Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

30 June, 2011

Wim Wenders Goes 3-D

German New Wavers are going 3-D. First it was Werner Herzog and now Wim Wenders with his latest Pina, a documentary about the work of modern dance choreographer Pina Bausch. Looks pretty funky.

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29 June, 2011

The CNN of the Civil War

William Rabkin and Steve Ecclesine got fed up with how Civil War history is presented to lay audiences and decided to make it more accessible. So they created a Civil War-era cable news show called The Mason Dixon Report.

May 24, 1861 from ron schneider on Vimeo.

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A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America by Saul Cornell

A couple weeks ago the Wisconsin legislature was busy trying to figure out exactly how to change the laws so as to allow residents to carry concealed handguns. One option being bandied about was to have gun-toters apply for a permit and receive a modicum of training before having it granted. The other goes by the Orwellian name "constitutional carry" which means that no permit would be necessary. This is justified in the minds of supporters because the Constitution has an amendment relating to guns which includes the phrase "well regulated" and somehow for these people saying that the government can regulate something really means it can't.

So I availed myself of the opportunity to read Saul Cornell's A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America. Cornell is, according to his publisher, "Professor of History at Ohio State University and Director of the Second Amendment Research Center at the John Glenn Institute. An authority on constitutional history and especially on the Second Amendment, he is the author of The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America and editor of Whose Right to Bear Arms Did the Second Amendment Protect?" In the book, Cornell lays out some prescriptive measures but this comes at the conclusion of the book. The bulk of the text is not polemical in nature and is instead history written for the layperson.

His thesis is that 21st century Americans don't properly understand the Second Amendment ("A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.") as it was intended. Today we have the individual right interpretation as espoused by the NRA and many others which sees the right to bear arms as something conferred upon individuals. On the other end there's gun control advocates who normally take a collective rights stance on the Second Amendment. Here the idea is that the amendment is about states regulating militias, not about the rights of individual citizens.

But Cornell argues that the amendment confers what he calls a "civic right". It's probably not the best term out there, however, but until we get a really lengthy German word that covers its meaning, we're stuck with it. I say it's not the best description because it entails a right plus an obligation/duty/responsibility, namely to serve in the militia. As one can imagine, many in late-18th century America were very weary of standing armies. Even those that weren't had to concede that, well, our country didn't have any. Hence militias. And while there were disputes about the exact roles of Congress and the states regarding them, there was little disagreement that most white males had to be in them. (Quakers, for instance, were exempted.) This is what Cornell means. The right to "bear arms" was tied up in a Gordian knot with the duty to serve in the militia. This wasn't about owning a musket if you wanted to, you had to own a musket. Furthermore, you had to show up at muster when called and you had to put your life on the line if asked to do so. As you can see, neither of the two most popular views today incorporate the notion of compulsory participation in the common defense.

It's not that keeping arms for individual self-defense was unheard of, but that idea was part of the common law heritage American inherited from England. Cornell notes that the earliest state constitutions were devoid of any language protecting the right of keeping arms for self-defense. Plus there were exemptions for Quakers. You wouldn't need to exempt conscientious objectors if bearing arms was a right for individuals to exercise or not. Cornell references the responses of Massachusetts towns when considering their constitution. It referred to keeping and bearing arms for the common defense but not for self-defense yet there was a great paucity of comment on the issue with only a couple towns bringing up objections to the omission of keeping arms for the latter purpose.

The book also abounds with court rulings stemming from incidents involving people taking up arms. In 1813 Kentucky passed a law restricting concealed carry. (And Louisiana enacted an even stricter law later that same year.) The law was challenged and the state's supreme court ruled in 1822 against the laws saying that the Second Amendment encapsulated an individual right. Furthermore it stated that this right could not be regulated. After the decision was handed down, the Kentucky House went ballistic. (Ahem.) It issued a stinging rebuke of the court's ruling which lectured the judges on the historical meaning of the Second Amendment – i.e. – it pertained to militias & the common defense. Kentucky would eventually modify its constitution to nullify the court's ruling.

I appreciated not only how A Well-Regulated Militia demonstrated the general understanding of the Second Amendment's meaning in the late 18th/early 19th centuries but also that it gave time to dissenting views. At no time in our history has there been a consensus on what the amendment meant. There have always been those who see it as conferring an individual right while Anti-Federalist types saw it as guaranteeing states' rights. Regarding the latter, militias were seen as protectors of liberty and a check on the federal government. A small minority thought that guaranteeing the right of militia members to bear arms was an acknowledgement that states could openly and violently rebel against the federal government when it became tyrannical. More common was the idea that, when a tyrannical federal government ordered militias to do its bidding, they could provide a check on its power by refusing to bear arms in its service. Entangled here are also many disagreements over who has what kind of jurisdiction over militias.

Cornell cites the U.S. Supreme Court's 1876 ruling in United States v. Cruikshank as a watershed moment. "The Supreme Court's ruling endorsed a limited states' rights conception of the Second Amendment and pushed aside the civic conception of the Second Amendment that had dominated mainstream constitutional theory since the adoption of the Bill of Rights…After Cruikshank, the Second Amendment would be understood to be a limit on federal power to disarm the state militias."

Many arguments from this country's early days became moot as police forces were created and federal legislation in the early 20th century wrestled control of the militias from the states. We were moving towards standing armies. At this point, the Second Amendment seems to have been in limbo. SCOTUS declared it was about the rights of the states and their attendant militias but they no longer had militias.

Cornell cites the SCOTUS ruling in United States v. Miller (1939) as being the genesis of our modern gun control debate. Here the Court ruled against an individual interpretation of the Second Amendment and instead fused "elements of the traditional civic conception and the states' right view that had emerged at the end of the 19th century." Apparently the wording of the decision left it open to some interpretation and the legal theory about the Second Amendment which was in vogue at the time was developed by Lucillus A. Emery, the chief justice of Maine's supreme court, in an article published in 1914 in Harvard Law Review. His was the collective rights theory which stated that the Second Amendment applied to those who "bear arms in military organizations" – the new National Guard created by the federal government. This essentially made the Second Amendment an anachronism, a relic of an age before organized police forces and professional armies. Emery's ideas and the individual rights view would become the antipodes in the modern debate over gun control.

