Friday, August 15, 2014

My Thoughts on Ferguson and a Poll For You

The situation in Ferguson, Missouri seems to be winding down right now, but it was a pretty wild few days. We had such wonderful things as:

*The police using what looks a lot like military equipment to intimidate protesters.

*Rioting and destruction of property.

*Armed store owners keeping the hooligans away.

*Journalists roughed up in a McDonald's.

*Journalists getting gassed.

*Foreign propaganda outlets use this to make Americans look like a bunch of hypocrites.

*Someone writing in a respectable outlet called it a "police coup."

*I'd heard something about a state representative getting arrested too, but I haven't been able to find any corroborating evidence. I think it was referring to this state senator getting tear-gassed.

*Real soldiers sounding off on how inept the police were even with their military hardware and how if this was the "militarization" of the police force, it was the most inept militarization they'd ever seen.

*Cops telling people not to film them, even though that's perfectly legal.

*The hacker militia Anonymous shutting down much of Ferguson's government.

*A no-fly zone being declared. Very convenient for keeping away news choppers, I think, although it's the FAA and not the local cops declaring it.

Here're my thoughts. I identify as a conservative politically and/or as a Libertarian and I think this is bugnuts insane. Even IF the police shooting that set this all off was justified--and based on witness reports it almost certainly was not--the police massively overreacted to citizens exercising their rights to speak freely, assemble, petition the government for redress of grievances, etc. That the local thug element used this as an opportunity to make trouble doesn't justify the sheer overkill involved.

Some online left-wingers have been claiming Tea Party types, libertarians, militia types, people waving the Gadsden Flag, etc. have been awfully quiet about the situation, with the implication they're entirely cool with brutal police-state stuff if it's directed at black people.

Well, as a big fan of the Gadsden Flag (I plan on having the protagonist in my Wastelands series use it as his personal insignia), here's my response:

The police here have been behaving in a ridiculous manner, to the point their authority in the area has been revoked and the State Highway Patrol (led by a black officer who grew up in the area) has been brought in. Things seem to have gotten a lot better.

(And by the way, libertarians have been complaining for awhile.)

Now for some political thoughts:

*The militarization of the police has gotten absurd in this country. I could understand the need to have some kind of heavy iron for an emergency, but a lot of departments have stocked up on gear they're not likely to ever need short of an alien invasion. I'm an Eagle Scout and I'm all for being prepared, but there's not unlimited money out there. Although the problem in this situation is more of attitude than equipment, I'll steal a page from Rahm Emmanuel and suggest that a good crisis never go to waste. A relevant bill has been put forward. At the very least it might help control government spending.

*From eyewitness reports, the officer straight-up murdered the man. The robbery-suspect thing seems like an ex post facto justification for what happened, given how it didn't come out for days. If the eyewitness claim is true (it may not be--there hasn't been much of an investigation so far), he needs to be charged with the appropriate degree of murder and subject to the appropriate punishment (up to and including execution). Police have a reputation for closing ranks in the event of an accusation of wrongdoing and that needs to stop for the sack of justice.

*I've seen the suggestion floating around the Internet about having police carry small cameras on their persons to record the events of their shift. This seems like a good idea, in order to reduce police brutality and provide evidence to protect the cops themselves if a suspect attacks them and then claims to have been brutalized. It might also give them another source of information for their reports and all. Here's a poll from one of my major clients on cop cameras. If you could vote in it, that would be spiffy.

And because I'm a nerd, here's a selection from Battlestar Galactica about why the police and military are two different things.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Little Image I Made About the Ferguson, MO Situation

Here's a little image I made to show my opinion about what's going on in Ferguson, MO right now.

Some people think conservatives and/or Libertarians are hypocritically staying quiet about Ferguson because they don't mind a police state so long as it's deployed against black people. I call BS, especially now.

I'll post more later. In the meantime, please share the heck out of that picture. Sorry for my mediocre MSPaint skills.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Response to Alison Willmore's Critique of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" (2014) (SPOILERS)

Earlier this morning, I found an article on Facebook in which Buzzfeed movie critic Alison Willmore takes the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Film to task. In particular, she states that the 1990 film is in many ways superior. Although she does make some good points, I disagree with others. So hence this response:

#1: The Appearance of the Turtles

She thinks the Turtles are scary-looking. Although she doesn't explicitly use the phrase, the thing that comes to mind is "uncanny valley." They're close to human in appearance, but so close that it's revolting, not endearing. I didn't find them frightening, but given that one of the theories behind "uncanny valley" is that it's an evolutionary mechanism, I really can't fault her for something that's likely hard-wired into her brain.

One of the commentators, one Benjamin Kubilus, praises the 1990 design for giving them beaks. Given how these are mutated turtles and not, say, human babies injected with turtle DNA, their having beaks makes a lot of sense. Although Willmore didn't say this, I'll give her points for inspiring Kubilus to say this and giving him a platform. Obviously the Jim Henson creatures are less realistic-looking that Bay's turtles, but making the Turtles more "humanoid turtle" instead of "turtle-oid human" would have been a better design.

