Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, October 30, 2006

Two Fine Movies

I continue to enjoy my subscription to Netflix, and the only real complaint I have is damaged discs. About one in five or six seems to have a problem. I’ve written an email complaining but, as is to be expected in today’s service-poor economy, I haven’t received a reply.

However, I’m not writing this to comment on Netflix, but to talk about two fine movies that I’ve recently watched. The first is City of God. It takes place in a Brazilian favela or shanty town, and it has a lot in common with the African American ghetto movies like Boyz N the Hood. It's odd how I came to find out about this movie. I was reading an article in the New York Times about the favelas and, in that article, the movie was mentioned. It has evidently been so popular that there are now bus tours of these favelas. That about floored me. Not only do these people have to live in poverty and reduced circumstances, but they have to serve as entertainment for the more well-heeled. I can understand the mindset of those who set up such tours. There are plenty of people who will do anything for money, but I don't understand why anyone would choose to go on one. It would seem to require a complete absence of empathy. None but the narcissistic, I suppose.

I liked this movie better than the ghetto movies that I've seen for two reasons, one artistic and one philosophical. The narrative technique in City of God is superior. It shuttles back and forth between the stories of various individuals in the favela, though it all centers around a young man who wants to rise above his circumstances and become a photographer. This is a technique that has to be handled deftly, and the filmmaker does a wonderful job of it. As for the philosophical angle, I prefer their approach to that of most of the ghetto films, which are all too often in your face. Not for a moment do they seem to want to let you forget that these poor black people are stuck in the circumstances in which they find themselves because of the social system in America. That is undoubtedly true, but this heavy-handedness doesn't make for good art. The filmmaker should be able to get his point across without smearing the viewer's face in it, and the directors of City of God manage it with seeming ease. Though they maintain a certain distance from their subjects, and refrain from any moralizing whatsoever, there's no doubting the oppression of the favela dwellers, nor is there any question as to who is responsible for that oppression. In short, this film is one of the finest examples of social realism that I've ever seen, though not in the crass sense favored by Marxists in the past.

The second movie that I would like to recommend is Broken Flowers by Jim Jarmusch. It stars Bill Murray in a serious role that he played to perfection. In this film, he's an aging man who's made good money in computers. He's always been something of a Don Juan and, at the beginning of the film, he receives an unsigned letter from a woman who informs him that she had a son by him some twenty years earlier. According to the letter, this son has set off to find his father and, though the mother has refused to tell her son who his father was, she thinks that he may find him anyway. The letter leads Murray's character to set off on a journey in which he visits four old girl friends to see if he can figure out if one of them is the woman who sent the letter.

When I visited the Internet Movie Database site to check up on where I'd seen a few of the actors before, I read the review that was posted there. Whoever wrote it really slammed the movie. He compared it to a bad student film in which there was no character development, stock characters, and meaningless, artsy shots. This person missed the point of the movie altogether. It's a deconstruction of the journey of self-discovery, which is precisely what Murray's characer is embarking on. Jarmusch is saying that such journeys are bogus. Those who attempt them don't change much, and they end up traveling through banal settings where the people they encounter are thoroughly unremarkable. That may make it sound like a tedious film, but Jarmusch demonstrates enough of a comic touch to keep it interesting, and I must say that I loved it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

More Chirality

This comes under the category of odd science facts. In an earlier post on weird science, I mentioned the chirality or "handedness" of molecules, and today I ran across this entry in a science blog. It concerns the chirality of methamphetamine. It turns out that the "left" version of the molecule isn’t psychoactive at all, meth chirality.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ward Just

Ward Just is a middling writer. That’s not to say that he isn’t worth reading, because he is, and so far I have completed three of his novels. The one I liked best is The Weather In Berlin. It’s the story of an American filmmaker in his mid-60's who’s had a fifteen year dry spell and is convinced that he’s washed up. The book immerses the reader in the culture of the reunified Germany while relating the story of the protagonist’s attempt to come to terms with himself. An Unfinished Season is a Bildungsroman about a young man in Chicago in the 1950's. His most recent, Forgetfulness, is the story of an expatriate American painter who is living in the south of France. While on a Sunday walk in the Pyrenees, his wife is killed by four terrorists who are infiltrating across the border with Spain. As the novel goes on, the protagonist learns to get on with his life without his wife in the changed world of post-9/11.

