Monday, December 10, 2007

World Turned Upside Down

Ok, let me set the stage. Mike Judge (creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space) made an uneven but still wildly inspired and hilarious movie last year called Idiocracy, about the triumph of stupidity in America. Fox did nothing to promote the film and it died quietly. But now it seems that someone is making and selling the fictional soft drink from the movie.

Of this abomination, one blogger wrote - "So, to recap: Fox wouldn't support a film about Brawndo, the energy drink that destroys plants, debases the human race, and makes those who drink it 'win at yelling', but they are now putting wholehearted support behind the actual drink." Awesome.

Now watch the commercial...

Sunday, December 9, 2007

My Dogs Are Pimp!

Check it out! My boys are stylin' in their new sweaters and jackets from Voyagers K9 Apparel. This clothing is fantastic! It is warm, lightweight, and fits properly - something that has always bothered me about dressing them in the past. They seem so pleased with themselves on our walks in the bitterly cold December mornings.

And don't they look sharp in black? When told what color I had selected for them, one friend complained, "you wouldn't dress your baby in black, would you?" To which I replied, "they aren't babies, they're men."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Holy Shit

This is a fucking mind fuck. Morgan Spurlock was already on my list of badasses for his brilliant Supersize Me and his innovative 30 Days, but the thought that he may have actually found Osama bin Laden in the course of making his latest documentary is astonishing. I cannot wait to see it.

That's Just How He Rolls

Monday, December 3, 2007

Best Opening Line Ever

I just watched I ♥ Huckabees again on Saturday, and I must say that Jason Schwartzman's inner dialog at the beginning of the film is genius:
Motherfucking cocksucker, motherfucking shit-fucker, what am I doing? What am I doing? I don't know what I'm doing. I'm doing the best that I can. I know that's all I can ask of myself. Is that good enough? Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? The African guy is a sign, right? Because if he isn't then nothing in this world makes any sense to me; I'm fucked.

Maybe I should quit. Don't quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don't fucking quit. Just, I don't know what the fuck I'm supposed to do anymore. Fucker. Fuck. Shit.
Pretty much my soliloquy every fucking morning.

Monday, November 19, 2007

'300' Minus 299

Before the first scene, when the overwrought, bombastic soundtrack began to play in the dark theater, my daughter looked at me and laughed "oh my god this is going to be awful." Wow, was she ever right! Beneath the horribly garish facade of Robert Zemeckis' wretched Beowulf lies a classic tale of epic heroism and tragedy. Too bad it was smothered by stupidly macho posturing and a Beavis and Butthead sense of "sexy." I'll be the first to admit that Angelina Jolie's cgi tits look fantastic, but that doesn't quite get the job of making a movie done.

I really wanted to enjoy this film. There were a few good scenes, to be sure, and battle with the dragon is terrific. But on the whole, I would be remiss in my duty if I didn't give you the bottom line: save your money. If you want to see a decent movie about the heroic Geat, have a look at Beowulf & Grendel.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


A gang-rape victim in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail for her part in the crime. This is an allied nation, in good diplomatic standing with the United States.

I cannot claim to be a strong advocate for exporting American democratic values, nor do I particularly want to go abroad to forcibly abolish gross human rights violations. But as a nation it sure seems like we could do a better job of leading by example. I think we could show intolerance toward this kind of "justice" among our supposed friends without resorting to violence.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Sad Day For Baseball

George W. Bush called Barry Bonds' indictment for lying about steroid use "a sad day for baseball." I wonder what he'd call lying about yellow cake uranium.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Punk Rock Warlord

The Future Is Unwritten tells the rich and kaleidoscopic story of John Graham Mellor, the man who became known as Joe Strummer. The film is filled with information even longtime fans will find new or at the very least retold in a different and interesting way.

The third film to deal with Strummer (the other two being Westway to the World and Let's Rock Again), it was far more personal and broader in scope. Just when it seemed to approaching mere hagiography, it would reveal some of the more sordid pieces of his past.

Ya know, I had started to write a long review detailing what I loved about the movie and what I love about Joe. But I just deleted it. Go see the movie. Joe was a mensch. One of the few people I genuinely think of as a hero. 'Nuff said.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Is There a Downside?

Great news! A new congressional report contends that the wars in Iraq and Afganistan are costing the American taxpayers twice what is currently acknowledged, due to interest payments and the costs of health care and disability for wounded veterans. I would hate to think we were getting a stinker at $800 billion when we can actually pay $1.5 trillion!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I'm in the midst of a divorce. While my wife and I get everything sorted, I'm living at my mother's. It isn't really so bad - my mom still lives in the house of my childhood. Which brings back a lot of fond memories and all, but there is one big problem with this scenario: not one shower in the house. That's right: her gigantic, three story, five-plus bedroom, two bathroom house has no shower. Sub-optimal.

So I bathe every day. Now I happen to think that a bath is just dandy every now and again: a fine, relaxing avenue of supplemental hygenie. As a primary method of cleansing oneself, however, it leaves something to be desired. But here is the real kick in the shorts: my mom insists on having a bath hose connected to the faucet. Which would be ok, except that the hose is really narrow and her water pressure is very strong. Ever see those cartoons where the firehose flails around spraying everything? That's me every fucking morning.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Something To Look Forward To

Sir Ian McKellen has expressed that he would be "very pleased" to reprise his role as Gandalf in the planned film version of The Hobbit. No need for that arsenic yet!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

New Day Dawning

The moon, nestled between Saturn, Regulus, and Venus on October 7th, 2007 at 6:39 AM, central daylight time.

Friday, October 5, 2007


So last night I went out with some co-workers for dinner. Affable folks, I have no quarrel with them. Afterward I walked down to another bar to meet some of the lads, as is my wont on Thursday evenings. We had a grand old time, carrying on like fools. Ahh, my people! Love them. Sadly, I had some things to finish at work, and I wanted to get home at a reasonable hour, so we parted company around 9:45 or so.

So I hoofed it back to the office and got my shizot squared. At that point it was like 11:30 or so. I walked over to the bus stop, kind of cursing myself that I didn't stop at the cash machine so I could take a cab home. I was standing on the corner reading City Pages.

After a while, a car stops at the light and some guys start trying to talk to me. "Hi there..." and so on. I ignore them. They keep talking at me. Wait a minute, they are fucking cat-calling me! I finally look up and the one nearest to me says "nice package." WTF? I say, "Sorry, not interested." Then the light turned green and they drove away.

The end.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mr. Furious

Nothing like a jolt of outrage to spark me to post a quick rant: the headline on the Today show this morning, the headline mind you: poor Britney's tragedy - a judge takes away her two young boys. Ok, WTF! A drug-addled, alcoholic, neglectful, and all-around bad mother gets her kids taken away, and that's TRAGIC?! This is the way it should be! The tragedy is that it doesn't happen as often as it should. And it certainly doesn't qualify as news.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

For Fuck's Sake

Enough already! I'm writing! Nevermind that I started with nothing to write about. I'm sitting here typing words that appear as I push the buttons. It's really quite remarkable that my fingers know where to find the letters to type even when I have nothing to say.

I could write about those bastards over at Blackwater. Nah, others have done that already. Or muse over taking a wide-stance in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Nope, too easy. Post a review of Superbad? It was super good. But nay, that needs to be experienced. McLovin will tell you what time it is. I watched Bionic Woman tonight, that wasn't half-bad. Probably because it had half the cast of Battlestar Galactica. Ooh, I can't wait for season four. Even if season three kinda sucked...

Hmm. Maybe I should go back to having writer's block.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Writer's Block?

All of the sudden, click! Nothing. I've sat down a few times this week with the intention of posting some new content here, but the words are just not pouring out of me like they usually do. Perhaps I have finally exhausted my store of reserve ideas built up over the last twenty years, and now I need some time to incubate new ones.

