Tuesday, March 31, 2009
More seriously: no, I don't think the word "nerd" should be discarded, but then I have given this subject a lot of thought and know just how fluid and ill-defined the word is anyway. I don't really care how it's "cool" now so it's really uncool, or how it's been "appropriated" and "monetized," because that's about larger American commercial culture, not the group itself. White suburban kids have appropriated hip-hop, but does that mean the term "rapper" is suddenly not apropos?
Is it BAD that people are more comfortable with the moniker? That we've carved out enough social space that more and more people can feel comfortable openly admitting their love of certain "nerdy," non-mainstream niches, even if they just happen to like anime or Star Wars or whatever and don't fit the other criteria of the more technical definitions? That we're appreciated and tolerated instead of scorned and reviled? That's a victory for our whole culture, I think, not something to be bemoaned. And no matter how "cool" it is, I still really don't think it's all that cool. I mean, ask any kid in school if they'd rather be a nerd or a jock, and I think you'd find a hell of a lot more going for the latter. Even still, so what if some kids now can take the word "nerd" and use it positively as a part of their identity? Considering the hell that is high school, with its adolescent groping for identity, its deeply primate quest for tribe and belonging, I'd say taking at least a little bit of the sting from the term "nerd" is a wonderful thing.
And doesn't the whole conversation suggest something of a Zen koan: is arguing over the utility and appropriation of the word "nerd" not itself intensely nerdy? Frankly, no one else cares; in the end, its really only nerds who give a flying fuck about definitions, because we're nerds and that sort of stuff makes us giddy as schoolgirls. Not since the medieval Church has a group more enjoyed the opportunity to come together to shout, jump up and down, call one another not only wrong but heretic, and schism than us. It's one of the beauties of nerddom, I think.
All I know is that I earned my bones long ago, and I am, and will ever be, a nerd.
Update: Nerd is the word.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Surprising as it may be, I bought the Star Wars trilogies on DVD only in January. I've since been making my way through them, DVD extras and deleted scenes and all, and it has struck me upon finishing the prequels, especially upon viewing the deleted scenes, how just a little tweak in editing would make the last two episodes much, much better movies. (And given Lucas's penchant for going back and reediting his movies, it could not only even actually happen, but for once improve them! Knowing his CGI fetish, he could even invent scenes from whole cloth soon.)
First, beef up Padme. In both Episodes II and III, important scenes for Padme were cut that, I think, would have given her more motivation and interest. The deleted scenes in AotC are particularly important, because they're almost all about giving her some background and a more convincing POV in her budding romance. As I've said before, I've always thought her falling in love with Anakin was a bit undeveloped. Turns out, there was -- at least a little -- more explanation for her feelings; it just got tossed.
In Ep III, as released in theaters, all she basically does most of the movie is be pregnant and stand around her (fabulous, I do have to say) apartment wringing her hands. The deleted scenes actually gave her something to do besides spout silly lines about the lakes on Naboo, with at least the ghost of an independent subplot about the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance (with a young Mon Mothma who apparently took elocution lessions from Julie Andrews, Bai Ling wearing something that's actually about ten times less crazy than her real-life get-ups, two Lucas daughters, and more yummy, goateed Jimmy Smits screentime), which is better than nothing.
Though, in the end, I just never warmed to either Padme or Natalie Portman in the way I adore Leia and Carrie Fisher, Padme was kick-ass in the first two, which makes her passive weepiness in the last movie hard to take. I mean, I understand why Lucas didn't have a pregnant lady waddling around shooting at droid troopers, but he could have at least kept the stuff where she's still sitting around, but at least DOING something, in the movie. He so doesn't care about women. I mean, the Original Trilogy isn't overflowing with female characters, Leia and her awesomeness aside, and it's obvious that Padme, though again awesome, just wasn't any sort of priority. It's all about Anakin for Lucas, which is fine and all, but underserving Padme underserves the story.
Second, modify the ending of Revenge of the Sith, specifically the silly "Noooooooooo!" and the "She's lost the will to live!" cringe-inducing moments. Both could be easily fixed with just a little re-dubbing. Just have Vader silently, or with a strangled cry, wreck the operating room. And have that droid say something like, "The asphyxiation caused several embolisms/hemorrhages/strokes/whatever. We can't heal them fast enough." Those two things right there would have wrapped up the movie at least a little more palatably.
BTW, when I say the movies could be much better with relatively little work, I'm talking about Episodes II and III. I don't think any amount of polishing could turn the shit that was Episode I into anything other than a pile of poodoo. My Lord was that awful. Poor Jake Lloyd having to spout those TERRIBLE lines: that's child abuse on George Lucas' part that was. But at least he has an excuse in that he was an eight-year-old boy; Liam Neeson has NONE for the simply dreadful performance he sleepwalked his way through.
