Friday, March 30, 2012

How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Love Mass Effect 3

In this post, I will be discussing Mass Effect 3, and in particular its "controversial" ending. This was originally an email I sent to my dear friend Nirmal, and I may wind up reposting some or all of this on other Internet fora as discussions rage on (in particular, I'll probably post it to the Bioware forum at some point). I also reserve the right to come back and edit this into something a bit more professional, as it was originally an informal email to a buddy.

Bear in mind that this post includes MASSIVE SPOILERS about Mass Effect 3, and its ending in particular. Also, it should go without saying that some of what I discuss is particular to my particular playthrough of the series (female Shepard, about 90-95% Paragon, relationship with Liara through all 3 games, kept as many people alive as possible, etc.). Your mileage may vary (and that's the beauty of it). So, without further ado, my thoughts on ME3:

Overall, I thought ME3 was excellent. I think it really works as a concluding chapter for the series and brings many personal and galactic storylines to a satisfying, if sometimes bittersweet, end. One way or another, you decide the future of the Krogan and the genophage, and the outcome of the Quarian-Geth war (and play out the deeply personal investment that Wrex, Mordin, Tali, and Legion have in those stories). You also see Samara reunited with the last of her daughters, Miranda finally confront her father, etc. There were also some beautifully quiet and tender non-sex moments between my Shepard and her lover, Liara.

I thought the opportunity to delve into the secrets of the past of the galaxy was quite cool. Seeing how the Protheans shaped the younger races, especially the Asari (as revealed on Thessia), was fascinating. I also thought that Javik was an extremely interesting character, especially considering how uncompromising and brutal-minded he was, and how that contrasted with the mythology of the Protheans that many characters like Liara, and the whole Hanar culture, had become attached to. I do think it's worth noting that Javik was a soldier who lived his entire life in the very last days of his species' losing war with the Reapers, so he's not necessarily a typical Prothean in that respect.

Speaking of the Protheans, the fact that the crucible was not originally a Prothean design, but was secretly passed down from one dead civilization to the next across many cycles of extinction turns the epic factor up to 11 and gives even more weight to the story. Cool.

The general theme of ME3's main quest is uniting the races of the galaxy in the face of desperation and terror for one last stand, together. That's pretty epic and awesome as sci-fi/fantasy plots go, if a little overused. The execution is great, though, and, in my Paragon-heavy storyline, that often involves making peace between old enemies so that they can both have a future. So many videogames are about war, but rarely have I felt a more meaningful sense of accomplishment in a game than making peace between the Krogan and Turians, or the Quarians and the Geth. It also makes Mordin and Legion's self-sacrifice especially meaningful.

Now for the infamous ending. First, I recommend you have a look at Gabe's thoughts on the matter and the backlash from some fans, which I largely agree with (agree with Gabe, that is).

Here is my interpretation of the final part of the game: activating the crucible allows Shepard to meet the God-like AI that controls the citadel and the reapers. Shepard is wired up with cybernetics and is the recent victim of a nearly-successful indoctrination attempt by the Illusive Man, so I think that it absolutely makes sense that the citadel-AI is able to read images from her mind and take the form of what her subconscious has been obsessing about (as evidenced by her dreams). Just as the reapers are able to indoctrinate organics and lesser synthetics (i.e. the heretic Geth), the citadel-AI indoctrinates the reapers to carry out its plan. I think this helps explain the reapers' motivations and their utter implacability quite well (illustrated by the almost frantic insistence of the reaper on Rannoch that the cycle MUST continue).

As for the citadel-AI's actual plan: it is to harvest the most advanced organic civilizations every 50K years so that they don't develop to the point that they create a race of synthetics that is so advanced it is able to completely eradicate all other sentients. The Geth, who were created a scant 300 years before the reaping, could easily develop into this (although, fortunately, the Geth are self-preserving and not actually genocidal, but they do think BIG, as evidenced by their attempt to build a gigantic Dyson sphere to house their complete collective consciousness). Even without rogue AIs, advanced organic races can easily become oppressive. Javik reveals that the Prothean empire was hardly a utopia, and they were fairly iron-fisted in their treatment of other races in their cycle. So, the basic idea is to prune the "tallest trees" of organic civilization in each cycle so that others can grow and flourish in their own time. Obviously wiping out civilizations sucks, but it makes a certain sort of sense. Each cycle has 50K years of civilization, of art, science, and culture. All of that is beautiful and meaningful even if it eventually ends, and from the perspective of the citadel-AI, it is necessary for a handful of generations out of every couple thousand to face their annihilation for all of that to continue.

