Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

31 March, 2010

How Is This Possible?

|| Palmer, 2:18 PM || link || (0) comments |

I.M. Pei on American Masters

Concomitant to my review of Iris Chang's The Chinese in America earlier this week, it is worth noting that the PBS show American Masters takes a look at Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei which airs tonight at 8 here in Madison.

I.M. Pei has been called the most important living modern architect, defining the landscapes of some of the world’s greatest cities. A monumental figure in his field and a laureate of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, Pei is the senior statesman of modernism and last surviving link to such great early architects as Corbusier, Gropius, and Mies van der Rohe. Entering into the twilight of his career and well into his eighties, Pei returns to his ancestral home of Suzhou, China to work on his most personal project to date. He is commissioned to build a modern museum in the city’s oldest neighborhood which is populated by classical structures from the Ming and Qing dynasties. For the architect who placed the pyramid at the Louvre, the test to integrate the new with the old is familiar but still difficult. The enormous task is to help advance China architecturally without compromising its heritage. In the end, what began as his greatest challenge and a labor of sentiment, says Pei, ultimately becomes “my biography.”

Here's a preview:

|| Palmer, 12:27 PM || link || (0) comments |

Pope Fritzy's List of Victims Grows

We can now add another paedophile to the Vatican's roster - Father Ernesto Garcia-Rubio.

An investigation into a defrocked priest who ministered here in South Florida and allegedly preyed on young children from the Mariel boat lift, Nicaragua and El Salvador has reportedly uncovered documents that indicate his actions were acknowledged and covered up by the Vatican.

According to child sexual abuse attorneys Stuart Mermelstein and Jessica Arbour, the documents reveal an international cover up of Garcia-Rubios's pattern of sexual misconduct. The Vatican, Archdiocese of Miami, and Garcia-Rubio's Cuban diocese all reportedly knew he posed a threat to children early in his ministry, yet each entity did nothing to warn the parishioners.

To add insult to injury, The Vatican is doing its best to avoid legal ramifications here in the States. Regarding a lawsuit filed against the Church in Kentucky:

Plaintiffs in the Kentucky suit contend that bishops are employees of the Vatican. That point is crucial to determining whether the Holy See can be held responsible for their behavior.

There's a general consensus among legal scholars that an employee is someone who works for the employer, who controls the details of the work. Attorneys for the Vatican are expected to argue that diocesan bishops do not work for the pope, and that the Holy See does not exercise the day-to-day control over their work necessary to create an employment relationship.

So the Pope doesn't exercise day-to-day control, eh? Am I to take it that priests raping children is such a quotidian event that the situation was beneath him? Exactly how heinous a crime would need to be committed for it to extend beyond the mundane daily routine of a church to get the Holy See's attention?
|| Palmer, 11:43 AM || link || (0) comments |

30 March, 2010

The Chinese in America by Iris Chang

Having had a friend who is an ABC (American-born Chinese) for nearly 33 years, I have always had glimpses into what's it like to be a Chinese American. There's the stereotyping and racism, the tension between growing up American and having parents who retain traditional Chinese values and expectations, et al. And so when I found Iris Chang's The Chinese in America, I thought it would be interesting to learn about the broader scenario from which my friend's tales emerge.

Chang begins her narrative by giving some background on 19th century imperial China before discussing the earliest Chinese immigrants who came to America. She makes a habit of giving the reader brief bits of Chinese history which I really appreciate as they explain from where in China the various waves of migrants came from but also provides some sense of their motivations. The first immigrants were mostly men from the economically depressed Guangdong region and they came here because they'd heard about "Gold Mountain", i.e. – California. These men were hard workers but they often found themselves the target of racism. This state of affairs changed little when the Gold Rush ended and thousands of Chinese immigrants found work helping build the Transcontinental Railroad. They often did the most dangerous work and received less pay than their white counterparts. During the 1870s, the United States suffered an economic depression that brought on even more and more vicious discrimination. The early history of Chinese Americans climaxed with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which severely limited the immigration of Chinese citizens and made it impossible for many to return to the United States after visiting family in their homeland. It was not repealed until 1965.

Chang provides an endless stream of examples of discrimination and violence against Chinese Americans but, ever since the first Chinese stepped off the boat in the 19th century, Chinese Americans have contributed to America. In addition to laying track and prospecting, there are the countless stores and shops plus she points out notable people such as M.C. Chang, the co-inventor of the birth control pill, renowned architect I.M. Pei, and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang. But there's more to the book than simply being a catalogue of injustices and achievements. One of Chang's main arguments is that Chinese Americans are still outsiders in American society that have yet to be fully accepted. This notion can be traced all the way back to the first Chinese Americans in 19th century California where laws enshrined discrimination against blacks – but what about yellow people? I found sections discussing the lives of Chinese in the American South to be particularly interesting. There they straddled color lines. Chinese were acceptable to whites yet they saw their commonalities with the blacks as well and found themselves in the middle during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Chang argues that this middle position – where pale skin is accompanied by epicanthic folds – is where Chinese Americans are stuck. She further opines that the attitudes of the white majority in America towards Chinese Americans tend to mirror Sino-American relations. And so their skin color and small numbers make them acceptable under good circumstances but their eyes and the fact that China is not always on the best of terms with the United States can turn them into scapegoats very easily.

The book is written in an accessible style where Chang gives an overview and illustrates generalizations with quotes from individuals. On the one hand, this personalizes the history and keeps it from being a jumble of statistics and an overly broad picture. And having people talk about their experiences also allows her to cover territory that one couldn't if she didn't zero in on certain topics. One area served particularly well by this technique is when ABCs talk about their estrangement from older members of their community who still had ties to China. On the other hand, there are instances when Chang quotes a person or two and expects the reader to take it on faith that these views are representative of the larger group of Chinese Americans.

Other than this quibble, Chang has certainly constructed an engaging overview of the history of Chinese Americans and shed some new light on a decades old friendship.
|| Palmer, 3:03 PM || link || (0) comments |

Scarface: The School Play

Man, we'd never have been able to stage Scarface at school when I was a kid. Times have sure changed.

Scarface School Play - Watch more Funny Videos
|| Palmer, 10:49 AM || link || (0) comments |

29 March, 2010

Hitchens On Milwaukee Priest-Paedophile Scandal

It'd be nice to see Milwaukee in the national press for something other than 200 deaf boys being raped by a priest and having the whole thing washed over by Pope Fritzy.

The internal correspondence from bishops in Wisconsin directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, shows that while church officials tussled over whether the priest should be dismissed, their highest priority was protecting the church from scandal.

Also disgusting is how civil authorities failed in their duties.

Father Murphy not only was never tried or disciplined by the church’s own justice system, but also got a pass from the police and prosecutors who ignored reports from his victims, according to the documents and interviews with victims. Three successive archbishops in Wisconsin were told that Father Murphy was sexually abusing children, the documents show, but never reported it to criminal or civil authorities.

What the hell was wrong with the criminal justice system? After trotting out the, "Yeah, but other people did it too" defense, Archbishop Dolan of New York claims:

Because, as we now sadly realize, nobody, nowhere, no time, no way, no how knew the extent, depth, or horror of this scourge, nor how to adequately address it.