Some other observations:
I've also come to the astounding realization that Hayden Christensen isn't a TOTALLY horrible actor. He actually does some of the more comedic scenes, as well as action, rather well. It's all the angsty stuff that is just totally beyond him.
The writing, of course, is also terrible. I think the writing was just as bad in the originals, but Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher had the panache and charisma -- or at least in the latter case the pills -- to pull it off in a way Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman just don't, and Luke was a corny character anyway, so Mark Hamill was fine. Only Ewan MacGregor (whose steady transformation over the three movies into the reincarnation of Alec Guinness is really, really spooky) and Ian McDiarmid had the ability and the sense to work with camp that the material, I think, needed.
Of course, I think its also that George Lucas takes himself much more seriously and stultifyingly than he did originally. Thirty years of being in his own little kingdom of cinema (and growing jowls of Jabba-proportions) can do that to a man, and it weighs the prequels down with a portentousness that the originals, consciously patterned on cheesy adventure serials, don't.
One of the biggest mistakes of the prequels, I think, and one that editing unfortunately can't fix, is the constant cycling through secondary villains (Maul to Dooku -- which involved the criminal underuse of Christopher Lee -- to Grievous). They should have stuck with Maul or introduced Grievous in the second movie or scrapped Grievous to keep Dooku through the third. Palpatine is the main villain, of course, but he's in the shadows until the very end, and, the two Jedi battles aside, not an "action" villain. The secondary villain was supposed to provide the physical danger and the action. As it is, none of them ended up feeling like much of a threat. They just ended up being slightly-glorified redshirts who get in the way of the heroes' lightsabers.
Again as I've said before, making the Jedi total assholes takes away a lot of the sympathy and rootingness we were supposed to feel. They're just so damn smug and stupid. It's really amazing how truly, astoundingly awful Samuel Jackson was as Mace Windu. Though, to be fair, I think Windu was just a really awful character.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the prequels was the insistence on callbacks and fore/aftshadowing the original trilogy that gets in the way of telling the story of the prequels. Instead of letting the Rise and Fall of Anakin Skywalker, which is Lucas' "grand" story, unfold on its own, he insists on redoing the originals in broad strokes, with added Jar Jar. There's a difference between ironic resonance, fan service, and "Eh, I can't be bothered to come up with anything, so let's just redo that one scene from Empire with some CGI and different people."
And, actually, there's a lot of VERY interesting things happening in Episodes I-III with fathers and mothers, as well as misunderstanding and projection and denial, but I won't bore you, or maybe I'll just save them for yet another post sometime in the future.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
First, the nits I wish to pick. A former acclaimed editor, Potter's background is in mathematics and the history of science, and it does show. Though obviously well-researched and wide in breadth and accuracy, there are a few errors in the book, mostly having to do with biology. Stuff like: saying bears and raccoons are part of the the Canidae family, when, while they are closely related to dogs and part of the Caniformia suborder within Carnivora, they are not actually in the same family. Then there's a weird statement about the first time animals begin to eat each other was on land in the Devonian period, a surprise, no doubt, to plenty of bacteria who gobble their fellows to survive and have done for billions of years, not to mention all the sea life he had just got done talking about that were eating each other long before, too. He makes a similar mistake when he has arthropods beginning to leave the sea in the Carboniferous when he just got done talking about arthropods scuttling about the last two geologic periods. He also assigned the evolution of dragonflies, and thus flight, to the Permian and not the Carboniferous, which is famous for its dragonflies with huge wingspans.
His sentences tend towards the short, simple, and declarative, which is generally considered a desirable style of writing due to its clarity, but, in this case, occasionally shade into choppiness, creating tangential sentences dropped into the middle of paragraphs that jar the flow that would have worked better as clauses. The rhythm can sometimes feel a touch like a child being read a picture book. Of course, since most of this information, popular science book whore that I am, isn't new to me, this may make me overestimate the amount of background he needs to provide.
