Friday, March 29, 2013

Mere Fact

image source
Here's C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity, a book that Christians frequently cite as a fortress of cogent apologetic arguments:
I have met people who .... have not distinguished between differences of morality and differences of belief about facts. For example, one man said to me, "Three hundred years ago people in England were putting witches to death. Was that what you call the Rule of Human Nature or Right Conduct?" But surely the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did. There is no difference of moral principle here: the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.
Fortresses of cogent apologetic arguments should be made of sterner stuff -- preferably of stuff not quite so chillingly insouciant in its embrace of burning women to death for imaginary offenses. And speaking on behalf of one of my many pet peeves, it would improve this passage if it didn't contain yet another instance of a Christian issuing factual declarations ("we do not believe there are such things") that contradict the plain declarations of the Bible (kill the witches!).

Lewis almost achieves a very important insight when he acknowledges that matters of fact are salient in moral judgments -- do witches exist or not? is there a god watching and taking notes about everything we do or think, or is there not? -- but then takes it away with the baffling assertion that "there is no moral advance in not executing [witches] when you do not think they are there." To the contrary, there is very obviously a moral advance in not executing or otherwise mistreating people based on factually false accusations, whether of witchcraft or anything else.

Mere facts matter to questions of what is right and just, an insight of special relevance now as the US Supreme Court considers arguments and assertions bearing on the legal status of another long-vilified category of persons the Bible summarily condemns (kill the gays!). The justices will do well to start with mere facts, carefully distinguishing those from stereotypes, conventions, prejudices, and myths from wretched old books.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Fear, Desire, and Guns

If you read only five analyses of contemporary American gun nuttery, add a sixth and make it the one recently offered at ludic despair:
Progressives proceed from a mistaken assumption. Those who favor drawing a more reasonable Constitutional line between a single-shot musket and an Uzi often believe that gun nuts are AFRAID the government will try to take away their guns. Gun nut paranoia, in this case, is thought to be a function of FEAR. But that isn't the case. Instead, gun nuts like Jones desperately HOPE that the government will try to take away their guns. It would be the ultimate realization of their most profound fantasy. Gun nut paranoia, from this perspective, is a function of DESIRE. Fear can be conquered with education. But desire cannot be reasoned with. The heart wants to shoot what the heart wants to shoot.
When you're trying to put yourself in the mind of gun fanatics as they wildly overreact to President Chickenshit's milquetoast proposals, it can only suffice to imagine your reaction to correspondingly strong proposals to, say, round up and separate adolescents from their parents in the name of one or another understanding of "promot[ing] the general welfare, and secur[ing] the blessings of liberty."

To say the relationship of guns to owners is not parallel to, and lesser than, that of children to parents is only to beg the question being continuously and earnestly raised in far-right circles.

Back when I used to update this blog, I might have said something like this: if we outlaw suitcase nukes, only outlaws and Big Government will have suitcase nukes.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

For Leap Day and the Treachery of Images

source on Married to the Sea

It just now occurs to me (or so I will assert) that middle February marked the fifth blogiversary of this not-quite-so-precious, precious-as-it-used-to-be blog. Neat!

I assume it said that blogs age at seven times the rate of dogs, who are said to age at seven times the rate of humans, by which unassailable logic we are over year 245 of this blog. For all that, it seems like only a few years ago that it all started with a post, the first of many, that existed to slobber over Neko Case.

As it was then, so it is now. In which connection I note that Neko Case will be contributing to the soundtrack of the forthcoming Hunger Games film adaptation, and together with the fact that Arcade Fire and the Decemberists will be contributing songs, tends to suggest that the film won't be a disgraceful piece of crap. After all, would recording artists of such quality put their names on the soundtrack of a slapdash, dumbed-down atrocity against the source material and the expectations of viewers? For the good of whatever, please don't answer that or put any thought into it.

Speaking of slapdash, dumbed-down crap, the Oscars recently honored several movies about movies while largely snubbing the far-more-than-feature-length elaboration of the Book of Job, The Tree of Life, which made the mistake of treating of non-movie themes -- telling us nothing, nothing about the fascinating lives of directors, actors, screenplay writers, or visual effects technicians -- and the further mistake of rattling on for 90+ minutes more than needed. I haven't seen any of the movies about movies and don't want to, notwithstanding the Oscar awards; I likewise don't go out of my way to gaze at paintings of picture frames, brushes, and paint, though I will admit that a few productions of this basic kind stand out admirably.