I should confess that I have spent a lot of intellectual capital at work this week. I cannot recommend that, really: it offers a poor return on investment for most people in corporate America. And if you are like me you need to protect those assets! Anyway, it is possible that these expenditures have interrupted the natural flow of thoughts into posts on this humble space.

Whatever the reason, I'm sitting here, thinking about what to write. Ideas welcome.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

It's All In A Day

Six a.m. The alarm bleats its unpleasant call. Another day. My dog Frodo is resting comfortably between my knees, where he's been most of the night. Hercules is under my arm pressed against my left side. They are Italian greyhounds, so they get cold easily and sleep under my blankets and sheets, even in the middle of summer. Neither show an interest in allowing me to move. I stare at the ceiling wondering how on earth I'm gonna make it out of bed this morning, or if there is any excuse I can conjure that might let me stay in my blessed cocoon, away from my worldly cares.

My daughter opens my bedroom door and my third dog Durin, a Pomeranian, scrambles into my bed on top of me and begins to lick my face. My arms are under the covers, protecting my vital areas, while he tramples all over me. I turn my head in a vain attempt to avoid his kisses and breath. Hercules begins to growl at the intrusion. He is being trampled too. While Hercules emerges from beneath the blankets, the jostling extends to Frodo as well.

Herkie and Durin are now engaged in a contest of wills. They are growling and whining and gnawing at each other. This amuses me and I tip my head to enjoy the show. Someone inevitably steps on my face. Ow, dammat! Playtime is over. "C'mon boys," I say as pull myself out of bed and trudge across the bedroom. Two follow eagerly, while one lingers in bed. I'm not sure how they determine who stays behind. But one of them always seems to. I spend a half a moment coaxing the third along, and we all go downstairs to the front door.

I open the door and the three are off like a shot! Greyhounds are fast, and because Durin has two greyhound brothers, he has become quite speedy himself. Usually they bend to the left to chase the squirrels on the lawn into the silver maple tree in the corner of the yard. Frodo is the fastest: he takes the outside track and still beats the other two. Sometimes they race to their favorite marking spot. I watch them for a moment, then go fetch my juice and coffee.

It's six twenty and the dogs are barking at something: a bicyclist, a pedestrian, a baby stroller, another dog. I loathe this behavior, but nothing I've tried seems to keep it in check. I'd better go check on them before Hercules decides to jump the four-foot high fence, which he can do easily. Left unsupervised, they charge the fence to defend their yard and bark until I intervene or the person is passed. I apologize to the passerby, and tell the boys that they are perpetuating the stereotype of yippy little dogs. But do they listen? No. I ask them if they are sorry for what they've done. No answer. Bastids.

By this time I've finished my juice and I am halfway through my coffee while having a look at the morning news, mainly for the weather. The boys sense that their time is approaching and begin to pine for their walk. Durin begins to bite my nose out of excitement. Hercules and Frodo bow and let out short, high-pitched, happy barks in anticipation. "Shhh!" I tell them. This does not help. "Are you ready? Do ya wanna go? Do ya?! OK!" I offer, more to their liking. They caper about and jump for joy.

I need to use the toilet and dress before we go, but they don't mind. They'll follow me anywhere. So the four of us spend a moment in the bathroom, then I replace my pajamas with jeans and a shirt. I come back downstairs and they are in a frenzy, so excited they can't stand it, twirling and jumping and vocalizing with pleasure. I pull on my shoes and fasten their leashes and we are off.

Though our walk follows a prescribed one-mile route around the neighborhood, it never is exactly the same. My favorite walks are when the four of us remain silent for the entire half-hour circuit, each lost in his own thoughts. I sometimes try to fathom their dog-thoughts, which I imagine are formed by their incredible sensory acuity. But then I think that, just as I am entitled to my own private musings, so are they. My mind wanders back to its own reflections.

These quiet walks are sadly somewhat rare, because all too often there is a bicyclist or another dog at whom to bark, or a neighbor who wants to say hello, or a curious passerby who wants to meet these three. I don't mind the attention, but I do prefer our solitude. When the dogs bark or become unruly, I shush them and force them all to heel. It isn't easy to walk three dogs at once. I can't complain too much, though: they are mostly high-spirited, enjoyable, and respectful fellow travelers.

Walking the boys is all about scents and marking and bodily function. They seek out every clue and investigate every curiosity. They micturate upon landmarks and squat to do their business. Hercules is the most careful about marking. By the time we are one-third into the walk, Frodo and Durin have no urine left, while Hercules has saved himself to hit every spot he intends.

It is strange and funny and altogether remarkable what they notice. Once they barked at some Halloween decorations placed in a pattern around the base of a sapling tree in a neighbor's yard. They were spooked by a landscaping boulder, a favorite spot to mark, which had been rolled out into the street. When ant swarms appear on the sidewalk in midsummer they seem to superstitiously avoid the miniature melee.

We make it back to the house and they are quite pleased with themselves. I put them into their kennel. I shower, shave, and dress for work. I make my lunch and find my way in to the office. It's eight fifteen now. No dogs here. It's people who want something from me now: someone is knocking on my cube, my telephone is ringing, and the email is pouring in. My stomach is growling, because I forgot to eat breakfast again. The makings of a long day. Oh well. At least the boys will be happy to see me when I get home from work.

But maybe I shoulda stayed in bed.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Intersection of Evil

There has been a lot of talk over the last six years about the Axis of Evil. Sadly, too little is known of the Intersection of Evil. Thankfully, there is a diagram to illustrate this menace:

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

There Is Power In A Union

Conventional wisdom seems to hold that the labor movement is a relic of a bygone era, outmoded in the information age. A consumerist society doesn't have a lot of patience for collectivist ideals. Everyone seems to believe that selfishness and media conditioning has wrought an unbridled capitalist culture. No one expects workers, hell, even citizens, to act in their own political and economic best interests any more. Thankfully, reports of the union's demise has been somewhat overstated.

This week clerical, health care and technical workers at the University of Minnesota are on strike for better wages. My bus route takes me through the university, so I have seen many groups of picketers every day this week. Their morale is strong, and is buoyed by an obvious source, though unexpected to me: the bus drivers themselves. Every driver of every bus I have ridden has honked and called out and cheered, and the demonstrators have run to the drivers' windows to chat and distribute buttons. I can't tell you how heartening it was to witness this solidarity between people. It felt good to be alive, if only for a moment.

I leave you with Billy Bragg's opus...

There is power in a factory, power in the land
Power in the hand of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand
There is power in a Union

Now the lessons of the past were all learned with workers blood
The mistakes of the bosses we must pay for
From the cities and the farmlands to trenches full of mud
War has always been the bosses way, sir

The Union forever, defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters from many far-off lands
There is power in a Union

Now I long for the morning that they realise
Brutality and unjust laws cannot defeat us
But who'll defend the workers who cannot organise
When the bosses send their lackeys out to cheat us?

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?
What a comfort for the widow, a light to the child
There is power in a Union

The Union forever,defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters together we will stand
There is power in a Union

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Spidey's Last Stand

I've always loved Spiderman. Such an iconic character: as Peter Parker, he was the first superhero with an ordinary kid's problems. And he had a whip-smart sense of humor when he put on the red-and-blue. And let's not forget that the Ramones did a kick-ass version of the 70s Spiderman cartoon theme song! So I felt shame that I didn't get out and see the latest installment of the film series right away. One thing piled on top of the next and soon three months had past without having seen our friendly neighborhood web-head.

Salvation from my spider-exile came in an unlikely form - Delta Airlines Flight 35, service from Johannesburg to Atlanta. The first leg of the red-eye flight was made hellacious by two frat-boyish dumbasses, drinking themselves into a stupor with the help of a slutty flight attendant. Their loud, banal chatter penetrated even my industrial-strength earplugs. Finally I tapped one of them on the shoulder and told him, "that's enough now, I can hear your bullshit through my earplugs. Quiet down."

