Thursday, December 28, 2006

More on Cultivation

I thought that I'd never get back to my Guide to Being Cultivated! But, with the New Year rolling around, why not rehash it? Here are some Scandinavians that you absolutely must become familiar with in your lifetime:

August Strindberg: One of the great playwrights of modernism, Strindberg's work still perplexes, frustrates, and provokes the contemporary theatregoer. A personal favorite is The Father, in which the anonymity of the womb efaces masculine identity and drowns it in a river of invisible others.

Henrik Ibsen: I've said before that I think A Doll's House is fairly overrated, but there's no denying the power of Ghosts or Peer Gynt. One should make up their own mind about Ibsen, which is fairly easy since his works are constantly performed.

Knut Hmasun: His Nazi sympathies and the declining quality of his later works have long overshadowed the great novels that he wrote. But, Hunger and Wayfarers are two of the great novels of the twentieth century.

Ingmar Bergman: Arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time, Bergman has at least fifteen films that could be considered masterpieces. The easiest of these to start with is Wild Strawberries. His most difficult (But one of my favorite films of all time) is Persona.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard: Quite a bit of conversation between these fellows, isn't there? Bergman's films deal with several of the same themes (dread, faith, and the thin line between the two) as do Kierkegaard's treatises, and 'Persona' is essentially a reworking of Strindberg's 'A Dream Play'. There must be something about the bracing Northern air that gets people struggling with the nature of existence in their work! I don't expect this to be touted in any of the tourism adverts. Kierkegaard is sniffed at in quite a few philosophy departments; but his stuff still terrifies me. I mean that as a compliment.


Notes on Caste Untouchables

The caste system has survived for about 1,500 years in Indian culture. The ranks of Hindu society originate, according to legend, from the main groups, or varnas, that emerged from a primordial being. From the mouth, emerged the Brahmans- the priests or teachers. The arms of the being became the Kshatriyas- the rulers and soldiers. The thighs became the Vaisyas- merchants and traders. Lastly, the laborers, or Sudras came from the feet of the being. The Untouchables, or Dalits (or Achutas, or Mahars), make up a fifth group that the primordial being does not claim. They literally do not belong to the general body of humanity in Hindu belief.

The Untouchables, to this day, perform the work that Indians consider 'unclean'. Usually this means any work that requires contact with blood, excrement, and other bodily 'defilements', as defined by Hindu law. Most aspects of daily life and behavior are set down in the Law of Manu, a text compiled 2,000 years ago by Brahman priests. The caste system is formally outlawed in India; since 80% of Indians are Hindus, it still persists.

Mahatma Gandhi (a Vaisya) naturally opposed the situation for Untouchables, without taking the natural next step of opposing caste itself. He rechristened them "Harijans" or "children of God" and toured the subcontinent in 1933 agitating for their rights. He also adopted an Untouchable daughter. However, Untouchables note that Gandhi ultimately upheld the orthodoxy of the caste system.

Bhimo Ramji Ambedkar: (Pictured) Untouchable hero, who drafted the Indian constitution, wrote several books, and founded the first Untouchable political party. He was outspoken and controversial; in one case, burning a copy of The Laws of Manu during a public protest. Unlike Gandhi, Ambedhar felt that the religious underpinnings of civil life in India should be done away with. Gandhi objected on religious grounds. For some time, the relative merits of Ambedkar versus Gandhi were debated in India.

Things have improved greatly for Untouchables since the days that they could be beaten to death for touching a higher caste member (or casting a shadow upon them in some cases). Today they are represented in the Indian Parliament and in equal opportunity laws. However, they are still socially separated, shunned, relegated to 'unclean' work, and often attacked for openly defying the caste system. Violence against Dalits is still common. The Untouchable status has been called the strongest racist structure in the modern world. Without taking account of skin color or genetics, the status brands millions of Indians as lower than the rest of humanity from birth. The status, and the caste system itself, has no place in the modern world.


To the Devil a DVD

With some fanfare, the entertainment industry announced 'the death of the DVD' this year- a big surprise for those of us who didn't even know that the DVD was sick. Happily, reports of the DVD's death have been greatly exaggerated, with millions of people still buying them, instead of Blu- Ray DVDs or High Definition DVDs or whatever crap the industry is currently trying to shove down the throats of consumers through the usual planned obsolescence.

Ideally, the way the market works is that it's driven and responsive to the demands of consumers. So, if a great majority of us want DVDs, they manufacture DVDs. Unfortunately, they figured out some years back that they could make more money by telling us what it is that we want- manufacturing our desires- and giving us no choice in the matter. So, if ten percent of us are the sort of schmucks who are buying higher priced Blu-Ray DVDs, they announce with great fanfare that DVDs are dead and the rest of us had better get with the times. They do this all of the time.

