Thursday, November 14, 2013
I've been rereading this masterpiece by one Joseph Conrad and as one is want to do while reading exceptional literature have reflected on it. Heart of Darkness is extremely influential in all forms of media, the dichotomous representation of the Congo vs the Thames, the deterioration as one nears the farthest reaches away from civilization, and the awe inspiring presence of an exceptional man in an exceptional place. Kurtz, or perhaps simply the descriptions provided by Marlowe discussing Kurtz, is one of the greatest characters in literature. Unlike say Iago from Shakespeare's Othello, Kurtz is much more well founded let's say, a man of rarity but not impossibility. Iago has total, even supernatural control of men's fates in Othello, but Kurtz is limited and even waylaid by misfortune despite his incredible capabilities.
It is impossible to say who Conrad was describing in this, a person he knew, himself, or some one he believed was pertinent to society? There are many great leaders throughout history and they all have that sort of insatiable charisma that Kurtz had, the ability to inspire even senseless devotion even in a situation where society is no longer extant in any modern sense. Hitler, Napoleon, Alexander (who also died of illness), each of these men and more are reflected in Kurtz.
While self deification is a questionable practice there can be no doubt that one finds Kurtz to be the loftiest of individuals. He doesn't have any grand possessions, he simply has the capacity to inspire people through his personality and his fearlessness; if one wishes to become an exceptional leader one need only follow the example of Kurtz. Perhaps you will not be so unfortunate as to catch debilitating sicknesses along the way.
A most interesting facet of Kurtz is that he does not possess anything save for power, and modern representations of "great" men in American society certainly have wealth but they do not have real, impressive power. Indeed, Wealth is something that people covet, they lust for, they yearn after. Power is something that people fear, they stray from, they quiver in the face of. Power is elusive in American society because everything is a nonsensical mesh of mysteriousness, who can say what organization wields actual power and what solitary figure controls those machinations. There is no such figure, there is no potential for such a figure, no need for a great leader at any point save when society begins to break down at which point one might arise for a brief period. Even in other countries this is a frequent occurrence. So what then do great men do when there is no viable use for their existence? Only to wait and hope I think, to wait and hope.
Aside: I found this article to be interesting, though the point is an obvious and unnecessary one the writer still conveys the necessary deference to Conrad prior to disparaging him.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
I've been playing ACIV lately which has just stupendous singleplayer but the multiplayer is a little screwy at present, that said the maps are fairly decent and I posted a large review of them on their feedback thread here if you're interested (I'll see if I can get it modified so it doesn't look like crap on the blog).
Thursday, October 24, 2013
The Counselor is written by Cormac McCarthy, he of the Pulitzer Prize winning The Road and Best Picture winning No Country For Old Men. It is directed by Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator and Alien. Suffice to say expectations for this film are quite high, and I guess the question is are you prepared for what the film has to offer? This film doesn't follow the traditional narrative structure or even really a 3 act structure; it just kind of goes. Personally I have no issue with this, the story is fine, the dialogue is transcendent as one might expect from the greatest living author; and if you can get behind randomly philosophical scenes and characters you can certainly get behind this movie.
The film also doesn't have a dominant character, we have a titular protagonist played quite well by Fassbender but he's only in say 30-35% of the movie. This is not uncommon for Mr. Cormac, given that Llewelyn Moss is only in 40-45% of No Country For Old Men. However the "villain" isn't really clear cut, most of the scenes occur with no direct narrative explanation. The film does not have exposition pretty much, it has foreshadowing to be sure but it is somewhat misleading foreshadowing. So if you're wondering why it has a 32% on Rotten Tomatoes, that's why.
This is a great movie, mainly because of the dialogue; but there's also some excellent art direction and cinematography; the whole film is well acted. But it isn't traditional in any way, there is no redemptive nature to the plot, it doesn't follow a standard tragic arc. If it was a book it would likely be rejected for 50-100 years and then widely read and accepted, such is the nature of the proceedings. This could still happen given the ridiculously high caliber of the writer and the ridiculously low caliber of modern literature; I'll certainly watch it several more times just to listen to the dialogue again.
I'd be careful if you love this movie and want to call everyone else stupid, let's say they're just used to the standards of cinematic process, and if something does it differently they are unwilling to accept it until the overwhelming majority reaches consensus. Note I'm not saying this film is for "Hipsters" or people that like Fight Club or whatever, actually Fight Club is downright standard compared to this film in terms of design. It is a difficult movie to reconcile or rather there is no specific reconciliation. One of the characters has a conversation via phone with Fassbender and he basically explains that you should prepare yourself for every eventuality mentally, and that this is a difficult thing to do. In much the same way Hollywood and Cinema should prepare themselves for the reality that various things up to and including the 3 act structure aren't necessarily the only or "best" way to tell a story.
