Tuesday, April 22, 2014

13 highlights from ‘All quiet on the western front’

‘All quiet on the western front’ (1930), the film based on German Erich Maria Remarque’s fictional novel in turn based on his experience as a soldier in World War I, is my favorite war movie. It took me quite a while but I finally got to reading the book the past week. It is a beautiful depiction of just about the worst that humanity can endure, and makes me grateful for whatever freedoms I do enjoy in life. Here are some of my favorite passages, with my annotations in italics.


Page 13 Fictional narrator Paul Baumer denounces armchair nationalism
While they continued to write and talk, we saw the wounded and dying. While they taught that duty to one’s country is the greatest thing, we already knew that death-throes are stronger. But for all that we were no mutineers, no deserters, no cowards—they were very free with all these expressions. We loved our country as much as they; we went courageously into every action; but also we distinguished the false from true, we had suddenly learned to see.


Page 41
[A] declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting.


Page 56
At the sound of the first droning of the shells we rush back, in one part of our being, a thousand years. By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness. One cannot explain it. A man is walking along without thought or heed;—suddenly he throws himself down on the ground and a storm of fragments flies harmlessly over him;—yet he cannot remember either to have heard the shell coming or to have thought of flinging himself down. But had he not abandoned himself to the impulse he would now be a heap of mangled flesh. It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how.


Page 87 Paul begins to feel alienation from the world he once knew.
When I hear the word ‘peace-time,’ it goes to my head: and if it really came, I think I would do some unimaginable thing—something, you know, that it’s worth having lain here in the muck for. But I can’t even imagine anything.


Page 88  
We are not youth any longer. We don’t want to take the world by storm. We are fleeing. We fly from ourselves. From our life. We were eighteen and had begun to love life and the world; and we had to shoot it to pieces. The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer, we believe in the war.


Page 113 When battle comes
We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down—now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged.


Page 120 Fear becomes a way of life.  
It is strange that all the memories that come have these two qualities. They are always completely calm, that is predominant in them; and even if they are not really calm, they become so. They are soundless apparitions that speak to me, with looks and gestures silently, without any word—and it is the alarm of their silence that forces me to lay hold of my sleeve and my rifle lest I should abandon myself to the liberation and allurement in which my body would dilate and gently pass away into the still forces that lie behind these things.


Page 123
To-day we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled—we are indifferent. We might exist there; but should we really live there? We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial—I believe we are lost.


Page 181  
When a man has seen so many dead he cannot understand any longer why there should be so much anguish over a single individual.


Page 205
“State, State”—Tjaden snaps his fingers contemptuously, “Gendarmes, police, taxes, that’s your State;—if that’s what you are talking about, no, thank you.”
“That’s right,” says Kat, “you’ve said something for once, Tjaden. State and home-country, there’s a big difference.”


Page 223 Paul stabs a Frenchman to death, and being left alone with the corpse allows him to grasp the gravity of his act.
Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert.


Page 263 On the suffering Paul witnesses while himself recovering from a wound
How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.


Page 274 Paul’s spiritual death
I often sit over against myself, as before a stranger, and wonder how the unnameable active principle that calls itself to life has adapted itself even to this form. All other expressions lie in a winter sleep, life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death;—it has transformed us into unthinking animals in order to give us the weapon of instinct—it has reinforced us with dullness, so that we do not go to pieces before the horror, which would overwhelm us if we had clear, conscious thought—it has awakened in us the sense of comradeship, so that we escape the abyss of solitude—it has lent us the indifference of wild creatures, so that in spite of all, we perceive the positive in every moment, and store it up as a reserve against the onslaught of nothingness. Thus we live a closed, hard existence of the utmost superficiality, and rarely does an incident strike out a spark.


