Thursday, July 31, 2008

Oliver Stone - W is for Why?

Speaking as a fan of depressing films, this just won't do. The trouble is, we've seen this movie. All of us have seen it played endlessly in nightmares and in the nightmare that is the nightly news.

There's not enough room for critical distance here. Winter Light isn't enjoyable when you're truly concerned about the prospect of nuclear Armageddon; The Proposition isn't enjoyable when you're stuck in the wilds with bandits all around; Arachnophobia isn't enjoyable at all, and least of all when your house is actually overtaken with aggressive spiders; Funny Games isn't enjoyable when you have houseguests who won't leave; The Silence of the Lambs isn't enjoyable when you're being fitted for the bite-mask, or needing to affix one to someone in your close circles.

No one wants to see his real afflictions on the big screen.

The Warp and Weft of the McCain Campaign

John McCain's approach to winning the White House is embodied in his recent ads and media appearances, which cast miscellaneous aspersions at Barack Obama -- that he's to blame for gas prices, that he wants to "lose" in Iraq, and most recently, that he didn't want to visit injured US troops during his recent trip to Europe:

This ad asserts a McCain campaign talking-point that Obama wouldn’t make time for wounded troops unless cameras were allowed to follow him, but did make time to work out at a gym. This, of course, is a lie. It’s a blatant lie. Steve Schmidt, a disciple of Karl Rove’s who worked on George W. Bush’s 2004 ad/communications effort, though, is playing the Rovian playbook that says that it doesn’t matter if it’s true as long as your target audience (non-college educated white working class voters) won’t bother to find out the actual truth, and believe that it “sounds like it might be true.”
Lie, lie, lie. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Attack without regard for the truth.

And yet McCain uses the word "honor" frequently, and he pledged not so long ago to run a respectful, substantive campaign. Those are just more lies to add to the pile.

The Rovian approach will continue to be used until it is shown to fail.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Country Mouse, City Mouse, and Marriage

Alexander Pruss cites a claim made by G. K. Chesterton that's more interesting than true, but I'll go with that:

There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.
I will put aside the blithe confidence in the declarations about hell and other supernatural twaddle and note only in passing that this statement serves to illustrate that G.K. Chesterton held a romantic view of small communities that's common to people who don't actually spend any time in them, and for what its worth, this brief biography shows him to have been pretty London-bound.

What interests me about the claim is what Pruss makes of it, namely, a continuation of his defense of arranged marriage. Marrying a person that someone else selects for you helps to avoid "the negative, self-congratulatory effects of congeniality" (Pruss) that afflict marriages based on love matches, in much the same way that living in small communities -- those clique-free idylls -- guarantees people the needful "experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises" unknown to Londoners other than G.K. Chesterton. Pruss:
A marital selection based on congeniality lets each minimize the amount of required change and growth. But an arranged marriage, where a match in religious views is ensured by the parents, but ... [where personality characteristics may differ markedly] ... forces one to broaden one's mind ...
On top of the rest of the social, psychological, personal, romantic, sexual, religious, historical, legal, political and other freight piled onto the institution of marriage, Pruss stacks another thick fardel: marriage should occasion change and growth; it should broaden the mind. If your marriage is not expanding your perspective, honing your character, and testing your ability to deal with that which you don't like, chances are good that you're doing it wrong.

If this sounds grim or extreme, Pruss generously allows that
it's probably not a good idea to marry someone who is so far uncongenial to one as to impede moral growth, by changing love to disgust. And so on. At the same time, the evidence that a practice of love matches is better than a practice of arranged marriage at avoiding these problems is weak.
Translation: the (unspecified) evidence suggests that both approaches to marriage, arranged and self-selected, show an equal propensity to dissolve into mutual disgust. Sold!

Assuming that is so, why not let the tie-breaker be the self-directedness, autonomy, and in a word, freedom of the parties involved? Feel free to take up that question with your favorite clique.

Impromptu Speedwork

What the deuce?!?! I went out for a pleasant run only to find that a woman -- a mere girl! -- was running by me at a much faster pace, so I undertook to match her pace for the remaining 2.5 miles of the run. I fully expected to overtake her, but no, not this mere girl. She stayed well ahead of me and, if I'm honest, gradually expanded her lead, even as I ran at dammnear 100% effort.

Hats off to you, speedy woman. You are a faster runner than I am, and I should thank you for a good long fartlek -- and for that matter, for giving me an excuse to use the word fartlek.

Note that all this mere girl stuff is in jest. An online survey thingy proves I believe in the radical idea that women are people, an idea sometimes labeled feminism.

Pets: The Gateway to Nihilism


Saudi Arabia's religious police have announced a ban on selling cats and dogs as pets, or walking them in public in the Saudi capital, because of men using them as a means of making passes at women, an official said on Wednesday.
The theocrats see through all our little tricks, don't they? They've observed the way women peer through those little air slits in their mandatory coveralls and notice men with dogs or cats. This can only lead to speaking with the men, and before you know it, the parties will be engaged in deeply ungodly marriages involving men, women, dogs, cats, crocodiles, chickens, parking meters, wristwatches, the letter Z, and so on. Rick Santorum knows this danger all too well, albeit as the spokesmodel of a different-ish god.

The only remaining question is how to deal with the existing pets currently pressing impressionable Saudis into the arms of sin. What would Allah do? The article is too kind to say, but grandfathering them in seems a craven surrender to moral decay. Would it count as parody to suggest stoning all the pets to death? These theocrats are so good at exceeding parody, I can't be sure. And I don't think I want to know.

Another Wide Stance: China's Spying and Ours

Senator Sam Brownback is outraged over revelations that the Chinese government reserves the right to monitor the internet use of guests in Chinese hotels during the Olympics (and presumably beyond). Glenn Greenwald notes:

[T]o watch U.S. Senators like Sam Brownback actually maintain a straight face while protesting China's warrantless spying on the email and telephone communications of foreigners, and lamenting that private companies feel unfairly pressured to cooperate with China's government spying out of fear of losing lucrative business opportunities, is so surreal that it's actually hard to believe one is seeing it.
Does Senator Brownback read the legislation he himself votes for (e.g., this and this) and if so, does he characteristically condemn the laws he supports? Shouldn't he re-think that? If he doesn't read what he votes on because he is unable or unwilling, shouldn't he leave the Senate?

Sam Brownback is to law-bound police surveillance what Larry Craig is to the sanctity of marriage -- he cares passionately about it and takes it as a matter of deep principle as it pertains to other people. Neat.

And a bonus Wide Stance: Senator Ted Stevens is all about fiscal discipline, integrity, self-reliance, and related manly virtues.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Dear Jeff Merkley

Jeff, please know as you develop and approve tee-vee ads that it actually isn't difficult to detail Gordon Smith's voting record and quantify its closeness to the GOP party line -- the googles give this and this in a snap, and Project Vote Smart gives loads of data.

Details count, particularly when Smith is trying so hard to run away from his party. He votes with his party more than 72% of the time, and even more when he's not facing an election. So say that! Don't be shy!

(Photo source)

Grayish-Brown is the New Green

Who again thought it would be a good idea for Beijing to host the Olympic games?

Beijing and co-host Olympic city Hong Kong were Monday blanketed in smog just 11 days before the Games, raising the stakes for organisers who were planning more emergency measures to clear the air.

Despite years of efforts to rid the Chinese capital of its notorious pollution and a raft of recent attempts at quick fixes, a typically thick haze cut visibility across Beijing to a few hundred metres.

With some athletes already training in Beijing and elsewhere in China, the persistent pollution was jeopardising China's promise of a "Green Games."
But worry not. China's government is well aware of the problem and is stepping forward with the same heavy-handedness that has for so long endeared it to multinational corporations and cheap labor enthusiasts everywhere:
Last week Beijing ordered more than a million of the nation's 3.3 million cars from the roads and closed dozens of polluting factories, apparently with little impact.

