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Monday, May 28, 2012

A Shadow on the Wall

A quote from "A Clash of Kings": 
In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. Who should he kill?

Therein lies GRRM's meditation on the nature and meaning of power. What is power? What is dominance and submission? And why? 

The best I can come up with at this time, after reading and obsessing over A Song of Ice and Fire for over a whole year and am a little fed up with my addiction by now, is this:

Power is one person getting another person to do his bidding.

Simple, isn't it? Yet so complex.

In the end, one person is just one person. He may be a big person with terrifying power who can kill you if you do not obey, like Gregor Clegane (aka, the Mountain that Rides). He may be a vastly rich person who can pay someone to enforce his will, like Tyrwin Lannister. There are various ways to make one person do another one's bidding, with force, with incentives, with fear, with faith, with love, friendship, loyalty, or any other psychological devices. The entire human history is a display of these tricks. Nowadays they call it "leadership."

"Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less."
“So power is a mummer’s trick?”
“A shadow on the wall,” Varys murmured, “yet shadows can kill. And ofttimes a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

(People almost always interpret the "very small man" Varys refers to as Tyrion Lannister, but that is not completely true. He could also mean Joffrey Baratheon.)

But a man is a man, and Valar Morghulis --- All men die, or "Anyone can be killed." When a person says, "Fuck you, I'm out of here," or when a group of people say, "Fuck you, we refuse," how is one man to stop them from walking off?

GRRM's meditation about power and submission can be traced back to his southern vampire novel "Fevre Dream," which is ultimately about slavery, both in terms of the actual slavery in the South and the mental slavery that is an integral part of the human experience. Everyone submits to someone or something in life. There is no escaping it. And submission --- doing another one's bidding --- is neither good nor bad in itself. But he is exploring how and why the system of dominance and submission works between people. Humans are both social animals who rely on their tribe/pack to survive and self-conscious animals with a sense of individual, creating the contradictions in our social life.

Again, I have the eerie feeling that GRRM is so incredibly not American in the head.

There is no answer to Varys' riddle, and there is no answer to GRRM's musing over power and free will. One of the most telling options he proposed lies in Book 4 in the series, "A Feast for Crows." In Braavos lived a secret society of "Faceless Men," which was established by escaped slaves from Valyrian mines. They gave the gift of death. The mission of Faceless Men, in addition to assassinate for pay, was to give the gift to people who beg for it. Indeed it is a mercy and a gift for many, especially for slaves.

The idea is more clearly expressed in Book 5, "A Dance With Dragons." When Tyrion Lannister became a slave in Astapor and later Myreen, he pondered that even in slavery one has a choice --- the choice is death. He chose to live and be enslaved, because death is so ... final. But, still, the point is, one always has a choice.

So, then, GRRM is indeed American after all.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Don't Troll the Idiots

There are stupid questions, and there are idiots who will never let facts get in the way of beliefs.

I was a bit taken aback (and delighted) by the blunt words of Pamela Gay, a professor of astronomy at some university in the Midwest who gave a talk on common misconceptions and flat-out wrong ideas in astronomy. She has a podcast online that I mean to check out.

In addition to disputing theories like the end of the world according to the Mayan Calendar and why the moon has different phases (not the Earth's shadow), she gave the advice "Do not troll the idiots, because they will just troll you back. There are people who do not understand, and there are idiots. Know the difference. When you get into an argument with idiots, find an escape as quickly as you can." 

Another funny comment from her. She mentioned that, in her class, a student asked, "Dr. G ...", because this is the Midwest and people can't say "Gay."

The Solution to the Time Travel Paradox

It is so simple and works so well in the currently known scientific theories. I went to a talk about faster-than-light travel as a sci fi trope, and the scientists on the panel all said it was impossible, while the writers on the panel said it is useful as a story-telling device. I asked a question about dealing with time-travel (backward) and the paradox that ensues as a storytelling device and the many different approaches to resolve the difficulty. One of the panelist (a very nice Italian guy who brought his wife to the convention) recommended a book by David Gerrold titled "The Man Who Folded Himself" (not a spoof of Heinlein's "All You Zombies") who used the premise elegantly. I'll have to check it out.

