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[:en]Reviews of all shapes, sorts and sizes.[:de]Gedanken über Themen aus den Medien[:]

Freedom Next Time

What you need to know about humans is that they are dicks. And if you give them any power their dickness prevails over everything else.

That beautifully succinct phrase comes from a review on Good Reads and is an understandable frame of mind to find yourself in after reading this book. Reading it ten years after publication, it’s almost surreal how little has changed in the intervening period, how the wheels of progress continue to grind on the gears of conservatism. In Freedom Next Time John Pilger surveys the state of peoples suffering under the weight of ignorance, ill-will, apathy and condescension in various theatres of the world, turning the spotlight in turn on Palestine, India, Afghanistan, South Africa and the Chagos Islands.

The Chagos Islands is a pretty clear-cut test, and one which our western democratic system will likely fail miserably. In the dying days of empire, the British government swapped a conveniently located group of rocks in the Indian Ocean for a few bits of military hardware from the Americans. The people living there were forcibly evicted and will never be allowed to return to the place of their birth, never mind that their removal constitutes a crime against humanity. As Pilger attests, this buck will be passed back and forth, the Brits blaming the Yanks, the Yanks blaming the Brits, while the case is shuttled often enough through the courts until everyone affected by the travesty is tidily dead. Maybe in the middle of this century we’ll see an official apology to the victims’ descendants, similar to the likes given to victims of slavery and oppression elsewhere in the world. But the political establishment doesn’t give a rat’s arse, and those individual politicians who might are far too lightweight to go tilting at such windmills.

At least with the Chagos Islands, the case of moral virtue is clear and it is merely the duplicity of realpolitik which means that justice will never be served to the islanders. In covering Palestine, however, Pilger covers an area of the world which can only get worse until it gets better. The social equation underlying the political facts is a simple one, even if it remains unwritten: Jews > Arabs. Big mon Trump’s recent declaration of support for the occupying forces is just the latest embodiment of this, and indeed a rare case of someone being up front about reality. A two-state solution is a nice sound bite to be throwing around, the ‘peace process’ a wonderful phrase to pay lip-service to, but Palestine will presumably remain a problem zone until it is eventually eradicated, almost like Kosovo in reverse.

The more interesting chapters are also the less clear cut, more contestable issues, where Pilger investigates the lot of people left behind by political and economic change in South Africa and India. He points blame at the ANC for selling out the anti-apartheid movement and abandoning some of its core principles in cosying up to vested interests. However it’s hard to imagine how his occasional purported alternatives would have brought about more prosperity than the current situation. Similarly his chapter on India shines a beam to highlight the transparency of India’s booming economy, though the overall picture here is murkier than elsewhere, and there’s certainly been more positive change in this part of the world in the past decade than elsewhere, even if the problem of poverty remains a massively significant burden.

Obviously the style of this collection is journalistic and as such suffers from those usual pitfalls. Chapters are padded with random exemplary introductions, events highlighted which don’t necessarily have any bearing on the case at hand and indeed over time start to lose relevance and punch. But in particular, as Pilger has his agenda to pursue, the narrative isn’t drawn as broadly as it could be. Whilst happy interviewing the politicians and the victims of their policies, he does little to examine the opinions of the pillocks who put those politicians in power, which would have been of particular interest for example in the Palestinian conflict or the missed chances of the ANC.

Despite its advancing age, Freedom Next Time remains a worthwhile read since the political situation in many of these regions has barely evolved. The basic working principle which Pilger highlights time and again is that simple human trait, where political representation fails to defend the rights and interests of the downtrodden, whether it be through ignorance, apathy or occasional sheer malice. The book greatly attests to the prevalence of dickness in human nature.

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi

I’m clearly getting too old for blockbusters. Seriously, I walk out the cinema wondering what it was the scriptwriters wanted to show me in their cobbled together action flick, and search in vain among the sea of beaming faces for someone who shares my lack of enthusiasm. ‘It was entertaining,’ is what most of them defensively tell me, usually suffixed with ‘but I’m not a Star Wars fan,’ presumably when I don’t respond the same way, as if fearing I’ll proceed to bombard them under a geeky tirade of lore and canon.

Granted, I was a fan of the original trilogy which I devoured in my youth, but I wouldn’t rank myself among the Empire’s legions of loyal nerds. And while some of my annoyance with The Last Jedi certainly based around how it interacted with what we know of the existing universe, mostly I was disappointed with the film in and of itself. Just because you’re not a fan of the series, does that mean you don’t care about watching a flimsy script? Can you enjoy this flick more if you don’t watch any of the previous outings? Or do I just need to learn to disengage my brain before entering the cinema?

Warning: spoilers ahead!