In a last-ditch bid to clear the skies before the Games start on August 8, the state-run China Daily newspaper said the government may ban 90 percent of private cars and close more factories.

... [T]he Beijing Olympics organising committee said it was still confident athletes would have little to worry about in regards to pollution.

"With the measures we have taken, we are fully confident that we can ensure clean air for the Games," committee spokesman Sun Weide told AFP, adding some of the solutions would need more time to show results.
Who would gainsay such assurances? Certainly no one who doesn't want to wake up in preventive detention or worse. And as for any distance runners, footballers, cyclists, or, you know, anyone else whose sporting event calls for heavy breathing, a word to the wise: China expects you to be at your best, as its national image is at stake here. No coughing, no redness in the eyes, and certainly no complaining, either on camera or off. For their part, the media conglomerates providing coverage of the games will do everything possible to keep things happy and light in keeping with China's wishes, and you'll be wise to join them.

Play ball.

(Photo source)

The Dark Knight and the Limits of Convention

Here's Matthew Yglesias commenting on some of the commentary about The Dark Knight:

Thence comes the thesis that a movie about a superhero just can't, on some level, be a great film. I think The Dark Knight has enough specific problems, especially in terms of the quality of the dialogue and some odd plot holes, that one is well-justified in cautioning that audience enthusiasm for this film shouldn't be allowed to go overboard. But I think moving toward a generic point about inherent limits of movies about Batman is pretty off-base. What is Homer writing about if not superheroes?

And at the same time, some of this winds up letting the artists off the hook. If a story's quality has been compromised in order to set up the next edition of the franchise, that's a storyteller compromising his story for money.
I strongly second the rejection of the excuse -- there is actually no good reason why romantic comedies, buddy movies, crime dramas, horror films, or indeed superhero blockbusters should be unwatchable crap. There are strong conventions in place for these familiar subgenres and others, but certainly no law commanding screenwriters and directors to accept those conventions, and for that matter no shortage of excellent films that stay within the conventional boundaries. That said, those conventions are, for better or worse, bound up with the audience's expectations about the work, and there's only so far they can bend before breaking.

I'm not convinced that citing Homer is the way to make the point in connection with Batman and superhero films. Yes, Homer's characters are larger than life, but there again, convention matters a great deal: what works in epic poetry wouldn't necessarily work on screen. I think a modern-day movie audience would balk at accepting the longwindedness of the speeches, and would probably walk out the first time a god ended a good swordfight by manifesting as a shroud of mist and plucking a favored warrior from the fray.

The thing that keeps superhero films from entering the higher reaches of cinematic craft is the quality of the underlying source material: granted, I am not a comic book reader, but what I have read suggests dialogue falling a little short of the Shakespearean as measured in either eloquence or subtlety. If The Dark Knight hits us over the head with its themes, allows seemingly important plotlines to trail off to nowhere, fetishizes technological gadgetry, and emphasizes the visuals, it's because the source materials do the same.

It's hard to say what, say, Ingmar Bergman would do with full creative control of a Batman movie. Assuming the universe didn't explode from the conjunction, the result would almost certainly disappoint people who love Batman from the comics. Likewise it's hard to imagine it winning over the Bergman fans either -- the dialogue would probably be quite a bit richer and deeper than what we find in The Dark Knight or Batman Begins, and the themes would be handled artfully, but it sounds like a compromise destined to please no one. (Besides which Bergman is no longer available.)

I would love to be proved wrong with one of the next inevitable superhero films -- a creation that bends conventions just enough to put forward something with higher-brow subtlety and grace that doesn't sacrifice the simpler pleasures of the subgenre.

Broken Glass

You have some unlearning to do, this time about glass:

It is well known that panes of stained glass in old European churches are thicker at the bottom because glass is a slow-moving liquid that flows downward over centuries.

Well known, but wrong. Medieval stained glass makers were simply unable to make perfectly flat panes, and the windows were just as unevenly thick when new.
The old saw is not totally without a basis in fact, however -- there is such a thing as a glass transition temperature (the temperature at which it goes from liquid to glass), and it turns out to be an unusual phase transition because glass, even after it hardens, refuses to fit nicely in either the solid or liquid category:
In liquids, molecules jiggle around along random, jumbled paths. When cooled, a liquid either freezes, as water does into ice, or it does not freeze and forms a glass instead.

In freezing to a conventional solid, a liquid undergoes a so-called phase transition; the molecules line up next to and on top of one another in a simple, neat crystal pattern. When a liquid solidifies into a glass, this organized stacking is nowhere to be found. Instead, the molecules just move slower and slower and slower, until they are effectively not moving at all, trapped in a strange state between liquid and solid.
It's remarkable what you can find by taking a careful look at the most pedestrian of things.

(H/T 3 Quarks Daily)

Monday, July 28, 2008

English Versus Physics

Here's a good enough example of popular physics writing, even an interesting one in terms of subject matter:

The warp engine is based on a design first proposed in 1994 by Michael Alcubierre. The Alcubierre drive, as it's known, involves expanding the fabric of space behind a ship into a bubble and shrinking space-time in front of the ship. The ship would rest in between the expanding and shrinking space-time, essentially surfing down the side of the bubble.

The tricky part is that the ship wouldn't actually move; space itself would move underneath the stationary spacecraft. A beam of light next to the ship would still zoom away, same as it always does, but a beam of light far from the ship would be left behind.

That means that the ship would arrive at its destination faster than a beam of light traveling the same distance, but without violating Einstein's relativity, which says that it would take an infinite amount of energy to accelerate an object with mass to the speed of light, since the ship itself isn't actually moving.
All well and good; I'll let the physics nerds pronounce on whether the technology described is even remotely possible, and for that matter, on whether the passage as written successfully captures the underlying science as opposed to trimming it too much or "dumbing it down" in the service of popularization.

For me, it does not work. Though I'm not proud to admit it, I need it dumbed down a few more notches, because it leaves me cold. I know what a bubble looks like, and I can easily enough picture something riding the surface of a bubble, but phrases like "expanding and shrinking space-time" and "space itself would move underneath the stationary spacecraft" might as well be the squeakings of mice for all the sense I can make of them.

Nor do I mean to single out this particular article; I have the same experience every time I try to read, say, A Brief History of Time, which is, by most accounts, a great achievement of popular physics writing -- although the mere fact of A Briefer History of Time suggests I'm not completely alone on this score.

This is not a plea for someone to explain the explanation, but an exercise in mild self-flagellation. I think it's worthwhile to take stock of one's limitations from time to time -- rest assured I have more where this came from.

Not Cuil

Cuil is the new search engine that seeks to push google into so last year status, but it's off to a feckless start. The annoyances:

  • As it stands right now, every search returns an error screen saying "due to overwhelming interest, our Cuil servers are running a bit hot right now. The search engine is momentarily unavailable as we add more capacity." Um, don't be too quick to spend the money on that new capacity.
  • Earlier today, it was returning results, but uselessly. There was no apparent logic to the order in which the results were presented (nor any evidence that I could change it), and far worse, search results were presented across several pages, with each page showing fewer than ten results. In lieu of more numerous results per page, it gave thumbnail images of the screens on which the search hits reside. I don't want that. Does someone want that? If I am searching for images, I might want that. But I'm not necessarily searching for images, and in fact, most of the time I am not searching for images.
  • The very name, cuil, invites a dispute over pronunciation. I am invited to be among the Nerdy Elect who pronounce the name of the new search engine properly, and thereby to distinguish myself from the wretched masses who get it wrong. No thanks. I don't want to be involved in another tedious instance of status-whoring.
I like its color scheme.

