Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween Horror Movies: The Exorcist (1973)

I've been told that The Exorcist isn't as scary if you're an atheist, but I don't believe it. When it came out, The Exorcist was considered the scariest movie ever made and preachers warned that the film itself contained evil. Based on the account of a supposed exorcism in modern America, the Exorcist manages to comment on the breakdown of the family in the mid 70s, play off of Babylonian mythos, and still be scary as hell. Try watching this movie alone at three in the morning. Yow!

They released a longer version in recent years with a few scary scenes put back in and the original ending, which was lousy in the first place. The "spider-walk scene" that I'd been hearing of for years was definitely good. Sadly, they've never found the original footage of an early scene shot at Arlington National Cemetery, which made the social subtext about the culture clash a bit more evident.

As one might suspect, given the 70s release, there was indeed a disco version of the theme song released, and a blaxsploitation remake; sadly, it was not entitled "The Blaxorcist". It was called Abby and the studio sued to get it taken out of general release. Here's a scene set in a nightclub.

If I ever own a cell phone, I think "Hellllloooooo Motherfuuuckerrrr!" will be my ringtone.


Halloween Horror Movies: The Evil Dead (1981)

Another film shot by a bunch of college friends in a cottage in the woods, and the location really makes the difference here- their earlier short film "Within the Woods", upon which Evil Dead was based, was shot at someone's mother's house apparently, and is not nearly as effective.

The sound design really stands out in Evil Dead, as does the loopy, over-the-top direction. There's something very cartoonish about the movie, even with all of the cheeesy gore. Stephen King called it the most terrifying film he'd ever seen, and it's really hard to see why. I am generally laughing through half the film.

Eventually, Hollywood realized that Sam Raimi was an unusually talented filmmaker; he was hired to direct the Spiderman trilogy. Horror fans, of course, remember him for the Evil Dead trilogy and the recent Drag Me To Hell.

For Claire, here are scenes from Bach Ke Zara, one of at least two Bollywood Evil Dead rip offs. This one has one of the most entertaining decapitation scenes imaginable.


Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween Horror Movies: Night of the Living Dead (1969)

With a smaller budget than most filmmakers blow on catering, George A. Romero and friends made a midnight movie classic that rethinks the classic zombie, creates a palpable sense of dread, and manages to make some bitter points about human society and our futile efforts to create order and save ourselves. The ending is still shocking.

Moreover, Romero never really explains why the dead are coming back to life, which makes it all the scarier. The Night of the Living Dead spawned thousands of remakes, sequels and rip offs, including the oft-forgotten Hard Day's Night of the Living Dead.



Damien Hirst bucks his own trend

It will probably make me sound like a Philistine, but I've never understood the point of artists exhibiting readymades after Marcel Duchamp. When Duchamp exhibited a urinal in a gallery, which he had signed R. Mutt, it jarred the audience's usual categories of perception in a delightful way. It certainly didn't hurt that Duchamp was a brilliant artist. The problem is that, after nearly a century of lesser artists exhibiting all manner of crap that they brought in from their trash, the joke has worn thin. How long can we be expected to laugh at the corny Uncle's whoopee cushion?

So, to me, Damien Hirst has always been the sort of artist whose work rich sods buy in order to pretend that they're in on the joke. Some of his work is impressive- I quite like the diamond covered skull/Memento Mori in 2007. But, quite a bit of it amounts to... well, dead animals in formaldehyde. It's a bit of an adolescent fart joke really.

Hirst has recently turned to painting- actual painting, not hiring other people to paint or spin painting- and the results have enraged critics. He's not much of a painter, and the weird thing is that he's the most successful artist in the world, and is only now, in his 40s, exhibiting his first real paintings. You've got to give him credit though- it would be very easy in his position to act like Jeff Koons and keep showing the poseur-friendly horseshit until the end of time, or pretense. Hirst actually stuck his neck out, poor thing.

It must be that the critics are sick of his formaldehyde animals and dot paintings and this is the inevitable backlash. But the thing about backlash is that it tends to follow ridiculously overblown hype; people are angry mostly at themselves for having jumped on the bandwagon in the first place. We're at the end of the Age of Hype now- glitz and bullshit has been overvalued for the last decade, at least, in nearly every area of Western endeavor. Art, Capitalism, Entertainment, Politics- people are a bit sick of all the bursting bubbles. Poor Damien Hirst is getting splattered at the wrong time- just when he's ready for adult effort.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Demon of Noontide and Happy Pills

The German romantics called it Weltchmertz- world-pain. The French romantics called it le mal du siècle, or ennui. Before them, the Greeks talked about acedia, which the Christian monks called the "demon of noontide". It's a spiritual sickness, akin to boredom, but boredom with being alive in the world.

For the anchorites, it was sin. The French romantics, especially Chateaubriand, saw it as a natural response to living in a socio-political sphere no longer built around honor and religious creed. Without anything to embed him in the world, man goes through a sort of spiritual crisis. Kierkegaard wrote the Sickness unto Death about this sort of despair. Now, of course, we see it as an actual illness to be treated.

Gordon Marino wonders if that's not a bad idea:

"These days, confide to someone that you are in despair and he or she will likely suggest that you seek out professional help for your depression. While despair used to be classified as one of the seven deadly sins, it has now been medicalized and folded into the concept of clinical depression. If Kierkegaard were on Facebook or could post a You Tube video, he would certainly complain that we, who have listened to Prozac, have become deaf to the ancient distinction between psychological and spiritual disorders, between depression and despair."
It seems to me that the human condition is profoundly unfair in some sense. I look at our cat Lola, and she is certainly a brilliant animal. But she'll never have a real sense of her own mortality, until maybe at the end. The fact of our impending nonexistence is so unbelievable and terrible that it's hard not to see despair as a normal part of life. Don DeLillo had a psychoactive drug in one of his books that removed the fear of death, and you sort of wonder, when you see ads for Ambien or Prozac, if there won't eventually be such a drug.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Maybe a few less in the Bande des Frères

Shakespeare, of course, depicts the Battle of Agincourt (1415) in Henry V, which gives us the famous "Crispian's Day" speech, here delivered with aplomb by the great actor Laurence Olivier.

KING. What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

The Battle of Agincourt is legendary in English history; badly outnumbered, the army led by Henry V decisively defeated the French, in large part by their use of the English longbow. The battle opened up a new phase in the Hundred Years' War (largely squandered by Henry's descendants), and is an important part of the English national identity.

So, it's understandable that recent reassessments might not be warmly welcomed. The NYTimes has a good article on this:
"Agincourt’s status as perhaps the greatest victory against overwhelming odds in military history — and a keystone of the English self-image — has been called into doubt by a group of historians in Britain and France who have painstakingly combed an array of military and tax records from that time and now take a skeptical view of the figures handed down by medieval chroniclers.

The historians have concluded that the English could not have been outnumbered by more than about two to one. And depending on how the math is carried out, Henry may well have faced something closer to an even fight, said Anne Curry, a professor at the University of Southampton who is leading the study."
They further argue that Charles IV was suffering from serious mental illness and France was cash-strapped making it hard to believe that they could have raised an army six times the size of the English army in so short a time. Chroniclers and eyewitnesses might have exaggerated a bit. But, of course, tax records from that time are not necessarily much more reliable- actually the problem with archives is that there are always huge gaps to fill with one's imagination or hunches.

This is also the fun of historical detective work. There's no doubt that Agincourt was a great and historical victory, although the oft-made claim that it was the greatest victory in military history might be a bit overstated. Nevertheless, this story hints at another exciting part of historical detective work: the past is always relevant in the present.


