Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Commonplace Book April 28, 2020: Helmet Crests

A few nights ago I watched Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera on Kanopy.

A detail that caught my eye: the footage of firemen wearing their crested helmets:




It made me think of this TIME magazine cover featuring Dmitri Shostakovich (suggesting his heroic role rallying the country both as both composer and firefighter):




It made me wonder about the function of the thing on top. (I figured out it's referred to as a "crest.")

I started to poke around and discovered that it's a common feature of firefighters' helmets. Does it serve a purpose, or is it just decorative?

I found a page with lots of images of Greek warriors with crests on their helmets, e.g.




The impression I get is that the crest is intended to cow opponents.

This morning*, I remembered that my sister had dubbed a cardinal that visited her yard "Menelaus." Cardinals do look like helmeted warriors! (*perhaps because yesterday we spotted a male cardinal in our yard - not that common up here in northern Wisconsin!)




As I am writing this, I am remembering the costumes in the original Fahrenheit 451 film, the helmets of which included just the hint of a crest:




(That's Oskar Werner in the role of "fireman" Guy Montag. A long way from Jules and Jim* !)

   * LOL ...  I'm referring, of course, to the film ... though I was probably also thinking of the pair of hummingbirds my sister called by those names! :-)

Saturday, April 4, 2020

A Tufte-esque Approach to De-Mystifying the INF and Its Locus in "Mittleuropa"

Napoleon's Russia campaign, 1812-1813


The image above is, perhaps, the iconic example of the thinking of Edward Tufte. It stands for the proposition: you can use graphics to help people greatly increase their perception of what is going on with a numerically dynamic situation -- the key is to use the plane of the paper to capture the interaction of multiple dimensions simultaneously.

This image illustrates four dimensions together: the size of Napoleon's army as he marched toward (and then away from) Moscow during the War of 1812, the location of the army, the time, and the weather conditions. One can instantly get the picture: an overwhelming force, heading off to fight in Russia, full of confidence and bravado, only to find itself retreating as it is annihilated little by little by cold and hunger and disease. (More about this image on Edward Tufte's website.)

Tufte says, in essence, that we remember to make the fullest possible use of our visual and spatial intelligence. Sure, text and stories are useful; but how about drawing me a picture? (To me, the position Tufte advocates resonates strongly with Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.)

I've been thinking about this particular image for a long time, since I first encountered it when I was in college in the late 1970s. Then, recently, several elements presented themselves to me.

The first is a chart of the pace of nuclear disarmament, showing the advance toward a peak US nuclear weapons arsenal in the 1960s and then progress -- in fits and starts -- in reducing that arsenal:


The American Nuclear Stockpile
Click to view full size on The New York Times website.


The second has been the increased attention that I have begun to give to NATO and the idea of Central Europe as the front line of nuclear confrontation. I read several books by Timothy Snyder, and realized that the bone of contention is an area of land that lies between Germany in the west and Russia and the east -- a place about which most people in the US have only the vaguest notion.

Since I first visited Berlin, Prague, Budapest, and Vienna in 1990, I have been fascinated by a sort of terra incognita that lies between the known West (France, England) and the Other in the East (Russia, China) -- a zone that is at once vaguely charming and vaguely menacing. I suppose I should get serious about understanding it; but there is also something appealing about letting it remain mysterious -- a Mittleuropa whose reality and destiny we can leave to someone else to worry about.

I had my "Tufte moment" when I read about a visit by Senator Sam Nunn in 1973 to meet with NATO commanders in Europe. Nunn was stunned to learn that the military assumed that they would use nuclear weapons if there were a fight in Europe. They had scoped out the geography (the chokepoint is a place called the Fulda Gap) and they had run the numbers (150,000 NATO troops vs. 450,000 from Warsaw Pact countries). "The invasion route would put the Warsaw Pact forces quickly within striking distance of Frankfurt and several large American military bases." (Philip Taubman, The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb, p. 198 ff.).

It seems to me that there needs to be an infographic -- analogous to the one of Napoleon's army - that conveys the state of affairs in Central Europe, and how it is controlling our destinies. Perhaps an ingredient that would be helpful would be the events of the 1980s centering on the deployment of Pershing II and SS-20 missiles (see Taubman, p. 230).

An infographic illuminating the historic nuclear confrontation in the center of Europe - this would be a timely inquiry. The US has pulled out of something called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Most people -- including myself -- struggle to understand what's really at stake.

Maybe it's time for someone to draw us a picture.


Postscript

I was stimulated to finally post this note because I had to look up an unfamiliar word -- anabasis -- used by my son in describing the film, Apocalypto. "Anabasis" means both a military advance and a a difficult and dangerous military retreat, and the graphic that Tufte touted came to mind.

By the way, proponents of greater attention to another one of our multiple intelligences -- musical intelligence -- might note that the graphic about the War of 1812 is mightily complemented by one of the great works in our classical music canon: Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." But that is a blog post for another day . . . .

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Age of COVID: Are public perceptions changing?



