smackshack: Marvin the Martian looks peeved. (Marvin the Martian)
I already tweeted some stuff about it, but if you're craving some (allegedly) deeper thoughts about the movie, check what I have to say after the cut.
Read more...if you dare! )
smackshack: Marvin the Martian looks peeved. (Marvin the Martian)
Dear Reader: This is going to be long and rambly and not very much edited because I'm typing with a half-broken hand and I'm lazy and I'm In A Mood.

It's a lovely and mild spring Saturday morning in Austin, and despite being a disillusioned and disgruntled baby-eating middle-aged atheist, I can't help but feeling like the world is waiting with bated breath in the still hush of Holy Saturday, waiting once again for the old Palestinian Con Man to pull a rabbit out of the hat. But that's just what you get sometimes when you've been raised with Jesus-colored glasses on. It's a bit like watching an episode of Top Gear and then getting into your 14-year old Honda Civic and turning the key and pressing the clutch and putting it in gear and feeling for a moment like you're the Stig behind the wheel of a nice Porsche instead of an ordinary guy in an ordinary car. The magic of art alters the world for a moment before you settle down to seeing reality through your everyday blinders and filters and funhouse mirrors.

I suppose I'm In A Mood thanks to the intersection of three distinct influences. One, I'm still coping with my broken index finger, which makes me clumsy and awkward, which in turn makes me feel helpless and ashamed, which is an unworthy emotion because Sturdy Helpmeet™ is always offering help, a dreadful Catch-22 for her because the offer of help makes me want to do things myself, but the letting-him-do-it-himself makes me want to hear an offer to help. She can't win, and when an evil burst of frustration escapes me in the form of an oath or a bit of body language, she can't really escape. It's not her fault, and I'm ashamed of myself for not being a more graceful patient.

Sweetheart, Sturdy Helpmeet™—I'm so sorry. I'll try to do better.

Influence number two is a wonderful book called The Joke's Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson, and Me. It's artist Ralph Steadman's memoir of working with and playing with and enduring Hunter through 30-odd years of professional and unprofessional collaboration. The good news, I suppose, is that if even Hunter S. Thompson can find something like an artistic or worldviewish soul-mate in the world, then there's hope for everyone.

The bad news is that reading Hunter and reading about Hunter causes my brain to express strange chemicals. Not recreational chemicals, but something like the alien black oil from the X-Files. It slithers over my eyeballs and makes me see the world in very black terms...I was about to say "black and white" terms, but when the black oil is active not a lot of light breaks through.

I feel Hunter's rage and frustration, and I want to howl with him and weep at the state of this broken, awful world.

On the other hand, it's springtime and I have the grim consolation of knowing that the universe really does not give a shit what happens here. Humanity can do its utter, utter worst, and all that will mean is that a million years from now another springtime will emerge on Earth—well, in the northern hemisphere, strictly speaking, so all you poor upside-down people will have to wait—without any rotten people to fuck up the sunny post-post-post-apocalyptic view.

So that's issue number two: I'm infected with the black bile of freshly imbibed Gonzo, which is influencing in turn the way I'm processing the rest of the world.

And the rest of the world (now we're on to influence number three) seems to have contracted into the story of Trayvon Martin, an ordinary kid who was shot to death by a dangerously paranoid violent nut who's still free because our elected masters have deemed that in some circumstances, if you are sufficiently afraid of somebody, you are entitled to stand your ground and shoot him down in the street. What constitutes a legitimate amount of feeling threatened before one uses deadly force is, of course, open to some interpretation, and in Florida the authorities have apparently decided that you can "stand your ground" if you feel so threatened by a child minding his own business that you get out of your car with a loaded gun and follow him through the neighborhood and provoke a confrontation despite having been asked not to do that very same thing by the very same police department that has decided that they can't treat you as a murder suspect because of your one-sided claim (necessarily one-sided, since the child in question is dead dead dead scream it you bastard dead) that it was all in self-defense.

It seems to me that the only person who had any cause to "stand his ground" was Trayvon. Even if his killer is telling the truth about what happened, which I very much doubt, the only person who had any cause to feel threatened in the first place was Trayvon.

The American right wing wants us to think that being black was itself sufficient threat to justify the shooting, of course.

And so this recent eruption of America's original sin has me In A Mood. The Mood is exacerbated by images of cops beating and pepper-spraying peaceful protesters, shooting elderly black people in their homes in response to a medical alert bracelet, vanishing whistle-blowers...the list goes on. The American fetish of "security" has turned the fascist arts of murder and torture, things that used to happen behind closed doors, into a kind of state-sponsored public art.

Can we get NEA funding for pepper spray and riot armor and handguns?

We'll use them on students protesting corruption and women who need pap smears and children who want to buy bags of skittles. CNN and FOX News will be our art galleries, and our AR goggles will contextualize the blood in the streets and remind us to buy eggs for Easter, when my good Christian neighbors will celebrate the final victory of the Prince of Peace over sin and death.
smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
I'm so glad I enjoyed it. I was braced for a repeat of the disappointment I felt at Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but I needn't have worried.

