31 August 2006

Quiet city

Burning Man is this weekend. I'm not going this year. Many burners have already left San Francisco.

There's a subtle thing that happens to the city this week. Somehow, you can feel the change. I'd hate it if the city felt like this all the time, but for a week a year, it's just lovely.

Rope trick

Teller, “the shorter, quieter half of Penn & Teller,” explains the Indian Rope Trick.

Turns out there's no such thing.

In 1890, [John Elbert] Wilkie, a young reporter for The Chicago Tribune, fabricated the legend that the world has embraced from that day to this as an ancient feat of Indian street magic.

How did a silly newspaper hoax become a lasting icon of mystery? The answer, Peter Lamont tells us in his wry and thoughtful Rise of the Indian Rope Trick, is that Wilkie's article appeared at the perfect moment to feed the needs and prejudices of modern Western culture.
India was the jewel of the British Empire, and to justify colonial rule, the British had convinced themselves the conquered were superstitious savages who needed white men's guidance in the form of exploitation, conversion and death. The prime symbol of Indian benightedness was the fakir, whose childish tricks—as the British imagined—frightened his ignorant countrymen but could never fool a Westerner.

When you're certain you cannot be fooled, you become easy to fool. Indian street magicians have a repertory of earthy, violent tricks designed for performance outdoors—very different from polite Victorian parlor and stage magic. So when well-fed British conquerors saw a starving fakir do a trick they couldn't fathom, they reasoned thus: We know the natives are too primitive to fool us; therefore, what we are witnessing must be genuine magic.

On the other hand, the goat really is on the pole.

30 August 2006


The AK-47 is, unhappily, one of the great engineering feats of the 20th century. It can pour out its 30 round magazine in three seconds. It's so durable and reliable that you probably could use one to hammer nails all day, leave it buried in the mud for a week, dig it up, brush the mud off with your hand, and still expect it to fire. The design is so simple that you could stamp most of the parts out of pot metal using machine tools scavenged from an old toaster factory. There are factories working in the third world right now that are churning them out at a manufacturing cost of maybe fifteen dollars a pop. Not that they need to; thanks to the disintegration of Russia and the vast manufacturing capacity of China, the world is flooded with the damned things.

There's over a hundred million of them out there.

Sure, by modern firearms standards, they aren't terribly powerful. The rounds it uses have a hard time penetrating more than a quarter inch of steel plate, and only have a range of about three hundred yards. The rifle itself isn't very accurate, either—beyond a hundred yards, you can't reliably hit a man.

But isn't that enough?

The AK is a big reason why the world is full of endless bloody civil wars and insurrections and border conflicts and so on.

And I just found an article saying that if you thought having a world full of AK-47s was bad, you can look forward to the cruise missile being to the start of the 21st century what the submachine gun was to the end of the 20th.

How many cruise missile types exist in the world today and how many countries have them? Given that reverse-engineering and modification have produced different variants of the major types, some accounts reckon that as many as 130 types exist, with 75 countries possessing them.
Regarding the democratization of cruise missile technology generally, Arquilla continues: “When cruise missiles are as widespread as AK-47s, we will truly have the war of all against all.” As for the strategic prospects in such an era, [U.S. Naval Postgraduate School professor John] Arquilla says, “I always send people back to Jean Bloch's The Future of War (1898). Bloch was a banker and he looked at society, security, and strategy all together. Before World War I, he understood that technological advances were creating systems of enormous destructive capacity, but the societal systems that were emerging would be capable both of taking great damage and of continuing. Because everybody had these capabilities, you would end up with a long attritional war, which both sides would lose. I think we're in a similar situation to the one Bloch described, where the barriers to entry have dropped sufficiently so that, as long as anyone has the will to fight, they'll be able to continue fighting. I think that's the strategic picture that's most pertinent to our time.”
Emphasis mine. Are we just running out of time to find a better way than war to resolve our differences?

29 August 2006


Good gods, I almost forgot.

Laissez les bons temps rouler encore.


I see that the Daily Show has a new correspondent: Aasif Mandvi. He's a keeper.

The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Think you have nothing to live for? Via Dragonladyflame, I learn that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are gonna film Sweeny Todd. Really.

28 August 2006

Today's quote

Gordon Lightfoot seemed sadder than any Canadian I had ever met.
So speaks my colleague Scout in a story about a different celebrity, as part of a little “Brushes With Fame” series.


Here's an amusing thing to do. Make sure the sound on your computer is on, pay a visit to The League of Independent Satanists, then don't even worry about reading the articles. Just listen for a minute.

Be patient. You'll know what you're waiting for when it comes.


26 August 2006

Today's quote

Raed Jarrar has an unhappy encounter with airport security at JFK.
You can't wear a t-shirt with Arabic script and come to an airport. It is like wearing a t-shirt that reads “I am a robber” and going to a bank.
Oh, is it now?


So you've probably heard that the new season of Survivor will divide competitors into four tribes by race: White, Black, Asian, Hispanic.


I never thought I'd be using precious Miniver Cheevy electrons to talk about Survivor, and I wanted to resist rewarding the show for this cheap attempt to win attention through “controversy,” but I feel compelled to link Rush Limbaugh's comments on the subject.

Don't read them immediately after eating.

25 August 2006

Secrets of comics

Via Neil Gaiman, I learn about “22 Comics Panels That Always Work,” by legendary comics artist Wally Wood.

