Monday, December 31, 2012

The Economist's take on Hell:

Into everlasting fire For hundreds of years, Hell has been the most fearful place in the human imagination. It is also the most absurd

An interesting article, if somewhat lacking in focus.  It appears to be just a dumping ground for everything the author knows about hell.
I have my own thoughts on the matter, but it's difficult to respond to an article as unfocused as this without just making my own post a dumping ground for everything I think about hell.  So I'll save my thoughts for another day.  (link via whisky).

Sunday, December 30, 2012

A friend of mine (he knows who he is) introduced me to David Mitchell's Soapbox the other night.

I particularly like Sustainability and Burden of Proof.

I also liked What the Hell is Going On? , David Mitchell's rant about religion.  In fact I agree with it so much so that I'm going to take the trouble to quote from a small bit of it:

These days we're expected to work it [the true religion] out for ourselves.  Well, how?  Millions of very intelligent people have spent their entire lives trying to work out what the Hell is going on, and whilst a few have resolved it more or less to their own satisfaction, not one has come up with a theory so compelling that everyone else has had to drop their rosary beads, prayer shawls or, I don't know, fossils, and agree that, yeah, good work Steve, that seems like it's basically it.  In fact, whatever the hell you may think is going on and whatever the hell actually is going on, surely we all have to admit that the lack of a majority consensus means that most people in history who think or thought they knew what the hell was going on were, by definition, wrong.  So what chance have I got?

My view entirely.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

In 1982, President Reagan didn't respond to an invitation from the Queen of England because....
Nancy Reagan needed time to consult an astrologer!!

"You have to remember that Mrs. Reagan was very strict about his schedule, and she would consult her astrologer to see if this was the right time to travel," William F. Sittman, a special assistant to Reagan who was involved in planning the trip, told The Associated Press. "Sometimes she would back up departures."
[Full Article Here]

Friday, December 28, 2012

Monroe Mall

So I'm back in Grand Rapids again for Christmas break, which means I find myself commenting on local news stories.

The Grand Rapids Press did a story yesterday on the history of downtown:  Monroe Center's failure as pedestrian mall.

It used to be these articles on the history of Grand Rapids would get my parents and grandparents reminiscing.  But in a sign that I'm getting old, the history recounted in this article is something I remember from my own high school/college days.

Growing up in the suburbs, I didn't really experience downtown Grand Rapids until I got the mobility that came with turning 16 and getting a driver's license in 1994, but I was just old enough to catch the tail end of Monroe as a pedestrian mall.  My high school classmates would go out to Monroe Mall for the Blues on the Mall series in the summer, and I would come along.

I remember also that wonderful pedestrian area being turned back into a street in 1997, and feeling regret about it.  But unfortunately no one ever consulted me on the decision, so I just watched as they plowed the street through there.

The article linked to above talks about how the pedestrian area was an economic failure, and I'll take their word for it.
But ultimately, sooner or later, Americans are going to have to learn to start walking.  This gets back to the Crisis in American Walking post I did a few months back.  The environmental crisis caused by cars (global warming is becoming a bigger issue all the time) and health crisis caused by Americans' phobia of walking (the growing levels of obesity and diabetes) just are not going to go away.

So I find it a very unsatisfying answer to simply say: "Well, what are you going to do?  People just weren't walking, so we had to change it back."

 Ultimately I think the way of the future is to create more pedestrian zones, and so I view the end of the pedestrian center on Monroe as a sad step backwards.

But it's a complicated issue I'll acknowledge.
Part of the larger problem is that to even get downtown you needed to take a car.  Grand Rapids has a lot of urban sprawl like many other North American cities, so if  you're in the suburbs it's a good 30 minute drive just to get downtown.  And the public transportation system isn't great.

But I'm curious what my favorite urban planning expert has to say on the subject.  Peter?

Link of the Day
Professor-Noam-Chomsky & Angela-Davis

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Campaign

Why I saw This Movie
          I had never heard of it before the other day, but I was in the video store and I saw it. I like politically humor and I usually like Will - Ferrell.  So I decided to check it out.

The Review
          There’s not a lot of deep political satire in this movie.  Despite one candidate running as a Republican and one candidate running as a Democrat, there’s no attempt to make any sort of partisan political humor.
            What this movie does seek to satirize is:
            1) How political campaigns are completely controlled by big money, and
            2) Because political campaigns are completely controlled by big money, the campaigns are not about issues anymore, but instead about which candidate has the more likeable personality.

            I think both of those presuppositions are true as far as they go, but the question is whether the movie does an intelligent job of satirizing this.  And it does not.
            The plot makes absolutely no sense, and is an insult to the intelligence of the viewer. 

The Plot (such as it is)
            Will Ferrell’s character is a long standing senator, who gets caught in a telephone answering machine sex scandal.  The big money that support his campaign decide he’s finished politically.  (Even though it later becomes clear that in the world of this movie, sex scandals do not hurt a politician’s credibility at all.)  And so they put all their money into creating a rival candidate (played by Zach Galifianakis) who is the director of local tourism and has a personality which is completely unsuited to politics.  (Zach Galifianakis playing the political fish out of water paves the way for a lot of laughs, but plot wise it again makes no sense.  There was no one else in the state they could have found who would have made a more suitable candidate?)
            Then after putting lots of money into Galifianakis campaign, only when he is about to win the election do the evil businessmen finally reveal what they want out of him—they want him to sell his district to China and create Chinese style sweatshops inside his district. 
            (First of all, I’m not an expert, but I believe the job of a congressman is to represent the views of his district on national issues in Washington DC.  I don’t think it is within the power of a congressman to change the local laws within his district, or sell his district to China.  Secondly, what kind of sense does it make for the evil capitalists to pour all this money into Zach Galifianakis campaign without bothering to check first if he is willing to do their evil bidding?  If big money really were this stupid, it would be a non-issue.)
            So then the big money goes back to supporting Will Ferrell’s character.  Which of course begs the question: why didn’t they just do that all along in the first place?