#2: The Turtles Aren't Fighting Crime

In the original film, the Turtles were already fighting street crime and only encountered an actual supervillain (Shredder) incidentally, by rescuing April from some of his minions she'd caught stealing from her television van. Here they get involved with supervillainy from the get-go.

However, that ties in with the reason Splinter trained them in the martial arts in the first place. Splinter said he trained them because if they went above-ground and tried to openly mingle with humanity, they would be mocked and treated as freaks (which is IMO an understatement--they wouldn't just be sitting by themselves at lunch; odds are someone would try to kill them or put them in a zoo) and would need to defend themselves. It was never his intention to deploy them as crime-fighters--this was a choice they made upon learning about the Foot Clan's depredations, a choice Splinter opposed. To quote Scripture, "To whom much is given much is expected" and the Turtles chose to challenge Shredder because they couldn't stand to see him terrorizing New York and had the means to do something about it.

If Willmore doesn't think this is a good story choice that's her call, but there are reasons they're not (at least during the events of the movie) general-purpose crime-fighters. Given how the film ends with their driving around an armed Turtle-Van, this might change.

She still makes the good point that the villains' evil scheme needs work. Although her argument that Sacks' motive is greed doesn't work because he's already rich--most white-collar criminals (at least the ones who make the news) are already well-off--it would have been better story-wise if this was something Sacks was doing for Shredder. One of the better aspects of the story was that Shredder was apparently Evil Mr. Miyagi to Sacks' Daniel-San when Sacks' father died in Vietnam and if Shredder was more explicitly established as the mastermind and Sacks his minion, this would expand on that.

#3: April O'Neill

Here's where I'm going to disagree with Willmore most strongly. This movie's April, rather than being an established reporter, seems to be new to the job based on how she talks about journalism school as though it's a recent thing and if she was around eight or nine years old in 1999, she's in her very early 20s now. Her superiors at the television station simply don't think her capable of doing more than fluff either due to her inexperience or her gender (the latter is less likely due to her boss being a woman, but still). And putting her on the trampoline isn't Fan-Service--she's too modestly dressed, it's shot from too far away, and it's over too quickly to be all, "Look at Hot Megan Fox on the Trampoline." Yes, her cameraman Vernon does leer at her behind at one point and it is played for laughs, but that's part of his character--he's lazy (he's content to do the feature stories April hates) and he's into her but too inept to really do much about it. Furthermore, she does display a great deal of "hard" news-gathering skills (by collecting evidence of turtle activity elsewhere--even if it didn't prove they were giant mutant turtles, it proved the Foot Clan had a rival), something her boss disdains rather than acknowledge.

And as far as her being important only because of who her dad was, the fact her father was a scientist only gave her access to the lab. It was her who fed the turtles and the rat pizza and gave them names (names that only a very smart child would know--any kid could come up with "Splinter," but the Renaissance artist names she gave the turtles shows intelligence). It was her who ran back into a burning laboratory to rescue Splinter and the turtles, something that Splinter explicitly said inspired him to be a father. He raised the turtles to think they were rescued from a fiery death by some kind of godlike being and when the turtles realize this, they bow to her. Wilmore's argument gives the 2014 April far too little credit.

And as far as April's father is concerned, he just comes off as an impulsive idiot. Rather than pretending to go along with Sacks' plan while secretly gathering evidence for the cops, he proceeds to flip out and destroy the laboratory while his daughter is in the building (putting her in danger from fire or the vengeful Sacks) and while Sacks is present. Considering how Sacks claims to have killed him, that was a really bad idea.

Finally, the budding romance between Casey Jones and April in the first film was poorly developed. In this film, however much Vernon crushes on her, she never reciprocates or even acknowledges his feelings. This holds true even after he dramatically rises above his previous worthlessness by helping rescue the turtles from Sacks and then beating the evil scientist down with a microscope and getting shot in the process. Feminist-inclined commentators have claimed Fox's character Mikaela in Transformers was a "trophy" for Sam, but here she has no romantic plot at all.

#4: Splinter's Asian-ness

There's actually a good point entangled in the Social Justice Warrior business. Splinter in the 1990 film was the pet of a Japanese martial artist and learning karate by mimicking his practicing master's movements. That would explain why, when he gained the ability to speak, he spoke English with a Japanese accent and had this shinobi-esque ethical system. In the 2014 film, Splinter taught himself and later the turtles martial arts from a book. That wouldn't explain his accent and manner of dress--even if he adopted other aspects of Japanese culture from the book, he wouldn't have the accent since he wouldn't have been exposed to Japanese language.

(Maybe if Splinter had been the pet of a rival ninja that Shredder killed and then Sacks claimed him for the lab that could explain it, but this isn't in the movie. It would be kind of clunky to include, although perhaps it would fit in the flashback scenes. Heck, perhaps Bay could include it in the sequel, although it would then inspire the same kind of complaints making Splinter and the turtles April's semi-pets did.)

