Tag Archives: news

Goodbye Mr. Spock

Yesterday we lost Leonard Nimoy, I won’t bother repeating here what has been said countless times already. I am a member of my generation, and as such I cut my SF teeth on Star Trek reruns. I make no apologies for that fact, and I admit that I, like countless others, was more drawn to the weird character who was originally meant to be little more than a sidekick than to the valiant hero (sorry, I could never quite warm up to Captain Kirk).

One thing I find fascinating, however, is the shift in Mr. Nimoy’s  relationship with his own character as seen in the titles of his autobiographies (I Am Not Spock in 1977 and I Am Spock in 1995). That he would have a love/hate relationship with the fictional character that had effectively taken over his life is logical enough, and a part of me can’t help but to be relieved by the fact that in the end he chose to embrace him… or maybe it would be more accurate to say that in the end he chose to make it his.

That, I suspect is the key, a key that is hidden in those dates. When I Am Not Spock came out the extent of the Star Trek official corpus was restricted to the three seasons of the original series, which was itself about ten years old by that time. That’s a long time to be held hostage by a figment of someone else’s imagination. The thing is that the Spock we get to see in that series, while memorable, is probably the weakest and most stereotypical incarnation of the character. It was a character that, while featuring some important contributions from the actor, was conceived first and cast later. It was in the motion pictures that Mr. Spock truly came into his own, or at least that is how it seems to me. It was also in those films, especially in the ones he actually got to direct, that he was finally free to take his character in the direction he wanted. That, I suspect, is one of the key elements that enabled him to make his peace with the role Mr. Spock had carved for himself in his life.

Whatever happened to Maria?

Today, as I was reading about the Greek elections, I came across a picture in the ‘related news’ section. It was a familiar face, that of Maria, the blonde little girl with the angelic face who had allegedly been kidnapped by the Roma, and then was inconveniently revealed to be a Roma girl suffering from albinism whose desperate poor parents had handed over to another family in something that can probably be described as an unofficial adoption (I blogged about that one, and you can find that one here). Of course, as soon as the bigoted narrative of the ‘child abducted by gypsies’ crumbled the story vanished from the headlines, and a little girl, whose only crime was to have suffer a genetic defect that made her resemble a different (and favored) ethnicity, found herself torn from everything that was familiar to her and tossed into an institution. So the question I am asking myself, a question I’ll probably never be able to answer because no one seems to have bothered to do any sort of follow up once her origins were revealed is what happened to Maria? Where is that little girl, and what became of her?

On the recent events

Okay, I admit that I am still trying to wrap my mind about last week’s events. I am also wondering what can I do… the problem is that I can’t think of anything that doesn’t feel trite in light of the magnitude of what happened. So here go my thanks to cartoonists everywhere for making us laugh, and maybe look at the world from a different perspective. Yours shouldn’t have be deemed a high risk job.

In defense of Woody Allen… sort of

I have to admit that my first response upon reading Dylan Farrow’s open letter was a rather inappropriate one: I found myself thinking ‘who does she think she is? Bush?‘ As I said, not the most appropriate, or charitable, of responses under the circumstances, but the thing is that while I have no way of knowing whether or not her allegations are true, I found her attitude of ‘if you are not with me you are against me’, and her assumption that the fact that one of the most influential filmmakers of the past half century -a man who is fast approaching eighty, and who was never charged with a crime, let alone convicted- was being presented with a lifetime achievement award was all about her to be more than a little jarring.

