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Whu? Obama Won a Nobel Peace Prize?

October 9, 2009 4 comments

Whatever I have to say about this is probably going to be washed away in a torrent of opinion as the internet explodes, but this blogging business is pretty self-serving and narcissistic anyway, so here goes.

OSLO – President Barack Obama won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in a stunning decision designed to encourage his initiatives to reduce nuclear arms, ease tensions with the Muslim world and stress diplomacy and cooperation rather than unilateralism.

Nobel observers were shocked by the unexpected choice so early in the Obama presidency, which began less than two weeks before the Feb. 1 nomination deadline.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama woke up to the news a little before 6 a.m. EDT. The White House had no immediate comment on the announcement, which took the administration by surprise. (Source)

While I do like Obama (especially compared to his predecessor), I have to say, I never would have even considered him for a Nobel Preace Prize. Maybe at the end of his presidency, assuming  he makes good on his potential and doesn’t mess things up, but right now? Way too early.

What’s odd is that the rationale behind giving him the prize seems to be ‘Let’s do this to encourage him to keep doing things right.’ I can see where they’re coming from (the entire world would prefer that the USA gets its act together, I think) , but you generally don’t get a prize of this magnitude for what you might do.

Or, as PZ Meyers has put it:

I don’t think Obama’s efforts for peace have been particularly notable — the wars still drag on with no end or even promise of an end in sight, and there has been some sabre-rattling over Iran from his administration lately — but I guess all you have to do is follow after Bush and not blow anything up for a year, and presto, you look like Gandhi. (Source)

Obama has yet to comment, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s feeling a bit awkward about the whole thing. These same thoughts are probably going through his mind as well – how do you graciously accept an award that almost everybody seems to feel you didn’t deserve? It would be ironic if the Nobel committee ultimately ended up doing Obama a disservice in the long run by hurting his reputation. (Although that doesn’t justify criticizing him over the decision – it’s not as if he went and asked for the award, after all.)

Categories: Uncategorized

Could Somebody Explain The ‘Czar’ Thing To Me?

October 5, 2009 3 comments

Why the hell does everybody keep referring to anyone in the US government who’s even remotely connected to Obama a ‘Czar’? If anybody is going to get slandered by the term (I’m assuming it’s meant to be perjorative, since…well, look at the people using it) wouldn’t it be Obama himself? You know, given the connection the word has to emperors and all of that?

Or am I just missing something really obvious here?

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Can We Get Some Good Science Fiction Movies, Please?

September 28, 2009 3 comments

So, I made the mistake of going to see Surrogates over the weekend. I can now confirm what most of you probably already now: it’s a really crappy movie.

It is utterly beyond me how somebody can take such a fascinating idea (remotely controlled robots change society forever!) and turn it into a terminally bland action movie. I wasn’t expecting Blade Runner or anything, but come on; did we really need that superfluous and entirely by-the-numbers car chase scene?

The ‘surrogates’ themselves are also a bit problematic, in that they leap headfirst into the uncanny valley. Yes, it was intentional, but just because you can make Bruce Willis look like a creepy moving doll doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. My idea of  ‘the perfect body’ is not something that looks like a CG model from the early 90’s after it’s been run through a bunch of bloom lighting filters.

The full implications of surrogacy go largely unexplored. One of the first victims of the surrogate eye-exploding gun (which also looks like something from the 90’s, now that I think about it) is a female surrogate being controlled by a man – after all, the surrogates let you be literally anybody you want to be. This idea is brought up in the initial fifteen minutes and then swiftly dropped; we see one female surrogate controlled by a man, two surrogates with impossible skin colours, and one white guy controlling a black surrogate, and the only time the wider implications of any of this are brought up is during the entirely pointless infodump opening sequence. Actually, wait, there are two white guys controlling black surrogates, but I shouldn’t talk about the second one  because it’s part of a screamingly obvious plot twist. Trust me, I haven’t ruined anything for you. If you’re paying even the slightest bit of attention to what’s going on, you’ll be able to plot the entire movie based on the first five minutes alone.

This is the problem with the movie-by-committee mindset. The core idea of people living their lives through robotic doubles is fascinating, all the more so because most people in real life would gladly do it if they could. I sure as hell would, if for no other reason than knowing that I’d be all but immune to death my misfortune unless a plane crashed into my house. Think about how it would change our ideas of identity and prejudice if you could choose your appearance based solely on your own whims. Want to change your skin colour? Go right ahead. Your sex? Easy. Being able to literally walk in another person’s body would alter our perceptions about how we relate to each other enormously, yet Surrogates goes straight to the lowest common denominator rather than mining such rich veins of inspiration.

