Jul 22, 2012

Electronic I Ching Calculator

The second Dirk Gently book, "The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul", is arguably not as good as the first one - it's less poetic and less well structured, but it has more "cool stuff" in it, such as this:

 He had never before even guessed at the existence of such a thing. And to be able to move from total ignorance of something to total desire for it, and then actually to own the thing all within the space of about forty seconds was, for Dirk, something of an epiphany.

The electronic I Ching calculator was badly made. It had probably been manufactured in whichever of the South-East Asian countries was busy tooling up to do to South Korea what South Korea was busy doing to Japan. Glue technology had obviously not progressed in that country to the point where things could be successfully held together with it. Already the back had half fallen off and needed to be stuck back on with Sellotape.

It was much like an ordinary pocket calculator, except that the LCD screen was a little larger than usual, in order to accommodate the abridged judgements of King Wen on each of the sixty-four hexagrams, and also the commentaries of his son, the Duke of Chou, on each of the lines of each hexagram. These were unusual texts to see marching across the display of a pocket calculator, particularly as they had been translated from the Chinese via the Japanese and seemed to have enjoyed many adventures on the way.

The device also functioned as an ordinary calculator, but only to a limited degree. It could handle any calculation which returned an answer of anything up to "4".

"1+1" it could manage ("2"), and "1+2" ("3") and "2+2" ("4") or "tan 74" ("3.4874145"), but anything above "4" it represented merely as "A Suffusion of Yellow". Dirk was not certain if this was a programming error or an insight beyond his ability to fathom, but he was crazy about it anyway, enough to hand over 20 of ready cash for the thing.

"Thank you, sir," said the proprietor. "It's a nice piece that. I think you'll be happy with it.

* * *

The little book of instructions suggested that he should simply concentrate "soulfully" on the question which was "besieging" him, write it down, ponder on it, enjoy the silence, and then once he had achieved inner harmony and tranquillity he should push the red button.

There wasn't a red button, but there was a blue button marked "Red", and this Dirk took to be the one. He concentrated for a while on the question, then looked through his pockets for a piece of paper, but was unable to find one. In the end he wrote his question, "Should I buy a new fridge?" on a corner of his napkin. Then he took the view that if he was going to wait until he had achieved inner harmony and tranquillity he could be there all night, so he went ahead and pushed the blue button marked "Red" anyway. A symbol flashed up in a corner of the screen, a hexagram which looked like this:

3 : CHUN

The I Ching calculator then scrolled this text Across its tiny LCD display:

"Chun Signifies Difficulties At Outset, As Of Blade Of
Grass Pushing Up Against Stone. The Time Is Full Of
Irregularities And Obscurities: Superior Man Will Adjust
His Measures As In Sorting The Threads Of The Warp
And Woof. Firm Correctness Will Bring At Last Success.
Early Advances Should Only Be Made With Caution.
There Will Be Advantage In Appointing Feudal Princes.
"The Horses And The Chariot Obliged To Retreat.
Streams Of Bloody Tears Will Flow."

Dirk considered this for a few moments, and then decided that on balance it appeared to be a vote in favour of getting the new fridge, which, by a staggering coincidence, was the course of action which he himself favoured.

Jul 16, 2012

Papa can you hear me? A look at feminist ideas in Pixar’s “Brave” vs Disney’s “Mulan”.

Let’s face it – Pixar’s female characters aren’t having a very good decade. Much like Afghan rape victims, they are basically expected to die and get out of the way so that the guys can have cool adventures. Just think of Coral, Nemo’s mother – a victim of her husband’s unwise real-estate decisions. Or sweet Dory – she suffered brain damage so that we can learn about living in the moment. And poor barren Ellie Fredricksen, who’s life with her husband was the best adventure she could’ve wished for, but unfortunately he didn’t share that sentiment. And what about young Colette - bravely chopping her way through the male-dominated world of fine cuisine, until some talentless boy shows up, steals her heart and her career through a combination of cheating and nepotism, and makes her a waitress in his rat infested death trap of a restaurant. All in all, the 2000-s have been tough.

That’s why, when Pixar started advertising “Brave” as their great feminist epic, I was intrigued and skeptical. And, sadly, my only surprise was at just how hateful this movie really is to women. Who has hurt you, multiple screenwriters, and when will you let go of the pain?

 I would like to impose upon your patience by going over the major points of the story and comparing it to the story of Mulan, which is a much better written film, with better characters and ideas, and it is indeed very feminist in its slightly old-fashioned way. There are going to be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen Brave yet you should look away right about now.

And so, we have on the one hand Mulan – she reads, she does chores, she’s friends with a puppy. She’s a little clumsy, but cute clumsy, not Sandra Bullcok can’t-be-allowed-out-on-her-own clumsy. Her parents are cool – her mom’s kind of a defeatist, but they seem to have raised her well. On the other hand we have Merida – the proverbial selfish teenager. Her dad spoils her rotten and undermines her mom’s authority. He doesn’t believe in rules, and the mother only believes in rules for the girl child. The world of men is a big playground where you let your hair down and solve everything with brutal force, and the female world is an avalanche of rules. No wonder that Elinor, so playful in the film’s opening, is now a tired old desperate housewife. But hang in there Elinor, it gets worse.

