Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | July 16, 2014

Assorted Links for Wednesday

1. Slate has an article by Brian Palmer on the health hazards of pilgrimages. The Hajj always carries the potential for catastrophe (“The most catastrophic Hajj in recent history occurred in 1990, when a rush to escape 112-degree heat resulted in 1,426 people being trampled to death inside an air-conditioned tunnel”), and this year Saudi authorities and the WHO get to deal with the potential ramifications of both MERS and the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. But, according the Palmer, the dubious honor of “most dangerous religious festival” probably goes to the Kumbh Mela, a periodic Hindu festival that can draw crowds of up to 100 million. From the article:

The Kumbh dwarfs the Hajj in attendance, with as many as 100 million people, many of them unvaccinated, attending the event. It’s the largest religious festival in the world. To fire, which is the most terrifying elemental danger at large gatherings, the Kumbh adds water. Each festival is based around a holy river, and pilgrims surge in large groups to the water every few days to perform sacred rituals. Drownings are common, and they are a serious problem in a country where most people never learn to swim. Government boats patrol the shoreline looking for pilgrims struggling in the current.

The water is also a major source of disease. Pilgrims pitch their tents on a flood plain that is submerged 10 months out of the year. In that environment, mosquito-borne diseases are a major problem. So is giardia. Although Indian officials dig pit latrines around the tent city where pilgrims live for six weeks, there aren’t enough holes to handle the waste. Even if there were enough latrines, many people wouldn’t use them. The World Bank estimates that more than half of Indians practice open defecation, and one of the platforms of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s campaign was building toilets before temples. When you live in a village, open defecation is bad. If you’re defecating on the banks of a river that supplies cooking and bathing water to millions of people within a couple of miles, it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

(FWIW, I have never heard of anyone being trampled to death on the Way of St. James. Yet.)

2. This cool map shows the 146 counties where half of the US population lives (out of some 3,000 counties). By my count, those 146 most-populous counties are spread out (not evenly) over 36 states, plus DC. (H/T: Anderson.)

3. In the Paris Review, Tara Isabella Burton writes “In Defense of Fanny Price” — the protagonist (?) of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Burton:

Fanny Price’s story is less about her individual virtue, or her richer relatives’ lack thereof, but about class, about privilege in its most insidious form — before the term ever cropped up in contemporary social justice discourse. Fanny isn’t moral or upright because she wants to be, but because the role — along with a whole host of so-called middle-class values — is forced upon her. For all we know, she may well wish to be as carefree, as filled with dynamic sprezzatura, as Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s more fortunate heroines, but the social dynamic, and the circumstances of her birth, deny her the security necessary for such frivolity. Fanny has too much at stake to be easygoing.

(H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)

4. The oldest song in the world (that someone managed to write down).

5. Please, let this latest Harry Potter short story be the last one.

6. Alex Pappademas sets forth the case that Speed (which came out 20 years ago this summer) represents something of a transition point between the action movies of the 1980s (like Die Hard) and The Matrix:

It’s said Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise turned down the part of Jack Traven, an LAPD officer who boards a Santa Monica city bus that a madman has wired to explode if it slows down. So did Stephen Baldwin and Richard Grieco, who’d later admit to Movieline that he thought Graham Yost’s original script “sucked.” De Bont says he cast Reeves for his “innocence, sweetness and romantic quality,” which is not traditionally what you go to Cruise or Willis for; Reeves signed on only after a now-legendary uncredited rewrite by Joss Whedon transformed Traven from a wisecracking cowboy cop in the John McClane mold into a more earnest, thoughtful problem-solver caught up in an impossible situation. There are still traces in the finished movie of the Bruce Willis flick it might have been, especially at first. An elevator is in danger of falling, and someone asks if there’s anything that can stop it. Reeves — sporting a newly buff Gold’s Gym body, a buzz cut, and a light sweat-sheen — stops chewing gum long enough to quip, “Yeah — the basement.” It’s a funny line, but in the context of what Reeves does as Traven in the next 90 minutes, it rings retroactively false, a concession to the rules of the genre.

