Thursday, September 30, 2010

Meat and Reasons

After rattling off several practical-consequentialist reasons against vegetarianism, Paul Sagar reels off some more reasons to stop worrying and eat some meat:
For people like me, the “clean hands”/“not in my name”/“I don’t want to be a beneficiary of nasty processes” type thoughts simply don’t have decisive motivational purchase. Other thoughts carry more weight. Like knowing that life as a vegetarian is considerably more difficult than one as an omnivore [Reason A]. Or believing that being the beneficiary of a process which would go on regardless of whether or not one abstained is no particularly bad thing [Reason B]. Or even just liking the taste of meat more than worrying (with somewhat pointless futility) about how it arrived on one’s plate [Reason C].

Accordingly, because I don’t feel that my personal integrity is compromised by meat-consumption, there’s simply no reason that I should give it up. Indeed, because my giving-up meat would have no consequences for any animals’ lives, even if I think killing animals (or making them suffer) is wrong, it doesn’t follow that I must go vegetarian.
It's difficult to determine what Sagar means by "integrity" in light of reasons he goes on to give.

Reason A is flatly false and weirdly misplaced. In the developed world, it is not difficult to keep a vegetarian diet. It can be inconvenient now and then, but it rarely rises even to that. Moreover, ease is not the same as right, nor is difficult the same as wrong.

As to Reason B, the belief that meat-eating will continue no matter what individuals do, this is only an educated guess about a future state of affairs, not a moral argument for or against anything. If Sagar looked ahead and saw a world of ten billion vegetarians, or ten billion newly-discovered planets peopled with ten billion vegetarians apiece, that too would say nothing about the right-or-wrong status of eating meat.

Reason C is just a straightforward concession that the enjoyment of meat matters more than the moral reasons offered against it, and here we arrive at what he means by "integrity" (or so I gather): he means only to say that the suffering of animals behind the production of meat does not bother him, or if it does, it's not enough to affect how he acts. He is not ambivalent about it, and whatever else is true, this strikes me as an honest stance.

In the spirit of honesty, I will admit that animal suffering doesn't trouble me very much either -- I can list off several morality-inflected concerns that reliably keep me awake at night, and the happenings at the nearest factory farm are not frequent visitors to the list. That said, I do care about it -- I do think the pain that farm animals feel is comparable with the pain I know, and that their experience of it more or less matches my experience of it -- and these concerns help to keep me vegetarian. I also keep to this diet for the benefit of my health.

Less concretely but perhaps more importantly, I practice it as a form of observance -- meat and the system by which we attain it is an unnecessary ugliness in the world, one among far too many, and I find value in consciously abstaining from it, whatever its attractions. That's integrity for me.

(via Normblog)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

That Happiest of Mediums

The current director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Francis Collins, is profiled in a recent New Yorker article by Peter Boyer, and he doesn't miss the opportunity to rattle off several of the most hackneyed anti-atheist tropes:

He was an agnostic when he went off to the University of Virginia, and by the time he was studying physical chemistry as a graduate student, at Yale, he’d become what he calls a “fundamentalist” atheist—the sort of non-believer who would share his dining table with a believer, just for the chance to expose the folly of faith. “I was fairly obnoxious about it,” he says.
It's not clear if "fundamentalist" is Collins's word or Boyer's, but either way, the tendentious representation of atheism is underway before he even gets to "obnoxious." It sounds like Collins was an asshole before he saw the light bouncing off of Jesus, but no, what seems more plausible is that, in hindsight, now-Christian Francis Collins regards his former-atheist self and interpolates "asshole," and in particular, seizes the moment of a profile in the New Yorker to score some anti-atheist bonus points. The "once I was lost -- and a total asshole" story is a just-so redaction we've heard many times from converts.

The manner in which he came to the one true belief system is another one we've heard before:
As a physician in training, he frequently found himself at the bedside of desperately ill patients, many of whom displayed a surprising equanimity and were only too happy to tell him why.  ... One day, an elderly woman suffering from untreatable acute angina asked Collins what he believed ... He had nothing to say, which slightly embarrassed him; he was more bothered by the realization that he didn’t know why he didn’t believe ...
For those playing Anti-Atheist Bingo as they read this, cross off the highlighted text on your playing card: back when he was an atheist, and was forced to confront Big Life Questions, Collins suddenly realized that he didn't know why he didn't believe in god. Soon after that, he pointed to a particular spot in the bleachers and drove the next pitch directly to that spot, winning game seven for his team; and then he cut down six tall oak trees with a single mighty blow of his ax; and then he went over Niagara Falls in a wooden barrel, twice.

Was he, at the same moment, or a nearby moment, seized with the realization that he didn't know why he didn't believe in Bigfoot? The Loch Ness monster? Unicorns? A teapot floating in orbit among the planets? Today, does he know why he doesn't believe in those things? I would hope so; I would like to suggest it's not difficult to answer those questions, and likewise to apply the same to whether god exists.

I don't want to go too far in trashing Francis Collins. He is an accomplished scientist and doctor, he is personally involved in trying to treat the gravely ailing Christopher Hitchens, and it's easy to imagine worse -- let's appreciate that President Chickenshit McOutreach didn't appoint, I don't know, Pastor Rick Warren to run the NIH. Speaking of whom, I am still waiting for the big payoff in public opinion that the president was hoping to attain by letting that bigoted sack of crap speak at his inauguration -- or did I already miss it?

Then again, and above all, I am just another insufferable atheist issuing obnoxious snarks, so readers are advised to ignore all of this unless and until I am, in a post-conversion glow, declaiming against my former folly and devotedly seeking that pitch-perfect compromise between bullshit and reality in all things, especially matters of medical research. You know, the happy medium that will resonate with every interested observer, get at least 60 votes in the Senate, inspire "tea party" louts to throw less scat, please every currently-serving and retired officer in every branch of the US armed forces, and set lions peaceably beside lambs.

Benware Again

If, in recent days, you've been seeing a Red Terror Alert such as the above when browsing this precious, precious blog, you'll be pleased to know -- if not already aware by virtue of being here to read this -- that it should now be gone. This is benware again, no longer malware.

The googles have traced the problem to something or other related to the blogrolling applet I used to have along the sidebar, but that's now gone, and with it, the [potential] malware. Or so I assume -- I never actually encountered the problem here for whatever reason, so I can't actually confirm this represents a fix. I do, however, believe almost everything I read, and I read this is a fix, so I believe it.

Please tell me if you find otherwise.

My thanks to Domestically Challenged for sending an image of the Red Terror Alert. 

The Lower Orders

I am slightly surprised that I got all of the Pew Religious Knowledge poll questions right, but frankly, I am not surprised that Americans in general, and American believers in particular, didn't do well with these questions.

One rueful observer of the poll results notes the performance of Catholics on a particular question of theology:
Barely half of all Catholics knew that when they take communion, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ according to Catholic doctrine.
This is sad. Not so very long ago, people were burned to death for having the wrong thoughts about the status of sacramental wine and crackers -- as an online Catholic encyclopedia puts it, soft-pedaling the role of Queen Mary mightily:
Mary and her advisers were probably right in thinking that religious peace was impossible unless these fanatics were silenced, and they started once more to enforce those penalties for heresy which after all had never ceased to be familiar. Both under Henry VIII and Edward VI men had been burned for religion, and Protestant bishops like Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley had had a principal hand in their burning. It seems to be generally admitted now that no vindictive thirst for blood prompted the deplorable severities which followed, but they have weighed heavily upon the memory of Mary, and it seems on the whole probable that in her conscientious but misguided zeal for the peace of the Church, she was herself principally responsible for them. In less than four years 277 persons were burned to death. Some, like Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley, were men of influence and high position, but the majority belonged to the lower orders. [emphases mine]
Perhaps it is "generally admitted" today that Bloody Mary was just a misunderstood defender of this or that, but if this poll establishes anything, it is that the "generally admitted" can often be a euphemism for what lazy dolts believe to be true.

