Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween


Obama and McCain - Dance Off!

This is probably the best "political" video on Youtube thus far. And it makes me wish that the democratic process really worked this way.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

Nothing to see here! Stay in your homes!

From the Army Times:

"The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle rattle, helping restore essential services and escorting supply convoys.

Now they’re training for the same mission — with a twist — at home."

Hey, I actually think we have a term for that! Having the military patrol the streets at home.... Oh, what is it? I can't remember...

To be fair, they're also talking about helping in cases of natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

And, then there's this "new mission marks the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment to NorthCom, a joint command established in 2002 to provide command and control for federal homeland defense efforts and coordinate defense support of civil authorities."

"They may be called upon to help with civil unrest and crowd control..."

Crowd control? Really? Maybe I'm a bit old-fashioned when it comes to creeping martial law. But, I can't help thinking that this is a bad idea. Don't get me wrong- I have great respect for our men and women in the armed forces. I just don't like the idea of politicians and local political idiots deploying them against unruly citizens. If it helps, the founding fathers weren't keen on the idea either. But, you know, that was back in America 1.0, and not the post-9/11 reboot.


Professional Women

Riding on the Go Train into Toronto yesterday, I was surrounded by young professional women, dressed in desperately-tight slacks and pointed shoes- always clad primarily in black. Surely someone else has noticed how lacking modern professionals are in any sort of style- wearing the sort of clothes that would seem too dour at a wake is not improved by buying them two sizes too small. Maybe the tight clothes explain why they all looked so uncomfortable. They would sit there reading magazines anxiously, flipping the pages as if to break them, fidgeting and tapping their feet rapidly, supremely dissatisfied with the world around them, and somehow kinesthetically bitchy.

On the way home, in the standing-room only Go train, I listened to two of them crammed in next to me complaining for the entire ride home about the young men who have been disappointing them. The common theme seemed to be that worthwhile young men respond to these worthwhile young women with ambivalence. At a certain point, I wanted to interject: “Look- they sort of want to date you because you’re attractive; but they sort of don’t because you’re hyper-bourgeois, boring, and a bit miserable to be around.”

I suspect it’s not just because I’m married that I find women my age to be so remarkably unattractive. I think that so few young women are sexy anymore because so few of them seem to be remotely sexual; they exude a sort of resolute joylessness that seems to be incompatible with sexual pleasure. Professional women especially move about in these jerky motions, like wind-up toy soldiers. Instead of treating their body as a pleasure sensor, they treat it as a problem, or a project to work on; or conversely as a tool to get at some abstract goal. People wonder why the professional classes don’t reproduce at a higher rate, but have you watched the way they move and dress? And so many of them are stick-figure thin now: how can I believe that a woman who can’t enjoy a slice of pizza could enjoy having sex?

Why is it that a culture that is so militantly focused on “fun” insists on limiting pleasure to tiny little boxes in their lives? It's no wonder that the professional classes aren't reproducing- yuppie men and yuppie women are not remotely sensual or sexual; they just buy the trappings of sexuality.


Read & Discuss: Dark Is the New Black

A couple of lines of Aubade will make Christian Bale's Batman whimper with fear, or it would if he's got any sense.

This short editorial on the topic of dark things in entertainment media echoes some of my own sentiments about the accessorized faux-noir that's all the rage with the kids today. It's a little dismissive, and almost but not totally lacking depth, but I do wonder if anyone else has been thinking about this. I certainly have. Most recently, I thought about it when I realized that the plot of the latest James Bond "thriller" revolves around Mr. Bond brooding a lot.


James-fucking-Bond. Brooding?


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Fellini's Roma - Catholic Church Fashion Show

Something I just learned today- this sequence from Fellini's film Roma has become somewhat iconic in the fashion world, and was supposedly influential in the 1980s London music world as well- you might remember Boy George dressed as a nun.

It's a bit surreal and silly, but I've never understood it when people say that this scene is blasphemous. If anything, I saw it as a loving tribute to both fashion and Catholicism, whose rituals have much in common.


Monday, October 27, 2008

The Goldberg Evaluation

Here's an interesting post in which Jeffrey Goldberg discusses the movie Obsession, which aims at making Americans aware that there are terrorists who want to kill them; something few people know of and the media hardly ever mentions. Also, why are there no wars ongoing centered around this threat? Someone should really do something!

(Incidentally, I'm not kidding- the version of the film that I watched barely even mentioned the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and it came out this year!)

Goldberg watched the ten-minute version of Obsession. I watched the hour-long version, which came as a free DVD to our department. I considered blogging about it, but declined because the movie was so idiotic and I couldn't think of much else to say about it. The tag line should be: "The Muslims are coming! The Muslims are coming!" Again, the point seems to be to alert Americans to the fact that there was some sort of terrorist attack on 9/11/2001 (you don't say!) and that there are Islamic radicals who want to kill us. The filmmakers seem to think that this is a shocking and "politically-incorrect" revelation, and indeed, the real target of the film is "political correctness", which is never defined, or even demonstrated out of one single 20-second clip of professional jackass Michael Moore babbling about "freedom fighters".


"The tragedy of "Obsession" is not that it is wrong; the tragedy is that it takes a serious issue, and a serious threat -- that of Islamism -- and makes it into a cartoon. Its central argument is that the "Islamofascism" of today is not only the equivalent of Nazism, but worse than Nazism. This is quite a thing for a Jewish organization to argue. One of the featured speakers in "Obsession" is a self-described "former PLO terrorist" named Walid Shoebat, who argues on film that a "secular dogma like Nazism is less dangerous than Islamofascism is today."

This is lunacy, of course. Islamism isn't Nazism. It's bad enough without being labeled Nazism. Martin Gilbert, the biographer of Churchill, shows up in the film as well, and doesn't cover himself in glory: "History has an unfortunate habit of always repeating itself," he says. Always? Does this mean that the Arabs are right now constructing death camps for the Jewish citizens of Israel?"

And (surprise!) anyone who wants to respond to Islamo-fascio-rama-lama-ding-dong in with anything but overwhelming force is Neville Chamberlain. Actually, the video is even stupider than I'm making it sound. It's all pitched at the level of a 12 year old: No, get this! The Muslims were in league with Hitler! Seriously! Goldberg's scathing critique is too nice- it's impossible for any intelligent person to watch the film and not be a bit less concerned with terrorism. In such, Obsession is probably dangerously stupid.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Rodolphe Bresdin: "The Comedy of Death" (1854)

" an improbable landscape bristling with trees, brushwood and thickets assuming the forms of demons and phantoms, and covered in birds with rat-like heads and vegetable tails, on a patch of land strewn with vertibrae, ribs and skulls, gnarled and splintered willow trees rise up, on which skeletons, arms in the air, wave bouquets of flowers and chant a song of victory, while Christ flees into a dappled sky and a hermit meditates at the back of a grotto, his head in his hands, and a miserable beggar lies dying, exhausted by privation, prostrated by hunger, stretched out on his back, his feet pointing towards a stagnant pool."
-J.-K. Huysmans, describing "La comédie de la mort" in À Rebours

Rudolphe Bresdin (1822-1885) was a French engraver and lithiographer. In 1849, he left Paris to walk throughout France, staying in Toulouse and for a time, and living in a hut in the Corrèze region. Bresdin’s work was admired by such contemporaries as Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, and Charles Baudelaire, and Huysmans apparently owned a print of The Good Samaritain.