Now for the nature of the reapers themselves. Note that the citadel-AI says that civilizations are "archived" in reaper form. The way I interpret that is that the thoughts and personalities of the organics that are harvested to construct reapers are integrated and subsumed in the new reaper's consciousness. Because of the overriding imperative to continue the cycle that the citadel-AI's indoctrination forces on the reapers, we never really see much of that. It is hinted at, however, when Legion talks about the vast, awesome, unknowable thoughts of reaper minds. I interpret those thoughts as being the collective zeitgeist of whole civilizations that were harvested to create those reapers. In a way, those civilizations live on as reaper minds. Harvesting suddenly makes a LOT more sense, as just using organic bodies as raw material in reaper construction is stupid and unnecessary (even if it were for some reason chemically necessary, it would be a lot less hassle for the reapers to just get the materials from algae or cyanobacteria), so I give this explanation a lot of credit for resolving my biggest problem with Mass Effect 2's ending.

Moving on to Shepard's choices in the ending: It's true that, in all of the possible endings, Shepard sacrifices herself in some way. In the "red" (destroy the reapers) ending, she basically wrecks the citadel, although there is a hint that she survived in the rubble if you go in with a very high readiness rating. In the "blue" (control the reapers) ending, she merges herself with the citadel, essentially becoming a new AI controller for the reapers. In the "green" ending, she sacrifices herself in order to "imprint" herself on all organics AND synthetics in the galaxy and create a future where both forms of intelligence are integrated and synergistic. It's true that no matter what ending you choose, Shepard sacrifices herself to change the future. I'm fine with that. Heroic self-sacrifice is a big theme in ME3 (Mordin and Legion, again, come to mind), and Shepard giving her life in the end is a lot more meaningful than the alternative.

Now for my interpretation of the differences between the endings. If you choose to destroy the reapers, you're basically saying fuck the citadel, fuck the reapers (and fuck EDI and the innocent Geth, sadly), fuck the cycle: the chaos of naturally developing life is preferable to an imposed order that requires periodic genocide. Now, it is possible that the citadel-AI was right all along and that this will result in the eventual extinction of organic life. It is also possible that the memory of the reapers will serve as a powerful warning to future civilizations and that there will be a tremendous cultural aversion to AIs, eventually reaching the status of a mythological/religious commandment and forcing the development of organic potential instead. This is almost exactly the backstory of the Dune universe, where AIs are viewed as horrible, sinful abominations, and genetically engineered, pharmaceutically enhanced, and exceptionally trained humans perform the tasks which would otherwise require advanced computers.

If you choose to control the reapers, Shepard does what the Illusive Man thought he was trying to do, which is to turn the tables on the reapers and use their immense power in the service of organics. On the one hand, this will fast-forward the technological sophistication of galactic civilization like crazy. On the other hand, this basically makes Shepard-AI the God of the Milky Way. Shepard-AI will probably be a benevolent God, but this future is one of ultimate order, with Shepard-AI and her vast fleet of reapers in near-absolute control of the direction of galactic civilization.

Finally, there is the ending which I chose, the "synergy" between organic and synthetic life. I admit this was the least-explained and hardest to understand of the endings, but I also think it is potentially the most hopeful and bright. Instead of annihilating the synthetics or assuming the mantle of godhood, Shepard ends indoctrination and "changes" all organics and synthetics in the galaxy to incorporate eachother. The process for this may seem magical and handwavy, but I think it's plausible in the ME universe because: 1. Reapers are able to use nanobots to create husks from organic corpses in a matter of seconds. 2. Sovereign's reaper indoctrination worked across a distance of many lightyears. 3. The citadel-AI, as creator and controller of the reapers, is presumably even more technologically advanced than they are (perhaps being to the reapers as the reapers are to us). As Arthur C. Clarke said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". I believe the citadel-AI is certainly sufficiently advanced, and technology required to pull off the galactic transformation is consistent with what's already been seen in the ME series.

