Sunday, September 14, 2014

What's Happening to Hollywood?

John Nolte, writing for Breitbart.com, has commented on the decline of Hollywood revenues in his piece, HOLLYWOOD CODE RED: 2014 ALREADY A WRITE OFF, 19% OF JOBS CUT. While he does nail a couple of things, he's also missed a few spots.

Nolte's sources are the following stories:
Now, I'm not a movie industry analyst. I'm not a mogul. My opinions are simply those of a moviegoer who keeps his eyes open. Even so, I'm the guy who chooses to spend... or NOT spend... his money, and if the film industry wants to avoid a downward trend, it would probably serve them well to listen to some people who aren't analysts. And you might notice that most of my examples here are science fiction movies, but that's usually what I go to see. It's the principle that's important.

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY!

Nolte rightly notes that the general cost of seeing a movie has become more expensive over time. Two trips to the theater with my family could by an Android tablet. It could buy five blockbuster movies on disk for home release. And that's just admission. One of the things I learned when I worked as an assistant manager for Plitt Theatres was that theatres don't really make any significant profit on the box office, which is why the concessions are so expensive. Expensive or not, it's the concessions that keep the place in business, not the blockbuster titles. It's not that there aren't millions of dollars to be had... it's just that the distributor is going to get 95% of it for the first week, with only a shallow reduction in that percentage for the following weeks.  As a result, the cost to you, the viewer, is far greater than if the theatres were allowed to negotiate more reasonable terms. "Reasonable" is, of course, relative. These are the terms that have always existed, long before I was totalling box office receipts in the late '70s.

Popcorn pays the rent
Box office receipts, therefore, track very closely with what the studio is actually raking in. Except it isn't. Most studios separate themselves from distributors even when they're "really" the same company (as with Walt Disney and Buena Vista). Now, even when they're closely tied, production companies and distribution companies construct their contracts in such a way that almost no movie makes a profit, at least not on paper. Often this is to prevent payments to those who were stupid enough to negotiate a share of "the net". This is common knowledge, as is the fact that even when they "don't make a profit", they really do... which is why A-list actors and actresses can negotiate a $20 million payday for one month's work. Those box office receipts go to paying off investment, and the rest of it is gravy, with very little reserved for any actual expenses.

You might imagine that an environment like that might promote a little corruption.

So there's one reason why your visit to the theatre is so expensive: studio greed which forces the venue manager to jack up concession prices. Buy the Skittles anyway... it's not their fault.

OVER-PRODUCTION

But what about that ticket price? It's going up and up. That's the fault of the studio execs and the directors who have faulty ideas about what "the audience wants to see". Because there are so many millions at stake, they're often afraid to make a mistake, and thus over-produce a movie to a ridiculous extent.

Take as an example John Carter. It made a very respectable $280+ million at the box office, which should have made a few sing hallelujah. However, that didn't happen. It was considered to be a flop. The reason... it cost $250 million to produce, which in "Hollywood accounting" takes over half a billion dollars to recoup. Don't do the math, it will just make your head hurt. Keep in mind that most of the people who called it a "flop" are studio accountants. The film itself wasn't bad. And the critics who've called it "derivative" simply display an embarrassing ignorance. If it looked as if elements of the story had been "done before", that's merely because "A Princess of Mars" was the first of its genre in print.

What's missing?
But did the audience know that? How could they, when the studio did their best to hide it? Let's look at the poster, shall we?

What's missing? Maybe "Of Mars"? Or Edgar Rice Burroughs' name? These references were deliberately removed by Disney's marketers. In trying to "appeal to a broader audience" the studio suits removed the sort of thing that would have brought in a larger audience. As a result, many moviegoers... especially the younger ones who are most prone to visit the box office... didn't know what the movie was about. If they'd been honest about the source material and done their marketing right they would have significantly increased the amount of money this film brought in. The critics would have known what they were reviewing and the studio might have hit their box-office target.

Even so, the film did well enough, and could have done better had it not been over-produced.

I view myself as the ideal target audience for this film. I read the "Barsoom" books of E.R. Burroughs as a child and have re-read them several times since. This had been on my cinema wish-list for years. But when I or anybody else who's read a classic say that, it means that they want to see the story brought to life. They want to see what they've read. When a studio gets involved they start analyzing it and focus-grouping it and they start rooting around looking for a "fresh take"... Then they get caught up in the visuals and it all goes crazy. The flying ships of Helium are recognizable as ships in the books, and warships at that. In the movie they're sprawling, spidery, fragile, feathery things that seem designed simply to maximize the cost of CGI modeling. In the book, the city-state of Zodanga not only stays put, but is a veritable fortress, surrounded by walls 75 feet high and 50 feet thick. In this movie the city of Zodanga inexplicably walks around on complicated clumpy feet. And so on. The filmmakers are so busy trying to gee-whiz us with their "skillz" that they forgot what the movie was supposed to be about. Nothing of the baroque visuals added to the story, but it added to the price, all right.

Disney could have chopped the production budget in half and still made their $280 million, and I don't think that's an unreasonable statement at all. Hell, with production costs of less than a million dollars, The Asylum managed a successful direct-to-DVD release of A Princess of Mars. It sucked in comparison to John Carter, but it didn't lose money, and some of the visualizations were better. Disney has no excuse for such waste.

This kind of bungling is commonplace. Hollywood over-produces everything, and they over-produce the wrong things. So they waffle over sociology when they should just conclude that a book's success equates to "this is what people want to see". There's a reason that the top-grossing films of the last decade are faithful adaptations of popular books: Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc. Marvel anything is successful because they took control and are making live action comics like the ones they print rather than worrying about realism. Now Marvel unapologetically put a talking tree and raccoon on the screen, and as a result exceeded expectations for "Guardians of the Galaxy".

Of course, these are the kinds of movies that Nolte describes as "aimed at teenage fanboys". The statement betrays a misunderstanding of the superhero and sci-fi genres, but that's OK.

LACK O CREATIVITY

If you're adapting a wildly successful book to the big screen and you decide to depart from the source material significantly, then you're an idiot who deserves to be parted from his investment. Of course, by that standard, Hollywood studios are mostly staffed by idiots.

