Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Excursions in Bibliomancy: Nietzsche

From Twilight of the Idols:

Toward a psychology of the artist. If there is to be art, if there is to be any aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological condition is indispensable: frenzy. Frenzy must first have enhanced the excitability of the whole machine; else there is no art. All kinds of frenzy, however diversely conditioned, have the strength to accomplish this: above all, the frenzy of sexual excitement, this most ancient and original form of frenzy. Also the frenzy that follows all great cravings, all great affects; the frenzy of feasts, contests, feats of daring, victory, all extreme movement; the frenzy of cruelty; the frenzy in destruction; the frenzy under certain meteorological influences, as for example the frenzy of spring; or under the influence of narcotics; and finally the frenzy of will, the frenzy of overcharged and swollen will. What is essential in such frenzy is the feeling of increased strength and fullness. Out of this feeling one lends to things, one forces them to accept from us, one violates them -- this process is called idealizing. Let us get rid of a prejudice here: idealizing does not consist, as is commonly held, in subtracting or discounting the petty and inconsequential. What is decisive is rather a tremendous drive to bring out the main features so that the others disappear in the process.

Speaking of Michael Haneke ...

It appears that filmmaker Michael Haneke is directing a remake of his 1997 soul-crusher Funny Games, a film that toys with your expectations of a deus ex machina in the way a cat toys with a mouse, and confirms all your darkest doubts about our species.

The remake will feature Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, two of my favorite actors, but prominent enough that I wonder if the remake will be as harsh as the original. After all, the presence of Naomi Watts made 21 Grams a whimsical frolic, and Tim Roth's performance in Rob Roy was a study in the "bunnies and sunshine" school of characterization.

All of the above assumes, again, that Michael Haneke didn't join Antonioni and Bergman in kicking the bucket yesterday.

RIP Michelangelo Antonioni

Yesterday just got even weirder and sadder: the great Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni died yesterday. On the same day as Ingmar Bergman?!? That's too strange.

I will miss Antonioni nearly as much as Bergman -- Il Grido, L'Avventura, Blowup, The Passenger, and La Notte (among others) are the kinds of films that strike you early and often, and then keep worming their way back to your thoughts long after you've seen them.

Not every filmmaker died yesterday, right? Has anyone checked on Woody Allen, Lars Von Trier, and Michael Haneke since yesterday?

The Burdens of Citizenship

I have been summoned for jury duty later this week and I wonder how I should approach it. On one hand, I think due process of law is a good thing, one that is ill-served by leaving jury duty to the elderly and the unemployable. On the other hand, serving on a jury can be powerfully boring, and I feel that riding the MAX every day gives me more than enough exposure to the elderly and unemployable. Beyond that, Portland is a pretty small town, and the last thing I need is a real-life Cape Fear convict who spends his sentence nursing a grudge over the jurors who put him away. Tip to him: my car has a very low clearance. Don't try riding the undercarriage.

Still, I'm going forward with it. There's always the chance that Michael Vick will be granted a change of venue and that I'll get to adjudicate his dogfighting trial. It would be fun to put him behind bars, and even better, it would be great to write one of the unreadable juror's-eye-view books the trial is sure to spawn.

It Places the Lotion in the Basket

Now that the world has been wiped clean of Ingmar Bergman, Bill Walsh, and Tom Snyder in the course of a single day, we can no longer profess ignorance of how the rapture will look and feel. We will find ourselves dumbstruck with questions like, "Who now will direct depressing films?" and "Who now will bring a couple of new ideas to NFL offenses?" and "Who now will do whatever Tom Snyder was doing?"

This is all too stark a line of thought but I feel obliged to follow it. If I vanish, what blogs will praise raisins, Richard Dawkins, and beavers while berating small towns like Ponca City, Klamath Falls, and Moclips? What blogs will ridicule Alberto Gonzales and present long-past appearances by Neko Case on David Letterman? The desperate fragility of it all is reminiscent of a Bergman film, or those first 15 plays pre-scripted by Bill Walsh, or whatever Tom Snyder did.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Limits of Respect & The Reach of Offense

The ever-quotable Christopher Hitchens, discussing allegations of hate crimes associated with maltreatment of a copy of the Koran:

No human being can possibly claim to know that there is a God at all, or that there are, or were, any other gods to be repudiated. And when these ontological claims have collided, as they must, with their logical limits, it is even further beyond the cognitive capacity of any person to claim without embarrassment that the lord of creation spoke his ultimate words to an unlettered merchant in seventh-century Arabia. Those who utter such fantastic braggings, however many times a day they do so, can by definition have no idea what they are talking about. (I hasten to add that those who boast of knowing about Moses parting the Red Sea, or about a virgin with a huge tummy, are in exactly the same position.) ... Why, then, should we be commanded to "respect" those who insist that they alone know something that is both unknowable and unfalsifiable?
If society is to be free, no one has the "right" not to be offended, even on religious questions.

RIP Ingmar Bergman

Ingmar Bergman has died. I still haven't seen all of his films, but I consider it my duty to do so. His films make almost everything else out there seem trivial and mediocre.

Here's a quick Bergman Quiz -- I got six. I am pleased with several of the correct answers, if that's any clue. (I don't know why it should be.)

Consider the Beaver


Oh how I adore beavers. I am currently testing the hypothesis that one cannot get bored if one's morning run includes a sighting of wild beavers, which mine did this morning, along the banks of the crystal-clear Willamette River. I refer, mind you, to the overlarge rats that build dams, not to their distant nutria cousins, which are just a notch too invasive in these parts, and not to those horrible disease-spreading rats.

Since rats breed like rats almost everywhere, I salute those who continue to try to find ways to make them into something a person would willingly eat, but Arby's is a failed effort. Even sneaking rat meat in low proportions with otherwise blameless trail mixes doesn't work. They're terrible, and should go the way of common decency.

Ah, not so beavers. They're just too wonderful.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Near Misses

Hmm. The New Pornographers will be touring in support of a new album this fall, and Neko Case, being a member of the group, will be touring with them. All else equal, it would be nice to see her live, but all else isn't equal because the New Pornographers, despite the presence of Neko, aren't any good. They make rather forgettable Brian Wilson-influenced songs that typically waste her talents as a backup vocalist. They sound a lot better when she sings lead vocals, but not very much better on the whole. On the other hand, seeing the show means seeing her live, even if she's playing a relatively minor role.

Do I use this as an opportunity to play it cool with Neko, or do I go ahead and show up and throw some underwear at her? Hmm.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Consider the Raisin


Oh how I adore raisins. I am currently testing the hypothesis that one cannot get fat by eating raisins. I refer, mind you, to dark raisins, not to their booger-resembling white cousins, which are just a notch too sweet, and not to those horrible little reddish blobs that began as a cranberry.

Since cranberries grow like weeds in the places where they're suited to grow, I salute those who continue to try to find ways to make them into something a person would willingly eat, but the "craisin" is a failed effort. Even sneaking them in low proportions with otherwise blameless trail mixes doesn't work. They're terrible, and should go the way of commercial whaling.

Ah, not so raisins. They're just too wonderful.

Rush Still Exists

On the off chance you care, the Canadian threesome Rush is still making music and music videos too -- tight, elegant, deceptively deep ones, just like the best of their music.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Biker v. Driver

It had all the makings of one of those after-hours dangerous videos collections on the USA Network: as I waited at a downtown Portland intersection -- you know, the one where that McDonald's is? -- a bike and a van came rolling along in mid-joust, the van's driver honking and the bike's rider squalling.

A mild screeching of tires and a woman's shriek told me that the pair of warring dorks had collided on the far side of the van from where I was standing. Biker dismounted from his steed and began walking around toward the driver's window, whilst Driver threw the van into park and started back toward the rear of the van, where they met, gave each other a non-committal shove, and began caterwauling at each other.

"I'm a vehicle!" I heard Biker scream.

"You were in my lane, BITCH!" shouted larger, louder Driver.

It went back and forth like this for some time, attracting a larger and larger crowd of violence-hungry onlookers. I immediately regretted that my phone can only take still photos, and crappy ones at that, because fisticuffs seemed inevitable.

