Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 May, 2010

Farewell Gene Hunt

WARNING: If you've not seen the finale, then stop reading now.

I have to admit that, after having watched the LOST series finale and gotten a big dose of purgatory there, I wasn't prepared for the series finale of Ashes to Ashes.

It turns out that the Gene Genie is a bit like Charon. He ferries recently deceased police officers who haven't quite come to terms with how they lived their lives on to an afterlife. Hunt himself died as a young officer and the world of Ashes to Ashes and its predecessor Life On Mars is his construct which explains the more unorthodox elements such as the flashes to both Sam Tyler's and Alex Drake's lives in the "real" world as well as the Quattro. I mean, what police squad gets its own sports car?

I found AtA's ending more satisfying than LOST's because, although they were quite similar, AtA resolved its outstanding mysteries. Of course, it had about a million less of them than LOST but, nonetheless, we got resolution and that's what important. We learned who Gene Hunt was (as well as Raymondo, Chris, and Shaz) and how Sam and Alex ended up in the past. As I argued in my critique of LOST's finale, that show, while not needing to answer every question it raised, left viewers hanging when it came to too many of the major ones.

Another difference was that the Losties all "moved on" whereas The Guv remained in his world only to get another recruit. While sitting in his office with a drink looking over the owner's manual to the Quattro's replacement, a Mercedes-Benz, a guy bursts into the main room demanding to know where his office is and the return of his iPhone. Irritated, Gene walks to the door and says, "A word in your shell-like, pal." For Gene, purgatory continues.

That both LOST and AtA involve purgatory and "moving on" to an afterlife means that TV writers need to stop using this device now. And don't replace it with astronaut dreams induced by a computer either.
|| Palmer, 11:58 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Secret in Their Eyes

El secreto de sus ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) won the Academy Award for best foreign film this year. The Argentinean film is part thriller, part romance, and part gentle meditation on how the past is always with us in the present.

It opens with a scene of a man and a woman parting ways at a train station. But it looks like it was rotoscoped by someone tripping on LSD. Faces are blurred to the point of being unrecognizable and movement leaves trails. We are then introduced to Benjamin Espósito. Now retired, he attempts to write about the murder of a young woman 20 years previously that he can't get out of his mind. But he is unable to put his thoughts on paper. With each attempt we see it portrayed onscreen but these scenes come to abrupt halts as Benjamin stops writing and crumples up his paper.

He was a court investigator in Buenos Aires and one day in 1974 he was called upon to investigate a savage murder. Arriving at the crime scene swaggering and barking orders, Benjamin is shocked into silence upon seeing the woman's battered and bloody corpse. He can't help staring at it. Back in the present, the writer's block-ridden Benjamin visits Irene Menéndez Hastings, a judge's assistant who had worked with him on the murder case back in the 1970s. He tries to interest her in reviving the past for inspection but she balks at the chance.

A large chunk of the film is told in flashback. Benjamin and his partner Pablo Sandoval work the case. Pablo is older than Benjamin and has a bit of a drinking problem. Despite this, he is a masterful investigator. They're a likeable pair who seek justice even if it means employing extralegal means. There is also an office romance waiting to bloom as our protagonist is attracted to Irene but he refuses to act upon his feelings.

The thriller aspect comes out here as Benjamin and Pablo track down the murderer. At first suspicion falls on the victim's boyfriend but he is cleared and spends his free time sitting at the train station waiting to find the killer. Eventually and improbably, a series of photographs point to the murderer who is eventually caught in a kinetic scene at a soccer stadium. It begins with an aerial shot which makes its way to the stands where Benjamin and Pablo look for their prey. They find the guy who runs but is eventually caught. The whole scene is full of energy as the aerial shot is stitched together with those in the stands and some wonderful Steadicam work making for a great long take.

Although the film largely avoids the politics of the time with one dictator being replaced by another followed by death squads and disappearances, we presume some time has passed when the killer, a young man named Gomez, is released from prison to help out the government in its nefarious activities. Gomez threatens Benjamin and Irene. Irene is insulated by her rich family while Benjamin is forced to flee and we see the opening scene played over but in focus so we can see the expressions on their faces, the secrets in their eyes. This provides a mini-denouement and even a fade to black but director Juan José Campanella isn't finished with us. The fates of Gomez and Pablo are shown as is a final look at the unspoken love between Benjamin and Irene in the present day.

Not being overly familiar with Argentina's history these past 40 years, I'm not sure how far to take metaphor here. I take the woman's battered corpse as a stand-in for Argentina in its darkest days from 1975-1983 and Benjamin's obsession with the case as representing Argentina wrestling with the old ghosts of dictators past. There are, however, surely other allusions and symbols that went right over my head. Luckily the story stands on its own as a personal tale. Unrequited love and people looking back on their lives questioning the past are powerful and universal themes.

In addition, Benjamin and Irene are wonderfully drawn characters. He is a bit of a rogue down in the trenches fighting the good fight while she is further up the social ladder and more refined. Still, as the interrogation scene demonstrated, she can spew out venom with ruthless candor. I also appreciated how they were not kids in their early 20s. Even in the flashbacks. I guess that the older I get, the more interesting I find love stories featuring veterans of the forever wars for whom love is real and necessary but who also understand that its pursuit isn't a fairy tale and can be tempered by circumstances and personal failings. It's not that we get to know these characters particularly deeply – there is also a murder to be solved, after all – but that they seem to hit the right notes.

|| Palmer, 10:11 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Working Poor by David K. Shipler

Shortly after I wrote "Madison: Sourdough and Poverty", I picked up a copy of David K. Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America. These are people who work but remain at the edge of poverty, in Shipler's words. He is careful at the outset to note that the people about whom he writes have the riches of Croesus in contrast to the poorest of people in the Third World. Despite this, it is more appropriate to compare the working poor in America with other Americans. Also from the get-go, Shipler inveighs against the American idea that, if you just work hard enough, you'll get ahead and have that house with the white picket fence. Rags to riches stories are nice, but as we find out in the book, moving into the middle class requires more than hard work.

Over the course of the book, Shipler devotes each chapter to a particular aspect of poverty and profiles different people to illustrate each. We learn about their pasts, present hardships, and their hopes for the future. The stories here are often times heartbreaking but there are success stories as well. These are hard-working people who have dreams which have been deferred for a number of reasons. They want the best for their children but find that giving that to be extremely difficult.

The people portrayed in the book live a tremulous existence. They're a bit like dominoes in that something, which would be a minor annoyance for someone of middle class means, becomes a big deal for those in poverty. Take Christie from Akron, Ohio. Her two children were in day care and her mother picked the kids up on Fridays. When the mom forgot that day care let out early one Friday, fees started to rack up. Being an hour late meant a fine of $80 per child, an exorbitant sum for someone who has about $6/month in discretionary spending. As a result, the children had to be pulled from day care. Shipler was careful to note here that, when the fees started to rack up, the day care center made no attempt to contact Christie. Because a large number of the poor are single mothers, daycare is especially important.

Many times over the course of the book, Shipler describes poverty as a confluence of events – personal circumstances and failings, the actions of employers, obstinate landlords, a maze of government assistance, etc.

The people Shipler followed had a hard time maintaining employment. Periods of work were followed by stints on welfare. It wasn't that they didn't want to have a job but there were a multitude of obstacles in finding and keeping one. Take Caroline. She found factory work but the rotating shifts meant that there would be times when there was no one to take care of her daughter Amber. Caroline pleaded with her employer but was "brushed off". It looked as if she was going to have to quit her job and return to the welfare rolls. You can't pay for daycare without a job and you can't have a job without daycare. It's one of many vicious cycles that the poor face.

In addition to describing poverty as a confluence of many things, Shipler makes it clear that addressing poverty will take the combined efforts of people on all fronts. Of Caroline's case he writes, "nobody in the helping profession thought to pick up the phone and appeal to the factory manager or the foreman or anybody else in authority at her workplace." Indeed, he notes that the "solemn regard for the employer" is "untouchable, off limits, beyond the realm of persuasion unless in violation of the law". Too often employers neglect taking a role in helping the poor.

One thing the book makes very clear is how incredibly handy lawyers can be. Many in poverty live in sub-standard housing and, for some, things such as mold have an effect on their children. If they are severe enough, the children will miss school which requires the parent to take time off from work or, in some cases, quit their job. Readers are given examples of some groups out there to help that do have lawyers on staff. It is amazing how, when a tenant complains, many a landlord out there ignores the complaint. But when a lawyer calls, things tend to get done.

While the government is there to help, case workers at many welfare agencies often fail to do so or don't provide assistance as much as they can. Shipler describes being able to navigate the labyrinthine systems of public assistance as a skill. Examples abound of people being denied help either because of welfare agencies not following the law or not even knowing all of the services they offer. Again, having a lawyer proves helpful.

One mother went to a welfare agency seeking help because her apartment was so horrid that it severely aggravated her child's asthma. She was turned down for housing assistance until a lawyer called the department up and explained how they had broken the law. Unfortunately, by the time the agency had been corrected, the woman had moved out of state. Shipler concludes, "Blessed are the poor who have lawyers on their side."

