Monday, May 31, 2010

"Normal," Old and New

It's perfectly understandable for the BP's CEO to wish for his life to return to normal. Saying perfectly understandable things and still coming across as a callous, depraved, supercilious monster is the fate of people who run operations grand enough to turn 54 thousand square miles of former ocean fishery into a still-growing toxic soup.

"Normal" is an interesting word to use here. What's happening to the Gulf of Mexico is not "normal;" organizations with the concentrated resources and reach to transform an ecosystem in a month are not "normal;" running a billion-dollar operation and receiving the compensation for it is not "normal;" for thousands of species of fish, plankton, turtles, crustaceans, and birds, "normal" is sea water clouded with little worse than the natural waste of other creatures; a massive and growing swath of the gulf closed to fishing this time of year is not "normal" for those whose livelihoods depend on that work.

It's amazing what people can get used to. BP and its corporate partners have created a new normal in the Gulf of Mexico that won't be shocking for long. The executives of these companies will need to find a way to adjust to the new normal, and part of that new normal is an absence of public sympathy for their inconveniences.

Active Update

A couple of days after I first broached the topic, active dot com still sucks:

In a sense, the message here is trivially true -- I have, in fact, already submitted this portion of the form. I attempted to get all the way through this form no less than seven times on two different computers. Sometimes it crapped out here, other times it crapped out at other spots.

I am happy to report that try number eight was successful. It's a good thing the event is happening quite a while in the future; the time spent dueling with this awful web site takes away from the time I could be running.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Strong Opinions from Above

A cavalier, devil-may-care insouciance famously comes more easily to some than to others -- casual declarations on the conditions aboard slave ships no doubt came rather easily to wealthy antebellum southern "gentlemen," the travails and pains of combat seem to flow with uncanny ease from the rhetoric of men who couldn't find the time to sign up when their time came.

All of which brings me, naturally, to the status of individual privacy, autonomy, and integrity as seen from the mountain of gold from which Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, regards the world:

The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly ... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.
In a way, the most appropriate reaction to this is exactly the one I would prefer to run with: fuck you, Mark Zuckerberg, you cocooned little piece of shit. But the truth is, I need to qualify that, because, gawd knows, I need to sell my labor if I want to keep living in a house rather than in cardboard boxes, and this means I need to keep one eye on my honest assessments of current affairs and the other on what happens to people who speak too freely.

There are alternatives, of course. I could say nothing, the easiest means of which is to think nothing. In turn, this means taking everything exactly as given, asking no questions, and eschewing controversies -- learn to laugh at 2-1/2 Men, subscribe to Newsweek, collect Celine Dion and Kenny G CDs, buy all the Transformers sequels in all the new disk formats as they come out, ask my doctor about exactly the pills that those endless ads on the network nightly news are always instructing us to ask our doctors about, render unto Caesar, cheer for the home team, and quietly die without having ever even tried to step out of bounds on anything.

Alternatively, I could assemble, piece by hard-won piece, the experience and wisdom that makes a person an authority on a particular subject. For example, if I wished to push the limits on questions of individual privacy, integrity, and autonomy, I could become a zillionaire founder of a software company with a financial stake in particular conclusions.

Privacy and integrity mean and function more or less as Mark Zuckerberg portrays them if you subtract the reality of inequalities of rank, social power, and wealth. If everyone were somehow a 26-year-old zillionaire, it might well seem peculiar, and indeed suspicious, to see people erecting barriers between "work friends" and friends, or between "social networks" and personal networks, or between "one's online persona" and one's everyday personality.

Because not everyone sees the world from that mountaintop, the first answer works after all: fuck you, Mark Zuckerberg.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Julian Baggini has enumerated "ten of the greatest philosophical principles of all time," one of which invites special application to current events -- that "ought implies can":

How often do people insist that 'Something should be done' even though they've no idea what that something is? But unless you have an idea what should be done, how do you even know that it's possible to do anything at all? It makes no sense to say something should be unless it actually can be. Kant is usually credited with formulating this principle: 'Since reason commands that such actions should take place,' he wrote, 'it must be possible for them to take place.' In other words, if a prescription is truly rational, then it must be possible. Which means if it looks rational, but isn't possible, it isn't rational at all, like expecting a system to run on debt indefinitely.
As the BP-Halliburton-TransOcean alliance continues its carnival of fecklessness, it's odd to see people beseeching the Obama administration to step in, seize control, and resolve without providing any idea of what "fixing it" would resemble.

The truth is manifest: no one has a clear plan of action when an oil well a mile under the sea breaks open. No one knows what to do. That is not countenanced in any serious planning, nor, evidently, in any substantial research and development, unless "wait until the well is completely tapped and hope for the best" counts as serious.

In a saner world, this would imply an automatic "no" to all requests for new drilling in deep-sea conditions. Sadly, we are swimming through the world as it is.

To Race Oranizers - Please Deactivate

I expect that organizing a running event can only be a thankless task, so let me add to that thanklessness in the short term in the hopes of reducing it down the line:
Do not use Active dot com.
Catch that? I will make it bigger and bolder:
Do not use Active dot com.
Once more, this time with colors and a couple of other methods of emphasis:
Do not use Active dot com!!!
The reason is simple: they suck. They're parasites. They're spammers. They're ad shoveling, chiseling hucksters. They have seen a world wide web overloaded with incompetent, pointless, sanity-threatening portals and have said, "us too!"

They are nothing but a filthy trap of garish ads, visual noise, and worthless, cluttered bloat, as the screen capture above will attest. It shows every sign of taking the course outlined in "How a Web Design Goes Straight to Hell" at The Oatmeal.

And that's when their site works as designed. Note how certain items come up flawlessly -- the links to their page concerning an event in Denver they've managed to suck in to their orbit, links to a several "feature pieces" they think will look enticing, and big ads for a major German automaker. After you wade through that morass of screaming commerce and blaring "branding" to locate the "Log In," button, this is what happens, and this is not the first time I have seen the same or close:

I give them credit for acknowledging the problem is on their side. I subtract that and more because they exist and continue attaching themselves to running events. I hope running event organizers will re-think this, drop active dot com, and find different ways to facilitate online race registrations.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Thoreau on Men-Harriers

From the "Visitors" chapter of Walden:

I could not but notice some of the peculiarities of my visitors. Girl and boys and young women generally seemed glad to be in the woods. They looked in the pond and at the flowers, and improved their time. Men of business, even farmers, thought only of solitude and employment, and of the great distance at which I dwelt from something or other; and though they said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, it was obvious that they did not. Restless committed men, whose time was an taken up in getting a living or keeping it; ministers who spoke of God as if they enjoyed a monopoly of the subject, who could not bear all kinds of opinions; doctors, lawyers, uneasy housekeepers who pried into my cupboard and bed when I was out- how came Mrs.- to know that my sheets were not as clean as hers?- young men who had ceased to be young, and had concluded that it was safest to follow the beaten track of the professions- all these generally said that it was not possible to do so much good in my position. Ay! there was the rub. The old and infirm and the timid, of whatever age or sex, thought most of sickness, and sudden accident and death; to them life seemed full of danger- what danger is there if you don't think of any?- and they thought that a prudent man would carefully select the safest position, where Dr. B. might be on hand at a moment's warning. To them the village was literally a community, a league for mutual defence, and you would suppose that they would not go a-huckleberrying without a medicine chest. The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs. Finally, there were the self-styled reformers, the greatest bores of all, who thought that I was forever singing,
This is the house that I built;
This is the man that lives in the house that I built;
but they did not know that the third line was,
These are the folks that worry the man
That lives in the house that I built.
I did not fear the hen-harriers, for I kept no chickens; but I feared the men-harriers rather.
"A man sits as many risks as he runs" -- for Thoreau, other people served chiefly as foils, cautionary examples, points of departure, exemplars of all the wrong priorities. It's not easy to find where he's wrong in that.

