Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Fullmetal, Full story

I can't agree enough with Timothy Burke that Avatar is one of the best shows on TV right now. It's a great mix of kid's escapism, combined with realistic drama that takes itself seriously, but doesn't treat itself too seriously, if you catch my drift.

I cannot stress enough that if you like Avatar, you must check out Fullmetal Alchemist. It's hard to convey just how good this show is without sounding like Gene Shalit reviewing Sleeping Beauty, but the last four or five episodes broadcast have convinced me it deserves a place in drama next to Faust and Macbeth.

The subtlety with which the characters are drawn is masterful. In fact, there is no such thing as a minor character in this show-- this show puts Chekov's dictum about drama to shame by making even the anonymous bartender you meet in episode 1 serve at least double duty. The plot-- ye gods, every time you think it can't get any more complicated, it does, but it never feels artificial. All actions are drawn directly from the personality of each character, and I've yet to see a scene that didn't ring true (except for one very wrong explanation of the human body, but that's another story, and may yet be salvageable).

I'm going to have to buy the DVDs and watch each episode at least twice, I think, to grasp all the subtleties, but this is clearly one for the record books.

Friday, September 16, 2005

In Support of Hypocrisy

To the proverbial alien, just arrived on Earth, it would seem that our biggest ethical problem today is hypocrisy. Any proposed standard, normative or descriptive, is instantly scrutinized and criticized for hypocrisy and consistency-- one could easily come to the conclusion that the measure of an idea is not if it has any merit, but whether or not it is self-consistent. But to that, I reply, "Bah!"

Actually, I just like saying, "Bah!" But in this case, it's also how I feel.

The pursuit of hypocrisy above all else is the occupation of those little minds who are incapable of judging whether or not an idea is worthwhile on its merits. Instead, they pick it apart like buzzards, looking for any flaw they can find, any slight gap they can wedge their beaks into and shatter it like glass. If they can't have an idea, they feel, why then, neither should anyone else!

Not only do I obviously abhor this position, I contend that hypocrisy is not only good, it is necessary to the adult mind. Whether or not you are a fundamentalist Christian or an atheist, I believe you will concede that human beings are imperfect-- one look at the Top 40 charts should lay to rest any lingering doubts you may have-- and that we also should nonetheless strive to improve ourselves. This will inherently set one up for charges of hypocrisy, and a darned good thing it does. If we can always live up to all our ideals, then as far as I'm concerned, that's a sign we've set our sights too low. We must always strive to improve, and the only way to do that is to set our goals past where they are now-- otherwise, all we do is stagnate and decay.

We must always hold ideals we cannot match, but we must concomitantly refrain from berating ourselves for not living up to them. Instead, we must take time periodically to soberly reflect on our ideals, and our shortcomings, and attempt to address the latter to achieve the former. For most religious people, once a week services provide an ideal environment for this sort of reflection, buoyed by a sense of community support. Atheists can meditate and reflect in communities as well, though I confess to ignorance about what sorts of communities are out there to support them.

Sure, there are evil kinds of hypocrisy-- the father who preaches pacifism while abusing his family at home, for instance-- but I think there are always more fruitful avenues to argue against an idea that mere hypocrisy on the part of any of its proponents. And if not, why then I would argue that that hypocrisy is itself irrelevant.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Thoughts on modern Evangelicism

My friend Natalie just posted about this article about Ted Haggard and the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. I read the article, and her thoughts about it, and I have a few of my own to offer in reply.

First, about the pastor himself. Though it wasn't mentioned in the article, one of his more odious events was where his church baptized a few dozen Jewish kids whose parents left them at a church-run day camp-- without their consent, or that of their parents. A few kids were scared they weren't Jewish any longer. Personally, I was struck by his claim that Catholics, and countries dominated by Catholicism, look backwards, and don't innovate or create new things. And I suppose he has a point, so long as one ignores almost all the history of Western civilization, which was largely dominated by the Catholic Church, even after Luther, for hundreds of years.

That Gallileo fellow, always looking to the past, you know. And Copernicus-- might as well have been a historian for all the new discoveries he encountered.

As for the free market approach to spirituality, I read it as saying that where faith is freely chosen, and information about it is freely available, then that's a benefit for evangelical Christianity-- drawing a parallel between a free market allowing the best product to come to the fore, and a free market in spirituality allowing the best faith to rise to prominence. I didn't see that he suggested compromising the tenets of evangelicism; in fact, the article specifically mentioned more popular pastors who were more popular specifically because they watered down their message.

Humility as an attribute of Christianity seems to come and go over time. Matthew 6:2 says,

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

A quick skim of the Pauline books of the New Testament shows him very strongly urging his followers to not claim any glory in themselves, but rather to lay it all at the feet of God, for much the same reasons as those Natalie lays out. I went looking for a real firebrand cite from him, along the lines of "convert those unbelievers now!" and frankly, haven't found anything quite so strong.

The key to understanding evangelical Christians for those who aren't them is to understand that, at base, they're motivated by love. That's not to say they can't do some monstrous things-- some of the stories I've read of gay "re-education" camps a truly terrifying-- but the core of their religion is a knowledge that they're going to heaven, and unless you believe what they do, you're not. And given the choice between letting you burn for eternity or enjoy the bliss of Heaven, well, the choice isn't really a hard one to make.

