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Some random thoughts that occurred to me as I was watching the latest Hunger Games movie this afternoon.

Panem evokes the Roman Empire so deliberately that it cheapens its own sense of novelty.  The sense of a Circus Maximus when they parade the various tributes in their horse-drawn chariots.  The Arena in which the Hunger Games are conducted echoes a modern Colosseum. The idea of combatants as celebrities mirrors reality exceptionally well.  The President is a president in name and (apparently) an imperator in function.  The feasts where the guests vomit during its course so that they may continue feasting.  The gaudy fashions.  Even the notion of the Capital and the dowdy provinces is very Roman.  As is of course, the inevitable provincial rebellion by the barbarians and the sack of the glorious city.

Someone should perhaps have a quiet word with the screen writer about structuring stories.  This one started pointlessly, meandered around for 30 – 45 minutes in which nothing of note happened and contained no obvious closure upon its completion.  I understand this is the middle book in a trilogy, and so by definition it has a lot of ‘middle’ in it, but at the same time it was capable of having a story arc within in that would carry the audience.  This was a movie that could be described as (i) these are the consequences of Movie 1 and (ii) this is the background for Movie 3 and 4.  Star Wars did most of that with some scrolling narrative on a screen. Lord of the Rings had Bilbo tell a few tales at the beginning.  Maybe Hunger Games needs to have someone set the scene rather than laboriously show it to us.

Why is the imperator / president so stupid? Does he not realise that crushing people with increased oppression whilst they still have hope will encourage not discourage a revolution? Why is he making these decisions based on casual chats with one person (Plutarch) without recourse to any other advisors (who is new in his job, which has nothing to do with national security, and no proven track record) and his own intelligences services and armed forces? After all, those armed forces seem highly competent.  Sure its economy of story telling, but it makes President Snow seem monstrously stupid rather than terrifying for someone who has absolute power.

What happened to air travel?  How come the country is dotted with trains which cross the country yet no one flies? Flight is possible, and often used quite casually it seems for other reasons but no one thinks to fly the Tributes from district to district. Opulent luxury trains are an odd choice.

Katniss Everdeen is a caricature of female strength. I see her more of a feminised Rocky or John Rambo rather than any true standard bearer for the power of the feminine. The movie makes a great point of her being rather emotionally dead on the inside from seeing too much bloodshed.  For all  her skill, strength, bravado and supposed leadership, the movie exposes her at its end to be a pawn of a conspiracy of men.  A conspiracy so important that she couldn’t be trusted with it, even though half her supposed opponents were inducted into it. A conspiracy run in part by a drunk and a pretty boy.  So  much for all  her supposed prominence and importance. She comes across as a figure head, the ceremonial lead fighter in the battle, but not a military leader and certainly not the great political leader.

At the same time, I find her character an interesting reflection on the question of sacrifice.  Katniss faces the choice between greatness and happiness, in a way that I suspect many great people do but is torn between the choices. Decisive action, perhaps history defining options, are offered to Katniss and she is determined to avoid them.  It takes the conspiracy to force her hand.

Peeta is without doubt a wet rag of a man, as many people have mentioned to me, and much of Katniss’ behaviour towards him seems senseless. She is emotionally distraught for someone she doesn’t consider to be even a friend. But we are told early on that she is required to deliver a convincing performance in this greatest love story.  Is she playing this up to the expectation’s of President Snow or is she genuinely upset at what is going on? We are constantly reminded how convinced President’ Snow’s little granddaughter is by the grand love story so it does suggest the later.  Is it also perhaps a case of how pretending to do something for long enough can make it become real?

I have a degree of sympathy for Peeta.  Robert Heinlein once memorably wrote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

And in some of these things Peeta is many miles ahead of Katniss.  His grasp of strategy obviously exceeds hers, pointing out the obvious effect of killing the enemies is inevitable conflict between the survivors.  He is able to comfort the dying, in a way that Katniss manifestly regards beyond her capacity.  He remains calm under pressure, speaks where Katniss is speechless, leads the way and comfortably follows orders.  He may not be a man like Katniss is, but he is in a distinct way, perhaps a more modern way, a man.  He is not the alpha male that Katniss is.

How the hell does Beetee have access to this giant spool of wire that is able to conduct lightening, yet be so super thin?  On the other hand, it was pretty obvious the moment that there was lightening and they showed you Katniss shooting arrows into the roof, that the required spool of wire was going to be found.  Especially since they went far far far out of their way to make it clear that Panem was having trouble keeping the lights on.

Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, feels like what Owen Wilson would be as an actor, if Owen Wilson were ever to stop playing the same character all the time and learn how to act.  I highly doubt that will ever happen.

This piece by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair just gets under my skin. The argument is that there is a problem ‘within’ Islam: modern pluralistic societies are per se incompatible with the Islamic faith. Islam, as it is practiced now, can never lead to tolerant pluralistic societies.

But don’t worry about finding a reason for this black and white portrayal of the faith of billions: there’s no reason given by Mr. Blair for this view.  It’s not explained why theologically, culturally or dogmatically Islam (whatever monolithic Islam that Mr. Blair is writing about: I can’t tell) is incompatible with pluralistic societies.  Even though you might think some few words of explanation could be spared for such a sweeping generalisation.

In Blair’s view, the fundamental incompatibility does not leave room for a solution.  There is no scope for this problem – this irreconcilable difference – to be resolved by addressing the underlying issues of youthful populations, lack of opportunity, unemployment, under-development and a lack of access to education.

Never mind that everyone regards these as the potent driving forces of the Arab Spring – the most significant transformation of the Arab world – the heartland of the Islamic world – that we have seen in the last 50 years. Never mind that functioning Muslim majority democracies have existed in Malaysia and Indonesia.  Or that nearly 300 million Indian Muslims have the right to vote. Their actions can never bridge the theoretical divide

Instead, in the Blairite world, there is a (clearly Western) mandate to ‘help sow the seeds of reconciliation and peace’ through the use of military intervention. The intervention is needed to clear the fields so that peace can once again be found. Examples of these fields look like Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Blair says that we shouldn’t be misled by the apparent misfiring of the western plow in those countries: we have to remember that these conflicts happened because we allowed failed states to come into being.  To cleanse these failed states, dramatic decisive intervention was needed. A price to be paid for years of neglect.

But why then, Mr. Blair, did we have failed states there in the first place? Why had these fields been abandoned to raise their poisonous harvests?

Should we not see Afghanistan as radicalised Islamists armed by the Western powers when it suited their needs to keep a dangerous Soviet Union invasion in check? A country abandoned to its own fate when the Western geopolitical goal was accomplished? It’s not impossible to find a rich vibrant Afghan society before the Soviet invasion if one goes looking for it.  Heck go watch the Kite Runner.

And then there’s Iraq. Should we not see Iraq as the country where Rumsfeld shook hands with the dictator, a bulwark backed by Western might against Iranian power in the Middle East?  Where your special relationship, Mr. Blair, with the Americans resulted in an illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq?  Where not one WMD was found despite your promises of a rich harvest? Should we not regard this as an utterly tragic misstep that destroyed the country and turned it into fertile ground for extremists to nurture their talents and cultivate their networks? Yes fields were cleared. But weeds proliferated Mr. Blair.

Should we not see Iran as the country where the Western powers decapitated a democratically elected government to impose a tyrannical despot? Should we not see it as the direct target of a pre-revolutionary post-Mossadeq attempt to cleanse a failed state and harvest a rich crop of economic opportunism for the Western world?

And why – no really why – should we forget that the predominant exporter of intolerant Islam is the Wahhabist strain of Islam primarily supported by the Saudi Arabian theocracy.  A country that seems so beloved by the Western world? The great exporter of oil and stability.  The lead exporter of intolerance is the one country that Mr. Blair sees no flaws with in his sweeping world tour citing variety of examples of instability and despondency.  

At every turn, this attempt at opinion, this phony attempt at articulating a divide that echoes (poorly) the clash of civilizations thesis without even the courtesy of offering a reason that stands up to the barest scrutiny. Shame on your Mr. Blair for printing such drivel.  For shame.

Three things strike me as being embedded into the common law.

The first is its commitment to the past. The common law answers every question with an answer based on what it has done before. The magic of precedent is that it looks out to the past to provide a starting point to answer a present question.

The second is its aversion to replicating the past mechanically. Even when given the answer as to what has happened in the past, the common law does not regard that answer as set in stone. It asks instead whether and what principles – what general rule – can be extrapolated from the past rather than any particular answer. The common law, even when it looks at a particular example, treats all such examples as something to be abstracted into a common general rule that is synthesized from all the prior cases.

