Posts from January 2005

31
Jan 05

oliphaunts vs mumins

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oliphaunts vs mumins: WHO WILL DIE?

in the interests of havin a social life clearly mumin wins, in the sense that to watch 10 hours-worth* of DVD-mumins IN GERMAN at starry’s house w.various pals = bettah than stayin in and watchin ep3 of the new series of time commanders by myself (haha tho everyone i know who = not at starry’s txted me to say OLIPHAUNTS AHOY!!)

anyway as others will perhaps discuss, we got to compare the eng-lang vs germ-lang broadcast versions (communal conclusions: germ-lang = much longer eps w.langorous dwellin on scenery detail, less quirky/annoying voiceover, fiddlier loungejazz S/T; eng-lang = more evocative music maybe, voiceoever-fella richard murdoch clearly wanted to be the new eric thompson (of eng-lang magic roundabout fame) and as a result provided snufkin w.a maddening cali-beatnik drawl a la dylan the rabbit and little my with the voice of a crazed little old posh lady)

i wz challenged to declare – aide from mere contrarian perversity hem hem – why i approved of the fact that the moominvalley party was stretched out over THREE NEARLY EVENTLESS (german) EPISODES despite the fact that the puppetshow moomintroll omits key characters (= the snork and the muskrat): the answer = this
i. this wz my favourite scene in ANY book as a child (though i never till now told anyone this), and
ii. when i stayed at dr vick’s mum’s house in saltash two years ago, dr vick’s brother’s kids threw a surprise moominvalley party for me, complete w.pancakes, paper lanterns and clifftop view of the sea – AND WHEN THE SUN WENT DOWN IT TURNED RUBY RED!! i don’t know how they did this last bit (the oldest = seven!) —- anyway this depiction of the party did not betray EITHER of these very excellent memories

*we did not complete this task

29
Jan 05

APPLYING OCCAM’S RAZOR

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APPLYING OCCAM’S RAZOR — Part 2 of 2

(The first part of this post can be found at the Brown Wedge.)

While Martin Gardner’s book on Urantia’s crazy-quilt scheme of science (fiction) Christianity was a flawed mess, the impulse to review with suspicion attempts to square scientific conclusions and projections with previously held religious belief is to my mind something worth doing. Even a more popular journal like Discover is my idea of a good time rather than Hal Lindsey explaining why a shortfall in pork bellies is a sign Revelation is about to kick in. This isn’t to say that what constitutes ‘science’ itself, as well as the scientific method, can’t be reviewed with a gimlet eye in turn, but if it ever came down to Science vs. Social Text (all hail the wonderfuly crabby Alan Sokal) I’d take the former gladly.

Which is why I’ve been obliquely pleased by a few recent random posts over at a bastion of ‘right wing = right way’ thinking in the US at least, the National Review’s Corner blog. I am much more interested in reviewing these kind of blogs than most left-leaning ones because I figure knowing your enemy is always a good approach, and tracking their blend of wack-ass messianism (if you think W. is the messiah — and they do) and self-congratulation provides eyebrow raising and chuckles in turn. Every so often somebody over there decides to tweak the stereotype a bit, though, and that’s where ex-pat UK feller and Prime Obsession author John Derbyshire comes in — not that I want to be anywhere near the guy. On the score of gay-baiting alone, he’s a massive tool, while his flippant comments about the Abu Ghraib tortures and characters like Graner, who he said deserved only a 30-day sentence at most, got trashed even by the military readers of the column, who wrote in overwhelming amounts to say that Graner’s 10 year sentence was actually too short.

On at least one point, however, he’s been strongly on the side of science in the face of conservative fundamentalism, namely via his trashing of ‘intelligent design’ or ‘I.D.’ The idea is enjoyably simple, actually — given the continuing preponderance of evidence that the earth is millions of years old and genetic study and so forth, put God’s work in the mix of evolution to show that this best of all possible worlds was designed for us humans and that we ourselves were designed in turn to hold dominance over all, etc. William Jennings Bryan, however much he would have had to swallow hard initially, would have killed for this kind of talk back in the Scopes monkey trial days.