Today in Latin

Insula, -ae (f): Island.

English derivatives: While they say that no man is an island, groups can be pretty insular. This is at least partly true for those who live on a peninsula.


Today in Art

Entretenimento (2005)
Originally uploaded by Alex or Die!
'Enretenimento' (2005) a collage by Alex Vieira.


Monday, October 26, 2009

Today in Art

penny ante 2
Originally uploaded by franceradium
"Penny Ante 2" by Franceradium


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Movie Notes: Zombieland (2009)

Hostess Snack cakes presents: Zombieland!

Well, not really! But, if you've heard anything about this movie by now, you've probably heard that Woody Harrelson's character in the film is somewhat defined by his quest to find a Twinkie in a post-apocalyptic American zombie wasteland. That's a soft, spongy, delicious Twinkie © . So, when you tell your friends about the film, remember to mention the product "Twinkies" ©. And it is definitely a funny conceit; clearly Hostess got their money's worth on this film.

Zombies are generally pretty funny. They shamble like drunken sleepwalkers and eat people; plus you can beat them senseless without killing them- there's a lot of room for comedy there. In the old 1930s horror movies, there were sometimes voodoo-related zombies, but George Romero came up with the idea of a mystery disease that brings the dead back to life en masse, and it's worked well. But, even Romero went for laughs by the second zombie film he did, Dawn of the Dead. In the 80s, Return of the Living Dead and Night of the Creeps both featured zombies and jokes. And then you had the best of the zom-coms in my opinion, Shaun of the Dead.

Zombieland is pretty funny too, but the comic relief sort of kills the tempo of the movie in the middle section- which basically turns into yet another teenage pot comedy- and then picks back up for the end. The other problem is that the movie is so jokey that you never really believe the characters are in any danger or that there's really been an apocalyptic plague. Woody Harrelson's character reveals that he's lost his son about an hour in, and it's pretty much an insult to the audience because the character's been written as a freewheeling redneck who just wants a Twinkie up until this point, and now we're emotionally-manipulated for a minute- and, wait! now there's another joke! I know, I shouldn't "spoil" that reveal, but the scene is so shallow and disrespectful to the audience that it's hard not to. We watched the movie in a drive-in with three screens and, at this point, I started looking out the side window and watching the latest shitty Saw movie on the other screen.
In general, the brief "emotional" pause that's supposed to give a dumb movie some "depth" plays as insulting. Movies like Superbad and the works of Kevin Smith have sort of made it a staple to shoehorn cheap sentiment into hacky pot & sex comedies, also usually annoyingly. Hey, everybody! We've been screwing and smoking dope and farting for an hour! But, now, let's take time to reflect and hug! Yech. In this case, there's not just the dead kid who literally does not matter for more than three minutes of screen time, there's also a romatic subplot that causes Zombieland to switch gears yet again, to become a horror-adventure-comedy-drama-romantic-schmaltz-fest, and then back to a comedy. I can hear the pitch now: "It's like Night of the Living Dead meets Clerks meets Ghostbusters meets Sixteen Candles! Brought to you by Twinkies!"

And, you know, I didn't even really dislike this movie! Visually, it has a lot of imagination and energy. The jokes work, for the most part, and zombies are always entertaining to me. It's just that it could have been written- and probably was- by a fifteen year old with no life experience whatsoever trying to recreate all the cool things they saw in other movies. I'm guessing the main character, a nerdy shut-in with no life experience, is written from the heart.
Really, I think the film would have been great if they just lost the second act, in which the characters hang out with a mystery celebrity. The first act is well-paced and funny, in spite of the fact that its central recurring joke about the "rules" of surviving a zombie film is ripped off from both Max Brooks's Zombie Survival Guide and Scream. The second act is sort of funny, but in a really lazy way. And the third act, set in an amusement part overrun by zombies, is worth seeing the movie for. Because, really, when you watch these sorts of movies, you want to see a good number of zombies get shot.

In other words, I'd give Zombieland a B, or maybe a B-. It's funny and zombie movies are usually worth one viewing, but it's sort of stupid and nothing really special. And, seriously, Hollywood- stop with the damned product placements!

[Note: The frequent references to Twinkies should not be taken as an endorsement on my part. In my opinion, they make your mouth taste like you've just blown a gummi bear.]


Theatre Notes: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Soulpepper, Toronto)

A night in domestic hell with the worst hosts imaginable, Edward Albee's 1962 classic play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a daunting challenge. Especially so, considering the fact that everyone knows the great performances that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton gave in the great Mike Nichols film. The Soulpepper Theatre's production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is currently running in downtown Toronto, and they have acquitted themselves brilliantly.

The last play we saw was the Soulpepper production of Antigone, which suffered greatly from overplaying on the part of the actors, probably at the behest of the director. In this case, the lead actors are all strong and play somewhat over-the-top characters in a very naturalistic style. Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk, as the middle aged bourgeois couple, George and Martha, are well-matched and spar wonderfully. Their body language is expert- it's rare that you see a play so well choreographed. As the younger couple, Tim Campbell and Diana Donnelly are both amusing comedic relief and a good counterpoint for their older hosts.

The set design, by Astrid Janson who also designed the costumes, is classic but skewed. The floor is at a slope, so the dark red leather couch seems like a roller coaster seat. There are several painted bookcases sprawling up the set like temple pillars, all of them identical and topped with portraits of George and Martha Washington. The period details are spot on and the vermilion walls remind you of bloodstains, appropriately enough.

Albee's play maintains a high level of stress and intensity for three full acts, in which the domineering wife and her passive-aggressive academic husband tear strips off each others' psyches, while maintaining a low level proxy war with the younger generation. Countering the technocratic biologist whelp against his aged, wiser but deeply cynical historian counterpart, Albee is able to herald the sun that is about to set on booming post-war culture, while questioning if the future will really be progress.

And they drink. His Americans drink themselves into dizzy delusions about their comfortable lives and play games in which the stakes are high in spite of the characters having little left to lose.


The Difference between Ideas and Creeds

Something I wrote the other day doesn't sound quite right: "There are billions of possible interpretations of any idea worth having, and billions of different ways of acting upon those ideas, as the history of every religion would seem to show."

It's that word "idea"- religions have ideas, of course; but there really is a difference between an idea and a creed. When we talk about a philosophical idea, I think we're talking about something more like a thesis- a simple suggestion about how some aspect of the world might be; a possible description of some aspect of reality. When I talk about Heidegger's "ideas", what I have in mind is something like his statement that "The meaning of the being of that being that we call Da-sein proves to be temporality". Personally, I don't really think this is an original idea- again, it sounds to me like Bergson got there first- but(!) I do think of it as an idea, and not part of a creed, and therefore not akin to an article of faith that you can ascribe to. I don't have any idea how one would be a "believer" of the idea that Being reveals itself through the dimension of time, other than perhaps just by not being a theist.

So, contrary to what I wrote, religions are not founded in ideas; they're founded in creeds. A creed is an authoritative summary of basic religious beliefs. In the articles of a creed, believers profess faith in mysteries that can really only be known through divine revelation. The word "creed" comes from the Latin "credo"- the first person singular, "I believe", which is the beginning of the Christian profession of faith. Catholics would know all this from the Nicene Creed, or the shorter Apostles' Creed, which are recited at every mass: "Credo in Deum Patrem omnipotentem, Creatorem caeli et terrae, et in Iesum Christum, Filium Eius unicum, Dominum nostrum, qui conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto, natus ex Maria Virgine, et cetera...
Or, more likely, "I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord... et cetera."

