Thursday, November 30, 2006

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


(Book Review)

Yet another infamous epic Russian novel. I suppose like most people, I tend to group all these long 19th Century Russian novels together. For me, “Anna Karenina” falls in the same category as “Crime and Punishment”. I don’t know if that’s fair or not. Perhaps its just my ignorant American bias. I know Tolstoy and Dostoevsky differed politically, but the structures of their novel seem similar. And my reaction to their novels is pretty similar as well.

“Anna Karenina” is often described as the story of a married woman caught in an adulterous affair. Just like the plot of “Crime and Punishment” is often described simply as a young student who commits murder. I think the initial reaction of most people is, “Wow, these books must be pretty boring? How can so many pages be devoted to such a simple plot.”

But once you start reading both books, you find that there are a lot of subplots. You also find that, despite occurring over 100 years ago in another continent, both books seem to accurately capture a number of facets of human nature. You find yourself thinking that characters in the book sound like people you know in real life. And that the thought processes of the characters sound a lot like your own thought processes.

And just when you’re starting to enjoy these books, and think, “Hey, these epic Russian classics aren’t so bad after all,” then about 200 or 300 pages into the book, you realize that all the set up for the plot is complete, and the story isn’t moving forward anymore. Instead, what you have for another 400 or 500 pages is just the situation slowly simmering as the characters think over what to do, or discuss with each other.

And if you’re like me, somewhere along the line you begin to loose your patience and say, “Oh for the love of Pete, will you just get to the end already?”

But that’s just me. Maybe you’re a little more sophisticated. I guess the thing with these kind of Russian novels is that you don’t read them for their plot. You read them for the philosophy contained inside. And if you’re a deep thinker or have an appreciation for philosophy, you’ll do fine. If you’re like me, and get antsy when 100 pages go by without some sort of train crash or explosion, then this isn’t the book for you.
As most people already know, this is the story of a married woman who falls in love with another man and has an affair. Although there are several sub-plots, as mentioned above. Thematically Tolstoy uses some of these to set up alternative examples of marriage. But he also uses these various sub-plots to show how one adultrous affair between two people has ripple effects outwards into the lives of many others.

The affair results in multiple tragedies, although it is unclear (or at least unclear to me) if Tolstoy is criticizing the selfishness of the adultrous couple, or if he is criticizing the strict social customs and rules at the time which make this affair into such a big deal. Maybe a little bit of both.

Since this novel was written in the 19th century, during a period of upheavel in Russia and European history, there is also a lot of questions about class and the relationship of the landowners to the peasants. These must have been burning questions at the time, because every 19th Century Russian novel I've read so far has dealt with these issues. From a contemporary standpoint, much of this is now just historical interest. If you're a history geek like me, you might find this the most interesting part of the book.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Some claim that the song "Rocky Racoon" is a parody of a Bob Dylan ballad, much like "Back in the USSR" is a parody of The Beach Boys. The Old West-style honky-tonk piano was played by producer George Martin.

Link of the Day
I haven't been watching the Simpsons the past couple weeks, but according to this video clip here, and the article following, it looks like they've been taking on the Iraq War and Army Recruiting

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Part 2: The Reunion Itself

I think most of us go into high school reunions with an agenda. “I’m going to show everyone that I’m no longer this way,” or “I’m going to show them that I’ve become this.” I had a bunch of conflicting agendas running through my brain, but the moment I walked in the door I forgot everything as I was warmly greeted, and at once began the handshaking, the backslapping, the bear hugs, and the How the hell are you’s.

Rereading over the previous post, I hope I didn’t come off as bitter. Like I said, it was an endeavor doomed to failure to write up a summary of high school. What I was trying to get across was that, yes, I was shy and socially awkward and high school was a difficult time, but that wasn’t the fault of my classmates. In fact I always felt that given my extreme shyness, I was treated with more kindness than I had any right to expect.

In fact one of the main reasons I went to Calvin was to keep in touch with my former high school classmates, as silly as that sounds now. It’s well known that every year Calvin takes 50% or so of every graduating class from Grand Rapids Christian. Once I actually got to Calvin, I found that within a few months I was identifying much stronger with the people in my dorm than the people from my high school, but I still saw the old gang around everywhere I went. As someone said at the reunion, “It’s a good thing nobody organized a 5 year reunion. There would have been no point. It would have been like, ‘So what are you doing? Oh, that’s right, you were in my religion class last semester.’”

Then again, 50% is only 50%. There’s another half of the class that mostly dropped off the face of the earth after graduation. And it was really good to see a lot of them again.

High school angst or post-high school angst aside, the biggest problem of a high school reunion is the politics of cocktail parties. How to be able to work the room, talk to everyone you want to talk to, have meaningful yet short conversations with several people, don’t overstay your welcome in any one conversation, and when the time comes be able to break off smoothly and go to the next conversation. Not my strong points any of them. I did my best, but there were several moments that felt a bit awkward or could have been smoother. On one hand, I felt like there were several people I would have liked to talk to, but never found the opportunity. On the other, there were a few moments when I felt like I was awkwardly standing with my drink in hand trying to force my way into a group that really didn’t want me there. High school all over again.

Certainly I think we were all really sick of repeating the same conversation over and over again by the time the night was over. And the acoustics of the room required me to raise my voice to be heard each time.

I’ve mentioned this before, but often I find that other people find my experience of teaching in Japan more impressive than it really is. It’s a cush job that requires virtually no talent other than being a native English speaker and a college graduate. Most people do it because they don’t know what else to do with their life and it’s a way to put off the real world for a year. And often with JET or English teaching communities in Japan, the longer you stay, the more of a loser you are.

And yet to the layman, not only does teaching in Japan sound really impressive, but the longer you’ve been there, the more impressive it sounds. I’m certainly not the only one of my classmates whose traveled over the past 10 years, but I’m the only one who put in 5 years in the same country. So a lot of people were really impressed. In fact my name was the answer to one of the questions in the ice-breaking game. (“Which one of our classmates spent 5 years in Japan?”)

I was also of course famous for the fake update I sent in to the alumni magazine a couple years ago. (The sequel, unfortunately, never got printed). Most people realized it was a joke. A few had been genuinely concerned about me (which I felt slightly guilty about). Of course, when you think about it the amazing thing is that I was the only one who had a little fun with the alumni magazine. Doesn’t it seem like the kind of thing more people would be trying to pull?

In addition to having a bunch of short conversations with people I wanted to talk longer too, I had a couple of long conversations with people I barely knew in high school. It felt a bit strange maybe, but it was really good.

There were also two people from my high school class who had died since graduation. They were too young to die, but I could list a lot more people I know who were too young to die, and I’m sure you can too. What really shocked me is the fact that a high school classmate can die, and I can go for a year and a half without hearing about it. I guess that’s what happens when you lose touch, but after spending 4 years seeing these people every day, it just seems weird.

All in all, I’m very glad I went. Some of these people I might not see again for another 10 years, but it was good to reconnect.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Though Harrison intended the song "Piggies" as social commentary, it was often misinterpreted as an anti-police anthem. Charles Manson, who misinterpreted many of songs from The White Album to justify his murders, took the phrase, "what they need's a damn good whacking", to mean that he should attack the American police. During the murders of Sharon Tate, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and others, knives and forks were used to stab them because these utensils were mentioned in the song. The words "pig and piggy," were written with the victims' blood on the walls. Harrison was horrified when he learned his song took on another meaning

Link of the Day
Here's a clip of youtube clip from the infamous "Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus". This was a 1968 television special with the who, Rolling Stones, John Lennon, and Eric Clapton that was never aired because the Rolling Stones thought "The Who" had outperformed them. (wikipedia article here) This particle clip is an interview between John Lennon and Mick Jagger, plus "Yer Blues" song by the supergroup consisting of John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell and Yoko Ono. How cool is that? (Same video also on Google, if that works better for you)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

High School Reunion

It feels like my life is devolving into cliches. I mean a high school reunion is a pretty standard cultural cliche isn’t it? If my life was a sitcom, this would be a standard episode (probably somewhere around the 6th season when the writers were beginning to run out of ideas).

