Nov 30, 2012

Stargate Skyfall

I caught Skyfall over the holiday weekend and I loved it. Daniel Craig continues to bring a gravitas to the role that transitions Bond from outrageous camp to something with surprising depth. And this was probably the darkest yet -- a journey through death and resurrection, as the series reboots itself yet again. This is a bold re-envisioning, exchanging the high tech gadgetry, that has become too ubiquitous to be entertaining, for low tech cleverness. Javier Bardem is just flamboyant enough to be a Bond villain, yet tragic and human enough to be a believable character. He's also consistently brilliant.

The movie is excellent. But the opening credit sequence is a masterpiece.

Leaving aside for a moment the sheer awesomeness of the cinematography and the buttery richness of Adele's voice, what captivated me was the layering of esoteric imagery. It was the genius of the opening credits (posted above) that convinced me to brave the crowds and see this movie in the theater.

As with the recent Olympics, and so much in popular art and entertainment, it's hard to say how much of the symbolism is deliberate and how much is subconscious. But it's hard to believe that a film about a journey through death and rebirth just happens to have one portal image after another by accident. 

This is the end...

The sequence opens with a wormhole as Bond is pulled through a swirling vortex on the ocean floor. From there, the viewer moves through one circular gate after another, from bullet holes, to the circumpunct like barrel of a gun, to James Bond's eye. We slide through these apertures, moving from one dark, surreal landscape to another.

Skyfall is where we start...

There are also numerous images of the Celtic Cross, aka the Medicine Wheel, aka the four directions. We see it in classic form on tombstones, but also made up from guns and the great stag. In one remarkable turn, Bond finds himself at the center of four, intersecting, shadow selves.

Where worlds collide and days are dark...

In one particularly stunning sequence, we move from trails of blood in the water and into the realm of the Chinese lung, or dragons -- the great, fire-breathing wyrms themselves.

Where you go I go. What you see I see...

There is also a lot of mirroring imagery, as one divides into two, in perfect reflection. And in the penultimate sequence, Bond finds himself in a hall of mirrors. He shoots holes in one mirror after another, finally shattering the illusory world around him.

Let the sky fall. When it crumbles...

The title itself, Skyfall, suggests the death of the illusory world. The sky, the boundary of our perceptual world, crumbles. It's the apocalypse -- the revelation of secrets hidden behind the veil.

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Nov 29, 2012

Warren Jeffs: The Final Chapter?

This could be the end of the infamous Yearning For Zion ranch as Texas moves to seize the large property holding from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS. The State contends that the ranch was used to further a criminal enterprise, one aspect of which was the crime for which FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was convicted last year -- molesting underage girls.

Investigators filed a warrant to seize the 1,600-acre ranch in West Texas under state law that allows seizure of property used to commit or facilitate criminal conduct.

According to a 91-page page affidavit in support of the search and seizure warrant served on the ranch in Eldorado, about 300 miles west of Dallas, church members purchased the property for about $1.3 million in 2003 with laundered money and used the property to sexually assault children and hide Jeffs in 2006 while he was a fugitive on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List.

According to the attorney general’s office, the ranch was purchased by church members at the order of Jeffs, who was based in Utah at the time but, “sought a rural location where the FLDS could operate a polygamist compound where the systemic sexual assault of children would be tolerated without interference from law enforcement authorities.”

Jeffs's own records make clear that the ranch, originally referred to under the code name R17, was designed for criminal use. It's far enough from main roads and infrastructure to allow him to skirt everything from building codes to other "wicked laws, un-righteous laws passed by the government that could put us in jail..." I'm guessing those would be those pesky laws against polygamy and sexual abuse of minors.

As discussed, there have been indications that FLDS was removing itself from the extensive property -- such as constructing and then dismantling a sizable watchtower. Perhaps they saw the writing on the wall and decided against defending the stronghold against an impending State takeover.

Where have they all gone, is the bigger question.

The church's numbers are dwindling due to excommunications, arrests, and deliberate fleeing. But there are also indications of organized relocation due to Jeffs's cryptic warnings and proclamations.

The State seems to determined to shut down Jeffs's Texas footprint completely and keep him incarcerated for the duration.

