Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in review

2010, wow, what a year. I can't help thinking that now we not only missed the first Jupiter mission, but the second Jupiter mission as well, and those alien monoliths must be getting awful lonely out there in the blackness of space. Anyway, things to cover...

Personal life:
- Starting on a sad note, by beloved great-aunt Klara Boguslavskaia passed away this summer. I miss you and love you and will never stop thinking about you.
- Got another diploma to put on the wall with the others. This time it's a teaching certification and a B.Ed. diploma. Let's home it'll turn out more useful than the others.
- Speaking of teaching, I started volunteering at a school in the hopes of getting a job there eventually. I love it, I hope it'll work out.
- I got paid for writing something! WOW! THAT IS JUST SO AWESOME! No, really, regardless of what the amount was, just the rush of actually getting paid to do something I love... Better than sex. :)
- Went to Russia this year with my sister. It was a terrific trip despite the awfulness we ran into with our flights there and back. It was great to meet up with so many old friends and see familiar faces. I wish all of them happy New Year's and to prosper in 2011 despite all the troubles my motherland is having right now.
- Finally quit BestBuy - that felt great. Unfortunately I then went and got my other old job back (of the data entry variety) out of desperation. Depressing, but there it is.

Games of 2010
- Civilization V came out this year. I had some big expectations, unfortunately they were not entirely met. It's a fun game, but definitely dumbed down.
- Assassin's Creed 2 was a fantastic game and an improvement on the original in every way. I already picked up Assassin's Creed 2 Brotherhood and can't wait to try it out.
- Starcraft 2 finally came out after like 15 years! Single player is fantastic, multiplayer is just as chaotic and full of rush as always.
- Fallout: New Vegas came out and blew me away despite somewhat low expectations. Even though it was buggy as hell at launch, the gameplay changes, the less-linear storyline, and the Nevada setting are all much more reminiscent of the classic Fallout 1 and 2. Highly enjoyable.
- Red Dead Redemption is an amazing game, and one of the few games which I would put forth as transcending video games and approaching art. The story, the characters, the dialogue, the scenery, the mood... Just simply amazing.
- Recettear is a tiny little game, easily missed, and for me it was a sleeper hit of 2010. Running a store in a fantasy RPG universe has never been more fun.

I bought/borrowed a lot of books this year, too many to cover all of them, but these were the more memorable ones:
- Fuller's Memorandum by Charles Stross continues the excellent Laundry series. It's definitely moving away from dark comedy and moving towards full-blown horror, and it's one hell of a ride.
- Naomi Klein's "No Logo" and "Shock Doctrine" blew me away. Even though I disagree with the author on many points, they are nonetheless angry, poignant, and thought-provoking books.
- Same as Klein, Gwynn Dyer's new book "Climate Wars" is very thought-provoking as well and a fun non-fiction read.
- Ray Kurzweil's "Singularity is near" was a heavy, but interesting read. Again, I disagree with the author on many points, but he does paint an interesting view of the future different from the predominantly distopian view we've been getting from both fiction and media (is there a difference nowadays?) in the last few years.
- Freakonomics was a very fun non-fiction read as well.
- China Mieville had two books out this year (ok, one, but the other one came out very late last year, so I'm counting it): "The City and the City" and "Kraken". Not sure if I like the former all that much, but it was a very dense text and he does some wonderfully interesting stuff with language. The latter on the other hand is a very zany occult romp that in my opinion surpasses most of Neil Gaiman's stuff, even if superficially it shares many elements with a typical Gaiman novel.
- I also finally started reading Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" books. They're fun little diversions, and definitely written for my geekdom demographic.