It seems clear that while Americans do, in large numbers, label themselves as believers, show up at services, drop cash into donation plates, pretend that child rape isn't noteworthy when cherished authorities do it or conceal it, and otherwise pursue a god-addled life, they're taking little interest in the fundamental practices and tenets of the belief systems they avow, and even less in those of others.

It is generally admitted -- or is it? -- that people endowed with strong beliefs about things they barely understand soon enough become the lower orders that feed fires.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First It Gets Worse

In reply to Dan Savage's commendable "It Gets Better" video project, in which he assures young gay people that their lives will get better despite the small-mindedness (and worse) they face, a god fan has responded with what I take to be the decency and civility that critics commonly find so very, very lacking in the writings of "new atheists." Or maybe this is just simple, straightforward Christian Love, or maybe Jesus-emulating humility and compassion, or perhaps it is all of the above:

Billy Lucus, who hanged himself, obviously because he was gay, and unable to endure the guilt that the words of others prompted in him. This was indeed a tragedy, but not anywhere near the tragedy that Billy will discover in eternity when he faces the wrath of God upon rebellious and unrepentant sinners. Then, he will realize that his sin could not be atoned for by his own death, and he will realize that people like Dan Savage who encourage sin are deceivers. He will see them for what they are, the blind leading the blind. And he will realize that he has fallen into that ditch that the blind leading the blind inevitably fall into: that's eternal destruction and misery. Sadly, it's too late for Billy. For those who are viewing this video, however, their remains the opportunity of turning from sin to the obedience of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ."
In case you missed some of the Karen-Armstrong-esque theological nuance in that statement, the god fan wants everyone to know that the young man's suicidal despair was only a brief prelude to an eternity of condign suffering.

Dan Savage is right and this sack of crap is wrong. Stupid bigots such as the above will die away soon, and those of them who live on will quietly pretend they never held such views.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Bear Attack Decision Tree

Maybe you think the moment a bear begins to attack is the moment you have exhausted your very last options in this life. Well, dear reader, this precious, precious blog will thank you to leave the thinking to others. As this arresting image from Alaska attests, when a bear attacks -- I said when, not if -- you have the branches of a complex decision tree to navigate. Let's crawl our way through the available options:

  • "Don't run -- You can't outrun a bear." You can't, but I can -- I've finished several marathons, some of them without leg-cramping, and I have never seen a bear at the finish area of any of them, unless you mean the other kind of bear, in which case I have seen countless bears at the finish area. The point is, should you decide to outrun a bear, it will destroy you even more forcefully and painfully than it would have done without the aggravation of a foot chase. To run from a bear is to challenge it, to challenge a bear is to taunt it, and to taunt a bear is to anger it. Now, aren't you glad you read this? And I've only just started.
  • "Let the bear know you're human." Sure, why not? Share with it some of the information stored on the Voyager probe's golden record -- common greetings in Hindi, Persian, Dutch, English and other languages; music by Chuck Berry, Mozart, and the Georgian folk tradition; audio of the brain waves of Ann Druyan; assorted photographs of people going about their business, flashing their genitals, and so on. Better yet, don't venture outdoors without an exact copy of the golden record, which was, after all, designed to give non-human species a brief overview of who we are, what we are about, and why we should not be eaten. Why reinvent the wheel? Carl Sagan already did the work.
  • "If Attacked ..." Here the sign suggests surrendering to the bear in hopes it will find you boring, and to monitor for indications that the bear has gone past inflicting flesh wounds and has proceeded to the outright taking of bites. As sensible as this advice seems on the surface, I have to wonder if the mauling-predation line is so clear and bright from the perspective of the non-bear in the scenario. Granted, if the golden record has helped establish a basic rapport, you can ask the bear what its ultimate intentions are, but this strikes me as a longshot -- would you be favorably inclined to someone who just played you an hour of Ann Druyan's brain waves? No. No, you wouldn't. The better bet is to assume the bear is, by now, feeling agitated, taunted, and hungry.
Whether the above applies to the other kind of bear is a matter too delicate and provocative for the annals of this precious, precious blog.

UPDATE: one of my both readers, Sis B, alerted me to a significant news item in this fast-moving story of how humans can survive bear encounters:
[A Montana woman] was stirred after midnight by a tussle in the backyard of her home ... She went to investigate and found a 200-pound black bear attacking one of her two dogs, a 12-year-old collie. ... She told police the bear then charged her ... The bear took a swipe at her with its paw and tore her jeans. The woman jumped back and grasped the nearest object on her kitchen counter inside the doorway -- a 12-inch-long zucchini she had harvested earlier from her garden.

She flung the zucchini at the bear from a distance she estimated to be 3 feet. The vegetable bopped the bruin on the top of its head and the animal fled, Maricelli said.
It's an amazing story -- someone actually found a way to make use of zucchini? Lest the bears win, decency and public safety demand that the signage in Alaska be updated to reflect this news.

You Never Left

The most recent The Film Talk podcast discusses I'm Still Here, the Casey Affleck / Joaquin Phoenix vanity project that's soon to land in the discount DVD bins. Jett Loe considers the film a timely satire of the "dehumanizing" nature of a ruthless "celebrity system" that "depends ... on the exploitation of others."

I don't see exploitation as much as manipulation. People are manipulated, through non-stop propaganda, into thinking celebrities are to be loved, adored, admired, emulated, and whatever people want to believe about their fierce independent-mindedness, the methods of modern manipulation-- advertising, marketing, public relations, etc.-- work, and work brilliantly. They tell us what to think about celebrities and we dutifully think it.

When was the last time you read, saw, or heard anything that didn't cast Tom Hanks as a hero? Well, is he really a hero? In truth, we know Tom Hanks from his public appearances, on-screen roles, and from the image that "his people" have helped to cultivate. For all we know, he eats puppy-kitten stew in private, hires people to write computer viruses, and is secretly bankrolling the Fred Phelps "god hates fags" church.

Or people are manipulated into thinking something closer to the opposite -- we all know the script we're supposed to recite at the mention of, say, Tom Cruise. He has weird beliefs! Maybe his marriage isn't authentic! He's desperate to keep certain things hidden! He bullies people into silence! Or whatever. What if, in private, Tom Cruise is the only thing standing between us and the evil depredations of Tom Hanks?

Loe declares that the most vocal critics of this film exude a whiff of "defensiveness" in their reception it, and he could well be right. That's different from saying they're wrong. How should people react to being told, at film length, that their opinions have been shaped by efforts consciously designed to shape them?

What's the alternative?

We could, I suppose, refuse to draw any conclusions about celebrities until we know them as human beings. That would help us cut through the P.R. -- and yet, there are a few basic impracticalities to this. Does Tom Hanks want to hang out with the millions who watch his films? We've been led to believe he's very genuine and friendly, but there are limits, and as I outlined above, maybe he's too busy gathering up puppies and kittens to spend time befriending millions of people.