In his closing Cornell attempts to rescue the civic meaning of bearing arms as both a right and a duty. He laments "the precipitous decline in the ideal of civic participation in American culture", a culture in which most people hold an individual rights view. But rather than amending the Constitution to extirpate that annoying bit about militias, Cornell suggests we use it in situ as a basis to "transform public culture." It seems that the goal of this atavistic endeavor is to reinvigorate the notion of civic obligation and he offers mandatory public service for youth as a starting point.

Cornell adds that, in addition to having lost the idea of civic participation, we have also abandoned the idea of well-regulated liberty. This was repeated earlier in the book a few times when he noted various jurists, politicians, &c commenting that there was a distinction between a well-regulated militia and an armed mob. He is taking aim at the NRA and the prevailing individualist view of the Second Amendment. I got the impression that Cornell accepts (as opposed to endorses) an individual right to gun ownership. This being the case, he lays out some potential regulations such as mandatory gun insurance to close off the book.

A Well-Regulated Militia lays out a strong case that the prevailing view of the Second Amendment for the first 100 years of our republic was that of a civic right to bear arms coupled with a duty to serve in state militias. This puts the lie to claims by proponents of today's prevailing views that theirs is the original intent of the Second Amendment. I also found the book interesting because it demonstrates that gun control and the meaning of Second Amendment are issues that have been with the United States from the start with a multiplicity of views on them that have morphed over time.

His prescriptive conclusion is perhaps the weakest part of the book. While there's much food for thought and I agree with a lot of it, I wish he had argued more forcefully against the prevailing individualist view. In addition, I think he would have been more persuasive had he explained better exactly why civic obligations and well-regulated liberty are desirable. He seems to say that they could heal divisions among Americans brought on by conflicting views of the Second Amendment and move citizens in a more virtuous direction. This argument is a bit nebulous and I'm unsure if these goals are desirable in and of themselves or more proximate. A discussion for another book.

For more on the subject in the same vein, check out Nathan Kozuskanich's essays "Defending Themselves: The Original Understanding of the Right to Bear Arms" and "Originalism, History, and the Second Amendment: What Did Bearing Arms Really Mean to the Founders?".

Here is Cornell on C-SPAN talking about A Well-Regulated Militia.

Postscript: Cornell has a long row to hoe in convincing people not only to be more virtuous, but to simply accept his conclusions about what the Second Amendment has meant through history. A Well-Regulated Militia was introduced as an historical authority in the case of Parker v. District of Columbia which was heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. His view did not prevail. Instead the individualist view did and was affirmed in 2008 by the SCOTUS in District of Columbia v. Heller and again last year in McDonald v. Chicago.
|| Palmer, 9:35 AM || link || (0) comments |

27 June, 2011

Flying the (Un)Friendly Skies

Having done a spot of flying last weekend, I am pleased to say that I didn't have any troubles with the TSA and they now have a nice picture of me naked taken by one of those scanner hoolies. The Dulcinea got her back swabbed for explosives but, luckily, it came up negative. Honestly, the agents were very courteous.

I feel badly for those who do have run-ins with the TSA and its screeners. Take the 95-year old woman who had to have her soiled adult diaper removed so she could be thoroughly searched. Or Amy Alkon, an advice columnist, whose pudendum and labia were given a thorough search. The same goes for all the people in this video.

Meanwhile screeners somehow missed four chef's knives.

While I personally am not a fan of Rand Paul, I think he (mostly) hits the nail on the head here.

I was especially pleased to see him take TSA head John Pistole (whose banal TSA message is broadcast over airport PAs every few minutes) to task for his comment that traveling via plane is a privilege, not a right by quoting Supreme Court justices. Paul also brought up the point that the TSA has had nearly 10 years of practice yet they don't seem to have gotten any better at making flying any easier.
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22 June, 2011

David Cronenberg Returns

David Cronenberg's latest - A Dangerous Method - is due later this year. From IndieWire:

In the film Keira Knightley plays Sabina Spielrein, a patient who is admitted in August 1904 to the Burghölzli mental hospital near Zürich where she came under the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender). The two developed a relationship—that some contend turned sexual—much to the chagrin of Jung’s mentor Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). The “dangerous method” the title likely refers to is also known as “the talking cure” (which was the working title of the film and same name of the Christopher Hampton play on which it is based), which layed out the first steps of psychoanalysis pioneered by Freud in which patients talked through their symptoms.

I'm not expecting any heads to explode in this film but will settle for Keira Knightley getting spanked for she is a very naughty girl.

|| Palmer, 3:55 PM || link || (0) comments |

Source Code

I was looking forward to Source Code because I was impressed with director Duncan Jones' flawed but enjoyable Moon which took its sci-fi seriously. The blurbs that I read before the movie's release only heightened my anticipation. How did it live up to them?

The film opens with aerial shots of downtown Chicago which slowly become shots of a commuter train out in the Arcadian exurbs. Out of blue we cut into one of the cars where we witness Jake Gyllenhaal's character awake suddenly. He is disoriented and anxiously looks around the car. Across from him is the winsome Christina who begins chatting with him. Gyllenhaal plays Colter Stevens who has no idea why he is on a train nor who Christina is or why she is calling him Sean. Stevens stumbles about as the train makes its last stop before the terminus at Union Station where passengers board and disembark. It gets moving again and, just as a freight train whizzes by on another set of tracks, a massive explosion rocks the car and a ball of fire engulfs everyone.

Stevens wakes up again but this time he is strapped in a chair inside what looks like an aging lunar landing module designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. On a small video screen is Goodwin, as played by Vera Farmiga, decked out in a military uniform. She attempts to orientate Stevens to his surroundings and inquires about what he encountered on the train. For his part, Stevens has tons of questions. Where is he? What's going on? And can he contact his father? His insistence proves to be discommodious enough that Goodwin consults with Dr. Rutledge and get permission to explain some of his circumstances to him.

