now I am a prime number
scratching at my ass
The humor doesn't come easily anymore, though I do find occasion to smile and laugh. Today, August 31st, marks my first birthday without Mom in my life-- not even there to wish me a happy birthday in absentia from across the ocean. We've got a few more "firsts" this year to get through: my brothers have birthdays coming up (September 14 and October 15); we'll also be having our first Thanksgiving without Mom, and our first Christmas without her. Anyone who thinks bereavement's as easy as just "snapping out of it" is either emotionally retarded or has never experienced true loss. I apologize to all the bereaved people toward whom I have acted in an insensitive way.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I note with sadness that one of my favorite Buddhist writers, Robert Aitken, passed away earlier this month, on August 5. His Taking the Path of Zen, his The Mind of Clover, and his The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian (co-authored with Brother David Steindl-Rast) sit proudly on my shelves. One or two more books of his sit on my 17-page-long Amazon.com wish list.
Another of my mentors-from-afar, Father Raimon Panikkar, passed away only a few days ago. Panikkar, whom I've referred to in discussions of religious pluralism, was uncomfortable with the idea that reality could be squeezed into models and paradigms, preferring to see the metaphysical situation as one of fundamental incommensurability. Imagine shattering two separate panes of glass, then being commanded to gather up and assemble the shards into a single pane. Impossible, right? This was Panikkar's insight: all approaches to reality, scientific, religious, or otherwise, are shards that do not (and perhaps cannot) add up to a coherent whole. I'm best acquainted with Panikkar's The Intrareligious Dialogue, but have also read some of his Myth, Faith, and Hermeneutics. Stephen Kaplan's Different Paths, Different Summits contains many references to Panikkar's work, and Panikkar also makes an appearance in The Myth of Christian Uniqueness, a compilation of pro-pluralistic papers by various scholars.
May both of these gentle people rest in peace.
This development comes far too late to help my poor mom. But I guess that's how it always is, right? This new drug has the potential to halt the progress of an as-yet-untold number of diseases.
The biotech company Alnylam announced in June that its drug ALN-VSP cut off blood flow to 62 percent of liver-cancer tumors in those 19 patients, by triggering a rarely used defense mechanism in the body to silence cancerous genes. Whereas conventional drugs stop disease-causing proteins, ALN-VSP uses RNA interference (RNAi) therapy to stop cells from making proteins in the first place, a tactic that could work for just about any disease. “Imagine that your kitchen floods,” says biochemist and Alnylam CEO John Maraganore. “Today’s medicines mop it up. RNAi technology turns off the faucet.”
Here’s another analogy: If DNA is the blueprint for proteins, RNA is the contractor. It makes single-stranded copies of DNA’s genes, called mRNA, which tell the cell to produce proteins. In 1998, scientists identified RNAi, a mechanism that primitive organisms use to detect and destroy virus’s double-stranded RNA and any viral mRNA. Mammals’ immune systems made RNAi’s antiviral function irrelevant (although all vertebrates, including humans, still use RNAi to regulate mRNA activity), but researchers found that introducing small segments of double-stranded RNA to cells could trigger the ancient mechanism and selectively halt the production of specific proteins.
That ability makes RNAi a potential fix for many diseases, including cancer, that arise when abnormal cells produce excessive amounts of everyday proteins. In theory, manipulating RNAi to kill proteins is simple. ALN-VSP, for example, consists of synthetic double-stranded RNA designed to match tumor mRNA that codes for two proteins: VEGF, which cancers overproduce to help grow new blood vessels, and KSP, which sets off rapid cell division. The researchers send the synthetic RNA into liver cells, and the body’s RNAi system kills both the synthetic RNA and any matching tumor-grown mRNA. Knock out the mRNAs coding for those proteins—which in the liver are produced only by cancer cells—and the tumor stops growing.
Monday, August 30, 2010
Sunday, August 29, 2010
My French "parents" celebrated their 50th anniversary today. It's a shame I couldn't be with them, but such is life. They were actually married on August 2; in a recent email, Papa reminded me that I became part of his family almost 25 years ago, in 1986. I met the Ducoulombier family through the Nacel educational exchange program, and had originally been slated to stay with the Ganachaud family. As it turned out, fortune conspired against that meeting, and I was shunted to the Ducoulombiers. They turned out to be a very open and loving family, and we've been in touch ever since. Papa has four sons: François, Damien, Xavier, and Dominique. The latter two have spent a month at our house in northern Virginia; all four sons are married and have plenty of kids. I can only imagine how huge this get-together must have been. Happy 50th anniversary, Maman et Papa!
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Despite being back in America since 2008, I guess I'm not current when it comes to politics: I still have trouble believing that conservative writer and commentator Glenn Beck is truly this popular. That's just nuts. The man isn't what I'd call a paragon of classical conservative values, and he certainly doesn't have the intellectual firepower of a William F. Buckley.
Conservatives: do you really want people like Beck representing you?
"The most used phrase in my administration, if I were to be President, would be, 'What the hell you mean, we're out of missiles?'"
I just stumbled upon a funny, yet strangely sad, article about a tech-related phenomenon called "character amnesia," in which modern Chinese and Japanese folks find themselves unable to recall how to write certain Chinese characters because they've gotten so used to using mobile phones and computers, whose input methods are often letter- or syllabary-based.
Like every Chinese child, Li Hanwei spent her schooldays memorising thousands of the intricate characters that make up the Chinese writing system.
Yet aged just 21 and now a university student in Hong Kong, Li already finds that when she picks up a pen to write, the characters for words as simple as "embarrassed" have slipped from her mind.
"I can remember the shape, but I can't remember the strokes that you need to write it," she says. "It's a bit of a problem."
Surveys indicate the phenomenon, dubbed "character amnesia", is widespread across China, causing young Chinese to fear for the future of their ancient writing system.
Young Japanese people also report the problem, which is caused by the constant use of computers and mobile phones with alphabet-based input systems.
There is even a Chinese word for it: "tibiwangzi", or "take pen, forget character".
A poll commissioned by the China Youth Daily in April found that 83 percent of the 2,072 respondents admitted having problems writing characters.
As a result, Li says that she has become almost dependent on her phone.
It could be argued that Koreans have been dealing with character amnesia for a long time, since they haven't used Chinese as their first writing system for over half a millennium: since the 1400s, Koreans have had their own writing system, called hangeul, which is an alphabet in the truest sense. Alphabets can generally be described as a series of phonetic symbols that generally have a one-to-one sound-to-symbol correspondence. Exceptions abound, of course: in English, for example, the letter "x" actually represents two sequential sounds, "k" and "s," and some letters may variously represent different sounds in different contexts-- the letter "c" comes immediately to mind. And once we add phenomena like digraphs (wh, rh, ph, etc.) and diphthongs (such as the "ei" and "ai" in "blame" and "pine"), it becomes obvious that alphabets aren't so simple to define. But in general, alphabets enjoy one-to-one sound-to-symbol correspondence.
Alphabets have the advantage of being much, much more efficient writing systems than characters, or even syllabaries. With letters, it's all a matter of permutations and combinations. Characters, by contrast, are unique symbols that represent not only a cluster of sounds but also, generally, a distinct idea. A person who learns characters is therefore doomed to memorizing thousands of them, and also to memorizing how the characters, when clustered in twos and threes, work as compounds. (A single Chinese character is often itself a compound, composed of a radical plus one or more other characters, all of which work together to produce a given concept.)
Hangeul may have hamstrung itself by structuring syllables as letter-clusters, thereby making the letters impossible to type out as strings, but nowadays that fact presents no difficulty to a Korean with a current computer: the spelling rules for hangeul are easily programmable, and the graphic capabilities of a computer allow any type of syllable to be written on screen. When I was in Korea, I found it easier to type cell phone text messages in Korean than in English.
Modern Korean students generally learn about 1800 government-mandated hanja while young; many students gradually forget them after high school, so that by the time they're in college, they're already struggling to recall how to write certain characters. Many of the hundreds (thousands?) of students I taught in Korea confessed to forgetting how to write certain hanja (Sino-Korean characters). Older Koreans-- the ones still in Korea-- tend to be more knowledgeable about hanja than the younger crowd, but even they sometimes reveal embarrassing lacunae in their knowledge. And first-generation Koreans who live overseas often forget most of their hanja, unless they're artists or scholars or legal professionals who have to retain (or even expand) their knowledge for professional reasons.
So in general, character amnesia isn't a big problem in Korea. Koreans need only memorize a 24-letter alphabet (just like Greek), then learn the spelling and phonetic rules. That's enough to get the average Korean functioning just fine on a cell phone or with a computer. Korean orthography and phonology can be devilishly hard to learn because of all the exceptions to the rules, but mastering the basics is only a matter of one or two lessons. A total neophyte can be sounding out Korean syllables in just hours. Good luck making the same claim for either Chinese or Japanese.
