"Quantum of Solace": Random Thoughts (and Spoilers)

Photo by xtylerclub

Watched "Quantum of Solace" on video this week (after seeing it in the theater, of course). Herewith some random musings:

1. The Bourne movies (particularly the second and third, directed by Paul Greengrass) pushed a style characterized by lots of hand-held cameras and quick cuts. "Quantum" uses a a lot of quick cuts in action sequences, but the intent struck me as different--sort of a cubist ideal of simultaneous representation of all viewpoints of the scene. It seems if you concentrate you can actually get a more concrete view of the action than a static camera would reveal. A nice gimmick was the occasional use of a blur of motion or a spray of foam to smooth over a quick cut.

2. One defining feature of the Bond movies has been the most elaborate and impressive stunt work. Often these have appeared in the pre-title teaser (more often than not involving jumps into empty space, out of airplanes, into airplanes, etc.). In "Quantum" we see, for example, Bond jumping a motorcycle off a pier onto a boat, but it is a throwaway moment, and the action moves on to the next thing without stopping. That's much cooler--the "no big deal" attitude.

3. The variety of style and font in the location title cards was fun. Similarly the different-colored subtitles for Mathis and the Spanish-speaking cab driver (talking simultaneously) were a nice touch.

4. I love how the first time we see the villain, he is not actively working at anything evil, but aimlessly screwing around with an ink pad and stamp.

5. The airline clerk in Bregenz was pretty, but didn't look as if she had popped off the page of a lingerie catalog. Nice touch of realism, that.

6. One of my favorite scenes--a quiet one--is Bond and Mathis on the plane. The sound design contributed a lot to this scene, mostly subliminally.

7. Gemma Arterton, the actress who plays Fields, is certainly attractive and competent enough to suit me--but just too young for the role. This necessitated the most arduous suspension of disbelief since Denise Richards was presented as a nuclear physicist.

8. Camille's reintroduction into the story at Greene's party comes via a very blurry view of her back--but she is still instantly recognizable by the burn scars.

9. Of course the scene where Fields lies on the bed covered in crude oil is an allusion to Goldfinger, but there were others. The scene where Bond and Camille come walking out of the desert in evening dress echoes one in The Spy Who Loved Me. The threats made by Greene to Medrano also reminded me of License to Kill: "You're only President for life."

10. Nice contemporary cynical touch: the world's governments are not blackmailed by the villain but rather eagerly cooperative.

11. The climax with two parallel fistfights--now that was a little contrived.

12. Interesting how crashing a van into the wall of the hotel's garage starts a chain reaction whereby ultimately the whole hotel explodes. Seems like poor design....

13. Some reviewers called this movie all action and no story. They seem to have missed the point. The deeper story is the relationship between Bond and M. The turning point comes when she moves from arresting him to deciding to trust him inside the space of a minute.

14. No gadgets whatsoever, beyond some fancy computer displays.

15. Finally Judi Dench as "M" gets to play "anxious", "shaken"--some emotional note beyond merely "stern." The stories hitherto have not made anywhere near full use of her talent.

16. Similarly, it's nice to see Felix Leiter's job consist of more than just waiting in the car while Bond gets the job done. This hasn't happened since Dr. No.

17. This is the second film in a row which does not end with Bond with a girl in a boat. I hope they retire that ending for good. The new type of ending emphasizes Bond's loner status.

18. A thought for next time: If you want to freshen up the plot, how about a three-way struggle? That hasn't been done since From Russia With Love.

19. I very much like the casting of Daniel Craig as Bond. This gives hope to all homely people everywhere.

Precept: Question Your Assumptions--Especially Those You Don't Realize You're Making

Photo by mikep

Although easier said than done, perhaps nothing will take your existence to a new level quite so effectively as jettisoning a unwarranted assumption you didn't even realize you were making. This is also widely known as "thinking outside the box"; Hofstadter calls it "jumping outside the system."

My preferred term is paradigm busting. Herewith some examples (all proposed for purposes of reflection rather than uncritical adulation):

1. Ray Jardine. The first time I did an overnight backpacking trip was as part of the Boy Scouts' Woodbadge training. The distance we hiked could not have been more than a mile, and I'm in pretty good shape; nonetheless the only thing I could think of was how heavy that pack was. The standard paradigm is that one's packweight should not exceed 25% of one's body weight. This is just nuts. I weigh about 200 pounds; that translates into a 50-pound pack. Nobody has fun while carrying 50 pounds around.

