Thursday, August 18, 2005

Muslims respond to London bombings

(Note: Originally posted on 7 July 2005 to Yes, I'm a little behind in my efforts to keep this blog synchronized.)

News of the bombings in London swiftly spurred ignorant and prejudiced responses from some people in the Western world, even as most retain their humane and intelligent sentiments despite the terrorists' efforts to goad us all into blind hate and fear.

A few uninformed people still claim, incredibly, that they have not seen any Islamic leaders condemn such attacks. Therefore, they claim, all Muslims somehow support the terrorists, and share the blame for the depraved actions of a few. Here are some facts for the benefit of people who have not yet surrendered all their brain cells to ignorant hatred.

Reuters reports UK Muslim leaders call for prayers for bomb victims.

BBC News informs us Muslim leaders join condemnation of the attacks.

As London's own Financial Times explains, far from enjoying any broad popular support in the Islamic community, Fanatics realise worst fears of Muslims.

In one of many statements that give the lie to any claims of Muslim complicit silence, the Financial Times quotes a prominent Muslim leader.

Iqbal Sacranie, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, which has emerged as the main body representing Muslims, said: "We utterly condemn the perpetrators of these co-ordinated attacks in London. We express our deepest sympathies with the families of the victims and our prayers are with them."

Closer to the heartland of the Islamic world, Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper patiently explains Why the bombings in London are not the work of 'Islamic' terrorists.

In the very birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia's Arab News quotes several Muslims, including ordinary businessmen and students along with Islamic community leaders, who no more support the terrorists than the British citizens living in Saudi Arabia do. Citizens, Expats Condemn London Blasts. In its editorial stance, the same newspaper eloquently states:

Their bombs destroy not only innocent lives but any possible claim they have to be taken as anything other than bloodstained criminals.

In this brief survey, let's not forget the famous Arab news source Al-Jazeera, where we learn Muslim leaders condemn bloody attacks on London, and in a related story, that Muslim scholars ban killings in name of Islam.

If these sources are not enough to convince, find out for yourself. Take the time to meet some of the real Muslims who live near you. Most people in North America and Europe now live close by moderate and peace-loving Muslims who want to see terrorism defeated just as badly as their neighbors who are Christian, Jewish, of any other faith, or of no faith at all.

There is no longer any excuse for continuing to live in ignorance, especially now when it can only fuel the destructive fires of hatred and fear.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Review: Land of the Dead

Note: this is a spoiler-free review.

The inventor of the modern zombie movie has come back, to prove nobody else can do it quite the way he does.

It's arguably true that other horror filmmakers might make their zombies more gross, or more evil, or faster-moving. But all their zombies lack a certain purity of purpose found only in a George Romero zombie.

In Romero's films, zombies are a natural disaster, no more "evil" than a hurricane or an earthquake. They don't want to scare or kill anybody. They do plenty of scaring and killing, make no mistake about it, but that's all accidental. Their one and only goal is to devour the flesh of the living. Their hunger has a terrifying purity, utterly unclouded by malice or apology. They just don't care how much it's going to hurt.

When denied the chance to snack on human flesh, these zombies shamble about in a pale imitation of the life they lived before. Clearly they have some awareness, some residual memory of being alive, making them more human than alien. Their aimless eccentric creepiness when left to themselves somehow renders them far more disturbing than they would be if they spent all their time filled with rage and malice.

Romero never makes the mistake of trying to explain his zombies too much. Even the bit of speculation I've indulged in here is much more than he ever says in his films about why the zombies exist and what their motivations might be. Sometimes his human characters speculate a bit, but he keeps his narratives aloof from all the attempts to understand the zombies, even back in the original Night of the Living Dead when some scientists try to trace the cause of the disaster to radiation from a satellite.

This George doesn't muddle matters with anything like midichlorians to explain why the impossible can happen. He doesn't try to tell us why the dead walk the earth. He just lets them do the voodoo that they do so well.

Land of the Dead is Romero's fourth zombie movie, and in many ways the best of the four. He clearly had a better budget to work with this time around. So we get to watch several excellent well-known actors take on the zombies, including Simon Baker, Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo and Asia Argento in the major roles. The makeup effects are top-notch, and if there are any digital effects they are so seamless as to be practically invisible, another benefit of a decent budget.

