Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Abyss' interesting take on the bi-chromatic beast...

...that has swallowed Hollywood.

Into The Abyss: Teal and Orange - Hollywood, Please Stop the Madness

World History

Methods by which historians divide up the world for analysis and understanding in the World History school of historiography.

Themes. As with literature, writing history involves the creation of narrations structured around themes. Some of the themes currently prevalent in World history are:

Convergence and Divergence. A broad historical tendency of cultures, technologies and economies to move towards or away from homogeneity.

Integration and Difference. The tension between forces that drive two specific societies or systems to integrate or separate from one another. For example, the homogenizing influence of industrialization and increased global contact during the late Nineteenth Century may have helped drive the period’s nationalism, in which people defined themselves on the basis of nation-states. This cultural differentiation was often based on assigning one set of characteristics to their own nation, and opposing traits to a neighboring country or people.

Environmental impacts on human history. Environmental history is another up and coming discipline within the Academy and frequently overlaps with World History as well as the informally named Big History school, which looks at human development in the context of cosmology and geology. Human evolution and the impact of a common biological nature has not as yet played a large role within the field.

Units of analysis:

Regions. Transnational areas with common characteristics. E.g. East Asia, where a shared system of Classical Chinese written characters facilitated the spread of Confucian ideals as well as Scinified (China-fied) Buddhism, which lead to the creation of a common family of cultures in what is now China, Korea, and Japan.

Systems. The study of transnational or trans-regional systems such as international economies, migrations, biological exchanges, or the flows of scientific and engineering knowledge across or between continents.

Ocean and sea basins. In these meta-regions whole packages or networks of interlinked systems are often the primary unit of study. An example of this would be a study of the Atlantic Ocean Basin 1494 - 1800 that addresses European migration to the New World, the Colombian exchange of biota such as food crops and pathogenic organisms, and the eventual rise of the trans-Atlantic trade of slaves, sugar products such as rum and molasses, and Old World industrial goods.

Nation-states. A traditional unit of historical study ever since history’s emergence as a professional discipline in mid-nineteenth century Germany. Generally not a focus in world history as nation-states are fairly recent and fluid creations in the sweep of human history.

Approaches to time in World History:

Chronology. The diachronic approach in which multiple regions are compared to one another advancing forward in time. This creates a linear narrative which is easy to follow, but is thematically cloudy as similar developments in human societies took place at uneven rates around the world.

Periodization. The synchronic examination of common patterns and continuity within a specified period of time. And example of this would be looking at the creation of centralized states during the nineteenth century by comparing the US Civil War, the Meiji Restoration, and the forging of Germany out of a collection of linguistically similar Central European kingdoms.

Thematic, or event time. In this approach the focus is on developmental themes common to human societies. For me, Jared Diamond’s Gun’s, Germs, and Steel is the gold standard of this style as it examines geographical influences on the uneven evolution of human societies from hunter-gather bands, to tribes, to chieftainships, and eventually nation-states.


I just realized today that I am down to my final two history courses. Wow, it’s hard to believe that I’ve already come to the end of study within the field! That being said this promises to be a challenging term of research and analysis in both the seminar and World History courses that I am taking.

Two songs that I've been listening to..

...over and over for the past few days.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Fall (2006)

Unfortunately the quality of the story didn't quite live up to the sheer beauty of the images.

My understanding is that the director financed the movie with his own money so that he could carry out the full extent of his vision unhindered. Which is too bad because the plot ended up lacking thematic coherence and the story often seemed to fall out of focus even as the gorgeous scenes played out one by one. That missing narrative clarity is apparently one the qualities editors apparently help bring to films.

That being said, it was still very much worth a Netflix rental.

In some ways I wish that there would be editors versions of films alongside with the director versions often offered on DVD. Movies have grown longer over the past two decades in the Western World, and I often find myself getting fidgety during the last forty-five minutes or hour.

I have the same problem with books, which is a another strike against contemporary science fiction. Genre novels have grown in page count and could frequently benefit from being a hundred or more pages shorter.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The season of flowering trees drags on.... the city of roses. Not that this is a bad thing at all.

This past term ended up being the first in which I pulled down all A's, as opposed to A's and a B+. As good as this run at PSU has been, I'm going to forgo grad school baring some major change. While it is nice that a Masters is a serious option and I am getting to do a lot of good academic writing, school is proving to be a major distraction from literary work. And after having finally having gotten published for the first time it feels like this is not the moment to be cutting back on the book and short stories.

So, time to start researching the job market and hunting for a job as graduation is just under six months away now.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Videos, colorful and not so colorful....

...set to the music of Massive Attack.

The images in the first one are taken from Tarsem Singh's The Fall, a film that I am very much looking forward to watching.

The music features the singing of Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star fame, which is always a good thing.

The black-and-white video is official one for Massive Attack's "Splitting the Atom." If nothing else director Edouard Salier get's points for creativity for ruthlessly interrogating a still image in a creative manner.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Science fiction, anime, and a downward litterary evolution

So far I'm not having much fun in trying to get back into reading science fiction. While there are fantastic works of sci-fi being produced these days--mind-bending philosophical concepts woven into plots and characters--they seems to be happening largely in video games, film, and animation rather than in books.

When it comes to anime science fiction I'm currently enjoying Ergo Proxy's beautifully animated musings on artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and the nature of identity.

Any show with Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" for a closing song has got to be good!

The entire series is currently available on YouTube, with commercials. The first episode is a starts of choppy with confusing jumps between unexplained events, but quickly settles down into a solid narration.

Also of note and available on YouTube in its entirety: Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid.

Full Metal Panic
is a bit like Tom Clancy meets the traditional Giant Mecha anime, complete with angsty teenagers whose special talents have thrown them into unusual circumstances. Issues of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are touched upon in former child soldiers, fear and tension are subtly evidenced, but at the same time show also reflects the can-do personalities and professional dedication found in successful militaries.

There are some nice technical battlefield realism touches, including bullet-time slow-mo shots of sabots (casings) falling away from main-gun armor-piercing rounds fired by two tanks, as well as an authentic sighting view on an AT-4 rocket launcher--I fired about a dozen or so AT-4s at armored hulks in Germany and at Fort Knox back in the day.

I only wish that I could come across something in literary science fiction as engaging as Ergo or other features I've watched during the past year.

What got me out of reading science fiction was that it paled beside the intensity and complexity of books on real world history, military affairs, and science. At the time I figured it was an age thing. However, after having asked around it seems as though nearly everyone in my circle of friends and family stopped reading new science fiction during the 1990s, regardless if they were fifty or fifteen.

Many of these individuals--my self included--are more than happy to reread books from the prior to the 90s.

Robert Heinlein stories, for example, continues to be engaging, even in those places where his technical details or near future predictions have not stood up to the test of time.

