Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lessons Learned from 22 years of Jurassic Park

Spoiler Alert! If you haven't seen Jurassic World yet and want to be surprised, you should probably save this until afterwards. If you haven't seen JP III yet... I suppose I can't blame you. Read on.

This past weekend, we went to go see Jurassic World and helped make box office history. This was the first time I'd seen a Jurassic Park movie in a theater since The Lost World (the second installment) came out in 1997. When Jurassic Park III came out in 2001, the thrid grader inside of me was in regression and, in my attempt to be an adult, I didn't give the movie much attention. I actually didn't see see Jurassic Park III until earlier this year. With the anticipation of Jurassic World coming out this summer, my buddy Joe and I "prepared" for the release by watching the first three. Actually, after watching JP III and seeing the previews for Jurassic World, I had developed some pretty strong theories about plot continuation. I was sure that the boy who got stranded and survived on the island in JP III would grow up to be Chris Pratt, raptor tamer, in Jurassic World. Also, I was positive that the raptor calls Dr. Allen used in JP III to save his crew would develop into a more sophisticated method of training velociraptors. Alas, it turns out Chris Pratt's steely gaze and snaps are actually all it takes to prevent raptors from disemboweling you.

Anyways, as I was walking back from the theater that night, I started reflecting upon all the lessons the Jurassic Park franchise has taught us over 22 years. We have books dedicated to surviving a zombie attack, and yet living side-by-side with dinosaurs is probably (slightly) more realistic. So I think it's time to start keeping track of these valuable lessons.

1. Fences do not contain dinosaurs. Time and time again, Jurassic Park shows us that dinosaurs manage to get out of their cages: whether that be due to electrical failure, not using enough tranquilizers or outsmarting us. Inevitably, some poor guy on the ground gets eaten when the carnivores get out of their cages. So, instead of trying to keep dinos in their cages, we should let them roam free and the tourists should stay off of the ground. In other words, put the humans in cages. They're much less likely to try to get out than the dinos. The obvious solution to me is to tour the island of Jurassic Park by suspended cable car or by monorail like at Disney World.  Seems like it would be much easier  and cheaper to protect a narrow, aerial transport corridor than keep meat-hungry dinosaurs inside pens with perimeters several miles-long. Whatever you do though, just don't use planes or helicopters. That did not work out well for JP III and Jurassic World cast members.

2. Dinosaurs are super romantic. Judging by the way that characters in the movies always seem to be rekindling existing relationships or making new ones, dinosaurs seem to be pretty good for one's libido. Whether it's Dr. Allen coming around to the idea of having babies with Dr. Sattler by the end of JPI, the parents putting their divorce aside in JPIII or Claire & Owen smooching by the end of Jurassic World, it's obvious that dinosaurs put love into the air. This is a solid selling point and should obviously be in any marketing plan for an actual Jurassic Park.

3. The best way to fight dinosaurs is with other dinosaurs. JP I and Jurassic World really bring this point home, but there's evidence in Lost World, too. If you're going to create dinosaurs, you'll inevitably have either a T-Rex, Velociraptor or some other ungodly creature chasing you. However, you'll notice that they almost never gang up on humans. If there's a fight between raptors and humans and you throw a T-Rex in the middle of it, the humans fall out and the raptor and T-Rex go at it. Looking at it through the lens of International Relations theory, dinosaurs live in a balance of power environment. Even though the T-Rex is "king" the others will create alliances if he gets too far out of bounds. Dinosaurs' main weakness is their susceptibility to divide-and-conquer tactics and that has usually been what saves the weakling humans from getting eaten. Only for a brief moment in Jurassic World do two breeds of dinosaurs team up, but this is an anomaly and there are complicating factors in that relationship that I won't go into here. Otherwise, if you're a woman or a kid, your chances of getting eaten are waaaaay lower than if you're a guy. Especially if you're a fat guy. Or you're an asshole. Dinosaurs really like to eat fat assholes.

4. Handle dino babies with extreme care. I strongly encourage re-watching the original Jurassic Park. It definitely stands the test of time and it's just fun. Also, you see little things that you might have missed when you saw it back in 1993. For example, when Nedry (aka, Newman) gets lost trying to smuggle embryos out of the park and drops the Barbasol can in the mud, the camera zooms in on it as we see it quickly get buried in mud. I guess this is some sort of ironic twist on the fossilization of dinosaurs and how some civilization, millions of years from now, would find a bunch of different embryos in this weird can. Anyways, given the attention Steven Spielberg paid to that Barbasol can in JPI, I kind of figured it was foreshadowing for some weird twist later on. I suppose it was symbolic of the the whole idea that Dr. Malcom's "chaos" would spoil John Hammond's carefully constructed fantasy. Or that fake Barbasol cans make for a lousy uterus. Later, characters learned the lesson of messing with dino babies much more overtly in subsequent installments. Taking a baby T-Rex or raptor egg is great for plot development but bad for life- expectancies.

