Monday, September 30, 2013

From Youtube: Interview with Bart Ehrman about Forged.
I know I gave the actual book a mixed review, but this radio interview does a better job of hitting what is really of interest about the issue.

....On a related note: one of the thing that Bart Ehrman stresses both in his book and in the radio interview is that there is very little debate among scholars that much of the New Testament is under false names.  Mainstream Catholic and Protestant Universities also teach that Peter and Paul couldn't have possibly have written many of the letters claiming to be from Peter and Paul.  The only debate is whether this constitutes outright forgery (as Ehrman claims) or whether it was simply just an accepted ancient practice (as many Christian seminaries claim).
This was my own experience as well--at Calvin College (a conservative protestant school) I was taught that some of the letters of Paul and Peter were written by other people under false names.   This was shocking to me at the time, but interestingly enough it turns out, according to this article  here, that John Calvin himself thought that 2nd Peter couldn't possibly have been written by the apostle Peter--or at the very least that Peter couldn't possibly have written it directly himself.  So I guess it should be no surprise that Calvin College taught the same thing.
John Calvin thought that the letter must have been written at least under the direction of Peter because:
If it be received as canonical, we must allow Peter to be the author, since it has his name inscribed, and he also testifies that he had lived with Christ: and it would have been a fiction unworthy of a minister of Christ, to have personated another individual. So then I conclude, that if the Epistle be deemed worthy of credit, it must have proceeded from Peter; not that he himself wrote it, but that some one of his disciples set forth in writing, by his command, those things which the necessity of the times required.

 If I'm following John Calvin's logic correctly, he thinks that  because the book is canonical, it must be inspired by God.  And because it is inspired by God, it can not contain a falsehood.  The fact that the author not only claimed to be Peter, but claimed to have lived with Christ, is a falsehood unworthy of Christianity, therefore the letter can not have been a complete forgery, but must have been written under Peter's direction even if he didn't write it directly himself.
Of course there's no evidence that the letter was written under Peter's direction--that's just wishful thinking on John Calvin's part.  (And indeed, many of the problems with 2nd Peter--that it copies from the letter of Jude, and that it refers to the apostolic age as something in the past--are not solved by this explanation).   But I think Calvin's framing of the problem still stands.  If the letter is forged under Peter's name by a different author, then this is a falsehood unworthy of a minister of Christ.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Calvin College: one of the top 10 Sober schools in the country.
Many of my friends these days often have a hard time understanding why I don't drink a lot.  (This may be a cultural difference--I'm given to understand the drinking culture is a lot bigger in England, Scotland and Ireland, or so my English, Scottish and Irish friends keep telling me.  And in the expat community I find myself hanging out with a lot of Brits and some Irish.)
But anyway, for anyone out there who can't understand why I'm not a big drinker, just follow the above link.  It turns out I come from one of the top 10 Soberest schools in America.  So it's my background.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The NSA illegally hacks the United Nations: The surveillance agency allegedly successfully cracked the UN's internal video–conferencing system

And from the Phnom Penh Post: Barricades to stay in place for days: gov’t
Manned barricades that dotted the city yesterday, strangling traffic along Norodom, Sothearos and other key thoroughfares, will remain in place through tomorrow, the government announced.
Yesterday, many residents and commuters expressed frustration over the razor wire blockades which caused traffic jams and prevented access to central areas around the National Assembly, the prime minister’s house and the Royal Palace.

...I was out and about a bit yesterday.  No violence in the city that I could see, but man, they were not following around with those barricades--razor wire, riot police, military men with machine guns, the whole works.
Some of the barricades were erected near the tourist or the expat areas, as these areas are close to the Parliament.  Yesterday I really wanted to eat a breakfast burrito from a popular expat restaurant, so I had to pass through a barricade checkpoint.  There was a small place where the military where allowing people to pass through single file between the razor wire, so I waited in line to get through with everyone else.
It was the most trouble I've ever gone through to get a burrito.  As I was passing through the barricades under the eye of the armed military, I thought to myself, "Boy, the trouble I go to just in order to avoid having to cook for myself..."

Monday, September 23, 2013

Saturday, September 21, 2013

So there's been some debate at work lately:
A couple of my colleagues have started using "all caps" to refer to situations when students write essays all in capital letters.
I have been arguing that "all caps" should only refer to typed documents, and is inappropriate for anything handwritten.
So far I've been in the minority, but I thought I'd throw the question out to the blog and see what people think:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

From the Daily Kos
UK suppression of NSA/Snowden reporting should cause a shiver

On a different note, from the Phnom Penh Post:
Travel group calms visitors
(Some interesting footage of the barbed wire up near the tourist areas.  Although I should add I was up by the riverside the past couple nights, and there was absolutely nothing going on there.)

Saturday, September 14, 2013

From is the best article I've read in a long time:
Mustache elicits Taliban death threats 

According to Al Jazeera, militia group and Taliban ally Lashkar-e-Islam deemed Afridi’s whiskers to be “un-Islamic” ...The group then kidnapped the 48-year-old businessman and held him hostage in a cave for a month until he finally shaved....
Last year, Afridi, unafraid, grew it back...
“I don’t like smoking. I’m not fond of snuff, or drinking. This is the only choice in my life,” he said. “I’d even sacrifice food, but not the mustache. It’s my life. It’s not part of my life. It is my life.”

