Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The French Vote

France voted against ratification of the European Union treaty on Sunday. There are several factors involved. One was a vote against open markets, known in France as "ultra-liberalism" or "Ango-Saxonism". Another factor was a general vote against French President Jacques Chirac. Even taking this into account, the vote represents an interesting trend.

A bit over two years ago the countries pushing hardest for the invasion of Iraq were the US, Great Britain, and Australia. The two countries supporting Saddam Hussein were France and Germany. All of these have had some sort of election in the past two years. Of these, the leaders of the pro-war countries all held onto their positions. In the meantime, Germany's Socialist Party lost its last provence and is expected to lose the next national election. And, of course, France voted against Chirac.

The trend is not absolute. Spain changed from a pro-war to an anti-war government. Still, Bush and Blair are in a stronger position than a year ago.

Also, the idea of a united Europe lead by France and Germany providing a political and economic counter-weight to US power has been postponed or cancelled.

This may be a good thing for Europe. France was trying to export their socialist-style government. While a 30 hour work-week and six weeks vacation may sound good, 10% unemployment and an economy with a persistent 2% growth rate provide a reality check. France will eventually have to embrace "ultra-liberalism" or turn into a third world country. The less influence it has on the rest of Europe in the meantime, the better.

In the meantime, Chirac's response to this trend was to appoint the proponent of anti_Americanism, de Villepon, as President.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Redemption and Mercy II

The hero has the bag guy at his mercy. Should he kill him? This TechCentralStation column says so but it is wrong. If the hero kills the villian during a fight it is ok but once disarmed, the villian is to be held for trial (or whatever).

This reflects the real world. During the seige of Fallujah we saw footage of a soldier doing a sweep of a mosque. There were people lying on the ground. One of them moved and the soldier shot him. As it turned out, this person had been wounded and disarmed the day before. The world was outraged. An inquest was held and eventually found that, given the number of insurgents who played at being wounded in order to kill soldiers, the shooting was justified. Along the way, various legal experts pointed out that as soon as someone is captured, we have a duty to protect him.

This tradition goes back to the Middle Ages. Prior to that, prisoners were normally humiliated and tortured. This changed when people realized that prisoners could be held for ransom. The financial incentive overrode the desire for revenge on an enemy.

Other military traditions developed. An army that surrendered was allowed to stay together, often retaining its weapons. Prisoners were only kept until the end of hostilities or an exchange of prisoners could be arrainged and they were not to be executed out of hand.

In the novel Sharpe's Battle, Sharpe captures some French soldiers who have just committed attrocities against a Spanish town. Discusted, Sharpe executes them, an action that almost ruins his carrer. After he is forgiven, Wellington explains that we have to treat our prisoners well if we expect the enemy to do the same with their prisoners.

The same goes for civilian life. If someone starts a fight and you kill him, it is self defense. If you first disarm him, then kill him it is murder.

Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are dealing with battles between good and evil. The good guys have to be better than normal people. That means that, no matter what a good idea it might be, Luke could not kill the unarmed Emperor after defeating Vader nor could Frodo stab Gollum out of hand.

What about redemption? The TechCentralStation article questions the wisdom of showing mercy:
Is this the purpose of mercy -- to turn evil against itself? But if we know that evil won't turn against itself -- for, in the real world, it rarely does -- can mercy have any value?
Is this true? Granted a high percentage of criminals go on to commit additional crimes after serving their sentence. Not all do, though.

Things get more interesting on an international level. Nazi Germany was as evil a country as I can think of. It was bent on purifying itself and conquering a good chunk of the world. Japan during the same period was brutal and militaristic and bent on conquering the Pacific. Both countries have reformed, in part because we showed mercy after WWII.

I've pointed out before that the tipping point finally pushing Anakin over to the Dark Side was seeing Mace Windu about to kill Palpatine. It might seem logical but it would ruin the story.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Redemption and Mercy in Heroic Fantasy

I've seen a couple of columns recently questioning Darth Vader's last minute redemption. This one goes on to include Gollum and the burned Anakin in Revenge of the Sith.

While Lucas was inspired by Chinese monks in creating the Jedi, Vader's redemption is pure Christianity. According to traditional Christianity, everyone sins. It is only by regretting those sins and asking Christ for help can you go to Heaven. It would appear that Vader did something similar when he forsook the Emperor and saved Luke at the cost of his own life.

Again, according to traditional Christianity, anyone can do this at any time right up to his deathbed. Even Hitler could have qualified. The catch is that you have to be sincere. It is not enough to be sorry that you were caught. You have to realize that you were wrong and change yourself so that you would not do wrong in the future. Intentions are not enough, either. It has to be a real change. In Vader's case, this meant turning away from the Dark Side of the Force.

These things do happen in real life. Look at George Bush. He was a party boy well past adulthood then one day he changed.

Did this happen to Vader? Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is not enough. Vader had plenty of reason to turn on the Emperor. We now know that he originally planned on supplanting Palpatine. These plans were put on hold from the death of Padme until Vader learned that he had a son. There can only be two Sith lords at a time. Either the Emperor, Vader, or Luke was going to go. Obviously the Emperor was willing to abandon Vader in favor of a new apprentice. He was also willing to kill Luke and let things continue as they had.

