Friday, July 31, 2009

Republicans - Fighting Mad at Facts

Current polling shows that

58 percent of Republicans sympathize with the far-right birthers. Twenty-eight percent don’t believe that President Obama was born in the U.S., and another 30 percent aren’t sure. The birther sentiment was strongest amongst people older than 60 and people living in the South.
We have a right to our opinions, but that is not to be confused with a right to an alternate reality. Surely there are close calls, where it's difficult to perceive the boundary between judgment and fact; but the location of Barack Obama's birth and the validity of his eligibility to serve as president is not among these.

We're not going to get anywhere as a society or as a species unless we agree to proceed on the basis of a shared reality. This begins with embracing as many of the non-close calls as we can possibly find.

Don't think I'm heartless. Reality does induce pain now and then. I get it. I can relate.

We live in a world in which buzzards feast on dead and decaying flesh, people die of curable diseases, people willingly throw away their lives for a god that you consider to be non-existent (or at best a false pretender), and ... wait for it ... Barack Hussein Obama is the lawfully elected president of the United States. All of these things are true.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Critical Thinking, n.

In 1988, the American Philosophical Society produced a paper titled "Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction." From these imperious and slightly Orwellian beginnings emerged a nice summary of the anti-totalitarian, duly skeptical, reality-grounded, reason-responsive approach to thinking:

The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit.
I like adding a little smart-ass for spice, but tastes vary. I say that statement is a worthy standard for all.

(via Ionian Enchantment)

image source

Salt Lake City's New Ground Zero

Justice will be served if the site of this god-drunk thuggery becomes the focal point and "ground zero" of a new flowering of vocal, colorful, lively pro-gay activism in the Salt Lake City area, because obviously these tie-wearing cretins are too easily shocked by quiet, discreet displays of people in love:

Yep, these hidebound losers are too easily shocked. They need to see that there's a big and varied world out there, one that goes well beyond the risible fabrications of Joseph Smith.

(via Portland Mercury)

Poem of the Day: "Hope is the Thing with Feathers"

The gift of Emily Dickinson's poetry is in her ability to pare down the words to the fewest necessary to give full expression to the notion she's chasing down. On some theories of poetry, this is the very essence of poetry, so on those theories, she is a master. I say she is a master under any credible theory of poetry. She consistently changes my mind -- no matter what she chooses to distill into words, I can't help but find it compelling.

Emily Dickinson, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers"

"Hope" is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —

I've heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Watch and Brownies Engraving

The poll is closed, and a very small number of the people have spoken: I am to blog it out, exposing the rip-off to the daylight of scrutiny. Note, dear reader, that I never promised this would be a brief story; I think it's important to be as accurate and complete as possible, because this story does not land in a happy place, and also because I want to be clear on how I came to be so sure that I have been ripped off.

The handsome timepiece shown above -- pictured in its bike-wreck-damaged state -- came with a multi-mode lighting function. It illuminates the dial, it blinks red, it shines a bright flashlight, all as it keeps the time and date. Cool, right?

Right, but the light features drain the battery, so much so that the people of Victorinox Swiss Army saw fit to provide the lighting function with its own battery.

Roughly 18 months into the life of the watch, which I purchased new, the light functions died. The timekeeping ticked on, so I didn't do anything about it for a good long while.

In the closing days of June of this year, I decided to get the battery replaced, so I took the watch to Macy's. Through a thick fog of perfume and pretension, the watch counter woman at Macy's said they do not replace batteries, but mentioned she has heard good things about a jeweler across the way, Brownies Engraving on SW Alder.

I took the referral and presented the watch to the woman behind the counter at Brownies Engraving. I suggested it needed a battery for the lighting function. She took it to her mysterious jeweler's workbench in the back, did what jewelers do, and soon returned with the news: the watch did indeed need not one but both batteries replaced. She demonstrated by showing me a device that displayed a low/dead reading on what appeared to be two watch batteries. She said the cost of replacing both batteries would be $20. (I previously mentioned $15, but it was actually $20. I have no idea why I said $15 when it was actually $20. Embarrassment? Because the principle of the thing matters more than the dollar amount? Sure.)

I agreed to pay $20 to replace both batteries, which she said she could do while I waited.

She soon returned and presented me with the watch. The time was ticking along as it had done before, but the light functions still did not work. The watch seemed completely unchanged. Not a native speaker, the woman poorly explained that the flaw must be something more than a weak battery, expressed a few unsolicited opinions on the quality of Victorinox's engineering, and offered to keep the watch overnight to more closely examine it with an eye to repairing it for a fee.

I declined the offer to leave the watch but accepted the explanation and paid the $20 for the new batteries.

Some time in the following week, I noticed the watch's second hand was making a delayed sweeping motion that signals a weak battery. If you've never seen this, the watch continues to keep the time accurately, but the second hand pauses at roughly every third or fourth second, waits there, then jumps forward again. I happen to know this is an indicator of weak battery from my experience of other watches.

I hemmed and hawed for a while, but eventually I took the watch and the receipt -- I always keep receipts -- back to Brownies Engraving. The same woman was behind the counter, so I reminded her that she had replaced the battery a few weeks prior and showed her the delayed sweeping motion. I was completely non-confrontational; I made no accusations and hinted at nothing improper. I had my suspicions about all of this, but I was willing to allow for the possibility that, say, the replacement battery had been a dud. This happens, right?

She surprised me by claiming that the delayed sweeping motion was not indicative of a weak battery, but of a flaw in the mechanical motion of the watch. She was emphatic in this, using the phrase "100% sure" at one point. Again she offered to keep the watch overnight and attempt to repair it for a fee. Again I declined.

It happened that on my way back to Brownies Engraving that day, I passed by a Ben Bridge outlet displaying Victorinox Swiss Army watches in its display window. On the way back, more or less on a lark, I stopped in and asked if they did repairs, and showed the person the delayed sweeping motion of the watch. The Ben Bridge representative immediately, and without prompting from me, told me that the delayed sweeping motion indicates nothing more than a weak battery. (By now, I was about 98% certain that Brownies Engraving had ripped me off.) I mentioned the trouble with the light functions, and she wrote up a proper claim receipt for replacing the battery and assessing what might be done, if anything, to restore the light functions.

The watch specialist at Ben Bridge left me a message within a few hours indicating the watch was ready to be picked up. I went in the next morning, paid the reasonable fee for replacing both batteries, and found that the watch was as good as new: the delayed sweep was gone, and the light functions worked as well as ever.

This confirmed that the woman at Brownies Engraving had lied from the start. She had charged me for two new batteries, when in fact she had either not replaced the batteries at all or replaced the existing batteries with weaker batteries. She had misrepresented the problem with the light functions, which was now proven to be what I originally thought it was, nothing more than a dead battery. She had lied -- emphatically so -- in claiming the delayed sweep indicated a mechanical flaw. She had tried, not once but twice, to extract fees for repairs the watch never needed.

