Read any good books lately?

So, herewith is a recap of my summer (and now fall) reading history.

The first book I’m discussing is Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones by David Moscrop, a Canadian former political scientist and current op-ed columnist. It’s about the psychological short hand that people in Western democracies use to vote and the tricks that political parties and governments use to try to guide those same voters to preferred outcomes. The book is actually quite easy to read and replete with personal anecdotes and examples from psychological studies to demonstrate the principles being talked about, as well real world examples drawn from US, British, and Canadian politics. However, I can tell that I actually know more than the author about the psychological side of things (or he’s content to keep things at an introductory level for his audience), whereas I’m also something of a news junkie and a poli sci nerd and so am already familiar with what he’s talking about on that end. So the book is a good introduction on these topics but not really something I personally found educational.

The second book is one I really enjoyed reading, which is Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. Scott is also a political scientist, but in addition he trained in anthropology and specializes in comparative politics, especially with regard to peasants and agriculture. The book itself is about the historical transition from hunting and gathering to state societies, as well as the people who refused to join the state (a.k.a. the barbarians). The whole thing is completely my jam. Scott is an anarchist, so he’s of course got a low opinion of the state, but his description of how human misery increased once people took up agriculture is old news among anthropology circles (and probably familiar to anyone who read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

However, Scott goes quite a lot into the comparative details and argues that the state is inherently an unstable formation that requires incredible amounts of resources to keep going, but which is also doomed to fail thanks to the unsustainable demands it makes on the environment, the punishing taxes and labour it demands of its people (usually to fund wars to capture more territory where workers live which in turn demands more wars to capture even more workers in an endless race) which drive the citizens to escape into the hinterlands or revolt, and the regular return of lethal epidemics that are cooked up thanks to all the animals that agriculturalists live with and the cities and trade networks of a complex state society that concentrate and spread pathogens. Scott even argues that the collapse of a civilization might be better termed a reconfiguring, since it’s basically the people of a territory reorganizing themselves into a less precarious status quo.

Of course, preying on the states are the infamous barbarians, which Scott points out weren’t necessarily just alien societies robbing from the civilized. In fact, when the workers of historical states – the peasants, serfs, slaves, and everyone else who’s not an elite at the top of the social pyramid – get fed up with forever being drafted into wars and literally breaking their backs working the fields, they always had the option of joining the barbarians. Why bust your ass when you can have someone else do it and then take their stuff? In turn, a state had the option of repelling the barbarians or paying them off, but either way, it was another state expense. So a state inevitably had its barbarian “dark twin” (more than one sometimes) which grew when the state flourished and disappeared when the state did.

But alas for the barbarians, technological progress ended their viability, since you can’t exactly build Maxim guns out on the great plains, otherwise the Navajo might have forced the early US to cough up protection money like for example how the Uyghurs did to the Chinese or the Celts did to the Romans (though the Chinese usually called this tribute “gifts” and pretended that it was all from the emperor’s munificence).

Anyway, my one criticism of this book is that it just abruptly ends. It goes into the barbarian thing and then that’s it, no closing chapter, no summary, no discussion of the argument that was presented. But otherwise I’d say this is my favourite book of 2021.

Finally, the last book I’m covering is actually the first three books of the Giants series by James P. Hogan: Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, and Giants’ Star. I actually read the manga adaptation first and wanted to know how the original compared. Well, you can tell that these books were written in the 1970s because of the incredible amount of sexual harassment in them. I’ve read lots of Asimov and Heinlein and others of that generation – who all came before Hogan – and I don’t remember these other authors having this much sexual harassment in their works. I wasn’t tracking it, but I think every female character in the story is sexually harassed at least once, whether it’s the gals in the stenography pool being seduced by the married physicist, or the telephone operator being pestered for a date, or the secretary whose incredible ass the protagonist admires as she bends forward to look at a computer monitor.

There’s also a lot of smoking and drinking, which especially stood out in the scene where the protagonists are smoking some after-dinner cigars on a spaceship with presumably limited supplies of oxygen (and this is set in the near-future, not some Star Trek utopia with limitless energy and whatnot). So yeah, it feels very Mad Men. But whatever, I remember when smoking indoors was a thing, I can get past that. It really is the sexual harassment that’s the most notable thing about this series to me.

