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A Swede in Germany

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Paul Carpenter’s further adventures / Follow-up: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As a brief follow-up to an earlier text and its addendum:

I have by now finished re-reading the two* sequels of “The Portable Door”, and find myself a bit disappointed: I read a number of Holt’s books around the time when I encountered “The Portable Door”, and found most of them low quality—funny, imaginative, and good for a one-off read to keep me entertained on a train, yes; Pratchett-level and strong candidates for re-readings, no. (I briefly visited his Wikipedia page, and he appears to be high on quantity, which might explain the quality.) “The Portable Door” was an exception, a level or two above the others. The first sequel, “In Your Dreams” kept quality up reasonably, but was a little too exaggerated in places (a common fault with Holt). The second, “Earth, Air, Fire and Custard”**, was back to his more typical level, including pushing the Paul-dying-and-meeting-Mr-Dao joke too far, having custard*** as a fifth element, having an entire dimension made of custard, and fiddling with time-lines and in-book continuity in a manner that did not make much sense. To boot, the third book appears to close the lid on a series that could otherwise have been continued for another few books, had he been more dedicated to quality—I would have enjoyed seeing Paul’s (now terminated) career at J. W. Wells unfold.

*With reservation for books that I am not yet aware of.

**I am not clear on why “water” was left out of the title (or why the comma after “Fire” is missing”). I could see an angle of wanting to keep the name short, but leaving “water” out makes it very weird, and opting for some other name entirely would have been a better solution. (Going by the contents of the book, “Custardspace” would have been a candidate, but more thought might produce a better suggestion.)

***Strictly speaking, something almost custard, but the difference is barely interesting.

A particular issue was inter-book continuity, where book 1 shows Paul (and girl-friend/colleague Sophie) hired for some set of natural talents, book 2 describes him as a multi-generation breeding project by his Uncle Ernie to combat one of the partners of J. W. Wells for the safety of humanity (resulting in said talents and, consequently, J. W. Wells’ interest), and book 3 suddenly gives co-credit to a God-like being who engineers Paul and Sophie to combat another partner… To boot, it is hinted that this being is Paul’s biological father, which would make half of Uncle Ernie’s project invalid. (You see what I mean about quality—he sometimes reaches a point where a parody of his works would be less absurd than the works themselves.)

An interesting aspect, however, is that Paul’s engineering and education to a considerably degree deliberately included loserdom and ignorance—to the point that he was artificially put to sleep during many school lessons. This book 3 issue explains e.g his ignorance of Chekhov, which I commented upon in my first text. (Because I had only read book 3 once, many years ago, I had no recollection of this. Moreover, this could not affect the identification issue for a first-time reader of book 1.)

As an aside, my addendum claim “[…] giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies […]” lacks in generality, because it only holds one view-point. Fear and danger likely works even better, e.g. when someone has the sword of Damocles hanging over his head for an extended time.* (Also good for creating suspense.) Similarly, I suspect that e.g. despair can be used decently for the same purpose.

*Most or all of these can be rephrased in terms of hope, but doing so usually misses the point. For instance, a fear that Voldemort will rise again is a more natural and stimulating angle than the hope that he will not. (In contrast, the hope that Harry will defeat him, should he rise again, will often be more natural than the fear that Harry will not.)

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July 30, 2019 at 10:41 pm

Addendum: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As I realized immediately after posting the previous text, I left out two important observations around Paul Carpenter.

Firstly, a reason why he comes across so negatively is what appears to be a deliberate portrayal as “loser”, for reasons of sympathy, especially with e.g. others who have trouble getting started in life. At the beginning of the first book, he has never had a serious job or girl-friend, has no higher education, has bad luck with his family*, etc.—and his prospects appear bleak in every area. The early scene with the job interview and its lead-up are clearly geared at displaying a feeling that he is out of his water.

*A possible injustice: his parents moved to the U.S. leaving him in London, poorly supported and having to forego university.

Secondly, giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies—have the reader hope with the protagonist. For instance, the early parts of the book already show him hoping for a job that he likely will not get and a girl that he likely will not get either. (But he does get both.) “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is possibly the paramount example of this with a hope for the impossible that is squashed, re-awakened, squashed, …, but ending with Charlie holding the Golden Ticket.

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July 25, 2019 at 11:14 pm

Identification and sympathy in fiction

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Re-reading Tom Holt’s “The Portable Door”, I ponder the benefits of having a protagonist that the reader can identify* and sympathize with—and how to best achieve them.

*In a stronger sense than a mere “I want the protagonist to succeed” or a superficial and generic “everyman” identification.