With the "how" of the synergy ending addressed, I'll talk about about what I think happened and what the outcome is. I think all organics become partly cybernetic, and all synthetics get their programming modified. My interpretation of "synergy" is that, through the cybernetics and the new programming, all sentients, whether organic or synthetic (reapers included) are now connected to each other in some way, via some sort of universal empathy for each other or low-level telepathy and sharing of thoughts. The Zhu's Hope colony on Feros, after the Thorian was destroyed, is a good example of this. The colonists are all still individuals, but they can on some level feel each others' emotions and act as one for each others' benefit. I interpret the synergy ending as magnifying this to a galactic scale, where organics and synthetics are individuals, but deeply and integrally linked to each other. This may be my hippie utopian fantasy, but the idea of universal, natural peace and love between all beings really appeals to me. Note, also, that the reapers are now free from indoctrination and part of this union. Now, instead of unknowable objects of terror and dread, the reapers are grand and beautiful creatures that carry the thoughts and memories of dead civilizations into the future.

Obviously I had to do some thinking and extrapolation of my chosen ending on my own, but having done so I think it is wonderful. I didn't need everything spelled out exactly for me, and thinking through the implications on my own proved to be a very edifying experience. The final image of Joker and EDI arm-in-arm, as Gabe notes, powerfully illustrates this future.

To wrap things up, I'll address a few of the complaints people had about the ending.

  1. "Destroying the mass relays would wipe out all of the systems where they are stationed." It's true that it's established in the "arrival" DLC for ME2 that destroying a mass relay releases a tremendous amount of energy that basically wipes out anything in the same host star system. Put another way, each mass relay stores a vast amount of potential energy which is released when it is destroyed. Now consider the process by which the mass relays are destroyed at the end of ME3: they are destroyed while propagating a signal which destroys or controls the reapers, or transforms all life in the galaxy. Also consider the fact that reapers (and organic life) are present in many systems which do not have a mass relay. It isn't unreasonable to assume that the power of that signal as it radiates from each mass relay follows an inverse-square law, and must cover an extremely large volume with sufficient power. My interpretation is that all of that potential energy in the mass relays, instead of being destructively discharged all willy-nilly as in "Arrival", is actually used to boost the signal so that it covers the entire galaxy. That also explains why it was necessary to destroy the mass relays in the first place: their energy sources are needed.
  2. "Without the mass relays, galactic civilization is boned." It's not quite as bad as all that. It's true you won't be able to get from one end of the galaxy to the other in a matter of days anymore, but there are still conventional FTL drives in starships that at least allow for short-range interstellar travel to be possible. Also, background in ME3 establishes that quantum entanglement communicators, which allow instantaneous point-to-point communication and don't in any way depend on the mass effect, have seen a big uptake. Without a way of delivering a replacement terminal, the existing QECs should be protected very carefully, but the network of QECs effectively makes communication (with telepresence, VR, and all that good stuff) possible on a galactic scale, even if physical travel is limited to local star clusters. Also remember that the Prothean scientists on Ilos were able to build their own mass relay to the citadel, so it's entirely reasonable that with concerted scientific effort on the part of the galaxy's still-communicating civilizations, the technology to build mass relays could be redeveloped. In the "green" and "blue" endings, reaper tech is still available to accelerate this process (even without mass relays, reaper FTL drives are implied to be VERY fast, since the reapers still managed to get back from dark space in a couple of years despite Shepard preventing them from using mass relays).
  3. "The allies that Shepard brought to the battle of Earth are now marooned and screwed." It's true that many of the allies Shepard brought to Earth will probably never return home. Keep in mind, though, that they all signed up for a suicide mission, so surviving at all is a win in itself. Also keep in mind that, as I noted above, they may not be able to physically travel home in their lifetimes, but they can still communicate with their loved ones across the galaxy. There are a couple of sub-issues with this that I address below.
    1. "Turian and Quarian biochemistry is based on dextro-amino-acids, so they can't eat Earth food and will starve." The point about Earth food is true, the point about starvation isn't. Remember that the Quarian fleet refitted their liveships (basically massive space farms) with dreadnought-class cannons for the battle of Rannoch. After the Quarian civilians were settled on Rannoch, the flotilla joined the battle at Earth, and you can explicitly see Quarian liveships (the massive ships with spherical main hulls) among the allied fleet. A few of these liveships provided food for 17 million Quarians. If just one of them survived the battle for earth, it could easily provide food for the surviving Quarian and Turian military forces at Earth (and its stocks of crops could be used to seed other food-production facilities for them).
    2. "Without Wrex's leadership, and no longer bound by the genophage, the Krogans are going to go on a rampage of conquest again". Wow, racist much? In all seriousness, although Wrex is stranded in the Sol system, he can still communicate with Tuchanka. Eve/Bakara, the shaman of the female clan and now a very important figure for the Krogan, remains on Tuchanka and is just as determined and wise a leader as Wrex. It's true that Wrex and Bakara together would have made the best leaders for the Krogan, and had the best chance of preventing the mistakes of the past from being repeated, but I think with just Bakara on Tuchanka (and pregnant with Wrex's child), there is still hope for the Krogan's future. (Note that depending on the player's actions, both Wrex and Bakara could be dead, in which case this point is moot and the Krogan are lacking for good leadership anyway).
  4. "The endings are all the same, they just change the color of an effect in the final cutscene." OK, point. The endings are not the same, in that if you think about the implications of your decision they are very different, but the last cutscene you actually see is very similar no matter what you choose. A bit disappointing, sure, but there's so much choice and variety in how the game as a whole unfolds that I'm not that pissed off about it. It'd be nice to see a longer denouement that illustrated more of the unique decisions that you made, but again, this isn't such a deal-breaker for me given the overall job that the game did in wrapping up those storylines.
  5. "WTF was up with the Normandy fleeing the battle ahead of the signal? And why were my squadmates on board?" This particular criticism is, I think, by far the most valid that anyone has given. The game never establishes why the Normandy is flying away from the Sol system with Joker frantically trying to stay ahead of the energy wave/signal. It sets up the Normandy's crash on an unnamed planet (pretty unlikely if you're just cruising through a random mass-relay conduit), which does give us the powerful visual of Joker & EDI together on the surface (at least in my ending), but it can also show squad members that were with you in London emerging from the Normandy. I do consider this to be a serious plot hole, as there's no explanation for how your squadmates made it back to the Normandy, or for why the Normandy was leaving the battle. That's not to say that no reasonable explanation was possible, but I can't see any hint to one. Honestly, if any part of the ending needs "fixing", it's this. It doesn't negate all the good implied stuff or "ruin" the series, but there really isn't enough context to explain it.

