Your humble blogger is now safe and secure in his vacation redoubt, furtiously at work on the definitive textbook of Tourism Studies. When not at work on that vital subject, however, I brought along some other books to peruse while family chaos unfolds around me. In case you're looking for some eclectic reading recommendations, they are:
1) Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics. Anyone who is weary of the Sachs/Easterly debate on economic development should grab this book and devour it now. I don't think it has all the answers, but it's a very engaging and informative distillation of their randomized control trials and interview work in some of the most impoverished places on the earth. Even if you don't agree with their findings, it's provocative stuff.
2) John Scalzi, Redshirts. Click here and here if you don't know what the term "redshirt" means in science fiction. Scalzi, who has been blogging since the time of mezines, has put together a very intriguing spin on this idea in his latest novel. I'd offer more insight, but I want to enjoy the book as I read it.
3) Gautam Mukunda, Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter. We're gonna be talking a lot about leadership over the next few months. With a few important exceptions, individual leadership has not produced a lot of interesting scholarship in my field. Mukunda, a political scientist at Harvard Business School, will hopefully buck the trend with this book, thereby earning massive royalties in addition to his business school salary. What a bastard.
4) Colson Whitehead, Zone One. A distinguished novelist has written a zombie book. I'm so there.
Blog denizens are strongly encouraged to proffer their own suggested must-reads in the comments section.
Your humble blogger has occasionally demonstrated an interest in the Star Wars saga, and, alas, I see over the weekend that a lot of nonsense and some occasional brilliance has been written about this topic. Let's dive in!
While Star Wars devotees are a cantankerous, obsessive, socially maladjusted and generally the-worst-parts-of-Kevin-Smith lot, but there is general agreement on two statements:
1) The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the movies;
2) None of films in the "prequel" trilogy are better than any of the films in the older trilogy.
Both of these statements might seem so obvious that they can usually be asserted as axioms without justification. These canonical statements have been challenged this week, however. Kevin Drum bravely and gamely tries to argue that Return of the Jedi is the best film in the series. I won't quote him here but urge you to read the whole post. It's not a bad argument per se, if it wasn't so horribly, horribly wrong.
Basically, Drum argues that the film's strengths (the opening, the cinematography, the story arcs, the finale) outweigh the weaknesses (the Ewoks). OK, but Drum elides Jedi's other major weaknesses, which include:
A) Leia's transformation from powerful princess to earth mother of Endor (seriously, her hair alone during the scenes in the Endor village knocks Jedi down a peg);
B) Luke and Leia having The Conversation, which even by Lucas' standards is badly-written and contains a statement by Leia that gets totally contradicted later in Revenge of The Sith; and
C) The Ewok attack on the shield generator. As a kid, I always wondered why the Storm Troopers would wear what looked like bulky and awkward plastic armor that didn't seem to stop blaster fire. I figured, "well, it's gotta be effective against more primitive weapons." Nope, it turns out Ewok arrows can penetrate the stuff too! WTF? Did the Emperor get a special deal on the stuff from some Kamino contractors or what? Even if the $852 quadrillion Death Star itself might have been cost-effective, Storm Trooper uniforms are a classic example of bloated Imperial procurement patterns.
D) Lucas f***ing up this movie even more with the special editions. Oh, yay, now Vader says something in the climactic final sequence with the Emperor! Thank the heavens, we now see Hayden Christensen's pouty face at the very end of Jedi, which, by the way, makes no f***ing sense whatsoever!!
Now, all of this said, I think Drum provides a vigorous defense of Jedi's worth -- I think better of it now than before. It's just that in comparison to Empire, it still falls short. Why? First, in contrast to Jedi, there really aren't any Ewoks to apologize for -- Episode V has none of those howlers. The only weakness I can really think of in Empire is the slightly dodgy Imperial strategy involved in conquering the rebel base at Hoth.
As for the strengths, there are many. Beyond the surprising plot twists and climactic duel at Cloud City, Empire has three sequences that are worth watching:
1) The pursit of the Millennium Falcon through the asteroid field. Just a top notch action sequence. What the Falcon finds in the asteroid field -- and how they escape the Imperial fleet -- are also pleasant and jolting surprises.
2) Luke confronting the Dark Side in the Dagobah swamps. This also contains one of the lovelier pieces of dialogue in the films (LUKE: What's in there? YODA: Only what you take with you.) It also deftly captures the dangers Luke faces as he learned the ways of the Force.
3) Han and Leia deepening their relationship. Contrast their interactions in Empire with, say, Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. Wait, no, that's too low a bar. Here's another way of thinking of it: with the exception of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark, one would be hard-pressed to find a burgeoning romance handled so deftly in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.
Now some of these strengths are more, shall we say, grown-up strengths. As a kid, I recall being frustrated by Empire because of how it left everything at loose ends. Still, I would argue that the payoffs that come from Return of the Jedi are only as sweet because of The Empire Strikes Back.