And then I wondered, as I'm sure Biker and Driver did through all their screaming and posturing, about the conventions governing such a fistfight. Is Biker required to remove his helmet? Is Driver allowed a moment to turn off the van's ignition, or does he leave it idling? If he leaves it idling and is knocked unconscious, is Biker honor-bound to turn off the ignition in these days of $3/gallon gas and growing awareness of needless CO2 emissions? If Biker is the one knocked unconscious, is Driver honor-bound to drag the bike off the street before driving away? Or does he get to keep the bike as a prize?

Nothing in my background of watching those dangerous video collections helped with these questions, and soon enough, maybe because of all the witnesses, the two parted company and left the scene without fighting. I don't think they even screamed themselves hoarse.

All in all, I could have crapped a better fight video than what I saw today.

Astounding Epiphany

Evelyn Waugh is a dude!

I overheard that exact phrase, "Evelyn Waugh is a dude," at a book store earlier this week, and ever since I've been a-hemming and a-hawing over how to approach it here on my precious, precious blog. Should I use it as another launching point for my crude and baseless elitism, condemning its speaker to the ranks of the "many-too-many"? Should I portray it as yet another illustration of monotheism's thought-killing depredations? Should I turn it into an elaborate jape directed at Alberto Gonzales, George W. Bush, Michael Vick, or some other waste of perfectly good proteins? Should I just shut my cake-hole about it and address something interesting instead? (This last one fell from the running quickly.)

At last I've decided to take a humble tack on it by admitting that I, too, have experienced the exact same "Evelyn Waugh is a dude!?!" moment, and more recently than I would prefer to admit. Suffice to say I made it all the way through my undergraduate studies in English without knowing this factoid about what turns out to be Mister Waugh. I offer these defenses of my ignorance:

1. I've never read anything by Evelyn Waugh. That might be the weakest and most question-begging defense of a failure of cultural literacy ever offered, but there it is.

2. I have long known that George Eliot was a woman. Neener-neener!

3. What kind of parents name their son "Evelyn"? I blame them.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

President Who? Where's My Cleavage?


I am all but hyperventilating with excitement over the release of the Simpsons Movie tomorrow, but one thing bothers me. Why is Rainier Wolfcastle being called Schwarzenegger in this movie? He's Rainier Wolfcastle, a thinly-veiled parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger (and Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, etc.) not Schwarzenegger himself. Part of the brilliance of The Simpsons is how its world comes so glancingly and tantalizingly close to verisimilitude with the so-called "real world" but veers away: Monty Burns is almost but not quite J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, or John Rockefeller; Diamond Joe Quimby is almost but not quite a Kennedy; Dr. Hibbert is almost but not quite Bill Cosby; Edna Krabappel is almost but not quite a couple of English teachers I had; Ned Flanders is almost but not quite that Jeff guy who stops in my cubicle sometimes and won't go away; Cletus Spuckler is almost but not quite Alberto Gonzales in overalls, etc.

I hope the movie explains why Wolfcastle is now Schwarzenegger, and it had better be damn funny. And it had better have some good cleavage -- I now demand cleavage with everything.

Likewise, I really don't like the contest naming Springfield, Vermont as the "real" Springfield. There is no real Springfield! It's everywhere and nowhere! It's Everytown, USA! Why kill that running bit? And how galling to do so without compensatory cleavage!

Salt Licks, Religious Belief, and IQ

A Danish study shows that atheists have, on average, a higher IQ than believers. Surprised? I'm not, and I am nothing if not absolutely and completely objective on the question.

I take this finding with a huge grain of salt -- a grain of salt so large that it would overwhelm the plate of fries to which I might add it. It's so large as to be a salt lick unto itself, when you get right down to it.

But why bother to present my own thoughts on the topic when PZ Myers at pharyngula has already done such a great job of doing it for me? The money quote:

... in the absence of a strong godless tradition in the US, your pool of atheists is going to be populated with people who have put a lot of thought into their beliefs, while the pool of theists is going to contain people who have thought about their ideas and a much larger group of people who have simply blindly accepted indoctrination.
Yep. I also appreciate his brief musings expressing skepticism toward the very idea of an IQ. I think IQ tests measure something -- every test measures something -- but I am not convinced that different IQ tests are measuring the same something, or even that the same kind of IQ test can be said to be measuring the same something in all contexts. Moreover, even if we manage to pin down what IQ tests, or some large subset of things labeled IQ tests, are measuring, it's not clear what that something amounts to, how important it is, what it predicts, etc.

Thoughtfulness and creativity tend to impress me more than IQ when it comes to the overall desirability of mental traits. What are those, and how are they measured, you might ask. Good questions! Having nailed even more jello to the wall, I hereby end another post.

Some States I've Seen



I'm slightly surprised to think I never bothered to make the drive all the way through Kansas into Nebraska, but then again, one corn field looks the same as all the rest. Also, I'm not entirely sure about New Mexico and Montana -- maybe a pass through long ago? If so, it wasn't memorable.

Poem of the Day: "This Was Once a Love Poem"

I like the implied conceit of this poem, that a poem has an essence existing outside of whatever it happens to address, and can be conceived as a chunk of inspired language looking for an emotion, memory, or reflection to attach itself to. This inverts the more intuitive and more standard idea of poetry being an emotion, memory, or reflection in search of the right words to express it.

Beyond that, I find this poem's presentation of its own history to be an inherently interesting read. And I like the turns of phrase, even though I reject "cacti" as a valid English pluralisation. We speakers of English almost always append an "s" or an "es" to words to pluralise them; appending an "i" is something speakers of Latin do. We can thus say "cactuses" without fear, along with "focuses," "opuses," "circuses," "locuses," and even "platypuses", "tyrannosauruses," and "stegasauruses" so long as we're not engaged in specialized conversations where Latin intrudes for valid technical reasons -- English has exceptions for every exception. Anyhoo ...

"This Was Once a Love Poem" by Jane Hirshfield

This was once a love poem, before its haunches thickened, its breath grew short, before it found itself sitting, perplexed and a little embarrassed, on the fender of a parked car, while many people passed by without turning their heads. It remembers itself dressing as if for a great engagement. It remembers choosing these shoes, this scarf or tie. Once, it drank beer for breakfast, drifted its feet in a river side by side with the feet of another. Once it pretended shyness, then grew truly shy, dropping its head so the hair would fall forward, so the eyes would not be seen. It spoke with passion of history, of art. It was lovely then, this poem. Under its chin, no fold of skin softened. Behind the knees, no pad of yellow fat. What it knew in the morning it still believed at nightfall. An unconjured confidence lifted its eyebrows, its cheeks. The longing has not diminished. Still it understands. It is time to consider a cat, the cultivation of African violets or flowering cactus. Yes, it decides: Many miniature cacti, in blue and red painted pots. When it finds itself disquieted by the pure and unfamiliar silence of its new life, it will touch them — one, then another — with a single finger outstretched like a tiny flame.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

More Happy Sports Headlines

I shall soon be burning my #7 Atlanta Falcons Starter jacket because Michael Vick appears to be, well, a huge asshole responsible for a great deal of cruelty to a great many dogs. Here is a news account in case you've been in a coma.

Innocent until proven guilty yadda yadda yadda, but it's simply undeniable that this was happening on Vick's property, and I simply don't believe the man could have had enough properties to lose track so thoroughly that he failed to notice. I'm not even sure if that's his story. I don't know what his story is, and I have a hard time imagining one that's convincingly exculpatory.

At best, he knew it was happening and did nothing to stop it. It's one thing to be unaware that you have, say, a couple of illegal plants growing somewhere on the periphery of your acreage, but a dogfighting ring? That's the kind of thing you don't accidentally overlook.

This is absolutely disgusting. If nothing else, I hope this raises awareness of dogfighting and leads to more prosecutions.

Remember the Maine?

Since moving out to Portland in the mists of the late 1980s, I've noticed many changes, but one that never fails to amuse me is how the word "Portland" has come to refer to Portland, Oregon, and not to Portland, Maine. In my first years here, I would still hear people qualify "Portland" with the state, but no longer. The Portland in Maine has, for all intents and purposes, vanished from public consciousness, and no one refers to it any more. Does anyone miss it?

