Cognitive neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran's Tell-Tale Brain is an exceptional walk through the modular elements of brain structures that appear to regulate or promote syntax, metaphor, grammar, parts of what we label as language. By deciphering anomalistic behaviors in distinct properties of language correlated to minute parts of the brain, he comes close to proving what linguists have theorized about for decades: The human brain comes wired with language's capabilities. This neuroscientist adds forensic linguist to his titles; he combines both Pinker's and Chomsky's separate, complimentary theories as well a few others into a larger holistic one built on the available structural data. That's merely the first part of the book. What Ramachandran does once he has these pieces is to launch a two pronged adventure. Magellan cubed. First he searches for the missing link in early consciousness: when did the brain 'switch' on this language ability? Secondly he extends these brain structures into visuals. Humans are visual thinkers that enabled verbal language to communicate with. Ramachandran explores how this language 'ability' with its origins in separate parts of the brain, first operated using images the eye sees and the brain memorizes. His eureka is that humans assemble visual information, like spoken language, with properties of syntax, semantic, grammar and metaphor. His careful observations add to the book's self-awareness (he notices in the east an integration between image and context and a disintegration in the west). He closes his book with a treatise on how visual art operates, and as a lure I've included a taste below, his 9 laws of aesthetics.. A groundbreaking highly readable book. Ramachandran's 9 Laws of Aesthetics (from The Tell Tale Brain) 1. Grouping 2. Peak Shift 3. Contrast 4. Isolation 5. Peekaboo, or perceptual problem solving 6. Abhorrence of coincidences 7. Orderliness 8. Symmetry 9. Metaphor Below, Ramachandran's mirror-box. A device to help amputees alleviate 'phantom' pain in phantom limbs.
Cognitive neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran's Tell-Tale Brain is an exceptional walk through the modular elements of brain structures that appear to regulate or promote syntax, metaphor, grammar, parts of what we label as language. By deciphering anomalistic behaviors in distinct properties of language correlated to minute parts of the brain, he comes close to proving what linguists have theorized about for decades: The human brain comes wired with language's capabilities. This neuroscientist adds forensic linguist to his titles; he combines both Pinker's and Chomsky's separate, complimentary theories as well a few others into a larger holistic one built on the available structural data. That's merely the first part of the book. What Ramachandran does once he has these pieces is to launch a two pronged adventure. Magellan cubed. First he searches for the missing link in early consciousness: when did the brain 'switch' on this language ability? Secondly he extends these brain structures into visuals. Humans are visual thinkers that enabled verbal language to communicate with. Ramachandran explores how this language 'ability' with its origins in separate parts of the brain, first operated using images the eye sees and the brain memorizes. His eureka is that humans assemble visual information, like spoken language, with properties of syntax, semantic, grammar and metaphor. His careful observations add to the book's self-awareness (he notices in the east an integration between image and context and a disintegration in the west). He closes his book with a treatise on how visual art operates, and as a lure I've included a taste below, his 9 laws of aesthetics.. A groundbreaking highly readable book.
Ramachandran's 9 Laws of Aesthetics (from The Tell Tale Brain)
2. Peak Shift
5. Peekaboo, or perceptual problem solving
6. Abhorrence of coincidences
Below, Ramachandran's mirror-box. A device to help amputees alleviate 'phantom' pain in phantom limbs.
"The public doesn't demand anything...it is only after a thing is created that the public demands it."
