Incidents in the Life


A student was telling me about something "only our class knows".  In the middle, one of her classmates came up, overheard, and started panicking.  "What do we know?  I don't know what we know!"  I managed not to laugh.

Diminishing Returns

A chain clothier is advertising 4-for-1 suits for their "valued customers", aka people who got on their email list by buying something from them once.  Which I suppose is a good deal - but I don't need or want even one suit.  I already have two!

Nature vs. Nurture

I turned on the radio, on my drive home, in the middle of the second movement of Brahms' 1st Symphony.  Much to my chagrin, it took me a couple minutes to determine whether the composer was Brahms, Beethoven, or possibly Dvorak; I then failed to remember whether it was the 1st or 3rd symphony until the third movement began.  I suppose this is a silly thing to worry about, but the way I was raised I should have known it practically in my sleep.  (Not a silly thing to worry about: I apparently don't have a recording of any of Brahms' symphonies.  I am really quite confused as to how this could have happened.)


Review - Prometheus

Fans of previous Alien-franchise movies seem to be widely disappointed with this prequel, and I can make a guess why.  It is not really a horror-suspense film like Alien, or a basically straight up action movie like (I gather) the near-equally acclaimed Aliens.  In fact from what I can make out from vague memories of Alien (the only one I've seen) and recaps of other films, Prometheus has little to do with the franchise apart from being set it the same 'verse and featuring a Plucky Female Lead.  Calling it a "prequel" may even be misleading because I am fairly certain the events depicted in Prometheus virtually guarantee a continuity screw-up somewhere, if only in terms of what characters ought to have known "later".  So, for someone invested in the franchise, I can see lots of issues coming up.

Considered as a film standing on its own, though, it is a good one.  The only major problem is the final scene, which is an unnecessary continuity nod.  The visuals are superb; the scenario is intriguing; the conflicts are carefully set out; the resolution follows relatively well from the premises.  On the downside, the movie is disjointed in places, and will likely not be winning any awards (especially with Avengers coming out this year, unless we still have awards people insist on only giving to "serious movies").  Apart from the leads much of the acting is adequate only.  I would not be surprised to find out production was rushed: the end of the film relies more on impression than polish.  It also feels rushed, and I cannot tell whether this was an artistic choice to communicate characters' emotions, or forced on the director to wrap up in time.  If the former, it is less than entirely successful.

I consider my $11.50 well spent (and the extra four dollars to see the 3D likely would have been worth it), and would probably give the film an overall B or B-.

[Here There Be Spoilers]

The conflict in Prometheus really does not have anything to do with the aliens or the scientist's "Engineer" hypothesis.  The movie, in my interpretation, really follows the different reactions of Dr. Shaw, human archeologist, and David, android linguistics expert, to the unfolding discoveries and then disaster.  David, in fact, seems to sabotage the operation, whether from curiosity or malice - revenge?  Shaw is an odd combination of curiosity, determination, and faith - seemingly unable to see past the questions she wants answered, but also capable enough to be the only survivor.

The unfolding horror element of the film is a scenario, a setting to watch reactions.  A disturbing setting, which overshadows some of the more thoughtful elements and makes them lose their punch, unfortunately: fewer special effects and more "character time" would have improved the movie, if I am reading it correctly.  The movie seems to set out to explore the question, "What does it mean to create, or be created?" - but even though the discoveries overwhelm the philosophy, I do not think the intended message is, "Let well enough alone," as attested by the end: continue the search.

The plot, here, concludes; but the questions remain.  I find myself intrigued by this film, but unable to say exactly what my question is, even.


Words With the Meaning Removed

"[FDR] knew that fascism is capitalism without boundaries, that both fascism and communism (with a small "c") are apolitical, and that economics trumps politics every time."
- Bonnie Blodgett for the Twin Cities Star-Tribune
First, let me admit that Blodget does have the right of the case, in material terms, in one particular.  She has figured out that "reckless spending at all levels of society" is largely to blame for the current fiscal problems and credit crunch.  The bubble always bursts.

You would think this would probably make her a Tea Partier - but you would apparently be very, very, wrong.  Actually cut spending?  Maybe reduce taxes to encourage the economy when the spending cuts start making us able to afford it?

Nope: Blodgett just wants to hammer "the [Republican] elite" some more.  After all, if it was not for their "spin", everyone would know overspending is bad.  (Again, I do not want to be too hard on her, because it sounds like she really would make a good Tea Partier if she had any idea what the current argument was actually about.  Her factual deductions are reasonable, but her causes are wildly misunderstood.  The temptation is to blame "the mainstream media", but since my acquaintance with CNN is maybe monthly 10-minute segments at McDonald's, and any other television even less, I would be talking about I-know-not-what.)

But the real problem here, as cited at the top of this piece, is that Blodgett has no idea what her vocabulary means.  Facism as apolitical?  Name the world's three most (in)famous facists: that would be, yes, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco.  Facism is not just political but overwhelmingly political.  It is totalitarian; it is total control.

