Thursday, October 30, 2008

Happy Halloween 2008

Here’s wishing everyone a very happy Halloween (or Samhain if you prefer). On this Hallowed Eve, I’d like to reflect for a bit on why this holiday holds special meaning for me and why it has become one of the most popular holidays on the calendar.

As a child, the world of is full of magic and wonder. If raised in a religious home, as I was and many of us were, God is real and his works are to be taken seriously. But a sense of wonder about the world is not left to the supernatural. All kids love dinosaurs, sharks, and other beasts because of their sense of wildness. There is an awe-inspiring power in nature that can be glimpsed in documentary footage of a great white shark attacking a sea lion or can be imagined on the bones of a Tyrannosaurus Rex on display in a museum. These animals, with their claws and fangs, remind us of a basic truth that children and animals know: life comes down to flesh and teeth. Part of the reason that Maurice Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are is so popular with children is to do with the underlying truth of the story; human beings, but particularly children, strain to be in touch their own bestial nature.

Adults try to forget this. We escape nature by building elaborate societies with grand architectural structures and even more complicated social rules and legal proceedings. Gradually nature is pushed further from our lives until it becomes something other, outside and apart from human experience. But truths are inescapable. At every level of civilization, from the darkest corners of a slum to the manicured lawns of suburbia, the barbaric component of human nature still rises to the surface. Sometimes it appears as benign as a backyard bonfire with drinks passed and stories exchanged. In some other instances, because of its suppression, the inner animal becomes a demon and explodes outward in a tragic act of violence.

In the under-appreciated film Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the horror director resurrected Freddy Krueger, acknowledging how the character had swollen as a cultural icon. Craven’s story takes place in a quasi-real world, where the character of Freddy had captured and contained an Id-like psychopathic specter in the celluloid. Once the films had ended, the specter was released, using the form of Krueger to wreck havoc upon civilization. This film is at least a thematic reworking of Bacchae by Euripides, an ancient Greek play in which Dionysus, the god of sex, music, lust, violence, and carnality, visits the city of Thebes. When the king rejects him, and by extension the carnal side of mankind, he sets off an escalating conflict that concludes in the king’s bloody end.

In the process of maturation, children are told to disown these truths if they want to be taken seriously in the adult world. Contemporary life takes the stories that give these psychological elements physical shape and locks them up in a closet. Within literary circles, which are primarily situated or attached to institutions of higher learning, narratives dealing with such subject matter, especially in mythic or fantastic settings, are suppressed. In cinema, horror films are usually dismissed by critics and released quietly by distributors. The wildness of humanity goes on unacknowledged by art and therefore unimpeded, and when it is acknowledged it is dealt with as an aberration rather than a normal part of life.

Ignoring our darker side does not make it go away and we know that, so we turn to religion or other moral systems in a desperate attempt to shackle the beast. But as often happens, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, those who fight monsters often become monsters themselves and the rules that started as basic guidelines for a smooth running society balloon into micromanagement of all aspects of the individual’s life from clothing and diet to sexual orientation.

And as these systems of morality have crumbled under the weight of their own hypocrisy, their icons and traditions have become hollow symbols and meaningless actions. But the final death stroke to these holidays has been commercialization. Easter may be about the resurrection of Christ but the Easter Bunny and Cadburry Eggs have largely eclipsed the Last Supper. This is itself a return to the pagan roots of the spring holiday. Christmas, which has become the most marketable holiday, has likewise lost its prestige, partially a victim of its own popularity. Santa Claus has ascended from Russian folklore to become more central to the holiday than the birth of Jesus. Religious leaders that bemoan the commercialization of their sacred rites are correct that it has robbed the days of their superstitious significance but they should also be thankful because these commercial foundations may be the only things sustaining their popularity.

