Made in the USA

Feb. 14th, 2013 | 12:39 pm

The first State of the Union Address of Barack Obama's last term was a shopping list out of a fever dream about a bureaucratic utopia, in which rights and resources are balanced and aliquoted among the American citizenry. For some it was an inspiring call to action; to others, more fuel for the great gun grab of 2013. Rhetorically it was mostly successful, combining harsh facts with elegant imperatives about the country's splendid future. Mostly, until he neared the end.

"God-given rights"
rights are not doled out by a god. They are granted by one's fellow citizens. If a god made humans and wanted us to have innate rights we would be designed to show kindness to all, not just those who are kin or very familiar. But we are not formed like the curious lemurs, who exhibit interspecies play. We are warlike and rapine chimps. We are made, as Octavia Butler posited, to be intelligent and hierarchical. It is a savage combination. Rights are the gifts we give to each other when we take our baby steps beyond biology.

In the final moments, coopting the words of wounded police officer Brian Murphy, Obama spoke about "the way we're made" as a discriptor for citizenship, implying that our being made citizens makes us inclined and able to protect each other's rights and tend to current and future generations. That may be true for people who became citizens as adults, who consciously chose these responsibilities. But what of the majority of Americans who experience something more god given, who are granted citizenship by birth? What if they possess none of these qualities, and are selfish, shortsighted, and bigoted?

America must divorce itself from the notion that luck defines character
and where a person is born is nothing more than luck. Being born American does not make a person wise, kind, or respectful of another's rights. DNA, family, and education determine those. Above all, action defines character. In Aristotle's (translated) words, it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced. Attributing god-given personality traits to geographical happenstance is lunacy. People should be considered citizens of a nation only if they have actively demonstrated the qualities citizenship demands. If America is to succeed as a culturephilosophically and practicallyevery American should be a naturalized citizen.

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Feb. 11th, 2013 | 03:38 pm

If the beauty of science fiction is that it may define a new world or future and, if the creator is adept, change readers'/viewers' minds about what their world or future might be. The banal horror of science fiction is that it is limited by the outlook of the writerscience fiction, more so than perhaps any other genre, veers to both sublimity and dreck.

Ray Bradbury chose an excellent influence for The Martian Chronicles (1950; some stories published previously) in Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson's meandering opus. It is an ode to love and loneliness, and the infinitely odd measures of a man's triumphs and failures. Rather, man's or woman's
the women in the stories are no less thoughtfully delineated than any male characters. The structure of these connected stories, in which characters reoccur as the focus in one piece, as background in another, is clearly reflected in Bradbury's work (and is a thematic prelude to Tahei and Matashichi's repurposing as two bickering robots).

There the influence ends. Bradbury's women are whiny housewives, robot mothers, and lonely hearts. The exist to placate or annoy men, who do all the pesky subjugating and conquering required by colonisation. This is because the Martian Chronicles are about America's Old West. Bradbury was unable to imagine a culture different from any on earth, and was more limited in describing the role of women in conquest. The book is mere preciously rendered atavism
well written and fairl amazing for its time but steeped in the retro values of the post-WWII United States. Perhaps Bradbury was deeply pessimistic about the human race, so much so that he could only envision cycles of oppression and death. He ends the book where it should begin, with humans casting off their earthly pasts and becoming wholly alien.

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I can has episteme

Feb. 7th, 2013 | 03:40 pm

The decades since the 1971 Chomsky-Foucault debate (final score: 12 to 57) have shed limited light on the debaters' pet subjects. Chomsky's supposition of innate neural structures that preprogram humans to learn and produce language and other behaviors still has adherents, though advances in neural mapping and languages such as Piraha indicate his theories may comprise a black box rather than lemma. Foucault's ideas are more approach than theoryless a hypothesis to debunk than and analytical attitude to refine.

Each man would agree (if he were capable, that is, Foucault being dead and Chomsky being less agreeable than Mistress Mary) that his work needs decades, if not centuries, to bear witness to its correctness and influence. However, in this impatient internet age, minor proofs can observed regarding the subject of one of the debate's sidebars: creativity. Both men rejected the traditional view of creativity, that as being the provenance of genius and personal attribution. Chomsky was concerned with the everyday acts of creativity that language skills engender. (For example, a child might utter numerous sentences that are original to the speaker every day of her life.) Foucault dealt instead with the sociopolitical surround of advances in knowledge. Eschewing the cultural bias to assign scientific and philosophical advances to the minds of a named few, Foucault delineated how the way ideas evolve and disseminate through power structures is a collective act.