Vader could have let the Emperor kill Luke, found Luke's sister, and started over again. Instead he killed Palpatine at the cost of his own life.

And he must have done it for the right reason. He must have suddenly regretted his long years of servitude, his cruelty, and his casual killing of others. We know because he appeared as Anakin. Presumably a primal thing like the Force would not be fooled.

What about mercy? The author of the article I linked to felt that Obi Wan should have killed Anakin instead of leaving him mutilated, that Luke should have killed the Emperor, and that Frodo should have killed Gollum. Each of these is a different situation and deserves to be addressed separately.

First - was Obi Wan showing mercy on Anakin? I don't think so. He left behind a burnt, ruined husk. Even Anakin's lungs were burnt. Without care he would have died shortly. Killing him would have been a mercy. What Obi Wan didn't know was that Anakin would be rescued before he died.

Second - after beating Vader, Luke threw away his light saber instead of killing the Emperor. This was Luke's symbolic turning away from the Dark Side. The Emperor had been goading Luke into killing one or the other. Luke was rejecting the temptation. He hadn't actually disarmed himself. He was perfectly capable of fetching his light saber from a distance. The Emperor seemed like a frail old man who was no threat - right up to when he started throwing lightening bolts at Luke.

Finally, Gollum. Even more than Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings was a battle between good and evil. In Tolkien's backstory, Sauron was the first servant and heir to Middle Earth's version of Satan. Sauron could not create, he could only corrupt.

But Gollum was different. He started as a hobbit or something close. Had his brother not found the one ring, Gollum would have lived and died an ordinary fisherman. Yes, he was evil, but it was because the ring had warped him for hundreds of years.

When Frodo looked at Gollum he saw what he might become himself.

Also, Gollum was an ambiguous creature. Frodo and Sam needed him and, for a while at least, he actually did reform. That gets back to my point about redemption. Gollum intended to reform but went back to his old ways. He didn't change inwardly, just outwardly. Without supernatural powers we cannot tell which way someone has reformed. We can guess by past behavior. Gollum could not be trusted again. That is the basis of out penal system and putting someone on probation.

All of this skirts around the big question - what should the hero do when he has the villain at his mercy? Should he show mercy or should he kill the bad guy on the spot?

More later.

Revenge of the Sith

Warning - spoilers!

My first impression of the movie is that it is one of the best, probably falling just after The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, some of the dialog is poor but that is confined to maybe a half dozen lines. To me, the most important part is the middle act. To me this is what makes or breaks a Star Wars movie. I don't like the middle acts in Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace. The Ewoks were cute the first time around but they turn cloying on repeated viewings and I didn't care much for the pod race in Phantom the first time I saw it.

Now, in the original Star Wars, the middle act is where things really get going. We have the three principals finally meeting and Obi Wan getting killed. There's not a slow moment in it - those were all in the first act. In The Empire Strikes Back we meet Yoda, who remains interesting four movies later, we see Luke's Jedi training, and we see Han and Leia escaping to the Cloud City.

I will add that I like the middle act in Attack of the Clones which means I rank it higher than most people.

In Revenge of the Sith, the middle act is the corruption of Anakin. It works. The seeds were planted in the second movie and we knew it.

Lucas turns a science fiction cliche on its ear. All too often love is portrayed as humanity's saving grace. In RotS it is love that turns Anakin to the dark side.

The Jedi are largely inspired by Chinese monks. The original movie was written while Kung Fu was a top-rated TV show. Like the monks, the Jedi are a martial order who use exotic weapons. They are supposed to suppress strong emotions. When you can strangle someone at a distance, this becomes a necessity.

There is an implied feedback loop where strong emotions trigger a response in the Force making you more powerful but corrupting you. This could have been explained better. In AotC, Anakin kills a tribe of Sand People then feels guilty for letting his emotions get the better of him. Padme doesn't help things by telling him that it is ok to feel. It is for most people but not the Jedi.

Jedi are supposed to go through life like the Chinese monks, few possessions and no emotional attachments. Yoda tries to explain this to Anakin but by then it is too late and Yoda's warnings come across as uncaring.

Here's where we get to classical tragedy. The basic of a tragedy is a character flaw in the hero. In Anakin's case it is that he loves too often and too strongly. We were warned back in Phantom Menace that this would cause trouble. The love for others turned to fear which turned to hate, etc.

There is also the issue of prophecy. Anakin tries to alter the future but in doing so he sets in motion the actions that kill Padme. If he had left things alone it would have been a false vision. In attempting to change the future he gave Palpatine the opening he needed.

There is a different aspect to this that is interesting. While Anakin feels himself worthy of being a Jedi master, he also knows that he is a failed Jedi. He killed the tribe of Sand People. He has a wife. When he had Count Dooku at his mercy he kills him even though this is not the Jedi way.

