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Saturday, November 29, 2014

Infectious Diseases in A Dance With Dragons

Pale Mare in the siege of Meereen is pretty obviously dysentery, with bloody, explosive diarrhea that causes severe dehydration and death. Curiously, dysentery was a major cause of death in the camps during the American Civil War, another war related to slavery. At Gettysburg, it has been reported that twice as many soldiers died of infectious diseases than those died of battle wounds. Besides dysentery, typhoid and malaria were also major killers.

The greyscale took me a while to figure out. That childhood infection is less fatal, lifelong immunity, and residual scarring are based on smallpox. The description of blind, stumbling, zombie-like stone men on the Bridge of Dream is not smallpox. They have grey, hardened, cracking skin. One of the stone men shattered a leg crashing onto the Shy Maid but appeared to feel nothing and continued his attack. So then it must be based on leprosy.

Caused by two types of mycobacterium infection, leprosy is characterized by tumor growths and discolored skin patches. Peripheral nerve death over time can lead to loss of fingers and limbs and blindness.

Jon Connington was infected by greyscale and began to notice discoloration and numbness in a finger, but he intended to hide it for as long as he could. Leprosy has a long incubation period from infection to manifestation ranging from 5 to 20 years.

Leprosy is now curable with anti-mycobacterium antibiotics (but not vinegar or wine bath). 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Visitors by Godfrey Reggio (with Philip Glass and Jon Kane)

It's kind of funny for me to talk about something like Visitors. Maybe I should draw something and post it as a commentary --- but then I suck at drawing.

I think the intention and effects of Godfrey Reggio's movie Visitors are fairly obvious if one is familiar with modern art. The point is to speak directly to and interact with the audience's emotions.

In one of the DVD featurettes, Reggio said something like, music speaks directly to people's emotions or souls, "It doesn't go through the metaphor." The images in Visitors get close to the same effect, although some shots (I suspect) are not entirely free of metaphors, such as the shots of trash bags tumbling down en masse and the lowland gorilla staring sadly at rows of human audience's heads.

I often think of something Joseph LeDoux wrote: the human brain has not evolved to integrate the conscious thinking top layer and the instinctive feeling lower layer. The point of music, modern art, images, etc., is to get straight to the lower layer without the mediation and interference of the top layer (which is what I am doing --- all words are top-layer abstract stuff).

The movie's title and the bookending shots of the moon's surface suggest a view of perhaps aliens. I imagine aliens would not have very different reactions to the shots of human faces and those of square buildings and windows. But we do. We humans have vastly different reactions to them.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Julius Caesar at Folger

"Et tu, Brute?"
Everyone has his (or her) idea. I want to believe my idea is closer to Shakespeare's original intention, but Robert Richmond probably would disagree.

One of the things I disagree with with Richmond is Cassius. He is played with an evil air, flailing his hands and arms like a villain, exuding spite in his condemnation of the tyrant. My friend who went to see the play with me said that Cassius is often interpreted as an Iago-like character. I was, like, no! Cassius is not a villain. He is a radical, an agitator, an extremist, but a wise one who knows that a radical does not win over the masses. Therefore he needs Brutus, the most honorable and trusted Roman senator, on his side. And Brutus is ideologically against Caesar the would-be emperor from the start. Cassius only needs to convince him that assassination is the only way. Cassius talks passionately about his cause; there is no sign to indicate he does not mean it. In the end he dies heroically on the battlefield. He is no Iago.

This issue goes deeper into the heart of the play itself. Between Caesar/Antony and the Senators, Shakespeare takes no side whatsoever. Both sides wholeheartedly believe their own righteousness and neither side is portrayed as malicious or weaselly. Caesar is written with signs of potential tyranny, but then the conspirators swarm and stab him to death (they have reasons for that, too). Nobody is saintly or whitewashed. Here Shakespeare truly splits down in the middle. Just because Antony and Octavius win and Brutus and Cassius lose in the end, it is no indication of where the writer's sympathies lie. People instinctively associate virtue with victory. Not Shakespeare. Certainly not in this play. Unfortunately this production's sympathy tilts in favor of Caesar/Antony and against the senators. It's a misstep in my opinion.

