Sunday, July 31, 2005
Yet another lazy post filled with links. Enjoy:
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 3
Well at this point, I've pretty much abandoned any pretense at actually liveblogging. I finished the book earlier this week, but have been to busy to post comments. Unlike previous installments, this post will contain lots of spoilers, but I'll put them in the extended entry so as not to expose them on the main page...
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 2
Well, I suppose this hardly qualifies as liveblogging anymore, as I've read over 300 pages since my last update, but such petty details notwithstanding, below are some more thoughts I've had while reading.
Sunday, July 17, 2005
In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, there are a number of new security measures suggested by the Ministry of Magic (as Voldemort and his army of Death Eaters have been running amuk). Some of them are common sense but some of them are much more questionable. Since I've also been reading prominent muggle and security expert Bruce Schneier's book, Beyond Fear, I thought it might be fun to analyze one of the Ministry of Magic's security measures according to Schneier's 5 step process.
Here is the security measure I've chosen to evaluate, as shown on page 42 of my edition:
Agree on security questions with close friends and family, so as to detect Death Eaters masquerading as others by use of the Polyjuice Potion.For those not in the know, Polyjuice Potion allows the drinker to assume the appearance of someone else, presumably someone you know. Certainly a dangerous attack. The proposed solution is a "security question", set up in advance, so that you can verify the identity of the person in question.
Saturday, July 16, 2005
Liveblogging Harry Potter, Part 1
Odd as it may seem, that is exactly what a curiously unnamed BBC reporter has done for the just-released Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. As said book has arrived in the mail today, I figured I might as well just follow the Beeb's lead and liveblog my reading of the book.
I'm no speedreader - the aformentioned reporter apparently read at a pace higher than 100 pages per hour - and I don't particularly want to finish the book that quickly, so this will most likely be spread out over the next few days.
Before I started reading, I read this summary of the previous book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (thanks to Nate for the pointer). I didn't especially enjoy that book. It seemed a distinct step down from the Goblet of Fire, and thus my hopes are not as high for the new volume (which, as I've noted before, could act in its favor). And so I give you, the first two chapters of the new Harry Potter book. Additional chapters will be added to this entry as I read them (new chapters will be on the bottom). I'll attempt to keep things vague, but I must warn: Potential SPOILERS ahead. (as of now, I'm two chapters in, and no real spoilers).
Again Update:Added some more stuff. Will probably write the security entry soon, and will then start a "Part 2" of this post.
Update 7.19.05: Part 2 is up, as is the discussion on magic security I hinted at above..
Sunday, July 10, 2005
In response to Thursday's terrorist attacks in London, the United States raised the threat level for mass transit. As a result, the public saw "more police officers, increased video surveillance, the presence of dogs trained to sniff for bombs and inspections of trash containers around transit stations."
This is a somewhat sensible reaction, on numerous levels (though, ironically, not as much with respect to security). First, there is a small increase in security, but it also struck me as being more effective as a piece of security theater. In the NY Times article reference above, a police officer carrying a submachine gun is pictured. One of Kaedrin's 3 loyal readers wondered if that was really necessary. The truth is that it probably didn't provide much in the way of extra security, but often security decisions are made by those who have an agenda that encompasses more than just security. In Bruce Schneier's excellent book Beyond Fear, he calls this sort of thing security theater.
In 1970, there was no airline security in the U.S.: no metal detectors, no X-ray machines, and no ID checks. After a hijacking in 1972 ... airlines were required to post armed guards in passenger boarding areas. This countermeasure was less to decrease the risk of hijacking than to decrease the anxiety of passengers. After 9/11, the U.S. government posted armed National Guard troops at airport checkpoints primarily for the same reason (but were smart enough not to give them bullets). Of course airlines would prefer it if all their flights were perfectly safe, but actual hijackings and bombings are rare events whereas corporate earnings statements come out every quarter. For an airline, for the economy, and for the country, judicious use of security theater calmed fears... and that was a good thing.I wonder if the submachine gun the police officer was carrying was loaded? I would assume it actually wasn't, as a submachine gun is about the worst thing you could use on a crowded mass transit system.
The important thing to note here is that security decisions are often based on more than just security considerations. As security theater, Thursday's heightened alert level reduced public anxiety. On a more cynical level, it's also an example of politicians and businesses hedging their bets (if an attack did come, they could at least claim they weren't caught completely off-guard). Sometimes, those in power have to do something quickly to address a security problem. Most people are comforted by action, even if their security isn't improved very much as a result. However, as Schneier notes, security theater is largely a palliative measure. In a world where security risks are difficult to judge, security theater can easily be confused with the real thing. It's important to understand such actions for what they are. At the same time, it should also be noted that such actions do provide some value, often extending beyond the realm of security (which can be important too).
Update: Minor additions and grammar changes.
Update 7.22.05: John Robb notes the added cost (i.e. the monetary cost, the inconvenience, the civil liberties etc...)of the extra security measures implemented as a result of the recent attempts in London, and how the costs have spread throughout the US. Robb also notes that Schneier himself has commented on the specific measure of searching bags. To clarify my comments above, I think the value provided by Security Theater is, at best, a short term value, depending on your perspective. Is that value worth the added costs? If you're a leader or politician, probably. If you're a commuter, probably not. Politicians and other leaders usually have a different agenda than commuters, and they're the ones making the decisions.