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mr American by George MacDonald Fraser

Why I Read This Book
          After finishing the Flashman series (for all my Flashman reviews see here), I decided I might as well knock this book off too.
            This book is not officially part of the Flashman series, but it’s by the same author, and Flashman is one of the characters.  (I had previously characterized Flashman’s role in this book as a cameo, but after having read the book, I think Flashman plays a big enough role that it is safe to call him one of the supporting characters.)

The Review
          Not at all what I expected, but a wonderful book nonetheless.

            I imagine that, like me, many people track down and read this book solely because of the Flashman connection.  So it’s a little bit of a surprise to discover how unlike the Flashman series this book actually is.

            The Flashman books were fast paced, often adventurous or humorous, always irreverent, mostly exotic, with lots of scandalous liaisons with foreign women and grizzly deaths.  In other words: they’re pretty low brow.
            This book, by contrast, is much more serious. 
            But the biggest difference between this and the regular Flashman series is the pacing.  Flashman usually moved at a pretty fast clip from one disaster to another.  This book is intent on taking its time. 
            The slow pace of the book, and the in depth, blow by blow description of old fashioned aristocratic parties and social gatherings, reminded me a lot of War and Peace.

            I know, it’s probably sacrilege to compare a Flashman book to War and Peace. And yet it strikes me that even if the two books are dissimilar in talent, they are at least similar in ambition.
            In both books, the plot is only of secondary importance.  The real purpose, in both books, is to describe, in as much detail as possible, all the aspects of life during a certain time period.
            Both authors were removed from their subject material by roughly the same amount of time.  (Tolstoy was writing in 1869 to describe Russia in the early 1800s, Fraser was writing in 1980 to describe England in the early 1900s.)  And consequently, both were trying to describe a period that had only just gone out of living memory.

            Fraser is intent on recreating as much of Edwardian England as is possible within the pages of his book.  He recreates everything from the local taverns, to the political discussions, to the streets of London, to the aristocratic parties, to the theater, to the cab drivers.

            As with War and Peace, the key to enjoying this book is be in the right frame of mind.  If you start to get impatient, you’re going to hate this book.  But if you just allow yourself to get absorbed in all the period details, you’ll love this book.

            The good news is that George MacDonald Fraser pulls the thing off.  Like Tolstoy in War and Peace, Fraser accomplishes his recreation of the past not with long boring descriptions, but by recreating scenes of life.  And he does it well.
            For example in one section Fraser spends 30 pages just describing a party.  I know that sounds pretty boring, but when you actually read those pages, it’s not boring at all.  In fact I was glued to those pages as I read them.  (I’m usually a pretty slow reader, but I got completely absorbed in this book and couldn’t put it down.)
            Although I thoroughly enjoyed the Flashman series, this is a whole different side of Fraser, and it’s apparent he was much more talented as a writer than I had previously given him credit for.

            It’s always difficult to dissect good prose and determine what exactly makes it work (especially for us non-literary types), but whatever it is, Fraser has it.
            The style of the book is probably best illustrated with an excerpt.  This is from page 14-16, just after Mr. Franklin has gotten off the boat at Liverpool:
            Once outside the Customs shed, Mr Franklin paused to examine the railway timetable board; there were, he saw, five companies competing to carry him to London on Monday. After some deliberation, he decided on London and North-western, which undertook to convey him to Euston in something over four hours, via Crewe and Rugby, for 29 shillings first-class. Just under six dollars, in fact. It was the fastest train, not that that could matter to a man who had not taken the special vestibuled boat-train for Atlantic passengers which was even now pulling out of Riverside Station with a shrilling of steam.
            His porter was waiting at the cab rank, and on his inquiring whether the gentleman wish to travel by taxi or horse cab, Mr Franklin fixed him with a thoughtful grey eye and asked what the fare might be.
            “Cab’s a shillin’ a mile, taxi’s sixpence a half-mile an’ twopence every sixth of a mile after that,” replied the porter.
            “And how far is the Adelphi Hotel?” asked Mr Franklin.
            This innocent question caused some consternation among the taxi-men and cab drivers; some thought it would be about a mile, if not slightly more, but there was a school of thought that held it was a bare mile by the shortest route. No one knew for certain, and finally the porter, a practical man who wanted to get back to the Customs shed for another client, settled the matter by spitting and declaring emphatically:
            “It’ll cost you a shillin’ anyways.”
            Mr Franklin nodded judiciously, indicated a horse-cab, and then paid the porter. He seemed to be having some difficulty with the massive British copper coins, to which he was plainly unaccustomed, and the tiny silver “doll’s-eye” threepence which he eventually bestowed; the porter sighed and reflected that this was a damned queer Yank; most of them scattered their money like water.
            This was not lost on the cabby, who mentally abandoned the notion of suggesting that he take his passenger by way of Rodney Street—which would have added at least sixpence to the fare—there to gaze on Number 62, the birthplace of the late Mr Gladstone. Americans, in his experience, loved to see the sights, and would exclaim at the Grand Old Man’s childhood home and add as much as a shilling to the tip. An even better bet was the house in Brunswick Street where Nathaniel Hawthorne had kept his office as U.S. Consul in the middle of the previous century, but somehow, the cabby reflected morosely, this particular American didn’t look as though he’d be interested in the author of Tanglewood and the Scarlet Letter either.
            The cab drew out of the quayside gates and up the long pier to the main street at the top, where the electric trams clanged and rumbled and a slow-moving stream of traffic, most of it horse-drawn, but with the occasional motor here and there, slowed the cab to a walk.  The cabby noted that his fare was sitting forward, surveying the scene with the air of a man who is intent on drinking everything in, but giving no sign of whether he found it pleasing or otherwise. For the cabby’s money, central Liverpool was not an inspiring sight in any weather, with its bustling pavements and dirty over-crowded streets and he was genuinely startled when after some little distance his passenger called out sharply to him to hold on. He was staring intently down the street which they were crossing, a long, grimy thoroughfare of chandlers’ shops and warehouses; he was smiling, the wondering cabby noticed, in a strange, faraway fashion, as though seeing something that wasn’t there at all.  He was humming, too, gently under his breath, as he surveyed the long seedy stretch of ugly buildings and cobbles on which the rain was beginning to fall.