The theater was pretty full but not sold out, and it was about half-white and half-black. There was a lower-than-usual percentage of hipsters for an opening night, and a higher-than-usual percentage of older guys in jackets bearing Air Force insignia. The crowd laughed a lot during the show, and we applauded at the end, something I haven't seen happen in a theater since The Lord of the Rings.

I can't honestly say that this movie is for everybody. George Lucas was true to his word: he -- or perhaps I should say, the writers and director and actors he hired -- delivered a corny, patriotic war movie made in the style of 1940s and 1950s American war movies. Indeed, you could call it a pastiche of old war movies with better special effects and with the story of the Tuskegee Airmen laid over top. I concede that this is not necessarily for everyone. Some people might not want to dive back into old racial tensions; some people might not want to watch a war movie; some might be offended by the idea of such a pastiche.

But I thought the movie was sweet, fun, and charming, inspiring in precisely the way intended, and full of great airplanes and brilliant dogfights. The relationship between the two lead pilots is touching and tender (and very slashable, if the kind of people who slash stuff ever bother to see the film).

I can't vouch for the historical, tactical, or mechanical accuracy of the movie. But it seems to me to be true in terms of its big themes: the value of grace under pressure, courage in adversity, dignity in the face of prejudice. The underdog can win and make progress, and the overdog (so to speak) can grow and change in response, even if it takes longer than you'd like. 

It's not a perfect movie, but I'm disappointed that the theater wasn't sold out with the kinds of crowds who see the summer blockbuster flicks. It seems to me that if you can overlook the dramatic faults of a movie like Iron Man or Thor or Batman or Transformers or Spider-Man or, indeed, The Lord of the Rings for the sake of the Good Bits, then the same should hold true for Red Tails. At worst it's a good B movie. At best it's a celebration of the professionalism, dignity, and courage of black pilots in the adversity of war, against the bigotry of white America.

Go see it.

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Why I am excited about Red Tails: Word War 2 dogfight movie. Watching the trailers and previews I can practically smell the machine oil and leather and the stench of hot steel. The inspirational anti-racist civil rights message about the Tuskegee Airmen is practically a bonus.

Why I'm not worried about George Lucas being the executive producer: Lucas is really good at producing stuff. Directing actors and writing dialog, not so much; but he is not the director and he is not the screenwriter on this film. Lucas has made some bad things, but scenes of aerial combat (and its space-based equivalent) are not among them. And just look at the trailers...those P-51 Mustangs are fucking gorgeous.

In short: If any war story deserves a bombastic, gleeful, big-budget spectacle (which I admit is a debate in itself, but it's not for this post), it's the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

I want this movie to succeed. I want it to spawn comic books and model airplane kits and video games. I know I'm motivated by a mixture of progressive zeal and backwards-looking, nationalistic nostalgia, but sometimes these things can't be helped. And of course I know that there's a chance the movie just won't be very good...but I hope it will be.

Here's a great preview, and of course there are more trailers at the web site.

Watch the preview... )

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Thursday, 10/27. No sleep. Packing and leaving. Duty-free. Longest plane ride ever. Panic in the seats of Economy. Parting thoughts.

Read more... )
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Wednesday, 10/26. Rain and sniffles. The news. DLR. Greenwich. The Royal Observatory. The British Museum, part 3. Forbidden Planet. Costume shop. Pizza Express and the Guidos of London.

Read more... )
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Tuesday, 10/25. Disease strikes. Westminster Abbey. The verger digs Slurpees. It's "The People's Bible," y'all. The Methodists across the street. Disappointing cab. Oxo Brasserie. National Theater Bookshop. Walk across the Thames. Black Cab Wisdom.

Disease strikes. Of course. After a phenomenal day of running around and doing cool stuff and meeting cool people, now I have a nasty cold. Pretty sure there's some fever, too. GNAAAAH. But fuck it, there's more of London to explore. Pop some generic DayQuil and get out there and see it...

Read more... )
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Being the second half of Monday, 10/24. Caffe Cinos. James Hutton. Primark. Talking Turkey. Down House, home of Darwin. The Queen's Head. Snuff. Toku.

(Sorry about the long delay between updates. Blame scotch, the Sith, and Cardinal Richelieu.)

Read more... )

Melancholia

Dec. 4th, 2011 09:17 pm
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Melancholia is a brilliant film, a cinematic tone-poem response to Hamlet's soliloquy. It's an exploration of depression, grief, and how to cope with the all-too-human absurdity of life in the face of death. It's beautiful, ravishing, and sometimes hard to watch. I absolutely adore it.

There was, however, one aspect of the movie that irked me, and I'm going to have to put it after the cut.

*SPOILERS*

Read more (with spoilers) ... )
smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
(I think I've realized that I'm dragging out these travelogues because writing them lets me reminisce in detail, pretending I'm still in London, pretending it's not yet over. Sigh.)