What a difference a day makes.

One day the problem seems very distant. "It couldn't possibly have anything to do with me."

Then the next day everything has changed, and you see the situation with utter clarity.

I think, for myself, of the difference between Friday, March 6, and Saturday, March 7.

We don't like to contemplate that there can be massive breakdown in the fabric of our lives. Public health experts and scientists have been warning loud and clear about what we face (in terms of infectious disease, in terms of climate, in terms of nuclear weapons) -- and yet we just can't seem to bring ourselves to prepare, and to change our risky behaviors. And then suddenly -- when we come right up to the brink of dying -- we realize, "Oh! I guess I am willing to make the effort. I guess it really is possible to behave differently. We can do this!"


Add your thoughts to these Twitter threads:

Will #COVID19 open people's eyes to other #publichealth threats like #ClimateCrisis and #Nuclear #War?

Now that people are interested in the #fifthrisk, I hope they'll connect the dots to numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. #nuclear weapons


Related posts:

RISK: We Are Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad at Talking About the One That Matters Most

What's YOUR "appetite for risk"? (Eliminate nuclear weapons NOW!)



Friday, March 27, 2020

Film for the Age of COVID: "Red Beard" by Kurosawa

Toshiro Mifune in Red Beard, a film by Akira Kurosawa


I am coming around to thinking that the greatest film Akira Kurosawa ever made was not a samurai epic, but the fable about strong compassion called Red Beard.

The story centers on two doctors. One is the 19th century equivalent of a newly minted medical school graduate -- in this case, someone who has had the benefit of "Dutch learning" in Nagasaki, and has now come to Edo (Tokyo) to be the shogun's doctor. The other, nicknamed "Red Beard," is a senior doctor who runs a clinic that principally caters to the poor. The older doctor appears to be a bit of a tyrant, but it is soon revealed that his priority is all-around well-being of the community.

The proud and self-promoting young doctor changes as he witnesses the behavior of the devoted older doctor.

The particular genius of Kurosawa is to show that Red Beard can be both unbelievably compassionate, and also strong and tough in a conventional sense. An example of the former is when he patiently tends to a young girl who has been traumatized by ill-treatment and repays his kindness by lashing out. An example of the latter is when Red Beard single-handedly defeats a gang of ruffians guarding a brothel. (Later, he rues his own behavior. "This is bad. A doctor should not do this.")

One after another, the people in the film seem to be "infected" by the compassion that Red Beard demonstrates. It is a veritable "cascade of compassion."

One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was about the problem of violence, and whether mere "nonviolence" is an adequate counterweight to it. I wondered if we don't need to go beyond nonviolence to compassion. "It seems to me," I wrote, "that compassion is something that, once experienced, tends to become contagious." (See Is the Opposite of Violence Non-Violence? Or Is It Compassion? )

I continue to think a lot about how violence is "contagious," and how we can find a similarly "contagious" antidote. (See Violence: Taking Over Like a Virus )

In an excellent chapter on Red Beard in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, Donald Richie writes, "One can see what Kurosawa has had the bravery to do in this film. He is suggesting that, like the hospital, the world in which we live may indeed be a hell but that good, after all, is just as infectious as evil."

You can watch Red Beard on Kanopy.  (More suggestions of great films on Kanopy here.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

On the Need to Slow Down

I'm listening!


I wondered yesterday: is it possible that the world -- the environment, the climate, Nature -- has sensed that we need to slow down, and that it has been sending us a message?

In other words, the challenge here is not to save the Earth from being "damaged," but to rescue human lived experience from becoming hopelessly sped up and commodified?

I was on a phone call with a group of environmental activists, and someone shared a reflection entitled, "What Can the Trees Teach Us" by Nichola Torrbett. "As far as I could make it out," she wrote, "the immediate message is SLOW DOWN."

We remarked on the irony that humans have had a very hard time listening to other humans suggest that we need to slow down; the message from the atmosphere has not been able to quite register, either; but now a microscopic bug has seems to be getting through to us.

Later, I reflected on how this has operated in my own life. I remembered a moment, sitting in a train car as it zoomed through the state of New Jersey, realizing that no matter what was happening in my life I always felt better when I was moving.

I remembered an essay in a collection on my shelf, and pulled it down to read again. In 1906, Henry Adams wrote about how life seems always to be getting faster and faster. Looking back on his own time, he observed "[b]efore the boy was six years old, he had seen four impossibilities made actual, -- the ocean-steamer, the railway, the electric telegraph, and the Daguerreotype; nor could he ever learn which of the four had most hurried others to come." (From "A Law of Acceleration")

And today that seems quaint.

When I was a teenager, the big bestseller was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. I was amused to discover that twenty years later, it became a bestseller in Chinese translation in the bookstores of Beijing and Shanghai. The book is, in a way, an extended updating on Henry Adams' observations: the biggest change is the accelerating pace of change itself.