Edit: I should note that the film features very little on screen violence against women despite tremendous opportunity to do so and thorough implications of such activities. This is very uncommon in modern films/media as there is always some sort of dehumanization or just straight up violence toward women; it is good to see a film that isn't opaquely misogynistic.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
This was a book I voluntarily read in 7th grade I believe, so over 12 years ago or "half a lifetime ago" as one might poetically say. I recently wrote an email in response to the question "What would aliens do to us?" and it follows:
"A classic question no doubt. The assumption is that if Aliens took all the time to travel here to find us primitives they'd either enslave us or destroy us. Eating us is sort of a mixture of those; maybe we'd be kept in pastures and work as slaves until someone wanted to eat some good ol' human pizza. Coexist doesn't really make sense unless we were already space-faring. There is some slight hope that these Aliens are religious folk or just conveniently alienane (as opposed to humane) like the Federation in Star Trek. For a race to be space faring there has to be total control of public opinion; there might be slight power struggles on the power council or what have you but in gneeral a race would act as a cohesive whole, there can be no time for public dissent if half of your resources are spent off world. Colonies might rise up occasionally but the actual core planet(s) is probably invincible to derision. Since there's no public opinion a lot of the weird sensational media type things that go on at present in our world simply don't exist. Soldiers die because that's what soldiers do as a point of fact, tears may be shed by close family members but there isn't any weird sense of "bring our boys home" and all that gibberish. Thus, the Aliens probably wouldn't care if they commit various genocides on new races or enslave them or make them subservient, unless we had some sort of technological rivalry with the invaders.
This book was all about an alien takeover of Earth, essentially 1 warrior from the opposing side was completely unharmable even by our nuclear weapons and thus all they had to do was have a few soldiers across the entire planet to keep us subservient. They basically manipulated our entire way of life so that we would live to support the aliens. They commit to no grand atrocities in this and are relatively alienane/humane with regards to the servants, but we are basically stripped of all power in the process. The book is almost entirely philosophical I suppose; it's all about talking your way out of the problem, convincing the "Aalag" overseers that the planet isn't worth the trouble because they'll eventually rise up MLK Jr. style. It's sort of a weird cris-cross of USSR criticism combined with the pacifist resistance of the civil rights era. At the time when I read it I still enjoyed reading shitty Sci Fi so reading something vaguely high-brow was a bit odd but still interesting. For instance the main character of the book is a talented linguist and he keeps that trait from birth. Young children learn languages at an extremely fast rate and apparently some small percentage of people are still able to learn at that rate for their entire lives; the protagonist is simply one of those. This is an interesting thing, I'd definitely seek out one of these people were I in a position of power just for their overall usefulness in regard to communication. Because of his capacities as a linguist the leader is able to serve the aliense well and work from the inside out to gradually lead a peaceful revolution. This book doesn't have the brow-beating absurdly pro capitalist notions of something like The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged so I don't find it despicable. Even if it was anti-communist/socialist I still found it generally interesting.
In terms of "Humane-ness" something like socialism can not be argued against; equal income for all people leads to equality in every other area over time. It is simply a matter of not having incompetent leaders like Stalin destroy the system before that happens. Now it can be suggested that Socialism is too idealistic, it's too impossible to actually implement. However this argument doesn't stipulate an alternative that functions better. Essentially something like socialism is what all governments should strive to achieve as long as there are governments. If there were no governments and the world was literally pure capitalism wherein everyone murdered each other than so be it. But to simultaneously try to regulate society while still collecting wealth in the hands of a few you're creating an inherently unstable system which is in the process of collapsing. If you look at China's system they have total control of public opinion and even a massive event that happened shortly after the writing of the aforementioned novel (1987, Tian an Men square was 1989) that says pretty plainly "Don't fuck with us." Since China already has ethnic homogeneity they much more receptive to the idea of equal subservience to a government and don't have to deal with various dissenting parties. While uniculture is a frightening thing and I personally would much rather live in a diverse society it still gradually leads to the great empowerment of whichever large society has it. This combined with the absolutely atrocious handling of the United States' economy and foreign policy since WW2 has led to our gradual decay and the utterly unstoppable rise of China. The assumption is that China too will eventually decay and that seems somewhat likely; however our stay of power at the top was merely 75-90 years which is one of the shortest reigns in history as the pre-eminent world power. Even the Golden Horde's swift decline after Genghis and Kublai Khan still led to mongol control of much of Europe and the Middle East for centuries. At best we'll have movies and professional sports as our legacy; there have been no great military commanders or public leaders other than Martin Luther King and a handful of others who didn't have de jure power. Nothing really to remember us by except incompetence."