It’s not hard to see why high school reunions have become standard fodder for sitcoms and movies. There’s a lot of emotions present and a lot of different ways you could go with this. You could go the old, “Has it really been 10 years already? Where has time gone? I feel like I’m still 18 at heart,” option.
Or you could go for the classic “What have I done with my life? I was supposed to have everything all sorted out by now and be rich and famous and show up all those people who wouldn’t talk to me in high school.”
Or you could just relive high school angst. High school is a pretty sucky time of life, and I think most of us spend the rest of our lives trying to recover in one way or another from high school.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the first few options because they popped up on this blog before in various incarnations. And from reading your blogs I know I’m in good company on most of this. I guess it’s all something we’re dealing with as we go through our 20s.

I once read in a psychology textbook that time does actually go faster as you get older. The reasoning being that when you’re young you’ve got less time behind you and so a year is a comparatively long part of your life. The more years you’ve lived, the less of a percent each year becomes, and the years seem like they go by faster.

In addition to this, let me add my own personal theory that life starts to go faster because you have less milestones to mark it by. When you’re in high school, every year is distinct. Freshman year is different that Sophomore year, and Junior year when you get the driving license is certainly a lot more different than both. Whereas the 5 years I spent in Japan all kind of run together in my memory as one lump. This is why, for example, the 3 years I spent in middle school from 6th through 8th grade seemed like a mini-eternity for me, but the 3 years in which I watched my Japanese students make the same journey just flew by.

Also in addition to the outer milestones, we develop inwardly as well. When you’re 17, you listen to different music and have different tastes than when you’re 14.
But when I think of my 18 year old self, that is more or less who I am today. Sure I’ve refined a bit, smoothed out a few rough edges, and hopefully added some new levels of my sophistication to my thinking, but at the base level that is when I first started to emerge as the person I am today.

I think part of being in our 20s is that for the first time we realize that time is now passing faster than it used to, and we have to make our peace with it. Which is why the blogosphere is filled with 20 somethings writing on this exact same topic. Search “Quarter-Life Crisis” on blogger and see how many thousands of entries you get. (41,140 the last time I checked).

Okay, that angle put to bed, let me see if I can tackle the high school angst one. Accurately summing up high school experience is an endeavor always doomed to failure, but I’ll have a crack at it anyway.

Phil Christman had a blog entry this summer about the invitation he received to his high school reunion, and the emotions it provoked. I could really identify with a lot of it.

Although if I’m honest with myself, most of my own high school angst was not the result of being tormented by philistine classmates, but because of my own social awkwardness. Obviously this doesn’t apply to everyone (we all know some people were actively persecuted in high school) but I think for many of us there is a danger of projecting the blame for a less than perfect high school experience outward onto former classmates.

And for that matter, I think most of my high school angst is actually post high school angst that I’ve retrospectively put into my memories. I mean, sure, I was a huge geek in high school. I was shy, I couldn’t talk to girls, and I spent my weekends watching “Star Trek”, reading comic books, and listening to The Beatles. But you know at the time I was perfectly happy being a geek, reading comic books, and listening to The Beatles. These were activities I did because I enjoyed them. I may have wished that I could be more popular, etc, but I had the natural optimism of all teenagers that eventually everything was just going to work out perfect, and by the time I was a little bit older I’d have life all figured out.

Later on I realized that while I had been huddled away in my room reading comic books, many of my classmates had been out partying and having various “Dazed and Confused” style adventures. And if not that, at least most of them had been having some social life in some form. And then I felt a tremendous sense of having missed out.

(This is a large reason why in college I was so concerned about not wasting any time by not watching any TV, not reading any books that weren’t for class, and in general not doing any passive activities at all. I guess I have a tendency to go from one extreme to the other. I know this rigidness drove a lot of you crazy back at Calvin, so sorry about that. )

Geography and private schools were also a factor in my feeling of isolation. My siblings and I all grew up in the private Christian schools. When each of us reached middle school, I think we all complained at one time or another that everyone at school knows each other from the Christian Reformed Church, and everyone at the Covenant Church we attended knows each other from the local public schools.

The same complaint was true to a lesser degree in high school, although once we moved on from the local Christian middle school to the big Christian high school, geography also became a factor. Where we lived, in the suburbs of Cascade, was considered the boondocks from the perspective of Grand Rapids Christian High. I got the sense (true or not) that everyone lived in the same neighborhood except for the 30 of us who came from Cascade/Ada.

(While I was in Japan, I really started to envy the neighborhood schools that my students had. They would walk home from school with their friends, and if they wanted to visit a friend’s house, they didn’t have to ask for a ride from their parents, they could just bike over. Even now that I’m back in my old neighborhood, I feel jealous when I see kids all walking home from school in a group. Or biking to each others house. Or running into each other at the local library or supermarket.)

Freshman year was really rough for me, as I guess it is for a lot of people. My little group from middle school didn’t stay together, and I was without any friends. While I was perfectly happy to stay home and watch “Star Trek” on Friday nights, the big problem was where to stand during noon break. Real friends would have been nice, but when everyone was hanging around I just wanted a group I could be part of to stand in. There’s nothing more awkward than standing alone.

For whatever reason (I’d try to theorize a reason, but I still don’t know why) things started to get better as I moved through the grades. By Junior year I noticed people were willing to tolerate me standing in their group. By Senior year I even started to get invitations to parties and stuff on the weekends. Some of this was because people found the quirks in my personality funny, but it seemed in a benign way and I felt they were laughing with me instead of at me. I even started to play up some of these quirks and make a bit of clown out of myself.

I even voted on the homecoming court senior year (which is one of those meaningless honors which somehow means so much at the time), at the end of the year I was selected to represent my class by speaking at the Senior Chapel, and I was voted by my classmates the friendliest person in the class of 96. But for all that, I didn’t have a single good friend in high school, or anyone I’ve kept in touch with in the years following.

I don’t know if Jared English remembers this, but he once quizzed a former high school classmate of mine, (or actually she was a year below me) what I was like in high school. She responded, “Oh, we all thought Joel was so funny. He actually thought he was popular by his senior year.” When Jared reported this back to me, any embarrassment or hurt I might have felt by this were vastly outweighed by the pride that a girl I didn’t even know existed in high school had been paying attention to what I had been doing. (You could argue this is negative attention, but then if you attempt to make that distinction, you obviously don’t understand the male mind).

Joking aside, there is probably a lot of truth in her assessment. Once I discovered I was socially climbing, I tried too hard to work my way into what I thought were the popular cliques. As much as I might like to make myself out as the good guy, I played the game as much as anyone in high school: try to be one of the popular and attractive people, and if that doesn’t work, than try to always stand next to them so that you can at least fool other people.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
McCartney revealed on PBS's Great Performances (Paul McCartney: Chaos and Creation at Abbey Road), aired in 2006, that the guitar accompaniment for Blackbird was inspired by Bach's Bouree, a well known classical guitar piece. As kids, he and George Harrison tried to learn Bouree as a "show off " piece. Bouree is distinguished by melody and bass notes played simutaneously on the upper and lower strings. McCartney adapted a segment of Bouree as the opening of Blackbird, and carried the musical idea throughout the song.

Link of the Day
Bill Threatens Public Access and Net Neutrality in Michigan

Monday, November 27, 2006

Thanksgiving Day Weekend

This past weekend has been very busy around here to say the least. I had my first American Thanksgiving in 5 years, we met with not one, but both sides of the family, I saw some cousins who I had not seen in 5 and 10 years respectively, and met some new members of the extended family for the first time. Plus I had the infamous 10 year high school reunion on Saturday.

In order to give all of these developments full space, and develop the long winded posts for which this blog is famous, I’ve decided to break these up into separate entries and post over the next couple days.