Perhaps we should ignore all celebrities? Do Affleck and Phoenix truly want that world --- the one in which the public simply tunes out celebrities? If this is their plaint, it strikes me as prima facie bad faith. Under that scenario, they go back to working some crap job in crap-town like the rest of us, and if they don't already know it, the life of obscurity comes with its own shortcomings. Perhaps they would be interested to learn that while, yes, we regular Joes and Josephinas don't have to expend any energy evading paparazzi, we are almost never approached or contacted by people who love us for what we consider to be only our below-average work. We are never invited to sexy Hollywood parties. No one points when we walk into a room, unless to indicate our fly is unbuttoned, and the only hush that falls over a room in our presence is the awkward kind.

In short, this satire seems to be riding on the back of exactly that which it is supposedly satirizing.

The singer of Iron Maiden is now a marketing executive for a rather unexciting company in England -- that, it seems to me, is what you do when you think the celebrity life is silly, phony, dull, dishonest, or what have you. You don't cut another record in which all the lyrics are about how stupid rock stardom, or even "the system of rock stardom," is.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

National Punctuation Day?!?

I can't believe I failed to commemorate National Punctuation Day yesterday -- sometimes I really, really loathe myself -- but I still plan to use punctuation it's not too late to participate in the traditional haiku contest:
This year we're trying something a bit more literary—our first National Punctuation Day® Haiku Contest, with the winners receiving a plethora of punctuation goodies.

Send your best 5-7-5 (syllables, that is) poetry to me at, and let the literary games begin! Haikus must be received by September 30 to be considered for prizes.
It doesn't quite say so, but I am making the assumption that the winning haikus will relate to punctuation in some way. With that assumption in my mind's haiku-generating module, I offer these inevitable winners:

Grammar nerds will say:
"Punctuation goes inside
the quotes." U-S-A!

Semicolons are
just like backup quarterbacks:

Read the usage guides:
the comma has nine uses,
each of them boring.

My 'grammar is boring' theme isn't likely to endear me to the judges, but life goes on.

Six Miles Under the Sun

Today I ran the "Best Dam" 10k in a time of 42:31 (6:51 min/mi pace, official results) and it reminded me of what a lovely and friendly place Estacada, Oregon is -- especially on a sunny day like the one we're having today, which puts everyone in the best possible mood.

Speaking of which, why am I sitting here writing a blog post instead of finding something to do outdoors? I have no idea.

My thanks to all the volunteers who made the Best Dam Run such a fine event, and my congratulations to all my fellow participants --- even the impertinent twerps who ran it faster than I did. Well done.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thy Will Be Done?

I pass along this marvelous comic from Married to the Sea without further comment save for this one by Jerry Coyne:
[T]he book [The God Delusion] does address—and refute—all of the most important theological arguments for the existence of God. Yes, of course others like Karen Armstrong, Terry Eagleton and John Haught have suggested new and different views of God, but is it Dawkins’s business to address every argument ever made for God? Had he done that, the book would have been five times as long and less influential. More important, the “new” arguments for God are supported by exactly as much evidence as the old ones: none. It’s curious that people like Melville who make the Courtier’s Reply almost never suggest which important arguments for God are being neglected by the Gnus. Perhaps Melville can direct us to some of the other good evidence for God, Jesus, and Mohamed that Dawkins and Company have overlooked? [emphasis mine]
What he said.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pornography, the Question

Out in the wilds of Oregon today, I came across a theology teaser -- it wasn't this one, but it seems to have come from roughly the same place. It said, simply,

Pornography? Job 31:1
If only because it referred to Job, which is one of the books of the Bible that's genuinely worth reading -- it has been the basis of quality movies, and perhaps of movies that seem to exist to give suicidal people the last little push they don't need -- so it succeeded in piquing my curiosity. What does Job 31:1 say in response to the word pornography phrased as a question? Might the passage throw some light on what pornography phrased as a question is meant to be asking?

So I looked to Job 31:1:
I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl.
Oh. Someone -- in this case, the Job character from the book of Job -- made a commitment not to look lustfully at women, and to the sign's credit, the passage does seem to relate to pornography. Specifically, it relates to the pornography as it existed in Job's day, whenever that was, which I assume was still back when you had to draw or etch it yourself.

I'm afraid to say the sign in the wilds of Oregon has failed to make its case, or really any case. To the extent it makes a case, it seems to be: once upon a time there was a guy named Job who promised not to look at naked women. In return for this promise and similar promises, an all-powerful king gave Job new possessions and wealth to replace what the king had unjustly taken from him earlier; and the king also set Job up with a new wife to replace the wife the king had killed earlier, with the encouragement to Job that he might have some kids with the new wife to replace the kids the king had killed earlier.

Maybe those strike you as the actions of a despicable tyrant, and if so, I give you the answer the Book of Job gives, which also has to be the true answer to "pornography?" Job 38:2:
Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?

World Class Twaddle! Two Bits a Gander!

Ophelia Benson flagged a pretty amazing bit of nonsense:

There are lots of priests, pastors and theologians in the Catholic Church and in many other denominations who would describe the resurrection as mystery or metaphor. What is essential in these branches of Christianity is the confession of faith in the resurrection, not a scientific explanation of how it happened.
As I was saying over at Eli's post elaborating on Ophelia's elaborations of the difficulties of confessing faith in a metaphor, we should step back and marvel at the bullshit within the bullshit: "resurrection as mystery or metaphor." Whuh? What's this anyway? We pick? Either mystery or metaphor? Is mysterious metaphor an option? What about metaphorical mystery? Or do those lead straight to excommunication and thereon to an eternity of sulfur, fires, broken glass, white hot ingots and such?

There's a danger in squinting too hard to make these kinds of things come into focus, but it's possible the twaddler means something like: "the good Catholic is required to assume that there is something to keep in mind with respect to this resurrection business. The righteous must ponder it and remember it warmly, and if this is pondering is done warmly and consistently enough, Jesus will explain it all in heaven, if anyone still cares enough about such questions to take time away from heaven's world-class theme parks, exotic destinations, and stunning video games."

Arguably it is sort of like the requirement that you assume your grandma means well even when she puts a layer of mayonnaise in the Thanksgiving Jell-O Tower, which comes with the demand that you do not grimace or choke when you eat all of it. And you must eat all of it.

Again, this comes with a great deal of squinting, which, by the way, never exonerates it from the criticism that, just as grandma's Jell-O is unspeakably unappetizing, so too the resurrection accounts are false. We can grunt and sweat and say it's otherwise, but it doesn't make it so.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

First Lines

Eli has collected some favorite first lines, and since this is an internets meme, I am required to participate:

People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade -- a lady with a dog. -Chekhov, "The Lady with the Dog."
As is his wont, Chekhov wastes no words squeezing a considerable amount of exposition out of a brief sentence: we are in a place with a promenade where people are telling things to one another, and where it makes sense to speak of newcomers, so there is already the hint of a gossipy social scene. Notice, too, how the reader is addressed as though receiving this gossip, so we are immediately asked to evaluate whether this reportage counts as news, and whether news or not, if it counts as anything to bother being discreet about.

Is it possible Chekhov was thinking of Herman Melville -- no, don't worry, not that Melville book -- the one that starts this way:
At sunrise on a first of April, there appeared, suddenly as Manco Capac at the Lake Titicaca, a man in cream-colors, at the waterside in the city of St. Louis. - The Confidence-Man
As is his wont, right here in the first words, Melville is undecided between a desire to lose his reader -- "Manco Capac at the Lake Titicaca"? only a footnote tells me this alludes to the mythical beginnings of the Incan founder -- and the desire to throw his reader into a richly-drawn world. Here too, as with Chekhov's story, we are receiving the reportage on small, low events that may or may not grow larger and broader in significance. That it is April Fools day suggests no clear answer, but underscores the ambiguities.