            The book is heavy on description, but it’s never too much.  There’s just the right amount of eye for detail that absorbs you in the scene without losing momentum entirely.

            And although it’s not evident in the section I quoted above, there’s also a lot of dialogue in this book.  Much of the dialogue has little bearing on the plot, but the characters are fun to listen to, and the dialogue does serve the purpose of creating the scene.  Every so often a couple of important plot points are dropped into the dialogue to pique your interest a little bit more, but then once the plot is hinted at, the dialogue will go off in another direction, and the plot of this novel is only gradually revealed. 
            Because the book is heavy on description and dialogue, there isn’t much plot in this 585 page book. But what little plot there is, is teased out only gradually, and part of the pleasure of reading this book is to have the plot gradually revealed. Knowing too  much of the plot in advance would spoil the book, so for that reason I’ll carry on  further discussion about the plot below the spoiler warning.

SPOILERS (and other observations)
* Given that the tone of this book is completely different than the Flashman series, I suppose the usual detailed Flashman footnotes would have spoiled everything.  The footnotes would have taken you out of the story, and Fraser has done so much work to absorb you into the setting.
            But that being said, I kind of missed the footnotes a little bit.  In the Flashman books, Fraser always let you know how much of the story was based on real history, and what his sources were.
            Since there are real historical characters and events mixed in with the plot of Mr American, it would be nice to know where Fraser’s sources come from.  How much of his detailed description of Edward VII, for example, is based on research, and how much of it is creative license?

* As I said above, there isn’t much plot in this book, but Fraser does a remarkably good job of creating a lot of interest in a small bit of story by setting up little mysteries and points of suspense, and then letting these points simmer for long periods of time as they are only gradually revealed.  Who is this strange American? Why did he come to England?  How did he get his money?  What secrets is he hiding about his past?
            And then a whole other set of questions is created about his relationship with Peggy.  Does Peggy really love him?  Is she being faithful?  What did she really want the money for?
            In my opinion, however, once all the initial mysteries and questions have been resolved, the book lags a little bit.  In the middle section (the whole section with Pip and the art show, and then the trial of Helen Cessford), I found I was losing interest in the plot because most of the mysterious questions had been answered.  I wasn’t sure what the point of the book was anymore, and I had lost my reason to keep turning the pages.
            I think in the middle section Fraser slightly overplays his hand.  In the beginning of the book, the plot unfolds very slowly, but he’s still able to keep interest because the reader knows he’s setting up a story, and the reader want to see where he’s going.
            However once all the chess pieces are on the table, then the same pacing doesn’t work.  It’s a small complaint, but I think the book would have been better if the pacing of the story had gradually speeded up as you went along.
            Also I confess that I just wasn’t that interested in Helen Cessford or her story arch.  (I didn’t care about Helen Cessford because Fraser didn’t give me a reason to care. Fraser apparently has a bit of an axe to grind against the suffragette movement, so Helen Cessford comes across as loud, arrogant, hypocritical, and unlikeable.  Although the appearance of Helen’s great uncle, Flashman, in this section does make up for a lot.)
            The good news is that my interest in the story returned near the end, once the murder investigation began.
            The ending of the book is slightly disappointing because it’s so anti climatic.  And yet, I can’t really complain about it, because the whole style of the book is so subdued that I had suspected all along there would be no big climax at the end.