Derbyshire, however, regards this as a poor fig-leaf for ignorance and has no qualms about saying so. Most recently, he noted that he’s got a negative piece about I.D. folks like Michael Behe for NR subscribers while also inviting readers to consider another, essentially opposing piece from a former colleague, though an interesting one focusing more on a specific situation. Derbyshire’s response to some people e-mailing him about the latter article is priceless — in part:

Following my earlier post, some readers have e-mailed in arguing that David’s Opinion Journal piece demonstrates that there is a determination on the part of learned scientific journals to keep I.D. proponents out of their pages.

Well, I should certainly hope so! I hope they will also keep out of their pages proponents of the Flat Earth theory, the Hollow Earth theory, the phlogiston theory of combustion, the theory of the Four Body Humours, and the tooth fairy theory.

…Let me tell you, the world is teeming with lunatics armed with iron conviction and reams of theoretical justification for their crackpot notions. Scientists see themselves as working to expand a little clearing of light, of reason, in a vast chittering black jungle of superstition and madness. Is it any wonder they are defensive?

I could dryly note that the first part of that last paragraph could be applied to certain political and social conclusions Derbyshire himself holds — and I’ve just done. But regardless, this post is to be applauded — if Occam’s Razor seems a bit dull at points these days, some, in whole or in part, see its value.

APPLYING OCCAM’S RAZOR

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APPLYING OCCAM’S RAZOR — Part 1 of 2

URANTIA
by Martin Gardner

For many years, I was a subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer, the quite marvelous journal dedicated to a basic principle: treat any claim involving the paranormal with scientific rigor and report about it. Admittedly that wasn’t the whole story with SI, which is as much a chance for there to be reports on recent news involving such claims, studies of past incidents in history and in recent years wider debates over questions of science, religion and society in general. I like it very much still but I let it lapse without much in the way of concern from me, not because I’ve suddenly turned New Age or Fox Mulder — frankly I’d just as soon say I’ve accepted George W. Bush as my personal saviour — but because, in some respects, it had served its purpose for me. Back in the mid-eighties, when I first read about those who deceive themselves or others about their many abilities, and eagerly devoured books by authors like James Randi regarding exposures of charlatans — not to mention learning that two of my early writing heroes Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov were deeply involved with the group behind SI, CSICOP — subscribing to SI after a time was a no-brainer. Now, though, I think that dipping into the occasional story here and there would suffice for me — needing further reinforcement that the amount of BS out there piles higher than can be imagined is not needed for me now.

These thoughts came to mind while reading the UCI library copy of Urantia, written by longtime SI and Scientific American stalwart Martin Gardner, whose many essays were informative and often very enjoyable reflections on shenanigans and charlatans and oddities in many spheres. But I think, frankly, that a full-length book was a step too far. Mind you, studying the extremely odd Seventh-Day Adventist spinoff the Urantia Foundation is well worthy — the story of how a disillusioned follower of that earlier movement oversaw — if not created — an at-times surreal blend of conventional Christianity, scientific supposition and science fiction is as classic an ‘American’ story as that of Joseph Smith, say, though thankfully with much less bloodshed. But Gardner shouldn’t have been the one to write such a story, though his research is incredibly thorough, detailing as much as can be known about the creation of ‘the Urantia Papers,’ the biases, willful idiocies and plagiarisms that went into its creation, the rebellions and infighting that recurred since the movement coalesced in the 1930s.

But the book is poorly organized, leaping backwards and forwards in time with little rhyme or reason, spending moments to deliver snarky digression and insult on top of snarky digression and insult, changing tone sometimes in the middle of a paragraph or even a sentence. I don’t blame him for his sheer annoyance and laughing attitude to much of what he encounters, I’d feel the same way even if I didn’t always express it as such — ultimately the wonders of the scientific world appeal to me more as they are than having to be interpreted through a ‘revealed’ text. But I slogged through the text rather than skipped through it, wished there had been an editor or a cowriter, found myself simultaneously informed about a curious belief I had wondered about and wondering at the rationale for such an often stultifying text on Gardner’s part.

