Monday, 31 December 2007

"Carpe Annum"

New Year’s Eve and the end of a year once again fast approaches. This is a time for many people to put the mistakes of the old year behind them and focus their energy on a fresh new 365 days of possibility. For others it’s a time for reflection on the triumphs of the past before planning with eager anticipation, a new year. Despite the fact that nothing will change when Big Ben strikes midnight, people around the world will celebrate the arbitrarily positioned ‘end’ of 2007 and the start of 2008.

Many will make a New Year’s resolution; a change to lifestyle or habit that will supposedly improve the person’s life or level of happiness. New Year is traditionally seen as the time to do this even though, from past experience, lots of people know that their willpower will not last until February. Surveys of the United States show that the top resolutions made around this time are to spend more time with family and friends, to get fit, to lose weight, to quit a bad habit, or (apparently) to “enjoy life more” whatever that entails. Since that survey was conducted by General Nutrition Centres and Quicken, they probably have a very specific range of people which they surveyed ie. dieticians and fitness aficionados.

A resolution is pointless. Lives are not judged by what a person promised to do; lives are judged by actions alone. Good intentions mean nothing beyond the personal subjective. No-one ever had an obituary espousing their good intentions and what they never got round to doing. The sum total of a life is made up of actions performed, thoughts shared, and people met. Promising or resolving to perform an action doesn’t mean a thing. Only the performance of the action is memorable and important.

New Year’s resolutions are contrary to the existentialist lifestyle. As Sartre put it, existentialism is a philosophy of action. People are free to perform any action they desire and are fully responsible for those actions. Blaming someone else or blaming circumstance or not performing in the manner you choose is living in inauthentic ‘bad faith’. Meaning comes from continued existence and existence is typified by action. It’s no use thinking of yourself as a novelist; until you write a novel for the world to see, you’re not. This is all fairly dogmatic and, as an existentialist, I recognise that people have different world views which you are free to hold and define yourself by.

So this year I invite you not to make a resolution. Don’t promise to do something different. Just do something different. Live. Be it according to your rationality or your emotions: whatever, just act. And act like that for the entirety of this upcoming year; life is absurd so 2008 is bound to be relatively bizarre.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Review - Pan's Labyrinth

Contrary to everything I expected and all the better because of it.

The promotional material I’d seen for the film all emphasised the fantasy aspect of the film. Due to that, and the title I turned it on expecting to watch something like ‘Labyrinth’. But instead of David Bowie in tight pants dancing with a load of Muppets, it was an intensely dark story about the essential hope represented in stories themselves.

The theme that was most prevalent was something the mother said: “The world is a cruel place.” That’s what really emphasised itself; darkness, war, tragedy, death, and the general injustice of the world. Set during General Franco’s regime in 1940s Spain, it pulls no punches in representing things pessimistically. I expected a cautionary but principally optimistic story about hope even in dark times like the moral of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, etc etc. I also expected this fairly early on in the film when another theme similar to LOTR crept in; the contrast between nature and technology. Instead there was just darkness with fairy tales playing the role of pure escapism. Ofelia told a story near the beginning about a rose at the top of a black mountain of thorns. That was how hope and light was represented in the film; a distant unreachable goal but that should never let one stop from trying to reach it.

Another theme was obedience and blindly following the bane of the existentialist’s existence, custom. The film shows punishment for obeying/acting without thinking and reward for considering the consequences and refusing to act. This is all the more potent surrounded by the atrocities of soldiers in 1940s Europe where ‘only obeying orders’ brought up calamity on a horrendous scale. The horrors and disconnectedness from thought of custom is starkly shown and makes a reminder that one should always follow either one’s own conclusions; whether they be born of reason or intuition. Thinking or feeling for yourself is always better than doing neither which is something the doctor in the film expressed better than that.

Monday, 24 December 2007

"A Very Kantian Christmas."

Christmas is a strange holiday. Continually balanced precariously on the brink of morality with a unique counterpointing of decadence and excess on the one hand and goodwill, community, and peace on the other. In Nietzschean terms this makes it a perfect balance between Apollonian and Dionysian sensibilities: an advocate of the theory may even say that the holiday’s longevity is due to this. It’s the celebration of the birth of a man who little over 30% of the global population believe was God Incarnate. However when combined with its sister holidays, Hanukkah and, this year, Eid-al-Adha, it makes this particular December a time of widespread religious festivities.

This alone though does not make Christmas a moral holiday. Custom and performing actions merely because they have always previously been performed is not morality: that’s mindless and slavish obedience to the past. Morality resides within action alone and so one must always think about the actions one is performing in the present; specifically one must ask ‘why’ in order to live authentically. And so, dismissing the historical and mythological origins of the holiday, we must ask ‘why Christmas?’

