Friday, December 27, 2013

U.K. scandal: Sexist locomotives, male train engineers

Thomas the Tank Engine. Hideously male,
 hideously white.

Once a country goes Hard Left, there are no limits to the possibilities for lunacy. Britain is not yet executing political prisoners for thought crimes, but the Labour opposition transport secretary is aghast that there are not enough women engines and drivers in the children's books and TV series featuring Thomas the Tank Engine.
Thomas the Tank Engine is setting a poor example to children and needs more female engines to encourage girls to become train drivers, Labour's shadow transport secretary has said. Mary Creagh described the lack of female train drivers in Britain as a "national scandal" and said that children's television shows and "negative stereotypes" are partly to blame.
Not, you understand, that the U.K. has laws prohibiting women from working as railroad engineers. Nor specifying that all engines must be masculine in appearance. (How would a female engine be indicated? Eye shadow? Earrings dangling on the boiler? High [w]heels?)
Aslef, the train drivers union, is campaigning for more women and ethnic minority train drivers. Just 1,000 women, equivalent to about 4.2 per cent, of train drivers are women. Mike Whelan, the union's general secretary, said: "These figures show that there is plainly something wrong in this era of professed quality [sic]".
For authoritarians like Mary Creagh, it's the government's job to enforce equality, regardless of individuals' choice of work. Sounds familiar, what? Not enough welders in Petropavlovsk? Round up some bookkeepers in Moscow and put 'em on the next train -- with a woman in charge, of course.

I suggest Creagh turn her attention to department store perfume and cosmetic counters. She would doubtless discover -- well, except in London maybe -- an acute shortage of men salespersons. What kind of message does that send to young boypersons dreaming of swimming the English Chanel at Selfridges?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The evidence of things not seen

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for;
the evidence of things not seen."
-- St. Paul

Peace on Earth. Goodwill. Brotherhood. How remote they are to our mortal eyes.

But even in this shattered life, we glimpse something greater.

Faith may be the substance of that "something greater" hoped for, although it seems to me not the substance but the lifeline that keeps us connected, however tenuously, to Spirit. Evidence? Not the kind of evidence presented in a courtroom or academia; but evidence that something lifts us out of our thin perceptions and our fixations in time.

We can draw on another kind of evidence. Beauty, of sight, sound, or intellect -- along with love -- is also a signal path from realms that have no beginning or end, no limitations other than those we cling to.

My wish for you this holiday season is beauty. Beauty never lies. Even in this world of appearances, it is evidence that the higher ideals we seek are real.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

One nation under the God of cultural Marxism

Commenting on public issues these days, one almost has to wish for earlier times when Americans disputed with one another over Communists in government or mutual assured destruction -- subjects for grown-ups. Who back then would have conceived that today's great schisms would involve such items as Duck Dynasty and "Pajama Boy"?

What will it be next year, a shouting match over whether white toilet paper is racist?

Of course the present controversies, especially involving Duck Dynasty, carry a heavy symbolic freight. I had barely heard of the program let alone viewed it, but apparently it is the most popular cable TV show in the country. I'm a stranger in a strange land.

It seems that Phil Robertson, the leading actor on Duck Dynasty, delivered himself of some insulting remarks about gays in a magazine called GQ. It's amazing that the interview was even printed. 

The now-famous quotes I've read are couched in distastefully vulgar language, although no more so than the way many homosexuals speak. No one in the Church of Progressivism would have jibbed at the wording, however, if something similar had been directed against straights. But gays (and lesbians, and trannies) have now been elevated to the cultural Marxist pantheon, along with virtually everyone else except hetero white males.

So the cable network boots Robertson off the program, which tells you something about how deeply the values of the Left have penetrated the entertainment industry -- this organization voluntarily sacrifices its biggest cash cow because an actor has offended a population segment that, I suspect, makes up about 0.002 percent of Duck Dynasty's audience.

Predictably most of the published outrage against the network feeding Robertson to the sharks has a legalistic and defensive tone. His First Amendment rights have supposedly been violated. Nonsense. The First Amendment, among other provisions, prohibits the government from passing any law limiting freedom of speech. How quaint. Legal suppression is irrelevant; private institutions, including corporations, now do the dirty work themselves. They don't have to show you no stinkin' badge.

What most of the defenders of Robertson's nonexistent "rights" do not understand is that the cultural Marxist ruling class wants to destroy them. If they can't do that, they'll at least make sure that the people they see as the yokels in flyover country know their place, and what they can and can't say.

I understand there's a movement to boycott the network, A&E. While I doubt that it will have much effect, it's an encouraging sign that large numbers of citizens are tired of having their brains washed and their mouths taped and are willing to act directly against their oppressors. It's the only recourse they have.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Yahoo! goes full-tilt anti-white

Having long ago lost out in the search-engine competition, Yahoo! has floundered for years trying to find some excuse for existence. The company seems to have reached such desperation that it will resort to any idea that its generation ZZZ management teams can scrape off the pavement. Among other numb-brain moves, Yahoo! looks to be reinventing itself as a "news" outlet.

"Racism Literally Costs America $2 Trillion ... Ready to Stop Payment?" it asks.

It's time to stop payment all right, payment for cultural Marxist extortion. Stop affirmative action hiring of clueless employees because of their skin color, ancestry, sexual orientation, and whatever other politically correct qualifications they bring to the table. Quit spending billions on failed remedial programs to make professors out of kids who'd rather be playing basketball or shouting rap lyrics. (Although probably some colleges now offer Ph.Ds in comparative rap.) Stop paying women to have babies whose fathers' names they can't recall if they didn't write them down somewhere.

