Tuesday, August 31, 2010

NPR - VCR Flashing 12:00:00

M. Block : "Just look at the compact size of these space-aged disks!"
I have tried putting it out of my mind, but I admit I have not tried very hard: I refer to yesterday's NPR story on memes. It began so auspiciously, its lead-in suggesting it would take us to the origins of the term, and thereon (if they got it right) to a discussion of Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. So far so good, right?

Right! It got even better when they conducted an interview with Richard Dawkins himself, and not even over a scratchy telephone signal that sounded like he was riding in the Chunnel. Perfect, right?

Things started going downward rapidly when the conversation turned to what must have been the ratings-chasing genesis of the story, an excuse to sound edgy by mentioning the likes of LOLCats, the double rainbow guy, Everything is Terrible, Very Demotivational, I am aware of all internet traditions, and any of countless other higher endowments of present-day culture clogging our minds and overloading the series of tubes (too soon?).

But as the enumeration of these phenomenon ticked forth, it became clear that NPR's Melissa Block and Robert Siegel really didn't know what any of these things were. They moreover revealed that they didn't know what Rickrolling was, at which point the story was revealed to be a radio version of a minute with Andy Rooney (always and forever an asshole), if not a real-world editorial by Herman T. Zweibel.

Then again, who am I? I couldn't pick Justin Bieber out of a lineup of teenagers dressed for the next vampire drama.

Mad Men: A Television Program About Advertising

As usual, Amanda Marcotte has a number of insightful comments on the latest developments on Mad Men, but I think she gets a little ahead of the known facts and unduly narrows the focus with some of this:

At the end of the episode, you get the impression that the biggest losses are his ability to control his situation and his mental capacities. We discover that, since he’s really been hitting the sauce, he’s basically not had a really good idea since they started SCDP. On the contrary, his big Clio-winning coup was actually created by Peggy, who gets no credit for her work. And worse, Don gets wasted and steals a crap idea from a crap applicant that he then has to hire ... This is all coming to a head. Peggy is the creative force holding the agency together, and Don is taking all the credit. There is much love and respect between them, but this cannot last. I predict that eventually, Peggy will have to suck up all her love for Don and push him out of his job so she can take it. [emphasis mine]
These rumors of the death of Don Draper's creativity have been exaggerated. Just a week ago Don conceived and executed the ersatz ad caper that brilliantly succeeded in dragging down a competitor and winning the favor of Honda. That was not Peggy's idea, though she saw its value and contributed to its success.

As for the Clio-winning campaign, we have only Peggy's assertion that it was her idea; we do not know this to be true since we were not shown its inception. As she made this assertion outside the presence of Don, Pete Campbell, or anyone else within the firm's inner circle of decision-makers, it struck me as little more than overblown grousing. Even the most intelligent and grounded of us -- surely this fits Peggy -- will vent now and then, and even succumb to envy.

The drama is wider than a power struggle between Don and Peggy, though that is part of the dynamic. In an office filled with creative and headstrong personalities, we see conflicts over the origination of ideas, especially ideas that come to be widely acclaimed in public. This is among the basic, everyday hazards of the advertising field -- and by extension, all creative fields -- and Mad Men is very much about the business of highlighting and dramatizing these hazards.

Marcotte's comments about the "crap idea" miss another irony endemic to doing business in a creative field. Yes, within SCDP, everyone seems to agree that the idea Don blurted out after having borrowed it from the hack applicant is "crap." And yet, in business terms, a crap idea is a great idea if the client loves it and wants to pay money for it, and in this instance, Life cereal is smitten and ready to throw money at "cure for the common breakfast." We have seen this tension before, most vividly dramatized earlier in the season when Don fired Jantzen Swimwear as clients for being unimaginative prudes who were afraid of their own customers. The fact is, creative people conceive and develop advertising campaigns for people who are not creative, so part of the job -- or at minimum, a common occupational hazard -- is the need to swallow one's high-minded disdain and deposit the check. Don has evidently learned that lesson. 

Don and Peggy are bound for more conflict, but it's too early to declare their relationship zero-sum or otherwise hopeless. Throughout the series, Don and Peggy have seen mirrors of themselves in one another -- their pasts, their aspirations, their talents -- and that has forged a bond that will not break easily. As I see it, they still share far more in common as brilliant, creative, forward-thinking minds trapped, in varying ways, in the constraints of work -- not to mention those of the social and the personal -- that demand painful compromises. These compromises remain, if nothing else, a common enemy against which they align.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Never Give Up

Still in a post relay haze, I am reluctant to re-enter the world of fighty-fighty bitey-scratchy that underwrites this precious, precious blog -- truthfully, I was hoping that several of the world's problems would just sort of dry up and blow away while I was doing the Hood to Coast -- and it doesn't help matters that I have come across a compelling proof of god's existence.

Hood to Coast 2010 - Better Than Real Life

This year's Hood to Coast experience was different from past Hoods to Coasts in that (a) I ran with a new-to-me team, (b) we had a late-afternoon start time of 4:45PM befitting our speedy projected pace, which translated to a different sort of time-warp effect in which the hours passed rapidly, and (c) I ran leg six, which I have never done before.

Beginning near sundown, my first leg, leg six, takes runners from the outer foothills of Mt. Hood westward to the far end of Sandy, and is notorious for little more than its above-average distance. I was fortunate in the timing of the stoplights as I passed through the town, and completed the 7.42 miles in a time of 51:25 (6:56 mi/min pace).

Mt. Hood, 8/27/2010, a few miles east of Sandy, Oregon
Something of the magnificence of the sunset toward which I ran is suggested in this image of Mt. Hood as it appeared from the start of leg six just a few minutes before I started running at 7:30PM-ish -- so while it would have been terrific to be able to see this vista as I ran, be assured I ran toward a sunset that was equally inspiring.

My next leg, leg 18, began in the oh-so-very-dark and wind-swept climes of outer St. Helens at 4:46AM. I covered its hilly 4.15 miles in a time of 30:10 (7:16 mi/min pace) -- a little slower than I wanted, and so much the more disappointing in that it came after almost two full hours of sleep. Good enough is good enough, hills are hills, cold is cold, wind gusts are wind gusts, and enough said about leg 18.

My final leg, leg 30, was the first and only leg I got to do during daylight hours, and therefore without the annoying-but-mandatory trappings of reflective vest, flashlight, and blinking lights both fore and aft. (More on all this below.) I finished its mostly downhill 5.35 miles in 37:02 (6:55 mi/min pace), and whatever else might be said of it, it represented my maximum level of effort.* I honestly think that if I don't come up with shin splints over the next couple of days based on the pounding I gave my legs during this leg, I'll be surprised, and quite possibly invulnerable to shin splints. And that would be awesome.

My cumulative 7:01 pace was only the third fastest on what was, this year, a very fast team, thus accounting for the late start time of 4:45PM. We finished in 7th place out of 99 teams in our division, and 94th out of the total of 1023 teams.

As always with these post-race recapitulations, I have my cavils, starting with the event's increased safety requirements. The most awful of these: we were forbidden from wearing any form of earphones, meaning I had to listen to the awful sound of my own feet slamming against the pavement and my own breathing, and that's not a happy song, nor one that anyone would willingly dance to. Depriving us of music -- OK, fine, we were permitted to attach our MP3 players to external speakers that mount at shoulder level or below, but that's ridiculous in many ways -- is just too much.

The music ban had some slight plausibility as a safety precaution, unlike the second most odious of new requirements, blinking safety lights attached to both front and back of each runner for all legs starting between 6PM and 7AM. This came in addition to the longstanding requirements to wear a reflective vest and carry or wear a light source during those hours. The purpose, I gather, was to make the runners more visible to passing vehicles, but I watched this carefully all along the way, and I declare it a failure. Reflective vests work very well to highlight the presence of a runner because they pick up vehicle headlights, but these same headlights utterly wash out any blinking from a portable light. These extra lights did nothing to increase or enhance the ability of drivers to see runners.