The problem, of course, lies in cases where what they say conflicts with what science is teaching us about the world we live in; in those cases, they claim that science is wrong, and their theology is right. Ironically, it was St, Augustine who first (to my knowledge) proposed that God might have created the earth's creatures first as a sort of "primal seed" that later evolved into the flora and fauna of (then-) modern times, but try and tell that to the kids today, and they won't believe you.

One thing I really appreciate about having been raised Catholic is that we were taught to question everything-- within limits, but those limits appear to be broader than any other religion allows. Heck, even with my strongly agnostic leanings I was allowed to get the Agnus Soli Dei, the Boy Scout's Catholic medal (not for any achievement; it's more like a merit badge in religion). I didn't lie about my questions, and I didn't claim I believed anything I honestly didn't, but I also openly disagreed with some of the things I was taught. I can't imagine that happening in an Evangelical church. We were also taught that God gave us minds for a reason, and that we were meant to use them to discover the wonder and mystery of the nature of the universe we live in. In the case of an apparent conflict between science and religion, the error was generally held to be in the person perceiving the conflict, as clearly God wouldn't deliberately tell us one thing (religion) and do another (nature).

The writer's biases, or possibly just ignorance, do come into play now and again; in one passage, he bemoans the broadening of the term Spritual War into a context that includes not just the church, but the overall society. Perhaps he didn't know that the Jesuits were originally referred to by their founder as a "battalion for Christ", and were themselves known as "Soldiers of Christ" (the title of his article) for many years.

The blog I am a Christian Too has a different analysis, and one perhaps better grounded in theology than mine.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Will Blogs Replace TV?

One of my favourite blogs, University Diaries, recently pointed out a short article on George Gilder's recent prognostication that TV will die, and be replaced by blogs. While it's a nice idea, sorry, it ain't gonna happen.

Blogs, as a rule, comment on existing things; rarely do they create on their own (though the exceptions, such as Hitherby Dragons are among my favourites). This isn't a criticism; we have a need, in our hyper-aware society, to have commentary to set events, both fictional and real, in a context so that we can understand them for what they are meant to be.

TV, though Lord knows it has some serious problems, does create some wonderful new shows (though I confess sometimes that I'd prefer to watch them on DVD), both fictional and non-. Of course it creates a lot of drek, but Sturgeon's Law applies everywhere.

I digress. The point is, blogs can perhaps replace the Sunday morning pundit shows, and much of the commentary on CNN, MSNBC, Fox, et. al, but they won't replace, say, Picket Fences, or Monk, or Fullmetal Alchemist-- the experiences they create are so totally different in character, I just don't see how it can happen. Frankly, most Americans do not read for pleasure (incredible to believe, I know, but it's true), so why would they all of a sudden start? People want more than the passive, couch-potato-oriented entertainment they've had in the past, but that doesn't mean they're going to run to books or blogs.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

No Room to Hide

I have ranted before about the over-partisanization of politics, but I thought I'd just like to take a short moment to whine about the difficulty of being a moderate in today's political climate. Not the difficulty of making up one's own mind about issues without the benefit of a party to tell me what to think-- no, the problem de jour is conformity. I t hought high school was bad, but man, that's nothing compared to politics.

It seems as if I cannot agree with one position of one party without having all the others imputed to me, regardless of my actual beliefs. "You believe in limited government? Then you must be anti-abortion, you unfeeling conservative SOB!" "You think the war in Iraq has been mismanaged from the start? You must believe in tax-and-spend big government!" It's as if we have collectively lost all ability to separate out various positions, and can only relate to politics in terms of "Republican" or "Democrat".

Not that I'm a fan of Balkanization of political parties either, though I do think a few healthy third parties (or fourth, or fifth or... you get the idea) would do us good. The situation we have in the US is not perfect, but neither are parliamentary systems such as Canada's, where a minority party can form a government after building a large enough coalition with other parties. The main difference is that in the US, we build our coalitions before the elections; in parliamentary systems, they build them afterwards. I fear that too many parties, on the other hand, would lead us into an increasingly fragmented society. Perhaps that was the framers' intent, when they defined powerful states and a relatively weak federal government, but it's not what we've lived with these past 6 or 7 decades, and I think the dissolution of our national identity is a shame.

I don't have a solution; all I can offer are platitudes such as, "Have lunch at least once a week with someone you disagree with politically" (which I highly recommend; it's easy to forget your opponents are human). I beg you, at least try to honestly consider the concept that the other side has real and valid reasons for what they believe; they're not just rapacious corporate barons/elitist intellectual Marxists.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Here, Sir, Please Have Another

Tycho's recent rant on the topic of subscription software has a lot to do with why I haven't gone for MMORPGs. The fact that, when you get right down to it, they're really fancy GUI MUDs is another, but I digress. I like the social aspect of them. I like the fact that that social aspect is not geographically-limited. I even like the properties they represent-- I'm a shameless whore for anything with the words "Final Fantasy" or "Dungeons and Dragons" on the box. I just can't get over the idea, foolish and outdated though it seems these days, that when I buy a game, that means that I can play the game whenever I want, without having to cough up even *more* money.