Halloween, in its American tradition, never aspired to symbolize morality or illusions of spirituality. As such, Halloween is uniquely suited to embrace commercialization because it has no integrity to lose by doing so. And while American Halloween traditions began primarily for children, in more recent times the holiday has morphed into an adult holiday. In a secular society where other holidays have been lost their sense of authenticity and much of their popularity, Halloween has only grown and has now become a secular sacrament in which, like the hero of Maurice Sendak’s book, we dress up like an animal and allow ourselves to reveal in beastliness. And in that revelry we are finally able to come to embrace Dionysus and vanquish Freddy Krueger or at least those things that they represent.

Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey once wrote, “Good is what you like. Evil is what you don’t like.” I prefer to amend this statement to say “Good is what you like, bad is what you don’t like, and evil is what you like but is not socially acceptable.” Halloween is the last good holiday left on the calendar because it is a celebration of evil.

Here are some tricks and treats via YouTube for you:

The "Lost" Meaning of Halloween

"This is Halloween" from The Nightmare Before Christmas, covered by Marilyn Manson

Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special

For those of you who don't read the Sounds of Cinema blog . . .

Tune in October 30th and 31st for the Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special. I've been doing special Halloween shows for many years and I can honestly say this is the best one. It is very scary and makes for a fun listen, including music from films such as Friday the 13th, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Saw, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and House of 1000 Corpses. Whatever you may be doing for Halloween, this will make a great soundtrack for it.

The show can be heard:

89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato on Thursday, October 30th, 2008 at 11pm.

89.5 KQAL FM in Winona on Friday, October 31st, 2008 at 11pm.

Remember that if you're not in the broadcast area you can hear the show online at either station's website.

UPDATE: The show has been rescheduled to air on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato at midnight Halloween night.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thursday, October 23, 2008

One Out of Four Children Left Behind

There have been three major tent poles that the Bush administration has set up over the past eight years. The first was the war on terror, the second was reforming the economy and tax system based on Reagan-era "trickle down" economic policies, and the third was education reform. At the end of Bush's term we are no safer from terrorism than we were before September 11th and the recent economic meltdown has shattered the conservative ideal of a deregulated economy, so the first two poles have collapsed. Now the third, education reform, completes Bush's failure as a president.

According to a new study:

Your child is less likely to graduate from high school than you were, and most states are doing little to hold schools accountable, according to a study by a children's advocacy group.

More than half the states have graduation goals that don't make schools get better, the Education Trust says in a report released Thursday.

And dropout rates haven't budged: One in four kids is dropping out of high school.

By now it's beyond obvious to say Bush was lousy leader, so instead consider the real threat here. The educational system, which produces the next generation of citizens--not to mention workers, thinkers, and leaders--is broken. At the same time the economy is floundering. This is a dangerous combination that, if left unchecked, can lead to a destabilization of the foundations of society. That sounds extreme but consider that John Galbraith warned that insular (systemic) poverty is sustained by poor educational facilities, a lack of jobs or the unwillingness of people to move to new places based on ethnic comfort zones, the dissolution of the family, and general despair. Given that checklist, the environment is ripe for a step into nationwide insular poverty.

But here is the upside, and there is one. Nearly every religious mythology has an apocalypse story in which a giant calamity takes place and when the dust settles a new and better world is created. These stories have the same basic features and they describe an underlying human experience, in which people are able to recreate their society and their reality. We may be at such a transformational point in our history.

Of course, that does not guarantee a positive outcome. The Great Depression saw the collapse of the world economy and out of that calamity came the positive social policies of the New Deal in the United States but also the rise of Communism and Fascism in parts of Europe. The economic crisis and this educational report, if accurate, tell us that we are at a major tipping point. What we choose in these next few months and years will likely reshape society, for good or ill, for a long time to come.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Did Ann Coulter go brunette?

Lately things haven't gone so well for Minnesota Republicans. First, Governor Tim Pawlenty was passed over for John McCain's VP slot in favor of Sarah Palin and now Senator Norm Colman risks losing his seat to Al Franken. And just last week there was the embarassing McCain rally in Lakeville, where McCain was booed when he tried to quell the racism of some of his supporters.

