Monthly Archives: October 2011

Zombies! They’re everywhere! Run! (or THE best running app you’ll ever find)

The folks that came up with this are brilliant: ZOMBIES, RUN! (A running game & audio adventure for iOS/Android by Six to Start and Naomi Alderman). As they say:

Zombies, Run! is an ultra-immersive game for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android where you help rebuild civilisation after a zombie apocalypse. By going out and running in the real world, you can collect medicine, ammo, batteries, and spare parts that you can use to build up and expand your base – all while getting orders, clues, and story through your headphones.

If you find your running routine is getting stale, this could be the perfect way to reinvigorate it. I haven’t tried this yet, but I am thinking about it, especially for winter, when running becomes that much more challenging.


How blogging changed economics and academia in general, or why “social” media is really “open” media

Paul Krugman has an insightful blog post regarding blogging and it’s effect on the study of economics: Our Blogs, Ourselves – It’s worth a read even if you are not interested in economics, for it deals with something bigger. The bigger thing is that blogging and social media is changing the way we develop new ideas. As Krugman points out, things had been changing for sometime. What blogging has done is accelerate that change and make things more open. I don’t think this is limited to blogging: any field of academic study is being affected by this. I strongly believe that.

In IT, open source technology has allowed people to create software any other technology that would not be possible otherwise. This openness made great advances possible. It now looks like social media is doing the same thing in the world of ideas. Maybe we need to change the term from “social media” to “open media”.

Pope Leo XIII and the Roman Catholic Church in the modern world

The Catholic Church approaches the modern world in fits and starts, it seems to me. One leader of the church that did approach the modern world and attempt to reconcile it with the Church was Pope Leo XIII. As it says in Wikipedia:

As soon as he was elected to the papacy, Leo XIII worked to encourage understanding between the Church and the modern world. When he firmly re-asserted the scholastic doctrine that science and religion co-exist, he required the study of Thomas Aquinas[16] and opened the Vatican Secret Archives to qualified researchers, among whom was the noted historian of the Papacy Ludwig von Pastor.

Leo XIII was the first Pope of whom a sound recording was made. The recording can be found on a compact disc of Alessandro Moreschi’s singing; a recording of his performance of the Ave Maria is available on the web. He was also the first Pope to be filmed on the motion picture camera. He was filmed by its inventor, W. K. Dickson, and blessed the camera while being filmed.[17][18]

Leo XIII brought normality back to the Church after the tumultuous years of Pius IX. Leo’s intellectual and diplomatic skills helped regain much of the prestige lost with the fall of the Papal States. He tried to reconcile the Church with the working class, particularly by dealing with the social changes that were sweeping Europe. The new economic order had resulted in the growth of an impoverished working class, with increasing anti-clerical and socialist sympathies. Leo helped reverse this trend.

While Leo was no radical in either theology or politics, his papacy did move the Church back to the mainstream of European life. Considered a great diplomat, he managed to improve relations with Russia, Prussia, Germany, France, England and other countries.

Pope Leo XIII was able to reach several agreements in 1896, which resulted in better conditions for the faithful and additional appointments of bishops. During the Fifth cholera pandemic in 1891 he ordered the construction of a hospice inside the Vatican. That building would be torn down in 1996 to make way for construction of the Domus Sanctae Marthae.[19]

His favorite poets were Virgil and Dante.[20]

A simple illustration of this is his appearance in this film in 1896 (1896!)

Remarkable video of a remarkable man.

Skateboarding in India

Skateboarders roll across Indian cities. Beautiful in different ways.

India : Oxelo Skateboards on Vimeo

Why the Occupy movement and the We Are the 99 Percent matters

Here’s a recent study blogged about and presented by the directory of Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in the U.S. on Trends in the Distribution of Income.