           I know, I know, it’s just supposed to be a dumb comedy and it’s pointless to try and nit-pick the plot like this.  The plot is supposed to be nothing more than a set-up for the jokes.  But I just couldn’t look past all this when I was watching this movie.  You can watch this movie for the jokes, but you can not watch the movie for the plot.
            Nor is it a law of nature that all comedies have to have nonsensical plots.  Superior comedies have a story line that you can get interested in even as they are giving you laughs along the way.

            All that being said, the good news is that despite having a plot that doesn’t make a lick of sense, this is still a fun movie to watch.  There are a lot of scenes in this movie which certainly work comedically, and the ample laughs this movie gave me while I was watching it make me willing to forgive the stupid plot.

            Will Ferrell plays a character which is not all that dissimilar from his caricature of George W. Bush  that he used to do so well.  He says ridiculous things with great conviction.  He’s become so good at playing the crowds that he can get them to cheer for just about anything if he says it right.  (America, freedom, and Jesus, he tells his campaign manager.  I don’t know what it means, but the people sure love it when I say it.) But somewhere along the way he got separated from reality, and now he often doesn’t understand how ridiculous he sounds to other people, and he acts like it’s other people’s fault for not taking his ridiculous statements as serious as he does.  And when he’s in a hole, he just keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper.

            When he accidentally dials the wrong number, and leaves an obscene phone message on a religious family’s answering machine, Will Ferrell attempts to defend himself like this:

            “We can’t have this. It’s a behavior that has to stop.”
            Newspaper reporter: “But congressman, you made the call.”
            Will Ferrell: “I have made in my lifetime probably over one hundred thousand phone calls of which I could say maybe 1 percent have been inappropriate.  What is that, a thousand phone calls?”
            Campaign manager: That is exactly 1000
            Will Ferrell: A thousand phone calls have been rude, inappropriate, sexually explicit.  Phone calls I wish I could take back. But that’s only 1000 out of 100,000. I’ll take those odds any day of the week.

           Sure it’s an exaggeration of the way politicians act, but, as with Ferrell’s old George W. Bush impersonation, it’s only one or two steps removed from reality, and that’s why it’s so funny.
           Sometimes though real life politicians are so stupid that it’s difficult for satire to keep up (W).  In that case all the movie can do is simply replay what has already happened in real life, with Will Ferrell putting his mock serious face over ridiculous events.  So when Will Ferrell brags to his campaign manager about how he just tweeted his mistress a picture of genitalia, he of course acts like there’s nothing wrong with it.  (I CC’d you he says to his campaign manager, over his campaign manager’s protests.)

            The personal attacks between the two candidates also at times seems like just an exaggerated version of real life elections, but it reaches ridiculous proportions, culminating with Will Ferrell’s plan to have sex with his opponents wife, film the act, and then make it into a campaign add and put it on TV.  (I thought the conversation of Will Ferrell’s campaign manager trying to talk him out of this plan was particularly funny.) 
            There are some brief, but funny, cameos by real life news anchors reporting on the bizarre twists of the campaign.  (It’s a small moment, but I liked Joe Scarborough’s  surprised reaction to the news that Will Ferrell had gotten a bump in the polls from having sex with his opponent’s wife on TV.)

            To sum up: this movie may not be very intelligent political comedy, but if you’re in a silly mood it’s worth watching for the laughs, even if it doesn’t make any sense.

           The scene where will Ferrell gets bitten by the snake in the church, and then unleashes a string of profanities, is one of my favorites in the movie.

            Shortly after watching this movie I just happened to come across passages referencing Snake Handling in two separate books I’ve been reading. 
            Coming from the Midwest, I never really thought about Snake Handling churches before, but this movie got the images stuck inn my head.  So when I came across these sections in my reading, I thought, “Oh, of course, the Will Ferrell movie.  That’s where this whole thing came from!”

            In The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox (A) (book review coming soon), Fox writes:
            Verses 9-20 [From Chapter 16] which now round off the Gospel [of Mark] are plainly a pastiche by some later hand…Here, too, there is a gain in their loss. For these are the verses which make Jesus tell the Apostles that believers “shall take up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them.”  Christians, therefore, could handle what no prudent Jew would touch: not only did their texts of scriptures “defile the hands” but snakes, even, would not bite them. In 1909 these verses so impressed an American Baptist, George Hensley, that he began to handle snakes and pass them to his neighbours at Christian meetings.  Eventually he died of snakebite, but not until the age of seventy-five; his practice persists among the snake-handling Churches of God in Carolina and parts of the American South (p. 144-145).
          On a related note, I’ve also recently been reading The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine  (A) (book review coming soon) who had this to say:

            Mark concludes his book by making Jesus say to his disciples, chap. xvi. ver. 15 “Go ye into all the world and preach to every creature; he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned” (fine Popish stuff, this) “and these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name they shall drive out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover.”
            Now, the bishop, in order to now see if he has all this saving and wonder-working faith, should try those things upon himself. He should take a good dose of arsenic, and if he please, I will send him a rattle snake from America! As for myself, as I believe in God and not at all in Jesus Christ, nor in the books called the scriptures, the experiment does not concern me (From Part III, Section 2.  FULL TEXT HERE)

            Paine, writing in the early 19th Century, could not of course now that in the 20th century some American Christians would actually take him up on his challenge.
            (Wikipedia also has a really interesting article on snake handlers (W)).