To be fair, it would be wrong to denigrate a language by judging it according to a narrow standard like communicative efficiency in the modern world. Asians (and even many non-Asians) continue to practice Chinese calligraphy because of the ways in which the characters engage the mind and body: one can't just write a character willy-nilly; good writing requires concentration, discipline, commitment, and care. Chinese is a gorgeous language to look at, and despite its inefficiency in an age of globalization, I suspect it'll be around for a long time.
One last remark. The article says this:
In Japan, where three writing systems are combined into one, mobiles and computers use the simpler hiragana and katakana scripts for inputting -- meaning users may forget the kanji, a third strand of Japanese writing similar to Chinese characters.
D'oh! The last part of that sentence is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Kanji might best be called "Sino-Japanese characters," just as hanja are Sino-Korean characters. Saying that they are merely "similar to" Chinese characters is quite misleading: over 99% of kanji are, in fact, Chinese characters, not purely Japanese characters that resemble Chinese characters. I think the writer of this article was trying to find a concise way to express the notion that Chinese characters, as they crossed over into other cultures, developed regional nuances ranging from slight diversions to radical departures from the original Chinese. There's no easy way to say that succinctly.
In the teched-up, Darwinian circumstances we live in, some writing systems are going to win out over others because they work well in a given global cultural climate. If the current climate favors efficiency in communication, then there's no doubt that an alphabet will trump characters every time. But this doesn't mean there's no room for less efficient, more elegant forms of expression that engage different parts of the body and brain. I'll say this for Chinese: once you learn a character and train yourself to recognize it instantly, it's often easier and quicker to read strings of characters than it is to read words formed from strings of letters. Chinese characters provide us with the original "whole language" approach.
Friday, August 27, 2010
What else do you call it when a blogger writes more substantive material elsewhere, in the form of comments on other people's blogs, than he does on his own blog? It feels a bit like cheating, like disloyalty to one's own blog.
It may also be a form of cheating to direct people away from one's own blog to cool material elsewhere-- such as this photo spread by Stafford, which begins with a truly awesome nighttime image of the towering Admiral Yi Sun Shin statue presiding over the Kwanghwamun section of downtown Seoul. My buddy Charles at Liminality has also done some impressive photoblogging; I'm especially enchanted by the second picture in this series.
Aaron McKenzie (brother of Moses McKenzie?) has written a short post titled "Emergent Order," which contains an embedded short video depicting the, for lack of a better term, mathematicality of nature. Fascinating visuals, and a good pick-me-up if you're feeling a bit down. The vid starts off with a pretty classic Fibonacci spiral/nautilus shell, then moves to more interesting mathematical expressions from there.
The article came out a few days ago: nine-year-old kid saves his baby brother with CPR. An excerpt:
The toddler had already turned blue in the face when Tabitha Hearn pulled him out of the pool. She then called 911 and, though she is trained in CPR, was too panicked to effectively help her son.
Luckily, Logan had just completed a CPR class and kept his cool.
Logan told his mother that she was performing the essential CPR incorrectly and told her to move out of the way.
"She was kind of getting a little crazy and stuff, at that moment because any parent would, you know. So, I just don't think she had any control over what she was doing at the moment. So, I just kind of went in and moved her," the boy told WLS.
He performed the CPR for two breaths, and stopped when Brendan started coughing up water. Soon his little brother's chest started moving, and he was taking small breaths.
"He did the procedure like it should be done, and it was working," said Tabitha Hearn.
I was never that brave or confident at age nine. Quite a lesson for all of us.
Just don't get cocky from all this attention, Logan. That leads to the dark side.
Thursday, August 26, 2010
I suddenly got curious about what Buddhist monks might do should some wasps take up residence in the eaves of their temple. A quick Google search led to this 2008 article:
Wasp nest divinely inspired, say Rochester Buddhists
Last update: November 12, 2008 - 10:57 PM
ROCHESTER, MINN. - The Cambodian Buddhist community in Rochester is abuzz over what they believe is a miracle: a wasp nest in the shape of a seated Buddha built in the eaves of their temple.
The nest was spotted last week. Elder members of the community say they have never seen an apparition of the Buddha in their lifetimes.
Robert Jeanne, an entomology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the Buddha-shaped hive could actually be four different nests formed over a couple of years. He says if someone wants to read miracles into that, that's their privilege.
Moeun Ngop, a 76-year-old monk, has a more mystical take. He says the insects are trying to communicate Buddha's message.
And Voeun Sor, 70, of Rochester, said the hive shows the Buddha is trying to tell everybody to seek peace in their lives.
Seek peace or we stang yo' ass!
Why does "Buddha in a wasp nest" feel somewhat ironic-- less like "Blessed Virgin on toast" and more like "Jesus in a hand grenade"?
According to a recent news article, former GOP Senator Alan Simpson wrote the following in an emailed reference to Social Security: it's "a milk cow with 310 million tits!"
An advocacy group is calling for the ouster of former Sen. Alan Simpson, the co-chairman of President Obama's bipartisan debt commission, who described Social Security as a "milk cow with 310 million tits!" in an email.
If "tit" means "person" in this metaphor, then since almost 100% of the 310 million people in America have two tits, shouldn't that read "620 million tits"? Or if we assume that "tits" meant a cow's teats, shouldn't that be "1.24 billion teats," given four teats per udder?
I'm trying to imagine a cow with 310 million teats. It sounds like something you might find in statue form at a Hindu temple.
Skype, which I've downloaded to my computer, has proven quite useful now that I no longer have my cell phone. With a fast computer, it actually makes better sense to use Skype than to make long-distance or international calls by more conventional means. I've made only Skype-to-Skype calls, which keeps the calls free of charge. Skype allows one to communicate three ways: via IM/chat, via audio-only, and via video-plus-audio. The latter option doesn't even require that you have a webcam, if you're OK with seeing the caller even though he can't see you.
In the video mode, Skype shows your caller in a resizable window, and also displays you as a tiny picture-in-picture in the corner of that window. In my case, for whatever reason, my image glows purple. And my head, already huge, looks even bigger in the PiP window.
Flicking your tongue while on Skype can be interesting for your interlocutor: if the frequency of flicking doesn't quite match up with the video frame rate, you appear to have Magic Tongue. This was not, alas, a discovery I made while Skyping with a beautiful woman; it was one of my brothers who alerted me.
In an age of unreasonably huge phone bills, Skype is a nice alternative. Given the state of most computer tech today, Skype is easy to install and easy to use. And keep in mind that Skype calls are free, as long as they're Skype-to-Skype.
Wednesday, August 25, 2010
With the loss of my two favorite shows, "Battlestar Galactica" and "24," I've had to make do with broadcast leftovers. Here's a quick roundup of shows that have, for some reason or another, caught my eye.
1. "The Great Food Truck Race" (Food Network). Yet another "reality" show involving cooking under pressure. The premise: gourmet/specialty food trucks go from city to city, set up shop wherever they can, and do their damnedest to earn as much money as possible in 24 hours. The truck with the smallest earnings is eliminated. For each city, the food truck teams are given a limited budget, which sometimes causes drastic changes in their usual shopping strategy and menu planning. The Food Network seems to think that focused desperation is the best sort of entertainment during the evening hours, even though some of us squares would actually prefer quieter, calmer, more educational programming (and not just Alton Brown, dammit!*). I don't go for all the evening competitions, but for some reason this newest entry grabbed me.
I've watched the first two episodes, and as I imagine is true for a lot of guys, I'm now strongly attracted to the hot, bright-eyed, intelligent Vietnamese-American lady who heads up the Nom-Nom truck. The Nom-Nom team, which specializes in bánh-mì sandwiches, has won twice in a row. In the second episode, they were making so much money that they elected to skip the "immunity" challenge, which involved using local chili peppers. At the end of that episode, Nom-Nom was in first place, having earned over $3000 in 24 hours; the distant second-place winners earned a little over $1700. The Nom-Nom team looks like an early favorite, but with only two trucks eliminated and five trucks still in the race, anything goes. Nom-Nom will be hard to beat, though: the team is young and tech-savvy, and as we saw in the second episode, they're able to use electronic media to announce their impending arrival in a given town in order to drum up business. Plus, most Amurrican folks have never had a bánh-mì sandwich, so Nom-Nom provides something very much out of the ordinary. I'll be curious to see whether they stay on top.