Many of the other Christian denominations use the same creed, of course. It was essentially the first authoritative statement of Christian belief in the 300s AD. Muslims, of course, declare the shahada: "I bear witness that there is no god except Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." My imperfect understanding of creeds is that you're not just supposed to say them after you've come to belief, but before- the creed "makes" you a believer, in basically the same way as something like the Pledge of Allegiance inculcates certain beliefs. My understanding is that the gift of belief is ultimately given by "grace".

(I'm not a practicing believer, so one can hopefully excuse my respectful, but no doubt flawed, summary of creeds. )

Cultures based in religious creeds we can refer to as credal cultures. At times and places there have been credal societies as well, although there are none at present in the "west". People who have been raised in credal cultures- believers, and there are plenty of them still around, tend- I think- to understand non-credal beliefs too often in terms of creeds. I'm sorry to be obtuse, but the way I understand intellectual ideas is that they're something the individual adopts and modifies to suit themselves and their needs. A creed, in contrast, is something that the person adopts and then modifies himself to suit the creed. A creed cannot change; however, ideas not only can change, but really have to change for an individual to make use of them in his or her life.

With Heidegger, his philosophical ideas eventually dovetailed with his repugnant political beliefs. For him, in my reading, it seems as if the philosophical ideas led him to the Nazi doctrines, aside from the racial theory, which he seemed to have disagreed with. But, otherwise, there were some strong connections there. I mean, it's not like we can say that Heidegger's epigones misused his ideas; he himself became a Nazi, and a thoroughgoing one at that.

But, his philosophical ideas were not creeds- they were not a doctrine that would necessarily lead to Nazism or anything else, aside from a headache! Most ideas are absorbed like food, we take what we can from them and expel the rest! In the process, they are transformed root and branch by us. I think credal peoples tend to look at non-credal cultures as being somehow akin to credal cultures- so, if you read a work of philosophy or a political statement, you run the risk of being transformed by it, as if it was a creed. But, even in the case of something like say "The Communist Manifesto", the work can be used, quoted, borrowed from, plagiarized, or rewritten without the slightest individual transformation taking place. Some people, of course, treated Marxist theory like a creed, with horrifying results, but it was really just a series of theories- ideas, in other words. Use them and your results may vary.

I tend to think of intellectual ideas as something like stops in a salad bar. You take a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and make use of them, or more often make no use of them. But creeds are an entirely different thing. And, often, when I read contemporary religious writers talking about the larger secular culture, I feel like they make the mistake of seeing the "culture", if there really is one any more, as being akin to either a variety of creeds or anti-creeds. But really its more like a plethora of fleeting ideas floating around like short-lit fireflies. Some of them are particularly stunning, but they never seem to last very long.

Some people call this cultural "nihilism" because it has no creed of belief. But I don't think the absence of a creed is nihilism. Because, ultimately, the non-credal culture doesn't simply descend into anarchy or the collapse of civil society. People seem to know how to behave decently and lovingly towards each other, even if they have no creeds. The Christian interpretation of this is that certain truths are written on the heart. The evolutionary theory is that certain moral ideas are "hard-wired". We seem to know how to be good people, and when we're not, it's pathology. Saul Bellow has a beautiful passage about this in his novel Mr. Sammler's Planet, in which the main character, an elderly Jew who has despaired of urban and cultural decline throughout the course of the novel finishes:

“For that is the truth of it – that we all know, God, that we know, that we know, we know, we know.”


Announcing the Niagara Pride Film Festival

They're not allowed to advertise it as a university group, but Brock Pride, the gay, lesbian, et cetera group at Brock University in Saint Catherine's, in conjunction with Niagara Pride, is showing a movie nearly every month until March, 2010. All were handpicked by very knowledgeable film and history buffs, including moi, and all of them are good movies.

  • November 27, 2009: Torch Song Trilogy
  • January 22, 2010: Desert Hearts
  • February 26, 2010: Long Time Companion
  • March 26, 2010: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
All shows from 7pm- 10pm
Brock University- Welch Hall- Room 324
Adults: $8/evening or $30 for a subscription
Students: $4/ evening or $15 for a subscription
High School Students: Free with proper ID


Friday, October 23, 2009

Time & Being & Nazis

An old line about German philosophy (not quite applicable after the development of airplanes) held that the British conquered the seas, while the Germans conquered the air. Another line was that German philosophers dive deeper and come up muddier. German philosophy, particularly of the idealist persuasion, tends to make up for what it lacks in clarity with quasi-mysticism. This creates a readability problem, to put it nicely.

The readability problem is there with Kant, but everyone sort of agrees that he's being difficult out of necessity. Hegel, who is also hard to read, once said only one man ever understood what he was saying, and even he didn't really understand. But, even that sounds like an inflated number.

Heidegger is perhaps the worst of them, if only because he insists on his own idiosyncratic meanings for words that the rest of us use differently, and then never really makes it clear how he understands the words. What I tried doing, during my own years wandering lost in his deserts, was to simplify every section of Being and Time as far as I possibly could. What I ended up with was a lot of notes that read like they were written by a child and insights into being that I'd already read in Henri Bergson, who was at least able to write without inventing his own idiom. When you point the similarities out to Heidegger fans, they dismiss them out of hand by
pointing out that he famously dismissed Bergson in a footnote in Being and Time. Sure he did- anxiety of influence, I'd imagine.

But who knows? I can't claim to really catch the jive that Heidegger is laying down. Besides, the originality question isn't the big issue with Heidegger; after all, it's a bit overshadowed by the Nazi question. As his scholars like to put it, Heidegger "flirted with Nazism"; but in fact, the flirtation was fully consummated. Heidegger was of the protected mandarin class under the Third Reich and gladly spouted Nazi rhetoric, which just happened, conveniently, to dovetail nicely with many of his own writings aboutpremodern peasants, the homelessness of modernity, and the lost meaning of being in the post-Enlightenment world.

After the war, Heidegger tried to fob himself off as having been quietly at odds with the Nazi regime while rector at Freiburg. After his death, documents started surfacing showing that he got all the mileage he could out of the Nazi regime, including acting particularly beastly towards some of his Jewish colleagues. Heidegger was a Nazi- of course he was- and indeed there are reasons to believe that his own philosophical ideas led him to the political ideology of Nazism. Now, that's not to say that the ideas led him there by necessity- your results may vary. It's hard to think of anyone for whom reading Heidegger led them to National Socialism; however, quite a few were lead to writing almost unreadable dissertations, which is a sort of Nazism in my opinion.

The problem with Heidegger's vagueness is that it takes so long to understand him that once you do understand him, you're no longer sure you've understood him. Thus everyone who critiques him is accused by his celebrators of having simply misunderstood him, and those who love him are accused by his critics of having misunderstood him. There seem to be no middle ground: either he was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, or he was a charlatan who really wasn't saying anything much at all. In the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Carlin Romano argues that Heidegger was, "a prolific, provincial Nazi hack," and catches all manner of hell for it in the comments section.

Some have even suggested that we throw out Heidegger altogether because his philosophy smells a bit too much like blood & soil. It all depends on how we understand ideas: some people see ideas like a battery that gets plugged into people and makes them go. I think this is where most calls for censorship come from- a notion that ideas have set & specific consequences. But, of course, they don't. There are billions of possible interpretations of any idea worth having, and billions of different ways of acting upon those ideas, as the history of every religion would seem to show.

