Monday, January 31, 2011

Bacon Is the New Broccoli

Let's face it, this Egypt thing has pretty well tapped out, so upon a slow news cycle, why not consider bacon?

It seems that bacon has a way of awakening carnivorous desires within even some of the preachiest of vegetarians. And we set out to find out why.

We asked some scientists who study how food tantalizes the brain, and sociologists who've looked closely at vegetarianism, about bacon's seductive powers.

Our story was familiar to Johan Lundstrom. He's a scientist who runs a lab at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. He studies how the brain processes sensory information, like smell, for a living ... Because bacon is one- to two-thirds fat and also has lots of protein, it speaks to our evolutionary quest for calories, Lundstrom says. And since 90 percent of what we taste is really odor, bacon's aggressive smell delivers a powerful hit to our sense of how good it will taste.
Bacon is powerless against this preachy vegetarian. If I had a piece of bacon for every time I have declined an opportunity to eat bacon, I would have a lot of bacon. And I wouldn't know quite what to do with it. Do songbirds eat it? I have been trying to keep them fed during the winter months. My mom and granny were very, very fond of bacon in their day. Many times I have marveled at a perfectly sensible menu item turned to fatty excess by the addition of bacon.

As a topic, bacon is truly inexhaustible.

Meanwhile -- not that anyone cares -- the legitimacy of Egypt's regime is surely rock-solid, so it's unclear what all the fuss is about. Mubarak's faction has routinely won well above 80% of the popular vote!

For what little it's worth, I stand by the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. Bacon does not matter.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Saturday Mentionables Blogging

I offer a list of mentionables:

  • Sam Harris replies to criticisms of The Moral Landscape, chiefly to those made by Russell Blackford. I believe they have entered the talking-in-circles stage of the dispute over these matters.
  • It is wrong to laugh at this story from The Onion:

    Autistic Reporter Covers Gathering Of Crying People
  • Today I took delivery of the Married to the Sea book, which completely transforms the Married to the Sea experience in that the comics appear on paper rather than on a computer monitor. Yes! It comes with an index and, allegedly, twenty new comics never seen on monitors.
  • For the sake of Frank Kermode and Simon Mayo, I note that the google ngram tool establishes that the predominant English spelling of dilemma has been dilemma, not dilemna, for at least 500 years, notwithstanding minor surges in the use of dilemna in the 18th century. The chart shows it:
  • For Frank Kermode's sake, I add that Inception was not the best film of 2010 or any other year in memory; that making a film with a challenging-to-follow story is not the same as making a film that laudably appeals to the intelligence of viewers -- if that's all it took, then Terminator IV colon Salvation and the last two or three Matrix films would count as "smart" films, instead of what they are, thoroughly confused narratives with a couple of Big Ideas tossed in; and that Christopher Nolan's directorial and creative work in The Dark Knight was better than his work in Inception because Inception didn't make any fucking sense within the terms of its own fictional world. My previous treatments of Inception can be found here and here; and of The Dark Knight here and here for readers enraptured by what I've written here.
And so it came to pass.

In Which the Reader Is Invited to Feel My Pain

Take a song, any song. No, scratch that -- take a song that, for idiosyncratic reasons, carries deep personal significance for you. Maybe it's a song you consider to be among the better songs of one of your favorite performers -- one of the first selections you make when recommending the performer's music, say. Or maybe it's a song whose lyrics speak to you in a particular way; or one that includes a performance on a musical instrument that puts you in awe; or maybe it's a song that you don't enjoy on its merits but that serves, flaws and all, as the soundtrack of a specific set of cherished recollections.

Take the title of that song and imagine it re-purposed for something so monstrous, ugly, and foul that it threatens to undo your connection to the song, if not to abandon the very idea of music.

In other words, imagine, in my case, Stereolab's "Baby Lulu" (lyrics) and then imagine it now buried beneath this unspeakable mountain of shit:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Poem of the Day: "Go Long"

Joanna Newsom's "Go Long" can be understood as a reply to --or an augmentation of -- Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."


Or don't -- I'm not the boss of you.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I Can See This

Brazilian runner with a profound longing for death (via KaiChanVong)
The New York Times has identified a new and terrifying menace -- people who walk or run while wearing headphones. At the risk of attenuating the horror, I note the story's statistics are confused [emphases mine in all citations below]:
Pedestrian fatalities increased slightly for the first time in four years in the first six months of 2010, according to a report released last week by the Governors Highway Safety Association ...
Deaths are on the rise, or they were for six months. Cower! Whimper! And yet --
Nationally, pedestrian traffic fatalities had dropped to 4,091 in 2009 from 4,892 in 2005, the report stated.
Oh. Somehow, 2009 -- evidently the last year for which full-year records exist -- saw a record low in pedestrian deaths, even as it was, for its time, the most MP3-player-rich year in human history.

A report in the WaPo confirms we are not being visited by a Plague of Pedestrian Deaths in the MP3 Age:
Pedestrian fatalities account for 12 percent of all roadway deaths - 4,092 in 2009 ... That year, overall traffic deaths dropped to their lowest level in 60 years.
Back to the NYT, though -- hair on fire!
“One of the reasons we think the trend may be turning negatively is because of distracted pedestrians,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the safety group.
To summarize the statistics presented: after 60 years of improvement, the first half of 2010 saw a slight uptick in pedestrian deaths. If you're not wetting yourself at that -- cheeks and pants -- you're not paying attention. Focus, damn you! Take off those headphones!

If we are to endure as a species, the only sensible response is to adopt Jonathan Adkins's speculation -- his "one of the reasons we think" stuff -- as established fact and ban the wearing of headphones while walking or running, as is now proposed in New York and jurisdictions beyond:
In New York, a bill is pending in the legislature’s transportation committee that would ban the use of mobile phones, iPods or other electronic devices while crossing streets — runners and other exercisers included. Legislation pending in Oregon would restrict bicyclists from using mobile phones and music players, and a Virginia bill would keep such riders from using a “hand-held communication device.”
Never mind that collisions necessarily involve a minimum of two parties, such that anywhere from zero to all parties are paying inadequate attention. Never mind that sources of distraction vary widely -- the sky's the limit, really, but then again it's common enough to be distracted by something happening in the sky. All that aside, surely the only sensible response is to embrace Jonathan Adkins's speculations as fact and legally bar pedestrians from using headphones.

As I cherish wearing headphones while walking and running, this is disappointing, but I cannot dispute the reasoning behind it. If only -- if only, I shake my fist at the heavens and repeat -- there were some way other than the sense of hearing to detect the presence or absence of vehicular traffic. If only! Alas, no. I have gradually conceded that days with unusually high ambient noise simply are not safe for running or walking, with or without headphones.

I have tried to perfect the ability to draw on my sense of smell to detect the presence/absence of vehicles, but it's difficult. We humans simply don't have adequate olfactory powers. 