2. "Burn Notice" (USA Network). I've written about BN before, so I'll simply say that, although the show seems to have hit a creative rut and has gone too formulaic, its main virtue is the camaraderie among the leads (actress Gabrielle Anwar, as Fiona Glennanne, has impeccable comic timing). For those who don't know: the show is primarily about a spy named Michael Westen (yes: "-en," not "-on"), a spy who was "burned," i.e., who became persona non grata in the spy community, and was dropped in Miami, where he's free to move about but monitored by shadowy forces. Mike and his partners earn money as do-gooders for hire while digging deeper into the massive conspiracy that got Mike burned. This season, a new "burned" character named Jesse Porter (I first saw that actor, Coby Bell, on "ER" many years back, where he guested as a young athlete with testicular cancer who had to utter the line, "You're gonna cut my nut off?!") has added some pizzazz, but in my opinion his presence throws the team dynamic off a bit. I'm a bit worried that, as this season of BN comes to a close, the next season won't be quite as interesting.
3. "Royal Pains" (USA Network). I have no idea what I see in this show, and yet I keep watching it. Maybe it's the on-location shots of the Hamptons et les alentours. The actors are all competent, but the plotlines and series direction are about as bland and milquetoasty as you can get. Maybe it's more than the Hamptons. Maybe, as with "Burn Notice," it's all the beautiful, over-surgeried people. Why the hell do I watch this show?
4. "White Collar" (USA Network). I thoroughly enjoy the clever dialogue and plotting of this show, which owes a huge aesthetic and conceptual debt to the 1999 remake of "The Thomas Crown Affair" (the one with Pierce Brosnan and Renée Russo). Nick Caffrey (Matt Bomer) is a slick art thief who is obliged to partner up with the FBI agent who has caught him twice before: Peter Burke (Tim DeKay), the only man in the galaxy who's smarter than Caffrey. Each episode is a tightly written heist flick unto itself. My only complaint is that too many bad guys get away simply by running out the back door of whatever building has supposedly been covered by the FBI (one thing I loved, and now miss, about "24" was that such gaffes were kept to a minimum). Peter Burke and his dream team seem to be the only competent agents at the New York White Collar Crimes Division, but despite their competence, it usually comes down to the teamwork of Burke and Caffrey to save the day. Minor cast members get ass-kicking moments, too, which keeps the show fresh. The luminous presence of Marsha Thomason as Agent Diana Barrigan (Thomason is yet another Brit doing an American accent) has kept me hooked, since Matt Bomer's charms are wasted on me. Keep the writing tight, guys, and make the FBI look a bit more competent than you currently do.
5. "Psych" (USA Network). If "White Collar" owes a creative debt to "The Thomas Crown Affair," "Psych" owes a debt to Chevy Chase's 1985 "Fletch," about a wisecracking bullshit artist (journalist by trade) who plunges headlong into ridiculous situations with little more than implausible disguises, cringe-inducing wit, and keen observational skill to keep him alive. In "Psych," Chevy Chase's character has been split into two people: Shawn and Gus, childhood buddies who run a fake psychic detective agency in Santa Barbara, California. The show parodies any number of genres and pop culture tropes: TV shows like "The Mentalist," black-and-white buddy cop dramas, kung fu and drag-racing movies, etc. The humor usually races along at a mile a minute, and some of it falls flat, but with the jokes being fired off at such a high rate, misfires are easily forgivable and forgettable. Both leads give extremely athletic performances (who knew Dulé Hill was a talented tap dancer?), which makes me wonder just how many more seasons they have in them... and how much cocaine they must be doing, just to maintain their energy level.
6. "Covert Affairs" (USA Network). I'm watching this series on a probationary basis, and may drop it soon if it continues to fail to grab me. It seems to have all the right stuff, and yet something isn't jelling. Could it be that the "superwoman" concept has been overdone after all the "Dark Angel"s and "Alias"es and "Dollhouse"s? (Or is that a sexist thought, given the continued preponderance of "superman" shows?) I think what bugs me most about "Covert Affairs" is the way the characters keep saying some version of "This is the job. This is what we're expected to do at the CIA." Less telling and more showing, please!
The most interesting thing about the show, and the reason why I'm still watching it, is the character arc of Annie Walker (played by the very cutely named Piper Perabo), a fresh-faced CIA recruit who, like Luke Skywalker, has been called into intense action before she could complete her training. Because Annie is our main point-of-view character, we learn about the CIA through her eyes, which may explain all the annoying expository dialogue. Still, I can't hate a show that features some pretty decent fight choreography. It's not "Bourne"-level action, not even "24"-level action, but it's pretty good for TV. I'll give this show a couple more episodes in the hopes that it smooths itself out.
7. "Dual Survival" (Discovery Channel). I've seen only 1.25 episodes of this show, which is about two survival experts who cooperate (and sometimes lock horns) in order to survive a given situation. Dave Canterbury is an Army-trained hunter and survival expert; his counterpart is Cody Lundi, a "minimalist and primitive survival skills" expert. The unusual soldier-and-hippie pairing (Cody goes through each episode barefoot) makes for great entertainment, and from what I've seen, the men do more cooperating than fighting. A recent episode showed Cody getting upset at Dave after Dave killed an alligator-- but not because Cody was against the killing of a sentient being: Cody was upset that Dave had risked himself to make the kill: Don't go after something that can go after you, Cody groused. Dave's response: If you're in the swamp, leave your skirt at home. Earlier, Dave had remarked that, in some survival situations, there's a calculus of risk versus reward that you sometimes need to make. By his reckoning, the alligator was a worthwhile risk. Such conflicts are actually educational for the observant viewer; in that particular instance, Cody seemed to come off as the absolutist, but later we discovered that, once Cody had had his first taste of alligator, most of his ire drained away.
I'll probably keep watching "Dual Survival." It beats sitting through Bear Grylls's "Man Versus Wild," which now features such over-the-top nonsense as causing an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies in order to show what it's like to be caught in one. Grylls's show seems increasingly focused on useless masochism. I would have thought that the point of a show about survival techniques would be to demonstrate how to avoid crisis situations. Isn't it enough that the survival expert is plunged into such a situation at the beginning of the hour? What can we possibly learn from watching a guy stand in front of an approaching wall of snow? Les Stroud is still the one to watch, in my opinion.
8. "The Good Guys" (Fox). Matt Nix, the creator of "Burn Notice," apparently decided to pull a David E. Kelly to show off his polymathic screenwriting chops. The result is a second Nix creation, "The Good Guys," starring a grizzled Bradley Whitford and a squeaky-clean-shaven Colin Hanks (son of Tom) as Dallas cops whose investigations of minor crimes usually end up revealing major crimes in progress. Whitford plays Detective Dan Stark, a relic from the 1980s who, like a drunk, unshaven, and eternally horny Dirty Harry, doesn't relate to the decade he's currently in. Hanks is Stark's partner, the square and spit-shined Jack Bailey, who has to tolerate the weird barrage of useless life lessons he receives from Stark.
Part of the show's charm is Stark's unrepentant anachronism, though the humor sometimes strays a little too far into the corny. One annoying example is Stark's habit of referring to laptops as "the computer machine," a linguistic implausibility that erodes my suspension of disbelief. But Stark, even though he appears dumber than a box of rocks on his best days, is a crafty one, and it's often his unorthodox, 80s-era detective work that nets the perps. Although I think the series' scriptwriting needs some work, I've found the first season of "The Good Guys" rather enjoyable. Whitford does all the comic heavy lifting; his role as Stark is a fantastic departure from his work on such shows as "The West Wing." Hanks, meanwhile, is an effective foil as Jack Bailey.
Many of the above-mentioned series are about to end for the summer. "Burn Notice" and "Royal Pains" have their finales tomorrow; "The Good Guys" has already ended; and I'm pretty sure that some of the other dramas and comedies will be winding down in a few weeks as we clear the stage for fall. I'll admit that I'm a fan of Fox's "Glee," a musical dramedy that would make any fan of John Hughes smile. I look forward to its imminent return. Meanwhile, I'm not looking forward to the return of "V" and "Flash Forward," shows that seemed promising but, as time went on, failed to live up to their potential. Nothing on TV thus far has truly captured my imagination, but there's always the chance that something new will come along. That something won't be "Human Target," which got cool only when they brought Lee Majors on board... and then killed his character off. Dammit.
*I'm a fan of Alton Brown, but I do think he relies on too many implausible gadgets while simultaneously preaching the "multitasker" doctrine, i.e., the idea that every piece of equipment in the kitchen should perform more than one function. The problem is that Brown is constantly introducing new pieces of equipment-- weird pots and impossibly long knives are a common example-- which undercuts the multitasking gospel.