That said, you can't win when you as a Western artist try to portray or borrow from a non-Western culture. She complains about the franchise's "exotification" of Japanese culture, but without including it, you couldn't have the Ninja Turtles in the first place. Ninja Turtles is a hell of a lot better than "Teenage Mutant Professional Wrestler Turtles" or "Teenage Mutant Boxing Turtles" (i.e. using a Western, not an Eastern, practice). However, then the franchise's creators would get crap for leaving out heroic non-Westerners, especially if they keep the Japanese Shredder as a villain. Then it'd be "heroic (culturally) white people against the Yellow Peril" and people would complain about that.

Obviously her argument leaves room for including Japanese culture, the martial arts, etc. in a non-stupid way, but how to do it?

#5: No Actually Getting to Know The Turtles

It's true that Bay could have developed the turtle characters better beyond the angry Raphael and the immature, blatantly-crushing-on-April Michelangelo. However, that would best be done subtly and in small bites. For example, there's some promotional material out there depicting Donatello wanting to be "the badass for once" that some interpret as an effort to overcome cowardice and others interpret as him not wanting to be in the backseat because he's the techie. Unfortunately, I didn't notice this in the actual film. Either interpretation of Donatello's character could have been interesting, given how one of the complaints about the film I've seen elsewhere is that the turtles (or at least those other than Raphael, whose development she doesn't acknowledge) are lacking characterization. And I did suggest a way to develop Leonardo as the team leader in an earlier blog post.

However, the interlude in the countryside in the first movie Willmore is nostalgic for is one of the most incredibly boring parts of the film. Not only that, but it gives Splinter the completely unexplained talent for astral projection that isn't foreshadowed and is never used again. Unless of course this was some kind of group hallucination and for all of them to see the exact same thing at the same time seems really tricky. I can understand her desire for more developed characters, but mimicking that sequence really isn't the way to go.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

The other night for the podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood I'm doing with my friend Nick, I watched the film Sleepy Hollow (1999). And so the "blast from the past movie review" train continues rolling...

The Good

*The atmosphere and colors are really well-done. It's a beautiful, well-shot film. Apparently this is something director Tim Burton is really good at.

*The concept is really quite creative. Making the Headless Horseman into a murderous movie villain could've gone into pure slasher territory (and according to the Wikipedia entry, that's where it was going before Tim Burton got involved). Instead, we get something a lot smarter and generally better. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail for fear of spoilers, but I do like the overall plot. And the Horseman himself is really quite impressive.

*Johnny Depp did a good job playing Ichabod Crane, a police officer and a big fan of rationalism, the Enlightenment, etc. rather than a gold-digging schoolteacher. Even when he's finally convinced that the Headless Horseman is real, he still applies his rationalist, scientific approach to deduce that it's not some just a monstrous hell-fiend gratuitously murdering people, but something with a purpose. He's also somewhat gray--on more than one occasion he puts others between himself and danger, albeit fairly subtly and perhaps even unconsciously. And he's afraid of spiders and prone to fainting.

*Although my compatriots didn't receive Casper Van Dien's presence in the film very well when he was first introduced, I did like his version of Brom Bones. The film retains his territorial, possessive attitude toward Katrina Van Tassel, but he's not a blowhard bully (as he is in the animated film). In fact, he takes on the Headless Horseman and puts up a pretty impressive fight.

*Given the gadgets people use in the film, you could credibly call it steampunk. Ichabod has got a cool medical bag with brass shelves that pop out, while Brom has got some kind of steampunk sniper rifle. It's awesome.

The Bad

*The movie comes off at times as neo-pagan religious propaganda. A character is saved from a bullet by a book of magic spells rather than by a Bible or cross (the latter I remember quite well from The Three Musketeers film from the early 1990s), a Puritan preacher is anti-intellectual and corrupt, a church only becomes a sanctuary from the Headless Horseman when one of the good witches draws a charm to protect a loved one from evil on the floor, and a character has a free-spirited witch mother who is abused and ultimately murdered (in a torture chamber hidden in a church no less) by a grim and stereotypically evil Puritan father. Meanwhile, Ichabod is a skeptic and the rest of the sympathetic characters are witches. The obvious response is that having symbols of the Christian faith protecting people from physical danger (i.e. bullets) or spiritual foes is Christian propaganda, but that doesn't explain the purely negative portrayal of Christians in the film. Young Masbath, the boy who becomes Ichabod's helper to help avenge his murdered father, could've been developed as a good Christian character, given how he tells Ichabod that his mother is in Heaven and now his father is there to take care of her. That's similar to what I did with the Janissary Mehmed in my short story "The Beast of the Bosporus" on the advice of my writing group to avoid accusations of anti-Muslim prejudice (given how other Muslim characters are drunks or practitioners of dark magic). However, a bad witch explicitly describes making a pact with Satan, a figure not present in any neo-pagan religion I'm aware of.

*The Headless Horseman can be harmed (or at least knocked around) by blades or bullets but, since he's already dead, not killed. There's a scene where a building is blown up with the Horseman in it, but he emerges without a scratch. It would've been a lot cooler if the characters thought they'd killed him but instead he emerges from the burning building on fire and the flames slowly die off. That would have been visually awesome.

*Christopher Walken, who plays the Horseman in scenes when he has his head, is a goggled-eyed lunatic who rasps and snarls a lot but never actually speaks coherently. At times he was unintentionally hilarious, especially with his bizarre Albert Einstein-esque hair.