It worked, but only very briefly. They quickly redoubled their idiotic revelry, and now they had me as a target to mock. Quick thinking on my part! I had no one to appeal to, as the stewardess was making doe-eyes at the two of them and pouring them more drinks, when she bothered to come by at all. I decided that forcing them to pick up their teeth with broken fingers would get me into more trouble than I deserved. A shame, really. So I just had to deal.

Needless to say, my adrenaline was pumping and I was too pissed to sleep by this point. So imagine my surprise and relief when I saw the opening credits to Spiderman 3 began to roll, just as the drunken a-holes were nodding off. I had never watched closely, let alone enjoyed, a movie on an airplane so much as Spiderman 3. Of course, maybe my critical faculties had been dulled beyond reckoning by sleep deprivation and the witless chatter of those two primates. I may well have enjoyed Bio-Dome with Pauly Shore on that flight.

Spiderman 3, like its predecessors, cleaved closely to the source material. Perhaps too much so: the storyline of this third installment is loose and episodic, and at times a bit uneven. But it played well as a comic book slice of Spidey's life in New York City. The pain, conflict, and hilarious awkwardness are here in all their glorious splendor in this movie. A soaper! I must admit I got misty and choked up more than once. Then again, it may have been the dry airplane air.

Oh, and the two jackasses? They staggered off the plane, so hungover I don't think they remembered who I was.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Nothing + Nothing = Bummer

I have been cultivating my online persona "Knight of Nothing" since January of this year. I have many channels that use the moniker: gmail, blogger, stumble upon, myspace, dire cafe, and so on. Yesterday, anticipating my glorious video-making enterprise, I went to add a YouTube profile to Knight of Nothing's domain, only to find that some person in Chile had created a Knight of Nothing account back in May! Rats.

I actually wrote him to ask if I could have the user name. He was gracious enough to reply, but unfortunately for me he has become quite attached to the title as well. So, there is now more than one Knight of Nothing out there. Shucks! I thought I had come up with something original for once. Dammat!

Rock and Roll, Baby

I miss the Strummones! A while back some friends and I formed a Clash/Ramones tribute band, just for fun. We're all big fans and it seemed like a good idea. Man, were those shows a blast. It's hard to believe, but it's already been a year since our last gig! Time flies. Anyway, I needed to get some rock and roll mojo back, so I had a look at some video my uncle shot of us. We rock!

I should confess that "the Strummones" is more of a project than a band: we get together to practice a couple of times only when we have a gig. There are long hiatuses between shows, though this one has been the longest. Mikey and Johnny both play original music in more serious acts. So their time for a party cover band is somewhat limited. I don't mind at all though: it's such an honor for me to play with those guys that I'm thrilled by every chance I get.

Meanwhile, over the summer another friend of mine asked me to help him make a rock video. How cool is that? So Friday, I finally bought Pinnacle Studio Ultimate to prepare for that project. Last night I was playing with it, and I immediately decided that I needed to post some Strummones videos to You Tube. Music and movies - my two favorite things, together! Check it out!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

War Actually

They jokingly call prostitution "the oldest profession." That is of course rubbish. But what really is the oldest profession? My money is on soldiering. War seems to be the natural state for most social creatures: from ants to human beings, we organize ourselves into fighting units for defense and for conquest. I can imagine that this was so for homo sapiens long before the first farmers put seed into the earth or the first craftsmen wrought primitive tools.

I have been fascinated by war since being a youngster. I suppose this isn't exactly an original phenomenon, little boys dreaming of heroic exploits upon a field of battle. Throughout the ages this has been the norm. Like countless other boys, I swung imaginary swords and parried with a pillow for a shield. I filled notebooks with images of tanks and planes and guns and weaponry. My brother and I had a gigantic collection of green army men. We ran through the neighborhood defeating evil through our martial prowess.

As a teenager my fascination became revulsion, but war still had no less a hold on me: though I defaced my draft card by scrawling "I wish to register as a conscientious objector" upon it, I still wrestled with its seductive appeal, watching films and documentaries and reading history on the subject. Almost inexplicably, I took the military entrance exam and contemplated enlisting in the Air Force. Something held me back, but still: war has a terrifyingly powerful hold upon the imagination of boys and men.

Clint Eastwood's diptych Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima portrays some of the contradictions of violent struggle. Flags tells the story of three of the men who raised the widely seen flag over Iwo Jima. The picture that became one of the most famous photographs in history was an accident: the first flag raised on that war-torn island was wanted as a trophy, so a second flag was run up. A wartime photographer snapped a hasty shot of this second flag being raised. The picture immediately became an iconic symbol of the American war effort, and the soldiers involved in the picture became pawns in the wartime propaganda machine.

Flags of Our Fathers does not have a strong narrative. Rather, it is told in loosely associated recollections and anecdotes. It is a sad tale of the disconnect between the actual experience of the soldier on the battlefield and the packaging and selling of heroism as a commodity. It was not a great movie, but parts of it were compelling and poignant.

Letters from Iwo Jima tells the same story of the invasion of that tiny island from the Japanese perspective. It is the more formal of the two films, following the traditional plot arc of a tragedy. This is easily the better of the two films, though both are worthy of a rental. The film introduces all levels of the island's defense. Ken Watanabe gives a strong performance as a noble officer, intent upon reconciling honor, duty, and compassion for his men. Kazunari Ninomiya is touching as a baker who was conscripted to fight in the war, already a lost cause by the time he reaches the front. As they prepare for the inevitable invasion, we find the humanity in these men. What follows next is the horror of lethal armed combat.

Which brings us back to fighting. Let us set aside political arguments that weigh the justifications for war for a moment. If using violent struggle to resolve conflict is one of our basic instincts, does that mean we should simply embrace what is natural? I am skeptical. We have so many other instincts as well. But the instinct is very strong indeed: to fight to defend one's family, one's land, one's beliefs, to render aid unto the weak and helpless. These are things that seem as natural as breathing, and inspire boys of all ages to fantasize of heroic deeds. And yet these very justifications become political talking points in the selling of any conflict, and even in the most "moral" of wars, the belligerents commit unspeakable atrocities against the demonized other.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Bridge Pilgrim

Today I walked down to have a look at what is left of the I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River. Though I live only about a mile from the bridge, and I cross the river daily on my way to work, I had caught only a few glimpses of it in the distance. Officials had kept the Tenth Avenue Bridge (labeled on the map as the "Cedar Ave Bridge," though no one I know calls it that), the bridge closest to the collapse, closed until last Friday to ensure safety and to prevent onlookers from seeing bodies being pulled out of the wreckage. Now that the adjacent bridge has been thoroughly inspected for damage that may have been caused by the fall of the I-35 Bridge, and the last of the victims has been removed from the site, they have re-opened it.

Police have wisely have restricted the Tenth Avenue Bridge to one lane of traffic, and have set up temporary pedestrian walkways so that people may now gaze upon the fallen structure. It is quite a sobering sight. They have already cleared away a lot of the debris, but still a colossal amount of clean up remains.

While walking back I spotted this sign hung on the balcony of the apartment building closest to the fallen bridge. It says it all.

I Forgot to Mention Something...

Last night, having been turned down by a friend to go see Superbad, I was flipping through cable stations and lit upon The Matador, a sleeper of a film I had caught on DVD a number of months ago but never wrote about. I settled in eagerly: this was a great, great movie. Pierce Brosnan turns in a manic, inspired performance as a boozy, oversexed, aging assassin, and Greg Kinnear is equally magnificent as his straight-man character foil.

This film bristles with the pathos and hilarity of manliness in decline: "are you serious?" asks a wide-eyed Danny, when confronted with Julian's profession. "As serious as an erection problem," deadpans Julian. The caricature of a macho asshole is here rendered human through self-effacing tragi-comedy.