Perhaps it is not entirely true that Shakespeare takes no side. His sympathy clearly lies with Brutus. Brutus is (as GRRM calls) the viewpoint character for the whole thing. In a play otherwise filled with testosterone and politics, we see the tender domestic moments between Brutus and his wife --- which is botched in this production, as both my friend and I agree. Brutus chooses to murder his friend to save the republic and democracy. He is the example of "the human heart in conflict with itself." He is true and noble to the core. He wins battles and is gentle to his wife and his page. When Antony says Brutus is "the noblest of Roman of them all," he is speaking for the author. But look where honor and noble qualities get him, poor Brutus. The public can be bribed with a few pretty words and coins --- this is democracy for you. Caesar is dead but dictators immediately follow and senators are killed off. He is the quintessential tragic hero, because he represents the selfless courage, but it's all a waste.

If that is life, why not live like Jack Falstaff?

Hence my final complaint about this production. Brutus, played adequately but too quietly by the English actor Anthony Cochrane, lacks the presence and inner conflicts to become the center of the play.


There is no shortage of violence in Shakespearean plays. This one is full of close-range stabbings. Not only do they stab Caesar, but a few other characters stab themselves too. The lines are littered with references to the gut. It's all very visceral.

In the middle of the assassination scene, which by the way was staged not too bloody and lacked a viciousness, an image appeared in my mind: A bright sunny morning, on the Forum in Rome, on the stone-paved square before the senate, a group of old and middle-aged men descend upon an old man and stab him wherever they can get a blade in, like a murder of crows swarming a corpse. Blood is spewing everywhere, splattered on the senators' faces and togas. Then, just as quickly, they disperse from the body, standing aside and staring at the lifeless pile of rag soaked in blood, trembling with fear and adrenalin. Dead silence falls upon the Forum.

Stabbing is such an intimate act of killing. It's also such an Italian thing.

Politics has always been soaked in blood and death, including many public ones. We modern people have forgotten the bodies hanging on market squares and the heads on spikes on city walls.


I imagine it would be very difficult to stage a very bloody and visceral public stabbing scene. Obviously you can't stop the play to mop up all the fake blood poured on stage. Yet without blood poured all over the stage, somehow it's just not very horrible.

Overall this production is oddly stiff. My friend calls the staging "static." Characters do not move around a lot and rarely touch each other. They keep their distance. I also do not like the costume. In the first half, they wear vaguely medieval clothes. In the second half, the war scenes were moved to World War I military wear. Richmond explained that he was influenced by the WWI memorial activities in UK earlier this year. I don't think it's very effective. In my mind, everyone in the play should wear white togas and, when necessary, bear their flesh. It would cost less. The blood on white toga would be so much more in your face. The production is too English and not enough Italian.

I don't understand the urge to "modernize" the staging and costumes in many Shakespearean plays. The attempts to scream at the audience that Shakespeare is still relevant today to them are rather silly. If you can't hear and see the plain universal relevance in the words, you are wasting your time.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Theory of Laziness (2)

Similar to physical strength, there is variation in the attention reservoir between any two people and within one person over time. Some have more muscle; some have more endurance; some have less; some are weaker. Mental capacity is probably more complicated, and the rate of ego depletion or exhaustion may depend on the activity and effort. Some people may have more to begin with. A small minority of the population need substantially less sleep than the rest of us. Some people mentally lift more for longer than others.

Obviously, a person's strength peaks in youth and decline in the middle age. I suspect the same curves can be observed in the brain. Neuronal loss and brain mass shrinkage are natural aging process. Older adults' brain compensate for the loss to an extent by increasing processing efficiency. But the
decline is inevitable.

We already know that watching TV is less strenuous than reading, and reading is less strenuous than writing. Lying is more strenuous than telling the truth or omitting the truth, except for psychopaths. The energy expended by the brain in any task can be quantified by measuring the radioactively labeled glucose consumption and blood flow in the brain.

I suspect this is why, most of the time, we prefer reading/writing emails to writing a long, complicated article (like what I'm doing now). Organizing a collection of thoughts and ideas and sort out the logic and connections between them and put it all down into words is heavier lifting than responding to one question, one thought, on a single matter, one email at a time. I am feeling this difference right at the moment. I can spend hours reading and answering emails without fatigue, but writing an article or technical document exhausts me after a couple of hours.