Notice the focus on the 1%, including here:

What is happening in the U.S. and elsewhere is a focus on the inequalities (and more) between various economic groups. The inequality is not new, but the focus is new, and it is a result of the efforts of groups of people striving to highlight the financial difficulties that they are having. If people say it doesn’t matter, they are wrong. The ability to shift the focus in a culture matters is a big deal. It’s a big deal that the Occupy movement and the We Are the 99 Percent people have managed to achieve.

Low tech secrets on how to recover lost data on your hard disk or save your mobile device if it gets wet

If you are having a problem with your hard disk and it is removable from your computer, one thing you can do is freeze it! Yes! Here is the method my manager used to recover data. It’s not 100% foolproof, but it will allow you to recover data you might not get otherwise.

As for mobile devices that get wet and stop working, once trick is to get a container of uncooked rice. If you have an iPhone, bury it under the rice. If you have a Blackberry or some other device with a removable battery, remove the battery and any other removable parts and put them aside while you bury the device under the rice. Leave it there for a few hours (or overnight). The rice will draw the water away from the internals of the device and may allow it to recover. (Sometimes it does: other times, it will be too far gone). After you are, throw the rice in the garbage.

Midnight music: Lykke Li – Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?

The classic song by The Shirelles never gets old. The latest cover I know is Lykke Li ‘s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Here it is

P.S. 50 years ago The Shirelles were the first African-American girl group to top the Billboard Hot 100 with this wonderful piece of music. Something to celebrate, for sure.

Florence and the Machine deserve better videos (like the kind Lykke Li gets)

I love Florence and the Machine. The have a new video out, and while it is a great song, it’s a not so great video (to say the least). Maybe if I was 14, I would think it was really smart, but that type of montage was old 20 years ago, and it seems even older now. If you want to see it, it’s here: Florence + The Machine – Shake It Out.It’s a shame, because as you can see from this live performance, the only thing you need to do is put them on stage and they are great. No overwrought videos necessary. Here they are performing what already seems like a classic: You’ve Got The Love (LIVE from Bonnaroo, 2011).

Maybe Florence and the Machine should find out who Lykke Li gets to do her videos. Like them or hate them, hers are never boring or stale:

Lykke Li – Little Bit – YouTube (much better sans Drake).

Great value wines at the LCBO under $15: Mas des Dames (La Dame) 2008

MAS DES DAMES LA DAME 2008 was given 91 points by Wine Spectator and rated number 1 in terms of value for money for wines from Languedoc. It’s made up of grenache, syrah, and cariginan and while some of these reviews talk about it’s spice and fruit, what I like about it is its earthy/peaty qualities. It wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but if you tire of excessive fruit forward wines from places like Australia, try this.

(Math) T shirt of the day (year?)

How awesome is that? Truly awesome! Go buy one here: ThinkGeek :: pi*z*z*a

Late night music: Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You

So good….

Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You from Letterman

Who is the 1% the 99% is talking about?

Well, this chart provided by Matt Yglesias (99 Percent Inequality Sign Occupy Wall Street) sums it up neatly:

Who are the 1%? The rich, of course. The 1% get richer, and the 99% does not.

Where Facebook is not (quite a few places, actually)

This is a brilliant mashup: overlaid the NASA map of the world showing where people live (in yellow) with Facebook usage (in black). Brazil is a big user of Orkut, so not surprised about that. Eastern Europe and most of Asia also use other social networks, as I suspect is true of Africa. For a bigger version, go to Station: The UnFacebook World

So GM made an anti-bike ad….

That looked like this:

which I discovered here (GM: Bikes will make you unattractive to ladies | Grist). Lucky I did, for the ad did not last long. According to the good people that respond on GM’s twitter feed, the ad was pulled. Alas, not before it got a response like this:

Found here (The Urban Country Bicycle Blog: Giant Responds to GM Ad).

That is all.