Monday, 10/24, AM.
Split-up. Nerdery. Frustration. The Southeastern Line. Swanley. English Leather.

The split-up. Every now and then even the most loving of couples needs a break, and today was a day that Sturdy Helpmeet™ and I had set aside to go have separate adventures until it was time to meet for dinner. I got up early and caught the train; she slept in and went to the Museum of London and did some shopping. I did some shopping too, among other things. I just had to catch the train to do it.
Read more... )
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To honor Remembrance Day (aka Veterans Day, aka Armistice Day) I'm going to get a little bit anachronistic with my account of visiting London. I still need to tell the story of Monday, 11/24, but this post is about a bit of Tuesday, 11/25, when Sturdy Helpmeet™ and I toured Westminster Abbey.

For me, the most moving thing in Westminster Abbey is the grave of the Unknown Warrior. It's surrounded by poppies, the same poppies that you'll see sprouting from the buttonholes of British TV presenters if you're the sort of person who watches a lot of British TV. (You know, like British people, or Americans who are obsessed with Doctor Who, Monty Python, Sherlock Holmes, Top Gear...well, you get the picture.)

Anyway, today is 11/11/11, and Sturdy Helpmeet and I were visiting London in late October. Even in late October, the poppies were coming out: on private vehicles, on black cabs, in store fronts, in office windows. You know how Americans start putting out the Thanksgiving crap right after the Fourth of July, and the Christmas crap right after (hell, before) Halloween, and the Valentine's Day crap right after Christmas---but you hardly hear about Memorial Day or Veterans' Day until it's right on top of you? In London the poppies start coming out many weeks in advance of Remembrance Day.

Or...maybe for some people the poppies are always out, just as for some Americans yellow ribbons are always on display. I don't know. I do know that I'm a bit jaded about the yellow ribbons, not because I don't honor veterans but because the sentiment "support our troops" is so often used to justify policies and wars I disagree with. I don't know if people in the UK have a similarly complicated relationship with the poppy.

But weeks before Remembrance Day I  remember noticing the poppies, and I remember thinking at the time that it was a fine and decent thing to display these humble flowers from Flanders Fields so far in advance of the day of commemoration.

So in honor of my grandfather who died in the Pacific War, in honor of my father and other family members who served, and to honor all men and women courageous enough to put their lives on the line for their friends, families, and loved ones, regardless of nation, color, or creed, this is me taking a moment to say thank you in a small (very small) way.

Let's spend the future cultivating gardens, not graves.
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Last Monday I served on a jury for the first time. It was for a class C misdemeanor, driving with an expired inspection sticker. It's not the sort of thing that normally gets a trial, but in Texas in this situation you have the right to demand a trial by jury. That's what the defendant wanted, and it's what he got.

That's the only thing the defendant got. I, by contrast, enjoyed an interesting afternoon wherein I learned a few things.

Read more... )
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I finally got around to watching the videos at the heart of the academic kerfuffle between John Haught (noted theologian) and Jerry Coyne (noted biologist and atheist activist). On the one hand, I agree with Haught that in many ways this was not a fruitful academic debate. And I think that Coyne shouldn't have called Haught a coward for not wanting to release the video: that kind of ad hominem attack rarely does anyone any good.

On the other hand, the fault for the academic failure of this debate, it seems to me, is entirely John Haught's. The reason dialog failed here is because the two sides failed to come to terms at the outset: as Haught rightly noted, when he and Coyne use the same words (like "science" and "faith") they frequently meant very different things.

But the whole point of Coyne's presentation was to explain why theology's use of such words is not substantive and not grounded in reality. He did a pretty good job, I thought, although he might have worked harder at demonstrating that he understood Haught's take before demolishing his theology's conceptual framework.

By contrast, Haught's job was to explain why theology's take on the concepts is sound -- as sound as science -- and he completely failed. What he offered was a concept of "explanatory pluralism" (which seems to me to be borrowed from Aristotle): physics and chemistry might explain why water boils, for instance, but another equally legitimate explanation is that a person wants a cup of tea. He accuses atheists of "scientism" and "explanatory monism" when they insist that the only legitimate explanation is the physical one (physics and chemistry) and not the agent-centered one (a person wants some tea).

But the truth is that whole fields of science are devoted to understanding the behavior of agents, and no atheist denies that sometimes people want tea. On this scale, Haught's accusation of explanatory monism is a baldfaced lie.

What Haught wants us to do, in truth, is to accept the argument from design, dressed up as explanatory pluralism. He argues that we should legitimize faith in god on the grounds that just as boiling water has many causes, including agents who want tea, that the universe itself can be explained in many ways, including the will of an agent, i.e. god. This is no different from William Paley's watchmaker argument -- the one discredited by Darwin's theory -- except that Haught explains away the lack of direct evidence for god by saying that such evidence belongs to a realm of experience that people must be transformed in order to receive, and we're just not there yet. (Not most of us, anyway.)