This isn't just gaming's fault-- Anti-Virus software, as he noted, is just as evil, and large enterprise customers have been renting their software for decades now. What worries me, though, is the DRM built into new computers and consoles that comes right out and says to my face that once I've bought a title, all that means is that I have entered a brave new world of financial torment.

Now, I'm mostly not worried right now-- I don't run Windows at home, and most of my gaming these days is console-based, by which I mean I own a PS2 and a Gamecube, neither of which have any significant chunk of online gaming. I worry, though, that with the PS3 and Xbox 360 (and somebody should REALLY point out to Microsoft that 360 degrees takes you right back where you started, which is maybe not the IDEAL sort of association you want for a brand-spanking new console) the default assumption will be that a disc is just the install process for a virtual vacuum hose extending into your wallet.

I dunno-- maybe it's possible that consumers will revolt against software rental as a generic way of life. Perhaps MMORPGs are inherently the sort of games that lend themselves to a subscription
model. After all, while Halo is nicer with Live, you can still have plenty of fun with it completely disconnected from everything. If it's a matter of, "Here's your game, have fun with it, oh and by the way, you can give us $$$ and we will let you have even MORE fun", then
I'm all for it. And hey, maybe consumers will revolt-- after all, DivX (the pseudo-DVD format, not the codec) failed because consumers didn't like the idea of buying something that they didn't really own.

No matter what happens, I have my Legend of Zelda disc, and nobody can take that away from me. Now all I need is Super Mario Brothers for the GC, and I'm set.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Goin' to Da Movies

I love movies, but I hate going to them. Costs are skyrocketing upwards ($9.50 for one adult ticket? Please, people, this is insane!) and the quality isn't going up at the same rate, to put it mildly. So naturally, I found myself more than a touch confused to discover that there are not only one, but two movies out now that I not only wanted to, but actually went out to see. So here are a few thoughts:

Howl's Moving Castle

I don't remember who I'm ripping off by saying this, but I feel kinda heretical saying this movie is merely pretty good. The plot meanders about uneasily, and without a great deal of speed, but it's so very pretty, and most of the voices are very good -- Billy Crystal in particular, failed spectacularly to offend with his portrayal of the fire demon Calcifer. I enjoy everything Miyazaki has ever done, but this is not his best work by a long shot. I strongly recommend reading Diana Wynne Jones' excellent book instead, and catching this one on video (assuming it's even still in theaters, which is unlikely by the time anybody reads this).

Mr & Mrs Smith

I like a lot of things Brad Pitt has been in, but I can't offhand think of a movie Angelina Jolie has appeared in that I really liked-- except maybe this one. It was smart, sassy, fun, and all around a ticket worth buying. You know the story from the trailers, I suspect-- wealthy suburban couple John and Jane Smith are slowly spiraling towards divorce when they each discover the other is a highly-paid assassin and start to kill each other, which naturally rekindles the ebbing spark in their marriage.

Hang on a second, I need to pause to assimilate the idea that I'm recommending Angelina Jolie over Hayao Miyazaki.

Okay, I'm over it. Anyway, there are a few relatively glaring continuity errors, but the movie itself moves so fast that unless you're incredibly anal like me, you'll hardly notice them-- heck, even *I* didn't notice all of them-- and some of them have rationalizations that aren't too big of a stretch to overlook. Most importantly, it's a movie where a lot of shit blows up. And by a lot, I mean that if this couple are having problems, you want to move to a nearby continent until it all blows over. Also, it doesn't wildly insult your intelligence, and the comic relief is almost always impeccably timed. I do wish they hadn't given away all of Eddie (Vince Vaughn)'s good lines in the trailers, but they were still funny in the movie, though less so than they should have been. It's probably the best summer movie I've seen in a long time.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Yes, Virginia, the World is Still Ending

If you needed further proof the end times are nigh, the best heavy metal I've seen on TV in years was from a musical episode of Codename: Kids Next Door about a psycho lunch lady and her giant magical sandwich, named "Slamwich". I'm not kidding-- I almost wish I were, except that some of that was seriously crunchy metal. And frankly, it's been too long since I heard a really blistering guitar solo, and this episode had 'em in spades. Iron Maiden, where have you gone?

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Right Kind of Monster

Hello. My name is Eric, and I'm a metalhead. Yes, when my peers were listening to Morrisey and the Cure, I was attending Van Halen concerts and buying Iron Maiden tapes. As a consequence, my reactions have been very mixed watching what's happened to Metallica in recent years. Sure, Lars Ulrich has had a reputation as a whiny bitch for a while, but while his crusade against Napster, as he put it, made him "the most hated man in rock and roll", there is a more nuanced position to see there-- if you don't overlook, as many did, Metallica's explicit policy for over a decade now of allowing, even encouraging, fans to bootleg their live shows. The irony there, of course, is that for most bands that aren't Metallica, the live shows are the ones that make them money, and the CDs are usually a net loss.