Needless to say, there’d be some opposition to the surrogacy movement, and this is a point where the movie stumbles particularly badly. The ‘Dreads’, as they’re inexplicably called, oppose the ‘perfect’ robotic bodies because…well, it’s never really explained. They have some sort of vague religious motivations (surrogates are ‘abominations’, apparently), but it’s never elaborated upon. The people in the Dread reservations subscribe to the most bland set of beliefs imaginable – they cremate their dead, probably to make things a bit more exotic, but don’t seem to have any religious symbols or doctrines beyond ‘robots are bad’. I’d like to say that the producers were making some sort of point with this, but it’s far more likely that they just needed a motivation for their antagonists and were terrified that somebody, somewhere might react to their movie on an emotional level. Hence we get the Genericans.

The characters are equally flat. Bruce Willis’ detective is utterly inscrutable for most of the movie’s scant running time, and comes across as downright psychotic at several key points by launching into violent or emotional outbursts for no visible reason. Why does he change his opinion on surrogates? I have no idea. Why does he beat up that surrogate guy in his apartment? Some sort of embolism, I’m guessing. What does he actually think about anything going on around him? Your guess is as good as mine, and probably as good as the writer’s. The supposedly emotional scenes between him and his wife are downright excrutiating, mostly because he’s phoning it in and she’s represented by her creepy, lifeless Barbie-robot the whole time.

Surrogates isn’t as offensively bad as this review might make it seem, but it is plagues by the all too common problem of wasted potential. It could have been fascinating, which makes its crushing blandness all the more disappointing. Still, it’s probably a hell of a lot better than Gamer. (Or Pandorum, but the trailer alone was enough to put me off that one.)

Categories: Uncategorized

Let’s Read The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano

September 25, 2009 Leave a comment

One of the books on my current course is The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, written by Olaudah Equiano (AKA Gustavus Vassa, a name that was forced on him by somebody else, or simply ‘The African’, as he was referred to in his own time). Equiano is a remarkable figure; born in what is now Nigeria 1745, he was enslaved at a young age before going on to become by far the wealthiest person of African descent in Britain during 18th century. He was a staunch abolitionist and, according to many historians, was instrumental in the ending of the British slave trade.

The book itself is quite short, and chronicles his life in fascinating detail. The early chapters are filled with rich descriptions of his home before moving on to the abject horrors of slavery, first in his own country and then in Britain and the West Indies. It’s easy to see why the book became something of a touch stone for the abolitionist movement in Britain – the writing is clear and compelling even to modern readers, and Equiano manages to evoke sympathy without ever straying into overt sentimentality or melodrama. Slave narratives offer a glimpse into a world that is now gone, at least in the form of the form movement of humans by colonial powers, and it’s obvious why both historians and literary critics would be intensely interested in Equiano’s narrative.

What makes it even more interesting to fans of scholarly spectacle, however, is the possibility that Equiano may have fabricated the earlier parts of the story. (Papers on the subject tend to use phrases like ‘constructed an African identity’ here, but I’m going to go with ‘fabricated’ in the interest of accurate spade-naming.) Apparently there are documents suggesting that he was actually born in South Carolina which, taken together with the letters he wrote where he claims to have lived in an entirely different part of Africa to that described in the book, cast some doubt on the reliability of the earlier chapters. (The later sections are not in any doubt, however.)

I tend to be interested in things like this. I love the (slightly overblown) idea of a historian as a detective, painstakingly trying to unearth the truth from a tangled web of evidence, all the while knowing that the true nature of some of that evidence may have been deliberately obscured by those who created it. It’s a stark reminder of the difficulties inherent in working with human-produced sources.

Equiano’s intentions in making up the ‘African’ section of his autobiography, assuming that he did make it up, are as obvious as they are noble. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he realized the power inherent in an African description of the dehumanizing effects of the slave trade. He saw that Europeans would be more moved to action if they thought of Africans as real people rather opposed to faceless ‘Others’, for whom they could feel sympathy but not any real empathy.

The book stands as a reminder of many things, including the power of narratives, the difficulty of establishing ‘truth’ in history and, of course, the suffering endured by millions of people in the name of European colonial expansion. It’s definitely one of the more enjoyable books I’ve had to read for a university class. You can read it for free on Project Gutenberg (and lets all take a moment to thank whoever came up with the concept of ‘public domain’). Like I said, it should be quite readable for most people, although some of the enormous paragraphs can be a bit daunting when read on a computer screen.

Categories: Uncategorized

Let’s Read The Greatest Show On Earth!

