Saturday, May 21, 2011

Beyond Schadenfreude: The Road Past Rapture

"Those who know do not talk.
Those who talk do not know." - Lao Tzu

So now, I can presume, we all agree the Rapture isn't happening this weekend. To be honest, I presume we (=anyone I know who'd have stumbled across my blog) all agreed that beforehand anyway, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't step outside at 6 PM, just to see if flying bodies were in the air, because, on the 0.000001% chance that Mr. Camping was right, and I missed that sight because I was watching ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, well, that might have been an embarrassing tale to tell during the subsequent remaining five months of existence.

But I was still kind of angry at myself for even stepping outside, and angry that a buffoon who had previously predicted the world would end in 1994 had gotten so much attention, the latest in our cultural affirmation of the Warholian edict of 15 minutes of fame, a cycle so rapidly churning that the death of Bin Laden already feels like distant past, and next month Camping will be as forgotten as Rebecca Black is today.

There's a couple things at play here, but the one I'm concerned about - and the reason I can't just treat the non-Rapture as the punchline to a great cultural joke - is the overwhelming power of certainty. There is very little I am certain about in life - while I operate under a series of hypotheses, these are open to revision and change at any time, to the extent that my neuroprogramming allows, anyway. So when I am confronted by someone who is absolutely certain, my first impulse is to assume that, if they are so convinced about something, they must know something that I don't.

This weekend throws into relief why that is a very, very bad first impulse. Whether Mr. Camping was a charlatan or sincere in his beliefs, he projected certainty to his followers, who in turn spent their life savings on billboards warning of said rapture, and some even going so far as to plan to kill their pets. His certainty, even to those of us who were convinced that he was hopelessly wrong and a complete buffoon, nonetheless captivated people's attention, an attention that could be so much more usefully deployed in so many other ways. (And, personally, yes: I do consider watching ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN a much more useful way to spend one's attention.)

But here's the thing: the lesson from this weekend is not "don't trust people who pick a specific date for the rapture". It's this: don't take people who are overly certain at face value. Whether that's about religion, or politics, or the efficacy of homeopathic medicine, or anything.

And - especially - do not take them seriously just because they have a vague explanation couched in certainty. This is the point where I provide my semiannual advocacy of Ben Goldacre's book BAD SCIENCE, which looks at how pseudoscientific bullshit is used to fill people's heads with false beliefs. It takes just the proper deployment of a couple scientific terms for otherwise reasonable people to turn their heads off and buy into ideas no less outlandish as Camping's rapture prediction.

Too often, the terms of the debate in the world is set by people who are most sure of themselves. For so many of us, that voice of certainty is the voice of reason. If we can learn anything, may it be to dissociate those two ideas; that, in fact, the voice of certainty is, more than likely, diametrically opposed to reason.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On The Road: Tokyo, Part 2/Kyoto, Part 1

So it's been quite a gap since my last installment and memory has occluded some details. But I'll do my best to keep going. The good news, for those of you who haven't seen them already, is that I've uploaded some photos. And even two videos!

Tuesday: took the train to Yasukuni Shrine, famous both for its stunning shows of sakura and being a site for ultra-nationalist demonstrations. My interest was the former; I was meeting Scout and Jarrett there. I got there early, and thus first wandered across the street to Kitano-Maru, whose show of sakura was, itself, stunning.

From Japan 2011

Also in Kitano-Maru: Budokan! And weird old science museums, and people sitting around the park, hanging out under cherry blossoms, enjoying life. But then: Yasukuni.

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

One thing worth noting is that there were signs up, indicating that hanami (the viewing of cherry blossoms) was cancelled this year at the site - because of the disasters, it was believed to be inappropriate, or so it was explained to me, or so I roughly recall it. Apparently, this was taken with disbelief in the North.

Some dodgy okonomiyaki and a quick detour to visit a Zero in an adjacent museum, and then off in a different direction, walking through the beauty of Yoyogi Park.

From Japan 2011

Yoyogi Park from Doug Dillaman on Vimeo.

We stopped at a temple along the way as well, en route to what couldn't be a more contrast-y destination: Harajuku.
From Japan 2011

For those inclined, Harajuku is a gawker's paradise, and/or a shopper's delight, provided your taste in shopping is similar to a 17-year old Japanese gothic lolita.

