Hawking Up Hairballs

Monday, July 30, 2007

Oh, Yeah

I see where Chief Justice Roberts suffered a seizure and fell. I saw The Exorcist. I know what that means. Next time his head will spin. And Cheney, he's having surgery to replace the battery that keeps his heart going. It figures. That son of a bitch is so evil that his heart just wants to stop beating. Then there's the Alfred E. Newman poster boy in the White House. Which leads me to wonder. If I died and went to Hell, how would I know? Hmm, there's a novel in there somewhere.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Call Me A Cynic

John Burdett has written three detective novels set in Bangkok, Thailand. All three feature police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep as the protagonist. I'm now reading the third of those novels, Bangkok Haunts. I had to chuckle when I came to this passage. It's a musing on the part of Jitpleecheep.

"...prostitutes were the world's first capitalists. The ancients understood very well that men need sex more urgently than women. It was natural, therefore, that this imbalance should be redressed by means of cash, which hitherto nobody had had any use for. Later, of course, whores found other things to sell, and many were reincarnated as lawyers, doctors, dentists, merchant bankers, presidents, sweetshop owners, mayors, et cetera. Commerce was born, and war became just a tad less fashionable."

I know what you're thinking. That Chuck, what a cynic. Yeah, well, so what? Crucify me if you don't like it. I promise I won't rise from the dead.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Instincts And Programming

Sometimes you hit, and sometimes you miss. Babel was a homerun. Monkeys and Robots was a weak grounder to shortstop. I don't know what caused me to choose the latter film on the Netflix site. They have this personalized ratings system for their DVD's. When you return one, they send you an email asking you to rate it on a scale of one to five, with five being the best. Your ratings are compared to those of other Netflix customers to compile a list of recommended movies. It works surprisingly well. I almost always end up giving a DVD a rating that is very close to what Netflix calculated it would be.

I explain this because I don't know what led me to select Monkeys and Robots. Netflix didn't think I would like it, and they were correct. Perhaps I was impressed by the fact that it was featured at the San Jose Film Festival. Shame on you, San Jose. Monkeys and Robots is like a bad student film, or perhaps like what would be taken for a good student film at a second-rate school. There's the self-consciously arty cinematography, the acting that varied from ho-hum to execrable, and finally the heavy-handed symbolism. Just in case you've missed the meaning of the title, the filmmakers are there to remind you. Whenever a character is about to act like a monkey, there's a brief scene of gorillas in the zoo. When he's about to play the automaton, there's a clip of a toy robot. Oh, yeah, that's profound.

So, why am I bothering to write about this movie? It's the title. They had me at the title. Monkeys and Robots. Perhaps that's what led me to choose the film. I wish that I had thought of the title. It could be said that the whole of human nature could be subsumed under those two categories, apes and automatons. It often seems like we're operating under the influence of often self-destructive passions and instincts, or we're sleepwalking through certain patterns of behavior that have been ingrained in us by culture or personal experience. A more optimistic soul than me might say that there's also room for transcendence, but all I have to do is look at the people who succeed in this world. Enough said, monkeys and robots.

Monday, July 16, 2007

We're All Named Mickey And Goofy

A few weeks ago, I commented upon the naturalization ceremony for new citizens that was held at Disney World. Perhaps it was even more emblematic than I had thought. Here's a passage from an article on the http://www.tomdispatch.com site by the journalist Dahr Jamail. He has reported extensively on the war in Iraq.

"Having spent a fair amount of time in occupied Iraq, I now find living in the United States nothing short of a schizophrenic experience. Life in Iraq was traumatizing. It was impossible to be there and not be affected by apocalyptic levels of violence and suffering, unimaginable in this country.

"But here's the weird thing: One long, comfortable plane ride later and you're in Disneyland, or so it feels on returning to the United States. Sometimes it seems as if I'm in a bubble here that's only moments away from popping. I find myself perpetually amazed at the heights of consumerism and the vigorous pursuit of creature comforts that are the essence of everyday life in this country -- and once defined my own life as well.

"Here, for most Americans, you can choose to ignore what our government is doing in Iraq. It's as simple as choosing to go to a website other than this one.

"The longer the occupation of Iraq continues, the more conscious I grow of the disparity, the utter disjuncture, between our two worlds."