I don't like people who abuse trust in simple things. I don't like liars. I particularly don't like liars who are completely shameless and emphatic about it. I also note, because it happens to be true, that the second round of lies -- the emphatic lies about the meaning of the delayed sweep -- occurred in the presence of a witness, a young girl no older than eight, whom I took to be the granddaughter of the woman doing the lying. That she would stand there and lie to a customer in front of such a witness is especially galling, regardless of the fact that the child was surely unaware of the underlying truth.

Notwithstanding the light-heartedness of the poll and other comments I've made in connection with this, I take no pleasure in reporting any of this.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bike Calamity '09, Annotated & Illustrated

Thanks to the slightly creepy magic of Google Street View, the Fireshot add-on to Firefox, and my middling graphic editing skillz, I have managed to cobble together an annotated visual of last Thursday's bike calamity.

Click the image to embiggen it, as SJKP likes to say.

A note on the directions indicated in the image: camera's eye view here faces more or less due east down Burnside Street. Here at roughly 98th, the MAX train is in the process of turning from an east-west bearing along Burnside Street to north-south bearing paralleling I-205. So the "west-bound" and "east-bound" indicators are accurate, not the product of concussion-induced fuzziness; they're just not faithful to this particular spot in the tracks.

The bend in the tracks at this location is part of the problem: as you can see, it's no simple task to cross the tracks at a perfect perpendicular, as I learned so painfully.

Shatner Reads Palin

I love William Shatner:

I had to check, and yes, in case you missed it, Palin did utter the very sequence of words read by Bill Shatner.

(via Daily Dish)

The Mad Men-ening

Because I am a hopeless tool, I am eagerly looking forward to the beginning of season three of Mad Men (AMC, beginning August 16). To allay the unbearable eagerness, I went to the trouble of making a Mad Men avatar, and this is the result:

I would prefer that all my avatars have at least a little hair, but then again, I'm willing to play them where they lay. Move forward.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Killing People by Killing Time

As of this writing, 3.6 million Americans have lost their health insurance since January 1, 2008, even as we in the USA spend six times more per capita on the administration of health care than comparable Western European nations. How is Congress responding?

This evening, the House passed a resolution sponsored by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) that commemorates Hawaii’s 50th anniversary as a U.S. state by a vote of 378-0. The resolution also contains this provision: “Whereas the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, was born in Hawaii,” a measure that some GOP members may have had trouble supporting.
The elected majority of Congress is responding to the health care crisis -- and countless other crises to boot -- by indulging the most idiotic and puerile imaginings of the opposition party.

As the minutes, hours, and days fly by, the costs mount up -- ruinous monetary costs, devastating human costs. Not one second more should be wasted on the fantasies of depraved clowns.

Being Corn

We in the USA are, to a close first approximation, corn -- whether we want to be or not, whether we like corn or not, whether we consciously purchase or deliberately eat corn or not. That reality, the consequence of concrete political choices made over decades, is one fundamental takeaway of the 2007 documentary King Corn:

Life is short, and in my case, too short to accommodate the effort required to achieve a detailed understanding of the nature and origins of the bulk of the food I eat. I accept, albeit not enthusiastically, that I will read food packaging and find items I cannot hope to identify, let alone account for. I am not a nutritionist, nor a chemist, nor a farmer, etc.

I happen to like corn, but not so much that I want to be corn. Not wanting something doesn't change the truth.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Shouting Away the Gay

While I have not faltered in my belief in the futility of prayer, I have to admit that were I subjected to this sort of treatment to "deliver me from" my heterosexuality, I would be strongly inclined to go along with it. Mind you, these histrionics have no actual effect on the psychological and physiological roots of sexual orientation (whatever they might be in the end), but such theatrics could cause anyone to re-think the very idea of keeping company with other human beings, no matter the particulars of the relationship:

It seems to me a few minutes of that would make anyone appreciate the company of Wilson from Castaway, whatever the shortcomings of that friendship:

(via Miss Welby)

The "New Acting" Imperils Handsome Men and the Film Industry

Public perceptions of handsome men and movies have taken a hit from which they may never recover -- it seems that handsome film actor Brad Pitt has expressed an opinion with which many disagree:

The 45-year-old actor doesn't believe in God, he told

"No, no, no!," he declared, when asked if he believes in a higher power, or if he was spiritual. "I'm probably 20 percent atheist and 80 percent agnostic. I don't think anyone really knows. You'll either find out or not when you get there, until then there's no point thinking about it."
How dare he "denigrate religious publics" that way!

It's hard not to suspect these "New Actors" actively cultivate public hostility. Life for handsome men who act for a living just got more difficult, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Dull Boy

Due to my recent injuries, the doctor has me on bed rest. I can get up to go to the bathroom, she generously allowed, but I am to remain in a reclining position as much as possible until August. Some people take to sitting or lying down for prolonged stretches of time, and would do more of both if only they could. I am not such a person. It does terrible things to me on every level -- mental, physical, whatever.

I can relate to this a little too well:

The dulling effect is the least of it. If Jack Nicholson's character had just sat there getting duller and duller, drooling on his keyboard and saying less and less about less and less, merely boring Shelley Duvall's character, it wouldn't have made for much of a horror film.

That's only the start. I shouldn't be watching the following clip, nor the film from which it is taken, and neither should you or anyone else -- Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent:

Sure, I've tried the other approach -- I tuned in to some tee-vee coverage of the Tour de France and the Ironman Triathlon competitition only to find it far more depressing. Those people were out of their reclining chairs, running, swimming, cycling, and otherwise moving in the sunlight.

No, "mandatory sedentary" is not working for me. With respect, doctor, I am going to need some better, stronger, more interesting drugs if I am to make it another week.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Collateral Damage

Yesterday's bike crash disfigured more than my face, as these grim images attest. The shoe was not spared:

This is arguably the unkindest cut of all -- this is the very same watch involved in the aforementioned jewelry store rip-off (poll still open). I am very fond of this watch, which was restored to full functioning the afternoon immediately before the morning of the bike crash:

And here lay the shirt I wore over a cat (Wilbur) struggling in vain to seem concerned or even interested. I honestly can't explain how so little blood made its way to the shirt -- it is, after all, a white shirt, meaning it has a preternaturally strong attraction to all staining liquids; and in the first several minutes of the drama, there was plenty of blood pouring out:

I have yet to closely inspect either the bike I rode or the helmet I wore. Prediction: there will be blood.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Profiles In Excellent Judgment: Urban Cycling

This is how I looked soon after hobbling back home after today's attempt at bike commuting, which ended abruptly -- exactly as abruptly as a human face stops when it slams mouth-first into the edge of a concrete curb, as mine did today a brief instant after my front tire was snagged in the grooves formed by the MAX train tracks I was trying to cross.

It turns out it is very important to cross such obstacles at direct perpendicular. I recommend you make a note of it, lest you're the next to lose half a tooth, scrape much of the skin off your knee, suffer a concussion, and add to your personal store of fears.

Here's another view of the damage as it looked post-treatment under the USA's top-40 health care system. I was never accused of thin lips before this, but this is a whole new level of plump-and-tender.

Finally, this is the delightful chicken statue that my son and wife picked out for me from the hospital gift shop. I love this chicken.

