Monday, February 27, 2017

moqueca!

It's quite, quite delicious, and in a totally different way from feijoada. The flavor profile comes at you from several angles: there are strong hints of Southeast Asia and the Middle East in this dish, as well as a good dose of Mediterranean. When I was making the stew, and before I had added any seafood, I took a couple sips of the broth and was wowed by the flavor, which managed the feat of being loud, fresh, and complex. The end product, though, is something else: the spiciness of the peppers—and Korean peppers work fine as a replacement for South American chilies—is counteracted by the coconut milk and sweet tomato; the seafood, meanwhile, makes a great counterpoint for the vegetables. Even though this stew is filled to the brim with onions, I'm eating everything without complaint. Truly marvelous. Moqueca!


Criticisms: The not-quite-whitefish (I really need to learn my fish species) and the shrimp cooked perfectly (I cooked the seafood here in the office instead of pre-cooking and reheating; seafood can be difficult to work with), but the diver scallops (see above photo) cooked very unevenly: some were just the right amount of tender while others were downright chewy (but still tasty). That's probably just a matter of poor stirring and/or not stirring often enough, thus allowing the seafood closest to the gas-range burner to settle and cook too much. This doesn't explain why the shrimp turned out so well, though, but no matter: next time around, I may use tiny bay scallops instead. There's a whole school of thought out there that says it's insane to use diver scallops in things like soup or stew—save the big boys for your seared scallops! This same school of thought argues that bay scallops, while small, are more flavorful, and if they go chewy from overcooking, they're too small for texture to be a huge issue.

Overall, the harmony of flavors was easily as amazing as it was for the feijoada. I'm definitely growing in my respect for Brazilian cuisine as I learn about it from the inside, bit by bit, one succulent dish at a time.

And that's the last dish I'll be cooking for my office mates until after my May walk is done.

My thanks to Chef John for his moqueca recipe.



Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Aim doon."

That's right: I'm finally done proofing this fucking manuscript, and now I'm heading back to my place so I can chop up some veggies, thaw some sea creatures, and make this moqueca. It ought to be quite different from the feijoada, but just as delicious, if not more so.



yawn

This is news?


If you're receiving political advice from celebrities, then you're the idiot who has chosen to follow idiots, and I pity you. Move on, guys. Nothing to see here.



moqueca prep

My boss and coworker enjoyed the feijoada with sprinkles and orange slices (despite the stew's saltiness), but now it's time to move on to moqueca, a seafood stew with a base of coconut milk, tomato, and sundry hot/smoky spices like paprika, cumin, and cayenne. This is also a fairly onion-y stew that features two kinds of onions: yellow and green.

I bought the final ingredients for my stew—the aforementioned onions plus a brace of Korean peppers that will be replacing the proper South American ones—this afternoon while at the office. I haven't decided when I'm going to cook the moqueca which, being a seafood stew, won't take nearly as long to make as the feijoada did. I'm thinking I might wait until Monday morning to ensure just-off-the-boat freshness.

Speaking of feijoada, here are two final glimpses of Stew, Day Two:


It's goddamn 1AM, and I'm leaving the office now. One more day of hell, then an easy Monday and Tuesday followed by—I hope—three days off so I can regain my health and sanity. Once I'm back at work, I'll be creating another book, but this time, it'll be one book's manuscript over two months, i.e., half the rate at which I've been working. That'll be nice.



Saturday, February 25, 2017

nuggets to distract you

YouTube is quite the trove, and since I don't have a TV, I have, over the past several months, gotten into the habit of subscribing to various YouTube channels (I have one of my own, but there isn't much on it, so it's not worth subscribing to... yet). Among my favorites are Joerg Sprave's Slingshot Channel, the Food Wishes channel run by the surname-less Chef John, the Sorted Food Channel showcasing four young Brits who bring the art and science of cooking to the masses, the PBS-affiliated Crash Course channel, and language-geek channel NativLang. I've also got my alt-commentary from Styxhexenhammer666, Stefan Molyneux, Prager University, and Paul Joseph Watson.

Here's a random list of some videos that seem worth sharing. You are, of course, free to disagree, and if you start watching a video but don't like it, you can stop watching at any time.

Stefan Molyneux: The Truth About Immigration and Crime in the Netherlands. Molyneux is, I think, an acquired taste, and I haven't totally acquired him. He's super sharp, and I'd never want to tangle with him verbally, but he's also pompous and a drama queen. I never thought I'd say this, but I almost prefer Styxhexemhammer666's boring drone to Molyneux's scenery-chewing theatricality.* That said, the linked video is worth your time, mainly for the disturbing picture it paints of immigrants who come to Europe but then refuse to assimilate.

Stefan Molyneux: But It Wasn't Real Communism! Watch this and squirm. Molyneux sometimes does a radio-show-style thing in which he'll talk with or debate a caller while he's recording himself. This particular encounter, while never quite descending into outright nastiness, showcases all sorts of bilious, mutual disrespect. Pointless debates always make me uncomfortable, mainly because I know time is being wasted, and I'm getting stressed out for nothing. Some people thrive on conflict and love to spar; I'm not one of those people, which is why I always sigh when I receive any sort of naysaying comment on the blog. What is it that makes some people prone to reflexive disagreement? Anyway, I don't know how I sat through this: it wasn't particularly enlightening or instructive, even if I did agree with Molyneux the entire way, but it's a great example of a rhetorical shit show—an exchange in which neither party comes away convinced of anything. Watch for the train-wreck value and little else.

Food Wishes: Picadillo. Chef John introduces me to what is apparently a Puerto Rican classic. I'll be wanting to make this sometime after my big walk is done.

Paul Joseph Watson: The Truth About Sweden. Watson is another one I find hard to watch. When he talks, he looks as if he's making constant kissy-faces at the camera, thrusting his head forward at me as if he were trying to osculate a reluctant, disgusted female companion on a date that went bad the moment it began. Despite looking like a pink-lipped boy barely in his teens, Watson does make good points in typically acerbic British fashion. Watson may be, along with the even-more-obnoxious Alex Jones, one of the most popular alt-vloggers in the Info Wars corner of YouTube. He's also the only Info Wars talking head that I can stand to watch. (I get the impression that most members of the alt-media care nothing for charisma. Hey, fine: substance is indeed more important than style, but effectively marketing your substance is important, too. I think you all could do better—much better—on that score. Another annoying alt-vlogger (well, quasi-alt): Ben Shapiro. Ugh.)

Crash Course: What Is Myth? While I'm not a mythologist or a folklorist, some of the work I did in grad school (and even in undergrad) had to do, at least tangentially, with the questions of stories that were and are formative in human moral and social development. Mike Rugnetta, the peppy guy hosting this new Crash Course series (Crash Course recently wound up a philosophy series; this is a sort-of replacement) seems to know what he's talking about, so I'll be following these videos fairly closely. Rugnetta's intro episode mentioned a few mythical figures I know little to nothing about, so that got my interest.

Joerg Sprave: Homemade Wood Sword—Will It Kill? Joerg (or Jörg if you can type umlauts) is an English-fluent German nut whose building projects always seem to involve the construction of weapons from materials you can generally find in a hardware store and/or an outdoors shop. Watch enough of his videos, and you'll soon come to expect certain things: his maniacal laugh when a weapon fires as it should, his cheerfully growly "Let me show you its features!" when he introduces a new death-bringing toy, and his signature "Thanks and bye-bye!" at the ends of his videos. Sprave started off with slingshot-themed weapons, and he still takes plenty of projectile-launchers, but lately, he has expanded his ambit to include bladed weapons. The sequel to the above-linked video, in which Sprave creates a weapon to crush a coconut (standing in for a human skull, I suppose), is also worth your while.

NativLang: What Shakespeare's English Sounded Like. This channel has several "What X Sounded Like" videos, all of which are worth your while to watch and listen to. For my money, the host's rendition of what Shakespeare probably sounded like sounded like some form of Irish to me, and several commenters agree. another great vid from this channel is The Hardest Language to Spell, which I thought was plain awesome.

And now... back to work.