To begin with, it is nice to finally be back in the US for Thanksgiving Day holiday. (After my entry on the 4th of July, I guess I’m gradually working my way through the Calender of all the holidays I haven’t been around for during the past 5 years). However us ex-patriots always did what we could to celebrate in Japan. It was tough being away from friends and family back home, but on the other hand there is a strong sense of comradery with the other ex-pats that makes the experience enjoyable. I’m sure many of you who have been away from home during the holidays can identify with this. (Rob Patton, who lived too far away to make it home, used to always talk about all the fun he had bonding with the other Boer-Bennick people stuck in the dorms during Thanksgiving Weekend.) The Thanksgiving Dinners in Japan, and for that matter the couple of Christmases I spent in Japan, are among my best memories.

In fact among the various English speaking JETs we found excuses to celebrate several times once we added in the Canadian Thanksgiving and Guy Fawkes Day. American turkey and pumpkin pie were always hard to find in Japan, but last year in particular someone had connections and was able to pull it off....

....Which actually was the cause of severe disagreement after some British JETs insisted that this thing we Americans call pumpkin pie is actually pumpkin mousse. This touched off a long and heated discussion over exactly what the definition of a pie is. The British insisted that a proper pie had to have crust on both the bottom and the top. Several dictionaries were consulted, and in the end everyone finally agreed that at least some definitions of pie only have crust on the bottom.

This year back in America such heated debates were absent from the dinner table. Instead the relatives came over, and the usual old stories were rehashed.

Maybe this is a sign that I’m getting old, but I’m starting to actually look forward to family gatherings. The cousins who used to be annoying little kids are now all pleasant young people in their 20s. And the older adults are starting to seem more like real people to me, and less like, well, adults.

In particular, I was glad to see my cousins Brian and Jeff, who I have not seen for many years. Growing up, they were the only cousins who lived out of state, so I would see them maybe twice a year in a good year. I’ve always thought that if it wasn’t for the geographical distance, they would have been my best friends growing up. (On the other hand, maybe the novelty is what made them appealing. If I had seen them all the time, maybe we would have gotten sick of each other and started quarreling. You never know. )

At any rate, after they moved to North Carolina, and I went to Japan, I haven’t seen them years. (5 years in the case of Brian, 10 years in the case of Jeff.) Nor had I meant Jeff’s wife, or Brian’s kid.

Jeff actually spent a year in Japan overlapping the time I was there. In retrospect I can’t believe we never got together during that time, but we didn’t. I sent a few e-mails, and once I got a hold of his phone number left a few messages with his roommate. When I didn’t get a response I just thought, “Well, screw it, I tried.” If I had known it would be another 5 years before I got an opportunity to see him, I would have tried harder.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The song "I'm So Tired" was recorded at three in the morning, which enhances the sentiment.
The song also mentions famed English author and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh by name, calling him a "stupid git" for bringing the tobacco plant to England.


Link of the Day
From Media Mouse:
The news media has been framing the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a “sea of change” in Washington. However, all the coverage of Rumsfeld’s announcement omitted any serious review or investigation of his role in War Crimes during his tenure as head of the Department of Defense (DoD). On November 14, the Center for Constitutional Rights will file a War Crimes Complaint against Donald Rumsfeld in a German court. The complaint is brought on behalf of 12 torture victims consisting of 11 Iraqi citizens who were held at Abu Ghraib prison and one Guantánamo detainee and charges numerous high ranking US officials for “authorizing war crimes.” This effort is part of a growing campaign by groups like Human Rights First and War Crimes Watch (a new website devoted to educating people on war crimes and holding those responsible accountable) to hold Rumsfeld accountable for his actions. (complete article here)

Friday, November 24, 2006

The U.S. Vs John Lennon


I went down to the UICA last Monday to see the new John Lennon documentary. (If you still haven't seen the trailer yet, you can watch it here.)

Being a big Beatles fan, you can guess that this would be right up my alley. However by the same token being a big Beatles fan, and a self-admitted geek, I also felt it didn’t tell me a lot of new stuff. Even most of the old footage I felt I had seen before, between the ABC Beatles’ Anthology series, the “Imagine” documentary movie from the 80s, the Dick Cavett interview, and the infamous week co-hosting the Mike Douglas show during which Lennon and Ono brought in Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale. The latter two shows are frequently re-run on VH1's rock classic series, or at least they were back when I was in high school.

Nevertheless, it was a very well done documentary, and very entertaining. And I figure entertaining is really all you can ask from a documentary. Being informative is a plus, but if you’re really concerned about the information aspect, you learn a lot more sitting down with a book than you would from a 2 hour documentary. And there are actually a number of books dealing with John Lennon’s political activities, if you look in the right place. The Calvin library has a couple of them, and I recall spending a couple Friday evening’s curled up with these books back in the day. (I know, geek, geek). There’s also a recent book, “Gimmie some Truth” on which this documentary was partly based. The NPR interview with the author can be heard here.
The movie didn’t have much of a thesis other than to recount the events of John’s political activity, and the US governments reaction to them. It shows Nixon and the FBI doing some not-nice things, but I trust that’s not new information at this point.

However the story of John Lennon does present an interesting case study on the intersection of music and pop culture with politics. When you talk about star power, it’s hard to get much bigger than a member of the Beatles during their heyday. Remember the Beatles were (or at least started out as) a bubble gum rock band. It would be equivalent perhaps to Elvis, or today’s Brittany Spears or Justin Timberlake, becoming heavily involved in radical politics.

And for that matter, it’s hard to get more radical than John Lennon was. When you start hanging out with Bobby Seale, Jerry Rubin, and Tariq Ali (who, according to his autobiography was a close personal friend of John Lennon ), it’s hard to move further out to the left.

There was a time around when I was 17, 18, and 19, when I considered John Lennon, and more recent bands like “Rage Against the Machine” the height of political sophistication. I suppose that’s right around the age where that is common (maybe I was a late bloomer by a couple years). And I can still remember one day around when I was 19 listening to a “Rage Against the Machine” song, and thinking, “Wait a minute, these guys aren’t any more politically sophisticated than I am. The only difference is they have the ability to put their message to music. But the lyrics themselves are really not that deep.”

There is a danger when rock stars become the most visible parts of the American Left. I think this is a danger that is often courted by revisionist histories of the 1960s, which focus on the era as the hey day of Woodstock, the Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead, instead of the real story of the civil rights and anti war movements, which is grassroots organizing at the local level.

To be fair, I think this particularly documentary did a good job of walking that line. They portrayed Lennon as responding to what was already happening in the streets, instead of being a superstar who creates movements. But still, I wince a little bit when I watch a documentary that has Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal as supporting analysts for a movie about John Lennon. It makes me worry a little about where our culture is focused.

On the other hand, the older I get, the more I realize that not everyone’s brain is wired the same as mine. People like my youngest sister have a very hard time absorbing a tract by Noam Chomsky, but could easily understand the simple message in Lennon’s songs of giving peace a chance. And this point was made in the documentary. John and Yoko both said that they were trying to use their celebrity power to get people involved in the movement who wouldn’t otherwise be involved.

But here’s what has me worried: when I go through East town I see all sorts of progressive bumper stickers on cars or progressive buttons on people at the coffee houses. But when we meet for Media Mouse meetings or IGE meetings, it is rare we have more than 10 people. I don’t think our generation is apathetic politically, but I think people sometimes put bumper stickers on their car, or listen to folk music (or punk music, or Rage against the Machine, or whatever radical music you happen to like) and think they are doing their part. And actual organizing and political participation is falling by the wayside.

There is a line to walk between being able to use star power to attract people to the movement, and becoming too dependent on it. I’m not sure what the exact answer is, but I fear we have fallen too far to the latter.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Despite sounding like a traditional love song, "Martha My Dear" was in fact inspired by Paul McCartney's Old English Sheepdog, Martha. Said McCartney, "Whereas it would appear to anybody else to be a song to a girl called Martha, it's actually a dog, and our relationship was platonic, believe me."

