2013/03/31

Audiobooks


Now finishing up working a redacting job. When a journalist receives a document that has words, phrases and sometimes whole paragraphs blacked out, that's called a redacted document. So I black out the information on documents that could allow people to take money from our customers. Decent job, but it allows all sorts of time for the mind to wander, so I purchased, took out and downloaded a whole set of audiobooks. I find that the type of attention that redacting requires and that the type of attention listening to an audiobook requires are two completely different types of attention, so I'm easily able to do both at once. Reading any sort of narrative and watching a TV show that has any sort of plot, on the other hand, requires the same type of attention, so I can't do both at the same time. While at work in the Navy, some of my shipmates wanted to watch a football or soccer game while I worked. I had zero problems with that as sports matches don't have narratives in the same way that a Personnel documents do.

The first audiobook I picked up from the library after “Cleopatra” was “Attack Poodles” by James Wolcott. Written in an attempt to influence the 2004 election, it's a good run-down of right-wing pundits. The saddest one is Dennis Miller, who switched from left-winger to right-winger. As Wolcott points out early on in the book, switching sides is a no-no. It's much better for a pundit to pick a side and stick with it through thick and thin.

Just as early movies tried really hard to always find a way to get a chase scene in, superhero comics have to get a fight scene in, soap operas have to get dramatic confrontations in, etc., detective stories want to tell us about the social and physical context in which the detective operates. Accordingly, my major window into how the Navajos live today (Hopis show up in these books from time to time and white people are generally represented by the FBI) is through the Tony Hillerman books. They focus on two characters, Navajo Police Sgt. Jim Chee and retired NP Lt. Joe Leaphorn. The audiobook I listened to was “The Wailing Wind.” The books have a relaxed pace and emphasize the wide open country out there on the Great Plains of New Mexico.

Another series I've enjoyed for a long times has been the Jeeves books (The author P.G. Wodehouse put out about a hundred of these). The one I listened to was “Stiff Upper Lip.” A foppish, excitable and not-terribly-bright young aristocrat named Bertie Wooster has adventures with his pal Gussie Fink-Nottle and the wise and sensible butler Jeeves bails them out all the time. The audiobook clearly designs itself on the PBS Masterpiece Theater “Jeeves and Wooster” series, which is set in the 1920s and Jeeves has a very particular way of pronouncing some phrases.

And yes, neither series has much to do with sex. None of the heroes in these two series has a whole lot to do with women.

Went to Librivox, a service that offers voice recordings of works in the public domain. Listened to “The Japanese Fairy Book” compiled by Yei Theodora Ozaki in 1908. Two interesting contrasts between mythology then and now. The first is that legends and tall tales today are told in specific formats. Movies are generally about 90 minutes long, comic books are generally around 20 pages an issue (though a single story can stretch over multiple issues), novels are 200-300 pages long (again, novels can come in a series), etc. Stories back in the day didn't have to be a certain length. Today, we have the movies “Tangled” and “Jack the Giant Slayer,” both of which take the old tales of Rapunzel and Jack and the Beanstalk respectively and bulk them out by adding lots of elements that were not present in the originals. 

In one of the Japanese fairy tales, a man, his wife and their daughter are living happily. The wife passes away. The man remarries. The stepmother makes the daughter's life miserable and then tattles on her. The daughter pours out her heart to her father. The stepmother overhears and apologizes. And they all lived happily ever after. The story is bulked out so that it takes 15-20 minutes to read, but that's essentially the plot. A lot of the stories are similarly cut-and-dried, but fortunately, there are many more complex stories in the collection. Also, some of the stories resemble Rudyard Kipling's “Just So Stories,” where tales are used to explain how certain animals took on the features that they did and how other natural phenomenon got to be the way they are. Did you know that jellyfish used to have hard shells and legs? Neither did I, until I listened to the Japanese tale of how a jellyfish got outsmarted by a monkey and so was punished by having all of his bones and shell removed. 

The modern comic book story of Sif, the Norse goddess of beauty and frequent companion to and lover of the god of thunder Thor, is killed and the ravens explain how “There were the White Mountains fashioned from her bones and there the night sky from her hair and her blood ran down and filled the mighty seas.” The wolf who is with the ravens growls irritatedly and insists “That is not how the story goes.” 