But I'm not talking about the causes and effects of piracy on content producers and middlement, I'm talking about Metallica. The band that played music to make your ears bleed by. The band that kicked so much ass in the '80s that they were practically synonymous with hardcore metal (Poison fans can go sit in the corner-- they were early '90s anyway). After "Metallica" (a.k.a. the Black Album), a lot of people, myself included, felt they'd lost their edge; they were heading in a more bluesy, melodic direction. James Hetfield was singing on this album! WTF!

Since that watershed album, they released Load and Reload, two albums that definitely continued the trend, going even further outside Metallica's traditional territory. None of this was bad, mind you, and I applaud them for daring to be experimental, but it wasn't the Metallica we all grew up with, the one that was badder-than-thou to, well, pretty much everybody. This was a kinder, gentler Metallica. They then came out with Garage, Inc., a mixed collection of covers "Stone Cold Crazy" rocked, and even "Whiskey in the Jar" wasn't bad-- but Metallica covering an Irish drinking song?!? WTF?!?), and S&M was an interesting take on a Greatest Hits album, recorded with the San Francisco Symphony. The only sad part was that given their direction, it wasn't anywhere nearly as surprising as it might have been had it followed "And Justice for All", or even "Metallica".

But now we have "St. Anger", and hot damn, Metallica is BACK, motherfucker! This is the album I've been waiting for all these years, and it's why I loved Metallica in the first place. Though it's sadly devoid of ultra-bitchin' guitar solos from Kirk Hammett, this is the hardest disc I've heard in a LONG time. There are a few missteps-- the lyrics for "The Unnamed Feeling" just sounds like they're trying too hard-- but songs like "Shoot Me Again", "Some Kind of Monster", "Dirty Window" and my favourite, the lead-off song "Frantic", hit me right where I live.

This is a Metallica that's angry again. But they're not teenagers anymore either-- they're not just angry, lashing out indiscriminately. James Hetfield went into rehab shortly after starting this album, and came out with a clearer vision, I think, than he's ever had as a lyricist. This is a healthy anger that isn't directed at himself, nor even the world in general, but specifically at the parts that get in the way of what he wants. It's hard to put into words, but if there's any Metallica fans out there that haven't got this album, do. You'll see what I mean.

Monday, April 18, 2005

You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can regulate it anyway...

I recently read an article about the dichotomy between how we act and the entertainment we like to consume. The author, David Brooks, points out that though our entertainment choices are becoming increasingly more coarse, our actions have gone the opposite way-- fewer teenagers are having sex, and from those that are, fewer are getting pregnant.

Even Eminem, once you strip down the bluster and look past the foul language, is really complaining about having come from a broken home, and is just trying to find a chunk of suburban paradise to raise his daughter in.

If this doesn't encourage us to look past the simplistic associations of "violent movies make violent kids", then I'll eat Grape-Nuts for breakfast tomorrow. Because, unfortunately, opportunities for government intervention like that are rarely given up for such inconveniences as fact.

Friday, April 15, 2005

It's Alive, I Tell You, It's ALIVE!!!

I just finished reading Mendel in the Kitchen, by Nina Federoff and Nancy Marie Brown. I have to say, entering into this book, I had a vague idea, like most Americans, I think, that GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) were a sort of necessary evil, but if you had the money, organic food was the way to go. Now, I'm not only seriously considering boycotting organic food, I'm also thinking about agitating for mandatory GMO labeling, so I'll be able to buy them preferentially.

Why the change of heart? For one thing, Federoff and Brown go into some technical detail (perhaps too much for a popular science book, but the detail is itself reassuring) on how exactly crops are naturally (and unnaturally) bred. Now that I know how they do it, it just doesn't seem bad when I hear about genes being added to corn or wheat. It's a very specific and targeted effort-- it's not like you just grab some random shit from a whale and blend it with some swiss chard and see what happens, like, for kicks, man. It's not a simple process, by any means, but it's also not a complete mystery either.

Another thing the authors point out is that it's not as if GMOs exist in a vacuum-- artificial foods of one kind or another have existed for most of the past century. Hybrid corn, for instance, is an artificially-created organism, and it comprises over 90% of current US corn production. And it's not as if we can somehow magically not need them. The main reason Paul Erlich and his thematic ancestor, Thomas Malthus were wrong (well, okay, one of many) is that they didn't account for the dramatically increased crop yield we've enjoyed since the "Green Revolution" started in the 1960s. This yield is the direct result of messing with our food's genes by hybridizing it with sometimes surprising combinations. We certainly wouldn't have enjoyed it if we had stuck to techniques and crops of pre-1961.

Organic farming isn't a solution either. The authors cite an economist, Indur Goklany, who estimates that if we reverted to the mostly-organic methods of pre-1961 farming, we'd need to use approximately 82 percent of the earth's land surface for farming, instead of our current 38 percent. When Sir Albert Howard essentially invented the organic farming movement in 1940, he was operating in an environment that even then was rapidly becoming obsolete. In the world Howard grew up in, the US population increased some 40 percent between 1870 and 1920, while the total arable land grew by 75 percent. In an environment like that, where no concern was given for environmental factors or preserving species habitats, organic farming is not an unreasonable approach. But the organic approach to agriculture requires, when considered as a whole system, at least twice as much land overall compared to conventional farming. That simply isn't an option in the world we live in today. When considered in terms of wildlife habitat preserved, organic farming does the earth far more harm than good. Unless you don't mind destroying the habitat of the Asian Elephant to grow more rice, that is. Personally, I can't stand the inscrutable bastards, but I must respect other people's opinions, even when they're wrong.