But of course that isn't the line Yahoo! takes. It's an "anti-racist" diatribe (anti-racist being code for anti-white).
A more complete accounting of the toll taken by race-based chauvinism has arrived in the form of a W.K. Kellogg Foundation study that shows fallout from racism slashing the country's wealth. The study, released in October, posits that an income gap resulting in part from racism costs the country $1.9 trillion dollars each year.

The study, titled “The Business Case for Racial Equity,” was conducted with the institute and scholars from Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, and Harvard universities and demonstrates how “race, class, residential segregation and income levels all work together to hamper access to opportunity.”
The Kellogg Foundation and the ivy league scholars play a right little game. Copy a bunch of slogans from a 1967 editorial in Life magazine, fantasize some numbers, and voilà! Proof positive that the temporarily most numerous racial group in the U.S., many of whose constituents are out of work or underemployed, needs to shell out more for programs to atone for its racist bigotry that is holding back the Vibrant Fraction.

You would think that a cereal dynasty foundation and alleged scholars from prestigious universities would at least pretend to offer new approaches to overcoming their diagnosis of the problem. You'd think they'd be embarrassed to recycle tried-and-failed nostrums. 

"Among the remedies offered are an emphasis on minority home ownership in neighborhoods with increasing values ... ." Are these lackwits who toss around numbers in the trillions so ignorant they don't even know that leaning on institutions to make home loans to people who would never qualify under sane criteria was a prime factor in the housing bubble, which nearly brought down the nation's economic system -- all of five or six years ago? 

It doesn't matter. Whites must pay. And pay.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Salon writer: Why can't we all travel by bus and subway?

New York City is not the United States, except to New Yorkers. Americans just don't like density! They don't like queueing at bus stops or waiting as self-loading cargo for a subway train to haul them. What the hell is the matter with them?

"Mass transit is doomed in America," says Alex Pareene in Salon, the online think tank for the refined class of modern Bolsheviks. But he doesn't mean a limited system of mass transit for those who cannot afford cars or cannot drive. He wants mass mass transit. He has a dream where we all get to work or the grocery standing in the aisle of a municipal cattle car with as many other unfortunates as can possibly be squeezed into the vehicle.
In New York state, as in the country as a whole, more resources continue to be spent on drivers and roads than buses and trains. One transit blogger has calculated that, according to how Albany allocates transportation money, “every driver is worth as much as 4.5 transit riders.” And while Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has a generally very good record on transit, there’s always been a strange tension between Bloomberg’s pedestrian and bicycle-friendly Department of Transportation and his NYPD, which has a bizarrely antagonistic relationship with bicyclists and which rarely — as in almost never — prosecutes reckless driving, speeding, or accidents leading to the death of pedestrians.
Let's agree that New York City, especially Manhattan, is not built for the automobile. Gridlock is rarely more than one or two additional cars away. Subways and buses serve a useful function, despite being a cruel and unusual punishment for their riders. What to do? Pareene likes the idea of "congestion pricing for Manhattan's inner core." Where exactly is that? The island is nothing but one large inner core. For that matter, so is a lot of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and even Queens (three of the four "outer boroughs"). So, in addition to high gasoline prices and already-high bridge and tunnel tolls, Pareene wants to hang another anchor around the necks of the supposedly rich and privileged who believe they must drive into the central city.

What does he think -- that people drive into Manhattan because they enjoy it? The thrill of the open road as they inch past building walls of concrete and aluminum, swerve around construction sites? Alex, old son, I'll let you in on a secret -- a secret to you, that is. They do it because considering all the possibilities, driving is less dreadful than the madman's nightmare of bus and subway. Or perhaps they don't fancy walking to the bus stop or subway along streets full of vibrancy when they get out of the office at 7 p.m. Or any number of other reasons that they count as rational.
In 2008, Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing for Manhattan’s inner core, proposing an $8 charge for most passenger cars, to be charged only once a day. The money would’ve gone to the MTA, to fix up subway stations, improve bus and subway service, and help pay for extensions to the system. 
Fix up subway stations? A new coat of paint maybe? Face it, the subways were built long ago for many fewer riders, with pure engineering taking precedence over comfort. Nothing can "fix up" the roar and banshee screeching as the trains decelerate or bypass the station on a central track. The multi-level platforms and stairs that twist around like an M.C. Escher engraving will stay. You'd have to rebuild the whole system from the ground down. The way they do things in New York, it would take about 30 years, with a 500 percent cost overrun, and congestion-charge dollars burrowing into the bank accounts of politicians, construction companies, and unions.

But it must be done because cars are elitist.
This should be the most transit-friendly government in the country. A majority of New York citizens rely on public transit for their livelihoods. The city and state are run by Democrats, many of them among the most liberal in the nation. Our incoming mayor, Bill de Blasio, ran as a left-wing populist. But incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio is a driver. Andrew Cuomo has been a driver, or had drivers, his entire life. There are certain richer Manhattanites, accustomed to walking, for whom anti-car policies improve their quality of life, but for most of the political class, everyone they know and interact with owns a car. 
Certain "richer" Manhattanites are accustomed to walking? How far? From Greenwich Village to West 89th Street? It may surprise Alex to learn this, but almost all of us (including non-New Yorkers) who are not "differently abled" walk places from time to time. Not as much as we ideally should, perhaps, but when it is practical and we have time. However, we don't compete to set long-distance records.

How about encouraging travel by bicycle? That makes sense for many, although not generally in huge metropolitan areas. (Amsterdam is a rather compact city much smaller than New York.) But like so many good ideas, it becomes a matter of fanaticism to those who take communion at the Church of Green. The Virginia burb I live in has put up signs that announce it is a "bicycle-friendly community." The signs partly block the view of the tree-lined streets and serve no purpose except bragging, which we look down on when individuals do it. The city fathers and mothers have had bike lanes painted, with wide white cross-hatched stripes, everywhere they can think of -- more distraction and ugliness. Some so-called bike lanes are half a block long and then disappear, I kid you not.