A Books and Reading Meme

Via Norm Geras, I present a meme about books and reading:

Do you snack while reading? >Mostly not. Should I?

What is your favourite drink while reading? > Coffee or something else caffeinated -- as I am a narcoleptic-American, I have to find ways to fend off sleep. You'd think the act of reading would keep me awake, but it is sadly not so, and while we're on it, this blog post does not pay you to think.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? >It doesn't horrify me. I do it when it seems like a good idea, e.g., if I plan to quote the passage later.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat? > Always, always a bookmark, even if it has to be a miscellaneous scrap of paper or a fallen leaf. The dog-ear thing has never worked for me -- I end up with multiple dog-ears and a lot of sad-looking pages, or, depending on the kind of paper, I cannot find the dog-ear. I lay a hex upon all those who lay books open flat, that their fingernails shall turn a girlish shade of pink (applies to straight guys), that their ears shall remain forever shut to the sounds of Barbara Streisand (applies to gay men and middle-aged women), and for the rest, that they shall always experience a slight but persistent pee-ammonia smell. Void where prohibited. Hex not valid.

Fiction, non-fiction or both? > Mostly non-fiction, though I do try to locate and read fiction that brings the high-value heft. I read for insight, edification, knowledge, etc., and almost never for pleasure. (See favorite drink-while-reading answer above.)

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere? >I can stop anywhere, though I do try to make it all the way to the end of the current sentence. This works better for some books than for others.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? >No; when I read something irritating, that's the chance to write another scintillating blog post. I do throw the book across the room if the cat irritates me, assuming the cat is across the room.

What are you currently reading? >I am in the middle of a few: Richard Dawkins's latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, which I've had lying bookmarked for weeks. I'm not sure I'm allowed to say this in this section of the internets, but this is not among his better books. Jerry Coyne's book on the same subject, Why Evolution Is True, was a livelier read, as or more convincing, less bogged down in arcana. I am also reading -- well, reading through -- a lovingly dog-eared copy of Fowler's Modern English Usage, which a sucker nice fellow traded me straight up for a copy of Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue, which was both entertaining and packed with errors.

I realize it makes me sound like some kind of pretentious tool -- welcome to my precious, precious blog! -- but I am never not reading my ancient, lovingly tattered copies of Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, Montaigne's Essays, Emerson's Essays, Walden, Moby Dick, Paradise Lost, a Voltaire collection, miscellaneous Shakespeare plays, the Binet's Reader's Encyclopedia I received as a high school graduation gift, and a poetry anthology that had already had its entire cover except the spine worn away by the time my mom handed it off to me back in the 1450s. These books are more or less parts of my body by now -- a characterization that includes my fair-to-middling understanding of them, but excludes the idea that I should be buried with them since I hope to hand them all off to my son one day.

What is the last book you bought? >This simple question has a surprisingly complex answer, so settle in: the books I most recently purchased were a technical book for work (yawn) along with a couple of books for my son, one of which was The Old Man and the Sea. That answer is lame, so the answer I think it's going for -- the answer to "what is the last book you bought for your own free reading" -- is the collection of William Gay stories, I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, but I actually bought that after I had read a library copy.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read? >While I commute on the train. It's not only convenient, but a book (or magazine) is part of the basic kit for minimizing interactions with scary street urchins.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? >Stand-alones.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? >Yep. I'm kind of a broken record.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? >If I have even the slightest suspicion that the word is going to be used frequently in the text, always. Otherwise, it's a goal that I mostly achieve.

How do you organize your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)? >Currently, the fiction is kept apart from the non-fiction and is organized roughly by author. The non-fiction is grouped by subject matter. Within subject matter, the books are lined up according to book size.

Background noise or silence? >Noise is fine, though if I am reading something especially difficult, the noise should be without any speaking or singing. I find people on the commuter train never tire of being shushed when I come across a difficult passage.

So ends the meme. I don't do the tag thing; if you like this meme and want to participate in it on your own blog or blog-like thingy, please consider this your invitation. And as always, feel free to comment on this post with any japes, slights, mockery, vitriol, nit-picking, or -- if you must -- agreement.

The image above is from the Flickr stream of babblingdweeb, found by use of Flickr's helpful advanced search, which permits narrowing search results to Creative Commons-licensed items.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Certain Paradoxes Aren't Paradoxes

In nothing more than a brief posting at Huffpo, Andrew Pessin has rid the world of religious conflict forever. Behold "the paradox of the preface," which will have the lion lying down with the lamb by this time tomorrow:

What is the Paradox of the Preface?

Imagine an author writing something like this as a preface to her work:
I am certain, of each and every sentence in this work, that it is true, on the basis of various considerations including the careful arguments and use of evidence which led me to it. And yet I recognize that I am a fallible human being, likely to have made some error(s) in the course of this long work. Thus I am also quite certain that I have made some such error somewhere, even if I cannot say where.
... Imagine, now, that all parties came to acknowledge the Paradox of the Preface as well. Then they could say that they are certain that (for example) Islam is true and everything conflicting with it is false -- and yet acknowledge that they may be wrong without taking away their certainty.
Better yet, they could recognize that they are not certain that (for example) Islam is true; they could do so in the service of the recognition that labeling a contradiction a paradox does not turn the contradiction into a paradox. I am certain of it.

As Ophelia Benson has noted so ably, fudging with the word certain is the trouble here. Certain comes in binaries, not in degrees -- one is either certain of something or not. To be certain -- not colloquially certain, but literally certain -- is to really, really, really-to-the-Nth-degree know something to be true, beyond all doubt. If we're honest, certainty does not come along often, in and beyond matters of grand metaphysics.

So, in the case at hand, no: those who profess certainty that (for example) Christianity is true are professing too much. They are writing checks on their beliefs that reality will not cash, no matter how loudly they pout or fervidly they wish. The profession of certainty is the problem, not the solution.

I am not certain I am right in this. Maybe by this time tomorrow, universal peace and religious fervor will coexist. I have my doubts.

Breaking Bad - On the Verge

The latest episode of Breaking Bad turned out to be, of all things, a play by Samuel Beckett or Eugene Ionesco -- two characters in a tight scene facing an absurd situation, swinging between bickering and cooperating, frivolous and deadly serious. We the viewers are not sure if we should laugh, weep, or rage at what we see. Does it make sense? How do we understand it -- as a dream, a parable, a meth-fueled hallucination, an allegory? Exactly. The sense that it both succeeds and fails to hang together extends within and beyond the theatrical fourth wall. And yet, for all that, this sudden intrusion of modernist theater fit the larger story of which it is a part, and that counts as a compliment paid to the quality and depth of the series.

