Jack Ryan (some spoilers)

Hard to miss Amazon’s heavy promotion of its new series starring John Krasinski. One version of the promo photos shows him with with an uneasy look, and a fiery explosion fills the frame behind him. He looked to me as vulnerable and off-balance as a grade school kid posing for a yearbook photo. A strange man would be telling him to smile. The explosion’s attention grab combined with Krasinski’s harried look struck a weird chord. I was willing to see where this went, but not with high expectations.

I watched the pilot episode, and kind of liked it. I’ve always liked Krasinski. But I have some discomfort with how Hollywood today approaches the Middle East and extremist Islam. Interestingly, “Jack Ryan” didn’t seem to have any Islam. In the opening scene, we see a couple kids in Lebanon in the early 80s. One is dancing to that famous Men Without Hats song I can’t remember the name of. The statement here is they are secular, not religious. Then, an airstrike happens (from aircraft I couldn’t identify — I’m usually very good with that, and I think the ambiguity was deliberate here). The children are hurt, one badly, and barely survive. The rest of their family apparently didn’t. We learn later these kids grow up to become the villains of the show that, in the modern day, Ryan must pursue.

If modeled after a real incident, I figured it would’ve related to the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983 (wikipedia). I’ve spent a while reading about this incident — I have a very dim memory of it happening when I was a kid. The bombing happened in the context of the ongoing Lebanese Civil War of the time. I tried reading about that, and found it hopelessly complicated. In real life I don’t believe there was a retaliatory US airstrike for the barrack’s bombing, but I don’t think that really matters to the show. Modern audiences are aware of the reality of bombings, drone strikes, and the horror of collateral damage. (That is, even if not historically accurate, such bombings and their effects have and do happen elsewhere.) My discomfort here is that big-budget entertainment demands some cynical compromises in how we approach the problem of extremist Islam. This show, and “Homeland” before it, sets up every Middle Eastern or putatively Muslim bad guy as a victim of US foreign policy who seeks vengeance. Bad ideas hiding in plain sight within Muslim doctrine — jihad, martyrdom, theocracy — go unexamined.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is an interesting case here. Writing for New Yorker, Richard Brody refers to that movie’s “deceptive emptiness“:

Compare the opening of “Zero Dark Thirty” to that of “Argo,” a visual montage of archival footage, with voice-over commentary, that offers a historical sketch of the troubled relations of Iran with the U.S. and Great Britain that contributed to the Islamic Revolution and Iran’s hostility to the West (the U.S. in particular), and thus gave rise to the events that the movie dramatizes. Even the hostage-takers have their reasons. By contrast, “Zero Dark Thirty” offers no ideological context for Al Qaeda’s attacks—no statement of principles from jihadi sites, no religious exhortations, no practical demands or litany of complaints.

Brody goes into a very long discussion on what he means by “deceptive emptiness” in this movie, but in fact I had a hard time following what entirely what he meant. Nonetheless, I had some discomforts with ZD30 that echo his tagline. I’ve always felt that the “war on terror” mistook a war on select bad people for what should be a war on certain bad ideas. The “emptiness” I feel watching ZD30 is knowing that killing bin Laden really did nothing against the bad ideas of jihad, martyrdom, honor killing, theocracy, etc.

I don’t have a good solution for how to frame these kinds of entertainments, since nor do I want to give into anti-Muslim sentiment. Some corners of Christian conservative America have shown a real or imagined fear of Sharia, for example. I don’t know if they’re serious or not. The heck of it is sane people anywhere would be right to fear Sharia law. But the Christians most (apparently) worried about it I imagine have no qualms about imposing their version of theocracy.

The best I can come up with is a skepticism of this kind of entertainment more generally. I love a good story about courage and justice as much as anyone, but when connected to (or conspicuously tangential to) Islam and the Middle East, political compromises and selective detailing really muddies how we think about these real and recent events.