*There's a scene where a character lurks in a fortified tree-fort (it's surrounded by what look like anti-cavalry stakes) to shoot the Horseman if he approaches Sleepy Hollow. He shoots at the Horseman and we later see him running away on foot and getting cut down. Why didn't he stay in his little fort? It would've been better if we see how the Horseman drove him out (perhaps by setting the fort on fire?), because him abandoning a safe space the way he did was just dumb.

The Verdict

It's a pretty good movie. 7 out of 10.

How I Would Have Done the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Movie (SPOILERS)

I just reviewed the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie produced by none other than the polarizing Michael Bay. I overall liked it a fair bit, but I'd have done a few things differently. Here goes...

*April is fired from her job at the television news station for continuing to push her theory about the vigilantes fighting the Foot Clan because she supposedly lacks proof. However, she did have some pictures of the Turtles on her phone that she later showed Sacks. Why didn't she show them to her boss? The boss could've dismissed them as Photoshop or too blurry to mean anything, much like how she blew off her picture of the graffiti the Turtles left behind when they first challenged the Foot, but it doesn't look like she even tried.

*The master plan that Sacks and the Shredder concocted between them doesn't make a great deal of sense. Sacks creating a chemical attack or plague (it's not totally clear which) secretly and then producing the cure and making a butt-load of money and getting all the glory, that makes sense. But how exactly is the Foot Clan going to rule New York? They try that, they're going to get slapped down by the New York National Guard or, if they get too troublesome, the U.S. Army. Maybe if their intent was to use the chemical weapon to take the city hostage a la Bane's scheme in The Dark Knight Rises that might be more sensible, but it's never explained. It would've been better if the Foot was providing the muscle, stolen lab equipment, etc. for the plan in exchange for a cut of the money or Sacks' chemical weapon for their own use. Given the relationship revealed between Sacks and the Shredder (the Shredder became his mentor/father figure after his own father died in Vietnam), Sacks as an agent or puppet of the Foot pursuing their agenda in the corporate world would make sense.

*Sacks was basically raised by the Shredder, an evil ninja, but never displays any martial-arts ability himself. Vernon, April's cameraman, jokes about having taken yoga classes but quitting after (rather pathetically) injuring himself. If it were me writing the script, Vernon could've (briefly) taken a real martial art and quit after (quickly) getting hurt. Then, in the scene where April and Vernon confront Sacks in the lab, Sacks has them at gunpoint and Vernon manages to surprise him and knock away his gun. Then Sacks proceeds to unleash some real martial-arts and kick the living hell out of him. It's April who attacks Sacks from behind with one of those heavy lab microscopes, avenging the death of her father at Sacks' hands years before. She does stab Shredder in the back when he's dueling Splinter in the sewers earlier in the film, so even if she's not going to be taking on adult male martial artists, ambush or taking advantage of a distracted opponent is still entirely doable. And although we sacrifice Vernon's yoga joke, having him get the tar beat out of him by Sacks preserves him as the semi-lovable Butt Monkey he kind of is.

*Since the movie is the Turtles' origin story, we could see the individual turtles growing into their roles. We do see Raphael overcoming his anger issues and threats to abandon his brothers to go rescue them when they're captured by the Foot. Having Leonardo be the one to defeat the Shredder (instead of April convincing the Turtles to basically use her as a club to knock him sixty stories off a falling radio tower) could cement him in his role as the Turtles' battle leader, especially if Splinter remains too injured for frontline fighting. April could get her action-girl glory (in a more thematically appropriate way) in my above scenario where she caves in Sacks' head with a microscope.

Review: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

Just got back from seeing the 2014 live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. Here goes. There won't be a lot of detail due to the need to avoid spoilers, but I promise more later.

The Good

*Once things got going, it was never dull and quite entertaining. From when the Foot Clan invades the Turtles' lair onward it's a blast. The fight scenes are really well-done and fun to watch. The fight choreography is vastly better than the 1990 version.

*There are a lot of good callbacks later in the movie to stuff that happens earlier, like the "don't move no matter what" in the climax. And good callbacks to the animated series, including Shredder's vow to eat turtle soup, Vernon making a reference to "heroes on a half-shell," etc.

*I liked the back-story between Sacks and the Shredder.

*Megan Fox did a pretty good job playing April O'Neill. I liked Judith Hoag in the 1990 version better, but it wasn't a bad performance. A lot of people don't think she's a talented actress and I really haven't seen that many of her movies, but she does seem to play a particular type of character (spunky young female with a chip o n her shoulder?) well enough. And I did like the character--they combine her different back stories (in some versions she's a scientist or daughter of a scientist, while in others she's a newspaper reporter) in a coherent way.

*A lot of people thought the Turtles' new designs were nightmarish or creepy, I'm guessing due to the Uncanny Valley effect. They didn't bother me. I actually thought they were kind of cool. And Splinter using his long tail as a fifth limb for fights--such as his epic throw-down with the Shredder--was awesome.

*They bring in Karai, although her relationship with the Shredder (in many versions she's his daughter, adopted daughter, granddaughter, etc) is never really explained beyond the fact she gets to explain herself and not get mashed when things go wrong.