Shipler makes an argument that, in addition to being a description of financial health or lack thereof, poverty is also a state of mind, at least to an extent. Even the hardest working people can have mental and physical problems which make moving up in the world difficult. For instance, one person explained why the poor will often not show up for work, not call their employer to tell them they can't make it to work, and quit. In many cases, poor people have such low self-esteem that they just assume they aren't really wanted by their employer and won't be missed if they don't show up for work. There's a touching story in this section about one employer who tried to address this by telling his workers that they were wanted and are part of team that cannot function without them.

Another telling instance was of a woman who had had a child as a teenager. She came from an abusive home and kept the child because it was her way of saying to her parents that she was beyond their control. Sexual abuse and drugs are also factors in poverty. For people of means, therapists and treatment are options while for the poor they generally are not. Shipler also addresses malnutrition. Research has shown that poor diet can stunt the mental growth of children. In one section he notes, "Some slumlords won't replace malfunctioning refrigerators" and that "some families are crammed into shared apartments where the single fridge is rifled by residents who steal others' food." I have to admit that, upon reading this, I immediately thought of Michael Pollan and his hordes of sycophants who assume that anyone who is poor just has to use their food stamps at a farmers market to eat like the great foodie middle class. And, as testimony from social workers in the book makes clear, there are a lot of poor people who can't cook. One woman is described as not even able to peel a potato.

The weakest part of The Working Poor is the chapter "Harvest of Shame" in which Shipler discusses immigrant labor. Taking the title from the Edward R. Murrow documentary of the same name, he looks at Mexicans who come to America and work in our fields. An important topic especially now with Arizona's new laws intending to weed out illegal immigrants. We learn about how some of them risk life and limb to come to this country illegally and how they end up securing jobs picking produce. Shipler visits the squalid barracks provided by one employer and describes the hard work for low pay. My gripe is that that Shipler tries to get one guy to agree with his assessment that the Mexican man is being exploited. This is arguably so but, seemingly going against his stated notion in the preface that poverty is relative, Shipler doesn't quite come to terms with the fact that, although the field laborer's pay is paltry by American standards, it's quite a lot by the standards of his home country. He may be among the American working poor, but the guy's pay goes a lot further back at home.

Despite this, The Working Poor is an engaging and enlightening book. It is also a bit depressing. Because poverty has such a multitude of factors, it requires an array of solutions by people on all fronts. Money is necessary but not sufficient. I don't think we'll ever eliminate poverty but it can certainly be reduced. One woman whose chosen alias was "Peaches" was abused as a child and homeless as an adult. But she lifted herself out of poverty with the assistance of a job-training program and her own determination and skill. So, while things may look bleak, there is always hope. All we need now is the will.
|| Palmer, 2:26 PM || link || (0) comments |

29 May, 2010

Jack's Work Is Done (For Now)

Jack-in-the-Green did a nice job of keeping all the plants safe in their slumbers over the winter as things here in Madison are nice'n'verdant. So verdant, in fact, that I have to mow the lawn again as it is perilously close to being elephant grass. For now he waits down the street for autumn to arrive and do the whole thing all over again.

|| Palmer, 6:52 AM || link || (0) comments |

It's Caturday!

Unsere Katze, Marilyn (a.k.a. - Grabby McWhiskers), took a break from watching birds out on the porch yesterday to pose for a brief photo shoot.

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26 May, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Last week I noted that the Swedish film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was going to be remade by David Fincher. Now that I've seen the movie I can say that a remake, while not necessarily a bad idea, isn't really necessary.

The film opens with the wealthy Henrik Vanger opening a package which is revealed to be a pressed flower framed and mounted. The old man bursts into tears.

Meanwhile, Mikael Blomkvist, an investigative reporter for the magazine Millennium, loses a libel lawsuit and goes into a self-imposed exile. But his pity party doesn't last long as he is approached by a lawyer whose client wants to hire Blomkvist. The client turns out to be Henrik Vanger. Vanger's niece, Harriet, disappeared 40 years previously, but no one was ever brought to justice nor was any explanation ever found for her sudden absence. With his life nearing its end, Vanger wants Blomkvist to try and solve the mystery by finding her killer. He is convinced that his niece was killed because of the pressed flowers he receives every year. Harriet used to make them for her uncle on his birthday and he continued receiving them even after she disappeared. To him, they are the killer's taunting.

And so Blomkvist takes the job and heads out to the island where the Vanger family resides. There he is given run of an old cabin which, remarkably has Internet access.

The title character is Lisbeth Salander, a computer hacker and social misfit who uses her skills to investigate people on behalf of a security company. Vanger had hired the company to do a background check on Blomkvist and the chore fell to tattooed and highly pierced Salander. But even though her job was completed, she couldn't let the reporter go and so she broke into his laptop which reveals his progress in finding out what happened to Harriet. The two eventually pair up in pursuit of Harriet Vanger's fate.

The Swedish title is Män som hatar kvinnor or "Men Who Hate Women" and there is certainly a lot of misogyny here. Salander is a tough, gritty character who has a bit of misanthropic streak. Apparently she is on probation as she is supervised by a legal guardian, which I take to be the Swedish equivalent of a parole officer. She receives a new one, Bjurman, who proves himself to be a complete scumbag. I'm not sure how the scene where he rapes Salander comes off in the book but here it is an intense and very disturbing one. No wonder she says so little – doing so might actually put in her in a position where she might have to trust another person. The misogyny continues as Blomkvist's investigation proceeds. Harriet had written the initials of various local women in a diary of hers which were followed by numbers. Blomkvist discovers that these women were all savagely murdered.

As a feminist hero, Salander is an intriguing character. We are never told why she has a guardian but I presume because of some past brush with the law. She rides a motorcycle, is apparently bi-sexual, and is smart and determined. When she wants something, she takes it. I get the impression that she has been screwed over many times before and so she has constructed a shell around herself for protection. This combination of determination and standoffishness made me feel that she is rather immature. It's as if the 24-year old's emotional growth got stunted somewhere along the way and perhaps bringing to justice a depraved, sadistic murderer of women will assuage her heart in some way that chain smoking cannot.

As with any foreign film, I have to wonder what parts of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo especially resonated with the natives of the country in which it was made. As a mystery, the film is, for the most part, straightforward and universal in its appeal. Non-Swedes won't have any problems following along. Blomkvist investigates corporate corruption for Millennium - is that a big topic in Sweden? Some characters here have Nazi sympathies and I have to wonder if neo-Nazi/white supremacy groups are anything but marginalized there. Are these and other issues of pressing concern in Sweden today? And why the emphasis on misogyny? Purely a plot device or does this theme have larger implications in modern Sweden?

Lastly, I have to give high marks to the movie for not having Salander simply sit at a computer and hack into any given government or corporate computer system in 5 seconds and parse through terabytes of data in the same amount of time to find exactly what she's looking for. Hell, there's even a scene where she goes to a corporate library and rummages through paperwork. I wish Hollywood would take note of Swedish verisimilitude.

|| Palmer, 1:05 PM || link || (0) comments |

LOST Finale Post Mortem 2

On the bright side, the finale was a hoot. As I said above, I'm glad the Island didn't get an in-depth explanation. The showdown between Jack and Esau was a hoot with Jack running down at our villain. And I appreciated the small shutter cinematography for the scenes in the rain when the Island is collapsing because Desmond uncorked the well. I also liked how the flash-sideways world wasn't explained until the end. There were some classic moments. You had the low-angle shot of Jack and Esau looking down the waterfall which brings back memories of season 1. And it was wonderful to see Jack grow his cajones back and tell Smokey that he wasn't going to stop him, he was going to kill him.

Remember when Ben told Hurley that he wasn't going to go inside the church? It took about four and a half seasons for that wretch to be saved, but he finally saw the light. But he still didn't think himself deserving of moving on along with everyone else. I am very glad they decided to go this path because it shows that redemption is a two-way street and cannot be obtained by everyone. Those you wronged must forgive you and the Losties – including Locke did forgive Ben – but you have to forgive yourself as well, at least to a certain degree. This enlarges the show's discussion of redemption as Ben joins Michael in being irredeemable. Perhaps there are simply people beyond redemption.

So what about the show in all its six seasons and not just the finale? Here are a few things in no particular order:

1) Its style. The flash-forwards, flashbacks, flash-sideways – has any other TV show had such a chopped up narrative?

2) Mysteries. LOST had mysteries aplenty and not just about the mythology of the Island but also about the characters' histories. The smoke monster was an enigma just as was how Locke became paralyzed. In addition, the show was pretty stingy in answering them, as we have seen. Smokey, the numbers, Adam & Eve – all of these mysteries took years to be answered. The impatient probably got frustrated but for those who could wait, being strung along was a fun ride. Along these same lines I'd add surprises. I mean, do you remember seeing the blast door map for the first time? Great stuff.

3) Ben. Benjamin Linus was a fantastic character and it's hard to believe he was supposed to only be around for three episodes. He was an almost innocuous villain but he was the height of treacherous and had a cold heart to boot. While his motivations were pretty basic, they were largely inscrutable. He was like Iago with an inferiority complex.