People like Alex Pareene and James Howard Kunstler see the answer to our transportation problems in a national program of densitization. Move everybody into the city and stack 'em up in high rises. As production-consumption units, what do they need open space and yards for? Our new God is Efficiency. Quality of life? What's that?

Your blogger, on the other hand, thinks we ought to (a) discourage population growth, particularly by stopping immigration, and (b) build more and better suburbs, not starve them. Improving suburbia may not be easy, but it's infinitely more practical than rebuilding a mass transit system so it's fit for human beings. Then again, maybe humanity is obsolete.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Calling Nell Gwynn

I used to believe in reincarnation, but that was in a previous life.

Uh, sorry. What I meant was, I used to believe in reincarnation, and that was in this life. Now ... I'm not sure. A little while ago I wrote a post about the alleged spirit of Helena Blavatsky, a founder and popularizer of Theosophy, who recanted (from the Other Side) her teaching that the soul undergoes a series of earthly lives to learn the lessons needed for spiritual growth.

It's not unusual that I blog about something and the subject continues to rattle around my mind for days afterward, until I feel like I must study it more. This was such an eventuality. Not having a bunch of time to apply to it, I decided to re-read a book that had once impressed me.

That was Encounters With the Past: How Man Can Experience and Relive History (1979), by Peter Moss with past-life regression hypnotist Joe Keeton. (More recent editions have wisely dropped the misleading subtitle, which makes it sound like a how-to manual, which it is not.) Rather, it's an account of seven people in modern times who apparently recalled, under hypnosis, earlier personalities they had once been. In each case the past life memories emerged over many sessions, and Keeton was able to shift them to various ages in those lifetimes.

(The usual disclaimer: you can add "alleged," "supposedly" or other qualifiers to such statements. I refrain from the words' repeated use simply on stylistic grounds.)

What makes Moss's book particularly interesting is that, as a witness to the regressions described, he is still willing to question various aspects of the stories told by the "past life recallers" and try to analyze the evidence for and against their veracity. I can recommend two other books on reincarnation: Reliving Past Lives, by Helen Wambach, and Exploring Reincarnation, by Hans TenDam. Both authors are scientific in their research, but seem to take hypnotic regressions at face value. 

Moss is -- correctly in my view -- on guard against assuming that the voices of previous personalities that emerge under hypnosis are literally what they seem to be. And he is continually struck by the contradictory factual status of claims by the people in other incarnations -- some remarkably accurate about little-known aspects of life in earlier times and places where the hypnotized subjects have never been, yet other statements that Moss's own thorough research tends to disprove.

I said in my Blavatsky posting, "In hypnotic regressions, there is usually a curious inability to come up with specifics, such as the person's name in the earlier life, the year, who was the king or president at the time, what the town, city, or country was called, &c." Moss writes, in a similar vein:
There are so few spontaneous mentions of births, illnesses and deaths; hopes and fears, successes and failures [recounted in the "past life memories"] are rare -- just small talk and evasive answers of the dullest kind. Memory, even if from another life, should be of stronger stuff, and it is difficult to explain why, if reincarnation is operating, a brownish skirt or a pot of rabbit stew should have some sort of immortality while the names of parents, a home town and a lifelong occupation may leave no imprint at all.
So where does Nell Gwynn, 17th century actress, mistress to Britain's Restoration monarch Charles II, come in? She speaks to us via Edna Greenan of Liverpool, described by Moss as a 57-year-old housewife who "left school at the minimum age -- then fourteen -- and worked in a number of factories and shops, and in the same time bringing up a family of five children. ...

"Edna would deny any pretension to, or even interest in, literature or history, and though she was aware of the name Nell Gwynn before her regression, she knew virtually nothing of the person nor of the social and political background." (Nell is shown at right in a drawing by Sir Peter Lely, who made a good living portraying King Charles's mistresses with much flesh to be admired.)

Despite what many skeptics think, the vast majority of past-life recollections are not of terms spent as famous figures such as Julius Caesar or Marie Antoinette. Usually they were obscure, boring lives. This is one exception.

Nell Gwynn's origins were humble, to put it mildly. Moss transcribes this dialogue (questions by Keeton):
Q. You are Nell Gwynn with all the memories of a seven-year-old. Where are you?
A. (Instantly in a coarse voice) I'm sellin' bleedin' fish.
Q. How much do you charge?
A. (Shouting out stridently ignoring Keeton) Fresh 'errings ... thrippence ... fresh 'errings ... thrippence.
Q. You don't sell many at threepence do you?
A. Shut yer bleedin' mouth. (Calling out) Thrippence ... thrippence ... thrippence.
Q. Where do you get them?
A. (Pause) Eeeeee. I think Rose [her older sister] gets 'em me. I didn't get them.
Q. Yes, but where does she get them?
A. I don't bleedin' know where she gets 'em. (Calling out) Fresh herrings? thrippence ... do you want fresh herrings, lady ... Yes, I've just chopped their bleedin' heads off ... (Pause then in the normal conversational voice to Keeton) She bought a bleedin' 'errin'.
Although nothing in Nell's speech can be verified historically, it sounds oddly convincing. First, if the 20th century Edna Greenan was totally ignorant of Gwynn's life she would not have known that the girl started her career as a fishmonger. (No one can be sure of that detail either, but all the evidence we have suggests Nell began working in lowly jobs.)

Second, anyone making up a "script" for Nell's "character" would probably not devise such near-comical lines. The rather limited swearing vocabulary seems right for a seven-year-old of the lower classes. But notice also that when she is offering them for sale to the "lady," she pronounces the h at the beginning of "herring," as though knowing that her potential customer, probably of a higher social class, might have been annoyed at Nell's usual pronunciation. Well-bred English people still look down on those who "drop their aitches," although it is now politically incorrect to admit it. But when Nell returns to talking to Keeton, the h leaves again.