But the news isn't all good. Portland has seized the name for itself on the strength of its massive population growth over these years, which I break down thusly:

39% - Doughy white people driving alone in SUVs

50% - Hispanic men in baseball-style caps

9% - People who sold even more insanely expensive houses in California, then moved here and helped drive housing prices to insanely expensive levels

1% - Portland Trailblazers and members of their criminal entourage

1% - People in line in front of me, purpose and origins unknown

Swedish Wal-Mart

Portland is abuzz with consumerist enthusiasm today because the new IKEA store is opening this morning, so much so that the state DOT has seen fit to issue traffic advisories. It goes without saying that all the local TV stations have suspended their usual presentation of grisly crimes in the Carolinas and hopelessly inaccurate weather forecasts to share in the hype (here's channel 12, here's channel 2, etc.). They're attempting to make the puffery look respectable by treating it as a traffic story, but it's just an ad between the more overt ads.

People are said to have been lining up for days leading up to the blessed event. The first 100 people in line get a chair or something -- actually they know the real prize is to see themselves on the tee-vee.

I have nothing against IKEA, I guess. Notwithstanding its alleged Swedishness, I expect 99% of the merchandise it sells to bear the same "made in China" tag as all the other merchandise in all the other stores. Even though it's pretty close to my house, suffice to say I won't be going anywhere near it until after this hype wave has crested and started back down.

My Dick's Sporting Goods Ad

As I ran this morning, I visualized myself as the protagonist of an ad for Dick's Sporting Goods, a store I know only through its ads. In the ad, I was taking note of all the people out running the same course as I was at 6:30am, and mockingly asking them where they were in December, when it was cloudy, dark, windy, and slick, and when the temperatures were in the 20s instead of the 50s as they were this morning. I find it easy to picture myself as the asshole in a Dick's ad at the crack of dawn. In general, it is not difficult to picture me as the asshole.

Then the ad took a stylistic turn away from the usual Dick's ads when the thighs of other runners began literally screaming at me as they went by. I pictured little screaming mouths and crying eyes on the thighs, and pictured my own thighs alternating between sobbing to me and hurling trash-talk at the other thighs.

I am now betraying my thighs' secret pain to an audience of literally a handful.

Some Bubbles Blown


At first I wasn't going to post this, but then I recalled how many times I've been surprised at what can pass as a novel argument among ostensibly thoughtful people. I'm not naming any names here, and I'm not even putting anyone down. It pays, I think, not to assume people are familiar with even the most basic of arguments.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Summer of Tards


Alberto Gonzales, our retarded Attorney General, put in another good day's work lying to the Senate today. It was cringe-worthy at times (those times being the ones where he was speaking into the microphone), but at least it kept him away from doing any direct damage to federal law enforcement.

His artless dishonesty and wacky incompetence have made for an entertaining summer, but I look forward to a day when he appears as a regular guest on Hollywood Squares, inserting his hilarious catch-phrases, "I don't recall" and "I'll check that and get back to you."

"Generation Chickenhawk"


This short video is packed with moments that crystallize the current state of "conservative" thinking in the USA.

Huge Loss

The Weekly World News, the newspaper that offered all the latest and best stories concerning Bigfoot, Nessie, Batboy, and UFOs, is shutting down for some reason.

Whatever celebrity-chaser replaces it in the impulse aisle had better put a lot of really good cleavage on the cover.

Sigh. Now we're completely dependent on the Bush Administration for brazen, demented fabrications. Can they possibly keep up? Well, they're off to an encouraging start, as Attorney General Gonzales is testifying before Congress again.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Not Quite Worthless

$4325.00The Cadaver Calculator - Find out how much your body is worth. From Mingle2

My carcass fetches a handsome price. How about yours? A wise man once said: the demand to give up the illusions about one's condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.

The Unknowable

My fatass alcoholic baseball coach in grade school used to make us run laps when we messed up, but it turns out the joke's on him! And I don't just mean the liver damage!

There is a footrace in New York every year whose course consists of a half-mile lap around a particular block. The block has a school and a playground, and sounds a lot like the lap our coach used to make us run.

Participants keep repeating the same lap until they've covered 3,100 miles. Day after day, over roughly two months, for three-thousand one-hundred miles. That's a lot of fielding errors.

It's called the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, and I will never run it. Of course, a few years ago I said I'd never run a marathon, and used marathons in gratuitously bitter homilies about the death of influential adults in my life.

The Enabling of Trivia

Having seen portions of the still ongoing CNN-Youtube Presidential debate, I'd like to embiggen my previous skepticism by noting that this format gives CNN cover to pose pointless, trivial, time-wasting questions. A few minutes ago, CNN let through a Youtube video in which someone asked the candidates to name their favorite teacher from their school days.

This is mindless fluff. It doesn't matter who their favorite teacher was. We're picking a President here, not filling out their Facebook profiles.

Big Whoop

Tonight is the CNN-Youtube Presidential debate, in which the Democratic candidates will give vague, evasive answers to questions submitted by the general public in the form of Youtube videos.

Even though Hank and Susie Webcam are submitting the questions, nothing in the structure of this event opens any new possibilities. Well, none of substance, anyway -- some of the videos may well prove to be humorous, intentionally or otherwise. CNN still exercises editorial control over which questions are asked and in what order. I fail to see how this is anything other than a gimmick and a plug for Youtube, which is just about the last thing that needs a plug right now.

How to inject some novelty and excitement into the debates? How about turning it into a drinking game? The candidate receiving the question must take two shots before answering, and all other candidates must take one shot. Each candidate is provided a vomit bucket so that they don't need to leave the stage.

Broom v. Ocean

Portland is on a muggy streak that would appall a Cajun. I thought I'd see an alligator emerge from the Willamette as I ran by it this morning, locked in a death-roll attack on a deer that came too close to the banks, scattering coral snakes, copperheads, crawdads, and snapping turtles as they rumbled through the mud. If I didn't see that, it was not for lack of effort.

What I did see, or rather feel, was roughly three gallons of sweat accumulating in my running pajamas. They tried to wick it away, they really did, but this was too much to ask. I might as well try to brush the tide back with a push-broom.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Musings Upon a Too-Quiet Sabbath

I've just emerged from my hidey-hole and can't seem to find any mention of whatever new war we started while Cheney was President. Bush's colonoscopy, a rare instance when he openly acknowledged mentally checking out of his duties as President, must have yielded something more than a handful of Presidential polyps. Surely we've opened up a new Central Front in the War on Terror™, and surely we've captured another Al Qaida #3. Surely President Cheney at least shot someone in the face, screamed "go fuck yourself" at a member of Congress, handed some fresh new no-bid contracts to Halliburton, and pardoned a few criminal sycophants. Surely.

Is it still really a secret, or is everyone just noses down reading the new Harry Potter novel? Am I going to have to wait for another unreadable Bob Woodward book to find out?

Speaking of which, one arrived at my door yesterday -- a copy of the Rowling novel, not one of the Presidential polyps. Someone ordered a copy for my household from Amazon.com (thanks?), and I have to assume I am not the only person to get a copy without quite meaning to. I started skimming the latter pages to find out who had died, only to realize I didn't recognize any of the character names anyway. The book sits basically untouched on the counter if anybody wants a copy. Steep shipping & handling charges may apply.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Happy Times! Great Success!


No one should be surprised if even the Borat impersonator is accused of doping. Zut alors!

Something Like Farting in an Elevator


Have you calculated your CO2 footprint?

There are a number of web-based calculators, but I like the one at safeclimate.net because it results in an easily-interpretable cartoon and because I already picture myself as a featureless blob wearing a halo.