Mulan wants to make her parents proud. She wants to be a good person in the only way she knows how, and when she fails she thinks that she’s worthless. When she runs away to join the army, she doesn’t do it out of rebellion, or to break conventions, or for love - she does it because giving her life to save her father is the only way she can think of to be useful. Merida doesn’t have any noble interests, she wants to be left alone to thrash around the forest and shoot arrows.

 So, off goes Mulan to the army to save her father’s life, and off goes Merida in a tantrum, not even caring that her father’s guests might slaughter him if she doesn’t return. And while Mulan’s family care enough to send someone after her, Merida wanders on her own and runs into the witch from “The Princess and the Cobbler”, instantly recognisable, though robbed of her charm and sex-appeal by the third and fourth dimensions. You might say that Merida’s rebellion against arranged marriage is somewhat of a feminist act, but I propose that she would’ve bucked in the same way if she had been asked to clean her room, do her homework, or stop texting at the dinner table.

The important questions – what were our characters supposed to learn from the story, did they learn it, and how? Mulan, for example, learned a bunch of important stuff – she learned that she is a strategist and a leader, which is more important than being strong or pretty. She learned that men are under a lot of pressure to live up to expectations as well. She learned that even if your friends are angry with you, you don’t abandon them in danger, and that your loyalty will make them love you. And she learned that she doesn’t have to wear the mask of a perfect lady, because the right guy will love her for who she is, when he knows her well. I can’t even be cynical about this – these are all very cool messages for girls and boys.

And what about our Scottish friends? I guess the point was for Merida to learn responsibility, and for Elinor to learn to relax and let her hair down from time to time. Did Merida learn anything? She did get her message across to the parents that their ways are outdated and teenagers rule the world now – how horrible. She did learn that her actions have consequences, and that feeding your mother an unknown substance might be a bad idea. I’ll give her that, but was it worth doing all that to poor Elinor?

Let’s talk about what happened to Elinor. Elinor, the female center of the story - uncool, uptight, her hair in unforgiving braids. How did we teach her to loosen up and enjoy life? Every sensible person, presented with the idea of a young girl who accidentally turns her mother into an animal, would think – ah, so she becomes a bird, or a horse, or a deer, and they go off together into the woods, and she gets to feel the freedom and beauty of nature and remembers her own youth. Even James Cameron would’ve done it that way, for god’s sake! But no, not Pixar. In Pixar’s eyes, the sin of being a well-groomed female is so terrible, that you need to be turned into the most grotesque creature available – a bear (seriously, not even a dog?). You shall be hairy, heavy and clumsy, your children shall run away from you screaming, your husband will chase you with an axe, and not even that shall be enough. You need to let go of all your humanity, and only when you’ve eaten from the ground snarling and beaten another bear to death, only then are you allowed back into human form. No running around with the wind in your hair for you, only terror, and wondering if the little snot that poisoned you will manage to thread a needle.

“Brave” is not a feminist story. It draws a male and a female world, and clearly prefers the male one. Only the male world is so pathetically superficial and brutal, that I think men have the right to be offended by it as well. Me, I’ll be getting my feminist materials from Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Neil Gaiman, and Lars von Trier.

Jun 7, 2012

Piazza Della Signoria

This place was in my dreams long before I ever went there, and long before I knew it actually existed. i thought I was dreaming an enhanced version of my hometown.

Mar 8, 2012

March 8-th 2012

Usually I don't make a big deal out of international whatever's day, but today I feel inspired, so here are a few nice things about women:

Feb 16, 2012

From the intro to "God Bless You Dr. Kevorkian" by Kurt Vonnegut

Some of you may know that I am neither Christian nor Jewish nor Buddhist, nor a conventionally religious person of any sort.

I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of rewards or punishments after I'm dead. My German-American ancestors, the earliest of whom settled in our Middle West about the time of our Civil War, called themselves "Freethinkers," which is the same sort of thing. My great grandfather Clemens Vonnegut wrote, for example, "If what Jesus said was good, what can it matter whether he was God or not?"

I myself have written, "If it weren't for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn't want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake."

I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great, spectacularly prolific writer and scientist, Dr. Isaac Asimov in that essentially functionless capacity. At an A.H.A. memorial service for my predecessor I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." That was the funniest thing I could have said to an audience of humanists. It rolled them in the aisles. Mirth! Several minutes had to pass before something resembling solemnity could be restored.


So when my own time comes to join the choir invisible or whatever, God forbid, I hope someone will say, "He's up in Heaven now." Who really knows? I could have dreamed all this.