Meanwhile, the much talked about critically received recent novels that I've tried reading during the past two years have done nothing for me. This includes a couple that are up for the Nebula award this year. Such works are cynical, dark, and often lack any real science or science-driven philosophical speculation.

What such stories have instead are several of the pretensions and far-left leanings of Post-Modern literature.

Not surprisingly, science fiction has been stagnant in terms of sales for nearly two decades now, and as a genre it continues to lose shelf-space to fantasy. Even worse for us writers, fair amount of that remaining bookstore-volume is devoted to reprints of older works rather than new novels.

When I talk to science fiction fans about what get's them excited, it mainly seems to be Japanese anime, a handful of films, and above all game titles like Mass Effect, Bioshock, and Halo.

Obviously we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way and managed to abandon our readership.

While I believe that there is room for social realism and social criticism in literary science fiction, our readers in the working and middle classes do not need have it hammered into them that life can be difficult. They get enough of that on a day-to-day basis. Part of what they are looking for in their entertainment, part of what is desperately missing in current science fiction, is the heroic struggle to overcome such obstacles.

When a book is written as an allegorical polemic for either the left or right it alienates close to half of its potential readership. And with its cynicism and gloomy endings, present-day literary science fiction doesn't seem to be enjoying much luck in reaching many of my friends on the left, ironically enough. Many of them seem to be either FDR old-school style liberals or more 1960ish Civil Rights/hippie era, for whom dark endings and the denial of any form of progress holds little attraction.

For them there is more to the world than power structures, oppression, and unbounded relativism.

All of this isn't to say that science fiction has hitherto been free from ideological biases. Far from it. For nearly three decades the field had a strong libertarian bent. And while I'm not a libertarian*, libertarianism with its blended creed of social and economic freedom and emphasis on the heroic quality of individuals didn't seem to drive off readers on the left or right. Or rather if it didn't have everything for everyone it still had something for everybody.

Just as bad, the focus on almost 1984-style political commentaries with capitalism in place of communism means that science--not a field that most Post-Modernists are overly fond of to start with--is largely lacking in the current offering of works. The exception to this are extreme environmental doomsday scenarios, which are unfortunately often heavily tied into the polemical outlook of these books. This further politicizes an urgent issue that should be viewed through the lens of empirical evidence.

Another strike against the field's current literary aspirations is too much of an emphasis on human drama. Yes, you read that correctly. Instead of soap-opera like dramatics--yeah, I'm looking at you Battle Star, even television hasn't proven immune to this trend--show us potential alterations in the human condition. Past and present technological revolutions have changed how we live and see the world, so give us a look at how the future might come to pass within that context. Show us a tomorrow rooted in the complexity of a world beyond the clear-cut views of any ideology. And for God's sake, show us solutions to dilemmas now and again rather that constantly throwing up your hands at the future.

*If I had my way we wouldn't have ideologies. Period. At at best these outlooks are black-and-white still photos of a colorful and ever-evolving world. The present statist vs free market current that flows through much of the polarized political discourse here in the US is like listening to two carpenters argue over whether the hammer or the screwdriver is the perfect tool for every job. What keeps ideologies around, in my view, is their utility in motivating and organizing large numbers of people--a usefulness that carries a high epistemological cost.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Warm day on the coast

The Hobbits of Sweden

(An old but favorite essay, written in 2002 after the first year in Sweden was over, and things were still going relativly well. This was also in the middle of the three years when the Lord of the Rings films were coming out.)

Being in part a description of the curious nature and odd habits of the native peoples of the savage northern kingdom known as Sweden.

The name hobbit implies a people of diminutive stature, and this is perhaps the single aspect of hobbit nature not possessed by the natives of Sweden. The truth of the matter is that if one goes sojourning in this northern kingdom one will spend a lot of time looking upwards in an attempt to establish eye contact. The Swedes are among the taller peoples of this earth, just slightly less in average height than the inhabitants of Rwanda and Kenya.

Here is where any difference between our Scandinavian hobbits and those of J.R.R. Tolkien's Shire end. The trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, begins with preparations for a large birthday party and dinner. After having resided in Sweden for merely a few months, it became apparent to me that dinner parties are the chief concern and perhaps full time obsession of the adult natives. So it has been a bit of shock for the author to watch his Generation X hobbit counterparts, who only a few years ago were drinking themselves silly on cheap Danish beer and even cheaper Finish vodka, now throwing elaborate feasts with fine wines and elegant fares. An adult birthday party is occasion for cooked cheese dishes, meat and vegetable pies, cakes, ice cream, beer, wine, whiskey, coffee, and perhaps a smörgåstårta; the elaborate arrangement that turns a loaf of bread into a layered construction of liver pate, hard boiled egg sections, mayonnaise, lox, shrimp, cucumber slices, and caviar. Fortunately for the Swedish hobbits, their culture supports a vast array of reasons for dinner parties, among them being Midsummer's Eve, the opening of the crayfish season in August, and any mundane activity such as moving into a new apartment. Traditional Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas demand, of course, an even greater level of feasting in this largely agnostic utopia.

Each society's climate fosters a degree of linguistic specialization on its people. Bedouins have many words for sand, Eskimos for ice, and rain forest dwellers have hundreds of terms for the color green. This remains true in Sweden as well. Swedes consume more coffee than anyone else in world—excepting their neighbors the Finns—and this reflects appropriately in their language.

To fika is not just to go out for coffee, but rather implies an entire range of interrelated social, political, business, and snacking activities. The corporate culture of a company that outlawed coffee breaks would quickly breakdown as no internal communications of any significant nature could take place outside of the fikas. Its workers, suffering from caffeine withdrawal, would revert into their Viking berserker ancestors. In short order a combination of violent demonstrations, human rights protests, strikes, sabotage, and union actions would leave the company's offices a charred mound of ashes. After UN peace keepers were called in, the author(s) of the policy would be labeled as worse than either Slobodan Milosivic or Adolph Hitler, and then exiled to the artic tundra of the north, or even worse, Norway--land of uncultured seal-clubbing Scandinavian hillbillies.

Like the pragmatic hobbits of the Shire our Swedes have a deep and enduring fondness for good clothes, as well as all things simple and well made. Anyone who owns a Volvo or modernist couch can vouch for this. Publicly, no hobbit will admit to having a liking for any aspect of tawdry and trashy American pop culture, though a quick check of the local TV guide and movie pages of the newspaper will expose an almost total degree of hypocrisy here. It is also suspicious that the hobbits refer to American as "the land where the Ricki Lake Show comes from."