What's my secret for emitting so little CO2, you ask? A few things:

* I exhale only when absolutely necessary. I frequently write to my representatives in Congress to encourage them to stop exhaling altogether, but not before ensuring that every member of the Bush-Cheney Administration has done so.
* I hate driving, and do as little of it as possible. When I do drive, it's either in our Prius, the car for people who hate cars, or in our wimpy and fuel-sipping truck.
* I almost never fly anywhere by plane. If I can't hang-glide there, I have no business going.
* Our house is heated with electricity only, which means it is barely heated at all. We participate in Portland General Electric's "Green Source" program, which claims to give "100 percent renewable power from new wind, geothermal and biomass sources." The biomass sources may result in CO2 emissions unless they're burning silicon-based life forms that they've fetched from one of Jupiter's moons.
* I try to buy as much food as possible from local sources -- when I walk into the neighborhood produce market, it's fun to watch the owners' eyes light up with dollar signs. That said, I don't necessarily try very hard to buy locally-produced food. It is extremely hard to find Northwest-grown bananas, for example.

Two Disgusting Thoughts


First, President Bush will be undergoing a colonoscopy, which is a euphemism for someone will be shining a flashlight up his poop-hole, and even uglier, Cheney will be acting President while it's happening.

I'm glad I opted out of lunch today.

NBA Referees Might Be Dishonest

Abundant headlines attest that the FBI is investigating whether a veteran NBA referee has been betting on games in recent years.

I am shocked, SHOCKED! Actually, the NBA couldn't be any more fake if players' managers routinely ran onto the court and smacked opposing players with folding chairs.

I hope they'll do the right thing and retroactively award a championship to the '90-'91 Portland Trailblazers, who were so robbed. They should also go back and replay this year's playoffs without screwing over the Phoenix Suns this time.

Why Pessimists Aren't All Dead

The cult of smiley-faced optimism has suffered another well-deserved smacking, this time from Barbara Ehrenreich, who summarizes a couple of studies denying health benefits of a "positive attitude."

We pessimists prefer to call ourselves "realists," but tomato-tomahto.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

You Still Have Time


Fear not -- 2015 is still eight years away, so you still have plenty of time to join the 75% of Americans projected to be overweight by then.

But why be half-assed about it? Eight years seems like plenty of time to join the 41% of Americans projected to be obese by then.

One of my mottos is "something not worth doing is not worth doing well," and in that spirit (or in a closely-related spirit), why be overweight when you can be obese?

Eat something now. Regime change begins with you.

How Checkers Is Like Kissing Your Sister

Burn your boards and pieces -- computer scientists have used an algorithm to play every possible good game of checkers, and apparently it all ends in a draw.

I hope the algorithm sputtered to this ending with the same campy moralism with which the computers in War Games exhausted tic-tac-toe.

Chicago Is No Longer Boring


If you're in the Chicago area over the next few weeks, don't miss the chance to see this show. You'll be glad you saw Deanna and Rance in person before they were the subjects of endless paparazzi gossip, urban legends, Comedy Central Roasts, and dewy-eyed VH1 restrospectives.

Here's the show's official blurb from Deanna:

Rance Rizzutto and Deanna Moffitt are The R&D Project. By audience selection they were crowned the 2007 Dual Duel champions of two person improv. Now they're back with a full show 30 minute show. Sometimes words get in the way, so The R&D Project has found it best to give the Silent Treatment. The only sound you will hear is the random selection of music acting as their soundtrack for their completely improvised show.

8:00PM Fridays @ The Playground
3209 N. Halsted St., Chicago
July 20: with Space Robbers & Mustang Repair
August 3: with Space Robbers & Homey Loves Chachi
Tickets $10 at the door
Just go! You'll laugh yourself stupid.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

D'Oh!


It seems a few pagans are upset at the addition of Homer Simpson to the Cerne Abbas giant, but I think it's brilliant.

Homer goes with everything and belongs everywhere, and we're less than a week from the Simpsons movie. Hoorah!

Elma: Not Quite Hopeless


Here's a view of the evening sky in Elma, WA, which proves it is not without its charms.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Moclips. Yes, that's "Moclips."

"Moclips" isn't just an elegant pair of syllables or a complete sentence compressed into a single word, it is also a place name attached to a town on the Washington coast, not far from equally compelling place names like the highly original "Pacific Beach" and the unfortunate complete imperative sentence, "Humptulips." I like tulips as much as the next guy, but ...

Moclips is also the setting of a live-action hillbilly cartoon I was privileged to behold this last weekend shortly after arriving at our rental home. It sounded nice before we got there -- it offered plenty of room, an ocean view, and a hot tub (perfect for post-race recovery) -- but nothing in its promotional materials gave us the east-facing view, which turned out to be the view that might have shown us the rickety trailer across the way. The spectacle of two obese hillbilly couples and two underdressed kids on the make-shift porch swilling beer, hooting and air-guitaring to the strains of Lynerd Skynerd, and yelling at each other between songs seemed like something out of "My Name Is Earl" that you'd dismiss as an excess of parody. From now on I consider that show an understated documentary.

I didn't want to stare, but it wasn't easy to look away. It also wasn't easy to hear ourselves think, so we cut our losses and drove back home before nightfall.

RtP '07: Results Posted

Surprisingly enough, they've gotten around to posting the official results of Rainier-to-Pacific 2007. Team "Pizza Deliverance" finished in a very respectable seventh place overall, and second in our category.

Or did we finish sixth overall? I don't know what to make of the blanks attached to the first overall finisher. As with so much else with the RtP, a shrug of the shoulders seems like the best response.

(RtP dispatches I, II, III, IV, and V)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

RtP '07: Elma by Night

This year's Rainier-to-Pacific (dispatches I, II, III, IV, and V) added to its legacy of disorganization by requiring a layover of one, two, or three hours -- shorter for the slower teams, longer for the faster teams -- intended to equalize the finish times, thus assuring that volunteers and facilities would be present for all at the race's end.

Correctly anticipating that this layover concept would be poorly-received by the race teams, organizers convinced Elma (WA) High School to offer its cafeteria, showers, and other facilities as the site of the layover. Yes, racers would have to play a big game of "hurry up and wait" nested inside the larger game of "sit in a van for six hours and then get out and run several miles" they were already playing, but there would be cheap pancakes, showers, a nice place to nap! And Elma H.S. would get a fundraiser! Everybody wins!

In theory. Actually it was a mess.

For starters, I made the grave mistake of ordering something other than pancakes. Not feeling very pancake-y at 9:15pm, I chose the third item listed on the white board menu, "yogurt-granola-fruit" for $3.50, and a coffee for $1. When I said "yogurt-granola-fruit" to the lady at the order table, and even after I repeated this order, she must have heard only "yogurt" and concluded that I was speaking Turkish, because she didn't know how to respond or what to do. Her pleading expression seemed to ask, "why couldn't you just order pancakes?" and "why is there no all-hours Turkish translation service here in Elma?"

But dammit, I hadn't come all the way to this wretched corner of dogpatch to get pancakes I didn't want. For my third attempt at placing the order, I stepped approximately two feet to the right and pointed at the "yogurt-granola-fruit" entry on the white board, deliberately pacing my enunciation if only so that the other two words would signal that I was speaking some English. This helped her enough to know to charge me $3.50 -- I didn't have the heart to make multiple attempts at the coffee order -- although she didn't know what to tell me to do with the raffle ticket. Normally one takes the ticket and redeems it at the pancake window, but, alas, there was no "yogurt-granola-fruit" window!

Feeling I had already over-discussed and over-analyzed the "yogurt-granola-fruit" option, that no further words needed saying about it, I drew my own conclusions about how to proceed from there. I walked over to the table and picked out one of the pre-filled bowls of granola, selected one of the yogurt tubs from the freezer cart, and for fruit, decided I was entitled to one of the half-bananas and one of the quartered oranges. This is a reasonable take for $3.50, I thought, and again, I had no intention of holding further conversation about "yogurt-fruit-granola."

Seeing me begin to add the yogurt to the bowl of granola, another Elma H.S. volunteer approached with a worried look and, pointing toward another table, said "the milk is right over there." Realizing that anything I might say could be heard as Turkish gibberish and/or received as a provocative insult to small-town pancake feeds everywhere, I carefully considered my response. "No thanks," I said. Both "no" and "thanks" have long and deep etymological roots in our language, so I felt on safe ground. As a further guard against more discussion of the topic, I deliberately broke eye contact with milk-is-over-there lady and did everything short of putting my fingers in my ears and making the "I'm not hearing you la la la la" gesture.