(H/T Portland Mercury)

Truth in Jest

I don't think they're terribly serious about it, but Ross Douthat, Matt Yglesias, and Daniel Larison have gone orthogonal to the gay marriage fracas and are indulging a spat over whether to ban the third, fourth, or Nth marriage. Here's Yglesias making the case:

I was thinking recently that if you really wanted to do something to shore up the sanctity of marriage then rather than ban gay marriages you ought to ban, say, fourth marriages. It's one thing to say that people who make a mistake ought to get a second chance, but serial nuptuals really do make a mockery of the institution's basic premises in a way that same-sex couples don't. Maybe some people just need to admit to themselves that they have no business making promises of life-long commitment.
Maybe. It would have the effect of reinforcing the sanctity of the commitment involved in marriage, but sidesteps the matter -- of far greater interest to today's moralists, judging from their words and deeds -- of whether the right sort of people are marrying.

But alas, sanctity is the scare word here, or should be. I continue to believe that the state has no proper role in marking off the boundaries of the sacred. In matters of human bonding, it should restrict itself to the questions of property allocation, child support, and the like, and stop there. Religious institutions and their assorted leaders are more than capable of bloviating about what's sacred and what isn't.

The Shotgun Speaks

Suppose you're angry at the liberals and the gays over the course your life has taken. What do you do? Seek counseling? Re-think your starting postulates? Tune in to Rush Limbaugh and lip-synch the current set of seething talking points? Forward lying e-mails about Barack Obama? Maybe, but those don't quite grab headlines like spraying shotgun fire on a peaceful assembly of Unitarians:

"It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that, and his stated hatred of the liberal movement," Knoxville Police Chief Sterling Owen told reporters of Sunday's incident at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.

Suspect Jim Adkisson, 58, who was being held on $1 million bond, had previously worked as a mechanical engineer in several states. He described his violent plans in a four-page letter found at his home, which also explained that his age and "liberals and gays" taking jobs had worked against him.
It's telling that this loser chose to target a Unitarian Universalist assembly, exactly the nexus of gay rights and god belief, rather than, say, a local gay night club, Democratic party headquarters, or ACLU gathering (these things do exist in Knoxville). Our hero felt keenly threatened by the idea that god would be understood to accept gay people, and that people would spread a religious form of gay acceptance.

Politics are all fun and games until someone takes out a loaded shotgun.

Exeunt Bandwagon: The Mad Men

As of this writing, I believe there are still a handful of slots remaining on the bandwagon for The Mad Men, the tee-vee series on AMC that appeared about this time last year and drew approximately seventeen viewers. Fortunately, most of those seventeen were professional tee-vee reviewers on the job, and they rightly noticed how good a series it is. The bandwagon to which I refer is the one from which one can crow "I liked the show before it became a big hit." Season one is available on DVD; season two premieres tonight.

The show follows the men and women of a Manhattan advertising agency in 1960, and from the first moments of the first episode it's clear we're looking at a lost world: everyone smokes constantly, drinks constantly, and says almost nothing that wouldn't raise the hackles of a modern-day Human Resources director, especially when it comes to gender. Edit out the scenes with male-female interactions that skirt the borders of sexual harrassment, if not bulldoze them, and the first season of thirteen hour-long episodes could probably be compressed to about half an hour.

Through its detailed, possibly over-the-top immersion in the world of 1960 -- and I would be keenly interested to learn how people who were around at the time assess its realism -- it continuously confronts the viewer with the theme of change and continuity: what has changed between that world and this? And what is still the same? What are the trade-offs? There is much to mine there.

An enterprising film student would also do well to note the many references to The Godfather trilogy in cinematography, lighting, themes, and so on.

It's quite good.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Futility of Travel

Stanley Fish confesses to a dislike of travel and a particular distaste for the idea of using travel to learn about foreign people:

When I ask people what they like about traveling, they usually answer, I enjoy encountering different cultures and seeing how other people live. I am perfectly happy with the fact of other cultures, and I certainly hope that those who inhabit them live well; but that’s as far as it goes.

By definition, a culture other than yours is one that displays unfamiliar practices, enforces local protocols and insists on its own decorums. Some of them even have different languages and are unhappy if you don’t speak them. To me that all spells discomfort, and I don’t see why I should endure the indignities of airplane travel only to be made uncomfortable once I get where I’m going. As for seeing how other people live, that’s their business, not mine.
I agree. I just don't find it 'fun' to find myself in a place where nothing is familiar and where I don't speak the language. I recognize that many people are drawn to the sense of adventure in that experience, but I am not.

Maybe it's a question of granularity. When I entertain an idea of wanting to understand 'how life is' for someone, I have small-scale particulars in mind: how, for example, it really feels to be a non-American living amid a media environment dominated by American and American-inspired content, what it's like to wake up to a normal in which scorpions are everyday food, how Shakespeare sounds to non-English speakers, how Goethe sounds to a native German speaker, etc.

I expend more than enough effort puzzling out the culture into which I was born, and every day brings fresh reminders of how much puzzling out I have left to do. If I ever arrive at subjectively confident and stable judgments about 'how life is' for the people immediately around me, maybe I'll revisit my doubts of the futility of using travel to sort out 'how life is' for faraway people.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bottom Lines

There's no accounting for what will flit through the memory, so I won't bother trying to account for the fact that this image has recently come to mind. Fetched from here via the googles, this is, aside from the word SAMPLE scrawled across it, an exact reproduction of something my grandmother displayed in the bathroom of her home.

For as long as I stared into its failures of visual balance as a child, it never occurred to me until these late recollections to question the meaning. Obviously it is an attempt at a pun on paperwork as toilet paper, but a good pun -- say, a pun successful enough to be reproduced in countless private bathrooms across the United States, or at least granny's -- is one that works on both the level of the ground and of the figure.

Putting aside whether it counts as ground or figure, consider the toilet paper side of the expression. Just what is the subtext of a reminder to wipe one's ass using toilet paper? Does it speak to doubts as to the public acceptance of toilet paper, and seek to allay those doubts? Does it serve to announce an allegiance on a newly-emerging point of hygiene and etiquette -- i.e., "In this house, we wipe with toilet paper after we defecate." If the latter, was the acceptance of toilet paper still a living dispute when I first encountered this image in the 1970s?

Not for me it wasn't. And to this day, it remains a point on which I will accept no compromises. We can go up from here -- perhaps there are ass-freshening technologies waiting to be born -- but not back. Not in this house. And I'm so entrenched in the pro-toilet-paper mindset that I find a notice such as this one superfluous.

That said, there's always a place for irony.

Children's Minds & Crackers

With tongue mostly in cheek, Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber strikes back at PZ Myers' recent sacrilege:

[A]t some point this weekend, I plan to tell a small, credulous child (about whom I will provide no other information) that a rainbow is a special sign from God that he promises never to flood the world again and that this proves that God exists. And PZ Myers will have this on his conscience that as a direct result of his actions. I think this rather than writing to somebody’s boss or soliciting a deluge of hatemail, might be considered a proportionate retaliation.
Maybe. But in Davies' struggle to come up with a proportionate response, we see the fulfillment of Myers' Grand Plan: to get people thinking about what counts as sacred, whether and to what degree people agree on the sacred, and whether sacred is a useful or meaningful category at all. When Myers declares flatly, "nothing must be held sacred", it takes some effort and charity to salvage what he means from what he might be taken to mean. I would not want it to be taken to mean that nothing and no one deserves reverence.

What's reverence? Just another weasel word? Maybe. Reverence is the quality at play when we approach a person differently from the way we approach a rock. Davies' example -- the receptive mind of a child -- is due some reverence, and that attribution requires nothing supernatural, but merely a sober reckoning of how humans are and how, according to our best understanding, humans develop from youth to adult. Whereas the attribution of sacred implies a supernatural agency who authenticates it.