The ravens agree and get back to how the story was supposed to go, but that is very typical of the romantic, elevated sort of language that mythology uses. 

@Marvel Comics 2013 Journey into Mystery 648
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Another difference is that the superhero world is highly integrated. Everybody knows everybody else. In this sequence, Sif talks with Spider-Man. 

@Marvel Comics 2013 Journey into Mystery 649
 

Their dialogue here makes it clear that the two are not close friends, but they recognized each other immediately when they met and they know full well what their connections are and that they're on the same side. A number of characters clearly spend a lot of off-page time with each other, but these two are just acquaintances. To have an integrated universe like this, the comics need to keep their characters reasonably consistent from writer to writer and from artist to artist. That takes coordination, which clearly the mythology of yesteryear didn't need, though there are a few Japanese stories where characters appear in more than one story.

The Princess & the Goblin” is an 1872 story. In progress. Will update when I've finished with it.

Update: Eh, it was okay. The female lead character was, I guess, about nine to ten years old. She was just getting to the age where, as a royal child, she realizes that she outranks the maid and can give orders instead of just receiving them. The male protagonist is, I'd say from 14 to 15. Some physical capability, quickness and initiative. The parents are universally wise, sensible and beloved. Have to say, I do kind of like the epilogue, where the villains are scattered and many that remain integrate themselves into the community. Makes for a nice, positive, forward-looking ending.

2013/03/25

Ten years ago. The Iraq War in retrospect.



One of Philadelphia's Gold Star Mothers, Celeste Zappala, was interviewed by WHYY on Tuesday, the 19th of March and the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Zappala lost her son Sherwood Baker in 2004. He was the first National Guard member to lose his life in Iraq. During the Vietnam War, the National Guard was so safe a place to be that the future president George W. Bush signed up for a six-year tour (Notthat he even served the full six years), but in Iraq, the National Guard was a vital supplement to the regular armed forces. Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry (D-MA) charged in 2004 that by keeping National Guard troops in their billets longer than they had planned and by using them as regular forces, the Bush Administration didn't have to impose a draft or to increase the size of the regular armed forces, and thus that using the National Guard in that way amounted to a “back-door draft.” Recruitment for the military to keep enough troops fighting in Iraq was a problem. In 2007, the Army had to spend $1 billion in bonuses to recruit and retain the soldiers it had. The economic collapse at the end of 2007 made it a good deal easier to do keep the military fully staffed.

Why did the Bush Administration depend so heavily on the National Guard during the occupation of Iraq?

Much of the planning for the occupation of Iraq was improvised, last-minute and inadequate. The Bush Administration didn't appear to think that many forces or much money would be needed after Baghdad had fallen. The problem then was very ably sketched out by Colonel Harry G. Summers, who built upon the theories of Carl von Clausewitz concerning war and national determination. Colonel Summers' book was entitled “On Strategy: The Vietnam War in context” and it was written in response to the failure of the US to win over the Vietnamese people to the cause of America. The military in both Iraq and Vietnam did everything that was asked of it and it carried out its assigned task with enthusiasm and professionalism. In neither case can America assign any significant blame to the military for the inability of the US to win hearts and minds in the occupied country. The Iraqi insurgents certainly deserve a great deal of credit for making an American victory after the fall of Baghdad impossible. Had all gone according to the plans made by the Bush Administration and had Iraqis quietly accepted the American occupation, there would have been no need for Bush and his people to whip up American enthusiasm and support for the war.

As it was, the left wing was proven correct by the failure to find any WMDs and was thus completely uninterested in supporting the war and the right wing was perfectly happy to keep their activities in support of the war very sharply limited. The right-wing columnist Jonah Goldberg was asked why he didn't join up and go to Iraq in uniform (Goldberg was at the very upper age limit for joining the military). He later apologized for this response, but it's worthwhile to remember what he said:

As for why my sorry a** isn't in the kill zone, lots of people think this is a searingly pertinent question. No answer I could give -- I'm 35 years old, my family couldn't afford the lost income, I have a baby daughter, my a** is, er, sorry, are a few -- ever seem to suffice.

