Tuesday, October 28, 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.

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

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.

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Saturday, October 25, 2008

SNAFU at eMusic.com

I have a long and troubled relationship with eMusic.com. 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. eMusic.com 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?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

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.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

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


Monday, October 20, 2008

FORA videos on counterterrorism and the Iraq war

From FORA.tv: 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.

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


Sunday, October 19, 2008

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.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

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.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Thrice for any insult made

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is a thick fantasy novel with a world map on the first page. It is the author's first novel, and part one of a yet unpublished trilogy. I ought to hate it. So why do I have the sense that the landscape of fantasy fiction just shifted to make room for a new master? Rothfuss seems to walk into the most overfarmed part of the field with the intention, not to imitate, but to show everyone how to do it right. Out with apocalyptic battles between Good and Evil, out out out with endless braidtugging and plot coupon-chasing Chosen Ones. Tone it all down, down to the most powerful magical incantation of them all: "Once upon a time .." Now, there's a man, and there's a world, and this is the story of his life in that world. It's as simple as that. I could complain about Kvothe's unbelievable awesomeness and more, but the fact is that The Name of the Wind brings back memories from when I first read fantasy, of dreams of setting out on the road in a remote world. It feels like home. It feels like sitting by the feet of a storyteller. Thank you, Patrick. I hereby join the hordes of newly converted Rothfussites, waiting with stupid grins for the next two books.


Did he learn nothing in Hanoi?

From FORA.tv: Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris talk about the less-known backstory of the Abu Ghraib scandal. You need to watch this.

An interview with the satirist and former Republican speech writer Christopher Buckley, (author of the delightful Thank You For Smoking):

Richard Rigby explains what's happening in China:

Robert Reich talks about the financial crisis:

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

So you think you know what's going on

Weekend music selection: Yin; yang; hippies; commies.

Front Line Assembly - Prophecy

Delerium - Terra Firma

Randy Alvey and Green Fuz - Green Fuz

New Model Army - You Weren't There


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Et par debatt-tråder

Nettdebatter er ofte skuffende, fordi folk gir seg i det man har fått gravd seg ned til kjernen av saken, men her er to jeg nylig har hatt glede av:
Kort oppsummert: For det første, mot det andre.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Jujitsu time

In Nixonland, Rick Perlstein tells the story of why American conservatives and liberals hate each other. Europeans who sympathize with Democrats see only half the story: American politics is divided into two mutually antagonistic worldviews. And the form this split takes today was born in the 1960's, when what seemed like a consensus on mainstream liberalism was fractured over race, war, and the counterculture. When this cultural civil war began, Democrats ruled the South and stood firmly behind the war in Vietnam. When the dust had settled, the Democratic party had torn itself apart, and conservative Republicans had risen up on the anger of the white middle class - people who didn't want to be lectured to by establishment elites, and thought of war protesters as spoiled and cowardly traitors. The anger on display here, the hatred between young and old, is shocking. It's not just the big acts of violence, it's the everyday meanness, the sense of desperation, the sense that the other side will destroy the nation. Perlstein is a liberal and it shows, but he's too young to have a personal stake in the 60's, and too honest to make this a morality play. All sides are portrayed in ugly detail, and in some amoral sense Richard Nixon himself comes out of it the most sympathetic. He's a dangerous crook, but he understands the voters, and boldly surfs their new anxieties to the White House. Like Nixon, Nixonland is mean and ugly and sadly relevant, (yes even to Norwegian politics).

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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'd rather use a nuclear bomb

"I still think we ought to take the dikes out now," Nixon offered. "I think - will that drown people?"

"Zhat will drown about two hundred thousand people."

"Oh, well, no, no. I'd rather use a nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?"

"Zhat, I think, would be too much. Too much."

"The nuclear bomb. Does that bother you? I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ's sakes!"

Kissinger paused, taken aback. He collected himself, eventually responding with the one thing he knew would talk the president down from his flight of fantasy: "I think we're going to make it." Until Election Day, he probably meant; Saigon would hold on at least until then.
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland

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A monument to curiosity

Steven LeVine talks about the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist.