For existentialists, like me, morality is the same as everything else and must be actively defined as one goes through existence. As Sartre would say we must continually remake ourselves. There is no absolute morality because there are no absolutes (and I realise that that statement is inherently a contradiction). Morality is therefore nothing more than whatever works best pragmatically and the best moral theory of a bad bunch is, in my opinion, Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics.

The crux of Kant is the third formulation of the categorical imperative; act always as if you were a legislating member of the kingdom of ends. This means that whenever you act, you ought to ask ‘what if every rational person did this?’ and only if you can will the action to be universal is the action morally permissible. This moral theory has the advantage of basically being a defence of empathy in action and being based upon strict reason and rationality.

So what does this mean for Christmas? When one celebrates Christmas, can the holiday be universalised onto the entirety of the population? The answer is probably that it can; even if people may not be in a position to materially celebrate the holiday, we can will the goodwill and glad tidings to all humanity onto them. But then the question arises, if it’s supposed to be universal, why isn’t this peace and love celebrated all year round?

Because, unfortunately, Christmas is an anomaly: a strange blip on the annual calendar where everything including reason is put to one side to revel in the either Apollonian or Dionysian side of our emotions. For some it’s an excuse and a justification; people act on this one day as they ought to act throughout the entire year and that makes them feel good. For the vast majority of humanity, feeling good and intuition is all it comes down to. This can be manifested in the joy of material possession and advancement, the communitarian feeling that is lacking most of the time, or the self-satisfaction of religious obedience to their benevolent deity and the advancement towards the ultimate rewards that the religious generally seek. For one day of the year people across Western civilisation act simultaneously to feel good and according to Kant that good feeling ought to be universalisable for the whole year.

Christmas, as it stands, is therefore an excuse for immorality; a day when people can advocate peace and joy even, nay especially, if they haven’t for the other 364 days of the year. The moral of the story is best put by the Ghost of Christmas Present in ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’: that we ought to make the love, community, and empathy of Christmas last all year round. If you can do that, then celebrating Christmas is perfectly moral in Kantian terms because it would be ‘Christmas’ everyday.

Postscript:- More unfortunate still is the fact that morality is entirely subjective so all this only applies if you take a Kantian moral framework. You could of course be an existentialist like me and view morals as arbitrary human impositions whereby “nothing remains but what is strictly voluntary”. In that case, you’re free to do whatever you want, define your own existence, and make your own meaning including whatever you make of this strange holiday known as Christmas.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

"Still hasn't beaten Richard Cromwell though..."

Yesterday Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom surpassed Queen Victoria as the oldest reigning monarch of the country. Queen Victoria lived for 81 years, 7 months, and 29 days. As of today, Queen Elizabeth has lived for 81 years, 7 months, and 31 days. Historian David Starkey celebrated this event by publicly bashing the Queen’s philistine attitude and lack of education.

Good for him. Despite his job being based around history and therefore constant looking backwards, he still recognises the need for forward-thinking and change from dogmatic devotion of custom; in this case he advocates a move from the Church of England and for Prince Charles to become King as soon as possible. It’s particularly bold for him to venture his own opinion through his series, ‘Monarchy’, which plays to the (perhaps stereotypically) conservative historian crowd.

For years the present Queen has been practically useless, functioning only as a figurehead and a symbol for the long history of Britain; generally wheeled out to impress and intimidate the Americans and their short 200-year historical background. One could go so far as to say she’s as ineffectual as George W. Bush: like two kids in a playground, except where Bush runs around with ADD pushing over the smarter kids and beating up the weaker kids, Queen Elizabeth just sits quietly in a corner on her own stroking her doll’s pretty hair. Sure, the British Prime Minister sometimes goes over out of sympathy and asks if she wants to play but she just says no and shyly continues sitting on her own. All the other kids view her with pity: they’re nice to her but also think she’s kind of creepy and weird. As this metaphor is quickly losing its structural integrity, I’m going to bail out now.

Our Head of State does nothing. The Royal Family does nothing but provide fodder for tabloids (like The Di-ly Express) and occasionally venture from their palaces to wave at the proles and get their photos taken pulling pints or some other friendly community-centred activity. The British Royal Family is, at the moment, a sad remnant of custom, a lonely bastion of Britain’s ancient traditions, and a reminder of the Imperial power the British Empire used to hold. But now it doesn’t and the Commonwealth doesn’t need a monarch. We need to look forward to make ourselves the nation we want to be instead of clinging conservatively to the past and the nation we used to be.