Stevens is on a mission. His service in Afghanistan is over and he has been reassigned to something a bit closer to home. A terrorist planted a bomb on a Chicago commuter train and now plans to explode a dirty bomb downtown. "Source Code" refers to a new technology whereby a person's consciousness can be injected into the memories of another individual. Rutledge explains that, after someone dies, the human mind retains an afterimage of the last eight minutes of a person's life. In this case, Stevens is running around in the final minutes of the life of one of the passengers on the train – Sean. His mission is to find the bomb and then uncover the identity of the terrorist who, authorities have ascertained by checking cell phone records, was aboard the train concurrently with Sean, for at least a stretch. And so Stevens is sent plunging back into those final eight minutes aboard the train over and over in search of the terrorist so his identity can be reported back to the real world where authorities would put the kibosh on his little dirty bomb stratagem.

The first thing anyone who enjoys the science half of science fiction will notice is that Stevens' time plundering Sean's memories don't make any sense. If Sean had no idea where the bomb was, how can his memories hold the location of it? How can Stevens have a conversation with a fellow passenger that Sean never had? There is clearly something more afoot here than making a withdrawal from the memory bank.

Back in his module, Stevens convinces the sympathetic Goodwin to lower the veil of secrecy a bit more and reveal that his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. The injuries he sustained were severe so he was brought to the Source Code folks after it was determined that his brain's layout was similar enough to Sean's to go venturing inside. The train and the space capsule are both products of the old brain in a jar mental exercise.

Despite being upset at this ontological revelation, Stevens carries on and eventually figures out who the terrorist is. He relays his identity to Goodwin and people are once again free to shop the Magnificent Mile. Rutledge had promised Stevens that, upon completion of the mission, he would let him finally die peacefully. Goodwin finds out that Rutledge has no such intentions and so she easily succumbs to Stevens' plea for another eight minutes in Sean's memories so he can save the passengers on the train. He feels that his actions can have an effect in the "real world". On his final sortie, Stevens apprehends the terrorist, disables the bomb, speaks to his dad one last time, and sends an e-mail to Goodwin will the all the relevant info. With the eight minutes over, Goodwin gives Stevens what he wanted – peace – by pushing the big red kill button on the console of the iron lung-like device that his torso resides in.

Goodwin gets the e-mail (or was that a text message?) on her mobile device. However, this Goodwin exists in another reality where the bomb never went off on the train. Likewise, Stevens and Christina live on in some alternate reality where they get to wander around Millennium Park and check out The Bean as he lays down a flirtatious "Do you believe in fate?"

While I am willing to suspend my disbelief to the extent that I'll accept Stevens' ability to extract the location of a bomb from a set of memories that include no such thing, I'm not willing to let the ability of Source Code to create alternate realities willy nilly off the hook. There is very little in the film to justify this. We get some foreshadowing during the sequences when Stevens is removed from Sean's memories and finds himself back in the capsule. They have a whooshing sound over a brief menagerie of images that go by very quickly, one of which is The Bean. But Ben Ripley, the screenwriter, justifies the whole alt reality bit by dropping the Q-word as Rutledge explains his pet project. Invoking quantum physics is like a get out of jail free card. All that strangeness and spooky action at a distance means that logic can be thrown out the window. Here one consciousness entering the memories of another somehow orchestrates the collapse of waveforms in a Deepak Chopra symphony thusly creating new realities. Or something like that.

Besides this, the film wastes the potential of its conceits. Running around in someone else's memories, creating alternate realities – there's a rich thematic vein here that is never mined. Instead these concepts are drafted into the service of an elaborate ruse to ensure that the love interest here comes to fruition and everyone is able to live out a happy ending. What a waste. Such concepts are better suited to films that place the emphasis on the journey rather than the destination. I wish the film had taken fewer pains to get the viewer anxious about whether or not Colter and Christina would live happily ever after and more about, say, memories and how we use them to construct our lives.

Part of my reaction to Source Code could be explained by the fact that I read a wonderful defense of Andrei Tarkovsky's films in which the author took on Dan Kois' claim that they're boring. Perhaps I was just in the mood for something a bit more cerebral, a film where the images on the screen themselves have intrinsic value beyond helping move a story along from one action to the next.

As for other elements of the film, I've got to say that the music was really overwrought. Right from the get-go it was in your face and melodramatic. Absolutely nothing subtle about the soundtrack. It's doesn't try to nudge your emotions in a certain way, it throws them in a locked box and shoves them wherever it pleases. On the good side, I will offer that I appreciated how most of the film took place in a confined space, namely either the space capsule or the train car. Precisely because so much of the movie takes place in such spaces, I sat there waiting for the events on the screen to tackle Stevens' interior states more intimately. I'll add that I thought the acting was really good and single out Jeffrey Wright's Dr. Rutledge. The character was pretty stock – a single-minded scientist who has no time for emotions – but I thought he chewed the scenery just enough to make his character fun to watch.

Source Code is not a horrible movie but I was disappointed. It would be grossly unfair of me to expect Duncan Jones to film the next Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey, but, for a guy who loves putting his characters into confined spaces and all the metaphors that entails, I feel that he doesn't know quite what to do to really get inside a character's head. Like Inception, Source Code takes its sci-fi premise but fails to run with it. The intriguing elements of the story remain premises and foundations for cliché.

|| Palmer, 12:59 PM || link || (0) comments |

Finally, An App I Can Get Behind

If I had an iPad, I'd definitely get this "living book" edition of T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland".

It has tons of features in addition to the basic text of the poem. They include a video of Irish actress Fiona Shaw reciting the poem plus multiple audio readings, various drafts of it, and annotations aplenty. The reader can skip around the text and move into and out of any section at will, jumping between text and recitation. Also helpful are videos of various literary types giving their takes on the work. Pretty slick.

