Thursday, October 20, 2011

Movie Review: Asylum

Another "light" post for now, as baby is impending and life is full of things. Anyhow, let's get to it...

A very wise (at least about movies) man once said: "The one thing you CANNOT do in a monster movie, is make it boring." And he's right. Nothing else is essential - there are great monster movies with ridiculous plots, terrible acting, dreadful scripts or some combination of the above. It's not even necessary to be ironic about it, The Mummy (no, not that one, the good one) played the entire setup totally straight, without even recourse to wacky character deaths and still manages to bring it off.

Unfortunately, this is where Asylum falls down. Of course, the fact that it was directed by the man responsible for Final Destination 2 really ought to have been a clue. Technically, it's a slasher, rather than a monster movie - but it's a supernatural slasher, which is very nearly the same thing.

The premise (I'm really not spoiling anything by telling you this) is that a group of blandly generic teenagers haunted by blandly generic "dark pasts" get murdered by an undead psychiatrist who was murdered by the inmates he'd tortured in his asylum. The teenagers are exposed to the undead psychiatrist because their university dorm used to be his old asylum building (and naturally they go exploring in the shut down bit of the building, 'cos why wouldn't you?)

The sad thing is that Asylum could have been saved at any point by simply turning the knobs up to 11. The characters are pretty dull, but that could have been ameliorated by having the undead psychiatrist kill some minor or background characters as well as focusing on the 6 central ones. The psychiatrist is a pretty crappy supernatural slasher, but that could have been fixed by having the "tripout" moments he inflicts on his victims intensified, and having him break out the crazy barbed-wire gimp-suit (no, I'm not kidding) earlier on.

Instead, the movie keeps breaking away from the murders (which, after all are the point of a slasher movie) to focus on "character development" - by which I mean dull characters sitting around and telling each other their "tragic back stories". This is clearly an attempt to give the movie some depth, but it fails horribly. The "issues" each character has are so mind-numbingly obvious and grounded in such ham-handed pop-psychology that each revelation elicited a new and louder groan from my wife as we watched.

Think I'm kidding? OK, see if you can pick what issues each character has based on their thumbnail character sketch (don't worry - these are also all played straight up from the start and never change, this isn't a spoiler either).

So, we have:
  1. A precocious 16-year old "genius hacker" who's quirky and makes cat's-cradles.
  2. A studious "generically ethnic" girl who never lets anyone get too close.
  3. A musclebound "jock" who never shuts up.
  4. A broodingly-interesting "artistic" type.
  5. A blond "hot chick" who is implied to be promiscuous.
  6. Our flavourless protagonist who occasionally hallucinates.
I'll put some lines in here so you can think for a second, and then scroll down to see if you guessed right...







OK! Enough! Time to see if you guessed right...
  1. A precocious 16-year old "genius hacker" who's quirky and makes cat's-cradles.
    Neglected by an alcoholic mother who doesn't understand him. Because no well-socialised person is ever good with computers, that's why.
  2. A studious "generically-ethnic" girl who never lets anyone get too close.
    Used to be in a generically-violent relationship with a generically-ethnic man. Because that's what ethnic people are like, obviously.
  3. A musclebound "jock" who never shuts up.
    Used to be fat and self-conscious, because of his family who have food issues. It's clever because he's the opposite of what he used to be! Get it? 
  4. A broodingly-interesting "artistic" type.
    A recovering drug addict, obviously.
  5. A blond "hot chick" who is implied to be promiscuous.
    Sexually abused by her father (Duh, why else would a woman want to have lots of sex?)
  6. Our flavourless protagonist who occasionally hallucinates.
    Her father and brother both killed themselves as a result of "insanity*" and she's afraid she might go the same way.
The reason the characters' mental health is an issue is that the undead psychiatrist preys on people with "issues" under the guise of trying to "cure" them. This might be an interesting concept** if the characters' histories were interesting in any way, and if the psychiatrist actually addressed them at all in his attacks. Instead, he simply makes them hallucinate their traumatic circumstances for a couple of minutes before (usually) stabbing them.

The final disappointment here, is that there's (tangentially) a real story buried under the rubbish - and an interesting one too. The undead psychiatrist is was at the forefront of the "icepick lobotomy" technique popular between the 40's and 60's. He was supposed to have gone off the rails when the procedure was discredited, and been killed by his patients shortly afterwards. Aside from the "torturing people for fun" and "being killed by patients, then coming back as an undead killing machine" parts, this story mirrors that of the real-world psychiatrist Walter Freeman II.

Freeman actually did pioneer transorbital (or "icepick") lobotomy as a neurosurgical treatment for mental illness. He was motivated (at least initially) by his concern that the people who would benefit most from the "miracle of lobotomy" (patients in state mental wards) would never have access to the procedure, as it was prohibitively expensive. Transorbital lobotomy provided a cost-effective alternative, as it could be performed by someone without neurosurgical qualifications. Having developed the technique, he became a celebrity travelling around the US doing demonstrations and training people. He was eventually discredited after one too many of his patients died on the table, and retired to run a quiet psychiatric practice in California. And he's much more interesting than the character he seems to have inspired.

In short, Asylum is a disappointing movie in every way. Not deep enough to be deep, or deranged enough to be any fun, it simply limps along until it reaches its contrived and uninspired conclusion. Do yourself a favour and watch a proper slasher movie instead.

It is a mark of the kind of movie this is that, even though it's reasonably common knowledge (even in shitty pop-psychology like this) that the kind of mental illness most likely to cause people to see things and hear voices is schizophrenia, the flavourless protagonist looks up "Insanity" as a generic condition when she wants to research her chances. "We're trying to be deep, but we don't even have the Psych 101 chops to look up schizophrenia." 

** For a more interesting (if still flawed) take on the idea, check out Dread...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Police philosophy, or: what are cops for?

Currently, here in NZ, our government is trying to rush through legislation to retrospectively legalise some illegal behaviour that the police have been engaging in. Like many people, I think this is a Bad Idea. In fact, I think it's a particularly bad idea at this point in time, because it exacerbates a real problem I've noticed of late in the relationship between the police and the wider community.

There seems to be a fundamental confusion in the ranks of the police as to what the purpose of their organisation is. This became glaringly clear with their last recruitment campaign (thankfully now defunct) which suggested that young people should join the police to "Get some better work stories" and "Make more money than your Dad" - they also compared the interest of the police in younger recruits to the sexual approaches of "cougars". This promotes a view of the police as a glamorous and heroic (not to mention subtly sexually fetishistic) organisation who bust Bad Guys and are desired and/or admired by all.