I grant that for runners on the roads not illuminated by any vehicle headlights, the flashing beacons we lugged made other runners more visible, but that does nothing for safety.

I further grant that if the intent was to make us more visible to motorists who weren't using headlights, then it was a success. Then again, to plan for vehicles without headlights makes weird and scary assumptions about drivers, and any such drivers surely pose dangers beyond what any little flashing light can address.

Cavils aside, it was a magnificent experience once again -- so much better than the so-called real world and its daily ruts. I thank the volunteers, coordinators, planners, and fellow participants -- we lucky 12,000 -- for all the amazing work that made it so.

finish area in Seaside

* The generous reader will grade that "maximum level of effort" on a curve formed by these self-pitying and true facts: it was the third leg, and happened after almost two full hours of uncomfortable sleep. It was fueled by barely anything a civilized human being would count as real food -- by this time I could no longer even look at or think about my cache of Clif bars, and even the trail mix -- even my special proprietary mix optimized for the kind of crap I like and think I need based on whatever runner's nutritional advice I most recently read -- was getting close to that status. Did I mention the paucity of sleep and that this was the third long timed run in well below 24 hours? Waa waa. The whining of distance runners is much like the whining of playboy billionaires who talk up the formidable hazards of circumnavigating the world in a sailboat or a dirigible -- if it's so goddamn difficult, just don't do it! Stay home! I know, I know. Guilty.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My third leg (5.35 mi, 37 min) may result in a medical necessity for an actual 3rd leg. All's fair in love & stupid. #hoodtocoast

That Velvet Stings

At last, someone out there with a cat very much like my cat, and with video production skills much like my video production skills, uploaded "Stinging Velvet" by Neko Case.

This is one of the many songs from her oeuvre, especially from Blacklisted, that deserves to be better known than it seems to be:

Friday, August 27, 2010

First leg DONE- 7.42 mi, 51 min or so. Amazing sunset to run toward. Net of 7 roadkills. Next- brief patches of faux sleep. #hoodtocoast

People! These routes have been published well in advance, and yet no demotivational chalkings along the way? Try harder! #hoodtocoast

Hood to Coast 2010 - Oft-Neglected Necessities

I am moments away from departing for the Hood to Coast and thus in the final stages of fretful preparations.

Here are some often-forgotten items, so if you want to fit in, be sure to forget a few of these:
  • Comfortable shoes for times between legs. Without these, you'll be barefoot, in uncomfortable shoes, or in those sweaty, awful running shoes. How can their unspeakable stench flow throughout the entire van if you never take them off?

  • Spare shoelaces. If you ever watched McGuyver, you know these can be used to get you out of situations where one of your regular shoelaces breaks or gets stolen.
  • Teutonic bombast featuring prominent themes of self-overcoming and dismissal of weakness.
  • Berber carpet. I'm not packing this -- it just happens to be in the photo. I have heard good things about bringing along a few square yards just in case.
  • Astronaut diapers (not pictured).
Posting here will be inconstant until Sunday-ish after the big thing.

Please Don't Go On

Via Facebook participant and friend-of-friend Mark Schmidt, this Venn diagram is worth at least a thousand words that large numbers of people need to find a way to hear and understand. His text makes the point:
The people in the red circle attacked the people in OUR circle, including the people in the blue area. If YOU hate the people in the blue area, you aren't paying attention. [emphasis mine]
To reinforce the fact that the 9/11 attackers killed Muslims alongside other Americans, the diagram could benefit from a small circle within the USA-population circle representing all American Muslims, such that a small piece of it crosses into the blue -- but I cavil.

The larger point goes beyond the numbers: Al Qaida attacked a symbolic representation of the USA in the form of the World Trade Center, and that representation is chiefly composed of an openness in which  people of various backgrounds and beliefs live side by side without significant tension or conflict. The Islamists were attacking that openness in the name of a narrow, sectarian, authoritarian vision, so inasmuch as American Muslims partook of it, they were legitimate targets.

Now, the USA's loudest self-labeled proponents are responding forcefully -- by attacking a building for the way it symbolizes an openness they find threatening to the narrow, sectarian, authoritarian vision they prefer. Glennzilla:
The intense animosity toward Muslims driving this campaign extends far beyond Ground Zero, and manifests in all sorts of significant and dangerous ways. In June, The New York Times reported on a vicious opposition campaign against a proposed mosque in Staten Island. Earlier this month, Associated Press documented that "Muslims trying to build houses of worship in the nation's heartland, far from the heated fight in New York over plans for a mosque near ground zero, are running into opponents even more hostile and aggressive." And today, The Washington Post examines anti-mosque campaigns from communities around the nation and concludes that "the intense feelings driving that debate have surfaced in communities from California to Florida in recent months, raising questions about whether public attitudes toward Muslims have shifted."
To label this anti-openness agitating as idiotic, self-defeating, and hypocritical is only to state the obvious, but it should also be noted that it is not a "side show" or a "distraction," but straight along the center line of right-wing politics, and that the line goes well beyond contempt for Muslims. This most recent anti-Muslim panic is only a slightly novel manifestation of the same culture war the American right has been waging at least since the end of the Civil War. Amanda Marcotte:
The enemies list is long: racial minorities (especially non-compliant ones), immigrants, foreigners in general, feminists, liberals, poor people---yes, especially poor people, who haven’t known their place in like 100 years at least---men who aren’t completely wrapped up in non-stop demonstrations of proof they’re Real Men, gay people, college professors, activists who try to improve people’s lives, honestly you could go on.
Honestly, you could go on, and it's difficult to see the end point beyond which this will no longer be central to our politics.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Ways of Yore

Douglas Haddow's biography shows him to be 28, which either explains or fails to explain -- it's difficult to say for sure -- the ahistoricism of his jeremiad against hipsters and the generation they supposedly embody:

An artificial appropriation of different styles from different eras, the hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture lost in the superficiality of its past and unable to create any new meaning. Not only is it unsustainable, it is suicidal. While previous youth movements have challenged the dysfunction and decadence of their elders, today we have the "hipster" – a youth subculture that mirrors the doomed shallowness of mainstream society.
Wow, bleak. But wait, it gets bleaker:
We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.
It's all over but the squabbling among scavengers for the last bits of meat off our bones and the silent, desolate bouncing of wind-blown tumbleweeds.

As eager as I am to declare that today's young adults are the most irredeemably awful group of human beings ever to walk the earth -- if only because that plaint is ever so novel and so unfailingly accurate every time it is issued -- I must pause to wonder: can Douglas Haddow cite any prior generations surrounded by the sheer volume of "media" that constitutes the water in which this present generation swims? If so, I'd be fascinated to learn who and when, and most of all, I would love to hear of what they did in response to it that was so much more endearing, creative, and enduring than imaginative reappropriations of some of what the deluge had washed forward.

It goes without saying that such an account -- one taking the form of "back in the good old days, we had style, grace, strength, conviction, and endless inventiveness" -- would itself be as welcome as it would be original.

I'll dare to answer my own question -- no. Today's non-stop omnidirectional shout of culture is unprecedented in degree, though not in kind. Those of us outside caves spend every waking second, asleep or awake, within physical reach of a few thousand advertisements and time our motions to a non-stop accompaniment of video and audio blaring "culture" from all directions.

This engenders cultural responses and forms that remain an ongoing project, but it would be rash to wax too confident about where it all will lead, assuming it even helps to speak in terms of "to" and "from" and "where." As we have known forever, there is nothing new under the sun, but there are new ways to stir and arrange what's already known (as every hipster is painfully aware). I could easily be wrong, but I don't predict buzzards or robots crushing skulls under steely feet. Whether the ecology will agree to furnish the time for this ongoing experiment to play out long enough for anyone to see its outlines is another matter.

