31 March 2006

The future of Iraq

Juan Cole spins some scenarios about Iraq.
Iraq ends up being somewhat like Lebanon was. The Lebanese had a civil war between 1975 and 1989, and in 1989 the Saudis and others intervened and brought the big Lebanese politicians to a place called Taef in Saudi Arabia, and they hammered out a new accord, a new power-sharing arrangement among the various communities of Lebanon. From that point forward, they decided to disarm their communal militias and re-establish the Lebanese central government and its army.

It hasn't been a smooth road. Between 1975 and 1989 we think on the order of 90,000 people were killed in that civil war. It was very bad. They used big artillery pieces and tanks against one another; there was ethnic cleansing, communal violence. I don't think the violence in Iraq is going to end anytime soon. I expect it to go on for a good decade, and the question is at the end of that decade are Iraqis so tired of all this that they put pressure on their political leaders to make a settlement and come back together?

If they do that, then it won't have been a pleasant experience and a lot of people are going to die, but it won't be millions, and it won't throw the entire region and maybe the world into catastrophe ... years of instability followed by a political settlement.

Mind you, that's the best-case scenario.

30 March 2006

Snakes on a plane

Hard on the heels of my recent reporting on this self-evidently excellent film, I learn that there's a trailer available on the web. Unforturnately, Sam Jackson doesn't say The Line; otherwise, the trailer is everything it should be.

Action

The Poor Man makes a daring assertion.
What does this graph tell us? First of all, we can visually see the meaning of the terms "good" (the initial peak), "bad" (the valley), "so bad it's good" (the second hump), and "so bad it goes past 'so bad it's good' and just fucking sucks" (Phantasm IV). More usefully, we may extract a "Filmic Efficiency" (FE) rating for each film by taking the ratio of Enjoyability to Quality. The FE gives a measure of how well the efforts of the film makers are converted into audience enjoyment. A high FE implies a good use of film resources; a negative FE implies a Merchant-Ivory production. By inspection, we discover that the economics of cinema implies that all films produced should be remakes of Action Jackson, or should at least end in a karate fight between Carl Weathers and Craig T. Nelson.
He vigorously backs up this assertion. Now that the greatest exploitation director of all time is no longer with us, it's hard to argue.

29 March 2006

Today's quote

President George W. Bush:
I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.
In Mark Crispin Miller's book The Bush Dyslexicon, Miller argues that the President is a bad liar. He suggests that many of Bush's notorious malapropisms are a result of his clumsy efforts to avoid accidentally telling the truth, and he includes a lot of exact transcripts of Bush speaking in order to argue that if you look closely at exactly what Bush says, the truth is usually there within the tangled syntax.

In this quote, the President isn't claiming simply that he never said that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America. He certainly isn't claiming that he never implied it. No.

What is he saying? What exactly is he saying?

I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.
Why would he say that?

Juxtaposition

I'm an intellecutal snob who reads high-toned magazines that often print reviews of not just one book, but some little cluster of two or three books. Usually, they will be books on closely related subjects—say, Rennaisance Danish painting and Rennaisance Danish poetry, they reflect different sides of the same movement, blah blah blah. Occasionally they will go for something craftier, looking for insight that comes out of a comparison of tangentially-related books—say, a book of Rudyard Kipling's poems and a book about the war in Iraq, you can compare the ideas of the British Empire and the American Empire, ho ho ho.

These latter efforts can be intellectually thrilling, either because they provide real understanding or because they just make the reviewer look very, very clever. More often they're really just a portmanteau article that doesn't gain much from the juxtaposition. And sometimes the joint-review technique seems forced.

But via Big Media Matt, I learn of a review that outdoes 'em all: Mike Ames' "Black metal nation: What do Norwegian dirtheads and Richard Perle have in common?", a joint review of Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Søderlind and An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror by David Frum and Richard Perle.

I'd put it more in the "make the reviewer look very, very clever" category than the "provide real understanding" category ... but it isn't entirely without insight.

28 March 2006

Enlightenment

Speaking of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, I picked up an issue last year and was astonished by what I read in a dialogue between magazine founder Andrew Cohen and philosopher Ken Wilber.

Cohen:
I think that a lot of people who are interested in enlightenment, including myself for a long time, have unintentionally been failing to make the important distinction between the Self Absolute, the Authentic Self, and the ego. As I have come to understand it, the Authentic Self is the deepest part of our humanity beyond ego, or the awakened spiritual conscience.
....
And this recognition was very helpful to me, because for a long time the traditional enlightenment model, which only seemed to describe the path from the ego to the Self Absolute, had not been meeting my own evolving understanding of what radical realization is all about when one is no longer merely trying to transcend the world but is simultaneously aspiring to transform it.

Wilber:
Yes. The traditional model goes from ego to absolute, and that's it. And now you're emphasizing the Authentic Self as an important ingredient in this whole equation.

Okay, that's an interesting distinction, if you're into that sort of thing. But I was a little surprised that Cohen was admitting that he hadn't been making that distiction well.

And then he described the Authentic Self in greater detail, and said the surprising thing.

Cohen:
[The Authentic Self] is the part of ourselves that cares passionately about evolution for its own sake, already. When individuals awaken to the Authentic Self—even if it's only temporarily—suddenly they become aware of a living evolutionary context and experience a passion and concern about the necessity for development itself. I identify the Authentic Self as synonymous with what we could call the first cause, the creative impulse, and its expression in the awakening human. The Authentic Self doesn't abide in the gross realm; it abides in what you would call the subtle realm. It's aware of everything that is happening here, cares passionately about and can act in response to everything that's happening here, but is always free from everything that's happening here.

Many of my spiritually-inclined readers undoubtedly see why this point was familiar to me. (Other folks, hang with me, I'll get to it in a sec.)

Cohen:
Very few people seem to know about it. In fact, besides Aurobindo, I've never heard anybody speak about the Authentic Self in this way.