Jardine is a bona-fide rocket scientist who applied the same principles of minimizing weight to the problem of backpacking. His book Beyond Backpacking totally changed my backpacking life. Subsequently I did a trek at Goshen and two 50-mile treks at Philmont and practically breezed along with a pack that weighed about 25 pounds.

Jardine qualifies as a genuine paradigm buster because his approach not only makes drastically easier, but does so by contradicting all kinds of conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says one simply must wear heavy hiking boots and heavy woolen socks to avoid blisters; I hiked in basketball shoes and thin nylon socks. Conventional wisdom says one's pack simply must have a hip belt to carry most of the weight; my pack (home-made, modeled on Jardine's) has no hip belt and no frame, being essentially a big sack with shoulder straps. Conventional wisdom says that one needs a tent with a bathtub floor to stay dry when it rains; at Goshen it rained heavily every day and my son and I stayed dry by sleeping under tarps with no floor and no walls.

Jardine and his wife do long-distance hikes with packs having base weight (not including food and water) under ten pounds each. A person hiking alone has to carry more gear, but my own pack's base weight is about fifteen pounds, which is light enough that I can forget it's on my back.

2. Walt Disney. The problem with paradigm busters is that when seen in present or future time they can be difficult to distinguish from run-of-the-mill crackpots, while in past time the busted paradigm tends to be forgotten, so that the paradigm buster's radical insight becomes merely common sense. Walt Disney today tends to be thought of as the patron saint of safe, bland family entertainment, but in the right context his ideas are properly seen as dangerously radical.

Consider Snow White, which smashed both the business and artistic preconceptions of what animation was capable of. (Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia were probably as dark and edgy as anything moviegoers were used to seeing in the late 1930's.) And then there is Disneyland, which has spawned hundreds of imitations around the world, but was originally a bizarre, alien concept--so much so that Disney, unable to raise sufficient capital from normal investors, was forced to venture into the strange new medium of television, in the process pioneering the use of this medium for cross-marketing.

With a science and engineering background, I find Disneyland to be particularly fascinating not only for the artistic innovations (who, before Disney, thought to make waiting time part of the experience?) but also from the standpoint of the creative solutions devised for the prosaic problems of moving people, garbage, food, etc. around. In fact, Disney was hailed as a leading urban planner.

Disney had acquired his vast Florida tract with the goal of developing a new planned technologically advanced city. This was the original concept for EPCOT (not the amusement park which is there now). You can find Disney's presentation of this concept here. Sadly, his death from lung cancer deprived us the chance to see whether he could pull this one off as well. It goes to show you--you wouldn't expect a talent for drawing anthropomorphized mice to provide much leverage for changing the world.

3. Tim Ferriss. Although his ultimate impact on the world remains to be seen, I particularly enjoy reading his blog. With topics ranging from business negotiations to swimming to foreign-language learning, it makes excellent reading for the student of arete. It is clear that Ferriss shares a fascination with paradigm busting: many of his blog postings could easily carry the paradigm-busters motto as a subtitle: This changes everything.

The title of his best seller The Four-Hour Workweek is in the true paradigm-busting tradition. Not the thirty-hour workweek, nor the twenty-hour but four hours. Ferriss aims to totally change our concept of the possible. I consider the title something of a misnomer, though: I suspect for many nowadays the big issue is not forty hours a week spent at work but a hundred other complications and responsibilities that sap our time and energy--and further, that this is just the tip of the iceberg, a problem of increasing social complexity that is going to get worse until it threatens to overwhelm is. There are a sensible hundred books out there that will teach you to micromanage your time, slicing and dicing to cover more and more responsibilities. Ferriss's book is in the "just might be crazy enough to work" category, proposing radical ideas such as outsourcing your personal life to India. It's worth thinking about, at least.

One frontier that Ferriss has yet to tackle: marriage and children. I'll be interested to see how he outsources that.

4. Robert Zubrin. In 1989, under direction from the first President Bush, NASA made a study of the the problem of sending humans to Mars, producing a proposal known as the "90-day Report." They concluded that a manned Mars mission could be done for a cost of $500 billion--this at a time when the total annual NASA budget was $11 billion.