No, I’m not denying that her hurt is real, nor am I denying that she is convinced that what she is saying is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In fact I’m not even denying the possibility that the events may have unfolded just like she says they did. I wasn’t there, so I can do nothing but speculate. What I do know is that our memories are seldom as reliable as we like to think they are, so I can’t help but to feel that her story -a story I personally feel has a few too many holes to be entirely believable- shouldn’t be enough to damn the man… especially not in light of the climate of hatred that is likely to have permeated the Farrow household at the time, a climate of hatred that seven-year old Dylan wouldn’t have had the means to recognize, defend against, or escape. Continue reading In defense of Woody Allen… sort of

Modern ratings and the classics

I was reading an article about a new kind of film rating that is being introduced in Sweden: one that is meant to address the problem of sexism. It is one of those things that sound like a good idea until you start thinking about them. I mean, encouraging writers to include more female characters, and to have them talk about something other than men is a great idea (sorry guys, you are not that central to our lives), but the problem is that that places a number of artificial restrictions that can be downright ridiculous under certain circumstances.

After all, if a movie has to feature at least two female characters, talking to each other about something other than men to get a passing grade, what would the rating for a classic such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) be? Well, on the positive side we can safely say that the movie got part of it right, as none of its female characters can be accused of wasting their breath talking about men. In fact, in three and a half hours (or more, depending on the version), there is not one single word that is actually uttered by a female character (come to think about it, I don’t think there are any female extras either), and the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. The reason: given the nature of the plot -and when and where the story is supposed to take place- their absence felt appropriate. That in turn brings me to the reason why a rating that is meant to police a ratio of male to female characters, and dictate how those characters are supposed to interact with each other is a bad idea: the fact that different plots call for different things, and I’d like to see writers and directors retain the right to tell their stories as they see fit without being penalized for it… even if that calls for a movie that is well north of the three hours mark, and in which women are nowhere to be seen.

So much spin it makes me dizzy

Yesterday Amnesty International released a report on the dismal conditions experienced by migrant workers in Qatar, where preparations are underway for the 2022 World Cup, and something that seems to amount almost to modern day slavery is legal (that would be the Kafala system).

Anyway, the BBC’s headline reads: Qatar migrant workers ‘treated like animals’ – Amnesty

CNN’s headline is: Amnesty International: Qatar rife with abuse of migrant workers

Reuters’s reads: “Alarming exploitation” of workers in Qatar: Amnesty

The Guardian’s is:  Amnesty Report on Qatar exposes ‘grim’ abuse of migrant workers (BTW, The Guardian also features a piece on the rather amusing design of one of the stadiums, you can find that one here)

I think you get the general idea as to what the content of the Amnesty report happens to be, but then -if you dig a little deeper- you come up with the following gem from The Gulf Times, a Qatar-based, English language newspaper: Amnesty commends ‘accessible, open’ Qatar

Say WHAT? Are these guys even reading from the same freaking report? Well, the truth is that they probably are… with a magnifying glass, and looking for the one or two favorable sentences that were inserted out of politeness.

Of course, while this example is more transparent than most (in fact it is so transparent as to be downright pathetic), the fact that Qatar is a tiny country that is not English speaking serves to make the discrepancy even more glaring by providing us with a single headline from the one local source that is trying desperately to put a favorable spin on a train wreck. If Qatar were a large, English speaking country, the general picture would be more balanced, and the truth is that there is always some bias when it comes to the local news. In other words, while this is an extreme example, it probably reflects a reality that is far more common than we’d like to believe… so, how aware are you of what your country looks like through the lenses of foreign, and preferably foreign language, news organizations?

The price of free (or why I won’t be upgrading to Mavericks any time soon)

So Apple’s new OS is out and it is free. Users should be delighted, right? Um… maybe not so much. The problem is that, very quietly, Apple has gotten rid of a tiny little feature: the ability to sync locally. In fact you are now forced to use iCloud… whether you want to, or not.

Well, I hear you say, the cloud is the way of the future. Who syncs at the local level anyway? What decade do you think this is? The answer is that I know what decade it is, but I also know Apple cannot be trusted with my private data, what did you do? Sleep through the revelations that came out this past summer? Does the name Snowden ring a bell? And before you tell me that I shouldn’t worry if I don’t have anything to hide, let me tell you that the fact that I don’t have anything to hide doesn’t mean that I’m going to be volunteering to be strip searched any time soon either.