So, that's my take on ME3. Understanding the ending takes a little intellectual legwork, but all the pieces are there and I like the conclusions that I reached. The Normandy plot hole, in particular, is frustrating, but if you don't let yourself get hung up on that, you can appreciate that ME3 was actually a brilliant conclusion to one of the greatest sci-fi sagas in videogame history.


Yes, I've resurrected this blog after 5 years, mainly because I wrote a long email to a friend about Mass Effect 3 (see the next post), that I wanted to publish. Nevertheless, most of the thoughts I'm beaming out to the Internet will still be through my Twitter account, but on the occasion that I write up something long-form, you can find it here.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Apple TV Post

Like every other tech blogger in the solar system, I'm writing a post about Apple's dual product announcements this week. The first, Apple TV, was widely known to be coming (although speculation generally centered around the name iTV), and it is basically what you assumed it to be: a box looking very much like a slimmed-down Mac Mini with high-def video outputs that syncs up wirelessly with your iTunes videos. The interface looks to be a version of Front Row, which is already bundled on Macs, and it comes with the iconic, simple 6-button Apple remote. It doesn't include PVR functionality, it doesn't play games, it just puts videos up on your TV at up to 720p. As for technical capabilities, Apple's page lists it as having an Intel processor and a 40G hard drive for a local content cache. The specific processor model isn't mentioned, so we're left to wonder if it's something from the Core/Core 2 line or an embedded chip like the XScale paired up with a specialized DSP to do the high-def video decoding (likely, since it will sell for only $300). As for software, the interface is, as I mentioned before, an enhanced version of Front Row, which implies that the Apple TV may be running a version of OS X. OS X has never been used in an embedded device before, and there's no official word of a port to ARM (possibly ruling out my XScale idea), but Apple's other major announcement, the one which has caused a least a dozen breathy "whoas" around me in the lab since I started typing this post, is the iPhone, a handheld which runs a version of OS X. Anyway, the possibility for collaborative development on the 2 devices makes it quite logical to share a "Mac Embedded" base between the two.