I forget what I set out to say. Ah yes, now I remember --- I didn't set out to say anything. I hereby pledge to try to post here at least once every Leap Day, but I do not pledge to try very hard.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

For 2011

photo source
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No, it was mostly the worst of times:
  • Apropos nothing, Woody Allen is to filmmakers what the Chrysler Corporation is to cars: each new offering comes with loud assurances that the bad old days of slapdash ideas poorly executed are over, and that the newest effort represents a return to quality. So it was with this year's Midnight in Paris, which, critics more or less agreed, was Allen at or near his best. Even if that's true for MiP, the problem with Woody Allen films is the problem with Chrysler's cars: even at zenith, it was never very good, Annie Hall and the glorious 1960s muscle cars notwithstanding. More in this same generous spirit appeared in this earlier post.

  • Jenny Diski cares not for Mad Men and its dalliances with nostalgia:
    The style of the Sixties in Mad Men is so relentless and polished in every detail that it actually deals a death blow to authenticity. It is caricature, not authenticity, and although that, in a David Lynch sort of way, can be thrilling and effective if you subvert the style to darker devices, Man Men isn't sure whether it wants to be pastiche or historical realism. It wants it both ways, and for me, it is this indecision, which feels muddy and expedient as opposed to subtle or sly, that is Mad Men's self-sabotage. [quoted from here]
    Indeed so on every count: it is absurd to imagine that a striving advertising agency in midtown Manhattan circa 1962 would place an above-average emphasis on fashion in its formal and informal dress codes; nothing on Mad Men approaches the genius of David Lynch's obscurantist garbage, because Lynch's work is (I gather) "subversive" and "dark" when deploying period-specific stylistic visuals.

    Beyond that, and above all, Diski is entirely right to bemoan Mad Men as a lost opportunity to remove the glossy haze from early 1960's dramatizations to reveal that, in fact, things were  complicated and vexed on the grounds of lived life -- and thereby to clarify the urgency of that critical acumen for our own times. If only it did that instead of just insisting on a beautiful caricature!

    Ah, if only Mad Men would dare to be as stark, candid, and uncompromising about those days as Diski's favorites managed to be, The Apartment, and that paragon of fierce social criticism featuring Rock Hudson and Doris Day, Lover Come Back. Those films had the courage go push through to expose the euphemisms, injustices, imbalances, and smiling atrocities of the day.

    Sarcasm aside, Diski is watching it wrong. Mad Men invites its viewers, yes, to indulge a little nostalgia if they have a reserve of it to call on for that period; but it goes on to invite the taking of measurements between how things were and how things are, and to draw conclusions. It demands the same measurements and judgments about the distances between that time's given stereotypes and its embodied realities. Do we see it clearly -- what we think we hate about it and what we think we love about it -- or do we see its heroes, villains, and shibboleths only as we prefer to remember them? That Mad Men does not, on the whole, supply easy, clean answers is among its virtues and what sets it apart from most everything else on screens, then or now. That it puts actors on beautiful sets and in gorgeous period clothing is a device to its ends.
It is not 1961 -- please somebody tell the GDP and the assorted champions of austerity. It's entirely possible it never was 1961 in the popular sense. There is nothing more to say of 2011, or of 2012, except to wish my remaining three readers all the best.

Friday, December 16, 2011

RIP Hitch

With today's death of Christopher Hitchens, the world has lost a magnificent -- and irritating, and disagreeable, and stimulating -- giant. To see him at his inimitable best requires only to select more or less at random any of the hundreds of videos of him available on the internets, but this debate with Alister McGrath is a nicely annotated and thorough enough illustration of his gifts.

I will miss learning from him, and will equally miss being provoked by him. It's doubtful to try to project what Hitchens would say about this or anything, but I feel confident in saying that while it's fine to shed a tear for his passing -- which I did, a little to my own surprise -- it is vastly more important to honor his memory by carrying on his fight. (Pick at least one.)

I am glad his pain is over. God is still not great, but Christopher Hitchens was.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Ahab Spring

Any decent Marxist will tell you that ideas spring from the material conditions of society, and while I am neither especially decent nor consistently Marxist, I can say that material conditions account for the sparse posting to this precious, precious blog. Suffice to say that back in the sun-fondled, bluebird-circled spring of this blog, I would often find myself, while running, musing on posts I wanted to write, but that in more recent months, my thoughts have drifted elsewhere. To where and why is not worth detailing.