As far back as Homer -- off hand I'm not sure if that's before or after Ecclesiastes, and it doesn't matter much -- all our stories have been retellings:
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways,
who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's
sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose
minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on
the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the
homecoming of his companions.
Today the retellings are spiced with a heavy sense of self-awareness of the process of retelling: we have heard it all, or variations of it, but still the old tellings have to be reformulated to speak to the present in some way. Watching one's guts function and taking notes is still a form of being alive. Arguably, it is the only way for humans to be socially and culturally alive.

Nothing in the above has been a defense of hipsters. Everyone is right to despise them, and to enforce the scorn in which they are universally held. It is one of the conventions of our moment, and in that, at least, Douglas Haddow has understood the relevant material.

I've linked to this before, but Amanda Marcotte covered similar ground a while back.

Reverse Turing

Are we sufficiently terrified of Facebook and other "social networking" hoo-haw? Mightn't we post an unflattering image of ourselves, or find that someone else did so for us? What if we post an incautious comment that someone finds unkind, provocative, inelegantly expressed, athwart or across the boundaries of the stalest of opinions we regularly encounter on broadcast television? What if a thing we post, or neglect to post, suggests that we do not warrant the approval of all good people?

We certainly want prospective employers to regard us as beings without history or entanglements. The German government is considering legal changes to this end:
The bill would allow managers to search for publicly accessible information about prospective employees on the Web and to view their pages on job networking sites, like LinkedIn or Xing. But it would draw the line at purely social networking sites like Facebook ... The proposal is meant to create guidelines for the courts in handling the cases that will inevitably arise as social networking penetrates further into everyday life ...
"Everyday life" -- the phrase invokes the crude animals we are, and we should thank the news report for the restraint of the prose here, which declines to expound on our disgusting tendency to defecate, perspire, express emotions, scratch ourselves, spread vermin, state opinions, throw off disgusting odors, and so on. As these tendencies cannot be eliminated -- not yet -- the best available compromise appears to be the one proposed here, to erect a wall that shields employers from the filth of their supplicants and functionaries.

No such law obtains in the USA; we must, for now, fend for ourselves -- or more exactly, fend for the protection of elite sensibilities. In light of the paralyzing fear that someone of consequence could object to one or another aspect of my life, I formerly listed my "interests" as follows on Facebook:
Limited to that of such spotless purity and firm good sense that it would never produce the smallest concern or mildest conflict with any conceivable employer, judge, jury, police officer, FBI minder, priest, rabbi, imam, deity, sage, spiritual adviser, savant, philosopher, hallowed tradition, lawyer, cherished ideal, ethical system, norm, standard, spouse, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, cousin, significant other, guardian, landlord, neighbor, friend, associate, co-worker, superior officer, doctor, nurse, nurse practitioner, dietitian, psychologist, counselor, referee, coach, therapist, teacher, animal trainer, shift manager, ethics panel, professional organization, organ donor, organ donee, tutor, awards panel, editor, review board, blue ribbon commission, select committee, working group, health inspector, quality control auditor, tax auditor, independent ratings agency, board of directors, shareholder majority, shareholder plurality, legislative quorum, efficiency expert, life coach, personal trainer, adoption agency, genome sequencer, peer review, certification-granting entity, licensor, branch of government, principal, head of state, stakeholder, ally, mechanic, state of conscience, hygiene regimen, intelligence gatherer, investigator, voice coach, insurance claims adjudicator, safety inspector, financial adviser, advice columnist, campaign manager, or stickler for etiquette.
I have since thought better of listing these interests because someone out there might mistake it for irony, and irony doesn't win in today's competitive marketplaces of ideas, employment, and social climbing.

Until we reach a higher state in which all labor is performed by machines or by laborers so thoroughly remote from sight and hearing as to be indistinguishable from machines -- hidden-away task-performers who can consistently fail a Turing test -- we can only do our best to become the change we so desperately want to see in the world. That change begins with you, dear reader, and the necessity binds us all.

(Image via Awkward Family Photos)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

No Thanks, Widmer

This year's Hood to Coast packet o' goodies included a coupon from Widmer Brothers Brewing that will
SAVE $5.00 on two Drifter Pale Ale 6-packs or one 12-pack with this special mail-in rebate offer.
If you noticed the text of that very special offer growing from larger to smaller, it's not your imagination, and as the scanned image above attests, the text only gets worse -- smaller in generosity if not in typeface -- as you look on the business side of the coupon.

Note how the offer applies only to Widmer's Drifter Pale Ale, not to their more famous hefeweizen; not that it matters, as far as I'm concerned, because all of Widmer's beers taste a little too much like their hefeweizen, recalling the seminal episode "Duffless" from The Simpsons, in which Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry were all revealed to pour from the same spout at the Duff Brewery.

The requirements for your $5 savings only start with the careful selection of the Drifter Pale Ale. The coupon must be completed in what would have to be tiny handwriting given the tiny size of the blanks -- required fields including complete first and last name, address, city, state, zip code, date of birth, store name, location, and phone number. It was, in a way, generous of them not to demand our social security number, proof of flood insurance, blood sample, and a notarized copy of our birth certificate, but in a more direct and straightforward way, it was deeply asshole-ish of them to demand all of this information for a $5 coupon -- well, $5 minus the cost of postage to mail the completed form to them.

Especially fantastic is the insistence on store name, location, and phone number. Who the hell knows the phone number of a store? Do people regularly place telephone calls to stores that sell six-packs and twelve-packs of beer? Is there some reason I should have been calling the Safeway around the corner or the Fred Meyer down the street? What have I been missing? Am I already dead?

Stay classy, Widmer. Keep your $5, and I'll drink something else.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Insensitive and Audacious - Publishing and Peril at Ground Zero

This image from google maps is every bit as horrifying as you dread it could be, or wish to portray it, or prefer that others will believe it to be, or hope hair-trigger racist voters will decide it is.

The map shows New York City, and in particular, lower Manhattan and environs, and in greater particular, the most vaunted land mass of them all, the one where self-convinced religious fanatics vented their stupid rage at the symbolism of a building. How incredibly asinine and vicious, am I right?

Here's the horrifying part: the numerous red dots represent publishers, and if only because of the sheer number of them -- New York city being a seat of publishing for the entire world -- it stands to reason, indeed I would call it a matter of arithmetic inevitability, that some of the materials published by some of these dizzyingly-close-to-Ground-Zero publishers are Muslim. Some might be non- but nevertheless pro-Muslim, and one or more might be engaged in printing the Koran itself. Even if not that, it would seem to be a dead certainty that some of the content published in these spots takes no position on Islamist extremism, devoting not even a few words to reminding people that Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Mullah Omar Attacked Us For Our Freedom.

This being so, or plausibly so, how dare they! As TV's Sarah Palin said:
“This is a place which is 600 feet from where almost 3,000 people were torn to pieces by Islamic extremists. I think that it is incredibly insensitive and audacious really for them to build a mosque, not only on that site, but to do it specifically so that they could be in proximity to where that atrocity happened.”
I bring up publishing because the 9/11 attackers and Tim McVeigh demonstrated that buildings are temporary -- they come and go, rise and fall, burn and collapse -- whereas Salman Rushdie's novels, Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs, and the Danish cartoons demonstrate that published works are forever.

As vessels of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, offensive symbolism go, buildings die easily, but written words endure. Locating so many pro-Islamist publishers within steps of Ground Zero is a study in audacious insensitivity and insensitive audacity.

What kind of society would we be if we allowed such affronts to our quiet dignity?

Mad Men Season 4 Episode 5 and Antichrist

Subtract the evil talking forest beasties and a number of other horrible provocations, and the story of Betty and Sally as told in the most recent episode of Mad Men is the same story as told in Lars von Triers' Antichrist: both are the story of women grappling with and eventually succumbing to the stereotypes and limitations into which they were born.