I have to say that the film, which I reviewed here, does the book justice, and has its great moments at variance with the book. The ironic thing is, even as the movie won the 1930 Academy Award for Best Picture, it was only a decade later that Hollywood turned into a propaganda machine committing the very national chauvinism condemned in Remarque’s work. Apparently, war was wrong only when committed by the Germans, and not the Yankee Doodle Dandies. The connivance between the burgeoning military industrial complex and the large Hollywood studios, including ostracism of ‘All quiet on the western front’ star and WWII conscientious objector Lew Ayres, is a blight on my enjoyment of American movies of this period.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The politics of Disney’s ‘Frozen’ (2013)

I’ve seen ‘Frozen’ three times the past 36 hours thanks to younger company at home. Great humor and heart, and mostly good songwriting, while remaining wholesome. But it’s bizarre how politically charged these films can be.

In the first place, our heroines are royalty, to whom the entire kingdom Arendelle submits. By the movie’s end, things are back to normal, except for the damage to property in Queen Elsa’s wake. But the townsfolk love her more than ever.

Second, what kind of kingdom hierarchy exists in Arendelle? After Elsa, there’s sister Anna, and then... apparently not even a chief of military or police, because when Anna takes off after the fleeing Elsa, Anna puts Prince Hans, whom she has just met and got engaged to, in charge of everything. Might this carelessness actually increase Arendellians’ confidence in their rulers?

Third, it seems that the kingdom is in charge of pretty much all commerce that goes on in the town. Like, without the state, where would we get cloaks?! 
And at the end, the Duke, who rules over Arendelle’s foremost trading partner, is told that Arendelle is severing its ties with the Duke’s ‘Weaseltown.’ This is meant as some kind of righteous punishment for the opportunistic Duke, but little thought is given to what happens to the economies of Arendelle and Weaseltown when trade is interrupted. After all, they would have supposedly been trading for each one’s mutual benefit, and not for exploitation of resources. But whatever. What’s important is Arendelle folk have a skating rink, right?

I’d like to think my nitpicking is of some value. It’s just disappointing to see prevailing mentalities manifest themselves in otherwise enjoyable works, which in their own way perpetuate very real problems in society, such as blind faith in political authority and the ‘goodness’ of state interference in market affairs.

But then, it’s hard to imagine a Disney movie without kingdoms, princes/princesses and royal decrees handed down for ‘the common good,’ isn’t it?

Okay bye.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Highlights from Michael Huemer’s brilliant ‘The problem of political authority’

[My comments in italics.]

The state per se is unjustified.
[Democratic] laws normally come with threats to impose punishment on those who do not follow the law, backed up by credible threats of violence against those who attempt to avoid punishment. On the face of it, the disrespect for persons and the violation of equality involved in issuing and carrying out such threats are far more palpable than the supposed disrespect shown by those who do not comply with the laws.

On fears of what absence of government will bring:
Evidence such as the Milgram experiments, the Holocaust, and the My Lai Massacre leave little doubt that the average human being is far more likely to commit heinous crimes in the name of obedience to authority than he is to rashly disobey justified commands of an authority figure.

Market anarchism is the only political viewpoint consistent with what most of us agree to be good morals.
[R]evisionary political views emerge out of common sense moral views.

If we are to argue for zero government, we must pit it up against the ‘ideal’ state, by which the argument for anarchism is that much more convincing.
[I]n comparing government with anarchy, we should examine the best feasible form of government.

On claims of anarchism being utopian due to few people supporting it:
[O]ne is left with the status quo, if one can only cite existing mentalities.

Defenders of government are often keen to point out the harms that might result from the widespread greed and selfishness of mankind in the absence of a government able to restrain our worst excesses. Yet they seldom pause to consider what might result from the very same greed and selfishness in the presence of government, on the assumption that government agents are equally prone to those very failings. It is not that statists have some account of why government employees are more virtuous than average people. Nor do they have some plan for making that be the case. Rather, it seems simply to have never occurred to most statists to apply realistic assumptions about human nature to the government itself.

The state itself is the problem, not by any means the solution.
The standard solutions to the problem of human predation all start by cementing the very condition most likely to cause predatory behavior – the concentration of power – and only then do they try to steer away from its natural consequences.

