Sunday, October 20, 2013

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

At the end of one's tether ...

"Life's an awfully lonesome affair.... You come into the world alone and you go out of the world alone yet it seems to me you are more alone while living than even going and coming." -- artist Emily Carr

You've lost your young child through a freak accident.  Hurt and without bearing, you are adrift from your own life.  Everyday living gives you little meaning or hope.  There is no solace in the words of others and you are, figuratively, at the end of one's tether.

What are you choices?  Give up, give in to grief, or to trust in yourself and move on.  Stop letting the past and the way you have done things limit what you can do in your future.

Gravity is a metaphor.  It turns that figurative isolation into literal isolation. This story of astronauts struggling in the hostile vastness of space is rife with symbolism.  George Clooney's character, Matt Kowalski,  represents the past that Sandra Bullock's character, Ryan Stone, must release in order to move forward.  Entangled in cords, dodging the debris of a space station damaged by falling satellites, the both of them are doomed to die unless one or the other releases himself and allows the other to fight on and hopefully live.  Clooney's choice allows Bullock's character to go on, to not be limited by his literal weight and the figurative weight of her past. When she finally gets out of her capsule back on Earth, she struggles to stand and finally gets back on her own two feet, reveling in the moment that is much more than a physical release.  It is an emotional one.

I could be way off on my take of Gravity.  Maybe I've listened to one too many reviews of artsy French new wave films or stayed up too late trying to find meaning and subtlety where it was never intended.  But I don't think so.  Alfonso Cuarón is one of my favorite directors and he is not a plodding Hollywood hack.  With his fellow Mexican directors and friends, Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, they have carved out a niche as original, visual and artistic talents not constrained by conventional American/Anglo narratives. Their movies are full of symbolism and allegory (Babel and Pan's Labyrinth most notably).  And it is my belief that Gravity continues that trend.

I have purposely not read, watched or listened to any reviews of Gravity (except my bud Wil) because I didn't want to be influenced by what someone else may think the movie means.  I didn't even want to see a confirmation of what I saw.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are stars and very good actors and do nothing in this film to change that opinion.  Clooney is funny and charming, as always.  Bullock is subdued, for her, but this serves the role for the most part.

I will not get into the technical aspects of Gravity.  They have been extensively described elsewhere.  Suffice to say, Cuarón has infused Gravity with a realism that gets about as close to what I imagine space would actually feel like.  I saw it on a normal screen but will be revisiting it with IMAX 3D in the near future.

So, why didn't it completely work for me?  Too much detachment.  For all its visual beauty, I believe it lacks a heart.  Something just kept me from altogether buying in.  I can't even quite put my reservations into words.  Secondly, with the movie being very short for an Oscar-worthy film (90 minutes), more time could have been spent explaining exactly why a doctor is installing something on Hubble.  How did she even end up at NASA?  I'm not expecting awkward exposition or anything, but it seems like a little more could have been revealed through her conversations with Clooney's character.  Lastly, Bullock's role seems just a bit too much like a trick role, à la Tom Hanks in Cast Away ... a role set up to present well to Oscar voters.  Maybe just a bit too much earnestness and not enough reality.

I'm definitely curious how a second watching may temper my opinion.  Like similar space movies, Moon and 2001, Gravity has a way of making real the quiet, yet ominous isolation of space.  And similarly, I didn't appreciate those movies fully the 1st few times.  Grade:  B

As usual, Mr Stachour at Journal Wunelle has done a bang-up job of a review of Gravity here.  Much smarter than I, a superior writer and possessing much more knowledge of life in thin air, I think you'll like his take.

Saturday, October 05, 2013


I'm not a racing fan per se. I don't dislike it. As a general sports nut, I will watch a bit of everything. A NASCAR race , maybe some motorcycling racing ... and occasionally a Formula One race. But it's been awhile since I followed it with any kind of regularity. About 10 years ago, one of my best friends was a big Formula One fan and this almost forced me to become aware of racers like Michael Schumaker. But I was sadly (and blissfully) unaware of the rivalry in the 70's between British driver James Hunt and Austrian driver Niki Lauda.

