Resting Monk

Monk resting at Vinh Trang Pagoda, My Tho, Vietnam (home of the Giant Laughing Buddha)

Lavender Jack

Madame Ferrier and her wife Marguerite

Lavender Jack, by Dan Schkade, is in my opinion a masterpiece that will be forever underappreciated.  Like the lyrics of Bob Dylan, something you either get or you don’t; there is very little point in trying to explain…

Thinking about “The Wandering Earth”

“The Wandering Earth” got some scathing reviews in the West, despite being a genuine blockbuster in its home market of China.  Critics frequently pan blockbusters, so there may be nothing here, but perhaps there is a deeper cultural bias at work. It made me wonder about the application of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to the effect of linguistic styles on movie making.

Chinese written script is derived from pictographs; individual characters derived from an image originally.  You can imagine Chinese written language as a sequence of tiny highly stylized complex emojis, a series of small discrete images strung together.   Good Chinese calligraphers are concerned about the aesthetic qualities of each character; they write a sequence of beautiful individual words.  Western calligraphy is more concerned with the aesthetics of letters that have no meaning — they are simply standardized shapes, strung together to make words.  The beauty of an individual handwritten word, as an entity unto itself, is relatively unimportant, compared to, for example, the continuous flow and ornamentation of the line.

If we apply this abstract aesthetic to movie making, it may be that there is a subtle difference between movies made in the West and movies made in China. Think of a movie as a series of discrete scenes, strung together to make a story.  Perhaps it is the case that a Chinese film maker would tend to construct a movie as a series of discrete, individual scenes, with less emphasis on the flow of elements between scenes.

Anyway, this occurred to me while watching “The Wandering Earth”.  It’s firmly within the genre of Sci-Fi-Fantasy blockbuster, like the endless Marvel movies.  The special effects were suitably over the top, the story was suitably simple, the acting suitably melodramatic.  I liked it.  But I do think there was, to Western taste at least, a bit of a chunky character to the story line…

Book collecting as a cargo cult of knowledge

Cargo cult: “A cargo cult is a belief system among members of a relatively undeveloped society in which adherents practice superstitious rituals hoping to bring modern goods supplied by a more technologically advanced society.” Wikipedia

I have a large book collection, more than I can ever read. Yet I still acquire them.  Perhaps a hundred recent purchases are stacked next to my bed.  This is not rational behavior.

But that’s OK, because I am not a slave to rationality. Instead I am happily practicing the superstitious ritual of buying books in the hope of gaining knowledge without actually doing the work required to learn.

But really, I know I don’t have enough years left in my life to master all the knowledge I desire, and when I die, these books will remain as a tedious chore for someone else, and a sad monument to my failure to learn.

We so need real heroes.

Photo from wikipedia

Originally shared by Yonatan Zunger

I am sad to report that on May 19th, Stanislav Petrov, one of the great unsung heroes of our time, passed away at the age of 77.

In 1983, Petrov was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces. On September 26th, at a time of particularly heightened tensions, he was duty officer in command of Serpukhov-15, the central command center for Soviet early warning satellites. Shortly after midnight, those satellites detected five incoming American ICBM’s.

Petrov later said that the pattern of the attack made no sense to him – why would the Americans attack with only five missiles, instead of going all-out? – and so he unilaterally decided it must be a false alarm, and did not report it.

If you consider how risky it would be for a field officer to make such a decision in a normal army, consider what that meant in the USSR under Andropov: if he was wrong, and somehow survived the resulting nuclear war, and perhaps even if he was right and it embarrassed the wrong people, he could have found himself shot in the basement of Lubyanka.

As it was, he was questioned, alternately praised and condemned, and the entire incident ultimately buried until the publication of Yury Votintsev’s (the then-commander of the Soviet missile system) memoirs in the 1990’s. His own wife didn’t know about it until over ten years later.

The 1983 incident was one of the closest points we have ever come to global nuclear annihilation. As later investigation showed, it was caused by an unexpected reflection of sunlight off high-altitude clouds when the satellites were in a particular part of their orbit – a perfectly reasonable sort of bug which, had anyone else been duty officer that day, could have led to the Soviet Union launching a thermonuclear war.

Petrov never considered himself a hero for what he did that day: he was just doing his job. I would say that, if we could all “just do our jobs” that well, our world would be a safer place.

Politics ensured that Petrov would never be formally commended (or even officially praised) for his actions, but if there was ever a man who deserved to be called a Hero of the Soviet Union, it was him.

Thank you, Stanislav Yevgrafovich, and farewell.