Anakin judges the other Jedi by a higher standard than himself. He might fall but they should not. The tipping point is when Mace Windu prepares to kill an unarmed Palpatine. Even though he killed Dooku under similar circumstances, Anakin is horrified to see Windu kill Palpatine. Of course, had Anakin been there a couple of minutes earlier when Palpatine killed three Jedi masters, Anakin might have felt differently and killed Palpatine himself. Timing is always important in tragedy, also.

There were a few things that could have been done better. As the Jedi went to arrest Palpatine I was wondering if the separatists, the bad guys in Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, were somehow going to turn into the good guys. As it turned out, the separatists were wiped out by Anakin. In a cut scene, several senators including Padme and Bale Organa, sow the seeds for the rebellion. For that matter, Organa suddenly goes from being an extra to a major character. That transition was abrupt.

Also, I was disappointed that Vader was in the black armor so late in the movie. I was hoping to see more of the classic Vader. Once revived his part is limited to looking at the Death Star being constructed.

And why does it take 20 years to build a Death Star?

It doesn't really matter but Yoda mentions that the prophecy about a chosen one killing the Sith and restoring balance to the Force might be wrong. Did someone get it totally backwards or was it referring to Anakin's son instead?

One lingering question - what killed Padme? The medical droid said that she simply lost the will to live. I don't think that this is actually fatal. Palpatine told Vader that he killed Padme. Given Vader's ability to kill at a distance and the fact that he had already choked her once, this might be true. Either way, Anakin killed her. Its just that one way was more direct that the other.

The movie ended on one hell of a cliffhanger. Except it wasn't because the next three installments have already been made.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Newsweek Mess

The whole Newsweek affair is more complicated than most people give it credit for. On the right, people are saying that Newsweek should have known that the story would cause rioting and have held off until they were sure that the Koran was actually abused. On the left, people are defending Newsweek from having to do more than retract the story and, in some cases they are claiming a conspiracy on the part of the Bush administration. Let's look at each of these sides more closely.

First, the Daily Kos and others have pointed out that other stories about Koran abuse have run without causing riots. The stories that they cited are interesting. They refer to the Koran being thrown into a toilet or into a bucket serving as a toilet. It is possible to do either of these but it is not possible to flush a large book down a toilet unless you first tear out the pages, then tear them up. The version that Newsweek printed sounds very much like a second or third hand version that someone heard - possibly from the press. That would make it impossible to verify. Should Newsweek publish hearsay as hard news? No, of course not. The steps that they took to verify the story were insufficient. I will examine this part later.

So Newsweek has something to apologize for and the statements that they have publicly made are insufficient. They took the Dan Rather approach: "I'm sure that this happened but I cannot prove it."

Should Newsweek have known that this would cause riots? Probably not. Yes, in the mid-19th century the Sepoy Rebellion was triggered by unfounded rumors that the British were using animal fat in their gun cartridges in order to cause the native troops to break dietary restrictions and be forced to convert to Christianity. Yes, the Koran is the literal word of God, dictated in God's own language if Arabic and abusing a copy of the Koran is much worse than abusing a Bible.

On the other hand, this was not the first time that this story had been printed. It was not a major story, only a minor item.

Then there is the cultural issue. It is hard for a liberal to even imagine someone having strong religious beliefs let alone taking offence over them. Look at our own culture. In the past few years we have had artwork featuring a crucifix submerged under the artist's urine, a depiction of the Virgin Mary made partly from dung, and a flag draped across the exit to an exhibit so that everyone would walk across it. We also saw Arabs dancing in the street over the murder of 3,000 Americans. In the Arab world, insurgents have been using mosques as shelter for snipers in Iraq. None of that sparked a riot.

There is some evidence that the Taliban was planning a mass demonstration anyway and that this was the spark that they were waiting for. This happened to fit in with their message that America has declared war on all Moslems. That doesn't absolve Newsweek of blame for running an unprovable story. If the Taliban is going to riot, it would be nice if they at least rioted over provable events.

Moving over to the Left - how much was the Bush administration to blame? Did they allow the Koran to be treated disrespecfully? Yes, they did, but not recently. The military now has regulations on respecting the Koran. If a copy was thrown in a waste bucket, it probably happened a year and a half to tow years ago.

The bad reporting hurts the Bush response a great deal. If it had been a verified incident then someone could be punished. Since Newsweek cannot even confirm that it happened and will not name the source of the report, there is little the government can do to convince Moslems of our good intentions. That leaves it up to Newsweek which is clearly not up to the task.

Was Newsweek somehow set up? Keith Olbermann thinks it was all a plot. After all, Newsweek ran their story by a senior defense department official who refuted one point but did not challenge the Koran flushing.

Or would somebody rather play politics with this? The way Craig Crawford reconstructed it, this one went similarly to the way the Killian Memos story evolved at the White House. The news organization turns to the administration for a denial. The administration says nothing. The news organization runs the story. The administration jumps on the necks of the news organization with both feet — or has its proxies do it for them.

That’s beyond shameful. It’s treasonous.