Vladimir Nabokov played with ambiguities, and it seems he knew Pascal:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. - Speak, Memory
If this autobiography consists of pensees, they are not going to reach too high -- only a sentence in, and Pascal's insight has already been demoted to common sense. Or does this mean the opposite, namely, that you won't get anywhere in this account without a solid grasp of Nabokov's intellectual influences? Again, Nabokov did enjoy his ambiguities.

I have more first lines, but not the time to lay them out.

Confused / Confusing

Kevin Drum reads the poll results and frets at the asymmetries between the two major parties in electoral politics:
About 40% of the electorate self-identifies as conservative and getting their votes is critical for any conservative politician. If you piss off a few moderates in the process, that's life. After all, if you win the conservative base convincingly, then on average you only need to hold on to the most conservative 10% of moderates to win an election.

But only 20% of the electorate self-IDs as liberal. So the math is exactly the opposite: you need to win nearly all the moderates in order to win an election. If you piss off centrists by playing too hard to the base, you'll lose.

This is a bummer, but it's reality, and lefties really need to suck it up and get less annoyed by the fact that politicians react to the world as it is, not as we wish it were. [emphasis mine]
It's funny he should put it that way -- "react to the world as it is, not as we wish it were" -- because the truth is almost exactly the reverse. The poll reveals that people who self-label as "conservative" outnumber people who self-label as "liberal," but this is nothing more than the outcome of rhetoric going back at least to the 1960s and escalating during the Reagan years under which "liberal" became a term of abuse. This rhetoric has succeeded through sheer repetition and in no small part because of a genuine asymmetry in wealth and resources powering the rhetoric.

The proof that this is nothing more than rhetoric comes, curiously enough, from other instances in which Kevin Drum frets over poll results. His summary:
[P]eople hate Democrats but hate Republicans even more; they're unsure if Obama has a clear plan for solving the nation's problems but they're absolutely sure Republicans don't; they think Democrats have better ideas than Republicans; they think Democrats are more likely than Republicans to help the middle class and small businesses; they blame George Bush and Wall Street for the crappy economy; they think the stimulus package probably improved the economy; they support Obama's plan to allow Bush's tax cuts for the rich to expire; they think Obama is doing more to improve the economy than congressional Republicans; and they hate Sarah Palin and are less likely to vote for anyone she supports. Oh, and they're going to kick Democrats out of office this November anyway.
So even if you don't accept the familiar elisions I've thrown in here (i.e., liberal equals Democrats and Obama, conservative equals Republicans and Congressional Republicans), which I admit are problematic in many ways, there is clearly a sort of cognitive dissonance operating at a mass scale.

The disconnect happens between the general and the particular, or, if you like, repetitive blabber and factual reality. You can practically hear the ceaseless chatter from Talk Radio and FoxNews lurking behind this result:

In fact, President Obama reduced taxes for 95% of Americans, but this fact can't compete with constant mewling amplified by gold-plated megaphones.

Discussing still more poll results, Kevin Drum pulls up another instance in which the generalities and the specifics part ways:
So: 49% of Americans disapprove of healthcare reform. That's not good. But wait! Only 40% actually want it repealed. The rest figure it should be given a chance even if they don't like it much. That's better. And if you tell them that repeal would also mean repealing the preexisting condition provision, only 19% want it repealed. That's better still. Now, none of this changes the broad political fact that "healthcare reform" as a standalone campaign pitch seems to be a loser. That's not what I expected this far after the bill was signed, but other polls confirm it. However, it's also the case that what the bill actually does seems to remain pretty popular. This poll only asks about one particular provision, but previous polls have gotten similar results for most (though not all) of the bill's other provisions.
There are details and slogans, self-labels and principles, rhetorics and realities. Americans have the right to vote whether or not they can tell these apart.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sally's Flanking Maneuver

Here's some more on season 4 episode 9 of Mad Men from Amanda Marcotte:

And that’s the same story for all three women we see in the final shot. Their faces tell it all: they’re so thwarted from their own desires by social expectations that they mainly feel confusion and distress. But I was even more intrigued by the shot where they all stood in horror over Sally as she threw her tantrum. One thing you can say for sure about Sally is she knows what she wants and she’s willing to work towards her goals, even if it inconveniences everyone around her. In the final shot, I suspect each woman staring off into space and thinking about how much they want in life is wishing they could grab a little more of that Sally Draper moxie.
I saw something a little less despairing in Sally's dramatic rebellion, which was explicitly staged to occur in the sight of four women -- or five if you count Betty, Sally's mother, who was hovering in the vicinity even if not watching the events in person. If their reaction was one of horror, it was a horror mingled with self-recognition, empathy, and admiration.

Each of the women has been there in some way or another -- faced with demands they cannot abide -- and while they surely admire Sally's eagerness to flee the conventions and expectations that would limit her, they also see the futility with which it ends: even after all the reasoning, bargaining, shouting, and running, Sally is handed from Don to Betty in what was staged as a prisoner exchange.

But here's the non-despairing part: I think Sally Draper can be seen as pushing the outer boundaries of what women can demand and how they can demand it. She is a radical. She is bold enough to demand reasons for the restrictions placed upon her -- at one point she demands of her father, "I want to live with you and I don't understand why I can't!" -- and when this is answered with assertions of authority rather than reasons, she escalates rather than backing down. She is willing to say, even shout, that the prevailing power relations are unjustifiable, and she isn't going to acquiesce or compromise merely because it would make things calmer for someone else.

In this she is establishing an outer flank, and in battle, a flank succeeds when it forces the enemy to fight on two fronts, or a wider front. Sally and her more insistent generation are coming in from the outer edge, even while Peggy, Joan, Faye, and the other women --  maybe even Betty? -- can make more substantial, more sweeping demands without seeming unreasonable.

There is a war between those who say there is a war and those who say there isn't. Even at her tender age, Sally knows she is in a fight, and she is widening its theater.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mad Men - Soup, Salad, Pot?

Here is a tidy summary of the closing moments of last night's very untidy Mad Men:
Joyce sums up women's auxiliary role in an extended, and confusing, metaphor ... She compares men to vegetable soup and women to pots, with no other purpose than helping men be the best soup they can be. Why can't women be the meal?
"Men are like this vegetable soup. You can't put then on a plate or eat them off a counter. So women are the pot. They heat them up, hold them, contain them. Who wants to be a pot? Who the hell said we're not soup?"
Confusing is right -- why would it be better to be the soup than to be the pot that forms it? Soup has no shape of its own; soup spoils; soup is often composed of odds and ends that don't belong; even if fresh, soup may or may not be appetizing or nutritious -- soup might be empty calories. It can easily be too weak, too salty, too chunky, lacking in spice. It requires its own specialized utensils and fixtures, and it spills easily; it can't finally defeat salad in its status as the default first course. There is no end to the trouble with soup.

In a way, the entire episode was taking shape -- so to speak -- right up until Joyce delivered that peroration. Before then, it had featured variations on a theme of women finding their way, articulating their needs and aspirations, and otherwise moving albeit haltingly toward self-determination, with greater and lesser success, pratfalls and all, while men haplessly tried to respond appropriately (Don, Bert and Roger), or worse and more commonly, while men tried to deny, dismiss, and deflect whatever they found troubling or challenging with ham-handed grand gestures (Peggy's beatnik suitor) and wise-cracks (every other male shown).

And then Joyce spoke of soup and pots, the beautiful women boarded elevators, and the doors closed.