I am substantially less enthusiastic about cycling.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Note to Readers

Readers new to this precious, precious blog may be appalled at some of the themes and language appearing in the posts and the comments. If so, I want to reassure them that our rhetorical choices here make sense to a group engaged in a common endeavor undertaken in relation to an extensive archive of conversations, texts, and experiences. By the time we broach, say, child-raping priests, the perils of wide stances in airport restrooms, executions of women deemed 'guilty' of having been raped, prominent politicians who are definitely not gay, marriages between old men and young girls, the spectacular failures of prayer, "fucking the fuck off," snakes burrowing through nostrils, and so on, we have built a context in which these topics are proper to our intellectual project.

It is not, as it may appear at first glance, that this blog is written by a Category Five Asshole. Not that there's anything wrong with that, or false in the assertion of it.


Cycling: The New Frontier

In my brief stint as a cycling commuter here in the cycling-friendly climes of Portland, I have learned a few things:

  • The only downside I've found is how it takes away the time I used to devote to reading on the MAX train. That frequently became time spent napping on the MAX train, so I can't claim any substantial loss.
  • Compared with running, biking isn't very strenuous. In level of effort required, biking requires maybe 15% of what running requires to cover a given distance over a given terrain, and for downhill, it's more like 5% or less. I'm probably provoking the ire of cyclists in saying that, and they're probably going to tell me that I'm not going fast enough. Fair enough. It remains true that there is no coasting in running; the runner who seeks to coast down a hill comes to a stop. These estimates also assume I am riding with a backpack carrying 25-40 lbs of assorted stuff, something I never do while running.
  • Notwithstanding any of the above, I have a new-found appreciation for the sport of cycling, and make no mistake: riding a bike is serious work. It's a fantastic thrill to go that fast under one's own power.
  • People who know me ask when I'll do a triathlon since I'm now active in both running and cycling, to which I respond: that other third remains elusive. I love swimming, but I don't have a ready place or time for it, and my First Commandment for physical exercise is

    Thou shalt undertake no workout program that can't be easily integrated into the rest of thy life.

    ... because the inconvenient workout program is the inevitably-dropped exercise program. Also, I'm not in any kind of 'racing' place in my cycling -- I'm still learning and re-learning how it's done. Last but not least, triathletes are weird.
  • To date, this counts as little more than a lark. I've done this biking in the heart of summer, so I haven't faced down any rain, cold, or slippery conditions. Nor have I had a flat tire yet.
I'll see you out there.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Skip the Impaler

Way back in the recesses of deep time, my thesis advisor knew Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr. -- that's how I found out he was called "Skip" before there was anything like wikipedia to warehouse data such as that -- and he made overtures to me to apply to study with "Skip." Looking back, I'm glad I was too stupid to take my advisor up on that, because it turns out that Skip Gates is a Terrifying Angry Black Man who probably would have killed me:

Police arrived at Gates’s Ware Street home near Harvard Square at 12:44 p.m. to question him. [Gates] was booked for disorderly conduct after “exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior,” according to a police report. Gates accused the investigating officer of being a racist and told him he had "no idea who he was messing with,'' the report said.
To those who claim to detect a whiff of racism in this arrest, I challenge you to step back and consult your common sense: is this really so uncommon?

I seem to recall reading somewhere that Laurence Tribe spends more time in the Cambridge drunk tank than out of it (the local police call him "Otis"); that Stephen J. Gould, in his day, had a dish in the Cambridge PD's jail named after him; and that Amartya Sen begins every Thursday night with a poker game at his house but almost always ends it with throwing a punch, if not a broken bottle, at a cop.

And don't even get me started on the faculty at MIT! Chomsky and Pinker can't stay out of the backs of police cruisers. And Pinker is now where? Harvard, of course.

It's a goddamn war zone, that side of the Charles River. There's nothing race-related to it. Nothing at all.

Anyway, I'm glad the authorities finally made their way to Skip Gates before any more bodies went unaccounted for.

Bleg and New Poll -- WWWD?

I have been ripped off by a local jeweler in the amount of $15, and I need to know: What Would [Whoever] Do? I seek your wise counsel, oh dear reader(s), and if you don't have any of that, I seek your snark and jeers.

The new poll is posted at the right. Here is a fuller explanation of the voting options:

  • Turn the Other Cheek - Let it go. Recognize that small businesses are struggling these days, and that they sometimes have to steal from customers to make ends meet. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there -- sometimes you're the over-caffeinated rottweiler, and sometimes you're the three-legged dachshund. Live and learn.
  • Blog It Out, Bro - Expose the details of the shenanigans in this precious, precious blog, thus bringing this jeweler's disgraceful actions to a potential worldwide audience / actual six-person audience.
  • Return Serve - Throw a brick through the store's display window; steal something of equal value; extract the $15 by way of a vocal tongue-lashing in the presence of other soon-to-be-ripped-off customers; pay some of Portland's filthiest sidewalk urchins to camp in front of the store for a couple of hours; sign the place up for as many magazine and newspaper subscriptions as I can find business reply cards for; some combination of the above.
  • Fester - Allow the experience to join the reserves of inner pain, adding its small weight to the sum of resentments that will eventually surface as, I don't know, a tedious blog or an unseemly wart or something.
Do vote, but don't hesitate to comment if you have more to add.

Armstrong and the Worthingtons

Karen Armstrong is fond of claiming that Christianity is about deeds of compassion rather than belief in tenets, and a local story provides a case in point, I gather. The story involves devoted, loving, caring Christian parents who watched their child die from a curable medical condition:

Carl Brent Worthington, 29, and Raylene Worthington, 26, are charged with second-degree manslaughter and criminal mistreatment. Their 15-month-old daughter, Ava. died March 2, 2008, of complications from pneumonia and a blood infection after multiple faith-healing sessions at her parents' home in Oregon City.
Standing around beseeching a storybook savior as your child wheezes her last is, I suppose, an instance of doing, but with whatever respect is due to Armstrong's scholarly glosses, I can't help but note the compound of deed and creed at its root.

The most charitable interpretation of the parents' actions here requires consideration of what they believe about the proper response to a sick child, since what they did is not in dispute. They believed, and apparently still do believe, that seeking treatment from doctors, nurses, hospitals, or any care provider other than Jesus is an affront to Jesus and inefficacious to boot, and they believed this so fervently as bet their daughter's life on it.

The child lost their bet.

So where does this leave Karen Armstrong? Will she be writing a column pointing out that the Worthingtons have Christianity all wrong, that they have made a "metaphysical mistake," that they are placing an "extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on 'belief'," one that has ill-served their understanding of compassion, or religion, or god, or whatever?

Equivocations and glosses aside, a child died. The only thing the Worthingtons have to exculpate themselves is a set of beliefs about what constitutes compassion in situations such as the one they faced. The beliefs they hold are at the center of it, and therefore the quality of the beliefs is at the center of it.