Which brings us to the Cheezburger portion of the internet, that bastion of frustrated pets, personal failure, and other distracting minutiae. Know Your Meme elucidates the origins of brony obsession, rickrolling, and other nuggets of infotainment that permeate online discussion
the inside jokes shared by millions of people who have never, and will never, meet in person. The video on the gersberms girl meme is a nicely researched excursion into postmodern linguistic anthropology that supports the debaters' creative notions. We are shown the Chomskyan (in the sense of being a mundane, culturally unremarkable bit of creativity) origins of the meme, and how the idea was transmuted through the culture in which it was produced to become a minor but intractable part of contemporary slang. A pity the two cannot post their thoughts in the comments; Chomsky's web-related attention is consumed by more serious matters, and Foucault, if still sentient, is probably puzzling over how a grumpy cat gained such cultural currency.

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Unquiet Americans

Feb. 4th, 2013 | 10:13 pm

December 21, 2012, passed with neither whisper nor boom. Possibly the apocalypse was engendered that day in a seemingly innocuous court case, laboratory discovery, or childhood emotional trauma. The next land species to become intelligent enough to decipher our language (probably a rodent, based on biodiversity in that order) may use whatever records remain to trace the origins of our demise and indeed discover that the seed was planted on that stormy Friday.

Our rodent brethren sifting through public and private records is a dramatic abstraction
and rather absurd. Whatever will contribute most to our end has doubtlessly already been flagged by a million modern Cassandras bemoaning the plastics degrading in the oceans, the proliferation of weapons of mass and minor destruction, or the incessant devouring of natural resources. Mankind is a nurse enjoying a cigarette break. We combine awful fatalism with vain hope, cycling between cynicism and heroism while chasing little pleasures.

We are, then, both Fowler and Pyle, the two antiheroes of Graham Greene's Quiet Americanclumsy idealist and cool cynic, both hungering for release (in the novel, represented by a beautiful girl, tacit and mostly compliant) and equally capable of destroying other lives. Several years ago Pico Iyer wrote a lovely piece about the political and personal relevance of this book, and why he repeatedly returns to is. (Certainly the novel's theme of nation building resonates with current geopolitics, what with the United States and other countries limping away from self-imposed obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan.) He notes the tension between idealist and cynic that exists both within and between individuals. But while this tension makes for good literature, it doesn't solve problems. That is left to the realist* who holds ground between the idealist and the cynicthe Jamesian pragmatist with a totality of outlook and willingness to act. 

* Obama's second inaugural address showed his penchant for hope tempered by a grim view of reality; it will be interesting to see if his second term effects more positive change than the beleaguered first.

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Winter is ending,

Feb. 2nd, 2013 | 01:19 pm

Limacine is waking up. ETA Monday, February 4.

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Jul. 12th, 2012 | 07:46 am

Limacine must take a long break and will return with the groundhog.

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Verbicide (plus parricide, prolicide, deicide, and vermicide)

Jul. 6th, 2012 | 11:57 pm

What makes a movie terrible? There are three major elements in play: script, acting, and production. Plan 9 from Outer Space, noted as the worst movie ever, had defects in all three (though its ineptitude is often found charming). Low production values won’t derail a good story. Bad acting might, but movies with good effects and a decent plot can still provide solid entertainment. But if a movie has an execrable plot, a $130 million dollar budget and stellar actors won’t save it.