The story itself is about a mummified astronaut being discovered on the moon, the scientists investigating this mystery, and the interplanetary journey to find the truth behind all of the secrets hidden in the past. Anyway, the books are clearly from a certain old school style of science fiction writing because the characters have barely any personality and mostly just jabber about science at each other. Which is mainly why I kept reading, because sometimes I just want to read about nerds arguing over theories of human evolution.

But this paper-thin characterization explains the sexual harassment, which quite frankly feels jarring when it’s inserted into the story, because it’s a clumsy attempt to humanize the male characters. Yes, this was how Hogan thought he could bring his characters to life: by giving his readers something they could relate to. Obviously, he took it for granted that his readers were all men.

I did appreciate how much better the 2011 Yukinobu Hoshino manga adaptation was, not least for removing the sexual harassment, but also adding the worthwhile female and non-white characters into the story that a white British engineer from the 70s would never have done. It even fixed up some of the science stuff that the original books messed up and moved stuff around so the plot was more engaging.

So yeah, the Giants series. That was a thing.

Anime and the Future of the NEET

Reposting from elsewhere:

Cover of the Welcome to the N.H.K. novel showing Misaki sitting outdoors, a tree in the background and a blue sky above, smiling at the camera
I actually bought this novel the second I saw it in the book store. I think it was $14.

I remember asking during PodCastle in the Sky‘s One Punch Man episode what the future of the NEETs in anime would be. You see, NEET is a British term referring to those unemployed youth who are Not in Education, Employment, or Training, and in the podcast I asked whether anime in the future would be about grown up NEET protagonists worrying over not having a pension. Art must cater to its audience, and if there are so many Japanese people stuck in a pit of economic despair, won’t they want their lives reflected in the stories they consume?

It’s a few years later and I think I’d like to expand the question to include those who are horrifically underemployed in Japan. As the title of a Bloomberg article from 2020 reveals, Japan’s Lost Generation Is Still Jobless and Living With Their Parents. The article’s description of the Japanese job market is painful in its inequity.

The doors open only once. That’s how people often describe Japan’s hidebound hiring system, in which college students have their best shot at landing a coveted salaried position in the year approaching graduation. Those who successfully navigate the arduous corporate recruiting process will be rewarded with a secure place on the corporate ladder, along with regular raises and promotions. The rest are largely condemned to flit from one low-paying job to the next, with little avenue for advancement and zero job security . . . Japan’s 2015 census revealed there were 3.4 million people in their 40s and 50s who had not married and lived with their parents.

So here is Japan, here are its young people, and here is the miserable life of bare survival that they suffer through. What can anime say to this audience? How can it be relevant, especially when the makers of anime are also living through the same misery? (And when I say misery I mean misery: in 2019 it was possible for a new animator to make an annual income of 668,000 yen, which is around $6600 USD. Yes, there is no missing zero in that figure. There’s a crowdfunding project just to subsidize housing costs for the ones who make the anime we consume.)

I would say there are two ways for anime to deal with life in late-stage capitalism. The first is to acknowledge its barbarity. However, the logic of modern life is so crushing and inhumane that to depict it realistically is too much to bear for the artists and for the audience. The solution is to turn to comedy to soften the blow.

If we were to name the works of anime capitalist realism that are most well-known, we would not do worse than listing the classic series Welcome to the NHK!, which is about the people unable to compete in the marketplace of labour, or Aggretsuko, which is about the ones who did enter the ranks of the wage slave but who found no better life anyway, or Recovery of an MMO Junkie, which is about abandoning the existential despair of being alienated from your labour. For the present season of anime, we could point to Uramichi Oniisan, except it’s not very good and in fact rather painfully blah.

The second way for anime to grapple with the weight of modernity is more reactionary. Instead of meeting the real, the anime takes the opposite trajectory of escape. The escape might be through returning to a better time – see all the series where the protagonist wakes up as their younger self like Remake Our Life! or gets de-aged like ReLIFE – or it might be a literal escape to a better world. Yes, I’m talking about all the isekai shit that comes out every season, some of which are embarrassingly frank about being nothing but vehicles for wish fulfillment.