This video review provides more spoilers than I could ever hope to dribble out:

So there it is. How many ways could that episode have dramatized the idea of “on the edge” or “on the verge”? We saw Walt dangling off the side of a wall; Jessie precariously balanced and ready to fall from a ladder; Walt veering ever so close to telling Jesse the secret that their partnership cannot possibly survive; Walt staggering along the edge of consciousness for much of the episode; Walt’s overall mental balance, teetering as never before; the two of them coming close to missing the production deadline, risking the ire of their employer, who is anything but patient at this stage.

To the list I would add Walt on the edge of noticing that Jesse had spiked his coffee with sleeping pills. And -- here's another cliff of sorts -- maybe Walt did notice but pretended not to notice. If so, might we guess that some of these other thin lines were, likewise, crossed without anyone being willing to admit it, or perhaps without quite realizing it? Will we find that Walt's partial, stumbling confession will take shape as such in Jesse's mind?

Is it possible Walt crossed another line and tried the product?

Of course, balanced delicately on all of the above, totters the fragility of Walt and Jesse's partnership, which is the linchpin of so much else in the story: whether Walt's brother-in-law can ever afford the care he needs; whether Walt and Skylar can re-fashion their broken relationship into something mutually workable, if only for the sake of family; whether Chicken Man Gus's play to dominate the meth trade for the entire southwest can succeed; what will become of the attorney, Skylar's sister, Skylar's boss, the father of the daughter we saw die at the end of season two, and more.

That takeaway again: we, the appointment viewers of Breaking Bad along with the characters, stand on the edge of something very, very big.

The Blurred Line Between Parody and the GOP

America is spewing forth like a broken deep-sea oil well over at America Speaks Out, the Wide Stance party's latest effort to perpetuate their brand of intentional and unintentional parody masquerading as public policy.

Naturally, or so I have chosen to suggest, I have signed up and have begun offering my own suggestions. I have no idea if these will be accepted by the site's keepers, but one thing is certain -- if these proposals aren't enacted into law forthwith, then we are well and truly lost, the terrorists have already won, and Hawaiian-style socialist sharia is at hand:

  • That we should rename "New Mexico" as "Reagan" or, if there is already a state in the process of being so renamed -- and surely there should be!! -- to "New Reagan."
  • That the television networks that cover the Olympic games should be censured in Congress for broadcasting events that the USA does not win. What else is tape-delay for?
  • That we should tax mosques since they're so obviously not about religion.
  • That we should vastly expand domestic oil drilling. Also, greatly expand nuclear power plants, and only accept foreign oil in trade for our nuclear waste.
  • The usuals -- slash income and estate taxes, wage war on North Korea and Iran, balance the budget.
I could go on. Suffice to say it's disturbingly easy to come up with simplistic right-wing policy suggestions.

Other comments on the thin line of parody can be found at Rust Belt Philosophy and Pharyngula.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Special and Not-Special

For a brief time, I was able to believe that the idea of obstructing the construction of mosques in the USA was just a momentary concern of one of my far-right social networking "friends," who recently posted this in earnest:

Now that I realize my "friend's" quandary is part of an upward-trending fixation of the country's dumbshits, I feel less special.

A typical reply to D__ was this one, from a non-friend I am pleased not to be able to identify:

Granted, I have not set any land-speed records for forbearance shown to the Islamic faith, but my quarrel is always with the truth-value of the beliefs and the deeds those beliefs demand or sanction, never with the followers themselves, their legal and non-violent business dealings, or the buildings in which they gather.

For my part, I suggested to D__ that he should accept the work and seize the opportunity to decorate the inside of a wall with the star of David / face of Mohammed tile wallpaper that's sometimes difficult to find a suitable place for. Secondly, more earnestly, I suggested that he should expect to lose the right to bitch when Muslims undertake parallel exclusions and boycotts against Christians. I was too kind to point out that should he refuse the work, he should also expect a reduction in sympathy the next time he bewails the lack of paying work.

These times leave no space for "mind-forg'd manacles" when they're someone else's. Mine are nobler.

I leave you with this more recent update from D__, which serves to assure my three readers that he is not without an appreciation for sources of insight and inspiration that take us beyond our little historical moment and its preoccupations:

(cartoon at the top from Married to the Sea)

Shorter Rand Paul

Rand Paul, Senate Candidate

  • The only proper way to deal with racial discrimination in private companies is to exert direct, non-violent social pressure to change their ways. I mean, has anyone considered boycotts, picketing campaigns, and sit-ins?
The view that racism by private businesses is not a problem worthy of government's attention indicates, at best, racism. As or more likely, it represents a complete indifference to matters of race. Rand Paul demonstrably does not care about race, not even enough to know the barest outlines of how the struggle for civil rights and racial equality has played out over the last few centuries in this country.

'Shorter' concept lovingly borrowed from Sadly, No!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Thanks to Paul Kurtz

The June/July 2010 issue of Free Inquiry magazine features a point-counterpoint between Gary J. Whittenberger and Paul Kurtz over Kurtz's editorial in the previous issue of the magazine.

I had planned a post taking a side in that point-counterpoint -- I had quotations from each typed out and ready -- but then I learned that a week ago, the Center for Inquiry accepted Paul Kurtz's resignation.

That being so, I decided this is neither the time nor the place to re-hash an already warmed-over skirmish, but rather the time and the place to thank Dr. Kurtz for his many decades of work for humanism, science, philosophy, and critical thinking.

Some of the very first things I read in working out out my own views on faith were back issues of The Humanist in the Ponca City library -- I know! It surprises me too! -- and given that I read every issue they had on file, it surely stretched back to the period when he edited the magazine. As far back as the early 1980s, his concerns have been my concerns to one degree or another, and his writings have been a vehicle to grappling with those concerns.

I have not always agreed with Dr. Kurtz, but no one alive today has done more to defend reason from nonsense or advance the cause of free thought.

Thank you, Paul Kurtz.

Did You See the Drummer's Hair?

It takes five guitarists to play Pavement's "Cut Your Hair"? Maybe.

Motion City Soundtrack covers Pavement

Here is the so-called original version by Pavement:

Just as there are levels to Pavement songs, there are levels to the appreciation of the band's music. "Cut Your Hair" is one of the infectious, catchy Pavement songs, another being "Stereo;" the second level of Pavement endearment involves songs like "Range Life" and "Here." From there, some go on to embrace the likes of "Major Leagues," "In the Mouth of a Desert," and "Stop Breathin'."

But there are limits -- no good-hearted person can endure "Carrot Rope." I have said it before, I realize, and I will continue saying it until that song is expunged from all human memory.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ne Plus Ultra

This recent photo of an oil slick, formerly a sandy beach, on the coast of one of Louisiana's barrier islands is not an occasion for outrage -- that island had a good run as a functioning ecological entity, right?

