28.4.11

"In general, men judge more by sight than by touch. Everyone sees what is happening, but not everyone feels the consequences. Everyone sees what you seem to be; few have direct experience of who you really are. Those few will not dare speak out in the face of public opinion when that opinion is reinforced by the authority of the state." - Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince

26.4.11

Chew

The hook for this little comic is that Agent Chu gets a psychic read from the stuff he eats, helping him solve impossible cases. This in an environment where poultry has been made illegal following a massive bird flu epidemic. Crazy stuff, but it's used very intelligently: as satire on prohibition and food production. What really sticks, however, is the comment on cop-work: 'It's a sad fact, an awful truth. Sometimes, in the course of this job, you're going to eat terrible things, all in the name of justice'. The speech is by Mason, Chu's partner (a cross between Orson Welles and a grizzly bear, according to the creators). While Chu's so straight he'll throw his own brother in the can for smuggling chicken, Mason is an ends justify the means kinda guy. The two are set on a collision course at the end of the first book.

If there's something missing, John Layman (who scripts the series) calls it out: Tony Chu really is a humourless protagonist. And although Rob Guillory (the artist) makes Mason jump off the page every single time he appears on it, there is something a little generically eccentric about the character. As for the pathetic romance, it isn't upped by japery, so just stays pathetic. You're expecting Casanova levels of rapid-fire odd-ball chicanery, but it's actually rather grounded. There's clever storytelling here, but for me it lacks that gut-punch factor.

25.4.11

Siege: Avengers tie-ins

I slammed Bendis pretty hard up there, didn't I? Slightly less dismissive now that I've read the Siege tie-ins he penned, where you find all the character / drama that makes the punching in the main book explicable. There's lovely moments between Luke and Jessica (although some of the dialogue and speechifying meanders a bit) and the Hood and Madame Masque. Over on Dark Avengers, we finally deal with Osborn and the Sentry properly, and there's a genuinely disturbing sequence with Bullseye that reminds you of just how great Bendis's Daredevil was.

Now I'm just annoyed at how this cross-over was organised. No unifying theme behind it (at least Secret Invasion riffed on the 'war on terror'), just an EVENT you can hang lots of different story threads on. Well I'm sorry, but that's not good enough. The Marvel U may be a vibrant community, but the desire to see it all in one place isn't as pressing as the desire for good storytelling. With Siege, all of Bendis's talent was in the background books. The answer is obvious: bring that background to the fore.

20.4.11

Aetheric Mechanics

Sherlock Holmes gone steampunk, I thought, although Warren Ellis is gracious enough to provide his own genealogy, which also includes The Prisoner of Zenda and Japanese anime. You've got to use yr deductive skills on this one. The language, it being an alternate world story, is unfamiliar, and I had to read some exchanges several times before I could piece together what was going on. The only time it bugged me was the hour-long gap between two panels, signaled by the appearance of tea and an ellipsis at the beginning of Sax Raker's dialogue. It took about five seconds for me to realize that the conversation between those panels had shifted. This either means that the effect doesn't quite work, or that I am stupid.

In any case, as with all good speculative fiction, the world starts to feel more comfortable as you spend more time in it. Particularly liked how ur encouraged to look for clues with a page of silent panels examining a dead body. Like Dr. Watcham, ur trying to second-guess the brilliant detective working in front of you. (I got none of the clues right btw.) On a related note, some of the blocking is inspired. Particularly admire the three-panel zoom thru the motor car window from Watcham to Raker. Also the page of over-the-shoulders that lead to the p.o.v. half-page spread of Raker's study. Very lovely. The artist is someone called Gianluca Pagliarani. He has a very clean unfussy style, and the detail of his crowd-scenes, ships and laboratories is impressive.

I'm no scientist, but the science here is very funky: quantum strings fired thru laptops full of old movies into the brain of Albert Einstein reconfigures reality. Or something along those lines. There's talk of 'haunted meat' -- fiction reshaping fact, characters becoming real people. But the real interest lies in the dynamic between Watcham, Raker and Inanna. Watcham is scarred by his tour of duty, but will live to see his friend taking that experience seriously -- applying his intellect not just to solving crime in London but to international politics and war. Raker makes the choice Veidt refuses to make in Watchmen, putting the personal first, and then trying to salvage what is left of the world. It's a crazy resolution, but an inspiring one as well.