The film has a clever storyline and a surprising hook, and the misdirection of the audience is well-executed. But what makes this movie so great are the performances. Brosnan and Kinnear have terrific screen chemistry as the unlikeliest of friends, and both put in fearless performances as men with a sense of humor about the fact that they are past their prime.

Pierce Brosnan is so much better as hit man Julian Noble than he was as superspy James Bond. This role offered him a chance to showcase his broad range, which includes a gleeful sense of comedic timing. Greg Kinnear of course shares Brosnan's talent for comedy, but he is an underrated actor in my book. He deserves a wide audience and many more accolades. His all-American good looks belie a thoughtful craftsman.

Have a look at it, you won't be disappointed.

Aren't You Dogs Supposed To Be Helping Me?

One of the very few advantages of living nearby a major university is the presence of all the college-aged women in the area. I see them often while out walking my dogs: sunbathing, bike-riding, walking to class, and generally doing what girls do when not going wild. But inevitably, when one of these lovely young lasses approaches, one of my dogs squats to take a dump. So instead of smiling and saying hello to these women as they pass by, I am in the undignified position of bending down to pick up my dog's excrement. Thanks a lot, fellas.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Spider Sense Is Tingling

So they are trying to build a spider suit. At least they are working out the theoretical physics of such a costume. All I can say is, FINALLY! Christ, it took you guys long enough. Get busy! Hook me up! I want to beta-test that shit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Smog Monster

Sunday the New York Times ran an alarming piece on the state of the environment in China. It seems the industrial revolution that is transforming the world's most populous nation is wreaking unprecedented havoc on the earth. The numbers are absolutely staggering: it is poised to eclipse the U.S. in greenhouse emissions, 500 million of its people lack access to safe drinking water, only one percent of China's 560 million urban dwellers breathe air considered "safe" by the European Union. The chief cause of particulates in Los Angeles smog is pollution from China. And on and on, each fact more sobering and frightening than the last.

The problem has reached an uncontrolled feedback loop: governmental economic policies have incentivized heavy industry and construction. Buildings are needed so badly that they are built quickly without simple measures such as insulation. This increases the need for heating and cooling power. More power plants are built to meet this need. These coal-burning plants are built quickly and cheaply, without costly environmental protection safeguards. But policy continues to support economic growth because it has lifted millions out of poverty.

This piece left me bitterly cynical about humanity. Why should we expect China to behave any differently than the U.S. or the European powers as we industrialized? Human beings, as a macro-organism, seem to lack the self-awareness necessary to prevent such environmental calamities. In a very real sense, we have not evolved any further than the bacteria in the petri dish, choking to death on its own shit.

Biltong - Africa, Part IV.a.

While wandering about at the Minnesota State Fair last night in a saturated-fat-and-cholesterol-induced stupor, I stumbled upon a kiosk peddling beef jerky. MMM, salty goodness. That stand recalled to mind another Afrikaans word - biltong. Dried meat! It is ubiquitous at snacktime, and often it was laid out at first breakfast as well.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Word Nerd in the Bush - Africa, Part IV

Readers who have been around a while will recall that I am a word nerd. I heard some great logisms while in South Africa! I'm afraid that some of the colorful expressions I heard while there are already fading. I do yet retain a few, however. Here is a selection of interesting words and phrases I learned.

bushveld: I sought this term out. I kept wondering, "this isn't the savanna. It isn't a desert. I wonder what they call the terrain here?" Finally I plucked up the courage to ask. Later in the week, while speaking to a pretty young South African woman, I used the term. She was impressed. As Kip Dynamite would say, "yesssss!"

spoor: tracks. This word seems to encompass not only animal tracks but any evidence of something passing through an area. It somehow fits perfectly.

as well: a common English phrase, to be sure. But non-American English-speakers seem to use this phrase exclusively, never using "also" or "too." It appears to be used as a filler or transition phrase as well, much like we might use "you know." It definitely stuck in my head.

robot: probably the strangest expression that I learned while there, they use the term "robot" for "traffic light." "Go to the first robot and take a left, you can't miss it."

sort: another perfectly commonplace word that non-Americans use in a wide variety of ways. Where we might use organized, settled, resolve, comfortable, figured out, ready, or fixed, English-speakers from other countries often use the catch-all "sorted." I found the expression to be perfectly understandable, though it sounded unusual and distinctive in my ear. I liked it.

braai: barbeque! We had three braais: one brunch and two dinners. One of our dinnertime braais was a surprise meal in the bush. We had been driving in the game viewer, and it was well after dark, and I noticed we weren't heading back to the lodge. Suddenly we pulled into a clearing where a big campfire blazed and some men had set a lovely table. Norman, our chef, was waiting with some flame roasted bacon and cherry kabobs and a giant liquor table.

courgette: zucchini. Interestingly, Norman, whose English wasn't very good, was able to tell me that courgette & zucchini were the same thing, whereas Esmay, one of our other chefs, whose English was very good, did not know the American English word for the vegetable.

farm: I was kind of worried when I heard this term. You see, much of the Venetia-Limpopo Nature Reserve is reclaimed "farmland." I thought, "are we going to even see wild Africa?" Luckily my concern was unfounded: South Africans use the term "farm" the way we would use the term "ranch." The reserve is an unspoiled wilderness that had previously been fenced by "farmers" to keep game in a tighter area.

yoghurt: I love the way the Brits say this word. And the spelling is pretty great as well. I learned that it is Turkish in origin.

dam: blame the Dutch for this one. Anyone piles up a mound of dirt somehere and it's a dam. Doesn't seem to matter whether there is water about or not.

boma: fenced enclosure. I'd heard the term before, but I thought it just a strange and exotic term. But somehow being in South Africa made me realize that people need a word for the concept. And for me, like so many other nouns, the word assumed the form of the thing itself, and the word and the thing became inextricably linked. So it was with boma.

Evil Twin

I am torn between two people: the person who I want to be, and the person that I am. In recent years I have become quite adept at projecting the person I want to be to the world, but the person that I am keeps tapping that motherfucker on the shoulder and telling him to get out of his spot. Wish these two could just sort it out.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Sparky's Dream

I didn't pay enough attention to Teenage Fanclub back in the 1990s, a sad fact that I am earnestly trying to rectify. I find myself wholly captivated by their dreamy, effortless pop sensibilities. Check out this 1995 song, "Sparky's Dream."
If she lived in space, man...
I'd build a plane
Out of luck so beam me up
To hear her talking again

It gives me goosebumps.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Scientists Discover Nothing!

Some University of Minnesota astronomers have found the largest expanse of nothing in the known universe. Knight of Nothing's patron patch of the sky, at last! This apparently empty space measures a billion light years across, more than 1000 times bigger than scientists would expect a void in the universe to be. That's a whole lot of nothing to contemplate. Who says you can't get something out of nothing?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Good Night, Mr. Potter

Author's warning: This is mostly an opinion piece. I tried to avoid placing any spoilers in this essay, but purists who have not yet finished HP7 may want to skip the post, just in case.

I'm not rightly sure how I feel final installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There were definitely some satisfying moments, and it was at times a thrilling page-turner. But the series had some flaws that simply cannot be overlooked. My hope was that J. K. Rowling would work these issues out in this final chapter. In spite of many fine characters and events, the conclusion of the series left me somewhat disappointed.

My chief complaint with the entire series is that Harry never became the hero he should have been. In the beginning he was impetuous, yet he learned no hard lessons, as a hero must in order to come of age. By the middle of the series, Potter is saddled with so much selfish angst that I was never really rooting for him. In book after book, I thought, "Potter saves the day? Again? Yawn." I wanted Neville to step up! Or Arthur, or Lupin, or Mad-Eye, or any number of other characters. Someone modest, humble, hard-working, earnest - character traits sorely lacking in the titular character.

