Entertainment Sci-fi

[2862] The Last Jedi and the balance in the Force

Star Wars Episode VIII reminds me of Hero, a Chinese movie set during the Warring States Period starring Jet Li. What I like the most about Hero is its offering of multiple perspectives of the same event. Each perspective details how different characters see and understand the same event differently, and how it leads to conflict. And if one reconciles all perspectives by listening to all sides without prejudice, one gets to a higher truth. In Hero, the truth is an authoritarian one but the conclusion from understanding those perspectives is so profound that I think a libertarian would submit to its truth (within the context of the film of course).[1]

Director Rian Johnson used the same trick in The Last Jedi to explore the conflict between Luke Skywalker and his nephew-apprentice Ben Solo/Kylo Ren. Johnson does not take the relationship for granted and takes time to explain it. The exploration blurs the line between good and evil that previously was so clear in Star Wars, suggesting as I understand the scene, that the relationship between Luke and Kylo arises out of an unfortunate misunderstanding. The conflict is told through three perspectives: from Luke’s, Kylo’s and then from Luke’s again but with further commentary augmented by Rey. The colors, the cuts and the narratives are so convincing that sometimes I wonder which one is the truth. Rey is so confused by the stories told by Kylo and Luke that she demands Luke whether he created Kylo on purpose. The confusion between good and evil even leads to an altercation between between Luke and Rey, a fight so convincing that as I sat in my chair, I began to wonder, is Rey turning? Is Luke a Sith? Who is the good guy here?

There is at least another scene where Johnson tries to blur the line. I do not remember the exact dialog but it is the scene when hacker DJ shows Finn that the same party supplying the First Order weapons is the same one supplying the Resistance equipment. DJ goes on to tell Finn to not get involve and be free.

But the mindblowing moment for me is the philosophical truth Luke discovered during his exile. As he trains Rey, he tells her all Star Wars fans knows since A New Hope: the Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” But Luke goes further by explaining explicitly to Rey that is a balance in the Force and the Jedis do not own it. And since there is a balance, the light that the Jedis claim to defend must always come with the dark side. All this is not groundbreaking. But Luke’s conclusion is. He comes to the realization that if that is so, then the Jedis must not exist and the order must end.

Luke’s philosophy casts all of Star Wars films in a different light, forcing us to reassess what the whole franchise really means.

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[1] p/s — I recently learned it was the Japanese film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa that first used this technique.

Politics & government Sci-fi

[2792] Malaysian dystopia coming true

Some dystopian science fictions rest on absurd premises.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a statist world of paperwork. There is a form to fill up for everything you do. The story begins with a naming mistake in a government ministry.

Instead of Tuttle printed on the warrant, it was Buttle. That leads to the arrest and the eventual death of an innocent man the authority believed was a terrorist.

When a person discovers that the authority had the wrong person, everybody else refuses to correct or even admit the mistake for fear of having to face the impossible mountains of paperwork. And so the bureaucracy covers it up rather.

Mistakes or not, the bureaucracy is always right. Adherence to the system is so paramount that any attempt to rectify the error is an act of rebellion against the state. The state, meanwhile, does not look kindly on rebellion.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is more ominous than Brazil. While people of Gilliam’s world are free as long as they fill their forms correctly, Orwell’s is a totalitarian universe with the one party controlling every facet of your life.

The truth is whatever the government ”• the Big Brother ”• says. The government rewrites history however it sees fit. If anybody has a different opinion or remembers history differently, the government will put him through a special rehabilitation program to change his or her mind, forcefully.

There are other brilliantly absurd dystopian works out there.

These absurdities are fictions only to a healthy civilized society when the government is decent. We can laugh at these fictions because they are entertainingly absurd and so far removed from reality.

But the farther down the hole we are from a decent government, the less fictional these absurdities become. In them lie the seeds of truth.

Whenever I think of Malaysia today, my mind wanders to these old dystopian science fictions. I sigh at the ridiculousness of our situation that might as well be the target of mocking and satire of these works.

Our very own Big Brother (is he Ah Jib Gor?) proclaimed back when 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was established that the fund was the centerpiece to his transformation.

It would help to create a new financial center for Kuala Lumpur. It would help reform the power sector. It would push Malaysia into the dreamy First World list.

Drive by the long Jalan Tun Razak, you will read the pretentious phrase ”For a Greater Kuala Lumpur” printed on aluminum hoarding surrounding the prime land 1MDB bought so cheaply from the government. ”1MDB is strong,” the government said.

Today, financial troubles and corruption scandals beset the fund. The strong 1MDB now is in need of government support to survive. The financial center stands unbuilt. The power authority is scrambling to meet Malaysia’s future energy demand because 1MDB failed to build the necessary power plants despite winning the tenders. Amid all this, the government is trying to convince us all that 1MDB is too small compared to the Malaysian economy. ”The fund is inconsequential now,” they claimed.

It took four to five years to change the storyline from it’s-a-big-thing to it-doesn’t-matter. One should be forgiven for not noticing the changing deceit told over such a long period.

But another episode is more shocking. Only a person of dulled senses and soft mind would not notice it.

Remember when all of those corruption allegations backed by various leaked documents implicating 1MDB, the prime minister and several other individuals first came out? They were tampered documents, the government said. The implicit defense was that the allegations were untrue.

Now, as the official government story goes, the money transfer did happen and the accounts did exist. All that was an all-legal multibillion-ringgit donation from someone unnamed. Suddenly, it was all true. Meanwhile, everybody who seems to be trying to right the wrong is arrested.