And he wants to define evolution as a process leading towards the the day when people will be transformed to grasp the divine nature of things. This, of course, is an abuse of the scientific concept of evolution by natural selection, and there's no reason Jerry Coyne or any educated person should agree to it.

In this kerfuffle, if one wants to take offense at anything, it should be to take offense at a scholar and an entire discipline -- theology -- that demands respect and collegiality in exchange for lying, distorting, and bullshitting. If Coyne's brusqueness offends more than this, then one has misplaced one's priorities in my opinion.

The whole reason we accept that "people want tea" can be can explanation for boiling water is precisely that we can see people boiling water to make tea when they've expressed a desire for tea. We have evidence. But when god is offered as an explanation for existence itself, or for orderliness in the universe, or for a moral sense, evidence-minded people reject the claim precisely because there is no evidence for the claim.

Haught's entire presentation is an exercise in double-think designed to turn absence of evidence into evidence, and designed to transform a long-discredited argument from design into an argument from pluralism, which is to say, an argument from the appearance (but not fact) of open-mindedness.

If Haught really cared about pluralism, in my opinion, he'd have taken the trouble to establish the legitimacy of Christian theology (as opposed to the Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or any of a thousand others) before offering it as a proxy for all of religious experience in this debate. But he didn't because his kind of theology is a bankrupt discipline: it's about finding and selling any reason you can find to justify what you already believe, not about finding the truth whether you like it or not.
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Sunday, 10/23. A morning jog. Dogs. Laundry. Thoughts about coffee. Sloane Ranger for a day. Victoria and Albert Museum. Maker culture and postmodernism. More laundry. Liqueur from Sardinia.

Slept late enough for the sun to be well up, then went back to Hyde Park for a jog. This time my jog encompassed Kensington Gardens as well, and I loped past the well-fortified Russian embassy on the west side of the park. Upon returning to the park I took a premature right turn and ended up on the Kensington Palace grounds themselves, where I briefly interrupted some gentlemen preparing to cast their R/C sailboats on an ornamental lake. Of course there's a Model Yachting Association of Great Britain, so I reckon these fellows belonged to that esteemed organization. I gracefully turned around and jogged back the way I came (O HAI I TOTALLY MEANT TO DO THAT).

Back in the park, dodging bicycles and horse poo, I spent some time observing dogs and their owners. I don't think I've ever seen such pampered, happy-looking dogs. I know I'm looking at my surroundings through rose-tinted glasses, but I wanted to take all the dogs home. (GET ALL THE DOGZ!) Most owners seemed happy to let their dogs run free, trusting them not to flee, and the dogs seemed to be pretty content with this arrangement. One canine in particular made me smile: the dog had lagged behind its people, content to sit for a moment in the sunshine. The man called, but the dog didn't come. The man spied a squirrel and started chasing it in circles. The woman started to laugh. The dog's ears pricked up: Hrrrmmm? Then the dog's eyes widened: Squirrel! The dog took off like a rocket while the squirrel skedaddled. Canine and hominids lived happily ever after.

After the fun the work began: Sturdy Helpmeet™ and I needed to do laundry. The hotel lobby had a flier for the nearby Pimlico Laundrette, so we packed our dirty things into a couple of bags and schlepped them through the neighborhood. It turns out the map on the flier was not drawn to scale, so we took a route about three times as long as it needed to be, but it was such a lovely day and such a lovely neighborhood that we didn't really mind. Originally we thought we might do the laundry ourselves, but it turned out that the establishment was willing to handle the chore for a modest fee, so we took advantage and spent the afternoon wandering around.

First stop: breakfast! Er, lunch. Brunch. At Daylesford Organic farm shop and cafe: yum. Smoked salmon and eggs on toast, with coffee to die for...

Oh, the coffee. I'm soooo spoiled now. I think I'll have to buy a French press (or maybe an espresso machine) and a bunch of small coffee cups. And a better grinder. And sugar cubes. And teensy little spoons to stir with. And maybe some Eastern European guest workers. Something about the coffee in London just blew me away, every time, no matter where I drank it. I used to be impressed with my automatic grind-and-drip coffee pot, but now I know what a shallow and flaccid brew it makes. The worst part? My flaccid home brew actually compares favorably with most of the stuff I get from local fancy coffee shops in Austin. Maybe it's the side effect of drinking coffee that's sat in a thermos, from big paper cups. I don't know, but since coming home I've felt like I've downgraded from Ferrari coffee to Ford coffee. Something Must Be Done.

Yes, I know: "First-world problems."

Fuck that shit. I want my coffee.

After lunch we became Sloane Rangers, wandering along the expensive streets and shops of Kensington and Chelsea until eventually we found the Victoria and Albert Museum. (Note that we didn't actually buy anything from these expensive shops, so I suppose we're just Sloane Rangers in Training. Maybe Sloane Hobbits.) Instead of wandering all about the museum, we stuck to two small exhibitions, and they were a lot of fun.