It remains a pressing concern, for example, how to criticize bad parts of Islamic doctrine without the false charge of Islamophobia. And it remains a pressing concern how to sort out what is right and wrong about our foreign policy and use of force. The moment I say that, however, it sounds like work. I think I’d rather watch a movie.

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The Cold War, etc

Recently I came across this Prager University video on the Cold War, a subject that fascinates me. The Prager University videos have a conservative slant that bothers me on some videos, including this one. But, I think this is still a good, if provocative, short intro to the subject.

The world map in the video’s still image shows several important Cold War battlegrounds: Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and East/West Germany. Notably, Indonesia and South and Latin Americas aren’t highlighted, and my issue with the video is precisely how superficially it addresses the “morally complicated” reality of opposing Communism at all costs — particularly in Chile and Indonesia. The Prager video simplifies the Cold War into “good vs evil,” and this got me wondering how true this was. I feel there’s more complexity we have to grapple with about the Cold War if we’re being honest than what the Prager video lets on.

However, I am careful not to romanticize Communism, and not to fall victim to a “we’re just as bad” argument. False equivalence, in particular the “Hillary’s just as bad” narrative got Trump elected. So, this is a point I want to make in this post: any time you catch yourself saying that some bad thing (that matters) is “just as bad” as some other bad thing else, think very hard and be honest. There’s a fine documentary “Fog of War” by Errol Morris in which Robert McNamara comes pretty close to confessing the sins of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. But he said something unforgettable that I’m embellishing a bit here for emphasis — he said You have to remember, the Soviets were some bad motherfuckers. He didn’t say that exactly, but that’s what I took from it. In other words, whatever we did wrong in Vietnam, which it may be safe to say was everything, you have to remember what Soviet style Communism looked like. I got an intro to this through the deeply-researched novels “Child 44” and “The Secret Speech” both by Tom Rob Smith. The terror and misery of life in Soviet Russia is undeniable. Much else has been written about Soviet Communism. This short New Yorker article by Louis Menand is a great intro to the subject. (The name Anne Applebaum jumps out at me — in fact Menand references a book of hers in that New Yorker article. I’ve not read anything by her, but she was on a Sam Harris podcast a while back. One interesting thing I got from that podcast was when she talked about how Putin manipulates public opinion today about world events. She said that he uses state-controlled media to spin contradictory stories, deliberately so that people don’t know what to think, and then stop caring. The example she gave had to do with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 if I recall.)

How did Communism get so scary in the first place? I’ve not heard much direct engagement with this question. The Prager video and every other conservative talking point you’ve ever heard holds up Capitalism like a crucifix to drive back the vampire of Communism. Indeed, American conservative doxology holds that free market Capitalism is the solution to every problem, and Communism/Socialism is cause of every problem. How did such a hyperbolic and simplistic view take shape? I think the reason is that “rich people” understand that in a war between rich and poor, the poor will win because they have the numbers. Communism is what happens when poor people organize and decide they aren’t gonna take it anymore. I think this is what the Russian Revolution of 1917 was about, probably also the French for that matter, probably many others. Think about that for a moment. Imagine a gang of poor people banging on your door demanding that you hand over everything you have because you’re rich and they’re suffering in poverty. Tactically, you’re quite stuck because there’s a lot more of them than of you. This, I think, is why Communism is so scary in the American mind: because the rich are essentially guaranteed to lose.

This is the other thing that bothered me about the Prager video. The crucifix of Capitalism doesn’t scare the vampire forever. Eventually there are just too many people living in too much poverty. This is why there were Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 in the first place. If we’re going to acknowledge “moral complexity” in the Cold War, we must acknowledge that wealth inequality can become unsustainable for societies eventually. To be sure, you can’t turn off or opt out of Capitalism. Capitalism is simply what happens when you have extra spending money — any amount! So, I am not going to say that Capitalism itself is the problem. I am saying that we need something else in addition — wealth redistribution in some form. Tax policy is a separate and very detailed discussion all its own, but to speak of the Cold War as “good vs evil,” we need some grasp of where the evil came from.


