June 2019 gwern.net newsletter with 5 new essays; links on deep learning, history, technological/cultural evolution, & Scott Alexander; and 2 books & 1 movie review
created: 31 May 2019; modified: 21 Aug 2019; status: finished; confidence: log; importance: 0
This is the June 2019 edition of the
gwern.net newsletter; previous, May 2019/2018 summary newsletter (archives). This is a summary of the revision-history RSS feed, overlapping with my Changelog & /r/gwern; brought to you by my donors on Patreon.
In other news, I will be attending ISIR 2019 10–13 July 2019 in Minneapolis, and will be in Los Angeles on 6 August 2019.
- On Machine Intelligence (Second Edition), Michie 1986 (considerably less interesting than Donald Michie: On Machine Intelligence, Biology and More, and almost entirely obsolete; I continue to be mystified at how little interest Michie took in connectionism.)
- Waiting for the Wind: Thirty-Six Poets of Japan’s Late Medieval Age, Carter 1989 (a wide selection of lesser-known waka poets in Carter’s usual highly-readable translation, exploring the descendants of Fujiwara no Teika in their centuries-long battle)
I originally watched this in 2005 and was curious how much I recalled—turns out effectively none of it. I enjoyed it both times but this time, I think, I couldn’t help but notice the formal weakness of Hero in comparison to more rigorous films like Rashomon: the famous use of color to theme the scenes is slapdash, with no particular symmetry I could see, where a more skillful director would have used the color as more than decoration but to convey the epistemic status of scenes (eg blue for the first version which is a lie, yellow for the second version inferred by the Qin emperor, and green for the truth), and the plot is flabby, with entirely unnecessary elements like revealing that the protagonist merely fakes the death of his co-conspirators, which undercuts their sacrifice and leaves characters wandering around at the end, needing to engage in rather forced murder-suicide or just left at loose ends—like the first conspirator, Sky, who never shows up again, and I suppose we’re supposed to just imagine him like Fortinbras turning up at the end of the play wondering why everyone is dead and what happened. The impression one gets is that the melodrama is not thought through and the director wanted to use 2 stars again, so has them turn up again at the end thanks to the convenient faked-death plot device, only so they could then kill each other again like they already did in the fake story, at which point tragedy has become farce.
I was perhaps most surprised how blunt an apology for totalitarian dictatorship Hero is; I’d certainly appreciated that subtext the first time, but the second time I realized it’s not subtext but just text. The movie from start to finish is an apology for the Qin dictatorship and thus, inevitably, for the Chinese Communist Party. The protagonist is ‘Nameless’ as a belated victim of the Qin state, only realizing it long after being adopted; in this respect, he is like the Chinese people in general. As T. Greer puts it,
“Ye Fu’s challenge—and in many respects all of China’s—was not honestly facing his past, but simply finding it…for Ye Fu those ditches are not those of the nameless millions. These were ditches dug by his father and filled by his grandfather. The tragedies of the 20th century are his tragedies. He was born from the ditches–though he would not discover this gruesome truth until he was a grown man.”The Qin state is portrayed bluntly as a monstrous military machine made of men, industrialized, dark, with the court regulated and subdivided to the nth degree, full of cowardly soldiers & dehumanized courtiers, spreading suffering wherever it goes, casually butchering entire cities of civilians. The hero of Hero is a hero because after hearing a propaganda slogan ‘our land’ and talking to the Qin emperor & hearing his interpretation of some calligraphy, he gives up his successful assassination attempt and further, allows Qin to commit further injustice by executing him to uphold Qin law. The rather uncompelling argument being that national unity is more important than anything else, and one should sacrifice anything for it, for the most trifling of reasons, and anyone like Nameless or Ye Fu, who has been wronged, should simply shut up about it for the good of the Party. A puzzling message particularly given that while the Qin did unify that region and restore the unity of Zhou, their empire almost immediately collapsed and then had to be put back together by the Han. One would think the Communist Party would want to avoid such a comparison, particularly given further uncomfortable parallels between the Qin and Communist Party (eg their extensive censorship & influence operations and the ‘burning of books and burying of scholars’). But there it is.
I suspect, given the global loss of complacency about China under Xi Jinping, if Hero were released today, it would have a harder time reaching #1 at the American box office.