Thursday, May 31, 2007

Tonight's the night ...

If you've ever used the expression "once in a blue moon" to describe something that doesn't happen very often, you can test out that proposition this evening. We North Americans get to experience the proverbial celestial event tonight, so all kinds of long sought after behaviors might transpire.

The technical explanation of what a "blue moon" is has nothing to do with the satellite's coloration. It's merely a second full moon in a calendar month. It may not be a frequent event, but it's also not rare on the scale of a Cubs World Series victory (99 years and counting). We get to experience them once every 32 months, on average.

If you've got an unfamiliar place you've been planning to go, or an exotic cuisine you've been hankering to try, or a partner-requested chore you've promised but not yet delivered on, tonight is a good night to take care of it.

Yahoo! News has more details on the phrase and its origins: The Truth Behind This Month's Blue Moon

Today in History: Walt Whitman's Birthday

Today I raise my virtual glass once more to the great American poet Walt Whitman, who was born on this date in 1819. He is probably best known as the author of the collection Leaves of Grass, which was written during one of the most turbulent and tranformative times in our nation's history.

He was a gay man from 19th Century New York who wrote very personal poems that spoke openly about his life and sexuality, but he also found common cause with all humanity no matter their age, sex, orientation, occupation or social standing. He sang the praises of the downtrodden and extolled the true democratic ideals at the heart of our national identity. He saw beauty in all of Nature's creation, including his fellow man, and he revelled in its vitality.

Below are a few select poems that I find particularly inspiring. You can read the full text of Leaves of Grass online at

The first poem is a good example of Whitman's appreciation of Nature, the human body and sexuality. It's a poem that revels in the experience of being alive, here and now.

To the Garden the World

TO the garden, the world, anew ascending,
Potent mates, daughters, sons, preluding,
The love, the life of their bodies, meaning and being,
Curious, here behold my resurrection, after slumber;
The revolving cycles, in their wide sweep, have brought me again,
Amorous, mature—all beautiful to me—all wondrous;
My limbs, and the quivering fire that ever plays through them, for reasons, most wondrous;
Existing, I peer and penetrate still,
Content with the present—content with the past,
By my side, or back of me, Eve following,
Or in front, and I following her just the same.
The second poem celebrates this country's greatest assets: its people and the work they do. It finds beauty in the everyday, and song in the rhythms that most hear as the white noise of city life. It's a vision of democracy that recognizes the contributions made by those whose names are usually forgotten in the annals of history.

I Hear America Singing

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

This last poem speaks to Whitman's legacy. Here and elsewhere he addresses we future generations, and he recognizes that the greatest gifts he can give us are his "songs." Not only will he pass on "souvenirs of democracy" to we the readers of his tomorrow, but the truest representation of himself. It's through these written words that we truly can feel the purest pulse of his being.

Souvenirs of Democracy

THE business man, the acquirer vast,
After assiduous years, surveying results, preparing for departure,
Devises houses and lands to his children—bequeaths stocks, goods—funds for a school or hospital,
Leaves money to certain companions to buy tokens, souvenirs of gems and gold;
Parceling out with care—And then, to prevent all cavil,
His name to his testament formally signs.

But I, my life surveying,
With nothing to show, to devise, from its idle years,
Nor houses, nor lands—nor tokens of gems or gold for my friends,
Only these Souvenirs of Democracy—In them—in all my songs—behind me leaving,
To You, who ever you are, (bathing, leavening this leaf especially with my breath—pressing on it a moment with my own hands;
—Here! feel how the pulse beats in my wrists!—how my heart’s-blood is swelling, contracting!)
I will You, in all, Myself, with promise to never desert you,
To which I sign my name.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Ruled by a god of war, US has ways to go for peace

As has been widely reported today, and I'm sure just as widely blogged about, the US was ranked a pretty shabby 96th (out of 121 countries) on the new Global Peace Index. The index scores were tabulated based on 24 factors that include: domestic access to guns; defense spending; human rights record; government corruption; and involvement in wars.

There will be a lot of debate about the methodology, especially on the right-wing, and even the authors try to defray that by mentioning as an excuse the US role as "one of the world's military-diplomatic powers." Even that characterization, however, might anger the conservative hyper-nationalists who like to see us as "the sole super power."

What's indisputable, at least in my eyes, is that the depth of our lowly status can be directly attributable to the policies of George W Bush and his neo-con consorts. In addition to an adventurist, militaristic foreign policy that's led us into wars both overt and covert, W has pursued a domestic agenda that's drastically cut social spending (in deference to cold-war era levels of defense spending) and exacerbated the root causes of violence in our streets. Not that we were very good at peace before Bush II. We've led the world in arms exports for quite some time.

As for the best at peace: Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Ireland, and Japan comprise the top 5 nations. Iraq, as you might have guessed, gets the dubious distinction of placing last.

Here's a quick glimpse of the other countries in our general index neighborhood:

91. Kenya — 2.258
92. Turkey — 2.272
93. Guatemala — 2.285
94. Trinidad & Tobago — 2.286
95. Yemen — 2.309
96. United States of America — 2.317
97. Iran — 2.320
98. Honduras — 2.390
99. South Africa — 2.399
100. Philippines — 2.428
101. Azerbaijan — 2.448
That's not really the best crowd to be hanging out with, but they might say the same of us.

Read the full press release, with the complete list of ranked countries.

I brainstormed an appropriate image for this post, and settled on a classic statue of the Greek god Ares (with a little likeness of George W tweaked in). In reading up on Ares at, I discovered he does indeed have a lot in common with our dear leader.

Here's the definition attributed to the World Mythology Dictionary (emphasis added by me, if you hadn't guessed):
The Greek war god, the son of Zeus and Hera. An unpopular deity, Ares received serious worship only in central and northern Greece. In mythology he appears as an instigator of violence, a tempestuous lover, or an unscrupulous friend. Without any moral attributes, Ares can be bloody, merciless, fearful, and cowardly, in striking contrast to the Roman Mars.

Favorite Song of the Day: Can't Find My Way Back Home

There's been a lot of news coverage recently about the mysterious disappearance of honey bees in the US. Scientists have labeled the phenomenon "Colony Collapse Disorder," but they're still not quite sure what's causing CCD.

No matter what's behind it, CCD threatens both our environment and our food supply, as the fruits and vegetables we consume depend on the pollination performed by bees.

Here's a smattering of headlines from local papers across the country:
I don't know if there's any connection, but Zephyr at the Climate of Our Future blog pointed me to an article that describes a similar die off of bumblebees in Britain. There the decimation is caused by eco-unfriendly farming practices and it too threatens to have devastating social, economic, and environmental consequences (see Bumblebees could face extinction from BBC News).

Back stateside, the June Wired includes a story about a University of Montana entomologist who is trying to discover clues to CCD by listening in to the sonic quality of bees' buzzing. It mentions that scientists posit one possible culprit is a build up of pesticides in the hives, contaminating the bees and messing up their navigational systems.

Here is an excerpt, and a link to the full text:
Can a Tiny Microphone Save the Bees — and the Food Supply?
By Greta Lorge

Colony collapse disorder looks even more ominous. The alarm was first sounded late last year, when entire colonies started disappearing, practically overnight. There were no signs of attack on the hives, no dead bees, and very few clues. Soon, Bromenshenk and other experts were fielding phone calls from befuddled beekeepers across the country. Some had lost up to 90 percent of their bees.