I would like to point out my random inclusion of a vaguely political topic at the end whilst only having some small amount to do with the book is not intended to be seen as political in any regard. It is simply a set of observations about what will happen over the next 20-25 years and how America will be seen in the history books, barring some miraculous reversal of fortunes and methodologies.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
The popular historical narrative and understanding of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt is as follows: Napoleon arrives in Egypt, wins the Battle of the Pyramids due to technological and inherent tactical formation superiority. Nelson annihilates his fleet at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon is from then on cut off from France. Bonaparte chills for a while and eventually finds the Rosetta stone spurring the massive resurgence of Egyptology (which directly caused the creation of the Stargate fiction, an achievement only attributable to Napoleon himself). Napoleon abandons his army and returns to Europe to much fanfare, forms the consulate and becomes essentially a dictator until his coronation as Emperor Napoleon I.
This leaves out quite a lot about the expedition, its original purpose and a whole lot of "what could have beens," however the key to Napoleon's "defeat" in Egypt is still the Battle of the Nile. Strathern seems to ignore this for the most part, alotting a brief section to that battle and a very short discussion of Nelson. The author treats both Napoleon and Nelson with some degree of disdain; Napoleon in 1798-1800 may not have been nominally the greatest commander in European history yet but he was still Napoleon so there has to be some discussion of his tactical merits and efficiencies. Instead Strathern focuses on just incredibly irrelevant things like his love life; this isn't a biography and Egypt wasn't a campaign of indiscretion as opposed to a military venture.
Nelson is hardly discussed outside of the chapters concerning the Battle of the Nile and there is absolutely no doubt that Nelson is the finest Naval commander in the history of the planet so this is again very bizarre. A step by step comparison of Nelson's practicality and efficiency compared with Napoleon's brilliance and sense of destiny could easily have been done but none such exists in this work. There is no single person more decisive in the failure of the Egyptian campaign than Horatio Nelson and he is barely discussed in this book; I can't really expand on how utterly foolish this is except to just point that out.
Every praise of Napoleon is limited to one or two sentences such as "Napoleon once again demonstrated his supreme caliber, both as a man and as a military leader" (p. 392) , it's anyone's guess what skill at being a man entails and telling us that Napoleon was a great general doesn't exactly inform the reader of anything he wasn't already aware of. Indeed the title of the book is such as to draw attention to Napoleon whereas the contents do essentially nothing but detract from him; his various victories during the Egyptian campaign are given short discussions with very little focus on the tactical merits of each conflict and essentially no elaboration on the composition and tactics of the opponent outside of the Battle of the Pyramids. I, with very little knowledge of this component of Napoleon's life, could easily assert various things in narrative fashion with regard to Napoleon's various victories over the Turkish and Mameluke forces and the tactical merits therein; and since this book is basically nothing but vague narrative assertions I fail to see how the author couldn't manage to produce anything of that sort.
Now, perhaps the most interesting and most celebrated parts of the Egyptian campaign are the exploits of the various savants brought along for the expedition; and indeed Strathern discusses these elements reasonably well. His background as a philosophy (a field for which I have the utmost respect) professor undoubtedly aids his portrayals of these various individuals and they're all pretty interesting to read about. The problem is this only entails about 20% of the book or so; so we've got maybe 10% of the book discussing Napoleon as a commander, 5% discussing Nelson, and 20% discussing the scientific merits of the campaign; what are we left with?
Strathern focuses uncannily on extremely minor players in this whole affair; a completely unheard of and indeed predominantly irrelevant classmate of Napoleon's is discussed at some length. This guy alongside Kleber and various other military figures are discussed at some length and given direct parallels to Napoleon (with only Nelson deserving any such comparison). While both Kleber and Desaix deserve at least a chapter to discuss their merits basically every one else the author focuses on is basically meaningless. The author's intense focus on Sir Sidney Smith upstages any discussion of Nelson; but Smith doesn't actually do anything decisive over the course of the campaign. The siege of Acre fails, however Napoleon's roughly 10,000 strong force at that point would have been unable to do anything particularly aggressive in either the direction of Istanbul or India; he was under provisioned and simply undermanned for any such expedition; thanks in large part to the Battle of the Nile's destruction of his fleet. If anything taking Acre would merely have prolonged Napoleon's stay in the Orient and thus lessened his impact in France; effectively Sir Sidney's tactical (but in no way decisive) victory partially led to France's domination of Europe for 14 years.