4) The world of LOST. A beautiful tropical island dotted with abandoned research labs, the pedaled remains of a colossus, and a smoke monster zipping around – what's not to like? It was an extremely fun world to explore. Plus we got to explore it in time as well as space. The time spent in the Dharma Initiative in the 1970s was a hoot!

5) The story unfolded slowly. I've alluded to this already with the mysteries. LOST's story unfolded at a relative snail's pace. This could be a virtue or a vice, depending on your tastes. A lot of this had to do with the large number of characters involved.

6) Sawyer's nicknames. Hoss, Mr. Clean, Jumbotron, etc. They provided a nice bit of humor in the midst of danger.

As far as thematic content, I'll have to think on it a bit more. How do all the mysteries tie together the major elements of people who are broken/lost finding themselves and finding redemption? Repetition is a big element. Various characters have parental issues, mini-pogroms preface the ascendancy of leaders, people arriving on the Island, and so on. And there's all the dichotomies: black vs. white, reason vs. faith, free will vs. destiny, old vs. young, etc. Plus, do all of these things work together successfully to push the major theme of the show?

That's a lot to ponder.

|| Palmer, 10:24 AM || link || (0) comments |

LOST Finale Post Mortem 1

As I was last Sunday night, I am still ambivalent about the series finale of LOST. My mind is still trying to comprehend that it's over. This will be the first summer in a while where I wasn't jonesing for some LOST goodness and eagerly awaiting a video at Comic Con. There used to be just so many questions and the anticipation of answers but now the moment has come and gone.

First, here's what the show got right in the finale: it didn't explain away the Island. As I wrote back in February:

With the show ending, I am really hoping that the writers don't explain the island away as an aggregation of midichlorians that we know as Atlantis or some such thing. Don't screw up like George Lucas.

The island is a stage where people's passions play out. It's where there are villains and heroes; people kill one another and they love one another. In short, the island is a generic stand-in for anywhere on earth where there are human beings because we take our logic and our emotions, our science and our faith with us wherever we may go.

We know plenty about the Island. It's, well, an island that travels along something similar to ley lines and parks itself over pockets of energy. There's a well spring of this energy/light in a cave that people protect. This energy has some fantastic properties including being able to move in space and time. This leaves open many a question such as "Why are there all these Egyptian ruins?", "Who put the cork in the well?", and so on. But we don't need to know these answers because what's important is that the Island serves as a stage for damaged sons and daughters to act out their parts in a search for redemption.

In this area, the writers get an A. I also give them high marks for the last shot of Jack's eyelid shutting. The cycle is complete. Wholly appropriate and a necessary antidote to the weird our-souls-will-all-fly-off-together happy ending. Now, although the specifics of that scene bug me a bit, I do rather like how the show ends on grand mix of religion and humanism. A soldier pierced the side of Christ just as Esau stabbed Jack and the trip to the Light or Heaven or wherever took place in a church with its omnipresent crucifix. On the other hand, Christian explains to Jack that he too is dead but what matters most is how he lived and the other people in his life. Christian says:

"This is a place that you all made together so that you could find one another. The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people. That's why all of you are here. You needed all of them and they needed you."

The purgatory of the flash-sideways world and the refulgent promise of a kind of heaven may be religious in nature, but it was the bonds among the Losties which mattered as opposed to a devotion to a deity. Having one another, drawing strength from your fellow human beings – that's what counts in the end.

One disappointment related to this is Jack's wounds and how his neck would periodically bleed in the flash-sideways world. We found out that Jack was able to fend off Esau at the last minute but that the tip of the knife scratched Jack's neck. OK, we see how the wound was a reminder of Jack's life but so what? What sideways Jack thought was an appendectomy scar was really a scar from Esau mortally wounding the Island's new guardian. So why did only the scratch on the neck bleed? I know it's not particularly important but it bugs me because these wounds were essentially red herrings. They don't lead to anamnesis, "prove" anything or otherwise advance the story at all – they're just there to be mysterious.

Another gripe came to me upon seeing Christian doing his brief Virgil bit to Jack's Dante. Christian appeared many times after his death. We got confirmation that the instance of leading Jack to the cave was merely Smokey in disguise. But what about in Jacob's cabin? Appearing to Michael on the freighter? To Jack in the hospital? Smokey couldn't get back to L.A. so what the hell was that apparition? These are important, not so much in trying to understand the Island as a purgatory for souls who, as ghost Michael said, can't move on, but because it begs the question of what souls can appear to whom. If the Whispers were the collective moan of those souls, then it's a real deus ex machine to have one and only one appear to Hurley to give necessary advice. Plus, with all these souls present on the Island, why wasn't Miles have conniptions all the time? I think the whole Whispers phenomena needed more explanation because I feel like the writers just kept it as an ace in the hole for almost the entire show and just let one help out when it was necessary with no rhyme nor reason.

I feel similarly about Jacob's cabin. It's cheating to put it in there, for its inhabitant to have a major role, and to just leave it as a highly convenient enigma. Too many times help arrived essentially ex nihilo from a mysterious source. Having Michael appear to Hurley and telling him to not destroy the plane was just too much. Where was he earlier? Why didn't any other ghost help out? Presumably because it was the right time for the writers. Along these same lines, I found the last couple episodes to be disappointing because they didn't fully resolve Jacob and thusly left me with an unsatisfactory conclusion to the show's free will vs. destiny debate. Jacob spent decades undermining the free will of the candidates and, by extension, all of the passengers of Oceanic 815 via some unknown way only to turn around at the last minute and say, "Oh, by the way, you now have free will" when it came to being his replacement. That felt, to me, like a cop-out. By keeping Jacob such an enigma, it allowed the writers to avoid taking sides and to pull stuff out of their ass when needed.

Since I'm reading a book with the same title, I'll say "and another thing". Michael's soul tells Hurley that the Whispers are souls trapped in the Island purgatory who cannot move on or pass over. OK. Then we are told that the flash-sideways was also a purgatory. Are they the same? If so, why does Michael know about events on the Island whereas, say, Kate does not?

And I'm still disappointed that the show squandered the freighter people. Frank Lapidus was kept around merely to fly the plane in the last episode. Otherwise he merely stood in the background looking on as events unfolded. What a wasted opportunity.

I have to wonder if the decision to trim seasons down to 17 or 18 episodes instead of 23 or 24 is part of the problem. Perhaps the writers just didn't have enough time to tell the story. Take, for instance, the fertility problems faced by The Others. Were they real? In one sense they aren't particularly important. However, they were a prime mover for some characters. For instance, they were ostensibly the motivation for recruiting Juliet. I say this because, although her name appeared on the cave wall as a potential candidate, only viewers who went to the Net or went frame by frame would catch this. Plus Claire was abducted because she was pregnant and the whole story of pregnant women dying provided Juliet with motivation to get Sun off the Island despite her not wanting to leave Jin. In other words, mysterious fertility/pregnancy issues had a large effect upon the characters but they were simply forgotten about.

If a mystery acted as a prime mover for people's behavior, then it should have been explained. We didn't really need to know what Jacob's cabin was or why it moved but it would have been nice to know exactly what the incarnation of Christian Shepherd was that told Locke to move the Island. For a show that had so many Easter eggs and encouraged speculation, it left us short on answers that were so much fun to hypothesize about.

|| Palmer, 8:47 AM || link || (0) comments |

20 May, 2010

When Foodies Attack

"Portland pig cook-off followed by brawl over the provenance of pork"
|| Palmer, 3:57 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

I remember when Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club came out back in 2003 and thought, "I should read that." Well I finally did and I have to say that it was most enjoyable.

It is just after the end of the Civil War and in Boston Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is attempting the first American translation of Dante's The Divine Comedy. Helping him are fellow poets Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and James Russell Lowell, as well as pastor George Washington Greene and publisher J.T. Fields who collectively call themselves The Dante Club. The Club itself is not a work of fiction and neither are the attempts by the Harvard community to prevent the publication of Dante's classic. The Boston-Cambridge area is beset by a series of murders and our heroes transform themselves into detectives when they realize that the ghastly crimes mirror the torments found in Dante's vision of Hell. Since so few people on American shores were familiar with Dante's work, the Club fears that they'll come under suspicion and proceed with their investigation alone instead of going to the police.

On the police side, Chief Kurtz is ostensibly in charge of the investigation but it is really Patrolman Nicholas Rey who is on the case. Kurtz deals mostly with the political fallout while Rey does the leg work. But he is hampered by corruption in the force as well as by racism. Being bi-racial, he is Boston's first non-white policeman and has had limitations imposed upon him such as not being able to arrest a white person without a white officer present.

As the intrepid translators hold their meetings and seek out who is responsible for the murders, we get a sense of who they are. Pearl does a nice job of having his protagonists deal with family and friends to develop his characters. Things like Holmes' distance from his son, the future Supreme Court justice, and his spat with Lowell add some depth that would probably not be possible if Pearl had limited the reader's view to times when the gentlemen were out snooping. Pearl uses a mixture of dialogue and third-person narration. Furthermore, a whole host of issues come up such as Officer Rey and race generally, the Fugitive Slave Act, the murder of George Parkman (again, an event culled from history), etc.

