Monday, June 29, 2015

The Boring Topic of Designing a Backup System For Your Studio

[This post was prompted by the occasion of helping a friend try to recover the data from her failed disk server. So the annoying details of this problem, and the necessity of dealing with these issues, is on my mind.]

As part of a series on designing, building and running a small computer animation studio, we are going to have to discuss backups. I will try and break it into small pieces because, frankly, it is a real bore. When we started using computers we did not do so for the joy of making backups which is like taking out the garbage, its not our first choice of how to spend our time. Furthermore, it turns out that there are choices to be made here, and real design issues. I am sorry about that. It just is.

When people started using computers, probably no one told them that they were now expected to be responsible adults about how they cared for their data or run the risk of losing it.   But all of us who have been using computers for a while know this only too well.  You can learn from our mistakes and save yourself a lot of trouble.  

When you drive a car, you are expected to learn how to drive safely. When you work at a real corporation or a University, then it is likely that your professional work is already being carefully backed up and protected, at least to some extent.   But the rest of us, at small companies or on our own, have to put our own system in place.

Keep in mind that hard drives, big or small, solid state or otherwise, are not intended to be perfect.  They have a known failure rate, and even though the manufacturer knows that some of their disks will fail, they only know this on the level of probability.  Disks are made in batches and the failure rate of disks within a batch are estimated as that is part of creating a warranty for the drives.   But disk failure is not the only cause of data loss.  

So here are some basic definitions and principles. In later posts we will go over some of the design choices you may have to make, are likely to have to make, when you design your studio.

For those of you who think I am less creative because I worry about such things, please go fuck yourself. Thank you.

1. The place where you do your professional work might be called your office, or it might be called a studio. A studio can be for one person or 1,000 people. The work might be your personal artwork, or your personal financial records or it might be a very expensive collaborative technology and creative project with a $100M budget.

2. All of these offices and studios need to have given some thought to how much protection they need to give their data in case of disaster, what is the likelihood of disaster, how much it is worth to them to lose one days work, one month's work, one year's work, etc.

3. The goal of a so-called backup system is to provide a level of protection for your data if disaster strikes for any reason, whether by computer malfunction, act of God, or human error.

4. No backup system is perfect, but different backup systems provide different levels of security at different costs, where costs means varying amounts of capital, costs going forward, attention that must be paid to maintaining the system, technical expertise and so forth.

5. A simple backup system well executed is better than a technically complex system that is over the head or beyond the needs of the intended user. An expensive or technically complex backup system that is not well implemented or maintained may be worse than no backup system at all.

6. A backup system is holistic. Together it provides a level of protection.  If some of the pieces work and some do not, you may still have a level of protection.  Thats the plan.   But it is better if all the pieces work generally speaking of course.

7. Backup systems are usually layered, that is, you have more than one protection so that if one fails you do not lose all data, but can fall back to another level. Generally this is implemented as a system to improve the reliability of the main file servers combined with discrete backups saved in a vault from earlier periods.

8. Backup systems are probabilistic. There is a probability of disaster, a probability that any one backup will not be readable. No backup system is perfect, but a good backup system will make the probablility of losing all your data much less likely.

9. Backup systems must be tested before they are used or you run the risk of not finding out that there was a problem until it is too late. This is an extremely common occurrence.

10. No one but you can judge whether this effort, these costs, and so forth are worthwhile. Only you know what this data is worth.

and finally,

11. I have found over the years that I never had too many backups.

In a later post we will go over some fundamental design choices and the kind of risks you will need to protect against.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Lynda Weinman and the Early Days of Computer Animation

For those of you interested in trivia from the early days of computer animation, I have a somewhat interesting story.

When we were founding degraf/wahrman, a variety of people helped us out. One of them was (and still is) a truly delightful and wonderful woman who helped us in dozens and dozens of ways including, among other things, helping us set up our office, helping us set up our finances, and spearheading and completely owning the early use of the Mac for previsualization, in this case for Star Trek V and Ralph Winter, which got everyone a lot of publicity. She was/is also an animator, a friend of many people in animation, and I have no doubt that she was in part responsible for the good vibes surrounding our startup.

She was also from the earliest days a complete believer in the idea that computers such as the Mac could transform peoples lives for the better and enable their creativity. Her idealism motivated everything she did to a remarkable extent. After Star Trek V she had bigger fish to fry and probably most of the people who later worked at dWi did not even realize she had worked there. But she went off and among other things started doing conferences about Flash, and then started an internet company to help people learn to use their computers.