However the author insists on emphasizing the siege of Acre and the subsequent retreat; but the problem is a siege is a largely attritive process which entails little or no tactical brilliance. If you besiege a numerically superior force chances are you'll lose said siege; now if Sidney Smith had led a heroic charge to break the French army immediately following one of the failed Grenadier charges or something that would be impressive and worth extensive discussion; Smith would prove himself at least on some level on par with Napoleon. But he didn't, Napoleon simply ran out of the necessary materials for continuing the siege and retreated; it wasn't a loss of his army; no Austerlitz or Jena-Auerstadt was inflicted upon him (nor was there ever such a situation); the defeat was not due to any prevailing failure on his part apart from misjudging the abilities of 10-15,000 men on an extended campaign in unfamiliar territory; a recurring fault in Napoleon's logic.
Overall I just can't recommend this book on any level; while I'm still really interested in the campaign in Egypt there's only about 100 of the 400+ pages worth reading; the rest is irrelevant tripe pretty much. This is a bit scathing of a review I will grant; but I do think if you're going to discuss Napoleon on any level other than Biographic you need to discuss what can be learned from his tactical shrewdness. Similarly any chance to discuss Nelson's revolutionary and innovative methods on the Naval front quite simply must be emphasized; because unlike Napoleon (who has various historical parallels) there is no one even close to achieving the level of success that Horatio Nelson did on the seas. This just isn't a book that should be written by a philosophy professor unless he explicitly has some understanding of military tactics or alternatively wanted to discuss at great length the scientific aspects of both the campaign and Napoleon's approach to governing the Egyptian intellectual institute.
Edit: A sort of academic inspection of one thought process in this book: "...all in the vain attempt to impose European civilization upon a backward people whose religion encouraged them to regard all change and all foreigners with the deepest suspicion." This sentence is fine except for the one word "backward," which implies an inherent superiority on the part of Europeans. This is the sort of thing that would be common 100 years ago or more but nowadays people are generally prescient of the fact that no culture is inherently "superior." While the various misogynistic traditions discussed in the book can certainly be condemned in no way can you proclaim that the entire civilization is "backward." It's hard to say what he specifically wants to say here but the point is certainly undermined by the diction.
Sunday, August 18, 2013
Ah the mighty triumvirate of “Earth sucks lets go somewhere else” movies is finally over, concluding far above the dismal depths of After Earth and falling short of the excellent Oblivion. This film is very solid, but yet the flaws are sort of glaringly obvious when they appear. The action is well shot and very interesting, the acting is by and large perfectly adequate, and the design of the world is superb. However it just doesn’t have a good script nor a good plot, and those two things harm the movie’s efforts at being anything more than a relatively smart action flick.
Matt Damon is a factory worker on Earth who used to be Nicolas Cage from Gone in 60 Seconds (so it is implied), but he’s gone straight trying to make enough money to make it up to Elysium, where all the rich people live. Rich people evidently live forever and can overcome any ailment including a grenade to the face (but perhaps not a throat slit?), so after Matt Damon gets fully radiated he wants some of the good stuff. Now he endeavors on a terrorist pursuit to save himself and coincidentally his childhood love gets involved and needs her daughter cured.
The plot goes on as you might expect. Sharlto Copley (protagonist from District 9) plays the primary villain while Jodie Foster plays the aloof in space villain. Copley puts a lot of heart in the performance but it would be kind of nice if his accent wasn’t quite so harsh. Jodie Foster is one of the 2 or 3 best living actresses but they just didn’t give her a very interesting role to play to display her considerable talents. The supporting cast is reasonably solid, including the chief terrorist guy who is simultaneously humorous and weird while seemingly being the only character with any non-selfish motivations.
This movie has an incredible level of attention to detail which I appreciate very much. In one scene Matt Damon fires a future-y Rail Gun through a wall which is displayed on screen impressively, immediately following this in about 1-2 seconds he discards the emptied first gun and acquires another from the wall. The camera doesn’t highlight this or anything but it seamlessly explains where he got his new gun without dumbing it down to the audience; that sort of thing is very rare in action movies.
Overall the action uses quite a few different techniques including the dreaded shaky cam, however it is comprehensible shaky cam, it isn’t like the first Expendables movie or the Bourne Movies; you can for the most part tell what is going on and the superb sound design helps greatly in that regard. This movie is good, and it couldn’t really have been better without a serious redesign of the plot and characters; it is basically as good as the movie could get within the constraints it had to work with.
