Thursday, July 31, 2008

magic circle

Karl Giberson has a well-reasoned article in Salon called "What's wrong with science as religion", in which he argues that, though militant atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have essentially made science (since he includes Hitchens, "reason" might be a more accurate, albeit broader and less precise, term) their new religion, science could never really replace religion. It doesn't seem like that's what anyone was calling for exactly--Dawkins et all seem more interested in reacting to and arguing against the idea of religion than creating a new one. Still, though the odd slide from reason to atheistic religion isn't exactly new, it's refreshing to see the argument appear again. A taste:
Wilson, along with Atkins, Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others, persuades us that science has, for thinking people, discredited religion. Nevertheless, they are quick to borrow from a religion they reject and take delight in using biblical metaphors. And as their science evolves to meet the "mythopoeic requirements" of their minds, it increasingly resembles religion.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"What is Art?" Part 1

Tolstoy says,
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.


Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"character matters"

Perhaps Monica Goodling had grown tired of more standard interview questions when she started asking applicants to the Justice Department slight variants of Stephen Colbert's standard question to congresspeople: "George W. Bush--great president or the greatest president?" Goodling, who attended Regent University Law School (a school, according to Dean Jeffrey Brauch, that is "committed to the proposition that there is truth--eternal principles of justice--about the way we should practice law and about the law itself. We believe character matters. We talk openly about how an attorney can have integrity and humility in a profession that challenges both"), asked applicants what it was about George W. Bush that made the applicant want to serve him. According to the New York Times, Goodling scanned resumes for “abortion,” “homosexual,” “Florida recount,” or “guns.” She also made notes that ensured the applicant was sufficiently conservative on, as she put it in her interview notes, "god, guns + gays."

Goodling displayed her commitment to "eternal principles of justice" in many ways. In one exemplary case, she propagated "unfounded rumors" that an applicant was gay and having an affair with her superior, Margaret Chiara, one of the nine U.S. Attorneys fired without explanation.

The applicant did not get the job.

(Monica/Angela picture via Swampland.)

(Link to NYT article)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

touching on mass culture

Some people find Maggie Gyllenhaal very attractive; some might even consider her the most attractive lady alive, ever, in the history of the world. If anyone wants to argue otherwise, the video below doesn't make their task very easy. At one point, she even stumbles onto exactly what Leslie Fiedler was talking about in What Was Literature?! And, though it's hard to believe, she still seems very warm and genuine; she actually listens to the questions and doesn't answer like an entertainment robot. If someone can be successful in the entertainment industry and still retain at least an aura human emotion, they have something special. (Apologies for the advertisement.)

"But guess what? I didn't write Falconer, so I'm a disgrace to everyone who loves me."

Economies have waxed and waned since The Onion had something as good as "How Come No One Celebrates My Alcoholism Like John Cheever's?".

Vice recently published a detailed account of Cheever's final binge.

A taste of the fun:
Back home he demanded a drink, and when his family protested, he asked if he might take a valium instead; given the go-ahead, he swallowed three and poured himself a drink. During the Christmas feast, a hush fell over the table as he tried to eat peas: Time after time, suspensefully, the trembling fork ascended, only to spill its savory burden at the crucial moment. At last, a spoon was suggested. “I regret to tell you,” said Cheever (putting the fork aside), “that you have a father who is dying.”

Monday, July 21, 2008

who's on first?

In the middle of a long and understandably frustrated post about their recent controversial cover, New Yorker writer and sporter of longer hair than you probably expected, Hendrik Hertzberg, writes this sentence:
Andy Borowitz, whom I ran into the other day at a New Yorker softball game, remarked casually to me that the cover had a “P.O.V.”—point of view—“problem.”

Ah, to see that game in action.


It seems like the Pope Benedict XVI really took Wall-E to heart. According to the BBC, he told World Youth Day that "In so many of our societies, side by side with material prosperity, a spiritual desert is spreading - an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair." He went on to say that "The world 'needs renewal.'" These statements resonate, for some people, as deeply true. However, whether something as densely organized and hierarchical as Roman Catholicism provides the answer remains an open question. Still, hearing such thoughts spread wide by a more-or-less respected figure warms, in an odd way, the dialectical heart.


Friday, July 18, 2008

"Where is that marvelous ape?"

The Huffington Post, self-described on their homepage as "The Internet Newspaper," may not abide by the highest journalistic standards.