By the time I had the courage to look up, I was relieved to find that no one was looking for further discussion of "yogurt-granola-fruit." I took it to a distant table and ate it. It was good, but totally not worth it.

But the fun had only started there in Elma. The showers turned out to be free, and worth every penny. They were the sort of locker room shower that requires you to hold the button down to keep the water flowing, the water was completely cold, and there was no soap of any kind. In a brilliant piece of logistics, the only unblocked entrance to the showers required a walk all the way through the gymnasium, which had been designated the "sleep area." So while its floor had been covered with a nice soft wrestling mat and the lights turned off, it reverberated with non-stop footfalls as men passed through to reach the showers; then its echoes registered their yelps as they felt the icy waters hit them, and then their discussions and banter about the cold water. On top of that, every flush of the urinal filled the "sleep area" with a long, whining groan of old pipes.

Last but not least, the layover was not enforced by the course volunteers to whom it was entrusted. Without much else to do -- I surely wasn't going to try to order more food or sleep in the "sleep area" -- I stood by the checkpoint for a while to listen in on the conversations, which fell into a predictable pattern: running team would complain to the volunteer about the layover. Volunteer would robotically repeat that the layover exists to make sure everybody reaches the finish at about the same time. Running team would counter that they were already behind their projected time. Volunteer would shrug shoulders. Running team would skip the layover and run through.

Our team was one of only a few that actually followed the layover rule, so we were well behind the pack by the time we parted ways with dear Elma.

RtP '07: Tales of a Head-Banging Skydiver

And so it came to pass that we found ourselves in the parking lot of a mini-mart in boondocks, Washington, at 3:30am, waiting at Rainier-to-Pacific checkpoint 21 (signified only by a small sandwich-board sign and a ripe-smelling portable crapper) for teammate Carl to finish his leg and hand off the symbolic baton. Teammate Eric and I were the only ones willing to venture out of the minivan's clammy warmth: I did so because I was slated to run the next leg and needed to warm up, and Eric did so because, well, because Eric is Eric and it must have been urgent business that took him to the far side of the lot and made the dogs bark. Being gifted at small-talk, Eric quickly struck up conversation with the newspaper delivery woman who pulled up in her well-used Kia sedan that was blasting what turned out to be The Essential Iron Maiden.

When Eric explained that we were in the middle of the RtP, she felt the need to excuse her non-participation in the event by mentioning her bad knees from too much skydiving. She gave us an overview of some of the common hazards of landing when skydiving, and not a very brief one at that -- it was well underway when I entered the portable crapper, and still going strong when I came back out several minutes later. Somehow this disquisition melded into a song of praise to her Kia, which, she proudly reported, had already gotten 260 miles on the current tank of gas and still had 80 more to go. This hymn to the car's fuel economy and to her artful frugality was slightly undercut by the fact that she left the car idling the entire time she was there.

She was friendly enough. It occurs to me that someone like this, driving from mini-mart to mini-mart in the dead of night, is responsible for a large portion of the fresh roadkills that seem to greet every sunrise. Maybe. If I were running over skunks and plowing through raccoons all night long, I'd probably crank the Iron Maiden too.

(RtP dispatches I, II, III, IV, and V)

RtP '07: Augurs at the Minivan Rental

The Rainier-to-Pacific (dispatches I, II, III, IV, and V) is notorious for its half-assed imitation of the Hood-to-Coast, its middling to non-existent organization, and most of all for the reception of the locals. The course cuts a westward swath across Washington starting in Longmire at the base of Mt. Rainier, through towns like Tenino and Satsop, ending in Ocean Shores on the Pacific coast, and those residing in this stretch of dogpatch are known for regarding the event as an unwelcome intrusion of outsiders. One hears tales of beer bottles thrown at passing runners and the pumping of shotguns from rickety porches, and allusions to Deliverance appear in many team names and van decorations (our team was named "Pizza Deliverance," another was called "Hurry, I Hear Banjos Playing," and at least one team van was covered with quotes from the film like "you sure got a perty mouth" and "squeal like a pig.") The RtP is an encapsulation of the urban-rural divide that plagues the Northwest, and all in good fun, more or less, until someone gets some buckshot in the ass.

I got a foretaste of this dynamic in the earliest moments, when teammate Carl and I showed up at the car rental place to pick up our van. After poorly explaining our options for insurance and making Carl mark down his initials several more times than one would expect for the sale of a house or the transfer of a cadaver, the teenager behind the counter pointed vaguely eastward and directed us to find our minivan in parking space #23. We located space #23 to find one of those hideous Ford Explorers with a truck bed, and a grubby one at that. But then I noticed another set of numbered parking spots just to the side, and following those to a second parking space #23, we found a minivan, but of the wrong color, the wrong serial number, and moreover blocked in on all sides by other parked vehicles. Confused and angry, we flagged down another teenage employee, who helpfully pointed us in the direction of yet one more series of numbered parking spaces (on the west side of the lot), where we found our third parking space #23 containing the correct minivan.

I should have lingered there at the Thrifty franchise to offer the suggestion that there's no reason to organize the lot as though positive integers top out somewhere in the twenties. As astonishing as it may seem, there are enough positive integers to assign a unique one to every spot in that entire parking lot, with plenty left over! I might have done so if we weren't already running late from all the stupidity, but I leave the tip here for anyone who needs to organize a parking lot or perform a similar task: go ahead and keep adding one to get the next number. I assure you there will be another distinct integer at the end of each "+1" operation you do. Trust me.

Since all this happened inside the boundaries of the city of Portland and several hours before the RtP even got started, this actually shows that stupid and disorganized isn't geographical, and isn't a function of any urban-rural divide. While true, that's uninteresting, so I prefer to believe it presaged the conflicts beneath the surface of the RtP. There would be more elaborations of this theme in the hours to come.

Speaking of Pointless ... 167 Miles in a Minivan


As a member of team "Pizza Deliverance," (thank you, yes, I did come up with that team name) I completed the Rainier-to-Pacific Relay Race over this past Friday and Saturday. The RtP is the dotty hick cousin of the more famous, longer, harder, and better-organized Hood-to-Coast Relay, which I ran last year and plan to run again this year.

These relays are running events, but the running is just a slender skeletal frame supporting the real meat of the experience, which is about human relations, sleep deprivation, driving and navigating the backwoods, and personal hygiene. More on that later, but for now, here's a breakdown of my three legs:

Leg 1: 6.13 miles, start time 4:00pm, somewhere near Yelm, Washington. This should have been a pretty easy run but for the fact that it was hot! Butt-hot! It was 86 degrees and I was running directly into the sun and finding little shade along the way. Further drama came from the fact that we were running at rush hour (yes, there is a recognizable rush hour in the Yelm-McKenna area), and the road had almost no shoulder. Many a large truck passed by, pressing a gust of hot exhaust-fume-scented wind directly into my face. Yummy! I finished this leg in 43 minutes, two minutes behind my hoped-for time.

Leg 2: 4.21 miles, start time 3:45am, outskirts of Elma, Washington. Despite the lack of real sleep to this point, I was feeling surprisingly energized and ran hard the whole way, finishing in 28 minutes. If the watchword for leg one was "hot," the watchword for this leg was "dark." Boy was it ever dark, and extremely quiet. Somewhere in the middle of the run I turned off the music to get a feel for the ambiance, but found I had no taste for that combination of dark and quiet, which seemed to invite thoughts of bears, cougars, runner-eating badgers, and other phantasms. The cat-sized creature that streaked across my path at one point -- let's assume it was just a cat -- ended my brief flirtation with running without music.

Leg 3: 4.11 miles, start time 9:45am, somewhere near Copalis Crossing, Washington. It was very hot again! No fair! There was no watchword for this leg, just the brute fact that I'd gone more than 24 hours without meaningful sleep, during which time I had chipped in more than ten miles of running and several hours of sitting in a minivan, festering in my own stench and that of five teammates, nourished by little more than trail mix and Gatorade. I ran hard, but I could tell the effort wasn't resulting in the usual speed. My teammates, as enthusiastic and mentally sharp as I was at that point, neglected to mark down my finish time, so I can't be sure what it was. I think it was not more than a minute or two behind my hoped-for pace of 28 minutes, despite the weariness and particularly despite the massive hill that dominated the last half mile.