Take albums for example. When the industry brought out CDs, they announced that the LP was dead, long before the damand for albums had actually dried up. Then they gave those of us who still bought LPs a guilt trip for being Luddites. "Come on! This is the twentieth century! Throw out that crappy record player and buy CDs! Listen to the incredible clarity of CDs! They're so much better than your stupid LPs!" Then to give the schmucks the impression that demand for LPs really had dried up, they just stopped manufacturing them, and kept the 'clarity' hyperbole coming.

The buzzword is always 'clarity'. You're supposed to feel deficient if you can't actually hear or see this clarity. The difference between VHS and DVD was supposedly in the incredible 'clarity' of DVDs. As a test, I recently rented a film on DVD that I own on video and played them back to back. Want to guess what happened? They both looked exactly as sharp and clear as each other. I suppose that video tape gets old and rots eventually and DVDs don't. So, there is that. I mean, I would hate to think that all of those people who threw out their videos for DVDs were just a bunch of tools.

And actually the LPs I own sound better than the CD versions; they sound warmer and fuller because they play an analog wave. The digital wave of CDs, which supposedly replicates the analog wave, actually leaves out certain sounds, and has holes where the computer cannot quite replicate the analog wave. Record collectors go on about this all the time, but it's true. Listen to The Cramps' "Songs the Lord Taught Us" on the original LP and then on the CD and see which one sounds more like you're listening to a rock band.

I don't think most shoppers really care one way or the other about such things. They just want to buy things. I have this horrible suspicion that there are people my age who spend most of their free time buying shit. They don't have much to say, aside from telling you what shit they've bought, and they're painfully boring otherwise. They seem to go out buying shit three or four times a week, and for no real purpose. I think it's good for them to feel like they're keeping up with the times and getting better quality each time, but they're really just maxing out their credit cards to keep buying shit. Those are the sorts of putzes who need Blu-Ray DVDs or Blackberries, or whatever other stupid bauble is for sale this week.

And the industry feeds them overhyped rehashes of the same old shit in a constant spiral of meaninglessness. There is a more than obvious similarity here with academic programs that ride the latest wave of intellectual hyperbole (politcal uses of space, discourses of gender, Atlantic studies) to sell products that even they don't have any idea what they do anymore. Let the buyer beware.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Back Home

We're back home, having spent the holidays (Christmas and my father's birthday) on an island. Not a tropical island exactly: it's off the coast of New England. But a relaxing time nonetheless.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

crispy critters

I've had this fucking song stuck in my head for twenty years now! They used to run this commercial all the time when I was a kid. I know it's destroyed some part of my long term memory- I just know it.


Movie Notes: CHUD (1984)

1. The source of a running joke on the Simpsons, C.H.U.D. stands for "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller".

2. If you were to base your judgment on 1980s exploitation movies, you'd think that NYC is a semi-apocalyptic nightmare of crime, prostitution, drugs, and violence. CHUD is no exception to this rule.

3. It's interesting how prevalent the homeless are in this film. You see them quite often in 1980s American films, although rarely in 1970s films, or films after the 1980s. This suggests that they were a big part of the mental landscape in the Reagan era, which is how I remember it.

4. Also the CHUDs are mutants who have been created by toxic waste- another huge obsession in the 1980s. (same with Acid Rain) Maybe we'll get global warming monsters in future films.

5. The acting is better than I expected in this movie. Daniel Stern is quite good and John Goodman has a nice cameo role. John Heard is decent. Of course, some of the lines are silly, so that might skew my take on the acting.

6. I like that the two homeless buddies who live underground are named Victor and Hugo. It's a witty reference and I like that the movie, for as ridiculous as it is, never goes for any over-the-top jokes. It's played straight, unlike the abyssmal sequel CHUD II: Bud the CHUD.

7. The makeup effects are the real highlight though. The craftsmanship of those John Caglione monsters is incredible, and I was amazed at how realistic the severed head that Ed French created was. Even in close-ups, that thing looks real. All of this would be done with computers now, and we'd have lost the artistry of those effects. When you see the amount of work that went into traditional effects- particuarly matte paintings and prosthetic effects, it's just unbelievable.


Monday, December 18, 2006

Today's French Word

Tituber (intr): To stagger.

From Le Monde: Les territoires palestiniens titubent.

(See also: S'enivrer: To get drunk.)
(Happy Holidays!)


Book Notes: Sexual Politics (1969)

Kate Millett’s 1969 work of literary study and feminist theory aims at explaining how misogynous social relations poison sexual relations in reality and in literature. In other words, Millett expands the field of struggle to the bedroom and leaves the bodies of D.H. Lawrence, Sigmund Freud, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer in her wake. Actually, that’s not fair; most of her shots leave mere flesh wounds: for example, she doesn’t really deal with Freud seriously enough to call him “the strongest individual counterrevolutionary force in the ideology of sexual politics in the era” with any real authority. (241) And yet she does.