Still, bravo to Kevin for defending Jedi, because apparently there are some who would dare to argue that Revenge of the Sith is better than Return of the Jedi. Which would be easy to ignore, if it wasn't a friggin' political scientist making this claim:
I would submit that "Revenge of the Sith" is actually a better film that "Return of the Jedi." I recognize that this view, while probably not as controversial as Drum's, is still not the mainstream one. But the "Sith"story is much more coherent, staying fully focused on Anakin's fall. And the fall is masterfully executed and so complete in its outcome....
And Anakin's final fall is so complete, leaving him a smoldering, limbless pile of hate, screaming impotently at the best friend he'd been manipulating into despising, while the woman he was trying to save lays dying. And Obi Wan's final words to Anakin involve (finally!) something like acting. Ewan MacGregor somehow achieves the impossible, delivering an impassioned performance in a George Lucas film, venting both his disgust in Anakin and his own remorse for having trained him
Mercifully, "Sith" doesn't try to distract us with humorous or furry creatures. Jar Jar is silent. The droids do their jobs. The film is dark and bleak and allowed to remain that way. The few final scenes not focused directly on Anakin -- finding homes for the twins, the remaining Jedi going into hiding, the Death Star under construction -- serve only to set up Episode IV.
If I squint very hard, I can see Masket's arguments. Several things hold me back from agreeing in any way with his conclusions, however. First, the script in Revenge of the Sith is just so much worse than Return of the Jedi that I don't know where to begin. In the last 40 minutes of Sith that almost doesn't matter, because the Obi-Wan/Anakin duel and the Emperor/Yoda clash are pretty good. The problem is that, again, except for the bit that Masket references, practically every line of dialogue uttered in this film is either hackneyed or just God-awful. It's not like Return of the Jedi, when you'd cringe at the occasional leaden sentence. In Sith, it's Every. Friggin'. Sentence.
Second, the character development in the prequel trilogy is so bad that it's tough to even care about Anakin's turn to the dark side. I'd wager the only reason Masket cares is because he saw Episodes IV-VI first. Only if you see them first would there be any reason to give a whit about what happens -- which, by the way, is an excellent reason to read this brilliant exposition of how a newcomer should watch the entire series.
The conundrum that political scientists face is that even though the original trilogy contains the better films, the second trilogy has the better politics. There are no politics in Episodes IV-VI, unless one counts Vader and the Emperor's wooing of Luke. In the prequel trilogy, however, there are lots of parliamentary machinations, tussles between the Jedi Council and the Chancellor, Anakin's lust for power, and Darth Sidious' grand strategy for converting the Republic into an Empire.
To a political scientist, that's good stuff. To human beings interested in enjoying a film, it's tissue paper without things like strong characters, a good screenplay, and decent plotting.
So, no, I must take the Very Brave and Contrarian position of defending the conventional wisdom. The best movie is still The Empire Strikes Back, and while Revenge of the Sith is the best of the prequel trilogy, it doesn't hold a candle to Return of the Jedi.
Oh, and this time... I don't care what you think.... because you do agree with me. Move along, now.
The aliens are out there and Earth had better watch out, at least according to Stephen Hawking. He has suggested that extraterrestrials are almost certain to exist — but that instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact....
He suggests that aliens might simply raid Earth for its resources and then move on: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”
He concludes that trying to make contact with alien races is “a little too risky”. He said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
Hmmm... this is undeniably true, but dare I say that Hawking is being a bit simplistic? Oh, hell, who am I kidding, I'm a blogger. Of course I'll say that Hawking is being simplistic.
Critics might accuse me of being soft in the Theoretical War Against Aliens, embracing the mushy-headed liberalism of Contact over the hard-headed realpolitik of, say, Independence Day. And the risk-averse approach suggested by Hawking is certainly a viable policy option. But let's dig a bit deeper and consider
four five thought-provoking questions from an interplanetary security perspective.
1) In space, does anybody understand the security dilemma? In international relations, there is at least full information about who the other actors are and where they are located. Clearly, we lack this kind of information about the known universe.
What Hawking is suggesting, however, is that efforts to collect such information would in and of themselves be dangerous, because they would announce our presence to others. He might be right. But shoiuldn't that risk be weighed against the cost of possessing a less robust early warning system? Isn't it in Earth's interests to enhance its intelligence-gathering activities?
2) Carried to its logical extreme, isn't Hawking making an argument for rapidly exhausting our natural resources? If Hawking is correct, then the sooner we run out of whatever might be valuable to aliens, the less interest we are to them. Of course, this does beg the question of which resources aliens would consider to be valuable. If aliens crave either sea water or bulls**t, then the human race as we know it is seriously screwed.
3) Why would aliens go after the inhabited planets? Ceteris paribus, I'm assuming that aliens would prefer to strip-mine an uninhabited planet abundant with natural resources than an inhabited one. Three hundred planets have already been discovered in the Milky Way, and there are "likely many billions." Even rapacious aliens might try some of them first before looking at Earth, since we are mostly harmless.