I believe in, at most, two principles for effective, disciplined blogging --- that posts on the topic of why there aren't many posts are dull or worse; and that one shouldn't write anything that one wouldn't want to read. Life is probably too short for adhering too closely to principles, and here's a list:

  • Last week, I finished the Seattle Marathon in a time of 3:30:07 (8:01 mile/min pace). Weirdly, the gun time of 3:30:26 is given as my"official" time, which tells me that I should make sure to elbow and shove my way as close to the starting line as possible should I ever again find myself in the starting chute of the Seattle Marathon. It was a very windy and rainy day, so much so that the water got below my rain jacket and killed my MP3 player at almost exactly the halfway point. Fun times were had by all (not just me), or so I choose to assume, and I heartily thank the organizers, volunteers, and many spectators who braved a rough morning to make it all possible, enjoyable, and safe.
  •  Joanna Newsom is coming dangerously close to equaling Neko Case in my estimation of sheer musical power crossed with every important category of allure. Her album Have One on Me shows the rare quality of canvassing, you know, several of the high points of the human condition in an intelligent, entertaining, and deeply rewarding way -- and what more could be asked of music? If you expect the songs to grab you upon a couple of listens, though, know that you're doing it wrong. Take, for example, "Occident" --- but take your time, with my assurance, such as it is, that the effort will be worth it:

  • Having recently viewed Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, I am prepared to say that Malick has done it again: created a film that says rather less than he seems to be aspiring to say -- if this film added anything substantial to the quote from Job* with which it opened, I am at a loss to say what it was -- using roughly 90 minutes of footage that should have been edited out. Here's hoping his next between-film-projects period of quiescence runs as long as this film felt.
  • As I quipped on the twitter recently, Super 8 exactingly captures that uncanny quality of classic Spielberg films that makes me want to stop watching them: some combination of treacle, pat moral tidiness, and excess nostalgia.
  • About that * an item or two above -- it would be refreshing for a Job 38 style theodicy -- "where were you when I created quasars and centipedes and tetrahedrons and gravitational constants, you miserable little puke!" -- to move forward from that to show its fucking work. As in: what is this greater good, discernible from a longer and wider view, that, on a proper accounting, balances out the severe, constant, multifarious pain of the world?
Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it inappropriately touched me.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Splitting (Hairs) - Sonic Youth

The future of Sonic Youth is in doubt, I gather, because members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon have ended their decades-long marriage, and history shows that interpersonal tensions immediately and irrevocably destroy every single band they touch (e.g., these doomed fellows, and these, these -- may they R.I.P. -- and these among so many others). There's no way around it: music dies the instant two people in the room aren't getting along harmoniously.

But really, it's not about them, it's about us, or the music industry, or marriage, or something, as Amanda Marcotte almost explains:

I want to write a little about the news that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth---who have been married for 27 years---are throwing in the towel. Well, not the news itself, because even though they're public figures, this is obviously a private matter and none of us are privy to the particulars of their situation. In fact, I'm a little uneasy discussing it at all ...
Marcotte's unease manifests in ~1100 more words dissecting the Gordon-Moore marriage and its manifold implications for music, the music industry, and the institution of marriage in these uncertain times. How many words would ease have produced?

No piece of writing on Sonic Youth is complete without several repetitions of AOL keyword "Indie," a case in point being Matthew Fiander's encomium to Sonic Youth's Indie-ness, as somehow exemplified in their first non-Indie-but-still-so-heroically-Indie album, Goo:
On the heels of the acclaim for 1988's Daydream Nation, one of the most celebrated rock albums of the last 25 years, Sonic Youth went looking for a major label. They had been indie rock trailblazers, cranking out classic record like Sister and EVOL on SST, the rocker's rock label, and now they'd be on, gulp, DGC? How this happened has much to do with Enigma Records, the label that (aligned with EMI and Capitol) screwed up the distribution of Daydream Nation ...
Gulp indeed. It's not clear to me how "Enigma Records (aligned with EMI and Capitol)" was "Indie" in a way that DGC (gulp!) is not, but then again, I am already tired of the next twelve pieces of writing that use the word "Indie," or in other words, the eleven after this one.

