Sunday, February 27, 2011

Wackyland 4: What’s It All About?

My previous posts on Porky in Wackyland have been about limited aspects of the cartoon: overall structure in the first post, self-conflict in the second post (along with more structural analysis), and the third post was about some gags used in introducing the do-do. Now I want to step back from that and look at the whole cartoon: What’s going on?

Why’s Porky going to Wackyland? We aren’t told. We have to infer his motive, if possible, from the newspaper cover announcing his trip:

Wacky Paper

While it is possible that Porky is a naturalist interested in rare creatures, the emphasis on the do-do’s value suggests a different motive: He wants to get rich, quick!

According to the Wikipedia, the phrase “get rich quick” has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. By the time this cartoon was made, it was a well-known cultural trope. If “get rich quick” is what Porky was up to, then Porky in Wackyland would be a commentary on get-rich-quick-schemes.

The film’s basic comment follows from the fact that Porky doesn’t get rich: such schemes don’t work. Porky sets out to get rich and what happens? He ends up in this crazy place where nothing makes any sense. It’s worse than that, however. The cartoon makes a very interesting comment on the kind of craziness that is “get rich quick.”

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Transition Mission

I’ve been working with Charlie Keil to start The Transition Party USA. As Charlie put it, “it’s a way to give a whole spectrum of NGOs/non-profits, peace orgs, environmental orgs, AND a precious slice of Teapartiers who genuinely want to restore the Constitution, repeal the Patriot Act, no bailouts for Wall St., reduce the debts and size of Fed gov’t and it's taxation of middle class to feed the rich, etc.” Our modest aim is to become a "decisive" or log-jam breaking party in the House. If, for example, there were 214 Republicans elected and 209 Democrats, our 12 Transition Party Representatives could exert great leverage for Truth, Traditions, Transition legislation – and against the tremendous waste encouraged by big corporations feeding at the trough of big government.

You can find out more at our blog, Transition Party USA. Here’s Charlie’s local perspective from Lakeville, Connecticut:
The Great Transition is being made as we speak. In Lakeville, Connecticut the Great Transition to sustainability, permacultures, resilience in everything that matters (highest standards of humor, musicality, plenty of mighty trees to admire, excess energy in the local grid, etc,) has been ongoing for over a century!

150 years ago all the trees had been turned to charcoal for local iron making furnaces (and then the first Bessemer steel?), smoke, soot, grey skies everywhere, desolation, fires burning 24-7 in the hills making the last piles of charcoal. Then it went to Pittsburgh and Lakevillians began to make a long, slow, recovery that has culminated in recent decades with the reappearance of all the animals, pileated woodpeckers, too many geese, too many turkeys, too many deer, bear, a moose came through our yard a few weeks after my father died and took a swim in Lakeville's lake. We have a sawmill in Falls Village, for local timber. My wife Angie calls them Potempkin forests but they are real enough, old growth enough, for those giant pileated woodpeckers.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Q: How Smart is IBM’s Watson?

A. Really smart.
B. Not at all smart.
C. Wrong question.

As you’ve probably heard, IBM’s Watson computer system has beaten two Jeopardy champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, in a two-game match. There’s been a fair amount of press about the match, and some discussion in the blogosphere (e.g. at Language Log). The blogosphere has variously argued versions of A and B, but I’m inclined more to C myself.

Back in the mid-1970s the US Defense Department sponsored a speech understanding research project that ran, I believe, for three years. Three different research groups were tasked with building a system that could answer a spoken question about naval vessels. This was exciting research by the top people in computational linguistics. Measured against those systems, Watson’s performance is astounding. To be sure, some of the difference is in raw computing power. But that’s not all. Watson is using techniques that didn’t exist back then.

At the same, Watson would probably not be able to hold a decent conversation about the topics it produced in response to Jeopardy clues. To some extent, that’s by design. We do know things about conversational interaction that could be employed to make Watson a better conversationalist. But conversation wasn’t required of Watson, so Watson wasn’t built to do it. Still, even given further development, one wouldn’t expect Watson to be a particularly scintillating conversationalist.