*Bill Burr, who often seems to walk a dangerous line between right and left, comes right out and hilariously calls Molyneux an "arrogant cunt." In fairness, however, I should note that the commenters agree that Bill Burr is intellectually outclassed by Molyneux. Yeah... probably so. Comedians are often a smarter-than-average bunch, but Molyneux is a trained philosopher while Burr hasn't exactly demonstrated an ability to "do subtle."



$500 ahead of budget

The news from my place of work is that I owe yet another W780,000 in taxes. Having paid W1.6-W1.7 million only a few damn months ago, I'm unpleasantly surprised at being broom-handle-fucked again—a surprise that can be chalked up to the age-old "the foreigner is always last to know" dynamic that exists in most Korean companies.* I should have known that this hit was coming, but no one could be bothered to tell me.

So that's pissing me off right now. The good news, though, is that I'm going to end calendar February about $500 ahead of where I should be. My budget predicts I'd have about W7.2 million in the account, but I'm currently at W7.8 million, which will defray the cost of paying yet more goddamn tax within a three-month period (i.e., end of November to now). Seriously—who pays this much tax twice in a row? My boss has offered the services of his accountant to me; I've said yes, even if it means paying a nasty fee. Perhaps the accountant can prevent me from being tax-raped several times throughout the year.

Another thing to consider is that, beyond 2016, I did not include, in my budget, any income from KMA and Seoul National. This year, that extra income will add up to another 2 or 3 million won, which will cover any future attempts at fiscal buggery.** My budget runs through 2020, beyond the point when I turn fifty. There's no KMA or SNU listed in that entire time frame, which means I have an invisible safety net. If I do get paid for a previously unlisted gig, I simply type those numbers into the budget in an ad hoc manner, month by month, to stay current. The result is a budget that remains, despite all these slings and arrows, ironclad.

So we're still on the path, folks. We're angry, but we're still on the path.



*In this particular case, the finance office spoke to a staffer who has nothing to do with me, telling this staffer that I'm the only one not to have filed my paperwork. The staffer sought me out to tell me this. It angers me that private financial information is being sloppily flung around for others to hear (if I talk about this information on my blog, that's by choice; I'm sure you see the moral difference), and it angers me even more that I'm not receiving information, in a timely manner, about what I need to be doing.

You may recall that, back when I worked at Daegu Catholic University, my private medical information was made available to admin staff—a fact I found alarming and upsetting, but not exactly surprising. Don't expect to get the Western treatment if you live in Korea: the village mentality reigns supreme, and everyone knows everyone's business.

**Obviously, I'd rather not be buggered in the first place.



Friday, February 24, 2017

Ave, Charles!

Charles finally sees "Rogue One" and lays out some thoughts about it.

Just a reminder: my review of "Rogue One" is here.



semi-traditional

And here's how feijoada is more or less supposed to look when served in the traditional style:


Not visible: the pile of white rice underneath the stew.

Post-feijoadic insights:

This was way, way salty. I didn't add any extra salt to the stew, but the bacon, chorizo, and salsiccia ensured that this was going to be one hell of a salty meal. If I ever do this dish again—and I probably will—I'll likely do something sacrilegious like let everything simmer happily for a few hours, then dump out the broth and replace it with water, thereby eliminating much of the cooked-out salt. I might also make the recipe a bit more bean-heavy.

To be clear, though, the feijoada was damn tasty. I ate two bowls of it for lunch, and the second bowl was better than the first. Taste-wise, this dish has everything going for it. Salt-wise, though, it needs to be toned down, and/or I need to see whether I made some missteps along the way when cooking this for the first time ever. (Some feijoada videos show the cooks using quite a bit of water, so perhaps the stew's broth should be thinner...? Not sure. Despite the abundance of water in those videos, the stews often come out looking mighty thick.)

Otherwise, it's true what they say: the orange wedges, though strange-looking to a non-Brazilian, really do complement the feijoada's flavor, cutting through any remaining fattiness from the meat (I skimmed off so much grease and scum that there was precious little left). The panko sprinkle (panko, butter, olive oil, orange zest, and parsley—all toasted, but with parsley added in the latter stage to avoid burning) also added a very nice accent to the meal; the sprinkle didn't make much sense to me until I shoveled some stew into my mouth. Maybe I'll be able to find some cassava flour and do it right next time.

today's the day

I'll be foisting my version of feijoada on my boss and coworker today. We'll see how it goes.


Yes, those are my toes. They like ruining photos.



my three crazies

Wednesday, February 15: I'm standing on the subway platform, minding my own business. Right as the train pulls up, I'm accosted by an overly friendly Korean man with a shoulder bag. "Oh, hi!" he says brightly, as if he knows me. I smile tightly and nod politely, then I board the train. He's at my side, so he boards, too. I've known this guy for thirty seconds, and I'm already thinking the same thought I always think in situations like this: why am I such an asshole attractor? My life is full of unwanted people whom I'd gladly shoot. With this chump's appearance, we can add another face to my list.

"Where are you from?" the man asks with a heavy accent that betrays a shaky mastery of English. I was an English teacher in Korea for years, so I can peg someone's proficiency level after hearing just a few syllables.

"America," I say curtly. The man shakes his head mournfully.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," he says with affected sadness.

I have no idea what the fuck he means, but I don't like this reaction at all, so I switch to Korean and say, "That's a rude way to talk. I say I'm from America, and you think that's too bad?" The man now realizes he's talking to someone who speaks Korean.

"No, that's not what I meant—" blah, blah, blah. He's all apologies. I look away. I've been done with this 1.7-meter ambulatory anus since he first sidled up to me on the subway platform. Despite my looking away, he doesn't take the hint. Naturally. It's going to be that kind of day.

Instead of leaving me alone, he reaches into his shoulder bag and pulls out some brochures, which he then rudely puts in front of my averted face. "I'm a salesman," he says, smiling manically, still trying to ply me in English. "See? We sell products all over the world." I nod distantly, thinking about what it'd feel like to hurl this man bodily through a window. He's still holding the brochures out, expecting me to take them. I don't. Instead, I hold up my hand.

"Please, take!" he says lamely. I shake my head, then return to staring at nothing. We reach my stop, and unfortunately, it's this guy's stop, too. You can always be sure that, when you meet an asshole, he won't part ways easily. Luckily for me, he moves to the exit door first, and I deliberately line up a few feet behind him, placing a person or two between me and him. When the door opens, my harasser runs at full tilt over to the subway station's escalator, off to bother someone else, or maybe just to put our encounter behind him. I follow slowly, marveling at what must be the world's most retarded salesman.

Friday, February 17: I'm in the subway again. One stop away from my destination, I suddenly hear it: the sounds of a guy chirping, beeping, and clicking loudly, putting on his own audio show. I'm pretty sure this is the same guy I encountered months before: a crazy-but-harmless twentysomething off in his own world, but apparently rational enough to use a T-Money farecard to get through the turnstile and board a subway. Interspersed in all the clicking, beeping, and sound effects are bits of dialogue uttered in a tinny, muffled way, as if the words were from some kind of radio broadcast being heard through bad speakers. "Gyotong sago," I hear several times: traffic accident.

The doors open when I reach my stop, Daechi Station. Unsurprisingly, the guy gets off the train with me, and we both head up the escalator. I'm standing on the right, per the unspoken social agreement that, if you're not actively walking up the escalator's steps, you're to stand on the right and leave room for walkers to pass you on the left. Crazy Boy is standing on the left, beeping and clicking and "Gyotong sago"ing away, possibly blocking upward-moving traffic. Since I'm pretty sure this is the same guy I had met months ago, I don't give a damn because I know he's harmless. He's not one of those crazies who yell loony things at all passersby, then incorporate you into their deranged narratives the moment you're in front of them. When I reach the top of the escalator, I break right and Crazy Boy breaks left. The end.