Meanwhile, over on MSNBC, only moments ago as I write this, Rachel Maddow set up her interview with Secretary of Energy Steven Chu by talking up his long list of bona fides. And it's true -- the man claims a daunting pile of credentials and honors, including but not limited to a Nobel Prize in physics.

By the end of the interview, Nobel Laureate Energy Secretary Chu let fly that he is aware of continued green-lighting of offshore drilling projects by reading about them in the New York Times today (presumably this story) -- those approvals granted in the teeth of a moratorium announced by Nobel Laureate President Barack Obama a month ago:
At least six of the drilling projects that have been given waivers in the past four weeks are for waters that are deeper — and therefore more difficult and dangerous — than where Deepwater Horizon was operating. While that rig, which was drilling at a depth just shy of 5,000 feet, was classified as a deep-water operation, many of the wells in the six projects are classified as “ultra” deep water, including four new wells at over 9,100 feet.
No less than nature itself, America loves a challenge. Change we can believe in is sure to come from the ongoing experiment off the Lousiana coast, where the substantial can-do, rarely-say-die energies of free enterprise work assiduously to bring innovative answers to pressing technical problems. You have to break eggs to make an omelette, or, for that matter, to make a sea bird that grows up to die coated in sludge.

By the time those newly-approved "ultra" wells break open, if they do, our best minds will have read about what should be done in the newspaper.

Don't say Nobel Laureates aren't what they used to be. Clean beaches are for closers.

Mark Twain, Freshly Bilious Again

Much of what Mark Twain wrote in his last years has still not been made available to the public, but that is about to change:
[Twain] left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes saying that he did not want them to hit bookshops for at least a century.

That milestone has now been reached, and in November the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography. The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words, and shed new light on the quintessentially American novelist.
That he wanted it kept from publication for 100 years after his death hints that it will feature Twain at his most acerbic:
"Most people think Mark Twain was a sort of genteel Victorian. Well, in this document he calls her [his secretary, Elizabeth Lyon] a slut and says she tried to seduce him. It's completely at odds with the impression most people have of him," says the historian Laura Trombley ... "He spent six months of the last year of his life writing a manuscript full of vitriol, saying things that he'd never said about anyone in print before. It really is 400 pages of bile."
With due respect to either historian Laura Trombley or to most people -- I'm not sure which -- I find it difficult to believe that Mark Twain is widely regarded as a genteel Victorian. When I think "genteel Victorian," it calls up the image of Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Charles Darwin, Charles Kingsley, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens -- prudish, carefully-spoken fops in smoking jackets and mutton-chops drinking brandy from snifters straining desperately to hide any sentiment while holding forth on the preposterousness of women's suffrage.

Impressions are impressions, and some of the above fit this impression better than others, but does Mark Twain belong in the group? The guy who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with its irreverence, crudeness, and sentimentality? The guy who lampooned gentility and the overly mannered in, among other writings, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court?

Impressions are impressions. I look forward to the chance to read this new writing by Mark Twain, especially since it promises to greatly enlarge every English speaker's repertoire of insults.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Regulating Commerce Among the Several States

The founder of LifeLock, who put his own Social Security number in advertisements to display his confidence in the product he was shilling, had his identity stolen at least a dozen times. As the glaring flaws in the product didn't stop the sales pitch,

[t]he company was fined $12 million in March by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising.

Lifelock promised in ads that its $10 monthly service would protect consumers from identity theft. The company also offered a $1 million guarantee to compensate customers for losses incurred if they became a victim after signing up for the service. The FTC called the claims bogus and accused LifeLock of operating a scam.
Judging from the ugly, sleazy, corrupt commerce that pass routinely beneath the attention of regulators, it evidently takes a lot to get the attention of the FTC, so it's reasonable to suppose the depth of LifeLock's abuses go far deeper.

The great comedian Bill Hicks had this sort of thing in mind when he asked people in advertising or marketing to kill themselves. He was probably joking.

It is encouraging to know that the FTC continues to exist and, in some cases, here and there, enforce a few rules -- and too bad this seems to apply to relatively small players such as LifeLock. Meanwhile, down south, BP and its partners continue their keystone cops cleanup routine as the federal government does little more than photograph the damage, run its own parallel public relations campaign, and announce forthcoming inquests in, no doubt, a stern tone of voice.

Southern Gothic Today

If Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor could move through time and have a despair baby, its short stories might sound like those of William Gay. Here's a small sample of his work:

Meecham glanced toward the house. The woman was standing in the doorway watching him as if she'd learn his intentions. He looked away and heard the screen door fall to. The day was waning. Beyond the farmhouse, light was fleeing westward and bullbats winged slant-wise through the trees as if they'd harry the dusk. When a whippoorwill called, an emotion somewhere between exaltation and pain rose in him, then twisted sharp as a knife. It was as if all his days had honed down to this lone whippoorwill calling to him out of the twilight.

He sat for a time just taking all this in. Whippoorwills had been in short supply in the nursing home, and it was a blessing not to smell Lysol. Here he could smell the trees still holding the day's heat and the evocative scent of honeysuckle and the cool citrusy odor of pine needles. "Well, I've lived in tenant houses before," he told himself, and he rose and went in.
This is from "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," which has been adapted to a film, That Evening Sun, that looks very much worth the time.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Sun Shines on Big Box Stores

Earlier today, just as I was listening to a story on This American Life concerning the broad, deep, and persistent privations that mar Haiti, I pulled in to the Target parking lot, where I took these two photographs.

These are upwards of 30-40 straight, seemingly solid 4" beams attached with steel bolts to the faux masonry facade of the Target building. They form a trellis on which nothing grows, and under which nothing is sheltered save for the unlabeled metal housings that are fixed to what might have been a concrete walkway if not for the obstruction they form. They don't stop any rain. They are not the beginnings of a floor. They exist, it would seem, to connect the faux masonry pillars to the larger building, but this only begs the question of why work and materials went into the design and construction of those faux masonry pillars.

So, whatever, right? Of course.

On the trip to Target where these photos were taken, I bought about $50 worth of shit I can barely remember just a few hours later, so I'm totally not a part of the problem.

Problem? What problem?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Roll Tard

I had hoped that ignoring Alabama's recent televised displays of yokels a-fussin' over who can be the more belligerently idiotic would somehow mitigate it, but I might as well try to wield a broom against the rolling tide.

For any more successful at ignoring it heretofore, here is exhibit A, exhibit B, and exhibit C, in no particular order. There are surely more ads of the same basic type -- tedious posturing, a thick drawl, stupid turned up to 11 -- but I don't want to overtax anyone's knowledge of the alphabet by taking this past C.

Here is a lovely remake of exhibit A -- it sneaks up on you. I expected little from it, but it had me cataplexic (video) before it was over:

I'm voting for Cooter.

War Is Making You Poor

I don't live in his Congressional district, but Alan Grayson represents me perfectly with the "War Is Making You Poor" bill:

I believe that the thing we need to do is to take that $159 billion that the President has set aside – we’re not saying he has to stop the war, we’re not giving a cut-off date for the war – we’re simply saying you need to fund that out of the base budget of $549 billion. And we take 90 percent of that and give it back to the American people.