Today Michelle Bachmann--yes, that Michelle Bachmann, the one who represents Minnesota in the United States congress--went on Hardball with Chris Matthews and managed to associate liberals, academics, Democrats, and progressives with terrorists. But she didn't stop there. Bachmann also claimed that there is a vast anti-American conspiracy in the congress and throughout American culture.

Someone tell Michelle that Joe McCarthy called. He wants his soul back.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Thank you, come again

I've always found it interesting how foreigners look at American culture and how their expectations are usually defeated when they find that the average American family does not look and live like the Kardashians. So when I saw this story, it really jumped out at me:

At Indian call centers, another view of U.S.
By Emily Wax

GURGAON, India - With her flowing, hot-pink Indian suit, jangly silver bangles and perky voice, Bhumika Chaturvedi, 24, doesn't fit the stereotype of a thuggish, heard-it-all-before debt collector. But lately, she has had no problem making American debtors cry.

For the past three years, Chaturvedi has been a top collection agent at her call center, phoning hundreds of Americans a day and politely asking them to pay up. As the U.S. financial crisis plunges Americans into debt, her business is one of the fastest-growing sectors in Indian outsourcing. It is also one of the few sectors of outsourcing in India that is still aggressively hiring.

Sitting in a narrow cubicle, her head-set switched on, Chaturvedi listens every night to increasingly disturbing tales of woe from the other side of the globe.

Few places in India absorb and imitate American culture as much as call centers, where ambitious young Indians with fake American accents and American noms de phone spend hours calling people in Indiana or Maine to help navigate software glitches, plan vacations or sell products. The subculture of call centers tends to foster a cult of America, an over-the-top fantasy where hopes and dreams are easily accomplished by people who live in a brand-name wonderland of high-paying jobs, big houses and luxury getaways.

But collection agents at this call center outside New Delhi are starting to see the flip side of that vision: a country hobbled by debt and filled with people scared of losing their jobs, their houses and their cars.
* * *

In the past, debt-saddled customers were often annoyed by Chaturvedi's calls from the open-air office at Aegis BPO Services. But now they seem depressed, defeated. Even the men sob into the phone, several agents said.

* * *

Talking to so many anguished Americans has taught these agents an important lesson: Live within your means. Agents with credit cards are vowing to pay them off every month, even during the upcoming holiday shopping season, when malls feature neon signs advertising flat-screen TVs and air conditioners.

* * *

India handles an estimated $16 billion -- or about 5 percent -- of delinquent American accounts. More complicated health insurance bills and mortgage payments are still largely handled inside the United States, industry executives say.

But the debt collection business will continue to grow as debt rises and companies look to cut costs, industry experts said. Aegis, which handles nearly a fourth of debt collection outsourced from the United States, is undergoing a rapid expansion. The company is erecting a second office building for 5,000 employees, many of them to be hired over the next few years. Most employees are college-educated and in their 20s. They earn about $5,000 a year, a competitive starting salary in India, but less than a fourth of what their American counterparts make.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Feed My Frankenstein

After spending days and weeks trying to make it seem as though Barack Obama is lunching with Satan, the hate, xenophobia, and racism (yes, I said it) finally reached critical mass at the end of last week.

Here are interviews with the crowd at the Ohio rally on October 8th. Note the insinuations about bloodlines and association.

To be fair, I think the cameraman in these interviews needs to work on his technique. He would have done better to just ask open questions and let these people speak for themselves rather than fight with people who aren't going to be swayed.

Here is footage from the same day at a McCain rally in Pennsylvania. Here the cameraman does a better job of capturing the attitudes of the supporters.

Finally at a rally in Lakeville, Minnesota, McCain tried to quell the outpouring of hate and got booed in the process:

I've seen this movie before. In the end, the monster throws Dr. Frankenstein out of a windmill while the villagers burn it to ground.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Oliver Stone: Bush would have died in Vietnam

W, Oliver Stone's biopic on George W. Bush, opens this week. The reviews so far have been mixed. At present it is coming in eighty percent fresh at (based on five reviews), but the positive reviews do not champion the film as a major achievement and the negative ones do grant Stone some credit.