Maybe this is mere question-begging. Maybe it is futile to try to retain reverence while discarding sacred; but it seems extremely important that crackers really aren't 2000-year-old man flesh, whereas children really do rely on adults for intellectual guidance.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Sublunary Politics: A Challenge Answered

An Israeli newspaper has published a prayer written by Barack Obama and submitted at the Western Wall during his recent trip to Israel. Obama's prayer:

Lord—Protect my family and me," reads the note published in the Maariv daily. "Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will."
Norm Geras sees this prayer as a challenge to a certain line of liberal critique:
I'm waiting on all those secular liberals who have been longing for a Democrat to succeed Bush in the White House, and were in the habit of sneering at Tony Blair's acknowledgement of having a relationship with his Maker, to back off from their enthusiasm for the candidacy of the Senator for Illinois. I mean...'make me an instrument of your will'.
I fall within the this challenge because while I have not said much about Tony Blair (and never this particular criticism), I have certainly highlighted and savaged the Christianist leanings of the American right, including but not limited to the utterances and deeds of the Bush White House.

So how do I respond to the challenge?

To begin, I hereby sneer, fully and deeply, at Obama's stated desire to be "an instrument of god's will." I think Barack Obama and every other person alive today should put aside such fantasies and represent his own will. Period.

Next, political choices happen in a context. As an American voter, I have a choice of supporting Barack Obama, John McCain, or any of countless candidates who stand no realistic chance of winning the presidency, the support of whom amounts, pragmatically, to supporting no one. My choices are really three: Barack Obama, John McCain, or none of the above. The candidate who believes exactly as I do about god, providence, church-state separation, etc., is not among the available choices, and may not even exist.

I reject (and denounce) 'none of the above' because too much is at stake in a great many areas of public policy about which I care deeply.

Of the remaining two, I favor Barack Obama. I favor him because I agree with him on a wide swath of public policy questions, whereas I agree with John McCain on almost nothing of substance.

I favor Obama, moreover, on precisely the matter in question: that is, insofar as I can read the minds involved in the case, I find both men to be equally sincere Christians; I think both men are endowed with extremely healthy egos, and that these egos, combined with their religious attachments, give them a tendency to envision themselves as "an instrument of god's will" whether or not they openly proclaim this belief; and yet I see an important "tie-breaking" distinction in this public statement made by Obama in 2006 (which I have highlighted previously):
Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.
I agree completely with that statement on the proper relationship between governmental and religious authority. Whereas we have this public statement from John McCain (which I have also highlighted previously):
I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn't say, “I only welcome Christians.” We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.
While I do appreciate McCain's stammering gestures toward inclusiveness (which serve, at least, to demonstrate that he realizes there is an issue of inclusion and exclusion involved), I do not abide the "Christian nation" cant. It is false, and the prelude to all too familiar abuses of the Constitution.

I would prefer that candidates for high office keep their religious attachments private, and speak only to the relationship between church and state and how this relationship touches on public policy. But in the really-existing political climate of the USA, this is all but impossible, and candidates' religious beliefs have been repeatedly thrown into the public's line of sight during this presidential campaign.

I do not want to see any candidate presume to be god's proxy (cf. this and this) -- such talk is, by my lights, deluded and dangerous, and must be subject to sharp criticism in all cases. But here on earth, political engagement requires choices between concrete and imperfect alternatives.

A Blogger's Lament (from 1750)

Samuel Johnson is one of the fathers of blogging; The Rambler never quite reached the hit rate he hoped for, and while it's rare to find a blog that doesn't issue this lament in some form, I'm tempted to say Johnson's elevated style is no longer possible:

But, though it should happen that an author is capable of excelling, yet his merit may pass without notice, huddled in the variety of things, and thrown into the general miscellany of life. He that endeavours after fame by writing, solicits the regard of a multitude fluctuating in pleasures, or immersed in business, without time for intellectual amusements; he appeals to judges prepossessed by passions, or corrupted by prejudices, which preclude their approbation of any new performance. Some are too indolent to read any thing, till its reputation is established; others too envious to promote that fame, which gives them pain by its increase. What is new is opposed, because most are unwilling to be taught; and what is known is rejected, because it is not sufficiently considered, that men more frequently require to be reminded than informed. The learned are afraid to declare their opinion, lest they should put their reputation in hazard; the ignorant always imagine themselves giving some proof of delicacy, when they refuse to be pleased: and he that finds a way to reputation, through all these obstructions, must acknowledge that he is indebted to other causes besides his industry, his learning, or his wit.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Tempest in an Orbiting Teapot

To some, it's pretty close to everything. To most, it's pretty close to nothing. I hope it doesn't lead to any actual harm to anyone.

I speak of The Great Desecration of 2008, which promises to push the carrying capacity of the internets.


The Joker Athwart

Here again is Christopher Orr in The New Republic, commenting on the many gaps in the story of The Dark Knight:

[I]t's not clear that this untidiness is entirely unintentional. In the end, The Dark Knight is less a film about good versus evil than about order versus chaos, a morality play into which a wild card, the Joker, has been inserted to devastating effect. As the demented harlequin lectures Dent at a moment of existential crisis, "The mob has plans. The cops have plans. Gordon has plans. They're schemers, all trying to control their little parts of the world. ... I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are." Indeed the whole film occasionally feels like an experiment in entropy, a universe in which even the best laid plans--Nolan's perhaps included--are quickly laid to rest.
In the LA Times, Kenneth Turan similarly addresses the theme of order and chaos as embodied in the Joker character:
Ledger threw himself into a role he clearly relished, giving a transfixing performance as a whiny-voiced god of chaos whose hard-core nihilism is bone-chilling.

For it's what he represents, not what he looks like, that is finally the horror of the Joker. He has no scruples, no morals, no goal except anarchy, no plan except the end of planning. As Alfred patiently explains, "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."
All of this talk of plans and their subversion, order and chaos, nihilism and disorder, anarchy and entropy -- much of it coming from the Joker himself -- strikes me as more than a little ironic since my experience of watching the film was in the difficulty of suspending disbelief enough to let pass the intricacy of the Joker's schemes, let alone the success with which they played out.

The Joker condemned schemers and planners, but nearly the entire plot of the film was his careful orchestration and the responses to it -- responses that he predicted with great precision and accuracy, and used as the basis for further scheming. Only one last element of his grand scheme didn't get exactly the human reaction he predicted, and that failure became the subject of much rumination and dialogue in the film's closing scenes.

Chaos? Chaos would have been one of the Joker's thugs getting drunk and putting a bullet in him when he turned his back. Or having a bomb go off too early -- clearly the man handles a lot of explosives. Or falling down and stabbing himself with one of his many knives. Or coming down with a severe case of the flu just when he's supposed to be breaking out of jail. Or having a critical cell phone battery die at an inconvenient moment.

Maybe the Joker really does hate schemers and planners, but if so, it's the hatred of self-recognition, because he's nothing if not a masterful schemer. He declares -- half bemoaning, half celebrating -- the inevitability of subversion and corruption even as he actively subverts and corrupts. Whether he acknowledges it or not, he bears a hatred from expediency, not a hatred from principle: he hates their plans, not planning. He wants to see them flounder as he triumphs.

To what end that triumph? The answer I would suggest is a very famous one:
It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
Sitting back contentedly watching the world burn is not so different from watching a city disappear in a flood.

Apropos Who Cares What?

It probably helps if you can't understand the language spoken in this video (as I can't):

(H/T Club Troppo - Nicholas Gruen)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Reason to Stay Alive Through August: New Stereolab

Stereolab will be releasing a new album on August 19 (August 18 worldwide) titled "Chemical Chords." Here's the promising-sounding song list:

01 Neon Beanbag
02 Three Women
03 One Finger Symphony
04 Chemical Chords
05 The Ecstatic Static
06 Valley Hi!
07 Silver Sands
08 Pop Molecule (Molecular Pop 1)
09 Self Portrait with "electric brain"
10 Nous Vous Demandons Pardon
11 Cellulose Sunshine
12 Fractal Dream Of A Thing
13 Daisy Click Clack
14 Vortical Phonotheque

I've never even heard "Valley Hi!," "Fractal Dream Of A Thing," or "One Finger Symphony" but they're already three of my favorite songs.