Here we have Paul Carpenter—a young man, making his first in-roads into working life and romance. So far, we have someone that most young men can readily identify with. Indeed, with minor modifications, so can many young women. Even the older generations can often look back and recognize certain situations, fears, naive mistakes, whatnot—especially, where romance is concerned.

However, over large stretches, I also find myself partially repulsed and repeatedly having thoughts like “How can he be that stupid!”—as I did even during my first reading as young-ish* man. Paul, at least by my standards, borders on being an idiot. The book is filled with examples of poor judgment, beyond what can be explained by e.g. stress and unusual situations**. To boot, he is horribly uneducated and ignorant, as exemplified by his being entirely unaware of Chekhov-the-playwright. No, I do not mean that he had failed to develop an educated opinion of Chekhov’s works,*** I mean that he genuinely had no idea that there was another Chekhov than Chekhov-from-Star-Trek … It is virtually impossible for me to truly identify with someone like that—and even having sympathies is often hard (but Paul overcame that obstacle).

*Going by a still present label on the cover, I likely bought the book in 2004, when I was 29.

**Note a number of in-roads that most young men do not encounter, including magic, goblins, and the eponymous portable door.

***Which was requested as part of a job interview—some questions of which were unreasonably tough and of dubious relevance to Paul’s application. For the record, I do not have such an opinion either: I read one or two of his works at a very young age, and have not gotten around to reading anything more in the thirty-or-so years since. Chekhov, however, remains one of the most influential and best known authors in the history of literature, and should be known by name by anyone past high school. (In fact, I have always assumed that Chekhov-from-Star-Trek was named as a joking reference to Chekhov-the-playwright.)

To boot, he is as assertive as a wet noodle, falls in love with and fails to pursue his closest co-worker, has more luck than skill, …

Still, I found myself enjoying the book immensely, even at what must be my forth or fifth reading. (But the last previous reading might be some ten years back, which lessens their impact.) This is not only a genuinely funny book, with dashes of excitement, romance, and whatnot—it also builds an interesting world, gives a depiction of office life that most of us can recognize in that simultaneously amusing and depressing Dilbert manner, and it left me starting on the sequel just a few hours after I had finished the first book.

This brings me to three more detailed questions (and at least partial answer attempts):

  1. How import are identification and sympathies?

    Certainly, they are beneficial, and there are some works that have left me cold because I not only failed to identify with the protagonist—I outright detested him.* However, mostly they are not necessary. In the case of some works (e.g. “Clockwork Orange”), the deviation might even be a positive, because it leaves the reader with more detachment and allows the exploration of actions and situations that are strange to the reader.

    *“Catcher in the Rye” is an excellent example—especially, because I have heard others base their enjoyment on how well they could identify with Holden. (Also see item 2.)

    If in doubt, I would likely go with sympathy over identification (as a priority for authors)—it could even be argued that the point of identification is to elicit sympathies. With Paul, e.g., I could see how his incompetence and weakness could create some amount of “pity sympathy”, and I have often made the observation that a character only took off after a tragedy/misfortune/injustice, as e.g. with Spike on “Buffy” after he (temporarily) ended up in a wheel-chair, saw Angelus take over his operation, became the butt of Angelus’ and Drusilla’s jokes, whatnot. Buffy, herself, serves as an example of sympathies-over-identification: a valley-girl with super powers—nothing like me.* Vice versa, too competent, successful, happy, whatnot characters often come across negatively, as with the “Mary Sue” type.

    *However, I did see considerable parallels with her mentor Giles, at least in his early portrayals. It should also be noted that there were some aspects of Buffy and her life that became more “identifiable” (for want of a better word) as the show and the character matured—if not to the point that identification could take place.

  2. If an author goes for identification (or, to a lesser degree, sympathy), what target reader should he imagine?

    For instance, I am very considerably above average in intelligence, and I have trouble identifying with stupid characters—but what about the readers who are less intelligent? Similarly: Will the jock and the bookworm see e.g. Harry Potter* and Hermione differently? What about those who liked “Catcher in the Rye” because they could identify with Holden? Will youthful naivete work as well on older readers as on younger?** Can the teenage reader feel for the old geezer? Etc.

    *I will use the “Harry Potter” books as my main source of examples, because they are sufficiently widely read (or the films watched) that the examples are likely to be recognized.

    **As a specific example, had I read “The Portable Door” at Paul’s age (20?), I would have sympathized very strongly with his romantic incompetence, because I was very similar at that age (“that is me”). Even at the time of the original reading, I had sufficient memories of those days that I could recognize the situations and really feel for him (“that was me”). Now, however, I mostly cringe (“I cannot believe that I once was like that”). Of course, the high-school studs might have reacted negatively from the beginning.