Both stories ask -- albeit with differing levels of urgency -- whether we can break free of these kinds of strictures and blinders, even if, as in the case of the unnamed woman character from Antichrist, we have undertaken a protracted, detailed, and highly conscious study of those very same strictures and blinders. The woman is an expert in the literature in which women have, over the centuries, been cast as witches, deviants, and corrupters, especially by wielding their sexuality as a form of power.

For Sally and perhaps for Betty, there is still time enough to learn, grow, and break out of the limitations. The example of the woman from Antichrist gives little hope for this, but then again, Lars von Trier is nothing if not a destroyer of hopes, especially when it comes to the situation of women in modern society.

That said, I prefer to take von Triers's desperate pessimism as a nod and a wink at the audience -- as an invitation to consider the questions he is so loudly declaring closed on the darkest of terms. Maybe if we look closely and carefully, we will find a crack of light peering through.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Bad Answers to Broad Questions

This survey result has caused me re-think my eagerness to subject moral questions to a plebiscite -- to be clear, I am now leaning strongly against.Being unclear is morally wrong.

Another moral qualm I have with this result: the questions are so hackneyed and narrow. What about sex between an unmarried man and an animal fur? I stand against, though it does change a little if the animal fur initiates it, and more so if they're the only two present. I also confess to not having entertained a fully-formed articulation of the opposing side, and it's immoral to draw firm conclusions before granting a fair hearing to all the relevant sides.

Though perhaps distanced from our everyday moral quandaries and challenges, my unmarried-man-animal-fur sex questions have the virtue of specificity, whereas the items on this list sorely lack it: e.g., cloning which animals, and to what end? Every time we breed asexually-reproducing creatures, as when we grow cultures of bacteria for various research purposes, we are engaged in a form of cloning. Certainly we are allowing it to go forward without throwing a fit and calling the guys at Gallup.
"Gambling"? Who cares? People waste money. People obsessively waste money; people do silly things in the spirit of competitiveness, and often they spice the experience with wagers. People get pulled in to the "rush" (allegedly) of taking a silly risk with stacks of money, or stacks of money they wish they had. It's foolhardy at times; I'm not sure how placing it on the moral-immoral axis adds anything important, or makes it any less boring as a target of public fretting.

"Doctor-assisted suicide" -- just that? No qualifiers as to the nature of the medical exigency, if any? Under what rules, with what safeguards in place? Just what sort of "assist" do we mean here?

"Divorce" -- I am surprised this is considered a live moral question, but indeed there are places in the world where it remains all but impossible, especially if you're the 11-year-old girl in the happy bond. And rest assured that where the law does not provide for an orderly dissolution of the marriage, the result is exactly the intended one -- allegedly: the married couple sort out the difficulty and resume their happy, if not totally placid, monogamy, mutual support, and lives qua couple. There's no abandonment, cruelty, violence, or departures from the vows they exchanged on the wedding day.

And so on. Overbroad answers invite bad answers.

Eli has more on this at Rust Belt Philosophy, and his criticisms are hinged.

Mad Men - A Sobering, and Girls at Play

How was season 4 episode 5 of Mad Men refreshingly textured and marvelous? Let me count the ways, or some of them:

  1. It featured the return of rock star Don Draper in lieu of the pathetic alcoholic we have seen of late wearing his suits -- sure, I'm willing to see Don decline into a bitter, feckless drunk, but the decline was starting to feel a little too static: he was drinking too much, his social graces were falling off, his Lothario was suddenly disabled. Here, at last, we saw him move forward, which is not to say he's remade and reformed.
  2. In that connection, the episode did some needed showing rather than mere telling of Don's genius as a creative businessman. I would not say I found the Honda commercial caper terribly plausible -- frankly, I did not, though as with many things that flit across the big and small screens, it was the kind of thing that makes us long for a more enchanted world in which schemes like that would work. Then again, stranger things have happened in this crazy world of ours, and, credible to the Nth degree or not, it was definitely a bold and inspired move that elegantly solved multiple problems.
  3. Best of all, the episode gave us substantial steps forward on character development for Betty, Roger, Sally, Henry, Faye, Pete -- all these being good and rich characters that have been too neglected of late.
  4. Last and not least, the episode featured more of the comic stylings of Don's new 800-year-old secretary-in-training, who is doing a spectacularly bad job at everything except avoiding Don's lusty gaze, where she excels.
A few particular points on the third item: for me, this episode marked the first time since somewhere in the mists of last season when Betty, Don's ex-wife, emerged as a sympathetic character -- deeply ironic given that she spent the episode emotionally, even physically, striking at her daughter, Sally, for offenses no worse than struggling with hormonal and family upheaval. In her conversation with Sally's new counselor, Doctor Edna (of whom we can hope to see more), we saw the way women of that era -- and not only it, alas -- perpetuated a disgust for female sexuality if only because they had no developed alternate framework in which to conceive it. Though groundbreaking works by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan had emerged by early 1965, these works and the second wave feminism they inaugurated had massive social, cultural, historical, and personal baggage to fight through.

We caught a sharp, clear glimpse at the way Betty's mother must have framed a "woman's proper place" for Betty, especially the strict boundaries around sexuality; and we saw Betty pass that same pained strictures forward to her own daughter. Let us hope Dr. Edna can point the way to a broader view for both.

    Sunday, August 22, 2010

    Triple Bad

    There are at least three problems bundled together here:

    Two new polls say as many as one in four Americans mistakenly believe President Obama is a Muslim, presenting the White House with the unique challenge of defining a central element of the president's life story.
    First, it shouldn't matter if President Obama is a Muslim. Why care if he believes one set of delusions rather than another? Polls consistently show Americans want the "believes in god" box checked for all their presidents for some reason, and belief in the god character from the Koran would check that box.

    Second, Obama is Christian. Remember all that nonsense about Obama's pastor, Reverend Wright, whose preachments from a church gave rise to the last great wave of racial panic mingled with fake right-wing outrage? Note key words pastor, reverend and church, and absence of key words imam and mosque.

    Third, this points up the profound problems of getting too concerned about an elected official's convictions about god, "spirituality," and similar kinds of supernatural flotsam: what is publicly avowed without evidence can be denied without evidence. There are clearly no rules in a game in which, say, the convictions of Senators Vitter and Ensign go unquestioned through all the prostitution and worse while those of Obama remain "debatable" because, I gather, he resembles his African-born father.

    Reasonable people will reject this game. The trouble is, it's not reasonable people who are perpetuating it.

    The Faith in Minerva et. al.

    Commenter Bible Study Boy has helpfully clarified "true Christianity":

    I realize that many professing Christians teach that one must live by certain rules in the flesh in order to be saved. However, all that is required for salvation is faith alone in Jesus Christ. I also realize this is an atheist website, or at least it appears to be, but there is a great bible study website that shows why many professing Christians don't really represent true Christianity. Many profess to know God, but they are full of evil and hate trying to get people to live according to their rules. This is contrary to the bible which teaches that faith alone in Jesus is sufficient for salvation, not our own works of righteousness in the flesh.
    Commenter Bible Study Boy, could you pass the following along to Jesus for me? I would  appreciate it. Here goes: if Jesus cares enough about whether we "believe in him" to either toss us in eternal hellfire or give us eternal reservations in a five-star resort beyond the stars based on it, I ask him to consider leaving some clear, unambiguous evidence. I've always been fond of the idea of temporarily arranging the stars to spell out a message visible from earth -- "I exist. Believe in me or you're damned. Yours, Jesus" or something like that -- and then shuffling the stars back to their regular positions after a few minutes. That should be simple for an omniscient being, and it would turn doubters like me into believers lickety split.

    Until then, I'll go with Thomas Jefferson's view of Jesus-as-divinity:
    And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.
    In short, Jupiter:Minerva::Jehovah:Jesus.