Thursday, February 23: I've just finished shopping at Haddon Supermarket—a place that seems to be dying fast. The store's hours, according to expats a few years ago, extended all the way to 9:00PM, but last year, I was told the store was open until 7PM every day of the week (this turned out not to be true). On this day, I notice a sign at the cash register saying that Haddon's hours are now 8:30AM to only 6PM, with Wednesdays being a day off. How sad, I think as I leave. The end is coming swiftly for Haddon, which probably doesn't market itself all that well, and which suffers from a slightly weird location that isn't visible from the main street. It also doesn't help that Haddon's shelves are looking barer and barer; the place is rapidly turning into Venezuela.

That said, I'm still able to find a few overpriced items that I need for my moqueca; I walk out with my bagful of goodies and hail a cab. I say my usual "thank you" as I get in, and the driver barks, "You gonna pay by card? 'Cause the card reader's broken!" I say—without first looking into my wallet—that I can pay with cash or with T-Money. The driver nods stiffly—he's an ancient fucker, as skinny and dried-up as beef jerky—and it isn't until we've rolled forward three hundred meters that he asks me where I'm headed. I say, "Daecheong Station," to which he replies with a "Huh?" that I've heard from other cabbies before.

Here's the thing: most cabbies know all of Seoul, and I respect them for their encyclopedic knowledge. At the same time, there are some areas of Seoul that fall into a cabbie's cognitive blind spot, and my neighborhood is one of them. Name any location close to where I live—Suseo, Irweon, Daechi, Jamshil, Samseong—and cabbies will know exactly what place you're talking about. But mention "Daecheong Station" to them, and some cabbies will go as blank as the blind spot in their minds.

"It's near Suseo and Irweon," I explain patiently but loudly, as it's obvious my driver is a little hard of hearing. "If you drive toward Suseo, you're good." The cabbie nods and says, "Yeah, I know Daecheong—if you drive past it, you'll get to Suseo." This scares me, as it sounds as though the driver has latched onto the name "Suseo" and thinks that that's our destination.

"Just to make sure," I say politely, "I'm going to Daecheong, not Suseo." The cabbie laughs and nods, trying to reassure me that he still has all his marbles. (The average age of a Seoul cabbie is 60. Cabbies are, alas, a dying breed. I wonder what will arise to replace them.)

The ride actually goes without a hitch, unlike that earlier ride in which the old guy got us lost and cost me an extra five or six dollars. My current cabbie knows his routes, and he takes me unerringly to Daecheong Station, where my apartment building is.

But it's the shit he says during the ride that sticks with me. I'm not sure I can even cover the blizzard of topics the cabbie throws at me, but they all have the following common theme: Korea is going down the toilet, and young people today are stupid assholes who only worry about making money instead of living lives of value. I don't think the cabbie is totally wrong, but I have little reason to side fully with him when he starts praising the Japanese ("They have a lot to teach us! Their country is all neat and clean, but we Koreans throw garbage all over the place!"—and—"Japanese women know how to take care of their men! Korean women? Ha! They're selfish and won't do anything for you. But Japanese women are also ugly."), praising Park Geun-hye ("She hasn't done a single thing wrong!"), excoriating Kim Young-sam (whom I admire), and praising old dictators like Chun Doo-hwan ("There was no crime back then!"). He also talks about how, in his day, unruly students got the rod, but today's students are all whiny pussies (again, there's some truth to this). If the cabbie isn't calling his fellow citizens "gaesaekkideul" (sons of bitches), he's calling them fucking retarded. The entire ride, once the cabbie gets going, is a long, swear-word-laced diatribe against the entire country. At one point, he stops ranting and asks me, more calmly, about my own experience living in Korea. I laughingly tell him that, from where I sit, there are indeed assholes (ssagaji eopneun nomdeul is the sweary term I use... it translates differently depending on context), but there are also plenty of good people. "Which are there more of?" he barks challengingly. "Good people or assholes?" As a way to deflect him, I say, "Well, for me, it depends on the day," which is true enough. The cabbie laughs. I think about how I could be a politician.

The cabbie's brand of crazy isn't the same as that of the "salesman" described above. True, I'm a captive audience for the cabbie, who's got plenty of spleen to vent, but at the same time, I can see he's basically a good, friendly guy who, like a lot of old folks, simply wants to talk. Most of my responses to the cabbie are grunts, "Mmm"s, and silent nods. I'm in no mood to challenge his worldview, and I don't have the Korean skills, besides. When the ride ends, I don't have enough cash to pay the full fare: it's W15,700, but I've got W15,600 in my wallet. "No problem! I'll give you a discount!" barks the cabbie. We say our goodbyes, and an instant later, I'm walking into my apartment building, shaking my head.

Depending on how you count the inhabitants and reckon the municipal borders, Seoul has from 10 million to 12 million people. Population density is high here; you can't expect much privacy or solitude (these are not the same things). With so many people, statistically speaking, the likelihood that you're going to run into some colorful personalities is very high. But these past nine or so days have been a little nuttier than what I'm used to. Part of me wants to be thankful that I'm exposed to such variety, but part of me just wants to crawl into bed and block out the world with a large pillow over my head.



Thursday, February 23, 2017

the great winding-down

It's been an intense two months of mostly seven-day weeks plus long, caffeinated nights at the office. Good thing I have no wife and kids, or I'd be in trouble at home for sure. Today, I finished the final proofing of the manuscript for our 2B-level grammar-vocab textbook. The 3B-level book's PDF will be coming my way shortly, but in the meantime, I can enjoy a reprieve lasting anywhere from three to twenty-four hours, depending on when the 3B manuscript arrives—hence this blog entry.

The boss has expressed guilty feelings about my work load, but I don't blame him: the sudden change in schedule came down the pipe in early January because another manager failed to communicate promptly with our department about a sudden change in plans (sudden is a good adjective to keep close by when you work in Korea: long-range planning isn't Koreans' point fort, and Korean culture is drunkenly nonlinear). In any event, the boss has told me to take "a few" days off once I'm done with proofing 3B, which I will gladly do.

During the March-April time frame, I'll be working on only one book, which means my work load will be halved. That's good because it gives me the time I need to prep for the walk.

My boss is letting me go home early today, so I'm outta here. Gotta shop for moqueca ingredients for tomorrow's last hurrah until summer.



Wednesday, February 22, 2017

frijoles negros

The word frijol is Spanish for "bean." A frijol negro, then, is a black bean, and the plural form of that expression is frijoles negros. The Portuguese equivalents are feijão (bean), feijão preto (black bean), and feijões pretos (black beans).

In my feijoada, I used two cans' worth of very soft black beans that I purchased from High Street Market. Your typical feijoada recipe, from what I've read thus far, calls for dried, rock-hard beans to be soaked overnight, which allows them to soften to something that's more chewable but still fibrous. You then drain the pitch-black water and rinse the beans before using them in your recipe. While I'm loving the results of my own feijoada, I think the stew is a bit meat-heavy,* and even though it approximates the color of other feijoadas I've seen online, it's not nearly dark enough: most feijoadas are very dark brown, indeed.

So I thought about buying more frijoles to add to my stew, but because I didn't want to head all the way out to High Street again, I followed my instincts and checked to see whether the local grocery had any frijoles of its own. Korean groceries normally have a gigantic grains-and-beans section; for such a skinny demographic, Koreans love their carbs. Sure enough, the grocery in the building where I work had bags and bags of what appeared to be black beans. I had to be careful because I had seen what looked like black beans in another part of the building, but those turned out to be charred or toasted soybeans—not what I was looking for. In the grocery, the beans looked promising, but they were labeled differently despite looking exactly the same. Two types of black beans caught my eye: one called seoritae (서리태), and another called heuktae (흑태).


To my untrained eye, these beans looked identical, but the heuktae was significantly cheaper. I decided to buy both, and I asked the cashier about the difference between them. I didn't fully understand her answer, but for her, it came down to which beans get used in which food. A bit of online research showed that seoritae were supposed to have some sort of greenish or bluish interior, while the heuktae's interior was supposed to be yellowish. Looking up "서리태 흑태 차이" ("difference between seoritae and heuktae") on Google brought some some interesting results, including this site, which seems to say that seoritae has the stronger taste and is used in "bean curd, soybean cake, and rice" (via Google Translate). Heuktae, meanwhile, has a weaker taste and is used in boiled rice (texture accent) and soy sauce (neutral palette to absorb the sauce's flavor). I guess this explains why it's the cheaper bean.