These really are fairly minor and inconsequential errata, though. Overall, the book is an amazing journey through the universe, from the smallest to the largest, from the simplest to most complex. What really makes it so special, though, is when Potter delves more into philosophical contemplation. It soars into poetry when he meditates on truth, science, and the human condition. There's a strange, soothing, contented melancholy when he expounds on these subjects (which this wonderful interview helps to explain), his lyrical rhythm entrancing. Just some examples:
We do not like to think about the universe because we fear the immensity that is everything. The universe reduces us to a nub, making it difficult to escape the idea that size matters. After all, who can deny the universe when there is so much of it? "Spiritual aspirations threaten to be swallowed up by this senseless bulk into a sort of nightmare of meaninglessness, wrote the Anglo-German scholar Edward Conze (1904-1979). "The enormous quantity of matter we perceive around us, compared with the trembling little flicker of spiritual insight that we perceive within us, seems to tell strongly in favour of a materialistic outlook on life." We know that we must lose if we are to contest the universe.
Death and nothingness go hand in hand: twin terrors to put along our terror of the infinite; terrors we spend the rest of our lives suppressing into the shape of our adult selves.
I have friends who claim that they never think about the universe at all. And yet I can't help but feel that such rejection -- of the universe of all things! -- is evidence of deep repression rather than lack of interest. Who, after all, wants to be told they are insignificant specks in a purposeless and uncaring universe?
I want to know what this universe is that attracts and repels me, and which is described by a methodology that also attracts and repels. I am attracted to science for its power, beauty and mystery, and its call to live in uncertainties; I am repelled by its power, nihilism and smug material certainty.
History comes to an end where it meets the present, the point at which the story meets the storyteller. Now, that axis about which swings the past and the future, is where we find ourselves.
Scientists worry about what is to become of human life beyond even the long lifetime of the sun. But maybe this is our time in the universe. To be concerned about mankind's fate to the ends of time is a cover for that eternal dread: of our own mortality. We do not worry about the early days of the universe when we did not exist as humans, just as we do not worry about our non-existence before we were born.
In a modern world obsessed with certainty and things eternal, we might learn to live in the uncertainty of an unending scientific process (without necessarily believing in unending scientific progress). We want to believe that things last forever, whether it is love, life, Go, or the laws of nature. But death, a Freud continually reminds us, is what certainty looks like. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to live in uncertainty for as long as we can bear it.
(Disclaimer: If some of these passage echoes thoughts from my previous post, it isn't entirely accidental. That post was actually initially part of this review, the part I started while in the process of reading the book and not planning to do a full-on review such as this one. When I did decide to do the review, I separated the two posts for length and because I thought they were better standalone.)
In short, this is one of the best books I have read in quite some time, and I highly recommend it to anyone of a contemplative or scientific bent.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
You know, I was going to say how I feel a connection to this gay nerdling, but then I realized that, you know, just because he plays the harp doesn't make him gay. I shouldn't judge his pre-pubescent non-sexuality by an instrument of all things. Such thinking is precisely the kind of thing we need to learn to avoid as a species if we are to ever get over our baser, tribal instincts.
(Jesus, I'm just so goddamn serious lately, aren't I? I promise to lighten up a bit soon. And, serendipitously, the next big post in the queue after a book review tomorrow is one of my patented Start Wars mega-posts, so that should bring us a little relief from Sturm und Drang Week here on Bourgeois Nerd.)
A man went to visit his doctor. "Doc, my arm hurts bad. Can you check it out please?" the man pleads.
The doctor rolls up the man's sleeve and suddenly hears the arm talk. "Hello, Doctor;" says the arm. "Could you lend me twenty bucks please? I'm desperate!"
"Aha!'' says the doctor.
''I see the problem. Your arm is broke!"
But many people resoundingly reject this conclusion. Perhaps it explains, for some, the attraction of fanatical religion and creationism and such: the need to repudiate the thought, sometimes violently, that humanity has no centrality to existence, that the universe doesn't give a damn about them. If they have no innate specialness, then life is meaningless and pointless. We're not special snowflakes that reality depends upon, but little more than purposeless amoebae flitting about the skin of reality. From this is birthed wretched nihilism, social collapse, murder in the streets, cats lying with dogs, and the degeneration of humanity into cannibalistic beasts living in caves, or something. So if they yell and scream enough to fill the void, convince themselves and others that they tha bomb, it'll be willed so. (Which, ironically, presupposes again that human wishes amount to a hill of beans.) The notion that we don't have to have a grand meaning imprinted in the stars with a blinking neon to be good people or have happy lives doesn't seem to occur.
Maybe it's all about vanity, really. What's the use of a life that isn't of grand import? Why be in the chorus line with the trout and the worms and all those icky things, when you can be the lead of the cosmic drama? Like Linda Evangelista, they won't get out of bed in the morning for less than singular importance.