I'd been at a loss for what to say about Thursday's terrorist attacks in London until I saw this somehow appropriately obscure historical reference from Mindles H. Dreck of Asymmetrical Information:
"Whither thou goest I will go, and whither thou lodgest I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Even to the end."For details on the attack, check out this comprehensive Wikipedia entry (an impressive example of self-organization in action). Also, the British Red Cross has set up a relief fund for victims of the bombings and is accepting donations.
Sunday, July 03, 2005
Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is a pretty tense affair. The director knows how to lay on the suspense and he certainly applies that knowledge liberally in the film. It's a good thing too, because when he allows a short breather, your mind immediately starts asking questions that can only have embarrassingly illogical answers.
Luckily, Spielberg's version of the infamous H.G. Wells novel focuses on one character, not the big picture of the story. This relegates the aliens in the film to a MacGuffin, a mostly unexplained excuse to place pressure on the protagonist Ray Ferrier (played competently by Tom Cruise). In this respect, it resembles M. Night Shyamalan's Signs more than other recent big budget disaster films like Independence Day. Its pacing and relentless tension make the film feel more like horror than science fiction. Unfortunately, there's enough pseudo-explanations and speculations about the aliens to strain the suspension of disbelief that is required for this film to work. I've found that I generally have more movie-going goodwill than others (i.e. letting art be art), so I didn't mind the lack of details and even some of the odd quirky logic that seems to drive the plot, which really focuses on the aforementioned Ray's relationship with his kids (and not the aliens). Ultimately, there's nothing special about the story, but in the hands of someone as proficient as Speilberg, it works well enough for me. It's visually impressive and quite intense.
Besides, it's not like the concept itself makes all that much sense. In 1898, Wells' novel was probably seen as somewhat realistic, though the Martians-as-metaphor themes didn't escape anyone. In 1938, Orson Welles's infamous radio broadcast of the story scared the hell out of listeners who thought that an actual invasion was occurring. Today, the concept of an advanced alien civilization invading earth has lost much of its edge, perhaps because we understand the science of such a scenario much better than we used to. If you're able to put aside the nagging questions, it still holds a certain metaphorical value, but even that is starting to get a little old.
No explicit motivation is attributed to the aliens in Spielberg's film, but in other stories it generally comes down to the aliens' lust for resources ("They're like locusts. They're moving from planet to planet... their whole civilization. After they've consumed every natural resource they move on..."). This, of course, makes no sense.
Space is big. Huge. From what we know of life in the universe, it appears to be quite rare and extremely spread out. Travel between civilizations may be possible due to something exotic like a wormhole or faster-than-light travel, but even if that were possible (and that's a big if), traversing the distances involved in the usually huge and powerful alien craft is still bound to expend massive amounts of energy. And for what? Resources? What kinds of resources? Usually "resources" is code for energy, but that doesn't make much sense to me. They'd have to have found something workable (perhaps fusion) just to make the trip to Earth, right? In the miniseries V the aliens are after water, which is an impressively ignorant motivation (hydrogen and oxygen are among the universe's most abundant elements and water itself has been observed all over our galaxy). Perhaps the combination of water, mineral resources, a temperate climate, a protective and varied atmosphere, animal and plant life, and relatively stable ecosystems would make Earth a little more attractive.
What else makes Earth so special? There would have to be some sort of resource we have that most other planets don't. Again, Earth is one of the rare planets capable of supporting life, but we can infer that they're not looking for life itself (their first acts invariably include an attempt to exterminate all life they come accross. In War of the Worlds, the Alien tripods start by vaporizing every human they see. Later in the film, we see them sort of "eating" humans. This is a somewhat muddled message, to say the least). And whatever this resource is, it would have to justify risking a war with an indigenous intelligent life form. Granted, we probably wouldn't stand much of a chance against their superior technology, but at the very least, our extermination would require the expenditure of yet more energy (further discrediting the notion that what the aliens are after is an energy source). Plus, it's not like we've left the planet alone - we're busy using up the resources ourselves. Also, while our weapons may be no match for alien defenses, they'd be quite sufficent to destroy much of the planet's surface out of spite, rendering the alien invasion moot.
The only thing that even approaches making any sort of sense is that they want Earth as a new home for themselves. As one of the few planets capable of supporting life, I suppose it could be valuable in that respect. Indeed, in Wells' novel, the Martians attacked earth because their planet was dying. Spielberg's film seems determined to kinda-sorta keep true to the novel, except that the aliens appear to have planned this countless years ago, which makes it seem less likely. But again, why risk invading an already inhabited planet? Some stories have emphasized that the aliens were doing their equivalent of terraforming (this is implied in War of the Worlds when Ray looks out over a bizarrely changed landscape filled with red weeds), which is a good idea, but it still doesn't explain why Earth would be a target. From all appearances, there are plenty of empty planets out there...
So the concept itself is a bit tired to start with. Movies that aren't explicit invasions involving a civilization like our own fare a little better. Alien & Aliens do a good job of this, as have several other films.
In any case, War of the Worlds is still a reasonably good watch, so long as you don't mind the lack of scientific rigor. It's a visually impressive film, with a number of sequences that stand out. And he really doesn't give you all that much time to think about all the flaws...
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in July 2005.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
12 Days of Christmas
2006 Movie Awards
2007 Movie Awards
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Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Philadelphia Film Festival 2006
Philadelphia Film Festival 2008
Philadelphia Film Festival 2009
Philadelphia Film Festival 2010
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Security & Intelligence
The Dark Tower
Weird Book of the Week
Weird Movie of the Week
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