Thursday, July 24. 2008
Today's Wall Street Journal reported that the fugitive Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, the architect of "ethnic cleansing" in the Bosnian War, was finally captured. The fact that he had evaded capture until there was a political power shift in Belgrade should not be surprising â€“ even genocides can cut deals to stay alive. What was truly shocking, though, was where and how he was living: right in the middle of the capitol city of Belgrade, practicing alternative psychiatric medicine in a private clinic. With white hair, a full face-covering beard and thick glasses, he looked more like Santa Claus than a brutal killer of hundreds of thousands. In his identity as "Dr. Dabic," he styled himself as a "Spiritual Explorer," and even gave public lectures on Orthodox meditation and "Human Quantum Energy."
This story is a shoo-in for Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, the humorous NPR news quiz. I can already hear Peter Siegel: "Now, panelists: what will Radovan Karadzic's next disguise be?" Adam Felber will go on a riff: "I wonder what kind of advice he gave his patients? 'Kill two Croats and call me in the morning.' (One second pause for laughter.) 'No, really, a murderous hatred of Muslims is perfectly normal.'"
I would laugh, but actually it fills me with a murderous rage to see how easily evil can clothe itself with the trappings of spirituality. "Spiritual exploration" is a catch-phrase that I and the Self Knowledge Symposium had used frequently. I would not be surprised if dozens, if not hundreds of people listened to "the good doctor" (as he was sarcastically known during the war) and thought his spiritual pronouncements to be full of wisdom and virtue. What do those people think of his lectures now, once his identify has been revealed?
This kind of story only reaffirms a few principles the SKS has long championed:
Monday, July 21. 2008
The problem with most punditry is that commentators are rarely held accountable to their predictions. By the time events pan out, everyone's lost interest and moved on to new predictions. So, when I make predictions, I try to keep accurate score. (Warning: spoilers follow).
With Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, I correctly predicted that Dr. Horrible would win a compromised victory, one that left him in pain. That one was pretty easy â€“ as I said before, Joss' whole philosophy of story-telling is that pain is the basis for sympathy and human connection. If the main character isn't in pain, we lose interest pretty quickly.
Where I went totally off the rails was in predicting a greater role for Penny in the unfolding of events. I thought she would have some kind of agency in the way things turn out . . . but nope, she was just cannon-fodder. In my defense, a lot of other people had exactly the same critique of Act III: couldn't we have the girl do a little more than just be the passive motivator for the macho-men? But I will let that go . . . for writing seven years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joss deserves an automatic bye on any feminist critiques. Once in a while, a guy deserves to be allowed to write a passive female role.
What also surprised me, but I didn't articulate very clearly in my predictions, was how much Hope got overshadowed by Pain in the conclusion. The structure of the songs and the story suggested a dynamic tension between Penny's world-view (do-gooding is good, what matters is human connection) and Billy's (do-gooding is for saps, what matters is who has the power). The third act doesn't do much to contradict Billy's position; Penny's reward for her do-gooding is to be publically humiliated shortly before she gets killed. I had expected at least one more song from Penny to stake out Hope's position: "All your Power and Domination is bereft of meaning, so who's the sap?" Rather than just falling in love with Penny the object-of-desire, Dr. Horrible could have fallen in love with Penny's virtue, and wished from afar that he could be that way. That would have made the tragedy of Billy's fall more complete, and also perhaps have indicated a path for his eventual redemption in a sequel. Instead, everything about Penny's behavior, right up to her dying words ("Captain Hammer will save us!") confirm that she really is a deluded sap. I think Joss' absurdist philosophy got the better of him, here.
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At the risk of appearing like a raving fanboy with no life, there's a few more random items I wanted to point out, simply because the begged for someone to notice them:
Sunday, July 20. 2008
(Warning: spoilers for Act III of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog follow.)
I . . . man.
I seriously underestimated Joss' guts when it comes to story-telling. I saw the darkness looming in the story, but I didn't think he could go all the way into Wagnerian tragedy with a premise as silly as "Dr. Horrible." And yet he did . . . and convincingly, too.
I should have known there would be blood. Bad Horse had called for blood repeatedly. It couldn't have been otherwise. And death was really too good for Captain Hammer â€“ he needed to be utterly humiliated for the story arc to complete itself. So the blood had to be Penny's. And Billy's descent into full-bore villainy is seen for the human tragedy it is. Billy's decency never left him â€“ in spite of his rage, he hesitated to pull the trigger on Captain Hammer, even while calling for "no mercy." Horrible's "victory" was achieved, ironically, by his own incompetence at evil â€“ had the freeze ray held a minute longer, or the death ray not blown up in Hammer's hands, things would have turned out very differently. And equally telling that it's Hammer's arrogance (and genuine lack of remorse) that ultimately defeats himself and does in Penny, too. So Horrible stumbles across the threshold into full-bore villainy, more the victim of a corrupt society than a willing agent . . . and we feel, with him, the hollowness of his victory, and ultimately, the complete loss of any feeling at all.