On the flip side, if you're bringing something "new" to the screen it would be best if there were a bit of originality to it. By this standard Hollywood is still mostly staffed by idiots. If anybody makes a movie that's successful, then for the next five years you'll see variations of that same movie over and over and over again. I'm not kidding.

They couldn't find a fat black woman?
Seriously?
To illustrate, I was going to use the most ridiculous example I could imagine, and compile for you a list of movies in which thin black actors dress up like fat black women. Then I remembered that this is the Internet, which means that somebody somewhere thinks that's porn, and according to Rule 34 the list must already exist. Kaynahorah, the list does exist! Not only that, it's a Top Ten list. I'm amazed, not only that they could find ten, but that they had to cut it off there.

In the same vein, you're not going to get just one of a successful movie from the same studio. There will be sequels. And the sequels will generally be worse, mostly because they're not about being creative. Instead they're about checking under the sofa cushions to make sure they've got all the money they can get from you.

Meanwhile, analysts like Doug Creutz of Cowen & Co. express surprise that sequels of remakes aren't performing as well as they expected. For crying out loud, dude, do we have to draw you a picture? Of course consumer habits are changing!

HOLLYWOOD THINKS YOU'RE STUPID

Nolte writes:
"Hollywood is making fewer theatrical films, and a huge majority of those are either aimed at teenage fanboys or the hoity-toity who attend festivals that should be called: Arty Pretentious Shit No One Will Ever See".
Touché. To all outward appearances, "Hollywood" believes you're an idiot. There are a handful of art films that win obscure awards from critics and a severely restricted list of filmmaking peers; but these seem to be created mainly to stroke the egos of the directors. They rarely make it to distribution. Don't worry, you're not smart enough to watch one, even if you could find a back-alley college cinema that's screening it.

Rather, to Hollywood, you have the attention span of a goldfish. Directors seem to think you'll forget what time you walked into the theatre, which ironically enables you to sit through a three-hour movie so long as there's a shitload of motion and color on the screen. And that's what they believe you need to see. A new movie like Orson Welles' Citizen Kane wouldn't be hailed as a classic today. It would be roasted as a snooze-fest. To make Miracle on 34th Street today you'd need to add some wacky hijinks and an elf with an attitude. The only reason people sit through older films like this today is because they've been told they're great. And upon watching them, they find that yes, they're great. But no studio could convince themselves of the fact today, to the extent that they'd be willing to back such a thing financially, regardless of genre.

You're held in that seat for three hours to justify ticket prices that are hiked up to pay for costs that are inflated because the studios pump money into "production". Meanwhile, small movies can still be great, and people will still pay a reasonable price to sit and be entertained for an hour and a quarter. Theatres are beginning to figure this out, and they're starting to capitalize on the digital technology they've been forced into by using it in other ways. Because a modern projector is basically a heavy-duty projection computer monitor, it's possible to project video from any source... not just film, but live theatre, concerts, sporting events. and conferences. Think Superbowl Sunday on steroids. Companies can use them for global teleconferencing. Everyone gets a great comfortable seat, an unobstructed view, and excellent sound. And while the classic distribution system is still in place, there's really no technical reason that a theatre can't show whatever they want so long as they deem it to be profitable. And being profitable is far easier when you can negotiate a reasonable percentage of the box office, and when the filmmaker is not burdened with the expense of printing and shipping physical film stock. With the draconian distribution process out of the way, everybody gets a bigger slice of a smaller pie.

Contrary to Doug Creutz's analysis, I think that theatre chains will adapt and do just fine.

A NEW MODEL

I've invested in a few Kickstarter projects, including indie movies. Typically these guys need a few tens of thousands of dollars or so to create a movie, and they're having to stretch that money pretty far. The cast isn't going to retire on it, and the whole production is hoping to break even. I invest in these because they're attempting to make a movie that I want to see. They tell me in advance what they're going to make, they tell me who they've got on the production staff and how they intend to use the money. Instead of selling me a ticket or a DVD, they're asking me to invest in the project, and my return is nothing less than the story I want to see. Everybody knows I want to see it before they get started, and no money exchanges hands unless there are enough investors like me to provide the production costs in full. And all during production I get regular status updates, pictures, and "making of" videos that make me feel like a part of the team.

HELLZ YEAH. That's how it's done, and if it bothers the studio heads in Hollywood that they're not making enough off of one movie to allow 500 guys like me to retire in reasonable comfort, then screw them. This is the new reality: you can either produce what people want to see and hope they pay for it, or you can tell them what you have in mind and ask if they want to be a part of it. Amazingly, people will readily spend $40 bucks to invest in a modest movie that they really want to see. That's the same $40 bucks that Disney spent $250 million to wrest out of my hands for "John Carter".

So, disappointed with a film like JJ Abrams' Star Trek, I invest in projects like Axanar, which is smaller, more intimate, and a thousand times smarter. And it can't be just me... these guys asked for $100 grand and received over $600 grand to get started. And their sales pitch is a 20 minute prelude that lets you put eyes on the quality of the finished product.

Oh, and there's one more thing about indie films... they're not tied to Hollywood, and the artificial, ridiculous expense associated with being located in "the Golden State" (by which they mean you should bring some gold with you... you're going to need it). Already, big films are made in Toronto or New Zealand because it's cheaper to ship a cast to another country and film than it is to stay put. Why should a movie need to be made by union labor in a studio in California?

Am I going to cry for Hollywood? No. I welcome the new model. Anybody who wants to make a movie, can. They need talent and ideas, which they take straight to the audience. The big studios can still survive, but not if they keep to the same path. If they can go bigger and bigger they'll eventually die out like dinosaurs. Or they can reign in the madness. Once upon a time a studio cranked out a movie a month. Films were affordable, and people saw a lot of them. But we could help them out by ditching the unhealthy fascination with discovering who "won" the "box office wars" every season. There's no such thing, and it's a stupid thing to track anyway. So long as you're seeing movies you want to see, who the hell should care whether somebody else sold more tickets?



P.S. I have to comment on Nolte's statement that "the music industry has been 'disrupted' in to oblivion." Of course that's not true, but it has changed. It is no longer necessary for someone to sign with a record label to become famous, or even earn a living. Today there are more musicians making more music heard by more people than ever before. You can get on YouTube or iTunes, and if you have talent you can get famous. And just like with film projects, many musicians like Zarni have found financing for their albums through Kickstarter.