The point here is that Goldberg's attitude was quite typical for right-wingers. People who supported the war didn't feel the need to actually go over to Iraq and spend years in a foreign land actually getting themselves involved in learning a foreign language and dealing with a very different culture. Patriotism only demanded so much.

According to Summers, yes, any military or any country's political leadership can carry out short, brief military actions without getting broad-based buy-in from the country's civilian population, but any war that costs significant time and resources must get the civilian population emotionally involved. People must be absolutely convinced that the war is of immense significance and that it's worth great sacrifice to win it. Bush failed to get civilians from the right wing to go to Iraq as civilian reconstruction personnel, which explains why $8 billion of the money allocated to Iraqi reconstruction was lost. Without on-the-ground personnel overseeing projects and with Americans attempting to supervise projects from desks inside the “Green Zone” in Baghdad or from the US, it wasn't at all surprising that the US reconstruction effort was a complete flop.

Getting Americans motivated

The first step to getting Americans enthusiastically involved in the conquest/occupation of Iraq wassupervised by Madeleine Albright in February 1998. Albright brought several fellow war hawks to a town meeting in Ohio. It was a PR disaster as citizens vigorously questioned why Iraq was considered to be a threat and why that threat had to be neutralized via a war. Albright and her people were unable to answer these objections and the Clinton Administration didn't make any further attempts to whip up the public to supporting a war against Saddam Hussein and his country.

It's generally accepted among many former skeptics that no, President George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney didn't arrange for 9-11 to happen, but the belief was based on solid facts. Bush and Cheney both had oil industry roots, there was good reason to believe that the US oil industry would profit enormously via an American occupation of Iraq and 9-11 occurred just a few years after Albright's failed attempt to get American citizen buy-in for a war against Iraq. Al Jazeera points out that safeguarding civilians was certainly not on the agenda of the invading Americans:

The Iraq invasion cannot be reasonably described as a case of "humanitarian intervention" for three reasons. The means used in the war - a "shock and awe" bombing campaign, including the use of cluster munitions in populated areas - were clearly not designed with the objective of safeguarding Iraqi civilians. Secondly, there was no evidence of the triggering mechanism for a humanitarian intervention, such as mass slaughter or crimes that shock humanity. Saddam had a terrible track record but, during the run-up to war, no such crimes were ongoing or imminent. Third, humanitarian motives were clearly not dominant, as the war would probably not have occurred in the absence of the issues of WMD and/or the al-Qaeda connection. During his February 2003 presentation to the UN, even Colin Powell's slides related to Saddam's human rights violations were labelled, "Iraq: Failing to Disarm". 



Even if regular people didn't buy that Iraq had something to do with 9-11, the Washington DC press corps certainly did. What we do know for certain is that Bush & Cheney manipulated the information suppled by America's intelligence agencies to make it appear that Hussein had something to do with 9-11. 

The deleted paragraphs in the summary called "Key Judgements" read:

"Baghdad for now appears to be drawing a line short of conducting terrorist attacks with conventional or CBW against the United States, fearing that exposure of Iraqi involvement would provide Washington a stronger cause for making war.
Iraq probably would attempt clandestine attacks against the US Homeland if Baghdad feared an attack that threatened the survival of the regime were imminent or unavoidable, or possibly for revenge."

Many on the right wing have made their defense of the Bush Administration center around the allegation that Democratic Senators had access to the same intel that Bush had and that they reached the same conclusion. No, Democrats had access to the intel that Bush edited to make it look as though Iraq was a threat.

As documented below, by the most scientifically respected measures available, Iraq lost 1.4 million lives as a result of OIL [Operation Iraqi Liberation], saw 4.2 million additional people injured, and 4.5 million people become refugees. The 1.4 million dead was 5% of the population. That compares to 2.5% lost in the U.S. Civil War, or 3 to 4% in Japan in World War II, 1% in France and Italy in
World War II, less than 1% in the U.K. and 0.3% in the United States in World War II. The 1.4 million dead is higher as an absolute number as well as a percentage of population than these other horrific losses.