Philip Pan talks about freedom and repression in China.

Frank Wilczek explains the Large Hadron Collider. And there's a silly LHC rap. Physics nerds are so awesome.

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Monday, October 6, 2008

Whose America was but a memory

"Anyone who appears on the streets of a city like Kent with long hair, dirty clothes, or barefooted deserves to be shot," a Kent resident told a researcher.

"Do I have your permission to quote that?"

"You sure do. It would have been better if the Guard had shot the whole lot of them that morning."

"But you had three sons there."

"If they didn't do what the Guards told them, they should have been mowed down."

A letter to Life later that summer read, "It was a valuable object lesson to homegrown advocates of anarchy and revolution, regardless of age."

Time had called the Silent Majority "not so much shrill as perplexed," possessed of "a civics-book sense of decency." Pity poor Time, whose America was but a memory.
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland
At Northwestern, students carried a flag upside down, the symbol for distress. "A hefty man in work clothes," according to Time, tried to grab it, saying, "That's my flag! I fought for it! You have no right to it!" The kids started arguing. "There are millions of people like me," he responded. "We're fed up with your movement. You're forcing us into it. We'll have to kill you. All I can see is a lot of kids blowing a chance I never had."
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Death from overwork

Jesse Venbrux makes strange little computer games and gives them away for free. Go have fun:
  • Karoshi - Where the object on each level is to find a way to kill yourself.
  • Mubbly Tower - Where you construct a tower and must keep it standing while defending against shiny happy enemies with your own shiny happy defenders.
  • Execution - Where you execute a prisoner. Yes.
  • Paperblast - A shooter where you don't control the shooting.
And much more.


Through the looking glass with Richard Nixon

"The president dictated eight memos outlining a public relations push-back. It was part of the foreign policy game. De-escalation was contingent on [North Vietnam] believing Nixon would escalate; which was contingent upon keeping presidential approval ratings high; which was contingent on the appearance of de-escalation. As one of the big syndicated columnists, Roscoe Drummond, observed, only grasping one-tenth of the complexity, unless Vietnam looked to be winding down, 'popular opinion will roll over him as it did LBJ.' At which Nixon thundered upon his printed news summary, 'E&K - Tell him that RN is less affected by press criticism and opinion than any Pres in recent memory.' Because he was the president most affected by press criticism and opinion of any president in recent memory. Which if known would make him look weak. And any escalatory bluff would be impossible. Which would keep him from credibility as a de-escalator; which would block his credibility as an escalator; which would stymie his ability to de-escalate; and then he couldn't 'win' Vietnam - which in his heart he didn't believe was possible anyway.

Through the looking glass with Richard Nixon: this stuff was better than LSD."
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland

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Saturday, October 4, 2008

Their new unpopularity

"[NBC producer Lew Koch] was inordinately proud of what they'd produced - 1968's version of Bull Connor's fire hoses: glorious moral theater, naked evil being visited upon innocents. He repaired to NBC headquarters at the Merchandise Mart after that first broadcast filled with self-satisfaction. A sympathizer with the antiwar movement, he thought he had advanced their cause considerably. The assignment editor asked him to help with the phones; the switchboard was overwhelmed.

The first call: 'I saw those cops beating the kids - right on for the cops!'

Another: 'You fucking commies!' He was referring to NBC - as if they had instigated the riots.

The calls kept coming, dozens. They came to all the networks, for days upon days. Some people saw noble cops innocently defending themselves. Others accused the networks of hiring cops to beat up kids to spice up the show. Lew Koch was so shaken by the experience, he left for a soul-searching six-month leave of absence."
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland
"Godfrey Hodgson wrote of the media about-face: 'They had been united, as rarely before, by their anger at Mayor Daley. Now they learned that the great majority of Americans sided with Daley, and against them. It was not only the humiliation of discovering that they had been wrong; there was also alarm at the discovery of their new unpopularity. Bosses and cops, everyone knew, were hated; it seemed that newspapers and television were hated even more.'"
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland

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Today's evening news replacement

New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins talks about his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq:

Jacob Weisberg talks about the life and character of George W. Bush:

OMG!!1! Two hours of talking! Brain hurts .. must .. find .. funny .. cat .. picture. Aaaah:

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I scratch but you don't itch

This weekend's music selection, a varied mix: Nobodys by name and reputation; angry people in a ruined factory (wouldn't you be?); medieval queens were probably not great singers; and no that isn't Ricky Gervais.