To his credit, Fiander gets back on track to the extent that the bulk of his piece celebrates the songs of Goo, specifically "Tunic (Song for Karen)," a song so layered and brilliant that we can hardly have deserved it for having been the people walking around with stereos and spare cash when it appeared. Should Sonic Youth stop making music, it is on the basis of such works that they will be deeply missed by those of us who don't count the band members or music industry functionaries in our personal circles, but who appreciate challenging, evocative music:

Friday, October 28, 2011

What Might Have Been

A little light reading to apply as you will:

In the end we all come to be cured of our sentiments. Those whom life does not cure death will. The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even where we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting. I've thought a great deal about my life and about my country. I think there is little that can be truly known. My family has been fortunate. Others were less so. As they are often quick to point out. ... In history there are no control groups. There is no one to tell us what might have been. We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been. There never was. It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. I don't believe knowing can save us. What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and love of blood and this is a thing that even God -- who knows all that can be known -- seems powerless to change.
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

World Persists. Yawn.

Thank you, Horsemen. Come again soon!
For any in doubt on the question, the world did not end on Friday, October 21 -- or if it did end, it ended in the same manner in which it ended on May 21, which was exceptionally dull by the standards of Hollywood apocalypses, let alone the vivid eschatology porn sketched by one of the founders of the genre, John of Revelation fame: 
And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit. And he opened the bottomless pit; and there arose a smoke out of the pit, as the smoke of a great furnace; and the sun and the air were darkened by reason of the smoke of the pit. And there came out of the smoke locusts upon the earth: and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power. And it was commanded them that they should not hurt the grass of the earth, neither any green thing, neither any tree; but only those men which have not the seal of God in their foreheads. And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them. And the shapes of the locusts were like unto horses prepared unto battle; and on their heads were as it were crowns like gold, and their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women, and their teeth were as the teeth of lions. And they had breastplates, as it were breastplates of iron; and the sound of their wings was as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle. And they had tails like unto scorpions, and there were stings in their tails: and their power was to hurt men five months.
You're not wrong to feel a little put out over having missed that movie.
This latest failed prediction is almost enough to leave me doubting the wisdom and insight of god-drunk dotards.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Too Soon

image source
The foregoing concerns everyone, albeit obliquely:
  • On Sunday I completed the Run Like Hell half marathon in 1:37:32 (7:26 mi/min, full results). I loved the changes to the course compared with the last time I ran it -- backwards with respect to the more or less standard downtown Portland area race course, which makes a bigger difference than it might seem. I didn't love that, as usual, I didn't cover the 13.1 miles as quickly as I wanted to do, and while the event was superbly organized overall, it could have done with a few more water stations along the way.
  • The trouble with Wall Street is the cheating, as Matt Taibbi explains:
    [S]erial financial fuckups like Citigroup and Bank of America overextended themselves by the hundreds of billions and pumped trillions of dollars of deadly leverage into the system -- and got rewarded with things like the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program, an FDIC plan that allowed irresponsible banks to borrow against the government's credit rating. This is equivalent to a trust fund teenager who trashes six consecutive off-campus apartments and gets rewarded by having Daddy co-sign his next lease. The banks needed programs like TLGP because without them, the market rightly would have started charging more to lend to these idiots. Apparently, though, we can’t trust the free market when it comes to Bank of America, Goldman, Sachs, Citigroup, etc.
    That's not even the worst of it; read the whole thing if you are of the mind that the outrage behind Occupy Wall Street is not justified. The banksters' credo: free markets for thee, but socialism for me.
  • Here are more reasons I am not a fan-boy of Steve Jobs:
    "You're headed for a one-term presidency," he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where "regulations and unnecessary costs" make it difficult for them.
    Think different, indeed. Pointing out that China makes it easier to construct factories than the USA is the laziest, most insipid Chamber of Commerce boilerplate imaginable -- and this from the towering genius who took the idea behind the Sony Walkman and applied it to digital music files. Or maybe I speak too rashly -- perhaps more insipid was the part where Jobs, who dropped out of college after his first semester, went on to demand that Obama snap his fingers and force schools to stay open until 6pm and for 11 months of the year. Jobs apparently couldn't decide if he loves China's children more for the work they do in his factories or for the long hours they put in at school.