If only we had another sense! I hope footwear manufacturers will develop something to fill this terrible gap in our human abilities, as they've done so many times before, but until then, we must embrace the legal ban on headphones for pedestrians.

I hope this sensible measure leads to a legal ban on playing music inside moving vehicles, whether through headphones or not. Only then will we be safe forever from the first half of 2010's very slight uptick in pedestrian deaths.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

James Wood on Keith Moon, or Thereabouts

This is from James Wood's piece on Keith Moon in The New Yorker:

Nowadays, I see schoolkids bustling along the sidewalk, their large instrument cases strapped to them like coffins, and I know their weight of obedience. Happy obedience, too: that cello or French horn brings lasting joy, and a repertoire more demanding and subtle than rock music's. But fuck the laudable ideologies, as Roth's Mickey Sabbath puts it: subtlety is not rebellion, and subtlety is not freedom, and it is rebellious freedom that one wants, and, most of the time, only rock music can deliver it. And sometimes one despises oneself, in near-middle age, for being so good.
Hmm. As self-encomiums thinly disguised as encomiums to rock stars go, this is not a bad piece of writing. Still, I really prefer to take my encomiums straight.

While Keith Moon is a player of the drums of no small repute, I don't count myself a fan, and I would not miss The Who if a member of the band died or something.* Still, this is really good, and in its way, charming.

* Too soon?

A Parable Re-Told

I love David Berman's work as a Rock Star (e.g. this and this), but judging from his blog post, "Theodicy 101", his presentations on theology could stand some improvement. A recent instance begins, as any parable might as well, with a rather doltish visitor to a farm:
A man who knew nothing about agriculture came to a farmer and asked to be taught about farming. The farmer took him out to the field and asked him what he saw. "I see a beautiful piece of land, lush with grass and pleasing to the eye," the visitor said. He then watched aghast as the farmer plowed the grass and turned the beautiful green field into a mass of brown shallow ditches.
And so it goes, the farmer taking the visitor from horror to relief and back again as the transformations continue:
More time went by and the stalks were fully grown. Then the farmer came with a sickle and chopped them all down. His visitor watched open mouthed as the orderly field became an ugly scene of destruction. The farmer bound the fallen stalks into bundles and decorated the field with them. Later, he took the bundles to another area, where he crushed them until they became a mass of straw and loose kernels from the chaff and piled them up in a huge hill. Always he told his protesting visitor, "We are not done; you must have more patience."
The parable concludes where no one except everyone reading it could have predicted:
At last the farmer opened the oven and took out a freshly baked bread- crisp and brown with an aroma that made the visitor's mouth water. The farmer place the loaf on the table and took out a long knife.
The visitor watched horrified as he proceeded to cut the beautiful loaf into multiple sections.
The farmer took a single slice, buttered it liberally, and served it to his guest.
"Here" he said, "now you will understand."
This goober-meets-farmer tale holds serious shortcomings as a theodicy, notably in the way it ends, but in recounting that, I will not overlook the profound flaws of its middle.

It ends by presenting the visiting goober with a delicious slice of bread, whereas this is precisely what's missing from human life in the (alleged) Light of Gawd's Love. We see the equivalent of chopped stalks and ugly shallow ditches everywhere we care to look -- especially if we happen to be looking toward Haiti -- but the bread is nowhere in sight. I am willing to imagine god as a taciturn farmer -- why not? -- but within the terms of that analogy as applied to the world as it actually is, it would end at one of the farmer's cryptic demands to be patient. We have no 'bread' to show the horrors we see and experience routinely -- we have claims of unspecified greater goods delivered only in a vague hereafter, or worse, observed only through an unreachable perspective.

Worse, this theodicy falls short in balancing the transitory damage done to fields, seeds, and grain against the bounty of warm bread. If we re-imagine the parable to balance the pain and death of human beings against the bounty of a Soylent Green meat loaf, the problem becomes blindingly obvious: people are not wheat stocks, and there is no plate of casserole -- of any sort, figurative or literal -- great enough to cancel the Holocaust, cancer, malaria, floods, slavery, and any of a thousand more natural and unnatural miseries.

The mouse has a French horn, David Berman is a fine singer and lyricist, and attempts to construct theodicies fail. (On a related note, see Eli.)

(image above via LOLCats)

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Fifty Stops of Shame

It turns out that every state in the union has something it can hold up for exceptional, pack-leading shame, but a few stand apart, and a close-ish reading of the data suggests a few regional patterns. Consider, because I've left you little choice, Utah's special shame:

Utah's leadership in porn either means the people there are defying the principles of the Mormon Church, or that they are fulfilling those principles by aggressively searching for that next spouse on youporn. Presumably only the Angel Moroni-etched golden plates give the correct interpretation of this surprisingly unsurprising fact.

No offense, though -- I kid Utah because of its nation-leading porn use. What's going on a few states to the east, in the upper midwest?

Oh, that. South Dakota and Nebraska, being a continuous, flat, featureless, exhausting expanse of grain fields and despair, are also a continuously women-brutalizing, flat, featureless, exhausting expanse of grain fields and despair. Neat.

Swerving wildly back westward, we see a realm of poor judgment spanning from Montana down through Colorado:

Evidently the drunks from Montana collide violently with the coked-up Coloradans somewhere in Wyoming, and why not? If there existed something better to do there, it would have been known long ago.

Here in Fair Cascadia, well, the regional story narrates itself:

We are in the clutches of a classic Catch-22 -- "I am homeless and lonely" begets reaching out for non-human companionship; coupling with beasts begets eviction, expulsion, and unemployment-related foreclosures; and so the sickly cycle turns.

Treat yourself to all the worst-of-class pathologies at Pleated Jeans. It will make you sadder and wiser, but mostly sadder.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Whither Portlandia?

Having watch one episode -- the first one, I think -- I thought Portlandia was funny here and there, but its flaw lies in its having anchored itself to Portland. While watching, I kept thinking, is this really a distinctively Portland phenomenon they're parodying? Is Portland the only place in the USA with people who are uptight about the ethics / politics of food served in a restaurant? Or the only place with lefty business establishments that can't quite decide if they're engaged in commerce or not? Really?

I kept thinking of, say, The Drew Carey Show. Did Clevelanders object to some of the material in that? Who knows? Who cares? It was centered on Carey and the other characters rather than the realities of Cleveland at the time, so it didn't matter if viewers could recognize or relate to its references to that city, nor did it especially matter if they held true. The same holds for, say, Seinfeld and New York City, or Scranton and The Office, and so on.

Portlandia has boxed itself in to a need to be pretty close to the mark with its portrayals of Portland's foibles, whereas parody and 'close to the mark' don't play well together. If they'd called it Hipster Town, they could have done all the same jokes in all the same settings and it wouldn't matter whether or how much it diverged from presenting Portland's distinctive qualities and flaws.