Most of her portraits of writers and thinkers reduce them to strategic positions on a chess board- were they feminist or anti-feminist? Were they revolutionary or counterrevolutionary? You’re either with us or you’re against us. To reduce the dream world of fiction to political parrying is painfully middlebrow and results in tone-deaf sentences like: “Ibsen’s Nora Helmer is the true insurrectionary of the sexual revolution; Salomé a retreat into archaic slanderous accusation, that symbolic emptiness that predicts the counterrevolution.” (213) What’s amazing about this sentence, for me, is how perfectly it encapsulates a take on these plays that is the exact opposite of my own. My belief: a bourgeois dish towel like Nora Helmer threatens no one, while Salomé still boogies through the nightmares of the civilized.

The worst part about all of this is the ugly idea that literary criticism can be reduced to party allegiances- who cares about an author’s use of language, creative insights, or depth of psychological understanding?! What really matters is whether or not they’re down with the revolution, baby! The most interesting idea here- that it is not possible to have politically neutral sex- is overshadowed by a literary analysis that doesn’t even seem to understand the difference between fiction and autobiography.

So, I think we need to separate the political argument from the literary one here. The political argument as I see it, is that the patriarchal family structure is the basis for all other hierarchal structures in civilization and so has to go. Moreover, patriarchy manifests itself in sex, which has to be dealt with, as well as in literature. Millet draws a surprising amount from Wilhelm Reich, which might serve to date this as a late 60s text. All of these arguments are interesting to me, if only because they're so at odds with the weak willed equivocation that seems to be the case in gender relations today. The fact that a 1950s gender stereotype like Jessica Simpson could be treated as a sex symbol should be cause for some alarm.

But, it's not entirely possible for me to tell if Norman Mailer was dissecting patriarchal sexuality, or championing it- probably a bit of both. And even if we agree that Mailer was a sexual reactionary, what are we to make of D.H. Lawrence? Can we really make him out to be a Jungian version of Archie Bunker, as Millet does? And it's much more difficult to get at the core of Henry Miller for me than it is for Kate Millet. There's something troubling about how quick feminist critics have been to dismiss writers like D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller who are, at least, challenging, if not egalitarian. Millet wrestles with them in a way that seems daring and challenging itself- but, she has to ignore a lot about their work in order to enlist them on the side of Patriarchy in a war that they might not have seen themselves as taking part in. Henry Miller's expressions of wounded masculinity over his chronically unfaithful wife cannot be reduced to a position in the struggle for women's liberation, even if they unsettle us.

At some point, literature has to be taken seriously as literature, and not as political work, or a Rorschach test of its author. Any number of critics since the late 60s have taken the same shortcut as Millet does in reducing art to agitprop, and at no small expense to our culture's sense of the value of art for its own sake.



I've survived grading for another semester. I graded sixty essays and final exams, and now I'm going to sleep. The last essay that I graded was extremely intelligent, so that was a nice note to end on.


Sunday, December 17, 2006

Her Holiness Auntie Mame

From my dreary ramblings on this blog, one might think that my teaching style is something akin to the main character on the show House (one of Claire's favorites), or a somber German philologist. In reality, I am very goofy when I lecture, and highly animated. Often I am covered in sweat when I get done. Increasingly, I have been bucking the trend for playing 'learned and ironically dismissive' in academia and lecturing in an over-the-top and exuberant way. I'm turning into Auntie Mame.

I think we all need to emulate Auntie Mame at times. Universities like mine are full of grouches. They sort of perfect a dismissive pose. The undergrads come in with a naive contempt for culture and perfect it over four years. A Freshman will complain about having to learn about any art; but by the time they reach Senior year, they've learned to cuss only the art of 'dead, white males'. Then, in graduate school, they write a thesis about some specific dead white male whose poetry reveals that he was a rapist. After that, they go on to teach seminars on "Images of the Other in Colonial Narratives" or some other such dreary thing.

Add to it the fact that I'm teaching in an American city that God has forgotten, at least weather-wise (eight months of grey skies per year), and you can see why coming to class whistling a song starts to feel like a revolutionary act. Come in and wax rapturous about Mozart and you look like a loon. But, damn, it's fun! One of my favorite lectures to give begins like this:
"Your textbook tells you that 'we must remember that the Renaissance artists did not care about the poor or middle classes. They were only concerned with the wealthy and powerful.' (Pause)... And so what! Why do we always think that art has to make the world a better place? Isn't the overwhelming, the mentally and spiritually elevating beauty of Michaelangelo's David enough? Is Michaelangelo deficient because he didn't have a 'social conscience'? Can you actually call his David deficient?"

And then I'm spinning around the room again, trying to express my idea of greatness through history. There's a real fear of discussing greatness in the classroom. It seems arrogant and elitist somehow. But Massachio and Coleridge are part of an elite. They are gifted with genius, and my role, if I have any, is to develop the sort of beings whose souls can be open to Massachio and Coleridge. So, I'm learning to gush and giggle and have a good time in class. In fact, it's probably the best time I have all week.