    None of which should be construed as a defense of President Chickenshit, who can fuck off.
  • Windows or Mac? Wii or PS3 or XBox? Is Death Cab for Cutie the very best band you've never heard about? Was the USA within its rights to participate in the removal of Qadaffi from power in Libya? Delight in these and other powerful troll vacuums at Outkube, as inspired by The Onion.
  • Even huge stacks of money can't change the fact that climate change is real
Too soon?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

2011 Blue Lake 15k - The Glory

I just completed the Blue Lake 15k in a time of 1:05:44 (7:03 min/mi pace, official) and while this isn't the first time I've done this event, it is the first time they gave out medals for our trouble -- and nice medals they are!

Trouble, I say? There's no trouble. This course begins and ends in Blue Lake park, and when it's outside the park, it's along a calm stretch of road leading out to the Troutdale Airport. This is a lovely spot on a bad day, but on a near-perfect Fall day like today, it's nothing short of glorious.

It's the kind of flat course that most people love more than I do -- I prefer some hills along the way -- but it would be an exaggeration to call it easy no matter the terrain. Easy is a modifier that sits awkwardly beside any 9.3 mile footrace.

I made a point of personally thanking every volunteer I saw today -- those keeping us safe from traffic, those who prepared the generous post-race food, those who handed out drinks along the way,  those who marked the course and kept the records, and all the others -- but I want to take this chance to thank them all again. As always, I congratulate all the runners who came along with me.

Friday, October 14, 2011

No Bottom

I am the scarcely over 0% typing this list:

photo from GeekFill
  • It's never the wrong time or place to enforce laws against child pornography:
    Kansas City's Catholic bishop has become the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official indicted on a charge of failing to protect children after he and his diocese waited five months to tell police about hundreds of images of child pornography discovered on a priest's computer, officials said Friday.
    More like this!
  • Ron Paul recently appeared on The Daily Show to promote his brand of ahistorical Social Darwinist twaddle, claiming inter alia that strict private property rights would forever prevent pollution and that anti-pollution laws never, ever work because government tends to collude with wealthy interests in shaping the laws and their enforcement. He didn't pause to explain the nature of the state that would enforce these strict property rights, nor how these strict private property rights would differ from the ones we already have -- you know, the very ones that have been carved to pieces by the collusion of wealthy interests and government. Like the good glibertarian he is, in other words, he advocated reducing the scale and scope of firefighting as a means of controlling arson.
    All that's the bad news; the good news is that Ron Paul's eyebrows remained in place for the duration of the interview.
  • The Republican party sees, on one hand, the whining of blastocyst enthusiasts in medical professions and, on the other hand, women who might die without medical treatment, and they choose the whiners:
    Today the GOP-led House of Representatives, with the blessings and encouragement of the United States Council of Catholic Bishops and extremist religious groups such as the Family Research Council, passed a bill in a vote of 251 to 172 that would, among other things, allow doctors and hospitals to "exercise their conscience" by letting pregnant women facing emergency medical conditions die.
    GOP to women: bear children or die trying.
  • Some idiotic parasite thinks he is oppressed because he has to pay taxes. Yawn.
There is no bottom.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Occupy PDX and Portland Marathon - To Each According to Need

Two things I cherish are happening in the same time right now -- the Occupy Wall Street movement against the excesses of corporate power, greed, dishonesty, and corruption, and the Portland Marathon.

I totally support the Occupy movement -- I have spent a little time as a participant in Occupy Portland and hope to do so again -- and while I am not running it this year, I also love the Portland Marathon and hope to see it go smoothly and safely for all.

For Sunday morning, I hope Occupy Portland picks up and moves just a few blocks away and continues as before. By design, there is no centralized authority to which to appeal, but I did find a communique from an official-enough looking web site, OccupyPDX:
Occupy Portland wishes to welcome Portland Marathon to Lownsdale and Chapman Squares on this beautiful Friday morning. 
We look forward to working together to ensure that our events run as smoothly as possible. 
This outcome is achievable only through civil discourse and is rendered impossible by threats or use of force. 
Therefore, we are eager to discuss with Portland Marathon the constructive ways we can help and support their event while we remain in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.
Meanwhile, the Portland Marathon is saying much the same:
We understand the intention of those protesting at Occupy Portland. We will find a compromise that meets the needs of both parties. We are working closely with the City and representatives from Occupy Portland to reach a solution.
Perfect. That's all anyone can ask. Please do that, and find that.

