Kung fu TV

Warrior is the shit. It’s a violent kung fu spaghetti western that’s so very over the top. It’s set in 19th century San Francisco and I think is basically what Bruce Lee had wanted the original Kung Fu TV show to originally look like. The protagonist is literally fresh off the boat from China, but unlike other FOBs he knows kung fu and starts kicking racist ass as soon as he arrives.

The show has a lot about the politics around Chinese immigration at the time – the way politicians stoked working class racism at lost jobs, the way the Irish workers shat on those lower down the ladder than them, the way the rich businessmen gladly exploited the Chinese, the resentment the Chinese had against their oppression, and the gangsters and criminals who didn’t give much of a shit as long as they profited. But all this is expressed in modern-ish language (in fact, very hip hop language), and thanks to the magic of TV we hear English when the Chinese characters are talking all funny among themselves.

Did I mention the show is violent? Because it is. It’s what I wanted out of Into the Badlands and damn if it doesn’t deliver. If nothing else, just watch the opening, it’s stylish as hell. I like the whole 70’s kung fu movie poster thing.

Je suis un espion

Nest of Spies: The Startling Truth About Foreign Agents At Work Within Canada’s Borders is, as one might expect from the subtitle, a non-fiction book about the spy scene in Canada. Its authors are a journalist and a former operative of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, so the book ends up being more descriptive than deeply analytical.

I rather wish a sociologist had been the one to write this book, as I think one could have teased out some interesting insights from the inside knowledge that the authors clearly possess. As it is, the book mostly recounts spy stories that took place in Canada and organized by the country of the perpetrators. At the very least I wish the authors had organized the book around the traditional divisions of spy work – e.g., human intelligence, signals intelligence, etc. And some deeper comparisons with other countries would have helped put things into context.

But the book is still pretty eye-opening. I’m a big spy buff, so a lot of the generalities of intelligence work are familiar to me, but I hadn’t been aware of the specifics of how the whole thing works in Canada. There are a couple of anecdotes from the Cold War (did you know that when the Soviet consulate in Montreal burned down in 1987, CSIS painstakingly sifted the ashes and exposed at least one Soviet mole in France?) and the newer free-for-all today (did you also know that French spies steal anything not nailed down from not only their enemies, but also their allies such as the UK and Canada?).

The authors clearly wish to avoid libel lawsuits by carefully avoiding naming some individuals, companies, and even entire countries in their anecdotes. This is rather to the book’s detriment, since details are scarce enough in a world as secretive as the spy’s. Quit dangling juicy tidbits if you can’t deliver. I mean, tell me you don’t want to know more about Big Pharma hitmen after reading this passage:

Then there is the tactic of eliminating the [rival company’s] researchers [as a part of industrial competition]. We wish this were a tongue-in-cheek way of suggesting they be bribed, but we are in fact talking about murdering them. The pharmaceutical research industry has a remarkable reputation for brutality. The development and marketing of a single new medication costs on average $800 million, which means that a professional killer’s $50,000-$60,000 tab is just so much small change once the competing company’s two or three lead project researchers have been identified. (p. 306)

I suppose this reticence might be attributed to the inherently guarded nature of a spy (though spies aren’t immune to the lure of Hollywood – witness how this nameless intelligence worker gushes over their organization being featured in an episode of The Good Wife).

Entwined throughout the book’s  anecdotes are the authors’ calls for Canada to up its counterintelligence game at the corporate and governmental level. It’s true that no one in Canada really gives a shit about spying. Even after finding out just how much proprietary information is stolen in Canada by friends and rivals alike, I still can’t find it in me to care too much. If it ever comes to a choice between spending money on infrastructure or increasing funding for spy work, I say build that damn Toronto to Montreal hyperloop already. Or just that high frequency rail for the Quebec City to Windsor corridor.

Anyway, this book got me started in reading more about Canada’s spying history. Did you know it’s rumoured that Ian Fleming was the sniper who killed a Japanese spy in New York when the US was still neutral in World War 2, as part of a secretive UK-Canada “corporation” operating with the tacit approval of Franklin D. Roosevelt and J. Edgar Hoover? Or that throughout the 19th and early 20th century the Canadian government hired the Pinkerton detective agency to keep tabs on Irish malcontents in the US? I didn’t, until I started down this fascinating rabbit hole. These stories were from Canada’s Enemies: Spies and Spying in the Peacable Kingdom.