Researchers have begun looking at several possible explanations: a newly evolved parasite or virus, poor nutrition, or stress-induced immune suppression. Chemicals could also be to blame. Neonicotinoids, a relatively new class of agricultural pesticides, are known to cause disorientation in insects. Their long-term effects on bees are unknown, but they could build up in the hive and, over time, reach concentrations that might impair bees' navigational abilities. The bees may leave the hive to forage and simply be unable to find their way back.

Read full article
The last sentence conjures a sad image ... worker bees flying around endlessly and aimlessly in orchards and farms, desparately trying to find their way back home. It brought to my loosely associative mind the old Blind Faith song sung by Steve Winwood: Can't Find My Way Home. I can just imagine it playing to a video of lost honey bees hopping from flower to flower, hoping to find their hive just past the next one.

Can't Find My Way Home by Steve Winwood

Come down off your throne
and leave your body alone.
Somebody must change.
You are the reason
I've been waiting so long.
Somebody holds the key.

But I'm near the end and
I just ain't got the time
And I'm wasted and
I can't find my way home.

Come down on your own
and leave your body alone.
Somebody must change.
You are the reason
I've been waiting all these years.
Somebody holds the key.

But I can't find my way home.
But I can't find my way home.
But I can't find my way home.
But I can't find my way home.
Still I can't find my way home,
And I ain't done nothing wrong,
But I can't find my way home.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Peering into the universe, searching for a mate

Astonomers announced today the discovery of 28 new planets outside our solar system. None among the large number of previously unobserved heavenly bodies are comparable to our home orbiting rock. That will disappoint some who peer up into the sky in the hope of finding another world like ours, one that could nurture life — our own, or others'.

Maybe that pursuit is driven by loneliness, or the desire to understand how we ended up here, or an inkling that we're running out of time on Earth and have to seek out other homes. Whatever the motivation, it's a search that will need to go on a lot longer, and chances are we may never find another Earth — so we should do our best to preserve the one we have.

Here is an excerpt from the Los Angeles Times coverage of the story:
Array of new planets found, but none like ours
By John Johnson Jr

HONOLULU — An international team of astronomers on Monday announced the discovery of 28 planets outside the solar system, the greatest single haul since the first so-called exoplanet was found 12 years ago.

Still eluding the planet hunters, however, is the much-longed-for Earth replica, a planet like ours that could nourish some kind of life, allowing humans to feel a little less lonely in the cosmos.

Read the full article
What's the likelihood of finding another Earth in the infinity of the universe? Mathematically it's possible, just as theoretically Nature could produce identical snowflakes. In each case, the existence of a matched mate remains a mere abstraction.

Pursuing my world as snowflake conceit inevitably led me to ask the question: Exactly why is each snowflake different? Truth be told, scientists don't fully know. Digging into the archives of Wired magazine, I found the following partial explanation in the 2001 article "What Makes a Snowflake Unique?":

By growing snow crystals in the laboratory under controlled conditions, the research team discovered that they develop differently depending on the temperature and how wet the air is.

A typical snowflake begins by forming around a speck of dust. From this unassuming beginning it grows into a tiny hexagonal prism, just a few microns in size. The initial symmetry of the snowflake results from the intrinsic molecular structure of ice.

As the crystal grows, it's often blown about in the sky. The air and temperature around the crystal are constantly changing. Snowflakes are extremely sensitive; even a small change in these conditions can lead to different growth patterns.

The final shape of the crystal reflects these growth conditions. The longer the snowflake is blown about in the skies, the more complex the resulting snow crystal.

"No two crystals have the same history so they don't grow in the same way," said Libbrecht.

And, he added, no two have ever been the same, or ever will be.

We're told as kids that like snowflakes, no two humans are supposed to be alike. The description of how the vagaries of temperature and the changing winds shape ice crystals is certainly a lovely little metaphor for the evolution of our own appearance, personalities and consciousness. I think that comparison may extend to our world as a whole — through a special combination of circumstances life arose here and the Earth as we know it took shape. Can those conditions be reproduced in the vast reaches of space? The search goes on ...

Here's one more metaphor: Mathemeticians say that an infinite number of monkeys banging on keyboards over an infinite amount of time will produce the complete works of William Shakespeare. That may be true in theory, but I already have a serviceable volume of all the bard's plays. It'll be much easier for me to preserve the one I have, than wait millennia for those abstract monkeys to get me another. But that doesn't mean the little apes should stop typing, or the dreamers stop hoping.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Measuring Chicago's sustainability

On Saturday, Zephyr at the Climate of Our Future blog asked readers to check out the sustainability rankings for their home cities. I finally took a look at Chicago's scores, and it turns out we fared quite well in comparison to other US cities, ranking 4th overall in 2006. Here's a graph with the breakdown of the rated categories:

You can read the full report for Chicago on the SustainLane website.

As well as Chicago did, there are a few glaring defficiencies that need to be addressed: Congestion, Air Quality, and Affordable Housing. Those three areas are definitely interconnected and will need to be remedied by city planners in a systematic fashion.

Here in the far northside community of Rogers Park we've seen an erosion of our affordable housing stock; a fact documented in the housing audit conducted by Lakeside CDC last year (you can read the full report here in PDF format). Although most wouldn't view that in terms of environmental impact, the failure to address the problem will have repercussions beyond demographic shifts.

As city residents are forced further into the outlying suburbs where housing is more affordable, they face longer commutes and the necessity of automobile ownership that exacerbates our problems with carbon dioxide emissions. Ensuring that people can live close to their jobs is an important social consideration that we must pressure our politicians to recognize.

Reversing the current under-funding of the city's public transportation system also needs to be addressed. A few days ago, the newly appointed president of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) announced the possibility of further service cuts and hefty fare hikes without an increased budget (see Giving fare warning from the May 25 Chicago Sun-Times).

The threat may be exaggerated to literally scare up more money for the CTA, but the fact that there is a budget shortfall is not fiction. Unfortunately public transportation, both locally and nationally, is never given the same funding priorities as auto-based tranportation needs. That has to change if we're ever going to make real progress in the fight to improve our air quality.

Favorite Song of the Day: EMI

The music industry behemoth EMI has been in the news recently on a few different fronts. Because of declining profits, the corporation is up for sale (Warner Music ditches backing band to line up solo EMI bid). One of its biggest name performers, Sir Paul McCartney, is sidestepping the label to pursue distribution through Starbucks (New way to a hit CD as old rockers wake up and smell the coffee). And it struck a deal with iTunes to make its catalog available free of Digital Rights Management (DRM) copy protection (EMI's DRM-free catalog may arrive this week on iTunes).

All three of these stories illustrate the difficulties the old guard of the music industry face in the digital age. At first they used copy-protection and legal wrangling to try to put the brakes on a technology that allows free distribution of content. Now, as they watch their empires slowly crumble, they're trying to catch up and embrace digital music sales. Unfortunately for them, it's a battle they can't hope to win. As an article in today's New York Times describes it:

But very few albums have gained traction. And that is compounded by the industry’s core structural problem: Its main product is widely available free. More than half of all music acquired by fans last year came from unpaid sources including Internet file sharing and CD burning, according to the market research company NPD Group. The “social” ripping and burning of CDs among friends — which takes place offline and almost entirely out of reach of industry policing efforts — accounted for 37 percent of all music consumption, more than file-sharing, NPD said.