"At some time before she was ten the real Nell Gwynn gravitated to the tavern-brothel where her mother worked, running errands, serving drinks and it may be anything that might add a piquancy to customers with specialized interest," Moss writes. Nell would not have been one to tax a lot of her time in defending her honor when she later caught the eye of the King of England.

Keeton advances Nell to the age of eight.
Q. What do you do? 
A. I go to that gin shop over there ... I take gins around.
Q. What do they pay you for that?
A. They don't pay me nowt -- they give it Kate [her mother]. They say I'm making a bonny lass ...
Q. Have you ever had a sip of gin?
A. Yes.
Q. Do you like it?
A. I don't know right (smacks lips several times, runs tongue over lips not very happily for a few moments) Catches yer at back of t'throat a bit ...
But this doesn't feel entirely authentic. Nell was raised in or around London. No one except those whose origins are northern English (like Edna) says "nowt." That "back of t'throat" also sounds like it's spoken by somebody from "oop theah in t'North Coontry." And bonny lass? Pure Scottish as far as I know. Conceivably Nell might have picked up such alien (for London) expressions from a person or persons in her environment, but it's improbable.

The language question is one of the most vexing in past-life regressions. The old personalities seem to talk in more or less present-day English, although there is often a sprinkling of obsolete words. If someone from a previous incarnation speaks through a subject living now, it would not be surprising if the speech pattern was drawn mostly from the mind of the hypnotized subject.

Unfortunately Moss doesn't say anything about "Nell's" accent. He would surely have noticed if it had resembled Liverpool pronunciation, so perhaps it didn't. But even a Londoner from the time of Charles II would have sounded quite different from a native-born Londoner today. I wish our author had gone more deeply into this.

In further sessions, which Moss says tallied up to 80 hours or so, Keeton interviews Nell as she relates the ups and, well, downs of her career -- she says of another of her lovers, " 'E gives me 'undred pounds fer lyin' on me back ... ." Considering all the time spent on regressions, the signal-to-noise ratio is typically poor. 

Still, there are intriguing "hits." Nell frequently mentions her acquaintance with the famous literary diarist Samuel Pepys (whom she knew well enough to nickname Pippy), which is historically correct, as Pepys mentions her in his diary. Of course this could be discovered with a little research, but Edna is adamant that she has had no time to study that era and never read a book concerning it.

Nell also mentions the plot fabricated by Titus Oates, an incident now forgotten by all but scholars of the period. 

In another questioning session, she says:
A. I know ... I know what you'd like to know.
Q. What's that?
A. I told you about Frances ... Frances Stewart -- didn't I? Well ... Charles decided he'd 'ave a new (gropes for the word) ... a new coin ... an half penny ... a new half penny ... an' Frances is on the back of it ... she's sat there 'oldin' something up ... an' something on 'er 'ead ... an' she's sat there.
Moss says, "The new halfpenny of 1672 carried for the first time on the reverse the traditional figure of Britannia, for which Frances Stewart was indeed the model."

But for someone who lived through an intensely dramatic period of British history, including the re-establishment of the monarchy after 12 years of Puritan rule, a king much remembered for his pleasure-seeking ways, the reopening of the theaters, the Great Fire, and the Plague, Nell is vague and mostly sounds unconcerned. "For an event as traumatic as the Great Plague, which must have struck the ultimate terror into the heart of every Londoner, Edna/Nell gives nothing but the stereotyped picture that every schoolchild knows," Moss says.

In one respect Edna's case is almost bulletproof. It is often claimed that so-called past life memories have their origin in information that was read or heard by normal means, but consciously forgotten (a phenomenon called cryptomnesia). According to this view, a few facts unknowingly retained from a novel, conversation, movie or similar source are released from the unconscious and form a nucleus around which the subject creates an imaginative past-life story.

Perhaps that happens in some cases. It seems, though, unable to explain what must by now be tens of thousands of regressions performed by experimenters and therapists. Considering Edna's hard life in Liverpool, England's poorest city at the time and not a center of intellectual life, the chance is vanishingly small that information about Nell Gwynn or the Restoration era came her way.

A lot more could be said about the chapter on Edna's regression, as well as those about the other subjects' regressions induced by Keeton. But this is getting to be a long entry, and you may be pushed for time, so let's stop here and ask: what can we conclude?

Very little. The evidence supports two hypotheses. (1) Something genuinely paranormal does take place. (2) Whatever emerges under hypnosis about previous lives, it is not pure memory, but has been modified by some factor or factors.

We should keep in mind, however, that nothing about past-life hypnotic regression directly bears on the truth or falsity of the reincarnation hypothesis. Even if every regression were somehow shown to be an illusion, it would not disprove that we have a continuity of lives.

I will save for another occasion -- perhaps the next posting -- a description of what might be a fragmentary past-life memory firmly lodged in my mind.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Screen shots

Money-back guarantee: Not a word about President Obama-Jarrett!

Notes on three DVDs fetched from Netflix recently:

Kurosawa's 1985 Ran may be an art film enclosing a commercial film, or a commercial film enclosing an art film. Let's just call it arty commercial.

Of course Ran has ingredients that make cinéastes indulge in fawning contests. It's foreign (unless you're Japanese); set in remote times; plenty of picturesque violence; goes on and on and then on some more; and boasts a solid literary antecedent, King Lear by the unknown author who goes by the name Shakespeare.

This being old Japan, the warlord/Lear can't give his kingdom to three daughters, which would have been unthinkable in that time and place, so they are transgendered. Presumably to keep the film from being suffocatingly masculine, Kurosawa and his screenwriters introduce a seductive woman, Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), to goad the Bad Son now on his father's throne into indulging in affirmative vicious action. Maybe Kurosawa got King Lear confused with Macbeth. Even in antique high fashion and makeup that look bizarre to modern Western eyes, she's a lovely viper. Once she wraps herself around Villain 1, it's Kaede bar the door.

