Thursday, July 27, 2017

One Foot In Front Of The Other

Walking is something most folks take for granted. Some people, though, carry it to extremes, 'extremes' as in 'the ends of the Earth.' Levison Wood, a British citizen, regularly sets himself goals too formidable for most of us to consider, let alone undertake. A man of gumption and fortitude, he has walked the length of the Nile, climbed the Himalayas, and hiked the Americas.
Levison Wood

Wood served as an officer in the British Parachute Regiment in Afghanistan in 2008 fighting against the Taliban (which in Pashto means 'students'). In his 2015 book, Walking the Nile, Wood details his stroll from a spring located in the forests of Rwanda beneath a sign reading "This is the furthest source of the Nile river" to the Mediterranean Sea.

Buzz Aldrin
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Hillary & Norgay
As a testament to the human spirit, such an achievement ranks along with Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in their reaching the pinnacle of Everest, though it might not be in quite the same league as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon. Still, how many of us will ever do anything on this scale?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Death Knell of the American Republic?

The Roman Republic was established in 509 B.C. with the overthrow of the last king of Rome, Tarquin the Proud. That Republic lasted about four hundred and fifty years until 44 B.C. when Julius Caesar (Latin pronunciation: 'kaisar') installed himself as dictator-in-perpetuity. The Roman Empire followed in 31 B.C. with the proclamation by the Senate of Augustus Caesar as Emperor.

With our two Houses of Legislature, the office of the President, and the Supreme Court all controlled by the same party, and the President-elect a self-aggrandizing multi-millionaire showman/huckster capitalist motivated by personal greed, how much longer will the American Republic stand as a government by the people for the people?

Friday, December 23, 2016

Alas, Everyone

A few days ago I came across a book I hadn't read for several decades, so I decided to give it another whirl. After all, any book you don't remember is a new book.

The novel was Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, published in 1959 by J.B. Lippincott of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Although it is easy for us to look back almost sixty years later and snicker at how dated the writing is, the fact remains that it was one of the first novels to deal with the possibility of nuclear warfare and what that entails. Since then, numerous "end-of-life-as-we-know-it" books have hit the market, but with the recent posturing by Trump and Putin, the whole idea of nuclear holocaust has gotten closer to reality.

Maybe a good Christmas gift to the American president-elect and the Russian president-in-perpetuity would be a copy of Alas, Babylon, just to give them an idea of how important de-escalation is to the continuation of human civilization on planet Earth.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Damned Spot and Brief Candle

The first performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth probably took place in Jacobean England in 1606 during the reign of James I. Four hundred and nine years later, in 2015, yet another film version was released.

This movie, adapted by Jacob KoskoffTodd Louiso, and Michael Lesslie, directed by Justin Kurzel, and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillar, competed for the Palme d'Or prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

From the start of the film, the writers choose to focus on different aspects of the tragedy than does the playwright himself. The Bard's version begins with three witches on a blasted heath in Scotland, but the movie opens with the funeral of the child of Macbeth and his wife. By focusing on the parents' grief, the writers give a glimpse into an aspect of the characters of the couple which Shakespeare only hints at in one short phrase by Lady Macbeth: "I have given suck, and know how tender 't is to love the babe that milks me." (Act I, scene 7)

Considering how Macbeth's heirless state later plagues him, this does indeed seem a curious point not to emphasize. It also humanizes Lady Macbeth a bit, explaining to some degree her coldblooded nature. (It is she, after all, who several times spurs her vacillating husband on to fulfill the prophecies of the witches.)

Another surprising innovation by the scriptwriters is in the interpretation of the prediction from Act IV, scene 1 that Macbeth has nothing to fear till "Great Birnan wood to high Dunsinane hill shall come against him." The Bard himself meant that to refer to soldiers using leafy branches from trees of the forest to shield themselves from the lookouts on the castle walls. In this production, though, the advancing army sets fire to the woods, and Macbeth stands agast at the smoke and burning ash blown by the wind to the castle.