Some thoughts on the passing of Dennis Ritchie, computer titan

It is odd to think that one of the most important people in the history of computers just died and most people don’t know who he is. I would like to think people would link to know about Dennis Ritchie. A good place to start is here: Dennis Ritchie: The Shoulders Steve Jobs Stood On | Wired Enterprise |

To be honest, it wasn’t just Steve Jobs that stood on his shoulders. Everyone did, and everyone continues to. AIX, Linux, Sun Solaris, the Android OS and Mac OSX all derive from the work he did. When you combine iOS and other UNIX based OSs, you can say that most digital devices in the world are based on the work Ritchie did. Not to mention all the other things that the WiReD article points out. When it comes to digital technology, it really is Dennis Ritchie’s world.

Another thing I would  like to point out is the work he did on this book:

I would argue that this is the best technical book ever written. It is like The Elements of Style of technical books. It is is concise, clear and comprehensive. It even has something I think is really innovative: a chapter zero. This was brilliant in two ways: one, it allowed new developers to get started writing useful code without having to know too much about the language (a great incentive to keep learning) and two, it made alot of sense to start at chapter zero, because the language itself starts counting at zero for some things (e.g. arrays). I still have my copy of it, and for simple algorithms, I will pull it out to use as an example, since the code is so well written.

So not only did Dennis Ritchie pioneer (with others) the UNIX operating system and the C programming language, but he cowrote the best technical book ever written. More importantly, all of the work that came after his was influenced by him.

That is why you will see so many technical people lamenting his death. He truly was a titan.

Is reshoring the next trend?

According to this, China labour costs push jobs back to US –, the U.S. is seeing companies relocate or place manufacturing jobs there rather than offshore locations like China. The reason is twofold (see the quote I put in bold):

Rising Chinese labour costs are changing the economics of global manufacturing and could contribute to the creation of 3m jobs in the US by 2020, according to a study being released on Friday.

The Boston Consulting Group analysis says the new jobs will be generated by a “re-shoring” of manufacturing activity lost to China over the past decade.

“Re-shoring is part of a broad trend that will emerge as … production gradually swings back to the US,” Hal Sirkin, a senior partner at the consultancy, told the Financial Times.

The Boston Consulting Group estimates that the trend could cut the US’s merchandise trade deficit with the rest of the world, excluding oil, from $360bn in 2010 to about $260bn by the end of the decade. The shift would also reduce its soaring deficit with China, which reached $273bn in 2010 and has triggered an intense political controversy over China’s exchange rate policies.

While Chinese labour costs are rising, US competitiveness has been improving,” says Mei Xu, the Chinese-born co-owner of Chesapeake Bay Candle, which makes candles and other home fragrance products. “We can invest in automation to make our candles in a factory near Baltimore for a similar cost to doing the same job in China.”

Let’s see if this trend picks up strength.

More smart uses of Big Data: this time using twitter to study people’s moods

I am late to this, but I still find it fascinating that they were able to produce this study using just tweets. But they did, and as it says in the, our Moods on Twitter Follow Biological Rhythms. Quote:

However grumpy when they wake up, and whether they stumble to their feet in Mumbai, Mexico City or Minnetonka, Minn., people tend to brighten by breakfast time and feel their mood taper gradually to a low in the late afternoon, before rallying again near bedtime, a large-scale study of posts on the social media site Twitter found.

What I f

The number one reason you shouldn’t worry about how slowly you run


Motivational: no matter how slow you go you are still lapping everybody on the couch – iSawthisImage | iSawthisImage

Beyoncé: thief or remixer?

I wrote before asking whether Beyoncé’s video of Run The World was Homage or ripoff? (Beyoncé’s Run The World (Girls) in comparison to M.I.A.’s Boyz). I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. I also thought this was an isolated occurrence, but apparently not.

Since then, here’s a video of her Countdown video spliced in with work of Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker

And here’s another performance, this time of her 2011 Performance at the Billboard awards put side by side with a work by Lorella Cuccari.