(from Plunge in CD Sales Shakes Up Big Labels)
Music sharing sites that allow bands to connect with their fans directly, and cut out the exploitative mega-corporate middle man, are the future. Networking services such as RawRip and are two examples.

Digital music creates the possibility for artists to reach a potentially unlimited audience — their songs spinning out to the far reaches of the web. We've still got to sort out a way for them to leverage that newfound ability and make a decent living, but that's true of a lot of occupations in modern society.

The Sex Pistols certainly had their share of problems with music labels during their short-lived career. They penned the following little ditty back in 1977 to get back at EMI, which cut them loose from a deal due to bad publicity.


There's an ulimited supply
And there is no reason why
I tell you it was all a frame
They only did it cause of fame

Too many people had the suss
Too many people support us
An unlimited amount
Too many out let's in and out

And sir and friends are crucified
A day they wish that we had died
We are an addition
We are ruled by none
Never ever never

And you thought that we were faking
That we were all just money making
You do not believe we're for real
Or you would lose your cheap appeal

Don't you judge a book just by the cover
Unless you cover just another
And blind acceptance is a sign
Of stupid fools who stand in line
Like ...

Unlimited edition with an unlimited supply
That was the only reason
We all had to say goodbye

Unlimited supply, EMI
There is no reason why, EMI
I tell you it was all a frame, EMI
They only did it cause of fame, EMI
I do not need the pressure, EMI
I can't stand those useless fools, EMI
Unlimited supply, EMI
Hello, EMI
Goodbye, A&M

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Clinton Campaign Rocked or Rippled? Why I love Google News

I mostly get my news these days by scanning through the collection of stories aggregated by the Google News page. It's a great little web app that displays multiple headlines from different sources on the day's top stories, as well as links to sometimes hundreds of different web sites with coverage.

What I especially enjoy about this method of news gathering is the often interesting contradictions that arise in competing headlines for the same story. Today, one of the top US stories is about the two Hillary Clinton books about to be published. Depending on who you read, this development is either completely inconsequential to the NY senator, or devastating.

Here are the respective headlines from the Independent (UK) and the Washington Post that appeared together this morning:

Hillary's campaign rocked by claims in two books

Unflattering Books Cause Hardly a Ripple

In reading the stories, it turns out that the Independent headline is either sensationalist or soothsaying, as the author admits the impact of the books is still unknown:

It had to happen, and it has. Once again the great drama of the Clinton marriage - from his philandering and "bimbo eruptions" and her contemplation of divorce, to an alleged joint secret scheme to turn the US presidency into a family business - is back in the headlines, with repercussions as yet unknown for the future of Hillary's bid to become the first woman to win the White House.
One thing they do agree on, is that Hillary Clinton is a polarizing ("polarising" across the pond) figure in American politics. The media coverage sure does bear that out.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A very un-natural history museum

For some who find that their story doesn't fit the facts, it's easiest to ignore those facts or even change them to fit the story (I think that's a bastardization of someone's quote, but I don't know whose). That's exactly what a group called "Answers in Genesis" has done with the Creation Museum that is set to open on Monday in Kentucky.

The phrase "junk science" is used a lot by conservatives to dismiss any theory that could cost big business their profits, but this new museum is the true definition of the term. Ignoring all known evidence, the curators of this fantasy land have concocted dioramas that depict humans frolicking with the dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs, we're told, were described in Genesis and co-existed with our earliest ancestors. Noah even brought pairs of the beasts onto his ark. That kind of compressed timeline, which runs counter to the fossil record, is a necessary evil when you view the Bible as an accurate historical document of the Earth's creation 6,000 years ago.

The exhibits described in yesterday's New York Times remind me of the kitschy 1970s Sid & Marty Krofft kids show Land of the Lost (see the picture above), where a modern day family is transported to a world filled with dinosaurs, furry little caveman-like creatures, and nasty reptilian villains called Sleestak.

Unfortunately, by abandoning the metaphorical and mythical qualities of the Bible in order to interpret it literally, these religious fanatics actually rob the stories of their power. In trying to convey their twisted take on history, all they're left with are the absurdities of a Saturday morning cartoon show.

Here are excerpts from the New York Times review of the museum, and a link to the full article:

Adam and Eve in the Land of the Dinosaurs
By Edward Rothstein

... Outside the museum scientists may assert that the universe is billions of years old, that fossils are the remains of animals living hundreds of millions of years ago, and that life's diversity is the result of evolution by natural selection. But inside the museum the Earth is barely 6,000 years old, dinosaurs were created on the sixth day, and Jesus is the savior who will one day repair the trauma of man's fall.

It is a measure of the museum's daring that dinosaurs and fossils — once considered major challenges to belief in the Bible's creation story — are here so central, appearing not as tests of faith, as one religious authority once surmised, but as creatures no different from the giraffes and cats that still walk the earth. Fossils, the museum teaches, are no older than Noah’s flood; in fact dinosaurs were on the ark. ...

Read the full article

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Favorite Song of the Day: Forever Young

Today is Bob Dylan's birthday, and tonight I'll be raising a glass (or two) of beer in his honor. There's no more appropriate song for the occasion than "Forever Young," which according to the liner notes to the Biograph box set (pictured at left) he wrote for one of his sons.

Here's how he describes the origin of the tune, and it's certainly a creative process I can relate to:

"I wrote it thinking about one of my boys an not wanting to be too sentimental. The lines came to me, they were done in a minute. ... I certainly didn't intend to write it — I was going for something else, the song wrote itself ..."

If you want to show your love of Bob in a tangible way, check out his website, and purchase some music.

Forever Young by Bob Dylan

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

May your hands always be busy,
May your feet always be swift,
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
May your song always be sung,
May you stay forever young,
Forever young, forever young,
May you stay forever young.

Copyright © 1973 Ram's Horn Music

June 4th Rally: "Somebody Better Say Something"

I received the following email from Brenda Matthews, a Chicago poet and activist who I greatly respect. Please read Brenda's message below and spread the word about this rally to anyone you know in Chicago.

On the heels of watching "Pan's Labyrinth" (see my post on it below), I especially appreciate the synchronicity of receiving this message about an attempt by youth to stand up to the brutality of their surroundings using their imagination and creativity. We should do everything we can to support such efforts. As Brenda eloquently states, they are the "world changers and kingdom builders."

Peace And Blessings:

Prayerfully this e-mail will reach those who care and those who are willing to make a difference and for those who want change. On Wednesday the Chicago Tribune printed a story about the brutal murders of 27 Chicago Public School Students. Schools Chief Arne Duncan called the deaths "horrifying". If 20 students were shot and killed in Winnetka or Barrington, the outcry would be deafening and residents and politicians would mobilize for gun control, he contended.

Here is my position and that is we the community never knew there were 27 murders. Attention came about the missing teen girl from the southside, the two boys stabbed to death by their mothers boyfreind and the young man shot to death on the bus. The others I guess were blacked out by the media. Any child murdered is cry for change. The paper said the number of deaths equated to one child dead every ten days.

I want to see children speak out, I want to hear their voices and hear how they feel. I am sick and tired of do nothing politicians. I am sick and tired of local churches too scared to get into the fight. I am definitely tired of so-called leaders who only move when it's a issue they feel is important. How many more babies must die? How long will we watch aborted destinies and sit still without action. This revolution may not be televised but this is a fight we must all join.

