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Review of Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

Written around June 2003

The main reason that animation can be so much more than just “plot” is the director’s ability to control every aspect of his vision, frame by frame. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away is the current reigning champion of hand drawn beauty transcribed into film, and being the writer, director and concept artist gave him complete power over his work of art. The official English title is Spirited Away, but the original is Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. The title literally means The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro, but the differences between the English and Japanese versions do not stop there. The Disneyfied version tries to spell out a lot more for the audience than the Japanese version, as Western movie goers are less enthusiastic about thinking about their entertainment. Unfortunately, Disney might find that their spell-checker is broken. The multiple meanings, clever puns and some of the more symbolic Japanese Kanji (Chinese writing system) will be lost on the English dubbed viewer. However, far worse translations have been done, and in all fairness to Disney, this must have been a monumental task.

The first thing that one has to discuss in analyzing an animated feature is the quality of the art work. Spirited Away uses color, light and even CGI to add to the experience of a superbly drawn movie. The animation is smooth, crisp, vibrantly colored, and the CGI effects are jaw-droppingly beautiful. The use of color in this film is so important not just because it makes everything look alive, but the bright vivid colors control the mood of every scene – just think of the warm glow and the accompanying feelings associated with the boiler room.

The incredibly fantastic nature of Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a product of his incandescent creativity. It is filled with dozens of gods, spirits, demons, witches and a few things that defied explanation. From the Radish spirit, to Kamaji the six armed boiler operator, to the three disembodied bouncing heads, to Haku the dragon river-god, all of Spirited Away’s characters are unique and memorable. With limbs impossibly stretching, dragons dropping out of the sky, characters transforming into animals, gods bathing, frogs talking and soot-balls turning into insect-like workers ready to feed the boilers, this film visually drags you in to every scene and completely captivates your eyes and imagination.

Our heroine Chihiro is the most unappealing girl among female protagonists created by Miyazaki (except perhaps Mei in Totoro). But Chihiro is intentionally set up this way. Miyazaki created her to represent the way that he views modern children growing up in the world, spoiled and overly protected. This is the story about a girl who stepped into another real world where both good and evil exist. She will go through many experiences, learn how important friendship and dedication are, and return to the human world with her wisdom. The result is a moving and magical journey, told with consummate skill by one of the masters of contemporary animation.

Spirited Away is intensely symbolic. Every scene is stuffed full with Japanese Kanji, many of which have multiple meanings, even in the context in which they are presented. For example, the train that runs through the spirit world has the characters for Middle Path written on the front, alluding to the Buddhist of the four noble truths. Chihiro literary means “one thousand fathoms” (under the sea) and Sen, her new name mean “one thousand.” These games that Miyazaki plays with his audience are slightly lost on mainstream Western audiences, but can account to the unparalleled success that his movies have in Japan.

There are too many themes in the movie to list, but the major motifs are inner strength and the dichotomy between nature and the industrial world. Chihiro, starting out as a spoiled, clumsy and frightened ten year old, emerges from her experience as a strong, confident, clever and loving young hero. Her transformation is largely due to the fact that she has been taken out of her modern existence and transplanted into a spiritual world, filled with traditional views, responsibilities, stories and even traditional Japanese characters.

The seconded major theme in the film is the battle between nature and the modern world. This is a major theme running throughout all of Miyazaki’s works, especially pervasive in Princess Mononoke. Spirited Away shows how team work is essential in cleaning up nature, when the river-god is mistaken for a stink demon, and Chihiro frees him by removing all the pollution from inside the unhappy spirit. But more than the obvious metaphors, Miyazaki draws us into the natural world with his stunning visuals and panoramas of the natural world around his characters.

Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli have created a modern masterpiece of animation in Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, which has gone on to be the first so-called “anime” movie to reach such critical acclaim, being awarded the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival for best picture and the 2002 Academy award for best Animated Feature. Spirited Away has opened the door for many distributors to begin offering Japanese animated films to mainstream theaters, which are a staple overseas, much to the delight of the huge anime fan base in the US. Already, movies like Cowboy Bebop and Princess Mononoke are scheduled for release in major theaters. Unfortunately, Spirited Away will be Miyazaki’s final feature, as he announced his retirement shortly after the release. But what a finale!

 

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Does Language Shape Thought?

Written in April 2003

Does Language Shape Thought?

Lera Boroditsky (Cognitive Psychology 43, 1–22 (2001))

 

Scientists and Philosophers have long questioned weather or not the language we speak influences the way we think. This is mainly due to the fact that people who speak different languages often talk about the world in different ways.