You can read criticism against her here (Beyoncé accused of ‘stealing’ dance moves in new video | Stage | and supporting her here (Bob Dylan, Beyonce Face Questions Of Artistic License : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture : NPR)

Reading this material, I had the following thoughts, many of them contradictory

  • this is merely video sampling. If you think it is acceptable to sample audio, why not video or choreography
  • this is more than just sampling, this is taking major ideas without credit and using it to make your own copy of an original work
  • this is good for the artists that Beyoncé uses: they get far more recognition than they would if she did not use their material
  • this is bad for the artists, since they don’t receive any financial benefit from Beyoncé or the record label, and they if weren’t for the Internet, they’d get no credit
  • Beyoncé is a great artist, and all artists steal
  • If Beyoncé is a great artist, what is she bringing to the work? And why does she take so liberally from these artists?
  • This has nothing to do with Beyoncé: it has to do with the video director. Beyoncé is mostly a singer and a dancer who depends on the director
  • This has alot to do with Beyoncé since she is likely heavily involved with the video

Contradictory thoughts aside, I think this would be a non-issue if Beyoncé asked choreographers up front for either new work or permission to use their work and that she adequately compensated them. Beyoncé is a big star, and no doubt makes alot of money. Some of that money should go to the other artists that she depends on.

Some thoughts on my blog reaching half a million views

Sometime last night my blog reached 500,000 views. I started it on April, 2007 as a way of getting away from sending interesting links to people via email. Simple as that.

I don’t really know if this is “good” or not. Certainly my views pale in comparison to premiere bloggers. I am sure even some of my peers easily surpass that. On the other hand, I know it can be difficult at first to get anyone to read your blog, and because of that, I am happy for all the people that have.

For me, I think it is a great milestone to reach. I had few expectations when I started the blog, other than I hoped that the people that I used to email links to would go and read them on my blog. Along the way, I was happy to be able to look back over what I blogged about a year or two ago and think: oh yeah, that happened! And while I don’t think I am a great writer, what I am happy for is that blogging on a regular basis has helped improved my writing and my thinking.

Most of the time I am trying to squeeze in a blog post among all the other things that I have to do at work and at home. There’s very little time for revisions and editing. Some of the longer posts have alot of effort poured into them, but most of the time, I think certain things are interesting and I’d like to share them with smart people I know. I am happy to see how many more smart people that I have come to know in the time since I started.

As always, thanks for reading this.

This is a great example of Big Data: the Billion Prices Project

If you haven’t heard of the The Billion Prices Project, you should check out this New Yorker article by James Surowiecki. In short,

 The B.P.P., which was designed by the M.I.T. economists Alberto Cavallo and Roberto Rigobon, gathers price data not via survey but, rather, by continuously scouring the Web for prices of online goods around the world. (In the U.S., it collects more than half a million prices daily—five times the number that the government looks at.) Using this information, Cavallo and Rigobon have succeeded in building what amounts to the first real-time inflation index. The B.P.P. tells us what’s happening now, not what was happening a month ago. For instance, after Lehman Brothers went under, in September, 2008, the project’s data showed that businesses started cutting prices almost immediately, which suggested that demand had collapsed. The government’s numbers, by contrast, didn’t show this deflationary pressure until that November. This year, there’s been a mild uptick in annual inflation, and again the B.P.P. detected the new trend before the Consumer Price Index did. That kind of early heads-up could help governments make more timely decisions.

It’s a brilliant example of how the smart combination of computing power and vast amount of data on the Internet to produce something not possible otherwise. Read the rest of the article to find out more of the B.P.P.

How to age gracefully as a rock star

Many of the rock musicians of my youth have not aged well. All sorts of things go wrong: they lose their vocals or other skills, they try to act young when they are clearly not, or they simply don’t look like rock stars anymore. Few have aged gracefully.