Sid Grauman, Hollywood's first exhibitor impresario, operator of Grauman's Chinese & Egyptian Theaters
The racy spinoff (maybe it's a spin-oof) slash satire of Sex in the City arrives to HBO. It's named Girls. Landing virtually the same week is ABC's bizarrely scripted animation show (and strangely it's voiced and play-acted by humans) named Don't Trust the Bitch in Apt. 23. Lena Dunham's Girls revolves around its creator who submits herself to the full onslaught of the Krafft-Ebing/Masters & Johnson sexual prey chapters only reset for 21st century STD's. Between gross-out sex acts among repellant twenty-somethings is highly cued banter meant to more than hint the city is never what is pretends it is. The city is where smart is dumb and wisdom is extinct. Dunham cheapens the proceeds by pretending to play the lowest, slightly meanest, wittiest victim of her surroundings. She and the show need us to feel for her no matter what, yet we know she's faking the down and out (it does say created by Dunham after all). Her trump card is the sex-play, it seems dead-on, factual. And whether we like it or not, something feels fishy about her exhibitionism. Power games, role playing, even physical agression are parts of the natural human sex drive, yet by tweaking the bedroom shenanigans, and putting her self in the crosshairs, Dunham gets to milk outrage even from people whose sexuality is probably not too far from this. The audience may be cringing but she's not, she's soaking it all up, egging on her co-stars. Let's do this, let's break the barrier. Ummm, what barrier? In whose illusion does Sex and the City really exist? Dunham seems primed to shoot down the myth of the girl in the city, from Breakfast at Tiffany's on and she parries by mentioning both holy grails Sex and Mary Tyler Moore. Problem is, she's put so many blinders on her characters, the girls themselves seem more like anti-heroines pulled from Cassavettes films, not characters who have made any conscious choices in their lives, so her girlfriends on the show barely make an impression. They play who they are in real life, entitled daughters of the famous. They haven't earned their screentime and they'd barely hold an audience at a party for five minutes. Even the no-name date of the opium tea maker invoked more presence with her two lines. But maybe that's Dunham's point. Her girls aren't unique, they aren't magnetic, but they laughably throw self-help banter at each other, buying into their parent's nosey approvals. The boys get more laughs since they're caricatures, they're obnoxious. They seem to have it all figured out. Maybe this is the current result of reality TV. Dunham makes it so real, the shocked reaction must mean it finally is. But the sex isn't what's shocking, it's how boring their lives are.
Seth MacFarlane's by-product, Nahnatchka Khan, clearly wrote a script meant to be animated, and that it should have been. The actors can't keep up with the editor's cutting. Secondary characters talk out of the sides of their mouth, cakes are flattened, dates drop asleep on cue. Take a letter, dear tv show people, switch this to an animated series, soon. Talky, fakey, breakneck, screwball, The Bitch in Apt. 23's pilot hinges on the turnabout of the episode's new roomate, but Dreama Walker, a bland blonde with a goldfish's face can barely muster the banter to pretend she can go toe-to-toe with Krytsen Ritter. By the middle of the half hour she's figured out the whole façade. What's worse, Ritter herself is miscast as a typecast, she's unable to fill the titular bitch's britches. She's still a former model who couldn't play mean even if her parents were held at gunpoint. Models aren't bitch material, they're pampered. She's more likely to stammer and stamp her shoes rather than toss a person across the room to make a point. You what? You lost my reservation? If you want bitches, Nahnatchka, you just had to go out to dinner in Los Angeles and hire the first leggy server you stumbled across. Or start with an archetype like Dina Spyby. The Dawson inclusion is milked for petty laughs, but they only have a tenth of the impact that an animated Dawson would have. MacFarlane can roster mutliple cameos a week by drawing and voicing them. Here, he seems like a tired joke by his second appearance. Van der Beek must know the show's a goner, who would sign a five year contract to play himself? And worse, he's the straight man.
It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the same manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past.
- George Steiner, In Bluebeard's Castle (1971)
Today Titanic returns from the deep to take more passengers onboard, yet the more timely Avatar is the myth that needs sifting through. Unlike Titanic, Avatar is hiding from its past.
Not to be misunderstood, our generation's Walt Disney via Werner von Braun, James Cameron, carefully combs his five previous sci-fi arcs through the lenses of both The Matrix and the cgi Star Wars Trilogy. He comes up with a blatant utopian-eden fantasy named Avatar. More or less a retake of The Abyss's central themes about ecology and technology, Avatar is staged a few light years away in our galaxy (updated from Abyss's salt-water to non-breathable air for humans, a step-up on the movement ladder, but he keeps that bioluminescence vibrating anyway) on a planet not subtly named Pandora (a prophecy from Earth's mythos).
