A star shines at the hour of our meeting

Friday, August 16th, 2019

Lee Pace, who played the elf king Thranduil in the Hobbit movies, tried to greet Stephen Colbert appropriately:

Netflix is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to produce big-budget films

Sunday, August 11th, 2019

Netflix is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to produce big-budget films:

Earlier this month, Netflix agreed to spend nearly $200 million to make the Dwayne Johnson action movie “Red Notice,” which will be filmed next year at exotic locations and also stars Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot, the people said. In addition, a person familiar with the matter said, Netflix plans to release later this year “6 Underground,” a Michael Bay-directed action film that is costing about $150 million, and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.”

The latter film might be the company’s riskiest bet. “The Irishman,” a historical drama likely to appeal only to adults interested in serious subject matter, costs as much as some all-ages action-adventure movies because of cutting-edge visual effects that allow stars including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci to appear at different ages. People close to the picture said Netflix’s total commitment is at least $173 million, with some going above $200 million, making “The Irishman” the most expensive adult drama in recent history.

Netflix has previously said about one-third of its total viewing is movies, rather than television series.

[...]

Netflix has been picking up many film projects Hollywood studios didn’t see as commercially viable at the box office, at least at the same budgets. Recent examples include Sandra Bullock’s post-apocalyptic movie “Bird Box’” and the jungle-heist flick “Triple Frontier,” starring Ben Affleck. Neither was a standout with critics, but “Bird Box” drew 80 million viewers during its first month and “Triple Frontier” has been watched 63 million times since its March release, the company said, making them Netflix’s first and fifth most popular original films, respectively.

Netflix bought the rights to “The Irishman” after major studios passed because of concerns that it was too expensive for a drama, a genre that has struggled at the box office in recent years. The producers were in the midst of raising independent funds to make the film when Netflix entered. “Without Netflix, ‘Irishman’ would not have been made,” said one of the people close to the movie. “I just don’t see [other] studios wanting to dive into these projects any more. I think they are staying away from the riskier, more mature films, especially dramas.”

The Duffer Brothers explain every major movie reference in Stranger Things

Saturday, August 10th, 2019

The Duffer Brothers explain every major movie reference in Stranger Things:

The dark side of Japan’s anime industry

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

According to this Vox piece on the dark side of Japan’s anime industry, animators there don’t make a living wage, despite being in great demand:

Shingo Adachi, an animator and character designer for Sword Art Online, a popular anime TV series, said the talent shortage is a serious ongoing problem — with nearly 200 animated TV series alone made in Japan each year, there aren’t enough skilled animators to go around. Instead, studios rely on a large pool of essentially unpaid freelancers who are passionate about anime.

At the entry level are “in-between animators,” who are usually freelancers. They’re the ones who make all the individual drawings after the top-level directors come up with the storyboards and the middle-tier “key animators” draw the important frames in each scene.

In-between animators earn around 200 yen per drawing — less than $2. That wouldn’t be so bad if each artist could crank out 200 drawings a day, but a single drawing can take more than an hour. That’s not to mention anime’s meticulous attention to details that are by and large ignored by animation in the West, like food, architecture, and landscape, which can take four or five times longer than average to draw.

[...]

According to the Japanese Animation Creators Association, an animator in Japan earns on average ¥1.1 million (~$10,000) per year in their 20s, ¥2.1 million (~$19,000) in their 30s, and a livable but still meager ¥3.5 million (~$31,000) in their 40s and 50s. The poverty line is Japan is ¥2.2 million.

[...]

Anime’s structural iniquities stem back to Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy and the “god of manga.” Tezuka was responsible for an endless catalog of innovations and precedents in manga, Japanese comics, and anime, onscreen animation. In the early 1960s, with networks unwilling to take the risk on an animated series, Tezuka massively undersold his show to get it on air.

“Basically, Tezuka and his company were going to take a loss for the actual show,” said Michael Crandol, an assistant professor of Japanese studies at Leiden University. “They planned to make up for the loss with Astro Boy toys and figures and merchandise, branded candy. … But because that particular scenario worked for Tezuka and the broadcasters, it became the status quo.”

How much work can a young animator produce in one year for $10,000? I’m tempted to come up with a project.

Storytelling begins with a kind of empathy

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

Storytelling begins with a kind of empathy, Neal Stephenson explains, in his conversation with Tyler:

I think that part of it begins with empathy because, in order to tell somebody a thing, you need to know and understand what it’s like to not already know that thing, which seems kind of obvious.