One of the benefits of putting up one's hand during a talk is that others in the audience can hear you too. A sci fi fan with an education in physics in the audience, John Ashmead, stopped me after the talk and told me about his research on quantum physicists' work that has given a theoretically sound solution to the time-travel paradox. When a particle is sent back in time with an intervention to create a paradox, they have shown with calculations, the paradox will cancel each other out and therefore will not occur. This calculation is consistent with all current quantum physics and relativity, including the theory of "block time" (aka, block universe or eternalism). Simple. Depressing. Probably true.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Pushing Yourself

Am spending the long weekend at Balticon as we have done for several years. Just went to an interesting talk about pushing yourself as an artist. I don't draw or paint, but the artist's lessons are nevertheless relevant.

1. Try things you've never done before. Don't be afraid of pushing yourself. You might not want to try a new thing when you're being paid, because you don't want to mess it up, but you can do it for yourself. Doodle.

2. I asked what he would do it something does not feel right in the middle of a project. Would he abandon it halfway through and start anew? Or does he continue and finish it anyway. He said it depends on how much he's already done and how "wrong" it is. Usually he would go on and try to finish the project, because very often he could fix it in some way. Abandon only if it is early and it was clearing going in the wrong direction.

3. "People who don't use references are just arrogant." He always uses references, usually photographs of bodies in different poses, as he cannot afford to hire a model to pose for him. When an artist does not use any reference at all, the picture is clearly "off" in some way. One can always tell. Someone in the audience mentioned that another presenter showed 35 paintings (for comics and fantasy art), which all clearly referenced "Pieta." The lesson? One should reference but not copy.

*****

Coming upstairs in the elevator, the door was slow to close on an intermediate floor. I leaned over and pushed the "Door Close" button and the elevator responded immediately. A thin, short man with two-foot-long white beard said solemnly, "Sometimes they need a little nudge."

*****

Also went to a science talk by a marine biologist. He gave a fascinating talk about a detective story-like discovery made by him and colleagues, in which it took them decades to realize that 3 separate fishes were in fact one fish at various stages of development.

He also made a point that marine biologists can be colorful characters. I was reminded of Dave Bolus, my biology profession in college, on whom I had my first crush ...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Something about Something Else

Linda Holmes, who is the editor of NPR's pop culture blog Monkey See (and who also lives in the DC area), once mentioned the effect of college English lit classes had on her. She said, to paraphrase, what is written is not about the thing it is talking about but is about something else. An English lit student reading mainstream modern literature is trained to constantly looking for symbols. A solitary drink in the afternoon symbolizes a housewife's despair. The majestic mountains of Montana symbolizes the suffocating heritage of the American pioneers. A dead squirrel on the lawn symbolizes the collective White Guilt of American intellectuals or the death of the American dream, or whatever.

It struck me as astute. Modern English Literature with a capital L seems to be more of a product of academia and "the college English department" than a product of the storytelling history that goes back to the dawn of human consciousness. The overanalysis on literature in teaching and taking college English classes and writing Ph.D. dissertations tends to produce "academic" writers.

However, if you think I am going to bash modern Literature as I always have done, you'll be disappointed. The other day I thought of Holmes' comment and thought, "It's not wrong that something is often about something else." Over the years, I have learned that the human consciousness is indeed very much detached from the more primitive parts of the brain. The heart and the mind do not understand each other too well and tend to go on with their own delusions. What you get is that most people don't really know why they are who they are and why they do what they do. We don't understand our motivations or aversions. So, it is a real phenomenon that somebody may do something for reasons that are deeply buried in decades of "normal life."