The question is not whether Heidegger was a Nazi: he was. It's not if his Nazism was somehow connected to his philosophy: it probably was. The question is whether there's anything to his ideas worth preserving, or if it's all a bunch of vague gobbledygook. I can't even pretend to answer that question; but I would imagine that no matter what the answer, people will still be able to play around with those ideas and make something useful out of them. Again, your results may vary.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Mother of All Anti-Cell Phone Rants

My brother-in-law and I were talking, while en route from cottage country, about our increasing agnosticism about technologies. He offered a somewhat bizarre and sad anecdote about a hockey-watching party he recently attended (this is Canada, after all) in which two young men arrived and proceed to sit on the couch, with everyone else, attention glued to their "smartphones" the entire night. They did not actually interact with the other people at the party; however, they did occasionally check the game scores- on their smartphones, instead of on the television set in front of them.

Admittedly, I'm no fan of cell phones, smart or dumb. At one point, I intended to write an epic rant about the things; I made it to 32 pages of vitriol comparing them to the poison poured in ears in Hamlet, and finally lost interest. Luckily for me, Jason Peters has written the mother of all rants about cell phones. Here's a taste:

"But none of these things, whether tool or machine, is as sinister as the cell phone. What is it about this repellent little gadget that so abominates, that so offends the imagination?

It has destroyed manners. It has destroyed public space. It has compromised privacy. It has enslaved and mastered those who think themselves its master. It has transferred money from insurance companies to body shops. It has turned bitching into a spectator sport, and I won’t be at all surprised if it turns out to be the cause of an epidemic of brain tumors.

But what troubles me the most is that it has taken distraction to a new low, and distraction, as the sage of Kentucky says, is “inimical to true discipline.” Forget that students can’t sit through a lecture without going in search of vibrating, buzzing, or blinking evidence that they’re still the center of the universe. Actual adults behave in exactly this manner.

Where has sustained concentration gone? Wither is fled the visionary gleam?

Wither? I’ll tell you wither. Into the hand that goes into the pocket that pulls out the poison, the poison that first afflicts the mind and at last blasts the earth whence it came–whence it came benign ere man converted and co-joined and assembled it into a tiny little tyrant.

I know of people—I see them every day—who have no clue that they live in the world. In the world! Yesterday, after several cold gray days here in the Midwest, the sun finally came out to set all the changing sugar maples ablaze with a golden resplendent light. And what were Mackenzie and Dylan and Jordan and Khrystynah doing? Not noticing the surface brilliance, that’s for sure. They were texting away. Meanwhile Nature, that vast unity of images, that unity not of things but of images, went unregarded.

In the time it took me to pass an undergraduate on the sidewalk yesterday I heard her misuse the word “like” nine times in a narrative that had at its center passing out during a movie (man’s third biggest mistake) but waking up in time to puke—all of this yammered, for all to hear, into a device that, mark me, would have been sowing brain tumors had there been a brain affixed thereto in which to sow them.

This insidious device does not encourage silence. It does not encourage reflection. It does not encourage editing. It does not encourage anything useful to us or good for us. It is a mistake. Do you hear me? A mistake."

Read on. It is pretty righteous ranting, and damned funny too! Fair? Not entirely. But, damned funny nonetheless.

More here.


Showing Signs of Ill Health

In terms of US health care reform, the Obama administration keeps warning about the dangers of "letting the perfect become the enemy of the good" and not doing anything. But, the Economist reminds us, there is such a thing as squandering a good opportunity by half-assing it.

I've avoided posting on this topic because I live in Canada and am quite happy with my health care. It is, however, on my mind. My father is the hardest-working man I know and the cost of his insurance is bleeding him dry. Maine is dominated by two insurers, neither of whom are particularly enthusiastic about insuring lobstermen, who have an off-season and do dangerous work in insalubrious conditions. As a result, the cheapest insurance he can get costs over $500 per month, which is a lot for a working man and small business owner, and makes it impossible for him to do things like grow his business, hire part time help, or save for retirement. His hope is that his premiums will not go up again before he is old enough to get social security. It's not much of a surprise though that around 30% of the state is uninsured.

The main problem is that premiums have risen faster than the rate of inflation. In the last decade, the average health insurance premium in the US has gone up by about 138%: more than doubled. Next year, even without any government tinkering, premiums are expected to go up by about 10%. One would imagine that, ten years from now, the poorer states would have a considerably larger chunk uninsured than they do now, but states like Alaska already have about 1/3rd of the population without health care. That was the national rate when Canada decided to scrap private insurance altogether. When the general population in the US reaches that point, I would guess the public will start clamoring for a single-payer plan like we have in Canada. So far, the insurance companies have not healed themselves, and it's seemingly not in their interest to do so. Perhaps it would be better for liberals to leave the system alone to self-destruct on its own.

I can't entirely explain the rising costs, although again, I would imagine it's not much different from rising tuition costs in universities- just having insurance footing the bill inflates the price unnaturally. One potential fix would be to charge insured people to pay out of pocket for things like stitches, ear drops, set bones, and similar minor medical care. One could guess that getting a cast for a broken leg would not cost $4,000 or so if people actually paid out of pocket, and haggled over the bill. This suggestion has been made, usually by people talking about "catastrophic insurance". Nobody in the government is taking it seriously.

The problem of rising health insurance costs is serious and real, in spite of the groups, like Dick Armey's Freedomworks, that send me mailings insisting "we" resist all attempts to reform the system. I don't consider a society that cannot even address its own problems to be healthy, and I don't consider the alternative to be de facto socialism. I suppose I'm in the minority.

But, one can see how doing a half-assed job could make things a lot worse. The argument people make for half-assing it is that doing so gets the ball rolling and further tweaks can be made later. The argument against it is that, when your party controls the federal government, you don't need to half-ass it. The Economist is clearer than I can be on this point:

A "braver president could have demanded far more. The worst flaw in the Finance Committee’s bill is its failure to address the way that providers of health care are paid. Most payments to doctors and hospitals are made on a “fee-for-service” basis—which means that, unconstrained either by medical necessity or value for money, the industry’s revenues rise with every test it does, procedure it carries out and prescription it writes. Yes, the bill provides funds for research into electronic record-keeping, comparative effectiveness research and other good things. But it should mandate these practices, not just encourage study of them. None of the five different bills that have been passed by various House and Senate committees and are now on the way to being melded into a single compromise version includes anything like the sort of root-and-branch overhaul that would see health care paid for by results.
Nor do any of the bills do anything much to tackle the other big distortion in health-provision—tax exemption for employer-provided private health-insurance. By subsidising the health plans of those lucky enough to have them, this encourages over-consumption and amounts to a distorting taxpayer-funded subsidy for the well-off. The latest bill merely sets a very high cap (of $8,000 per person, or $21,000 for a family) on this exemption, and the House of Representatives will try to water down even this feeble effort at the behest of the unions whose members enjoy some of the most lavish policies. It may also dilute the administration’s only really good proposal, for a committee of experts empowered to order changes to the way Medicare payments are made. Finally, the bills make no attempt to address the matter of greedy lawyers forcing doctors to practise expensive “defensive medicine” for fear of being sued to kingdom come."
I think that about covers it. I would also like to see an end to one more unnatural distortion: not being able to carry your insurance across state lines or sell it across state lines.

The Economist realizes that the problems are real, serious, and if left unchecked will threaten social stability in the United States. Working people like my father can't move, quit their jobs, or develop their own businesses without fear of losing their health insurance. The arguments for resisting all reform out of hand basically amount to ideology over pragmatism.

