Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Ravel's "Bolero" from Allegro Non Troppo

Bruno Bozzetto's Allegro Non Troppo ("Not so Fast") of 1977 is a parody/homage to Disney's Fantasia. It suffers from the second-handedness of a parody, both in spirit and execution. The music is downbeat, the animation obscure, the depiction of life pessimistic, and the interspersed live action scenes, shot in black and white, a poor mockery of the Three Stooges. This film is thoroughly European, cynical and self-mocking in a way totally opposed to the American exuberance and earnestness of Fantasia. But it is art. The music can be grand. One can fast forward through the live action bits. It is certainly worth renting from Netfilx, but is not suitable for viewing with children. Here is, perhaps, the best part, the animation of Ravel's Bolero, meant as the counterpart to Disney's animation of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Bolero, Part 1

Bolero, Part 2

Monday, September 29, 2008

Patsy Cline on the 2008 Election

In an earlier post, I uploaded some video that ends with Homer Simpson saying "Don't blame me, I voted for Kodos." My thoughts on the current election are similarly grim. I am reminded of the last time I enjoyed voting for someone, which was for Ross Perot, who at least had a wonderful campaign theme song, Patsy Cline's "Crazy." I find myself singing that to myself more and more often as the election approaches. Here are some videos of America's Sweetheart singing three of her best hits:


I Fall to Pieces

Walkin' After Midnight

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Almodóvar "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down"

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Spanish Átame) was one of Pedro Almodóvar's most successful films, even given its original X rating upon its release, which sparked a lawsuit and the development of the NC17 rating as an alternative. The film depicts the story of Ricky (Antonio Banderas) a recently released mental patient and Marina (Victoria Abril) his ex-porn star love, whom he kidnaps and keeps tied up until she comes to realize his love for her. Considered risqué and by some feminists highly objectionable (one wonders if they saw the film) the film is a love story and features very little explicit nudity. The films joyous sense of life is excellently expressed by the cast and Almodóvar's vibrant signature direction. Enjoy this brief scene where Marina's sister Lola (Loles León) sings and dances at the cast party for Marina's latest film.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Calvert Watkins "Dictionary of Indo-European Roots"

Throughout history civilized peoples have wondered at the source of their language, looking often to the tongue of a prestigious cultural predecessor as its imagined source. In the Aeneid, Vergil traces the imagined source of Rome to Troy, and the Romans thought it obvious that their tongue was a debased form of Greek. More recent theories, based on a naive notion of Biblical history, trace all the worlds languages to Hebrew. It wasn't until widespread European familiarity with Sanskrit, the ancient liturgical language of India, that the notion became widespread that Greek and Latin, as well as the ancestral dialects of the Celts, Slavs, Germans and others might share some common origin with Sanskrit and other ancient tongues in some source which no longer exists. We now know that what are called the Indo-European languages are the descendants dialects of an ancient language of bronze-age wagon-riding horse and dog domersticating nomads who inhabited the Pontic-Caspian steppe. Known as the Kurgan culture as identified by Marija Gimbutas, this people infiltrated Europe and Central Asia, displacing speakers of tongues such as Etruscan and the ancient relatives of Basque, and interacting with their neighbors who spoke tongues from such separate families as Semitic and Finno-Ugric as well as many more exotic families.

Any who would understand the origins of English, with its own native Germanic word stock, as well as a vocaubulary well supplimented by such languagGes as Latin and Greek would do weel to familiarize themselves with the Indo-European roots of our Language. Calvert Watkins' American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots does that quite admirably. His beautiful and scholarly tome has more facts per inch in its 149pp than in almost any other work in my library. The second paperback edition is easily worth three times its cover price, and except for one flaw, this work is as near perfection as one could ask in a work of linguistic reference.

First, in praise:

To the scholar (or layman) studying the Indo-European roots of the English lexicon, there is no other work (in the English language) of comparable value to this book.

(View the index pages available above to see the English words referenced in the work.)

Each word is derived from its putative IE root, and each root is exemplified by its various reflexes in English, whether native or borrowed. For example, if we look up "deal" in the index, it gives two roots, *dail- (from which we get the meaning "portion out") and *tel- meaning plank or flat stone:

"*tel- Ground, floor, board. 1) DEAL from Middle Low German and Middle Dutch dele, "plank," from Germanic *thil-jo. 2)Suffixed form *tel-n-, TELLURIAN ...[also tile, title].... From Latin tellus "earth, the earth.....[Pokorny 2. *tel- 1061.]"

Hence, Watkins gives us the modern English exemplars of the root, whether they come through Germanic directly or indirectly, or through another PIE sister language such as Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, etc.,. For each root Watkins refers to the proto-form as it is given and numbered (i.e., here 1061) in Pokorny's authoritative "Indogermanisches Etymologisches Woerterbuch" or notes its absence therein.

Watkins also inserts a "language and culture note" on about every other page, giving philological/ethnological insight into the implications of the existence of certain forms and their connotations in the IE proto-language.

Regarding the PIE nominal root *Rtko-s "bear," which is absent as an inherited form in English, Watkins explains that the root (which is found in the Hittite "Hartaggas," Latin "ursus" Greek "arktos" and so forth) is replaced by "taboo" avoiding forms meaning "the brown one: "bruin" or "the honey-eater" as in Slavonic "medv-ed." The significance of such avoidance for hunter-gatherers such as the putative PIE speakers is obvious to anyone who knows the meaning of the word "jinx."

Yet, in criticism:

The book as it is currently titled (second edition, paperback) implies a completeness that the work lacks. When we find that certain English words such as "basket, boy, dwarf, dog" and "girl" are not listed in the lexicon, what are we to assume?

Are they neologisms, as are perhaps "boy, dog" & "girl?"

Are they Germanicisms such as "dwarf" (although it apparently has a canonical PIE root structure)?

Or are they just inexplicable - as it would seem is "basket" which looks an awful lot like a cognate of the Latin "fasces"?

Also, PIE roots not native to or not borrowed into English are ignored, as are most non-PIE-derived yet acceptably 'English' words such as "alcohol."

Nevertheless, even Tolkien had his criticisms of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) and that work was some 1000 times the length of Watkins' achievement. Anyone who finds these caveats discouraging will know where to seek for further enlightenment.

This work is worth well more than its dime a page asking price, and a must have for any who take their language seriously.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Noels Coward's "Brief Encounter"

Experience Sergei Rachmaninoff, David Lean, Celia Johnson & Trevor Howard all together on one stage in Noel Coward's 1945 hit Brief Encounter.