It can be boring if every character's conscious thoughts, emotions, and actions are too consistent and logical, but too much symbolism can lose the reader quickly. How does one approach this? What is wrong with writing "flat" characters who usually do what they think and feel, and what they think do not conflict with how they feel? Lots of writers have figured it out for themselves, but I am still struggling with it.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

DC Mayoral Scandal

The DC mayoral election scandal has been brewing for over a year and is only getting juicier and juicier. I sniffed around on reliable news reports. The way facts come out makes it a bit difficult to figure the chronology of things, which is a bit mind tickling in itself. The news printed today has to include things that happened yesterday and the events and actions two years ago that caused yesterday's event. It's not a conventional novel with a linear narrative or a one-hour police drama --- Well, actually, no, a police drama also presents the cause after or simultaneously with the effect. But I digress.

Below is a summary of the events of the 2010 DC mayoral election, in chronological order, from what I've gathered. Such great materials for a thriller or two.

Why Sulaimon Brown, an unemployed accountant (or so he claims) in his late 30s with no obvious financial backing, entered the election as a minor candidate with no hope of winning, remains unknown. Nevertheless, he was one of the candidates and openly and aggressively attacked the incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty in public debates. Nevertheless, in the summer of 2010, he was one of several candidates in the DC mayor's race.

It is also unknown exactly when the leading Vincent Gray and his staffers made a deal with Brown to act as his "agent" to attach his rival. At least in late summer or early fall, Brown directly made deals with Lorraine Green, Gray's campaign manager. Green and Howard Brooks, who is Gray's close friend and a paid consultant on the campaign, met with Brown and gave him money in exchange for his "assistance." The payments amounted to several thousand dollars. In addition, Brown demanded a promise of a job for himself and a job for his brother in Gray's administration once he came into office. By Brown's own claim, Green and Brooke gave him the promise.

Next, Gray won the election in the fall of 2010, defeating Fenty by about 10 percentage points. Before he took office, however, Brown began to get nervous in the winter of 2010, as he sensed some cooling response to him from Gray's circle. After all, he'd served his purpose, would they abandon him now? He called and texted Gray, Green, and Brooks repeatedly and did extract a promise from Gray to keep his word.

Came January 2011, Gray took office and indeed gave Brown a job in his administration as some sort of special consultant to the health finance office, which paid him a salary of about $110K a year. This appointment drew criticism almost immediately, perhaps because of Brown's recent performance only a few months ago, or perhaps it became obvious that he was not qualified for the job. Someone dug up Brown's record of having been arrested twice before, although he was not charged or convicted. The grumbles made Gray nervous enough to remove Brown from the lucrative appointment after only 2 months in March 2011.

This "betrayal," of course, enraged Brown, and the rest of the drama proves that a politician always has to be careful who they choose to make deals with. Brown made Gray pay. Oh did he make all of them pay.

Once dismissed from the job, Sulaimon Brown called Washington Post and gave them the whole story of how he was bought by Gray's campaign to attack Fenty previously with the promise of a job and a few thousand dollars. He produced his own cell phone's call history and text messages to corroborate his story. He directly implicated Green, who headed the mayoral transition team, Brooks, and Gray himself. The story came out in Washington Post in March 2011. Gray and his staff, of course, denied all the allegations.

The allegations attracted the attention of the FBI and US Attorney's Office. They have the power to raid any office, search and seize any documents, and make anyone talk. Howard Brooks appears to be one of the first they broke. In the fall of 2011, Brooks wore a wire that allowed the feds to tape his conversations with other Gray staffers involved in the scandal, which has trapped at least one person so far and is likely to drag more of them down.

On Tuesday, May 22, 2012, Gray's campaign treasurer Thomas Gore was arrested and pleaded guilty in course for having used Gray's campaign money to forge money orders in Brooks' son's and friend's names to pay Brown. Two days later, Brooks pleaded guilty to paying Brown with this money. Both Gore and Brooks have pleaded guilty, indicating that both have made deals with federal prosecutors to build their cases against others. So far, Lorraine Green and Vincent Gray have not been indicted, but they will be, it seems.

In addition to the Sulaimon Brown transaction, the feds raided the office of Jeffrey Thompson in March 2012. Thompson is a contractor who had contributed to Gray's campaign; his company subsequently won a managed-care contract to provide medical service to poor residents in DC. The contract was worth $355 million a year. Since the raid, the company was quickly sold to a different businessman.