This weekend I came across a rare example of some rock stars that have aged well: Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. Here they are in 1976 performing Rhiannon (on the great Midnight Special):

And here, decades later, performing Landslide:

As they aged, the subject matter for the songs matured, at least for this song. The way they look is great, but it is toned down and fitting for their age. They are blessed still with great vocals (in her case) and great guitar hands (in his case), and if her voice is deeper, it is no less nuanced and expressive.

I love both these videos. I am impressed every time I watch a Midnight Special video. That show was well produced, and the musicians that appeared on it really brought it to the performance. Buckingham played great back then, too, and Nicks was on fire singing Rhiannon. As for Landslide, I like how she goes behind him for the guitar solo: that’s a nice piece of stagecraft. Both well done. Aging rock stars should take note.

Late Night Music with Aloe Blacc and Otis Redding

I think Aloe Blacc is great. Here’s a video of him doing “Tonight Downtown” which has a great retro feel to it

Nicely done: well shot video, great band, and Aloe Blacc brings greatness to everything he sings.

However I can see fans of Otis Redding and his peers grumbling. To which I say: why not enjoy both! Better still, if young people end up watching Otis and Sam and Dave and many others because of Aloe Blacc, then that’s great.

For young people who haven’t heard Otis Redding, here’s a taste:

One thing that was great about The Blues Brothers film and the film The Commitments was that it reintroduced great music to younger audiences that may not have heard it. I think Aloe Blacc can do that too.

Meanwhile, I’d love to see more Otis on YouTube. Music/TV companies: get on that.

Aloe Blacc performing “Tonight Downtown” and Otis Redding performing “Pain in my heart”

Practical philosophy: Steven Pinker has a new book on the decline of violence and Peter Singer reviews it

Steven Pinker has been talking on the decline of violence in civilization for some time now (Steven Pinker on the myth of violence at TED). Now he has a new book out The Better Angels of Our Nature and the philosopher Peter Singer has a strong review of it. Singer makes the case for why you want to read it, and if you want to whet your appetite, watch the TED video linked above as well as read the review. Then get the book.

Subject matter aside, what I like about this is how approachable both these philosophers are. (Technically Pinker is a psychologist, but I’d argue that what he is doing is philosophizing.) You may not agree with their thinking and their arguments, but you can think about them. Their philosophy is a practical one. I’d like to see more philosophers being able to write and engage people like this.

Two of the greatest living artists – Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer – in action

Here is Gerhard Richter and here is Anselm Kiefer. Great footage of both of them in action, doing large scale works. Awesome.

More late night driving music: Sara Bareilles – Vegas

Sara Bareilles – Vegas – YouTube

Late Friday night driving around music (Nelly Furtado – I’m Like A Bird)

Nelly Furtado – I’m Like A Bird – YouTube

Before there was WiReD or the Internet, there was the Whole Earth Catalog and Review….

And Co-Evolution Quarterly. One of the thin, silver linings from the death of Steve Jobs is the increased awareness of the Whole Earth Catalog and associated publications. I was lucky enough to have a high school teacher that had been subscribing to these and who gave me alot of them. If you heard they were great, you heard right. For example, this issue here:

was jam-packed with challenging ideas about the body and what it means. It was like a lightening bolt hit me when I read it. Alot of the Whole Earth Review magazines were like that: you came away 10 times smarter for absorbing the ideas. Not surprisingly, two of the innovative thinkers of the 20th century, Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly (also of WiReD), were associated with these things.

The great news is that you can now download the PDF versions of these magazines (for example, Whole Earth Review Summer 1989 – Electronic Edition).

I cannot recommend this material highly enough. They’d be perfect for your ebook reader.

What I remember about Steve Jobs and Apple from way back when 30 years or so

I have been following the doings of Steve Jobs and Apple since the early 80s, before the Macintosh, even. I can recall the ads for the Apple II computers, as well as the first Macintosh ads (I still have them, stored away). Between the time when he started Apple and when he was fired is what I remember as Steve Jobs v1.0. The Steve Jobs that came back to Apple was to me Steve Jobs v2.0. Same guy, but things changed with him and with the company he founded in the years he was away.