I do not mean to say that calling it "Hipster Town" would necessarily rescue the premise or the material based on it -- hipster is just a word that left-liberals use to give themselves permission to bitch about other left-liberals using the same terms conservatives use -- a way to parrot FauxNews-style reductionist, know-nothing swill without earning the contempt of civilized human beings. (Cf.).


(via Portland Mercury)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hood Ornament Not Included

Neko Case is auctioning off the car pictured here, a 1967 Mercury Cougar, which was featured in the cover of her 2009 album, Middle Cyclone.

Neko Case is not included in the purchase but the status of the sword is unclear, or so I interpret the "about the car ..." narrative:
Introduced in 1967 and named that year's Motortrend Car of the Year, this burgundy Mercury Cougar came standard with a hardtop 289 V8 and serious muscle. It's got an automatic transmission, 3-speed “Merc-o-matic,” red interior with aqua space lights, wood steering wheel, hideaway headlights, sequential tail lights, and a fully wired car stereo. Only sold in two-door. Neko named this car “Angie Dickinson,” and it’s only had two owners and has its original paint. There is enough room in the back of the car to move a small apartment, house your lending library, or to fit your band’s gear (or your kid’s band’s gear!). The beloved photo of Neko standing on the Cougar on the Middle Cyclone album cover has been nominated for the 2009 “Best Recording Package” Grammy.
The proceeds of the auction go to 826 National, an organization whose goal is
to assist students ages six to eighteen with their writing skills, and to help teachers get their classes excited about writing. Our work is based on the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention, and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.
For as little as $45, you can buy the raffle ticket that wins the title to that car and, indirectly, forces kids across America to write papers. What could be better? Nothing. Nothing could be better.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Grit in the Eyes

[Note: Spoilers afoot!] Some critics of the 2010 remake of True Grit seem curiously united on two things -- their aversion to a particular scene  together with a inclination to distort its significance, and an unfortunate compulsion to mention the 1969 version in which the character John Wayne played in all his movies* was named Rooster Cogburn. Louis Proyect expresses the former:
... [T]here is one scene that really got me riled up.

Cogburn and Mattie, the fourteen year old played by Hailee Steinfeld, come upon a meager looking farmhouse in Chocktaw Territory that is home to Indians, including a couple of children sitting on the porch. As he enters the house to find out if the inhabitants have any knowledge of the whereabouts of Tom Chaney, he kicks the children on his way up the stairs. For good measure, he kicks them on the way out. What point were the Coens trying to make, that Cogburn was not a nice guy? I think that was pretty well established from the outset. Audiences would probably get a chuckle out of this since it is part and parcel of the sadism that pervades Coen movies. [emphasis mine] 
David Denby portrays the Indian-kicking as a dark joke that illuminates the film's disjointed morality:
The joke—the Coens' touch of sardonic black humor—is that, La Boeuf's scruples aside, the proper talk merely decorates the savage moral incoherence of the West. Here, if you want someone punished, you shoot him; if an Indian child is sitting anywhere in the vicinity, you kick him out of the way. The arbitrary casualness of the brutality is the movie's main interest. [emphasis mine]
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky cranks the same criticism up to eleven:
the bible verse at the beginning of True Grit seems like the first in a series of elements that could only be called "moral bric-a-brac"—acknowledgements of morality within the space of a film that doesn't really admit any concern for moral issues and which takes its ugliness at face value. Jeff Bridges, booting Indian kids off a porch, is every bit as spiteful as Eastwood in Gran Torino, yet there's nothing in True Grit to balance or counteract his spite; this is either a moral flaw or the entire agenda (it'd be a stretch to call it a "point") of the film. [emphasis mine]
The above might be interesting claims if they weren't so crashingly wrong. Cogburn's rough treatment of the Indian children -- Indian children not because he's casting around for hate crimes to commit but because his search has taken him into Choctaw territory -- comes immediately after we see the children cruelly mistreating a mule tied to the same porch from which Cogburn kicks them.

The critics cited above are right about one thing -- the scene does illuminate the film's wider moral vision, but wrong in that the vision is far removed from characterizations like "sadism that pervades," "savage moral incoherence," and "ugliness at face value." Cogburn is drawn to the defense of the smaller and weaker as he perceives them. His single functioning eye hints that his perceptions are not entirely trustworthy, but his moral sites are constantly even if not perfectly trained on bullies.

We see his championing of underdogs in his response to the mule and the children; we see it again when he almost shoots LaBeuf for spanking Hailee; again when he accepts evasions, lies, and japes from a suspect only to shoot him dead the moment he strikes his younger, more shaken associate; yet again when he forgets his disputes with LaBeuf and, seeing him hopelessly outnumbered, shoots nearly all of his attackers; and not least, we see it in his willingness to take up Hailee's mission to bring justice to the man who killed her father.

Maybe most shockingly, we see it in Cogburn's choice to ride a horse, and nearly himself, to death in order to deliver Hailee to the care she needs for a rattlesnake bite. Here, he reveals that he is no animal welfare purist; he is, instead, weighing out the balance of strong and weak as best he can, and favoring the weak even at the risk of his own life.

This is an unsparing portrait of the world to which Hailee, LaBeuf, and Cogburn were born, one ruled by an "eye for an eye" ethic. Cogburn begins the film having already lost an eye, and that last eye is fixed in a discernible line for as long as he has it.

* I am not a fan of John Wayne's work.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unkindness Displayed

It would be unkind to call Alabama's new governor a belligerent yokel:
"There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit," Bentley said shortly after taking the oath of office, according to the Birmingham News. ''But if you have been adopted in God's family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister."

''Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're not brothers and sisters," he continued. "So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother."
Since he brought it up for some reason, I don't want to be Governor Skeletor's brother. He and I are persons with all the rights of other persons, but I don't see any reason to bring us any closer than that, and I would say the same of my own state's governor, even though he still seems to have all of his skin and isn't retarded. Oops, bad word -- strike that, I probably should have referred to Alabama's new governor as a knuckle-dragging hick.

It's a shame he devoted one of his first public pronouncements as governor to drawing us-and-them lines on grounds of religion, but really, this is Alabama. It's still pretty 1865-ish there in many ways.

That doesn't make it right. Bad Governor Skeletor. It's not a question of giving offense -- it's a question of a governor delineating in-groups and out-groups based on "faith" or lack thereof. That's against the rules.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Did American Undergrads Write This Study?

Oh American college students, I can't quit you:

[R]esearch of more than 2,300 undergraduates found 45 percent of students show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore years.
Were all of these 2,300 undergraduates studying business at Oklahoma State? If so, those numbers sound surprisingly positive. Sadly, this is not likely.