This attitude can also be seen in culinary matters as well. While Swedes rail against even the very concept of peanut butter as the ultimate proof of American decadence it can still be found in any average-sized grocery store. Standing outside the aisle that contains exotic foreign foods, one can observe otherwise upstanding hobbit citizens sneaking out, glancing nervously over their shoulders as if leaving through the front door of a brothel in full daylight on a Sunday morning*.

Perhaps the ultimate ideal of hobbit life is that of the rural existence. Swedes retreat to the countryside for long sunny weekends and summer holidays, and the joy that the natives here take in the arrival of summer can hardly be overstated. Living in a country with a climate like that of Seattle's is what created this unique breed of pale-skinned sun-worshipping hobbits in the first place. Their only act of imperialism--thus far--is their annual colonization of the sunny Spanish Canary islands, at the height of which migrating Swedes outnumber the locals several times over. It is in Sweden a basic human right to be able to take at least three weeks of one's nationally mandated five weeks of annual vacation time within the summer months.

From their family country houses Swedes set out in treks through the forests where they gorge themselves into intoxication on wild strawberries. To the average Swede-Hobbit the Swedish strawberry is not just a symbol of summer, but its divine essence given shape and substance. Explorers and visiting anthropologists are cautioned to immediately agree with the natives' religious insistence that these are the finest strawberries in the world--the Edenic ancestors of all other pale and pathetic foreign fruits that carry the same name. Failure to acknowledge this has left more than one visitor naked and tied to a tree, enduring their last few minutes of life on this Earth undergoing archaic tortures perfected by Vikings.

Aside from these pagan rituals the only other disturbing sight which one might encounter in the Swedish countryside is the occasional dwarf of Germany. Their native country being filled with 80 million inhabitants, German dwarfs often voyage north and purchase hobbit summer cottages in order to experience the un-crowded rural life. This also allows them to indulge in their almost fetish-like worship of the Swedish national symbol, the moose. It is an almost tragically common occurrence in the woods of Småland to come across intoxicated dwarfs dismantling roadside moose-crossing signs to take home to Germany.

The author of this paper had spot of adventure while visiting Stockholm's famous Skansen's petting zoo, where he was nearly trampled to death by a horde of invading hunnish dwarves who where eager to reach the Moose pens. At least once a year a party of Germans spends a night in the city jail after an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle one of the animals out of the park. The closest that any known moose-smuggling ambition has come to fruition was an incident when a German tourist was stopped from boarding a car ferry on what he insisted was a just a slightly furry, long-handled SAAB motorcycle.

Of all other societies on muddled Earth the Swedes most closely resemble the Japanese in both culture and temperament. Each has a love of seafood, raw fish, and other exotic fares. Both are also the descendants of violent warrior cultures and subsume their passions into extreme forms of politeness. A typical hobbit exchange might run as follows:

"It would be my pleasure to offer you some coffee."

"Yes, many thanks."

"No thanks are necessary. Thank you for your company today."

"Ah, but thanks shall you have."

"I thank you for your thanks. Cookies?"

"Yes, even more thanks."

"It is nothing, thank you for your last dinner party."

"Think nothing of that. Thank you for the time before…"

Like two samurai exchanging their names, lineages, and lists of defeated foes, it is best to allow Swedes to run through the ritual expression of their gratification for all previous social contacts. Anything less will constitute a display of shocking rudeness and imply poor breeding on the part the interrupting party. Occasionally Swedish passions will not be restrained, and then there is trouble. Most often these outbursts are channeled into bouts of vodka drinking, Ace of Base concerts, and extreme left wing politics. The latter activity being one that hobbit teenagers practice in the same manner that other youths play at extreme sports. It is even more rare for physical violence to erupt, but alcohol-fueled pillagings of downtown Copenhagen are not unknown, and there is the tragic once-in-a-while sacking of Austrian ski resorts.

"Bengt! What is good in life?"

"To roam the kitchen aisle at Ikea with a Volvo at your command and the wind from the electric fans in your hair."

"No!" (followed by the sound of smackage taking place). "Sven! What is good in life?"

"To set fire to the resort dining room, to destroy chair lifts, and harass local bar wenches."

A final semblance between the Japanese and Swedish hobbits is that each has a deeply ingrained conviction that their social-welfare system is the logical end point of human evolution. In Europe the Italians assume that anything different from their system must be better, and to the Swedes it is any society differing from their own that must be worse. The fact that the rest of the world has failed to adopt Swedish Social Democracy only confirms a lack of good hobbit sensibility amongst other peoples.

It also stems from the outside world's apparent lack of knowledge about this enlightened system's many benefits. Swedish newspapers are filled with articles assuring their citizens of their superiority in all fields. While eating breakfast one day this author came across one such pierce of journalism proudly entitled, "Swedish Sperm Better than Danish Sperm" (Sydsvenska Dagbladet, 15 September 2002, page A38.) If one chooses visit this odd but savagely beautiful northern land, be prepared for a lot of condescending looks on the part of the locals if you wish to discuss any positive aspects of your native land. Americans are strongly advised to stick to talking about the genius of Woody Allen and his films. With these few simple precautions travelers can enjoy their stay among these stylish hobbits under the gray skies.


* A note about surstroemming, the infamous Swedish sour herring. This is a dish prepared by allowing fish to rot over the course of six months while being submerged in various solutions. It is then packaged and continues fermenting with such vigor that each metal storage can bulges ominously outwards. When opened, the fetid liquid inside tends to jet outwards in noxious blast and emit an odor that has been charitably characterized as being perhaps the most vile smell on Earth. Surstroemming is a sensitive topic with the Swedes. Merely bringing it into a conversation causes the hobbits to immediately shift to a prickly defensive mode reminiscent of that of Koreans who are in the company of foreigners discussing the eating of dog, or Englishmen when any aspect of their culinary lives is brought up.

To be fair to my Swedish friends, none of them have actually risked life or limb trying out this potentially lethal dish—-at least they have claimed so in a series of informal dinner party polls. A few of them have threatened to force feed me surstroemming though, particularly whenever I have been "talking too much shit." So far I have confidence that this is only a bluff as they appear to be too frightened to be seen purchasing rotten herring, let alone taking the risks inherent in opening a potentially explosive can of rancid fish. Some have also spoken idly of acquiring sour herring to try at Christmas, but for now they seem content to go to the town hotel's julbord (a pre-Christmas buffet) and partake of more normal foods, such as jellied  fish (lutefisk), smoked eel, and blood pudding.

My impression from their conversations is that surstroemming was originally invented by demented lumberjacks living in the remote northern forest who had become crazed by long periods of total darkness, coffee deprivation, and who at the time were meeting their hydrational needs by imbibing a litter of moonshine each day. In short it is basically a survival food for northern Swedish redneck loggers who are so saturated with alcohol that they are no longer able to a) taste or smell anything, and b) whose high blood alcohol concentration renders them immune to mild bacterial infection like botulism.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Skyline view

15°35North, 13°00East

From late 2001, when I was starting a new life in an exotic place.