Link of the Day

Struggles of the Past

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Bart Ehrman is back in the news after publishing an article in Newsweek on the Birth of Christ.  (Actually it looks like this article appeared last week, so I'm slightly late to the party on this one, but an interesting article nonetheless.)

Most of Bart Ehrman's blog is unfortunately pay for content only, but his post Responses to my Newsweek Article is available in its entirety.  

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Flashman and the Angel of the Lord by George MacDonald Fraser

            In this volume, Flashman joins John Brown and the raid on Harper’s Ferry.

            In my opinion, John Brown is one of the more fascinating characters in history (back in 2007, I listed him as one of the top ten Hollywood biopics I would like to see)  John Brown may have been slightly crazy, but he was also a figurehead for one of the great idealist movements in history.  Because much of human history is just greed and selfishness, stories of true of idealism are always refreshing to hear (and need to be told more).

            The problem is getting Flashman into the narrative.

            Since Flashman is first and foremost a self-preservationist, and since he despises all forms of altruism, joining John Brown’s suicidal raid into Harper’s Ferry is the last place you’d expect to find him.  It’s a problem acknowledged very early on in the book.

            You will wonder, if you’re familiar with my inglorious record, how I came to take part with John Brown at all.  Old Flashy, the bully and poltroon, cad and turncoat, lecher and toady—bearing Freedom’s banner aloft in the noblest cause of all, the liberation of the enslaved and the downtrodden?
….as any of you who have read my other memoirs will have guessed, I’d not have been within three thousand miles of Harper’s Ferry, or blasted Brown, but for the ghastliest series of mischances: three hellish coincidences—three mark you!—that even Dickens  wouldn’t have used for fear of being hooted at in the street. But they happened, with that damned Nemesis logic that has haunted me all my life, and landed me in more horrors than I can count
[Pages 20-21]

..and then after contemplating for a couple more pages how strange his life has been, Flashman finally gets around to beginning the strange story.

            It began (it usually does) with a wanton nymph in Calcutta at the back-end of ’58. (Page 23).

            And thus the wheels of the story are set in motion.
            Because of all the convoluted plot needed to force Flashman into (unwillingly) joining John Brown, 200 pages pass before Flashman and John Brown even meet.

            But the good news is that these 200 pages are not wasted.  They’re packed with the usual sort of fascinating historical details you’ve come to expect from these Flashman books.  And a full 40 pages of footnotes and appendixes further expanding on the historical events and personages that intrude into Flashman’s story.
            (A co-worker of mine who is also a Flashman fan commented that the detailed footnotes are the best part of a Flashman book, and I’m inclined to agree.)

            Which brings me to:
The History
            I thought I had known the history of John Brown and Harper’s Ferry, but reading this book I was continually surprised to realize just how much I hadn’t known. 
            George MacDonald Fraser has thoroughly researched the event to bring to life the little details surrounding Harpers Ferry that don’t usually make it into the history books.  Take for instance this description of one of the exchanges between John Brown’s men and the hostile town’s people.

            And then J.B. [John Brown] sent out another white flag.  There was a great howl of fury when it appeared in the armoury gateway, but a militia officer bawled to them to hold their fire, for it was borne by one of the hostages, who came marching towards the hotel with young Bill Thompson by his side.  The crowd surged out and surrounded them, drowning the hostage’s plea to be heard, the flag was torn from him, and Bill Thompson was dragged into the Wager House, battered and kicked with yells of “Lynch the bastard! No, no hangin’s too good for him—burn the son-of-a-bitch!” The drunken din from beneath was now so deafening that there wasn’t a word to be made out, but since they didn’t haul Thompson out for execution I guessed he was still alive—for the time being.
            You’d have thought J.B. would have learned from that incident, but not he—not long after, another white rag was seen waving in the armoury, the order to cease fire was shouted again, and this time it was Aaron Stevens and Watson Brown who came out, side by side.  You bloody fools, thinks I, you’re done for, but on they came towards the hotel, Watson stiff as a ramrod, with his head carried high, and big Aaron ploughing along with one hand raised like an Indian in greeting.  For a moment it was so still I could hear their boots squelching through the puddles—and then a rifle cracked, and Watson stumbled forward and fell on his hands and knees. A great cheer went up, a volley of shots followed, and Stevens seemed to hesitate, and then he came for the Wager House like a bull at a gate, hurling the flag away, and was cut down within twenty paces of the hotel—I absolutely saw his body jerk as the slugs hit him, and then the hostage who had been with Bill Thompson came running out, arms spread wide, turning to put himself between the two shot men and the mob.  Another hostage who must have been following Stevens and Watson from the armoury ran forward to join him, and together they dragged Stevens to the Wager House, one of them yelling: “You cowardly scum! Stop it, damn you—cain’t ye see the flag?” For a moment the firing stopped, and then it was seen that Watson was crawling on all fours back toward the armoury, and the mob set up a great yell and let fly again.  He scrambled up and ran, clutching his stomach, with the bullets churning the dirt around his feet, and went down again, but he still kept crawling and managed to roll to cover behind one of the gate posts.  That sent them wild, and they poured in fire harder than ever.

The following is a list of all the really interesting historical things I learned from reading this book:

*          I really had no idea about the various men who joined John Brown on his crusade, or what their various back stories and motivations were.  In many other histories of Harper's Ferry, all the other men besides John Brown are regulated to the background, but George MacDonald Fraser does a very nice job of rescuing the other 21 men from historical obscurity and telling their stories.  It’s historical fiction, of course, not hard history but through Fraser’s fiction we get very colorful pictures of John Kagi (W) (the young Swiss idealist who was one of John Brown’s best strategists) and Shields “Emperor” Green (W) (a freed slave, and one of Fredrick Douglass’s former companions, who ends up deciding to leave Douglas and join John Brown).

