“Django Unchained’’ is worth the price of admission. Normally, I find Tarantino’s style very cloying, but in this film he is in top form. If I had to sum up the plot, I’d start with calling it a revenge fairy tale set in the antebellum south. Sorry Tarantino, but the love of Django for Broomhilda does not make this blood-drenched film a love story. This film stirred up a lot of thoughts that have taken me a while to distill down. Two ideas have taken root: Django is a monster and this film at times condemns and at times glorifies violence, depending on the victims or rather the killer. While the sheer brutality is cringe-inducing and causes a knee-jerk response that this film cannot be glorifying violence, it is at times. And while Django is likened to the heroic Siegfried of legend, he is a monster or at the very least does monstrous deeds. (I’ll be discussing the whole plot, but you can’t spoil a work of art so read on anyway.)

Let’s start with Django’s  humanity. “Humanity’’ is questioned throughout this film as slaves are dehumanized and frequently referred to as property by their masters, and Dr. King Shulz sees his bounties as paydays. Django starts off being brutalized as a slave and finishes brutalizing as a monster. While the slave is merely perceived to be inhuman, a monster is truly inhuman. When we first meet Django, Tarantino makes sure that we see the scars crisscrossing his back. If it weren’t for Dr. King Shulz, Django’s life would be that of any other slave, perceived as inhuman but actually wholly human. Shulz acts as Mephistopheles and leads Django from being merely perceived as inhuman to actually being inhuman.

Django’s embraces his transformation, gleefully acknowledging the tar-baby principle, that to fight a corrupt system is to become corrupted, or as he puts it one must “get dirty’’. And Shulz is there to show him how to get dirty by always killing the bounty. Shulz begins this corruption by entreating Django into the bounty hunting business, which in Schulz’s words is like slave trading in that both are “cash for flesh’’ businesses.  At first, Django merely condones the killing by Shulz. But Django starts to get dirty when he recognizes the Brittle brothers about to whip a slave girls just as they whipped his wife. He kills one to save her from harm. That force is justifiable, but what is unjustifiable is the enjoyment Django has whipping the disarmed and fallen brother. Shulz and him cap that triple murder off with a mass murder of KKK members via dynamite. Again, was this necessary? Was Django’s sniping of the plantation owner necessary? The right choices here are murky at best.

Django likes the murk. He sadistically states that he loves killing white people for money. The one time he balks is when Shulz tells him to kill a father in front of his son. Shulz goads him into it saying that the father should never have committed stage coach robbery if he wanted to be a farmer. For me, this is a sad message that redemption is impossible in Tarantino’s world. Django does take the shot, and with that he further dirties himself. His transformation is completed when he escapes from the Aussie slavers. Usually, washing one’s self in water is a purifying act, but when Django dumps the water on himself he is consecrating himself to the dirtiest of tasks. To exact his revenge on Candie Land, he will become as monstrous as Calvin Candie.

When the funeral party enters the Big House, he greets them wearing Calvin Candie’s clothes. Candie was a monster who placed no value on human life and had a borderline incestuous relationship with his sister. That Django would wear his clothes and smoke his clove cigarettes as he gleefully maims and murders shows just how despicable Django has become. Wisely, he has Hildie wait outside. If she could see how much he enjoyed causing pain, she wouldn’t giggle at his caracoles. As it is, she smiles, and the two happily ride off. Happily ever after of course in this fairy tale land. But in this world without redemption is there a chance that Django can stop being a monster? Can you ever do something so inhumane without permanently compromising your humanity?

The second idea that has really bothered me is Tarantino’s use of violence in the film. I’m bothered by the realistic violence being mixed with cartoonish violence. Notably the victims of the realistic violence are always slaves, while it is the slavers who are cartoonishly murdered. We see brutal scenes that force you to watch through your fingers. A slave fed to the dogs. A man screaming with gouged-out eyes. We see violence designed to make you laugh. A man blown away by dynamite. A man repeatedly being shot in the knee by his comrades.

Tarantino has stated in interviews that this film in no way glorifies violence, but this isn’t true. The penultimate confrontation of Django trying to shoot his way out of Candie Land is like a rock concert. The music kicks in. The star struts his stuff and strums out a rhythm of bullets. Instead of confetti cannons, there are blood squibs. And just like after a concert, everything is a mess. To emphasize, Tarantino literally paints the white walls red with blood and through camera placement and slowing the footage allows us to enjoy the geysers of blood spurting from corpses. He even injects some levity through friendly fire.