What is so strange is that Serverus Snape's evaluation of Potter's character - arrogant, lucky, selfish, lazy, impertinent - is really who Potter is! It's difficult to tell whether Rowling put Snape's observations about Potter in the series to reveal something about Potter, or to vilify Snape. She doesn't seem to understand that Snape is right about Harry. And Harry never has an epiphany in which he sees his own flaws laid bare.

Snape, arguably the most interesting character in the series, does not quite get his due in this final book. There are some interesting revelations about him, but ultimately he is not given his proper place in the book. His impact upon Harry seems almost like an afterthought.

Ok, enough complaining. I admired most in the series the story itself. Rowling never impressed me with her ability to turn a phrase, but she had a terrific understanding of how to spin a good yarn. The colorful secondary characters were mostly delightful. And placing each book within a school year was a masterstroke that cemented her fantasy world in reality. Who couldn't relate to the cycle of classes, homework, and cramming for exams?

I suppose it's difficult to overstate Rowling's impact on children's literature and popular culture. She is the richest author in the world, and her series is everywhere. And not without reason: the Harry Potter books really do form an enchanting tale of a world we'd all like to visit.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Bushveld - Africa, Part III

The image I had of wild Africa was wholly informed by nature shows. These programs seem to focus exclusively on Africa's three major biomes: the savanna, the deserts, and the rainforests. So I was surprised by the scenery when I entered the Venetia-Limpopo Nature Reserve in South Africa. What was this rocky, dusty, broken place, filled with forlorn shrubbery and punctuated by huge, writhing trees?

The bushveld is unique to a relatively small area in southern Africa. At first glance, scanning the horizon from a hill, it looks barren, harsh, and devoid of life. But nothing could be further from the truth. With anything more than a cursory observation, the signs of life immediately become inescapable: animal tracks and animal droppings line every path in all directions. Insects, birds, reptiles, ungulates, pacyderms, and carnivores strive and flourish in every corner.

Throughout my years I've hiked in many different areas around North America and I have never seen so much evidence of animal life as I did in my eleven day visit to the South African bushveld. It was astonishing and fascinating. I asked myself many, many times, "how does this landscape support life in such diversity and quantity?"

The bushveld is truly impressive. This environment renewed my awe for the majesty and subtlety of nature.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Wise Proverb

Profanity is the linguistic crutch of the inarticulate motherfucker.
        - bathroom graffiti

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Shutterbug - Africa, Part II

I've probably sent my safari pictures to everyone I know, plus all of their friends, relatives, hairdressers, post officers, and dog groomers. But if I somehow missed you, and you are interested, have a look.

While in Africa I became completely obsessed with taking wildlife and nature pictures. It was so much fun! In retrospect I was probably pretty goddamn obnoxious. Oh well. That's what a passion can churn up.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

There and Back Again - Africa, Part I

It is a thirty-hour odyssey from the Venetia-Limpopo Game Reserve in South Africa to Polokwane and Johannesburg, on through Dakar, Senegal, across the Atlantic to Atlanta, Georgia, and finally north to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Home! By the end of the return voyage I felt a coating of sweat and oil and filth all over my person. My mood was poor and my thoughts were addled and incoherent. But a long, hot shower and a blessed sleep have restored my humanity. I may now sort my reflections on the entire superlative experience.

Africa. A huge continent, teeming with fantastic life and immense power, yet burdened with a myriad of problems. It may sound cliche, but Africa possesses a wild, rugged, romantic appeal. I went for the animals. I was quite unprepared for the scope and majesty of the land. Over the next week or so I'll be assembling my stories and pictures. I'll post as much of the tale of this epic journey as possible.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Leaving, On A Jet Plane

Tuesday morning I shall embark on what will be for me an epic journey. I travel to South Africa to live on a game reserve for eleven days. On this adventure I will be a working tourist, following and assisting some researchers as they study the endangered African Wild Dog. Watching these creatures in their natural habitat will be fascinating, and I'm sure I will be engaged by the scientists' work, but I hope to see all manner of African animals while there.

During this voyage my blog will most likely sit idle: my particular friend and guide tells me that connectivity is dodgy at best in this remote part of the country. So I shall resort to an old fashioned method of recording my thoughts and experiences, using primitive tools known as "pen" and "paper." But in spite of this low-tech solution, I did indulge myself with a new high-tech gadget: a Nikon D40. It is fine entry-level digital SLR camera. I played with it for much of the day, taking pictures of my nieces at a family picnic. I've been pleased with its advantages over my old camera. So not long from now I will be posting some tales and pictures from my trek into the African wilderness. Talk to you soon!

Thursday, August 2, 2007

I Need A Vacation

While I was doing the dishes this evening, my clumsy and crooked red-point Siamese cat Merry, bright gray owing to his romp in the garden, was standing over the giant kibble in the dog food dish helping himself. Crunch! Meanwhile my little black Pomeranian Durin can't get enough of the cat food. What is wrong with you people?!?

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Well, Duh

"I'm no expert in engineering either, Tom, but I can tell you that bridges don't just collapse without a reason."
        - Minnesota Public Radio Announcer. <Click>

Seriously, check this out. I was leaving work right when it happened. My bus stop is near Minneapolis City Hall, about a mile from the scene. Right before my bus came, suddenly dozens of emergency vehicles went peeling out of downtown. I called my wife to ask what was going on, but it had happened so recently there was no news yet. When I got home fifteen minutes later, I saw the wreckage on tv. Unbelievable.

The bridge is a little more than a mile from my house. I drove my wife, daughter, and daughter's friend to the scene so they could snap a few pictures. They got a few good ones before getting booted. Every time I get into the car, I drive over this flippin bridge. No more, I guess. Scary.

I hope that their are few serious injuries and fewer deaths.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Electric Footprints

My friend and I were talking a few weeks ago about the differences between our online personalities and our "real" personalities. We concluded that, as we know each other, our writing is a pretty close reflection of who we are as people. But what of our Internet acquaintances? What do they make of these fragments? Is their picture complete?

Since the dawn of the Internet age, I have poured hundreds of hours into sending emails, exchanging instant messages, and now posting essays in this space. In a real way I have encoded some of my electronic DNA into this cyber-ether. And yet the nuance of body language, vocal inflection, facial expression, and eye contact are all lost upon the reader in this cold medium. These subtle cues affect in-person communications in rich and subtle ways, and I marvel at the social contract that we attempt to fulfill in cyberspace without these unspoken terms and conditions.

There is a saying in pop psychology that "we all wear masks." If that is so, then the picture formed by our online personas is simply a variation on that theme, and an extension of print media's personality artifacts. But what if this new phenomenon runs deeper? What if self-publishing, once the narrow prerogative an elite few, now accessible to the masses through electronic means, has opened a window into the human soul where none was before? It's an interesting question.

Maybe I should drink less coffee. Then I'd be asleep instead of thinking about such nonsense.

Saturday, July 28, 2007


I am not a huge fan of docudramas that depict recent events. Too often they seem to cheapen or sensationalize beyond the point of what makes a good story. So when Breach made its way into theaters I did not pay much attention. The film portrayed the curious true story of FBI-agent-turned-superspy Robert Hanssen. I didn't follow that news item when it first broke in Spring 2001, and it didn't seem to be the kind of espionage tale that I enjoy. But my wife picked it up from the video store the other day, and having nothing better to do last night, I had a look at it.