Until then, here's the Stereolab song "Brakhage" joined with visuals by Stan Brakhage himself.

Elegant and vicious: " ... we need so damn many things to keep our dazed lives going."

McSame - A Very Lost Old Man

Even on a narrow question (basic chronology) of a subset ("the surge") of a larger issue (Iraq war policy) where John McSame considers himself the most competent choice for the presidency, it turns out he doesn't know what he's talking about.

This remarkable video shows a) how lost he is on a basic question close to his supposed expertise and b) how elements of the news media inexplicably cover up for his mistakes, or try to.

The man is lost.

Blog Hate Watch - Lieberman Edition

Senator Joe Lieberman has adopted the increasingly conventional usage of bloggers to refer to the people whose opinions don't count in defending the honor of Christianist Pastor Hagee:

Lieberman again drew a parallel between Hagee and biblical figures, this time saying biblical heroes, unlike the demigods of Greek mythology, “are humans — great humans, but with human failings.” Lieberman said that Moses had his shortcomings, too.

“Dear friends, I can only imagine what the bloggers of today would have had to say about Moses and Miriam.” [emphasis mine]
Tsk, tsk, bloggers of today. We can't seem to recognize the voice of god when we hear it -- when we hear it say, for example, that god sent Hurricane Katrina and the Nazis as part of his Loving Plan.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

God, Ponca City, and the Chrysler Building

Ponca City has been mentioned in public, and get this: it wasn't in this blog, nor was it in Ponca City itself! It was at Butterflies and Wheels, and the person doing the mentioning was Ophelia Benson, whom I now admire more than ever. I am totally quoting this:

[W]hat else would Allah do to give a sign to show that Islam is the only true religion for mankind? Write his name in letters of fire across the night sky, high enough and large enough for a whole hemisphere to read? Send his only begotten daughter to be tortured to death? Dictate another really boring book about camels and finance? Pick up the Chrysler building and move it to Ponca City Oklahoma? Issue the 11th commandment, forbidding people to wear their baseball caps backward? Of course not. The only sensible way to give a sign to show that Islam is the only true religion for mankind is to write your name and your prophet's name on three pieces of meat the gristle thereof in the kitchen of a restaurant in Birnin Kebbi, Nigeria.
Did you catch that part I bolded? Ophelia Benson could have picked any crappy little town, but she picked out Ponca City, Oklahoma -- exactly the kind of notice for which Ponca City has long been hungry. Take that, other crappy towns everywhere!

It's an interesting thought, to be sure. It may surprise you to learn that if Allah or any of the other leading deities suddenly relocated the Chrysler building to Ponca City, it would not only substantiate the god's existence and awesome powers, but would also dominate the local skyline, its 1000+ feet challenged only by a couple of the larger grain solos in the area.

Church, State, Pledge, People Fighting. Film at 11.

I got a chance to watch Pledge of Allegiance Blues, a documentary by Lisa Seidenberg concerning Michael Newdow's efforts to take "under god" out of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Well, that's how it begins. The documentary opens by asserting that there are two kinds of stories --- the kind in which a stranger arrives in town, and the kind in which the protagonist goes on a journey -- and that the documentary will be both. In fact it is both of those things and more things besides.

A blurring of purpose dogs the film, but what emerges is nonetheless an interesting and informative snapshot of some of the lively antagonisms roiling the USA as of 2005 or so, and of some of the people involved:

  • The historical, political and legal questions of "under god" in the pledge.
  • Alan Dershowitz overcomes his crippling camera-shyness and gives an interview in which he uses the F__ word.
  • Speaking of the F__ word, Larry Flynt appears to discuss the usual things he discusses when he's not discussing his porn empire: censorship, the schemings of the religious right, etc.
  • Sandy Rios, arguably the most concerned of the Concerned Women for America, speaks for the theocrats. She's quite a piece of work.
  • There are scenes concerning Judge Roy Moore and his Ten Commandments monument. He's quite a piece of work.
  • Above all, the film profiles Michael Newdow himself: concerned parent, doctor, lawyer, publicity whore (not necessarily a bad thing), singer-songwriter, citizen activist, self-made man, contrarian, possible crackpot.
  • The film offers plenty of 'man on the street' interviews that show just how low the Low Information Voter is capable of going in the USA, especially when it comes to these hot-button cultural divisions.
The film is worth watching for the portrait it paints of a society divided over some very basic questions -- strangers to each other in surprising ways and yet trying to take a shared journey.

God as Amazon Reviewer

Another day, another effort to make the Koran compatible with modern life:

An-Na`im holds that traditional sharia, as it developed over the centuries following the revelation of the Quran, indeed sanctions aggressive jihad, the killing of apostates, the subordination of women, and dhimmitude or worse for non-Muslims. This history cannot be interpreted away. What can be reinterpreted is the Quran, which includes verses both from the earlier, more tolerant, Mecca period of Mohammed’s life, as well as those from the later Medina portion, marked by conquest and subordination. It was the Medina version that had become orthodoxy by the 10th century. But it is the verses from the earlier period that represent the true, universal message of Islam; the Medina verses were in fact an adaptation to particular historical circumstances in the life of the embryonic umma.
The argument that the Mecca verses are superior to the Medina verses rests on the idea that "particular historical circumstances" gave rise to the latter, but this begs the question. It's trivially true to say that texts originate in particular historical settings, so this just shifts the question from "which text is authentic" to "which particular historical setting gave rise to an authentic text?" Insofar as conformity with god's will is the measure of authenticity, any answers to this question will be unverifiable unless and until god shows up to answer: until then, we humans have the texts, and we have the historical settings of the texts (those historical settings and our understandings of them are, incidentally, available to us via texts unless there is a time-travel technology I've not heard about). What we don't have is god logging in and giving his five-star Amazon rating to one text and a one-star rating to the other text.

We also don't have a god snapping his almighty fingers and causing the inauthentic, unrepresentative, faulty verses to vanish. One would expect that to be an easy feat for an omnipotent deity notorious for caring about what people think and say about him. Evidently, if the god of the Koran exists, that god is content with the verses as they are, nice and nasty, Mecca and Medina alike.

As if that weren't enough to be swimming against in this effort to tart up the Koran for modern times, the many generations of Muslim scholarship have kept all the verses around and have considered them authentic, valuable, truthful, representative, and so on. The various contradictions have been noticed, and an entire subspecialty of Muslim exegesis has developed under the title of Naskh, or abrogation, which sets rules (or tries to) for cherry-picking interpretations amid the contradictions.

I would like to believe the Koran is compatible with the modern world and modern notions of human rights. I would like to believe a lot of things. The fact is, it isn't. And I've noted before the very steep challenges associated with efforts to whitewash holy texts.

McSame: After W's Fans in a Big Way

John McSame isn't content to win Bush supporters merely by marching in lockstep with Bush on every significant policy question. Now he's hard at work showing his rank incompetence, the unstinting appreciation of which separates the sunshine Bushy from the authentic dead-ender class of Bushy that now approaches 30% of the American electorate in some polls.

Another mention of Czechoslovakia? More ruminations on the challenges along the Iraq-Pakistan border? More Sunni-Shia confusion? No.

The comments filtering on McSame's web site is a small but elegant demonstration of McSame's ability to match Bush's uncanny fuck-up-everything-he-touches quality:

Apparently, any word containing combinations of letters like 'net' or 'org' or 'gov' gets rejected. Likewise: "Just to add a couple more that trip the filter: words that contain the three letters such as in com.p.a.s.s as well as anything requiring an .a.n.a.l.ysis." This leads to considerable frustration ...
Yea, frustrated like a fox!

