Justice League – Movie Review

“The larger problem with Justice League is that we’re deluged with these kinds of movies today. As an exercise in sheer entertainment value, Justice League succeeds admirably; it’s tempting to give the film a pass and just say, “well, as comic-book flicks go…“ But -”
Read my whole review at AllMovie!

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Finally – Decibel Magazine Has Some Competition!

IMG_20171109_114342062For nearly a decade, there’s really been only one decent American heavy metal magazine – Decibel. When Metal Maniacs ceased publication in 2009, along with its entirely lame sister title, Metal Edge, that left only Decibel and Revolver, and Revolver sucked. It seemed a shame to me at the time because Metal Maniacs had a fine lineage and was entirely credible as a genre voice. What was so troubling about this turn of events is that it led to the depressing conclusion that the world’s richest nation could only support one mainstream metal monthly. Now, I’m using the past tense of “to suck,” here in reference to Revolver, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but the point is we’ve had one shitty metal magazine and only one awesome metal magazine for a long time.

IMG_20171109_114357660I don’t want to short sell some of the smaller print pubs out there like New Noise, because they are fine magazines, for what they are, but what they are is smaller. “Smaller” here means inferior editorial standards and writing, less journalistic capability, and less clout with the industry, which affects access and so forth. It’s also worth noting that the demise of Metal Maniacs coincided with the rise of the online scene. Sites like Invisible Oranges and MetalSucks became the taste-makers and gossip rags in place of real paper and ink. I want to also mention Terrorizer as a generally excellent magazine, but it’s coverage slants European and it’s around $11 on the newsstand since it’s actually shipped from there too.

IMG_20171109_114335690I’ve so far given Decibel nothing but praise and that’s because I do truly love the magazine. But it’s not perfect. There’s more than a whiff of pretension to a lot of the editorial decisions about what bands to cover and what, thus, to ordain as cool. Plus, they have a persistent, raging hard-on for Converge which I, for the life of me, do not get. So, Decibel’s not perfect, but for me, it’s as close we can reasonably expect.

Last month though, I was scouring the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble and spied something I wasn’t quite sure about. It looked like it said Revolver across the top, but it also did not apparently suck even from five feet away. I picked this mystery object up and was shocked and quite pleased to discover a redesigned Revolver magazine in my hands. And, I have to say, I think they did a damn fine job.

This new Revolver is in a larger format with a matte cover and thick, glossy pages. It’s what I would call “design-centric,” with a heavy emphasis on graphics and illustrations. In fact, this month’s issue included a super-cool piece on Royal Thunder which was nothing but photographs. I took a couple pics of the pics and you see them here. This is a kind of feature Decibel would never do but this is also a band Revolver would never have covered in its previous incarnation. That this is so is extremely smart on Revolver’s part. We don’t need two identical awesome metal magazines, we need two completely different awesome metal magazines.

I also noticed Revolver didn’t include a single record review, another smart choice since Decibel’s pretty much got that game locked down. Revolver seems to be focusing on band profiles. They had a feature article on Code Orange this month, which is a band I’m not sure Decibel will cover, but again, as long they stick with decent bands, it’s good for everyone involved to see variety across these two magazines.

Maybe Revolver’s redesign will push Decibel to new heights. It’s a great magazine, but there’s nothing wrong with keeping them honest. And broadly speaking, I think this is nothing but good news for fans. We get a second, totally rad metal magazine and that can only be good for the scene as long as Revolver can stay on the straight and narrow and keep Avenged Sevenfold or whatever other bullshit they’re playing on the radio off the cover.

Ripples In Spacetime – Book Review

When Einstein first published his general theory of relativity, it was mostly a beautiful bit of mathematical invention. One of the riddles that inspired his thinking on the subject, small changes in Mercury’s orbit, immediately lined up in quantitative perfection with what the theory predicted. But at first, the theory was long on prognostication and short on experimental support. Perhaps the most well known “proof” of the theory involved some astronomical observations during an eclipse which showed that light is indeed bent around a massive object by its gravity. Einstein made lots of other predictions and many of them, too, have turned out to be correct. But there was one phenomenon he said we should observe if he was right about mass, gravity, and the curvature of spacetime, gravitational waves, that had stubbornly evaded detection until very recently.

General relativity stipulates that certain events, such as the collision of two black holes, will send waves through spacetime, curving it as they pass through. There were multitudinous challenges in actually seeing these waves, though. Most importantly, the math told us that they would be only tiny events by the time they got here from most likely sources. Hence, building an effective detection device became an engineering problem more than anything else.

