Tag Archives: History

Thank you, Michael Bay. You have saved me $12.

My name is James Strocel. I have been a card-carrying Transformers fan ever since Generation 1 in the 1980’s. I say the following of my own free will. I will not be spending any money to see “Transformers 2: Revenge of The Fallen” this Summer. If I do so, I would be positively reinforcing actions that are a detriment to the world economy and my enjoyment of giant fighting robots. I would like to present the following as evidence in support of this stance.

While I did pay money to see the first transformers movie, I came away with a number of caveats. First of all, the story seemed to revolve around the human sidekicks more than it did the Transformers who I actually paid to see. Don’t get me wrong, history is full of examples where robots play prominently in a human-centred story-arc. The anime serials Gundam and Macross come to mind. However, the human story in this case surrounded Shia Lebeouf getting to first and a half base with Megan Fox. It seemed as though the writers felt that people would have trouble relating to the titular robots of Transformers, so they added all this extraneous filler to entice people who had already paid their ticket to watch a movie about robots. I was hoping that for the sequel, the good folks at Paramount would get their act together and give the Transformers the screen time they deserve. This will not be the case. The trailer at screened at the Showest film festival spent over one and a half minutes of a two and a half trailer explaining how Shia wanted to leave his transforming corvette at home so he can go off to college and be “normal”. Words cannot begin to describe what’s wrong with that statement.

The first Transformers film grossed over 700 million dollars worldwide. Anyone poke holes in my rationale by saying that Michael Bay is just giving the fans what they want. He doesn’t have to listen to me, an actual fan, because he has the numbers to tell anyone who doesn’t like his human interest stories to go to hell. If that’s the case, then I have some numbers of my own to show.

The Dow Jones has lost 50% of its value over the past year. The cascading effects of bank insolvency and freezing on lending has led to over $14 trillion dollars worth of companies being shut down. How did we get to this point? By pleasing two sets of people, prospective homebuyers unable to pay their mortgages, and investors looking for high risk and high return investments. Banks made billions by giving sub-prime mortgages to the first group and selling to the latter. People got what they wanted, but did they get what they need? Not by a long shot.

Designing our entertainment or any other product around “giving people what they want” is killing industries left and right. Pontiac finds out that people “want” extra plastic and spoilers on their cars, so they make a car like the Aztec. Papers make more money from advertising than from actual paper sales, so the pages are stuffed to foie-gras goose proportions with ads. If you run a business and are just “giving people what they want” you are abdicating your responsibility as an entrepreneur. When you try to engage all this marketing mumbo-jumbo by testing random samples with no vested interest your business, you are only fooling yourself. Entrepreneurs have a duty to make their products the best they can be, no matter what the polls say. People’s needs have remained the same for thousands of years, but what an entrepreneur does is take a small piece of the universe, be it coffee, toothpicks or even the laws of physics that allows your iPod to work and fashions it into a new frontier to satisfy those age-old needs. It’s like being in a tribe of hunter-gatherers and knowing which ridge leads to the best wild game. It would put you on the fast track to becoming chief hunter-gatherer. The very best entrepreneurs educate people. They know how to get the most benefit out of their products and they pass that knowledge on for a nominal fee.

I realize the philosophy of “giving people what they want” is not going to die over night. My absence at the theatre will be bearly noticed, and I have little hope of getting others to join me. However, we keep saying over and over that we need leadership to get us out of this crisis. We think that the leadership is going to come from our elected officials. I think that we’ll find that leadership in a decent cup of coffee, a well-made camera, or movies that don’t insult our intelligence. If we support decent leadership where we find it by our simple consumer choices, we support the very ideas and strategies that will get us out of any economic crisis.

The Trip Part 5: Corregidor Island

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It was like seeing the set of a big budget movie, only it really happened. Corregidor was a 90 minute ferry ride from the docks in Manila. Along the way we could see a myriad of tiny fishing boats bobbing up and down in the waves. From there, we loaded into open-air tour buses that reinforced the Universal Studio Tour feel. However, as we passed the distance numbers on the road and the dilapidated pill boxes in the trees, everything became just a little more real. None of this was for show, everything had a purpose of some kind. This was where the fate of the world was decided long ago.

