Thursday, September 24, 2015

Media Mike's Soapbox: Agnosticism vs Atheism

This week, "Media Mike" attempts to clear the air.

So it's come to this.

I was in a forum for another Youtube video where people were metaphorically shitting on modern art for reasons like, "it looks bad," "it's lazy," and my personal favorite, "it's offensive to my religion."

Being the bull-headed argumentative jerk that I am, I took exception to this last one, and got into a semantics argument with someone who had the title "Dr." in their screen name, which leads me hope that this was just some clever nickname, and that the person in question was not an actual doctor as they could barely comprehend the English language let alone carry a complex discussion where they might actually learn something.

Dr. Stupid (as I will refer to him from now on) was particularly confused about the terms "atheism" and "agnosticism." A lot of layman seem to have preconceived notions about what these words mean; often they believe that you can't be theist, atheist, or agnostic at the same time. This needs to be addressed.

GNOSTICISM: What is it?

The word "gnostic" is derived from the same ancient Greek word that we derive the word "knowledge" from. And that's really what it means in its simplest terms: "to know." This means that gnostics have perceived some sort of fact or data that they derive truth from. Now, I'm NOT saying that someone's knowledge can't be wrong, but until it is proven otherwise, or until you learn to set a standard for the efficacy of such knowledge, you can claim it. Being "agnostic" means that you don't know, or that your knowledge does not meet your own standard of efficacy, of course.

This term is most often applied to knowledge of gods and the supernatural, but really it can be applied to knowledge about almost anything.


These terms specifically apply to belief, and belief DOES NOT equal knowledge; they are like apples and oranges. You can hold a belief in light of knowledge, in the absence of knowledge, or in spite of it (though the latter is disgustingly dishonest -- RE: Republican politicians). 

Theism is the belief that (supernatural) deities exist. That is really all that the term can be applied to. In the video I allude to belief in pocket change, but in reality it can only be applied specifically to belief in gods. Atheism is not the antithesis of theism: Theism is a positive assertion of this belief, but atheism is merely the lack of belief in the assertion, not theism's negative opposite -- that's known as "anti-theism," or the belief that no gods could or do exist. 

What does it all mean?

It means that you can use one term to describe knowledge, and one term to describe belief. That means that you can be an agnostic theist or an agnostic atheist. The agnostic part of that equation is key: These people are being honest in that they don't know, and are usually open to another argument as long as someone makes a case for it that meets their intellectual standards. The gnostic theists and gnostic atheists (and gnostic anti-theists) are the ones that are perpetually dishonest. They claim knowledge based on things that they could not know by the very definition of what they're arguing. These are usually the people that are assertive about what they believe, and are ready to give evidence on why they believe it. 

And therein lies the problem.

Gnostic theists tend to cite the Holy Bible as evidence for their belief (which is a whole other can of worms that we're not going to get into here) or personal experience which usually amounts to, "I prayed for this thing to be done, it was miraculously done, and that's why I believe," never stopping for a moment to realize that by their own doctrines that they cannot ask their god for those kinds of things to be done, and whether the thing could have happened by other factors like chance. If you have proof, you don't have faith, and if you don't have faith, then your god has no power over you.

Gnostic atheists and anti-theists are every bit as annoying. They cite science as evidence for the lack of the supernatural (even though by its very definition science does not test or explore that outside of the realms of physics or cosmetology, which are both real-world studies and are not beholden to creatures from beyond) and make positive assertions based on an incomplete model of the world around them.

My biggest issues with gnosticism are these: 
  1. Without a complete model of the universe and everything in it, how could you know for sure? 
  2. If you're hearing voices, why do you assume that's a god? 
  3. If your books and studies claim to show supernatural knowledge, why do they often lack descriptions of common things we know to exist in reality, that have real impacts on our lives (like viruses, for example)?

Now, knowledge can be incomplete or incorrect, but beliefs can't really be wrong as long as you continually question them. I will close by saying that in an honest world, we're all agnostics, but you probably knew I was going to say that already.

Friday, September 11, 2015

A pain in the R.E.C.T.U.M.

It's (not) debatable

I've been hearing versions of this argument repeated for so long, I just thought that I should post it so that people know what to look for...

... But before we get started, I just want to iterate that even given the tone of this post I am not trying to single out a particular person, just a group of people who are professing oppression based on reasons that they can neither define nor cop to. So if you find yourself making this argument to someone, anyone, ask yourself: "Am I a R.E.C.T.U.M.?"

The argument:

I keep hearing from Republican/Evangelical/Churchgoing/Tea-party/Ultra-con/Moralists (RECTUMs) asking for a "logical" debate. Unfortunately, this debate always seems to go the same way:

RECTUM: "You're just making assertions, show me the evidence!"

RATIONAL: "Here are several scientific studies that have been peer-reviewed."

RECTUM: "Peer review is a scam. Show me the evidence!"

RATIONAL: "This scientific experiment shows step by step how they came up with this conclusion."

RECTUM: "I don't understand the language. It could mean anything. You need to show me some evidence!"

RATIONAL: "Here is a course of study that defines the language, shows how to perform the experiment, and what to look for."

RECTUM: "That takes too long. You need to show me the evidence!"