There is a counterargument, of course. Over at Hit & Run, Tim Cavanaugh tries to assuage fears of aliens by observing, "Why would a race of superintelligent jellyfish or blue whales even take notice of us, let alone want to conquer us?" This cuts both ways, however. If those jellyfish fail to notice us but notice our abundant amounts of salinated water, they could decide to come without a care in the world for the bipedal inhabitants of Earth.
4) How do we know that some human aren't already trying to contact aliens? Stephen Walt and others assume that the presence of aliens would cause humans to form a natural balancing coalition. I'm not so sure. My research into other apocalyptic scenarios suggests that some humans -- that's right, I'm looking at you, Switzerland! -- would bandwagon with the aliens. Indeed, for all we know, some humans are already trying to welcome their future alien overlords. Which begs the question -- wouldn't Hawking's isolationist policy allow the quislings to monopolize the galactic message emanating from Earth?
5) What about preventive action against the microbials? Hawking admits that most forms of extreterrestrial life will likely exist as micro-organisms. Which is swell, except that, if you believe those crazy scientist types, then humans also started off as little microbes. But if Hawking is correct about the motivations of any alien that would seek out strange new worlds, then we are missing a golden opportunity to wipe out any and (nearly) all extraterrestrial threats at the preventive stage. Perhapsw we should nuke all these emergent microbial life forms from orbit -- it's the only way to be sure.
I look forward to a healthy exchange of diverse viewpoints in the comments -- remember, the future of mankind may depend on it.
Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images
Having now seen Avatar, I'm not surprised that the political reviews of the film either go in the direction of Adam Cohen's paean to its cultural sensitivity in the New York Times ("The plot is firmly in the anti-imperialist canon, a 22nd-century version of the American colonists vs. the British, India vs. the Raj, or Latin America vs. United Fruit") or Analee Newitz's takedown of Avatar as the uber-example of White Man's Guilt at IO9 ("Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we've seen in Hollywood movies for decades").
It's because, for all the 3D wonder that is evident on screen, this is a movie with two-dimensional characters and two-dimensional storytelling -- and you will either embrace those dimensions or not. What you can't do is escape them when watching the film. Any time your brain tries to inject possible subtleties into the story, director James Cameron is lurking around the corner to whack you over the head with some 3D crowbar to make it absolutely clear what is right and what is wrong. This is screenwriting that makes George Lucas' second Star Wars trilogy look multi-layered by comparison.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]. To demonstrate the absurdities that Cameron is willing to go, here are two plot points that make absolutely no sense whatsoever:
1) The Omaticaya clan of the Na'Vi is forced to flee because the humans have destroyed their Hometree. The movie takes great pains to show how the humans wreaked unbelievable amounts of carnage in the process. So, what's the very first thing the Omaticaya do after becoming refugees? Bury their dead? Care for their sick? Nope. Why, they drop everything to attempt to save the life of the human scientist played by Sigourney Weaver! Never mind that, based on the movie, Weaver's character has contributed exactly nothing to saving the Omaticaya. This is exactly what a people stripped of their homeland would attempt to do!!
2) The movie makes it very clear that the only reason humans are on Pandora is to acquire the "unobtanium" on the planet -- the richest source of which happens to be under the Hometree. So, after the destruction of Hometree, do the evil rapacious humans proceed to stripmine the ground to get at the mineral? No, that would be too logical -- they decide they must wipe out the rest of the Na'Vi in a "pre-emptive" strike. Because suddenly it's much more important to exterminate out the indigenous population than to extract the resources!
Charli Carpenter, who liked the movie more than I did, correctly concludes, "the brilliance of this film is not that it makes you think - it doesn't. You will enjoy it more if you don't try. However, it does makes you feel." Unless you try to think about it -- then you're in trouble.
I'm probably too much of a technological Whig to care for narratives like this one, but just once, I'd like to see a film that embraces the complexities of how indigenous cultures incorporate new ideas and new technologies into their societies. In other words, some movie producer really needs to hire Tyler Cowen as a technical consultant.
OK, so let's review: The world is on the brink catastrophe. The Russians are acting all frisky again. Then I read this CNN report:
Everything about Jupiter is super-sized, including its colorful, turbulent atmosphere. But there's fresh evidence that one of the planet's most recognizable features, the Great Red Spot, is shrinking.
The spot, which is actually an ancient monster storm that measures about three Earths across, lost 15 percent of its diameter between 1996 and 2006, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have found.
It shrank by about 1 kilometer (about 0.6 miles) a day during that time period, said Xylar Asay-Davis, a postdoctoral researcher who was part of the study....
The researchers do not know why the storm is shrinking. In fact, little is known about the Great Red Spot at all. Even the exact cause of its distinctive color is a mystery.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.