The brilliance of Mad Men is in how it keeps us enthralled and yet always off-balance. Best of all, it refuses to fit any sort of pat, easy framework. That's how life is, and it's how only the very best tee-vee is.

Being Above the Fray

So far, so good -- or thereabouts, or close enough -- Montana GOP:

In their platform, Montana Republicans declared that the Constitution “be upheld in all of its entirety” and that all state and federal policies be “Constitutional in their effects, laws and practices.”
It's fair enough to propound an unwavering fidelity to the US Constitution, and to declare this announcement a matter of principle. It's fair enough until you follow that with several ways you'd scrap the US Constitution if you had your druthers:
– We support the repeal of the 16th amendment of the U.S. Constitution which authorizes a national income tax.

– We agree with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who stated that the U.S. Supreme Court does not have the sole authority to judge the constitutionality of federal laws. We hold with these men that the States not only have the right, but also the duty to nullify unconstitutional laws in order to protect their citizens
They adore the Constitution, and wish its terms to be followed to the Nth degree, in every jot and tittle, and to the last letter -- right up until they don't. They don't much care for the 16th amendment, and would see it torn out. They would similarly trash judicial review, which has been part of US Constitutional law since 1803, still in the first term of the third president, a mere 14 years after the US Constitution formally became the basis of US law, and 86 years before Montana even became a state.

Maybe I'm focusing on too small a weevil amid such a gigantic field of mouldering, half-eaten potatoes, and I realize that the Montana GOP isn't looking for my endorsement, but statements of principle should be a little firmer than this.

I gather the temptation is to ennoble a naked political agenda by anchoring it in a recognizable foundation -- Constitution! Founding Fathers! -- but since they openly despise aspects of that foundation, their actual foundation is something else -- something they're pointedly not talking about. I gather the desire is to appear to be beyond the give-and-take of mere politics, but they are not above the fray.

The same ruse crops up well beyond Montana's far right:
When sceptics point to particularly nasty bits of the Old Testament — for example the disgusting story of Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac (or his other son Ishmael according to Muslim tradition), religious apologists are apt to reply in exasperation: "Yes of course, but we don't believe that any more. We've moved on." And that is precisely my point. We have moved on. Theologians have moved on and have rejected the nasty verses (or written them off as 'symbolic' or 'allegorical' or 'poetic') while accepting the nice ones literally. But on what basis do they decide which verses to accept and which to reject? I don't know. But I do know that, whatever that basis is, it certainly cannot be scriptural.
There is something to be gained from frankly admitting that the US Constitution, the holy books, and every other human production are imperfect. That something is -- at minimum -- intellectual honesty, but the attractions of appearing to be above the fray are stubbornly strong.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


The Pope is nothing if not a setter of moral priorities:

The Vatican has classified the "attempted ordination" of women as one of the most serious crimes a Catholic priest can commit, putting it on a par with paedophilia, heresy and desecrating the Sacrament.

Anyone found to be ordaining women will be automatically excommunicated under the new rules.

The Vatican also announced new laws to tackle paedophilia, doubling the church's statute of limitations to 20 years and allowing bishops to sack priests without having to resort to a full canonical trial.
The reader is left to imagine the precise form an "attempted ordination" would take, and how it would differ from an actual ordination. That reverie is no match for the one needed to understand the viewpoint in which "descecrating the sacrament" -- say, dropping a few of of those Christ-flesh-flavored crackers on the floor and then putting them back on the plate without mentioning this to the priest, or using the baptismal water to rinse off the pews where people were sweating an hour before -- deserves the same penalty as raping children. I say raping children is far worse, and if that makes me worthy of excommunication, please excommunicate me.

Johnny Cash. Good.

Imagine a rock-country hybrid artist choosing to perform in front of hundreds of men doing hard time in a notorious prison -- say, San Quentin. Imagine this performer eschewing crowd-pleasing fare (e.g., the cops are crooked, the justice system is a sham, women aren't worth the trouble -- you have to admit this theme would go over well in a maximum-security prison) in favor of a song on the theme of redemption, specifically, redemption from a life of violence.

You've just imagined Johnny Cash, circa 1969:

If anything in the realm of being an artist requires courage -- political courage, physical courage -- this is it. They don't make country-rock hybrid stars like they used to; or maybe they do, and I just don't know it. I'd love to be proven wrong in my half-assed sweeping generalizations (all of them, not just this one).

Friday, September 17, 2010

Friday Crap Simile Blogging

Andrzej Lukowski tries to describe Neko Case's voice with a "series of crap similes":

It’s like bells tolling at night. It’s like being buried in red dirt. It’s scorched earth and starlight and murder and suffocation and rust and blood and molten bronze and lots of other images clearly subliminally influenced by the fact she has red hair. I dunno… I guess she sounds like a country artist, somebody like Loretta Lynn, if you just ripped away the technique and mannerisms and everything but the elemental essence and spun it back out, dark, low and ominous. She is, by-the-by, a superb lyricist, but when the voice gets fully enmeshed in the blasted country noir guts of a song like of ‘Ghost Wiring’, ‘Deep Red Bells’ or ‘Things That Scare Me’, it all goes rather further than words.
Not all crap is equal. "Bells tolling at night" is getting there, and I can see the aptness of "starlight," "molten bronze," and "dark, low, and ominous," in several instances, but I wouldn't compare her voice to "scorched earth," "murder," "rust," "blood," or "suffocation" -- these make thematic cameos in what she sings about, but they don't work as descriptions of how she sings. I don't even want to know how a voice would sound if it merited comparison with being "buried in red dirt."

I don't want to be too hard on Andrzej Lukowski; he admires her poetry and her voice, as I do, and it's no easy thing to describe the sound of a voice. The thing is to listen to it.

Below is a fan-made video of "Ghost Wiring," and maybe all things are fair in love, war, and fan-made videos, but I would have applied these visuals to a different Neko Case song, perhaps "Star Witness" or "South Tacoma Way." "Ghost Wiring" is more about pining for a lost sense of home and place, the place being Washington*, where she spent the lion's share of her childhood.

Whatever the video accompaniment -- none is required, surely -- "Ghost Wiring" is a superb song:

Ghost Wiring from Andrew McCalman on Vimeo.

* No. No, I will not call it "Washington state." In the realm of place-names, Washington refers to a state. To refer to the similarly-named city built on a swamp where lobbyists govern the USA, call it by its name, "Washington D.C." or just "D.C."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Our Incapacities and their Contrary


The religious man is happy in his imagination; he has all things in nuce; his possessions are always portable. Jehovah accompanies me everywhere; I need not travel out of myself; I have in my God the sum of all treasures and precious things, of all that is worth knowledge and remembrance. But culture is dependent on external things; it has many and various wants, for it overcomes the limits of sensational consciousness and life by real activity, not by the magical power of the religious imagination. Hence the Christian religion also. as has been often mentioned already, has in its essence no principle of culture, for it triumphs over the limitations and difficulties of earthly life only through the imagination, only in God, in heaven. God is all that the heart needs and desires – all good things, all blessings. “Dost thou desire love, or faithfulness, or truth, or consolation, or perpetual presence? – this is always in him without measure. Dost thou desire beauty? – he is the supremely beautiful. Dost thou desire riches? – all riches are in him. Dost thou desire power? – he is supremely powerful. Or whatever thy heart desires, it is found a thousandfold in Him, in the best, the single good, which is God.” But how can he who has all in God, who already enjoys heavenly bliss in the imagination, experience that want, that sense of poverty, which is the impulse to all culture? Culture has no other object than to realise an earthly heaven; and the religious heaven is only realised or won by religious activity.
Or, to take another view, one explicitly and avowedly indebted to Feuerbach, that of Karl Marx:
That which is for me through the medium of money – that for which I can pay (i.e., which money can buy) – that am I myself, the possessor of the money. The extent of the power of money is the extent of my power. Money’s properties are my – the possessor’s – properties and essential powers. Thus, what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness – its deterrent power – is nullified by money. I, according to my individual characteristics, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honoured, and hence its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am brainless, but money is the real brain of all things and how then should its possessor be brainless? Besides, he can buy clever people for himself, and is he who has power over the clever not more clever than the clever? Do not I, who thanks to money am capable of all that the human heart longs for, possess all human capacities? Does not my money, therefore, transform all my incapacities into their contrary?
Either way -- if indeed these are two truly distinct views -- how much of life is swallowed up with accounting for an making up for our incapacities?