There was a wonderful show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York a few years ago, about the Futurist movement of the early 20th century. The Futurists sought to make a virtue of this acceleration of society -- with consequences that were partly entertaining and partly terrifying. (See What Kind of Future Comes From Worshiping Speed, Machines, Flight, War?)

I wrote once before about the need to slow down in a slightly different context: talking about the concept that George Orwell wrote about in 1984, "ownlife." That was when I began to see what a huge effort is needed to slow down and choose where to put one's own attention.

For the rest of this year (at least), the pace of our lives will be changed for us. What will we learn from the experience?

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Note on Groupthink (and COVID-19, Economic Bubbles, Climate Devastation, World War and Even Bigger Threats)

from the Kristof and Thompson article
We're all trying to wrap our heads around COVID-19 and the mathematics of epidemics.

There was a very good piece by Nick Kristof and Stuart A. Thompson in The New York Times that uses an interactive graph to help one understand how the numbers behave: "How Much Worse the Coronavirus Could Get, in Charts."

I've noticed that all of us have a difficult time sorting out the risk we face individually from the risk to society in aggregate. The problem seems to be that our minds have trouble holding different categories of numbers at the same time.

A related problem is what we are willing to think, and what we feel comfortable saying in conversation with other people.

I made a note of another article that appeared in The New York Times - "Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China?" by Yi-Zheng Lian. Lian argues that things got out of hand because of a cultural tendency in China to defer to "the official line" -- or, more to the point, the fear of punishment meted out to anyone who contradicts the official line. Lian writes, "Punishing people who speak the truth has been a standard practice of China’s ruling elite for more than two millenniums and is an established means of coercing stability. It is not an invention of modern China under the Communists — although the party, true to form, has perfected the practice. And now, muzzling the messenger has helped spread the deadly COVID-19, which has infected some 75,000 people."

I have become very wary of broad brush characterizations of peoples and nations. (I come by this wariness honestly, as a recovering Orientalist.) But I was struck by echoes I found in Lian's article of a post I wrote about a decade ago about how the Chinese context sets up a "prisoner's dilemma" that squelches independent voices and independent action: "Merry Christmas, Mr. Liu: The Prisoner's Dilemma in China."

Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I watched an online lecture about the years leading up to World War II in the Pacific. Prof. Mark Ravina makes the case in "War Without a Master Plan: Japan, 1931-1945" (Lecture 19 in Understanding Japan: A Cultural History) that something similar was operating in Japan at the time: the facts showed plainly that Japan was embarking on a path that was doomed, but there was a cultural tendency to acquiesce to what was believed to be the group's overall view. No one wanted to dissent.

Groupthink: the same phenomenon that we see in Florida today, where no one dares utter the words "climate change."

Which brings me to the problem I spend the most time puzzling over: our inability to cope with the risk inherent in the current nuclear weapons regime, and our acquiescence in this state of affairs.

We are all huddled in our homes now. We have a lot of time to think. We have grown tired of watching the same talking heads on the TV news shows. We have begun to reflect, and to have heart-to-heart talks with people we can really level with. And some of us are even beginning to think that maybe we really can live our lives differently.

To do so will require us to think.

And to say what we think.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Great Films on Kanopy

There isn't a day that goes by that I don't tell someone about how they can watch great films on Kanopy.

Kanopy is a film streaming service that people from many communities can access free using a local library card or university ID.

I've discovered that many of my favorite films are available on Kanopy. (And I've discovered many, many more films I didn't know about -- along with tons of documentaries and educational materials.)

Here are a few of my favorites -- together with blog posts I've written, where relevant.

Wings of Desire

Ikiru

The Hours 

Women Without Men 
Blog post: Can Shirin Neshat's Film "Women Without Men" be a US-Iran Cultural Bridge?

Jules and Jim
Blog post: What Would It Take for Friendship to Trump War?

The Great Dictator
Blog post: Why Weren't People Talking About It?

The Hurt Locker
Blog post: DU: Will we ever be able to say "We're done here" ?

The Most Dangerous Man in America
Blog post: Zombie Alert! (How Government Secrecy Seduces Congress to Support War)

National Bird
Blog post: The Truth About Drones (*NOT* APPROVED by the US Air Force)

The Door
Blog post: IN ORDER TO HAVE A FUTURE: We MUST Study Chernobyl . . .

Hellfire - Journey from Hiroshima
Blog post: The Marukis' Antiwar Paintings: A Lesson in Collaboration

I Live in Fear
Blog post: FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: Kurosawa's "I Live in Fear" (Nuclear Danger: Three Ways of Talking About the Unmentionable)

Message From Hiroshima
Blog post: FILM ABOUT HIROSHIMA: On Tanabe's "Message from Hiroshima"

Beneath the Blindfold
Blog post: The Revelations of "Beneath the Blindfold"

Here are several more great documentaries we have used in the past for film screenings at church:

The Interrupters

The House I Live In

Bonhoeffer

Call Me Kuchu

Gasland

(What's next? I have a whole list of new films to watch on Kanopy . . . !)