Another Apparat cracker, in other words...
'This avidity alone, of acquiring goods and possessions for ourselves and our nearest friends, is insatiable, perpetual, universal, and directly destructive of society. There scarce is any one, who is not actuated by it; and there is no one, who has not reason to fear from it, when it acts without any restraint, and gives way to its first and most natural movements.' - David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature

17.4.11

The God Delusion

More notes for later pondering. I'm not all that interested in Dawkins going thru all the metaphysical arguments for why God doesn't make sense, since logically watertight philosophy obv isn't what motivates belief. Some years ago I wrote an embarrassing post abt my own history with religion, which criticized Dawkins on this point. Turns out my comments were unfair, he does talk about the origin of religion and morality. And since my interest in Hume and Smith revolves around these areas, I wanna note what he says on the subject.

I've also gotten to understand and like the guy a bit more, although I think the four-page analysis of the hate-mail he receives is still indicative of a certain narcissism. Says the kid with the blog, right? Pots and kettles and whatnot... Notes follow:

Religion consumes resources in activities that do not directly ensure the survival of yr genes, so what in Darwin's name is goin on? Little evidence that it helps with stress-related disease, although the placebo effect might suggest it's a factor. Then again, religion can often cause stress...

Instead, Dawkin's favours the idea that religion is a by-product of other useful psychological predispositions. One such predisposition is for children to unquestionably accept the advice of their elders (one does wonder how much experience Dawkins has with disciplining children...). Thus beliefs are easily transmitted from generation to generation, but this doesn't explain where these superstitions come from.

For this Dawkins goes deeper into evolutionary psychology, refering to the research of Paul Bloom, who argues that children instinctively form dualistic ideas about mind and matter, and that they assign purposes to everything, making them hardwired for belief in souls and a Creator. But how is this useful for survival?

Well, predicting the behaviour of the world around us (e.g. of predators or potential mates) is very useful for survival. Here Dawkins turns to Daniel Dennet: establishing physical laws is time-consuming, so humans cut through the process by assuming there's a design or purpose to the things we encounter (e.g. we don't need to understand physics to identify what a torch or a gun does). A further short-cut (when situations are really time-sensitive), is to assume that such purposes are intended by agents (e.g. this lion wants to eat me). This intentional stance may be where the instinctual dualism comes in, and why we postulate weather gods and so on (tho such imaginings are not esp time-sensitive...).

There are other by-product explanations, and Dawkins lists a bunch of people with them (seems like almost any disposition can 'misfire' and form gods -- this vagueness is rather annoying). One he likes enough to explore is the propensity to fall in love (and so stick with a partner in raising children) redirected towards loving God in a sexy Teresa of Avila way. More interesting is the idea of constructive irrationality: it being advantageous to hold strong convictions and persist with beliefs rather than vacillate and never get shit done. Dawkins mentions self-deception and wishful thinking in relation to this, but doesn't explore either in the kind of detail they deserve.

The main point is that religions are by-products of useful dispositions, consisting of local arbitrary elements, and also elements that appeal to some fundamental psychological uniformity in humans. This is illustrated by a very long discussion of memes. (The whole ideas-genes analogy has always struck me as an incredibly long-winded way to explain something pretty straightforward, so I'm movin on).

On to the Darwinian origins of morality. Natural selection very easily explains hunger, fear and lust, but what about altruism? Genes can code behaviour that encourages the survival of the same genes in other bodies i.e. kin. Also, reciprocity as explored in game theory: the most stable option is to give the benefit of the doubt, repay good deeds and punish bad ones. Reputation for generosity spins off from this, as does conspicuous consumption -- advertising yr superiority by demonstrating yr ability to preserve others).

Life in villages, or as roving bands of baboon-like animals, is ideal for the evolution of such dispositions (xenophobic grouping as well). But these are general rules which misfire, even more so in modern society: our pity instinct directed at strangers unable to reciprocate is one such 'precious' Darwinian mistake.

There are moral universals coded into our natures which we cannot easily justify with reason, a moral sense or grammar, revealed by questionnaires posing moral dilemmas. Kant's injunction to not use rational beings as means to an end (even a useful one) without their consent seems to be one such principle (tho what the evolutionary explanation for it is not explored).