*It had a lot of funny moments.

The Bad

*The early part of the movie kind of drags. Things pick up after the Foot Clan takes hostages in the subway and the Turtles proceed to take the perpetrators apart, but the slow beginning isn't helpful.

*The Shredder's master plan is really kind of dubious. I could understand how [NAME REDACTED TO AVOID SPOILERS] would benefit from his part of it--the Foot Clan could have simply been providing muscle in exchange for part of the eventual profits. That'll go into the "how I would've done it" post I wrote tonight.

*There's a pivotal scene I would have done rather differently, but going into detail would be spoilery. It was all right, but it could've been much better. That'll go into the "how I would have done it" post as well.

*The Shredder is too bulky. I would have preferred him more lithe like he was as a powered-armor-free ninja in most of his incarnations. Given how gigantic and steroidal the Turtles are in this incarnation some kind of enhancement was necessary to make him a realistic threat, but something more akin to Iron Man would've been better.

The Verdict

It's not the greatest movie ever, but it's not bad either. Worth seeing once. 7 out of 10.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Marko Kloos' First Two FRONTLINES Novels (Some Spoilers)

A relative who's in the military was in town a few days ago and while he was here, he recommended I read two novels by Marko Kloos, a German-born American science fiction writer. The first is Terms of Enlistment and the second is Lines of Departure. I corresponded briefly with Kloos via Twitter and there's a third one he's working on now, plus a couple shorter works set in the same universe I haven't got around to reading yet.

The Good

*It's a really entertaining series. I typically buy e-books to read while on the elliptical at the gym (my hour and change goes a lot faster when there's something I can look at besides the timer) and this is something that makes my cardio routine go by in a flash. It also makes the MARTA train when I'm going to graduate school much less boring.

*The aliens when they're finally revealed are the most interesting extraterrestrials since the "fish" of Midshipman's Hope and its sequels or the alien-invasion novel Footfall. Most fictional aliens are human-sized or, like the Fithp of Footfall, slightly larger. The Lankies somewhat resemble the Baluchitherium of prehistoric Earth--but are vastly bigger.

*As the protagonist himself points out, the idea that the warring factions of humanity would unite in the face of a common alien foe is pretty cliched--and does not happen. The North American Commonwealth and the Sino-Russian Alliance continue their war even with the wolf at the door. Although cliches can be plausible, it's generally good to avoid them.

*It does touch on the less-romantic realities of space colonization--going from an urbanized Earth to some new colony where there are maybe a million people on an entire planet is going to be pretty jarring and lonely.

*Kloos started out as a self-published writer using the Kindle Direct Program and then 47 North, Amazon's science fiction imprint, picked up him. He's a success story those of us who seek to walk this path (I'm still primarily interested in the traditional route, but I could easily imagine going down his path if I keep querying and nobody bites) could learn from.

The Bad

*The male lead and female lead are in a romantic relationship lasting for years, but she's an officer and he's senior enlisted. That's a serious no-no right there. Kloos is a veteran of the German military, so he should know how these things work. Some acknowledgement of the situation would be a good idea--it could be pointed out in-story they're not in the same chain of command or due to long space voyages the rules aren't as strictly enforced.

*We're getting into spoilery territory here, but in the second book it's made clear that there haven't been any human victories in space over the aliens. A solution is ultimately found to that problem, a solution that's pretty simple and obvious. Given how dumb people can be sometimes and how the NAC government was covering up just how bad things were, the fact that this solution wasn't thought up immediately isn't the implausible part--what's implausible is that in-story it took five years. If the war with the Lankies had only been in progress for a year or two that would make more sense, plus it would make the Lankies a lot scarier if they've obliterated half the NAC's space colonies in that sort of a time-frame. It would also explain why the NAC and SRA haven't ended their chronic war--five years is quite a long time to keep fighting in the middle of a burning house.

*From the way they talk about the use of nuclear weapons (and the strategies the humans follow against the Lankies), it seems Kloos thinks the use of a few nukes on a planet would render it uninhabitable to both the humans and Lankies. Unless they're using cobalt-salted bombs, that's not plausible. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were immediately rebuilt and re-inhabited after they got A-Bombed. To be fair if he was a German soldier during the Cold War even tactical nuclear use in an area as densely populated as Germany would be horrifically destructive, but whole worlds are not single countries.

*The Earth is rapidly overpopulating and it seems most of the urban population in the NAC is living on welfare. Some more discussion about how this situation actually came to be would be interesting. If it were me writing it, I'd say that the economy is so advanced that it can generate all sorts of high-tech goodies but automated to the point it only creates a few jobs. However, the government is so starved of funds (due to overly-low or misdirected taxes, an inept tax-collection apparatus, or some combination of the two) that it can't manage guns and butter (and so the masses are reduced to living on soy in crime-ridden ghettos), that its needs are so great it's debasing the currency to meet them (and that's why beef is $100/pound), or a combination of the two. Kloos obviously shouldn't have to explain everything, but at the same time, the reader shouldn't have to come up with explanations for why something works to this degree.