The book begins with a murder and then introduces us to the Club, Harvard's dislike of Dante, Boston, et al. I can understand if people find this section to be on the slow side but I found it very interesting. My problem is that, once the story takes a turn towards the procedural, all of the tangential issues above such as race essentially stop being developed and I wish that Pearl had kept let the story flow down these tributaries more often. One reason why I enjoy reading Neal Stephenson is because he goes on lots of tangents. He gives you the main story or stories but also lots of diversions which delve into tangential areas which bolster the main theme or themes. I wish Pearl would have done more of that and really talked about, say, Northern blacks in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

Despite this, The Dante Club was a genuinely fun, suspenseful read.
|| Palmer, 2:12 PM || link || (0) comments |

19 May, 2010

LOST: Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold

Perhaps the most interesting thing about LOST last night was that, finally, no new grand mysteries were introduced and it marks the second episode in a row where a conversation is had where people ask the right questions and get something more than circumlocution. Last week it was a young Esau with the apparition of his birth mother and yesterday it was Jacob during his fireside chat with the remaining candidates.

The first thing that hit me as the credits rolled was that, if Jack is the new guardian of the Island and its refulgent center, then who is going to be the next Smokey? I suppose there doesn't necessarily have to be one but, with the black and white dichotomy and Dogen's lecture about that scale inside every man with good on one side and evil on the other, there surely must be an antagonist for Jack.

How about Ben letting Widmore suck on some lead? He has now avenged Alex's death and knows that Esau's plan is to destroy the Island so Smokey's offer for Ben to have the Island all to himself is now off. Doing away with the Island presumably means snuffing out the light at its center which pits Esau against Jack. After all, he swore back in the day that he'd kill Jacob and any who dare replace him to get off the Island.

Jack asks Jacob how to kill Esau but the erstwhile keeper of the Light doesn't know. But, he says, they'd better figure it out because Esau will most assuredly try to kill them. My guess is that what the Light giveth, the Light taketh away. Jack is going to have to trick Smokey into the Light and let its beautiful electromagnetic radiation wreak the Casimir Effect on his ass. Either that or you have to nuke him from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

In the flash-sideways world, Desmond is massing his horde. But to what end? He gets all the Losties together again and then what? I'm not sure but I think Eloise Hawking will be seen again. On the Island, Widmore supposedly brought Des back as a failsafe in case Smokey had managed to kill the candidates. Exactly what Desmond would be able to do remains a mystery but he survives in both worlds and appears to be a lynchpin in both. And Jack's bleeding neck returned. The last time we saw that being in the season premiere.

There are still tons of variables out there. For instance, there are all these souls which call the Island their purgatory away from home. They might not like the idea of destroying the Island all too much. On a less supernatural front, Miles is still out wandering, though it's debatable exactly how getting weird feelings when treading on ground underneath which lie corpses is going to do anyone any good. And I don't think Richard is dead yet either. A little worse for wear, no doubt, but he's still around. Desmond is incommunicado but he'll show up and Claire is around too. Plus Ben is still a wildcard.

Pre-finale ramblings:

1) Ben has been a great character with an air of mystery about him and a boatload of ambiguity. I think it would be nice if he retained those characteristics at the end but I have a feeling that he is going to turn to the Dark Side. Sayid redeemed himself despite having been "claimed", but I don't think Ben is in that same predicament. He's not interested in redemption. He's a-redemptive. It doesn't even register in him. He wants the Island but he's gonna have to stop Esau first and then deal with Jack.

2) Hurley must live! Otherwise The Dulcinea will fall into a deep depression.

3) Sawyer feels guilt over Jin and Sun's death. (And Frank and Sayid too.) He's sacrificed himself in the past and I suspect he'll do so again. Anthony Cooper is dead so it's his time. R.I.P. Sawyer.

4) Can we please see Kate in her underwear one last time?
|| Palmer, 2:48 PM || link || (0) comments |

Turd Spigots Are Go!

The City Council overrode the Landmarks Commission this morning and approved $16 million in TIF funds. This means that the idea of an historic district in Madison is, for all intents and purposes, null and void because the precedent has been set. Are any other developers lining up at the Mayor's office for millions of dollars in TIF money promising a public patio?

Luckily the Mansion Hill neighborhood will survive the Edgewater remodeling but the turd spigot has been turned on.
|| Palmer, 9:14 AM || link || (0) comments |

18 May, 2010

Stop Being So Blinking Bourgousie!

Two activist groups held a rally yesterday looking to gain support for their drive to move people into homes that have been foreclosed upon. The first attempt at publicity involved actual squatting but that incident ended only a few days later. I found it odd that the police just watched as people essentially held a press conference saying, "Hey, here we are breaking the law!" But no complaints had been made.

South District police Capt. Joe Balles and several other officers stood across the street and watched the press conference. He said the department enforces trespassing laws when complaints are made.

One issue here is whether housing is a human right. Let's say for the sake of argument that it is. But that doesn't mean that just anyone has a right to the duplex at 2918-2920 Turbot Drive. You may have a right to housing generally but not to any house you choose specifically.

So is housing a human right? Is health care? One thing these rights imply that other rights such as freedom of speech, the right to vote, the right to profess whatever religion you want, etc. don't is, in the words of Prof. Lester Hunt, the right to the fruits of the labor of others. I think this is why such rhetoric rubs a lot of people the wrong way. When Emily Mills takes to her blog and exercises her right to free speech by proclaiming that health care is a human right, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. But if universal health care were to be enacted here, it would assuredly do the former. It's funny how when the smoking ban was being debated, many liberals said, "Your freedom ends where my nose begins" but, when it comes to health care and, for some, housing, their freedom unsurprisingly does not end where the wallets of others begin.

Aside from the issue of rights, I have to wonder if squatting is the best way to draw attention to the problem of homelessness. Are people who might be willing to donate money and/or time flocking to the cause or do quotes like the following from Z! Haukeness of Operation Welcome Home turn people off?

"To have a fundamental transformations of land relationships, so the land is actually owned by the community, all of the land, and not owned by corporations and not owned by banks and, possibly, not owned by individuals," Haukeness said.

I picture Rik from The Young Ones here telling Vyvyan, "All property is theft!"
|| Palmer, 2:36 PM || link || (4) comments |

You Know You've Been Watching Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes Too Long When...

...you are in your garden and say "You're nicked!" to yourself every time you pull a weed.

|| Palmer, 9:30 AM || link || (0) comments |

17 May, 2010

Random Bits

After not having updated the Miscellany section, The Daily Page has finally cast it off and given the space over to its own stable of bloggers. This action at least has the virtue of being somewhat in line with the stated positions of the publisher and news editor that equates bloggers to Visigoths battering at the door of the respectable Fourth Estate. It's a shame that Miscellany is gone because I found some good blogs there as well as some interesting articles.

We used to have a print publication that carried stuff written by bloggers. Things have certainly changed.


A co-worker was bitching to me today that he stopped in at the Vintage Brewing Company over the weekend only to find that they didn't brew any lagers. I looked up an article about the joint and realized that I probably know the brewmaster, Scott Manning, who I think was a good friend of my good friend, (ahem) Lush.


The Dulcinea and I went to JA Soul Food over the weekend. Like Rich Albertoni, I was the only white person in the joint. Unlike him, however, I had no fear of shaking hands the wrong way. I hope the kid in the white tuxedo had a good time at prom.


Anyone else been watching Treme? John McWhorter has a good piece about it. Being a proud Upper Midwesterner, I appreciated this part:

The Goodman and Zahn characters are given to asserting how much more culture New Orleans has than other American cities. We all know what they mean, on a certain level. I’ve been to New Orleans a few times and certainly had a fuller experience in all ways than the two weekends I spent in Pittsburgh. Although I suppose I did not have a “real” experience according to the standards of Simon and the “Treme” characters, as I did not spend a night getting seriously trashed with a gold-toothed old (black) local, or at least I don’t recall it. And although I did spend some time outside of the French Quarter, I highly suspect it wasn’t for quite long enough, or in just the right way, in terms of the “reality” we are concerned with.

And one might ask: How, precisely, do people in Minneapolis have “less culture” than people in New Orleans? To a tribesman from New Guinea, Minnesotans would appear to have a “culture” indeed, and I’m not sure they would process New Orleans as “more cultural.” (Maybe more fun, but that’s different, isn’t it?) Why are the drinks and culinary traditions of Baltimore less “cultural” than the ones in New Orleans?


I read that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is going to be remade by David Fincher. While I like Fincher and am not against remakes per se, is there anything about the Swedish film that absolutely flummoxes American audiences? (Besides being in Swedish, I mean.) I've not yet seen it but I shall. It was voted best narrative film at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival so it couldn't have been all hyper-complicated and arty so why can't Americans understand that, if it ain't broke, don't fix it? For instance, why did La Femme Nikita need to be turned into the piece of crap that was Point of No Return?
|| Palmer, 3:35 PM || link || (4) comments |

14 May, 2010

Madison Sinny News

Earlier this month Rob Thomas of 77 Square reported that the Orpheum is going to be showing first-run arthouse flicks this summer. I saw Police, Adjective at the Romanian Film Festival this year and Terribly Happy at the Wisconsin Film Festival so, although not everything will be new to me, it is still great to see more foreign/independent cinema coming to Madison.