"Feeling" is the real theme of the entire story. Both Billy and Penny show their humanity in their capacity to feel pain, which opens to them the capacity for empathy and connection to other people. Captain Hammer evidently never felt a moment's pain in his whole life . . . making him an arrogant self-serving tool. When Hammer does finally feel pain, his capacity to oppress is completely undone. And only when Billy's capacity to feel is extinguished, numb with grief and horror, can he become truly Horrible.
"Pretending" could contend as the central theme, too. Joss mercilessly pounds on the shallowness and banality of society in the final episode, demonstrating how it hides from inconvenient truths with pasteboard heroes, thin veneers of caring over the power of the status quo. I thought it was a sweet to see Penny sitting in the Coin Wash, obviously waiting for Billy, extra frozen yogurt at the ready, and she asks herself, "Should I stop pretending?" Even at that point she knew she was playing along with something less than genuine, denying her real feelings for Billy in favor of the security of being with the established power of Captain Hammer. She alone had the sense to be mortified by Captain Hammer's speech at the dedication . . . but too late. All that pretending â€“ Hammer pretending to be compassionate, Penny pretending to love him, Billy pretending to be the villain he really wasn't â€“ was what ultimately creates the tragedy.
I love the last cut of the film. We see Dr. Horrible fully realized, his white coat and gloves traded for red and black, walking into his place in the Evil League of Evil . . . but at the very last we cut back to Billy's blog. Billy: still human, still small and alone, calling out to the world from his blog, still a human being. This is "Horrible"'s greatest achievement: to humanize evil, to see the person behind the mask.
Saturday, July 19. 2008
The final episode of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" airs today. My young kids are TV-free, so I won't be able to watch it until late this evening. So . . . how will Act III conclude?
Friday, July 18. 2008
It's always easier to write about pop culture than philosophy . . . so I guess I'll indulge in random analysis of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (as of Acts I and II â€“ caution, spoilers follow.)
Thursday, July 17. 2008
I keep vacillating between two positions:
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Most of the parenting literature I've studied has spoken highly of "unstructured free play" -- kids just kicking around, playing with what comes to hand in a free-wheeling make-believe, without any schedules or rules or leagues or facilitators or teachers. Such play is critical to developing "executive function," especially self-regulation. It's how kids learn to control themselves and their impulses. It seems to consistently result in creativity; I'm amazed at the things the boys create when left to themselves.
Which leads me to wonder . . . Is "free play" just for the kids, or could it have some benefit for adults as well? Rather than dwelling in the constant teleological crunch of having to accomplish the next task, might it help to have some time to just, like, do whatever you fee like doing? If left completely to my own devices, with no schedules or deadlines, to read or write or think or ride my bike or whatever . . . What would I do? Would I connect with a creative drive and achieve something undreamt of? Or would I sit on my butt and lose all desire to do anything?
Some interesting precedents for the "play time for grownups" can be found. Google requires their employees to spend 20% of their time working on whatever pet project they feel like working on. Google hopes that the extra freedom will pay off in innovations that nobody in the executive suite could have planned for.
What would grown-up play look like?
Wednesday, July 16. 2008
We interrupt our regularly scheduled tedious rant about philosophy to bring you this special announcement:
Joss Whedon is up to something. Something evil and nefarious and, and, well, Jossy.
Namely: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's a mini-musical about a second-rate super-villain. Evidently Joss has been thoroughly bitten by the musical bug after composing "Once More with Feeling," the musical Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode for which he should have won an Emmy, had the Academy not "accidently" left his name off the ballot. So, during their downtime in the writer's strike, Joss and his friends did a little internet project on the cheap.
This is one-time streaming event that is only happening this week, so check it out soon. Act I one was released yesterday, and Acts II comes out tomorrow. Also don't miss Joss' letter explaining the Master Plan.
Look for some familiar friends-of-Joss, including Nathan Filian (as swashbuckling and self-absorbed as always) and Felicia Day (a.k.a. "Vi", one of the potential slayers from the seventh season of Buffy). And Neil Patrick Harris, whose musical stage experience and goofy sense of humor make him a great fit for the title role . . . not to mention a vague resemblance to Joss Whedon himself.