But the final confrontation is the most disturbing because it strives to be the most palatable. Django has sunk to the level of Calvin Candie, and now Django revels in sadism as he enjoys toying with his prey. Shooting a man in each of his limbs. Emasculating him. Kneecapping Steven. Twice. To make this the worst, you emphasize with Django throughout. While I was glad to see him triumph, the inhumane manner in which he exacted his revenge makes me doubt that he can recover his humanity. And so rather than giving us a film showing a slave’s heroic journey, Tarantino has led us on a journey of glorified violence to man at his most inhuman.

I had the chance to rewatch Looper the other day. My first viewing was less than ideal as it was just on my small computer screen, and this viewing was at the dollar show so not much bigger of screen. Still, it’s a pleasure to pick apart what makes this film so enjoyable. Watching a film for a second time always gives you a few gems, and here the shiniest are: love, visions, and entitlement. Note that I’ll be referring to JGL’s character as Joe and Bruce Willis’ as the Loop.

This whole film hinges on love, as explained in the outro voiceover, “I saw a man willing to kill to protect the woman he loves. I saw a mother willing to die for the child she loved.” Starting with the loop’s love for his wife, we see that this is all that drives him. His desire to save her drives him to risk everything because he feels that he has nothing left to lose having lost her. So he goes back in time and murders children, a task that clearly disgusts him. This incredibly morally repellent act is motivated by love, which makes for a fitting paradox. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we are led to believe that the loop’s murder of the mom is exactly what leads to the future hell.

More important is mother’s love, and the film offers Joe and his absent mom and Cid and Sara as our two examples. Young Joe was sold by his mother at such a young age that he cannot remember her face. To try to recapture lost love, he asks his favorite whore to run her fingers through his hair, as that is all he can remember of her. Interestingly, the closing shot shows Sara, Cid’s mom, running her fingers through his hair, as if Joe in death finally has found the closure he sought. Just moments earlier, we saw how Sara used the words, “Mommy loves you,” to calm Cid from his murderous rage. This calming effect coupled with Cid’s remorse at frightening Sara earlier leads us to believe that Sara’s love will be enough to prevent the horrible Rainmaker future.

However, how likely is that future to occur? Joe’s vision of Cid brooding over the murder of his mother while nursing his wound on the train is shown to us to convince us that that is exactly what will happen. It’s like when you watch a crime drama, and they reconstruct just how the crime occurred. However, as with all reconstructions, the interpretation of the reconstructor twists the truth. Joe’s vision is more of a projection than anything else. While hiding in the tunnel, Joe reveals to Cid that after his mother sold him, he rode the train and plotted his revenge. Joe’s foresight is more of a projection of his past self than a prophetic vision. Nevertheless, Joe’s certainty that his ‘vision’ will come to pass is what makes him turn his blunderbuss on himself.

Similarly, you have to wonder if this is the same quality of ‘vision’ that Abe had of Joe going down the bad road before Abe cleaned him up and put a gun in his hand. Did a future gangster save Abe just as he saved Joe? In the dialog where Joe is persuaded to give up Seth, we sense how Abe is a father figure. Joe gives Seth up partly to avoid disappointing Abe, but he more importantly to keep his silver.

Which brings us to selfishness. In the best dialog of the film, the Loop chews out his younger self for being so selfish and entitled. Playing Judas to his friend, having no qualms murdering men, and the alternate reality where Joe kills his loop show us just how shallow Joe is. Yet in the end, Joe decides to sacrifice himself. Why the sudden change of heart? We’re led to believe that Joe sees a way to prevent the horrible Rainmaker future, but Joe couldn’t care less about saving lives. Rather, it is Joe’s desire to prevent Cid from being deprived of his mother’s love that leads him to turn his gun on himself.

Other than those three thoughts, I had time to take apart how this movie improves on Rian Johnson’s first film Brick (2005). The dialog of Brick was far too stylized for me to ever get into the film. However, Johnson was good about embracing the premise and just rolling through with it, giving enough touches to make us accept the premise. Thus, in Brick we have the wonderful incongruity of a high school drug kingpin operating out of a dumpy suburban home. Here we have time travel with its thorny mechanics being dismissed by the characters to make us just focus on the big picture and accept that time travel happens.

One touch I found particularly effective is the introduction of TK early on and then exploiting it at the very end. Joe’s friend Seth floats the quarter and specifically talks about how chicks dig it, while Sara mentions that she would keep guy’s quarters down. It’s this confidence in the viewer’s ability to make this connection that makes this “intelligent sci-fi”, but really we should simply demand that our films expect us to watch them. I’m glad this director trusted his audience enough to not bore us with a flashback and similarly trusted that we wouldn’t get too bogged down in the problems of time travel to simply sit back and enjoy a story well told.

