Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ancient Deadbeats and the Rise of Man

Snail shells drilled with holes and coated in ochre have turned up in South Africa, Israel, Algeria, and, most recently, Morocco. They all date to about 82,000 years ago, give or take several thousand years. Despite, or perhaps because of, short brutish lifespans among early peoples and the rapid changeover of generations, physical culture changed slowly back then. A few millennia scarcely make a difference.

The shells, all of similar type, obviously were strung into beads. They are the earliest known art and, so the anthropologists who found the latest batch argue, the earliest known currency. It seems the entire prehistoric world was on the snail standard, at least among modern humans. This was a curious time when modern humans co-existed with Neanderthal in Europe and Homo Erectus in parts of Asia, neither of whom left evidence of being in the least bit artistic or money-grubbing. They made a few practical tools, but that is about it.

The appearance of modern consciousness is usually considered to be evidenced by the first art. Apparently it also is evidenced by the first money, which was one and the same thing. Art and monetary value are both abstractions which are beyond minds simpler than the ones belonging to these cave dwelling snail-beaders.

One wonders if some hoarded beads while others spent them profligately. Did they borrow them and charge each other interest? Did clan leaders tax them? How different were these people from us? How different are we from them?

Here is an alternate hypothesis for why modern people spread out over the globe, replacing other types of human. The usual one is that they slowly spread their hunting ranges and, due to superior skills and higher reproduction, they simply displaced the others over time. Perhaps their spread into new lands had nothing to do with hunting. Maybe they were fleeing creditors.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Aping France

I first saw Pontocorvos’ documentary-style movie The Battle of Algiers shortly after its US release in 1967. I watched it again last night, and it remains crushingly relevant.

The Algerian uprising against France, which began a few years after World War 2, taught a couple of unfortunate lessons: 1) terror can be effective, and 2) military ruthlessness can be effective. The film covers the year the turbulent year 1957 in which rebel FLN activity swelled. Insurgents bombed Europeans (roughly a fifth of Algeria’s population at the time) in soda shops, airports, clubs, race tracks, and other ordinary places; European vigilantes carried out bloody and carelessly targeted reprisals against Arabs and Berbers. The French military, smarting from its recent reverses in Indochina, intervened with force and skill. French forces killed or captured key FLN organizers and quelled the revolt with surprising speed, but they achieved this success only by suspending due process, scrapping civil liberties, employing wholesale arrests, and using aggressive interrogation methods (read torture). Though the tactics succeeded, the French literally were demoralized in the process. In the movie, Colonel Mathieu shrugs off press criticism; he says that these are the methods required to win. If the French want to keep Algeria, he says, “you must accept the consequences.” The victory proved fleeting. The FLN resumed the insurgency in a couple years and the French didn’t have the heart to fight it out again. France quit Algeria in 1962.

France and the US are much more alike than the citizens of either like to admit. Both still take the ideals of their respective 18th century Revolutions seriously (at least in words); both have a sense of exceptionalism in the world; both mix cultural defensiveness with multicultural reality; both try to export their values which they consider universal; both confuse national interests with international ones; both are regarded as hopelessly arrogant by outsiders (and by each other); and each is reluctant to learn from the mistakes or successes of the other.

Despite the French experience in Indochina, Americans decided to repeat it and were defeated for much the same reasons. (Dien Bien Phu, though a setback, was no more crippling to the French military than Tet was to the Americans; what it shattered was political will.) Despite the Anglo-French boondoggle at Suez, the US repeatedly has intervened in the region since with no better results. The French experience in Algeria was almost mindlessly repeated by the US in Iraq.

The French haven’t brought any big disasters upon themselves lately (though they do have some minority assimilation challenges). Perhaps we’ll ape that too, for a while.