Local politics is smaller and therefore easier to follow than national-level politics, and how very colorful. National politics can be just as juicy and delicious --- see the John Edwards trial --- but is more sophisticated and less likely to be exposed to the public with all the glorious details.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Braden Overett


Braden Overett
It's not easy to explain my impression of Braden Overett. During his competitive career, he was never a top skater and even failed to make it to the Nationals in some years. He was also one of the most popular skaters among the hardcore American skating fans. At 26, he won the Professional Skating Association's Choreographer of the Year award for the free program he choreographed for himself ("Pirates of the Caribbean"). He is one of the most musical skaters I have ever seen. He can catch every beat and every turn of melody with his arms and fingers and just a look. His style is, as pointed out by a friend of mine, both musical and masculine. Very, very few skaters have that.

I am almost a little ashamed to admit it, but when I first arrived I was a bit in awe of the mythical "American Youth" that swarmed the college campus. They seem to exude casual confidence, relentless optimism, and benevolent self-satisfaction that remain untroubled by the world. They walk around with a "the world is my oyster" swagger that filled my heart with envy and a twinge of bitterness, for I will never have this kind of natural confidence. 

Two decades later, my wide-eyed fascination has largely turned cynical with experience and familiarity. Perhaps all of this is mere projection of my mind, but Braden Overett still reminds me of the best kind of the mythical American Youth. He doesn't seem to work too hard, but his confidence is almost intimidating -- but then the American Youth is also sunny, personable, and easy-going. He has an abundance of brilliance, talent, and charm that move people without the obligatory achievements and success in the conventional sense. He is the kid in class who never studied but always got A in everything.

Perhaps my impression is completely wrong. Had I known him, perhaps all this silly mythologizing would have immediately evaporated. Perhaps he has plenty of struggles of his own. Who knows. Since retiring from skating, Overett did some choreography for his friend Bebe Liang but not much else. He toured with a skating company for a year in Europe. I saw him in person at this year's Nationals in San Jose, but I didn't go chat him up.

A couple of videos:
The award-winning program;
A recent piece of choreography.

So Good!

I don't read about music and I'm no Bach fan, but I am so delighted by Jeremy Denk's writing that I have to link to his guest blogs on NPR's site about the "Goldberg Variations." They are clever and hilarious.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Phrasing

Went to a figure skating judging seminar last Saturday. Joe Inman talked about musical phrasing and movement choreography on ice that corresponds to the musical phrases. It seemed a bit absurd to watch him trying to explain the concept to a bunch of kids there who are apparently aspiring skaters. Perhaps he should try to teach all the judges first. Who would have thunk being a figure skater requires more than a passing knowledge of music theories ... No wonder my friend (a judge) likes to say this is the most intellectually challenging sport. But still, sometimes I think it is all too much.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

White Flame

James Grady
I randomly picked "White Flame" from the library shelf under "Detective Fiction G" among the few Grady novels. His short story "The Bottom Line" was the best entry in the anthology "DC Noir" and blew my mind, so I had quite a bit of expectation going into his novel. It was somewhat of a miss than a hit, unfortunately. The plot, theme, and characters have potentials that are ultimately underdeveloped.

The best part in the entire novel is a short scene between Male Lead #1 (an FBI agent with the very masculine name of Dalton Cole) and a woman of ill repute (or, using an old-fashioned phrase, "a fallen woman") in a cafe in rural Iowa. The dialogue crackled and popped. So much was hinted but unspoken. Again, Grady showed a weakness for the femme fetale, like he did in "The Bottom Line." Ah, too bad the fascinating "fallen woman" character and her storyline had a grand total of one scene in the entire book.

The second most interesting character in the novel is an alcoholic DC MPD cop with an uneasy relationship with his own whiteness. He is the least explored of the three lead investigators in the story. It is really a bit too crowded to have three "good guys" at the center, even if more realistic than the usual one or two. It doesn't help that the first two, who get nearly all the attention from the author, do not have the edge and seediness of the MPD cop.