I just noticed that, back in 2007, I predicted (well, it was actually an offhand question, but I'll treat it as a prediction) that "Battlestar Galactica" was heading toward a "Shaggy God Story" conclusion.
Tuesday, August 24, 2010
My buddy Dave writes:
One of the themes in Percy Jackson is the disregard that many of the Gods have [for] their children, and in general for mortals. They don’t seem to care who is hurt, or what happens to anyone. In your Tron write-up, you wonder about what happens to a program if we delete it, and why should we care.
Yet in Biblical stories, or religious epics in general, don’t Gods kill large populations, and treat mortals horribly at the slightest whim? Isn’t this a recurring theme in religious mythological narratives? (Maybe excepting the New Testament... Still pondering on that). Why should God (or ‘The Gods’) care about the lives of mere mortals?
In that sense, [don’t] the multiple levels of reality in the Tron Story work even better? Why should you care about the existence of programs? Why should [Thomas] Covenant care if he behaves horribly if the Land is really a dream? Why should entities on a higher plane give a [rat's] ass about entities on a lower plane?
Any given religious tradition, whether we look at it in terms of scripture or ritual or art or food, displays a wide range of attitudes and assumptions about humanity, the cosmos, and the living things around us. Buddhism, for example, seems rather ambivalent in its attitude toward animals. Animals are sometimes cited in Buddhist literature as exemplars of how to live in suchness (when tired, sleep; when hungry, eat), but are also cited in cautionary tales about attachment and lack of wisdom (see, for example, the kama-dhatu, or desire-realm, which animals are thought to inhabit). Buddhism teaches a reverence for all sentient beings, but along comes Nan-chuan, who splits a cat in half to make a point. The same ambivalence toward lesser beings can be seen in the varied set of traditions known collectively as Hinduism. Many animals play sacred roles in the cosmic dance of Hindu mythology, but ancient Hindus sacrificed horses, and many modern South Asians, far from being vegetarian, are avid carnivores, even if they avoid beef. In East Asian folklore, animals can be wisdom figures or stand-ins for human idiocy.
In the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 6:6 says, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." But in the Christian Bible, in Acts 10:13, we read of Peter's vision of the descending sheet that carries trayf animals upon it, along with the whispered command, "Arise, Peter. Kill and eat." The point of the vision is Christian supersessionism (doing away with kosher laws is a metonymy for doing away with Mosaic law in general), but the literal import-- that all animals are fair game-- still remains. Even if we remain focused on the Hebrew Bible without bringing the New Testament into the picture, we see God's ambivalence toward his creations: he constantly makes and renews covenants with them, but he also wills or allows their destruction, often on massive scales.
I'd say that religions in general offer no clear picture or guidance when it comes to the question of human attitudes toward animals, or the divine's attitude toward fragile, contingent mortals. "Tron" may very well be hinting at a similar ambivalence. When Clu is comically destroyed at the beginning of the 1982 movie, we're not meant to mourn his death: he's just a creation of Kevin Flynn's, after all, and a rather goofy one at that. But by the end of the movie, with Flynn himself having experienced the brutal realities of cyberspatial existence, we viewers are left to wonder whether we, as creators, hold more power and responsibility than we thought. In the "Tron" universe, humans bring these e-entities into being, essentially throwing them into an arena where they will receive no quarter.
So yes: the wholesale destruction of creatures by creators is a recurrent trope in scripture and mythology, but so is the idea of the preciousness and interconnectedness of creation. "Tron" gives us a cosmology whose ambivalence is little different from what we find in the major religious traditions.
I suppose the Thomas Covenant analogy (for those who don't know: Thomas Covenant is a leper from "our" world who doesn't believe in the reality of the alternate universe he finds himself trapped in; he misses many chances to act nobly and heroically as a result) can be thematically connected to the "Tron" universe only insofar as Kevin Flynn and Thomas Covenant begin their adventures not believing in the reality of their respective alternate worlds. But that's where the stories part ways: for Covenant, the reality of the alternate universe remains forever in doubt, but he tables the question in favor of the paradoxical stance that he should act nobly regardless of the alternate universe's ontological status. In "Tron," by contrast, the viewer is left in no doubt that Flynn hasn't hallucinated his experience in cyberspace.* He cannot but be changed by what he has discovered. If "Tron" is implying that this cosmic chain of being is real, then we don't have the luxury of treating those little e-beings, with their picosecond-long lives, as dream artifacts-- much for the same reason that we can't view ants the same way once we understand their position in the larger ecology.
So the metaphysical and ethical issues are, in my opinion, very different between the Thomas Covenant and "Tron" universes. For Covenant, the central ethical issue is, at least at first, whether the alternate world is real, and whether his actions in that world therefore have any real import. For Kevin Flynn in "Tron," the discovery that cyberspace is a real, physical place, and is as much a "vale of tears" as normal human existence, prevents him from viewing his own anthropic reality the same way ever again. Or so the preview for "Tron: Legacy" seems to imply. In "Tron" itself, Kevin Flynn's hearty "Greetings, programs!" doesn't give one the impression of a man who's been through a frightening plunge into a brutally Euclidean (maybe I should say "Boolean") world, but the preview for the 2010 film says that Flynn was on the verge of revolutionizing science, medicine, and religion. While I can't say for sure, I'm guessing that Flynn's revolutionary insight, based on his time in cyberspace, was that we're living the Simulation Hypothesis, and that we enjoy a type of connectedness with the cyber-realm that we didn't realize was there. But once we've looked "down" into the cyber-realm through the lens of the Simulation Hypothesis, it's only natural to look "up," and to wonder about our creators.
(Will Disney seriously push polytheism? I'll be curious to see how all this gets marketed.)
*Stephen R. Donaldson, the author of the Thomas Covenant adventures, has been challenged several times by his fans as to the objective reality of this alternate world. Donaldson insists that he hasn't provided enough evidence for people to think of the Land, or any other realm in the alternate world, as real. Frustrated readers cite the fact that Donaldson changed his point-of-view characters at several points throughout the various novels, which strongly implies that the alternate universe is experienced by more than one mind-- a good sign that it's objectively real. Donaldson has responded with-- in my opinion-- gibberish about shared dreaming, archetypes, and such. But he stands firm in his belief that the alternate world's reality remains in doubt. He is the author, after all, so he knows his own intentions. I guess.
Monday, August 23, 2010
Sunday, August 22, 2010
[NB: Pictures have been appended to this post. Scroll to the end to see them.]
About a month back, I saw 1982's "Tron" for the very first time. While it didn't bowl me over with its now painfully outdated special effects-- effects that probably wouldn't have looked so great even in 1982-- I was fascinated to discover that "Tron" was, in many respects, the father of 1999's "The Matrix." The parallels were all there: the plunge into an alternate cyberspatial universe; the cyberspace "avatars" who reflect their real-world designers and find themselves on the run from malevolent entities; the self-sacrificing outsider hero who performs a Moses-like act of liberation; the monstrous, all-pervasive cyber-entity and its flunkies; the eerily religious overtones. In its final scene, when we're back in our "real" world, the movie implies through time-lapse imagery (as well as through Kevin Flynn's hearty "Greetings, programs!" when he steps out of his helicopter) that we, too, are all programs living out our lives in an exponentially more complex simulation: the Simulation Hypothesis is a reality. "The Matrix Reloaded" hints at this possibility, too: the "real" world is merely another level of simulation in an even greater architecture. But the Wachowski Brothers never do anything with that notion: "The Matrix Revolutions" shows us no new levels of reality.
"Tron" doesn't bring much to the table in terms of acting and special effects (some of the acting is godawful), but it offers its own quirky notion: computer programs, even the tiniest bits of information, have their own inner lives. They're brought to life by us, the creators, who are called "Users" in the film; what appear to be long spans of time turn out to be mere nanoseconds. From the point of view of the programs, Users are a great mystery, and some programs (like the evil Sark, henchman of the mysterium tremendum that is the Master Control Program) proclaim that Users don't exist. We viewers know, however, that every "real" programmer ends up creating his own autonomous avatar in cyberspace: Kevin Flynn has Clu; Alan Bradley has Tron; Lora Baines has Yori; Ed Dillinger has Sark. Many Users; many creators. Polytheism. (An interesting Christian discussion of "Tron" can be found here.)
What "Tron" doesn't make clear is why the lives of these cyberspace entities-- Clu, Tron, Yori, et al.-- should matter to those of us here in meatspace. I click "delete" and remove a program-- so what? Perhaps it's the movie's final scene that offers us a hint: if we, too, are simulations in an even larger program, than as creators of the cyberspace realm "beneath" us, we're part of a massive ontological regression, a great chain of being that may or may not be bottomless. And if we follow the polytheistic implications of the movie, then each of us has a personal creator.