Either way, whether I'm using seoritae or heuktae, I think I've found a decent substitute for the frijol negro. I have 500 grams of heuktae soaking right now, and as of this morning, it's blackening the water just like the Latin bean would. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck... Tonight, I'll be simmering it separately, then bashing the hell out of half of it, then adding the whole thing to my feijoada a little at a time, checking taste the whole way. Tomorrow night, I'll be simmering the completed feijoada all night long in my crock pot. Am expecting miraculous results come Friday morning.

Meanwhile, I have to shop for ingredients for moqueca, that Brazilian seafood stew.



*Carnivores (and Happy Carnaval!) will rightly roar that there's absolutely nothing wrong with meat-heavy anything. Hard to disagree.



Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Charlie Martin on the "Trump Trance," Styx on the presser

Scott Adams isn't the only one to talk and write in terms of cognition, perception, and persuasion. Charlie Martin, one of the few right-leaning Zennies I know of (and whom I cited earlier), has written an article on Trump's awkward press conference titled "'Trump Trance'? Media Sure It 'Heard' Sweden Comment Trump Never Said." If I recall correctly, Martin isn't a fan of Trump, so this shouldn't be read as an impassioned defense of the president. It's more a commentary on the state of derangement of the mainstream media.

Over at his corner of YouTube, Styxhexenhammer666 concedes that Trump spoke very poorly, but that el presidente has his heart and priorities in the right place. As I learned last year, the media really are wearing a massive reality-distortion filter that reliably warps all sense data coming their way, and this warping flows into a feedback loop that intensifies the media's collective psychosis, seemingly leading to self-destruction. The problem is that, viewed as an institution, the media are huge and entrenched. Watching them die will be a lot like watching North Korea die: it'll happen slowly, and there's a chance it may not happen at all—not as long as deep pockets with sinister agendas keep funding the beast.



feijoada!

Here's the feijoada, cooking away. It smells and tastes like nothing I've had before, but its European roots show through quite clearly. Feijoada is basically a beef-and-bean stew that faintly reminds me of the meat combination found in choucroute alsacienne. Apparently, you're supposed to serve this with a toasted-flour sprinkle and orange wedges on top. My brother David tells me that, the longer you boil the stew, the better it gets. At the same time, David warned that, when feijoada rots, it rots big-time.

What you see in the pic below looks more or less like what I saw in the various feijoada videos on YouTube. A preliminary sampling tastes quite good. I expect this to age into awesomeness by Friday, and will probably use my slow-cooker on Thursday to help it along.

Monday, February 20, 2017

this coming Friday: feijoada and moqueca

My final office cooking project, before I buckle down and get serious about the walk, will take place this coming Friday, when I plan on bringing in two Brazilian specialties: feijoada and moqueca. The former is a meat-and-bean stew that is hailed as Brazil's national dish, but which can be made in different ways, with different ingredients (see here and here for an idea of how ingredients and methods can vary); the latter is a seafood stew about which I've heard many, many good things. I plan to serve both of these lovely dishes atop rice and/or with some sort of lovely bread on Friday. This ought to be amazing.

I am, in fact, impatient to make the feijoada tonight, as I have all the ingredients. The moqueca (see a recipe here) will wait until Thursday night because it makes little sense to craft a seafood stew and then wait several days to serve it: seafood, especially shellfish, doesn't tolerate reheating very well, and flavor-marriage is less of an issue with seafood stews than it is with stews made with terrestrial meat.

So expect some interesting photos this coming Friday or Saturday. It'll be sad to stop cooking for my boss and coworker, but the special meals will continue once I'm done with the walk.

Pronunciation:

feijoada = "fey-ZHWAH-dah"
moqueca = "moh-KECK-ah" (or "moh-KEH-kah," if you please)



"Hell or High Water": review

"Hell or High Water" is a 2016 film directed by David Mackenzie and starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, and Jeff Bridges. The story revolves around two brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Pine and Foster, respectively), both down on their luck and trying to save their farm. Tanner, the bad boy, has been only a year out of jail while dutiful Toby has taken care of his dying mother and tried to manage a living despite being swamped with all manner of bills, including child-support payments owed to his ex-wife and two sons. Despite Tanner being the troublemaker, it's Toby who comes up with the idea of robbing various branches of the Texas Midlands Bank, the bank whose reverse-mortgage loan structure has left Toby's family in constant debt. The plan Toby comes up with is effectively a money-laundering racket: rob only the cash from the Midlands branches' front drawers (no traceable ink-spray that way), take the money to casinos, convert it all to chips, then reconvert the chips to cash plus a check...made out to Midlands Bank. In effect, Toby aims to pay off his various debts to the bank that ruined his family's life by using the bank's own money—a sort of poetic justice. Meanwhile, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) begin tracking the robbers down. Hamilton, crusty, irascible, and on the verge of retirement, verbally spars with the multiethnic Parker while profiling the bank-robbery suspects. Much of this verbal sparring consists of politically incorrect ethnic jabs that will remind some viewers of Clint Eastwood's Walt Kowalski.

The plot of "Hell or High Water" is relatively simple; it has the slow, drawly, Texan feel of "No Country for Old Men," with Jeff Bridges in the Tommy Lee Jones role while simultaneously channeling Rooster Cogburn. The movie is also surprisingly funny for a crime thriller: Bridges's jokes are well written, and Ben Foster's precise comic delivery gives him some choice moments as well. Gil Birmingham, as Ranger Hamilton's partner, does excellent work as the comic foil for Bridges; the same goes for Chris Pine, whose Toby largely plays the straight man opposite Ben Foster's Tanner.

All in all, this is a well-made film. It contains no real shocks or surprises, but it moseys along and gets where it needs to get in the end. The one major question I was left with was how Toby arranged to have so many different cars available to him. True, at one point, we see Toby and Teller negotiating in a rather spur-of-the-moment way for a pickup truck (which will prove crucial to the plot later), but we're left to imagine that most of the cars that the boys use have been strategically placed. So how did Toby wrangle so many cars? The film leaves us with the thought that Toby was the smarter brother, so he had the brains to figure this out along with formulating the rest of his multi-branch robbery plan.

"Hell or High Water" is also very much a social-commentary movie. Texas Midlands Bank (which I assume is fictional) is portrayed as a clear villain unworthy of the audience's sympathy, and the movie spends a lot of time showing us the depressed conditions to be found out in west Texas. "Are you in debt?" billboards litter the dusty landscape—a message about poverty and predatory financial agencies that the movie drives home with all the subtlety of the earth mover that Toby uses to bury cars after each robbery. This makes Toby and Teller something like Robin Hood, although Teller is too violence-prone to be robbing banks out of a sense of justice: as Hamilton notes while profiling the Howard boys, Teller robs banks for the fun of it. Meanwhile, even Hamilton's partner, Alberto Parker, voices his disgust at Midlands for ruining the lives of Texan citizens.

As I noted above, the movie plods along at a calm, stately pace, and there are no shocks or surprises. That said, the screenwriting is smart enough that it'll be hard to guess the ending until you're at least three-quarters of the way through the film. "Hell or High Water" can proudly take its place in the pantheon of slow-burn thrillers, and the movie's ending is smart enough to let you, the viewer, decide whether justice has been done.



Sunday, February 19, 2017

when marketing strikes

I guess the designers of this graphic had never heard the old riddle about blondes:

Q: How do you kill a blonde?

A: Put spikes on her shoulder pads.