Joker's Wild

Christopher Orr on Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight:

It's a difficult performance to rate on any conventional scale, a whirlwind of energy and effects, tics and tells, Brando and Hopkins and Nicholson thrown in a blender set to "puree" and then dynamited mid-spin. To call it compelling would be a criminal understatement, and yet it seems less the creation of a living self than the annihilation of one, an exercise in the center not holding. Even without Ledger's death, this would be a deeply discomfiting performance; as it is, it's hard not to view it as sign or symptom of the subsequent tragedy.
I wouldn't call it hard as much as impossible to separate the nihilism of the character as portrayed from what we now know was stirring in Ledger's soul. The performance was something more than a performance: it is method acting taken to its extreme, and we are all on the set.

It's impossible to know, but I suspect that had Heath Ledger lived to participate in the rituals of publicity for the film, and if he were still dodging paparazzi today, the performance captured in the film would still be noted but would not be seen in such a forbidding, dark, macabre way. I wonder if observers, including Ledger himself, would put more emphasis on the clownish humor of the character, which is central to it: the Joker's evil clown is somewhere between Austin Powers and Hannibal Lecter.

(via Daily Dish)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Autobiographical Landmark: Mod

I've been programming computers since a notoriously terrible teacher introduced me to BASIC on an Apple II computer some time in the mists of the 1980s, but only in the last few days have I finally found a reason to use a modulo operation, which is rendered as mod in quite a few programming languages.

What context, you ask? I needed to identify and discard each of the second and third instances of an indefinitely repeating three-thingy pattern, and used mod to find them. Mod returns the remainder, so every thingy in the numbered series such that thingy mod 3 <> 1 turned out to be one of the droids I was looking for.


I can't remember the terrible teacher's name, just the frilly white shirts she'd wear -- something like the shirt from the "The Puffy Shirt" episode of Seinfeld -- and the 1980s eyeglasses with gigantic frames that dwarfed her bony face. Alas, she was a victim of the times just as we were the victims of her impatient, incompetent teaching.

She taught me nothing of mod. And for my part, I have given you nothing here but a cosmically boring window onto my life and further confirmation that you never, ever want to do computer programming.

Stones and Circles

In Iran, eight women and a man have been sentenced to death by stoning:

The eight women sentenced, whose ages range from 27 to 43, had convictions including prostitution, incest and adultery, Reuters news agency reported. The man, a 50-year-old music teacher, was convicted of illegal sex with a student, reports said. ... Under Iran's strict penal code, men convicted of adultery should be buried up to their waists and women up to their chests for stoning. The stones used should not be large enough to kill the person immediately.
Oh goodness no -- you don't want vile miscreants like this to die swiftly. I mean, you definitely want them to die -- that should go without saying, yes? -- but you want them to experience several final minutes of agonizing pain during which they can contemplate how wrong they were for deploying their genitals in ways that god, in his infinite wisdom, disfavors.

God wants what he wants, and if that means he wants people tortured to death for sex acts, who are we to question it? And who would question the premise that Iran's judiciary functions in accordance with the will of god? And who would dare look upon any of this and permit themselves to doubt whether Islam is a religion of peace? Of course it is a religion of peace -- and mercy, justice, wisdom, love, compassion, etc. It says so itself.

Blogs <> Internet: Blog Hate Watch

A guest blogger to Andrew Sullivan's blog makes a revealing slip:

Blogs are a problem, not a solution, an anonymous Army IT professional tells Danger Room. The source paints an unsettling portrait of lax military intelligence ...
He said blogs, right? I read that correctly, yes? He quotes the piece from Danger Room, but I can't seem to find the part about blogs:
Give a senior service official a BlackBerry and I can guarantee he will transmit sensitive and sometimes classified information on it without thinking. He will use the Bluetooth headset and the built-in phone to talk about sensitive topics without a care in the world as to who is listening. I have lost count of how many times we have had to collect all of the BlackBerries we issue and purge them due to sensitive or classified information being sent on them. The BlackBerry is one of the greatest weapons system in the terrorists' inventory, and we supply the bullets!
I see mention of military people speaking loosely of "sensitive topics" into Blackberry devices, and of transmitting data using Blackberries. And while it is possible to blog from a Blackberry, nothing here points to blogging -- if we're talking about blogging, purging a Blackberry that was used as an input device for blogging wouldn't achieve anything. At most, purging a Blackberry used for blogging would expunge unpublished drafts of blog posts (assuming a client-side tool that allows this); but to speak of something already blogged is definitionally to speak of something that has already left the surly bonds of its input device. To blog is to push something into a wider world of readers -- mind you, not necessarily the entire world wide web.

I dwell on this and geek out a little becuase I see it as a small instance of a larger pattern in which the word blog stands in for whatever the speaker doesn't like about the internet, and specifically about the internet's open, participatory, unfiltered nature. In tee-vee-based political discourse, it is becoming more common to hear talking heads speak of "what the blogs are saying" or "the blogosphere" in lieu of older, more candid formulations such as "what the rubes are saying" or "the unlettered masses." This is lazy at best.

The larger piece cited does claim, albeit vaguely, that blogs per se have become a source of military intelligence blunders and near-blunders. Still, I think it's worthwhile to speak as precisely as possible about these matters as part of the larger cultural effort to understand the many ramifications of internet technology, because the problems and risks cited in the present case are real ones, and they are hardly the only ones.

And please repeat after me: the internet is not going away. We're going to have to sort all of this out.

A blogger has certain responsibilities, and among these is to defend the honor of blogging by noting that while, yes indeed, blogging is an extremely wide-open sort of exchange -- one that sometimes involves naughty words and viewpoints that have not been vetted by paid opinion-makers -- not everything in telecommunications or the internet is properly called a blog. And above all, we should direct our ire where it belongs -- at those fracking Blackberries, which are going to be the ruin of us all.

Foul Fowl

The negative representations of pigeons -- winged rats, gutter birds, trash birds, etc. -- rest, it seems to me, on a combination of overfamiliarity with pigeons and an underfamiliarity with non-pigeon birds. Have you ever took the time to watch your typical lark, woodpecker, sparrow, or jay? They're not exactly Winged Fastidiousness in hygiene or diet. They don't wash with soap or listen to Bach; they swallow worms, lice, grubs, and termites, and clean themselves in a puddle. Their entire lives are episodes of Fear Factor without the boring parts.

The idea of re-branding pigeons as the next white meat may still be asking too much. People who eat meat seem to want to eat the really, really clean animals -- you know, chickens and crabs and such.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tri-Met Rules Haiku

This could be fun: a contest sponsored by Tri-Met for the best five-word answer to the question

What do you think about while riding the bus downtown?
The prize is more bus riding in the form of an all-zone monthly pass.

Enter early and enter often, and feel free to leave your best entries in the comments to this post, where a potential worldwide audience (actual audience of 12 or so) will see them.

A few I'll be chipping in. I've allowed myself to count contractions as just one word:
  • Why is that man vomiting?
  • How many stops until air?
  • I'd rather pretend that's pudding

Health Care, Medicare, and the Two Towers

Paul Krugman reviews -- and rebukes and reprimands -- Tyler Cowan's recent piece on health care:

The basic facts on health care are clear: government-run insurance is more efficient than private insurance; more generally, the United States, with the most privatized health care in the advanced world, has a wildly inefficient system that costs far more than anyone else’s, yet delivers no better and arguably worse medical care than European systems ... we don’t have a Medicare crisis, we have a health care crisis.
That last part -- "we don't have a Medicare crisis, we have a health care crisis" -- can't be repeated enough. And because of that, it's the truth most assiduously obscured by the right-wing opponents of genuine health care reform. They work tirelessly to dupe people into believing that Medicare is the problem, when in fact Medicare's problems are a symptom of a larger problem: that in the USA we spend far too much and receive far too little for that spending.