Is there any truth to Albermann's accusations? In both cases a story was run past someone who, while part of the administration, had no direct knowledge of the event. And, in both cases, it was a rush story. The administration official was not told, "Take all the time you need to get to the bottom of it. We'll hold the story." No, he was told, "We're going with this story tomorrow unless you can say with certainty that this did not happen." The press is asking people to take responsibility for killing a story when they do not know all the facts. If the kill the story and it turns out to be true, they will be the ones hung out to dry. Either way the press is trying to absolve themselves of responsibility.

Olbermann would only have a case if someone in the administration had confirmed the story and it turned out false. Note that the part that the defense department official did kill was something he had direct knowledge of.

So Newsweek is still on the hook. They did not get confirmation of the story.

The left is also trying to make a point about the right's treatment of the reporter, Michael Isikoff. Olbermann says that the right "owes him" for his coverage of Linda Tripp during the Clinton scandals.

No, it doesn't. Isenkoff is part of the advesarial press. He tries to put the President in a bad light. As soon as a Democrat is elected, he will turn on them again.

Another point - an early press briefing on the rioting said that the Newsweek article was not to blame. Later, after protestors were seen with copies of Newsweek and carrying signs about abuse of the Koran the White House reversed itself. This does not prove a plot. It proves that the White House is willing to revise statements as more information becomes available.

So the left is trying to work up a faux rage. Had Newsweek nailed down the story, the left would have a point. In the light of Newsweek's shoddy reporting, they don't.

One last point - we are so busy trying to court Moslems that we have not criticized them for rioting over virtually nothing. Are article here points out that the riots would have happened anyway although I think that they might have been more subdued. This article points out how difficult it is to conduct a war without offending someone.
Today, globoback -- specifically, all those pesky reporters and NGO's, and their cameras, and also, of course, the cameras of American soldiers as well -- prevents Uncle Sam from using the sorts of tactics that worked in the past to subdue enemy populations. One can only guess at the number of Americans who have died in Iraq because we can't or won't use overwhelming force to break the enemy's capacity and resolve.
Like I said, it's complicated.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Who Won the Election?

You would think that this had been settled by now. In case you were not sure - Bush won. I bring this up because a couple of posts on the new Huffington Post say that Kerry won. In addition to the usual suspect, John Conyers, Jim Lampley, a sports writer, says that the exit polls were correct and that the voting machines were all fixed. When a rival blogger pointed out the assessment report by the exit polsters themselves, he responded that the pollsters got it wrong because they assumed that the votes were accurate. I can't resist a challenge like this. Here's my take on why the vote could not have been fixed. Since I live in Ohio and it was THE swing state, I will limit my observations to my own state.

First, it should be pointed out that the polls leading up to the election had predicted a Bush victory. The site ElectoralVote.com showed Bush in the lead almost continuously from the Republican convention to the election. Kerry did do slightly better than the polls had indicated, taking Wisconsin by a razor thin margin. In fact. Bush did not win any states that he had not been leading in the polls prior to the election.

Given this, why didn't the exit polls raise a red flag when the first results started coming in? The answer lies in the undecided voters. The expectation was that they would all break for Kerry. When Kerry got off to an early lead in the exit polls, the pollsters chalked it up to the undecided voters finally making up their minds.

So the advance polls match the actual election count. Is there anything else that we can learn from the polls? Yes. The results of the polls varied from pollster to pollster. Each poll uses a different method for conducting its questionnaire. The poll that came the closest to the actual election result was totally automated with pre-recorded questions. This meant that every person polled got exactly the same questions with identical emphasis. It also means that the people being polled were not giving their responses to a live human. As polarized as the electorate was and as strong as some anti-Bush sentiment was, this could throw off the results. Both Bush and Reagan before him always had a core of "closet voters" - people who voted for them but would not admit it in public.

This was also a likely factor in the exit polls. The majority of pollsters were fairly young women - an demographic group associated with Kerry. All it took was three Bush voters out of 100 people polled to skew the poll. The biggest error rates were at precincts in large cities which is where all of Kerry's support was. This would also affect the Bush voter, making him less likely to announce his vote to a possibly hostile audience.

So there are the arguments for why the exit polls were wrong. What about the actual vote? How hard would it be to change the results?

Let's start with punched cards and optical mark ballots. These are collected at the precinct then taken to the county Board of Elections and counted. The count is done by card readers attached to a PC which does the actual tabulating. The PCs are stand-alone. In order to change the results you have to have physical access to the PC.

When the votes are tabulated, the Board of Elections is watching. The Board is made up of equal number Democrats and Republicans. Also complicating things, Ohio law calls for rotating the candidate's names so that they are in a different order from one precinct to the next. This is so that no candidate gains votes from being the first name on the ballot.

So in order to throw the election, you would have to enter a secret code into the PC doing the counting. You would have to do this in from of witnesses from both parties. Also, since the PC only knows which columns have been marked, not which candidate is which, you would have to tell the PC which column was to get the extra votes for every precinct. And those witnesses are still watching.

And you would have to arrange for this to happen in every county meaning that you would have to have dozens of confederates.