There are two things I really like about Just’s writing. First, his plots are clever and inventive. By that I don’t mean contrived or outlandish. It’s that he utterly avoids the cliched. I’ve never gotten the feeling that I’ve read anything like one of his books before. Perhaps that’s because of his choice of subject matter. He deals with complex characters wrestling with meaningful issues. As one critic put it, and I don’t recall where I read this, so many books these days are about grown men with adolescent concerns, but not Just’s and, in that respect, they’re a welcome relief.

Another thing that Just is really good at is showing the impact of public realities on private lives. In The Weather In Berlin, it’s the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany; in An Unfinished Season it’s the social changes being wrought in 1950's Chicago; and, in Forgetfulness it’s the effect of the events of 9/11 upon the American psyche. Many writers who attempt these kinds of novels are too heavy-handed. For example, they might explore the effects of 9/11 through a character who has lost a friend or family member in the twin towers. Not Just. He maintains a studied distance that enables him to offer a more nuanced appraisal. Even better, he manages to tell a good story character-based story at the same time.

Just’s biggest weakness as a writer is his style. He’s also been a journalist and his prose is like that of a reporter who is working under a deadline. It’s competent, but it doesn’t sing. Another way of putting it is that he’s a craftsman rather than an artist, and I can’t see him agonizing over a single sentence or word the way that many novelists do.

All in all though, it’s like I said though, he’s worth reading. Pick up the The Weather In Berlin first. I think you’ll like it.


This is a quickie post, since I’m just going to pass you some links. I have never liked Richard Dawkins’ notion of the meme. I’m just not comfortable with the notion that the meme somehow exists beyond the minds in which it resides. That reeks of a kind of Platonism, and I'm a nominalist by conviction. However, I’ve never come up with a coherent and convincing refutation of the notion. Well, there’s finally one posted on the following blog, Vapid Memes.

For those of you who don’t know what a meme is, here’s the Wikipedia entry, Meme Info.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Weird Science

In the last twenty years or so, scientists have discovered microbes in a variety of odd places. For example, there are apparently bacteria that live on the deep thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. These bacteria thrive in environments where the temperature is around 380 degrees Centigrade. Some of them are part of a larger group of organisms called lithotropic bacteria, also known as rock eaters, that use inorganic chemicals for food. These bacteria have been found deep below the earth’s surface. They have also been found in unexpected places on the surface itself. A variety of such bacteria is apparently eating the sandstone in the medieval cathedral in Cologne, Germany. However, the oddest microbe that I’ve ever heard of has got to be the species recently discovered in a gold mine some 2.8 kilometers under the ground in South Africa. These little bugs apparently depend on uranium for their existence. The radiation from the uranium breaks water up into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, and the bacteria use the hydrogen as their source of energy. For those of you who would like more information, here’s a press release from Indiana University, strange microbe.

Such discoveries make it more likely that life, at least in its simplest forms, may be pervasive in the universe. Such speculation has also been bolstered by the discovery of amino acids in outer space. (Here’s a link about that, amino acids.) Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, so some scientists have been led to speculate that life on earth was seeded by amino acids that fell to earth on meteorites and such.

Even more interesting about these amino acids is that they exhibit the same chirality as those in the proteins on earth. Let me explain. Many organic molecules exhibit chirality. Say you have a chain of carbon molecules with a couple of hydrogen atoms hanging off of it. They can be on the left or right side of the chain. (This is not a really scientifically correct, but it gives you the idea.) As it turns out, all of the amino acids involved in life are of the left-handed form. Interestingly enough, all of the sugars involved in life are of the right-handed form. The opposite varieties of amino acids and sugars are inactive, and can even be toxic. No one really knows why the chemistry of life exhibits this property. However, it is intriguing that the amino acids discovered in space are of the left-handed variety. Here’s a link for more on that, chirality.

This stuff is fascinating and, unless you’re a Bible freak or something of that sort, it makes sense that life is commonplace throughout the universe. It is mere hubris to believe that we on Earth are sui generis. Whether or not we’ll ever encounter other intelligent life is another matter altogether. The distances involved and the time it would take to travel them make it seem unlikely, but fifty years ago, you would have been counted as a crackpot had you suggested that rock-eating bacteria lived miles below the surface of the earth.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Books As Kitsch

I love books, always have. If I were to go out and purchase a music CD or movie DVD, I would agonize over the decision, and I would first have to convince myself that I wasn’t being extravagant. However, I’ll buy a book on impulse without so much as a second thought, and I’ve always been of one mind with Erasmus when he said, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

As is to be expected then, I find myself on various book-related mailing lists, and the other day I received a catalog that I found particularly amusing, the holiday catalogue from an outfit called Easton Press. They specialize in leather-bound books. More precisely, “Heirloom editions, bound in genuine leather, accented with 22KT gold.” This is what I mean by books as kitsch.