An express pulls into the station. From our angle at the level of the platform the train slashes the shot diagonally in two. Strains of Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto rise as the opening score.

Celia Johnson's face conveys incredible emotion, her eyes alone speaking more than words ever could. Trevor Howard is, as ever, the essential English Gentleman.

Both married, each struggles with the decision as to whether to consummate the affair. As he does the crossword Johnson's character Laura offhandedly mentions the truth to her husband that she has been seeing a strange man. He responds "Good for you."

This well written story, from a Noel Coward play, sceenwritten and produced by him and shot by the director of Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago manages to maintain 85 minutes of taut suspense where all the action is set in drawing rooms, railway café stations, and in internal dialogs. And for a black-and-white film set mostly in small London locals, the film is gorgeous.

From TCM: "To many, Brief Encounter may seem like a relic of more proper times--or, specifically, more properly British times--when the pressures of marital decorum and fidelity were perhaps more keenly felt. In truth, David Lean's fourth film remains a timeless study of true love (or, rather, the promise of it), and the aching desire for intimate connection that is often subdued by the obligations of marriage. And so it is that ordinary Londoners Alec (Trevor Howard), a married doctor, and contented housewife Laura (Celia Johnson) meet by chance one day in a train station, when he volunteers to remove a fleck of ash from her eye (a romantic gesture that, perhaps, inspired Robert Towne's "flaw in the iris" scene in Chinatown)."

Here is the trailer:

I recommend this film without qualification.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Luz Casal "Piensa en mi"

Here is a clip of Luz Casal singing Piensa en mi ("Think of me") from the movie "High Heels" (Tacones Lejanos) by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Marisa Paredes as a self-centered night club singer and Victoria Abril as the daughter she abandoned for her love and career. Casal has an incredible powerful and expressive voice. The film, a murder mystery, love story, and exploration of mother-daughter relationships is not Almodóvar's best, although it is certainly worth watching if you are a fan, or enjoy this style of music.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Posh Nosh

Interrogate, Obsess, Embarass, Excite, Thrill, Humiliate. These are not terms from a spy novel, or some trashy sitcom starring Sarah Jessica Parker. They are cooking terms from the BBC's satirical gem, Posh Nosh. Watch Simon (Richard E. Grant) and Minty Marchmont (Arabella Weir, who also wrote the episodes) thrill mussels, strip search broccoli, and pick out "happy home-schooled chicken" from www.arthurleggbourkesfarmnearbanbury.com, as they insult each other and talk down to the audience in a way that only the English can.

David Tennant (Doctor Who) makes cameo appearances as Simon's "tennis instructor" in episodes two and six.

You may have seen these delightfully absurd and pretentious ten minute shorts following a PBS show that has run short of an hour, stuck in where the commercials should be. Or you can watch them now at YouTube.com. Here are two favorite episodes, "Beautiful Food" (#3):

And, "Leftovers" (#6):

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"The Mists of Avalon" Marion Zimmer Bradley

It is a time of change in Britain. Immigrants bringing their foreign ways expect women to surrender the power they have held in the Isle, to resign from politics, to adopt to the newcomers' standards of modesty, to submit to the religious rule of men and their Middle Eastern religion of peace. The time is the fifth century, and the invaders are Christians and Anglo-Saxons who will ally to dominate the matriarchal Pagan and Celtic society of ancient Britain. The story is the Mists of Avalon, an epic Arthurian novel of love and war, spanning three generations of British women, told from the viewpoint of Arthur's sister Morgaine (Morgan la Fey) and the women of Avalon and Camelot.

Published in 1983, this well-reviewed novel, the product of years of research by award-winning author Marion Zimmer Bradley, was a best seller for four months in hard cover and over four years in its paper back release. While the novel is set in a world of fantasy, its magic plays a tertiary role, behind that of the women whose lives it realistically portrays and the men who play a supporting role in its lovingly crafted plot.

Morgaine is a tragic heroine, struggling against enemies, convention, and even family and friends to maintain her rights and champion the freedom of the people from priestly suppression of their long-cherished way of life. Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon, finds that the power she assumes from her religious role comes at a heavy personal cost. Bradley fleshes out Morgaine as a full person, with loves and losses, triumphs and painful compromises, a hero with whom we sympathize and for whom we root as she battles for her cult, her family, for Britain, and for herself.

Bradley spent years researching the Arthurian legends and the Druidic and Early Christian religion of the Isles. Much is speculation. But the book is one of the most real works of fiction you will ever read. The story is one of people and their values set in a time which happens now to be mythical. Magic plays the most minor of roles. Suspension of disbelief will not trouble the most hard-boiled reader. Neither is this romance, which has been called a feminist tract by some, a "woman's" book. It is a full-fleshed work of high literature, comparable in scope, conflict, characterization and fullness of theme to Ayn Rand's Fountainhead or Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

There is a made-for-television adaptation of this novel. While I have heard it highly praised, I found it an unwatchable farce compared to the original. The book is one of my top ten favorites, and is recommended without reservation.

Monday, September 22, 2008

She Dove Off! "Leeloo" The Fifth Element

Having just escaped from a government laboratory in Manhattan of the distant future, our heroine Leeloo (Mila Jovovich) literally drops into the life of Corben Dallas (Bruce Willis) our hero sky-taxi driver. This is shot is rivaled only by Sharon Stone's leg-crossing performance in Basic Instinct and the final chase of Thelma and Louise as the iconic movie moment of the 1990's. The car-chase music (not on the released soundtrack) is "N'ssi N'ssi" by Cheb Khaled.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Niven, Pournelle, "The Mote in God's Eye"

Published in 1974, this "hard-science" sc-fi novel is one of the best reviewed alien "first contact" stories of all time. A millennium from now, mankind has settled the nearby galaxy, and established an empire. That empire has fallen, and is being re-united. Man has warp drive, but in all mankind's exploration, no other sapient life form has been found. Until now. Captain Roderick Blaine has just pacified the planet New Chicago in the Trans-Coalsack sector. Fresh from victory, Blaine is assigned to head an expedition to the Murcheson's Eye binary star system, whence an alien probe had been launched at sub-light speed before its unfortunate destruction as it entered human space.

Mote in God's Eye
works quite well as a drama. It has what might be seen as stock characters, the autocratic Russian Admiral Kutuzov, a militarist and xenophobe who has destroyed worlds before, the Arab Trader Horace Bury, corrupt as only a Levantine could be. Yet the characters are well fleshed out, and an ingenious and well-researched plot, not formulas and stereotypes drives the story.

The aliens of the Mote are presented fully fleshed out as well. Trapped in their system for millions of years, the Moties are in many ways far beyond human development. Yet they suffer a strange handicap, one which threatens to destroy them, or humanity. Blaine must discover the nature of this handicap, and find a way from allowing the threat it presents to escape into the wider universe, where men like Horace Bury might sell out humanity, while preventing Kutuzov from annihilating the Moties altogether

The authors put much thought into the biology, psychology, history, linguistics and personal motivations of the aliens. They do not come across as humans in costumes, as many aliens in other lesser stories do. In being identifiably different from humans, they serve to illustrate human nature in the contrasts they afford.

This book is an excellent science fiction novel for those who value sci-fi, and for those who do not particularly enjoy it. It features starships and gunfights, but more importantly it showcases ideas and interesting characters. This title is recommended without reservation.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Tripods

The Tripods is another childhood favorite of mine. Writing as John Christopher, Samuel Youd authored three novels in the 1960's, The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire. A pre-quel, When the Tripods Came, was written in 1988.

In the late 20th Century an alien civilization invades and conquers the earth. Breathing a poisonous atmosphere, the aliens (the Skloodzi) are confined to the mechanical tripods which most of humanity believes to be the aliens themselves. Humans are controlled by capping, the implantation of a control chip in the skull at age 16 which removes curiousity and initiative.

Will and Henry, residents of a small British town decide to flee their home when they witness their older friend siezed and capped by a tripod, losing all interest in the world at large, happy to stay and chop wood in his mediaeval setting. They are befriended by a so-called vagrant, "Ozymandias," who is not, like others, a victim of a failed capping, but a wanderer with a false cap who uses his vagrant status as camouflage in his quest to recruit young men for the resistance, based in the French Alps.

Will and Henry voyage to France, where they meet a tall "inventor" named Jean Paul who has managed to remain uncapped at age 17. Together the boys travel to the Alps to join the fight to overthrow humanity's alien masters.

The books are juvenile, but quite good for children. The story adopts the common conceit of children fighting an adult world controlled by some secret or alien force. Baffled by the world of adults who seem to come to an accomodation with some unspeakable evil - or just some bland gray mediocrity - this plot device appeals to the young and embarrasses those who sell themselves out to the establishment.

The books were adapted into a miniseries by the BBC and the Seven Network of Australia. While an adaptation of all three books was written and budgeted, The series was cancelled by the new BBC head who, according to Wikipedia, was opposed to science fiction programs. The two extant seasons have a cult following. The show can bee seen in twenty five half-hour episodes here on YouTube. The filmed episodes actually tell a better story than one finds in the books, with an expanded tale and love interests for the heroes. With the current market in DVD releases of old telvision series, one might argue that the BBC shortsightedly capped itself in refusing to film the entire series until its heroic climax.

Here is Episode One, Part One:

Friday, September 19, 2008

Star Trek "The Animated Series"

Image:Yesteryear217 (2).jpgAfter the much lamented cancellation of the original Star Trek series in 1969, NBC reprised the show in a half-hour animated format with almost all of the cast of the original. The animated format allowed a much greater freedom in alien forms and "special effects" so to say.

Episode two, "Yesteryear" uses the same time travel gateway featured in the live action City on the Edge of Forever. In this story, Spock returns from a historical survey to find that the past has changed, and he had died at 7 years of age. Written by DC Fontana, this episode shows the promise of the format. Unfortunately the series was cancelled after only 22 episodes. Luckily they are available in DVD format, and you can watch all the episodes here at YouTube. A synopsis of all 22 episodes is available at Wikipedia.

Other notables are the Episode The Slaver Weapon, based on Larry Niven's "Known Universe" short story of the same name, and the use of the "holodeck" in episode 19, The Practical Joker.

Here is part I of Yesteryear at YouTube:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Frank Herbert "The White Plague"

In the near future, a mild-mannered geneticist sees his family murdered by religious terrorists in cold blood. Deciding to take revenge on the parties involved, he begins working in a basement. But his weapon has unintended consequences... Hard science, strong characterization, poetic language, this is one of my top 10 books. Many people only know Herbert from his Dune books, and if you've only seen the movies, he's been very poorly adapted. All of Herbert's books are brilliant, he has the most multi-layered backstory and widest range of real-world knowledge of any Hard SF writer I know. The White Plague has Yeatsian lyricism and antiseptic Orwellian style. The plot line should give you nightmares, because it could already be under way in Lebanon, in London, in Pakistan, in Iraq, in Albuquerque. The picture is from www.arrakis.co.uk Here is the Amazon listing. The book had been long out of print, which, given its timeliness, speaks volumes about the publishing industry. It has been re-released in an oversized paperback edition. You can find it at your local used book store, or for cheaper than bottled water at abebooks.com.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Colin Wilson "The Mind Parasites"

Although I cannot recommend it without reservation, I did thoroughly enjoy Colin Wilson's The Mind Parasites. Wilson is a cogent and engaging writer. The story begins as an archaeologist exploring a dig in Turkey hears from a psychologist who warns him that mankind is under attack, and then dies mysteriously. The hero continues his dig in Anatolia where he finds, to his utter amazement, evidence of ancient cyclopean buildings buried two miles below ground. And the parallels to H. P. Lovecraft are eerie. When our hero begins to undergo certain bizarre experiences, he determines to investigate the writings of his dead psychologist friend, only to find that the assaults of the paparazzi will be the least of his worries.

The book is flawed. The ending suffers from the author's use of deus ex machina. The nature of the mind parasites makes me recall the teachings of Scientology. I wonder what influence this work might have had on Hubbard? I cannot say more without revealing too much. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the work and finished it in two days.

Wilson is a good writer but a man with a mystic streak. He is seen as a crank by the literary establishment. His writings are a lesson in the primacy of consciousness. He has written Sci-Fi, True-Crime, books on existentialism and mysticism. His The Outsider, an analysis of the misunderstood individual, was his claim to fame. He has also written an acclaimed Criminal History of Mankind. In effect, he raises a question which will be of interest to any fan of Rand's. But his positive answers will be quite unacceptable.

I would rate the title four stars out of five.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Otters Holding Hands

Captain and Tennille had a hit in the 1970's with Musk Rat Love. But how about this video of otters dating?

Here's the 1976 hit:

Married in 1975 and still a couple, The Captain and Tennille have proved the truth of their 1975 #1 single:

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Doctrines of Epicurus

While Ayn Rand was quite vocal in her praise of Aristotle, much of her philosophy and many of her doctrines are strikingly similar to that of two other schools which during the Hellenistic age held much greater influence than did the Peripatos. One school, the Stoics, is mostly familiar to us in the parody of Spock, the "emotionless" pointy-eared Vulcan. The Epicureans, on the other hand, were so hated by the early Christians and Jews that epicure and apikoros became bywords for godlessness and licentiousness. This characterization was, unfortunately, a slander. Even Spinoza (actually a Stoic) in the 17th Century was branded apikoros and placed under the almost unprecedented lifetime kherem or excommunication of the Jewry of Amsterdam.

In modern terms, Epicureanism might be viewed loosely as a type of scientific Buddhism. The essence of happiness is freedom from suffering. Men suffer due to fear of malevolent gods and the chaos of nature. By studying nature, and himself, man can free himself from most fear. Suffering is short or bearable. By understanding that the gods, if they exist, are perfect, and hence wish no him ill, man can free himself from all fear. Epicurus held that study and wisdom applied in a life of freindship and moderation can lead to complete happiness. Violently opposed for his materialism and theological skepticism by the Stoics, the members of that school nonetheless held that Epicurus lived an exemplary and blameless life.

Below I have posted the forty Principle Doctrines of Epicurus. My source is Vincent Cook's epicurus.net.

The Principle Doctrines of Epicurus

1. A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.

2. Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.

3. The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.

4. Continuous bodily pain does not last long; instead, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.

5. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

6. In order to obtain protection from other men, any means for attaining this end is a natural good.

7. Some men want fame and status, thinking that they would thus make themselves secure against other men. If the life of such men really were secure, they have attained a natural good; if, however, it is insecure, they have not attained the end which by nature's own prompting they originally sought.

8. No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but the things which produce certain pleasures entail disturbances many times greater than the pleasures themselves.

9. If every pleasure had been capable of accumulation, not only over time but also over the entire body or at least over the principal parts of our nature, then pleasures would never differ from one another.

10. If the things that produce the pleasures of profligate men really freed them from fears of the mind concerning celestial and atmospheric phenomena, the fear of death, and the fear of pain; if, further, they taught them to limit their desires, we should never have any fault to find with such persons, for they would then be filled with pleasures from every source and would never have pain of body or mind, which is what is bad.

11. If we had never been troubled by celestial and atmospheric phenomena, nor by fears about death, nor by our ignorance of the limits of pains and desires, we should have had no need of natural science.

12. It is impossible for someone to dispel his fears about the most important matters if he doesn't know the nature of the universe but still gives some credence to myths. So without the study of nature there is no enjoyment of pure pleasure.

13. There is no advantage to obtaining protection from other men so long as we are alarmed by events above or below the earth or in general by whatever happens in the boundless universe.

14. Protection from other men, secured to some extent by the power to expel and by material prosperity, in its purest form comes from a quiet life withdrawn from the multitude.

15. The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity.

16. Chance seldom interferes with the wise man; his greatest and highest interests have been, are, and will be, directed by reason throughout his whole life.

17. The just man is most free from disturbance, while the unjust is full of the utmost disturbance.

18. Bodily pleasure does not increase when the pain of want has been removed; after that it only admits of variation. The limit of mental pleasure, however, is reached when we reflect on these bodily pleasures and their related emotions, which used to cause the mind the greatest alarms.

19. Unlimited time and limited time afford an equal amount of pleasure, if we measure the limits of that pleasure by reason.

20. The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.

21. He who understands the limits of life knows that it is easy to obtain that which removes the pain of want and makes the whole of life complete and perfect. Thus he has no longer any need of things which involve struggle.

22. We must consider both the ultimate end and all clear sensory evidence, to which we refer our opinions; for otherwise everything will be full of uncertainty and confusion.

23. If you fight against all your sensations, you will have no standard to which to refer, and thus no means of judging even those sensations which you claim are false.

24. If you reject absolutely any single sensation without stopping to distinguish between opinion about things awaiting confirmation and that which is already confirmed to be present, whether in sensation or in feelings or in any application of intellect to the presentations, you will confuse the rest of your sensations by your groundless opinion and so you will reject every standard of truth. If in your ideas based upon opinion you hastily affirm as true all that awaits confirmation as well as that which does not, you will not avoid error, as you will be maintaining the entire basis for doubt in every judgment between correct and incorrect opinion.

25. If you do not on every occasion refer each of your actions to the ultimate end prescribed by nature, but instead of this in the act of choice or avoidance turn to some other end, your actions will not be consistent with your theories.

26. All desires that do not lead to pain when they remain unsatisfied are unnecessary, but the desire is easily got rid of, when the thing desired is difficult to obtain or the desires seem likely to produce harm.

27. Of all the means which wisdom acquires to ensure happiness throughout the whole of life, by far the most important is friendship.

28. The same conviction which inspires confidence that nothing we have to fear is eternal or even of long duration, also enables us to see that in the limited evils of this life nothing enhances our security so much as friendship.

29. Of our desires some are natural and necessary, others are natural but not necessary; and others are neither natural nor necessary, but are due to groundless opinion.

30. Those natural desires which entail no pain when unsatisfied, though pursued with an intense effort, are also due to groundless opinion; and it is not because of their own nature they are not got rid of but because of man's groundless opinions.

31. Natural justice is a pledge of reciprocal benefit, to prevent one man from harming or being harmed by another.

32. Those animals which are incapable of making binding agreements with one another not to inflict nor suffer harm are without either justice or injustice; and likewise for those peoples who either could not or would not form binding agreements not to inflict nor suffer harm.

33. There never was such a thing as absolute justice, but only agreements made in mutual dealings among men in whatever places at various times providing against the infliction or suffering of harm.

34. Injustice is not an evil in itself, but only in consequence of the fear which is associated with the apprehension of being discovered by those appointed to punish such actions.

35. It is impossible for a man who secretly violates the terms of the agreement not to harm or be harmed to feel confident that he will remain undiscovered, even if he has already escaped ten thousand times; for until his death he is never sure that he will not be detected.

36. In general justice is the same for all, for it is something found mutually beneficial in men's dealings, but in its application to particular places or other circumstances the same thing is not necessarily just for everyone.

37. Among the things held to be just by law, whatever is proved to be of advantage in men's dealings has the stamp of justice, whether or not it be the same for all; but if a man makes a law and it does not prove to be mutually advantageous, then this is no longer just. And if what is mutually advantageous varies and only for a time corresponds to our concept of justice, nevertheless for that time it is just for those who do not trouble themselves about empty words, but look simply at the facts.

38. Where without any change in circumstances the things held to be just by law are seen not to correspond with the concept of justice in actual practice, such laws are not really just; but wherever the laws have ceased to be advantageous because of a change in circumstances, in that case the laws were for that time just when they were advantageous for the mutual dealings of the citizens, and subsequently ceased to be just when they were no longer advantageous.

39. The man who best knows how to meet external threats makes into one family all the creatures he can; and those he can not, he at any rate does not treat as aliens; and where he finds even this impossible, he avoids all dealings, and, so far as is advantageous, excludes them from his life.

40. Those who possess the power to defend themselves against threats by their neighbors, being thus in possession of the surest guarantee of security, live the most pleasant life with one another; and their enjoyment of the fullest intimacy is such that if one of them dies prematurely, the others do not lament his death as though it called for pity.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Robert Heinlein "Starship Troopers" 1997

After world anarchy, order is restored by a government along the lines of the Roman Republic, or perhaps a better analogy would be modern Israel. Those who serve in the military earn "citizenship" and can vote. The rest who reside in this republic are perfectly free to bitch all they like. Then alien contact is made, and the aliens are not all that warm and fuzzy. Sex, politics, pacifism, war, ESP, personal growth and responsibility, Heinlein addresses it all. The book is a perennial favorite. Released uncut in 1987 it is reviewed here at Amazon. The movie version, criticized very unfairly upon its release for being "tits and fascism," was quite good, but disappointed some fans for leaving out much from the book. The spirit of the book adapted well to the movie. The movie is directed by Paul Verhoeven of Basic instict and Total Recall. It stars Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Michael Ironside and Neil Patrick Harris.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Loeb Classical Library

This definitive bilingual hardcover collection of classical Greek and Roman writers is an essential for the student of history, literature, politics, or philosophy. An example is Suetonius' Twelve Caesars upon which Robert Graves' historical fiction I, Claudius was largely based. Also available are such authors as Homer, Aristotle, Epictetus, Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, Aristophanes, Lucretius, Augustine and Xenophon, and literally hundreds of other foundational classical works. They can be found in large Borders and Barnes & Noble book stores or be ordered on-line, new or used.

The Essential Stoics and Epicureans

The following recommended Loeb Classical Library Editions are excellent reproductions of the original Greek or Latin manuscripts, in those languages, with original text on the left and the English translation on the right. The volumes average about $20 each. Links point to the appropriate volume at Amazon.

Diogenes Laertius' Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, Vols.I, & II

This Greek work, by the Epicurean historian, is the primary source for our knowledge of most philosophers up to the time of Epicurus, whose biography is the last and largest in the work. Other than fragments found elsewhere, Diogenes is the main source on Epicurus. The biographies often amount to mere sketches, but each philosopher's primary doctrines, original formulations, and remarkable sayings or accomplishments are given. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Diogenes' work is how it demonstrates that almost no modern issue in philosophy was not already known and debated over two millenia ago.

Lucretius De Rerum Natura "On the Nature of Things"

This work is considered one of the greatest literary accomplishments in Latin, as it is not only a treatise on natural history, but is set to classical Latin metrical form, a sort of scientific primer in verse. This work is the largest surviving Epicurean text. Lucretius' purpose was to provide a text which would help its readers understand nature enough not to suffer from suspicious fears. Given that experimental science was not a developed concept and that most of the work is based upon observation and speculation its sophistication is still striking. This text is not, however, essential in any ethical sense, and unless one is a devoté of Latin verse or the classics in general, this book might be better borrowed than bought.

Epictetus The Discourses, Vol. I & Vol. II, with Encheiridion

This Stoic work in Greek by a Roman Slave is perhaps the most impressive surviving ethical work of the Classic Era. Epictetus did not write the work, the lectures are recorded by Arrian from the school Epictetus founded after he had been freed and then expelled from Rome under the Emperor Domitian. At the end of the second volume is included the Encheiridion or "handbook" which contains as summary of the doctrines.

Marcus Aurelius The Meditations

This incredible work of one of the greatest and most tragic of Roman Emperors was written in his own hand, not in Latin, but in Greek. Containing much the same doctrines as Epictetus, the work is a shorter and more personal inspirational diary with brief remarks as well as longer passages. Marcus Aurelius has been fictionalized in movies such as Gladiator and Fall of the Roman Empire. Any student of history, philosophy or humanism should thrill to have this work in his own hands.

Friday, September 12, 2008

NEA Funds $1.3 Billion Poem

WASHINGTON—The National Endowment for the Arts announced Monday that it has begun construction on a $1.3 billion, 14-line lyric poem—its largest investment in the nation's aesthetic- industrial complex since the $850 million interpretive-dance budget of 1985.

"America's metaphors have become strained beyond recognition, our nation's verses are severely overwrought, and if one merely examines the internal logic of some of these archaic poems, they are in danger of completely falling apart," said the project's head stanza foreman Dana Gioia. "We need to make sure America's poems remain the biggest, best-designed, best-funded poems in the world."

Read more at the Onion.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Michael Crichton "State of Fear"

A series of deaths is traced to the toxin of the blue-ringed-octopus.

An MIT prodigy goes on an unexplained hiatus.

A playboy businessman donates $250,000 to an environmental fund, the check is deposited to buy war weapons.

A crew shows up to film hundreds of children drown in a flash flood, 30 minutes before rain begins to fall.

A cranky old professor interrupts a conference on the coming abrupt climate change disaster, calling the speakers "eco-pimps."

A movie star and "friend of the environment" learns the truth about cannibals.

The playboy is named NERF's "concerned citizen of the year," and after he turns down the environmentalism award, his Ferrari runs off the California highway.

State of Fear is 600pp of mystery, footnotes, beautiful women, fast-paced action, and parties where socialites who mouth ecochondriac slogans throw fits when their host asks them to explain exactly what they mean by what they say.

I give this book an unqualified positive recommendation.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Kerr Avon, Blake's 7's anti-Anti-Hero

"I have never understood why it should be necessary to become
irrational in order to prove that you care, or indeed why it should be
necessary to prove it at all."

Blake's 7, which ran on BBC1 from 1978 to 1981, was a groundbreaking science fiction show noted for stepping outside the normal narrative bounds of a television serial. The story of Blake, a political dissident, and his crew of ex-criminals on board a stolen alien ship, the Liberator, was sold to the network by Doctor Who writer and Dalek creator Terry Nation as "The Dirty Dozen" in space. The eponymous and stereotypical hero Roj Blake leaves the show half way through its run. Several of Blake's crew are killed off during the series. The character Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce, a glamorous dominatrix who rises to the rank of Supreme Commander and President of the Terran Foundation, literally steals the show (her character had been meant to appear in only one episode) becoming one of the best loved of all science fiction villains. And, significantly, the show is known for the character of Kerr Avon, played and developed by Paul Darrow, a computer expert and apparent lone wolf who comes to lead the Liberator's crew after Blake leaves the show.