Power of Making. This room was basically full of Boing Boing porn, and being Boing Boing porn, I couldn't shake the feeling that I'd seen most of it before. The demonstration of 3D printers was very cool, however, and I think it's great to see a major museum celebrating outsider art and DIY manufacturing, building, and craftsmanship. There was a line to get in, and I think that's cool, too.

Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970–1990. (First rule of postmodernism: all titles must have a colon in them.) This was what I really came to see. It's all about postmodernism in art, film, music, architecture, design, and even commerce (but not so much in literature or philosophy, which was a bit of a disappointment, but then it is an art museum after all). The Blade Runner bit was predictable but satisfying, the home decor bit was slightly bewildering at times, and the music bit was a flashback to the 80s. I especially liked the Grace Jones video, which I'm sure had nothing whatsoever to do with my fond memories of her bravura performance in Conan The Destroyer. (SUBVERT ALL THE DISCOURSES!)

After the V&A it was back across town (for an extremely limited and local definition of "town") to the laundrette, where we collected our nice clean clothes and and hauled them back to the hotel. At this point our feet were barking and our dogs were tired, but we were also ravenous, so we debated whether to go back out for food or to ransack the bed & breakfast's supply of shortbread cookies. Real food won out in the form of Oliveto, a Sardinian restaurant around the corner from our hotel.

Oliveto's pizza was brilliant, the pasta was amazing, the tiramisu was divine, and even the bottled beer from Sardinia was lovely. But the star of the show was mirto, a Sardinian liqueur made from myrtle berries.

Mirto is hard to describe. It tastes like licorice but smells like an herb garden or a windswept field of wildflowers. Wine experts will talk about how a vintage evokes the soil and climate where the grape was grown, but I've never experienced anything as strong (in terms of evocation of place) as this mirto. It's a rocky hillside in bloom and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in TechniColor, CinemaScope, and full-blown Smell-O-Vision. It's amazing. And Cyrano De Bergerac was actually Sardinian, so I think we should slap the swashbuckler on a bottle and sell it to everyone. Mirto. Look for it.

Next time: A split-up. Swanley. Wested Leather. Bromley. Primark. Down House. Science, politics and philosophy with a nice Turkish couple. Snuff. Toku.
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Note #1. We're back in Texas. Sturdy Helpmeet™ and I are both suffering from what I've decided to call the BBC Flu, though technically it's just a cold. Unless it's pneumonia. Or consumption. It goes to show that no matter how much you enjoy London and the Underground, you shouldn't lick the handrails. 

Note #2. I've updated the picspam photo gallery. If your life is so full of joy and contentment that you can afford to fritter away a few minutes on another person's rather pedestrian tourism, go have a look.

Saturday, 10/22. Slept in. Tate Modern. Giraffe. We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Note to self: jaffa cakes, jelly babies, and champagne do not make for a wholesome evening meal, even if you're watching Holy Flying Circus at the time. Beware the next morning! (UPDATE. I think I've picked the wrong night for the champagne and jaffa-cake fest. My ability to reconstruct events is not what it ought to be. But I know it happened somewhere in the mix.)

On Saturday we slept in and nursed our hangovers, and then we visited Victoria Station, where I bought a train ticket to be used on Monday.

Then we visited the Tate Modern. Sturdy Helpmeet felt it was time to check out the modern art and see if it infuriates her. (Some of it did, some of it didn't.) I had a hard time focusing because there's just too much stuff to see. If a piece of art is worth paying attention to, then you should probably spend some time with it. Trying to see as much art as possible in a set amount of time, by contrast, is a bit like trying to quaff a few hundred pints in an afternoon and then remember something edifying about the taste and bouquet of pint #327. It's just pointless. It's better to focus on one piece of art, or one exhibit if it's not too large, and try to learn something.

But even that's hard if you're fighting huge crowds of tourists and families out for the weekend. So after a while I gave up and just started watching the crowd as I walked around. That said, three things from the Tate Modern stand out in hindsight.
  • photo by Diane Arbus of a (mentally handicapped?) little boy holding a grenade and a rock in either hand. I have days when I feel the way this kid looks.
  • An exhibit about John Heartfield, a German artist who took an English name as he criticized and lampooned the rising fascist movement before WWII and the global capitalist elite in general. His work seemed Relevant To My Interests™.
  • A nifty negative-space staircase sculpture-thingy by Korean artist Do Ho Suh. It filled me with pleasure just by being what it was.
After the art, Sturdy Helpmeet announced that she really wanted to see a movie, so we picked We Need to Talk About Kevin at the Renoir Cinema just north of Russel Square station. Based on the novel of the same name, it's about a mother trying to cope with sacrificing her career and her life of the mind for her family, on the one hand, and raising a psychopathic son on the other. Good movie, but all I could think at the end was That poor woman, at least now she knows she wasn't crazy all those years thinking her kid was fucked up. (Actually, I had more thoughts but this probably isn't the place for them.) The commercials before the film were fun, in that "Hey, foreign commercials are fun!" kind of way.

