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“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Paranormal Activities--a Little Too Normal

As someone who will probably never own a monster-size TV, I make a point of getting to the theater at least once every October for a scary movie on the big screen. I've watched the likes of "Frailty," "Skeleton Key," "Event Horizon," and "Slither" at home, but there's nothing like the sound and the fury of being in a theater for the full experience.

This year the movie to see is "Paranormal Activity," which has been called a "Blair Witch" in suburbia. The intended effect is definitely verisimilitude, as the film opens and ends with nary a credit, and consists entirely of the high-tech home camera recordings of Micah, the boyfriend of the demonically haunted Katie. (Micah and Katie are the real names of the actors.)

The couple are entirely believable--I feel like I know people just like them--if not altogether likable. And the plot unfolds gradually in an effort to maintain credibility by easing into the crazier scenes. (Spoiler alert!) It turns out Micah has bought the camera because some weird noises have been waking them up, and it emerges that Katie has been dealing with hauntings since she was eight years old. This latter tidbit affords Micah the leverage he needs to convince her he has a right to keep filming when she'd just as soon stop trying to catch the phenomena on tape. Micah's experimental attitude becomes a source of tension, especially when he brings home a Ouija Board, a course of action specifically mentioned by a psychic as one to be avoided, as it would just further provoke the entity.

The psychic is an interesting element. Katie calls him to the house, despite Micah's skepticism, because she is genuinely frightened by the strange occurrences. During his first visit, he establishes that the entity is not a ghost, as in the spirit of a dead human, but rather a demon. Because his specialty is ghosts, he refers the couple to another expert. Psychics referring out to specialists strikes me as a novel idea, and in the event it probably would about scare the piss out of me. Unfortunately, the demonologist is out of town.

The nighttime occurrences get more outrageous, the tension between the couple gets worse, and no one gets any sleep. The film-makers use a foreshadowing approach to making the supernatural scenes credible, so one night the camera records the blanket being pulled off of Katie's foot in preparation for the next night in which she's pulled off the bed by that same foot and dragged down the hall. As things are at this point completely out of hand, the psychic is called back. This time however he barely sets foot inside the door, so overwhelming is the demonic presence. He flees explaining that his being there will only make the demon angry.

"Paranormal Activity" had me for a while--I was in suspense and startle-ready. But over time the foreshadowing technique, which had the intensity of the demon's machinations increasing night-by-night, got tedious, so that by the final few night vision scenes my heart rate was back to normal. The height of the movie's effectiveness for me was when Micah poured baby powder all over the top of the stairs, and this allowed the couple to discover that the demon, which had three-toes like a bird or a dinosaur, had entered their room--but never left. Soon after this scene though the movie got into some very familiar territory.

The Ouija board, on its own, spelled out the name of a woman who was possessed, apparently by the same demon haunting Katie. Micah discovered her story on the Internet. This woman, Diane, died in the course of an attempted exorcism. I don't need to mention the name of the movie this brought to mind. Up to this point, there's been little by way of special effects too. But by the end we get a look at the possessed Katie making jerky motions, her face demonically distorted, and inhuman sounds coming from her. At every use of these digital effects, I was cast further out of the story. When the demonic Katie eventually screams to lure Micah downstairs, where she murders him, and the audience is allowed to discover what's happened only when his body flies back up the stairs and collides with the camera, well, I shook my head and thought about how unfortunate it was that a movie that could have been great had it exercised the discipline to maintain its subtlety throughout went too far and ruined the effect.

There was a lot of to-do about "The Blair Witch Project" for the back story, the Sci-Fi channel documentary and the website, all of which had many viewers believing they were seeing real footage of the actors' demise. I think these bells and whistles over time have diminished what is actually a really good movie; people forgot how good it was because it was "disproved." But I compare the ending of that movie with "Paranormal Activity" and find the latter wanting.

Of course, then I get home, find my girlfriend asleep on the couch, go into our bedroom, which is lit by these damn energy-saving green nightlights she bought so it looks exactly like the night vision scenes in the movie, and try to sleep as I notice a clicking noise under my bed. A cord? No. A cat? Both are on the bed. Wtf?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Edgar Allan Poe Doesn't Like You

Well, it's October, and I'm reminded of a 20-page paper I wrote all the way back in the spring semester about Poe. (Seriously, that's a long time to be thinking about a paper.) It's not very often that you have the chance to make any actual discoveries when you're researching papers in English (or any other topics for that matter). But I came up with something new--as far as I can tell.

Before you read any further, you have to have read "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Cask of Amontillado" to really understand what I'm about to write. If you haven't read them get cracking here.

Now, a lot of the murders that take place in Poe stories seem to have little or no motive. The conventional way to account for this is to conclude the murderers are simply insane, or that their motives are unconscious. But, knowing as we do that psychoanalysis is worthless pseudoscience, and that Poe predated Freud, we might want better answers. The stories above are listed in the order in which they were written, and I suggest there's a progression. In "Tell-Tale," the murder victim is an old man who is killed because of his one staring eye. In "Black Cat," the victims are a one-eyed cat (whose loss of the other eye makes a dual victim) and the murderer's/narrator's wife. The only thing mentioned about the victim in "Imp" is that he was fond of reading by candlelight. And Fortunato in "Amontillado" is a rich drunk guy who gets killed because he treats Montressor contemptuously.

The key to unlocking the true victim of Poe's aggression comes from an examination of these victims' names--or rather, the two of them that Poe's deigns to give names. One of course is Fortunato, which is pretty suggestive in itself. The other belongs to the hapless cat, Pluto. Now, most readers with any knowledge of mythology at all see the name Pluto and think, ah, the god of the underworld. Poe's a creepy guy so in this horror story it only fits that a cat would have a name vaguely associated with Hell. But Pluto--or Dis--has been tied to wealth throughout history. In Dante's Inferno, for instance, Fortuna and Plutus (actually a separate deity but often conflated) are in the fourth circle guarding the avaricious and prodigal. Even the name Pluto translates to "wealth-giver."

The old man in "Tell-Tale" looks at the narrator with only one eye because he's half blind. Poe intended much of his work as satire, but his readers constantly mistook his work for what it was designed to parody. The old man only saw the horror story, and was blind to the joke. The cat, Pluto, is likewise a stand-in for Poe's half blind readership, on whom he depends for his wealth. That's why in trying to kill the cat all the narrator manages to do is kill his wife. (Poe's wife had TB, and he agonized over the shabby, unheated rooms his poverty relegated them to.) Notice in all these stories, the narrator can't help bragging about how brilliantly he planned and executed the murders--only to be found out later by some supernatural means. The dead reader in "Imp" is pretty self-explanatory, and is possibly a reference to the symbolic murder in "Black Cat." And then there's Montressor, who tells his story several years after committing the crime, because he's sure now he won't be caught--no one at that point in Poe's life had broken his coded message, and he had little confidence anyone would.

So when it seems like Poe is going over the top, as silly critics like Harold Bloom take him to task for doing, keep in mind he's doing it deliberately. He's expecting to be taken only half seriously. And if you never picked up on this he'd just as soon bury an ax in your stupid skull and leave you walled up in some cellar, never to be found.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Man from Earth

"The Man from Earth" is one of those out-of-the way movies you're lucky if you ever hear of. When my girlfriend's coworker started telling me about it, my mind went first to "The Selfish Gene," in which I remember Dawkins discussing Peter Medawar's point that aging can be seen as a genetic illness (pages 40-1, in the edition I stole from my brother), and then to the "Highlander" movies and TV series. I went to Blockbuster that same night to rent it, but, despite being able to confirm a movie of that title existed, the clerks told me none of the stores in town carried it. Naturally, at this point I wanted to see it even more, so I ordered it from Amazon (where I see it has inexplicably gone up in price by more than two dollars since I ordered it).

When the coworker heard how excited I was about the movie, he tried to lower my expectations. It isn't a big Hollywood movie, there's no explosions, and it's really no more than a bunch of people sitting around talking. A thoughtful sci-fi movie, based on a screenplay by a guy who wrote for "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone" (Jerome Bixby, who supposedly wrote it on his deathbed), with no Hollywoodism, well, now I wanted to see it even more. I did, however, take his point that my expectations shouldn't be too high regarding the acting, directing, and editing.

Finally watching the movie, I was immediately annoyed by the character Harry (John Billingsley) and had a moment of panic, thinking he might be signalling how hokey the rest of the movie would be. Fortunately, that moment passed pretty quickly as Harry was made to tone down his obnoxiousness by the gravity of the conversation. Harry is a biology professor, who along with an anthropologist, an archeologist, and a couple of other academics, has dropped in on John Oldman, a history professor who has just skipped out on his own going away party at the university in Arizona where they all work. Right away, it is clear that John has something on his mind, and his colleagues, sensing this, encourage him to explain why he's leaving his job, especially in light of his being in line for chair of the history department.

John, after some resistance, poses a hypothetical question: what would a Cro-Magnon man from the Magdalenian be like if he were alive today? Dan (Tony Todd), the anthropologist, takes it as a prompt to an intellectual exercise--perhaps inspired by John wanting to write story along the same lines. But before long, John is claiming to have been around to refuse setting sail with Columbus because he feared falling off the edge of the world. The plot progresses as John's colleagues try to figure out if he's psychotic, playing a game with them, or telling the truth. Meanwhile, he goes on telling them about his experiences.

Harry, being the biologist, provides one possible answer to how this type of immortality could occur. Unlike Dawkins, who writes that, "A gene that is lethal in an older body may still be successful in the gene pool, provided its lethal effect does not show itself until after the body has had time to do at least some reproducing" (40), he focuses on the role of the immune system, suggesting that aging is somehow a gradual accumulation of regenerative or immune failures. The mechanism underlying John's immortality isn't very important to the plot, but somehow just mentioning it puts "The Man from Earth" in a different category than "Highlander."

"Highlander" is really just a James Bond fantasy: a guy who knows enough to put everyone else to shame. Though I still like that Duncan and Connor spent eternity training and reading rather than running for office or playing video games, the wish-fulfillment of the premise is too overwhelming to take the stories seriously. Witness the success rate of the McLeod boys when it came to wooing women. John Oldman, on the other hand, spends a significant portion of his last moments with his friends stressing how little he knows.

And that is one of the most serendipitous elements of the plot, the tension arising from the fact that there is simply no way for John to prove what he's saying. He's forgotten much of what he's known in course of 14 thousand years. And what he does know he could have learned from any number of books. Of course, Harry wants to take him to a lab, but John is leery lest he get stuck there. John says he met another immortal only one time in all his life, and they both doubted whether the other was telling the truth. So, while "Highlander" somewhat absurdly suggested there could be immortals all around and we wouldn't know it, "Man from Earth" shows that even if they weren't trying to remain incognito, we still wouldn't know about them.

We wouldn't know, that is, unless we knew them long enough to see that they didn't age. John claims that he "moves on" from wherever he is and whatever he's doing every ten years to avoid just this eventuality. For most of us, this would be difficult, but as he tells his girlfriend Sandy, "I've gotten over it too many times." Time feels different to John because he's had so long to habituate to its passing. All of this provides great fodder for conversation among the highly educated gathering, but then comes the big twist; John was Jesus.

Having studied with the Buddha, he figured Rome could use a little Buddhism and got crucified for his trouble--but with ropes, which "don't make as good of religious symbols as nails." Now, he's pretty hostile to Christianity, which has little to do with what he originally tried to teach. "The mythical overlay," as he calls it, has completely distorted what actually happened. Sure enough, Edith (Ellen Crawford), whose specialty is never mentioned, takes issue with the sacrilege and adds another layer to what the groups sees as John's sadism in stringing them along--even as they enjoy the unfolding story.

