of the war:
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Easy to predict the chances

Thus, for example, one hundred thousand Abkhazians want to separate from Georgia and form their own state. It is small wonder. Abkhazia is one of the most beautiful corners of the world, a second Riviera, a second Monaco. Well, the Abkhazians hit upon the same idea that twenty years earlier occured to the inhabitants of that superb and eternally sunny island in the Caribbean called Antigua. The island was a British colony. In the 1970s, the inhabitants of Antigua formed a national liberation party, declared independence, and leased the island to the Hilton Hotel chain. London had to dispatch an armed expedition (four hundred policemen) in order to dissolve the party and annul the contract. So too here, in the Caucasus: the liberated Abkhazians could very well sign an agreement with some Western hotel company and finally begin to live the good life!

But will Georgia give up Abkhazia, it being such a tasty morsel? There are four million Georgians and only one hundred thousand Abkhazians. It is easy to predict the chances.

- Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium

Somebody had earlier stolen his Stalin

One of the NKVD people went from bench to bench distributing the stamps. “Children,” said our teacher with a voice that resembled the sound of hollowed wood, “these are your leaders.” There were nine of these leaders. They were called Andreyev, Voroshilov, Zhdanov, Kaganovich, Kalinin, Mikoyan, Molotov, Khrushchev. The ninth leader was Stalin. The stamp with his portrait was twice as large as the rest. But that was understandable. The gentleman who wrote a book as thick as Voprosy Leninizma (from which we were learning to read) should have a stamp larger than the others.

We wore the stamps attached with a safety pin on the left, in the place where grown-ups wear medals. But soon a problem arose – there was a shortage of stamps. It was ideal, and perhaps even obligatory, to wear all of the leaders at once, with the large Stalin stamp opening, as it were, the collection. That’s what those from the NKVD also recommended: “You must wear them all!” But meantime, it turned out that somebody had Zhdanov but didn’t have Mikoyan, or somebody had two Kaganovichs but didn’t have a Molotov. One day Janek brought in as many as four Khrushchevs, which he exchanged for one Stalin (somebody had earlier stolen his Stalin). The real Croesus among us was Petrus – he had three Stalins. He would take them out of his pocket, display them, boast about them.

- Ryszard Kapuściński, Imperium

The lonesome death of libertarianism

The financial crisis has put me in the position of being both on the winning and the losing side. As a risk-hater I’m a winner. Nobody tells me I’m a fool for renting my apartment any more, which is nice. As someone who likes free trade and free markets, I am apparently a loser. So says pundits. They say libertarianism and “free market fundamentalism” has now been discredited. I’m far enough away from being a libertarian that I have a choice in whether I feel struck by this criticism. I don’t mind public responsibilities and safety nets on principle, I just doubt our ability to do it well. Sometimes we do, and that’s fine with me. My main disagreement with social democrats and socialists is that they’re often economic illiterates, and don’t consider the hidden costs of good intentions. I’m a pragmatic. So there’s a large gulf between me and an objectivist. But I’ll say three words on behalf of the “free market fundamentalists”: 1) They’re not in charge. 2) In a broader sense we’re all free market fundamentalists these days, even the Norwegian left. 3) What applies to the financial world does not necessarily apply to the rest of the economy. This last point goes both ways. That deregulation works in many markets does not mean it works in the financial market, which functions differently. Deregulation is not good in itself, and neither is regulation. Reality doesn’t listen to Theory. So let’s try not to overcompensate.

Fairy vomit is no doubt sweet-smelling to humans

Martin Millar writes like a children’s author, with simple, concise sentences. It would be a nice experiment to give The Good Fairies of New York to kids and see how they react. Do they cry? Hide under a bed and vow never to grow up? It would probably be unethical to try. A group of energetic Scottish fairies (yes, tiny, cute fairies with wings) make their way to New York, where they begin to meddle with people’s lives. There’s an angry slob who watches porn all day, a sad, ill hippie girl, and a homeless lady who thinks she’s Xenophon. Millar jumps from hilarious to sad and back again in mid-paragraph, which is disturbing. Millar’s jokes hurt. He did the same form of farcical melancholia in Lonely Werewolf Girl, which is so similar to The Good Fairies of New York that if you like one you’ll like the other. That one novel is about fairies and the other about werewolves makes less of a difference than you may think. There are perhaps too many similarities, but I can’t really fault Millar for reusing these ideas. Read at least one of them.