Saturday, March 7, 2009

never more meta

YouTube allows you to be as meta as you want, picking up pieces of other pieces and creating your own piece. Justin Yoshida, in this post, links to an amazing musical example of this. Imagine scouring the Web for musical pieces, then editing them together into a coherent funk soundtrack.

In a sense, something like this has been happening since the beginning. Why are old comedies often less funny or witty than newer ones? Because newer ones contain jokes that riff off our knowledge of the older jokes. The result is an archaeology of references and meta-references, with those of us alive today riding that constantly self-updating referential wavefront (we do this for as long as we can before dropping off, settling into a particular groove, and losing touch with that front). Steve Martin's version of "The Pink Panther" would have been hilarious back in the 1960s, but because Martin did little more than recycle Peter Sellers's old jokes, the movie (and its recent sequel) fell flat for 21st-century audiences.*

Of course, we often lose track of the original datum to which all the later references refer. Just today, I watched the original "The Day the Earth Stood Still" for the first time, and saw where the Cylon centurion got its face: right from Gort the robot! Wish I'd known this earlier.

That a current phenomenon is the result of other, preceding phenomena is a central tenet of Buddhist metaphysics. All phenomena are dependently co-arisen; it's not just music that works this way. And if we follow this line of thinking a bit further, we begin to see that there was no original datum, because even that datum arose from antecedent causes.

In any case, enjoy your meta-funk. Thanks, Justin, for the link.

*At the same time, many forms of physical comedy retain their humor even today. The classic Mr. Creosote scene in "Monthy Python's The Meaning of Life" is a good example, and the long-ago international success of the traveling Commedia dell'Arte is another example of comedy with wide and long-standing appeal.


spring forward

Yanks who read this blog are reminded that tomorrow is the day we turn our clocks forward to mark the return to Daylight Savings Time. The implication for me is that DC will once again find itself only 13 hours behind Seoul instead of 14.

I think it's time we got rid of this nonsense. The history of DST throughout the world was and is linked to technological issues: it affects the energy use of farmers, retailers, and homeowners.

You might be interested to know that Korea doesn't change its clocks twice a year. I lived with that fact for eight years and found it perfectly fine. So what if the mornings are darker or brighter according to the season? For most of us, office-bound as we are, this means little. And farmers can certainly adjust their own schedules to adapt to the changing lighting (they probably do this already!). What's the point of making such a twice-yearly change these days? I find it archaic.

I've often mused about going further and switching us to one single "Global Standard Time." This would put everyone on the planet on exactly the same page, though it would render an expression like "working 9 to 5" irrelevant for most of the world. It would also appear counterintuitive that some people would look at their clocks and read "12AM" at midday, and "12PM" at midnight.

But travelers would never again have to worry about "local time." Historians would have a more objective metric by which to chronicle events. "The incident occurred at 10:20PM" would mean the same thing to everyone, no matter their location on the globe. Of course, historians would be further tasked with mentioning the time of day: "The incident occurred at 10:20PM, a bright summer's morning in Chesterville."

What are your thoughts on upending the status quo?


Friday, March 6, 2009

BSG musings: still room for my theory?

"Islanded in a Stream of Stars"

So Kara Thrace confessed to Baltar about the body she'd found on Earth. She gave Baltar her corpse's dog tags and asked him to perform tests on it. The result? "Necrotic flesh," says Baltar, in a rather tasteless coda to a funeral for humans and Cylons who died during a hull breach. The implication, at least as Baltar sees it (unless he's actually lying), is that humans, too, can somehow be reborn. This still doesn't explain the pristine Viper that Kara flew back to the fleet... but everything does make sense if we once again come back to the "they're all Cylons" theory, i.e., the colonists think of themselves as human, but they've been Cylon since forever. Perhaps it's true that, in the BSG universe, humanity left the building long, long ago, but the Cylon technology that creates exact replicas of things still exists.

The reason I find this theory so attractive is its explanatory power. How else to explain the similarity in language and culture between Earth of 2000 years ago and the modern Twelve Colonies-- a similarity that has somehow obtained over distance and time? Such rigid faithfulness only makes sense when everyone's a machine-- dressing the same, acting the same, thinking the same-- from generation to generation, and from solar system to solar system. And the theory also explains the various instances of telepathy, the spooky coincidences, the visions, and the prophecies-- all of which make perfect sense if we view BSG's overall story arc as the preordained unfolding of some massive computer program. The only alternative is to do what Ellen Tigh and others are doing: to invoke a higher power.