This is a mythic description of what a police force is, let's call it the Superman narrative. There's another mythic description of the police which is reasonably common at the moment. This one inverts all the values of the Superman version, to paint the police as at best dupes and at worst active players in a corrupt system deliberately designed to hurt innocent people. We'll call that the Robin Hood narrative.

When Superman believers hear people complain about the expansion of police powers, or suspect decisions regarding the use of violence, or searches of innocent foreigners, they're liable to shrug those off as an acceptable price for catching baddies or trot out a line like "if you're innocent, you have nothing to fear". Similarly, when Robin Hood believers hear about cops getting hurt or killed in the line of duty, they're liable to consider that their just desserts. Neither of these positions are helpful (or strictly truthful) and, worryingly, they make it very difficult for either side to talk to the other.

So, what are the cops? Well, they're public servants. They're empowered to enforce the law, which is the common ethical code our society has decided on, and their implicit responsibility following on from that is to prevent members of our society harming themselves or others. They do this, by and large, to the best of their ability but occasionally make mistakes. They are also (forgivably enough) subject to mental and emotional fatigue as a response to the relentless stupidity and bloody-mindedness of their fellow humans.

Ideally, a police force run along these lines would take steps to build links with as many communities as possible. There would obviously be the occasional bad call, resulting from the inevitable stress of the job, but they would be very cautious of damaging any relationship by appearing publicly arrogant or self-righteous.

Unfortunately, our police appear to be in love with the Superman narrative at the moment. This can be seen in their response to the complaint from the South African journalist they wrongly searched for drugs. A sensitive police force would have understood that given the man's history, his offence was understandable and apologised for that. It's also obvious from the police response to being told that they'd broken the law in the Urewera "anti terror" case - claiming that holding police to the same standards of law as everyone else will damage their effectiveness, instead of apologising for the breach.

The fact that the government are currently attempting to make everything the police have done retrospectively legal (and in the process make it legal for fisheries officers to bug New Zealand citizens) instead of investigating police practice and updating the law to sensibly reflect modern technology proves that they too are dazzled by the glamour and 4-colour moral simplicity of the Superman version.

The real problem with this is that it only gives the Robin Hood crowd more ammunition - and with enough provocation, they might just start shooting.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

...and around we go again!

Because I have a friend who works for Cosmic Corner, I get their publicity stuff through my feed on Facebook. Mostly it's promotion for gigs in Wellington, as they seem to have a lot of instore performances from musicians. Recently, however, I got a promo for their newest range of "legal highs", all once again designed to skirt around the law change that's just gone through banning synthetic cannabinoids (Kronic, et al.)

Resisting the urge to say "I told you so" (too many times) I'd like to have a look through this posting, as I think it exemplifies some of the things that concern me about the state of drug legislation as it stands. 

NB: I'll use this default font for my comments, anything in Arial is from the original posting. To make it yet clearer, I've turned their words green as well - voila. I've also cut the posting down to the elements I wanted to comment on. I'll use ellipses to point out where I've done that.

These plants are legal in New Zealand and have a history of use in herbal and entheogenic preparations and are independently tested to ensure that no controlled cannabinoids are present.
This just re-emphasises my point that until we have a coherent framework for the legality of recreational psychoactive drugs, we're going to see retailers and lawmakers continue this slightly ludicrous dance: new product skirts the law, gains general public attention via moral panic, and is banned. Rinse, repeat.

That said, if Cosmic have adopted a more rigorous testing regime for their products generally, we'll be much less likely to see people being dosed with things they didn't expect - which is a small step forward.


Made from Sinicuichi and extracts of natural herbs with a history of use in herbal and entheogenic preparations, Monster Mash is a smoking solid. Smoke on its own or mix with tobacco or herbs and then incinerate.
Again, this just ticks boxes on the "not breaking the law - just!" chart. It also references the old "herbal" tag, which seems to be attached to these kinds of products as a guarantor of safety. You know Deadly Nightshade is a herb, right?

That aside, the "herbal" tag is often another way of saying "like pot, but legal". If this is the case (as in, it's tickling the same receptors in your brain) it once again begs the question why this stuff should be legal and regular old cannabis should not. This is the sort of problem that the Law Commission's recommendations fix - by ranking drugs according to their relative harmfulness, you find that things with similar effects would fall into the same categories.

It’s a solid, so it packs a big hit that lets you get loose, leaving you lucid and looking for a good time.
The subtle, mellow aroma makes this a great smoker when out on the town. Unlike certain alternatives, people won’t ask about that ‘funky smell’. The aroma is subtle ...
The thing that strikes me about this is the promotion of this substance as suitable for clandestine use. Generally speaking, people only use a substance in a clandestine way if a) it's illegal or b) their use of that substance is problematic, and they're trying to conceal it. It is of course possible for both of these to be true. The thing that concerns me is that when a given substance is used in a clandestine way, it makes it harder to distinguish whether a person's use of that substance is problematic or not. Clandestine behaviour also invites suspicion, which (I strongly suspect) will tend to make the subject of the suspicion behave more sneakily. This is not a particularly healthy dance to be doing either.

I think this is probably a result of the continuing "grey market" status of these products. Because they're only legal on sufferance (by comparison with more established recreational drugs like alcohol) there's still this tendency to want to conceal what's going on. While Cosmic appear a lot more open that Stargate International were over the Kronic problem, there does seem to be a similar attitude here. I think the only way to fix this is for products like this to have a clear legal status: unambiguously illegal or equally unambiguously permissible. As I've stated in previous posts, I'm not sure how that can happen under the current muddled framework.

Take care not to over indulge. Set and setting are key.
Use your brain and learn from the experience.
I just thought I'd try to end on a heartening note here. With the exception of products with illegal additives, the  reason these novel psychoactives end up sending people to the emergency room is that people take far too much, in unwise combinations with other drugs (particularly alcohol). I suspect that experience-culture has a part to play here as well. No responsible drinker would recommend that someone down a bottle of vodka in one, and I suspect that other drugs will have their own attendant experience-cultures which hold knowledge about what's wise and what's acceptable. Novel drugs obviously don't have a culture like this, and it's a refreshing sign of accepting some responsibility for their products that Cosmic appear to be attempting to institute one.

Whether they've done enough, of course, remains to be seen.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Darkest Days...

I was struck, during the media wind-up for September 11th this year, by repeated references to the Twin Towers attack as "America's Darkest Day".

Now, I'm pretty sure that if you asked someone what the "darkest days" of Germany were, they'd start talking about Nazis - similarly if you tried the same trick re: Cambodia you'd get a mention of the Khmer Rouge. You wouldn't in either case, expect the response to be an account of the harms done to those countries by forces outside them.