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In British Columbia, there are no great battlefields. Aside from the paranoia of the Japanese internment camps, the bases for training soldiers, and perhaps the odd submarine, war was a stranger to my part of the world. All the battles for Canada as a nation were fought on the east coast.  BC’s border disputes were decided in the halls of government rather than through the barrel of a gun. Corregidor is unique among WWII battle zones. While London, Berlin, Pearl Harbor and Tokyo were all rebuilt for the sake of the people living there, Corregidor was home to no one save the birds and monkeys. Its guns were rendered obsolete by the events of the war.  In addition to the museums and monuments, the ruins of the base that once defended Manila bay serve as a reminder to those who died in the war.

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There something about all of those ruined structures that can’t be captured with photographs. A step in either direction reveals never-ending caverns of lonely building guts. It reminded me of the last scene in “Slaughterhouse Five” after the fire-bombing of Dresden. There really is such a silence after a massacre. It’s not the kind hear, though. At once you think about the people who made those buildings their home and the mechanical savagery by which they were destroyed. The bullet holes conjure images of a young soldier leaning on a machine gun trigger until his box of ammo was empty, yet the look on his face is the same as if he were working an industrial press.  The craters and pock-marked concrete were only a inkling of the violence that took place here.

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As the tour went on, we learned about how the Americans and Filipinos had defended the island until their ammunition and water had run out. We walked through Malinta Tunnel, where they had lived while the Japanese bombers deforested the island. When they surrendered, the Japanese marched all 72,000 of them up the Bataan peninsula, which we could see in the distance. 54,000 made the journey alive. When the Allies retook the island in 1945, the Japanese soldiers, honoring their Bushido code, would commit suicide by jumping off of cliffs overlooking the sea. That was where the Japanese government eventually erected their own shrines to the sons they had lost there.

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In this day and age, we are so removed from the horror of that time. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan almost seem like small-time thuggery by comparison. Americans, Filipinos, Canadians, and Japanese now visit this place as tourists, whereas 60 years ago they would have been the bitterest of enemies. The fact that there has been peace between those countries for so long raises a few questions. How could we reconcile what happened here with what we have today? What changed? Was it our ability to communicate over television and computers? Do our well-heeled post-war lifestyles prevent us from getting the idea to kill each other? And whatever caused this reconciliation, can we put in a bottle or a book or something so we can send it to places like Afghanistan and Iraq where they really need it?

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The Trip Part 4: Intramuros

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Intramuros, or literally “within the walls”, is the oldest district in all of Manila. It was constructed in 1571 over the remnants of an older Islamic settlement. For over 300 years, it was the cultural center of the city before it was almost destroyed at the end of World War II. The city was rebuilt in the 1980s under Imelda Marcos in an attempt to restore the Philippines’ history and national pride. If one wanted to explore the history of Manila, there was no better place. Whereas the rest of the city had the modern sheen of the 21st century, Intramuros retained the ornate trappings of Spanish colonialism with a few Chinese stone lions for a little Asian flavour. The buildings are beautiful enough on their own, but if you want to experience the history fully, you must employ the flamboyant story-telling of Carlos Celdran.

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Carlos is Filipino by birth, but went to graduate school in America and spent some time on Broadway. His tour of Intramuros is, in effect, a one man show about the history of the Philippines. Aided by a boom box, a large binder of photos, and a small but effective collection of props, Carlos crafts the story of a country built out of a mish-mash of foreign influences into something unique and beautiful. The tone was irreverent and light-hearted. Almost all of the Philippine historical figures get a good roasting. He called Douglas MacArthur a “Drama Queen” in reference to the good General’s penchant for catch-phrases, photo-ops, and political grand-standing.

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I was fascinated with the way Carlos described the darker moments in the city’s history during WWII. In the battle to take back Manila, 6 of the 7 Spanish cathedrals that had stood for centuries were reduced to rubble. Some were destroyed by the Americans as “collateral damage”. Others were destroyed by the Japanese to break the spirit of the Philippine people. In some ways, it had that very effect. This was puzzling. How could such places built by foreign conquerors mean so much to the people they were imposed upon? As the tour went on, Carlos gave us the answer. It didn’t matter which culture was there first or who had stayed the longest. All sorts of bits of culture from Spain, America, China and the Philippines itself had come together to create a place like no other in the world. So, why shouldn’t the Filipinos take pride in things on their land that have beauty and majesty? The Philippines is what is, no matter who had the idea for it first.