*          I also learned about the bizarre role that George Washington’s great-grandnephew, the sword of Lafayette and the pistol of Fredrick the Great all played in the Harper’s Ferry incident.

*          I had previously thought John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry failed because the black slaves didn’t rise up as he expected them to.  Although this is partly true, George MacDonald Fraser also makes very clear that the real reason the raid failed is because John Brown himself got caught up in indecision.  The original plan had been to simply raid the armoury at Harper’s Ferry and then retreat to the hills, but John Brown froze up and failed to do evacuate when the time came.  (Fraser portrays John Brown as a great charismatic leader who is great at exciting the passion of abolitionist crowds in the North, but not a great military leader.)

*          Speaking of which, I had previously thought that John Brown’s reputation was mostly made at Harper’s Ferry, but Fraser portrays him as already being a hero and celebrity in the North even before the disastrous raid.

*          This book also gives an interesting portrayal of the Secret Six (W), the group of Northern Abolitionists who funded much of John Brown’s activities.  Interestingly enough, the author of the infamous Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, was the wife of one of the Secret Six.

*          After John Brown was wounded and captured at Harper’s Ferry, there was a bizarre scene in which he got into a long discussion with the public and members of the press from his wounded cot.  (George MacDonald Fraser includes all this in his story, and also references it in his endnotes.)

*          The long prologue to the book (the 200 pages before Flashman even meets John Brown) affords George MacDonald Fraser the luxury of going on several historical digressions.  For those of us who love history, these various digressions (backed up by long endnotes in the back) are a real treat.  No doubt people who don’t care for history would find it annoying, but then people who don’t care for history probably wouldn’t bother reading the Flashman books.
            A throwaway comment by Flashman at the beginning of the book leads to a page and a half endnote in the back telling the story of Jack Johnson, the first black to win the heavy weight title, Arthur Conan Doyle and Jack London.
            Apparently Jack London was so appalled by the idea of a black man beating a white man at boxing that he started the “Whip the Nigger” campaign to “remove the golden smile from Johnson’s face”.  It’s a rather unflattering detail about Jack London which makes me think I was too nice to him in my review of The IronHeel  (I had heard before that Jack London was a white supremacist, but had always imagined he was a white supremacist in the way most people back then were racists of some stripe or another.  I had no idea Jack London had been such a vehement bigot.)

*          I also learned about William Seward, another character in this book, who was in 1858 widely believed to be the next President of the United States, but who would lose the 1860 Republican nomination to the relatively unknown Abraham Lincoln.  (Again, the endnotes give a brief but interesting political biography of Seward.)

*          And finally, the fascinating story of Allan Pinkerton.
            Everyone is familiar with the Pinkerton Detective Agency that was so imfamous for breaking labor unions around the turn of the century.
            It turns out, however, that the founder of the agency, Allan Pinkerton (1819-94) was actually a member of the Chartist movement, a radical workers rights group in England in the 1830s and 40s.  He had to emigrate to America to avoid arrest after participating in violent Chartist protests.  George MacDonald Fraser notes the irony that the detective agency he set up was later used to suppress radical workers.
            Allan Pinkerton was also a friend and supporter of John Brown

*          This book also describes in detail the meeting between John Brown and Fredrick Douglass.  The meeting between the two men is a historical fact, although oddly enough George MacDonald Fraser breaks with his usual method and doesn’t include any endnotes for the meeting.
            He does, however, include some endnotes on the life of Fredrick Douglass.  Another interesting fact I learned is that although Fredrick Douglass had not been involved in Harper’s Ferry, the political fallout from the event was such that he still had to flee the United States afterwards.


            When discussing the problems of slavery on page 103, Flashman offers the following theory:

…but what astonishes me today is that all the wiseacres who discuss its origins and inevitability, never give a thought to where it really began, back in 1776, with their idiotic Declaration of Independence. If they’d had the wit to stay in the Empire then, instead of getting drunk on humbug about “freedom” and letting a pack of firebrands (who had a fine eye to their own advantage) drag ‘em into a pointless rebellion, there would never have an American Civil War, and that’s as sure as any “if” can be.  How so?  Well, Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, and slavery in 1833, and the South would have been bound to go along with that, grumbling, to be sure, but helpless against the will of Britain and her northern American colonies.  It would all have happened quietly, no doubt with compensation, and there’d have been nothing for North and South to fight about. Q.E.D.

            Possibly.  But allow me to pick a few holes in this theory.

            For one thing, although Britain abolished the slavery about 30 years ahead of America, both countries abolished the slave trade at around the same time.  And in fact, Britain was motivated to abolish the slave trade because America was also abolishing it, at least according to The Decline and Fall of the British Empire by Piers Brendon (A),

            For various reasons they [British parliamentarians] believed it [abolishing the slave trade] would no longer be economically damaging, particularly as America was also outlawing the slave trade and other countries were expected to follow suit.
(page 31)

            So if America had never left the British Empire, the slave trade might not have been abolished.  Or at the very least, it might have continued for much longer.  And then perhaps Britain might not have abolished slavery in 1833.
            Besides which, Britain was able to painlessly abolish slavery in 1833 because the American South (whose economy depended on slavery) had cut itself loose.  If America had still been part of the British Empire, would slavery still have been outlawed in 1833?
            I’m not sure myself, but it’s certainly not as simple as Flashman (and George MacDonald Fraser) are making it out.


            The abolitionists and underground railroad workers are not always favorably portrayed in this book, and often come off looking like crackpots in this book.  

