January 2020 news

January 2020 gwern.net newsletter with 5 writeups, and links on AI scaling, videos-for-cats, and art; 1 book and 1 opera review.
newsletter, opera
26 Dec 201901 Jul 2020 finished certainty: log importance: 0

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  • An Introduction to Japanese Court Poetry, Miner 1968 (a short textbook I used years ago in writing & ; a whirlwind tour of court poetry from the to Shōtetsu. It is not remotely as thorough as his main textbook with Brower, Japanese Court Poetry, but is not intended to be: Miner profiles the major poets and offers commentary on a few key poems, trying to bring out the esthetics, and convey to the reader, assumed to be a student, what there is to appreciate about traditional Japanese court poetry—a genre so easy to bounce off & write off as painfully plain prose sentences. He does a reasonable job in this, although I increasingly find his translations to be a little too wordy & explain too much.)



  • Entertainingly ironic backfire. (1988; film)

    I enjoyed , and They Live was the next-most famous Carpenter movie.

    TL expresses the in a package justly made iconic by its thrifty but effective use of special effects: the protagonist flips between social consensus and a monochrome Art Deco-esque reality revealing 1984-like slogans painted everywhere by the secret alien masters of the world, which brainwash everyone (even though such priming ads , it at least makes a great metaphor). The pace is perhaps unnecessarily slow, and I had to wonder why a fist fight implausibly takes up several minutes—it’s a great fight, but it has little to do with the rest of the movie and requires the characters to act stupidly. The overall plot is reasonably straightforward and doesn’t need to invoke too much plot armor to explain how the aliens are defeated. I would not say it was as good as The Thing, but few movies are, and this was reasonably entertaining. TL did give me some food for thought, however.

    TL takes pains to make clear its liberal credentials: if you somehow missed how Reaganism was responsible for everything bad in America and growing slums and homelessness, it shows an alien on TV giving Reaganesque speeches. ( for Carpenter’s hamartiology, it puts heavy stress on homelessness as criticism, and yet, where is homelessness the worst now in the USA? Those places Reagan is most hated, like the Bay Area. Another irony is that in depicting the 1980s, it reminded me chiefly of how poor 1980s America was in comparison to now, which can be seen in how crude and limited are many of the things then : it’s not just the aliens sporting advanced wristwatches which are little more than two-way radios, but also the shabbiness of cars, the terrible TVs everywhere, the limited selection in the upscale grocery store he confronts the aliens in…)

    But there’s something about this that began to bug me. Consider this 100% accurate description of TL’s world-building:

    “America, and the world as you know it, is not controlled by people like you—but by an alien race of invaders, parasites from far away, who have secretly wormed their way into our society and taken it over relatively recently. They hunger only for money, and have little genuine culture of their own, assimilating into yours to pass as one of us, despite their distinctly different (and often repulsive) facial appearance. They are few, but they are well-coordinated, highly intelligent, & technically adept and they occupy the heights of business, finance, politics, and media, from which they constantly beam out propaganda to delude the masses that threaten them, and which allows the parasites to execute their globalist free-trade agenda: to accelerate economic growth, homogenize the world under one government, drain us dry, discard the empty husk, and move on. Given enough strength of mind, some individuals can overcome the brainwashing, or they can use advanced new technology to learn the truth and see the world with moral clarity in black and white, for what it really is, and the coded commands from the aliens. Unfortunately, those of us who discover the truth, alerted by a , are either bought off by money & power (the aliens assume we are just as craven as they are, and are all too often right), suppressed as evil crazy ‘conspiracy theorists’ when our late-night broadcasts sometimes get through uncensored, or if they take action and try to defend us against the invaders, executed as ‘terrorists’. Organizations which resist are crushed, and infiltrated with traitors in the pay of the aliens. Their weakness is, however, they are cowardly, physically weak compared to our strapping working-class soldiers, and vastly outnumbered by the rest of us. If we can recruit enough ‘strong men’ and awaken the masses, we work together to defeat them and restore America to its former glory, and send the aliens back whence they came—the planet Zion!”

    OK, OK, I made one change there: Carpenter doesn’t name any alien planets. But everything else sounds straight out of far-right fantasy: there’s even black sunglasses as the initiation instead of red pills. (Perhaps the sequel can use fedoras.) I thought perhaps I was being silly, until I looked at the Wikipedia article and found that this is such a common interpretation of TL & so popular among neo-Nazis that Carpenter has angrily denied it!