Link of the Day
More Japanese music. Usually I link to the oldies, but just for the sake of variety here's a more recent song. "Shanghai Honey" by Orange Range. This song was very popular with my junior high school students about 2 years ago. In fact they used parts of it for their team chant during "Sports Day." It's not great music, but it's kind of catchy. The Band Orange Range is originally from Okinawa, and you can hear Okinawain influences in the song during the chants inbetween verses.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Delurking Week



I've gathered from other blogs that it is national delurking week.

You know, I've never really liked that word "Lurking". It sounds like something dirty. All it really means is that you're reading what I wrote here, and I wouldn't put it up on the internet if I didn't want people to be able to read it. So if you want to "lurk" on this site, lurk away.

But if you want to introduce yourself, but haven't had as yet a decent opportunity, here's your chance.

In the spirit of delurking week, I thought I would mention a number of blogs I lurk on but, have as yet, not introduced myself.

When I get bored one of my first lurks is usually that of the other Chimsers linked off of Bork's or Phil's blogs. I was a staff writer for Chimes senior year, but not on staff, so I know most of these people vaguely but not well. Erin, Christian and Beth, Bierma (who I also know vaguely from high school)

Also via Tom from Guam I sometimes wander over to blogs from the old Boer Bennick gang: Jori at the Fungal Life, Chris and Athania

A lot of my friends have links to Pastor Mary. I think I saw her preach at Eastern once when I was visiting my Grandmother's church years ago, but I enjoy her blog.

Via Sara Nelson's blog I've started reading Sarah DK's blog, again someone I was aware of vaguely in high school and Calvin, but have enjoyed the wit and insight on the blog.

Via Chris Powell's blog I started reading this blog of an ALT in Oita. I don't know him, but he writes with surprising frankness about his love life, so I started reading out of sheer voyerism.

Via my Cousin Dave's blog I started reading Bethany Keeler, after I noticed we were usually on the same team in the comment section. Apparently a former Calvin student, although after my time, but she's got a lot of unique insights.
And then I started reading her Dad's blog as well. He's a Calvin professor, and, if memory serves, he taught an Education 301-303 class that I was enrolled in. I wasn't in his class, I was in the sister class, but for guest speakers and such we would often combine classes. Anyway his blog is pretty cool. And it's always nice to see an educated man who is clearly just as addicted to blogging as I am.

Via Phil's blog: Andrew Hooghem (I don't know if this counts as lurking, because I did mention to him in person I occassionally read his blog when I last saw him). And his wife's blog, who I know from Dorm Cleaning days.

Often I read Jana's blog, but I introduced myself once already, so that probably doesn't count.

Jared Bentham is someone I'm pretty sure I know from the Calvin days, although my memory is so faded I don't remember how I know him.

As far as I know, I've never met Bad Christian. But we seem to have a lot of mutual friends. And I like his blog.

That's probably enough lurking confessions for one day. I should add I don't check all of these every day. Some of these I may go for a month without checking. But I have consistantly lurked on all of them.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
One of the most radical musical accomplishments of the song "Happiness is a Warm Gun" is its frequent shifts in rhythm. Beginning in 4/4 duple time, the song shifts to a 3/4 triple time for the guitar solo and the "I need a fix..." section. This gives way to an alternating 9/8 and 10/8 section in "Mother Superior..." before returning to 4/4 for the doo wop style ending. During Lennon's spoken-word interlude, the instruments continue in 4/4 except for a single electric guitar in 3/4. This is one of the few instances of polyrhythm in a Beatles song.

Link of the Day
Via Phil's Blog
this is the most horrible thing I've read in weeks.

Why are we funding terrorist paramilitaries in Colombia, to the tune of $600 million/year, so that they can run around cutting up 17-year-old girls with chainsaws? Supposedly it's to stop the flow of drugs into this country, but the paramilitaries are actually some of the biggest drug dealers in the world. So basically we're giving them military aid so they can, well, cut people up with chainsaws.

Well, here's the Amnesty page on Colombia, anyway, if you'd like to send someone a letter about this. But that's not enough. Dammit, I want to do something to stop this. I want to do something to stop this before the Nicauragan congresspeople who are investigating the paramilitaries get killed. I don't know what the fuck to do, but I want to do something. (One thing we could all do is participate in the Coke boycott and let Coke know we're doing so. Wipe that skeptical smirk off your face; a friend of mine once spoke to a Colombian trade unionist who said, "That boycott is one of the only things keeping us alive.") (read the whole thing here)

Monday, November 20, 2006

Crazy Toys

It's definately Christmas time already. At least if you work in retail. We've had Christmas decorations up since before Halloween.

During the past couple weeks, occassionally I've been pulled out of "Health and Beauty Care" to help stock toys. There's still enough of a kid in me that I really enjoy seeing all the new toys. In a way in doesn't even seem like work. At least for the first hour. Those next 7 hours of putting toys on shelves...Oh boy do they ever seem like work.

Not being a kid, and not having kids, and not really having any reason to go into a toystore recently, I've lost touch with what the hot new toys are. But the interesting thing is how little has changed. I know every Christmas season there are newspaper articles about what this year's hot new toy is, but looking over the shelves one can't help but feel that the more things change the more things stay the same. It's all the same stuff we grew up with. Transformers, Star Wars characters, Batman, Superman, and other comicbook related stuff, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Legos, hotwheels, Barbie, strawberry shortcake, sesame street themed toys etc.

But I thought I'd make a note of what seemed to me to be some of the more bizarre toys this years.

Star Wars Transformers
I guess this was an idea just waiting to happen. It combines the two most popular toys from my childhood. Only it doesn't make any sense. Darth Vador transforms into a space ship? Obi Wan Kenobi transforms into a jedi starship? I'm guessing these adventures must take place in some sort of alternative reality.










Puffy Ami Yumi Doll

I knew Puffy (Japanese girl band Duo) had a cult following in the US, but I didn't know they were popular enough to have their own doll. And at a major retailer no less. Guess I'm a bit out of it. These dolls talk both in English and Japanese if you press the button on their hand, which is pretty cool. The next generation of Assistant English Teachers will have a big head start on their Japanese study.

If you're not familiar with Puffy Ami Yumi yet, there's no lack of their music videos on Youtube. I'm not a huge fan myself. A friend in Japan gave me a CD of theirs, and I think a few of their songs are pretty catchy, and I have it on rotation in my music collection (in fact I'm listening to it now), but I find them pretty touch and go. Half of their songs are okay, half are tiresome. Personally I'm a bit mystified as to why this duo became so popular in the US, when there are so many other Japanese bands that never make it across the pacific. But then, I'm famous for having bizarre musical tastes, so don't go by what I say.

Others
Disney's Tinkerbell apparently has her own series of toys now complete with a bunch of fairy friends. Given how popular fairy stories are with young girls, I guess this is one of those ideas you wonder in retrospect why someone didn't think of it sooner.
My sister has asked me to stop stocking "Little Bratz" dolls because they send a bad message to the next generation of girls. I think the objection is because they are too skinny and overly made up. At 3 in the morning though, I have yet to find the energy to take a moral stand on this.

That's all I've got for now. I'll update if something else catches my eye.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Some concerns are given whether or not the famous solo in "Gently Weeps" is actually Clapton, as rumors report that the solo was re-cut and that Clapton's solo was not the one that was pressed. Contrary to this is a quote by Harrison, which offers:
"So Eric played that, and I thought it was really good. Then we listened to it back, and he said, 'Ah, there's a problem though; it's not Beatley enough.' So we put it through the ADT [automatic double-track] to wobble it up a bit."


Link of the Day
Communist Manifesto illustrated by Disney Actually if you watch this video, I think most of this animation is from sources other than Disney. But still a fun idea to use Golden Age Hollywood animation to bring this classic to life.

Friday, November 17, 2006

e-mail: June 7, 2000

(retrospection)

I've already written about this incident twice already. Once in my journal, and once in a little article I made for media mouse. But I got a special request for this story, so I figured I could milk it a little more. This is an e-mail I sent out to Brett immediately after the event, describing the adventures. Stylistically it is a bit rough to read, but it fills in a few details absent in the other two accounts. Enjoy

Dear Brett,
I don’t know if you even have access to a computer out there in Colorado, but I just had a smashing weekend and I thought I’d tell you all about it. (I’m so excited I can hardly type).