Edit: Woops forgot one of my main points: The main character in Elysium becomes "superpowered" without becoming a superhero; he's still vulnerable and human in the process. If you compare this to something like Drive (a movie with much better acting/music/script) there the hero becomes completely invincible to the point of it being absurd and even though Elysium has a similar level of shock-violence you never feel absolutely secure of some magical heroic victory at the end.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Ah another book read amidst the excitement of volunteer work. This was written by Ralph D. Sawyer who is one of the most respected Chinese Military Historians in the world and it would seem with good reason. A previous work that I had read of his Seven Military Classics of Ancient China is utterly superb though it is mostly translation (albeit in the process of translation inevitably the translator becomes almost a second author). I won't go into particular detail about that book here but suffice to say it includes writings from not simply Sun Tzu (Sun Zi) but also from the T'ai Kung, Wu Qi and several other "Great Captains" of Chinese history.
I am not positive but I believe Pinyin was the latin alphabet style chosen for Seven Military Classics but for some reason a different type is utilized in Ancient Chinese Warfare. Having read and re-read Moss Roberts' Three Kingdoms translation and taken a few rudimentary Chinese courses I'm used to reading Pinyin which led to some confusion. Presumably almost anyone reading this book would be at least somewhat familiar with Pinyin which is definitely the dominant form utilized in China itself; as Chinese typing would show (you can even test this yourself using the alternate language features of Microsoft Office).
Ancient Chinese Warfare is a fairly interesting book covering an enormous span of history in just a few hundred pages; this inevitably leads to some glossing over of various periods and of course the admittance that not much is fundamentally known about the era apart from assorted legends. The Yellow Emperor and such Three Kingdoms-mentioned examples as "Yao yielding to Shun" are referenced and Sawyer does at least attempt to justify how such a myth would come into being, be it a pure fiction based on history or a fictionalized version of a historical persona. I was most interested in these aspects of the book, those sections that dared to assert different ideas and theories; but the book does not consist entirely of these.
I realize conjecture is not a particularly good basis for history but it is definitely a more interesting way to discuss history about which not much is known. When dealing with limited facts painting something of a picture by yourself via such assertions isn't the worst thing and one can easily get bogged down in pedantry if you stick merely to what is "perfectly" known and understood at the time (though certainly some aspects of history that are supposed to be fact are disproven in wide swaths in future publications). There is a lot of discussion of minute details such as the approximate yet seemingly exact dimensions of various Shang and Xia settlements; which I do find somewhat valuable. However they are repeated in the case of every individual city; instead some sort of comparison or frame of reference could have been utilized to expedite this process. I eventually started simply glazing over these.
There is however a very important and interesting point that Sawyer makes regarding the massive walls of Ancient Chinese cities. In the era prior to Siege equipment walls were only needed militarily up to a certain point yet some of these constructs were utterly massive. Sawyer suggests that this was a way of forcing the local culture to embrace ethnocentrism; as they existed in proto-Urban environments that kept out the various "barbarian" civilizations that roamed the steppes or wilds of China. This is an interesting sociological foundation for the eventual massive uniculture in China which exists today; a single extremely assimilation prone culture with only some mild amount of variability. While diversity is hailed as the reason for America's success with some regularity (and no doubt some cynicism) it is nonetheless impressive how efficient a group which is 90% one ethnicity can function. Again this is not a proven fact but in stating this interesting element Sawyer posits a thought provoking theory which seems to have a great deal of validity; this is what makes historical writings much more interesting and indeed useful.
Sawyer goes on to discuss the development weapons and chariots based on archaeological evidence. Horses especially are discussed and their usage as a sort of prestigious and terrifying presence on a battlefield. While horses themselves may be skittish their sheer size is often enough to inspire terror and cause men to break from defensive formations (though if said formation simply held its ground it would likely be victorious). The bow and arrow too is well documented and discussed and various Chinese tales regarding particular archery performances. Both of these things have reflections in Three Kingdoms in the person of Lu Bu; who's feats of archery put an entire army to halt and who was matched with an enormous and impressive horse Red Hare (later to be granted to Lord Guan).
Perhaps the biggest fault in the book lies in the abortive discussion of Shang's downfall at the hands of Zhou; instead a sort of "product placement" paragraph is placed that suggests reading the as of yet unpublished successor to this book discussing Western Zhou. However it strikes me as absolutely mandatory to discuss the downfall of Shang in discussing pre Spring and Autumn period China; as the politics of King Wen, King Wu, and the Duke of Zhou are extremely influential in China to this day. The battle of Muye may well be one of the most important events in the entirety of Chinese history and while much of the details remain difficult to discern exactly it is essential to discuss it in any history concerning either Ancient China or simply the Shang; if you are to discuss the mythical Yellow Emperor or Yao yielding to Shun it then becomes paramount to discuss the (much more likely to be) historical descendants of them and their further example of supposed "Virtue."