Three thoughts:

  1. If you have any love of comics at all, you must check this thing out, because the title is no exaggeration.
  2. Joel Johnson is a Great American. Dig what he has to say about publishing them on the web.
    ... please disseminate as freely as you like. Part of the reason I bought the piece was to ensure that it remained available to any artists who might find it inspiring or useful.
    There's a man who understands the value of the cultural commons.
  3. Johnson's web page also describes the history of the piece, how it came to be which is pretty interesting in itself. It includes this little tidbit about Wood:
    He had a framed motto on the wall, “Never draw anything you can copy, never copy anything you can trace, never trace anything you can cut out and paste up.”
    Or as Picasso is said to have said, “Talent imitates, but genius steals.”

24 August 2006


Via Warren Ellis, I learn that Bloody Foxtongue has figured something out about James Dobson's ministry / political organization Focus on the Family.
Focus on the Family, the horrid anti-gay evangelical church based in Colorado Springs that wields too much power for anyone's good, has a store on their website that will give you books, CDs, and DVDs absolutely free of charge. Usually people pay for their items by donation, raising millions of dollars to help Focus on the Family produce more hate-propaganda featuring “experts” on homosexuality who claim it's a curable “sickness”.
She has detailed instructions. Perhaps, like me, you'd like to get your hands on some of their propaganda at their cost instead of yours. Or maybe you'd like them to just set you up with some Chronicles of Narnia goodies.

If you're wrestling over the ethics of creating nuisance expenses for these guys, let me equip your judgement about who exactly they are.

They've got money. According to People for the American way, their 2000 budget was just shy of $130 million. They are major media propagandists. They are major players in politics on the right.

Dobson is now America's most influential evangelical leader, with a following reportedly greater than that of either Falwell or Robertson at his peak.

Dobson earned the title. He proselytized hard for Bush this last year [2004], organizing huge stadium rallies and using his radio program to warn his 7 million American listeners that not to vote would be a sin. Dobson may have delivered Bush his victories in Ohio and Florida.

They are Dominionists who want theocracy in America.
James Dobson, the founder and chairman of Focus on the Family .... is perhaps the most powerful figure in the Dominionist movement. He was instrumental three years ago in purging the moderate chairman of the NRB from his post and speaks frequently with the White House. He was a crucial player in getting out the Christian vote for George W. Bush .... While teaching at USC, he wrote his book Dare to Discipline, which encourages parents to spank their children with “sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely.” (The book has sold more than 3.5 million copies since its release in 1970.) [my link—ed.] Dobson now works out of an eighty-one-acre campus in Colorado Springs that has its own zip code. He employs 1,300 people, sends out 4 million pieces of mail each month, and is heard on radio broadcasts in ninety-nine countries. His estimated listening audience is more than 200 million worldwide; in the United States alone, he appears on 100 television stations each day. He calls for a constitutional amendment to permit prayer in the public schools. He sponsors a group called “Love Won Out,” which holds monthly conferences around the country for those “suffering” from same-sex attraction. He likens the proponents of gay marriage to the Nazis, has backed political candidates who called for the execution of abortion providers, defines embryonic stem-cell research as “state-funded cannibalism,” and urges Christian parents to pull their children out of public-school systems.
Personally, I'd like to slow these folks down any way I can.


Chris Capel of Metablog has a good long post about “Why and how to debate charitably,” which offers several rules.

Treat the person’s position as if it were your own

You cannot read minds
People are not evil
Debates are not for winning
You make mistakes
Not everyone cares as much as you
Engaging is hard work
Differences can be subtle
Give up quietly

The internet teaches us that many people don't know this stuff, which I tend to forget, making me occasionally a sucker for trolls. It breaks my heart, because I do love a vigorous exhange with thougtful folks I disagree with: it brings me to understand other folks better, helps me understand what I think more clearly ... and occasionally even changes my mind, I hope for the better. But that kind of argument is, as Capel says, a demanding craft.

Worse, though there are certainly times when I encounter folks who lack these kinds of skills for doing fruitful argumentation, it seems like a lot more often one encounters folks who don't seem to know what critical thinking even is, which seems like a deeper problem than Capel is addressing.

On those occasions, I am reminded of Charles Babbage, who had designed a clockwork computer in the late 19th century, and said this about his efforts to fund its construction:

On two occasions I have been asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
When one encounters an interlocutor who misunderstands your statements so profoundly that you cannot follow what their misunderstanding is, is argument even possible?

23 August 2006

Feeling old

This morning I saw a young woman wearing suspenders dangling around her hips as a style choice.

I last saw this in 1986, which may have been before she was born.


Via Geekologie, I learn of a Flickr collection of satirical versions of classic corporate logos, making fun of contemporary “Web2.0” fashions in graphic design. It's a very rarified joke, but a good one. Seeing several of the examples of the collection together is particularly effective, so it's worth clicking through.

At least we seem to be seeing the end of the Swoosh era.

22 August 2006

Make love, not war

The article Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence ran in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1975. Dig the first sentence:

A neuropsychologist contends that the greatest threat to world peace comes from those nations which have the most depriving environments for their children and which are most repressive of sexual affection and female sexuality.

I suspect I've hooked a lot of my readers right there, but let me add that author James W. Prescott marshalls an astonishing array of anthropolgical studies and other data to say that cuddling with small children and openness about adult sexuality reduce societal violence. Though Prescott slips into a polemical tone in places, this long article is a very compelling read.


More on skin hunger

Special Journey to Our Bottom Line: On hazing and counterinsurgency is about a lot of things.