Benjamin Lee Whorf, founder of the Linguistic Determinism school of thought, believes that the language spoken determines the thought that is expressed. This strong Whorfian view has long been abandoned in the field. Particularly effective in undermining the strong view was work on color perception demonstrating that the Dani (a tribe in New Guinea) who had very little trouble in learning the English set of color categories, despite only having two words for colors in their language

Although the strong linguistic determinism view seems to have died down, many weaker but still interesting theories exist. Slobin has suggested that language may influence thought during ‘‘thinking for speaking”, meaning that the language we speak may force us to pay more attention to aspects of our lives because of the grammar or vocabulary rules imposed on us. This would mean that speakers of different languages would be biased when encoding memories which would continue to change their view of life.

In this study, three experiments were used to investigate how language affects our ideas on time. The participants were Mandarin and English speakers, both native and bilingual. The Chinese view time vertically whereas English speakers view time horizontally. Examples – “cats climb trees” in Mandarin is “mao shang shu” but they also use the word “shang” in “shang ge yue” directly translating to “last month, and one would descending down a month.

Mandarin speakers tend to think about time vertically even when they think for English – In the first experiment, this was seen when Mandarin speakers were faster to confirm that March comes earlier than April if they had just seen a vertical set objects than if they had just seen a horizontal set, and the reverse was true for English speakers.

A second experiment showed that the extent to which Mandarin–English bilinguals think about time vertically is related to how old they were when they first began to learn English.

In the third experiment, native English speakers were taught to talk about time using vertical “spatial” terms in a way similar to Mandarin. On the next test given, the trained group of English speakers showed the same bias to think about time vertically as was observed with Mandarin speakers.

The study shows that language is a powerful tool in shaping our thoughts abstract concepts and that our native language plays an important role in shaping “habitual thought” (e.g., how we think about time) but does not entirely determine our thinking in the strong Whorfian sense.

Vertical Prime

Vertical Prime

Horizontal Prime

Horizontal Prime

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The Role of Retrieval Structures in Memorizing Music

Written in Feburary of 2003 I think

The Role of Retrieval Structures in Memorizing Music

a peer-review study by Aaron Williamon and Elizabeth Valentine (Cognitive Psychology 44, 1–32 (2002))

This study investigated how the formation and use of memory structures change as musicians become more skilled as performers. Novice musicians may lack the required skills and experience to identify a composition’s formal structure, in which case their inept domain-specific knowledge base would force them to exploit other retrieval schemes or prevent them from explicitly using any such schemes.
The study addressed these questions by examining the practice habits of 22 pianists as they prepared an assigned Bach composition for a later piano recital organized by their music teachers. Interviews were conducted after the performances to find out if the pianists segmented and organized their assigned composition during practice and performance knowingly. Secondly, the musicians’ practice habits were studied to find out if their practice sessions were guided by their segmentation of the music. And finally, the extent to which performers structured their practice according to hierarchical principles of organization was investigated.
The 22 musicians were divided up into four groups, based on skill level, and each level was given a piece to practice for a recital. Their practice sessions, recorded on audio tapes, and their later recitals were both analyzed by three members of the “Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music” for quality. The music that was to be learnt by each level was divided up into the categories of “difficult” for pieces that the musicians thought were complex, “structural” for bars that began new sections, both defined by experts and by participants in the study, and “other” for all bars that weren’t “difficult” or “structural”. The practice sessions were analyzed and it was recorded when and on what kind of bar a musician would stop or start a practice session.
A Chi-Squared test was done on the results to level out within-group differences and between group differences in the data based on the expected sections a participant would start or stop a piece and the actual start and stop points. There was an extremely high correlation between the type of bar and when that a participant started or stopped a practice on it. There was also a high positive correlation between the quality of the performances and the chi-squared result of the amount of starts on structural bars.
These findings indicate the use of hierarchical structures to organize practice and to act as retrieval cues for the pianists. Also, the use of structural bars in starting and stopping practice segments increases with ability level and importantly, the earlier the participant began using the structural bars to guide their practice, the higher the quality of their performance.

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Hustler Magazine vs. Jerry Falwell Speech

Written as a Speech in April 2002

Hustler Magazine vs Jerry Falwell Powerpoint

The Constitution of the United States was ratified September 17, 1787. Four years later ten amendments were appended to it, known collectively as the Bill of Rights. The very first of those amendments reads,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

While this may seem to be a clear statement that the government of the United States is not allowed to interfere with its citizens’ religious practices or their self-expression, few assertions in American politics have raised as many questions for debate over the past 200 years as this single sentence, and few debates have been as charged with passion as those that sought to define its scope and meaning. Does my freedom to move my fist stop before, after, or exactly when it meets your nose? Does speech include radio and television broadcasts that could create a panic, or reveal a national secret? How about a song that tells its listeners to get a gun and kill, kill, kill? How about the printed word? How about pictures? Let’s not even start on the internet! These questions have continuously been asked throughout the history of the US. And the debate between the right one has to put forward an idea, verses the degree to which the law must protect the emotional well being of others has been raging from day one of the first amendment.