Unlike Jobs 2.0, I don’t recall the same adulation and love for the first Jobs. If anything, it was the other Apple employees that felt that love. Woz, who was so important in the early days. Techies loved Woz. He was a geek like them. The engineers who worked on the Mac, they were admired. Steve was seen as “and Steve”. Techies loved the other guys, not Steve. That changed over time, but back then, the actual Apple technical people were the guys who were loved. And computers were mostly about technical people back then.

I think that changed as computers, especially Apple computers, became less devices for geeks and more devices for everyone. People wanted to use computers, and they were buying them, but hated dealing with them. (Ask anyone who had to install device drivers on Windows 3.1 or later, when the phrase “plug and play” changed to “plug and pray”). Apple computers made that all go away. They made computers usable. Apple had always made computers desirable for what they could do. Making them usable and user friendly made them even more desirable.

Since the early days, Apple and Steve Jobs were always “the other guys”. They were not IBM. They were not Windows. Heck, they weren’t even the homebrew – CP/M guys. They didn’t wear suits. If the motto of IBM was “Think”, the motto of Apple was “Think Different”. But though they were different, they weren’t always the underdog. When the first Mac ads came out, Bill Gates was just another guy along with Mitch Kapor (remember him?) who was stuck in the middle of the multipage ad for the product, offering praise for how good it was. And when IBM first starting making PCs, Apple was still the leader in alot of ways. But that changed, and in many ways, I think that suited Steve Jobs better. After he left, Apple tried to “fit in”, while he never did. When he came back, he came back on his terms, and Apple and Jobs stood out.

Steve Jobs was always a detail oriented guy. I remember the story of how he criticized the early Apple engineers, saying the boot up time for the Mac was too slow. It is a little thing, but it matters. And that’s the thing about Jobs: while there was always Woz and Ive and Cook and others who did the work, it was Jobs that drove them on. That wasn’t always apparent with Steve 1.0. If anything, it felt like he was stealing the glory from other people. Over time, though, it didn’t seem that way to me anymore, and Jobs often mentioned the work of others later in life. He was the catalyst that made people greater than they would be otherwise.

No one mentions Steve Jobs and the reality distortion field much anymore, but perhaps that is the strength of Steve Jobs that he made people forget about that. But if you talked to early Apple employees and others, it used to be mentioned alot. It was still there, of course. Even I feel it when I watch him talk. He was a great communicator, and he could make people excited about things like no one else could. I think that is one of the reasons Apple users came to love him: he convinced them that they too were special for using Apple technology. By using Apple products, you were smarter, more sophisticated, discriminating; you were a person that appreciated the finer things in life. Of course people aren’t stupid or naive, but that feeling that Apple and Jobs make you feel for using their products never goes away. (Ask a Dell user if they feel that.)

I never bought a new Apple computer, even though I always admired them. For one thing, I could never justify the cost. For another, I never cared for the cachet that came with having one: if anything, that turned me off. I love jalopies, and I love computers that are jalopies. Apple computers were always the opposite of that. I liked tinkering with computers, and I liked the openness of computers. Apple was not about that and never was. Apple and Jobs said: trust us, we know better. They’ve been that way since the beginning. I liked computers that said: you want to change that, go ahead, feel free. I liked that freedom. I was never going to be an Apple user. I use Windows because it is convenient and Unix / Ubuntu because I love it and what it allows me to do.

One thing that Jobs did, which is something I admirable greatly about him as a CEO, is that he learned how to make his devices cheaper while having them still excel. The prices of peripheral stuff when it comes to Apple products is still too high, but the main devices, the iMacs and the iPods and the iPhones, all came in at a smart price point. I think this is something that Apple with Steve Jobs 1.0 didn’t know or didn’t care to do. (Think: Apple tax.) Maybe he thought that Apple should be expensive because expensive means better. Same with NeXT computers: they were the best, so of course they cost alot. Steve Jobs 2.0 didn’t operate that way. Instead, he (and Cook and others) designed it so that Apple products were not just the best, but the best priced as well. They have never lost sales or marketshare to price since then, I don’t think. If anything, they win on price. (Ask HP and their tablet folks).