            For example, on page 198 Flashman observes Franklin Sanborn (W) (a member of the secret six):

            He was one of your tiptoe babblers, I could see, smiling, fidgeting, and suddenly remembering to offer us refreshment, with more prattle about the fatigue of travelling, and the crowded of railway cars. If this is a sample of our abolitionist conspirators, I can see American slavery flourishing for a century or two yet, thinks I

            The poor Northern abolitionists—historians and historical fiction writers  seem to have never really forgiven them for being on the right side of history, and so they always get portrayed as preachy and insufferable and often cowardly.
            But if Fraser is a bit harsh on the abolitionists, he also balances things out by showing the extreme violence and hatred on the other side.  The citizens of Virginia are so outraged by the abolitionists that the mob shoots down John Brown’s men who come out under a flag of truce.  One of the men who comes out under a flag of truce, Bill Thompson, is lynched by the mob, and then his dead body is used by them as target practice.

            In one of the appendixes at the end of the book, Fraser debates the question of John Brown’s sanity, but then concludes with these words:
            The question of his sanity cannot be answered now. He was held fit to plead at his trial; rightly, so far as we can tell, but not many layman would, on the evidence, call him normal or balanced. “Reasoning insanity” is the judgment of one eminent historian, and it will do as well as any other. We cannot know him, but it does not matter.  He is part of history and historic legend, and if what he tried to do was not heroic, then the word has no meaning. (From Appendix I, page 354).


          On page 24, Flashman says:
            It’s always been the same. Suppose some learned scholar were to discover a Fifth Gospel which proved beyond a doubt that Our Lord survived the Cross and became a bandit or a slave-trader, or a politician, even—d’you think it would disturb the Christian faith one little bit? Of course not; ‘twouldn’t even be denied, likely, just ignored. Hang it, I’ve seen evidence, in black and white in our secret files, that Benjamin Franklin was a British spy right through the American Revolution, selling out patriots for all he was worth—but would any Yankee believe that, if ‘twas published? Never, because it’s not what they want to believe.

            Fraser attempts to back this up in his footnotes:
            For evidence that Benjamin Franklin (“Agent No. 72”) and his assistant, Edward Bancroft, were working for British Intelligence during their time at the American Embassy in Paris, and passed information to London which resulted in heavy American shipping losses, see Richard Deacon A History of British Secret Service, 1980.
(Endnote #4, p. 365)

            It’s a shocking charge, but my own research (10 minutes on Google) seems to indicate that this isn’t really a credible mainstream theory on Benjamin Franklin.
            In the context of the book, this is a throwaway comment by Flashman which has no impact on the rest of the story.  All the same, this may be an indication that George MacDonald Fraser has a weakness for using sensationalist sources, and that perhaps I should take start taking him with more of a grain of salt?
            There is another conspiracy theory advanced in this book that is much more central to the story—the idea that the United States Government had known in advance about the raid on Harper’s Ferry, but chose not to do anything.
            How credible is this?  I’m not really qualified to say.

Connections with Other Flashman Books
          Previously I had said (in my review of Flashman on the March) that it doesn’t really matter what order you read these books in.
            I now wish to take that back.  It does matter.  This book makes repeated references back to Flashman’s previous to adventures in America: Flash for Freedom and Flashman and the Redskins.  Both books should really be read before this one.

Connections with other Books I’ve Been Reading

*        A couple times in this book Flashman makes references to his friend Richard Burton. 
            Richard Burton never appears as a character in any of the Flashman books.  (Which is a shame.  It would have been really cool to have a story about Flashman going along on one of Richard Burton’s expeditions.)  But in many of the Flashman books Flashman will namedrop Richard Burton as a friend of his.

*          In the beginning of the book, there’s about a 40 page digression where Flashman is in South Africa, and talks about what South Africa was like in 1858.
            This is close to 20 years before the events described in Thomas Pakenham’s The Scramble for Africa, but the politics seem to be largely the same.  The same problems, balancing the interests of the Boers, the British, and native Africans, are already present.

Link of the Day 
Noam Chomsky on Palestine and Israel

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Thoughts on Gun Violence

            It is worth remembering that children in the rest of the world also watch all the same violent movies that American kids watch, and the rest of the world also plays all the same violent video games.

            In Japan, for example, sometimes the media is more violent than would be tolerated in America. 
            The movie Battle Royale was one of the biggest domestic hits ever in Japan.  It couldn’t even get released on video in the United States.  Because of the graphic scenes of junior high school students killing each other, no US distributor was willing to touch it. 

            It is also worth remembering that in every country mental illness exists. 
            Japan can be a high stress society that causes people to snap easily.  Sometimes students who can’t take the pressure of school will bring a knife to school and try to stab the teacher or other students.
            When I was living in Japan, there were a couple of different incidents where mentally ill people brought knives to crowded sections of Tokyo and stabbed as many people as they could before they were overpowered by police.

            The difference between 5 people stabbed, and 20 children gunned down in a matter of seconds, is the difference between a society that allows semi-automatic assault weapons, and one that doesn’t.

            I’m told by my British friends that in the 1990s, a mentally ill man brought a gun to a school in Scotland and shot several children.  As a result pistols were banned in Britain, and hunting guns are tightly regulated.  (If you own a hunting weapon, the police will periodically come to your house to make sure the weapon is stored in a secure place.)  There has not been a repeat incident.

            In the United States, we’ve had many many more school shootings since Columbine.

            Anyone who has lived abroad can tell you the rest of the world thinks we are insane on the gun issue.  I can’t even count the number of times a British, Australian, or Japanese person has said to me, “Really, what is it with America and guns?  Don’t you guys get it by now?”