And I think this is something that we need to do. Because teaching someone to appreciate greatness will allow them to live fully, and people don't live fully anymore. Teaching them social justice is fine; but an awareness of social justice comes naturally to those who live adamantly- a great soul is innately just. A being who is happy and adamantly free is not vindictive or racist or mysognyist or any of the rest of it. Despair is counterrevolutionary! But making ironic comments in lecture like: "Well, the Founding Fathers said that all men are created equal. Do you think they meant blacks too?" in a sardonic tone (and God have I seen that done a million times!) doesn't do anything but comfort teenagers in their conviction that the world sucks. Which isn't hard really.

And I love the world. It doesn't suck, or at least, it doesn't have to. So let's be a bit more ecstatic, shall we? As Her Holiness Auntie Mame (blessed be her name!) said: "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"


Support our Troops in the War on Christmas

Surprise! Religious groups are upset about the upcoming release of Dimension Pictures remake of Black Christmas, a movie about a killer at Christmas. There are actually quite a few movies about Killer Santas, or killers at Christmas. When I was a kid, back in 1984, religious groups protested th release of Silent Night, Deadly Night, a mediocre Killer Santa film. Admittedly though, it is far better than its sequel, and has some amusing touches, like a kid who is decapitated while sledding! Black Christmas, which was shot at the University of Toronto in the 1970s, is one of the best, although my favorite is still Christmas Evil. I used to have a marathon of Santa Slasher films with my friends each year. You'd be amazed at how cathartic it is after a few weeks of holiday shopping. Also, it's my way of doing my part to support the War on Christmas!


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Active Duty

Here I sit, surrounded by stapled stacks of paper strewn around the room like the dead and wounded on some bloody battlefield. I suppose that makes me one of the survivors! I've done my part to defend America from grammatical terrorism and Wikistudying. From where the sun now stands, I will grade no more forever.

Or, at least, not tonight. My brain has threatened that, if I read one more sentence of undergraduate prose, it will cease to work and render me unfit for anything more complex than singing 'You are my sunshine' on street corners for the rest of my life. I've been grading for the last nine hours- so it's time to take a break and play with the cat. Have I mentioned that I've discovered that our cat Lola likes it when I sing to her? If I sing her "Rock-a-bye Baby", she stops what she's doing, starts purring very loudly, curls up in my lap, and goes to sleep. It's ridiculously adorable.

Anyway, the essays aren't terrible- only one plagiarized one so far. And I've rented John Carpenter's The Thing. So, I'm going to lay down my arms for tonight and get back to the battlefield tomorrow. Old graders never die, we just look that way some evenings.


Friday, December 15, 2006

Know Your Planets!

Confused about your own Solar System? No need to be! Here's a handy guide to the new order of planets. The first thing to remember is that there are still eight of them- they've just changed a bit. Also, I've included the dwarf planets, including poor old Pluto, to let you know where they are. Here we go, moving away from the Sun:

1. Mercury: 3,032 miles in diameter. It takes about 56 earth days to rotate once on its axis.

2. Venus: 7,521 miles in diameter. It takes 243 earth days to rotate once on its axis.

3. Earth: You are here. 7,926 miles in diameter. It takes 23.9 hours to rotate on its axis.

4. Mars: So far, so good. Mars is 4,266 miles in diameter & takes a day to rotate on its axis.

Ceres (dwarf planet): 602 miles in diameter, and takes 9 hours to rotate on its axis.

5. Jupiter: Big Mamma- 88,846 miles in diameter, making it the largest planet in our soular system, and it takes 11.9 hours to rotate on its axis.

6. Saturn: Also big- 74,898 miles in diameter. Its day is 10.7 hours and it has 56 moons. Its distinctive rings may be shattered ice or remnants of moons brought into its orbit.

7. Uranus: 31,764 miles in diameter and takes 17.2 hours to rotate on its axis. It is blue because of the methane in its atmosphere. (I will refrain from making the obvious joke here)

8. Neptune: 30,766 miles in diameter, and its day is 16.1 hours. Like other giant planets, with the exception of Uranus, it generates great internal heat. This internal heat generates intense weather, including storms whose winds top out at 900 miles/hour.

Pluto (dwarf planet)

Eris (dwarf planet)


Grading = Hell

This week, while people are generally miserable about having to run around and finish Christmas shopping, I am longing for the sweet release of being shoved around by smelly strangers in the Mall. Instead, I am slogging through final grading for the semester, an experience that I find more accutely painful than anything else I do all year- including the dental work I had done a few weeks ago! By the end of grading week, I look like the hollow-eyed and shell-shocked soldiers in old WWI paintings. You know how they say that 'prison changes a man'? For me, grading is a bit like that.

Do I exaggerate? Maybe a little. But, grading is a bit like the slow torture of watching a loved one being beaten to death. You call that exaggerating? Such words wound me! People who accuse me of exaggerating my pain might as well be shoving hot needles into my eyes! Anway...