I went to a protest this weekend in Windsor Canada (I don’t know if you’ve been following the news at all). I’ve got so many stories (we were there for 4 days, and all sorts of things happened), but I’ll try and tell you the most interesting ones. (Too bad I can’t see you in person for a while. I’d love to tell you everything about it).

Anyway, I went with Mark (Dave Baxter’s little brother). He’s 20 years old. We were told that the border patrol would be on the lookout for protesters, so we pretended we were going to Stratford to see a play. We both dressed up and did our best to look non-protestorish. We dressed preppy, we listened to hip hop music in the car, and I even put a picture of Justin from N’sync on the dash board. But the boarder patrol pulled ups over and searched our car.

They kept asking us all these questions like “Were you in Seattle? Were you in Washington DC? Have you ever gone to any protests?” All that kind of stuff. They asked us where we were staying in Stratford, and they asked us if we had any maps and stuff, and our story kind of fell apart. (Plus they found all this literature about the protest when they searched the car).

Finally the guy just said, “Listen, we’re pretty sure you guys are here for our protest” and at this point Mark starts talking about how that is ridiculous, and I’m thinking, “Oh, no, we’re going to jail for lying to the boarder patrol,” and finally, I just tell the guy the truth.

Now get this Brett: In the car was a piece of paper which had written on it: “Butterball’s cell phone number [followed by the number], activities start at 6 tonight” which was left over from the night before when Kathryn Kuipers wrote down something about our housewarming party. So anyway, the boarder patrol assumes Butterball is like a code name for some terrorist, and they spend 30 minutes asking me every question imaginable about Butterball. Meanwhile they’ve separated me from mark (we were put in separate detention cells) and they’re asking him all these same questions, and he is like, “What the hell are you talking about? Who is Butterball?”

They asked me when I saw him last, what I last said to him, what butterball does for a living, what his hobbies were, etc, etc, etc. It was really funny to hear these cops say things like, “When was the last time you saw Butterball?” “Is Butterball a member of the communist party?” So anyways, I told Butterball he might want to wait a while before going to Canada, because the cops probably have a huge file on him.

(One of the last questions they asked was when I saw Butterball last. We had both crashed in the same room that night, so I said that the last time I saw him was when I woke up and Butterball was still sleeping. The cops just looked at me weird.)

We also got checked for drugs. Me, Mark, and this other guy had to stand perfectly still with our hands out while they ran a dog back and forth in front of the 3 or us. The dog didn’t do anything to us, but it looked up at the other guy, and the cops were like, “alright, come over here sir.” Later when we say the same guy in immigration, he was complaining about being strip searched, and I said that must have sucked, and he was like, “You mean you guys didn’t get strip searched? You’re telling me I’m the only one who got searched just because that damn dog looked up at me?”

Anyway, they finally let us through, but they confiscated my dad’s garden hose, bungy cords, an empty clearisil bottle, and a bandanna. (They thought these were all weapons). I had to sign a form saying that “I do hereby abandon these items to the crown.” So if you see the crown, he should have a pretty clear face and a nice garden by now.

Sunday was the big day of protest. We blocked a bus of delegates, and the cops arrested a ton of people and the air was so thick with pepper spray my eyes got watery, even though I didn’t get sprayed myself. After Sunday most people went home (most of the protesters that is). The cool thing though is that all the cops stayed, all the media stayed, and all the undercover cops stayed. Like on Sunday it seemed perfectly normal to have all these undercover cops everywhere because it was a big protest. On Monday and Tuesday, it was weird because there were only like 75 of us and there was a helicopter following us and all these undercover cops were trying to hear what we were saying and all these TV cameras were following us.

Like Monday night, I was in the feminist theater, which is just like a small room in this second story building downtown. It’s pretty run down and stuff, and I’m with 5 or 6 Canadian students, and we’re making banners for the protest in this old run down theater, which felt pretty cool. And there were 20 cops outside we could see form the window just waiting outside, and it was like, “wow, all this just for the 6 of us.”

On Monday we tried to get students to walk out of their schools for the protest. So we went to a high school and somebody got on the loud speaker and told the students to walk out, and one of our guys ran through the school with a loud speaker, and it was just total chaos. I mean, imagine this scene Brett. We were out on the lawn screaming, “Walk Out! Walk out!” and the principles and teachers are blocking the door trying to stop the students from walking out, and the kids are climbing out the windows and everything.

The next day we sent a smaller group back to the school, and all 6 of them got arrested. I was supposed to be with them, but I got there late because the girls I was riding with didn’t know their way around their own city. Turned out to be a good thing though, because I did not want to get arrested. So anyway, I got to the school and the high school students were already doing their own march, and our people had all been arrested so the high school students had no direction. So I dropped a couple of people off to march with them, but then one of the high school students needed a ride to her house to get equipment in case of a police attack. So I drove her home and then doubled back to drop another girl off at the protest site, and then when I parked the car I met up with the high school students again at city hall, and I’m like, “What are you guys doing over here? The protest is at the riverfront.” So I lead them all the way over to the riverfront. There were still cops everywhere, and the high school students started chanting, “2,4,6,8 Windsor’s a Police state.” But by the time we got to the river, the protesters decide to just go back to city hall.

One more funny story and then I’ll let you go. We’re marching and the cops start arresting people and so everyone is like “Find a buddy! Find a buddy! Stick together!” So I got together with this girl, and we link arms, and we are marching, and she starts talking about how hot she’s feeling, and I say,
“Well no wonder you’re hot, you’ve got a black shirt on.” And she says
“You’re right. I think I’ll take it off.” And the next thing I know, I”m marching down the street arm and arm with a girl that has no shirt on. And there are TV cameras everywhere. (In Ontario, it is perfectly legal for girls to take off their shirts off, but I still felt embarrassed).

I’ve got tons more stories, but those are the funniest ones. If you want, I’ll e-mail you more later. Take care Brett. Joel

Useless Wikipedia Fact
The chorus of "Bungalow Bill" is sung by all four Beatles, a group of children, Ringo's then-wife Maureen, and Yoko Ono (providing the only female lead vocal on a Beatles recording, for a single line).

Link of the Day
This was in Sunday's Paper. I don't know how many of you caught it, but according to a recent survey, you are more likely to support torture if you've been to church recently. Or conversly, if you've been avoiding Church, you're more likely to be appalled by the idea of torture. Does anyone else find this disturbing?

This was also in the paper recently and slipped away with surprisingly little notice:
Concern about leftist victories in Latin America has prompted President Bush to quietly grant a waiver that allows the United States to resume training militaries from 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries.
The administration hopes the training will forge links with countries in the region and blunt a leftward trend. Daniel Ortega, a nemesis of the United States in the region during the 1980s, was elected president in Nicaragua this week. Bolivians chose another leftist, Evo Morales, last year.
A military training ban was originally designed to pressure countries into exempting U.S. soldiers from war crimes trials.The 2002 U.S. law bars countries from receiving military aid and training if they refuse to promise immunity from prosecution to U.S. servicemembers who might get hauled before the International Criminal Court. The law allows presidential waivers.

Anyone who is familar with the US record in Latin America, or the School of the Americas, knows this is bad news. As always, go to SOA Watch for more news.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Obligatory (slightly belated) post Election Blog

First of all, a confession: during the 5 years I was in Japan, I didn't vote. Despite expressing some strong opinions on this blog around election time, I just couldn't be bothered to fill out the forms for an overseas absentee ballot. If you have the foresight of obtaining an absentee ballot before you leave the country, I think it might be slightly easier. But applying from overseas, and proving you're a US citizen and registered voter, is a lot of paperwork and a general pain in the ass. I looked into it. And let's face it: filling out forms and being organized is not my strong suit. Otherwise I wouldn't have kept missing the deadline for the Japanese Proficiency Test.