RATIONAL: "Here is a historical overview of how this process has affected the environment/test subjects over time."

RECTUM: "You weren't there to see it happen. I wasn't there to see it happen. Show me some evidence!"

RATIONAL: "You're not taking this seriously, are you?"

RECTUM: "Aha! You're making assertions, and you still haven't shown me any evidence!"

Rinse and repeat.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

"Media Mike's" Soapbox: Is Carson A Hypocrite?

The inaugural episode of "Media Mike's" Soapbox asks a very simple question:

Sharp-eyed viewers may notice that I appear to be reading off the screen in this one. That's because I'm lazy and didn't bother to learn my lines before delivering them (also because I threw this video together in like, 4 hours I had lying around).

I should also note that I have yet to read an article stating that Ben Carson either performed abortions or was directly involved with the harvesting of fetal tissue, only that his name is listed on research studies that involved fetal tissue, which no doubt helped to further his career on some level. I mean, they guy needed all the help he could get... 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Random Play track 2

Welcome to the second edition of Random Play.
Leading off is a selection from Elle King. The album is named Love Stuff. This lady is apparently the daughter of Rob Schneider but we won't fault her for that. She is a talent in her own right. She reminds me of Nancy Sinatra,  bluesy, firey and a straight to the gut voice.  The album is a blend of pop, bluegrass, blues, and rock.  Pop songs include Ex's and Oh's, Make you smileThe party song Last Damn Night,  Bluegrass/ country songs America's Sweetheart, Song of Sorrow, Kocain Karolina,  and the Blue numbers, Ain't gonna drown, and Under the Influence. The album is a great mix of songs and I would encourage you to check it out in it's entirety.

I was given Royal Blood's debut self titled album to check out. This two man group hails from UK . Just a drummer and a bass player is all this band needs to pull of it's blend of rock. The bass player uses many effects to give the music a fuller sound.  They have similar sound to early Black Keys, the Pack AD, and White Stripes.  I think my only complaint of the album is that every song is of a similar pace and feel. It could have used a slowed down ballad.  Album stand outs are the songs, Figure It Out, Ten Tonne SkeletonCome On Over, Out of The Black, and Little Monster.

 Now onto all that is news in the blues.
Seminal bluesman Buddy Guy released a new album entitled Born To Play Guitar.  Here is the title track Born To Play Guitar. another Thick Like Mississippi MudThe album is so new that I can't link to many of the albums tracks. With the loss of B.B. King it could be argued that Buddy Guy is the last of the great Bluesmen.  Buddy has not lost a beat despite having just turned 79. The album is what the blues should be. If you like the blues check it out.
I stumbled  across Matt Andersen and would recommend him as well. He is a soulful singer and talented guitar player. I will see him live next week and expect a tremendous show as he is one of those rare instances where he is better stripped down and live than in studio.  Here is a sampling, Drift Away, and Coal Miners Blues.

I'll just briefly mention some other notables if you choose to delve into them.
Dustin Kensrue  album Carry the Fire.   (singer songwriter)
Wild Ones album Keep it Safe. ( cross between 80's synth pop and cranberries)
Noah Gundersen album Carry The Ghost Primer  (singer songwriter)
The Lonely Wild album Sun as it comes.  (cross between Lord Huron and a Sergio Leone spaghetti western soundtrack)

Till next time. Keep your ears to the speaker. (at a reasonable volume)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Cine-buds: Jurassic World Review (with Mike and Brian)

It's a man's Jurassic world


Let's get this out of the way first: I honestly didn't care whether I saw this movie or not. The premise, from the previews at least, looked incredibly (almost magically) dumb. Not only do the scientists finally get Jurassic Park up and running, they decide to create a hybrid of almost every single deadly dinosaur from the previous films, and then allow it to break loose. This setup coupled with the fact that the game-changing and still eminently watchable first film was followed by two sequels that weren't just bad -- they were so incredibly stupid and poorly put together as to be actively insulting to the audiences that watched them -- and my interest was at an all-time low.

So when my friend Brian said "We could go see the new Jurassic Park movie for something to do," I was fairly ambivalent. Still, it was something to do, so after a delicious meal at La Mexicana we headed over to the Dipson Warren Mall Cinemas to check it out.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: Jurassic Park is finally up and running, and it's a success! The new amusement park/zoo (think of Sea World without all the depression) is located on Isla Nublar, which longtime fans will recognize as the original island, and not the second site from the sequels. To keep the money coming in, the park management keeps on breeding the biggest and most dangerous prehistoric life they can, using the element of danger to draw crowds (even though they seem to have a handle on the control issues of the first film). Eventually, they create a hybrid dinosaur that is bigger than a Tyrannosaurus Rex and smarter than a Velociraptor, which escapes the first chance that it gets and begins to destroy the island. The highly militarized InGen corporation arrives to take care of the rogue monster, but is that their real goal? Of course not. Don't be stupid!

Starring are Bryce Dallas Howard as the park's chief administration officer and Chris Pratt as an ex Navy SEAL who has been hired to work with the raptors. Although they have a trite chemistry that I suspect is as by-the-numbers as it can be simply to move the story along, I found both of them very watchable. Chris Pratt resumes his "dashing rogue" performance from last year's Guardians of the Galaxy, and seems to be developing that character well -- I definitely got a "Han and Leia" vibe from him and Howard throughout the film, although neither character was as well developed. Brian?