The third is its caution at applying the past to the present even when the general rule seems apt to the case before it. The common law is always alive to the possibility that an old rule is no longer a good rule. It tests such questions by reference to modern circumstances, societal norms, cultural values and local circumstances. Every general principle can be modified and every such modification finds itself into the next application of the general principle.

In contrast, the poverty of statutory law is that it fails all three tests. It is neither based on past experience (unless there is that rare thing the codifying statute) nor does it identify the key principles that ought to apply by reference to a variety of circumstances and ultimately a statutory rule cannot be changed by contemporary experience. It has to rely on politics and that fickle beast the legislative process to turn an old rule into a good rule.

To all these three deficiencies of statutory law, the common law applies its limited remedial touch through the principles of statutory interpretation. The magic of the common law is that it corrects some of the principal flaws of the system that is superior to it though its own virtues.

A brief mention of two books that I’ve been reading over the month of April. The first is Team of Rivals which is a biography of Abraham Lincoln. The second is Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. These are two American lives that have fascinated me. Two lives destined to belong to the ages. Read More »

I take your divided attention for a single word.

Wool

 

What is Wool?

This is Wool; or, to be accurate, Wool – Part One.

It’s a book. Science-fiction.

It’s fantastic. Captivating writing.  Great setting.  Interesting characters.  Better questions. Clever clever twist.

It’s short.  It clocks in at under 50 pages on my Kindle.  It won’t eat up your valuable time.

At the moment its free. It won’t burn any of your valuable money.

If you want to know more, there is this gem of a resource.

 

It’s a great book, in a great package at a great price. 

What’s not to like? 

Except that the fact you’ll be wanting more at the end of it.

But they thought of that.  More is here.

The Jessup Compromis for 2013 has been released!

The Compromis deals with four interlinked issues. Firstly, whether a state can continue to exist if it has no defined territory. Secondly, whether the treatment and proposed transfer of refugees complied with international refugee law and finally, whether the seizure of state funds deposited with a bank in the other territory is in compliance with international law. 

All of these look like intriguing topics, and especially the first one seems to be a rather unique question that squarely frames the question of whether the Montevideo criteria continue to apply after the recognition of states.  Of course, sovereignty without territory has existed in international law for various specific entities.  Whether that’s a general idea that extends to all sovereign entities is an intriguing question.

Good luck to everyone who decides to participate! 

Birthdays were never a big thing in my family.  Another year of the earth making it around the sun, or the moon making it around the earth: didn’t seem worth celebrating.

When my birthday came again this year, I wasn’t bothered. Nothing special. Not a public holiday (yet) and I don’t mind working on my birthday anyway. So much ado about nothing.

Against my hardened cynicism, I found myself grateful and happy on my birthday this year.

What I understood for the first time is that birthdays aren’t really about celebrating  the birthday. Birthdays are about the joy that comes from recognising the wonderful, diverse, talented, joyous people that have crossed your path. From remembering all the good moments, high, first times and old memories.

I was the fortunate recipient from an overwhelming outpouring of warm wishes. By facetime, phone, video message, email, sms, whatsapp and facebook wall / chats I got many many happy birthdays, kind congratulations, best wishes, hopes for a good day and kind wishes for a year ahead.

These wishes came not only from the people who I see every day, they came from people far far away. They came from old friends and newer. From family and friends who are like family.

Best of all were the close friends who came for a short sweet surprise dinner organised by my wife. Its a rare treat for me to see the diverse individuals I cherry pick to be my friends collected together in one group. Almost as if I don’t except such an odd social group to function. But they were all there and having a good time (I hope) and it meant the world to me that they came. For all this, of course, I owe all credit to the effort, talent and planning of my wife. It wouldn’t have happened without her (I believe it’d never work remember?).

Riding this high, I thought I would reach out again to all those people who had wished me well. I’ve made a real effort to reach back to every person that I could: I’ve replied to emails, responded to comments, called back and tried my utmost to reach out as best as I could. Maybe  that will  spark things, warm things, reignite things that have drifted apart. I hope so.

Celebrating a birthday is about recognising, reaching out, enjoying and spending time with someone you like. Celebrating your birthday is, hopefully, your friends doing the same in reverse. That means a lot.

That is immeasurably valuable.

That’s something worth celebrating.

It is a lovely Sunday afternoon. The sun is shining and the weather is warm. I’m enjoying the season opener to Grimm. I’m gonna start backtracking through Castle next. A classic chill out Sunday.

Despite all of that I find myself living in anticipation of Monday. There’s work to do on Monday. Lots of work. I can’t help thinking about it.

