Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Movie Review: Dr. Strange (2016)

Enter the Sorcerer Supreme in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), adding magic to its already rich tapestry of power. Dr. Strange tells the origin story of Stephen Strange, MD, a brilliant surgeon who becomes the foremost magic-wielder on Earth. Per my dad’s advice, we watched the film in 3D. Worth it!

While it’s routine for superhero movies to dish up glorious visual spectacles, the heart of any movie is the character(s). In Dr. Strange, the protagonist, played by the excellent Benedict Cumberbatch, begins as an extraordinarily talented man with the arrogance to match. It’s established early on that his wild success can also be attributed to avoiding high-risk procedures to expand his impact in the medical field. When an accident damages his hands, he exhausts all clinical possibilities until he finally goes to Nepal to find alternative healing.

The Ancient One, played by a sublime Tilda Swinton, is instrumental in Dr. Strange’s transformation. Her strength and wisdom are established early on, as she pursues the renegade Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has stolen pages from a spellbook for mysterious reasons. As Dr. Strange trains in the mystic arts—getting laughs in the process at the expense of the librarian Wong (Benedict Wong)—Kaecilius puts his plan into motion, thereby (gasp!) threatening the entire planet! Can Dr. Strange overcome his limitations, pointed out often by supporting characters, and save the world?

Speaking of limitations, a problem with Kaecilius is that viewers are only told of his motivations. By contrast, for example, Zemo’s background is shown piecemeal throughout Captain America: Civil War, culminating in his talk with Black Panther—“When the dust cleared, and the screaming stopped, it took me two days until I found their bodies. My father, still holding my wife and son in his arms.” That’s compelling. Meanwhile, Kaecilius just rants about time being the enemy, weakening his effectiveness as the main antagonist.

Apart from the meh villain, two other elements of Dr. Strange underwhelmed. One, the soundtrack by Michael Giacchino draws too heavily from his work on Star Trek Beyond. The only standout piece is “Go for Baroque,” which awesomely sounds like a track from a classic NES/SNES game. Second, the pacing was too quick—and this is an observation shared by my 11-year-old nephew. The audience got crash courses in spellcasting, relics, astral projection, sanctums, the dark dimension, the Eye of Agamotto, etc.—and not too much on why Dr. Strange inherits the position of Sorcerer Supreme. “You were born to be a sorcerer,” someone tells him, but to me it’s like being promoted to full professor after taking advanced courses in the second semester of your freshman year, FFS.

Having said that, Dr. Strange excels in many other areas. The fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed, the reality-bending scenes look terrific, and the humor is great, if intermittent. And finally, Dr. Strange resolves the climactic showdown in a way that’s both smart and satisfying. So while my comic-knowledge of Dr. Strange is limited to him showing up in the X-Men series whenever demons are involved, MCU Dr. Strange has established him as a very intelligent and capable sorcerer with a cool cape who will be very useful in the fight against Thanos.

Overall, Dr. Strange is an entertaining superhero origin story that accomplishes its goals of (1) introducing Dr. Strange and the magic dimension, and (2) setting us up for the upcoming Infinity Wars.

TL;DR: Meh hero + Inception on steroids = Dr. Strange

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This post brought to you by this damn cough that won’t go away!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Baby MEG Study, Part II

One year ago, Junior participated in a baby MEG study. The study required him to sleep on a little bed, with the top of his head ensconced in a little hollow within the neuroimaging machine. At 13 months, he was a reliable twice-a-day napper, so we scheduled the study for his morning nap. However, being in a new environment with lots of unfamiliar, very businesslike people distracted him from his routine. The study coordinator and I spent an hour trying to soothe him, and eventually he fell asleep. Five minutes later, the research team requested that I scooch his head just a little bit more into the hollow. That woke him up, ended the study, and we walked out of there with enough money to fund many new baby outfits. So...worth it!

Note: MEG stands for magnetoencephalography. Here is further reading, if you wish, ducklings.

On Monday we went back. The study was different this time, since Junior can now follow instructions. First, they attached some sensors:

Next, they scanned his head with an instrument that looks like a handheld barcode reader. The corresponding 3D image appeared on a nearby laptop, because we live in the future. Then, when the team was ready, we went into the sealed room where the machine lay. "Our old nemesis," Junior and I said, in unison.

He lay down, and his head was almost too big for the hollow space this time around. A monitor hung from the ceiling above his feet. For the study, he had to keep his eyes on the center of the screen as images flashed and the baby MEG scanned his brain activity.