This is likely one of those rare occurrences that I may be more critical of a movie than Mike. I’ll  start off by stating the positives of the movie. The special effects were exceptional. In most movies there is at least a scene that takes me out of a movie because it is blatantly CG. Jurassic World by and large did an excellent job of fooling my brain into believing that I was watching real dinosaurs. The lighting, sound, and cinematography were equally as well done. There were some great homages to the original film and there were some comedic-ally timed moments that worked. 

Now on to what didn’t work for me.  I’ll state right off the bat that had I never seen the original, or I was a 13-18 year old teenager, or stupid I may have enjoyed the movie.  I found every bit of the movie predictable to a fault. Everything I suspected would happen… Did. 

There was very little character development during the course of the film so I had very little empathy for the characters. Almost everyone was there only for dinosaur fodder.  The characters were all one dimensional.  The kids in the movie were only there to provide a motivation for career-driven auntie Clair to venture out of the control room. They were also there to provide the 'tweens with someone to relate to (and more characters for the action figure play sets). They could have just have easily sent aunt Clair out with “Owie Rambo” to get the keys to the boat that happens to be on the opposite side of the island with Joe the maintenance man. They could have developed the love/hate relationship  between those two...  But no; they have this whole subplot with the generic kids and their parents getting a divorce.  I would have rather one of the kids got devoured.  It would have been a surprise that a kid had gotten eaten and a nice setup for a sequel. The other brother would have motivation to eradicate the dinosaurs/ made sure the park could not re-open.  

The first movie had characters that you cared about. It had kids that were annoying… Intentionally. A character in the form of Denis Nedry that you hoped would get eaten, the lovable old grandpa in the form of John Hammond, and the assuring father figure in Sam Neill’s Dr. Grant character. 

Hell, you could have even built empathy toward the dinosaurs, similarly to what they did in King Kong with the ape.  This movie had one brief scene like this but is was more to show that Auntie isn’t quite such a bitch.

The original also had tension that built and was palpable. From the opening scene with them getting the raptor out of the crate into the enclosure, to the falling jeep, the T-Rex chase etc.  In the new movie the tension was more jump scare, over and done before you know it, immediately out of the bag. There was no mystery. 

Now onto the technical problems. (Yes the original likely had it’s fair share.)  Is the main antagonist in this movie Indominous Rex? Am I  to believe that a dinosaur which they have spliced with DNA from all sorts of other dinosaurs and reptiles of today is some sort of hyper-genius? Even the biggest dinosaur brains were only believed to be slightly larger than a walnut or two. Lizards of today not really any more complex, but somehow this dinosaur is capable of complex problem solving and remembering that it was implanted with a fist sized beacon. A dog with a more complex brain (I am fairly certain) doesn’t remember chip implants yet somehow this dino does. (Mike's technical nitpick: Dinosaurs weren't lizards, and weren't even closely related to them. They were more closely related to modern birds. Their bones were most likely hollow and probably had skeletal alveoli which allowed them to process oxygen better, which was likely responsible for their very large size. Birds have relatively small brains too, but some are extremely clever, so don't count them out!) Which leads to my next point:

To install the chip they would have had to have some means of subduing or tranquilizing this dino. Yet when they go to re-capture it nothing works. Also they show the embedded beacon attached into a meaty bit of flesh and a small layer of hide.  Yet they are shooting it with armor piercing tank guns, elephant guns and rocket launchers , to no avail.  I could marginally accept it in King Kong because bullets of the day were less powerful, although I supposed they did try large shells if I am not mistaken.  In any case flesh is flesh it’s not 5 inches of solid steel. 

They also make light of the fact in the movie Auntie Claire "won’t last two minutes" out there with the dinosaurs… less if she wears her high-heeled stilettos. Yet she wears them throughout the movie and outruns T-Rexes and raptors (all being able to run at 35 plus MPH). 

Plus all the military/InGen characters were inept. For once, please could the military be competent? With the funding they have they should be. It would have made for nice switch-up. 

So In short I could not play dumb enough to enjoy the movie enough to recommend it. I almost left angry, like I did at The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. The characters, though not annoying, left me empty, the story was predictable , and the whole thing left me wanting.  Watch the directors other movie, Safety Not Guaranteed. It is by far a better watch.


Ouch! I came into this expecting to hate the movie like so many other blockbusters in recent years. Now, I loved the original Jurassic Park. It was that rare case of everything coming together to create a movie that wasn't deep, but hit all of the right notes. By that same token I hate Jurassic Park: The Lost World with the red hot hatred of a thousand exploding suns -- it's plot-hole-filled kid-pandering ass-awfulness single-handedly ruined the franchise for me, and its PATHETIC attempt to make Vince Vaughn an action hero (yeah, remember when he was hot shit?) just topped the poison cake. Jurassic Park 3 was only marginally better and did nothing to win me back. So to say that I was apprehensive about seeing this film in the first place is an understatement. My expectations were so low as to be non-existent. So when I tell you that I liked this movie you can rest assured that it is coming from someone who had written this property off completely. 