One detail that I didn't know before is how far the limit to which you can artificially tweak plants with no oversight whatsoever-- apparently, you can generate new organisms by irradiating them with gamma- or x-rays, or expose them to mutagenic chemicals to get the specific mutation you want (there are a number of behaviours you can't get this way, but play along for now), in addition to unknown others that may be neutral, or possibly harmful, and sell the stuff tomorrow. You can even sell them as organic foods, if you are an unethical bastard. But if you were to splice in one specific gene that generated the precise protein you wanted (and this is do-able; the hard part is knowing whether or not that protein will work the way you want it to), with every other gene in the plant being otherwise normal, you might be lucky to get it on the market within three years. So, the one that has completely unknown properties we can sell, but the one with known properties has to pass a complex array of tests and certifications that vary depending on which of the FDA, USDA, and/or EPA decide your crop falls under their jurisdiction. Yeah, that makes sense.

Allergies are certainly still a problem-- we still don't know everything about how they work, and why, but we are learning. Some research is going on now to reduce the effects of allergens, as well as to understand more about how they work, and more importantly, how they don't. So it's definitely still important, I think to let people know if their foods contain genes from commonly allergenic plants or animals. Even so, GMOs are a net win, I think.

The book covers a large number of other topics, including biodiversity, food safety concerns, the real meaning of sustainable agriculture and more that I don't have the room (or right now, the energy) to discuss. At the end of the day, though, my conclusion is that organic farming, while it feels good to be kind to Mother Earth and all, is harming her more than it helps, by requiring more land to support it than mainstream agricultural processes, and also by giving its consumers (wittingly or no) the impression that what they're eating is worth paying more for. At some point, and we've already hit this point in many third-world countries right now, we're going to have to realize that we either start eating GMOs, we start killing off even more wildlife, or we stop eating at all. Of the three options, well, I like eating, and I like birds. So pass the Roundup-ready corn, and don't forget to grill it with artificially-generated canola oil!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A little hypocrisy is a healthy thing

I hate to admit it, but "One in a Million" is a great rock and roll song. It's also racist, xenophobic, and fairly nasty. I've been struggling to reconcile this, but I've come to the ultimate conclusion that I can't. It's a great song, and it's a nasty, disgusting one at the same time. Sometimes consistency must sacrifice truth to remain intact, and given the choice, I'll ditch consistency in favour of truth.

I'm sick and tired of idealogues who, having nothing concrete to say against their opponents' arguments, attack them on the basis of hypocrisy, as if that were tantamount to proving them wrong. It's the worst sort of ad-hominem attack, if you ask me-- it in effect concedes the argument, or at best avoids it in favour of pointing out how bad the person making it is.

And the worst is that the accuser isn't even doing that, oh no! Why, that would be absolutist, and wrong. It is, after all, just as morally valid to mutilate women's genitalia as it is to educate women and raise them to be independent, critical thinkers. No, we're just pointing out how our opponent is being inconsistent.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by
little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

- R.W. Emerson

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes

- W. Whitman

Little minds are consistent amongst foolish hobgoblins

- My Favourite Misquote of Emerson

Things I Wish I Could Believe

Don't ask what you are not doing,
Because your voice cannot command;
You see, in time we will move mountains,
And it will come
Through your hands.

John Hiatt, "Through Your Hands", Hiatt Comes Alive at Budokan

Monday, April 04, 2005

Old Calendars

There's something melancholy about throwing out an old calendar. While it does make room for new calendars, and the fun quotes from Get Fuzzy and all, throwing out an old calendar is a clear and definite step that acknowledges that the old year is gone. All those plans, hopes, and dreams for that year are gone-- you'll never get the chance to climb Pikes' Peak in 2004. Maybe 2005 is your year, maybe '06, but 2004 is shot. You blew that chance, bucko.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Government and Health

I've been waffling for quite a while on the idea of whether or not government has a place in an individual's health. On the one hand is the free market, which I'm on balance in favor of. On the other, there's the simple fact that we currently subsidize, either directly or via tax breaks, the emergency care of indigents to the tune of millions, if not billions, of dollars each year, money which could probably help more people if applied preventively.

Then I read this article by Frank Furedi. Not knowing anything about him (as of this writing, I haven't even visited his site), I found that his essay echoed, sometimes eerily, some incohate feelings I've had for years now, and not known quite how to put into words.

His basic point (and I encourage you to read the article, because I cannot do it justice here) is that Western societies have become medicalized; that is, they have turned problems which were formerly inherent to the human condition into medical maladies. This has several interesting consequences, according to Furedi, but the one that caught my attention the most is this:

We are not simply making a virtue out of a necessity; rather we are consciously valuing illness. From a theoretical standpoint, we might view illness as the first order concept, and wellness as the second order concept. Wellness is subordinate, methodologically, to the state of being ill.