Oh, and before you decided that I’m a tinfoil hat nut, let me reassure you that I do use cloud storage on a daily basis, and I find it extremely convenient… I just refuse to use Apple’s version of the blasted thing. They can choose to collaborate with the NSA, but if they do I want to retain the right to store my information elsewhere.

Maria and the Golden Dawn

In these past few days we have seen the innocent, and terrified, face of a cute, blonde, little girl plastered over the news as Greek authorities try to figure out who she is. That all efforts should be made to find her family is undeniable, but I can’t help but to find the emphasis on her blondness and the assumptions surrounding her being discovered in a Roma camp in Greece to be deeply disturbing.

That she was found with a family that was not her own, and in the company of adults who haven’t exactly provided a consistent account as to how it was that she came to be with them in the first place, is undeniable. This means that it is possible that she is a victim of child trafficking, but in light of the racist attitudes that have historically tainted the perception of all things Roma (aka gypsy), and the way in which not too long ago children were routinely told that, if they didn’t behave, the gypsies would take them, I am deeply disturbed by the way in which the story is being presented.

The charity currently caring for her said that when she arrived the girl was filthy (something that tends to happen when poverty forces your family to live in squalor), and traumatized (to be expected when a child is torn from everything that is familiar to her, and tossed into a completely alien environment, with no explanation whatsoever). This doesn’t mean she was loved or properly cared for, but at the same time it doesn’t necessarily follow that she wasn’t… and then we have the fact that the story originates in Greece, a country with a resurgent neo-nazi movement embodied by the Golden Dawn.

Considering the fact that in quite a few countries Hitler and his followers killed a higher percentage of the Roma than of the Jewish population (though coming up with an exact figure is much harder), the role of such an ideology should probably be taken into account. Add to that the fact that the gypsies have long been one of Europe’s favorite escape goats (while Greece is a country in the throes of a devastating crisis, where escape goats are desperately needed), and what we have is a rather disturbing picture of the biases that may be fueling this story.

Yes, all efforts should be made to locate this little girl’s family (though the fact that brown-skinned girls attract no such attention is in itself telling), and if she was kidnapped, or if she is a victim of human trafficking, she should be allowed to go home, but at the same time there is something to that old ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing that seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. This is not unique to this case, a rush to judge is part and parcel of what the media usually does, but even though the evidence seems to be compelling, this is one case in which I wish they would exercise more restraint.

After centuries of discrimination the Roma have no reason to trust the authorities, and they tend to live on the the edges of society, where the proper paperwork is not exactly the norm. This means that the possibility that the adults that were with that little girl when she was found, adults who insist that what we have here is an unofficial adoption, has to be considered (though, unless the girl’s birth mother comes forward to confirm their account, chances are that they will never be able to prove that they are telling the truth either, that’s precisely why it is so important for the legal standard to be ‘innocent until proven guilty’)… and, sensational as the story may be, I wish the media would reserve judgement before fueling the fires of a hatred that has been with us for hundreds of years.

UPDATE: So Maria’s mother has been identified. She is a Roma woman from Bulgaria who has corroborated the story  the adoptive parents have been telling all along, namely that she gave her away because she could not afford to care for her. She insists that no money changed hands, though efforts seem to be under way to charge someone with something… whether anyone is guilty or not. As to the question of what’s in store for Maria, that is unclear. Will the authorities that now hold her fate in their hands acknowledge their mistake, and return her to her own community, or will they place her in what they deem to be a ‘good family’…  with ‘a good family’ being defined as ‘one that is not Roma’?

Oreos are as addictive as cocaine

Yesterday I went grocery shopping, and as I was walking down the cookie aisle -salivating like a good Pavlovian dog- I heard someone mention a recent study that found that ‘oreos are as addictive as cocaine’. I had seen the headlines, of course, and I had found them amusing and bordering on the absurd, but at the same time I was worried about what those headlines seemed to suggest: ‘oreos are as bad as cocaine’, and that’s where the difference kicks in… not that the similarities along the addiction line can be stretched as far as that headline would seem to suggest.