One can explore the print in depth on the Cleveland Museum of Art website.

The BNF also has a great online Bresdin exhibition.


Movie Notes: Tokoyo Gore Police (2008)

How do you describe a movie like this? The GWAR of film? The Citizen Cane of mutated body part weaponry movies? A David Cronenberg version of the Roadrunner cartoons? Honestly, I have no idea how to describe it, aside from saying it's one of the most demented and hilarious movies I've ever seen, and to argue that, if this isn't a "cult classic", I don't know what is.

Yoshihiro Nishimura is a special makeup effects wizard who has worked on a plethora of Japanese horror films, including such oddities as Strange Circus (Kimyô na sâkasu: 2005) and Suicide Club (Jisatsu saakuru: 2002). Here he directs, and you get the feeling that he is creating and cramming in every weird effect that he hasn't gotten the chance to put in a movie yet. The movie bubbles over with surrealistic rubber oddities and, after a while, started to remind me of those really weird early cartoons: I started thinking of a Betty Boop short scripted by H.P. Lovecraft.

The story, to use the term loosely, details the near future, in which the Tokoyo police force has been privatized, and criminals have made themselves mutants whose wounds become biomechanical weapons. Yes, that's right: biomechanical weapons. Cut off their hand and they'll grow a fleshy gun. Cut off their legs and they'll grow a gaping maw to chew off your arms. In the process, the camera and other characters are showered with gallons of blood. After a while, I started thinking of a theme park ride based on John Carpenter's The Thing. It is as weird and silly as it sounds, and thankfully, it's not taken all too seriously.

Model and actress Eihi Shiina plays , a member of the Police Corporation who hunts these mutants, called "engineers", and is haunted by some of the most ridiculous flashbacks I've ever seen related to her father's mysterious death (made all the more mysterious by her apparent inability to look a foot to the right when he gets his head blown off). She is eventually turned engineer herself, adding a sort of ambiguity, if we can use that word in relation to this film.

Throughout, we see a mutant fetish club, commercials for "cute" wrist-cutting knives for teenaged girls, an armless and legless woman who walks on sword stilts, the Police Corporation losing its collective mind and instilling an ultraviolent police state, and any number of things that can hardly be described. The movie doesn't just go over the top; it has gone so far that it can no longer see the top from its altitude. It has a giddy abandon in which the most outlandish events are thrown in for the hell of it. We started joking about the "deleted scenes" on the DVD: "We removed this scene because we decided it was too plausible and inoffensive." To get a feel for the finished movie, view the trailer, and now imagine every weird set piece in that thing going about ten times as far as it does there: that should give you some idea.

By now, I'm sure you know if you want to see this thing or not. I will say that the audience we saw it with at the Toronto After Dark Festival cheered, hooted, applauded and hollered throughout the whole thing. And I was right there with them.


Friday, October 24, 2008

"What we are observing is the demise and the collapse of the shadow banking system"

Are you having trouble understanding this credit meltdown? Of course, by now you know that the stuff floating around the Internet blaming it on "minority homeowners" and "politically correct lending" is a bunch of nonsense. But, what exactly is going on here? And how long should it last?

Start here: this video of Professor Nouriel Roubini on Bloomberg News explains the entire mess in a fairly straightforward way. He focuses on the "shadow banking" system and the large role it has played in all of this. Essentially, for some time now, a number of people have wanted to get around the rules for bank capital ratios and have done so by going through hedge fund managers and the like. So, for instance, if you want to make a loan, but the rule is that your bank has to have ten cents for every dollar you lend (hypothetically), another way to do it is to go through things like hedge funds, where the capital ratio rules don't apply. What this has created is another banking system.

Right now, investors are fleeing that system and pulling their capital out, so it's basically collapsing. The government is trying to shore up the economy by lowering interest rates. If we could pick two culprits for the whole fustercluck, the other one would be the government's lowering of interest rates over the past decade or so, which has fueled the now-popped bubble. And the first would be the shadow banking system (created by banking capital ratios), which in retrospect was doomed to collapse once investors realized that there was no there there.

And then, as I noted previously, there were those "credit risk transfers" that were just leveraging everything higher and higher by transferring risk around and around with no apparent end. As Rubini puts it, "the whole system of securitization has led to more systemic risk instead of less systemic risk."

Of course, the big problem here is that America has been living well beyond its means for a long time now and it's catching up. All of the creative book-keeping has just allowed people to buy junk they can't afford. Since they still can't afford the crap they want, the best answer is for everyone to grow up and tighten their belts. Expect, instead, a lot of talk about "returning to normal", even though normal was clearly dysfunctional!

So, how long should this last? Rubini estimates at least 24 months, and that might be a bit optimistic! Not only is speculative money fleeing the market- it was all borrowed anyway; but investors are looking for something safe, and only finding a few currencies to invest in. So, the only thing that's going up now is the US dollar, the Swiss frank, and the yen. Every other currency should be plummeting (and the Canadian dollar sure is!), and areas other than mortgage loans should be overtaxed and collapse- expect credit cards to be imploding, which will just mean that they won't be given out like candy anymore.

In the end, all of this will probably mean that a much more stable banking system will emerge, like it did after the Great Crash. But, for people who want to retire now, and are finding their 401Ks suddenly drained, waiting for years is not a great option.


Remembering Frankie Venom (Teenage Head) r.i.p. 1956 2008

Nice video of people at the viewing for Frankie Venom in downtown Hamilton. It also gives a good sense of what great people Hamiltonians are.


RIP: Frankie Venom

For some time now, I've been saying that Hamilton needs a sign as you drive in reading: "Welcome to Hamilton, the home of Teenage Head". So far, there have been no takers. But, for anyone who likes Canadian rock'n'roll or punk, Teenage Head are a landmark band. Often called "the Ramones of Canada", they formed in 1975, while attending Westdale High School in Hamilton, recorded a number of albums that are a bit more rock and a bit less punk than the actual Ramones, and finally recorded an album with an actual Ramone, Marky, this year.

Frankie Venom (born Frank Kerr) was the singer and, when we saw them play a year ago, he was still a great front man, funny and energetic, and singing like a somewhat gruff teenager. It's somehow especially painful to note that he suffered from, and has now died of throat cancer. It's just a total shock, honestly. I mean, who knew he was sick? Check out this City TV clip from April and see if he looks ill. It's a shock and a shame to lose a true Canadian original. Frankie Venom was one of those singers who it's impossible to watch and not want to befriend him- just too charismatic and likable. When we saw them in Hamilton, the audience contained kids just getting into them and middle aged people who went to high school with them and remained friends. And now he's dead at age 51.

Anyway, my initial response to this story was: "Oh, no! Holy fucking shit!" Honestly, I can't improve on that.


No Spitting, No Kidding

When I was a teenager, I used to see Robbie Conal's hyper-realistic, warts and all drawings of political figures posted around DC; I remember a particularly ghoulish Jesse Helms poster from the early 90s.

Conal just finished a show of the last 26 years of his work at the Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica. No Spitting, No Kidding closed on Nov. 22, but the exhibit should be released as a book before long.

I am impressed by his skills as a draftsman. But, the exhibit suggests a problem with political art- it has a short expiration date. Jim and Tammy Fae Baker caricatures date only slightly better than the "Pac Man Fever" single at this point. Even Jesse Helms seems like a figure from the distant past; actually, he seemed that way at the time! His collages are more interesting to me than the posters, although his jokes are good. Anyway, perhaps it's better to think of him as an illustrator than as an artist, and leave it at that.


