Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A review of Arkham Asylum: A serious house on serious earth

Grant Morrison's classic comic arkham asylum: A serious house on serious earth is haunting, it could easily give you nightmares.  Dave McKean's artwork drives the story, making the mysterious Arkham Asylum a real place.  There are so many minor details in the artwork that the reader will either obsessively examine everything or be left fearing some subtle symbol has been left in their subconsciousness.  Interspliced within the comic is the journal of Amadeus Arkham, who founded the Asylum but also suffered from insanity due to the death of his mother and daughter. Unlike most Batman comics, there isn't much action in arkham asylum.  His sanity is tested as the inhabitants of the Asylum (including the doctor) suggest that he belongs with them.  The reader is left turning page after page, wandering if some revelation about Batman and the Joker will explain the nature of insanity itself.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Comic Book Review, Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader is one of my favorite tellings of the Batman story, but it shouldn't be read by people unfamiliar with Batman. I've tried reading some of Gaiman's other work and found it boring, this book shows that Gaiman is a good writer and able to bring advanced narrative techniques into comic books (though he must use other author's characters and plots to be entertaining). Due to the narration style, this review may contain what some readers consider to be spoilers.

The artwork is amazing, perhaps it's because Gaiman tells the story in such a way that each panel is sufficiently different from any other panel. Additionally the artwork changes to match the style of the stories being told. The title comic involves Batman's major enemies and ends in a way that will disappoint the most hardcore fans. There are four other, shorter stories in this collection. A Black and White World shows Batman and Joker as actors, complaining about the roles they've been playing for so long. Pavane tells the story of a psychiatrist who tries to understand Poison Ivy, though it appears he ends up going crazy in doing so. Based on the artwork, When is a Door appears to be a story entirely contained within Original Sins. Original Sins tells the story of a rich couple threatened by Batman whom decide to interview Batman's enemies in attempt to earn them the public's sympathy (this is the least original story in the collection, it's been done before). When is a Door gives a partial origins story for my favorite Batman villain, the Riddler, my only complaint is that it's not long enough.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The 10 Principles of Burning Man Analyzed

The 2013 Burning Man is over, participants have returned home to continue their normal lives.  They will return with new experiences and ideas, and they'll change in ways they can't quite explain to their non-burner friends.  Part of Burning Man's appeal is that it eludes formal description and is best understood by direct experience.

The intentions which provide the theoretical foundations of Burning Man (and all other Burning Man regional events) are the 10 principles.  As with Christians and the 10 commandments, most burners haven't memorized the 10 principles and will probably violate some of them.  Unfortunately, the 10 principles come into conflict with one another, aren’t implemented perfectly or lead to undesirable outcomes.


Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Burning Man is more inclusive than most places, but it's not perfectly inclusive.  The city is divided into camps of people who typically know each other before the event starts, you cannot expect to receive anything from camps you don't belong to. Realistically, you need to spend at least a thousand dollars and take a week off to attend, so poor people are excluded by default. The demographics of Burning Man show that groups (many of which have been excluded throughout history) are drastically underrepresented.  A slight majority of Burning Man attendees are male, and an overwhelming majority are white.  The most successfully included group are LGBQT people, they are overrepresented at Burning Man.

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

Getting gifts is great, and it's not hard to get gifts from strangers at Burning Man.  But you won't necessarily want the gifts you're given, and other people won't necessarily want what you give them. Many participants put little or no effort into giving gifts and many gifts end up being trashed.  Other gifts (mainly services like massages) are so popular that long lines to receive them.

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

There is no money, stores, banks or stock exchanges at Burning Man.  Normal economic transactions (besides purchasing ice and coffee) do not occur.  Large amounts of unique art is created for Burning Man.  While Burning Man does succeed in preventing the creation of large numbers of identical products, there exist many services that commidify the Burning Man experience.  You can buy your way into camps which will provide you with everything you need without any participation on your part.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

To a degree, this principle serves the interest of the owners of Burning Man (Black Rock City, LLC).  The less people rely on BRC, the easier it is for the company to make large profits. Inner resources are of limited use if you're getting dehydrated.  Still, burners do usually leave the event stronger and less dependent on others.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