This is the first and last RtP I'll run (famous last words), for reasons I might find the energy to explore in subsequent posts, so gather these sweat-encrusted verbal rosebuds while ye may, such as they are.

(RtP dispatches I, II, III, IV, and V)

Densely Pointless


Here is a case in point of how religion should stay out of government and vice-versa. Period. These people should carry their prayers elsewhere, together with their insipid arguments about which god hears which prayers. This empty garbage has no place in the proceedings of our government.

Close Enough

At the end of a terrific reply to Michael Gerson's "What Atheists Can't Answer," Christopher Hitchens handily summarizes Christian theology in terms worthy of an entry in Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary:

the delusion that we have been created diseased, by a capricious despot, and then abruptly commanded to be whole and well, on pain of terror and torture.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Now That's What I Call Genealogy!

The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins is a frighteningly good read. In addition to being a fabulous overview of large swaths of biological science, as one would expect from a book by one of the world's leading zoologists, it is chock full of surprising insights that make it a page-turner. For example, did you know that the hippopotamus is more closely related to whales than to cows, horses, or camels? I didn't.

If you're interested in genealogy, this book has much to offer. Maybe you've been lucky enough to trace your ancestry as far back as the middle ages, which probably amounts to going back to fifteen or twenty great-grandparents into the past. This book allows you to trace the same idea into deep time to learn, for example, that our (estimated) 175-million-greats-grandparent was the the ancestor we all share with modern-day amphibians.

It's amazing to think about: every frog you've ever seen is a distant cousin. So is every bug that has ever flattened itself against your windshield, every dog you've called a pet, every rose you've ever seen in any bouquet, and every human ever born.

At over 600 pages, I couldn't hope to do justice to its many surprising and informative tangents beyond pointing out that this tracing of ancestry is the book's overall plan. Dawkins takes his reader on a journey into the past roughly modeled on the pilgrimage of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, starting at the present day with modern humans and stepping back in time to add "pilgrims" (evolutionary forebears), all the way back to the beginnings of life on earth.

Here's a hopelessly partial list of good reasons to read this book:

* Because you want to understand evolution.
* Because you want to marvel at the diversity and wonder of life on earth.
* Because you want to rebut many of the common distortions of evolution and biology presented by creationists and "intelligent design" (ID) enthusiasts.
* Because you want to become familiar with some of the legitimate and ongoing controversies in biological science. (Note that creationism/ID versus evolution is not such a controversy. Actual scientists recognize that creationism/ID is not science.)
* Because you want to understand how real biologists work -- how they arrive at the conclusions at which they arrive.
* Because you want an excellent example of expository prose.

Too good!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Namaste


A neighbor has installed a new post for his mailbox consisting of a piece of cedar carved into a bear. The bear sits low to the ground, hands together at its chest in a supplicant position, as if praying to the mailman to deliver something honey-covered into the mail receptacle at the top of the elongated hump that is the bear's back. If this were an actual bear, it wouldn't be able to walk or feed itself, so it might not be a stretch to imagine it spending its life begging mailmen for handouts.

My son is only eight, so he has only conventional uses for baseball bats. This means I'll be stuck looking at this hunchback namaste bear mailbox for years to come.

The Fear Expands

At work today, a guy came into the bathroom carrying an open bag of chips, entered the toilet stall, and continued to munch on the chips as he carried out his business. I am happy to say I never got a good look at him, so he could be any of several people who sometimes appear in the men's room on my floor. I would rather not identify him, and I'd rather not identify the kind of chips he was eating. I'd really rather the whole thing had never happened.

One More on Vitter

At the risk of deepening the false impression that I actually care how and with whom wingnut Senator David Vitter has sex, I want to add something to my earlier post about the illegality of prostitution and Vitter's obligation to subject himself to the legal punishment (supposing he wishes to avoid hypocrisy, or rather worse, holding others to a higher legal standard than he holds himself). The fact that the statute of limitations may have passed since his last offense against these laws is irrelevant to the ethical point.

A statute of limitation for something like prostitution exists for the practical difficulties of establishing the truth long after the fact. But if Vitter played "John" to a prostitute, then he knows whether he did or didn't. His public statements indicate he is aware of what he has and has not done -- no jury or judge needs to be finder-of-fact about events in his own life. He should therefore offer himself for the appropriate legal punishment. Indeed, he should formally plead guilty under the relevant laws, notwithstanding any statute of limitations. As I understand it, the statute of limitations becomes irrelevant if someone steps forward and pleads guilty.

He should step forward in just that way. To do less would be hypocritical, unless, again, he favors decriminalizing prostitution.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Crassness

I know it's crass, but I had no idea Lady Bird Johnson was still alive before they announced her death earlier today. Heck, if quizzed, I would have placed her death some time in the 1970s. That's how dead I thought she was.

Oh well. RIP.

It does raise the question of how accurate my "dead" and "not dead yet" lists are. Kissinger? Max Von Sydow? Mel Brooks? I just don't know.

Don't let it happen to you! As always on matters of pointless knowledge, the internets can avail us here: deathlist!

Faith on a Map


This map shows the distribution of religious believers in the USA -- the darker the color, the more time wasted in church.

Look at Oregon and Washington! Hopelessly godless! Yay!

I'm pleasantly surprised at the low levels of belief in Alaska, Wyoming, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, and the Carolinas. The coloration of Utah and the south end of Idaho indicates that the Mormon church was among the 149 "religious bodies" that participated in this study.

Paring Hyprocrisy Down to GOP-Friendly Size

Tucker Carlson appeared on one of those cable TV shows last night to claim that Senator Vitter is not hypocritical because Vitter continues to label his behavior as morally wrong. That distinction is probably too clever by half, but I congratulate Carlson for saying something more cogent than "Bill Clinton did the same thing, only a thousand times worse," which is the slapdash GOP-friendly meme that would usually be lazily tossed into this discussion.

Carlson's standard of hypocrisy entails that Al Gore is not hypocritical for having a large house since Gore continues to say that people with large houses, including himself, aren't exempted from reducing or canceling their carbon footprint. And John Edwards is not hypocritical since ... actually I still don't understand why John Edwards is accused of hypocrisy for being rich. Edwards does not say it's wrong to be rich; he says rich people owe something to the poor. He does not say the rich owe "everything" to the poor; he does not even say the rich owe every penny they'd otherwise spend on hair cuts. Edwards has not exempted himself from the obligations he sets forth for others.

While Vitter has acknowledged that his actions were wrong and "sinful," I will be stunned if he acknowledges that they were illegal. Prostitution is illegal in the District of Columbia and in every jurisdiction near it, so unless this "socially conservative" champion of "family values" and "law and order" has suddenly decided that prostitution should not be a punishable crime, he is obligated to plead guilty to the crime and accept the statutory punishment. To do less would be hypocritical.

As for me, I don't think Vitter (or anyone else) should be prosecuted or punished for prostitution, because I don't think prostitution should be a crime. But that belief of mine goes hand-in-hand with other things that are true about me, such as the fact that I don't go around prating about "family values" or the "sanctity" of marriage.

Vitter, Morals, and Politics

To be clear, I don't actually care that wingnut Senator David Vitter has a taste for whores. I don't find the sex lives of politicians very interesting or important; I'm a lot more concerned with the policy choices they make.

I don't relate to Senator David Vitter on a personal level, and never plan to -- that is, I do not interact with him in any way where his sexual morality might make a difference. He does not "embarrass" me, nor "reflect" on me, and I don't "trust" him in the way I might trust a relative, a babysitter, or even the stranger I ask to watch my stuff while I'm in the pool. He is someone I "know" from the tee-vees and the internets.

Because I generally hope that people can learn from experience, I hope this situation invests him with more circumspection and humility when it comes to future pronouncements about sexual morality, but that's probably too much to ask. He is, after all, judging by his public words and deeds, an obtuse and hidebound dolt.

Vitter himself is on record as holding a very different standard when it comes to the above. Whatever.

