Monthly Archives: October 2003

linkage/classics

Water fell from the sky this morning! It was terrifying. Possibly a sign of the end times.

I wanted to post some Halloween linkage but haven’t found many appropriate links. Well, there are always the classics:

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, a tale of a Halloween party gone horribly wrong. (The E. A. Poe Society of Baltimore has quite a few of his stories online.)

H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space”, which I recall being a creepy story but which I also have not read in a few years. Unlike Poe, Lovecraft’s work is not public domain (your Mickey Mouse Copyright Act at work); fortunately this has never been a barrier to being posted online.

Jack Chick’s “Happy Halloween”. After all, what could be scarier than fundamentalist Christian tracts? Don’t read too many of these; they’ll rot your brain.

The Zombie Infection Simulation v2.3. I know you’ve probably all seen it by now, but it should be here for completeness. It needs Java to work. I think the zombie speed should be adjustable so that 28 Days Later scenarios can be created with fast predatory zombies. However, you’d need a larger population base to make it interesting. London-sized, perhaps.

Today is Peter Jackson’s birthday. Before directing Lord of the Rings, he was responsible for the zombie film Dead Alive, in which he used 300 liters of fake blood in a single scene. (And you thought Kill Bill was bloody…)

You’ve probably also seen Retrocrush’s bad Halloween costumes article.

And if you really need more Halloween links, here’s a memepool search for “halloween” to get you started.

random/abrupt

Since I haven’t posted much lately, I present: some random thoughts.

The hot weather stopped abruptly a couple days ago. One of those days where you wake up and it’s 25 degrees colder than yesterday.

The thermal contraction may have contributed to the failure of the my bag’s shoulder strap clasp, sending it without warning to the pavement. Fortunately it landed with my computer on top, where it could be cushioned by the human head the sweater. Aelia (the computer) seems to be functioning normally.

One of these years I should go to the big Halloween party in SF’s Castro district. This year does not look good, since due to simple neglect I am without a costume. Backup plan: go see Alien in the theater, then watch Night of the Living Dead on DVD.

I know: such an exciting life I lead.

review/october

Since my social calendar emptied out the last couple weeks I’ve taken the opportunity to see a bunch of movies on my list. I’ve now crossed off all the must-see items, at least until Friday (when the director’s cut of Alien arrives in theaters) so I can now present:

October Movie Roundup

Once Upon a Time in Mexico: For those of you who live under rocks, this is the sequel to one of my all-time favorites, Desperado. It was also the first movie I saw after Kill Bill, and I should have seen them in the reverse order – Once Upon a Time in Mexico seemed tame and slow-paced by comparison. Nevertheless, it was still very enjoyable, in no small part due to Johnny Depp’s show-stealing performance. The plot is complicated despite its unimportance; I would recommend not wasting too much mental energy in attempting to follow it.

Intolerable Cruelty: Amusing enough, but also a reminder of why I shouldn’t see romantic comedies without a date. The protagonist (George Clooney) is one of those irritating cliches: the guy who has a successful life but feels unfulfilled because he’s single. No wonder there’s so much relationship angst in this country; my life got much less stressful when I discovered that I could be complete in myself without relying on someone else for happiness, but you don’t see films about that. Let’s not forget the wisdom of God, as told by South Park:

God: No! You’ve become dependent on relationships, so you haven’t even considered the option of not being with either of them! If you’re not sexually attracted to someone, you’re not ever going to be, but Saddam isn’t right either! He’s the other extreme! You need to spend time alone so that you can find the balance, the middle ground! That’s what I always do, because I’m a Buddhist!

(Can I get through a blog entry without quoting South Park? It’s tough sometimes.)

Anyway, back to the movie: it definitely had the laugh-out-loud moments that you expect from the Coen brothers, but I was (obviously) not in the right mood for the overall themes. I will add, though, that there are worse ways to spend one’s time than looking at Catherine Zeta-Jones for 90 minutes.