I love movies. My love for movies has always been there, and for a while I was seriously thinking of going into movie making. The first movie that I have a strong memory of is the color remake of “Night of the Living Dead”. I was probably only nine at the time I first saw it. I also remember the VHS tape wearing out because I watched it too much! I continued my steady diet of horror films, and so when a friend tasked me with picking out a scary movie for Halloween I felt up to the challenge. However, she posed the problem that it cannot be too scary. This is always a challenge. People want to jump a bit, but not be unable to sleep for days. (Too scary would be the time when I had friends over in my dorm room to watch “The Descent”, and my RA had to ask why there was so much screaming.)
I started combing IMDB, Wikipedia, and Amazon for scary but not so scary movies as well as funny horror flicks. This has been very frustrating, and I have decided that I must play it safe and pick something that I have already seen. Why? Because of lists like this that pair “Shaun of the Dead”, a hilarious send-up of the zombie genre, with “Man Bites Dog”, a brutal mockumentary featuring realistic murders of an old woman, a child, and then a gang rape of a man’s wife as the husband looks on. “It didn’t say anything about this,” I would say as everyone turned to glare at me. I always take it personally when my movie pick is reviled.

Before hitting the list, know that none of these films fall into the “so bad it’s good” or “so incredibly campy it’s good” categories. I’m also pandering to an audience with a very weak constitution, so you might not find these scary at all. If you want, I’ve got lists for you too.

So, without further ado I will give you my picks.

Scary but Humorous

  • Ginger Snaps—A very smart film that uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for a woman’s coming of age. An awkward, milquetoast teen tries to help her sister resist the werewolf’s bloodlust with the aid of a local pot dealer. A very smart movie with a scary ending, but all the rest of the scary moments are more suspenseful than jump. There is a fair amount of blood though. I love this movie so much I wrote the Wikipedia entry for it (which was subsequently ruined.) Bonus: It takes place during Halloween.
  • An American Werewolf in London—This has surprisingly good special effects for its time. A young American man tries to avoid becoming a werewolf with the aid of the nurse who loves him. There are some hilarious conversations between the protagonist and his deceased friend. There is some gore, but not much.
  • The Cabin in the Woods—A little campy, but still a very witty genre-bender of the whole horror genre. It is a bit meta, but this provides relief anytime the horror starts to get too intense. This could almost be in the other category, but for a couple of moments.
  • Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon—Similar to “The Cabin in the Woods”, yet focused on the evil man slasher subgenre carved out by such films as “Halloween” and the Friday the 13th series. It is a very funny mockumentary in the first two acts, but the third morphs into a legitimately scary film.
  • Delicatessen—A hilarious French film set after the apocalypse when food is scarce enough to resort to cannibalism. An ex-clown become the “handyman” for the local butcher, but there are complications when the butcher’s daughter falls for him. More of a dark comedy than a horror film.
  • Drag Me to Hell—Sam Raimi returns to his genre to tell the tale of a banker afflicted with a gypsy curse. More disgusting than scary as there is a fair amount of gross things (nose bleeds, vomit, hair pulling, etc).
  • Tremors—A nice creature feature set in a desert town. This movie is an extended version of the childhood game “The Floor is Made of Lava”.

Just Humorous

  • Shaun of the Dead—A great send-up of the zombie genre that mocks the typical survival horror group of friends. Features a fight for survival soundtracked to Queen.
  • Zombieland—Again, a funny take on zombie flicks featuring Jesse Eisenberg and a man in perpetual pursuit of a twinkie. Plus, it has a Bill Murray cameo.
  • Army of Darkness—Extremely campy, but still rather funny. I don’t know how scary it actually is as it has been a while.
  • Young Frankenstein—One of the best horror comedies ever made. Igor’s hump keeps shifting sides, and there is fantastically sly sexual innuendo.
  • Gremlins—Cute little creatures that become evil when sprayed with water. They remind me of evil Furbees, which are probably more scary than this.
  • Beetle Juice—An old Tim Burton film, but still well done. In fact, better than some of his current attempts (sigh, Frankenweenie).
  • The Abbot and Costello series—There are many of these movies where the comedic duo meet various creatures. They’re all funny.
  • Scary Movie—The sequels sucked, but the first one did a good job mocking “Scream.” It is a bit crude though.
  • Fido—A very quirky movie set in the suburbs where zombies are domestic servants.
  • Ghostbusters—A classic movie about four guys cleaning up New York City and battling an evil Marshmallow Man.

I’ve also got lists of suspenseful yet spooky and just downright horrifying if you would be interested in me posting those too. If you know of any good films that fall into either category above, please please let me know!