All in all a fairly average thriller, except that, as a DC resident (transplanted from Montana decades ago), Grady does two things a little better than most white American writers: politics and race.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Dream

I stood inside an office building, waiting for my friend, Eve, to come out and have lunch together. Through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall was a panoramic view of the river. Eve was walking down the lobby toward me when the light changed, and suddenly we saw each other's face covered with a blue sheen. We turned toward the wall and saw the sky turning into a deep, dark shade of blue.

We ran outside and stood on the river bank. The entire world was bathed in an eerie blue light. People gathered around in stunned silence. As we looked up, everyone's face glowed in an intense blue-white light, as if having absorbed and then emitting a high-energy pulse, as if we had entered a photograph-developing dark room, except the color was blue. Before us, the wide river flowed calmly. In a gentle breeze, the ripples flickered blue with dark, glistening peaks. 

Someone beamed a flashlight into the sky. The beam of light touched an invisible ceiling somewhere above and was swallowed whole, leaving only a flat, small, white disk, like a paper cutout with little holes within. A few more such disks appeared in the sky. They floated silently and slowly, like snowflakes that never fall to the ground. Soon, more white pieces began to appear. They all seemed two dimensional, like paper cutouts with intricate patterns. One looked like a butterfly. Another looked like a fish with holes for scales. They drifted weightlessly, icy and indifferent, in the starless sky.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fate

Reading "The Song of Achilles" reminded me of an old movie that left a deep impression on me "Portrait of Jennie,"  which led me to the novella by Robert Nathan of the same name. It is a tender and haunting story set and written in the late 1930s.


What do Greek mythology and "Portrait of Jennie" have in common? Both deal with predetermined fate and people who are resigned to that knowledge. Does one struggle and fight or accept and make the best of it?

The Marriage Plot


The novel is most amusing and fun when it is gently poking fun at its various characters and the social and academic strata they represent, very much in the same vein as Jane Austen novels. I don't even mind so much that the heroine, the sheltered, naive, and priviledged Madeleine, is not made to be very likable or sympathetic. The problem, I think, is the character Leonard, a dangerously charismatic bipolar patient who is socioeconomically below Madeleine's WASP background. His presence does not fit in the Austen-like tone of the rest of the book. He kind of screws up the entire novel because one cannot mock or satirize, even if kindly, someone who is in such a terrible situation through no fault of his own.

I much prefer the humors about university English department through Madeleine and the obligatory post-college spiritual journey of Mitchell. It was immediately obvious that Mitchell reflects the most of the author himself. I really enjoy the character's youthful earnestness and doubt.  Mitchell feels like the most authentic of the three, and his arc is the most believable and nuanced.

Perhaps because I am fairly close to bioscience research and mental illness, Eugenides' depiction of both aspects in Leonard (being a scientist and bipolar patient) seems well researched but not convincing. Thus Leonard's pull on Madeleine is also quite unconvincing.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Swimming Video

今天去游泳时某同学要求跟着,还拿照相机拍了一段video。回家后看自己挥着两条小胖胳膊在水里慢吞吞地划呀划的,忍不住哈哈笑出声来。不过真的颇有教育效果,可以看出自己换气的时候头转动幅度太大了。难怪花样滑冰教练都爱给学生拍录像呢。

Friday, May 4, 2012

Birdsong (TV)