So, is it any wonder that we would rather doodle on the Web and check and re-check emails every 15 minutes rather than do some real work for an hour? The same reason humans would rather watch TV than reading a book, even though neither has a very long history in evolution. The same reason most people love to hear stories but only a select few can tell stories, and making up stories is an even rarer talent.

A Theory of Laziness (1)

I am developing a theory about laziness.

The phenomenon of ego depletion has been observed. It describes the observable limitation of attention and self-control. A famous experiment showed that people are more likely to reach for a chocolate cake over fruit after a mental exercise.

Is mental capacity and its exhaustion analogous as physical strength?

To an extent, yes.

When I am well rested, I can run/swim/skate harder than when I am tired. I am tired when I have done a certain amount of physical activity. This is not so apparent in mental effort, because most mental activities during the day do not bring on a sore brain, just like walking around for a few minutes at a time, doing some very light housework, or driving the car would not cause sore muscle. However, the muscle gets sore quickly and reliably if I lift a couple of dumbbells up to my capacity. I have become aware that certain mental exertions can be similarly exhausting. For example, I was reviewing the statistical analysis plan of a study I just picked up yesterday afternoon. After spending almost two hours with full and deep attention on the document, I could not finish it. My reading and thinking speed slowed down considerably. I knew my brain was tired. I had to rest a bit, go on to some less strenuous work, and resume the mental "heavy lifting" today.

We instinctively prefer sitting to standing, standing to walking, walking to running. Without added reasons --- improving health, building muscle, losing weight --- we naturally choose resting to activity. Resting takes up less energy, obviously. The instinct likely came from the need for energy preservation during the long history of food/energy scarcity. Among all organs in the body, the brain is disproportionally energy expending. So it makes sense that our instinct also favors a state of inaction in the brain. Like physical objects, the body would return to the low-energy state as much as possible. It burns energy to do strenuous activity, mental or physical.

In other words, being lazy is a natural instinct. Without other factors, we would all be lazy if we can.

Of course, things are never so simple with the brain. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Son by Jo Nesbø

Well, realism it has not. There is a lot of religious (more specifically, Christian or Catholic) references in the novel, making it rather clear that the eponymous character is supposed to have some basis in Jesus. Yeah, what a Jesus it is! Murders and mayhem this Jesus brings to the underworld of Oslo. At times it reads like one of those relentlessly violent movies currently in vogue, and even the underlying dramatic drive is the same as those movies --- revenge. It gets a bit tiresome just because of the hardened indifference to all the bloodletting. The characters are pretty cardboard and the details quickly descend into incredulity after a few chapters of neat Sherlock Holmesian detective work early on. I know he is striving for the religious symbolism, but the insistence of the avenger's purity and innocence gets pretty hokey as the bodies pile up. I mean come on!

But as a thriller it's all done in good fun. The thing that actually bothers me is his (by now obvious) machismo. It's not misogyny, but still it is irritating that the women in Nesbo's books always need rescuing by the men. He kind of tries to keep it under control in the Harry Hole series, but here the romantic scenes between Jesus, I mean Sonny, and his Magdalena --- a weak and withering flower of a social worker --- are so sappy it makes paperback romances look sophisticated. The amount of violence does not drown out the bad romance, sorry.

Anyway, the thing is, Nesbo is the best writer at pacing, bar none. Man oh man I wish I had his secret of relentless, impeccable, addictive pacing. How the hell does he do it?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Antony and Cleopatra

Yesterday I was thinking which of the plays I have seen and read is my favorite. Can't narrow it down to one. King Lear was the first and foremost, of course. Macbeth is the most different. Also love Henry IV, Part 1. And Much Ado, which I never get tired of watching. It's like what Woody Allen said about pizza and sex.

But I want to read Antony and Cleopatra again, maybe a few more times. I think of it as the "kitchen sink" play. It's got a bit of everything --- war, politics, sex, love and death, pettiness and silliness, jokes. From the biggest to the smallest, from the highest (international war) to the lowest (bedchamber humor). It's got everything and anything and goes all around the world.

In the face of such voluptuousness, perfection becomes a totally useless and meaningless concept.

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