Wilber:
You have to do a fair amount of translation and it wouldn't fit quite as well, but a lot of the Christian mystics, in their orientation to the soul, are pretty good on some of that. Also, a lot of Kabbalists are pretty good on that kind of stuff, as is tantra. But even those profound mystics have always been an extreme minority—East or West—in terms of what's really going on. That's the tragedy. And in our culture right now, in our generation, unfortunately what we have, on one hand, is what I believe is a misunderstanding of the anatta [no self] doctrine, which just trashes everything manifest and puts you in that radical pluralistic, relativistic, extreme postmodern nightmare that we've talked so much about. That's what so much of American Buddhism is doing now. Or we get the neo-vedantist or pure absolute approach, on the other hand. And the Authentic Self gets gutted one way or another—in a sense, those are the two lousy choices that we have at large.

Whoa. “Very few people seem to know about it”?

I keep company with occultists, and in those circles folks pretty much never shut up about the Authentic Self level of enlightenment. We generally use the expression “knowledge and conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” to describe this enlightenment epiphany, after spooky old Aleister Crowley's usage. (Uncle Al once admitted that the slight silliness of the expression “Holy Guardian Angel” was one of the benefits of using the term, since it keeps you from getting too worked up about exactly what it means. If one of my readers can find the quote, I'd appreciate it.) The HGA is said to be experienced as a deeply personal entity, separate from the mundane self, that offers one's ideal best aspect and aids one in acting with extraordinary effectiveness and fierce compassion. Very obviously the same thing that Cohen is talking about with the Authentic Self. Though western occultists are hardly unfamiliar with the idea of the egoless, universal transcendence of what Cohen calls the Self Absolute, this isn't nearly so much a preoccupation as pursing the HGA.

This is part of the distinction between the mystical and the magickal that I was groping for with the swamp essay. Mystics directly pursue the egoless nondual transcendent state, while magickians pursue immanent empowerment, a project for which the HGA is a central component. No doubt some of my occultist readers are already protesting that magickians are interested in the transcendent nondual, commonly called Crossing the Abyss in those circles; there is a saying that “good magickians always end up mystics in the end.” True enough, but I think it's fair to say that occultists spill a lot more ink writing about the HGA. And, contra Cohen, in my experience many occultists are not so clear on Crossing the Abyss, but any halfway serious occultist is familiar with the HGA and discusses it with their peers.

Now granted, the western occult arts aren't familiar to most folks. But they're not some big secret. Heck, you can read comic books featuring an encounter with the HGA, and I've seen a simple, step-by-step manual about how to contact your HGA for sale at Borders books. And this isn't just some contemporary occult fad. The HGA is obviously the same thing as the eudæmon of ancient Greek philosophy, also called the augoeides by the neoplatonist Iamblichus. Debatably, one might include atman as described in at least some schools of Hinduism, as well.

Cohen publishes a magazine about the nature of enlightenment, quotes Sri Aurobindo, and is literally a professional spiritual guru. So how is it he hadn't heard about this, and only recently came to understand it? Wilbur holds a claim to being the one of the leading contemporary scholars of spiritual practice. Why didn't he know to mention that the “Authentic Self” is a central preoccupation of an thriving community of contemporary spiritual practice?

How strange is that?

27 March 2006

Wow

Lego difference engine!

What more can I say?

Wil Wheaton

Two years after seeing his opus Just A Geek published, Wil Wheaton blogs achieving contentment with his geek nature.

If I hadn't gone to that convention and simply enjoyed the celebration of Sci-Fi and Sci-Fi fandom, if I hadn't realized, accepted, and acknowledged that I really have grown and succeeded in the last five years, I wouldn't have found the map back to my Road.
...
As a bonus, watching lots of TNG has brought back happy, lucid memories of of all sosrts of things I did when I was a teenager: I get flashes of painting 40K armies in my dressing room, going to Depeche Mode concerts with my friends, watching movies like The Hidden and Alien Nation and Prince of Darkness at the AMC in Burbank with Darin when it was just 10 theatres (and 10 was HUGE back then), and going to different conventions all over the country to celebrate Star Trek.
...
I know I went over this in Just A Geek and Dancing Barefoot, but it's worth it for me to go over it one more time: I don't have to avoid or run away from science fiction because I was a big part of a huge science fiction franchise, and I didn't have the acting success I'd hoped for when I quit. I was a science fiction geek long before I was Wesley Crusher, and I'll be a science fiction geek for the rest of my life. I can't run away from fandom, because I can't run away from myself. I can't run away from who I am. Resistance is futile.
...
My Road is paved with d20s and TRON DVDs and Atari 2600 games. It's lit by the glow of TNG and BSG episodes and the soundtrack is by Vangelis. It's patrolled by Rover and they sell Soylent Green in the rest stop vending machines. The speed limit is 42, but if you flash your Bavarian Illuminati card, you can use the FTL drive to make it to Milliways in time for dinner.

I'm back on my Road, and nobody can take the sky from me.

If you liked that, don't miss the tale of the forbidden dice and, especially, the quiet death of Wesley Crusher that I blogged a while back.

26 March 2006

Liberal media

Brad DeLong explains an example of why the Washington Post is not a reliable source for undestanding what is going on any more.

Resemblance

According to a computer, I bear a significant resemblance to Kevin Spacey, John Lennon, Yehudi Menuhin, John Denver, Colin Firth, Che Guevera, Satyajit Ray, Brad Pitt, Paul Wittgenstein, or Omar Sharif.

According to street people in San Francisco, I bear a significant resemblance to Kenny G, Tiny Tim, Howard Stern, or John Lennon. Yeah, really, Tiny Tim—for some reason, black guys say this all the time.

Um, okay. John Lennon is the overlap here. I can live with that.

25 March 2006

Snakes on a plane

Yes, that's the logo for a real movie, coming soon to a theater near you. Samuel L. Jackson says:

That's the only reason I took the job: I read the title.
....
You either want to see that, or you don't.
True enough.

I first learned about it because I read the blog of pulp goddess Christa Faust, who was commissioned to write the novelization several months ago. I Googled the title and turned up a killingly funny blog entry from a screenwriter who wanted to work on it.

I ask Agent the name of the project, what it's about, etc. He says: Snakes on a Plane. Holy shit, I'm thinking. It's a title. It's a concept. It's a poster and a logline and whatever else you need it to be. It's perfect. Perfect. It's the Everlasting Gobstopper of movie titles.

I say to Agent: “Tell me nothing else. Get me the script and put me on the phone with those lucky bastards at New Line Cinema!”

So he does and he does.