A vital, modern example of the debate between people who advocate freedom of conscience and those who believe in freedom within the limits of moral legislation resulted in the 1988 Supreme Court case of Hustler Magazine, Inc vs Jerry Falwell. In the one corner was: Larry Flynt, the founder, CEO and editor in Chief of Hustler Magazine was and still is a multimillionaire porn king and a coinsurer of poor taste, and in the other corner: leader of the Moral Majority, and at that time the second most-admired man in America after President Ronald Reagan, according to a Good Housekeeping poll – Jerry Falwell.

It all started in 1987 when Larry Flynt approved a piece for the inside front cover of Hustler Magazine. The piece was a parody of a well known Campari advertising series where celebrities would talk about their “first time”. The ads contained a sexual innuendo, leading up to the fact that they were actually talking about their first time drinking Campari. The Hustler version depicted Jerry Falwell actually talking about his first sexual encounter, which Hustler claimed was in an out house with his mother.

Falwell sued Hustler for liable and causing emotional distress, but while on the stand testifying in a Virginia court room, Falwell admitted to the fact that no one could have taken the parody seriously. Because of this admission, the jury decided that the liable suit had to be dropped, but the conservative Virginian court convicted Flynt of causing emotional distress, and fined him $150 000. Flynt actually counter sued Falwell for copy right infringement because his Church had copied the parody and sent it to fund raisers to gain support for his campaign. But the main issue was that Flynt appealed the ruling and lost again in the Federal Appeals court. The Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting the contention that the “actual malice” standard of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, must be met before respondent can recover for emotional distress. But after petitioning, the case was eventually accepted but the Supreme Court in 1987.

In the short run the Supreme Court decision was perhaps of minor importance to both Falwell and Flynt. Both men are as wealthy as crooks, and the award in question amounted to only $200,000. Both men are far too popular with their own constituencies for their reputations to be seriously damaged by the opinions of enemies such as each other. And neither man is a stranger to the courtroom. Flynt in particular has been such an zealous defender of First Amendment rights that he was actually in a psychiatric prison at the time of the first case for throwing oranges at a judge while wearing a diaper fashioned from an American flag.

But in the long run the final decision in Falwell v. Flynt was of tremendous importance – not only because it let the scurrilous, pugnacious Flynt publish a nasty satire of the strait-laced, white middle-class American daddy Falwell, but chiefly because these two mean-spirited men perfectly represent the extreme positions in American society regarding some of this nation’s most fundamental freedoms. Furthermore, when the Supreme Court made its decision in favor of Flynt’s right to publish his satire over Falwell’s right not to be lampooned, it did so unanimously; and the opinion exonerating Flynt was written by the court’s least likely personality, Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Prior to Falwell v. Flynt Rehnquist had voted against the press every time he had heard such a case before the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, in finding for Flynt he wrote, “At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern…. The freedom to speak one’s mind,'” he continued, quoting from another Supreme Court decision called Bose v. Consumers Union, “is not only an aspect of individual liberty – and thus a good unto itself – but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.'”

What this means is that anyone can say anything they want to about a public figure, as long as it is their opinion, and not stated as fact. That once you enter the public arena, you give up your right to claim for emotionally distressing statements made about you. Does that sound harsh or unfair? Well, imagine a world were Jay Leno gets sued ever night, where South Park, the Daily Show or any other satirical media can not afford to be produced because liable suits would run rampant. But most importantly, be aware that even though you may not like Larry Flynt, or what he does, he proved that if the law will protect the rights of the self proclaimed “King of Bad Taste”, “Mr. Scum-bucket” and the “Worlds Greatest Pig”, then it will protect your rights as well.

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Nicotine Effects on Nutrition

Written in March of 2002

In my paper, I would like to examine two sides of smoking in the realm of nutrition and drugs. For one, why is smoking so addictive and secondly, how does nicotine effect your body’s internal functioning, in regards to the enzymes, vitamins and hormones that are affected by all the smoke that you take in.

