Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Patricia Marx: 'Let's Be Less Stupid' (2015)

Patricia Marx, Let's Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties (2015). Very quick read. Marx, a wiseacre philosopher and pragmatist, takes us through an idiosyncratic jaunt in the ways and means of human cognition.

I read it via Kindle; now it's on retainer for future memory jogging. A few "takeaways:"

"Ninety percent of all the data in the world has been produced in the last two years . . ."  (Location 317: 20%)

"The ability of the brain to reorganize itself as a result of learning and new experience is called plasticity. My typing this sentence, for instance, changed my neural wiring, and your reading my words changed yours. Reading a novel, new research has found, may cause heightened connectivity in the brain that lasts five days . . ." (Location 368: 24%).

"OK, let's get back to me now . . ." (Location 457: 29%).

You get the idea -- or do you? In any case, a fun little book to add to the library of musings and findings about learning, thinking, sleeping, memory formation and interconnectivity. That's to say, journeying through life as a human being while still playing with a (more or less) full set of marbles. Can you grok?

Today's Rune: Signals.  

Monday, July 27, 2015

Venus: A Biography (Part I)

Andrew Dalby's Venus: A Biography (The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2005) really ties the Greco-Roman Gods and Goddesses together. Connects the dots. The names. The cross-cultural fertilization. 

Like the different worldwide Marian avatars of Catholicism, Venus comes in many guises and equivalencies. Inanna (Sumeria), Ishtar (Assyria-Babylonia), Isis and Bastet (Egypt), Aphrodite (Greece), Venus (Rome), Oshun (Yoruba), Rati and Parvati (Hindu), Xochiquetzal (Aztec). There are others.
Dalby provides variations on the myths and tales of Venus and many of the other deities of "The Before Time."  Venus hooks up with Ares (Mars), God of War, and they have three (or more) children: the twin sons Phobos (Fear), Deimos (Dread and Terror) and Harmonia.  Ares takes his boys off to help whip up a bloody good war among the pitiful mortals basically whenever he wishes. 

All stuff good to know, for it's especially relevant to astrology, astronomy, art, architecture, literature, gender studies, area studies, anthropology, psychology, religion, philosophy, history, politics and chaos theory -- among other things.

Today's Rune: Wholeness. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Shawn Ryan's 'The Shield' (FX, 2002-2008): Take One

The FX series The Shield (2002-2008) remains fresh, relevant, thoughtful and scary. It works on many levels, focusing on denizens in and around "The Barn," a provisional LAPD outpost with a zone of control in "The Farm."  The tone of the series is gritty and sharp. There's a mix of taut drama, comedic elements and bursts of violence indistinguishable from a contemporary war zone. The Shield fearlessly explores transactions of race, culture, socio-economic class, gender, greed, unexpected kindnesses, and all kinds of weaponry put to mostly dubious use. To boot, the series displays strong primary, secondary and tertiary characters, plot and pacing. 
The characters in The Shield are a mixed but memorable bag. One of my favorites is Van Bro (played by David Raibon), ex-gang member and survivor, albeit with an eye patch and a wheelchair; during the time of the series he's a street artist with an ear to the ground. "I'd appreciate if you kept Van Bro's name out your mouth," he quips to The Strike Team at one point. Van Bro doesn't appear often, but one certainly can remember him once he's introduced, from early on.
Another thread to watch for in The Shield is the Shogun and Game of Thrones style ambition, rivalry and usually thwarted or diverted resolution among a field of characters that range from new cops to old captains, from baby bangers to drug kingpins. Throughout, there's an endless quest in the grand scheme of things, but a quite finite one for most involved.

Today's Rune: Defense.    

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

E.L. Doctorow: 'The March' (2005)

RIP, E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015). An earlier version of this post was published in 2009.

The March (Random House, 2005, 2006).

Ingredients: Take Gore Vidal, John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, and Toni Morrison. Add freedmen and women, common soldiers (some of them deserters and some of them prisoners), a clinical doctor and his assistants, a photographer and his assistant, an English journalist, plantation owners, some colorful generals, and Abe Lincoln. Blend. Pour into a narrative flow.

Follow Sherman's March from Atlanta to the Sea, through Milledgeville to Savannah (November and December 1864), into South Carolina (February 1865), through Aiken and Columbia and on into North Carolina (March and April 1865) , through Monroe's Crossroads and Fayetteville, Averasboro and Bentonville, Goldsboro and Smithfield, and finally to Raleigh and Durham. Absorb and digest.

The March is divided into three parts: Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. The swiftness of the campaign, with refueling rests, is remarkable. Confederate resistance in the first two parts is haphazard until North Carolina, when Sherman's columns are challenged by "the regrouped Rebel forces under General Joe Johnston, the one capable general they had." Doctorow's depiction of "Old Joe" Johnston is glowing. I enjoyed that, because he's the main focus of my doctoral dissertation. William Tecumseh Sherman comes off as a man tortured not so much by the war as by life. He spares Savannah, but is not particularly upset when Columbia, South Carolina burns (because South Carolina started the war). He goes out of his way to protect Raleigh, North Carolina, in the wake of Lincoln's assassination. Historically sound assessments and Doctorow deftly emphasizes them. Overall, The March describes tumult well, the madness and also the magnifying lenses of war, specifically the American Civil War, with its enduring social and cultural legacies.

As an aside, Union Major General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, head of Sherman's cavalry, plays a ready made rogue in the novel, to some comic relief. He also happens to be journalist Anderson Cooper's great-great-grandfather.