Grading is horrible for me because I'm often grading essays, and one rule about the undergrad essay is that it's 10% facts and 90% talking out of one's own ass. For some reason that I can't possibly comprehend, when undergrads don't know very much about a topic, they make the one thing they do know out to be hugely significant. Instead of playing it cool, they write things like: "The invention of the Yale lock by Linus Yale Jr. in 1860 was the most important thing that ever happened in world history. It totally changed the way people thought of the world." And they go on like that for the next two pages.

In general, my problem is twofold- on one hand, my standards are extremely high. Truth be told, I only had two final exams this time that I think should have been above a C, and a great number that I think should have failed. Even the ones that had a good number of pertinent facts in them demonstrated so little understanding of those facts that they might as well have been reciting the flag pledge in Swahili. The parrot says what he knows; but he does not know what he says.

In contrast to my high standards is my deep, dark secret- I really like these students as people. When I read an essay by the kid who has been struggling all semester long to understand history, it's incredibly hard for me to be as hard on him as the whiz kid who got straight As. Conversely, with the straight A kid, it's hard for me to accept that he didn't get an A on the final. In general, I want all of the students to do well. I'm rooting for them.

This makes it accutely painful when I read stupid crap from them. It's painful because my standards are so high, and I'm constantly questioning myself on that, and also because I strongly believe that they can do better. But, they usually don't. Usually I get about ten really strong essays and 40 essays in which people are talking out of their ass. By the time I've graded the first fifteen or so, I want to lock them in a safe, drop it to the bottom of the ocean, get drunk, and be alone for a while! (God, I'm such a drama queen!)

Anyway, I inevitably end up giving them the benefit of the doubt. I try not to inflate the grades, and generally I don't- although often the professor will do it for me!- but, I also try not to forget that they're 18, and don't care about this stuff, and are stressed out, and low on time. (And in my darkest hours, I admit to myself that there are more of them than I like to admit that should not be in a university.)


Thursday, December 14, 2006


Nathan Rabin has a request for documentary filmmakers: Stop appearing in your films already! He ties this weird practice back to Michael Moore, although it might also come from 60 Minutes or Candid Camera (seemingly two influences on Moore himself). Lately, documentarians haven't just been asking questions from off-camera; they've given themselves central roles in their films, often staging outlandish stunts in the vein of Jackass to critique capitalism, or get attention- whichever works better.

On one hand, I'm thrilled to see so many documentaries coming out. I love a good documentary, especially when it's about something that I have no knowledge of, or a part of the world that I've never seen. A great documentary can achieve a level of honesty that few films reach.

On the other hand, I haven't got a lot of interest in seeing the recent wave of muckraking documentaries. It's not that I worry about their factual accuracy, because after all, I adore the documentaries that Herzog has done, knowing that he often stages scenes in them. Also, the complaints that people make about the Muckumentaries often seem quibbling. I don't honestly care if Michael Moore editted his shots out of chronological order or not. Actually, I don't honestly care about Michael Moore one way or the other.

What bothers me about the documentaries of Moore's epigoni is that I already know what they're going to say before I rent them. I tend not to read books whose argument I can guess from the title. It seems like there are a lot of documentaries that I can pretty much take a guess on. "Super Size Me" likely makes the argument that McDonald's sucks. "This Film is Not Yet Rated" probably argues that the MPAA sucks. "Wall Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices"- I'm guessing it argues that Wall-Mart sucks. I did actually see "The Corporation", and yep- it argues that Corporations suck.

I mean, I'm all for letting people make these Bitchumentaries; but, for God's sake, isn't there more to human experience than 'the take down'? A lot of times I feel like we've forgotten how to live, but have no ability to conceptualize dying. There's something that plays like lousy Beckett in our obsessive need to construct bullet points about our daily annoyances, with little to no understanding of the reality beyond and outside of those annoyances.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Job Talks

Our department didn't hire any new people for about a decade, so we've been hiring them right and left for the last few years. What this means is that I've seen an ungodly number of job talks by potential hires. A job talk is when an academic who is applying for a position in a department comes to that department and reads a sample of his or her research, usually a short essay or chapter from their manuscript. They come to town, get shown around the campus, meet with everyone, usually get a dinner and hotel room, read their work, and then leave. After we've gone through a few hundred applications, we boil them down to three or four potential hires, and that's who goes through the job talk process.

The grad students are asked what we think of the applicants, although honestly, our opinion really doesn't matter to the hiring committee. But, we're supposed to meet with them for an hour and get an idea of how it would be to work with them, and then show up for their talk. Usually, the PhDs show up for the meeting with the applicant and the Master's and PhD students show up for the job talk. This is because the Master's students are required by the department to come to the job talks, and frankly most of them won't take a piss if they don't think it's a requirement to get their degree!

