Thursday, March 31, 2011

Good Deed

I have done my good deed for the year, if not the next few years, and can therefore be expected to perform no further good deeds until further notice. Today, running down Terwilliger Boulevard, I noticed an older man -- in his 60's, I'd say -- making very unsteady progress up a muddy trail converging on the Terwilliger sidewalk. Being an American, I momentarily considered doing the bystander apathy thing and continuing my run, but then realized how much I loathe that. (Bystander apathy, not running. Running is great.)

I turned back and about the time I got out the words "Sir, are you OK?" I had the answer: he had turned his ankle very badly and was trying, with little success, to make his way using a stick he had found on the ground. With his ancient (and adorable) basset hound our cheering section, I helped support him up the path to the sidewalk, where he said his car was "very close."

We reached the sidewalk, but looking both fore and aft along Terwilliger, I didn't see any car, and this is a part of Terwilliger where a car cannot hide. I ran back down and got his stick, and on his insistence I let him start in the direction of his parked car. I saw that was futile since his right ankle was unable to withstand the slightest pressure before rolling under again, and there on the sidewalk, he was at risk of not just falling down but falling into the north-bound lane of shoulder-free Terwilliger. Before I could suggest it, he handed me his car keys and sent me to fetch his vehicle, which turned out to be roughly an 1/8th mile away.

I knew it was his car when it matched the description he gave (dark red Subaru), the key fit the lock, and the interior smelled like an ancient, adorable basset hound. I drove back to where he was, helped the basset hound into the car, and then helped the man around the car and into the driver's seat with one last strong encouragement that he seek medical attention. Fortunately, OHSU is less than a mile from that spot, and in the direction his car was already pointing. It can't have been a comfortable drive, but I saw that he could manage it.

I am glad I was there to help and that it wasn't worse. I can't imagine how he would have made it up that muddy slope where I first saw him, nor do I see how he would have made it another 1/8th mile along predominantly uphill sidewalk to his car.

We didn't exchange names but I hope he's a billionaire who somehow look me up and bestow some part of his vast fortune on me. If that doesn't happen -- I admit this is possible -- I hope he is, by now, resting and well with his basset hound at his mended ankle.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I Am Already Against the Next Idiotic Overseas Military Adventure

Roy Edroso almost has me agreeing on the US military campaign in Libya right up until he doesn't:

I can believe Obama is very different from the imperialist Westerners who’ve been fucking over small states for generations, and still believe that the best way for him to show his difference is to stay out of their affairs insofar as possible. We don’t have a great track record since World War II, and while Obama appears to think that the best way to fix that is to do foreign intervention right this time, I would prefer a cooling-off period. Always leave ‘em wanting more. [emphasis mine]
Putting this in terms of a how Obama should manage perceptions, "cooling off periods," and "leaving 'em wanting more" is above-average trifling. It refuses to stop at trivializing the situation and boldly recapitulates the worst, most inane self-regarding tendencies of US foreign policy by evoking a generic International Current Affairs Follower who will be favorably impressed by anguished expressions and heavy sighs, or if not that, by a play-it-cool approach borrowed from the cliches of the dating scene.

Such wise forbearance in a difficult world! Heavy lies the crown and so on. But what if the International Current Affairs Follower isn't picking up on the sighs and the anguish? Has all the practice in the mirror been worth it? I think I know the answer, but for now I'm just asking.

The usual presumption is that the USA, and specifically the USA's military, offers what is needed to resolve the problems in nation X -- Libya this time. By now the odds must be astronomical that yet another war- and oppression-riddled society in profound of need of cruise missiles and F-15 sorties also happens to be located on the ground above a colossal pool of oil, but I won't bother dwelling on that heresy.

Suffice to say the USA's pretensions for mending select parts of the world aren't touched by the observation that we should pursue these pretensions coyly lest we come on too strongly. We should fucking stop it would be closer to the mark. We should stop pretending to have bombs armed with answers, let alone answers for societies we collectively ignore for decades,  that our citizens can't find on a map, and that are governed by decrepit cretins who deserved to be hanged by piano wire long before the time before last we switched sides and hissed of their villainy.

The USA demonstrably does not have answers for Libya. We don't have a clear idea of all the factions in this civil war we've blundered into, let alone what they'd do if they "won," whatever "winning" would look like. This is absolute madness. We need to stop it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Got Bangalore III: The Denouement

This is a brief update on The Crisis At Work to note that I have landed a different job and will start that in a few weeks. The job is roughly comparable to my present one, but in many respects closer to my work-related interests and strengths.

Happily, it appears I will not need to take up residence on the sidewalks while scratching out a living selling hand-drawn caricatures to strangers. And I won't have to learn how to draw caricatures.

To the Attitude Is Everything school: through several interviews, applications, and blind pathways along the job search rat maze, I made this change without holding a single positive thought in my head for as much as a second. The entire exercise was fueled by rage, self-pity, fear, self-doubt, despair, paranoia that at times approached conspiratorial, lugubrious interpretations of the smallest passing details, and throughout, the steady conviction that I would fail.

I escaped failure this time. If you're reading this, I wish you the very best if faced with a similar challenge, and I sincerely hope it helps to point out that attitude is far from everything. If you ask me, it is better to be strong, focused, and clear-eyed than to waste effort portraying a sunny version of yourself.

Of Word-Castles and Inverted Priorities

I and many others have been having some fun with commenter "Verbose Stoic" over at Ophelia Benson's post on RJ Hoffman's whine about atheists. Asked to provide instances of the "sophisticated theology" he had been repeatedly asking his interlocutors to revere, VS finally offered a sneering anti-Dawkins book review by David Hart:

We can all happily concede that no complex, ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent superbeing, inhabiting the physical cosmos and subject to the rules of evolution, exists. But who has ever suggested the contrary?

Numerous attempts have been made, by the way, to apprise Dawkins of what the traditional definition of divine simplicity implies, and of how it logically follows from the very idea of transcendence, and to explain to him what it means to speak of God as the transcendent fullness of actuality, and how this differs in kind from talk of quantitative degrees of composite complexity.
Now that is sophisti-micated! "The transcendent fullness of actuality," according to David Hart, once stood on a hillside and declared that the meek shall inherit the earth, that enemies should love each other, and not long after, found itself hanging by spikes after an unfair trial. Verbose Stoic's gloss of Hart is more generous without making any more sense:
To which the reply [to Dawkins dismissal of the ontological argument], quite reasonably, is that something that has necessary existence may well be complex without having to evolve, or as Hart puts it that you can’t directly map properties about the absolute from the properties of the non-absolute.
Neat. Since we're talking about things that once stood on hillsides, shared homilies, and specially-created pre-killed fish before serving them to strangers, we're talking about things that supposedly once existed. We have nothing but non-absolutes from which to map the properties of other things, and we can do this mapping either within or beyond the boundaries of the reasonable and evidence-supported. Since Hart is saying we can't even hope to complete the exercise because the regularities of the observable universe don't obtain in the sky-realm and among the "transcendent fullnesses of actuality" he has in mind, then I say we should go with that and not begin the exercise, even knowing it means dismissing theology, both "sophisticated" and the other kind. The world is not lacking for empty word-castles.

Since some observers get a tummy ache when such assessments come from somewhere other than a venerated stack of books written by established authorities, I would suggest that D'Holbach's Good Sense covers this same ground pretty thoroughly, and Hume's Dialogues puts variations of Hart's mess in the mouth of Demea in order to refute it rather soundly. Both Hume and D'Holbach were dead long before any gnu atheist cooties could soil them, so Hart and the like can click those hyperlinks without fear.