The Flat:

I live in the middle of the southern-most city in Sweden, a Euro-dense urban area of three-hundred thousand people. So it's not surprising that even now at 2am cars continuously hum past in ones and twos. In the small park across from our fourth-story flat a woman is walking a rat-like thing that must be a dog. There is also an old man is sitting on one of the park benches where heroin-thin gray-skinned baby-boomer junkies pass the time on warmer days. This is the yet-to-be-named first decade of the twenty-first century, and smack is still very much in style. Often, in the middle of the night, some Arab or Swede or Persian will be out on the sidewalk yelling for our neighbor, whom we assume is a supplier/dealer.

It should be mentioned that Swedes do not seem to believe in the use of curtains. Drapery apparently exists to frame views of the outside world and in no way used to obscure, to obstruct, or to grant privacy. There is an unspoken assumption in this land of egalitarianism that no one could possibly be rude enough to look into your home at night.

Yes, there are rare nods to the reality that passers by do glance in. Occasionally a degenerate bottom-floor dweller installs a half-pane of frosted glass to provide a degree of privacy from pedestrians on the sidewalk. However, even such a weak-willed individual knows better than to threaten the social order by going so far as to actually draw the drapes.

My residence is part of a four-story fortress of brick apartment buildings that encircles a city block. The curtain etiquette means that the kitchen window reveals an uninterrupted panorama of domestic evening life on the far side of the inner courtyard. Some of the block's component edifices are pleasant, and others are dreary affairs thrown up during a desperate 1930s madhouse attempt to shelter the masses of ship-building workers who were pouring into Malmö.

Ours is one of the latter.

Across the courtyard, the neighbors are often visible after dark preparing dinner, and in a washroom scruffy twenty somethings regularly gather around the washing machine and dryer to laugh and smile a lot. I won't discuss the peculiarities of the overweight gentleman who practices the culinary arts in the nude, but only out of politeness.

Three years ago, during a visit here, a young girl and her mother watched excitedly as my girlfriend-to-be hung an orange paper Christmas star in what is now our kitchen window.

The flat can be described as a narrow rectangle divided into a kitchen and a living room. There is also a former broom closet that has been converted into a shower/bathroom. One can sit on the toilet and shower, making it vitally important to remember to set the toilet paper on the floor outside the bathroom before turning on the water. Also, the toilet is haunted. When flushed it moans loudly enough to be heard at the bottom of our four-story stairwell.

At the moment, low-hanging clouds lit from below by street lamps are being driven across the city sky by an ocean breeze. These have just crossed over nearby Denmark while coming in from the North Atlantic.

A long-time mountain and inland desert dweller, I love sea winds and have always cherished the thought of living next to the ocean. In South Korea I resided in a camp of five hundred cavalrymen almost eight kilometers from the sea, and I never saw the water there during my year-long stay. Of course that water belonged to the wrong Korea, and it is my understanding that the beach there is a tangled mire of razor wire and rusting forty-year-old landmines. So perhaps not seeing the Han Estuary wasn't much of a loss.

The wind and water in Sweden however, are different from Land of the Morning Calm. Here there is no tragic hermit kingdom nearby to flavor the rivers and breezes with heavy metals, no starving inhabitants, no six-hundred thousand enemy riflemen on the border, and no demigod son of the Great Leader. I no longer sit on the fire escape of the steel-sided barrack building (the Rat House) with my friends to watch the afternoon thunderstorms pummel our northern neighbors — Mother Nature really seemed to have had it in for the Norks that year.

Where I live now, the natural geographic border is the Öresund strait. Across those dark waters lies Københaven and Danmark. Hard-drinking hard-working pale-skinned people live there, who seem to me to be the bridge between continental Germany and peninsular Scandinavia. I can hear it when the Danes speak, and instead of trying to Danishize my meager but growing Swedish vocabulary, their Hunnish cadence tempts me to slip back into my Bavarian-accented Deutsch.

The Army English that I spoke while living in Germany was for the most part a hybrid language. There were not quiet as many cool sounding euphemisms for killing as Hollywood would have you believe. There are also very few of the acronyms that are liberally tossed about in movies. Instead, G.I. speak tended to be a gumbo of foreign words picked up from around the world.

A Joe who has been to Korea will sometimes speak about that Ahjahsee (old man,) or tell you to bali bali (hurry up). A soldier in Germany might substitute autobahn for freeway, bahnhof for train station, and pomesfrits for French fries. There are even a few fragments of Vietnamese and Indochina French floating around courtesy of everyone having watched Full Metal Jacket or Hamburger Hill a few times too many. There are guys in the Army who can recite lines form Apocalypse Now the way role-playing nerds can parrot Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail.

As an institution I don't think that we picked up much in the way of local words while we were down in the Balkans. We were there to keep the natives from killing each other, which didn't leave much time for learning the language.

Anyway, the park across the way from us in the here and now: It is dominated by an elm that looms over our fourth-story flat and spreads its branches above nearly a third of the green recreational space below it. A few blocks behind the tree stands a six-story bluish copper-domed monstrosity of a vary Scandinavian water tower.

During the drawn-out Swedish summer twilight, throngs of narrow-shouldered long-haired teenagers gather in the park to celebrate being alive by pounding on drums, twirling weighted ropes, and bending their bodies in odd angles to the rhythm of their music. These are polite rebellious Swedish teenagers, so their big, penetrating bass drums cease their tribal diatribes promptly at 10pm.

During the summer there was also a junkie who moved his furniture into the park. He dragged in his ragged-assed couch and an easy chair underneath the sheltering structure of the uber-elm. Then the municipal workers of Malmö showed up and confiscated his couch and chair. For a day he toughed it out underneath a bush with a blanket and no small amount of chemical fortification, then the social workers took him away as well. He was back with the couch a day later, and the process proceeded to repeat for some weeks.

I had to admire their determination: Both man and sofa were out there striving to beat the system for nearly a month, braving the rain and other elements, before disappearing a final time.

Now, lest you think Sweden in general is an exotic place, it's not. This land is a left-leaning middle-class nation--a liberal suburb of Europe, isolated in many ways from the world at large. That being said, the neighborhood I live in is only notionally a part of Sweden, and it will do nothing to counter any suggestion of mine about non-exoticness.

We reside on the edge of one of the immigrants' quarters. About two-thirds of our brick stockade is occupied by Swedes — mostly young, trendy, and upward bound. Many of these are medical students who work at the local hospital, which is why we are here. The remainder of the Swedes are pensioners, many of them jobless since the Swedish ship-building industry went tits up back in the 1970s. The other third, however, is inhabited by Arabs and a few Africans. Some are here as refugees from the wars of this past decade. They come primarily from Iraq and Somalia. There are also Kurds and Persians, as well as a few Palestinians seeking relief from the discrimination directed at them in the Middle Eastern lands where their parents and grandparents sought refuge after 1948.