And so I find myself in a strange limbo. I’m waiting through Sunday. In a restless way. Pacing the room. Distracting myself. Drafting blog posts in my head.

My head, though, is in Monday. Working through items in draft. Planning ahead. Writing paragraphs and emails. Living one step ahead compared to where I need to be today.

I want to get to work. I don’t want to spend time on leisure when I can feel the foreboding sense of all that waits to be done.

I feel like I’m wasting my time in leisure when there is a work do to.

Living in the present would require me to do the opposite. To focus on the joy of today and wait till tomorrow to deal with tomorrows issues.

I’m not sure whether that can ever be done. But I know I would like to get better at it. Any tips?

Eid Mubarak! I hope that you made many requests of God and they were answered.

However, if like many mumineen, you asked your fellow masjid / markaz irregulars to remember you in their duas, you may not have been as successful as you wished based on the latest
research:

In findings released just before Ramadan, researchers from Jamea have concluded that solicitations of “dua ma yaad” (DMY) lead to virtually no increase in actually being remembered in duas

However, like the subject of the study shows, it’s all about keeping a can-do attitude:

Ali was at a loss to explain his dismal DMY success, but remained defiant, “All this means is that I gotta step up my DMY game to a whole new level.”

Keep upping your game. And enjoy lunch.

I have always seen duty as paramount. Duty prevailed over need, want, pleasure, choice, happiness or self-direction.

Whatever you did, and you could do anything, you had to first ensure that you did your duty to God and your fellow man.

Duty first.

This is a deeply held sense of duty. I moralised extensively. I gave it primacy over all moral virtue because it was the life objective: the primary obligation of the adult in society. Duty was the ultimate obligation.

No matter how unwilling you were. Or how onerous the duty. Or how irrational.

Duty first.

As you may guess from my recent post, I’m not so cocksure about my sense of duty. Or the importance of duty. Certainly not its total primacy.

Many of the things I’ve been thinking have recently been said – better than I could say them – by the ever interesting Steve Pavlina:

While you may have been convinced that these duties are important, the truth is that they’re of no particular importance to people with high self-esteem and a positive sense of self-worth. Such people do not care how much money you make, what kind of provider you are, or how long you’ve been married to the same person. They’re much more curious about something else: how you feel about yourself and the path you’re walking.

When, however, I connect with people who are responsibly doing their duty, but who haven’t yet cultivated a life of happiness, I can’t help but notice the sallow desperation in their eyes, the numbness with which they speak, and the damned-if-I-do-damned-if-I-don’t game of self-deception they play each day. They feel trapped and lost to the point where they label feelings like depression and frustration with words like “fine” and “okay.”

If you find yourself in such a situation, there is a way out, and it begins with finally acknowledging the truth to yourself and diving into the dark places where you think it may lead. Accept your situation as it is, and most importantly, accept how you feel about it. The reality is that the darkness you fear is really nothing to fear at all. Yes, you may face some challenges, but that is how you’ll grow.

Steve Pavlina describes meeting the dutiful person. If you read his blog though, it’s clear that Steve Pavlina is not one of those people. Maybe he was that person once, but he isn’t now.

I have met that person. I have walked in his shoes, thought his thoughts and weighed his heart. I am that person. I am a duty bound slave.

A person doing their duty should look bleak. A life lived for duty erodes you from the inside. It wears you down until you are ground down emotionally. It leaves behind the finest dust in your heart that stops all positive feelings

You can exercise no hope, no creativity, no wisdom and no strength except in the discharge of your duty.

But duty is never ending. There are always more duties.

Duty is unforgiving. What you do is too little.

Duty is ever present. You can never fail to do your duty.

Duty is harsh. If you’re going to do your duty do it right or don’t do it.

Duty is ungrateful. After all you are only doing your duty: what you should do.

Duty is expectation. Someone has decided what you must do. Your job is not to ask but to do. To obey or go away.

On the day that realisation hits you, or worse you become comfortable with that burden, it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing in your eyes anything but a life of quiet desperation.

The truth is that duty is a self-locking prison. Duty bound and an ardent believer in duty you will discharge the task no matter the cost. It’s about who you are after all: dutiful. And at that point it doesn’t matter how aware you are of the prison at that point because you can’t imagine a life without duty anymore.

I’m trying to be more aware now of what is duty and what is choice. I no longer see my life as duty first. For now that’s the most I can do. But it’s a valuable start.

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