Worst President Ever (Latest Installment)

Exhibit A: So-called "Homeland Security Chief" Michael Chertoff has vocalized a "gut feeling" that the USA will be attacked by terrorists this summer. Is Michael Chertoff's gut telling the truth here? Michael Chertoff's gut gives three answers when asked questions: "yes," "no," and "wait." We get equally excellent answers on questions of national defense by asking a milk jug.

Nothing fails like Michael Chertoff's gut. Well, maybe prayer fails just as much. At least prayer is free, whereas Chertoff makes six figures plus expenses.

Exhibit B: Another Republican has courageously spoken out against the Bush administration after he no longer holds office or exerts any real power -- this time, the former Surgeon General claims the Bush White House muzzled and compromised his medical advice in the service of GOP talking points and electoral strategies.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Nothing Fails Like Prayer


If you watch only one youtube video that advocates praying to milk jugs this year, be sure to make it this one.

Spoiler alert: praying to milk jugs doesn't work.

Also, the evidence clearly shows that god (if he exists) hates amputees.

The Usual from the "Family Values" Crowd

Another bigoted right-wing prude has turned out to be a licentious hypocrite: it turns out that Senator David Vitter has an appetite for whores.

I know, I know -- he was probably subjected to sex education somewhere along the way, and it wasn't the Jesus-approved "abstinence-only" kind. In short, David Vitter's sexual transgressions are the fault of Bill Clinton and the Homosexual Agenda. The gays have torn marriage to pieces, and Vitter is the victim here.

Talkies Worth Looking Forward To


Do you have your Simpsons avatar yet? I do! I am the sleepy-eyed private-sector insurance bureaucrat that's always been so noticeably missing from the show.

You can get your own avatar here.

Nor Mammon

I don't worship Mammon either. Here is a good rebuttal to some typical "free trade" boosterism written by Mark Weisbrot and Dean Baker of the Center for Economic & Policy Research (CEPR). They're good people.

The Varieties of Ex Cathedra

If you consider yourself a Christian, the Pope doesn't unless you're a member of his church. Recall that this same Pope abolished purgatory a while back, so it follows this Pope expects to watch you roast in the fires of hell as he watches gleefully. Ah, Christian love.

According to Douglas Wilson, who belongs to one of the damned-by-the-Pope churches, there is an objective basis for settling this question: the Bible! You know, the text from his debate with Hitchens! Funny, that's pretty much what the Pope says too. I am not snickering as I write this; I just thought of something funny I saw on TV last night. Please excuse me.

Speaking of all that, I think the next equally compelling question is this: assuming all the Popes make it to heaven, do they get to keep their hats? Or is there a special version made just for heaven that they get to pass around like a celestial Stanley Cup? Which Pope gets to wear it for the really special cotillions and such?

I close with a slightly abbreviated summary of the last, oh, 500 years of "interfaith dialogue" among Christians, although the 500 years before that wouldn't look much different:

Christian 1: Your beliefs and practices offend God, flout the proper reading of the Bible, and fall short of what's required for salvation. You're going to hell if you don't repent and change your ways.

Christian 2: Nuh uh.

Another Illustration


Alberto Gonzales, arguably the Cletus Spuckler of the Bush White House, is either too stupid or too dishonest to be Attorney General: we now know of a new set of lies he told to Congress.

Anti-Equivocation

Here, A.C. Grayling nicely defines "religion" as he uses the term, and his definition conforms to the way Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett use it (unless otherwise specified). Grayling:

In the debate last Saturday the old argument was run that we who criticise religion are imposing our own straw-man definition of "religion" on religionists. So let me make quite clear what I mean by the word. I use it to mean belief, typically organised into doctrine, in the existence of one or more invisible beings who, again typically, command human beings to live and act in certain ways, and reward or punish accordingly. That is the essence of the thing, no matter how slippery the gloss, how polysyllabic, how evasive and gestural, how cloaked in appeals to mystery and depth and the convenience of our own epistemic limitations, that theologians and apologists invoke in their continuous attempts to move the goalposts whenever they come into the firing line for holding what is, fundamentally, exactly the same kind of commitment - exactly the same intellectual delusion - as is involved in believing that there are pixies and gnomes lurking invisibly among the rhododendrons.

Nothing that is not in essence this is a religion. If a world-view and an attached ethics does not premise the existence of supernatural agencies in the universe, typically as the explanation (!) of its existence, as determiners of its point, and as arbiters of the right behaviour for humanity, it is not a religion; it is a philosophy at best, and an outlook anyway, but it is not religion.
That's what they're talking about, and it's also what I'm talking about.

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Party of Two

I am not completely alone in this -- there are at least two of us.

Two Wretched Talkies

You'll be amazed to learn that Transformers is utter garbage. Granted, I have never had any interest in the line of toys that inspired this pile of crap, but I went in hoping for a few interesting visual effects. How would they handle giant robots throwing cars around and stomping through a city? How would it look for a flying jet or a rolling vehicle to morph into a walking robot? The answer: fast-moving, poorly-lit blurs. For all I know, they spliced in some of the same fast-moving blurs, frame-for-frame, that were used in place of what might have been interesting visuals from other films, like Incredible Hulk and King Kong, to name only two that used this same technique.

The story wedged into this noise, such as it is, centers around teenage love and an insultingly stupid back-story of secret government agencies, an expedition to the north pole, and the Hoover administration. It should never have been made, and the people who made it should be flogged.

Mildly more watchable and yet more disappointing is Ratatouille, the latest Disney/Pixar offering that held out the promise of a few cross-generational chuckles. Instead it managed to bore me and my eight-year-old son -- he stayed only for the popcorn, I stayed only because the same absence of slapstick that bored my son afforded me a peaceful napping experience. This film had no reason to be animated save for the uninteresting and superfluous conceit that several of the characters happened to be rats. Why bother? The same terrible film could have been thrown together in a couple of weeks without all the expensive animation.

In the end, it force-fed the lesson that anyone, even a mere rat, can make a dish that wins over the most exacting of food critics. I give a crap because ... ?

I'm about to fall asleep just remembering it.

Hitchens v. Wilson

An exchange between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson on the question "Is Christianity Good for the World?" comes again and again to Wilson's claim that atheism lacks an authoritative source for moral judgments. Wilson:

You believe yourself to live in a universe where there is no such thing as any fixed ought or ought not ... because you reject [God], you have great sermons but no way of ever coming up with a text. When people start to notice the absence of texts, the absence of warrant, the absence of reasons, you adjust and compensate with rhetorical embellishment and empurpled prose. You are like the minister in the story who wrote in the margin of his notes, "Argument weak. Shout here." ... Your invitation to us to try to "name one moral action ... that could not have been performed or spoken by an atheist" shows that you continue to miss the point. We have every reason to believe that such atheists, performing such deeds, will be as unable as you have been to give an account of why one deed should be seen as good and another as evil.
Hitchens replies that morality is innate, an endowment of Darwinian evolution no more or less than the ability to see light within a fixed part of the electromagnetic spectrum or hear sounds within a certain range of frequencies. This claim alarms Wilson:

If our morality evolved, then that means our morality changes. If evolution isn't done yet (and why should it be?), then that means our morality is involved in this on-going flux as well. And that means that everything we consider to be "moral" is really up for grabs. Our "vague yet grand conception of human rights" might flat disappear just like our gills did.
Hitchens' reply is actually better and more direct than it sounds (and this quote captures only a part of it):

It is, rather, religion that has made many morally normal people assent to appalling cruelties, including the mutilation of children's genitalia, the institution of slavery, the revulsion from female sexuality, and many other crimes from which an average infidel would, without any heavenly prompting, turn away.
Hitchens' examples are sly for the fact that these represent clear instances where morals have, in fact, changed over time, and for the better. No Christian Church today condones slavery (I sincerely hope I am right about that), but all of them did three hundred years ago. Was this because "the text" changed? No. As it did from the start, the Bible continues to regulate, but not prohibit, slavery. Today's Christians have rightly overruled the slavish devotion to "the text" and allowed their inborn morality speak to the question of slavery, as they (largely) have on questions of women's sexuality, genital mutilation, and on numerous other moral questions: commands to quarantine menstruating women, stone disobedient children, and kill homosexuals; condemnations of eating shellfish, wearing garments of mixed fibers, charging interest on loans; Jesus's injunctions to leave family behind, give no thought to the morrow, love enemies, never divorce, etc. The Bible -- Wilson's text of "fixed" ought's and ought not's -- gives morals that range from the absurd, to the barbaric, to the noble. And it is not the Bible that instructs people on how to distinguish which is which.