You may not get signed to a contract and bought a car, but if every musician who's had something to say about it is to be believed, that's not a terrible thing. This is a system that needs to die. But it hasn't. The end goal of big productions like "The Voice" or "American Idol" or "The X Factor" is a recording contract, and that doesn't work out for everybody. Keep in mind that the recording business has always been a minefield for most musicians. Only a very select few ever found lasting fame and fortune.

.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Attention Walmart Shoppers


I have a bone to pick with you. Maybe a few. At least some questions to ask. You see, I shop at Walmart the same as you do. It's not like I can really avoid it. In our little town, Walmart pretty much is "the mall". But you, my fellow citizens, are not making the experience a pleasant one. Oh, I don't mean I don't enjoy bumping into you there... I do, really. But there are a host of little things that you've started doing that make the experience of shopping more difficult. So at the risk of being a curmudgeon (and I admittedly am), here's a short list:

Stopping at the door.
I honestly don't understand this one. Whoever is in front of me is going to stop just past the entrance or exit, blocking it. Typically it goes like this... entering the store, the person goes through the outer "airlock" door, gets a shopping cart (or "buggy" here in the South), walks through the inner door, and stops dead in his or her tracks, looking around as if they'd never seen the underside of a roof before, forming a nice little traffic jam behind them. I know that some autistic people have little rituals when they walk through a door, but I refuse to accept that all of you are autistic. It happens so often that I actually check myself to see if I'm unconsciously doing it. Of course, I'm not, but that's because I'm conscious of it, I suppose. Maybe if you were, you wouldn't do it. But whatever the reason, please...




Expanding.
I don't know a better word for this. In our Super Walmart, many of the aisles are big enough to drive a luxury car through. Nevertheless Walmart shoppers have perfected the technique of blocking them quite nicely. Imagine standing on one side of the aisle. In your hand grasp the handle of your cart. Now stretch that hand out, and position the cart perpendicular to the direction of traffic flow. Now contemplate whatever's in front of you for twenty minutes or so. I'd take photos and show you, except I'm not really wanting to embarrass anyone, and I'm really not wanting to pose for the photo myself. While prompting you to move does give me a valid excuse to introduce myself to you (usually startling you into jumping out of your skin), I always feel a little bit guilty about it, because you're always so very intent on deciding which ice cream it is you want, and I hate making you start over. Now me, I like to leave a little room on one side of the aisle to let other folks around me, and try to be aware of when people are trying to get to the same section I am. As a personal favor to everyone else in the store, if you find yourself expanding to fill all available space, please...



There's another form of expanding that involves having lengthy discussions with folks in high-traffic areas... I don't mind those so much as people rarely intend for the conversations to get lengthy; but when that happens to me I like to keep an eye out for the traffic around me and move the conversation, if necessary.

Cruising.
I'm really torn about this one, but it does bother me -- a lot -- so I'll say it. Walmart has done a very nice thing for people who are semi-handicapped (just having some difficulty getting around) by providing some motorized chairs. I say semi-handicapped because people who really need a wheelchair typically sit in one of their own most or all of the time. So this is really a godsend for people who are maybe using a walker, or are elderly and move slowly on their own. Or perhaps for people who are temporarily incapacitated and so don't have a wheelchair of their own. I'd have been pretty happy, for instance, if one had been available to me shortly after I had my hernia operation and had to stop by the pharmacy. But I found that a shopping cart makes a pretty good walker if you're otherwise able to get around on two legs, even with your belly sliced open and stapled shut.

Now once in a while I'll see that one is being driven by someone who has a cast on his (or her) leg or is carrying a cane or is obviously frail. More often it's just some fat guy. And yes, it can be difficult to get around when you're fat, but if you're really honest you'll admit that for most of you, that's because you don't get any exercise, which is why you're fat in the first place. I know it's why I'm fat, so I walk. Those chairs really aren't there for you. The best thing you can do for yourself is push a cart around the store like everyone else. And I know, I know... I don't know you, and I don't know your situation, yadda, yadda, yadda. But I have been curious enough about this phenomenon to pay close attention as one after another of you go through the checkout, then park the chair to jump up and stroll out of the store far more handily than your "debilitating handicap" should make possible. Maybe the chairs are fun... I certainly hope it's not because you're self-absorbed and lazy. And it's certainly fine to use the chairs if you really need them. I'm not deriding anyone with a legitimate need. But folks... folks... if you can get around ok without the chair, don't you think you should, and leave them for people who really need them? If you're abusing this charitable service, please...



I Don't Even Know What To Call This
When I Google "wearing pajamas to Walmart" I get about a quarter of a million results. It's not just the pajamas. It's going out in public dressed like ten pounds of butter in a five-pound bag... with bedroom slippers. It's wearing belts around the butt. It's not just our local store, but the ones in neighboring cities. I get it... Walmart is open late. It's still a public place. Have some pride and just...



Building Hadrian's Wall.
Lately this has become a biggie. You go to Walmart to pick up a few things. You pushed a cart around, and now, on your way out, you find that the bags are easy to manage and you don't really want to push the cart all the way out to the car and then to the corral. So you abandon it at the exit of the store. Note that you're not leaving it for someone else's convenience. You're not putting it back with the other carts, a mere ten yards from where you abandon it. You're not being helpful to anyone. You're just too lazy to dispose of the cart, and leave it there in the center of everything, blocking the door.

But wait! You're not the first! You've seen someone else do it, so it's OK for you! You're not even the second person to display a lack of consideration! No, you're the tenth or twelfth guy or gal to add to the wire-and-wheel maze at the exit doors, even though it would have cost you maybe ten seconds of your time (I've counted!) to push the cart around whatever products (today it's watermelons) Walmart has placed between the exit and the entrance. The result is that shoppers encounter a barely-negotiable obstacle course and fire hazard on attempting to exit the store.

I don't care if you've convinced your brain that you're "really" just being considerate and leaving a cart for someone else, or "making it easier for the guy who gathers the carts" (Which you're not. Just putting them in the corral would have made it easier) You're really just being rude and endangering your fellow citizens.