Sunday, July 15, 2007


I wasn't enthusiatic about the idea of watching Babel. I had skimmed a couple of positive reviews, but I had been skeptical. After all, it starred Brad Pitt, and he's a big-time Hollywood actor. It has been my experience that films starring such actors are disappointments because they so often rely upon the celebrity of those actors to carry them. In the case of Babel I was wrong. The film is a masterpiece.

There are three related stories in the film, but it is not initially clear that they are connected. The first is the story of Pitt's character and his wife in the desert of Morocco. They are there with a group of other tourists on a bus. It is never specified what they are there to see, but that is really beside the point. The second story is about an older woman, an illegal Mexican resident in San Diego, who has worked as a nanny raising two affluent white kids, a boy and girl who are seven or eight years old. The last story takes place in Tokyo. It is about a lonely and alienated deaf mute teenaged girl whose mother committed suicide several months before the story in the movie began. The mother had shot herself and the girl had been the one who discovered her. The action in the film moves back and forth between these three narratives.

In the Biblical story of Babel, people are building a tower that is supposed to take them to God in Heaven. This angers God, who takes this for an act of hubris, and he responds by making them speak in different languages. They are then banished to the four corners of the Earth. Likewise, the three strands of Babel's narrative take place in widely scattered places around the globe, and it could be said that the narrative is driven by the fact that, metaphorically speaking, people don't speak the same language.

The action begins in the Moroccan desert where a goatherd is buying a rifle. He intends to use it to kill the coyotes who are taking his goats. His sons, who are boys of about ten and twelve, bring the rifle with them when they take the goats out to graze. They are unconvinced that the rifle is any good, so they take a pot shot at a distant tour bus that is driving along the road below the hill where they are grazing their goats. Pitt's wife is struck by the bullet, and the rest of this story is about his attempt to get her to a hospital while the Moroccan police seek the perpetrators.

In the second story, the Mexican nanny is taking care of her two charges while their parents are away on a trip. She has been planning to go to her son's wedding for a long time but, at the last minute, her employer calls to tell her that they have been unable find someone to care for the children in her place. They expect her to miss the wedding and take care of the kids. The woman isn't about to do that, so she takes the kids with her to Mexico. This story is about the trip down there, and her attempt to bring the children back. Though it is not apparent at first, it soon becomes clear that the employer is Pitt and that the children is his.

The third tale is set in Tokyo. The deaf mute teenager at the center of it feels isolated from others her age because of her disability. In addition, she is alienated from her businessman father, presumably as a result of her mother's suicide. She decides that the solution to her loneliness is to lose her virginity and she goes to some bizarre lengths to accomplish that, like trying to seduce her dentist while he is looking at her teeth. Failing her attempts, she appears to be on the verge of committing suicide by jumping from the balcony of the high-rise apartment where she lives with her father, but she reconsiders when he arrives home before she goes through with it. This story is connected to the other two by that fact that the girl's father was the one who gave the rifle to the man who sold it to the goatherd.

I found myself thinking, okay, so this is a movie called Babel. What is the act of hubris that has brought these people to this pass? It is the edifice of the global economy that has enabled the well-off from the affluent countries to turn the world into their playground. In Morocco, the other tourists on the bus that carried Pitt and his wife become pissed off because they have to wait around without air conditioning while Pitt tries to come up with a way to get his wife to a hospital. Never mind the fact that the desert dwellers there have probably never experienced air conditioning in their whole lives. In the end, a military helicopter flies out into the desert to transport her to a hospital. This is something the Moroccans could never hope for should they become injured or ill. Not only that but, though Pitt's wife recovers, the goatherd loses one of his small sons when he is shot by police. Even more to the point, the whole thing never would have happened had the Japanese businessman not gone to Morocco on a hunting expedition. He'd been so pleased by his local guide that he'd given him the rifle.

Babel is very much a political movie. The First World plays while the Third World suffers. For example, though the Mexican nanny has worked for Pitt's family for sixteen years, he thinks so little of her that he expects her to miss her son's wedding because he couldn't be bothered to make other arrangements for his children. When she takes them to Mexico, the kids have a big time, and they are well treated by those at the wedding. The problems only arise when she attempts to return to the US. A hardnosed border guard is the catalyst that leads to her travails. The movie is decidedly anti-American but not unfairly. I suspect that it reflects the way a lot of people around the world see the USA today. For example, the reason that Pitt has so much trouble getting his wife to a hospital is because the Moroccan government initially refuses to let a US helicopter into its air space. It has reacted in that manner because the American embassy, upon learning of the shooting, had announced to the world press that it had been a terrorist attack. I found that very believable.

