11/15/14

Poems That Make You Cry


Poems That Make Grown Men CryI cannot read Dylan Thomas’ poem,Do not go gentle into that good night‘ without a lump in my throat. I read it at my father’s funeral, several years ago, so for me it has a personal context that retains its emotional impact. Many poems move me or touch my heartstrings, however, that have no such personal context, although I cannot recall the last time one moved me to tears.

When I got Anthony and Ben Holden’s book, “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them,” I expected to be deeply and powerfully moved by the poems in it. Yet for the most part, I wasn’t. I read through it, then put the book down. I thought, perhaps it was my mood at the time. This week I re-read it. The result was the same: much of the poetry had little or no emotional effect for me.

Most of it, I thought, was very good poetry: skillfully written, beautifully crafted, stuff that made me pause and think. But not cry. In fact, most of it elicited an intellectual rather than an emotional reaction. That isn’t a bad thing, just not what I expected from a book with that title. I want poetry to slip past my thinking brain and tweak the organs that send a chemical rush of emotions through me. I want to feel a poem raise the hairs on my arm or a lump in my throat before I start to analyse the words.

The Holdens begin each poem with a piece by the man (or in a few cases where more than one chose the same piece, men) who explains why he chose the particular poem. Then the chapter ends with a brief biography of the chooser(s), so the reader can frame his or her appreciation of the poem in some context. This really helps in some cases, but not all. (As for why just men: read their introduction).

For example, the Japanese hokku (a brief poem, later renamed as haiku) by Fukuda Chiyo-Ni and chose for the collection by Boris Akunin:

Dragonfly catcher
Where today
have you gone?

As Akunin writes, it seems either mysterious or banal, but once you learn that the author wrote it after she lost her little son, it becomes deeply poignant. You can read more of her work here.

But as David Orr wrote in his book, Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry, poetry – and books about poetry  – has a limited audience today:

…the potential audience for a book about poetry nowadays consists of two mutually uncomprehending factions: the poets, for whom poetry is a matter of casual, day-to-day conversation; and the rest of the world, for whom it’s a subject of at best mild and confused interest.

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11/13/14

Comets, Aliens and Conspiracy Wingnuts


Image from RosettaThe European Space Agency has accomplished one of the greatest engineering and scientific achievements in human history this past week. Not only did it get a space vehicle into orbit around a comet travelling at more than 55,000 km/hr (34,000 mph), it landed a probe on the very rough surface of that comet. Outstanding, brilliant, superb… the superlatives fail me when trying to describe this event.

The Rosetta spacecraft chased Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko for ten years (since March, 2004) travelling almost four billion miles (6.4 b km) to rendezvous with the small chunk of icy rock, currently about 510 million kilometres away from Earth.

The rubber-duck-shaped comet is about 2.5 miles across at its widest: a tiny body compared to even a  mid-sized asteroid, and it’s blacker than coal. Even finding it in the emptiness of space is a remarkable feat, let alone establishing an orbit around it and sending back stunning photographs. But if that isn’t incredible enough, yesterday Rosetta deployed Philae, a tiny lander, to settle on the rapidly rotating comet, to take photos and conduct experiments – a feat so remarkable it defies description.

This is the sort of scientific effort we should be celebrating worldwide, shouting about it from the rooftops. But apparently the wingnut crowd has a different view. They think it’s an alien spacecraft the ESA is secretly monitoring (with the nefarious military and secret government agencies, of course).

It took almost no time for the conspiracy theorists “identified” UFOs, towers and alien monuments, faces, radio towers and even a pyramid in the photos broadcast from the comet. The internet is polluted with this kind of nonsense.

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11/10/14

Camping’s madness carries on


ScoundrelHarold Camping has been dead for almost a year, but his legacy lives on. Not just in the broken dreams of his deluded followers, but in the many lives he destroyed through his madness.

You would have thought that, having predicted the end of the world several times, and been wrong each one, because of the general embarrassment of anyone who gave him even the slightest credence, he would be buried and forgotten, except as a caricature of religious nuttiness. And a scam artist.

But no, Camping continues his malice, even after death, like a modern-day Jacob Marley dragging his chains with him. This week, a post by Rick Paulus on Vice.com reminded us that Camping’s undead zombie continues to infect the gullible through the radio.

I’ve written about Camping and his malevolent lunacy in the past; two posts, one in late May, 2012 and before that on March 8, 2012. Camping is perhaps the worst recent example of a religious predator preying on his flock. True, the flock proved mindless, easily-fleeced lambs happily led to Camping’s slaughter, but that doesn’t excuse Camping’s voracious depredations.

His defenders called him a sincere believer and praised his Biblical scholarship. Claptrap. Camping was an immoral con artist; an unprincipled huckster who sold his own wacky interpretations of faith.*

And I mean sold. He conned millions from his followers ($18 million was donated to his cause in 2009 alone). The directors (he was one of the three-person board) and programmers at Family Radio did not step in to stop him or halt his broadcasts, even after his prophesies failed to come true. Like Camping, they have never been criminally prosecuted. But they did sell off a lot of their assets after Camping died.

