TV and movies: Archangel, Sisters and the Good Place

Sisters

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been at the centre of two excellent TV shows (30 Rock and Parks and Rec), and it’s exciting to see them team up in Sisters.

Sisters isn’t an amazing movie – it doesn’t have a deep theme, and it won’t leave a deep mark. But it is a funny comedy, and worth it if you want something to wind down with.

The two star as sisters, one unable to relax and connect with a potential boyfriend (Poehler), the other unstable and unable to care for her daughter (Fey). Both are distraught at the idea of their parents selling the family home, with the sister tree that serves as a symbol of their relationship as children, even as they’ve drifted apart as adults.

Refusing to deal with the decision, they instead hold a party. [SPOILERS FROM HERE]. But to party successfully, they’ll have to confront their worst fears – Fey will have to be ‘party mum’, while Poehler (no, I can’t remember their characters’ names, and no, it doesn’t matter) will need to connect emotionally with her crush.

Throughout the night they fail miserably but hilariously. And as their failures grow, their childhood home is slowly trashed, the building graffiti’ed and then falling apart, until a literal sinkhole swallows up their childhood pool. That’s when their parents show up, and express how disappointed they are.

But, somehow, they reconnect, and in doing so learn a little about relaxing (Poehler), and being responsible (Fey). Watch it for the laughs, not the story; but it wouldn’t work without the framework of a story.

The Good Place

I saw a few recommendations for The Good Place, and I was keen to try it. But it’s hard to even hear about it, without hearing spoilers. Well done if you’ve made it this far.

It’s a good comedy. This isn’t Parks and Recreation or The Office. But it has its moments, and it’s a fun take on an intriguing new storyline. No doubt there are (or will be) think pieces on how The Good Place approaches the ideas of heaven and hell, and what that tells us about ourselves and society. But if you’re after a mildly funny comedy, this may be the place to try.

Archangel

Roy Chapman Andrews was an explorer and palaeontologist in the early twentieth century. Famous for among other things, publishing the first English language account of the Mongolian death worm in his book On the Trail of Ancient Man. He’s reported not to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones, but there’s a strong family resemblance.

Given that lineage, there’s a certain familiarity in Daniel Craig as an academic with expertise in Russian history, drawn into a mysterious plot in Archangel. As he stumbles through post-Soviet Russia, he uncovers a dangerous scheme that could change world history.

We see the now familiar scenes at the opening. Craig is Fluke Kelso, a womanising academic willing to enjoy the free booze at conferences, looking for the next big thing. From there, Kelso stumbles into intrigue between a Russian opposition party, the secret police, a mysterious notebook dated from Stalin’s death … and it goes on.

It’s fun to see one of those shows where academic ability was relevant to unravelling the plot. That curiosity, pulling at the threads of obscure facts until they give way, revealing a grand scheme, is fun to watch. The show also seems to do justice to post-Soviet Russia. I’ve never been to Russia, but from my experience in other contexts, it seemed to do well capturing the full scope of a cold, grim country with grey concrete buildings, and a dark, impenetrable bureaucracy.

This is a fun show, and a decent drama – worth seeing. [SPOILERS FROM HERE]. 

It felt plausible that Stalin would have abused his power, devastating the lives of people who trusted the justice of the party. I also liked the sense in the story of the protagonists encountering forces beyond their control, as they realise that Kelso is being used as a pawn by schemers with larger plans.

It felt a little frustrating though, in that at the end, all the grand story lines collapse back into a single (vital) McGuffin – a single item that will change world history. It’s not easy to show systematic issues in fiction, but this show doesn’t even try. Still – worth watching, for a drama.

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We were eight years in power

I’ve enjoyed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing for a long while. But I was reticent to spring for a copy of We were eight years in power if it was only going to be reprints of essays that are already available on The Atlantic.

Fortunately, it turned out to be worth it, because TNC’s writing is electrifying, even in the short snippets he writes ahead of each essay, which are worth reading in themselves, and interesting insights into his writing experience. I would recommend this for anyone who enjoys TNC’s writing; but if you’re on the fence, start with Between the world and me.