Cool guys don’t look at explosions; cool action-movie guys take command of a situation through physical force, borderline-nihilistic fearlessness, this-time-it’s-personal rage-channeling, and attitudinal one-liners. Reeves’s performance as Traven scrambles those masculine codes so thoroughly that he almost belongs in a conversation about the emergence of the female action hero, also a mid-’90s phenomenon. He exhibits toughness and bravery when required, but it’s his traditionally “feminine” qualities — his sensitivity, his compassion, his capacity for lateral thinking — that carry the day. When a confused passenger pulls a gun, Traven defuses the situation by persuading him that they’re all in this together; later, when an argument breaks out on the bus, he stops it by calmly placing his hand on one man’s shoulder instead of knocking him out. And he’s able to focus on the human factors in this crisis because of the partnership he’s forged with Sandra Bullock’s Annie, which — at least until it takes the inevitable romantic turn — is itself a subversion of the male savior/female victim dynamic traditionally asserted in movies like this one. Here it’s the woman who operates heavy machinery and the man who sees to her emotional needs. “Are you all right? Is there anything I can do?” he asks, after Annie watches the old lady get blown up after attempting to jump to freedom.

To Pappademas, there is “something Buddhist” about Reeves’s portrayal of Travern — and that of course ties into the portrayal of Neo some five years later.

7. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles makes for excellent binge-viewing. And the stand-out performances are, of course, from Summer Glau and Lena Headey.

8. Regarding “Gene Roddenberry’s half-baked ideas about the future and his obsession with peace”:

If you look at the early interior drafts of the Galaxy-class ships, you’ll see his vision (which the producers kept in check) was for the Galaxy-class ships to be “city ships” that were the pinnacle of the UFP’s “flag” and would always put such a positive foot forward that few would attack them, and when or if it did happen, then the crews of these ships would be so talented, that they could always weasel their way out without much of a fight.

He wanted the ships to be staffed with—essentially—a utopian crew who never fought and who always worked in perfect harmony. The drama would always be provided by external stimuli. The crew would resolve these issues through passion, intelligence, and teamwork.

Roddenberry’s schmaltzy, soclialist-lite vision of the 24th Century Federation is largely responsible for the preachy, sanctimonious tone of the first season — which is one factor contributing to the overall weakness of the first season. (Other factors include the fact that most of the main cast actors were not yet comfortable in their roles — which is not uncommon in first seasons.) Here’s what happened next:

Roddenberry’s idea sucked. The moment he died, the producers backpedaled as quickly as possible from everything he wanted. And like George Lucas, he could not be trusted to materialize his dream because it was far too meta for most audiences to grasp. A TV show needs to make money, and to make money they need drama.

So, by the The Next Generation movies, Deep Space 9, and Star Trek: Voyager, ships were run more in line with a military organization than as some quasi-paramilitary scientific organization. The reason is simple: Despite what you see in the show, Starfleet is clearly a military organization. Not “quasi,” not “semi.” It’s a full-fledge military organization, with military training, schooling, ranks, weapons, tactics, and design.

And with the addition of the Borg, Cardassians, and Dominion, the nail was driven into coffin of Roddenberry’s “utopia” ideas. …

9. Over at Duck of Minerva, Charli Carpenter has written the best review I’ve seen of season 4 of Game of Thrones. Please do read in full.

(There are SPOILERS at the link above, and in the remainder of this post. And at all of the links that follow. Be warned.)

Meanwhile, Scott Meslow thinks that the show should “abandon the books” and strike off in a different direction. I am skeptical.

The event (or non-event) that occasioned Meslow’s suggestion was the fact that Lady Stoneheart did not appear at the end of the season finale (as she does at the end of A Storm of Swords). It is possible that Lady Stoneheart will appear next season. This interview with the relevant actress seems to indicate otherwise, but that could just mean that the producers and the actress and others involved are keeping things under the lid, or playing misdirection games. On the other hand, it is also possible that the showrunners have decided to omit the Lady S character entirely. They’ve omitted other characters from the books so far, although I can’t think of any other omitted characters that are as important to the plot as this one. Such an omission would affect the future storylines of Jaime and Brienne, at the least. And, if they do plan to omit Lady Stoneheart, that removes one of the reasons for showing the resurrection of Lord Beric Dondarrion in season 3.

(It’s also possible that Lena Headey is playing mind games with fans in her Instagram spoilers.)

And, here’s a good list of fan theories surrounding the Song of Ice and Fire series. Some of these I had heard before (and I have long believed that R+L=J), but most are news to me. I like the theories about Meera Reed and Howland Reed. And Sansa.

(This is my first post after being away from the blog for a while. Nothing serious — just a confluence of travel, work, and other things kept me away.)

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