Apparently, a few weeks ago, she sold that company,, to Linkedin for 1.5 billion. It is hard to believe that someone who is so idealistic and so well-meaning would do well in such a practical way, but Lynda Weinman is really that amazing. Anyway, I wanted to publicly congratulate Lynda and thank her again for her help long ago and far away.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Supporting Eccentric Ethnic Self-Identification

I think we should all be grateful to Rachel Dolezal, formerly of the NAACP, for the whirlpool of shit she has stirred up with this whole "identify as black" controversy.    I suspect that she is speaking for a small, but under-recognized segment of the world and American population who identify as something that they are not, at least not exactly.

In particular I want to bring to your attention a certain category of person who identifies as a member of an ethnic group that does not exist, in this case green people, particularly green superheroines, and ask you to give them your support.  As Kermit the Frog so famously pointed out, it isn't easy being green.

I have no idea who this is, but I am sure that she is sincere in her green self-identification.

Whether or not race technically exists from a DNA point of view, there certainly are differences between ethnic groups, differences that are perceived to be very important.  And how noble and self sacrificing that someone should self-identify not only with a small, and no doubt oppressed and misunderstood ethnic group, but actually to identify with a group that does not have any members, at least not on this planet.  At least not as far as we know.

How many such people are there out in the world?    Well, it is hard to say.  Anyone who has attended a science fiction or comic convention can testify that there do seem to be quite a few of these entertaining eccentrics.    I would like to believe that Americans will remember their historical tradition of embracing and accepting diversity and lend firm support to any woman in spandex who wishes to self-identify as She Hulk.  I also believe that we must extend this same privilege to men who also self identify as women who are green, although it is a little harder for me to be as enthusiastic about it, I can certainly agree with the point of view that it is their right.

I hope you will agree with me that our world would clearly be a better place if we had more such people.

At the same time I would like to bring to your attention a cultural resource of great value.  In looking for examples of green she-hulk representations, I noticed that most of them were hosted on a web site called "" which is an organization of people who create or collect, well, deviant art.   Its a pretty great collection, no matter what your interest, it probably has a group or two dedicated to it.  Another excellent resource the Internet has enabled.

There are many visions of She Hulk out there

She Hulk on Wikipedia

Friday, June 12, 2015

Coming Soon on Global Wahrman

Coming right up on Global Wahrman: an essay on what Baggage means to a Human Resources person and why nearly all, or all, experienced workers have "baggage", an essay on the literary genre of entertainment fiction known as predicting the future, and an essay on America's slide into failure, poverty and submission to the new world leader, Communist China.

Also, in the cyberwar between the US and Russia, we have new news on Russia's paid trolls and the stupid morons in this country who believe and enable them.   My goodness, when you need a stupid American, it isnt very hard to find one, now is it?

Not to mention a post about what Nina Z (Miles G's significant other) told me about middle class values.  Its very interesting, you will want to know this.

And the passing of Tanith Lee and Christopher Lee.

Also, a post on a distant colleague who committed suicide and what a surprise it was. Yeah, right, bullshit. Even I knew she was depressed.  Maybe her death is more about our community's failure to act proactively to help those who are in distress, he wondered, out loud, sarcastically.

Where is Anne Graham of after science when I need her?   I am looking for that pure spirit of inspiration that comes from the untainted.  Anne ?

I appreciate all of you out there who do seem to be reading my blog, even if I do not know who most of you are.  I do wish that you would comment more as I have a feeling your comments would add a lot..

We just ran an unscheduled experiment on my brain by going off all ADHD medication for several weeks, and the results were very surprising.  You see, even though I slept most of the time, and could not do even the simplest tasks that needed doing, in certain very important ways I was very productive, more productive than I normally have been in spite of my reliability and calm demeanor brought on by the ADHD medication. This is a real problem.   What do I want?  Creativity or stability?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Scientists Propose Force Feeding Brains to Right Wing Sufferers of Dementia

Scientists have discovered that a New Guinea tribe that routinely ate the brains of their human enemies not only did not suffer from horrible Prion-caused dementia, but actually developed genetic immunity to this tragic brain-destroying disease.