Now out of both loyalty to the sacred bond between studio and screenwriter and also a serious desire to keep getting hired in this town, I will not give away any of the plot details of SNAKES ON A PLANE. But know this. As the great Sam Jackson would say: There are motherfucking snakes on the motherfucking plane.

What else do you need to know? How the snakes get on the plane, what the snakes do once they're on the plane, who puts the snakes on the plane, who is trying to get the snakes off the plane ... This is not for you to ponder. There are snakes on the plane. End of fucking story.

He goes on to talk about how the title became a kind of Zen koan for him. I laughed when I read this, then kind of forgot about it. But it turns out that while I wasn't looking, it turned into a bit of a phenomenon, with people making up movie posters, writing an unofficial blog, and on and on, driven just by the wackiness of the title. The folks at CNN have caught on, with a great little article about it quoting a fan named Chris Rohan:
It's a genius title. It's so stupid it's great. It invites satire, but it's something you just love. It's something I can't explain. You either get it or you don't.
Roger Corman, who should know, once said that the definition of an exploitation film is that people want to see it for the premise, regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of the film as a film. In which case, Snakes is a perfect exploitation film, and according to the CNN piece, the movie studio knows it.
When Ellis assembled Jackson and others for the recent shoot, the filmmakers added more gore, more death, more nudity, more snakes and more death scenes. And they shot a scene where Jackson does utter the line that fans have demanded.
That line is, of course, Samuel L. Jackson exclaiming “I want these motherfucking snakes off the motherfucking plane!”

Hey, I want to hear him say it. I'm not too proud to admit it.

24 March 2006

Art

I know some feminists who refuse to refer to the "pro-life" movement, referring to them instead as "pro-pregnancy."

Via Digby, I learn that the Capla Kesting Fine Art gallery in Brooklyn is soon to be showing the sculpture "Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston." The gallery description is dumbfounding.

A nude Britney Spears on a bearskin rug while giving birth to her firstborn marks a 'first' for Pro-Life.
....
Dedication of the life-sized statue celebrates the recent birth of Spears' baby boy, Sean, and applauds her decision of placing family before career.
....
Natural aspects of Spears' pregnancy, like lactiferous breasts and protruding naval, compliment a posterior view that depicts widened hips for birthing and reveals the crowning of baby Sean's head.
Follow the link to the gallery listing. There is more mind-bending rhetoric, more quotation marks for emphasis, and ... oh, yes ... photographs of the sculpture.

You must see the photographs.

Movie trailer mashup

Via Internebbish, a new entry in our ongoing series of faux movie trailers, David Lynch's Something Blue.

23 March 2006

Joss vs. Warren

Joss Whedon. Warren Ellis.

Two snarky comics-writing popkultur slingers. One comment thread. Who will survive?

Revenge, eh? So, mister Ellis — (swishes brandy in large glass) — let the games begin, unless they are games of skill, or physical exertion of any kind, or with math. I know the bitter bitter truth, why you are so threatened by my genius, my, class, my big glass of brandy. It’s because you’re so OLD, so terribly terribly OLD, isn’t it! Mountains were hills when you were middle-aged. I hear you left your wife for a younger, trophy Cromagnon. And that you’re… that a young person would find you strange, and… from many years of… you being… DAMN! This round to you, Ellis. But the game is far — (drains Brandy, gasps like beached whale) — from over.
Go find out.

22 March 2006

Torture survey

I learn from Warren Ellis that the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducted a poll (excerpted crisply here) asking Americans "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?"

Guess how the poll came out before I tell you.

Often15%
Sometimes31%
Rarely17%
Never32%
Don't know  5%

That's right. Two out of three Americans think that there are circumstances in which torturing someone is "justified." Note, too, that the way the question is phrased, the person in question may not even be a villain.

I would cry, if there weren't another point in the survey that makes me righteously angry. Check out this breakdown by religion of how many people say torture is "never justified."

Catholic26%
White protestant  31%
White evangelical31%
Secular41%

I almost look forward to quoting this statistic the next time that someone tells me that religion is essential to cultivating morality.

(And check out the interesting comments on this at Body and Soul.)

Swamp

A few smart occultists of my acquaintance have been blogging lately about “transcendence.” I'd like to offer a metaphor that I picked up several years ago from Tom Graves' charming little book Inventing Reality: Toward a Magical Technology.

If you like, you can go right to the source and read Graves' own description of this metaphor. I have my own version, with some extra embellishments I think are relevant.

Imagine the world of human experience as a swamp. The swamp has a varied terrain: sandbars, reedy marshy bits, outcroppings of land, shallow rivers, muddy riverbanks, and so forth. Full of interesting stuff, but not entirely hospitable.

Most people live in castles in the swamp. A castle has a controlled environment, defined by the people who live there. It typically has windows and parapets from which the residents can view the swamp, though a few castles are completely sealed off. People who live in castles may communicate with the residents of other castles by semaphore; when they do, they tend to get into arguments about what the swamp is like. “They keep insisting the swamp is full of vines and trees, when any fool can look out the window and see that it's a reed-filled marsh!”

Living in a castle is usually safe and comfortable ... except that castles have a tendency to sink into the swamp. A castle may gradually lose a level at a time, sometimes so slowly that its residents do not realize it is happening. If the residents keep working at building the castle, they can stay ahead of the sinking ... at least for a time, since a castle will tend to sink faster as it gets heavier. Occasionally, a castle may sink suddenly because of a flaw in the foundations. On rare occasion, entire castles full of people can vanish without survivors when the castles had no windows, or when no one bothered to look out of what windows there were.

A few very independent people travel around the swamp in one of those swamp boats with the big fans. They get to see a lot of the swamp, though they don't get a close look at much as it whizzes past them. Many people riding in swamp boats are more interested in the excitement of movement than in seeing the swamp itself. That can be dangerous; the faster you go, the more likely you are to hit a sandbar or other obstacle, and the harder you'll hit it. Wrecking a swamp boat can leave you stranded or dead.

OK, you can probably see where this is going. The castles are a metaphor for ideologies, meant in a pretty broad sense. This can mean obvious political ideologies like Bolshevism or fascist nationalism, but it can also refer to the kinds of things that we classically refer to as religions, or to humanist materialism, to conspiracy theory paranoia, to positivist rationalism, and so forth. The sort of folks who read my blog may take that as a knock on ideology castles, but it isn't necessarily. Ideology is an effective solution to the swampiness of human experience. Certainly not everyone is cut out for life on a speedy swamp boat.