The Verdict

A good series despite some world-building flaws. Definitely worth keeping up with. 8.5 out of 10.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Guest Post: The Bukharin Alternative, Part Two

It is a common belief in some circles that Stalinist policies were necessary for the Soviet Union to industrialize sufficiently in order to defeat the inevitable genocidal Nazi invasion. In particular is the Holodomor, in which grain was exported to the West to purchase industrial equipment and the like while millions starved to death. Ukraine was hit particularly hard, but Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and other places suffered as well.

However, my Internet cohort Scott Blair doesn't agree with this theory and wrote this essay--which I broke into two parts--to elaborate. Part One can be see here.

The Bukharin Alternative Part Two: Stalinist Complicity in the Rise of Hitler

By Scott Blair

It is also worth considering whether or not Hitler would have risen to power without Stalin’s support. In 1928, the Comintern leadership in Moscow took a much harsher stance against collaboration with Social Democrat parties in Europe, on the belief that the collapse of capitalism was imminent. In Germany, the results were disastrous. From 1928 onward, the German Communist Party (KPD) “party directed its venom principally against the Social Democrats”, while the Red Front-Fighters League became a paramilitary force. The KPD were particularly vocal in attacking the Social Democrats, who they denounced as “social fascists”, and by the end of 1932 Germany’s military was worried that a crackdown on the Nazis or Communists would result in civil war. Initially, Josef Stalin and the KPD welcomed the rise of Nazism, believing that he was a crazy fool whose rise to power was a sign that the German revolution was at hand. History has proven how wrong this belief was.

In these circumstances, one may well wonder if Nikolai Bukharin would have made a difference, and the answer is an emphatic yes. In contrast to Stalin, by 1928 Bukharin had become notable for advocating collaboration with the Socialist parties of Europe, and as the KPD followed the line set down in Moscow, it would have followed Bukharin’s policy as well. While it is unlikely that the Social Democrats and KPD would have collaborated in any meaningful way, if the KPD had emphasize on stabilizing the Republic the German military may have been more willing to crack down on the Nazis. This would not have resulted in a shiny, happy German democracy, and the possibilities range from an authoritarian state run by the military, to an unstable democracy, to a German civil war.

All three alternatives would have been preferable to the Third Reich. Even a militarist dictatorship would have been unstable, possibly annexing Austria and warring with Poland, but it is unlikely to have been as aggressive or uniquely successful as the Third Reich was. It must also be remembered that before the rise of Hitler Germany and the USSR had been close, with joint military exercises and discussions about a partition of Poland. Thus, in the Bukharin alternative the Great Patriotic War may never occur.

Even if one assumes Hitler still rose to power, and that things are the same until the beginning of Barbarossa, then it is possible Bukharin’s policies would have still let the Soviet Union win. On the one hand, the Soviet Union would have a smaller industrial base. First, it is unlikely that Bukharin would have been caught by the surprise the way that Stalin was, which may have resulted in a different outcome in the opening stages of the Great Patriotic War. It is also unlikely that the purges would have taken place, with their well known effects on the Soviet officer corps. Finally, peasant disenchantment with the regime, so obvious in the summer of 1941, may have been much less significant in a USSR that followed Bukharin’s policies. All told, even if we assume a somewhat smaller Soviet industrial base, there is good reason to think that the USSR would ultimately prevail in the war, as it did historically.

Thus, Bukharin would have emerged from the Great Patriotic War as the head of a USSR with a much more vigorous agricultural sector, and one with millions of more citizens than had died in the famine. Perhaps Bukharin’s Soviet Union would not have turned the former breadbasket of Europe into an importer of American grain. Perhaps calls for increased autonomy in the economy would have been more successful in the 1960s, and the USSR’s economy would not have stagnated and ultimately crumbled.

At the risk of being speculative, in such a scenario it is possible that the Soviet Union would still exist today. If so, Stalin, far from being necessary, may have ensured the USSR’s ultimate demise.

Guest Post: The Bukharin Alternative Part One

It is a common belief in some circles that Stalinist policies were necessary for the Soviet Union to industrialize sufficiently in order to defeat the inevitable genocidal Nazi invasion. In particular is the Holodomor, in which grain was exported to the West to purchase industrial equipment and the like while millions starved to death. Ukraine was hit particularly hard, but Central Asia, the North Caucasus, and other places suffered as well.

However, my Internet cohort Scott Blair doesn't agree with this theory and wrote this essay--which I broke into two parts--to elaborate...

The Bukharin Alternative Part One: Collectivization and the Great Terror

By Scott Blair

In order to answer whether or Stalin was necessary, it is necessary to consider who could have replaced him. In order to do so, let us posit that in 1927, at the height of the debate between Josef Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin, Stalin dies from a bad batch of borscht. Thus, Bukharin, considered to be a more moderate leader, assumes control of the Soviet Union. What would the USSR, under the command of a man who said, “we have to tell the whole peasantry, all its strata: get rich, accumulate, develop your economy,” look like? Bukharin’s policies would have entailed a modification of the NEP, and its continuation. It is therefore worth asking how the USSR would have industrialized under him. Stalin’s industrialization is often held up as an example of his success, and so it is worth asking if Bukharin could have done the same.