A lot of my friends in Japan gave me a rough time about this, and probably rightly so. Particularly Canadians, Australians, et cetera, who would say things to me like, "Look, the American Presidential election affects the whole world. You don't know how much the rest of us would give to be able to have a say in this. And you're just going to through your vote away?"

And I would respond: "Right, first of all we have this thing in America called the 'Electoral College', which means the overall popular vote doesn't really matter (otherwise Bush would never have been President in the first place). Secondly, absentee ballots are put in a sealed container, and they're not even counted unless the regular voting comes within a certain margin. If Bush takes Michigan by one vote, I'll hang myself, or everyone at Tropicoco's can kick me one time in the ass, or we'll work something out. But otherwise I'm not going through all that paperwork just so my absentee ballot can be locked away."

And since Kerry took Michigan by a comfortable margin in 2004, I'm still relatively guilt free about that.

But I did vote this time around, and have the sticker to prove it. My sister tried to get away with faking her vote, but I caught her on it.
"I'm so mad that Governor Granholm got re-elected," she said.
"Well, Jess," says I, "if you feel that strongly about it, maybe you should vote next time."
"I did vote," she says.
"No you didn't" says I.
"I did. After I left the house, I went to vote."
"Alright then," I says, "where do we vote at."
"At the library."
"But where at the library."
"At the tables."
"Okay, say you walk in the front door of the library: where is the voting at? In the back? By the---."
At which point my sister yelled, "I hate you! I hate you! Why do you always have to find me out!"
After which I did a couple victory laps around the room. (Truth be told, I had an inside tip from another source that Jess wasn't planning on voting so it wasn't completely fair).

Bork had an election party at his house, where some of went over to watch the results. It was a predominantely (exculsively) liberal group there, so there wasn't a lot of heated debate. Bork said that election night was stressful enough, he couldn't handle the added stress of political debate. Plus he wanted to maintain the ideological purity of his basement.

Needless to say, we were pleased with the results. I was hoping for more to be honest. I wanted a bigger victory margin in the Senate, I was disappointed that pro-war Lieberman got re-elected, and I was particularly disappointed by proposal 2 passing in Michigan. So we didn't get it all, but Bork and I agreed that it was the first election in 6 years where we didn't leave with that "just got kicked in the balls feeling."

Analysis:
Because of some of the more radical circles I travel in, and because of my self-identification as an Anarchist, I always feel the need to explain away my voting Democratic. I've done that in the past here and here, and I won't go over all that again. It's probably only a marginal segment I'd be defending myself against anyway.

I will say this though: a lot of prominent anarchists do advocate participating in the existing process, including Noam Chomsky. And, in spite of this "more radical than thou" website masquarading under the identity of Emma Goldman, if you read Emma Goldman's autobiography, the real Emma was actually a lot more ambivalent about the question of voting, and leaned towards supporting it.

That being said, I don't hold any illusions about the Democrats leading us to salvation. Any of the progressive victories in the past 100 years, from Civil rights to workers rights, weren't won at the election box but rather by organizing. However I figure a Democratic victory will stop things from actively getting worse. Or at the very least slow the tide.

And as far as Proposal 2 in Michigan banning Affirmative action:
Media Mouse has a couple great articles on their web site analyzing this. I'm pretty disappointed that the proposal passed, but I can understand some of the concerns.

The problem with Affirmative Action is it is an issue with a lot of gray in it, which, like a lot of other issues, often gets lost or distorted when it enters the political realm. Personally I support Affirmative Action as long as it is:
1) With the understanding that this is only a temporary measure to address existing inequalities (and not some sort of revenge for past inequalities) and
2). It is used to promote integration, and not further segregation.

This is why we supported Affirmative Action in this Chimes article, but I opposed the Calvin Multi-Cultural floor. Also the Grand Rapids Press mentioned that Proposal 2 might end plans to create an all-girls school in Grand Rapids, and if that happens maybe Proposal 2 wouldn't be all that bad.

Still, the same GR Press article had what I thought was a great quote from a local student: " legacy admissions programs that give preference to children of alumni also should be banned. That's affirmative action for whites".

Useless Wikipedia Fact
McCartney said about the song "Wild Honey Pie": "We were in an experimental mode, and so I said, 'Can I just make something up?' I started off with the guitar and did a multitracking experiment in the control room... It was very home-made – it wasn't a big production at all. I just made up this short piece and I multitracked the harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and a harmony to that, and built it up sculpturally with a lot of vibrato on the [guitar] strings, really pulling the strings madly – hence 'Wild Honey Pie'." According to McCartney the song might have been excluded from The Beatles album, but Pattie Boyd "liked it very much so we decided to leave it in."

Link of the Day
I hate to admit it, but Christmas season is definately here. Several people are already asking me what I want. Chris and Athania have a really cool idea about using the World Vision Catalog.

"You can order things for people who really are in need in someone else’s name. For example, you can buy a goat for a family in Kenya for $75, or buy a $100 share in a well for a village with no drinking water. There are lots of option for lots of prices....How amazing would it be if even 10% of Americans (or Hong Kongers!) bought all their gifts this Christmas from this catalog?"

I couldn't agree more. How cool would it be if Christmas became a time of giving to the poor instead of a time of accumulating more junk or fighting crowds at the mall? I definately plan to use this for my Christmas shopping, and if anyone wants to get gifts for me, this is the place to look.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

(Book Review)

Yet another book in the Discworld series. I’ve decided that if I’m going to keep reading these Discworld books (and I think I am) then I might as well start from the beginning and read the remaining books in order. This is the first book in the series.

At this point I think it’s safe to say I’m completely on board with Terry Pratchett. I’ve drunk the kool-aid, and you’re unlikely to catch me saying anything negative about him in my reviews. It is however evident in this book that he hasn’t completely hit his stride yet. You can see the potential, but he hasn’t fleshed out all the characters and concepts as fully as in the later books.

As Terry Pratchett writes in the introduction to the reprinting, “Discworld is not a coherent fantasy world. Its geography is fuzzy, its chronology unreliable.” Some of the characters portrayed in this book, Death in particular, do not seem consistent with their later portrayals in subsequent books. I’m not sure if this will be explained away later, or if this is just an example of the wobbly first steps of a series that hasn’t quite gotten its rhythm yet. But there are plenty of good laughs in these pages, and all the silliness Pratchett is famous for. Enchanted Swords that won’t shut up, imaginary dragons, dead wizards who won’t go away, and the edge of the world.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
In the song "Ob-la-Di, Ob-La-Da" The second time that the story is retold, the names are switched around in certain places, which many see as a casual challenge to traditional household gender roles, and possibly a reference to transvestism, a theme also seen in McCartney's later hit "Get Back". However, McCartney himself has dismissed the switch as a slip of the tongue; he decided to keep it in simply because he liked it.

Link of the Day
Congragulations to Maria, whose Blog Post on Voting here was picked up by the Wall Street Journal Here. She joins Phil as the second person I know who's blogging has gotten picked up by a major publication. Or have I missed someone?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Infinite Crisis by Greg Cox

 (Book Review)

This novel, and the comic book series it is based on, is the sequel to “Crisis on Infinite Earths” from 1985. To commemorate the 20th anniversary of “Crisis”, DC comics released a 7 part series that just recently concluded. And this time, we didn’t have to wait 20 years for the novelization. The novel “Infinite Crisis” was just released last month.

For those of you keeping track, this is now the 3rd novel I’ve read that is based on DC comics. But there’s a difference between a novel like “Inheritance” which is a new story based on the characters of the DC Universe, and a novel like “Infinite Crisis”, which is a story that already took place in the comic book medium and is simply being retold through the form of a novel. Clearly you’d have to be a geek to want to read either one (guilty) but especially with the latter case, you might legitimately wonder, “Who would want to read the novelization of a comic book instead of just reading the original comic?” Perhaps it’s similar to those crappy “novelizations based on the screen play” which always hit the bookstores around the same time as recent Hollywood releases. Why would anyone read one of those instead of just going to see the movie?