Officials call their attempt to seize the group's compound "the final chapter" in a multimillion-dollar battle against the polygamist sect, which authorities believe was centered around sexual abuse and funded through money laundering.

Authorities say Jeffs used the compound's temple to commit his crimes, saying it "was constructed in a special manner so that Warren Steed Jeffs could perpetuate sexual assaults in the Temple building."

And they quote from Jeffs' own designs and the group's "Priesthood Records": "There is a table, but it will be made so it can be a table or it can be a bed. It should be made so the tabletop can come off. It will be on wheels… This will be made so that it can be taken apart and stored in a closet where no one can see it. When I need it, I will pull it out and set it up… It will be covered with a sheet, but it will have a plastic cover to protect the mattress from what will happen on it."

So at least the mattress was safe. Young girls may have been raped and defiled on it. But the mattress was definitely safe.

And I definitely feel a little sick. The thing about FLDS and its creepy leader is that as bad as you think it is, it's so much worse.

A recent "20/20" report went behind the scenes and interviewed excommunicated members, shedding light on the increasingly restrictive control the imprisoned leader exerts. Many lives have been shattered by Jeffs's recent proclamations and paranoid weirdness. Not even his own brother has escaped banishment and the reallocation of his family. I guess he wasn't one of the lucky fifteen men still allowed to procreate. He and other "sons of perdition" have been removed from the dwindling gene pool. Meanwhile, numerous women have been excommunicated for the vile sin of having miscarriages. If that isn't a perfect storm of inbreeding disaster, I don't know what is.

While some long for the life they knew and worry for their immortal souls, others are enjoying their new-found liberation. A nineteen year old boy, freed from the 7-9 hours a day of forced labor he enjoyed in his childhood, can finally learn to read. They are all learning surprising things about history and government like that Warren Jeffs is not, in fact, the president of the United States. A sweet, little girl is finally able to wear a tiara and play with dolls. She says matter-of-factly, "We're considered apostates and wicked."

There is a little more insight into Jeffs's increasingly bizarre demands as he blames his followers for his incarceration and forces them to share in his suffering. Dietary restrictions like giving up corn and dairy products are part of their collective penance. The labor-intensive building of a million dollar home for Jeffs was supposed to cause his prison bars to melt and free him. It didn't.

I highly recommend viewing the episode, which can be found here. The commercials make it a little glitchy and you may need to reload it once or twice but it's well worth the effort.

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Nov 20, 2012

White Noise: The Fragrance

There are a few fun facts that I learned in aromatherapy school. Our sense of smell, or olfaction, is one nerve synapse away from the limbic brain and clicks rapidly through the amygdala and hippocampus. So smells trigger memories and powerful emotional responses. Olfaction does not go through the neocortex, so there are no words that exclusively describe smells. We borrow adjectives from other sensory stimuli to describe them, like colors, sounds, and tastes. For instance, scents can be green, or loud, or fruity. Now comes a newly created scent profile called "white noise."

Another thing I learned in aromatherapy school is that, while this is a fascinating discovery about our sense of smell, the study described here does not constitute aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is the use of pure plant essences and offers numerous therapeutic properties above and beyond the psychoactive effects of scent. The fragrance industry relies heavily on chemically replicated scents and other derivatives of natural essences and I suspect that is the case here as well. Still. Fascinating.

Mixing multiple wavelegths that span the human visual range equally makes white light; mixing multiple frequencies that span the range of human hearing equally makes the whooshing hum of white noise. Neurobiologist Noam Sobel from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and his colleagues wanted to find out whether a similar phenomenon happens with smelling. [7 New Flavors Your Tongue May Taste]

In a series of experiments, they exposed participants to hundreds of equally mixed smells, some containing as few as one compound and others containing up to 43 components. They first had 56 participants compare mixtures of the same number of compounds with one another. For example, a person might compare a 40-compound mixture with a 40-compound mixture, neither of which had any components in common.

This experiment revealed that the more components in a mixture, the worse participants were at telling them apart. A four-component mixture smells less similar to other four-component mixtures than a 43-component mixture smells to other 43-component mixtures.