* More War and Peace connections:
            I half suspect that the connections between War and Peace are not coincidental, and that Fraser may have had War and Peace in his mind as a model when he wrote this book.
            In addition to the similarities mentioned above, both books integrate historical characters and real characters, and provide fictional portraits of the ruling monarchs or their period.  Both books are primarily focused on the lifestyles of the upper-classes, but both books provide portraits of the privileged class at just a time when their way of life was about to be turned upside down by a world war.
            Fraser even explicitly states this theme at times, for example in describing the week just before the outbreak of World War I:
            This week like so many others, that generations would back on with a kind of disbelief and wonder, because it belonged to a world that no one would ever see again, the last ray of a setting sun that had risen in some misty, historic time before anyone could remember and had shone brightly over a gradually changing but still comfortingly consistent scene, and was now about to go down at last. And what everyone would remember was how calm and untroubled it had been, with no possible hint of how the gears of time were about to change for millions of ordinary folk, clashing into a new and frightening revolution as the human race rushed suddenly into a new dark age.  But in that week nobody knew. Nobody could possibly know. (p. 518).
            Also, the marriage between Mark Franklin and Peggy Clayton reminded me a lot of the marriage between Pierre Bezukhov and Princess Helen.  In both cases, a rich man is seduced into marrying a beautiful woman, and only afterwards discovers that their relationship is based on money, and that she doesn’t care for him at all (or in Peggy’s case, only cares for the relationship on her own terms).
            Also, just as Pierre falls in love with Natasha Rostova while trapped in his marriage, so Mark Franklin finds himself intrigued (if not in love) with both Pip and Helen Cessford. 
            I thought Franklin was going to end up escaping from his marriage with Peggy and ending up with one of these other women as Pierre did in War and Peace, but to my surprise Fraser went for a different ending.
            Another difference is that Fraser uses the character of an outsider to allow him an excuse to go into detailed descriptions of Edwardian English society.  Mark Franklin, fresh off the boat from America, needs to learn everything, from how to interact at the local small town pub to how to behave at a royal party.  Tolstoy, of course, gives us a description of early 1800s Russian society entirely from an insider’s view.

* Flashman connections:  
            This book, taking place between 1910 and 1914, shows Flashman at age 88 to 92, what I can only assume is near the end of his life, and is the last chronological appearance of Flashman in Fraser’s fiction.
            However, in terms of publication order, this book is right in the middle of the Flashman canon.  It was published in 1980, and Fraser would go on to write 6 more Flashman books before he died in 2008.
            Some of the later books would go on to better flesh out Flashman’s relationship with Edward VII. 
            In Mr American, we see that Flashman and Edward VII know each other (both speak of the other distastefully) but they hardly seem to have been intimates or have much of a shared history.
            In one of the later books, Flashman and the Redskinshowever, Flashman reminisces:
King Teddy's company is something I'd sooner avoid than not, anyway, for he's no better than an upper-class hooligan. Of course, he's been pretty leery of me for forty-odd years (ever since I misguided his youthful footsteps into an actress's bed, in fact, and brought Papa Albert's divine wrath down on his fat head) and when he finally wheezed his way on to the throne I gather he thought of dropping me altogether - said something about my being Falstaff to his Prince Hal.

            In Flashman and the Tiger a whole chapter of the book is devoted to Flashman helping Edward VII (then the Prince of Wales) out of the Baccarat scandal (W).  (Actually being Flashman, he just ends up making the scandal worse, but he was supposed to be helping.)

           In retrospect then, it seems a little strange that none of this was mentioned by either party in Mr American.  (Granted this isn’t a hard example of a continuity error.  You could easily just explain this away by positing that neither Flashman nor Edward VII cared to be reminded of their shared history with each other.  And yet, I’m pretty sure that if Mr American had been written after the other Flashman books instead of before, Fraser would have included some passing reference to this history.)

*The politics of Flashman:
            In this section I rely heavily on inferences, and don’t really know what I’m talking about, so feel free to skip this last part.
            But if you’ve been following my Flashman reviews, you’ll know that I imagine a shift in political opinion between the early Flashman books and the late Flashman books.  The early Flashman books seem to be anti-interventionalist. However the later Flashman books seem to take a pro-interventionalist view of the British Empire—the idea that the world has a lot of problems, and many of these problems are best sorted out by sending in the British Army.

            In terms of publication date Mr American is one of the earlier Flashman books, and it seems more in company with the anti-interventionalist politics of the other early Flashman books, as evidenced in this Flashman speech:
            Mr Franklin….asked the General [Flashman] what he thought of the war situation.  The old man shrugged.
            “Contemptible—but of course it always is.  We should stay out, and to hell with Belgium. After all, it’s stretching things to say we’re committed to ’em, and we’d be doing ’em a favour—and the Frogs, too.”
            “By not protecting them, you mean?  I don’t quite see that.*
            “You wouldn’t—because like most idiots you think of war as being between states—coloured blobs on the map. You think if we can keep Belgium green, or whatever colour it is, instead of Prussian blue, then hurrah for everyone.  But war ain’t between coloured blobs—it’s between people.  You know what people are, I suppose?—chaps in trousers and women in skirts, and kids in small clothes. … imagine yourself a Belgian—in Liege, say.  Along come the Prussians, and invade you. What about it?—a few cars commandeered, a shop or two looted, half a dozen girls knocked up, a provost marshal installed, and the storm’s passed.  Fierce fighting with the Frogs, who squeal like hell because Britain refuses to help, the Germans reach Paris, peace concluded and that’s that.  And there you are, getting on with your garden in Liege. But—” the General waged a bony finger. “Suppose Britain helps—sends forces to aid little Belgium—and the Frogs—against the Teuton horde?  What then?  Belgian resistance is stiffened, the Frogs manage to stop the invaders, a hell of a war is waged all over Belgium and north-east France, and after God knows how much slaughter and destruction the Germans are beat—or not, as the case may be.  How’s Liege doing?  I’ll tell you—it’s a bloody shambles.  You’re lying mangled in your cabbage patch, you’re wife’s had her legs blown off, your daughters have been raped, and your house is a mass or rubble. You’re a lot better off for British intervention, ain’t you?” (p. 530)

