Dec 29, 2006

Which is Worse: Life or Death? [LINK]

As is often the case around the holidays, I argue politics with my brother-in-law, who's a nice guy all around and yet continually reminds me why I no longer consider myself a liberal. The latest round concerned the death penalty, which I admit there may be valid reasons to oppose. Still, what touched me off was the assertion that a life sentence without the possibility of parole was somehow a more fearsome punishment than a death sentence. To accept that notion is to be led to the question: Why impose a death penalty at all, when life in prison is even more punitive?

What strikes me is that the vast majority of decent people hearing this are bound to consider both possibilities equally remote, which makes such an assertion plausible to begin with. But what if you're actually in the situation of choosing between your own life or death? Of those facing the death penalty, how many direct their lawyers to try to get their sentences commuted to life? Is it not the overwhelming majority? You would expect them to clamor for the chance to die. Wasn't Gary Gilmore's case remarkable for being such a notable exception to this rule? Among those for whom the question matters, there's a strong preference for life in prison.

It strikes me as odd to argue in one context that the death penalty is an overly severe punishment, while effectively recommending it in another as less severe.

Dec 22, 2006

O Joy! [LINK]

A description, by R.C. Baker of the Village Voice, of Peter Caine's "Second Coming" exhibit, which shows at New York's Exit Art gallery through January 27:

"Hanukah Harry" steers a bicycle while wielding a menorah sprouting dynamite sticks; his passenger, the diminutive "Muslim Mary," brandishes a torch. Others of these life-size tableaux include an alien erupting from the gut of a priest whose head has been smashed in and Klansmen at the feet of a crucified, pop-eyed scarecrow. Caine's eight window displays take the bloody rituals at the heart of religion and garnish them with cheap, soiled trinkets and buckets of dripping goo. There's something to offend everyone on your holiday list.

Dec 9, 2006

"We need a leadership that reflects our population" [LINK]

I have to admit I find the term "Asian-American" particularly grating, being only slightly less vague than "earthling," but will use it just the stay in the game:

Echoing a UMass-Boston study, the Globe's editors declare that relative to their proportion of the state population, some minorities' representation among state appointees is "shamefully low." We are supposed to feel compelled to close such gaps, increasing overall minority representation by about 50 percent, from 11 to 16 percent of the population.

At the same time, we learn that African Americans are overrepresented in top state jobs to roughly the same degree. So why do the editors characterize this as a "hopeful sign" rather than as "shamefully high"? If the point of this exercise in diversity really is to match the proportion of the population, here's another way we're not getting it right.

While it's plausible Latinos' underrepresentation may be due to their wider dispersal across the state away from the seat of government, I doubt the same is true of Asian Americans, the other group whose absence from state jobs is supposed to concern us. If, as I suspect, Asians tend to be relatively high-skilled and with greater professional options open to them, would the Globe be willing to call it a "hopeful sign" that so many of them choose not to work in state government?


UPDATE: Turns out a major premise behind the study was bogus. When looking at the high school graduates who form the eligible pool for state jobs rather than the population as a whole, minority representation evens out.

Dec 8, 2006

"Often not thinking about sex" [LINK]

Jerry Saltz of the Village Voice reviews John Currin's offerings at the Gagosian Gallery, which shows through December 22:

Purple Bra, like the better Dane, a painting of a clothed woman peering at another woman's naked crotch, and Tollbrook, an even weirder picture of a woman with her underpants around her knees as she looks down to her genitals and some still life at her feet, makes you realize that nowadays you're often not thinking about sex in front of images of sex. Currin's new canvases are devices that allow him to experiment with the physicality of his work and explore the natural fissure that exists within his art between radicality and conventionality, humor and creepiness, anger and affection, conviction and towering ambivalence.

Gezelling is similar to Purple Bra, but more complicated. A naked woman reads an untitled book in bed, her vulva on full display. Even though you enter the painting through the vagina, as it were, thoughts of titillation and sexism give way to the realization that this picture is not just about lasciviousness and voyeurism but about the woman having an inner life separate from your gaze. Complicating matters even more, Gezelling is composed so that you can look away from the genitals to the breasts, the face, and the blank book. Rotterdam, a scene of a man and a woman having sex, is the most hardcore image on hand. Here, Currin tries to do what porn and Picasso do: show all the body parts at once, including something that's often missing in paintings done by heterosexual men for other heterosexual men: an erection. Currin does this with liberal touches of Penthouse, Picabia, parody, humiliation, Norman Rockwell, the piercing male gaze, and what might be called the sidelong female glance.

As blatant as Rotterdam is, however, everything in the painting is deferred and formal. This is pornography as still life and still life as catalog. The "money shot" is the pearl dangling suggestively from the girl's lace gloves; the lace stands in for pubic hair; the pink of the undone garter belt is an outside rendition of the girl's parted labia.

Taking Animal Rights Seriously... well... sort of [LINK]

I've been thinking over a previous discussion about animal rights, trying to formulate a way to make the idea more coherent overall, but it always leads me to strange places. I believe any system of "rights" that doesn't recognize corresponding responsibilities is unworkable, for the simple reason that you can't simultaneously have a right to live and a right to murder. (And I'd consider a right to not be murdered fundamental to other rights; otherwise any right to public education or affordable health care would be kind of pointless. ;-) So here's my proposal for a test determining when it may be appropriate to take animal rights seriously: If a cat tries to prevent another cat from killing a mouse.

A valid objection: the cat may recognize its own rights, but not that of mice, much like we humans recognize our own rights but not that of cats or mice. Okay, then limit the question to higher primates and make it an intra-species problem. Like humans, apes occasionally display murderous behavior. I've heard that dominant males sometimes massacre the offspring of females they're appropriating, or even their own offspring if paternity is in doubt. After he does so, do any of the other apes express anything more than sadness or disapproval? Do they kill him, shun him, or punish him in any way that would express the idea that he had no right to do what he did? (That's not a rhetorical question, BTW.)

Another objection: What if the species doesn't display murderous behavior? I don't know, but let's assume dolphins fit the bill. Then how do we test whether members of that species deserve rights? That dolphins appear to respect each other's rights does not in itself imply consciousness of such rights. And it's important to establish consciousness, because otherwise lower species that for whatever reason happen to not kill each other would also qualify, and to secure their rights would trash the ecosystem and make everybody go extinct, likening ourselves to Gods of Terrifying Justice, don'cha know. Any workable system of animal rights would thus only allow a few higher mammals at the top of the food chain into the membership club.

Which is why I pose the scenario of the cat with moral qualms about killing mice. The test has to be more stringent than how members of species behave towards other members. I figure if species other than our own have developed a sufficient level of empathy and moral reasoning that they start to produce their own set of animal rights activists, the idea of animal rights might start to make sense.

Dec 3, 2006

Democracy is Dangerous [LINK]

I just got a similar letter published, so I don't expect this one to make it in. This concerns a Massachusetts initiative to get a ballot question in 2008 that, if passed, would establish a constitutional amendment banning any new gay marriages. For the question to appear on the ballot, it must gather support from at least 25 percent of one legislature, then again from the next sitting. The first one just adjourned without voting on either the gay marriage amendment or another one establishing health care rights, effectively shit-canning them. Governor Romney, who of course is seeking the presidency, is leading an effort to get the state Supreme Court to either force the legislature to vote on it, or to get it placed on the ballot regardless. This is the same Court, of course, that established gay marriage in the first place, and in response to which the amendment is posed. What an exciting state I live in!

While there may be good reasons to oppose the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, they are too often obscured by poor ones.

Kevin Anderton worries that a political campaign over a future ballot question will result in unseemly and perhaps dishonest political ads, much as we recently saw in the far less consequential battle over the sale of wine. While I don't doubt such an outcome, his argument would essentially prevent us from settling any contentious issue within the democratic arena, since it would likely attract misinformation and demagoguery. Similarly, to point out that "only a fraction of eligible voters turn out" for elections is to complain about democracy itself, not its application to the issue of gay marriage. If more people were to vote on the question, would that be better?

Mr. Anderton also expresses concern that "citizens aren't sworn to uphold the constitution, let alone understand it." Again, this is an argument against any popular effort to amend our constitution. For voters to be experts on the current state of the constitution is also irrelevant if the whole point of the amendment process is to alter it.

Anderton also asks rhetorically: "when was the last instance in which we broadened civil rights by a popular vote?" This is rather amusing considering that the other proposed amendment recently squelched by the legislature would recognize citizens' right to affordable health care.

Nov 29, 2006

"Talk among yourselves" [LINK]

Fresh after reviewing the last one, Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt details another highly thematic and category-bending performance, titled "Witness Relocation's Dancing vs. the Rat Experiment," which she somewhat impatiently refuses to evaluate on its choreographic merits:

[Artistic director Dan] Safer's subject is a big dire one: the effect of overpopulation on human behavior. He tackles this Malthusian quandary by the extended metaphor of confinement and crowding among lab rats (we learns about the rats' problems through voice-overs by Richard Armstrong and occasional speeches by the onstage performers). "The show might be about the end of the world," announces Safer....

The "experiment" progresses via encounters in a ballroom, a prizefight ring, a soap opera, and on a game show. Winners and losers are announced; so is the real passing time.... [T]he recorded soundtrack starts emitting thunderous rhythms, and the performers, numbers on their backs, are ordered into paired rock scissors-paper contests. A bucket descends from overhead so they can scrub their faces....

People's behavior becomes increasingly odd. I think I noted Abby Browde (clad in a puffy blue sort-of tutu) licking the floor. Randy Thompson is seized by a fit of leaping. Sean Donovan whispers conspiratorially to the audience and then goes nuts. Safer and Heather Christian embrace and dance, but when the music ends, they're kissing frantically with one or the other's hands placed between their mouths ("Lighten up there!" calls Stinger from the back of the space).