It seems our children are attacked on all sides and we need to encourage and listen to them. I'm asking adults to come and just listen. This is about them and to hear what they need. I would like to see an Ad-Hoc committee formed and the youth can come to the table and develop a strategic plan of change. A grass roots movement organized by youth all across this city.

They can make this happen and we can assist if they need us, let's be supportive of our youth. Young people are the world changers and kingdom builders and what they don't need are adults who are all talk and no action!!!!!

On June 4, 2007 at 4pm we are organizing a Rally called "SOMEBODY BETTER SAY SOMETHING". On the corner of Douglas and Kedzie on the westside of Chicago. The purpose of this Rally is for youth to take the MIC and let their voices be heard. We want to hear their thoughts, ideas, and feelings. I am CALLING ALL CHICAGO POETS FROM THE SOUTHSIDE, WESTSIDE, NORTHSIDE AND EASTSIDE ... I am calling Verbal Balance, 3BM, Eastwind productions, Poetree, The Patio Poets, LYLAS, Pow-Wow, Aqua Moon, EarCandy, Tha House, Teen Town, S.A.F.E., The Crib Collective, All Hype and any and all other Chicago Poets. Come and support this event. This is a 911 call.

After we have finished the rally I would like us to end in prayer. To form a circle around every young person in attendance and ask God to cover them in attendance and every young person across this city. And to pray for the violence to cease in our community. Will you join Mama Brenda Matthews in a call to stop the Violence?

I welcome all responses and please forward this e-mail to others. Let the youth speak out and lead this movement forward.

— Miles Munroe

Peace And Blessings,
Mama Brenda Matthews

Finding my way through the "Labyrinth"

I watched Guillermo del Toro's film "Pan's Labyrinth" on DVD yesterday (yet another flick I meant to see in the theater but never did ...), and my high expectations weren't disappointed. Like its subject matter, the realm of fables, the story is simple on the surface but filled with symbols and hidden meanings. (The IMDB listing for El Laberinto del Fauno has a full list of credits and some trivia).

In short, it's a story of a young girl's attempt to come to terms with the brutality of the world that surrounds her. Ofelia is forced to live at a mill that serves as the base of operations for the fascist army that is trying to wipe out the last vestiges of the resistance following the defeat of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. Her mother Carmen has married Captain Vidal who ruthlessly pursues that mission. It is in the world of fable and story that she finds refuge from the reality that threatens the lives of those she cares about.

The action of the movie shifts seamlessly between the "real" world and that of Ofelia's imagination. The labyrinth that sits on the grounds of the mill acts as a metaphor for the journey that Ofelia, and all of us, must take in life and it's at the center of that maze that the story begins and ends.

The film juxtaposes order and chaos, the mechanical and Nature, ideology and humanity, brutality and compassion, fate and free will. The two most prominent figures on each side of the equation are the Captain and the Faun (or Pan).

When we first meet the Captain, he is staring at his watch and the ticking timepiece is a recurring theme of the character throughout the film. He is obsessed with demanding a child-like blind obedience from everyone he commands. His is a world that is tightly regulated with an emphasis on punctuality, decorum, and "cleanliness." He believes everyone is fated to a particular position in life and he is the enforcer of that order.

Pan is a mythic figure whose identity can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Half goat and half man, he's symbolic of fertility, chaos and the duality of beauty and menace in Nature. He is from the realm of magic and fairy tales that Ofelia is trying to hold onto in the midst of a world that's trying to force adulthood upon her. Her mother, who bears the Captain's child and is battling to survive the pregnancy, keeps reminding Ofelia of the compromises she'll need to make as a woman, speaking from her own bitter experience. It's such harsh reminders of her reality that push Ofelia further into the realm of the imagination and the hope it offers.

The entrance to the Labyrinth is inscribed with the latin phrase "In consiliis nostris, fatum nostrum est" that roughly translates to "our choices determine our fate," and it's the battle against fate and blind obedience that defines Ofelia's struggles, and those of the other characters in the film. Ofelia refuses to accept Vidal as her father. The resistance fighters press on against certain defeat. Doctor Ferreiro chooses death over allegiance to the Captain. It's an existentialist take on the world, that defines us by our moral choices in the face of seemingly inevitable defeat.

The story is Ofelia's remembrance of the events, and it's therefore the fable she's constructed to make sense of her life. When she first meets Pan, Ofelia is given the "Book of Crossroads" that appears blank but gradually reveals the 3 tasks she must accomplish to prove she is Princess Moanna and win re-entry into an underworld realm where there is no pain or lies. Along the way she must follow certain rules but the path isn't rigid and the final test requires that she refuse Pan's demands for blind obedience.

The story is filled with references and symbols from existing myths and fairy tales. When Ofelia first enters the portal at the heart of the labyrinth she repeats the word "Echo," which is a typical thing for a child to do in a chamber but also recalls the story of Pan's pursuit of the nymph of that name. Other images recall Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and the story of Abraham and Isaac. The director has a background in horror films, and the fairy tales here definitely recall the dark mood of those by the Brothers Grimm, but the most gory scenes are those perpetrated by the Captain as he beats and tortures those he suspects of aiding the resistance.

The phrase "don't be afraid" is repeated by several characters throughout the film, and as brutal and cruel as the world of the film is, it's definitely worth making the journey through the labyrinth.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Today in History: Mesmerizing birthday

On this date in 1734, Franz Anton Mesmer took his first bow on the world stage. More showman than physician, he developed theories about the influence of the planets on "tides" in the human body that he called "animal magnetism," but became popularized as "mesmerism." He believed that he also had this ability to control the body's tides, and he used that power to "heal" his patients. Through his touch and stare he was able to bring his patients to convulsion, which he believed was necesary to precipitate a recovery.

He was forced from Vienna by scandal in 1777, but found great popularity in Paris (much like Jerry Lewis, whose films can provoke convulsions in some of us) before getting debunked again by a scientific panel that included Ben Franklin. He returned to Switzerland, the place of his birth, at the onset of the French Revolution.

Mesmer's methods were later adapted to the practice of hypnotism. When I snap my fingers, you will believe that this was a very informative and entertaining post ...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Proof of a virgin birth ... in Sharks

Today, a group of scientists reported the virgin birth of a hammerhead shark in an Omaha zoo. The process of asexual reproduction, also known as parthenogenesis, has been observed in some species of insects, reptiles, birds and fish, but this is the first real proof that it also occurs in sharks. As if we males weren't feeling useless enough these days ...

No word yet whether three wise sharks have shown up with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Here are excerpts from the story that appears in the Washington Post:

Female Sharks Can Reproduce Alone, Researchers Find
By Juliet Eilperin

A team of American and Irish researchers have discovered that some female sharks can reproduce without having sex, the first time that scientists have found the unusual capacity in such an ancient vertebrate species.

Their report that sharks can produce asexually through the process known as parthenogenesis is being published online today in the British journal Biology Letters. Researchers have observed parthenogenesis in certain species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and bony fishes, but the new finding suggests that vertebrates' ability to reproduce without sex evolved much earlier than scientists had thought

Read full article

Cicada Brood XIII: Coming soon to a tree near me

If I appear less than responsive over the next few weeks, it's not because I stopped caring about you. It's just that my senses have been overwhelmed by the buzzing of the cicada swarms soon to emerge from their 17-year slumber.