    The solution might be found in the ensemble, in that if a reader does not click with the one character, then there is a handful of other candidates. (Also note the boy-band principle of covering the bases sufficiently that every girl of 14 will fall in love with some member.) This can to some degree be applied to individual characters too, in that they have several aspects that allow at least a partial identification, e.g. in that someone is an orphan, a Quidditch star, and a hero. A more personal example is “Dexter”, where I was originally drawn to the series through the way Dexter has to put on a mask to blend in, something that I recognize very well from my own background (although the mask is different and I have gone to far less trouble, not having the need to appear normal to avoid murder charges). In contrast, I have very little sympathy for Dexter as a serial killer.

    Barring that, it might pay to “know the audience”, but I would likely recommend to just write something that the author, himself, would like to read (or would have liked to read at the right age).

    As an aside, it is not a given that an apparent good match will actually pan out. For instance, most portrayals of e.g. software developers tend to fail with me because I am a former software developer: I do not see another software developer in action—I see some acting caricature, clueless of real software development, often even of the basics of computers.

  3. What means are suitable?

    Some additions to what has already been implicitly covered:

    When you look for identification, make the protagonist a better version of the reader, the version of himself that the reader wants to be, the version that his younger self expected him to become, or similar. This because (a) most people view themselves as better than they are, (b) it is easier to mentally slip into a better version of something, (c) this opens a venue of “hopes and dreams” and “reality escape”. A particular trick is to make the hero good at something that the reader will not have encountered, where exposure to reality is a lesser threat (I would make a terrific Quidditch player and be great at magic, if someone just were to invite me to Hogwarts).

    Vice versa, when you look for sympathy, make him a lesser version, preferably one who is competent, intelligent, whatnot, but who has suffered a severe stroke of bad luck or, better, some great injustice, which has prevented the success that would otherwise have followed. However, even some personal deficits can be welcome, because it is easier to pity those that we can look down upon.

    Look for a means to get the reader into the protagonists shoes, even be it in just one aspect. For instance, as with Paul, a young person* who has problems with the opposite** sex through reasons like lack of self-esteem or the insight that said opposite also* has a very strong interest in finding partners—well that covers a major slice of the younger population, because it is a very familiar situation. Unjust treatment, again, is often a workable way, because even those who have not suffered the same treatment will almost always have (or imagined themselves to have) suffered some other major injustice—and even those who do not, can often picture themselves in the same situation, because it is not self-caused. (Harry Potter is a prime example, at various stages, including with his aunt and uncle, with Rita Skeeter, etc., but his situation might be over-the-top for an adult reader.)

    *Regardless of sex: The dual insight that many members of both sexes deal with similar problems and have a similarly strong interest in the area, is of fundamental importance to over-coming such issues.

    **I strongly suspect that the problems are lesser among homosexuals, both because they have a better understanding of the potential others, what they like and do not like, etc., and because a lack of reciprocated interest can often be written of as “is straight” instead of “does not like me, specifically”.

    Be aware* that strong opinions that deviate from the reader’s, actions that the reader would not take, and similar can be off-putting. Take particular care with politics, sexual acts, and the commitment of injustices. The latter, obviously, work both ways—they are good for the protagonist’s sympathy situation when they are committed against him, bad when they are committed by him.

    *Which is not to say that they should be avoided (especially, because keeping all the readers happy all the time would lead to extreme blandness)—just that the author should be aware of the risk and make a decision that takes the risk into consideration.

    Having someone strive for a second chance, redemption, forgiveness, or similar can be very helpful.* This too is a situation that many either know from own experience or can easily imagine themselves in. (Unlike unjust treatment, the situation is normally self-caused; however, there is always “I was mislead by others [who are to blame]”, “I am a different person now [blame the old me}”, whatnot.) Moreover, a reluctance by others to accept the attempts can be framed as an injustice.

    *But do not fall into the trap of making the enemy of yesterday the friend of tomorrow in a blanket manner. This even when it comes to popular-with-readers villains, because a good villain is a major asset.

Excursion on horror movies:
There is a stereotypical family of horror-movie reactions, e.g. “Why are you going out in the dark where the killer is?!?’, that are similar in principle to some of my reactions to some of Paul’s behaviors. Generally, horror movies contain a lot of stupid behavior that can sometimes get in the way of sympathies. For instance, if a protagonist has just managed to ambush the killer, has him on the ground, and could move in to finish the job with a baseball bat—why is the typical tactic to throw down the bat and run away, giving the killer time to recuperate? OK, if we are dealing with someone preternaturally resilient and dangerous, e.g. Michael Myers, I can see the point—but what about all those who are just someone with a knife? (Or those presumably just someone-with-a-knife, seeing that preternatural aspects are often only discovered through the course of the movie.)