By this logic, it would seem more appropriate candidates for "America's Darkest Day" might be the 6th and 9th of August, 1945. On these two days, the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The immediate death toll for the Twin Towers attacks was about 4.2% of the instantaneous loss of life which happened in Hiroshima - between 70 and 80 thousand people killed immediately, and the same amount again injured.

You can make the point that this was an act of war, but I'd argue that the September 11th attackers certainly viewed themselves as soldiers. I'd also point out that, while the Twin Towers were indisputably civilian targets, any attack where 30% of a city's population is instantly wiped out is automatically going to count as "terrorising the civilian population".

If you think that raising 70 year old history is unfair, I'd concede you probably have a point. That said, the US as recently as the 1980s and 90s was willing to bankroll people who were definitely terrorists, so long as they terrorised people the government of the day disapproved of, or conducted their terrorism in the service of a useful regime.

These are all points you've heard before - usually raised by people who want to claim that America somehow "deserved" the September 11th attacks. As I said in my post on Osama bin Laden, I'm uncomfortable with the idea that anyone ever deserves death. I also think that it's unhelpful to get too caught up in the idea of global terrorist networks as somehow being a consequence of America's foreign policies and cultural attitudes.

A more useful point to make (and one that might be more conducive to reflective moments in the corridors of power if it became a meme) is that death and terror are commonplace for many people in the world today. This is not a good thing.

Until September 11 2001, that was something that happened "somewhere else" for most Americans - even when it happened next door in Mexico and Central America. This was actually a fairly unique position at the time, even amongst First World countries. The UK had Ireland to worry about, and European countries had a variety of homegrown radicals. I don't think there's any particular virtue in being periodically carbombed, but I suspect that it's much harder to maintain a solipsistic view of your own country and its politics under such circumstances.

The Twin Towers attacks were not exceptional in their savagery, their death toll or their targeting of innocents. They were unique because they represented an attack on the previously-invulnerable USA. September 11th 2001 was not America's Darkest Day, it was The Day America Joined the Rest of the World.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

"My Sister's Keeper" or "How Not To Adapt A Novel For Film" or "Why 'Based on A True Story' Will Make Me Hate Your Film"

Let me say this straight off: My Sister's Keeper is not a good movie, and my saying that is probably going to piss some people off. It's going to piss them off because My Sister's Keeper is the sort of movie that's supposed to be immune to criticism.

It's about a family's struggle to deal with one of their daughters dying of cancer, and the conflict that ensues when her younger sister (who was conceived artificially as a "donor child") refuses to undergo any more surgery to save her sister's life, and sues her parents for "medical emancipation". This stuff is so worthy it might as well be "based on a true story" (it's not). But here's the harsh truth guys: it's entirely possible to have the most worthy story in the world, and still make a shitty movie out of it. It feels like the team got hung up on how worthy their film was, and this blinded them to its faults.

This is why I don't watch movies that say "based on a true story" on the box if I can get away with it - if the fact that the movie is based on true events is their only selling point, that doesn't say very much worthwhile about it.

In case you're wondering why I keep talking about "based on a true story" when this movie isn't (it's based on a novel by Jodi Picoult, if you're wondering) it's because "based on a true story" and "about a kid with cancer" fit into the same mental category for me. Both of these things strike me as an attempt to claim legitimacy or emotional "weight" for a movie upfront, before we've watched it and determined it's actual merits. This goes for books as well as movies, by the way. I've read (or attempted to read) a couple of things my wife put my way, because the stories were so astounding, and the events they were based on were true. In the majority of these cases, the events have indeed been shocking and/or amazing, but the writing has made me want to gouge out my eyes with a fork.

In fact, if you want a stunning example of this phenomenon at work, check out the furore around James Frey and his books A Million Little Pieces  and My Friend Leonard. These are books which reviewers agree are average at best (and trying far too hard to be "edgy" in the case of Little Pieces at least) by a comprehensively underwhelming author. However, they're both bestsellers. Why? Because James Frey initially claimed that the events in these books were true and autobiographical. When it turned out he'd made most of them up, there was a massive public outcry. People weren't willing to put up with his crap if it wasn't true, and reviews of his actually-honestly-fiction book Bright Shiny Morning bear this out.

The lesson here is: "If your book (or film) sucks, claim it was based on a true story - it'll sell anyway." And if you're not up to pretending it's based on true events, make it about child cancer - that's a close second.
But back to My Sister's Keeper. Having established that this is (generally speaking) the sort of film that puts me off, it wasn't actually doomed from the get-go. I'd decided to see this movie voluntarily after all, and I'd made that decision on the basis of the trailer, which made it look like a clever, talky, heart-warming-yet-real "family in crisis mode" movie like The Kids Are All Right. It's not.

What it is, is a lesson in how not to translate a book to film. When I watched Let The Right One In and Let Me In, I was struck by how little the story had been harmed by the excision of the various subplots and mid-to-minor characters who didn't make it into the movie, or got elided with others. My Sister's Keeper is the exact opposite phenomenon.

I have to come clean at this point, and let you know that I haven't actually read the book - I've read the Wikipedia article, which supports my impressions of the film, but I can't actually tell you whether or not the book sucks. What I can tell you is that in the process of adapting this book for the screen, a lot has been cut out and paradoxically, far too much has been left in.

At the beginning of the film, each of the characters gets their own section, where they introduce their view of the situation. This is not a great framing device, as it relies on us constantly being told things that the movie could just show us, but it works. Then, it's abandoned without any particular ceremony about halfway through the film. It feels like someone lifted the device whole-cloth from the novel without adapting it to the screen at all, and then just kind of forgot why it was there in the first place. A later section is told in flashbacks as the dying girl flicks through the scrap-book she's made, and each page calls up memories for her. Again this works as a framing device, and there's no reason that the whole movie couldn't have centered around this conceit instead of the clunky in-character intros at the beginning. And once again, it's dropped after a few scenes for no particular reason.

A novel could get away with this stuff, to a certain extent. Novels can sprawl, because you read them at your own pace, and because they can be broken up into chapters, sections, "books" (or whatever else the author wants to call them) to mark changes in setting, style, focus or whatever. Films, because they run through in a linear fashion and have a limited running time, need some kind of unifying structure or else they just feel sloppy.

Then there's the issue of the characters. The film tries to get across the way in which the eldest daughter's illness has affected the whole family. However, this isn't really shown to us, and is only explained quite late in the piece. Instead what we get are vignettes of the characters which are supposed to be illustrative, but are so brief and lacking in context that they just appear to be brief glimpses into a different movie about different people.

