Sunday, September 1, 2013
Q) Why even bother? ICC prosecutions take forever.
A) I know they do. That sucks. I wish justice was faster. It's not even fast within the same country, but it's especially slow internationally. But the question is: compared to what? Invading Syria? Launching a few random cruise missiles or drone strikes? What alternative will have an impact on what's happening right now?
Q) What if it wasn't Al-Assad's idea to launch chemical weapons? What if was some random lieutenant, or even the rebels?
A) That's why we have a trial. Instead of rushing off and launching missiles based on what we think happened, we can find out who's actually responsible, and prosecute them.
Q) But lots of American leaders have done things at least as bad.
A) I know. And if this was a just world, George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Henry Kissinger and a lot of other American leaders (maybe even You Know Who) would be sitting in cells in the Hague right now. But it's not a just world. It's the one we live in. The choice isn't between prosecuting Al-Assad and prosecuting George Bush. It's between prosecuting Al-Assad and killing some random Syrians to teach Al-Assad a lesson. So which do you like better?
Q) How do you even prosecute a person in the ICC?
A) I have no idea. I know there are people that do. I know we are the most powerful nation in the world, and if we want to make it happen we very likely can. But it won't if we don't try.
Q) Are you sure it will work?
A) No. And if it does, it won't work for a long, long time. I'm saying that there is no idea out there that is better. The reason I'm proposing this is because if you say bombing Syria is a bad idea, people who want to do it will say, "Well, what would you do?" So now you can answer the question.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Friday, August 23, 2013
Ofir Gafla's The World of the End is an archetypal story: a man travels into the land of the dead in search of his love. The classical version of this story is that of Orpheus traveling to Hades in search of Eurydice. Orpheus travels to the land of the dead magically, and is preceded by his music. Ben, the protagonist of The World, has no magic. A year after the death of his wife Marian he goes the old-fashioned way: he blows his brains out. His suicide is as dramatic as he could make it, occurring at the end of a posthumous birthday party for Marian to which he'd invited all of their mutual friends.
A better precedent for TWOTE might be Richard Matheson's What Dreams May Come. But unlike Matheson's work, there is no divide between Heaven and Hell: everyone goes to the same place. Whether that place is more like the latter or the former is open to question. The newly dead are presented with an orientation in which the eternity they have to look forward to is presented as a perfect paradise: You don't need to eat or sleep unless you want to; everyone has a free place to live and public transportation; there is unlimited free entertainment of every type, including a "Vie-deo" of every moment of your lifetime, and you have a special "Godget" that allows you to set your own personal weather.
But in Gafla's novel nothing is what it looks like, and the cracks appear pretty quickly. Ben's first day in Heaven is ruined particularly when the wife he killed himself for doesn't show up to greet him. In fact, she's nowhere to be found; she might not even be dead at all. What happened to Marian is a central mystery of the rest of the book.
I say a mystery, but far from the only one. Ben's story is interwoven with that of many other people, living and dead. All of them are connected to Ben's story, though how they're connected isn't always immediately obvious. Many of them are more entertaining than Ben is. There is the cranky old artist Kolanski, who hates to draw portraits. There is the nurse Ann, known behind her back as AnnPlugged because she gets off on disconnecting people from their life support. There's the Mad Hop, an afterlife private dick of questionable talent that Ben takes on to help him find Marian. There's the twins Shahar and Adam, an asexual method actor and a pedophile video game designer. There's Yonatan, a man who lives a lifestyle that keeps him on the edge of death not because he thinks it can't happen to him but because he knows it will, and who is drawn into an online romance with a mysterious woman over a shared obsession with Salman Rushdie.
Gafla comes back to Rushdie frequently, and it's clear that he's a model. Like Rushdie Gafla writes in a distant third person with a lot of authorial interjections, in a style that John Gardner called the "essayist narrator." Like Rushdie Gafla's not afraid to go off on long tangents. And like Rushdie Gafla favors a tumbling manic storyline with a million dominoes all tumbling towards a mysterious end.
I have twice called the book a mystery, but that doesn't fully describe it. Neither Ben nor the Mad Hop seem to be making any particular progress on figuring out what happened to Marian, and Ben's story is more of a posthumous picaresque. He stumbles across all kinds of strange people's afterlives, not least of which is Marilyn Monroe because she shares his dead wife's initials.