Other than the constant noise the males emit to attract partners (can't blame a fella for trying after 17 years of sucking on tree root sap below ground), and occasionally flying into the inattentive walker, the insects are harmless.

I've heard rumblings in the neighborhood about creatively dealing with the situation in a culinary fashion. There are even recipes readily available on the Internet (here's a PDF of a whole cicada cookbook). Cicadas are related to crawfish and shrimp, so I'd prefer something with a little cajun spice to it.

Swarms of cicadas emerging in Midwest
By TARA BURGHART, Associated Press Writer

CHICAGO - Coming soon: Brood XIII. It sounds like a bad horror movie. But it's actually the name of the billions of cicadas expected to emerge this month in parts of the Midwest after spending 17 years underground.

The red-eyed, shrimp-sized, flying insects don't bite or sting. But they are known for mating calls that produce a din that can overpower ringing telephones, lawn mowers and power tools.

Brood XIII is expected across northern Illinois, and in parts of Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. Cicadas live only about 30 days as adults, and their main goal is mating.

They don't harm humans, although they are clumsy and might fly into people. Birds, squirrels and pets, especially dogs, love to eat them, and they are high in protein.

Read the full article

Favorite Song of the Day: Times Change

With all the ideas that have been swirling through my mind the past few days, today's song has particular resonance.

I've been thinking about urban planning and cities whose infrastructure lags behind their social and economic needs. I've been thinking about societies whose laws are struggling to keep up with changing technology and demographics. I've been thinking about personal relationships and the need not to get hung up on the past, but open oneself up to new possibilities.

The song is from Chicago's very own Outlaw Family Band and the Lyceum CD. It describes the sad emptiness of a post-industrial bust town, but it also speaks to the most basic reality we all need to face: times change.

Times Change

This old town was built by river and by rail
Every corner has a memory, every building tells a tale
It's been here since they shut down all the trains
Old towns die hard, but times change

Almost a ghost town now, the people've all moved on
Pretty hard to raise a family once the factory is gone
Folks passing thru these streets must seem so strange
Old towns die hard, but times change

I came back here to see my town again
There was nothing left to see, just garbage in the wind
No one knows me, no one recalls my name
Can't hold on to nothing, cause times change

Can't waste your time worrying time away
Clinging to the past, you'll trade in your todays
You'll watch the world grow alien and strange
Old habits die hard, but times change

Long ago my footprints washed away
These streets hold nothing for me, they're empty, cold and gray
I try to keep up, but it's hard to rearrange
This world sure moves fast and times change

This old town was built by river and by rail
Every corner has a memory, every building tells a tale
It's been here since they shut down all the trains
Old towns die hard, but times change

Monday, May 21, 2007

Urban planning for the 21st Century

The May issue of Wired magazine has a very interesting article about the design of a new eco-friendly city just outside Shanghai. Dongtan will be built from scratch on a marshy alluvial island in the mouth of the Yangtze river. It is scheduled to be up and running by 2010 and will support 500,000 residents. (The picture at left is a map of the city that appears with the Wired story.)

It's a new approach to urban planning — one that uses the natural features of the area to influence the character of the design, rather than the traditional human propensity to try to impose our will on the environment. The city is being planned as an integrated whole, with rules put in place that tightly regulate what can be built and how (that's certainly an alien concept to the folks here in my neighborhood where demolition and new construction take place with very little consideration for the impacts on the larger community).

Dogestan is a refereshing break from previous development in China, which has been accompanied by rampant pollution and environmental neglect. It could prove to be a model community that shows other developing countries there are tremendous economic benefits in building efficient, sustainable communities. Considering the current fragile state of the Earth and the threat that poses to our ability to feed a population of 6 billion and growing, there's not much more margin for error.

Let's hope it's not too late to change course for we westerners with cities built for the old industrial economy. Unfortunately, we are hampered by outdated infrastructure and over a century of bad habits.

Here are a few passages from the Wired Article, followed by a link to the full text:

Pop-Up Cities: China Builds a Bright Green Metropolis
by Douglas McGray

Dongtan's master plan — hundreds of pages of maps, schematics, and data — has almost nothing to say about architectural style. Instead, it outlines the world's first green city, every block engineered in response to China's environmental crisis. It's like the source code for an urban operating system. "We're not focused on the form," Gutierrez explains. "We're focused on the performance of the form." He and his team imagine a city powered by local, renewable energy, with superefficient buildings clustered in dense, walkable neighborhoods; a recycling scheme that repurposes 90 percent of all waste; a network of high tech organic farms; and a ban on any vehicle that emits CO2. ...

These new megacities could evolve into sprawling, polluting megaslums. Or they could define a new species of world city. Unlike New York or London, they are blank slates — less affluent, perhaps, but also free from legacy designs and technologies tailored to the world of the 19th and 20th centuries. That is a huge advantage. ... "Shanghai today is making 90 percent of the mistakes that American cities made," Burdett argues — spreading out, building up single-family homes, replacing naturally mixed-use neighborhoods with isolated zones for living, shopping, and working, and connecting it all with car travel. But fixing these problems is still possible.

If Dongtan lives up to expectations, it will serve as a model for cities across China and the rest of the developing world — cities that, given new tools, might leapfrog the environmental and public health costs that have always come with economic progress, a relationship Gutierrez calls "the nightmare of the 20th century."

Read the full article

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Gingrich vows to convert all of us heathens

Newt Gingrich is back on the national political stage after his "contract on America" ran its course in the 90s. He gave a speech at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in order to eulogize the deceased preacher, and stake out a claim for the religious right's backing in the 2008 election.

Newt, as always, is full of nicely skewed insights on what's happening in the country. Despite the fact that the White House has been in the hands of the most fanatically Christian president in our history, Gingrich is feeling persecuted these days. We "radical secularists" are dragging the nation down.

Funny thing is, after complaining about how difficult the non-believers are making it for the faith based community, "slimy like a" Newt said something pretty interesting. Here are the quotes from today's Washington Post:

"In hostility to American history, the radical secularists insist that religious belief is inherently divisive," Gingrich said, deriding what he called the "contorted logic" and "false principles" of advocates of secularism in American society.

"Basic fairness demands that religious beliefs deserve a chance to be heard," he said during his 26-minute speech. ...

"Anybody on the left who hopes that when people like Reverend Falwell disappear, that the opportunity to convert all of America has gone with him fundamentally misunderstands why institutions like this were created," Gingrich told reporters.

(Gingrich Assails 'Radical Secularism', Washington Post, 5.20.2007)
I guess that cherished religious freedom really only pertains to the Christian community ... and I'm guessing even some of those folks, such as the Catholics, might be excluded from Newt's universe of believers.

[warning, the next paragraph contains heavy sarcasm ... ]

We all need to back off and let these poor oppressed fundamentalists have free reign to convert all of the heathens and followers of false gods before the US is hit by more of God's wrath (we did have that Hurrican Katrina coming, after all, with the crazy anti-Christian things we've been up to).

[the period of sarcasm has now passed, we return to the blog's normal nasty tone ...]

Let's hope that the Newt crawls back under the rock from which he emerged pretty soon.

Another proud moment in the history of organized religion

Of all the founding stories of world religions, I would guess that none is less well celebrated by its followers than that of the Church of England. There were many good reasons to split from the Catholic church back in the 16th Century. Martin Luther even authored the 95 Theses in 1517 that listed them out. But in 1534, King Henry VIII needed only one: he was tired of his old lady. Having lost interest in his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry wanted to consumate his crush on the lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn.