Movies of 2010:
Just as with books, I've seen way too many movies this year. These are the best (or the most fun, or both) movies of this year in my not-so-humble opinion:
- Inception in my opinion is the movie of the year. It's not a fucking remake movie for once (getting sick of those), and I'm pretty sure everyone's already aware of how awesome it is.
- The Town was a sleeper hit, I didn't expect much of Ben Affleck and yet he totally pulled through as a director and actor and crafted a very thoughtful, tense, and well-directed crime noir movie. Definitely worth a watch.
- Leaves of Grass is possible the best non-foreign movie of 2010 that no one has seen. It stars Edward Norton as two twin brothers. It's a lovely, thoughtful, almost tender movie (even if a few people get shot... with a crossbow), and I've already watched it several times.
- Robin Hood. Y'know what? It's the same story with this movie as with Kingdom of Heaven. The director's cut really transforms it far above and beyond a summer blockbuster it was billed as. I highly recommend watching the director's version.
- Terribly Happy is my second favourite foreign movie of 2010. It's a darkly funny crime noir tale set in a small isolated town in Denmark. Very good movie.
- Wolfman is a remake of a remake, but for all that it succeeds at what's important - preserving the atmosphere and the feeling of dread. Yes we know the main hero will turn into a werewolf, but that's really beside the point. Fine acting by Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro both.
- Shutter Island is a screen version of a graphic novel (a first for Scorcese) and the plot is rather obvious, but along with Inception it really shows how almost frighteningly good of an actor Leonardo di Caprio really is.
- Secret of Kells is a fairly short movie (less than 90 minutes), it is animated, it's Irish, and... you know what? It's spellbinding! I am willing to sit and watch it purely for the visuals and the music, and yet it is so much more.
- This movie has such intense acting and atmosphere I don't think I relaxed once watching it. The second time through I still couldn't relax. It's just that good at what it does. Just as good as the book.
- The A-Team. OK. I know. But I had to put at least one mindless summer flick on this list and this is the best of the lot. It's a good remake, a good tribute, and despite an overall crappy plot and some crappy special effects, it's very very fun. With surprisingly good actors (not just Liam Neeson), well-written dialogue that's genuinely funny, it delivered (unlike the Expendables, which I saw back to back with this movie).
- Wall Street 2 was a tad too long and ends on a feel-good note, but as far as long-delayed sequels go, it's very good and gives Michael Douglas another shot to show to use how fine of an actor he's always been.
- R.E.D. is - like A-Team - another mindless action movie. Like the A-Team, however, its lovable characters, tight and funny dialogue, and non-stop action carry it beyond a boring action movie it could have been. Doesn't hurt that the great actors starring in it have real chemistry.
- A Small Act is a documentary about a man trying to find an identity of a woman he's never met, but one that has given him the gift of a fulfilling life. It is an amazing and moving story.
- Centurion was another sleeper hit for me. Billed as mindless historical action flick (like Robin Hood above), it is actually much more. Yes, the violence is savage, but it is not needlessly drawn out or overwrought (300 I'm looking at you), and it provides a social commentary on Iraq as well.
- Machete might just be the most politically charged and no-holds-barred movie of 2010, and the most honest look at the immigration issue in the United States. Oh, and it's a grindhouse flick directed by Robert Rodriguez starring barely anyone the mass public would recognize, with gratuitous violence and pornography. Go figure. So so so good.
- Buried was a movie that initially made me go "huh?!" It stars Ryan Reynolds, alone on the screen, buried in a box with a cellphone. It is such a terrific political thriller, I cannot help recommending it. I'm not sure I'd watch it again knowing the twist and the resolution already, but it's definitely worth a watch.

Well, that's all for now, and happy 2011 folks!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Business School

Little round pegs
Listen to big round pegs
And learn thing such as:
Customer care
Total quality management
ISO compliance
Minimizing liability
Maximizing shareholder profits
Protecting intellectual property
Not realizing that
The hole is a square.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"We have awoken a giant and filled it with terrible resolve"

The actions of the Russian government seem determined to eliminate any and all moderates and polarize society along ethnic and cultural lines. Putin's regime seems curiously helpless to put down any demonstrations or protests that elsewhere would be deemed extremist and fascist, while at the same time slamming down on any sort of democratic/moderate/liberal opposition protests that are tiny compared to ultranationalist outbursts. Worst of all, as an outside observer, it seems that it is the government itself that seems to both create and nurture the "us vs. them" to divide in the Russian society, not realizing what kind of powder keg they're sitting on and lighting a fuse to.

Meanwhile the actions of the police and other 'force' structures (silovyie struktury) are so eerily reminiscent of the tsarist police during its last few years (what I wrote my M.A. thesis on) that I get goosebumps reading the current news. It is entirely likely that Putin is trying to shore up his political power in the same fashion that the Tsars tried to do almost a hundred years ago, and it is entirely likely that the results will be the same.

The was a kind of jubilation, or at the very least hopeful expectation that the Russian people (and other nationalities as well) had throughout the 80s and 90s. Even in the worst parts of the 90s when the communists were seemingly on the verge of a democratic victory there was no strong and convincing rhetoric of "us vs. them" or abandonment of democratic principles in favour of economic stability (beyond grumblings and demonstrations by increasingly politically-irrelevant old people) which is basically Putin's platform. What the 90s created, however, was a large and powerful junta (I can find no better word that conveys illegality of what they had done - oligarchy sounds too 'legitimate' for my taste) that was able to use Yeltzin's impending retirement and physical and mental disability to push through a candidate that will guarantee the kind of regime they needed to survive and prosper.