Movie Notes: Faces (1968)

A landmark in American independent cinema, Faces is a home movie of domestic hell, shot in glorious black and white. The film was made by character actor John Cassavetes and friends at a time when men wore ties and jackets to bars, when executives had three secretaries waiting to bestow them with a cigarette, when fathers worried about their sons wearing tennis shoes in college: in other words, when being bourgeois meant something. Today, it is considered something of a modern masterpiece, and watching it is still a startling experience. I'm not sure that I've seen anything like it, although it strikes me as painfully authentic.

The film details a night in the lives of a suburban couple, John and Maria Forst, whose marriage seems to be falling apart before our eyes. He has met a gorgeous professional escort, played by the great Gena Rowlands, and heads to her house, where she and another escort are chatting with two clients, pickled in alcohol and misogyny, and pretending to be comfortable with each other. She, meanwhile, goes to a swinging dance club with some friends, where they pick up a young man and bring him home. Everyone spends the evening trying to escape themselves.

Independent films today differ from the major studio “tent pole films” by focusing more often on quirky and lonely middle-aged people who have trouble connecting; otherwise, they tend to share the same lightweight quality of the major studio productions. Faces is staged more like a play, with actors wearing body mics moving in single settings; but it most resembles a novel, with everyday behavior slowly revealing the inner turmoil of the characters. The film works by showing us 60s suburbanites drunken mockery and revelry and gradually giving hints of the desperation behind their “fun”, the sense that, at their core, these people have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing. As a married man in suburbia, I could relate only in the most peripheral way- the pressure to conform can be binding, but I am usually too socially inept to notice it.

However, I know these people, or at least, people just like them, and the portrait painted in the film is just devastating. They’re miserable and they have no idea how to get out of that misery, so they lash out at each other with ridicule, contempt and cruelty. The misogyny in some scenes is thick enough to shovel. The film is painful to watch, at first because of the cinema verité style that it is shot in (the camera operators were put through their paces chasing these people around), and then finally because of the acute suffering on display. The movie is so realistic that it is a shock to hear it was entirely scripted: certainly, every line rings true. We’re watching characters who have no idea how to escape their unhappiness, but even being aware of that unhappiness is a revelation for them.

There have been many damning portrayals of suburbia in the last century- perhaps too many. Faces is among the most damning, as well as the most humane.


Stephan Martiniere

If, when you think of sci-fi art, the first thing that comes to mind is astronaut babes in spandex and fishbowl headgear fighting giant gourds, you really need to update your expertise. Some of the sci-fi art from the 70s to today is among the most visionary and mindblowing surrealism yet created. Actually, for me, the stuff reached a sort of high point in the 70s.

But there are still some modern masters working today. Stephan Martiniere has worked on a number of big projects, from great books to the recent Star Wars films. His work is technically proficient, aesthetically fascinating, and imaginative beyond belief. His works can be viewed here.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Lovely, yes; but see how you feel after raking them every week for two months!


Fleecing the low-hanging fruit

Among students who finished in the bottom 40% of their High School classes, two-thirds hadn't gotten a college degree after eight and a half years of higher ed. Should colleges be admitting these kids, if they're not likely to graduate? Marty Nemko says that many parents should reconsider college for their kids. Read here.


Hear hear!

Here's a heartening video of McCain supporters harassing a Muslim-basher who showed up at a McCain rally until the guy gives up and goes home. Good for them! No matter who wins this election, it's nice to see partisans of decency speaking up.


Michael Kenna: Silent World

It's a little overwhelming, but if you like a good long-exposed, intense, well composed, silver gelatin print photograph of landscapes, architecture and mist, Michael Kenna is your man.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tokyo Gore Police (promo)

Of all the kajillion movies playing at the Toronto Film Festival, this was the one we really had to see! It's playing Thursday and I'll let you know what I thought, or even if I could make sense of it!

Note: You probably don't want to click play if you're easily offended.


Quit your job, slack off and get stoned.

With all of the things being written about the financial meltdown, I can't imagine that any of them will be more entertaining than this letter from a hedge-funder, Andrew Lahade, who made enough money and is now quitting to live his life. He sent the letter to his clients. Cruel or not, it made me laugh out loud in the grad student lounge. Read the whole thing via the link, but here are some highlights...

For instance:

"I was in this game for the money. The low hanging fruit, i.e. idiots whose parents paid for prep school, Yale, and then the Harvard MBA, was there for the taking. These people who were (often) truly not worthy of the education they received (or supposedly received) rose to the top of companies such as AIG, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers and all levels of our government. All of this behavior supporting the Aristocracy, only ended up making it easier for me to find people stupid enough to take the other side of my trades. God bless America."

"First, I point out the obvious flaws, whereby legislation was repeatedly brought forth to Congress over the past eight years, which would have reigned in the predatory lending practices of now mostly defunct institutions.

"These institutions regularly filled the coffers of both parties in return for voting down all of this legislation designed to protect the common citizen. This is an outrage, yet no one seems to know or care about it. Since Thomas Jefferson
and Adam Smith passed, I would argue that there has been a dearth of worthy philosophers in this country, at least ones focused on improving government. Capitalism worked for two hundred years, but times change, and systems become
corrupt. George Soros, a man of staggering wealth, has stated that he would like to be remembered as a philosopher. My suggestion is that this great man start and sponsor a forum for great minds to come together to create a new system of government that truly represents the common man’s interest, while at the same time creating rewards great enough to attract the best and brightest minds to serve in government roles without having to rely on corruption to further their interests or lifestyles. This forum could be similar to the one used to create the operating system, Linux, which competes with Microsoft’s near monopoly.
And finally:

"The evil female plant – marijuana. It gets you high, it makes you laugh, it does not produce a hangover. Unlike alcohol, it does not result in bar fights or wife beating. So, why is this innocuous plant illegal? Is it a gateway drug? No, that would be alcohol, which is so heavily advertised in this country. My only conclusion as to why it is illegal, is that Corporate America, which owns Congress, would rather sell you Paxil, Zoloft, Xanax and other additive drugs, than allow you to grow a plant in your home without some of the profits going into their coffers. This policy is ludicrous."


Monday, October 20, 2008

Sometimes it's a big deal to state the obvious

I'm generally pretty skeptical that the presidential endorsements that people make around this time of the year are terribly important to most people. Does anyone really care if the Bloom Picayune endorses Obama, or if Charo is a die hard McCain supporter? By this point, I would imagine that most people's minds are made up as to who they're going to vote for and the "endorsements" are just an occasion to agree or disagree with others.

That said, it was nice to see Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama the other day, if just to hear articulated the reasons that a conservative might vote for Obama in this election. I think that many people have the idea that Obama voters are starry-eyed hippies who are dreaming of their idol carrying them to the worker's paradise on the back of a flying unicorn. But, indeed, there are conservatives who see legitimate reasons to vote for the man; hopefully, those reasons will be taken seriously by Republicans, as opposed to the handful of party apparatchiks who can be expected to respond, "Well, the one guy's black, and the other guy's black; so, there you go."

To be honest, I wasn't as interested in why Powell is voting for Obama; however I was very impressed by something that he said during the course of that endorsement:

Some have said, “‘Well you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.’”
“He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian,” Powell said.
“But the really right answer is ‘what if he is?’ Is there something
wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no.”