Last and probably least, here's Verbose Stoic establishing the order of operations in theology:
Step 1: Define the properties of the CONCEPT that you are trying to determine the existence of.

Step 2: Use appropriate methods to determine if that thing exists, given the concept you’re studying.

Step 3: Derive other properties that are not essential to the concept from the proofs and evidence you’ve accumulated.
Of course -- study something hard enough and before long it will become sophisti-micated. This approach salvages not just theology but studies in unicorns, orbiting teacups, bigfoot, astrology, palmistry, the prophetic powers of entrails, the protective qualities of severed rabbit's feet, and, well -- so much more, limited only to mankind's collective ability to generate conjectures about vacuities.

You would be right to suspect I have barely scratched the surface of Theology's Fitness as Truth-Seeking Mechanism, it being a minor but interesting entry in Life's Big Questions. There's more -- much, much more -- available from people who know a lot more than I do. Check out more and better consideration of life's big questions in some of these online philosophy courses.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Shorter R. Joseph Hoffman

R. Joseph Hoffman, "Living Without Religion"

  • Those who have never engineered a clock or demonstrated an exhaustive familiarity with the history of timekeeping devices have nothing to say about the accuracy of this $1.99 Ikea Rusch clock compared with that of the master atomic clock used by the US Naval Observatory. In fact, they don't know what time it is, should not presume to report the time of day, and something something Charles Manson Pol Pot read this gigantic stack of books or STFU about god.

In a comment to a subsequent post, Hoffman lets this roll off his keyboard:
The solution to theodicy is to postulate no God, and the problem disappears: in olden days that might have been a shocking, refusable option, but it isn’t anymore and has been appealing to people for a long time. It has relevance only within theology, not within a scientific view of cosmos and human origins. I’m happy to accept all those points.
Aren't we all happy that R. Joseph Hoffman is happy? No? Yes? Happy or not, I hope he recognizes that there are many vocal, politically active, politically effective actors in the world who are decidedly not happy to accept any of those points. They are shockingly easy to find, in fact. It is still "the olden days" in far too many places.

If he does recognize this, then he should let it inform his puzzlement over the level of heat sometimes expressed in discussions of science, religion, philosophy, and politics among atheists and their adversaries. If he does not recognize this, then he ipso facto disqualifies himself as an observer of these controversies, because it follows that he hasn't exited the faculty lounge in a long time. 

The existence of god and the problem of theodicy, among others, are hotly contested, living disputes in numerous and far-flung quarters of the world. The gnu atheists are popularizing a particular side of these controversies and telegraphing the practice of joining them energetically and unapologetically. If in doing so they are re-raising claims and arguments that Professor Fuddlestuffs finds dull and outworn, it only serves to show that Professor Fuddlestuffs is not their intended audience. They're addressing their writings and lectures to people who recognize that the time of day is important, and the world still hosts lively disagreements over it, whether or not those who rarely leave the faculty lounge consider it passe.

'Shorter' concept lovingly borrowed from Sadly, No!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

An Elk For Spring

Emily Dickinson captured the spirit of this scene:

A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown —
Who ponders this tremendous scene —
This whole Experiment of Green —
As if it were his own!

No one asked me, but I advocate being that elk in every way we can.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Atheist Experience Reconsidered

Speaking of stupid, having listened to several more episodes, I now adore The Atheist Experience podcast, and reject and denounce my earlier remarks concerning its practice of accepting calls from listeners.

Oh is it ever fun! It is astonishing how unreasonable and uninformed some of the callers can be, and their lack of knowledge, insight, and non-idiotic arguments does not earn them any pity. Rather, the presenters are unsparing in savaging the senseless things callers say, without crossing the boundaries of reasonable discussion.

A good enough example is from episode #696, when caller "Mark" enters the conversation at minute 39 to convey his worries that the program's presenters are committing blasphemy and are bound for an eternity of torture. Or take this exchange with Caesar -- so very confused, this Caesar -- from the most recent episode.

In short, that mouse has a tiny french horn, and that alone would be enough to refute much of the nonsense that callers bring. Still, it's a edifying delight to hear the presenters of The Atheist Experience handle it with clear, focused reasoning.

Of Prosecution

The Vatican has taken a brief break from deflecting attention from its child rape problem to say how much the church's authorities pity themselves:

Archbishop Silvano Tomasi said the Roman Catholic Church deeply believed that human sexuality was a gift reserved for married heterosexual couples. But those who express these views are faced with "a disturbing trend," he said.

"People are being attacked for taking positions that do not support sexual behaviour between people of the same sex," he told the current session of the Human Rights Council.

"When they express their moral beliefs or beliefs about human nature ... they are stigmatised, and worse -- they are vilified, and prosecuted.
They're being attacked, he claims. Attacked is one word for it, more or less, but a more fitting word would be criticized.

Prosecuted, he goes on to say. Prosecuted! Of all words to say, he said prosecuted. Evidently the experience of never having been prosecuted for shielding child rapists has distorted the good bishop's proper sense of the word prosecuted.

The whining goes on:
Tomasi also said the Vatican believed in the inherent dignity of all human beings and condemned all violence against people because of their sexual orientation or behaviour.

"But states can and must regulate behaviours, including various sexual behaviours," he said.
Churchy should stop congratulating his broad-minded advocacy of allowing gay people to exist long enough to check a dictionary or read a newspaper or two. If he does, he will soon see that prosecuted is what happens when states make and enforce laws, which is exactly what the bishop wants to see applied to gay people. And he wants no one to criticize him or his institution for advocating this prosecution. And he wants to label himself and his child rape racket as prosecuted all the while. Neat.

No. For the sake of justice, bigoted cranks must be called out for what they are, and child rapists must be -- yes -- prosecuted.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Poem of the Day: "The Imagined"

This poem features the clash of the ideal and the real in love, or in other words, the clash of the ideal and the real in life. "Isn't her silence, finally, loving?" Yes.

Stephen Dunn, "The Imagined"

The imagined woman makes the real woman
seem bare-boned, hardly existent, lacking in
gracefulness and intellect and pulchritude,
and if you come to realize the imagined woman
can only satisfy your imagination, whereas
the real woman with all her limitations
can often make you feel good, how, in spite
of knowing this, does the imagined woman
keep getting into your bedroom, and joining you
at dinner, why is it that you always bring her along
on vacations when the real woman is shopping,
or figuring the best way to the museum?

And if the real woman

has an imagined man, as she must, someone
probably with her at this very moment, in fact
doing and saying everything she's ever wanted,
would you want to know that he slips in
to her life every day from a secret doorway
she's made for him, that he's present even when
you're eating your omelette at breakfast,
or do you prefer how she goes about the house
as she does, as if there were just the two of you?
Isn't her silence, finally, loving? And yours
not entirely self-serving? Hasn't the time come,

once again, not to talk about it?

Empathy Among the Existing

Reverend James Martin has reassuring words for the afflicted on Japan and beyond:

The Christian believes that God became human and that God underwent all the things we do. Jesus on the cross cried, “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Christians do not have an impersonal God, but a God who understands what it means to suffer. People can relate more easily to a God who understands them.
Sure, people can more easily relate to fictional characters who suffer as they do -- anyone who has felt the pull of conflicting loyalties, and the no-win situations these can impose, can relate to Hamlet. People who feel uncannily alien in their own life and society, and find themselves burdened with unbidden, unaccountable, senseless flux, can relate to Gregor Samsa. People who are fighting mad at sea creatures can relate to Captain Ahab. Likewise, people can read of Jesus and relate to a man suffering a grave injustice at the hands of scheming, unscrupulous powers.