Excursion on naive translations:
I recently observed that naive translations, use of synonyms, whatnot can be tricky. One of Holt’s books, likely the aforementioned sequel, contains an excellent example: One character is German and uses a lot of German words. At some point, she is (from context) supposed to say “third gear [of a car]” in German, which comes out as “drittes Pferdegeschirr”. The meaning of “Pferdegeschirr”, however, is the gear used on horses… Moreover, someone with even a basic grasp of German would not have made this mistake, because “Pferd” means “horse”. (The true translation would have bin “dritter Gang”.)

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July 25, 2019 at 10:53 pm

New vs. good and the difference between being new and being novel

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A note on an earlier discussion of new vs. good:

An aspect that I was not sufficiently explicit about is the difference between the newly made and the novel (the previously unknown/unseen/unheard of, whatnot). My text ultimately dealt with the difference between the newly made and the well made. (Where “made” might need a change depending on the exact items under discussion.) It does not oppose the novel, which is not only often a characteristic of quality products but can sometimes even legitimately trump quality.

A good example of the latter is my recent encounter with some works by Karl Kunz: Were his works among the greatest that I have ever seen? Did they make him worthy of being put on a level with the likes of Picasso, Monet, Rubens, …? No and no. They did, however, show me something that I had not seen before and they did open my eyes to some possibilities of imagery that were novel to me—thereby bringing me more value than spending the same amount of time on a few more Monets would have.

This also exemplifies that, from an individual perspective, the novelty of a work need not be global and that the novel is not necessarily newly made. (Kunz died in 1971, before my own birth.) Further, that novelty, by its nature, can be fleeting: later encounters with Kunz are unlikely to bring as strong a reaction—and even the works of the true greats loose in objective value over time, because their main impact on the development of art has already taken place and their global novelty is increasingly a thing of the past.

If we revisit my movie examples, there is rarely much novelty present. True, the special effects might be a little more spectacular and there might be some odd twist-and-turn not hitherto seen—but the rest is mostly the same thing over and over again. Indeed, looking at how the last one or two decades have been filled with re-makes, adaptions from other media, further installments of old franchises, whatnot, there might be more novelty to be found in older movies… Moreover, when it comes to just “seeing a movie that I have not seen before”, which is a valid wish, there are more older than newer movies to chose from. The reasonable conclusion is to go with quality over newness.

Looking at my own blogging (also discussed in the original text), I often do bring in something novel (compared to my own earlier writings). However, from the point of view of a random reader, any novelty in a text published today has no greater value than that of a text published ten years ago*—simply, because he is unlikely to be familiar with these earlier writings. Nevertheless, it is the new texts that get the most views—and often just for one or two days**. It is clear that newness is rewarded—not novelty.

*Indeed, with some topics recurring again and again, it is conceivable that I have grown less novel…

**The short interval of popularity (by my standards) also speaks against explanations like my potentially being a better writer today than ten years ago, or my writing about something more globally novel more often.

Remark on language: Due to the subject matter, I use “new”, “novel”, and their variations in strictly separated senses above. This is not necessarily the case in other texts.

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June 3, 2019 at 1:32 pm

Thoughts after re-watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Earlier today, I re- watched “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”, and found myself contemplating and meta-contemplating the Pearls’ change of life, the starting point being a scene where the originally extremely innocent Pearls break through a wall and attack everyone in the room—but do so using non-lethal weapons.

Going by the movie*, the Pearls started with an extremely low-tech, one-with-nature society, giving the impression of a Pearl being somewhere between an idealized Buddhist and a “noble savage”. An external event destroys their home planet and forces a small group of survivors to flight on a crashed foreign space ship (a very low-nature, one-with-technology setting). They spend a prolonged time learning how to handle technologies and develop new technologies with a Pearlish twist. They do not shy away from illegal black-market deals, or from bringing guns to such a deal.** They intrude on the normal functioning of the eponymous city, perpetrate the aforementioned attack, kidnap a military leader*** (Commander Filitt), cause a great deal of property damage, whatnot. This according to the principle “you have what we need”.

*Which need not have shown everything of interest and might e.g. have given a simplistic view of the pre-apocalypse life of the Pearls.