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11/9/14

Banished: Sandbox Gaming at Its Best


Banished 01Banished is a medieval-style city building game, along the lines of SimCity, but with several significant differences. While not as slick or comprehensive as SimCity, it still provides a compelling, addictive gameplay.*

It’s slow and cerebral, true, not your basic action-filled RPG or FPS, but it’s one of those games that demand ‘just another fifteen minutes’ that easily stretch into the wee hours. And with infinitely variable maps and a wide range of community-made mods that enhance and change the dynamics, it promises a lot of repeat play for fans of the genre.

First difference between the two city-building sims is in goals: Banished doesn’t have any, aside from simply surviving. That’s tough enough. No goals for growth, population, buildings or the like. It’s a sandbox game in which you do whatever you want, but there are clearly strategies that work better than others. Careful attention has to be paid to the details; resources, housing, jobs, education, food, weather game, trade and so on.

Second is the size. In SimCity, it’s pretty easy to get big cities with large populations fairly quickly. In Banished, after 20 in-game years in four different games, each town I built was still around 100 population. Growth is slow. I’ve built cities in SimCity that cover almost the entire map. In Banished, terrain and modest growth have kept my towns small. I’ve seen screenshots from other players showing larger towns, so I know they can be built, but it takes more time and patience than I have yet put into it.

Banished 02Third is the detail level and type. SimCity focuses on modern infrastructure and technology. Banished doesn’t concern itself with water, hydro and sewage or the trappings of modern civilization. Technologically, it’s somewhere between 1500 and 1700, so the detail is limited. The number of building types is minimal compared with SimCity, too.
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11/7/14

The Theology of The Fly


The Fly CollectionWhile watching the 1958 film of The Fly last night, I was struck by its similarities to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. And in the similarity of the underpinning morality of both.

I recently picked up the DVD collection with all three movies (The Fly, Return of The Fly and Curse of the Fly, plus a collection of special features).*

I saw the original film back in the late 1950s at the drive-in with my parents, and I’ve seen it on TV since, but not for many years. It’s not quite the “terror topping supershock thrill sensation” promised on the box (a term lifted from ads for The Return of The Fly and similar films).**

Still, it’s a good, classic example of the genre. As I watched it last night, I was struck by several things in the movie I had not considered before.

First is the role of Vincent Price. Known for his serio-comic roles in horror films – mostly B-films – he was usually cast as the villain, often some sort of mad scientist character. In The Fly, he plays a dramatic, sympathetic role, not the sort of person one expects of Price. Not villainous at all; a very understated character. helped no doubt by a literate script written by James Clavell (later novelist of Shogun and Noble House fame).

Second is that the film was shot in colour, which was not common for low-budget films (the sequel was shot in B&W) but the sets and props were minimal (the basement lab is more a metaphor for mad scientist than an actually believable laboratory). It looks more like the set from Father Knows Best than a monster film.

Third is the aforementioned similarities with Shelley’s Frankenstein (the original novel, not the subsequent films, which, with rare exception, veer significantly from the book’s plot – but again to be fair, the film script of The Fly changed the plot of the original short story).

In both, the moral of the story is that messing around with Nature (aka God) is wrong and ends in tragedy. In both, the creatures have a strong sense of morality. In the novel the creature (Shelley never names him) develops his views and behaviour from observing humans; in The Fly is it the essential humanity still maintained within Andre, the human-turned-fly. In both, they make a decision “for the best” or the greater good that involves their own death (suicide, although in Shelley’s story the creature only vows his own death; the act is not described, thus allowing us to wonder if he carried it out).

That ending is quite different from the usual monster film in which the creature is overcome by villagers, loyal friends, the police, a priest, a doctor or some other figure (or group) that represents authority, orthodoxy and the community (you can see in monster films the metaphor of the stranger or outsider a la Camus or Kafka, versus the status quo – The Wild One with a bug’s head).

The Fly also features an assisted suicide, which makes it relevant to the debate going on today about that issue. Plus it has a mercy murder – or is it? Is the fly with the human head a human? – which raises the question or euthanasia in another light. The short story also has a suicide. All big, moral and ethical issues.

Both stories make us question our values. Are the creatures worth our sympathy, or at least empathy? Or simply horror and disgust? Do they have a soul? Are they to be hated (the Frankenstein Complex that despises the artificial results of scientific experiment) or pitied? Helped or destroyed? Do they reason or are they simply animals? And is it right to experiment on animals?

And how does our perspective on the fictional characters relate to our perspective in the real world – towards animals, insects, other humans (especially those with physical or developmental challenges)? Shelley’s creature is a walking, talking human – but is treated like an animal to be hunted and destroyed. The Fly creature is a human-insect meld, unable to speak but capable of writing, that in the end must also be destroyed. Although why either needs to die is never made clear – they certainly don’t pose a threat to humanity, although they may to individuals. There’s no justice for monsters, no due process.