Had I just been starting to investigate this line of approach, I would have probably liked it more or reacted more positively — but as it stands it was the effort of a cranky old man, better and more briefly summarized at this much shorter webpage. So read that instead.

(This post continues over in Proven by Science.)

Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus

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Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus — after some delay I’ve finally gotten around to seeing the first of two of the strangest comedy ventures ever, namely the nearly hour-long German-only episodes (nearly all of which, a couple of moments aside, consisted of material written only for them rather than carried over from elsewhere) that them Monty Python fellers did in the early seventies at the invitation of a German producer who felt that they’d go over well. Bits and pieces had surfaced in other contexts, notably as interstitial parts of their Hollywood Bowl performances and film, but the episodes themselves only finally got a formal release in the late nineties and now, in America at least, are split between two collections, Monty Python Live and The Life of Python, which gather up all kinds of random bits and pieces and reunion specials and the like.

Over twenty years after Python first hit me over the head thanks to repeats on late night TV, it’s nice to see that for all the changes and refinements and differing approaches that have surfaced in its wake (The Day Today and South Park being two of my favorites) that the original model of open-ended sketches without punchlines and self-referentiality to a fault still has a certain punch, and the first of these German episodes has it in spades. Seeing the six wandering around the Alps as Little Red Riding Hood and flocks of doctors and Albrecht Durer, sheriff of the Old West and more — well, like with the original show sometimes the concept works better than the execution but the execution is more inspired than not. But perhaps my favorite is “The Bavarian Restaurant Sketch,” introduced as such and featuring an American couple looking for the ‘authentic’ Bavarian food experience. Serendipitously, the most humorous things about it are the authentic Bavarians in the background of every shot elsewhere in what appears to be an actual eatery, wondering why in the world a bunch of Englishmen are dancing around in waiter costumes to accordion music, insisting in phonetically learned German that theirs is the best restaurant in Bavaria, “where the mountains rise out of the ground.” But of course.

I definitely am more looking forward to getting The Office box set at some point here, but knowing that Python can still remind me why I loved them so much to begin with — it’s like getting an unexpected dessert at the end of a well-enjoyed meal. As opposed to one where prawns are stuffed down your shirt.

DAFT PUNK

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DAFT PUNK
Human After All

Yes, it’s hardly out yet or anything, but after the leak on Monday I witnessed what had to be one of the most intense fracturings of opinion over a long-expected album in a while. To pick just one example, the ILM thread is only just slowing down after a week where comments ranged from “so. fucking. amazing.” to “cheated and pissed off,” and tempers were running high. There is no consensus at all about this album, and already there’s a classic out of nowhere rumor that Virgin might just cancel the release due to some of the more virulent reaction. Be funny as heck if it turned out to be true!

What all sides are agreeing on is that this is not simply Discovery redux. If there’s a vague model of reaction that can be applied, it’s that those who adored that album are feeling wretched about this one, while those who felt that Discovery had moments but wasn’t a pinnacle of life and existence (or even that it didn’t have moments) really enjoy Human After All. It’s not an exact reaction but it’s an understandable one, because where the earlier album was sparkly and lush, this is far more minimal and to the point, obsessively focused (to a fault, some might say). Lead single “Robot Rock” is the only thing like it on the album in terms of sound, a monsterrifffest that’s already my own heavy metal single of the year, while elsewhere there’s a fair amount of industrial glowering via songs like “Steam Machine” (identifying it as an NIN pastiche is spot on, just without Trent R’s vocals) and “The Brainwasher.”