Sitting in the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, watching “Argo” next to a visiting scholar from Norway, the thought occurred to me that this film is about as American as you can get. From the subject matter to the actors to the editing style, you would be hard pressed to see a more American recent film (though “Lincoln” will soon give it a run for the money). “Argo” concerns itself with the exfiltration of six Americans who escaped from the Iranian embassy at the beginnings of the Iranian hostage crisis. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) goes to Iran to extract them using the ruse of being on a location scout for the Canadian sci-fi fantasy film “Argo”. In order to make the ruse pass Iranian scrutiny, Tony asks a Hollywood friend (Goodman) to help him. I don’t care to dwell on the plot anymore as you can read much more pithy summaries elsewhere; rather, I want to talk about the film’s editing, cinematography, and major shortcoming.

The editing is adroit, and makes the film goes down smoothly. It is well paced, and the cuts are as seamless as possible holding to Hollywood tradition. I had to keep reminding myself to cycle through my critical thinking questions because the film does such a nice job of sucking you. The only editing technique that stood out to me is the final chase montage. This montage harkens all the way back to D. W. Griffith who pioneered the chase sequence cutting technique. Shots of the quarry and the pursuer are intercut more and more rapidly to build tension, until it is resolved. It’s interesting how commonplace this ancient technique is, but it makes sense as it is so effective. And I guess that is what I am fumbling towards in this post. This film does nothing new, but what it chooses to do it does well. I’d be willing to watch it again to tease apart how it nicely interweaves the three plot lines of Tony, the six, and the home front.

While no technique used is novel, there are a couple that are worth mentioning. The first is the intercutting of documentary footage for the storming of the embassy. This is very powerful, and it’s place in the opening sequence makes you inclined to judge the rest of the movie as more true. A similar trick is done while the end credits role, where the actor is compared to file photos. By bookending the movie in this manner, you are more inclined to think that everything in between was also so true. The second is using exclusively medium shots to make you share the claustrophobia felt by the six in hiding. The whole time the six in the Canadian’s home, we rarely see a whole room. The continuity of space is totally destroyed, and so you are forced to make guesses about how large the home is. There’s the living room, and then twenty minutes later a dining table, and then a kitchen. It’s impossible to piece together, until Tony arrives. Then the shots start to take in the whole room, and we start to realize all the space available. This change in shots eases the tension, and we feel relief at Tony’s arrival just as the six did. When we finally see an exterior shot, we realize just how large the house is. Using these two techniques, the film has a much more visceral punch and keeps you engaged even though you know the six are bound to escape.

After all this praise, I have to point out the glaring shortcoming in character development. Sadly, this also makes the ending maudlin. We have all these characters: the six in hiding, Tony, his boss, the two Hollywood businessmen, the Canadian ambassador and his wife and their housekeeper. Oh, and don’t forget the Tony’s wife and kid! Understandably, there must be minor characters in a film of this scope, however those minor characters should not include the six. At the end of the film, the only characters I knew well were Tony and the two Hollywood men. The six never had much of a backstory, and so I never really cared for them. Ditto for the Canadian ambassador and his wife. To have all these essential characters and leave them inanimate is a shame. There was so much drama left unexplored. I asked myself what I would do if I were the ambassador. Would I hide the six Americans and risk my life and my wife’s? What if she was against it, would I overrule her? Then, you have to think of the more than a month spent in hiding. “The Diary of Anne Frank” as well as Sartre’s “No Exit” or the actual sci-fi Canadian film “Cube” do a good job exploiting the drama of group dynamics in a claustrophobic and stressful situation. In this film, there is only one indication of group friction, which I feel is not true to life. Lastly, the worst way these flat characters spoil the film is the ending. Obviously, I’m about to spoil the ending so I’d skip to the end here if I were not wanting it spoiled. In the end, (last chance) Tony goes home to his wife and kid. Awwww, isn’t that great! The wife and kid are mentioned just often enough to tug at your heart strings, and as we have absolutely no idea why Tony and his wife are separated, the ending feels like such a cop out.

In short, “Argo” is worth watching for telling a good story well, but it leaves many good opportunities for drama unexplored. It’ll be interesting to compare this historical drama to “Lincoln” when it comes out. If you agree or disagree with my take on this film, leave a comment below to let me know.

I really enjoyed this book by “new media guru” Clay Shirky. His examination of the current internet culture is grounded by a historical perspective and cohesive thought examining the means, motive, and opportunity of the internet.

For history, he looks to Victorian England’s gin problem and the introduction of the printing press. Those seem unconnected, but Shirky points out how the modern era’s glut of free time has been plowed into TV, which regrettably has a horrible rate of return, just as the new urbanites of England plowed their free time into gin, again a horrible pastime. Similarly, he points out how today’s jeers against the internet for things like fanfic and Lolcats echo the outcries brought against the printing press, which critics said was leading to lower quality books and undermining good culture.