The most expensive film ever made is about an invasion of little green-obsessed men (humans). They've colonized a green planet populated by blue-giants, the star-affixed Nav'i, who remain somewhat tethered to their planet and its creatures in a manner not unlike a bio-analog version of The Matrix's pulsing digital simulation (plugging into its moon-wide broadcast signal). If you're blue, wrap your hair around a local plant and suddenly: who knows what might be under your tannenbaum. Cameron takes his best actor and has her undersell the miracle of Pandora to her superiors (hint: reweave Earth like this and you can save it and make the bucks). Sigourney Weaver's throwaway key monologue (a scene repeat from the much better Aliens) would have us comprehend the revolutionary aspects of Pandora's biome at the expense of the deaf ears of the military-industrial complex that's paying for the project. They're both protector and enemy, a metaphor for the studio that footed the film's bill. They're aiming for the exact same thing the planet achieves by plant life digging roots and linking botanic and geologic forms, except these business types are using wiring and encryption and credit card access. People still gotta pay for it, yet Pandora the planet is an open source biological wi-fi network waiting for a genetic revolution of information. Is this open source's first massive metaphor? Cameron is so obsessed with the tech-aspects of his film, he shorts our comprehension of his biggest star, the sphere the film is set on. A somewhat 'thinking' (somewhat conscious like its resident bipeds, the Nav'i) living planet operates in unity, unlike our own Earthly disconnected networks of animal, plant and geosphere. Disney's Pandora, is a clearer name for this film (and it almost was), whose technological revolutions bypass Pixar, Lucas and Jackson by the second reel. The Na'vi are as somewhat monotonous as the troopers that inhabit Pandora's opposite, the Death Star. The Na'vi, does it read as na'ive? They never use the tree-network to phone for help; never once try to ride 'the last shadow' themselves, whose riding is the sort of legend equated with the discovery of 'The One" in The Matrix. They remain at a consciousness mezzanine within their planet's potential and Cameron suggests their game-changer (the awakener Sully) must be a specifically disabled outsider, with few preconceived notions of their world. The key to Sully is his lack of legs which gives him an unconscious weightlessness neither the other avatars nor the Na'vi can experience flight through. Cameron shows you his atrophied legs as a taunt, like an afterschool special hero's, they look pathetic, yet they render his Na'vi unique in many unmentioned ways.
Earth by this time, 2154, is a dead planet (the film's first shot, travelling over rainforest, could be a memory of Earth). And humans, thinkers from the dead-planet, bring the usual suspect archetypes, a working class-hero - Sully, a tough as nails scientist (Grace Augustine, an unsubtle reference to the Christian thinker who wrote the autobiographical The Confessions, about a pleasure seeking sinner redeemed), a colonel with self-esteem issues. Cameron wisely glosses over the usual set-up conflicts and goes right for the meat of the journey: whether or not these humans belong on Pandora's Eden. Like most films about the future it's actually about our past. His film is telling us, our way to eden is by reverse thinking to a near past, the moment we began our colonization and rape of the Americas/Africa/Asia; humans must become what they once were, isolated in pockets, and change the outcome. He even slyly hints that we can reverse our invention as a reinvention. His symbolic visuals are still operant, sometimes even vibrant. Pandora is first seen as a metaphor for us in an earth-made mirror, a vast field of solar panels, an earth-like gem framed by a blue-hued Jupiter copy. The creatures that signify promise are Abyss's spindly bi-valves (and they suggest the air in Pandora also has properties of water). The beds one accesses an Avatar through are green hued - a shout out to The Matrix, and the list goes on. The compression is impressive, Sully's got his Military father-figure (Quaritch's speech to the troops is framed by a window that apes the USA's flag - only now in green, a dead twin (never seen), a Scientist Mother figure (that runs slightly Oedipal once she inhabits her Avatar), a harried corporate golf-pro (again, all humans), a rebellious sister-type played by Michelle Rodriguez (she slips out of the tree assault early like a spoiled child). Then there's the locals, an entire array of Nav'i - natives developed around a cauterized First Mother First Father First Daughter and the first heir. Cameron rejects complexity here, there is no threatening Uncle, the son-heir, though contentious, is easily impressed. The real question is, why is he using Earth mythology to show-off an altogether different planetary consciousness - is he unconsciously lampooning it? amping it for the contrasts? is he making fun of his own projection? Their slim biometric customs and animal life that compete with the human tale for screentime are the secret stars of the film along with the orb itself: Pandora. Cameron even blends the bioforms through a bilateral-symmetry that's more ordered than Earth's (connected like Lucas whose influence here is felt, except Cameron is linking the life forms AND the spaceships, slightly different than what Lucas does). Pandora's Nav'i have flattened noses that appear in other lifeforms. Watch the flying creature's quick glance into the camera, it looks just like a Na'vi, a subtle mirror in staring. The unspoken visual elements are sometimes, enragingly brilliant: the bioluminescent 'stars' the Nav'i facially possess suggest, wildly, that the 'planet' (and the spirit of the planet Eyva) sees these stars and then projects them genetically (through time via nature, through genetic patterns that emerge through mating-sequencing across eons) into the individual Na'vi patterns. The planet is, however distant as a controlling force, still connected to these creatures, and weirdly, the Nav'i's consciousness disconnects them from the total system's possibilities- sound familiar? Even though the Na'vi express fear, doubt even rage against the encroaching aliens, their planet doesn't get the message. As chunky as the material is and as blatantly copied as the third act accomplishments are, his real feat is haunting the planet with a feasible antidote to the false simplicities of eco sci-fi.