Off on the northwest corner of the park stands the Iskander Food Store, which specializes in food products of the Middle East. Passing it and heading west on our street will take you past the Oriental Gill, which features fantastic kebabs and Arab-style chicken, as well as several Arab-owned markets, butchers, barbershops, and electronics stores. Further down is a Persian restaurant. You will then arrive at the market square where workers and union organizers helped to usher in the 1930s birth of Swedish socialism. This public place in turn is ringed by Thai, Chinese, and Swedish restaurants. There are also a couple of Asian food markets, as well as butchers of various nationalities.

Circle back towards our flat on the street called Ystadsgatan, and you will see shops displaying water pipes made of colored glass and imitation brass. You will the go by a sea-themed playground of wooden structures and sand where children speaking Serbo-Coratian and Albanian play.

Before the park, you'll pass the Red Star Café. Here, energetic black-clad teenagers strive to keep alive the heyday of trendy, 1970s Swedish communism. There are also — I believe — some long-exiled members of the Iranian Communist Party present as well. The teenagers plan out remembrances to celebrate the whateverith anniversary of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by slapping up freshly printed anti-European Union and anti-globalization posters across this, the most globalized of Swedish neighborhoods. For good measure they also spray paint metallic hammers and sickles on random buildings.

Then of course, there is Che, whose glowering countenance glances heavenwards from an array of handbills posted around the neighborhood.

I am often tempted to stop in and ask the teenagers if they also plan to remember those who perished in the Cultural Revolution: the intellectuals and Buddhist monks who were burned alive, and the musicians whose hands were smashed to prevent the playing of counterrevolutionary music. I am also curious if they memorialize the thirty million farmers who starved to death as a result of Mao's Great Leap Forward during the 1950s.

Probably not. Theirs is a secular extremism that is religious in its intensity, and either inherited from their parents or bought from their peers. If the fact that so many former East Block countries have rejected communism does not faze them, I suppose that I won't either. That does not mean that I am never tempted to spray paint Mickey Mouse silhouettes over their posters, or maybe a giant pair of golden arches on the window of the Redstar Café. I despise McDonalds and dislike Disney, but at least I do so from qualitative judgments rather than a belief in conspiracy theories about capitalist crusades for world domination.

There are times when I step out onto the street that it feels odd that I do not have to board a plane for Germany. Two hours flying time to south are the hills and dark forests of Bavaria where I spent nearly three years of my military career. There, under twilight skies, we scouts stalked through the woods hunting tanks with night vision optics strapped to our helmets and armor around our chests. We drove HMMWVs through the pitch black with the lights turned off--Humvees with fifty cals and thermal sights mounted on top. During the weekends we traveled among castles and Gothic cities. Sometimes we set out in pursuit of art and history, but more often for interesting meetings with long-limbed German girls or slender females of Asian and Turkish ethnicity who were just as European as their paler counterparts--even if Germany still does not grant most of them citizenship despite their having been born there.

I grew up in an environment so very different from either Sweden or Germany. My childhood was sagebrush, dry golden cheatgrass, and rolling tumbleweeds fifteen minutes south of Reno near the base of the Carson Mountains. When we first moved in during late 1979 there was only a loop of asphalt and circle of newly built dwellings amidst in the freshly bulldozed mud. Land was cheap and anyone could own a house then--it seemed to be a natural economic right of even the poor, from which we were not too-far removed at the time.

These residences were late-seventies ranch houses, each with an acre of land. If you walked twenty minutes out of the neighborhood into the desert of rock and sage you could find dumps where people had tossed out washing machines, dryers, and ovens in the 60s and 70s. It was, of course, unthinkable to find an abandoned car lacking perforations from bullets and shotgun blasts.

The human race in my childhood mind was by in large white, which is not surprising as almost everyone that I had ever met was caucasian. Most of these Nevadans seemed to have no strong opinions on the matter of skin color, neither disliking nor liking any other particular ethnic group. If they had strong views, they kept these to themselves. The rest of the world was far away from us, and even if a cold war was raging, that was a distant thing as well. Mostly there was the feeling that an age when everyone had been young and free--or at least carefree--had just come to an end.

My friends and I hiked and played out in the desert among the rocks and dryness, hoping to find rattlesnakes, black widows, scorpions, interesting discarded junk, or at least a relatively straight stick that would make a good magic sword. This was back before the weekend California hiker or the enlightened body-conscious Yuppie with high-top, high-tech boots. Walking along the base of the mountains, you were sure to meet guys in flannel shirts with rifles or shotguns (and some times both) slung over their shoulders, who would wave from a polite stand-off distance.

Not that we paid these solitaires much attention. Our imaginary worlds were our focus--existences shaped by the stories of Heinlein, Tolkien, Gibson, and other writers of science fiction and fantasy. Such imaginings were bright realities compared to the monotony of endless schooldays.

Now a good deal of the near-future science fiction that we used to read has come to pass. Nowadays Mr. Bill Gib's matrix is a reality, and I have only to walk over to the PC in the corner of this 1930s workers flat to access a growing realm of virtual communities.

The twenty-four-hour news networks that Heinlein described in his book, Friday also exist now. Last month, we found ourselves at another couple's flat on 12 September, sharing a bottle of wine and trying to figure out what had just happened to the world. Like Heinlein's characters, we chose to leave the TV on mute as the images played out over and over again, and like the protagonists we found ourselves in a world in which non-state actors had acquired the power to wage war against nation-states. Now I find myself wondering how many more of these scenes I will live out from the novels of my childhood.

Al-Quaeda's first impact on my life took place in 1998 at the end of a cold gray summer weekend in Germany. 2-63 Armor Battalion had been given time off from work for a day of sports and family activities known sardonically by enlisted soldiers as "mandatory fun day." I and several other members of the scout platoon had managed to escape this by having signed up for a white-water rafting trip in Austria. The weather was chilly, the young Christian couple who served as our guides were horrified by the number of profanities that we worked into each sentence, but it was nice be out and about in new territory unconnected to the world by either telephone or television.

Coming home on Sunday, however, quickly turned into a "what the fuck is this?" moment when we spotted a line of cars waiting at the post entrance. A thirty-ton 2-2 Infantry Bradley was parked by the front gate with its 25mm chain gun and coax trained in our direction as armed soldiers conducted vehicle searches. There hadn't been gate guards at American posts in Europe since the end of the Cold War. During my time there it had been a common summer evening sight to see middle-aged Bavarian housewives rollerblading through the post on our running paths or to encounter self-invited German teenagers hanging out on the front steps of the Burger King.