Eternal return is a myth for actual humans, as I've discussed before. Not even Hindus see history as perfectly cyclical: there's repetition, but it's imperfectly realized, giving us more of a spiral notion of history than a circular notion.

One might counterargue that, even in BSG, there's no reason not to believe in spiral time. Perhaps there are humans who play out and replay their history imperfectly, or perhaps it's nothing but Cylons, but they're replaying their history imperfectly. I lean toward discounting the first possibility, for the reasons I've stated: humans don't repeat their history this perfectly, whereas machines would be capable of such a feat. The second possibility, though, strikes me as plausible, and would be consistent with the Cylon view of history, especially as laid out by Leoben long ago, when he told Kara that the same story would unfold again, but with the actors switching roles.

We've got two episodes left to find out what's what. I have a feeling that most of the big questions will be left unresolved, with the writers deliberately keeping the question of the theistic universe ambiguous. However, I should balance that by noting that the final episode is rumored to be a long one-- maybe 2 or 3 hours. A lot might get settled during that time.

One final note: the final two episodes are titled "Daybreak, Part I and II." That would seem to signify some sort of new beginning.


no dice

I didn't go see "Watchmen" today. I might try to see it on Monday-- an early showing, to avoid the noisy geek crowd. My brother saw it last night, the bum. He thought it was pretty good. The reviews I've been reading have been mixed, and some of them note the conspicuous absence of the giant "sacrificial squid" that makes its appearance at the end of the graphic novel. That's sort of disappointing, but if whatever has replaced the squid isn't lame, I'll forgive this rather major change to the story.

Tonight, I comfort myself with some BSG.


choices, choices

I still haven't been out to see "Gran Torino" or "Doubt," both of which linger in one or two local theaters. But just as cells in your body die and make way for newer cells, a new crop of movies is out this month, with two in particular grabbing my attention. The first is "Race to Witch Mountain," a remake of a film I remember seeing when I was a kid in the 1970s. The second is Zack Snyder's version of the classic 1980s-era graphic novel "Watchmen," which apparently has a 2:40:00 running time but looks-- if the trailers don't lie-- like it might be worth emptying my wallet for.

Of the two, "Watchmen" looks to be the surer bet.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

unstable Asians and the insanity defense

We of Asian ethnicity have heard the stereotypes: Asians are neurotic slaves to parental pressure, manic overachievers, and generally nerdy as hell. You don't normally see an Asian leading man in an American movie unless he's proficient at one or more martial arts-- also part of the Asian stereotype. Asians are paradoxically viewed as overly passionate and expressive, but also overly stoic and detached. What's strange, though, is that the phrase "emotionally unstable" is almost never a part of the stereotype.

That might change, what with the Cho Seung Hui massacre, the recent stabbing of a Kiwi teacher by a Korean teen, and the horrifying beheading of a Greyhound Bus passenger by a Chinese immigrant.

The above-linked article notes the clemency of Canadian justice: the murderer was adjudged insane, and will have no criminal record. That's too bad; I'm not a fan of the insanity defense. I understand the rationale behind it ("can you blame an angry bear for acting like an angry bear?"), but don't accept it as sufficient to obviate the need for some sort of punitive or severely restrictive measure. Travis the chimpanzee might also have been considered "not responsible for his actions," but his shooting death was condign: had he not been stopped, he would have done far worse damage than he'd already done.

I've mentioned Herbert Fingarette before, but just to remind you: Fingarette, in his book Confucius: The Secular as Sacred, notes that responsibility breaks down two ways: (1) it refers to one's being the locus of some action (e.g., "Who ate the hiker? That bear did."), and (2) it refers to moral agency (e.g., the difference between accidentally and deliberately injuring someone). While sense (2) might not apply to an insane person, sense (1) assuredly does, so it is within bounds to say that an insane person is responsible for his deeds. Punishment might not be the answer if the person in question is truly unable to process the gravity of what he's done, which is why I also mentioned severely restrictive measures. I'm not convinced that rehabilitation and eventual release into the community (which is what the above-linked article says is a possibility for Vince Li, the crazy Chinese immigrant) are the best solutions when dealing with the criminally insane.