And, thank goodness, he was perfect. He dutifully watched the images, limiting his disruptive activities to picking his nose and lifting his legs to touch his toes (which blocked his line of sight). There were maybe 10 videos, each one ranging from 15 seconds to one minute in length. The images were tiny and I had trouble identifying all of them. So I used that as a way to keep Junior interested, asking him, "Does that one look like a polar bear or a snowman?" and "That must be a garden gnome! Do you know what a garden gnome is?" Shapes showed up, too, in various locations onscreen (e.g. to the right instead of in the center) depending on the video file.

Things started to look a little dicey about halfway through, as Junior became more squirmy (remember: he's two!) and started demanding to see videos of trucks instead. The researchers obliged by pulling up another window for some YouTube goodness. After every image video, he got to watch maybe 20 seconds of trucks. I also lied promised him that he could watch all the videos he wanted when we got back home.

When we finished, the study coordinator gushed that it "went really well!" As our reward, we got two gift cards. I plan to use them to buy Junior some new jeans, since he's outgrown a couple of pairs. And, y'know, momma might need a li'l something for transporting him to and from the study via my legs. New shoes, perhaps?

I took Junior to a nearby playground to stretch his legs:
For both of us, it was the perfect end to the morning.

TL;DR: Junior did a study FOR SCIENCE!!!

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This post is brought to you by my sudden realization that the year's almost over! Aiyah!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

A People’s History of the United States (2003 ebook)

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is a monumental work that pays tribute to the spirit of the ordinary person, celebrating our successes and exposing the brutal excesses of the powerful minority that plays everyone else against each other. Using the two pillars of history, evidence and interpretation, Zinn boldly presents a narrative that skewers the idea of “the people.” Zinn shows a United States that began and expanded because of a group of elites that monopolized private property and profit and crushed all opposition. The result is a global superpower supported by a system of staggering inequality where concessions to common folk are given only grudgingly, when enough furious spasms by the vast majority threaten to overturn the status quo. The events described in this book are frequently infuriating, especially since it’s so easy to draw direct connections between past exploitation and present conflicts. A People’s History of the United States is a must-read for every student of US history, nay, for all citizens!

A Bloody Beginning 
The book is a chronological retelling of the roots of the modern United States. It begins with the genocide of the Arawaks by Christopher Columbus, who needed his to trip to the Americas to be wildly profitable for his royal patrons. Then comes the expulsion of the Native Americans, a truly dispiriting series of broken promises, outright lies, and massacres. The territories of Mexico are taken in similarly sordid ways.

Afterwards comes an examination of the American Revolution, presented as the efforts of a select few—50-plus white men—to gain freedom for themselves. Later chapters make it clear that the Constitution was always intended for the men at the very top of the socioeconomic hierarchy. For instance, Zinn points out that the Civil War could be seen as the result of northern industrial ambitions at odds with the southern agrarian system. Freeing slaves was a bonus, rather than the overriding moral concern about keeping the promise of the Constitution. After reunification, black people continued to be oppressed, as did the white working class. And of course, women were marginalized both in the private and public sphere.

This paragraph, from the chapter “Robber Barons and Rebels,” sums it up well: "After 1877...the industrial and political elites of the North and South would take hold of the country and organize the greatest march of economic growth in human history. They would do it with the aid of, and at the expense of, black labor, white labor, Chinese labor, European immigrant labor, female labor, rewarding them differently by race, sex, national origin, and social class, in such a way as to create separate levels of oppression--a skillful terracing to stabilize the pyramid of wealth."

The Battle Continues
It gets a little better. While in the earlier chapters I was an outrage emoji (╬ Ò ‸ Ó), appalled at the sheer scale of the abuse and deception of those in power—politicians, businessmen, the media, and the military—in later sections I was cheered by the numerous examples of people fighting back, of actual incremental successes being won through literal bloodshed and unwavering persistence. The people were just not taking it anymore, especially when their children and other loved ones kept dying from starvation, sickness, or official action. After the Civil War, major movements rose: for labor unions, for women’s equality, for civil rights. These collective actions are the pride of America, the causes just and the spirit true to the words contained in the Constitution.

Much of American progress in the early twentieth century was made on the backs of millions of people living and working in crowded, unsanitary conditions. During the tumult of the labor years, the people marching, protesting, and striking sought reasonable changes: livable wages, safe and improved workplaces, a shorter workday (10 hours instead of 18), school instead of jobs for children, and so on. But these accommodations threatened profits, and so the response was often brutal: strikebreakers, gun battles, massacres of women and children. But the unions survived, and OSHA was created. In the same way, the feminist revolution of the sixties achieved Roe v. Wade. The civil rights movement eventually forced desegregation.

But the establishment, still entrenched, pushed back. Time and again, the Supreme Court showed itself a tool of the ruling class, applying the law in a way that favored its peers. The rich and powerful escaped the consequences of their actions—see Nixon—but the poor and/or the dissidents were beaten, harassed, jailed, and sometimes killed. The prison system receives special attention from Zinn because it highlights the callousness of the mighty: when policies and ideology create the conditions for poverty and therefore crime, the solution is to imprison the poor who acted out of desperation or anger.