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Doom Eternal, gameplay trailer reactions

It looks pretty cool; but as before, I’m concerned about the Sisyphean futility of the combat. After so many hundreds of monsters killed, one begins to wonder if it’s all staged, and what you’re fighting for after all. I’d love to see a Truman Show-like spoof of Doom in which it’s revealed that the monsters are just weary, costumed victims of some sort, and the hero is some coddled man-child who thinks he’s saving the world.

There is a neat moment in the video (about 18 minutes in) when you enter some kind of control center on a large moon base, and you see lots of human NPCs (non-player characters) react fearfully and back away from you. There’s never been that many regular human NPCs in a Doom game before. In this moment in the game, there’s some kind of emergency, a “demon invasion” in progress outside. There’s a giant howitzer outside shooting a big green laser (like the Death Star), but the target isn’t revealed. This kinda bothered me because, like I say, this feels “staged” and strategically empty. What are we really shooting at and hope to achieve?

One thing that always worked about Doom, particularly in the 2016 reboot, was how crafted the combat mechanics are. There really is a kind of martial art to it. Different monsters are vulnerable to different weapons, and target distance matters. (The shotguns only work at close range, for example. Rockets and rifles work at distance, but the relatively slow-moving rockets are tough to aim at moving targets. High-powered railgun or Gauss rifles do tremendous damage, but require precise aim.) Movement is really important as well. You can maneuver in such a way as to lure enemies into shooting at and attacking each other. Likewise, you can survive onslaught attacks by causing enemies to line up so that only a few can attack at once. I’ve seen videos of expert play — the really good players work the back of a room full of monsters by lobbing a few rockets at enemies in the distance, then they can instantly switch close targets and do blistering combo attacks of several weapons switched rapidly. I call it the waiter strategy — it’s running around keeping everyone’s drinks full, but instead of drinks it’s firepower.

In addition to the technically deep combat, they’ve fleshed out the game’s mythology. I’m not sure what I think of all that. It’s basically a Miltonian Paradise Lost version of Hell with a lot of sci-fi dressing. But there isn’t really a Satan figure as such with a coherent motivation. There are certainly some big “boss” monsters, but like I said, it’s unclear what they want apart from devouring and killing. I don’t suppose they have to want anything, but my issue is they don’t seem believably organized. That’s where my Truman Show feeling comes from.

I’d love to see some machine learning in Doom whereby the monsters learn from their deaths, and get more and more organized with each play. I don’t know what’s feasible today in this regard, nor how playable such a game would really be. (Plenty of big-idea game designs don’t work out.) Such a game might become too difficult and no fun. Fun is an elusive feeling in games, I’ve found.

PS 8/17/18

I found this fine video that goes into some depth about enemy AI in Doom:

Some of it lost me technically, but I did gather from it that Doom really is a kind of Truman Show of carefully staged and scripted combat mechanics. You could say this about a lot of games, really, but the discussion here is pretty interesting, and I think it’s safe to say that the mechanics in Doom are state-of-the-art.

I also need to point out that when we talk about “AI” in games, we are usually talking about simulated intelligence that is scripted, not AI in the strong sense of Machine Learning or Deep Learning. I still think it might be interesting if enemies could “learn from their deaths” and play the next round smarter than before. But this might cause a spike in difficulty, though, and just make games unplayably difficult — I’m not sure. What makes a game fun and re-playable is a design problem very distinct from the engineering problem of AI as such.

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SH podcast 131 Masha Glessen thoughts/feedback


This was one of those where I found the guest sort of prickly and uncomfortable to listen to, and I couldn’t get through it. I can tell Masha Glessen is an important voice to hear, and her background is fascinating — having spent a lot of time both in Russia and the US. (She fled Russia after being targeted among protesters of Putin’s “election” in 2012 or 3, I don’t remember.) I didn’t know she’s a New Yorker staff writer which is embarrassing since I read New Yorker, though admittedly mostly for the cartoons. Yes I run across great articles now and again, along with the occasional great short story. Perhaps I’ll do a round-up of those at some point.