The swamp boat is a metaphor for people living the artistic life. That means not necessarily artists in the classical sense, but also the iconoclasts and libertines and rebels who drink deep draughts of human experience. They live thrilling lives, and often have amazing tales to tell, but it's a dangerous life, and many of them suffer terrible misadventures sooner or later.

There are two other classic ways of living in the swamp.

One is to pick a spot in the swamp and just build and build and build on that spot. When these folks succeed, they rest at the top of lofty poles rising into the clear cool air high above the waters of the swamp. Pole sitters may climb a pole that has already been planted in the swamp, and such a pole may have several people at various heights in the process of climbing their way up it. Some poles are easier to climb than others, but climbing any pole is hard work. A few people do the even harder work of constructing new poles. Occasionally people even get grabbed at random by great birds and deposited on poles, much to everyone's surprise.

From their vantage point, pole sitters can see the whole of the swamp, and will call down to the people down below, describing what they see. For the most part, the people living down at the surface level have a hard time making sense of what the pole-sitters see. “What's all this about green carpets and silvery ground? The world is made of green reeds and brown mud and gray water!” Most baffling, they have a hard time understanding why one pole sitter planted over here describes something so similar to what a pole sitter describes seeing from way over there. “Aren't those two places completely different?” As a result, pole sitters have a hard time talking to most folks at the surface, though they often have a lovely time calling across to other pole sitters on other poles.

The air at the top of the poles is so clear and invigorating and the view of the swamp is so spectacular that pole sitters tend not to climb back down into the muck of the swamp. Occasionally they do, and those folks tend to amaze the other swamp denizens with their ability to navigate the swamp, as a result of having seen it from a high vantage point. And while pole sitting does lift one above the viccitudes of life in the swamp, pole sitting is not without risk. One can slip and fall, and the higher one has climbed, the more dangerous that can be. Occasionally a pole may topple, pitching its sitters into the swamp.

Pole sitters are a metaphor for mystics. This is what I think Yezida is talking about when she refers to transcendence. She doesn't want to climb up a pole and be separated from the ordinary human experience of the swamp; she is interested in yet another way of living in the swamp.

This last way is to wander through the swamp on foot. Folks who do this carry a bit of lightweight gear to help them handle the challenges of moving through the treacherous ground: poles and swamp boots and bits of rope and so forth. When they run into one another they tend to exchange a little lore about useful tools: “If you make yourself a little platform like this, you can drag some more things with you in the drier patches, have a dry place to sleep in the muddy patches, and use it as a skiff to get across the shallows.” They're constantly picking things up and casting things off, changing their kit to match the changing conditions in the swamp.

Most swamp travellers try to keep maps of the swamp, made from the painstaking work of other swamp walkers, or from pole-sitter's descriptions. They generally update and annotate their maps while they wander, and often the first thing two swamp walkers will do when they meet one another is look at each others' maps.

Swamp travellers are interested in the swamp, and often are also interested in the different swamp denizens. They may stop in to visit folks in the various castles, carrying news and information around the swamp, picking up supplies, and occasionally deciding to settle down in one for a while, or even forever. They also tend to know the locations of ruined castles where a few eccentric holdouts are living and working. They might hitch a ride on a swamp boat for a while. They also like to stop at the bases of poles to talk to the pole sitters, and many swamp walkers say that it's important for them to take time out to to climb at least partway up one of the poles to get a good look around the swamp, rather than just relying on maps drawn by others. Others figure it's better to build up their own map the hard way, walking around at ground level.

The swamp walkers are a metaphor for magickians. (The silly extra k indicates that you're talking about occultists, not stage performers.) But this includes not just folks doing hooky spooky ritual, but also other people who engage with their experience in a spirit of exploration and experiment. This includes many designers, doctors, computer programmers, entertainers, therapists, detectives, con artists, athletes, and other people in professions that involve a mix of creative thinking and pragmatism. (Which actually does include most stage magicians, now that I think about it.)

When taken as a spiritual path, swamp walking is what I think Yezida is talking about when she cautions against transcendence. She is advocating intimate engagement with the muck of human experience and effectiveness in the material realm, rather than climbing a pole up to a transcendent escape into nirvana.


Since Graves' description was on a website which no longer exists, I've resurrected it from archives here.


Points of view

In the last chapter we saw that coincidence and meaning are quite separate — we can't really say that any thing or any co-incidence can be said to be caused by any other event, point of view or whatever. Anything goes.

The trouble with that concept is that if anything goes, we are left with nothing with which to make sense of the world. Without some way of handling it, we have no way of predicting anything at all, and everything and nothing happens at the same time — a certain recipe for instant insanity. So we need some kind of model which allows us the flexibility to allow anything to happen, yet still operate in something resembling a controlled manner.

One approach which is useful is to separate the information we experience from its interpretation, and describe this content and context each as an axis in a simple two-dimensional diagram. In one direction, we have a spectrum of information, ranging from outer tangible or sensory data, to information we derive from within ourselves, as feelings and intuitions. The other axis describes a range of methods of interpretation, from indefinable value judgments through to the strict true/false analyses of logic: a spectrum of interpretation between value and truth - whatever either of those might mean. The model looks something like this:

This gives us four quadrants, or modes, in which we both collect information and interpret it: inner value, inner truth, outer truth, outer value. Each of these quadrants is only a way of working on the world, a mode to describe reality as we experience it through using that way of interpreting the world. Reality is, if you like, the sum of everything that could be experienced through these four very different ways of working on the world.

This kind of model of reality can be found in Jung's work, for example; but there is a particularly interesting variant on the theme in SSOTBME, a bizarre book on ‘thinking about thinking’. The book was published anonymously, so, for convenience, I shall refer to its author as Leo (a simpler name than his fictitious character Lemuel Johnstone).

Leo builds this model by describing the whole of reality as a swamp. Not a featureless swamp - every point of view, every experience, every possible coincidence of events is included. There are also endless opportunities to wallow in the mires of confusion, and to disappear beneath the surface without trace... It sometimes seems that the safest move would be not to move at all, to stay still. But even that isn't certain: the surface seems to quake with the tide of events, so that even the safest-seeming point of view will seem doubtful after a while. Nothing stays the same for long: indeed, the only real constant is change itself.