Actually, the ideology/pragmatism divide might get us at the differences between American conservatives and conservatism everywhere else. Because, ultimately, the Economist is a conservative newspaper, in the British sense. But it takes about three messages in response to this article before an American conservative accuses them of being "SOCIALISTS", simply for recognizing the need for root and branch reforms (instead of the mushy hole-plugging being proposed) to the health care system in America. The problem is that real, pragmatic reforms would piss off both liberals and conservatives; so instead, we get ideology over pragmatism. Again.

It's not exactly ideology either- it's pandering to ideology. With Obama, you get something worse than doing nothing because he's too much of a coward to upset the ideologues. Instead, he wants to split the difference- throwing out genuine reforms if the Democrats would think them too "right wing", or if the Republicans would think them too "socialist"- instead, we get a few band-aid reforms that fix nothing while giving the illusion of fixing things. The approach is called "post-partisan", but it's more like whimpering, "please, don't hit me".

Meanwhile, the GOP has seemingly jumped the shark, and the US sure could use a lot more Tories; or just anyone who will push for necessary social evolution balanced by fiscal conservatism with the end goal of social stability. It's amazing how rarely Americans even talk about social stablity. As a history geek, I am a strong believer in social stability because the alternative is so much worse than people ever imagine. Social collapse is ugly, destructive, and violent; and it's always a real possibility with this species. It is also worse than making a few reforms that remind you of socialism. I simply fail to see how a country that cannot act to resolve issues like a growing uninsured population, an alarming unemployment rate, a collapsed industrial base, ecological devastation, and a remarkable disparity between the rich and the poor will continue to endure as a functioning democracy. The inability to respond dynamically to new problems is more characteristic of empires in decline.

In general, I am not an advocate of sweeping overhauls of social institutions, but instead believe that incremental changes prevent "the people" from tipping over cars in the streets. In this case, however, the idea that any changes whatsoever amount to a threat to the character of the nation is reactionary and delusional, and should be ignored. Moreover, the people who are in power right now- the Democrats, although I know it's hard to remember- have promised the populace that they will make root-and-branch reforms to improve the system. If they, instead, fix a few spare parts and send the machine running off down the road to break down again, it will be further proof that neither the government nor industry in America can respond dynamically to solve problems, and it will further rend the social fabric.

Moreover, if the Democrats half-ass it and drop the ball, at a moment in which they have all the power and the opposition party has become somewhat irrelevant, it will amount to a betrayal of people like my father, who are hoping against hope that the system will be improved. If American industry continues failing to respond to incoming problems or to plan for the long term- and they have failed, triumphantly!- and the American government simply cannot respond to real problems in any dynamic way... well, at some point, there really won't be much reason to take the country seriously as a going concern.


Quote for Today

"The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so."
-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Canadian News versus American News

Recently, my wife and I went to a department back-to-school party in the states, and had a lovely time. It's always funny to me to listen to Americans meeting Claire because they tend to speak very highly of Canada, perhaps a bit more than is really necessary. I don't think they're being insincere, mind you; I just find that Americans, particularly liberals, tend to romanticize Canada a bit. In response, Canadians tend to complain about the weather in Canada, to knock themselves down a peg. It's very bizarre.

Anyway, they were telling her that they love to watch the Canadian news because they think it's much better than the American newscasts. "Oh, it's much more intelligent and informative!" they claimed. I have to take their word for it, since I don't really watch the CBC too often, and otherwise, we just get CNN and CNBC, which are pretty dire. Besides, the CBC is the state-funded newscast, which would seem to raise questions of its own. And, to give you some idea what an avid television watcher I'm not, I don't actually know what the other local stations are. So, mostly I took what they were saying with a large grain of salt.

The other day, thinking of what they'd said, I decided to do an experiment. I watched a half-hour of news on the CBC: they were discussing the serious military battles going on in Pakistan with a Pakistani diplomat, followed by a discussion of what the West should do in Afghanistan with a scholar on the region. I then turned to CNN and watched for about twenty minutes: they were talking about some little brat in a balloon. This had turned out to be a publicity stunt, that they had passed along uncritically, and they were now asking if the parents should be held accountable for something or other.

I think I sort of see what the people in my department were talking about.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Father Damien de Veuster

Here we have the recently canonized saint Father Damien, born Jozef De Veuster, officially recognized as a saint on the 11th of this month, and one of a handful of saints who ministered in what is today the United States. Of course, at the time, it was not the United States; Father Damien worked in a leper colony on the Island of Molokai in the Kingdom of Hawaii in the second half of the 19th century. He was a Belgian priest and, at the time, Hawaiian lepers were isolated on the island. I've often wondered if the priests in leper colonies ever contracted leprosy, and Father Damien indeed did contract the disease. However, it's still not clear how leprosy, or Hansen's disease, is spread. It might well be contracted through prolonged close contact, and Father Damien cared for the lepers for fourteen years, subsequently contracting leprosy and succumbing to the disease in 1889.

Father Damien continued caring for the other sick until his death, and is considered a patron saint of those afflicted by Hansen's disease (leprosy), HIV, AIDS, and those who care for the afflicted. He is also the patron saint of the Diocese of Honolulu and Hawaii, and Barack Obama, non surprisingly, issued a statement marking Father Damien's canonization and praising those who care for the sick. Father Damien's feast day is May 10th, and he is celebrated across Hawaii on April 11th.

A very detailed blog on Father Damien is here.


Front Porch Republic

Our neighborhood community could be defined as a porch-ocracy, something I've had to adjust to since moving here. I grew up on a farm with no real neighbors, aside from one farm that was running a PCP lab. Our first actual neighborhood had no real community. Partly, this was just a matter of lousy design. We had no sidewalks; instead we had drainage ditches and kids walked in the road. There were no porches either; instead there was the ubiquitous patio in back, for socializing with invited guests only. It wasn't just that there was no real socializing in that neighborhood; it was that the physical layout of the place made it hard to be social without seeming like you were prying. Jane Jacobs would have been horrified by that neighborhood.

One of Jacobs's great insights, of many, was that designing residential spaces works best when you're simply enabling people to build their own communities, as opposed to trying to design them into communities. The front porch is an example of a design feature that is basically invisible. But think about how having a front porch encourages the home owner to socialize only to the extent that they want to. Our neighbors can greet passersby on the sidewalk politely, and if they want to chat they can chat. But they don't have to. Most of our neighbors are pretty chatty.

The neighborhood functions as a sort of front porch archipelago. When I make my daily walks, I usually say "hello" to a few people on their porches. The older women sit on their porch into the early evening, recreating the eternal "neighborhood elder" role. When Claire injured herself one evening that I was away, she knew just whose house to walk to in order to get a ride to the emergency room. In general, I could probably tell you who on the block to go to for various favors, and I'm not even very interested in that sort of thing.

The downside of the porchocracy is that you have little privacy. When I am in the front yard weeding, I'm always aware that the porch women are watching me. When we first went to visit them upon moving in, they already knew what Claire and I do for a living. Privacy was never a problem in Toronto- the people who lived in the same house as us refused to say 'Hi' to us. As Jacobs understood, cities tend to be better for privacy, but can tip over into alienation and loneliness.

