Minimalist Readings With Chuck

Yesterday I was skimming through Chuck Palahniuk’s Nonfiction when I came across him mentioning his two favorite short stories. The first, he said, was Mark Richard’s “Strays,” but I can’t seem to find it online anywhere. But in searching I came across someone else who said their favorite short story of all time was Richard’s “The Birds for Christmas,” which is actually online and is, in fact, quite good.

Chuck’s other favorite short story is one by Amy Hempel entitled “The Harvest.” I wish I could remember more about what Chuck said about these stories, but I do remember that he loved Hempel’s first line: “The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” You can read the rest here. So there you go: as they say down South, “Two stories a day keeps the swine flu away.”

Yanks in Yangon

Last week my father & I made a quick two-day jaunt to Myanmar to visit some local pastors and see their seminary in Yangon. It was a bit of a shock going from Bangkok to Yangon, a city which feels about 30 years behind the times (LCD TV stores notwithstanding). I couldn’t shake the feeling that TinTin would show up soon and reveal the mysteries hidden in the pagodas and markets.

We did most our sightseeing on the day we arrived; most notable was a trip to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, which is just one part of an enormous Buddhist temple complex. It felt like 50% of the entire country’s wealth was contained there. It cost us $6 each to get in, but I think locals go free so there were a lot of people just sitting around, napping, eating lunch, etc.

I should’ve expected this, but I was still surprised at how much Yangon is influenced by India. We celebrated this fact on the last night by eating at a massive hotel buffet that featured Indian cuisine. Plus I snuck in a bit of sushi and an eclair. Otherwise, Indian.

Photos of the trip (mostly featuring Shwedagon) can be found on Flickr.

There was a lot of downtime between engagements with the pastors & students so I spent a lot of hours tearing through Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. I really dig Johnson’s manic style: I read Jesus’ Son in one sitting a year ago and only took 3 days to devour this 614-page epic. It’s a very remarkable novel, and I think sitting in Thailand & Myanmar reading a novel set in Vietnam & the Philippines really added to the experience. Very different countries, sure, but all Southeast Asia — the grime & sticky heat of Yangon provided a better context than, say, a winter cabin in Vermont.

My Interview With Sergey Brin

I recently had the remarkable chance to catch Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, doing interview rounds with a number of journalists. He was kind enough to spare me a few minutes, especially when he saw that I brought treats. A slightly edited version of that interview is below.

Kevin Cole: Sergey, it’s a pleasure to have you here and I thank you for being willing to sit down with us for a bit.

Sergey Brin: No problem. Ilm happy to do this, especially since you guys provided such great cookies.

KC: You’re very welcome. I wanted to start with something that I think speaks very highly of Google, and that is its transformation into a verb.

SB: One of my favorite tributes to the company, I have to be honest.

KC: When did you realize this phenomenon and how did you feel about joining the likes of Xerox and Kleenex?

SB: I’d forgotten about Kleenex. I don’t actually use that expression, although I know many other people do. But yes, of course I was very pleased. I don’t remember when I first heard someone say, “just Google it” or whatever, but I imagine it was early 2000s. We already used it, naturally — I mean those of us inside Google. But when you see it in a magazine, or maybe I first heard it on television, there is just this enormous satisfaction. Also a little discomfort too, maybe. It forced me to really consider how large we’d become. Obviously I knew; it’s not like I was unaware of how many employees we now had or God! the crazy dollars we were spending on servers. But this was just another angle on that growth, a side effect that was quite pleasing. It was hard to imagine how we’d gotten all this, I mean two real geeks, had gotten all this out of a garage and a search algorithm.

KC: It seems funny, in retrospect, that none of the early search engines got “verbed” so to speak. What do you remember about your former competitors?

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Anti-Statism, Relativism, Prosperity Gospel, etc.

So I took a trip to Myanmar this week. I’ll blog about it later. In the meantime I have a bunch of tabs of stuff I’ve been meaning to share and I’ll have to just dump them w/o much comment because they’re slowing down Firefox.