I wasn’t a fan of the previous episode. Far too many parallels with A New Hope, far too many far-fetched plot points and chance encounters, far too many overt crowd-pleasers. In my eyes, The Force Awakens was like the original trilogy on steroids, everything was bigger, better and ultimately faster than everything which went before it, all wrapped up in a storyline that didn’t only seem unnecessary, but entirely inexplicable. Despite the obligatory rolling credit introduction, I was left as clueless after walking out of that film as when I walked in. To all intents and purposes, The Force Awakens was like a series reboot with everything set to hard mode. Aside from the few interesting new characters introduced, the whole the film fell flat with me.

Fast forward a few years and the next episode is out of the stable doors. The overarching story remains as illogical as ever, but the problems with The Last Jedi are even greater in that the film doesn’t seem to have anything to tell us. That’s largely embodied in the opening volley of scenes which sets up the backdrop for the film. The rebels or resistance or whatever it is they’re calling themselves now – I gave up trying to follow any semblance of logical politics in the previous film – escape from yet another base just in the nick of time, with almost certain annihilation waiting in the skies above them. Apparently the ability to bombard the planet falls on a special Dreadnought ship, which is conveniently destroyed in the ensuing conflict (we’ll need this later!). Its destruction comes down to a bit of insubordination from rising star Poe (we’ll need this later!) who orders an attack using, err, bombers.1Seemingly defenceless lumbering hulks which issue explosives from a bombing bay which wouldn’t look all too out of place in a WWII drama and seem to have no problems ‘dropping’ things in space. Fortunately, to keep us on the edge of our seats, the mission almost goes belly up were it not for some last-minute self-sacrificial heroics from the final survivor of the bomber wing (we’ll need this later!).

So much of what follows seems like an exercise in pointlessness except when viewed through the prism of the scriptwriters’ checklist. The rebel fleet is pursued through hyperspace only to find itself running out of fuel and unwilling to jump again (previously on Battlestar Galactica…). Fortunately, Finn bumps into the dead bomber pilot’s sister who works out in a flash what secret technology is in play and how to stop it (deus ex machine room). Meanwhile Vice Admiral Holdo gives Poe good reason to continue his insubordinate streak by deliberately pretending to be doing nothing about the dire situation, allowing him to send the other two off on a wild goose chase. And the destruction of that Dreadnought in the opener forces the First Order to repeat the Hoth landing in the finale, launching a land assault against a knock-off Helm’s Deep in a salt crystal desert. Poe’s earlier insubordination gives him room for some character development when he later calls off the suicidal attack against said landing party.

The scriptwriters have littered enough of Chekov’s pistols throughout this script to fill a small arsenal. Knowledge about technology which shouldn’t exist gives Finn and Rose a random mission to accomplish and occupy a bit of screen time. Their docile mission is only pepped up by them getting a parking ticket, which apparently is sufficient offence to lock them up and bother initiating some hare-brained helicopter chase when they break out of prison. Although it comes to naught, the situation is sufficiently contrived to allow Rose to show her dedication to the cause and give up her medallion, and Finn has an opportunity to take on Captain Phasma for a little grudge match. Those scenes could’ve wound up on the cutting room floor just as easily, and the film wouldn’t have been any the poorer for it.

Unfortunately the absence of meaning to the film leaves the characters treading water for lack of purpose. General Hux is relegated to comic relief as the very angry henchman™, who wouldn’t look out of place in an Austin Powers film. Supreme Leader Snoke fulfils his mission of bringing Rey and emolord Kylo together before snuffing it in a scene which suggests the authors don’t even care about the characters they’re creating. Meanwhile the scriptwriters missed a trick for killing off Princess Leia after jettisoning her into space, only to have her finally use the Force and rescue herself. Presumably she’ll have to succumb to her ordeal before the next episode, unless the CGI lobby is particularly vocal.

Or how about Holdo? What purpose does she serve apart from being a foil for Poe’s character development? Her saying nothing provides the excuse for half of the action in the film. Even her demise is one of the most heavily regurgitated tropes, straight from the recipe book. When all others evacuate the ship, she stays behind on the bridge to ‘pilot’ the cruiser. Which makes bugger all sense, but, you know, drama. Unsurprisingly, when the time comes for her big sacrificial moment, we see her stood on the bridge twiddling her thumbs before she turns the cruiser around and hyperspaces it through the pursuing enemy fleet. How convenient! It’s a dramatic scene, a great idea, but surely if that were possible it would’ve been weaponised decades ago?

Which brings me to a personal peev, but just what’s going on with the physics? Dropping bombs in space? Laser beams which dip like artillery? Massive steel doors protecting a base built into a brittle salt mine? Even the entire fleet chase around which this film is built doesn’t stand up to any kind of logical scrutiny. Why is the fleet running out of fuel when it isn’t doing anything? Why can’t the Imperial First Order’s fleet catch up to inert objects in space? But who needs Newtonian physics when you can have ships dramatically tilt after running out of fuel? And what’s surprising about tracking a ship through hyperspace? Isn’t that what happens in A New Hope? Aren’t they holding a tracking beacon for Rey? That would surely be their first suspicion when followed, rather than assuming some newfangled technology has been developed.