            And on the following page Flashman continues:
            “…I could take all the asses who’ll be waving flags and cheering and crowding the recruiting office—take ’em all by one collective arm, and say: ‘Now then, Jack, you know what you’re cheering for? You’re cheering at the prospect of having a soft-nosed bullet fired into your pelvis, shattering the bone and spreading it in splinters all through your intestines, and dying in agony two days later—or, if you’re really unlucky, surviving for a lifetime of pain, unable to walk, a burden to everyone and a dam’ nuisance to the country that will pay you a pension you can’t live off.  That, Jack,’ I’d tell ’em, ‘is what you’re cheering for.’…”

            So it seems to me that this book is much more in line with the earlier anti-interventionalist politics of the earlier Flashman books, and that Fraser’s views might have changed with the subject over time.
            All that being said, I must admit that there is a hole in my theory.  There was at least one pro-interventionalist Flashman book published before this one: Flashman’s Lady, published in 1977--which took a positive view of the British intervention in Borneo (albeit in that case by James Brooks, a private adventurer and not an official government representative, but still….)

            So, how to explain that?  Well, it could be the change was gradual. Flashman’s Lady was at first just an aberration from Fraser’s usual views, but later on these views became more and more the norm.

            Or, it could be that I’ve been looking at this thing all wrong.  I’ve been trying to cram Fraser into my own ideological lens (which is anti-imperialist and non-interventionalist) and only analyzing him by the narrow criteria of whether he is for or against my views.
            But it could be that Fraser takes a more nuanced view of war than I do.  Perhaps he believes in some wars, he just doesn’t believe in stupid wars (like the Afghanistan War, the Crimean War and World War I)
            I may not even be fairly characterizing him, but let me offer a quick rebuttal to this point of view anyway:
            When writing historical fiction, Fraser is writing with the full benefit of hindsight.  He’s able to argue against the stupidity of World War I, because in hindsight everyone knows how stupid and pointless that war was.
            At the time, however, it was not so clear.  At the beginning of the war this seemed to people like something that was really important.  There was a real sense of urgency, and people believed the very fate of Western civilization and democracy were at stake, and this swept up even people who should have known better (like the Second Socialist International  (W) and Kropotkin (W).)  There was also so much propaganda and misinformation at the outbreak of the War that supporters of the war were not making fully informed decisions.
            And in fact we’ve seen the same pattern of misinformation at the beginning of the Vietnam War and the most recent Iraq War.
            So if you take the position that war is sometimes justified, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself supporting a stupid war, and then regretting it.

            But like I said, I may not be even fairly characterizing Fraser’s views. 

            If anyone out there knows more about Fraser’s politics, or can put the Flashman series into a consistent ideological framework, let me

Link of the Day

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Tron: Legacy

            Before I get into the sequel, I should probably first write my thoughts on the original movie:
My History with Tron
          The first Tron movie came out in 1982, when I had just turned 4, but, not yet being cognizant of cultural trends, the movie passed me by unnoticed.
            Of course other movies like Star Wars were also slightly before my time, but Star Wars was impossible to avoid in the 1980sTron, by contrast, disappeared.  In the pre-Internet age, if something wasn’t being re-run on TV, it might as well not exist.
            I don’t remember how I first heard about Tron.  I think it may have been in connection with the Tron video game which was still in the arcades several years after the movie had disappeared but regardless I somehow picked up tidbits of information here and there and gradually, I somehow learned that the Tron video game had been connected to a movie, that the movie was about a man trapped in the world of video games, that it had been produced by Disney, and that it had been Disney’s attempt to capture the Star Wars market.
            The whole thing sounded awesome to me.  I loved Star Wars, I loved video games, I had been brought up on Disney, and I was a huge science fiction geek as a young lad.
            In the late 1980s, video rental stores became popular, but even though I searched for a copy of Tron, it never seemed to pop up.
            When the Internet was in its infancy, I searched Prodigy (W) for any information about Tron, and actually found a few detailed reviews on-line.  Unfortunately, all the reviews were negative.
            The negative reviews, however, did little to dampen my enthusiasm.  What did the critical snobs know?  I was at an age when my critical faculties had not yet fully developed, and like many 13 years olds before me and after me, I actually liked all sorts of terrible movies.  Most of the movies I loved got horrible reviews from the professional adult critics.

            Eventually, I was finally able to track down a VHS copy of Tron
            (Sidenote: time passes slower when you’re a kid,  so I’m not sure how much time I actually spent obsessing over this movie before I finally got to see it.  It may only have been a couple of years, but it sure felt like an eternity.)