Little bit of a tangent here. For a while, my kid was on a soccer team, and we had a group of parents who would organize going to these different soccer games all over the city, each one at a different field. These different parents would write emails. This was before mapping systems were good, so parents would take turns writing emails, telling you how to get to the soccer field.

The range of skill was amazing. You would get people who just couldn’t do it, couldn’t make a very simple description of how to go from point A to point B, and others who wrote these amazing, almost like little short stories about it.

I started thinking about it then, and thinking that the thing that distinguished the people who were good at it was that they were capable of putting themselves in the shoes of somebody who didn’t know how to find that field and imagining what it would be like to try to navigate that route. And those people were good at it.

There’s no reason to trot out the old cultural chestnuts

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Screenwriter Tony Tost is spooked by how a living, breathing cultural memory is seeming to evaporate:

My pet theory is that the reason so many younger Americans have apparently no awareness of singers, movies, TV shows, or writers from before their teenage years is because their parents (my generation) have been over-indulgent in letting them only access culture that’s directly marketed to their age group. Streaming technological delivery systems probably contribute to this: for a lot of families there’s no reason to trot out the old cultural chestnuts because the newest freshest thing is right at their fingertips.

So it’s no wonder younger folks don’t have any cultural memory or taste for aesthetic adventure. In pre-school their parents played the most recent kids’ music in the car for them instead of the older music the parents actually wanted to listen to. And at home the kids only watched kid-centric youtube channels or superhero or Pixar movies instead of suffering through dad’s weird favorite old movies. So when the kids hit elementary school, they only have ears and eyes for whatever was being marketed to their age group that year. The same thing carried forth to junior high, high school, and beyond. So at what point would they have discovered who Akira Kurosawa or Billie Holiday or even Robert Redford might be? Every step of their development they’ve been trapped in the pre-packaged bubble of the new.

I think we deprive our kids if we don’t make them put up with listening or watching things that only the adults really like. Older and adult art forces them to get out of their comfort zone and deal with a little ambiguity and thematic density and encounter shit that wasn’t manufactured for their immediate effortless consumption. It might even make them develop what John Keats called “negative capability,” the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” With older art, they have to find value and pleasure in something that wasn’t necessarily made for them. I think that’s healthy as hell. And because it’s not happening very much anymore, I’m afraid we’re producing emptier, more fragile, less intellectually and aesthetically adventurous adults.

Why do you need to bring a clean-limbed fighting man all the way from Earth?

Monday, July 22nd, 2019

We waited 100 years for Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars to be made into a movie, and I waited another seven years for it to come to Netflix before checking it out. I vaguely recalled that John C. Wright might have a good explanation of where exactly it went awry:

John Carter is the prototype, archetype, and stereotype of what a earthling hero should be: stalwart, honorable, manly, devout, courageous to the point of recklessness, but carrying the civilized values of Earth to those older planets, like Mars, whose inhabitants of dry sea bottoms and super-scientific ancient cities have forgotten the finer and nobler sentiments of civilization in their eon-old decay, or carrying the civilized values of Earth to those barbarian and younger worlds like Venus, whose inhabitants of dinosaur infested and cave-men haunted swamps and cycad jungles have not yet learned them.

What John Carter is not, and never has been, is a reluctant hero, someone unwilling to fight. That point is emphasized over and over again in the books, even from the first scene where Carter rushes headlong into an armed Apache camp to recover the body of his friend, tortured to death at savage hands.

The book very carefully shows the progression from captive to war-leader among the barbaric and savage six limbed Green Men of the dead sea bottoms of Mars. John Carter, in one feat of arms after another, impresses the Tharks, obeys their savage rules and violent customs, and rises in their ranks, earning first their reluctant and then their enthusiastic respect.

Likewise, the savage calot or Martian dog Woola, Carter treats with compassion and respect, and wins the simple and savage creature’s simple and savage love.

One of the most touching and moving things of all, however, is the discovery of Sola, the one Green Martian women of all the race who knew the love of her mother and the identity of her father. It is carefully explained in the book that the Tharks and other Green Men raise their eggs communally, weeding out the weak ruthlessly, and distributing the hatchlings to nurses who have no motherly affection for their charges. The inhuman system breeds the whole race, deprived of family love, a deep seated cynicism, bitterness, and lust for death, an unparalleled savagery.