Seeing "Tron" has gotten me interested in the upcoming "Tron: Legacy," which comes out in December. The three clips I've seen (all available here) showcase the vast improvements that have been made in special effects technology since the 1980s-- improvements that clue us in to the parallel developments occurring in this film's notion of cyberspace. Jeff Bridges returns as a much older Kevin Flynn, but thanks to the marvels of de-aging "digital skin grafting" software, we also see glimpses of Bridges as the 1980s-era Flynn, both in meatspace and in cyberspace. The CGI doesn't quite work, but this may be an "uncanny valley" effect produced by our years-long familiarity with the actor, who has passed through the fires of a Dude phase and a Crazy Heart phase to become the grizzled Nick Nolte surrogate he is today.
From the tantalizing snatches of dialogue in the previews, I'm going to guess that the new film takes the Simulation Hypothesis and runs with it. It doesn't have much choice: there's a lot to explain, and all potential explanations point simward. The inner lives of programs, for starters: how do they acquire sentience, despite being so simple? And if they're sentient, how might that affect the ways in which we meaty entities go about writing programs? Who can emerge from a trip into cyberspace unchanged by the revelation that cyberspace is its own universe, full of lives and loves, and that we hold those lives and loves in our hands?
"Tron: Legacy" offers a cleaner, bluer, more streamlined version of the Matrix. I look forward to plunging into that world in December.
A quick tour of the two "Tron" films (hover cursor over images for captions):
And from the upcoming "Tron: Legacy"...
Saturday, August 21, 2010
For those intrigued by my previous post on cabinet cards from the 1800s, check out this blog, which features cabinet cards that seem to be in about the same condition as the ones owned by our family. The cards devoted to opera singers are here.
Friday, August 20, 2010
Do any of the Harry Potter movies feature dung bombs (for those who don't know: dung bombs are magical prank explosives used by Wizarding students; they function as bombs or grenades)? I can't recall a single one. Then again, I haven't seen the sixth film, so it's possible that I missed their appearance.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
A previous post about one's culinary point of view (CPOV) failed to include something rather basic: a definition of the term. The purpose of this post is to redress that crucial omission. I can't promise a neat and clean definition in the lexicographer's sense (and keep in mind that lexicographers do occasionally get things wrong: ask any philosopher who flips through a Webster's and stumbles upon definitions of certain important philosophical terms), but I'll do my best to offer as clear a perspective as possible of CPOV.
I first encountered the term while watching episodes of "The Next Food Network Star" (TNFNS) a couple seasons back. The term was used primarily by the judges, and over the course of the grueling series of challenges, was embraced as a basal concept by the contestants as well. I haven't flipped around the channels enough to know whether the term is bandied about outside the context of the Food Network, so I'll leave that open to speculation and eventual field work.
When TNFNS judges use the term CPOV, it's often in the context of dissatisfaction: they're looking for a certain coherence and harmony that's both plainly visible and consistent over time. The term's meaning isn't confined to questions of, say, ethnic style and tradition, though a CPOV can indeed be rooted in such things. A chef's CPOV can also refer to concepts like "making high-end cooking easy for the home cook" or "cooking at a professional level." A TNFNS contestant who comes into the contest saying only, "I want to cook good food" or "I want to cook food that'll wow you" isn't saying anything very specific.
A recent example of the refinement of one's CPOV might be Herb Mesa, a finalist in this past season's TNFNS. Herb seemed to be having trouble embracing his Latin roots; some of his dishes appeared to have been geared toward pleasing the judges by any means possible, and the result was food that lacked focus and conviction. It's implied through every season of TNFNS that a clear CPOV is conducive to better cooking: knowing oneself automatically leads to greater focus and better delivery of the goods. When Herb finally got the message that he should embrace his puertoriqueño and cubano roots, and fuse them with his personal-training philosophy of light but robust eating, he snapped into focus and catapulted himself into the final round. The beautiful dishes he had cooked early in the contest were all Latin or Latin-accented. Toward the end of the contest, he returned to that style.
For that same season, and as an interesting contrast, we can look at the example of Doreen Fang, who was dismissed early on because of her lack of focus. In her case, the judges felt she was giving them whatever came off the top of her head, and the result was a mess in the kitchen: tough pork ended up being her downfall. Paul Young lasted several episodes longer, but the judges were, in the end, turned off by his attempts to try on different hats with every contest. In his case, it wasn't just the cooking that lacked focus: it was his presentation style.
For contestants vying to become the next Food Network star, having a discrete CPOV is crucial not only because it benefits their cooking, but also because it improves their marketability. I tend to associate the term most closely with judge Bobby Flay, who hammered the contestants with the doctrine; but fellow judges Susie Fogelson and Bob Tuschman have gladly taken up the refrain as well. Flay's focus was on the contestants' cooking chops, but Fogelson and Tuschman were looking for star power.
Can the term "culinary point of view" be defined concisely? I'll give it a try:
CPOV = a frame of reference that (1) incorporates any combination of the elements of style, technique, ethnicity, professional standards, or some other aspect of cooking; and that (2) impels a cook or chef to produce food in a consistent manner that will, over time, reveal the cook's or chef's distinct individuality.
Possible corollary: the greater the distinctness, the clearer the culinary point of view.
Having said all that, I think that many contestants have gotten away with CPOVs that don't stand up under scrutiny. One example, heard with painful frequency, is that a certain chef prefers "big, bold flavors." (The likable Aaron McCargo comes immediately to mind.) While this sounds like a fairly specific point of view (the big, bold chef apparently stays away from small, meek flavors-- by which we probably mean subtle, mild flavors), it's actually quite expansive, and not very helpful in clarifying what a chef is all about. Another example of a vague CPOV is often heard on "Iron Chef America" (ICA) when a challenger is being introduced: "he/she prefers to cook with fresh, organic, local ingredients, and tries to keep the cooking simple, allowing the ingredients' natural flavors to shine." This, too, sounds very nice, but since most of the challengers on ICA seem to fall into this category, it doesn't seem like much of a CPOV.
That's why I love hearing CPOVs that are all about style and ethnicity. Cat Cora does Greek/Southern cuisine, for example. Masaharu Morimoto does fusion Japanese/Western cuisine (look no further than his velvety cream sauces for evidence of this). Guy Fieri does California fusion with a focus on Asian/Tex-Mex combinations. And so on. Such CPOVs are fascinating to me, and tell me a lot about the chefs in question. I'm sure that all chefs step outside their comfort zones to cook food that doesn't normally fall within the bounds of their CPOVs, but it's the CPOV itself that acts as the jumping-off point for such risks. Otherwise, it's just random experimentation, just zigzagging, with no guarantee of consistency.
So that, folks, is my take on what a culinary point of view is.
I'm doing research on some "autograph cards," also known variously as "cartes de visite," "albumen prints," "albumen cards," and "cabinet cards." They were popular during the latter half of the 1800s, and often showed pictures of famous people and places. Cartes de visite tended to be small, like a driver's license, while albumen/cabinet cards tended to be 4.25 inches by 6.5 inches. Their early popularity snowballed into a fad that became known as "cardomania," with people on either side of the Atlantic happily collecting, trading, and displaying their cards. The cards in our possession are from the 1890s, when the fad was on the wane.
The cards were found-- once again-- in a pile of antique knick-knacks given to us by my late great-aunt Gertrude. We have boxes and boxes of old items, many of which were already old when Aunt Gertrude was young. This particular find, a collection of cabinet cards featuring musical luminaries from the 1890s, is quite a trove. Almost every card is autographed; some in pencil, most in pen; some with musical notation, most without; some with dates and notes, others with no dates or notes. I had given these cards to my brother Sean for safe keeping, but curiosity killed the cat, so I asked for them back and have been trying to figure out just who these folks are. One card has me stumped. It depicts a plump man (possibly an opera singer), and the back of the card is signed simply, "Sedelmeyer." Online research shows there's a certain Charles Sedelmeyer, an Austrian art dealer and collector who spent much of his time in Paris. Consistent with Murphy's Law, the pictures of Charles Sedelmeyer look nothing like the Sedelmeyer on the cabinet card, and I'm left to wonder... who is this Sedelmeyer?
For what it's worth: if Sean were to auction these cards off to a target audience that appreciated them (fans of music history, for example), he could probably net more than $100-$300 per card, based on what I've seen at various auction sites featuring albumen/cabinet cards. There are 19 of them, all in decent condition except for one, which is missing a corner. Sedelmeyer is one of five cards that I can't immediately identify.
Two of the cards might be of interest even to the layman:
1. Adèle Aus der Ohe, child-prodigy and student of Franz Liszt. Her autograph is done in a tentative, timid hand, in what appears to be pencil.