Quotes (from the essays and his introductions to them)

Symbols don’t just represent reality but can become tools to change it. The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency — that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle– assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries.

I know now that all people hunger for a noble, unsullied past, that as sure as the black nationalist dreams of a sublime Africa before the white man’s corruption, so did Thomas Jefferson dream of an idyllic Britain before the Normans, so do all of us dream .of some other time when things were so simple. I know now that that hunger is a retreat from the knotty present into myth and that what ultimately awaits those who retreat into fairy tales, who seek refuge in the mad pursuit to be made great again, in the image of a greatness that never was, is tragedy.

What people anywhere on this earth has ever, out of a strong moral feeling, ceded power?

His advice is beautiful, which is to say it is grounded in the concrete fact of slavery. That was how I wanted to write – with weight and clarity, without sanctimony and homily … Art was not an after-school special. Art was not motivational speaking. Art was not sentimental. It had no responsibility to be hopeful or optimistic or make anyone feel better about the world. It must reflect the world in all its brutality and beauty, not in hopes of changing it but in the mean and selfish desire not to be enrolled in its lie, not to be coopted by the television dreams, to not ignore the great crimes all around us.

Nothing in the record of human history argues for divine morality, and a great deal argues against it. What we know is that good people very often suffer terribly, while the perpetrators of horrific evil backstroke through all the pleasures of the world. There is no evidence that the score is ever evened in this life or any after … The warlords of history are still kicking our heads in, and no one, not our fathers, not our Gods, is coming to save us.

Ideas like cosmic justice, collective hope, and national redemption had no meaning for me. The truth was in the everything that came after atheism, after the amorality of the universe is taken not as a problem but as a given. It was then that I was freed from considering my own morality away from the cosmic and the abstract. Life was short, and death undefeated. So I loved hard, since I would not love for long. So I loved directly  and fixed myself to solid things — my wife, my child, my family, health, work, friends.

It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.

… slavery was but the initial crime in a long tradition of crimes, of plunder even, that could be traced into the present day.

For Americans, the hardest part of paying reparations would not be the outlay of money. It would be acknowledging that their most cherished myth was not real.

… all around us there was a machinery meant to verify the myth and validate the illusion. Some black people believed but most of us would look out at the illusion, on a particular day, at a particular angle, in a particular light, and the strings and mirrors would be, if only for an instant, revealed. What I wanted most was to shine an unblinking light on the entire stage, to tell my people with all the authority I could muster that they were right, that they were not crazy, that it really was all a trick.

I don’t ever want to lose sight of how short my time is here. And I don’t ever want to forget that resistance must be its own reward, since resistance, at least within the life span of the resistors, almost always fails. I don’t ever want to forget, even with whatever personal victories I achieve, even in the victories we achieve as a people or a nation, that the larger story of America and the world probably does not end well. Our story is a tragedy. I know it sounds odd, but that belief does not depress me. If focuses me. After all, I am an atheist and thus do not believe anything, even a strongly held belief, is destiny. And if tragedy is to be proven wrong, if there really is hope out there, I think it can only be made manifest by remembering the cost of it being proven right. No one — not our fathers, not our police, and not our gods — is coming to save us.

Pointing to citizens who voted for both Obama and Trump does not disprove racism; it evinces it. To secure the White House, Obama needed to be a Harvard-trained lawyer with a decade of political experience and an incredible gift for speaking to cross sections of the country; Donald Trump needed only money and white bluster.

Books: American Neolithic and Roadside Picnic

American Neolithic, by Terence Hawkins

I enjoyed American Neolithic a lot. It was an excellent read. It tells the story of Neanderthals, hidden on the fringes of human society until they’re uncovered in an (increasingly plausible) dystopian future. From there, we follow their wise-talking lawyer as he struggles to keep his client (the first Neanderthal to be tried in a human legal system) alive, and his client. Both are touching, relatable characters, and the story draws you in – can they beat the system?