I’ll be doing some further reading on the subject, but for the uninitiated, I’d say Nest of Spies is a fascinating introduction.

Beauty is truth, truth beauty

Just here to post an interesting little interview I found with Kim Stanley Robinson (author of one of my favourite science fiction books, The Years of Rice and Salt. I especially liked his observation on the cultural construction of beauty:

SP: I wonder if we would develop a different sense of beauty if we went out into the Solar System. When we think of natural beauty, we tend to think of gorgeous landscapes like mountains or deserts. But out in the Solar System, on another planet or a moon, would our experience of awe and wonder be different?

KSR: You can go back to the 18th century when mountains were not regarded as beautiful. Edmund Burke and the other philosophers talked about the sublime. So the beautiful has to do with shapeliness and symmetry and with the human face and figure. Through the Middle Ages, mountains were seen as horrible wastelands where God had forgotten what to do. Then in the Romantic period, they became sublime, where you have not quite beauty but a combination of beauty and terror. Your senses are telling you, “This is dangerous,” and your rational mind is saying, “No, I’m on a ledge, but I’ve got a railing. It looks dangerous, but it’s not.” You get this thrilling sensation that is not beauty but is the sublime. The Solar System is a very sublime place.

The Union Forever

When Britain and France Almost Merged Into One Country

I thought this was about the Angevin empire in the Middle Ages but nope, it was about a proposed Franco-British Union after the defeat at Dunkirk which was actually supported by Churchill and De Gaulle. I don’t know if it wouldn’t have fallen apart like 5 minutes after they signed the paperwork but kind of an interesting counterfactual to consider besides all the Nazi victory ones.

Middle Ages: The Video Game

So the book Pillars of the Earth (though I only know the story from the TV miniseries) is coming out in video game format. Specifically it’ll be an interactive novel. It looks like there’s some level of game-like playing in there, judging from the pic below.

A medieval monk stands before another, and at the bottom of the screen two choices are presented: to Lie or to Tell the Truth

But seeing as how it’s based on a book with a definite plot and resolution then I assume you can only change the story so much. Perhaps you’ll be railroaded slightly more than in a typical game from Telltale Studios. And seeing as how it’s set in the Middle Ages, it’ll be full of rape, murder, and irrational persecution, so it’ll feel pretty close to Telltale’s Walking Dead series too.

It’s odd that this is coming out, but the art is interesting. I liked the TV show, so I hope the thing is at least decent.

Spies in the night

I love spy stories. I especially love ones that are based on real events. That’s why I was fascinated by this news article about the only known Soviet agent to have infiltrated the CIA. The entire thing is a great read, but I especially liked this part:

In a psychological evaluation from that year, [the Czech intelligence service] described Koecher as “over-confident, hypersensitive, hostile towards people, money driven, showing a strong inclination to instability, emotionally unstable, possessing an anti-social almost psychopathic personality, touchy, intolerant of authoritarianism”.

In other words, just the man for the job.

Spies in the night

I love spy stories. I especially love ones that are based on real events. That’s why I was fascinated by this news article about the only known Soviet agent to have infiltrated the CIA. The entire thing is a great read, but I especially liked this part:

In a psychological evaluation from that year, [the Czech intelligence service] described Koecher as “over-confident, hypersensitive, hostile towards people, money driven, showing a strong inclination to instability, emotionally unstable, possessing an anti-social almost psychopathic personality, touchy, intolerant of authoritarianism”.

In other words, just the man for the job.

The Commissar’s in Town

I kind of liked Total Eclipse, once I’d gotten over the gratuitous fanservice boobery, so of course I’m checking out the prequel series Schwarzesmarken. There’s definitely something worthwhile in this alternate history story of East Germany being invaded by aliens in the 1980s. I did also like Deutschland 83, after all.

However, let me call your attention to the introductory graphic explaining the Cold War to the viewers:

Cold War map of the world showing Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea as not being in the US camp

If you’ll notice, Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines are very clearly not in the American sphere of influence on that map. Is this a stealth resurrection of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?

