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May 26, 2005

Language and Other Barriers

I feel for China. Not only is it taking the rap for its booming energy consumption, which is expected to grow to half that of the US. (Which, on a per-capita basis, represents a whopping ten percent of American energy usage). Not only is China expected to make blustery noises over Taiwan and Tibet, while simultaneously manufacturing a large portion of Wal-Mart's inventory. Which, to add insult to injury, Wal-Mart advertises with a yellow happy face.

No, the worst part is -- China has to do all this while being multilingual. Really, it's enough to make any self-respecting behemoth throw up its hands. Or at least its tongues.

True, China has a single written language. But that's just papering over the problem. How could any single nation overcome the deep gulf separating Mandarin, with four tones, from Cantonese, with six or seven tones? That's like a band whose guitar player knows a bunch of Ramones songs, while the singer does a spot-on imitation of Jon Anderson from Yes.

I picture Mandarin as a wily outlaw, and Cantonese as a lone-wolf bounty hunter tracking Mandarin across the vast expanses of mainland China. Finally, after a battle with a horde of savage Ping speakers, Cantonese would corner Mandarin in some lonely, godforsaken larynx. The two would fight it out at high noon, on a wide and dusty palate.

One would say, "This guy's mouth ain't big enough for the both of us," and the other would say "What? I can't understand, you're only using four tones." At which point the first one would draw a pistol and discharge it next to the second one's ear, so it wouldn't matter how many tones he used.

Ultimately, though, Cantonese and Mandarin would tire of being unintelligible to each other, and retire to the saloon. At that point, a talent scout would spot the pair, inform them that they're cult figures in Japan, and offer them two million dollars to endorse Suntory Whiskey. At last, our two mismatched heroes would bond over their common bemusement with Japanese culture.

Ain't love grand?

Sadly, the average American is willing to believe anything about China. I recently saw a cover story in a national news magazine, titled "How We Would Fight China". Pictured on the front was a fearsome, preternaturally glowy-eyed Chinese sailor.

Here's the problem. The magazine was The Atlantic Monthly.

Chances are, if we do fight China, it won't be in the Atlantic. Not that geography-challenged American readers are likely to catch this. No -- according to them, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is our last hope against a brutal Communist takeover of Bermuda. Next thing you know, Congress will authorize $87 billion in emergency funds for the defense of America's vital offshore tax havens. After all, what is the loss of $87 billion compared to the loss of our freedom?

May 03, 2005

The Future, Part III

And now, a very special episode of "Same Day, Different Rat." It's a little number I like to call "Christ, is he still jabbering about Metropolis?!?"

Yes, he is.

Just three more things -- then I promise I'll talk about something else.

First, the Alloy Orchestra's website is back up. These men of bronze are known for making music with strange objects like bedpans and air-conditioner filters. Now, I'm happy to report that you can still visit their site and order stuff to put some jingle in their jeans.

Second, the issue of the correct playback speed for Metropolis, about which I've been an unconscionable ass. DVD Savant has an informed and interesting article about this and other aspects of the DVD. Apparently, Fritz Lang meant his movie to be projected at 20 frames per second, but the studio overrode him and had the music scored for 24 fps.

In this age of wonders, software like WinDVD can take the place of a good old speed dial. WinDVD can play a video faster or slower, while keeping the soundtrack at its original pitch (with some loss in quality). After playing portions of the DVD at 85% speed, I see that DVD Savant has a point. The slowdown isn't drastic, but it makes the action more manageable.

Finally, here's something interesting but exhausting: original reviews of Metropolis from 1927. The reviews run the gamut from huffy to goofy to grandiloquent.

The most entertaining piece is by H.G. Wells. Look for the review that starts "I have recently seen the silliest film."

It's interesting how jilted Wells comes off. I suspect some friends told him to see Metropolis because it incorporated one or two of his old ideas, and he was appalled by how the movie handled them. Granted, if someone took my writing from, say, age sixteen and turned it into the script for Titanic, I would also conclude that humanity had failed a crucial test of taste and restraint.

But what's most fascinating about the review is how its intelligence spotlights its cluelessness. For example, Wells pillories Metropolis for not presenting a well-reasoned picture of what the future might be like. Metropolis wasn't supposed to be an accurate projection of the future any more than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was a scientific analysis of sleepwalking.

Wells was drawn to Progress the way a zombie is drawn to brains. Were he alive today, Wells would say that progress is a tide that lifts all boats. Everyone lives better and gets paid more, so they can buy more, so they make the producers richer, so they make themselves richer. He's at a loss to understand how the future city of Metropolis could depend for its riches on indentured labor, so he concludes that it's poppycock.

Were he alive today, I wonder what Wells would make of Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap. In the late nineties, Dunlap was the CEO of Sunbeam. He was a miracle-worker, the man who turned stock into gold, and his philsophy was this: in a perfect world, the workers would live on a barge. The barge would go wherever labor was cheapest.

At his worst, Dunlap talked like a general from World War I -- as though he was actually thirsty for the blood of his own men. But this was the late nineties, and there was no war. It was a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity. Compared to the rest of the world, Americans from Dunlap on down lived like kings -- or at least like kleptocrats.

Progress? We report -- you decide.

Forget for a moment that Wells wrote his review two years before the Great Depression, and three years before Gandhi's salt march, to break the British government's monopoly on Indian salt. (So much like Bechtel's 1999 privatization of Cochabamba's water, which actually forbid residents to collect rainwater!) By 1927, Gandhi had already started his campaign to revive Indian cottage industry, which had been crushed by British industrialists who took everything worth owning.

Where did this fit into Wells' vision of Progress? Presumably, he was talking about the First World. As Wells gazed from the top of his Tower of Babel at the gleaming skyline of the future, there were no wogs to spoil the view. They labored securely underground, on the other side of the equator.

Nowadays the word "progress" is passé. It's more fashionable to prattle about the Information Economy as we paw through racks of clothes made by fourteen-year-old brown people working fourteen-hour days. But they're on the other side of the world, and they don't believe in freedom anyway. Just like the good old days.