**Admittedly, a very important deal, central to their hopes of restoring their civilization.

***In their defense, Filitt was personally to blame for their apocalypse. On the other hand, I doubt that they knew this at the time, there being no obvious way for them to have such knowledge (I am uncertain whether the movie made some contrary statement, e.g. relating to psychic powers or extensive research); more likely, they were just looking for a bargaining chip, which caused an implausible coincidence.

Even so, they appear to have kept a pacifist core, tried to limit their activities to the necessary minimum, and (likely) saw their actions as a necessary evil.

Here a series of questions arise, the most notable to me being to what degree an individual, a group of people, or a civilization can ever go back to what it was before such a series of events, to what degree central parts of their being have been altered, and whether they are now better or worse than before. I will not attempt to answer these question, considering them more “food for thought” and an opportunity to see new perspectives of the world than something realistically answerable. (With the added complication that the Pearls are not human, implying that the answer for them need not hold for humans and vice versa.) I do point to some sub-aspects, however: (a) Strong parallels to the Garden of Eden and the banishment of Adam and Eve, where I have long tended not to see the banishment as a bad thing (cf. excursion); however, where the circumstances are sufficiently different that what is true for the one need be true for the other.* (b) The question of whether we are better of as children than as adults. (c) The degree to which we can, in a manner of speaking, switch context, personalities, whatnot.** (d) The effects of highly traumatic events and events where we might have to compromise our beliefs, reveal ourselves to be different than we want to be, and similar.***

*This includes the death of millions of Pearls, the actual destruction of the Pearls’ home-world, and the lack of culpability of the Pearls in their “banishment”. (Here other parts of Jewish history or pseudo-history might be more appropriate analogies, but they are less interesting on a metaphorical level. At the same time, it is interesting how this theme of loss, banishment, search for a home land, …, recurs. Following the hypothesis that much of the Tanakh was written during the Babylonian captivity, this might be explained by a focus on a then relevant theme—but the post-temple diaspora happened some six hundreds years after its end… As a clarification to any PC readers: With “pseudo-history”, I refer to parts of the Bible considered ahistorical.)

**Consider e.g. how the same man can be a war criminal and a loving husband and father, or, like Hitler, be a strong opponent of cruelty towards animals. Looking at less extreme examples, it is by no means rare that someone can not only have e.g. a work persona, a family persona, a out-with-the-gang persona, …, but a fully developed “identity” for each, moving well beyond the mask of a persona. Similarly, it is not unusual for someone to adopt different identities over time, with non-trivial effects on thoughts and behavior—another reason why identity politics is dangerous.

***For instance, when someone actively fights in a war.

Other questions include e.g. what might have happened, had events not resolved themselves, and whether the Pearls might have moved on to “harder” violence; to what degree a person/people can truly be pacifist* and whatnot, when later shown to be able to move even to actions like those of the Pearls; and how large the difference in principle between Filitt and the post-apocalyptic Pearls actually was (see excursion; but, to avoid misunderstandings, the Pearls are far more to my taste).

*I am not certain to what degree the original Pearl society should be seen as consciously pacifist (“we abhor violence”) and to what degree as innocent/naive (“what is violence?” or “what would be the point of violence?”). This can make a large difference when we look at this specific case, but does not affect the abstract question.

From a more “meta” perspective, I see an ever recurring observation repeated: It matters far less what one reads, watches, whatnot, than what is done with what was read, etc. Some material, undoubtedly, contains more “food for thought” than other, but this is of little import when someone does not think—and a good thinker can find interesting ideas even in apparently superficial material. Many of my own early (often superficial and undeveloped, yet valuable as stepping stones) insights into human nature came from watching “Friends”… This is also a major reason why the connection between being “well read” and being intellectually well developed is comparatively weak—having just read a large number of “great books” does fairly little for the intellect. Thinking about the books on the other hand… As corollaries, quality reading is better than quantity reading and quality reading than reading of quality books, and it is a bad idea to read a book just because it is considered “intellectual”. I read e.g. “Crime and Punishment” when I was around twelve—and it did nothing to enhance my intellect, because I did not have the tools and the understanding to do more than just read it.* I read “Nineteen Eighty-Four” at an even younger age—and based my then** strongly negative opinion on the lack of a happy ending… The sad truth is that some adults that pride themselves on intellectual reading have not progressed that much farther.

*Nor am I certain that I had any type of intellectual aspiration at the time: I just loved to read and one of the teachers at school handed me a copy.

**Today, I consider it a strong candidate for the most important book of the 20th century, and one of the few books that might actually deserve the label “mandatory reading”.