“Quick action is needed to bring this immunity to other members of the human community”, says Dr. Filbottom of the East Saxon Community Medical Center, who was not an author of the study. “Since clearly our political right wings the world over are suffering from a form of dementia, denying evolution or global warming, by forcing them to eat human brains we can potentially cause them to develop an immunity to their debilitating and life-threatening disease that causes so much hardship and destruction in the world. We must act at once to force feed them brains if necessary in the hope that they will also develop this immunity".

The proposed treatment is to begin with neoconservatives and inject into them mad-cow infected brain particles.  "Just imagine we had this treatment a few years ago, the whole second Iraq war might not have happened at that huge cost of lives and money which did no good.  We must begin this process at once and hope we are in time to save us from other delusions of the right wing demented.  They need our help."

Read more about this exciting discovery here:

Monday, June 8, 2015

Oh That Free Market

Why bother to write about the "free market" you may ask?  I do this for your own good, so that my peers and other colleagues can have the benefit of my experience and knowledge whether they appreciate it or not, and perhaps rise above their circumstances to which an unkind fate has condemned them.

The nominal reason that I have written these recent posts about the "free market" is that they are a part of a discussion with a friend about how society should set social policies, particularly involving unemployment caused by foreign Government subsidies.  He believes that the "free market" sets the best policies in all cases.  A central point of discussion in this discussion is what is a "free market".  He contends that a "free market" includes obvious laws and morality involving such things as racism, sexism, child labor, the environment, minimum wage and so forth.

But it doesn't, either historically or currently.  Being compelled to follow standards of morality or laws against certain kinds of behavior is, by definition, constraining the "free market".  It is therefore no longer "free".  It is actually much worse than that because those who advocate some rather heinous social policies routinely invoke the holy free market to justify those policies.

The very term "free market" means to let market forces set policy on issues that involve society, commerce and employment. It means that any education you have is bought on the free market by individuals or groups from companies that provide that service.  Those who can not afford that service do not get education.  It means you do not have a legal minimum wage, because the market will set a minimum wage.  It means you do not need laws against sexism because market forces will eliminate sexism because it is inefficient.   It means you do not need child labor laws because market forces will prevent the abuse of children in the workplace.  It means that health care is provided by industry and those who can afford it get it, and those who can not afford it suffer because they can not afford to buy those services on the "free market:".   That is what the "free market" means.

In other words, the "free market" has an implied morality and that morality is nothing more or less than those with the money get what they want and those without do not.

A modified free market, a market that is informed by and controlled with a variety of laws to restrict the abuse of children or outlaw sexism or racism or protect the environment is not, technically speaking, a "free market".  It is a form of market, yes, but not one that is run by pure market forces.   Furthermore, since the "free market", left to itself, has been shown to lead to many disagreeable results, or at least disagreeable to some of us, those who advocate an untrammeled free market do so as a way of achieving their policy goals in these areas.   They use the "free market" as the theoretical justification for rolling back policies or laws claiming it is more efficient and leads to a more productive and fair society.

The result is that the term "free market" has become associated with policies that will mean the degradation of the poor, the disenfranchisement of labor, the willful destruction of the environment, and the restriction of access to the political and justice systems to the wealthy.   Whether that is what the "free market" meant at the time the term was invented or not, these are the implications of the term as used by political groups today.

Recall also that when the term "free market" was invented as an economic philosophy, there was not a body of experience that could readily say "this is what we tried and this is what happened".  But we do have that experience today to make these judgments.

The pure "free market" has no innate sense of morality beyond the morality of cash. But society's own perception of what is moral and what is allowable in a free society is a moving target and changes, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly.  Market forces will not, a priori, lead to a result that matches society's current understanding of morality and fair play.  Therefore to advocate that it will is disingenuous or simply wrong.

No one argues against a market system to set prices in many circumstances, or to determine, in many of those circumstances where society should put its resources.  Up to a point, that is, as there are many, many exceptions. And therein lies the dilemma, where do you set that point?  Relying on the "free market" to do so is not going to be satisfactory for many Americans, although it may very well be just the ticket for some of them.

And it is ironic, or perhaps just weird, that so many advocates of the "free market" are in the technology industries and seem to be unaware that they are the beneficiaries of very non market forces.  The technology industry as we know it today was financed in large part by our government as part of fighting the cold war.  It was not market forces that invented and nurtured those technologies, not at all, it was the US Government through its Department of Defense, its Department of Energy, its National Science Foundation and a few other agencies.   As those industries matured and became self-supporting the government moved on to other industries and technologies that needed or deserved advanced research money.   In almost no cases is advanced research sponsored by private industry or the "free market".  Not that I am aware of.