Amid the music, shifting lights, spoken information about stressed-out rats, printed signs, and physical exertion, the theater becomes an increasingly littered and disrupted recreation room. Perhaps these people have been dumped here so that behavioral scientists (us?) can examine them through one-way glass. Hostilities build. Emmitt George almost strangles Safer, scrubs the floor with him, and drags him crying away. The "soap opera" details through narration and action how a man leaves his wife for another man. In other words, the mating habits of rats are thrown off course through a deteriorating environment. Mothers kill their young (Stinger picks up a baseball bat and brains the invisible wailing baby she's been rocking).

Then, in one of the show's many abrupt changes, the cast cleans up the mess, and we're advised, "Talk among yourselves."

I understand that to evaluate the content of artistic works strictly in logical terms is to miss the point. Still, I do believe we just witnessed the suggestion that overpopulation may cause homosexuality.

Nov 27, 2006

Every little bit helps [LINK]

From a listing of scholarships tracked by FinAid, a financial aid information site:

The Duck Brand Duct Tape Stuck on Prom Contest is open to students age 14 years or older who are attending a high school prom in the spring. US citizenship is required. Entrants must enter as a couple (two individuals) and attend a high school prom wearing complete attire or accessories made from duct tape. The submission must include a color photograph of the couple together in prom attire. The first place prize consists of a $3,000 scholarship for each member of the winning couple and a $3,000 cash prize to the school that hosted the prom. Other prizes include $2,000 for second place, $1,000 for third, and Duck Tape sportswear for honorable mentions. The winning couple will be selected based on a variety of criteria, including originality, workmanship, quantity of Duck Tape used, use of colors, and creative use of accessories. The Duck Tape contest web site includes photographs of the winning costumes.

Nov 23, 2006

Unacceptable Usage [LINK]

There is no excuse for referring to a "woman candidate." Is there any such thing as a "man nurse"?

Free Speech is Dangerous [LINK]

Well, this letter aroused me from the tryptophan stupor. My response:

Writing on behalf of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, Donald Gorton says "a principal reason why the anti-marriage amendment is inappropriate for a popular vote" is that by merely discussing the idea, homophobes may be emboldened to attack gays. This is utter hogwash. We do not let thugs, or fear of thugs, run our democracy. It would have been equally valid to stifle debate over the Voting Rights Act during the 1960s over fear of how white racists might react. The amendment may succeed or fail on its merits, but don't listen to anyone who says we should be afraid to discuss it.

UPDATE: It made it, in the customary slightly altered form. I'm particularly amused by the rather vague term "marriage equality," which only uses words with positive connotations, much like "pro-choice."

Nov 22, 2006

On "Meeting Peter Singer" [LINK]

Aaron Swartz recounts his brief encounter with the animal rights theorist and medical ethicist Peter Singer at a vegetarian gathering, in a post that prompted a few thoughts:

  1. To be "dragged to the Boston Vegetarian Festival," I have to assume a girlfriend is in some way involved.

  2. In the sentence after Aaron describes Singer's "thoughtfulness and clarity of mind," we learn that he wears "thoughtful glasses," kind of like those of Noam Chomsky. How do the glasses you wear affect the quality of your thought? Unfortunately for me, I don't even wear glasses, so I have to do other things to make myself seem intelligent!

  3. I'm not sure if the term "vegetarianism" (as Aaron uses it) matches the simple practice of not eating meat, which does not imply an endorsement of animal rights. There are of course other reasons for adhering to a vegetarian diet, such as health concerns and religious-inspired self-abnegation. What I find most interesting is that no culture (that I know of) enforces a taboo against eating meat. Thus to be a vegetarian for any reason is to consciously join a subculture.

  4. While not intimately familiar with Singer's work, I tend to doubt he adheres to the idea of "animal rights" as such. Could be wrong, but I understand his stance to be more along the lines that if you detect a choice between killing an animal and not killing an animal, choosing the latter means less pain and suffering overall in the world, and is thus preferable. Whatever the merits of that idea, it entirely concerns the motivations and choices of humans and does not require recognizing independent "rights" on the part of animals.

  5. I'm deeply amused that members of the audience at a vegetarian gathering would be "scandalized" at the thought that Singer would consume non-vegan food under certain circumstances, but that (at least in Aaron's account) there was no mention of Singer's approval of targeted infanticide. Similarly, when Aaron says "the one thing bugging me about Singer" was his "Darwinian Left stuff," I assume he's aware of that controversial stance as well.

  6. I believe Aaron was entirely on the right track with his devil's advocate argument: Should we also stop animals from eating each other? (I've asked much the same question: if animals have rights, does that mean I'd frequently need to bail my cat out of jail?) Unlike Aaron, I'm utterly unimpressed with Singer's answer: We would if we knew how to do so without making things worse and disturbing the ecosystems and so on.

    Dwell on that confounding bit of nonsense for a moment. Regardless of how cruel we humans are to livestock and animals used in medical tests, it is insignificant in the face of the cruelty animals constantly inflict on each other in nature. Singer would have us exert effort to protect animals from one another, but only if we had the required knowledge to do so. That's disingenuous: no amount of knowledge on our part would maintain a vegetarian diet among creatures like sharks to begin with, so clearly we are deep in the realm of fantasy. That aside, even if we were somehow able to keep them from eating one another, it would be undesirable because it would damage "ecosystems."

    Either that means such an effort ultimately hurts animals, or that these abstractions we call "ecosystems" enjoy their own independent set of rights, including the right not to be disturbed. The latter is too wacky for even me to contemplate; ecosystems not only don't have rights, they perpetrate unthinkable cruelty, so maybe we should be disturbing them in the interest of animal rights. But if we did, we would cause a cascading series of problems, not the least of which would be extinctions on a massive scale, perhaps including our own. So instead I have to conclude that taking animal rights seriously runs contrary to animals' overall interests. Fancy that.

    I've long been fascinated at the argument by animal rights adherents that animals should be treated just like humans. It's ironic that in practice, this means grafting anthropocentric notions onto them. The debate about animal rights takes place solely among humans, and that should tell you all you need to know. A cat shows no sign of believing the mouse she is tormenting has any rights, or that she herself has rights, so who are we to insist otherwise, contrary to nature... er... the "ecosystem"? Singer's suggestion that we should even entertain the fantasy of protecting animal rights in any coherent way has more to do with his own moral vanity than with any real appreciation for these creatures.

With that off my chest, I must now assist in preparing turkey.

Dance, Sucka! [LINK]

From a Village Voice dance review by Deborah Jowitt:

In the most cryptic moment of David Dorfman's overwhelming and challenging Underground, Jennifer Nugent says to Karl Rogers, "I don't know how to be. Should I . . . ?" Here she lashes herself into a rage, hurtling to the floor and up again -- body as incoherent weapon. "Or should I . . . ?" Now her fury is bottled up, seething through her tense, shaking body.

Underground poses very large questions. What is the difference between a terrorist and an activist? When is violence justified, and to what extent? Dorfman's controversial remarks to the audience weigh his admiration for the daring and courage of the militant Weathermen (a '60s and '70s offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society) against the Weathermen's selective use of violence....

Underground expresses in words and movement his distress over American citizens' apathy in the face of political corruption and threats of terrorism. Patrick Ferreri recounts a journey from impotent anger to no longer caring. Nugent delivers a terrorist's scary justification: "If I kill one person," she says, "I could save three people." She multiplies this flawed ratio into billions of dead and, with a pointing finger, includes us among them....

After almost 50 minutes, the dancing, questions, screams, crashes, and bursts of light die down to reveal Poulson frozen in the lunge-with-fist pose. Nugent, Poerstel, and Tucker try to figure out what he represents -- a monument to what? Their conversation and some of what follows is a little heavy-handed....

I appreciate the "journey" to "no longer caring," for I have made a similar journey.
Welcome, Dr. Sanity readers.

Nov 17, 2006

A tertiary use for a curling iron [LINK]

That is, its stated use is secondary, while its role in a thought-provoking work of art is tertiary. This is from a notice, by the Village Voice's R.C. Baker, concerning a showing by Laurel Nakadate at New York's Mary Boone Gallery:

Part of the group show "Heartbreaker," Nakadate's excruciating video is a faux-autobiographical snuff film. The artist went to the apartments of various men to act out twisted fantasies: She becomes a salacious model, bending and twisting for her beefy director; through cans connected by a string, another man promises to tie her up and says he wants to stick a curling iron in her ass. Sometimes she wields a gun, ordering her co-stars to beg for their lives. And then there's the scene in which she pretends to shoot herself--as she writhes on the ground in slow motion, blood squibs dribbling, her death throes elicit applause from leather-clad bikers.
Based on her similar "standout" showing at 2005's "Greater New York" exhibition, fellow Village Voice critic Jerry Saltz identified an obligatory feminist undercurrent to Nakadate's work:
On the Heterosexual planet men rule through a combination of upper-body strength, institutionalized discrimination, hogwash, and sheer arrogance. Women are always in danger. Nakadate isn't, at least not in her work. She clearly chooses her subjects as carefully as they choose her. She could never do this with "normal" predators. If a young male artist preyed on women this way he'd risk being kicked out of the art world. Either way, Nakadate exploits female sexuality as ruthlessly as any man.

In Where You'll Find Me she acts out suicide scenarios. We see her "dead" in various locales. Here, Nakadate represents primal neediness, the fantasy of "They'll know how much they love me when I'm gone." Then out of nowhere and completely anomalously, she suddenly comes close to the camera, looks from side to side, pulls her shorts to the left, stands, and pees while looking directly at you. It's weird and very feral. In Love Hotel, a similarly narcissistic and conflicted caprice unfolds as Nakadate writhes almost naked on various beds. As alone and pitiable as the men, she's seeing what she would look like if she could actually be with a real person. It's onanistic exhibitionism, very peculiar, strikingly devoid of real feeling, and disquieting.