So, is he sincere in saying that dealing with child rapists is one of the great advances of only the last 50 years? What an asshole. Pope Pius V had it figured out back in the 16th century when he declared that priests who rape children would be defrocked and handed over to the courts for punishment. Local constabularies have been dealing with this stuff for centuries. Are any of the bishops who reported Murphy's paedophilial predilections to Fritzy still alive? If so, instead of suing to block health care form, perhaps our Attorney General can bring those douchebags up on charges of aiding and abetting a child rapist along with any living civil authorities that stood by and did nothing.

While ACORN goes out of business because of some video editing, the Catholic Church remains, as Matt Taibbi points out, a taxpayer-subsidized guardian of child molesters.

In fact the Church is not only not sanctioned in any serious way, it gets to retain its outrageous tax-exempt status, which makes its systematic child abuse, in this country at least, a government-subsidized activity.
|| Palmer, 11:19 AM || link || (0) comments |

25 March, 2010

Madison Meet Milwaukee

Steve Jagler at OnMilwaukee has an article up there about how the business community is largely silent on the subject of the high-speed rail line between Milwaukee and Madison.

High-speed rail in Wisconsin may be an $823 million priority for the Obama administration, but from a public relations standpoint, it is an abandoned orphan.

At best, most business advocacy groups in Wisconsin are keeping the high-speed rail project at arm's length. In most cases, that's because their members are as divided about the issue as the public seems to be.

At the same time, I read that the Republican gubernatorial candidates are saying they'd 86 the railway if they get elected. In response, the DOT is working like mad to get contracts in place lest a Republican, i.e. – Milwaukee Co. Executive Scott Walker, take office.

I guess I've just been reading too much stuff about regional planning for the Midwest because it puzzles me that neither a Milwaukee official nor state business groups seem to be showing any interest in HSR. Milwaukee watches as its job base dwindles yet those who should be talking about a rail connection as having the potential to help draw Madison-Milwaukee-Chicago together as a regional economy aren't.

Again, perhaps I've just been reading too much Richard Longworth, but I think he and his ilk make good points. The Midwest is in decay. As the economy becomes ever more global, we have declining rural areas and a Rust Belt. The main point they make is that the Midwest has to strengthen itself and then unify to compete in the global economy. That means that Wisconsin will have to partner with the Flatlanders in Illinois, Iowans, etc. Closer to home Madison and Milwaukee are going to have to become conjoined and perhaps a rail line can be play a role in bringing our two cities closer together as well as creating ties between Madison and the Midwest's capital, Chicago.

We Madisonians spend a lot of time arguing over the Edgewater but our city's future lies with another building – the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery - and our ability to leverage what happens there in a global market. And we can't do it alone.
|| Palmer, 1:24 PM || link || (0) comments |

Where Bars Trump Grocery Stores

"The Midwest takes their drinking seriously."

|| Palmer, 10:07 AM || link || (0) comments |

Please Don't Play the Victim

Emily Mills has an op-ed in the latest issue of Isthmus in which she implores readers to "Keep up the fight on health care". In it she says:

I happen to be among the more than 40 million Americans who lack health insurance. If I get sick or injured, I would almost certainly go into serious debt and probably have to declare bankruptcy. I can't afford the medication I need for a chronic stomach condition, so I go without. It's ridiculous."

Personally I find this statement to be disingenuous, to say the least. It's a ploy for sympathy that I will give no quarter because, as she has stated at her blog, she "cast off (her) full-time desk job on purpose" – emphasis hers. It's one thing to argue that health care should be a right for people in this country but it's something else to ignore reality and the reality is we don't have universal coverage. However things should be doesn't change the fact that Ms. Mills voluntarily rid herself of health insurance.

In speaking about the health care reform debate, she finds herself flummoxed and writes:

It baffles me that some of my fellow citizens have been so thoroughly duped by fear-mongering and false information that they now rage against their own self-interest."

Do you think that it might have been in Ms. Mills' self-interest to keep her insurance instead of putting herself in the position of not having medication and being one illness or accident away from bankruptcy? She made her choice and she chose to go without insurance to instead pursue her writing, musical, etc. endeavors full-time. But now that the die is cast, she has the nerve to turn around and use herself as an example of the problems facing our uninsured.

While I am in favor of health care reform (but have some gripes about the pending legislation), I would implore Ms. Mills to refrain from using herself as a poster child as she continues the fight because this is the message doing so gives off to many whose support we could use: Somebody wants to be an artist and thinks the world owes her.

I can barely muster any sympathy for her and instead am worried for people like my friend who hasn't been able to find construction work in ages and a co-worker who is certainly among the working poor as he lives in a trailer with no hot water and does a lot of his shopping out in the woods and at local streams & rivers.

I wish Ms. Mills all the luck in the world in her career and hope she is and remains as close to healthy as a horse as possible. But I also hope that she'll stop holding her own position up as an argument for health care reform. Life is about making choice amongst things that are, not as how we would have them be. And, if she must try to gain sympathy with her situation in future editorials, then I hope she'll at least tell people that she is going without insurance by her own choice as opposed to intimating that she's the victim of forces beyond her control.
|| Palmer, 9:55 AM || link || (0) comments |

24 March, 2010

Corned Beef Hitting the Big Time in Madison?

The Reubens at Cooper's Tavern are getting rave reviews.

I hear that one upshot of this is that the supplier of the beef they use for corning, Knoche's Butcher Shop, is seeing their brisket and corned beef sales go through the roof. Regarding the latter, this is despite the fact that folks behind the meat counter warn customers that their corned beef is not the same as that found at Cooper's.

Is this the start of a new food trend? We shall see.
|| Palmer, 11:15 AM || link || (1) comments |

23 March, 2010

Starring Werner Herzog As...The Plastic Bag

My skin against her skin...

|| Palmer, 1:17 PM || link || (0) comments |

A Festival of Foreign Films

I don't know about you, but I managed to get tickets for all the films I wanted to see at the Wisconsin Film Festival. It was a bit of a mad dash because, as noon Saturday loomed, I discovered that a few of the films I was keen on seeing were going to be coming to Sundance this spring so I decided to avoid those and go with some unknown propositions.

Firstly there's Joon-ho Bong's Madeo (Mother) which opens the week of the festival on 16 April.

The following week we get the Swedish thriller Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Perhaps it will make a trend out of Scandanavian crime fiction.

7 May brings us the stop motion animated Panique au village (A Town Called Panic) from Belgium which is family-friendly and perhaps a good way to get your children into foreign cinema.

Although I wasn't planning on seeing it at the festival, The Art of the Steal hits Sundance on 14 May. It's a documentary about how a multi-billion dollar art collection was moved from a small, private suburban Philadelphia site to a grand public art museum in downtown Philly. I heard about it on NPR and it just sounded too biased and conspiratorial for my taste.