And John Carter from the outset of his advent on Mars is willing, nay, eager to fight to the death with a grin on his lips and a light in his eye, for trifles of honor or for the all-important love of his life, whom he loves at first sight, and awkwardly cannot bring himself to woo, the incomparable Dejah Thoris.

The one thing John Carter in the books is not, is unwilling or unready to fight.

The John Carter in the movie is so exactly opposite this that I was dumbfounded.

[...]

The notion of a reluctant hero is not itself a wrong notion. But it is so wrong, so very wrong, for the formula of a Space Princess novel.

Let me tell you the formula:

In a Space Princess novel, or a Planetary Romance, you take an Earthman who is supposed to represent every man, especially every man who feels hemmed in by the growth and overgrowth of civilization.

You transport him by plot device to an unknown and alien planet, but not a scientifically realistic alien planet, where he would no doubt fall over choking on methane gas or freeze instantly in sub-arctic cold, no, the planet, for some reason that need not be explained, is as similar to the ancient Rome or ancient China or ancient Babylon as you can possibly get away with, so that you can have opulently rich cities in one spot and barbarian hordes following herds of space animals covering countless miles of prairie or steppe. You can have rayguns or radium guns provided they are not the weapon of choice: the weapon of choice is the sword.

There is a princess, who is not merely gorgeous, she is the most beautiful woman on two worlds, and the Earthman, without knowing anything about the customs, rules, politics, wars, laws of physics, lay of the land, or whathaveyou falls instantly and totally and absurdly in love with her, and slaughters her enemies like a Cuisinart blender on overload, spraying gallons of blood and severed limbs in each direction. Space Princess is abducted, preferably by a blackhearted villain eager to violate her honor and marry her against her will, so the hero has all the most primal motivations every primate can understand.

There is one other element. The hero has to be an Earthman who is disgusted with the lack of honor found on modern earth, and who therefore fits in well, nay, fits in perfectly with the glorious barbarian codes of honor of the far world to which fate casts him.

Got it? Good. That is how you write a Space Princess yarn.

The one thing, I would say, the only thing, you cannot have in a Planetary Romance or Space Princess novel is a reluctant hero.

[...]

Unlike the real Carter, the movie version, whom I will hereafter call Anticarter, voices the cynical comment that the human race is corrupt, and is willing to jump through windows and turn horse thief to avoid a fight.

Because the movie makers have politically correct gunk between their ears instead of brains, when the Apaches do come on stage, a panicky White Man shoots one of them during a parley, thus showing the White Men are both cowardly, and dishonorable, and undisciplined, and the Injuns are the victims.

Well, at least the Indians get to kill a few White Men to show that they are not the helpless victims the PC niks would like them to be.

Once on Mars, John Carter spends half the film trying to go home, not because he had anything at home, but because he has found a cave of gold, and wants to return to his empty life and spend his money — perhaps the least noble motivation every devised in the history of moviedom for an alleged good guy. Even Han Solo the pirate had a bounty to pay off.

I forgave all my misgivings for exactly one second. When Dejah Thoris, her airship shot down over the Thark territory, falls screaming, John Carter, whose Earthly muscles allow him to make prodigiously superhuman leaps under the lesser gravity of Mars, leaps hundreds of yards to catch her in midair. Landing, he then faces the scores and scores of foes, places the maiden behind him, and says, “Stay behind me ma’am, this could get dangerous.” And draws his sword.

I swear my chivalrous heart swelled with pride to bursting. For a moment, I was deceived into thinking the movie makers actually understood and even liked John Carter and what he stood for.

It was as if I heard trumpets blare, and a voice call out: And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods? For thee, my princess crowned, this sword I lift, or this life lay down.

But, of course, it was a hoax, a joke.

Xena the Warrior princess, Amazon, the equal of any man with a blade, shoves the stoopid male chauvinist pig to the side, and with the same realism of a story in which a dainty female cheerleader tackles the biggest professional linebackers in the NFL, makes mincemeat in short order of the baddies.

The line is repeated later in the movie, when Dejah Thoris tells Steve Trevor (or whoever it was — it sure aint John Carter) to step behind him. This was gratuitous, just to rub my nose into the “PC-fact” that chivalry toward the gentler sex is stupid and ugly, and women are as tall, and strong and hairy and aggressive as men, and love bloodshed just as much.

And the line was repeated to emphasize the fact the Hollywood, and all right thinking people, mock and hate the notion that men want to protect our lady wives, mothers, sisters, and fair daughters from the misery and ghoulish slaughter of combat.