This heroine's days are numbered.

raves for "Logan"

The collective orgasm has begun: initial reviews for "Logan" are generally wildly positive, although there have been some complaints that the "main" villain, played by Richard E. Grant, is sadly underused. This deluge of good news for the movie makes me both happy and sad: like everyone else in the known universe, I like Hugh Jackman and think he basically carried the X-Men franchise on his well-developed shoulders. Wolverine deserves a good send-off, and almost everyone is saying that that's what "Logan" is: a great send-off for a beloved character. At the same time, I'm sad because I feel this is the sort of farewell that Batman deserved but never got. The DC folks—including Christopher Nolan—borrowed many tropes and moments from Frank Miller's signature work, 1986's The Dark Knight Returns, but in their movies, they failed to recapitulate Frank Miller's hard-hitting-yet-poignant 1980s storyline, which followed Batman to the conclusion of his career as the Dark Knight. Instead DC has seemed, over the years, more interested in portraying Batman near the end of his prime, working backward from the finale that Nolan had tried to give audiences. The result is a confusing mess, in my opinion, but perhaps one day Batman will finally have his "Logan" moment.

I subscribe to Charlie's YouTube channel, Emergency Awesome, and Charlie has a rave review of "Logan" up now; you can watch it here. (No spoilers.)

A UK publication called Metro has its own rave review here. (No spoilers.)

Enjoy! "Logan" is in general release in the States on March 3. Supposedly, it's coming out on March 1 in Korea, but I no longer trust IMDb to get Korean release dates right.



Saturday, February 18, 2017

you guys seeing this ad in the States?

Heh.

winding down

The two-month book-making marathon is almost over, and I'm almost over, too. With the exception of one weekend, it's been nothing but seven-day weeks for this hunk of blubber since the year began. I managed to get a week ahead of my initially plotted-out schedule, which gives the boss some breathing room when it comes to proofing the manuscripts, so this intense period is going to end with more of a whimper (or more like a sigh of relief) than an out-and-out bang. I'll finally be able to concentrate on my own life—such as it is—which will mean doing some crucial shopping, writing Walk Thoughts, training and dieting, etc.

The boss has told me not to come in tomorrow (Sunday). I'm not going to know what to do with myself and all that free time, but I'm sure I'll think of something. Leave me alone in a room long enough, and to-do lists will start sprouting, as they're already sprouting on Google Docs: I have a whole folder devoted to personal projects for 2017. I'm determined to make this a better year than last year; here's hoping my aspirations don't get cornholed by the sudden appearance of leprosy or something.

Whoa... I might even watch "Hell or High Water" tomorrow, then write a review of it. Wouldn't that be something? (By the way, thank you all for your many comments on my "Arrival" review, which took me three days to write. It's always gratifying when a writer knows he's actually communicating with people.)



Ave, Charles!

1. My buddy Charles writes a thoughtful review of "Hidden Figures."

2. One of the few right-leaning Zen Buddhists I know of writes an article (forgive the typos) that confirms something Charles wrote to me privately regarding what treason technically means according to the US Constitution. The article, by its very existence, also highlights the rhetorical and ideological contrast between Instapundit (i.e., the group blog) and Instapundit's fractious commentariat. Dipping into the comment-thread demimonde is not at all the same experience as just reading the blog posts.



Friday, February 17, 2017

wrong answer

Click to...enlarge.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

the Dalai Lama and "too many Muslims"

The headline at right-leaning Breitbart reads: "Dalai Lama Warns Against Taking Too Many Migrants, Arab Domination: ‘Migrants Should Return’"

The article says in part:

SUBHEAD: The Dalai Lama has said there are too many migrants pouring into Europe, warning against the continent becoming Arabised, and claiming the solution is the eventual repatriation of migrants.

MAIN TEXT: Agence France-Presse has reported that the leader of Tibetan Buddhism said: “When we look at the face of each refugee, but especially those of the children and women, we feel their suffering, and a human being who has a better situation in life has the responsibility to help them.

“But on the other hand, there are too many at the moment… Europe, Germany in particular, cannot become an Arab country, Germany is Germany”.

“There are so many that in practice it becomes difficult.”

The Dalai Lama added that “from a moral point of view too, I think that the refugees should only be admitted temporarily”.

“The goal should be that they return and help rebuild their countries.”

His comments are almost the same as those made by Europe’s anti-Islamisation PEGIDA movement, and similar to comments made by groups like France’s Front National, Germany’s Alternative Fur Deutschland, and to a lesser extent, Britain’s UK Independence Party.

I'm not sure how comfortable the Dalai Lama would be to know he's being associated with Pegida, FN, AfD, and UKIP. But what he seems to be saying strikes me as more enlightened than anything that has come out of the mouth of that addled old Latin Marxist in Rome.

There's another side to this story, of course. The Huffington Post has an article titled, "Did the Dalai Lama really warn about refugees and 'Arab domination' in Europe?"

The article says in part:

The publication of an interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the German media has led to some sensational headlines derived from an interview that included questions on the refugee crisis in Europe.

These representations, focusing on the Dalai Lama apparently warning against ‘Arab domination’ and Europe taking in ‘too many’ migrants are ultimately inconsistent with the well-known and compassionate approach of the Dalai Lama, who has been a refugee himself for more than half a century, and the longer-term perspective he seeks to convey.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate the Dalai Lama has for decades advocated tolerance, inter-religious dialogue and has rejected the concept of a clash of civilizations, calling it “false and dangerous.” It is ludicrous and clearly out of context to assert that the Dalai Lama would seriously state that Germany is at risk of becoming ‘Arab’ as a result of the refugee crisis.

What's interesting to note is that the HuffPo article doesn't quote from the actual interview, and it doesn't directly rebut the rightie spin on the matter. I read the HuffPo article all the way through, looking for a direct refutation, but the part I quoted above is as good as it gets: "These representations...are ultimately inconsistent with the well-known and compassionate approach of the Dalai Lama..." In other words, this is little more than assertion and speculation, not an attempt to do actual journalism with actual quotes.

So I went to some European sources. Interestingly, when I started typing "dalai lama trop de" in Google, the auto-complete immediately came back with "dalai lama trop de réfugiés en europe" (Dalai Lama too many refugees in Europe). Of the top nine French-language search results for French news, at least eight say something like "The Dalai Lama judges that there are too many refugees in Europe."

I'm writing about this turn of events now because it suddenly became an issue on Gab AI, my new social-media roost. In fact, it's old news that somehow passed most of us by. The original German interview happened in May of 2016; the above-linked HuffPo article dates to June 2016, and the Breitbart article comes from the very end of last May.

The Dalai Lama, being a realist and a pragmatist (as Buddhists are supposed to be, even if not all of them are), is only stating the obvious. Were he to grow some balls and go further, he'd point the finger at Angela Merkel and note the insanity of opening the floodgates—as a matter of governmental policy—to cultures that refuse to assimilate—a problem visible in France, where even third-generation Muslims prefer to remain in their banlieues, learning French but not becoming French. (And speaking of banlieues, you may have heard or seen the recent news about the Korean tourists who were assaulted and robbed while sightseeing in Paris. I'm not sure whether this is true, but it seems their hotel was in or near one of those banlieues, which strikes me as insane. The linked article says this: "An official at the embassy urged caution in the suburbs north of Paris where the [assaulted tourists'] hotel is located, citing safety concerns."—emphasis added)

Anyway, I'm sure you'd like a link to a translation of the actual interview with the Dalai Lama, but I'm having trouble finding that link. For the moment, and if you read French, let me distract you with this link to a French Slate article that quotes a good bit of what the Dalai Lama said. (Upon rereading it, though, I don't think it adds anything to what you can gather from English-language sources.)

If I find a link to a decent English translation of the Dalai Lama's interview, I'll add it in a postscript. If you find the link before I do, please place it in the comments, and I'll add the link in a postscript, along with due credit to you.

ADDENDUM: a Google-translated quote from the Dalai Lama found here:

"We know that many immigrants are fleeing from difficult situations at home, but a good heart alone is not enough to keep them all, so you have to muster the courage to say that there are now too many. Rather, [people] should intervene in the countries of origin in order to build up better corporate structures there. Simply welcoming the people here is not enough to solve this problem. We need to think in the long term to achieve a truly effective solution."