Stopping at the door.
I know! I started the list with this one! But you do it again at the exit. Who knows why? Many of you stop between the "airlock" doors, and some just beyond, but still blocking the outer doors, presumably to check to make sure you've got the same stuff you had when you packed your bag back at the checkout. Sometimes it's to unload that cart you're about to carelessly abandon, but often the reason just isn't apparent. You just stop. Again, there's that little traffic jam behind you. Maybe you forgot where you parked. Maybe you forgot if you parked. Maybe you were assaulted by the fresh air beyond the door. I don't know. All I know is that you're going to stop right there, and nobody but nobody is going to know why.

Bless your heart...



please?


.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Limits of Physics and Time Out for Humanity

In reaction to a paper by Igor Markov published in Nature, John Timmer at Ars Technica asks,


Let's assume for a moment that the answer is "yes" (because it is). This simply begs the more important question,

"So What?"

I don't ask this facetiously. We've recently been through a period of technological upheaval, and I've been privileged that the bulk of it happened in my own lifetime. We are so used to constant change that we now feel that this is the normal state of affairs.

Well, it isn't. Before the Industrial Revolution, the world continued on pretty much unchanged for thousands of years. Horses and oxen pulled carts. People walked. They ploughed. Fashions changed a bit, but all in all, change was gradual, and slow, and people expected this to continue as surely as we expect change. Look at a timeline of humanity and highlight the periods of rapid technological change vs. those of stagnation, and you'll find that most of the time... the vast majority of all of history... we maintain a status quo. But don't get the idea that all of history until modern times was a gradual incline, with a graph of "progress" looking like a hockey stick. That's not true either.

6,000 years and still going
This isn't the first age of upheaval and rapid change. Humans were hunter-gatherers for millennia before they became farmers. Almost the very moment they became farmers, the concept of a "city" was born. Specialization happened almost literally overnight. Industry was invented, albeit the manual sort of industry performed by carpenters, masons, bakers, tailors, farriers, and the like. All this happened in the blink of an eye, not unlike the rate of change in our own information age.

Afterward, there was a plateau, and occasionally a decline when the reason for a technology dissipated, as with megalithic works. This has happened at several times and places in history. In Western culture, an indication of this is in our names. Surnames are treated as being quite abstract today, but once there was a time when you met a man named Cooper, you expected him to be able to make a barrel, which he'd likely sell to a man named Brewer who used it to make beer. And a man named Farrier would shoe the horse that transported the beer on Mr. Carter's wagon. And so on. These became family names because the stability of the culture was such that these talents and tasks were passed on from one generation to another within a family business. And the perfectly logical and reasonable naming convention of that lost time survives as an anachronism long after the stability that birthed it became a memory.

I see no reason to expect that we will not reach another technological plateau in the relatively near future, and nearer than you might think. The expectation that "smaller and faster" can continue indefinitely seems to me to be completely unwarranted and logically unsupportable. Nevertheless, we in the "developed world" are already so accustomed to constant change that the mere thought of a year without "advancement" is trauma-inducing... so much so that people delude themselves into believing that a white iPhone is an improvement over a black one. It is now enough to simply have change for the sake of change, which has nothing whatsoever to do with substantive technological improvements. The physical limits of technology, coupled with this irrational desire for change for change's sake, leading to an acceptance of the mere appearance of change, will eventually and paradoxically lead to the impending plateau.

Certainly we still have some breakthroughs to make... for instance, as continued miniaturization is stymied by the laws of physics, computers will nevertheless continue to grow in power through networking, becoming in function (if not form) the giant behemoths of Asimov's imagination... but this isn't an advancement of technology; rather, a continued application of existing tech. But if people even now get excited over a mere change of color, it won't be long (as ages are measured) before they're excited over nothing at all. To be clear, I think the biggest changes 500 years from now... 1,000 years from now... will not be technologies that are incomprehensible to us. However, the uses to which those technologies put may be mind-bogglingly bizarre, as social change is shaped by psychology and not by physics. I challenge you to find any pundit of even 50 years past who could have predicted that, once humanity was given ubiquitous access to instantaneous face-to-face conversations, millions of people would voluntarily eschew it in favor of tiny telegrams they type with their thumbs.

Yes, I know... "limits of human imagination", yadda, yadda, yadda. Once, thousands of years ago, our ancestors invented stories in which they could climb a high mountain and meet the gods. Today they invent stories about using warp drive to meet aliens. Is one any more naive than the other?  Not really, though if you're like most people, it almost certainly irks you that someone is awake enough to say it outright.

To be perfectly frank, humanity needs a breather now and then. We haven't yet perfected the use of those cities that were invented way back in the Agricultural Revolution thousands of years ago. We are enslaved and weakened by technologies that were intended to free and empower us. We've allowed that tech to be used to confuse us to the point where we wouldn't know true freedom and power if it bit us in the ass. We've thrown tech on top of tech, very little of which we've demonstrated that we have the competence to use. Thus far the most prevalent product of the Information Age is a generation of cat-video-watching couch potatoes who play at loving science without even knowing what science is.

Humanity is better than that.

We could use a long time out.

History being my guide, I think we're going to get it.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Hamas is responsible for their own war crimes.


I'm doing a no-no. I stuck my nose into some friends' conversation, and now I'm posting those thoughts here. I'll keep it as generic as I can here.

One friend re-posted a graphic regarding Israel, expressing, among other things, that you don't dictate how your allies fight a war. A second friend took exception to that, saying (paraphrased slightly) "So friends don't haul their friends off of people that they are kicking the sh*t out of and say "Okay, okay-they've had enough?"

To be sure, while sovereign countries are sovereign, I personally think you certainly do have a say in whether an ally remains your ally based on their behavior.But I also think that the specific situation in Israel is grossly misrepresented in my second friend's statement. Nor do I think that's his fault. So I responded as follows... and this is edited a bit for format and clarity:

Friends know when to discard metaphors that have been stretched beyond their bounds.

Hamas has not "had enough". If they had, then they would not be the first to fire missiles at the end of every ceasefire. They would accept peace.

The "had enough" metaphor simply doesn't work, nor can it, ever. Here's why:

Hamas will never have "had enough". We know because they say so in their charter as well as in their actions. From Article 11 of their charter (the Hamas Covenant): "Those who are on the land, are there only to benefit from its fruit. This Waqf remains as long as earth and heaven remain. Any procedure in contradiction to Islamic Sharia, where Palestine is concerned, is null and void."