(Note on neologism: a “PC-fact” is like a “fact” in that it is asserted with every authority that can be invented or garnished, but unlike a fact in that it is not merely untrue, but a an insolent and deliberate opposite of the truth.)

Don’t get me wrong, Dejah Thoris in the book is no shrinking violet or fainting damsel. Barsoomian women always carry a dagger or a radium pistol, and are not afraid to use them, and there is at least one scene (it is Tara of Helium in CHESSMEN OF MARS) where a masher trying to impose upon the honor of the gorgeous half-unclad Martian princess ends up with the girl’s stiletto in his liver, dead in one stroke.

Martian women are not supposed to be weak sisters. They are “with your shield or on it” style Spartan women. But the Martian Men are supposed to be Spartans and Apaches, this is, the most ferocious fighting men imaginable, training in arms from before they can walk, and none of them dying of old age in bed. If you want to show a Martian princess slaughter a room full of blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers from France, fine, I’d believe that. But not fighting warriors of Mars from the blood-colored planet of the war god and emerging without a nick on her perfect skin or her hair mussed.

But, being a modern movie, there were females in combat, the very persons no real race dying of loss of planetary water would expose to combat. They were in the background and foreground of several scenes, well displayed in their bosom-shaped chest plates and a full head shorter than the male soldiers around them. Every time my eye fell on one, I was jarred out of the movie.

[...]

Again, don’t get me wrong: the Martial Maiden is a trusty, tried and true trope of the epic genre. From Camilla to Britomart to Supergirl, I have no objection to reading about or seeing cute little girls cutting heads and limbs off of men bigger and bulkier than they are. All I ask is that there be some explanation to overcome my suspension of disbelief. Let the girl have been trained by the Ancient Masters of Tibet, or a blessing from their father the war-god Ares or from the Primordial Slayer, or make her from planet Krypton (or Argo, if you insist) or give her a magical golden lance. Anything will do.

But if you make the Space Princess face a problem she can solve by herself, for what the hell reason do you need to bring a clean limbed fighting man all the way from Earth, across the abyss of space?

The marvel of advancing through life’s stations

Tuesday, July 9th, 2019

Much of our pop culture is made by and for folks who rate high on openness, the sort attracted to novelty — world travels, new drugs, and so forth — but not country music:

Emotional highlights of the low-openness life are going to be the type celebrated in “One Boy, One Girl”: the moment of falling in love with “the one,” the wedding day, the birth one’s children (though I guess the song is about a surprising ultrasound). More generally, country music comes again and again to the marvel of advancing through life’s stations, and finds delight in experiencing traditional familial and social relationships from both sides. Once I was a girl with a mother, now I’m a mother with a girl. My parents took care of me, and now I take care of them. I was once a teenage boy threatened by a girl’s gun-loving father, now I’m a gun-loving father threatening my girl’s teenage boy. Etc. And country is full of assurances that the pleasures of simple, rooted, small-town, lives of faith are deeper and more abiding than the alternatives.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

The top 20 most watched shows on Netflix include only a few “originals”

Monday, July 8th, 2019

I’m not sure I’d say that ‘Stranger Things’ helps illustrate the flaws in Netflix’s strategy:

Last year, Netflix shelled out more than $12 billion to purchase, license and produce content. This year, that figure will rise to $15 billion. It will spend $2.9 billion more on marketing. These costs come as Netflix is expected to report $20.2 billion in revenue in 2019, according to analysts surveyed by Refinitiv.

[...]

From 2012 to 2016, Netflix subscriptions in the U.S. grew about 5% each year and spiked by 10% in 2017. However, in 2018, domestic memberships only grew about 3.6%.

Internationally, Netflix has grown its subscriptions to nearly 81 million, up from just 1.86 million in 2011. Since 2015, the company has seen double digit growth in this area. Altogether, the company has just under 150 million subscribers.

Also, of the top 20 most watched shows on Netflix, six are “originals,” but only one of those are actually owned by the company, according to data from Nielsen and Pachter.

Top 20 Shows on Netflix in 2018 by Minutes

I knew I was odd, but I guess I don’t watch any of Netflix’s top shows.

How would fifty guineas for a night’s work suit you?