Before the movie we ate at Giraffe, a chain that delivers a kind of "global" or "ethnic" fusion comfort-food menu, which was delicious. Actually, the decor is more "global" or "ethnic" than the menu, in a public-TV morning kid's show kind of way. But the food's good. (Then again, I don't think we ate anything that wasn't good the whole trip.)

I find I really like the open-air, pedestrian-friendly shopping centers that house the Renoir and the Giraffe where we ate. American malls are either claustrophobic by comparison or automotive deathtraps.

Next time: laundry and postmodernism!
smackshack: Ninjas with guitars. Like dueling banjos, but awesome. (Ninjas with guitars. Like dueling banjos)
I've updated my photo album.

My ability to keep up with the tourist death-march flagged a bit today. After walking with Sturdy Helpmeet to Westminster Abbey (which turned out to be closed on Fridays -- d'oh!) we sauntered up Whitehall to the National Gallery. We didn't stay very long; we were both too tired to really take in that much art, and had trouble focusing. We tried again at the National Portrait Gallery, and I had the same problem (although Sturdy Helpmeet did much better).

Then we had lunch at a Mexican restaurant called Wahaca, and it confounded our snooty home-grown Tex-Mexified expectations by being really, really good. We expected something bland, but it was spicy and delicious and authentic in subtle, flavorful ways. In fairness, a lot of Tex-Mex sucks and is an insult to real Mexican food, so there's no intrinsic reason to think the English would be any worse at appropriating the cuisine, aside from England's not being adjacent to Mexico. But even by the standards of good Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, and other variations of Mexican food that you can find in the Southwestern USA, Wahaca does a terrific job. Two thumbs up.

Then we visited the Transport Museum of London, which make us strangely grateful that we get to deal with global warming and not with having to wade through rivers of horse-poo to get from point A to point B in the city.

After that I was out of gas. Sturdy Helpmeet kept up the tourist chores while I returned to the bed & breakfast with Sturdy Helpmeet's purchases from the Transport Museum's book shop. (Sturdy Helpmeet <3 infrastructure.)

After some rest and recuperation, we had a lavish dinner at Barbecoa, a restaurant by Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry Lang, that claims to serve (among other things) "Texas Pit Smoked" beef and pulled pork (which really isn't Texas, strictly speaking, but hey). The food was delicious, but it bore little resemblance to anything a Texan would call BBQ. The cut of beef wasn't brisket, the sauce for both dishes was way too sweet, and it had no bite and no burn. And the beef was served with baked beans, not BBQ beans. 

But here's the funny thing. It wasn't authentic as far as being BBQ was concerned, but it was real damned tasty, and I'm not sure what to think about that. I mean, if Wahaca can do great Mexican food, then surely someone like Jamie Oliver and his cronies can do real BBQ. On the other hand, if the British wanted to invent their own BBQ tradition -- and if they weren't going to do it with Jamaican jerked meats, which would probably be the way to go, all things considered -- then they could do a lot worse. It's not BBQ, it's Brit-BQ, and it seems to cater to a palette of comfort-food tastes that are distinctly British in some way that I feel like I see dimly, but don't yet fully comprehend.
smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
Brought to you by three-quarters of a bottle of Moet & Chandon, an unlimited supply of Walker's shortbread cookies, and a borrowed European laptop that puts all the \iu9u30 special keys in the wrong \9er987 places. I took more pictures! Some observations...

The Tube. I can see why citizens of Britain get fed up with the Tube during rush hour, but coming as I do from a nation where public transportation is regarded as a communist plot, I think it's wonderful. It's like being able to step into a goddamn transporter beam and come out someplace else new and wonderful every time. 

The Accents. The closest thing I've heard to a canonical Oxbridge or BBC accent was from a guy of Chinese ancestry who was touring the National Theatre with his English girlfriend/acquaintance. Otherwise, speech patterns are all over the map. But I'm beginning to see how they could be used to draw ethnic distinctions in the absence of clear physio-gnomic markers. That, and the hideous, hideous shoes.

The British Museum. A death-march of antiquities, the only question is whether you can see everything before you collapse in a heap and die. But you can't. You're dead. I'm not even typing this shit right now, I've had to possess the body of a Basque backpacker who's staying the night in a friend's room at this bed and breakfast. That said, I may have to go back to see the re-opening of the Japanese exhibit. And I love the room devoted to the Enlightenment---it's basically nonstop steampunk mad-science porn from top to bottom.

And the Rosetta Stone. That's kind of nice. Not to mention the gear from Sutton Hoo. And Babylon. Clean the wax out of your ears: Babylon. Assyria. We're talking some old, old shit here.