Anyway, what I found hard to listen to was Sam and Masha disagreeing about Christian versus Muslim “threat levels” — for example when we talk about “which is the greater threat” to secular, civil society. This is a very tough set of scores to compare and prioritize due to shifting perspectives and geography. Masha’s point is that the religion itself doesn’t matter — both Christianity and Islam “instrumentalize” violence equally well, and there are no differences between them that should concern us. (They should both worry us equally, in other words.) I found her argument compelling to a point, as she was a lesbian in Russia facing a resurgent Orthodox Christianity, which is viciously intolerant of homosexuality. (And is apparently much of the reason she had to flee Russia.)

I most certainly worry about political Christianity here in the US (particularly emboldened under Trump), and I really don’t worry about Sharia or terrorism for that matter. But these are accidents of geography. What concerns me personally is not the most fair way to compare the malignancies in play. I think it’s genuinely hard to answer “who has suffered more” under Islam vs Christianity, but I think it is easy to see the temptation of granting them full equivalence merely to avoid the embarrassment of choosing a side. There is a price for giving into this temptation: apathy. (Apathy has taken over our political life, in fact, driven by the argument that Democrats and Republicans are the same, and therefore voting doesn’t matter. How’s that working out?)

I braved a bit more the podcast, and I was pleased to hear them get past the argument about which religion was worse — all Gessen had to do was say “fair enough” to Sam’s point on this, and then I felt better. It wasn’t that Gessen was conceding very much, it’s that I was grateful for her not needing to be such a hard-ass. I didn’t need her to change her mind, I just wanted her to hear Sam’s point. I think actually they both heard each other, and so I consider that a victory for the podcast.

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Cobra Kai

Faffing about on YouTube, I was pleasantly surprised to see the trailer for this new show (Imdb) that is a continuation of the original “Karate Kid” — including original cast members Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso and one of the bad guys at the time William Zabka as Johnny Lawrence. The show seems to set up Larusso as the villain this time around, which is wonderful. But I had some ideas on this that I’ll throw out.

  1. Please don’t be another “Vice Principals” (Imdb). That show had a great setup as well, but ultimately had nothing to say. It didn’t really use the school setting very well. Movies like “Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Beuller” in their day (maybe also “Election”?) subtly showed the pathos of educators in between other hijinks. I am not saying “Vice Principals” needed John Hughes, but I did want the show to matter in some way, and I don’t think it did.
  2. The subject of bullying, young people, and martial arts is a tough and necessary one. What I would really love is for this new Karate Kid incarnation is to take a realistic look at young people learning to deal with bullies. That would be a good use of “martial art” in its best sense. In the original movie as in the new show, there’s a tension between soft/defensive spiritually enlightened martial art and hard/aggressive, debased martial arts. A realistic look at the struggles of young people in school and in life would force us beyond this naive dichotomy into more interesting territory. I have to say the trailer didn’t inspire confidence in this regard. I got the feeling that, creatively, the show might be looking for more instant gratification.
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James Howard Kunstler

I’ve been enjoying his blog for many years now — I don’t remember exactly when I started reading. I think it was not long after 9/11 or during the run-up to Iraq War 2. I think it’s always been his sense of humor that has kept me coming back. He doesn’t try to be funny. Rather, he has a knack for incisive commentary on a few subjects — he’s most knowledgeable about city planning, suburban sprawl, and architecture. He has this piece on Atlanta that I can’t find now — pictures of downtown with hilariously dispiriting captions. I have his book Geography of Nowhere somewhere, and it’s a very good overview of suburbia, its origins and implications for cities everywhere. He helped me see my own hypocrisy on this subject: the search for idyllic countrysides (for biking, in my case) that so many people crave is the driving force behind suburban sprawl, tortuously long work commutes and car dependency, and — most importantly — a civic and spiritual degradation that comes from a life spent in cars and the hamster wheels of debt and work obligations. Indeed, I’m amused today by the brochure bullshit of “work-life balance” that is the subject of so much earnest pablum. It’s Kunstler’s commentary on city planning and sprawl that has helped make me aware of certain kinds of systemic absurdity that most of us (including myself) tolerate. In my case at least I’m more conscious of it.