By 2000 the kind of Russian people who were necessary for real democracy either emigrated or were economically desperate enough to believe that Putin did not necessarily mean the end of democracy. Here's how demography worked against democracy - at the height of emigration, Russia was losing more than half a million people a year to emigration. Those were the people with the: a) skills, b) money, c) work ethic, d) desire to make things better for their family. In other words - the middle class. By late 90s the middle-class was diminished and impoverished both economically and morally. The middle-class that slowly grew up under Putin now tend to associate their prosperity with Putin and economic stability at the price of democracy, however, now it seems like they're starting to wake up.

An average modern Russian (according to polls) associates poverty with democracy, Russia's apparent "weakness" on the global stage with an American conspiracy, crime with "blacks" (by which Russians mean anyone from Caucases or Central Asia - chornyie, the Russian word for people of African descent is different), wealth with corruption, police with legal crime, politicians with liars and puppets of the rich elite, and so on. Fortunately there is some indication that the grassroots organizations that connect seriously pissed-off Russians (whether on environmental issues, taxation, etc.) are becoming more effective. Unfortunately these organizations either deal with purely economic or non-political issues (that could be a good sign if South American democratic movements of 70s/80s are any indication. Most of the successful anti-fascist/anti-junta South American movements grew out of religious, economic, and even sport-based organizations) or much worse - with ethnic issues (in which case they become ultranationalistic or even openly nazi organizations).

For example, the most recent wave of violent protests in Moscow and st. Petersburg started out as a huge violent riot of soccer fans who were protesting the shooting of a "Spartak" fan club member whose murderers were set free by the corrupt police, and has turned into an anti-government/anti-immigration riot that the gov't is content not to stop in any way.

A cogent and powerful argument can be made that the reason why every openly democratic-liberal party/faction has failed in Russia is that all the really successful parties/factions have traditionally stressed nationalism and paternalism, whether populist or not, and that it is a sign that Russian people are either incapable of, or not yet ready for, real democracy. Now I personally would not entirely agree with such an argument, but it has been made and it has been made well.

Do the radicals stand a chance to win in the Duma however? Thanks to Putin and co. the Russian political system is very effectively rigged to prevent a real opposition. However, an even greater consequence of this is that the radicals are no longer interested in using democratic means to gain power, as they realize (quite rightly) that doing so is pointless! Even before the recession, the radicals (of either stripe - left, right, or pro-gov't) have taken to the streets and have often used street violence to make their point. Ultra-radical nationalists kill journalists, liberal opposition members, immigrants, foreign nationals. Ultra-radical left-wingers have taken to vandalizing gov't offices, attacking members of openly fascist/ultra-nationalist/nazi parties, and attacking police (try to find some news about anti-police gangs in the Russian Far East - not sure how much coverage they got in the English-speaking media). Ultra-radical pro-gov't faction is content to let the police contain and disperse the other two factions and then attack them without any repercussions or danger.

There is a Russian word (really a Polish word that was borrowed) - 'Bydlo'. It used to mean herd of cattle, then it also started to mean serfs, specifically referring to docile dumb peasant serfs. Putin and co. have been treating Russian citizens like 'Bydlo' for the last decade - considering incapable of rational or independent thought, willing to be led around as long as they are fed. Well the cattle is waking up, and the idiots in charge are too busy stealing to read history textbooks and realize that every time the mob of Russian people wake it is never merciful to its one-time shepherds.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Information wants to be free

Exposure of government crimes should not be a crime. I expect right-wing loonies in the U.S. to call for treason charges and even death penalty for Julian Assange (nevermind that he's not a U.S. citizen). But when CANADIAN government officials are suggesting charges of treason and other charges, that's when we know that there IS problem with our system of governance, and that Assange is doing the right thing! If we do not hold our governments accountable, then they WILL become like Taliban or North Korea, but they'll be controlled by corporate interests or whatnot, instead of loonie Communist dictators or fundamentalists.What Wikileaks is doing is exposing government secrets that SHOULD be exposed. People in democratic states are entitled to the right to know what their ELECTED government is doing. Governments trying to go after Wikileaks demonstrate the unwillingness of our gov'ts to give us that right, therefore exposing them to be non-democratic regimes.

If it does not require the likes of the Wikileaks then why are governments trying to shut it down? Why is actually so hard to hold our governments accountable? Why does it take whistleblowers to show us what our governments really up to? I think Wikileaks actually fulfills a public service. how can people make informed choices about what the state is doing, and whether it's acceptable, if they don't have free access to said information? And what are we to make of the persistent muzzling of the media (one of the very watchdogs you're talking about) by democratic governments? Why is it that the media has to rely on the findings of these 'dilettantes' rather than the other way around? Why are Wikileaks and similar sources publishing information that our so-called free press does not? Governments must be held accountable to their people, and free access to information about the governments' activities is the first step in this accountability.