On the inside of the front cover of the catalog is a little photo of the publisher, a well-scrubbed guy of about forty in a tie and blue shirt with button-down collars. He’s clutching a leather-bound volume to his breast and he looks like a perennial student, but not like one of those to be found at the common colleges. No, this fellow looks like a perennial student at some exclusive Ivy League or prep school where the sons of the well-heeled are presumably educated. (Yes, the sons. In this world of leather-bound books the women still know their places, in the bed and in the home.)

On that page with the publisher one can read about their leather-bound edition of all five Pulitzer Prize winners for 2006, in five volumes for five monthly payments of $79 each. At the bottom of the page there is their leather-bound collection of first pages of all editions of the New York Times from 1851-2004. Of course, there are collections in the catalog that one could argue are of genuine intellectual value. There’s the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written, and the Books That Changed The World, most prominent among them in the photo in the catalog being the seminal work of the capitalist demigod Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. There’s also the Harvard Classics, “The legendary ‘five-foot shelf of knowledge’,” and collections of the works of novelists like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and C.S. Lewis.. On the other hand, there’s the likes of the complete James Bond, The First Ladies Fact Book, and a book-length tribute to Mickey Mouse. Be still my heart!

The real gems are at the end of the catalog, the signed editions. For three monthly payments of $33, you can get a signed edition of Henry Kissinger’s “insider’s account of the inner workings of diplomacy during the Middle East War of 1973 and the final days of the Vietnam War in 1975.” For less than $220 total, you can get a leather-bound set of John McCain’s three “inspiring” memoirs, signed by the Senator, of course. There’s also a signed book by the golfer Arnold Palmer, and a complete illustrated history of NASA inked by the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. For those of more liberal persuasions, there’s Carl Reiner’s novel, NNNNN, and a collection of essays by Kurt Vonnegut.

I guess I thought that the stereotype of the rich guy with the wood-paneled study full of leather-bound volumes that he’d never read was a creation of the Hollywood movies, but I’m apparently wrong. The folks at Easton Press seem to be making a living selling literary kitsch to just such individuals. I guess it’s an artifact of our new Gilded Age.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


I don’t have much use for those people who write on the editorial and op-ed pages of the paper. With very few exceptions, whether they’re liberal or conservative, they’re shills for the system. However, there are right-wingers of a certain type who really grate on me, guys like George Will, David Brooks, and John Tierney. I like to call them wienies. These are the guys who, in elementary school, spied on the class when the teacher left the room. When she returned, they’d tell her who talked and misbehaved while she was gone. No doubt, their mommies had to pick them up after school. If they’d walked they wouldn’t have made it home without a beating, and if they’d taken the school bus, they would have been forced to ride in back with the big boys, and the big boys didn’t play nice.

Now that they’re all grown up, they’re still playing at teacher’s pet, and John Tierney was really sucking up a few days ago. In the lead-in to one of his regular op-ed pieces in the New York Times, he said that if Muhammad Yunus was chosen for the Nobel Prize Prize, then Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, also deserved consideration. I couldn’t read the piece because I don’t pay the subscription fee to have access to the op-ed columns, so I don’t know what the article said. However, given his political positions, I don’t believe that Tierney was denigrating Yunus by comparing him to Walton. On the contrary, he was undoubtedly saying that Walton deserved consideration for the award.

For those of you who don’t know, Muhammad Yunus is a Bangladeshi who started a bank in his country that specializes in so-called microloans. These are very small loans made to the poor to help them become self-sufficient, mainly by starting little, home-based businesses of their own. I don’t know that he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for that but, on the other hand, there are a dearth of candidates these days. What I do know for certain is that Sam Walton sure as hell doesn’t deserve it.

In an era when capitalist enterprises have been squeezing and squeezing their workers, Walmart has been particularly egregious. Wages are pitiful, and benefits are paltry, so paltry that thirteen percent of their work force are on Medicare or Medicaid. If that isn’t bad enough, they are now attempting to cap wages and reduce benefits by running off long-standing employees and by increasing the percentage of part-time workers in their workforce from twenty to forty percent. In Florida, they’re apparently trying to rid themselves of the elderly who work as greeters, cashiers, and fitting room attendants by no longer permitting them to sit on stools while at work. That right there is the legacy of Sam Walton.