            In Japan, it is impossible to get a hold of a gun without some sort of connection with organized crime.  Yes, the Yakuza does still own handguns, but no mentally ill teenager is going to get a hold of a semi automatic assault weapon.

            In America the genie is already out of the bottle to a certain degree, but it is not impossible to reverse course.  In Cambodia, the streets were flooded with AK-47s in the 1990s as a result of the civil war.  The government decided it needed to get these guns off the street in order to have a peaceful society, and within a matter of years they had largely succeeded in getting back most of these guns.

            Of course I say this all knowing full well nothing is going to change.  I guess I’ll just post again after the next gun massacre in a couple of months.  See you then.

            (PS—I do not for one minute believe that immediately after a gun massacre it is inappropriate to talk about gun control.  That’s like saying after a nuclear power plant meltdown it is inappropriate to talk about nuclear safety.  The reason some of us are for gun control in the first place is precisely because of this type of scenario.)

Link of the Day

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Interesting article on about the current state of Michigan.  As someone who hasn't really kept up on local news all that much since I left, I don't really have any thoughts on this, but I'm guessing some of you might.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Whisperer in Darkness

Why I Watched This Movie
            Since discussing The Cabin in the Woods with my co-workers, the name H. P. Lovecraft has come up a few times now in the office.
            I generally consider myself a fan of cheesy old pulpy horror/ sci-fi stories, but, I’m embarrassed to admit, I’d never heard of H.P. Lovecraft until a few weeks ago.
            Since I’ve become aware of Lovecraft, I’ve been keeping my eye open for his books, but English books are always in short supply in Cambodia.
            Cheap pirated DVDs, however, are not.  And so the other day when I was in the DVD store, I came across this film adaptation of one of H. P. Lovecraft’s stories, and decided to check it out.

The Review
          The first thing to note is that this film is not produced by a major Hollywood studio, but is instead the passion project of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (W).  Correspondingly, the film has no recognizable actors, and a small budget.
            That being said, it’s not quite as bad as you would expect.  It’s not in the same league as a major Hollywood release, of course, but it is about on par with other independent films, or a couple hours of network television.
            The key is to go in with low expectations.  Imagine your just watching an episode of the old Outer Limits for example.  Just like the old Outer Limits, the acting and the production values might not be great, but there’s an old fashioned spooky story that you can get drawn into if you let yourself go with it.

            The producers of this movie decided to film it in the style of the old 1930s horror movies because the original story was from 1931 (the DVD jacket cites Dracula, Frankenstein, and King Kong in particular as influences).

              It’s a clever idea trying to mimic old horror movies, and the old school filming style also does a lot to cover up the low production values of the film.

            There were a couple things that kept me from fully immersing myself in the story however.
            1).The acting isn’t great, and a couple of the actors are probably miscast for their character, and this did keep pulling me out of the story. And
            2). Some of the homages to 1930s movies are a bit too clever for their own good, and this constantly reminded me I was watching a film production, and it also prevented me from getting fully involved in the story.

            The story itself is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories that has been stretched out to a whole movie, and it feels like a short story that has been stretched out. 
            But then again, just tell yourself this is an episode of The Outer Limits that goes a little bit long, and it should be alright.

Notes (and spoilers):
* A number of things I didn’t fully understand about the story.  Either I missed something, or they never really explained how he managed to close the portal.  (What exactly was it that he threw into the portal?  And why did that cause it to close?)
            How exactly did these creatures manage to convert humans to their cause?  What did they do exactly?  And if they have this mysterious power, why wasn’t the old man ever fully converted?  I mean they clearly had him exactly where they wanted him as a brain in a jar?
            The ultimate purpose of these creatures was never fully explained, and in fact the film was being deliberately coy with this point.  I’m not sure if this was explained any better in H.P. Lovecraft’s original story or not.

Link of the Day
Q & A with Noam Chomsky

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

            I’m a couple years behind the times, but I am working my way through the Harry Potter movies. 
For past Harry Potter Reviews see
Book Reviews:
* Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,
* Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ,
* Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and
* Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
(The first 3 books in the series I read (or listened to rather) before I had started up my book review project.

Previous Movie Reviews:
* Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince here
* A review of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" here,
* Some thoughts on the Goblet of Fire here,
* A brief mention of "The Prisoner of Azkaban" here,
and everything else was before I started regularly reviewing movies on this blog.
            As for this movie, I suppose the first thing that needs discussing is:
            The Controversial Decision to Split it into Two Parts
            Much ink has already been spilled over the decision to split the last Harry Potter movie into two halves.  More probably does not need to be said on the subject, but since this is my blog, I’m going to go ahead add my two cents anyway.

            From a story telling perspective, it would have made much more sense to split the fifth or sixth book into two parts instead.  These were the stories that really suffered in their abridgement to the big screen.
            The seventh book wasn’t actually as long as the 5th or 6th book.  And, although the beginning of the book started out with a bang, and although it ended with a bang, the middle really lagged.  Harry, Ron and Hermione just go camping and spend several pages arguing with each other.
            (Stephen King  wrote of the 7th book, that In Deathly Hallows, for instance, there's an awful lot of wandering around and camping in that tent; it starts to feel like Ms. Rowling running out the clock on the school year to fit the format of the previous six books.)
In Deathly Hallows, for instance, there’s an awful lot of wandering around and camping in that tent; it starts to feel like Ms. Rowling running out the clock on the school year to fit the format of the previous six books.

Read more:
In Deathly Hallows, for instance, there’s an awful lot of wandering around and camping in that tent; it starts to feel like Ms. Rowling running out the clock on the school year to fit the format of the previous six books.

Read more:

            So, ironically the 7th book is the one that least deserves the double movie treatment.
            All that being said, I understand that from a marketing perspective you can’t really split the 5th installment into two parts, but you can get away with milking the climax. 