And so on... If you happen to swing by the Mary Boone Gallery to catch the "Heartbreaker" show (until December 16), here's some information on the other artists' work:
Rashawn Griffin's sculptural installation "Untitled (fort)", 2006, is composed of bed sheets, stained blanket scraps, found fabric, orphan socks, a pillow, and a stuffed toy. Like a child's blanket fort, or an abandoned shelter, Griffin's work is melancholic, offering up fragments of a personal albeit nameless history that encourages reflection of our own past....

Kate Gilmore is the sole protagonist of a dangerous line-up of hilariously reckless performances. Assuming the roles of many different female stereotypes, Gilmore creates makeshift environments that act as sets and props for a mélange of wacky riffs on daily life. In the sixteen-minute video, "Heart Breaker", 2004, Gilmore, dressed in her Sunday best, takes an ax to a larger-than-life-size heart made from scraps of plywood. With each swing, fake blood oozes down the side and splashes her hair, face and pretty dress. In "With Open Arms", 2005, a six-minute video, Gilmore wears a lilac cocktail dress, flashes a beaming smile and spreads her arms out wide to signal the denouement of an imaginary performance. The invisible audience responds by hurling tomatoes at her face. With each repeated gesture, the intensity of the pummeling escalates, but Gilmore retains her smile.

...as do we all.

Nov 7, 2006

Three Glimpses of Contemporary Theater [LINK]

From a review of Go East, Young Girl, by Village Voice theater critic Garrett Eisler, November 7, 2006:

Is Bhutan a blue state? Ask Mary, a widowed mom quietly living the red-state life in an increasingly yuppified New England exurb when a Bush-hating neighbor starts tempting her teenage daughter with dreams of escape -- either to the Orient or that other exotic locale, Columbia University. Why would anyone waste time and money going to either, Mary asks, as both her kids suffer the stifling consequences of Mom's closed-minded class-bound desperation.

Daisy Foote's Bhutan superbly documents the toll taken on the blue-collar family in the age of Nickel and Dimed America. Mary used to work at a bank but now wears a Star Market checkout-lady badge; she sees economic salvation in selling her father's property to a McMansion developer....

Another review from the same issue, this one by Andy Propst, concerning a drama titled Fare Minded:
Pervez (Debargo Sanyal), a Pakistani engineer working in Manhattan as a cab driver, jokes that he's funnier in English than he ever was in Urdu. It's not surprising that his sense of humor has evolved, albeit bitterly. The FBI raided his home and took his brother Nawaz (Aladdin Ullah). Before coming to this country, his wife left him because he wasn't religious enough, and here, Barb (Annie McNamara), a Christian sent to Manhattan to proselytize, has no compunction about kissing him when drunk or sleeping in his cab when locked out of her mission but, ultimately, won't become involved with him because of his religion. Pervez arrived in the States fearful of African Americans; ironically, his only real friend is Nate (Edwin Lee Gibson), a black homeless man living at Port Authority on the corner where Nawaz used to sell newspapers, which he stuffed with pamphlets about Islam.

Playwright Mike Batistick combines issues of religious intolerance, bigotry, and the Patriot Act in a dark comedy that's as aimless as a cab driver cruising for a fare....

And another, this one by Angela Ashman, concerning a play titled Pictures of an Exhibitionist:
In Victoria Stewart's smart, thought-provoking drama, an African American lesbian performance artist interviews a porn star for her latest documentary theater piece on social injustice and winds up questioning the exploitative nature of her own work. Like Anna Deavere Smith, Sarah Brown (the talented Pamela Hart) mimics the movement and language of her subjects onstage....

Stewart's razor-sharp and often humorous dialogue explores the porn industry in an "everything you always wanted to know about a sex worker but were afraid to ask" fashion, from the objectification of women to faking orgasms. Unable to believe Sonia's claim that she enjoys being an "exhibitionist," Sarah pressures her for sob stories about her childhood and ultimately portrays her as a one-dimensional victim of an abusive father. Sarah feels no guilt about selling out Sonia (wonderfully acted by Jenny Maguire) for the sake of her art until her assistant, a doctoral candidate, turns the tables and interviews Sarah ... A surprise twist at the end involving a tape recorder and Sarah's secret desire for Sonia makes for a steamy, shocking conclusion.


11/22 UPDATE: The oblique reference to Nickel and Dimed, by the way, is to the book of the same name by Barbara Ehrenreich, a chronicle of the difficulties the journalist encounters when posing for extended periods as a low-skill worker. The absurdity of the book's premise becomes transparent before you get to the end of the first sentence:
Mostly out of laziness, I decide to start my low-wage life in the town nearest to where I actually live, Key West, Florida...

Gender is whatever you say it is [LINK]

New York City is considering a plan to let people change the sex specified on their birth certificate, regardless of whether they've had sex reassignment surgery.

(via Althouse)

Nov 2, 2006

"Balls-out beauty" [LINK]

From a review, by the Village Voice's R.C. Baker, of Robert Colescott's offerings at New York's Kravets Wehby Gallery:

Seven feet high, The Sphinx Speaks (1993) portrays men, women, and a skeleton in jagged magenta-and-black stripes. A small, naked white male whispers devilishly into the ear of black minstrel-like man who has huge white eyes, thick pink lips wrapped around a cigar, and is wearing a red-and-blue-striped tie that counterpoints a rainbow in the opposite quadrant of the canvas. Second Thoughts on Eternity (1991) includes a golden Anubis (Colescott once studied and taught in Egypt); a smiling, bearded white Godhead; a frowning, white-bearded black man; and, prominently, a chick with a dick. These complex paintings offer enigmatic tales to be unraveled and righteous polemics to be considered, while transcending their outrageousness with balls-out beauty.
More information on another gallery offering at LMAK Projects, featuring the artist Liselot van der Heijden:
This artist from the Netherlands is as outraged by the Bush administration as many Americans. You enter the gallery by pushing aside a glowing scrim on which a snake winding and unwinding inside a white box is projected; a second video features two white mice skittering around an apple. A real-time feed from a tiny surveillance camera creates a third projection, adding the viewer's image to these symbols of sin and curruption. A nearby TV plays a loop of the president's State of the Union speeches, edited so the word evil is proclaimed over and over again and closing with "God is near." Even more frightening than the commander in chief's biblical absolutism is the thunderous applause it evokes.
Also, Joel-Peter Witkin is showing at the Keith de Lellis Gallery:
Witkin's photographic grotesqueries channel the classical past: A beautiful woman with amputated arms becomes a modern Venus de Milo, accessorized with bra and pet dog; Queer Saint (1999) imagines an arrow-pierced human skeleton topped by an animal skull, the only flesh a large, drooping penis. With their distressed, stained backgrounds, these black-and-white prints feel like daguerreotype curiosities, and Witkin's staging of nudes (some with grievous wounds) amid flowing fabrics and vaguely exotic trappings recalls the DIY tableaux vivants of East Village theater genius Jack Smith.
What is left unstated is that Witkin customarily uses corpses as his subjects.
Welcome, Dr. Sanity readers.

Nov 1, 2006

"I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and of his broken policy" [LINK]

At this point, he's insulting everyone's intelligence. My latest letter to the Globe:

I believe Senator Kerry when he says he botched a joke that was intended to disparage the intelligence of President Bush rather than our troops in Iraq. Still, I'm fascinated at his belligerant refusal to apologize for that remark. Kerry now argues that prominent Republicans are distorting his statement, apparently by ignoring what he meant to say, instead relying on what he actually did say. Kerry also accuses the White House of using the controversy to change the subject away from the administration's Iraq policy, which itself is a tactic to shift attention from his indefensible remark. Is this the sort of silliness we can expect from a president who claims to be more intelligent than Bush?
As for the last sentence, I believe the only reasonable interpretation of his refusal to back down is to demonstrate his toughness to skeptical Democrats as part of a 2008 presidential run.
11/02 UPDATE: Now he gets it.
11/02 UPDATE: Wait a minute, no he doesn't! What's this "my words were misinterpreted" business? I assume that, unlike the original "joke," Kerry had to focus his mind closely on the task of crafting a suitable apology. Can I then take his failure to understand the difference between a misinterpretation and a misstatement as an example of his intellectual capacity?

Oct 27, 2006

Starbucks Exploits Migrant Workers! [LINK]

From "Help Restore a Costa Rican Rainforest," a pamphlet produced by the Earthwatch Institute and Starbucks Coffee, in whose retail stores it is distributed:

Earthwatch Institute shares Starbucks [sic] commitment to help preserve our earth's precious natural resources and believes the best way to do this is to directly involve people from various backgrounds, including scientists, educators, businesses, and the general public in global field research. By placing people in the field to actively participate and assist scientists in their work, Earthwatch Institute is promoting sustainable conservation of our natural resources and cultural heritage....

The year 2006 marks the third year Starbucks has extended this excursion to customers, and the results have been highly successful. From clearing weed, digging dirt and planting trees to celebrating with local families, customers have had the opportunity to contribute positively to the environment while learning about another culture and making new friends. We're excited by what we've accomplished but there is more work to be done, so Starbucks is committed to continue supporting this worthwhile conservation effort....

These expeditions offer an unequaled opportunity for personal enrichment. If selected, you'll work closely with scientists and a local cooperative of farmers to conduct a pioneering forest restoration experiment. Based out of Agua Buena, Costa Rica, where less than 10 percent of the original forest remains, teams will plant trees in experimental plots, measure seedlings, work on seed predation and monitor birds to help determine the success of the ongoing restoration effort.

As an active member of the research team, you'll provide hands-on assistance and gather scientific data and evidence to stop a critical environmental problem. You'll challenge yourself -- body, mind and spirit -- for science and conservation, living as field researchers live, eating what field researchers eat, and working like field researchers work.

You'll experience the scientists' enthusiasm and passion for their subject, and share in the team's accomplishments. The fact that you'll be doing physically demanding work on steep slopes will make the experience more relevant.

The only special skills or experience needed for this physically challenging expedition are a passion for the environment and the desire to learn and work hard with others.