Anyway, this time around, I seem to be in disagreement with most of the other grad students on the applicants. Basically, the guy they all like, I'm not too thrilled with, and the guy they hate, I think should probably be hired. The job is for a professor and director of an interdisciplinary department that I won't name, but will say that it's one of the few 'studies' that seems totally legitimate to me.

The problem they have with the guy that I like is that he seems like a bit of a prick. He was very cocky in his interview, and when asked why he wrote on the topic that he's dedicated his career to, told us at length about how well his books sell and how popular his courses are. So, he's in it for the money. And he's a bit full of himself. God's gift to academia.

So, the other grad students hate him. There seems to be a gender aspect to it too, because they're women, and they have all said that they don't want to work with a man who is so full of himself, as he's likely sexist. But, I don't really think that arrogant equals difficult to work with, and I don't think that difficult to work with equals sexist. In fact, I'm not really concerned with the interpersonal dynamic of the department at all, and that might be a gender thing as well. I just think his scholarship and his ideas for the department are better than the other fellow in line. Conversely, I think the other guy is nice enough, but his reasearch seems to have no point to it, no overarching context or theoretical model. He just studies what he studies and has very little to say about it.

It's strange this emphasis on 'getting along' and 'working together well'. Last year we had an applicant whose research was brilliant, but again, the grad students thought he was too full of himself. But, I guess we all know where I stand on pretension! So, I supported him based on the scholarship he did. Luckily, the committees aren't too worried about 'people skills' either and they hire based on the level of scholarship. So, basically, they seem to have gone with the same people as I have, and honestly, again, they don't really care what we think anyway.

But, I just find it strange to focus so much on interpersonal relationships. Most of us do our research alone, and if someone's not abusive or rude, I don't see why it matters if they're likeable or not.


Movie Notes: Silent Hill

The movie Silent Hill is aptly named I've discovered. It's at least a step closer to a return to the silent films. When I watched the film on mute while playing a CD, I found that I was perfectly able to keep up with the storyline, or at least, no more confused than when I watched it with the sound.

This isn't a criticism either. I think that these CGI extravaganzas are becoming pure cinema- fantastic images with no roots in human reality. Because American films are increasingly shot for the 'international market', they're getting shorter on dialogue. For entire stretches of this film, there are no lines, aside from one character calling out another's name. The idea, as far as I can tell, is that these sorts of films are easier to dub. So, there is little dialogue, and the characters are paper-thin, and there are incredible visuals derived from comic books and video games- I would call this geniune silent filmmaking.

It seems a bit startling how disinterested contemporary filmgoers are in human beings. But, like anything else, I think it grates on me not because movies like this one get made, but because our video store doesn't get a lot of movies that aren't based in comic books or video games! I mean, let them eat Ultraviolet! But, I want to see the human face every once in a while. What I love about Ingmar Bergman is that he can reveal something about the human condition in a scene with a couple talking over the dinner table. I don't see many directors that can do that anymore.

But, if this is where films are going- purely disconnected and surreal images that can be valued for their craftsmanship alone- in spite of the fact that the storyline can be summed up as "Mother wants to save her daughter from ghouls"- well, then I'm not sure there isn't something worth watching here. Carol Spier's sets are incredible- she made the next town over from ours look totally abandonned- the special effects are astounding, and the overall look of the film is so textured that you feel like it's going to leave dust on your living room floor.

So, maybe these sorts of films should take the next step and do away with scripts altogether. A film like this doesn't seem like it needs the flimsy story that has been attached to it- the dream logic of the visuals should be enough. If people aren't interested in reality, don't weigh them down with it. These films shouldn't be scripted or even directed anymore- let the F/X people assemble them from their dreams and hallucinations.


Renaissance Studs

So, I'm grading the final exams today, and I keep seeing the same strange mistake on them. When asked to describe 'the Renaissance man', over half of these students characterize him as, first and foremost, 'physically perfect', or 'very strong physique'. This seems really weird to me, because nothing I've ever read about the Renaissance suggested that its prime thinkers were hotties.

(Note: Picture of beefcake Leonardo DaVinci)

It could be that they're just really shallow. But, even worse, I'm guessing that their dumbass textbook told them this nonsense about the Renaissance artists pumping iron. So, now I have to comb through this godawful text once again to see if it has the passage 'Renaissance Men: Hot or Not?'


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Soy vey!

Why are some men gay? Is it nature or nurture? Well, according to columnist Jim Rutz, it's soy. That's right, soy is a 'devil food' that is 'turning our kids into homosexuals' because it contains estrogen. "Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality." Of course you know that gay men don't actually measure as having higher estrogen levels than straight men (well, or smaller penises). And that gays predate soy milk by several centuries. And that there are plenty of lesbians who got soy milk as kids. But, Rutz doesn't know that. So, let him ramble. He's old and confused. And throw out that soy milk! If you want your baby boys to grow up crazy about dames, put something in their bottle that will turn 'em straight- like Budweiser.


