Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Crisis of Accountability

“With great power comes great responsibility”

 

In 2002, when this was the tag line for a superhero movie, it was an obvious to everyone. Literal popcorn stuff. How times have changed. Over the past decade, in particular, the world has been suffering from an increasing accountability crisis, where instead of coming with great responsibility, power is increasingly used to avoid responsibility.

 

This is not a partisan thing- it happens from the most left wing countries to the most reactionary ones. Nor is it restricted to government. Many of the post-financial crisis business models, such as the gig economy and many debt repackaging schemes, involve taking profit while evading the associated risk.

 

I’m not entirely sure why this is happening now. In government, it may be related to the rise of strongmen in the wake of the Arab Spring failure and the alienation of Putin by the G7 in the earl-to-mid teens. Strongmen, almost by definition, use their power to repress criticism and avoid responsibility, and try to minimize their accountability. If they had actual accomplishments, then they wouldn’t have to use threats and lies to distract from their records.

 

The transformation of the internet into a disinformation superhighway probably plays a role as well, But disinformation is only a tool, not a payoff. However, it can distract from the rapid movement of ideas and capital, which allow grift to mutiply like never before.

 

But these aren’t the main problem. The main problem is the mindset that somehow, some one somewhere will clean up the mess left behind. Grifters assume that they can just move on to somewhere they can spend their ill gotten wealth. But even though we live on a big old planet, technology has shrunk it to the point where they can trash and loot all of it before they realize that there is nowhere left to go.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Henry VI, part one: The Joan of Arc cut

William Shakespeare’s history plays Henry V and Richard III are two of his, and English-speaking Theatre's, greatest plays. They are also among his best known works. Less famous, however, are the three Henry VI plays- these are basically the historical filler between the death of Henry V and the famous Winter of Discontent. 

The second two Henry VI plays are about the civil strife that hurled England into the War of the Roses; part one is about the loss of French territories, and is rarely performed except in conjunction with the other two parts. In fact, it may only partially be Shakespeare’s work; recent scholarship has suggested that it was co-written by Christopher Marlowe.

The play starts with the funeral of Henry V, and follows the feuding between various English factions as Joan of Arc cuts a swath through the English holdings in France. In fact, Joan is the most interesting character in the play. 

Shakespeare didn’t write a lot of great women roles. Women weren’t even allowed to perform during his career, so there probably wasn’t much demand. Still, his Joan is not too different to a modern heroine. As most Shakespeare plays these days are cut for length anyway, I tried to cut it in a way that highlighted Joan’s story, and not that of the hapless English.

In the full play, the one sympathetic Englishman of substance is Talbot. He’s a bit of a Mary Sue, and is actually quite dull, so most of the cuts relate to other people praising him. This makes him seem more vainglorious (he still praises himself), and heightens the tragedy of his son believing everything he says about his greatness.

The other cuts are extraneous sideplots and foreshadowing of the subsequent plays. This is Joan’s story, not the setup for the War of the Roses. When the Henry IV plays get combined, often those scenes are the only ones kept, so I can lose them. Aside from that, just a few of the more vitriolic jabs at Joan towards the end had to go to make her story consistent and compelling.

Of course, editing a Shakespeare play to highlight the French over their pathetic English adversaries might feel treacherous to the denizens of that island where, as Joan says, “May the glorious sun never reflex his beams.” So I decided to twist the knife by using as my reference the Folger Shakespeare Library version; an American edition of the text. 