Nevertheless a mystery is being uncovered, one that goes beyond what happened to Marian. It turns out whole branches of family trees (literal trees, in this case), are being prematurely lopped off. The agents uncovering it are among those known as an "alias" (what is the plural of that?), which is the closest thing this version of heaven has to an angel. What exactly an alias is is not revealed to us until much later.
The World of the End is rollicking and playful, hilarious in some places, painfully sad in others, and frustrating and boring in more than a few places as well. It should be no surprise that a novel about life after death is a novel of loss. But the loss of this novel is much more than the loss of the dead to the living, or the loss of life to the dead. As Ben uncovers more and more about Marian he learns that there is no greater loss than that of the way things were for us just yesterday, or at least the way we thought they were. Again and again characters in this book cling desperately to the past, only to cause it to drift further and further away. For other characters the loss is getting what you think you want, only to discover that it's not what you thought it was at all.
Though no one really gets what they want in this book, it's not hopeless. But the hope in it is a painful kind, the kind that comes after you accept you've lost everything you cared about. Then again, if there is an afterlife, that's exactly what it would have to be.
Wednesday, August 14, 2013
At the end of the last season of Breaking Bad, Skyler presented Walter with an interesting math problem. In a storage shed, probably somewhere in Albuquerque's War Zone (roughly from San Mateo to Louisiana, south of Menaul), she had an enormous pile of Walt's money, and she couldn't begin to figure out how to count it.
Like many psychopaths, Walter is a smart guy; I certainly couldn't cook up a batch of 99% pure crystal meth (I mean, I've never tried, but I never even took chemistry in college). Skyler's no dummy either, her refusal to ditch Walt notwithstanding. She is certainly good at math, since she is a licensed accountant. So I'm amazed that neither of them could even make a good estimate of the amount of money they had.
Skyler was sensible enough to think of counting by weight. Her problem was that the bills were in different denominations, so even if she knew how many bills she had, she wouldn't know how much that was. But this is a relatively trivial problem, if one applies a little basic statistics, something both Walter and Skyler should be familiar with.
I can't weigh Walter's money of course. I'd be happy to try, and if the pile ended up a few stacks of hundreds short, I can hardly see how he'd notice. But I can estimate by volume.
Walt's pile appeared to be a rectangular prism of about 6' long by 4' wide by 4' high, for a volume of 96 ft^3. The volume of a stack of 100 bills of any denomination is about 6.45 in^3(1) or about 0.00373 ft^3 (That seems small, but remember we are talking about volume so we are dividing by 12^3 cubic inches=1728in^3).
Simple division tells me that Walt has about 25,000 stacks of bills in there, or about 2,500,000 bills. If they were all hundreds, he'd have a quarter billion dollars! I assume Walt's not keeping any denomination less than a twenty, so bare minimum he'd have 50 million bucks.
But they could do a much better estimate. All they'd have to do is take a random sample of about 100 stacks, and find how many were of each denomination. Say that your random sample of 100 stacks had 40 stacks of hundreds, 50 stacks of twenties, and 10 stacks of fifties. (I assume fifties are least likely, since big drug dealers deal in stacks of hundreds and small-time buyers mostly use twenties.) If your sample is representative, you can say the average denomination is about 100*.4+50*.1+20*.5=$60, meaning that Walt has 150 million bucks in there.
Since Walter estimated that the methylamine he stole from the freight train would be worth about 300 million when cooked, this would mean he's cooked about half of it and sold it, which makes sense. I wonder what he'll do with the other half? He'd probably like Lydia to buy it wholesale, but she is not really enthusiastic about his retirement plan. Maybe those guys that Mike introduced him to want to buy it. But then he'd have to get into what exactly happened to Mike. But, as mathematicians like to say, I'll leave the general case for the next generation.
Bonus question 1: Research the average income of an Albuquerque car wash. Assuming Walt and Skyler bought another car wash as Walt discussed, how long would it take them to launder all that money?
Bonus question 2: Using Jesse's guilt-driven system of distributing his "blood money" by driving through Albuquerque and throwing out a bundle of bills every few houses, how long will it take him to get rid of his five million dollars? How might this impact the Albuquerque economy?
Monday, July 29, 2013
Friday, July 19, 2013
Monday, July 15, 2013
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
Monkeys and apes have been a problem to spiritual beliefs and mythology for a long time. They're too much like people to ignore, but they're distinctly animals, and act like it. They throw poop, they commit infanticide and they make strange noises. Consequently, they often play interesting roles in mythological literature.