No freakin' kidding! It's amazing to me that we've gotten to this point in which almost nobody else is saying this in the public sphere. The same thing happens over and over again: someone "smears" Obama by calling him a covert Muslim, and the press, the Obama campaign, and "fair" editorialists feel compelled to "clear his name", as if we all understand that belonging to the second-largest religion on earth is a terrible blight that automatically disqualifies the man for the highest office in the land. A Muslim?! Perish the thought!

And here I am just as irritated with the people spreading the rumors about Obama as a "Manchurian candidate" as I am with the Obama campaign for listing, "Barack Obama is a Muslim" on their page of "smears". Since when is belonging to any religious group, or no religious group, a "smear" in American life? Since when are Americans the sort of people who care less about the issues than about who is the "most American", or the "real American", or the most religiously correct? Please! The Americans I know aren't like that.

So good for Powell for saying what every other public figure should have been saying all along.


No News Days

Apparently, the week and a half in which I paid almost no attention to the news acted as a sort of detox: I now haven't got the patience to pay attention to the news. Generally, the most I can do is read a few headlines and, more regularly, get an idea of other people's take on the news. But, as for keeping up with the daily events and trivia- it's just beyond me right now.

I think part of what happened was that I almost totally avoided the news for ten days and, after I came back to it, found that nothing had happened. The world financial system was still "troubled" or even "in crisis"; the Presidential candidates were still "unleashing attacks" (most of which are still false and unfair) and "responding to attacks"; there are still "attacks by insurgents" in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. But, the general state of things seemed completely unaffected.

In fact, it might be possible to make a list of the day's events: celebrity arrested, politicians attacking each other instead of addressing real problems, economy sinking due to stupid greed, people blowing each other up elsewhere in the world, and hints of some vague threats to our lives in the near future: and check them off once a week. It's curious to imagine that these things might not ever change. Certainly, in my life, I can only remember hearing about a handful of news items and, otherwise, they've all been interchangeable and meaningless.


Movie Notes: Burn After Reading (2008)

I'm not sure what superior life form the Coen brothers belong to, but they sure do have a dim opinion of us humans. The characters in their films are generally deluded, confused, hopeless and much smaller in the scheme of things than they realize. Of course, this is the common state of things in comedy, and probably in life.

Don't get me wrong- their newest film Burn After Reading is funny, but it's funny in a somewhat dour way. Everyone in the film is cheating on their spouse, pursuing ridiculous schemes that can't possibly go right; hell, it's not even clear that anything going on is particularly important. Appropriately enough, the film ends with a CIA head trying to make heads or tails of what's gone before and finding it all totally baffling.

A parody of spy thrillers, Burn After Reading is entertaining because, in all of the heated cloak and dagger, the stakes are so low. George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Francis McDormand, and Brad Pitt all play exaggerated versions of their usual characters in a fairly convoluted story of crosses, double-crosses, and infidelity. Like The Big Lebowski, the characters keep making their situations more convoluted and troublesome through their personal problems and the story gets progressively funnier as things go on. Brad Pitt, in particular, is extremely amusing in this.

Some people don't care for the Coens' comedies, or consider them to be lesser than the dramas, but I consider them to be of a sort with the dramas. John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski is, in many ways, one of their darkest characters. And Marge Gunderson in Fargo is one of the sweetest and funniest. They know how to shift tones within the stories as well- here there is a murder that pulls the rug out from under you; I have a friend who found The Big Lebowski to be an edge-of-the-seat thriller.

In general, I'd say this is one of their better films- certainly better than Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers- but not one of the best. It's a trifle; not that there's anything wrong with that.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Who are the Berbers?

For a long time, the Berber people were the inhabitants of North Africa from the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean- there are records of them dating back to 3000 BCE from multiple sources. In other words, they were there for as long as anyone can remember.

The Berber language is an Afro-Asiatic language believed to have developed from the proto-East African language that dates back at least 12,000 years. In general, genetic evidence shows that most North Africans are of Berber origin.

Often stereotyped as nomads, most Berbers were actually farmers on the Mediterranean. However, the Tuareg of the Sahara were both Berbers and nomads.

In the seventh century CE, the Arabs conquered much of North Africa and pushed many of the Berbers out to the Sahara. The Berbers subsequently became Muslims, mostly Sunni but some Ibadites in the Sahara, but there was frequent warfare between Arabs and Berbers, against European colonists, and among Berber tribes for power in North Africa.

The Berber Revolt of 740-743 was the first successful revolt from the Arab caliphate (ruled from Damascus). The Berber rebels slaughtered much of the Arab aristocracy at the Battle of the Nobles in 741.

Before the Muslims came, many Berbers were Christians, and in fact, Saint Augustine of Hippo was a Berber. Berber Jews still occupy parts of the Maghreb and Israel. They were recorded from the time of the Arab conquests by Arab historian Ibn Khaldoun.

Several renowned Muslims were Berbers, including the great scholar and traveler Ibn Battuta, the poet Mohammad Awzal, and Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Tumart the religious teacher who was the spiritual founder of the Almohad Dynasty.

Berber cuisine is based on corn, bread, goat cheese, barley, ewe's milk, meat, honey, and game.

The Kabylia region of Algeria today has a large Berber population, and Kabylian Berber music is famous in France. Berbers are also 42% of the population in Morocco, while still being politically marginalized in the country. Libya and Tunisia also have large Berber populations.

Many Berbers call themselves some variant of the word Imazighen (singular Amazigh), meaning "free men".


Know Your Saints: Symphorian

One of the earliest saints to be widely recognized, Symphorian was martyred in 178 and already venerated in the early years of the empire of the Franks. His cult was especially popular in Tours and he is today the patron saint of Autin.

Symphorian was the son of a Roman senator named Faustus under the reign of Marcus Aurelius, during the time in which Christianity was still illegal in the Roman Empire. As a young man studying in Autun, Symphorian was brought before the governor Heraclitus for refusing to worship the goddess Cybele. He supposedly responded by asking for tools to destroy the statue of Cybele and was arrested, but as he was the son of a senator, Symphorian was given the chance to recant.

Symphorian refused to recant, even after being offered bribes to do so. On 22 August, 178, he was executed by beheading. His feast day is celebrated on 22 August, along with the feast of Saint Timothy.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Okay, it is getting cold here; but it's also a great time for the colors.


Canada Votes! And the world shrugs its shoulders...

Americans might well be envious of how quickly and painlessly Canada got through this general election: it was announced a few weeks back, people voted last night, and Canadians can now get on to more important things, like the debate over the new theme song to Hockey Night in Canada. In contrast, the electoral hostage crisis in the United States has become a grueling affair akin to the Bataan Death March.

The Conservatives called for the election, in spite of being opposed to calling for these sorts of general elections, because they couldn't get a majority in Parliament, and hence couldn't get anything done. For me, a government that can't get anything done is not such a bad thing; but as the Liberals are becoming the standard bearer for incompetence in Canadian government, there was some general hope that the Conservatives could break through the deadlocks and recrimination by gaining a majority of seats. I didn't think they could pull it off.

Long shory tort: they didn't pull it off. The Conservatives gained some seats, the Liberals lost some seats, the Greens proved that they're still around, and nothing much has changed. Canadians are not big on changing things anyway; remember that this was a nation defined by their rejection of revolution. And Stephen Harper's claim that Canadians are becoming more conservative seems a bit overblown. They are, probably, becoming more economically conservative; but aren't we all?