Yet for all that there’s warmth — like Kid A, I’d say this is an album that is seen as colder and less, dare I say, ‘human’ than it really is, and while DP clearly are playing with audience expectation in the album title, it’s a wise choice on several levels. Three key tracks make up the start, middle and end of the album — the title cut, “Make Love” and “Emotion.” All three play a certain card of feeling with their titles and then proceed to live up to it with, respectively, an uplifting vocoder chorus, a gentle motorik kick that I think outdoes recent Air handily and a part-way-to-blissout hook.

So yeah, I like it, I like a lot and I’ve already heard it several times through. We’ll see if it sticks but if this was a mistake, I’m all for more of them being committed. But people haven’t heard the last of this yet.

28
Jan 05

Adventures In The Alaskan Skin Trade by John Hawkes

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Adventures In The Alaskan Skin Trade by John Hawkes

Hawkes had been on my mental list for a while, since he seemed to be grouped with some Postmodernist writers I love – there are blurbs on the back of this from Barth, Gass and Barthelme, rather confirming that – but I’d not got around to him until now. Oddly, what I liked best about this seemed to have very little to do with Postmodernism.

In the ’60s, Sunny is running a brothel in an Alaskan town, but most of this is flashbacks to the ’30s, when she was a kid, and her dad was a big, colourful character, brave and adventurous and very upright. I kept expecting the yarns to get more over the top, less real, but they stay just about within reasonable bounds, lively and big without being really fantastic. The central characters are memorable ones, but there didn’t seem anything in this that qualifies it as PoMo, really.

The reason I loved it and will look for more by Hawkes is the prose – this is something that many of the best American PoMo writers are pretty ordinary in (I mean, I love Barth and there is intelligence in every sentence he writes, but he’s not a great stylist). Hawkes isn’t a beautiful, flowery, lyrical writer with extraordinary metaphors, like my other big favourite prose stylists (Updike, Harrison). With him it’s about rhythm – his prose sings and bounces like no other I’ve come across. Listen to this opening: “Where are you, Dad? To the north. To the west. To the far north and the receding west. Where the seas are black and the fish dead. Where the rivers flow and the mountains rise. Where the fog drifts and the rain falls…” No unusual images, all plain language, but it reads like very good poetry. This could have been about anything at all, and it would still have been an absolute joy to read. A writer like this surely can only have produced excellent books, and I’ll read them all.

The Physics Detective Part Two — The Investigation Begins

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The Physics Detective Part Two — The Investigation Begins

This week’s installation was about 100 times funnier than last week’s. As a result, I now have the enthusiasm and motivation to see this story through to the end — and bring this twisted tale of deceit and murder to YOU, the physics-loving Proven By Science reader! (even though I fear I am the only one reading this)

[spoilers]

What did I tell you about that Russian postdoc? I thought the technician’s comments were very revealing … she was having an affair with Jaeger, I just know it!

I want to know what kind of laser they were using. I imagined that they were using a laser with fast pulses and high peak power, but with low average power. In other words, not something that would burn through flesh (it would maybe burn through a piece of paper if focused). And the guy who wrote Part 2 is a metallurgy and material science prof, so he would surely know what types of lasers would be capable of drilling a hole in a man’s head. Either he’s suspending laser physics reality for the sake of having a conveniently placed murder weapon, or there’s a lot more to be learned about the composition of that experimental setup.

They’re setting it up to make Trotman, the technician, look guilty, but a) that’s way too obvious, and b) the guy is just a technician — he knows how to operate the lasers, but doesn’t know laser physics. For instance, if a — I don’t know, let’s say a RUSSIAN POSTDOC IN A SPURNED LOVERS RAGE — decided to switch or alter the lasers somehow, then he might not have suspected that anything unusual was afoot.

Day 14: Massachusetts AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 LOUSY TUNES

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Day 14: Massachusetts
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 LOUSY TUNES

Jail. Four walls holding me in. Bars on the window. Really rather oppressive. Not a place for a sophisticated girl like me. It turned out that they did not have the kind of specialist holding facility (pink ladies jail) in Maine, so they shipped me a couple of states down. It was all movement as far as I was concerned.

