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June 28, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion»catholicism

And I'm the King of Spain

Finishing Frank Thomas's "What's the Matter with Kansas" today at lunch, I had almost drifted gently and without obstacle through the book (which stubbornly refuses to find larger meaning to its well-written examination of a very boring and foolish state) before I hit a snag. In the last chapter, Thomas casually spends some time commenting on a Kansan formerly known as David Bawden, now elected Pope Michael I after a 32 year interregnum of the "true" Catholic Church.

Pause, if you will, and consider that for a second.

Apparently, since the Vatican II reforms (don't ask me, I only speak Secular), the Vatican and other sects have been on the wrong track. The false church's supporters can all be discounted due to various sins or false testimonies. The only remaining person eligible for the papacy, in other words, is David Bawden, and so he has donned the robes and funny hat. If you really feel up to it, you can visit the Pope's website to uncover this controversy in more detail. I'm not aware that anti-Popes John Paul II or Benedict XXAIV3 have clumsily-coded home pages hosted through generic free servers, so that may be a point in Michael I's favor.

I know that from a purely dispassionate perspective the Catholic Church is everything I loathe in a religion--dogmatic, superstitious, utterly medieval in structure and method--yet I can't help but feel some fondness for the Church. It just seems to get a better class of crazy than the openly-hostile Protestant fundamentalists.

June 5, 2005

Filed under: culture»asia»china»mandarin

Already worth the link

Quote of the day, taken from Pinyin.info's readings ("Why Chinese Is So Damned Hard"):

One could say that Chinese is phonetic in the way that sex is aerobic: technically so, but in practical use not the most salient thing about it.

The readings at the site really are excellent. I'm skeptical about them (most of them are criticisms of the Chinese writing system) but only because I try to be skeptical of everything I read--they're very convincing. More research is obviously required. But the above article will produce grins and nods from any student or former student of Mandarin Chinese.

May 31, 2005

Filed under: culture»asia»imported

Strange things are afoot at the Super H

Ever since I've had my grand idea about improving iced chai, I've been thinking about implementing a solution on my own. So tonight I went to the Super H, an Asian market not far from my house, to try and pick up some tea bubbles.

I love Asian markets. For one thing, it's just the simple, giddy pleasure of a novel experience. Items are available for purchase at a Super H that you will never, I promise you, see at a Giant or a Shoppers. There are whole squid and octopi available, shrink-wrapped for freshness, in the seafood section. These same creatures, along with a wide variety of other animal and ocean life, are also found freeze-dried an aisle down. The meat section includes porkchops and steaks, but there's also a good supply of "bull pizzle," and I'm pretty sure that is exactly what it sounds like. Can you even imagine walking up to a butcher in the US and asking to have two pounds of bull pizzle? You'd either get laughed at or hit on.

Those are just the items that typical white Americans might have heard about. There's a lot of produce, various roots and vegetables, that we don't grow domestically. There are uncommon spices. I personally enjoy the collection merely labeled Asian Snack. Some of the candies found under Asian Snack look like their American counterparts, and of those, some of them will actually be the same. The rest will either be dopplegangers shocking to the unexpected or wholly unconventional packages, perhaps made of shrimp. The Asian Snack aisle also contains Pocky. I've never really understood the geek fascination with Pocky. It's good, but it's very expensive for what it is.

Shopping at an Asian market, unless you can read Korean, is probably done by looking at the pictures on the package. For some reason, all of the stores around here are Korean-owned, like Super H and Grand Mart. Even if it were all in Chinese, I'd probably have a lot of trouble reading it. Korean, being a phonetic language that is completely unrelated to Mandarin, leaves me wandering back and forth and peering at the hanzi/English translations on the back of various packages. You could try to ask for help, but the managers are probably no-where to be found. The stockboys are Latino of one flavor or another and seem to collectively view the whole store as a colossal joke--you might or might not get an accurate answer.