It'd be neat if Umberto Eco or Thomas Pynchon got this kind of treatment. That'd take a lot more space, however, but I'm unsure if this e-book is installed entirely on the hard drive or whether it grabs content from the web dynamically.

|| Palmer, 9:19 AM || link || (0) comments |

21 June, 2011

Student Shows Up to Exam in Period Costume

This is great. A college student in Canada showed up to his medieval history final in armor.

The fellow student, who goes by the profile name “Mastadufus” on Youtube, had decided to write his final exam for medieval history garbed appropriately in a set of armour he’d cobbled together, piece by piece, over the past three years.

And on his way out, the student was greeted by a bemused exam proctor who quipped, “You know you lose your knighthood if you fail, right?”

|| Palmer, 9:35 AM || link || (0) comments |

The True Cost of Gasoline

This little video dovetails nicely with a recent read of mine, Oil on the Brain.

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16 June, 2011

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I bought a copy of Joe Haldeman's The Forever War after reading that Ridley Scott was going to be directing a film adaptation of the story. I'd never heard of it but found out that it had won many prestigious sci-fi awards back in the mid70s such as the Hugo and Nebula. Having finished the book, I can understand why Scott sought it out. Like Oliver Stone, Scott likes his lead characters to be masculine. Even his female main characters have traits that are traditionally thought of as being the province of men.

Haldeman served in the Vietnam War and this book is in a sense "Vietnam in space". Considering this, there's not a whole lot of combat. It is, perhaps, more about being a veteran than people shooting at one another. On a side note, I take it that the novel has seen a few different iterations with various editors exorcising parts of the book for whatever reason. The author's note of the version I read notes that it is the director's cut, so to speak, with all the bits previously taken out having been restored.

The Forever War is the story of William Mandella who is conscripted into military service in 1997. By this time mankind has discovered collapsars which are like wormholes that allow travel between them in no time at all. You pop in one and end up at another one light years away without any time having elapsed. Shiploads of colonists were sent out traipsing through the collapsars until there was a Gulf of Tonkin incident - one was pursued by an alien ship and destroyed. This happened in the constellation Taurus so mankind's new enemy was the Taurans. Unlike during Vietnam, here draftees are the best and brightest. Mandella has a degree in physics, for example.

As I noted above, the story here isn't so much about fighting, although there's some of that, but rather about isolation which I can imagine many a Vietnam veteran felt. Jumping through collapsars causes time dilation so soldiers may be gone for only a short spell relative to them, but back on Earth decades, if not centuries, have elapsed. Each time Mandella goes out to serve his planet, he returns to find that humanity has changed and left him behind.

The world of The Forever War begins with things quite different than our own. Men and women serve together in the armed forces, even in combat, and the opposite sexes are allowed to do some serious fraternization. We follow Mandella and his fellow recruits through training which involves getting used to wearing some funky space suits that allow them to survive in the incredibly harsh conditions on planets that are near collapsars.

Curiously enough, though, the first combat Mandella sees takes place on a rather verdant planet. At first the troops encounter strange creatures with green fur and three legs. After dispatching a few of them with lasers, it is determined that they are simply local fauna. Eventually a Tauran base is found and the real shooting begins. The enemy prove to be easy prey.

After his first tour, Mandella finds himself back on Earth but many years have elapsed since he was last there. This middle section of the book was excised back in the 1970s because of its pace. While definitely slower than the rest of the novel, it really ratchets up the isolation factor. Mandella barely recognizes the place. People need bodyguards, the government advocates homosexuality as a way to deal with overpopulation, food is scare, et al. This break in the story has a vibe similar to Children of Men. It's little wonder that he reenlists. More collapsar jumps and another combat mission later, he finds himself commanding a platoon and that all of the grunts are homosexual. Despite the odd instance of portraying some gay men as being very effeminate, Haldeman no doubt gets a lot of credit for creating a world where homosexuality is normal and, furthermore, is not detrimental. Penis-vagina coitus is considered gross and babies are created outside the womb.

The Forever War's closing chapters detail Mandella commanding what amounts to a suicide mission to a planet where his soldiers are to build a forward base and then wait for reinforcements. This is the best part of the book because it combines combat with our hero at his most isolated, both physically and mentally. By this time, Mandella is something of a curiosity being one of the last heterosexuals still alive and many under his command are heterophobic. Late 20th century English is archaic so he has to learn the latest dialect. He's also separated from his love, Marygay. To pile Pelion upon Ossa, he's out on a distant planet with no way to call for immediate backup should the Taurans attack with overwhelming numbers. And they do.

Things look pretty hopeless and Haldeman piles it on by first letting the soldiers linger for a bit. They get the base constructed and then sit around waiting for an attack. When it finally comes, there's a tense build up as it slowly becomes apparent to Mandella that he and his soldiers are badly outnumbered. They prepare to make their last stand.

Any book described as "Vietnam in space" is bound to sound like a relic of the past – something that speaks to a particular time and place. While Haldeman's experiences as a soldier in the Vietnam War are on display here, The Forever War that transcends that conflict. Just look at the news. George Bush's War on Terror has been continued by Barack Obama and we have troops engaging in hostilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Yemen. Eight years after it began it feels like a forever war. Beyond combat, this is a story about a man becoming isolated from kith & kin, society, and perhaps himself. It's not a happy story but war isn't happy and neither is its aftermath.
|| Palmer, 4:34 PM || link || (0) comments |

14 June, 2011

Dear MillerCoors

|| Palmer, 2:57 PM || link || (2) comments |

13 June, 2011

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf

A fellow geek recommended Ethan Gilsdorf's Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks to me and so I dutifully procured a copy. A book by a geek about being a geek sounded interesting.

Gilsdorf was 12 years old when his mother suffered an aneurysm. She went from being a rather care-free spirit to a figure the boy and his siblings called "Momster", who was prone to tantrums. This was the late 70s and the geeky neophyte discovered a cadre of like-minded outsiders and turned to Dungeons & Dragons as a means of escape from life at home where the Momster might be having a fit or needing the physical assistance of her children for her quotidian activities. His late teens brought other things into his life such as girls and the first pangs of adulthood and freedom. Gilsdorf abandoned his geeky ways and went out to make his way in the world.