5. Our answer to Rhino poaching? Triceratops Horn. As some of you may know, the illicit rhino horn market in Asia is driving the Rhinoceros to extinction. It's especially sad because men here spend millions of dollars on rhino horn thinking that it improved libido. As we've already seen, though, dinosaurs increase libido by just being around them. Being chased by them definitely seems to help more. Additionally, one of the most recognizable dinosaurs out there, the triceratops, has three large horns protruding from its face to help defend itself. One triceratops would yield way more horn than one rhinoceros and, seeing as it's a dinosaur, I imagine that we could convince rhino horn consumers that triceratops horn is more potent. If we could switch tastes in Asia, it could be our ticket to saving the rhino.

Of course, the moral implications of bringing dinosaurs back only to "farm" them for superstitious practices is something we'd need to work out. Admittedly, there are probably many other ways to curb rhino horn consumption, and Jurassic Park doesn't actually teach us anything about the medicinal value of triceratops horns... this one's a stretch. Maybe the JP franchise could eek out a fifth installment going off on this tangent. But in all seriousness, rhino poaching is a horrible practice and it makes me sick to think of people buying the stuff thinking that it will do them any good at all. I mean, at least cocaine and heroin come from regenerative plants so that the users are mostly just harming themselves.

Ok, now that I've gone from dinosaur containment practices to the awfulness of the rhino horn trade, I think it's time to wrap this one up. Next week, I'll get back to Vietnam. Thanks for indulging me on this little side-trip.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Learning Vietnamese

As we settle into life here in Saigon, I am concentrating more of my time on learning Vietnamese. While Bryn spent eight months learning Vietnamese, I only spent my last six weeks in the US actually going to Vietnamese class. Needless to say, she's way ahead of me when it comes to communicating around here. As I play catch-up, I'm noticing some interesting features of Vietnamese as well as having realizations about my own English language. 

First, Vietnam is one of the very few countries in Southeast Asia to use the Roman letter alphabet. Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and, of course, China all use very different alphabets that render most foreigners illiterate upon arrival. Vietnam adopted Roman letters back in the 19th century, though, so if you come here, you can at least make out the sounds of words you see on the street. This is a huge advantage to learning a language. In China, if you don't know the character, you don't know the word. Imagine walking down these two streets:

Ignoring the random English words thrown in the mix, you'd probably have a better chance navigating the second one (Saigon) than the first (Shanghai). If given a business card with the name "Ngoc Quyen", you'd be able to find it on the Saigon street. Unused to Chinese characters, you probably couldn't do the same thing on the Shanghai street. 

It's such a huge advantage to be able to learn a word in class and then be able to reinforce that by seeing that same word on the street in context. In China, I remember that happening, but it was so rare. Here in Saigon, it happens all the time. Now, listening to Vietnamese is just as foreign and confusing as listening to Chinese, but having the advantage of recognizable visual cues in Vietnam - the fact that I'm mostly literate here - makes a huge difference. 

The second thing I've noticed is that it's false to separate tonal and "non-tonal" languages. There is no such thing as "non-tonal" languages. The real difference is that in languages like Vietnamese or Chinese, the tones are set. Saying the same combination of letters with an upward, downward or alternating inflection will give the letters completely different meanings. Vietnamese officially has six different tones so that, theoretically, a word like "nha" could have six different meanings depending on what tone you use. Non-native Vietnamese speakers are stunned at this. But in English, or any other language for that matter, we use tones all the time, they just aren't formally written into the script. Think about saying the following sentence:

You went to the market on Tuesday.

Say that back to yourself in a flat tone. You are stating it as a fact. But now try playing with the tones. Depending on whether you raise or lower the tones or inflect certain words, you can infuse accusation, incredulity or condescension to that sentence. In English, we definitely use tones, they just aren't written. Our tones are up to the speaker to add and the listener to interpret. Sometimes that's why it's so easy to misinterpret the written word over the spoken. Reading Vietnamese, meanwhile, is like reading a sheet of music. If you substitute a D flat for a B sharp, the listener hears a mistake - not a change in tone. 

So imagine for a moment trying to learn English as a foreign language and figuring out the nuanced difference between a rising or falling tone in a sentence. That tone is written anywhere. Without the benefit of growing up with an English speaking mother, how is one supposed to know what an "accusatory tone" sounds like? It's important to be conscious of this - especially when speaking to people whose first language is not English. First, be aware of the tones you're using and second, assume that the meaning of those tones is completely lost on your listener. It's hard to do. 