So, what about those tampered documents? The government is silent on that, instead preferring to talk about political donation reform, which by the way UMNO the ruling party itself rejected while blaming the Opposition for the reform failure. Such is the prevalence of doubletalk in Malaysia.

That blatant defense change happened in the pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four. The fascist party said ”We’ve always been at war with Eurasia.” The masses nodded and they understood they had always been friends with Eastasia.

Suddenly at the same event, the party said ”We’ve always been at war with Eastasia,” The masses were oblivious to the switch in name and nodded dutifully.

We have already that one party, the volte-face, a hint of corrupt bureaucracy along with the inane rationale and excuses today. It is up to us Malaysians to not nod lest Malaysia becomes these dystopias tomorrow.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on August 7 2015.

Politics & government Sci-fi

[2098] Of one data point

I am unsure if I am recalling this accurately but at back in my mind, amid cobwebs of vague memories, I somehow remember reading an Asimov’s short story in a stuffy old library at the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar. You will forgive me if it is not even Asimov’s writing. It may well be a work of some other science fiction author. What I do have vivid recollection is the subplot of the story, however. Through the retelling of it, I hope that it may cause others to refrain from committing hasty generalization.

The story is set some time in the far future, maybe on Earth, maybe on Trantor or at some other place, I do not know. What is important is that the realm of human knowledge has expanded greatly. This includes in the field of statistics and in particular, sampling methods used to ascertain public opinion.

Sampling methods used today in real life suffer from certain errors arising from randomness and uncertainty. Notice how each time a respectable polling agency in reports result of a survey, it includes the margins of error of the findings, or more accurately, the standard errors, along with the averages. In the science fiction, statisticians of the future have developed a way to eliminate, fully, the errors associated with sampling.

In fact, the field of statistics in that fiction has reached a stage so advanced that the opinion of the public can be gauged accurately by simply sampling a person, who is a member of the public. In other words, all that is required to make general inference about the society is just one data point.

A sample size of one and that is it.


Only one.


Oh my, I do not know how that gets in there.

Anyway, unfortunately in real life, reliability of a sample and therefore, the ability to generalize its statistics for inferential purposes decrease as the sample size decreases, more so at some range closer to zero. We are still finding ourselves a long way from living a statistician’s wet dream.

Yet, all too often in Malaysia today, individuals are quick to generalize the result of a by-election to describe national mood. It is perhaps acceptable to make an inference out of a series of by-elections held within a certain timeframe but it is dangerous to make a claim that a by-election signals a countrywide trend. It is dangerous because it is misleading.

A by-election only gauges the opinion of a certain type of individuals and these individuals are certainly not representative of the whole country. The voters in Bagan Pinang, from instance, are quite different from voters of Manei Urai, Datok Keramat, Damansara Utama or Likas. Although the national issues that they care about may coincide, their attitude toward the same issues is not the same due to their worldviews. And then, there are local issues. It is definitely safe to say that local issues that they face are different enough that one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to failure.

These voters, taken as whole, may provide some concrete statistics on the direction of national politics but individually in isolation, they are not so helpful.

With respect to Bagan Pinang, there are many other differentiating factors that further make result of its by-election unique to itself. As an example, not many areas have an army camp resides within its boundary. Another is its status as resort town, or rather, a resort town full of abandoned projects. Suffice to say, Bagan Pinang is not Malaysia.

Therefore, I have to disagree to sweeping statements made by multiple persons after the election. In The Star, Isa Samad was quoted as saying “The people of all races have spoken and this is an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s 1Malaysia concept.”[1] Deputy UMNO President Muhyiddin Yassin meanwhile said, “This is a significant victory and more importantly the people’s endorsement of the Prime Minister’s policies.”[2]

Perhaps, the people they are referring to are restricted to the voters of Bagan Pinang only. If it refers to Malaysians as a whole, then these two politicians and others who share similar tendency to generalize in so grandly a manner will have a hard time rationalizing trends in other areas.

This is not to say information from Bagan Pinang is worthless. It is not to say information that Bagan Pinang provides with national politics in mind is worthless. Rather, information from this by-election should be contextualized by taking into account several past and future by-elections held at different places if it is to make national sense. Without such contextualization, the one data point of Bagan Pinang might as well be a noise, or an outlier.

In the meantime, save a national election itself, the best barometers of national mood are countrywide surveys done properly. Unless, of course, we are living in a world created by that science fiction.

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[1] — Isa thanked the people of Bagan Pinang for the victory, saying it was a win for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s 1Malaysia concept.

“The people of all races have spoken and this is an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s 1Malaysia concept,” he told reporters.

Isa also thanked the Barisan machinery for working tirelessly during the by-election.

“I’m also happy that the Malays, Chinese and Indians are now with Barisan. I hope this will have a domino effect for Barisan in the future,” he said. [Polling Day Live Coverage: Isa wins with thumping majority. Sarban Singh. Zulkifli Abd Rahman. The Star. October 11 2009]

[2] — A beaming Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was present when the official results were announced just after 8pm, said the people had endorsed Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia concept.

“This is a significant victory and more importantly the people’s endorsement of the Prime Minister’s policies. I congratulate the people of Bagan Pinang, including the Indians and Chinese, who came out in full support of Barisan,” he said at the tallying centre at the Port Dickson Muncipal Council hall. [Thumping win for Isa. Wong Sai Wan Sarban Singh. Zulkifli Abd Rahman. A. Lechutmanan. The Star. October 12 2009]

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First published in The Malaysian Insider on October 12 2009.

Entertainment Sci-fi

[1863] Of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Some rights reserved. By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams

They do not make good films like this one anymore.

Entertainment Humor Sci-fi

[1713] Of watch me frakking naked

Naked cylon!