Of course, the reverse of this is that far from every insight found in a particular work was actually deliberately planted there. Consider the works of Shakespeare: Their great standing in terms of e.g. insight into human psychology is to a considerable degree rooted in the fact that so many minds have spent so much time searching for meaning. He might or might not have been superior to his contemporaries, but chances are that some of them would have an at least similar reputation, had they been exposed to the same scrutiny. Similar points apply to e.g. the Bible. (This is also a reason why I consider the naive search for symbolism in books dangerous—that the reader finds it does not mean that the author actually intended it to be there… Some books have it and an understanding the symbolism might be needed to truly understand the book; however, too many readers are under the misapprehension that symbolism is the A and O of reading and writing alike.)

Excursion on Eden etc.:
The traditional narrative is basically an ideal life, a crime/violation of trust/act of disobedience, and a resulting banishment into a worse life. I see several possible, partially overlapping, interpretations of the events as more reasonable/plausible, especially when we allow for an imperfect transcription of the actual* events, including e.g. the events being more of a young bird or young adult** (human) being kicked out to begin a separate life after having reached a certain degree of maturity; the eating from the tree inducing a change between two comparable states, one allowing a stay in Eden and the another requiring a move; and a less than exemplary God, who rejected Adam and Eve after they moved past the developmental stage that he had intended. To boot, there is always the interpretation of Eden as more of a state of mind than as a physical place.

*Under the arguendo assumption that the Bible is even approximately historically correct in this regard—I do not believe that Adam and Eve actually existed, and I suspect that the Pope does not believe it either, at this stage of Biblical criticism.

**I note the strong similarities with a child–parent relationship, the potential of a teenage rebellion, the obvious potential sexual interpretation of both snake and fruit, and the potential division into an innocent and non-innocent stage of development.

Excursion on Filitt and the Pearls in comparison:
Looking at actual damage done, the comparison is bordering on the ridiculous; and Filitt is far more ruthless than the Pearls. However, looking more at motives and principles, they shared a willingness to commit acts that others might consider wrongful in order to further the cause of their respective peoples, and both almost certainly considered themselves the Good Guys and fighting for a Greater Good*. We also do not know with certainty how they would have acted in transposed situations; especially when applying the psychological principle that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths a statistic, and when considering how different the respective stakes and means were.** By the same token, I cannot reliably predict how I would have acted if actually in the Pearls’ shoes, but from an “ivory tower” perspective I would have started with an entirely non-violent diplomatic approach with regard to the searched for artifacts, an attempt to get the legal authorities on Filitt’s trail,*** and/or an appeal to public opinion. If such approaches were tried by the Pearls, it is not clear from the film.

*A good example of why appeals to the Greater Good are dangerous and should be used only with great caution and great respect for the rights and interests of others.

**At least when we look at Filitt and the original apocalypse. The later events in the “city” are hard to see as more than self-preservation without a genuinely proposed Greater Good.

***Assuming that his culpability was known to them; otherwise, a more general target.

Excursion on reading material for precocious children:
The problems with reading “too adult” books too young are not limited to a mere lack of appreciation and benefit—it can also include exposure to material of a potentially harmful character: The too scary, too violent, too sexualized, … This only partly because of the risk of a direct negative influence*, but also because of the incomprehensibility of too many events that are easily understood by someone older. I can e.g. recall my first contact, at a very young age, with the word “condom” (resp. the Swedish “kondom”): A teenage couple was talking to each other, the boy pulled a carton (“kartong”)** of condoms out of his jacket, and the girl expressed a considerable reluctance—teenage stereotypes 101. I was so ignorant of related matters that I focused on “carton”, pictured the thing I associated most strongly with this word, a carton of corn flakes, and was highly confused—starting with the question how he had managed to carry it in his jacket… Such lack of comprehension can, in it self, cause a feeling similar to some night-mares when prolonged.

*Which I recognize, but where I do not want to call for a moral panic: Being too strict is just as bad as being too lax.

**Note that in an English text the words used or associations present might be different.

On the other hand, material that is “age appropriate” is also usually so much shorter, using so much simpler language, whatnot, that a precocious reader risks being severely understimulated. To boot, a parental ban on certain books will likely do more to increase interest than prevent reading…

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August 27, 2018 at 6:36 pm

A few points concerning the movie “Anon”

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I recently watched the movie “Anon”, which follows a police detective working in a police system (and society in general) highly dependent on implants that capture and modify the visual* impressions of the populace—like a mixture of “built-in” smart glasses and some of my own satiric suggestions ([1]).

*I am uncertain to what degree other senses were involved.

While the movie as a whole is not that great, it demonstrates several conceivable future dangers.

Of these the possibly most noteworthy are those present in [1]—or how a state like that could come into being*: Take “smart glasses”, make it an implant, connect it to the cloud, allow the police increasingly greater access to that cloud or even the implants themselves, and a nightmare scenario could very easily manifest it self.