After turning 40, he stumbled upon his stash of D&D books, maps, dice, &c. It brought back memories and placed him in a position where he had one foot in the past and one in the present. Gilsdorf was having a mid-life crises a bit earlier than normal. Struggling to find direction for his future – was he ready to settle down? – he embarked on a journey into his geeky past. Unlike other geeks and freaks in a similar moment of crisis, Gilsdorf had the luxury of a book deal which meant, not only was he able to travel across the States in search of kindred souls, but he had the funds to boldly go to foreign countries.

The result of his journeys (both around the world and in his own mind) are laid out in the book. Part of it concerns Gilsdorf returning to his geeky roots and trying to sort out the discommodious process that is aging while another part is travelogue. Somewhere in between the twain meet.

He begins by flying across The Pond to hang out with a bunch of fantasy freaks – the members of the Tolkien Society. As a geek myself, I appreciate how Gilsdorf punctuates his personal quest with history and sympathetic, but not uncritical, profiles of other geeks. For instance, we learn about Tolkien himself as well as about the genesis of The Lord of the Rings. Gilsdorf even stops in at the tavern that Tolkien and his fellow writers frequented only to find it has modernized itself a bit too much for his taste.

Gilsdorf is a bit Tolkien fan so he also makes a trek to New Zealand to see where the films were shot. But most of his destinations are closer to home. He hits Dragon*Con, for instance, as well as the Lake Geneva Gaming Convention, a smaller con that tries to be the opposite of GenCon. This chapter lays out the history of D&D but it also gives Gilsdorf a chance to do some ranting. Gilsdorf likes to impose his conception of geekdom on others and so traditional pen & paper RPGs are superior to video games because they allow players to flex their imagination, be social, &c. I take his point but there are times when he makes this argument that he comes across as an old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn. Fortunately he doesn't do this too often and the book is much better at showing the great diversity of geeks.

Ranting about how old school RPGs are superior is a minor gripe in comparison to how Gilsdorf tends to transpose what he gets out of gaming onto his fellow geeks. It seems that the simple concept of gaming, reading fantasy/sci-fi, being in the SCA, &c purely for fun escapes him. He spends a lot of time in this game of circumlocution where he avoids the idea of geeky activities as just being fun in the same way some people find playing tennis enjoyable and instead is constantly trying to apply pop psychology to people to find out what they are escaping from. Not everyone had a traumatic childhood as he did yet he assumes that, if you have the same or similar interests as he does, then you are running away from something. You're avoiding reality instead of possibly adorning it with games, stories, and activities that you simply like.

I found this particularly annoying because I most, if not all of my gaming friends, enjoy D&D, computer games, or whatever on their own terms. It's not about running away from a dysfunctional family or from some societally sanctioned notion of manhood. It's just that we find them fun. Gilsdorf seems to think that because D&D played a certain role in his life it plays a similar role for everyone who plays it. A lot of the time it seems that he's seeking validation. "These people spend weekends reenacting medieval battles so it's OK for me to game" or "Tolkien said it's healthy to retreat into fantasy occasionally so my love of his books is fine". There were times when I was reading when I thought to myself, "Dude, grow a set of cajones. You're 40 years old so it's time to finally be yourself without asking others for permission." He spends time arguing that gaming and the like aren't childish, that they're perfectly suitable for adults yet he seems stuck in a childish mode.

For me the strength of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks is the peeks it gives into the variety of geeks out there and the history of their chosen obsessions. Some people like to join the SCA and reenact life as it was hundreds of years ago while others enjoy cosplay. There are those who play video games while others stick with pen & paper RPS. (And some love both.) I found the chapter about the folks building a castle in France using the same methods they did hundreds of years ago to be extremely interesting. It's a project that will take decades to finish just like it did in the days of yore. But it goes beyond geekery and fantasy into the realm of rejecting modernity in one way, shape, or form.

I have to admit that the denouement was a disappointment. He writes: "I know I don't want to play Dungeons & Dragons regularly again. I don't want to become a World of Warcraft addict, either. I can't say for sure I'll never read Lord of the Rings again, or see the movies. I probably would. Nor am I certain I'd never go back to that spot on Mount Victoria to dig up the figurines." What is significant here is that there's so many negatives here. He says what he doesn't want and what he's unsure of so what about something positive like "I do want to play D&D occasionally"? Rather than asserting his geekiness and listing positive changes, he hedges his bets and sits on the fence.

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks works well as an introductory taxonomy to it titular subjects. The reader will learn about their passions and find that they are interesting people. Gilsdorf writes well about them with stories that range from amusing to poignant. However, the author's own journey is less interesting. At times it takes a back seat to the taxonomy and is brought back only briefly as if to remind us what this book is really about. But more often his story is pathetic, in the literal/Greek sense, because a 40-year old who is seemingly unwilling to be himself deserves pity.
|| Palmer, 1:35 PM || link || (0) comments |

Dragon Turds

Dragon turds may have a scatological name but are very tasty. To my knowledge the term refers to stuffing chili peppers with whatever trips your trigger, wrapping them in bacon, and then cooking. A couple weeks ago I bought a bunch of jalapenos, stuffed them with cheese and chorizo, wrapped them in bacon, and baked. They turned out well, unlike most of my photos.

While incredibly tasty, I can't say that they are for those on a diet or for people trying to maintain clean arteries. Be sure to use thinly sliced bacon because the thick stuff A) is impossible to use as a wrap and B) takes forever and a day to cook. I wish I had a smoker to cook these puppies with as that would add a whole other layer of flavor. That and I don't like using the oven during the summer.
|| Palmer, 9:28 AM || link || (2) comments |

08 June, 2011

Still Life With Cat

Our cat discovered the joy and comfort of the empty fruit bowl on our table this morning.

|| Palmer, 3:43 PM || link || (0) comments |

07 June, 2011

Ice Warrior Hang Out Discovered on Mars

Somebody call Dick Hoagland! Some guy checking out pictures of Mars on Google Earth believes he's stumbled upon a bit of Martian architecture.