The touch screen machines are a different matter. There are two general types of touch screen voting machines. One uses a touch-sensitive CRT like the self-checkout lanes use. The others have membranes and lights for each position.

The CRT-based machines could have hot-spots on the screen that, when touched, would let you override the counts already entered. The membrane ones would have to have a different code. Either way, according to the theory, a Bush operative would have to have some time alone with the machine in order to punch in the over-ride codes. Just like before, this is not allowed so you would have to be very careful. You would also have to get your hands on every machine. And you would have to have operatives in every precinct.

I suppose alternatively, you could give the override codes to some normal voters and have them vote late in the day. You would have to send several voters to each precinct to be certain that they would have access to all of the voting machines.

The number of people needed to pull this off is staggering. And it would take this effort. The analysis of the exit polls showed that there was no different between different types of voting machines. If one type was fixed, they all were.

So, hundreds or thousands of Republicans were in on it. Not one suffered remorse and confessed. This was done in front of hundreds or thousands of Democrats but not one noticed anything at the time.

Plus, every voting machine or tabulator in Ohio has hidden cheat codes. This includes the numerous ones that are a decade or more old.

Or the exit polls were wrong for the reasons I gave above.

Which is more likely?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Is Star Wars Biased?

Some early reviewers of "Revenge of the Sith" have commented that George Lucas injected some modern politics into his epic. I don't think so. Many of the elements that the reviewers are objecting to go back to the "Phantom Menace".

Consider - in Phantom Menace Senator Palpatine, a corrupt politician, colludes with the Trade Guild to have his home planet invaded. He uses the sympathy vote to be elected Supreme Chancellor. This came out in 1999.

In Attack of the Clones, Palpatine engineers a new crisis. His new apprentice, Count Dooku, also known as Dark Tyranus, is enticing planets to quit the Republic. Instead they are joining together and building a giant droid army. Again, Palpatine uses the crisis to advance himself, tricking Jar Jar Brinks into moving that he be given extraordinary powers. He then announced the creation of a Grand Army of the Republic (which he had actually ordered a decade before through Count DooKu). There are also several points where Obi-Wan and Anakin express distrust for politicians in general.

Given this background, it is inevitable that the third installment will be anti-politician and that Palpatine's machinations will seem reasonable to the Senate at the time.

Lucas always had strange ideas about republics and titles. Naboo elects its princesses and appoints senators. Even stranger is the idea that the best person to run a country is a teen-age girl. From the exchange between the new queen and Amidala, it appears that you lose wisdom as you age.

Then there is Vader's rank. In the original movie he answered to an admiral. In the second movie, Vader commanded a fleet and had authority to strangle admirals and promote their successors.

In "Return of the Jedi", the rebellion is free with titles. If you command a small expeditionary force you become a general.

Anyway, back to Revenge:

"This is how liberty dies - to thunderous applause," Padmé observes as senators, their fears and dreams of glory deftly manipulated by Palpatine, vote to give him sweeping new powers. "Revenge of the Sith" is about how a republic dismantles its own democratic principles, about how politics becomes militarized, about how a Manichaean ideology undermines the rational exercise of power. Mr. Lucas is clearly jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders. At one point, Darth Vader, already deep in the thrall of the dark side and echoing the words of George W. Bush, hisses at Obi-Wan, "If you're not with me, you're my enemy." Obi-Wan's response is likely to surface as a bumper sticker during the next election campaign: "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes." You may applaud this editorializing, or you may find it overwrought, but give Mr. Lucas his due. For decades he has been blamed (unjustly) for helping to lead American movies away from their early-70's engagement with political matters, and he deserves credit for trying to bring them back.
Ok, you can see this as an attack against Bush. It works just as well as an attack against Lincoln. After all, Lincoln's election caused states to succeed from the republic. Lincoln then engineered a shooting war by refusing to let the Confederacy have military bases on their own land. South Carolina had a good claim to a base in the middle of Charleston Harbor and their attempt to take it is justifiable.

Lincoln took this questionable provocation and turned it into a major war. At the same time, he expanded the powers of the federal government and the presidency far beyond what they had been. For the record, I am a northerner who thinks that the Civil War was a just war, but I can argue the case against Lincoln.

Palpatine's actions are closer to Lincoln's than Bush's, including the creation of the "Grand Army of the Republic". Sedition laws under Lincoln actually had teeth. Civil unrest led to riots and martial law in New York City. "The Gangs of New York" was only a slight exaggeration of the times.

Of course, the real test will come in a decade or two. If the movie sees dated then I am wrong. If it still seems as fresh as the original three then Lucas is simply using eternal themes that modern reviewers see as a reflection of modern politics.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Was WWII Worth It?

Pat Buchanan asks this question in a current column. This follows up on his earlier isolationist musings that "Hitler wasn't so bad."