Monday, February 14, 2011

What did the USA Know, and When?

The New York Times has an interesting article about the background to the revolts in Tunisia and now Egypt:
The Egyptian revolt was years in the making. Ahmed Maher, a 30-year-old civil engineer and a leading organizer of the April 6 Youth Movement, first became engaged in a political movement known as Kefaya, or Enough, in about 2005. Mr. Maher and others organized their own brigade, Youth for Change. But they could not muster enough followers; arrests decimated their leadership ranks, and many of those left became mired in the timid, legally recognized opposition parties. “What destroyed the movement was the old parties,” said Mr. Maher, who has since been arrested four times.
During 2008
… Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.
Some Egyptians went to Serbia to learn from Otpor, and later on organizers from Qatar went to Egypt to help the rebels organize.

And so forth and so on.

This didn’t happen over night. And, as we know, Facebook was a critical organizing tool.

But, how much of this story was known in the US State Department and Department of Defense before 25 January 2011? How seriously was it taken? Did this knowledge ever reach the White House? Did it reach Obama?

It’s clear that the American foreign policy establishment was taken completely by surprise and so had to make up policy as events unfolded. Why? I don’t see how they, or anyone else, could have known just when things were going to jump off. But they could have been prepared for substantial and serious protest and have had some policy in place for how to react. They didn’t.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Inequality Everywhere

Some nations are richer than others. Rich, poor, or in-between, however, there is inequality everywhere. Harvard’s Kenneth Rogoff observes:
The causes of growing inequality within countries are well understood, and it is not necessary to belabor them here. We live in an era in which globalization expands the market for ultra-talented individuals but competes away the income of ordinary employees. Competition among countries for skilled individuals and profitable industries, in turn, constrains governments’ abilities to maintain high tax rates on the wealthy. Social mobility is further impeded as the rich shower their children with private education and after-school help, while the poorest in many countries cannot afford even to let their children stay in school.
And this rising inequality strikes at the egalitarian impulse that is one of the deepest drivers in human nature. It feeds a sense of injustice that erodes the fabric of society. Rogoff concludes that “Inequality is the big wildcard in the next decade of global growth, and not just in North Africa.”

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Free-Lancer’s Advice

Yesterday, at the weekly Free Culture lunch I’ve been attending for over a year, the free-lancers agreed that the cheapest clients are also the pickiest. Nina Paley had an interesting explanation for this effect. Imagine, she suggested, that you’ve been contracted for a piece of work that you value at worth $10,000. But the client is only paying $3,000. Well, that’s equivalent to you paying them $7,000 for their services. And they’re glad to provide them, in the form of advice on the job you’re doing for them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egyptian Revolution, Current Status

As of noon, Thursday 10 Feb, Eastern time, the Egyptian revolution appears to have reached this status:

Zoom 5

Mubarak is on the way out, but it's not clear what happens next or what the protesters will do. They're still shrouded in dust and the nature of the interim regime, or even IF it's only interim, is not clear.

From the NY Times:
The character of the military’s intervention and the shape of a new Egyptian government remained uncertain. A flurry of reports on state media on Thursday indicated a degree of confusion — or competing claims — about what kind of shift was underway, raising the possibility that a competing forces did not necessarily see the power transfer the same way. ...
For weeks, the protesters have hoped the military would intervene on their side, though it remained unclear whether the military would support democratic reforms that would threaten its status as the most powerful single institution in the country.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Yo Mama! Interpretation and Pattern Matching

There was a time when interpretation was the most vexed issue in literary criticism: What do texts mean? How do we figure them out? Is there only one valid interpretation, or many? As far as I can tell the debates have largely subsided without having been resolved. For better or worse, critics simply go about the business of offering interpretations without debating whether or not, or how, it is proper to do so.

I have little desire to reopen those discussions. Rather, I want to suggest that the relationship between a text and its interpretation is one of pattern congruence. A pattern in the source text matches one in the interpretive text and so the latter is said to interpret the former. But one could run it the other way, using the literary text to interpret some other text, or set of events. That’s what I want to do in this post.