What does that mean? Hamas claim that the Israelis profit from the land in violation of an Islamic waqf. In Islamic law a "waqf" is something akin to a charitable trust, in which ownership remains with the original owner (and survives his death), but from which no individual profit may be derived. All profit is reserved for the beneficiaries. In this specific case the beneficiaries are "all Muslims for all time" (and only Muslims). There are some restrictions, such as it cannot violate Islamic principles, and those declaring the waqf must actually own the items being used to found the waqf. The claim by Hamas is that Muhammad himself, upon occupying the lands of Syria and Iraq, declared them to be a waqf. That is, "set aside for the Muslim generations until Judgement Day". 

There is no contract, no agreement, no discussion, no negotiation, no settlement, no mediation, no anything whatsoever that can possibly supercede this waqf --ever-- in the minds of Hamas. Everything else is null and void. You can talk all day without changing the fact -- and they will do that, completely devoid of any feelings of guilt caused by their deception, because they know every assurance they utter on the subject to be as void as if it never existed. No loss of life will ever dissuade them, either. Article 8 of the Hamas Covenant, in full, says of Hamas: "Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Qur'an its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes."

The cited authorities for the claim of waqf are hadiths (traditions about Muhammad), as the story does not appear in the Qur'an. The hadith is necessary to lay the claim that the waqf was established while Muhammad was in direct possession of the land. (ISIS appears to be using the same argument when they claimed authority over all of Syria and Iraq as an Islamic caliphate.)

Defenders of Hamas point to Article 31 of the Hamas Covenant, which declares how Hamas is a "humanistic movement" guided by tolerance in which Islam, Christianity, and Judaism may coexist in peace. They fail to note the 30 preceding articles which in aggregate explain that this is ONLY the case "under the wing of Islam", a necessary condition of which is that Israel, as a state, be destroyed. We furthermore note the extent to which their stated ideal is practiced by the events occurring in Western Iraq even as we speak; and by the continued use of human shields in Gaza. Death for the sake of Allah. That ideal is not practiced at all, nor will it be until the whole is "under the wing of Islam".

Here's an English translation of the Charter. No commentary, no interpretation:


At around this point my second friend responded with "That would all be well and good... if it was only Hamas they were attacking. It is not." I'm going to need a little room, so I'm moving my response out here to my blog.

--==//ooOoo\\==--
I want you to keep in mind that my criticisms here apply to Hamas, and to ISIS and like-minded Jihadist groups. There are plenty of Muslims who view these radical organizations with the same disgust and disdain that a Christian reserves for the Westboro Baptist Church. The difference here is that where a Christian will denounce and shout down the WBC, Most peaceful Muslims make only feeble protests against Jihadists. In part it is because these people will kill you.
--==//ooOoo\\==--

Short answer: The only target in Gaza is Hamas.

Long answer follows.

Hamas violates international law and commits war crimes by placing themselves among human shields. To be clear, it is illegal to use human shields, and those doing so are committing the crime. They are liable for the casualties among the unwilling victims who are used as shields. To the extent that people voluntarily shield combatant resources, those people are not civilians, but active combatants.

That's not just my opinion. There are more than a few world leaders who should take a little time to actually read the Geneva Conventions. Article 28 states that “the presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.”

And this makes common sense as well. The presence of human shields cannot render you immune from loss, as the moment that is allowed to happen, then every infantryman, everywhere has merely to strap a baby to his chest and become invincible. Put a rocket launcher in a schoolyard and Bob's your uncle! Instant victory! I won't join anyone in endorsing that practice or in allowing it, but of course Hamas has no problem with that. Use of civilians is their tactic, There are no Hamas non-combatants, as explained by their own charter (Hamas Covenant, Article 12).

While asserting the right to retaliate, the Israeli Foreign Ministry notes:
"But callous disregard of those who hide behind civilians does not absolve the state seeking to respond to such attacks of the responsibility to avoid or at least minimize injury to civilians and their property in the course of its operations."
So Israel sends warnings first, so that Hamas will remove the citizens. Of course it doesn't happen. And by "warnings, I don't mean that they drop leaflets, as the United States has been known to do. I don't mean a shot across the bow. They actually telephone the target and personally advise the people to evacuate, combatants and non-combatants alike. No other country in the world does this. Not the US, not the UK, not any other civilized nation. Yet the media report that Israel is attacking non-combatants. That is completely wrong. What is correct is that Israel takes extraordinary measures to warn civilians away from a target, to which combatants then gather.

I'm well aware of the arguments of op-ed pieces like this one [link] that argue about the "hypocrisy" of this stance toward human shields, saying that it's a "deliberately and dishonestly confusing" to argue that these are human shields because, they claim, those "shields" just happen to live in neighboring apartments, and are just going about their business. The video to which I linked is from Palestinian television, not Israeli, and even they don't make that astoundingly whitewashed claim. My opinion is what it is because I've looked at what the Palestinians say to each other. It is formed from their news sources, their documents, their statements.

Around the globe, civilized countries have passed laws making it illegal to use human shields... including Israel. Israel's law is very precise compared to most... it has to be, because they are under constant siege by those who would use them, and have been from the day of their founding.

Here's a map. In green I've marked the member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Basically, these are the countries of the world that wouldn't mind seeing Israel wiped off the map. On this same map I've marked Israel in purple:

click to enlarge

No really. It's right there in the middle. You have to squint. So let's zoom in...

click to enlarge

Remember, purple is Israel. Green wants Israel gone. Some of green act upon it.

Now imagine for a moment that you live in Israel. You're cognizant of your environment. Not just Hamas, but ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and your other neighbors want you dead. They don't want peace with you. They don't want to share jack shit with you.They want to step over your rotting, stinking corpse and take over. They say so at every opportunity. They write it down. They broadcast it, they teach it to their children. They will strap bombs to themselves, walk into your restaurants, and detonate themselves to prove their devotion to achieving this goal, and often do. Furthermore, you've tried peace talks. You've tried appeasement. You've tried every diplomatic channel possible. You've agreed to land grants. You've agreed to share your capital city. You've agreed to cease-fire after cease-fire. And they want you dead.