May 19 marks the 471st anniversary of the event that proved the lack of wisdom of indulging Henry's lusts: Anne Boleyn's beheading. It took less than 3 years for the possibly syphilitic Henry to tire of his second bride and seek out a third (Jane Seymour). Their union did produce a daughter who would go on to become Elizabeth I. Unfortunately for Anne, Henry didn't seek an annulment this time, but had her brought up on false charges of adultery and sentenced to death.

Henry proved he wasn't a complete brute, however, allowing Anne to be executed by a skilled French swordsman rather than the usual clumsy axeman. Somehow I don't think Anglicans will be marking her passing at mass tomorrow. God save the queen, indeed.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Illusionist: Challenging the reality of your world

Continuing my movie-reviewing frenzy, today I tackle Neil Burger's The Illusionist (see the IMDB entry for the movie's particulars). Although the faux accents detracted slightly from the experience for me, it's a very well crafted film and fun to watch.

The action takes place in 1900 Austria and follows Eisenheim the Illusionist (Edward Norton) as he tries to rekindle a star-crossed relationship with the love of his life Sophie (Jessica Biel). Their teenage romance foundered because of conflicting social classes. Banned by her parents from seeing each other, Eisenheim, the son of a cabinet maker, escaped to the East to learn the art of illusion. Sophie, a countess, stayed in Vienna to become engaged to the would-be Emperor, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell).

Returning to Vienna after ten years, Eisenheim uses his craft to alter perceptions of his audiences — from poor street kids, to bourgeois theater goers, to the royal court. His abilities prove a direct threat to the mercurial monarch and Eisenheim is dogged by Inspector Uhl's (Paul Giamatti) repeated attempts to shut down and debunk his act.

The themes of the film aren't especially profound, but I always enjoy trying to put what I watch into the political context of our time. I could probably construct an elaborate explanation of how the film is a metaphor for our freedom challenged, post 9/11 life under George W, a pseudo self-perceived emperor. That, however, would be an academic exercise not worth the effort. (I would really like someone to address the renewed popularity of horror flicks and what that says about the brutal tenor of our times. It won't be me, because I can't stand watching those films.)

I do think, however, that artists are a product of their environments, and the works they create can be indicative of social currents, whether or not such ideas figure prominently in their plans. The basic subject of the Illusionist is the nature of reality, and it probes the use of illusion (a stand in for art of all kinds, including film) to alter perceptions and undermine otherwise seemingly unchallenged authority.

It is the capacity of artists to open up the imaginations of their audience to new possibilities that has always made them a target of government censorship and persecution, especially in times of strict social control. That's exactly what Eisenheim does in the film, exposing and exploiting the Prince's vulnerabilities. It's why art is always at the vanguard of social revolution, and it's why I enjoy writing about it so much.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Oh, is that what the World Bank is supposed to do?

Today, the World Bank scandal finally resolved itself as Paul Wolfowitz resigned his post as president. The New York Times has a piece on the search for a successor, and the description of the qualifications might surprise you — it certainly did me:

"We want to make sure that we are selecting the best individual for the job," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman. "We want someone who has a real passion for lifting people out of poverty." ...

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. is to lead the search, but ultimately the choice will be made by President Bush, administration officials said. Mr. Paulson’s priority, they said, will be to find a capable and experienced manager, perhaps at a corporation, banking firm or even a university.

(from White House Says It Will Move Quickly to Replace Wolfowitz)
Forgive me as I do a virtual double take ... "lifting people out of poverty"?! Where to start on such a ludicrous claim ...

First, about the only experience Paul Wolfowitz had with the poor was causing the souls of indigent Iraqis to be lifted from their bodies during the war he orchestrated.

Second, if you're going to look for people with a passion for ending poverty you might want to look someplace other than the institutions whose goal it is to enrich themselves at the expense of the poor worldwide. When I think anti-poverty movement, the corporate boardroom is the first place that comes to my mind (insert tone of heavy sarcasm).

Third, the World Bank's history has never been one of fighting poverty, it's been about making loans to poor countries with the full understanding that the money will end up lining the pockets of corrupt politicians while the pockets of those nations' citizens get perpetually picked for interest payments to Western banks.

If you'd like a fuller understanding of the true harm the World Bank and IMF have done to the countries they claim to aid, check out the Website of the organization 50 Years Is Enough. They also have some good insight on what's transpired during these past weeks of scandal at the WB.

Showing RP Bloggers what real Cyber War is ...

I know that certain members of the Rogers Park blogging community think their posts hold enough sway with the public to bring down the high and mighty, but they've got nothing on the Internet warriors who took down Estonia's web presence.

Estonian authorities are claiming to be the victims of a 1 million computer strong, coordinated "denial of service" attack that's caused millions of dollars in damage. Estonia at first blamed rival Russia, but now it has backed off the initial allegations that the attacks had been traced to servers there. Many still suspect a link to the dispute between the two nations over the removal of WW II memorials.

In comparison to such virulent web-based attacks, our little RP blogging community's forays into back stabbing, character assassination, and rumor mongering seem pretty tame. As the Internet gains more and more prominence in the global economy, such attempts to cripple web-based commerce could become more common. Welcome to the age of Cyber War.

For more on the situation in Estonia, here are excerpts from and a link to an article in The Guardian:

Web attackers used a million computers, says Estonia
Ian Traynor in Brussels
Friday May 18, 2007

Estonia said yesterday that at least 1m computers had been used to launch an unprecedented wave of cyber-attacks on the small Baltic state over the past few weeks and indicated the damage inflicted had run into tens of millions of euros.

Despite earlier explicit accusations that Russia was behind the offensive, however, officials in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, backed away from accusing the Kremlin directly. The outbreak of the attack, with hundreds of thousands of hits bombarding Estonian websites in order to jam them and make them unusable, coincided three weeks ago with the climax of an ugly dispute between Moscow and Tallinn over a Soviet second world war memorial in the Estonian capital.

Read full article

Thursday, May 17, 2007

2046: Getting lost in time

Like "The Fountain," which I wrote about earlier, "2046" is a recent film now on DVD that deals with love, science fiction, and time travel. Written and directed by Hong Kong's Kar Wai Wong (see the film's IMDB page for full credits), the movie focuses on the writer Chow Mo Wan as he tries to make sense of failed relationships past and present by looking through the lens of an imagined future. Plot details follow below, so prepare to get spoiled.

The film's title refers to one of Chow's novels, and in his writing it is a destination time and place where nothing changes and from which none have returned. The significance of the number extends into the real world, as it's the year that marks the end of China's 50 year promise to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy after having assumed sovreignty from the British in 1997. On that level the film could be a political metaphor, but I don't know enough of the history to try to grasp it.

Back on the personal level, Chow, like his characters who travel to 2046, has a love that he wants to revisit (the platonic affair with Su Li Zhen that was portrayed in the director's earlier film "In the Mood for Love"), and through his writing he gradually realizes the trap he's created for himself. Since returning to Hong Kong from Singapore on the heels of the failed relationship with the second Su Li Zhen (aka Black Spider), Chow has become a playboy pursuing endless one-night stands rather than emotional commitment. The emptiness of his lifestyle especially hits home on subsequent Christmas eves, when he feels the acute need for warmth and company.