Friday, July 5th, 2019

I was listening to Stephen Fry’s narration of “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb,” when the young (unemployed) engineer at the center of the story was offered 50 guineas for a night’s work:

The guinea was a coin of approximately one quarter ounce of gold that was minted in Great Britain between 1663 and 1814. The name came from the Guinea region in West Africa, where much of the gold used to make the coins originated. It was the first English machine-struck gold coin, originally worth one pound sterling, equal to twenty shillings, but rises in the price of gold relative to silver caused the value of the guinea to increase, at times to as high as thirty shillings. From 1717 to 1816, its value was officially fixed at twenty-one shillings.

When Britain adopted the gold standard the guinea became a colloquial or specialised term. Although the coin itself no longer circulated, the term guinea survived as a unit of account in some fields. Notable usages included professional fees (medical, legal etc), which were often invoiced in guineas, and horse racing and greyhound racing, and the sale of rams. In each case a guinea meant an amount of one pound and one shilling (21 shillings), or one pound and five pence (£1.05) in decimalised currency.

One pound in 1892 has inflated to well over 100 pounds today, so 50 guineas would be worth over 6,000 pounds in 2019.

Lounging about his sitting-room in his dressing-gown, reading the agony column

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

I was listening to Stephen Fry’s narration of “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb,” when Watson finds Holmes lounging about his sitting-room in his dressing-gown, reading the agony column of The Times and smoking his before-breakfast pipe.

But what’s an agony column? A simple Google search gives this definition:

a column in a newspaper or magazine offering advice on personal problems to readers who write in.

Sherlock Holmes reads the advice column? Well, not so fast. Wikipedia briefly notes that it can refer to a column of a newspaper that contains advertisements of missing relatives and friends. I had no idea such a thing existed, but I can certainly see why that would draw the attention of the famous consulting detective.

The agony column did in fact originate with The Times. I found a collection of columns from 1800-1870:

Agony Column

I suppose a modern Holmes would check the missed connections on Craig’s List.

The true identity of this snake has been a puzzle

Monday, July 1st, 2019

I’ve been listening to Stephen Fry’s narrations of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I came to “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” where the murder weapon is — spoiler alert! — a swamp adder:

The name swamp adder is an invented one, and the scientific treatises of Doyle’s time do not mention any kind of adder of India. To fans of Sherlock Holmes who enjoy treating the stories as altered accounts of real events, the true identity of this snake has been a puzzle since the publication of the story, even to professional herpetologists. Many species of snakes have been proposed for it, and Richard Lancelyn Green concludes the Indian Cobra (Naja naja) is the snake which it most closely resembles, rather than Boa constrictor, which is not venomous. The Indian cobra has black and white speckled marks, and is one of the most lethal of the Indian venomous snakes with a neurotoxin which will often kill in a few minutes. It is also a good climber and is used by snake charmers in India. Snakes are deaf in the conventional sense but have vestiges to sense vibrations and low-frequency airborne sounds, making it remotely plausible to signal a snake by whistling.

In The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the deafness inconsistency (while not the others) was solved by Dr. Roylott (suspecting the deafness of snakes) softly knocking on the wall in addition to whistling. While snakes are deaf, they are sensitive to vibration.

Bitis arietans from Africa, Russell’s viper and saw-scaled viper also bear resemblance to the swamp adder of the story, but they have hemotoxin — slow working venoms.

The herpetologist Laurence Monroe Klauber proposed, in a tongue-in-cheek article which blames Dr. Watson for getting the name of the snake wrong, a theory that the swamp adder was an artificial hybrid between the Mexican Gila monster (Heloderma suspectum) and Naja naja. His speculation suggests that Doyle might have hidden a double-meaning in Holmes’ words. What Holmes said, reported by Watson, was “It is a swamp adder, the deadliest snake in India”; but Klauber suggested what Holmes really said was “It is a samp-aderm, the deadliest skink in India.” Samp-aderm can be translated “snake-Gila-monster”: Samp is Hindi for snake, and the suffix aderm is derived from heloderm, the common or vernacular name of the Gila monster generally used by European naturalists. Skinks are lizards of the family Scincidae, many of which are snake-like in form. Such a hybrid reptile will have a venom incomparably strengthened by hybridization, assuring the almost instant demise of the victim. And it will also have ears like any lizard, so it could hear the whistle, and legs and claws allowing it to run up and down the bell cord with a swift ease.