*The movie it self gives no (in universe) historical background; however, the speculation is fairly obvious.

Another issue touched upon repeatedly in my own writings is the low value of digital evidence: Whatever is stored*, transmitted, replayed, …, digitally can be manipulated, usually very easily, in order to give an incorrect impression. This applies not just to obvious items, e.g. entries in the access log of a server or the presence of illegal contents on a private hard-drive, but increasingly extends even to e.g. video capture**. Even the (extraordinarily naive and absolutely intolerable) assumption that law-enforcement personnel would never manipulate evidence is not enough to remedy this problem, nor is the strictest tracking*** by “chain of evidence”, because there is no guarantee that manipulations have not taken place through a third party.

*There is an availability of write-only storage that to some degree could remedy this. However, this presumes that write-only storage actually is used (which can be impractical for e.g. cost reasons and the inability to re-use storage); does not help against manipulations during retrieval of the data; and can be circumvented by simply copying the one write-only storage unit to an identical unit, making only the wanted modifications, and then proclaiming the modified copy to be the original.

**To achieve sufficiently high-quality manipulations or forgeries today is rarely practical. However, at the rate CGI has advanced over the years, we will eventually (likely: soon) reach a point where anyone with even a semi-powerful enemy could be at risk. (Whether we ever reach a state where a single skilled individual can achieve this with at most a few hours work, as implied in the movie, I leave unstated. However, given enough time, that too might be the case.)

***Especially since such tracking would almost certainly be largely digital…

Anonymity and privacy, even outside police work, is another important theme (as might be surmised from the title): Walking along a street and being able to see the names, occupations, whatnot of the other pedestrians might be interesting and useful—but the same applies in reverse. I, myself, certainly would not be comfortable with that. Extrapolate it a bit further, and assume that (drawing on the current U.S.) someone who once was caught peeing in the park has a “sex offender” sign displayed over his head, or that (drawing on Nazi-Germany) Jews, homosexuals, whatnot come with their own warning signs. What if a direct connection with e.g. a Facebook account is made, and passers-by can extract almost arbitrary information, e.g relationship status, at will? Recall e.g. a recent assault over a mistaken identity; or note how easy it is for someone rooting for the wrong team or supporting the wrong party to be beaten up, if encountering the wrong crowd—or consider how information on income can affect the risk of being robbed or pick-pocketed.

From another perspective, consider the ability to replay the capture of previous sights—including e.g. love making. We could argue that that which we have once seen should be ours to see again—and I would mostly agree. However, it is easy to find special cases where this is highly disputable, e.g. when someone accidentally walks in on someone else who is having sex or otherwise being naked: It would not be unreasonable for the observed party to demand a deletion. Certainly, a kept recording might give far greater opportunity of observing details than the original (typically) brief flash. Similarly, there is a wide consensus that filming sex with a partner without consent is unacceptable—but what happens when everyone has a built-in camera? To boot, others can wish for even stricter criteria—I have, e.g., seen the opinion (but disagree) that even consensually filmed material must be destroyed after a break-up or that voluntarily given intimate images must be returned.

These problems are by no means limited to physical acts and nakedness: Consider e.g. the ban on cameras (including on cell-phones and notebooks) in many offices and factories. Or consider someone having a private conversation on which a third-party can now far more easily listen in*.

*An early scene showed even the near-inaudible dialogue of some passers-by being translated directly to text.

Alternatively, consider the invasion of privacy implied by a spouse’s or parent’s request to see a certain section of recording (“Where were you last night?!?”)*: Show it and lose privacy; do not show it and the worst will be suspected. (A similar situation is discussed in a text on lies under oath.) An interesting twist is provided by two (real life) parents who are repeatedly in the news for trying to get access to a deceased daughter’s Facebook account: What if this scenario is replaced by parents/spouses/children/whatnot who gain access to their deceased children’s/spouses’/parents’/whatnot implant data, including extensive recordings?

*It is my strong personal belief that even children relative their parents and spouses relative each other have a right to a considerably degree of privacy; however, even those who do not (e.g. an over-protective parent or a wife who fails to understand that the members of a couple are still different people) must realize that there can be areas where a legitimate need for such privacy can exist: Not everything that the one party wants to keep secret is necessarily harmful to the other, morally wrong, or susceptible to the (pseudo-)argument “the innocent have nothing to fear”. Consider e.g. a husband giving a female friend some help strictly for reasons of friendship, and a wife who has a history of jumping to (incorrect) conclusions about cheating.