And I think most people would be surprised to learn that that is so much money that we’ve been spending on the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq that every single taxpayer in America will be get his first or her first $35,000 of income completely tax free.
Married couples would see their first $70,000 of combined income excluded from federal income taxes under this bill.

It is obscene that the USA continues to spend as much as the rest of the world combined on its "national defense," and doubly obscene that the money the USA spends on Iraq and Afghanistan is over and above that amount.

I generally keep up with things of this nature, but this one surprises me -- didn't President Chickenshit campaign on ending this phony accounting that separated ongoing war funding from regular defense funding? Or was it only a pledge to end the practice of keeping Iraq/Afghanistan funding "off-budget," as the Bush-Cheney junta had consistently done to make their deficits look smaller?

This law needs to pass. It will not.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Drawing Mohammed

I try to do very nearly everything I read, so when I read, on the blog "Everyone Draw Mohammed," that everyone should draw Mohammed, I decided I would draw Mohammed -- or rather, because I can't draw worth a shit, I decided I would commission a drawing of Mohammed. So I did!

In this version, Mohammed has a sword, a scowl, and a terrible gash across his chest. He's fighting mad at infidels!

There have been better efforts than this, if you can believe it: this one, this one, and this one, for example; my absolute favorite is this brilliant work at Apophatic Attic:

Will these drawings of Mohammed change the world? Will it make certain pants-peeing Muslims reconsider their obsession with representations of their prophet? Doubtful. Then again, "why are you exercising your right to free expression" is irrelevant; no free person is bound to answer it. We express ourselves for our own reasons or for none at all, with or without objectives or rationale.

We are not always agreeable, but we are always free, and while our agreeableness is open to modulation, our our freedom is not subject to negotiation.

Today and Back Then

Ophelia Benson, today:

Does it make sense to think we can make educated guesses about what kind of personal qualities – intelligence, courage, politeness – an entity of that size [the size of the universe] might have?

I don’t think it does. I think it’s just a packet of words that people mouth, without really thinking about them properly. If they actually thought about them, the oddities would slow them down. It’s very easy to say we certainly believe that the creator of the universe is intelligent, but making sense of it is another matter.
David Hume, back then:
All our ideas, derived from the senses, are confessedly false and illusive; and cannot therefore be supposed to have place in a supreme intelligence: And as the ideas of internal sentiment, added to those of the external senses, compose the whole furniture of human understanding, we may conclude, that none of the materials of thought are in any respect similar in the human and in the divine intelligence.

Now, as to the manner of thinking; how can we make any comparison between them, or suppose them any wise resembling? Our thought is fluctuating, uncertain, fleeting, successive, and compounded; and were we to remove these circumstances, we absolutely annihilate its essence, and it would in such a case be an abuse of terms to apply to it the name of thought or reason. At least if it appear more pious and respectful (as it really is) still to retain these terms, when we mention the Supreme Being, we ought to acknowledge, that their meaning, in that case, is totally incomprehensible; and that the infirmities of our nature do not permit us to reach any ideas which in the least correspond to the ineffable sublimity of the Divine attributes.
The classics never get old, and there are both good and bad reasons why they never get old. This is one of the former, in that this classic retains its vitality and relevance because people keep repeating the insipid fallacies to which it responds, e.g., this guy, a modern-day Cleanthes:
BioLogos enthusiastically endorses the idea that the universe is intelligently designed and we certainly believe that the creator of the universe is intelligent. We consider the evidence regarding the fine-tuning of the universe to be provocative and compelling. Our reservations about ID certainly do not derive from any rejection of the rationality of the universe.
Goodness no! The universe does, when you think about it, closely resemble one of the more elaborate engineering feats of Patek Philippe:
Patek created one of the most complicated mechanical watches ever made, the Calibre 89, created for the 150th anniversary of the company. It holds 33 complications, including the date of Easter, a thermometer, time of sunrise, equation of time, sidereal time, and many other indicators. 1,728 unique parts allow sidereal time a 2,800 star chart, and more.[5] The Calibre 89 is also able to add a day to February for leap years while leaving out the extra day for every 100 year interval.
The universe, likewise, calculates Easter impeccably, never misses when computing the time of a sunrise, and is composed of clean, elegant lines made from the finest of materials, or so I've heard.

If not for its less-admired materials, astonishingly vast regions of cold emptiness, its tendency for its constituent parts to explode or implode violently, and its propensity to ensnare its admirers in intractable imponderables and stubborn paradoxes, some dumbass would surely bid a couple of million for it the next time it goes up at Sotheby's.

Fiscal You

I am shocked, shocked!, to have to confess that I am not a "fiscal conservative" or "budget hawk" or whatever else they call these much-discussed chimeras, if this web-based simulation is to be believed.

For reasons I found too dull to investigate thoroughly, the simulation's designers set a target of 60% for the USA's debt as a percentage of GDP, but I could only take it down to 66% with my first try.

Not one to let a web-based simulation keep me from hitting a seemingly arbitrary target without a slightly less half-assed second try, I went back, made a few adjustments, et voila!

As such thingies go, this one is seemingly serious, detailed, and complete, though it comes with the usual caveats: some desirable choices are not present, some are not well explained. For example, we may either reduce farm subsidies by $80 billion or leave them unchanged, but it's not clear how that figure relates to total spending on farm subsidies, and moreover, I would like to radically decrease some (I'm looking at you, industrialized corn) while increasing others. It does not permit reducing military spending to the degree I would prefer, and its options for changes to tax law are limited.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Gulag of Self-Restraint

Another of Andrew Sullivan's citations has some scolding to do:

If, as claimed by humanism, man were born only to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to death, his task on earth evidently must be more spiritual: not a total engrossment in everyday life, not the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then their carefree consumption. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become above all an experience of moral growth: to leave life a better human being than one started it.
It is imperative to reappraise the scale of the usual human values; its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President’s performance should be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or to the availability of gasoline. Only by the voluntary nurturing in ourselves of freely accepted and serene self-restraint can mankind rise above the world stream of materialism ... - Alexander Solzhenitsyn, address to Harvard, 1978.
If, as claimed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, human beings are born to eke out a mirthless, restrained life oriented toward a permanent, earnest duty to moral improvement, then it's not clear why he found the Soviet system so distasteful. Every jot and tittle of a life so conceived could be fulfilled in the darkest, bleakest, most forgotten of prisons, and just as readily in "internal exile" in Kazakhstan, and I would guess that his Stalinist persecutors conceived of their punishments as aimed at nothing less.

I also wonder if the speaking engagement at Harvard is a fitting occasion to rail against worldly attainments and demand a reappraisal of human values. Harvard famously attracts and cultivates certain kinds of ambition, and was known to entertain reappraisals of values of various kinds before Solzhenitsyn showed up to demand it in the late 1970s. Suffice to say results have been mixed, but the point is, it's considered a pretty high honor to be invited to speak at Harvard, reserved for the higher reaches of the world's fancy-pants elites bearing the biggest of Big Ideas. Wouldn't serene self-restraint involve sending a polite letter declining the offer to speak, let alone any offer of fee, room, or board, with their materialistic taint?