            But let’s change the question.   Putting aside the fact that arguably “The Order of the Phoenix” or “The Half-Blood Prince,” should have been two parters instead, and judging this movie solely on its own merits, do I think it benefits from being in two parts?
            Yeah a bit.  All the previous 6 movies have felt so rushed, so it’s nice that at least one book in the series gets a more relaxed pace in its transition onto the big screen.   
            I know a lot of people were upset at what they saw as a blatant attempt to keep milking the Harry Potter cash cow, but from the perspective of a viewer I don’t mind.

The Review
            I thought the movie worked alright as an adaptation of the book.
            The problem with all of these Harry Potter movies is that they never really come into their own as movies in their own right, and feel just like abridged versions of the book.  And that’s true of this one as well.  But by this point in the series, I’ve come to accept that.
            And so I wasn’t surprised when characters were introduced briefly on the screen, had a couple lines of dialogue, and the promptly disappeared again.  We all know who they are from the books, and so it’s okay if the movie doesn’t have time to develop half of the characters it introduces.  I also wasn’t surprised when the movie never really reached a satisfying climax before ending.

            The Harry Potter Universe has a lot of colorful supporting characters, but in this book they are unfortunately neglected as the trio of Harry Potter, Ron and Hermione go off on their own.  And that’s reflected in this movie as well.  There’s one brief scene when the baddies board the train heading to Hogwarts, but for this movie that’s all we see of most of Harry’s classmates.
            Hopefully they’ll get some screen time in the next movie.

            The action scenes in this movie are decent, but nothing special.
            Although many different directors have taken their turn at Harry Potter, in all the movies, action scenes have never been the director’s strong point.  Nobody has yet figured out anything more exciting to do in these scenes than have the characters point wands and yell spells.
            I’ll be interested to see what they do with the big climatic battle at the end of the book (which will no doubt be in the second movie) but my expectations are going to be low going into it.

            The very beginning action scene was also disappointing.  It was set at night, which (at least on my tv) made it dark and confusing to follow.  (If I’m not mistaken, the same scene happened in daylight in the book.  Am I remembering that right?)
            Plus most of the action occurred off screen and was only referenced later by the characters.  Unless I missed something, Mad-Eye Moody  got killed off-screen (which was a bit of an ignoble send off to one of the more colorful characters) and George also lost his ear off-screen.

            Also during certain scenes I wasn’t exactly sure why sometimes the characters used their magic powers to teleport themselves, and sometimes they ran.  During that chase scene in the woods, I thought it would have made much more sense for the characters to teleport instead as they had in previous scenes.  (Again, with the caveat of unless I missed something.  Was there some reason why they couldn’t teleport in that scene?)

            Oh well, onto the last movie in the series next.  Stay tuned, I’ll get around to it eventually.

Other Thoughts
            Given how everything in Hollywood gets re-made eventually, it’s not inconceivable that in 50 years time someone will try and remake the Harry Potter series.
            When that happens, I recommend Harry Potter get the Game of Thrones, and turned into a TV show instead.  Each book could be converted into one season.  This way things won’t have to be so rushed or have so much cut out.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Phone Interview - November 16th, 2012

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Links recently posted 

5 Things Nobody Tells You About Living in Japan
Speaking as someone who lived in Japan for 8 years, I thought I might be qualified to comment on some of his points.

#5. Everything Is Frightfully Low-Tech
-Ah, yes and no on this one.  With the examples he cites, yes definitely.  As he says, the older generation in Japan is a bit technophobic, and they are the ones in charge of the city hall and the businesses.
And do not even get me started on those stupid ATM machines which closed down at the same time as the bank.  They were the bane of every foreigner who lived in Japan.  How we hated that inconvenience.
      But in other ways Japan can be very high tech.  For example when I first arrived in 2001, the cell-phones that every common Japanese teenager had were light years ahead of anything being sold in the US at the time.  (Although I think with Apple and the iphone that gap has now closed.)

#4. The Houses Have No Heat

-Oh, so true.  So very very true.
And for the hazards of kerosene heaters the author mentions--just see this post here.
Not to mention the bad smells from kerosene.

#3. The Hospitals Close On Weekends and Evenings
 -I think the emergency rooms are still open on the weekends.  Although prepare to spend the whole day waiting.

#2. You Will Always Be an Outsider

#1. The Country Really Isn't That Weird

 -True.  Average day to day life can get quite boring after a while actually.

Other Links:

In the category of: completely random things I found while surfing on the Internet

George Orwell:  In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse
I had no idea about this Wodehouse/Nazi controversy before I came across Orwell's article, but Orwell's writing really pulls you into it.   It's just a really interesting article to read even if you don't know anything.

From the Phnom Penh Post: More Toilets Needed  (This actually is a bit of a serious problem in Phnom Penh--a city with serious hygiene problems.)

 Whisky Prajer's twitter  alerts me to a post of his I missed back in 2005, but should give a good laugh to us Dutch--The Mennonite / NeoCalvinist Drinking Game - An Idea Whose Time Has Come!

and via Phil-- On Charles Schulz's quiet integration of Peanuts and the racism of Dennis the Menace

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Why I Watched this Movie
            As always, I’m a few weeks late getting this up on the blog, but this was originally a Halloween movie.  A few of us got together on Halloween night to watch a horror film.  My friend the Cinephile  chose this movie as one of his favorites.

The Review
            I walked into this movie knowing nothing about it.  Which is the best way to see this movie.  So if you haven’t seen this movie yet, stop reading now. 

…If you’ll still reading this, I’m going to spoil things….

            Because I was unaware of all the various surprises and plot twists this film had, I walked in expecting a normal horror movie, and was pleasantly surprised by everything.