Don't roll your eyes, this has factually happened.

If Israel is hyper-defensive, it's with good reason. Israelis are surrounded by people who want to murder them in cold blood. There are two big reasons that it hasn't happened yet. The first is that Israel cannot afford to show weakness, ever; and in the very literal interests of self-preservation, retaliate against those that attack, wherever they may be. The second is that, contrary to the lofty claims of the Hamas Covenant, Arabs are anything but of one accord. They're kind of busy at the moment kicking the shit out of each other, as they have done for many decades.

But here's Hamas, in Gaza, throwing rockets at Israel, and literally daring them to shoot back at the schools and mosques and hospitals from which they've illegally placed their launchers and command posts. It is Hamas and not Israel that converted these from protected areas to combat targets. Don't take my word for it, read the Geneva Conventions yourself.

The reason Hamas does this is YOU.

At this moment they are not fighting to win a war, and they are most certainly not fighting for their survival. For that, all they have to do is peacefully go about their business. They are fighting to win YOU. They actually believe that you and millions just like you are gullible enough that you will believe the outrageous lie that Israel is the aggressor here. Israel, who unilaterally gave them the Gaza Strip. Israel, who violated none of the cease fire agreements. Israel, who is acting in accordance with the Geneva Conventions while Hamas deliberately hides their soldiers behind women and children.

Hamas do this because they have lost in the past and they believe that staging this lie will cost Israel her allies. And the sad part is that they are right. There are millions of people exactly that gullible. But that's not the only reason. They do it because despite their disregard for their own lives, they know that the Israelis are morally disinclined to attack through a crowd.

There is a principle in Islam called taqiyya. There are 2.5 million Muslims in the US, and many of them have no idea what that is. Not so with the jihadists. It is the principle of religious guile, and while it's intended to mean that a person can conceal his identity as a Muslim in order to escape persecution, it's interpreted by jihadists to mean that it's ok to lie to your enemies. Let's look at some practical examples. I don't want you to pay any attention to what the commentators say. Just the Muslims. The part I want you to see starts at around 2:46.


While many Muslims are honest and forthright, you can trust nothing of what a jihadist says to you regarding Israel. You can only trust what he says to another jihadist, in private.

Every Jew, every Christian, every non-Muslim is "kafir" (plural "kuffar"). In case you missed it, go back and watch at 4:55. You are like a cow: on Muslim land you may be captured, sold, or killed without a second thought. That is not mainstream Islam, that is these radicals that would have you take up the defense of poor, poor Hamas. But it is mainstream among Hamas, and ISIS, and al-Qaeda; and left unchecked it will be mainstream Islam.

Israel understands their neighbors. Hamas will give no quarter. Hamas quite literally pray that every rock and tree the Jews shelter behind will give them up so they can be murdered. (Hamas Covenant, Article 7). A few rockets, poorly aimed, are merely to goad Israel into attacking. And should their human shields die, then it is willingly. When Hamas' attacks are unanswered then the rockets will not stop. It will simply embolden them to fire more, with tighter aim. And we can even test this... Just yesterday (as I write this) Hamas once again violated the latest cease-fire with a launch of two rockets, to which Israel did not respond. I say they're not the last. Do you want to bet against me?

If Hamas cares about the lives of their people they have only to stop firing. There would be lasting, permanent peace starting right now. They launched two more rockets just hours before the ceasefire expired. One can only conclude that they do not care.

--==//ooOoo\\==--

Addendum. It stands to reason that this shouldn't have to be spelled out, but apparently it does. Hamas, it doesn't matter who owns the school you're using for military purposes. You're still war criminals. You could paint "UN" directly on the babies you hide behind. You're still war criminals.

The question that prompted this addendum pains me to the core, seriously. I really thought I'd let it go, but I just can't. It was a rhetorical question as to whether children in a UN school are innocent. I can't let it go because it communicates one or more of several things:
  1. It tells me that the questioner did not read this post before attempting to rebut. The very fact that children are innocent is precisely why using them as human shields is a war crime.
  2. It indicates that the questioner believes that somehow I might have not bothered to consider it. "Wait a minute... don't schools have innocent children!!?" "Well by golly, I never thought about that when I wrote a bloody monograph claiming that Hamas are war criminals for putting those children in the line of fire!"
  3. Let's be clear, by "building" we mean "school", and the question implies that there's something worse about shelling a UN school than another, There's not. I don't care if it's a UN building or a one-room schoolhouse on the frontier. I refuse to get pulled into a discussion of "which kid is worth more?" 
  4. It assumes that children are targets. Wrong. Military targets are the targets. The children are on them thanks to Hamas. There are rules by which all sides are expected to conduct themselves... these are the Geneva conventions. They are intended to minimize the loss of innocent lives, and if one side refuses to abide by them, then the resultant loss of life on their side is their own damned fault.. even the lives of innocents.. I posted video examples of Palestinians running to areas where they knew maximum damage would certainly occur. So whose fault are the casualties? The Palestinians'. When the Palestinians use a UN school as a weapons depot it turns the building into a legitimate target. Who did that? The Palestinians! 
Also, it communicates a profound lack of understanding of the purpose of warfare. Warfare -- even modern warfare -- is not a fucking video-game. It is nothing fair about it. It is not romantic. It is not bloodless. It is not sanitary. It does not have a level playing field. It is not won by a scorecard tally of rockets fired into desolate areas to no effect, but by inflicting damage on your enemy. It is not about having some mythical equity in the number of casualties. There is no "casualty quota" in war. you don't stop so your enemy can catch up. It is not your enemies' job to safeguard your citizens, it is yours. Your enemies will avoid certain safe zones, but you are responsible for ensuring that those conform to the conventions. You are asking those who would rain death upon you to spare your people. It is an astonishingly generous concession for which you are tasked only to keep them out of the way. It's not too much to ask. In war, as many people die as stand between you and the goal, which is to destroy your enemies' ability to make war upon you. In many situations it would preferentially mean to take out the enemies' desire to make war upon you, but as those who read the above post know, in the case of Israel vs. jihadists this is not an option.

The Palestinians do have that option. To remove the Israelis desire to make war, all that Hamas have to do is cease fire and don't start firing again. Done. Peace at last!