The US absolutely must prevent anything like the Iraq War from ever occurring again. How are we doing on that? Unfortunately, not very well. The US leadership appears to greatly overestimate the effectiveness of sanctions, underestimates the usefulness of diplomacy and has far too much faith in our intelligence agencies. Also, people in Washington DC, both government officials and the press corps, appear to be talking about the deficit in much the same manner that they discussed Iraq in late 2002-early 2003. The good news is that US troops are very highly unlikely to go back into Iraq, no matter how badly the situation there deteriorates. The US couldn't do much there the first time and it seems our leadership knows that it couldn't do much on a return engagement. Could the US invade Iran? Certainly, elements want very badly to do so, but I think the public would be very highly likely to resist.

2013/03/16

The 1934 movie "Cleopatra"


Listened to an audiobook on Cleopatra and re-watched Claudette Colbert in the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille “Cleopatra” movie. Most of the historical inaccuracies in it can be chalked up to dramatic license. Cleopatra ruled for 18 dramatic and event-filled years and the movie is only 100 minutes long, so there's a lot of compression involved. The only really startling, anachronistic, “Whuuh?” moment came for me when Colbert tries to convince Julius Caesar that Egypt was the stepping stone to India.
For Cleopatra to get to Rome, the audiobook tells us, her sea convoy traveled up the coasts of Israel, Turkey, Greece and Italy, stopping every night so the crew could sleep in buildings or tents on shore. It took a couple of weeks to make the journey of perhaps 500 miles. Now, getting from Egypt to India is well over 2000 miles. As the Suez Canal wasn't built until 1869, that added over 100 miles of land that ships had to be carried over. The point the book makes is that Egypt was a prize all on its own and Cleopatra was a royal personage well worth knowing as she was a highly attractive person (everybody who comes into contact with her strives to give her the benefit of the doubt and to make excuses for her and to stay with her as long as possible) who had a great deal in common with both of the Romans that she took up with.
The book doubts that Cleopatra had herself bitten by a snake, but agrees that she was researching various poisons to see how quickly and painlessly they worked. The only point where the book and the movie disagree is that the book concluded that she felt the end was near and she didn't want to be paraded around Rome as a captive. The movie concludes that she had agreed to dispose of Mark Antony with one of the poisons she had been researching. The book shows us that Cleopatra was a real sexual outlaw who did quite a bit of sleeping around, but whose goal was always a stronger and better Egypt. There's only one scene in the movie where she clearly has sex, but I guess that in 1934, that was enough to classify her as pretty wanton.
I was interested to see the parallels between this story and the story presented in “The Other BoleynGirl” with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen. In both stories, families try to make alliances through sex, through males being attracted to females. In both cases it works okay, for short periods anyway, but long-term alliances are best made for pragmatic reasons that don't need to be supplemented by sexual attractions.
Cleopatra played an important role in a tumultuous time and impressed pretty much all of the people she came into contact with. My regret concerning the movie is that she's presented as very passive and not nearly as assertive and nowhere near the goddess that she actually presented herself as in real life.

2013/03/02

Jack the Giant Slayer


Quite good! Stirring stuff and, giving it some thought later, don't there were any glaring anachronisms, none that really stuck out for me anyway (That is, items and attitudes that could not have existed at the time the movie takes place). Naturally, the princess is a bit more rebellious than one would expect and Jack (The Giant Slayer) is treated quite well by his social betters, but all in all, it seems pretty true to the period.
As I was getting some coffee for the movie (the local theaters carried coffee for a bit, so they've told me I can carry a cup of coffee in), the salesperson at the convenience store commented on movies plundering material from the past. Yeah, Jack is an adaptation of the old Jack and the Beanstalk tale, but yes, plundering the past for story material is hardly new.
The Golem was a 1921 movie that was based on old Jewish legends. When I saw it, it immediately brought to mind The Hulk from Marvel Comics. Thor, of course also from Marvel Comics, derives directly from Norse legends. The DC Comics series Fables (Started up in 2003), very directly and explicitly takes characters and situations from past stories and adventures and the TV series Once Upon A Time appears to have derived directly from Fables.
So the only question for me is, does the latest appropriation of the past do a good job of re-telling the old story? I think Jack does indeed do the job quite well.