    Beyond that, the latter months of 2007 seem to have been the season when I still gave a shit about the particular theological twaddle you passed along enough to address it: I mean this post on Sola Fide, this other post on Sola Fide and its theological antithesis, and this charming post on the weird tendency of believers to issue definite-sounding declarations about what their favorite god really meant in the teeth of the dizzying mishmash of words attributed to him/her/it.

    Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Poem of the Day: "Holy Rollers for Love"

    I can see why Neko Case would contribute backing vocals to the performance of Jakob Dylan's "Holy Rollers for Love," given the way it transfers the language of Christian salvation to the register* of romantic love. This links his work to her ongoing project to go to the marrow of poetry (arguably) by linking love with nature. All that said -- and for whatever it's worth -- the song stands on its own, and succeeds powerfully whether or not nature had ever thrown forth a Neko Case, a Jakob Dylan, or anything else.

    Both of my readers should note that a video of this song appears on this precious, precious blog's Songs page, which I have been updating now and then.

    Jakob Dylan, "Holy Rollers for Love"

    Down from the mountain out walking the flood
    I see the future in this setting sun
    Unfolded gardens uncover the earth as it was
    Filled with canteens and tear gas
    From this last voyage of us

    Ain't no gentlemen here hiding wings
    The devil himself would be puzzled to give
    Any reasons to sink his fingers in
    All this voodoo and black magic
    Doing the work that was his

    With battle songs filling their lungs
    Move them out down under the sun
    Give them tears for cherry red blood
    Stack them old, we cradle them young
    World is crazy or maybe just
    Holy rollers for love

    Split this ocean set these sails
    It's down to the seabed we dazzle and fail
    Hereafter's bringing more funerals than fairs
    And it's a book of blank maps
    That's we're using to get us there

    To the hilltops my daughter, my son
    The rescue's too little to cover the slums
    Cross the river deeper than it ever was
    There's a pause in the evening
    When prayers are supposed to be done

    With battle songs filling their lungs
    Move them out down under the sun
    Give them tears for cherry red blood
    Stack them old, we cradle them young
    World is crazy or maybe just
    Holy rollers for love

    Glory glory hallelujah be warned
    God is still marching, still raising his sword
    Board these windows and guard your stretch of floor
    Something sinister's got you the minute you open the door

    With battle songs filling their lungs
    Move them out down under the sun
    Give them tears for cherry red blood
    Stack them old, we cradle them young
    World is crazy or maybe just holy rollers for love
    World is crazy or maybe she's holy rollers for love
    World is crazy and making us holy rollers for love

    * I'm so glad I finally found a use for the word register in one of my poetry posts.

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    Coexist? Yes, yes, and no.

    An interest group on one of the leading social networking web sites poses the above image and asks, "Do you believe in this image's message?"

    They coexist in the trivial sense of existing at the same time -- it's easy to think of famous people living today who avow the faiths represented by the C, T, S, and maybe even the O if we know or follow any members of that particular cohort of the attention-hungry. If I'm not mistaken, the I is meant to represent a short-lived sect of theists whose founding prophet was martyred by having his arms, legs, and finally head chopped off.

    In the sense of "believe in" that means something like "wish for," yes again. I wish all the followers of each of these faith traditions, even those avowing whatever the E and X are meant to represent, would take the approach outlined so nobly by Christian theologian Tim Keller (Cf.):
    Many people run from any consideration of the Bible once they find such a biblical passage. I counsel them instead to slow down and try out several different perspectives on the issues that trouble them. That way they can continue to read, learn, and profit from the Bible even as they continue to wrestle with some of its concepts. One possibility I urge them to consider is that the passage that bothers them might not teach what it appears to them to be teaching. Many of the texts people find offensive can be cleared up with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context.
    Catch that? If the creed decrees something provably false, ugly, destructive, pointless, inscrutable, or otherwise undesirable, just grunt harder and re-interpret it until it can be woven into the rest of reality's fabric. Soon enough, this will warp and rend the creed beyond recognition, but so what? Let it mutate and transmogrify -- it beats trying to mutilate reality, justice, and integrity to fit the creed. Whatever isn't worth avowing isn't worth avowing consistently or rigorously, so follow pastor Tim and spin twaddle into honey. All formless mush mixes well with all other formless mush, or so I have always observed.

    Apart from all that, the answer is no, there is no good prospect of coexistence that deserves to be so called. The reality-existing creeds in question disagree sharply on essential points, and they trade truth claims like ice hockey players trade blows -- without a stable foundation, with lots of sliding around, gesturing, yelling, and whining. Hockey has its problems, but it doesn't inspire people to vote gay people's rights away, honor-kill anyone, or perpetuate child rape.

    All that being so, I propose this form of coexistence -- the coexistence of the used-up facial tissue and torn-off plastic wrappers:

    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    Forget Evil Momentarily

    English translation: Google This page is in English Translate it using Google Toolbar?
    Dear The Googles -

    For purposes of the next few paragraphs or so, I am willing to put aside my concern with your recent high-profile dalliance with "oh, go ahead and be evil," but I here speak for a higher aim: don't be weirdly, inappropriately helpful.

    I speak and write in English vanishingly close to 100% of the time. This blog is composed in English. My thoughts are in English. My schooling was in English, from kindergarten on up until they finally got me to leave. My home town, Ponca City, was a place where everyone I knew spoke English, or a dumbed-down version of it they had picked up from Hee-Haw, Beverly Hillbillies re-runs, and oil industry public relations campaigns. My parents and grandparents spoke English, as do all my siblings, cousins, and favorite television programs. My keyboard is laid out as the English-speaking keyboards of the world are laid out (which I assume is distinct to English and superior).The town I live in, Portland, is a predominantly English-speaking town, and to the extent that it's anything else, there's a smattering of Spanish to be heard here and there, and I only know enough Spanish to lip-synch the MAX announcements: puertas a la derecha, puertas a la izquierda, Se prohíbe orinar en MAX, etc., and I don't so much know those as hold them in my head by dint of rote.

    See that? "By dint of rote" -- only an English speaker would dare write something that ungainly, or so I assume. I have to assume it because, as i've mentioned, I'm pretty much English-only, all-hours.

    So please, The Googles: stop offering to translate web pages from English to something else. I don't doubt you can do it, but the result will be something I can't read because -- I believe I mentioned this -- I read, write, speak, and think in English.

    Pon Farr, Cicadas, & Combat Operations in Iraq

    It is that time again -- a special season:
    The last American combat troops left Iraq today, seven-and-a-half years after the US-led invasion, and two weeks ahead of President Barack Obama's 31 August deadline for withdrawal from the country.

    The final troops to leave, 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, rolled in convoy across the border and into Kuwait this morning, officially ending combat operations, which began in March 2003.
    Oh, now I see it: "combat operations" have ended again. Those have been ending in Iraq for years. It's an every-seven-years thing, like the natural cycles of certain cicadas, or the Vulcan reproductive cycle of Pon Farr. Last time around, in 2003, it went something like this:

    The last time this was announced was awesome too!

    So, write it down, for whatever good it does you: somewhere out there, Vulcans are feeling randy, the cicadas are buzzing anew, and combat operations in Iraq are ending. We'll see you all back in the usual places in 2017!

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    Mad Men: Compartmentalization, Then and Now

    Amanda Marcotte hits one of the high points of season 4, episode 4 of Mad Men:

    [I]f we thought that perhaps Peggy was going to make her new bohemian friends an escape from her life, she actually has them come to her work to pick her up for lunch. That’s far from the only way she looks to live openly and honestly. When she’s at the party and her new friend introduces her as a writer, she doesn’t go along with the ruse, instead asking one of the guests if he’d like some paid work with her. She doesn’t compartmentalize like Don does. She struggles throughout the episode with longings for marriage and babies and good old-fashioned patriarchal validation, and at the end, she nods at Pete (who represents a lot of that in her mind) and steps into the elevator with her new friends, including an unabashed lesbian.
    I think this overstates the matter. On the compartmentalized-integrated continuum, it's true that Peggy appears to have found a spot closer to the integrated side, for now at least; and it's definitely fair to say Peggy is seeing Don's example and trying to find a better path.