However, most of his achievement here is purely to his own credit as both writer and director. This is a tightly scripted, expertly directed action horror story. He draws tense, appropriately understated performances from all his players, both the stars and the lesser known actors.

As with his earlier zombie films, he indulges in quite a bit of social commentary. Here this is woven more deftly into the story of his characters and their troubles, leaving no places where the story slows down too much to make a point. Yet the points are still there for those who enjoy that aspect of his work.

He also still displays his gift for painting vivid and sympathetic characters. The heroes emerge as people worth caring about. The main villains have understandable motives and goals, despicable as their methods may be. He even manages to make some of the zombies elicit a certain twisted and limited sympathy at times. (I won't ruin any of the twists and turns by explaining what I mean by that.)

Romero's fans might want me to rate this film against his previous zombie films. It's difficult to please them, though, partly because his fans differ so much on which of the previous three was the best. Very few select 1985's Day of the Dead as their favorite. It's certainly worth seeing once for the sake of completeness, and it has its moments, but it remains the weakest of the four.

Many Romero fans greatly prefer the classic film that started it all in 1968, Night of the Living Dead, and it is surely a masterpiece of low budget horror cinema.

Personally I find it unfair to compare any newer film to that first film. The world has changed so much in recent decades, it is now nearly impossible to duplicate the experience of seeing that movie for the first time in the '60s, the '70s, or even the '80s. If you are looking for something as ground-breaking as your first viewing of Night of the Living Dead, you probably won't find it in Land of the Dead.

The best comparison, in my view, is to the 1978 Dawn of the Dead, because it is another film that will reward the attentive repeat viewer with its many subtle satirical touches. Land of the Dead comes much closer to the spirit of the 1978 original than the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, a film which derived most of its horror heritage from the very different zombies of Danny Boyle's 2003 28 Days Later and Dan O'Bannon's 1985 The Return of the Living Dead. The remake mainly borrowed its setting and its name from Romero.

That remake brings up another detail of the current film which some viewers might misunderstand. Both the remake of Dawn and this new film make heavy use of armored vehicles in the fight against the zombies. Some might think Romero stole this idea from the remakers of Dawn but the truth is more likely the other way around.

Romero has been working on this film for many years now. Years before the remake began filming, the working title for his fourth zombie movie was already Dead Reckoning, the name of the armored vehicle, and I was already reading about the armored vehicle on fans' web sites. If any stealing occurred, the armored vehicle idea was stolen from Romero.

So let's leave aside any such accusations. Perhaps both filmmakers came up with the idea independently. The important thing is, Romero has now returned to the quality level last seen in his own Dawn of the Dead.

And that's high praise indeed.

(Also posted at, where much fine reading can be found.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Resilient Society

"Stop it before it happens."

Many people set that as the top priority for any government agency charged with defending us against attack. Whether we think of "homeland security," or the older term "national security," we place most of our hopes on attempts to identify potential attackers and stop them before they can carry out their plans.

There is no doubt this is a good idea, when it works. But can it always work? At what cost? If we rely on prevention as our only security measure against terrorist attack, we expose ourselves to two major hazards, one economic, the other political.

The economic danger lies in what economists call the law of diminishing returns. To put it simply, if we try to close every imaginable gap in our lines of defense, it's likely we will never run out of gaps. Blocking every possible line of attack will get more and more expensive. The expense could easily turn out to be infinite. In practical terms, of course, this means we would exhaust all our resources before we got anywhere near achieving perfect security.

The political danger lies in the temptation to give up too much liberty for false promises of security. In healthy communities, we trade small liberties for large security benefits. Most of us give up the freedom to drive at high speeds through red lights, because we gain real security from serious harm. It's worth the expense to enforce laws that make everyone stop at red lights. In times of public fear, however, people often give up important liberties, yet gain little or no real security in return.

We submit to vehicle searches at roadside checkpoints, even though we know determined terrorists could easily avoid them. We stay silent while innocent people are imprisoned, fooling ourselves into feeling safer even though we know the real criminals and terrorists are still at large.

To avoid such dangers, we can change the way we think about security. As part of this, we can move away from the futile effort to block every possible avenue of attack. This does not rule out moderate, prudent measures to improve our security. It simply means we need to identify and avoid those extreme measures with costs that far outweigh any of their benefits.

