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.