Has Buchanan lost his mind? Has he become a Nazi apologist? No. His column is based on the notion that Stalin was worse than Hitler. If Stalin won the war and eastern Europe was under Russia's control then Buchanan thinks that western Europe lost the war.
If the West went to war to stop Hitler from dominating Eastern and Central Europe, and Eastern and Central Europe ended up under a tyranny even more odious, as Bush implies, did Western Civilization win the war?
Buchanan makes a couple of mistaken assumptions here. The biggest one is that western Europe had a real choice about entering the war. Germany invaded country after country. Granted it was expanding to the east to start with, but would Hitler have been satisfied with that? Once he gained some room for his Aryans from the Slavs, wouldn't he want to do the same to the Gauls? He wanted to expand in all directions. War was inevitable.

And war between German and Russia happened independent of the actions of western Europe. Stalin didn't declare war because Churchill asked him to, Russia was invaded.

When Hitler attacked Russia he knew that he was attacking a larger country with greater economic resources. He hoped to seize Moscow before resistance could be organized. He failed and Russia counter-attacked.

Given Russia's greater manpower and resources, it is likely that it could have won the war all by itself. If England and the US were not involved then we can only speculate about how much of Europe Hitler would have conquered before losing to Stalin. At he least, all of Germany, Austria, and possibly Italy would have come under communist control. Had Hitler conquered France then Stalin would have controlled Europe all the way to the English Channel. That's a rather frightening thought.

Possibly Buchanan thinks that the US and England should have allied with Hitler to defeat Stalin. This is even more horrifying since Hitler would surely have turned on his allies. Also, Hitler was invading other countries outright. Except for the countries that Russia occupied through WWII, Stalin was never as blatant about his conquests.

Buchanan condemns the US for not immediately turning on an ally and starting a new war. This could never have happened. There was no support in the US for a new total war no r is it sure that we would have won. Russia was a bigger, stronger country than Germany. The country was sick of war by 1945. It did not have the heart for a new, longer struggle. Also, there were a lot of influential communists in the US, organized by the Kremlin - tens of thousands. They would have made it political suicide to attack Russia. A dying Roosevelt had no desire for a new war and Truman was not liked well enough for this fight, either.

Then there was Japan to worry about. VJ Day came months later. We had already made peace with Russia and the European army was preparing to transfer out - either home or to the Pacific theater.

I hesitate to who was worse Stalin or Hitler. Stalin had much more time in control and a larger population to kill off. That makes it harder to compare body counts which Buchanan tries to do anyway. Also, Hitler's ethnic cleansing still horrifies modern generations.

WWII was a declared war and the countries that declared war on us surrendered unconditionally. That is why we won. Because the other side lost. Yes, this started a long undeclared war but it was a different conflict, fought differently. Don't confuse the two.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

More SciFi Blogging - Star Wars

Did Star Wars #1 & 2 suck? No, but there was no way that they could have the impact of the original movie. When Star Wars (I'm not going to call it "A New Hope") came out, movie makers had forgotten how to make adventure films and had never figured out how to make a science fiction adventure film. It was the perfect convergence of new special effects technology and old-fashioned story telling.

By now, almost 30 years later, movie makers have it figured out. There are so many good adventure movies coming out that they have to make back half their investment on opening weekend since the next good one will be out in a week. Really great adventure movies come out every year or two. Audiences have seen two installments of the Lord of the Rings come out since Attack of the Clones was released. The only competition for the original three movies was Indiana Jones.

Keeping that in mind, the two new movies could not have made the impact that the originals made, not with so much competition going on.

Lucas did stray in creating his characters. The original characters were very identifiable to a 1970s audience. Luke was a farm boy who liked joy-riding. His idea of a good time was shooting over-sized groundhogs from an airplane (T-16 Skyhopper). Han was based on moonshine smugglers driving around back roads in souped-up stack cars. This was a whole genre of movies.

Leia was an exception. The feminist movement objected to the traditional heroine as someone who needed rescuing and moviemakers were having trouble figuring out how to handle women. Lucas solved this by inventing a spunky princess who took over her own rescue.

The plot was nothing spectacular. Most science fiction written in the 1960s and 1970s had the same premise of a farm boy suddenly going out into the world and saving the day.

Lucas continued to lift elements from popular culture. In Empire Strikes Back, Luke doesn't realize at first that the little green guy is Yoda. When we see Luke training with Yoda, he is taught to draw strength from the Force and to levitate things. We never see him practice with his lightsabre but he can now hold his own against Vader. This came from the Japanese and Japanese-inspired literature of the time. A samurai in training is given menial tasks, learning important lessons without realizing it. He never actually practices with his sword.

Skip forward a couple of decades. The Phantom Menace had evolutionary rather than revolutionary effects. It looked good but the Matrix won the effects Oscar. The Lord of the Rings proved that Weta could do anything ILM could do and make it look as good.

The storyline was more abstract, also. Evil was a trade guild with the real villain hidden. Attack of the Clones was similar - the story arc traces the rise of the Emperor but it is subtle. We know who the bad guy is but no one else does.

Also, the characters are more remote. It is easy to relate to a farm boy. It is much harder to relate to a Jedi apprentice or a slave.

None of this means that the newer movies are worse than the originals, just that they cannot have the impact.