An interest in racing is not necessary to appreciate Rush. The race scenes are great but ultimately it is the interplay between the Hunt and Lauda characters that is the strength of this movie. Since watching Rush, I've done a bit more research into both Hunt and Lauda and see how well each of their characters were cast in both looks and demeanor. Thor's Chris Hemsworth has always had that natural charisma and rakish good looks that Hunt had. And Daniel Bruhl, now also being seen in The Fifth Estate, does a fine job in the role of Lauda. Olivia Wilde, while being in a smaller role as Hunt's wife (for a time), is gorgeous. Her acting is fine, but she just doesn't get a lot of screen time. I did find it fascinating that she left Hunt to go out with Richard Burton, revealing how big Formula One was at the time and the level of celebrity that it had attained.

The rivalry between the drivers is at the heart of the story. Though they were drastically different: Hunt, an unredeemable playboy and lover of life and Lauda, a prickly and calculating tactician, it was their relationship to each other that drove both of them. While not getting too in-depth into the events of the movie, it is the drive to race and beat each other that gives them strength in crisis situations off-the-track.

Racing is just the vehicle, pardon the pun, for the point of the story.  As the poster says, "Everyone's driven by something."  Both of the racers are driven by a need to rise above the expectations of their families.  Hunt has a maniacal need to experience everything to the fullest, something that makes him seemingly careless in real life and hard to beat on the track.  Lauda, from a family of high achievers in business and government, feels that driving is the only thing he can do well and he is going to prove that he is the best.  Good movies make a person think about your own life in a more immediate way than books do.  The best movies will even motivate us to action or to changing something in our own lives.  While I'm not intimating that Rush caused me to reevaluate my life in any substantive way, it was successful in getting me to at least think about the reasons that I do things in work and in my personal life.

It's one of the best movies I have seen this year.  You root for each of the drivers despite (and sometimes because of) their obvious shortcomings.  They are are so focused on their driving that relationships outside of racing are strained.  Their differences in style cause conflict between the racers early on but grow into a grudging respect.  While I believe this is done primarily for dramatics in the movie, as the drivers were actually quite close in real life and even shared an apartment early in their careers, there's no point in letting the truth get in the way of a good story.

Director Ron Howard knows how to tell a good story and I've always been a fan of his work (Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13 being my favorites).  The movie clocks in at about 2 hours but does not seem long.  The characters are established well and organically without slowing down the narrative.  I recommend Rush.  Grade:  A

(Expect a fairly rapid-fire barrage of movie reviews over the next few weeks.  I've finally gotten into a writing mood and will hammer out reviews of most of the decent movies I've seen this year.  No particular order ... I'm just going to let the subject matter or emotions of each lead me to the next in line.)

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Friday, August 16, 2013

Great quote, courtesy of Atheist Revolution

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Challenging Stupidity

The always thoughtful vjack at Atheist Revolution brought up an interesting question on his blog awhile ago, and I'm paraphrasing, "Are we obligated to challenge stupidity, and if so, when?"

The "obligation" to challenge stupidity that vjack speaks of is from a Christopher Hitchens quote that he posts on his blog and I've posted here in a slightly longer form,

"Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses ..."

As vjack says, if we always challenged stupid claims by others, we'd have scant time for anything else in our days.  But that shouldn't dissuade us from doing so when we see fit. His query obviously comes from the atheist/skeptic community frame of reference, but it doesn't have to.

There are varying degrees of stupidity and for the criteria that determines whether one should respond.  Does my challenging this specific point really make a difference?  Am I being personally hurt by this person's stupidity?  Is their stupidity willful or is just borne of a lack of knowledge?

Obviously, the definition of stupid is important.  Stupid isn't merely someone who disagrees with us.  I believe it means to be willfully ignorant.  Knowing you are wrong but because of your prejudice or belief system, you close yourself off from fact.