Those wishes being fulfilled might be as innocuous as being able to sleep in and work whenever you want and at whatever you want for as much or as little as you want, like in all those isekai series about farming in a fantasy town or whatever (see Restaurant To Another World for an example involving opening a small business in a fantasy land with absolutely no problems whatsoever). Or those wishes could be darker and more disgusting, such as indulging a sexual slavery fetish like in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord or Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody (and yes, the protagonist is invariably a man enslaving women).

It may sound like I think anime about the real world’s unhappiness are better for facing up to the truth, but in reality I think both the path of acknowledgement and the path of escape can lead equally to nowhere. Obviously hiding from society’s problems make one less likely to help in fixing them, but merely knowing things suck doesn’t do anything either. Without a call to action, outrage leads only to frustration and then to resignation and apathy.

So even in our fantasies we can’t escape the inequity of our world. The rank unfairness of existence circumscribes the stories we tell and haunts the dreams that we create.

However, we should not slip into nihilism. I will remind you all that better conditions existed not very far back in time and can do so again, and perhaps be better, for even those older times had their own miseries. Our dreams can point us to another path so long as we remember that dreaming is not an end in itself.

So let us struggle for a better world: what do we have to lose?

The Future of Capitalism

Well, I’ve finally been out of graduate school long enough that I can read stuff related to my former scholarly interests again.

The first book I’m covering is Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Milanovic is a Serbian-American economist who kind of deals with similar global income inequality stuff as Thomas Piketty. I don’t know enough about him to definitely say what his politics are except that from this book I feel he’s a “reform capitalism with redistribution” type.

Anyway, the book is mostly about present-day capitalism, but it necessarily covers two older kinds first in its survey: the classic robber baron kind of 19th century capitalism and the post-war kind where the bosses and the unions made a pact to play nice for a bit. Of course, he then covers the breakdown of that unwritten agreement with the rise of massive inequality and the hollowing out of the state, which he calls liberal capitalism, though which many others simply call neoliberalism. This is of course the mode of Western capitalism today, but he contrasts that with what he calls state capitalism, which is of the type exemplified by China, where captains of industry are given some leeway so long as they never challenge the primacy of the state.

Anyway, I live in Canada and am already familiar with how our kind of capitalism is fucking everyone over, so I didn’t find anything revelatory in the discussion of the Western economic system. I suppose it’s somewhat novel that Milanovic discovered the term “assortative mating” from biology – it refers to a type of mating pattern where individuals tend to mate and reproduce with those who are similar to them more than otherwise. He brings this up to contrast the old capitalisms with the present kind. Specifically, he provides charts and stats showing that assortative mating was more common among high-income individuals in the past than now (he doesn’t mention what this actually looked like but I assume it’s bosses marrying their secretaries and such). This compares to today, where the university-educated tend to marry each other and where lawyers marry CEOs. Milanovic also brings up that while wealthy individuals in the past were mostly people who didn’t work (i.e., the owners of capital), today many of who we would point to as wealthy might only make money through work (see certain software engineers, management consultants, etc).

But what of state capitalism as developed by and exemplified in China? This part is what I found the most interesting since I never knew much beyond the broad strokes of how exactly the Deng Xiaoping reforms turned the China of the Cultural Revolution into the China of Alibaba and Tencent. The main thing is that economic growth became the guiding principle of the state. Local Communist party groups (and by that I mean extremely local) were allowed to implement practically any policy they wanted, and so long as it succeeded in driving growth then it was given the green light for other regions (and if it failed then the sponsors would be sacked). In theory the sponsors would need to make a case for the policy changes not conflicting with socialist ideology, but in practice the sponsors could just make up some bullshit and it would be accepted so long as it sounded vaguely like socialism, so long as it actually got results. Milanovic points out that China after market reforms somewhat resembles China before the Communist Party, with the very large exception that landlords have been greatly curtailed in the countryside.