His Neanderthal protagonist in particular is likeable; weaving an idealised story of a caring, gentle group of humanoids who’ve lived in the shadows, compulsively creating beauty and harming no-one. In a way, it feels like a fairy-tale; but not in a bad way.

The reference to a WWII movie to set up the final expose felt a little forced – it could have been done more subtly, or woven in earlier. But for all that, it’s an excellent read. Well worth it.

Quotes

Odd how quickly the Republic crumpled into a police state, or at least a Police State lite. One fine afternoon in May the FBI says it thinks there’s a dirty bomb in a container ship in Long Beach. The next day they don’t find a bomb, but rather a radioactive hotspot on a vessel whose last port of call was Karachi. Which is even worse, they say, because we know there was a bomb but now we don’t know where it is. A mere forty-eight hours of blubbering hysteria later a special session of Congress declares a state of national emergency and the President federalizes the National Guard to kind of help look for it. And while the pesky thing refuses to show up, the general feeling is that we should find room on Rushmore for Bush and Cheney. And, by the way, these constitutional amendments they’re talking about on Fox sure would take the handcuffs off the good guys, wouldn’t they? And streamline government, too! So before you know it there was a forty-state landslide ratifying the Patriot Amendments.

… Sometimes I blamed myself. Maybe if I hadn’t switched stations during NPA pledge drives.

When I started out, a very old lawyer told me that you don’t get to make many really big choices but one was whether you represent the haves or the have-nots.

… history is not what happened; it is what is said to have happened.

… But when it came down to it and I had to choose sides, I picked where I had come from rather than where I’d wanted to go.

Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic is a strange book. I really wanted to like it, mostly because of this review:

Rather, one character hypothesizes, aliens seemed to have zipped carelessly around Earth and strewed it with trash—like roadside picnickers leaving behind wrappers and empty bottles. The scientists, smugglers, and other profiteers so drawn to these alien objects are but ants crawling through the picnic crumbs. Is this a book that makes you contemplate the smallness of humans?

Unfortunately, for all that’s exciting about the metaphor of humans as ants crawling through the crumbs the aliens have left, the actual book felt incoherent and aimless. I pushed through till the last page, in the hope that the ending would make it worth while. Let me save you the trouble, and tell you that it doesn’t.

 

Articles: Political allegiances and alien contact

Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway.

There will be think-pieces and books about the 2016 US election for many years to come. An article by Michael Kruse in Politico Magazine, in talking about voters who no longer expect Trump to fulfil core campaign promises but support him anyway, highlights one of the central questions – why people make the political choices that they do, and how and when those political choices change (or don’t). It comes back to a set of questions that I found quite striking in Democracy for realists, and that I haven’t seen a deep, or satisfactory answer for yet.

Have you read anything on political identity, and how or when it shifts? What would you recommend?

I’m particularly intrigued by the question of the shift – if we are really making political decisions based on identity rather than policy settings, what is it in our self-conception or our context that causes a shift in our political behaviour?

What Happens If China Makes First Contact?

I enjoyed Cixin Li’s Three Body Problem, so it’s fascinating to see him interviewed in relation to SETI efforts by China. One of James Fallow’s theses in China Airborne was that a large, complex project like building (and maintaining) an airliner is a crucial test of a modern economy, and that despite the technical know-how, there were areas where China might fail. Building the world’s largest dish for detecting alien signals would seem to be a similar, and in some ways more unusual, test.

Have you read much about the SETI in China? What did you think?

Robert Service’s ‘Lenin’

Lenin is a figure whose mystique has grown so much that it’s hard to know where the antipathy (or in some cases, adulation) stops and the actual history begins.

I’m not a Russian historian, so I’ve only read Robert Service’s Lenin. There are undoubtedly other biographies that handle Lenin’s story differently, in harsher or more positive light. Have you read any? Let me know if you’d recommend one.