            To my immense disappointment, the critical snobs had actually been right.  Even to a 13 year old’s undevelopment sensibilities, the movie was awful. 
            For starters, it was poorly edited.  Plot points would be introduced, and then would be abruptly dropped with no explanation.  A cute helpful little ball of light would show up to help guide Jeff Bridges’ character, and then suddenly be absent from the next scene with no explanation.  Much was made of the dreaded “grid bugs”, but no confrontation with them actually occurs.
            None of the characters were at all interesting, although that didn’t really matter much because in the video game world they were all dressed alike in the same ridiculous suit and helmet, so it was difficult to tell who was who anyway.
            The special effects, although no doubt impressive for their time, failed to create a world you wanted to get immersed in.  Instead it was just bland shapes moving across a bland digital background.
            And even to the extent the digital world might have been impressive, the movie showed its hand way too early.  Everything that might have been impressive about the digital world was shown to the audience within the first five minutes. So, instead of discovering these wonders with the main character, throughout the rest of the movie the main character is constantly being amazed at the new things he sees in “the grid”, but the audience is just bored because they’ve seen everything already.
            And on top of that, the action scenes are just not all that great.
            It’s no wonder this movie underperformed at the box office.

            All that being said, I admit to still having some nostalgia for Tron, in that illogical way in which we have nostalgia for everything for our childhood whether it’s deserving or not.  Given my history with this movie, I probably have more nostalgia for the idea of Tron than for the actual movie, but nostalgia nonetheless.

Thoughts on the idea of a Tron Sequel
          I was surprised when I found out that Disney was making a sequel to Tron.
            It’s well known that studios are increasingly dependent on movie franchises these days, but to the best of my knowledge this is a first: a big budget sequel, over 25 years later, to a movie that is largely forgotten and was never that good in the first place.  (If anyone can think of a similar case, let me know in the comments, but I think this is a cultural first.)

            It’s a gamble, but on the face of it at least it’s an intriguing gamble.  Just because the first installment of the story was disappointing, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all future stories using the same characters and setting have to be bad. 
            From an artistic point of view, there’s something more interesting about making sequels to bad movies than to good movies.  A good movie has already told its story successfully, and doesn’t need a sequel.  Whereas a bad movie needs a chance to redeem itself.  “Okay,” the film makers might say, “You didn’t like the first movie. We understand.  Not all of our ideas and dramatic possibilities came through as well as we had hoped.  Give us another chance.  Here’s what we were trying to do.  We hope you’ll enjoy this next film more”

            I know, of course, that nothing in Hollywood is ever done for artistic reasons.  Someone in Disney studios must have decided that Tron still had enough name recognition to be profitable, and it was as simple as that.
            And yet, they weren’t just looking for a quick buck.  Disney had ambitions of launching a whole franchise off of this movie, which means that in order to breath new life into a dead franchise, they wanted this film to really be good.
            The challenge of making a good sequel to a bad movie intrigued me.

Why I watched this Movie
          I was travelling around Malaysia and after a day of sight seeing, I was zoned out in the hotel just watching free cable TV.
            The 1982 Tron movie came on, and I re-watched the whole thing just for nostalgia’s sake.
            Then immediately following, Tron: Legacy was showing, and I thought: “Oh, why not?” and I just stayed glued to the TV for both movies.
            The next day I was out and about sight-seeing again, and I didn’t get a chance to sit down and write my review.  And in fact it was about 3 weeks before I got back home again and had access to my regular word processor. And so the review for this movie never got written up at the time.
            But I put it on my “Movie Review To Do List”, and a year and a half later I eventually got around to it.
            To re-fresh my memory, I got the DVD and re-watched it before this review.

The Review
          Having watched this movie twice, once right after viewing the original, and once just on it’s own, the first point to make is: don’t watch this movie right after the original Tron, because you’re essentially just watching the same movie twice, and that’s as boring as it sounds.
            There are, it must be admitted, a couple neat nods to continuity that I was able to catch by watching both movies in succession.  The big door opening up to ENCOM for example, is the same in both movies.  Minor characters like Alan Bradley reprise their role, and there’s also a nod to the Ed Dillinger, the villain of the original movie, in the character of his son Edward Dillinger Jr.
            But, unfortunately the new movie doesn’t have many new tricks that weren’t in the original movie.  The bike races and disc games are a little bit amped up, but essentially the same concept.  (And the airplane scene is just essentially the bike race in the sky).

            I enjoyed Tron: Legacy slightly more the second time when I watched it in isolation. It still wasn’t a great movie, but it was at least watchable.
            Tron: Legacy does represent a slight improvement on the original Tron, but they didn’t do near the amount of work they needed to do in order to fulfill their ambition of changing a mediocre old film into a new hit franchise.

            As in the original Tron, none of the concepts in the film are really thought-out or make much sense.  But who cares about that?  All would be forgivable if we just had some really exciting action scenes, but alas we don’t. 
            The middle of the film is especially guilty in this regard, when the action stops for a long period of time for a lot of explanation and exposition.