More importantly, we can focus more attention on preparation, to help us better respond if and when anyone ever succeeds in attacking us. A society focusing too much on preventive security can become so brittle and ossified, it helps to bring about its own downfall. A supple and flexible society can bounce back quickly not only from terror attacks, but also from natural disaster or any other setback as well. We can call this the virtue of resilience.

The main elements of resilience in this context are fairly simple to identify. Listed below is one example description of what resilience can mean. This is not a strict definition, but a basic outline of the concept, to be refined through discussion and application.

First - Expect attack.

Deny any attack the added power of being "unthinkable." Expect attempted attacks. Expect some attacks to succeed. Be confident in the civilized world's ability to prevail against terror, not by preventing all attacks, but by its response after any attack.

Second - Be prepared.

Prepare mentally with determination to always respond with intelligence and confidence, never with blind fear or panic. Prepare physically in moderate ways such as assembling a disaster preparedness kit. Spread this knowledge of calm preparation to any family members, friends, and acquaintances able to handle it.

Third - Go on with life.

This sounds simplistic, but is not. Conventional armies seek to wrest control of hills, river crossings, towns, and fortresses from their enemies. Terrorists seek to control the minds of their enemies. If we all refuse to be terrorized, terrorism will ultimately fail.

Resilience can enhance security by enhancing freedom, instead of by restriction. Where brittle societies are kept in the dark by governments obsessed with secrecy, the populace of a resilient society is fully informed by a government that transparently shares as much of its information as possible. Where brittle societies foster growing distrust and suspicion of government, a resilient society can grow closer to the ideal of fully participatory government.

By making itself better prepared to recover from an attack, a resilient society can also become the kind of place fewer people would want to attack. However, it need never blindly place its security on the hope of achieving such popularity.

Today, our security strategies focus on a dark future, but there is no reason for such a darkened outlook to become permanent. Modern civilization and culture already contains the seeds of a resilient society. By nurturing these seeds to fruition, we can build a world where our children can focus on the great advances human ingenuity might achieve in future decades and centuries.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

robbery or radio?

My last post apparently needs some clarification.

The recording industry could have treated the challenge of file sharing as the moral equivalent of radio. They could have found some way to profit from file sharing and made file sharing legal, just as it is legal to listen to music on the radio, and some of the resulting revenue finds its way back to the recording industry. Sometimes a few pennies of the radio advertising dollar even find their way back to the musicians.

Instead the record industry leads us to believe file sharing is the moral equivalent of shoplifting. They attempt to persuade courts to treat all shared media as stolen media.

Why do they do this? From what I have observed, the real issue is not about money. If record companies cared about artists getting their fair share, they would not have spent the last century stealing artists blind. The same goes for the way the film studios and the television networks have always treated their actors and crews.

Record companies, film studios, television networks, and everybody else in the entertainment industry could find ways to make money from files traded on the Internet, just like they found ways to make money from radio and television broadcasts. What they could not do in a world of legal file sharing is retain their centralized control of media outlets. They could not preserve their power to shape our culture to their own benefit.

That is the real issue raised by file sharing. What the media corporations clearly fear most is not theft, but the loss of control. They seek government protection for their privileged position, because they are no longer able or willing to secure it by providing us, their customers, with anything remotely close to what we really want.

These are some of the reasons I reject all claims that the recording industry holds any sort of moral high ground on this issue.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

music and sharing

When they killed Napster I stopped buying CDs.

Now they try to tell us Napster is back, but don't be fooled. The thing that wears the name of Napster today is nothing but a shambling zombie.

The soulless demonic forces ruling the music industry have ripped Napster's rotting corpse from the grave, stuffed it with foulness and decay, and sent it forth on a mission to win over our hearts and minds. It's no surprise they are failing. Let us all hope they continue to fail.

The true Napster, the Napster that once was, held out a glorious promise. At its peak this promise was still only partly realized, but even then it came close enough to let us glimpse what we could have: a vast library, containing every piece of music ever recorded, instantly available from the moment someone says to you, "You might enjoy listening to this track I heard the other day."

To let this happen, millions of people donated their own bandwidth and hardware to the project. They upgraded their Net connections and their hard drives, so they could share (and acquire, of course) more music.

For me, file sharing was never about "getting stuff without paying for it." Once I had used Napster to preview an artist's work, more often than not, I bought CDs to support that artist. Judging by the rise of CD sales during the rise of Napster, and the fall in CD sales after Napster was no more, I was far from alone in this.