Still on Christmas Day, we’ll all gather around the TV at 3pm to hear the British Anthem and listen as the Queen gives her futile opinion on the year. It would be nice if she actually said something of any import or something that we’d remember longer than the time it takes the turkey to cook but, sadly, our de jure ruler is no Philosopher-King. Hell, I doubt she’s even read ‘The Republic’.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

"As long as they don't adapt The Adventures of Tom Bombadil..."

Peter Jackson’s team, New Line and MGM are adapting The Hobbit.

It really is the time of year for miracles as the stalemate of litigation, shared rights, and bureaucratic meandering has finally come to an end. A couple of days ago I would have said The Dark Knight was the only film I was looking forward to (that and maybe the mysterious Cloverfield but only if, as rumours suggest, it’s based on Lovecraft). Now this glorious duology of films, slated for release in 2010 and 2011, are what I simply cannot wait to see.

While this is some of the best movie news a fantasy fan could hope to hear as it essentially means a further visit to Peter Jackson’s cinematic vision of Middle Earth, I have a niggling concern about their plans; principally the trumpeted “sequel to “The Hobbit.”” The Lord of the Rings is the sequel to The Hobbit and that’s been filmed rather triumphantly already. Ain’t It Cool News (who simultaneously announced the news and succeeded in devaluing the exclamation mark) postulates that the second film will be a bridge between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In terms of dramatic narrative it doesn’t seem like a good idea. The voluminous appendix to The Lord of the Rings reveals these events between the timelines: Gollum searches for his ring and meets Shelob, Sauron declares himself and rebuilds Barad-Dûr, the White Council meets and then Saruman shacks up in Isengard, Aragorn “undertakes his great journeys and errantries”, whatever they may be, before meeting Arwen, Frodo is born and adopted, and Balin fails to colonise Moria. There are not even very many minor events. The only significant event that is not in the books is the Istari’s attack of Dol Guldur parallel with Bilbo going to the Lonely Mountain. That could also comprise the bit from Unfinished Tales were Gandalf discovers that Sauron has taken residence in Mirkwood, takes the key of Erebor from Thráin, and then runs to the Shire. That White Council/Early Sauron conflict is all interesting stuff but since there’s very little information on it in the books, a script-writer would be flying blind with no idea about true sequence of events or character interaction (apart from necessary conflict between Gandalf and Saruman but that already came to a head in LOTR). There’s not even much indication of what form Sauron/The Necromancer would take. That film could be done but odds are it wouldn’t be Tolkien.

Splitting The Hobbit into two might be a better idea. There’s a somewhat natural mid-point cliff-hanger when the party get captured by the Elves. That’d leave plenty of time in the second film to confront Smaug and have an epic Battle of the Five Armies with a handy opportunity for plot recap when the party reach Lake-town.

Why are New Line so keen for two films? The script can’t have been written yet surely and so it seems odd to specifically announce two films where one would suffice for the moment. Maybe it’s because their ‘new Lord of the Rings’ beginning with The Golden Compass is not doing well. Maybe they want another Oscar-bait movie. Maybe they’ve just come to their senses. Far be it from me to accuse New Line of being money-grabbing but since they’ve just resolved litigation against that very charge, it’s difficult not to.

I only complain because I love. I love Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy and I love Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth literature. The truth is that this news could not be more perfect; if there’s anyone who can deliver not one but two Hobbit films and deliver them well, it is Peter Jackson’s team. It’s going to be intriguing to see how this develops in what suddenly seems a long gap between now and 2010.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

"And over 60% use BT as an ISP."

If you scroll down this page, right down to the very bottom, not only will you get an idea of how long this post is and how much time of your life it will waste, but you’ll also discover a small green SiteMeter box. This box is a free JavaScript tool which anyone can install on a website they maintain in order to track or monitor how many visitors the site gets. Unfortunately it isn’t as innocent as that; the box also tracks the details of any visitor to this blog and allows the owner to see them: all for free! This blog is perfectly innocuous compared to some of the monolithic corporate websites out there in the wild and yet even I can set this up to find out the IP address, world location (with an approximate latitude and longitude), operating system, and internet service provider of any person who clicks onto this site for as much as a half-second. I can even view minutiae like the person’s monitor resolution and internet browsing program.

The good people at SiteMeter even give a precise account of what page you were on before you came here; more specifically which link brought you to this page. This, combined with knowledge of roughly where the person lives, can allow someone to get a good idea of who the person visiting might be, what was going through their mind when they entered the site, and possibly some insight into their browsing habits.