Speaking of which, I just found out that the Australian noir The Square will be coming to Sundance on 25 June. I'd heard about the film and was keen on seeing it so this is good news. Also, I emailed director Zach LeBeau and he told me that he is working on getting his metaphysical sci-fi flick The Scientist to Madison. Let us hope he succeeds.

And can someone bring what sounds to be a total perv-fest - The Human Centipede to town?

Lastly, we have a trailer for the latest desecration of a Philip K. Dick story on the big screen - The Adjustment Bureau. Where is Nic Cage and his awful hairpieces when you need him?

|| Palmer, 2:06 PM || link || (0) comments |

Rich Albertoni: Stranger In a Strange Land

Rich Albertoni's article in Isthmus this week – "Race and R Place" - was a topic of conversation this morning at my house. The Dulcinea, my bi-racial ladyfriend, asked if I'd read it and I told her that I had. Her response to the article focused on one sentence early on:

Tonight is the first time I've been to R Place, 1821 S. Park St., and right now, I'm conscious of being one of two white people in a crowded room.

"Welcome to my world!" she said. "Now he knows what it's like for just about every person of color in this city."

I have to wonder if this article has been sitting on the back burner for a while or if Albertoni, a music writer (and he perhaps wears other hats as well) for Isthmus, actually waited about 2 years before stepping into the club. Even Katjusa Cisar from 77 Square went there within the first few months it was open. What the hell took him so long? Was he, as a white person, scared to go? He doesn't really say but he hints that this is the case:

When Richard, the person I came here with tonight, finally joins the jam, I get self-conscious about being a stranger in R Place. This is the south side of Madison. It's after dark, and inside this space, I fret that I won't shake hands the right way.

Yeah, it's the south side of Madison, not deepest Africa. You're a music journalist in a small American city, not Charles fucking Marlow venturing down a river in a Joseph Conrad novel. We're not at the farmers market anymore, Toto! If this attitude is shared by even a modicum of white people here in Madison, it goes a long way in explaining the troubles R Place owner Rick Flowers has had.

While I appreciate the history of the joint that Albertoni gives, I thought that he missed out on a good opportunity here. In addition to an author that didn't feel that the south side of Madison was a DMZ after dusk, I wish the article had more input from patrons about the role it plays in the community. Albertoni quotes one muso as saying, "I think it's unique because it's one of the few venues in Madison that features soul, R&B, jazz, spoken-word and other genres of black music and culture." Is it important for people of color to have a place to go where they are not in the minority? If so, why? What role does R Place play in our community? Why are black music and culture so restricted here? I really wish that Albertoni had tried to approach this profile of R Place from the point of view of people of color in addition to asking why people with the same skin color as his avoided the place. Instead of trying to define R Place by the absence of white patrons, how about approaching it more along the lines of its abundance of black clientele?
|| Palmer, 9:44 AM || link || (4) comments |

Bicycle Rush Hour

Rush hour in Utrecht, The Netherlands, a city of about 300,000. I don't think there's a car at all to be found in the video, but I'm not sure where this was taped. You do see a lot of trains and buses in addition to bicycles. And check out the two-wheeled equivalent of an Esso-asso about halfway through. He mounts the curb rather than getting in line in the bike lane.

|| Palmer, 8:52 AM || link || (0) comments |

13 May, 2010

Let the Chains of Rosanna Shatter

When I first heard about last week's Doctor Who episode, "The Vampires of Venice", I had to wonder if they'd redone the Big Finish audio adventure "The Stones of Venice". The TV story takes place in 1580 while the audio is far into the future. Both involve The Doctor and his companion fleeing to Venice to get away from it all and each feature plots to sink Venice into the sea but that's about the only things they have in common.

The Doctor tries to take Amy's mind off of him and so gets her fiancée Rory to travel with them. Destination: Venice. 1580. With the Plague supposedly spreading once more, the city, under the leadership of Rosanna Calvierri, is under quarantine. Our hero learns that Calivierri runs a girls school only they don't seem to be getting much of an education. Instead the girls only develop a fear of sunlight. You can see where this is going.

I'll avoid a plot summary and hit the highlights.

Firstly, I have to admit that the co-ed vamps reminded me of the cursed women at Maiden's Point in "The Curse of Fenric". Also, I swear I heard some bassoon in the incidental music in the first half of the program. This is certainly a throwback to the 1970s and a welcome one at that. Quite fitting for a period piece.

So was it worth having Rory around? I can certainly see how involving him may add to or be essential to Amy's eventual fate but, barring that, I wish he could have been left at home. Back in the day, having multiple companions generally worked pretty well because a story lasted for nearly two hours. They could all get separated, in trouble, and rescued very handily in that time. What they did was to add more pieces to the puzzle. Today with stories usually lasting a bit more than 40 minutes, there's not enough time for everyone to add something and so Rory mostly stands around useless. He does lash out at The Doctor by telling him that people do stupid things in an attempt to impress him and, while this is an interesting and important little observation, he does little else.

The cinematography is great. I can only describe the colors as being oversaturated and pale at the same time. The paleness obviously reflects the presence of vampires and is best seen in the white stone of the buildings. Yet there is the green light of one particular chamber and the color of the water as well. A nice clash of colors yielding a wonderful look to the proceedings.

I do want to mention one thing which bugged me. The baddie brings on a large, violent storm in an attempt to sink Venice. The Doctor puzzles it out and disables the machine which was controlling the weather. I just didn't buy that the storm would dissipate in a few seconds leaving a nice sunny sky. Especially after one of the vampires getting a good dose of sunlight after the device had been activated.

And the whole crack in time & space thing continued. Rosanna, who is, unsurprisingly, not a human, explains that her home planet was lost when a great silence fell over it and she and her fellow remaining Saturnynians fell into the crack and ended up in Venice. With everything wrapped up, The Doctor, Amy, and Rory prepare to leave. As they enter the TARDIS, The Doctor notices that Venice falls into an eerie silence.

I liked "The Vampires of Venice". It was an old-style DW story: Doctor and Co. land in historical setting and find that not all is as it seems. There's an alien running around that The Doctor must stop plus he's got to rescue his companion as well. Very formulaic fun. And it looks great as well. But hearing that bassoon drew me back to when stories had time to unfold and mysteries were allowed to linger for a while. Companions spent more time in peril and there were more cliffhangers. The new Doctor Who has done some great things and includes some fantastic stories. Stuff like "Blink", "The Empty Child", and "Utopia" stand with anything the show has ever done. Plus we've got the updated SFX, The Doctor's loneliness as the last of his race, etc. Great stuff all. But we'll never have a "City of Death" or "Invasion of Time". The show can tell a great story in a short time as the new series has shown and as was done in the old series. "The Awakening" is an all-time favorite of mine yet is only 2 episodes (50 minutes) long. But, having been a fan of the show for 28 years, there are stories that I think beg for the old format.
|| Palmer, 2:13 PM || link || (0) comments |

12 May, 2010

LOST: In the Shuffling Madness

In last night's LOST, the Mother character says to a young Jacob at one point, "Every question I answer is only going to lead to another question." Not only does it explain the approach to "Across the Sea" but was also a warning, of sorts, to fans about the show: not everything will be explained completely - some mysteries shall remain. We learned a fair amount last night, including the answer to a mystery from the very first season and, while I was frustrated at not being told more, I have to admit that I found some scenes to be incredibly moving.

The show began with Claudia surviving a shipwreck and coming ashore. Apparently the Island has attracted those who are adrift to its shores since time immemorial. She is highly pregnant. While drinking from a stream, she is approached by Mother who offers help. They are speaking Latin ("Mihi nomen est Claudia")! Yay for my classical education! The pair return to her cave where Claudia gives birth to Jacob and Esau (the show was resolutely silent on his real name) before Mother stabs her to death. While these actions may have a Biblical analogy, I personally thought of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome.

Several years later when the children are pubescents, they are boar hunting when they run into a group of men. Their questions lead Mother to take them to the heart of the Island, a cave into which a stream flows and from which emanates "the warmest, brightest light you've ever felt". It is a manifestation of life, death, and rebirth which explains why some people, presumably a group of ancient Egyptians, erected the statue of Taweret, who was the goddess of birth and rebirth. Mother explains that the men the boys encountered are evil. Indeed, she uses the same phrase Esau used back in season 5: "They come, they fight, they destroy, they corrupt." And while men cannot take the light, they do have the ability to put it out. She adds ominously, that if the light goes out on the Island, it goes out everywhere. This made me think of the dire warnings about Smokey getting off the Island spelling doom for all mankind. Furthermore she explains that they must never enter the cave and, lastly, that it is her duty to protect it.