His strongest argument is in the first half of the book, where he outlines the means, motive, and opportunity of the change in our interaction with the media. Obviously the biggest change is that media is interactive, meaning we are no longer simply passive consumers but rather “the people formerly known as the audience”. The means chapter is uncontroversial, but the motive chapter may be difficult to swallow. He does make a good argument that is grounded in replicated psychology studies on how intrinsic motivators are more powerful than extrinsic ones (ie you will invest more in doing an activity you love rather than one you are paid to do), but I found myself thinking that it seemed too clean at times. The opportunity chapter does a good job explaining how the new tools enable people to collaborate on common problems easily.

These first chapters hang together nicely and support one another fluidly, but the latter half of the book is more ephemeral and inchoate. Shirky does make some good observations, but I feel like he is cherry-picking at times. It would be nice if his examples were more significant rather than seemingly isolated events. His attempt to place internet communities along a continuum of personal (Lolcats), communal (MeetUp), public (open-source software), and civic (online groups motivating political action, of which there are few examples) is less than successful, but it does provide a good way to start thinking about internet communities.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. I found myself often nodding along a bit too readily and having to stop and dig up counter-examples to his reasoning. This book provides an excellent way to frame your thinking about internet culture and will definitely make you think. I know I am now thinking about where I invest my cognitive surplus.
Edited to add: You can see Shirky talking at TED about how the internet can be used for civic action here.

I’m laid up with a sprained ankle the size of a tennis ball from messing up a foot switch on a rock climbing problem. So, trying to look on the bright side of things, this means I can write a blog entry I have put off for far too long.
I like digging into software. I’ve learned that if I think there should be a better way to do something, someone has already thought of that and done it. When I switched from using a Mac as my primary computer to using a PC, I had to adjust to the user-unfriendlyness of it.

The following pieces of software have helped me in my first year of graduate school. Oh and they’re all free.

Read the rest of this entry »

I was reading a post by Mr. Money Mustache a few weeks back, and he mentioned a book by Michael Pollan “Food Rules”. I have read a few of Pollan’s NYTimes columns and one of his books, so I figured why not check this one out? So that Saturday after I had finished my study in the library, I started casting about in my mind for what I should check out. I have the horrible habit of never being able to leave a library empty handed. I found the book after overlooking it twice as its small size was overshadowed by neighboring food books.

I read the whole book later that day and started talking about it with my girlfriend Larissa. We live together and like to cook together, so any changes to my diet will naturally affect hers. Luckily, she was on board with many of the ideas and agreed that “Food Rules” was a push in the right direction. Well, Larissa started talking about this with her mother, who gave her an other diet book, “Eat This Not That” by David Zinczenko.

These two books can both be rightly called diet books, contrary to the “Eat This Not That” cover, but their scopes are drastically different. “Food Rules” posits a way of eating unlike the traditional American way, whereas “Eat This Not That” merely proffers paltry changes in your diet. While Pollan wants you to reduce your meat eating, avoid fast food, eat greens, Zinczenko tells you that your diet is fine, you just need to swap out this healthier burger for that one and avoid Grandma’s gravy at Thanksgiving. Which of these two approaches are people more likely to adopt? Which of these two approaches is more likely to give you greater health?

If there is one action you can count on people taking, it is inaction. People don’t like change, and they dislike changing themselves even more. Clearly, people will be more likely to simply make the incremental changes given by Zinczenko. I could see this book being placed in the checkout aisle of grocery stores, rubbing elbows with the celebrity gossip magazines, Women’s Health, and all the cooking glossies too. Just looking at the cover, you can see it is designed to stand out in this situation.

The garish colors, the text-burst proclaiming its features, the eye-grabbing text at the very top of the cover so that it won’t be covered up by the stand all clamor for your attention. As you can see above, “Food Rules” has a much gentler cover that isn’t trying to sell itself so desperately.

You can definitely judge these books by their covers. Pollan’s whole book is very simply laid out with minimal text, no color, simple sketches, and simple paper. This understated style contrasts with the sweeping lifestyle change proposed by the book, whose motto is: “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” The book is broken into three sections with a short intro explaining the science behind the idea and then spreads of a sketch of food and a large-type memorable rule to help you practice the idea. Zinczenko’s book also is ordered by spreads with each spread being a fast-food restaurant or holiday meal. Every spread is jammed full of factoids, bright colors, photos, and it is all on glossy paper. Pollan’s book asks you to internalize and remember the rules, while Zinczenko has color-coded the pages as you have no hope of memorizing all the dangers of restaurant menus. While Pollan’s book is broken into bite-sized increments, Zinczenko’s book is further subdivided on each page by boxes, circles, burst-text, and arrows.