(Quick digression: has anyone ever read “novelizations based on screenplays”? I’d be interested in confessions. As a kid I used to read a lot of them, mostly ones based movies my mom wouldn’t let me see (“Gremlins” “Arachnophobia” “Indiana Jones”) but I don’t think I’ve read any since 12 or so.)

But to return to novelizations based on comic books: my own reasons are as follows:

1). At 28, I feel guilty spending time reading comics. But I figure novels are always good for improving your mind. There could be some debate on this point, but I’m going on the theory of Stephen King that any book, no matter what, will improve your literary skills. Many of these comic book novels are not particularly well written, but Stephen King argues that reading a bad book can be worth a whole semester of a creative writing course, because it’s a very quick way to teach you what not to do.

2). More complicated story lines, like “Crisis on Infinite Earths” or “Infinite Crisis”, have a lot of confusing things going on. In this case it is nice to read the novel in order to get a more in-depth view of what is happening.

This second point can be touch and go. As I mentioned in my review of “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, I didn’t think the novel helped me out much at all with that story line. In fact it was LESS detailed than the comic book series on which it was based.

But fortunately “Infinite Crisis” comes through on this point. It explains in more detail a lot of the confusing things that happen in the comic book. It also brings in additional information and side stories not collected in the graphic novel edition. After comparing the novel with the comic book, this is one case where the novel is clearly the better read.

Not to say it’s perfect. The mechanics are a bit sloppy. It suffers from adjective/adverb overload, and a bad case of the “Tom Swiftys”. But overall, still a very enjoyable read, and in my opinion much better than the comic on which it was based.

As to the story itself:
As I mentioned above, this is the sequel, 20 years later, to the original “Crisis on Infinite Earths”. And like the original “Crisis”, it attempts to duplicate the original formula of “lots of heroes will die, lots of heroes will be changed, the DC Universe will never be the same, et cetera.”

It has evidently become editorial policy at DC comics to reboot the DC Universe every ten years, erase all known continuity, and start everything over again. “Crisis” in 1985, “Zero Hour” in 1995, and now “Infinite Crisis”. Dan Dido says in the introduction, “Julie Schwartz [former DC editor] said that every ten years or so you needed to give the universe an enema. You know, clear out all the old stories, and make way for new tales rife with Infinite possibilities. Smart man, that Julie Schwartz.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this. For me part of the fun of comics is the idea of following characters and a story line that goes all the way back to the 30s. When the continuity gets re-booted every 10 years that cheapens it somewhat.

However, having resigned myself to the fact that this is how DC chooses to run things, I have to admit that, as long as they’re going to do this anyway, they’ve done a really damn good job of it in this story. It’s the perfect story for the comic book geek. They brought back all the survivors of the original crisis: Superman-2, Lois Lane-2, Superboy-Prime, and Alexander Luthor. The multi verse is even briefly recreated, separating all the super heroes back to the Universe where they originally came from, and returning to a concept that has not been in comic books for the last 20 years. (If none of this makes sense to you, go back and revisit the links from my review of the first “Crisis on Infinite Earths”).

As with the original “Crisis”, the body count in this series is pretty high. Because a lot of this happens very fast, it’s difficult to follow in the original comic book. It’s not always clear who is being killed, and sometimes it is hard to tell the deaths from the injured list. This is another reason why I prefer the novelization.

Marv Wolfman wrote about the origional "Crisis": “it was my policy not to kill any hero who was created before I was born (i.e. heroes from the Golden Age of comics: 30s and 40s). It was a silly rule, but I stuck to it for better or for worse.”

This rule is clearly not in effect the second time around, and a number of golden age heroes bite the dust. I thought it was a reasonable rule to stick to, but I suppose comic book companies sell more comics by always upping the shock value. In particular Golden Age heroes The Human Bomb and Uncle Sam of “Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters” get offed in the opening pages of “Infinite Crisis”. I was very sorry to see these two go, because to me these two super heroes in particular fell into the category of “so dated and cheesy that they’re actually pretty cool”. However no one stays dead for too long in comic books. According to Wikipedia, the body of Uncle Sam is already missing, suggesting a possible resurrection or reincarnation. And a new super hero has assumed the mantle of “The Human Bomb.”

(Quick side note: I’ve come to accept the comic book ploy of killing off a character and then later resurrecting them from the dead as standard, and even part of the fun of comics. But if I were in charge, I’d put a moratorium on having another character just assume a dead Super hero’s identity. For one it’s a really cheap way for comic books to have their cake and eat it too by boosting their sales and not losing a character. Secondly its getting a bit ridiculous and confusing for casual readers. Most super heroes in the DC Universe are already on their 3rd or 4th incarnation.)

Since this book digs back far into the DC Universe and revives a lot of characters from the multi-verse, it made me remember a lot of things I liked about comic books. On the other hand, I couldn’t read it for too long at a time without thinking how silly the whole thing was at the same time. A lot of things that I never thought of when I was 15 started to really bug me. Like, “Isn’t it silly how grown men in comics dress up in silly costumes and masks?” And “with all these super powered heroes and villains, at a certain point don’t things get a bit ridiculous?” And of course the whole good/evil divide. And the Society of Villains. What is that?

But, I guess as any fan will tell you, these are questions you’re not supposed to think about too much.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
According to Lennon, "Glass Onion" was a throwaway song, much like "I am the Walrus." "I threw the line in - 'the Walrus was Paul' - just to confuse everybody. It could have been 'The fox terrier is Paul.' I mean, it's just a bit of poetry. I was having a laugh because there'd been so much goggledegook about Pepper - play it backwards and you stand on your head and all that." "Glass onion" is British slang for a monocle.

Link of the Day
Media Mouse's wrap up of the latest election results

Friday, November 03, 2006

Harajiri Waterfall








(Retrospection)

In the past I've written a lot about the many beautiful waterfalls in or around my town of Ajimu. This actually isn't one of them. It's still in Oita Prefecture, but it's a 3 hour drive South from my town.

It's worth the drive though. As you can see it's quite beautiful. Harajiri waterfall is often called the "Niagara of Asia" because it resembles the shape of Niagara falls (even if not quite the same scale).

During my 3 years in Oita, I went twice. Once with the girlfriend in the summer(pre-Shoko girlfriend) and once when Brett came over to visit during Spring Break. On one of these photos, Brett set the timer on his camera so he could get a photo of the two of us. Just to be a jerk I pushed Brett at the last moment and ruined the picture. See if you can guess which picture that is.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Beatle's Song "Dear Prudence" is about actress Mia Farrow's sister, Prudence, who was present when the Beatles visited Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. Prudence, focused on meditation, stayed in her room for the majority of their stay. John Lennon, worried she was depressed, wrote this song

Link of the Day
Racist Groups Organize Support of Anti-Affirmative Action Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI)
and Ku Klux Klan Distributes Literature Supporting Proposal 2

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Dragon and the George by Gordon Dickson

 (Book Review)

A while back I allowed myself some nostalgia by linking to the movie “The Flight of Dragons”. (Check it out. Chances are you’ll recognize it once it gets started.)

Now I’ve gone one step further by reading the book on which the movie was loosely based.

...I suppose it was inevitable that it would disappoint.

The cartoon movie was not without its cheesy points (especially viewed now from the perspective of adulthood). But at the same time it also had an epic sort of quality to it. It was done in the same vein as the Rankin Bass animated films of “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” (which I also watched many times as a child), and in my mind I always associated all of these films together.

But it’s very apparent from the book that Gordon Dickson is no J.R.R. Tolkien. Some of this no doubt is the problem of trying to review from the standpoint of nostalgia. I’m sure Dickson would counter that he never meant to be Tolkien, and was trying to tell his own kind of story. But I thought it was disappointing.

To begin with, instead of the magical feeling of the movie, this book opens with the problem of Jim Eckert, a graduate student in Medieval studies. Right away the book has a very ordinary feeling as we follow Jim Eckert through all the problems of graduate students: looking for housing, trying to secure a teaching position, dealing with the internal politics of the history department, etc.