Cameron is best when he makes the process of discovery seem intuitive with deadly force. Jake Sully's avatar Nav'i is told not to look his romantic interest's flying creature in the eyes. Later, as he approaches a herd of them to claim one for himself, he asks her how he will know which one to choose from. She tells him only then the proper choice will try to kill him first. Later on however the brutality of the Nav'i seems to run counterintuitive to the sacred treatment that counterintel agent-Sully's Nav'i avatar receives, when the humans start ripping the Nav'i's forest to shreds (a direct reference to Phantom Menace), they banter about whether Jake is to be trusted. Cameron slides from brutalism to chicanery when the audience requires it. Similar logic-holes surround the half-completed premise of the sleep-wake cycle built into the Avatar program, and Cameron aims for laughs rather than complexly address what is a crucial, serialized disconnect: the inert Avatar host body 'sleeps' while his human inhabitor is awake. Imagine what Cameron could have done with a Sully coitus interuptus scene between his Nav'i female and Grace Augustine (Weaver) trying to 'wake' him. Another source of plot-waste is the video-diary Grace forces him to perform, obviously a direct feed to their military and corporate handlers (is Cameron trying to make his audience paranoid of its social-media ties while making mother-figure Grace appear foolish? Cleverly he shows us a reverse of how the computer sees him.). While aspects of utopian bio-genetic structuralism lure the audience with intensive and futurist group eco-therapy, the film seems more concerned plot-wise with our recent past colonizing the Americas and erasing form-connections between native image and knowledge. The Nav'i (Native-Avatars) are dead ringers for the harassed, evacuated and now nearly erased Indians that now nickname our military's flying hardware. There are enough broken arrows aimed at bullet-proof glass to veer slightly into self parody. The American blockbuster ethos seems like a playground of Native-myths searching for a resurrection in our language (see esp. the Skywalker regime). The way west transformed into third-stage mythmaking (past the scrubby predecessor Europeans). Unfortunately like all unconscious colonizers, he's thinking like an American but acting like a King's subject, he can't seem to connect to new myths or new forms beyond those narratives of the early 20th century, he's simply refitting our catastrophe to theirs, a somewhat conservative approach (that's the disconnect, the planet is sure damn weird but the play he's having performed on it is oddly routine). War is war to him, its outcome looks no different than an Iraqi/Vietnam War exodus of technocrats leaving the Green Zone (and they my friend, are doing what everyone does when the film is over, they're our mirror, we ALL have to leave Pandora behind). He still thinks innovation lies in the hybridization between 'freethinkers' like Sully and the static-continuity of local wisdom (a leaky trope taken from James Fenimore Cooper or worse, Kipling); it's Sully after all who does what the Nav'i themselves did not know how to do. He calls in the biological ground and airstrike via the fiber-optic tree (he prays to the econet) AND conquers the forbidden, legendary and flame-painted 'last-shadow' (he has no fear of what the Nav'i fear). All within 25 minutes of screentime.
Sully's tree request has its direct feed from Amerindian history: The Ghost Dance. This epochal last resort prayed for an end to the Indian Wars by sweeping the Europeans out of the Americas through a mystical armageddon. Congress outlawed it and Avatar parallels it with Quaritch's planned Tree of Souls destruction. Cameron, like Sully, brings the Ghost Dance mythology to life to boost his climax and turn an impossible tide. Pandora's merely a vector for an American trope lead by a hero that can't decide if he's really joining the locals. Watch the back-and-forth, we think Sully can't decide if he's human or acting Nav'i as a ruse, but of course he's going native. Cameron thinks he can sustain tension at this level of the plot, when really the conflict lay in the how, not the why of it. This is a common failure of recent blockbuster narratives, a genre regressing faster than it can evolve. Directors like Cameron haven't gotten scientific about why the product has to be emotional but he's the sharpest at pivoting emotions when the audience needs something besides adrenaline to hold on to. He crassly uses ancient markers of film-sentimentalism to get us to well-up on cue (he engages James Horner for this unexotic task). The problem at the core of Avatar lies in its activist plotting outmoded by craft advancement. A megathinker like Cameron believes that by reverse-engineering propaganda, the film's messages can warn us against our impending eco-disasters here. Instead he falls into the first paradox of all anti-war/anti-technology 'message' films: the war is too riveting, it drives the pulse rate and brings us back for more. To be as revolutionary as Cameron thinks he is, he had to attack the baseline of humanity: the meaning of the issues, the definitions of the words and symbols we use to discuss ecology and commercial exploitation. Instead Cameron does his work in the casting phase hitting up great actors who embody archetypes that can submit to the film's black and white ideas of good and evil. For all its visual advances, Avatar is still spiritually Manichean, an approach that turns heads without altering them.