If you should happen to be interested in participating and want to know what sort of people you'll share the experience with, Starbucks has helpfully posted a letter of feedback from Rebecca Galvez, one of the 2006 participants. An excerpt:
Finally, I want Starbucks and Earthwatch to know that from this experience, I have learned that creating a more sustainable life is the only way to truly respect oneself and in turn, outwardly respect our environment. I have always been one to watch the effects of modern ways by recycling and re-using whenever possible. However, my experience in Costa Rica, talking with my homestay family, coffee farmers and the Starbucks agroecologists, I have learned that the effort to make the world more environment friendly is a concerted group effort. Humans are truly no different than other animals on this Earth. Each much strive to do its part to preserve its species and aid other species to be the caretakers of our planet.
Say whaaaa?

"Holding the white student as a standard of comparison" [LINK]

Any standard favors one group over another, so why have 'em at all?

"Words matter," says Mary Conner, and increasing MCAS requirements raises issues that are "complex and intertwined." One of the "problems" Ms. Conner identifies is that by raising the bar we are "once again holding the white student as a standard of comparison." If words do indeed matter, can we dispense with such pointless racial rhetoric? It's equally valid to say that we are holding forth Asian and Jewish students as standard-bearers at the expense of whites as a whole, since they score higher.
If there is a "problem" with MCAS, it is that we need to admit there is an optimum rate of failure. If we raise standards impossibly high, nobody graduates. If we dispense with standards, nobody learns except by accident. Somewhere in there is the sweet spot.

Oct 22, 2006

Patents on Tax Reduction Strategies [LINK]

The International Herald Tribune reports that there are 50 patents on file for tax reduction strategies, with more pending. A financial firm sued the chairman of Aetna for using what it claims to be its own strategy to reduce taxes.

(via TechDirt)

Oct 17, 2006

"Forcing their moral convictions"... [LINK]

In addition, it seems presumptuous to call gay rights the "last great civil rights chapter in modern American history," since that necessarily excludes subsequent marginalized groups. My letter to the Globe:

It seems rather obtuse for Abby Collier to cite Gerry Studds on the "fight for gay and lesbian equality," while in the same letter she criticizes conservative Republicans for "forcing their moral convictions" on the rest of us. Recall that Studds was censured by Congress after forcing his own brand of morality on an teenage staff member.

Oct 13, 2006

Birthday Blues [LINK]

A British insurance company has forbidden staff members from circulating birthday cards. Since people often write in joking references to the perils of getting older, the company was concerned the cards might be the subject of age-discrimination lawsuits.

Oct 12, 2006

Diversity, bad? [LINK]

A study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam concludes that the more diverse a community is, the more likely its residents are to fear contact with each other and thus be alienated from local civic institutions.

While I understand the study is meant to quantify drawbacks to immigration, and while I broadly appreciate efforts to question sanctified liberal axioms, that conclusion strikes me as short-sighted if it doesn't account for the effect of assimilation.

Think of how all sorts of different immigrant groups were jammed together in urban slums in places like NYC around the beginning of the 20th century. In the short term there was gang violence and large-scale corruption resulting from competition over which group would rig the political process to its advantage. But in the long run, being forced to confront other ethnic groups forced them to adapt to each other.

For example, if you drive through Cambridge you're likely to see signs for the "Irish Painting" company on one block, and "Scotland Painting" on another. In the not-too-distant past, that might have occasioned a massive brawl. Why is that virtually unheard of today? My reflexive answer would be that the diversity brought on by immigration resulted in long-term social cohesion and relative tranquility. Nowadays there's much less of a tendency to consider people in terms of their ethnicity, perhaps because America is uniquely a nation of immigrants.

I understand this pro-diversity argument resembles the logic universities use to uphold affirmative action: that being forced to confront people you're unfamiliar with results in a superior education. Still, I think that's different issue for a couple of reasons. First, there's a difference between the largely spontaneous way ethnic neighborhoods form and the calculated mix universities use to achieve diversity, which requires a conscious, state-sanctioned party actively discriminating against applicants with higher academic qualifications. Second, the focus on affirmative action's overall educational benefits comes at the expense of attention to its negative effects on previously excluded groups: e.g., the high college dropout rate of Blacks and Latinos that contradicts their far higher acceptance rate.

Oct 11, 2006

Society's Rear-View Mirror [LINK]

From a short theater review by Alexis Soloski in the Village Voice, October 10, 2006:

This two-character play imagining a conversation between Henry Kissinger and Richard M. Nixon on the eve of Nixon's resignation, originally debuted in 1996. It must have echoed investigations into Clintonian improprieties. The current revival, which reunites director Jim Simpson with actors Gerry Bamman and Steve Mellor, resonates with a lack of confidence in the current presidency and calls for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation.... In one scene, Nixon imitates Brezhnev; in another he demands that the reluctant Kissinger play the role of Mao -- in Chinese. They also consider concocting one last international crisis that Nixon could solve and thus exit a hero.

Oct 5, 2006

"Like the records of strange, coercive lab experiments" [LINK]

A brief notice in the October 5 Village Voice details some of the things you might have to do to be a performance artist these days:

Lindman has fabricated metal contraptions that stretch and squash her face into various contortions, recalling A Clockwork Orange's Alex clamped in his re-education chair with eyelids pinned open by thin reeds of steel. The videos of her endurance tests (she remained in each pose for an hour) were cut into short chunks, which she then made partially transparent and layered on top of one another, compressing each ordeal into a one-minute clip. Flared ears pinned down by magnetic bolts and lips pulled open, exposing teeth that recede like a skull's, remain in focus, while the rest of her face and shoulders waver in fleshy, blinking blurs; the segments flow by like the records of strange, coercive lab experiments. Adults warn kids not to make ugly faces or they might freeze that way; Lindman viscerally connects human expression -- that alchemy of thought, emotion, and desire -- to the pieces of meat that give it form.

Oct 3, 2006

Imagine no BS [LINK]

So there's a new documentary out about how the FBI kept a file on John Lennon during his residence in New York during the early '70s, and how the government tried to have him deported based on a 1968 drug charge. It all seems so ridiculous in hindsight, as exemplified by Ty Burr's dismissive piece in the Boston Globe. After all, how could anyone perceive the wonderful man who wrote "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance" as a threat? (To be fair, most people didn't hear "Sometime in New York City," Lennon's wretched 1972 album that brimmed with radical political agitprop. He actually wrote an ode to Angela Davis!)

The fact is that Lennon allied himself closely with groups who devoted themselves to violent political upheaval, and were thus richly deserving of FBI surveillance. People don't realize that the Black Panthers were effectively a criminal gang, involved in murder, extortion, narcotics, and prostitution, mainly in their hometown of Oakland. Consider that Lennon's pal Bobby Seale once punished a subordinate's failure to meet an editorial deadline by having her stripped and flogged. (Now there's a management practice the Boston Globe might consider adopting)

That's the very first thing that popped to mind when reading this review. When complaining of the FBI's misbehavior during the 1960s, you would typically start by noting its COINTELPRO program used to harass and neutralize the Black Panthers. Now it's Lennon. You don't hear much about the Black Panthers any more. Could it be that people read Hugh Pearson's book, The Shadow of the Panther, which detailed the group's pathologies? Or can we only relate to the misfortunes of celebrities these days?

UPDATE: a letter to the Globe also takes Lennon to task, making the same point as Elvis Costello: "Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?"

Oct 2, 2006

The many uses of false consciousness [LINK]

In the wake of revelations that Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) made sexual overtures to a teenaged male page, Andrew Sullivan takes the scandal as an object lesson on the dangers of being closeted:

What the closet does to people -- the hypocrisies it fosters, the pathologies it breeds -- is brutal.... What I do know is that the closet corrupts. The lies it requires and the compartmentalization it demands can lead people to places they never truly wanted to go.
No doubt about it: having to "live a lie" and conceal an important part of your identity can't be a happy state of affairs. But is Sullivan suggesting that an uncloseted gay man would be less likely to act on his urges towards younger boys? Is there any evidence on which to rest this assumption? Foley has been corrupted, therefore his being closeted is what corrupted him. Perhaps instead he started out corrupted, with a strong fixation on younger boys, closeting himself in an understandable effort to conceal or deny these urges.

And isn't it a little odd that Sullivan would so readily ascribe false consciousness to Foley? Suppose a fundamentalist Christian claimed gay men were misled by some force "to places they never truly wanted to go." Wouldn't that be identified as an expression of homophobia? Leave aside as irrelevant the special taboo against sex with minors. How is Foley's urge to have sex with a teenage boy any less real than to have sex with a grown man?


UPDATE: It occurs to me as well that Sullivan's logic mirrors the kind that became popular in the wake of the Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal: that the church's ban on female and married clergy was largely to blame for fostering an environment in which priests would prey upon children, overwhelmingly boys. While there may be valid arguments for liberalizing the clergy's membership requirements, to connect that argument to revelations of pedophilia is a non sequitur, and ironically homophobic at that. If only aspiring priests had access to girls, the logic goes, they wouldn't be gay. Furthermore, a revealed homosexual preference doesn't represent an innate personal characteristic central to one's identity, but is instead a highly malleable product of one's environment. In a slightly different context, them's fightin' words.
UPDATE, Pt. 2: speaking of non sequiturs, why did Foley check himself into an alcohol rehabilitation clinic following his resignation? Either he is engaging in an all-purpose redemptive act for public consumption, is suggesting alcoholism led him to pursue teenage boys, or he couldn't find a more appropriate rehab clinic for child molesters. Was it because "Alcoholics Anonymous" was listed under "A" in the yellow pages?

Sep 29, 2006

Spiraling off into infinity [LINK]

A California Superior Court judge upheld a lawsuit brought by comedian Dom DeLuise against his former daughter-in-law and her lawyers, claiming emotional and financial distress as a result of her earlier $2 million lawsuit against him.

A Pulitzer for silently revising one's errors? [LINK]

Seven reporters and editors at the New Orleans Times-Picayune have been awarded the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for public service. The prize was awarded for a September 26, 2005 story debunking widely echoed reports of murder and rape in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, mostly centering around the New Orleans Superdome where many of city's city poorest residents had sought shelter.