Bin Laden's bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania meant the end of open posts and the beginning of working through the weekends as we manned the entrances and patrolled the surrounding areas. The lost free time is not what has stayed with me, though, but rather the sudden shock of seeing that Bradley parked at the front gate and the horrible jolt of wondering what terrible thing had just happened. As we waited in line to be searched, there was an almost Cold War-era dread as we wondered if war had somehow dropped in out of the blue.

The shadow of nuclear doomsday had intruded on my 1980s childhood whenever I had found myself wondering if I would live to see mushroom clouds rising over the central valley of California. There were a number of SAC and MAC Air Force bases that were certainly targeted by the Soviets in the event of all-out war. Would the fallout have made it over the mountains to Reno, or would we found ourselves living out our lives in an isolated high-desert post-apocalyptic existence had the ball gone up?

A few nights back here in Post-9/11 Sweden I went down to take out the trash. Coming back up the stairs I glanced out a landing window and caught sight of a luminescent globe of oceanic blues, earthen browns, and living greens. Australia, Indonesia, and the coastline of Southeastern Asia were clearly visible, floating in the outer space-like blackness of an unlit apartment across the courtyard. A few evenings later another earth had appeared in the flat directly across from our kitchen. Not bad. This globe was slightly larger and tilted at a different angle, but someone had spoiled the illusion of space by leaving on a dim light, revealing a dark-red wall and the shadowed form of what I think is a refrigerator in the background.

The Earth is now living in a flat across the courtyard from me. It would be nice to think that our planet has finally found shelter and is living comfortably indoors after all of these years of chaos and uncertainty.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

An article on learning behaviors that stem from...

...the interface between biology and culture. And it's about vervet monkeys! :)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

College is such a tease.

On one hand it’s an enormous forward expansion of knowledge. You do learn a lot. On the other hand it doesn't leave much time for the kind of lateral thinking and linking together of unrelated thoughts that gives rise to new insights.

In the debate between graduate school and the job market, I'm currently leaning towards job hunting. Yeah it's cool that grad school is now a real option, but school just does not leave me with any time for writing. Since getting published has been my life long dream, now is not a good time to turn my back on it.

Most definitely...

...still winter up in the mountains!

Mt. Saint Helens photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service, public domain

Saturday, March 13, 2010

So I took a walk to the east bank of....

...the Willamette River to shoot some skyline photos of downtown, and accidentally discovered The Portland Urban Iditarod race. This competition seems to involve shopping carts, running, and beer. Lots and lots of beer. Namely Papst Blue Ribbon, the choice of college students and the working man in Stumptown.

This so makes up for me not having my camera when I came across last October's Zombie March.

Ninjas + beer ping pong = awesome!

Ride into the danger zone...with kitty cats in pink capes apparently...

Team Space Balls

Uh...the Last Supper + Team Bumble Bee Girls?

Team Simpson shows up late for the race, which is perfectly OK as apparently this sporting endeavor involves stopping at bars and pubs along the way.

More music...

It's grown wintery this afternoon in the City of Roses. Mood: Northwest melancholy. That and I'm ready for school to be over so I can get back to literary writing and traveling. And it'd be nice to have money again...

Copenhagen Cable Access

I think I wrote this back in the fall of 2003, when I had been in Sweden for about two years

When we moved to Lund we ended up changing cable TV providers and picked up a couple of new channels in the bargain. My favorite of these is Copenhagen's municipal cable access channel. The programming is…varied. An example of a day's offerings:

12:00: Somaliland. An unnamed cameraman drives around Mogadishu filming the streets from his car. Periodically the picture cuts to rooms filled with boxed computers, gas-powered electrical generators, and refrigerators. Arabic and Somalian music plays in the background. Purpose of the program: ?

14:00: Music videos, consisting primarily of European lipstick lesbians making out in restaurant kitchens while the staff calmly continues working around them. Purpose of program: Simultaneously providing erotic stimulation and knowledge of culinary skills.

15:00: Teenagers filming each other on the rides at Tivoli. Purpose of program: "Uhhhh. Huh huh huh. Like…I'm cool. Heh heh heh. Yeah, so cool!"

16:00: An hour-long rant by an unnamed, unshaven city resident on how US military satellites are being used to steal his thoughts. Purpose of program: A healthy, public venting of schizophrenic energy.

17:00: Information on immigrants rights.

18:00: Hardcore right-wing Christian pro-Israeli propaganda in English, straight from the States. Possibly narrated by Charlton Heston. Purpose: Apparently to encourage viewers to send in checks for the purchasing of star-spangled bulldozers.

19:00: "Support the Woman's Terrorist War." This political piece features lots of flashy graphics and granola girls advocating a woman's intifada as radical Danish feminists travel to Malmö, Sweden, for International Women's Day. Once there they joined with their Swedish comrades in yelling stridently at the police.  Later they smeared red hand prints on Malmö's municipal building, blocked roads, harassed people going to work for "supporting the system," condemned both Sweden and the city of Malmö for exploiting women, and then spent an evening marching down various streets in formation chanting "We are taking back the night!" Purpose of programming: Sisterly bonding and showing feminist solidarity in the cause of crushing the exploitative porn industry.

23:00: Porn. Statuesque Danish barbies pleasure themselves with a variety of improbable instruments. For a dollar a minute viewers can call in and tell the girls what to do. A cultural note here: After having led the world in pornography production for several years, the Swedes came to the collective realization that porn is degrading to women. Swift political action followed and the production of pornography was banned in Sweden. Apparently fearful of what this means for the art of love and the future of the human race, the Danes have been making a determined effort to offset any Scandinavian deficit in blue film consumption.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Since I'm fixating on the 90s... wouldn't be complete with out Mazzy Star. Because I was never the least bit mopey in my youth.

Bayreuth Opera Inferno

From the Summer of 2003

My girlfriend and I recently won the right to purchase a package of tickets for this year's Wagner opera festival, in Bayreuth, Germany. As there is a ten-year waiting period for tickets to this, the most celebrated of all operatic gatherings, being able to purchase tickets and attend the festival in the same year normally takes an act of the Bundestag, or, even more likely, an instance of Grace granted from On High. Fortunately, and more pragmatically, we are members in good standing of the Swedish Wagner Opera Society and won this privilege without the use of seared oxen thigh bones wrapped in fat, dead horses hung in trees, or the more traditional firstborn man-child offering that many Wagnerites feel compelled to resort to.

After having found out that we had won, I looked forward to scalping the tickets and being able to live comfortably off the proceeds for the next three years. My girlfriend--die-hard enthusiast that she is--insisted on actually going. This was probably for the best, for, as we discovered, the market for festival tickets can be surreal in ways that resemble the more bizarre parts of the narcotics trafficking industry.