Yes, sugar tickles the same pleasure centers of the brain as drugs do, that has been known for a while (hence the ‘salivating like a good Pavlovian dog’ bit), but while we can be said to crave both substances to a certain extent, there is a difference both in term to how we are likely to respond to being unable to get a ‘fix’ are, and in terms of the damage the substance in question does to our bodies.

Simply put, most people I know can skip their daily cookie fix without displaying any obvious withdrawal symptoms, and -diabetics not withstanding- the likelihood that you will eat enough oreos in one sitting to kill yourself are… well, they are pretty much nil.

And if you are wondering if my passionate defense of the blasted things means I’m secretly in the employ of the food industry, let me reassure you that that is not the case. My defense of the cookie industry has to do with something more fundamental than that: even though I am not particularly keen on oreos, I do have a massive sweet tooth, and I am not to happy about the growing criminalization of sugar I see all around me. Yes, I realize that we should try to exercise some self-control in that regard (or maybe that we should try to exercise, period), but while I am aware that sugar is not the healthiest of foods, putting it on the same level as cocaine -or even nicotine- is downright absurd, and I am not particularly fond of the fact that sweets have somehow been turned into a guilty pleasure… so excuse me while I go grab a cookie.

Keeping school out of the kids’ hair

Is it just me, or are schools getting completely out of hand, becoming more and more intrusive with each and every passing day?

There are a couple of stories floating around that have caused me to start wondering about that.

In the most disturbing one of those a California district has apparently hired a firm to monitor their students’ use of social media, nominally in an attempt to keep an eye for a series of problems and behavioral issues (after all, they have to make it sound like they are acting on their students’ best interest), but in practice intruding on their students lives beyond the classroom. The thing is that while keeping kids safe is a worthy goal (bullying and suicide are pressing issues), I don’t like the way schools are intruding on the kids’ lives outside of school. Call me old-fashioned, but as far as I’m concerned that’s what parents are supposed to be for, though at the same time I do realize that too many parents are too busy to care, and more than happy to have the schools step in. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a way for parents (or students) to opt out of that kind of monitoring (not that I would trust a school to respect such a decision to opt out).

The second story is more circumscribed. It is about a little girl who was told by her school that her dreads were unacceptable, and whose father decided to yank her out of that particular school instead (good for him). Setting aside the racism such a policy entails (afros were also explicitly forbidden), there is the fact that some of these policies focusing on the kids hairstyles that are written into many schools’ dress codes fail to take into account that, unlike clothes, hairstyles cannot necessarily be done and undone on a whim. Children may be able to change their clothes as soon as they get home, but they can neither uncut nor redye their hair in a similar fashion, and dreads are not exactly a hairstyle that can be changed in a matter of minutes. That means that by regulating hairstyles in the classroom schools are intruding in their students’ lives long after they’ve left the premises, and it is there that I feel that they have crossed the line.

Yes, a dress code can be a good idea, at least up to a point, but there is a problem when it comes to their definition of dress. Regulate clothes? Sure, kids can change those as soon as they get home. Require some standards of hygiene? Fair enough (as long as you make some accommodations for those students whose situation does not allow them to comply, and do it in a way that does not stigmatize those students), but leave the kids’ hairstyles out of it.

After all, as important as school may be in a child’s life, it is the parents job to parent that child, and schools should really learn when to get out of their students’ hair.

Redefining endurance

What picture comes to your mind when you think of the world’s most extreme endurance athlete? Today that image is looking an awful lot like what most of us have always thought of as its antithesis. In fact, thanks to Diana Nyad swimming from Havana to Florida, that mental image should probably be replaced by that of a sixty-four year old woman.

Congratulations… and thanks for the lesson, it was a much needed one!

When grandpa rocks (In defense of Miley Cyrus)

This week one of the stories I have been following are the responses to Miley Cyrus performance in the VMAs. It was also the first time I’ve actually watched her (though I did so long after the fact and mostly to figure out what the big deal was supposed to be)… and while I agree that the whole thing was racist and more than a little tacky, the first word that comes to my mind is ‘sad’… sad, and maybe a little pointless.