Overseas 
The two World Wars gave other countries a taste of US hegemony and hypocrisy. In the Philippines, our history books tell us that the US took us by force from Spain, eliminated our aspiring leaders, and denied us self-rule. What I didn’t know was that the US soldiers then were segregated along color lines, with black soldiers treated so poorly that many deserted. Zinn also provides details of the CIA’s support for oppressive regimes in Latin America and the Middle East, pointing out that murderous autocrats were fine as long as they’re friendly to US corporate interests. For example, in 1980, the murder of four American women in El Salvador basically got a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ from the (then-Carter/incoming Reagan) government because the junta in power was supported by the US as a buffer against communism. More details are in this article, among many others. 

In summary: those perplexed by anti-US sentiment abroad need only read the chapter entitled, “Carter-Reagan-Bush: the Bipartisan Consensus” to understand. US foreign policy is shown to be a mix of bullying, entitlement, and disproportionate responses to perceived threats, under the rallying cry of “Freedom and democracy!” with, of course, a healthy dash of racism.

The Few vs. the Many 
In the chapter, “The Seventies: Under Control?” after all the illegal activities by Nixon and his cronies, an adviser to President Kennedy said, “All the rotten apples should be thrown out. But save the barrel.” In other words, the system was fine, it was just a few bad actors. But given everything that Zinn has revealed in previous chapters, that’s a hugely imperfect analogy. Most of us aren't even in the barrel—we're in the dirt. A major theme in Zinn’s history of the US is the stratification of society, an unbridgeable gap that has existed since the very beginning. Myths are encouraged by the ruling class to maintain the illusion of democracy, such as the “self-made man,” and “personal responsibility.” According to (some, #notallmen) people born to wealth and/or power, poor people don’t have the discipline to work hard and save. But Zinn shows that US capitalism tends to be unkind to those who start life with massive disadvantages such as darker skin and lack of capital. The rich also cultivate the middle class as a loyal buffer against the poor. So basically there are millions of Americans born with the deck stacked against them, thus ensuring the continuation of the generational cycle of poverty.

Which is not to say that the people at the top are uniformly evil. Many are philanthropic and interested in redistributing wealth to minimize inequalities. Others dedicate their careers and lives to making things better. But the system—the government, the courts, the police, even the supposedly free press—are all geared towards the interests of the powerful few. According to Zinn, even the ballot is complicit: it channels energy away from organized demonstrations (peaceful or not) that may have immediate positive effects. It’s rigged!, he might say, and certainly for much different reasons than those shrieking those words today.

This Book and Elections
Speaking of the ballot, among the most revealing chapters was about the Clinton presidency, which drove home the essential sameness of the two major political parties, the same willingness to sacrifice lives for corporate profit and military posturing. The author also notes that with less than half the eligible population voting during most elections, “the people’s mandate” is not really a thing, and it’s less important anyway than alliances among the key players at the top.

Reading this chapter and the ones that came before it makes it easy to see why the current Republican nominee appeals to so many, and why so many are howling about the biased media. These supporters want a savior and are blind to the irony that they're putting their faith in someone who was born into the elite class and has absolutely no incentive to change the system in their favor. And so his opponent, while certainly part of the establishment and much favored by many elites, differentiates herself in that she is a woman—a member of the largest minority, still held back from many of the highest positions in the country. If nothing else, Hillary’s victory would be symbolic of how far the United States has come from its bloody, racist, and sexist beginnings.

But also, this.

In any case, A People’s History of the United States is fantastic reading material every time the vote’s on. If you like being depressed about your own powerlessness, I mean.

Nerd Note
The bibliography list was overwhelmingly composed of secondary sources. When I first saw the list I was like, “What? Where are the primary sources???” But the book is a yuuuuge undertaking spanning centuries and hundreds of instances of individual and group resistance, so Zinn mostly aggregated other works that were themselves collections of "people's histories." Plus, there was widespread illiteracy back in the day, especially among the people Zinn focuses on.

In Conclusion 
The Afterword reveals that Zinn is well aware of the inherent bias of historians despite claims to objectivity. He is humble about his goals and the enormity of the task he chose to undertake. But in his long toil we have a gripping history book that prompts readers to examine our past critically, with an eye toward how to finally create the haven of democracy that the US is supposed to be: a place with equal rights and equal opportunities for everyone.

TL;DR: The United States was and continues to be an oligarchy, but things are better now?

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This post brought to you by soy sauce! The one that spilled inside my backpack because I forgot to put my lunch in a plastic bag. ☹

Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)