But now an American 'armchair astronaut' claims to have discovered a mysterious structure on the surface of the red planet - by looking on Google earth.

David Martines, whose YouTube video of the 'station' has racked up over 200,000 hits so far, claims to have randomly uncovered the picture while scanning the surface of the planet one day.

Describing the 'structure' as a living quarters with red and blue stripes on it, to the untrained eye it looks nothing more than a white splodge on an otherwise unblemished red landscape.

"I call it Bio-station Alpha, because I'm just assuming that something lives in it or has lived in it."

First there was a face on Mars and now there's Ice Warrior condos.

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

The Fuller Memorandum by Charles Stross

With The Jennifer Morgue Charles Stross threw his network administrator-cum-secret agent Bob Howard into James Bond mode for a fun romp that left me trying to pick out references to scenes from those films. (Yeah, I've never read any Bond novels.) With The Fuller Memorandum Stross moves Howard away from parody and into a heart of darkness. It's like The Empire Strikes Back of the series, if you will.

It is a few years on from the events of The Jennifer Morgue and the book opens with a rather disturbing prologue:

This is the story of how I lost my atheism, and why I wish I could regain it. This is the story of the people who lost their lives in an alien desert bathed by the hideous radiance of a dead sun, and the love that was lost and the terror that wakes me up in a cold sweat about once a week, clawing at the sheets with cramping fingers and drool on my chin. It’s why Mo and I aren’t living together right now, why my right arm doesn’t work properly, and I’m toiling late into the night, trying to bury the smoking wreckage of my life beneath a heap of work.

Yes, Bob married Mo, which I suppose makes him slightly less of a poindexter. But more importantly, this sets the dark tone of the book.

Bob is sent to the Royal Air Force Museum on what he assumes will be an easy task of removing malevolent forces from an old plane. Things, however, don't go exactly as planned and an innocent bystander is obliterated. This really throws Bob for a loop as he'd never killed anyone who wasn't a demonically-possessed cultist or otherwise evil person bent on bringing mankind towards a hideous fate. Curiously enough, Bob has something he has never encounter before at The Laundry – a boss who is sympathetic and stands up for her underlings. Compounding the sepulchral ambience, Mo returns from an assignment in Amsterdam that likewise was a big Charlie-Foxtrot. However, it involved cultists ritually murdering children, including one whose head was severed. Believe it or not, the book actually lightens up a bit after the charnel house that is the first few chapters with such happy things as the imminent end of the world.

After Bob is attacked by a Russian zombie, The Thirteenth Directorate is brought into the picture. TTD is Russian counterpart of The Laundry and one of its field directors, Panin, is loose in London. Panin "invites" Bob for a drink and inquires about the status of the "Teapot", about which Bob has no clue. Oh and Angleton, Bob's boss, disappears along with the titular file. But he leaves behind a list of documents for our hero to investigate. These give the story of Baron Ungern Von Sternberg, a vicious Russian warlord of the early 20th century. One of the documents is a letter from the Baron's hand which describes the weird changes one of his men, Evgenie Burdokovskii, underwent after reading some eldritch tomes. But how do all these things fit together?

As with the previous books in the series, Bob and, in this case, Mo are essentially tasked with saving the world. But The Fuller Memorandum is much bleaker than previous efforts. If it wasn't enough for them to have missions go wrong and send them into despondency, Stross throws in some hideous extras. For starters, we learn about the origin of Mo's osseous violin which involves victims screaming for mercy as they are sacrificed by an accursed luthier. Later on in the book Bob is kidnapped by – who else? – cultists who make him the center of a heinous cannibalistic liturgy. This is a bleak tale indeed.

Personally, I enjoyed the doom'n'gloom of The Fuller Memorandum. While I'm not sure that it's fair to say that Bob and Mo hit the depths of perdition, it did feel like they came awfully close. This was a welcome change from the super agents defeating evil and living happily ever after. I liked how Stross chose to give background and deepen the mystery via various memoranda and descriptions of photographs from Laundry files. It should also be said that the prime mysteries here – the nature of "Teapot" and the identity of the cult leader – are pretty obvious. You won't get to the last chapter still pondering these things.

My major complaint is how Stross deals with Mo. Unlike previous stories, she is a lead character here and gets plenty of pages devoted to her. This is a good thing as she makes a nice complement to Bob. Plus she's a badass with a violin made of human bones that, when played, does away with all sorts of grotesque beasties and nasties. The problem is that Stross makes her out to be a bit too much like Bob, especially the dialogue. She lays down too many nerdy bon mots that are indistinguishable from Bob's. Now, when she goes to have her violin looked at, Mo was take-no-crap, don't-fuck-with-me serious and this is a delightful contrast to her husband's more awkward demeanor.

Every Laundry Files novel has Bob going off on tangents. Up to this point they've generally been some exegesis about Linux or a complaint about The Laundry's bureaucracy. Here Bob digresses into what I'll hesitantly label more existential territory with philosophies for living which include Venn diagrams and a reminder of how pitiful we humans are in contrast to, say, the Elder Gods. I'm ambivalent about these passages. In one sense, they're understandable in that The Fuller Memorandum is a much darker novel than its predecessors and Bob suffers some awful traumas so getting all serious and questioning life is normal. However, they do tend to drag on and they are written like all of Bob's tangents, i.e. – with lots of sarcasm and Douglas Adams-like asides. Perhaps if Stross had just written them a bit differently so that they weren't near total mirrors of his IT tirades I'd have been able to appreciate them more.