    It's one thing to resist the example, but quite another to succeed at doing so. If we imagine Mad Men prequels and flashbacks never yet produced, we can imagine a younger Don struggling in the same way and trying some of the same tactics, and yet here Don is, fragmented and faceted -- and this season, completely drunk with increasing frequency. I question whether Peggy is doing anything more than trying to integrate the conflicting and conflicted strands of her life.

    It's worth noting the ways Peggy is already visibly not pulling things together: yes, she allows herself to be seen with her new bohemian friends in her workplace lobby, but she is not inviting them in and making introductions. She is not going to their workplaces; she is not introducing her boyfriend to them, nor have we seen her mention the friends to the boyfriend; it's unknown, and I would say unlikely, that her mother and sister know anything of these friends or her boyfriend; we have not seen Peggy face the challenge of melding a bohemian side with a higher-authority, higher-stress, higher-visibility position in her work; and so on.

    Even the boldest gesture toward integration we saw -- happily chirping of her work in advertising and suggesting that her artsy stoner friends should join her in that -- has yet to be repeated. It's possible that what we saw there was the exact instant when Peggy learned that certain friends don't want to hear about the dreary world of paid work for "the man," and that she does not want to be the attache connecting these worlds.

    She's far from just one consistent, integrated, inwardly and outwardly harmonious Peggy. How this problem plays out for Peggy and for other characters -- Don, Pete, Joan, even Roger -- continues to bear watching. We know that the 1960s passed to the 1970s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and beyond without resolving this problem (is it a problem?) on a mass scale, and maybe not on any level, so my expectation is that we will see these characters struggle with and over it -- struggle but not resolve.

    Easy? Hard? Math Quiz

    image via bitte ein kuss
    Apropos nothing except whatever, what is the next number in the series?

    0.5000, 0.1667, 0.0833, 0.0500, 0.0333, 0.0238, .0179, ....

    I ask because I feel like it and because it's one of those little math puzzles I spin out in my head and then immediately lose perspective on whether it's hard or easy.

    Note: the image is not a hint. It's just awesome.

    The answer appears in a comment to this post. If you cheat, the terrorists have already won.

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    Bulldozers Ready?

    I pause to wonder which of the several mosques -- indicated with red dots -- in the vicinity of lower Manhattan need to be bulldozed in keeping with the sudden uptick in scat-throwing alarm* about placing a mosque somewhere close to "ground zero."

    I make the assumption that the new mosque is proposed to serve Muslims who live or work in the area, from which it directly follows that they live or work in the area. This being so, can it really be enough to cancel the new mosque? Won't someone think of the innocent children, tender elderly, angry right-wing Christian tourists, and other fine delicates?

    It seems clear that the people who would have gathered and prayed in that mosque need to be watched -- closely watched, perhaps in Muslim-only camps, for their safety as much as ours, and far away from Manhattan. I wonder if there are any spare cattle cars into which they can be loaded for easy and rapid transportation to somewhere else? I trust this can all be accomplished in an orderly fashion.

    I do hope so.

    * I decline to link to any of it. If you want it, it's easy to find.

    Monday, August 16, 2010

    E =What Now?

    It has been quite a while since I checked on Conservapedia, the preferred online reference for knuckle-draggers who can still thumb their way to a web site. I am here to report that at the possible peril of the methinks-the-site-doth-protest-too-much obsession with homosexuality, Conservapedia has recently taken to condemning modern physics:
    It says: "The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world."

    In a footnote, this comment is followed up by: "Virtually no one who is taught and believes relativity continues to read the Bible, a book that outsells New York Times bestsellers by a hundred-fold."
    The finer points of the theory of relativity elude me, but I feel confident in saying it doesn't depend on drawing more readers than the Bible, nor on drawing readers away from the Bible and toward New York Times bestsellers.

    I don't mean to sell the knuckle-draggers short -- their attack on physics goes deeper than book sales:
    The Conservapedia page then lists 30 counterexamples to general relativity, any of which, it claims, "shows that the theory is incorrect". Many of these are bizarre, such as "the action-at-a-distance by Jesus, described in John 4:46-54." Apparently, Jesus's ability to instantaneously heal a child from a distance – his healing powers travelled through space faster than the speed of light – was evidence enough to rule out Einstein's theory.
    They have a point, don't they? A glance at Einstein's seminal 1905 paper that first derived a version of E=mc2 reveals no mention of Jesus's remote healing powers. In fact, there are no citations of the Bible at all.

    It really does seem as though Einstein was trying to distract readers from the folklore of bronze-age primitives, and from the amazing sales figures of the Bible, in favor of whatever the hell he was saying with the math and reasoning.

    To Bartleby the Driller: No

    For a clear illustration that the right answer is often the simplest, look here:

    The Obama administration announced Monday it is requiring environmental reviews for all new deepwater oil drilling.

    That means an end, at least for now, to the kind of exemptions that allowed BP to drill its blown-out well in the Gulf with little scrutiny.

    The announcement came in response to a report by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which found BP got environmental exemptions based on decades-old data.

    The Interior Department said the ban on so-called "categorical exclusions" for deepwater drilling would be in place pending full review of how such exemptions are granted.

    "Our decision-making must be fully informed by an understanding of the potential environmental consequences of federal actions permitting offshore oil and gas development," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
    Right. There are rules already in place for how to gain a legal permit for drilling for oil in mile(s)-deep coastal waters, so the thing to do is to enforce those rules, not pretend they don't exist or don't matter.

    It can be expected that some permit applications will pass the legal standards, and that others will fail them. The thing to do is to evaluate whether a given application passes or fails based on the details it provides. The thing not to do is to proceed as though "we would prefer not to" is a proper response to the legal requirements.

    BP and others would prefer not to. BP and others would prefer to copy and paste half-assed plans that spell out remediation plans for walruses and sea lions in the Gulf of Mexico, drawing on the expertise of long-dead scientists.

    That was never good enough; it's great to see it treated as not good enough going forward. To the government officials behind this I say: more like this, please.

    Touching Stoves

    Eli quotes Andrew Sullivan on the way Christopher Hitchens is handling his ongoing struggle with cancer:

    Christianity's radical claim is that it is in suffering alone that we approach the truth about our ultimate condition, just as Jesus' intense suffering on the Cross makes sense only as an act of God's solidarity with us in this mortal, existential panic. The position you take on this cannot be reduced to an argument. It is much deeper than that.

    I revere reason and respect atheism. (And I think the writer who most taught me about the need for mutual respect between atheists and believers was an atheist, Albert Camus.) Watching my friend die in this remarkable fashion is as persuasive an argument for atheism as I can imagine. Hitch is dying as he lives - with integrity and passion. But for me, it is the fear too that informs us, the dread and the pain and the loneliness of dying and suffering.
    After which he cites an opposing passage by Ophelia Benson:
    The devout think that humans are at their best when they are damaged: weak, suffering, miserable. The undevout think we are at our best when we are at our best – strong, healthy, functioning well, not afraid or depressed or flattened by grief.

    Well which would it be? Is a sick, deaf, lame, tired dog a dog at its best or is it a dog that is not even itself anymore – that is no more than a tube to ingest and exrete food?

    It’s the same for humans. I’ll come over all Aristotelian here and say that humans are at their best when they are best at doing what humans do – talking, thinking, laughing, making, designing, inventing, cooking, dancing, singing, and a thousand things more. That is humans at their best – when they’re living up to their potential.
    After some discussion of Sullivan's and Benson's musings, Eli concludes with questions:
    Obviously I have my own guesses about which of these authors has come closer to the truth, but what do you think? Is there a way to believe in the value of suffering without losing one's bearings? Can we hold at once that suffering is the "ultimate condition" for humans and that there is no (or no significant) value to be found in suffering?
    At the risk of getting too pat I answer as follows.