Tuesday, July 15. 2008
Last week Sir John Templeton, the founder of the Templeton Prize for Progress towards Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities, died at the age of 95. Templeton also happened to be a superstar investor, but I felt obliged to mention his spiritual work first, since nearly every other obituary recognizes his material success before acknowledging what he considered his real work: bringing a scientific mindset into spiritual inquiry.
Templeton was the premier advocate for open-mined spiritual exploration. He called it "the humble approach":
"The main focus in my life now is to open people's minds so no one will be so conceited that they think they have the total truth. They should be eager to learn, to listen, to research and not to confine, to hurt, to kill, those who disagree with them."
Many people have championed religious tolerance and mutual respect, but Templeton was unique in his call for religious progress. He believed that we could do more than just quietly put up with each others' religious views â€“ he saw spirituality as a field that could be studied, critiqued, analyzed, and tested, as much as any other endeavor of knowledge, and that new understanding could emerge from an open-minded inquiry. And he put his money behind it . . . a lot of money.
Of course, Templeton ruffled lots of feathers among both scientists and religious scholars, groups he was supposedly trying to bring together. Many religious leaders didn't like the implication that their knowledge was antiquated, nor did many scientists care for someone trying to tie them back to traditions of thought they had been running from for several hundred years. But in his own way, I think Templeton gave voice to the general opinion of most of the secular civilized world:
It was that basic recognition of spiritual ignorance, and a personal desire to know more, that led me to working with Augie Turak to form The Self Knowledge Symposium. And when Augie Turak was awarded the grand prize in Templeton's "Power of Purpose" writing contest, I felt a profound sense of vindication for the work we had been doing. Now, as then, I'm grateful to John Templeton for supporting new evolutions in spiritual thought.
Saturday, July 12. 2008
I know this may seem like a small thing. It's a kid's book. It's been around forever. People like it. Why should I even bother? But it bugs me. It continues to bug me every single time I sit down with it. I can't take it anymore. I have to tell the truth and shame the devil.
Busy, Busy Town, supposedly one of Richard Scarry's classics, is a fake.
Ok, maybe that's a rash thing to say. Someone will sue me for libel. But the evidence is so overwhelming that something weird is going on.
When toilet-training our two boys, we encouraged them to sit on the potty by reading to them while they did their business. The favored bathroom reading was (you guessed it) Richard Scarry. As much as I love Richard Scarry and regard What Do People Do All Day? as a timeless classic, I am conditioned to literally yawn every time I open the books up, as a result of our endless potty sessions. "No, I'm not done yet, Dad. Keep reading."
After such close study over two kids' worth of reading, I couldn't help but notice . . .
How can one explain this inexplicably poor book at the very end of Richard Scarry's career? A few theories:
I doubt I'm the only one who noticed. Someone posted to Flickr a catalog of changes between the 1961 and 1993 releases of The Best Word Book Ever, so I know people notice these things. But perhaps I'm the only one who cares who actually drew and wrote a book. One of the sad things about Scarry's career was that he sold so many books that literary institutions refused to give the slightest acknowledgement or critical acclaim. By that reckoning, who cares who wrote it, if it's making money?
Wednesday, July 9. 2008
Yesterday I went to my mother-in-law's house in Winston-Salem to take pictures for selling the house. It was overcast for most of the day, and I busied myself pulling weeds and clipping hedges while praying for the sun to come out and give me the light I needed to make the house look good. I guess hunters must feel like this â€“ preparing and planning and waiting, but still mostly dependent on blind chance and forces of nature outside their control to bring them success.
I have no particular skill as a photographer, and certainly no training, other than a few bits of common advice on composition I picked up from old desktop publishing magazines. I spent enough time creating posters and marketing pieces to acquire some vocabulary and concepts for evaluating images: what was too busy, or too boring, too dense or too sparse. What struck me then, as now, is how much the process is one of just looking at something and judging how it makes you feel. Evaluating images is an introspective process; you look at the image, and at the same time you watch yourself watching the image, and seeing how you react to it. Out of nowhere, thoughts occur: "That corner is dark, I can't tell what's back there, and that makes me feel uneasy." "I keep looking at this tree in the foreground instead of the house." "I like that flower, I wish there were more of them." From these random thoughts you devise experiments: change the light, change the angle, pull that damn frog statue out of the frame. And then you compare and conclude: "Yup, that's definitely better." "Nope, didn't make much difference." Eventually you start to recognize patterns and devise simple rules: "Don't include the light source in the frame." "Get as much light as possible into the room." "Windows are interesting. Walls are boring."
I know I'm only rediscovering what people probably learn in the first twenty minutes of an introductory photography class. But what's more interesting is what it says about how we think:
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