A tough-on-crime WASP using torture, intimidation, and surveillance to bring down a media-savvy terrorist

Friday, June 28th, 2019

What might be called “Nolan’s enigma” began in earnest with The Dark Knight — which involved a tough-on-crime WASP using torture, intimidation, and surveillance to bring down a media-savvy terrorist:

The Dark Knight Rises took things one step further with Bane, a menacing mix of Robespierre and Ruthenberg, whose pseudo-Marxist coup unleashes all manner of mayhem upon Gotham: banishments and public hangings, street brawls and show trials, and — in a scene lifted straight out of the French revolution — the storming of Blackgate (Bastille) prison.

Not to be outdone, Marvel soon embraced its own brand of post-9/11 conservatism. In every Avengers film, Joshua Tait notes, “it really is 1938….The threats are real and the Avengers’ unilateral actions are necessary” to protect life, liberty, and democracy. Each hero thus functions as a kind of Cold Warrior, standing athwart would-be despots and authoritarians, while their enemies function as bland, unidimensional cannon-fodder, a convenient narrative pretext for blowing things up. (To be fair, the bad guys usually do possess weapons of mass destruction; this is fantasy, after all.)

By 2018, however, Marvel had ditched the neocon agitprop and gone full paleo. Black Panther — which Slate described as “the most feminist superhero movie yet” — is about the hereditary monarch of a monoracial ethno-state that keeps immigrants at bay with a high-tech border wall and faces no economic slowdown because of it. In fact, Wakanda becomes the richest country in the world without any international trade whatsoever, all while maintaining traditional religious customs and above-replacement fertility rates — a kind of black Israel. (It does eventually reconcile itself to foreign aid under T’Challa, but not to immigration.) Trouble only begins when Killmonger (a foreigner) challenges Black Panther’s claim to the throne — not because he thinks the current occupant is illegitimate, but because he wants to use Wakandan technology to launch a global, race-based revolution, with no regard for national boundaries.

Then in Avengers: Infinity War, Wakanda opens its border wall and promptly gets invaded by aliens.

So perhaps it is fitting that Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel movie to end all Marvel movies, is even more Burkean — and badass — than its predecessors, a sustained cinematic rejoinder to everything Hollywood believes. If you haven’t seen Endgame yet — or if you take comfort in the delusion that Marvel is “woke” — stop reading now.

The only way to get good content out of the Internet is by having humans in the loop

Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, starts in the near future, where most of the Net has become a Miasma:

I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that’s not far off. We’ve turned over our perception of what’s real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they’re not scalable and if they’re not scalable they can’t make tons and tons of money.

The result is the situation we see today where no one agrees on what factual reality is and everyone is driven in the direction of content that is “more engaging,” which almost always means that it’s more emotional, it’s less factually based, it’s less rational, and kind of destructive from a basic civics standpoint.

[...]

I think the only way to get good content out of the internet is by having humans in the loop. The reason that social media systems are architected the way they are, as I mentioned before, is because humans are expensive and you can’t scale that kind of system to serve billions and billions of people. What that kind of implies is that if you did want a curated, edited stream, that you would have to pay for it.

So that means that access to that kind of higher-quality view of the world becomes a class-based situation where people who’ve got the money to pay for or partially pay for human editors and curators are getting higher-quality info, which I think is just a slight kind of magnification or intensification of the way things are now anyway.

(I’ve mentioned before that I have mixed feelings about most of Stephenson’s work.)

Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life

Tuesday, June 25th, 2019

Masha Gessen explains what HBO’s Chernobyl got right and wrong:

Before I get to what the series got so terribly wrong, I should acknowledge what it got right. In “Chernobyl,” which was created and written by Craig Mazin and directed by Johan Renck, the material culture of the Soviet Union is reproduced with an accuracy that has never before been seen in Western television or film—or, for that matter, in Russian television or film. Clothes, objects, and light itself seem to come straight out of nineteen-eighties Ukraine, Belarus, and Moscow. (There are tiny errors, like a holiday uniform worn by schoolchildren on a non-holiday, or teen-agers carrying little kids’ school bags, but this is truly splitting hairs.) Soviet-born Americans—and, indeed, Soviet-born Russians—have been tweeting and blogging in awe at the uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced. The one noticeable mistake in this respect concerns the series makers’ apparent ignorance of the vast divisions between different socioeconomic classes in the Soviet Union: in the series, Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), a member of the Academy of Sciences, lives in nearly the same kind of squalor as a fireman in the Ukrainian town of Pripyat. In fact, Legasov would have lived in an entirely different kind of squalor than the fireman did.