Criminal behavior won’t be tolerated by private security ensurers, if only because it wouldn’t be profitable.
Offering protection for criminals is analogous to offering fire insurance for arsonists.

[T]he most common objection to anarchism, the objection that protection agencies would go to war with one another, overlooks both the extreme costliness of combat and the strong opposition that most people feel to murdering other people. The very real threat of war between governments appears a much more serious concern than conflict between private security agencies.

Anarchism alone recognizes what makes human nature work. What are the political conditions that allow man, who is inescapably profit-oriented, to cooperate with others for mutual benefit?
It is theoretically possible for a government to reform itself – to eliminate all victimless crime statutes, shift its focus from punishment to restitution, and so on. But when we look around and see that no government has in fact done so and when we notice that this kind of unresponsiveness to problems has a systemic explanation rooted in the basic incentive structure of government, conversion to an alternative system begins to seem like a more rational and less utopian solution than that of reforming the present system. There will always be room for improvement in any justice system. In governmental systems, reform will tend to be slow and difficult to implement. By contrast, businesses in a competitive industry tend to move quickly to improve their products or reduce their costs when the opportunity presents itself.

On the possibility of anarchy in the future:
Throughout most of human history, slavery was widely accepted as just. The mass slaughter of foreigners for purposes of capturing land and resources, forcing conformity to one’s own religion, or exacting vengeance for perceived wrongs against one’s ancestors was often viewed with approval, if not glorified. Alexander ‘the Great’ was so called because of his prowess at waging what nearly anyone today would unhesitatingly judge to be unjust and vicious wars.
Judicial torture and execution for minor offences was widely accepted. ‘Witches’ were burned at the stake or drowned. Despotism was the standard form of government, under which people were granted no right to participate in the political process. Even when democracy was at last accepted in some countries, half the adult population was denied any rights of political participation because they were deemed inferior.

When people today say that there is little agreement in ethics and politics, they are ignoring all the issues mentioned in the preceding paragraph. For us, none of those issues is worth discussing, since the correct evaluation is intellectually trivial. ‘Should we torture someone to extract a confession of witchcraft and then execute her for being a witch?’ This question merits no more than a laugh. But practically speaking, these questions are far from trivial. Slow though it may have been in coming, the current consensus on all these questions represents an enormous advancement from terrible ideas to not-so-terrible ideas.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A reader's experience registering at the BIR (2014)

A reader, a good friend who wants to be known only as A.S., sent me this account of him registering his business at the BIR this past week. A.S. wants to advise his fellow entrepreneurs who read my blog of what is in store for them. To me, his ordeal is an illustration of the BIR’s cluelessness as to why they’re not collecting enough revenue. When you constantly make it harder for willing taxpayers to pay, you will get less taxes.

I made minor modifications.

A.S.’s story:
So after four days, and a conservative four hours total waiting time (excluding travel, form-filling and all), I got a certificate of registration (COR) for my new venture.
This Rappler article was really helpful: http://www.rappler.com/business/53578-self-employed-how-to-register-bir
It presumes however that you already have a tax identification number, which is a whole different monster from registering a business, requiring barangay clearance and whatnot.

Luckily for me, I didn’t need too many requirements. Since I was applying to be self-employed, registering in my name and with my home as business address, they only asked for a:
Birth certificate and
An ID photocopy.