This destruction of context also changes the characters motivations. Or rather, it completely destroys them. Cameron Diaz, as the overprotective mother is nigh-unwatchable. She is so shrill and single-note that it becomes increasingly difficult as the movie progresses, not to yell at the screen every time she's on it. Of course, if she was the villain of the piece, this would be fine. But she's not. She's supposed to be a sympathetic portrait of a woman whose extreme circumstances have severely damaged her sense of perspective. And I don't think this is even Diaz's fault - even the briefest scan of the Wikipedia article for the novel reveals details that would make her behaviour throughout the film far more justifiable, and the brief bits of internal monologue we got from her at the start hint at her explaining herself fairly reasonably in the novel.

Other characters suffer from the same problem, most notably the troubled elder brother whose "inner turmoil" is demonstrated by a scene in which he tries to get on a bus for some reason, then fails and goes home and finds that no-one missed him. I suppose this is supposed to be him "slipping through the cracks" but it just seems like they felt they had to give him a scene to himself because he doesn't do much for the rest of the film.

Finally, we get to Kate. Kate's tragedy is that she's dying of cancer. However, in order for this to actually be a tragedy, we'd have to know and like Kate. At the very least least she would need to be fun to watch. Now, it's indicated, and said by other characters that Kate is a very warm and funny character - but this is demonstrated by only one scene in the whole film. Most of the time she is simply a big sign with the words "Child Cancer" written on it. Again, the stuff that would really have fleshed her out is mostly ignored.

The real tragedy of My Sister's Keeper is that it seems like it could have worked. All that really needed to happen, was for the adaptation to streamline the novel down to one or maybe two plots (perhaps the court case and the scrapbook?) and completely ignore the rest. Do away with inconvenient characters entirely.

Instead, we got Dreamcatcher syndrome - a whole stack of ideas which individually could have made great movies, all clumsily kludged together into a barely-watchable mess.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: Let Me In/Let The Right One In

So this is something of an experiment. We'll see how it goes.

Basically I, like many people, I have only so much appetite for "heavy". While commenting on the philosophies of our current NZ government is close to my heart (like most ex-philosophy students, I relish a chance to point out fallacies in the thinking of powerful people) I really only have so much time to devote to analysing this stuff and pulling it to bits. So, while I won't pretend to be abandoning it entirely, I'll take a break here and have a look at something else.

Currently my wife is heavily pregnant, and is in the unfortunate position of suffering hyperemesis gravidarum. This means that she's on an entertaining cocktail of anti-emetic drugs, and can't do a hell of a lot. This also means that we watch a lot of movies, as it's something she can do without provoking a fit of vomiting and which we both enjoy.

WARNING: While there aren't any spoilers in this post, you follow any of the links in it at your own risk - they all go to Wikipedia, and as such may be spoiler-y without warning...

I got Let The Right One In out when she was last pregnant, but had to watch it by myself as she had to go into the hospital to be rehydrated (a concern with hyperemesis is that women can become dangerously dehydrated, and one of the effects this has is worsening the nausea - preventing them from keeping any fluids down and necessitating intravenous rehydration). This week I got Let Me In, partly because I'd heard a couple of good things about it, and partly because the challenge of reading subtitles at speed provokes the nausea like no-one's business, so this seemed like an easier option.

The first thing to understand about Let Me In and Let The Right One In is that they are best considered as independent movies (one Swedish and one American) which are both based on the same novel: Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. The novel concerns the relationship between a 12 year old schoolboy, Oskar and a female child-vampire (also apparently 12) called Eli. The American film Let Me In, takes a lot of cues from the earlier Swedish one, but can't really be called a "remake", as it plays around with the structure of the story and motivations of the characters and ends up in a slightly different place from the Swedish version.

Unusually for a situation where Hollywood recreates a non-US franchise, both films are actually pretty strong, though I prefer the Swedish version - for reasons we'll get into shortly. The best way to showcase the strengths of both films is actually (again unusually) to read the book. This is not to say that Lindqvist's novel is inferior to the films in any way, simply that the job of film-ising it has (in both cases) been very skilfully done.

There are a number of characters and subplots left out of both films (though more is omitted from Let Me In) but this doesn't actually present many problems. Instead, it refines and distills the story, and avoids some issues that would have caused controversy to no great end. For example, one supporting character in the novel is a paedophile, and his urges occasionally drive the plot in a way which would probably have brought him more attention in the films than he merited. The character is present in both films, but his past is ignored or given a different explanation.

In fact, the major differences between Let Me In and Let The Right One In (aside from shifting the action from Sweden to New Mexico) lie in precisely what changes were made from the novel, and how this affects the film in both cases.

First, I need to get a tiny pedantic issue off my chest. Let The Right One In preserved the names of the main characters: "Oskar" and "Eli", while Let Me In changed them to "Owen" and "Abby". "Håkan" in the Swedish film also becomes "Thomas" in the American version. This all makes sense, I suppose - particularly the change for Håkan. However, a minor character called Virginia retains her name in both versions. I don't really know why this irritated me - I guess I just felt that if you were going to change all the names, you might as well change all the names and if not, the why not simply anglicise them? "Oscar " and "Elly" would have been perfectly acceptable American-English names. Still, that's a pretty minor point, and I only noticed it because I'd seen the Swedish film first.

A more important difference between the two films is the portrayal of Eli/Abby. Eli remains fairly child-like for the majority of the Swedish version, and most of the occasions where her vampiric nature surfaces are shot in such a way as to obscure what actually happens. This (and a great performance by 11 year old Lina Leandersson) give her a real sense of vulnerability, which makes the developing romance between her and Oskar simultaneously affecting and (particularly later in the film) quite unsettling to watch. It's this tension between conflicting emotions that makes their relationship so engrossing to watch. As I described it to friends immediately after watching the Swedish film: "It makes you want to simultaneously go 'Awwww' and 'Eugggghhh.'"

In the American version, Abby's occasional violent moments are depicted much more graphically, and she is given a "vampiric transformation" mode in the manner of most modern American vampire franchises (Twilight notwithstanding). This (along, I suspect, with Chloë Grace Moretz being two years older than Leandersson -13 rather than 11) makes it much harder for Moretz to seem vulnerable during her more human-like moments and makes the chemistry between Abby and Owen less believable than between Eli and Oskar. Her motivations are also less ambiguous - Eli may be interested in Oskar for sinister reasons, but this seems much more explicit in Abby and Owen's relationship. This version has much more "Eugggghhh" and less "Awwww" if you will, and as such is actually less unsettling because it's easier to interpret.