Bubba Ho-Tep: What’s astonishing about this movie is that it’s the story of Elvis and JFK fighting a mummy in a Texas nursing home, starring Bruce Campbell, which is not at all campy. Instead it’s sophisticated and sincere, and still very funny. I just saw it yesterday, so I haven’t had time to fully digest it, but it was a very unique film. Bruce Campbell really seems to nail his role as Elvis (not that I’ve seen a lot of Elvis).

Kill Bill vol. 1, second viewing: After listening to the soundtrack for a couple weeks I had to go see it again. I enjoyed it even more the second time; I was prepared for some of the gory moments that caught me off guard originally. If I get tired of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as a Valentine’s Day movie, this would be a good substitute. A few thoughts:

One comparison that came to mind the first time I saw it was to the end of Sandman – specifically in the way The Bride seems like an unstoppable force of nature in her quest for revenge. Roger Ebert comments in his review:


The Bride defeats the 88 superb fighters (plus various bodyguards and specialists) despite her weakened state and recently paralyzed legs because she is a better fighter than all of the others put together. Is that because of the level of her skill, the power of her focus, or the depth of her need for vengeance? Skill, focus and need have nothing to do with it: She wins because she kills everybody without getting killed herself. You can sense Tarantino grinning a little as each fresh victim, filled with foolish bravado, steps forward to be slaughtered. Someone has to win in a fight to the finish, and as far as the martial arts genre is concerned, it might as well be the heroine.

I disagree. The reason The Bride is able to defeat the yakuza gang is also the reason the gunshot misses, or a board with a nail in it happens to be at hand, or for that matter the reason she survives being shot in the head at the beginning: as in ancient Greek stories, the gods approve of her revenge quest, and in hunting down Bill and company she is acting as their instrument of divine punishment. I had this thought even before my second viewing, where I was reminded that The Bride more or less states this explicitly in her inner monologue. (She speaks in monotheistic terms, of “doing God’s will”, but the principle is the same.)

There are, in fact, religious overtones all over the dialogue in this movie (sparse as it is), Hattori Hanzo’s especially. (Another one that comes to mind is the sheriff referring to The Bride as an “angel”; I have some dim recollection of sword-bearing angels appearing in the Bible as instruments of heavenly wrath.) There’s a lack of corresponding religious imagery (unless I was totally missing it), so I don’t know how far this can be taken. One guy on Plastic suggested that Bill himself represents God, based mainly on the mysterious way he is portrayed and Hattori Hanzo’s repeatedly speaking of God as a future opponent in battle. I have a feeling this theory won’t hold up as well in the second part though.

While we’re on unsubstantiated theories, one mentioned by my brother is that the yakuza swordsman in white in O-Ren’s anime flashback is Bill himself. This is based on both characters wearing heavy rings (though not the same ones), using a katana, and the apparent fact that this particular yakuza evades O-Ren’s revenge despite being one of the principal killers. I think the survival of this dude definitely requires explanation, but another possibility that occurs to me is that this is yet another reference, a character imported from some other anime or Japanese film (just as Hattori Hanzo comes from a Japanese series with Sonny Chiba).

Ok, I’ve probably said enough about this movie for now. I actually have no complaints about the audience for either of the films I saw this weekend; Bubba Ho-Tep was at one of the smaller theaters in Berkeley, where the crowds are generally well-behaved, and Kill Bill, despite being at the location responsible for my previous complaints, was not bad this time – maybe it’s just an opening weekend thing.

reaction/indistinguishability

If you’re wondering why I haven’t been updating, it’s because nothing’s been happening. Last week was so uneventful that the days started to become indistinguishable. Then stuff was supposed to happen this weekend, but it all got canceled – some dark force is attempting to make my life even more boring, which seems like a rather redundant objective to me.

But, it could be worse – at least I’m not on fire. Yet. It’s been hot and dry here, too, making me glad I don’t live up in the hills. Why the record heat days keep falling on Sunday I don’t know – probably another evil conspiracy against me. I take my longest runs on Sunday, and today I was apparently insufficiently hydrated – especially with a dry east wind evaporating sweat as fast as I could produce it. The wind did provide good cooling power – until I ran out of water.