Jim’s fiancĂ© Angie is accidently sent back in time during a science experiment gone wrong. Jim goes back in time after her, and (through some unexplained event) ends up in the body of the Dragon Gorbash. Therefore instead of a fantasy, this book reads like a run-of the mill time travel book, with a little bit of bad science fiction thrown in. Sort of like something you might expect from Michael Chrichton.

(The book never makes clear if Jim and Angie are simply sent back in time, or to another world. It implies they go back in time, but then doesn’t explain why there are dragons and talking animals. Or why Jim, a medieval studies grad student, doesn’t seem to see a contradiction in this).

Most of the same characters from the movie are in this book, although the plot is a lot different. There’s not much of a plot in the novel, simply a quest to save Angie from the dark powers, with various excursions thrown in. Also a lot of the characters do illogical things at various points presumably just for the sake of advancing the story.

Most of the standard characters from fantasy novels are present in some form or another: Knight, Mage, Bowman, Robin Hood clone, talking animal, beautiful scantily clad woman, and of course dragons.

This novel is meant to be part humorous, and parts of it did make me smile, but Dickson certainly has nothing on Terry Pratchett.

In short, I certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone go out of their way to read this book. I’d mark it down as only so-so myself.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
A conservative American backlash rapidly ensued against The Beatle's song "Back in the U.S.S.R. , citing the song as evidence of left-wing Beatle propaganda. . A flustered McCartney responded: "'Back In The U.S.S.R' is a hands-across-the-water-song... They like us out there. Even though the bosses in the Kremlin may not, the kids do."
Also during an argument Ringo walked out, and the drums on this song were done by the other Beatles. Lennon, later in an interview was asked "Do you think Ringo is the greatest rock drummer in the world?" To which Lennon replied, "He's not even the best drummer in The Beatles."

Link of the day
Bork links to another fascinating Chomsky lecture. "Poor Noam looks so weary these days. Still, there's fire in this rhetoric - listening to Prof. Chomsky speak is like reading the Old Testament prophets. There's a ferocious and unflinching morality that undergirds his writings and lectures, not to mention a call to wake up and see what's going on in Washington and around the world."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

 (Book Review)
Recently Phil said on his blog: “Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here is a fantastic book, frighteningly relevant to Bush II-era life. I am so pissed I wasn't forced to read it in high school. It's a book every American should be forced to read.”

Truth be told, this book has been on my reading list ever since I read “The Iron Heel” by Jack London. But I got delayed; first because it was hard to find this book in Japan, and then second because once I got back to America I kept getting distracted by other books.

But when I noticed Phil had beaten me to this book, I decided to finally get off my ass and order it through inter-library loan.

“It Can’t Happen Here” is a fictional description of a Fascist take over in the United States. Written in the 1930s, the book stands partly as a time piece of an era when many people were concerned about the spread of Fascism and Communism, in the same vein as “1984" or “The Fountainhead”. Surprisingly, many real politicians, journalists, and writers become characters in Sinclair Lewis’s book. I don’t know what the finer points of the libel law are, but I’m surprised he got away with it.

How much of this book is still relevant today is a matter of debate. Like any book which projects a possible future, parts of “It Can’t Happen Here” end up looking naive from today’s standards, other parts are eerily accurate. Therefore if one picks and chooses which parts of Lewis to emphasize, one can make him look a lot more prognostic than he really was.

For instance, as Phil points out, a lot of this could be applied to the Bush administration. Unlike the European fascists, the fictional fascist American president, Buzz Windrip, avoids formal ceremonies, and instead uses a down home folksy charm. He uses the appeal of religious fundamentalism and old-time values as a bait-and-switch to get the American people to support his authoritarian tactics. The power behind the President, Lee Sarason, is a combination of Dick Cheney and Karl Rove. And the president manufactures a war with Mexico complete with faked intelligence reports.

At the same time, it’s interesting to see how much of this is the opposite of George Bush. In contrast to Bush’s approach of divide and conquer, or appealing directly to his base, President Windrip tries to co-opt the left by running as a democrat on a populist platform. Very similar perhaps to the historical rise of populist fascists in Germany and especially Italy. In fact real life leftist writers like Upton Sinclair are portrayed in this book as having prominent posts in Windrip’s government.

Lewis appears to be operating from the Marxist perspective that Fascism is an alliance between the bourgeoisie and the lumpen proletariat against the middle class and the proletariat. In Windrip's regime, most of the soldiers come from the criminal class. Although the Bush regime is certainly guilty of criminal behavior, I have yet to see them actively recruiting from the Lumpen Proletariat.

Also the transition to a fascist state begins very quickly after Windrip is elected. Within a few months after the Presidential election, America is in a state of fascism. Maybe in the 1930s this looked more realistic than it does now, but with apologies to Sinclair Lewis, I’d say that this rapid transition to Fascism can’t happen here. Not the way he portrays it at least. What I think is more likely would be the gradual elimination of liberties over a period of years. For instance one day we’d find out that the federal government was taping phones without a warrant. Then all the government talking heads would be all over the news explaining that this was nothing to worry about, that it was essential for fighting terrorism, and shame on the media for scaring the American public. And after this was safely forgotten, another liberty would mysteriously vanish. This is the path I’m worried about. Not a rapid 6 month conversion into a Fascist state.

Like Orwell in “1984", Lewis spends a lot of time focusing on graphic descriptions of beatings and torture. And like “1984", this made me a little bit uncomfortable. I feel that if you’re writing about something that actually happened, like the holocaust, it’s okay to give all the gory details because people need to know how awful it was. But lingering on a torture scene in a fictional book strikes me as a bit sadistic.

However I think both Lewis and Orwell would argue that the entire point of their books is that Fascist and authoritarian regimes are based on violence, torture and brutality. By the same token, I think they would say the surest sign a society is slipping into fascism is a willingness to accept torture as an acceptable method of governing. As one of Orwell’s characters says in “1984": “If you want a picture of the future, picture a boot stomping down on a human face. Forever.”

It is this part of the book which I think is most applicable to what is going on today, when the Vice President of the United States is actively lobbying on capital hill for torture. I’m sure if Lewis or Orwell were alive today, they would see this as a sign that their worst fears are coming true. And I think their books remind us that when we allow torture, we give up our humanity.

Despite the depressing subject material of Lewis’s book, his wit does shine through at different points. I mentioned earlier in my review of Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbit” that I thought if he were alive today he might be writing for “The Simpsons”. Likewise parts of “It Can’t Happen Here” are thick with the same kind of ironic satire.

Useless Wikipedia Fact
Rosie the Riveter is a cultural icon of the United States, representing the six million women who worked in the manufacturing plants which produced munitions and material during World War II while the men (who traditionally performed this work) were off fighting the war. This "character" is now considered a feminist icon in the US, and a herald of women's economic power to come. On Halloween, Bear and I saw someone dressed as "Rosie the Riveter". Bear subsequently gave me a rough time for not knowing who she was, so I'm doing this link as my penance.

Link of the Day
At the risk of turning this blog too narrowly into my own interest, here is another one for the history buffs. This is footage of the fighting between students and Police in Tokyo University in 1969.

It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of Tokyo University. It is the top University in Japan, and the equivalent of every American Ivy League school rolled into one. (In terms of prestige that is. Not necessarily in terms of academic scholarship). Therefore it was a huge shock to see the violent battle with the Police. One Japanese writer said, "Even though no students were killed, it was the Japanese equivalent of Kent State."

Partly as a result of this incident the Japanese Diet passed a bill making it easier for riot police to enter college campuses. Near the end of this video, you can see some fighting in the Diet surrounding the passage of this bill.

It's not the first time fist fights have broken out in the Japanese Diet. I always thought Japanese politics were interesting, because in their everyday life the Japanese place such a high value on acting dignified and being polite. But their parliament has taken after the European style of show boating speeches and occasionally they will resort to fist fights when they know the camera is on.

There was another big fight when the Diet voted to send troops to Iraq in 2003. This was even more interesting because several Women MPs jumped into the fray as well. Unfortunately I can't find a video of that on the web. Maybe someone will post it someday. In the meantime if you're interested you can read this description of the incident from the British press.