Then there's this example of Asian insanity...


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

religious notes

1. Interreligious relations in Bali aren't always positive, such as when the Muslim authorities issue silly fatwas against certain aspects of yoga practice.

...the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, the top religious body in the mainly Muslim country, issued a fatwa in January banning Indonesian Muslims from all forms of yoga that involve Hindu religious rituals such as chanting mantras.

It said performing yoga purely for the physical benefits was however acceptable.

The move raised the hackles of religious moderates and civil libertarian groups who accused the council of meddling in affairs over which it had no authority.

Religious edicts issued by the ulemas are not legally binding on Muslims but it is considered sinful to ignore them.

Andrini said organisers were not afraid to hold the festival at the Bajrasandi Bali Monument in Denpasar -- the capital of the Hindu-majority island of Bali -- despite the fatwa.

"I'm a Muslim myself. Our kind of yoga, which is called Patanjali, involves movement and breathing. People may recite their own mantra or prayer according to their faith," she said.

2. Brian notes an ongoing problem in Korea with Buddhist temples that charge hikers a fee to hike through land owned by the local temple. Jesus might have been on to something when he wanred about the linkage of God and Mammon, but historically speaking, religion and money have always gone hand in hand.

On the academic front, students of Korean religious history will see that the current problem is a continuation of a long and bitter conflict involving Buddhist temples, land use rights, and the local authorities.

Personally, I find it obnoxious (and hypocritical) when religious sites won't allow anyone in without paying first, but in Korea, the problem is often that temples, especially the famous ones, are as much tourist attractions as places of practice. The relevant orders (mostly Jogyae, the order that administrates the majority of Buddhist activity in South Korea, encompassing Zen [Seon], Hua Yen [Hwa Eom], Pure Land, and other strains) might have concluded that asking for a small fee is a good, practical, middle-way solution, but I'd rather that the temples moved toward a more European model, where tourists are allowed to enter the grounds for free, but are also not discouraged from leaving free-will offerings. This works well enough in Europe (Notre Dame, Chartres, and the cathedral in Fribourg, Switzerland come to mind from my own experience; you pay only to see special areas), and can also be seen here in DC: the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is free to all comers, and so is the National Cathedral.

As I mentioned, not all Korean Buddhist temples charge a fee to visit their grounds. In fact a majority don't, and to be fair, even some of the most famous temples will allow you on the grounds free of charge-- Jogyae-sa in downtown Seoul is one example; Hwagyae-sa in the northern part of Seoul is another. But you're not getting into temples like Haein-sa or Bulguk-sa without paying, and as my friend Sperwer and I discovered, the only way to avoid paying for the climb up some of Bukhan-san's trails (the mountain features several Buddhist outposts) is to start very early in the day-- before the old ajeossi gets to the ticket office and sees you stepping quietly over the chain barrier at the trailhead.



We're back from Snowshoe, which is a very beautiful, very well-organized resort. Many thanks to my brother David, who sponsored the trip. Thanks as well to the parents for bringing way too much food for two nights.

I didn't get too involved with the snowings-on; the parents, however, went all over the place and enjoyed some "tubing," a variant of the old activity in which you throw yourself down a snowy slope while atop a fat inner tube. The tubes used at Snowshoe have long fabric handles, allowing people to latch onto each other, descending the slope in pairs (or, illegally, in threes) like clustered leukocytes whooshing through an artery.

Last night, we had dinner at the Foxfire Grille, which serves generous portions of good food at fairly reasonable prices. We all shared a Philly Cheesesteak Nachos appetizer; Mom and Dad dug in to a barbecue combo platter; David had a sausage-broccolini ravioli that made me wish I hadn't ordered my gyro. But the gyro was good (I'd been craving one for a while), and the dessert afterward was fantastic: it was a layered, multi-berry cheesecake done up in a quasi-tiramisu style. Nicely executed, and admittedly unexpected in a place that doesn't have a haughty, high-rent vibe.

Two highlights: (1) we had bacon for breakfast yesterday morning; the smoke set off our fire alarm, which wasn't connected to 911, thank Jeebus; and (2) Dad hurt his ribs while pushing Mom off during one of their tubing sessions on the slopes. Dad's a lot better today; we had worried that he might have cracked or broken a rib or two. Mom razzed him about not being young anymore, but that's not going to stop Dad.