I highly suspect that the show will never fully explain what the light is or give us anymore history of the Island and that's fine. Ever since season 2 when we learned about the Swan Hatch, we have known that pockets of electromagnetism dot the Island and have strange properties some of which are moving the Island in time & space as well as teleporting people to Tunisia. Life, death, and rebirth are parts of an enigmatic and eternal cycle so keeping the light and the Island on which it resides shrouded in mystery is appropriate. It's not important to explain how the light was created but what is crucial is understanding what the light represents and how the events in the show reflect them. It certainly made me wonder if the problem The Others had with women who conceive on the Island dying during the second trimester of pregnancy had to do with the light, well, dimming at least because that whole rebirth part seems to have been defenestrated at some point.

Along these same lines, Mother is very much an enigma. She murders a woman yet claims to have done so for a noble purpose. Is she good or evil? In addition, he says that she "made it" so that Jacob and Esau cannot kill one another. This explains why Smokey had to look for a loophole and couldn't get the job done himself but it also begs the question of who this woman is that can will such a thing. Plus she doesn't seem to age either.

The young Esau encounters Claudia's ghost who, in a first for any character on the show, actually explains events in a very direct way, answers all questions thrown her way, and, in short, gives full disclosure. She reveals that Mother killed her and that the people the surrogate told him were evil were, in fact, his people – the other shipwreck survivors. Esau goes to live with them while Jacob remains with Mother even after she admits to having murdered Claudia. The brothers remain in contact, however, with Jacob paying Esau visits. During one of them, Esau reiterates his desire to leave the Island and that they have found a way to do so. He also tells Jacob that his fellow Romans are greedy, manipulative, untrustworthy, and selfish. Jacob tells Mother that Esau has found a way to depart the Island so she pays him a visit. We find him down at the bottom of a well with our frozen donkey wheel awaiting installation. Like a proud father, Esau informs her that he and his people have found the light under the ground at various spot on the Island. They intend to jury rig a mechanism to manipulate the light and water and take them away. Mother is highly displeased and she uses this opportunity to render Esau unconscious. Upon waking, he finds himself outside the well which has been filled in and that his people are dead and their village aflame. One can't help but think of The Purge of the Dharma Initiative as well as Smokey rampaging through the Temple leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake.

Esau exacts his revenge on Mother by stabbing her through the heart with a knife that looks exactly like the one Smokey would give to Richard to kill Jacob and later that Dogen gives to Sayid to kill Esau. Mother's final words are "thank you". Presumably she has finally found some relief from her post as guardian of the Island. Jacob returns and flies into a rage. He punches Esau repeatedly before dragging him under his arm to the cave with the light whereupon he unceremoniously throws Esau into the stream, his head hitting a rock and rendering him unconscious. Esau's body flows into the cave and down a waterfall. A short time later the smoke monster emerges from the mouth of the cave. So now we know how Esau became Smokey.

Because I'm an old softy, I found the scenes where Jacob beats Esau and takes him to the cave to be very emotionally wrenching. When Jacob is marching to the cave with Esau under his arm, the future Smokey is badly beaten but he is still walking. In fact, I would argue that he is willingly going along. He was betrayed by Mother twice, at the very least, yet I think he still loves and has faith in his own flesh and blood. Esau doesn't seem to put up a fight and lets Jacob's rage spill upon him. But that rage proves too great. Honestly, I felt really sorry for Esau because he was a defeated man at this point. His childhood was a lie, Mother took away his hopes to leave the Island, and all he had left was his brother, the only person he loved, who gave him the unkindest cut of all. And what had he really done wrong? I just found this scene to be incredibly moving. I have a brother and know how important fraternal bonds are; I know what it's like to feel that your brother is the only person in the world you have left as a friend.

Lastly, did this scene remind anyone else of Anakin Skywalker becoming Darth Vader? Jacob was like Obi Wan cutting off Anakin's limbs and leaving him for dead only to discover that he's created a malevolent monster.

The episode ends with Jacob placing the corpses of Mother and Esau into a little nook of Mother's cave and putting a black and a white piece from his brother's game into a sack to be left with them. The identity of Adam and Eve was finally resolved. These events transpire at least 1500 years before Oceanic 815 crashes on the Island so I'm not exactly sure why their clothing hasn't fully degraded by 2004 or why Jack would estimate that they'd been there for only 50 years. But I guess it's not really a big deal.

Now that we've gotten Jacob and Esau's backstory, does it shed any light on what we know of them in the 21st century? Well, for one thing, we know they were born of woman. They're not gods but human beings who have been acted upon by the supernatural. Esau goes into the light and becomes Smokey while Jacob drank the wine given to him by Mother to secure his position as guardian of the Island. I argued a few episodes ago that:

I now think that Esau is cursed. He and Jacob surely have a long history which pre-dates the Island. At some point they were both ordinary average guys but something happened to Esau which made him malevolent - he's the wine being stopped by the Island's cork – but he is essentially unaware of it. Jacob either believes or has been told that, like Darth Vader, there's still an iota of goodness left in Esau and it's his job to bring that out. Bringing people to the Island is Jacob's way of inducing anamnesis.

Okay, I was wrong on many counts here but I still don't think that Esau is 100% pure evil concentrate. His desire to kill Jacob is now quite understandable. Jacob is responsible for Esau becoming Smokey, a fate worse than death. And Esau has wanted to leave the Island for ages and that hasn't changed. He's not an angel but his motivations haven't changed in 1500-2000 years. Only instead of using the frozen donkey wheel, he must manipulate and/or kill people to achieve his ends. The show has a history of presenting various people as malicious only to dig deeper and find ambiguities, conflicting desires, and human frailty. Think of Christian Shepherd, Ben, and Widmore. All the bad guys on LOST seem to have turned out to be like HAL in 2001 and I suspect Esau will have a similar fate. Mother noted about that light that there is a bit of it in all men but that they get greedy and try to obtain more. I still think that bit of light remains in Esau. I suppose this also implies that Jacob has taken his fair share of walks on the dark side.

So does Esau getting off of the Island lead to the end of the world? Maybe so. If that spark remains within him, then he is still a part of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. Perhaps the end of the world that his escape presages and the end of humanity that the Dharma Initiative was trying to prevent are just the death part of the cycle to be followed by a rebirth. The DI failed, remember, and so humanity is still rushing headlong to its death.

|| Palmer, 2:45 PM || link || (0) comments |

11 May, 2010

Going Africana With Eating Madison A to Z


Last month I had lunch with the Eating Madison A to Z crew at the Africana food cart. You can check out the results here.

In another month or so, you'll be able to read all about our trek to Pollo Inka.
|| Palmer, 2:36 PM || link || (0) comments |

Solntse (The Sun)

Aleksandr Sokurov's Solntse (The Sun) is a difficult movie. So much so that half the audience walked out in the middle when I saw it at Sundance. Anyone expecting an action-laden flick with bullets flying overhead will be gravely disappointed. Instead The Sun is about Emperor Hirohito, specifically, the waning days of World War II.

It marks the third installment of Sokurov's planned despotic tetralogy. 1999's Molokh featured Hitler and two years later came Telets focusing on Lenin. I've not seen these two films, unfortunately, so I cannot tell how The Sun fits in with Sokurov's overall approach to such people. This movie, however, seems interested in cutting Hirohito down to size, to show that a figure traditionally thought to have been descended from the sun god is, in fact, simply a man.

It opens with Hirohito, expertly portrayed by Issei Ogata, having his breakfast in a rather stately looking room while two servants attend to him. This beginning sequence of the film establishes the demigod status of the emperor but has the Japanese leader eat away at it. One attendant announces his schedule which includes a cabinet meeting along with a dose of marine biology and a nap. Rather sarcastically, he asks how his schedule would be affected if the Americans were to show up. After this as Hirohito is being dressed, he says that he has the body of a man just as does the guy tending to his every need. The servant is aghast at the thought and so the emperor remarks that he was only joking to assuage the fears of his loyal subject. And throughout Ogata affects a lip tic so that he looks like he is about to speak but he remains silent.

Sokurov takes his time and this is likely why people left the theatre. An emperor preparing for his day would probably only merit a minute or two in a typical Hollywood film but here the minutiae of quotidian rituals and the extended period spent in an elaborately decorated yet windowless bunker lends a feeling of claustrophobia. The viewer is forced to learn about Hirohito through small acts and brief sentences in a confined space. After finishing breakfast, the emperor walks behind a partition as his servant babbles on. While there was nothing on the soundtrack, I presume he was availing himself of a chamber pot. Only gods can urinate so silently!

Hirohito attends a cabinet meeting where he urges his defeated generals to continue the fight by quoting a poem. Then it's off to the lab where he examines a hermit crab and describes its beauty to an assistant taking notes and who eventually nods off. It is a weird, surreal existence to be studying a crab and waxing poetic about it while Tokyo burns.

Eventually the Americans arrive. Hirohito goes outside only to find some G.I.s screwing around on the lawn like a bunch of kids, blithely unaware that the emperor is before them. He is then subjected to a photo shoot as American scramble for shots. MacArthur meets with the emperor and treats him like a child. Hirohito, in an attempt to save some face, fires back by speaking English and informing the general that he can also speak several other languages. He is at once outside of events yet very keenly aware of them.