I was instantly drawn in by this movie. Chris Cooper, who I have long admired, is brilliant as the intimidating, awkward, inscrutable, and razor-sharp Hanssen. By all accounts Cooper captures Hanssen perfectly, who was an arresting, horrifying, yet strangely sympathetic character. The DVD extras include the original Dateline piece on the case, which bear out these assessments of his portrayal. Some reviews have griped about the artistic license taken in the film, but the intensity of Cooper's performance and the strong supporting cast make this retelling well worth a rental. It is a gripping, tension-filled character study.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Impenetrable Illusion

I've watched this three times trying to break the illusion's grip on my brain. But I keep failing my saving throw. This spell-like effect must have a DC of like 50 or something.

Monday, July 23, 2007

At Last!

I've been working on a painting of Nausicaä the Warrior Princess for almost a year. I finally finished it this evening. I am very pleased with the results! Have a look...

If you live in the Twin Cities area, and you're interested in improving your drawing and/or painting skills, I highly recommend The Art Academy. My daughter has been taking classes there for more than four years, and she and I have been attending classes together for over a year now. She and I have learned a lot, and it's a lot of fun!

The teachers fuse the time-honored methods of traditional art instruction with modern educational theory. The result is fantastic: every session I walk around the room and marvel at my fellow students. Get out there and paint a picture!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Between Life and Death

Two apparently healthy men die of sudden heart attacks. A father fights cancer. Doctors concerned about cyst on girlfriend's back. Mother's feeding tube removed. Grandmother dies peacefully. Sisters attend uncle's funeral. Mother-in-law accidentally poisoned by carbon monoxide. Grandfather sent to assisted living. Brother needs an intervention. Husband rushes to hospital to have laceration examined. Son burns face, neck, and chest.

A lot can happen in half a year. I have a personal connection to each of those stories, though some are more remote than others. But this is the human experience: we are suspended between birth and death for a short while, and forces both grand and mundane seek to extinguish our humble existence. We are programmed as living organisms to strive against these forces. There is nothing special about this struggle; it merely places us among the animals of the natural world. We are transcendent only through our capacity to empathize beyond our filial relationships and our immediate social network, and by our ability to act upon those feelings. Today let us feel empathy.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Soldier's Pain

I have spent a fair amount of time in this space articulating a strong anti-war position. But you don't have to take my word that this war is wrong. Skyler, a 24-year-old Army Infantryman on his second deployment in Iraq, said this to his mother Penny about himself and the war:
Mom, when you see me, if you ever see me again someday, you won't know me. I'm not who I used to be. I don't mean to sound negative. But that's who I am now.

[My day was] just great mom. I picked up body parts of one of my buddies. And I thought that was the worst that I could ever have to go through in my life. But it wasn't. There was a little seven- or eight-year-old Iraqi boy, crying his little eyes out, picking up his daddy's body parts. And that was the worst.

I really thought we were at war to punish those who killed innocent people, and to make life better for the Iraqi citizens. Now I don't think that way any more.
His mother choked back tears as she recounted his words. It's hard for we civilians to fathom this kind of raw, horrifying violence, let alone understand what it is like to be faced with it each and every day. Isn't it time we listened to our soldiers? Two-thirds say that this war is a mistake. Our military families are suffering beyond measure, to say nothing of the pain that Iraqi families have endured. It's time to change our policy. Listen up, George.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Something I Worry About All The Time

I received a highly informative and very comforting email this morning:
With Penis Enlarge Patch you don’t have to wait for another big wave to cover your small penis when you are on the beach.
Next summer I'll be wondering how I ever got along without it.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Uh Oh

I have recently become acquainted with a reality television show called Rogue Nature, in which a ruggedly handsome yet strangely uncharismatic zoologist contrives encounters with wild animals. He does not look for creatures with merely a general reputation for being dangerous to humans. Instead, he specifically seeks the individuals who have shed their natural shyness and have attacked people.

Last night he sought out rogue lions. Now here's the rub: next month I'm going to be in South Africa. Guess where he was? Yup, right where I'll be. Three weeks from now, I'll be hoofing it through a game reserve near the border of Mozambique, where each year hundreds of refugees are eaten by lions while trying to cross into South Africa. Gulp!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Heckuva Job, Fellas

A U.S. government analysis concludes that al Qaeda is at its strongest since September 2001. Call me crazy, but the whole idea of going to Afghanistan and Iraq was to eradicate al Qaeda and their extremist brethren. Not much progress there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported last month that the Bush administration's five-year-long attempt to fashion an alternative justice system for terrorism suspects has yet to complete a single trial. I thought we founded this damn country in part to put an end to the nefarious practice of secret tribunals. All that work for nothing. Then again, maybe the Constitution is working in spite of these bastids. At any rate, clearly little success on this front either.

So that's it: we are five years and half a trillion dollars into fighting these wars and fortifying our national security state, and our own government is telling us that the enemy is stronger now that at any time they have been since their deadliest attack. The administration has yet to prove that their illegal means of fighting terrorists are effective. But still they press on, determined to pursue these strategies.

It is hard to imagine how this administration could have gone more wrong than they have. They have clearly failed to achieve their stated goals. Who knows what their goals really are. But even if their goal turned out to be the most cynical quest to establish a fossil fuel hegemon, with no concessions given to human rights or collective security or international diplomacy, even then, one cannot say that their plan is working. In this regard, their failure is singularly spectacular. Heckuva job, fellas!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Fatter and Dumber

Buried in the 12th paragraph of this sleepy article was a shocker:
"Colonel Baggio said that [Army] recruiting had been hurt by the fact that 7 in 10 potential recruits in their late teens and early 20s do not meet Army standards, largely because they are too heavy or failed to graduate from high school."
Did I read that right? Seventy percent of the candidates that the Army specifically targets are either too fat or too dumb to qualify for the service. I'm having a hard time getting my head around this statistic. Does it qualify as a crisis when a super-majority of non-college bound 18-24 year olds are that hopeless?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Reality Check

I routinely complain about the way things are in this country, because I know we can do better. But then something comes along to remind me things could be much worse. The article casually points to a statistic that shocked and horrified me: in India, as many as 7,000 women are tortured and beaten to death by their husbands and in-laws for failing to pay a sufficient dowry. I had no idea that this practice was so widespread.

The human animal is an altogether remarkable creature, but it can be pretty repugnant as well. It's cliche to say that we have it pretty good here in the United States. We do. But with that aphorism comes another: here in the U.S., we need face our moral shortcomings honestly. Because the same human motivations at work in the Indian subcontinent are at work here. We must choose to be vigilant against the base part of our nature.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

1-2-3 Not It!

Dammat, I've been tagged again! DAV at Evil Bobby is back to his nefarious ways. I already posted five random facts about myself over at LLTK. But I suppose this is technically a fair tag, because it requires eight facts, not five. So I'd better honor it. I don't know if my facts will qualify as "random," since it is difficult to randomize one's own thoughts. Maybe if I write down 2^16 facts and then dice for the final eight, they might seem random enough. This could take a while...

1. Among nerds, I suppose I could qualify as a "utility infielder." I game, take pictures of astronomical objects, read nonfiction, watch Angel reruns, wear costumes, read Lord of the Rings again and again, listen to Weird Al, and explain the difference between a geek and a nerd.

2. I never got my black belt. I injured my right elbow punching someone's lights out, and while I was on an extended leave, my martial arts instructor committed suicide. That was sad. I really want to go back and finish someday. But when you make it as far as I did, it is difficult to switch teachers. And he was a great one.

3. If all goes well, I am going to direct a rock video this summer! A friend asked me to help him make one. I've done some pretty gonzo movies in the past, but never a music video. It should be fun.

4. I have one God-child. Considering my own spiritual journey was recently shaken, I need to reflect upon how to be a mentor in her life without undermining her parents' beliefs and compromising my own.

5. My driver's license says that I weigh 195. What a splendid fiction! I think I'm pushing 210. But I don't really know, because I've been too scared to get on the scale for the last couple of months. I was hovering around 190 at this time last year. Then everything went to hell. Anyone need a workout partner?