    I find significant truth in both Sullivan's and Benson's views. In agreement with Sullivan, suffering is a foundational component of the human condition, by which I mean it is something that every person experiences in varying degrees and kinds. The recognition that a being has suffered and is bound to suffer more is identical with the recognition of his/her personhood; a being capable of suffering is a being with rights that merit recognition. This has to extend to non-human animals inasmuch as they, too, suffer.

    Suffering's universality can be the ground from which to erect laws, rules, social arrangements, and institutions that tend to eliminate or minimize it; or, if you like, it can be the measure of all such systems. We can know a law, rule, or arrangement is unjust if it produces unmerited and unjustifiable suffering. If we care about justice, we have to keep an eye on suffering.

    In disagreement with Sullivan and in agreement with Benson, there is no need to warp the vivid reality of suffering into claims about "God's solidarity with us." We know our own suffering and that is all the validation we need, i.e., adding a god's suffering to the world's history doesn't gain anything we can't already clearly perceive or reliably deduce about the nature of things. The reality and universality of suffering is directly perceptible to anyone who will look, listen, and reflect -- knowing the truth of suffering requires the "revelation" of living in the world, and nothing more.

    Moreover, and closer to Benson's point, we have to be extremely cautious about ennobling pain. Yes, we can learn from pain -- a thousand brightly-colored warning signs count for less than one instance of touching a hot stove -- and since we will experience it no matter what we do, we will be wise to try to learn what we can from it, if not in keeping with the Socratic maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living, then at least in light of the great Bushism:
    There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.
    The obvious risk is that others will adopt these ideas and decide what lessons we should learn, and then go about imposing suffering to impart them -- or, what is barely better, decide what lessons we ought to gain from the suffering that befalls us from another source.

    This, too, is inevitable: one term for it is education, another is oppression. Judgment and compassion have to referee which is which, where it sits along the continuum, and where to draw the boundaries. This judgment is difficult and endlessly contentious.

    As we watch Christopher Hitchens -- or someone closer, maybe ourselves -- face the reality of suffering, including but not limited to the imminence of death, we should already know that a certain kind of insight does uniquely derive from that experience. He is in the process of touching a hot stove; this is just true. That doesn't automatically authenticate what he says, nor does it negate, in even the slightest way, the insights he offered while still in full vigor, when pain and death felt as remote to him as it ever does for anyone. There is a clarity of mind that comes from not having one's hand resting against the hot stove -- this, too, is just true. As I say, the judgments on this are difficult, and the formulas -- pain is noble and enlightening, pain is ignoble and obscuring -- too tidy to produce reliable answers.

    Sunday, August 15, 2010

    Better Church

    I assume large numbers of people spent an hour or two at church this morning, but I did something vastly better: I got out of bed, drove roughly 20 miles east to Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge, and ran the mile-long trail of switchbacks to the top. Then I ran back down and did the same again.

    This is not only a challenging training run; it is a singularly rewarding experience if you get there early enough. Multnomah Falls is the kind of place for which the word and the idea of the sublime was developed by Burke, Kant, and the English romantics -- beautiful, yes, but also menacing in its manifest power. Whatever the word for it -- I decline spiritual, as it is too flabby and vague -- there's something especially powerful about Multnomah Falls when experienced as the only human being visibly present.

    Buoyed by that experience, I continued along a trail roughly a half mile west to Wahkeena Falls, and am I ever so glad I did. The set of three images below were taken there, albeit during a return visit a short while after my run.

    I have undertaken this same sequence of actions in these same places a handful of times before today, but it is no less uplifting each time. My Sunday morning never reached or grasped for any reality beyond the one we find around us. It was deeply reverent and profoundly beautiful -- these images only hint at the reality, and the paltry words I've added barely get closer.  

    Saturday, August 14, 2010

    The Compass of Hatred

    I could be wrong, but I believe Tocqueville was the first to observe how Americans have a bottomless appetite for zoning, siting, and related administrative arcana. We see it still today:

    Nearly 70 percent of people feel an Islamic center near ground zero is disrespectful, even deliberately provocative, according to a CNN/Opinion Research poll.
    Fantastic! We just can't get enough -- it's in our blood, or our distinctive national character, or our DNA, or our phenotype, or something.

    It's worth noting, however, that very, very close to 100% of Americans have no legal standing and no discernible stake in having their feelings about locating an Islamic center within a few blocks of the 9/11 attacks validated by anyone, certainly not the elected and appointed officials who make siting and zoning decisions for Manhattan. I say that as an American with no love, not even phoned-in pro forma love, for the Islamic faith, but as an American who can see the distinction between respecting a creed and respecting the right to believe and practice the creed. These are not the same, and they're not hard to tell apart.

    Because the cited article appears in an organ of American journalism, it naturally goes straight from citing results of poll questions that shouldn't have been asked to -- what else? -- repeating inane speculations on what it portends for the fall elections:
    "There's little political upside for a President already seen by some as soft on terror, a President whom 1 in 10 Americans insanely believe to be a Muslim, to back the right of this house of worship to locate near the site of the 9/11 attacks. Especially with two-thirds of the public against it," writes the New York Daily News' Joshua Greenman.
    The president should see that all religious organizations are held to equal standards in siting places of worship. Beyond that, he should stay out and remind everyone, as Obama has done here, that freedom of religion implies freedom for unpopular religions and popular religions alike. If that comes with "little political upside," then the president should welcome their hatred.

    The hatred of morons and bigots should always be regarded as an indicator of motion in the right direction.

    Keep Reading

    Jana Chapman Gates has a problem: many of the passages of the Bible strongly suggest that yes is the answer to Does God Hate Women?, and as you might guess from the given name Jana, she is a woman. Not only that, but she is a woman who cares what certain characters from middle-eastern fables think of her because she has convinced herself that these characters are real.

    The result? Cognitive dissonance. Ouch!

    Regrettably, this is a common problem, but don't worry, because she kept reading until she found a solution:

    Thumbing through the pages [of The Reason for God], I came across a passage where Tim Keller lays out a recommendation for how to approach sections of the Bible that seem confusing.
    Many people run from any consideration of the Bible once they find such a biblical passage. I counsel them instead to slow down and try out several different perspectives on the issues that trouble them. That way they can continue to read, learn, and profit from the Bible even as they continue to wrestle with some of its concepts. One possibility I urge them to consider is that the passage that bothers them might not teach what it appears to them to be teaching. Many of the texts people find offensive can be cleared up with a decent commentary that puts the issue into historical context.
    I'd been doing exactly the opposite of what Keller recommended. I'd run from God when I felt uncomfortable, instead of digging deeper to find out more about him.
    So there you have it. If at first the holy writ you're reading seems to say things you know to be false, or suggests you're doomed to eternal torment for what you're doing or not doing, or sets you below your peers for the reproductive organs with which you were born or born without, or whatever, follow the advice of Tim Keller via Jana Chapman Gates: keep re-reading until it is more agreeable and less demeaning.

    The Bible and the Koran are sacred, error-free, and direct from the manufacturer of the universe, but let's not get carried away: there's still context and history to be hunted down if what they say seems unjust, dumb, or wrong.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Still Stupid

    President Eisenhower in April 1954 wrote a letter to his brother:

    Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this--in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything--even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon "moderation" in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are ... a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
    They were stupid then and they are stupid now -- stupid, myopic, mean-spirited, and so on -- but sadly, their numbers are no longer negligible.

    It goes to show that President Eisenhower would have no place in today's GOP, and not only for his record as a successful and responsible military commander rather than a raving chicken-hawk.