In the end, Hirohito is informed that the man who recorded his speech in which he informed the Japanese people of his surrender had committed hari-kari. He asks if the official had tried to stop the man from killing himself and it told "No." Death was better for that guy than attempting to come to grips with, not only his country's loss in the war, but also the humbling fact that his emperor was less than godlike and capitulated.

|| Palmer, 2:35 PM || link || (0) comments |

07 May, 2010

Selflessness Is the Hardest Part

Another follow-up to my post on poverty and hunger in Madison.

A commenter named Jenna said at that time:

I would say that part of the reason why Pollan, Food, Inc. and the entire movement takes front and center is because when people get involved and have that inevitable moment of thinking "but what can I do?" there are small incremental steps they can take to feel they are making a difference. Whereas, when the issue of poverty comes up in the news cycle and you ask yourself "what can I do?" the answer is a lot less clear for the everyday joe.

Fair enough. But I think that feeling of helplessness can only be an excuse to a limited extent. Listen to this episode of Here On Earth, a radio show from Wisconsin Public Radio. The topic was hunger in Wisconsin. Helen Hazelmare, the Food Pantry Coordinator at the Goodman Community Center says at 32:26:

It's something that no one wants to really address. I mean that's like homelessness. And also, where's the profit? Unfortunately you have to give of yourself without asking for anything back. And that's the tough part - is you have to be able to give and understand it's simply the right thing to do. So, these are things that people don't want to deal with - they want them to be away. And now that they're here in their backyard, it's a tough time for a lot of people who have no choice but to deal with it.

Madison is full of smart people. You can't tell me that it doesn't occur to them at some point to donate food to a local pantry or to hop on the Internet to learn what they can do to deal with hunger and poverty in our community. More and more Madisonians want these issues to just go away. Going back to my original post, there's just something disconcerting for me about going to a place like Madison Sourdough (where I've bought coffee and noticed on a return visit that rye bread now abounds) and seeing people with Apple laptops ($1,500-$2,000) enjoying a $7 almond butter & jelly or $8 grilled cheese while down the street a school serves too many students a discounted or free lunch that generally consists of crap like chicken nuggets.

Put yourself behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance and ask yourself if that rings of justice or fairness. Do these concepts even have a place in the conversation or can it all be written off as a result of circumstances red in tooth and claw?

|| Palmer, 4:30 PM || link || (4) comments |

The Weeping Angels Return

When I heard that the Weeping Angels would be returning to Doctor Who, I was elated. They first appeared in "Blink", an episode from the third series (the new series, that is) which stands as one of the best Doctor Who stories ever and one that scared the living crap out of me. And so I went into this two-parter ("The Time of Angels" & "Flesh and Stone") with high hopes.

For the most part, they were rewarded. If "Blink" were Alien, then this story is Aliens with The Doctor and Amy joined by River Song and a squad of priests who are also marines heading into a cavern to hunt down a Weeping Angel.

We last saw Ms. Song in the fourth series' "Forest of the Dead". She is a future companion of The Doctor with a potential uxorial angle as well. As "The Time of Angels" opens she is aboard the Byzantium. After breaking into the room where the starship's equivalent of a black box is located, she carves a message onto it. Twelve millennia later the box is on display at a museum where The Doctor and Amy are checking out the exhibits. It catches The Doctor's eye as it has Gallifreyan writing on it. After stealing it and watching the footage it contains in the TARDIS, The Doctor sets a course and rescues River as she is blown out an air hatch on the Byzantium.

They follow the starship which crashes onto the surface of Alfava Metraxis. There our heroes meet up with Father Octavian who is leading a group of holy soldiers in pursuit of a Weeping Angel which was aboard the Byzantium. The creepiness begins early when Amy finds herself alone in the command trailer while a 4-second clip of the angel aboard the Byzantium standing against a wall plays on a loop. But soon the statue inexplicably begins to move towards the camera and eventually a digital, static-ridden angel emerges from the monitor. Good stuff!

After this, everyone enters the cave which is actually an underground crypt for the long-gone native Alfava Metraxians. The place is lined with statues in memorial to the dead and makes it a great hiding spot for the angel. It then occurs to The Doctor that the natives had two heads whereas the statues only have one. They are trapped in a spooky cavern full of angels! The lights begin to dim as the monsters drain all sources of light of their power so that they can regenerate. Things get really hairy from here.

River Song proves even more enigmatic in this story as we find out that she was released from jail where she was serving a sentence for murder in order to enlist the help of The Doctor for this mission. At the end awaiting to be teleported back into custody, River tells The Doctor of her predicament and says that she had killed the best man she'd ever known, hinting that she had killed our Gallifreyan hero himself. Before she is whisked away, she says that she'll see him again when the Pandorica opens, a reference to the enigmatic…um… thing which we first heard about at the beginning of the season. Along these same lines, that recurring crack in time and space is present on Alfava Metraxis and becomes even more important at the end. With the adventure over, Amy wants to go home and the TARDIS arrives just a few minutes after they had originally left. She tells The Doctor that she was to get married the next day but she has changed her mind and makes her move on our Doctor. He resists and figures out that the cracks that they've been encountering have something to do with Amy and, perhaps more importantly, the explosion which created them happens the following day – her wedding day.

While "The Time of Angels" & "Flesh and Stone" made for some intense, scary viewing, I felt that Matt Smith fell back into David Tennant mode with all the talking to himself and his mouth going 100MPH. While I think that most, if not all, of the Doctors have this trait, it seemed that Tennant made it a trademark instead of just one thing among many that The Doctor engages in. Our hero should be known for Jelly Babies or love of cricket or just something else besides a trait that all incarnations have in common.

Still, this was a scary story and the Weeping Angels slowly moving towards the characters was positively terrifying. However, there was one sequence where Amy had her eyes closed yet managed to traverse a landscape filled with angels. If they're all quantumy, then how did they not notice that they weren't being seen? I don't understand how your gait is supposed to fool them. If you can put this aside and instead concentrate on the creeping darkness and claustrophobia, then you're in for a great ride.

|| Palmer, 1:12 PM || link || (2) comments |

Buying Local Matters

It keeps a lot of money in your community.

A recent study by the firm Civic Economics makes the issue crystal clear, for every $100 spent locally, $45 stays in the community. However, if the same dollars are spent at a chain store, the analysis found that only $13 of that $100 stays locally.
|| Palmer, 6:53 AM || link || (0) comments |

06 May, 2010

Federal Funds for Metro Buses?

I don't know if Madison is eligible but the U.S. Department of Transportation has got $775 million burning a hole in their pocket and wants to help upgrade the nation's buses.

Eligible expenses for the funds include purchase and rehabilitation of buses and vans, modernization of buses, bus facilities and revenue service facilities, bus-related equipment and components of transit asset management plans. Deadline for applications is June 18, 2010. Grantees are expected to be announced in late summer 2010.

I haven't read everything to know if Madison can apply for money, but I do see that you can get the Feds to pay for 90% of the cost of projects that make your bus service more ADA compliant. Perhaps some hybrid buses with the ramp-lift hoolies to replace those with steps?
|| Palmer, 12:51 PM || link || (0) comments |

Amtrak Stop To Go Downtown

Near Monona Terrace.

Each site under consideration had its advantages and I think the strength of a downtown stop will be to maximize ridership via convenience. Unfortunately it probably doesn't bode well for any kind of intermodal station in the future as there's just too little room for intercity buses.
|| Palmer, 12:28 PM || link || (0) comments |

05 May, 2010

Farewell My Candidates

Last night's LOST kind of threw me for a loop with all the ends met by various folks. I felt it was a good episode all-around with some action, intrigue, and tender moments as well. But for all that, I still have my reservations.

Sayid takes one for the team here. Good on him. But wasn't he this soulless automaton raised from the dead at Esau's beck and call? I presume that Desmond's pleading from the bottom of his heart and that well must have made Sayid actually feel something. I hate to see him go. He was a great character because he was the most conflicted and, to my mind, the most in need of redemption. Sayid could alternately be exceedingly cruel and then kind. But I guess he was never fully purged of his tortuous past – there was still malevolence inside of him – and so his candidacy had to end. Presumably his soul or whatever there is left of him is now stuck in the Island version of purgatory and we will hear him in the whispers.

The Kwons are also dead. I didn't find their reunion last episode to be particularly moving but their demises brought out some of the sentimental me. However, I found it odd that they spent so much of their last moments together chatting in English when you'd think it would have been in their native tongue. While I didn't dislike Jin and Sun, I felt the mystery behind these characters dissipated a couple seasons ago and their Odysseus/Penelope situation just never carried the emotional heft that Desmond/Penny's did. We saw their relationship progress and they mature as people, but their story fell into an orbit around the main conflicts and mythology of the Island and never played a central part.

Lastly we bid farewell to Lapidus who took a mighty blow from a hatch on the submarine. The pilot was an eminently likeable guy who was unfortunately relegated to standing around looking flummoxed most of the time. Sure, he had his moments in season 4 but, after that, he was wallpaper. Too bad.