Blake's 7 has been described as dark, cynical, amoral, and in effect, the anti-Star Trek. This reputation results in part from the over-the-top portrayal of Servalan by Jacqueline Pearce and in part from the death of members of the crew and many of the people whom they love and with whom they come in contact. But the main reason for this anti-heroic evaluation of the show lies in the rise of Kerr Avon, the brains of Blake's outfit, whom he replaces as the leader of the Liberator's crew in the third season. One reviewer says of Avon that "even though he is callous, and apparently without morals, he is still likable."

From the web:

"There's very few men that I would admit to loving as a heterosexual man. But I love Paul Darrow. I love this guy." -blackshogun77

"Avon is one of the few characters from TV sci-fi that actually really suggests what a person from a technological future might be like." -thregar

What are these morals which Avon supposedly lacks? Darrow explains that in order for one to have such an adventure show as Blake's 7, one has to have a "heroic" main character – one who is willing and even eager to put him self at risk to save others, whether from the evil oppressor, or, in the case of that oppressor, from himself. Being originally the second in command, the character of Avon was free to step outside that mold, serving as a check and a foil on Blake's willingness to sacrifice himself and the crew any time anyone needs help. In the episode Mission to Destiny, the Liberator's crew stumble upon a ship stopped dead in space, its crew, on a mission to save a planet from a plague, having been drugged and one of the crewmen murdered. Blake offers to ferry their vital cargo to the homeworld to stop the plague while volunteering to leave Avon behind to effect repairs. Avon quips that he doesn't care if the plague wipes out the planet – he's interested in solving the murder mystery as an intellectual challenge. In the episode The Keeper, Avon comes upon and destroys the ship of a Federation agent who has sworn to kill Blake and his crew. Blowing up the spacecraft with its crew unawares, he is criticized by a shipmate as having taken the easy way – to which he rationally asks, should he have given them a sporting chance? Every episode features this conflict between Avon and the rest of the crew, with him urging prudence and ruthlessness while they engage in naïve "chivalrous" acts.

Avon's long term goal is security from the pursuing agents of the malevolent Terran Federation. He tells Blake that the price of his cooperation is ultimate possession of the Liberator – the means to his security – once Blake's central mission to destroy the Federation's control center Star One has been accomplished. Avon is not driven by whim, self-sacrifice, fear or a desire to destroy. He values his own life and safety, and tries to act as much as possible on his own terms. He is not immoral. His actions are principled and value based – his principles and his values are simply not those of the crusading Blake and his followers.

Avon's self interested motivation does not lead to the dissolution of the story once Blake leaves the crew. Rather, instead of the writers having the convenience of a "hero" who actively seeks danger, they have a protagonist whom they have to put in dangerous situations to see how he will escape. This move from a fantasy type conflict where the hero seeks danger to a realistic conflict where the hero has to face a danger that finds him leads to better writing, not worse. Blake's leaving the show is the best thing that happens to it, moving it from a fairy tale of knights on quests to an adult drama with conflict between a self-aware hero and an enemy that would hound him until he is dead.

Much of the last two seasons revolves around the interactions between Servalan and Avon. Servalan is bright and ruthless. She pursues power as a means to control a universe she ultimately fears. She attempts to make alliance with and to seduce Avon, playing the femmefatale to a tee. But she is damaged goods, and Avon knows it. He does see her in some ways as his equal, and this allows the writers to maintain a witty sexual tension that gives the show suspense and zest. But, in the episode Orac, when offered the chance of alliance with the temptation of a kiss, he embraces Servalan only to grab her by the neck and throw her to the ground saying "Partnership? I'd be dead within a weak!"

Paul Darrow is an unusual thing in entertainment, an actor who not only thinks he has better ideas than a show's writers, but one who actually does. (Darrow was fast friends with Nation.) Darrow had been involved, after three decades, with a plan to reprise the show with himself as the only returning character. It is unfortunate that due to creative differences this fell threw. Luckily, Darrow speaks at length on the show in this recent three-part interview, available onYouTube:

Here is a compilation of Avon's finest moments:

A full list of episodes is available at Wikipedia. Most of the episodes are available in five installments of ten minutes each at YouTube.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Steven Pinker "The Stuff of Thought"

Who would have thought a psychology professor could do stand-up? Formerly a professor of psychology at MIT, Steven Pinker is not only such a good writer, but he is also such a dynamic and entertaining speaker that one can see why Harvard would want to acquire him for its faculty. How the Mind Works is perhaps his best work, addressing consciousness largely at the perceptual level. This current book approaches the mind from a physico-linguistic standpoint, dealing with words not primarily as tags for conceptual abstractions, but rather as mental nexuses which are processed physically in various parts of the brain. For example, he studies how expletives and other taboo words not only have objective referents as universals, but how they also tend to hijack our emotional circuits and, if we do not exert focused mental self-control, cause us to act as outraged mammals rather than rational animals. Read an excellent technical review of the work at Babel's Dawn blog by Edmund Blair Bolles - but keep in mind that the book is less technical in presentation than the review.

I cannot highly enough recommend Pinker's appearance on BookTV. The topic may sound difficult, yet Pinker is not only crystal clear, he is also laugh out loud funny. Click here to see him speek for 45 minutes, commercial free. If you watch the talk, you'll be sold on the book.

Here is Steven Pinker at the Authors@Google conference:

Monday, September 8, 2008

"The Morphodite" by M. A. Foster

Luto Pternam's Mask Factory manufactures shock troops and assassins to maintain the static totalitarian society of Lisagor on the Planet Oerlikon. His latest "creation" is a conditioned assassin with two unique abilities. The morphodite can initiate Change, a biochemical process that leads to regeneration and sex change. And this morphodite has a symbolic societal calculus that allows it to identify the keystone member of a society, whose removal will instigate catastrophic change. Half believing in his creation, Pternam looses him on Lisagor society, thinking that the chaos he will cause will lead to personal advantage. The morphodite, kidnapped and brainwashed, does his calculations, identifies the keystone individual, and sets loose forces that lead to revolution.