As Leo puts it, there are four main ways in which to exist within this kind of reality. Each one coincides with a quadrant of the model above: inner value, inner truth, outer truth, outer value. Each is best described as a mode of operation, in which certain possibilities — such as movement, in this sense of moving from one point of view or one experience to another — exist solely because others — such as stasis, developing one particular point of view — do not occur.

The first way of working on this world is to skim the surface of the swamp, traveling in a hydroplane at high speed. The whole point is the speed, and the variety of ideas and experiences that come from just traveling about with no particular place to go. This is a mode of inner value, which we could call the artistic mode.

Playing with this description a little further, we can see that this is hardly a safe way of operating within a swamp: it's all too easy to crash into some unexpected experience, to run out of fuel (inspiration?), or to decide to settle down in some uncharted spot with no hope of future supplies or common experience shared with anyone else. But it's certainly the quickest way of scanning a wide range of experiences and points of view — although, at that speed, it's not going to be too easy to make sense of anything other than that they were, indeed, experiences and points of view.

Another modus operandi seems quite the opposite of the artistic one: to develop one point of view as far as it will go, right out into another dimension. You state that that point of view is true — inviolably and absolutely true — and build on it, like a pole in the swamp.

This is a mode of conviction, of faith, of inner truth — the mystical or religious mode.

Again, playing with this image a little further, the higher you climb up the pole, the more of the swamp will come within your view: the more you climb, the more true will seem the point of view. In the distance you can see other poles, other points of view — some of them way out in the distance indeed - but you can hear that experiences from those poles, especially from further up each pole, seems much the same as your own. The mystics, those people who are well and truly up the pole and with their heads in the clouds, can see and share a vast range of vision — even though most of it seems like cloudy thinking to us.

The only trouble with this mode is that you can't actually experience anything else, since, by its definition, you have to stay with that one point of view; and it seems a sad fact that each pole has to be counterbalanced by a vast morass of struggling bodies, each of whom has grasped the pole and disappeared beneath the surface, screaming “I have the truth” as they did so.

A friend and I were once intercepted at the station by an evangelist wanting to give us “coffee and the word of God’. It was a predictable set-up, and the coffee was poor, too.

After an hour of circular ‘discussion’, my friend yelled “This is a ****ing waste of time”, and left — which was sensible, as we were about to miss the last train. I said “I'd better go” and made for the door. Our evangelist said “God Bless You” (I could hear the capitals); I stammered “Oh, G-god b-bless you”. The reply came as I left the door: “But he already has...”

The third mode in this model is to build a solid platform, a safe predictable area in which everything is true and inter-related in logic. Everything is patently obvious, there are no surprises on the platform itself — although around the edges things may not be quite so predictable as they seem.

This is a world of outer truth, a scientific world.

To many people on the platform, the platform itself defines reality, and encompasses the whole of truth. To this point of view, which we could call public-science or ‘scientism’, anything beyond the platform is unreal; their duty is to build higher and higher walls around the platform, to protect the good citizens from the ignorance and superstition beyond. In fact this has very little to do with science as practiced - we could suggest that these are same people who would have screamed “I have the truth” around the poles of religion, except that the solidity of the platform prevents them from decently disappearing beneath the surface as would have happened elsewhere.

The platform is woven between a group of poles, more often called the ivory towers of academia; their mystics are the ‘pure scientists’ whose breadth of vision is matched only by the impenetrability of their thought. And at the edge of the platform are practical scientists, researchers working at the limits of the known world — having discovered, by some means or other, some unintended hole in the fortress walls of scientism.

Scientists, says Leo, are like people in wheelchairs — they need firm level ground to move about on. To move, they must extend the platform, extending the boundaries of science, cutting down shady dogmas and filling in soggy hypotheses (to use Leo's graphic image). But when they arrive at some new place, it is just as boring and predictable as anywhere else on the platform - hobgoblins and foul fiends having rushed away at the sound of the first myth being exploded. For the problem with this mode of working is that, by the time it has finished, what it seeks has ceased to be the swamp, has ceased to be reality as it is (or was) — it is just an artificial platform, an ‘objective’ world with no room for personal experience at all.

But working away at the edges of the platform are another group, commonly but quite wrongly called ‘applied scientists’. At one edge you'll find the psychiatrists, not bothering too much about which theory is absolutely true, but using ideas from Jung, Adler, Freud, Laing and anyone else's work they can lay their hands on. And at another edge there'll be electrical engineers switching between wave and particle theories of light and energy, blithely unconcerned about their mutual incompatibility in logic.

At first this does look like science, but only because of the safety-line of ‘if it doesn't work, go back to theory’: in other words go back to ‘outer truth’. But in fact this is a quite different mode, in which you carry the platform with you, spreading your weight on swamp shoes to allow you to move with relative freedom from place to place, idea to idea, to find a point of view which is useful at that time, rather than supposedly ‘true’ in any absolute sense.

This is a mode in which truth is defined in terms of whether it has practical value, outer value.

We could describe this as a technological mode. But it has an easier label — a magical mode. Whilst there is a real structural difference between technology and science, there is no structural difference between technology and magic.

It's entirely true that, as Arthur C. Clarke put it, ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. But it's also true that “any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology”. They may seem different — sometimes very different — but the underlying approach to reality is exactly the same.

The only difference between magic and technology, in practice, is that magicians tend to be a little way out in the distance — they may be seen wandering to astrology, alchemy and other forgotten, part-ruined areas of the old platforms of science, to rest by some religious pole, or travel as fools where angels fear to tread.

This mode is hardly safe, as the platform of science may be, but at least it works on the swamp as it is; and the point of the exploring is not to find out how true a belief, a point of view, may be, but to put it to use.

Definitions

Ganked wholesale from Paperwight's Fair Shot:
War
A politically useful rhetorical device used to describe a set of circumstances in which the enemy, depending on who you ask, is either a distributed network of non-state actors or the tactic that they use with mixed success every three to four years, but either way has no discernable victory condition.

Not war
An actual conflict between identifiable and organized factions in which ongoing violence is killing at least fifty and sixty people every day, and which has as its goal control of a government apparatus and / or a particular territory.
Funny, that.