That last item is where I get most upset. It's not that you don't know something. It's that you don't care ... those people that are not intellectually curious. Or it's that your worldview actively discourages you from seeking out answers. I have little problem with people that through having not been exposed to something before are ignorant. But I will challenge you to no end if you are content to stay in that state of ignorance. Being wrong is not a crime. Knowing you are and encouraging others to share in your delusions ... maybe that should be. This "willful" area, I believe, encompasses almost all religion.

"Faith is nothing more than the license religious people give themselves to keep believing when reasons fail." -- Sam Harris

Is it just being mean to call those of faith "stupid"? Maybe. Obviously "stupid" can't help but be taken pejoratively.  But I'm trying to be serious here.  I'm honestly trying to figure out why people believe certain ways and what keeps them from analyzing their own beliefs.

I can suffer a lot of ignorance daily, and mostly bear it well. While I don't consider myself an expert in my field (computers), I have quite a bit of experience, a pretty good memory and an ability to use the scientific method to troubleshoot issues. For these reasons, there are few things that I cannot solve. I don't always know the answer, but I'm not afraid to go out and find the answer.

"The hard but just rule is that if the ideas don’t work, you must throw them away. Don’t waste neurons on what doesn’t work. Devote those neurons to new ideas that better explain the data." -- Carl Sagan

In your fields of work, do you often feel compelled to challenge ignorance? Are you more prone to challenge it on non-work related issues? Are you more likely to challenge clients, strangers, co-workers, friends or family?

I try not to challenge clients ... for obvious reasons. What will it get me ... besides one less customer?  But, there are a few areas while I will even challenge them, just to name a few:  science denial, racism, sexism.

"What is it you most dislike? Stupidity, especially in its nastiest forms of racism and superstition." -- Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir

What do you consider ignorance and how do you deal with it?

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Life of Pi: The Theory of Relativity ... the relativity of truth

It may seem a bit incongruous for me to be reviewing this movie this late, but it is what it is.  I just watched Life of Pi today for the the first time.  I've had the Blu-ray since my birthday but we just recently advanced into the modern age by buying a 60" Sharp flat-screen.  I didn't want to sully the viewing experience by watching it on something so pedestrian as our 10 year old standard def monstrosity.  From the TV ads and what I knew about the movie, I expected it to be a visual experience ... at it was.

Bil at Journal Wunelle admirably reviewed Life of Pi months ago and I have absolutely no quarrels with any of his observations.  I came at my viewing of the film a little differently, as I read the book.  So I knew of its "twist", but it didn't make it any less interesting.  Unlike another critically acclaimed book with religious overtones that I didn't care for (The Lovely Bones), I did like Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Pi, short for Piscene, is an India boy whose formative years are at his parents' zoo,  These years, while familiarizing him with the animals and training methods at the apparent heart of this story, are perhaps more important for the spiritual journey he takes.While his world is largely Hindu, Pi is a spiritual dabbler who also ventures into Catholicism and Islam.  To make sense of the world around him, he tries on whatever religion that will get to some kind of "truth".  His dad may preach reason and rationality, but Pi's mother understands Pi's yearning for something that answers the bigger questions.  Of course, one doesn't need religion to answer these "bigger questions", but this isn't my journey ... it's Pi's.

When conditions force his family to leave the zoo and relocate everyone, including the animals, to North America, several of the pillars of his emotional support are taken away ... his country, a girlfriend.  When the means of their transport, an aging ship, sinks, the last of his support, his family, are also taken away. So Pi resorts to the means he already knows to make sense of a senseless tragedy and to survive.  Regardless of one's religious views, the reader or viewer cannot begrudge him that.

While having religious faith may add a slightly different perspective on watching the movie, by no means do I think it is necessary.  I've heard the screenwriter talk about his perspective in writing the movie (which may have been different than Martel's) ... that Pi's journey required faith, but not necessarily religious faith.  Just faith in something.  It can be faith in God.  But it could also be in one's self, in humanity, in family, whatever.  Just something that keeps you going.  But even if the screenwriter didn't make that caveat, I still found it a fascinating and entertaining story.  Just because I'm an atheist doesn't mean I can't be interested in stories with religious themes.  By far, the scariest movie I've ever seen is the Exorcist, which doesn't make a lot of sense for me to be afraid of.  And, in general, the movies I find scariest are demon-possession types.