Furedi overstates his case a bit when he equates social phobia with shyness, but he has an interesting point: when we all have some illness, be it cancer, addiction (and therein lies a whole other can of worms), loneliness, or even not having had those diseases ourselves, but having to live through someone else's illness (friends, family members, et. al), when we in fact use those illnesses as a lens through which to view our lives and our experiences, what's the value in being healthy? When 'wellness' is not viewed as a default, but a condition to which we can only hope to aspire, how can we ever be healthy?

Consider our fundamentally marketing-oriented society: unless we are ill, how can we be sold products to make us well? Unless we are deficient, how can we be sold products to make us whole? I'm not condemming capitalism-- far from it! I think it has done wonders for our physical comforts. But when we change our focus from what we need to live to how we should live, we first must consider who we are. And society, it seems, is telling us we are bad, we are broken, we are unclean.

(Note to self: tie this in with a planned review of Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books)

To bring this entry full-circle, until we can focus our lives and ourselves towards health, and not illness (and, sadly, a direct approach only confirms the supremacy of illness; this is a very hard problem), I don't think a direct government health policy makes much sense. After all, if we're all sick all the time, how can government-sponsored health care be anything but a spiralling balloon of ever-increasing expenditures?

Another Sad Internet Experience

I just saw an ad for a dating service that prclaims proudly, "We screen for felons and married people". I can't decide if this is a great or a pathetically sad day for the Internet.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The End is Nigh

Yes, the end of all civilization is here. For proof, I give you... MANSQUITO!

Because, you know, flies are SO 20th century.

Rediscovering Books

You know, I haven't really read in a while. Oh sure, I'll go to bed with anything, as long as it has printed words on it, and I can't manage to sit still for longer than five minutes without at least a cereal box to keep me company, but there's a difference between that and really reading, sitting down with a good book and getting your teeth into it.

Enter: Discover Card. Thanks to the fact that I was going to buy stuff anyway, I ended up with about $160 in Cashback Bonus awards, and I spent almost all of it on books (except for $40, which went to help buy me a Dremel Tool).

You see, to save money, I'd been checking out library books for the past year or two, so I guess I'd forgotten what it was like to have new books that were mine, all mine! Muhahahah! It's pretty nice having a stack of five or six brand-new books that are brand-new, just lying there, waiting to be read, full of promise, full of imagination, full of stories yet untold, each of them a time machine where the start of the book is always now, and the actors within, be they real or imagined, are waiting, frozen, upon the stage for your pleasure.

Yaay, books!

Keep Your Day Job, Honey

Yes, another book review!

Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain, is a book that you've probably already read, if you're at all into food. So sue me, I'm slow. It's an entertaining, if somewhat rambling, look at the ups and downs of the life of a chef, and how he got that way.

It's a testament, I guess, to Bourdain's claim that the restaurant world is a world of rejects, misfists, thieves, junkies and losers that he was able to survive as long as he did while doing heroin, cocaine, and probably more grass than I've ever mowed. If you've ever seen my lawn, you will not be surprised at this. Admittedly, it wasn't until he cleaned up that his career finally took off, but I don't know many other industries where you could function at all doing that much dope for that long. Maybe I'm just naive.

There is a chapter in there that reads as if his editor said, "Goddamit, you're a chef, writing a book, if you're not going to give us recipes, at least put in some cooking tips already!" that actually has a few useful tips (use a good knife, shallots, maybe some demi-glace and for chrissakes roast your own garlic-- it's not hard, show some respect already), but most of it is biography. Fortunately for you, it's by turns, funny, brash, interesting, and astonishing (mostly astonishing that he got away with that).


Author: Anthony Bourdain
Title: Kitchen Confidential
ISBN: 0060934913
Publisher: Ecco

Friday, March 04, 2005

God help me

I'm so ashamed. I was just now searching for A/V components, and I typed "Pioneer Eleet".

It's a cry for help, I know it.

Friday, February 25, 2005


Okay, I give up. Go ahead and grab the pitchforks and the torches, because you've got me. I'm a heretic. I didn't really like Amelie all that much. I don't blame it for not being deep or meaningful-- it wasn't that sort of film, and it's not fair to expect anything like that of it. And maybe no movie could have lived up to the hype it generated. It's just that for a lighthearted, silly comedy, it didn't seem all that terribly lighthearted or silly.

Amelie herself seems more like a creature to be pitied than one to be admired. Growing up in an essentially loveless household, her life doesn't seem so much grown inward, as most of Roald Dahl's young heroes and heroines do, as stunted altogether. She has managed to become a reasonably cheerful adult, but her life seems rather lonely. Instead of going out with friends or seeing a movie or perhaps a show, she spies on the old painter across the alley from her. Her love interest (he's not really a boyfriend for any appreciable amount of screen time) is, frankly, more autistic than artistic. Her job is filled with unpleasant people-- occasionally a few that aren't so bad, but those seem more the exception than the rule. All in all, she seems to spend about as much time playing tricks on her obnoxious neighbourhood grocer than in her quest to do nice things for people.

The message of the movie, to me, seemed to be, "Come to terms with your limitations and find what little happiness you can in there, because life will suck all the same no matter what you do. Oh, and don't try to expand past your limitations, because you can't. Get used to this life, it's all you get."