Rather than using a literary text, let’s use this simple cartoon by Nina Paley:


Paley titled the strip “Timing.” When I published it here a couple of days ago I gave it a different title “Mubarak to Egyptions.” That is, I gave it an interpretive title. Or, if you will, I asserted that Paley’s cartoon is a useful way of interpreting certain recent events and statements.

What I had in mind, of course, was Mubarak’s assertion that, while he was tired and ready to step down, he feared that Egypt would descend into chaos if abdicated his responsibilities as leader. So I am interpreting Mimi – the creature who falls and crashes – as Egypt. Mubarak therefore must be Eunice, the one who helpfully stretches her hands out and offers to catch. But, alas, is too late.

Uh Oh! Hosni Mubarak and Wile E. Coyote

I’ve been so busy doing one thing and another that I haven’t had time to make any substantial posts, not one doing a wrap-up on Porky in Wackyland, nor one on anything else.

And that includes the situation in Egypt. But I saw an Al-Jeezera clip that suggested a way to combine Looney Tunes and the Egyptian revolution into a single post. The clip involves a discussion between Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar, and Slavoj Žižek, philosophical provocateur. Žižek suggested that Mubarak is facing a situation covered by one of the best-known laws of cartoon physics: A character who is suspended in space will remain in suspension only until he realizes that fact. Once he realizes that he’s standing on nothing, gravity kicks in.

Žižek’s comment starts a bit after 20:30 in this clip:

Here’s an elaborated example from a Warner Brothers Road Runner cartoon, Zoom and Bored. In this shot Wile Coyote’s situation (not to mention Road Runner's) is obscured by a dust cloud:

Zoom 1

Of course, we don’t know what’s going on. For all we know, Wile and Road Runner are standing on solid ground – the default assumption. Now Wile senses that something’s wrong:

Zoom 2

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mubarak to Egyptians


Walk Like an Egyptian: Protest the Fat Cats

Writing in The Nation, Johann Hari spells out this fantasy:
Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country. The swelling movement is made up of everyone from teenagers to pensioners. They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay.
And he goes on to point out that it has happened:
This may sound like a fantasy—but it has all happened. The name of this parallel universe is Britain. As recently as this past fall, people here were asking the same questions liberal Americans have been glumly contemplating: Why is everyone being so passive? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off? Why are people staying in their homes watching their flat-screens while our politicians strip away services so they can fatten the superrich even more?
And so a dozen British citizens decided to start protesting against Vodaphone, which had managed to to gull the government into forgiving £5 billion in taxes:
That first protest grabbed a little media attention—and then the next day, in a different city, three other Vodafone stores were shut down in the northern city of Leeds, by unconnected protests. UK Uncut realized this could be replicated across the country. So the group set up a Twitter account and a website, where members announced there would be a national day of protest the following Saturday. They urged anybody who wanted to organize a protest to e-mail them so it could be added to a Google map. Britain’s most prominent tweeters, such as actor Stephen Fry, joined in.
Could this happen in the USofA?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egyptian Armed Forces in Search of Honor

Paul Amar at Jadaliyya has some very intersting remarks on the institutional background of the Egyptian revolution and on why Mubarak will go. Of the armed forces, he notes that they have been marginalized since the signing of the Camp David Accords. The don't fight wars; they run businesses:
These buy-offs have shaped [the armed forces] into an incredibly organized interest group of nationalist businessmen. They are attracted to foreign investment; but their loyalties are economically and symbolically embedded in national territory. As we can see when examining any other case in the region (Pakistan, Iraq, the Gulf), US military-aid money does not buy loyalty to America; it just buys resentment. In recent years, the Egyptian military has felt collectively a growing sense of national duty, and has developed a sense of embittered shame for what it considers its “neutered masculinity:” its sense that it was not standing up for the nation’s people. The nationalistic Armed Forces want to restore their honor and they are disgusted by police corruption and baltagiya brutality. And it seems that the military, now as “national capitalists,” have seen themselves as the blood rivals of the neoliberal “crony capitalists” associated with Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal who have privatized anything they can get their hands on and sold the country’s assets off to China, the US, and Persian Gulf capital.