An example from our first day at the festival: Picture several hundred Euro-sophisticates fawning around outside the famous festspielhaus in their evening gowns, tuxedos, tailored suits, and silk dresses. In the middle of this gathering stood a mustached man in a corduroy suit jacket, flared blue jeans, a black tie over a white t-shirt, and shod in silver, white polka-doted running shoes. The individual in question wore sunglasses and held an alligator hide briefcase in one hand. In the other, a fluttering piece of paper bore the German equivalent of "seeking ticket to show."

It was a complete Miami Vice moment, certain to end with this gentleman in the sweaty confines of the men's room in a nearby gasthaus swapping two kilos of Peruvian flaked cocaine for a pair of passes to the evening's performance.

Another reason to actually attend was the pleasure of Bayreuth itself. The city is a part of my old stomping grounds. In the days of GI living, Bayreuth and its environs served as a very pleasant backdrop for the off-duty search for hefewiezen and novel entertainments.

This area of Bavaria has a rural, conservative charm about it, and as with the inhabitants of the US's southern states, Bavarians tend have a thick agrarian accent and enjoy a lifestyle that is more laid back than those practiced by northerners.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had decided to up the deep-south similarity to an entirely new level of intensity during our visit. When disembarking the plane in Nürnberg, we were hit with a sodden-steamy blast of Arkansas Vietnam-like jungle-beat-down heat. Instead of being greeted with the gingery scent of Lebkuchen and the tang of sauerkraut, I had flash backs to fetid east-Texas swamps and mid-summer Korean rice paddies. We had, of course, wandered into the middle of the Euro-inferno, a summer of burning political questions, inflamed pro-reform and anti-reform tempers, and the worst recorded heat wave in European history—one with utterly tragic consequences in neighboring France.

Even before this, it had been a season of strikes and protests that had left the mild-mannered Swedes riled up. This takes some doing as Swedish electoral debates are generally calm to the point of graveness. The hobbits see American political discourse as being loud, violent, and generally vulgar, and it has required much patience on my part to convince them that the disputed presidential election of 2000 was not settled by a contest of unarmed gladiatorial combat between Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore on the floor of the Supreme Court. They have a hard time letting go of that image here.

But for those who might be worried that the political process is boring in the land of blue and gold, I offer you the following highlight. This summer's unusual heat has apparently provided the needed irritant to make Swedish politics interesting. We are only a few weeks away from a national referendum on whether Sweden will or will not adopt the Euro as the national currency, and it has been a lively debate.

Skipping over their normally staid campaign posters, members of the Left Party have employed images of a towering blood-red guillotine with the blade shaped in the form of the Euro "€" symbol. Below is the slogan, "Why not try it?" The right, in turn, has resurrected some 1930s posters displaying red banners with pseudo-Cyrillic, Swedish lettering. The written text seems to imply that a defeat of the currency will be the kickoff in a round of Stalinist purges, show trials, and gulag construction.

Some of the season's heated continental politics even spilled over into the festspielhaus in Bayreuth. There was applause as well as loud boos and hisses when Gerhard Schröder showed up for a performance of Tanhauser, along with his homie, the current prime minister of Japan, "Elvis" Koizumi. A German newspaper rather cruelly, but perhaps truthfully, suggested that considering the economic situations of both Japan and Germany it was entirely fitting that the two leaders should be seeing an opera with a theme of darkness and foreboding for the future. It also hinted about the appropriateness of Schröder planning to see Carmen with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, an opera with a surfeit of bandits and cross-border shenanigans. The verbal commotion caused by the presence of the ministers prime in the festspielhaus even roused the current reigning Wagner, 85-year old Wolfgang, to peek out from behind stage.

Part of the Bayreuth festival's charm is the ongoing soap opera that is the Wagner family itself. The original Richard was a man of epic ego, who wished to be immortalized with monuments depicting thronging muses and poets gazing rapturously upwards at graven image of himself crowned by marble laurel wreaths.

As a composer in the age when opera was the cutting edge of entertainment, Richard was the late 1800s equivalent of Steven Spielberg in fame, and he never, ever balked at an opportunity to promote his glory. Aside from voluminous self-written essays about what a titan of culture he was--and some brutally anti-Semitic rants that Hitler later found infinitely inspiring--his other monument to self and art was the opera house in Bayreuth. Perched Parthenon-like on a hill overlooking the city, this temple has been home to the festival each August since 1876, excepting a year when occupying American GIs used the building for a cabaret.

Being both an egoist and a sadist, Wagner was determined to preclude any chance of audience members falling asleep during performances of his work. Thus, the original seating in the festspielhaus consisted of hardwood benches handcrafted by the de Sade household carpenter to make a 2 ½ hour non-stop performance of The Flying Dutchman into an ass-numbing marathon endurance trial for opera masochists. This has been improved upon in recent years with the addition of inwardly sloping chairs, built to tilt the victim's weight onto the un-cushioned wooden parabolic arc of the seat back. The point of focus for the curve is centered squarely over the nerves of the lower spine and stimulates the ones evolved to inform you that a surgeon is in the process of removing ruined lower appendages with a hacksaw.

Enjoying the company of the fans after each evening's performance was also entertaining in its own way. These people are Trekkies. All of them. Well, Tolkienites if you want to be precise in your nerd taxonomy. Some of these people have memorized whole catalogs of which opera stars performed in which roles, during which year of the festival. And they have opinions: strong savage, dogmatic opinions over whether Kirk could beat up Prichard...uh...I mean over which singer was the best in any given role. Being a lone American in a group of Swedes, I escaped unmolested by agreeing unquestioningly that Brigit Nilsson was the finest Isolde to ever grace the stage.

As much as some opera goers make a religion of the festival, being there was a lifetime experience. Wagner invented much of the modern musical language of themes used in film music. Even a casual listener can hear the essence of his style in at least two or three generations of Hollywood film scores. The manly-man compositions played in the festhaus are the direct-line ancestor for the battle scene music in Gladiator and the Lord of the Rings films, and it was magnificent seeing 30 gentlemen in real steel plate armor, in 90 degree heat, thundering in a course of vocal glory as orchestra blasted away from its specially designed, subterranean stealth bunker.

It rocked, Conan the Barbarian style.

Then there is Wagner's use of composition to convey broader emotions. Wagner wrote a series of early Romantic operas in which he increasingly relied upon music to express his characters' feelings and reactions. This reached its zenith with Tanhauser and Lohengrin, walking the line between over-the-top kitsch and heart-breakingly powerful.