We had staggered through hell, and came out to look at the world with the jaded, contemptuous eyes of the combat veteran. Some people might think it’s hyperbolic to describe a frat initiation as a hell akin to combat. Those people don’t know much about frat initiations.

21 August 2006


So is Pluto a planet, or what?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden offers a brief guide to some of the best commentary on this profoundly important subject; this is a place where you really want to go and then click all the links when you get there. You'll be glad you did.

My opinion? Well, as an Aaron Sorkin fan I know not to underestimate Pluto, since Pluto doesn't know when to quit. But I figure that ultimately “planet” is not really an astronomical designation, but rather an astrological one. That gives us Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, plus the Sun and Moon. Neat and tidy. Don't confuse the issue with all this science!

Another thing for science nerds

Funny ... if you're a science nerd. Otherwise, not so much. Follow through to the whole comment thread.

And if you don't understand the thing about the antique, I have an explanation.

20 August 2006

Blue and Gray

Apostropher is annoyed with the President's comments on Iraq.
What does it take to qualify as a civil war? General Lee rising from his grave to lead the Sunnis?
Honestly, 'Stroph, don't be naïve. How would the President know if Lee's shade did join in? Do you imagine that it would be reported on Fox News?

19 August 2006

Sorry LJ readers

It looks like some changes to the source code of the Blog*spot version of my blog just spat a couple of dozen recent posts back out to the LiveJournal syndicated feed version. Those readers now have their Friends lists flooded with old posts of mine.

Sorry about that, guys; it's not something I control.

If you want to see what actually new stuff might have gotten buried in the avalanche, you may want to check out that Blog*spot version. It looks like my posts came in somewhat out of order on LJ.

Black heart

I know a bunch of folks who practice Anderson Feri Witchcraft. Without attempting a long description of Feri that will only reveal the murkiness of my understanding of the tradition, let me quickly gloss it for my uninitiated readers as being rather different from the let's-hold-hands-and-love-the-Goddess variety of witchcraft you may have heard a thing or three about. “Feri” is pronounced like “fairy,” but these are not goofy folks who want to grow up to be Tinkerbell. Judging by the Feris I know, I'm pretty sure that “Feri” is actually fire spelled sideways.

Case in point: a central image in Feri art and liturgy is the Black Heart of Innocence. A Feri proverb goes:

How beautiful is the black, lascivious purity of small children and wild animals

That's some fierce poetry. The Black Heart reflects the deep, spooky directness and power that small children, wild animals, drunkards, madmen, and Zen masters sometimes demonstrate—undistracted by fear, memory, or convention from pursuing their pure desire. Feri is largely about cultivating the Black Heart in yourself without getting lost in being childish, wild, drunk, or mad ... or having to shave your head, either.

Heartsdesire has been thinking about the Black Heart, and she makes a beautiful observation.

Pirates are often referred to in folklore as having black hearts. They, too, partake of something like anarchism, in rejecting the social norms and rule of law. But this isn't anarchy, either: the ship is always guided by someone. Pirate ships were said to be governed by a ruthless democracy. The legendary pirate captains held their captaincy by consent of their crews, and it was a captaincy that could be revoked and overthrown at any time by the crew. A meritocracy. For sailors who had decided to reject the rule of law of their society and find a life as outlaws and rogues, this was their form of self-rule, a rough democracy of the sea, honor among thieves. I don't altogether know how this relates to the Black Heart of Innocence except to say that I'm intrigued by the idea of sovereignty that is earned through merit, and by outlaw honor and radical authenticity, and that all these things are parts of the folklore and history of piracy, but they also have a distinctly Feri feel to them.

That's part of a longer little essay where she tries to weave the spiritual ethic of the Black Heart together with the social and political ethic of anarchism together with the romantic image and historical reality of the pirate.

Real historical pirate society had, as she says, a fascinating egalitarian/anarchist ethic. Contemporary anarchists often draw upon that history. Creepy pædophile anarchist Hakim Bey famously kicks off his monograph Temporary Autonomous Zone by talking about pirates.

The sea-rovers and corsairs of the 18th century created an “information network” that spanned the globe: primitive and devoted primarily to grim business, the net nevertheless functioned admirably. Scattered throughout the net were islands, remote hideouts where ships could be watered and provisioned, booty traded for luxuries and necessities. Some of these islands supported “intentional communities,” whole mini-societies living consciously outside the law and determined to keep it up, even if only for a short but merry life.

Some years ago I looked through a lot of secondary material on piracy hoping to find a study of these enclaves — but it appeared as if no historian has yet found them worthy of analysis. (William Burroughs has mentioned the subject, as did the late British anarchist Larry Law — but no systematic research has been carried out.) I retreated to primary sources and constructed my own theory, some aspects of which will be discussed in this essay. I called the settlements “Pirate Utopias.”

Bey's monograph has inspired a number of fancies. The seductive legend of imaginary anarchist utopia Port Watson on the island of Sonsorol has piracy in its history ...

Around the middle of the 17th century, Sonsorol was invaded by pirates from Sulu who called themselves Moros (“Moors”, i.e. Moslems) even though their crews included Sea Dyaks, Bugis from the Celebes, Javanese and other “lascar types.” Their semi-legendary admiral, Sultan Ilanun Moro, settled down with some of his followers—who thus became an island “aristocracy” of sorts.
... and, with a wink, in its founding as an anarchist haven ...
Now the pirates of old lived virtually without authority—even their captains were virtually mere first-among-equals—and they created lawless “utopias” or enclaves financed by stolen wealth. The two young friends decided that since Sonsorol could never produce any real wealth, they must follow the pirate path—admittedly the way of parasites and bandits rather than “true revolutionaries”—and steal the energy they needed to fund and found their utopia. The bank robber robs banks “because that's where the money is”, but the banker robs banks and even his own depositors with total legal impunity. The California dreamers decided to go into banking.

And I've noted before that perhaps the best-known child of TAZ is undoubtedly Burning Man, which is an intricate waltz between anarchy and community ... and interestingly is awash in pirates despite taking place in the desert.

Those pirates of the playa bring us to the shared dreamland of swashbuckling pirate movies and stories, full indeed with “blackhearted pirates” living wild and free.

Blackhearted as pirates may be, we are unable to resist casting them as heroes at least as often as villains. Consider one of my favourite little pirate movies, Nate and Hayes, featuring a young Tommy Lee Jones (!) as an almost completely fictionalized version of real historical pirate Bully Hayes. Early in the picture, he is captured and interrogated by Spanish authorities. He tells them this:

You're asking if I was a pirate. Sure, I was a pirate. I sought fortune and glory without respect for any man's law. But not without morals and standards. I never cheated an honest man. I never killed anyone who didn't have it coming to him. I never pillaged, and I never raped.

The rest of the picture tells a story which demonstrates those ethical principles in action. The pirate, when cast as hero, respects neither law nor property nor social convention, and lives a life dedicated to personal freedom in word and deed (and style!) ... but nonetheless has a fundamental integrity in his or her goodhearted selfishness that—in our swashbuckling dreams, at least—makes things work out for the best. This archetype reaches its apotheosis in Johnny Depp's dizzy, daring, delighful Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Carribean.

And who could possibly be a better embodiment of the Black Heart of Innocence than Captain Jack Sparrow?

Update: Elfwreck offers another view of Jack Sparrow as the embodiment of the Black Heart, over at Rune Soup Gordon White offers a rather different esoteric meditation on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and I follow up at length.

18 August 2006

Some Kind of Wonderful

Some Kind of Wonderful was John Hughes' last teen fairytale movie. I saw it on the big screen when I was in high school, holding hands with my sweetheart. She was my first real romance; after a roundabout courtship we had a pretty rocky relationship, but things were working for us pretty well at the point when we saw the movie.

She was a tomboyish drummer who kept a bleached streak in her hair. Some Kind of Wonderful tells the story of a bloke who takes the long way around to a romance with a tomboyish drummer with a bleached streak in her hair—so it has a special place in my heart. Oh, their first kiss!

So I thought, for a time, that it was just me that had a special affection for it.

When I was in college, I lived for a while in an on-campus apartment. Each apartment in the block had a sliding glass door facing the courtyard, so that you could see into the other students' living rooms. One day, through a glass door, I see a cluster of students watching TV. They're watching Some Kind of Wonderful.

I cannot resist. I tap on the window and ask, “Am I too late for The Kiss?” Everyone grins. “You're the third one to ask. It's still coming up!” I meant to stay just until the kiss, but you know how it can be.

Five more people stopped by before the picture was through. All of them asked the same question. The ones who were too late didn't stay.

So you can take you can take your From Here to Eternity, your To Catch a Thief, your Gone With the Wind, and all those other obvious choices. You want the Best Screen Kiss ever?

It's Some Kind of Wonderful, with a bullet. Listen for the sound of breaking glass on the soundtrack.

Update: Through the magic of YouTube: The Kiss.

The Snakes on a Plane Picture Show

The internet really is making everything run faster. It took the Rocky Horror Picture Show decades to develop a complete audience participation script. Snakes on a Plane has managed it in a day.


The Brick Testament adapts scenes from the Bible to Lego dioramas. I had thought that it was mostly a silly matter of making witty or impressive Lego miniatures. I hadn't realized how sophisticated it could be as a medium for commentary until I saw this advice on childrearing from Leviticus adapted to Lego form.


As usual, Bruce Schneier is thinking clearly about security.
None of the airplane security measures implemented because of 9/11—no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocket knives and corkscrews—had anything to do with last week's arrests. And they wouldn't have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card wouldn't have made a difference, either.

Instead, the arrests are a victory for old-fashioned intelligence and investigation.
It's easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it's shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we've wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we've wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets—stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people before airport security—and too many ways to kill people.

I wonder if regular folks are starting to catch on, now that proposed “security” measures are becoming absurd.

16 August 2006

Travel advisory

The Transportation Safety Advisory warns us about the new security precautions.
Beverages purchased in the boarding area beyond the screening checkpoint will not be allowed on board, and must be consumed before boarding.
Will Americans catch on to the absurdity of airport security at last?

Brad Neely

You know I don't pass along a lot of silly little videos, but this one is so peculiar I feel I must pass it on. Via Ogged at Unfogged, I bring you George Washington, a little song that portrays the Father of our Country as a kind of vengeful hyper-masculine superhero.

I should warn you that it is vulgar, in a surreal sort of way. I thought it was strangely delightful, but I make no promises that you will feel the same way.

Today's quote

Mark A R Kleiman sums up the geopolitical costs of quagmire nicely.
A successful occupation of Iraq leading to the installation of a powerful and friendly government there might indeed have increased our influence over the region. But a long counterinsurgency campaign that ties up so much of our military capacity that we can't credibly threaten ground action anywhere else in the world, and the creation of 130,000 potential hostages should we do anything that sufficiently annoys Iran, has the opposite effect.
Of course, who could have predicted that we would have such problems?

15 August 2006

James Tiptree, Jr.

One of my most prized books is The Best Science Fiction of the Year #3, edited by Terry Carr, published in 1974. It's a good collection all around, with three true classics: Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird”, Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, and James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Women Men Don’t See.”

I bought it because I didn't have a copy of that last story in the house, and the book is now a prized posession because, to my surprise and delight, Terry Carr makes an interesting observation in his introduction to the story:

Like any branch of literature, science fiction reflects the trends of current thinking. Last year Joanna Russ won a Nebula Award for a feminist story called “When It Changed”; this year James Tiptree, Jr., offers a male viewpoint on the same subject. As you might expect, other than in the basic theme, there's very little similarity between the two stories.

I'm guessing that I have a few chukling readers, since “James Tiptree, Jr.” was the nom de plume of a woman named Alice Sheldon. Folks would discover the secret four years later, much to the embarassment of many people in the SF community who not only didn't notice, but had actually gone out of their way to praise Tiptree's “masculine” prose and themes.

I had read that Ms Sheldon had an interesting, extraordinary life. “The Women Men Don’t See” features a couple of characters who are CIA spooks, and it was well known that Tiptree drew those characters from personal experience. There was something about being a brilliant polymath, going on safari as a child .... Sheldon was said to be like a living, breathing Heinlein character.

Legend, it turns out, is surpassed by the truth.

A new biography of Sheldon / Tiptree has just come out, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, revealing that Ms Sheldon would have merited a biography even were it not for her famous deception, even were it not for her famous writing.

The book has inspired a number of reviews floating around the web. Gary “Amygdala” Farber has some interesting background on the biography, plus a post chock full of Tiptree resources, most notably a link to John Clute's dazzling long review of the new bio, which is both a great read and likely to whet your appetite for more ... which you can find, in the form of two more good reviews of the bio for you, from Carter Scholz and Laura Miller.

14 August 2006

Family frames

Many of my readers are probably familiar with the ideas in George Lakoff's book Moral Politics. Lakoff suggests that there are two models of the family, the Strict Father and the Nurturant Parent. Each of us carries both models in our minds, and frames politics in terms of these models, using the metaphor that the nation is like a family. Red America sees us as a family that needs a government that acts like a Strict Father, while Blue America thinks in terms of a Nurturant Parent. It's a powerful way of thinking about American politics that has spread like wildfire among lefties like me trying to make sense of Red America's thinking. If you aren't familiar with it, I strongly recommend Lakoff's book, or at least his summary of its points, Metaphor, Morality, and Politics.

Doug Muder thinks that Lakoff a little off the mark in that that the two models of the family don't have a strong enough grounding in Americans' real family lives. Looking closely at James Ault's quasi-anthropological study Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church, he suggests a different pair of models of the family, which he calls Inherited Obligation and Negotiated Commitment.

The key distinction in Ault’s account is not strictness vs. nurturance, but the Given vs. the Chosen. What, in other words, is the source of your responsibilities to other people? Are you born with obligations? Or do you choose to make commitments?
It's a powerful analysis, to my mind less a shift from Lakoff's model than an expansion of it. I'd say that the Strict Father is Red America's metaphor for the government, while Inherited Obligation is a metaphor for society as a whole, beyond just government. Likewise the Nurturant Parent is Blue America's image of government, Negotiated Commitment our image of society.

Particularly interesting to me is that Muder hints at the significance of the contemporary economic order in undermining the viability of richly networked communities of the Inherited Obligation model. He suggests that Red State cultural politics (and politics politics) are symptoms of the effort that Inherited Obligation families are making to defend themselves against these fragmentary forces.

fundamentalism is not the natural state of the Inherited Obligation family. It is, rather, a kind of antibody that such families generate when they feel threatened ....
I think he's definitely on to an interesting paradox here. I see the entire American social and economic order as arrayed against families of elaborate interlocking relationships, whether those relationships follow the Obligation or Committment model. We demand a mobile labour force, enact government policies favouring suburban living arrangements, rigidly structure work and education. These and other forces make it hard for large family and community relationships to cohere, which has resulted in the paring down of the extended family to the nuclear family, with even that tiny unit often having a hard time holding together. Muder suggests that the Negotiated Commitment ethic is an adaptation to these circumstances, “streamlined in the wind tunnels of modern capitalism.”

One tragedy here is that Red America perceives the pressure on rich family and social interdependence as a breakdown in culture, while I think that much of Blue America understands pressure on families as a consequence of logistical and economic circumstances. So strangely it's Blue America that is more sympathetic to European-style social democratic policies that support family stability, while Red America allows themselves to be suckered by plutocrats who are actually creating the pressures that make it difficult for them to live the family lives they crave.

13 August 2006


Whaddaya know. It turns out that David Byrne has a blog. Of course he does, and of course it's pretty good, though I notice that it's a little longer on travelogue than I would have expected.

Here's a bit from an interesting recent post that particularly struck me.

The prison was an expression of Quaker philosophy — that humans are innately good and that it is outside influences that make people lose their way and do bad things. Society, family, bad friends, drugs and drink, movies and cheap novels, comic books…whatever, if you could separate the divine essence from the evil earthly stink and tarnish, the good — being a human’s default mode in this view — would eventually overpower the bad, and voilà! The poor sod has been rehabilitated, with no coercion, torture or even reasoning necessary!

In order to achieve this remarkable effect one had simply to remove the tarnished soul from all — and we mean all — outside influence, and the shine would magically return. All prisoners were therefore in solitary confinement, always. Sorry, no family visits, no friends and no hanging with other prisoners. Rare trips outside the cells necessitated hooded head coverings, like the U.S. does now. Wow. Sounds bad, huh? Yes, the insanity and suicide rate was pretty high. (That sounds like Gitmo, too.)

Well, there was an upside. Part of the enlightened policy demanded that all prisoners be provided with good decent meals, water, toilet facilities, hygiene, heated rooms (this when central heat did not exist) and even fresh air — every cell had a teeny walled-in yard, with walls high enough to prevent views of anything but the sky. Most other prisons were Dickensian cesspools — large rooms, unclean (you can imagine) with every offender thrown in together.

So, on balance, how many, what percentage, actually did better due to the heat, meals and hygiene and how many went bonkers?

Funny how what we now judge to be partially enlightened ideas can now seem almost as wrongheaded and harmful as that which they proposed to replace.

I don't think that future generations will find our current penal system any less batty.

12 August 2006

Guenter Grass

Good gods. It turns out that novelist Guenter Grass was in the Waffen-SS during World War II.

Sharp-eyed Brad DeLong, whose sharp ears heard “echoes of Nazi propaganda” in Grass' writing last year, comments.


The Columbine shootings have a bit of a grip on the darker half of my imagination. I know many folks regard it as an inexplicable bolt of evil, no more accessible to our understanding than a car crash or a meteor strike. But I cannot leave it at that.

I'm guessing that most of my readers are familiar with Michael Moore's sharp-edged non-answer.

Why do 11,000 people die in America each year at the hands of gun violence? The talking heads yelling from every TV camera blame everything from Satan to video games. But are we that much different from many other countries? What sets us apart? How have we become both the master and victim of such enormous amounts of violence? This is not a film about gun control. It is a film about the fearful heart and soul of the United States, and the 280 million Americans lucky enough to have the right to a constitutionally protected Uzi.

Many probably also know Jon Katz' Voices From the Hellmouth essay from Slashdot, in which he quotes a lot of teenagers talking about how they understood the killers—and had scary experiences with “geek profiling” as panicked parents and school officials worried about the killer potential of kids who favoured video games or black trenchcoats.

I could never kill anyone or condone anyone who did kill anyone. But that I could, on some level, understand these kids in Colorado, the killers. Because day after day, slight after slight, exclusion after exclusion, you can learn how to hate, and that hatred grows and takes you over sometimes, especially when you come to see that you're hated only because you're smart and different, or sometimes even because you are online a lot ....

And a few probably also know Warren Ellis' chilling fictional exploration of the question—unpublished because he had the poor grace to write it just before the shooting, such that it would have appeared on shelves too quickly after. (After I wrote this piece, DC Comics eventually relented, publishing the story in a collection.)

You're all looking for something to blame when you should be looking out the window. I mean, it's typical, innit? You're looking for that one thing to subtract out of children's lives to make it all better. Take out the videogames, the funny music, the food coloring, kids won't shoot each other any more.

Dave Cullin at Slate reports that a team of FBI agents and shrinks have come up with a clarifying explanation.

Columbine was intended not primarily as a shooting at all, but as a bombing on a massive scale. If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors. An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television. It wasn't just “fame” they were after—Agent Fuselier bristles at that trivializing term—they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.

Harris and Klebold would have been dismayed that Columbine was dubbed the “worst school shooting in American history.” They set their sights on eclipsing the world's greatest mass murderers, but the media never saw past the choice of venue. The school setting drove analysis in precisely the wrong direction.

The theory Cullin reports isn't comforting, but I suspect that it is correct.

Special message

Readers, Samuel L. Jackson has a few words for you. I bet you can guess exactly what they are about.

You heard the man.

11 August 2006


Thomas Disch has a radical, disconcerting observation about the Catholic clergy.
So here's what I'd nail first on the church door: that pedophilia in the priesthood has long been an essential element of recruitment to the priesthood, and that seminaries and celibacy and all that jazz use the energies of repressed (and then expressed) homosexual desire as their basic fuel (just as Detroit et al uses the juice of dead dinosaurs).
Disch, without dismissing the obvious horrors of pedophilia, turns the focus somewhere else.


Guess who said this?
When the strongest nation in the world can be tied up for four years in a war in Iraq with no end in sight, when the richest nation in the world can't manage its own economy, when the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented lawlessness, and when the President of the United States cannot travel abroad or to any major city at home without fear of a hostile demonstration—then it's time for new leadership for the United States of America.
Answer on the next page ....

Nobody said it, actually.

But if you change the word “Iraq” to “Vietnam,” and add the clause “when a nation that has been known for a century for equality of opportunity is torn by unprecedented racial violence,” you get a bit of Richard Nixon's acceptance speech at the 1968 Republican National Convention.

I got it from Digby, who has vivid memories of Nixon, in a long, fascinating post about lessons from the Nixon era in American politics—false lessons that haunt our politics today, and true lessons that might shape them tomorrow.

10 August 2006

Like a knitting needle in the heart

Via Warren Ellis, a love story for my knitting-obsessed readers. You know who you are.


For the uninitated, we're talking about a video game from the notoriously violent Grand Theft Auto series.
“Mom wanted me to call you and find out if it was okay for me to play Vice City. I think it's okay, because I'm seventeen and everything, but mom said she wasn't sure and wanted me to talk to you about it since you've played it.”
Wil Wheaton has a good answer to this question.

09 August 2006


Thanks to Qibitum, I've been spending a little time with Erik “Techgnosis” Davis' website, where I found an article about Klingon religious practices.
in a darkened Ramada Inn conference room, the Klingons prepare for their ritual, Tera'daq Tlhinganghom'mey. The hulking beings, all members or allies of the Karizan Empire, file past a table in silence, depositing their energy weapons in a pile. Incense chokes the room as twelve aliens, both male and female, take their seats around an altar. Candlelight reflects off the latex ridges of some foreheads, and the soundtrack of Bram Stoker's Dracula plays on a nearby tape deck. The impressively-built Mok walks counter-clockwise about the altar, brandishing a hammer of Thor as he invokes the heroes of old and demands their presence at the gathering. The candles shake as he slams the hammer on the table. “We are between the worlds,” he announces.
There are more differences between fandom and Neopaganism than similarities, and even the Karizans insisted that the Tera'daq ritual was a “show-piece”—not a real Pagan ritual but a way to play with their magical leanings within the Trek mythos. But by performing their spiritual sensibilities in the trappings of a TV show, the Karizans also revived the oldest derivation of the word “fan:” fanaticus, a devotee of the ancient mystery cults.
In asking what drives Klingons, Davis ends up digging into the relationship between religious belief and religious practice, fiction and tradition, performed self and essential self, and all that jazz.

08 August 2006

More nerdy motivational posters

If you liked my previous post on the subject, I offer a few more about Star Trek.

Suicide attacks

Robert A. Pape has done a systematic survey of suicide attacks from 1980 to 2003. The results are astonishing.
The data show that there is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, or any one of the world’s religions. In fact, the leading instigators of suicide attacks are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, a Marxist-Leninist group whose members are from Hindu families but who are adamantly opposed to religion. This group committed 76 of the 315 incidents, more suicide attacks than Hamas.
It turns out that suicide terrorists do have a lot in common, though: they're all connected with movements trying to get a democratic state to withdraw from some piece of territory. With Hamas, this is transparent, as it is with the Tamil Tigers, but this even applies to 9/11—al Qaeda wants US troops out of the Muslim world, particularly Saudi Arabia.

I may have to read the man's book.

07 August 2006

Electric Company

If you're about my age, you probably recall a children's TV show that ran on PBS called Electric Company. It had a similar sensibility to Sesame Street: educational, jazzy, and full of witty little winks to any adults watching. Electric Company didn't have the same staying power as Sesame Street, in part I'd guess because it didn't benefit from the charms of the Muppets.

One recurring character was Easy Reader, a tall guy fond of reading things aloud. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, we can see him again, which will boggle your mind even if you never saw Electric Company as a kid ... and not only because he looks a little familiar.

And if that isn't enough, you can get the whole Tom Lehrer educational songbook: Silent E, SN, OU, LY, and N'T.

(Serious Tom Lehrer fans may also want to check out some math songs heretofore unknown to the public, plus an old post of mine about Gilbert & Sullivan which features a great link for The Elements.)

06 August 2006

Smart enough?

Cenk Uygur at the Huffington Post has yet another rant about how stupid the President is. Matthew Yglasias at The American Prospect writes on the theme specifically in the President's handling of the Israel situation.

I was hesitant to link these pieces because I don't much like the whole “Bush is stupid” rap. Lefties have a partly-deserved reputation for asserting that folks who disagree with us are either heartless or stupid, so I try to avoid it that rap. Aside from being poor form, it serves us badly because Red America, with some justification, resents it.

More importantly, I'm skeptical that it's really true. Certainly, he doesn't have the raw intelligence of a President like Nixon or Clinton, but I don't think that's really a requirement for the job—fortunately, since folks who are that smart and also possessed of the other talents necessary to the Presidency are rare. And turning that around, I cannot imagine anyone concluding, looking at both Nixon and Clinton, that intelligence is a sure road to a good Presidential administration.

If Bush isn't brilliant, I think the indications are that he's still fundamentally bright enough. For instance, we have seen plenty of evidence that he can think on his feet—at least, when he's on familiar ground. He has a knack for remembering names that I envy. And so on.

So Bush is bright enough, perhaps ... but he hasn't trained or exercised his mind. He is notoriously incurious, unaware of the places where he is ignorant and equally unaware that this is a problem. He isn't an analytical thinker, so he doesn't see the internal contradictions of his own thinking and misses problems in what he hears from his courtiers. That's not the same thing as stupidity, but it does still lead to bad decisions.

That's Yglasias' cricitism.

I happen to think the White House made the right call on the question of Palestinian elections — even in retrospect, even knowing that Hamas won — though many observers think his policy has merely backfired. Rather than defend the policy, however, Bush seems to have forgotten all about it. He returned to the theme later in the press conference: “One reason why the Palestinians still suffer is because there are militants who refuse to accept a Palestinian state based upon democratic principles.”

That's absurd. The president appears to be totally unfamiliar with what is perhaps the single most-discussed topic in international politics. Nothing gets people disagreeing quite like the subject of how to apportion blame for the Palestinian peoples' considerable suffering. But absolutely nobody blames Arab militants opposed to democratic principles. Terrorists opposed to Israel's very existence? Sure. Israeli intransigence? Why not. But only someone paying no attention whatsoever would subscribe to Bush's theory.

And knowing stuff matters. Yeah, the President has access to a swarm of well-informed advisors. Sure, the President cannot possibly know nearly as much about everything that matters as we would want in a perfect world, though Bill Clinton sure did astonishingly well at trying. But you have to be fundamentally knowledgeable to be trustworthy at the job.

Consider these questions from Uygur for Bush's supporters.

Would you let him do the books for your business? Would you trust your company in his hands for eight years? (No matter how Republican you are, you know you just said no to that question.) Would you trust him to be your kids' guidance counselor and take his advice seriously? If your kids were in the Army and he was their field commander, would you feel good about putting their lives in his hands?

And if your answers to those questions are what I expect, why would you trust the Presidency to a man whom you wouldn't trust with these other responsibilities? Do you think that it's an easier or less-important job?

05 August 2006

Today's quote

Found in a peculiar mixed quote list, while looking for something else.
Recursion is self-explanatory.
I am curious whether any of my readers who don't already know the word “recursion” will come to understand it by reading this quote.

Another stab in the back

Harper's has a good article on one of my recurring subjects, the dolchstoßlegende in history and contemporary American political rhetoric. It traces the history in some detail, and then argues that its power in American politics is coming to an end because of a failure of engagement by Americans in the fortunes of war.
Who could possibly believe in a plot to lose this war? No one cares that much about it. We have, instead, reached a crossroads where the overwhelming right-wing desire to dissolve much of the old social compact that held together the modern nation-state is irreconcilably at odds with any attempt to conduct such a grand, heroic experiment as implanting democracy in the Middle East. Without mass participation, Iraq cannot be passed off as an heroic endeavor, no matter how much Mr. Bush’s rhetoric tries to make it one, and without a hero there can be no great betrayer, no skulking villain.
I'm not convinced of that last point. To my eyes, the heroic side of the equation is actually less important than the villainous side. And since we do, in fact, face some very real and horrific villains in jihadist terrorists, I think that it will be easy for Americans to exaggerate their importance and link them to other things.

04 August 2006

Hitch vs Mel

Yeah, he turned into an insane Iraq war hawk, but Christopher Hitchens is still a badass writer and in the poison pen Hall of Fame. So when I learned that he had turned his pen to this whole Mel Gibson thing, well, I knew it would be good.

Here's the golden quote:

One does not abruptly decide, between the first and second vodka, or the ticks of the indicator of velocity, that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion are valid after all.
And Hitch is a man who knows from the effects of liquor.

History repeats

Digby has a big juicy preview of Rick Perlstein's forthcoming book Nixonland which recounts how Nixon exploited the court martial of Lt. William Calley, villain of the My Lai massacre. It's fascinating, because of how the Bush administration, war hawks, and Abu Ghraib so closely echo Nixon, war hawks, and My Lai a generation ago.

03 August 2006


Via Content Love Knowles, photographs from Oregon street fairs.

Academic blogging

Brad DeLong sings the praises of academics who blog—like him.
Plus — and this is the biggest plus — it is a play in the intellectual influence game. My blog got about 20,000 page-views a day last month.

The hope of all of us who blog is that we will become smarter, do more useful work, be happier and more productive, and will also impress our deans so they will raise our salaries. The first three hopes are clearly true: Academics who blog think more profound thoughts, have a bigger influence on the world — both the academic and the broader worlds — and are happier for it. Are we more productive in an academic sense? Maybe. We will see when things settle down.

Are our deans impressed? Not so far, but they should be.

Easy for him to say, of course: he maintains one of the very best blogs on the Internets.

02 August 2006


Boy, nobody could have anticipated the mess we're in now, with Iraq and the Middle East, back before the Iraq invasion.

In April 2003, at the time of the initial Iraq invasion, Washington Monthly ran Joshua Micah Marshall's report Practice to Deceive. It describes neoconservatives' plans; in the subtitle Marshall says, “Chaos in the Middle East is not the Bush hawks' nightmare scenario--it's their plan.”

It's eerily prophetic.

To begin with, this whole endeavor is supposed to be about reducing the long-term threat of terrorism, particularly terrorism that employs weapons of mass destruction. But, to date, every time a Western or non-Muslim country has put troops into Arab lands to stamp out violence and terror, it has awakened entire new terrorist organizations and a generation of recruits. Placing U.S. troops in Riyadh after the Gulf War (to protect Saudi Arabia and its oilfields from Saddam) gave Osama bin Laden a cause around which he built al Qaeda. Israel took the West Bank in a war of self-defense, but once there its occupation helped give rise to Hamas. Israel's incursion into southern Lebanon (justified at the time, but transformed into a permanent occupation) led to the rise of Hezbollah. Why do we imagine that our invasion and occupation of Iraq, or whatever countries come next, will turn out any differently?
In fact, there's a subset of neocons who believe that given our unparalleled power, empire is our destiny and we might as well embrace it. The problem with this line of thinking is, of course, that it ignores the lengthy and troubling history of imperial ambitions, particularly in the Middle East. The French and the English didn't leave voluntarily; they were driven out. And they left behind a legacy of ignorance, exploitation, and corruption that's largely responsible for the region's current dysfunctional politics.
But what if we can't really create a democratic, self-governing Iraq, at least not very quickly? .... One hundred thousand U.S. troops may be able to keep a lid on all the pent-up hatred. But we may soon find that it's unwise to hand off power to the fractious Iraqis. To invoke the ugly but apt metaphor which Jefferson used to describe the American dilemma of slavery, we will have the wolf by the ears. You want to let go. But you dare not.
Ultimately, the longer we stay as occupiers, the more Iraq becomes not an example for other Arabs to emulate, but one that helps Islamic fundamentalists make their case that America is just an old-fashioned imperium bent on conquering Arab lands.

To lure you into clicking through and it, I'd observe that the nightmare scenario of the article's first paragraph seems quaint now.