21 March 2006

Actors

Fametracker asserts that Matthew Lillard is the new Jeff Goldblum.
Watching Lillard in 13 Ghosts is like watching a Jeff Goldblum muppet baby—a kid's version of the same old character for a whole new generation to discover. Of course, their styles are not identical, or even similar—whereas Goldblum was so laconic that at times he appeared to be napping, Lillard is like a hyperactive child on an island that's under a Ritalin embargo. But, you know, each new generation gets the wacky scientist in funny glasses that it deserves.
They make a good case.

20 March 2006

Today's quote

Reason magazine has a crafty piece in which they ask a host of pundits
  1. Did you support the invasion of Iraq?
  2. Have you changed your position?
  3. What should the U.S. do in Iraq now?
Answering the second question, their web editor Tim Cavanaugh observes:
The occupation has gone better than any prudent person had a right to expect, and the failure of so many hawks to understand this shows how unserious they were all along.
Boy howdy, does that ever say it.

I discovered this via a Crooked Timber post by Belle Waring in which she lifts out the answers of hawks Christopher Hitchens, Glenn Reynolds, and Louis Rossetto. If you don't have the patience for the whole Reason piece, check out those three and see if they don't prove Mr Cavanaugh's point.

Freemasons with tattoos

Really. Fascinating.

19 March 2006

Butter butter butter

People say that they don't like Aaron Sorkin's writing on The West Wing because “who talks like that?” But I swear, we have conversations like this all the time at my office:

C.J.
I don’t get it. How can you not want to see the butter cow?

TOBY
I’m that way.

C.J.
There’s also a butter Elvis and a butter Last Supper, which has, I swear to God, Toby...

TOBY
Butter on the table?

C.J.
It’s got butter on the table right there between butter James and butter Peter. An almost mind-blowing vortex of art and material that dares the viewers to recall Marcel Duchamp.

TOBY
How do they keep it from melting?

C.J.
How indeed.

In the other end of the passageway, when Toby gets his coffee, Nancy walks up.

NANCY
Toby, you have a phone call in the staff cabin.

TOBY
Thank you.

They walk back to the staff cabin.

C.J.
Butter, butter, butter, butter, butter, butter, butter.

Toby picks up the phone.

MAN
[on the phone] Mr. Ziegler, this is Signal Operator Number 41. I have a call from Mr. Seaborn in the White House.

TOBY
Thank you.

C.J.
Duchamp is the father of Dadaism.

TOBY
I know.

C.J.
The dada of Dada.

TOBY
It’s like there’s nothing you can do about that joke. It’s coming, and you just have to stand there.

C.J.
The cow made of butter? That’s how I like my irony served, my friend.

I bring this up because a) C.J. is one of the sexiest fictional characters ever, and b) I just found a page with pictures of the butter Last Supper. It's real!

18 March 2006

Risk, utility, and money

Via MKB, a terrific little essay about risk, utility, and money from Mark Dominus, whose blog has a really cool name.
Consider the following game: You bet one dollar on the throw of a die. If the die comes up 6, you get your dollar back plus 25 more dollars. Otherwise, you lose your dollar. You can play as much as you want to. This is a great moneymaking proposition, because your expected winnings are four dollars on each game. Play a hundred times, you can expect to be about four hundred dollars ahead. Even if you're only allowed to play once, you would probably choose to play this game.

I pulled some sleight-of-hand in the previous paragraph. I said the game was a good deal "because" the expected winnings were positive. But that's not sufficient. If it were, the following game would also be a good deal: You bet one million dollars on the throw of a die. If the die comes up 6, you get your million back plus 25 million more. Otherwise, you lose your million.

For some people, the second game is a good deal. For most people, including me, it's obviously a very bad idea. To get a million dollars, I'd at least have to mortgage everything I owned. Then I'd be under a crushing debt for the rest of my life, with 83% likelihood. But the expected return of the two games is the same; this shows that a good expected return is not a sufficient condition for a good investment.

The difference, of course, is that the second game is much riskier than the first.

He goes on to describe how this plugs into the idea of utility, in a really crafty way.

15 March 2006

Rollins, duh!

MKB quotes the Brad Mehldau essay Ideology, Burgers and Beer saying ...
Ideology uses logic selectively, in a sneaky, backhanded manner. Its aim is that we actually suspend our sense of logic and, with it, our moral radar.
... but contrary to the title, the essay is actually mainly about jazz, and worth reading if you have any taste for jazz at all.

14 March 2006

Backstabbing attack

Via Ezra Klein, I learn that Robert Farley has a ripping good post about the stupidity of the war hawks' dolchstoßlegende that domestic rhetorical opposition to the war will be the cause of defeat. I have posted about this before, because I've seen it coming for a while.

Riffing off of some commentary from the right, the Poor Man also sums up the dolchstoßlegende's logic well.

if we bomb-throwing leftists had ceased criticizing this policy the day the first bombs fell (or anyhow, pretty quickly afterwards), the occupation would, in fact, have been greeted with open arms, Shiite and Sunni arabs would have not so much peacably resolved their differences as never acknowledged those differences in the first place, and American troops in Iraq — at their current, more than sufficient, numbers — would have easily surmounted the total lack of postwar planning and installed a smoothly functioning democracy primed to elect an inclusive, secular, US friendly government.
And while I'm here, I have to draw special attention to this little observation Farley makes along the way that will have me thinking for a while.
The history of democracy at war is repleat with examples of inept military officers and civilian officials who are sacked because of their inability to execute the war properly. This is as it should be; it is one of the reasons that democracies fight well.
Ah. Illuminating, and somehow both reassuring and chilling at the same time.

12 March 2006

Civil obedience

Via Miriam bat Asherah, I offer you 55: a meditation on the speed limit around the perimiter.

I gather that in the navy they call this a "white mutiny," though in this case the boundary between the artistic and the political is very blurry.

11 March 2006

Incommunicado

I'm on the road this week without access to telephone and sporadic internet availability, so I may not be posting, and won't be responding reliably to email.

Just so you know that it isn't that I don't love you.

Word cloud

Miniver Cheevy word cloud

It seems I think about good american people in iraq all the time, or something like that.

You can make a word cloud of your own for any site ... and have it made into a t-shirt if you want!

09 March 2006

Frequently asked question

Brad DeLong says that "Fafblog raises itself to a higher dimension of Fafbloginess" with an amazing post offering answers to this frequently asked question. (If you don't know what Fafbloginess could mean, then you need to spend more time with Fafblog, the whole worlds' only source for Fafblog.)
Q. Why are we in Iraq?

A. To prevent the failure of the occupation of Iraq. If we pull out now the occupation will be a failure!

Q. Would it have been easier to have never occupied it in the first place?

A. Ah, but if we never occupied Iraq, then the occupation certainly would have been a failure, now wouldn't it?

Q. [meditates for many years]

Q. Now I am enlightened.

Fafnir, of course, offers several answers to that same question. Go read 'em all.

08 March 2006

Truth Serum

Via Io, I am reminded of Truth Serum, the comics of Jonathan Adams. His work shows an amazing mastery of line, and a wry sense of humour and heartbreak. Characters do turn up a fair bit with masks, capes, and heroic noms de guerre, but they are by no means super. Which means that if you're ordinarily way too cool for the capes and masks, then I still recommend that you check out his website and look at the stuff he has published there.

Update: I'm probably hooked on Truth Serum because the first of his comics that I read features one of my favourite words.

07 March 2006

Despotism

Via Monkeyboy's Linkblog, I learn of an incredibly fascinating video of an Encyclopedia Brittanica film made in 1946: Despotism & Democracy. If you can get over a bit of dated stiff earnestness, it's actually a good little work of pro-democratic propaganda in the best sense. And you can see how baby boomers would grow up to support the Civil Rights Movement if they were really showing this stuff to them in classrooms as kids.

It's also ... ah ... timely.

06 March 2006

Web art

Experience of art gained by actually doing something is a sort of gallery of little artworks using the browser as a medium. Many are a wink toward a famous artist or philosopher. Others are just ... what they are.

05 March 2006

Will

Some years ago I picked up a copy of What Is Enlightenment? magazine because the cover gave me a good laugh. It started with the provocative name of the magazine itself, which I think is pretty wry for asking the hard question so directly. But what really got me laughing—and thinking—was that it had a picture of Jack La Lanne and Mr X, another guy whom you'd recognize from TV as also having a kind of uncanny enthusiasm. The cover asked: Are they enlightened?

Jack La Lanne, enlightened?

He's not exactly what you think of when you think "enlightened," but he's sure got some kind of juice. He's someone whom I would call a Great American, a whimsical way of saying that he's living a good life, a life of integrity, and doing his own very unique something to make the world a little bit better. (I stole the expression from MKB, and it's often useful.)

But "enlightened"? Well, in every interview I've ever seen with him, he repeats this little rap about his life ...

Leaving a hot bed and a hot woman and going into a cold gym at five or six in the morning takes dedication. But I'd rather take a beating. You get out of the bed in the morning tired with aches and pains, but this body works for me. It's my slave. I take care of it. I just kick my butt and get it out of bed, and the next thing I know a couple of hours have passed, and I look in the mirror and say, "Jack, you've done it again!"
... which reflects a kind of relentless dedication mixed with relentless happiness that may not be "enlightenment," but is at least a cousin to it.

But actually I'm not so much interested in Jack La Lanne today as Mr X, the other guy on that magazine cover, who has some surprisingly interesting things to say. Please don't click the links just yet; I want to keep you in suspense about who Mr X is while I quote him at length.

Instead, follow this link to the quotes ....

So there's a thing that Mr X said in his interview with What is Enlightenment? that really struck me.

We have a unique situation in life. Here's how life works in my estimation. It's a very simple game. You do a poor job at something, what kinds of rewards do you get?

Interviewer: Very few.

You do a poor job, you get nothing. You get pain. When you do a really poor job consistently in life, your relationship leaves you. When you do a poor job at work consistently, unless you work for the government, your job is over. You get right-sized, you get downsized, right? You're out of here. You do a poor job on your kids, they end up in jail. Now, most people in life won't settle for "poor." Their standard is "good." If you imagine a set of stairs and you're at the base level, where one step down is maybe a poor job and "good" might be ten stairs up, that's a big jump to "good." So when you do a good job in life, what kind of rewards do you get?

Good rewards.

No, you get poor rewards. Every day people stop me on the street and they say, "[Mr X], I know you're an expert in this field and I just wondered if you could answer a question." They're usually very emotional. And they'll say, "I'm a good husband. How come my wife left me?" or, "I'm a good wife. How come my husband left me?" or, "I'm a good parent. How come my kid is on cocaine?" And the hardest thing in the world is explaining to them that this is how life works. You do a good job, you get poor rewards. That's how it really is. And the best study of life is the study of how it is, not how you think it should be. You could say, "Gravity makes no sense and I'm going to avoid it. I don't like it." But if you jump off a cliff, you're going to pay the price. There are certain laws that just can't be beat. They're part of the way we are formed, of what we are a part of, the system we're a part of.

" So, most achievers in life, whether they be spiritual achievers, business achievers, parent achievers, people who really are going for the best, they say, "I want to be excellent. I don't want to settle for good. I've got a much higher standard." But if the standard is excellence, here's what happens. You get good rewards. You're going to say, "Wait a second. I went from ten stories up to twenty stories up! I'm one of the very best men. I pray every day. I read the Bible. I read the Koran. I meditate. I'm doing my mantra, I'm doing my kriyas [yogic practices], I'm speaking in tongues, I'm eating the perfect diet. I'm doing this stuff. How come I don't have enlightenment yet, damn it?" It's because you're excellent. And I've got news for you. You're never going to get it as long as you're excellent. You know what you're going to get? Good rewards. You'll have a great life. You'll feel a great sense of spiritual connection. You'll probably have a great sense of gratitude. That's what you get when your standard is excellence. But the ultimate level is outstanding. And the thing about that is that although it's only a quarter-inch above excellence, very few people ever go there. When you are outstanding, when you stand out from all the rest in your standards for yourself, not by competing with others but in your standards for yourself, you get all the rewards, all the love, all the impact, all the everything, not just from society but from yourself, because you know you've never settled for less than you can be.

Huh.

I got to thinking about Mr X because, via Monkeyboy's linkblog, I learned this other story about him.