(via a swerving path that started at Ken MacLeod)

The Very Dumb Many

This must have been predestined under the terms of Calvinist theology:

A Christian college in Grand Rapids, Mich., has withdrawn its invitation to Canadian indiepop group, the New Pornographers, citing the band's objectionable name.

"After weeks of discussion and consideration, the irony of the band's name was impossible to explain to many," the Christian school, Calvin College, wrote on its website.

"The band's name, to some, is mistakenly associated with pornography.

"Consequently, Calvin, to some, was mistakenly associated with pornography.
Maybe I just don't understand the finer points of Calvinist discourse well enough, but that last part, "mistakenly associated with pornography," pretty adequately explains it, even for the dolts for whom the first part, "the irony of the band's name," is not clear enough.

The band makes music, not pornography. They invoke pornography in an ironic fashion; it would be a mistake to link them to actual pornography. What else is there to say?

I remind the reader these are words from the college's own press release: "After weeks of discussion and consideration, the irony of the band's name was impossible to explain to many." These "many" are evidently very, very stupid, and I don't mean that ironically.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stephen Colbert Makes His Case for Our Species

Yesterday's Colbert Report was one of the episodes that deserves to go into the next civilization sampler we shoot into outer space in hopes of ingratiating ourselves to advanced alien life forms that will otherwise conquer, enslave, or eat us.

It would be a shame to miss Colbert channeling the brilliance of Peter Sellers from Dr. Strangelove.

Don't stop there -- Colbert's guest, Sean Wilentz, discussed his new book about Bob Dylan, and suggested "Chimes of Freedom" in reply to Colbert's request for a good starting point for coming to appreciate Dylan's music.

I'm not the one to say if this is an ideal entry point to Dylan's music -- I managed to avoid his greatness for far too much of my life -- but I can say that every time anyone discusses a song by Bob Dylan, or plays part of one, it immediately sends me to play it. And "Chimes of Freedom" can't be played, heard, or read too many times, no matter what else is true.

Technology of the Future - The Thirty-Five Milli-Meter Film-Camera

It's just as T. Herman Zweibel observed in a slightly different context:

The insufferable downy-cheeked technocrats in my employ at the Onion News Net-Work have informed me that, due to some folderol about worm-holes aboard fantastical ships that ply the very oceans of the sky, my news organization can now see the future! Naturally I had them flogged for attempting to "shine me on," but my accountants tell me that they were speaking the truth. To which I said piffle—why would any-one in their right mind need to know the future?
Quite right, and yet the future has been visualized, and it takes the form of a method of portraiture that could revolutionize portraiture. Brace yourself for the Kodak version:

And now, the Vivitar version:

Most people will agree these ads bear eerie similarities with one another, suggesting that the laboratories of Kodak and Vivitar have stumbled upon these advances simultaneously -- each features the same old man snapping photographs at the viewer, the same old woman forcing the camera into the face of an unwitting child, the same old man forcing photographs into the faces of relations, the classic tell of a rip-off ("not sold in stores"), the same complaints about wires and screens.

This much is certain: in the future, as is true in the present, old people will be considered easy marks for hucksters and advertisers.

(via Portland Mercury)

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cal Thomas Wants a Purge

Cal Thomas has announced the terms of the change he wants to see in the world:

We are doing a poor job of fighting the terrorists at home if we continue to allow Muslim immigrants, especially from Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, into America. We won't win this war if we permit the uncontrolled construction of mosques, as well as Islamic schools, some of which already have sown the seeds from which future terrorists will be cultivated. We won't win this war if we continue to permit the large-scale conversion to Islam of prison inmates, many of whom become radicalized and upon release enlist in al-Qaida's army.

Even Syria understands the threat better than our own government. The New York Times reported on Sept. 3 that the Syrian government has asked imams for recordings of their Friday sermons and has begun closely monitoring what is taught in religious schools: "(Syria), which had sought to show solidarity with Islamist groups and allow religious figures a greater role in public life, has recently reversed course, moving forcefully to curb the influence of Muslim conservatives in its mosques, public universities and charities."

What does Syria know that we refuse to acknowledge out of fear of offending "sensibilities"?

We must purge the evil from among us, or else. [emphasis mine]
I quote the entirety of the statement because there's no obvious way to truncate its nauseatingly unabashed totalitarianism: Thomas culminates his wish-list of repressions -- Shutter schools! Halt immigration! Cease construction of mosques! -- by upholding Syria as a model of political economy.

This makes a certain kind of sense in light of the only difference Thomas can manage to detect between Syria and the USA, namely, our tendency toward palsied "sensibilities" contrasted with their steely, autocratic resolve. I suspect that by "sensibilities" he means something along the lines of "fair play" and "empathy," but these words barely conceal the dismissal of a law-bound, constitutional legal order.

He could not be clearer about what he wants to purge.

Skink! (Not a Prequel to The Exorcist)

When I first saw this magnificent photograph of a skink at Pharyngula, I knew I had to post on it, but I thought I would end up explaining that it's a CGI rendering from a forthcoming Hollywood piece of crap featuring a talking skink who is also, as with roughly 7 in 10 characters from current Hollywood features, a vampire, a demon, a teenage vampire, a teenage demon, or a woman screaming about one of the above.

But no! This little darling is real and interesting:
Evolution has been caught in the act, according to scientists who are decoding how a species of Australian lizard is abandoning egg-laying in favor of live birth.

Along the warm coastal lowlands of New South Wales (map), the yellow-bellied three-toed skink lays eggs to reproduce. But individuals of the same species living in the state's higher, colder mountains are almost all giving birth to live young.

Only two other modern reptiles — another skink species and a European lizard—use both types of reproduction.
In principle, every creature is as much an evolutionary transitional form as any other, but skinks seems more transitional than others: snake, lizard; oviparous, viviparous.