However, one of the Pulitzer recipients, Brian Thevenot, was the author of a lurid September 6 Times-Picayune story that had a large role in establishing such misinformation as common wisdom in the first place. At the time, Thevenot falsely reported 30 to 40 corpses had been stacked in a freezer at the Superdome, that among them was a 7-year-old who had her throat cut and a 5-year-old girl who had earlier been gang-raped.

The Times-Picayune's later story established that while there was widepread looting amidst the city's contaminated floodwaters, such reports of violence were false. Yet in that story, the Times-Picayune failed to note the newspaper's own role in spreading the misinformation, and to this day has failed to offer a retraction.

What is a dropout? [LINK]

An effort is now underway at the Department of Education to develop a common understanding of what it means for a student to drop out of high school. This, in response to revelations that school districts across America have undercounted dropouts to make their records look better. Typically only those who entered as seniors and left before the end of the year were counted, not dropouts over the course of the preceding three years.

Sep 28, 2006

Hidden motive behind declining gas prices? [LINK]

A more thorough treatment of the subject of my previous, snarky entry:

A surprising number of Globe readers seem willing to entertain the notion that the Bush administration engineered the recent free-fall of gasoline prices in order to boost Republican hopes in the upcoming election.

To believe that, you would have to believe that the earlier rise in prices beyond ordinary levels was also politically motivated, and not attributable to combined events in Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, the Middle East, and the American Gulf Coast. You would also have to believe that President Bush would willingly sacrifice favorable poll numbers for well over a year, no doubt negatively affecting his prosecution of the War in Iraq as well.

Any balanced assessment of the recent drop in gas prices would identify prices over the last year as an unusual shock, and should recognize that gasoline prices almost always fall after Labor Day, even during years with no major national elections.

Sep 26, 2006

Just Wondering [LINK]

Isn't it odd how the price of gasoline goes down after Labor Day, even in years with no major political elections?

Sep 23, 2006

The Erosion of Dance in Britain [LINK]

In an interview in Spiked, Sunday Express dance critic and former dancer Jeffery Taylor says that Britain has "lost a generation of dancers" due to what some refer to as "political correctness," but which he simply calls "poison." One problem, he says, is the virtual ban on teachers touching students, a practice he regards as essential for young dancers to become accustomed to unnatural body positions. Students need a letter from parents to permit only limited touching in certain circumstances. Another problem, says Taylor, is that the more rigorous classical ballet training regimens are now being jettisoned. "Today it's almost official: you never tell a child what to do unless they are willing to do it." As the training is made less difficult, Taylor says students are being told they are better than they really are, or that they are all as good as each other. "This is extremely cruel to children. You have a child doing a five-year course, and you tell them that they should be proud and that they are good. But then after three years they are asked to leave because they won't make it. It's a very important part of growing up in any area that you learn your limitations and learn your potential."

(via Arts & Letters)

Sep 22, 2006

"How will I find the way out of this labyrinth?" [LINK]

A translation of a 1999 letter from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, AKA Carlos the Jackal, the Venezuelan-born terrorist. Chavez wrote in response to a letter sent by Mr. Sanchez from his French prison cell, where he is serving a life sentence for murder.

Citizen Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, Distinguished Compatriot,

Swimming in the depths of your letter of solidarity I could hear the pulse of our shared insight that everything has its due time: time to pile up stones or hurl them, to ignite revolution or to ignore it; to pursue dialectically a unity between our warring classes or to stir the conflict between them—a time when you can fight outright for principles and a time when you must choose the proper fight, lying in wait with a keen sense for the moment of truth, in the same way that Ariadne, invested with these same principles, lays the thread that leads her out of the labyrinth.

Our liberator Simon Bolivar, whose theories and example are fundamental to our doctrine of revolution, whispered briefly this question before he passed away: "How will I find the way out of this labyrinth?" We agree with Bolivar that Time delivers miracles only to those who maintain a righteous spirit, to those who understand the true meaning of things. There is no measure of distance or time that can undermine these thoughts of our Caracan hero.

I feel that my spirit's own strength will always rise to the magnitude of the dangers that threaten it. My doctor has told me that my spirit must nourish itself on danger to preserve my sanity, in the manner that God intended, with this stormy revolution to guide me in my great destiny.

With profound faith in our cause and our mission, now and forever!

Mr. Chavez recently won notoriety by likening President Bush to the devil in a speech before the United Nations.

(via Harper's)

This man should be (censured, pelted with squills) [LINK]

From a vocabulary test given last fall by Bret Chenkin, an English teacher at Mount Anthony Union High School in Bennington, Vermont:

It is frightening the way the extreme right has (balled, arrogated) aspects of the Constitution and warped them for their own agenda.

The fact that Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Bush have lied consistently about their role in Iraq has been (substantiated, largessed).

I wish Bush would be (coherent, eschewed) for once during a speech, but there are theories that his everyday diction charms the below-average mind, thus ensuring him Republican votes.

The many hateful programs initiated by the Bush Administration have been so (substantiate, invidious) that the country is now bitterly polarized.

Bush often likes to (temporize, ramify) rather than get involved in actual debates.

The governor should have been (excoriated, coherent) by the press for calling Democrats “girlie-men” but instead was invited to speak at the Republican convention; it only goes to show what kind of people they are.

Note that the first sentence should read: "...warped them for its own agenda," since the subject is singular: "the extreme right." Otherwise: "members of the extreme right have..."

(via Harper's)

Anorexic Gays with PTSD [LINK]

From a Village Voice review by Alexis Soloski of The Treatment, a play by Eve Ensler, she of Vagina Monologues fame. The play concerns an Army sergeant who develops a case of post-traumatic stress disorder after repeatedly interrogating suspected terrorists:

Few would argue that the "war on terror" has not had a deleterious effect on many soldiers or that PTSD should be ignored. Some studies indicate that as many as 10 percent of American men may suffer from PTSD, and in sites of recent conflict such as Cambodia or Gaza, those percentages may double and triple....
My golden rule is this: be highly skeptical any time "10 percent" is offered as a statistic for general consumption. Single-digit percentages are unworthy of notice, but start getting into the 15-to-20 range and whatever marginal phenomenon you're quantifying starts to attract more critical scrutiny. Ten percent is safer.

"What many ... must feel when an American walks in the room" [LINK]

From a review by Jerry Saltz in the Village Voice, September 14th, 2006:

Welcome Drink, one of Stuart Hawkins's photographic scenarios of herself (she's female, despite the first name) in Nepal, is such a perfect metaphor for America's current adventures around the world that it should be made into a billboard and displayed outside all of our embassies. This sign would signal that we know we're klutzy, reckless, rude, helpless nitwits who think we're helping the world but actually making almost everyone supremely uncomfortable and irritated, not to mention afraid....

[Hawkins] deserves more attention, if only to make you experience a dark empathetic dose of what many around the world must feel when an American walks in the room—a bit sick.

We Are Not Responsible [LINK]

The concluding paragraph from a liability waiver posted by the Nelson Rocks Preserve, a private recreation area in West Virginia favored by woefully misguided hikers and rock climbers:

By entering the Preserve, you are agreeing that we owe you no duty of care or any other duty. We promise you nothing. We do not and will not even try to keep the premises safe for any purpose. The premises are not safe for any purpose. This is no joke. We won't even try to warn you about any dangerous or hazardous condition, whether we know about it or not. If we do decide to warn you about something, that doesn't mean we will try to warn you about anything else. If we do make an effort to fix an unsafe condition, we may not try to correct any others, and we may make matters worse! We and our employees or agents may do things that are unwise and dangerous. Sorry, we're not responsible. We may give you bad advice. Don't listen to us. In short, ENTER AND USE THE PRESERVE AT YOUR OWN RISK. And have fun!
(via Overlawyered)

Sep 11, 2006

NYC bike messenger poster child [LINK]

New York City bike messenger Austin Horse has been determined to be the fastest in North America. Take a close look at this man's legs, knees, and elbows, then tell me this is a worthy occupation. The least he can do is wear a helmet when posing for the picture. For the sake of the children.

Sep 7, 2006

"Social choreography" [LINK]

Promotional text for Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance and Everyday Movement, by Andrew Hewitt, published in 2005 by Duke University Press:

Through the concept of "social choreography" Andrew Hewitt demonstrates how choreography has served not only as metaphor for modernity but also as a structuring blueprint for thinking about and shaping modern social organization. Bringing dance history and critical theory together, he shows that ideology needs to be understood as something embodied and practiced, not just as an abstract form of consciousness. Linking dance and the aesthetics of everyday movement -- such as walking, stumbling, and laughter -- to historical ideals of social order, he provides a powerful exposition of Marxist debates about the relation of ideology and aesthetics.

Hewitt focuses on the period between the mid-nineteenth century and the early twentieth and considers dancers and social theorists in Germany, Britain, France, and the United States. Analyzing the arguments of writers including Friedrich Schiller, Theodor Adorno, Hans Brandenburg, Ernst Bloch, and Siegfried Kracauer, he reveals in their thinking about the movement of bodies a shift from an understanding of play as the condition of human freedom to one prioritizing labor as either the realization or alienation of embodied human potential. Whether considering understandings of the Charleston, Isadora Duncan, Nijinsky, or the famous British chorus line the Tiller Girls, Hewitt foregrounds gender as he uses dance and everyday movement to rethink the relationship of aesthetics and social order.

Pretend We're Intelligent [LINK]

Promotional text for Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, by Annalee Newitz, published in June 2006 by Duke University Press:

In Pretend We're Dead, Annalee Newitz argues that the slimy zombies and gore-soaked murderers who have stormed through American film and literature over the past century embody the violent contradictions of capitalism. Ravaged by overwork, alienated by corporate conformity, and mutilated by the unfettered lust for profit, fictional monsters act out the problems with an economic system that seems designed to eat people whole.