2. Theodore Thomas ("Sept. 1889" noted on card), founder of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
These two cards alone could probably sell for a bundle, Sean willing. My project, over the next few days, will be to track down the identities of the five mysterious cards. We'll soon know who this troublesome Sedelmeyer is. Oh, yes... we'll soon know.
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
The phrase "Athens and Jerusalem" is a commonplace in philo and theo circles when discussing the civilizational roots of Western culture. The two cities represent the two major strands of thinking that influence society even today: Athens signifies, among other things, Greek notions of politics and philosophy; Jerusalem signifies proto-Hebraic, Jewish, and Judaeo-Christian notions of religion and law.
Elisson has written a fascinating post that concentrates on jurisprudence. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Plenty of controversy surrounds the possible construction of a $100 million Muslim community center, currently known as Park51 and previously known as Cordoba House, near the site of Ground Zero in New York City. My own perspective isn't all that special. Like everyone who understands the law, I agree there's no legal problem with constructing the mosque, but I also agree that it'd be nice for people to establish a Hooters on one side of it and a very large synagogue on the other. Hey, if it's only about legality, there's no problem, right?
I've found many conflicting and overlapping perspectives on the matter, just by perusing my blogroll.
1. My left-leaning, Obama-campaigning friend Paul, the Blue-eyed Buddhist, looks at the issue in terms of free exercise of religion, American tolerance, and constitutionality.
The Constitution of the United States is very clear. People have the right to practice whatever religion they damn well please. Part of that right is to have houses of worship.
So why on earth is the proposal, by a religious group, to build a community center which will include an area used for worship in dispute at all?
If it meets the local building and land-use codes, it not only should be allowed, but it MUST be allowed.
If you believe in religious freedom; if you want to have the right to choose your own religion; if you want to be able to gather with others and worship or pray together; and if you take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, then you should not be fighting any such proposal.
In fact, you should be supporting it against anyone who is trying to stop it. You should be saying “look, it’s their right, and more importantly it’s what separates us from oppressive governments like those in Saudi Arabia or Iran.”
I’m discussing this, of course, because of the hubbub around the proposal by a Muslim group to build a community center- which will include a mosque- a few blocks away from Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center towers used to stand, in lower Manhattan.
Whether you like Muslims (or Islam as a religion) or not should not be at issue here.
Whether you blame all Muslims for 9/11 or not (though if you do, you’re a idiot) shouldn’t matter.
What matters is that they have a right, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, to build that community center.
Every American who believes in our Constitution should be defending this proposal.
2. Right-leaning essayist and PJTV video commentator Bill Whittle, whose prose can be inspiring but also over the top, dispenses entirely with legality and frames the issue in stark terms of appeasement (Neville Chamberlain photo included).
3. My right-leaning buddy Mike affirms the legality of the construction and actively wants the mosque built, though he also wonders how long we will continue to "fetishize" the area of Lower Manhattan close to Ground Zero. Much of his post concentrates on Obama's unwise expenditure of political capital: the President may have nationalized (and radicalized) a debate that could have remained local. Mike writes:
Your Maximum Leader has changed his mind now. He wants the mosque built. He is willing to stand up for the principle involved. The principle involved is twofold. The first is a straight property rights issue. If you follow local laws you should be able to build what you want on property you own. If the landowners want to lease the space for a mosque, great! Let them do it. The mosque shouldn’t get any special treatment or concessions. If they can put a mosque there they should. The second issue is the religious issue. This site is a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site and was damaged in the attacks of September 11. But it wasn’t the object of the attack. The building in question wasn’t destroyed and rebuilt. How close is too close? From what your Maximum Leader reads there are some mosques in the general vicinity already. Why is this one a big problem? Would it be a big problem if it were a block further away? Two blocks further? 10 blocks further? Would “society” object to a Christian Church being put in the same building? A Buddhist temple? A meeting hall for the followers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?
4. My registered-Democrat-but-often-right-leaning friend Malcolm Pollack skews close to Bill Whittle in viewing the mosque's construction as a sign of the continued appeasement of a religion that is, in his view, inherently inimical to Western culture and values. (See here and here for a survey of Malcolm's views.)
5. Right-leaning philosopher Bill Vallicella argues that legality isn't the point: propriety is. His final two paragraphs:
Supposedly, a major motive behind the construction is to advance interfaith dialogue, to build a bridge between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities. But this reason is so patently bogus, so obviously insincere, that no intelligent person can credit it. For it is a well-known fact that a majority of the American people vehemently oppose the GZM [Ground Zero Mosque]. Given this fact, the construction cannot possibly achieve its stated end of advancing mutual understanding. So if Rauf and Co. were sincere, they would move to another site.
Here is a little analogy. Suppose you and I have a falling out, and then I make an attempt at conciliation. I extend my hand to you. But [you] have no desire for reconciliation and you refuse to shake hands with me. So I grab your hand and force you to shake hands with me. Have I thereby patched things up with you? Obviously not: I have made them worse. Same with the GZM. Once it became clear [that the] American people opposed the GZM, Rauf and Co. either should have nixed the project or else had the cojones to say: we have a legal right to build here and we will do so no matter what you say or how offended you are.
6. Skippy, classically conservative but anti-Republican, writes a long post-- which includes a comprehensive survey of online chatter-- in which he declares himself bored by the Cordoba House/Ground Zero mosque controversy. He notes early on in his post, contra those in Malcolm Pollack's camp, that he doesn't see Islam as an existential threat. I suppose the length of Skippy's post, which can't be a function of his boredom and Islam's unthreatening nature, is best explained by his fascination with Republican reactions to the mosque's possible construction. Skippy writes:
There are only two questions in this debate that are of any value whatsoever;
1. Do the developers enjoy religious freedom, expression and association rights under the First Amendment?
2. Do the developers have a Fifth Amendment right to do with their own private property whatever they wish?
If you agree that the answer to both is "yes," then the debate is pretty much over, isn't it?
The United States Constitution was primarily designed to protect the unpopular, and even obnoxious and repulsive, conduct and beliefs of the minority from the will of the majority. That's why the constant reference to polls showing that 70-some-odd percent of Americans opposing Park 51 couldn't be less relevant or more dishonest.
7. Regarding Islam, in its extreme and moderate versions, Dr. HJ Hodges wrote a post over a week ago that offered an interesting theory: in Islam, the radicals occupy the center while the unheard-from moderates are, if you will, Islam's lunatic fringe. It's an interesting theory:
We usually think of radicals as extremists, people on the extreme fringe of a movement. This isn't the case with Islamists. They draw on core texts in Islam and core doctrines. Radicals in the true sense of the term, they go back to Islam's roots in the Qur'an and Shariah. They are thus radicals at the core of Islam.
Your thoughts? Is a mosque near Ground Zero a poke in the eye of all Americans still stung by the tragedy of 9/11? Would the mosque's construction be like a group of Koreans establishing a Hitler bar near the site of the Auschwitz complex? Is this a question of appeasement? Legality/constitutionality/zoning? Religious practice? Gay bars (just thought I'd throw that in)?
And on that happy note...
I saw the picture of Obama with his fist raised and knew I had to put something in that hand:
I briefly thought about making it the head of Medusa, but what would the joke have been?
And what else can we stick in Obama's hand?
(When it comes to Photoshop jobs I envy, this pic always makes me laugh.)
Monday, August 16, 2010
It was a pretty safe bet, and sure enough, Aarti ended up crowned the next Food Network star. I felt bad for Herb, but I also felt that Aarti deserved her win. She's been the most consistent cook of the bunch, and she cooks at a high level of skill. She'll bring a much-needed ethnic perspective to a channel that sometimes strikes me as Not Quite Brown Enough, despite the presence of the Neelys, Aaron "Big Daddy" McCargo, Marcela Valladolid, and Sunny Anderson. (Food Network's new sister network, The Cooking Channel, seems more ethnically diverse, but CC's shows also seem to be lower-budget affairs than those on FN.)
I'll continue to hope that Herb gets his own show. As for Tom, I thought he did well when he filmed his sample pilot (all three contestants had to film 3-minute mini-pilots, which were shown to a focus group as well as to the regular judges), and I have to give him credit for being a good sport. All three finalists were classy in that way: they had bonded, and weren't the type to talk trash.
Still, I'm glad it wasn't Tom who won: the memory of his Iron Chef debacle is still too fresh. With Tom (and this is sometimes also the case with Rachael Ray), you can never be too sure that what he cooks will taste as good as it looks. I also think Tom's spastic hand gestures might have grated on a viewer's nerves after two or three episodes; only Dennis Hopper and David Lynch would have appreciated such body language over the long term.