By way of further background, I note that OccupyPDX is (loosely) located at miles 25 to 26.2 of the run, and that means the following: everyone coming in will be at his/her limits if not beyond. There is no 'dodging obstacles' by that stage of the race. There is no 'oh, I can see these people just ahead so I'll just alter my path a few clicks to the right' -- that sort of adjustment approaches to physically impossible. An out-of-place pebble can create disaster, let alone people 'occupying' the course.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding all the bleating to the effect that 'these protesters don't have a message,' we are a movement rather than a message, and the movement is directed at upholding the primacy, rights, and power of human beings over and against assertions of corporate power. But if it's a unified message you want, this statement, as read by Keith Olbermann a few nights back, will do well enough as a starting point.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Gray in the Head

John Gray claims faith, properly understood, doesn't have much to do with belief, concluding as follows:

We'd all be better off if we stopped believing in belief. Not everyone needs a religion. But if you do, you shouldn't be bothered about finding arguments for joining or practising one. Just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there.
At the risk of repeating material already covered by Norm Geras, PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, Jerry CoyneEli Horowitz, and others, suppose we unpack Gray's twaddle a tad: take what from there?

I charitably assume John Gray doesn't mean for people to show up at a church, synagogue, or mosque and begin mindlessly aping the actions of others -- which is to say I assume he can't mean what he's plainly asserting. To pick a slightly off-angle but non-exotic illustration, doing as Gray suggests would involve aping the actions of the guy who just happens to be unclogging the toilet in the church basement. Or it would include showing up at the place and expecting to be the next to speak to the assembly after the priest, rabbi, or imam finishes chattering.

Before any of that, of course, going to a house o' worship will have required more-than-aping levels of critical evaluation to select the church, synagogue, or mosque as the day's destination. It's far from clear how this decision can be made without reference to beliefs and reasons.

Suppose that as the sermon drones on, your critical faculties light up long enough to pick up on the notion of a Sabbath. Clearly, you don't want to put any reasoning or believing or (gawd forbid) arguing into it -- that would bother John Gray or something -- so eschewing details, you undertake to pursue the practice of a regular Sabbath. Suppose you choose the 24 hours between Wednesday at 11:15pm to Thursday at 11:15pm as your Holy Sabbath because it works best for your schedule -- are you doing it the wrong way? If beliefs are beside the point, what or who can decide the question?

Incidentally, under this approach, why stop at people? If it's not about beliefs but about showing up and doing the thing, surely pets can participate, not to mention stray cats, field mice, wood ants, nesting racoons, wayward sparrows in the rafters, etc. Why not zombie cockroaches? Shouldn't they be counted as participants in what John Gray counts as religion if they "just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there"?


We think about what we're doing and why, and this is necessarily informed by what we believe we are doing -- reasons, societies, histories, communities, contexts, justifications, conflicts, the dramatis personae we consider to be included and excluded from minor and major roles. Religious practice untethered to beliefs is a mindless, pointless, dawdling squandering of energy. To date, religious practice informed by beliefs is likewise pointless in proportion to the quality of the beliefs, but it can claim the small virtue of distinguishing genuine believers from those who merely go through motions.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Breaking Bad - WWJD?

I think I know what Jesse would do -- the Jesse Pinkman character of Breaking Bad fame, that is -- and it doesn't square with last night's dramatics. Amanda Marcotte tries gamely to justify the ways of Jesse to viewers:
With Jesse, I think the key to understanding how quickly he blamed Walt depends on a couple of factors. For one thing, the Walt we're seeing onscreen now has become more sympathetic than the Walt a few episodes ago. He had an emotional breakthrough regarding his son and his conscience is starting to creep back. He's remembered that he's a family man, and that should be more important than his own massive ego. But Jesse hasn't been witness to any of this, since they haven't been speaking. When Jesse last spoke to Walt, Walt was at a moral and emotional low point in his life. He had become quite naked with his willingness to manipulate Jesse, and for all Jesse has known, it's gotten worse. Jesse is acutely aware of how much of a control freak Walt is, and so, with a little added paranoia and emotional peaking, it's easy to see how he could leap to the conclusion that Walt would really go this far. Plus, as far as Jesse knows, Walt is the only person who knew about the ricin.
Alas, no. I think the characterization simply faltered here. The Jesse we have come to know would draw the most obvious conclusion, that the kid snuck a cigarette while he wasn’t watching --- while he was asleep, in the bathroom, absorbed in a video game, whatever -- and that it turned out to be the ricin-laced cigarette.