Homer & Langley: A Novel (Random House, 2009), Doctorow's revolves around the Collyer brothers, who in "real life" died in 1947 as a direct result of their disposophobic hoarding.

Today's Rune: The Self. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Frederick Wiseman: 'The Store' (1983)

On the one hand (the rich or pretend rich hand): Prada, Saks Fifth Avenue, Escada, Vera Wang, Oscar de la Renta, Dolce & Gabbana, Georgio Armani, Nordstrom, Barneys New York, Bloomingdale's, Net-A-Porter, A'maree's, Bottega Veneta®, Morris & Sons -- Neiman Marcus, and so forth (see also El Corte Inglés in Madrid and Lisbon).

On the other hand (the poor or working class not pretending hand): The Dollar Store, Dollar Tree, Dollar General.

In between, you name it.

All of the above share being stores or product lines, their owners desiring and needing to sell merchandise. All share having customers who in turn desire, want or need to buy stuff with cash money or credit. 

Given this, Frederick Wiseman's in color "observational cinema" documentary The Store (1983) serves as a microcosmic look at all such stores, from the most expensive to the least. 
The Store, along with numerous other Wiseman films, plus a couple of books, is available directly from Zipporah Films -- which is where I acquired a DVD version. Link here:

Zipporah's description of The Store

'THE STORE is a film about the main Neiman-Marcus store and corporate headquarters in Dallas. The sequences in the film include the selection, presentation, marketing, pricing, advertising and selling of a vast array of consumer products including designer clothes and furs, jewelry, perfumes, shoes, electronic products, sportswear, china and porcelain and many other goods. The internal management and organizational aspects of a large corporation are shown, i.e., sales meetings, development of marketing and advertising strategies, training, personnel practices and sales techniques.'

Let me add: The Store is also about the architecture and design of massive department stores (rarer now in smaller cities) vs. those of other retailers; anxiety; identity; conspicuous consumption; ennui; desolation; labor; weird, prissy shoppers; changing mores (smoking allowed inside) and fashions (including hideous 1980s outfits, then "the cutting edge" of fashion); depressing store lighting and flooring (the lap of luxury?); the battle for hearts, minds and moolah; and let's not forget The Zodiac® restaurant. 

With no overarching narration and no clear "heroes" to follow, The Store is all the more fascinating to behold.

Today's Rune: The Mystery Rune.  

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Álvaro Obregón: Pancho Villa Meets His Match in the Mexican Revolution, 1915

Francisco Pancho Villa and Álvaro Obregón hated each other. For a while during the Mexican Revolution, they fought for the same coalition, but by 1915 -- one hundred years ago this year -- that coalition was split into new warring factions.  Villa and Emiliano Zapata broke for the Conventionists (Villistas and Zapatistas), Obregón for the Constitutionalists (Carrancistas). 

In 1915, armies led by Obregón and Villa battled for supremacy. Whereas Villa preferred attack mode with trains and horse cavalry, Obregón took advantage of newer lethal technology -- a combination of barbed wire, machine guns and artillery -- to fight on the tactical defensive.

At Celaya in the spring of 1915, Obregón and Villa fought two battles, and Obregón's men won both of them. Obregón's position was entrenched and fortified, bristling with machine guns and shielded with barbed wire. He used an updated version of an ancient formation best suited against cavalry charges -- the phalanx, hedgehog or square. (Note the square formation was used 200 years ago in the Napoleonic Wars, and in the Mexican-American War, at the Battle of Palo Alto, Texas, for instance, on May 8, 1846).

The Obregón-Villa series of battles were bloody and terrible; the two commanders wanted to kill each other with their bare hands, if possible. At the Second Battle of Celaya, April 13-15, 1915, Villa sent in wave after wave of horse cavalry to the attack. Horses tend not to be very enthused about charging into barbed wire and machine gun fire, and casualties were extremely high. Overall, Villa lost perhaps 50% casualties out of some 22,000 troops engaged, whereas Obregón's forces suffered about 1,050 killed out of 15,000 troops engaged. Obregón ordered all captured Villista officers to be shot (typical of both sides in this horrid conflict). 

 In June, 1915, Obregón was badly wounded in another battle against Pancho Villa; the story goes that, finding himself in an exposed spot and bleeding profusely,  Obregón tried to shoot himself dead rather than be captured, but his pistol didn't go off (a lucky accident caused by a junior staff officer making a mistake the night before, while cleaning the weapon). He didn't die, but he did lose an arm as a result of the original wound.

Obregón continued to battle the now beleaguered Villa until the Revolution began winding down around 1920, whereupon  Obregón was elected president of Mexico. Villa was bought off and subsequently, in 1923, assassinated. Obregón was reelected as president in 1928 but then promptly assassinated by a supporter of the Cristero Rebellion -- but that's for another post. Pancho Villa was forty-five when he died; Álvaro Obregón made it to the hoary age of forty-eight.

Today's Rune: The Mystery Rune. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin: 'Salesman' (1968, 1969): Take Two

Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin: Salesman (1968, 1969). The Maysles Brothers had previous experience at being door-to-door salesmen. They understood the lifestyle, and the stakes.   
Criterion Collection DVD. Chapter listing, including "Lost in Opa Locka," Florida. 
Much of the film spotlights Paul "The Badger" Brennan, who is in decline as a salesman from better years. "An orchestral version of 'This Land Is Your Land' is heard on Brennan's radio as he drives through the snow to a series of appointments with clients who are not home. The irony could not be clearer . . ."  ~ Joe McElhaney's Albert MayslesContemporary Film Directors series. University of Illinois Press, 2009, page 46.  

Today's Rune: Defense.