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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.

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! 

Irish Blessing

nyrb "Each time I discover a book [in the series] it’s like being privy to something that is almost a secret—almost like a fraternity or sorority for folks who hate the idea of fraternities," Leonard Fleisig, a Washington, D.C., fan of NYRB Classics says. "The imprint is very eclectic and you don’t find yourself mired in a particular genre. I quickly determined their editorial staff has an eye for the quirky and overlooked."

via A Meaningful Publisher « Forbes.com’s Booked.

An effervescent account of NYRB Classics, a publisher that has the rare virtue of success in a struggling book market.  They  succeed by providing a valuable product in addition to just the value created by the author.  How rare in the literary world to come across a publisher that adds value in how it selects, embellishes and prints books.

This article tempts me to buy every book they’ve ever published just to reward them for daring to be different in a market full of low quality production values and rare attention to detail.

A quantitative content analysis of 20 James Bond films assessed portrayals of 195 female characters. Key findings include a trend of more sexual activity and greater harm to females over time, but few significant across-time differences in demographic characteristics of Bond women. Sexual activity is predicted by race, attractiveness, size of role, and aggressive behaviors. Being a target of weapons is predicted by size of role, sexual activity, and weapon use, while being harmed is predicted principally by role. End-of-film mortality is predicted by sexual activity, ethical status (good vs. bad), and attempting to kill Bond. This identification of a link between sexuality and violent behavior is noted as a contribution to the media and sex roles literatures.

Source: “Shaken and Stirred: A Content Analysis of Women’s Portrayals in James Bond Film” from the journal “Sex Roles”, 2009

via What do Bond girls have in common? – Barking up the wrong tree.

I’m not sure it required a scientific study to determine that trying to kill Bond doesn’t ends well.

In every prosperous democracy that features universal health care, job and retirement security, and low levels of social ills such as homicide, incarceration, juvenile and adult mortality, divorce and so forth, the middle-class majority has abandoned the churches in droves because they no longer feel the need to seek the protection and assistance of supernatural powers.

via Why Belief in God Is Not Innate – WSJ.com.

03_vatal_134562

I know this is meant to be a photo, but I’ve been struck by these drawings ever since I saw them last Monday.

They’re not  cheerful, but they’re striking and memorable.

Do take the time to look at the rest.

Dom has pointed out rightly that I ought to be more discrete on a public blog. You may take it as euphoria getting in the way of prudence.

Send me an email and I’ll send you the password if you wish to read the post below. If you don’t have my email, well that makes all of this rather academic then doesn’t it.

 EDIT: At Gareth’s suggestion I deleted the post. Its not the right place or time for this at the moment. If you resent that decision, blame Gareth. It’s what all the smart people are doing.

I’m switching from the default wordpress.com feed to one run by the sophisticated chaps at Feedburner. The benefits are mainly for me on the back end, cause I get to play around with this nifty Web 2.0 tool. If you’re currently subscribed to my wordpress feed, and especially if you’ve just subscribed I’m most apologetic for the inconvenience, but please switch to the new feed. You can do this by using the  feed icon in the top right corner.

A Tip of the Hat

Much Obliged.