So, in their entirety, the cuts to the Folger Shakespeare Library version of Henry VI, part 1, are as follows:


Act 1, scene 1: 

Cut lines 25-27

Cut lines 122-136 (Joan, not Talbot, is the focus of this edit)

Cut lines 141-142


Act 1 scene 2

Cut lines 13-24 

Cut lines 35-36


Act 2, scene 1:

Cut everything (including directions) after line 81


Act 2 scene 2:

Cut entire scene (Not Talbot’s play)

Act 2 scene 3

Cut entire scene (Not Talbot’s play)

Act 2 scene 5

Cut entire scene (setup for sequel plays)


Act 3 scene 3

Cut lines 58-59

Cut lines 78-80

Cut line 85


Act 3 scene 4

Cut entire scene


Act 4 scene 1

Cut everything (including directions) after line 78


Act 4 scene 2

Cut lines 31-34


Act 4 scene 7

Cut lines 40-44

Cut lines 48-51


Act 5 scene 3

Cut lines 10-11

Cut lines 14-22

Cut line 28

Cut “But Suffolk Stay” from line 192

Cut lines 193 to end of scene


Act 5 scene 4

Cut lines 7-8

Cut lines 10-16

Cut lines 18-19

Cut “Now cursed be the time” from line 26

Cut lines 27-34

Cut lines 38-39

Cut “Hath been” from line 50

Cut lines 51-53

Cut lines 61-85


Act 5 scene 5

Cut entire scene (this sets up the next play)


Sunday, September 20, 2020

Geosonnet 65

Speed dating is a scattershot affair
Which blasts the hearts of river zircon grains
No magic mirror can discern the fair
And youngest zircon sediment contains.
If dating based on chemistry is used
The youngest grain is easier to find.
But chemistry is tedious! Abused
Statistics can be questioned and refined.
The youngest kernel density’s a crone
The youngest single grain is way too young,
Statistical young grouping’s in the zone
Though less exacting than the dates Tims’s brung
So settle down, this zircon dating’s docile
Until you try to match it with a fossil.