  • The Atlantic: “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” by Hanna Rosin. Short answer is No, it didn’t… but the name-it-n-claim-it prosperity gospel probably contributed a little at least.
  • “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?” by Carl Raschke – summary & review of the first two chapters from Merold Westphal’s book Whose Community? Which Interpretation? Raschke is expectedly excellent:

The term “relativism” nowadays is routinely and indiscriminately used as a handy synonym for “postmodernism” by Christian and cultural mossbacks in the same way that “deconstruction” is taken as the first thesaurus entry for nihilistic devastation of the entire legacy of Western culture.  Pondering the “relativity” of the symbolic order – Einstein’s special and general theories notwithstanding – is generally regarded in these same circles as akin to taking a puff of Ouachita Gold and then inhaling.  That is, it is the first tragic slip on the slipper of the slippery slope to reprobation and incurable insanity.

  • The A.V. Club is trying to sum up the past decade. One of their lists is “The Best TV Series of the ’00s” wherein Arrested Development is somehow not #1 and NBC’s The Office bribed someone to earn an entry. I remain unimpressed by Judd Apatow’s TV work (I did like most of Funny People though, fwiw).
  • They’ve also got a big 50-entry list of “The Best Music of the Decade” which I will say is not the worst list I’ve ever read. Arcade Fire got robbed, of course, losing out to Outkast and (FFS!) Kanye; “this is an outrage” “how dare they” et cetera. No My Morning Jacket at all. Zilch. Actually, with all due respect to Win Butler & Jeff Tweedy, I may have to give my vote to “Best Album of the Decade” to Mr. Lamontagne for “Trouble.”

World Film Festival: Part II

Well the World Film Festival was kind of a bust for me. I couldn’t come up with a good schedule and ended up with one very stacked on the last 4 days… which turned out to coincide with me getting sick. I’ve got a couple gripes with how things were run too, all confirming my initial suspicion that the WFFB is definitely playing second fiddle to the Bangkok International Film Festival. So in the end I only saw 5 films; reviews of the first three are here, and the latter two are below.

Letter to a Child / Otroci

Country: Slovenia
Director: Vlado Å kafar
Length: 100 mins.
Rating: C

Synopsis:
““Letter to a Child” combines intimate conversations with perfect strangers and personal letters contemplating bits and pieces of life, collected and addressed to a child. In a series of “guided monologues” people – from kindergarten children to the vintage ages – are contemplating and reliving their lives.”

I really like the simple premise of this documentary — just record people telling their stories — but I found the execution pretty ho-hum. The interviews span seven different age groups, from precocious children up to a dying old man, and vary greatly in quality. Director Å kafar probably should’ve spoken with more people and then extracted the best moments and most intriguing stories. We don’t need, for example, a half hour of banal observations from adolescents about how life is all about “having fun.” I got the feeling that pretty much everyone Å kafar spoke with was included in the film. The best moments, the parts that I suspect are driving the good reviews, don’t come until the 3rd act. There’s a heartbreaking interview with a middle-aged couple who lost both their children in separate car wrecks (even this could’ve been edited down), and a poignant bit with a senile geezer struggling to get through the poem “Memento Mori” by Slovenian poet France PreÅ¡eren. Otherwise… meh. One film critic noted Letter to a Child‘s “radical artlessness,” except he found this praiseworthy and I did not. Maybe that reviewer had just come from 2012 and found this refreshing. But for me, a complete lack of style and sometimes less-than-compelling interviews do this film in.

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Terry Eagleton on Waking the Dead

Speaking of Walter Benjamin, the eminent Terry Eagleton has an article in New Statesman entitled “Waking the Dead” about Benjamin and history.

What Benjamin meant was that how we act in the present can change the meaning of the past. The past may not literally exist (any more than the future does), but it lives on in its consequences, which are a vital part of it… In one sense, we know more about the French Revolution or the Stalinist reign of terror than those who were involved in them, because we know what they led to. With the privilege of hindsight, we can inscribe these events in a broader narrative, making more sense of them than Robespierre or Trotsky were ever able to do. The price of this superior knowledge is impotence. There is no way we can use this knowledge to undo past catastrophes. We are like men and women frantically waving at history from a long way off, powerless to intervene in its crises and convulsions.