This TV miniseries irritates the hell out of me. They fancy themselves Anthony Minghella making "The English Patient" or something. Besides gruesome WWI battlefield scenes, liberally littered with broken bodies and spilled bowels, there are long takes of nothing but people staring at each other, muttering a few words that are supposed to be romantic or profound. If it weren't for Richard Madden's minor role in it, I would have given up within the first half hour. Poor Eddie Redmayne. I do like him and don't mind his freckles, but all his endless sad gazing at the camera with his deep-set eyes, accompanied by faint, tinkly soundtrack music, just got me sick and tired after the first dozen times. Oh, the endless, endless weeping! Ugh. The pace is "artfully" ponderous and the scenes are damned repetitive. The characters and plot seemed to have come straight out of trashy French romance novels. The soapy cliches have been exploited so ad nauseum by now that even the trashiest genre fiction writers today would be ashamed to recycle them. I guess only the serious mainstream literary authors, sitting in their musty university English department offices, are not embarrassed to continue to exploit these cliches. Why the fuck are these characters so fucking weepy and hysterical all the time at the slightest provocation? Yet they are supposed to be hardened by war and carnage. This is as bad as Korean TV soap operas. The last straw is that the hero lives to the end! Yay, happy ending! Everyone else dies, on the battlefield, in the trenches, in the tunnels, whatever, but he survives desperate situations over and over and over again. Groan. I am sorry but this kind of storyline can no longer gain the respect of anyone who has gone through A Song of Ice and Fire. Perhaps I should blame GRRM for spoiling my appetite. Once you've tasted the most potent flavors, the watery old crap just won't do.

Death of a Salesman


Is it the great America tragedy or the great American satire? I consider it the latter, with scathing ironies on everything held up as the archetypical American Dream: a house paid off in 25 years, worship of youth and popularity ("being well liked"), a boastful masculinity, a delusional optimism, and, most of all, selling things. Sell, Sell, Sell! Everyone can see Willy Loman is pathetic, yet no one walks out thinking the play is really about the "Death of the American Dream." It has been considered by many to be the "greatest American play." Ironic, isn't it?

But it is also a family tragedy in the sense of great American family tragedies. I most identify with Happy Loman, desperately trying to hold the family together by toeing the line, obliviously idolizing everyone else but baffled by their bitterness toward each other, perpetually wondering what the fuck is wrong with your clansmen.

What is wrong with the family? What a bizarre and fucked up relationship Willy and Biff have. In the best of times, they simultaneously idolize and be idolized by each other, and in the end crush each other under the weight of both men. Willy incessantly fawns over Biff's youth and popularity in high school, which feeds his own delusional self-image of being a "well liked" salesman up and down the Northeast. Biff basks in his father's adoration and idealization, swallowing Willy's myth line and hook to his own peril. Biff's idol shriveled and died when he happened upon Willy sleeping with a trashy woman on the road some years ago, and the death of his Father myth lay waste to his subsequent life. The death of Willy's Son myth comes much later and more reluctantly, resulting in Willy's suicide. In a way, Biff's self-destruction is a form of suicide, too. Father and son, what symmetry!

Why should it be so strange that one would look to his son for comfort and dependency and other kinds of safety and protection normally provided by one's parents? Oh, Willy's father was absent in his childhood. The substitute father, his brother Ben, abandoned him, too. Is it so incomprehensible that a weak, frightened, pathetic man would cling onto his first-born son as a shield against the constant assaults on his self-esteem from the world? It is fairly common, in fact, for parents to try to boost their own sense of worth through bloated expectations on their children's worth. And children under such desperate parental neediness eventually crumble, even without the revelation that their parents are but weak and pathetic nobodies.

Parents and children are all desperately seeking a safe haven for their fragile and broken psyche. Delusions abound. Everyone in the play lives in a rosy delusion of the others, even Biff, whose rage is rooted in his inability to let go of his Father myth. I suppose it is inevitable that most children cannot help but idolize their parents and believe them omnipotent. But then from whom do parents find such comfort if they have not found it in their own parents? I guess that is the universal appeal of religion.

***********
看完 Salesman 之后的当晚做梦梦见了 Paul Giamatti。

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

二手资料

在纽约听来的故事。

某个韩德混血男青年,因为会讲韩语而被选中给韩裔灰色生意做事。报酬优厚,要做的事却很简单,就是开了豪华车跑机场接送人。接送的全都是韩裔美女,送的都是城内高级酒店,几个钟头或一夜后即送回机场飞走。偶尔也会有接送大亨嫖客的任务。

有一次接了位美女,坐在后面一直哭泣。他默默地把车开到了别处,也不知干了什么,或许只是请美女喝了杯咖啡,总之没有把她按指定时间送到指定地点。第二天清早便把她送回机场离去。

于是这个司机工作也没了。

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with t...

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