This kind of surveillance is quite disturbing. It may be harmless for me to discover that 35% of people visiting here use Firefox (good for you by the way; it’s heartily recommended by Stephen Fry), but just imagine what a corporation like Google or Amazon could do with more computing power and more access. In a very real way websites already access what’s on your hard drive through data files called ‘cookies’ which store the information of your doings on a particular website so that when you return the site knows who you are. The site uses these cookies which are stored in Temporary Internet Files on your hard drive; so it reaches in and has a look.

Nowadays there are all the CCTV cameras, security doors, and constant surveillance watching us outside as well as this intrusion on our privacy while simply sitting at home and using a computer. If someone came up to your window and peered in at what you were doing, you’d be entitled to call the police. Yet this kind of internet intrusion has always been there, in the background, and so no-one thinks of it as an intrusion on rights. When do we agree to this surveillance in exchange for the benefits of accessing a world-wide information network? And at what point does the exchange become uneven?

John Stuart Mill wrote extensively on the idea of freedom and a central tenet of political liberalism is his ‘harm principle’ which broadly states that one is free to pursue any action as long it doesn’t negatively affect any other person. This kind of internet surveillance is therefore justified in as much as it doesn’t harm anyone. SiteMeter can be free and accessible because there is still a degree of anonymity and it doesn’t harm the visitors to a site other than providing information they may not know (or care) is being provided. While the intrusion may be justified to some extent by reason, it doesn’t necessarily match our intuitions: there’s still the vaguely unsettling notion of being watched on any website one visits.

The moral issue comes down, as so many things do, to the permanent internal human struggle that divides all of us; reason vs. intuition: the dichotomy that has coloured all of human civilisation.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Review - Blade Runner - The Final Cut

Blade Runner. Philosophical. Interesting. Confusing.

One of those rare breed of films which are better when you think back over them than when you’re actually watching them. In this sense, it joins the ranks with ‘Unbreakable’, ‘The Sixth Sense’, and ‘The Usual Suspects’. Thinking about the film now, it seems like an insightful, intriguing, and thoroughly ‘different’ film. In the editing theatre of my head it comes across as poignant and exciting in equal measure. Watching it however is a different matter. It suffered from glaring pacing issues often moving along butt-numbingly slowly for long stretches. In fact, it didn’t really pick up until about halfway through. At the time I thought Edward James Olmos’ lack of lines was a criminal waste of talent (which I know from the similarly-premised ‘Battlestar Galactica’). Now though his performance seems powerfully understated and his last line of the film is made even cooler by the absence of many other lines for him. It’s only in my head afterwards that I can mentally edit it so that it seems more cohesive and satisfying.

I saw the Final Cut, the newest version in the cavalcade of versions since 1982, but as its name implies this should be the final version of the film. Apparently some of the other versions have a ‘film noir’-style voiceover narration. One of the more interesting aspects of the film was how it deftly merged film noir with science fiction and in that spirit of things I think it could have benefitted from some sort of narration over the top; both to lend to the gritty 1940s style of it and to clarify the typically Philip-K-Dickian confusing storyline.

It’s a very deep film and I can tell that really my initial impressions and subsequent musings have only scratched the surface of it. What was done very well was the world-building. This is usually an issue in a novel where the writer has the leisure and the need to create a deep, realistic world. The art direction for Blade Runner was top notch. The world felt real. It was like looking at a gritty, grimy realistic future Los Angeles not like the sleek, polished, and ultimately very-CG world of the Star Wars prequels. Nothing was overdone; everything just lingered in the background, unassuming but better for being so. When Roy talked about seeing burning ships by the shore of Orion, it was easier to believe him because one can imagine that happening within that established world.

There’s a lot to think about in the film: it’s been debated for 25 years. Issues of personal identity, the concept of the self, what it means to be human, and, perhaps most importantly, whether or not Deckard is a replicant. One of the more interesting points is how much happier and satisfied the replicants are all shown to be compared to the staid and depressed moods of the humans portrayed. Maybe only living four years the Nexus-6’s still have the innocence of a child compared to the world-weary cynicism of an adult human.

Also, as my friend pointed out, there seems to be a substantial Asian community in future LA. Easily confused as I am and because I was thinking in terms of Philip K. Dick, I continually felt I was watching ‘The Man in the High Castle’ where the Japanese have taken over the West Coast of America. Interesting overlap or meaningless coincidence?

Thursday, 13 December 2007

"May you live in interesting times."