The Worthingtons should already have known that modern scientific medicine often succeeds and that prayer always fails. The Worthingtons have a right to their own quirky beliefs; they do not have a right to their own reality. Their child is actually dead, and they actually sat by and watched it happen.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Making Things Straight

Matt Yglesias posts this chart, asks, and answers:

What happened? Well, public policy happened. In the 1960s, federal domestic programs got more ambitious, especially with regard to senior citizens. And the poverty rate went down, with the declines concentrated among the seniors who were the main targets of the spending. The extent of poverty is very much subject to our control. Disease, presumably, really will always be with us. But still, polio isn’t with us anymore. Nor is smallpox.
This helping of the blindingly obvious comes in response to a too-familiar bit of ideological spittle from, in this instance, Charles Krauthammer, wringing his hands about the futility of doing anything about anything: "poverty and disease and social ills will always be with us," he sniffs, feigning interest in poverty and disease and social ills only long enough to declare them off-limits to sober public policy.

It's a variation of the despairing maxim attributed to Kant, that "out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." That's just a restatement of older formulations: we're the fallen, the bumbling heirs of Cain, the ruinous hordes that god himself had to flood out of existence, the wretcheds for whom god himself had to get crucified and thereafter remind everyone of it by appearing in corn chips and tree knots.

Does anyone this side of diapers find this line of argument, such as it is, convincing? Do we actually live in a world in which people need to be reminded of what Matt Yglesias wrote above? Krauthammer is transparently clowning, right?

The Lure of Bancroft

I have asserted that the hardest day of running is better than the easiest day of filing TPS Reports, bearing witness to incidents of blowhard-on-blowhard psychic violence, or otherwise frittering life away in a chicken-shit bureaucracy, and in support of that claim, I offer this map and elevation profile of Portland's SW Bancroft Street.

There's nothing especially special about it -- it's just a more or less quiet quarter mile stretch of residential street at the foot of Portland's West Hills, neither the most nor least tony or scenic of its kind. If it's famous or infamous for anything, word of that has not made it to me.

To a runner, however, it presents a dare: "Can you run me? How many times? How fast?" And then the trash-talking starts: "You can't run me. I'm too steep. You'll look like a tired, old, worn-out fool for even trying." And the race is on.

To which non-runners might respond: whuh?

I agree in the abstract: other people's hobbies and passions are idiotic. The known hazards seem to swamp any foreseeable benefits. The game hardly seems worth the candle. Any child knows better.

I can see that, and yet the lure of Bancroft is the lure of running writ small.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Unspeakably Terrible Blogging

It's difficult to say which is worse in this presentation: the animation, the puppetry, the audio, or the ideas. OK, it's definitely the ideas, if only because some of the rest of the hideousness shown here owes to the good people at Everything is Terrible. That said, I strongly suspect everything presented here is no less terrible even if seen in its original context:

And apropos at least one or two of the horrors highlighted above, if the following video doesn't change your life for the better after one viewing, watch it a second time. If it still doesn't change your life for the better, congratulations! Obviously your life is already perfect:

Bat News: Not So Good

This probably isn't news to bats, but it is news to the people who study them:

In response to sonar-guided attacking bats, some tiger moths make ultrasonic clicks of their own ... Using ultrasonic recording and high-speed infrared videography of bat-moth interactions, we show that the palatable tiger moth Bertholdia trigona [shown, image source] defends against attacking big brown bats (Eptesicus fuscus) using ultrasonic clicks that jam bat sonar. Sonar jamming extends the defensive repertoire available to prey in the long-standing evolutionary arms race between bats and insects.
Clever! One wonders if any of the species hunted by echolocating marine mammals have evolved a parallel technique?

Evolution is amazing, and evolutionary arms races are a special case of this. For all the inventiveness of the human mind, it is dwarfed by the unconscious, systematic workings of nature.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Apostrophe to Microsoft Windows, Upon the Occasion of a Routine File Copy

Oh Microsoft Windows, what senseless little factoids won't you narrate for me, your end-user? Here, you dutifully inform me, as you have countless times before, that you are calculating the time required to copy the files, lest I am tempted to think you're doing nothing operating-system-y for me. The status note is as welcome as it is informative as it is pragmatically beneficial, which is to say, not at all. None. Nada.

Now, were it the case that this narrated calculation were prelude to one of your charming confirmation prompts -- something along the lines of a dialogue asking me "This copy will take precisely 3 minutes 19 seconds to complete. Do you have 3:19 to spare for this, or would you prefer to do it later?" followed by several confirming dialogues -- "You've chosen to go forward with this copy operation. Are you sure? (Yes/No/Cancel*)", followed closely by something along the lines of "Are you sure you're sure? (Yes/No/Cancel*)" and "Really? (Yes/No/Cancel*)" -- were this dialogue the opening that familiar sort of tedious, repetitive, intrusive, condescending, throw-the-goddamn-laptop-off-the-nearest-high-rise colloquy, it might claim some small utility. But no. It's just a superfluous self-report from you, Microsoft Windows, that stands wholly innocent of any nameable pragmatic "cash value."

Of course, I don't mean to suggest the highlighted dialogue leads to nothing. That would be ridiculous! It leads to dialogues such as this one:

Fascinating! Fascinating, that is, in the way that all potentially pertinent and yet certainly false statements are. Or do I overstate the matter? Has anyone ever checked these time estimates against a clock to gauge their accuracy? Has the accuracy or inaccuracy of these times ever made a concrete difference to anyone's use of a computer machine? I mean, I don't mind being told which file is being copied -- and yes, you parasites, I do rightfully own the MP3 shown -- but I'd rather skip the meaningless fabrications as to the time it will take.

I should end this on an positive and forward-looking note.* Microsoft Windows, thank you for "keeping me in the loop."*

* Whatever the hell that means.

Mt. Tabor Doggie Challenge 2009: More Idyll than Run

Today I ran the Mt. Tabor Doggie Challenge 8K in 35:39 (7:09 min/mi pace) and everything about it was so perfect and beautiful that it left me wondering why I ever spend any time anywhere other than Portland's Mt. Tabor Park.

Hours later, I don't have any answers. Why am I not there now? I don't know.

The dogs were well-behaved and adorable; the people -- young and old, male and female -- were preternaturally beautiful, as though transformed by the setting; the post-race food and drinks, though lacking adequate vegetarian substitutes, tasted better than it had any right to; the weather was nothing short of perfect; the band -- I hope someone can help me identify them -- played exactly the right kind of music (a hybrid of jazz, rock, electronica) at exactly the right sound level, and did so expertly.

I am pleased and slightly surprised at the time I made over this challenging, intensely hilly course -- it would be an exaggeration to say I didn't make a strong effort, but somehow it came easily. There's just something about this place.

I give my thanks to the organizers of this event and congratulate everyone who had the privilege to participate.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Realism, US Politics, & Health Care -- We can haz coexistence?

Peter Singer has extended his troubling dalliance with reality-based moral reasoning and applied it to health care:

Health care is a scarce resource, and all scarce resources are rationed in one way or another ... Rationing health care means getting value for the billions we are spending by setting limits on which treatments should be paid for from the public purse ... The debate over health care reform in the United States should start from the premise that some form of health care rationing is both inescapable and desirable. Then we can ask, What is the best way to do it?
The entire piece is riddled with reasonable points like these, which is likely the most reliable grounds on which to say that the terms it lays out will not penetrate Congressional deliberations in any meaningful degree, and certainly that it won't have a far-reaching impact on the way big media squabblers and scribes frame it.