At that point Jesse would sink into his familiar pattern of self-recrimination and despair over all the misery, pain, and suffering his choices bring to others. He might pause to lash out at Walt, Gus, and others along the way, but he would ultimately make a beeline toward the usual guilty self-loathing that has defined so much of his character. Put differently, Jesse would have needed a good deal of ‘help’ to connect Walt to this poisoning—Gus would have needed to arrange some clues/hints to give that impression much more strongly -- and yet nothing of the sort was presented.

It was a rare but glaring misstep for what continues to be one of the two or three best things on tee-vee right now.

Monday, September 26, 2011

They Who Would Rather Sweat in Squalor

During an unpleasant few moments of an otherwise pleasant visit to Powell's Books, I suffered through almost the whole of the text printed on the jacket of Thomas Friedman's latest book about America's decline. I am not surprised to be confirmed in my suspicion that the book's central argument is weak -- or rather, weak in a familiar way. Adam Gopnik observes that Friedman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum

... present every problem as one confronted by a uniform "we." ... But that's not the case here. Friedman and Mandelbaum want their countrymen to face the future without first facing the facts about their countrymen: this is the country that a lot of "us" want. ... The reason we don't have beautiful new airports and efficient bullet trains is not that we have inadvertently stumbled upon stumbling blocks; it's that there are considerable numbers of Americans for whom these things are simply symbols of a feared central government, and who would, when they travel, rather sweat in squalor than surrender the money to build a better terminal. They hate fast trains and efficient airports for the same reason that seventeenth-century Protestants hated the beautiful Baroque churches of Rome when they saw them: they were luxurious symbols of an earthly power they despised. ... Americans are perfectly willing to sacrifice their comforts for their ideological convictions. We don't have a better infrastructure or decent elementary education exactly because many people are willing to sacrifice faster movement between our great cities, or better-informed children, in support of their belief that the government should always be given as little money as possible. ... [T]his is the result of active choice, not passive indifference.
We have the public policies of the representatives we collectively elect, and the anti-government, anti-tax ranters are alarmingly numerous and readily conspicuous -- unless, it seems, you're Tom Friedman or Barack Obama, unaccountably stuck in the precious idea that these people don't exist, or if they exist, don't operate any of the levers of power, or if they exist and operate the levers, don't really aspire to what they explicitly aspire. Or something.

Memo to dolts: look around, and check the mirror. The hidebound monsters who would prefer to sweat in squalor actually exist, they hold power, they want to hold more power, and they mean what they say.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Four the Ages Could Do Without

In keeping with my tendency to value comity, harmony, and consensus, I post four images from the Overrated White Guys tumblr -- posted in the presumably sensible order in which this web interface placed them when I selected all and clicked the button.

 It should go without saying that I chose these four worthies for no reason whatever, certainly not because I agree that these accomplished, widely respected white guys are overrated. Yes. That probably should go without saying, as with most everything else that has ever appeared on this precious, precious -- overrated? -- blog.

Clark Gable sensibly chose the same speaking voice and emotional register for all roles.

Call him 'Al' or whatever -- please don't play his songs.

Oh William Blake, it's not you, it's us. We only acknowledge six senses and -- well, I can't put this nicely -- your nightmares are far more interesting to you than to everyone else. See also Jim Morrison, also honored at OWG.

Jack Kerouac, please get off the road. You're not making any sense, and when you are, it's totally not worth it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

REM - End the End

It seems I've entered that delicate stage of feckless dotage in which I get misty-eyed over bands that are no more. No, they're not dead as with, say, Fleetwood Mac, but REM is no longer:

"To our fans and friends: As REM, and as lifelong friends and co-conspirators, we have decided to call it a day as a band. "We walk away with a great sense of gratitude, of finality, and of astonishment at all we have accomplished," the statement continued. "To anyone who ever felt touched by our music, our deepest thanks for listening."
You're welcome, REM, and thank you. I write this within physical reach of seventeen REM CDs, almost all of them worth cherishing, the others merely well above average. Modern-day readers will understand CDs as sort of a primitive version of blu ray disks made especially for music -- no video signal at all -- and meant to carry upwards of 80 minutes of music. People paid money for them in stores, frequently without having heard a note of the music encoded on them beforehand, then trudged back to their hand-built log cabins to build a fire against the forbidding night's cold and for cooking cornbread or biscuits or thinnest gruel, depending on the quality of the recent harvest. The cows would need to be milked at dawn, the potatoes dug thereafter. Then school would start.