The Grid
          Computers and video games have changed a lot since 1982.
            Back in 1982, it still seemed like a cool idea to make a movie about a man trapped in a video game.  Nowadays, the lines between video games and movies have blurred so much anyway that there wouldn’t be any point.  (I mean, you could make a movie about someone trapped in Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty, but it wouldn’t be any different than a normal Hollywood action movie.)
            This is perhaps why it’s so hard to update Tron.  And perhaps why the filmmakers just stay with the same ideas they had back in 1982.
            The logic behind the film is explained in the DVD extras.  The Tron world was cut off from the rest of cyberspace back in the 1980s, and evolved independently of the Internet as a sort of “digital Galapagos” (to borrow the words of the filmmakers).  Everything about this world is the evolved from the concepts of the original film, so you have all the same machinery and games, just more evolved.  It’s supposed to look futuristic, but to my eye it still looks very primitive, and only slightly improved from the 1980s technology that originated it.
            Imitating the monotone colors of the original film, the filmmakers have made this film almost entirely with bright white lights against a dark background.
            It’s alright, kind of, at first, but the director vastly overestimated the amount of time I would want to spend in this world. 
            This is not the kind of fantasy world you want to get absorbed in.  This is a fantasy world that has very little to offer visually, and it creates a very claustrophobic feel to it.

Other Observations:

*  There’s an interesting article in I found in’s archives [LINK HERE].
            Apparently in the months leading up to the release of Tron: Legacy, Disney made it impossible to track down the original Tron.

            Yes, probably, but also as I said above: Tron: Legacy doesn’t work after viewing the original Tron, because it’s essentially the same film twice.  My guess is someone at Disney realized this, and that’s why during the theatrical release of Tron: Legacy, they restricted access accordingly.

* The character of Castor/Zuse reminds me an awful lot of Merovingian (W) from The Matrix II.  Both are portrayed as flamboyant and eccentric, and both characters are rogue computer programs that form a 3rd faction in addition to the already established conflict between the human protagonist and the evil computer program.
            In fact, the more I think about it, Tron: Legacy actually has a lot of similarities to The Matrix II.
            Earlier in this review, I questioned: Why a Tron sequel now?  But, upon reflection, maybe that question is easily answered.  How much do you want to bet that the success of The Matrix movies had some bearing on Disney’s decision to finally dust off this old property?
            For all its many problems and plot holes, The Matrix II at least had some really awesome action sequences, and those make it a fun movie to watch.  Tron: Legacy, on the other hand, does not have very impressive action sequences.  So if you’re in the video store, and you’re trying to decide between The Matrix II and Tron: Legacy, go with The Matrix II every time.

* As I’ve already complained about, with the disc games and bike races recycled from the original Tron, this movie offered very little that was new.
            So, what could they have done to improve the second movie?
            Well, here’s one thought.  In the first Tron, we got cheated out of a scene with the grid bugs.  (We saw the grid bugs moving across the screen, but they never actually reached our heroes.)  Why not have put a fight with the grid bugs into the sequel?  I think that could have been really cool.
            And while I’m thinking back to under-used concepts from the original that could have been brought back for the sequel: what about that yes-no ball of light?  They should have worked a cameo in for it somewhere.

* In this film, Jeff Bridges plays a dual role as both himself, and a younger 1980s version of himself.
            It’s impressive groundbreaking special effects and yet…the technology is not quite 100% there yet.  The computer animated younger Jeff Bridges was almost perfect, but something about him looked just a little bit off. 
            Worse yet, there were all sorts of shots were you could tell the camera was deliberately shooting younger Jeff Bridges from the back of the head, or avoiding a close up.  It distracted me from the story and focused me on the mechanics of the film production instead.
            The same thing was true of the character Tron.  Whenever he appeared on screen, I could never think about his character arc.  Instead, I just couldn’t help notice about was the lengths the filmmakers were going to avoid having to show his face.

* Clichéd dialogue alert:
Sam: Oh, and…you were right.
Alan: About what?
Sam: About everything.

* From the DVD extras: Olivia Wilde was talking about her character Quorra: “ [Director] Joe [Kosinski] was wonderful in wanting to create something new, something that didn’t necessarily have to be the typical female lead vixen warrior character we have seen quite a few times.
            Well, cliched female vixen warrior character successfully avoided.

            In its place, however, we have something equally clichéd in science fiction films: the sexy female character with the body of a full grown woman, but the mind of a naïve child, who relies on the male protagonist to educate her about the world.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: America is accelerating the apocalypse: Global warming and nuclear arms conflicts threaten the planet, thanks in no small part to U.S. policy failures
and New antiwar plan emerges for Syria: Leader details urgent crusade: Barbara Lee tells Salon why military intervention is unnecessary and details her alternative approach to Syria mess

Monday, September 09, 2013

What book or series of books should be made into a TV show?

The AVclub recently did an article on: What book or series of books should be made into a TV show? 
So allow me to chime in with my two cents on this important issue.
I previously made a list of all the historical dramas I would love to see given The Tudors  or Game of Thrones treatment, and this list will overlap with that list somewhat, but this time I'll contain myself to books.