LIGO, The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, was eventually successful in seeing some gravitational waves, and if you have a strong desire to know exactly how this technological marvel works, you will be edified by Govert Shilling’s new book, Ripples in Spacetime: Einstein, Gravitational Waves, and the Future of Astronomy. Although the book does eventually get to a thorough explanation of the principles and practicalities of LIGO, there’s a lot of material before and after that fantastic section that will be old hat for veteran popular science readers. If you’ve been through Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps, for example, you’ll find yourself skipping a lot of introductory astrophysics in Ripples in Spacetime. That shouldn’t dissuade you from picking the book up, though, because every question you had about how LIGO works is answered within. I thought I understood LIGO’s operation before I started reading Ripples, but I wasn’t even close. What LIGO actually measures is the degree to which two harmonized laser beams are put out of sync by a passing gravitational wave. It’s fascinating stuff, and reveals LIGO to be a supremely elegant solution to a vexingly difficult problem.

Another thing Ripples does well is explain all the implications of LIGO’s success. It has opened up a whole new form of astronomy, and now that we have achieved simultaneity of observation with the optical and radio spectrum, we stand to learn a tremendous amount about the universe. In my admittedly amateur opinion, it is hard to overstate the possibilities for learning about the cosmos opened up by LIGO.

General relativity is a mind-bending concept and studying it is thoroughly enjoyable when you have good materials at hand. Ripples in Spacetime is a great example of such materials. You don’t have to be a genius to read or understand the book, but you can at least feel like one having done so. It’s close enough for me!

Kant and the Strangeness of Everything: A Review of Two Books

One of the really great things about education, and I certainly don’t mean just formal education, is that one begins to see threads of connection between various fields of study and ideas. If this state of learnedness is combined with a little curiosity, you may be blessed with a question no one else has ever asked before. If you have the resources to propose an answer for that question, and it’s a substantial question, you may even make an original contribution to knowledge. And then you’ll finally be granted tenure and you can stop working so hard!

Of course, most of us are not getting paid to figure out life and the meaning of everything, but I earnestly hope that doesn’t discourage you from exploring without bounds the questions that interest you, no matter how daunting they may seem at the outset. There are, too, those rare birds who choose a quotidian vocation and do their science and philosophy on the side, and if Spinoza is any indication, that shouldn’t make you any less effective at either pursuit.

As an aside, I’d love to here from any of you that have a story of discovering bits of various topics you’ve spent time with popping up in seemingly unlikely places and thus connecting disparate lines of thinking. I actually read a book devoted to this idea about fifteen years ago but I might not remember the title even if I saw it now and definitely can’t think of it off the top of my head. Thanks in advance if anyone can come up with that.

So, anyways, after that admittedly verbose preamble, the stuff that really fascinates me are the biggest imaginable questions: What is reality? Where did everything come from? Can we ever know anything? Can we ever even know if we can know? I frequently find inspiration in science fiction, and that’s what led me to my latest adventure in intellectual serendipity and to this question: Can Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics explain why so much of what we see at the extremes of physics and psychology is so strange?

I went on an Interstellar binge a couple of months ago. I ended up buying the movie on Google Play and watching it over and over. Doing so made me want to better understand the science of general relativity. That’s how I happened upon the first book I’m writing about in this essay, Exploring Black Holes: Introduction to General Relativity. Now, if this sounds like a college-level textbook on general relativity, that’s because it is. But don’t let that put you off. It’s actually a rather slim volume – under 200 pages – and it’s large format with lot’s of illustrations and written in plain language. I’ve read lots and lots of popular science books on relativity, cosmology, and quantum physics, but I realize now just how dumbed down most of that stuff is. And here’s what makes me say that – I never really understood general relativity until I went through this book.

In defence of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his ilk, I have to say it is, in fact, really hard to put this stuff into words for a lay audience, and for that matter, into words period. We say things like “the curvature of spacetime” but space isn’t really curving around large celestial bodies. It just is different. Existence in that plane is different. Gravity is not pulling things close and changing those things in the process. It’s more like things are sliding into an area where the world is different in a way that things are not like they are for us here on Earth at this moment, e.g., time passes more slowly. Now see, that’s what I mean! Time isn’t actually passing more slowly in these places. It looks like that to you from here right now, but really, it just is different. Time is flowing differently, but it’s not changing anything when you go there. “There” just is different. So, yeah, like I said, it’s hard to explain, let alone to do so in plain language. If you want to try and get closer to understanding what’s really going on with general relativity, though, I think taking a shot at Exploring Black Holes might work well for you. You might be surprised just how much your thinking will change from that which you’ve developed through popular sources.

Coming in Part 2: Understanding Kant’s big idea, a good book for doing so, and the crazy questions that popped into my head after putting Kant and relativity together. I’ll be explaining my general methodology for tackling difficult topics as well.