It's hilarious, really. You go from the Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Saxons, and Renaissance Europe---not to mention the Africans, South Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and South Asians---to the art, design, and fashion of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it's like: What the fuck happened? The human race used to have such good taste, and suddenly everything is embossed with cherubs and a riot of uselessly decorative crap. And you think, Holy Shit the elitist bastards were right, if you give the peasants a bunch of money and allow them to make art they'll ruin the whole fucking world! And then you shake your head and buy a copy of The Guardian, but the feeling lingers. I tell you, it lingers.

(Oops, I think I accidentally deleted the post referencing the trip to the British Museum. The pictures are still there in Google Plus, but not the post. Damn these drunk-posting fumbly-fingers!)

The British Library. Any culture that erects a six-story bookshelf of precious tomes and puts it in glass, just out of reach, is full of precisely the kind of sado-masochistic language nerds that give me a rampant bibliomaniac hard-on. I'm just sayin'. (And yes, there's an app for that.)

The Banner. I'm marking this photo for special treatment. It's a giant banner hanging from an apartment block behind Victoria Station, and it says, "Be Civil. Disobey." It was in twilight when I noticed it, and I wiggled my way into the parking lot behind the train station in order to find a vantage point from which I could get some kind of photo. The policeman/security guard who accosted me wasn't happy with my presence. "You there!" he shouted. I walked over to him. "Yes? Can I help you?" "No! Can I help you?" "Oh, I'm fine. I just thought the sign over there was charming, so I tried to get a photograph." "Oh ho." "Yes sir, that was all." "Is that it?" "...Yes, that's all it was." He didn't seem to be willing to tell me to go about my business, and I wasn't quite willing to ask if it was all right for me to go about my business. So we ended with a series of half-belligerent "That's all it was?"es and "Is that everything?"s as I slowly backed away and left the parking lot. The poor guy was probably just trying to make sure I didn't steal an employee's bicycle, but I found it hard to sympathize with him at the time.

The Used Book Stores. To call London a "college town" is like calling Moby Dick "a book with a boat." The place is full of interesting little bookstores, and although Sturdy Helpmeet and I have visited several, I expect we'll visit many more. Here's how bookish London is: on the south bank of the Thames between the National Theatre and the Eye---an area festooned with tourists, tourist attractions, and the buskers and tramps that follow---there's an open-air used book sale that has its own plaque mounted on the fucking railing. And not in plywood either. This is a thing.

More jogging. I think it's fair to say that my caloric intake has skyrocketed since I arrived. I'm trying to keep up the exercise---aside from walking around gawping at stuff like Another Goddamned Tourist---but it's difficult.

This evening I did planks and then went for a run in Belgravia. I didn't plan my route in advance, so the second time I found myself in front of Sloane Square Station---thinking that I'd made it back to my bed & breakfast instead---I started to actually pay attention to where I was.

There's a big difference between jogging in Hyde Park at 6 am and jogging on city streets at 7 pm, and that's the fear of death. At 6 am in the park the most dangerous things about appear to be health-conscious yuppies and sleepy geese. If violent perverts lurk in the bushes, then so far they've left the jogging Texan tourists alone. At 7 pm in the evening, by contrast, every vehicle in London actively wants to kill the stupid Yankee who can't remember where the traffic comes from. What started as an enjoyable jaunt became a slightly terrifying quest for recognizable landmarks as I attempted to find Ecclestone St. or Elizabeth St. before I was killed by an impatient cabbie or a growling Mercedes turning right from the (American) left-turn lane.

Nevertheless...I'm not dead yet! London gets to try again tomorrow. :-D

smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)
(Crossposted from [community profile] exercise_every_day .)

Thanks to jet lag I was out the door around 5:30 this morning. Jogged to Hyde Park and around the Serpentine, per [personal profile] rydra_wong 's suggestion, got back to the B&B around 7 am. I didn't realize when I booked this room that I was plopping down in the middle of embassy central...I've never seen so many crazy fancy cars in one place (not that I'm complaining). Bentleys, Aston-Martins, Jags are as thick on the ground here as pickup trucks and Hondas in Austin.

I paused during the jog for some calisthenics. 3 sets of: 10 inverted rows (hanging from a guardrail), 20 push-ups, 10 squats. Then back to jogging.

(And I performed a kata for some sleepy geese. They were not impressed.)

I was impressed, however. This is my first time in London, and for an impressionable boy from Texas it's hard to imagine a better way to watch the city slowly wake up in the morning. At one point I could look to the right and see fog hugging green grass like a scene from The Hound of the Baskervilles, and then I could look to the right and see the blue curve of the Eye on the horizon, winking at rosy-fingered dawn.