Although not playing at the festival, Nordwand (North Face) is coming to Sundance as well. It, along with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and another film at the festival, OSS 117: Rio ne répond plus (OSS 117: Lost in Rio) are distributed by a relatively new company in Chicago, Music Box Films. Newcity Film recently posted a profile of MBF which notes the outfit is mostly going after foreign films instead of American indie pics.

Andreotti says that going after micro-budgeted American independent films can be “tricky,” and it best suited the new company to focus on quality foreign films that have slipped through the cracks and haven’t received the attention they deserved. “In some ways, it’s, ironically, a safer bet to go after the foreign-language films,” he says.

Now, whether or not having MBF a relative hop, skip, and jump away will mean more for foreign films here in Madison or not, I don't know. But it is encouraging to see the films they're distributing showing up in our cinemas.
|| Palmer, 10:29 AM || link || (0) comments |

22 March, 2010

White Ribbon

I am not exactly sure what director Michael Haneke was actually trying to say with The White Ribbon but I walked out of the theatre feeling as if I'd just watched a very engaging and very dark take on the already gloomy Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. The film tells the story of the fictional village of Eichwald in the years of 1913-14. A narrator tells us that the events portrayed are from his younger years when he was a schoolteacher there and that telling this tale might "clarify things" that later happened in Germany.

The opening scene is that of the town doctor returning home on his horse when suddenly it topples over and throws its rider to the ground. Someone had strung some wire between two trees with the intended results seriously injuring the doctor and his horse. This strange act of malice is followed by other similar ones including the son of the local baron being beaten with a cane as he hung upside down in the sawmill. Despite the local constabulary being called in, no perpetrator is ever found and no explanations are given. But there is another incident that seemingly had no malicious intent behind it – the wife of one of the town's farmers dies when some floorboards in the upper level of the sawmill gave way and the woman fell to her death.

As the tragic events unfold, we also get to know some of the village's inhabitants and their less than savory private lives. For instance, the local pastor is a strict disciplinarian who exacts harsh punishments for rather minor transgressions and he ties white ribbons to a couple of the children's arms to remind them of their innocence which is, in his eyes, maintained by harsh punishment. The whole family suffers when one of the children doesn't come home on time as the father denies everyone dinner. Later in the film, when one of his sons, Martin, admits to masturbating, he has the boy's arms restrained while in bed.

By this time, the doctor has returned from the hospital and there is a great transition as we cut from Martin being lectured about the evils of onanism to the doctor's office where he and the local midwife have just finished what appears to be a very clinical session of sex. The doctor is a widower and he enlisted the midwife to help around the office and look after his children. But at one point he launches a vicious verbal attack and excoriates her for being ugly, among other things. The pity I had for the midwife only increased when her mentally retarded son was kidnapped and later found after someone had attempted to blind the boy.

For his part, the school teacher looks on at what is happening in the village horrified. But amidst the chaos, we see him woo Eva, a young woman from a nearby town who was fired as the Baron's governess. She is shy and innocent and their courtship provides the only relief from the tragedy unfolding in Eichwald.

The White Ribbon was shot in color but Haneke had it all drained away leaving behind some gorgeous black & white. There are many long shots which double as long takes where he refuses to cut in. We viewers are held at arm's length for much of the film. Some scenes feature only natural light which can mean simply a lantern or two. Furthermore the camera is static. No graceful Steadicam work to be found here. While the cinematography contributes an austere beauty, the absence of any music on the soundtrack is resoundingly stark. There are no cues trying to direct the viewer's sympathies or emphasize an action or character. We are left with light & shade, facial expressions, and dialogue.

The film comes to a close with World War I looming and the schoolteacher approaching the pastor with his conviction that the children of the village are to blame for the misery that has befallen it over the past year. However willing he is to inflict pain and humiliation on his own children, the pastor will be damned if he'll let an outsider, of sorts, make such an accusation. He threatens to denounce the schoolteacher publicly which silences him. Our narrator tells us that he eventually left Eichwald and life went on there as it had before.

What was Haneke trying to say? That authoritarianism in dealing with one's neighbors and children was necessary for the Nazis, World War II, and the Holocaust? Sufficient? I am not familiar with Haneke or his previous films so I'm not sure whether such a simplistic argument is one he'd likely make. However such a proposition seems too simple. I suppose the film is making a more general case that desperate people take desperate actions. In the film, the pastor's daughter Klara sticks a pair of scissors into her father's bird in an act of revenge. There is also a scene where the son of the woman who fell through the floor of the sawmill takes a scythe to the Baron's cabbage patch as he blamed the Baron's negligence for his mother's death. Perhaps these scenes are the most important of the film as they demonstrate how those who are oppressed or downtrodden will lash out unpredictably and irrationally and this kind of anger can be manipulated by a person like Adolf Hitler. It isn't that treating one's neighbors and children so horribly leads to fascism but that more general feelings of anger and contempt can be directed outward by an entire country.

|| Palmer, 7:01 PM || link || (0) comments |

We Are All Lucifer: Legion @ the Viaduct Theatre, 22 March 2010

And he asked him, "What is thy name?" And he answered, saying, "My name is Legion: for we are many." (Mark 5:9)

This bit of scripture provides the name of William Peter Blatty's sequel to The Exorcist which has been made into a play by the folks at WildClaw Theatre in Chicago. The Dulcinea and I attended a performance yesterday along with my brother and friend Andrew at the Viaduct Theatre. I've never read the book and have selective memories of The Exorcist III, the film based on Legion, and so it was fun going in not knowing the entire plot and the ending. My brother recently started re-reading the book in anticipation of the play but hadn't finished it by show time.

The story revolves around Lieutenant Kinderman, pictured above, who is investigating a series of murders the victims of which are a boy who had been crucified, a priest decapitated in the confessional booth, and a second priest, Father Dyer, who was a friend of Kinderman's that was desanguinated. These people all bore the distinct markings that another murderer had carved into his victims some 12 years previously. Known as the Gemini Killer, he had been killed in a shootout with police. Kinderman's investigation leads him to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital and a mysterious patient whose identity remains unknown.

WildClaw recruited a large ensemble cast for the production to populate the psych ward, act as fellow police officers, and so on. But Legion is all about Lieutenant Kinderman. Not only is he the lead investigator, but his philosophical and religious ruminations dominate the first half of the play and provide a thematic foundation for the entire story. He reflects on the nature of evil with his friends and co-workers but also with witnesses who must feel like they're being given a philosophical interrogation instead of questioned for what they saw and when. My brother told me that Kinderman's metaphysical banter is pervasive in the book and that the play captured them quite well.

During the intermission, I was out having a smoke with my brother and we were joined by someone involved with the production who told us that the first half was all setup – the second half is when all the crazy shit happens. And indeed it was.

Kinderman discovers the identity of the enigmatic mental patient which ties this story into the original Exorcist via Father Damien Karras, he who killed himself by jumping out the window after finding himself possessed by the demon. Plus there are a couple great scenes which worked their horror magic on me. In one, a nurse working the night shift in the psych ward is brutally murdered. Her scream, and the use of light and shadow really scared the bejezzus out of me. In addition, Kinderman's family is threatened in another scene and, although not scary per se, it was incredibly creepy and tense. Kudos to the light and sound folks who plied their respective trades to great effect here. The use of light and shade as well as music that set a mood but didn't overpower what was happening onstage all helped create an incredibly eerie mood throughout.