The idea that we need divine reward and punishment to be good is dismissed, but the (more interesting) existentialist challenge: how to determine morality without religious absolutes, is fudged: Dawkins leaves that to the moral philosophers, tho I suspect he sympathizes with consequentialists rather than absolutists or deontologists.

If part of moral behaviour is genetically determined, the rest is all about zeitgeist. Dawkins claims there is a 'somewhat mysterious' broad liberal consensus on ethical principles (basically the equality of races and sexes), which moves in a consistent positive direction. Dawkins admits he's practicing amateur sociology here, but points to the influence of leaders such as Martin Luther King and improved (secular) education as possible drivers of this zeitgeist. Biology and evolution is especially important for Dawkins here because it removes the grounds for prejudice and partiality, which he identifies strongly with religion (but also, according to his theory, with genetically encoded dispositions). As for where the zeitgeist goes next, Dawkins refers to Peter Singer's Animal Liberation and a move to a post-speciesist condition. A nice note to end on.

15.4.11

Girl Unit / FaltyDL / N-Type / Untold

In that order, I believe, over @ FWD last night. Interesting how the line-up doesn't line up in order of profile. I mean, who is N-Type again? He mostly span halfstep wobblers, which you know, fine, if you like that sort of thing. For me, the vibes came and went. Not so with Untold. Solid hour of bobbing and weaving thru his clatter. Interesting that he didn't try to wrong-foot people with the more dance-unfriendly tunes he's capable of. But he was rounding off the night, and perhaps he didn't want to make things difficult. In my semi-intoxicated state, everything sounded like 'No One Likes A Smart-Arse' from the EP. Perhaps he has embraced that sentiment.

But the real draws were Girl Unit and FaltyDL. I arrived midway thru the former's set. He was doing his glowing cavernous southern hip-hop thang, tho he found room for Pearson's 'Deep Inside' refix in there. The floor was still too empty for it to really have an impact. He ended on his own swooshing version of Ciara's 'Ride'. The dubsteppers seem to love that tune, as did I. Apart from those peaks, the emphasis was on laying down spaceous swaying music. I swayed. 'Twas good.

Falty's turn on the decks was a bit disappointing for me. He started off (I think) with the breezy riff at the beginning of 'Gospel of Opal', but then instead of Anneka's beautiful vocal, we got some beach party chanting. I thought he would just stick to his muffled 2step beats and pour on all kinds of washes and pulses and vox on top, but instead he went everywhere. Perhaps he thought he needed to lead into N-Type's more rugged sound, or just fit the pumping dance-floor formula, but I missed the skittish rhythms and the soulfulness he's capable of.

9.4.11

Source Code

Duncan Jones trades 2001 for Philip K. Dick, and it's a good call. Can't get away from that hour-long tv-special vibe, but it doesn't feel ponderous here. I think this is down to the actors having simple but compelling little narratives to run thru. Monaghan gets very thin material, but her charm saves the character. Farmiga is superb as the dispassionate C.O. trying to keep a level head. Watching her move from callous annoyance to empathy and heroism is a treat. Wright is a mass of manic ticks, but he does a lot better than the standard creepy bad guy (one of the weakest parts of the film - what is his motivation again??). And Gyllenhall. There's one breakdown scene he fumbles, where I just couldn't believe him the way I could believe Sam Rockwell. But everything else he does better: the flirting, the confusion, the very moving phone-call to his estranged father, and I swear he is the grand master of the fatalistic long-stare.

Jones's throws in some impressive visual trickery. It doesn't dazzle like the world-bending in Inception, but keep things 'warped sci-fi' in what would otherwise be a pretty straight-looking thriller. The smooth tracking shots thru gratings come as standard, but there is an awesome leap from a moving train, and a pretty cool still close-up where the dungeon background reconfigures itself. And Jones, incredibly, finds original ways to film slow-mo explosions. The film begins by smashing together verticals and horizontals, which creates an effect that is a bit too abstract for me to understand. Regardless, there is invention and playfulness here, subtle but delightful.