I think I'm in love.
smackshack: Ninjas with guitars. Like dueling banjos, but awesome. (Ninjas with guitars. Like dueling banjos)
This morning I weighed in at 179.5 lbs. Friday I weighed in at 179.5 lbs. This is important for two reasons.Self-absorbed musings after the cut... )

smackshack: a crude digital self-portrait (Default)

Someone's wrong on the Internet!

tl;dr: Rebecca Watson, a leader in the skeptical/atheist movement mentioned that being propositioned by a guy who's a complete stranger while alone in an elevator at 4 a.m. is creepy and unwelcome behavior, and she suggested that avoiding such behavior is a first step that men can take towards making sure women feel welcome and safe in the predominantly male skeptical/atheist movement, a goal that most men in the movement claim to want to accomplish. Subsequently many people—mostly but not only men—read implications into her complaint that simply aren't there and went apeshit all over the atheist blogosphere. Watson replied to those complaints in turn, and now she's under attack for her reply to the replies.

Good summaries are available from Amanda Marcotte, PZ MyersJen McCreight, and Phil Plait.

EDIT: And here's a new post from Rebecca Watson. It makes me sad, but I'm afraid I agree with her. I want to argue for moderation, but I've met enough clueless guys in atheist circles to think she's right to put her foot down.

What I think I'm seeing in many comments to these posts, and in many replies to Watson herself, is a sustained failure of the imagination. So here's my small attempt to make it plain. 

The problem of rape

I'm a guy of average height and average build. If I were getting on an elevator at four in the morning, exhausted after a very long day, and a complete stranger followed me in (especially if this stranger was bigger than me in the way that most men are bigger than most women; especially if I'd seen this guy hanging around my group of acquaintances, but he's never actually spoken to me until now; especially if I had voiced my need and intent to go to sleep), and if he bluntly invited me back to his room, I'd be scared.

Maybe not as legitimately scared as a woman might be, for whom the odds of being assaulted or raped in a situation like this are vastly higher, but I'd still be scared. I'd be dealing with a complete unknown where the only thing I know for sure is that the guy in question is thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. He might just be socially inept, but then there are many guys who like to use intimidation when they ask for/demand sex, and he might be one of those. The fact that he's waited for this moment to get me alone argues strongly in favor of the latter. This is a situation that has no redeeming features in it whatsoever. No excuse exists for this man except that his stupidity might be an innocent stupidity. But frankly that's asking a lot, even of human stupidity.

And guys, if you can't imagine yourself as the woman in this scenario, then imagine it's your daughter, your wife, your sister, or your mother. Your girlfriend, or maybe just your best friend. Remember that compared to men, women get harassed, assaulted, and raped a lot. Way too much. Make an effort to understand—it's not that hard to do.

The problem of respect

But let's take fear of rape off the table, just for the sake of argument. Maybe the guy just wasn't that scary. Nevertheless, he'd been hanging around the group and would have heard Watson announce that she was tired and needed to get some sleep. In spite of this he followed her into the elevator, ignored what she had just said, and propositioned her.

He claimed to be interested in the things she had been speaking about, but ignored what she'd just said for the sake of propositioning her.

This, I think, is the heart of the unwanted sexual objectification that Watson is talking about. The problem is not that the guy found her attractive, and it's not that he made a move; it's that he completely dismissed her context and her interests so that he could try to get into her pants. The clearly stated desires of the person in whom he claimed to take interest had gone in one ear and out the other without lingering in the regions between.

Even if all he wanted was a cup of coffee and a conversation, he's trying to get it by ignoring the woman's stated wishes.

That makes the elevator guy kind of a creep.

Now, what Rebecca Watson said in response to this incident is not that men are bad, or that men should never flirt with or hit on women; what she said was that this particular behavior creeped her out, and that atheist/skeptic men who want women to feel welcome in the atheist/skeptic movement shouldn't do it. That's all.

To me this observation is utterly unremarkable. What's remarkable are the thousands of comments accumulating on atheist and skeptical blogs defending fragile male egos from ludicrous caricatures of Watson's point as a result of her observation. What's remarkable are the thousands of comments treating a criticism of one narrow kind of behavior as an attack on all male sexuality. What's more remarkable are the thousands of second-order comments attacking Watson again for pointing out the problems with the first kind of comment.

(Except it's not remarkable at all, because this is what feminists have been putting up with for more than a hundred years.)

Every atheist and skeptical activist I've met claims that part of their motivation is to support and improve universal human rights by demolishing the kinds of religious and superstitious myths that prop up discrimination and hatred. I think that's admirable; it's a point of view I share.

But if we enlightened modern secular western guys can't take the concerns of the women in our midst seriously, how can we claim to be working for the rights of women in Saudi Arabia, say, or in deepest, darkest Utah?

So I think we need to add some myths to the list of false beliefs that we should challenge. Here are two to start with.

  • Men do not have a right to expect women to cheerfully treat with respect any and every sexual advance, just as long as it falls short of physical violence.
     
  • Men do not have a right to expect women to be silent, to protect them from their stupidity for the sake of whatever organization or movement they might happen to be a part of.

Until we men figure these things out, we can't really claim to be good humanists, and probably not even decent human beings.

(I think that a lot of men have figured this out, actually, but I suspect that many of them would rather nod in agreement than wade into a flame-fest on a comment thread. Even I don't want to do that, which is why I'm posting my thoughts here.)

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