My epitaph in any case? "Everything was beautiful. Nothing hurt." I will have gotten off so light, whatever the heck it is that was going on.

Feb 14, 2012

Valentine's Day 2012

All day yesterday I thought it was the 14-th, then I woke up and discovered it's today. I tend not to love by schedule, but there's one thought I'd like to share with you, and recommend a movie you might like to watch with your loved one tonight.

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind",  aside from being a story with a deep understanding of what love is and how we feel and remember, is the only film I know that acknowledges the fact that Valentines Day is weirdly placed in the middle of one of the coldest and more depressing months of the year.

It is also the only Gondry film I like :)

Dec 19, 2011

Riots - from Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses"

This is so beautiful, I had to share it. The book was published over twenty years ago, which isn't that much really, but long enough to make us think "look how the same rituals still exist".

Just a little background to the story, not even to help you understand what's happening, but because it's funny to us Mediterranean types: one of the book's characters, Gibreel, wandering around London and being homesick for India, wishes for warmer weather. Because there are supernatural forces at play, the weather does become unusually hot, and so the city erupts into the usual hot-weather activities: riots, police brutality, minority protests, false arrests and so on.

So, the attached pages describe the police seizure of the night club where the protesters keep their headquarters, as seen on the TV news:

Nov 1, 2011

A slideshow template

I spent the last two days looking for a tutorial to make a slideshow for a website I'm designing. I even came close to paying for a ready-made template, and then I found this page, which not only gives the code and explains it, but also has a .zip file (scroll down to find it) that you can download completely free and just tweak the parameters and add your own pics to make it work for you.

Enjoy :]

Oct 20, 2011

מצא את ההבלים

אומה יקרה,

אני מאמינה שחשוב לעודד אנשים כשהם עושים את הדבר הנכון. במיוחד אם מדובר באנשים שאצלם זה לא יוצא בקלות, ולא מה שמאפיין אותם ביומיום. כמו כן, כשאנשים מתנהגים בצורה עלובה, חשוב להצביע על כך בפניהם, ומהר. קיום שתי המצוות האלה הוא שמביא אותי היום לכתוב את הפוסט הזה.

גם אני מאד לא אוהבת את ראש הממשלה נתניהו, את מעשיו, את אביזריו, את המראה שלו, את הסובבים אותו, ואת הזווית של החיוך שלו שגורמת לו להיראות כמו איש עסקים מושחת שחושב שהצליח להערים על באטמן. לכן כששמעתי שהוא הצליח לחתום על עסקה להחזרתו של גלעד שליט - דבר ששימח אותי מאד - עשיתי מאמצים לפתח אליו כמות כלשהי של רגשות חיוביים. זה לא היה קל, זה היה מאבק פנימי קשה שנראה לעתים אבוד, אבל ביומיים האחרונים סוף סוף הצלחתי, וזה קרה בזכות מיזם "ביבי גאמפ" המטופש והעלוב שאתם כל כך מתלהבים לעסוק בו.

אובייקטיבית, מה בדיוק הבעיה עם התמונה הזאת? יש פה צילום של אירוע היסטורי, והדמויות המעורבות בו. זה שאנחנו אוהבים את משפחת שליט ולא אוהבים את ביבי זאת בעיה אישית שלנו. וזה לא שגלעד ואבא שלו דיגמנו לפורטרט משפחתי ופתאום הנדחף הזה הופיע - הם קבוצה של אנשים בתנועה, עם צלמים של דובר צה"ל מסביב, זה הפריים שיצא, וטבעי שהצלם ינסה לתפוס את ראש הממשלה יחד עם החיבוק.

ההשוואה לפורסט גאמפ - באמת? מה, הוא הושתל שם דיגיטלית כדי לנסות להוסיף לו חשיבות? הוא נדחף בכח לאירוע היסטורי שלא נוגע לו, כמו לימור לבנת באולימפיאדה? לא. הוא דמות חשובה באירוע ההיסטורי שהוא היה אחד מיוצריו, יש לו את כל הסיבות להיות שם, וזה שיש לו חיוך מגעיל זה מצער, אבל לא רלוונטי.

אבל אם כבר פתחתם פוטושופ, בואו תנסו תרגיל כזה: הפכו את התמונה לשחור לבן, ושימו את מנחם בגין או יצחק רבין ברקע. נראה פתאום הגיוני, נכון? ואם במקום ביבי היה שם שמעון פרס או אריק איינשטיין (ששניהם גם מגעילים מאד בעיניי), הייתם הרי מדפיסים מזה חולצות, נכון או לא? ואם זאת היתה שלי יחימוביץ, שגם החיוך שלה לא הכי פוטוגני? זה היה הופך לפוסטר שהיה מנצח לה את הבחירות בשנה הבאה.

לסיום, תזכורת: הסיסמא שכולנו היינו נורא מבסוטים ממנה "איפה השליט שיחזיר את שליט?", זוכרים? אז הנה.