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I think that every country needs a Carlos Celdran. Every country needs a person or set of people that can take a look at that nation, warts and all, and use their love and resourcefulness to introduce that one country to the world like a member of the family. People like that make the world all the more worth exploring.

The Trip Part 3: De La Salle University and the Bamboo Organ

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Our trip wasn’t all lounging by the pool and enjoying fine home cooking. Sara and I are more of the museum type of tourists, and Judy was happy to oblige us. Our first outing took us to the Museo De La Salle. The first floor contained artifacts from the Spanish Colonial period, like furniture, Catholic shrines, and dresses (including one worn by the infamous Imelda Marcos). There was also a statue of the University’s patron Saint, John Baptist De La Salle. The second floor was a sight to behold. Our tour guide led us through the servant passages of an immaculate reproduction of 19th Century Spanish Patrician’s house. There are a few heritage houses in BC, but they are nothing like this. Every room was decorated from floor to ceiling with ornate paintings and intricately carved furniture. There was an entire Catholic chapel adjacent to the living room where services, weddings and funerals were all held for the Patrician’s family. There were segregated drawing rooms for both the men and the women (Simon opined that the boys must have sneaked in to see the girls room at some point, and vice versa). The dining room contained these massive fans that were waved by servants in an adjacent room via strings. The kitchen itself was large enough to employ a small army. The most interesting part of the house was the servant passages we were taking the tour through. Unlike the inner chambers, they seemed to get the most natural light of all the rooms. There were sliding doors going to all the rooms in the house so that the Patrician’s family would never see the servants. We were told that if a servant made eye contact with a member of the Patrician’s family or their guests, they would be sacked immediately.

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After lunch we were driven to Las Piñas City and the Church of St. Joseph, which contained the world’s only Bamboo Organ. The cool stone church was a welcome refuge from the tropical sun. One of the organ players was on hand to give us a demonstration. The sound was a lot warmer than a metal organ, and there was this interesting mechanism where air was pumped through a pool of water which made a sound like a flock of calling birds. In the basement of the church there was a small exhibit detailing the history of the organ and the church. The construction of the organ was a laborious process, involving burying large bamboo stalks in sand for long periods of time so they would not get eaten by insects before the organ was finished. The tour guide told us that the organ was only around 200 years old, but we said that was okay because it was still older than our own country. There was also a chronology of the Church’s history, depicting its trials through earthquakes, plagues, and war. It was apparent that the Philippines’ recent history had been quite tumultuous, as we would soon see in our tour of the old city of Intramuros.

Yet Another Obama Inauguration Post

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Yes, yes, I know. I’m going along with the crowd and making a post about the Obama inauguration. There are times when you have to be an individual, and this is not one of those times. There is a Black US President. No one can ignore that. It’s also a change in power in one of the darkest economic times in recent memory. Any way you look at it, it was history. My wife had the inauguration on the TV in her classroom and one of her students asked, “Are my kids going to learn about today in Social Studies?”

I don’t believe there is anyone who heard that inauguration speech and didn’t feel like kicking ass. Obama painted a picture of the future, and for the duration of that speech it sounded like an exciting place to live. True, there would be hardship and problems, but he reassured that heroes would be made in overcoming them. He also treated America’s enemies differently in his speech. No longer were they the numberless hordes who “hated freedom”. They were actual people, misguided in their ventures, but people nonetheless. I think that approach inspires courage more than it does fear. If Obama does nothing else in his term of office, he will at least be a treat to hear at all of his speaking engagements.

I think the people who were incensed by the appearance of Rick Warren at the inauguration need to grow up. Obama let him lead a prayer, he didn’t make him Secretary of putting-the-government-in-people’s-bedrooms. He will be as much a part of the American Religious landscape after Gay Marriage is allowed as he was before. He will also have to deal with it just like everyone else. The real work of of obtaining the right to marry for all will be done by proving that such a thing is good for society, not just by attacking some figurehead priest. Make no mistake, those bans will be lifted. It’s a when, not an if, and the years of social progress beforehand stand as evidence. After all, as the inauguration today proved, anything is possible.