Fidelity to the source material and technical wizardry aside, the play rises or falls on the performance of Len Bajenski as Kinderman and yesterday it was a mixed bag. On the bright side, Bajenski looks the part. He is older than most of his fellow actors here, including his fellow police officers. This, along with costumes, makes for a nice contrast and enhances his world-weary countenance. Watching him contemplate existence and the place of evil within it doesn't feel contrived, it only sounds like it. And that's my gripe with his performance – his voice. Kinderman is Jewish and his way of talking here sounded hackneyed in a way that's difficult to describe. It sounded more Seinfeld cliché than natural too often for my taste. In Bajenski's defense, my brother pointed out that it's hard not to compare him to the late great George C. Scott who played Kinderman in The Exorcist III no matter how unfair that may be. Still, there was just something in his voice's cadence which didn't work for me. It didn't make his performance unwatchable by any means, but it wasn't as strong as it could have been.

Regardless, Legion was a lot of fun and I suggest horror fans get thee to the Viaduct before the show ends next month on the 18th.
|| Palmer, 1:08 PM || link || (0) comments |

19 March, 2010

Stuff White People Like: Google Fiber

So Google wants to deploy fiber to the desktop in one lucky community and Madison is making a pitch. There's even a website by some group where they post photos of people holding up the group's signs saying "I would use Google Fiber".

So who exactly would get the fiber? Are people who can only afford dial-up currently going to be able to get it at an affordable price or will they be left further behind as all those folks who can already afford a 20Mb connection watch their Facebook pages load a nanosecond faster and that bootleg HD copy of Avatar load in just a few minutes?

Detective Cindy Murphy claims to have to deal with "terabytes of data every day at work". I sure hope she was kidding because I'm thinking that she doesn't really deal with the same amount of data that's in the SANs of medium-sized enterprises. Almost all the people at the site above who express their desire for fiber are white people in a white collar office environment. The major exception is this video which makes the case that various non-profits would greatly benefit from it.

A recent survey found that "People with higher rates of broadband access tend to be younger, white or Asian, highly-educated, married, and with higher incomes, while those with no broadband are often seniors or minorities, less educated, and living in non-family households with lower incomes or unemployed." So who do you think is going to be getting fiber to their desktops?

I hope we here in Madison get Google's fiber but I also hope that it brings forward a discussion about those who do not have Internet access (which includes people who can afford it but don't want it) and those who cannot afford a broadband connection. One out of every two students in Madison public schools qualifies for a reduced-price or free lunch. Are these kids going home to broadband Internet connections? Does it matter if there are people without Internet access here in Madison who still wouldn't have it even if Google laid fiber?

Like I said, I'm rooting for the home squad here. But I also hope that fiber to the desktop would actually serve a purpose other than simply allowing people who can already afford the fastest broadband currently available to download their mp3s faster.
|| Palmer, 2:56 PM || link || (0) comments |

18 March, 2010

Little Pigs, Let Me In

Designer Chris Dimino has designed a clock for people like me who are cuckoo for Kubrick.

"Every hour, Jack breaks through the door, uttering the famous line, 'Heeeere’s Johnny,' followed by Shining co-star Shelly Duvall's unmistakable scream."
|| Palmer, 12:20 PM || link || (0) comments |

17 March, 2010

Tom Baker Returns to Doctor Who Audio Once More

After doing the audio drama Hornets' Nest last year for the BBC, Tom Baker has decided to yet again reprise his role as The Doctor on audio, but this time it's for Big Finish. The revelation came from Baker himself at his webpage.
|| Palmer, 1:11 PM || link || (0) comments |

Red Cliff

According to Shang Zuo over at Asian Wisconzine, the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history is immensely popular with Chinese as demonstrated by the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms written in the 14th century by Luo Guanzhong and the numerous films, TV series, etc. which have succeeded it. John Woo's Red Cliff is the latest in this long line of dramatizations of the period. In China the film runs about five hours but we Americans get a version that is half that length.

As Zuo explains, the Three Kingdoms period took place in the 3rd century C.E. as the Han Dynasty was in decline. The kingdoms were the Wei, Shu, and Wu. Cao Cao, a Wei warlord expanded his power and territory through various battles. Red Cliff begins with some voiceover narration explaining this general state of affairs before we see the pretender to the throne pressure the emperor to allow him to turn southwards to take on Liu Bei of the Shu kingdom.

Liu Bei's forces are unable defeat Cao Cao's so they eschew head-on confrontation in favor of protecting the villagers who are fleeing the marauders from the north. Bei sends his military strategist Zhuge Liang to forge an alliance with Viceroy Zhou Yu of the Wu kingdom. The two sit down and battle one another on Chinese zithers. Liang is successful and the new allies make their stand at Red Cliff against Cao Cao's massive navy and his hundreds of thousands of troops.

The film had a large budget by Asian standards and this along with Woo's presence means that the battle sequences are thrilling. They're expertly staged and seamlessly blend hordes of extras with CGI effects. Before the main battle itself, a group of Cao Cao's infantry are ambushed by Bei and Quan's combined forces in a tortoise maneuver which involves luring the troops into maze created by soldiers who form moving walls with their shields to separate the enemy into smaller and smaller groups. Woo and his DPs begin with a fantastic long shot before moving in and showing Cao Cao's forces slowly being picked off in the face of their incredibly coordinated enemy.

Considering that we're getting only half a film here, this version of Red Cliff hangs together quite well. While we Americans no doubt got the vast majority of battle scenes, I would guess that there's more Cao Cao rampaging across the north that we missed. Plus there's surely lots of character back story left out as well since people's pasts are hinted at throughout the film. For instance, Cao Cao is entranced by Zhou Yu's wife. In the short version, we get a smidgeon of why this is so but it seems that there's more to be had since it is intimated that his feelings for her are at least a part of his motivation for war and their meeting towards the end of the film has immense ramifications.

Despite all this, the film's narrative remains cohesive and there's no scenes which leave you completely flummoxed for want of that which was left out.

Lastly, I want to publicly admit that I'm developing a man-crush on Tony Leung, who portrayed Zhou Yu. His scenes with Takeshi Kaneshiro's Zhuge Liang were some of the best of the film. Whether it be testing each other via a zither duel or plotting their moves against Cao Cao, their scenes are alternately graceful and intense. After seeing Leung in Lust, Caution, 2046 and now Red Cliff, I am really taking to him. He has gravitas and charisma to burn. If I were a Jungian, I'd say that Zhou Yu was the full package – lover, warrior, magician, and king. He is a first rate strategist and leader of soldiers. Plus he kicks ass in hand-to-hand combat. Yet he halts military training to put a young boy's flute in tune and we see his tender side in scenes with his wife. Leung can be approachable and gentle when he wants to be and stoic or vicious when necessary.