Terry Pratchett has an early onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

It’s a damn shame; indeed, an embuggerance. He’s a great writer, particularly for teenage readers. His particular brand of anarchic, cynical, and surreal humour is virtually unique. The way his style of parody straddles not just literature but satire of the real world, the conventions of life and philosophy is nothing short of brilliant and consistently hilarious. ‘The Colour of Magic’ despite being a parody of fantasy novels is probably the first fantasy novel I ever loved. I definitely read it before ‘The Lord of the Rings’ so I guess before Peter Jackson and Tolkien launched my love of fantasy/sci-fi literature, Pratchett was there laying the groundwork. Starting with Pratchett is a good thing; it allows one to recognise the tropes and clichés of fantasy early consequently making one ever-vigilant for lazy writing in ‘serious’ fantasy works.

With any disease this news would be sad but with Alzheimer’s it makes it a tragedy. Pratchett has always been great at creating a vivid world, made all the better because it’s so dense with intertwining characters, objects, and numerous events. His encyclopaedic memory and knowledge of Discworld in particular breathed life into the books and made Ankh-Morpork a more realistic city than Minas Tirith ever was.

Alzheimer’s represents one of the great nightmares of human life; to gradually lose one’s sense of self and personal identity. Without that sense of memory, reason, and true consciousness we become a bag of intuitions and sentiment. The dichotomy between reason and intuition fails and what’s left? Without one’s goals and memories we become what Sandel called the unencumbered self: except where his was an abstraction to criticise liberalism, this is reality. A self devoid of everything it has worked for. A wraith. Alzheimer’s sucks.

Mr. Pratchett broke the news with typical stoic good-humour. Let’s hope he has enough energy and time to share as much of his powerfully weird mind with the world as he can.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

"You just keep on trying 'til you run out of cake..."

This recent gaming article claims that the excellent first-person-puzzler, Portal, is a “feminist critique of the FPS genre.” Certainly Portal is a refreshingly different video game to most of those on the market but it seems to me that the analysis of this game goes too far. The idea that the titular portals that form the premise of the game are subconsciously representative of female genitalia really is the product of a subverted mind.

Psychology is very important to a balanced human life. As the inscription above the Oracle at Delphi said; ‘Temet Nosce’ – Know Thyself. Understanding how the human mind works has been a great boon for mankind through the twentieth century. Freud and Jung’s psychoanalysis may not be scientific but it helps people to understand themselves and the people around them. For several people, it’s probably made them happier as well. Psychology, along with spirituality and philosophy, is one of the three pillars that contribute to a healthy life in this world.

However there’s a limit. As Karl Popper pointed out, the theories of psychoanalysis are simply that; theories. This is because they are not refutable. Even if the game designers at Valve vehemently denied that they created Portal with any feminist undertones whatsoever, a psychologist could simply reply that subconsciously they did. This idea of the subconscious is important because it essentially means that none of us, through the eyes of psychology, can ever be truly responsible for our actions; there’s always some deeper motive lurking beneath to guide us and manipulate us.

The problem with psychology, or more rightly, psychotherapy, is this emphasis on that subconscious, inaccessible part of us. It’s like positing a ‘ghost in the machine’ that secretly controls everything we do and the inherent problem is that it’s essentially impossible to confirm yet psychologists persist in their belief of it nonetheless. It’s possible for them to make claims about feminist undertones in Portal precisely because the subconscious runs in the background supposedly influencing everything. This is why I have such a problem with Freud; his emphasis on maternal/paternal influence is without empirical basis and has led to a slew of people calling things ‘phallic’ simply because they’re cylindrical. It’s a cliché but it says more about the inventor than the subject. While the environmental factors of our ingrained mental processes are a contributing factor to our psychology (in other words, our past determines our present), I believe that choice plays more of a factor than psychologists presently accept. Defeating our own psychology can be difficult and escaping the traps of custom even more so but I think most of intelligent people’s actions can be attributed to choice. Free choice.

I don’t think there are any feminist undertones in Portal over and above it having a female antagonist. A video game is not like a painting; it’s a community effort rather than individual and even ‘subconscious’ elements don’t get put in a group project except by common assent. Maybe Valve did make it a female emancipation piece but that’s the kind of thing you mention in the developer commentary and, to my knowledge, it’s not in there. Is it too much to believe that they made a game as an artistic medium to serve as raw entertainment and a demonstration of technology? I also don’t think video games have a “context in which only the male perspective exists.” Yes, there are plenty of damsel-in-distress type video game characters like the ever-annoying Princess Peach but since 1986 one of the most popular video game characters, Samus Aran, has been a woman; one who, like the antagonist in Portal, doesn’t conform to established gender types.