The other characters to suffer most in the transition to Hollywood are the minor characters. By and large this matters less than you'd think: Virginia's subplot makes marginally less sense in Let Me In but not enough to seriously derail the story, and the other characters seem to exist mostly as Swedish social commentary that would have made little sense in an American context.

It's more problematic in the depiction of Owen/Oskar's parents. In the Swedish film, it's clear that Oskar has a closer relationship with his father than with his mother (who struggles to connect with her son) but that this is undermined by his father's alcoholism - which seems also to be the factor causing the parents to divorce. Divorce notwithstanding, his parents seem to have a pretty amicable grown-up relationship. Oskar visits his father at one point, and has a genuinely good time with him until one of his father's drinking buddies turns up, and his father becomes a boring (rather than stereotypically threatening) drunk.

In Let Me In the father is mostly absent, and Owen's mother ends up being a combination of the two characters - the divorce is never really explained, though it's implied that her extreme religiosity plays a part and that her drinking may be a response to the fairly acrimonious divorce process. By making the divorce nastier and the parents more absent to start with, Let Me In sidesteps another source of creeping unease. Let The Right One In is partly the story of Oskar finally saying his goodbyes to the human world, as it fails him in various ways. Owen doesn't really seem like a part of that world to begin with - so there's much less for him to lose.

All in all, I'd recommend both films. I think the Swedish one is superior, as I personally prefer the subtle sense of "off-ness" and unease that pervades it to the more obvious horror tropes of the American version. That said, Let Me In is by and large a very successful translation of the novel for an American audience and people who (like my wife) can't handle subtitles.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Proclaimin' Peters!

The reason my last post consisted solely of a link to a post from The Slacktiverse was not just that I happened to like it, I also thought that it was a really useful explanation of a quirk of political thinking that's been causing me cognitive dissonance ever since I first noticed it.

For people who can't be bothered clicking through (or who did, and found it a massive and intimidating Wall Of Text) the tl;dr summary is as follows. There are two primary ways that law-makers think when making policy, Erl calls them Proclamation and Policy. They can be defined as follows:
  • Proclamation:
    Law made to represent the moral stance of society as a whole. Things that we disapprove of collectively are made illegal, to symbolise our objection to this sort of behaviour. It is usually more concerned with punitive response to wrongdoing than with flow-on effects or coherent strategies. Viewed through the lens of Policy law, Proclamation can look like a very blunt instrument, concerned more with slogans and soundbites than actual results.
  • Policy:
    Law made in order to reduce the harm from specific behaviours, or to discourage behaviours considered harmful. It is usually made with a view to encouraging safe behaviour, or discouraging unsafe behaviour, rather than making a moral statement on behalf of society at large. Viewed through the lens of Proclamation law, Policy law can appear to be making inappropriate statements of right and wrong on matters that are actually legitimate personal choices (aka the "nanny-state").
Proclamation tends to be more popular at the conservative end of the political scale, and Policy at the more liberal end. Erl is at pains to point out that both approaches have their place, and that some laws (for example, the law against murder) can serve both purposes simultaneously. It's also important to remember that  I'm paraphrasing here, and if you want the full essay you should brave the link (and possibly paste the text into a word-processor to make the page-width a bit more manageable).

Hard on the heels of that post (as if on cue) Winston Peters has made a dramatic re-entrance to New Zealand politics, proposing to cut the benefits of families who refuse to cooperate with police over child-abuse cases at the same time as repealing the "anti-smacking law" if NZ First is elected this year.

On the surface, this looks like nonsense. He's proposing to simultaneously "get tough on child abusers" while removing children's legal protection from assault, as long as the person who assaults them is their parent or legal guardian. However, it's a perfect demonstration in real-world local politics of exactly the way that the diverging mindsets of Policy and Proclamation work.

The "anti-smacking law" is classic Policy-type law. For one thing, the name "anti-smacking law"  is a misnomer, invented by (arguably "Proclamationist") media to sell more papers. The law change didn't actually criminalise smacking your kids, as most people understand it. What it did was to remove the defense of "appropriate discipline" if you got charged with assault as a result of smacking your kids. The distinction is important, because most people who smack their kids don't end up in court being charged with assault as a result. Generally speaking, something has to be pretty horribly wrong before that happens.

The law-change was less about making a "statement" that New Zealand was anti-smacking, though it was (somewhat unhelpfully) portrayed as such, and more an attempt to fix the fact that people were turning up in court having done awful things to their children, and getting off on the grounds that what they had done was done in the name of discipline. It's not a statement of public morality, rather an attempt to tune existing law to make it do what it was initially supposed to do more effectively - Policy law.

However, viewed from the standpoint of Mr. Peters and his supporters (which I would argue is generally conservative and "Proclamationist") this would constitute "social engineering" and governmental meddling in the fundamentally private sphere of family life, and a parent's right to govern that family as they see fit.

As for the second part of his proposal, once we've established that Mr. Peters approaches contentious public issues largely from the perspective of Proclamation-making, that's easy enough to understand. The first factor is that it's punitive. It's not interested in figuring out what contributes to child abuse, or reducing any of those factors once they're established. It's a plan to Smite Evil People. 

The second factor (and I think, the most telling) is the specific tactics and circumstances mentioned in his plan - cutting off the benefits of people who fail to help the police in child abuse cases. That's a direct reference to a specific set of circumstances that happened in new Zealand recently, and caused significant public anger, not an attempt to address child abuse more generally. It also neatly includes a "people on benefits are evil child abusers" subtext, as it's not clear what Winston Peters intends to happen to people who are fully employed and refuse to cooperate with the police.

Of course, explaining why a statement makes sense to the person who made it doesn't actually mean that it does make sense in terms of the real world. So, what are the likely real world effects of Mr. Peters' proposals?

Well, that's where they seem to fall to bits, unfortunately. Let's look at the first part - the benefit cutting. If the dramatic increase in domestic violence after the Christchurch earthquake and the correlation of spikes in family violence statistics with Christmas and major sporting events is anything to go by, people who behave violently towards their families seem to be people who don't deal well with stress or intense emotions, and who terrorise their families at least in part as a way of spreading negative emotions around to "share the load". I would also assume that families being asked to cooperate with the police around a case of child abuse are by definition at risk of further domestic violence.

So what Winston Peters is proposing is to directly target people who respond to stress by attacking the people close to them, and place them under further stress by significantly reducing or completely eliminating their income. This does not seem like a good idea to me. Let's be clear, I'm not in any way attempting to justify the behaviour of domestically abusive people or to claim that they're not responsible for their own actions. However, getting abused people away from the abuser is not as easy as it might seem on the surface, and people stuck in these situations are going to be far worse affected by this kind of measure than the person who's doing the beating.