First and foremost, I think you really could do an awesome TV show based off Collen McCullough's Masters of Rome  series.
I know we just recently had a drama based on the same time period: HBO's Rome.  But television is changing so much lately that Rome already seems to be a relic from another era. Rome was constantly worried it's audience would get bored by the real history, so they kept trying to simplify or change it.
 Back then, it was thought that television audiences wouldn't have patience for long drawn out plots, and all the complications of history, especially a history that involved many different feuding aristocratic families over a long period of time.  (I think it's safe to say that Game of Thrones has now made these series popular.)
Also, I'm told that the business and distribution model was different at that time, so that a show like Rome was not profitable to produce, and that's why it got cancelled after only two seasons, and all the historical events in the second season then had to be so rushed.  Someone better informed than me will have to comment, but I understand these shows are much more profitable now.
So, I think there would probably be a market for a TV show that gave Masters of Rome the whole epic Game of Thrones treatment.  

.....And, basically that's my only really good idea.
I've got a couple more sub ideas, but I'm not nearly as enthusiastic about them.
I'm of course a fan of the Flashman series.  That might make an interesting TV show, although the series isn't really so much one interconnected story as it is a series of different episodes.  You could of course still adapt it for TV, but it might be hard to keep the momentum going from season to season.  
Also there's the fact that Flashman himself does a lot of terrible things, which make him an unsympathetic hero.
If you were going to adapt this series for television, I think the way to do it would be to borrow the conceit from the book where a historian is going through and commenting on Flashman's memoirs as he reads them.  You could have an external historian narrator, who you could frequently cut back to and who would comment on Flashman's deplorably morals, and also tell the audience what details of history Flashman is getting right, and what details he's exaggerating.

 Other ideas: The 1632 series might have some potential, although I should probably read the whole series before I comment on it.
Also I've been reading The 3 Musketeers series lately, and I'm struck by how much story there is in these books, and how skillfully it integrates real history with fiction.  Plus if you count in all the sequels, there's a lot of material to work with here, so you could probably get a lot of seasons out of it.  But, as with 1632, I should probably wait until I actually finish the books before I make a definitive comment.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.  What series of books would you like to see given the Game of Thrones treatment?

Link of the Day

Sunday, September 08, 2013

I had rather record a thousand errors on the side of mercy: Thomas Paine's Arguments at the Trial of Louis XVI

This has nothing to do with anything that is in the news lately, but it's something I stumbled across years ago while browsing through a collection of the complete works of Thomas Paine in the library one afternoon, and it always stuck with me.  Unfortunately this little gem is largely buried.  It's hard to find this speech cited any where, but it probably deserves wider circulation.  So I've finally decided to repost it here, and apologies if this is seems a little random.
Looked at objectively, Louis XVI probably did deserve the guillotine (by this point he had been caught inviting foreign armies into France to crush the revolution, and was clearly guilty of treason). And yet, rather than cold justice, how much more appealing is Paine's urge for humanity. "If, on my return to America, I should employ myself on a history of the French Revolution, I had rather record a thousand errors on the side of mercy, than be obliged to tell one act of severe justice." 
Given that within the year, the French Revolution would spiral out of control and start to eat its own children, think how much different history could have been if Paine's simple appeal to mercy had been listened to.
For that matter, given, how many subsequent revolutions in world history have followed the French model, think how different world history could have been if this advice had been followed.
The Sandinista Thomas Borge is another positive example [LINK HERE].  One can only hope that in the future revolutions, history follows the examples of Paine and Borge.


(Read in French by Deputy Bancal.)
Very sincerely do I regret the Convention’s vote of yesterday for death.
Marat [interrupting]: I submit that Thomas Paine is incompetent to vote on this question; being a Quaker his religious principles are opposed to capital punishment. [Much confusion, quieted by cries for “freedom of speech,” on which Bancal proceeds with Paine’s speech.]
I have the advantage of some experience; it is near twenty years that I have been engaged in the cause of liberty, having contributed something to it in the revolution of the United States of America. My language has always been that of liberty and humanity, and I know that nothing so exalts a nation as the union of these two principles, l under all circumstances. I know that the public mind of France, and particularly that of Paris, has been heated and irritated by the dangers to which they have been exposed; but could we carry our thoughts into the future, when the dangers are ended and the irritations forgotten, what to-day seems an act of justice may then appear an act of vengeance. [Murmurs.] My anxiety for the cause of France has become for the moment concern for her honor. If, on my return to America, I should employ myself on a history of the French Revolution, I had rather record a thousand errors on the side of mercy, than be obliged to tell one act of severe justice.

 (PS--I've used this quote once before on this blog, although I mangled it slightly because at the time I had trouble tracking down the exact words and was just quoting from memory.  And I've also used it here.  So I'm repeating myself, but I think it's worth repeating.)

Link of the Day

Saturday, September 07, 2013

From CNN:
Why I changed my mind on weed
(Just to be clear, I certainly don't advocate smoking marijuana.  But I do think arresting people for marijuana is just insane, and if more reports like this come out it might motivate a change in policy.)

On a completely different note, from
Chomsky: Syria attack would be “war crime”: Even if congressional support is garnered, the antiwar linguist rejects the case for war