Consider me his newest fan-boy.

|| Palmer, 9:42 AM || link || (2) comments |

15 March, 2010

The Boy Is Becoming A Man

When I first started dating The Dulcinea and got to know her son Miles, I am sure one of the first things he and I did together was watch The Simpsons. And so for years we'd watch the show and we'd generally laugh at completely different things. Miles enjoyed Bart's pranks and all the goofy things while I tended to laugh more at all the references and parodies, although I also love any scene which involves Homer saying "Steady…steady…"

But last night the first sign that things are changing was seen. Miles decided he wanted to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and he got through the scenes where we learn about Poole and Bowman's routine about Discovery before he went to bed. However, before he retired for the night, he had made connections between some Simpsons bits and the film. For instance:

Oh, and this one too:

Since we didn't get to the Stargate sequence, he hasn't made the connection between it and the Spinemelter 2000 yet but it will come in good time.

Just before heading to his bedroom he told me, "The Simpsons sure references a lot of other stuff." This could be the turning point in his life when he begins to view The Simpsons with a whole different set of eyes and starts the long journey of getting all the cultural references in the show. The boy is becoming a man.

Next up: Rashomon!
|| Palmer, 6:31 PM || link || (0) comments |

Burlesque For Nerds

Star Wars burlesque.
|| Palmer, 6:10 PM || link || (0) comments |

V.S. Ramachandran @ Union Theatre, 10 March 2010

(Photo from The Daily Cardinal.)

V.S. Ramachandran swung through town last week and gave a speech at the Union Theatre on Wednesday. Being a neurologist, he spoke about some ideas on how the brain works and completed a trifecta of speakers this season who offered insights on cognition and how and why people think what they do. (The others were Dan Ariely and Michael Shermer.) Ramachandran's concerns were less behavioral and more about the nitty gritty of grey matter – all those synapses, neuron, and the like.

He began by saying that his field likes to examine people who had changes in their brains. When he said this, I automatically thought of Phineas Gage, that railroad worker who got an iron rod shot through his brain in an accident involving blasting powder and, although he survived, was never the same person again. But Ramachandran avoided such incidents in his talk and instead focused on three topics: 1) phantom limbs, 2) synesthesia, and 3) mirror neurons.

Phantom limbs refers to the sensations people have of limbs that have been lost. Amputees report that, although their limbs are no longer there, if still feels like they are and somewhere between 2/3 to ¾ of people with phantom limbs feel great pain so studying them is no mere academic exercise. V.S. explained how he was able to get a patient, as he jokingly put it, to move his phantom limb. First he noted that copies of brain commands to move muscles were sent to the cerebellum so that the brain can monitor movement. Then he told of how the man tried every day to "unstick" his phantom limb to no avail. VS was able to rig a mirror to create the illusion that the severed limb was back and, lo and behold, the visual stimulation enabled the patient to "move" the phantom limb. VS said that no one gets awards or funding for getting someone to move a phantom limb so he talked about this kind of treatment for stroke victims.

This subject led into a brief discussion of mirror neurons. Work by Giacomo Rizzolatti and others has shown that the mirror neurons of monkeys fire when watching other monkeys perform actions. And so, when monkey A is watching monkey B grab a banana, the neurons in monkey A's brain which would fire to induce those same muscle movements do indeed fire but don't produce the movement. VS said there is evidence that we humans have these same mirror neurons as well. Relating this back to his first topic, he said that people with phantom limbs can only feel touch in them by watching the actions of others. This led to my hypothesis that my friend Marv, who was also in attendance, could only feel touch in his phantom penis when watching other men…well, you get the idea. The benefits of science are many although Marv might not be so enthusiastic about this.

Puerile jokes aside, I never knew that so many people with phantom limbs felt such great pain. I can imagine such research is of tremendous importance - the many soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost limbs sprang to mind as I sat there.

The final topic of his lecture was about synesthesia, which is a sensory phenomenon where one type of input triggers an unrelated response. VS focused on the variety involving colors and numbers whereby some people would see a numbers as a color but he also noted those who got certain tastes in their mouths after touching certain textures. Interestingly, Roman numerals didn't do it, only Arabic ones. This and other evidence pointed to the parts of the brain responsible for dealing color and shape are in close proximity to one another and that they are connected in synesthetes to a greater degree than in those who do not have synesthesia. Ramachandran finished by talking about metaphor. He told us that schizophrenics are unable to comprehend metaphor and instead take everything literally. By way of example, he quoted Shakespeare: "Juliet is the sun!" A schizophrenic would be aghast to learn Bill thought a person was a blazing hot ball of gas but we "sane" folks get it. Perhaps metaphor, like synesthesia, reflects how the various parts of our brains are connected to one another.

And that was a major theme of the lecture. While the various parts of the brain may specialize in particular functions, there is a lot of overlap.

VS called the brain the "most complexly organized matter in the universe". Our grey matter is, if you'll pardon the expression, truly mind-boggling.
|| Palmer, 6:06 PM || link || (0) comments |

11 March, 2010

Precogs Hired by Oregon

Radley Balko points to a disturbing case where Oregon officials have apparently hired precogs so police can arrest people before they commit a crime.

Concerns about an Oregon Department of Transportation employee who purchased several guns after being placed on leave prompted law enforcement across Southern Oregon to step in.

Negotiators and a SWAT team from Medford police safely took a man — whose name wasn't released — into protective custody Monday morning in the 500 block of Effie Street, Medford police said in a news release.

He was taken to Rogue Valley Medical Center for a mental-health evaluation.

As Balko notes:

But there’s a phrase we use to describe the sort of society where the police can come into your home, arrest you, commit you to a mental facility, and confiscate your legally-obtained property on no more than a hunch that you might commit some crime in the near future.

That would be a police state.
|| Palmer, 4:04 PM || link || (0) comments |

How Much Post-Modern Irony Is Needed to Find This Funny?

|| Palmer, 4:00 PM || link || (0) comments |

Patrick Kennedy Rips Into National Press Corps

Rep. Patrick Kennedy lays into the press for not covering our venture in Afghanistan and instead saturating the news with sex scandals.

While the press certainly have a large share of blame here, even more must go to us. I don't think that most people care. Unless someone has a friend or relative over there, Americans have better things to worry about. Right? It's not like there isn't a whole TV channel devoted to broadcasting what happens in Congress. There isn't a hunger for watching Congressional debates about the war in Afghanistan. If there was, C-SPAN's ratings would be through the roof.

While there certainly are a lot of people in this country who have pressing matters such as keeping a roof over their head to keep them occupied, the great middle class in this country whose biggest decision is iPhone or Droid doesn't want to think about what's happening in Afghanistan.
|| Palmer, 3:56 PM || link || (0) comments |

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

After reading about suffering and the Vietnam War, I was up for something a bit lighter in the reading department and so chose Jim Butcher's Storm Front, the first novel in his Dresden Files series. The protagonist of the novels is one Harry Dresden, a wizard who makes his living as a private investigator in Chicago. I believe that I first heard of the books back in 2006 or so when the SciFi Channel was gearing up to broadcast a TV series based on the books. At the time I made a mental note to check out the books and finally got around to doing so last week.