But isn't not being the center of the universe liberating in a way? What a weight, literally of all reality, it is off our shoulders. Isn't it freeing not to be "the measure of all things" and simply BE, no more or no less? How frightening it is to have some gravid metaphysical MEANING to just existing. What did you ever do to deserve such central import to the universe? What if you don't measure up? It's daunting enough to want to please and make proud your parents and loved ones by meeting their expectations, let alone the whole cosmos. And, really, what does it matter? Does it really change anything in our lives one way or another?
BTW, am I just reinventing existentialism here? Should I take up Gauloise and fly to Rome to splash about the Trevi Fountain?
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
We are collections of memories. When we go, we take them with us. I think that's partly why I'm so obsessive about books, as well as other media: they're retrievable, reproducible memory. But true memory, that mysterious dance of electrical impulses and neurotransmitters, isn't either of those things. It is ephemeral and transitory, even when we are alive, and irretrievable once we're dead.
I heard somewhere recently that there's a Jewish saying to the effect of "when one person dies, a world dies." Similarly, the Egyptians didn't preserve their bodies and paint their tombs and erect pyramids out of morbidity, but out of a belief that you don't truly die until you are no longer remembered, your name lost to the ages. Yet are even the famous and the infamous, a Lincoln or a Napoleon or an Elizabeth I, with books and movies and monuments dedicated to them, not lost to us? Their essence is long since past, and all we have are conjectures and reconstructions, even from the most well-documented lives. They aren't "real," just ghosts we've conjured out of gossip and conventional wisdom. And most people won't leave even that much. The great unwashed, anonymous masses that has and always will comprise most of humanity, at best leave a name on carved in stone or buried in mounds of paper. Even pictures or photographs are just faces, frozen images of strangers. Their lives, their character, their personalities, all long dust and forgotten, even by their descendants. They lived and loved and raged and laughed and suffered and married and no one knows or cares.
That, I think is what scare me, and perhaps others, most about death. It is annihilation, the conquest of existence by nonexistence. We didn't exist before we were born, of course, but somehow that's not something we even really think about, and not something that fills us with dread. The thought of the existent becoming nonexistent, of THIS existence becoming nonexistent, however, is terrifying. When I'm gone, I will have been but a whisper of a whisper, a brief conglomeration of particles that used borrowed energy from a fiery ball of plasma to briefly overcome entropy and just as quickly succumbed to it. The atoms that comprise my body, which will go on to spread and join with other atoms in new configurations, but nothing that is really me will be left. I'll never have children, so even my astonishing-when-you-think-about-it, billions-year-long legacy of flukes, fitness, and determination that created the unbroken lineage from which I spring will end. My DNA will not propagate.
I love my grandmother. She's a great person. When my grandmother dies, her whole world will be gone, all of her memories and experiences and dreams, all that is really her, will vanish. I can remember her stories and look at old photos, but they'll never really be mine, never really be more than pale, half-impressed hearsays. She'll be in MY heart and memory, but that's just another ghost. Like an echo slowly dropping off as the sound waves the comprise it lose energy and dissipate, down the centuries even this will be lost, until there is nothing left of her, and, eventually, me. Death is silence.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
You have no idea how disturbed this makes me. It would drive me mad to have books I knew I had but couldn't find. And how can you just "mislay" 9,000 books? I mean, I know the British Library is huge and I'm sure it's chronically short-staffed and -funded, as such places always are, but really! Don't they have demons bound by centuries-gone occultists to guard and retrieve their books? The secret tomes filled with eldritch and profane lore hidden in the basement must be good for something!
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Monday, March 16, 2009
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Terrified, the drunk ran and got the town magistrate to come and listen to it.
When the magistrate arrived, he bent his ear to the grave, listened for a moment, and said, "Ah, yes, that's Mozart's Ninth Symphony, being played backwards."
He listened a while longer, and said, "There's the Eighth Symphony, and it's backwards, too. Most puzzling."
So the magistrate kept listening; "There's the Seventh... the Sixth... the Fifth..."
Suddenly the realization of what was happening dawned on the magistrate; he stood up and announced to the crowd that had gathered in the cemetery, "My fellow citizens, there's nothing to worry about. It's just Mozart decomposing."
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
It's skunk mating season, and, sadly, that means a lot of run-over mustelids who were just looking for love in all the wrong places. All the sad white-striped remains on the road remind me of a lifelong desire: I've always wanted a genuine skunk-skin cap. I don't know, maybe I saw the wrong Western at a formative moment as a child, but I always thought they were snazzy and cool. Where I would get one (because I sure as hell ain't picking up roadkill, taking it home, and skinning it) I have no idea, but dreams and practicalities don't mix, do they? It's just one of those crazy things.
Monday, March 09, 2009