The deception pays too well to let go, so the armies of Mordor -- otherwise known as the health care lobby combined with the political right -- are facing a grim election and bracing for a big fight, and Publius at Obsidian Wings suggests this visual:

Big Fly, Small Bread

It's as true today as it was during WWII -- that housefly isn't just dancing a happy jig on your sandwich, he's spreading germs. Germs! Germs that could make you throw up the sandwich! Or on the sandwich!

It would surprise me if anyone ever thought that houseflies were good on sandwiches, but I've been suprised before. For example, I'm surprised this old-timey public health poster was reprinted in Newsweek, since the last thing I'd expect to find in a copy of Newsweek is something worth reading. Go figure.

(H/T 3 Quarks Daily)

Saturday, July 19, 2008

91st Percentile. USA! USA!

Pew has an online news quiz aimed at American readers, although non-Americans are presumably able to take it just as easily. It doesn't label itself an American news quiz but poses questions that, in several cases, non-Americans would have no good reason to know.

The survey's implicit American's Eye View is an example of what non-Americans sometimes report they dislike about the USA's cultural predominance, but as an American, my expected response is a chant of USA! USA! USA! Therefore, lest I do something unexpected, here goes:


I missed the one that has to do with the Dow but got the rest right. I'm so proud I could just soil myself. USA! USA! USA!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Jesus Burns Your Pickle

It's hard to know what to say in response to this video. I will simply submit that "burn your pickle" is the new "drink your milkshake" and leave it at that.

(H/T Portland Mercury)

No Cascade Run Off: The Jackass in the Mirror

It was me. Point the finger here. I'm the one.

I refer, of course, to the person responsible for the cancellation of the 2008 Cascade Run Off, a 15K race that was scheduled to take place on July 27 here in Portland:

AA Sports, Ltd. regrets to announce that the 2008 Cascade Run Off has been canceled. At the time of this announcement, only 300 people were signed up to participate in the event and the City of Portland requires a minimum of 750 registrants to disrupt downtown streets.
I am that guy, the jerk who had this race in mind and was planning to participate in it, but never quite got around to registering for it. I literally have a brochure for this race sitting in front of me, purposely left amid my "don't forget me" clutter.

I am joined in this by at least 450 other procrastinating runners, but that doesn't make it right. If 450 runners went streaming over a cliff, would I follow them? Well, would I? The truthful answer is that it depends. If it was a footrace, I probably would, and I prefer to believe I'd be somewhere toward the front of the pack tilting over the cliff. And as I smashed my bones against whatever lay at the bottom of the cliff -- rocks, sharpened spikes, vats of boiling pitch, the bodies of faster runners, the fossilized remains of hunted mammoths, whatever -- I'd take solace in knowing at least I died for the sport. Time permitting, I'd reflect on how little solace that actually provides.

On a slightly more serious note, it might have been helpful to know of this 750-registrant threshold for downtown running events. I have always suspected there must be such a threshold, but this is the first time I've actually seen the number. It might have been helpful to see this little detail before it was too late -- had I known this a few days or a week ago, it would have forced an end to the procrastination, and the race would be on, assuming 449 like-minded runners.

Darn. That would have been a good one.

McSame v. McSame

John McSame has changed positions on a dizzying variety of public policy matters, and the list of reversals continues to enlarge as the presidential campaign progresses. Steve Benen is working to keep track of all of them here, and has even set up an RSS feed to facilitate the tracking.

Highly recommended.

Assessing Bob Dylan & Dancing About Architecture

Germane Greer does not think Bob Dylan is a great lyricist; or rather, she thinks William Blake was a better lyricist; or she thinks Morrissey is a better lyricist; or she thinks Woody Guthrie was a better lyricist; or she is still upset that Bob Dylan kept his fans waiting at a show in 1969; or she is tired of students wanting to study Dylan's lyrics instead of Donne's or Yeats' poetry. Or something.

I think Bob Dylan is a great lyricist. I also think Morrissey, Woody Guthrie, and William Blake are great lyricists, and I admire much of the poetry of Yeats and Donne. I see no reason to rank them; it probably helps that I'm not having to make decisions about a course syllabus. Supposing I had to rank them, what would I say to prove the ranking? What would I say to support my view that these men deserve inclusion on the syllabus? I could say a lot of things in support of such claims -- one can build an entire academic career on claims and counterclaims about what's canonical and what isn't, but that doesn't make it a good idea. I do heartily agree with this statement from Greer:

The other aspect of a lyric is its mystery. A lyric does not explain itself, nor does it tell a story, except by implication. Blake's song is an invocation, to whom or what we do not know.
I think that's spot-on, although I don't quite accept it as stated; I acknowledge no Iron Law of Lyrics that demands that they be mysterious and non-self-explanatory and evocative rather than narrative. Not that these are exclusive categories in the first place: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner leaps to mind as being both narrative and evocative, and it has been put to song multiple times.

Greer then praises the way Morrissey entwines music with lyrics to produce an emergent whole, concluding with this:
To present the words without the music is to emasculate them.
I agree yet again, and it's difficult to think of a clearer case of emasculating words by presenting them without music than the very same piece, in which Greer quotes words and words alone from Bob Dylan's "Visions of Johanna":
And Madonna, she still has not showed
We see this empty cage now corrode
Where her cape of the stage once had flowed
The fiddler, he now steps to the road
He writes ev'rything's been returned which was owed
On the back of the fish-trucks that loads
While my conscience explodes ...
Presented as words alone, bereft of the emotional moment established in the song, yes, these may not be among the seven most elegant lines of poetry in English. But they also don't grate nearly as badly as Greer wants them to, or so it seems to me.

In sum: we agree, we agree, we agree, we agree, and we fundamentally disagree. So goes writing about music and dancing about architecture. Maybe it's best to leave these questions of aesthetic judgment to the Instant Art Critique Generator, which assesses Dylan as a lyricist thusly, using only his date of birth (41524 for 1941 May 24):
I agree/disagree with some of the things that have just been said, but the sublime beauty of the purity of line contextualize the inherent overspecificity.

(via Norm)

Untimely, Ungainly Meditations

I caught a documentary on human sexual selection that featured a group of British-sounding scientists who claimed they could reduce human pair bonding to one algorithm or another. Suffice to say their models failed spectacularly, but in the course of applying their science-of-dating hypotheses to actual individuals in the so-called dating pool, they confirmed that men are attracted to anything with a certain hip-waist ratio, certain breast sizes, and certain facial features; and that women are attracted anything that seems male and wealthy. I know! I was as shocked as you are!

The latter was demonstrated by presenting a homely guy in a shop window wearing his regular clothes and asking women to rate his attractiveness. He scored very low. Then they dressed the same fellow in clothes that made him seem more James Bondish -- snazzy suit, stylish sunglasses, nice shoes, fountain pen that converts to a broadsword, whatever. Whereupon women rated his attractiveness significantly higher.

Ladies, with all due respect, I find this to be a category mistake. Or maybe I'm the one making the category mistake. When someone asks "Is so-and-so attractive?" that is a euphemistic way of asking "Would you be inclined to f___ so-and-so?" And that's how I interpreted the question in the context of the documentary. If we agree on the euphemism-to-English translation of that question -- and perhaps we don't, there's no law saying we must -- then I just can't see how the addition of a suit and an awesome fountain pen/broadsword makes the dude more f___able. What, precisely, do you picture him doing with the suit that he would not have been able to do with the unpleated khakis in which he was originally presented?