I would add that Wilson's line of argument here amounts to discomfort with the idea that god-free morals are not grounded in the way he wishes them to be. But disliking something is not the same as refuting it. It may be that the truth is not comforting; "because it gives comfort" is not a valid argument for the truth of any proposition, let alone the proposition that god exists and provides authoritative moral instruction. To pick an easy illustration: that you are shocked and horrified at the diagnosis of a fatal disease does not alter the truth of the diagnosis.

Texts are helpful in deciding moral questions, and the Bible can be counted among these texts. But in the end, in actual human society where difficult questions of morality arise, concensus is fleeting, fragile, prone to error, and subject to change (both gradual and sudden). This happens to be the truth, whether it gives comfort or not.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Poem of the Day: "Such Is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing"

Poems are so hit-or-miss: maybe you can relate, or maybe it requires so much imagination and willed empathy that the words might as well be a recipe or taken at random from a dictionary. This one really sings to me.

"Such Is the Sickness of Many a Good Thing" by Robert Duncan

Was he then Adam of the Burning Way?
hid away in the heat like wrath
conceald in Love’s face,
or the seed, Eris in Eros,
key and lock
of what I was? I could not speak
the releasing
word. For into a dark
matter he came
and askt me to say what
I could not say. “I ..”

All the flame in me stopt
against my tongue.
My heart was a stone, a dumb
unmanageable thing in me,
a darkness that stood athwart
his need
for the enlightening, the
“I love you” that has
only this one quick in time,
this one start
when its moment is true.

Such is the sickness of many a good thing
that now into my life from long ago this
refusing to say I love you has bound
the weeping, the yielding, the
yearning to be taken again,
into a knot, a waiting, a string

so taut it taunts the song,
it resists the touch. It grows dark
to draw down the lover’s hand
from its lightness to what’s
underground.

Bats Are Neat

Bats are an amazing example of the genius of evolution. This is one of only a few photos ever taken of this species of African bat, the Maclaud's Horseshoe bat. There are many reasons to read Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, and surely the early chapter on bats is alone worth the purchase price.

Is the bat pretty? No. But it is the product of a blind watchmaker, after all.

Libby Lied. Why? No Underlying Crime? So What?

GOP apologists keep asserting "there was no underlying crime" in the Scooter Libby case, to which two responses seem immediately appropriate:

1) If there was no underlying crime, then why did he lie? Andrew Sullivan explores this angle.

2) For the sake of argument suppose there was no underlying crime -- suppose that revealing in public that Valery Plame and the agency for which she worked were CIA assets is not a violation against the laws forbidding the public 'outing' of CIA assets. So what? Fitzgerald was gathering testimony and evidence to support indictments pertaining to a possible crime. Police, DA's, and other agents of law enforcement do this every day. In some cases, it results in indictments; in other cases, it does not. (In this case, indictments were not brought because Fitzgerald could not untangle the lies well enough to establish who committed what was, indeed, an underlying crime, and therefore he did not bring charges pertaining to the outing of CIA assets. But leave that aside for now.) In all cases, it is a criminal act to lie to the investigators conducting these investigations, and it is not difficult to understand why this is so.

Suppose you discover that some jewelry is missing from your house, so you call the cops to report the theft. The police come and ask questions, and as they do, you realize (to your horror) that you had recently lent your house keys to your cousin Oliver, who has a shady past. In your own mind you start to suspect that Oliver probably stole the jewelry, but hoping to spare Oliver, you neglect to mention him or the fact that he has recently had access to your house. In fact you go so far as to deny that anyone outside your immediate family has had access to your house. You have just lied to investigators -- you have just committed a crime. Further suppose that shortly after the cops leave, you discover you've only misplaced the jewelry -- it has not been stolen, so there is no underlying crime. Relieved, you call the cops and say it was all a dumb mistake. Under this scenario, notwithstanding the absence of an underlying crime, the fact remains: you lied to investigators, and are subject to criminal charges, and rightly so.

Where Does Morality Come From?


More and more research establishes that it comes from the brain, not from a god.

Of course god could have put it in the brain. Of course that god could be the flying spaghetti monster.

Do you honestly abstain from stealing, cheating, lying, and so on only because you fear god? Without that -- if god whispered in your ear that he'd be focusing his omniscience somewhere else for a few hours -- you'd go on a killing spree?

If so, there's something fundamentally wrong with you -- specifically with your brain.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

A Tale of Origins

Once upon a time, there was an old woman who loved her pet pigeons, which, at the time, were an extremely rare type of bird. A neighbor's pet leopard snuck into her house and killed the pigeons, and she could not afford to buy any more of these rare birds. Dejected, she stumbled upon a lantern, polished it, and out came a wizard who agreed to grant her one wish. She wished that pigeons should be plentiful across the world and that leopards should become extremely rare. Overlooking the compound nature of the wish, the genie granted the wish, and we live in the world now overstuffed with pigeons and with few remaining leopards.

It might be true. I can't disprove it.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Hitchens v. Sharpton


This is an interesting debate mainly for Sharpton's embarrassing contribution. Toward the end of this, Sharpton reveals that he sees only two possibilities to explain the origins of gravity: either "we in our own mind" decided that it should exist, or god created it.

This is a textbook example of a few things: the fallacy of the excluded middle; question-begging (if we can't explain gravity without reference to a creator, how can we possibly explain the creator?) stupidity; ignorance of and incuriousity toward the subject matter (has he ever bothered to pick up a book that might answer this question without presupposing gods?); and the utter childishness of the pro- side of the god debate.

Earlier in the debate, Hitchens asks the valid question of how the Jews made it through so many years of wandering only to discover, at the end, that murder, theft, false witness, adultery, etc., were forbidden? Before that these had been considered acceptable?

Bang!

Keith Olbermann has nailed it:



Regarding the pardon, er, sentence commutation, of Scooter Libby, not even Bush's worst act as President: "In that moment, Mr. Bush, you became merely the President of a rabid and irresponsible corner of the Republican Party. And this is too important a time, Sir, to have a commander-in-chief who puts party over nation."

You can see the full text of Olbermann's comment here.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Dawn of a New Fear

I am now moderately afraid of public toilets because this last weekend, at our otherwise faultless hotel in Seaside, I dared to use the toilet provided in my room's bathroom. (The pride! The vainglory! The hubris!) My first attempt at flushing resulted in nothing better than a modest rise in the toilet's water level, and in the ensuing panic, I tried flushing again. This resulted in another rise in the water level, high enough to allow a small amount of the poopy water to crest over the toilet fortress and onto the floor. The horror!

I called the hotel's front desk and immediately got the impression that the lady had heard this before. "Too much toilet paper?" she half-muttered.

The answer is no. I did not use too much toilet paper, although because of the flooding, which soaked the unused roll on the floor, my net consumption of toilet paper on this trip was well above average.

What she said next took me aback: "Do you want to come down and get the plunger?"

"You want me to plunge the toilet?" I asked.

This disarmed her fit of pique enough for her to say that a crew would be up shortly to resolve the matter. I took the boy down to the pool and, from a seat that overlooked the front desk, maintained a tense vigil for someone carrying a mop toward my room. At last it happened, and after I saw them return with the mop and plunger, I knew my room was safe again.

I never trusted that toilet again, however. From that point forward, I stuck to the common (guests-only) restroom on the second floor. And I still didn't use too much toilet paper, but when I flushed, I didn't look back.

Will I trust toilets again?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Views of the Coast


 

 

 

 
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Here are some images from the Oregon Coast: Haystack rock near Cannon Beach; a crab's pincher; a few of Haystack rock's lesser-known companion rocks; some kites in the sky; and a sunset in Seaside.