Since when is Black Friday a holiday?!

A neat observation that was new to me.

Clearly, the baby-steps given in “Eat This Not That” are more likely to be accepted as no major changes are required. Switching from loaded french-fries to plain fries is not a decision that requires debate. In contrast, Larissa and I discussed the rules in “Food Rules” before deciding to reduce our meat consumption and to eat more veggies.

Which brings us to the next question, “Which leads to a healthier life?” The short answer is that they both do. However, just like most things in life, you get out what you put in. If you settle for Zinczenko’s easy way of changing your restaurant orders, you will improve but not nearly as much as if you follow Pollan’s three suggestions of eating minimally-processed food, greens, and less of both. As “Food Rules” pushes for a lifestyle change, while “Eat This Not That” only pushes for ordering a different dish. However, only a lifestyle change can give you a healthy life. “Eat This Not That” is a step in the right direction, but I worry that it may actually do more harm than good because it gives you the impression that you can make a healthy diet of nothing but pre-cooked meals and fast foods.

While there is a place for both books, clearly I am to taking Pollan’s advice.  To me, his book was mostly common sense. There was nothing revelatory, yet it was enough to push me over the edge and actually start cooking and eating like I should. I had been skimping on veggies. I had been eating a fairly meat-heavy diet. I had been eating a bit too much. Thanks to the redundancy of many of the rules in the book, enough of them of stuck in my head to get me to refocus my diet. It’s been a gradual shift, and it has been difficult at times (cooking tofu flavorfully is a challenge), but it has been rewarding to feel better. I’ll post a couple of cooking adventures in the next few weeks as I continue talking about health.

A typical meal sophomore and junior year. (From Slashfood.com)

I would have a Subway sandwich everyday sophomore and junior year. I thought I was doing pretty good by getting it on wheat too!

I used to be really out of shape. Throughout elementary school, I dreaded those Presidential Fitness tests. The most embarrassing part for me was the pull ups. All we boys in class would stand in line for the pull up bar. When my turn came, I would tell the teacher that I couldn’t do a pull up. The teacher always made me try. I would pitifully cling to the bar and will myself to pull up. When I didn’t budge, the teacher had me try a bent-arm hang. When that failed too, I would do a straight arm hang for ten-ish seconds before my arms gave out. The whole time I could feel the other boys’ judging me. Every year, I’d repeat this pathetic ritual.

In high school, I was a bit more healthy through no fault of my own. My school required sports. I ran cross country in the fall and did track in the spring. I would grouse about the mandatory sports requirement all the time though. When the chance came to manage cross country my junior year, I jumped on it. Now I didn’t have to do sports in the fall trimester. In the winter trimester, I ran lights for the school play. So for my junior and senior years, the only sport I did was track for one trimester. Even then, I did X Squad, where we just messed around. So for much of my life, I scoffed at exercise as a waste of time.

Then, I started to rock climb in college. I love climbing. My favorite aspect is figuring out the puzzle and using technique. How to position your feet, your hands, your body to go up just a few more feet. I very quickly realized that my technique was being held back by my body. I still could not do a pull up. I had no stamina. This really limited what I could do and frustrated me. I came to view every pound of fat as a pound more that I had to haul up the wall. So I decided to get rid of the fat.

Getting back in shape is a long, arduous process. Any book, program, or person who tells you otherwise is lying. Most diet books are like so: “I thought getting in shape was really hard. I tried all these other things, but none of them worked. Now I have discovered the secret that makes dieting easy and unlike those programs, this one works!” Yeah, I totally believe you and not all those other guys!

As a chemical engineer, I break everything into mass and energy balances. Losing fat to me is simply an energy balance of the form: energy accumulation = energy input − energy output. Energy accumulation is the stored fat in your body. Energy input is the caloric content of the food you eat. Energy output is all the energy you use, comprised of your resting (basal) metabolism and your active energy use. So, if I want to turn energy accumulation into energy depletion, I simply have to use more energy than I take in. However, I knew that your body would decrease its metabolism in response to decreased caloric intake, and I knew that both fat and muscle can be used for energy. I did not know enough details to lose fat and keep muscle. I knew I needed help.

So I read “Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle”.  It opened my eyes to how the body uses food. It told me that I shouldn’t be concerned with how much I weigh, but rather what my body fat percentage is. I adopted its up-down-down cycle of dieting. On down days I would  fall 10% short of my daily caloric need, and on up days I would meet or slightly exceed that need. By following this cycle, I prevented my body from dropping my metabolism.