The reasons seem clear enough:
Half of students did not take a single course requiring 20 pages of writing during their prior semester, and one-third did not take a single course requiring even 40 pages of reading per week.
Wow. College students should be reading and writing more than that, no matter what they're studying. Business majors should be able to find the "win-win" in this -- for them, at a rate of 40 pages of reading per week and 20 pages of writing per semester, they'll finish everything worth reading and write every paper worth writing in the discipline of business in under one academic year. Huzzah!

At the risk of minimizing an instance of the USA's ongoing intellectual immolation, it's not obvious to me that increases in "critical thinking" and "complex reasoning" are rationally expected outcomes of undergraduate education. It would be nice to think so, but from what I have seen, undergraduate degree programs are designed to introduce students to a particular area of study -- its range of topics, analytical methods, schisms and controversies, significant theories, historical development, and so on. 

Of course, teaching can improve critical thinking and complex reasoning, but as with the teaching of any subject matter, it will succeed to the extent that it is made the focus of the effort. To expect it to magically attach to undergraduate coursework in, say, music theory, chemistry, Spanish, economics, or art history -- and moreover to attach equally to these and all undergraduate disciplines -- is, well, it's analytically sketchy.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Life in Tweaker's Holler

Warning: spoilers of Winter's Bone abound in this post.

Reviewing Winter's Bone, David Denby summarizes what he regards as the film's heroic and hopeful conclusion:
Ree is the only hope amid this sordid life. She's not just the most interesting teen-ager around, she's more believable as a heroic character than any of the men we've seen peacocking through movies recently. In its lived-in, completely non-ideological way, "Winter's Bone" is one of the great feminist works in film.
Here's the problem with Winter's Bone as a tale of heroic redemption: it doesn't add up. The film opens with Ree needing to borrow from neighbors to feed her siblings and emotionally debilitated mother, and we soon learn that her extended family is a meth-dealing empire commanded, for now, by one of her more violent and volatile uncles. Her father has skipped bail just before putting up Ree's family's house as collateral, so her heroic quest becomes establishing her father's whereabouts before the authorities can seize the property. Her path takes her into questions the rest of the extended family does not want asked or answered for reasons that eventually become clear when a round of grisly chainsaw-aided high-stakes noodlin' establishes that her father has been killed and sunk into a shallow pond.

And there it ends, more or less, with Ree having stood her ground against the the depredations of poverty, the indifferent-at-best legal system, the falling fortunes of immediate family, and her provably deadly, dishonest kin. As credits roll, the tornado-strong question is where this outcome leaves Ree and those she is trying to protect -- how, in other words, this dauntlessness of hers can be said to have redeemed or improved anything.

Ree's unfolding quest has revealed, but not expanded, three paltry options: (a) the family meth trade, which she has already spurned; (b) the military, which she's smart enough to see is a dead end; or (c) having a few kids of her own, presumably in hopes that 20 years down the line, things will be unaccountably better.

Looking at the ending in narrower, more concrete terms reveals, if anything, a grimmer picture. To put it with my customary delicacy, since when did dropping a water-logged, freshly-sawed hand into a Missouri Sheriff's inbox ever improve the fortunes, legal or otherwise, of the meth-empire-connected teen making the delivery? Since never, that's when.

No, it would open a difficult conversation that begins with the sheriff shouting, "just what in THE hell is that thing?!?!" accompanied by the pulling of a sidearm.

Charitably assuming the severed hand is sufficient to establish that pa is dead (doubtful), and further assuming its presentation leads to the cancellation of the county's lien without a few thousand extra dollars in attorney's fees (more doubtful), and further assuming Ree is not immediately suspected of the crime (more doubtful) -- assuming all of this, it begins a murder investigation in which Ree is the primary witness. Or, as bad or worse in the context, she would be assumed to be the a witness by all the self-same unstable, vicious, meth-fueled paranoids she just spent a whole movie barely surviving, at least one of whom has recently proved capable of killing and discarding a member of Ree's immediate family.

But that's good, right? That the legal authorities should finally swoop in clean out the ponds? In theory, yes. Then again, this is Tweaker's Holler, one of the least tony sections of Dogpatch, where it's not considered worthy of the District Attorney's investigatory efforts unless a working pick-up truck was destroyed in the commission of the crime. Beat, shoot, stab, dismember, and drown all the meth-heads you like, but water-logging a Chevy could put your ass in the electric chair.

Everyone around Ree implicitly distrusts the law, and she is, at best, about to learn why -- assuming she evades the wrath of her kin long enough to appreciate the lesson.

Even brushing all that aside, and somehow assuming that the legal authorities will respond with textbook probity, have Ree's prospects thereby noticeably improved? There are exactly three sources of value in sight -- meth, land, and family honor. She won't sell the first two, and can only hope to physically survive the latter. That takes Ree back exactly where she started as the film opened.

From what I can see, Ree's undoubted courage won her a fresh trauma or two. Symbolically, she reached in and pressed through cold, murky despair, can't-win-legalities, broken family entanglements (etc.), to pull up a piece of truth. I am on record as being pro-truth, but nothing here will set her free. There is no uplift, heroism, hope, or triumph here -- just the prospect of another generation sawing something from the bottom of the same pond in another 20 years.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Work and Non-Work

I am sad to note that Broadcast's singer, Trish Keenan, has died unexpectedly of complications from pneumonia. Music will be less without her contributions.

Here's "Living Room" from Work and Non-Work:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday MP3 Player Cavils Blogging

Matt Damon's character in The Departed:

I'm fucking Irish, I'll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.
The character didn't live long beyond this remark (spoiler alert!), but the point is, I am not Irish, and -- if my logic is right* -- it follows that I won't deal with something being wrong for a long time. To wit, poor design in MP3 players (Cf.).

I love my Sansa Clip+, but I recently reached a state contrary to Irishness-according-to-Matt-Damon's-character and decided to make a couple of modifications using only a few simple tools, a few beers, and a disproportionate sense of outrage. I remind both readers that I assign high functional priority to an MP3 player that will operate in an eyes-free manner -- I don't want to have to hold it up and look at a screen because, most of the time, I am running while I am using it. Looking at a screen means I am not looking at the road, or at the precipice I'm suddenly tumbling down, or at the car that's about to hit me, or another runner who's about to push me down a precipice or into an oncoming car, etc.

It follows* that the basic functions -- volume up, volume down, next song, previous song -- must be operable solely by touch. The Sansa Clip+'s volume up/down buttons are slightly raised from the side of the device, but not enough. In particular, they're not raised enough to be reliably felt through a layer of clothing, as must be done in cold and/or wet conditions. Hence my first modifications:

Getting to a properly eyes-free state for the next / previous buttons was more than my half-drunken rasp use could accomplish, so I turned to that enduring white trash stand-by, gluing stuff together with, say, Loctite Super Glue:

"Sure," you're muttering to yourself, "the results are elegant and beautiful. But do they work?" Field testing has been limited, but so far, so good. As I crane my view down to where the MP3 player sits charging by its USB cable, I begin making typing mistakes that renew my rage with the eyes-dependent operation, but I also note that it does, as I assume you muttered, look lovely with its new rasp wounds and glued-on hunks of scrap plastic.