 I think that what my friend *may* mean is not the free market, but something like "a market system that is controlled through a system of laws to enforce moral norms as determined through the political system as regards to the environment, the treatment of labor, education and other forms of social welfare, in a system that has gone to great lengths to see that access to justice and the political process is not unfairly weighted to the rich, but that it is equally available to people of all economic and social classes, not just through law, but through practical means."

Its not enough to say equal justice for the legal system if the rich always get off but the poor do not because of being unable to afford equally competent legal support.   Its not enough to say the "market as modified by the rule of law" unless that law is proactive in making violations of morality a crime (e.g. abusing children in the workplace) and is industrious in enforcing the law.

Market forces alone is not a system that will result in a fair or just society and the idea that it would has been discredited long ago.  The refusal to accept the evidence of your eyes does not make the evidence wrong.

One more thing.   There is nothing funny about the political situation in this country, and the gross abuses of the right wing of the political process and their disingenuous and often hypocritical arguments.   It is time for everyone to grow up and figure out when some right wing thug invokes the "free market", what it is they really mean.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Lethal Autonomous Vehicles, Morality and Closing an Important Loophole that Allows Opportunity for the Poor

I was very impressed that Dr. Stuart Russell of the Univ of California called for scientists to boycott work on lethal autonomous weapons systems, e.g. autonomous vehicles that kill people.  But it also seems to me that it is mighty late in the day to raise this concern.  Why?

Because the Artificial Intelligence community was substantially, if not entirely, financed by the Department of Defense for the first 50 or so years of its life.  Yes, there has been some private financing, and NSF financing, probably more today than there has ever been.  But if you look at the history of the field, it is the DOD through DARPA and similar agencies that found the money to support the idea and stick by it through decades of early work, long before it had practical applications.

Now, it does not take a lot of imagination or even a PhD to realize that the DOD's interest in AI would include completely autonomous and lethal weapon systems.  There would be many obstacles on the way to that of course, but ultimately that would be one of the goals of financing this very early stage technology.   There were and will continue to be issues of what sorts of controls need to be on such systems, e.g. when they can be used to assist humans in these weapon systems and when they can be allowed to act "on their own" through rules and systems that are programmed into them.   The issue of validation of such systems and what it means on the battlefield when some of the players are not so conscientious about validation is a major concern.  And now is a good time to be concerned because while full autonomy may or may not be imminent, it is certainly much more imminent than it was 20 years ago.

Of course it needs discussion.

I find it intriguing that even unmanned drones are so controversial, they are far from autonomous but seem to raise strong opinions among the public.   I would not have particularly guessed that, given that each of these drones has a human or two at all times managing their progress.  But it is a concern and no doubt truly autonomous drones and vehicles will be as well.

Remember also that pretty much anything that moves can be lethal whether or not that is its primary purpose. Even the most docile and friendly autonomous vehicle could hurt someone by running into them at full speed, or dropping on them, even if they are only being affectionate and happy to see you.

But getting back to AI and its funding, is it really fair to rely for decades on a source of  funding, knowing full well why they were funding you, and then balking when you start to see results?   

Of course there is nothing unique in this situation to the field of AI.  Many technologies started out as DOD financed in their early stages only to move beyond that into other areas of financing and application.  Some scientists find the knowledge that they are being funded by the DOD morally objectionable and choose to avoid such financing, and that is certainly their right, even though some of us can be a little cynical about whether the NSF is really all that different from the DOD.  They are both financed after all by the same Congress, the same government, the same national will.  Nevertheless, if they prefer their filthy lucre laundered through the NSF that is OK with me. AI is only exceptional in that it is one area that has required more years of development to enter the practical zone of mere applications than many other advanced technologies.  It has required more nurturing and more faith on the part of the organizations that finance research.  And for decades that pretty much was only the DOD, at least to a large degree.

At this point, I would need to review the history of funding of AI and related technologies in order to make sure I am on firm ground.  What I am describing here is an impression from the late last century.  These impressions are almost certain to be out of date, at least partially.  AI has moved from blue sky research to practical applications in many areas.

But there is a good reason to oppose this work, this inhuman autonomy, although I am not sure that there are any AI researchers who are aware of it.