That's the thing about programs of scolding austerity imposed from the outside: it so rarely feels welcome on the inside.

The bigger problem is one of regress: if we imagine Solzhenitsyn's vision of the good life played out over time, we get people grinding out lives of moral austerity, then having kids who grow up to grind out lives of moral austerity, who have kids who grind out lives of moral austerity, and on through the generations. At the end of it, some great great great great (...) grandchild would be justified to look back over the long line of duty-burdened wretches before him and wonder if it would be better to break out of the gulag and accept a little materialism.

Life, Death, and Dreadful Chasms

One of Andrew Sullivan's readers reflects on death:

It was a hot summer's night. I was laying in bed. And a deep sense of calm washed over me. There would be no me, and thus I need have no fear for that person who would not be. That freed my life from fear. I stopped asking 'who'--a human question if there ever was one. Pascal describes a feeling that I still feel ["...the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after ..."]. It's called the sublime. Existence is sublime. I am here in this time and place, and I have no fear.
Geez, on one level, I want to say, in the immortal words of Sgt. Hulka from Stripes, "lighten up, Francis." On another level, I want to say: no fear? Really? Methinks the lady doth protest too much, and I don't even know if this is a lady doing all the downy-dumps reflecting.

Another adds:
Ever since I was five, I have been gripped now and then by dread and panic in the face of the certainty of my own death and an unshakable faith that what comes after my life is exactly what came before it -- nothing. These episodes usually occur in the early morning as I'm lying in bed, when my mind's defenses are still slumbering. "You will die. YOU". My heart seizes up, and I am sometimes driven to utter an "uggghh" at the thought. The only comfort I have ever found is to have someone I love (a friend, a lover, my sister) sleeping next to me. It is not 100% effective, but I will take it, just as I will take life in all its beauty and horror and hope and dread over non-existence.
Oddly, both of these commenters speak of non-existence as, well, a form of existence, a state of being. The first only hints at it -- "there would be no me, and therefore ..." before seemingly breaking out of it, albeit unconvincingly. The second goes further and expects us to applaud the bravery in accepting life "in all its beauty and horror ... over non-existence," evidently picturing himself in a non-existing state deserving the opprobrium of the community for having chosen to stop existing.

I see no point in addressing death from the perspective of the person who dies. I would like to make the radical suggestion that life is for the living, and so is death. From the perspective of sense, experience, and feeling -- the perspective that's worth evaluating and trying to hone -- death involves the chasm in our lives formed when one of us dies, leaving a diminished 'us,' by which I mean the authentic 'us' of our everyday interactions, not some abstracted humanity-wide 'us.'

What I fear when I think of my own death is the chasm it will form in the lives of those to whom I matter, and I do not, by the way, pretend to understand the precise shape, dimension, or future course of it. I fear this chasm because I have experienced it when people close to me have died, and I don't wish those experiences on the people I cherish. The dread of death that makes sense is better expressed as the dread of others' grief, loss, and regret.

It is fruitless and yet oddly common to encounter a dread of death that resembles the dread of a dull assignment, tax audit, risky surgery, chronic illness, or prison term. We can dread these things for ourselves or for others, but they are dreadful precisely in the expectation of having to endure them. Death does not fit this pattern. Surviving those we love -- experiencing the death of others -- is the dreadful thing.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mt. St. Helens, Year 30

PZ Myers asks "where were you 30 years ago today?" and answers with some truly fascinating biology.

He asks because, thirty years ago today, stuff happened -- seismic, world-changing, landscape-altering stuff, stuff that a few future Youtube account-holders were prescient enough to capture on camera:

At the time, I was far away in Ponca City, grinding my way through the closing days of fifth grade, a 10-year-old fan of the Atari 2600 and Philadelphia 76ers who was only vaguely aware that there was a Pacific Northwest with exploding mountains. Prior to that, I only knew Cascadia as a place to which my mom hauled me in her VW Bug when I was five-ish, and, of vastly more importance to me at the time, the most probable habitat of Bigfoot (shown here fleeing the blast). So much has changed since then and yet so little.

In subsequent days, the jet stream pushed the dust cloud over us in the flyover states, tinging the sky in a grayish haze, one differing from the familiar grayish-reddish cloud from the local oil refinery.

We tried to pretend to care when our teachers used the eruption of Mt. St. Helens as an opportunity to teach us about volcanos, ash, and other geological topics, but really, the weather was turning sunny, the school year was winding down, the NBA finals were heating up, and we were on the verge of taking over as masters of the K-6 elementary school. We were drunk with ambition and focused on willing the clock to 3pm, and truth be told, most of us had never even seen an actual mountain. Our teachers might as well have been chattering about unicorns.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Today, if not for the damn houses and trees in the way, not to mention the frequent shroud of rain cloud, I would have a spectacular front porch view of Mt. St. Helens as it stands in its post-erupted shape (image above). It is still a beautiful mountain, and all the more interesting and legendary for what it did 30 years ago.

SJKP has another remembrance from closer to the action.

To the Makers of Treme: Please Re-Wire

Update (6/23/2010): I am leaving this post as I wrote it, but I now consider it, well, wrong. It is more misplaced than wrong, exactly, but wrong will do. My second thoughts appear here.


Believing, as I do, that The Wire (Amazon) is simply the best televised dramatic series ever -- I would genuinely love to be pointed to a better one -- I stand confident in my bona fides as a fan and granter-of-latitude to its creator, David Simon. Because I loved The Wire so much, I had elevated hopes for Simon's new series based in and on New Orleans, Treme, but sadly, I am not alone in finding it disappointing.

John McWhorter has his complaints, which are not unfounded:

A main message from this sultry pageant of a show is that New Orleans is an occult matter that you can never truly “get” unless you’re a native or pretty close to it. The perky, hopelessly “white” tourists from Wisconsin with their nasal voices, the ones who get schooled by the street musician, can be taken as stand-ins for the viewer. Which makes the whole enterprise strangely unwelcoming.

Sure, one could ask why it has to be welcoming, but that’s a less effective comeback when we are being told again and again how much we are supposed to love and admire New Orleans.
Radley Balko comes closer to what ails the show:
Tremefeels self-consciously about the city . . . first, early, and often. That’s fine if you’re making a documentary. But so far, it’s made for unconvincing drama. Of course, it’s still one of the better shows on TV.
To which I would add that there has to be drama before it can be fairly called unconvincing. It's difficult to care about even the most thoroughly-drawn characters in the most convincingly depicted setting of New Orleans if their situations and conflicts don't seize the imagination or the heart.

Sadly, the situations and conflicts presented through the first four episodes of Treme don't especially matter -- or not in the way that makes for compelling drama: some guy can't find consistent gigs as a musician and has a complicated relationship with his ex-wife and sons; most everyone is fighting mad at FEMA, the Bush administration, the mayor, the governor, and everyone else in government; some other guy has girlfriend troubles and flits around the edges of the local music, political, and bar scenes; somebody else, a lawyer, is undertaking a rather slow-moving missing persons investigation; some other guy is gamely refusing to give up his flooded-out properties and does a fair amount of flopping around in a native American costume.