Sully's not employing particularly earth-based innovations (ha! they're universal) but Cameron wants us to think he is, maybe he assumes the final, only worthwhile earth-export is 'thinking outside the box'. The lack of proof is in the videogame: Cameron doesn't fold his mediums, he farms out a paint-by-numbers from Ubisoft simply because the economics require it - Cameron's alter-ego is slightly more the steroided Colonel than the open-minded Sully. Cameron is still a masterful even revolutionary technician despite his considerable conservatism (the action sequences are more riveting than lately Lucas/Spielberg/McTiernan, the optical detailing, gaseous distortions, exhaust streams, and the machinery are staggering in execution, they are not to be missed. And follow-through: the final battle between his G.I. Joe Colonel and Neytiri is a brilliant upgrade of Ripley's loader-assisted battle with the Queen Mother Alien. And his product is carefully visually crafted (he gets the scale shift between human and Nav'i dead-on, an inventive digital lens that captures forest floor alternating with a new eye-popping armageddon scale fluidly, a movie-first outside of Lucas and Spielberg, something Emmerich's Godzilla didn't, Spielberg's War of the Worlds did carefully, and Transformers does intermittently). The pairings between technology and bioform are crucial. The Nav'i's flying horses and the "last shadow" equate with the two scales of airframes (Spider and Gunship). Cameron even forms his cockpits as frozen rasterized versions of these creature's heads, and to square the point he applies a decal of a yellow dragon to the giant gunship of Quaritch's. Some subtle techniques developed in 2-D (in early silents) remerge finally in the 3-D, when Sully and Neytiri are exploring their languages and the meaning of seeing early in the film, Cameron has her look at the audience for a second after she spends the majority of shot looking down at Sully. This is the first 3-D film to weave parallax and character's eyeframes carefully (he knows the medium's technique flourishes with audience-character eye-contact: imagine City Lights or Donnie Darko in 3-D). Cameron's first two shots, a traveling shot over the forest canopy of, what is guessed is, a real image of earth's fauna and a screen filling cloud (a flash of memory for all of us and hopefully the only special effect-free shot in the film), and a zero-g close-up of beads of water merging under purple light (a sly SFX nightmare version of that natural cloud), indicates that he's got the nuances in play, it has the feeling of being visionary. Is it visionary? Only at its petri stage, what Cameron could have grown as a narrative, not what happens here. In a film that continuously references the idea of seeing both in English and Nav'i (and unspoken: film's own visual definition), he ends the film with more than a nod to 2001. It's a direct copy. A now 'unified' Sully (unified in his avatar by the Pandoran network) opens his eyes looking directly at the audience, if only for a split second. Cameron, who knows he is the heir to sci-fi's baton, is also its current placeholder for the next visionary. Maybe visionary is next up in Avatar 2.
Two final shots, supposedly one message. Stars migrate from background to face. Stepping forwards or stepping back?
A mind-bending summary article for a very complex physics experiment that yielded light (photons), not a reflection but a generation from molecules. Both summary and paper are web-visible.
Mirror, Mirror: Collective electron excitations in metals, called plasmons, can play an important role in second-harmonic generation of light.
Below, Second Harmonic Generation.
Stare at it for a long, long time.
"The United States is the only developed nation without a visual literacy curriculum in its public education program."
paraphrased from Douglas Rushkoff's Coercion
The editors of the Wall Street Journal find an opportunistic Nero, William Happer, an atomic physicist from Princeton, who fiddles an op-ed questioning the logic of climate change by using the misnomer 'global warming.' Be wary of anyone using this phrase in the news, 'global warming' is a simpleton's view of anthropogenic (human made) CO2, the result of 1 billion cars and ample technological growth. The only proper name for the event is 'global climate change,' which has already altered seasons, farming dates, and contributes to ever stranger weather patterns. He faults computer models predicting vast changes (like the 12,000 year old Larsen B shelf's melting in 2002, below) by aiming his sights only at one aspect of the data: the average temperature. It's a little like saying the body is healthy because the average of it's body parts' temperatures are stable. But if one leg is in increasingly colder areas and the head is in increasingly hotter areas, the body has a harder time regulating its temperature. The WSJ should be warned it risks future generations' livelihoods with such pointed, commercial defiance of climatological research. Tell them: firstname.lastname@example.org