Among the many women in his life, three leave their mark on Chow and find their way into his fiction as androids: LuLu who he knew in Singapore and who ends up getting stabbed by a jealous boyfriend; Bai Ling who loves him despite his best efforts to insult and objectify her; and Wang Jing Wen the assistant he secretly loves before convincing her to go to Japan to pursue her boyfriend.

Ultimately he's unable or unwilling to emotionally connect to any of them. Toward the end, Chow states that timing is important in love -- meeting the right person doesn't matter if it's too soon or too late. That timing however is mostly of our own making. Until he can move beyond the love that haunts him, all women will arrive either too late or too soon.

Favorite Song of the Day: You Can't Blame the Youth

Sometimes a song just pops in my head, and I can't always explain why (maybe a phrase overheard at a café, or an image from a film, or a headline from a newspaper, ...). When it happens, I like to try to put it in some kind of context. After all, my friend Terry Feingold says there are no coincidences.

Today's ditty comes from Bob Marley's Talkin' Blues album and attacks a conceit that many modern folks — locally, nationally, and abroad — like to adopt: blaming the victims. Often it's an idea propagated by those in charge in order to redirect potentially accusatory glances from their direction. It's a tactic with a surprising degree of success, considering the illogic of blaming those out-of-power for things perpetuated by the upholders of the status quo.

In the case of our youth, it's easy for we "grown ups" (with much growing up still to do) to fall back on the easy feelings of blame and resentment because of their propensity to "rebel" against that which came before and embrace all things new. But it's those very traits that lead to innovation and progress, albeit with attendant misteps and misgivings. What usually holds them (and us) back are the hang-ups and habits that they've inherited from the generations that came before.

So, before you yell at a kid hanging out on the street with nothing better to do, try to find a productive place for him or her to go.

You Can't Blame The Youth by Peter Tosh

You can't blame the youth
You can't fool the youth
You can't blame the youths of today
You can't fool the youth

You teaching youths to learn in school
That the cow jump over moon
You teaching youths to learn in school
That the dish run away with spoon

So You can't blame the youths of today
You can't fool the youths
You can't blame the youth
None at all
You can't fool the youth

You teach the youths about Christopher Columbus
And you said he was a very great man
You teach the youths about Marco Polo
And you said he was a very great man
You teach the youth about the pirate Hawkins
And you said he was a very great man
You teach the youth about the pirate Morgan
And you said he was a very great man

So you can't blame the youth
When they don't learn
You can't fool the youths
You can't blame the youths of today
You can't fool the youths

When every Christmas come
You buy the youth a pretty toy gun
When every Christmas come around
You buy the youth a fancy toy gun

So you can't blame the youth
When they get bad
You can't fool the youth
You can't blame the youths of today
You can't fool the youth

A "Fountain" of ideas

Last night (and again this morning), I watched the DVD of Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" and was extremely impressed with the film's ideas, vision and beauty. (See the IMDB page for the particulars of the film). Last year, I read about the film's struggles to make it to the screen and the innovative techniques used to deliver the special effects within a reduced budget (see Wired's The Outsider from November), but I never got a chance to see it in the theater. I wish I had ... as wonderful as the film is on a small screen the larger format certainly would have added to the impact.

"The Fountain" is a science fiction film with a different visual take on space and time travel. The cosmos are represented through a technique of "microphotography" in which the interaction of liquids in a petri dish are filmed and expanded. This lends an organic feel to the movement of the gases of the nebulae that surround the story's space ship. That ship is itself interesting, breaking with the traditional imaginings of such vessels. The main character, Tom Creo (portrayed by Hugh Jackman), glides through space in a transparent orb.

What really captured my attention about the film, however, were its ideas. "The Fountain" is a love story that spans 1,000 years and, very basically, thematically it's a meditation on mortality. There are a number of plot spoilers that follow, so tread carefully if you're planning to watch the film (or run recklessly if you're not convinced yet it's worth it).

The action flows from 3 interwoven and parallel time periods. The present day story follows Tommy Creo's attempts to discover a medical breakthrough that can save his wife Izzy (played by Rachel Weisz) from the brain cancer that is consuming her.

In the midst of her illness, Izzy writes the mythic story of 1500 AD Spain and the conquistador Tomas's quest to find the Mayan Tree of Life and its promise of immortality. We're transported with Tom back to Spain and the Guatemalan jungle as he visualizes the passages from Izzy's manuscript. Along the way, Izzy informs Tom about the Mayan underworld of Xibalba a dying star to which all earthly souls depart in order to be reborn. Her book is an attempt to come to terms with dying, and it's also a way for her to guide Tom toward acceptance of her death as well as his own. She leaves the last chapter unwritten, and it's her directive to "finish it" that haunts Tom throughout the film.

The third timeline occurs in the outer space of 2500 AD as Tom, apparently having discovered the path toward personal immortality, travels toward a dying star in a last attempt to bring Izzy back. Hoping to fulfill the Mayan myth of Xibalba, he transports a tree that holds Izzy's soul to a nearby nebula. On his journey he relives the events of his past, our present, in the hopes that he can fix what went wrong. These segments have a dream-like quality and leave open the question of whether Tom has actually survived into the distant future or is in the midst of a mental struggle to come to terms with mortality.

Both the Mayan and the Biblical creation myths figure prominently in the story. It is the Bible's version that frames Tom's quests. There were two trees in the Garden of Eden: The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge. By eating of the Tree of Knowledge and achieving consciousness, humanity lost access to the fruit of immortality. The film recounts Tom's attempts in the three different time periods to rediscover that lost tree.

Izzy, on the other hand, operates from within the Mayan framework and tries to embrace the concept of "death as an act of creation." According to the myth, First Father died in order to give life to the universe as his blood fed the Earth and the Tree of Life sprouted from his belly. His head was placed in the sky by his children and became Xibalba. For Izzy, death is the "road to awe," as we return to the universe and become one again with all of creation. Only when Tom can grasp that idea will he be able to write the final chapter to the book, and their story.

The story's non-linear unfolding across different eras reminded me of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Billy Pilgrim's becoming "unstuck" in time. The events of the past, present and future (myth, reality, and dream) occur concurrently yet aren't absolutely fixed. Tom is able to finally achieve the happy ending Izzy wanted him to author, and that leads to a pretty thrilling conclusion.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Hot Ice? Maybe Hell can freeze over ...

Today in Geneva, European astronomers announced the discovery of a new paradoxical planet that's made of super hot, solid water. The space "ice" is formed by extreme pressure rather than the sub-freezing temperatures that create ice on Earth.

The new planet has the catchy name of GJ 436b. It's a mere 33 light years from Earth (that's 6 trillion miles), and has a surface temperature estimated at 540 degrees Farenheit. So, make sure you pack appropriately.

The discovery has brought hope to Chicago Cubs fans everywhere, raising the possibility that Hell can freeze over and the Northside nine could finally win another world series.

To read more about GJ 436b, check out this article from Reuters UK: Hot "ice" may cover recently discovered planet

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Bush appoints new "Master of War"

Today, George W appointed his new War Czar (a reference to those beloved Russian tyrants of old, but don't get me started on the democracy vs. monarchy discussion again), because that's what it will take to turn this mess around, right? Lord knows all we've been lacking all along is the right corporate-style manager to "implement and execute" W's grand strategy. Of course it would help all involved if they could fathom just what that strategy is.