To me it looked like an attempt at being outrageous that wound up sounding more like a temper tantrum than anything else, but at the same time I realize that that’s just me.

Oh, in a way I get where she and her generation are coming from. For more than fifty years -almost since it became possible for individual performances to reach a mass audience thanks to the radio- music, and to a lesser extent dance, have provided safe outlets for the next generation as it tries to define itself and to find its own voice, a that voice is almost invaribly raised in defiance (and I realize that, trapped as she is by her lily white past as a Disney megastar, Miley Cyrus has more to rebel against than most if she wants to remain relevant to her own contemporaries). The problem is that there are few boundaries left for young rebels to tear down. We’ve been there, done that… and to add insult to injury this generation is also having to deal with the fact that their parents get it, at least to a certain extent.

Let’s face it, Rock Around the Clock was written more than sixty years ago, and was already topping the charts back in 1955. Paul McCartney, who wrote When I’m Sixty-Four some forty-five years ago, is now in his seventies himself. In fact When I’m Sixty-Four was released on the same year in which Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild gave us the term ‘heavy metal’… and let’s not forget that a quarter of a century ago the parents of Miley’s generation were already grumbling about the fact that a forty-year-old-plus Mick Jagger looked kind of pathetic singing Satisfaction. If James Dean were alive today, he would be in his eighties.

The point of this little digression is that  Miley and her cohort are trying to express themselves using a language that was first developed by their grandparents, one that had already been tamed, at least to a certain extent, by the time their parents came along. That is going to make it hard to for them to be outrageous enough to shock their elders no matter what they do.

That, I suspect, is part of what lies behind that particular performance, but at the same time there are other issues that hardly anyone has mentioned, issues that, with all the scorn that is being poured over Miley’s head, deserve some attention. To me the most striking of these is the question of whether or not the idea behind that performance was hers at all. She was not alone on that stage. In fact what we saw was a very sophisticated production, and the truth is that Miley has always been a prepackaged product. Yes, she may be trying to rebel, she may be trying to break free, to show the world that she is a grown up, and she may be willing to do whatever it takes to stay relevant to her own contemporaries -who are themselves itching to prove to the world that they have outgrown her- but Miley Cyrus is the puppet, and in the end the one responsible for the puppet’s actions is the puppeteer.

There were others that had the power to put the brakes on that one, they didn’t.

I’m not trying to argue that Miley had no control whatsoever over what happened on that stage or that she was an innocent victim. Even if she was not the driving force behind that performance she was certainly a willing participant, one whose voice must have made itself heard at some stage, but to all the parents out there that are outraged because their little girls are still clinging to her former image, and don’t want to have to explain to those daughters what they saw in that particular performance, the only thing I can say is: kids grow up, deal with it. Miley Cyrus is no longer a child, she’s no longer even a teenager, and asking her to remain frozen in time, to deliberately allow herself to become a has-been at the age of twenty to help you ‘protect’ your much younger daughters’ so-called-innocence is absurd.

No, I didn’t like her performance. There were plenty of things I found objectionable, if not downright disgusting, in it  and I most definitely don’t get it, but at the same time I do realize that in a way that was precisely the point, that I wasn’t meant to get it. It wasn’t to people like me that Miley was addressing her message.

1984, the PC version

These past couple of days I’ve been following a news story in a different way: I’ve been following the Chelsea Manning story via Wikipedia’s talk page, watching each and every little change being debated, and I have to say that the whole thing has been highly entertaining, not to mention that it has been a fascinating and enlightening experience. What is an encyclopedia to do when the subject of a fairly major entry suddenly switches pronouns?