If the pieces of plastic fall off, they're easy to replace. If they stay on for a decent amount of time, I'll add another to the top center play-pause button, which is the next most reached-for button on the device. If these modifications void my warranty, you can expect to hear about my resulting outrage on this precious, precious blog.

Since I'm jabbering on about MP3 players, below is the result of one of those memes I saw on Facebook in which you're asked to set your music library to random and take down the first 15 songs that come up. I don't like Facebook memes unless they're the kind I like, so I changed this one from 15 songs to 21, with these stunning results:**

Wilco, "Pot Kettle Black"
New Pornographers, "Jackie, Dressed in Cobras"
The Cure, "Jumping Someone Else's Train"
AC/DC, "Let Me Put My Love Into You"
REM, "Walk Unafraid"
Stereolab, "Les bon bons des raisons"
Uncle Tupelo, "Sauget Wind"
The Carpenters, "Only Yesterday"
The Pogues, "Misty Morning, Albert Bridge"
Van Halen, "You Really Got Me"
Bob Dylan, "Mississippi"
Norah Jones, "Nightingale"
REM, "Stand"
Beck, "Lonesome Tears"
The Clash, "Somebody Got Murdered"
Johnny Cash, "Cry, Cry, Cry"
Elliott Smith, "Bye"
PJ Harvey, "When Under Ether"
TV on the Radio, "I Was A Lover"
The Watson Twins, "Time of My Life"
Kings of Convenience, "I Don't Know What I Can Save You From"

All of the above are awesome and highly recommended musical works except for the so-so and terrible ones that merely serve to show that my music library could use some cleaning. I'm looking right at you, latter-career Bob Dylan song, song by TV on the Radio, and lesser The Clash song that helped people accept the band's break-up.

* No. I wouldn't trust this logic at all.
** Clarification: the results are not stunning.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Stomping in Puddles

President Obama, speaking earlier this week of Christina Green, the nine-year-old girl killed last Saturday in Tucson:

Imagine -- imagine for a moment, here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that some day she, too, might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council. She saw public service as something exciting and hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.

I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -– we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.

As has already been mentioned, Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called “Faces of Hope.” On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child’s life. “I hope you help those in need,” read one. “I hope you know all the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart." "I hope you jump in rain puddles.”

If there are rain puddles in Heaven, Christina is jumping in them today.
These words struck me with extra force because I have a son not much older than nine who still loves to stomp in mud puddles, and because the shooting happened over the weekend marking the 11th anniversary of my mom's death. Such are the ways griefs can gather.

When out running today, up and back down  Rocky Butte under soaking rains, I saw to it to fulfill one of Christina's hopes by jumping in as many rain puddles as I could find along the way (results pictured).

If that takes things a little too literally, so be it, but I do recognize and accept the larger point, and I frequently reflect on it while running: we who are still living honor the dead by doing our most to breathe in the offerings of life, which means -- for those of us with the inclination -- pushing our still-living bodies to their limits and embracing the discomforts that come with doing so -- the aches, the weariness, the cold, the sloppy wetness, the shoes heavy with puddle water. These pains, such as they are, signal the presence of life, and life is still better than death if we make it so.

To put it simply, stomping in puddles really is fun.

Friday, January 14, 2011

I'm With You In Rockland

If you love poetry, or consider literature important, or consider art important, you should watch Howl. It's one of only a handful of talkies I've granted the full five stars on the Netflix, and to be clear, it's not because of the intrinsic merits of the Allen Ginsberg poem on which it is based, though I do find it a wildly evocative and probing poem. If this film did nothing but walk through a line-for-line reading of the poem, together with some exposition and illustration of the more difficult and obscure passages, that alone would be worth three stars, but it goes beyond.

The film manages to cover poetry's place in society, the relationship between artistic creation and biography, and no small swath of recent American social history, and it does all of this without ever departing from primary written sources -- interviews with Ginsberg and other principals, the text of "Howl," transcripts of the publisher's obscenity trial, and so on.

Highly recommended.

Speaking Rhetoric and Pulling Triggers

Phila has helpfully canvassed some of the right-wing hypocrisy exposed by last Saturday's mass shooting in Arizona, but at the risk of playing the detestable contrarian, I think it's useful to step back and genuinely evaluate whether rhetoric -- even at its most histrionic, vitriolic, militant, and, to use a question-begging word, provocative -- is worthy of the focus some are placing on it.

Normally, this is a no-brainer for me -- hip-hop doesn't cause gang violence, heavy metal doesn't create self-destructive teens, pornography doesn't instill in men an immoderate interest in sex, and "because I was offended by that cartoon / work of art / pointed question" is not a valid excuse for god-addled violence. Accordingly, it must be true -- mustn't it? -- that right-wing bluster, up to and including Lady Also's idiotic cross-hairs, Sharron Angle's "2nd amendment remedies," and Glen Beck's insipid tear-soaked paranoid rants -- do not, in any important way, cause mass shootings.

As usual, Rachel Maddow is doing the best reporting on this cluster of topics, as in this instance where she makes a few important clarifications or this one where she adds even more, but she remains a little too firmly in the gun-talk-leads-to-gunplay camp. She is on much firmer ground in her coverage of concrete, non-extreme, sensible legal changes that would significantly reduce the chances of a repeat of last Saturday:

The USA is and ever has been a violent, gun-ready society, and sadly, this is exceedingly unlikely to be the last mass shooting or the last politically-charged mass shooting we see. I make no excuses for any of that, but it seems prudent to make careful note of it before issuing grand narratives of cause and effect.

Amanda Marcotte is also very much on point her analysis, especially where she focuses on the alternate reality generated by right-wing histrionics:
The violent rhetoric encourages people to see violence as a solution, but it’s the paranoia that gives them cause to get that wound up, or in the likely case of Loughner, to latch onto right wing paranoia as a delusion. It’s therefore more important to target lies and paranoia when holding the right accountable than anything else. They’d probably prefer it if we stuck to just talking about violent language, because that they can mostly give up without giving up too much. But abandoning lies? That’s definitely not something they want to put on the table. But it’s way more critical.
As with the purging of Huck Finn of particular slurs, and as with the framing crowd's advocacy of cooing gently when distinguishing evolutionary, climate, and other science from their respective bullshit-based adversaries, people of good will should emphasize and prioritize the truth, and this involves speaking clearly -- modeling the principle of meaning what we say and saying what we mean. It means calling out liars and their lies, rather than asking liars to change their tone or diction.