Then again, we have anonymity (respectively lack thereof) in the frame of police work. I have earlier (notably in [2]) objected to e.g. computer searches for reasons like the presence of highly personal material and private information, as well as the risk that material that in theory would only be accessed by the police might leak out. What if the information collected includes basically everything seen or done by someone? (Including sex acts, intimate conversations, confidential business meetings, …)

Then there is the issue of hacking and security: Not only does this provide yet another channel through which private information can leak, but it also adds the risk of damaging interventions. For instance, the movie showed examples of visual input being sufficiently manipulated, in real time, that the victim could not rely on his eye sight. With this level of technology, it would be easy to e.g. have someone just walk into oncoming traffic. However, even with abilities more realistic by today’s standards, great harm can be caused, e.g. by having textual information altered to imply that another party is sleeping with the own spouse. Looking at self-driving cars, with similar vulnerabilities and a greater current realism, we could have a hostile entity manipulate a car into taking actions that lead to a car crash, a run-over pedestrian, or some other calamity. (See also e.g. [3].)

On the other hand, if external access is technically and legally sufficiently limited, there can be a great upside to some of the technologies. Consider e.g. re-running a business meeting or a lecture to refresh a failing memory; re-living an enjoyable moment; or (most enticing to me) re-visiting a portion of prior life to have another look at how things were back then or how one has developed or not developed, what lessons can be drawn and what could have been done differently, etc.

As an aside, it is depressing that while we live in a time when privacy and anonymity are more urgent than ever before (for the simple reason that they are so much easier to violate), legislation and other “government behavior” shows a broad trend towards weakening both. The fear of terrorism and organized crime makes this partially understandable; but not only do the “big bads” have far greater means to circumvent such legislation than the average citizen, the measures are often obviously intended against crimes of any kind. Both these factors point strongly towards the damage done being greater than the benefits gained. What we need is the reverse trend—and this not only with regard to the government, but also to strengthen protection against e.g. profile-building private enterprises, for instance by making it possible to order even physical to-be-delivered goods (close to) anonymously and by removing antiquated laws like the German requirement for a hotel guest to register with full and real name and address.

Written by michaeleriksson

June 30, 2018 at 12:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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A few thoughts on The Last Jedi (Star Wars Episode VIII)

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Having written a very negative review of the previous installment, I did something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: I decided to not watch the latest “Star Wars” sequel: The Last Jedi.

Out of curiosity, I did read the Wikipedia page earlier today. A few notes:

  1. The plot does not appear to be an improvement over the previous movie or to add anything original. (I note that one of my criticisms of he Episode VII was too much imitation of the older movies.)
  2. Luke gets more screen time in this movie, but part of this screen time consists of his death…

    Already last time around, I wrote “this is a liberty that a non-Lucas movie should simply not have taken” with regard to Han’s death—and now they kill off Luke Skywalker!?!?! Watch your back, Santa Claus—you are next!

    Seeing that Carrie Fisher has died in real life, this movie is also likely the end of the line for Leia. With that, the remaining connection to the older movies is only Chewbacca and the droids. (Or do I overlook someone?)

    As to the screen-time issue, it is hard to judge the amount from Wikipedia, but I would speculate that Luke’s is still comparatively short. Leia “is incapacitated” early on and, while she reappears in the text towards the end, her part is likely quite small.

  3. A major plot-point appears to be a mental connection between Rey and Kyle, leading to them briefly becoming allies and Kyle killing Snoke instead of Rey*, extending mutual offers of “join me and …”, and then parting as enemies.

    *Paralleling Vader and his killing of the Emperor instead of Luke. Sigh…

    Not promising. I note that my review of Episode VII said

    For the future, I just hope that there will be no absurd surprises like Rey being Kylo’s long lost sister or the daughter of Luke (hackneyed beyond belief), Rey being the true “chosen one” (invalidating the previous movies entirely), Kylo’s master actually being Luke using some form of projection, or similar. If any of that happens, well, then the film makers should simply be lined up against a wall and shot for criminal incompetence.

    This goes some way towards an “absurd surprise” in its own right, and it actually makes the sibling connection somewhat likely.

  4. Rey again beats Kyle in a fight, to which I re-iterate my criticism that

    The film-makers fail to understand that a villain that is too easy to defeat (and, vice versa, a hero that is too strong) is a liability. A good story has the hero winning despite being weaker, outnumbered, or otherwise having the odds against him/her. when the hero suddenly proves to be the stronger and the villain turns into an easy target (never mind a snivelling loser like Kylo)—that is just pointless.

As for the planet Ahch-To, I can only say “Gesundheit”.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2017 at 11:27 pm