A little closer to home -- depending on where you live -- take note of this feature of the southern prairie skink:
If approached, this species is quick to hide under some kind of cover, such as a rock or log. If capture is attempted, care must be taken since the tail is easily detached. The detached pieces will wiggle, providing a distraction to any would-be predator. Although a new tail will be regenerated, a lot of energy is required for this process and a regrown tail will always be suboptimal to the original.
It is distracting! Distractingly macabre. They're also bitey, but not, as far as I know, vampire or demon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fables On Fables

I believe Aesop wrote a fable about this:
ThinkProgress attended the anti-Park 51 rally near Ground Zero on Saturday and witnessed placards and interviewed dozens of attendees. Not surprisingly, many of them echoed the right-wing noise machine’s anti-Islam rhetoric of the past few months:
  • PARK 51 A VICTORY MONUMENT: “History shows us that they do build where they have conquered,” said one woman. “We came, we conquered and now we’re putting our mosque on this sacred spot. That’s what we believe,” said another.
  • ATTACKS ON ISLAM: One attendee said, “They kill in the name of their god, it is not a peaceful religion,” while another claimed, “I don’t think Islam is religious at all.” “They’re not peaceful people,” one woman said. “Islam is a political system parading as religion,” said a gentleman we talked to.
  • ATTACKS ON IMAM RAUF: “I think he’s a liar,” a rally-goer said, adding, “It’s gonna be a Sharia law mosque which, they believe in the Jihad.” “His intentions are not what he says,” said another attendee. “Hamas’s financier is financing this,” said another.
Islam comes in many varieties, and I would be the last to obscure the reality that those multitudes include hostile, hidebound, intolerant, inhuman fixations that very much deserve a vigilant response. But apart from right-wing mewling, there is little connecting the proposed community center with the dangerous, malevolent fringes of the Islamic world, contrary to the most elevated rhetoric we have heard in recent days. Imam Rauf is reasonable by the standard of Muslim leaders; I agree this is not nearly reasonable enough, but a "reasonable enough" form of Islam, like a "reasonable enough" form of Christianity, accommodates a genuinely pluralistic and egalitarian society and doesn't resemble these faiths as they've been practiced for centuries. This is not to say their traditional or established status justifies them.

The aim ought to be to ground the assessment in reality, not what gas-bags are yelling during the political season. As Aesop recorded in his fable, the trouble with screaming about false threats is that it inures everyone to actual threats and actual attempts to obscure the dangers; in the present case, there are genuine dangers in taking the Koran and allied traditions too seriously.

All of it is proof enough, for any with lingering doubts, that the 'culture wars' are here to stay, no matter how frequently or how far anyone bends to mollify the panics (real, fake, and mixed) that periodically erupt. Amanda Marcotte:
I get that people are sick and tired of it, and that’s why they invest in ideas like, “Electing Barack Obama will bring an end to the culture wars”, which is what Ann quotes Andrew Sullivan basically saying. But too bad. Politics isn’t your entertainment. The culture wars aren’t some movie that you’ve seen so many times that it’s lost its entertainment value, and so you can just change the channel. The culture wars are going to drag out for a long ass time for a number of reasons. One is that the social changes that we’re going through are too profound to be absorbed so rapidly.
One of these appears to be the fact that Muslims live in the USA and, from time to time, seek building permits. This is not novel, of course, but at this moment, gold-plated bullhorns are sexing up its implications. It's important to try for clarity on where the false and the true converge and where they diverge.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ask a Stupid Question ...

The above is the result I received upon completing an online "What kind of Christian are you?" quiz, and it goes to show that for every stupid question there is a misleading answer. The correct answer is "I am not a Christian," and the non-stupid form of the question would be, "To what form of Christianity do you object the least?" The quiz's constituent questions are, if anything, worse than the one that frames the whole of the quiz. Consider #5:

A "liberal" Christian of the sort this quiz declared me would find it hard to choose between the first two options, especially if "no single account is necessarily more accurate than the next" is read to encompass "each account is equally unreliable," and so long as "a complete picture of the historical Jesus" is read to encompass complete in scare quotes, so that it means something more like, "the gospels are among the primary texts from which Jesus's sketchy history has been stitched together."

Meanwhile, it's not difficult to imagine a committed Christian finding it difficult to choose only one of these, as they're not truly exclusive of one another. Consider the second and third: nothing in item two, as worded, suggests the gospel writers' biases and perspectives are incompatible; meanwhile, nothing in item three, as worded, requires that the identity of the gospel writers be firmly established. Nothing in the first three items contradicts the emphasis in the fourth on the clarity and moral instructiveness of the gospels. And so on.

Question three is worse:

The "largely mythological" of the fourth option is perfectly compatible with the "mixture of history and myth" of the third option. Also, the "people blinded by faith" mentioned in the fourth can include "the church" that was "guided by the holy spirit" mentioned in the third, with the "guided by the holy spirit" being the way believers characterize their faith-fueled blindness. From their perspective, they were "guided by the holy spirit" as they cherry-picked ancient texts; from other perspectives -- mine but not only mine -- they cherry-picked ancient texts based on, well, any number of biases and predilections.

Online quizzes should try harder. This one is a wreck.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Holy Crap an American Kestrel!

Earlier today, as I ran along the banks of the crystal-clear waters of the Columbia River, I came upon a small hawk-like bird I immediately knew was not one of the Red-Tailed Hawks we commonly see in these parts.

The gleaming copper coloration of its back told me it was a bird I had never seen before (or never consciously) -- it was of a shade and intensity one doesn't commonly see in nature or easily forget -- and upon subsequent research on the internets and my two bird guides, I determined the plumes in question belonged to an exquisite American Kestrel.

This images above, lovely as they are, don't do justice to the bird I saw. The sight of it was enough to make a normal person into a "birder," or some other form of tedious panter that I am not presently. 

Previous entries in the series, each as worthwhile as this one: Holy Crap a Chukar!, Holy Crap an Osprey!, and Holy Crap a Bald Eagle!

Two Quotes, Somehow Related

Henry David Thoreau:

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are. We have had to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable and that we need not come to open war. We meet at the post-office, and at the sociable, and about the fireside every night; we live thick and are in each other's way, and stumble over one another, and I think that we thus lose some respect for one another. Certainly less frequency would suffice for all important and hearty communications ... The value of a man is not in his skin, that we should touch him.
Today, etiquette is as antiquated as, say, citing Henry David Thoreau; and yet, so too is the practice of meeting at the post-office and at three daily meals. So where does that leave us? I have no idea.

Jonathan Franzen:
People who have a depressive cast of mind are usually the funniest people you meet, and there's nothing like putting a couple of Eeyores into the text to make it at least a little bit funny. What else? Why did I want depressives in here? It's, you know, most interesting people become somewhat depressed at some point in their life, and I'm not writing books for people whose lives are perfectly great. People whose lives are perfectly great probably don't need to read books like the kind I write.

Only if you have some regular connection with some kind of darkness or difficulty or conflict does serious fiction begin to matter. [emphasis mine]
I report, you decide.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Past the Horizon

A comment from JRDS a few posts back observes as follows:

It is extremely difficult to understand how the heck a single-celled organism could have originated via purposeless laws of nature. Consider the cell wall, DNA, mitochondria. Even the simplest of living cells looks more like an extremely sophisticated machine than it does a meaningless purposeless matter + chemistry event.
The difficulty of understanding evolution does not count either for or against its veracity. The same applies to the difficulty of understanding the specific evolutionary history of any given organism -- the complexity of the account doesn't imply anything about its truth-value. Some things are intuitive and simple yet false; other things are counterintuitive and abstruse yet true. There's no good reason to expect the universe to conform to the limits and biases of the human mind; there's even less reason to expect the universe to conform to the contours of your mind. The exact same applies to my mind or anyone's mind -- that's not a cheap jape, or if it is, it applies to every person.

JRDS continues that going from simple organisms to
... complex mammals and to people, the complexity seems way too much to explain without some kind of conscious creative force -- what that may be -- we certainly don't have enough data to know. But that such a conscious creative force doesn't exist, we certainly can't assume.
I agree there's no use in merely assuming the existence or non-existence of a "conscious creative force" and then treating the assumption as a warranted conclusion. That kind of assuming is a dead end; rather I balk at believing it to be true or treating it as a valid working hypothesis because there simply isn't any good reason to do either. As a truth claim, it lacks a basis in reason and evidence. As a working hypothesis, it has been suggested and analyzed at length, and has not generated anything but additional speculations that are, themselves, even less fruitful and plausible.