I feeled compelled to say though that this film is so much more than a political movie. It is more the case that the political is the backdrop for human tragedy. To me, that's what makes it such great art. For example, take the shooting. The idea of shooting at a bus is just crazy. The boys who do it had never even seen a rifle before, and they have no idea about what it can really do. They don't come out and say it, but it is apparent that they don't even think of themselves as shooting at people. They're just taking a pot shot at a bus. That way of thinking is very like kids.

There are so many nice little touches in the movie. Near the beginning, Pitt and his wife have been quarreling. They are on the bus. He's reading and she's dozing. She reaches over and takes his hand, but then releases it. Shortly thereafter she's shot. The movie ends when the Japanese businessman joins his daughter on the balcony. She takes his hand and they hug. There's your closure. I love it.

Looking back over this review, I don't really feel like I'm doing the movie justice. I'm sure there's much I've missed and I definitely want to watch it again. It's rare that I feel that way about any film. I can only tell you to see this movie. You'll like it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Onward Christian Thugs

Yesterday, for the first time, a Hindu chaplain delivered the prayer in the Senate. Three members of a Christian anti-abortion group, Operation Save America, attempted to interrupt the prayer. While doing so, they were loudly spouting their usual nonsense about there being only one god, and no lord but Jesus. Yada-yada-yada. Why would a Christian favor public prayer anyway? It's contrary to their own scriptures. Don't believe me? Well, here's Mathew 6:5-8, which prefaces the Lord's Prayer.

"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Science Fiction

I read a lot of science fiction when I was a teenager. That was back when guys like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein were in their primes. I vaguely remember reading Asimov's I, Robot and Heinlein's Starship Troopers. As I recall, they were nothing like the movies they inspired. Speaking of movies, no sci-fi writer seems to have inspired more movies than Philip K. Dick. He's a favorite of those who would be the ages of my children, if I had children. I tried reading him but found him uninteresting. I loved the movie Blade Runner though, and it was based on one of his stories. A Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein really swore me off science fiction for a long time. I hated "grok", that word he invented. It was such an ugly thing, like "shit" and "fuck", a word that should only be used for cursing, but it caught on among the nerdy set for a while.

The trouble with science fiction is that the writing is so bad. It's right up there with the prose in the really trashy genres like romance novels. In the other entertainment genres, like thrillers and crime novels, there are writers who can be counted on to at least write competent prose. There are even some who write good prose, the crime novelist James Lee Burke is one, and John LeCarre is another, at least in his early years. This opinion isn't just mine though. I recently visited a web site for aspiring writers. In one section, the owners of the site were answering questions from visitors. One would-be writer said that he'd been unable to find a publisher for his sci-fi novel. He was wondering if he should publish it himself. The response was that he probably shouldn't bother because the standards were so low in the genre that the book probably wasn't any good if no one would publish it.

All that said, I've found a sci-fiwriter that I like in Richard K. Morgan. I just finished reading his fifth novel Thirteen. I enjoyed it. The book isn't what I would call literature, but it was good entertainment. Prior to this he's written a trilogy featuring mercenary/avenging angel Takeshi Kovaks. All four of these books are in the cyberpunk genre, which is just the noir detective sensibility applied to a dystopian future. That kind of stuff is right up my alley, and I've delighted all of these books. Morgan's fifth book, Market Forces, isn't very good. It was actually the first one that he wrote, and he was unable to find a publisher. When his Takeshi Kovaks novels started to take off, he was apparently able to find a publisher for the book. Strangely enough, it's the first of his books that's been optioned for a movie. Figures, doesn't it?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Oh, To Wear The Glass Slipper

How delicious this is. Yesterday, on the Fourth, about a thousand people were sworn in as naturalized citizens at Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World. When I saw that in this morning's edition of The New York Times, I couldn't help laughing. For a moment, I thought maybe I was reading The Onion. Sure enough though, it was true. Talk about a scene from out of a black comedy. It was strangely apropos though. With the way things are going in this country, fantasy and escapism are about all that is on offer for most of us. The good jobs just keep going away, and opportunity keeps drying up for all but the most privileged. Well, you new citizens, remember this. A dream is a wish your heart makes, but also remember that Cinderella's coach turned into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, and George W. isn't a rescuing prince. It's back to scrubbing the floors on your hands and knees for you.