It remains to be seen if Stross will write any further adventures of Bob Howard. If he does, then great. If not, so be it. He's had a good run. As a swan song, The Fuller Memorandum, while having its flaws, hit the right notes in porting the despair and insanity of H.P. Lovecraft into the realm of urban fantasy.
|| Palmer, 11:58 AM || link || (0) comments |

Werner Herzog on Colbert

"Statuettes way beyond Baywatch with breasts..."

|| Palmer, 8:51 AM || link || (0) comments |

01 June, 2011

Buses, Trains, and Personal Mobility: A Lecture by Jarrett Walker

Madison is no stranger to debates about buses and rail. But as the Dane Transit Coalition chair Fred Bartol noted last night, those debates are a thing of the past. With the collapse of the economy and an anti-public transit right-winger regnant in the Governor's Mansion, Madison now finds itself engaged in a much narrower discussion: how to maintain bus service in the face of scarcer resources.

Bartol's remarks were part of his introduction to a talk last night by Jarrett Walker, a public transit planning consultant and proprietor of the Human Transit blog. Walker is in Madison to attend the annual conference of the Congress for the New Urbanism and he gave a lecture last night that was open to the public entitled "Beyond Bus vs. Rail Debates: Techniques for Clarifying Public Transit Decisions".

Walker started by noting that conversations about any given public transit project are frustrating because of polarization, people talking past one another, and the big picture being overwhelmed by details. By the time communities have to shit or get off the pot, the conversation is often overrun by people essentially talking out of their asses, ignorant of the all the issues at play. His goal was to help communities "create spaces for conversation and understanding before getting to big decisions".

The opening section of his talk was entitled "A (Short) Field Guide to Transit Quarrels" which began with ways of sorting out the pandemonium that results when everyone and their mother pretends to be a transit expert. People should ask themselves what they know to be true and what kind of truth is it. He presented a Spectrum of Authority with geometry/math on one end being the most certain and most widely applicable through time and people's feelings on the other, they being the most ephemeral and most potent. In between were physics, biology, psychology, and culture.

The idea here was for transit planning to strike a balance between the purely practical on one end and the dream or vision desired on the other. Doing so was the best way to maximize what Walker thought to be the heart of public transit, a notion he called "Personal Mobility" which can be defined as the freedom to move beyond walking range without a personal vehicle. It's about going where you want to go, when you want and at a reasonable speed & cost with the ability to change your plans spontaneously. Walker lamented that Personal Mobility was ignored by many transit experts who look at other elements of public transit such as economic development along rail corridors.

In addition to his idea of Personal Mobility, Walker trumpeted the Transit Time Map up at walkscore.com. While only in beta, he thought that it could become a great tool for helping people visualize mobility. It's a map that shows where in a metro area you can get to within 45 minutes using public transportation. You can modify your starting point and select at what time of day your trip would begin. Throughout the lecture, Walker emphasized viewing and promoting transit to the individual. "What can transit do for me?" I noticed how he referred to "libertarians" frequently. This wasn't about members of a political party but a catch-all word to describe not only extreme individualists but the strain of individualism that runs through American society generally. Although he is pro-urban, his work is more ecumenical and involves addressing the needs of people in cities as well as those in suburbs. Pro-transit people need to sell their ideas in a way that appeals to selfishness. (You can see this attitude at play in a quote from Nancy Mistele in an article today up the The Cap Times: "New Urbanism is just another euphemism for telling people where and how they should live. It’s about socially engineered housing choices.")

This was probably the biggest piece of advice Walker had to offer. The gentleman sitting in front of me asked a question which was similar to the one I was going to ask. Basically he complained that the preferences of suburbanites dominate those of city dwellers. By way of example, he noted that people in wheelchairs don't generally live in low density areas so their needs tend to get short-changed in transit debates.

Walker was sympathetic to the man's view but he said that he didn't know of any region where transit arguments were won by appealing to fairness and avoiding an appeal to selfish elements. To me, this should be a huge lesson for Madison area transit advocates. Pointing out that disabled people can't drive or that many poor people don't have cars and need to get around will not win any points unless it is accompanied by explicit appeals to selfishness. Next, Walker pointed to the ultimate selfish appeal – to the wallet. He said that, in the end, fuel prices will win the argument. I was surprised that this wasn't brought up sooner. The final part of his answer here is also another lesson for Madison. "Core cities have to do things for themselves." This harkened back to an answer to a previous question about RTAs. In addressing how to address sprawl, Walker admitted to some nervousness about the idea that RTAs are the way to deal with it. By default, communities that care the least dominate.

He made these remarks and then gave Minneapolis as an example of a city that stood up for itself but I am not a big enough transit geek to know the context. I guess I'll have to email Walker.

This reminded me of a conversation I overheard before the lecture began. Two gentlemen were chatting and one said that he'd applied for a position on some kind of regional planning board – not sure which one as the acronym was unfamiliar – but that he was rejected despite his qualifications and experience. He put it down to representatives of communities surrounding Madison not wanting to bring a pro-transit person aboard.

Walker ended his talk by listing some categories to help people sort the differences between rail and bus. He pointed out that frequency, span, and exclusive vs. mixed right of way were the essence of personal mobility while capacity was the "mother of all" for building rail. Speaking from a selfish perspective, I have to say that Madison Metro often lacks in frequency and span with the former probably being my biggest pet peeve. Unfortunately, Metro tends to run buses every 30-60 minutes outside of rush hour.

Getting away from my selfishness, I'll end with a couple quotes of Walker's which illustrate the need to think differently and more clearly about transit issues. I wrote these down in my notebook without context. The first is "We rely on the way rail symbolizes mobility" and the second goes "Are ridership projections at the core of the city we want?"
|| Palmer, 6:27 PM || link || (0) comments |

The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau wasn't a bad movie like I thought it would be. Fans of Philip K. Dick like myself get a bit weary when we hear that Hollywood is adapting one of his tales for the big screen because the results have been mixed in the past. Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly were great but there's also been schlock like Next, Paycheck, and Impostor. When I saw that Matt Damon was in the lead role I wasn't exactly filled with confidence that this adaptation of Dick's "The Adjustment Team" would do anything more than grab the story's premise and then layer chase upon chase atop it. Much to his credit, director and screenwriter George Nolfi kept much of the original short story both in plot and in theme.