Monday, May 09, 2005

SciFi blogging

Enough of politics for a while. Let's look at a question that really matters to people - it Battlestar Gallactica the best science fiction series ever? No, for reasons that I will explain later. I do think that it is the best science fiction series currently in production, but that isn't saying anywhere near as much.

At it's heart, Battlestar Gallactica is a re-tread of a 1970s Star Wars rip-off. It featured the same motion-capture cameras that Star Wars used so people could get their spacebattle fix while waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to come out.

The series was originally going to be a collection of 2-hour movies but ABC was so impressed with it that they ordered it to be a weekly series as well as the movies. This created two sets of producers. The A-list did the movies, producing solid, original plots. The B-list was recruited from free-lancers who had never worked with science fiction before. Their approach was to adapt old scripts from westerns. One episode was ripped off from the movie Shane. Another was from Bonanza, including the star.

While popular, the series was also expensive and ABC cancelled it after one season. It returned briefly as a re-tooled Gallactica 1980.

The new version has the same basic premise - humanity has been wiped out except for a fleet of refugees guarded by the last surviving "battlestar" which corresponds to an aircraft carrier. The names of the lead characters also carried over but with differences in gender and race.

The enemy in both series is the "Cylon" race. In the original the Cylons were biomechanical aliens. In the new series they were created by humanity and rebelled. Also, in the new series most Cylons look human.

I think that the show has gotten such good reviews because most of the plotlines revolve around the humans. The Cylons are seldom seen, except for some sleeper agents. Plots involve things that the critics can relate to such as who will be the next vice-president, the search for a source of water, or the fear of hidden Cylon agents.

The show's cinemetography adds a lot to it. Shot with lots of shadows and a gritty realism, the look of the show adds believability to the premise.

So, what's wrong with it?

There are internal contradictions. A major sub-plot revolves around religion. The humans are poly-theistic. The Cylons are mono-theistic and appear to be either Christian or Jewish. They are also evangelical.

Given that the Cylons have religion, do they have free-will? If not then is their religious devotion real or just programmed into them. Boomer (Sharon) is a sleeper agent who did not know that she was Cylon, but she may have been acting against the humans. It is likely that she sabotaged their water supply. Shortly after learning her true identity, she shot the commander.

Characterization is minimal. Most characters are one-dimensional and some only have a single emotion. Commander Adama is always tightly controlled no matter how good or bad (usually bad) the news. Boomer spends the first season looking guilty (she suspects that she is a Cylon).

Then there is President Roslin. Originally Secretary of Education, she was the highest-ranking cabinet official to survive the Cylon attack. You would expect to see a steep learning curve. Instead, the actress, Mary McDonnell, plays the role exactly as she played the First Lady in Independence Day. Dying from cancer, she has been taking alternative treatment which gave her precognitive visions.

This is one of my pet peeves with science fiction movies and series - the need to introduce a mystic (I will make an exception to this below).

The realism can be a problem, also. When the fleet was running out of water, someone looked up how much food they needed. It was an impressive amount. Where does it come from? They never said. If you are going to acknowledge the question you have to provide some sort of answer. Even the original show answered that question - they had some agricultural ships with them.

In the original show, the humans had some relationship with ancient Earth. This showed up in the names, often using Greek mythology, and the styles which suggested Egypt. The new show kept the names but got rid of the styles. Their world looked like modern Earth as do the clothing styles and political structure. How did this happen?

And there is the lack of aliens. Realistically, we may be the only sentient life within reach but it makes for a more boring show.

All of these are valid reasons that the show is not the best SciFi show ever but I have a better one - it can be boring. The original was cheesy and dumb, but you could count on it for some great space fights at the end. With most of the action taking place inside the ships, the new Gallactica has few action scenes. Episodes usually just reach some sort of a conclusion.

So what was the best SciFi show ever? The original Star Trek was the best show for a generation but it was over-acted and too many red-shirts died. Worse, it had no continuity. Characters could not grow from one episode to the next. Each episode had to stand alone.

Star Trek: the Next Generation was a much better effort. Still, it had some real problems. The first season and a half were boring. Some of the plots were a little too far out - everyone devolving, for example. There was only limited continuity so character development had to be spread over years. By the end of the series you wondered why so few people transferred in or out. There could be too much techno-babble. Everyone was too competent. It sometimes seemed like anyone in the crew could use anything to build anything else. For example - Worf was able to use a communicator to project a force field while trapped on the holodeck.

We will not talk about the other Trek shows. Each has been worse than the last.

That brings us to my favorite, Babylon 5. Continuity was tight and the show used it to launch plot arcs for all the major characters. Along the way, all five major races had a turning point involving a major change of government. Look at G'Kar who started as a sort of angry revolutionary. Over the course of the show he became a voice in the wilderness, finally becoming a religious leader. Then there was Londo. He started as a comical figure, a washed up diplomat from a burnt-out empire. He became a dark, menacing character before finally reforming. Both Garibaldi and Franklin dealt with substance abuse, but in very different ways.

This show also managed to have non-annoying mystics. The Vorlons and the Shadows were behind visions, not deities.

