31 January 2010

2 Samuel 6:6-7

And when they came to Nachon's threshingfloor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it.

And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.

30 January 2010


I saw this again tonight, in 3-D IMAX.  It gave me a bit of a headache... that's a lot of stimulation to take in.  But it also gave the opportunity to do more than "sit there stunned" like the previous time I saw it.  I also started to think about the movie.

It's entirely valid to think that movies and entertainment don't mean anything or shouldn't mean anything.  You may roll your eyes at any suggestion otherwise.  That's fair.  But I disagree.

Spending time immersed in a story and becoming emotionally attached to the characters and ideals therein has an effect on you.  You're not going to walk into Avatar an industrialist and walk out an ecoterrorist, but spending so much time sympathizing with the a group of people means you're going to begin to be inclined towards their point of view.

As for the environmental message, I'm all for that.  I thought that part of the movie was a little preachy, actually - there was little subtlety to the "military-industrial complex bad, natives good" theme.  But no one ever accused Avatar of trying to even come within arms-length of subtlety.  This is a movie that slaps you around with bright colors, vast vistas of landscape, and a simple message overall message.

But I have been thinking about the other elements of the movie.  Obviously, the Na'vi are a very thinly-veiled pastiche of native peoples from many places, although predominantly they appear to represent Native Americans.  This isn't too much of a revelation, I'm sure, any more than it would be if I pointed out that there were "horses," "pterodactyls," "rhinos," "monkeys," and "panthers."  Slapping a shiny skin and an extra pair of limbs on was the usual approach.  All of these elements have an important role to play: they make it much easier to relate to the movie.  We know how we feel about horses and how cute monkeys are.  It's not even much of a stretch to imagine how awesome it would be to ride a pterodactyl, although the greater amount of foreignness there required a much larger amount of screen time to accommodate us.  The technology was nothing revelatory, either - the internet age is familiar enough with "avatars" and robo-suits not to blink.  And everyone feels badly for what was done to the Native Americans and what is still being done to the indigenous tribes of South America and Africa.

Very little was unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

This makes a lot of sense.  It's really easy to relate to familiar things, and this was all familiar with just enough wonder and strangeness to make it exotic.  Nor am I saying it would have been better if it was unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

But it does have implications.

Part of the problem with everything being recognizable is that it's very easy to transfer.  Someone who loves big cats will probably love the big shiny panther in Avatar, for example (although some others may find the creature off-putting in comparison).  And our sympathy for the Cherokee transfers very easily to a blue people who have to walk their own Trail of Tears.  Does it go the other way, too?

The Na'vi are essentially the "noble savage" made flesh.  They reject modern medicine and technology in all forms, and embrace a pantheism that rules their lives.  Their noble primitive wisdom eventually proves to be true, and the modern world is rejected in shame.  But I think these ideas wouldn't have gone as smoothly if the Na'vi hadn't also been blue aliens on another planet.

So what the movie says about the Na'vi, it seems to me it will also naturally imply about Native Americans and other indigenous peoples.  And in that regard, it's a little sad that the Na'vi are such a bland stereotype.  War whoops, bows-and-arrows from horses, war paint, shaman and chief leadership, no crafts or technology beyond simple beads.

Our stereotyped idea of panthers get shiny skin and extra legs.  Our stereotyped idea of pterodactyls get bright spots and extra wings. And our stereotyped idea of native peoples get a color change and a few more feet of height.

27 January 2010

Old baby

My 36th trimester is almost over.

19 January 2010

Big questions and personal update

I figure there's probably one common and annoying question for every discipline. Because of the public's understandable time constraints, only a few big issues ever rise from the depths of jargony journals and become publicized. I've been trying to think of some examples.

  • Linguistics - "What do you think about Sapir-Whorf? If I learn Latin will I be able to build a road?"
  • English Lit. - "Who wrote Shakespeare's plays? Was it Marlowe? Was it Bacon? Was it Buddha?"
  • Biology - "How did life begin? Do you really think we came from ooze?"
  • Psychology - "Do you think Freud was right and everyone just wants to have sex with their mother? That's gross."
  • Economics - "If we keep taxing people more and more, won't there come a point where we collect less money?"
  • Communications - "Why did you study that?  Didn't you want a job?"*

Also, I just learned that I got the job in Jeju I had been pursuing. Lizzie and I head over there together next month. I am going to Ohio next week. No more Florida for years... I have mixed feelings about that.

*Although maybe I shouldn't make fun of communications majors, considering I aspire to English academia.

13 January 2010

Pact with the Devil

When I watched this video, I saw Pat Robertson talking about how Haiti once made a pact with the devil to escape French domination, and that's led them to this terrible disaster today.

I thought to myself how insightful that was. Near the turn of the nineteenth century, the Haitians rose up under a strong man leader, and lived under dictatorships for decades, including the infamous "Papa Doc" Duvalier. The poor leadership - only partially mitigated by recent reforms - has led to Haiti's status as one of the poorest nations on the planet, and given them the terrible infrastructure and lack of preparedness to make them entirely unable to handle a major disaster and increasing the tolls manyfold.

And then I thought to myself, "No. Wait a goddamn second. He just means that Haiti literally made a pact with the real Satan."