From Service’s account though, and it seems well supported as a non-expert, Lenin was a selfish, dishonest person, willing to use people to his own ends, and to change course on a whim without apologising or explaining. He relentlessly shifted his ideological positions to suit his political context, whether it was internal political debates amongst exiles, or when running Russia after seizing power. Despite the vagaries of his life, Service doesn’t paint a picture of someone who experiences self-doubt, even in the midst of momentous decisions that will shape the course of history.

Lenin comes across as unfeeling, uncaring for the suffering of individuals. If he had perhaps built some kind of utopia, it might be an interesting case study in the sacrifices and tradeoffs involved in political change; as it is, he just comes across as callous.

That’s particularly so given the state that he created. There are some, I think, who would like to turn early Russian Communism into a utopia, gone awry in later years; but Service recounts how suppression of the press and ruthless political control (including a secret police) seem to have been integral from the very start. This isn’t a fall from grace, but a continual starting from the bottom.

I found Service’s account of Lenin’s role as a German agent startling, and fascinating. This is a piece of history I’d missed completely, and it was eye-opening. In earlier years, Service recounts, the Russian tsarist secret police used him as a way to tear apart one of the main internal political parties, and their agents actively supported his rise.

One interesting theme that emerged was how much debate there was at the time over the emergence of communism. It’s easy in retrospect for the emergence of a communist state in Russia to seem inevitable, but at the time there was a strong (and widespread, in the relevant circles) belief that agrarian states must become capitalist ones, before socialism could emerge – Lenin leapfrogged that idea, after initially supporting it.

It’s also funny to read the intense internal political debates over points that seem trivial in retrospect – see particularly the quote below, where a short sentence of a slogan becomes a paragraph.

I wanted to read about early twentieth century Russian history, so this was worth it for me. It may be for you too, if you’re looking to learn a bit more about that part of history. Otherwise, though, it’s a little dense for general reading.

What do you think? Would you recommend other biographies or histories on the same period?

Quotes

Lenin had greater passion for destruction than love for the proletariat.

‘The other Russia’, the Russia of barge-haulers, peasants, country priests and factory workers, was unknown to him except through reports from his father or the novels of Gogol, Turgenev and Tolstoi.

The Ministry of the Interior under the tsars was nothing like as systematically oppressive as the police force set up by Lenin at the end of 1917.

A less bookish nineteen-year old might have got acquainted with his peasants. But Vladimir’s transformation into a revolutionary came through volumes about the peasantry more than from direct regular experience.

From Marx he had already taken a philosophy of history which stressed that the conventional ideas in society were always framed by the ruling classes in their own interest. Morality was consequently a derivative of class struggle. Every political, social and cultural value had only a ‘relative’ significance. There was no such thing as ‘absolute good’; the only guide to action was the criterion: does it facilitate the more rapid and efficient progress through the necessary stages towards the creation of a communist society?

Vladimir Ulyanov stood out against the rest of the intelligentsia; he would not even condone the formation of famine-relief bodies in order to use them for the spreading of revolutionary propaganda. Virtually alone among the revolutionaries of Samara and indeed the whole empire, he argued that the famine was the product of capitalist industrialisation. His emotional detachment astonished even members of his family.

Thus the famine, according to Ulyanov, ‘played the role of a progressive factor’, and he blankly refused to support the efforts relieve the famine. His hard-heartedness was exceptional.

He ridiculed the possibility that capitalist economic development was avoidable.

There was jubilation despite the information that innocent people had been shot outside the Winter Palace. The point for Lenin was that tsarism stood on the edge of a precipice; the throne of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great was beginning to totter.

Lenin helped to devise a scheme to lay his hands on this legacy by contriving to get two Leninist Bolsheviks, V.K. Taratuta and A.M. Andrikanis, to woo the sisters, marry them and obtain funds for the faction.

The delegates were perplexed by a basic question: if Leninist Bolsheviks agreed with Mensheviks about the importance of legal political activity, why was Lenin still using a megaphone to announce the iniquity of Martov and his fellow Mensheviks? Lenin ducked the question. In truth there was no intellectually respectable answer available.

