Friday, 31 August 2012

The Dictator’s Practical Internet Guide to Power Retention by Laurier Rochon

Lowdown: A despot’s self-help manual on how to use the Internet to improve his control over the dictatorship.
Review:
The recent Arab Spring uprisings have often been labelled The Facebook Revolution. Is that right? Can we count on the Internet to free people from tyranny by virtue of it simply being there? No, says Laurier Rochon in his essay/booklet The Dictator’s Practical Internet Guide to Power Retention (a free download here). In actual fact, he argues, the Internet can be used to do the exact opposite. He goes forth to prove his point in this dictator’s guide, a detailed point by point practical guide written for dictators and instructing them how to do just that: how to use the Internet for an even tighter control over their people.
Grounded in fact and offering plenty of examples, our guide here contains many a reference to various measures in actual tyrannies around the world today. From Singapore through Putin to North Korea, no inspiring dictator is ignored in this piece of work.
Obviously, Rochon is no dictator’s friend. He is out there to prove a point on how easily the Internet can be twisted into a power for evil. Us readers should read it in reverse: any recommendation Rochon makes is, in actual fact, something we should actively avoid. So, when Rochon recommends dictators centralize their ISPs, to name but one example, and goes on to demonstrate how this strategy is used in various dictatorships (Iran is a case in point), we know that we should act to prevent the Internet from being under the total control of the Telstras of this world (who, by the way, are already censoring the Internet for their customers). Indeed, with iiNet's recent purchase of Internode, and rumors concerning iiNet itself being gobbled up by TPG, warning signs should start flashing with the average Australians.
That is to say, The Dictator’s Practical Internet Guide to Power Retention’s main value is not for dictatorships at all; it is written for us, citizens of the free world, as a wake up call against the various stakeholder that wish to subdue the Internet away from us. Be it ACTA, TPP, SOPA, National Security Inquiry, Patriot Act or just your average copyright industry demand, our Internet is always in danger – and thus our freedom is as well.
Short, sharp and very often funny, this Dictator’s Guide stands out in contrast with the recently reviewed The Transparent Society. Both share many a theme, but while the latter is lengthy and lacking in factual grounding, the former hits the mark in both readability and firm evidence basing of arguments.
Overall: The Dictator’s Practical Internet Guide to Power Retention is not only educational, it’s good entertainment too. I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Lowdown: A useless pirate is striving for infamy through scientific achievement.
Review:
The first thing to note about The Pirates! Band of Misfits is that it’s an Aardman animation production coming from the people behind Wallace and Gromit and its likes (also the people behind the horribly wrong Wallace and Gromit exhibition currently running at Scienceworks). The second thing to note about The Pirates! Band of Misfits is that in all countries other than Australia and the USA the film is actually called The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists. Obviously, someone up there in studio kingdom thinks us Aussies and them Yanks too dumb to appreciate a film dealing with science. I have to say I don’t understand this name change: science (albeit in twisted form) is a central part of this film that’s based upon a book by the very same name. I will therefore refer to the movie from now on simply as The Pirates!
The story tells us in wonderfully rich animation of the escapades of The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant), a lackluster pirate during the heydays of not online piracy who can’t pirate anything, has failed to achieve the title of Pirate of the Year for decades, but still aspires to beat the competition and gather the most loot to win the title with. Luckily for our friend here, he is accompanied by a loyal group of good hearted fellow pirates that’s voiced by the likes of Martin Freeman, Brendan Gleeson and an Ashley Jensen (of Extras fame) in the role of a female pirate wearing a thick false beard so that no one notices she’s not a man. In case you haven’t guessed by the cast yet, The Pirates! Is often cleverly funny even if it is far from being the most hilarious film of the year.
Hope comes to the potential rescue of our Pirate Captain through Charles Darwin (David Tennant), with whom he bumps upon raiding his ship. Yes, we're talking about the Darwin (figured out why the movie title was replaced?). Darwin quickly figures out the pirate ship’s parrot is no parrot at all but rather a dodo, making it a rare and glorious scientific find. On his side, the Pirate Captain sees the dodo as his ticket to Pirate of the Year. And Queen Victoria, who loathes nothing more than pirates? She has other plans for our dodo.
The Pirates! thus serves as fine entertainment for all ages. Children will like its characters, chases and slapstick; adults will appreciate the occasional witty remark (such as the one that brings the idea of evolution to the mind of Darwin). Me, I liked the film’s spirit the most: there is a definite feel of rebelling against authority coupled with doing things the non conventional way at hand here. Lest we forget, there is also ample healthy disrespect for the British monarchy. Put together, this means The Pirates! serves a fine example for kids to follow, much better than the stuff of conformism that’s usually thrown at them. The whole free enterprising spirit certainly goes well with the theme of piracy!
Perhaps The Pirates! is not the deepest film ever. It is, however, a piece of fine entertainment.
Best scene: The Pirate of the Year award ceremony, DJed by The Pirate King (Brian Blessed), serves adult viewers a fine parody of self-indulging award ceremonies.
Overall: A fine film that’s significantly above the mediocre average of children movies. As a bonus, it works for adults too. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Transparent Society by David Brin

Lowdown: Examinations of the concept of privacy in an age when technology provides unprecedented tools for violating it.
Review:
I was hesitant before going ahead to read David Brin’s The Transparent Society. For a book dealing with the concept of privacy, particularly under the accelerated age of the Internet, this 1999 release was bound to be severely out of date. I did give it a go, though, and the introduction captivated me.
The introduction is actually the story of the whole book that follows, the core theme without the meaty details. Essentially, Brin is stating the obvious: the way our society is heading, it is inevitable for there to be cameras under every fresh tree looking to see what we are doing (I suspect Brin is not referring to cameras explicitly but rather uses cameras as a metaphor for other surveillance measures  introduced to society through the marvel of modern technology). If that is the case, and in many respects we can say it already is – particularly in the UK – then we have the choice of one of two types of societies to live by: either a big brother society where someone watches over everything we do, potentially without us even knowing about it; or a society where we have access to do the watching ourselves. In such a society as the latter we can tap on cameras to see if the streets are safe for us to go jogging; we can also watch the watchers and ensure their accountability. Now, which of these two societies would you want to live in?
As I said, the rest of the book is detail. Brin goes on to draw lessons from history and science to analyze the concept of privacy from various angles at length. He always returns to the same conclusion, though. I particularly liked the way Brin projects from the past into the future, the way one would expect a veteran futurian to do; in this he reminded me of Charles Stross, another science fiction author that likes to discuss contemporary non fiction issues in the mirror of science fiction over at his blog. Looking at things from this angle certainly reveals a lot, such as the relative young age of the whole concept of privacy: in the not so distant past, as Brin points out, entire families sharing a room could not even imagine the privacy we now take for granted.
That initial spark that drove me enthusiastically through The Transparent Society’s early stages soon faded, though. The number one reason is the laborious nature of the read: The Transparent Society is a rather hefty book, much longer than it should have been by my reckoning. There is much repetition, and the whole affair feels too disjointed to support smooth reading. For example, ideas are often presented but then dismissed along the lines of “we will further explore this concept in chapter X”. If I had a dollar for every such dismissal I would have been able to buy several copies of The Transparent Society for my friends. As it is, I felt I was reading a book that was interesting and brimming with ideas but where if I was stopped and asked what I recall of the previous chapter I would find myself dumbfounded. Readability matters, and The Transparent Society is not as transparent as it should have been; it’s rather tedious.
The second problem I had with The Transparent Society was with me. I found myself often disagreeing with Brin and his conclusions. Disagreements are fine; as long as they offer well constructed arguments, I tend to learn more from those I disagree with than I do from those I agree with, and Brin’s are certainly well constructed. The problem, though, is that he was unable to convince me. For example, I often found him rather naïve – as with his suggestion that we monitor the monitors. Can we, really, do so? Let’s have a look at Facebook as a fine example. It asks us to strip ourselves naked on its behalf, but on the other hand its founder is actively avoiding doing the same. What tools then do we have to implement Brin’s suggestion, then, and enforce Zuckerberg to be as transparent as he expects his users to be? We don’t.
Which brings me to my third and final gripe with The Transparent Society. It may be full of vision, but it certainly is outdated. Brin cannot be blamed: his book came before Napster, September 11, Facebook, Wikileaks, Trapwire, ACTA, The Pirate Bay, and everything else that has transpired during the last decade. Quite a lot has happened since, and many of the speculations Brin makes have now been replaced by truths we take for granted.
It is for these reasons that I decided to abandon The Transparent Society exactly half way through.
Overall:
If one is looking to be inspired by ideas relating to privacy then one would find many a joy with this book. However, I am of the opinion that at this day and age The Transparent Society has been surpassed. Better books are out there for dealing with the concept of privacy and its close relationships – IP, copyrights, etc. Some of them are even much nicer to read!
I therefore give The Transparent Society 2 out of 5 stars, but I have to qualify my rating by repeating the fact I only read it half way through.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Harold and Maude

Lowdown: A young guy lacking interest in life meets an old woman who is very much alive.
Review:
ABC’s At the Movies recently picked 1971’s Harold and Maude for their classic recommendations section, arousing our interest in this peculiar Vietnam War era film. Say what you will about it, interesting it certainly is.
Harold (Bud Cort) is a spoiled young guy, so young he looks like a teenager to me. He lives in a mansion together with his mother, and together they form a family with obviously too much money in its hands for its own good. All Harold does is ignore his mother and fake his own suicides, while all his mother does is ignore Harold while trying to control his life and set it on a course she deems right. A course best described as old fashioned.
Our Harold spends some of his spare time at funerals, where he meets another avid spectator – Maude (Ruth Gordon). Maude is the total contrast of our Harold: she is old, her life almost over by her own admission. Maude, however, is obsessed with life: nature, music, disregard for silly laws… but also disregard for values such as property ownership (in the form of stealing cars) or obeying the law. She does her mischief with good intentions and a pure heart, though, and in doing so she captivates Harold’s heart. Much more than Harold’s mother, who buys him a new Jag and arranges dates for him.
As David and Margaret pointed out in their review, Harold and Maude is clearly a product of its era. The result is more than a bit eccentric, but nicely so, even if production values are quite poor by today’s standards. Still, a film that dares to raise serious questions about life, death, suicide, authority and our approach to property is a film worth barracking for.
29/8/12: I forgot to mention the film's rather unique and very adequate soundtrack, provided by Cat Stevens.
Best scene: There are many small funny scenes here, as well as many scenes to pat the back of the nonconformist in us. Cinematically speaking, I liked the opening scene best. The camera is set low, showing us only the legs of a person walking about and – we realize with terror – going to hang himself. We then move to see the mother coming into the same room to read the paper…
Overall: I doubt they would make a film like this today, which means Harold and Maude fully deserves its 3 out of 5 stars despite showing its age.
2/9/12: How could I forget to mention the similarities in themes and background with The Graduate? The latter is much better, though. 

Monday, 27 August 2012

David Gilmour: Remember That Night

Lowdown: Richard Gilmour & Pink Floyd Incorporated's 2007 live performance at Albert Hall.
Review:
It certainly took me a whole lot of time to put my hands on David Gilmour’s Remember That Night live performance video. Was it worth the wait? Most definitely! The point, though, is that I shouldn’t have been forced to wait in the first place (read more about my quest for this performance here).
So, what is Remember That Night? It’s a live performance of David Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s guitarist and the leader of the band in its post Roger Waters era. It was recorded and videoed in 2007, when Gilmour ran a special night to remember at London’s Albert Hall. A large crew accompanies Gilmour in his adventure here, including fellow Floyd member Richard Wright (who died from cancer the following year), musicians who played with Gilmour’s Pink Floyd before (like Guy Pratt), new band members and several guest appearances. Notable in his absence is Nick Mason, Floyd’s drummer, who did take part in previous Gilmour era Floyd live recorded shows like Delicate Sound of Thunder and Pulse.
Contents wise, Remember That Night is a two and a half hour long performance split into two halves. We start with a couple of songs from The Dark Side of the Moon, but as Gilmour himself admits we move on to “boring” songs from Gilmour’s solo repertoire. Rest assured, though: the second half features tried and tested masterpieces from Pink Floyd.
The beauty of Remember That Night is in its selection of songs and their performance. Gilmour may not be the biggest guitar virtuoso ever, but his guitar playing is almost certainly the one I have been exposed to the most through repeat listening. It is therefore great to see that even in his sixties the guy hasn’t lost his touch. Indeed, the same can be said about the musicians around him, all of whom seem in top form: the performance is slick, so slick it could pass for a studio album; it is often noticeably richer than the studio album.
Being that this is, effectively, a Pink Floyd performance, one is exposed to a full on show featuring lights and lasers in addition to the mere act of a band playing music. Luckily for most of us who could not attend Albert Hall that memorable night, the event has been well shot and recorded: the sound quality equals that of a well recorded studio album (with fine surround sound as a bonus), and the filming knows what the audience cares about the most. We thus see close ups of Gilmour operating his guitar and applying his techniques as well as Wright programming his army of keyboards during and in between songs, reading from his written notes as he goes. To this Pink Floyd fan those acts mean a lot; I greatly missed the personal factor in Pulse and, sadly, I greatly miss it from most live performance videos. Now I just miss Rick Wright.
Best scene #1: Fat Old Sun. The transition between the quite, acoustic part of the song to its more noisy half is handled with much aplomb. The result is truly moving.
Best scene #2: Echoes performed to it full twenty minutes plus of glorious length. This special song has a special place in my heart, but I have to say the particular performance here seems to top them all. It certainly beats the one from Meddle! I particularly liked the duet between Wright and Gilmour, both in instruments and vocals.
Best scene #3: Comfortably Numb, featuring a David Bowie singing Roger Waters’ parts. It seals the deal in spectacular fashion with a song that, in my view, is one of the best songs to ever be recorded.
Overall:
Any David Gilmour / Pink Floyd act is a case of preaching to the preacher when it comes to yours truly; I love anything coming out of my favorite band. However, Remember That Night takes things further. Instead of featuring a band of oldies singing their old stuff to make a new buck, what we have here is a bunch of experienced veterans taking that old stuff of theirs and improving it. Me, I don't know how they manage to keep up on their feet for the duration of the performance.
Miss it at your own peril: Remember That Night Gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from me.
P.S. Special thanks have to go to the record label for making me wait several years for this one. I had my wallet out and was willing to pay a reasonable price for years, yet for reasons still eluding me they chose to keep me waiting.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Margaret

Lowdown: A young woman contends with the guilt from taking part in a fatal bus accident.
Review:
As far as American films are concerned, Margaret is unique. At about two and a half hours of duration, it is long; it is slow, featuring careful camera positioning and long cuts; it lets the actors do their thing in complicated scenes without ramming them with soundtrack music; and in many respects, it is themed after the opera format. I heard there was some controversy about this film; I don’t know what the story there was, but I am of the opinion Margaret should have received a much warmer place with us viewers than the stealthy way it has been going under our radar.
Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, a spoiled Upper West Side New Yorker girl. She lives with her separated mother, a famous Broadway actress (J. Smith-Cameron), and her young brother; her father lives in California with another woman. Lisa is supposed to meet her father for some horseback activity, and being the woman she is she just has to get a suitable cowboy hat for the occasion. Alas, the only one she can find is on the head of a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo). The two tease one another, until our bus driver fails no notice the light turned red and hits a pedestrian. Lisa is with that pedestrian as she dies.
From this point onwards starts the opera of our Lisa as she contends with her guilt. At first she lies to the police in order to defend the bus driver, but with time the stress overwhelms her. It shows in her relationships with her school friends, her teachers (including Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick), and most of all her mother. The mother, on her part, is having to contend with her own loneliness, settling for a suitor that generally bores her (Jean Reno); dealing with Lisa and her issues is a bit too much for her.
The first thing I learned out of Margaret is that some of my favorite actors can actually act when allowed to. Anna Paquin clearly shows her Piano days’ Oscar was no childish coincidences; she pins the role of the annoying, over privileged adolescent perfectly. Everyone else does an excellent job portraying their abnormally round characters, too; my favourite was Reno. The point is that the platform of lengthy and complicated scenes works well and gets the best out of the actors.
Another point in favor of the film is its relative realism. For example, while Paquin is definitely an attractive woman, she is not glamorized to look like a doll; she looks like a real woman. Yes, Margaret is not your typical Hollywood production.
The drama created by the unique nature of Margaret will not grip you to your sit, but its unique nature should help you realize what good drama is all about. I wouldn’t want all films to be like Margaret, but I am grateful films like Margaret get made.
Best scene: There are probably a dozen scenes here that could have easily made it here. The one I liked the most involves Lisa’s mother masturbating her loneliness away, only to be interrupted by a Lisa that just cannot stand not receiving attention. The scene is shot in a way that prevents you from knowing who the victim is, at first, thus fuelling the atmosphere.
Overall: A highly recommended actors’ drama worthy of 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Inferno by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Lowdown: A skeptic science fiction authors tours a hell modelled after Dante’s Inferno.
Review:
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle have made significant impact on this human being through several collaborations I have had the pleasure of reading. Chief of which was Lucifer’s Hammer, the story of a comet threatening to hit the earth and standing up to its word: this young teen was not only impressed with the exciting story but also with the tale of civilization falling apart. Mostly, though, I was enchanted with the introduction to sex provided by the book. As a result I give the duo a lot of credit, so much so that when I happened to learn by accident they published a book about a modern human venturing through Dante’s hell I went ahead and got it for my Kindle.
That is, indeed, the gist of 1976’s Inferno: a modern look at Dante's old [lengthy] poem. Alan Carpentier, a famous science fiction author, falls into his death while trying to impress fans at a science fiction convention – fans who were busy turning their attention towards the Asimov that entered the room. As he falls our atheist expects the end of all things, but instead he finds himself trapped in a bottle somewhere. Thus starts the adventure.
After lengthy solitude he is rescued by Benito, who helps Alan realize he is now at the outer layer of hell – Dante’s hell. Indeed, Dante and his fellow Catholics were right all along about their choice of god! Silly rest of us! There is a way out of this hell, argues Benito, and that is to go all the way inside its nine circles. As in, go from the milder circles of hell deep into the harshest ones. He convinces our Carpenter (no, I don’t think the book’s choice of names is coincidental) to have a go; our hero joins mostly because of his sceptical curiosity. He doesn’t go for this whole divine thing, instead seeking rational explanations to what is taking place all along.
As Alan traverses hell he meets all sorts of characters, including the likes of Billy the Kid and other celebrities, as well as colleagues. Along the way he tries to explain the whole thing to himself: not only how hell works as an exercise in physics, but also what the whole purpose of hell is anyway. As in, why would God go through all these lengths to create an eternity of agony for humans? The beauty of Inferno is that us readers are looking at things through the eyes of a modern, skeptic, science fiction author well versed in creating worlds that make sense; when a world that doesn’t comes along, he treats it the way a book reviewer treats the books they read. He's analyzing.
Alas, I found Inferno’s wonderful premises to fail when it comes to actual delivery. First and foremost, I was bored. Despite the relatively short length of this book I was never suspended, never getting that feeling a good page turner of a book provides. It’s all pretty boring with pretty boring characters. “Uninvolving” is probably the best word to use when it comes to describing Inferno, despite all of its potential for nine circles of delight.
“A waste of a great idea” is another term I would use for describing Inferno. I won’t go into details for fear of blooping, but let’s just say I found the philosophical explanations at the book’s ending rather unsatisfying; Niven & Pournelle seem to have taken the cheap way out [of hell] when it comes to answering the questions they themselves raise throughout the book.
It could have been funny but it isn’t. When considering the whole attraction of the book would be the demolishing of silly medieval hallucinations by modern day thinkers, this neither here nor there of a conclusion represents a disappointing ending to a disappointing book. To clarify, it's not the plot ending that suffers here, but rather the philosophical idea behind the ending.
Overall: An uninvolving waste of a good idea deserving 2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Lowdown: Several old British folk retire to a derelict hotel in India.
Review:
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a film whose claim to fame lies entirely with the names behind it. These names represent the best of British, to quote a Melbourne car dealership ad: on the actors side we have Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy and Maggie Smith (for a start); behind the camera we have director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, and more recently The Debt). With such a list it is pretty much guaranteed many, including yours truly, would line up to see what force drove all of the above to combine their talents.
Having watched the film, my guess for an answer would be India. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel follows a group of elderly British folk who, for their own individual reasons, decide to leave their past behind them and move for retirement in India. These people, cast by that impressive A list I quoted from before, are motivated by a multitude of reasons: the death of a husband, finances, not being able to take their patronizing kids anymore, longings from the past, and of course – sex. They all answer an ad to come and retire at this exotic hotel in India, converging at their shared flight. The trouble is, that hotel is not as exotic as its title might lead them to believe; it’s in shambles, and its owner (played by Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire fame) is suffering from financial problems. That, and his longing for a beautiful call center girl that happens to not be his mother’s preferred match.
Rest assured: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is as feel good film as they come. By the end of it all our English heroes would use their stiff upper lip to combine with their Indian counterparts and act Indian like so that all would be well and the sun would forever shine. Actually, some of the endings are not that rosy, but in between stereotypes there is firm closure throughout. It is quite obvious the English cast had enjoyed its adventure in India, too.
Alas, we may laugh occasionally and feel slightly touched by some of the personal stories, yet The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a film to use its talents in order to take the art of cinema where it hadn’t gone before. It is a simple film, made for fun, a film that fails to challenge any of its talents to produce anything that even slightly tickles their acting skills. This may not be illegal, but thoughts along the lines of “what a waste” did cross my mind.
Worst scene: There are many demonstrations for unnecessarily contriving things, starting with the way Patel’s hotel owner character likes to express itself. However, the most annoying was the short cut featuring one of our elderly English heroes as he reads the Kama Sutra in bed. As attempts to show the British confronting the Indian go, this one is far too cheap a shot.
Overall: Nice, but nothing more than a group attempt of some powerful English movie making stakeholders to have some fun in India. 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Mass Effect: Invasion

Lowdown: Aria's Omega Station is invaded by mutant Reapers that got away from Cerberus.
Review:
The last of the three currently available Mass Effect comic paperbacks, Mass Effect: Invasion features Aria T'Loak as its hero character in a subplot taking place between the events of Mass Effect 2 and 3 games.
Omega Station is run by Aria, as we know well from Mass Effect 2. However, it is under a new threat that requires all of its seedy components to unite: mutant Reapers coming off the Omega 4 relay after escaping Cerberus labs built to investigate Reaper technology there. Cerberus itself comes to the aid of Omega Station, soon leading Aria to question who the real threat to her station is.
The story and the graphics in Invasion are good. My five year old thoroughly enjoyed me reading him this comic, and I enjoyed it too: I would have said it is the best of the Mass Effect comic paperbacks released to date. Aria is definitely a good character to pit at the center of a story, there is nice gap filling with the Cerberus subplot, and the whole development of characters and plot is excellent (unlike Redemption, there is no babe-ification of the central character). I would have said it's the best of the lot, but I can't: sadly, Invasion has no ending worth talking about. Instead we are left off with a "and the story continues in Mass Effect 3". WTF?
As someone who played Mass Effect 3 several times I can testify I do not consider this ending worthy, nor do I consider Mass Effect 3 to have supplied me with adequate finality to Aria's thread of the story.
On the positive side, Invasion includes a short comic bonus of a story, Conviction, which tells us a tiny bit about James Vega and his card playing antics. Sadly, I found its conclusion unsatisfying, too.
Overall: Not being able to offer a conclusion is a crime meriting severe penalty. I therefore cannot give Mass Effect Invasion more than 2.5 out of 5 stars, which is a pity given how well it fared till then.

25/10/2012:
Bioware recently solved the mystery of Mass Effect: Invasion's lackluster ending by announcing the release of Omega, a Mass Effect 3 DLC. Apparently, you (as in, Commander Shepard in the single player campaign) are meant to help Aria take Omega back from Cerberus. For $15 you can find out how this comic should have ended; in the mean time, read here about this upcoming DLC.
At least now we know this whole comic thing was nothing but a prelude to us opening our wallets further.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Guantanamo: My Journey by David Hicks

Lowdown: A first hand account of David Hicks' life, including his Guantanamo ordeal.
Review:
Australians will not need an introduction but the rest of the world probably does. David Hicks is one of two Australians held by the USA at Guantanamo Bay's prison under terrorism allegations, having been caught at Afghanistan shortly after the events of September 11. Public opinion first had him a terrorist: that's what we've been told, a decent guy won't be hanging about at Afghanistan, and besides - the guy converted to Islam. However, as the years went by it became obvious the Americans are unable to put Hicks on trial; public opinion in Australia started to change. There was the feeling that something fishy is going on here, and that perhaps we are being tricked by the Howard & Bush Corporation. Then came the military trial that stunk of being rigged, after which that dangerous terrorist Hicks was finally brought to Australia - but only to serve a few more months at an Aussie jail. After his release he was still under orders to keep quiet, and only a while later could he start telling us his version of the story without the threat of penalization.
Or so he thought. Hicks wrote Guantanamo: My Journey, but shortly afterwards that book saw its own fiasco. Since terrorists are not allowed to make money out of their ill bearing acts, Hicks was not allowed to go on selling his book and make profits off it. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the government dropped the case against Hicks and his book was allowed to thrive (see here). However, one major question was not answered: if Hicks was indeed innocent, at least in the sense that his guilt could not be proven, then how come those that kept him in one of the most notorious jails ever for so many years are allowed to walk free? And if the case against Hicks has been dropped here, then why don't they just announce his innocence out loud?
Any way you look at it, foul play took active part in the life of David Hicks, his family and those who supported him along the way. It was time for me to read Hicks' version of the story by reading his book.
The first impression I got out of Hicks' tale is that the guy ain't no rocket scientist. That is no insult; I'm no rocket scientist either. However, his skills as a writer are obviously no match for, say, the language skills of Christopher Hitchens. This simplicity is projected in the story, too: we read about a young boy that dropped out of school at an early age and went looking for himself, doing things mainstream Australian teenagers won't be allowed to do. Things like going to work on remote Northern Territory farms, getting there in a wreck of a car without a license.
One thing led to another and our uninformed and extremely naive young Hicks decided his future lies with helping the cause of the oppressed in Kosovo. He flew there to volunteer to fight and took part in military training. His next escapade involved helping the oppressed in Kashmir, which saw him venture to Pakistan and become a Muslim. He didn't see real action at Kashmir, but instead ended up at the wrong place - Afghanistan - at the wrong time. Once again, Hicks' simpleton nature surfaces: he reports taking part in various forms of military training but claims to have never wished to be a terrorist or to harm anyone. I appreciate the thoughts, but let's be honest: what do people do at military training camps? Surely one cannot play with guns and such and still expect innocent consequences to follow. Hicks' case is even worse, because he politely avoids informing his readers about the scope of his training. The begging question is, does he have something to hide after all?
Maybe he does. However, as things stand, taking part in military training outside of Australia is no crime. I can vouch for that: I have done it myself while serving in the Israeli army. It is therefore pretty clear to me that whatever Hicks might have done - and he's in the same niche as virtually all young boys who do the silly act from time to time - he is still an innocent person. Definitely not a person that deserves the calamity that fell on him next.
Once caught at Afghanistan by the Northern Alliance, the story of David Hicks takes a different tone. Page after page, chapter after chapter, month after month and year after year we follow the tribulations of a young guy who is tortured by all sorts of sick means and sick minds. Most of this torturing is taking place at Guantanamo, and virtually all of it is at American hands. We are talking hundreds of pages of pure evil here: drugs, beatings, sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, starvation, medical testing - you name it and it's there. Of course, one can argue David Hicks is lying and his days at Guantanamo were spent playing card games by the swimming pool; however, there is too much evidence to support the hypothesis that at least the core of Hicks' story is, indeed, true. I allow myself to make this statement based on three arguments: the information that's easily available to any informed Australian, the various citations quoted in the book to prove the claims it makes, and the undeniable fact David Hicks was never convicted in anything but a kangaroo court (pun intended). A court the UK refused to endorse and a court that since Hicks' trial has been disapproved by the Americans themselves.
Let me make this clear. What we have in Guantanamo: My Journey is the tale of an innocent guy who has been picked upon by the most powerful nation on earth while his own government stood by and even supported the evil that took place. The question is, how could this have happened?
I would argue the Australian side of the story is fairly easy to explain. Australia considers its relationship with the USA vital for its security, as Australia lacks the means to protect itself from any worthy enemy (say, China). Australia would therefore go a long way to protect this special relationship it aspires to have with the USA; the life of one innocent person is nothing in the grand scheme of things there. Especially if that person has crossed the chasm and turned into that vile thing many pure blooded Australians [of Anglo Saxon origins] don't like to see in our fair land: a Muslim! It seems obvious to me this is the exact calculation the Howard government made at the time: it thought the public would accept the sacrifice of a traitor (in the sense of Hicks betraying Christianity). The fact Howard turned out to be wrong in his calculation is flattering, but only mildly so; the majority of Australians are still allowing the perpetrators of this cynical calculation game to walk free.
Guantanamo: My Journey is therefore a must read for all Australians: the lesson in citizenship the book provides, the tale of how each and every one of us may be sacrificed on some political altar, is something we all need to take in mind whenever the government wants to enact some unreasonable legislation or another. Just like the legislation pack that is now on the agenda, calling for all Aussies to be tracked online and over the phone - all the time.
If Guantanamo: My Journey is a must read for all Australians, just imagine how important a read it is for all Americans. If I was a citizen of the USA I would imagine having severe trouble sleeping at night knowing what is done on my behalf to hundreds of innocent people. And if the Howard government needs to pay for dealing one of its citizens away, what justice should we demand from the likes of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld? And what about Obama, who promised to close Guantanamo but failed to do so thus far?
Guantanamo: My Journey is more than just a book and more than just a personal account of a guy who has been wronged by people at high places. It is an indictment for the regimes we live under, proof of their innately corrupt nature. The message is clear: if we don't get our act together and do our bit as individuals, we should not be surprised to hear of another David Hicks. And another, and then another. Until, eventually, the next David Hicks would be me. Or you.
The film Schindler's List was marketed with a tagline along the lines of "whoever saves one life saves the world entire". The case of David Hicks demonstrates the exact opposite act can have the exact opposite result. A society that fails to grant justice to a single person is not a society worth defending.
Overall: Not the best written book ever, but one of the politically furthest reaching ones through the strength of its personal story. 4.5 out of 5 stars, and at the risk of repeating myself: a must read.
P.S. Through comments spread around the book, David Hicks managed to make me think about the odd case of Bin Laden and his execution by American forces. While I am not exactly losing sleep over the guy's death, I did and still do think it would have been better to put him on trial. However, Hicks raises a few points that made me think that perhaps, just perhaps, the USA preferred Bin Laden dead without trial because it was afraid of what he would have to say during his day at the courts. I suspect we will never know exactly what led the USA to prefer killing to a trial.
P.P.S. One does wonder what Bradley Manning is going through.

11/12/2014 update:
Of course, now we know that Hicks wasn't lying and that the CIA was torturing inmates. I wonder if Hicks will get a chance for justice with the courts; he's certainly trying.

23/1/2015 update:
Today we learned that even the USA government no longer claims David Hicks did any wrong.
It's never to early to look into how an innocent person was wrongly imprisoned and tortured!

19/2/2015 update:
Finally, the USA has declared David Hicks officially innocent.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Against All Gods by A. C. Grayling

Lowdown: A philosophical attack on religion’s position in society.
Review:
A tweet from Richard Dawkins alerted me to the existence of A. C. Grayling’s Against All Gods. Shortly afterwards I presented myself at Amazon and opened my credit card wide to pay $10 for this book to land on my Kindle. It was then that I noticed this book is very short, at about 600 Kindle paragraphs (something like 50 conventional pages?). This is no book; it’s rather a booklet, and the fact we are asked to pay a full ebook’s price for it when stuff of this length normally sells for $2-$3 under the emblem of “Kindle single” is outrageous.
Once I relaxed from this broad daylight robbery I was able to quickly finish reading the book and report I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn’t say it’s worth its asking price because I think it's hard to put monetary values on good ideas; I will let you decide on your position there.
Against All Gods is a book that tries to answer the question of whether religion deserves the place it has enshrined itself in our society. Given that A. C. Grayling is a famous atheist one does not need to resort to the supernatural to figure what the author’s answer would be; the beauty of this book[let] is in the way Grayling provides his answer.
The bulk of Against All Gods is a collection of several related essays, each attacking a different aspect of religion’s claims on our lives. The focus is entirely on social affairs; there is no attempt here to prove religion wrong ala The God Delusion, although it is clear Grayling is firmly in Dawkins' camp. Each of the essays is concise and also rather aggressive in its approach, which is where the beauty of Against All Gods stems from: while the arguments should be familiar to most atheists, the precision, sharpness and language used by Grayling are the cause of pure delight. It is rare to be able to witness arguments so well laid out with regards to anything, let alone the matter of religion. I would argue the last time I have seen arguments so well laid was in... The God Delusion. Reading Grayling here felt like listening to some of my most favorite music: things just streamed along in sheer delight.
Finishing things off is an essay set to a different mood, a positive one. Grayling presents us with his suggested fix for the disease of religion, humanism. Things are thus concluded on a high note.
Overall: A great read, well worth 5 out of 5 stars, that will definitely make me reach for more of Grayling’s on my bookshelf in the near future. Pity about the pricing, though.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Amped by Daniel H. Wilson

Lowdown: A person finds himself stuck in a struggle between regular people and those whose brains have been enhanced by computers.
Review:
One of my criticisms, for lack of a better word, towards Daniel H. Wilson’s previous book, Robocalypse, has been that its point is likely to be moot: long before computers and humans will start to physically contest one another, I foresee computers being integrated into us humans. That is, even more than they are now, when my smartphone is an integral part of my hand. Wilson seems to have heard me, and his latest science fiction book – Amped – talks about that instead. Only that Wilson opens my rather naïve eyes more than a bit: if I expected the integration of man and computer to be a smooth and welcomed one, then the realities of this world we live in and of human nature imply that this transition will not be smooth at all.
In our near future people with problems such as epilepsy or ADHD receive a brain implant – a small computer – that makes sure their brain is on track. That computer not only solves their health problems, it also turns them into geniuses in comparison to their peers. In other words, they are amped! Those regular people don’t like being overrun, especially not by those they used to recognize as weaker; a struggle ensues.
Amped explores this rather unsmooth transition through the eyes of a schoolteacher, Owen. First an amped student in his class jumps off to her death; then he finds out from his father that his own amp packs more than he had been led to believe. And then that father dies in a car bomb aimed at the facilities where amps are being “installed”, just as the US courts determine that amps have no human rights anymore.
What follows is an adventure story where Owen has to find himself, his identity in this world, and a way out for the country around him as it seems hell bent on a second civil war. The resulting story is open to interpretation in various ways: at its basic level it is a story about the struggle of amps for equal rights, a story not unlike that of Robocalypse’s. Alternatively, Amped offers us a story about a prosecuted minority and its abuse, a story not unlike what black minorities had to go through. Then there is the book’s clear attempt to use the core of the conflict in order to criticize contemporary American society and the way it goes about, particularly in comparison to the way Europeans societies go: to use the terms set forth in Twilight of the Elites, Amped is criticizing the American obsession with equal opportunities while totally ignoring the matter of equal outcomes.
The problem with those multiple agendas is that the result suffers from a mild case of neither here nor there. Couple that with a severe sag in the book’s “second act”, that’s made worse by a somewhat deliberately ambiguous way of describing events (a point on which I am sure many would disagree), and the result is a book I am somewhat hesitant to recommend. Amped is not the straight out action kick that Robocalypse offered; it tried to be more, and in many parts it is quite a page turner. I, however, could not avoid feeling it tried to jump a hurdle too far.
Overall: Amped puts some worthwhile ideas to the discussion board, but its execution is somewhat suffering. 3 out of 5 stars.