So, when it comes to tones, I argue that English is actually the much more difficult language to speak. I try to keep this in mind as I struggle through Vietnamese class sounding like some amnesiac tropical bird trying to remember his song. The process is not beautiful, but at least I don't have to learn English!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Happy Birthday Buddha!

This past week was Buddha's birthday and we were in the traditional town of Hoi An this weekend to celebrate. Actually, it wasn't nearly that intentional. With a little dumb luck, we just happened to be in one of the best spots possible to celebrate Buddha's 2639th birthday.

Instead of trying to write all of this up, I feel like this week's post would be much better in the form of a photo-essay. After all, it was a very visual weekend so I'll let the pictures do most of the talking.

First of all, Hoi An is an old trading town in central Vietnam. The fact that it was a trade hub means that all sorts of nationalities and interests were at play here during the 16th and 17th centuries. As a result, each group built their own temples, meeting halls and shrines. Different variations of Chinese traders, Japanese monks and even a smattering of European merchants built their own meeting halls and places of worship. Today, all of these buildings make for a very eclectic town center. 

And that beautiful town center was looking especially good for Buddha's birthday. One of the traditional symbols of Buddha's birth is baby Buddha walking on seven lotus flowers. Legend has it, that lotus flowers bloomed in the footprints of Buddha's first seven steps. Most towns acknowledge this with a poster or maybe even a little shadowbox scene, but Hoi An exploited its geography by installing seven huge lotus floats in the river. We must have seen at least five wedding photo shoots happening around the lotuses Saturday evening. 

We were suckers and bought a few paper lanterns as soon as the ladies came out on the bridge to sell them. Being amateurs, we got caught up in the moment and lowered our lanterns well before dark. 

Our lanterns may not have added to stunning effect of seeing hundreds of glowing lights out on the river at night, but at least our lanterns were the first to start making their course towards the sunset. 

We actually ended up buying some more later that night to join in the fun. 

After a few hours hanging out near the river, we made our way further inland back towards our hotel. About a block before we got there, we found this temple decked out for Buddha's birthday and obviously ready to party. It turned out that we had already missed the main event, but we met some younger members who were lining up dozens of bicycles, attaching Buddhist flags and flowers to the baskets. We started talking to them and found out that they were organizing a bike ride around town the following morning. Would we like to come?

 Heck yeah we want to come along!

Sunday morning, we joined probably about 100 other bicyclists for an early morning Buddha-birthday-bike ride around the city. Even though we started at about 6:30, it was painfully hot and we took lots of breaks. By 8am, we were totally drenched and had made it back to the riverfront where we had played with lanterns the night before. 

The river was transformed. Thousands of locals lined the banks to watch the dragon boat races. 

This was actually one of my favorite parts of the day. Judging by the enthusiasm of some of the spectators (who slapped their paddles on the water to splash the teams and sprayed hoses into the boats' path) I had to assume that some amount of money was on this race. Or, I suppose, more importantly, Buddhist bragging rights. 

About eight boats raced in the first heat. As they approached the bridge, they prepared for the hairpin turn around a flag. 

This was a tricky maneuver and the teams had obviously been practicing. Whoever could make the tighter turn got the inside track and was better positioned for the sprint back to the finish line. But beware! One team learned the hard way that being too aggressive on the turn can cause the boat to take on too much water and....

Womp, womp. This boat sank so fast, I couldn't even capture it on camera before it went down. Judging by the way the one guy is holding his paddle, I don't think they realized what had happened until they started treading water. 

But everyone was fine, and after the race ended, they were even able to salvage the sunken boat and finish the race. 

...and the bike ride continued. I know the hat looks silly, but man, my head would have been a ripe tomato if I hadn't worn it. These hats are highly practical and should definitely be adopted in Texas. 

Fast forward about 36 hours and we're back in Saigon celebrating the last day of Buddha's birthday. I went to one of the largest temples in town for one last night of singing, dancing and reflecting upon the Buddha's teachings. For the first hour or so, one of the monks spoke to a congregation busting the seams of the temple. We had arrived early and so got seats up near the front, but by the end of the night, people were spilling out onto the street trying to get a glimpse of the show. Eventually, the sermon turned into dancing and singing, which was a little easier to comprehend. The sermon was actually really good for practicing my Vietnamese. The speaker spoke very slowly and used pretty simple constructions so that I was able to understand maybe 20% of what he said. If by next year I can understand 50%, I would consider that a great success. 

As my parting gift to celebrate Buddha's birthday with you all, I leave you "Monk on Rollerblades". We found this little guy rolling around the halls behind the main congregation room. My initial reaction was to laugh, but I realize now how meditative it must actually be to roll back and forth down a hallway. If you aren't enlightened enough to walk on lotus blossoms, you may as well enjoy the journey on a sweet pair of rollerblades.