There are certainly some cool things about Apple TV that are worth praising. Front Row is a beautifully simple interface (if you haven't tried it, ask a friend with a recent Mac and you'll see), and the Apple remote is pretty hard to get confused by (it's also tiny, which means it may slide into your couch a little too easily). It'll stream video wirelessly or via ethernet from multiple Macs or PCs in the house, which is another plus. On the downside, it does not appear that you can actually buy music, movies, or TV shows from iTunes using the device itself. It's also an intentionally limited device: it ONLY plays back your iTunes content. It's a little disappointing that it doesn't act as a PVR as well, but it's understandable given that, to do so, it would need a bigger hard drive (especially for high-def content) and getting it to play nice with Digital Cable or Satellite (and allow direct recording of digital steams) would be a nightmare with all of the conflicting locked-down implementations for digital content delivery.

So, Apple TV isn't a direct competitor to Tivo, but it does occupy the same nebulous "set top box" space. Interestingly enough, so do the next-gen game consoles, and there's actually quite a bit of feature overlap. Both XBox 360 and Playstation 3 support playback of downloaded high-def content (even though the 360 is limited to a paltry 20G drive), and the PS3 additionally has a built-in Blu-Ray player. We can consider both the 360 and the PS3 to be more "complete" entertainment systems, with the inclusion of games and, at the very least, DVD playback on both. It's difficult to say exactly how the Apple TV stacks up against them, though. It's cheaper, certainly, and it can't do as much. What it does do, though, it is poised to do well: which is to say that it functions as an easy-to-use dedicated player for stuff from the iTunes store which is, at the moment, by far the most complete source for downloadable TV shows and movies. The 360 offers downloadable videos as well (but is hobbled by a lack of secondary storage and a tiny selection), while the PS3 will gladly play Blu-Ray discs, and any drm-free high-def video that YOU take the trouble to provide it.

Honestly, it's a bit hard to see how this one will shake out. For me personally, I like being able to transcode video from any source I like and watch it on the PS3, but for someone who isn't in the habit of downloading torrents and encoding them just the way they like, Apple TV is a lot easier to use. Anyway, Apple has officially entered the living room fray with a device that is defined, for better or for worse, by its simplicity.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about that other Apple launch.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

10 Worst Civil Liberties Outrages of 2006

As the year comes to a close, Slate has ranked the top 10 worst civil liberties violations of 2006. You've probably heard of a lot of the offenses on this list, including the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the use of the "State Secrets" excuse to avoid any sort of constitutional accountability when it comes to things like secret wiretapping programs and extraordinary rendition (both also on the list).

Interestingly enough, the list includes the FBI's spying on various non-terrorist civilian organizations, including my religious denomination, the Quakers. On the one hand, it's pretty horrifying that a bunch of religious peaceniks like us are considered threatening enough to be spied on, but on the other hand, it's an honor to be in the company of some other innocent targets of FBI surveillance like Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon.

Back to the bulk of the article, though, what makes a lot of these abuses particularly awful is that there is no accountability for them. The use of the state secrets doctrine, the use of proxy states (including Syria, of all places) to torture terror suspects without charges, and the use of the "enemy combatant" classification to deny due process all combine to mask the other abuses which the Geneva convention rightly calls outrages against human dignity. Even when victims are ultimately released (many detainees at Guantanamo bay were finally released this year due to total lack of evidence or, perhaps more alarmingly, mistaken identity), they have little legal recourse to obtain reparations for their wrongful imprisonment and their inhumane treatment, because the Bush administration will use any of a number of constitutionally questionable practices to stonewall them and keep any case challenging the unilateral power of the executive out of the courts.

Now, you would hope that, with the Bush administration running roughshod over the judiciary to try to mask their misdeeds, the congress would step in and try to restore the balance of powers. Indeed, for a while it looked like that might happen. Certain prominent Republicans like John McCain (himself a victim of wartime torture in Vietnam) started siding with Democrats and pushing for legislation to ban the use of torture by US forces (leaving aside the fact that it should go without saying that we ought to uphold our treaty obligations under the Geneva convention). The legislation that ultimately passed was a "compromise" which officially banned torture, but gives the president the sole authority to define what constitutes torture, and the sole responsibility for reporting on the techniques used in interrogation. If anything, the bill actually weakened oversight over the president.