Side note: speaking of Hispanic employees and language conflicts, one of my friends (who is Japanese) took a temporary position at one of these markets. They put her to work giving out samples of flavored soy milk. I went to visit her with my then-girlfriend and found her mooning over one of the stockboys, who didn't speak much English (and hers wasn't terribly expressive at the time). We joked about learning Spanish so she could flirt properly. In response, this cute Japanese girl, who had always seemed to be a total innocent, asked me to translate the phrase "I want to melt in soy milk with you." To this day, I haven't found a more interesting subject for translation.

The other interesting trend to be aware of, should you choose to patronize one of these grocery stores, is that they often contain smaller shops dedicated to cheap consumer goods. If you want a really good rice cooker or a set of sushi plates, that's where you can find them. Larger stores sometimes have clothing and imported video rental stalls. You pay for these things separately. When I was in China, the "malls" there operated on a similar model--instead of having separate storefronts, the inside is one huge space with booths for various wares. I'm assuming that the domestic stores have simply imported the idea, just as if they had brought it over on a pallet with boxes of Haribo Peaches.

There are times when I wish I could pick up and take another trip overseas. There are still a lot of countries I haven't visited, and working at the Bank (where people take frequent vacations or home leave) can revive my wanderlust. Stepping into the Super H is a trip just out of the ordinary, and one that doesn't invoke any jet lag. I wish it had been a trip resulting in tea bubbles tonight, but they were absent, which surprised me. The iced chai revolution will have to wait at least one more night.

May 22, 2005

Filed under: culture»pop»starwars

...any contractor willing to work on that Death Star knew the risks.

In an alternate universe, Orson Scott Card writes Clerks. Which begs the question: how impressive is it that OSC's fiction is still a great and relevant read, even as his personal viewpoint becomes steadily more fanatical and insane?

Via Pharyngula, where PZ laments the irony of it all.

May 20, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion»books»leftbehind

Damned if you do

Every week, I look forward to Fred's Left Behind Friday over at Slacktivist. I enjoy it partly because it is always fun seeing horrible Christian apocaliterature torn apart by someone who knows the subculture and picks up on the little inhumanities, but mostly as sweet revenge. See, I've read the first couple books in the Left Behind series. I got bored one summer, grabbed them off of Gnutella (what were they doing on filesharing anyway? Isn't it a sin to steal books?) and churned my way through them. So I have first-hand experience with Jenkins and LaHaye, and I'm going to share what I found so that you don't have to satisfy your curiosity the same way.

Let's get it out of the way: the books are awful. Really, really terrible stuff. It's one thing to have an ideological viewpoint, and it's another to simply have no fictional writing ability in the slightest. Jerry Jenkins (the primary writer--Tim LaHaye is the "religious consultant," another travesty all together) combines these two flaws into a nexus of Suck unequalled through known history. I like to think of it as a tiny black hole that he keeps in his back yard, where it sucks up wandering pets and small children into its event horizon and in return generates page upon page of hysterical fascist prose.

It hurts me to say this, but Left Behind is honestly worse than Ayn Rand, who was previously my benchmark for terrible fiction. At least with Rand you can pick out a decent pulp story if you skip most of the dialogue and the misogynistic rape scenes. Her writing functions fairly well as a comic book or as a movie, where time and space restraints would carve out only the barest essentials. In contrast, Left Behind could never be improved in any medium. This is too bad, because the first book has potential. Oh, I know: if you read the Slacktivist's coverage of the book, you'll see where he's caught all kinds of psychosis just in the first 80 pages. But if you're not paying such close attention (perhaps because you're having so much trouble reading Jenkins's traffic jam prose), the Rapture scenario can hold your attention momentarily. You may start to anticipate where a better writer could take this material, someone like Garth Ennis (or Stephen King, who basically wrote the same book but without the holes in The Stand). Worse, you may hope that Jenkins's reach simply exceeds his grasp, and perhaps he plans to tell such a gripping story, but simply lacks the talent to make it run smoothly.