Religion, from a story-telling standpoint, is endlessly fertile ground because of the fascinating elements of redemption, resurrection, forgiveness, etc.  Many of those elements are present in Life of Pi.

The method of the storytelling ... the adult Pi retelling his adventure to a writer (one imagines it being Martel)... adds to the reality/fantasy blend that is at the heart of the story.

The acting is good, but not so much the focus.  Of any of the actors, I believe that Irrfan Khan (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) as the adult Pi is strongest.  The focus is gloriously on the visuals of the film.  Seeing this on Blu-ray on a nice TV was fantastic.  The colors and settings are vibrant, almost dream-like, as one would expect when a story is told through the prism of a particular person's recollection.  When that recollection is further augmented by desire and need, it is not hard to see why some considered the book unfilmable.  But director Ang Lee rarely disappoints in anything, and certainly didn't in his Oscar-winning work here.  I recommend this movie.  Grade:  A

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Honestly, I was sick of the NRA a long time ago.  But, the last year has taken my hatred of them to a whole new level.  Why such a small minority holds such a large sway on our politicians is ridiculous.  And to try to disguise their idiocy under the banner of "freedom" doesn't wash with me.  Admit it -- you love guns, you feel inadequate without them, you are afraid of people different than you and you couldn't really give a shit about the other parts of the Bill of Rights.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Sunday, March 10, 2013

2013 VNSA Used Book Sale

A sampling of my finds from our yearly trek to the VNSA Used Book Sale:

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson -- a modern classic sci-fi author that I have never gotten around to and what is considered his best book

Cyteen and Downbelow Station by C.J.  Cherryh -- another "classic" modern author that I have not read before
Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear -- a sequel to Forge of God, which I've already read and liked
Fleet of Worlds by Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner
Earthclan:  Startide Rising & The Uplift War by David Brin -- I have read other Brin stuff and liked it.
Science Fiction:  The Illustrated Encyclopedia by John Clute --This is a really nice coffee-table book with a fairly comprehensive overview of all science fiction (movies, TV, books, comics, etc.)
When looking for new sci-fi books, I let my own experience guide me but I also referred to several lists of the the top science fiction books of all time, including:

David Pringle's Science Fiction:  The 100 Best Novels
Sci-Fi Lists:  Top 100 Sci-Fi Books
NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels

Science Non-Fiction 

Chaos:  Making a New Science by James Gleick
Quantum Man:  Richard Feynman's Life in Science by Lawrence M. Krauss -- Feynman and Krauss ... two of my scientific heroes. 

Not a Drop to Drink:  America's Water Crisis by Ken Midkiff

General Non-Fiction & Philosophy

Don't Eat This Book:  Fast Food and the Supersizing of America by Morgan Spurlock -- a companion piece to the excellent documentary Super Size Me
The Island at the Center of the World:  The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America  by Russell Shorto
Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol
Towards a New Architecture by Le Corbusier -- I'm a modernist nerd and this is considered one of the "bibles" of modernism.

Postcards from Ed (Abbey):  Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast
Bertrand Russell:  A Collection of Critical Essays edited by D.F. Pears

"For me science fiction is a way of thinking, a way of logic that bypasses a lot of nonsense. It allows people to look directly at important subjects." -- Gene Roddenberry

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Political Song of the Day: Glorified G by Pearl Jam

Glorified G by Pearl Jam

Got a gun, fact i got two
That's ok man, cuz i love god

Glorified version of a pellet gun
Feels so manly, when armed
Glorified version of a pellet gun ...
Don't think, dumb is strength
Never shot at a living thing
Glorified version of a pellet gun
Feels so manly, when armed
Glorified version of a pellet gun ...
Always keep it loaded ...
Kindred to be an american...
Life comes...i can feel your heart...
Life comes...i can feel your heart through your neck...
Like some...i can steal your heart from your neck...

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Podcasts of the Week

OK, "podcasts of the week" has turned into "podcasts of the year" because that is just about the frequency with which I post.  Sorry about that.