Either eating less or exercising more can create the caloric shortfall. I decided to do more, which again helps prevent the body from dropping its metabolism. By using strength training, I was telling my body, “I really need my muscles, so please use up those fat reserves instead thank you.” After awhile, my metabolism was super high. I started to think of food as junk (à la William S. Burroughs) and if I missed a meal, I would become ravenous. I had never experience hunger so acute before in my life.

I was your average American throughout life until my summer prior to senior year of college. I was overweight, did not get daily exercise, ate your usual Western diet of fried foods, and never thought about my weight or health beyond the occasional, “I should get back into shape” thoughts that never translated into action. It wasn’t until I realized the limitations of my body that I committed to a lifestyle change of regularly exercising, dieting, and eating more nutritious foods. This change successfully dropped my percentage of body fat and led to much more fun on the climbing wall.

This post is the first in a series on healthy living and culture. I figured I would tell my personal story before I start delving into the writings of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and David Zinczenko.

What’s In a Name?

May 19, 2012

Names are powerful. Simply changing the name of something can have drastic effects. A name is something concrete that we can latch onto in our thoughts. Without a name, we fumble around. Without a name, a concept blurs. We can sharpen that concept by adding more and more descriptors.  Yet, this becomes cumbersome as the descriptors mount. A name embeds all of these descriptors and brings clarity to our thoughts. Consider this exchange:

Your friend: I just saw the weirdest car!

You: Weird how?

Your friend: It was real low down.

You: So?

Your friend: It was a super low, classic car. But, get this, it could hop up and down too!

You: Ah, man. That’s just a lowrider!

You can’t picture a weird car as you’ve seen plenty of weird cars, so the concept is initially very fuzzy. As you get more and more details, the image starts to take form. Once you name it, you have a solid image of it. But you have to be careful. The word “lowrider” not only describes that car, but the driver. It’s a whole culture, and maybe that car and driver are not part of that culture. Using “lowrider” means that you are on one level or another buying into all the assumptions implicit in that term.

This is exploited all the time. To name one easy example, take the “pro-life” moniker. Instead of calling themselves anti-abortionists, the pro-life group has linked themselves to all of human life by embeding the word “life” in their name. They force you think of their cause as defending all of the sanctity of life, which is a very just, noble cause.

Advertising loves to do this. By linking a product name with good traits, whenever you think of that product you associate it with those traits. Will beer really get you into a group sex? Of course it won’t! But if you are exposed to the commercial enough, you’ll link the two on some level. Next time you think of beer, you may think about how it will help you get laid.

Fittingly, if you are aware of this effect you can counteract it and use it for your own ends. In reading, “Universal Principles of Design” I realized just how much advertising uses these design principles. Nearly all of the principles have citations in psychology literature, so by learning these principles you can influence the thoughts of others and be on guard for those trying to do the same to you.

Recognition over Recall

The whole concept of brand recognition is founded on this.

The picture above helps explain why companies seek to expose you countless times to their logo and name. I always thought it was silly that companies would print their name on a pen. A pen? Really, would just putting your name on a pen make me buy a product from you? This principle suggests that it would. Especially when you learn about the exposure effect, which is that subjects exposed to a neutral stimuli will grow to like the stimuli. So by simply exposing us to a corporate logo over and over again, we grow to like that logo. And for good measure, throw in some classical conditioning, where a stimulus is associated with an unconscious physical or emotional response. The aforementioned commercial conditions us to like the beer by associated it with fantastic sex. These three principles make it so that when we walk down the beer aisle, we recognize the brand, we unconsciously like it, and then we buy it. These principles go a longways towards explaining why our lives are so saturated with ads.

I would encourage you to check out the book. It’s really gorgeous and well done. There are a hundred concepts, and I only knew maybe fifteen of them by name. I knew about half of them on some vague level, but now that I have a name for them I can exploit them and be on guard.

I’d like to finish this with one last example on the power of names and their baggage. In my lab group, we come up with models that we name. We usual name them on the day they are finished. So when we finished a model on the fifth of November, it was christened Guy Fawkes. Clearly, we should have thought a bit harder as our British sponsors are less than amused!

Aside

Visibility

An excellent summary of 3 Mile Island.

Sorry, but as a chemical engineer, I wanted to share the above spread. In one of my classes, someone presented on 3 Mile Island. He did a terrible job, and I had forever been confused. This nicely summarizes the events of that day and explains how visibility could have prevented the near disaster. The book also includes factor of safety as a principle and cites the Challenger disaster as an example of what not to do. Clearly, a little bit of good design can stave off serious problems.

Mediocre Modernity

May 13, 2012

I’m a sucker for zombies. The first movie I can ever remember seeing is Tom Savini’s color remake of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. Maybe this has indelibly imprinted my tastes, but whatever the reason zombies pique my interest. Now, I’m not the only one. Zombies are something of a fad at the moment. This piece is from 2010, but I think it still holds as “The Walking Dead” marches on accompanied by a horde of movies and books.