Let me be clear about it, I respect her decision, and I also think that her expressed preferences should be taken into account and given a considerable amount of weight, but at the same time there is no getting around the fact that rewriting her biography to reflect the fact that she is a she is problematic to say the least. That the name should be changed seems to me like a matter of respect (especially because the use of redirects ensures that anyone looking for the information will find it regardless of what the article is called), and the fact that the introductory text should be adapted to reflect such a major change is undeniable, but by trying to modify the entry as a whole we create a situation in which all of a sudden all those little illustrative anecdotes, descriptions and quotations no longer seem to fit. Do you edit what others have said in the past to reflect the new reality, or do you respect those quotes, even if the end result is that you wind up with a text that, truth be told, at times doesn’t seem to make much sense?

I have to admit that more than once the debate reminded me of 1984’s newspeak, but of course I think part of the problem is that this whole incident has shone a spotlight on some of the problems inherent to the way in which the world has been transformed when it comes to LGBT issues, on the fact that we are still trying to work the kinks out of the system… and on how far we still have to go before common usage catches up with those changes and we wind up with something remotely resembling a standard that can truly be described as neutral. As things currently stand it seems to be impossible to even address the issue without making some sort of statement… whether we want to or not. At the risk of being accused of mixing my dystopias, it’s a brave new world out there, one that seems to have come without a user’s manual. In fact, even as I write this I find myself struggling to avoid a word that keeps coming to my mind, a word that is necessary to make sense of this whole mess, and that word is ‘he’.

No, I am not trying to make light of the situation, and I understand why that little pronoun suddenly becomes so problematic, but at the same time there is such a thing as taking things too far, and equating a pronoun with a slur (a position that some of the most extreme voices in the transgender community almost seem to advocate) makes no sense, at least not in this particular instance. Wikipedia is supposed to be an encyclopedia. As such it should be factual, and there is this whole thing about how we can’t change the past… which is precisely what that entry seems to be trying to do at times by rewriting things as if to make it look like hers has always been a woman’s bio.

If you ask me, the solution is simple (not perfect, but simple): we should do exactly what Chelsea asks us to do in her letter:

I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.

If we take that request literally, and then use it as our starting point, we come to a situation in which there is no need to rewrite the past as such, and while her entry will probably wind up being modified substantially to incorporate the latest developments (as well it should), this approach doesn’t require us to do it at the expense of accuracy, readability and reliability.

UPDATE: and the title of that entry is back to Bradley Manning, not that that has made things any more coherent as far as the content of the article goes. Honestly, with redirects being what they are the name is not going to make much of a difference when it comes to users looking for that particular bit of info, but it seems like there are two camps that are determined to have an all or nothing outcome. Personally I would favor renaming the entry to something like Bradley/Chelsea E. Manning, and being done with it, but I do realize that that may contradict some of wikipedia’s policies.

I wonder what THEY think

I was reading a story about a woman who found herself on the receiving end of a visit by the spook brigade because she was looking for a way to cook some lentils… okay so maybe it was a little more complicated than that, and there are some questions about the details, but basically what happened was that a series of innocent searches by different members of a household led someone to put two and two together and come up with twenty-two. That got me thinking: in a world in which our every search is logged, monitored and aggregated to create a ‘profile’, what would my search pattern say about me? The answer is that I suspect that my profile is likely to come up as puzzling to say the least. Why?

Well, as you know I am a writer. I may not be a great writer, or a successful one, but I am a writer. That means that some of my search terms are bound to be on the unsavory end of the spectrum. I can’t help it. If I want to write a less than pleasant character, and I want that character to come across as believable, then I have to try to understand that character’s world… and that is precisely where my research comes in. After all, the characters I have something in common with are easy, it’s the characters that are totally alien to me that require me to look things up to try to figure out just where it is that they are coming from, and at times that research can be pretty extensive. Oh, it’s not just the unsavory characters that lead me to Google’s door (the professional ones too tend to require their fair share of research), but those are the ones that are most likely to raise some eyebrows.

The thing is that doing that research can be an eyeopening experience. It can also be a puzzling one, or it can leave me feeling almost sick, but at the end of the day what I have is a situation in which what I search for says very little about who I am, what I think, or what I care about.