Still, the fight for sane, workable, reality-based health care policy is too important to abandon from cynicism. Reading the whole piece is well worth the time.

Benchmarking Arrogance

Here's a more or less representative instance of an old standard:

You cannot know with certainty that there is no god, in the sense of a creator of the universe, for example. It is impossible. You can assert that it is unnecessary, but that is not the same thing as impossible. Certainly you can say “there’s no reason to believe God created the universe in 7 days, 4,000 odd years ago”, but who cares? If Biblical literacy is your target, it’s just about shooting fish in a barrel, isn’t it?

The fact is that we don’t know. Arguably, we can’t know. We can say “God as described literally in the bible cannot exist”, but we cannot say “God does not exist”.
I don't say I know with certainty that no gods exist; I am not aware of any celebrity or semi-celebrity atheist who asserts certitude on this matter.

Worse than that Straw Man argument is Ian Welsh's confidence -- dare I say arrogance? On what basis can he so blithely state that 4,000-year-old Earths and Biblical/Koranic literalism are so risibly, obviously, unarguably false as to merit comparison with sport fish trapped in barrels?

In what enchanted world have these claims been banished from respectable opinion? While Ian Welsh chuckles over claims such as these, others watch schools burn to the ground, observe assaults on educational standards, and face execution for assorted thought-crimes as defined in ancient lore.

I like keeping things as definite as possible, so here's a benchmark: I'll share in Ian Welsh's confident chuckling when an openly gay, non-Muslim tourist can visit any site in Saudi Arabia with exactly the same reverence he would be expected to bring to a visit to Windsor Palace or the Cologne Cathedral.

Until then, these are live questions in need of fighting out, not assuming out of existence or converting to epistemological Straw Men.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Poem of the Day: "Ring on the Sill"

Sometimes it's that 1,001st listen that stands out and makes you really listen to a song, and so it is with "Ring on the Sill" for me, a Cowboy Junkies song that dates to 1993, one that I've loved without quite hearing for almost as long.

There are at least two kinds of ring in this poem -- the ring on a finger and the ring left by a glass -- but there are other small pairings, or unities, in the poem: smell, taste/tongue, breath/inhale, caress/brushes, neglected things, and more. These unities sharpen the tension between love and fear that dominates the wordless yet vivid scene.

Michael Timmins, "Ring on the Sill"

She placed her ring on the sill,
Dishes piled high.
She's on the front porch step
And the air smells like snow.
She's thinking of the siege to come
And how she'll miss those weekends
In the park with the sun on her face
And her book by her side and that
Lingering taste that he left on her tongue.

He lifts his glass from the table
It leaves a ring where it stood.
He sees the light from the window
Caress her like he knows he should.
He's remembering the first time he kissed her
And how he'd wake
And immediately he'd miss her,
Like a spell, with each breath,
He'd taste her breath like a haunting,
Irritating as hell.

Do you remember when you'd pray
To never see the day
When someone would make you feel this way.
'Cause you knew
They would cut right through you
And once inside, you were afraid they'd find
Nothing to hold on to.

He puts her ring on her finger,
She brushes back his hair.
He takes a sip from his glass,
She inhales the cold fall air.
And they're thinking of the long road ahead
And the strength that they will need
Just to reach the end.
And there in the silence they search for
The balance between this fear that they feel
And a love that has graced their lives.

Here's a video for the song that can't possibly be official -- I'll give it "evocative" since I'm feeling generous, but the point anyway is to listen:

Marriage, Family, and Actual Reverence

Why do non-conservatives regard conservatives as such screaming assholes? The reasons vary, but one illustration can be found in this recent instance of thundering, oversimplified castigation from Ben Domenech:

For the most narcissistic among us, the problem is even reaching a point in life where marriage and reproduction are viewed in positive terms. As Kay Hymowitz has pointed out in a recent series of articles in The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, “in 1970, 69 percent of 25-year-old and 85 percent of 30-year-old white men were married; in 2000, only 33 percent and 58 percent were, respectively.” This demographic shift has now pushed the median age of marriage for white males to nearly 28 — if they get married at all — further delaying fatherhood and motherhood.

Hymowitz offers several complex reasons why this is the case. But I say the simplest answer is true: American men today delay the act of reproduction and union because they devalue it. Because technology and culture (today, technology is culture) unite to encourage them to devalue it — to favor distraction over maturity, personal growth over familial growth, and self over society.
A quick reply to this, one with all the analytical heft that its provocation deserves, would be "Oh, boo-hoo, you whiny little turd."

But no, I must aim higher for the sake of this precious, precious blog's ever-high rhetorical and analytical standards. Here goes.

I note the AOL Keyword narcissism and observe that the bearing of lots and lots of children has, from time to time in the history of our species, been a manifestation of it rather than an overcoming of it. Treating vaginas as a clown cars* has, now and then, implicated people in the sort of ill-considered heedlessness that has put Ben Domenech in such a state of fist-shaking outrage. The Octomom's powerful fecundity bespeaks a bottomless reservoir of shortcomings, but a paucity of self-regard and an overdeveloped sense of maturity are surely not among these.

Even if the child-bearing and marriage trends that so worry Domenech mean exactly what he imputes to them -- a devaluing of family life, a celebration of self over society, a repudiation of the Octomom's heroic enactment of conservatism's vision of maturity, whatever -- I do not share his worries. It may well be that Americans in their teens and twenties today do, by and large, fail to see themselves as breeding stock saddled with the task of perpetuating current population trend-lines. It may well be that they are hesitant to enter into family relationships beyond those to which they were born. Free people make free choices.

I would suggest the possibility that young people are aiming for one sustained, carefully timed, thoughtfully managed act of creating a family undertaken relatively late in life because it makes more sense than than crapping out litters and plowing through spouses starting a few seconds after midnight on age-of-consent birthday -- or as it is known in the former Confederate states, "family values." It's better because -- but not only because -- it comes with, or should come with, less whining from conservative moralists about the devaluation of family.

More importantly, this pattern of choices is how people who actually revere family would behave, as distinct from the people who make assholes of themselves by mouthing pieties about family.

(via Conor Friedersdorf)

* The vagina-as-clown-car metaphor comes courtesy the good people at Despair, Inc.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Beowulf v. Beowulf

I speak not of the celebrated legal precedent but of the curious disjunction between the film (this one) and the book (this translation). These are barely recognizable as the same story.

Yes, I've only recently gotten around to finally reading Beowulf as opposed to commentaries on Beowulf, excerpts from Beowulf, and badly-pronounced and even more badly understood readings from the original Old English text. Go ahead, read these lines and make sense of them if you can:

leoman to leohte landbuendum
ond gefrætwade foldan sceatas
leomum ond leafum, lif eac gesceop
cynna gehwylcum þara ðe cwice hwyrfaþ.
Swa ða drihtguman dreamum lifdon
Did you read it out loud!!?!?! Did you pronounce every letter phonetically?!!?! Yea, me too. Every person who insists on the value of reading the original insists on the value of reading it out loud and on pronouncing every letter phonetically.