Aarti is indeed the complete package: smooth on camera, competent in her cooking, urbane and witty in her style. I wish her luck, and will be interested to see the first episode of her show. Will it still be called "Aarti Paarti," or will Gordon Elliott nix that?
Sunday, August 15, 2010
Saturday, August 14, 2010
As my search through dusty boxes of my great aunt's and great uncle's possessions continues, I'm happy to report that I just stumbled upon an April 21, 1912 edition of The New York Herald. As you can tell by the date, this isn't just any paper: it's the Titanic special edition, published a week after the tragedy occurred (4/14/12). THE FOUNDERING of the TITANIC, reads the enormous headline. The Herald had previously published a piece closer to the date of the actual sinking, but this edition seems to have been constructed in the spirit of weekly magazines like Time or Newsweek: the passage of time allows for longer essays and more in-depth commentary. I'm afraid to unfold the ancient paper, but the front-page essay, whose first few paragraphs are visible, reads less like just-the-facts journalism and more like, well, an essay.
Almost two years from now, the paper will be 100 years old. Should I auction it off then...? It's not in very good condition; I imagine there are many university libraries, all with copies of the same issue that are in much better shape. Hm. Mental gears are turning.
I'm also pretty sure that, somewhere in this mountain of old stuff, we have a document signed by Theodore Roosevelt. Where the hell did it go...?
UPDATE: I found this depressing bit of news:
Foremost, if the newspaper is brittle, in pieces or falling [apart], it probably has no collector value. This is especially so for atmosphere [i.e., old newspapers with no major events in them]. For a newspaper with news of a major event on the front page, it may still have some collector value but not much. For example, if a key issue newspaper had a value of $500 in solid condition, if it were in pieces and one could not turn the pages without causing more rips and pieces to fall off, the collector value might be as HIGH as $50 -- if any collector would even want it. Newspapers printed prior to the 1870's are usually found in what many would call "excellent" or "near mint" condition. If for some reason it is in a shabby, well-worn, and stained condition, the value drops anywhere from 50% to 100% for those with major historic content. Atmosphere newspapers in this condition have no collector value.
So my "The Foundering of the Titanic" paper probably won't fetch much... not even in 2012.
Our family is in possession of an old, old book of illustrations titled Tennyson's Heroes and Heroines. Inside the book is a note and autograph by one Charles Hugo, dated December 25, 1893. The note reads simply, "With kind regards and best wishes, from yours Sincerely."
Delighted to think that I might be in possession of a signature from a member of the Hugo family (Victor Hugo did have a son named Charles), I began researching Charles Hugo online... and immediately discovered that the signer of our family's book was not that Charles Hugo. Victor Hugo's second son died of a stroke in 1871, making it impossible for him to have left an 1893 autograph.
So la question se pose: which Charles Hugo might this be? Just some vague and obscure Charles Hugo, or another Hugo of some renown?
UPDATE: A Google Timeline search produces some interesting possibilities.
Friday, August 13, 2010
Thursday, August 12, 2010
My brother David reminded me over dinner last night that some people once asked the Johnny Cash estate for usage rights to the lyrics of his song "Ring of Fire." The reason: they were trying to score a commercial for a hemorrhoid relief product.
The estate said no.
I fell into a burning ring of fire
I went down, down, down
and the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire
UPDATE: Story here (February 19, 2004; Cash died in 2003):
It may be an obvious match-up, but Johnny Cash's classic "Ring of Fire" won't be used to sell hemorrhoid-relief cream anytime soon.
The Tennessean of Nashville first reported late last month that a Florida TV production company wanted to pitch the idea of using the classic song in a commercial for Preparation H or similar products.
Merle Kilgore, who wrote the 1964 hit with Cash's wife, June Carter Cash, told the newspaper he was mightily amused by the idea when the production company called him. After all, he used to mock-dedicate the song "to the makers of Preparation H" whenever he played the song live.
But Cash's daughter Rosanne said she and her siblings were less fired up.
"There is no way we will ever let that happen," Rosanne Cash told the newspaper. "We would never allow the song to be demeaned like that."
The script for the commercial would have featured Kilgore's own rendition of the song, not Cash's, but the Cash children still hold veto power through June Carter Cash's songwriting credit.
"He [Kilgore] started talking about this moronic tie-in without talking to any of us," Rosanne Cash added. "The song is about the transformative power of love and that's what it has always meant to me and that's what it will always mean to the Cash children."
June Carter Cash died a few months before her husband last year.
"I certainly didn't want to upset the Cash family because I love them," said Kilgore, who now manages Hank Williams Jr. "I just thought it was kind of funny."
"Ring of Fire" may not be associated with hemorrhoids, but the Out There editors definitely remember it being used in a British TV ad for very spicy foods a few years ago.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Having a culinary point of view (CPOV) is perhaps the most essential quality of any chef who hopes to win at "The Next Food Network Star." I'm on record as saying that I appreciate this attitude and wish to apply it to my own life. Some commenters here at the Hairy Chasms have questioned whether having a culinary point of view is even necessary for a home chef (on TV, specificity = niche marketing), and I want to address that issue in this post.
I was fascinated when I first heard the CPOV refrain a couple seasons back. It made eminent sense to me that these contestants, in order to be successful, would need to practice γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnothi seauton), Know Thyself.* Essentially, one's knowledge of one's own CPOV is a type of self-knowledge: just who am I (as a chef)? As my commenters would agree, this has obvious implications for a person aiming to star in his or her own cooking show. Specificity perforce limits one's appeal as a TV host, but the target demographic will contain a high percentage of loyal repeat viewers. That's a market that can be cultivated, built upon, and exploited.
But what about for the home chef? Well, to me, the same logic applies: for me to be a successful home chef, it's important not to be willy-nilly in my approach to cooking. This doesn't preclude culinary experimentation and growth as a cook, but it does require me to examine what my strengths and preferences are, and to build from there. Just as we don't speak language in general, we don't cook food in general. Each meal is a specific articulation of our will and our skill. In a real sense, each meal we make expresses who we are. Having a CPOV goes a long way toward guaranteeing consistency in that expression.
In my case the problem is that, like some of the unfortunate contestants on "The Next Food Network Star" who washed out early, I still don't really know what my own CPOV is. The result, I think, is often mediocre, directionless cooking. Being able to cook a limited number of dishes to perfection is one thing, but being rooted in a clear CPOV would enable me to attack many more dishes, including recipes I've never encountered before. Beyond a general knowledge of the fundamentals, a person needs to figure out what they like and dislike, and build a repertoire that reflects their unique strengths. Success at home isn't the same thing as success on TV, but self-knowledge is, I would argue, key to both.
Even if one's CPOV is best labeled "experimental," that, too, is something specific. Look at the crazy chefs of Moto in Chicago. Every meal they create, mostly through molecular gastronomy, is a bona fide original, completely different from whatever had gone before, and yet there's a palpable consistency in what they do. Our CPOV determines our focus. I wouldn't want Korean food prepared by Bobby Flay (who would probably try to substitute gochu with chipotle), but I'd happily eat something Korean prepared by Guy Fieri, whose loose-limbed, freewheeling CPOV includes Asian ingredients.
CPOV matters, whether on TV or at home. It provides direction, whets our sense of purpose, and drives us to express ourselves in ways that faithfully reflect who we are.
UPDATE, August 18, 2010: This post neglects to define what a culinary point of view is; it assumes that followers of "The Next Food Network Star" are aware of how the term is used by the judges and the contestants. Still, the lack of a definition of CPOV in this post is a pretty glaring omission, so I'll be tackling that subject in an upcoming post.
*Referenced in "The Matrix" as the Latin "temet nosce," where the motto could be seen above the kitchen door of the Oracle. Originally an inscription on Apollo's temple at Delphi. See here.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Monday, August 09, 2010
I've noticed that automobile gas tanks and batteries of all shapes and sizes follow the same general principle: they seem to last forever until they reach roughly the halfway point, after which they deplete at a logarithmic rate. It's a long time from "full" to "half" in my car, but no time at all from "half" to "fuel light."
Toothpaste tubes, thankfully, seem to follow the opposite rule: they deplete rapidly until you reach that final glob residing right next to the opening, then suddenly act as if they contain an infinite supply of toothpaste. A mere hint of a squeeze is enough to send out enough dentifrice to cover the bristles of one's toothbrush. It's not much, but it's always enough, and this state of affairs can last for weeks-- even months. Do toothpaste tubes contain little wormholes into a universe filled with the stuff? The mind boggles at the implications.