At one point, he asked everyone in the audience to raise their hand if they had failed to achieve a major goal at some point in their life. All hands go up. Why did you fail? Answers come from the audience:
  • Time
  • Money
  • Lack of Resources
  • The Supreme Court (it was Al Gore in the front row!)
The room bursts into a roar of laughter, and then [Mr X] continues. "People blame their failure on a lack of resources, but really, it's a lack of resourcefulness."

He then walks over and looks Al Gore squarely in the eyes. "If you showed the same passion and energy as we saw last night during the Presidential debates, you would have beaten that guy."

The room roared even louder with applause, Gore included. It was a thought that many people had, but may not have dared to express directly. When Al Gore spoke about his true passion, global warming and the environment, he came alive at TED, and seemed like a totally different person.

After the talk, Al Gore gave him a big hug.

Who is Mr X, this wise and witty guru of Rotary Club Neitzheism? Now follow those links to find out. You'll laugh.

Enlightened? Again, he's got something, no doubt. I suspect that my readers who think about spiritual work, will, and Will—you know who you are—were probably chuckling a bit over what he had to say. I'm not so sure I'd go for "enlightened," but I think I'm ready to say he's a Great American. Who'da thunk?

04 March 2006

Freedom here at home

The New York Times reports settlement of a court case about yet another innocent guy scooped up by the US and tortured.
Mr. Elmaghraby, who spent nearly a year in detention, and the Pakistani man, Javaid Iqbal, held for nine months, charged that while shackled they were kicked and punched until they bled. Their lawsuit said they were cursed as terrorists and subjected to multiple unnecessary body-cavity searches, including one in which correction officers inserted a flashlight into Mr. Elmaghraby's rectum, making him bleed.
Where in the Freedom Archipelago was this? Abu Ghraib? Guantànamo? Bagram? Baghdad? Poland? Syria?

Brooklyn.

03 March 2006

Jon Stewart

Wil Wheaton pinpoints how the media screws up our political culture in a post where he links Jon Stewart's appearance on Larry King.
Larry King made several feeble attempts to create controversy, and Jon Stewart kicked him square in the nuts each time .... several "gotcha" attempts which failed spectacularly when Jon refused to take the bait, and instead turned the ludicrous question back on Larry King, who of course had no response other than this painful frozen half-smile that was equal parts fear and lothing. When Larry King wasn't completely controlling the tone and content of the show, you could feel how uncomfortable he was.
After Stewart's amazing appearance on Crossfire, you have to figure that CNN has decided not to let any of their journalists try to keep up with talking politics with any well-read comedians ... and according to Wheaton, may even be trying to wreak some vengence.

It's probably not a good idea to mess with the comedians, though. No, not at all.

02 March 2006

Katrina aftermath

For those of you who haven't seen it yet, the Associated Press has video of the conference in which the President was warned about the dangers of hurricane Katrina, contradicting his later statements that no one could have anticipated the levees breaking. Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice has the best roundup of resources and blog commentary.

Misunderstanding

Zogby has a new poll of US troops in Iraq.
85% said the U.S. mission is mainly "to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks," 77% said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was "to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq."
Someone has lied to our troops. I wonder who.

Ebert

Roger Ebert's reviews are getting to be more entertaining than the films they describe. Recently, he noticed a hazard of being a movie reviewer.
I confess to a flagging interest in the struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness. It's like Super Sunday in a sport I do not follow, like tetherball. We're told the future of the world hangs in the balance, and then everything comes down to a handful of hung-over and desperate characters surrounded by dubious special effects. I want to hear Gabriel blow that horn.
This does not stop me from wanting to see Night Watch, of course.

And in a suprisingly positive and astonishingly funny review of Running Scared he says this ...

If you don't know what a McGuffin is, the good news is, you don't need to know.
... which is in the running for Truest Thing I Have Ever Read.

01 March 2006

34%

That's the President's approval rating. Follow the link for more signs of public dissatisfaction, and check out Political Arithmetik for more analysis.

Superposition

I seem to be stumbling across a lot of weird QM stuff on the web these days. First, this may seem obvious ...
A non-running computer produces fewer errors
... in the sense that it produces no errors, because it handles no data. But not so; that's a quote from a New Scientist article about a quantum computer in a superposition of wave states between on and off, so the one thing it ain't is "obvious." They ran an experiment with a quantum computer. It turned out that the wave state of the computer collapsed to off, but it still solved the problem ... in fact, it turns out to be better if the computer was off.

What do I mean, "superposition of wave states"? That's a little more than I can fully explain today. Mr. Schrödinger's famous cat—half alive and half dead at the same time— is the most famous description of superposition, though Bram Cohen offers a vivid and disturbing metaphor for superposition that attempts to improve on the cat.

I will describe the strange case of the Quantum Duelist. Instead of a cat, the Quantum Duelist is a person, although like the cat he goes inside a black box which is left completely sealed for some period of time, and then when the box is opened the quantum state of the contents of the box are forced into a specific value, rather than the multiple interacting values which it has until it interacts with the outside world.

After entering and locking the black box, the Quantum Duelist flips a coin. If it comes up heads, he turns to the right, if it comes up tails, he turns to the left. Either way, he then takes ten paces forwards, turns around, and fires a gun straight ahead.

According to quantum mechanics, after the black box is opened, there's some chance that the duelist will be lying on the floor ten paces to the left, dead from a gunshot between the eyes fired by himself at a distance of twenty paces.

Unsettlingly, experiments clearly demonstrate that individual particles really do behave this way, so we can't dismiss quantum mechanics on the grounds of absurdity.

Which leads us to a gendankenexperiment in which you want to look at things without actually shining light on them.
The two physicists who brought this topic to light in 1993, Elitzur and Vaidman (EV), considered a "superbomb", which, if it possessed the trigger/detonator element, would explode whenever hit by even a single photon .... The goal now is, given a supply of these bombs in sealed crates, find out which ones are the good bombs.
....
A detective limited to the realm of classical physics is in trouble. He can go into a completely darkened room, and pry off the lid of the crate. Then what? If there really is no light at all -- if no photons at all hit the trigger element -- then he gets no information. If, on the other hand, a single photon hits the element, well then by definition there is a loud explosion, and the detective knows that this was a good bomb. There seems to be no way to find the good bombs without always exploding them.
There's also a real experment that can be performed for that one, too. The universe is a strange place.