The trouble is, Jesus is said to belong on the non-fiction shelves, and moreover is said to love everyone and possess all the necessary power to prevent suffering. For relations among the truly-existing, empathy works best, and seems most authentic, when it is mutual. That Jesus endured great pain while knowing someone up in the clouds could rescue him at any instant suggests, to my way of seeing things, that Jesus should be roughly the last person to allow this sort of thing to happen to others. So where is the empathy?
Where is God? God is right there with the people who are grieving and sorrowful. In my own life, when I have felt great sorrow I have trusted that God is with me in this and that I’m not facing my struggles alone.
Jesus is right there with the suffering people, says the reverend, but what is he doing? Evidently he is paring his nails, or rubbing coffee stains out of his robe, or fiddling with his smart phone, or whatever, but -- don't get the reverend wrong --he is, like, totally relating to the plight of the suffering people nearby. He doesn't bother to set his visual property to TRUE, nor does he do what even the most feeble human being willingly does in this situation, which is to give counsel from experience and offer personal condolences. It is impossible to distinguish Jesus's form of empathy from the empathy we would expect from a fictional character.

Still, sure, we can relate to Jesus if we squint hard enough. Blurring away the details, we see he was reviled, misunderstood, maltreated, a righteous malcontent who was wrongly persecuted. Born to the wrong time, he passed through an adolescence about which he didn't like to speak in detail, and ended a tumultuous adulthood miserably. Almost anyone can see himself in this to one degree or another -- there's some Gregor Samsa in that portrait, even some Hamlet, and if not any Ahab, certainly some Ishmael.

At the same time, it's not so easy to relate to a figure who also knows everything about everything -- past, present, future -- and who seems to place heavy emphasis on the aspiration to have millions of groveling goobers sit beside him singing his praises while billions more endure agonies far worse than his and for infinitely longer. At his moment of maximum hardship, he could look at the condemned guy hanging one crucifix over and not only read his every thought, but know whether, in fact, he would be joining Jesus in an eternal post-death party. I don't think I'm alone in saying I find nothing in my own experience or self-understanding that connects with that, and if anything, I am relieved to say so.

The reverend continues with the putatively good news:
Oftentimes people become more religious in times of sorrow. They find that they are able to meet God in new ways. Why? Because when our defenses are down and we’re more vulnerable, God can break into our lives more easily. It’s not that God is closer, it’s that we’re more open.
Oh wait -- that's not good news. That's a load of crap, and it's a good thing it is (in a way), because if it were true, it sounds downright cultish and predatory, portraying Jesus as a manipulative opportunist who feeds on the misery he doesn't bother to prevent. Worship that if you like, but if you do, I suggest keeping an eye on your valuables and maintaining regular contact with the people in your life -- the ones who demonstrably exist and who will reciprocate your empathy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Against Legal Pillow Forts

She is probably racist, possibly insane, and definitely stupid, but when Sally Kern proposes a good piece of legislation -- even if it is meant to paper over some of the deficiencies in one of her earlier pieces of shoddy, paranoia-stoking legislation -- I am willing to acknowledge it:

State Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, is the author of House Bill 1552, which would ban the use of foreign law in Oklahoma courts. It declares that any court action will be “void and unenforceable” if the decision is based “on any law, rule, legal code or system that would not grant the parties affected by the ruling or decision the same fundamental liberties, rights, and privileges granted under the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions.”
ThinkProgress, with which I disagree roughly as frequently as I agree with Sally Kern, gamely lays out the bitter consequences of constitutional equality for all:
HB 1552 “will actually target all religions” by denying “people the use of Jewish Law, Catholic Law, or any other religious law” in private contracts “while also jeopardizing international business contracts that include forms of arbitration, choice of law clauses, or foreign law clauses” — just like SQ 755. Indeed, SQ 755 is so poorly written that would ban the long-standing rights and sovereignty of Native Americans.
I gather the above is offered as an argument against the proposed law, but to succeed as such, it needs to spell out why anyone in Oklahoma, or even in a civilized part of the USA, would want to be subject to Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, or other religious law. It doesn't say why it would be undesirable or unjust to subject all people, whatever their religious attachments, to the same body of laws.

It hints at the downsides in the mention of "long standing rights and sovereignty" of Native Americans, but if Native Americans are being sovereign, they're hashing out legal questions in their own sovereign courts, not in US courts. US courts have the competency and responsibility to enforce and interpret US laws, and even that sometimes proves too much to ask of them.

More fundamentally, the insidious thing about unequal laws is that someone has made them unequal to privilege his own interests over someone else's interests. The eradication of Jim Crow laws was commonly decried as an effort to degrade the long standing rights and liberties of (white) people, but African Americans and their supporters rightly saw this eradication as an equalizing move, and as such a move toward greater justice for all.

I grant that there are people who do in fact want to place themselves under separate legal codes while living within the territorial USA -- and too often they're hell-bent on dragging everyone else with them -- but that's not how it is supposed to work here. After age 12 or so, nobody gets to build pillow forts where they make up new laws while enjoying the benefits and protections of the household.

(pillow fort image source)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Science Among the Human Talents

Here's Adam Frank on natural science and natural calamity:

Science gives us so much. It is the engine of our capacities, forging tools like the life-saving technological capacity to predict tsunamis. It is also the lens of our greatest aspiration, yielding broad narratives of cosmic and planetary evolution that set our personal stories in context.

But at some point we crash up against domains where science, or at least science alone, cannot help. In those moments, when we are numb with the immediacy of great suffering, explanations can become clay on the tongue. In that shattered place, our other human talents often find their place. In poem or paean, in music or metaphor, in silent homage to whatever powers make sense to the heart in that moment, we may (or may not) find our way. [emphases mine]
Whether science provides more than clay-tongued answers depends, it seems to me, on the particular question at hand. If the question is why can't we prevent this when we can carry around more computing power on our portable phones than was aboard the craft that put human beings on the moon? or simply why me?, then fair enough -- to the extent that science provides answers to these questions, they come across as a little leaden and incomplete.

However, scientific explanations of natural disasters can bring tremendous comfort in comparison with some human talents. Cold science sounds pretty good in the face of assertions of "karmic justice" by idiotic hillbillies; a no-frills primer on weather patterns, plate techtonics, and ocean wave dynamics feels a lot better than filthy televangelist boilerplate that detects god behind the suffering and calls it just.

Science does not have every answer, but unlike the exercises of some other human talents -- especially our penchant for dreaming up elaborate narratives featuring supernatural forces and beings -- it reliably works toward accurate answers. It works toward answers that, moreover, stay within the bounds of what the evidence shows, neither excusing nor blaming, neither attributing causation or denying it, without strong, provable support. Scientific answers will sometimes leave our hearts wanting, but especially if they are understood for what they are, they will not intensify the agonies attending the realities they're explaining.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Grotesque Blogging

These are my wisdom teeth, extracted -- it would be more accurate to say wrenched -- from my jaw in 1988. I have kept them as a reminder of oh, say, the frail, ephemeral quality of our bodies, or because it's not clear how best to dispose of cast-off body parts. Maybe it's saying something about consumerism? Modernity? Nationalism?

I had the option of allowing the dentist to cast them into the medical waste on the day of their removal, but that would be only to grant the legitimacy of the convenient, given answer to the question. They grew there in my jaw, as all my other teeth had done before them, and it seems rash, and maybe impertinent or even demeaning, to let some guy with a "D.D.S." on his nameplate to send parts of my body to this place or that. What next? He picks a dumpster for one of my lungs?