Indeed there are impressive things in Ran. Kurosawa has a good eye for visual composition; when things get otherwise tedious there's usually something worth your attention in the background. He shoots and edits action well; the scene of the fiery attack on a castle is gripping. There are also compelling, quiet moments (but not enough). Toru Takemitsu's music score provides effective commentary.

"Shakespeare's" Lear opens a window into all the contradictions of human life: power and powerlessness, the wisdom of age and geriatric misjudgment, the bonds of love snapped in an instant by death's sharp tug, and so much more. Kurosawa, however, presents the theme as stilted, schematic -- disloyalty to your father is wicked, war is hell.

The acting is all over the place stylistically. The leaders of the various armies lined up for battle chew the beautiful scenery. Tatsuya Nakadai, as the Lear figure Lord Hidetora, is curiously artificial. Just say Noh? The androgynous Fool -- I thought at first he was a woman -- camps it up mercilessly but undeniably holds the attention. Yet other characters, including Lady Kaede, are played naturalistically.

Ran is no ran-of-the-mill film -- it's clearly a director's "statement," for good and ill.

Oliver Stone's Alexander may be a commercial film enclosing an art film, or an art film enclosing a commercial film. Let's just call it ... never mind.

This DVD was (I think) the "Final Version" of Stone's epic, which has at least three iterations, the other two being the "Theatrical Version" and the "Director's Cut." I'd seen the (I think) "Theatrical Version" (the shortest), also on DVD. Despite its faults, I had found it interesting enough to be curious about what had been left out. In this latest version, it would seem nothing much was omitted, as it ran (or walked, or stumbled) for well over three hours.

While his politics are not mine, Stone has directed some strong films including Salvador, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, Nixon, and the underrated Heaven & Earth.

In an extra-features introduction, Stone says something to the effect that if you liked the short version you'll like this even more, and if you hated the short version you'll hate this even more. I found that I liked and disliked both in about the same proportion. Starting here I'll be talking about the maybe-ultimate-final Alexander I watched most recently.

It was chance that I saw it right after Ran -- they happened to succeed one another in my Netflix queue. But that made me notice some surprising resemblances. Both are big on battle scenes. Both have father-son conflict, although Alexander tosses in for good measure a semi-incestuous mother-son relationship, as well as an implied homosexual one. 

Like Kurosawa, Oliver Stone is a highly visual director -- one of his keenest talents, which he doesn't get enough credit for. The shots of the Macedonian and Persian armies, the long march through Asia to India, the court scenes are highly intensified by their pictorial quality. Like Kurosawa, Stone uses nature to heighten mood.

There are two huge battle set pieces, one in Persia and one in India. That in Persia -- Gaugamela -- is presented convincingly and powerfully, but at exhausting length. Once the action begins, onscreen titles helpfully inform us when we are viewing the Macedonian right, left, and center lines. The trouble is, the charging soldiers in the right look quite a bit like those in the left, and both strongly resemble those in the center. 

Gaugamela seems like an all-day engagement, not just in 331 BC but in the movie. The cross-cutting between different parts of Alexander's army starts to bring up thoughts of military history writing where General X's cavalry "wheels around" to attack General Y's left flank while Count Z's artillery forces advance slowly against heavy resistance, etc.

One virtue of the extended version is that we get to hear more of Anthony Hopkins's voice-over narration (carnage recalled in tranquility). Not only does Hopkins help us understand the events better, but it's a pleasure just to hear a first-rate actor.

But whatever clarity Hopkins provides in sabotaged by Stone's insatiable urge for flashbacks and flash-forwards. Again the onscreen titles tell us where and when we are, but the jumping between past and present (which accelerates later in the movie) becomes annoying. We don't watch a picture like Alexander to sit in as Dr. Freud analyzes the childhood and youth of the Macedonian king, stretched out on the couch.

A lot of Stone's cinematic past suggests he is an excellent director of actors, but his ability along that line deserted him here. Colin Farrell (Alexander) lacks the magnetism and range of inflections to carry such a huge part, although it should be said that Stone's insensitivity to words -- his greatest weakness, as usual -- doesn't give Farrell a lot to work with. Val Kilmer as the father, Philip of Macedonia, is cartoonish. In the big roles, only Angelina Jolie, as Alexander's slyly loving mother, holds the screen.

The long-haul version of Alexander, presumably assembled to Oliver Stone's own specifications, shows again that enough is enough and too much is too much.

When I reviewed Wong Kar-Wai's 2046, I headed the posting "The first great film of the millennium?" On a second viewing, I find I agree with myself. I still know of none better.

The second time around was even more enjoyable than the first. Although not authored in Blu-ray (unlike the others discussed here), the color palette was even more sensuous than I remembered, possibly because I now have a different DVD player and monitor. 

2046 is a work of brilliant imagination as well as craft. Because of retaining a general overview of the story, I didn't have to spend as much time trying to understand its fluid complexity (although there are still a few puzzling bits). I was able to concentrate more on the acting, and do not believe it is exaggerating to call it profound. What the performers give us puts to shame the posturing in Alexander.

Wong Kar-Wai has made other fine movies, some of which I've written about in this blog. But 2046 remains his masterpiece.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Additive government

Among all the things people do, they are least successful at government.

It's not hard to understand why. All governments must contend with numerous self-interested individuals and groups, plus vast chasms in opinion and ideology. They are at the mercy of human nature, which puts immediate benefit above long-term values. Most of those who are drawn to public office crave power, and so are exactly the type who shouldn't have it.