Herein lies one of the series’ biggest flaws: its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power. There are exceptions, flashes of brilliance that shed light on the bizarre workings of Soviet hierarchies. In the first episode, for example, during an emergency meeting of the Pripyat ispolkom, the town’s governing council, an elder statesman, Zharkov (Donald Sumpter), delivers a chilling, and chillingly accurate, speech, urging his compatriots to “have faith.” “We seal off the city,” Zharkov says. “No one leaves. And cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.” This statement has everything: the bureaucratic indirectness of Soviet speech, the privileging of “fruits of labor” over the people who created them, and, of course, the utter disregard for human life.

The final episode of “Chernobyl” also contains a scene that encapsulates the Soviet system perfectly. During the trial of three men who have been deemed responsible for the disaster, a member of the Central Committee overrules the judge, who then looks to the prosecutor for direction—and the prosecutor gives that direction with a nod. This is exactly how Soviet courts worked: they did the bidding of the Central Committee, and the prosecutor wielded more power than the judge.

Unfortunately, apart from these striking moments, the series often veers between caricature and folly. In Episode 2, for example, the Central Committee member Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård) threatens to have Legasov shot if he doesn’t tell him how a nuclear reactor works. There are a lot of people throughout the series who appear to act out of fear of being shot. This is inaccurate: summary executions, or even delayed executions on orders of a single apparatchik, were not a feature of Soviet life after the nineteen-thirties. By and large, Soviet people did what they were told without being threatened with guns or any punishment.

Similarly repetitive and ridiculous are the many scenes of heroic scientists confronting intransigent bureaucrats by explicitly criticizing the Soviet system of decision-making. In Episode 3, for example, Legasov asks, rhetorically, “Forgive me—maybe I’ve just spent too much time in my lab, or maybe I’m just stupid. Is this really the way it all works? An uninformed, arbitrary decision that will cost who knows how many lives that is made by some apparatchik, some career Party man?” Yes, of course this is the way it works, and, no, he hasn’t been in his lab so long that he didn’t realize that this is how it works. The fact of the matter is, if he didn’t know how it worked, he would never have had a lab.

Resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of “Chernobyl” imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable—and, in doing so, they cross the line from conjuring a fiction to creating a lie. The Belarusian scientist Ulyana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) is even more confrontational than Legasov. “I am a nuclear physicist,” she tells an apparatchik, in Episode 2. “Before you were Deputy Secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.” First, she’d never say this. Second, the apparatchik might have worked at a shoe factory, but, if he was an apparatchik, he was no cobbler; he has come up the Party ladder, which might indeed have begun at the factory—but in an office, not on the factory floor. The apparatchik—or, more accurately, the caricature of the apparatchik—pours himself a glass of vodka from a carafe that sits on his desk and responds, “Yes, I worked in a shoe factory. And now I’m in charge.” He toasts, in what appears to be the middle of the day: “To the workers of the world.” No. No carafe, no vodka in the workplace in front of a hostile stranger, and no boasting “I’m in charge.”

The biggest fiction in this scene, though, is Khomyuk herself. Unlike other characters, she is made up—according to the closing titles, she represents dozens of scientists who helped Legasov investigate the cause of the disaster. Khomyuk appears to embody every possible Hollywood fantasy. She is a truth-knower: the first time we see her, she is already figuring out that something has gone terribly wrong, and she is grasping it terribly fast, unlike the dense men at the actual scene of the disaster, who seem to need hours to take it in. She is also a truth-seeker: she interviews dozens of people (some of them as they are dying of radiation exposure), digs up a scientific paper that has been censored, and figures out exactly what happened, minute by minute. She also gets herself arrested and then immediately seated at a meeting on the disaster, led by Gorbachev. None of this is possible, and all of it is hackneyed. The problem is not just that Khomyuk is a fiction; it’s that the kind of expert knowledge she represents is a fiction. The Soviet system of propaganda and censorship existed not so much for the purpose of spreading a particular message as for the purpose of making learning impossible, replacing facts with mush, and handing the faceless state a monopoly on defining an ever-shifting reality.

In the absence of a Chernobyl narrative, the makers of the series have used the outlines of a disaster movie. There are a few terrible men who bring the disaster about, and a few brave and all-knowing ones, who ultimately save Europe from becoming uninhabitable and who tell the world the truth. It is true that Europe survived; it is not true that anyone got to the truth, or told it.