I fully appreciate that I am a Philistine, a Neo-Luddite, and a Bad Person(™). I just can't enjoy this film. It's not that I don't like European, or even French, cinema. City of the Lost Children is one of my favourite movies, as is Run Lola Run. Though there does seem to be a slightly darker current of existential despair and resignation in most European movies-- even the comedies are darker-- than in most American films. This is okay for most movies, because, frankly, most movies could use a slight dash of anti-pollyanna-ism. But for this movie, which appeared to want to hard to be light and fluffy, it just weighed it down, rather than grounding it.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Respect in Radio

I know I'm getting older. One reason? I spend more time listening to AM radio these days than FM. I'm not even sure why; it's not like they aren't making any good music these days or anything. I just find myself wanting to listen to talk more than music. The problem is, most of it infuriates me. Especially on the political shows (most of 'em), the host has little respect for opposing viewpoints-- the best you can hope for these days seems to be a host who will at least let callers with different viewpoints get their opinions out (a few hosts even help their less coherent opponents, though I doubt the callers would view it that way).

The goal is always to prove one's own position, and demolish one's opponents'. Most radio personalities will admit this, if asked-- they resort to the theory of the Hegelian Dialectic. "Our job is to present our point of view," they might say. "It's our opponents' jobs to present theirs." And that's true enough, as far as it goes. The problem is, it doesn't always work that way. Sometimes both "right" and "left" are wrong, and the end result is that the truth gets sacrified for the sake of making a point. Most often, I hope, this isn't a conscious decision, but that doesn't make it any better.

These shows, both radio and tv, are less interested in uncovering the truth, as subjective and difficult as that concept is, and more in theater. Jon Stewart made that point, ironically, in a very dramatic way when he appeared on Crossfire, but nothing has really changed.

I don't just blame the hosts here-- most of the listeners are equally unwilling to listen to dissenting or contrarian viewpoints. A lady called up a local Denver show a few weeks ago insisting that the entire Iraq war was a front so that the US Army could test biological weapons, and used as her proof the number of babies born with birth defects after the war. Never mind that in most wars, you want to kill the opposing army, not cause them to have miscarriages, or that she didn't actually have any support (or even any idea of a source) for her claim of birth defects and miscarriages, she believed it, and wasn't going to be dissuaded by the host's surprisingly patient explanation of the relative uselessness of such a weapon.

This was really all meant to be a setup for me to whine about the passing of my favourite radio show on KHOW a month or two ago. Redmond and Newman was a show with a vaguely left-leaning guy (Scott Redmond) and a fairly right-leaning guy (Bob Newman). The difference between them and most shows is that they were friends, or at least faked it extremely well on the radio. There was a distinction on that show between things which were facts (the number of troops in Iraq, how much money was spent on the Whitewater investigation), and which weren't (should we be in Iraq, was Whitewater worthwhile). They disagreed on a number of topics, but they nearly always managed to convey that they respected the other person's opinion, and that it was a reasonable opinion to hold. The other nice thing about the show was that each of them would restrain their counterpart from going too overboard in their opinions, which kept the tone of the show a bit higher than most of talk radio.

Contrast that with their replacements, Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman. Both of those guys are lawyers, and argue their points like it. They ignore or gloss over points which counter their arguments, and generally act as if their counterpart's opinion is stupid or indefensible, instead of examining their own position and deciding that it doesn't hold up in some respect or other. Plus, and I know it's shallow of me, but listening to Craig Silverman is like listening to fingernails scraping on a blackboard. Caplis' voice is more palatable to the ear, but alas, his attitude isn't.

And the sad part is that Bob Newman now has his own show, and without Scott Redmond to ameliorate his more aggresive tendencies, he comes across as a great deal more hardcore right-wing than he used to, and I regret that, because the two of them really had something special and unusal going on on the radio, and now we won't get to hear it anymore. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that, I suppose-- but I don't have to like it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Partisanship in America

I know it's trendy to decry partisanship these days; heck, I've even done so myself. But hey, I figure, why not flog a dead horse while it's down, and mix other metaphors while I'm at it?

Andrew Sullivan has a nice piece today about partisan blogging, and while I'd love to disagree, about all I can come up with is a weak, "So, what did you expect, exactly?"

Andrew points out that one of the benefits of blogging (I hereby vow to never use the word "blogosphere" unless a gun is held to my head, Or I change my mind.) is that individual voices can be more easily heard. This is so true, and is one of the reasons I love the Internet, because on the 'net, everybody is a publisher (though some companies seem to want us to forget this. What he doesn't seem to account for is that:

1. Nobody has to listen
2. Most individuals aren't terribly individual

The fact is, I can go to nearly any bar in El Paso county, Colorado and get Rush Limbaugh's opinion from nearly anyone on any world issue I care to name. Or maybe Michael Savage's; it would depend on the bar. But if I try to engage those people in conversation as to why they believe it, they tend to have the same rationales as their talk-show heroes, and are about as willing to listen to dissenting evidence.

Not that the Left is any better-- that's one thing I really noticed after moving to a much more liberal area of Colorado. They're just as shallow as their right-wing counterparts, just with Michael Moore and Al Franken instead of Limbaugh and Savage. Just try explaining to a random selection of people up here that we are doing good things in Iraq, and that the entire populace is not, in fact, lining up to kill themselves just to get at us. Heck, try pointing out that the "insurgents" (read: "terrorists") are targeting Iraqis more than they are us these days, and what that implies about their goals, vis-a-vis "liberation".