Now, Milanovic makes clear that the capitalism of China is similar to ours in that there’s also shocking inequality. There are billionaires and there are oppressed workers, same as here. In fact, the National People’s Congress is the richest parliament in the world, with a combined net worth of $700 billion from all members in 2018. The main difference between their capitalism and ours is that theirs is more nationalist. The wealthy elites are not automatically hostile to the government and do not think of themselves as being separate – in fact, they consider themselves as being participants in the project of China (which may sound a tad megalomaniacal but vaguely resembles France in the 70s). The state is supreme and corporations and capitalists are allowed some leeway so long as they never forget that fact. Of course, when so much money is involved and when the regulators collude so closely with the regulated, corruption and abuse of workers naturally springs up. This is why the Chinese government regularly and publicly punishes various officials for corruption. It’s not a show, exactly, as real punishments are doled out (up to even executions), but one big reason for the punishment is showing the masses that the top 1% are keeping in check the 2-5%. Since the government is institutionally incapable of systematically preventing this kind of thing from cropping up, then it must make regular public demonstrations instead.

But I think the biggest thing Milanovic says, and the most controversial, is his argument that the biggest contribution that communism has provided to the world is providing the development to former colonies that their colonizers were unable to do, allowing the Third World communist countries to build themselves up so that they could effectively join the capitalist system as China and Vietnam have done. In effect, he argues that communism is a transition state to capitalism. It’s an interesting thought, though I would argue that colonizers weren’t incapable of developing their colonies but were uninterested in doing so, as the whole point of them was to transfer the resources of the colonial periphery to the metropole. Postcolonial states didn’t necessarily need to be communist to develop, they just needed to break out of sending their resources elsewhere and instead invest them at home, but seeing as how the leaders of non-communist postcolonial states tended to have strong ties to their imperial masters then we can say that it was probably better to go communist than not if you were in the Third World. And Milanovic points out that, Cold War 2.0 rhetoric aside, it’s a good thing that China is loaning development funds to African countries even if there are strings attached, since it’s not like anyone else is offering them any funds.

I do have to say that there are a bunch of things Milanovic wasn’t good on, especially when he tried his hand at sociology or literary theory. One thing that stood out for me was that he took it for granted that the populations of Western countries would inevitably be hostile to too much immigration, which despite being economically and demographically necessary is too much for domestic populations to accept culturally. The solution he proposes is to create tiers of citizenship, which sounds to me like existing systems of guest workers and temporary residents but perhaps he envisions more levels of participation and obligation.

The biggest thing that I disagree with Milanovic on is something that he implies by never mentioning it: he accepts that there is no alternative and that capitalism is our only option. I increasingly feel that anyone today who writes of capitalist development as an unqualified good without mentioning the hard limits our environment imposes on us – the negative externalities, in the language of economics – is doing us all a disservice. But perhaps that is a story for another day. As it stands, I feel Capitalism Alone was kind of an okay book to get back to reading stuff with lots of academic verbiage and statistics and shit, but I don’t think it was a banger. 7 out of 10, if I were to give it a rating.

Sword and Sorcery and Titties

I watched Fire and Ice this past weekend. I thought I’d seen it before but I remembered nothing except the two seconds in the climax where the guy with the ax kills the evil wizard. Possibly my older brother rented it at some point in the 90s and I saw it then?

Anyway, it’s not very good, especially when considered with modern sensibilities. It’s about Conan-like mighty-thewed heroes fighting against the conquering hordes of an evil wizard, but honestly, the plot feels like an excuse to animate several disconnected Frank Frazetta sketches and paintings – Death Dealer on a horse, the one where a warlord sits on a throne while a chick in a bikini and a jaguar lie at his feet, the one where Conan leaps into battle roaring in defiance as he brandishes his weapons over his head.