6. I feel guilty that I never wrote a review about Pan's Labyrinth. To my mind, it was probably the best movie I saw in the last 12 months. Why should I feel guilty?!? It's not like anyone is expecting it. I don't have to turn it in. No one cares! But the shame remains.

7. I buy Powerball tickets when the jackpot goes over $100 million. What is the point of dreaming small? I don't want to gamble a dollar for a mere $47 million. Readers who have been around a while probably remember this plan. I'm biding my time.

8. I am still thinking about how to implement my idea.

I am hard-pressed to come up with eight names. LLTK, GeistX, and DAV have taken almost everyone I know. Tagging: Manda (no pressure, I swear), Doreen, Rocky (who has yet to respond to his first tag), Basil, Patty (I know you're out there), jfb, Mikey, and Lacey (surprise!).

Monday, July 2, 2007

Of Bonds and Bush

This morning the local news ran a puff piece on a fan who ran out on field during the San Francisco Giants game to shake Barry Bonds' meaty paw. One of our morning talking heads, Tim McNiff, couldn't resist taking a shot at the beefy outfielder. McNiff, who I like quite a bit (anyone who makes knowledgeable and positive on-air remarks about The Clash, Prince, and Weird Al is OK by me), quipped that Bonds talked more to that fan than he has to his teammates this year. Made me chuckle.

A bit later there was a spot about George W. Bush beaching his boat on a sandbar or some such. This elicited none of the jocular ribbing it deserved. Suddenly I wished that I lived in a world in which a television news personality could ad-lib editorials about people who really are fuck-ups. Dammat, Tim! You missed an opportunity. Oh well, I can't say I blame you. Even if you really hated GWB, I suppose you would invite a firestorm of criticism for calling a spade a spade.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Cuisiniers du Cinéma

Animation auteur Brad Bird knows how to define an interesting character and he knows how to tell a great story. While it is not on the level of his masterpiece The Incredibles, his latest Pixar offering, Ratatouille, is a terrific piece of family entertainment. Set in Paris, it tells the story of a rat named Remy who dreams of using his gifts in the culinary arts. He befriends Linguini, a ne'er-do-well janitor, and together they work wonders, forming the Master Blaster of French cooks.

Physical comedy abounds in this movie, and there are some hair-raising chases and narrow escapes. The technology that powers computer-animated films these days is nothing short of remarkable. What I really liked about this film, however, is its simple, almost cliche message. Love of family, honesty, and above all belief in oneself are all woven into the impossibly zany tale so gently and effortlessly that one never feels like the film is preaching. If a rat can follow his dreams, then maybe we should too.

(footnote: my daughter and I have to argue about which is Bird's masterpiece, The Incredibles or The Iron Giant. She says most emphatically that it is the latter film.)

One Hundred

I started this blog at the beginning of the year, and here I am six months later, still at it. Not to sound too pleased with myself, but I'm hitting a minor milestone with this post: one hundred essays and other bits of nonsense published in this, my humble corner of the web. Not bad! My goal was to put something up every other day or so, and I'll be damned if I haven't been successful at keeping that pace! How bout that?

So now what? I updated a few fonts and colors, for starters. What else can I do to improve this space? Well, I read recently that the best blogs have a specific, targeted focus, continually riffing on a narrowly defined theme. Dammat, that's not me! I have a ridiculously broad set of interests. I guess the only thing I can do is make the writing better. I'd like to see this space get smarter, funnier, more outrageous and more sublime. Suggestions welcome. Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received. See you soon.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Why Asians Are Good At Math And Revolutionaries Are Disgruntled Members of Society

I started two books recently, and I am on the verge of putting each aside. The first, The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett, has as its premise that Westerners and Asians possess such dramatically different conceptions of the world that the very nature of human reason cannot be considered universal. In his thesis, Nisbett argues that the Western sense of individuality and freedom is anathema to the Asian sense of inter-connectivity and community. I liked the title, I thought. It might be interesting.

Having read the first chapter, I'm not really sure what his point is. I guess he's trying to build a scientific explanation for the differences in cultural achievements of Asians and Westerners. In the first chapter he actually asks why Asians are better at math. I'm not kidding. I assume he's going to try to answer that question later in the book. But to me, this is not a very interesting or useful question. Like the other questions he seeks to answer, it is so broad and generalized that it doesn't seem like science.

By the end of the first two chapters, the book has set itself up to be nothing more than a collection of tired, flaccid assertions couched in new terms, with some opinion polls taken of random Westerns and Asians. Boring. In light of a program I just watched on human evolution, that pointed to evidence that every human being outside of Africa descended from a single small tribe, talking about the 'grand differences' between Westerners and Asians seems trite and misguided.

The other book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, arguably has more promise, but again I am hard-pressed to read on. Describing the nature of the titular faithful behind mass movements, it contains catchy sayings like "a man is likely to mind his own business when his own business is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people's business." A great quote, but it doesn't actually reveal anything new. I am reminded of nothing so much as the tautological musings of the Sphinx.

The stilted writing of the latter book and the reductionist nature of sociology and psychology in both make it unlikely that I will finish either of these books. Generalizing the behavior of millions and even billions of people seems really dumb. It is difficult enough to describe what it is that people do, never mind trying to theorize why they do it! I guess that's why these academic disciplines have always been lost on me. So if you want to know why Asians are good at math, you'll just have to read the book yourself.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Maude Squad

You heard it here first: there's a new sheriff in town, Southwest Minneapolis to be precise. A friend of a friend is the head chef at Cafe Maude, just opened this June. This is his first go-round as the chief, as he is a very young man. But don't let his age fool you! The food and drink are exquisite. Get yourself there for a meal, and make sure you have a reservation! The lads met there for dinner last night. But we didn't make a reservation, a poor but apt reflection of our planning abilities. Luckily, that didn't detract from the experience at all. We stood at the bar and visited with the friendly and accommodating bartenders.

I had a raspberry foam lemon drop while devouring a plate of perfectly cut and seasoned french fries. The importance of a french fry's texture cannot be overstated. And these were right on. In a gesture of friendship, the kitchen sent out a chicken flatbread, which was delicious. Thank you, Aaron! For dinner I enjoyed a delightful hamburger - juicy, tender, and flavorful, topped with avocado and mozzarella. One of my dining partners added a side from the menu's small plates - a sauteed spinach dish with a fried egg on a bed of fluffy basmati rice. Man, did that look good. I'm already dreaming about going back.

This place is going to be a permanent fixture. It's great to see a new restaurant starting out so well. I'm sure they'll be written up with much fanfare in City Pages and Star Tribune and Minnesota Monthly before long. Just remember, you heard it here first.

(postscript: man, do I have fun titling my posts. This one had such an embarrassment of riches that it was difficult to choose - Herald & Maude, You Heard It Here First, All Maude Cons, Maude-ify Your Dinner Plan, etc, etc. Do you love it?)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Cowardly Dick

Seriously. Cheney acts as if he is the old-school Tricky Dick, wholly above the law, strutting around Washington and the world, pretending to have a big ol' brass pair. Alas, he isn't what he pretends to be. If this little Dick was as cocksure as the character he plays in this Administration, he would be running for president. But he doesn't really have the sack to do it.

Like a ventriloquist telling pathetic jokes with a dummy, he is not capable of making an actual connection with people, nor can he articulate any higher ideals. Instead, he is forever relegated to the role of putting his hand up someone's ass and hiding behind whatever artifice he can find. Hardly selling points for one who has such an apparent will-to-power and a major chip on his shoulder.

I might be able to respect him if he ran for president. Then he'd demonstrate that he actually believes his own bizarro-world construction of himself: a warrior, judge and avenger, standing between us and the teeming evil horde. But he's really just another cowardly opportunist, as corrupt as anyone ever to hold his office, and as thin-skinned as a certain former governor of Minnesota. May he live out his days in a tortured, marginal state of existence. Good riddance.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Whence and Whither God?