The reason is that throughout history, one of the very few avenues for advancement allowed to poor people in most countries is through the military. Certain civilizations were famous for this, including the Romans and our fair country.  Although officers were generally drawn almost exclusively from the upper classes, a capable young man without pedigree could often join the military and at the risk of his life and hardship, daring and luck,  find a way to advance himself and his family out of the grinding poverty they were condemned to by circumstances of their birth.   In the case of the Romans, there are various cities around the Mediterranean that are the direct descendants of some of these soldiers when they were given land at the end of their years of service.

I am not advocating anything about the military in this essay, for or against, but merely pointing out that historically the military has been a way for the poor and disenfranchised to advance themselves and have a better life in their otherwise corrupt and wealth-privileged society.  As part of that I think it is also fair to ask whether the use of autonomous vehicles, and autonomous robots of other kinds, will reduce this "demand for labor", one of the few channels of advancement available to the poor.  Of course it will.  In fact, that is probably one of the reasons for doing this development, people being so expensive to maintain.

As for the morality of computer scientists who choose to work on autonomous lethal weapons, I have mixed feelings.   Just because so much of the technology and computer industry was financed by the Dept of Defense does not mean that everyone should choose to stay on that path.  Of course not.  Perhaps it is sufficient to just acknowledge the past, thank those that had faith and move on.  There will presumably be enough people to develop the technologies that the DOD and Congress, who funds all these things, desires while the University spits on their benefactors and the academics within hold themselves so preciously aloof.

You may read an article about this call here:

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Case Study Where the Free Market is Proven to Help the Poor

The following post is only for adults and those who are not free market libertarians.

I have received some criticism from a few readers who believe that I have been harsh, too harsh, on the holy free market in this blog. They say that I know very well that the free market can, in many circumstances, set prices in a way that correctly assesses value in a distributed fashion. And furthermore, that it is the free market that has the best chance and a track record of helping the poor.  They request that I correct this imbalance by giving an example that shows this and I have decided to comply.

Let us take the example of a family in Great Britain, the land of Adam Smith, during the enclosure period. The rich have used their control of the political process to seize the common lands and the small farmer can no longer use the commons as their traditional rights provided. They are of course impoverished and thrown off their farm. The husband and father is killed in a foreign war defending the privileges of the rich and the mother has to support the family by working in a mill for 16 hours a day 7 days a week.

But her child gets sick and will die without an operation she can not afford.

That is only fair of course, as only the rich should be able to get competent health care. The poor, who can not afford it, do not deserve to have decent health care because they do not have the money.  That is the way the pure free market works.

The owner of the mill comes to the rescue by offering to pay for the operation and save the life of her child if she will allow him to sodomize her many times and allow his friends to do so as well.

Now I wish to reprimand those readers of this blog who are jumping to conclusions that I mean that the wealthy here wish to literally sodomize our young working woman.  They may only wish to figuratively sodomize her.   You must rise above your base understanding of the world and think metaphorically, I implore you.

Getting back to our heartwarming parable about how the free market elevates the downtrodden, how will this working woman whose services are so sought after set the price for being sodomized by the rich? This is where the free market comes to the rescue. We can examine what impoverished women sell their bodies for based of course on supply and demand and the “special requests” such as our factory owner has. Then a fair price can be set by the free market, which is not distorted by inefficient government regulation, and society as a whole is made better by this efficient solution.

Thus this poor woman has received all the benefit that the free market has to offer the poor.

Clearly, we should set all our policies for society and make decisions on health care, employment, education, access to the political process, access to opportunity and so forth based on what the free market for services and products determines. I can not imagine that we would consider anything else given the obvious advantages this system naturally provides.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Free Market in Political Economy

Unfortunately this is one of those dreary, serious posts that has very little humor.  In fact, I see very little to cheer about in our economy in spite of what I read in the managed press.   Very little humor and almost no sarcasm.   We will return to our more traditional and shallow programming shortly.

A good friend of mine, who is far smarter than I am and infinitely more successful, has, with all sincerity, pointed out that the distress in the employment market in this country, or rather the unemployment market, is just the free market at work and the free market is the best system that we, the larger “we”, have for organizing our economic system. There may be some distress while people are repurposing themselves to other industries, but that is the way things go in our modern globalized society. 