The final updating is ending the film with Fleance, son of Banquo, dashing forward, running into a future where, as predicted, his offspring will be royalty, all the way to James himself, the first king to join the throne of Scotland to that of England and Ireland, and who extended the Golden Era of Elizabethan England. Not only did James support the career of Shakespeare, but also those of Donne, Bacon, and Jonson, and even presided over the composition of the Authorized Version of the Bible. So the long reach of the doomed Scottish lord circles back around to Shakespeare himself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Other People's Wars

Like most folks, I tend to think myself moderately savvy about the world, so it surprises me whenever I'm confronted with a slice of history with which I'm unfamiliar. (Which happens all the time.) Take for instance, the Siege of Leningrad during World War Two. Because the siege concerned two countries, neither of which was the United States, I -- and I assume, most Americans -- have little understanding of that engagement. Even though it was one of the war's most decisive confrontations, because it was fought on the other side of the world by groups which had little relevance to me a decade and a half later in my late 1950s childhood, it had no perceived impact on my tiny outpost in the backwoods of Arkansas.

The first inkling I had of its importance came with the U.S. film, Enemy at the Gates in 2001. The movie seemed to me mildly interesting, but nothing about it raised it above the thousands of other films just like it: a war movie with a love interest. Yeah, yeah, been there, done that. The impact of the setting was diminished by the banality of the subplot of boy-vs.-boy-for-girl.

My epiphany came with the book City of Thieves by David Benioff, one of the fellows responsible for bringing Game of Thrones to television. "Thieves" -- set in the Russian city of Leningrad (aka St. Petersburg) during the Nazi siege -- gives a stark depiction of what war means to people, be they generals dining on roasted chicken or urchins starving in the streets.
David Benioff

Here again is that universal guy-v.-guy-over-gal subplot demanded by contemporary market-driven bottom-liners, but at least the main plot of survival-during-wartime comes through with all its unflinching brutality. Strangely enough, this brutality is what gives the best reflection of its benevolent twin, nobility.

Even the surprise revelation of the ending doesn't detract too much from the overall hopeful tone of the book as a whole. After all, destruction-of-all-that's-civilized (a staple of Benioff's GoT series) is simply the evil twin of all's-well-that-ends-well.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

One Boat -- Two Perspectives

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In 1951, when Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar, it came for his performance as Charlie Allnut in The African Queen, a movie which consistently occupies any Best Movies list. The film became so popular, it overshadowed the book almost completely.

The author, C.S. Forester (1899 – 1966), wrote many novels, the most famous of which was the 12-book Horatio Hornblower Saga about a Royal Navy officer during the Napoleonic Wars. Forester also penned crime novels, children's stories, and science fiction. ("Cecil Scott Forester" was the pseudonym used by Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, an Englishman who eventually settled in the United States.)

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C.S. Forester
The story of both the book and movie (the "uberstory" so to speak) centers on the adventures of an unlikely two-person crew of a rattletrap of a tramp streamer as they try to escape the German army in the fictional country of German East Africa at the beginning of World War I. The task which Rose (Hepburn) sets herself and Charlie (Bogart) is to destroy the German ship which rules the waters of the lake into which their river empties.

One advantage fiction has is its ability to make characters' thoughts and feelings accessible to the reader in a direct way unavailable to film. Movies share a limitation with real life -- a viewer can only guess at characters' true motivation -- whereas a writer can simply tell a reader what characters are thinking/feeling/hoping/planning. The difference results in literature's ability to provide a deeper analysis of what it means to be human.

However, that doesn't mean literature always tells the better story.

With Forester's background in portraying naval history, his point of view naturally defaults to that of the military. Which means that although the novel does a better job of revealing why Rose and Charlie are the people they are, the real focus of the novel centers more on the conflict of the Great War; characters serve only as conduits of History, a very European point of view.

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John Houston
Director John Huston, on the other hand, focuses on the characters and how they interact, change, and develop as individuals, a very American point of view.