The description of this principle isn't entirely clear.  Gifting is a principle, but here BRC is claiming expressing yourself is a gift to others.  You will see forms of expression at Burning Man you won't see anywhere else. You'll probably receive compliments on your form of expression, no matter how strange it is.  But if Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-expression were both implemented perfectly, Burning Man would be a hotbed of conflict.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Building a city from scratch requires lots of work, and most of that work is done communally.  But Burning Man is composed of tribes that usually don't work together.  Large scale Communal Effort does occur, but it's mostly on dance floors or small projects, the big projects are mainly composed by tribes which aren't always Radically Inclusive.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

This principle also enables BRC to make more money.  Roads, Port-a-Potties, police force and medical care are all provided by BRC or volunteers.  Beyond this, it’s not clear what level of civic responsibility is useful, especially if people are Radically Self-Reliant.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

At a glance, BRC succeeds at this principle tremendously.  But upon further inspection, this principle (and its alleged concern with the environment) is flawed and likely only exists because of a deal that BRC made with the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in exchange for access to the land where Burning Man occurs.  The Black Rock Desert contains almost no life, if Burning Man didn’t exist it would be a good candidate for a toxic waste dump.  BRC’s is more concerned with clearing biodegradable matter from the desert than discouraging its attendees from bringing gas guzzling Recreational Vehicles from the event. 

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

The amount of effort people put into Burning Man is amazing, but it’s not equally distributed amongst all participants.  The camps which have a track record of participation are in the center of the city.  So new camps on the outskirts will have a hard time finding an audience to participate with, and their members will likely spend most of their time participating in other people's projects.

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

This principle is the hardest to understand.  Long term planning is necessary for a successful burn.  The man takes hundreds of people months to build and it is almost completely incinerated within half an hour.  When participants return to reality, they won’t remember the many hours they spent preparing or even most of the time they spent on the playa.  They’ll remember the short serendipitous moments  

Though my analysis of the 10 Principles may seem harsh, it should not be taken as a condemnation of Burning Man itself. The event existed before the principles and it's not clear how the Principles have impacted the event. Sometimes codifying a ritual ruins the ritual. It's important for Burning Man participants not to take the Principles too literally or to follow one principle at the expense of another. Ultimately, the Burning Man experience is created by the attendees, not the administrators. Participants should feel free to make their own principles and express and justify them to other participants.

Monday, April 1, 2013

What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

I recently finished reading The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? by Jared Diamond.  Before writing this review I looked for reviews of his books and was surprised at all the controversy he has generated.  Most reviewers of this book have given undue attention to Diamond's previous work and don't cover much of the content in his most recent work.

I can understand why Diamond generates so much controversy, he makes bold claims and doesn't give them adequate support.  He does reference many works in his book, but the book is dominated by stories of his own personal experience and things his friends have told him.  Of course, Diamond doesn't claim to be a scientist, his books are non-fiction but that's not to say that everything in them is 100% accurate.

If The World Until Yesterday were a fictional book, it would be entertaining and spark the imagination of whoever read it.  But it's not, so we have to question Diamond's conclusions with a healthy degree of skepticism.  Clearly the New Guinean people are culturally different from most people who speak English (and most people who speak the thousands of language not spoken in New Guinea), and language is just one of the barriers of communication between different cultures.  Diamond claims to have an understanding of New Guinean culture, but it's not clear that he does.

Diamond's claims are difficult to disprove.  It's pretty clear that they have a negative effect on the New Guinean tourism industry.  His claims about cannibalism in New Guinea aren't that different from the claims that the Natives of the Carribean were cannibals.  There is no concrete evidence of either.  So while Diamond does inform people of cultural differences, this information isn't 100% accurate and the reader of The World Until Yesterday can't tell what parts are inaccurate without doing some research on their own.

One could interpret Diamond's motives in writing very cynically.  You could say he's profiting from telling lies about cultures that have been oppressed.  That he's an agent of Christian, Western, and Corporate Imperialism.  He is critical of some Western cultural practices but he makes it clear that he prefers living in Los Angeles to New Guinea.  He may be informing people who are extremely ignorant about culture, but he's not enabling Westerners to appreciate New Guinean culture the same way that Westerners appreciate Chinese and other Eastern cultures.  He's just giving people a model of culture that is less wrong than models created by imperialists.