I watched one episode of the TV series and just thought it too cliché-ridden and, well, cheesy. The book, however, is a lot better. Sure, it revels in Dashiel Hammett and noir, but it manages to exploit the novelty of the premise well. Having said all that, I still must say that I don't plan on continuing the series. I had a handful of gripes.

First comes the more menial of my complaints. Simply put, Jim Butcher doesn't know Chicago. Or, at least, didn't when he wrote the book. He doesn't describe the geography of the real Chicago and the people don't talk like real Chicagoans. I don't doubt for a second that none of this would bother me if I weren't from Chicago but, seeing as how I am, they did. They couldn't even bother putting the Chicago skyline on the cover of the book and instead get some generic rendering. Butcher didn't even try. I mean, all he had to do was make reference to well-known landmarks like the Sears Tower to just give the book the slightest hint of verisimilitude but he couldn't even do that.

A minor point, to be sure, but I found it distracting.

More damning is that the protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a very uneven character. There are times when he's an ass-kicking wizard with a dark past that requires more illumination and then there are times when he's puerile and annoying. The book is in first-person and passages such as those when Dresden describes his paucity of experience on the dating scene comes across as simple whining. Part of the problem lies in the narrative style. Butcher likes to put Dresden into an Irving the Explainer mode. So he'll do something and then explain that such things are what wizards do in a burst of really weak braggadocio. Is this guy an adult wizard or a child pining for attention?

Butcher does, however, have a good story. How can you not like people's chests exploding? The investigation moves through various locales and there's a nice cast of characters surrounding Dresden including a vampire named Madam Bianca and the stereotypical mysterious dame in distress. There's some good noir action to be had here and some interesting genre tweaking but characterization is, overall, lacking.
|| Palmer, 12:57 PM || link || (0) comments |

10 March, 2010

Dispatches by Michael Herr

I was still very young when the Vietnam War ended and had no family that fought in it so most of my childhood impressions about the conflict came via cinema - Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and so on. Now, I say "impressions" because I don't think I ever really thought that fictional films could capture the essence of war but they were sure miles removed from the old John Wayne movies and other cinematic representations of war that were perennial favorites around our house such as The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone. Considering that Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are two of my favorite films of all-time, it's odd that it wasn't until recently that I read Dispatches by Michael Herr who contributed to the screenplays of both of those films.

"There was a famous story, some reporters asked a door gunner, 'How can you shoot women and children?' and he answered, 'It's easy, you just don't lead 'em so much.'"

Herr was a correspondent for Esquire magazine during his time in Vietnam from 1967-69. Unlike many of the reporters there, he didn't have daily filing deadlines and was essentially able to go where he wanted and file a story with his editors at his leisure. And so it's hardly surprising that Dispatches isn't anything approaching a traditional history of the war with lines on maps and troop movements but is more like a literary decoupage with the stories of those on the ground decorating a fairly elastic timeline. You know the narration in Apocalypse Now? Well, Herr wrote at least some of it and that's exactly how Dispatches reads.

Herr sympathizes with the grunts and most of the tales are of them, although he occasionally describes encounters with officers and devotes space to his fellow reporters. He gets stoned with them, listens to their stories, and eventually learns how to deal with the shit storm in which he finds himself. The chapter on The Battle of Khe Sanh is priceless and includes accounts of hanging out with two soldiers named Mayhew and Day Tripper. Aside from talking about death, the grunts constantly went on about how much time was left in their tour of duty and Herr includes this passage about Day Tripper.

Like every American in Vietnam, he had his obsession with Time. (No one ever talked about When-this-lousy-war-is-over. Only "How much time you got?") The degree of Day Tripper's obsession, compared with most of the others, could be seen in the calendar on his helmet. No metaphysician ever studied Time the way he did, its components and implications, its per-second per seconds, its shadings and movement. The Space-Time continuum, Time-as-Matter, Augustinian Time: all of that would have been a piece of cake to Day Tripper, whose brain cells were arranged like jewels in the finest chronometer. He had assumed that correspondents had to be there. When he learned that I had asked to come here he almost let the peaches drop to the ground.

To paraphrase Willard in Apocalypse Now, if Dispatches is the story of what war did to the grunts, then it's also the story of what it did to Herr. “Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony; I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you’ve never heard it," he writes. Amidst the drugs and rock'n'roll, the bravado and the fear, Herr is never quite sure just why the hell he went to Vietnam or, at least, why he stayed and this serves as an apt metaphor for America's role in the conflict itself. Herr describes the Army's strategy as going out into the jungle to kill gooks. When you can't find them, then just napalm everything. This strategy even got its own motto – we prevent forests. Herr just went numb at one point, it seems, and who can blame him.

By the end Herr doesn't really know what to make of his experiences and concedes, "And no moves for me but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion, Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there."
|| Palmer, 11:58 AM || link || (3) comments |

08 March, 2010

Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

The first thought that came to my mind when the lights came up after Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans had finished was "I wanted more iguanas."

We should perhaps take Herzog's proclamation that he's never seen Abel Ferrara's 1992 original with a grain of salt but he certainly came up with something very different. And he added iguanas.

The movie begins with Nicolas Cage as Terence McDonagh and Val Kilmer's Stevie Pruit pondering the fate of an inmate still stuck in his cell as the waters of Hurricane Katrina fill the cell block. After all is said and done, McDonagh takes the plunge to rescue the guy. The film picks up 6 months later after the waters have receded and McDonagh finds out that his altruistic dive has thrown out his back.

McDonagh is a gambler and a drug addict whose girlfriend is a prostitute. He likes to shake down kids leaving bars and, generally speaking, not much better than a lot of the people he arrests. But there's always work to be done and he finds himself heading an investigation into the murders of a family of Senegalese immigrants.

His investigation into the drug-trafficking underbelly gives the film one part police procedural but the other parts are all about McDonagh's decent into perdition. And Cage goes wonderfully overboard in pursuit of the latter.

For starters, he's clad in a suit that's a few sizes too big for his rather gaunt frame. Jacked up on coke, he talks a million miles per minute as he pursues the murderer. But, when heroine comes onto the scene, Cage pulls a 180. His purposeful stride becomes a Frankenstein lurch with his arms disconcertingly extended before him as in the scene where he is demoted to evidence room duty. This is scenery-chewing Nicolas Cage at its best.

"What are these fucking iguanas doing on my coffee table?" asks McDonagh during a stake out. As "Release Me" plays, we are treated to some extreme close-ups of the iguanas as our cop looks down at them helplessly. The hallucinatory lizard returns towards the end of the film after the big shoot out. Some bad guys are lying on the floor dead when McDonagh says, "Shoot'em again, his soul's still dancing." We cut to the bodies only to see that one of the baddies is break dancing next to one of the corpses as an iguana traipses on by to the tune of Sonny Terry's "Old Lost John" which also provided the soundtrack to the famous chicken dance scene in Herzog's Stroszek. Such scenes are odd but they sit quite comfortably next to Cage's over the top performance.

After our viewing, The Dulcinea noted that the film was nothing like she thought it would be. Instead it was much weirder. For my part, I was hoping that it would have been even stranger.