325 foreign-born members of the U.S. military were also naturalized in Iraq. They're not as lucky as their new fellow citizens at Walt Disney World. They just might end up coming back in flag-draped coffins.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Not A Duck

It seems to me that the quality of PBS offerings are declining. The network is imitating the cable channels, offering up shows that purport to offer real information but that are little more than mere entertainment. An example of this is the series "Supernatural Science". I watched a bit of it tonight. A couple of individuals were making the case that there was indeed contact between the civilizations of ancient Egypt and those of the Americas. They cited two particular pieces of what they took to be evidence. The first was the fact that both civilizations were characterized by large, monumental pyramids. The second was the presence of traces of tobacco, cocaine, and hashish in Egyptian mummies.

At first glance, these seem like provocative observations. However, closer analysis suggests otherwise. The physical fact of the matter is that if you want to build a big, monumental structure and the only building material available to you is stone, then it pretty much has to be a pyramid. The reason is simple. A pyramid is basically a series of stacked squares each of which is smaller in area than the one below it. The pyramids of Cheops in Egypt didn't just appear from out of nowhere. The earliest tombs of the pharaohs were square and rectangular structures. Next came the step pyramids, squares stacked upon squares. Finally we have the geometrical pyramids. The Egyptians didn't get them right the first time though. One of the earliest of these structures rises at a steep angle but halfway up the angle of rise changes to a gentler slope. The architects obviously decided that the pyramid as originally conceived wasn't stable. After that they got it right. There is no evidence that the early inhabitants of the Americas learned to build pyramids from the Egyptians or anyone else for that matter. They were simply operating under the same laws of physics in the Americas as they were in Egypt.

As for the traces of tobacco, cocaine, and hashish in the Egyptian mummies. Now that sounds intriguing, but not so much when you consider that the analyzed mummies have been in museums since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There is every reason to believe that they were contaminated with tobacco and cocaine by those who handled them. That sounds about right when it comes to tobacco. Those nineteenth-century archaeologists would have seen no reason to prevent contamination with the materials that they smoked, but cocaine? It isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. In the nineteenth century, cocaine use was common, especially among the educated elite. It was even considered beneficial. Figures as well-known as Sigmund Freud were cocaine users. It was only later, the 1920's if memory serves me, that it came to be seen as a dangerous drug. That's two out of three explained, but what about the hashish? Well, it's likely that the members of the pharaoh's court smoked weed and hashish. There is historical evidence that the drug was used in the area at the time.

There's an old saw that says, if it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, then it must be a duck. Not necessarily. It so easy for us to deceive ourselves. Just because something seems plausible doesn't necessarily mean that it's so. We have to use our minds.

Monday, July 02, 2007


I love Noam Chomsky. He has a real ability to frame things clearly and succinctly. I'm posting a quotation from him here. It's from an interview he had on a site called Naked Punch. I don't vote and this is why, because the system is set up so that you can't really effect any changes by voting. At best, elections are the ways in which the ruling class gauges the public mood, and I think that people are best served by refusing to participate in them.

Now take a look at the richest country in the hemisphere. We had an election in November 2004. There was no genuine participation. There are no authentic popular political parties. The parties we have are candidate-producing organizations. The choice in the election was between two men, each born into wealth and privilege, who went to the same elite university, Yale, where they were trained to be members of the ruling class, and they were able to enter into the political race because they were supported by huge concentrations of wealth and power—the same controlling interests, basically, with only slight differences in distribution. They had similar programs. The real issues were kept out of the electoral arena. Most people had no idea where the candidates stood with respect to the important issues, the extent of which is dramatic. This is a very well-studied society so we know a lot about public opinion. Just to take one example, consider the Kyoto Protocol. The public is very strongly in favour of it. A majority of Bush voters thought he was in favour of it. Now that failure to be acquainted with the positions of the candidates and the parties is very widespread, and it’s not because people are stupid or uninterested. It’s because the elections are designed that way. The elections are run by the public-relations industry, and their task is to package the candidates and sell them very much the way they sell other commodities. So when you turn on the TV set and see an advertisement for a lifestyle drug or a car or something, you don’t expect to learn anything from it. Markets that are based on consumer choice, you know, based on rational consumers making informed and rational choices, those are inventions of the economics profession. Business would never tolerate anything like that. They try to establish markets in which uninformed consumers make irrational choices. Again, that’s a truism. That’s what advertisements are for. They’re meant to delude and deceive with imagery, not to present information, and the political campaigns work the same way."