            My friend the cinephile commented, “It didn’t blow my mind, but it was very clever.”  And this would probably be my review as well.

            Of course, this isn’t the first self-aware horror film and after Scream series and the Scary Movie series, some of this did at times feel like retread ground.  (The joke about the characters all splitting up when they should be staying together, for example, has been done before.)
             But on the other hand, if done intelligently there’s no reason why another self-aware horror film can’t be enjoyable.  And I thought this was intelligent.
            The equivocation of the movie’s target audience with old gods demanding human suffering and sacrifice was a nice touch, and all the following jokes about pandering to that audience were cleverly done.

             A few of the plot twists, and fake-out endings, took me completely off guard (and I mean that in a good way.)  The movie teased out its central mystery very nicely. 
            I was thoroughly entertained while I was watching it.

            The ending was slightly unsatisfying, but it may have been the only ending possible.  (I’m not sure I could think of another way.)

Notes (Warning—More Spoilers)

*          The women at the end of the film says that the scenario is different in every culture, and that it’s changed over the years, but that it always needs youth and there must be at least 5 characters: the whore, the athlete, the fool, the scholar, and the virgin. 
            But these characters clearly weren’t present in the scenario they were running in Japan. 
            I’m not sure whether to count this as a plot hole or not.  The movie does seem to imply at different points that there are different scenarios being run in different countries, and yet the woman at the end seems to say it is always the same 5 characters.

*          On the subject of the 5 archetypes, what does everyone think of the term the whore used to refer to the sexual active female in the group?  Is this the old double sexuality standard?  Or is the movie making just making fun of the double sex standards usually used in horror movies?  If the latter, I think the wink could have been a bit more obvious.

*          My Cinephile friend is fond of talking about Alfred Hitchcock .  According to him, one of Hitchcock’s favorite techniques is to use suspense to play with the sympathy of the viewer.  For example in the movie Psycho, in certain scenes the viewer is supposed to feel worried that the killer might not get away with the murder. 
          My Cinephile friend claimed The Cabin in the Woods  used this same Hitchcock technique of playing with your sympathies.  Are you rooting for the teenagers in the cabin, or the men in the control room? 
            This tension is all throughout the movie, but in particular this applies to the scene in where the teenagers are trying to escape through the tunnel, and there is suddenly panic in the control room because they forgot to cave-in the tunnel.  The suspense of the scene is orchestrated in such a way that the viewer is supposed to feel worried that Oh no, the teenage victims might escape without getting murdered!
            It wouldn’t have occurred to me on my own, but once my friend pointed it out to me I thought he was right.  The film was totally messing with your sympathies throughout.

*          But, actually talking about that scene, this brings me to another question I had about this movie.
            Did I miss something, or was it never explained why the demolition department didn’t get the orders to blow up the tunnel?
            Also, remember this scene? 
            At the celebration, Gary (the character played by Richard Jenkins) is talking to the demolitions department.
            You knuckleheads,” he says, “you almost gave me a heart attack with that tunnel.”
            Demolition responds: “Like I said, it wasn’t our fault.  We didn’t get the order.”
            Gary: “I’m just giving you a hard time.  Come on. Give us a hug.”
            Another demolition guy: “No seriously. That wasn’t our fault.”
            The demolition girl: “There was a glitch. Power re-route from upstairs.”
            At this point, Gary starts to look worried and his tone becomes serious: “What do you mean upstairs?”
             Right here, he seems to realize something has gone wrong, but the conversation is interrupted by the red phone ringing.
            My friends and I watched this scene twice, and we still can’t figure out what happened.  Why was there a power re-route from upstairs, and how, from this brief conversation, does Gary know something has gone terribly wrong even before the red phone rings?
            Any help out there?

*          Another question—at the beginning of the movie, they make the comment that they haven’t had a failure since 1998.  But what happened in 1998?  Originally I thought that conversation was foreshadowing something that would be revealed later on in the movie.  But (again unless I missed something) there was no reveal.  Then I thought maybe it might be one of the movies meta jokes.  A reference to a horror movie that came out in 1998, perhaps?  But I’ve now searched the Internet, and I can’t find anything.
            Either that joke just went right over my head, or the writers of this movie got lazy and made a throw-away comment at the beginning of the movie that they should have followed up on but didn’t. 
            Again, can anyone out there help to clarify this?

*          I once saw a film critic on TV complaining about the switch in The Bride of Frankenstein.  This, you’ll recall, is the switch the monster pulls at the end to destroy the whole castle where Doctor Frankenstein and his rival have been working.  The film critic complained, “What is the deal with the switch?  Is this some sort of European housing device?”  Although the switch served a dramatic function at the end of the movie, it was difficult to see why someone would deliberately put a self destruct switch in the middle of their castle that anyone could just pull at any moment.
            The same critique could be made of that red button which releases all the monsters at once.  Why they even designed it is a mystery to me, but even assuming they needed it for some reason, you would think something like that would have been put under guard.  Or need a password.  Or something.
            Unless….could it be that this was meant as a tribute to Bride of Frankenstein?

* Other notes: My two other friends talked about the horror movie trope that the black character almost never lives to the end (George Romero being the notable exception) and debated with each other how this movie addresses that cliché.
            Me, I stayed out of that debate.  I think race was just outside of this film’s focus, and so it is useless to over-analyze it.
            My friends also compared the plot to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft.
            However I must admit (with shame) that I’ve never read any of H.P. Lovecraft, so for the moment I’ll also have to refrain from comment on that.  (Although perhaps in the near future I should work to remedy this deficiency in my literary education.)

Link of the Day
Chomsky on Gaza, Hamas, Iran, Race and more