However, it is a nice day to sit out on the balcony composing blog entries. (Ordinarily I’d be playing D&D, but this was one of the aforementioned cancellations.) Perhaps I can make up for my silence during the week.

contemplation/evil

During my run this morning I got to thinking about religion. (This was possibly inspired by reading Slacktivist’s ongoing review of Left Behind, which is up to page 7 now.) One issue I was considering was how to answer someone who asks why I’m an atheist. (Just hypothetical – no one’s asked me this.) I’d like to formulate a succinct elucidation of my primary reasons for being irreligious. This I will leave for a future post; right now I’m going to write about the other topic I was pondering: the theological problem of evil.

Briefly stated, the problem is this: How can evil exist in a universe created by a benevolent god? I think this is a serious problem for Christianity, but I wouldn’t cite it in an explanation of why I’m an atheist; some religions don’t suffer from it and I don’t adhere to them either. (I think arguments for atheism are weakened by focusing too much on the flaws of a particular religion. I would use the problem of evil in an explanation of why I’m not a Christian, though.)

I’ll get to actual arguments on the problem shortly, but first, purely for my own amusement, I want to look at some “minor adjustments” to Christian beliefs that would eliminate it. For some reason none of these have caught on:

The Tyler Durden Defense: God is not actually benevolent. (“You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you.”)

The realization that God is actually an arbitrary, bloodthirsty bastard neatly solves the problem of evil as well as lots of other problems I have with the Bible. I suppose it’s rather fatal for the religion, though; not much motivation to worship the guy.

The George W. Bush Defense: God is benevolent, but incompetent.

God wanted to make the universe a nice place, but botched the job. He promises the next version will be great, though. (Don’t know if he’s waiting on $87 billion from Congress.) This one also explains a fair number of biblical inconsistencies as a bonus, though not as many as the evil bastard god. Presumably the Intelligent Design guys need to invoke this one as well, to explain things like the dumbass routing of optic nerves. God may be a biotech engineer, but that doesn’t mean he’s a very good one. Less toxic for the religion than the prior explanation, but I can still see why it hasn’t caught on.

The Homer Simpson Defense: God is benevolent, but didn’t create the universe. (“It was like that when I got here.”)

Similar to the Bush Defense in that some aspect of omnipotence is dropped. It’s worse in some ways, because the religion loses the ability to “answer” the question of where the universe came from. (As I addressed in my parallel universes post, “God created it” isn’t an actual answer.) If God is demoted to the universe’s caretaker rather than the creator, one loses interest in him and would rather know why the guy responsible skipped town. And if God is identified with a powerful and benevolent alien intelligence, your religion’s been reduced to the wacky cult level next to the Raelians and Heaven’s Gate. So I can see why this one is unpopular.

Ok, enough of the silly stuff. I’ve heard a few serious attempts to reconcile the problem of evil with Christianity, so let me address those.

The Dr. Pangloss Defense: This world, even with the presence of evil, is in fact the best of all possible worlds.

This one doesn’t get much use, because in fact it’s pretty laughable. One can easily imagine small perturbations in the present state of affairs that are clear improvements. Stuff that doesn’t even require obvious miracles. A drunk driver passes out before starting his car, thereby sparing someone’s life. A suicide bomber’s detonation circuitry is bad, and he is apprehended. A few votes go the other way in Florida… sorry, got carried away. I think this defense is reached by working backward: God is benevolent, so this must be the best of all possible worlds. A variant on this is:

The Sir Bedevere Defense: The presence of evil is a necessary prerequisite for the realization of all possible worlds. More commonly stated as: “It’s all part of God’s plan.” The plan is of course so complicated as to be incomprehensible to mortals. (Or, in the Hugh Ross variation: “Go read Revelation. It’s in there.” Right.)

Imagine a civil engineer who submitted plans for a bridge which was obviously structurally unsound. When others point out possible improvements to the design, he protests that there’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s so brilliant that his critics just don’t understand it. That’s what this defense makes me think of. It seems highly implausible that the small changes suggested above, saving a life here and there from vicious murders, would really derail the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. The “incomprehensible to mortals” bit really qualifies this as an example of the Chewbacca Defense (see below).