I would describe this discussion as being similar to one between undergraduate freshmen late at night over beer discussing political economy. No one really cares what we think about the free market, but we care. So in the spirit of a good debating society, this post is here to support the following thesis:

Resolved: The free market has a track record of failure and disaster throughout history. Time and again, society has been forced to intervene and regulate the market in order to survive. Rather than create the best solution for society, it has produced arguably the very worst that could be imagined.

My argument goes as follows:

In America, the free market is holy. It is dogma that the free market produces the most efficient markets, the most fair results, the greatest prosperity for all. Many, many people in America believe that the free market, the so called laizzez faire, will both regulate itself and create a society that is acceptably fair for all without the need for government regulation of any sort.

But the reality is completely different. There is ample evidence that the free market left to itself not only routinely comes up with suboptimal solutions, but that it is notorious for it. And that furthermore, the assumption that the free market will result in a solution that society will find acceptable in any given area without some sort of regulation or control is patently and obviously wrong and has been proven wrong time and again.

One definition of insanity is to repeat the same behavior but expect a different result. Here are five cases where an international free market either resulted in a disaster for our economy and the economy of the world, or at the very least, would result in a situation that we would not desire.

1. Human slavery is a market solution.

Throughout history, human slavery and specifically the slave trade in human beings, has been a profitable global activity.   Human slave labor was a solution provided by the free market to provide a source of labor less expensive than hiring workers. Although the specific price performance of a human slave was different depending on the society involved, and the value of a human slave changed through the centuries, the trade in human slaves was always profitable and it has existed in every ancient and modern society that I am aware of, to a lesser or greater degree, until up to about 200 years ago. Which is not to say that there were not individuals who protested the trade and treatment of slaves and there were societies that organized to protect their citizens from becoming slaves, but the trade itself continued. (See note 3) Pretty much everyone's hands were dirty in the slave trade, although the extent of use of slavery and participation in the slave trade was uneven. Some ethnic groups, kingdoms, and/or nation states did seem to specialize in this morally objectionable practice more than others, in other words, the benefits of Globalization were revealed far in advance of its modern instantiation. To this day, human slavery is a major business in the underground economy and, if left to the market, would still exist in this country.

Abolishing slavery was not a market solution, not at all. In fact, the struggle to abolish human slavery has resulted in grave dislocations of various economies and in at least one major case, a war that killed about 10% of the adult male population and impoverished about half of that country, which is of course, this country.   Many believe that this particular war could have been avoided if both sides had been willing to figure out how to solve the economic dislocation the freeing of the slaves, who certainly deserved to be freed, could be addressed. Failing to address this issue, caused entirely by the amoral behavior of the free market whose major beneficiaries absolved themselves of all responsibility for the situation they had created, resulted in death and destruction on a vast scale.

Furthermore, the free market, left to itself,  has never abolished human slavery anywhere to the best of my knowledge and has not to this day. Society has had to come in at great expensive of lives and treasure to destroy this abomination and we are not done yet.

2. The exploitation of children is a market solution.

Great Britain was the first to industrialize their factories and the free market immediately abused labor, vastly expanding the use of women and children in inhuman conditions for impossible hours and slave wages which resulted from day one in misery, damaged lives, mutilation and death in the pursuit of profits. The free market never solved this problem. It was solved by society passing laws that punished corporations for their morally reprehensible behavior which took advantage of vast poverty in society to increase the profits of the factory owners. Not only was minimum standards of morality forced on them at the time, but they have been complaining about it ever since.

3. The complete collapse of a major segment of the energy industry about a century ago and the near extermination of mammalian sea life was a result of the free market..

Over 100 years ago, before our economy based itself on petroleum and we developed the technologies necessary for its extraction and use, the primary sources of energy in Western civilization were wood, coal and various oils for lighting. Nearly all lighting in this country was produced from whale and seal oil as it produced a better flame and less smoke than the alternatives which had been used throughout history. The globalized energy industry, particularly Great Britain and the United States, would send ships to islands in the southern hemisphere where they would find 100,000 seals on a single island and slaughter them, melt down their bodies for the fat in factory ships, and stop when it was no longer worth the money to kill them. From 100,000 seals on an island, they might leave a few hundred. It was just too expensive to chase them down and kill the last ones or they would have. The energy industry's vast wisdom in managing this scarce resource, whales and seals, was to kill them until they became essentially extinct and then stop. When they had killed so many that it was no longer profitable to kill the rest, and the whales and seals were all but extinct, that industry simply collapsed.  If natural gas and electric power (generated from coal) had not replaced it, we would have been burning olive oil in lamps the way the Romans had.