Aside from more iguanas, I wished that Herzog had let the New Orleans ravaged by the waters from the broken levees take a larger role, had let it almost become a character itself which feeds McDonagh's addictions. But the city itself tends to stick to the periphery. There is a scene when McDonagh approaches a state trooper to try and get his bookie's daughter's traffic ticket taken care of. The trooper is attending to a vehicle that his a gator and rolled over. This is classic Herzog. We first see the mortally wounded gator sitting in the middle of the road, one leg still twitching and the scene ends with that stretch of the highway framed in the mouth of another alligator on the side of the road. Herzog has reminded us that Nature is a cruel mistress in recent documentaries and I wish a little more of that had leaked into Bad Lieutenant.

My other gripe is that Val Kilmer is drastically underused. He appears in the very opening of the film but gets precious little screen time after that. It's a shame because he's a great actor who has done some great parts as something less than a straight guy. I guess I was just disappointed as he was there at the get-go which set up the expectation that his Pruit would be someone that McDonagh would play off of as the film progressed. Not so.

Despite these gripes, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was a blast. Cage really let it loose and I can only imagine that this part was a lot of fun to do. The film may be a bit on the Herzog-lite side, but it still provided some healthy doses of absurdity and I'm not sure that McDonagh's laugh meant that he was redeemed or not.
|| Palmer, 6:46 PM || link || (0) comments |

07 March, 2010

Nrityagram Indian Dance Ensemble @ Union Theatre, 6 March 2010

(Photo by Nan Melville.)

Last night's performance by the Nrityagram Indian Dance Ensemble began with darkness and a silence that was pierced by the soothing voice of an incorporeal narrator who introduced us to the first piece, "Praarambha" or "hymn of creation". The curtain lifted to expose four dancers in colorful costume lying in wait for their musical cue. Once it struck, the dancers began their routine amidst dim lights and a light veil of fog. It was truly striking.

My experience with dance is quite limited but a few things struck me. During the show there were times when the music wound down to an ethereal sitar drone and the dancers would come to a stop and assume poses that I would associate with Hindu statuary until a drum signaled it was time for hips to sway and feet to move again. I was also struck by how much facial expressions were part of the dances. I'm used to plastered-on smiles alternating with looks of intense concentration and, while there was plenty of that to be found here, there were also looks of awe, surprise, et al which reminded me of silent film acting. I believe it was Bijayini Satpathy who had the incredibly expressive eyes. She had the ability to open them almost preternaturally wide and there was just something about the white contrasting against the dark eyeliner and her brown skin which made her smiles even warmer. No doubt a lot of this was lost on people in the back rows.

Lastly there were the hands. These ladies had the most sensual hands. They would alternately flutter above the dancers' head and then join together and undulate until I was mesmerized. And I never knew a solitary extended pinky finger could be so potent. The dance pieces often involved a solitary dancer coming to the front of the stage while the rest would remain in the back. After the one nearest to the audience had finished her part, she would roll her hands about and then move them away from her body until they pointed towards the women at the rear who would pick it up from there. As her hands unfolded, so too would her eyes roll in the same direction.

I don't doubt for a second that my ignorance of dance as well as of the culture from which these women come caused me to miss a lot. But the performance sure had this lumbering oaf in its throes. Kudos also to lighting designer Lynne Fernandez who managed to create such great moods using batteries of lights at the sides of the stage with their orange beams that fanned out in the fog.

It's a shame that so few people turned out for such a wonderful performance. Was everyone danced out after the International Festival?
|| Palmer, 10:14 AM || link || (3) comments |

05 March, 2010

Why Does a Salad Cost More Than a Big Mac?

|| Palmer, 2:28 PM || link || (0) comments |

Here Comes the Sundown

Poor Dogen. And I was just getting to really like him.

This week's episode of LOST, "Sundown", was a hoot. When it had finished, I felt like I had just watched The Empire Strikes Back. Sayid's status on team Dark Side was firmly cemented and, with Dogen's death, Smokey crushed his enemies, saw them driven before him, and heard the lamentations of the Other's women. Life was good for him.

Before being drowned by Sayid, Dogen explained that inside everyone was a scale with a good side and an evil side. For our erstwhile torturer, the scale had tipped towards evil and there was no going back. Is it possible to adjust those internal scales? Dogen's plan of poison first, ask questions later seems to indicate that, if the pans can be loaded with white stone goodness at all, there are still some for whom it is impossible to balance that beam. But our Nipponese herbalist was constrained by a rule not unlike that which even Esau must obey as he was unable to dispatch Sayid himself and so fell prey to a technicality along with his annoying sidekick, Lennon. ("You can't kill Smokey with, you know, fractions, man. What are you going to stab him with – one-quarter, three-eighths?") At least we got to see him give Sayid a good ass-kicking before he joined the choir invisible.

And what was it about Dogen that his demise allowed Smokey to finally penetrate the friendly confines of the temple?

Whether Dogen's termination with extreme prejudice means his tenure on LOST is over or not remains to be seen. But this episode made Sayid the most tragic figure of the whole show. That kind, gentle wooer of Shannon is dead. Whatever good there may have been in him, he just couldn't quite get over the hump and redeem himself. He is fated to kill regardless of the timeline the writers place him in.

Speaking of which, the flash-sideways was oddly devoid of timeline creep, unless it was something that I missed. I don't recall Sayid flashing a look of recognition upon discovering Jin sitting there bound to a chair in the walk-in. And wasn't it good to see Kevin Durand back as Keamy? He does the ruthless slimebag as well as anyone.

But the best part of "Sundown" was the end. With the temple siege over, Flocke smiled over his new-found minions. Reading that copy of The Prince that washed ashore back in the day paid off as the principle of better to be feared than loved seems to have come in handy. Despite the new minions and his two apprentices, Claire and Sayid, Flocke's facial expressions betrayed some ambivalence when he saw Kate amongst the unwashed masses. She might end up being the spanner in the works.
|| Palmer, 2:22 PM || link || (0) comments |

Mission Accomplished?

A couple days ago I walked by the protest against the Badger Herald's decision to run an ad by some douchebag that denies the Holocaust.

What, exactly, did this gathering accomplish?

From what I can tell, it made a bunch of people feel good about themselves. Great, you protested an ad that appeared in a college newspaper and had a panel discussion about ethics in journalism. Where does the "Mission Accomplished" banner go now?

While we're definitely not living in a post-anti-Semitic world, couldn't we protest an ongoing genocide instead? Where's the rally to push our government to help in Darfur? Couldn't we have a panel discussion about why Holocaust denial causes such uproar but real death happening in the here and now doesn't? I also can't help but think that, had an ad for a group denying the Armenian genocide or the Rwandan genocide been allowed in the Badger Herald, no one would have bothered to even think about organizing a protest.