David Norris is running for Congress. His campaign is going well until the NY Post runs a revelatory photo which sends it into a tailspin. Entering the men's room at a posh hotel, Norris asks if there's anyone in the stalls but gets no reply so he practices his concession speech. After several minutes he hears what sounds like a set of keys falling to the floor and swearing underneath someone's breath. A woman, Elise, played by Emily Blunt, emerges from a stall and confesses that she's been there the whole time. She says that she's hiding out from hotel security since she crashed a wedding party. Elise is a free spirit and she and Norris engage in a few minutes of dialogue that is as lissome as that between Walter and Hildy in His Girl Friday but here the chat is less antagonistic and demonstrates that the pair have a definite attraction for one another.

With his Congressional aspirations on hold, Norris goes into the private sector. We also meet Harry, one of group of men clad in coats and fedoras that are keeping a watchful eye on the political hopeful. (A little inspiration from Dark City, perhaps?) Harry is instructed to ensure that Norris spills coffee on his shirt by 7:05 but his cat nap on a park bench goes on for just bit too long and his subject gets on the bus at his usual time. After paying his fare, Norris sees Elise, strikes up a chat, and gets her phone number. He gets to work only to find that time has stopped there and that a group of men are waving glowing wands around the heads of his frozen co-workers.

This adheres to Dick's story pretty well which impressed me. In "The Adjustment Team" Norris is Ed Fletcher and is a real estate agent instead of an aspiring Congressman. What appears to be a dog next door is something under the control of the Team. It sleeps just a smidgen too long and ends up barking too late. Fletcher, in turn, is late for work where he encounters a similar team adjusting his office. While the film sees the Adjusters tinkering with the thoughts of people, the short story has them recreating the building and adjusting not only people's thoughts but also their appearances.

And just as in the story, Norris meets the Adjusters. The crack team at his place of employment is led by Richardson who ably demonstrates how he and his fellow fedora-clad teammates can walk through doors and be taken to places other than adjacent rooms. Norris awakes in a large, empty warehouse where Richardson explains that a mysterious "Chairman" has a plan for him and that it is the duty of the folks in hats to make sure that Norris stays to the script, which involves him eventually becoming president. Unfortunately, Elise is not part of this master political plan and he is told to forget about her. As with Fletcher, Norris is warned not to not tell a soul about Richardson and the rest of The Adjustment Bureau lest he have his whole mind "reset".

The rest of the film chronicles Norris' attempts to reunite with Elise. We discover that they were to be together in previous drafts of the plan that the Chairman had for Norris, hence his indefatigable will to deviate from the current scheme and be with Elise. Romantic mission creep, so to speak, and the film uses this to ponder the old free will vs. predestination debate. Nolfi does a good job here of advocating for one side and then muddling everything so as not to offer a definitive answer. The fact that there is this Chairman with a master plan speaks in support of the latter but a sympathetic Harry allies himself with Norris and explains that The Adjustment Bureau's powers are limited – it can't just create reality from whole cloth. Instead it nudges people in whatever direction it is ordered to. Another example of this confusion can be found in Richardson's lecture to Norris when he is captured. Richardson tells him to forget about Elise instead of pursuing her, i.e. – exercise some free will in the matter. Yet, as we are told, there are members of the Bureau who can, shall we say, take things to DefCon 5 and have Norris' mind "reset".


At the end of the film, Harry announces that the Chairman, in light of the love between Norris and Elise and their determination to be with one another, has changed the plan and will allow them to remain with one another.

So does anyone really have free will? The movie is extremely ambivalent about the issue.

Is the Chairman a simple analogy to Yahweh and the Bureau comprised of angels? It seems that way. There's a hierarchy in the Bureau with the Chairman at the top and figures like Thompson, a big gun sent in to convince Norris to forget about Elise, perhaps being an archangel and Richardson and Harry being lower orders. In one scene Harry explains that most people have seen the Chairman they just didn't know it – a sort of omnipresence in addition to omniscience. It sure seems like the film is talking metaphorically about the Judeo-Christian deity but you can't say that definitively. Harry explains that water neutralizes the monitoring ability of the Bureau so they're not all that omnipotent. I've read that the film originally had a different ending in which Norris meets the Chairman who turns out to be a woman and an African-American one to boot. Keeping the identity of the Chairman hidden probably worked better than revealing her because it keeps the viewer guessing and asking questions and certainly bolsters the analogy to Yahweh or at least to some other higher, supernatural power.

I think that PKD would be satisfied with how Nolfi took his short story and used it to expound upon the theme of free will. While I found this theme to be the most interesting part of the film, it was developed arm in arm with a love story. When I walked out of the theatre, I felt that the romance felt contrived. Sure, Damon and Blunt had good onscreen chemistry but their relationship was mostly about being separated and overcoming the skullduggery of the Bureau instead of developing a bond. But, upon reflection, I think it adds to the thematic tension. Do Norris and Elise have a genuine love or are their feelings merely a palimpsest from the Chairman's pen?

For the most part The Adjustment Bureau works for me because Nolfi keeps me questioning the main theme of free will and he treated the Phildickian material with respect instead of lacing it with car chases and shoot outs to morph it into Inception. I suppose one can analyze various scenes and bits of dialogue only to end up in an infinite regression, never reaching a solid answer, which I suppose to have been his intent. The love story seems intrusive in its shallowness as I've become used to Hollywood movies always having a shallow romance because some chairman at a studio says you need a love interest. But, if I think around this habit, I feel it fits into the overarching theme quite nicely. However, I found Harry's change of heart to have come out of left field. The film didn't provide much motivation for him to turn on his "employer", although it did add to the Gordian knot by bringing up the issue of whether or not he had free will. Lastly, I found the ending to be unsatisfying. It was just too neat and happy and conflicted uncomfortably with the film up to that point which felt like being trapped walking along a Möbius strip.

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