Prometheus is a well-funded gore and goo fest that flirts with (rather, dry humps) themes such as: one generation or species replacing another, faith versus despair, and the rights to life of parasites. It has pretty, capable actors who commit fully to the nonsense. And it is dreck. To wit:

3 to 4 billion years ago, a white giant diluted himself with black toxin and destroyed himself, seeding primordial soup with his DNA and giving rise to the human race. 30 thousand years ago, more giants visited the humans and taught them how to draw pictures of a star system. 2 thousand years ago, on a moon of one planet of that star system, giants created a species of malevolent worm, intending to send it to earth to kill all of the humans. When the worm turned against its maker, one of the giants was left in biostasis, with none of his kind able to rescue him, despite their technological mastery. In 77 years humans will visit that moon, finding the worms intended for them. The humans will possess a robot that will infect a man with wormness; the man will thereby impregnate his girlfriend with a worm-human hybrid (she aborts it with a nifty surgery machine). The robot’s motivations for this act are recondite. Those two humans came to the moon because they wished to meet the giants, whom they assumed (without proof) to have created humans. The rest of the crew came for personal or financial reasons. The robot and the crew figure out giants’ plan to send the worms to earth. The captain of the ship destroys the surviving giant’s vessel (he’s out of biostasis and headed to earth). The robot then helps the impregnated woman to find the other giants, without telling her what he did. Also, the aborted human-worm hybrid face rapes the giant and creates the monster from the Alien movies.

Sometimes a script is just bad; sometimes an idea is savaged by production notes and plot meeting clusterf*cks. Viewers will probably never know the genesis of this cinematic failure, just as Elizabeth Shaw (the sole human survivor) will probably never get a satisfying response from the white giants. What would they say, anyway? We told your ancestors about this star system so you’d come someday, but we didn’t start working on your welcome party until tens of thousands of years later (we got impatient and decided to send it to you). We were going to get you some balloons but a biologically engineered death sentence seemed the way to go. Did you like it? 

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Jul. 4th, 2012 | 11:43 pm

Freedom is best, I tell thee true, of all things to be won.

—William Wallace

Merida (of the Pixar/Disney movie Brave; pronounced as a Scot would say “murder”) wants her freedom, but her mother (an early beneficiary of Bene Gesserit teachings) would have her tied down as soon as possible. But it is not a matter of subjugation, simply of accepting the responsibility that comes from being royal and fertile. The Disney universe appears to be a trifle upended. Womenfolk are not to be rescued; they do the rescuing. Men are too contentious; women must guide and soften them, preserving societal niceties and preventing war by sacrificing themselves to wedlock. So Merida must be married to whichever noble dolt wins her.

She rebels (with the help of a witch who is more daffy than evil) and turns her mother into a brown bear, nearly killing her several times. The unintended matricide threatens the clans’ fragile peace as well. It is a paradigm seen so often in Disney movies because it is engrained so deeply in fairy tales. Mothers are (usually) the protectors of social contracts (stepmothers, however, not being genetically linked to the heroines, will get in the way of a girl’s chances with the best suitor).

The movie is misnamed. Merida is left not so much brave as shamed by her temerity. She certainly doesn’t get her freedom. She gets a little time and the right to choose her husband. She will not remain a virginal huntress. She will be queen to a man who will (at least nominally) rule her and if she does her duty, she will give him sons.

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Jun. 25th, 2012 | 03:45 pm

Limacine will return July 4.

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Childhood's end

Jun. 22nd, 2012 | 09:12 am

All of Wes Anderson’s movies are about childhood. His (male) characters are either preternaturally mature youngsters or dithering adults clinging to their youthful habits and mindsets.

The exception here really does prove the rule. Mr. Fox, who is aware of the time constraints of a vulpine life, is both of those: a young creature who is organized, articulate, and nattily dressed, and an adult who has difficultly being settled and respectable.

The trajectory of human existence then is to have an entire life, complete with tragedy and romance, as a child/adolescent, and then to dwell ever after in a stew of thwarted ambition and emotional development. At first analysis this seems backwards, but it is a rather canny view of human life. Children (at least those who go to school) have remarkably productive, regimented lives. They create art and music, solve problems, and have endless, tightly orchestrated dramas in their peer groups. Then they grow up, become independent, and struggle thereafter.

So art reveals truth, yet again. And Moonrise Kingdom, the latest Wes Anderson creation, toes that line (which the camera reveals in a sideward movement). Suzy and Sam are children with a lot of baggage (metaphor!). Their caper is typically Andersonian, though Sam should go back to school, not wilderness camp. In fact, that weird detail threatens to derail the film. Anderson’s films don’t feel real-real but they are storybook-real, as real as a someone recounting a story of his youth. Events were probably not as dramatic as related, but they felt that way at the time, and that is what the listener/viewer responds to. But even in this hyperreality of memory and youthful emotions, children should not be living outside in October in New England.

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