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11/6/14

Crazy Cats and Brain Parasites


Brain parasitesIt reads like a script for a scary movie: an alien parasite invading our brains, taking control of our minds, changing our behaviour silently, secretly; making us do what it wants. And it’s happening now, in homes across Canada and the USA. Alien puppet masters over-running the nation, one household at a time.

But it’s not fiction, although my scenario is a trifle exaggerated.

They’re not some right-wing aliens from outer space subverting our natural goodness and compassion; not some cyber-bullying bloggers dripping political poison into the gullible minds of their readers.They are microscopic, found worldwide, on land and in water – including saltwater – and may be infecting people you know this very minute. Or even you. They’re Toxoplasma gondii; an amoebic parasite pretty much capable of infecting any warm-blooded creature.

Where they breed, however, is in your cat, and are then excreted in their feces:

Although T. gondii can infect, be transmitted by, and asexually reproduce within humans and virtually all other warm-blooded animals, the parasite can sexually reproduce only within the intestines of members of the cat family (felids). Felids are therefore defined as the definitive hosts of T. gondii, with all other hosts defined as intermediate hosts.

As an owner of four cats and having had cats most of my life, this is troubling. But not entirely new. Back in 2012, in an article in The Atlantic, titled, “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy,” Kathleen MacAuliffe wrote:

The parasite, which is excreted by cats in their feces, is called Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii or Toxo for short) and is the microbe that causes toxoplasmosis—the reason pregnant women are told to avoid cats’ litter boxes. Since the 1920s, doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity: in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before good antiretroviral drugs were developed, it was to blame for the dementia that afflicted many patients at the disease’s end stage. Healthy children and adults, however, usually experience nothing worse than brief flu-like symptoms before quickly fighting off the protozoan, which thereafter lies dormant inside brain cells—or at least that’s the standard medical wisdom.

But if Flegr is right, the “latent” parasite may be quietly tweaking the connections between our neurons, changing our response to frightening situations, our trust in others, how outgoing we are, and even our preference for certain scents. And that’s not all. He also believes that the organism contributes to car crashes, suicides, and mental disorders such as schizophrenia. When you add up all the different ways it can harm us, says Flegr, “Toxoplasma might even kill as many people as malaria, or at least a million people a year.”

To be fair to cats, the parasites live in soil, too, so they’re hard to avoid. Plus they’re also found in undercooked meat. You like your steak blue? Or bloody rare? You may be inviting this parasite into your brain. And also if you drink contaminated water or eat uncooked or undercooked shellfish. Those raw oysters you love? Parasite havens. Yum.
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11/3/14

Timothy Leary Was Right. Maybe.


This is your brain on drugs
This is your brain on drugs. Or rather, the right-hand image is your brain on psilocybin. The other side is your brain on a non-psychedelic drug. Researchers recently discovered some amazing facts about how our brains work on some chemicals. And some psychedelic drugs prove to have pretty amazing effects. But don’t try this at home… stick to building toy rockets and drones for your science experiments…

Apparently Timothy Leary was right: psychedelic drugs change the way users think. For a long time, possibly forever. In his pioneering work, The Psychedelic Experience (1964), Leary wrote

A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness. The scope and content of the experience is limitless, but its characteristic features are the transcendence of verbal concepts, of space-time dimensions, and of the ego or identity. Such experiences of enlarged consciousness can occur in a variety of ways: sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, religious or aesthetic ecstasies, or spontaneously. Most recently they have become available to anyone through the ingestion of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, etc. Of course, the drug does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures.

He also said in a 1966 CBS documentary about his work,

We always have urged people: Don’t take LSD unless you are very well prepared, unless you are specifically prepared to go out of your mind. Don’t take it unless you have someone that’s very experienced with you to guide you through it. And don’t take it unless you are ready to have your perspective on yourself and your life radically changed, because you’re gonna be a different person, and you should be ready to face this possibility.

A story in Wired Magazine about this new research described the image above:

A representation of that is seen in the image above. Each circle depicts relationships between networks—the dots and colors correspond not to brain regions, but to especially connection-rich networks—with normal-state brains at left, and psilocybin-influenced brains at right…
In mathematical terms, said Petri (study co-author Giovanni Petri, a mathematician at Italy’s Institute for Scientific Interchange), normal brains have a well-ordered correlation state. There’s not much cross-linking between networks. That changes after the psilocybin dose. Suddenly the networks are cross-linking like crazy, but not in random ways. New types of order emerge…
Petri notes that the network depiction above is still a simplified abstraction, with the analysis mapped onto a circular, two-dimensional scaffold. A truer way of visualizing it, he said, would be in three dimensions, with connections between networks forming a sponge-like topography.

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