I've only recently started thinking about porches, which do tend to be somewhat invisible after all, since moving into this neighborhood. The Front Porch Republic is a relatively new blog that discusses community, localism, democracy, and values, through the prism of the porch. It's pretty heady stuff. Here's a quote from an article that sums up the concerns at issue fairly well:

"In a microcosm, the forces that led to the decline of the porch as a place of transition between the private and the public realm have eviscerated both those domains of their capacity to educate a citizenry for self-government. The porch – as an intermediate space, even a sphere of “civil society” – was the symbolic and practical place where we learned that there is not, strictly speaking, a total separation between the public and private worlds. Our actions in private are not merely “private,” but have, in toto, profound public implications. The decline of courtship and marriage proposals within earshot of kin, for one instance, has led to ever greater “privatization” of our intimate lives, and a proportionate decline of the societal and public investment in undergirding families and the communities that foster them. Our private actions of driving ever greater distances in our automobiles have fostered devastated landscapes, deep dependence of foreign powers and tract housing devoid of real community. Meanwhile, our “public” world is increasingly shorn of the voices of citizens, wholly attenuated in the decline of the capacity of localities to govern their fates."
They've also included a really great article by Richard H. Tomas historicizing the gradual shift of the porch from the front to the back of the average house and the development of the patio. It might seem insignificant, but as Thomas points out,
"a concentrated look at the porch enables us to see how the use of new materials and an increasing desire for privacy modified not only the artistic design of the house, but suggested new forms of social relations with one's neighbors. This in turn may illustrate shifting ideas about what is meant by a sense of community or belonging to a certain place."
It's worth noting that our neighborhood was built in the WWII era and earlier, and looks it. But it's also interesting and heartening to me, as someone who often despairs about this subject, that simply building a neighborhood that allows for, but doesn't force social interaction generally will allow communities and sub-communities to develop organically. From village elders to the older women with their front porch republic, the norms of community seem to be wired into us. They're worth leaving be.


Humor under Communism

"Did East Germans originate from apes? Impossible. Apes could never have survived on just two bananas a year."

"What would happen if the desert became communist? Nothing for a while, and then there would be a sand shortage."

"Christmas has been canceled, goes another joke. Mary didn't find any diapers for the baby Jesus, Joseph was called up to the army and the three kings didn't get a travel permit."

-Jokes from East Germans under Communism. Spiegel has an interesting article about the West German spies who collected the sardonic jokes of East Germans before the wall fell.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dying Languages

One thing I find amazing when I study other languages is that there are certain ideas that don't translate exactly from one language to another. You can approximate them, but it's almost as if you can't think them without first thinking them in the appropriate language. Learning other languages isn't just good policy in this day and age; it also enables you to have more thoughts than you would otherwise.

So I'm all for projects to preserve the languages that are vanishing. Even if it's just a small number of people who can tell us about the disappearing ideas that human cultures have had, the work they're doing is worth it. Here's a short National Geographic clip on those researchers and the work they do.


There ought to be Anguish

For a wartime president and his top advisers, "there ought to be anguish," McNamara concluded, because there "are no easy answers."
-Robert McNamara quoted in a pretty interesting article in the Washington Post.


To dream the Impossible Project

old polaroid found
Originally uploaded by sillei128
I was a bit sad to see Polaroid film discontinued last year. There's something alien about the Polaroid aesthetic- the pictures always look to me like they were taken at crime scenes or on the set of a cheap porn film in a parallel dimension. You can get some cool artistic effects in Polaroid that you really can't get with digital cameras or higher end film cameras.

But the company went into bankruptcy because people just don't use Polaroid cameras anymore. I suspect one thing that hurt Polaroid was that people can now take dirty pictures on digital. It used to be you either had to get dirty pictures developed at the local photomat, dealing with awkward looks from the store manager and the knowledge that the young men who developed the film all had their own prints of your nudity; or people took their homemade porn pics with Polaroid cameras and cut out the horny teenaged middleman. Digital cameras removed that need altogether- people can take dirty pictures that never leave their laptop. Ah, technology!

I'm not the only one who misses Polaroid, and I know my friend Majda still takes Polaroids. Lucky for her, an Austrian group calling itself The Impossible Project set about manufacturing "instant analog" film and cameras again, working with a group of Dutch scientists. Now, whoever it is that owns Polaroid at this point is commissioning The Impossible Project to manufacture a limited edition line of film for the new line of Polaroid cameras they're going to issue.

They say you can never go back again. But I'm glad that some people don't see why not.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Minden Ice Racing - 2009 Street Stud Highlights (RWD & AWD) from Andrew Vernon on Vimeo.

Hopefully, the page isn't getting too "busy". I've got to post this anyway. This is a video from my brother-in-law showing how much fun ice racing is. I posted one of his videos on the same subject earlier, but I think his editing skills have improved quite a bit. He was working on this all weekend. Enjoy.


Design Porn

If Claire's family sees this scrabble-inspired furniture, they'll go nuts. Especially when they discover you can't buy these seats. I still think they're cool.


Book Notes: The Prisoner (Proust, book 5)

The first thing to point out is that is perhaps the most irritating volume of Proust. Or, at least, his narrator is particularly annoying in book five. He has moved in with his lover Albertine in his parent's place in Paris and is now pryingly obsessed with her secret life. Nearly everyone in Proust has a secret life.

We're also now calling the narrator Marcel, after the author. It's not clear that Proust intended to keep that name, although it works well. This is the first (of three) volumes published after his death, and there are still some obvious errors to be fixed. Characters have a nasty habit of showing up in the books after their deaths have already been discussed. And some of the dialogue scenes seem a bit thin. Proust supposedly had in mind writing a few more volumes, although it's hard to imagine the thing being longer than it is. Another thing to note is just how well it all hangs together as one coherent narrative, which is quite a trick to pull off.

Jealousy seems to be the theme of this volume, and of the work as a whole. Marcel's obsessive, jealous need to uncover Albertine's secret life is a self-fullfilling prophecy: the more convinced he is that she actually has a secret life, the more he drives her away from him into a secret life, and the less he actually knows her. A few critics have complained that Albertine is not a three dimensional character, but of course she isn't. We're hearing about her from her jealous lover who barely knows her- his relationship involves him either being angry about other lovers she might have, or acting like she's his young apprentice or daughter. (Hence he's annoying as hell in this book!) But he never actually knows her. This is revealed in a scene in which she nearly blurts out in anger a graphic sexual act that she'd rather be taking part in than living under his thumb. It's a sudden indication of how wide the gulf is between the character, as we know her through the narrator, and the rest of her life.

As for Marcel, he's annoying, but he's also a very believable character. His obsessive need for Albertine ties back to his relationship with his mother, as described in the first book, and to his strange knowledge of Swann's relationship with Odette, which took place much earlier. Swann, of course, was just as jealous and obsessive about Odette, until he basically got over it, and then they married. It is, perhaps, possible that Proust's theme isn't jealousy at all; Odette really was cheating on Swann with numerous men, and he's basically a cuckold during their marriage. Similarly, Albertine is sort of chaste, except we'll find out in book six that Marcel's fears about her sleeping with other women are, for the most part, true. If Proust's male characters tend to be paranoid and jealous, his women aren't really geared towards monogamy anyway.

If Gomorrah is a subtext, so is Sodom. The Baron de Charlus is a major character in this book, and in my opinion is one of Proust's great creations. Andre Gide complained, famously, that there was a risk in writing such an unlikeable gay character in that era. However, Charlus, while catty, snide, kinky, and prone to childish fits of anger, is easily one of the most interesting figures in the book, and in all of literature. What makes his character so great is how unpredictable he is- in this volume he goes from being very unlikeable, to being exiled, sick, and devoutly Catholic. Somwhere out there is a film of the last book with John Malkovich playing Charlus, a prospect that seems both inspired and a bit nuts.