The most noticeable thing about elections here is that most people vote, but few seem upset if their candidate loses. Hamilton is a blue collar town, which means (at least in Canada) that people here vote for the NDP (basically, the socialists) who allocate more benefits to working people. Wealthier areas tend to vote Conservative, unless they're like Claire's mother and vote Green to show that they care about the environment. There is a Marijuana Party, whose voters are today saying, "There was an election yesterday? Aw shit!"

But I have yet to meet a Canadian who votes for "ideological" reasons. Politicians here don't really debate about abortion, or gay marriage, or who loves the country the mostest. And Canadians just don't get worked up about elections; it's not the be-all end-all. I've heard more than a few Americans say that the survival of the country is at stake if their candidate loses this election; I can't imagine hearing a Canadian say anything like that.

In other words, politics really is like the weather here: sometimes it doesn't go the way you want it to, but that doesn't affect the rest of your life negatively. But changing the Hockey Night in Canada theme song? That's a crisis.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

From the Motor Hotel Coloring Book

Another picture from my forthcoming "Cheap Motel Coloring Book".


JOIN US - Psychoscopic Recruitment Film in 33D

"There must be a happycalypse!"

Makes sense to me.


Monday, October 13, 2008

he's not making a big deal of it but...

rufus is turning 34 today!!




Light and Leaves


Ingres: Queen Caroline Murat

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres was one of the leading French neoclassical painters of the 1800s, although he is remembered for his portraits of contemporaries more than for his classical and historical paintings. There is a warmth and humanity to the portraits, particularly in the eyes, that makes them seem more real than a photograph.

In 1814, Ingres traveled to Naples where he did a number of paintings, including this one of the Queen Caroline Murat, the younger sister of Napoleon I. The Murat's ordered three other paintings, but would be deposed in 1815, and Ingres was stranded in Rome without pay.

I like the brooding Romantic quality to this painting that I detect in spite of her placid expression. The dramatic black dress seems to grow from the floor and her shape, with the elaborate head wear, repeats the shape of the volcano in the background. The effect is of a photo negative of the volcano.



Psyche By: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The butterfly the ancient Grecians made
The soul's fair emblem, and its only name--
But of the soul, escaped the slavish trade
Of mortal life !-- For in this earthly frame
Ours is the reptile's lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed,
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed.

(Written: 1808, Published: 1817)

This is one of Coleridge's "visionary" poems, written during one of his more active periods. The standard take is that he had one main blast of creativity, but I don't really buy that- there are great poems written throughout his life.

I like the contrast Coleridge draws between the Greek belief that the butterfly is the soul escaped from the body and the image of the body as a frantic reptile. It's got a great weird image at the center of it; maybe I'm the only one who sees a carnivorous butterfly here. Or, at least, a butterfly emerging from a carnivorous reptile. For me, it hints at the essential strangeness of archaic beliefs, as well as the essential strangeness of human life on earth.


The Stages of Exam Grading Grief

I'm just about done grading the first batch of sixty-five or so exams for World Civ. In spite of the fact that the students did better than I had expected- and probably better than they expected- I'm still reaching the point I usually do in grading in which exhaustion, and even nausea, sets in.

Grading is long and painful, and in no way as subjective as people like to think it is. After you've graded a few hundred essays, you have a fairly good grasp on what an A, B, C, D, and F essay looks like. So, I know at first read what the grade should be. And then, it usually goes up a bit because I remember that these are freshmen, and it's the general education course, and I'm not as tough as I like to pretend to be.

For me, grading exams is a process that follows the basic stages of grief, and is often a very similar experience.

Denial: I often expect the worst and am blown away at first read. "Wow! These exams aren't half-bad! Why I'd say they're even really good!"

Anger: "But, you know, looking at them again, I don't understand why they can't say anything that wasn't in the lecture. Jesus, did they even read the books at all? This is all stuff I said in recitation, and, on second glance, they got a lot more things wrong than I first noticed! Damn!"

Bargaining: "Okay, so they're really not that great as far as exams go. But, again these are kids who just got out of the public high school system. So they really aren't prepared for this level of work. Maybe if I give them grades that aren't great, but still a lot better than they deserve, it will scare them and they'll work harder on the next exam..."

Depression: "They didn't even care enough to fulfill the most basic requirement: reading the books. They just repeat what they heard in class, incorrectly, and only write what they think is the bare minimum. And then they expect an A+. Does anyone else care about this subject? Is western civilization really dead? Who am I doing this for? Why don't I just quit and travel through India, like I've always wanted to do?"

Acceptance: "Okay, so they're not the great batch of exams I had hoped for... But, they're also not the train wreck I thought they were turning out to be. Actually, this is pretty standard for a group of World Civ students. The average is about a B-. That's not terrible. I can live with it. Okay, now let's give the exams back and see if they can live with it."


Sunday, October 12, 2008

We're back from the cottage...

Well-rested and well-fed.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

"Hey, it's not time for Thanksgiving yet!" you protest.

Well, it is in Canada. We're off to the cottage for the weekend to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving with the family.


Hiromi Bait

I don't know if Hiromi actually reads this anymore, but if so, here's a site she would enjoy: KTUH Hawaii radio from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The music's decent and it's fun to listen to the silly, rambling conversations of Hawaiian university kids. As you can tell, I'm making good use of these college radio stations that broadcast online.


Hakan Photography

Akif Hakan Celebi takes skilled and aesthetically-pleasing pictures of attractive Asian women out in the streets in full sartorial splendor- like stills from an exploitation film about fashionista girl gangs- and indoors au naturelle- like any number of sites on the Internet. To be honest though, there are really only so many pictures you can look at of fashion models standing around on sidewalks without getting a little bored.

However, I do like the code on his website! You can scroll through the galleries from left to right while a music file plays. It seems to me that this replicates the experience of reading a fashion magazine, while improving upon it. I've seen a number of other photogs use the same basic format, and I'm wondering why more of the fashion mags don't design their websites this way.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Send in the generalissimo

How do you describe a country shaking down its working population to fund its wealthiest bankers' and investors' fuck ups? "Socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the rest" is one old joke. Kleptocracy is another term.

Here's another way to put it: from the Wikipedia entry on the "banana republic": "a banana republic also typically has large wealth inequities, poor infrastructure, poor schools, a "backward" economy, low capital spending, a reliance on foreign capital and money printing, budget deficits, and a weakening currency."


We are, however, still missing the junta and the generalissimo with exaggerated epaulets.

Not just me: Christopher Hitchens also goes there.


Also from Milwaukee...

Comes the band John the Savage, for people who like "psychedelic, crunk, lounge" bands, or characters from Brave New World, for that matter. I was just thinking yesterday that most rock bands are pretty generic these days, so I enjoyed what I've heard of this one.


I'm Currently Listening

to WMSE 91.7 FM in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They broadcast out of the Milwaukee School of Engineering and are currently raising money for a new broadcast tower. Listen online here.


The Muppets -- Huga Wuga

Well, forget about the economy- this should cheer you up a bit.


Marc Quinn

Britain's National Portrait Gallery is hoping to buy Marc Quinn's 2006 sculpture entitled "Self". Every five years, Quinn makes a new self-portrait by casting his head and filling the mold with his own blood, collected over several months, which is then frozen. I believe this picture is Self 2001. You can buy posters from Quinn's website, if like me, you want to put the poster in the back of your refrigerator and terrify house guests.