As for the second proposal - reinstating "necessary discipline" as a defense to a charge of assaulting a child - I don't think it bodes well either. For one thing, it'd mean some abusive parents being able to legally justify their actions if caught, but there's another angle to it as well. Because Winston Peters habitually speaks from a Proclamatory viewpoint, this move needs to be viewed in that way  - in terms of the message he wants it to send. The message in this case, is that "good" child-smacking is OK.

The problem here is that "good" child-smacking (as opposed to child abuse or assault) is not clearly defined. Humans are creatures of habit, and habits are subject to drift. What happens if a person who is in the habit of physically disciplining their child loses their job and begins to drink heavily? Or becomes addicted to another drug, particularly one that correlates strongly with aggression? I suspect that what happens is that the habit persists, but the level of control and perspective becomes skewed - the parent starts to hit harder and with less provocation. As with a growing substance problem, I can see how the person in an example like this could fail to see their behaviour as problematic until it became extreme.

In summary, I think Winston Peters' recent announcements are probably not just a populist power-grab. I suspect he probably does view law in terms of Proclamation, and genuinely feels that sending messages is an important thing to do. That said, I don't believe that changes the fact that his proposals are at best short-sighted, and at worst disastrously irresponsible.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A mere reposting, as you were.

I've got nothing really to say at this point, I just wish to link this up because it tidily explains the kind of philosophical disconnect that's been bugging me in previous posts about law and law-making.

As you were.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Society for Cruel and Inhumane treatment of Kitten-Burners

Cases of child abuse, and particularly cases of child abuse that end in the deaths of small children are big news here in New Zealand. They stir up a huge amount of public opinion, and due to the glories of social networking this means that my Facebook news feed is occasionally dominated by my internet-friends (as opposed to actual-friends) signing up to sites and events like this one.

Now, that link will only work if you're on Facebook, so for those who aren't (or can't be bothered to click through) here's a brief rundown on where it goes: Norefjell Davis is a 36-year old woman who was sentenced earlier this month for killing her 2 year old daughter in a particularly horrible way.

The Facebook "event" I've linked to is an attempt to prevent her from being eligible for parole, and in fact an attempt to somehow get judges to give people convicted of this kind of crime mandatory life sentences. It's also full of the usual rage and hatred that random people on the internet feel entitled to dish out, including the traditional "hanging's too good for 'em" and "if I had a chance I'd rape/torture/murder/lynch that awful person" sentiments, and the classic "how dare our culture let people like this get away with their crimes" plaint.

When I see this stuff, it creeps me out on a number of levels.

Firstly, it's just not very smart. The whole point of our legal system is that it can't be swayed by random people on Facebook. Just imagine, for a second, if these people actually had the power they think they have - anyone who was publicly unpopular for some reason would be virtually guaranteed to have an unfair trial.

People can already get convictions overturned on the basis that the jury was biased against them from the start - and if judges, juries or parole boards started listening to Facebook petitions, that would happen all the time. Anyone who could afford a sharp enough lawyer (and in this case that would simply mean "not currently dead") would be basically unconvictable.

I understand that people are very angry about this woman's actions, but that's part of what worries me. See, there's a reason why Schopenhauer, in his 38 Ways To Win An Argument said:
"Make your opponent angry. An angry person is less capable of using judgement or perceiving where his or her advantage lies."
Basically, angry people - particularly angry people en masse - are stupid, and it's best not to have legislation and public policy dictated by stupid people. This is why it always annoys me when the media get in the faces of victims of crime on the court-house steps, incidentally. I think people should be given a chance to get back in their right minds before being forced to give a public opinion they'll end up feeling obliged to stick to later.

One of the things that this particular angry mob is currently ignoring is that "our culture" (whatever that means) has already given the judiciary the power to deal with people who kill children. Killing people is always against the law, and children equally if not more so. If caught and convicted, people who do these things are sentenced to jail terms. That's how a legal system works.

Judges are already entitled to pronounce whatever sentence they feel is appropriate for the crime (within certain bounds). That means they can, if they choose, punish people more harshly if they feel they have been particularly awful, or reduce the sentence (or the conviction) to a lesser one if they feel there are extenuating circumstances.

I'm also concerned about the source of this anger. It looks to me like a case of what the Slacktivist called "The Anti-Kitten-Burning Coalition". Specifically this refers to an organised and vocal response to a non-existent "Movement of Evildoers".

See, I'm pretty certain that no-one, including Norefjell Davis, thinks that what she did to her daughter was admirable or that the world needs more of that sort of behaviour. I'm also reasonably sure that she doesn't belong to a group who meet up on Saturdays to swap child-abusing stories, and compare notes on the best ways to murder toddlers. I'd even go so far as to speculate that while she was in the process of bashing her daughter, she wasn't thinking about the effect her actions would have on public perceptions of her and people who commit similar crimes or the length of the prison sentence she'd be likely to face if she got caught.

There is a mythical creature referred to in the field of economics which is known as the Rational Consumer. A Rational Consumer is someone who does all of their spending entirely rationally with the goal of "maximising utility" (for non-economists, the closest idiomatic approximation is "getting the most bang for your buck"). Now, while I won't deny that doing some cost-benefit analysis in the supermarket is a good idea, I think that if we're totally honest most of us will admit that that's not how we work 100% of the time. We make choices for non-rational reasons enough of the time that there is advertising specifically designed to appeal to us on that basis.

My point is that all of the people clamouring on the Facebook event that if Norefjell Davis "didn't want children she should have kept her legs shut", or screaming for harsher sentences to deter other potential child abusers, are assuming that people who commit crimes perform an entirely rational cost-benefit analysis before they do so. This is nonsense, particularly in the case of people who commit violent crimes.

Moreover, if we look more deeply at the specific factors surrounding Davis's crime, we see something far darker and nastier than a simple case of an evil woman who needs to be punished. We see someone who was in an abusive relationship with a man many years her senior (if you're thinking "Well, why didn't she just leave him then?" go here, and then come back wiser.) We also see that both of them had abused both alcohol and methamphetamine (aka "those ANGRY drugs") for an extended period.

So, are we looking at a Rational Criminal who decided "Well, I want to bash my daughter to death, and the jail term won't be too bad - what the hell, let's do it!" or are we looking at an angry, stressed, mentally unbalanced person with a severe emotional detachment from her child and her situation in general? Because if we factor in a total lack of normal emotional attachment to her child, and severe emotional control issues, launching an assault of that kind looks less and less like a rational conscious action, and more and more like the reflex of a wounded animal biting who or whatever comes within reach.