The view from our third-floor window was gorgeous the morning after we arrived; Snowshoe is located at an altitude of 4848 feet in the Alleghenies (there's even a store named 4848). The drive back today was equally gorgeous; we took a scenic route recommended by David.

Now we're home, settling back into our routine, and I've got a mess of proofing to finish in the next 75 minutes.


Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Monday, March 2, 2009

snowy in Snowshoe

We're up in the West Virginia mountains, huddled in our "studio" and prepping for sleep. We watched the two-hour "24" special as a family and had fun scoffing at the idea that General Juma could storm the White House with a mere handful of not-very-well-armed commandos. I've been thinking for a while, now, that the White House is essentially a surrogate for CTU HQ, which was also routinely full of moles and easily breached.

Mom, who was new to "24," wasn't following the action so well (around that time of night, she's usually off watching her Korean programs on a different TV), but she did ask us whether "24" was some sort of sci-fi program. Why? "Jack Bauer talks like an alien," she said. (She was referring to Jack's sustained, growly whisper when he was confined and talking to Bill Buchanan about the upcoming assault.) That gave me a new perspective on the show, and now that I think of it, "24" does have a lot in common with a series like BSG, which also features sleeper agents, conflicted loyalties, torture, confinement, and treachery.

The weather in Snowshoe was windy and snowy earlier this evening; my brother David says this pretty much marks the end of the snow. I might spend part of tomorrow just tromping around the compound. Dad and Mom are thinking about going tubing and snowmobiling; David is going snowboarding, and might also do some skiing. Whatever we do tomorrow, I might come back with pictures.



morning snow on deck

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Sunday, March 1, 2009

snowy outing

We're supposed to be heading out to Snowshoe, West Virginia on Monday morning, courtesy of my brother David. A snowstorm is on its way here right now, and the weather gurus are predicting significant dumpage. I'll be curious to see how the drive goes tomorrow.



While not exactly a happy day for Koreans, I still wish Korea a Happy March First.


"Needful Things"

Stephen King's novel Needful Things is a morality tale about the Devil's visit to the small Maine town of Castle Rock, and the mayhem that ensues. I thought it was a great story, so I was interested when "Needful Things," the movie, popped up on cable, uncut, on the HDNet Movies channel. I was pleased to see Ed Harris as the main good guy, Bonnie Bedelia as his squeeze (you may remember her as John McClane's wife Holly Gennaro/McClane in the first two Die Hard films), and the always-awesome Max von Sydow in the role of Satan-- here named, as he is in the novel, Mr. Leland Gaunt. It's an interesting switch for von Sydow, who battled Satan (or his demons) in 1973's "The Exorcist."

Alas, despite a fine cast, the filmic "Needful Things" was a huge disappointment, as so many film adaptations of novels are. Poor Ed Harris is forced by the script to give a long, pious speech to the townies at the end, and instead of King's very visual confrontation between Ed Harris's town sheriff and Mr. Gaunt-- during which Gaunt's true form is revealed-- we are given a cop-out.

What was most distasteful was that the movie ended up making exactly the opposite point of the novel. In the novel, it's clear that the Devil preys upon humanity's inherent sinfulness. Everything bad that happens in the town is, ultimately, the result of the free choices made by all the characters, which makes them all morally culpable, despite Gaunt's various methods of subtle compulsion. But the devil himself needs to be expelled, and Sheriff Pangborn's confrontation with Leland gaunt at the end of the novel serves as a sort of exorcism. In the movie version, however, Pangborn's speech makes clear that the townies aren't at fault at all: the blame rests squarely on Gaunt. And Gaunt, instead of being expelled from the town, leaves it under his own power. It's an ill-advised switch of the loci of responsibility.

It must be a painful thing for a novelist to watch his work get chopped to ribbons for the big screen. Perhaps King has grown used to this by now; the adaptations of his horror stories are almost all notoriously bad, while his non-horror short stories ("The Body" and "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" come to mind) tend to turn out well. King might be richer than I can even dream of becoming, but he still has my sympathies. "Needful Things," the movie, was a waste of time. Needful Things, the novel, is worth your while.