Newitz looks at representations of serial killers, mad doctors, the undead, cyborgs, and unfortunates mutated by their involvement with the mass media industry. Whether considering the serial killer who turns murder into a kind of labor by mass producing dead bodies, or the hack writers and bloodthirsty actresses trapped inside Hollywood's profit-mad storytelling machine, she reveals that each creature has its own tale to tell about how a freewheeling market economy turns human beings into monstrosities.

Newitz tracks the monsters spawned by capitalism through b movies, Hollywood blockbusters, pulp fiction, and American literary classics, looking at their manifestations in works such as Norman Mailer's "true life novel" The Executioner's Song; the short stories of Isaac Asimov and H. P. Lovecraft; the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson and Marge Piercy; true-crime books about the serial killers Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer; and movies including Modern Times (1936), Donovan's Brain (1953), Night of the Living Dead (1968), RoboCop (1987), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), and Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001). Newitz shows that as literature and film tell it, the story of American capitalism since the late nineteenth century is a tale of body-mangling, soul-crushing horror.

Queer/Crip Theory Explained [LINK]

Promotional text for Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies, by Robert McRuer and Abby L. Wilkerson, published in 2002 by Duke University Press:

In multiple locations, activists and scholars are mapping the intersections of queer theory and disability studies, moving issues of embodiment and desire to the center of cultural and political analyses. The two fields are premised on the idea that the categories of heterosexual/homosexual and able-bodied/disabled are historically and socially constructed. Desiring Disability: Queer Theory Meets Disability Studies explores how the frameworks for queer theory and disability studies suggest new possibilities for one another, for other identity-based frameworks of activism and scholarship, and for cultural studies in general.

Topics include the study of "crip theory" and queer/disabled performance artists; the historical emergence of normalcy and parallel notions of military fitness that require both the production and the containment of queerness and disability; and butch identity, transgressive sexual practices, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Sep 6, 2006

"Restorative justice" [LINK]

Today's letter to the Globe:

The Rev. June Cooper identifies two recent stories as examples of "restorative justice": one about a man sentenced to perform community service after assaulting two women, and another about the effect of a summer job program and increased police enforcement in lowering the city's crime rate for a given month. But for the latter to make sense as restorative justice, the perpetrators of these crimes would be the ones repaying the communities they affected, not the city at large in providing them with increased resources. Identifying the city's response as a matter of basic crime prevention rather than justice should help clarify the matter.

Sample Error [LINK]

I've been enjoying OverheardInNewYork.com immensely, a site that allows me to indulge my occasional perverse homesickness. This link in particular reminded me of discussion I had with a friend in which I mentioned my method of remembering large numbers. I break them down into two-digit pairs and map them against numbered streets in Manhattan. For example, a number like 43802107 would transform into "New York Times, Zabar's, north side of Gramercy Park, and Kiev's." To help with that sequence, I'd rely on my days as a bike messenger, formulating the best route from one point to the next. That series of lines would be the visual pattern I'd need to summon up the number later.

"Wow," my friend said, "that explains something I've always wondered about: why all the really smart people come from New York." Well, no, not at all, though flattering coming from an MIT Ph.D. Put aside the fact that it's just a memory device that has little to do with intelligence. It's a basic sample error. My friend did not spend his childhood in New York, but rather encountered New Yorkers later in life in D.C. and Boston, perhaps many of them at college. So his set of New Yorkers are not the same as my New Yorkers. It's said that the very smartest people in the world come from Brooklyn: they're the ones who left.

Where does music come from? [LINK]

Interesting article, asking why music evolved in the first place. Was it part of a mating ritual, as is true for songbirds? Then why are men and women both good at it? Or, if it helped mothers soothe their children, why would the kids find that sound soothing to begin with? I think I'm with Pinker in his skepticism about the various theories floating around, but I wouldn't so casually dismiss music as a "useless byproduct of language."

I recall hearing about a man with a severe brain injury that rendered him completely unable to speak in the conventional sense, but still able to convey language by singing, sounding rather like an operatic recitative. Apparently language and music are controlled by two different parts of the brain. Why would that be, if one is a recent, superficial outgrowth of another?

Why is there poetry, for that matter? That's a certain kind of musicality applied to language, but to no obvious adaptive purpose other than letting guys like Homer transmit a huge amount of information. Think of what would have happened had preliterate epic poets been unable to rely on rhythm to get their point across. There would have been no constrained, systematized way to transmit the information from one generation to the next, and the information would have been lost, to our disadvantage.

I wonder. It seems both music and poetry represent an effort to discern and form patterns out of chaos, which may relate to why music is often associated with mathematics, at least by neurologists. On a very basic level, a mosquito is able to distinguish my rapidly approaching hand from other patterns of movement. I've also heard that bees do a little dance to tell other bees where to find food, a sort of shorthand language used to represent a far more complex reality. Human societies engage in dance both to anticipate and reenact group hunts, and to signal a willingness to mate. In the latter case especially, there has to be some stylized way to separate that signal from the surrounding noise.

My guess is that music, poetry, and dance developed along with our ability to transmit stories, which forms the basis of history and making predictions about the future. That we derive satisfaction from them may reinforce our evolutionary advantage in pattern recognition. Think of how mathematicians derive joy not just from solving real-world problems, but simply from inhabiting that world. More prosaically, if sex were no fun, we'd go extinct.

Anyway, I'm not sure what I'm getting at is any less of a tautology than what Pinker dismisses. Still, it sure is fun to think about.

Aug 31, 2006

Planet Classification System is Discriminatory [LINK]

Complete, utter foolishness:

We lost Pluto because we had to limit the number of potential planets in our solar system. Why?

My lay understanding of the current exclusionary criteria is that Pluto is incapable of clearing its orbit of celestial debris. Never mind that Earth doesn't clear its orbit of meteors either.

This is a loss because it demonstrates a need to limit, to restrict, to confine, to exclude. We, as a people, are afraid to include, to expand beyond the current way, to imagine.

We see this in many spheres: "If you aren't with us you're against us," "There is only one way to God," "Marriage is between a man and a woman."

We teach our children from a young age to exclude -- gays can't lead the Boy Scouts; girls can't be priests; foreigners, immigrants, and anyone who isn't like us should be feared and sent back.

All of this lessens us as a people. What would it mean to have 12 planets? 20?

Let us explore our solar system and our souls and find room for more.

Boy, I'll bet schoolkids are really going to appreciate this woman's efforts once they find they have to learn the names of various pieces of interplanetary crap and trans-Neptune debris.

Of course, an obvious question is why not polygamous or incestuous marriages? And why exclude non-humans from marriage or the priesthood? Clearly it's not the act of making distinctions that bothers this person, but a particular set of distinctions.

UPDATE: A somewhat amusing (if restrained) response is here.

Aug 25, 2006

Thank You, Friends and PMC Contributors! [LINK]

[Note: This is the text I sent to contributors.]

I want to thank all the contributors who helped me participate in the Pan Mass Challenge this year. Thanks to you, the PMC expects to raise a rather astonishing $25 million for the Jimmy Fund.

I was one of 4,200 bikers participating in the event. Of those, 2,550 left with me at 6:00 AM from the starting line in Sturbridge in Central Massachusetts, biking 110 miles to Buzzards Bay. The rest traveled a shorter route from Wellesley in the suburbs of Boston, about 80 miles. Like me, most went on the next day to Provincetown, at the end of Cape Cod, another 80 miles, while some went back to Wellesley. Bikers hailed from 36 states and 7 other countries. The gender breakdown was 60/40 men to women. The average rider's age was 43. There were over 2,500 volunteers supporting the riders and doing an amazing amount of grunt work. In addition, essential traffic control was provided by police officials from the towns of Bumstable, Yummugth, Phlegmsbury, Yuxbridge, Stumpsboro, Wrencham, Addlebrat, Blighton, Natagatawasachassett, and Fizzlespit.

I had a pretty good ride, though a bit shaky on the first day, arriving at Buzzards Bay at 1:00 rather than my target of noon. The second day out to Provincetown was a bit more relaxed over easier terrain, and I got in around 11:00.

I'll try to give you some idea what the event was like overall and pass along a few things I learned, especially for the benefit of a couple of you who expressed an interest in participating next year. Since I was traveling light and forgot my mobile phone, I only got to snap a few pictures in Buzzards Bay, but I hope they give some idea of the scale of the event.

They release three different columns of riders from the starting line: fast, medium, and slow. Regardless of your planned pace overall, it pays to join a faster group at the start. Last year I was stuck in a slow-moving sardine can for the first 20 or 30 miles because I wanted to play it safe among the "medium" starters. But no matter how well you trained to bike at a certain pace over a long distance, it doesn't matter if you're stuck in traffic. And the same truth holds for rush-hour traffic: if one person slows down, you all slow down. So it's a good idea to guy a jump to give yourself some elbow room.

I learned that when you hear bagpipes up ahead, you're probably heading for a particularly nasty hill. (My wife, Ellen, whose ancestry is Irish, says there are two bagpipe tunes: Amazing Grace, and "the other one.") The first 40 miles are the most difficult terrain, but with only two or three steep hills that slow you to a crawl.

My problem the first day happened because by chance, unlike last year, I wasn't drinking from a large bottle of water when driving out to the starting line around 4:00 AM. Instead I started drinking Gatorade while on my bike, which is a poor substitute, and which I can't help but conclude clogged up my system. Simply put, dehydration causes your muscles to cramp up. Though I felt a few warnings, I was still surprised to find when going up a small hill about 60 miles in that my right leg simply stopped working. A moment later, my left leg did the same thing. It was an amazingly painful charley horse, causing me to fall off my bike ignominiously, but with only a minor scrape. The way to deal with such cramps is to walk them off, which worked quite well. But from that point on, I could feel my legs were often on the verge of cramping up again, forcing me into lower gears and slowing me down. Some bikers had to be taken out of the ride for the same reason. So the upshot is: drink lots more water than you think you'll need!