Maybe I should turn to a verse translation before drawing any final conclusions? This one seems to be well-regarded.

Notwithstanding how little they had in common, I enjoyed both the book and the film -- yes, even that film, for all its glaring flaws, beginning with the distracting visual presentation where every character has a CGI overlay. If CGI cannot save a horrendous film, surely it can't doom a salvageable one. Right?

Reed Hits Sci-Fi Fantasy Gold

This is good news for Reed College and, if I may be bold enough to say so, for excellence undergraduate humanities education:

David Eddings, famed fantasy fiction author and 1954 Reed College graduate, has made a bequest in excess of $18 million to Reed College. The gift is among the largest contributions to the college since Amanda Reed’s bequest established the institution 98 years ago. Eddings passed away at his home in Carson City, Nevada, on June 2, at the age of 77.

Eddings directed that his gift be used to support students and faculty across the college with emphasis given to those studying language and literature. More than two thirds of the gift will provide financial aid to help students of limited financial means attend Reed. In addition, funds will endow the David Eddings Professorship in the English department ...
If I were to be perfectly candid, I might note a bit of bad news too -- namely, the way this gigantic donation undercuts the already middling potency of the school's efforts to extract donations from non-millionaire alums such as myself.

But don't lose heart, college fund solicitors -- many of us are a thousandaires, and not only that, it recently occurred to me that I don't have a Reed t-shirt that isn't moth-eaten or otherwise unwearable. So you can go ahead and start daydreaming about how to spend a $15-$20 donation to the student bookstore.

Thank you and R.I.P., David Eddings.


Arguably the strongest argument yet for acquiring an iPhone has emerged from England:

For just 59p, consumers can download an application that allows them to take a purity pledge and then display a silver ring on their phone to prove their commitment to abstinence.

Its creator, Island Wall Entertainment, claims the product will appeal to the younger generation and those people who have not already committed themselves to a life of abstinence and chastity.
I don't know how much 59p is in US currency -- if only there were a way to look up such a thing! -- but it can only be a bargain. What better way to put a halt to any interest a member of the opposite sex might take in you than to splay this purity ring across your iPhone!?! You'll be safe and sound from all such attentions, alone and definitely-not-masturbating at home that night and every night until the proper hour for your initiation into the disgusting, foul, ungodly hazards of sex -- a few months into the marriage your parents thoughtfully arranged with some other asshole parents from your church.

Still, I can't help the feeling of disappointment in two nation-states: Japan, which can usually be counted on to originate things as cosmically weird and pathetic as this; and the USA, which normally leads the way on puritanical idiocy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Joyeux Anniversaire

I have little to add to Obscene Desserts's posting of this video, but it's such an undeniably affecting moment that I can't allow this precious, precious blog to go without it -- certainly not on Bastille Day.

Happy birthday, France.

Faces of Race-Based Empathy

Contrary to my expectations, it turns out I have learned something from Judge Sotomayor's confirmation hearings and the concomitant political atmospherics -- I have concluded that I have severe qualms about a Supreme Court nominee who would say this:

When I get a case about discrimination, I have to think about people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender. And I do take that into account.
I express the qualms not because judges should dismiss all thoughts of their own heritage and the history of race relations in the USA when considering racial discrimination, but because the person who said this was Justice Sam Alito, who is a right-wing ideologue of the sort we do not need on the Supreme Court. And yet there he is, issuing rulings that factor in his Italian heritage and the history of anti-Italian discrimination in the USA.

This comes via Glenn Greenwald, who has been focusing his always-valuable reporting and analysis on the Sotomayor hearings.

When Questions Are Too Big

Father Stephen -- I assume he's the only one since the name is not further qualified, just as I assume that I am the only "Dale" who does any blogging -- is in a scolding mood about the ways Christians who aren't wearing his frock are abusing the revelations imputed to his favorite god:

Some years ago I recall the story of an Episcopal priest who ... saw himself as Jonah – his Church as the sinking ship. The only way to save the sinking ship was to throw Jonah overboard. It seems not unlikely that whatever was the case, he needed to resign his position. But the story of Jonah is not about throwing priests overboard to save “sinking” congregations ... The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no controlling story. Nothing tells us which story to use other than our own imagination (which is generally a deluded part of our mind). A governor gets to play King David, and, surprise, he should be forgiven and not resign his office. A group of white settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women and children. A priest, likely in need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The gospel is not preached – souls are not saved – the Bible is simply brought into ridicule ... Scripture is relevant. However, its relevance should not come as a personal revelation that tells us which character we are within its pages. Such games seem frightfully like the games on Facebook: “Which ancient civilization are you?” or some such nonsense.
If I recall correctly, the Facebook quiz in question pegged me as Ancient Greece, but I digress.

I have no rooting interest in the theological dispute that Father Stephen discusses, but the dispute itself strikes me as an indictment. According to the orthodox timeline, we are closing in on the 2,000th anniversary of the supposed death and resurrection of Jesus, and even after that length of time, professing Christians cannot decide amongst themselves how to settle this question.

It is no small question, as Father Stephen indirectly observes: on it turns whether their god, whom they hold to be the exclusive patent-holder of life, the universe, and everything, allows them to relate to the Bible's characters, themes, and narratives, and if so, how.

Is it acceptable to see yourselves as god's chosen and sunder a continent, or is it not? It it acceptable to treat the story of Jonah as an exemplum for your life and career choices, or isn't it? If you're a philandering governor, may you or may you not cite the precedent of King David's philandering to excuse yourself?

WWJD? Would Jesus consider 'WWJD' to be a proper question for his followers to ask?

Two thousand years of unresolved infighting over such fundamental questions suggests the answers will not be forthcoming in the next several thousand. True, there are many similarly unresolved questions in the humanities, and this fact does not condemn the study of the humanities (according to me); but there, nothing as grand as Mankind's Salvation versus Mankind's Damnation rests on the outcome, nor do those disputes begin with the shared assumption of a controlling authority who holds, in fact and in principle, the singular right answers.

Monday, July 13, 2009

PoI with Dale McGowan

Whether you're a parent, a prospective parent, or just someone who enjoys giving unsolicited advice to parents, I strongly recommend the recent Point of Inquiry podcast featuring Dale McGowan, the author of the excellent Parenting Beyond Belief and the more recent and equally excellent-sounding Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief.

The discussion with DJ Grothe is full of good sense for anyone who cares to raise children to become independent and inquisitive-minded adults.

Tennessee, Where the Mules Kick Freely

I am not saying it makes sense, I am just pointing out, for the benefit of non-American readers, this is is no misprint:

Following a recent series of high-profile shooting incidents in the United States, the southern state of Tennessee is changing its gun laws this week.

It is relaxing them.

If a last-minute legal challenge fails, from Tuesday, gun owners in the state will be allowed to carry their weapons in a lot more public places - including bars and restaurants.
It's probably true that people living outside the former Confederate states of the United States, if plied with enough mind-altering chemicals or kicked in the head by large beasts of burden, suffer momentary lapses in cognitive function that allow them to believe the relevant hypothesis of political economy at play here: that in a social milieu in which every third crazy hick you see might be carrying a loaded firearm, the best response is to give the other two crazy hicks a loaded firearm.