And I cannot remember a Babylon 5 episode that was outright boring.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Birth Control or Abortion

Wired has a piece on the controversy over emergency birth control, also known as morning after pills. A couple of points deserve highlighting. One is that while RU-486, which has been around for years, does cause spontaneous abortions, the newer Plan-B does not.

Women can get pregnant if they have unprotected sex before ovulation, since sperm can live for up to five days. But an egg is usually viable for only six to 12 hours after it is released from the ovary. Plan B works by suppressing the hormonal surge that causes an ovary to release an egg. It must be taken within 72 hours after intercourse, followed by another tablet 12 hours later. If a woman takes the drug after the egg has already been released, it won't stave off fertilization or end a pregnancy, according to the studies and the manufacturer, Barr Pharmaceuticals.
Also notable is this statement:
For example, the majority of fertilized eggs simply do not successfully implant in the uterus, even when no birth control is used.
This is a higher number than I had heard before.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Polarized Views on Abortion

According to numerous polls, the majority of Americans think that abortion should remain legal. A similar majority is uncomfortable with abortion and supports minor restrictions on it. My own views mirror the majority.

A couple of issues have come up at either end of the spectrum on Abortion. I want to talk about why I reject both of these.

First there are an increasing number of pharmacists who refuse to fill a prescription for the "Morning After Pill". The objection is that it prevents a fertilized egg from implanting itself in the uterus and is therefore an "abortion pill".

The flaw in this argument is that a surprising number of fertilized eggs do not embed themselves. I've seen figures suggesting 20%-30%. From a strict religious viewpoint it is hard to say that God thinks that preventing a fertilized egg from becoming a baby when he designed it so that it happens in a quarter of the cases, anyway.

Pharmacists should know that. They have had some medical training. If this offends their religion then they should stay away from general pharmacies where these prescriptions are filled.

On the other end are the pro-abortion people. The abortion-rights movement likes to call itself pro-choice but to many of them, the choice is always abortion.

Years ago the OSU Women's Studies Department out out a calendar that included a group that tries to talk pregnant women out of having abortions. If you are actually pro-choice then this should be no problem. You want a pregnant woman to be able to listen to either side of the issue.

Not the women of Columbus. In several opinion pieces they made it very clear that the only appropriate choice for a pregnant student is to have an abortion. This was based on statistics showing how seldom pregnant students finished their degree. The not-so-hidden assumption was that having a degree is always better than having a child and that if a woman is going to wait for one or the other, she should always wait to have the child.

That came up years ago but it echoes in the modern debate over parental notification. There is a bill in Congress that would make it a crime to take a minor across state lines for an abortion without the consent of her parents. There are also provisions for parental notification and a 24 hour waiting period.

Abortion advocates have a fit over this. Syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman points out that parents are not notified when their daughter has sex or when she is in the delivery room (really - can a 16 year old deliver a child without next of kin being notified? I don't know.). She also points out that the child still has the option to refuse the abortion or to give up the child for adoption.

The Feminist Daily News goes further:

Reproductive rights groups are calling the bill the “Teen Endangerment Act” because it “fails to protect those teenagers dealing with precarious family situations — like alcoholic or abusive parents — by forcing them to rely on those parents or to go to any lengths, including dangerous ones, to avoid doing so,” said Nancy Northrup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. Situations in which young women who had obtained a judicial bypass in their home state would be exempt, but there is no provision for girls who are not residents of parental-notification states to obtain such a bypass, reports The Christian Science Monitor
Are these attacks fair? The feminists start with a blanket assumption that pregnant teenagers' parents are abusive. The dreaded back-alley abortion is also alluded to when referring to the "dangerous lengths" that girls would go to.

There are huge flaws in this argument. The biggest one is that having an abortion will resolve the abusive family or that abuse is ok as long as there is no pregnancy involved. These are really two different issues and should be addressed separately.

There is also the possibility that the man who abused a teenage girl is the one taking her for an abortion so that the parents will not find out about the abuse. Which is more likely? Both are serious issues but arguing exclusively based on one ignores the other.

Judicial override would be a nice addition to the bill and would resolve any objections based on abuse.

Goodman has better points but they are also separate issues. Yes, teens have sex without parental notification. If birth control is involved then, depending on the age of the kids, this is a much lesser issue.

Beyond that we get into double and triple standards about how we treat teenagers. They cannot drink or smoke or buy a gun. They cannot sign contracts. They can drive once they are 16 but often with restrictions. Their minds and bodies are not fully developed yet but their reproductive organs already work.

The same people who are calling for full sexual freedom at puberty are also in favor of giving these kids a pass when they commit a criminal act.

The underlying assumption here is that a teenager should always have an abortion. They want it to be as easy as possible. Worried that you will be grounded? No problem, the doctor can get rid of this little problem for you.

That's also why they are against waiting periods. If a girl is so unsure about the abortion that she cannot come back a day later then there is a good chance that she will regret it afterwards. That doesn't matter to the abortion rights people.

Yes, having a child in your teens is a crushing burden on the mother and her parents. I know some very worthwhile people who were born in these circumstances. Any attempts at stacking the deck to ensure abortion are misguided.