I liked this photo of Jobs taken in 1982. He reminds me of alot of Silicon Valley start up types in this picture, but he wasn’t. Computer people/users used to be divided up into geeks and hippies. People still try to put him in the hippie camp, but what I liked about him was that he was bigger than that. He liked all kinds of things outside those two stereotypes, and he allowed people like myself and many others to like and enjoy computers without feeling like I had to be one of those things. If Apple was closed in alot of ways, how it was most open was how it encouraged the rest of us to use computers, regardless of our background. This is a great thing, and I think that Steve Jobs was responsible for that.

Whatever his detractors might say (and I expect they will crop up in the months to come), Steve Jobs was a great man. Not perfect, but great. You may even say “insanely great”. R.I.P.

(Photo by Diana Walker, linked to from Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011) « Iconic Photos.)

Some thoughts on The Tree of Life

I finally went to see The Tree of Life tonight, and I loved it. However when I said that I was going, a number of people responded that they didn’t like it, and I can see why. I thought I would jot down some of the things I thought of as I watched it, in the hopes that it might make people revisit the film and appreciate it more.

My very first thought about it is was that this a religious film. Take the title of the film. There are two trees in the garden of Eden, one of which is the Tree of Life. (The other is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). After the title, the film starts with a passage from the Book of Job. So the film starts out religiously and continues on for the entire film.

Watching the film, I thought about the Tree of Life and how if you eat from it you will live forever (i.e. not die).  This and the notion of the Garden of Eden is significant to the story of the film.  (As for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that is the one with the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve eat, causing God to expel them from the Garden of Eden. After they are cast out, God specifically bars them from the eating from The Tree of Life lest they become like God).

I think the film has much in common with a poem, hymn or religious music. Certainly the beginning felt that way to me. While there is a strong narrative at times, in the early part of the film it is impressionistic (as some have said), and the film is close to a visual poem or hymn. If you watch Mallick like you would a traditional filmmaker, you might expect a stronger narrative overall. If you do, you may be frustrated or disappointed. Mallick doesn’t totally disregard narrative, but it is only part of what he uses to structure his film. Think about a poem or a musical composition. If you hear either of those two, you don’t think: what’s the story here? There may be one, but you realize that there are other ways to approach to work. The same is true of Mallick’s work. The narrative is just part, and not necessarily the most important part, of the film. If anything, you need to see the film, not follow the film. Mallick thinks hard about what he wants you to see. You have to see it. It’s not a simply a visual depiction of a story.

That doesn’t mean he just throws a bunch of gorgeous images on the screen. He is trying to communicate things visually: it just may not be fastened to a traditional narrative. Think of a great representational painting: you may see a story at first being told, but eventually you start looking at the painting itself and how it works as a painting. It helps to do that with Mallick’s films.

I think one of the key things to consider is that God is also a character in the film.  This character has a story to tell and he interacts with the other characters. That it is the God of Job is also significant. In the Book of Job, a number of things are addressed. One of them is that God is overwhelming great and that as humans our lives are specks in the eye of this God. When God is called to account by Job’s comforters, he blasts back that no person can call him to account, given what he can do. In this film, woven in amongst the story of Sean Penn’s character (Jack) is God’s own story. This God creates the universe, the Earth, and all that live on it. The same God destroys Earth at the end of the film. In between these times, he creates this planet that we live on, a planet teeming with life. This planet he creates is tens of  millions of years old, so old that many species come and go, including dinosaurs. (A little bit of a dig at fundamentalists there). The characters in the film live their lives for the short time that they are on Earth, but their time and their lives are just an incredibly small thing in terms of God. When I watched the film and thought of God as one of the characters with his (her?) own story to tell,  then scenes that otherwise seemed bewildering or out of place made more sense.