Book of Love

Just when I was looking for a trashy book to read when I need breaks from reading about Rousseau, or totalitarianism, or whatever... Courtney Love's diaries have been published! And just in time for Christmas! Mazel tov!


Dutch Oven

This was the hottest year on record in the Netherlands since temperatures started being recorded 300 years ago. And I'm guessing that wooden clogs are pretty uncomfortable in this weather.


God Bless The Onion

After that last post, I've been thinking about not posting anything else about politics. I mean, what more can I say? Both sides claim to stand for all sorts of high ideals, but they use them largely as a pretext to enforce power, I hate state power, and therefore I disagree with just about everything they do. Pretty much sums it up. What else can I say about it?

Not much. For one last laugh, The Onion has totally nailed the Pinochet nostalgia thusly:

"At least he kept communism out of the country the only way a Fascist, bloodthirsty dictator could."


It's like swatting flies, really

Okay, this is the last douche I call out for getting all misty-eyed about a man who 'disappeared' over 3,000 of his citizens after taking power from a democratically-elected government in a military coup. Jonah Goldberg on moral equivalence: "I think in the grand debate we can characterize as Pinochet V. Castro, Pinochet wins in a cake walk, as the late Jeane Kirkpatrick would surely agree." Heck of a contest, eh? We have to choose between Castro and Pinochet? Oh, and after we choose Pinochet, we can beat our chests about how much we love liberty. Okay, Jonah, Castro is a lot worse. Fidel Castro is a brutal dictator who has ruined Cuba, and who the world would be much better off without, and plenty of idiots love him. Which doesn't really change the fact that Pinochet was a brutal thug who should have been prosecuted, and plenty of idiots still love him. They both suck, and honestly, I don't believe the right or the left when they beat their chests about 'freedom' and 'democracy' any more.


Rufus Takes an Easy Swipe at an Authoritarian Douche, Yet Again

The National Review is also waxing nostalgic about Pinochet. I'd forgotten how beloved he was by certain segments of the right for 'proving free market ideologies right', or some other such claptrap. Anthony Daniels explains: "The reason Augusto Pinochet was universally hated by leftists and many academics worldwide was not because he was so brutal or killed so many people, but because he was so successful." You really can't make up a quote like that. I'm guessing the flip side of this would be that he was loved by conservatives, in spite of the fact that he was so brutal and killed so many people, because he was so successful? It's great to think that the Geneva Conventions are being debated by these people, eh?


Monday, December 11, 2006

Pinochet Escapes Justice (unless there is a God)

Chilean architect of state terror, Augusto Pinochet is dead at age 91, proving once again that only the good die young. Christopher Hitchens remembers that other 9/11: "His overthrow of civilian democracy, in the South American country in which it was most historically implanted, will always be remembered as one of the more shocking crimes of the 20th century." And Margaret Thatcher has said that she is 'greatly saddened' by the news of Pinochet's death (although it probably came out 'gweatwy saddened'), proving once again that Margaret Thatcher is a stupid cunt.


Saturday, December 09, 2006

Case Closed

Well, Stephen Harper has declared that the issue of gay marriage is now closed in Canada. We have gay marriage, and it hasn't hurt anybody over the last year and a half, so please stop complaining. I griped that they were rehashing this non-issue to please the Christian nationalists in the states and Canada. But, even though it was political pandering, Harper played it well. He's made the religious groups happy by giving their complaints a day in court, and he's made those of us who live in the real world happy by telling them that the case is closed. He's more savvy than I thought.


Friday, December 08, 2006

Art and Entertainment

One pretty interesting thing about this new David Lynch movie is the fact that he's distributing the movie entirely on his own, with no help from a major or an independent distributor. He's been moving towards this for a while- his company has been releasing short films and his early works on DVD through his website- but I think it says a lot about why he makes movies in a way that is applicable to my struggle against the word 'pretentious'.

There are two basic views of movies: one holds that movies are a form of art and the other holds that they are an entertainment medium. For some reason, people have trouble seeing eye-to-eye on this issue. The 'art' people tend to see mainstream blockbusters as banal and unchallenging, and the 'entertainment' people see more personal and impressionistic films as being 'pretentious' and 'self-indulgent'. However, if you see movies as entertainment, you're not looking to be 'challenged' by something like Finding Nemo, and if you see films as art, you expect a film-maker like David Lynch to be 'indulging' his own artistic inclinations.

For me, I absolutely love Finding Nemo, and I absolutely love Eraserhead; but for very different reasons. Finding Nemo is an expertly-crafted work of entertainment that succeeds in being funny, exciting, heartwarming, and all of the other things that I look for in entertainment films. Eraserhead is a film that challenged how I understood movies. The first time that I saw it, I hated it, frankly. But, a month later, I was having nightmares about its deeply disturbing images. So, I re-watched it, and realized how much the imagery, and even the structure of the film works on a subconcscious level in imitation of nightmares. I have no idea how David Lynch found this stuff in his own subconscious and brought it into the light; but I appreciate the film in a very different way than I do a work of entertainment.