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Speak Up, You Sassy Ibex

    Apropos these trend lines illustrating the increasing acceptance of legal equality for gay people, this uppity ibex is now my hero:

    What can we learn from a sass-talking ibex? Something we already should have known, and should forever stop pretending not to know: that making arguments is a proven way to alter perceptions and opinions:
    [I]t's only been fairly recently that gay rights groups -- and other liberals and libertarians -- shifted toward a strategy of explicitly calling for full equity in marriage rights, rather than finding civil unions to be an acceptable compromise. While there is not necessarily zero risk of backlash resulting from things like court decisions -- support for gay marriage slid backward by a couple of points, albeit temporarily, after a Massachusetts' court's ruling in 2003 that same-sex marriage was required by that state's constitution -- it seems that, in general, "having the debate" is helpful to the gay marriage cause, probably because the secular justifications against it are generally quite weak. [emphasis mine]
    Nate Silver is too kind with "generally quite weak;" the secular arguments against marriage equality are uniformly and consistently (not 'generally') weak; they are embarrassingly insipid. They haven't stood up to a few years worth of stiff breezes.

    In a fair fight, fairness wins, and so do common sense and reality. Regrettably, this sometimes involves entering a fight rather than laboring to evade it by trying to compromise away the difficult parts.

    We should remember the heroic ibex: rather than backing down from bigots and bullies, we should be ready to spit back and speak forcefully, even if we're not sure it will be immediately understood, appreciated, or embraced. It really works.

    Hood to Coast 2010 - So Empty Without Me

    Presently, I am still without a placement on a Hood to Coast team for 2010, and I honestly don't think it's a good idea to hold the event without me. In fact, I think it's a terrible idea.

    You know that teammate of yours who keeps asking dumb questions, insisting he'll do all the driving, complaining about miscellaneous aches and pains, growing increasingly distraught over how and when you'll decorate the rental van? The one who ordered a size large men's t-shirt but hasn't yet collected it? The one who can't stop talking, farting, belching, brushing his hair, not brushing his teeth, applying foul-smelling home remedies? The one with a crippling phobia of the interior of rented minivans? Here are just some of the many reasons why you should throw him off your team and add me instead:

    • I never speak unless spoken to; or unless I think there's a good reason.
    • I run a lot, so I'll be ready. You pick the leg, and I'll do it in the low 7's or faster -- yes, even leg 5.
    • I've done the event four times, twice in van one, twice in van two. I know all the places to stop, all the places to eat, all the secret shortcuts, and all the tricks on how to avoid bears, land-orcas, coyotes, possums, Bigfoots, badgers, wolves, and, above all, race officials.
    • I know a smattering of French. My high school and college instructors in French sometimes implied, without ever quite stating, that knowledge of French would someday be useful, so I pass that almost confident implication into this scenario and ask, "What if the team needs someone who can speak a little French?" Laugh now, but if you decline my generous self-invitation only to find yourself cornered and harried by French-speaking Bigfoots or grizzled descendants of fur trappers, who will be laughing then? Hmm?
    • With me, what happens in the van will stay in the van. For that matter, what happens within a seven-mile radius of the van will stay in the van, or within the seven-mile radius, or whichever is the more discreet of those two.
    Seriously. Please add me to your team -- I would love to be a low-maintenance, low-stress, easygoing, relatively fast-running addition to your 2010 Hood to Coast team. You can contact me at my twitter thingy, @bureaucrat117, or at the super-secret encoded e-mail address listed somewhere on this precious, precious blog's main page, dances with anxiety [at] gmail dot com.

    Act fast! This offer expires when the relay is over, and I already have a couple of better-than-even prospects lined up.


    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Net Neutrality and Why "Radical Libertarians" Are Hilarious

    Commenting on the Gizmodo post where this seminal image first appeared, a self-labeled "radical libertarian" has outlined why Net Neutrality is actually, beneath its freedom-promoting veneer, an affront to the rights, sacred honor, and quiet dignity of all the world's freedom-loving peoples. Mind you, to see this, one must don libertarian goggles, which are to idiotic arguments what beer goggles are to regrettable one-night-stands:
    Here's how it would likely play out:

    First, we should acknowledge that the cheaper service options will probably appeal to some people. My father, for example, is an AOL user and rarely travels outside that ecosystem. He and other basic Net browsers may be quite happy paying less for less service. Don't assume your level of browsing is the same as everyone else's.
    Exactly! Like so many countless millions of web users, Radical Libertarian's dad sticks with the demographically-tuned offerings that AOL has thoughtfully selected for him. (But seriously -- there's still an AOL?)

    Having exposed the cruel elitism behind the proposition that a truly world-wide web could perhaps put people in touch with novel ideas, our radical libertarian considers counter-arguments:
    Second, what do you think will happen when a limited-tier user gets a link in an e-mail from a close friend, a link to a site outside her tiered service? She'll click on it and Rotten Prick ISP will intercept the connection and tell her she'll need to upgrade her service to access the site. How many times do you think that'll happen before the user gets frustrated and starts demanding an everything-goes access plan? Multiply that by everyone else irritated by the limits.

    Suddenly, the interconnectedness of the Net reasserts itself through the end users who don't want to figure out which websites are allowed and which ones aren't. Who wants to wait for the SocialNet upgrade to include the next big thing once Facebook fades away? Who wants to have to install software to parse links to tell you ahead of time that THIS is allowed while THAT isn't? What ISP admins, financial accountants, and sales managers want to deal with sorting, analyzing, checking, ranking, packaging, and adjusting the service plans for the hundreds of new websites that appear each day?

    Fewer and fewer people, I'd say.
    Voila! The invisible hand has strangled this problem in the crib. And who can gainsay the analysis in light of current practices of cable tee-vee providers, who learned immediately that customers would reject them if they dared to restrict access to some televised content. The only market equilibrium is the happy one we all presently experience, or so I assume upon the good faith and credit of libertarianism: the one in which every single cable tee-vee viewer receives every single channel, all hours, all days, and at competitive prices.

    Or take the wireless telecommunications carriers, who would dry up and roll to oblivion like so many tumbleweeds soon after trying to privilege some incoming/outgoing calls, or some content sources, or some devices. People wouldn't stand for it. Problem solved! Or rather -- problem? What problem?

    The sturdy analysis concludes:
    All-in-one packages make the most sense for Net access because you have no idea where your browsing will take you each day.

    Speaking practically, I doubt this finely-grained nightmare tier scenario would last long. Think of the competitive advantages to ISPs who didn't adopt tiered service plans? They'd have their PR practically written for them ("Sick of wondering what website is allowed THIS WEEK? Tired of inconsistent download speeds because your Internet service provider plays favorites ...
    This conclusion is the very most special part of the analysis because, first, it undercuts Radical Libertarian's initial insight above by noting that salt-of-the-earth browsers like dear old AOL-subscribing dad have no ready way to tell where the next hyperlink will take them, short of locating the URL and checking it against their limited plan's in-network sites. This would be incredibly tedious at best, and in the case of URL's masked by any of dozens of shorteners or innumerable proxies and similar arrangements, outright impossible. This being so, it's difficult to see in what sense people would find themselves in a position to choose these inexpensive, reduced-access connectivity plans that Radical Libertarian started out praising.

    Second, Radical Libertarian was subtle about it, but in this conclusion he came around to correcting his glaring excluded middle fallacy (er, one of them). Above, recall, he guffawed at the suggestion that ISPs would ever dare to cut off access to certain sites: "... which websites are allowed and which ones aren't" and so on. By the end, though, he has allowed for the possibility of what's actually proposed by the big-dollar opponents of net neutrality, namely, that they'll trim back the connection speed to non-favored sites/content while privileging the connection speed to favored sites/content. So, sure you'll get to the fart-sneezing panda video you've been dying to see, eventually, but not nearly as fast as you'll get to the screaming loud HD trailer for Pirates of the Goddamn Carribean XIII and Another Fucking Shrek: Oh Please, Not This Again.

    In short, let us wake up, sober up, and regard the libertarian arguments against net neutrality snoring and slobbering inelegantly onto the pillow beside us. We should say yes to net neutrality, and no to its opponents before we accept things we will later profoundly regret.