. . .

In other words, our brains treat smells as a single unit, not as a mixture of compounds to break down, analyze and put back together again. If they didn't, they'd never see mixtures of completely different compounds as smelling the same.

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Nov 14, 2012

Total Eclipse: Views from the Land Down Under

Yesterday was the last total solar eclipse we'll see until 2015. Aussies had a great view. The rest of us, not so much. But thanks to the wonders of technology, we can look at some pretty pictures. Is it as good as being there? No. But it's a little reminder of just how small this planet has become.

A total solar eclipse will occur on Tuesday afternoon, when the moon passes briefly between the Earth and the Sun, obscuring the solar rays and creating a 95-mile-wide shadow over parts of the Southern Hemisphere.

Only people who are lucky enough to be in northern Australia or somehow find themselves in the Indian or Pacific Oceans along the path of the eclipse -- where it will actually be early Wednesday morning -- will be able to see the celestial event.

But don't worry if you're not there in the flesh -- broadcasts of the eclipse will be available on several live streams and The Huffington Post is live blogging the event, bringing updates from astronomers and other experts, some of whom are on the ground in Australia.

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Nov 13, 2012

Adultery, Pat

Remember that great scene in The Crucible when John Proctor is pressed to recall the ten commandments and prove his devotion to God? He can remember them all, save one. He stammers, repeating some, but can't seem to come up with ten. His wife, Elizabeth, quietly chides him, "Adultery, John."

Such was playwright Arthur Miller's brilliant, psychological insight. The husband, whose affair with the young Abigail Williams has set a catastrophic sequence of events in motion, can't remember the commandment that names his sin.

Well, Pat Robertson seems to be revealing more and more of the strange, inner workings of his mind, lately. Last week it was a cringe inducing discussion about Shades of Grey. (Women like pornography? Since when?) And now comes this shameless apologia for the career ending indiscretions of General David Petraeus.

Robertson's reasoning goes like this: David Petraeus "is a man." Paula Broadwell is an "extremely good looking woman" and she was "throwing herself at him."

Such boys will be boys defenses of Petraeus's actions are to be expected... just not so much from an evangelical Christian minister on live television. I mean... has Pat Robertson actually read the Bible? It's only the seventh commandment. You know, that list of moral precepts that Robertson and his ilk have been demanding we all need to get back to?

This is varsity level cherry-picking of the Bible. I have been very critical of fundamentalist dissonance on issues like homosexuality -- which is only condemned in obscure passages and not entirely clearly -- and abortion -- which not only isn't forbidden in the Bible, but actually seems to be endorsed. I have yet to see Christian hardliners get as het up about pork, shellfish, polyester blends, and the numerous other things that are forbidden in the holy scripture they claim is the infallible word of God. But most of them at least have the good grace to condemn adultery.

Bear in mind that this is the same Pat Robertson who has said things like this:

“When you see the rise of blatant open homosexuality and lesbianism, what you also know is God has given a society up...and we’re at the mercy of the elements, the mercy of war, the mercy of economic disaster.” - 700 Club, 4-26-93 (source: People for the American Way Foundation)

And this:

“The concept, the word for homosexual behavior is sodomy. That is what is used in the official documents. It is sodomy. It is repugnant. It has been prohibited and proscribed by sane society throughout countless millennia, centuries. People have understood that it is wrong. Now in America, not only is it happening, it is getting civil rights protection in the law, and these people are invading churches.” - 700 Club, 1-18-94 (source: People for the American Way Foundation)

And my all-time favorite:

"The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians." - 1992 Iowa fundraising letter opposing a state equal-rights amendment ("Equal Rights Initiative in Iowa Attacked", Washington Post, 23 August 1992)

Cheating on your wife, though. That's cool. You know. If a chick is hot, sometimes you just have to hit that. I'm sure God will understand.

It would be tempting to write this off to senility, but Robertson has too long a history of spouting insane, sexist, patriarchal, nonsense, not to consider this of a piece with his ramblings. The creepy lasciviousness, though, seems new, and less than morally upright. So now we know, Pat Robertson isn't just a hypocrite. He's really just a dirty, old man.

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