To be clear, all of these items that I've callously reduced to snarky summary would matter to real human beings living through them; nor would I pretend to claim they aren't representative of post-Katrina New Orleans. The material presented so far would, as Balko astutely says, make for an excellent documentary.

The Wire placed its amazing characters in a mesmerizing Baltimore and then did something with them, a great many elaborately criss-crossing somethings: they schemed, suffered, loved, fought, won, lost, learned, regressed, and sometimes died. I so thoroughly wanted to understand what was going on, and it was all depicted so uncompromisingly, that I watched with subtitles to catch all the Baltimore English, always ready to pause and track down a reference on the internets. I didn't want to miss a single word.

It's not too late. The talent is assembled; the scene is rich and ready; Treme needs to wire up and deliver some jolts.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Great Bad Music

Can 206 million+ youtube views be wrong? Well, obviously they can, but Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" can't be all bad if it inspired this:

Speaking of Lady Gaga, I know what I hate, and I don't hate this:

I don't much like it -- it's pretty far outside my strike zone -- but I can see the appeal. I especially don't hate it after reading Amanda Marcotte's write-up, which began with a further compelling reason to appreciate Lady Gaga, namely, Andy Rooney -- still an asshole! -- finds her music baffling and annoying. Marcotte:

Some of this recycling is ironic, like the Beyonce video. But most of it---hip hop sampling, Tarantino flicks, Amy Winehouse, etc.---is actually in love with the source material, and considers the recycling an homage. But should be no question about it---it is the mainstream.
Certainly it is mainstream, but there are worse things to be.

Last and not least, the news is that Ronnie James Dio has died. His participation in this Tenacious D homage says a lot about his talent and his good-natured willingness to refuse to take his own Rock Star persona too seriously:

Farewell, RJD. May Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Lady Gaga, or someone else Andy Rooney can't hear give the world an updated cover of one of your songs.

Is That What They Used to Call Them?

You'll be "a bacon-snitcher for life" declares this ad for Swift's Premium bacon from the 1960s, from which it's reasonable to guess that "bacon-snitcher" is a colloquialism for "a randy geezer with straying hands" that has since fallen from everyday use (as far as I know). It's tempting to say we no longer feature bacon-snitchers in advertisements, but no, a good third of the ads running today seem to be for erection pills, so really we are seeing advertising peopled with more bacon-snitchers than ever.

Nowadays, our world less enchanted but singing out the phrase "erectile dysfunction" from every radio and television, we call them "elderly rapists" or just call them by their formal clerical designation.

I have borrowed this image of a personal-space-violating Geppetto-in-plaid from Found in Mom's Basement.

Robin Hood - No Tights

Matt Yglesias did not like the Ridley Scott-Russell Crowe-Cate Blanchett Robin Hood:
Wow. What a mess. Remember when Ridley Scott directed good movies? Among other things, this film features the bizarre decision to do an interpretation of Robin Hood who (a) is not called “Robin Hood,” (b) doesn’t steal from the rich to give to the poor, (c) doesn’t live in Sherwood Forest, and (d) doesn’t fight with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Instead you get a boring and historically confused account of the First Baron’s War.
No, I don't especially recall when Ridley Scott directed good movies -- Thelma and Louise was provocative and interesting, though it's been a while since I've watched it; American Gangster was quite good; Gladiator works so long as you take it as nothing more than a yarn; Alien was a very good monster movie. The rest of his films aren't especially praiseworthy.*

As to Robin Hood, sure it was a mess, but Yglesias does not appear to have followed the arc of the story as presented. The film currently in theaters is meant as a prequel to the more familiar Robin Hood tales -- this film closes with Robin Hood's banishment to the forest with his band of outlaw fighters, with King John's duplicitous consolidation of power, and with the Sheriff's rise as a sleazy enforcer of the king's will. By the film's end, we have been clearly and properly introduced to "Robin," and we know which names apply and which do not. Playing with names and identities has always been a central part of the Robin Hood lore, so to say it is "bizarre" in this film is, well, bizarre.

It's a breezy history, albeit not played for laughs, stitched to a fable we have seen in films plenty of times before. That is, it is trying to stir legend and history together in an interesting way, and that's going to involve some compromises. People should take care what they ask for when they demand (implicitly or explicitly) historical accuracy from films: to the extent it was the setting of dramatic stories, England in 1200 was heavy on "will she survive childbirth," "will these remaining teeth I have last another few months," courtly intrigue (dear gawd there's no shortage of that set to film), and comparatively light on visually compelling feats of heroic derring-do. I suspect there's an interesting and accurate film adaptation of the events surrounding King John and the Magna Carta waiting to made, but it's only a suspicion. If told accurately, it might be as dull as dirt.

This version is trying to say something novel about these tales and the characters, and I give it credit for that. Rick Groen apparently wanted to see a bigger-budget re-hash of Robin Hood films he has already seen, those that
always, beneath the cutesy lesson in social democracy and the chivalrous romance with milk-skinned Marions and the delicious sight (to some) of men in tights, the lads, along with the viewers, were there to have a rollicking good time. The arrows were straight, but the tale was designed to bend towards kick-ass fun. Until now. Damned if those dual spoilsports, the gladiatorial director Ridley Scott reteamed with his portly** star Russell Crowe, haven't drained every drop of merriment right out of the myth.
It's not clear why the film needed to be "merry;" it is clear that apart from a few light-hearted moments, the film was not trying for "merry," and therefore isn't fruitfully evaluated on whether it hits that mark.

The following viewers should be wary of this film: those hoping for a wacky take on the Robin Hood legend; those longing for a version in which Russell Crowe looks as though he has not eaten in six weeks; those hoping to see 13th century England portrayed with exacting historical verisimilitude; those looking for a remake of any of the existing Robin Hood films.

Others might find something to like, though for all I've said in its defense here, I caution the viewer against expecting too much. I thought it was at least as interesting as Gladiator in its balancing of legend and history, which isn't saying much. It was a hell of a lot better than Avatar or Congo, which is saying even less.

* I add one exception: Blade Runner was one of the finest films ever made in exactly the same way that Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy was among the best books ever written. All must agree to this whether or not we believe it, lest we incur the endlessly hectoring wrath of a subculture of inexhaustible nerds who will not abide disagreements. For the record: Blade Runner and Tolkien's trilogy are superb, masterful, superlative, and capital-G Great.

** Portly? Jeebus. Does every actor have to look like Don Cheadle after a crash diet? Russell Crowe looks just fine in this film. Moreover, his body matches the character he's meant to portray -- an older English warrior who has seen a lot of death and pain.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Dumb of Headless?

Somebody call a communications expert. My tender feelings are a-smarting at the shrillness, the meanness, the dismissiveness, the rudeness, the abrasiveness -- the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad contemptuousness of believers these days:

I wish Christians would recognize ... [w]e have to abandon the politically correct notion that atheism is intellectually respectable.