Communism can claim to be apolitical in final goals; but it would be more accurate to call even that goal anti-political.  And in the reality, outside of small communes (largely protected by the rule of law imposed by traditional societies) or the interactions of families and friends, communism has never attained to any "height" beyond socialism - to the point where the two in practical terms are synonymous, though conceptually different.  Socialism, as I used to assume everyone knew, means the state has control of the means of production (either by ownership or heavy regulation).  Anything that involves the state is political by necessity and definition.

Capitalism, on the other hand is only incidentally political.  Of course it is more comfortable and possible in some political climates than others, but a capitalist, considered only as a "capitalist" and thus speaking only with regard to the economy, is unconcerned by anything about government that does not affect his market; I suppose this does make him a bit heartless but it does not make him particularly political.  But in conversation, on the one hand, "capitalism" is (mostly Leftist) short-hand for "people who are more successful than I think they ought to be", or sometimes, "not paying me what I think you should".  (Okay, I guess maybe it is more commonly, "You don't pay that guy what I think you should.")  On the other hand, we use the word capitalism more technically to refer to the system of a free market which is essentially unregulated.  Of course, this means a capitalist economist will stand against, politically, socialism, fascism, mercantilism, etc. - any system designed as or with elements of a "command economy".  A capitalist is therefore likely to support some political views and reject others.

What one real problem is, of course, is so-called "crony capitalism", where the businessman goes to Washington to get regulations passed that favor him, or to pull down contracts by quietly greasing palms.  This practice is apparently as old as civilization itself - but it is worth pointing out that in a deregulated market it would be nearly entirely pointless.  "This legislation would really help my business, and I'm carefully not mentioning that it would hurt my competitor."  "And you want us to regulate the market why?"

Blodgett ends up blaming risky finance not on, for example, government regulations enforcing and subsidizing cheap loans, but on "deregulation".  She talks about rises in campaign spending, but does not ask who is spending, or on whom.  "Economics trumps politics", she says, while protesting that the economics winning the political argument are bad economics, "reckless spending".  She clearly is looking to beat up on the crony capitalists, but does not realize how the environment of regulation enables interference with governance (after all, the government started the interference first).

Off the soapbox.  What I am trying to point out here is that even trying to analyze this piece is almost pointless.  The words are misdefined and then misused even in their redefinitions; isolated examples and broad generalizations are used to evoke a worldview, rather than an argument; logic is attempted but muddled beyond recognition.  I am sure there are better examples, maybe even good examples, of writing making a similar point, if I only knew for sure what the point was.  There are probably equally horrible examples of work attempting to make an opposite case.  But my point is that this column of gibberish got published, and that fact means that American journalism, particularly the Star-Tribune, ought to be ashamed of itself.


Notes from a Concert

Last night I went to the NSO concert, which began with Berlioz' "Roman Carnival" overture and featured the Cello Concerto in D minor by Lalo (recordings at the link are filed by composer's name).  But the "second act", and the real reason I went, was the performance of the 5th Symphony of Tchaikovsky, of which I will speak in glowing terms to any and all interested or uninterested parties.

The Berlioz was a typical Berlioz piece: which is to say, beginning (fairly) quietly, dramatic in spades, and carrying an air of being unfinished: perpetually in action and therefore incomplete.  Given a hint from Barzun's biography of the composer, I have been noticing that Berlioz' work often features the flute, his own instrument, prominently; much more prominently than I would have suspected from his violently romantic reputation, as I tend to think of the flute as a more sedate instrument.

The cello concerto I had not heard before; in fact I am completely unfamiliar with Lalo's work apart from his famous Symphonie Espagnole, otherwise known as "one of the staples of the violin concerto repertoire".  Like the Symphonie, the cello concerto features the solo instrument prominently, being in fact almost entirely cello-with-accompaniment, a thing in my knowledge more common in shorter sonata works.  While a solid piece, I did not find it particularly striking.  The third movement features a slow introduction leading to a fast and elaborate conclusion, but it seemed to me poorly handled: whether the composer or the interpretation was to blame is beyond me right now.  Since I haven't bothered to go find five other recordings to listen to, that is.  At any rate, the concerto's chief claim to fame seems to be in being one of the first concerti written for the cello.

Tchaikovsky's 5th is my favorite symphonic work.  I do not say it is the best; even the composer's own 4th is, I think, more technically excellent.  Other composers mastered the expectations of the form in its Beethovian re-incarnation much better: Beethoven himself, of course; Brahams despite his humility; maybe others.  Others, pre-eminently Mahler, took the form in other directions consciously, rather than emulating Tchaikovsky's habit of writing unusual third movements, so the story goes, not for artistic reasons but because he was never happy with his scherzos.  At any rate this performance was excellent, despite the unfortunate oboe player who decided to test his reed during a rest.  The only particular note I will make is that, hearing the performance live for the first time - and this after the Lalo concerto - I noticed that the first movement of the symphony is practically a bassoon concerto: the instrument gets little rest and is featured prominently.

In fact the performance, perhaps partly due to being the last of the weekend, earned a standing ovation which provoked a double encore; the first was - I believe but am not sure - a part of Georges Enescu's 1st Romanian Rhapsody - the fast part at the end, of course, but the whole is good.  The second was Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Thunder and Lightning Polka - a childhood favorite!