4. Whenever the financial markets have been allowed a free market, they have self destructed and taken the economy with it.

The self regulation of finance by the market has a very clear history. Left to itself, the finance markets will always engage in obviously risky behavior in pursuit of profits that will result in an unstable situation that at some point collapses at vast cost to society and the world. The market would then slowly rebuild, the economy rebuild, and they would do it again. Repeat. Left to itself, the financial markets are guaranteed to self-destruct out of greed and a complete lack of responsibility to the society that it serves.

It is as if engineers built bridges that collapse at tremendous loss of life because it was less expensive and more profitable to do so and they knew that this would kill people but they did not care. The latest example of this was the economic collapse of 2008 which was caused by gross malfeasance on the part of the finance industry in conjunction with congress and the regulatory agencies that abandoned their responsibilities to society.

Furthermore, we can say that whatever financial market we have today only exists because of government intervention, in other words, because of government interference with the free market. Left to the free market, there would be no finance market or industry. They had self destructed. It was gone, baby. All gone. The world economy was destroyed in 2008, repeat: destroyed, and the world entered the worst depression since the great Depression of 1929.  It was only because of government intervention in spite of the finance markets that the depression was not worse and they were careful to do so in ways that avoided the bad word "depression" as well as financially reward their guilty friends in the finance industries that had caused the problems.

5. Left to the free market, there would be no education for the poor.

It is true that by having mass public education, the rich get better workers, better soldiers, and more entertaining whores, but they have never wanted to pay for it. Public education has never been, now or ever, a solution that the market came up with.

So when I hear someone say, lets have the free market find the solution, I think to myself, are these people out of their fucking minds?


1. By the way, for what it is worth, one of my degrees is in Economics from a famously free-market school, UCLA, and I worked with a billion economists at the RAND Corporation when I was very young. Maybe this background is part of the explanation for why the issue of the use or abuse of the free market in lieu of policy seems so important to me.

2.  The practice of slaving was not restricted to black Africans, by the way.  That was a development in the slave trade in the 15th century.  Before that, there were slaves of any color or race, so far as I know.  The specific racial theory to justify slavery of sub-Saharan Africans seems to come into existence to help justify the practice.  Before then, however, human slavery involved pretty much anyone who could be victimized. Slavers would often raid by sea, attack a town, enslave the citizens and escape by sea.  Its a long, diverse, and complicated story. 

3. You may read about laissez faire at the link below.  The Wikipedia version is somewhat different from how it was explained to me years ago.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Mystery of "Now You See Me" (2013)

Two years ago I saw a trailer for a movie about magicians who rob banks to give to the poor.   I never heard much about it and thought maybe it had gone straight to video.  But no, it was released, but with very little marketing and then a number of odd things happened.

I may as well tell you up front that I believe that this film is actually an important and intellectual French film masquerading as a trivial popcorn movie. There are a number of things about this film that reveal that it is not mere cinematic fluff but is of interest to the readers of this blog, compelled as we are by the appropriate and innovative use of visual effects and our study of the esoteric knowledge that is hidden from the average, uninitiated member of the filmgoing audience.

On the surface the movie is an action / caper film about 4 street magicians who are brought together by an unknown person to create a new act, called the Four Horsemen. They nearly instantly become very famous and successful and their shows sell out and become media events not just because they have great style but also because they rob banks as part of their show and then give the money to their audience. Since in fact there are laws against robbing banks, unless of course you are already wealthy in which case you can do what you want, the FBI and Interpol get involved to solve the case and put our heroes into prison. The Four Horsemen have to somehow continue to evade the FBI, continue to rob banks, and somehow do all this in their final show in New York with the whole world watching and the FBI closing in.

But from the very beginning, the film confounds expectations.

A young man stands in front of a mirror practicing various sleight of hand flourishes with a deck of cards (see below). As he does so, there is a voice over, the voice of a young magician and he says to his invisible audience:

Magician: Come in close. Closer. Because the more you think you see, the easier it will be to fool you. Because, what is seeing? You're looking, but what you are really doing is filtering... interpreting... searching for meaning. My job? To take that most precious of gifts you give me, your attention, and use it against you.

So you see, the movie begins with an idea, an idea from the philosophy of magic. It is very unusual for an American movie to begin with an idea, or to even have an idea anywhere in the movie for that matter. That was the first clue that something unusual was going on.