Monkey: Journey to the West is a multimedia performance at Lincoln center based on the novel Journey to the West, one of the "Four Great Classical Novels" of Chinese Literature. I haven't read this book, but it appears the authors have made an effort to be as loyal as possible to the text, or at least the central part of it. The book is about a journey by the monk Tripitaka(as he's called in the play, in the book he's named Xuanzang) to India to bring sacred Buddhist sutras back to the East.
The play includes Chinese acrobatics, dance, music, martial arts and animation. The style of animation will be familiar to anyone who's seen the work of animator Jamie Hewlett, the creator of Tank Girl and the "virtual band" Gorillaz. Mostly the animation is an intro to the main action in the first few scenes; I'd like to have seen more of it. Damon Albarn, the producer of Gorillaz, composed the music. But the music is very different in style from Gorillaz's. It's minimalist, combining Asian influences with some modern dance beats.
The stage is alive everywhere in this play, perhaps too much so. There's no way you can appreciate everything that's going on in a single performance. The acrobatics are sufficiently spectacular, with spinning plates, backflips and performers balancing in seemingly impossible ways upon each other. The acrobatics and martial arts scenes are more than engaging enough to entertain a child who is accustomed to manga and cartoon adventures, as my son is.
Tripitaka is the leader of the journey to the West, but the star is clearly Sun Wukong, AKA the Monkey King and Great Sage Equal to Heaven. Born out of a rock, he's a first-class ass-kicking superhero who is not defeated by anyone except the Buddha himself. But he's no saint. The first part of the play is devoted to Sun Wukong leaving his position as king of the monkeys to acquire superpowers, especially magical weaponry from the Old Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. But rather than using his powers for good, he immediately uses them to crash the Queen Mother of Heaven's Great Peach Banquet and chow down on her peaches. As a result, Buddha imprisons him for 500 years, and only releases him to protect Tripitaka on his journey.
The story itself is a syncretist combination of abstract principles of Buddhism with classical Chinese mythology. My wife, who's more knowledgeable about Buddhism than I am, suggested that Sun Wukong represents the mind as opposed to the spirit. Mythological ass-kicking is interspersed with serene Buddhist sermons about desire and suffering. It's hard to see what the two have to do with each other. Monkey is clearly the bridge between the two, but his role is unclear. My first thought was that the monkey represented the id. But that role is clearly played by Pigsy, one of Tripitaka's other guides. Pigsy is greedy and horny, and is first found devouring food out of a dumpster.
Tripitaka's other two assistants, the river ogre Sandy and his white horse, who is the Dragon Prince confined to equine form, play almost no role at all, though they're there for every scene. These characters, and even Pigsy, seem a wasted opportunity. Every one of Tripitaka's guides are superpowered beings who have committed great crimes. Pigsy sexually harassed a goddess, Sandy devoured people by a river, and the Dragon Prince burned down his father's castle. Clearly this is a journey of redemption for all of them, but they do almost nothing to earn the redemption, besides kicking ass on some demons. Their backgrounds are given to us by info-dumping introductory songs, and then play very little other role. The only exception to this is Pigsy, whose lust leads him to fall for the lures of a spider-woman seductress, allowing her to kidnap Tripitaka and nearly rape him.
So whatever redemption happens must happen through Sun Wukong. It seems that Sun Wukong's problem is not exactly excessive desire. When he steals the Queen of Heaven's delicious peaches (which take 1000 years to ripen), he barely nibbles on a few. Mostly he just kicks them to the floor. He seems more interested in kicking ass on the Queen of Heaven's guards. Later, he doesn't seem to be susceptible to the Spider woman's lures, though he's not around when she springs her trap.
It seems that the monkey's weakness is a need for physical and psychological dominance over everyone around him. But whether anything happens that's a redemption for that isn't clear. A climactic moment occurs when Tripitaka mistakenly dismisses Sun Wukong for excessive violence after he defeats a demon disguised as a young girl, and old woman and an old man. But the monkey was correct, since this demon was eager to eat the monk's flesh for eternal life. Nowhere does the monkey have to consider there might be another path to enlightenment besides kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.
Monkey: Journey the West is an amazing show, and incredibly entertaining. It's a great family show. After we saw it, my wife told me "You liked it for the mythology, and I liked it for the Buddhism," and my son said, "And I liked it because it was awesome!"
But the message of the piece is muddled, and the narrative is flawed and weakened by missed opportunities. It's possible that some of these weaknesses are part of the original work. But every work is its own, and loyalty to a classic text is no excuse for narrative failures. As much as I enjoyed the show, I can't help but wish they'd dug a little deeper.