From Japan 2011

As for us, we ate chocolate croissants, got crazy pictures taken on goofy machines, ate crepes (because apparently one dessert wasn't enough), and went shopping at the UNI QLO t-shirt store, where I got shirts for Art Blakey and DOWN BY LAW. All the shirts are sold in capsules, and there are very few of them in sizes to fit me.

Then, the walk to Shibuya, and the home of Lock-Up. Which is, quite possibly, the strangest place I went to in Japan (and therefore in the running for strangest place I've been in my life).

From Japan 2011

Scout and Jarrett suggested that I consider filming the whole entry, which seemed intriguing but also a pain in the ass. So there's no video of the point where the entry transforms into a bizarre combination of haunted house and prison, nor of the demure concierge handcuffing Jarrett and I and leading us to the cell where we dined on appetizers and goofy drinks, served goofily.

From Japan 2011

That would be strange enough. But (MAJOR SPOILERS IF YOU INTEND TO VISIT LOCKUP!) once every ninety minutes, Lockup transforms into a sensory assault, where it goes into lockdown: lights go out, monstrous hands reach into your cell, and metal plays, and announcements (in Japanese, natch) clamour over the loudspeakers. Then, suddenly, without warning, the metal switches to Ray Parker, Jr.'s classic "Ghostbusters". It was about this time I decided, regardless of the results, I needed to get my camera out.

The food itself is completely blocked from my brain.

Wednesday, and I wake early, store my main bag at my ryokan, and take the shinkansen (aka "bullet train") to Kyoto.

(More detail than some will want: I took the Nozomi, which is the fastest train. It's slightly more expensive, and unavailable to tourists who buy the JR pass, but it's a bit quicker than the alternative, and given my tight schedule it seemed worth it. But if you're visiting for a while and travel a lot, I do recommend investigating the train pass, as it gives you a great deal.)

At the arrival in Kyoto, I find a visitor's information center, where I inquire about sakura viewing. The fellow behind the counter, who speaks very good English, promptly produces a spreadsheet of every major viewing point in and around Kyoto, and after explaining that I am slightly early (no place is in truly full bloom), he directs me to the area around Kodai-Ji Temple, gives me a map, and explains which bus to get on. Throw my bag in a locker, and I'm off.

So here's the deal with Kyoto, for those of you who haven't been here. It is, I believe, the largest city in Japan to escape major bombing or natural catastrophe, and as such has a huge concentration of temples. Those with a greater faculty for recall with dates and names of dynasties than I could impress you by listing at copious length all the historical details. Suffice it to say that it should not be missed, and that, had I not visited it once before at good length in 2002, I would feel criminal spending only a day and a half there. I kind of felt that way anyway, to be honest.

There are a cluster of temples on the east side of town, and I started south of Kodai-Ji, at Kiyomizu-Dera. Its blossoms were not rated quite as highly, but I had fond memories from my previous trip and I looked forward to revisiting it.

There are no words.

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

From Japan 2011

At Kodai-Ji, the temple appears more modest, and the sakura appear to be more modest as well. The key here, however, is not quantity, but placement.

Outside of Kodai-Ji, I belatedly realize I'm too late to visit some place I've been before that I recognized whilst in the hills around it: Ryozen Kannon. I've visited before, and I believed (though upon further research am questioning) that the Buddha featured here is the same one pictured in Sam Fuller's SHOCK CORRIDOR. Since I don't have pictures of Ryozen Kannon, and I'm going to wrap this up here, I leave you with the SHOCK CORRIDOR trailer, for no particular reason other than that, despite (or because of) its misleading nature, it may be the best trailer OF ALL TIME.


things you can do, things you can't do.

(The "you" I am addressing here is "me". Lest anyone take this as a veiled stab or insult.)

Something you can't do: change people's mind by Tweeting, Facebooking, commenting on blogs. At best, you can provide new information, which most will question the validity of if it doesn't fit in with their narrative construct of the universe, which will then devolve into a nit-picky dissection of what you're saying that is ill-suited to this medium. Or perhaps you provide a witticism, briefly enjoyed and then forgotten. Or - somehow - a trace of real and new insight, whose absorption is immediately inhibited by the noise of the intersocialsphere. Because real insight rarely strikes like a bolt from the blue, but sneaks up on you, grows in you over time, unless its fertilization is inhibited by a thousand conflicting thoughts.

Something you can do: take care of yourself. Escape the noise. Use this as an opportunity not to challenge other's beliefs, but examine your own, and question how you put them into practice.

Oh, and rock the hell out of the new Superchunk remaster.