This part of the movie could have easily gotten really hokey--everyone with a story of past lives knows Napoleon or some other significant historical figure--but because of Edith's resistance, and John's constant downplaying of the importance of what he did, it proves thought-provoking. Who's ever thought of a caveman Jesus?

And that's what I found so satisfying about the movie: it's really just the working out of an idea through skeptical but open-minded and educated conversation. It has its dramatic moments, but I for came away with much the same feeling I have when I've just had a conversation of my own with a similar group of friends.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Ardi brings up an important question: since his skeleton is 1.2 million years older than Lucy, does this mean I need to get a new tattoo?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ardi: One Sick Ape

It's exciting times for paleoanthropologists, what with the new skeleton of ardipithecus ramidus unveiled and described in Science. So, allow me to preempt the Intelligent Design reporters by spoofing them:

Paleoanthropologists are frankly baffled by the find. In their search for the famous missing link between humans and chimpanzees, it seems they've been frustrated yet again. Ardipithicus Ramidus, even though it's supposedly more than a million years older than the famed Australopithecus Lucy, doesn't look at all chimp-like. In fact, analysis of the bones of its hand suggest that they would have been poorly suited for the type of locomotion typical of chimpanzees called knuckle-dragging.

What's most striking about the reports of this new find is that the researchers never for a moment entertain the possibility that what they have on their hands is in fact not a human ancestor, even though it falls so far outside of the schemes they themselves have been putting forth since Darwin of how human evolution is supposed to have occurred. Could this single skeleton merely be an ape wracked by some sort of pathology? And in light of what happened at Piltdown we must also ask, could this be a hoax?

I hope I don't have to explain to anyone reading this post that humans didn't evolve from chimps but rather both evolved from a common ancestor. Knuckle-walking, it seems, evolved in chimps after our species went their own separate evolutionary ways. The Piltdown Hoax was 97 years ago. And fragments from several individuals were found.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Tribalism vs Morality?

I have defined tribalism as consisting of two dynamics: intense, dehumanizing competition between groups, and intense competition for status within group hierarchies. I then went on to identify the first of these dynamics as a recurrent theme in populist conservatism. Conservatives demonstrate tribal aggressiveness ("It's us versus them and we're better") in their positions on foreign policy (Hawks!), immigration, gun control, and, I would argue, even in economic policy.

"I don't want my tax dollars going to assholes who refuse to work," is the mantra, which begs questions about those who can't work, lack the education to get a decent job, work but don't make enough to support themselves and their families, work but go bankrupt because of medical expenses, and on and on. Conservative economic thinking is tribal because it reduces the population of the country to two categories, the deserving and the undeserving, and shows an inhuman lack of empathy toward the group to which the conservatives are sure they don't belong.

But what about the other dynamic? Where, if anywhere, does hierarchy come into play in populist conservative thought? A recent study carried out by Daniel C. Wisneski, Brad L. Lytle, and Lind J. Skitka attempted to prise apart the roles of religiosity and moral conviction in determining attitudes toward authority. They discovered something surprising: highly religious people tend to be more trusting of authority, while people claiming to have strong moral convictions tend to automatically distrust authority. The surprise was that religiosity and moral conviction don't go hand-in-hand, and, in this study, weren't even related. Now, this is one study, and it was based on attitudes to a specific authority, namely the Supreme Court, in regard to a specific issue, physician assisted suicide. But the results, especially the fact that people who were religious didn't claim to have strong moral convictions, is suggestive.

Euthanasia and abortion are issues that can't be seen in terms of outgroup hostility. But, if the conservative position on them is based on authority, i.e. the dictates handed down from those atop the hierarchy, then we're still dealing with tribalism. I say if because although this study is suggestive we still have to reserve judgment. And it's possible to identify the tribalism inherent in conservatism even if we allow for a couple of exceptions. But still, it's telling that opposition to abortion and euthanasia are so inextricably tied to Christianity, with its big alpha in the sky, who alone has the authority to decide on matters of life and death. Are there any non-religious groups who are anti-abortion?