Once we look at the situation from that perspective it becomes a simple either-or. Either someone had to to intervene in that family in some way, or either Davis or her partner were eventually going to attack that child for some reason. And since killing a child is trivially easy for an adult, even by accident, the outcome of that was always going to be horrible.

Let me make something abundantly clear. I think that what Norefjell Davis did to her daughter is terrible. I think it's tragic that a young child died in such a horrible way, and was betrayed by someone in such a trusted position. She shouldn't be excused responsibility for that, and importantly,  I don't think she has been.

However, I also believe that the Society for the Cruel and Inhumane Treatment of Kitten-Burners are after something different from justice. They  want revenge for the assault against their principles, and above all they want their righteous anger to remain intact.

Why do they need the anger? Because it's that righteous fury that protects them from the realisation that, in almost all cases, violent child abusers are made, not born. And if that's the case, then the appropriate response is not "How dare she?!" but rather "There but for the grace of God, go you or I."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Colour of Markets

In the high and far off times when the world was new and all, before Monteiths went to the Dark Side, my friends and I purchased a 6-pack of their beers (the Summer Ale, if I remember correctly) to consume on our back porch. On getting home and opening the first beer, we noticed a strange "chemical-y" taste.

Naturally enough, we rang the supermarket where we'd just bought the aforementioned beers and told them what had happened. Commendably, they invited us to return the beers and take away some others in place of the tainted batch, which we did. All in all, it was a fairly satisfying transaction.

This is the same basic event as that which befell users of the "legal high" Kronic Pineapple Express recently, but with two important differences:
  1. Because we were drinking the beer, we noticed the odd taste immediately, and ingested so little of the contaminant (whatever it was) that it had no noticeable effect on us. Kronic smokers would, on average, have had a just-lower-than-therapeutic dose of the contaminant (in this case the sedative phenazepam) before they even felt the effects.
  2. Because we were indulging in a white-market drug, we knew pretty much what was in it (the makers, after all, had put the ingredients on the packaging) and what we could expect from various levels of dosage. In the case of Kronic, there is information about the ingredients and expected effects, but it's not available from the manufacturers - you need to have internet access and know where to look.
People were doing the equivalent of drinking meths while expecting beer, but without the twin protections of a) being able to taste that it was meths instead of beer and b) knowing what beer was in the first place without having to look it up.

This is the advantage of indulging in a white-market drug, where the manufacturers feel no particular need to obfuscate regarding their ingredients and methods (you can go on guided tours of breweries and distilleries if you want to - try asking Matt Bowden if you can tour his factory and see what happens!) and there are widely understood qualities that the finished product is supposed to have.

The factors that led to the Kronic debacle have their roots in our current Misuse of Drugs Act (which labels specific substances as being illegal, therefore marking all others as legal by implication). Specifically, I think the secrecy regarding the ingredients of legal highs flows directly from the historical situation where the government have banned substances like GHB, BZP, the 2Cs etc., and the grey market have had to go out and find alternatives. By not mentioning the active ingredients up front, I suspect the manufacturers are hoping they can spin their window of tenuous legality out that little bit longer. Often, these novel substances are marketed as a safer alternative to illegal drugs (for example BZP being touted as "safer, legal ecstasy/speed") but in the case of Kronic and its sister products it's abundantly clear that the only selling point over actual cannabis was their legality.

This is why I tentatively support the current proposed law change that would put the onus on importers and producers of novel psychoactives to prove their safety and chemical composition before they can be marketed and sold in New Zealand. However, in order for the new law to function, it needs to be possible for someone to demonstrate that the new recreational drug they wish to manufacture is safe. If all novel recreational drugs are going to be viewed as inherently unsafe, then all novel drugs will go straight to the black market - which, as any junkie will tell you, is far worse than the grey market when it comes to product safety and quality control.

And once again, I think we will be back to the question I raised in my last post - namely "on what basis do we decide that these drugs should be legal, and these other ones should not?"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The philosophy of the War on Drugs

On Friday 6th May, the New Zealand current affairs show Close Up ran this report about the "legal high" known as Kronic. As the Law Commission's report on reviewing drug law in New Zealand came out a mere three days before, it seems like an appropriate time to write a post on this whole thing.

Now, I don't want to get too caught up criticising Close Up's coverage (though I do have some problems with that article - for one thing, why focus only on Kronic? It's hardly the only such substance, or even the most common - did the manufacturers perchance pay for a little advertising work the same way KFC did more recently?) or on the debate over whether cannabis should be decriminalised - a point also raised in the Law Commission's report. I'm much more interested in what the sale of legal highs seems to point out about drug policy in New Zealand and overseas.

Kronic and its sister products are all synthetic cannabinoids - that's the active ingredient in most smokable legal highs nowadays. The fact that cannabis is illegal, while a compound which does more or less the same thing to your brain is currently for sale with nothing but a voluntary age limit (the packets say "R18", but retailers may or may not enforce this) points out to my mind that there's something fundamentally wrong with official thinking about drugs and drug law at the moment.

One of the recommendations of the Law Commission's report (linked above) is that the sale of legal highs is halted, and all new compounds becoming available start out as illegal by default until they have been reviewed and tested by a central authority of some sort to ascertain what their effects are and what dangers are associated with their use. As much as I usually don't support the banning of things (on general principle - not just in the case of drugs) I think that this represents some of the first clear and logical thought on this topic in a long time.

Up until this point, governments have simply banned particular substances, and the manufacturers of legal highs have been able to bypass these rulings by manufacturing close analogues of banned substances - essentially playing the "I'm not touching you!" game familiar to schoolchildren everywhere. This is what happened with the 2C family of chemicals (2CA, 2CB, 2CI, 2CE and so on) with Fantasy (aka GHB) and with BZP and the other piperazines. Sure, these chemicals are eventually banned in their own right, but the people who make this stuff undoubtedly factor this into their plans.

The banning of BZP didn't halt the sale of "party pills" - it just means that the ones you see now contain mephedrone, caffeine and other currently legal stimulants. If cannabinoid smokables are banned, I would be willing to bet that there will be an alternative in the pipeline. And the chemistry to make this stuff is not simple - unlike the chemistry involved in making many illegal drugs. It would take a significant R&D budget, and pretty solid manufacturing costs to stay in the game, but the companies who make legal highs have more than proven they're willing to make that spend.