Last Friday, Stone appeared on Real Time with Bill Maher and had some very insightful things to say about Bush, the wars, and the economy:

Friday, October 10, 2008

Scientists confirm shark's ‘virgin birth’
By Steve Szkotak

updated 12:49 a.m. CT, Fri., Oct. 10, 2008
RICHMOND, Va. - Scientists have confirmed the second case of a "virgin birth" in a shark.

In a study reported Friday in the Journal of Fish Biology, scientists said DNA testing proved that a pup carried by a female Atlantic blacktip shark in the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center contained no genetic material from a male.

The first documented case of asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, among sharks involved a pup born to a hammerhead at an Omaha, Neb., zoo.

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Big Brother is Your New BFF

Tastes, Ties, and Time: Facebook data release
September 25, 2008

In collaboration with Harvard sociology graduate students Kevin Lewis and Marco Gonzalez, and with UCLA professor Andreas Wimmer and Harvard professor Nicholas Christakis, Berkman Fellow Jason Kaufman has made available a first wave of data through the Dataverse Network Project.

The dataset comprises machine-readable files of virtually all the information posted on approximately 1,700 FB profiles by an entire cohort of students at an anonymous, northeastern American university. Profiles were sampled at one-year intervals, beginning in 2006. This first wave covers first-year profiles, and three additional waves of data will be added over time, one for each year of the cohort's college career.

Though friendships outside the cohort are not part of the data, this snapshot of an entire class over its four years in college, including supplementary information about where students lived on campus, makes it possible to pose diverse questions about the relationships between social networks, online and offline.


Monday, October 06, 2008

Naomi Wolf Interview

For your consideration, here is an interview with Naomi Wolf, the author of Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries:

I think Wolf says some extremely important things here, especially her points regarding the violation of the rule of law and the infringements upon free speech, but I also encourage everyone to consider her words critically. First, for a coup to be successful, as Wolf suggests has and is happening, the power must have the support of the people and Bush does not have it. Second, for all the curtailments on free speech, the press remains fundamentally free, but under a fascist state the press (meaning all modes of communication, including the Internet) must be controlled. Third, there will need to be a tipping point that sends us over, something that will give the leader justification to seize power. If the Bush Administration had wanted to take control and declare martial law, it would have allowed a complete economic meltdown to occur and then taken advantage of the chaos that resulted, rebuilding the republic however it wanted. So we may not be at five minutes after midnight, but the warning signs of police state are there nonetheless.

American Literature Gets Sweeded

Nobel Gas
The Swedes have no clue about American literature.
By Adam Kirsch
Posted Friday, Oct. 3, 2008, at 12:10 PM ET

When Saul Bellow learned that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976, he reacted to the news in the only way a great writer can or should: He tried hard not to care. "I'm glad to get it," Bellow admitted, but "I could live without it." This month, as the Swedish Academy prepares for its annual announcement, Bellow's heirs in the top ranks of American literature—Roth, Updike, Pynchon, DeLillo—already know they're going to live without the Nobel Prize. Horace Engdahl, the academy's permanent secretary, made that clear this week when he told the Associated Press that American writers are simply not up to Nobel standards. "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular," Engdahl decreed. "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."

It did not take long for American writers to rise to the bait. The Washington Post's Michael Dirda pointed out that it was Engdahl who displayed "an insular attitude towards a very diverse country": It is a bit rich for a citizen of Sweden, whose population of 9 million is about the same as New York City's, to call the United States "isolated." David Remnick noted that the Swedish Academy itself has been guilty of conspicuous ignorance over a very long period: "You would think that the permanent secretary of an academy that pretends to wisdom but has historically overlooked Proust, Joyce and Nabokov, to name just a few non-Nobelists, would spare us the categorical lectures."

All of these criticisms are, of course, true. But the real scandal of Engdahl's comments is not that they revealed a secret bias on the part of the Swedish Academy. It is that Engdahl made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature. America should respond not by imploring the committee for a fairer hearing but by seceding, once and for all, from the sham that the Nobel Prize for literature has become.

Read the full editorial here.

Thursday, October 02, 2008