It's worth noting that Diamond is a victim of the same phenomena he is creating with his books.  He's descended from Eastern European jews who had the foresight to come to the USA before the Holocaust.  When Diamond was growing up, people were misinformed about jews and judaism, even in the USA.  Diamond has escaped many of the stereotypes jews have suffered from over the course of his life, but he's created a new set of stereotypes for another group of people.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Christianity and Capitalism

Christianity and Capitalism are two of the defining characteristics of Western Society.  In recent years, some have cast doubt on the morality of both.  But the two systems are intertwined, the Republican Party of the US is more capitalist and christian than the Democratic Party.  Likewise, the US is more capitalist and christian than Europe.  So there's a positive relationship between the two ideologies, where you find one you often find the other.  Is that relationship a natural and logical one, or is it one forged for practical gain of the leaders of the ideologies?

"The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again,'Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.'”

Mark 10:24

"And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all of them who sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves."

Matthew 21: 12-13

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return, and repayment come to you. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

Luke 14:12-14

"If there is a poor man among you, one of your brothers, in any of the towns of the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand to your poor brother; but you shall freely open your hand to him, and generously lend him sufficient for his need in whatever he lacks."

Deuteronomy 15:7

So what's the incentive for a christian to become rich?  If he does, he'll have to share his money with the poor and then he'll go to hell anyways.  While some Christians want to end the separation of church and state, Jesus makes it pretty clear that he doesn't want any sort of capitalist practices in his church.

A few bible passages don't fully explain Christianity, there are many Christians organizations who interpret the bible and instruct the faithful.  In 325 christian leaders met in Nicaea to discuss theological issues, they prohibited usury (lending money at interest) among the clergy.   In 1311 Pope Clement V banned usury and declared all legislation which allowed for usury invalid.  It wasn't until the Protestant Reformation that certain christian churches began to allow for usury, but even in 1776 the secular free market enthusiast Adam Smith advocated an interest rate ceiling, limiting the profitability of loaning banks.  If a rich christian wants to avoid hell, he can give his money away or loan it, at no interest.  But loans are essential to a growing economy, if money can't be loaned then the rich have little incentive to lend it.

The Parable of the talents is clearly applicable to economics.  In it, a master travels far away but entrusts his servants with talents (large amounts of money) while he's gone.  When he returns, the servant who he gave five talents has used the money to make another five talents, the servant he gave two talents has made another two talents, but the servant who was only given one talent hasn't made any money at all.  So the master confiscates his talent, gives it to the servant with ten talents, banishes the third servant and says:

"For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn't have, even that which he has will be taken away"

Matthew 25:29

This parable isn't straightforward to interpret, religious scholars don't all agree about what it means.  The master gives money to his servants, he doesn't charge interest but the servant whom doesn't invest the money has his money given to the servant who does.  Perhaps Jesus told it to encourage people with money to spend it on productive ventures.  Banishing a servant simply because he returns the money you gave him and doesn't double it like the other servants have seems unfair.  If lending money at interest is wrong, then why should you expect interest when you give somebody a gift?  Perhaps Jesus told the story as an example of why a rich man is unlikely to go into heaven, he completely avoids his responsibility to the poor.  Or perhaps the lesson isn't moral, but practical, the rich become richer, the strong become stronger and the powerful become more powerful, this is just a fact of life.  Whatever the message, of all the bible passages listed, this is the most pro-capitalist.  The master in the story rewards the servants who spend and punish those who save which sounds like demand supply economics (not the supply side economics Ronald Reagan favored). Yet it advocates taking from the poor to give to the rich, which is not something that most secular proponents of capitalism believe in.

So why do christians support a system that gives a disproportionately large share of money to the top 1%?  There's the cynical explanation that the church is in cahoots with the rich and spreads information to keep the poor poor.  It is hard for a poor person to become rich if he follows christian morality.  First, he can't get a loan.  Second, he has an obligation to help the poor.  Third, his money can be taken away from him and given to the rich.  On the other hand, it's pretty easy for a rich person to stay rich, or even become richer, according to the parable of the talents he should be given wealth, even if he does nothing to earn it.  The middle class (like the second servant in the parable), get a decent deal under christian morality.

Maybe christians are in favor of capitalism because it is the opposite of communism, an economic system which demands the destruction of religion.  In a communistic system, the state helps the poor and there are no rich.  In most capitalist systems, there are a few rich (and if the parable of talents is followed, much of their wealth comes from the poor) who will probably go to hell.  But christianity doesn't decry middle class people or small business owners, so the people between poor and rich can lead good lives, and they are encouraged to make the lives of the poorest better.  If you believe in heaven, the christian system is similar to reincarnation.  The rich who enjoy life on earth the most are reincarnated in hell.  People who don't manage to acquire massive sums of wealth and give what little they have to those poorer than themselves are reincarnated in heaven.