Rest assured that if the scope and scale of gun-related mayhem has not decreased a year from now in Tennessee, a solid majority of Tennessee legislators -- backed by a solid majority of Tennessee voters -- will conclude that guns have been too heavily restricted and that relaxing them is the only thinkable option.

Actually, remove the conditional from the previous paragraph -- whatever happens, a year from now, there will be substantial numbers of Tennesseans who believe that relaxing the gun laws is the only thinkable option.

(Photo from Spunkinator on Flickr)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Carpenters Blogging

It's Sunday and summer and all, so let's agree not to pretend we've successfully resisted the charms of the Carpenters. M'kay?

They're arguably best known for "Close to You" or "Rainy Days and Mondays," but here's "Superstar":

Oddly enough, Sonic Youth covered "Superstar" not so very long ago.

Sapere Aude Award for Ian McCullough

I award the first ever Sapere Aude Award to Ian McCullough for this comment:

When someone asks me what, say, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson is about I give a plot synopsis. It's a great work of speculative fiction. If someone asked about Moby Dick all I can really say is it's great. It is a rollicking tale of sea going adventure (this isn't irony, parts of Moby Dick are real page turning action), but it's not shelved in Nautical Adventure at Powell's. To ask about the plot of "great literature" is to fundamentally miss the point. Life is a series of decisions, informed by the past with an eye towards the future. The moment, that slippery thing that just slid by, is difficult to consider normally. Literature does that, creates the environment of a moment and pins it down. Being able to consider why Ivan tells himself he is a scoundrel as he goes to Moscow is the reward of reading Brothers Karamzov - to see someone in a complex moral dilemma. But what fool thinks they are going to get concrete examples for dealing with their own dysfunctional family? The texture of every life is different, for which we rejoice, but this means we extract personal truth at a very oblique angle from literature.
Well done, Ian.

Here is the post to which this comment was made.

The Sapere Aude Award

A blogger has certain responsibilities, among these being the creation of awards he doles out to fellow bloggers, commenters, and the other miscellaneous fops, dandies, prigs, and insufferable twits who fall within his orbit. In keeping with that responsibility, I am creating the Sapere Aude Award, intended to honor comments made to posts on this precious, precious blog that achieve a certain something I admire: a grasp at wisdom, a reach for sententiousness, the boldness by which a person sets modesty, humility, and other species of caution aside and dares to demonstrate that he or she has something profound to say.

The perils to this sort of thing are clear enough. One can come off as a pretentious blowhard, a bullshit slinger, a risibly sophomoric boor, and so on. But when it works, it's a beautiful thing, one I want to honor and recognize. When it works, it shows that people can, if they focus their best resources and perhaps summon the right muses, exceed the limits of that which they can put on a truthful resume, add to an accurate cirriculum vitae, or otherwise justify by citations from their Permanent Record.

I hope recipients will receive the honor in the spirit in which it is given, post its badge in whatever places they post things, and link back to the awarding post. The badge bears the image of a Griffin, an ancient symbol of courage, boldness, and wisdom.

Sapere aude!

Badge image adapted from original found here.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Learning from Literature

Stephen Law asks a set of fair questions:

[I]sn't literature, in many ways, profoundly misleading, providing the illusion that real life has a clear narrative structure, a plot, a moral, is driven by psychological principles, etc., that are actually rarely if ever present in real life?
Of course. Literature distorts real life in this manner and surely in others, but what it represents faithfully -- when it's good, anyway -- are the mental tricks by which humans interpret the experience of life.

Which is to say, literature at its best is a faithful guide to the way people make sense of the flow of life, and that feat of sense-making -- whether it takes place within the space of the individual cranium or enters the public via recitation or publication -- necessarily involves oversimplifications, omissions, and assorted cognitive shortcuts. Law further asks:
Isn't the "psychology" it presents, often as not, mythical, rather than actual, reflecting what an all-too fallible individual, the author, thinks makes people tick, rather than what actually makes them tick?
Absolutely. This is why not just anyone can write an enduring literary work, notwithstanding the seeming ease with which the best writers carry out the task.

Law goes too far with this one, I think:
[B]ecause people always say that learned this profound stuff from novels, but seem rarely if ever to provide an actual example of something they learned, that actually the profound truths and insights contained with novels are largely, if not entirely, mythical.
No, they aren't mythical, they're just difficult to articulate, because (but not only because) the lesson took the form of example rather than precept. An apt analogy to "I learned profound stuff from literature" is "I learned profound stuff from watching my dad trudge off to work day after day" or "I learned profound stuff from watching my grandmother struggle with illness." The difficulty of reducing these lessons to definite, coherent declarations is in no way evidence that the lessons do not exist.*

Someone with literary talent can, however, convert such lessons to words. Not to words as precepts, perhaps, but to words as narrative.

* I do not mean to issue a blanket excuse. I am sympathetic to the idea that a lesson one cannot articulate is a lesson one can't truly claim to have absorbed.

Gran Torino Redux

On further reflection on my prior musings on the distressingly orangutan-free Gran Torino, or perhaps by way of clarification to those musings, I think the best way to regard the Old Coot's situation is as that of a man suddenly shorn of his emotional armor. This is the substance of the film's central conflict, of which the protagonist's adjustments to post-1953 developments in race relations is only one interesting example.

The emotional armor is removed with the wife's death. Seen this way, Eastwood's character achieves a mixed success: he conspicuously fails to reconnect with his biological children, but does far better with his new family, making, by the end, the ultimate sacrifice for their good.

If it's true that art that wants to be true to life will eschew easy answers and resist tidy resolutions, the mixed outcome -- only partly sketched above -- shows why this film is worth viewing, whatever its flaws.

It's never too late to cut a "special edition" DVD packed with commentary, scenes that never made it past the studio chicken-shits, and, above all, hilariously flatulent, punch-throwing orangutans.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Science is Nuclear Power. QED.

The Blogger Who Blogs on Secular Right as David Hume (TBWBoSRaDH)* endeavors to establish that American liberals are just as hostile to science as American conservatives, so he rolls right past all the weaker arguments and unleashes the persuasive might of 16-year-old poll results combined with the disarmingly bold equation of science with nuclear energy. Hold fast the tatters of your commitments and feel the cogency:

The GSS has a few nuclear related questions asked in 1993-1994. Below the fold are attitudes toward nuclear energy (columns add to 100%) broken down by self-reported ideology. Additionally, I controlled for education & race by limiting a second sample to whites with college degrees or higher. The effect remains; liberals are (or were in 1993-1994) hostile to nuclear power than conservatives.
Truly TBWBoSRaDH has cranked this one up to 11 on the persuade-o-meter: I am flummoxed, unhorsed, stripped to the very last threads of my mental knickers!

That said, I believe I speak for all liberals when I say the following, because I think I speak for reality when I say the following: nuclear power and science are not the same thing. I would go beyond that and observe, with the caveat that I have not checked the wording of the 16-year-old poll that's carrying so much argumentative weight here, that nuclear power and nuclear waste are not the same thing.