I also prepared an:
Affidavit as to my fees and manner of billing, pursuant to the BIR RR 4-2014.
This was how it happened for me, the simplified version:
Day 1 - Got the forms from the BIR, nos. 1901 (for self-employed registration) and 0605 (for payments). The forms are no longer available on the BIR website, God knows why.
Day 2 - Paid the registration payment fee of P500 at a bank in my revenue district, using BIR form 0605, four copies. I guess most banks wherever you live will accept. You can also pay in the BIR, but for me, the BIR branch had ran out of slots for payment and I had to go back to my neighborhood.
I also had to transfer my TIN to a revenue district office (RDO) where my address is now located. Luckily for me, both RDOs are of the same branch. If you’re just getting a new TIN, this won’t matter.
Day 3 - Went back to the BIR to give my filled up application for registration (1901), three copies, and submitted my birth certificate, photocopy of ID, and affidavit of billing crap. Was then told to go to an ‘Officer of the Day’ in a separate cubicle, who, after telling me what taxes I was obligated to pay, signed my application. I was then told to return three days later, for my COR.
Day 4 - Bought a documentary stamp elsewhere in the BIR building, you can ask around where to buy one. P15. And I had no line to deal with. Then lined up to get my COR, where they attached the documentary stamp.

BIR employees are like regular people with thoughts and feelings, but because it’s competition-free, they can be arrogant jerks. One girl was being told to go to Makati where her TIN was registered, so as to be able to transfer to her desired RDO. And when she left, the BIR personnel laughed at her for voicing her frustration, also eliciting laughs from taxpayers waiting in line.

I wanted to admonish the BIR person, who was handling my papers, by saying “Come on, don’t laugh at her. She’s a taxpayer. It’s hard enough dealing with the bureaucracy here.”

[My note: Imagine if a McDonald’s employee made fun of a customer in front of other customers for ordering a pizza. And these government folk think it’s all in a day’s work. Disgusting.]
But I didn’t say anything, which may have been practical, considering what they can do to my files.
So overall quite a hassle, but not as bad as I thought it would be, in fact. 
So I have my COR, and now what’s left is to get some receipts printed. You’ll need BIR form 1906, ‘Authority to print,’ for that. An accountant can deal with filing that stuff for you and getting the receipts for your use. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Earth Hour 2014: Bad consciences going strong

Earth Hour 2014, still drilling it in people's heads that their very existence is a bad thing for nature, even as humanity is its worst enemy. 

We tend to forget that we're a part of nature, and can do nothing to it that is not worse for us. 

Having said that, there is nothing in my actions that could not be sustainable. My energy consumption does not harm the planet in any way. Provided that a critical mass is not there to give certain groups political privileges, market prices will guide actions in a way reflective of consumers' concern for property, as well as the yet more nebulous concept of the environment.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Louis C.K. is really funny, but...

Laughed so much from Louis C.K.'s 'Chewed up.' Tried watching his series' pilot, but gave up halfway, partly because it wasn't too funny and also because I had just heard his comments about how 'capitalism' ignored the 'social' aspect of transactions. I don't want to be so sensitive about this stuff, but it just diminishes my view of people when they reveal themselves to be poor thinkers in this regard, unknowingly perpetuating socially detrimental political arrangements.

When A denies B's preferences for what B considers better services, in the interest of A's satisfactions sentimental or otherwise, the multiiplied effect is poorer products for all, not to mention aggression towards outsiders and ultimately one's neighbor. The real enemy is in fact not efficient competition, but 'competing' via political privilege.

Ultimately, one implicitly believes that a government represents its voters better than products and prices represent consumers, or vice versa.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Is Bitcoin doomed because of taxation?

Fortune makes a bold declaration on the fate of Bitcoin: it is doomed, because of taxes. As if the prospect of taxation is an automatic death sentence to an industry. 

Let us assume the claim that tax records will eliminate the anonymity or pseudonymity of Bitcoin users. Does this undermine its whole rationale? Is pseudonymity the only reason people turn to cryptocurrencies? 

If Bitcoin is taxed, wherein accounts are tied to people, there is still the advantage of its maintaining value in contrast to government fiat currencies. Gold is taxed, yet it has been going up in value relative to fiat this past millennium. 

In addition, Bitcoin is still a great way to transfer money elsewhere almost instantly. It remains to be seen though if additional taxes will remove its advantage in contrast to Paypal or Western Union.

Doomed Bitcoin? Not quite.