Amid all these pressures, government is supposed to operate in a way that leaves no faction feeling totally defeated or left out; that there are fundamental principles that even the government cannot destroy; that the individual has some influence in outcomes.

In practice, the odds against achieving such possibilities are so heavy that the default system throughout history has been royalty, oligarchy, or tyranny.

Ancient Athens gave every citizen a vote, but that lasted for barely a generation. Its most famous philosopher, Plato, thought democracy was madness.

In all the time since, there have been two noble attempts to realize the ideals which have worked reasonably well: the American federalist system and the British parliamentary system (and governments based on the British parliament).

The American founders, well knowing the long dreary pageant of abuses of power, tried to devise a form that would give politicians enough influence to get necessary things done but keep it within strict limits. Their solution was the famous concept of checks and balances -- giving different institutions and jurisdictions the ability to withstand or counter pressures from the others.

The 10th Amendment, last among the original Bill of Rights, says:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.
The amendment is a main pillar of federalism, defined by Merriam-Webster as "the distribution of power in an organization (as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units." In a sad commentary on our times, the very word "federal" is now associated almost exclusively with the central government in Washington.

What kind of power establishment does the United States have now (in its underlying reality, not the symbolic vestiges of the original republic)?

I'd say we live in an authoritarian country, probably on the way to an oligarchy or dictatorship unless there is a major change of direction, and soon. The 10th Amendment is a quaint ornament but a dead letter when the central government decides which companies are bailed out or subsidized with citizens' money, which orders its peasants to buy health insurance from government-sponsored exchanges via a dysfunctional website.

If a dictatorship, it won't look like cliché banana republic dictatorships of the past. No uniformed Generalissimo on a white horse. No massed goose-stepping rankers on Pennsylvania Avenue. There won't be tanks on the White House lawn.

The Generalissimo will sport a perfectly tailored business suit. The military under his command will remain in their bases, largely out of sight, in constant readiness to put down any popular revolt. The tanks (or armored vehicles of a similar nature) will be in your city, with the local police logo on them.

Although the Washington elite has, for practical purposes, the ability to institute any law anywhere in the country (if necessary by "executive order"), that doesn't mean states and localities have no power. But the power is not a counterweight to Washington. It's additive -- meaning it can subject inhabitants to additional restraints, like forbidding people to smoke in their own homes (as one California town did the other day) or putting bicycle lanes in major traffic arteries. 

It's no surprise that, as Washington's grasp reaches ever further into what was formerly the business of states and localities, the regulations of political institutions outflanked by centralism grow ever more petty and designed largely to raise revenue through fines.

Checks and balances have been nearly superseded. Now it's laws on top of laws on top of laws.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Concert: Alice Sara Ott plays Liszt at Kennedy Center

This time I will resist the temptation to begin the posting with a diatribe about Washington's vulgar Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, its Stalinist mausoleum architecture, its flashy red carpet ... uh-oh. I can't help myself.

But the center of attention is young pianist Alice Sara Ott, who dropped by the other night to play Liszt's Piano Concerto no. 2 with the National Symphony Orchestra. My wife and I sat in Row B -- that's right, second row from the stage, directly behind conductor Neeme Järvi and the mighty Steinway that almost (but thankfully, not quite) blocked the view of Ms. Ott.

Alice Sara Ott radiates an attention-capturing quality that not even her publicity shots quite convey. Still photos don't reveal the animation, the apparent moods that cross her face like clouds. A Eurasian -- German and Japanese ancestry -- she projects a rare exotic allure. ("There is no great beauty that hath not a touch of strangeness about it," Francis Bacon said.)

Stage presence? Enough to spare. A smile that could illuminate the auditorium on its own. She wore a sleeveless purple silk, floor-length dress ... and from my almost front-row seat, I noted with surprise that she pressed the piano pedals with bare feet. 

Is all this calculated? To some extent, almost surely. She's an actress as well as a musician, knowing how to make the most of her sylph-like figure (I doubt she weighs more than 110 pounds) and gestures. She may enjoy the feeling of the pedals under her feet, or knows that it gives her an eccentric vibe that's useful for journalists writing about her, or both. Who cares?

A strain of puritanism among classical music audiences deplores concern with such "irrelevances" as looks and demeanor. Those who hold this view would be just as glad if the soloist were hidden behind a screen, as I understand is now standard practice in auditions for orchestra players. Fiddlesticks, as violinists are wont to say (or won't say).  

It's called performance. A performance is the whole, the big picture, the Gestalt. Ott isn't the first glamourpuss of either sex to dramatize a performance, and she won't be the last.

Furthermore, Ott's attractive manner extends to -- excuse me? Her piano playing? How can you interrupt thus, when I was just warming to my subject. All right, all right.

Franz Liszt's two (?) concertos are rarely played and recorded. I'm not sure I ever even heard no. 2 before. It's not that they're bad -- just that Liszt was a pianist to the bone, like Chopin, and the orchestral part of the score is no more than accompaniment. Most people who appreciate Liszt would rather hear his music, shall we say, unencumbered by an orchestra around its neck.

You ask how well Ott played her part? Listen, friend, I don't know how any human being can play Liszt. It takes fantastic prestidigitation. Those machine gun-paced notes! Those hand crossings! Keyboard sweeps! Impossible. It also takes a sense of when to go inward, caressing the keys to melt the heart.

All I can tell you is, Alice Sara Ott took the piece by storm and, to my untutored ear, it was one of the most exciting performances I've ever heard. Other pianists might have done it differently, perhaps "better" (whatever that means). It doesn't matter to me. I'll never forget that brief (less than half-hour) concerto.

The first piece on the program was Kodaly's Suite from Háry János. I've heard a few recordings of it that didn't leave much of an impression, but in live performance -- and Järvi seems to have a feel for the Hungarian and Czech idiom -- it was sensational. The score includes unusual instruments for a classical composition, including the celesta and xylophone.