To begin with, it is clear that collectivization, the cornerstone of Stalin’s policy, was a disaster. Gross farm output declined 20% between 1928 and 1933, and this is allowing for a recovery after the initial great famine. It has been estimated that “not until the mid 1950s did agriculture regain the level of output achieved in the last years before the Great War”. The number of livestock in the Soviet Union also fell dramatically, and it is estimated that half of the nation’s cows, pigs, and horses were killed between 1928 and 1932. This is especially tragic as the last years of the NEP witnessed increased crop diversification and access to new equipment such as horse drawn plows. 

Admittedly, the NEP had problems. The Revolution, by breaking up the large estates and farms of prosperous kulaks who had produced for the market, ended up producing millions of subsistence farms which were simply less efficient. This meant that while agriculture production recovered and surpassed the 1913 Russian levels, grain sales actually declined during this period. Thus, collectivization did have some benefits, by forcing peasants to provide grain for the Soviet Union’s burgeoning cities. It has also been suggested that the famine caused approximately twelve million Soviet citizens to flee the countryside for work in the USSR’s new cities between 1928 and 1933. 

In addition, the NEP years saw marked instability in pricing. 1922 witnessed high prices for grain and low prices for manufactured goods, while 1923 witnessed the “scissors crisis”, in which peasants refrained from buying industrial goods because the price of grain was low while the price of grain was high. Grain prices offered by the state in 1927 were low, while industrial consumer goods were in short supply. As a result, peasants simply withheld their grain from the market. As the state needed grain to industrialize, these problems have led to the belief that the NEP was essentially a dead end, and it is therefore worth asking how Bukharin could have come to terms with them. 

First, by by December of 1927, even Bukharin wanted “to speed up the tempo of industrialization and put pressure on the kulaks, though [he] believed the free market had to be maintained”. Secondly, by 1927 Soviet investment in industry had already surpassed investment by Russian and foreign capital in Russian industry in 1913, and industrial output slightly exceeded prewar levels. Thus, even without any modifications, industrialization and development would have continued, albeit not at the pace of Stalin’s Soviet Union. However, a variety of mechanisms to stimulate agricultural production, and thus industrialization, present themselves. For instance, the Soviet government forced peasants to sell a certain amount of grain to state procurement agencies or to machine tractor stations for their services. The state also imposed a high sales tax on goods but not on food, ensuring that what money peasants received by selling crops would go to the government. 

Thus, Soviet policy ultimately consisted of taking grain from Soviet peasants at artificially low prices, and selling them industrial goods at extremely high ones. There is no reason to assume such policies could not have been followed sans collectivization. This would have resulted in a system that squeezed the peasants, but allowed them to maintain a profit on what was left of their crop, but need not have entailed collectivization. Such a system would probably have squeezed less grain out of the peasants, meaning that industrialization would go less rapidly than historically. However, it would have provided better long term prospects for Soviet agriculture once industrialization had been achieved. 

It is also worth considering Bukharin’s historical plan provide more grain for the cities. Bukharin historically proposed selling manufactured goods at low prices and buying grain at high prices to encourage peasants to market more grain, but it is unclear if this policy would have worked. However, when the People’s Republic of China began paying peasants more for agricultural products in the late 1970s and early 1980s, agricultural production and the sale of agricultural products boomed as peasants responded to the new demand. China’s economic success is well known, and this suggests that Bukharin’s policy may have let the state have its cake and eat it too. The Soviet Union may have been able to build an industrial base which, if not as large as the one it possessed historically by 941, was not significantly smaller. 

Two additional points suggest that Stalinist policies harmed industrialization. Collectivization and the ensuing slaughter of livestock also harmed the Soviet textile industry as well as exports of wool and leather. As money from exports was used to finance purchases of machinery necessary for industrialization, a more benign policy may have helped the Soviet Union purchase more foreign technology. It is also worth asking what the effect of the famines the ensued from collectivization was. Estimates put the number of deaths from famine between four and nine million, and the birth rate declined in the mid 1930s, ultimately rebounding by the end of the decade. It is therefore worth asking what the net economic effect of the loss of six million Soviet citizens was. One of the purported benefits of the famine and collectivization was that it drove peasants to the cities, where they worked in the USSR’s new factories. 

Would the number of migrants from the countryside have been significantly less in a Bukharin led USSR if we assume that at least some of those peasants would have immigrated to the city? Furthermore, many of those purged were among the USSR’s intelligentsia, and it is evident that the Soviet economy would have done better if engineers, instead of chopping wood in Siberia, had been able to use their skills productively. It is unclear how much of difference fewer purges would have made, but it may have been significant. 

Part Two will cover the role of Stalin in Hitler's rise to power in the first place...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"The Strain" Review and Recap: Episode Three "Gone Smooth"

The most recent episode of "The Strain" was on Sunday. I had a lot going on Monday, so this review and recap is a little bit late...

The episode begins with a mysterious figure getting dressed. We see a being that looks remarkably like Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter movies applying makeup, fake ears, etc. until we have the Eichhorst we all know and loathe. He says the time for charades is over soon and victory is near.