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World Film Festival of Bangkok

The 7th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok kicked off a week ago, but for a variety of reasons I’ve only managed to see three movies so far, including two today. The three films have also delivered three odd coincidences, which I’ll detail as we go along. As usual, I’ll use (perhaps with slight editing) the film synopses that the festival organizers wrote themselves.

Home / (trailer)

Country: Switzerland
Director: Ursula Meier
Length: 98 mins.
Rating: A-

Synopsis:
“A family’s peaceful existence is threatened when a busy highway is opened only meters away from their isolated house in the middle of nowhere. Refusing to move, Marthe, Michel and their three children find innovative ways to adapt to their new environment. They continue their happy-go-lucky routine despite the daily stress of hundreds of noisy speeding cars. But suspicions about the highway’s unknown long-term dangers cause family tension.”

I’m not sure that synopsis quite captures what a nightmarish film this ends up as. As you might imagine, the bucolic environment is utterly shattered by the sudden intrusion of overwhelming noise pollution. Home essentially chronicles one close-knit family’s descent into insanity as they attempt to cope with, then block out, the deafening highway roar. The breakdowns are varied, but with the inexorable march of automobiles comes each individual’s inexorable march toward madness. Viewers are also taken along this ride, since the noise pollution from the highway contaminates the theater as well (albeit to a lesser extent). Meier does an excellent job transitioning between each of the film’s three sections (normal/loud/quiet, respectively), aided by great cinematography – including two memorable tracking shots. In its depiction of communal isolation, Home reminded me a lot of Dogtooth, also a quiet horror flick. In psychology there’s a concept known as “group polarization” that highlights the radicalizing effects of a group (both peculiar families in these cases). Crazy-pushes-crazy until (as in both films) something finally snaps, creating unpleasant scenarios but fantastic movie-going experiences.

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Best of ‘Best of Wikipedia’

These are all Wikipedia entries culled from the fascinating blog Best of Wikipedia. I’m blatantly ripping this idea off of Andrew Sullivan, but I thought it was interesting enough to re-do and compile my own list of most intriguing Wikipedia pages.

Semantic Satiation
Semantic satiation (also semantic saturation) is a cognitive neuroscience phenomenon in which repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who can only process the speech as repeated meaningless sounds.

Reductio ad Hitlerum
Reductio ad Hitlerum or reductio ad Nazium (dog Latin for “reduction or argument to Adolf Hitler or the Nazis”) is an ad hominem or ad misericordiam argument, and is a formal fallacy in logic. The name is a pun on reductio ad absurdum. The phrase reductio ad Hitlerum was coined by an academic ethicist, Leo Strauss, in 1953. Engaging in this fallacy is sometimes known as “playing the Nazi card”, by analogy to playing the race card. [similar to Godwin’s Law]

Gruen Transfer
In shopping mall design, the Gruen transfer refers to the moment when a consumer enters a shopping mall, and, surrounded by an intentionally confusing layout, loses track their original intentions. Spatial awareness of their surroundings play a key role, as does the surrounding sound and music. The effect of the transfer is marked by a slower walking pace and glazed eyes.

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Republican Jesus Invites You to Read the Constitution

Speaking of great art (and blasphemy), you simply cannot top this:

This is One Nation Under God by Jon McNaughton, who is the Luke Skywalker to Thomas Kinkade’s Darth Vader. Most of what you need to know about this masterpiece is made plain when you see that one of the “positive” characters is holding Cleon Skousen’s The Five Thousand Year Leap. On McNaugton’s website you can read his detailed explanation of all the other “symbolism.” More entertainingly, make sure you check out this parody which retains the look of McNaughton’s site while replacing all the zoom-in captions for each character.

Hat-tip to Mike Morrell for making me aware of this

The Scandalous Art of Paul Fryer

Twenty years after Andres Serrano debuted Piss Christ to shocked believers worldwide, Christendom is again up in arms over another work of art. Fundamentalist antipathy toward the arts is well-documented, and artists like Serrano and Damien Hirst have ensured that this feud isn’t likely to die soon. British artist Paul Fryer, a churchgoing Christian himself, has joined the fray with three new pieces.

The first two are variations of the same piece, Pieta:

Unlike traditional pietas, such as Michelangelo’s, this Jesus is not cradled by the Virgin Mary, but by an electric chair. The work is displayed in a French cathedral whose Monsignor explains the work thusly: “[The goal is] to make us aware once more that someone being nailed to a cross is a scandal. Usually, we no longer feel any real emotions in the face of something truly scandalous, the crucifixion.” The piece challenges us to see modern methods of capital punishment as equally bizarre and barbaric as ancient Roman methods. Fryer seems to be expressing incredulity at state-sanctioned murder in the 21st century, asking us to be just as uncomfortable with a convicted felon in the electric chair as we are with Christ in it.
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What Gorgias Would Say to Sisyphus

On Sunday the pastor at Christ Church preached on kairos and God’s time; specifically, the notion of the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” simultaneously. While I don’t disagree, I want to offer another take on kairos and the personal importance of that word to my own philosophy.

For this I draw on Gorgias of Leontini, one of the most underrated ancient philosophers (unfairly maligned for over 2 millenia because of Dumb & Dumber, ie Aristotle & Plato). From Gorgias and the Sophists we get the concept of the “kairotic moment,” loosely meaning “seizing the opportune opening.” Originally a sports term (archery), the Sophists applied it to rhetoric to mean the key moment in a debate when you trip up your opponent or drive him into a logical corner.

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Where the Wild Moon Hungers

Last week Mike & I went to a theater on Camp Foster to see Where the Wild Things Are. I had pretty mixed feelings about it — I was mostly frustrated with how uneven the film is. I’m glad it’s not a “kids movie” and I’m glad it’s devoid of both moralism & paternalism. Yet Where the Wild Things Are never quite finds the momentum needed to turn it into a truly great film. There are dazzling bits in this film — exciting, hilarious, creatively genius bits… but at the end you’re left wondering, “Is that all?” There’s no disguising the fact that the runtime is too long and the script too thin. I kept wishing that Charlie Kauffman and/or Michel Gondry had had a hand in this, no matter how much I respect Jonze & Eggers. If someone told me they loved this film (my sister), I’d totally understand… but I’d likewise understand if someone said they hated it (my brother).

I did see two movies recently I’d really recommend that both seem to be flying under the mainstream radar. The first one is Hunger, which I saw a few weeks ago. It’s an unconventional picture of Bobby Sands‘ agonizing last days that is quietly brutal. It’s occasionally difficult to watch (the hunger strike, prison abuse, etc) but honest and pays off if you stick with it. Other than Michael Fassbender’s painful physical transformation for this film, the real highlight is an epic 17-minute unbroken medium shot. It’s supposedly the longest shot in film history and simply features Sands and his priest talking & smoking. Only one of the reasons that makes this movie a must-see.

Lastly, a couple nights ago I watched the indie sci-fi flick Moon, starring Sam Rockwell. It centers around Sam Bell, an employee working in solitude on the moon harvesting energy for use on earth. With two weeks to go until his three-year contract is up and he jets home, Bell starts (or continues) going a little batty in the head and, as a result, accidentally wrecks his moon-buggy. After that… I can’t say. But don’t get me wrong: it’s not a “thriller” per se, with crazy surprises and mega-twists in the plot — but I don’t want to spoil all the fun. It’s just that the real strength of Moon lies with Rockwell, who delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, and the atmospherics (cinematography and great soundtrack by Clint Mansell). Since I’m not in the USA I don’t know if this in theaters or what, but check it out if there’s an opportunity.