The good thing about the Law Commission's suggestion, from a law-enforcement point of view is that it gets out of this arms race, by simply claiming that all novel drugs are illegal until declared otherwise, whether they're cancer cures or legal equivalents to LSD. The good thing about it from a philosophical point of view, is that it's the first step to a coherent formulation of a coherent societal stance on drugs in general, and I think this is long long overdue.

By "a coherent societal stance on drugs," I mean an accepted philosophical position on the place of chemically altered states of consciousness and consciousness-altering chemicals in our society. What I'm interested in here is not which drugs are legal and which aren't, but the basis on which we make that decision. I think that basis needs to be explicit, so that people can discuss it without falling into the trap of pushing their own personal favourite high, or attacking their favourite social bugbear.

As I see it, there are 3 positions we could logically adopt:
  1. "Getting high" is a socially undesirable and/or morally incorrect behaviour. We do not wish members of our society to do this, and we therefore ban all drugs which have purely recreational use, and regulate medical drugs and industrial substances which have recreational abuse potential (e.g. morphine, arguably cannabis) so that they don't fall into the wrong hands.
  2. Some drugs provoke dangerous and/or anti-social behaviour, and some have dangerous side effects. We will regulate drugs in the same way that we regulate driving speed on our roads - with a view to prevent people causing harm to themselves or others.
  3. People's psychology is their own to mess with/mess up as they choose. Some drugs provoke dangerous and/or anti-social behaviour, and some have dangerous side effects but people who are affected in this way can be dealt with by appropriate agencies as and when these problems occur - i.e. people who commit crimes are dealt with by the Police, people with mental health issues by the mental health system, people with physical problems get medical treatment and so on.
Each of these is, I think, logically valid (if not necessarily fully sound) and serves to point out a flaw in the current system - namely that that system is not philosophically valid:
  1. While I think that this view may be close to one espoused in the law enforcement and lawmaking communities, "getting high" is the problematic part here. The only sensible definition I can come up with is "deliberately altering one's own consciousness and/or perception for a recreational purpose". If we take the view that all such behaviour is socially undesirable, we're left in the position of banning coffee and tea along with cigarettes and alcohol.In fact, given the symptoms some people report from ingesting food containing capsaicin (chili oil) we should probably consider banning curries and Mexican food over a certain threshold of "hotness".
    If we try to arrange matters so that having a second or third cup of coffee in a row does not constitute illegal drug abuse, we are left with a serious problem in terms of figuring out what we mean by "getting high". We can't fall back on saying that some drugs are good, and some are bad inherently, because they all get you high in some way. We could arguably decide that some sorts of highs are OK (stimulants like coffee, for the sake of argument) and that some are not (hallucinogens like LSD, for example). The problem we then face is that methamphetamine is a stimulant and therefore OK, while nutmeg is a hallucinogen and thus verboten. You could regulate additionally on the ease of abuse - you need to eat a lot of nutmeg to trip, but you don't need all that much speed to get high - but that seems to me to be a slippery slope.
  2. If we are to take this view - that there's nothing inherently wrong with taking drugs per se, but that some drugs are too dangerous to be readily available - then we need to be regulating on the basis of harm caused. The problem here is that some currently socially acceptable and legal drugs appear to be as harmful as some illegal ones and in some cases more so. There would need to be some arbitrary threshold of harmfulness above which things were illegal and below which they were not. If we were to regulate on this basis, nicotine and alcohol could not logically remain legal while drugs such as cannabis, LSD and psychedelic mushrooms remained illegal.
  3. This is the view currently most commonly aired by Libertarians - although they often couple it with entirely privatising the health system so that everyone becomes personally responsible for the things they do to their own bodies. There's actually nothing wrong with this viewpoint so long as we are willing to label drug-crime simply as "crime" drug-deaths simply as "accidents" and so forth.
My point here is that current approaches to drug regulation appear to be morally timid, and philosophically confused. Morally timid in that the basis on which we decide whether a particular substance is or is not allowable is not clear, and is therefore not open to debate. Philosophically confused in that whatever that basis is, it appears to be so undermined by exceptions (e.g. harmful drugs should all be banned, except for alcohol because the majority of our society has culturally accepted its use and would protest strenuously at its banning) as to be now completely inconsistent.

I don't wish to try and make a case at this point for the banning or decriminalisation of any particular drug or family of drugs. I do however suggest that any response to the Law Commission's report by government should include a firming up, and a vastly increased transparency over the philosophical basis on which some drugs are banned, while others are tacitly permitted.

Monday, May 2, 2011

RIP Osama Bin Laden

As I write this, so the radio informs me, crowd of people are outside the White House, chanting "U!S!A! U!S!A!" and generally celebrating the death of the man most of them consider the most evil person previously alive in the world. Osama Bin Laden has been killed by a group of U.S. and Pakistani troop in a ground operation, we are told.

I for one am not convinced that this celebration is appropriate or useful.

I'm not comfortable with celebrating anybody's death, for one thing. I tend to side with Gandalf when it comes to deciding who lives and who dies, and I remain unconvinced that anyone at any point has ever actually deserved death. That's not going to make me any friends, I realise, but there you have it. I don't think death is a thing that can be deserved, quite frankly. Certainly Osama Bin Laden was as close as you can come to calling a person genuinely evil, but I even have difficulty with the concept that the world is inherently materially better without him as an active participant in it.

That aside, I also think that it's very easy to overstate the importance of successfully killing Bin Laden. Sure, he was hidden for 10 years, and his death robs Al Qaeda of an important figurehead - but I still don't think that amounts to all that much. In fact, I think this is primarily a PR victory - and will have very little positive impact in the long run.

Consider: if you were a terrorist, determinedly opposing the Great Satan America, would the death of this man - a potent symbol, admittedly, but for the last few years not much of a leader - fill you with despair, or righteous anger? To put it another way, if Al Qaeda managed to assassinate President Obama tomorrow, would the USA immediately cease to exist? Successful assassinations of previous presidents suggest that it would not.

I have a strong suspicion that Al Qaeda doesn't even exist in the way it's usually presented in news media. Seriously, this is the 21st century - do we really believe that because they operate on a sub-military scale terrorists are all in the dark ages? Those who manage to perpetrate effective outrages along the lines of September 11th 2001 are clearly at the very least computer literate. And it is hard to be computer literate in this day and age, and not aware of a much more effective model for pursuing dispersed guerrilla activism or terror - Anonymous.

If there genuinely is (as people are fond of implying) some sort of central conspiracy which coordinates terrorist action around the globe, I think it's far more likely to operate on the unfindable, unfightable Anonymous model than the classic evil overlord hiding in his secret lair. And if that's the case, no amount of killing people, no matter who they are, will stop it - not unless you're prepared to kill everyone, just in case.