Geology 47 1044


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Sunday, March 08, 2020

Book Review: Illegal, by Prof Elizabeth F Cohen


      The knock on the door came well before dawn in the eighties, and our train had stopped dead in utter darkness. It was a sleeper train, and it was about to be sealed. We were taking the overnighter from Munich to West Berlin, and the train, which had to traverse East Germany, was being inspected before being sent on its no-stops-allowed run behind the iron curtain to democratic West Berlin.
      The German Democratic Republic, aka East Germany, was a communist regime. For any of you too young to remember the Soviet era, this meant that the Government was essentially unlimited and all-powerful. There was no balance of power between government and corporations because the government owned every business larger than a family store. There was no balance between workers and management because labor unions were banned, There was no balance between church and state because religion was illegal. And there was no balance between political parties because only the Communist party was allowed to exist.
      Among the Eastern Bloc Communist countries, however, East Germany had a reputation as being particularly sadistic. There was a vast secret police force which spied on its own citizens. To prevent East Germans from escaping to the free world, they built walls and fences, laid mines, and gave armed guards orders to shoot to kill. And now we, a bunch of sleepy American high school students, were about to cross that border to transit to West Berlin, a sole island of freedom deep within the repressive East German State. There was just one problem.
      Not all of us were actually Americans. My bunkmate (who shall remain anonymous) was on a green card. His passport was issued by India. 
      Despite the fundamental differences between the Communist countries and the West, by the 80’s the Communist countries were generally happy to have Western tourists. The Communist economies weren’t very efficient, and they were reliant on US dollars or other western currency to keep them financially sound. So having American school kids pass through was fine. Indians were another story, however.
Even though socialist India of the 80’s was much more philosophically aligned with East Germany than the US was, it was also a much poorer country. And although the communists espoused equality among people and the redistribution of wealth, that didn’t extend to letting the “Asian Hordes” stream into the country, live off welfare, disrupt the cultural homogeneity and steal jobs. My bunkmate was supposed to have a visa, but due to a mistake by our teacher, he had arrived at the world’s most heavily controlled border without one. And on that eighties evening, the two uniformed East German Border agents accosting us in our sleeping compartment on that train were telling us all about it in shouty German.
      That was over 30 years ago. That border, and Communist Germany, no longer exist. But there is a darker side to America’s victory of freedom and democracy over the cruel communist state. As Professor Cohen describes in her new book, “Illegal”, since the fall of communism the United States has fortified its own borders, militarized the border force, eroded the rights of its people, and overridden the checks and balances that distinguish the Free World from despotic regimes. 
      “Illegal” briskly tells the story of the last 100+ years of US border policy and law. Starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and proceeding up to the current US administration, Cohen lays out the facts of the laws as they are passed, the intention behind them, and the zeitgeist which called for their formation.
      This is not a detached, theoretical treatise. Although it is rigorously researched and referenced, it is intensely personal and emotional. The introduction starts with the story of Cohen’s mother’s journey to America as a Jewish refugee from post-war Europe. The first chapter, which details the current abuses of the Customs & Border Patrol and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (CPB and ICE) agencies is scathing it its description of the inhumane treatment of suspected illegal immigrants happening right now in the Land of the Free.
      Back on the 80’s train, the shouty border guards gave way to the Very Quiet supervisor. After quickly confirming that our Russian was even worse than our German, he managed, through halting English and slow repetitive German, to explain the situation we were in. And he had a choice to make. Inside of East Germany, the security forces’ power was absolute. But there was a broader picture. 
      The entire Cold War, in a nutshell, was a competition between the Communist and Democratic world over who could build a superior civilization after the ruinous destruction of the Second World War. The fact that Germany was divided into East and West, with a Federal Republican government on one side and a Centralized Communist one on the other, was the very essence of this competition. And a key weapon in this struggle was propaganda. It would be bad publicity to strand or disappear a kid from an American school.
      Of course, publicity requires the ability to discover and propagate knowledge about the actions or events which one wishes to publicize. And one of the key highlights of this book is Cohen’s ability to put all the pieces half-hidden in the shadows together. For example, while it has been obvious to even the most casual observer of government affairs that secrecy has been abused for practically all of the War on Terror, Illegal shows not just the abusive actions which are covered up, but the lobbyists and motivations behind corrupting the security apparatus to persecute peaceful foreigners in the first place.
      The first several chapters of Illegal show that racism has been a central driving force for immigration control ever since it was first practiced with the Chinese Exclusion act. While side issues like labor, “coolieism,” and humanity occasionally played a role, the force driving the main advocates for crueler borders from the 1880’s to today has been to keep America white. 
      This was unsurprising in the days before WWII, when white superiority was common in American society. But the insidious feature of immigration law that Cohen documents is that even as white supremacy has become more of a fringe belief, the few very rich and powerful people who subscribe to it have been able to build stronger and more robust lobby groups to restrict non-white immigrants, so that their racist policies, dressed up in sham excuses, have become bipartisan and been strengthened by all of the last four administrations, including that of the first black President.
      The scope of this stealth white supremacy was astonishing. Particularly surprising to me was that the White Supremacist heiress, Cordelia Scaife May, was behind the infiltration of the Sierra Club by low population growth “environmental” activists. Having worked a little with the Sierra Student Coalition in college,I knew these people existed, and had in fact argued against them, but I had naively assumed that they were arguing in good faith, and were not in fact paid shills.
      Back in the 80’s, the STASI goons eventually waved us through. We were lucky in that the big picture connotations outweighed meeting a quota. But even so, it was a formative experience. And seeing America adopt the lack of due process and cruel and unusual border tactics used by the commies makes me seethe with anger. I’m not saying that borders don’t need to be controlled, but they can be controlled in a way that demonstrates American values instead of eroding them. The last chapter of Illegal makes several specific suggestions as to how this can be done.
      Illegal is much mare fast-paced and accessible that Cohen’s academic books, like The Political Value of Time.  It relies on endnotes and references instead of digressions to fill in the details, making the book a non-fiction page turner in the manner of the 9/11 Commission report. Obviously your’s lived experience will affect what you take away from the book, but for me it was terrifyingly addicive.  I recommend it for anyone who believes in American values.