Reporting on a joke that John McCain might have told over twenty years ago, Sam Stein, "reaches out" (perhaps he will "go forward" with his reporting if he has enough "bandwidth" and/or "cycles," but, hey, "it is what it is") to a reporter who covered the possible initial incident. She helpfully tells him,
"I'm not sure exactly what the wording was of the joke, but something was said. Some joke involving a rape and ape was said. Enough women repeated it to me at the time and the McCain campaign had a non-denial denial," said Coile, now with the Arizona Daily Star. "It came after his 'Seizure World' joke, in which he referred to the [retirement community] Leisure World as Seizure World... I just think it reinforced this idea that John McCain is humor-challenged." (Link)

Even though she's "not exactly sure what the wording was of the joke" she is certain that "something was said." Excellent. It's a good bet that something was said at an event where speeches were made. To bolster her claim that "something" was said, she cites another questionable joke McCain made, which almost adds up to circumstantial evidence. Then she goes on, after an unbracketed ellipses (did she just pause or were words taken out of her quote: HuffPo, what style manual are you using?), to vaguely confirm that McCain in fact told the joke: "it reinforced this idea that John McCain is humor-challenged." What does "it" refer to? The joke that was confirmed through rumor? "Enough women repeated it" to Coile to confirm? How many women is "enough" to qualify for fact checking?

Whether or not McCain actually told the joke is obviously irrelevant here. With but a wink and a nod to objective reporting, The Huffington Post clearly wants only to extend the narrative of John McCain-as-chauvinist-douchebag. Trying to pretend otherwise is low--exactly the kind of thing HuffPo would jump on Fox News for running with. Sure, he might not be the most sensitive speaker, but what of his actions, the substance? The article ends with a another nod to the idea that substance trumps innuendo (it quotes Linda Barter the head of the Arizona Women's Political Caucus, who says, "John McCain has not been pro-choice or supportive of issues related to women's reproductive health"), but this only adds a sheen of respectability to a petty partisan hack job.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

"We've a long time together, me and you"

Note the level of detail: the tear on the chair, the lighter, the red eyes, the tattoo on the dolphin's arm, the water in the bong. Truly impressive.

(Link, thanks to J.R. Norton)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Att: Obama

W.H. Auden, in "September 1, 1939," was on to something:
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

magic wand

There is undoubtedly a rhetorical virtue in stating the obvious, in getting back to the fundamental crux of the argument, but President Bush takes this virtue to a disturbingly tautological extreme. A few months ago, when asked at a press conference about rising gas prices, the President declared that, if he had one, he would wave a magic wand to reduce them; the stark reality was, however, that he didn't have a wand, magic or otherwise. (This was also the same press conference where he said he had yet to hear about gas prices nearing four dollars per gallon.) Today, at another press conference, the President invoked the same device, and pleaded the same impotence: that magic wand just doesn't exist:
There is no immediate fix. This took us a while to get in this problem; there is no short-term solution. I think it was in the Rose Garden where I issued this brilliant statement: If I had a magic wand -- but the President doesn't have a magic wand. You just can't say, low gas. It took us a while to get here and we need to have a good strategy to get out of it. (Link)

Extemporaneous speaking is difficult, especially when dealing with complex issues. But a pattern of this kind of non-logic substituting for genuine thought and argumentation belies a deeper, more disturbing problem.

Witness, for example, President Bush's recent gag at a "private meeting" at the G8 summit:
The American leader, who has been condemned throughout his presidency for failing to tackle climate change, ended a private meeting with the words: "Goodbye from the world's biggest polluter."

He then punched the air while grinning widely, as the rest of those present including Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy looked on in shock.

Mr Bush, whose second and final term as President ends at the end of the year, then left the meeting at the Windsor Hotel in Hokkaido where the leaders of the world's richest nations had been discussing new targets to cut carbon emissions. (Link, via clusterflock)

This kind of critique is almost too easy to make, but apathy presages a surrender of freedom. By focusing, perhaps necessarily, on the larger themes, the press fails to take note of the nuances of these arguments, which are not arguments at all but weak apologetics for a hardened epistemology.