But, all of Proust's characters are mercurial. The narrator is obsessed with keeping Albertine under lock and key, and so he pushes her away. She'd probably rather be with women, so she clings to him, until she's sick of him. Heartbroken, he tries to leave her so that she will stay. Nobody here is sure of just what they want and their needs change from minute to minute. They are conflicted, and complex, and ultimately, very human. I don't know about the French boast that they've produced a Shakespeare every generation, but I would put Proust in that category.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Today in Depressing Statistics

I refrained from linking to this chart when it ran in The Economist a few weeks ago because it's still hard for me to believe. It's also sort of horrifying. I just can't imagine anyone watching eight hours of television a day. How is that possible? I'm not even sure how Canadians can find 3-4 hours of programming per day that is not crap. I mean, Hockey Night in Canada is just one night a week!

It's possibly bunk. I'm wondering if, maybe, the hours aren't measured by hours that the television is on, but nobody's watching it. The scary thing with the US supposedly averaging eight hours a day is that I actually used to have a roommate who must have watched that much, if not more. She had it on whenever she was at home and awake. My grandfather used to do the same thing. So, it is possible. But, I think maybe some people are ignoring the set and just like to have it turned on.

But that could also well be wishful thinking from yours truly.


Bouf | Inspiring Homeware: Ant Army from StickyUps - StickyUps

Bouf | Inspiring Homeware: Ant Army from StickyUps - StickyUps

105 army ant stickers for £ 29.99. I'm a fan of sticking stuff to walls and floors and ceilings, and these would go well in our bedroom. Alas, we're broke, and (in case any government bureaucrats were wondering) I get paid nothing to laud these stickers here. They're still cool.

Shared via AddThis


Planet of the Daleks

At the cottage for Thanksgiving weekend, we've been catching up with each other.

My brother-in-law, unprompted by me, mentioned that he has had enough of the Internet for the time being, and is spending his days off-line. He's the third or fourth person that I've heard this from in the past month, although that could just reflect my social group. His reasoning is quite similar to my own: the level of vitriol and acrimony gets to be a bit much to stomach. In his case, the sites he prefers have to do with auto racing, which would seem an uncontroversial topic. However, there are heated arguments about American versus German cars that descend to the depths of anger and cruelty for no apparent reason.

This is what astounds me when I read online messages. The Internet was supposed to deliver greater communication and understanding, the arrival of the promised global village. And yet, people vie with each other in speaking ill of their fellows. Message boards begin to approximate an angry mob, obsessed with the purported evils of some outside group. No charge is too outlandish; good faith is never forwarded.

I read political news sites and horror film message boards. In the former case, some vitriol is to be expected; but not to the extent that one actually encounters. I've read liberals who genuinely suppose that critics of the President are anti-Americans, vicious racists, or side with the terrorists! I've read conservatives who are unsure if liberals are evil, or merely support evil! One bizarre debate I read on a libertarian blog last week centered on Roman Polanski's arrest and how President Obama would respond: one side believed he would pardon Polanski because "liberals tend to support rape"; the other side argued that he wouldn't pardon Polanski because "liberals hate Poland". Eventually, someone pointed out that, no matter what happens, "liberals are evil", which seemed to put the debate to rest. The horror film sites are the same; they argue just as passionately about how they "just can't believe the stupidity" of anyone who liked some recent film they disliked. Like the old joke about academia, the arguments on the Internet are so heated because the stakes are so low.

The standard explanation for all of this is that the anonymity of the Internet breeds malice, and it's true as far as it goes. My grandparents would never have been cruel to the other members of the Lion's Club, for instance. And yet, they had the Lion's Club, and neighborhood committee meetings, and bowling leagues, and all of the other manifestations of active civic engagement. They knew their neighbors, their grocer, their milkman, and the local police officers. They had those things that embedded them within their society and provided a sense of belonging.

At some point, all of that changed, of course. There is a great Douglas Sirk melodrama called All That Heaven Allows in which Jane Wyman plays a widow whose children want her to settle down, instead of marrying a blue collar stud, played by Rock Hudson. Something that amazes me when I see the movie now is how owning a television set is treated as an act of surrender to lonely old maidenhood. If she accepts the TV set, the kids will know she's ready to stay home and stop going to parties at the local country club! People with an active social life simply did not own television sets in 1955!

The class barriers depicted in the film should prevent us from idealizing the 1950s. After all, my grandparents belonged to another civic group that raised money with annual minstrel shows. There certainly were "out-groups" and alienated individuals back then as well. It just wasn't that everyone was, more or less, alienated and atomized. Now people feel a deep connection with people they've never met and a deep animosity to other people they've never met, and little connection to their neighbors, grocers, or local police.

And now, of course, people grow up having deep relationships with little glowing screens. Forget about not owning a television set- there's something antisocial about that! And who wants to be the weirdo without a laptop or cell phone to "connect" them to other people while they're walking around in crowds of strangers? When I think about the increasing meanness of the Internet, I can't tell if the problem is the anonymity of life online, or the facelessness of real world interactions.


Friday, October 09, 2009

Radio Silence

We're headed up north for the weekend. In Canada, this is Thanksgiving weekend, although it comes next month in the US, maybe reflecting differences in harvest times. I do think we're going to celebrate both this year because why not?

One of the nice things about the cottage is the relative radio silence. If a major world war starts this weekend, I'll have absolutely no idea. I'm not generally a television watcher, so I'm usually a bit oblivious about the world of the present. The weekly Economist helps, as does the Internet. Sort of.

Actually, I'm sort of looking forward to not reading stuff on the Net this weekend. I don't really know why, but as of late, when I read the Internet for an hour or so, I start feeling depressed. I know you obviously can't generalize about it, and it is no doubt due to whatever I'm reading, but I think there's a pervasive tone to the things I read that bothers me. Since I read some of the most popular sites, I can't be entirely off-base in saying that there's an undercurrent of ill will that I find enervating. There are not a lot of good faith arguments made on the sites I read. Many of them read as snarky and bitter, although occasionally funny.

Or, maybe that's just me. What do you guys think? I could just be a dilettante puss.


The Nobel What?!

In a brazen attempt to give people on the Internet something stupid to bitch about for the next week or so, the Nobel Prize committee has awarded a Nobel Peace prize to Barack Obama. In a statement, they said the prize was awarded not because of what he has done, necessarily, but because of his great potential to do good things. They assert that it is not a popularity contest, a claim loudly supported by recent prize winner, Megan Fox. In a related story, the Academy Awards have nominated Obama for Best Director and Best Film (not yet made) for the following comments he made while watching Transformers 2: "Oh! You know what would be a really great movie? Zombies versus robots!"

People will say that the Nobel Prize is now just about PR; but the Nobel Prize was actually created as PR for Alfred Nobel, and it must have worked- when was the last time you heard anyone complaining about the "merchant of death" Alfred Nobel? Of course, giving it to Obama to encourage him to deserve winning one in the future is pretty freakin' rediculous. He should politely turn it down. Sadly, it also means listening to two weeks of one group of people saying, "He won it because he's such a transformative figure. He has genuinely transformed the meaning of succeeding into 'maybe, possibly succeeding in the future without taking any actual risks'!" And then there will be the other, louder group saying, "The Nobel Prize is a fraud! He just won because the rest of the world are commies, and real Americans don't care what the rest of the world thinks about us!"