After the Liszt and intermission, the program concluded with Prokofiev's Suite from Romeo and Juliet. It was a little bit of a letdown, and I generally love Prokofiev. But Järvi didn't give it much breathing room. The "Shakespeare" play is both a romance and a tragedy, and has a vein of violence running through it, but this reading downplayed the romance disappointingly. There was a shade too much brutality. Järvi drove the horses hard and put 'em away wet.

Speaking of Maestro Järvi, I have listened to recordings of him conducting since the 1980s, and went through a period when I thought he was one of the world's greatest conductors. I was heard to say that he should have gotten Chicago after Solti or Berlin after Karajan. Now I think my opinion of him was inflated at the time, but there's no question in my mind that he is very talented (as is his son, also a conductor, Paavo Järvi).

He was energetic on the podium, but when he turned to face the audience, I was a little saddened: he is old. Well, it happens to all of us, sooner or later, if we live long enough. But orchestra conductors are a hardy breed, and their careers often don't end at the age when others retire. I believe Stokowski was about 95 when he made his last recordings. I wish Neeme Järvi many years of further service to the cause of music.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

(Paper)white flight

I've long been intrigued by the idea of an e-reader but never owned one. Recently my wife gave me a present -- an Amazon Kindle Paperwhite 3G, supposed to be the most advanced ever.

In such free time as I am allotted, I've started getting acquainted with it. Although there are no buttons (other than an on-off switch) and you convince the Paperwhite to do what you want it to by tapping the screen, navigation is actually pretty easy and I think will quickly become second nature. The screen is smaller than a paperback book but you can (with its preferred file types such as AZW and MOBI) choose a font and adjust its size.

Being able to carry hundreds of books or periodicals, and select any you want to read at a given moment, in a device you can hold in one hand is obviously useful. So is being able to download such items without even a Wi-Fi hot spot (with the 3G version, not earlier generations). This is no toy. In their way the Kindle and other e-readers are as much of a game changer as the PC.

So far I have only one gripe, and it's about Amazon's incomplete instructions. The how-to onscreen manual starts well, clearly explaining the moves you need to make and the menus, in something very like actual English instead of technobabble. So far, so good. 

But after that it's pure sales promotion, herding you to the Amazon store. That's okay too; most Kindle users will want to buy some downloaded books from I understand the company doesn't make money on the Kindles themselves, so it's reasonable they'd flog e-books from their own store.

But that's all you're told. Not a word about how you can use the Paperwhite for books and periodicals from other sources, some of then [whisper] free -- the Gutenberg Project, for instance. Certainly no instructions for converting other types of files to MOBI.

So you have to go online and find tutorials, written and video, which are of varying quality. Free conversion software is available; Mobipocket Creator and Calibre seem to be most prominent (not, as I say, that you'd ever hear about them from Amazon). Once they do their job, you transfer the MOBI file to the Paperwhite via a USB cable. 

It's not actually hard, but typically of software developers, they don't explain the conversion technique well. Through trial and error or, if you must, one of those "For Dummies"-type Paperwhite manuals (presumably), you get the hang of it. If I can, anybody can. I suppose the average eight-year-old today would understand the process quicker than I did.

Regardless of Amazon's rather petty withholding of useful information, the Paperwhite is life-enhancing, and a welcome diversion from our national Time of Troubles.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sir John Tavener

Every age has its outstanding artists. But among those are few who seem to listen to their inner voices more than to their time and place. Even fewer are those who can convey to a wide audience what stirs in their souls. Sir John Tavener (1944-2013), who passed over yesterday, was one of those. His musical accomplishment was both intensely personal and intensely impersonal, opening vistas in sound that we are deaf to until they are revealed.

Like most listeners, I discovered his music through his popular (well, "popular" as things go in the world of classical music) The Protecting Veil. It was astonishing to find a contemporary composer who seemed to ignore the kind of stuff written by academics in their nests as "composers in residence" at universities, but instead anchored his aesthetic in the traditions of worship.

Tavener, an Englishman, was famously a convert to Orthodox Christianity, and his work obviously has a kinship with Orthodox church music. There were other influences, including a difficult life, which involved dodgy health; he nearly died of a heart attack in 2007. If anything his worldly misfortunes seem to have further driven him toward transcendence.

I have collected quite a few recordings of Tavener's music. Tonight, after reading of his departure from this world, I listened to Svyati, for string orchestra and chorus, and The Hidden Treasure, for string quartet with Steven Isserlis playing the cello part. (He has attracted star-quality musicians to perform his compositions.)

Reading the obits in The Guardian and The Telegraph, I was surprised to learn that he first attracted attention in the '60s as a conventionally rebellious author of -- in the words of Tom Service, writing in The Guardian -- pieces that were "tumultuous, chaotic, modernist, and radical." Equally surprising is the large number of works he has created since then in his Orthodox-influenced phase. I look forward to getting acquainted with those I don't know.

The pianist Artur Schnabel said that Beethoven's last sonatas were greater than they could be played. In a sense that is true of what Tavener has given us. No music, Beethoven's or his, can fully represent infinite longings. Tavener's seems ancient, but without a touch of antiquarianism -- he uses the full resources of modern instruments and performers. Yet we are not listening either to now or any past "now." The eternal has cracked the shell of time.

John Tavener. Rest in peace, and in the music of God.

Friday, November 08, 2013

If you like your afterlife plan, you can keep it!

So says no less a person -- well, spirit -- than Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. She has been gone from the Earth sphere since 1891, so she should know. Or not. She reports, you decide.

Blavatsky was a co-founder of the Theosophical Society, and undoubtedly one of its most effective advocates. The society has had the usual organizational upheavals and schisms, and never attracted a mass following, but its philosophical influence has been far out of proportion to its numbers.