Animation-wise, the movie is fine. It uses that Ralph Bakshi rotoscoping technique so if you find it off-putting, I do not recommend watching this. And speaking of Frank Frazetta, I hope you like his fixation on scantily-clad thicc women and equally scantily-clad large-muscled men. Actually, I hope you really like scantily-clad large-muscled men since I reckon 90 percent of the camera’s gaze is lovingly focused on their powerful bodies in action. But that 10 percent focused on scantily-clad thicc women is, uh, pretty misogynistic. If you’re not clear on what “male gaze” means I would suggest watching all the scenes with female characters in this movie. Thighs, asses, nipples poking through bikini tops – the gaze of the unseen male watcher savagely wanking behind the camera is suffocatingly present.

In fact, aesthetically and politically, Fire and Ice reminds me of 300. I remember walking out after the end of 300 and remarking, “Boy, that was a really fascist movie”. Both movies are about perfect Aryan specimens defending their proud and noble people against hordes of dark-skinned degenerates. Women exist to be leered at but not have sex with while evil men exist to be killed and to be tempted into having sex with thanks to strong homoerotic undertones. It’s really hard for me to imagine how you could make a Nazi sword and sorcery film without essentially making this movie.

Anyway, the movie is an interesting look at what was considered politically acceptable to depict forty years ago.

Strongly Dislike the Police

Thanks to, you know, the thing, there have been a few ongoing discussions online and in other places about copaganda shows that invariably always show the police as heroes and minimize or erase real world issues of systemic racism, domestic abuse, etc among the police community.

The conversations reminded me of the show 19-2, which is set among the beat cops of a fictional Montreal police station. It does show moments of heroism – one of its best episodes is a harrowing depiction of cops responding to an active school shooting – along with regular work bullshit like the cops paying for a shoplifter’s frozen turkey because they didn’t want to deal with arrest paperwork. But it also shows cops being unequivocally shit.

The cops’ union rep, for example, is a wife beater. It’s not addressed in a single very special episode divorced from the larger story, either, but is an ongoing subplot over the series, and after an abusive incident so terrible that the violence can’t keep getting swept under the rug, the union negotiates a tearful public apology from the abuser to convince his wife to return to him, which is portrayed as exactly terrible an idea as you would think.

Another cop is an alcoholic and shows up to work drunk or hungover, directly endangering others, but when the protagonist brings it up with his partner, he’s told that reporting the problem is useless since the union knows how to address complaints which can make them seem without substance or taken out of proportion (of course implying that alcoholic cops are so widely found that there’s already a playbook for dealing with complaints about them). Yet another cop gets jumped by some youths and takes out her PTSD by being extra-violent to protesters later on while facing almost no consequences for it.

The biggest omission from the show, though, especially in light of the current protests, is its refusal to show police racism, at least in the episodes I’d seen. This reflects mainstream Canadian reluctance to discuss race beyond rah-rah self-praise for multiculturalism and the equally strong tendency to point to the US as being terrible and therefore that means things aren’t actually that bad (similar to the way white Europeans use the example of the US to avoid dealing with their own problems on racism).

Anyway, I had originally thought the show was just being anti-union, but in retrospect maybe it was being anti-cop union specifically. It’s rare enough to see the realistic bad stuff about police officers being shown in fiction that isolated examples stand out. It’s something to mull over regarding fictional depictions of the thin blue line separating us from the savage hordes of ourselves.

After Trek

I recently finished reading Trekonomics by Manu Saadia. It analyzes the Star Trek shows and movies to discover what kind of economics exists in the Trek universe. I hadn’t realized how dorky the corner of the Internet I regularly traverse is but I was actually already familiar with many of the arguments the book puts forth, though there was less nerdy jargon being thrown around than online. The book takes for granted what the characters claim about the Federation’s society having no money and no want and teases out what that would mean as far as labour, innovation, psychology, and so on.

The end conclusion is that the Federation’s innovation is not technological, but political. It does present an interesting hypothesis for the Drake equation – that thing scientists and sci-fi enthusiasts use when they need to pull a number out of their asses for how many alien civilizations exist in the universe. The book points out that exploring space is inherently unprofitable and that space exploration means creating a society where massive resources are not wasted on convincing people to gamble on mobile games and suing each other over intellectual property violations. Perhaps the main thing preventing aliens from zooming around in space ships is that they never figured out a way to organize their societies around anything besides profitability, which is to say that capitalism is the problem.