Or perhaps a single universe is sufficient to explain the problem. Squeezing your toothpaste down to zero is a lot like accelerating an object to the speed of light: it takes an infinite amount of force to reach the speed of light, and the graph of the force necessary to push an object to that goal veers upward to avoid the asymptote set in place by Mother Nature. The same may apply to toothpaste in a tube: it may never be possible to empty any given tube of its paste; the force required would approach infinity, and this is why we always end up throwing away so much toothpaste.
It could be that the interior of a toothpaste tube begins to behave strangely as the toothpaste approaches zero. I'm sure some sort of experiment, performed at CERN, for example, could show us what we're up against.
Sunday, August 08, 2010
I've been remiss in providing commentary on the elimination process over at Food Network's "The Next Food Network Star." Last I wrote, we said goodbye to Brianna, the self-admitted diva who cooked at a consistently high level, proved bizarrely able to work with others despite her prickly nature, yet fell in the end because she never quite demonstrated that "it" factor-- the elusive quality that allows some folks to be comfortable in front of a camera, but not others.
Since then, three episodes have gone by. We lost outspoken, frenetic Serena in the Week 7 episode while Aarti once again proved able to shine despite her native timidity. Week 8 saw some of the judges in tears as they cut Brad-- the "pro" chef whose cooking proved far too inconsistent for my taste. Brad probably had to go: whatever charm he had in person with the judges, it never registered on camera for me. I found Brad personable, but little else. In his own environment, I don't doubt he's an excellent chef, and we did see some flashes of that excellence over the course of several weeks, but ultimately, I couldn't see him as a TV host. (NB: Food Network already employs some dry presenters. Michael Chiarello comes to mind right away, and I often find myself wishing that Ina Garten would liven herself up. The difference, though, is that I think Garten is a far superior chef.)
This brings us to tonight's episode: Week 9, which may well be the most controversial episode of the season. This was the episode in which we went from four to the final three. When I originally predicted who would be in the top five, I named Aria, Herb, Serena, Aarti, and Brad. Of those five, I would have said that Aria and Aarti would be in the top three, along with Herb. As it turned out, we lost Aria tonight, and Tom-- who I thought would wash out before the halfway point-- has somehow managed to tough it out to be in the final three.
Tom's inclusion is what makes this episode controversial, at least to my mind. If we think purely in terms of a story arc, then I've enjoyed Tom's improvement over the weeks as he's come to understand what it takes to work with the camera. Tom's problem, though-- and I mentioned this last time-- is the enormous gap between his concepts and his execution. Far too many of his dishes have started with the best of intentions, only to end in culinary ruin. The same rough-edged lack of discipline that allows Tom to be creative is also what makes him produce some truly inedible dishes (e.g., that awful jerk-spiced slaw from several weeks back). I fully expected Tom to be leaving us tonight.
The Week 9 challenge saw the contestants traveling from California to New York, and instead of a two-challenge event (usually it's a camera challenge followed by a "star challenge" the next day), this episode featured only one challenge in two parts, with Alton Brown hosting a scaled-down version of "Iron Chef America." The judging panel included the regular three judges-- Bob Tuschman, Susie Fogelson, and Bobby Flay-- and added three more Iron Chefs to the mix: Michael Symon, Masaharu Morimoto, and Cat Cora.
Alton Brown explained the rules: the two chefs who were cooking would have to produce three dishes in 60 minutes using the secret theme ingredient; meanwhile, the other two chefs were to patrol the studio and offer Kevin Brauch-style commentary that was as spot-on as possible. After the one-hour combat, the pair that had been commenting would don their aprons and cook while the previous cooks would become commentators. In the end, both the cuisine and the commentary would be judged.
Herb faced off against Aarti; their secret ingredient was shrimp. This left Aria and Tom to comment on the action, and it quickly became obvious that Tom was far more thorough and engaged than Aria who, to all intents and purposes, didn't seem to be taking her role too seriously. Her demeanor justified a constant complaint by Bobby Flay (and sometimes the other judges as well) that Aria, because she's naturally at ease with the camera as well as an excellent chef, often seems to be coasting by or phoning in her performance. Along with the notion of a clear culinary point of view, the judges value progress in the contestants, and if the contestants don't seem to be evolving over time, what seemed initially charming could curdle into something far less appealing. Tom knew ingredients and procedures, and when he didn't know the answer to a question thrown out by Alton Brown, he quickly found the answer out and gave it to Brown, stat.
Aarti was, predictably, the winner of the contest between her and Herb. Herb's first dish was pronounced excellent by all the judges, but his second dish included a bit of grit from some improperly cleaned clams, and his third dish was considered a failure. Aarti, meanwhile, received high praise from all the judges for each of her meals. Despite her slowpoke style in the kitchen (Bobby Flay was visibly irritated that she wasn't moving faster), she ended up producing food that some of the Iron Chefs deemed worthy to appear in Kitchen Stadium.*
Aarti and Herb switched hats and became commentators while Tom and Aria geared up for battle. Their secret ingredient: bacon. Aria, insistent upon her "family style" culinary point of view, made the mistake of using bacon as little more than a garnish or a side in all three of her dishes. Tom, meanwhile, made the hilarious decision to go for broke, featuring bacon as the star of all three of his dishes, and in the process creating some of the most horrifying food I've ever seen anyone make. I was shouting "Don't do it! Jesus!" at the TV when he told the camera that his second dish would be a "bacon steak," which turned out to be exactly what it sounded like: an obscene, steak-sized slab of bacon! Unlike pork chops, which can afford a slight pink hue in the middle,** bacon needs to be cooked all the way through. When something that thick gets cooked that thoroughly, what you're left with is shoe leather. Even I could see that coming.
Herb turned out to be a very competent commentator during the Tom/Aria battle; he was both engaging and alert. He messed up the scripted line he had to recite for the camera, but was otherwise quite good. Aarti, meanwhile, stood around doing very little, offering commentary only when prompted. She was probably worse than Aria, who also seemed somewhat disengaged from the action.
In the end, Aarti and Tom were declared "safe" by the judges-- Aarti for her excellent cooking, and Tom for his excellent commentary. This left Herb and Aria on the chopping block, and given their respective performances that episode, it was Aria who got the chop. As Bob Tuschman noted, Herb's food was better than Aria's that day (Aria had played it too safe, and may have missed the point of the Iron Chef challenge), but it still came as a surprise to me that Aria was cut while Tom was allowed onward to the final.
If I understand the judges' reasoning, Aria was eliminated because she had failed to demonstrate any real growth over the course of nine weeks. She came into the competition with a natural poise and camera-friendliness, as well as a clear culinary point of view and plenty of raw talent. However, as time went on, her unapologetic insistence on that point of view-- which she never truly refined or amped up-- became her downfall. Tom, on the other hand, came into the competition as a recently unemployed chef, and unlike Aria, he learned from his trial by fire on the show. All the same, I think Tom's improvement has been entirely in terms of his on-camera persona; his cooking remains as undisciplined and inconsistent as when he started. It's amazing to me that he could produce three inedible dishes*** and still be allowed on to the final (as was the case in previous seasons, the finale will pit three contestants against each other). As much as I've enjoyed watching Tom, I don't think he deserves to be among the final three.
That brings us to the finale next week. My prediction: Aarti will win. Her on-camera poise and consistently excellent cooking skills, along with her Indian-themed approach to food, will prove irresistible. I also think, however, that Herb may end up being offered his own show as well, just as happened with runner-up Adam Gertler (currently doing "Kid in a Candy Store") of Season 4. Personally, I'm rooting for Herb. He's nowhere near as consistently good a cook as Aarti, but his enthusiasm is infectious, as is his earnestness. I've also seen him produce some remarkably beautiful dishes over the past two months, and think he has what it takes to be a star in his own right.
*I've never liked the name "Kitchen Stadium." Both nouns, "kitchen" and "stadium," are generic; when placed together, they sound even more generic. The name conveys no oomph. They should call the place Morimotokan!
**This wasn't always the case. The old doctrine was that all pork had to be cooked until well done because of the possibility of trichinosis. Nowadays, despite all the flak about factory farming, most pork is parasite-free and can thus be cooked just short of well done to preserve tenderness and juiciness. Think I'm lying?
***Tom's first bacon-themed dish was a "bacon cake," i.e., a crab cake-style concoction made from bacon. The bacon steak was his second dish, and his third dish was a bacon French toast... with clams. If I hadn't seen Tom cook decent food in other episodes, and had been allowed to judge his abilities only by the evidence seen in Week 9, I would have assumed he was a culinary idiot. Bacon cake sounds very much like something I would make at home... but only when alone, and purely for the sake of naughty experimentation. I would never, ever, inflict something like that on another human being.