Sure, there’s nostalgia and pink goggles clouding my judgement of the original trilogy. There’s plenty to detract from the fantastic reputation those films earned, including clunky dialogue, nonsense science, cheesy plot devices and Ewoks. But the story Lucas told in those films was tightly constructed and worthy of telling. The latest incarnations don’t seem to know where they’re heading or what to do with the passengers on board. Kill ’em off, send ’em round in circles, does anyone really care? The whole situation portrayed begs far more questions than it can ever answer. By now I’ve given up trying to find any answers. But no doubt I’ll be here again in twelve months complaining about the next encounter, because of the few things we can be certain about, The Last Jedi won’t be The Last Star Wars Film.

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1. Seemingly defenceless lumbering hulks which issue explosives from a bombing bay which wouldn’t look all too out of place in a WWII drama and seem to have no problems ‘dropping’ things in space.

Reading Roundup

Some years ago (last decade!) I decided to do a brief round-up of some recent reads. Sadly I don’t find make the time to gather my thoughts and sum up my opinions, so in no particular order, I thought I’d write a few words on some of the books that have graced my bedside table over the past few weeks.

Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

In essence, this is the story of what happens when you put your money where your mouth is, even when your mouth is currently being fuelled by the wrong kind of babble-juice. Tony Hawks found himself challenged at a party that his oft-regaled anecdote of seeing someone hitchhiking with a fridge in Ireland was pigswill. In the morning, a note beside his bed seemed evidence that he’d taken up a £100 bet that he could do the same, circumnavigating the emerald isle with a home appliance.

What follows is a quirky adventure blending English stoicism and the Irish devotion to the craic, replete with fridge surfing, radio DJs, island kings and a night in the doghouse, all culminating in a triumphal march through the capital celebrating the pointlessness of it all. For anyone enjoying Irish sensibilities, there are plenty of amusing moments along the way. Ultimately a very pointless little book, but entertaining nonetheless.

The Great Dune Trilogy by Frank Herbert

A handful of words aren’t enough to do justice to Dune, let alone its two sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. The first novel in particular is something of an operatic masterpiece, which despite such a depth and richness of ideas never bogs down as something like the oft-compared Lord of the Rings clearly does. Where other series focus on the science or the fiction, Dune creates an entire mythology, replete with political system, religion and technology.

I’ll be honest, reading all three novels back-to-back was something of a stretch, particularly as the second doesn’t live up anywhere near the expectations harboured following the operatic majesty of the first. Dune Messiah has something of a marmite effect on the fans. Fortunately the final volume in the original trilogy returns to better form, adding more sweeping strokes to Herbert’s epic canvas, without dawdling too much on the details. Definitely well worth reading the first if you’re a fan of (science) fiction in depth. Despite the few tweaks, David Lynch’s film captures the general tenor of this vision beautifully.

The Lady Vanishes & The Spiral Staircase by Ethel Lina White

A pleasant surprise with two short novels in one slender volume. It’s something of a shame that they are both published here under the names of the films they inspired rather than the books as they were written (The Lady Vanishes was originally entitled The Wheel Spins; The Spiral Staircase as Some Must Watch). The Lady Vanishes is rather overshadowed by the films and has a somewhat slow pace, which probably isn’t helped by knowing the story in advance. It’s almost a pity that this novel gets first billing, since the lesser-known The Spiral Staircase is the stronger of the two in my view. An atmospheric setting, strong characterisation, the gradually building suspense – the comparisons with Agatha Christie are unsurprising and genuinely well deserved.

Both of these thrillers deliver some classic 1930s suspense and mystery, and while the films probably outshine the novels on which they are based, as a light diversion for fans of mystery and skulduggery, you could do far worse.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal

‘They’re very intelligent animals.’ There’s a platitude I’ll never tire of hearing. When it comes to

In this relatively short but accessible volume, primatologist Frans de Waal takes us on a tour through the world of animal intelligence, or at least the study of it. He points out how human beings, so obsessed with their own navels, are wont to move the goalposts any time some semblance of anthropomorphic intelligence is found in animal test subjects. ‘Animals aren’t intelligent because they can’t something’ is always true as long as something remains. They can’t use tools, talk, empathise, plan ahead, show regret, recognise their reflections, deceive. Each time some evidence appears which suggests the contrary, human exceptionalism comes up with the next new something to define the experience of the human condition.

Aside from the proselytising, de Waal rightly highlights the difficulties of any kind of study in this area. Human beings have an extremely difficult challenge in designing tests for non-human subjects to measure non-human capacities. That is the real question written on the cover, though it sometimes gets lost amidst the examples and de Waal’s broadsides against those in the behaviourist camp. Nevertheless, at its core it presents an interesting conundrum. The book could’ve done with some streamlining, but as a piece of popular science it offers an excellent introduction to the subject.