This artistic difference manifests itself in its most pronounced way in the different endings of the two genres: in the book, the African Queen sinks in a storm and the British navy destroys the German boat; in the movie, by one of the most improbable coincidences, the Louisa manages to run into the flotsam of the wreckage of the Queen, exploding the improvised torpedoes Charlie has rigged, thereby sinking the German boat.

So, which is the real story of the African Queen? Is the true version that of the original author, or that of the more widely experienced movie? Does it make sense to say that both versions, though different, are true? What does truth mean in art? Do the two versions represent a Venn diagram with an area of overlap, or are they two completely separate universes with no common ground at all? Can truth be represented in multiple ways and still be truth? Is truth contextual or universal? Does The African Queen, in both or either of its guises, answer any of these questions? What does art do?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Questioning Questioning

One of the most basic questions a human being can ask is "What is life?"

In the past, the religious community has dealt with this conundrum. Shamans, priests, and preachers have claimed exclusive revelation about the answer. Nowadays, science -- our new religion -- has taken up the challenge. Instead of being divinely inspired, however, modern teachers are institutionally accredited. Which, like faith, also has the disquieting feel of knuckling under to authority, for the paranoid among us.

The popular press has for some time published volumes on the subject of the electric basis of life. Two such examples are the recent The Spark of Life by Dame Frances Ashcroft and from 1985 Robert O. Becker's The Body Electric. Each of these works explores the function of electricity within and among the basic building blocks of the body -- cells. However, Nick Lane, a biochemist in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, takes a rather more in-depth look at the mystery in his The Vital Question. (A presentation by Dr. Lane can be found here.)

book coverAlthough all three books have at their core the idea of bioelectricity being what powers living cells, Dr. Lane's book goes furthest into the hows and whys of the matter, explaining the difference between electricity, the flow of negatively charged electrons, and proticity, the flow of positively charged protons, an idea first formulated by Peter D. Mitchell. "Essentially all living cells power themselves through the flow of protons...." The harvesting of power from "...proton universal across all life on earth...." (page 13)

A major tenet of Lane's thesis is that single-celled life arose some 4 billion years ago around alkaline hydrothermal vents on the deep ocean floor. Eventually, two radically different forms of life emerged, though both were based on the same energy gradient structure. Those two forms were bacteria and archaea -- what are termed the prokaryotes (from the Greek 'before the nucleus'). Complex cells -- the eukaryotes ('true nucleus') which make up all the rest of the plethora of life on this planet -- came about, according to Dr. Lane, as a result of a synthesis between the other two, "an endosymbiosis in which a bacterium got inside an archaeon, enabling the evolution of vastly more complex cells." (pages 13 - 14) He further states that there arose a founder population of essentially identical cells which happened only "on a single occasion -- and all plants, animals, algae and fungi evolved from this founder population." (page 40)

Eukaryotes harnessed the savings in energy which came from a simplified gene structure; they had much more power at their disposal. The metabolic rate (energy per gene) of eukaryotes exceeds by several factors that of the prokaryotes. Human beings "use about 2 milliwatts of energy per gram -- or some 130 watts for an average person weighting 65 kg [143.3 lbs], a bit more than a standard 100 watt light bulb. That may not sound like a lot, but per gram it is a factor of 10,000 more than the sun". (page 64) Each one of us literally burns brighter than the sun.

In the earliest times of life on Earth, this huge energy supply drove the explosive diversification of flora, fauna, and microbes. Interestingly, "there is a deep and disturbing discontinuity at the very heart of biology". (page 21) One of Lane's more startling propositions is that evolutionary biology is not predictive. That is, even if we knew all the starting perimeters, we could not foresee the forms which life would take. Just as the Uncertainty Principle means that both the trajectory and the position of an atomic particle cannot be known simultaneously, and Chaos Theory means patterns of repetition cannot be predicted, so the course of life can never be charted. Freedom, stark and beautiful, holy and terrifying, is in our very genes.