Ha! At that point you have fallen into his trap. As soon as Jenkins manages to bring the characters together, through a series of increasingly unlikely devices, the book goes from being an adventure story to a 300-page scripture lesson, and it never eases up for the remaining 11 books (and one prequel now). The characters simply become observers, plodding through the same simple plot structure over and over again:

  1. Read scripture and interpret it in tortorous Fundamentalist logic as a prophecy, usually involving the Antichrist,
  2. Observe the predicted events as they occur, without actually doing anything to alter the disastrous consequences,
  3. Mourn how the unbelieving hordes were cruelly slaughtered or abused because they would not listen,
  4. Go to step 1.
3600 PAGES OF THAT. The only subplot in the first book that didn't fit this progression, as far as I can remember, is the disturbing romance between Cameron "Buck" Williams (the Greatest Investigative Reporter In The World, as Fred calls him) and the college-age daughter of main character Rayford "Ray" Steele (yes, everyone in the book has an ultraphallic name. I don't even want to think about the significance.) Because this is the work of a sub-literate Evangelical hack, you can see it coming a mile away when "Buck" and the daughter (Chloe, a name I thought was only used in bodice-ripping romance--hm...) meet on an airplane and exchange extremely tame flirtation followed by Bible verses. Personally, I recoiled in horror and then continued reading with a sick fascination. You can't help but wonder: how are these uptight, conservative lunatics going to depict romance in their post-Rapture world? When you're a writer who ideologically opposes dancing, drinking, physical expressions of affection, and particularly premarital, sexual expressions of affection, how do you write a courtship plotline?

Not that I found out. After the first book, I tried to struggle through another, but it was just too much for me. Which, in a way, is too bad: did you know there's a whole genre of this stuff? I could have been set for new reading material for life. Rapture porn is one of the leading Christian subgenres, romance novels for the righteous. They're even taking over new genres now. One of Jerry Jenkins's pet projects (apart from his terrifying Left Behind for Kids books, coming soon to an rural elementary near you) is the trio Soon, Silenced, and Shaken, three science fiction novels that chronicle a double agent working undercover to save the Christian minority in a dystopian future. Christians in the minority? A rational, secular government that suppresses fundamentalists? Maybe to the intended audience that's a dystopia. After reading Left Behind and realizing that these books sell millions of copies, it's starting to sound pretty good to me.

May 9, 2005

Filed under: culture»asia»china»film

Movie Review: The Road Home

Every now and then I get annoyed at how far my foreign language skills have slipped, and I saturate myself in media way above my level. At the Civil Society event, there were a lot of Spanish- and Mandarin- speakers there, and so now I have a ton of Spanish and Mandarin movies in my Netflix queue. Last night I watched The Road Home, which I'd been looking forward to, because it's by Zhang Yimou (Hero) and stars Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). It wasn't a bad movie. It wasn't very good either.

The Road Home begins with a young man returning to his home village for his father's funeral. His mother insists that the father, a former schoolteacher, must be carried back to the village on foot, as is tradition. This prompts the flashback that makes up most of the story--how the schoolteacher and his wife met and fell in love. It's an old story, but that doesn't mean it's a bad one. And there's a lot going for this, frankly. The cinematography is quite good, using the backdrop of rural China to full effect, including a stunning set of snowbound shots. Zhang Ziyi turns in a very good performance--Americans who are used to seeing her as a flawlessly beautiful martial artist will, I think, be surprised to see her with such baggy clothes and awkward movements, but it's a really well-done physical portrayal.

Still, the movie drags a bit. The courtship between the schoolteacher and Zhang is chaste and, while cute, not terribly passionate. This is a G-rated flick in more ways than one. There's never really any tension between the two lovers, and no sense of discovery. When the teacher is hauled back to the city for political reasons (most likely the Cultural Revolution), Zhang waits for him patiently and obsessively, but I wasn't really convinced that she should have. Likewise, at the end of the film, when the father's funeral is supported by hundreds of his former students, it's a nice gesture but one that's not really supported by the rest of the movie. It's simply meant to be a given somehow that he was a great, inspiring teacher.

The Road Home has won several international awards, but I'm not really sure why--surely there were better foreign flicks available in 2001. It felt to me like an old Disney film--it's a throwback. It's a quality movie, make no mistake, but there's no real distinctiveness to go with that quality. It's accessible for an American audience, with no obscure customs or motives that need to be translated across cultural boundaries. All in all, I'd say this is a good lazy Sunday film, or a fine date movie, if your date is into subtitled Chinese drama.