If you have a better translation of the original text, feel free to supply it in the comments. Here's the German original:

Wir wissen, dass viele Immigranten vor schwierigen Situationen daheim flüchten, aber ein gutes Herz allein reicht eben nicht aus, um sie alle unterzubringen, und man muss daher den Mut aufbringen zu sagen, dass es mittlerweile zu viele geworden sind. Man sollte vielmehr in den Herkunftsländern intervenieren, um dort bessere Gesellschaftsstrukturen aufzubauen. Einfach die Leute hier willkommen zu heißen reicht nicht aus, um dieses Problem zu lösen. Wir müssen langfristig denken, um eine wirklich effektive Lösung erzielen zu können.



"Shit or get off the pot."

The injunction Shit or get off the pot is a way of saying, "Don't be indecisive."* In life, you never expect to be faced with a literal shit-or-get-off-the-pot situation, but that's exactly what happened to me this afternoon.

I went into the restroom down the hall from where I work, locked myself in la cabine, and began to take a lusty shit. As is normal for me, the shit didn't come out all at once: for whatever reason, my ass is into dramatic pauses, so there was a lull. I filled the pot partway with my radioactive gunk, and during the pause, I hit the flush lever.

Within seconds, I knew something was wrong, and I cursed myself for not following SOP and flushing before even sitting down. (This building's toilets have a nasty habit of being perpetually clogged, but which toilet is clogged seems to alternate from day to day, suggesting that the toilets share some unspoken agreement as to whose turn it is to piss people off.) I could hear the water rising far higher than it should, and a moment after that, I felt the cold, undead caress of the shit-tainted toilet water on my ass and balls. Not even bothering to wipe, I immediately stood up and stared into the bowl to do a quick damage assessment: I knew I wouldn't be able to act until I had a read on the situation.

So here's what happened: the evil water rose almost to the bowl's rim, then everything sank down, draining completely in a slow, gentle flush. I could only guess that this was a partial blockage, and that the weight of the water in the bowl had been enough to push the blockage out of the way, thus facilitating drainage.

I cautiously sat back down. As I said before, this was the "dramatic pause" phase of my shit, so I still had more shit ready to launch. This, then, was my very own Shit or get off the pot moment: should I wipe and escape the cubicle, heading for another one to finish my shit? Should I tough it out in the hopes that my assumption about the un-blockage was correct? If I were wrong, the price would be horrific: the re-beshitted water would likely rise again, overflowing this time, releasing splattery chunks of my ass-children onto the restroom tile. And if Murphy's Law were in operation (when is it not?), the water level would remain there, creating a tableau that mocked my distress and exposed my leavings for all to see.

What to do? Shit or get off the pot?

I suspect that one of my ancestors was the Korean equivalent of a jusqu'au bout kamikaze pilot because, in the end, I chose to shit. Like a battleship commander, I fired two or three more salvos into the toilet, wiped myself, stood, examined the toilet tank's interior to see how much water was in there, then paused before enacting that fateful flush.

The toilet tank was full, as it turned out; it had refilled absolutely silently. The toilet bowl, on the other hand, had almost no water in it. Fist-sized midnight lumps of my foulness sat hunched at the bottom of the bowl like demonic toads, staring beadily up at me and croak-chorusing, "Hey. What's up?" while grinning malefic obsidian grins. I re-covered the tank and, whispering a prayer to the gods, I flushed, hoping to end this Stephen King nightmare.

And there were no problems at all. The water whooshed from the tank to the bowl. My shit and toilet paper were swept away, and all was right with the world. I had gambled and won. Before I left the stall, of course, I made sure to give my ass and balls a thorough wipe-down so as not to taint my clothing, but I knew I'd need to wash thoroughly once I got home.

And that's how I handled a moral dilemma. How has your day been?



*Wikipedia suggests an alternative meaning: "... a person should follow up their stated intentions with action." This is a close cousin to the decisiveness issue, I think, but the meaning is rather different. To me, the saying is akin to Yoda's, "Try not: do, or do not. There is no try." You either do it or you don't. When you shit, there's no half-assing. Wikipedia's interpretation seems to be saying "Words are not enough: you must act." Catholic thinker Bernard Lonergan stated that the four phases of cognition are experience, understand, judge, decide. According to this paradigm, decision is the cognitive phase that moves one from mere thought to concrete action, which is why I see Wikipedia's interpretation as a close cousin of my own.

Later on in the above-linked Wikipedia entry, we read: "The expression, in this way, is essentially instruction for someone to stop being indecisive or procrastinating, and act." See? Wikipedia and I aren't so far apart.



the headline says it all

AFTER LIKENING TRUMP TO HITLER, JOURNALISTS UPSET THEY'RE NOT GETTING CALLED ON FOR QUESTIONS

Hilariously, the article quotes one disgruntled journalist as saying, "The fix is in."

Oblivious to irony, that one, even after eight years of media cock-sucking.



Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Kim Jeong-eun's eldest brother assassinated by poison needle

"Arrival": review

[WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS. I can't address the movie's deeper issues without also revealing major plot elements, so if you don't want the plot revealed to you, you'd do well to stay away from this review until you've seen the movie.]

"Arrival" is a 2016 science-fiction film directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve (who also directed "Sicario"). It stars Amy Adams as Dr. Louise Banks, a linguistics expert; Jeremy Renner as Dr. Ian Donnelly, a physicist; and Forest Whitaker as Colonel GT Weber, the military liaison who initially contacts Louise about the aliens and ropes her into a global project. A one-sentence summary of the film might go something like this: a brace of alien ships carrying beings called heptapods suddenly appears; the aliens are interested in communicating with humans, but the structure of their language reveals that the aliens' perception of basic things like time, cause, and effect is radically different from our own—a fact that causes our linguist protagonist to begin to perceive reality the way the aliens do, and to accept her future, no matter what pain it brings.

That summary leaves a lot out, but it'll do for the moment. More concretely: twelve alien ships suddenly appear around the planet, always materializing somewhere more or less temperate, disdaining the earth's climatic extremes. We Earthlings are unable to determine what material the aliens' ships are made of; we're equally unable to establish whether and how the twelve vessels might be communicating with each other. Teams all over the world—generally, a combination of scientists and the military—begin working furiously to answer basic questions about the alien ships and about the aliens themselves.

When we first meet Louise Banks, she seems to be remembering her daughter—how she was as a newborn, then as a little girl, then as a teenager with an unnamed terminal illness. These remembrances are accompanied by a voiceover narration. We learn that everything changed for Louise the day "they arrived," and the movie's focus shifts to Louise's job as a professor of linguistics at some university. The arrival of the aliens has caused most of Louise's students to abandon class; via the news, Louise learns that the aliens all arrived simultaneously, their twelve ships dotting the globe. The ships, which are as tall and wide as skyscrapers, simply float inert above the ground, not doing much of anything, while human beings set up camps and perimeters, beginning the work of examination and, if possible, communication.

Louise, while in her office, meets Colonel Weber; the meeting is tense, but Weber plays a recording of alien "speech" for Louise in the hopes that she can begin to decode the language. Louise says she needs to be on site to speak with the aliens directly, and while Weber is initially hesitant to allow a civilian too close to the Montana site (one vessel, having chosen the US mainland, sits in a fairly empty area in Montana), he eventually relents. Louise goes to the military encampment and, along the way, meets Ian Donnelly, the theoretical physicist who thinks science, not language, is the cornerstone of civilization. (There are several subtle and unsubtle nods, throughout the movie, to Carl Sagan's novel Contact, which was predicated on the idea that we'd most likely be using math to initiate communication with an intelligent alien species. "Arrival" acknowledges the significance of math, but its focus is primarily on language and cognition.) Soon enough, Louise and Ian join Weber and a team of soldiers to take a foray inside the alien vessel. This is obviously something the military guys have done more than once before Louise ever arrived on scene.

The trip into the alien ship is a bit surreal: gravity flips ninety degrees just inside the vessel, such that the humans must jump up to reach the new gravity zone, then quickly reorient themselves if they want to land on their feet and not fall on their faces (as Ian does). The humans then walk along a dark, rectangular tunnel until they reach an immense, transparent wall, beyond which is nothing but a spooky mist. The humans set up their equipment, then wait for the aliens to appear. When they do, we're treated to the sight of immense, squid-like creatures whose thick tentacles appear to be jointed. Six of the tentacles are oriented slightly forward, with one tentacle in the rear. (Imagine using your hand to mime a spider crawling across a table: four of your fingers are forward, and your thumb, very un-spider-like, is bringing up the rear. Now imagine the same spider-mime, but you have seven fingers—six forward fingers plus one rearward thumb.) These are the heptapods, as the English-speaking humans eventually name them; when Louise and Ian begin tentatively to communicate with the aliens, Ian suggests calling the two constantly reappearing aliens Abbott and Costello.