I set out with no clear point to make and I am happy to see I have made it. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Twain Meat

What do you get when you combine Mark Twain and Lewis H. Lapham? A hideously deformed man-beast that nature never intended, a ghoulish compound of living and dead human parts? Probably. Until the peer-reviewed lab results are in, I will take the metaphorical angle on this question and declare that you'd get two reading pleasures combined in one, as in these illustrative passages from Lapham's essay on Twain's recently-published autobiography. Lapham quotes Twain:
We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going, and then go with the drove. We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express; and another one -- the one we use -- which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy, until habit makes us comfortable in it, and the custom of defending it presently makes us love it, adore it, and forget how pitifully we came by it ...

Let us skip the other lies, for brevity's sake. To consider them would prove nothing, except that man is what he is -- loving toward his own, lovable, to his own, -- his family, his friends -- and otherwise the buzzing, busy trivial, enemy of his race -- who tarries his little day, does his little dirt, commends himself to God, and then goes out into the darkness, to return no more, and send no messages back -- selfish even in death.
Zing! Lapham concludes by putting Twain's invective in context:
A society that is the sum of its vanity and greed Twain understood not to be not a society at all but a state of war. If in the volume at hand there is too little of his merciless and undiluted wit, there is enough of it to demonstrate why Twain these days is so sorely missed. Democracy is a dangerous business; it allies itself with change, which engenders movement, which induces friction, which implies unhappiness, which assumes conflict not only as the normal but also as the necessary condition of its existence. The idea collapses unless countervailing stresses oppose one another with competing weight -- unless enough people stand willing to sustain the argument between the governing and the governed, between city and town, capital and labor, men and women, matter and mind.

Twain comes down on the side of the liberties of the people as opposed to the ambitions of the state, pitting the force of his intellect against the "peacock shams" of the world's "colossal humbug," believing that it is the freedoms of thought that rescue a democracy from its stupidities and crimes, the courage of its dissenting citizens that protects it against the despotism of wealth and power backed up with platitudes and billy clubs and subprime loans. His laughter turns toward the darker shores of tragedy as he grows older and moves downriver, drawing from the well of his sorrow the energy of his rage. He doesn't traffic in the mockery of the cynic or the bitterness of the misanthrope. He is a disenchanted philanthropist who retains his affection for individuals, a fierce skeptic who thinks that the Constitution is the premise for a narrative rather than the design for a monument or the plan of an invasion.
I say there's no improving on the prose in those passages, nor on the insights they convey.

I know, I know, the title of this post is awful. You think too much of me if you take me to be someone who can come up with that and then resist using it. Really, all the shame falls to you.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Messing with Texas

The results of's 2011 Reader's Choice Awards for the freethought community are in, and The Atheist Experience took the award for Best Podcast. This prompted me to subscribe to that podcast, and having listened to three episodes, I hereby issue an enduring assessment of its quality: meh.

I want to quickly qualify that by saying the middling assessment is due to the format, not to the people who do the podcast. The speakers seem to know what they're talking about and do an admirable job of keeping things interesting and informative. For starters, one of the speakers founded the Iron Chariots Wiki, which took the award for Best Atheist Web Site, and for good reason based on my initial wanderings there. If only I knew some philosophically-minded atheists, I would have a strong recommendation to give them. Chime in if you know anyone like that!

Still, I would have voted for the runner-up podcast, Reasonable Doubts. When I say I "would have," I apparently mean to insist on the conditional in that statement, because the Reasonable Doubts crew encouraged listeners to vote for them, and I didn't actually do so. Still, I would have, and the reason can be illustrated as follows:

The Atheist Experience invites callers from the general public to participate in real time -- the general public of Austin, Texas, especially, where the podcast and tee-vee simulcast originates. They take calls from all over the globe, but the callers tend to be nearby. Granted, Austin is the one place in Texas any self-respecting human being would freely confess to calling home (apologies to sister in Houston!), but being from the best city in Texas is roughly like being the least aggressive giant centipede in a jar, or the most comfortable bedbug-infested pillow of several.

The Atheist Experience messes with Texas and Texas-style dead-enders from far beyond, and it is correspondingly dumber for it. That is, it tends to get bogged down in long conversations about small matters -- what does "believe" mean (sigh) -- or long-refuted arguments (the Kalam Cosmological Argument ... blogga please) -- or, at best, tangled in interesting exchanges for which the 60-minute run time and the "callers waiting" format is very, very poorly suited.

By contrast, the Reasonable Doubts guys do an excellent job of selecting topics that fit their time constraints and their format. They do not take calls, though they do read and address e-mails, comments, and other messages from listeners. On those occasions when they select a topic that exceeds the time limitations, they segment it into additional podcasts, e.g., last year's three-part treatment of Buddhism -- episodes 73, 74, and 75 -- which was excellent. Their format allows them to be sure they've covered the topic in the depth it deserves (which is not the same as claiming they have always accomplished this.)

I acknowledge there are trade-offs. The Atheist Experience podcasters are accepting the risk that someone will call in with a strong argument they can't address, and wouldn't that be fun? This injects a degree of lively improvisation by allowing, in principle, any drooling redneck to call in and create some havoc. While the Reasonable Doubts guys can't predict everything a given guest will throw at them, it's true to say their format is less amenable to that kind of dynamism.

Fortunately, only one podcast could win the award, but we don't actually have to choose between them. I recommend listening to both podcasts, and meanwhile, whether you listen to one, both, or neither, don't mess with Texas. Really, don't. It will just make you dumber, and Texas has been striving for decades to prove it won't learn anything. By now, we should go ahead and take that as its final answer.

(centipede image)

Touching the Hot Stove and/or Dinosaur Activation Button

When the New York Times puts up its paywall to stop the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad visits of millions of readers worldwide; and when its online readership declines drastically; and when it finds it has to spend absurd amounts of time, effort, and money policing its paywall scheme; and when the readers who remain show themselves to be unbearably demanding, unforgiving, captious, insufferable, whiny little trolls about every last thing, it will have established itself as the online newspaper version of this infant:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Please Rank My Spite

Readers, I have written this blog post to ask both of you how much I should despise the workers I saw today. Let me present the facts as straightforwardly as possible:
  • They were employees of Portland General Electric (PGE).
  • PGE is a publicly traded company with stock symbol POR.
  • At one time, PGE was owned by Enron, but Enron sold it amid its self-made disasters of the early 2000s.
  • Many of PGE's workers, including the workers I saw today, are linemen represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW);
  • The PGE workers aligned with IBEW engage in collective bargaining with PGE. 
  • While PGE is a private corporation, it is not, in any real sense, engaged in competitive enterprise. The state has granted it a monopoly over the provision of electrical power to a large and heavily populated hunk of Oregon. We who live in that area can either go without electricity or purchase it from PGE at regulated rates.  
  • The workers I saw today were repairing a power line, at least 30-40 feet in the air. When I saw them, the temperature was 38 F, the rain was steady, and there was a non-trivial but brisk east wind. For logistical reasons, they did not have the benefit of a "cherry picker" --- the image at the top gives a fair approximation of what I saw, though I saw three linemen rather than two.
  • One of the linemen was not directly engaged with the power line, but appeared to be serving as a safety spotter of some kind -- he was positioned a few feet back from the other two, and his focus was divided between the other two linemen and the crew on the ground.
  • Many members of the crew on the ground were standing. One or two might have been leaning against their PGE vehicles, though not, I would say, in a lazy way. They were all paying attention to the job at hand, watching the safety spotter's hand signals,  directing the flow of gawking passersby like me, and doing whatever one does in that work. 
  • It must be admitted that none of the workers on the ground were filling the time by jogging in place vigorously, doing push-ups, drawing up diagrams of money-saving innovations, sweeping the sidewalks, planting trees, reading to children, changing out the engine oil for the PGE trucks, answering customer service calls, or singing the praises of PGE's senior managers, board of directors, or shareholders.
These are the facts as I encountered them. In the context of ongoing national controversies, in which, apparently, millions of people have somehow contrived to conclude that public sector unions are peopled with despicable layabouts whose bloated compensation packages are dragging us all to ruin, I am not sure what to make of the PGE workers I saw today. Should I hate them?