So, all in all, it was a pretty bad year for civil liberties in the US. The silver lining is that a new congress is set to be sworn in soon, and I sincerely hope that a democratic majority will begin investigations to bring to light some of the Bush administration's worst outrages. While a new congress can't force a total change in the administration's policy, restoring the executive branch's accountability to the public will hopefully shame them into changing their ways.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Iraq Study Group to Recommend Phased Withdrawal

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group won't officially make its recommendation to the Bush administration until December 6th, but the Washington Post is reporting that they will advise the US to begin a phased withdrawal of combat forces. The committee, which is split between democrats and republicans (including such prominent figures as former secretary of state James Baker and retired supreme court justice Sandra Day O'Connor) has, somewhat remarkably, come to a consensus that I think any realist looking at the Iraq war would have to find some truth in: the US military isn't doing much good by staying in Iraq, and meanwhile a lot of Americans and Iraqis are losing their lives as a result of the continued military presence there.

I opposed invading Iraq in the first place, but since we went in and destroyed much of the national infrastructure, then precipitated what is, unquestionably, a civil war, I have to admit that I feel the US has a moral responsibility to try to fix the damage that has been done. Of course, nothing can bring back the lives of the many Iraqi civilians that have died (nor the American soldiers who were killed in the line of duty, for that matter), but if we can do something to help stabilize and rebuild the country, then it's our duty to the people of Iraq to do so. As years of occupation have shown, though, keeping our troops there isn't helping. If anything, outrage against the occupation may be fueling recruitment for the various armed militias which have sprung up over the last 3 years. If the American forces leave, there's a good possibility that sectarian violence might actually decrease (unfortunately not enough to head off the civil war).

As far as what the US can do to help Iraq, the study group may recommend a regional conference on Iraq, including dialog with neighbors Syria and Iran. The US loses nothing by engaging these countries diplomatically, and other more friendly regimes like the ones in Jordan and Turkey could be valuable in providing support to the fledgling Iraqi government. The US ought to fund humanitarian aid for Iraq, but, as the study group recommends, step back to an advisory and support role for Iraqi police.

Of course, there remains a strong possibility that nothing the US, the Iraqi government, or possible new regional partners do can stop the civil war. Here, it may be useful to remember that Iraq was originally a political fiction created by the British following World War 1 from 3 former Ottoman provinces. The strong-arm authoritarian rule of Saddam Hussein's government was able to keep the country relatively stable, but the current chaos might only be solved by partitioning Iraq into predominantly Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia regions (essentially the same regional divisions along which the Ottomans governed). The Kurds already have quite a bit of experience with democracy and self government (between the 2 Iraq wars, the enforced no-fly zone meant that Hussein's military couldn't touch them), and an independent Kurdish homeland in northern Iraq isn't so far fetched (although Turkey and Iran worry about their own Kurdish minorities clamoring to secede and join a newly independent Kurdistan). Separating the Sunni triangle from the rest of Iraq could cut off a large portion of the ongoing sectarian violence, but doing so would come at a great cost: many people would want to, or feel forced to, relocate, family members would find themselves on opposite sides of the border, and many Iraqis who are members of mixed Sunni/Shia families (let's not forget that, while extremists on both sides battle each other, many Iraqis are a good deal more tolerant) would be torn as to where to make their lives. In short, partition is a drastic option, and it's not something I believe we should do right away. Following troop withdrawal and genuine diplomatic engagement with Iraq's neighbors, if violence does not die down, it may be time to consider that. In the meantime, I agree with the study group, the US needs to start packing up and pulling out.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Lebanon In Crisis?

The assassination of Pierre Gemayel is the latest of several violent tragedies to befall Lebanon and, although Americans are understandably occupied thinking about the escalating sectarian violence in Iraq, anyone interested in the prospects of a more peaceful and just middle each should be watching Lebanon closely. There is much to be hopeful about in Lebanon: the country is shared by large groups of Christians and Muslims (both Sunni and Shia), and the Lebanese government has succeeding in disarming almost all the rogue militias held over from the country's long and destructive civil war (Hezbollah is a glaring exception, but more on that later). 2005 also saw major progress for democracy in Lebanon, as long-simmering resentment of Syrian interference in Lebanese politics reached a climax following the assassination of another prominent anti-Syrian leader, Rafik Hariri. Public outrage in Lebanon lead to the Syrian military's complete withdrawal and the election of a moderate, pluralistic, and democratic government.