Speaking of Iraq II, at the time Kunstler said some things that sounded more daring than they were. He called our Iraq invasion “the war to save suburbia.” I remember his describing a conversation with a neighbor who drove a Ford Excursion that had a bumper sticker: “War is not the answer.” Apparently, he had the balls to argue with the woman driving it that as long as she felt that need to drive that kind of vehicle, war was “the answer.” I don’t think I agreed literally with that, but I saw his point — notwithstanding the complex relationship between extremist Islam and US dependency on foreign oil.

In 2007 I had a chance encounter with Kunstler in person at the Furman University campus, which is just a few miles from me. When I moved to SC from Asheville, I checked his lecture schedule on a whim, and saw that he was to be speaking at Furman the very next night or something. It’s hard to overstate the feeling of amazing coincidence. After a series of very fast deep breaths I braved the unknown of a college campus where I knew no one and didn’t know my way around. I was late to the lecture, and, like, 300 eyes all glared at me as I came in. I never got a chance to speak with him directly. I did hang around after the lecture — lots of people were chatting him up, and I wasn’t brave enough to muscle ahead of anyone. He eventually gave me a look that was like dude, I’m tired, sorry we didn’t to talk. I let it be and that was that.

Kunstler comes up in passing unfavorably in George Packer’s book The Unwinding. Packer is a fine writer, but I like his book Blood of the Liberals better. (Speaking again about Iraq II, Packer did a very important exposé about the poor treatment of Iraqi translators working for the US military.) Packer accused Kunstler of being an overly pessimistic crank. There is some truth in this — he’s been known to make some outlandishly pessimistic predictions about when oil would get too expensive (hasn’t happened yet), and when the stock market would crash in a big way again.

Indeed, Kunstler’s attention in the last few years has shifted from oil to finance, and he has a sky-is-falling message about how fragile and illusory our financial systems are. I don’t think he’s wrong, exactly, but I don’t take his stock market crash predictions super seriously. (I do still read and think about what he’s saying, but I haven’t sold all my stock yet.)

This brings me to some discomforts I have with his work lately. To set some context — he is today deeply disappointed with the Democratic party, and in particular disappointed with Obama’s failure to challenge the Citizens United decision legislatively, among other reasons. This is one of those areas where I see his point, but am realistic, and feel that he’s being unfair. On the subject of disappointment in Obama, I can chime in and say I was disappointed with his obfuscatory stance on Islamism and ISIS — claiming that ISIS fighters are not religious. Here again, I understand the political reality. I know that trying to have a totally honest discussion about the liabilities of organized religion — and in particular about certain doctrines in Islam like jihad and martyrdom — is way too inflammatory to be practical. To be clear, my point here is that while only a small fraction of Muslims are actual jihadists, a much larger portion hold repugnantly conservative views about the primacy of religion over civil society, the second class status of women, etc. A larger portion still — both liberal and conservative — believe that you can’t criticize faith except from a position of racism or bigotry. A large segment of educated, well-intentioned society believes that it’s not possible to criticize bad ideas under protection of holy scripture.

That was a bit of a digression, but I’ll bring this back to Kunstler. The thing I don’t get about him is his contempt for Hillary Clinton. He faults her ambition and corruption — I’ll go ahead an use that without scare quotes — to the point where it’s kind of a vendetta. He says he didn’t vote for Trump, but I have to say his writing over the last few months has veered into Trump apologetics. He remains critical of Trump, but a little bit more so of the FBI and the “Russia Russia Russia” story. Here again, I take his point — that all the hysterics over Russian “meddling” in the 2016 election are a dodge to avoid the emptiness at the heart of the Democratic platform. I get that, and to great extent agree. But, like I say, I don’t really understand the vendetta against Clinton. I remember his taking issue with her “ambition” — her daring to run for New York Senate even though she wasn’t a native — something like that. I didn’t realize Clinton was the first “ambitious” politician. Yes, she was a horrible candidate in the 2016 election, and the DNC has learned a very expensive lesson in humility that in some sense they maybe needed. But, like I say, Kunstler’s tone toward Clinton takes the tone of vendetta, and I don’t get where that’s coming from.