Initially my love of zombies grew into a love for all things horror. I watched far too many horror movies as a kid. I remember being terrified by Chucky, Puppet Master, Jason, and Freddy. However, my tastes have matured. I now prize characters above extraneous action. So that meant when I read a review of Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” that said it would disappoint zombie fans due to its focus on thoughts and life rather than braining corpses, I knew I had to read it.

This post will contain “spoilers”, but if a work of art can be spoiled it isn’t very good now is it? Anyway, I will be discussing matters that are not revealed until the end of the book, so caveat lector!

While this is indeed a zombie book, it is a zombie book in the vein of the comic series “The Walking Dead” in that the zombie apocalypse is a backdrop allowing the protagonist to examine life more clearly. The lens for our examination is Mark Spitz, who is self-admittedly mediocre. Mark Spitz is on a team of sweepers who have been assigned to Zone One in what was New York City. The marines have already cleared out the active zombies, and all that remain are stragglers. These stragglers are harmlessly catatonic skels. The sweepers simply drop ’em, bag ’em, and drag ’em outside for disposal to take care of. This is the day-to-day grind for Mark Spitz and his team, and as they go about their work Mark Spitz thinks about his life and the stragglers.

There are so many things I would love to talk about. The recurring image of the Uncle’s building, why the lieutenant opted out, the ruminations on the stragglers, corporate-sponsorship for the recovery, PR branding of recovery (the American Phoenix), the beautiful imagery of the ash, the pacing, etc. This goes to show how excellent the book is. I’ll limit myself to the themes of mediocrity and race.

The strongest theme in the book is how Mark Spitz’s resilient mediocrity makes him an ideal survivalist in this zombie-infested world. This taps into what zombie-ism is all about. Zombies are all equal. No matter their former station in life, every zombie is just as weak, stupid, and ravenous as every other zombie. This point is hammered home when we see the ocean of skels pressing against the wall. We see people from all walks of life, and they are now indistinguishable drops of water in this undead ocean. Interestingly, all of the survivors independently start referring to the undead in terms of weather.  This shows how the undead are a backdrop, allowing the story to focus on the living and life.

In a world that is now dominated by the zombie natural force of mediocrity, Mark Spitz has the strongest advantage as he is and has always been hopelessly mediocre. Mediocre grades (straight B’s), mediocre job (online PR for Starbucks), mediocre life (no girlfriend and still living with his parents). So despite his lack of survival talents, Mark Spitz makes it through Last Night and outlasts many companions.

In listening to survivors’ tales, what you hear the most about is what they were thinking and feeling. How they kept things together. So while Mark Spitz does not possess an edge in survival skills or physical ability, his mediocre mentality keeps him alive. Whereas the brave and daring risk too much, whereas the cowardly and meek risk too little, Mark Spitz risks just enough. Furthermore, as he has always been mediocre, he is actually comfortable among the dead, unlike some of his companions who snap or commit suicide.

The idea that mediocrity is a benefit in this undead world is unique. It makes you wonder how mediocrity pervades modern life. Mark Spitz does a totally worthless job. He meets someone who has a similarly worthless job, scripting the cut scenes for video games. Most of the character’s former jobs are worthless. The world could easily be rid of them without a problem. How many people waste their time on a worthless job today?

The other interesting theme I want to talk about is race. When you are nearly done with the book, you find out that Mark Spitz is black. This stopped me. And then made me ask myself why I stopped. Why does it make such a difference? I can easily point to how it changes the dynamic of the sweeper team he is on, as Mark Spitz is paired with a presumably racist redneck. I can also say how it shifts other survivors’ views of him and affects their decision to welcome or to avoid him. No matter what I say, I still cannot put my finger on how it permeates the novel. It’s something I will continue to think about.

In a larger context, our society is still very racially divided. In the apocalyptic world of “Zone One”,  people from all different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds work together against a common enemy. I hope that the author doesn’t think we need such a drastic measure to unite. Although, given the recent issues of Trayvon Martin and Rue in “The Hunger Games” we may need something so earth shaking.

While I highlighted the two themes that resonated most with me, the novel is multifaceted. I think it portrays a depressingly realistic view of what the undead world would be like. To lighten the mood, I want to leave you with a humorous quote from it. Mark Spitz is ruminating about his old job, where he haunted social media for any chance to hawk Starbucks. When people posted things like “I’m exhuasted,” he would reply back, “Sounds like you need a hearty cup of Iced Number Seven!” He thinks how that job would be in this new world. “Nothing cures the Just Got Exsanguinated Blues like a foam mustache, IMHO.”

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