Most of Quinn's work is interesting to me. I especially like his "frozen garden" made of cyrogenically frozen plants that could never actually grow together; when I have money, I'd like to get a poster of that for my study. His sculptures of people with differently-shaped bodies, culminating in a huge statue of disabled model Alison Lapper while pregnant, displayed in Trafalgar Square, are beautiful and challenging.

I will say that Quinn's recent sculptures of Kate Moss in exaggerated yoga poses don't really do anything for me. And much of his work is too garish for my tastes. But I find the blood sculptures to be moving; there's a strange sort of immanence to them. And, again, the frozen garden (which reminds me a lot of a J.G. Ballard short story called "The Garden of Time") is sublime.


Wednesday, October 08, 2008

No News Day: 5

It went better today. I read some of Meister Eckhardt's sermons and a book about the Eleusian mysteries (you might notice that none of this pertains to my dissertation, sadly) and stayed tired all day. It was rainy and cold. If I had paid much attention to the news, I would have gone into hibernation.


No News Day: 4

Well, I folded under pressure. Or, at least, I read a few headlines yesterday. I did not watch the debate, which I only found out about after reading those headlines. But I did check in to make sure that the world had not ended.

It's funny- if you only go by overheard bits of conversation and half-glimpsed newspapers on the racks, you get a very bizarre picture of the news. As far as I could tell, Barack Obama had joined a terrorist organization, Sarah Palin was speaking at White Power events, and the entire western economy has now collapsed. We could expect the roaming packs of wild dogs and highwaymen in the streets before the week ended.

That and Claire's concern about the economic problems led me to check in with the headlines and a few paragraphs on one of the newspaper websites. I know. Teddible, teddible, old bean! But, alas, nothing as exciting as all of that is going on in the world right now. As Krishna once said, creation and destruction are our lot in the material world. That pretty much sums up the news.


Monday, October 06, 2008

No News Day: 3

It's funny- I'm still not watching the news or reading the papers, but I can't totally avoid hearing about these things. The alarm clock radio went off this morning with a snippet about the "financial crisis going global" before we could turn it off. I know from Yahoo! that "political experts think that Sarah Palin's comments (whatever they were) could backfire on the campaign." I wonder if it's possible to be just as "informed" as I was before simply by picking up snippets of conversations or glancing at newspaper headlines...

Otherwise, I'm doing fine. There is a bit of sheepish embarrassment about having cared more than was necessary about things that now seem trite and distant. It's a bit like the day after a party in which too much alcohol was consumed and too many feelings were shared.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

No News Day: 2

As I suspected, it was impossible to completely avoid hearing the news. When I checked into my yahoo mail account, there were headlines in the welcome page. So, now I know that O.J. Simpson was found guilty- guess I'm not missing much there. Also, when we visited family, I heard about a train wreck. Otherwise, I assume that banks are still getting bailed out, things are still being blown up in the middle east, and politicians are still saying nasty things about each other. Right?

All of this will go on without me. In fact, just in concrete terms, the amount that we get to participate in democratic society hasn't really increased at all in recent decades; it's just that the amount of information that we receive about the few chances that we have to participate has increased greatly. We only get the one chance to vote in "this historic election"; but we get daily updates about it, as if we were diplomats being constantly briefed. Your patriotic duty is to "inform yourself", but that gets to be a full time job. And the massive economic and political forces that work in the world seem like weather patterns, "turning and turning in the widening gyre”. Our "participation" in them is largely emotional. We rage against forces beyond our control. Or we convince ourselves that the things we do can cause some sort of sympathetic magic- like scrawling a buffalo on a cave wall in order to bring one down in the wild.

So, losing touch with the business of the world is strangely orienting. I don't really feel like I've lost touch with anything. I'm wondering how long it would be possible to do this.


Recipe: Maple Salmon

At first, the idea of combining the great tastes of fish and pancakes might not sound like such a good idea, but we tried this recipe a few nights ago and it was delicious. The soy sauce and the maple syrup sort of balance each other out.


  • 1/4 cup Maple Syrup
  • 2 tablespoons Soy Sauce
  • 1 clove Garlic, minced
  • 1/4 teaspoon Garlic Salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
  • 1 lb. Salmon


  1. In a small bowl, mix the maple syrup, soy sauce, garlic, garlic salt, and pepper.
  2. Place salmon in a shallow baking dish, and coat with the maple sauce mixture. Cover the dish and marinate the salmon in the refrigerator for 30 minutes, turning once.
  3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. (200 degrees C.)
  4. Place the baking dish in the preheated oven, and bake salmon 20 minutes, or until easily flaked with fork.
  5. Enjoy!

(Note: recipe discovered by Claire on the net)


Diningware for your next orgy


Okay, you've no doubt seen this sort of vintage French erotica before; the K-Lou Design house had the cheeky idea to offer this print in wallpaper, sheets, throw pillows, plates and bags. A little inevitable perhaps, but cute.

As much as I like wallpaper, I think I'd avoid putting this on our walls. I do like the plates though, and the bags are amusing as well.

Toile de jouï line from K-Lou Design


Today's English

Noetic: Of, relating to, originating in, or apprehended by the intellect.

"The divine spiritual forms, which are present with the visible bodies of the gods, exist separately before them, but their noetic models unmingled and super-celestial remain permanently by themselves, all as one in their everlasting exaltation."
-Iamblichus, The Egyptian Mysteries.


Saturday, October 04, 2008

No News Day: 1

Today, when I logged onto the Internet, my first impulse was to check the New York Times. I had to stop myself, after clicking the link, because I remembered that I am avoiding the news for the next ten days. However, I find that checking the Times or Andrew Sullivan is almost instinctual at this point. It's sort of strange because, honestly, nothing on those sites ever really applies to me. I don't care what mud Obama and McCain are currently throwing at each other, and the credit crunch doesn't really matter when your mortgage is safe and you never put anything on credit. So, then, why do I feel more "connected" when I know about the day's trivia?

Before too long though, I start feeling freer not knowing about it. I don't have to tirelessly search out the facts on the news of the day. I don't have to be concerned with the eternal enmity between various political factions in the culture. In fact, I don't have to get worked up over these "debates"- an audience participation trick that the news networks use to keep us watching-, which even though we're told they are "the most important issues of our entire lives", are probably as critical as debates among Star Trek geeks over how Captain Piccard treated his hemorrhoids. My life isn't really as narrow as all of this. The most important issues in my life are: my wife, my cat, tending to my garden, learning everything I can, eating well, spending time with the people I love, and developing a soul. If I have to choose between that, or spending my time reading about attack ads, mortgage crises, and Capt. Piccard's hemorrhoids... well, the choice is simple.

And, with a certain amount of time now freed, my mind wanders to things that widen, instead of narrowing, it. Of course, I'm busy translating Chateaubriand for my dissertation; but I'm also getting to read Tasso and Iamblichus. Neural connections are lighting up that otherwise might not have. I'm getting to revisit Vico and spend time cooking new dishes with Claire. We just bought a huge bag of basmati rice from the local Halal grocery store and I'm excited about that.