It’s an interesting thesis and obviously impossible to test, but seeing as how space exploration stalled once it stopped being a dick measuring contest (i.e., stopped being possible to profit in terms of national prestige) it does make some sense.

Anyway, I found it an interesting read. And I suppose I should really get on with watching Discovery already.

Down with politics

Elsewhere in the world I have been discussing the book Soonish, which is about incredible inventions that are on the cusp of making the world a better place. Some of the proposed technologies were interesting, some were ho-hum, and some were completely pie-in-the-sky. The thing about the book that most leapt out at me, though, was the politics that it was uncritically espousing.

Several times the book discusses how the inventions will be used by the American military, which made me pull back with some befuddlement – how, I asked while reading, is improving the way people kill each other making the world a better place? What I found especially striking was that it was clear that the authors took it for granted that supporting the US military was an unqualified good and most likely didn’t even consider it as a political act at all.

The other thing that struck me about the book, which shouldn’t be surprising considering its “science fuck yeah” tone, is that it insisted on technical solutions for political problems. The section on housing goes on about how outrageously outmoded the current construction model of building houses is, and what with the housing crisis in America today the best solution is some kind of modular houses that assemble themselves or some shit (I read the book months ago so I don’t remember the specifics).

In fact, the book argues, with the rising homelessness crisis and unaffordability of housing in places like San Francisco, it’s practically a moral necessity to get these robot houses approved and building themselves ASAP since they can do the job faster and cheaper than what we have right now.

That line of argument reminded me of how some people talked about fixing world hunger back in the nineties. If we could just develop the right fertilizer or right GM crops or whatever then we could increase crop output and famine would forever be eradicated. Of course, this ignores the fact that the world hunger crisis exists at the same time as the world obesity crisis. The problem isn’t that there’s not enough food for everyone – if that were true, it would be impossible to eat enough to become obese. The problem is that food goes not to who needs it, but who has money to pay for it. Which is to say that the problem is political, not technical.

It’s the same thing with the current housing shortage. If developed countries really, really wanted to, then everyone who wanted a home could have one. But a host of of political problems – baby boomers who want real estate prices to stay high because selling their houses is their retirement plan, developers chasing luxury prices for wealthy international elites who just want someplace stable to park their money, widespread societal aversion to the idea of renting, a regulatory environment that makes approval of new construction so arduous that it incentivizes developers into only focusing on the absolutely most profitable projects, and so much more – combine to stymie efforts for change.

So my expectation is that if self-building robot houses or whatever are approved, the savings in time and money will just mean larger profits for the developers and no meaningful difference will be made in the amount of housing being constructed. But woo robot houses.

It’s December again

The holidays are upon us, which means it’s time once again to shit on Love Actually. Here is an interesting essay about hating the movie for its arrogant Englishness which links Love Actually to Brexit and manages not to break the shoehorn it was using:

Love Actually is objectively a very bad movie, but that explains nothing. The world is full of bad movies. Besides, I don’t believe in hating movies, no matter how bad. Honest critics can find a movie stupid or dishonest or boring or shoddily made or politically dubious. But hatred? That’s just a sign of something missing in yourself. If you hate Marvel movies, you’re probably just not in the target demographic. If you mock Tyler Perry movies, you’re really just mocking the people those movies are made for . . .

My revulsion for Love Actually nonetheless comes principally from its Englishness. I don’t believe in hating movies and I don’t believe in hating peoples either, but Love Actually forces the question. “Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think of the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport.” The opening line tells you everything you need to know about the real subject of this film. Love Actually takes two of the most beautiful phenomena on Earth — love and Christmas — and replaces them with Englishness. Love Actually predicted the Brexit era, in a way, since both are the result of the ingrained English sense of their superiority and the final proof that their sense of superiority is an antiquated fantasy. George Orwell identified the basic assumption of English conservatism back in 1939: “Nothing ever changes and foreigners are funny.” That’s the operating principle of both Brexit and Love Actually. The dominant aesthetic is entitled insularity.

Basically it argues that Love Actually is English provincialism at its worst and that watching the movie is essentially like watching England savagely wanking over a photo of itself.