However, the same was not true for food. The day before the ride I went out to lunch at a wonderful little Greek place in Cambridge. I had their Mixed Grill combo plate, which has so much protein it'll make your eyeballs vibrate, plus a couple of baskets of bread since the waitress was so kind as to keep bringing it over. I had a light dinner that night (fish), and no breakfast at all the morning of the ride. At the 70-mile lunch break, I downed a peanut butter sandwich for depleted sodium, a banana for potassium, and some melon. That was it until the finish line, and even then I ate about half of what I did the year before. (Those who read my description of that meal last year are bound to be disappointed.) So let this serve as a recommendation: Desfina, on the corner of Third Street and Charles. Tell them "that oinker" sent you.

The level of organization behind the event was incredible. One volunteer I recall in particular was stationed at a sharp left turn. There were already signs posted marking the route for the bikers, but frequently they'd place people at certain trouble spots to make sure they didn't get misdirected. I don't know if this was her actual job, but this woman was not only directing traffic, but also standing in a pothole, saying the word "pothole" over and over again, some 3,000 times I imagine. By the time I got there, it sounded a little like "puddle."

Ellen was gratified to learn that I had a bar-code tag on wrist the whole time I was riding, with her mobile number listed as an emergency contact. A similar bar-code was attached to my bike. Myself, I wondered what sort of emergency might separate me from my bike by more than a few yards. (Yuk!) I saw one guy's front wheel had curled and snapped in two like a potato chip, but he appeared to be fine. I heard there was one nasty crash with a motorcycle during the event, but that the injuries were not life-threatening. As it turns out, most of the remaining hospitalizations came after the finish line, and seemed to involve acute dehydration from drinking too much Harpoon IPA, which of course is a diuretic. (Again, keep drinking water, you lush!)

It was exceptionally beautiful dry weather the whole weekend, though the temperature spiked 87 degrees rather than the expected high of 80. There was a gentle tailwind for most of the way. At about 70 miles you start to notice the sea breeze and the smell of salt water coming at you. Even though the headwind slows you down a bit, the thought of jumping in the cold water after the finish line charges you up.

I've said it before, but it's hard to believe how many people came out to sit on the side of the road so early in the morning to cheer you on. Some were there to cheer on specific riders, some held pictures of loved ones they lost to cancer, while others declared themselves as survivors. Yes, they helped encourage you to the finish line, but mostly they reminded you why you were there in the first place. The most touching sign was held by a young boy who was walking around a rest stop on the second day. It read: "I'm 10 years old now thanks to you." Not the most accurate statement, mind you, but it touched many who felt compelled to mention it later. For me, this ride was less dramatic and emotional than the previous year's, which came a mere week after my brother-in-law Bryce died. Last year was by necessity a catharsis, while last weekend was more of a reaffirmation. I briefly considered sewing Bryce's picture onto the back of my jersey, the way so many PMC riders do for friends and family they've lost to cancer. The weird thing is I'm not sure why I rejected the idea: because it would have made Ellen uncomfortable, or because it would have made Bryce uncomfortable. Yes, that still matters a great deal.

If I ride in the PMC next year, I think I may join a team. Some teams are formed in support or memory of a particular person, while others are identified with companies. As it turns out, there's a firm near where I live called SolidWorks that fields perhaps the largest team -- about 100 riders -- and it's unclear how many of the riders even work there. I think one of the benefits of joining is that you get some help with fundraising. Another is that, once you get to the first day's finish line, you don't have to feel like you're at a big party where you don't know anyone. You don't necessarily have to ride together, but you can hang out later and do all sorts of things like pose for group photographs. You can also give each other lots of high-fives and engage in vaguely uplifting banter, like: "Yo, you are the man!" "This is my crew!" "Boy, you know how to get down." "This man is the one. He rules us fools." Perhaps, I thought, this sort of thing helped compensate for the strange absence of African Americans at the event. Or I don't know, maybe it's just middle age creeping up.

Another joke my wife likes was by Ellen DeGeneris. She said there's one sure-fire way to tell just how boring a person you really are: when lying awake at night, you think to yourself: "I like grapes." When you're out on the road pedaling for so many hours, effectively alone much of the time, such thoughts come very easily indeed. I also found myself singing silly little variants of popular songs. "Heaven, I'm in Heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak; It's a wonder I don't just bug out and freak, when we're dancing on the floor cheek to cheek." Then there was one where Lennon got to make fun of McCartney: "Suddenly, I'm not half the man I used to be. Maybe that's because I'm an amputee. Oh, I believe in Yesterday."

Yes, you have to cast around for little things to keep you amused. You'd approach another bike, and the rider would look at the tag attached to your back and say: "way to go, Concord," referring to my town. You'd respond: "hey, good going, Hing-Ham." (For out-of-staters, many Massachusetts towns have non-obvious pronunciations, in this case Hing'm.) I teased another woman whose tag identifed her town as "Manchester." No, I'm afraid that simply won't do. She was from the pretentiously named "Manchester-by-the-Sea." And there's actually a place called West Northboro, or South Eastbury, not to mention Westborough, Westford, Weston, Westport, Westfield, Westminster, and Westhampton. It got to the point where I had to ask people, "Okay, I give up, where the heck are you from?"

Those who've endured me talking about biking know I'm a bit of reverse snob, one who's only recently made peace with spandex. So another fun thing was to check out all the bikes I was passing with my old clunker of a Miyata. "Okay, that frame is at least $1,500. Pedal systems and shoes, maybe $300. Whoa, carbon fiber over there, maybe a Trek, state of the art, tapered top tube, must be five grand at least." Before the ride I went to replace my rusty old bottle-holder at my local bike store, and nearly did a Homer Simpson yelp when I saw the price: over $50. Okay, that was the super-duper high-end lightweight model for the guys with way too much money on their hands or the crazy ones who shave their legs to reduce wind resistance. I wanted to talk to the owner of the store about something, but he had to leave to sell someone else a TEN THOUSAND DOLLAR BICYCLE!

As it turns out, I do like Grapes.

No, I did not get to meet Sen. John Kerry, who also biked from Sturbridge the first day, having biked in the event for several years now after having his cancerous prostate removed. In fact, I had no idea where he was. I would have been more impressed, at least with myself, if I found myself anywhere near Greg LeMond, the three-time Tour de France winner who also rode in the PMC this year.

Anybody planning to drive out to Provincetown to meet you should count in an extra hour or so to account for traffic. If the first place, it's Cape Cod on the weekend. But also, Interstate 6 is pretty much the only way to get up those last few miles, and at that point it's jammed with bikers. Consider taking the boat back instead and meeting up in South Boston.

For the better part of a weekend, you're single-mindedly focused on all the factors leading to a successful ride: scanning the road in front of you for bad pavement, perhaps checking your distance to the wheel of the guy in front of you, gauging your speed to attack the next hill, making sure you keep you cadence (pedal speed) up, making sure you pull your pedals up as much as you push them down, or changing your hand position to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. So after I met Ellen and the kids at the finish line, I found it was hard to go back to having my attention scattered. First there's my 2-year-old Aidan, who has very strong opinions about the food he's eating but is unable to articulate them, all while trying to see if your nose will go in some other direction. Then there's Isabel, 6, who hasn't seen me all of Saturday and has saved up a whole bunch of things that she wants to tell me. (I'll try to approximate her delivery.)

Arthur? in "Arthur," told Buster? "Buster, why don't you get off the bike when parking it. 'Cause you see, he didn't stop the bike, you see? and he crashed. Lucy has a bike and she doesn't have to push backwards on the pedals to get it to stop. She uses her hands. Her bike has only one handle. I wish we could go to the beach now. Aidan's going to have a party at Phyllis's, but he doesn't know it's his birthday. He's too young. I'm going to wrap his presents. Aidan has four presents, and I'm going to use four different kinds of wrapping paper. No Christmas paper. When I wrap? the presents? first I put a piece of tape at the end to get it to stick. Daddy says to fold both sides the same way, but I like to do them differently on each side. We're going to have cupcakes and cookies. I'm going to make a face on the cookies, with three different colors, red, green, and blue. Blue used to be my favorite color, but now it's green. I'm going to put sprinkles on the cupcakes. Maybe? if we go to One Stop Fun? I can show Aidan how to do gymnastics. There's a big ball pit for little kids. I know why they paint the lines on the road yellow. It's so that you can see them in the rain. When I get older I'm going to have two kids. I hope they're not both boys. I know what my favorite car is, it's the big one over there. I don't want a red convertable any more. Daddy, do you know how many people can sit in that car? When I get married, we're each going to have our own cars, one for me and one for him. My car will have car seats for each kid, one for the boy and one for the girl. It'll also have a great... big... [...] Do you know what color Lucy's car is? I went to One Stop Fun for Lucy's birthday party. Aidan hasn't been to One Stop Fun yet. Are we staying in a motel tonight? I can't wait until I swim in the pool. I can swim underwater without holding my nose. And I can open my eyes without goggles. And sometimes? I get water up my nose? That's no fun. Are we going to the motel before we go to the beach?
At times like these, I remember a woman named Christine who agreed to take care of Isabel one day a few years ago. Izzy was a lot more shy then, especially around people she didn't know well. Up to that point, Christine had never actually heard her raise her voice. But, lo, the floodgates opened that day, and when we finally came to pick her up, Christine had the sort of thousand-yard stare common among combat veterans.

Anyway, here are some pictures of the halfway point in the town of Buzzards Bay. Bikers were hosted at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which is where you go to be a Merchant Marine or a MassPort official.

Here's the first day's finish line. Note that someone has scrawled the word "DONE" in chalk on the pavement, as if the many whooping people and the... you know... finish line didn't tip you off. At about 7:30 that night, I heard a great cheer as the final biker came in. Well, I would not want to be on the road for over 13 hours, but even though this wasn't a race, I would not want to be identified as the last!

This was the area reserved for luggage that was trucked from Sturbridge, which in typically organized fashion they alphabetized by rider's last name. Hard to believe, but by the time I snapped this photo, over half half of the luggage had already been removed.

Here are some bagpipers. They're playing The Other One.

A field crammed with parked bikes, hard to appreciate without a wide-angle lens. I talked with someone whose father had been taken away in an ambulance for dehydration. His son was trying to locate his bike with no idea where it was. I helped him find the approximate horizontal band he should concentrate on based on the time of day his father arrived, since earlier arrivals were clustered in front.

This is the food tent, and again, it's hard to appreciate the size except to say it's the length of a football field. More food than you've ever seen in one place, like a dozen Jewish weddings going on at once. I saw them setting up breakfast in the middle of the night last year with forklifts, I kid you not. There are few places to sit in the shade, so it starts to resemble a scene out of high school: "Excuse me, is this seat taken?" "Well as a matter of fact, I'm saving them for members of my team." (Again with the team!)

Some of the more outstanding fundraisers got to sleep on the ship, a training vessel unimaginatively called the Enterprise. No way you're ever going to get me in there, stacked to the ceiling like dinner plates. No thanks, I'll stay out here on the lawn!

This is the view from the Mass Maritime Academy, which is situated at the mouth of Buzzards Bay and the Cape Cod Canal. At this point I was walking around taking pictures mostly to walk off the cramps and to keep my legs from seizing up again. You should have seen me sitting in my tent trying to take off my socks. What a riot.

Few riders seemed aware that they didn't have to wait in line for a shower, and that the MMA had a nice little beach where you could take a dip. Some guys were out clamming, but I wasn't exactly in the mood to sample questionable seafood.

This is the endless line to sign up for a massage. I managed to score one only informally as they were breaking down the operation at about 8:00 PM. Some of the masseuses had worked straight from 11:00 AM, rather a feat in itself! I credit that rubdown for allowing me to ride comfortably throughout the next day. And it's a good thing I was able to get one there, or I would have had to rely on the nice young Swedish lady I was sharing a tent with.

Okay, just kidding. Here are the bazillions of tents. I wanted to nap earlier in the day soon after I arrived, but found it was so hot with the sun beating down that I had to sit up just to get the cross-draft from the triangular vent on the side. So I moved my sleeping bag and spent the rest of the night outside. (No bugs!) That thing in the background is MMA's new windmill, an imposing half-million-dollar structure whose blades look like they're going to come down and cut you to ribbons when stepping out of the "Handy House" near its base.

The following morning, there's an amazing amount of activity taking place well before dawn. Someone goes around the tents at 4:00 and does a very good imitation of a rooster. These people are from an endless procession getting ready to saddle up for another day's ride. Their shoes make the characteristic sound of pedal systems, like horse's hooves.

Here's the truck that takes your luggage out to P-Town. They're calling out different destinations like circus barkers. At this point, I was chugging water bottles and stretching my legs every way imaginable to make sure I didn't experience the previous day's cramps.

And here's the first hint of sunrise over Cape Cod Canal. By dawn, we were on the Bourne Bridge (behind the railroad bridge) watching the sunrise. Worth it right there!

I didn't take this picture, but I remember it well. It's what it looks like when you cross the finish line at P-Town.

Thanks, all,

—Mike

Aug 17, 2006

"Biking in Boston does not have to be as stressful as it is" [LINK]

Then what the heck is this girl doing riding on Memorial Drive? (BTW, this is the perfect example of the Self-Righteous Biker I mentioned a few days ago here.)

I've been an avid bicyclist for many years, so I read with special interest Marika Plater's account of hostile behavior from an automobile driver in town. I'd suggest that while it's instructive for her to recite the law permitting bicycle traffic on Memorial Drive, common sense dictates that most of that road is narrow and winding, and that automobiles regularly drive it at highway speeds. Unless she was riding unusually fast, I'm not surprised that drivers would perceive her as an obstacle.
Then there's the comment: "Please watch out for bicyclists and remember that we are not protected by pounds of steel as you are." Unfortunately, when I encounter problems with other vehicles, it is almost always with other bikers, not with car drivers. Sadly, they often drive as if they are well aware they can do little damage to others through their own carelessness. For example, I remember one Self-Righteous Biker complained that I was riding too fast and cut her off in traffic. I had to explain (at the next light) that I actually gave her plenty of room, that I was getting back into single-file to make room for passing cars, and that she had only been surprised at my speed because she had no rear-view mirror, and had no idea what was going on behind her. Would you drive a car without a rear-view mirror?

"Proponents of a traditional patriarchal ideology"... [LINK]

Just catching up in all the letters to the Globe, and I run across this zinger:

CATHY YOUNG ("At 40, is NOW what it set out to be then? " op ed, Aug. 14 ) brings up legitimate concerns about the future of feminism, but she targets the wrong organization for criticism . Certainly, gender equality is a battle that both sexes need to work on together, but the National Organization for Women understands that already.

Many of the leaders of the fathers' rights movement are proponents of a traditional patriarchal ideology that hurts women and girls. Young should be critiquing the anti feminist men, not NOW.

No evidence whatsoever of the last paragraph's claim, just the handy label demonizing the whole effort.

"No good would come of it" [LINK]

...even though by all accounts there are fewer mosquitoes on the South Shore, and none testing positive for EEE! To be fair, there are risks of DDT through biomagnification up the food chain, namely eggshell thinning in some species of bird, but the point remains that it should be considered part of a trade-off.

Rebecca Stevens criticizes south shore resident Kevin Gallinger for belittling environmental concerns leading up to the recent mosquito spraying, and suggests we read Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" to become more aware of the dangers of long-term pesticide use.

Ms. Stevens seems unaware that, while Carson's book forms the basis of much environmentalist thought, many of its specific claims have long been discredited: in particular that DDT is a human carcinogen, and that there is a great difference in how humans and other organisms respond to artificial and "natural" chemicals. Indeed, some scientists believe the abandonment of DDT in the wake of the book's popularity caused many thousands of third-world malaria deaths.

There may well be a long-term risk to spraying even today's non-DDT pesticides, and that is a trade-off worthy of discussion when paired against the very tangible risk of EEE. But to fail to spray simply in order to adhere to the precautionary principle is to base one's decision in ignorance.

Aug 12, 2006

Clash of civility in East and West [LINK]

Second one today:

Responding to Cathy Young's column on Western military timidity, Arnaz Malhi says: "My history classes tell me that the biggest crimes against humanity (in the last 300 years) were committed by the British empire and Nazi Germany." This is an astonishing statement to begin with, made worse by the fact that he is addressing Ms. Young, who was one of the lucky few permitted to emigrate from the former Soviet Union. That regime was far more lethal than Hitler's Germany, and both were topped by Mao's China.. Mr. Malhi needs to further his study of history.
Malhi also fails to note that while India produced Gandhi, his countrymen utterly ignored him when it came time to partition Pakistan. In the ensuing fighting between Hindus and Muslims, about a million people died, many by matchete.

"A cynical canard at best" [LINK]

There's also the question of why tip off the perp's before arresting them, but concision is key.

Leroy Johnson is missing the point when he unfavorably contrasts President Bush's use of the military in Iraq with the "brilliant investigative police work" that foiled the latest terrorist threat. Scotland Yard's arrests were based largely on information culled from the intelligence agencies of Pakistan, Great Britain, and the United States, which are fundamentally military in orientation. If the would-be bombers had taken up residence in a hostile country, then the threat of military action would have been the appropriate response. It should be obvious that the anti-terrorist efforts of the British police are more visible than our own due to their more significant threat of domestic terrorism.

Aug 3, 2006

Why I Hate Wikis [LINK]

No, not for the reason you might imagine. Sure, the information you find on a wiki is likely to be unreliable or incomplete, but we already knew that. For me, what makes wikis so often unbearable is the quality of the prose.

Never mind why, but a friend directed me to the wiki page for CNN's Anderson Cooper, where I found the following sentence in the "trivia" section:

His height is reported to be no more than 5' 10".
Granted, this is "trivia," which shouldn't concern us at all, but think about that sentence for a moment. If you read wikis you'll run across a lot of others like it: grammatically correct, but utterly confounding.

The most obvious problem is the use of passive voice: "His height is reported to be..." So who is doing the reporting? At least say something like: "howtallarethey.com reports that Cooper's height is..." Even: "A source who has actually met Mr. Cooper estimates his height as..." Or: "Sources familiar with Anderson Cooper's height say it is..." The passive voice just makes the information more tenuous and questionable. What is his actual height, anyway? Can't you just call his publicist? After all, the 5' 10" figure is pointlessly specific for a figure you have no real faith in. It's a lot like saying: "The federal government estimates this quarter's job-growth rate as 3.279 percent."

Another problem is the "no more than." Since we've failed to accurately state Cooper's height, we're now forced to rely on imprecise terminology that leaves us open to misinterpretation. For one thing, it sounds judgemental. Anderson Cooper's height is no more than 5' 10". Should he be taller than that? It's like saying Anderson Cooper is not even six feet tall! It also sounds vaguely controversial, as if there have been competing claims as to how tall he is. Some allegations were floating around that Cooper is six or perhaps even seven feet tall, but we have since learned he's no more than 5' 10". The "no more than," of course, doesn't address anyone claiming he's 5 feet tall. What makes us certain he's not 6 feet tall (not an inch more than 5' 10"), but uncertain whether he's 5 feet? If you just said his height is approximately 5' 10", would it sound quite as controversial?

I'd be interested in knowing if there's a particular tendency for wiki authors to use the passive voice in particular, as opposed to your run-of-the-mill blogger. Perhaps it's a form of defensive prose -- a way to ward off having your material summarily deleted? "It is claimed that Cooper 'doesn't drink hot beverages.'"

Wikinados might counter that I should go ahead and fix the problem I described, which I did, and in the process got to read some hilarious hand-wringing over how much about Cooper's sexual orientation to include in the article. But that doesn't get around the underlying problems. Like voting in national elections, there's little reason to believe your efforts will alter the underlying dynamic that results in consistently poor outcomes. That, plus I really don't care!