Robert Zubrin was at that time an aerospace engineer employed at Martin Marietta. He came up with an alternate plan which he calls Mars Direct, which would send humans to Mars at a cost of roughly one-tenth the cost of the NASA proposal ($5 billion per year, over a span of ten years), while at the same time drastically increasing the time available for exploration on the Martian surface, and (in my layman's opinion) accomplishing this inevitably hazardous venture with the greatest practical safety margin. For example, in the Mars Direct plan, the astronauts on any given expedition have a triple redundancy in the Earth-return vehicle (that is, three entirely separate vehicles to choose from).

Zubrin's approach differed in many ways from the 90-day Report, but the most startling was his discardal of the assumption that the astronauts would need to bring the fuel for their return trip along with them from Earth. Rather, Mars Direct uses 19th-century technology to extract the necessary fuel from the Martian atmosphere. A crackpot idea--except that it has now become the conventional wisdom for NASA's new Mars program.

I highly recommend Zubrin's book on Mars Direct, not only for those interested in Mars, but also for those wanting to spend some time in an oasis of bold but clear thinking. The Mars Direct video (unfortunately out of print) is also fascinating--even though most of it consists of nothing more than Zubrin's talking head.

5. Adam Smith. According to Wikipedia, often cited as the father of modern economics. His concept of the "invisible hand" that directs artisans, laborers, builders, merchants, and every one else to provide goods and services at the appropriate levels even with (especially with) no central authority to direct them was a radical new insight. (I heard a story--maybe bogus--that economic planners in the old Soviet Union were convinced that the U.S. economy must be operating under the guidance of some secret group of planners.)

The Wealth of Nations is more lucidly written and more interesting than many a modern book on economics. I read it years ago but I still recall Smith's introduction by way of the specialization of labor in the manufacture of sewing pins. Consider how cheap a pin is in comparison to how long it would take you to make just one if you had to.

(Another worthy candidate for this list is Charles Darwin, who likewise showed how a self-organizing principle obviates the need for a guiding intelligence. It is interesting how many of the same people who find it inconceivable that complicated living organisms could develop "by chance"--i.e., without a guiding intelligence--have no problem believing that complicated markets organize themselves just fine.)

(A final note: It has not escaped my notice that all five examples on my list are male. Not that female examples are impossible to find--Ayn Rand comes to mind, along with some in my personal circle of acquaintance. But male examples seem easier to come by--for me, at least. Does this reflect an inherent difference between men and women?)

The Loch Ness Monster in Egypt

For the Loch Ness monster fans out there: I found the following thought-provoking hieroglyph in Budge's Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary from 1920:

Reflecting the less romantic times we live in, I suppose, my more recent reference books gloss this symbol as merely a "roast goose." It still looks more like the Loch Ness monster to me.

The Ultimate Makeover Show

Photo by Michael Heilemann

I like the Bourne movies.

A popular fanboy question is: who would win in a fight between Jason Bourne and James Bond? Those of us who find such discussions silly must nonetheless acknowledge that Bourne and Bond are competitors at least in the commercial sense. Though the Matt Damon Bourne movies have not been around nearly so long as the Bond films, I give them credit for carving out a distinct niche in the espionage thriller genre. Aside from the interesting political overtones, consider the differences between Bourne and Bond the characters: Bond is having fun. He gets to seduce women, visit casinos, drink expensive wine, and stay in luxury resort hotels. Bourne is not having fun. His fondest wish is to be left alone. He spends most of his time alone and probably never spends two nights in the same place. Bond is a master of the witty one-liner. Bourne never cracks a joke or even smiles (although there is humor in the Bourne movies).

Although I like Bond plenty, I find something especially appealing about Bourne. It's both the destination and path that he represents. Bourne embodies the pinnacle of versatile competence--fluent in a dozen languages, in peak physical condition, the baddest driver (interesting how "baddest" is the opposite of "worst"), and able to improvise a counter-response to any situation. Spiritually, he manifests a Zenlike lack of concern for nonessential frippery and responds to a crisis by becoming even calmer than usual. And he wasn't born thus--it comes as the result of long and intense training.

One of life's phenomena that I find most fascinating is the human being's ability to deliberately reshape himself or herself in a new image. Jason Bourne's training literally made him into a new person with a new name. A little bit of education (in the broader sense: mental, physical, or spiritual) gives you a little new knowledge. A lot of education transforms you into a new person. That's why the Bourne movies are the ultimate makeover story.