This book is extremely well written. The society is quite plausible. Characters are well developed. The hero does the best he can in his situation, refusing to initiate further force once his situation allows for a semi-peaceful existence. The concentration on sociological themes and the care with linguistic realism is reminiscent of Frank Herbert. Simplistic ad hoc moral dilemmas are not employed, rather, the hero acts with regret when necessary, according to the logic of the situation. Justice, while often cold-blooded and delayed, is done in the end. The writing is often wry and the language is formal, but this lends an authentic atmosphere to the Byzantine culture, into which the author put a lot of thought. The hero could seek power or revenge, but in the end, refuses to "rule."

I first read this book at 13 when it was published. Foster wrote two more books, which I have not read. They are reviewed under this title on Amazon. I have reread most of the fiction I have enjoyed over the years many times. I am happy to add this title to the list of books worth such attention.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Don La Fontaine "The Voice" 1940-2008

In a world without Don LaFontaine...

From Wikipedia:

Donald LaFontaine (August 26, 1940 – September 1, 2008) was an American voiceover artist famous for recording more than 5,000 movie trailers and hundreds of thousands of television commercials, network promotions, and video game trailers. His nicknames included "Thunder Throat" and "The Voice of God".[1] He became identified with the phrase "In a world…", which has been used in movie trailers so frequently that it has become a cliché. He parodied this cliché several times, most recently in a commercial for GEICO insurance.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Ronald Reagan "A Time for Choosing"

Here is an inspiring selection from Ronald Reagan's 1964 Speech "A Time for Choosing" available in full at American Rhetoric. My thanks to Teresa Summerlee Isanhart for bringing it to my attention.

A transcription of this excerpt:

...Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy "accommodation." And they say if we'll only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he'll forget his evil ways and learn to love us. All who oppose them are indicted as warmongers. They say we offer simple answers to complex problems. Well, perhaps there is a simple answer -- not an easy answer -- but simple: If you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based on what we know in our hearts is morally right.

We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now enslaved behind the Iron Curtain, "Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we're willing to make a deal with your slave masters." Alexander Hamilton said, "A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one." Now let's set the record straight. There's no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there's only one guaranteed way you can have peace -- and you can have it in the next second -- surrender.

Admittedly, there's a risk in any course we follow other than this, but every lesson of history tells us that the greater risk lies in appeasement, and this is the specter our well-meaning liberal friends refuse to face -- that their policy of accommodation is appeasement, and it gives no choice between peace and war, only between fight or surrender. If we continue to accommodate, continue to back and retreat, eventually we have to face the final demand -- the ultimatum. And what then -- when Nikita Khrushchev has told his people he knows what our answer will be? He has told them that we're retreating under the pressure of the Cold War, and someday when the time comes to deliver the final ultimatum, our surrender will be voluntary, because by that time we will have been weakened from within spiritually, morally, and economically. He believes this because from our side he's heard voices pleading for "peace at any price" or "better Red than dead," or as one commentator put it, he'd rather "live on his knees than die on his feet." And therein lies the road to war, because those voices don't speak for the rest of us.

You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery. If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin -- just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard 'round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn't die in vain. Where, then, is the road to peace? Well it's a simple answer after all.

You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, "There is a price we will not pay." "There is a point beyond which they must not advance." And this -- this is the meaning in the phrase of Barry Goldwater's "peace through strength." Winston Churchill said, "The destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we're spirits -- not animals." And he said, "There's something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty."

You and I have a rendezvous with destiny.

We'll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we'll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.

We will keep in mind and remember that Barry Goldwater has faith in us. He has faith that you and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny."

Friday, September 5, 2008

Dune 1984 (Extended Edition)

Starring: Kyle McLachlan, Francesca Annis, Jose Ferrer, Sian Phillips
Director: David Lynch

Dictators named Saddam and Vladimir, poisoning,assassination, suicide warriors and Jihad, a vital resource found only in dessert sands...sound familiar? But this is not from the headlines,but rather from Frank Herbert's classic novel Dune. Herbert was decades, if not milennia ahead of his time.

The 1984 release of the movie adaptation was long awaited, and a disappointment to many fans, suffering in many of the same ways that The Fountainhead did, as being too rich and too long a story for screen adaptation. Yet what did appear on screen in 1984 was faithful in large part to the spirit of the original novel.

Now an extended version, with some 40 minutes of footage cut from the original is available as an import or from NETFLIX in all DVD formats.

This release begins with some exposition done by charcoal storyboard, and there is narration which could have either been better done or omitted. But the added visuals and the cut-out plot elements will make this version a must-see for anyone who enjoyed the original.

The care that was put into designing the sets for the interior shots, done by H.R.Giger of Aliens fame, is wonderful. Much of this was lost from the original theatrical release. Likewise, the extra-widescreen version of this release makes the viewing experience much more enjoyable.

If you liked the first release with all its flaws, this is a must-see.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Hew Strachan "The First World War" DVD Set

While Americans tend to see WWII as the seminal event of the last century, in actuality, it is merely one of the many events set in motion by the true great tragedy of our age, the Great War.

This ten hour video series, available on DVD or airing on the Military Channel, is a splendid introduction to the facts and the reasons behind the facts of the First World War.

In many ways, the issues that broke loose in the conflict of the First World War are issues that fester today - Balkan nationalism, Russian corruption and self-doubt, the fall of old powers and the rise of new. This war drew lines in the sand of the Middle East which vex us today.

This series is incredibly written, dramatically portrayed, assumes no great knowledge of the subject, yet provides a deep analysis of deeper causes. Moving pictures and color images from around the world make this truly global disaster personal and immediate. I cannot recommend this lesson in history highly enough.

Here is Episode 10, War Without End, on YouTube.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Umberto Eco "The Name of the Rose"

Upon rereading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose I am struck by the obvious influence of Jorge Luis Borges on the work. When I first read the book in 1984 I was not aware of Borges, and had only just put down my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. The book itself is presented, in Borgesian manner, as a reconstructed text based upon a partial translation of a now lost and otherwise undocumented manuscript from the late Middle Ages. The plot concerns the investigation of a murder mystery set in a fictional monastery renowned for its unique library, the largest collection of books in Christian Europe, supposedly holding works of Aristotle lost to modernity. The characters are primarily scribes or other intellectuals. Yet, unlike much of Borges' esoteric works, this novel is not merely a curiosity, an intellectual insider's joke, but a true intellectual adventure story rewarding on many levels.