Nobodys - I Scratch

Front Line Assembly - Millenium

Faun - Königin

VNV Nation - Legion


Friday, October 3, 2008

Two-thirds of Chicago cops called themselves racists

"Chicago cops had been angry for years. In 1960, after a corruption scandal, they had inherited a new police superintendent, Orlando W. Wilson, who was a college professor, one of the founders of the academic discipline of criminal justice. They saw him as an ivory-tower puritan, obsessed with showing arrests for the kind of 'victimless' crimes - drinking, whoring, gambling - by which cops from time immemorial had padded their weekly pay envelopes by looking the other way. [..] They hated him for his policy of replacing retiring white commanders with Negroes (40 percent of new sergeants were black his first year); in one survey, two-thirds of Chicago cops called themselves racists. These cops hated him most especially for holding them back from busting 'civil rights' troublemakers. During the riots in 1966, ten thousand officers working twelve-hour patrols felt as if they were hardly allowed to arrest anyone. Sixty-four quit that June alone, thirty-seven before they were eligible for pensions.

Wilson quit in 1967. His successor continued his policies. One of his first acts had been to shut down a Ku Klux Klan cell operating within the force, with its own arsenal of firearms and hand grenades."
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland
"The pundits said [Robert] Kennedy was a uniter. The facts showed he was a divider. But to an Establishment hungry beyond measure for signs of consensus, the myth answered a psychic need. Moderates can be seized by ideological fever dreams as much as extremists; it has always been thus."
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland

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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Well, somebody's going to get hurt

"On Januar 31, 1967, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, flanked by eight security guards, briefed some one hundred student-government presidents and campus-newspaper editors who had signed a letter questioning the war: football players, fraternity presidents, mainstream kids, stunned into silence by the obvious lies their secretary of state expected them to believe.

A kid from Michigan State: 'Mr. Secretary, what happens if we continue the policy you've outlined ... this continued gradual escalation until the other side capitulates ... up to and including nuclear war, and the other side doesn't capitulate?'

Rusk leaned back, hissed forth a stream of tobacco smoke, and solemnly replied, 'Well, somebody's going to get hurt.'

Here, before their eyes, was the maniacal air force general Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. The room drew silent, their thoughts as one: My God, the secretary of state is crazy.

The madness was not hard to spot, if you chose to spot it. The problem was facing the wrath of all those decent Americans who didn't want to face that their government was mad."
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland
"Hangers-on urged [George] Romney to run in the open to build his national following and prove his grasp of the issues. His statehouse aides cringed: they knew the last thing that would help their boss was to rehearse in public. He was too damned forthright, too earnest - especially about Vietnam. He grappled with it honestly. Which would make what he said sound absurd, since everyone else was in denial or lying."
- Rick Perlstein, Nixonland

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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

How I failed in business and in life

"Go to a bookstore, and look at the business shelves: you will find plenty of books telling you how to make your first million, or your first quarter-billion, etc. You will not be likely to find a book on "how I failed in business and in life"—though the second type of advice is vastly more informational, and typically less charlatanic. Indeed, the only popular such finance book I found that was not quacky in nature—on how someone lost his fortune—was both self-published and out of print. Even in academia, there is little room for promotion by publishing negative results—though these are vastly more informational and less marred with statistical biases of the kind we call data snooping. So all I am saying is, "What is it that we don't know", and my advice is what to avoid, no more."
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
"I tell people don't get your representation of the news from television, because it hits you in a part of your brain, and the way it hits you is much more the story than if you'd read it. And if you read it, it's much more distorting if you read words than if you're reading statistics."
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb