Monday, December 22, 2008

The Greatest Gift of All...

So, in defiance of his own election platform, Prime Minister Harper is giving eighteen of his BFFs an early Christmas present:

Career broadcaster Mike Duffy is headed to the Senate as Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed Monday that he is filling all 18 current vacancies, triggering a debate over patronage as the fate of his government hangs in the balance.

It's good to know that given the looming financial crisis and increased demand on food banks this year, Harper's bringing a little Christmas cheer into some people's lives:

Appointees will receive a $134,000 annual salary indexed to inflation until they retire or reach age 75, followed by a very comfortable pension — and both are indexed to inflation.

Because adding $2.4 million a year to the parliamentary payroll shows firm, effective economic leadership during this crisis. What's the word for that? Anyone? Early 90s one-hit wonders EMF, did you have your hand up?

Yes, precisely.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Parliament in the Penalty Box

You would think that the current clusterf*** in the House of Commons might break my blogging hiatus. It's been a busy week for me, though, so I've been limited to brief paragraphs on Facebook and trying to stay on top of the whole charade.

I could summarize what's been going on but I think I'll just link to others who've already done a good job with that, including Mad Jenny and interestingly, The Yarn Harlot, who gives a very clear and non-partisan summary of the scenario (thanks to Azura for the tip).

I have my own personal opinion on the matter, of course, but I respect the right of others to disagree and present their own arguments in defence of their stance.

Except when they lie.

This is Bob Dechert, Member of Parliament for Mississauga-Erindale, and a member of the Conservative Party of Canada.

Mr. Dechert has been among the more vocal members of the Conservative caucus (including the Prime Minister) in denouncing the Liberal-NDP coalition. In doing so, he misrepresents our system of government by calling it a "coup" on his website, and referring to it "as close to treason and sedition as I can imagine" in the international press.

According to his biography on his campaign website (whose direct link was removed from the homepage overnight for some reason), Mr. Dechert is a lawyer with over twenty years of experience in Canadian and British law. He has no excuse for not knowing how our parliamentary system of democracy works. Thus, I felt compelled to send him the following letter:

Dear Mr. Dechert,

I understand in times like these, partisan rhetoric can become passionate or even inflamed above the usual level of political discourse. This does not excuse our elected representatives from misrepresenting our system of government to the citizens, as you have done.

I would expect a man of your experience in both Canadian and British law to understand how our parliamentary democracy functions, instead of throwing around inaccurate terms like "coup" on your website, or "treason" and "sedition" as reported here in the International Herald Tribune:

I thought a "conservative" was one who respected our ancient institutions and traditions, not one who held them in contempt. There are more rational ways to argue your position without willfully obfuscating the laws and traditions of this country.

I've spoken with Conservative Party members who do understand how our system of government works. They have legitimate arguments against the coalition. But if Mr. Dechert and Prime Minister Harper and their fellow travellers believe this sort of stance is "conservative", well then George Washington was a loyal subject of His Majesty King George III.

I might try to summarize my views on the matter later but for now, Rick Mercer gets to the heart of it for me:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Free Sarah Palin!

At Red Tory I came across this great take on the McCain campaign's double-standard:

I'm sure Ms. Brown is as motivated (if not more) to defend her profession as her gender, but still a great point, nonetheless.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The funny things authors say

Shorter G.P. Taylor, English vicar and author of the Shadowmancer Quartet of fantasy novels:

"It worries me that children are becoming interested in Wiccan and neo-pagan ridiculousness. I hope that my books bring them back to proper Christian ridiculousness. My Muslim and Jewish readers agree with me."

Friday, August 01, 2008

She really is a Strange Little Girl...

Slayer's "Raining Blood"

Tori Amos' cover version

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Rating the Villains


I stumbled across this blog post that asks how well Voldemort of the Harry Potter books stacks up against the Evil Overlord List. Some highlights:

4. Shooting is not too good for my enemies.

Lord Voldemort has, since the end of "Goblet of Fire" insisted that only HE may kill Harry Potter, and that he needs to be captured alive. This is, of course, an idiotic and self destructive notion which I'll come back to later. I comment on it here, because Voldemort has made it clear that killing Harry Potter is a treat reserved for Voldemort himself, thus making Harry Potter too good for death at the hand of a mere underling.

6. I will not gloat over my enemies' predicament before killing them.

Voldemort not only gloated over Harry at the end of "Goblet of Fire" he waited until his followers had been gathered to kill him as part of a spectacle. The SMART thing to do would have been to Kill the unarmed and still bound Harry the moment he had a new body, and showed off the corpse to his Death Eaters when they showed up.

I might try and do this for other famous villains in the future.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Book review: Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, by Chalmers Johnson

This is the third and final book of Chalmers Johnson's Blowback trilogy. I previously reviewed the first book, Blowback, which focused on the harmful consequences of American military intervention and covert operations around the world. The title is a word used by the Central Intelligence Agency to refer to such consequences of operations, and Johnson argued that because such operations are kept secret from the American public--and even their elected representatives--when blowback occurs, citizens are often unable to comprehend the reasons why. Published in mid-2000, Blowback became a bestseller after 9/11, though sadly not enough people seemed to have learned its principle argument.

I reviewed the sequel, Sorrows of Empire, which dealt with the extent of American military colonialization around the world, and how this anticipated the United States becoming a militaristic empire, a new Rome, where generals and admirals are no longer accountable to their civilian leaders.

Now, in Nemesis, Johnson gives a final call, warning that the dissolution of the American Republic is imminent. Summarizing the main arguments from the first two books, he compares the United States to the two other imperialist powers contemporary pundits frequently juxtapose with it: Ancient Rome and Colonialist Britain. Both were democratic states that became empires, at great cost to their economies and their democracy. Prevailing wisdom holds that the Romans sacrificed their democracy for their empire, while the British (eventually) sacrificed their empire for their democracy. This is not entirely accurate; the bloody British attempts to retain Kenya after World War II hardly indicates a magnanimous sacrifice on their part.

The book isn't seamless; one factual error I noted (being the space geek that I am) was identifying Sally Ride as the first woman in space. Dr. Ride was the first American woman in space but she was preceded by the Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. I also feel that Johnson doesn't really introduce any new arguments in this book, rather he adds to the arguments from Blowback in Chapters 3 and 5, and Sorrows of Empire in Chapters 1 and 4. Chapter 2 is the comparison with Rome and Britain: instructive, but kind of a simplification of history. Chapter 6 discusses the militarization of space and the potential for disaster it entails, but again this just builds on the arguments from the second book. Still, Nemesis is excellent as a survey of the arguments of the first two books.

UPDATE (August 1, 2008): I found the complete text of the poem Johnson quotes in the introduction.

Neighborhood Girl by John Shreffler

She's new to the neighborhood, her family just moved in
From Greece or somewhere, she's a great, tall gawky girl
With braces and earrings and uneven skin:
Hormones and acne, her change is coming in.

And today, she's playing hooky, January fog.
Orange lights on the school zone sign beat out their tattoo
And caution the Homeland's socked-in morning rush
With their strobe-light samba: Condition Amber,

As she sits invisible, swinging her legs to the beat,
Perched up high on aluminum over
The uncanny Day-Glo of the key-lime fluorescence
That says: School at the top of this composition.

I see her and she lets me. I'm an old family friend:
Sometimes I play poker with her Aunt Erato.
Her name is Nemesis and she's just moved in,
She's new to the neighborhood, she's checking it out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Who am I supposed to root for?

Christian Bale's lame Batman

Heath Ledger's totally awesome Joker

I have a few confessions to make:

First of all, although I am a huge fan of comics, graphic novels, manga, or whatever pretty marketing terms are used to sell sequential art, I am largely ambiguous about superhero stories. I didn't like them as a child, when I preferred the exciting adventures of Donald Duck and his relatives in Disney comics. I didn't like them as a preteen and adolescent, when the extent of my comics reading were the G.I. Joe comic titles. My friends would be reading X-Men and telling me the storylines, and all I could think of was how overly complex and silly they sounded.

Part of this stems from the nature of the media properties involved. When dealing with the two biggest American comics publishers, DC and Marvel, their most iconic characters may have up to seventy years of history, backstory, continuity and character development behind them. When you have well-detailed fictional worlds and settings in other media, they tend to ultimately be the brainchild of one man or woman: J.R.R. Tolkien, Joss Whedon, Frank Herbert, George Lucas, Tamora Pierce, Michael Moorcock. Even if other creators end up using the properties, the original rights tend to remain under the master's control--or at the very least, retain his or her original vision.

This isn't the case with superheroes. I would go so far to state that superheroes are not literary characters. They are mythic icons. Every generation and every writer has grafted their own take on these characters. In ancient Greece and Rome, every contemporary writer was aware of the same pantheon of gods and heroes and the same tales of their exploits, but each could reinterpret the details to fit his agenda.

Take, for example, the tale of how Hephaestus caught Aphrodite and Ares in a compromising position: Hephaestus, the club-footed, ugly god of blacksmiths and the forge, crafted so many fine instruments for the other gods that his father Zeus gave Aphrodite, the beautiful love goddess, to him as his bride. Aphrodite clearly detested this arrangment and soon began an affair with the war god Ares. Hephaestus learned of his wife's adultery from the sun god Apollo, and devised a clever trap under his wife's bed. The next time she and her lover had an amorous encounter, the net caught and held them both until Hephaestus could summon all the other gods and make the affair public.

Now, in The Odyssey, Homer uses this tale to demonstrate the cunning of Hephaestus to expose his wife's infidelity. But the Roman poet Ovid, in the Art of Love, uses this story to a different end. He contends that the other gods did not flock to Hephaestus' side, and in fact some came away from the scene with a newfound appreciation for Ares' skill in the boudoir. Ovid takes from the myth a different (almost Victorian) moral: if you learn your wife has been unfaithful, keep it secret. For if you expose her infidelity, she will now be open about what was hidden before, and you look like the fool.

Similarly, superhero characters are constantly re-evaluated for their time. Captain America started out as a moral crusader against the Nazis (over a year before the United States even entered World War II). During the Nixon era, Captain America would take umbrage at the corruption permeating the US government and hangs up his tights, becoming the wandering vigilante Nomad. A succession of government stooges take up the mantle of Captain America until Steve Rogers is shown he can support America's ideals without supporting its government, and he puts on the red, white and blue cowl again. Ultimate Captain America, a reimagining of the character for the post-9/11 world, was a two-dimensional strawman of neoconservative ideology, and despised by many longterm fans. While in the current Marvel continuity, Captain America launched a guerilla war against the forces of his government (led by long-time comrade, Iron Man) in opposition to a superhero registration act, and was assassinated in the aftermath. (I suspect Captain America will make a miraculous recovery in time for his live-action film due out next year.) Likewise, Superman's arch-nemesis Lex Luthor has evolved to represent the bogeymen of contemporary society: a mad scientist in the pulp and atomic era, a corrupt corporate raider in the 80s and 90s, and a power-hungry corrupt politician in the "President Luthor" stories of the early '00s.

I must confess my favourite superhero stories are those that deconstruct the genre; that attempt to show superheroes not as larger than life, ascended beings, but as people with hopes and fears and dreams and failings. These types of story became incredibly popular in the mid-80s due to two publications: Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The former is continually cited as one of the best comic books ever written, and will be the subject of a live-action film due out soon (I'll discuss my feelings about that at a later date). The latter was a dark, social commentary on the politics of the day that set the tone for the Batman character from then on (no more campy 60s Adam West Batman--though to be fair, several writers of Batman in the 70s were already trending this way). Both masterpieces; both having the unfortunate consequence of ushering in a slew of "dark", "edgy" and "gritty" comics, most of which cashed in on the superficial sex, violence and corruption of Moore and Miller with very little of their depth, humanity or social commentary. Though this Dark Age dominated comics for most of the late 80s up to the mid 90s (and probably represented 90% of the output of Image Comics), some good deconstructions of superheroes came out of it. One of my favourites was Warren Ellis' The Authority, the comic that casts aside all those centre-right status quo supporting superheroes of yore in favour of a take-no-prisoners group of leftist anarchists who regularly execute dictators, rebuild destroyed cities, resettle refugees, and spit in the face of the military-industrial complex.

Like Queen Azura, I saw the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, recently. I had mixed feelings about it. It was very long. Heath Ledger was fantastic as The Joker, even if his plans were extremely Byzantine and over-the-top (I think I know why gas prices are so high in Gotham--the Joker keeps stockpiling hundreds of gallons in abandoned warehouses and ferry boats). Most of the minor characters (Lt. Gordon, Harvey Dent, Alfred, Rachel Daws, Lucien Fox) were well portrayed--in fact, most of the movie's best moments are when Batman isn't on screen.

The movie had the effect of reminding me of all the reasons I dislike the Batman character while barely displaying the few elements of the character I find appealing. A disturbing trend I find in many comics, and one of my main reasons for disliking superhero comics, is the nature of their enemies. Your typical superhero spends a few panels beating up on petty, blue-collar criminals before tussling with other weirdos in spandex. Superheroes beat down on burglars, muggers, purse-snatchers, rapists, drug-dealers, and gangbangers with regularity. Sure, these guys are criminals and it's a good thing they're off the streets. But invariably the comics reinforce two things about crime:

  1. Criminals are bad people who have no other motivations for their actions.

  2. Criminals are the cause of crime, not symptoms of society's failings.

In other words, costumed heroes beat up a lot of thieves and murderers, but never seem to address the environments that produce most criminal activity:

  • Poverty

  • Family Dysfunction

  • Lack of Education

  • Lack of Social Services

  • Low Self-Esteem

  • Racism

  • Lack of Mental Health Treatment

The implied racism is palpable in the various mobs and gangs that prey on Gotham's streets. The Italian mobsters of Batman Begins have been joined in The Dark Knight by blacks, Russians and Hispanics, all brokering their services to Hollywood's bogeyman du jour--that's right, the Yellow Peril has returned!--the evil Chinese businessman. This plot was loosely borrowed from the Batman comics storyline "Batman: Evolution", a series that angered me professionally as well (but which I'll discuss some other time).

As an aside, in the "Introduction" to Volume 1 of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novels, Alan Moore writes in a parody of the late 19th century prose he apes throughout the books. One of his "important lessons" to "young English boys" is to remember that "the Chinese are brilliant, but evil", in a sendup of the Yellow Peril stereotypes of the day. And sadly, it appears our day as well.

Now, the saving grace of the Batman character in my mind is he's supposed to be the hero who thinks. Other heroes charge headlong into confrontation, but the Dark Knight thoughtfully puzzles out the situation before taking on his foe directly. Although like most heroes Batman spends a lot of time reacting to villainous plots, he's a lot more proactive in getting things done as well, though sometimes this is taken to extreme levels. The reason the Joker is Batman's nemesis is precisely because his chaotic, unpredictable behaviour resists Batman's efforts to catalogue, quantify and predict everything.

The review at sums it up for me:

And it's Batman's mind that's at the core of the best stories about him. He's infinitely dangerous because he's infinitely clever: There's a sequence I still remember vividly from a decade-old Justice League story in which he holds off an invading alien fleet with nothing more than a box of matches and a brilliant plan. One disappointing thing about Nolan's interpretation is that his Batman is basically just a growling James Bond -- he relies on super-expensive gadgets and can beat down anyone in a fight, but any number of action-movie badasses can do that. We never see "The Dark Knight's" Batman doing anything particularly thoughtful, which is a hallmark of the comic book Batman. Not for nothing has he starred in a series called "Detective Comics" for close to 70 years.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Are You Ready to Rock?

They've finally released the setlist for Rock Band 2!

And it includes Dream Theater's "Panic Attack". ERs across the continent should be warned they're about to see an increase in repetitive stress injuries starting in September:

Rock Band 2 will also include a new drumkit manufactured by Alesis, a company that actually makes electronic drumkits. Here's a video of the ION drumkit in action:

Now I have to save my pennies for September!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Happy Confederation Day!

On this day, let's remember the Fathers of Confederation by going to the awesome interactive picture in the Canadian Encyclopedia!

Happy 141st Birthday, Canada!

Monday, June 30, 2008

WANTED...a plot that makes sense

I don't really review movies here at False Prophecy, but I saw one this weekend that compels me to discuss it. Wanted, starring Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy and Morgan Freeman, opened this Friday. And let me get it out of the way now: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!

Wanted is based on the comic series by noted British comics scribe, Mark Millar. Like much of his work, it tends to be brutal, cynical and nihilistic (even though he's one of the only noteworthy Brits who still writes superheroes). However, this style is perfectly suited for Wanted, Millar's tale of a socety of supervillains who banded together in 1986 to take over the world, eliminate all the superheroes, and then convince the world that neither they nor the heroes ever existed (except in comic books), while secretly running things from behind the scenes. This Fraternity faces its first major upheaval when one of their luminaries, the assassin known as The Killer (who never misses his target) is himself slain. At this point, his estranged and ignorant son Wesley, an unassuming cubicle jockey, is made aware of his father's identity, the existence of the Fraternity, and his inheritance of his father's abilities.

Millar intentionally structures this plot as the "anti-Spiderman": in both stories, a geeky nebbish finds out he has incredible powers. Peter Parker initially tries to profit from his powers only to have his beloved uncle die as a result of his inaction, whereupon he swears to use his spider powers to help people and fight for justice. Whereas Wesley Gibson uses his newfound talent at killing to turn his worthless life around: among other things, he kills his best friend for sleeping with his girlfriend. Basically, for the first part Wesley revels in the evil he can get away with as a result of his powers and position, and then has to deal with the supervillains who probably killed his father and are now gunning for him. As nihilistic, amoral adolescent power fantasies go, it's entertaining.

The film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov (Russian director of Night Watch fame), takes a lot of liberties with the comic. First thing thrown out the window: the Fraternity aren't supervillains, but a thousand-year-old secret society of assassins. They are trained in tricks like curving bullets around obstacles and knocking bullets out of the air with knives, and seeing the world in Matrix-style bullet-time.

The Fraternity obstensibly assassinates individuals to shape the course of history towards a better path: "Kill one; save a thousand". The targets the Fraternity knocks off are evidently bad people who will perpetuate great evil deeds later on.

This supposedly makes the actions of the protagonists more noble, a grand departure from the comic (although it brings up the same moral dilemmas that "pre-crime" did in The Minority Report). Apparently, the filmmakers told Millar (who otherwise is very supportive of the film--must be getting a percentage) it would be difficult for the audience to root for the protagonists if all the major characters were out-and-out villains. In an interview, Millar notes that The Godfather is such a film, and it's considered one of the greatest films of all time.

There's a lot of flashy action sequences that are well-executed, for the most part, although one wonders how this "secret society" stayed secret for a millennia when they're so recklessly destructive. The main plot is similar to the comic, wherein Wesley has to kill the man who killed his father or suffer his father's fate. There's a blatant "Luke I Am Your Father" moment. But little things like this I can forgive if the film otherwise entertains me. However, one glaring plothole just kept bugging me for the whole picture, and would not let go, and it deals with the method of how the Fraternity gets the names of its targets.

See, the Fraternity was born from a guild of weavers (ie, cloth weavers) a thousand years ago, who started seeing a binary code in their woven cloth. The present-day Fraternity still gets their marching orders from a giant loom, that renders names in a binary code that Sloan, head of the order, translates into the names of targets. And these hardened killers take it on faith (or rather Fate) that offing these people has to be done. Pro bono, since the Fraternity doesn't do paid hits, all kills are to advance the "mission"--ie, what the loom tells them. The Fraternity still participates in the always-reliable textile industry to pay for its exotic cars and unique weaponry. Alas, despite all the high-tech gadgetry, their archives are still a room full of leather and wood bound parchment texts.

I'm still trying to understand how you motivate a society of ruthless, can't-fail assassins based on a legend like this:

[SCENE: Somewhere in Europe, 1000 years ago]

WEAVER 1: Hey look, there's something weird in the cloth.
WEAVER 2: Let me see...(looks)...looks like the shuttle missed a few passes.
WEAVER 1: I think it's a code.
WEAVER 2: Get out!
WEAVER 1: No, really, it's a code in binary which we won't really develop for cryptographical purposes for another six centuries!
WEAVER 2: OK, assuming it is a code and not the more likely explanation that the shuttle occasionally misses given that we're using 11th century technology here...what's the code say?
WEAVER 1: Gimme a sec...(decrypts message)...look, it spells out names!
WEAVER 2: [Skeptically] Uh-huh. So what do we, humble weavers of cloth, do with these names?
WEAVER 1: Clearly Fate is telling us these people need to die!
WEAVER 2: Right. And by sheer coincidence the first name on the list is the guy who stiffed you over all that Persian silk last week?


Hasan-i Sabbah knew how to motivate a secret society of assassins: drug them up with hallucinogens, offer them willing and attractive sexual partners, then take it all away. Then, send them to kill your enemies promising them they will return to paradise if they die after completing their missions. Why mess with a proven formula?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Father knows best

In his Father's Day entry, Neil Gaiman passes along Heinlein's Five Rules (with Sawyer's sixth addendum) to an aspiring writer:

Dear Neil, I am sure you have probably answered this question before and are probably, therefore, very sick of it. But, I still must ask. I am an aspiring writer and am wondering how you stayed motivated during times of great failure. I understand what many writers mean when they say the love of the art drives them. What I am concerned with is how to deal with the inevitable denial of a piece of literature that you have invested everything in?

Write the next thing.

Maybe the world will catch up with your brilliance eventually, or maybe you'll look back in ten years and decide it wasn't that great really after all. Doesn't really matter. Times of great failure or times of great success, the problem is the same (how do you keep going?) and the solution is the same: You write the next thing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Metal makes the world go 'round

There will be a further delay in bringing the world up to speed on my life as I found a story that set my heart aflutter:

Metal goes global, with some surprising riffs

Globe and Mail - June 18, 2008

This is a story dripping with irony - ghoulish, blood-red irony.

It turns out that heavy metal, anathema to the moral majority, has spread Western ideals of freedom of expression and democracy more effectively than some more conservative means.

And globalization? The devil's music seems to be the definition of globalization at work, yet with the added bonus of letting metal fans worldwide feel the music is their own, allowing indigenous metal scenes to flourish.

That's the message of Global Metal, a documentary-film tour of not-so-obvious metal hot spots such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates, which opens Friday in theatres in Toronto and Vancouver.

"No one's telling you that you should be a fan of Slayer or Morbid Angel. In fact, most people are telling you you shouldn't! But how does that thinking apply for kids coming from different cultures around the world?" film director Sam Dunn said.

He and fellow Canadian filmmaker Scot McFadyen skipped the usual German, Scandinavian and suburban North American centres, which they had already visited in their 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. That film served both as a general tutorial and as a defence against the usual criticisms of metal, ranging from its antisocial controversies to its perceived head-pounding dopiness.

The popularity of that first film allowed Dunn and McFadyen to continue their highly enviable ability to match their fondness for metal with burgeoning careers in film. And Global Metal, no longer bound by having to justify the music and its black T-shirted fans, thus has enough room to uncover a fascinating side story on the hidden quirks of globalization.

Take China. It hasn't been known for its metalheads. But metal has migrated there in an unusual way.

As a tax writeoff, record companies can destroy their inventory of remaindered CDs, particularly discs by bands no longer signed to the label. Often these are metal bands coming in and out (mostly out) of fashion. But instead of actually destroying the discs, the CDs are shipped through middlemen to China and dumped on the market there.

As Kaiser Kuo, a Chinese American who lives in Beijing and a founder of pioneering Chinese metal band Tang Dynasty, notes in the film, most of these CDs were worthless. But some were real gems and helped to get metal into the hands of Chinese kids.

Dunn adds that this "had, you could almost say, a random impact, where you could be walking down the street in Beijing, and there would be a street merchant. He or she would have a Madonna CD and a Slayer CD, and the person looking at it wouldn't have any reference points for either. So it enters on this equal footing, which is unusual."

And from that beginning, homegrown metal took on a distinct Chinese flavour. Tang Dynasty, the band started by Kuo, who was born in upstate New York and now works in digital marketing, incorporated ancient battle references and historical poems. A Chinese metal scene known for its particularly dark music was born.

"They created a metal which obviously had some relevance and meaning to Chinese people," Dunn says. And yet, although Western headbangers may get into Chinese thrash metal, there are other international metal offshoots that Western fans might simple declare dead wrong. The Japanese glam metal known as "visual kei" trades in thrashing speed metal, but then bands like X Japan will suddenly break into the schmaltziest ballad imaginable. Or there's the Israeli band Orphaned Land, which will suddenly shift from guttural vocals to traditional Middle Eastern singing.

"I think metal is being redefined by virtue of its spread. For the longest time, it was very much defined by the rules that you and I associate with metal, that it has to have certain hallmarks to be real metal," Dunn says.

"What's interesting is that the fringes of that core are starting to change. Introducing Israeli folk melody into metal may not be metal to some kids in the West; in fact, it may be something they feel quite opposed to. But in Israel and maybe in the [whole] region, there is something which to them still is metal," Dunn adds.

Then there's the rise of metal in countries emerging from dictatorships. The first Rock in Rio festival in 1985 was attended by nearly 1.4 million fans and prominently featured such era-defining metal acts as Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions and Iron Maiden. As guitarist Rafael Bittencourt of Brazilian metal band Angra notes, it's not as if heavy metal helped to free Brazil. But metal became a vehicle for joyous self-expression after the military dictatorship fell. (Global Metal, however, makes it seem as if the first Rock in Rio was a metal-only mega-show: The Go-Gos, the B-52s, Nina Hagen and Queen were also headliners. But we're on the topic of metal here, and Dunn is an avowed Iron Maiden fan.)

With the new documentary, Dunn and McFadyen, who have been friends for the past 15 years since attending British Columbia's University of Victoria, have planted their stake deep in the heart of the rock-doc niche. (Although the downtown west-side Toronto office of Banger Productions looks like a lot of start-up film and new-media offices around the city in some ways, the mounted horns outside the office door are a giveaway as to its specialty, as are the books of metal lore lining the shelves next to the Lonely Planet travel guides and Didi, McFadyen's black, metal-appropriate bulldog puppy, who makes her home most days in the spacious editing suite.

Banger Productions is now much in demand. On the office white boards are long to-do lists for upcoming major documentaries on Iron Maiden and Rush. In fact, Dunn and McFadyen's Rush film is said to be the first cinematic documentary of the publicity-shy band, rather than simply a typical concert DVD or a video-music channel profile. The members of Slayer also want to make a doc with the filmmakers.

Groups themselves want to work with the pair. After Headbanger's Journey, members of Metallica told the filmmakers something to the effect of, "Don't you dare make another film without us in it."

It should also be said that Dunn looks the part. With shoulder-length hair and wearing the perennial black metal T-shirt, he has appeared in both Headbanger's Journey and Global Metal as our guide to metal fandom. And yet, although he's as approachable in person as he seems on film, what's that look in his eye? A piercing clarity? And what's that he mentions, with his toothy grin, about possibly doing a documentary about Satan?...!

"We're even talking to Telefilm about it," adds McFadyen, also grinning, as he notes Bill C-10, which proposes to allow Ottawa to deny tax credits for films it doesn't like. Canadian Christian leader Charles McVety has been among those supporting the controversial bill. McFadyen and Dunn, even though they are serious about a Satan doc, both break into ironic laughter. It's the same laugh coming from the metalheads around the world in their documentary.

I loved Dunn and McFadyen's first documentary on metal, Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. Although, as Dunn notes in the interview below with George Stroumboulopoulos, it was basically a metal primer that didn't really teach veteran metal fans anything new, it was a serious and thoughtful take on a major subculture by an academic who is also an insider (Dunn has a Ph.D in cultural anthropology and is a lifelong metalhead).

Dunn and McFadyen are interviewed on CBC's "The Hour".

I've recently become aware just how wide the world of metal is. Although I like the metal that hails from the genre's "traditional" homes of England, Northern Europe and the USA, I'm also a big fan of a few Italian metal bands. But in more recent years I've grown to like some of the following:

Sepultura is Brazil's best-known metal band, rising to prominence in the early 1990s opening for Ozzy Osbourne. Although their earlier albums were faithful to the forms of American thrash and hardcore music, 1996's Roots album incorporated elements of music from Brazil's indigenous peoples, notably the Xavante tribe.

Israel's Orphaned Land combine elements of thrash, death and progressive metal with traditional musical forms from North Africa and the Middle East. Lyrically, they express a desire for understanding and brotherhood between the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), warning of dire consequences for all if peace is not achieved (most eloquently in their 2004 release, Mabool, or "Flood"). This distinguishes them from the earlier major Israeli metal band, Salem, who memorialize the victims of the Holocaust while railing against Israel's enemies.

Mainland China's Tang Dynasty sets legends from early Chinese history to heavy riffs, making them soulmates with the metal sword-and-sorcery epics of the European power-metal scene.

Much like the Scandanavian black metal bands of the early 1990s embraced an anti-Christian image to stand against a culture they considered oppressive, Taiwanese black-metal band Chthonic embraces myths from Taiwan's history to speak in favour of Taiwanese independence from mainland China. This has been a highly controversial political stance in their native land and has attracted criticism from the People's Republic of China. They are also noteworthy for the incorporation of the erhu, a traditional 2-stringed bowed instrument much like a violin, into their music. And bassist Doris "Thunder" Yeh is totally hot.

Eluveitie is a Swiss folk-metal band incorporating bagpipes, fiddles, and even a hurdy-gurdy into their heavy sound. Lyrically they derive from legends of pre-Roman pagan Europe.

Which only goes to show that Tenacious D are right: You can't kill The Metal!

Deja vu

MadJenny has tagged me in one of those internet memes. I'm pretty sure I've done something like this before. So, rather than rack my brain trying to think up five new items at a time when I'm otherwise up to my eyeballs, I'll just direct people there.

A lot has happened to me in the past couple of months, most of it good, all of it busy. Hopefully in another week or two I will be settled enough to do a grand update here!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

My return

It's been a long time, almost two months since my last post. While I've had longer hiatuses in the past, few have been as tumultuous.

Since my birthday, I've dealt with coming to terms with the death of my grandmother, my last grandparent. She was in her 90s, had a host of medical issues, and passed away peacefully, but she was always a looming figure in my life, especially during my childhood. I still sometimes forget that she's gone, but I remember how many people's lives she touched. A saying I once heard goes "Live your life so there will be standing room only at your funeral." Those words were never so true as for my grandmother.

Somehow, in this time, I've also managed to finally find a new job. Although I had numerous periodic gripes about my work, I did like my job very much. But being so close to friends and family in my hometown, the distance was palpably felt. A sense of urgency to get back there manifested a few years ago, motivated primarily by several severe illnesses and afflictions among members of my family, and the deaths of several friends' parents. This instilled in me a desire to be closer to my family, especially as my parents get older, and I've finally succeeded.

That the new job pays better, offers better vacation, seems more interesting and no longer requires me to work nights or weekends, is just the icing on the cake.

But I will still miss all the friends I made in my five years at my previous employer, who were nice enough to throw me a farewell party. I will definitely miss being the "token male". Thanks for everything, you guys!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Born at the wrong time

Well, today is my 31st birthday. I know of no better way to celebrate it than to recollect the tyrannical fashion dictatorship into which I was born. In honour of the year of my birth, I present the horrors that passed for fashion back then: the 1977 JC Penny catalogue!

Also, judging by the sheer amount of matching his/hers outfits, in 1977 it was apparently considered pretty stylish for couples to dress alike. These couples look happy, don't they?

Aaaah!!! My eyes!!! Ze googles do nuh-sing!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Star Wars

The US military is planning to shoot down a spy satellite:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon plans to shoot down a disabled U.S. spy satellite before it enters the atmosphere to prevent a potentially deadly leak of toxic gas from the vehicle's fuel tank, officials said on Thursday.

President George W. Bush decided to have the Navy shoot the 5,000-pound (2,270 kg) minivan-sized satellite with a modified tactical missile, after security advisers suggested its reentry could lead to a loss of life.

The Bad Astronomer has made a video explaining the situation:

Monday, February 18, 2008

Eine Kleine Fenstermusik

This is interesting: music made only with Windows 98 and XP sounds:

Friday, February 15, 2008

For He So Loved the Stage, He Sent His Only Begotten Singer...

Just got back from seeing a production of Jesus Christ Superstar with Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the Norman Jewison film and the original Broadway production--almost 35 years ago! I linked to some clips from the 1973 movie in a previous post.

This is Neeley today:

Sing the glory of his name;
make his praise glorious!

-Psalm 66:2 (NIV)

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Heartless War

Today is the 63rd anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II:

The bombing of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Force (USAAF) between February 13 and February 15, 1945, 12 weeks before the surrender of the German Wehrmacht, remains one of the most controversial Allied actions of the Second World War. The raids saw 1,300 heavy bombers drop over 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices in under 15 hours, destroying 13 square miles (34 km²) of the city, the baroque capital of the German state of Saxony, and causing a firestorm that consumed the city centre. Estimates of civilian casualties vary greatly, but recent publications place the figure between 24,000 and 40,000.

The Allies described the operation as the justified bombing of a military and industrial target, which was a major rail transportation and communication centre, housing 110 factories and 50,000 workers in support of the German war effort. Against this, several researchers have argued that Dresden was a cultural landmark of little or no military significance, a "Florence on the Elbe," as it was known, and the attacks were not proportional for the commensurate military gains.

In the first few decades after the war, some estimates of the number killed were as high as 300,000, in part because of misinformation spread just after the bombing by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda. As a result, many charged that it was a callous slaughter of civilians comparable to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with some historians arguing that it was a war crime. Later assessments lowered the casualty figures by a factor of ten or more, yet the raids continue to be included among the worst examples of civilian suffering caused by strategic bombing, and have become one of the moral causes célèbres of the Second World War.

I've discussed the aerial bombardment of civilian population centres before, and Dresden is a particularly noteworthy part of the controversy. It has been immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut's most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, which drew upon his experiences as a POW in Dresden during the attack, and how he and his fellow prisoners were drafted by the Germans to assist in the mass burials. Infamously, the chief authority of the devastation of the attack (even quoted by Vonnegut in his novel), was David Irving's The Destruction of Dresden. Irving's casualty figures cleaved closely to Goebbel's and for decades were considered authoritative. With Irving now largely seen as a Nazi sympathizer, much of his work is considered discredited by most historians.

This has spurred me to finish reading Frederick Taylor's Dresden: Tuesday, Feb. 13, 1945, which presents evidence that counters much of the conventional understanding about the bombing, notably:

  • The casualty figures were probably between 25,000 and 40,000, not 130,000 and 500,000

  • Contrary to the conventional understanding, Dresden was home to several industries vital to the German war effort

  • Far from being an "innocent" city, Dresden enthusiastically supported National Socialism and anti-Semitism before Hitler even came to power. The handful of Jews left in Dresden were scheduled for a likely death march a few days after the bombing

  • Dresden was an important rail hub and supply trains to the Eastern Front went through it almost exclusively.

  • There is no doubt spreading terror among the civilian populace was among the goals of RAF Bomber Command. However, as my earlier post noted, this was hardly a discredited tactic among bombing strategists--London and Paris were still targets of German V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks, so even among the many pilots who took issue with the bombing of a civilian population centre, most would have found a good reason to get past it

Taylor doesn't deny that the question of whether it was worth stooping to such tactics remains a painful one. His quarrel is with the notion that Dresden was exceptional, or at least intentionally so. He points out that previous and subsequent raids on other cities aimed to be just as destructive, but didn't succeed because weather or human error or some other unforeseen factor interfered. Hamburg, a larger city than Dresden, took more casualties when it was bombed in 1943, and the towns of Pforzheim and Darmstadt lost a greater percentage of their population when their turn came. Conditions in Dresden combined to create the firebombing equivalent of a perfect storm. That the same thing did not happen elsewhere wasn't because the Allies didn't try.

I will post my own review of Taylor once I finish. Until then, let's all hope we are never the victims of such mass destruction like the citizens of Dresden, nor will we have to make a choice concerning a city full of the enemy's civilians.
My Saviour is so dreamy

I'm going to see a production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" tomorrow night with the original Jesus, Ted Neeley!

Jesus rocks!

And how do you prepare for such a divine occasion? With Looking Good for Jesus products, course:

Get tight with the Christ!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Say You Want an Evolution...

Happy Darwin Day! That's right, old Chuck turns 199 this year!

Darwin Day is an international celebration of science and humanity held on or around February 12, the day that Charles Darwin was born on in 1809. Specifically, it celebrates the discoveries and life of Charles Darwin -- the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor. More generally, Darwin Day expresses gratitude for the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity.

PZ Myers, one of my favourite bloggers (and biology professor) outlines his activities today at Pharyngula:

Charles Darwin's Origin is 149 years old this year, and although it is a very good book and well worth reading for the historical context and as an outline of the beginnings of a science, it is, well, 149 years old. There's much more to evolutionary biology than Darwin. My talk is titled "Evo-Devo: the future of biology?", and I'm going to be discussing new perspectives on evolution, why I think development is an essential component of our understanding of how organisms evolve, and giving several specific examples.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Canon in Glee

I have never seen such a hilarious rant on classical music before:

More fun with film editing

So a while ago I posted the "Ten Things I Hate About Commandments" fake trailer, which claims to be from the creators of "Must Love Jaws":

They also did "Glen & Gary & Glen & Ross" (warning--language!):

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Getting from Here to There

Google Maps now tells you how to get from Here to There.
"Pierre Trudeau said there would be days like this!"

Toronto-Hamilton area sketch comedy troupe, The Imponderables, with a great parody of Roch Carrier's "The Sweater", or more specifically, the National Film Board's animated short film version.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Playing it safe in space?

Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who first conquered Mt. Everest alongside Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 88.

The New York Times ran a good obituary of Hillary, not excluding Tenzing's contribution like many accounts do. I was most struck by this passage:

The imperial explorer is now an anomaly. Much energy has been expended in recent decades showing just how closely many adventurers have been associated with the more venal aspects of the past, how claims to territory and control have turned triumph into cruelty. In contrast, a new explorer is imagined. The postmodern pioneer is not heroic, but deferential, putting little at risk, desiring safety above adventure, consideration above assertion, breaking new ground by giving the old a different shape.

This has also affected notions of risk and safety. This is most evident in the once thriving United States space program, which, unlike almost every exploratory project in world history, is intensely sensitive to loss of life and mission failure, focused on a kind of hygienic pioneering. In "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe showed how early astronauts were seen by traditional test pilots not as heroes, but as capsule-enclosed, passive creatures, padded and protected and stripped of initiative.


Is it that we have become spoiled by so much being easy and safe that we believe everything must be? Is this also why lovers of extreme sport seek such bizarre thrills (snowboarding down Everest!)? Otherwise "danger" is reserved for contestants on reality shows like "Survivor" and expunged from reality itself, which we believe should be subject to rational control.

I discussed this in my review of Matt Hern's Watch Yourself, where I postulated that progress requires risk. The space program (by which I mean the combined human endeavour to explore space, not any specific nation's efforts) has resulted in 22 deaths among astronauts/cosmonauts, or five percent of all people who've been in space.

Considering the high human cost that was involved in exploring this planet (which still occurs), is the human cost of space travel too high? This is a notion explored by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran in their excellent graphic novel, Orbiter. The space program is dead, the last nail in the coffin being the disappearance of a space shuttle. Years later, the shuttle returns, and a group of out-of-work space scientists are brought together to learn its mysteries...

The cynic in me wonders if the "human cost" of space exploration is the factor, or if the monetary cost is as much to blame. Does our trepidation of space travel have as much to do with the failure of Pathfinder as with the Columbia explosion? Is the instant disintegration of hundreds of millions of dollars and years of research too expensive a blow to our immediate gratification, consumerist, rate-of-return culture?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Marian the Librarian

Just 'cause:

Just 'cause, The Music Man is on the schedule for the Stratford Festival this summer!

I'm kind of partial to the finale, "Seventy-Six Trombones", as I used to play it in a marching band with my father:

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading on a Dream...

Just what we've been waiting for--a library musical!

Supposedly the rest of the library patrons were unsuspecting but I personally think it was staged. How else did they set up all those cameras?