Come the revolution, if there were indeed any reasonable hope that such a thing could happen, I’d love to see the wienies forced to share a cell with Bubba the Butt Fucker. He’s big, and he’s bad, and he doesn’t take no for an answer.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Road

People tell me that I have a pretty dark and pessimistic outlook on life. I can’t much argue with them because I do. That said then, it’s really something when I say that Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, The Road, is so bleak and grim that it brought even me down. It’s well over two hundred pages of unrelieved and savage desperation. In the last couple of pages, he gives us a faint glimmer of hope for future generations, but that’s it, the ever so brief flaring of a match’s flame in universal darkness.

The Road is the story of a man and his son, who is about ten years old. (I may be a little off on that age, and I don’t have the book at hand. Since it is in high demand, I returned it to the library before writing this entry.) They are alive in a post-apocalyptic America and they are making their way south where they hope the weather will be warmer. The cause of the apocalypse is not specified, though the landscape seems to be universally scorched and devastated. There is little food to be found anywhere, so the man and boy survive on the caches of canned goods that they manage to scavenge from while on their journey. They both realize that when they can no longer find these caches they are dead.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the story, such as it as, should any of you want to read the book, but I will say this. There isn’t much of a plot. The man and the boy just seem to move one from one incident to another. There’s no true sense of a narrative in the commonly understood sense of the term. This is a frequent criticism of much of McCarthy’s work and it’s certainly true here, so at the conclusion I found myself asking what McCarthy wanted me to walk away with. He just seemed to be saying that life in this world is tantamount to life in hell, though there is a small chance that there may be something in it for our children.

McCarthy is a social conservative, and now that he is an old man, he has become one of those social conservatives who believes that it’s all going to hell in a hand basket because people have abandoned their traditional values. That was the message of his previous novel, No Country For Old Men, and it is even more so the message in this one. The man and his son identify themselves as the good people, and they are the repository of traditional values. The man acknowledges to his son that there are other good people to be found somewhere, though the only ones these two seem to encounter are the bad ones. And when he says bad, he means bad, over-the-top bad. To show you just how horrible it’s gotten to be with these common run of people, cannibalism seems to be endemic among them. Some of them even keep people like domestic animals for the purpose of eating them, and when one of their number dies, they have no qualms about butchering them and consuming the meat.

The reviewer in the New York Times raved over The Road, but I can’t agree with his opinion. This is not one of McCarthy’s better works. The King James’ Old Testament diction gets tiresome, and the fictional journey becomes too much of an ordeal. The reason is that there is no real struggle with the forces of evil because they are so overwhelming that it is just a matter of holding out against them for as long as possible before giving up the ghost. What small hope he offers at the end seems contrived, and not at all genuine. It’s almost as if his publisher admonished him for the unrelieved desperation, and asked that he give the reader some small hope of redemption at the end.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Girl With A Pearl Earring

How could I not read a novel entitled Girl With A Pearl Earring, given that the eponymous painting by Vermeer is one of my all-time favorites. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, I suggest that you check out this link, Pearl Girl..

What I’ve always found most striking about the painting, is the illusion of spontaneity in the pose. It is almost as though it were done from a snapshot. I’ve often wondered about the source of that illusion, and have decided that it’s in the girl’s mouth. The way it hangs open ever so slightly suggests an unselfconsciousness that belies the hours of posing must have gone into the painting.

Needless to say, the novel doesn’t come up to Vermeer’s masterpiece. Not that I expected it to. It’s a rather small, domestic story of a young woman who goes to work in the Vermeer household as a maid, and of how she comes to be the model for the painting. I don’t know if Tracy Chevalier, the novel’s author, has an MFA in creative writing, but Girl With A Pearl Earring is the sort of work that the folks in those programs love. The prose is well-crafted. There’s a strong sense of place and time, and there’s no melodrama whatsoever.

It makes for a competent but ho-hum piece of work, and I don’t really understand what people see in this sort of novel. As regards a sense of place and time, in the age of cinema, no novelist can compete with a well-made film in that regard. As for the story, give me something that’s more of a roller coaster ride, a story that’s extravagant, outrageous and quirky. Hell, that’s what Shakespeare, along with others like Dickens.

That said, the movie by the same name is on my Netflix list of films. I went to the Internet Movie Database site, and there was a still shot from the movie there that intrigued me. Scarlett Johannson, who plays the subject of Vermeer’s portrait, is shown in the pose from the painting, and she’s got it nailed. I have to see that. Small story or not, I’ll watch the movie.