Yes, it is. In this alternate history, Japan also lost the Second World War, but it kept its imperial regime and some of its territory. Of course, such a thing is utter bullshit. If Germany was beaten so badly that it was partitioned, then there was no way Japan would have gotten a negotiated peace. I’d originally assumed Article whatever of Japan’s pacifist constitution had been repealed in light of the alien invasion, not that pigs had been flying.

The type of Japanese military geek who would write a story set in East Germany is also the type of mildly right-wing jerk-off who views the Japanese Empire with nationalistic nostalgia. I mean, it’s at least entertaining, so it’s automatically better than GATE: Thus the JSDF Fought There.

Setting that aside, since this is an anime about East Germany fighting aliens in the 80’s. I of course had to make a fanvideo scored to Der Kommissar. What else was I going to do? I had to stick the video behind a password-protected Vimeo thing because of the zealousness of copyright protectors. It’s released under the auspices of that anime podcast I’m in.

Anyway, this music video is dedicated to those unsung heroes of the alien war – the Stasi. Password is “bundeswehr”.

Show those greedy capitalists what we think of their copyright regime, kameraden!

Able Archer ’83

I finally got around to watching the German miniseries Deutschland 83. I love spy stories and this show really scratched my itch. The premise is similar to The Americans, except it’s about an East German spy infiltrating the West German branch of NATO.

It’s a lot more devoted to the material aspects of historical fidelity, which is to say that it’s scrupulous in showing the knickknacks and gewgaws that signify the 1980s to audiences in the 21st century. Plus the spy stuff is more realistic, since a military attache to a highly-placed general in the Bundeswehr is more likely to find worthwhile secrets than a travel agent in DC. But like its US counterpart, this show is also devoted to having a contemporaneous musical soundtrack. At times the music can get rather on the nose and overbearing – I mean, yeah, I know this is the 80s, quit beating me over the head with it.

The personal stuff, more often than not, didn’t do it for me. I kind of got bored and sometimes a bit confused at the stuff dealing with the protagonist’s girlfriend and mother back in East Germany; similarly I got a tad annoyed with the West German general’s son. The amping up of the family drama near the end dragged down the climax for me, as I much preferred the spy versus spy stuff.

Overall, though, I enjoyed watching this show. I’m looking forward to the sequel series set in 1986, with a possible third part in ’89.

Captain America versus Cuba

Over on Space Battles some people have been discussing what the 20th century would have been like if the movie version of Captain America had been around – Vietnam, the Iran Mossadegh thing, the Bay of Pigs. Then someone posted a comic book treatment of what Cap would do during the Cuban Revolution:

[Captain America]’s going to kick open the door to Fidel Castro’s guerrilla hideout and give the strongman a speech on ethics, individual responsibility and freedom and the ideal that the Cuban people should strive for. Then the two of them are going to go out and fight evil Batista’s fascist dictatorship and Rogers will train his ragtag guerrillas into diet Special Forces. During the War in the Mountains, entire battalions of Batista’s troops will switch sides after being given an eye watering speech on freedom and American history. Then in the climactic issue, Captain America leads his… I mean Castro’s… Rebel band into Havana and they storm Batista’s palace and suddenly realize the power behind Batista’s dictatorship was HYDRA all along working with the evil Mafia Maggia. Using American Judo Boxing, Captain America defeats the Supreme Hydra before Batista takes Fidel Castro’s brother hostage and is like… I’ll kill you all unless you put down your weapons! So Captain America puts down his shield and then Batista shoves Raul Castro aside and then takes aim at Captain America and FIRES!

But Che Guevara, the idealistic young man with a promising medical career who decided to become a freedom fighter and has become like a protege to Captain America suddenly leaps into the path of the bullet as Fidel Castro hoses Batista down with a burst of gunfire from his All-American ™ Tommy Gun. Che Guevara dies in Captain America’s arms, his last words being… “I would have liked to have seen the Washington Monument…”

Afterwards, Captain America makes another speech to Fidel Castro about some Latino dude he knew back in the Howling Commandos, because all brown people are kinda similar and then asks what Fidel Castro will do. And Fidel Castro is like I’m going to redistribute liberate the wealth stolen riches of the landowners fascist supervillains and foreign businesses Maggia criminal groups to help support the poor and working class Cuban people in order to build a better future by investing in infrastructure and education. And Captain America will be like, that sounds like the right thing to do! And Fidel Castro will respond… it’s the American way!

Fin