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Thoughts on Sam Harris’ Waking Up podcast

I’ve enjoyed and championed Sam’s writing since The End of Faith from 2004. I consider his critique of religion essential for any thinking person to consider. He’s staked out a kind of “alt center” position in shining opposition to the worst of the political right and the left. In this horrifying age of Trump, he has helped launder the term “conservative” by reaching out to those like Anne Appelbaum and David Frum (whose book on the ’70s decade I purchased and enjoyed). At one time I would’ve ignored Frum for being “right of center,” and maybe I don’t necessarily agree with everything he has to say, but Harris has made me see why these voices are worth hearing, especially now. (Harris’ podcast with Ann Appelbaum on Russia is very good. I checked out her site just now, and read this short, fine piece.) Likewise, Harris has kept up consistent pressure against noxious liberal pieties and identity politics that give shelter to Islamism. He’s had important conversations with Jonathan Haidt, Nicholas Christakis, and Bret Weinstein about what’s going wrong in academia as it panders to social justice warrior hysterics.

That said, some of the most successful and provocative moments on the podcast have coincided with uncomfortable moments that made me turn it off! David Benatar was an interesting guest. But after two attempts, I couldn’t listen because he was too unpleasantly defensive to talk to.

The episode on climate change and global warming was so boring I couldn’t get through it. Certain episodes are infamous for having gone off the rails (Maryam Namazie, Omar Aziz) but this was the first truly boring episode that I can recall. I had to shut it off. But the burning question I had was how could one of my favorite writers produce such a boring podcast on such an important topic.

There’ve been a couple episodes with David Pizarro and Tamler Sommers (the so-called Very Bad Wizards), and Harris has a slightly uncomfortable dynamic with these two. I had the feeling that Pizarro and Sommers are a little bit back-stabby towards Harris in other forums. In their latest episode together, Harris sort of called them out for this with a nervous chuckle that put me on edge. I didn’t last very long on this episode.

I couldn’t get through the recent conversation with Russell Brand. I like Russell a lot, but he has the usual liberal pieties toward religion that make him perpetually try to change the subject to politics. Harris was doing the hard work of arguing against this, trying to make him look head-on at religion. And though it was somewhat tedious to listen to again — I savor it on the one hand because this is the work that needs doing. This is the work that needs doing. Harris didn’t quite help matters when he kept talking over Russell (who did the same to Sam), but I still consider this the vital conversation of our era: how to free spirituality from religion decisively, without apology, fine print, or panicked yeahbut addenda.

I thought the episode with Frank Ostaseski about being a nurse in a Buddhist-oriented hospice was really good. (Atul Gawande would be a great guest to have for his writing about aging and death, for example.) This episode worked especially well when Ostaseski related his own near-death experience and how scary it was. There was a tenderness in that story uncommon on the podcast that I think Sam should seek out more. I could do with less about AI and meditation and consciousness and more with (I apologize for this euphemistic term) “human interest” stories.

I also thought the episode with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick about their Vietnam documentary was very good. Why it was good is a bit hard to say. I was less interested in Sam’s questions about their process, but I was raptly interested when Burns and Novick conveyed this sense of dedication to the project (which took ten years to produce) and this feeling of inexhaustible wonderment and curiosity about this difficult subject. You could say the same about a much earlier episode with Joshua Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer made a pair of documentaries about genocide in Indonesia during the 1960s. The subject is pretty disturbing, but Sam brought Oppenheimer’s inexhaustible wonderment, curiosity, and brave film-making to the foreground. This was probably the moment when I realized Sam had a good thing going with his podcast.

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