In my experience, Americans care more than anyone on earth what the rest of the world thinks of them. And, actually, in my experience, the people from "the rest of the world" who bitch the most about America tend to have in their mind the most overblown and unrealistic idea of the potential greatness of America, which they clearly want to pin to Barack Obama. Things could be worse, and it would be pretty stupid to growl, "Screw them for liking us!" Also, when it comes to foreign policy, I do actually agree with the Nobel committee that the US has a great chance now to correct an approach that was stupid, counterproductive, outdated, and went very much astray in recent years; although to be honest, I've been most impressed thus far by what Hillary Clinton has done in those regards. Again, the President should probably make a very polite and eloquent speech turning down an award that he hasn't yet earned. And I am really glad to be spending the next few days in the Canadian wilderness away from all media, especially the Internet.

Lastly, obviously robots would win.


Thursday, October 08, 2009

Alexander Mcqueen Fall Winter 2009/2010 Full Show Part 2


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Today in Art

Image: High heel shoes from Alexander McQueen's recent Paris runway show. These shoes show why he's my favorite designer: because his clothes are really a bit nuts. And they were actually some of the tamer items in his show. I have to admire a designer who makes the sort of clothes that could only really be worn in a fever dream.


Theatre notes: antigone (Sophocles)

We went to see Antigone at the Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto. In this post I'll describe the original play, and in future posts, I'll get to the famous Jean Anouilh rewrite from occupied France, and the Toronto production of that rewrite.

First, let's get to Sophocles's play from Athens 442 BC. Sophocles had been recently chosen to lead the military expedition against Samos Island. This doesn't prevent him from writing about war and patriotism in an ambiguous and tragic way: as both unavoidable loyalties and ill fated mistakes of pride.

Sophocles' play is about the conflict between two people who are certain about uncertain things. Creon's pigheaded pride causes him to confuse his own will with that of the state. Antigone is ready to die to satisfy the gods, whose will is a mystery she can't solve. Creon wants to maintain the social order, without which violence is unleashed. Antigone feels that the social order has gone astray from the sacred order, although she might be wrong. It's never clear what loyalties humans should have when their own needs, the needs of their society, and of the gods are in conflict.

There's no advantage to being king of Thebes. Oedipus was doomed and his sons, Eteocles and Polyneices killed each other after going to war for the throne. In the struggle, Polyneices led seven armies against Thebes, and died as a traitor. After Creon took the throne, Eteocles was given a full burial, while Polyneices was left to rot. In a sense, Creon worships the state, or at least order and stability, and so he forbids the burial of Polyneices, an appropriate anti-rite for treason.

Antigone fears offending the gods, and so she buries her brother and performs the necessary rites over his body. This dooms her to death. What's great about Sophocles's play, and indicative of the Greek ideas of death, is that Antigone ultimately has no idea what the gods want from men. Should she perform the rites for Polyneices? Do they see Eteocles as just and his brother as a treason? Is there anything after death, or will she be delivering Polyneices to nothingness? Human beings can only guess because the gods are distant and disinterested.

For Judeo-Christians, it's hard to understand dying for gods who toy with humans so cruelly, but Antigone sees no choice. Fate closes in on Creon too. His wife and son kill themselves, his people turn against him, and his pride dooms him. Actually, the same could be said for most characters in Greek tragedy. When confronted with the natural world, humans would do well to keep their heads down and their mouths shut.


Stai zitto!

We have a grad student in our department who came over from Italy to go to grad school in America, and study China- go figure! Anyway, she recently married another grad student and, the other day, he was telling me about being in Northern Italy for their wedding. He had been a bit apprehensive about coming over from the US, but found that everyone was fine with that, and besides, they were all too busy complaining about Berlusconi to care!

The big problem Italians have with Berlusconi is that he's on a tear against the media, trying to flush out its few remaining liberal critics. He owns three of the seven terrestrial television stations, a leading daily, a weekly news magazine, and the country's largest publishing house; the government, meanwhile, owns three of the other television stations, and the parliament is firmly on his side. Oh, and he's pressing for damages from two other newspapers for printing unflattering and critical articles about him. The result? The Economist: "In Freedom House’s 2009 survey of media independence, Italy was downgraded to “partly free” and placed 73rd in a list of 195 countries (only just above Bulgaria)".

As The Economist also points out, the Italian government hasn't interfered with the press like this since the Mussolini years. So, it's easy to see why he's causing Italians to worry.


Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Beer Notes: Schlenkerla Smokebeer

The Aecht Schlenkerla Smokebeer Märzen is a great dark Bavarian beer from a famous brewery in Bamberg. The word Schlenkerla comes from "schlenkern" which means, in the Frankish dialect, "not walking straight"- appropriate enough for a beer. It's a very good brew. However, you really do need to get used to the smoky flavor, which results from exposing the malt to burning beech logs. The first sip is a bit like drinking a beer that someone's flicked their cigarette ash in! After that, it really does grow on you. It's surprisingly rich and melllow tasting, and by the time you're done with the bottle, it's quite enjoyable. The company prints coasters reading: "Even if the brew tastes somewhat strange at the first swallow, do not stop, because soon you will realize that your thirst will not decrease and your pleasure will visibly increase." Quite right. For understandable reasons, it would probably go best with fire-grilled meats. Well, or a cigarette!


The Great Books Series

Ah, yes- the Great Books series! My grandparents actually owned the set, as well as the Yale Library. They were well-built, aesthetically pleasing, and authoritative. Also, they were relatively cheap. The idea was that you'd buy the Great Books and have the equivalent of a higher arts degree by the time you were done reading them. For people like my grandparents, who started their lives together after WWII with less than a few dollars and never went to college, the chance to become culturally literate was a godsend.

I don't know how many of the books they actually read, but I've read about 3/4ths of the titles, mostly checked out from the library. Whenever I was at their house, I'd be too busy reading their old National Geographics to crack open their Great Books. I've since inherited many of their originals and I quite like them. I prefer the Penguin Classics, which are more complete. But I like the everyman quality of the Great Books series- they're not pretentious, but they're also not dumbed down. They suggest that anyone can be well-educated, but you'll have to work for it. That was pretty much the sense that my grandparents passed on to me. These were the sorts of books you had an obligation to read. Forget about pleasure! That could come later.

Reading W.A.Pannapacker's article, it's amazing to hear that the literati once mocked the Great Books series. What they wouldn't give today to have suburbanites striving to read hard books! Pannapacker connects this with the old modernist gripes about "middlebrows". "For Woolf and her heirs, middlebrows are inauthentic, meretricious bounders, slaves to fashion and propriety, aping a culture they cannot understand... Of course, the only acceptable lowbrows are the ones who know their place, who have noaspirations to anything better..." He's a bit hard on Virginia Woolf, but it's a bit amazing how the old snobbery about "middlebrows" seems to have vanished in the modern era. People still make fun of intellectuals, of course, and ridicule lowbrows in the Homer Simpson mode. But, when was the last time you heard someone mocked for being a Babbitt?


"(The Great Books) represented an old American belief—now endangered—that "anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself."
"What has been lost, according to Jacoby, is a culture of intellectual effort. We are increasingly ignorant, but we do not know enough to be properly ashamed. If we are determined to get on in life, we believe it will not have anything to do with our
ability to reference Machiavelli or Adam Smith at the office Christmas party. The rejection of the Great Books signifies a declining belief in the value of anything without a direct practical application, combined with the triumph of a passive entertainment—as anyone who teaches college students can probably affirm."
No comment. But I will say that it's easy to mock the idea that there is a single definitive Western Canon, not to mention the desire to be told what books you have to read; and even if they represented bourgeois meretricious striving, the idea behind the Great Books must have had an effect: my grandparents' kids all went to college, and my sister and I eventually went to grad school. And I think we've never entirely lost the sense of obligation.