To start with, why does the RDA recommend that smokers get more Vitamin C and E than the rest of us? Well yes, because they help lower levels of free radicals. Free radicals are partials that have been oxidized, which means that they have lost a electron. When you breathe these free radicals in, they steal electrons from enzymes and cells, oxidizing them, which stop them from doing their job effectually. D-alpha tocopherol, or vitamin E, is a fat soluble vitamin found in nuts, seeds, vegetable and fish oils, whole grains, cereals, and apricots and ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C,  is a water soluble vitamin present in citrus fruits and juices, green peppers, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, kiwi, and strawberries. These vitamins are antioxidants. They help to protect the body against the damaging effects of free radicals by binding onto them, by essentially giving up a hydrogen atom. In the process, the vitamin C is used up. Cigarette smoke, which contains a lot of free radicals, places heavy demands on the body’s antioxidant defense system, including its vitamin C supply. The turnover of vitamin C is much greater in smokers than in nonsmokers so because of this increased demand, smokers need a higher intake of vitamin C than nonsmokers, in order to maintain normal blood levels of this vitamin. Continue Reading →

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Ecstasy Speech

Written as a Speech around March 2002

Introduction

Everyone in this room could come down to Ybor with me tonight, and for a little bit more than the cost a movie ticket, experience a drug that would allow us to feel free and euphoric while still giving us the energy to dance until the early hours of the morning. Well… except for those of you who are possibly on an anti-depressant, have epilepsy or simply took a few Tylenol before hitting the clubs – for you it would probably kill. The drug I am talking about is ecstasy. With almost 7% of all 12th Graders having used it before, ecstasy is one of the “new” designer drugs that have actually been out since the 70’s but have recently become fashionable, especially throughout the club scene. Of all available narcotics, I have the biggest problem with ecstasy because although the prevailing attitude towards it is that of a “safe” drug, it is in actuality one of the most dangerous. Today I will explain how the drug works, as well as why it is so dangerous and finally what is being done to keep curb the dangers associated with ecstasy. Rudyard Kipling once said that “words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind” So it is very important that my words here today will allow you to make informed decisions and perhaps even help others. Continue Reading →

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Internet Security Speech

Written for a speech around February 2002

In March of 1998, First National Bank, my bank in South Africa, received a phone call. It was to their IT department. The phone call went something like this: “First National Bank IT, how may I help you?” “Hi there, may I please speak to your Head of Department?” “Sure, hang on a second.” “Bob speaking how I may help you.” Hi Bob, this is Michael. I would like a job.” “I am sorry Sir, but this is IT, you need to speak to human resources.” “No Bob I need to speak to you.” “Sir, we are the IT department, only Human Resources can hire people.” “Well Bob, I have just hacked your system.” Pause. “Michael is it?  I am afraid that is impossible, we have the some of the most secure servers in the world.” “Bob… check your email, I’ll call back in five minutes.” So five minutes after Bob found the entire list of usernames, passwords, credit card numbers and pin codes of First National Banks customers in his email box, my friend Michael, or Wiz as he prefers to be called, became the new head of security at First National Bank. He is 25 and drives a nice new Jaguar. Continue Reading →

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Medical Support in Vietnam

Written around December 2001

Introduction

The Vietnam War is the longest military conflict that the United States has participated in. It cost the US $150 billion and 58,000 American lives and estimates on North Vietnamese losses range up to a million[1]. The Republic of Vietnam lies entirely within the Tropics. Saigon is halfway around the world from Washington, D.C. and there is a 12-hour difference in time between the two cities. The nearest off-shore U.S. hospital is almost 1,000 miles away at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, The nearest logistical support base is about 1,800 miles away in Okinawa. The nearest complete hospital center is in Japan, some 2,700 miles distant. Patients being evacuated to the United States must travel, some 7,800 miles to reach Travis Air Force Base in California, or almost 9,000 miles to reach Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C[2]. When considering the nature of the Vietnam War, it is surprising that there were not many more fatalities on the American side. With staggering casualty rates, but high survival rates, one can begin to understand the success of the medical operations in during the war. During the 18 years of conflict the medical units of the army, navy and air force continued to provide exceptional care under extremely difficult circumstances. Continue Reading →

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The Cask of Amontillado

Written around March 2001

Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is a confession by a man called Montresor to a murder that he committed fifty years previously, in an un-named European city. In the confession, Montresor explains how he killed his “friend” (192), Fortunato, over a “thousand injuries” (191) and a final unspecified insult.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines dramatic irony as ”the effect achieved by leading an audience to understand an incongruity between a situation and the accompanying speeches, while the characters in the play remain unaware of the incongruity.” Poe employs this kind of irony to emphasize his character’s carefully thought-out plan to maximize the pain of his friend’s demise. He uses ironic layers of perception to lead the reader though Fortunato’s final realization of how a double layer of possible interpretation of meaning underlies the events that take place over the period leading up to his death. Continue Reading →

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A Clean Well Lighted Place

Written around March 2001

Existentialism is “a philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as unexplainable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.” It was a philosophy that was followed by great writers like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and T.S Eliot, and which is seen extensively in the work of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s beliefs concerning existentialism are the driving force behind his short story, ”A Clean Well Lighted Place”. The story centers on issues such as depression, loneliness, aging and despair, but all are set around the theme of existentialism. Continue Reading →

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