With the show near its terminus, I look back and think that the show's producers kind of screwed the pooch by going with 18 show seasons. I'm not sure why they did this exactly but I sure hope it wasn't because of pressure from fans who had nothing better to do than whine about some reruns. I have enjoyed every season of the show but lots of characters got short-changed, not the least of which were the freighter people. I mean, Miles can speak with the dead yet his claim to fame is being Sawyer's right-hand man when they are stuck with the Dharma Initiative. You'd think his supernatural power could have been used a bit more than it was. Charlotte was underutilized as well. She grew up on the Island so you'd think that she could have been a good source of DI history but she got the nosebleeds and was gone all too soon. Bernard and Rose are probably the poster children for characters that get precious little screen time. Even if they weren't candidates and were meant to be peripheral, an older couple in a good, loving relationship made for such a nice contrast to just about everyone else in the show. It's what no one else on the Island can have. They are strong and inspirational so why keep them in the dark so often?

Moving on from the characters, we saw the Esau Stratagem prove only partially successful last night. He managed to off a couple of the candidates but now Jack is fully cognizant of the erstwhile smoke cloud's limitations. He knows that Esau's M.O. is the long con and that he cannot directly kill any of the candidates. But the remaining Losties are powerless to stop him. Sawyer knows he cannot cross water while in his smokey incarnation but, since Jack was able to shove Esau into the water at the dock last night, it seems more likely that Esau's ability to go to the Hydra island was impeded not by water per se but rather by the fact that the ocean provided a circular barrier. The monster cannot cross rings of ashes nor circular sonic fences.

In addition to circlephobia, Esau cannot kill his jailer nor candidates for that job, and, according to Illana, he is no longer able to take the form of anyone but Locke. He also seems to have the ability to peer into people's memories and perhaps their minds generally. Plus he likes to kill indiscriminately. Why immediately kill everyone aboard the Black Rock except Richard? Why kill the pilot of Oceanic 815? Why kill Rousseau's shipmates? Conversely, why let Kate and Juliet go after a simple flashbulb mind reading?

Presumably we'll find out more next week because "Across the Sea" looks to be the episode where we find out the history of Jacob and Esau. In the present, we're down to three candidates - Jack, Sawyer, and Hurley – and Kate. Widmore's gang is still hanging in there but I think it's going to come down to Desmond. His ability to withstand electromagnetism of various stripes will no doubt be handy for someone down the line. I presume he's still alive, anyway. Surely the sacrificial Sayid saw the light and spared him. This must have thrown a spanner in Esau's works too.

I haven't talked much about the flash-sideways because there were only a couple bits, namely Locke's semi-conscious ramblings about button pushing, that indicated that the two worlds were bleeding into one another. Eloise Hawking has some explaining to do.
|| Palmer, 7:09 PM || link || (0) comments |

03 May, 2010

Platteville Cop Accused of Running Crack House & Smoking Crack On Duty

Since she was hopped up on crack in the line of duty, will this throw any of her arrests into doubt?

Federal prosecutors charged a southwestern Wisconsin police officer Tuesday with maintaining a crack house, saying she used the drug while on duty on several occasions.

FBI agents arrested Platteville Police Officer Michelle Salentine, 28, on Monday night when she showed up to work her patrol shift, according to court documents. She could face 20 years in prison if convicted.

According to court documents, an informant contacted FBI agents in February and told them Salentine regularly smoked crack at a Platteville location as well as her own home. The informant said he had seen Salentine smoke crack on at least six occasions, including times when she was in uniform and carrying a firearm.
|| Palmer, 12:44 PM || link || (0) comments |

Hitler's Thirty days To Power: January 1933 by Henry Ashby Turner Jr.

Reading Henry Ashby Turner Jr.'s Hitler's Thirty days To Power: January 1933 is an exasperating read at times. We all know the ending so there's no surprise there, but I often found myself wanting to yell at the page, "No!" when reading about how Hitler went from a doomed leader of a doomed political party as 1933 began to chancellor before the month was out.

Turner's book was a fascinating read as well which dispelled a lot of myths and notions that I had about Hitler's rise to power. Until this point, I'd always been told that Hitler got into office because of his steadfast determination to build his party and take advantage of anti-Semitism and the economic problems faced by Germany after World War I and the worldwide depression at the time. He got the momentum going and then inserted himself into the chancellorship. But Turner ably shows that the rise of a former army corporal was contingent on a multitude of people and that the Nazi party was essentially on life support in January of 1933. What I thought was a slow ascension to power topped off with a coup was actually very sudden and seemingly freakish considering how many points there were along the way to prevent it. Moreover, Hitler assumed office under completely legal circumstances.

The first chapter is introduces the reader to the key actors in the story and summarizes important events prior to 1933. Included here is the governmental structure of the Weimar Republic. You had a president who appointed a chancellor, the head of the government, and the Reichstag, the legislative branch. The Reichstag could give a vote of no confidence and force the chancellor to resign. Similarly, the president could depose of the chancellor and his cabinet at will but he could also 86 the Reichstag and force a new election. Paul von Hindenberg was President at this time. He was in his 80s and an aristocratic throwback to the German Empire. In addition, he had tipped the balance of power away from the Reichstag towards a more potent presidency.

The largely ineffective Franz von Papen became Chancellor in May 1932 but was succeeded by General Kurt von Schleicher late in the year. In the elections of July 1932, the Nazis did well but saw defeat at the polls the following November. Come January 1933, Schleicher was on the outs with just about everyone. His relationship with Hindenberg was awful and his policies tended away from job creation and towards establishing national military service. Papen had remained in the President's favor and was scheming to return to power. For his part, Hitler watched popular support for his party dwindle and dissension develop in the ranks of the Nazi Sturmabteilung or SA, a paramilitary branch of the party which had many members who were dissatisfied with their leader's desire to obtain power through political means rather than violent overthrow.

So how did Hitler get into power when Hindenberg had denied him the chancellorship before and show disdain for the man? The short of it is that Schleicher was incompetent, Hindenberg didn't really pay attention, and Papen proved much more able than anyone had ever given him credit for being. Papen told the President what he wanted to hear and revived Hitler's fading prospects by secretly meeting with him on January 4. The former chancellor got Hitler his old job under the notion that the Nazi would essentially be a figurehead and that he, Papen, would actually wield authority as Vice Chancellor. Schleicher's pursuit of his own goals and his chronic underestimation of others left him defenseless. Papen's scheming was certainly abetted by the President's son, Oskar von Hindenberg as well as the elder Hindenberg's advisor, Otto Meissner. They greased a lot of wheels for Papen to get most of the parties involved to go along with the plan and to secure the approval of the Reichstag to avoid a vote of no confidence.

Again, this is the short of it and Turner gives an almost day-by-day account of the activities of these main players during January 1933. In the last chapter he apportions blame and there's a lot to go around. While the German people voted for the Nazis and gave Hitler and his party some political clout, Turner notes that this was one of those times when the fate of an entire country essentially rested in the hands of a few elder statesmen. And, for their part, they were blinded for their own lust for power having discarded any notions of the greater good. While it's easy to judge in hindsight, I often wondered while reading the book how it was that any of these actors would have even considered Hitler with his demagoguery and anti-Semitism. It turns out that there is no evidence to show that the main players here had ever read Mein Kampf and that they were likely ignorant of just how heinous an individual Hitler truly was. Turner also goes after various moderate/liberal groups. He is critical of them for not defending their republican ideals and instead letting the country move towards political power residing in executive authority. And, finally, I'll give some credit to Hitler himself for being one of the most determined individuals in history in addition to having charisma and being able to lie/hide the truth very well.

Turner notes all-too well that there were many junctures where Hitler could have been relegated to the dustbin of history if only someone had bothered to investigate who they were attempting to install as Chancellor, had relegated their own self-interest down a notch, etc. Hitler was almost completely marginalized until Papen decided to meet with him and, from then on, people kept Hitler in the picture. He did not seize power nor was he fated for the Chancellorship because of his tremendous popularity, hard work, and good looks. At every turn Hitler's ambitions could have been thwarted yet no one did so. He is even reported to have marveled at the turnaround of his fortunes.

When reading history I like to find analogues to the present time or try to glean some lesson from it. In this case, the thing which struck me most was how many people in German politics at the time were dismissive of republican rule and that people like Hindenberg, Papen, and the other main actors here were in favor of consolidating power in the Chancellorship and weakening the Reichstag. For example, in August 1932 Hindenberg granted Papen the authority to dissolve the Reichstag and was willing to forego the constitutionally mandated elections within 60 days giving the Chancellor and his cabinet the full power of the German state. Well, excepting that reserved for the President.

This incident and others reminded me of Bush and Obama in their use of executive authority. (Mind you, I am not calling anyone a Nazi or fascist here.) In prosecuting the "War on Terror", both Bush and Obama have taken on powers which seem anti-republican - warrantless wire tapping, orders to assassinate an American citizen, etc. None of these are equivalent to calling off elections and I don't think we're in the same position of the Weimar Republic in 1932 but it feels like we're taking anti-republican baby steps and yielding to the less-than democratic demands of our presidents with more frequency. I'm not sure how much of our democracy would be left if there were another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11.
|| Palmer, 12:28 PM || link || (0) comments |