The Free Will Defense: God allows us to perform evil actions because he wants us to have free will. (Sorry, I couldn’t come up with a snarky name for this one. Suggestions are welcome.)

This seems like the standard Christian response to the problem of evil, and I must admit that it took me years to realize what the problems are. The usual atheist rebuttal is terrible: “It’s not very free if God punishes us for making the wrong choices.” First, free will always involves good and bad consequences to one’s choices. God is just adding a few. And secondly, most Christians don’t claim that God punishes evil acts. By most accounts, serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer is in a blissful afterlife since he found Jesus before he died, but I, having lived a good life, will go to eternal torment in hell because I’m an atheist. Doesn’t look to me like he’s punishing evil. So let’s drop this argument. Besides, I’ve got some better ones.

If God were to create a universe in which evil acts were prohibited, either by divine intervention or somehow by the very laws of physics, this would not make us all automatons with no real choices. I impose a personal rule on my behavior that prevents me from murdering people. Despite this, I somehow find myself facing countless complex choices every day. The inability to murder people, amazingly, has not become an intolerable constraint on my free will. It’s just a partial constraint, one that doesn’t limit me at all in everyday life. What’s much more irritating is a limit that God really has imposed himself. I would like to have the free will to travel instantaneously, say to Los Angeles or Connecticut from time to time. But, God created a universe in which traveling such distances requires a prohibitive expense and/or time commitment. I’d also like to have the free will not to waste so much of my time sleeping, but God made me a body which requires this. The point is, if there’s a God who made the universe, he already put lots of constraints on our free will, so a few more relatively minor ones that keep major evils out of the world don’t seem like such a big deal.

If that objection doesn’t do this argument in, I think there’s an even worse one. Namely, why does God value the free will of the strong over the weak? If someone’s trying to kill me, I’d like to exercise my free will not to die. God has created a universe in which, when one will opposes another like this, the victor is decided by qualities like strength, speed, and cleverness. He could (assuming an omnipotent god) have made a universe in which a will to commit an evil act automatically loses such contests, but instead we got this one. For every evil that is committed, at least two wills are involved – that of the perpetrator and of the victim. And in every evil that is successfully accomplished, God favored the evildoer’s free will. Thus, the Free Will Defense is utterly incompatible with the ide
a of a benevolent God, or one who cares about moral behavior. And yet this is the defense I hear most often.

I would be remiss if in all this discussion, I failed to include another popular defense, depicted elegantly on South Park. Dear readers, I present:

The Chewbacca Defense:
Johnny Cochrane: Ladies and Gentlemen, (Pulls down picture of Chewbacca) this is Chewbacca. Chewbacca is a Wookie from the planet Kishic, but Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it. That does not make sense.
Gerald (Whispering): Dammit.
Chef (Whispering): What?
Gerald (Whispering): He’s using the Chewbacca defense.
Johnny Cochrane: Why would a Wookie, an eight-foot-tall Wookie, want to live on Endor with a bunch of two-foot-tall Ewoks. That does not make sense. But more important, you have to ask yourself what does this have to do with this case.
[Jury stares in silence]
Johnny Cochrane: Nothing. Ladies and Gentlemen, it has nothing to do with this case.
[Gerald sinks back and covers his eyes]
Johnny Cochrane: It does not make sense. Look at me. I’m a lawyer defending a major record company and I’m talkin’ about Chewbacca. Does that make sense? Ladies and Gentlemen I’m am not making any sense. None of this makes sense. And so you have to remember when you’re in that jury room deliberating and conjugating the Emancipation Proclamation, does it make sense? No. Ladies and Gentlemen of this deposed jury it does not make sense. If Chewbacca lives on Endor you must acquit. The defense rests.

I find it hard to believe that the free will line is the best that Christian theologians have done in 2000 years. If I have any knowledgeable readers who have actually read this far, and know of some more convincing solution to the problem of evil, tell me about it – I’d love to sink my teeth into it.

rant/etiquette

Last night I saw Intolerable Cruelty at the theater in Richmond. Now, it’s the closest theater to me, and is new and clean with stadium seating and 16 screens. However, judging from the clientele it draws, it must have been built on an ancient Indian burial ground or possibly been the site of Satanic rituals and witch-burnings. (I wouldn’t rule out five John Denver Christmas specials, either.)