Much of the rest of the movie is devoted to two major stories: the "A" story is an exploration of the heptapods' written language, which apparently has no correspondence with the aliens' spoken language; the "B" story is a depiction of various human reactions, both worldwide and within the Montana military encampment, to the presence of the aliens. Many of these reactions are fearful, and a rogue group of soldiers in the Montana camp decides to take matters into its own hands and blow up the Montana vessel. The "A" and "B" stories are also presenting us with two very different worldviews, and the way this has been done is inevitably political: one worldview is that of openness and intercommunication motivated by a desire for understanding; the other worldview is rooted in xenophobia and militarism—the belligerent desire for self-defense that springs from primal (and willful) ignorance. If you're hearing "Let the immigrants in!" versus "Build a wall!", you aren't far wrong.

The question—meant for the aliens—that drives the Montana encampment is, "What is your purpose on Earth?" We ultimately learn that the aliens are offering a gift: their language, which Louise is beginning to understand at a more-than-superficial level. The aliens' "written" language has been described, by different reviewers, as looking like circular coffee stains, or like constantly moving ink blots composed of clouds and tendrils. Both the movie and the short story on which it's based, Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life," describe the aliens' language as semasiographic, i.e., a non-phonetic writing system whose elements are signs, not letters or characters that might have a corresponding phonetic value. (Think of a heart drawn on a whiteboard and symbolizing "love." You can express the concept of love by writing "L-O-V-E," or you can draw a heart. The latter is semasiographic communication.) Louise begins to realize that, for the aliens to write their "sentences"—whose syntactic elements are so utterly interwoven as to represent a simultaneous explosion of meaning that must be taken in all at once—they have to know how the sentence ends the moment they begin writing. This leads to the further realization that the aliens must in some sense know the future, and that their writing system is merely a realization, an articulation, of everything-at-once. The aliens, Louise guesses, see time and all phenomena nonlinearly: in a sense, the heptapods see the universe's unfolding not as an unfolding, but as a great now.

So here are the movie's two major revelations: first, the aliens' gift of their language is precisely to help humanity experience time in an utterly different way so that humanity, three thousand years hence, can help the heptapods with a future crisis. And second: Louise, among the first to truly understand and appreciate this gift, realizes that her remembrances of the daughter who dies as a teenager aren't actual remembrances: they are flash-forwards of a daughter who, from Louise's time-bound perspective, hasn't even been born yet. Louise's seeming reminiscences from the beginning of the movie were, all this time, glimpses of the future, which became accessible to her when she began to learn how to communicate with the heptapods. The emotional crescendo happens when Louise, now aware of her future, realizes she will fall in love with Ian Donnelly, have her daughter, lose Ian through divorce, and then lose her daughter.

The film ends with Louise and Ian embracing after the heptapods have departed, and when Ian asks in a whisper whether Louise wants to make a baby, she whispers back, "Yes"—accepting her destiny, and fully understanding that time runs neither backward nor forward, but is instead something omni-actualized and self-complete. This brings us back to Louise's voiceover meditation at the beginning of the movie: "But now I'm not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings." The movie is itself a loop; Louise's narration comes from a point that is, strangely, outside of time. The Louise who is speaking isn't necessarily the Louise from before her daughter's birth, nor is she necessarily the Louise from after her daughter's death; this is a Louise who is no longer moored to time's seeming linearity.

"Arrival" is both amazingly good and frustratingly bad. Denis Villeneuve proved himself to be a talented, thoughtful director when he made "Sicario," which I watched recently. I have no complaints about his pacing, his cinematography, or the way he pushes his actors to play their roles. Everyone performs admirably, and Amy Adams deserves whatever official kudos might be coming her way this awards season. But let's talk about the good first and the bad last.

"Arrival": what works

The very title, "Arrival," has several levels or layers of meaning. On the surface, it refers to the arrival of the alien spaceships, but more deeply, it refers to the arrival of Louise's daughter, and perhaps even more deeply, it refers to the arrival of a radically new way to picture the cosmos—a new way brought along by the aliens as a gift for humanity in return for future help (the aliens are optimistic to think humanity will still be around in 3,000 years!).

"Arrival" is an ideas movie; it wants us to think about the nature of time, cause, effect, life, and the universe at large. It wants to deal creatively with the issue of how two utterly different types of consciousness can communicate with each other. It wants us to ponder the question of fate and human freedom from an oblique angle—a perspective we're not used to inhabiting. I appreciate the movie's ambitious nature, and I think it largely succeeded in, at the very least, putting those questions on the table for thoughtful people to ponder.

"Arrival" is also a gentle movie, gently presented. It has a clever narrative structure worthy of Christopher Nolan's "Memento," but unlike "Memento," "Arrival" doesn't move in parallel time-forward and time-backward tracks: the story is more like an ouroboros, the cosmic snake that eats its own tail and forms an immense circle thereby. The movie's ending shows some of the same scenes we see at the movie's beginning, and while it's possible to piece together the movie's chronology by following the dialogue and visuals closely, the movie's obvious intent is to jolt us into thinking about the story the way the heptapods themselves think about space, time, and reality.

The movie is a somewhat sexed-up version of Ted Chiang's short story, "Story of Your Life." In Chiang's narrative, we never learn the name of Louise's daughter, but in the movie, the girl is given the name Hannah, a palindrome: the name is the same whether you run it forwards or backwards, with the implication that, for the heptapods, time, cause, and effect are just as palindromic (a fact pointed out by the physicist—named Gary Donnelly, not Ian Donnelly, in the short story: the mathematics of human physics can also be run backwards and forwards). Chiang's story, which I read a couple days ago, also never reveals the purpose of the heptapods' visit to our world; the movie provides a purpose, perhaps to create dramatic tension. The movie's one lone explosion—caused by a group of rogue soldiers who think the heptapods mean us ill—was also concocted for the movie purely to raise the tension level. In the short story, the heptapods engage in a brief-but-fascinating dialogue, give us many clues about their language, then leave. In fact, that's another movie/story difference: in the short story, the heptapods never actually see us humans face-to-face: their ships remain in orbit, but they use large, semicircular screens to interact with us on the planet's surface; in the film, by contrast, the humans enter the spaceships and interact face-to-face with the heptapods, with only a pane of glass(?) between the two species, probably because of differing breathing requirements. The heptapod language is also intriguingly sexed up for the movie, in which inky, living, squirming smoke rings are squirted out of the heptapods' tentacles. The short story is strangely coy in describing the heptapods' written language, but it does seem to be gracefully circle-shaped, with plenty of divergent curlicues along the circumference.

On a practical level, I needn't have worried about whether the movie would give short shrift to other countries' efforts to understand the aliens. "Arrival" actually does a much better job than its source material of showing how the American team operates in tandem with—and sometimes in conflict with—other teams across the world. The Yanks aren't always the first to make certain big discoveries, either: the Aussie team learns something about gravitational manipulation; the Chinese apply a dangerous game-theory approach to learning how to communicate with the heptapods; the Pakistanis make breakthroughs in decoding heptapod logograms, which are "free of time."

Continuing in a practical/technical vein, I enjoyed the movie's soundtrack, composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, who also worked on "Sicario" with director Villeneuve. Part whale song, part chattering/chanting, part weeping cellos, plus a little of everything else, Jóhannsson's soundtrack manages to evoke a certain creepy otherness that seems atmospherically apropos for the goings-on. Jóhannsson is a good match for Villeneuve's meditative visual style; I suspect they will be collaborating on many future films.