April 11, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion

Chapter and Verse

Gripped as we are (See "Great Moments in Catholicism") in the middle of POPE-MANIA 2005 in the media, I might be a little hyper-conscious of religion infringing on my life. On the other hand, a paranoid is simply in possession of all the facts. Either way, this "Revelations" show is really starting to annoy me--I get that little twitch whenever I see religious-themed advertisements in godless heathen venues like Salon.com, and "Revelations" is particularly egregious.

Google it, and the ever-helpful TV Tome states:

From executive producer Gavin Polone (Panic Room) and writer/creator David Seltzer (The Omen), comes this six-hour event series starring Bill Pullman (Independence Day) as Harvard professor Dr. Richard Massey, an astrophysicist whose certainty that all worldly events can be explained by Science, is challenged by a nun, Sister Josepha Montafiore (Natascha McElhone, "Solaris"), who leads him on a journey through the unfamiliar world of faith.

Drawn together by personal tragedy, these unlikely partners -- one who worships God and one who worships Science -- are propelled into a deepening mystery, finding evidence that the world, as predicted by The Book of Revelation, has reached The End of Days.

Awesome! It's like a buddy-cop movie, but with Jesus! And if there's anything I really needed more of in a Judeo-Christian media market during POPE-MANIA 2K5, it's more Jesus. The mind boggles. In fact, it reaches the outer boundaries of possible boggledom after this paragraph:

Notable guest stars include John Rhys-Davies ("The Lord of The Rings"), Tobin Bell ("Saw"), Fred Durst (lead singer of the rock band "Limp Bizkit") and Mark Rendall ("The Interrogation of Michael Crowe").

So the "notable" guests are the dwarf from Lord of the Rings (whose actual career is an object lesson in b-moviedom), Fred Durst (!), and the voice of PBS's Arthur? They must be so proud.

Of course, we could snark about miniseries casting all day--and maybe one day I will--but it's all just icing on the cake. What really bothers me about this is the insinuation that the "skeptic" is the one who's out of touch with the "truth" of a biblical apocalypse loosely adapted for television. That's the kind of sloppy, wishful dramatic thinking that makes fundamentalists so infuriating. It feeds their persecution complex and their conviction that a patchy book written by a 2000 year-deceased hitchhiker is somehow more truthful than hard science, great literature, and non-Fox journalism. Note the phrasing in that first quote: "...one who worships science." Nobody "worships" science--but the fundamentalists need to think they do, so that their own kooky fantasies can have equal time with cold facts. In an era when almost half of America thinks that evolution is a mistaken belief held only by elitists, our society doesn't need "Revelations" to muddy the waters.

So I would like to offer the following alternative to the networks, completely free of charge: a show about a freelance skeptic who dramatically debunks supernatural frauds and fallacies in and around American culture. Imagine the X-Files without the blatant bias against Scully's point of view. We can even throw in a crisis of faith, some doubt, and romantic tension if that'll help. Here, try this pitch on for size:

Paranormal detective Mark Falwell wants to believe in psychics, saints, and the supernatural--but he just can't find a world that will bear him out. Having left his life as a monk when the contradictions of faith grew to be too much, this world-weary bachelor searches for new hope that this case will be the one that rational science can't explain, only to be disappointed when his powers of deduction and reasoning prove the mundane over the miraculous. Opposing him is the smoldering Jane Myers, a mysterious Christian conspiracy theorist who is drawn to Falwell despite the call of her beliefs.

Drawn together by personal tragedy, these unlikely partners -- one who practices Reason and one who worships God -- are propelled into the deepening mystery of credulity and superstition in America.

I couldn't write it--I'd be too vicious. But get a good, rational writer on this, one who's got some sympathy for the devil (as it were) and can handle both sides fairly but critically, and you could be looking at some great television.

April 10, 2005

Filed under: culture»religion

Great Moments in Catholicism

I found this while walking around downtown Arlington with the Nerdlet the other night. It was in a Catholic bookstore window.

You just can't make that kind of thing up.

Future - Present - Past