If so, how much should I hate them? Should I hate them as intensely as I am expected to hate school teachers, social workers, nurses, police, and fire fighters, etc., who often seem to do useful work but are, it turns out, paid by the government? Should I hate them as much as I would hate them if they were employed by a publicly owned power utility?

Should I hate them before or after they complete work on the power line? (I admit it -- I do enjoy having electrical power.)

Hold that thought. Apropos -- well, maybe nothing in particular -- consider this, one of many charts recently published in Mother Jones:

Given that sort of forty-year trend, and given our recent and ongoing national experience with the banksters, I am tempted to say it requires towering levels of stupidity to convert "the government is in debt" to an adequate explanation for "I don't have as much free time or as much money in the bank as I would prefer" and to stop the analysis and begin the fist-shaking, scat-throwing outrage --- so much colossal stupidity, in fact, that it ceases to be stupidity and goes begging for a more fitting label. And the difficulty of locating the right label for it suggests the possibility that I am the one who is seeing all of this the wrong way. There's a conceptual connection or leap that I am failing to make, evidently.

To my way of thinking, if the question is where is the money and free time going?, this is an empirical question with actual answers, but evidently my way of thinking is wrong. Somehow.

I hope someone will set me straight and help me understand why wage-earners -- whether employed in public or private sector -- are in any meaningful sense the ones to whom to direct any share of outrage. It seems to me the bottom 98% of us are out bracing against the same wind, feeling the same cold, dangling with little support, precariously close to falling even as we do the work.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Second Thought ....

The latest edition of The Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast features an interesting topic -- or so I will assert -- "pop cultural second thoughts:"

On this week's show, we explore some of the things about which we have been, in our lives, very very wrong. How wrong? Well, you'll see. Glen was wrong about a high-school drama, Stephen was wrong about a review he hopes you'll never read, Trey was wrong about the classics, and I was wrong about several things, from Friday Night Lights to that book with all the Swedish names in it.
I will give two of these, but I could give more:
  • I was wrong about The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the first two of which passed through theatrical release and had gone to DVD by the time I finally deigned to watch. I had assumed it was a live action production of a Dungeons and Dragons game, which of course it is, but I had failed to appreciate the human drama beneath and behind all the hobbits, elves, dwarves, dragons, trolls, wizards, and orcs.

  • In agreement with one of the podcasters, I was wrong about Radiohead. I recall knowing of Radiohead only from their one radio single at the time, "Creep," which is a good enough song but had become an earwig from sheer radio repetition. So despite all the hype and all the airplay, I walked past The Bends in stores dozens of times -- this was still when there were record stores. At last, I saw it on sale at Tower Records for the then-shockingly low price of $8.99, so probably because I had only $9, I gave in and took it home. I became a committed Radiohead fan roughly a minute into the first song, "Planet Telex," and I have remained so ever since. I even went back and got Pablo Honey, the album that gave us "Creep."

Call it a meme. What are your pop cultural second thoughts?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Whether Fake or Real

Update -- this appears to be a fake. It's still not funny, interesting, or otherwise worthwhile.

If in earnest, this is utterly despicable. If a parody, it's over the line.

What's happening in Japan is horrific. It's not for joking -- give it a while, OK? -- and, if somehow the product of a god-like agency, direct evidence that the god-like agency is evil.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

2011 Shamrock 15K - Rain-Slow

The rain was more or less constant during today's Shamrock Run 15K, which I completed in 71 minutes 35 seconds (7:40 min/mile pace, official). In running terms, this was not a standout day for me, but I was pleased with the changes to the course  even though they made the course a little hillier. The positive change was fewer turns in those early congested couple of miles, and that meant less worry over tripping oneself or other runners. I am happy to report I did not fall down, nor cause anyone else to fall down -- not even once.

This has become a huge event -- 30,000 runners divided among 5k, 8k, and 15k events -- and the organizers have done an excellent job keeping up with the titanic logistical challenges of keeping us all in place and safe. I could cavil about the length of the lines for the post-race beer, but really, the problem was more the cold and rain than the lines, and no race organizer controls the elements. (For now.)

As always, I congratulate all my fellow runners for pushing through a tough run on an ugly day, and I thank the organizers, volunteers, and sponsors who made it all possible.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Enter the Void: That The Dead Do Not Improve

The good news is that I gave Enter the Void 4 stars out of 5 on Netflix. In this I departed pretty sharply from Anthony Lane:
All of this is exhausting, not to say repetitive, and the actors are much less dynamic than the camera, but there is a proud, bloody-minded majesty in the trip. Even if you can’t face the rest of the movie, go for the astonishing opening credits, which look like an explosion in a font factory, and then walk out.
I hated the opening credits, but liked more and more of what I saw thereafter. The bad news is that I am not sure I shouldn't have given it one or zero stars rather than four.

I credit it for keeping my interest for 2-1/2 hours despite my continuous dread that it would lose me; and for some genuinely interesting mise-en-scène -- the scene early on in which the protagonist's friend describes the Tibetan Book of the Dead while descending a spiral staircase is, alone, a more evocatively arranged scene than many directors have managed over long careers; and for assembling a narrative in a way that requires -- gasp! -- the full attention of the viewer for the duration.

On the level of meaning, however, it just begs too many questions. To wit:

Why are these the scenes the dead consciousness revisits over and over? How does the consciousness know -- if he does know -- where and when to go to experience a significant moment from the past or present? For example, he's there several minutes before his sister learns of his death and still present when she learns of it; he's there when his sister identifies his body; he's there when his former lover, her son, and her husband have a loud dispute about him; he's there when the angry son decides to set him up for the police sting that leads directly to his death in a filthy night-club toilet.

We are there, again and again, as he watches people having sex -- people he knows and people he doesn't know alike. Whereas the only mourners we see are people who are mourning his death or the deaths he himself has mourned -- an interestingly narrow sample compared with the fairly broad survey of people fucking in Tokyo.

We are there when he descends to a microscopic vantage point to witness events that are impossible to see with normal human eyesight. Are these anatomical close-ups he sees within the scope of the biological knowledge he attained while still alive? This is not an idle question -- on it turns whether we can plausibly see these visions as dream-like, subconscious projections or take them as novel insights gained at the expense of death.

Does he in some way choose these destinations in time and space? If not, what agency is being proposed as having chosen them, and according to what rules, principles, guidelines, powers?

Granted, reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and studying the larger tradition to which it belongs might well fill in some of these blanks. To be crass: who gives a shit? I am asking questions raised within the frame of the film and calling out the film's apparent unwillingness to answer them. Inasmuch as the film is saying something about Buddhist cosmology, it needs to show it and say it. Suggestions for further reading can be had elsewhere.

There's an interesting-enough story here, and a good deal of artfulness in assembling and presenting it, but in the end, according to this movie, we are in death much as we are in life -- self-regarding, sex-obsessed voyeurs who aren't quite healed from the traumas that shaped us, but given -- whether we want them or not -- opportunities to repeat the same old cycles that took us where we are. In the words of "Tennessee," the great Silver Jews song, "the dead do not improve" (lyrics; song).

Friday, March 11, 2011

Paula Deen Riding Sad Don Draper

Truly it is a day rich with memes -- with SJKP's entry fresh in mind, I here offer my entry in the Paula Deen Riding Things meme, which I've tastefully appended to my earlier effort to construct a Sad Don Draper from a still from The Road.

It's neither here nor there -- what is these days? -- but Paula Deen seems to be experiencing that moment from The Road in a far lighter spirit than Don Draper is, and for my part, it put me more in Don's state of mind.

On a penultimate note, I had no idea Paula Deen was so small. On a final note, who is Paula Deen? She does one of those cooking shows on the tee-vee, right? Or is she one of those Housewives of [City] people? One of the CSI [City] dramas? Jersey Shore? One of the American Idol judges? New letter turner for Wheel of Fortune?

On a final final note, frivolities aside, The Red Cross is making it easy to donate for the benefit of the disaster in Japan, or for any number of other ongoing disasters.

Assorted Fuck-Yeahings

While my fascination with still has a few minutes left, I have taken the trouble to put some interesting-to-me phrases in, starting with the above. Neat.

This one is interesting, but I think they would have preferred the image to be The Dude:

The entry for Cafe Philos is R-rated; the one for Eli may or may not even make sense (and Rust Belt Philosophy causes it to crash for some reason); what about Zehnkatzen? This looks like his excellent work:

Because I wanted to include Ophelia Benson, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Russell Blackford, Stephen Law, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett but was too lazy to make one for each of them, I did this one instead. I quite like the result:

The formerly correct spelling (i.e., new atheism) yields an interesting result as well, though not as fun.

You'll kick yourself if you don't check Moby Dick, Borat, Slingblade ("French Fried Potaters" wouldn't work), Nerds, and Malleus Malificarum.

Returning, as I always do sooner or later, to navel-gazing, I cannot resist posting this -- I could not have chosen a better image:

If I didn't post one about you, it's not because I don't wuv woo. It's not even because I didn't look at the result of your human name / blog name / screen avatar whatever. It's because the life span of this fascination is seriously winding down and, well, I am lazy.

Archer - Deliciously Evil

Speaking of stuff on the tee-vee I enjoy, I can't recall (and can't be bothered to check) if I've praised Archer in the annals of this precious, precious blog. Archer is funny in a deliciously evil way -- you laugh most when you know you shouldn't laugh at all, and knowing you shouldn't laugh just makes it funnier -- and while its form of humor sometimes runs to the monotonous, it never fails to please the eyes.

I'd watch it without sound, but it's better with sound, as this concatenation of season two trailers shows well enough:

The image at the top is from, and that's the actual result from entering delicious funny evil into that suddenly-legendary web page. I have no idea what the image has to do with that search string, but I think it's best left mysterious because the actual explanation is almost certainly dull.

Owning DVDs

Quoth commenter Sheldon:

I really don't get those people that are actually buying those movies. For what, I mean, how many times can you actually watch a movie more than once, and then follow ups of those movies a few times more? I just don't get it. If you want to watch it again some years or months later, why not just rent it again? This has been troubling me for some time.
This comment has just caused three Hollywood moguls to re-soil their pants, or one to soil his pants three times, but I won't dwell on that. (For now. Except to say they should really get that checked out by a doctor.) Instead I want to say a few words in defense of owning DVDs*, which is something I do.

First, I only buy DVDs that I'm reasonably sure I'll re-watch many, many times, so it could be that I am not even talking about the same kind of DVD-buying as commenter Sheldon. If he is talking about the kind of DVD-buying that most becalms the bowels of Hollywood moguls -- the kind where people just walk through the DVD aisle at Costington's** and pile several of the new-release DVDs they recognize from television advertisements -- then I quite agree with him. That sort of DVD-buying is ridiculous. I question whether very many people engage in it, even in the best of times, but I sometimes get the impression that Hollywood moguls are basing a substantial business model on it.

I could, of course, just rent -- or download, or stream, or otherwise ascertain -- my favorite films and tee-vee programs when I feel the urge to re-watch them, but there's something attractive in the idea of owning the tangible artifact, owning it outright, with a clear conscience that I have it fairly, legally, and as permanently as we ever own anything. I can pick it up, hold it, look it over, play it, or let it gather a little more dust according to my own schedule and inclinations -- I can, in some small way, integrate this work of art I love into the flow of my life, and as I have commented with respect to books and probably music CDs also, I can see it on the shelf and call to mind something I value in the world and in my best ideas of myself. (I never promised this wouldn't get loopy.)

Of course, soon enough I won't be gainfully employed, and I don't picture keeping many DVDs in the final shopping cart with which I trundle off to my new life on the sidewalks, back alleys, side streets, parking lots, and city parks. I expect I'll barter away my copies of There Will Be Blood, The Proposition, Citizen Kane, and The Jerk only in the most severe desperation. Same goes for No Country for Old Men, L'Avventura, Stepbrothers, The Dark Knight, Better Off Dead, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The Godfather trilogy, Mad Men seasons 1-n, Spinal Tap, Gangs of New York, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Wire, Cosmos, Bergman's "faith" Trilogy, Raising Arizona, the Olivier Shakespeare box set, Branagh's Hamlet, Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, the special-edition Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars trilogy, Family Guy volumes 1-n, American Dad volumes 1-n, Futurama volumes 1-n, The Simpsons seasons 2-n ... ah, dammit, I am going to need a second and third shopping cart.

* I am using DVD as shorthand for the DVD format, the blu-ray format, and the emerging 3-D format. DVD is a tidy, succinct initialism; whereas I would prefer to write, see, speak, or think the term "blu-ray" as little as possible because it is clunky and, well, retarded.

** Thank you, The Simpsons.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Touch of Flea-Riddled Burlap

As Eli covered a day or two back, the creed that has given the world (nominally) celibate priests, hairshirts, flagellation, and assorted other manifestations of "mortification of the flesh" has kept, it's safe to say, a vexed relationship with the human body over the ages. 

St. Paul, arguably Christendom's first compulsive writer of overlong, fevered, unsolicited letters, didn't care for the icky flesh:
For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:13)
He took up the theme even more forcefully in Colossians 3:
[S]eek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God.

Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.

For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.

When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory.

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry ...
Don't even get him started on vaginas -- it's the flesh that famously discharges more flesh! It turns out, however, that the guy who wrote several of the books of the New Testament has Christianity all wrong, says Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who finds support in John's gospel:
[John] bears witness to a sensual God. Jesus washed human feet, smelled perfume, and tasted abundant wine. He used spit and dirt to heal a blind man, and his gut churned when he looked upon the hungry crowds. Salty tears ran down his face. He smelled the stink of death on Lazarus, his friend. Jesus’ very own flesh tore when he was beaten and crucified.  When he rose from the dead, he told Thomas to touch his wounded side, which was not perfected, but bore the scars of having lived. Then as one of his final acts on earth, he ate grilled fish on a beach. These experiences of the body are not things to be spiritually transcended — they are perhaps the very things in which we find Christ ... This Christianity stuff is not a religion of disembodied spirituality at all. This is a religion of Word made flesh, of God revealed in the vulnerability of newborn flesh in a cradle and in heartbreak of broken flesh on a cross.

Given that they've had a couple thousand years (give or take a few) to sort this out, you might think Christians would have decided on either rejecting or embracing the human body, or arriving at one or another consistent view of how it fits their scheme. Alas, no -- the contrasts evident in the works of the earliest canonical authors remain present and unreconciled today.

I don't even mean to say Christians are not allowed to be confused (I am ever so generous) -- they're as welcome at the human imponderables factory as anyone else, with no special badges required. Since, however, they offer what they claim is the unique set of doctrines, tenets, and observances by which every single person will attain either salvation or damnation for the next eleventy trillion centuries and beyond, the ante-upping has been all theirs.

There's a word for people who loudly demand our attention only to present confused gibberish when we turn to them -- well, OK, there are at least three terms for it -- obnoxious children, drama queens, and attention whores. Whatever might be said of those three sometimes-overlapping categories of people -- who can deny their fun side? -- they are notoriously unreliable sources for clear thinking or good living.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Obama Administration: Like its Predecessors

I hope someone will remind me to re-read this Pro Publica report if I ever suggest the Obama Administration has been, on the whole, anything better than a crashing disgrace:

President Obama yesterday formalized indefinite detention for dozens of men held at Guantanamo Bay and announced that the Pentagon would move ahead with military trials for a handful of other detainees ... Two similar processes to review detainee cases were in place during the Bush administration. Like its predecessors, the Obama administration's review process will operate outside the courts and will be subject to no independent review. Also like the Bush White House, the Obama administration alone will choose all members of the review board and appoint a "personal representative" to advocate on behalf of the detainees. [emphasis mine]
They had me at "like its predecessors."

That said, whatever Mammon's more forceful wing puts forward --- Huckabee-Palin? Skeletor-Vader? Botulism-Arsenic? Brain Cancer-Jagged Knife Wound to the Groin? --- is likely to be worse, so the particular question before us will be an inspiring one, to be sure: which of these two despicable, depraved suitcases full of corporate money in gray suits stands to make things worse faster?

To be clear, I am not even necessarily saying the better choice is bound to be the one that will bring ruin more slowly; there's something to be said for speeding up when you know you're going to hit a wall no matter what.

Moguls v. Netflix

Hollywood executives favor Netflix less and less for these reasons, among others:

There is evidence that Netflix's streaming service discourages users from purchasing newly released DVDs. The studios see indications that for even hit films, which likely won't appear on Netflix's streaming service for years, some Netflix subscribers are satisfied to wait until they do.
Really, Hollywood executives? You wander through life carrying the expectation that large numbers of people are going to purchase DVDs soon after they're released -- and that they'd do so if not for Netflix's meddlesome streaming service? Good for you. Keep reaching for the stars, won't you? You're adorable.

I wouldn't think so, but it would seem Hollywood moguls have failed to notice that most newly-released DVDs were, very recently, available in theaters. At any given time, most of the movies showing in theaters are shit, and I have found that terrible movies do not improve -- in the quality of the screenplay, directing, acting, visual effects, sound mixing, costume design, etc. -- upon being transferred to playable disk. I can't think of a single counterexample, in fact.

Consider the talkies currently playing at Portland's Lloyd Mall theater -- the outdoors Lloyd Mall theater, Portlanders!* Here's that lineup with my ever-helpful [annotations]:
Rango [The best that can be said for it: Jonny Depp is not playing that goddamn pirate this time.]
The Adjustment Bureau [Proposed tagline: where confusing, uninteresting, and profoundly implausible collide for two hours. Granted, that could apply to quite a few movies, but that doesn't make it right.]
Hall Pass [Ha ha! That allegedly funny man said something scatalogical, and that other one said something misogynistic -- but it's, like, satire or something! In short, this is scat dipped in guano.]
Unknown [a.k.a. Taken II: Takin' It Back. Watch as 68-year old Liam Neeson growls and punches his way through dozens of men half his age to win back the love of Don Draper's ex-wife. You could, but why would you?]
I Am Number Four [You are too kind to yourself -- actually, you're shit.]
Take Me Home Tonight [No. No way.]
The King's Speech [English royals, Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and did I say English royals? If I am not mistaken, this is one of those priceless talkies where they make sure to keep ladies off the screen almost completely --- which is really for the best, don't you think? If only they'd worked in a Holocaust side-story, it would have won every single Oscar instead of only half of them. That said, I want to see it (English royals!); I will buy it only if it is considerably better than it seems.]
Gnomeo and Juliet [A movie that will disappoint kids and appall adults -- something for everyone!]
Drive Angry 3D [Could someone remind Nicholas Cage he's past due for that delicate stage of his career when he secrets himself away in a 50,000 acre compound in the wilds and stores his own urine in jars for the next 40 years?]
True Grit [Maybe not great, but very good. I'd buy this for a fair price.]
I see precious little on this list I would willingly purchase in disk form. If Hollywood moguls are building their business model on the idea that people will purchase disks soon after release, and at prevailing retail prices for new releases ($15 and up), then their business model deserves to fail with or without Netflix.

The accusations against Netflix go on:
Films offered on Netflix lose value rapidly. Some cable and traditional broadcasters won't go near a title once Netflix begins streaming it ... The prevailing feeling among the studio managers I spoke with is that Netflix's streaming service will be a good outlet for the least-valuable material. If they have their way, Netflix will be the Internet equivalent of a swap meet, where only the most dated and least popular titles are available. The studios are betting that eventually people will get bored with the service. [emphasis mine]
Strange. Strange because, speaking as a Netflix subscriber going way, way back to the days when they etched the movies onto cave walls and then shipped the cave to your house, I was pretty sure that's already the way the streaming service operates -- as an outlet for the least-watchable, least-desirable material. I have never quite understood the version of Netflix subscription that is streaming-only for a little less per month --- do people really want or need a subscription service to watch back episodes of My Name is Earl, My So-Called Life, That 70s Show, third rate movies, and the world's treasury of mediocre documentaries? Don't those kinds of things just come at us unbidden if we have a television? Isn't that the sort of junk that drove us away from just watching broadcast tee-vee in the first place? It was either that or the non-stop commercials, or a combination of both.

Judging from Netflix's "top 100" listing of its most sought-after titles, my impression is correct -- as of this writing, only nine of the films are available via streaming; the other 91 are only available via physical disk through the mail.

All of this confirms what I have always believed about Netflix -- that it is good for one and only one thing, namely, as a means of renting high-quality films of past and present that are basically impossible to find otherwise. That it pushed the likes of Blockbuster over a cliff is not, from that perspective, a bad thing, since Blockbuster's offerings have always been heavily biased toward new releases which are, as we've covered, generally not worth much. (Whereas I would definitely bother to do the brick-and-mortar movie rental thing if the selection were better.)

I have no strong rooting interest in either Hollywood executives or Netflix --- both have their place, and both give plenty of reason to despise the industry of which they're a part, so I am somewhat like a Portland Trailblazers fan watching a game between the Lakers and the Spurs. Go injuries, I say!

* Not the Lloyd Mall theater located inside the mall. We in Puddle-Town are endlessly bedeviled by two Lloyd Mall theaters, separated by the crow-flight distance a strong man could heave a large potato.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Regarding Others' Milkshakes

I doubt I am the only one surprised that it took a PhD, an MPH, and a third contributor to wrench this insight (PDF sorry) from the American mind:
Our analysis of recent data from the 2008-2010 American National Election Survey (see methodology section) found evidence that during the summer of 2010, not only did more Americans favor the health care legislation than opposed it (44.3% in favor to 35.8% opposed, while 19.8% had no opinion), but that there was a substantial racial component to support for the measure (see graph below). While only 38.4% of whites supported the 2010 health care law, 78.6% of blacks supported it, as did 52.6% of Latinos and 43.6% of people from other racial backgrounds. [emphasis mine]
On the one hand, duh. What next? A close reading of public opinion surveys establishing that white people become uncomfortable when they pull up to a 7-11 to find that teenagers are playing the loud rap music from their cars? As our cinematic exemplar, Daniel Plainview, explained:
I have a competition in me. I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.
While you die on that sidewalk, I'm going to sit in the shade and finish this milkshake. Meanwhile keep your filthy hands off my stuff. USA! USA!