Disclaimer. Both of you who are longtime readers of this blog and are still here might be wondering how it is that a Gen-X political theory professor from Syracuse features so prominently in the book reviews here at the empirical Lounge. Given the standard topics here, this emphasis in political philosophy may seem somewhat anomalous. And this is a fair call. But it just so happens, Dr Cohen is someone I have known personally since before we liberated Eastern Europe. We went to junior high and high school together, and as relatively few people at our school took German, we had that class together for four years. In fact, although the girls were bunking at the other end of the Carriage and the goons with Kalashnikovs prevented them from seeing our ordeal, she was also on that train. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Geosonnet 64


When Perseus, Medusa’s head in hand,
Returned triumphant from the Gorgon’s isle,
He sold himself as hero of the land,
No stony witnesses could cramp his style.
When older larger monsters were destroyed,
No Greek boast twisted dinosaurs’ last stand.
To know the source of mammals’ schadenfreude,
Interrogate the Gorgon Island’s sand.
A spherule bed is present in the rock
Old microtektites still containing glass
The argon age is Chicxulub’s great shock,
American ejecta cumulates en masse.
   Thus impact-based extinction we construe.
   With mythic monsters vanquished, ferns regrew.



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Thursday, February 06, 2020

Geosonnet 63

 

The Tragomys, like Creagh a desert rat,
Evolving on the hamster wheel of time
Scampered across the desert habitat
Of arid climates close to maritime.
But though they like to sunbathe, they don’t swim.
A beach bum never venturing to sea
Won’t paddle to an island on a whim;
Mallorca Strait stops them assuredly.
But when Mediterranean dries up
By isolation from the global seas
Then rodents which can’t swim can walk or jump
Populating peninsula with ease.
The hamsters, gerbils both confirm the tale
Messinian evaporates regale.


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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Geosonnet 62



Charles Sturt believed there was an inland sea
Where westward winding rivers could discharge
This destination proved illusory
And yet his name’s on desert, gorge, litharge.
Among the rocky features labelled Sturt
An ancient glaciation bears his name
Geologists today wish to assert
Exactly when this global ice age came.
But Glac’ers oft erode what lies below
Entire sections thus are hard to find.
A dozen million years post-Inslay show
The isotope and ice are not entwined.
Seven one seven million years from then
Sturt chased mirage hypotheses again.


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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Some quick thoughts on the current suite of Star Wars movies


I meant to post this last year, but never quite got around to typing it up, so on the eve of the next Star Wars film, here’s a few thoughts about two of the more recent ones.

On my last trans-pacific flight, I watched The Last Jedi and Rouge One back to back. It was an interesting contrast, as it clarified what I do and don’t like about the more recent versions of these films.

Rouge One was a brilliant movie. I can’t recall the last time I saw a Sci-Fi heist movie, but they pulled it off in style. It was also a great war movie- sort of like a futuristic Guns of Navarrone or Bridge over the river Kwai. The stakes were high, the Empire was evil, the heroes lay everything on the line to stop a terrible weapon from being unleashed- while at the same time it was similar enough to our own neverending wars that it felt pertinent and important.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, I found to be pretty but implausible, with too many emotionally unsupported plot twists and a tiresome moral relativism. The “break with the past” embodied by Ren’s betrayal made the plot choices seem arbitrary. Furthermore, the Empire, for the first Star Wars movie ever, wasn’t particularly evil. They were fighting the rebels, and the rebels were fighting the Empire (or First Order, as the neo-imperials style themselves). But the rebels opened the movie by failing cheaply through petulance, and the Casino scene literally held both sides to be equivalent, so this was very much the Nazi sanitation Star Wars movie, which didn’t sit well with me. I suppose that’s what happens when Imperial merchandising is a billion dollar business, but the battle between good and evil was a big draw of the franchise for me.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I was turned off enough to skip the Solo movie. Dunno if I’ll see this one or not.