One thing about women’s prisons, is that you are not quite so afraid to drop the soap in tea shower. However I advocate the use of shower gel anyway, which gives a far more pleasing lather. Of course I would have preferred a bath with waiter service, but I did get a meal, a shower and a kip ina room which handily had a toilet in the same room. Just as well as the food went right through me.

Apparently tomorrow I will be shipped to the big city to stand trial in front of a judge. They asked if I wanted to see a lawyer, but that seemed a terrible waste of my time when the facts of the case (ie I am not Angela Lansbury) are so apparent. So I’ll just spend an idle evening in this Massachusetts jail, trying not to listen to every other female prisoner who seems to thinks he is some kind of Whitney Houston.

That said, a jail for over active songbirds. Now that appeals.


THE BEE GEES: Massachusetts

Teeth. I’m all for teeth in general. They provide a good solid barrier to sound coming out of the larynx and if clenched properly can almost completely stop singing all together. Unfortunately in the case of the Bee geek even their prodigiously large gnashers could not stem the tide of never ending banal hits from their mouths.

Are they English, are they Australian? Neither country seems to want the Gibb brother, and would you blame them. Falsettos that could make tins of paint spontaneously combust, chest hair that is guaranteed to turn the stomach of any girl. All of the Bee Gees package is so shoddy, so suspect that it is remarkable, nay suspicious, that they had a career at all.

Loathe as I am to suggest a conspiracy, their involvement as some sort of acceptable face of Disco smacks of some sort of racist whitewash. Used as unknowing (clearly unknowing as they barely had the capacity to know anything) a band who hitherto showed no affinity to slinky dance beats suddenly soundtracked THE disco movie. Saturday Night Fever, an affliction I still get when I walk past a club, should have been soundtracked by Chic or Ottowan (well it should have not existed but…) No, this is a conspiracy of the highest order.

As for Massachusetts. What do these boys of Empire know of the place? Again nothing. At least the band have finally split up, by dint of dying off – nature can be kind some time. Still, I have it on good advice that the remaining Gibbs can be hunted down in the West Country. Apparently its the only place they can still see Maurice Dancing. All those harmonies have impaired their thinking.

SCOOTER – “Shake That!”

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SCOOTER – “Shake That!”

There is a very common trope in science fiction whereby a society of the future has evolved curious and inexplicable customs which turn out to have – oh irony – been based on misunderstandings of our own contemporary tat. I have seen the sacred oracle and OMG IT’S AN OLD RADIO!!! Hearing Sheffield Dave cry “I am a junglist man!” with the protestant fervour of a heretic at the stake you suspect that some similar process has created Scooter – this is not a definition of ‘junglism’ that Optical or Dillinja would rally round.

To the basic cult objects of Scooterism – a KLF record; a ’93 Simon Reynolds cutting; a glowstick – has been added a new relic, namely an old Stretch and Vern single. Pop success has gone to Scooter’s head and this superb single – which came out last year and I disgracefully missed – is the warped outcome. It is Scooter making an upfront handbag record, viz some boshing mid-90s pop-house with Sheffield Dave shouting things like “turn it on like killer bees!” on top. In a fairly crowded field it may be the oddest thing Scooter have ever done, especially when the tap-dancing bit comes in. Towards the end Dave yells “LIFE WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE IS DEATH IN DISGUISE” and it’s utterly exciting and even rather profound.

secret pash residue it’s actually kinda NICE to rediscover

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secret pash residue it’s actually kinda NICE to rediscover
(potential quickly-abandoned series alert):

i guess all of us (except maybe those who occasionally throw stuff away above and beyond eg crisp packets) have things like these – cultural items bought or gather to be more at one with someone at some past point seriously (and unrequitedly*) crushed on: they said they loved [x], and you made a special secret effort to pore over [x], for clues how to get them to adore you, and they’re no longer part of yr life lo these 394857 years, yet here in a hidden pile, uncovered by Resolution-driven Spring Cleanin and uncharacteristic no-computer-at-home-driven spare time, its primary purpose gone to the dust it gathers. Except hurrah! It’s actually maybe worth more in its own right than it wz in yr (er = my) original cunning (=silly) plan.