In contrast, Israel has one and only one viable option regarding jihadists: remove their enemies' ability to make war temporarily, until they come back for more. Then do it again, and again, until Judgement Day. And to remove that ability even temporarily they absolutely must destroy military targets, wherever they may be, no matter how distasteful Hamas makes the task. Israel pre-announces its targets because it is not targeting innocents. The location of those targets and the number of people on them are entirely up to Hamas.

--==//ooOoo\\==--

Addendum 2: In response to another off-line comment:  This is not heartless; it is heartbreaking.

--==//ooOoo\\==--

Addendum 3: In response to another emailed comment: No, Hamas is not justified in firing upon Israel because of the maritime blockade of the Gaza Strip. For one thing, Egypt is participating in that same blockade. And whereas Egypt's reasons for maintaining a blockade on land and sea are admittedly political, Israel's participation in that blockade is clearly for defense purposes only, to block weapons. and the blockade began long after Israel evacuated Gaza and Hamas began hostilities. Nevertheless, thousands of trucks carrying food, medicine, and other goods have entered and continue to enter Gaza from Israel, even as Egypt turns back aid, and even as Hamas continues to hurl their rockets. The Israeli MOD keeps track, and even publishes weekly reports [PDF]. The plain fact is that if Hamas was the cause of the blockade in the first place (both the defensive blockade by Israel and the political blockade by Egypt) and if Hamas wants the blockade to end they have it within their power... today... merely by ending their bad behavior. So, nice try, but as usual, pro-Hamas propaganda has nothing whatsoever to do with reality.



Saturday, August 09, 2014

Vacuum Propellers and Junk Science


A little while back NASA "confirmed" a revolutionary space engine design known as the EmDrive. It was the sort of thing that some people call a "quantum propeller" and I like to call a "vacuum propeller", and it's a pretty obvious engineering question once you've learned of the concept of "virtual particles". It's where the mind immediately goes when you ask yourself the question "how can I make this work for me?"

The thing is that even if real, this is such a fleeting and small phenomenon that it's not the sort of thing you're likely to leverage with a glorified boat screw or a pair of oars. It's so close to a violation of the accepted laws of physics that extraordinary evidence is required.

While I'd LOVE to say that I posted a wonderful take-down of this subject, I did not. Ethan Siegel at Medium.com did, in a cogent and well-authored piece that you should definitely read.

Here's the link:



Yes. Sometimes even NASA does bad science.

--==//oOo\\==--

Addendum: So you noticed that there's a big difference in length and tone between this "Junk Science" post and some others that I've done? Good... now know why... it's because this is how science works. When people make mistakes, other people point them out. Then the ones who make the mistake blush a little, but then say "my bad" and move on. They don't defend the mistake and attack the people who pointed it out. That's behavior reserved for pseudo-science. Real science is self-correcting, and real scientists know and accept that.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

CDC Study on LBGTetc.



"1.6 percent of adults self-identify as gay or lesbian, and 0.7 percent consider themselves bisexual.
The overwhelming majority of adults, 96.6 percent, labeled themselves as straight in the 2013 survey. An additional 1.1 percent declined to answer, responded “I don’t know the answer” or said they were “something else.”"
 
-- The Washington Times
For simplicity's sake, rather than list every form of politically-correct non-traditional gender roles, The study refers to them all together under the label "gay". But there will still be people who get hung up on labels. Even when you use the currently in vogue "LBGT" there are people who argue about whether "their letter" is being included, or whether their group is adequately represented by a letter [don't believe me? Click]. So I'll be using the just-now-invented word "curfs" to mean "every form of non-traditional gender role". There. Now i'ts defined, and as it is now a real word, we don't have to waste any more time on it. (And yes, this is me protesting the corruption of plain language. Making up new words is frankly better than fucking up old ones. It doesn't matter what a word IS so long as everyone agrees on what it MEANS. That's not possible when you hijack a common word.)

The WP goes on to list a number of additional facts that seemingly reinforce curf stereotypes.
  • Curfs are more likely to be cigarette smokers (26% vs 18%)
  • Curfs are more likely to have five or more alcoholic drinks in one day at least once in the past year (33% vs 22%)
  • Curfs are more likely to have met federal guidelines for aerobic physical activity (56% vs 49%)
  • Curfs are more likely to have been tested for HIV (67% vs 37%)
  • Curfs are more likely to have received an influenza vaccine during the past year (46% vs 41%)

The actual report lists more information. To me, the fact that the data seemingly reinforces curf stereotypes is completely unsurprising. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. A stereotype tells you what is likely to be true about a member of a group. They are derived from observation of that group. They are not pulled out of thin air. A stereotype is not a lie, it is a probability. Of course that doesn't mean that it will be true of any particular individual; and that is why it's wrong to apply a stereotype to an individual (such as thinking that all curfs are effeminate). And it doesn't mean that behavior doesn't change with time, which is why it's wrong to apply outdated stereotypes to a group (such as thinking that all Southerners are inbred hayseeds, or assuming that women don't have jobs outside the home).
But seriously -- as an aside -- if a member of  a group is offended by a stereotype, then it's misguided of them to direct their ire toward people who notice the stereotype. Instead, they could direct it toward the members of the group whose consistent behavior brought that stereotype into existence. Or toward themselves for believing that merely describing the general characteristics of their own group as being somehow "offensive". Or they could choose to understand what a stereotype truly is, in which case there's no cause for offense.
Here's a quick example of stereotyping in action. You invite someone to dinner, but knowing that he's Jewish, you assume (via stereotype) that he may have some restrictions regarding the menu. So you ask. And he doesn't get in your face and tell you that he's a non-practicing Reform Jew and then ask how dare you make assumptions about the level of his Jewishness. No. He says "No it won't be a problem," or "Anything but ham or pork," or "Why don't we eat out?" Show me someone who says they never use stereotypes and I'll show you someone who is either a liar or self-deluded. It's how you apply them that makes them either problematic or culturally sensitive. 
Aside complete. 
A couple of observations...
  1. The study doesn't posit any reasons for these trends. It is purely a fact-gathering exercise. Arguing the figures would be silly. These are self-reported statistics, so it would be accusatory, unprovable, and unhelpful to suggest that the "real" numbers are different.
  2. It's not clear whether all of those percentages in the detailed comparisons mean anything. When you're comparing 33% of 2.3% of the population to 22% of 96.6% of the population, is that a fair comparison? Is it even outside the margin of error? Either way it's still clear that mega-boatloads more straight people have had five or more alcoholic drinks in a single day within the last year. So if you asked some random person that question, the chances are terribly small that the person is actually curf. So there's a danger that people will misinterpret these data and conclude that there's a 33% chance that a heavy drinker is curf when in fact the probability is under 1%. 
To illustrate that second point... out of every 1,000 randomly-chosen people, the chances are that 7 curfs vs 213 straights have had a drinking binge in the last year. So, how useful is that? My point here is that any significance of these individual categories has yet to be determined. It's really easy for laypersons to get wrong, it's not in the report, and speculation isn't terribly useful.
A third observation is, 2.3% of the population is pretty small. Far smaller than one would expect given the representation of curfs in the media. And that's not unexpected, because (via perfectly valid stereotype) we know that many curfs tend to gravitate toward media-related jobs. So yeah, they're more highly visible in media than they are in the general public. So the study does seem to indicate that fears of being "overrun" by curfs in your community are irrational.