Historically speaking, this concession to the greatest lie in the universe is a rather recent development. While there have always been people who deny the existence of a deity, it has not been a prominent view among intellectuals, much less a serious alternative to Christian theism. What previous cultures instinctively understood, and that we in turn have forgotten, is that atheism is a form of (self-imposed) intellectual dysfunction, a lack of epistemic virtue, or—to borrow a term from my Catholic friends — a case of vincible ignorance.

Vincible ignorance is lacking knowledge that is within the individual’s control and for which he is responsible before God. In Romans, St. Paul is clear that atheism is a case of vincible ignorance: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Acknowledging the existence of God is just the beginning — we must also recognize several of his divine attributes. Atheists that deny this reality are, as St. Paul said, without excuse. They are vincibly ignorant.
To the list above I now add the circularity of it, given the way Carter grounds his absurdly confident theological convictions in the theology's primary text. A tenet of Christian theology is true because the Bible says so. Neat!

The circle gets tighter when we look at the cited Biblical passage, in which "Saint" Paul says nothing more sophisticated, substantiated, or reasoned than "Look around! It's bleeping obvious god exists with loads of amazing attributes and powers!"

It's true that atheism has tended not to be "a prominent view among intellectuals" until relatively recently, and while this might be for the reason Carter has offered -- namely, because atheists are dolts -- the case of 17th century Polish nobleman and intellectual Kazimierz Łyszczyński suggests a different explanation:
Łyszczyński's first privilege of a Polish noble, that he could not be imprisoned before his condemnation, was violated. Łyszczyński's affair was brought before the diet of 1689 where he was accused of having denied the existence of God and having blasphemed against the Virgin Mary and the saints. He was condemned to death for atheism. The sentence was undertaken before noon at the Old Town Market in Warsaw... Bishop Zaluski gave the following account of the execution:
After recantation the culprit was conducted to the scaffold, where the executioner tore with a burning iron the tongue and the mouth, with which he had been cruel against God; after which his hands, the instruments of the abominable production, were burnt at a slow fire, the sacrilegious paper was thrown into the flames; finally himself, that monster of his century, this deicide was thrown into the expiatory flames; expiatory if such a crime may be atoned for.[3]
As this is what became of a well-connected, wealthy, privileged atheist intellectual, it's not difficult to imagine why it failed to attract a large following among the students, artists, and scribblers of the day.

David Hume at Secular Right gives more illustrations of the principle: it's sensible to assume that people under the threat of torture, dismemberment, and beheading for thought crimes will, all else equal, tend to shy away from committing those thought crimes. Joe Carter will not find that in the works of "Saint" Paul, but it only shows that he should look beyond those pages if he hopes to understand reality.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Cupp of Crapp

In case you hadn't noticed:

In case you hadn’t noticed, The Daily Caller has a blogger named S. E. Cupp who is an avowed atheist and conservative. That being said, I have gone on the record and stated that she’ll probably be Roman Catholic within 10 years. Not only does she “aspire” to be religious, but, her new book defending Christianity from the liberal media makes a lot of flimsy assertions about evolutionary theory. She defends Creationism on majoritarian grounds for example, which seems more an example of opportunism than principle.
Ten years? I give it two years, tops -- it will take only as long as it takes for her publicist's warehouse of monkeys chained to typewriters to tap out her next book, the one in which she describes her journey from non-belief to The One True Faith.

On the basis of her lame show of non-belief during her appearance on last night's Bill Maher show, this book will be complete bullshit.

Life Sucks, Then You Die

Damon Linker expresses disappointment in Kevin Drum and others for embracing the wrong kind of atheism. Linker:

[A] different kind of atheism is possible, legitimate, and (in Hart’s view) more admirable. Let’s call it catastrophic atheism, in tribute to its first and greatest champion, Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote in a head-spinning passage of the Genealogy of Morals that “unconditional, honest atheism is ... the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two-thousand years of training in truthfulness that finally forbids itself the lie involved in belief in God.” For the catastrophic atheist, godlessness is both true and terrible.

Now of course Hart would prefer that kind of tragic atheism. He’s a believer, after all. [emphasis mine]
I don't pretend to know all the rules, but that last part -- the casual admission that believers prefer atheists to be sad, hopeless, angst-riddled wretches -- seems out of bounds. He's waving the surrender flag! I think they're going to change the password for the anti-new-atheist treehouse and not tell Damon Linker what it is.

Linker presses gamely forward:
Rather than explore the complex and daunting existential challenges involved in attempting to live a life without God, the new atheists rudely insist, usually without argument, that atheism is a glorious, unambiguous benefit to mankind both individually and collectively. There are no disappointments recorded in the pages of their books, no struggles or sense of loss. Are they absent because the authors inhabit an altogether different spiritual world than the catastrophic atheists? Or have they made a strategic choice to downplay the difficulties of godlessness on the perhaps reasonable assumption that in a country hungry for spiritual uplift the only atheism likely to make inroads is one that promises to provide just as much fulfillment as religion?
The best that can be said of this tripe is that Linker is free to disagree with the answers to The Big Questions of Life originating from the atheists he dislikes, who, true enough, tend to address such questions while pointedly neglecting words like "spiritual." To say, however, that they offer nothing in the way of visions of human flourishing is so lazy, shallow, and risible that it barely deserves to be called false.

Sure, atheists don't tend to cry in their soup over the absence of god. This is a weird expectation to place upon them, let alone those atheists impassioned enough to write books promoting atheism. It's as sensible as expecting Christians to worry about displeasing god by never memorizing the untranslated Koran, or expecting Buddhists to worry about their failure to make sacrifices to Apollo.

Worry is the key word there, because Linker's analysis can't be bothered with true and false, but dwells in feelings. He wants atheists to foreground the emotionally bleaker implications of the godless cosmos: that lions will never lie down with lambs, that no overseeing force will rebalance the scales of justice, that this short life is all we have.

Life sucks, then you die. This happens to be true, and to whatever extent hope is possible, it belongs within the terms of that truism. Those who want justice must push for it within the boundaries of this life, in order to attenuate the "life sucks" part by making it more bearable, happy, and just. Such efforts may or may not succeed, often because others are pressing more forcefully in the opposite direction, sometimes without even realizing it. Those who press for gains don't always live to see their aims realized. Often a gain proves to be a mixed blessing, even in cases where people suffered greatly or died in unspeakable numbers to achieve it. Life sucks, then you die, and yet we move forward because life can be sweet and progress can be real.

The interesting thing about the above is that it needn't be cast as atheistic, and it doesn't have a fixed polarity on the optimism/pessimism scale. Believers conduct themselves every day as though it is true. They add flourishes -- poorly sourced histories, just-so stories, odd typologies -- that amount to emotional placebos, and placebos work so well they have an entire effect named after them.

This precious, precious blog has a Christian troll who adds inane, barely-literate comments to most posts, and one of his recurring themes is that "atheism has no answer for death." True enough, in the sense that atheists have not, by throwing off the yoke of religion, found a way to live forever. This is trivially true and utterly irrelevant. I would say that it's far worse to lack an answer for life that's better than just wait until the next life because it will be much better than this mess. That's a spectacularly despairing answer, so Damon Linker does not need to leave his fellow Christians to find the catastrophic world-view he claims to want.

PZ Myers has more on Linker's bluster.