In the interests of fairness and balance and such, I shall not let the follies of male-pattern sexual selection go unmentioned. Guys, let's dispense with the very idea that respect is due our slobbering, shallow approach to these matters; to take only one data point of millions available, the continuing economic viability of the Tom Leykis radio show (hey Tom! Long time listener, first time blogger here*) is proof enough that "we only want one thing." As for assessing the attractiveness of someone, while we can anchor the impulse in perceptions of body parts and shapes and dimensions that have a proximate connection with the sexual act itself, isn't there something amiss -- nay, irrational, at least as irrational as the ladies-like-suits thing -- in the fact that, generally speaking, all the women we once found powerfully attractive still look much as they did before? And yet we manage to find some of them deeply unattractive now, despite the unchanged or little-changed patterns of bumps and shapes and colors. Odd, that. And worth investigating if we hope to understand what's really going on beneath the slobbering surface.

All is vanity.

* I did not say I agree with everything I hear on the program. Far from it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Instant Insight

Consider your next ten minutes successfully enriched with a new web-based diversion! It's the Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator and it is presently diverting my socks off with appraisals like the following, which came forth just when I needed something profound to say about the next song to play on shuffle:

I'm surprised that no one's mentioned yet that the reductive quality of the Egyptian motifs verges on codifying the inherent overspecificity.
Indeed so. That does so perfectly capture "Lonesome Tears" by Beck -- too many listeners underappreciate the Egyptian motifs in Beck's songs and totally miss their reductive quality.

(H/T Eyeteeth)

Parodies (and things we wish were parodies)

I'm at the far end of the North American land mass, so I always get the New Yorkers a few days after they break news, stir controversies, or otherwise rivet the national discourse. And so it is with the edition featuring the surprisingly infamous Obama parody, which just arrived today. Gazing upon it as it sits in my very hands, I find I care about the Terrible Outrage it represents even less than I did a few days ago when the wave of collective nausea, hysteria, flatulence, and barking madness first began. Sigh.

I suspect it's probably a net gain for Obama since it gives him one more opportunity to tell people -- are you listening, West Virginia, I'm looking right at you -- that he is a Christian, not a Muslim. Obama was never a Muslim. He never attended a Muslim school. He swore in to the Senate with his hand on a Bible. He and his wife are as American as apple pie, baseball, fast food, terrible blockbuster movies, and chicken-fried [name your meat]. He recites the Pledge of Allegiance as often and as passionately as anyone.

The New Yorker cover is a parody. It could probably have been done better, but I've seen far worse. Again, sigh.

Now this is something else altogether:

Sadly, this is not a parody. It is an actual piece of campaign material used in a race in Oklahoma.


Disgraces Large and Small

Disgrace number one, a large one, comes from former attorney general John Ashcroft, who testified to Congress today:

"The Department of Justice has on a consistent basis over the last half dozen years or so, over and over again in its evaluations, come to the conclusion that under the law in existence during my time as attorney general, waterboarding did not constitute torture."

Waters asked Ashcroft if such techniques would be regarded as "totally unacceptable and even criminal" if they were used on American soldiers.

"Well, my subscription to these memos, and my belief that the law provides the basis for these memos persisted even in the presence of my son serving two tours of duty overseas in the Gulf area as a member of our armed forces," Ashcroft said. [emphasis mine]
Isn't it precious how Ashcroft cites "the last half dozen years" of precedent on this question -- exactly the same half dozen years when depraved hacks like him have been issuing torture-supporting wide legal stances -- and not, say, the four-hundred years leading up to that, during which no one this side of Pol Pot or Hitler doubted that waterboarding is torture?

But worry not -- Ashcroft embraces waterboarding even though his own son is in the military. Since John Ashcroft has a family member in the military, he can define war crimes any way he pleases. Now that's a standard that any civilized, law-bound nation state should be proud follow: round up someone with a family member in the military, and treat their pronouncements about the conduct of war as legally binding.

A smaller disgrace comes from Gramps McSame, who is receiving Social Security payments. We should perhaps forgive a very, very old man who doesn't give a damn about the matter in the first place for failing to recall that just a few days ago, he declared Social Security a "disgrace." Did you realize that currently-working workers are funding retirees under this insane scheme? If you did realize that, but didn't realize that currently-driving drivers are funding current auto insurance claims and that currently-well healthy people are funding current health insurance claims (etc.), then you might do well to contact the McSame campaign and apply for a Budget Fairy opening. They like the way you think, such as it is.

They're Throwing Everything At Us!

This is too good not to link to: terrifying images of Iranian weapons test launches from The ZehnKatzen Times.

I don't know about you, but I would already have been wetting myself at the sight of one butt-rocket Godzilla, but they have at least two. And that's just a test firing!

Plus the Millenium Falcon!

Plus the James Kirk-era Enterprise!

We're doomed.

(Here's some more background in case you've been sequestered in Dick Cheney's hidey-hole.)

The Surge, Side by Side

Though it has been used, in the present case, against 'my' candidate, I like this sort of thing -- a side-by-side comparison revealing recent changes to Barack Obama's web site. While both Andrew Sullivan and a piece in the New York Daily News have suggested that McSame supporters have reveled in highlighting contradictions between the two versions, especially on Obama's view of "the surge," I don't see them. Here's the old version:

The goal of the surge was to create space for Iraq's political leaders to reach an agreement to end Iraq's civil war. At great cost, our troops have helped reduce violence in some areas of Iraq, but even those reductions do not get us below the unsustainable levels of violence of mid-2006. Moreover, Iraq's political leaders have made no progress in resolving the political differences at the heart of their civil war.
And here's the updated version:
Since the surge began, more than 1,000 American troops have died, and despite the improved security situation, the Iraqi government has not stepped forward to lead the Iraqi people and to reach the genuine political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the surge. Our troops have heroically helped reduce civilian casualties in Iraq to early 2006 levels. This is a testament to our military’s hard work, improved counterinsurgency tactics, and enormous sacrifice by our troops and military families. It is also a consequence of the decision of many Sunnis to turn against al Qaeda in Iraq, and a lull in Shia militia activity. But the absence of genuine political accommodation in Iraq is a direct result of President Bush’s failure to hold the Iraqi government accountable.
While both versions deploy facts and figures a little tendentiously (this is politics), the thesis is unchanged: the stated goal of the surge, political reconciliation in Iraq on significant matters of Iraqi national interest, has not been achieved. This is true, and it was and remains Obama's view of "the surge."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Levels of Explanation

Does the acknowledgment that we live in a physical universe imply that everything can or should be explained by physicists? No.

[T]he natural scientist knows just as surely that our best account of that universe is, in many cases, not forthcoming from physics. We turn instead to chemistry or biology. The need for such “special” sciences that take higher-level structures as given does not compromise the bedrock ontological supposition that there is a single universe, made up of physical particles. One can have one’s materialism while admitting the autonomy of higher-level disciplines. There is much confusion on this point, and it seems to be bolstered by a fear that to be less than completely reductive in one’s explanatory posture somehow commits one to “spiritualism.”

The explanatory independence of biology, its irreducibility to physics, is consistent with biological entities being composed of and dependent upon physical entities. The biologist believes that the dog is made up of nothing but protons, neutrons, and electrons, but he does not try to give an account of the dog at that level. Is this merely due to the limitations of our current state of knowledge? Would it be possible in principle to construct a comprehensive understanding of the dog starting from particle physics? The consensus view appears to be that it is not possible even in principle, due to considerations of complexity and non-linearity, or thermodynamic irreversibility (take your pick). Even within physics, lower-level accounts sometimes presuppose structure that is identifiable only at a higher level, or depend upon boundary-conditions that cannot be generated from within the lower-level account. Even something as simple as a volume of gas displays “emergent properties” (here, an irreversible tendency toward equilibrium) that cannot be derived from the collisions between individual gas molecules (which are symmetric with respect to time).
The short version: there are perfectly valid, defensible, worthwhile explanations that lie somewhere between the motions of subatomic particles and the fuzzy woo of supernaturalism.

I'm not sure about the entirety of the long version as applied, but I think the part quoted above is very good.