I finished The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins a month ago while I was in South Carolina. I'd been working on it for a while. It is a lively and engaging and challenging read, and I recommend it to skeptics and believers alike. In this book, Dawkins systematically dismantles religion and faith, and I am still reckoning with all of its implications.

I did not set out to read this book. I seem an unlikely person to pursue an atheist's opus on unbelief. I grew up Catholic, a pious child. As a boy I was very attached to the knowledge that my name meant "heard by God," and that the prophet whose name I bear was called into God's service as a young boy. That story profoundly affected me, and I greatly desired that it would happen to me. I wanted to hear the Voice of God, and be given a sacred mission.

I was never really a "Jesus" person. After all, he was basically just a hippie, and I knew plenty of those. Peace, love, blah, blah, blah. That message was everywhere. It was God who called my namesake, God was the All-Powerful One, God was the Father and the King. And so I made God my surrogate parent and friend and mentor. And I needed all: I was a lonely, insecure kid - the second child of divorced parents. My older brother suffered from childhood leukemia - at that time a disease with dire prospects.

Though I was no saintly kid, I prayed a lot for all sorts of favors, big and small. But more importantly, I tried really hard to hear God's Call to Duty. I even remember telling my parents that I did, because I so desperately wanted it to be true. Faith lifted me above the earthly, the temporal, the mundane. Religion gave my young life special purpose and meaning. I even considered becoming a priest, and I endured some teasing for this desire. Of course, all of that happened before I developed an interest in girls. So much for that idea.

As I grew older, I drifted away from the church. I found its system of beliefs and rules arbitrary, the behavior of its agents hypocritical, and some of its doctrines downright appalling, especially in the areas of sexual behavior and preference. In spite of disillusionment, however, I still clung to deist beliefs long into adulthood. I was also drawn to alternative forms of spirituality such as mystical Christianity, New Age, Buddhist, and Native American belief systems. I broke and remade relationships based upon this continual striving for truth.

Gradually, my "religion" gave way to a kind of pragmatic agnosticism. My prayers seemed silly, and reason provided me more answers to the cosmic questions that puzzled me. But I couldn't become an atheist! The atheists I knew were among the most headstrong and disagreeable people I knew. I needed room for doubt and for faith - I could not completely turn my back upon spirituality, upon mystery, upon the human soul. And so I thought that I would live out my life in this state of unknowing.

Fast forward to earlier this year. Some friends and I were discussing Jesus Camp and a New York Times article which referenced Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. One of our number had already read Dawkins' book, and he loaned me his copy. It ended up being a book club of sorts: five of us were reading the book at about the same time. That was pretty exciting! I'd never experienced anything quite like it. The book, the film, and the article together sparked one of the most fascinating email threads I have ever read. Two members of this makeshift book-club led a forceful, beautifully-reasoned, but above all respectful debate on this most difficult of philosophical questions. It filled me with pride to know such men, and humbled me, and I resolved to finish the book in order to find a deeper understanding for myself.

Basically, The God Delusion can be broken down into four main parts. The first section is a series of pithy barbs hurled at religion. I found myself engaging in mental arguments with Dawkins and disagreeing with him on many points. In retrospect, this was probably the weakest part of the book, at least from a purely logical point of view. But I must admit that I was hooked: his writing style is stimulating and funny, and I found plenty of common ground with the author. And there is no small number of examples of religious excess to point out.

The second section is a close examination of the arguments that have been used to "prove" the existence of God. I actually covered some of these classical proofs in my freshman philosophy class! I recall being stymied and seduced by the Ontological Argument. Dawkins deftly exposes the fallacies in this and many other arguments. How come my professor didn't do that? Bastid.

He takes on the simplistic ideas of creationism, currently enjoying something of a renaissance here in the United States. In the creationist's view, wherever there are gaps in human knowledge, that is where God must be. The basic problem with this worldview is that as human knowledge expands, the gaps shrivel, and this has been a rather steady progression. Every phenomenon scientifically explained today was at one time a mystery. So why should science be content to cease its inquiries now? To Dawkins, mechanically filling these scientific unknowns with "God" is intellectually lazy. To be fair, not many serious theologians subscribe to this "God of the Gaps" hypothesis anymore. But its hold over fundamentalists is still strong.

He then posits that the existence of God is a scientific proposal about the universe to be proven or disproven. I had trouble with this idea at first. "God is outside the laws of nature, and belief in him is predicated on faith, not facts," I told Dawkins smugly. I win! OK, I just demonstrated that I talk to people who can't hear me. What does that say about my religious beliefs?

At any rate, Dawkins wasn't so easily cowed. He reasons that, as the supernatural entity that we call God can communicate with humankind telepathically through prayer, and can re-order the laws of the universe based upon these communications, there ought to be observable phenomena that point to his existence. In Dawkins' assessment, we are left with a highly improbable being. He is careful in this section to leave some room for doubt about the certainty of God's non-existence. But his message is clear: there is no evidence whatsoever that demonstrates the existence of God. None. Zero. This simple statement hit me in a profound way, a way that I had not felt before.

In this part of the book, he also spends time demonstrating the elegance of a scientific view of the universe. He contrasts the paradoxical complexity of creationism, which actually poses more questions than it answers, with the vast mountain of evidence that edifies Darwin's simple yet powerful Theory of Evolution. This line of reasoning is convincing, and provides a smooth transition into the next section.

In the third part of the book, Dawkins delves into his area of expertise - evolution and biology, and offers up some explanations as to how and why human beings evolved to have such a strong predisposition to believe in God. To him, this trait is not in itself a very useful adaptation on its face: belief in unobservable beings and events does not seem to help an organism survive and reproduce effectively, and can consume many resources that could be better spent directly on survival.

So where does God come from? In his view, belief in God is a by-product of other evolutionary adaptations. It is interesting to me that this part of his argument does not preclude the existence of God at all. It merely attempts to build an explanation based upon observable facts about the human brain and upon human behavior. The primary adaptations that he points to are a child's natural submission to absolute authority, and a trait dubbed simply "hyperactive agent detection device." Both of these are are strong survival traits: listening to adults unquestioningly is likely to keep a child alive until adulthood, while perceiving actors with the potential to harm oneself serves an individual throughout life.

The final section offers suggestions as to what might take God's place. Where should God go? Not to the children! Dawkins makes an impassioned plea to end the religious indoctrination of children. I think he'd argue that the manipulation of the children in Jesus Camp is simply an extreme example of what he sees as the typical religious training of young people.

So if God is banished from our children, and divorced from our public consciousness, what of the communities that are formed on the basis of religions? He suggests that our religious institutions remain as social networks and traditions. Ultimately, it is in science that Dawkins finds sublime beauty and rapture, and in reason that he finds universal moral truth.

While reading Dawkins book, I came across an unlikely debate between Christopher Hitchens and Al Sharpton. Hitchens, who also has a new book tauting atheism, took the role of the unbeliever, and Sharpton naturally took the mantle of God. As I perused it I couldn't help thinking that Dawkins addresses a lot of the points that Sharpton raised (and won) in the discussion. Which I guess only proves that Hitchens is still a twit. But I digress...

So that's it. Here I am. I have an overweening fear of death. And I find no solace in faith. Religion still feels like an instrument of control and the ultimate casus belli. I want to believe in a soul. But science is dubious of such claims. The universe is huge, and indifferent to us. We're stuck in this corner. We'd better deal with it: find a moral philosophy that does not rely upon an arbitrary set of texts and rules. Because I agree with Dawkins on this point: right now, God isn't really helping us master our more base tendencies. He's been pretty useless.

Functionally, I'm still agnostic. But this book has me asking questions again. I guess that's all you can hope that anyone else provide for you: the means and desire to ask questions.