The Okhrana saw Lenin as a brilliant potential executor of the task demanded by the Emperor: the disintegration of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. The enhancement of Lenin’s career was the Okhrana’s confidential priority.

For them, Lenin was the single greatest obstacle to unit among Russian Marxists.

Lenin kept faith in himself because he saw nothing to shake his assumptions. The Russian Empire and the rest of Europe, he thought, were on the brink of Revolution. Another assumption was that social classes, even if they were quiescent for lengthy periods, could quickly rise to the tasks of carrying out Revolution. A third was that it did not matter how small the party of Revolution was before it seized power. The most important thing in Lenin’s eyes was to have a party, however minuscule, of indoctrinated revolutionaries who could spread the word. A fourth assumption was not stated expressly, but indisputably he believed that the cleanest test of a revolutionary was simply whether he or she stuck by Lenin in factional disputes.

The wartime phenomenon of socialist parties supporting their governments became the norm … Only a few parties held to the Socialist International’s policy of active opposition to the war, and Russian parties were prominent among them.

The seeds of strategy for the October Revolution of 1917 were germinating in Switzerland even before the Romanov monarchy’s downfall.

Thus Lenin was trying to foment the ‘European socialist revolution’ with a secret financial allowance from people he publicly denounced as German imperialists … There was much circumstantial evidence that the Bolsheviks were in receipt of money from Berlin …

… Congress agreed to drop the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’. After a lengthy debate about slogans, it was decided to replace it with ‘All Power to the Proletariat Supported by the Poorest Peasantry and the Revolutionary Democracy Organised into Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies’

… Lenin indicated that he wanted to introduce the time-and-motion principles of the same American theorist, F. W. Taylor, whom he had once excoriated as an advocate of capitalist interests.

There were turns in the history of Russia and the world that would not have been taken without Lenin. He decisively affected events, institutions, practices and basic attitudes … Not only the October Revolution but also the Brest-Litovsk Treaty and the New Economic Policy might not have occurred without his influenced – and the Soviet regime might have quickly disappeared into history’s dustbin.

Movies: Chappie and Blade Runner

Chappie

I’ve been a fan of Neill Blomkamp for a while. I think he does very interesting things in thinking about identity, and in particular the intersection between groups, even if he uses an individual’s story to do it.

Chappie tells the story of a droid, brought to life by an AI program. From there, it’s a struggle over the droid between the intellectual who created it, the gangsters who forced him to, the intellectual’s rival who wants his own droids to succeed, and the random strangers who will show him how cruel the world can be.

In a way, it’s a course in (semi-pseudo) child psychology. We see Chappie emerge fully formed, with motion and hand-eye coordination, all the things that humans take years to develop. Over the course of his limited life-span of days, we see him develop speech, and an understanding of values. One of the most touching moments, because it comes from such an odd angle, is seeing Chappie experience the horror of death – the existential angst the comes with the idea that we will all cease.

SPOILERS FROM HERE

Of course, because it’s a Blomkamp movie, Chappie ends with a powerful figure (Chappie’s creator) turned into one of the powerless (his consciousness transfigured into a droid, hiding in the backstreets from everyone who wants to destroy or capture him). It’s a striking transformation; and even though it’s one he’s done before, it isn’t old yet. Well worth it.

Blade Runner

Perhaps it’s because Netflix streamed this for us in a very pixelated fashion, but this movie just didn’t do it for me. I have memories of reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? some time ago, and thinking it was one of Dick’s better pieces. I don’t think Blade Runner did it justice at all. It felt stop-start, awkward, and heavy.

The dove, particularly, felt heavy handed and unnecessary. Logistically, too, it felt implausible. In the midst of a gritty, dirty urban sprawl, he somehow catches a spotless white dove, right at the dramatic climax? Give me a break.

 

Articles: Political norms, credit scores and government monitoring, replicability in social psychology, and an artists’ faith

I’ve come across a few articles recently that I thought were worth noting down. In no particular order: