Sunday, July 27, 2008

Random links

Report from the doom conference.

Wingnut discovers link between Obama and psychedelic theorists Terence and Dennis McKenna. (h/t some commenter on Poor Man).

But it turns out that Western culture is built on those very same sacraments!

Rightwingers really just don't get the concept of humor.

Bad new word: "warfighters". (via)

You can purchase Zimbabwe's hyperinflated currency (current top denomination: 50 billion dollars) on eBay.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I am a science fiction character

I happened to rewatch 2001 on DVD the other day. Although I've seen this film probably a dozen times, I never before noticed that my real surname appears in the dialog (well, background sound). It's in the scene on the space station when Haywood Floyd is calling home on the At&T Picturephone. During this there is a a PA announcement that says: "Will Mr [x] please contact the Met Office...". Which just goes to show, you can rewatch something you know practically by heart and still pick up something new.

In addition the surprise of finding myself in this world of the future of the past, I was also surprised to find myself moved almost to tears by the Blue Danube sequence -- also very familiar, but just so beautifully done. Also learned from the commentary tracks that when the thrown bone-club turns into a spacecraft in the famous 4 million year jump cut, that craft is supposed to be some sort of orbital weapon. Which makes sense, but how was anybody supposed to know that? I have a hard time imagining what it's like to view this movie for the first time, without having the benefit of having read the novelization so you have some idea about what is going on. For instance, the movie doesn't make a single mention of the reason behind HAL's malfunction and its connection with the mission, which leaves that whole storyline untethered to anything else.

A more significant use of my name occurs in J. G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, which is structured as a series of vignettes, most featuring what appears to be a single character whose name varies between Traven, Talbot, Trabert, Tallis, [x], and other variants, who wander through desolate landscapes of obscurely-purposed research institutes. I used to have this quote posted on my door in grad school where I was getting into conflicts with the administration:


...the director watched [x] with his unpleasant eyes. His aggressive stare had surprised [x] - seeing himself confused with the psychotic patients was too sharp a commentary on his own role at the Institute, a reminder of his long and wearisome dispute...


What these two very different pieces of imaginative fiction have in common, besides using my name, is that they are radically uncompromising works. Kubrick and Ballard don't give a fuck if they've left the viewer/reader in the dust. Such is the privilege of genius.

My name is neither very common or very uncommon (it's ranked at about the 4900 most common in the US, with about 2.85 occurrences per 100,000 people), so it's hardly a big deal to see it around. There are a 2 or 3 fairly famous holders of the name, but they are no relation to me since my father pulled it out of a hat when he emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Britain as a youth.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Number One with an Umlaut

Internet polls are almost entirely worthless, but this is kind of interesting anyway...apparently the top 10 public intellectuals in the world are all Muslims, most of who I've never heard of, and most of them are theorists of moderate Islam, which the hysterics in the US and Europe like to pretend doesn't exist. Top spot goes to Fethullah G├╝len, "the modern face of the Sufi Ottoman tradition".

A few random observations: Chomsky (who was #1 last time around and is still the highest-ranked non-Muslim) might deserve it, but for his linguistics, not the political writing that makes him trendy. His political writing has never been displayed much intellectual depth, IMO, although it's been sadly accurate.

Al Gore has the spot underneath that, which is just plain silly.

Richard Dawkins (19) is the first scientist to appear, and doesn't really deserve it; he's more of a popularizer than an original thinker, and his writings on religion don't have much depth.

Rather surprisingly, there are no computer people on the list at all. Closest are Lawrence Lessig (52), a lawyer, and Neil Gershenfeld (98), a physical scientist at the MIT Media Lab. Computists have produced some profound ideas but I guess they aren't in the right form for this kind of list. Probably Richard Stallman deserves a slot in terms of impact of an idea.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Aux armes, citoyens!

I was gonna put up a picture of a guillotine, but...nah.

Happy Bastille Day, and may your personal prisons be broken.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sacrilege!

The latest internet dustup is between PZ Myers and Bill Donahue of the Catholic League, over actual and imaginary desecrations of the Host. Very entertaining stuff, for about five minutes. Since I am apparently a fount of anti-Catholic prejudice I thought I should chime in.

Some random reactions: Yes, it shows that some Catholics are as capable of irrational violent fury as some Muslims (see, for instance, the reaction to the Danish Mohammed cartoons). Why is anybody surprised by this?

It's quite obvious that Bill Donahue is a world-class asshole, and is primarily trying to gin up controversy to enhance his own status. But Myers doesn't really come off much better. I find his pose of "It's just a cracker" disingenuous. Obviously, it isn't just a cracker, because people don't get this upset over what you do to a box of Cheez-its. It means something, it's a symbol. He's wilfully pretending that humans aren't symbol-users. The category of the sacred is pretty much a human universal, and one of the things religions do is create and maintain some category of the sacred, often identified with particular objects or places. And if something is sacred, it can be desecrated.

In Judaism, the closest analog to the status of the host is the Torah scrolls and their surrounding containers and apparatus, which were favorite targets of Nazis and other to this day:


Vandals broke into a synagogue in the Midwood section of Brooklyn early yesterday and set on fire at least five Torah scrolls, the most sacred objects in Judaism...''It was like you were walking in on a murder scene with six victims,'' a member of the synagogue, Volvie Herman, said. ''It is an undescribable feeling of horror.'' One of the temple's six Torahs is missing.


Like the wafer, these Torahs would be just wood pulp and ink if not for the symbolic ritual significance that has been projected onto them. But that projection is just as much a part of reality as is their material makeup. Religions, for better or worse, manage to imbue ordinary objects with highly charged meaning. Catholicism has probably elaborated this process further than any other religion, or at least further than Judaism. Jews venerate the Torah but don't, as far as I know, have an elaborately ridiculous philosophical infrastructure to justify it.

I find the New Atheists enormously irritating even when I agree with them, because while their critiques of religious belief are valid as far as they go, they seem to have some equally unjustified beliefs of their own, namely, that people are rational. People aren't rational, and it is irrational to expect them to be. To mock people for being irrational makes about as much sense as mocking a computer for not being a good football player.

And to mock people's sacred beliefs and then to act surprised when there is a violent reaction is both foolhardy and unconvincing. Myers is an intelligent human being and knows full well what he is doing. He and Donohue are feeding off of each other.

Let's hope the death threats remain empty. And what did Jesus say? "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Here's the job I want

"Phil Cubeta, Morals Tutor to America's Wealthiest Families".

No mere mass-market ethicist is this guy, no, he runs a boutique service. I imagine if you are rich enough you can get a moral system tailor-made to your specifications, the same way you get your bespoke suits.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Forget the Fourth

What Chris Satullo says (via). It's a day late and we already had the fireworks, but this is about exactly what I was thinking the whole time.

Put the fireworks in storage.

Cancel the parade.

Tuck the soaring speeches in a drawer for another time.

This year, America doesn't deserve to celebrate its birthday. This Fourth of July should be a day of quiet and atonement.

For we have sinned.

We have failed to pay attention. We've settled for lame excuses. We've spit on the memory of those who did that brave, brave thing in Philadelphia 232 years ago.

The America those men founded should never torture a prisoner.

The America they founded should never imprison people for years without charge or hearing.

The America they founded should never ship prisoners to foreign lands, knowing their new jailers might torture them.

Such abuses once were committed by the arrogant crowns of Europe, spawning rebellion.

Today, our nation does such things in the name of our safety. Petrified, unwilling to take the risks that love of liberty demands, we close our eyes.
...

Yet they pledged their lives and sacred honor - no idle vow - to defend the "inalienable rights" of men. Inalienable - what does that signify? It means rights that belong to each person, simply by virtue of being human. Rights that can never be taken away, no matter what evil a person might do or might intend.

Surely one of those is the right not to be tortured. Surely that is a piece of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

...

But what will history think of us, of how we responded to our great challenge? Sept. 11 was a hideous evil, a grievous wound. Yet, truth told, it has not summoned our better angels as often as our worst.

We have betrayed the July 4 creed. We trample the vows we make, hand to heart.

Don't imagine that only the torturer's hand bears the guilt. The guilt reaches deep inside our Capitol, and beyond that - to us.

Our silence is complicit. In our name, innocents were jailed, humans tortured, our Constitution mangled. And we said so little.

...

Let us atone, in quiet and humility. Let us spend the day truly studying the example of our Founders. May we earn a new birth of courage before our nation's birthday next rolls around.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The world improves a bit

Jesse Helms died today, we will be celebrating with barbecue and fireworks.

This hateful, mean-spirited shitbag represented a certain segment of the American mind that has thankfully been beaten back a bit in recent years, but is in no way extinct. Still, it is nice to know that Helm's views no longer have a prominent place in American public life. Things can improve; progress is not entirely beyond our grasp.

A collection of classic Helms moments here.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The self-justifying dynamics of torture

Turns out June was torture awareness month. I'm behind the curve.

Christopher Hitchens gets himself waterboarded. Video here.

We're cribbing torture techniques from the 1950s version of Communist China. Some interesting speculation there on what the motives for this could have been, given that the purpose of these techniques is mainly to elicit false confessions. So why do it? Because we could. Radley Balko makes the further point that far from fighting terrorism, techniques like this perpetuate it by generating all sorts of false alarms.

He does not go on to point out that this could very well have been the purpose of the torture, consciously or unconsciously. War is the health of the state and the war on terror is the health, such as it is, of the Bush/Cheney administration. Wars and states want to perpetuate themselves; inflating the strength of your enemies is an important technique for accomplishing this.

And if you are a cog, big or little, in a torture machine, surely you must feel a need to excuse your appalling acts. Every confession elicited by torture lets you pretend that the torture was justified all along, and on into the future. And once this dynamic is in motion, the truth or falsity of confessions hardly matters at all.