Or try pointing out to people in Colorado Springs that we badly bungled the postwar occupation, and that Rumsfeld should be fired for his criminally negligent understaffing of the occupation. You'll always get some people on all sides willing to listen to reason, and debate honestly and forthrightly on any subject, but the vast majority of people-- and I include myself in this, right up front-- are less interested in arriving at the truth, and more at winning, whatever that may mean to them. Why this should be any less true on blogs than in real life, I can't imagine.

A Somewhat Unfortunate Movie

Last week, I went to see the A Series of Unfortunate Events movie. Having written about it earlier, I owe both my readers at least a brief summary of my impressions. The executive summary: not as good as I'd hoped, but better than I feared.

The story follows the Baudelaire orphans as they discover their parents have died, and are shuttled off to a series of different (but all, sadly, incompetent) guardians. The children learn to trust each other and work together, but also learn that sometimes, bad things happen to good people. There is no happy-ever-after ending, and the characters endure silly and heart-wrenching adventures along the way.

Nothing was particularly bad-- the characters were, on the whole, pretty good (more on that below), and the story was not bad, just too cartoony for my taste. There were some truly fantastic moments such as where Klaus Baudelaire (Liam Aiken) expresses his anger at his parents for dying-- something I don't recall having seen in a children's movie before, and a feeling that anybody who's ever lost someone they cared deeply about knows all too well. The stark honesty of that moment, and the raw feeling of Violet's (Emily Browning) emotional discovery in the wreckage of their family home at the end of the movie redeem it from the "kiddie movie" status it might have otherwise enjoyed (and deserved).

Jim Carrey's Count Olaf was overblown and overdramatic, but his character is a bad actor, so it fits, if you think about it. The problem is that you do have to think about it, which kinda defeats the purpose. But then again, were he not in the film, it quite possibly would not have been made. Thankfully, most of the time his histrionics are appropriate. He was, however, not the star. The stars were the Hoffman twins, who played the baby Sunny, Liam Aiken, who played Klaus, and especially Emily Browning, who is already an actress to look out for, and will hopefully go on to even better things. Jude Law's narration (as the "author", Lemony Snicket) was spot-on.

Is this, like, the best movie EVAR? No. Do I hate myself for watching it? Thankfully, no. But I kinda wish I'd waited until it came out on DVD.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Battlestar Kickassica

I've just watched both the 2003 miniseries and the premiere of the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries, and I can not emphasize enough how incredibly good they are. Even as a wee lad of the '70s, the first series was just plain not that good. The characters were underdeveloped, at best, and the stories were lame. What saved the original Galactica was not so much any inherent qualities it posessed (save perhaps the visual effects, which were first-class for the time), but the possibilities it suggested. It was so almost-great, that the actors were able to barely carry off what could so easily have been pure drek.

This new series, on the other hand, excels in every category. It's so hard to pick a single element that singles out what makes this series great, but if I had to pick, I'd say it's the art direction. This show succeeds, in a way no tv series save Babylon 5 has, in creating a "used world", a world that feels not only real, but old. The ships, the uniforms, even the civilians, everything seems... ordinary. Fantastic, excellent, amazing, but it's all remarkably unremarkable.

The acting is similarly impressive-- Edward James Olmos' Commander Adama is more military and less avuncular than Lorne Greene. Greene's Adama was more presidential; Olmos' is a career military man that wasn't looking for any of this, and in fact wanted to leave the civilians behind so that he could retaliate for the Cylon attack. It's not that he didn't want to save them, but he was so focused on a military approach that he had to be talked into saving the human race. This was a lovely touch of realism.

Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck was the most surprising character. At first, I wasn't entirely sure about a female Starbuck, but she's sold me several times over-- I doubt she'll be Dirk Benedict's ladykiller (I suppose it's possible, but I think she may have a thing for Apollo), but she's at least as arrogant as Tom Cruise in Top Gun, and probably twice as good.

I could go on, but time constraints force me to move on to the cinematography. The show's documentary-style filming adds to the realism of the show, makes it seem more like a film crew happened to be stranded on the Galactica and are filming the struggle for humanity's survival for posterity. The camera is unsteady, but not shaky-- I'm sure it's a steadicam, but it gives the impression of a handheld camera, and adds strongly to the realism.

Finally, the stories. Unlike the original series, the new BSG respects the military aspect of the Galactica and her crew. The first Galactica was more like the Love Boat than a military vessel, crewed by soldiers fighting for the very survival of the human race. In fact, sometimes, it was easy to forget that we weren't watching a relatively well-done Lost In Space. These guys, on the other hand, are continually aware of that very thing-- the President even keeps a running tally of the number of humans left alive. So far, we haven't seen many civilians, but that's going to come up soon, and I have no doubt they'll be handled as well as the military has been.

I'm running long, so I'll try to continue and expand on this later. Bottom line: fantastic show. Watch it. (Then again, if you're reading this, you are most likely to have already seen it-- Hi, Sam!)