Now, I do have to agree with Brian that the movie doesn't have nearly enough character development. You don't know why one of the main characters, Owen (Pratt) does what he does (though there is one AWESOME fan theory that he's the fat kid that Dr. Alan Grant scares in the beginning of the first film, which would explain a lot). The two kids have an arc that starts out promising enough, but doesn't really go anywhere specific by the end of the film. Claire (Howard) is really the only one with any kind of development, but even then it doesn't really have the pull that you are expecting. The only character in the film to have any sort of a genuine heartfelt story development is one of the velociraptors, Blue, who learns to respect and love humans (sort of). I do feel, however, that this characterization is just cinematic shorthand for, "let's get to the action already!"

I do have to disagree with Brian on the technical aspects. Although this film is very complex and an excellent combination of real sets, puppetry, and computer graphics, all of it seems a little too fake. Some lighting on the 3D models doesn't really mesh with the backgrounds, so parts that shouldn't look out-of-place do. At least the animation on the dinosaurs really sell it -- they're not over-animated (as most CG tends to be) and they move really nicely given their form factors. Given the scope of this film it is tolerable.

I love that you get to see what a complete, operating version of Jurassic Park looks like in this film. A lot of time was spent making it look like a real resort/amusement park, and at the beginning it seems like the employees are extremely competent at their jobs, adding to the air that they are in control, and the hubris that they can, "slap it on a plastic lunch pail," (to quote Ian Malcolm) is evident, but not to unrealistic proportions. There are callbacks to the first film, and I would be lying if I said that they weren't some of my favorite parts. It took me a moment to realize that the old, rundown bones of Jurassic Park were the way they were because the slick tech and bright colors of the original film was now over 22 years old (which made me feel old). It was a nice bit of nostalgia.

That's my main problem with the film, actually: The original Jurassic Park gave life to dinosaurs. Of course they weren't accurate to what the animals probably looked like, but it helped to make it feel like they were really alive again, and it was a thing of beauty... But we've seen it. Though there are more (and better animated) dinosaurs in this film, it just didn't have that same majesty, and it never could.

The Indominous Rex dinosaur didn't bug me nearly as much as I thought it would. This is mainly due to the fact that it is explained later in the film as... Well, let's just say that it's still kind of stupid, just the kind of stupid you'd expect from people with reasonably developed brains.

As an art film, this just isn't. As a summer blockbuster goes however, it in and of itself is just as much of a ride as the attractions featured in it. The characters are generic enough that even if you don't feel anything for them you can still put yourself into their shoes when the dinosaurs are attacking. The action in this movie isn't as obviously choreographed as some other action films, and characters tend to react realistically when confronted with the horror that is engulfing the park (literally). When the cast is alone in the jungle, you can feel the tension. When the kids discover the overgrown remains of the original park, you feel an uneasy nostalgia (also a foreshadowing that despite man's meddling, that nature is still firmly in control) . Characters in this film die in horrible ways, but not excessively bloody ones. You can think of it as a kid-friendly action-horror hybrid, not a highbrow film for adults. And at that standard, it more than gets the job done. But if you're looking for the emotional connection, look elsewhere. You're not going to get a character-driven story about lost love and time travel, but you will get some very cool dinosaur fights!

Oh, and SPOILER ALERT: Vincent D'Onofrio was the bad guy all along (SPOILER SPOILER ALERT: He's always the bad guy, every time).

Monday, June 15, 2015

Welcome to Random Play!

This is the first in a series of reviews from my ever-expanding eclectic collection of music.The first half of the year has ushered in some great music as well as some real disappointments.  Here are my thoughts on some of the albums that I have added to the collection:

Likely my favorite album this year so far has been the Passenger album Whispers 2. After the commercial  success of his “All the Little Lights” and Whispers 1, he decided to self-release this album with all of the proceeds going to Unicef. No money was spent on marketing, so it is all word-of-mouth -- support it in any way you can. These songs have struck a chord with me (no pun intended), but perhaps it is just the time and place I find myself in.  Be warned, it is by and large a collection of wonderfully sad songs; one might deal with the complicated side of relationships whilst another tells the story of an unemployed ship welder. His music reminds me of Jim Croce in many ways, a sweet reminiscing sadness.  Basically I enjoyed every song off the album but my favorites are…Fear of Fear, Catch in the Dark, I’ll Be Your Man, David, 1,000 Matches, Words, The Way I Need You. I look forward to seeing him live in September.

Death Cab for Cutie's latest album, Kintsugi, has also been a joy to listen to. It is varied in terms of scope, happy to sad. It is on par with their Plans and Narrow Stairs albums, and far better than their previous release, Codes and Keys. My favorite songs off the album are Everything is a Ceiling, Black Sun, No Room In Frame, Little Wander, and You’ve Haunted Me All My Life.

The most recent release on the list is Florence and the Machine's album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.  Though not her strongest album to date, it is still packed with many great songs. A testament to her wonderful voice and talent. I was not expecting much from this album after hearing the song What Kind Of Man and it’s subsequent airplay on the radio. It in my opinion it is one of the weaker songs on the album. To me the jewels of the album are the songs Third Eye, Caught, Hiding (available on deluxe album), Long & Lost, Various Storms and Saints, and Queen of Peace

Lord Huron's second major release is entitled Strange Tails, and it is my second favorite of all my recent acquisitions. Seeing them live also helped cement that position -- they have a great stage presence and keep the show rolling once they start. Though you can pick out the influences on this album more-so than their first, they are still removed enough that they sound fresh. For instance, the song Fool For Love is heavily reminiscent  of 50’s pop music. The song World Ender is Dick Dale Misirlou through and through, but since there is nothing like it on the (congested and overplayed) commercial stations of today it is a breath of fresh air; the band and listeners have benefited from it.  It’s another album that I can’t find a song to fault. I also like how they create characters and sing the songs from their perspectives rather than limited themselves to first hand experience like many other artists. I believe it opens up many more avenues for songwriting.  My favorite songs are Night We Met, Cursed, Fool For Love, Meet Me in the Woods, Way Out There, and Yawning Grave.

Colin Hay, better know as the front-man of the 80’s band Men at Work released an album entitled Next Year People. He's come a long way since those days of fronting a pop band. His songs are now more mature and straight from the heart. No more 'Vegemite sandwiches Down Under' for his solo albums. Unfortunately, this album is also a fine argument for buying singles. Not every song is gold,  and many could be left out of the collection. Lyrical inspirations range from the dust bowl (and likely the current California drought where he finds his home) title song Next Year People, to the remorseful songs If I Had Been A Better Man, and Want You Back, to the song Mr Grogan about a man,his Labradoodle , and a fall resulting in a head injury. 

Lainey Wright... Yes, you never have heard of her. Though if you have… Good for you. She falls into the grey area of Folk/Singer-Songwriter/Country (the good kind) music genres. I discovered her while browsing Noisetrade, a site for legal free music (though you can -- and should -- donate to the artist as well). In general new artists use Noisetrade to release selections of their music to generate buzz.  In any case this was a complete album purchase entitled Till We Go Home. She has a pleading voice, and by that I mean it begs to be listened to, though some could possibly find it not to their liking. The album has a a wide range of tones from the upbeat to the melancholy.  My favorite upbeat songs are Oft I Stray, Hold You Up and Olive Tree. The more melancholy songs are What Love Does, Leave Me Not Alone, and  In My Head. In many ways I hope that Nashville never gets a hold of her. It's not that I don’t want her to have success, it is that I never want them to homogenize her and turn her music into pop crap. Don’t mess with what isn’t broken.

The married duo Weepies latest release Sirens blossoms with 17 tracks. That many tracks is a rarity in the usual non-deluxe album releases of 10-12 songs. The female portion of the duo, Deb Talan has a unique voice that your equally likely to love or hate. I fall mostly in the love category though I couldn’t listen to a marathon selection of just her. Luckily, as a duo they switch leads and work well together. Album standouts are Crooked Smile, Never Let You Down, No Trouble, Ever Said Goodbye, Fancy Things, River From The Sky, and the Tom Petty cover Learning To Fly (that says a lot as I am not a huge Tom Petty fan; I enjoyed his time with Traveling Willburys best) . I feel I got my money's worth on this album.

Probably the only flat out rock/industrial album on the list comes from the band The Dreaming (otherwise known as Stabbing Westward) entitled Rise Again. It's a slickly almost-overproduced album that doesn't break any new ground for them. That said, they certainly know how to sing about bitterness.  The standouts on the album are Alone, Rise Again, Afraid, and Destroy.

Now on to the biggest disappointment  of the year, Mumford and Sons latest release Wilder Mind. This is their third major release . When you usher in the latest wave of folk rock and you have a hundred similar bands follow you, what do you do next? I guess you try to re-invent yourself and prove that you're more than a folk rock band. You lay down the banjo, driving rhythms and plug in. Unfortunately you sound exactly like every other band out there (Kings of Leon, etc. etc.) I have given the album a dozen listens and I still can't remember a single song. They're all so very similar and -- for the most part -- forgettable. The best ones in my opinion are Tompkins Square ParkHot Gates and Monster. It's okay though: Every band has to have an experimental bad album and hopefully this is Mumford's last. With luck they will return to the genre in which they own, and are distinct and memorable in.

Stay tuned for next the next installment. Where I'll likely review upcoming albums from Glen Hansard, Chris Cornell and more.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"A Serious Man" Review

"It's a Coen brothers movie."

That was Brian's pitch to me. We had spent a good portion of our afternoon looking for movies at BuyBacks Entertainment in Erie, PA. Now, I'm not nearly the consumer of film that I used to be, but when Brian is in town, and when we decide to go to Erie, BuyBacks is almost always a stop. They were featuring a "buy three get one free sale," which I always find a good opportunity to catch up on some films that I may have missed. The problem I find is that it is often difficult to decide on that last movie. That day I was having a particularly tough time, because a used DVD store does not often have every film you could want for the price you want it for. I couldn't decide on the last film, and it was starting to get late in the day, so I told Brian that he could just pick one more movie and I'd use up one of my freebies to get it. To that end, he chose A Serious Man, which is a film written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Who are the Coen brothers?

I really don't know much about the Joel and Ethan Coen, other than they have directed some of the best movies that I've ever seen (Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, et al), and my favorite movie of all time, O Brother, Where Art Thou? In short, they're excellent directors with an eye for detail and memorable characters. But my first response to Brian was, "Yes, but it's a Coen brothers movie that you've never heard of." You see, I found out long ago that while the Coens have a history of pitch-perfect films, they occasionally churn out a forgettable yarn. Such was the case with The Man Who Wasn't There starring Billy Bob Thornton years earlier when we rented it. After suffering through two hours of a character actor that I happen to like waste his talents on a completely disengaging film noir knockoff I was amazed that I had found a Coen brothers movie that I hated. Oh, it was competent, just not entertaining. This was the warning I gave Brian.

A game of chance

When we got back to Brian's parents' house, we realized that we only had enough time to watch one movie. I presented Brian with The Town (also known as that movie that saved Ben Affleck's career), which neither of us had seen, and Brian presented A Serious Man. We couldn't decide, so we left it to a coin toss. One could infer from the fact that I wrote this article and not a review of The Town as a pretty good indicator of which film won. We popped A Serious Man in and began watching.

The plot

The movie starts with a tale about a Jewish man who after a spot of bad luck of not getting full value for his wares and losing a wheel from his cart is helped by a kindly old rabbi, who is a friend of his wife's family. When he goes home and tells his wife the tale, she tells him that the person in question died of fever three years ago, and that what he met must have been a dybbuk (a Hebrew word for a dislocated spirit. Yes, I looked it up.). He tells her that he invited him to dinner, whereupon the cheerful yet otherworldly is announced at their door. The man invites him in, and the old man refuses some soup. The woman takes this as a sign that he is a dybbuk and stabs the old man with her paring knife. At first he laughs, and his identity as a dybbuk is revealed! No, wait... the old man starts bleeding and says he feels ill, then leaves (presumably to go off and die in the snow). That's the first five minutes. What does it have to do with the rest of the movie? Not much.

In conclusion

What? What's that? What's the rest of the movie's plot?

Oh very well. 

The rest of the film focuses on Larry Gopnik, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, an actor who has been in many movies that you've seen, but never in any role that you'd remember. This is a period piece, and judging from the technologies that the characters use (and the fact that one character is obsessed with F-Troop) it must be the mid to late 1960s. This tidbit of information isn't really crucial to the plot, but then again, neither is anything else in this film. Larry is a professor of physics and a family man who... look, it's not really that important. All you need to know is that the movie is very Jewish (not like in the Woody Allen sense, but more like it is steeped in American Jewish culture and norms), bad things happen to Larry, every single one of which is exacerbated by the fact that he won't stand up for himself when the film's cast of detestable, selfish, self-centered individuals take advantage of him. Things start to go bad for Larry the moment his wife (played by Sarri Lennick in a makeup job so unsettling that she looks like every stereotype of a "Jewess" and succubus mashed together into one beautiful and terrifying hell-spawn) demands a divorce because she's into another man, widower Sy Ableman who is many years her senior. Have I mentioned that not one of these characters is likable? Not one? It's meant to be seen as a dark comedy (kind of like Fargo) I think, but the characters aren't particularly memorable, most of the "jokes" are just mean-spirited jabs at Larry's cuckold status, and the entire plot just slogs along at a snail's pace, so much so that Brian actually stepped out for a lengthy phone call and still didn't miss anything important (although he did miss the film's funniest moment BY FAR, when "the second rabbi" tells Larry a rambling story about a dentist's search for God. You really have to watch the film for context. But don't though, it's not that funny).

A seriously bad movie

I hated this film. No, there's really no way to sugarcoat it. I LOATHED it, and I really don't know the reasons why. The film is shot beautifully, with perfect set pieces that really give someone the sense of what Minnesota suburbs in the 60s might have been like. The main character is a wishy-washy idiot who won't take ownership of his own life, and every other character just uses him for personal gain or to make themselves feel self-important. Scenes start, scenes go nowhere. Interesting parts are merely dreams and recollections, everything is random and nothing gets resolved. But you know what the strangest thing is?

This movie is a phenomenal critical success

I can't figure this one out. It scores 79% out of 35 reviews on It scores 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. That's the same score as The Imitation Game, an actually entertaining period piece with actually entertaining characters that actually has something to say. I really don't know how this detestable piece of film stays so high up. Am I missing something? I'm not saying that I haven't - I had to watch No Country For Old Men twice before I got something out of it, but I never want to watch A Serious Man again. Hell, I don't even want to be in the same room with it. Adam Arkin couldn't even save it, and I like me some Adam Arkin!

Let the conspiracy theory commence

You know what I think it is?  I think that this film gets a free pass. That's all. Everyone likes The Big Lebowski, right? No Country For Old Men sure was deep. Okay, so I don't understand this movie, so it must be good -- on the level of the other Coen bros. films, I reckon. Maybe the 1960s setting appeals to aging film critics, hungry for a glimpse of their bygone youth. Or maybe it's more than that. Perhaps it's inflated by a community of Jewish critics so starved for works of cultural reference (if not significance) that the moment one comes along directed by Jewish filmmakers with a conscious effort to include as much Jewish periphery as possible, they jump for joy, kind of like the way evangelical Christians support all of their (unbelievably incredibly shitty) movies. That's all that I can figure out. This horrid film just gets a free ride. Please note film critics, that style on its own is not substance, good acting on its own is not good writing, and artistic merit on its own is not entertaining.

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Don Music is a trademark of the Children's Television Workshop and The Jim Henson Studios
Sorry if you're too young to get the reference

An open letter to the staff at Piano Nanny


I recently attempted to use your Piano Nanny website to learn how to play a keyboard I recently acquired. I say attempted, because I hit a brick wall at "Starter Studies" Lesson Eight: Page 1.

Now, maybe you've been playing piano long enough to make the natural transition from Lesson Seven to Lesson Eight, but as the most raw of beginners I have to tell you, in no uncertain terms, Lesson Eight is a deal-breaker. Anyone who gives up learning to use a piano, organ, or keyboard will give up at Lesson Eight, and I can tell you why: The transition from Lesson Seven is way too steep.

Allow me to explain: you literally go from, "tap this one note to the beat," to, "play these two notes, then these two notes," to, "Use one hand to play these five notes, then the other to play these five notes, then switch the positioning of both hands and play these notes using different fingers simultaneously." The average, uncoordinated oaf (such as myself) can't do it even after an hour of practicing over and over. It might be simple to you, an experienced pianist, but to the rest of us it is too much too fast. There has to be a better way to teach it (or perhaps some people will just never learn to play the keyboard no matter how much they try). In any event, all excitement that I had about learning using your system died with Lesson Eight.

I am looking for alternative teaching methods at the moment, but I will probably not be coming back to your site, and will not be recommending it to any other beginners that I come in contact with. So as someone who makes a living creating instruction manuals I'm going to give you some tips:

  1. Be more basic. The problem with the "sink or swim" method is that most of your students are going to drown. You'll get a few that will keep going, but you're going to lose your audience if you expect far too much too soon.
  2. Don't be as basic. You know what "play one note in time with the beat for three minutes" really teaches your students? That music is boring. Give them a little credit -- work on coordination with multiple fingers and notes BEFORE tedious muscle memory exercises.
  3. Focus on one thing before moving on to the next. Which is more important, learning to move your hands to play higher notes, or learning to use both hands at once? I know that you want to break people of the "leave your hands in one place" method of playing as soon as possible, but most of us aren't coordinated enough to press two keys at the same time let alone two keys with two different hands even if we're using the same fingers, let alone two different ones without substantial practice. Figure out which is more important (or better yet, which is easier for your students to learn) and teach that before combining them into a key-smashing bout of frustration.
  4. For Pete's sake make sure the media is easy to use. The MP3 files on your site start IMMEDIATELY on the first note and then have a substantial rest towards the end that makes timing on the loop EXTREMELY difficult to anticipate and compensate for. A simple edit to the timing (and even a longer loop) could fix this and make the loop less likely to throw the beginner, well, for a loop. 
  5. Enforce the language before moving on. I can't read music.  I have never been able to link the sound of "C" to a note on the staff. After studying musical notation in preparation for this project, I have concluded that musical notation is dumb. It is needlessly complicated and too gated to be understood by the layman. I know that you, as a musician, are used to it, but to someone with a background in say, computer programming it is obtuse. We use strings and symbols to differentiate, and mere upticks on the scale are not easy to identify or visually helpful. I understand the basics of what it is trying to accomplish, but I'm not sure that it is enough for beginners. You should make more substantial notation on your sheet music to compensate.
Not being a music student or teacher, I'm not really sure what the best method of teaching people this incredibly inefficient skill is, but I do know one thing: It's not the method on your website.

Thank you anyway for trying.

Does The World Need A Superpower?

Calm down, "Avengers" fans

The scope of this article has nothing to do with gamma radiation or Norse gods (although I'd be happy to have that conversation in the future). No, I'm using the term "superpower" in a geopolitical sense (i.e. "The United States is the world's only remaining superpower") which might not be sexy, but is at least a little more grounded in reality. Perhaps some background is in order:
I am a regular listener to NPR (and I really hope to one day be able to donate to them again, but when you're struggling just to have enough gas to make it to work that's not really an option -- and I feel terrible about it) and in particular the program "On Point" which is usually hosted by Tom Ashbrook. "On Point" is an interview call-in show where Mr. Ashbrook fronts a panel of one or more guests, and takes viewer calls to put questions to them. I like the show because he frequently has guests that are more than a little informed about the topics they cover, but it is not a microphone for strictly liberal ideas. Anyone can make a case, and Mr. Ashbrook leaves the judgement up to the audience. If you have any interest in current events, check it out, I highly recommend it. Lately there have been a LOT of programs about the state of the world and the role of the U.S.A. in the grand scheme of things, and more than a few about the state of our domestic economy and ways to improve it. These realities are not mutually exclusive, and I am in no way, shape, or form a political scientist, but from a historical standpoint I think that there are some frank discussions we need to have.

Defense spending is out of control

When were we spending the most on our defense budget? Why, World War II, of course. The decades following "the war to end all wars," the so-called Cold War was no slouch either; every decade saw a solid increase in our defense spending to build up our nuclear arsenal, radically expand our standing military, and to manufacture all of the weapons and vehicles needed to fend off an incursion by the USSR. It's no secret that the Reagan strategy was simply to out-spend the Soviet Union, bankrupting them by forcing them into a war of virtual attrition that their communism-based dictatorship could not support. And we won, so defense spending had to be reduced, right?
Not so. This 2012 Washington Journal article by Dan Matthews is pretty damning. It alleges that defense spending is higher than it's ever been, even after discounting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. That leads to my big question: Who are we trying to outspend now?

No returns

The sad truth is that during World War II and the Cold War, we were war profiteers. I'm not saying that the ultimate goal wasn't noble (though I think that could be argued as well), but we extended credit to our allies for real material protection against an impending threat, and we made a fair amount of profit from it. With the biggest military threat (the USSR) defeated, there's no real profit to be made from that kind of defense network. As much as the Balkans and Russians might squabble, we aren't directly involved and we wouldn't even attempt to provoke a military conflagration. Our key pressure now is economics in the form of sanctions, but that might be coming to an end sooner than many could predict.

Our strength is our weakness

The most powerful economic country in the world is rising. It hasn't emerged fully yet, but the displacement of economic water as it lifts itself out of the sea is palpable even on this side of the world. It is not the United States. While we spend a good chunk of our blood and treasure trying to remain the world's only military superpower our infrastructure crumbles. The coffers of cities and states across our land are running on empty. Millions of people in the world's last superpower go without healthcare, the ability to buy a home, or even feed themselves. Despite some recovery, jobs are scarce and the most well-paying require a level of education and experience that makes them out of reach for even the most qualified individuals. It's truly a terrifying time for those of us on the bottom of the economic pile. Why are we spending so much to police a world that doesn't want or need a military superpower anymore?

Patriotism starts at home

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: Buckle up, this is going to get a little preachy from this point on) You know what I admire most about the so-called "greatest generation?" You know, the people who lived and fought during World War II? It was their, "We're all in this together" attitude. Okay, so it was only white people who were invited to participate in this particular sentiment, but it was a grand sentiment nonetheless. That's not where we're at now. If you're poor, you're equated to worthless. If you're not racially white, you have no political representation. If you're an employed citizen in the United States, you have given up the right to a livable wage and to drive to work without the threat of bridge collapses, power outages, or potholes big enough to swallow your whole car. Your water well might be poisoned by hydrofracking waste, or an oil or coal company could cause an economic disaster simply by not paying for the minimum safety equipment despite record-breaking profits (and because they've lobbied to keep their legal recompense cap disgustingly low). These are America's REAL problems, because they're happening to REAL people. A $160,000,000 fighter jet that will be obsolete in a few years thanks to new drone technologies isn't going to pay for your grandmother's prescription medication, and it isn't going to dissuade religious zealots from car-bombing a school for girls. It helps no one and hurts everyone. We need to bring the focus back to the US -- back to us.

Where to start...

So rather than elect another Tea Party politician who wants to cut your taxes by literally letting this country rot from the inside out, why not look to people who want to put the government's (read: OUR) resources to the good of its citizens. You want to remain the world's only remaining superpower? Fine -- just cut the defense budget by half. It's no secret that we spend more on defense than the next eight countries combined (a distant second is China). That will free up over a quarter of a trillion dollars of money over the next year alone. And EVERYONE wins -- the US will have to reduce its presence overseas and close military bases, which means that we'll have to take a more diplomatic role in the world, we free up money that can be used to fund building new infrastructure and subsidizing new public works projects, which will lead to more brick-and-mortar jobs and architectural technologies, which we can in turn sell to other developing countries for profit.

Why building is better

Hey, you know what everyone in the world needs? Reliable Roads. Affordable Homes that can protect people from the elements. Clean, disease-free water. Steady electrical power. Schools that can offer education. What are we offering instead? Tanks. Rocket-propelled grenades. Missile defense systems. What if -- and bear with me here -- instead of blowing up Afghanistan we were actually trusted enough to go in, and help them to build an actual infrastructure. Something that they could be proud of and might consider protecting, rather than arming one group of religious nut-jobs over another group. Would it be expensive? Yes, though arguably no less expensive than trying to police an entire state while building a temporary infrastructure. What would the difference be? For one, they would have a hand in building their own country back up. One day those disenfranchised masses of Afghan people might finally start to stand up and get mad at the people who are wrecking all of their stuff and destroying their works, rather than throwing up their hand like they couldn't do anything about it. National pride is built by people who have something more to lose than just freedom. That's kind of the problem here in the States: We don't build anything anymore. We don't take the initiative. We only maintain what we have, we don't look to replace or improve it because we don't have the money. And why don't we have the money? Because we're trying so hard to protect what we have. This is a stupid, sick cycle that will continue until we get over ourselves and instead of professing patriotism actually do patriotic things for our country's people. All of those people.
And you know what the worst part of this is? Anyone that makes this argument will be painted as a biased liberal rather than a rational human being. We have the power America, why not use it for something good?