Lots of style and glitz in our magic shows these days.

Superficially, the plot holes of the film, perhaps more appropriately called plot chasms, might signify the film as not serious. But this unusual opening monologue also suggested that there was something else going on, something behind the scenes, something mysterious.  These clues suggested to me that perhaps it was made in the cinematic tradition of another country.

Let us review some of the other unusual things about this film.

First, Hollywood (in this case, an American & Canadian studio) rarely makes movies about magic, that is, the profession of magic in this country. Whether the magicians are stage magicians, close-up magicians, famous escapists, mentalists, whatever, they rarely make films about these people, no matter how fictional. Such films are said to not make money, according to the standard received wisdom. But this movie was made nevertheless.

Step into my bubble, he said.

Second, the film, when released got lukewarm and mixed reviews, and received almost no marketing from the studio and it was expected to die a quick death. But, strangely enough, it didn't. Instead it proceeded to slowly build business by word of mouth and made over $100 million in this country for a total of at least $230 million in first release. That is very good for a film that cost $75 million to make and was expected to flop. In fact, it made more money than several other very expensive summer movies of that year and they are even making a sequel.

Third, this film was made by a relatively unknown French director and it is very rare for this country to finance a film by a foreign director because such films rarely do well in this country. Unless of course the foreign director makes films that are like American films in which case he really isn't all that foreign, now is he? Hollywood from time to time will co-finance a film by a famous foreign director, but that is not what happened here.

She is beautiful.

He needs a shave.

Fourth, the film is very, very French. It is not just an American caper film done by a foreign director. No. From beginning to end, this film feels like a French film in spite of the fact that Canal Plus did not finance it. How could I tell? Well of course there was the opening already alluded to, but beyond that French filmmakers have a very firm grasp of the essence of a film and have no problem sacrificing plot credibility at any time if it contributes to the style of the film or to the film's higher purpose. Plot, character, plausibility? Poof, that is irrelevant. Second, the French seem to have an affection for sophisticated and intelligent women who are not 22 years old as all the women in Hollywood seem to be and who, generally speaking, have an affair with the male lead. Third, they are very partial to male leads who do not shave. Fourth, the French as a culture have a strange appreciation for the big budget nightclub Vegas-type of show, in this case, of Magic. So lots of spotlights and lots of showmanship. Kindof Siegried and Roy without Siegfried and Roy. But most of all it is the cavalier dismissal of reality at any time that just felt so very French to me.

A typical French film might be a romantic action film about a beautiful and well (un) dressed young woman who is secretly a mysterious alien and who knows the secret of the rebirth of the universe and will save the galaxy if only these men in the story would stop screwing around and get out of her way before it is too late. This film is not about that, but it is about 4 street magicians who do the most amazing and implausible things with a good sense of style and outwit the FBI at every turn.

Fifth, the visual effects generally have a lot of panache and are not held back by any old-fashioned concerns about believability. As the French are very much into the meaning and semiotics of modern architecture, the final scenes are a very busy effects sequence with projection on buildings that is actually quite interesting if a little unbelievable.   The problem is that while we can project stereo on a building, I don't think we have the technology to project something such that each member of the audience will have their own point of view and perceive a holographic or stereo image that appears natural and in place.  I think that most of these techniques restrict you to one point of view or at most a very few.   This is a rare example of someone in the film business actually thinking ahead.

Since the police are after them, the Four Horsemen, now reduced to three, make a virtual appearance.

Sixth, the film seems to attribute much of its implausibility to the invisible hand of a secret philanthropic organization from ancient Egypt that may be behind the mystery.

And finally, I normally hate films with plot holes like this. But in this case I did not mind it one bit. In fact in spite of everything, or perhaps because of all the things I have mentioned, I actually found the film charming.

Although nominally the film may be about magicians who rob banks, we also have here a nice Cinderella meta-story about a French summer popcorn film that did well.


Now You See Me (2013) on IMDB

Hollywood Reporter article on Now You See Me Boxoffice



1. A flourish is the display of a deck of cards in a way that is designed to impress. It may or may not be part of an illusion. A good card player will often use flourishes when shuffling a deck as a way of intimidating his opponents or perhaps just to show off. In magic, it is part of the entertainment value of a show and is often used to distract the audience's attention. It may also be used by the magician as an exercise to develop skill and coordination.