[Photo by Karim Ghantous on Unsplash]

The Blind Watchmaker

Blind WatchmakerWhat is it about the theory of evolution which makes it so difficult to comprehend? Why does it require a leap of faith for many people to understand? And why do they feel they need to believe in evolution in a way they never would with, say, gravity?

Having finally got around to reading The Blind Watchmaker this year, one remark really stuck in my mind, when Dawkins turned to describing the human experience in terms of units. The way we perceive the world around us is intrinsically bound to the way we encounter it. We consider time, for instance, within a fairly specific range. Once we go beyond that range, our natural, indeed evolutionary faculties are incapable of perceiving the world outside those bounds with any degree of accuracy. That’s not to say we hit a brick wall when we step beyond that range. We’re still perfectly capable of contemplating the meaning of extremely long or short timescales, for example. We can measure them, compare them, calculate them; we can analogise and use metaphors. But we are far from being able to really grok what they mean.

Take things on the shorter end of the scale. Seconds are easily counted. We’re capable of working out how long a particular journey will take us, able to estimate how much faster it will be if we’re travelling by bicycle or car. But break the second down and it soon stretches into the theoretical. The speeding bullet or the flash of lightning travel far faster than our perception allows. Sometimes we can physically sense the difference, such as when a crack of lightning reaches our eyes before our ears, but beyond that, these events exist beyond our realm of experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, most of us find it difficult to measure things even in years. When did we move house? Was it three years ago, or four? When was that holiday to Cyprus? Five years ago? Six? We usually find little memory tricks to work out the answer, supporting our assumptions with unrelated facts (‘it was the year Jane started going to school… the Olympics were on in Beijing…’) Or we end up relying on physical evidence to corroborate the facts.

Where Dawkins really hits the nail is in how we view chance. With average lifespans under 100 years, we think relatively little of crossing roads, driving cars, climbing ladders or changing light bulbs. Accidents happen, people injure themselves and even lose their lives doing such mundane activities every day. But that only ever happens to other people. The risks are small; so small that we’re willing to take them on a daily basis. Experience teaches us the difference between perceptible and theoretical risk, the difference between the overt perils of grabbing a hot pan without oven gloves and the insidious hazards of an unhealthy diet.

Yet what would happen if we were to have natural lifespans in the hundreds of thousands or even millions of years? Those relatively slim chances of being fatally injured while crossing the road would suddenly have an entirely different dimension, given the number of times you do this in a lifetime. All of those otherwise hidden dangers, the risks we acknowledge without really understanding them, would become as clear to us as those overt dangers, since most people would come a cropper before reaching the natural limits of their lifespans.

The point is that our ability to contemplate unlikely events soon passes from the sensible to senseless. We grasp the chances of tossing heads, the likelihood of a rainy day in July. But beyond a certain limit, even the little sliver of rational thought in our minds gives way to thoughtless instinct. That one in a million chance becomes indistinguishable from impossible. A typical argument used against the theory of evolution runs along the lines that scientists have been trying to recreate the origins of life in the laboratory for decades. All their best efforts have been for nought, ergo that theory cannot possibly be true. Dozens of scientists in dozens of laboratories having been trying for dozens of years to reproduce an event that happened (at least) once across billions of planets in billions of solar systems over billions of years.

The numbers are staggeringly large, making them indistinguishable from impossible. And if not downright impossible, at least so perishingly unlikely that only with blind faith could you believe it to be true?

[Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash]

Popnographie

This post is also available in English.

Wir befinden uns in einem Zeitalter, in dem es fast als eine Tugend gilt, unserer Ungeduld und unserer mickrigen Aufmerksamkeitspanne verfallen sind, in dem das Fernsehen durch Zappen verdrängt wurde, in dem wir unserer Musik nicht mehr zuhören, sondern zu den Refrains vorspulen und zwischen den Liedern springen, in dem unsere Aufmerksamkeit gleichzeitig in Tausend Richtungen von unserer vernetzten Welt gezogen wird.

Daher sollte es uns nicht überraschen, wenn der Erfolgsweg genau diese Rastlosigkeit ausnutzt. Man nehme eine Jahresprise der erfolgreichsten Lieder, entsaftet sie, seziert sie, destilliert deren Einprägsamkeit ab. Die rohen Zutaten werden verschmolzen, verdichtet, miteinander geschickt neu kombiniert, und man erschafft durch diese Veredlung eine völlig neue Spezies, einen Überohrwurm, der die reinste Verkörperung von alldem, was man aus der Popmusik hören will, darstellt.

Dies ist keine Danthologie. Es ist die reinste Popnographie.

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