The responses to the ad remind me of the People's Front of Judea in Monty Python's Life of Brian. Everybody talks and talks and skirts around the big issue.

|| Palmer, 10:43 AM || link || (0) comments |

04 March, 2010

Why People Believe Weird Things - Michael Shermer @ the Union Theatre, 1 March 2010

Founder and editor of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer, was here earlier this week to contribute to the Distinguished Lecture Series' theme of our imperfect cognition. First there was Dan Ariely who noted our irrational behavior from an economic standpoint. And on Monday Shermer came to town to explain why people believe weird things.

(Photo horked from The Badger Herald.)

He described us humans at pattern-seeking primates driven by a Belief Engine. We find meaningful patterns in meaningful things as well as those that lack meaning as well. Moreover, he claimed, our brains' default setting is to assume that all patterns are real and meaningful. Shermer argued that our grey matter works this way due to evolutionary pressure. In his example, he asked us to imagine we were the earliest members of our species. You find that there's a rustle in your hedgerow. It could be the wind or it could be a tiger looking for supper. Assuming it's a predator, you can flee or prepare to defend yourself. Now, if it's really just the wind you're OK. If it is a tiger, then you're prepared. However, if you assume the rustle is simply the wind, you find yourself in the position of Chef in Apocalypse Now.

Shermer continued by giving the briefest description of the brain's synapses and such before showing the audience some optical illusions and illustrations of people finding meaningful patterns in the meaningless, e.g. – people seeing the Virgin Mary on toast. While looking at a page of dots and dashes until you find the cow in it was fun, the really interesting bits were those times when he alluded to research and got down to the nitty gritty of our brains.

For instance, there's the fusiform gyrus which has a lot to do with facial recognition. There are fast-firing cells which look at only a few points on the face and then there are slow-firing cells which detect facial details. By way of example he showed the famous picture of the "face" on Mars created by shadows. Newer photos of the Martian rock formation clearly showed it was not a face as our pattern-seeking brains discerned from previous photographs. Another interesting bit of cranial trivia was how stimulation of the temporal lobe can induce trances or various others feelings we associate with religion such intense meaningfulness or a depersonalization such that you are one with the universe/God. Shermer also noted how sleep deprivation caused our brains to go haywire. He related to us how in 1983 he participated in a bike ride across America and stayed awake for some 83 hours for the first leg. When he finally stopped to rest, he thought that his team of friends who fed and watered him on his ride were aliens who'd come to abduct him. In one of the night's many humorous moments, Shermer showed some news footage from the bike ride in which he'd been interviewed and admitted his hallucinations.

Perhaps even more important than demonstrating why people believe weird things was showing that it is very difficult to get them to stop. Citing another recent study involving scanning the brains of people evaluating various statements with an MRI, Shermer noted that we evaluate statements we already believe very quickly. However, the process is much slower for statements we don't believe or are uncertain about. It is easier for us to simply reaffirm what we believe than it is to challenge our beliefs. This explains why telling your average Teabagger that there are, in truth, significantly more white people on Medicaid rolls than big scary illegal immigrants from Mexico doesn't set them free of their racism/Hispanophobia.

One thing Shermer didn't talk about, perhaps because of a lack of MRI scans, is why some people stop believing some weird things. He noted that in his younger days he was a born again Christian. So what happened in his brain that he became a godless heathen? Why do we stop assigning meaning to meaningless patterns?

All in all, it was a great lecture. Shermer is a humorous fellow and he made it a fun multimedia event. He even played "Stairway to Heaven" backwards for us so we could try to discern all the Satanic messages Jimmy Page put in there including one about a very dolorous tool shed. I suppose that anyone who has looked into this material before didn't walk away having learned much of anything new. But Shermer gave a good primer for the uninitiated and was entertaining to boot.

N.B. – Neurologist V. S. Ramachandran will be here next week to round out the Distinguished Lecture Series' cognitive trifecta.
|| Palmer, 3:54 PM || link || (0) comments |

02 March, 2010

New Taco Joint Downtown

A new Mexican restaurant is going to open in the old art supply store on the 600 block of University Avenue. Linda Falkenstein reported this today. From what I've heard, it is to be called The Taco Shop and is in the blatantly odd position of being the first outpost in the States for the chain which only has franchises in Europe. (Amsterdam is one outlet, I believe.) Yes, a European taco joint is finally opening a storefront within 1500 miles of Mexico.

Back in December, they had hoped to open this month but it's been slow going. As of a couple weeks ago, not all necessary permits had yet been obtained. Also planned is a grand opening bash.

Stay tuned.
|| Palmer, 5:41 PM || link || (7) comments |

01 March, 2010

God's Problem by Bart Ehrman

It was sadly ironic to have gotten through a chapter of Bart Ehrman's God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question -- Why We Suffer and to find out that a friend's infant daughter was afflicted with a terminal genetic disease. I expressed my condolences and heeded my friend's wishes that there be no pity parties. What else can one do? Suffering just happens sometimes.

Ehrman ultimately takes a similar view after surveying the Bible for reasons why we suffer. Unlike the other book by him that I've read, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, God's Problem is not a critical look at the Bible which undermines notions of divine authorship but an exegetical one. What does the Bible say about suffering? Are its explanations satisfactory to us?

Since there are multiple explanations for suffering to be found in the Christian holy book, the reader is taken through the most common one by one beginning with the idea that suffering is punishment exacted by God for not living within His prescribed laws. Ehrman looks at the words of Amos, Hosea, and others to demonstrate that God's wrath came upon the Israelites when they strayed from the path. In Hosea we find a god that gives no quarter to sinners.

I will fall upon them like a bear
robbed of her cubs,
and will tear open the covering
of their heart;
there I will devour them like a lion,
as a wild animal would mangle
I will destroy you, O Israel;
who can help you?

And later:

Samaria shall bear her
because she has rebelled against
her God;
they shall fall by the sword,
their little ones shall be dashed
in pieces,
and their pregnant women
ripped open.

It's passages like these that cause Richard Dawkins to describe Yahweh as "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully".

The tour continues with redemptive suffering as illustrated by the tale of Joseph and suffering as a test of faith for which Job's sad story stands as an example. Ehrman relates Job's tribulations in some detail. The Satan, not the cloven footed archdevil, but more like God's consigliere, basically says, "I bet Job will curse you if you completely ruin his life." God takes up the bet and destroys Job's possessions and kills his children. Yet Job does not curse his deity. In the end, Job gets more stuff and has replacement kids. Essentially he suffered immensely because Yahweh and his right-hand man decided to be like the Duke brothers in Trading Places and play a little game.

God's Problem was for this godless heathen who's only ever read bits & pieces of the Bible a nice introduction to the topic of how the Bible addresses suffering. As a book for layreaders it is necessarily incomplete in certain ways. For instance, Ehrman admits that he doesn't cover every single Biblical explanation for suffering but only the most common ones – those most often offered by theologians and those today who make up the Christian right.

On the other hand, I wish that Ehrman had dedicated a bit more space to how theodicy (a fancy word for the problem of suffering given the idea that God is all-powerful and all-loving) has been approached throughout the ages. He teases the reader here and there, such as when he summarizes Leibniz's conclusion on the matter and Voltaire's retort, but it would have been interesting had he given the reader more along with his own commentaries.
|| Palmer, 1:29 PM || link || (3) comments |