For the sake of those recently fallen from the turnip truck, both of these distinctions matter. In the abstract, I adore nuclear power -- such massive power from such plentiful sources! In the non-abstract, where no one has developed any good answers for transporting or disposing of nuclear waste, and where no one has devised a human-frailty-free nuclear plant design, and where radiation maims and kills living things with extreme efficiency, and where these hazards are not matters of wild-eyed hypotheticals (with one noteworthy exception), I am very wary of nuclear power.

Which is to say, we liberals have reality-based, twaddle-free reasons to be wary of nuclear power. The same is not true of conservatism's rank denialism, whether loosely or tightly wound up with speculative metaphysical fancy, on such scientific matters as stem cell research, climate change, and evolution.

* Henceforth, until this person gives himself a less confusing screen name, one that does not step over the name of the still widely-read 18th century philosopher, or until my mood swings another way, I shall refer to him as TBWBoSRaDH.

Questioning Judge Sotomayor

NPR's news blog has questions about questions:

Put yourself on the Senate Judiciary Committee for a minute. What would you want to ask Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor at her confirmation hearing, which begins Monday at 10 a.m.
In a more perfect world, the questions posed during these hearings would be sharply put and at least as sharply answered, but in the world in which we actually live, the questions will be little more than episodes of insufferable grandstanding by Senators, interrupted only by even more insufferable episodes of ideological posturing; and the answers will be a mix of platitudes and banalities that would appall a retarded 14-year-old beauty contest participant. We should expect to learn as much about Sotomayor's view of the law from these hearings as we would learn if she submitted a caricature portrait of herself in which she is waving the stars n' stripes, admiring a piece of apple pie, and singing "America the Beautiful" at a baseball game.

In the spirit of that futility, or perhaps in the spirit of "the audacity of hope" that has become a scrap of overused piece of toilet paper in the hands of certain political figures of late, I propose the following questions:
  • Will you require President Obama and all other presidents to follow his legal obligations concerning the investigation and prosecution of war crimes as defined in the Geneva Conventions and other treaties to which the USA is signatory? Will you do everything in your power to force him to obey the law in all aspects of his conduct of war? Will you still do so even if he gives an eloquent speech saying that "next year" would be a more politically expedient time to obey the law? Or if he explains charmingly that he would prefer to defer to "the commanders in the field" on obeying the laws of war? Or will you sit there like another dithering, oh-so-moderate, go-along-to-get-along lump of chickenshit?
  • What does the 9th Amendment to the Bill of Rights mean, and how, specifically, will it guide your decisions on matters pitting individual liberty against state action?
  • Do you really want to hang out with Scalia? Seriously? A follow-up if "yes" -- do you realize he is a complete asshole?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 = "a minor itch successfully scratched" and 10 = "narrowly averted being chained to a two-ton concrete slab and sunk to the bottom of a lake," how relieved are you that Joe Biden is no longer a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee? A follow-up: how do you plan to spend the extra months of life gained by not having to sit through former Senator Biden's meandering, largely pointless questions?
I continue to know approximately two things about Judge Sotomayor: she is Latina with an inspiring-to-many personal history, and nearly everyone seems to agree she will be confirmed for the Supreme Court. I expect to know little more in a fortnight.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Crazy Cool Stereolab News

It's too bad this great news had to be marred by the inclusion of such a tedious buzzword:

Sometimes it seems like Deerhunter frontman/Atlas Sound mastermind Bradford Cox is friends with everyone in indie rock. This is a good thing. It leads to cool onstage collaborations and crazy interviews. And now, his affability has enticed Animal Collective's Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) and Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier to chip in with guest shots on the upcoming Atlas Sound LP, dubbed Logos and due out October 20 via Kranky. [emphasis mine]
Huzzahs to forthcoming music featuring the words and vocals of Laetitia Sadier!

As for the buzzword, let's consider the candidates:
  • Cool - Nah. It's tedious enough, but still has some use when issued with due amounts of irony.
  • Crazy - Close but no; it's a vogue usage, one I'd rather see quashed, but there are worse things. Being chained to a two-ton concrete slab and sunk to the bottom of a lake would be worse, for instance.
  • Indie - Ring that bell, we have a winner! I hate this word -- a diminutive of an overused, vacuous term of approbation. "Indie" with respect to what, exactly? And exactly what difference does this "indie"-ness make -- how should the adjective "indie" alter my reception of a work?
This is welcome news for those of us missing Stereolab, among whom must be the person who assembled this monotonous and yet intriguing -- and, for all I know, profoundly "indie" -- video for "Valley Hi!":

Gran Torino

A post at The Devil's Harlot reminded me of my mixed feelings about Gran Torino, the most recent Clint Eastwood late-career Oscar grab to hit the DVD rental bins.

Though Eastwood is a powerful screen presence -- the sort of actor who sucks in the viewer's attention regardless of what his character is doing or saying -- his cranky-white-old-school-racist schtick in this film crossed to the wrong side of the cartoonish line at times.

I've been around my share of Old Coots with hearts o' gold, and it actually doesn't take long before they stop using words like "slopes," "gooks," and "coons." They may never stop thinking it (who knows?), and they may remain forever willing to use them in a sort of jesting or campy fashion (as in the film's scenes with the barber, where the men more or less consciously enact self-parodies), but by the time Old Coots actually begin forming bonds with, let alone firing weapons on behalf of rather than toward the previously-scorned, this kind of talk stops, and without commentary, fanfare, or -- it must be said -- weepy apology.

Roger Ebert's take comes close to the mark:

"Gran Torino" is about two things, I believe. It's about the belated flowering of a man's better nature. And it's about Americans of different races growing more open to one another in the new century. This doesn't involve some kind of grand transformation. It involves starting to see the "gooks" next door as people you love. And it helps if you live in the kind of neighborhood where they are next door.
I certainly agree that the film tracks the central character's unlikely embrace of racial diversity -- or some of that diversity -- in the world changing rapidly around him, but I am not sure "belated flowering" captures the nature of the transformation.

It is a tale of self-overcoming and second chances seized: one suspects the Old Coot's wife, whose funeral opens the film, had served as a protective buffer between Old Coot and his duties and pains. She seems to have taken care of everything not directly involved in working at the Ford plant, amassing an impressive tool collection, maintaining house and lawn, and restoring a 1972 Gran Torino. Not on the honey-do list: noticing the extent to which society was changing, actively caring for his children, and grappling with his wartime experiences.

The film charts the Old Coot's second fatherhood and adulthood, and arguably his first true coming of age. Despite himself, he learns, adjusts, compromises, passes tests of courage dated after 1953, emotionally invests himself in the fate of others, and above all, sacrifices.

As to that final sacrifice, while I would like to live in a world in which such a feat of martyrdom could work out as shown, we do not live in that world. We live in a world in which that plan would fail three times before it got its Korean War-issue combat boots on, although it would realistically terminate with the violent death of Old Coot.

Lastly and most importantly, my biggest disappointment with the film: though it starred Clint Eastwood, it featured not one single hilariously flatulent, punch-throwing orangutan.

I demand a refund.