Filth – Thoughts on a Film

Bruce Robertson is a scumbag. He is a boozing, snorting, womanizing dirty cop with some serious sociopathic tendencies. As with any deviant personality, though, it’s debatable whether he knows just how wrong he is. Accountability notwithstanding, he’s certainly unapologetic. Bruce’s main strategy for winning a promotion is to ruthlessly sabotage his colleagues and this endeavor is presented as the film’s central storyline in its opening scenes. Bruce, played with awesome intensity by James McAvoy, initially seems to be a study of a lost soul reveling in a life with absolutely no boundaries and, while an unexcusable indulgence, spending a couple of hours with the man wouldn’t exactly be a novel cinematic experience.

But somewhere around the halfway mark, we see several full bottles of lithium on Bruce’s dresser and begin to get a sense that there may be a base of suffering behind the veneer of his repulsive behavior. His disturbing hallucinations snap into focus as symptoms of psychosis rather than an echo of drug abuse. And when we’re shocked to discover sympathy for him welling up inside them, Filth resolves into much more than a wallow in depravity. It’s an impressive turnabout. The questions we ask ourselves as our view of Bruce changes, such as “Is anyone truly beyond redemption?” or “Does infirmity excuse perfidy?” are always worth thinking about, so Filth reveals itself to be a twisted but noble prism on the human condition. The film is not for the faint of heart, but viewers who don’t mind being challenged will be rewarded.

Surfing With Sartre – Book Review

You might assume Surfing With Sartre uses surfing as a metaphor to explore concepts of existentialism, but you’d be wrong. The author, Aaron James, who also wrote Assholes: A Theory, expounds and explores many ideas of various philosophers and their schools and much of this is certainly applicable to life outside of carving a wave, but he does, in fact, believe there’s something special about surfing. And maybe there is. After all, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that water skiing was “the ideal limit of aquatic sports,” and he never knew surfing, James tells us. Sartre had such high regard for water skiing, snow skiing, and other forms of “sliding over water,” that James asserts he considered them to “exemplify human freedom.”

One feature of the book, which can be considered either daunting or exciting, is that it does not dumb its philosophical discussions down much. While this can make the reading dense and almost technical at points, it’s refreshing to see an author respect his readers enough to convey the nuance of complex ideas. And really, can you simplify Kant? Should you want to?

One idea that comes in for a thorough exploration in Surfing is that of “flow.” Flow is a sort of transcendent state of mind that one enters when one is “in the groove.” Sure, it could be an NBA player nailing fifteen three-pointers in a row, but it also can be the welder who lays down a perfect “stacked dimes” bead on vertical pipe or the accountant who has a dozen tabs open at once and finishes her report in half the time she thought it would take without it feeling like a strain. James, of course, relates the special connection he believes surfing has to the flow state of being, but he also imparts the broader lesson that we should all seek out flow wherever we can and spend as much time in it as possible if we want to lead a richer life.

Surfing with Sartre is a fun book. James sprinkles surfer lingo and the odd bit of profanity into his conversational writing style but simultaneously peppers nearly every page with footnotes. This mix of academic rigor and popular treatment strikes a pleasing tone. Pondering life’s biggest questions can be a gnarly undertaking, but that doesn’t mean Surfing won’t leave you stoked.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman – Book Review

The Idiot conveys an impression, built without any context at all, of our world in a certain time and a certain place. Naturally, this perspective paints most everything as bizarre. The protagonist, a young girl called Selin, is in her first year at Harvard. She at first seems sheltered, but her naivety is soon shown to be so extreme that it quickly loses the sheen of innocence and begins to suggest some sort of maladjustment. For example, she wonders why everyone in college drinks and why they drink so much. Now, if you step back far enough, this is an activity that might not make much “sense,” but, of course, there are reasons for this behavior, such as a desire to develop a separate self and to ease the anxiety of social interaction, but Selin never acquires such anthropological knowledge from her encounters. It is consistently funny to watch her confront human behavior de novo but unsatisfying that we don’t see her cultivate these experiences into personal growth. This “alien dropped to Earth” conceit is one that Batuman employs effectively but, even when done well, it grows tiresome long before the book’s halfway point. It’s a fine trick, but it’s the only one Batuman has up her sleeve in The Idiot.

The most disappointing thing about The Idiot is that this book is the one Batuman chose to deliver for her first novel. Her previous effort, a literary memoir called The Possessed, displayed an insight and wit that suggested she was capable of fine writing exploiting keen observation. In light of that admirable work, The Idiot feels tossed off. Readers should expect more than a gimmicky one-trick pony from someone with so much erudition and skill. Let’s hope that if we see another book from Batuman, whatever genre it falls into, that’s what we get.