Meanwhile, while Eph and Nora's CDC boss is being less than helpful as usual, survivor Ansel (the nerdy-looking one who I thought was a bit creepy) is at home with the wife and kids and getting sicker. Bloodshot eyes, ringing in the ears. He won't go to the doctor. And Jim Kent disappears from the CDC to get answers at the Stoneheart Group HQ. There he encounters Eichhorst and is brought back into line when the Nazi vampire offers to ensure his cancer-stricken wife Sylvia is admitted to a drug trial. "You have two bosses now," he warns. Uh oh.

And Sertrakian goes before a judge who cannot pronounce his name properly. Nora, who earlier told Eph Sertrakian knew things, comes in to watch the proceeding. Sertrakian plays the Holocaust-survivor card and the bereaved-widower card. The judge calls him out on the silver sword-cane, which he claims is an illegal concealed weapon. Sertrakian BSes him by promising to have it melted down and replaced with a normal cane. The judge lets him off. Nora tries to speak to him afterward, but when she balks at the idea of killing anyone who has been in contact with the dead passengers and survivors of the plane, he blows her off. Tsk, tsk.

Meanwhile, Eph is at a family court hearing. The judge asks Zach what sort of custodial arrangement he'd like. After himming and hawwing about how he knows his parents want what's best for him, he said he'd rather Eph visit him a few weekends a month. This way, he's not stressed out on top of his stressful job like joint custody would supposedly do. Eph is upset and tries to say that Zach really meant "joint custody" and the judge shoots him down. After the hearing, Eph is really upset. Kelly (his wife) tells him that regardless of what the judge rules, he can visit Zach any time he wants if he just gives her the heads-up first. When Eph insists Zach is the most important thing in his world, Kelly says he should show that with "little things" rather than just saying it. Although there's this stereotype of vindictive ex-wives trying to excise fathers from their children's lives, Kelly is coming off as far more sympathetic and reasonable than the grouchy Eph. Many bloggers have complained about this bit of family drama, but it was actually helpful in humanizing Kelly and painting Eph with some major shades of gray.

Cut to Gabriel Bolivar (who I kept referring to in my notes as "Marilyn Manson"). He's sick. Meanwhile, Eph visits the Frenchman's house and finds a tub full of blood and hair. Something is stalking him. Nora calls him away and we see a vampiric form (probably the daughter) watching him.

Meanwhile, Vasily Fet is making a house call on some influential yuppie whose daughter was bitten by a rat. He catches the rat and exhorts the daughter not to eat in bed (since rats are attracted by the smell of food). While smoking outside the yuppie's building, he sees many rats on the streets. He follows to find them swarming out of a pipe. Something's down there...

Next we see Jim coming home and meeting his wife Sylvia, who's bald from chemotherapy and wearing a head-scarf. She got into the trial. The devil is holding up his end of the bargain so far. Back at the nerdy survivor's house, he's still sick and now his dog is barking at him. He goes into the kitchen and sees a thawing steak--and drinks the blood from it. In front of his horrified wife. Uh oh. And I'm not the only one who noticed something unusual about his tongue...

Bolivar is having a house call from a doctor. He describes ringing in his ears and a voice calling his name. The doctor offers him various prescriptions. Then Bolivar gets up and opens his robe. We don't see what the doctor sees, but said doctor immediately advises him to go to the hospital. Bolivar doesn't want the paparazzi troubles, so the doctor instead offers to get him in touch with a "discreet" urologist who makes house calls.

Back at the pawn shop, Sertrakian hangs up the cane he'd promised to destroy and gets the passenger manifest for the airplane from this hacker girl. He's going to "visit their families" and "pay his respects." Uh oh.

And back at the hospital, Captain Redfern really isn't doing well. Under UV light, his body is alive with the worms. He announces, "He is here."

Back at Eph's former home, Zach is reading about his father's CDC exploits on an iPad. He hears a noise downstairs. It's Kelly, reading through a photo album from happier times. Much sadness and cuddling.

Late at night at Regis Air's headquarters, Eichhorst pays the CEO a visit and kills him, making it look like a suicide. It looks like the "it was carbon monoxide poisoning" charade is going to go on for a little while longer.

And Bolivar isn't looking too good. His eyes are bleeding and even without his Goth makeup, he's looking pale and veiny. Then he goes to urinate and his member falls off. He flushes it down the toilet without a care and then does that creepy eye-blink thing the fully-infected do. And then he turns around and we see full frontal no-genitalia vampire. According to an interview from Del Toro, under that robe he's developed a full-blown cloaca to excrete as he feeds like a tick, so certain parts are rather superfluous now.

The episode ends with Redfern disappearing from the hospital just before they're going to open him up to see what's going on with him. Jim finds him in the basement feeding on blood samples. Redfern attacks him, but the Voice of Evil recognizes him as "Jim" and Redfern backs down. Nora and Eph arrive and Redfern attacks them, revealing the mouth stinger for the first time. Eph beats him down with a fire extinguisher but he gets up to try again--until Eph proceeds to totally destroy his head with the fire extinguisher in the same way the Master did with the man he killed at the airport.

The Verdict: Good episode. Awaiting the next one.