As a student of religious studies, I've long contended that science-fiction films are often covers for smuggling in religious ideas, and while "Arrival" might want to bill itself as non-religious "hard" sci-fi, I'm pretty sure that I see some religious tropes floating around. In terms of Judaeo-Christian numerology, for example, there's the number twelve (twelve alien vessels) and the number seven (hepta = "seven" in Greek). The aliens provide humanity with an arguably deeper way of perceiving reality, which takes us slightly into Buddhist territory. Classical theism gets a shout-out, too, in the sense that the aliens' perception of reality as a singular now, in which time is not so much sequential as simultaneous, is reminiscent of the classical-theist notion of God as existing somehow "beyond space" and "outside of time." Imagine the history of the universe as a reel of film, in which every cosmic moment is represented as a single frame. Watching the film's action unfold, as we would in a cinema, is akin to how humans actually experience life and reality, but God, or a godlike being, can unspool the film and behold every frame at the same time because every frame is already there to behold. (Dr. Vallicella only just wrote a meditation on the B-theory of time, which delves into this idea.) The themes of fate and free will are, of course, the stock in trade for Western religions. The film doesn't shrink from these heady concepts.

"Arrival" is a heartfelt story that makes no bones about wanting to be an ideas movie, and it covers many notions that I myself have either studied or been intrigued by, among them the question of fate versus human freedom: if the future is already in some sense actualized, as it would seem to be from the heptapods' godlike perspective, then what are we doing other than playing out those sequential states of affairs, utterly unable to insert human freedom into the equation? That said, the movie is far from perfect, and it falls flat in certain areas where better screenwriting might have been able to rescue it.

"Arrival": what doesn't work

The picture we're given of the heptapods' written language (in the short story, the spoken language is referred to as "Heptapod A," while the written language is "Heptapod B") is deeply fascinating, but as well-done as it is, it does seem to be ensnared in a logical contradiction: the movie is at pains to insist that heptapod writing is completely nonlinear, but get this: the heptapods blow out smoke ring after smoke ring, a sequential phenomenon that is a clear indication of linearity. To get around this, the writers should have added some lines about how the sum total of heptapod utterances itself constitutes a gigantic meta-circle: all those smoke rings are to be taken as a single, complex utterance. The movie doesn't think this far, though, so we're left with the logical contradiction inherent in a faulty narrative.

Another problem is that neither the movie nor the short story really manages to untangle the paradoxes inherent in trying to marry freedom to foreknowledge. In a nutshell: if you foreknow some event, then that event must happen, or you didn't truly foreknow it. It's therefore impossible to foreknow that a person will choose a certain path: foreknowing means the person must go on that path, and choice is merely an illusion. Freedom and foreknowledge therefore exclude each other. The short story dodges this issue by saying, essentially, that the heptapods' knowledge of the future, because it comes from seeing everything as simultaneously actualized, isn't a species of foreknowledge, per se, so it's not paradoxical to believe human freedom exists even from the heptapod frame of reference. This fails to address the question of how human freedom is even possible if all moments are "written," so to speak. Saying "there's no such thing as sequential moments" merely kicks the existential can down the road; it doesn't resolve the issue in any satisfactory way.

The movie briefly mentions something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which, explained simply, means that language determines your perception of reality and how you think. While there's evidence to support a charitable interpretation of this theory (see more here; it has strong and weak forms, apparently), I don't think it's taken all that seriously, these days, by people inside and outside the linguistics community. It's surprising that the movie would mention the hypothesis at all, given its shaky status among academics, and given that it's not mentioned at all in Chiang's short story.* Personally, I don't completely dismiss the hypothesis, but I do think it's more accurate to say that language, phenomenology (i.e., experience), cognition, and objective reality form a sort of feedback loop: reality, in its brute suchness, inevitably influences how we think and talk about it, but it's also true that how we talk and think about reality determines, to a significant extent, what aspects of reality we're able to perceive. As the Tao Te Ching says: "The five colors blind the eye; the five tones deafen the ear," i.e., once we parse reality in our minds, creating borders, it becomes hard to perceive the "platypus"—the transgressive, elusive phenomenon that straddles our mental categories. I don't think, however, that the movie believably shows that it's possible to begin seeing the future—the equivalent of acquiring a magical power—just by learning a new language, however alien that language might be.

The above are all more-or-less philosophical critiques, but I have another complaint—namely, with the movie's simplistic and painfully preachy politics. Like so many science-fiction movies before it, especially ones involving benevolent, godlike aliens, "Arrival" paints conservatives (the ones with the guns and the bunker mentality—you know them by sight in films like these) as bellicose idiots who understand only war and violence, and who have absolutely no sense of wonder or fascination when confronted with the numinous. We've seen this caricature before: in "E.T.," with the gun-toting government stooges; in "The Abyss," with Michael Biehn's crazy Navy SEAL and his last-resort nuclear warhead; in "Contact," with the conservative religious nut (played by the dentally gifted Jake Busey) who blows up the first attempt at building the wormhole device. Conservatives are the butt of every noble-alien sci-fi movie, and "Arrival" shows that it hasn't learned any lessons from the past in its portrayal of those who are circumspect about alien contact. This is a shame, especially given how mature and sophisticated the movie is in other respects. This is also the aspect of the movie that I absolutely despised—and not because I resented the portrayal of liberals as the ones advocating outreach and understanding: all I want to see, in some future film, is an opposition that is smarter, more complex in its motivations, and more articulate—people who can also be touched by the numinous and be fascinated by the unknown. It doesn't always have to be an oversimplified conflict between the educated sophisticates and the brutish bumpkins. "Arrival" ought to be better than that.

The rapidity with which Louise seems to acquire the heptapods' writing system also strikes me as implausible, but the movie doesn't reveal how much time elapses (time is irrelevant in "Arrival," remember?), so perhaps Louise could conceivably have gained a deep-enough knowledge of the aliens' writhing, circular script to have mastered it to a modest degree.

Yet another problem with the movie is its derivative nature. I linked earlier to this "smackdown" piece that very quickly launches into a litany of influences for "Arrival," which owes a creative debt to, well, just about every alien-visitation film before it. The heptapods' need for help resembles the way future five-dimensional humans must reach back in time to past humans for help in "Interstellar" (reviewed here); the heptapods' ability to manipulate gravity also recalls that film. I mentioned "Contact" earlier; another "Contact" parallel comes in the form of Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is this film's analog to James Woods's prickly and paranoid government stooge Michael Kitz, a man prone to seeing boogeymen everywhere. The sudden appearance of multiple gigantic vessels will immediately call "Independence Day" to mind, and the aliens' apparent desire to get humanity to work together will remind some viewers of the angelic aliens in "The Abyss," who were ready to enact divine Noachide retribution on all of humanity until they witnessed the unselfish, sacrificial love of one man for his ex-wife. The way the alien ships disappear, instead of hyperspacing away like the Millennium Falcon or the Enterprise, will make some people think of the interdimensionally traveling aliens in "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," whose vessel vanishes in a titanic, valley-destroying hurricane. "Arrival," which departs from its source material in significant ways, owes a creative debt to so many movies that have gone before it, and your own inner film critic won't fail to notice this fact.

Verdict

But despite all those criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. I see that it's up for eight Oscar nominations; here's hoping it wins some. Taken on its own terms, "Arrival" is a film with a heart that will also make you think—about time, about fate and freedom, about cause and effect, about what it means to live your life despite knowing for certain that that life will be painful—that it will involve love and loss, and that such a life is still better than never having loved at all.** While far from perfect, Denis Villeneuve's quiet, pensive creation hits all the right notes and will give the viewer plenty of grist for profound reflection.



*It could be argued, though, that Chiang's story is predicated on the validity of the hypothesis.

**John McCrarey calls bullshit on the loved-and-lost concept. I would not recommend that he see "Arrival"—for that and for other reasons.



good God

Breaking news! North Korean dictator Kim Jeong-eun's older brother, Kim Jeong-nam, was assassinated on Valentine's Day.

North Korea: our very own Game of Thrones.



Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"Is Islam a Religion of Peace?"

I can think of no better expert to tackle this question than the brave, amazing person in this video—a woman who humbles me utterly.