September 22, 2009 Leave a comment

Richard Dawkins is better known among most people for writing The God Delusion than for anything else he’s ever done, which is a real shame. The God Delusion is what first introduced me to atheism, so it clearly worked for its intended audience, but I’ve long outgrown it and now see it as fairly immature in a lot of ways. I much prefer Dawkins’ other books, particularly Climbing Mount Improbable (Note: The version I linked to there has a catastrophically ugly cover. Try to get the UK paperback edition if you can). He has a gift for communicating extremely complex scientific ideas and lines of evidence in a way that makes them accessible even to non-scientists, and that’s a very rare ability indeed. But, as he himself has pointed out on numerous occasions, none of his books paid much attention to the actual evidence for evolution. Climbing Mount Improbable deals with the ‘common sense’ notion that structures such as complex eyes and wings couldn’t have evolved naturally, while The Ancestor’s Tale is a grandiose story of the interconnectedness of life. Somebody who already knows the evidence for evolution isn’t going to have a problem with either of them, but Creationists in particular are likely to assume that Dawkins is just pulling all those facts and fossils out of thin air. His latest book, The Greatest Show On Earth, was written to address the gap in his bibliography.

With that in mind, he starts things off strangely. I was expecting the book to leap headfirst into the familiar lines of evidence for evolution – DNA, the fossil record, biogeography – but instead he begins with an account of how humans have shaped and ‘moulded’ other species to their own liking before moving on to explain how other creatures have essentially done the same thing. Don’t get me wrong, this section is fascinating, but any Creationist reading it is likely to start asking how scientists know that, for example, a mantis’ clever mimickry of a leaf is actually an evolved trait. It’s obvious if you already accept evolution (why might looking more and more like a leaf convey a survival advantage?), but Creationists are nothing if not obtuse.

Having said that, I’m not much further into the book, so I’ll post my thoughts as I (slowly) work my way through it. Hopefully my assessment will change once it moves on to the nitty-gritty evidence. There’s also a lot to like even in these earlier sections; the writing is as good as ever, and the numerous colour photographs included at regular intervals in the text really liven things up. Rather than just imagining what a caterpillar with a rear-end that mimics a snake would look like, you can flip to the photographic inserts and see it in all its bizarre glory!

If you like Richard Dawkins as a writer, the theory of evolution or just biology in general, I’d already recommend The Greatest Show On Earth based on the first two chapters alone. The people it’s trying to persuade might not be quite so enthusiastic about it, at least if they don’t get past the earlier sections. (And I suspect that a lot of them won’t, if the maddening conversations I’ve had with Creationists online are anything to go by.)

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What Happens When I Get Stuck At The Back Of The Lecture Theatre

September 21, 2009 Leave a comment

Usually I sit right at the front of any lecture theatre I happen to find myself in, for the simple reason that it gets you noticed by the lecturers you can hear things better. Today, thanks to whatever genius decided to timetable one of my largest history classes in the smallest theatre available, I ended up sitting right at the back.

I now have some appreciation for what religious converts must feel shortly after they experience divine revelation. See, I had always assumed that students who work hard enough to get into a university actually want to be there. It’s not easy to get in, it sure as hell isn’t cheap (even accounting for my evil socialist government, which pays my tuition), and if you don’t put everything you’ve got into it you’re basically wasting your time. Somehow, this naive idealism managed to survive all through first year, and it is only now at the beginning of second year that I see how completely wrong I was.

I first realized that something was a bit off when the people around me started to talk loudly about how the lecture was ‘shite’ despite the fact that it hadn’t started yet. Something then asked his friends if they were planning on ‘going on the beer’ as soon as it finished. This was at a few minutes past noon. The lecture would be over at one o’ clock.

Anyway, the lecturer arrived and, to everybody’s amusement, had a strong American accent. This was immediately mocked by a group of vacuous girls sitting behind me, which was a bit uncomfortable because I’m originally from New York and sound fairly American myself. The lecture started, they didn’t shut up, and the lecturer naturally told them to be quiet, at which point one of them tutted loudly and said ‘But we need to have a laugh at the back of the room!’

No, irritating teenage girl, you don’t. You can ‘have a laugh’ anywhere you like, but please don’t do it in a place where people are actually trying to learn.

The Irish economy is currently in meltdown, students have less resources than ever, and going to college represents a serious monetary burden on both the government and individual families – especially now that the registration fee has been increased by €500. Yet despite all that, we actually have the opportunity to get a third-level education, something that an awful lot of people around the world never will. Why the hell would you waste it by getting hammered on cheap beer and partying four nights out of every seven?

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A Deluge of Reading

September 21, 2009 1 comment

College has finally started back again (finally), which means I’m ready to get my learning on.

Learning and reading. And reading and reading and reading. Modularisation is great and all, but I get the impression that it leads to ridiculous amounts of prescribed reading because each lecturer is making their lists independently of the others. (That’s the only explanation I can think of for why I’m going to have to read about three books over the course of the next week, on top of lectures and tutorials. And I’m trying to get a 1:1 average this year, which means doing plenty of extra reading when essays and exams come up…this could get interesting.)

I have a feeling that I’m going to have to put writing (as in fiction writing) on the backburner for the forseeable future, which likely means that I’ll be using this blog as a dumping ground for whatever happens to pass through my mind. Enjoy! Or not, as the case may be.

Categories: Uncategorized