Truth is inherently good; rhetorical style can go hang.*

It's possible I am naive to the dangers in play here. Perhaps last Saturday tells us something important about the line separating free speech from that which is beyond a signficant pale, but if so, I have not seen a cogent argument to that effect. Freedom of speech means freedom for the speech we hate.

* "Go hang" -- how's that for provocative rhetoric? Have I crossed a line? Is someone closer to dangling by the neck because of it?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

That Euphemism Won't Do

In my continuing effort to avoid mention of today's that-which-cannot-be-euphemised-away, I return to the utter, cosmic stupidity of removing the word nigger from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Consider that within the pages of the novel, because Jim was black, men with dogs hunted him to return him to slavery and, later, to collect a bounty on him for a crime he didn't commit. He had no prospect of a fair trial, but on the slight chance his captors would see Huck still alive at his side and realize he was innocent, the captors would return Jim to his "owner." She would surely make a brutal example of him, holding back only enough to carry through on her original plan to quite literally sell him down the river, where he'd stand even less chance of seeing his family again.

This was among the sunnier fates Jim was trying to flee because he was black; the less sunny version had him tortured to death upon capture.

Removing a word barely touches the racism present in the world of that novel. Removing the word makes a disgusting network of social, political, and legal circumstances sound slightly more palatable. It removes some of the sting of reading it, and likewise it removes some of the dramatic tension and some of the irony. So, likewise, would re-writing it in a way that made race irrelevant, but that's not the world Twain embodied and formed into a novel. The world he represented was ugly, right down to its everyday phrasing.

The novel also telegraphs a path beyond that ugliness, but it's necessary to read the novel -- harsh words and well beyond -- to see that.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Slavery and Stock Liberal Claims

Slightly famous moron Ken Blackwell doesn't appreciate people saying unkind things about the US Constitution as it was originally passed:

The idea that our Constitution “condoned” slavery and was therefore an immoral document unworthy of being viewed with reverence is a stock liberal claim. It is false.

Most of the Founders wanted to abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Jefferson had denounced that “execrable traffic” in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence.
Note how Blackwell can't decide if he's talking about the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, but that's a rather hoary and dull confusion among slightly famous right-wing morons. More interesting is Blackwell's implication that false is the new true and reality is biased toward "stock liberal claims," because in fact, the US Constitution as originally ratified did condone slavery, and this legal sanction for it persisted until the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments abolished it and its discriminatory legal underpinnings. A delightful passage of article 4, section 2 reads as follows:
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof,
escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein,
be discharged from such Service or Labour, But shall be delivered up on Claim
of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.
Maybe Blackwell is able to charm himself into believing that this talk of persons being "held to Service or Labour" and lawfully "delivered up on Claim of the Party" has nothing to do with slavery, but reality will not be so charmed. This has everything to do with regulating, but not forbidding, the trafficking of human beings (slavery and indentured servitude) as practiced in the closing years of the 18th century, when this passage was made into law.

A quick glance at in article 1, section 2 clarifies the matter further, where the apportionment of representatives
... shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.
Note how "free Persons" are distinguished from "those bound to Service for a Term of Years" on one hand and "Indians not taxed" on the other hand and, finally, "all other Persons" who shall count as 60% persons. This is right there in the text of the Constitution? Yes, this is right there in the text of the Constitution.

Read it and weep if you must, but there's nothing good to be gained by lying about it. Like the Bible, the US Constitution as it was originally written regulates, but does not prohibit, slavery -- unlike the Bible, it spells out the process by which people may rid it of its evils and mistakes. Inasmuch as "stock liberal claims" affirm this, it only serves as evidence that "stock liberal claims" arise from reading the document and the history in question.

(via Eli)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Of Etewaf and Otaku

Thus wrote Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra ("Of Reading and Writing") --

He who knows the reader, does nothing further for the reader. Another century of readers -- and spirit itself will sink.

That everyone can learn to read will ruin in the long run not only writing, but thinking too.
In contrast to Friedrich Nietzsche, Patton Oswalt is just a man who makes the funny in public for cash. He is a genuinely funny comedian, and being a comedian, his claims about society, the human condition, history, life, the universe, and everything merit total deference.

Or so goes a line of argument to which I do not subscribe in the least. Consider Oswalt's remarks about nerd culture's diffusion into mass culture, which vaguely echo Nietzsche's concerns about reading and thinking. In contrast to the Goode Olde Dayes when only nerds possessed a broad, deep understanding of their pop culture favorites, says Oswalt,
Fast-forward to now: Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s. Our below-the-topsoil passions have been rudely dug up and displayed in the noonday sun. The Lord of the Rings used to be ours and only ours simply because of the sheer goddamn thickness of the books. Twenty years later, the entire cast and crew would be trooping onstage at the Oscars to collect their statuettes, and replicas of the One Ring would be sold as bling.
The topsoil has been scraped away, forever, in 2010. In fact, it’s been dug up, thrown into the air, and allowed to rain down and coat everyone in a thin gray-brown mist called the Internet. Everyone considers themselves otaku [possessing nerd-level passion and knowledge] about something—whether it’s the mythology of Lost or the minor intrigues of Top Chef ... There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans.
Let us stand back and regard the hideous wreckage Oswalt has sketched: nerds are no longer as distinctive as they once were, or at least not as distinctive as they formerly thought themselves to be; and it's no longer especially difficult to be a nerd because the internet has created "Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever."

If you're not filling an astronaut diaper with terror scat at this diagnosis, it's only because you haven't considered the danger. What danger?
Here’s the danger: [Etewaf] creates weak otakus. Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists — just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie? The Shining can be remade into a comedy trailer. Both movie versions of the Joker can be sent to battle each another. The Dude is in The Matrix. [emphasis mine]
We're back to Nietzsche's fretting over the ruin of "not only writing, but thinking too" caused by increased literacy. How did that one turn out? If writing and thinking ceased with the rise of literacy through the 20th century, the cessation was hidden in the devilishly clever guise of enormous quantities of output across the sciences, arts, humanities, technology, and engineering --- including, it should be noted, every piece of nerd-beloved culture Patton Oswalt cites in his article.