I'd like to resurrect the Greek word arete (defined by Wikipedia as "the act of living up to one's full potential") to describe the common thread running through the following:

Body for Life (physical training), Getting Things Done (personal organization), How to Develop a Super-Power Memory, Zen in the Art of Archery (philosophy), The Biggest Loser, Breaking Free (psychology/self-help), How to Learn Any Language, Thought and Choice in Chess (cognitive science), What Not to Wear, Clutter's Last Stand.

I'm interested in all these--so are a lot of people. Any of them has transformative potential. You could find plenty of things to add to the list, depending on where your interests lie, but to me they're all just parts of the big puzzle: arete.

The Global Era Has Officially Arrived

Photo by drp

So I was on the road last night, out in the middle of nowhere, and stopped by the convenience store to get gas. There, next to the Chee-tohs and Twinkies, was sushi. And I'm old enough to remember when the predilection of the Japanese for eating raw fish was the ultimate of bizarre foreign customs.

The Deadest Language

Photo by the Outback Traveler

Foreign tongues are a fascination of mine. When I was in high school I embarked upon teaching myself Japanese, an effort which continues to this day (and this was at a time when appropriate books were hard to find--you punks don't know how good you have it these days). I remember being struck by the assumption in one of my books that one must be planning a trip to Japan in order to be studying Japanese. At the time I had no such prospects. Growing up where and when I did, I had never even seen a real Japanese person.

Why study, then? It is logical to study in preparation for travel--but in my case it was more as a substitute for travel. By studying the language of a foreign country, you immediately get inside the heads of the people there. In some ways, you are already more intimately acquainted with the place than someone who goes there physically but has no understanding of the language. For this reason it has always been difficult for me to resist the call of a mysterious new language. I have a particular weakness for those written in exotic, alien scripts.

A special category consists of the dead languages, for these carry you back in time as well as across space. Study Latin and visit Imperial Rome, for example. Languages such as Latin and Sanskrit never died out completely (and were widely used even after all the "native speakers" had disappeared), but for several ancient scripts--Egyptian hieroglyphs, Linear B, etc.--the knowledge of how to read was lost altogether.

In several cases tiny clues have been leveraged with great insight to recover the ability to read the script. In cases such as Mayan this has opened up whole tomes of forgotten history. Such a decipherment has never been accomplished without some kind of clue--a bilingual inscription such as the Rosetta Stone for Egyptian, or a resemblance to a known language, such as Greek for Linear B.

If you want to try your mind against a dead language, I suggest you try Sumerian (pic above), which once was spoken in parts of what is today Iraq. It's the ultimate dead language. Here's why.

Cuneiform has been used across Asia Minor to what is now Iraq and Iran. Cuneiform is not a language, nor even a single script, but a method of writing with a wedge-shaped stylus on tablets of clay (or occasionally more permanent media such as stone or metal). You can imagine how unwieldy a clay tablet is compared to a sheet of paper, but for us it works out better because clay is so much more durable. In fact, a most fortunate event from our standpoint was for the library to burn down, because the clay tablets would be baked to a permanent hardness.

Among the peoples who used cuneiform, the Assyrians (a.k.a. Babylonians) were major players. They spoke a language related to Arabic and Hebrew. This was one of those languages whose knowledge had died out, but it was deciphered in the 1850's. The connection with Arabic and Hebrew was key. And then....

Among the various Assyrian tablets deciphered were found word lists--dictionaries, in other words--and instruction books used by the Assyrians to study yet another language, which to them was an ancient language, whose very existence had been forgotten by the 1800's. This was Sumerian. And working at two levels removed, the millenia-old word lists compiled by the Assyrians were the key to deciphering Sumerian, which seems to be unrelated to Assyrian or to any other known language, ancient or modern.

Sumerian is the dead language's dead language. You must admit, that's pretty cool.

(P.S. If you want to learn Sumerian, I recommend John Hayes' Manual of Sumerian Grammar and Texts. )

(P.P.S. Some say our word abyss comes from the Sumerian abzu [water basin] by way of the Greeks.)

Life Hack: How to Get the Last Little Drops of Liquid Laundry Detergent out of the Cup Most Easily

Just throw the entire cup into the washer. Just make sure to tip it so that it doesn't end up floating around like a little boat. Retrieve the cup when emptying the washer.