Monday, March 16, 2009

In Defense of Trash

The cult classic B movie Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill! (1965) was unavailable on DVD for years, but my copy finally has arrived. It is superb trash. No, it is trash transcending itself. Though there is not a scene in it that cannot be aired on primetime broadcast TV, the movie never is shown there because, collectively, the scenes make something definitely not for kids. There are busty killer babes, a threatened innocent, and (four years before Manson) a twisted family in an isolated desert ranch. Russ Meyer, with a pocket change budget, directed his quirky cast to make something special.

There is an old controversy about this sort of film, with an odd coalition of social conservatives and PC-liberals arguing that productions of this ilk encourage violence and should be restricted. They cite studies showing that exposure to violent images desensitizes people and makes them more aggressive. An equally odd mix of right and left dispute this and oppose restrictions. Gordon Dahl at UC San Diego and Stefano DellaVigna at UC Berkeley, from the latter group, recently concluded in their study that violent films reduce violence:

“We find that violent crime decreases on days with higher theater audiences for violent movies. The effect is mostly driven by incapacitation: between 6PM and 12AM, an increase of one million in the audience for violent movies reduces violent crime by 1.5 to 2 percent. After the exposure to the movie, between 12AM and 6AM, crime is still reduced but the effect is smaller and less robust. We obtain similar, but noisier, results using data on DVD and VHS rentals. Overall, we find no evidence of a temporary surge in violent crime due to exposure to movie violence. Rather, our estimates suggest that in the short-run violent movies deter over 200 assaults daily.”

Both groups, in my opinion, miss the point. A normal individual does not go out and commit assaults because he or she watched a shoot-‘em-up movie. Artists and viewers should not be shackled and censored according to the lowest common denominator of human being, i.e. someone who cannot distinguish fiction from reality and who takes his cues from the former. The problem with this person is not the movies. There always are people who can’t handle freedom, no matter what variety; this is no argument against it. Shackles belong only on people who commit crimes, not on people who depict them.

This still leaves open the question of whether such productions have positive value. This too is an old dispute. More than two millennia ago, Aristotle, disagreed with his mentor Plato who thought literature and the theater should be censored; Ari said violent and emotionally rending Greek tragedies were cathartic. They allowed viewers to experience and discharge deeper and darker aspects of themselves in a harmless way. The experiences thereby were healthy and promoted self-knowledge. I think the old boy was onto something.

Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill! may not be The Bacchae and Russ Meyer was no Euripides, but the latter was considered by many to be a producer of trash in his day. I’m glad his works survived the censors.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Kinder Gentler Terminator

An Economist article on machine intelligence and the shift toward robotic warfare reports the following:

"Dr. Arkin believes there is another reason for putting robots into battle, which is that they have the potential to act more humanely than people. Stress does not affect a robot's judgment in the way it affects a soldier's."

How curious – and disturbingly credible. Perhaps Sarah Connor is safe after all, except from her fellow humans.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Over the years I've owned 9 cats, 2 dogs, a horse, and a skunk. There were about a dozen other pets which were co-owned with family. Every one of them had qualities I would admire in a human being, and, of course, many I wouldn't. Every one of them was instructive. Let us take the skunk, for instance.

Stinky (what else?) appeared one day at the back porch as a tiny little thing that apparently had lost his mother. It was necessary to de-scent him in order to share a home with him. He grew up healthy and strong, but though he consented to human contact he never really liked it. Instead, he formed a friendship with the Great Dane. He didn't much like the indoors at all. It seemed best to let him have his way as soon as he was big enough, so he moved out of the house into the back yard where he was much happier. He dug out a nest for himself under a leaf pile next to the dog house and ate out of the same dish as the dog. He lived there for years. People and other animals, not knowing his clip was empty, always gave him a wide berth. The bluff was enough. All the same, he never wandered far from the Great Dane just in case.

Stinky gave me some perspective on events in Iraq. Why, people ask, did Saddam Hussein allow the world to believe he had weapons of mass destruction for so many years? The simple answer: a credible bluff has deterrent value all by itself. It worked for Stinky. However, Stinky had some sense of limits to bluffing, so he hung out with the big dog just in case. Had Saddam sidled up to the big dog, he'd still be in power.