What a nutjob.

12 January 2010


I love the Economist's style guide, particularly their advice on Americanisms. Writers are instructed in part:
Try not to verb nouns or to adjective them. So do not access files, haemorrhage red ink (haemorrhage is a noun), let one event impact another, author books (still less co-author them), critique style sheets, host parties, pressure colleagues (press will do), progress reports, trial programmes or loan money. Gunned down means shot. And though it is sometimes necessary to use nouns as adjectives, there is no need to call an attempted coup a coup attempt or the Californian legislature the California legislature. Vilest of all is the habit of throwing together several nouns into one ghastly adjectival reticule: Texas millionaire real-estate developer and failed thrift entrepreneur Hiram Turnipseed...

Do not feel obliged to follow American fashion in overusing such words as constituency (try supporters), perception (try belief or view) and rhetoric (of which there is too little, not too much—try language or speeches or exaggeration if that is what you mean). And if you must use American expressions, use them correctly (a rain-check does not imply checking on the shower activity).
I wonder how accurate these warnings against the language of my nation really may be. I guess I have to admit they're probably "spot-on."

07 January 2010

From Chapter 2, "Refinding the Soul"

Jung writes:
He whose desire turns away from outer things, reaches the place of the soul. If he does not find the soul, the horror of emptiness will overcome him, and fear will drive him with a whip lashing time and again in a desperate endeavor and a blind desire for the hollow things of the world. He becomes a fool through his endless desire, and forgets the way of his soul, never to find her again. He will run after all things, and will seize hold of them, but he will not find his soul, since he would find her only as himself. Truly his soul lies in things and men, but the blind one seizes things and men, yet not his soul in things and men. He has no knowledge of his soul. How could he tell her apart from things and men? He could find his soul in desire itself, but not in the objects of desire. If he possessed his desire, and his desire did not possess him, he would lay a hand on his soul, since his desire is the image and expression of his soul.
If we possess the image of a thing, we possess half the thing.

06 January 2010

Jung's "Liber Novus"

From Chapter 19, "Die Gabe der Magie" ("The Gift of Magic.") Jung (I) speaks with his soul (S).

I: Magic! What should I do with magic? I don't believe in it, I can't believe in it. My heart sink- and I'm supposed to sacrifice a greater part of my humanity to magic?
S: I advise you, don't struggle against this, and above all don't act so enlightened, as if deep down you did not believe in magic.
I: You're inexorable. But I can't believe in magic, or maybe I have a completely false idea of it.
S: Yes. I gather that from what you're saying. Cast aside your blind judgment and critical gesture, otherwise you'll never understand. Do you still mean to waste years waiting?
I: Be patient, my science has not yet been overcome.
S: High time that you overcame it!

05 January 2010

Hard Right


From Michael Steele's (RNC chairman) new book:
Don’t believe the pundits’ common refrain that the Republican Party has moved too far to the right. In reality, the problem is that we’ve been moving to the left.

The disparity between our rhetoric and our action grew until our credibility snapped. It wasn’t the fault of our ideals. It was the failure of our leaders to live up to them.
The best thing for the universe would be if Republican leaders swerve as hard right as possible.

Heroin Guide

There is much ado about $32,000 spent to produce and distribute a safety guide for heroin users in the Big Apple. The DEA specifically has attacked the idea of the guide.
The New York City Health Department printed tens of thousands of copies, and it has outraged drug enforcement agents.

On Monday Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the Health Department's flyer "Take Charge, Take Care." He did so because critics are calling it a how-to manual for drug users.

"Nobody condones drug use," Bloomberg said. "But if you're going to use it, it certainly is not in anybody's interest in society to have you get HIV and AIDS."

The Drug Enforcement Administration completely disagrees.

"It sends out the wrong message. It sends out the message that using heroin can be safe. And that is so far from the truth," said DEA Agent John Gilbride.
It's pretty obvious the stake the DEA has in this. Their budget has been hard-hit by the new administration, and current trends promise a harsh future for them. With the Obama administration halting raids on medical marijuana dispensaries and promising to honor local marijuana laws over federal in many cases, the mythical "war on drugs" may finally be ending soon, with an admission that illegal drugs are a problem of our people, not their enemy. And that doesn't bode well for the DEA's healthy $2.4 billion budget. They have a specific and vested interest in opposing any initiatives that treat drug users as anything more than criminals.

But then there are the public commentators. I just heard Sean Hannity attack the program, laughing at the idea of helping heroin users avoid HIV or infection. While he attacked the cost of the program as well (laughable when you consider that $32,000 is astonishingly low for any city-wide decent program in NYC), that wasn't his main complaint - particularly because he declared that "twenty cents would be too much!"

No, Hannity's complaint (and the complaint of others) is spending any money on people who use drugs. It has to be an ideological complaint, of course, since the cost of only a few drug users who get HIV will go far beyond $32,000. And the unspoken message is quite simple: "Those people deserve to die."

That's what's really being said, isn't it? People who use drugs don't deserve medical advice, and if their addictions cost them their lives, then so be it. It's the price they pay for being Criminals.

It's a familiar message from conservatives, but it never seems any less monstrous.