At least the new guy claims to have a skeptical mind, so he's not just another "yes man." Forgive me if I keep my own skepticism when it comes to that.

Here's a short blurb from the New York Times story:

White House Names General to Be ‘War Czar’

WASHINGTON, May 15 — The White House said this afternoon that President Bush ended his lengthy search for a “war czar” to carry out Iraq and Afghanistan policy by offering the job to an active duty three-star Army general who said in his interview that he had been skeptical of the troop buildup in Iraq.

Mr. Bush selected Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, currently the top operations officer for the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, for the position. It would carry the rank of assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser; General Lute will retain his active military status and, therefore, must be confirmed by the Senate, which approves new assignments for three- and four-star generals.

Read the full article

All of the War Czar talk, and the fact that the new guy has quite the musical name ("Lute"), brought to mind one of my favorite Bob Dylan songs: Masters of War. It sums up my sentiments on this whole administration. Charlie Pierce, Andy Levenberg and James Weigel have been playing a pretty kick-ass live version of the song over at Duke's in Rogers Park each Thursday nite. Come on by this week and check it our for yourself.

Masters of War by Bob Dylan

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

Copyright © 1963; renewed 1991 Special Rider Music

Occidental Petroleum: "A Legacy of Harm"

A few days ago, my friend Nancy Backas forwarded to me a press release from Earth Rights International that details a lawsuit brought against Occidental Petroleum for the environmental abuses they've perpetrated in the Peruvian Amazon. It's not an uncommon story of US Corporate greed wreaking havoc on the indigenous populations and ecologies of foreign lands, but unfortunately it's also not the type of story that gets much mainstream press coverage.

Granted I don't have the readership of the New York Times (or the Podunk Times, for that matter), but I'm doing my part to spread the word. Below are excerpts from the press release, and a link to the full text. You can also check out the full Legacy of Harm report in PDF format (cover at left).

Lawsuit Charges Oil Giant with Harming Health and Environment of Native Achuar People

May 10, 2007, Los Angeles, CA – EarthRights International (ERI) and the law firm Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP (SDSHH) today brought suit on behalf of twenty-five indigenous Achuar plaintiffs from the Peruvian Amazon against Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. (Oxy), alleging egregious harm caused by Oxy over a thirty-year period in the Corrientes River basin during which Oxy contaminated the rivers and lands of the indigenous Achuar communities, causing death, widespread poisoning and destruction of their way of life. ERI and SDSHH are joined as counsel by attorneys Bob Kerrigan of Pensacola, Florida, and Natalie Bridgeman of San Francisco.

Apu Tomás Maynas Carijano, a plaintiff in the case and an Achuar traditional leader, stated, “With this lawsuit, I am here demanding Oxy clean up and compensate for the contamination it left in the Río Corrientes region. We can no longer eat the fish or drink the water. Our children are guaranteed death unless Oxy acts now.”

The legal action follows last week’s release of A Legacy of Harm, an in-depth report by ERI, the advocacy organization Amazon Watch, and the Peruvian NGO Racimos de Ungurahui that reveals that Oxy deliberately ignored industry standards and employed out-of-date practices for 30 years, resulting in severe cadmium and lead poisoning among the Achuar communities. The report also finds that Oxy dumped an average of 850,000 barrels per day of toxic oil by-products directly into rivers and streams used by the Achuar for drinking, bathing, washing, and fishing – totaling approximately nine billion barrels during the 30 years of operation.

Read the full press release

Monday, May 14, 2007

Proof of the Pope's fallibility

If you were raised Catholic as I was, you're probably familiar with the concept of Papal Infallibility. Basically, we're told that the Pope cannot err when he speaks on matters of faith and morality, as he is guided by the Holy Spirit. Well, either the Holy Spirit was on break during Benedict XVI's trip to Brazil, or the Pope was speaking off the cuff.

In a brilliant piece of revisionist history making, the Pope told a group of bishops that the indigenous peoples of South America had "silently longed" to be converted by the conquistadors, that the experience purified them, and any attempts to revive indigenous religion would be a "step backward."

The years of suffering and brutality that accompanied that conversion to Christianity was just part of the purification process, I guess. Next Benny will tell us that the Jews of Spain were really masochists who wanted to be tortured by Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition, and that any attempts by their descendants to reclaim their heritage would be a huge mistake.

Some may find my picture of the Pope offensive, but it's certainly no more disrespectful than his remarks. Consider us even.

Here are excerpts from the Reuters story:

Brazil's Indians offended by Pope comments

By Raymond Colitt

BRASILIA, May 14 (Reuters) - Outraged Indian leaders in Brazil said on Monday
they were offended by Pope Benedict's "arrogant and disrespectful" comments that
the Roman Catholic Church had purified them and a revival of their religions
would be a backward step.

In a speech to Latin American and Caribbean bishops at the end of a visit to Brazil, the Pope said the Church had not imposed itself on the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

They had welcomed the arrival of European priests at the time of the conquest as they were "silently longing" for Christianity, he said.

Millions of tribal Indians are believed to have died as a result of European colonization backed by the Church since Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, through slaughter, disease or enslavement. ...

Even the Catholic Church's own Indian advocacy group in Brazil, known as Cimi, distanced itself from the Pope.

"The Pope doesn't understand the reality of the Indians here, his statement was wrong and indefensible," Cimi advisor Father Paulo Suess told Reuters. "I too was upset."

Read the full article

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day: Boost peace not greeting card sales

On the advice of my brother-in-law Chris Jungheim, I looked up the origins of Mother's Day. Abolitionist, social activist and poet Julia Ward Howe was among the first in the United States to promote the creation of the holiday. Rather than using it as a time to sell flowers, candy, and greeting cards, she envisioned it as a day for mothers to stand up to war and violence, and instill the values of international unity and peace.

Ms. Howe, also well-known as the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wrote the Mother's Day Proclamation in 1870 on the heels of the carnage of the American Civil War. The holiday didn't become recognized nationally until 1914, and even then it was used to celebrate individual motherhood rather than bring together mothers politically to work for common ideals.

Below is the full text of the Proclamation, which still has resonance today.

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!

Say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.
"Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar
But of God.

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Chicago River Clean Up 2007: How I spent my day ...

If you take a canoe out on the Chicago River, you'll see it's on the comeback trail and lots of wildlife have returned to make it their home. Unfortunately, far too many locals still use it as their personal waste dump. Once a year, Friends of the Chicago River sponsors Chicago River Day and teams of concerned citizens dig out the garbage that's collected over 12 months.

For a second year, Tara Wilson fearlessly lead a group of us out on the water to pick up the litter that collects at a wetland just south of Diversey Avenue. (Thanks to Tom Westgard who took the snaps that document our efforts.)

From aluminum beer cans, to glass and plastic bottles, to spent butane lighters, to styrofoam cups, bits and pieces ...

From basketballs, to chip bags, to bike wheels, to used personal hygiene items that we won't mention, there was a lot to clean up ...

And with such a pile of litter, there's only one thing to do: get down and dirty ...

Tara was able to augment her wardrobe with one of the day's many interesting finds ...

Here's a good look at the folks up top who helped haul the bags of garbage out to the curb via rope ...

And the smiling crew below, possibly a little giddy from the fumes they had to inhale while digging deep into the muck ...

It was a very productive day -- come out and join us next year!