I think it is also significant that this God is the God of Job. While the the book of Job shows how we as humans are nothing in comparison with God, it also addresses the suffering of human beings. Like Job, the characters in this film suffer a great loss, and they struggle to live with this and deal with this. Like the Book of Job, the film does not downplay our suffering, but rather tries to put it in context, and by doing so, hopes to lessen our suffering even as it does not try to explain it away. To live is to suffer, but to live as if suffering is paramount is to miss out what life is all about. Our lives are great, Life is great, and all of this is great because God is great. This, to me, is what the film strives to communicate. It is not that our suffering does not matter: it is that our suffering is only a small part of the much greater picture.

God is everywhere in this film. In scenes with people, Mallick often shoots from un-human perspectives, at angles well above or well below them. It’s as if God might see things, not another person. Yet God is not the main character.  Jack is the main character, and many of the shots are filmed from his perspective. But alot of shots in this film seemed like God’s perspective to me. To drive this home, I especially thought this when Jack’s mother points to the sky and said that God is watching. It as if Mallick wanted to emphasize this additional character in the film.

Like any great filmmaker, Mallick can zoom in or zoom out. For the scenes with God, obviously he zooms out. For the scenes of family, he zooms in. The result of that is these wonderfully detailed stories of Jack and his brothers living their lives with their friends and their parents. I think this zooming in and out bothers people. Zoomed in, the lives of the family is comprehensible, at least the everyday parts. But the suffering that people experience is only comprehensible by zooming out. I think this is what Mallick is trying to do with these zoomed out scenes that seem to make no sense in comparison to the zoomed in scenes of the family. But all together it makes a great deal of sense.

There is a degree of symbolism to the film, though with any symbolism, it is easy to over interpret it. I think it is interesting that the past for Jack is full of nature and grasses and trees and garden. The past is the Garden of Eden. Indeed, the Garden and the grass is his father’s, just like the Garden of Eden is God’s. (God the Father, in Christian terms.)  In contrast, in his future life, Jack is cast out from that, and everything around him – the buildings, the beach, the desert like places – are devoid of greenery.

Regarding other potential symbols, I thought at times that his parents represented two sides of God. His mom is the loving side of God, while the father is the just and harsh God. Yet this is too simple, for Jack’s father is as much of a man as anything. He is full of pride and ambition, and he pays a price for it.  Still, a Christian might say that his father represents the God of the Old Testament, while his mother represents the God of the new Testament.

I thought this especially when it came to the end of the film. In the end, Jack seems to transcend to Heaven, and he meets his family there on the beach. His mother’s  last words are that she gave up her son, much as God says in the New Testament. In the Old Testament, Abraham offers up his son to God to show his love and devotion. In the New Testament, God returns the offering by giving his own son to show his love and devotion. And so the loss of a child, while terrible, becomes transformed into an act that is ultimately beneficial and that allows us to transcend suffering. I think Mallick wants to show us that this great love is necessary and  is what we want to strive for, and ultimately is the only way to overcome our suffering.

To sum this up, I think The Tree of Life is a deeply religious film, and watching it this way made it very accessible and understandable and enjoyable for me. I don’t pretend to know everything about the film. I believe I am only skimming the surface of what Terrance Mallick hoped to achieve, and even then, I may be getting things wrong. But that’s what I thought during and after the film. And it is why I loved it.

As an aside, I think it is incredible that two great religious films were made this year. The other great film is Of Gods and Men, which I wrote about here: Some random thoughts on the wonderful Des Hommes et Des Dieux (Of Gods and Men) | Smart People I Know. Also highly recommended.

If you want to know more about The Tree of Life, you can start at Wikipedia.

Thanks for reading this.