I’ve already complained about the parents taking their very young kids to such family films as 28 Days Later and Kill Bill. This was not a problem last night, presumably because young children watching Intolerable Cruelty will merely be bored rather than traumatized. Last night, the problem (besides the guy who kept falling asleep and snoring) was a violation of one of the unwritten rules of cinema etiquette: if the theater is nearly empty, one should not sit down right next to another party. If there are plenty of seats you leave at least a one-seat buffer between you and anyone else, right? Apparently the couple who came in after the opening credits were not familiar with this rule. Also, they were talkers. The sort where one member of the couple felt compelled to explain the implications of every plot development to the other. Which would have been fine if they had been sitting in the back corner rather than right next to me. (I should admit that since I arrived 15 minutes early when no one was in the theater, I took one of the two most centrally located seats, so the one next to me was the obvious choice for anyone who doesn’t respect the buffer-seat rule.)

Also, the first preview was for Love Actually, and so annoyingly cute that I would have preferred spending the time listening to a soothing Sonata for Fingernails on a Blackboard in D Minor. (In the future, visiting the concession stand might be a better option.) They pacified me by showing the Return of the King trailer immediately afterwards, but followed that up with Something’s Gotta Give. I paid $8.50 for this?

I’m done ranting, but while I’m here I want to link to this guy’s hilarious deconstruction of the first three pages of Left Behind. He gets a lot of mileage out of just the first two words.

reaction/victory

How does it feel, Red Sox fans? Wouldn’t have hurt nearly as much if you’d just lost to the A’s to begin with, would it?

Ok, now I can go back to hating the Yankees like a decent human being, since they’ve dispatched the vile Red Sox. I’ll be rooting for Mr. Snail.

I need to work on my Fox reception; I can barely see the ball and can’t read the score. I also need to figure out why my TV is randomly turning itself off. If it were turning itself on instead, well, you’d be finding me hiding in the dryer.

tinfoil/pledge

Put on your tinfoil hats; I’ve got a new conspiracy theory.

A number of commentators have pointed out that the timing of the Pledge of Allegiance case, to be decided by the Supreme Court in June, will make it a campaign issue. But it seems that this is only true for one possible outcome. Suppose the 9th Circuit decision is overturned. The 10% or so of us who, not being under any God, are by implication not real Americans will bitch and moan, but otherwise I think things will seem “back to normal” and most people won’t get worked up about it. But if Michael Newdow wins and the 9th Circuit’s decision is affirmed – well, we saw what happened last time. Some 80% of the population driven into a frothing rage by their religious bigotry. Only in the latter case do we have a real campaign issue.

So now we ask: Why did Antonin Scalia recuse himself from the Pledge case? Well, because he publicly stated his opinion on the case before it came before the court. But he’s a smart guy – he would have known that making those comments would create pressure for him to recuse himself. If it’s an issue he feels strongly about, why put himself in a position where he may not be able to contribute to the ruling, in a court where the 5-4 Bush v. Gore split is a common occurrence?

Maybe there are issues he feels more strongly about.

Bush has indicated that Scalia is at the top of his list for the next Chief Justice, and has said he’d like to appoint more judges like him. This makes it very easy, with America going bonkers after a 4-4 tie lets the 9th Circuit ruling stand, for Bush to point to his favorite judge and say, “Re-elect me and I’ll make sure decisions like this don’t happen.” Scalia has conveniently set the stage for the Pledge to be a campaign issue, and for Bush to be on the right side of it in a way no Democrat can match. And in return, he gets to be Chief Justice.

This court appointed Bush to the presidency once. Why wouldn’t they do it again?

Last year I heard Michael Newdow give a talk on campus. I really liked him, and I agree 100% with his position. Nevertheless, I hope he loses at the Supreme Court. Sure, “under God” in the Pledge is asinine, but it’s mostly symbolic. It doesn’t even hold a candle to the damage that would be caused by a second term of George W. Bush.