REM made excellent music for a long time. I am not yet ready to use the past tense there, but the fact is what the fact is. Songs like the following turn out to be perfect for negotiating the hardships and confusions of life in the olden days -- and for the days to come, I should think.

"Driver 8"

"Monty Got a Raw Deal"

"Begin the Begin"


(via Obscene Desserts)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Netflix Can't Say Goodbye

My continuing coverage of Netflix continues, breathlessly as ever, with the news that its forward-thinking CEO

... is now going to separate Netflix's DVD and streaming businesses into two different brands. The online half will be called Netflix, while the DVD-by-mail portion will be called Qwikster. The two services won't share anything—your queues, ratings, and even your billing information will remain distinct on each site. In a sign of how hastily Netflix arrived at this idea, it seems to have forgotten to search for @qwikster on Twitter. That handle is owned by a person whose avatar is an image of Elmo smoking a joint.
In Netflix/Qwikster's defense, I am pretty sure that the Elmo-smoking-a-joint avatar is a default assigned by Twitter to accounts that don't select a custom avatar. I could be wrong, but since this would be more interesting if true, it is true and I am not wrong. That's how the world works.

Oh, but I am wrong -- wrong to say anything in defense of Netflix/Qwikster, that is, and I will start here: I am not going to type that fucking stupid name ever again. In English, the letter w does not follow the letter q in any actual, correctly spelled word. That name is a hideous abomination, and given that it now applies to the side of the service I can more or less tolerate, I can expect it to prey on my sensibilities every time it is splayed across an envelope in my mailbox.

Netflix is certainly putting a lot of faith in its video streaming business, and why not when fully nine eight six of its top 100 rentals are available via streaming? A generous observer might round that up to 10%! I will not. I will observe instead that it continues to underscore the paltry quality of Netflix's streaming content even among its current subscribers. Now that they're breaking the service in half, it's not clear where our ratings and rental history will go, and as a result, the suggestion algorithm, which is often helpful in pointing to lesser-known titles, will no longer function as it did before.

So, to summarize: Netflix is joining the poor quality of its video streaming offerings to a less useful web site experience and more complex billing. More and more, Netflix's business model is reminding me of President Obama's approach to politics: someone in charge has decided the endeavor is no longer worth the trouble, so why even try to do the right thing, or even the popular thing?

Really, Netflix and president chickenshit: it's OK to say goodbye and quietly exit the scene. Be brave. Just take your severance package and pretend it never happened. You will be pleasantly surprised how quickly you are forgotten.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Whole Thing

I just signed the Whole Constitution Pledge, which almost completely avoids the fetish for "founding fathers" that these kinds of things tend to indulge:

Through the Constitution, “We the People” created the most enduring government charter in world history.
Building on the achievements of the Founding generation, successive generations of Americans have created a “more perfect union” through constitutional Amendments. These Amendments have improved our Constitution by ending slavery, enshrining guarantees of equality and citizenship, expanding the right to vote, and ensuring that the national government has the power and resources necessary to protect the nation, address national challenges and secure civil rights.
Some have advocated repeal of Amendments, including the 14th Amendment, the 16th Amendment, and the 17th Amendment, that make our Constitution better and this country great. Some have even failed to heed the lessons of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement and have advocated a return to ideas of secession and nullification.
I believe that our Constitution has been improved by the Amendments adopted over the last 220 years. I pledge to support the whole Constitution.
This is a longer way of saying: the rule of law should prevail in the USA. That said, I am not convinced that advocating for the repeal of particular amendments or provisions is a problem since the Constitution provides for the means of its own emendation, and this cannot proceed without advocacy, which is in turn expressly protected under the first amendment.

While the amendments and provisions stand as they are, however, public officials of all parties must be bound to a good-faith understanding and precedent-informed reading of their terms. I'm looking right at you when I note that, President Chickenshit, no less than I am looking right at your war criminal predecessors.