So in reply to Patton Oswalt's poignant, despairing question -- "[w]hy create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate ...?" -- a few obvious answers suggest themselves:
  1. If my experiences with satiety have taught me anything, it's that they're followed by a fresh wave of hunger. Finding a new obsession and plumbing its depths in a few hours works exactly the same as doing it in a few months or a few years (I know, I've done all of the above) --- soon enough, what seemed so terrific and inexhaustible turns out to be flawed in one way or another, and thus begins the search for something that produces the same excitement as before. If you're sufficiently creative, knowledgeable, and/or talented, you might be inspired, vexed, annoyed, or otherwise moved to create the next obsession-worthy unit of culture.
  2. "Nothing new under the sun" was likely a tenth-order borrowing by the time it appeared in Ecclesiastes, but it's no less true for that.  The sooner we embrace this and see that human culture unfolded as it did -- from the fire, agriculture, the wheel, Hesiod and the Epic of Gilgamesh up to this week -- despite the truth of it, the sooner we'll move on to more interesting questions and fruitful endeavors.
  3. This is really a corollary of #2, but here goes -- there is nothing intrinsically wrong with remixes, re-edits, adaptations, retellings, redactions, repurposings, borrowings. Nothing. Nothing at all. It's all in the execution. Ovid's Metamorphoses wouldn't have gotten off the ground without his Greek sources; Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was borrowed from contemporary retellings of classical source materials; Joyce's Ulysses wouldn't make sense without the Odyssey; Picasso's Guernica references Goya's Third of May 1808; McCarthy's The Road echoes Faulkner, the book of Revelations, and much else between; There Will Be Blood rhymes, in important ways, with Citizen Kane, Moby Dick, Frankenstein and Paradise Lost.
The worries of Nietzsche and Patton Oswalt are misplaced. As long as there are people capable of being both creative and disatisfied, culture will continue forward.

Saturday, January 8, 2011


This brief video encapsulates the fraudulence of theology, and Bill O'Reilly to boot, as economically as anyone could wish for. Stephen Colbert is a treasure.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Bill O'Reilly Proves God's Existence - Neil deGrasse Tyson
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>Video Archive

Friday, January 7, 2011

Allegories and Gods

Creationist hack Ken Ham is right within a much larger instance of being wrong:

[I]f the book of Genesis is an allegory, then sin is an allegory, the Fall is an allegory, the need for a Savior is an allegory, and Adam is an allegory—but if we are all descendants of an allegory, where does that leave us? It destroys the foundation of all Christian doctrine — it destroys the foundation of the gospel.
True enough. Allegories can only illuminate by representing something arcane, obscure, or unintuitive in terms of something familiar. This is what all figuration accomplishes, if it accomplishes anything, and it's a long way removed from the straightforwardly factual declarations of an authoritative entity. Genesis 1:
And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good.
Either this happened as stated -- an entity called "God" said and did thus and so -- or someone in the distant past fashioned a narrative that tries to make sense of the world's origins using simple terms. It accounts for water, sky, and land in roughly the way an adult might explain to a child how the foundations, roof, and floor of a building relate to one another, or -- maybe this is closer -- the first chapters of Genesis recapitulate the way a developing mind would eventually work out the constituents of the universe, working from basics (water, sky, and land) to the more complex (people, animals, society).

Or maybe I am completely misguided in my breezy reading of Genesis-as-allegory, but that's precisely the problem with allegories, myths, metaphors, figures -- they're open to multiple readings, and their value (if any) is in working through the varied possibilities and trying to extract insights, understandings, clarifications, refutations, and confirmations of what we only dimly perceived before the encounter with the the narrative. All narratives are, in principle, equal, and that's directly contrary to the first commandment given by the authority-god of the Bible -- he is to be elevated above all others.

Friday (Dying of) Miscellany Blogging

I bullet these items because I can:
  • Maybe you've been yearning for a single repository on the internets containing photographs of women alone laughing with salad. Let's face facts --- you probably are yearning for exactly that. Huzzah! 
  • Amy Winehouse is a performing artist, and they take chances, so let's not get too critical of her first try at the show-me-your-boobs / gaudy necklace / balcony tradition of Mardi Gras. She got all the elements in place, but failed to assemble them in the usual way -- call it a remix. If you don't emerge sadder and wiser from a viewing of the awkward photographs of the moment, please try again later. Repeat as necessary.
  • Speaking of miscellany, here's Ralph Waldo Emerson as quoted in the January 2011 Harper's (subscription needed):
    I find no good lives. I would live well. I seem to be free to do so, yet I think with very little respect of my way of living; it is weak, partial, & not progressive. But I do not see any other that suits me better ... We are all dying of miscellany.
If you're suffering from miscellany (or anything else), remember: there is a place on the internets where you can look at a vast repository of photographs of women alone laughing with salad, and if that doesn't raise your spirits more than it contributes to the sprawl of miscellany, enjoy this video of drunks placing orders.

(via Portland Mercury, mostly)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chupacabra Revealed!

Weep with me, fans of cryptozoology, for the chupacabra has been unmasked, and it is boring:
A man shot a strange animal in Kentucky recently, sparking rumors that a real life chupacabra had finally been brought to science ... testing has finally revealed the creature to be something equally odd, but not quite a chupacabra. Turns out, the naked, gray-skinned animal was just a raccoon with a disorder that caused it to lack hair. For some as-yet-unknown reason, such hairless animals are apparently being reported more frequently than ever before in Kentucky.
This goes to show the importance of context. When you're hoping for a shocking revelation of the chupacabra's true identity, a raccoon with a skin condition is a major let-down. In most instances, however, a raccoon with a skin condition is a veritable trove of tragi-comic possibilities.

I can see how a hairless raccoon standing on its haunches, its eyes catching the headlights, would present a fearsome and mystifying spectacle. I can't see how it took this long for a hillbilly to shoot one and hand its remains to a veterinarian.

Sigh. Another lovely rainbow has been unweaved by the cold, fell hand of science.

Previous raccoon coverage on this precious, precious blog can be found here.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

219 Easy Answers

What is to be done when a work of art is offensive? Here's one answer:

NewSouth Books plans to release an edition of Huckleberry Finn in which Mark Twain's 219 repetitions of the word "nigger" are replaced by "slave."

... The problem with Huckleberry Finn is that, like it or not, most high school teachers only have two choices these days: teach a bowdlerized version or don't teach it at all. It's simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I'd bowdlerize.
I guess I wouldn't. But since we're all parading around in our underwear whimpering about how offensive things are, I would like to throw in my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, profound offense at the implication that high school students of my day were unfazed by the 219 occurrences of the word nigger in the text of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

It so happens I was assigned this book in high school -- this book with all of its n-words included -- and the word was jarring and offensive all 219 times, even, mind you, in the context of late 1980s north central Oklahoma, where we were not innocent of the word. There's something about reading the word as part of a formal assignment -- and in a book revered as a classic, no less -- that comes across differently than when it casually spills out from behind a drunk neighbor's cigarette. It tends to give rise to a thought or two, but I get ahead of myself.

We, the students of 10th grade English class, got all the way through the book without race riots, violent outbursts, mental breakdowns, or really anything more severe than the usual carping about the difficulty of the book and whining about the length of the paper we had to write.

I distinctly remember some of that carping: it was difficult to read because, the teacher explained to us, Mark Twain went to great pains to recreate the idiom and dialect of the English spoken in the place and time of the novel's setting, which included pretty flagrant use of the word nigger. Race and civility in the antebellum south is the obsessive focus of the novel, and it could be that Twain, writing a few decades after the novel's setting, well after the Civil War, and in the midst of Reconstruction, had something in mind with these 219 offenses -- something beyond recapitulating the speech patterns he remembered from circa 1840 Missouri. Maybe he was trying to provoke a thought or two?