In general, I find that these interests lead me back to joy at a time in which my mood is still pretty woebegone. I'm not turning cartwheels just yet, but every little bit helps. Maybe it's just me, but I feel like too many things are claiming my attention these days, from ads to job duties, family to news items, trivia to wisdom. And everything in this flood of sensory input is "of the utmost importance". I would be somehow irresponsible in neglecting it. But, I feel crapulous after gorging at the trough. I think maybe my server is overloaded. I need to step out and be in the world again. It's amazing how much there still is to reality. It's amazing how the smell of cooking onions, which I can't even describe, acts as an antidote to the flood of constant, alienating information.

I'll take the onions, thanks.


Movie Notes: Michael Clayton (2007)

Ah, for the days when characters in thrillers had nothing to worry about but Soviet spies! Now, it seems that every other thriller has to do with some nefarious multinational corporation that can hardly be opposed without the main character having to question everything he thought he knew about his society. At least with the Ruskies, we knew that they were the Other. But, if you can't trust corporate America, who can you trust? And, if you the audience want to rage against the machine, remember that these films about the evils of corporate America are made, distributed, and profit giant, multinational corporations. Eeeek!!

I kid, but it's also understandable why corporations are becoming the stock villain in thrillers. Nobody worries much about red spies these days, and even if religious terrorists are terrible, they're not exactly criminal masterminds, are they? The mafia is played out at this point. But the massive corporate Borg seems relatively uncontrollable and involved in all aspects of our lives. Most corporations aren't really that nefarious, of course. But the ones that seem to be lacking any sort of moral compass can still accomplish great evil. The chemical company at the heart of Michael Clayton has certainly wandered far from the path of righteousness. But compare this film to the documentary The World According to Monsanto and see which company, the real or the fictional, seems worse. (Or read this Vanity Fair article)

Anyway, Michael Clayton follows a legal "clean-up" man whose job involves getting the wealthy and well-connected out of any deserved legal trouble. He is the best in this bad business, until a beloved colleague goes into a bipolar spiral and starts attacking his client, a giant chemical company whose agricultural product may cause cancer. Our hero finds himself troubled by a nascent conscience as the company resorts to increasingly vile measures, including murder, to protect its "brand". The usual thriller beats are all here: the hero slowly uncovers the shocking truth about a huge organization, but nobody believes him, he barely trusts himself, and shadowy figures want him eliminated. We've seen this all before.

What puts Michael Clayton a cut above the usual thriller is the stellar writing and performances. Tom Wilkenson, who was also good in Shakespeare in Love, is just superb here as the manic depressive Greek chorus of the film. I was a bit bugged that they relied on the old trope of mental illness as a path to enlightenment, but Wilkenson's performance was believable and sensitive. Claire pointed out that the film was also unique in showing a mentally ill character who is supported and cherished by his colleagues.

Tilda Swinton is also good in everything she does. She hasn't exactly become a household name, in spite of appearing in those Narnia movies; and perhaps she would make a strange cover girl for People Magazine, with her somewhat open marriage and membership in the Communist Party. But she deserves praise for her acting chops, as well as the fact that the vast majority of films she appears in are just good movies. She won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for this film, and I would say that she definitely deserved it. Her portrayal of a business woman slowly becoming undone by fear and her own ethical flaws is itself flawless.

And George Clooney has gone from starring in schlock like Return of the Killer Tomatoes to being one of my favorite actors. It's not just that his performances exhibit the easy workmanship of classic Hollywood; it's that he makes movies for adults in an era in which all of the "tent pole" blockbusters are based on video games and comic books and aimed at 14 year olds. Here he portrays a man coming slowly to the recognition of his own moral decency, and to how he has failed in living an upright life; but finally coming to a sort of redemption. Michael Clayton loses the world and gains his own soul.


Was the Iliad a true story?

Homer's poems hearken back to the age of heroes; for us, there's something strange about the Iliad, with its ever-present violence and death that offers nothing more than a chance at glory. While we can understand that these men are valorous, it's strange, at least to me, to understand how Achilles, who basically sits out half the book in anger, was considered the greatest hero of Greek antiquity. He's certainly much more flawed, and passionate, than our heroes. Can anyone imagine Superman, or Rambo for that matter, rolling in the dirt, crying and beating his chest in sorrow after a beloved warrior is killed by the enemy?

When we say "Achilles", maybe we should say it in the plural; Achilles was an archetypal hero and there were probably several Achilleses scattered throughout the Aegean. The same goes for "Homer", who was probably an archetype used to generalize the dozens of wandering singers who performed the Iliad and the Odyssey for decades before they were finally written down. And the "Trojan War" probably happened, but obviously Zeus didn't play such a large role, and it's hard to tell if the archetypal Achilles and Agamemnon were based on real people or not.

In fact, it wasn't so long ago that most scholars assumed the Trojan War was nothing but a myth. Actually, I think that was how I was taught the books. Alas, things are changing though. According to an article in the Boston Globe:

"(T)hanks to evidence from a range of disciplines, we are in the middle of a massive reappraisal of these foundational works of Western literature. Recent advances in archeology and linguistics offer the strongest support yet that the Trojan War did take place, with evidence coming from the large excavation at the likely site of Troy, as well as new analysis of cuneiform tablets from the dominant empire of the region. Insights from comparative anthropology have transformed studies of the society that created the poems and allowed us to analyze the epics in a new way, suggesting that their particular patterns of violence contain a hidden key to ancient Greek history..."

The archaeological site of Troy was found in 1870, but was long considered to be a bust. That's changing...

"In a project that has now been underway for 20 years, the German archaeologist Manfred Korfmann and hundreds of collaborators have discovered a large lower city that surrounded the citadel. Using new tools, such as computer modeling and imaging technology that allows them to "see" into the earth before digging, Korfmann and his colleagues determined that this city's borders were 10 to 15 times larger than previously thought, and that it supported a population of 5,000 to 10,000 - a big city for its time and place, with impressive defenses and an underground water system for surviving sieges. And, critically, the city bore signs of being pillaged and burned around 1200 BC, precisely the time when the Trojan War would have been fought."

Most interestingly, the local name for the invaders is fairly close to "Achaean" and their names for the city are very close to "Ilios" and "Troy". In case you were wondering, Ilios is where we get the term "Iliad"- it's a story about the fall of Ilios. And, like they said, 10,000 is about as big as the biggest cities got at this time.

And, even though the Iliad is largely mythical, it still tells us much about the time:

"For instance, we can trust that the Greeks' political organization was loose but not chaotic - probably organized at the level of chiefdoms, not kingdoms or city-states. In the epics we can see the workings of an agrarian economy; we can see what animals they raised and what crops, how they mixed their wine, worshipped their gods, and treated their slaves and women. We can tell that theirs was a warlike world, with high rates of conflict within and between communities."

Not only was it violent, but the article suggests that the large number of slave girls in the story corresponds to actual shortages of women in ancient Greece. This was a rough, short, and brutish life.

And it is still at the root of how we view the world. Achilles is the first celebrity of western literature- the first dynamic persona who struggles to transcend the failings of humanity and become godlike. The passion of the story- from sexual obsession to the quest for glory- still resounds in our world. Achilles is still the very model of valor, as he overcomes his pride to sacrifice himself for the Achaeans. But he's also a thorny, difficult man, made of the "crooked timber" that Kant talked about.

Yet he's still partially us- the pagan half of Western Culture that Judeo-Christianity has never erased, but has had to live with in a sort of angry detente. We are made of the rage and sensual curiosity of the Greeks and the patience and introspective piety of the Jews. We all have an Achilles heel.