On the other hand, the study's authors concede they have not established a causal relationship:
While racial disparities in health care may be a contributing factor, existing data are insufficient to confirm this assertion. Future research should examine the relationship between these racial disparities and support for health care reform.
Maybe it should, and maybe it shouldn't. It won't change the fact -- and sadly, it is a fact -- that white Americans strongly tend to resent contributing to the benefit of non-white Americans. This sentiment is akin to but separate from resentments toward organized labor, which, while appallingly strong, has come to a fine, sharp, bitter point among the wealthier white Americans. No doubt the remaining support for organized labor is just a few FoxNews broadcast-months away from its final end.


Monday, March 7, 2011

Bullshit's Weak Draw

According to recent polling, decades of continuous whining, caterwauling, and shrieking from conservatives has evidently done little to inspire Americans to embrace their movement's pining for the days when men were kingly, women were self-abnegating helpmeets, gay people were courteously self-loathing, and racial minorities were content to sing, dance, mop, scrub, or kindly remove themselves from sight.  

Instead, acceptance of legal equality in marriage continues to climb, and majorities continue to favor reproductive self-determination, including but not limited to abortion. What about that television ad in which some athlete's mom proudly admitted she hadn't aborted him? What about all the fetus anatomy porn, the heroic example of octomoms everywhere, the brave stand taken by ecclesiastical functionaries to demand women should die so that blastocysts may live?

Granted, a few of the results from the same polling reveal that stupidity, willful ignorance, self-hatred, and garden-variety incoherence remain strong with our nation's people. Still, results such as these, on such endlessly jawboned issues of public concern, are nearly enough to tempt a cynic like me to wonder if there's something to the nostrum that reality bats last. If nothing else -- please pardon the extension of the unpardonable baseball metaphor -- reality appears to connect with the ball solidly and consistently, notwithstanding the dripping spitballs of right-wing rhetoric.

Have Done the Complete Tour

I have been the equivalent of the instructor in this video, and I have also been the students. And I have to admit, I have also been the equivalent of the grenade in this video.

Remember that it's only hilarious when it's not happening to you.

(via Portland Mercury)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Against Theories of Romance: Two Theories of Romance

Maybe because Valentine's Day is only just passed, this precious, precious blog has recently fixated more than usual on matters of romance (sex, love, dating, relationships, and so on) -- and I have not even broached the suspension from the BYU basketball team a player who -- brace your sensibilities before reading further -- had sex with his girlfriend, and for some reason told someone who cares about the school's rule against such things. Neat. Good luck on recruiting outside of wackaloon Mormon circles, BYU!

One example was my delicate exploration of the longstanding squabbles between men and women, which also covered the (astounding) claim that Neko Case can't get laid. Amanda Marcotte touched on the latter by saying, among other things, this:

My theory is people put off different vibes.  I know people who always have people clamoring to date them for real, but never get hit on for one-night stands, and vice versa.  And it’s hard to point to a single quality they have that makes the difference, beyond just that’s how people perceive them.
There are no systematic, grand theories about why people succeed or fail in romance, Marcotte claims. Fair enough, but a few days later, she proved willing to launch a grand theory to explain why some idiot was whining about his romantic fortunes:
I would argue that it is true that women---and men---are quite often attracted to socially dominant, i.e. confident people ... I’m going to offer a counter-theory for [idiot].  I believe what he has experienced is being rejected by women who prefer men who are self-confident, popular, and straightforward instead of men who lurk around giving you the stink eye because you haven’t offered to suck their cocks yet, even though they totally complimented on your shoes and pretended to care about your opinions.
... My counter-theory is that Nice Guys® group together traits like confidence with aggression, so they can convince themselves that confident men are always assholes, and thus that they’re being unfairly deprived of pussy by women who are sick fucks that enjoy being abused. 
There's a lot here, including at least two theories -- a theory of what tends to work in romance (confidence, straightforwardness, popularity), and a theory about a certain strain of thinking among "Nice Guys®." Both are plausible enough theories, if you're in to that sort of thing. It's not clear if Marcotte is or not -- she was not willing to pronounce on the defective thinking of "Women Rock Stars®;" nor was she willing to confidently declare that they'd get over their romantic failings by elevating their confidence, straightforwardness, and popularity. 

It's a plausible theory, but not one with which I agree beyond the value of straightforwardness. For my part, I don’t see why being unpopular is inherently a problem—sometimes being unpopular is the direct result of refusing to be a psychophant, hypocrite, or liar; even more often and less dramatically, it is the result of not following the lemmings off the now-trendiest cliff. As I take on an advisory role with respect to my son's dawning romantic life, I strongly encourage him to avoid outright liars, bootlicks, and group-think mavens as much as possible. Call me crazy!

Nor do I see why confidence makes a good deal of sense here. I find that confidence tends to rise and fall with a person’s perceptions of his/her own ability in particular situations. A renowned lecturer on philosophy might hold forth with tremendous confidence on Wittgenstein in front of a gathering of hundreds of well-informed listeners, only to mumble, stammer, and quietly shuffle her way through the post-lecture reception. Life is short, and I question the value of spending much of it trying to bend and shape personality traits.

Granted, maybe this lecturer will miss romantic opportunities because she has not actively cultivated Smalltalk Powers -- no doubt things can turn out this way.

It "can turn out this way" -- that's the whole thing, isn't it? Romance is so maddeningly contingent, so subject to vagaries of a few dozen varieties, and yet so significant in the course of life, that we cannot help but try to make sense of it. It's arguably the ultimate example of crooked timbers that we cannot help but want to put straight. Yet to concede that it's a hit-or-miss tangle of chance and contingencies, that it's an (impenetrably abstract) art and not a science, is all but to declare that life makes no sense.

But the truth of it is right before us --- whether it makes sense or not, whether it makes us happy or not, exuding confidence "wins" more often than not. Looking a certain way and not a different way "wins" more often than not. People with particular personality traits they didn't choose are going to find romance -- or, at least, aspects of romance -- more difficult than dumber, less interesting, less attractive peers who happen to possess contrasting personality traits that they didn't choose.

This is my final theory of romance: all's fair in love, and likewise, all is unfair. Fair has little to do with it.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Well, No

Andrew Sullivan posted this startling image -- startling because, well, OK, it's not startling.

Granted, Lionel Ritchie is inherently startling to some of us in the sense of always unwelcome in his occasional unbidden arrivals to our attention spans, but that's just a matter of personal pettiness and taste. Or lack of taste, depending on your tastes.

In much the same way that a child who suffers a terrifying encounter with a dog will form a life-long fear of dogs, my too-frequent encounters with the singles of Lionel Ritchie back when he was huge have given me a strong case of Ritchiephobia.

For me, hell is a place where the music of Aerosmith, Lionel Ritchie, Phil Collins / Genesis, and Steve Miller keeps playing and playing unless you take bold, costly, and time-consuming efforts to shut it out -- or in other words, the FM radio listening area centered on Ponca City, Oklahoma circa middle 1980s.

Where am I going with this? I have already gone, and the answer is clear: very obviously nowhere.