What's not irrational though, is how a solid number might reasonably shape social expectations and legislative policy. We have an expectation that "reasonable accommodations" are made for minority groups, and that there is a reciprocal expectation of "reasonable accommodations" BY minority groups. For instance, if I'm the only wheelchair-bound student in an existing school, a reasonable accommodation would be to make sure that all of the classes I'm scheduled to take are on the ground floor. It would be unreasonable to expect the cash-strapped educational system to build an elevator just for me (although new buildings may have that requirement as a result of updated building codes). After all, it's easier to switch a couple of teachers around than to build a lift. It would be unreasonable to change the rules of basketball so that I could play on the varsity team. After all, able-bodied students are equally excluded from the team under the existing rules. But if no restroom existed on the ground floor, it would be reasonable to expect that one be added, because it is a necessity; and I would expect to engage in some form of exercise within my physical limits. Likewise, where laws are not written to deal with necessity, it's reasonable to expect curfs to accommodate the majority.

What this means in practical terms to me is that this study changes nothing whatsoever. I think it's reasonable to expect that the average person I meet is straight. I see no reason to pussyfoot around bizarre pronouns, or to require of me that I remember your quirks specifically, and whatever invented labels you wish to apply to yourself. I see no reason for me to begin to care who you sleep with, or who you make love to, how often, or where, so long as it's not in any place that I would reasonably expect a straight person to get jiggy.

Since I don't give a shit about who my straight friends marry, I see no reason to begin giving a shit about who anyone else marries, and I don't have any reason to support any law that implies I give a shit one way or the other. I'd rather repeal laws rather than stupidly try to fix the system with more of what broke it in the first place. So I'd repeal just about anything that has to do with marriage, because I don't think the government has any business having a say in it. The First Amendment says that Congress can make no law regarding religion. If you believe that marriage is a religious affair then regulation of it is prohibited by the Constitution. If you think it's a secular affair it's still nobody's business. I'd repeal a lot of other laws, too, but that would be a digression. But if your brand of weird preys upon the helpless, then I see no reason to change anything that prevents you from doing it. A society exists to protect its citizens, and predators are predators no matter what twisted justification they invent for themselves. I see no reason to stop defending the underaged, or the physically weak, or the psychologically impaired, or the aged, or animals, for that matter.

Nothing changes for me. Must be a slow news day.






Saturday, July 12, 2014

Getting rid of foot fungus

OK, I've long had a problem with foot fungus, and particularly on and under the nails. There are a LOT of products out there, including some that work "internally" (pills), which some doctors will tell you are the only effective way to get rid of such an infection.

However, in my case I got it licked, on my own and it was easy-peasy. If you don't mind some possibly squeam-inducing descriptions, keep reading. I won't be posting pictures because I didn't think to take any pictures, primarily because I had no real expectation that this would work. But it did, faster and better than I'd hoped for. (update: I found some creative commons pictures that are fairly close, though)

First I cut back the nails as far as they would go. I'm not talking about down to the quick... I'm talking about scraping away as much of the damaged and flaking nail as I could, as far back on the toe as I could, using a nail clipper, file, and pocketknife. That turned out to be about halfway up the toe. It didn't hurt... this stuff was beyond help anyway. I just resigned myself that I'd have a pretty gross-looking toe until it healed.

I had no worry about whether it would heal. My little brother's was removed entirely when he got his caught in a door, and it grew back. And again, this isn't painful. When I started to feel it I just stopped scraping. Good thing I don't wear open-toed sandals.

Then I doused my feet in ethyl alcohol once a day until they were healed (about 4 months).

That's it, really.

Not my foot, but pretty close to
what the nail looked like before I
got started. Under the cracked and
discolored surface it was opaque white
and flaking and crumbling.
I doused the whole foot... just wiped it down with a very wet cloth... with special attention to the toes. Ethyl Alcohol (ethanol) is the stuff in Germ-X and in most other germicides. It kills 99.99% of germs according to just about every reference, so there's no reason to think it wouldn't be effective here. It does dry out your feet, so following it up with a moisturizer isn't terrible. I eventually saved myself some trouble by using Germ-X hand sanitizer with Aloe, once a day, before putting on some socks.

It not only got rid of the toe fungus, but also stopped the flaking skin, the over-production of callouses, and any foot odor.

It works so well, I'll probably just keep doing it as a preventative measure.

--==ooOoo==--

This isn't the first time I've found that simple measures are better. My first job was in a pet shop. While I was there we experienced an outbreak of mouth fungus among the snakes. One of the hardest parts of treating a snake for anything is getting it to take medication. Snakes are famously talented regurgitators. Sadly, mouth fungus is often fatal to them because it prevents them from eating.

So on a hunch I ran and got a bottle of plain-old garden-variety Listerine mouthwash and some cotton swabs. With finger and thumb on the hinges of the jaw I forced the constrictors' mouths open and swabbed each of them down. They had immediate relief overnight and were completely cured within the week.

As an FYI, Listerine's active ingredients are the essential oils eucalyptol, menthol, methyl salicylate, and thymol dissolved in ethanol.