Among its teachings was the doctrine of reincarnation. Before the Theosophical Society came onto the scene, the idea that people lead successive lives to gain experience and develop spiritually was virtually unknown in the modern Western world aside from a few scholars of Asian (called in those days "Oriental") religions. Since Blavatsky and her successors such as Annie Besant -- a multi-purpose reformer whose other interests included socialism and feminism -- delivered the message, reincarnation has entered mainstream thought, though not necessarily acceptance.

Surprise: from her new perch in the afterlife, Blavatsky has decided that reincarnation is tosh. How do we know? She's told us via mediumship.

On Nov. 1, 1922, Blavatsky dropped in on Dr. Carl Wickland's psychic rescue circle for patients plagued by obsessing earthbound spirits. I wrote about Dr. Wickland and his book Thirty Years Among the Dead in this post. Blavatsky, on the Other Side, was not bothering the living. But she wanted to talk about some of the things she'd learned after passing over, speaking via Mrs. Wickland, a trance medium.

Here is a partial transcript of Blavatsky's message, recorded in Dr. Wickland's book.
I studied Reincarnation, and I thought there was truth and justice in the theory that we come back and learn and have more experiences. I taught it and wanted to bring it out to the world and its peoples.

I felt that I remembered far back in my past. I felt I knew all about my past, but I was mistaken.

Memories of “past lives” are caused by spirits that bring such thoughts and represent the lives they lived. A spirit impresses you with the experiences of its life and these are implanted in your mind as your own. You then think you remember your past.

When you study, especially when you study Theosophy, you develop your mind and live in an atmosphere of mind. You remove yourself as much as possible from the physical. Naturally you become sensitive, and naturally you feel the spirits around you. They speak to you by impressions and their past will be like a panorama. You feel it, and you live over the past of spirits and you make the mistake of taking this for the memory of former incarnations.
I did not know this when I lived. I took it for granted that these memories were true, but when I came to the spirit side of life I learned differently.
She later returned to the subject.
When you have once reached the spirit world, where all are congenial, where all is life, where all is bliss, where there is no jealousy, no envy, where all is one grand harmony, do you think for one moment that you would want to leave that beautiful condition to come back to earth and be a little baby, restricted in mind and knowing nothing - nothing whatever?

Furthermore, you might get into a sickly, crippled body and be worse than you were before.

No, reincarnation is not true. I believed it, I taught it, and I was sure that I should come back and be somebody else. But I will not. I can do far more good now.
My impression is that Blavatsky (why is she continually referred to as "Madame" Blavatsky in Theosophical circles?), while in our world, had a strong intuitive grasp of certain profound truths, but was also too ready to believe and proclaim a lot of cant and nonsense. Supposing her spirit was speaking at Dr. Wickland's circle, good on her for exercising a woman's prerogative to change her mind.

If the tone of these comments sounds flippant, you may be wondering whether I take the subject seriously or if this is a jest. Well, if I had refused to treat serious matters with a touch (or more) of humor, half the postings on this blog would not have been written. Questions of what happens after we depart this life could hardly be more important in my view.

Belief in reincarnation is now almost universal among people practicing the various forms of yoga and disciplines derived, even at a wide remove, from the Vedanta tradition. Most Buddhists seem to believe in it as well, although it's incompatible with Buddhism's core notion that there is no continuing self or soul. And finally there are those who come under the "New Age" heading.

I've spent a lot of time around such people, and I suppose it has influenced me to lean toward incorporating reincarnation in my outlook. Even so ... I'd never deny that it's possible; but I'm not convinced.

Survival of consciousness in a post-mortem state seems nearly certain if you are willing to look at the evidence, as a whole, without prejudice. For reincarnation, the picture is cloudier.

There are two basic methods of studying the possibility of reincarnation: "past-life memories" of young children and hypnotic regression.

I greatly admire the work of the late Ian Stevenson and his colleagues studying children's alleged past-life recall in situ, talking to the children and other people involved, using means as scientific as possible under the circumstances. Some of the cases he writes about are intriguing and a few almost seem to clinch the argument. But they never quite rule out alternative explanations -- for instance, Blavatsky's suggestion that they are not remembering their own past lives, but lives of attaching spirits.

Hypnotic regression also produces some fascinating material, but is even more open to doubt. Although hypnosis is widely practiced in psychotherapy, including past-life regression therapy, we still don't understand what hypnosis is. We know plenty about some things it can do, but not how or why. What is in no doubt is that hypnotized subjects are extremely suggestible and imaginative. Their visions of living in other times and places are surely real experiences to them. But dreams and hallucinations are phenomenologically real, too.

Explanations of the need for reincarnation tend to be of the "school of life" variety -- we have to keep returning until we've learned all our lessons -- or based on the supposed Law of Karma, that we must reap the results of all we've ever done. Again, I can't dismiss these claims, but they are just theories (however many thousands of years they've been on the Ancient Wisdom pop chart), neither provable nor disprovable.

I can tell you this from extensive reading of the literature on reincarnation: no one's story or "memory" of a previous incarnation that it has been possible to investigate through historical records has been 100 percent factually correct. Some have been partly confirmed -- impressive in itself, granted -- but those same examples include statements that not only can't be substantiated, but are shown to be wrong. In hypnotic regressions, there is usually a curious inability to come up with specifics, such as the person's name in the earlier life, the year, who was the king or president at the time, what the town, city, or country was called, &c.

Personally I hope the spirit Blavatsky is right and we continue our growth toward Ultimate Reality without having to be wrapped in a physical body again and again. Maybe the best possibility is to be offered a choice, not a requirement -- if you want another go-around in Earth life, the train is leaving on track 9. If prefer your spirit arrangements, you can keep them.