Some of you might have heard about the documentary that musician Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters) made about a famous recording studio in LA called Sound City.  Many classic 70's, 80's and 90's artists recorded there, including Nirvana (the iconic Nevermind).  This studio was closing and Grohl saw it as symbolic of the passing of a generation of music.  He purchased its one-of-a-kind custom-made sound board, interviewed many of the artists (Neil Young, Cheap Trick, Rick Springfield, Stevie Nicks, etc)  that used it, and made some new music on that board with those artists   And he documented the whole thing.  What transpires is a great rock documentary.  Here's a bit more about the documentary:  Sound City.

In this podcast interview with Nerdist, Grohl talks about Sound City, but also just about everything else.  It's nostalgic and funny, irreverently so as is often the case with Nerdist.  It might not be safe for listening to at work for that reason.  Here's the podcast:  Dave Grohl on Nerdist

For another great Nerdist podcast, also check out this one with Tom Morello, political activist and guitarist with Rage Against the Machine.  Morello is one of my heroes for his music, his erudition and his political beliefs.  Tom Morello on Nerdist.

And, finally, I'd like to recommend an NPR interview with Tony Kushner, screenwriter for Lincoln.  I liked Lincoln a lot, more so than my wife and kid.  And for the very reasons that they didn't like it ... the political "wheeling and dealing" minutiae.  What makes that political banter so enjoyable are the words of Tony Kushner and the great actors speaking those words.  Kushner is a great writer, known for Angels in America and Munich, and this interview gets into the process of how he wrote it and how he helped to convince the sublime Daniel Day Lewis to act in the movie.

I've just recently started working through all of the episodes of The West Wing on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I'm not exactly sure why I never watched this show before, perhaps a combination of timing and receptiveness to the subject matter.  I'm about halfway through season 1.  It's become obvious to me that I'm an idiot and deprived myself of a remarkable show.  Aaron Sorkin's remarkable writing is in full force here.  Even though the episodes that I'm watching are almost 15 years old, the topics could be about today ... gun control and budget battles.  Why I bring this up is that the oratorical style of the main character, Josiah Bartlet - played by Martin Sheen, involves frequent folksy story-telling to illustrate a political or moral point.  Though often met with grins and rolling eyes by those present, the stories make their point.  This style is exactly how Abraham Lincoln, as portrayed by Lewis, directed by Spielberg, and written by Kushner, makes his political points.  There's a lot of Lincoln in Bartlet, perhaps intentionally so.  Do yourself a favor and check out the Kushner interview here:  Kushner's 'Lincoln' is Strange, but also Savvy.  And why you are at it, watch The West Wing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Monday, February 11, 2013

As posted at subverty, a quote from the great street artist Banksy:

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Political Song of the Day - Robin Hood in Reverse by Bad Religion

Bad Religion has always been the standard bearers for thinking man's punk rock.  They obviously frequently sing of religion, but this song hits upon the Supreme Court and the ridiculousness of the Citizens United decision.  That monumentally inconceivable ruling opened the floodgates of even more dark money into the already corrupt political process.  Despite his apparent love of his own voice, Antonin Scalia will not be looked up kindly by history.  In his eyes, money is free speech.  And the more money you have, the more speech you get.

Robin Hood in Reverse by Bad Religion

 Here is the church 
There is the steeple 
Open up the door 
Corporations are people 
Wait what did he say? 
What the fuck did he say? 

It couldn't last 
They had to crash 
Some parties are just made that way 
But when the bell rings 
The boys will sing 
Swing low sweet precariat 

Let's say we try to get this right 
Said the plutocrat to jesus christ 
And when the old fox fearing the worst 
Made his entrance in a hearse 
Then the nine in black robes all went berserk 
This is a tale of robin hood in reverse 

Citizens united 
I was excited 
When the kids are united they can never be divided 
But that was yesterday 
There's a brand new sham to today 

Let's say we try to get this right 
Said the plutocrat to jesus christ 
And when the old fox fearing the worst 
Made his entrance in a hearse 
Then the nine in black robes all went berserk 
This is a tale of robin hood in reverse