Friday, October 03, 2008

No News Day

I think I'm going to make an effort not to follow the news for a while, for the world's more full of weeping than I can understand. Also, I can't imagine that anything meaningful will happen in the next week or so. Seriously. Most of what's been happening lately in the news is basically the same old shit, but at varying magnitudes. Every time I read a newspaper or current events blog, a little part of me dies.

So I'm going to see if I can go the next ten days without hearing anything about the economy, or the presidential race, or the wars, or any of that sort of thing. Nothing. Lately, I've been wondering if this is even possible anymore.

Well, we'll see what happens.


Ghost Town

Here's an interesting look at all of the housing foreclosures in Southern California. My sense of this problem is that it's impacting very average Americans who were incredibly reckless with their money. It's strange for me, having been raised by parents and grandparents who wouldn't even take out credit cards for fear of debt, to fully understand gambling on the future like these people did. It's funny: we live in a blue collar Canadian town where everyone drives cheap cars or takes the bus. Every week I drive into an economically-depressed blue collar American town where everyone drives Hummers, SUVs, or luxury cars, and nobody takes the bus. I have to wonder what's going on here?

Whatever happened to the days when there was no shame in being working class?


The VP Debate

The punchline here is that we didn't really watch the debate last night; we watched the John Waters movie Hairspray instead. This would be the original Hairspray, which oddly enough has much better music than the musical, and in which the acting is intentionally campy, unlike the debates, in which the acting is more "kitsch". Overall, it was probably a better choice.

We did watch the last ten minutes of the Palin/Biden debate. In general, it seemed that both candidates "did well". The problem here is in how we look at these debates now: by "did well" what we mean is "they delivered their canned, bullshit talking points in a gentle and believable way". We're grading them on their acting. It's like American Idol.

So, they both passed to the final round. Biden was a bit rambling and halting, but in general came off as likable and knowledgeable and didn't make any big mistakes. Palin seemed a bit coked up and tended not to answer the questions she was asked; but in general she seemed intelligent and likable. Both of them would probably make good managers of a general store in the Midwest, or perhaps employees at the DMV.

They both stuck to the same talking points: Biden- George W. Bush is the worst president in American history and John McCain is his liege; Palin- Barack Obama is dangerously naive, but John McCain is a maverick. Neither of them seems to have any specific ideas to improve the country. The argument seems to be that Obama/Biden don't need real plans to fix things because it's enough that they're not Republicans, while McCain/Palin don't need to give specific plans to the treacherous media and voters because they keep calling themselves mavericks, so you never know what they'll do next. I keep thinking of those Crazy Eddie commercials- "Vote for me for President! My policies are INSANE!!!"

I think most people already know who they're voting for, and as we approach November I find myself strangely respectful of all of the voters. They're doing the best they can with what they're given. Hope springs eternal. Allow me to be a downer though. All I've been hearing from friends, relatives, editorial writers, and CNN talking heads is something like this: Palin did badly in her interviews but did really well here; Biden doesn't always do well but he did well tonight; we don't know if things will change due to their strong performances, etc. etc.

But, if we're at the point in which we grade our politicians based on how convincingly they deliver the same empty, meaningless, outdated nonsense, then let me suggest that we're already totally fucked.


Thursday, October 02, 2008

Saving the Jerks

Nicholas Kristof says "Save the fat cats"- we need to save the US economy, even if it's unpopular on "Main street", or "Sesame Street" or "Elm Street", or whatever the new cliche is. (Actually, how will the bailout impact Elm Street? Will Freddy Kreuger be able to make ends meet?) Anyway, Kristof basically says what my father-in-law said to me: "It's not pretty, but we need to stop the bleeding as soon as possible." Besides, it's all for the common good- a concept that hasn't received nearly enough good press in the last few decades.

Kristof uses the very appropriate example of Japan, whose "lost decade" was caused by a housing bubble.

"Japan’s failure to respond urgently and decisively to its banking mess caused the country to endure a “lost decade” of economic stagnation. If America wants to avoid Japan’s decline, the House should follow the Senate’s lead and approve the bailout — immediately.

Just as in the U.S. today, most Japanese did not initially appreciate how devastating a banking crisis could be to the real economy. Banks and real estate tycoons in Japan were corrupt, profligate and unsympathetic figures, and no one wanted to help them. On corporate expense accounts, they sipped coffee with gold leaf and patronized “no-panties shabu-shabu” restaurants, which had mirrored floors and miniskirted waitresses.

In short, the businessmen involved were jerks. And, whether in Japan or the U.S., it’s challenging for politicians to frame a bailout with the slogan: Save the jerks!"

So, what can we do? It sounds like we all need to pitch in to save the jerks on Wall Street. I'm okay with this, although I think the bill still needs a lot of work. And I want to know two things:

1. Why are we bailing out the financiers at the top of the mess instead of the 6 million homeowners at the bottom of the mess who are expected to default on their mortgages?

2. Do people really understand that the bailout is likely going to make things much less catastrophic than they could be, but that the economy is still going to be really lousy for some time to come?

I worry that most people don't really have a handle on money or how it works anymore. I've read that credit card debt is now shooting up as people try to pay off the mortgages that are still too much for them. I know people my age who have six-figure credit card debt and I wonder how that's even possible. What this means is that credit card debt is going to implode before very long, along with whatever happens to housing, banking, gas, and the dollar. I just don't know that people have yet realized that living beyond their means is as dysfunctional and pathological as drinking a bottle of scotch every day. If you can't afford an SUV and a big house in the suburbs, you don't "need" them. The major problem here isn't "fat cats" or "politics as usual"- it's that in some fundamental way too many people have become unmoored from reality. Reality is something that happens to other people. A bailout isn't going to fix that mentality.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Jean de Joinville and the Seventh Crusade

Today's reading was the memoir by the Sire Jean de Joinville who accompanied Louis IX (Saint Louis) on the Seventh Crusade in 1241. I'm not especially familiar with the Crusades, which come a few hundred years before most of my studies. The idea of crossing the Mediterranean to retake the Holy Lands from the Infidels is so far outside of my frame of reference as to be ridiculous. I could imagine fighting in a war, but not for the sake of a theological interpretation of a historical site. In some senses, it's very depressing to have no core beliefs that structure my behavior. But, reading about these French soldiers being flayed alive with "Greek fire", eaten by various diseases, and burning up in the deserts, there seems to be a certain benefit to living without belief.

The memoirs are considerably less religious than I had expected. Mostly, Joinville remembers vivid battle scenes and the wise acts of the king. It is more concerned with what we would today call political or military matters than with doctrine. As the king led the troops, there really isn't much distinction between the military and the political power.

Nor is there much distinction between the sacred order and the social order: when Joinville writes glowingly of the king, it's not propaganda as much as hagiography. Louis embodies piety so his acts serve a pedagogical goal: we should ask ourselves "What would Saint Louis do?" The great chain of authority that is the French state in the Middle Ages mirrors the great chain of being that constitutes the sacred order. The king's authority is little more than a conduit for religious authority- every one of his actions is proscribed.

The Christians lost the Seventh Crusade. Alas it's always difficult to fight a native populace on their own turf. It's clear from the memoir that they didn't lose for turning the other cheek- the Knights Templar were as fierce as the Sarasin. One of the witnesses to a French massacre of a Sarasin camp, mostly of sleeping men, women, and children, is quoted as saying that it was “a very piteous thing it was to see such a quantity of dead bodies and such an outpouring of blood- that is, if they had not been enemies of the Christian faith.”