(The New York Times and NPR on the today's press conference)

Thursday, July 10, 2008


In the midst of much bad news--Iran launching missiles with the capability to reach Israel and then photoshopping photographs of the launch to make it seem like they launched more missiles than they actually did; Rice delivering very thinly veiled threats in reaction to Iran's launches; Obama voting for a bill that gives legal immunity to telephone companies that participated in the government's unconstitutional wiretapping, rendering any legal action against those companies effectively useless; massive suicide attacks in Afghanistan, forgotten almost as soon as they happen (hey, you can now download applications directly to your iPhone?)--it does a body good to read something simple and hopeful like this.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

ecce homo

Zadie Smith has written an excellent review of a new "biographical essay" about Franz Kafka in The New York Review of Books. In it, she considers the the way Kafka has come to us, through biographers and editors. Looming over all the commentary and criticism is Max Brod, the friend who refused to burn the manuscripts but may have damaged them in other ways:
For when it came to editing the novels, Brod's sympathy for the theological would seem to have guided his hand. Kafka's system of ordering chapters was often unclear, occasionally nonexistent; it was Brod who collated The Trial in the form with which we are familiar. If it feels like a journey toward an absent God— so the argument goes—that's because Brod placed the God-shaped hole at the end. The penultimate chapter, containing the pseudo-haggadic parable "Before the Law," might have gone anywhere, and placing it anywhere else skews the trajectory of ascension; no longer a journey toward the supreme incomprehensibility, but a journey without destination, into which a mystery is thrust and then succeeded by the quotidian once more.

Smith also considers how a biographical leveling of Kafka might inform or alter a critical appraisal. Kafka, it turns out, enjoyed exaggeration, positively reveled in accentuating the negative:
For Kafka, the prospect of a journey from Berlin to Prague is "a foolhardiness whose parallel you can only find by leafing back through the pages of history, say to Napoleon's march to Russia." A brief visit to his fiancée "couldn't have been worse. The next thing will be impalement."

And her discussion of Kafka's daily schedule makes Kafka especially concrete--a physical and fallible person prone to frittering away his free hours:
Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka's writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers' Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then "depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o'clock, once even till six in the morning." Then "every imaginable effort to go to sleep," as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse.

six miles

A nice route for a pleasant bike ride. Highly recommended for lazy Saturday afternoons.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bob Dylan, "I Pity the Poor Immigrant"

I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would've stayed home,
Who uses all his power to do evil
But in the end is always left so alone.
That man whom with his fingers cheats
And who lies with ev'ry breath,
Who passionately hates his life
And likewise, fears his death.

I pity the poor immigrant
Whose strength is spent in vain,
Whose heaven is like Ironsides,
Whose tears are like rain,
Who eats but is not satisfied,
Who hears but does not see,
Who falls in love with wealth itself
And turns his back on me.

I pity the poor immigrant
Who tramples through the mud,
Who fills his mouth with laughing
And who builds his town with blood,
Whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass.
I pity the poor immigrant
When his gladness comes to pass.

Bob Dylan, "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine"

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,
Alive as you or me,
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery,
With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold,
Searching for the very souls
Whom already have been sold.

"Arise, arise," he cried so loud,
In a voice without restraint,
"Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint.
No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own,
So go on your way accordingly
But know you're not alone."

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine,
Alive with fiery breath,
And I dreamed I was amongst the ones
That put him out to death.
Oh, I awoke in anger,
So alone and terrified,
I put my fingers against the glass
And bowed my head and cried.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Titfield Thunderbolt

Without knowing anything other than its title and that it was made at Ealing Studios, the fact that this movie exists should make anyone a little happier.


For those who have doubted the utility and raison d'etre of Twitter, witness the Tower Bridge's Twitter posts:
I am closing after the SB Lady Daphne has passed upstream.
I am opening for the SB Lady Daphne, which is passing upstream.
I am closing after the SB Gladys has passed upstream.
I am opening for the SB Gladys, which is passing upstream.

It's sort of endearing in a way that's difficult to explain. Perhaps any personification of an inanimate object lends that personified object a certain quotient of cuteness.

melting it down

Sasha Frere-Jones describes, almost perfectly, the "median blog post":
“I was new to New York and scared, so I drank too much and met someone.”


summery resolution

Jenna Krajeski, a poetry editor at The New Yorker, shares a predilection for biking, Saul Bellow's Herzog and half-maintained resolutions with some people:
At the beginning of the summer, I resolved to do two things more often: ride my bike and read novels. So far, not so good. My poor, abused Fuji popped a tire after the first ride, requiring me to cram it onto the engorged post-Mermaid Parade F train from Coney Island, and my likewise worn paperback copy of Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” has already lost its cover and suffers from a spine that breaks with each page turn; reading it is like running from high tide.

Unlike some people, however, she seems to be getting something done. Or perhaps not. Maybe all she's doing is writing blog posts as well.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

"Amanda Beard Really Isn't That Great Looking"

This guy feels very passionately about Amanda Beard's prospects as a model "post-pool." He doesn't think she can make it. Why? You'll have to read the essay to find out. You'll never guess!