    Now, of course, I believe Carpenter when he says he didn’t have that in mind and only intended a critique of Reaganism. But the more interesting questions here would be: how could Carpenter make a film which is so naturally and so easily misread in neo-Nazi tropes to the point of making one wonder if Carpenter drunkenly dictated the screenplay while clutching a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in one hand & Mein Kampf in the other, without ever realizing it? And what does this blindness mean?

    It looks to me like an example of ‘horseshoe theory’: the reason Carpenter’s TL can be so misread is because extremists on both ends of the spectrum are more alike than they are different—embracing a paranoid conspiracy theory explanation of the world, merely playing Mad Libs with the labels. They Live, accidentally rather than deliberately, demonstrates the same thing as or : the flexibility of the paranoid style in enabling extremists to accommodate both anti-Reaganism & anti-Semitism is not a merit but discredit (much as discredits him).

    Extremists are like tribesmen out of an anthropology ethnography: everything bad that happens is due to “witchcraft”; people never get sick because of chance or because some pork went bad, and if some are healthier or sick, richer or poorer, it definitely has nothing to do with individual differences, but malign trafficking with the ruinous powers. Once you postulate that all existing social ills can be explained by witchcraft, you will go looking for witches, preferably fellow tribals who aren’t as equal as others and should be taken down a notch in the interests of hardwired (pace 2004 Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology), and whether those witches are Jews or capitalists or cishet white men, witches must be found and found witches will be. To fill the hole in the extremist worldview, by working backwards to ‘save the appearances’, they must have certain powers, they must be numerically minorities, they must be motivated by lurid impure things like money (surely we have more sacred values), and so on. And the result is that you try to create a critique of Reaganism, by depicting your paranoid worldview where Reaganites are the witches, but your witches’ allegorical coating happen to superficially resemble a different set of witches and hey presto, you accidentally created neo-Nazis’ favorite allegorical movie. Oops.

    The problem here, such as it is, comes well before any specific choices by Carpenter to portray the aliens as ugly or as rich corporate executives…

  • Failed anti-war opera. (; , ).

    A relentless crashing bore and a third-rate being crammed into an anti-war mold. I was left wishing it was either much shorter or much longer. The production absolutely hammers in the WWI kitsch theme, and the reviews praise its ‘searching criticism of militarism’ or whatever in driving the titular Wozzeck to madness and murder—except the text and events don’t support that in the least. It’s unclear if Wozzeck has so much as even been to a war, much less it had anything to do with his problems; the ‘sadistic’ (in Wikipedia’s description) townspeople act quite normally, Wozzeck’s captain comes off as a quite nice chap, and even the mad doctor running medical experiments on Wozzeck wants to do nothing worse than diet experiments which entail stuffing him full of beans & mutton. Marie is hardly threatened by starvation as she shows off her new gold earrings (shades of ), Wozzeck himself seems well off, with so few official duties he can do all these part-time jobs, and as he lives in the barracks and presumably the Army feeds him, he is hardly in any danger of starvation or homelessness. Wozzeck doesn’t seem tragic or noble so much as a rather dimwitted Charlie Brown unable to understand his problems, such as what looks like schizophrenia, but still trying to live up to various obligations he (entirely unnecessarily) took on. If Wozzeck had gone for more of a Catch-22 or Agrippina approach, perhaps it could’ve worked, but then it ends in a grim-dark derp-serious ending.

    The production relies heavily on gimmicks. Dressing everyone up as cripples or in gas masks is cute the first time, as are the eccentric Monty Python-style clipshows—except they are done again and again and again, without any rhyme or reason. The video clipshow is beamed onto the stage endlessly, and could be useful, similar to the projections used in , except it never seems to connect with the action! What does any of this have to do with militarism, or WWI, or anything? A similar point can be made for the choice to close with Wozzeck’s bastard being played by a puppet with a gas mask head, much like the bastard in , except while there using a puppet instead of a child actor was interesting and cool for how well the puppeteers interacted with Butterfly, here it is just pointless. The production seems particularly dumb when, checking Wikipedia’s plot summary, I see that it just hacked out various connective tissues, like why he drowned himself (paranoia in trying to retrieve the murder weapon), or that the captain/doctor were supposed to see him drowning while the production just has them wander by wondering about an odd sound and anti-climatically leaving.

    Relentlessly crashingly dumb, with no good parts, and the worst Met opera I’ve seen so far—this was the first Met HD broadcast I was seriously tempted to get up and walk out early, even after telling myself it was only about an hour and a half. , , and all had some weaknesses, but also had their strengths, and I never thought of leaving early. I don’t know if Wozzeck is normally this bad, but this production certainly was bad in its crudity and illogic. On the bright side, the 2020 operas can only go up from here!