And therein lies that which makes an apology for Richard's ego: He was truly gifted. As a former platoon sergeant of mine once said "it's not bragging if you can do it," and even the most pretentious of Wagner's operas are genre-defining displays of heart and skill--rich aesthetic experiences that have only been enhanced by modern, minimalist stage presentations. While his later works backed away from the emphasis on music and sought to convey emotion through more complex plots and dialogue, these still contain much of the passion of an age that sought to reject reason and live by the unbridled heart alone.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An absolutely gorgeous... on inner realities and human connections. Mind-blowingly good.

This one has had me thinking about what are my favorite OVAs from Japan: the ones that are top notch visually and intellectually.

In no particular order I'd have to go with:

Spirited Away
Princess Mononoke
(though not everyone cares for this film)
Tekkkon Kinkreet
Ghost in the Shell
Battle Angel Alita

Battle Angel is currently not available in any format, unless you want to buy a VHS copy off eBay. Apparently James Cameron has bought the rights to do a CGI version of the manga. Here's hoping it's more nuanced than Smurfs in Space was.

I also enjoyed Howell's Moving Castle and Metropolis, though both stumbled towards the end. The most hyped film that was a letdown was Grave of Fireflies. A Swedish friend and I watched that film expecting a moving tale about the horrors of war and its innocent victims. Instead we found a story in which a boy let's his sister die out of sheer misplaced pride. While the film's maker may have intended to convey a subtler message, emotionally it was lost beneath question of why didn't he just take the money offered by his family that his father had left for him?

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Spring flora

As someone who grew up in a cold sage desert, I'm not entirely convinced about the rightness of trees with flowers on them.

It just doesn't seem entirely...natural.

Trees should be armor plated, green year round, and smell like pine or vanilla--like the juggernaut  that is the Ponderous Pine.

And this thing with leafs instead of needles...what's up with that? :)

Hobbits of Sweden III

From autumn, 2004

It's early fall here in Sweden, and I am enjoying my first Indian summer (a Brigitte summer in the local parlance) after nearly six years of residing in Europe. Previously, autumn has arrived with drizzling punctually on the traditionally cold 'n gloomy first of September. However, this recent unexpected interlude of good weather has given me a chance to make up for some of the hiking missed out on during the rainiest and coldest Swedish summer in seventy-four years.

As a rule of thumb, summers here are usually like those in Seattle--a gift from heaven to make up for the other nine months of damp. It's these three months that salvage the year from endless curtains of cold rain, featureless leaden skies, and 3:30pm December sunsets.

Normally summers here involve long evenings spent watching the sun's fading light in the west at 11:30pm and the simultaneous first glimmerings of dawn in the east. Summer is a time of strawberries and retreats to the countryside.

This year it's been one long icy Scandinavian monsoon.

But now summer has set in at last, and so yesterday we set off to go hiking through the forests. When we came across a wide band of brown mushrooms, my friend gave out a shriek of joy before descending on them in a frenzy. Yes, Tolkien did get it right. The hobbits are ravenous about fungi.

This hobbit likeness that I've been bandying about for three years is no great exaggeration. In the original "Hobbits of Sweden" essay, I attempted to describe the locals' homicidal passion for strawberries. Tolkien knew this, and his cinematic disciple Peter Jackson even had the good sense to recognize it in the third installment of his Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

Remember the movie portrayal of Sam and Frodo lying on the stoney side of Mt. Doom? The fragile-looking, ring-bearing hobbit has begun to despair of ever completing his quest, and what is it that that Frodo's stalwart companion in suffering brings up to rekindle his master's strength?

"I can see the Shire, Mr. Frodo. It's summer and...and...the strawberries! They're serving the strawberries with cream!" After this utterance, while Sean Astin was staring tenderly into the deep-blue eyes of Elijah Woods--and most of the audience was privately pondering the possibility that they might be watching the world's first homoerotic hobbit movie--the author of this essay sprang up from his movie theater seat screaming, "YES MOTHERFUCKERS! I KNEW IT! WOOOHOOO!"

It's not just that I was pleased with Frodo and Sam's coming out, but that I merely took a small delight in having my claims about the hobbits' lust for the small red fruit borne out by Hollywood.

And it's not just the dark forces of the global New Zealand/American media conspiracy that push the hobbit-like nature of Swedes. Considering the following: The state-subsidized STV 2 television news often runs extended reports about matters of import during the last ten minutes of the evening program. Topic for controversy of 8 September 2004: the latest translation of the Lord of the Rings books.

Yes, for real.

The piece opens with a shot of the harried-looking translator scurrying through the streets of Stockholm. He has just completed his work and walks with his shoulders hunched under his jacket like he's waiting for a sniper's bullet to punch through his spinal column at any moment. He has tampered with one of the holiest of the nation's holy texts, and even if he has the approval of the temporal authorities of the day, it's only a matter of time before some raving fundamentalist extracts bloody retribution.

In other words, some fanboy is going to put a brick through the window of his new Volvo.

It bears pointing out that Tolkien, a Scandinavian language master, was so enraged by the first Swedish translation The Lord of the Rings that the offending linguist, Åke Ohlmarks, was forbidden from translating the Silmarillion when it was later published. Not to be deterred from his hobbit birthright, the wily Mr. Ohlmarks supposedly broke into Tolkien's home to covertly peruse the manuscript.

But back to the present source of tension and its media coverage. In a terse professional voice, a female newscaster explains that the public needs to remain calm and refrain from bursts of panic, rioting, or existential despair. Even though Frodo has gotten a new last name, and Hobbits, previously known as hober, will hence forth be called hobbitar, the state of the kingdom is sound. She then reminds her viewers that any display of national weakness will only start the Danes thinking about how they could re-conquer southern Sweden.

Instead it is best to stay calm, take a deep breath, and begin preparing the mushroom stew for tomorrow night's dinner party.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Warm tonight...

Spent an hour up on the roof watching the sun go down with a beer and book

Shorts and t-shirts weather

But the rain should be back tomorrow

Monkey suicide

Apparently this poor primate flung himself from the roof, and plummeted to, well, a rather soft and fluffy landing below my window.

Oh cruel world...

Last month there was a fat raccoon waddling back and forth down there one evening, but by the time I grabbed my camera he was already gone.

That had me feeling a little nostalgic for monkey herding. One of the fun things about the primate center was watching raccoons beg for biscuits from the snow monkeys in the outdoor harem cages.

Even monkeys like having pets.

They certainly seem to anthropomorphize (monkeypromophize?) like humans do, in that they project their own own traits and expected behaviors on the world around them. While some monkeys can learn to speak human--learn to read our body language and behaviors--most interpret our actions according to their norms.

Friday, March 05, 2010

A good documentary on...

...the immigrant Scandinavian and Mediterranean gillnet fishermen in turn of the century Astoria, Oregon.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Culture as an accelerator...

...of human biological evolution, courtesy of the New York Times.

A good set of articles...

...over at on revamping the infantry loadout for Afghanistan.