The hero, William of Baskerville, a Franciscan brother, is a champion of reason who has abandoned his position with the inquisition. He saw that institution not as a means of pursuing the truth, but as the use of force to compel confessions, which, even when they implicate guilty parties, are an affront to God's justice and his gift to man of the intellect. Brother William is a follower of Thomas Aquinas, a student of Roger Bacon, and a proponent of the scientific method, although he does not, of course, explicitly identify his investigations as such.

The story is told in retrospect by the Benedictine monk Adso of Melk. At the time of the story Adso was in his teens but he writes his tale as a dying man who promises to "tell the facts without interpretation" so that the signs he conveys will speak for themselves, allowing other wiser men in the future to draw their own interpretations. Adso is a mystic, and not an intellectual, but he admires William as a sincere instrument of justice, better than he.

The novel is steeped in the intricacies of pre-reformation Catholic theology; the debates among the great Scholastic thinkers such as Abelard, Occam, Duns Scotus and the other thinkers at the universities of Paris and Oxford, the details of monastic life, the methods of copying and illuminating texts, the herbal lore of the high mediaeval period, the particulars of numerology and its place even in architectural symbolism, and of course, as one would expect in the tradition of Borges, a great deal of irony, symbolism, abstruse academic references, and the ever present contrast between substance and form, essence and accident, genus and species, and exemplar and type. We hear Latin on most every page, verse and speech in Middle English, and contemporary German, French, Italian, Spanish and Provencal. One character, Salvatore, is so deformed that not only does he physically resemble a monster sewn together from the parts of different corpses, his speech is an almost unintelligible farrago of words from Latin and all the vernacular tongues which he has encountered. Listening to him can be as fascinating (or as disconcerting) as listening to a conversation on the NYC subway between a mixed family of a Puerto Rican and an Orthodox Russian Jew whose children go to public school - English, Spanish, Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew and Ebonics all in one sentence.

Adso himself religiously promises on the first page of his memoirs not to relay "mere" visual details such as the expressions of speakers or the appearance of their faces, as they "will be long dead" by the time we read his description of events. This is an ironic promise which, thankfully for us, he breaks almost immediately. While some of the descriptions of architectural, sacrimonial and mythological details can become tedious, the book is visually vivid and his concretizations make the setting and characterizations immediate and lifelike.

While the murder mystery is the prime mover of the story, it serves as an excuse for many interesting digressions: lengthy discussions of Papal, local and Imperial politics, the details of everyday monastic life, not only spiritual, but also scribal and mundane, such as the details of animal slaughter and food preparation; the tensions between various factions within the Church advocating poverty versus temporal power, faith versus reason, tradition and the new learning, the tensions between the old feudal political and economic power of the monastic centers and the Pope versus the rising market power of the new trade centers and the monetary power of the princes.

Much of the content of this amazing and brilliant work is religious, specifically Catholic in substance. There is lengthy examination of religious themes such as temptation, sin, and penitence, the nature of God and Satan, heaven and hell, prophesy, heresy, schism and persecution, the Antichrist and the Second Coming and personal salvation through works and grace. This contemplation is counterposed to the main action of the hero, a true scholar and scientist who uses reason and observation, not suspicion and circular justifications, to solve his mystery and save much more.

This book has been made into a very satisfying movie. Yet, as with any great work of art, its adaptation into that medium has required that much be simplified, reduced or omitted. The movie retains the bare bones of the actual murder mystery, and makes Adso's love interest (Adso was Christian Slater's first movie role) much more important than in the novel. On film, cliche often replaces depth. In the novel, the first charcter to die is a young initiate who has had a homosexual encounter with another initiate. In the movie he is not, as in the book, seduced by another young man, but by an obese, leering old lecher. While the movie is a few hours diversion, this novel is an engrossing immersion in and education about a world of which many of us know little, but a world which is much closer in time than one might think. In a fictional monastery in the mountains of Italy in an age which many call dark we literally see the power of reason, the place of philosophy, and the fight of men of good will to preserve the light amidst that darkness.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Kim Novak in "Bell, Book & Candle"

This 1958 romantic comedy stars Kim Novak as a witch in modern Manhattan who does the one thing a witch must not do, fall in love with a mortal. This light-hearted work is one of Novak's best, although her romantic lead, Jimmy Stewart, is poorly cast for the part.

Novak's Gillian Holroyd has heard of the old wives' tales that say a witch can't ever cry, or fall in love, without losing her powers. After a whirlwind romance with Stewart, Novak finds out that this time it's more than just a case of "hot blood," it's for real. Ernie Kovacs, a hack writer and drunk who thinks he knows about witchcraft is initiated into the "lifestyle" by Novak's brother, played by Jack Lemmon. The movie is visually lush and features Novak at her most alluring. The nightclub encounter where Novak steals Stewart out from under his fiancée's nose is a classic, a barefoot Novak at her best. Camille Paglia has described the movie, which she sees as a metaphor for the hidden love lives of the homosexuals of the 1950's, as one of her all-time favorites. This light-hearted fantasy pleases on many levels, and bears repeated viewings.

This not-very-impressive trailer undersells the movie, but I'll include it in any case.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Servalan "There are no women like me."

The BBC science fiction series Blake's 7, which ran from 1978 to 1981, remains a cult classic. Pitched by Doctor Who writer and Dalek inventor Terry Nation as "The Dirty Dozen" in space, the series follows the adventures of a crew of criminals on the run from a totalitarian "Terran Federation" on a stolen alien ship, the Liberator. Renowned for its unconventional nature, the show occasionaly kills off characters. The political dissident title character, Roj Blake, (Gareth Thomas) an often foolhardy do-gooder, faces resistance from his crew, primarily from Kerr Avon, (Paul Darrow) a computer expert who counsels discretion and self-preservation above sacrificial gestures. Blake leaves the series half way through, leaving Avon in charge of the crew. Avon and the Liberator crew battle one of the most notable villians in science fiction, the ever fashionable Servalan, (Jacqueline Pearce) Supreme Commander of the Terran Federation. Pearce, with her sultry over-the-top delivery and her trademark crewcut has a cult following of her own.

Like Doctor Who, Blake's 7 is not known for its lavish production. The series is often referred to as "Blakes 7" (no apostrophe) since this was omitted from the opening title, if not from the script. There are no Daleks. The set designers never seem to have had that much ambition. The show relies on complex story arcs, campy costumes, tensions between the crew, and sexual tension between Servalan and her henchmen (as well as with the series true "hero" Kerr Avon) and on witty dialog to maintain interest. Given the show's continuing popularity after three decades, it seems they succeeded.

Here are two fan compilations of Servalan's best moments available on YouTube:

Servalan Compilation 1 of 2

Servalan Compilation 2 of 2