Yet still has that tv-movie vibe? Why is that? Femes, innit. There's a joke about going to India to find yrself, but really it's hanging a lantern on some very corny corn. Gyllenhall's reconcilement with his father is little better, although he handles the scene really well. MUCH better is Gyllenhall's relationship with the two women in the film, one being inspired to defy her tyrannous employers, the other finding universes of experience in little eight minute bursts. This last idea is really let down by the way Jones chooses to end his film. Partly I was peeved because I couldn't understand the quantum (Aitch had to explain it to me very slowly). But I also felt that the glorious freeze-framed final kiss would have been a great way to end the thing - you didn't need an afterlife, a final twist in the narrative. Black Swan > Inception. I want films to build to crescendos, not pull the rug from underneath at the last moment. This is why Source Code isn't going down as a fave, despite all the learnin Jones has done since his debut feature. Next one will hit the mark, hopefully.

(On an admin note, and for whoever's listening, there's not gna be an awful lot of posts this month, for I've got essays to write in the real world. Hopefully the Pages will get livelier in May. Looking fwd to that a WHOLE bunch)

1.4.11

Ethics in an age of self-interest

The sub-title of How Are We To Live?, a self-help manual (basically) by Peter Singer. I had Singer pegged as a straight Benthamite, so the existential bent of the book (the title is significant, if a bit ungainly) was a surprise. Don't really have time to do more than summerize for future pondering, unfortunately. Pretty convinced on the whole, tho more pessimistic abt the last part. Notes follow:

Genetic explanations for altruism towards yr family (they share yr genes to some extent). Also, more broadly, anyone you can establish stable reciprocal relationships with: since these structures help survival. Thru an experiment with "prisoner's dilemma" games, some basic rules for exchanges are laid down. Always be ready to co-operate, stop co-operating if the contract is broken (no turning the other cheek here), forgive if guilty parties show clear signs of wanting to co-operate again, don't let envy stop you co-operating. Most systems of justice, in most societies, follow this pattern. So in many areas, our natural inclinations point in an ethical direction (Singer pretty much defines ethics as the opposite of self-interest).

So far, so very David Hume. The problem is that all this co-operative behaviour is essentially local. We're not helping those who are not helping us. Singer needs a way to enlarge the circle of sympathy. Ethics is about going beyond self-interest.

The religious answer is dismissed: encouraging an ethical life thru fear of hell is nasty, and with the decline of religion, unworkable. Kant's categorical imperative alternative (no rewards, just duty) is junked for driving an unnecessary line between ethics and self-interest (the amiable Humean position set out above). Closing off morality in this way means you are not able to justify it to those who do not accept the rules you lay down. (Howev, see below...)

Hume (and genetics) could also be used to counter the existentialist response to the decline of religion (that there is no morality, so all our choices are arbitrary). But Hume's benevolence is still local, and questioned by Bentham's more pessimistic utilitarianism: self-interest (pleasure and pain) governs behaviour, and to resolve the conflicts between individual and social pleasure maximization, you need the law.

Singer then swivels to talk about how to make life meaningful, setting out the existentialist solution of generating yr own project, and work towards it, regardless of what it is. Singer sanctions this plan, but wants to be able to evaluate the choice. Some projects are more worthy than others. Obsessive emulation and psychiatric inwardness both come under fire for being ineffective at providing fulfillment. Surprise, surprise, the best projects are the ethical ones, because they are the easiest to justify.

What are the criteria for evaluating the merits of life projects? This is where Singer's Benthamism shows up: reducing evident pain and suffering. From the P.O.V. of the universe, yr pleasure is no more important than any other being's pleasure, no matter how 'other' they are (animals therefore qualify). Singer brings up Marx as an example of an ill-conceived project along these lines, but says these mistakes shouldn't deter us.

But, that pesky Hume problem: this lovely citizen-of-the-world stuff doesn't square with our genetic wiring. Singer has to concede this point. Kant is right in some respect: reason suggests an ethic that conflicts with our interests. We can observe that there are other beings who experience pleasures, and that (from the P.O.V. of the universe) pleasures are equally privileged, so the fact that we care for certain people's pleasures more than others is contradictory. And with the rise of global communications, the contradiction becomes ever more evident.

John Stuart Mill muscles in at the very last moment to raise the quality of pleasure question. Yeah ok, absence of physical pain might not be the only value we value, but it is the most immediate and universally agreed upon. Pain always puts higher pleasures (like beauty, autonomy etc.) on the back-burner.

Singer admits that a life of absolute impartiality is both impossible and undesirable. He just wants to modify our vision a little, make us aware of the broader picture: poverty, animal cruelty, the environment. I think he also wants to square this with self-interest. Commitment to a good cause can provide that life project we psychotherapy-addicted consumerists all seem to want.