Moreover -- as David Hume covered more thoroughly in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion than I could, and certainly more so than I will here -- there's actually no precedent in nature that proceeds from consciousness to life. We know of our own consciousness, and something of how it operates; it does interesting things, but it doesn't generate forms of life. New life forms always rise from extant life forms, and precisely how and when this process started is the subject of ongoing research. As above, I favor seeking the answers rigorously and methodically rather than assuming an answer and declaring the assumption to be the final truth of the matter.

I don't know and I don't pretend to know "through faith" or otherwise, but I do know that I can't reject the possibility of a conscious creative something merely because Catholics make bad arguments.
Whatever arguments Catholics make or fail to make, I reject the possibility of a "conscious creative something" unless and until there's reason and evidence for accepting it.

Returning to where this began, with those poor arguments made by a Catholic: if the "conscious creative something" is, in principle or by definition, beyond the limits of our perceptions and powers of reason, then we've already said too much about it. If it's amenable to methodical scrutiny, I favor doing the work of that scrutiny in good faith, noting the results, and moving forward on the basis of the findings.

The coldness of it was her final gift

This is my contribution to Sad Don Draper, my favorite new thing for what I expect to be upwards of the next ten minutes.

Speaking of favorite new things, the episode from which the Don Draper face is taken, "The Suitcase," was magnificent. Suffice to say that if you're not already watching Mad Men, you're depriving yourself of something truly exceptional.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Poem of the Day: "Man Carrying Thing"

This poem resists the intelligence by a series of hand-offs -- from a commentary on poetry to the illustration, to the figure, to the thing, to the parts, to thoughts, and then to a "bright obvious" that is far from it. Maybe it is a dream standing motionless in the cold, resisting intelligence? Maybe not.

Wallace Stevens, "Man Carrying Thing"

The poem must resist the intelligence
Almost successfully. Illustration:
A brune figure in winter evening resists
Identity. The thing he carries resists
The most necessitous sense. Accept them, then,
As secondary (parts not quite perceived
Of the obvious whole, uncertain particles
Of the certain solid, the primary free from doubt,
Things floating like the first hundred flakes of snow
Out of a storm we must endure all night,
Out of a storm of secondary things),
A horror of thoughts that suddenly are real.
We must endure our thoughts all night, until
The bright obvious stands motionless in cold.

(via 3quarksdaily)

The Waving Wheat Sure Smells Like Hog Fat

Many things are wrong in my home state of Oklahoma, not least being the continuing belief that cigarettes and gravy are kinds of fruit:

For the fruit goal of two or more servings a day, the data showed that in 2009:
* 32.5% of Americans met the goal
* That proportion decreased from 34.4% in 2000
* Four states had small increases in progress toward the fruit goal
* 12 states had rates of 35% to 45% for the fruit goal
* Oklahoma had the fewest residents who met the goal (18.1%)
I'm pretty sure they sell fruit at Wal-Mart -- chocolate-covered raisins if nothing else -- and no doubt at rock-bottom prices, so it's not clear why the rate of fruit consumption in Oklahoma should be so abysmal.

On the other hand, this can only mean the residents of the state will continue drawing a disproportionate share of Medicare, Medicaid, and other public funds to treat health effects of poor diet even while electing the most strident "anti-government" wing nuts on the scene. And that never gets old.

If you're not hungry enough to eat an apple, you're not hungry -- this adage applies everywhere, even in Oklahoma. If you're hungry, eat an apple -- or a pear, peach, apricot, orange, banana, mango, strawberry, etc. But be warned -- if it is slathered in gravy, smells like fried meat, or comes with a printed warning that mentions the hazards of nicotine, check the receipt carefully. It's probably not fruit. Try again.

Beach Boys 1 to 10

Norm Geras requests lists of favorite ten songs by the Beach Boys, but I have to say I admire them in a "more in the breach than the observance" sense. Too many musicians I admire cite the Beach Boys (or Brian Wilson specifically) as an influence, so I conclude my not-quite embrace of their music indicates a shortcoming in my own tastes rather than any flaw of theirs.

That said, "God Only Knows" is a masterpiece. I will leave the other nine to more ardent fans of the band.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Really Liked

Via Gizmodo, this tag cloud diagram -- I think it's called a tag cloud diagram -- represents the actual list of things white man-people like based on OKCupid's googolplex of statistics. I don't like very many of these things -- Jeep? Grilling? Tom Clancy? Really?

The diagram of what white woman-people like is no better:

Ladies -- Ireland, bonfires, and flip-flops? Is there a connection?

What the hell is up with NASCAR? It's on both diagrams, when it shouldn't exist at all.

Trees Break the Sidewalk

Today is Neko Case's birthday, and this is "Star Witness" --

Burning Korans - Reasons For and Against

There are good reasons and bad reasons to burn copies of the Koran. A few of the good reasons include ...
  • It's dangerously cold and there's nothing else that can sustain a life-saving fire.
  • To subject the premise behind the title of Fahrenheit 451 to real-world, experimental scrutiny -- does paper really burn at 451 degrees? We would do well not to take such assertions on faith. Added bonus: this would subject the theme of the book to experimental scrutiny as well.
  • It's a rainy day and we are free.
  • Those marshmallows won't cook themselves; it's going to require fire.
  • A pallet of recently-printed Korans slides off a delivery truck and onto the parking lot of a gas station. The pallet collides with one of the gasoline pumps, causing several gallons to spill onto the concrete, but fortunately, most of it is absorbed by the paper of the Korans. But oh no! In his rush to shut off the master valve to the damaged pump, the gas station attendant  runs outside carrying a lit cigarette. He notices his mistake just in time to back away, but still a small bit of smoldering ash falls to the ground and sets the spilled fuel ablaze. Before anyone can even think of responding, all the Korans are reduced to ash.

    In the ensuing investigation of what seems like a terrible accident, it becomes clear that the delivery truck driver is disenchanted -- with his boss over recent changes to his work schedule, with the dawning recognition that he'll never get a sit-down job in the dispatch office, and with raving mobs who think their tantrums over symbols and taboos should control what others do. Also, it was a rainy day and we are free, so in the end, the weight of evidence suggested he purposely neglected to secure the load.
The reasons for burning Korans given by the publicity-hungry preacher in Florida are not, by contrast, good ones:
"We are not convinced that backing down is the right thing," Jones, a gray-haired, mustachioed preacher and author of a book titled "Islam is of the Devil," told a crowd of reporters in a brief statement made in the grassy yard in front of his stone-and-metal church.

"A burning of the Koran is to call attention that something is wrong," said Jones, wearing a gray suit and a tie.
He had us at "Islam is of the Devil," which signifies that the goober from Florida is not interested in free expression or any similar principle, but in a tedious holy war. He sees his favorite ancient tales pitted against another set of ancient tales and wants his tales to prevail. Evidently he can't imagine a better victory than burning copies of their tales, and people so unimaginative deserve victories so paltry.
The planned event comes near the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and amid heightened tensions in the United States over a proposal to build an Islamic cultural center and mosque near the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks in New York. Opponents of the building plan say it is insensitive to families of the victims of the attacks.
They do say that, and this is because they cannot -- or want to foster this inability -- distinguish All Muslims from the 9/11 attackers. Or maybe they lack the imagination, or can't be bothered to check into the matter because they're lazy, or wish to foster the same compound of idiocy, malice, lassitude, and lack of imagination. People as unobservant as that deserve to be offended.

No one has a right not to be offended. It's a rainy day and we are free.