In this case, the object in question wz Ingmar Bergman’s super-gloomy “lost of faith” trilogy – or actually just the first one, “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961, starring Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow…), which i had been told wz “My favourite film ever!” (so yaroo! subtle route to deeps of heart ahoy!)

And C4, in an earlier artier time (c.1996-ish), had broadcast all three in successive weeks, and I’d set my video accordingly. But “TaGD” is tuff goin stuff (also i have now to say GIANT 500-FOOT-HIGH WARNING SIGN stuff, re objects of inadvisable romantic interest), and its successor “Winter Light” (1962, starring Bjornstrand, and Ingrid Thulin) is tuffer yet. eg TaGD = in a moomin-esque island-bound house, a young woman is succumbing inexorably to madness; WL = a Lutheran pastor and widower, losing his faith, is growing to despise the woman he lives with since his beloved wife died, the feeling somewhat mutual: the bitter film-long mutual recriminations are interrupted when a neighbour shoots himself in a nearby car-park

which is probbly why i had never even embarked on the third, “the silence” (1963) (and had in fact convinced myself it had not recorded). well, first, here is the ever-estimable LESLIE HALLIWELL (an un-tidied-up halliwell original review, this, mind, givin you a fine insight into the Grebt Capsule Reviewer’s mind and attitudes):
the silence (tystnaden): ingmar bergman 1963, cameraman sven nykvist
ingrid thulin; gunnel lindblom
Plot: “Of two women in a large hotel in a foreign city where the military are dominant; one masturbates while the other sleeps with a barman”
Review: “Bergman may have known what this was all about, but it’s a certainty that no one else did: so everyone thought it must be very clever and went to see it. Superficially, as usual, it is careful and fascinating’ (= this from the man whose review of Taxi Driver said – from memory sadly, as THIS review has been tidied into unhistory since LH’s death – “Its later scenes make no sense”)

OK, well, i did record it (all but the end credits) and my ph34rZ were groundless: “The Silence” is way more watchable and lyrical than its two predecessors, bcz it features something he wd later make the centre of his great late semi-autobiographical “Fanny and Alexander”, which is to say a small boy – the son of one of the two women (who may be sisters or may be lovers, or even both i spose) – wandering around the hotel, bored and unsupervised, and totally not told what’s going on and not really understanding it, even as he takes it all in (inc.the sex, the arguments, the war, a troupe of performing dwarves in a neighboring hotel room ,who adopt him for the afternoon then spurn him, and so on and so forth). The sense of the weird incomprehensiblity of adult behaviour is exactly (and I’d have said really OBVIOUSLY) the thing the entire film is “about”, and it’s moving and seductive and dream-like, even as the adult world is turning very horrible (actually what it most immediately reminds me of is the early section of kidlit classic The Secret Garden, when newly-orphaned Mary has arrived in the big empty house in Yorkshire and is wandering alone through its many empty rooms, trying to invent ways to pass the time: it’s obvious something awful or sinister or strange is going on, but – brought up in India not Yorkshire – she is an outsider and thus the last to realise this). The odd thing is that the boy (played by Jorgen Lindstrom) is often not even mentioned in summaries of the film, Halliwell more symptomatic here than anomalous.

bergman has become a bit of an easy target, for the pitiless bleakness of his portrayal of adult failings and weakness, for making movies you “feel you ought to admire” rather than actually like, but the payoff – as in fanny and alexander, as here – is his gift for re-visioning the world from a child’s perspective… today this seems almost an obvious dimension to access (maybe even over-explored), but i really don’t think it was yet at the start of the 60s

*this is u&k btw i suspect: memorabilia tied up to those who loved you back is a lot harder to see clear or new (and why wd you want to?)