I think I stumbled across the key word: teacher. Getting through a book as rich and knotty as this one can really benefit from teaching. Too bad, because that costs a lot or whatever, and it's unlikely to noticeably boost scores on those goddamn standardized tests that determine school funding from one year to the next, so it's just not worth it. Better to cut out the bad words and let the book mean what it will mean to students, or let it come across as racist-sounding gibberish, or better yet, let it be dropped and forgotten along with everything else that's going to require explanation, court discussion, invite controversy, or provoke thought.

Because it is now established that an offensive word is an offensive word is an offensive word, and any deeper consideration is simply too expensive and difficult to deal with, Dave Chappelle's "Niggar Family" skit has to go -- not just from television rebroadcasts, but from our individual memories. Also, there are probably 219 uses of the n-word in any five songs of Kanye West's new album, so its universal critical acclaim can only mean that music critics are incorrigible racists, and that the album is racist, and that all of the above must be removed.

I look forward to the version of Moby Dick that removes all the offensive references to whale killing by replacing whale with, I don't know, snipe. Nah, it would be best to avoid that book completely -- it, too, had its share of racial indelicacies on top of its brazen embrace of animal cruelty. And gawd forbid anyone of school age should so much as a catch a glimpse of the cover of this one.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Actual Intolerance

This is what "militancy" and "intolerance" look like:

The governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, was shot dead as he got into his car at an upmarket shopping centre.

The Punjab governor was an outspoken critic of religious extremists and had called for the scrapping of the death penalty for the crime of blasphemy.

... the killer quickly confessed to the crime and had apparently worked for the governor on five or six previous occasions.

"He confessed that he killed the governor himself because he had called the blasphemy law a black law" ...
This is vile and has no place in civilized society. It bears no resemblance to, say, writing trenchant remarks in a book or putting an ad on the side of a bus.

(via Pharyngula)

You're Still Where?

On the strength of its placement in Gareth Higgins's "just outside the top 10" list of the films of 2010, and also thanks to its available via Netflix streaming, I watched I'm Still Here a few nights back. Or rather, I tried watching it, but it wasn't easy, and I think I know why: it was an aimless wreck.

Take it from one half of the film's creative team, Casey Affleck

There are ideas in the film that are interesting to me. I don't have a point to make, though. If it feels like a cautionary tale, what would be the warning? When you have a dream and others tell you, you are no good, give it up? Don't become famous? Prepare, practice and use stepping stones? Or maybe don't be incredibly mean to those around you? Some things seems too obvious, some seem lacking. I don't know the point. I only know that it is of course in some way about celebrity culture. It's about fame, in some way. I don't know what it says exactly but I know that it makes me wonder when I watch it. I'm OK with that. [emphases mine]
While I approve of artists who decline to make overconfident assertions about their own works or the meanings thereof, this degree of aimlessness tells us something important about the topics that Affleck thinks, but isn't sure, the film addresses. Namely, it suggests that if your name is Casey Affleck, and if your brother-in-law is Joaquin Phoenix, you can film each other going through motions you don't bother to shape into anything coherent, and then expect the resulting footage to attract large paying audiences. How many good films didn't get made in the same year as this one, in which one of Phoenix's abused lackeys defecates on the sleeping Phoenix (or pretends to, or whatever)?

Which is to say, celebrities have a very hard time here on planet earth in first decade of the twenty-first century. Affleck continues:
We obsess about celebrities. We create them, build myths around them, and then hunt them and destroy them. I don't know where its taking us or what it means but I know we do it. I have seen a lot of it myself.
I have no basis for doubting that Affleck and Phoenix have seen plenty of this, but they showed almost none of it in the film they made. They showed very nearly the reverse -- a celebrity, Joaquin Phoenix, behaving like a depraved, self-regarding asshole to everyone around him, and engaging in kinds of "hunting" -- hunting for drugs and prostitutes (these are said to be staged incidents), hunting for something to inspire terrible rap lyrics, hunting for new lows in personal hygiene, hunting for attention and credibility from people who ought to know better than to take his musical vanity project seriously. To their credit -- or so it seemed -- Mos Def, Diddy, and David Letterman refused the offer to be the prey in this.

Or maybe they, like Ben Stiller is said to have done, these celebrities actually participated in the joke -- whatever joke it is. It is not a funny or interesting joke, and if I were feeling slightly less charitable, I would suggest this film only furthers the idea that celebrities are shallow, selfish monsters who deserve the public's dehumanizing scorn.

The film gestured at a deeper portrait of Phoenix in a couple of opening scenes showing him as a child taking a daring dive in a creek, and then performing in a child street band, and closing with more recent footage of him wading despondently through another creek, or maybe the same creek. It's possible these were meant to invoke the "real" Joaquin Phoenix that celebrity-millionaire status has cruelly taken from him, but they're just thrown in without connective tissue. Affleck doesn't know what the point was, or where exactly he was trying to go with it, and neither do I.

Monday, January 3, 2011

And Then There Were Three

If it proves out, this new line of research indicating that African elephants are actually two distinct species -- one of the Savannah, and another of the forest -- then it goes a long way toward explaining why male African elephants are so notoriously unmanageable: people have spent the last few million years not bothering to draw the distinction between them, so to their enormous ears it must sound the same as referring to a group of human men as "chimps", "gorillas," "monkeys," "apes," or "troglodytes." The testosterone-addled mind of any reasonably intelligent male creature is not going to take this calmly.

For purposes of this blog post, I speak for the entire human species in apologizing to the African elephants of the world, past and present. Now we see. Would you stop the rampaging now? Some of us desperately want to miniaturize you and keep you as pets, and there's no way to do that if you're going to wreck the place.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Of Masturbating and Masticating

It will fascinate you to learn -- no really, it will fascinate you to learn this -- that the junior high snicker-word masticate appeared English around the year 1750, whereupon it took an aggressive uptick in use, peaking in the latter half of the nineteenth century, then falling steadily since. This is not to be regretted -- after all, it couldn't be snicker-word today if it had continued to increase in commonality.

What about the word that makes it a snicker-word? The googles tell the story:

English writers started reducing their use of masticate at about the same time they started increasing their use of masturbate, and at roughly the same rate (gauged by eyeballing the lines' slopes). The words achieved an instant of parity in, oh, 1925. When we think of 1925, we need to imagine that for the people of the time, the two words would have been equally familiar or, as the case may be, equally obscure. Strange days.

Now you know.

It's possible there are more interesting lines of inquiry that google's Books Ngram Viewer can illuminate, but I have an on-again, off-again relationship with interesting lines of inquiry.