This year has not been so good. Israel's war in the summer really wasn't good for Lebanon or Israel. The stated objectives of Israel, which were to return their kidnapped soldiers and to eliminate Hezbollah's ability to make war, were not achieved. According to Hezbollah, Israel is now negotiating a possible prisoner transfer (which the terrorist organization originally wanted), and the last day of rocket attacks before the cease-fire which ended the summer war was actually the most intense. The war did, however, do a lot of damage to Lebanon in general, with major losses in infrastructure (including roads, airports, and power plants) as well as over 900 civilian casualties. All in all, the war was a public relations win for Hezbollah, which capitalized on resentment against Israel among refugees displaced by the war, using money funneled from Iran and Syria to give handouts to poor Lebanese who had lost their homes. Of course, there's no doubt that Hezbollah is a violent but savvy terrorist group, and their altruism has an ulterior motive: shoring up support for their opposition political bloc in Lebanon's elections. Hezbollah is hoping to turn nationalist sentiment, which drove the current anti-Syrian government into power, to their favor (despite the group's foreign backing) in the wake of the government's seeming impotence as the war between Israel and Hezbollah raged across Lebanese soil.

Now, another popular anti-Syrian politician, this time also a prominent Christian leader, has been assassinated by unknown assailants. Ironically, though, his death might once again galvanize populist opposition to foreign interference in Lebanese affairs, as moderate Christians and Muslims try to live together in peace and preserve independent, democratic elections in their country. As we speak, Lebanese business owners are striking in solidarity with the government, and leaders from across the ruling bloc are united in the condemnation of the attack and their call for political calm (even Syria has joined the condemnation, although suspicion certainly falls on militants connected with Damascus). One certainly hopes the situation stabilizes, and hopefully the response to the slaying will once again unite the Lebanese in support of a moderate and inclusive government. At the same time, the international community should be assisting Lebanon's legitimate government. As the tragic war this summer showed, a foreign incursion into Lebanon aimed at rooting out Hezbollah is doubtful to succeed. With the support of the international community, however, the government can hopefully begin disarming Hezbollah as it has done with other armed militias and asserting its mandate over the southern part of the country. At that point, Hezbollah will basically be relegated to being one of many political parties in Lebanon, and its popularity would hopefully dwindle as Lebanon continues to assert its political independence.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

My Sister is a Rock Star

Unfortunately, my little sister (obligatory myspace link) will not be able to come to our annual family Thanksgiving celebration. Nevertheless, I will be taking advantage of the long weekend to visit her in Grand Rapids tomorrow.

This post is mainly about my sister's budding musical and film career. She recently entered a short film festival in Grand Rapids along with a few friends. The rules of the festival required all the entrants to film and complete their entries in a period of only 48 hours, and they were required to include two specific lines of dialogue. My little sister, auteur that she is, came away with the grand prize and several special awards (I'm just so proud). The film, which I haven't had the opportunity to see yet, is a musical about the end of the world in an impending asteroid collision. Last night my mother played the soundtrack for me, and I have to say that it's excellent. Of course I'm a little biased (as such I won't be writing a proper review) but the songs are funny, memorable, and well-performed. Anyway, I can't wait to see the movie. Incidentally, she and her fellow filmmakers have recieved some funding to make a longer version, which should get started vaguely soon.

To those who know us, it's no secret that my sister and I have divergent musical tastes. I am deeply moved by Techno and its musical relatives Breakbeat, IDM, and Drum'n'Bass. My sister is a punk rocker, and thinks that my music is unlistenable. Whenever both of us are in the car, it's a constant battle over whose CDs will get played (my suggestions of listening to NPR as a compromise have thus far fallen flat). Anyway, she sings guest female vocals for a few tracks on a new album by the local band The Skies Revolt. If that's your thing, by all means give them a listen. Their CD hits the market this weekend. Again, even though I usually don't much care for "the rock music", my sister really does have a lovely voice, and I'll use this space to shamelessly plug her.

Note: My sister's little "block the vote" banner, as well as the very fact that she doesn't vote is, I'm sure, meant to spite me. Don't judge her too harshly. *wink*