But then the RIAA stepped in, and killed Napster. Inadvertently, they also educated us all about the vast corruption in the music industry. We learned how precious few of the dollars we spent on CDs went to the artists we loved. We learned the ruthless RIAA was willing to threaten little kids and little old ladies with financial ruin, just for a slim chance to hold onto their ill-gotten gains in the face of technology that makes their business model obsolete.

Now they want us to pay for crippled, low-quality music files, attempting to repackage their whole morally bankrupt business model in a shiny new digital format. Well, I'm not willing to pay them one dime for that.

For the potential of the old Napster, for the universally open media library, I would have been willing to pay. But no major, legal, RIAA-sanctioned service is offering anything like that.

I'm not going to support these many different subscription services, each with its own incompatible locked-down file format, each with its own exclusive content.

Even if withdrawing my support from such idiocy means the only CDs I can buy are the ones being sold directly by the musicians that created them.

Maybe it's about five years too late for posting my views on this subject to help anyone, but hey, better late than never, right?

Friday, December 31, 2004

A deeper wave than this

The past week can both sadden and uplift any thoughtful mind.

Under all the talk about how much the Western nations ought to give in the efforts to help survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, something more important has been left unsaid.

Nobody questions this basic idea: ability to help implies a duty to help. Even when the people who need our help are on the far side of the world, nobody questions our duty to help them if we can. Nobody humane enough to take seriously, at any rate.

This is a hopeful fact of the modern era. On the vast time scales of geology and history, there is nothing new about this disaster. Thousands of human lives cut short by the forces of nature is a sorrow as old as time, but our ability to help one another grows year by year. More importantly, our will to help one another is rapidly catching up with our ability.

There will always be room for improvement in our response to crisis. Still, as we pass into a new year, we can take a moment to celebrate how far we have advanced.

In earlier centuries, most survivors of any disaster this huge would be on their own in the struggle for survival, after losing everything they had. The death toll in the weeks, months, and years after the disaster would be many times higher than the number killed by the actual event. Our emerging world community gives humans the power to vastly reduce that misery and suffering.

I am gladdened any time we use such power for such good purposes.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

What if they're not bad? What if they're great?

We're now far enough into National Novel Writing Month for it to be abundantly clear I won't have time to participate this year.

Never mind that my effort would have been symbolic and unofficial anyway, because the deadline for official signups flew by sometime near the end of last month, before I started thinking about it. So instead of doing it, I'm thinking about the differences of opinion over the idea. Some people think NaNoWriMo is a great idea that can help aspiring writers get over their procrastination. Others sharply criticize the whole concept, some of them with a revealing tone of vicious bitterness.

Most objections to the exercise seem to be variations on the same theme: that anything written in such haste is sure to be a textbook example of terribly bad writing. From such a beginning, critics extrapolate, writers can only continue to produce more bad writing. And the last thing the world needs is more bad writing.

Critics don't always bother to state that last part. Some just assume everyone will agree with it as an unspoken premise. From there, the conclusion is obvious: NaNoWriMo is bad. Very bad.

Now, I don't necessarily agree that bad writing is such a bad thing. There are far worse things people could do with their free time than produce bad writing, and it's not like they're forcing anyone else to read it. But let's leave that aside for the moment. Instead let's look at a far more scary implication of National Novel Writing Month. What if it doesn't exclusively fill the world with more bad writing? What if it also leads, one way or another, to good writing? What if it ends up creating dozens, hundreds, even thousands of new truly great novelists?

At first thought, any lover of literature would want to like this idea. But its implications can be overwhelming. There already isn't enough time in a single lifespan to read all the great literature we currently have. Many of us haven't even finished reading Shakespeare yet, and have barely touched upon the works of Austen, Dante, Sophocles, Plath, Dickens, Woolf, or the rest of the vast library the world has already produced. What on earth are we going to do if the world is suddenly flooded with new material, from an army of new great writers, raised up in part by the inspiration of exercises like NaNoWriMo? Who could claim the mantle of "cultural literacy" in a world so vastly rich in great literary works?

I suspect this fear, whether consciously realized or not, may explain much of the vitriol in some of those who attack National Novel Writing Month.

As for myself, I have not yet decided on the merits of the concept. It seems worth trying, but I refrain from passing judgement until I have actually tried it for myself and can speak from experience.