So, Eraserhead isn't exactly entertaining, and it's definitely not heartwarming! And Finding Nemo isn't intellectually and artistically challenging. But, they're both fantastic movies. And I think the 'art' camp and the 'entertainment' camp could learn to broaden their horizons a bit. There are so many great cultural productions out there, and one of the things I love about writers like Dargis or Roger Ebert is that they take films on their own terms. This is a skill.

As for the word 'self-indulgent', it just doesn't hold up in the case of films that weren't really made solely for the entertainment of the audience- to get the most butts in the seats as they say. And the word 'pretentious' doesn't work at all for David Lynch- his vision is not a pretense and it's not in imitation of anyone else. It's singular. For me, the ideal "David Lynch scene" takes place in a very beautiful and banal environment and, during the scene we discover that something is very horribly wrong. And when I see scenes like that in movies now, I think: "Wow, this is just like David Lynch". But, he's one of our great artists because of his singularity and fanatical devotion to his own obsessions, and for that, he should command our respect.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006


According to Andrew Sullivan, this essay by Manohla Dargis is the work of a "poseur". According to John Podhoretz, it is "the single most pretentious review, ever written, in any publication, anywhere, of anything."

Now, read the actual review in question. It's a mystery to me how exactly Dargis was supposed to critique a 179-minute non-linear, bafflingly surreal David Lynch movie and not talk above the level of the room. But, I've read this thing three times now, and I'm still amazed at how clearly she has expressed herself. She's dealing with the film on its level, and wrestling with its obscure meanings, and yet, she's still writing in a way that can be understood by an adult. And writing for adults is taken as being 'pretentious'.

I'm getting a bit tired of 'pretentious' being used as code for: 'Hey! Think the way we do, dammit!' There's this single patois, let's call it "Dudespeak", which seems to be rigidly imposed in our culture right now. It pretends to be democratic and populist (in fact, it assumes that pretense!); but really Dudespeak is authoritarian- it demands that we think and express ourselves in one and only one way. Don't ever speak or write in a way that requires people to pay attention and consider what you're saying, Dude. Don't think about things that require patience and consideration to understand, Dude. Don't use metaphors, Dude. Life should be simple, and anything complex is not worth considering, Dude. Understand the world the way we do, and the way we tell you to, or we will snark you down, Dude. Be trite, be simple, be 'unpretentious', Dude.

In other words, shut-up and get back in line, Dude.


Plagiarism Recovery

Yesterday, I listened to a professor unspooling and laying out her despair over a plagiarism scandal in her 300-level history course. I mention this because there has been a lot of talk about plagiarism lately, and one of the tired arguments that gets trotted out year after year is something like: "Students cheat because the courses are so flimsy. If we returned to traditional academic standards, and inspired them, they wouldn't cheat." It's a strange argument in that it often made by conservatives, whose reasons for wanting more traditional academic standards are easy to fathom, and whose willingness to excuse lying, cheating, and stealing is baffling.

It's important in this case too, because I've been a visiting student in the class in question and it has been anything but flimsy. The history that has been assigned is top-notch, the literature that has been used to enrich that history is of world classic status, and the lectures have been witty, informative, and fascinating. I've literally found a dozen things that this Professor does that I plan to borrow in my own lectures. And yet, a quarter of the students plagiarised on their last essay.

It wasn't exactly a hard assignment: just one book was necessary to complete it, and the students could choose that book from a list. Previously, the Professor had required three books and extensive research to complete the assignment. This time she wanted close reading. Not to mention the fact that this was a 300-level course. And yet, a quarter of the students plagiarised on their essays.

When your students cheat, it hits you right in the gut. It's like an assault- the first thing I ever think is 'What did I do to deserve this?' Even though it's become so endemic that many of us expect it, I think we still go through the stages of grief.

1. DENIAL: They couldn't have really copied this from somewhere else. It reads as a bit overly professional; but I can't just assume that my student isn't smart enough to write at this level. What kind of cynic am I?
(This usually lasts until you get a second identical essay.)

2. ANGER: Goddammit! I didn't ask that much of them and they still lied to me! Don't they have the slightest shred of honesty? What is the matter with these fucking kids?!

3. BARGAINING: Okay, maybe they had a good reason here to copy this. Maybe they really didn't know that it was plagiarism. Let me read to the end, and maybe they'll start writing their own ideas. I'll call them to my office and have them explain it to me.

4. DEPRESSION: They did it because they just don't care about academics. They just don't care about being honest in an academic course because education means nothing to them. I might as well be a habberdasher for all my relevance in this world. Why do I care so much about these kids, and this culture, and education, when they look at me with contempt?

5. ACCEPTANCE: Okay, they cheated. But, not all of the kids cheated, and the ones that did cheat did so because of a failing on their part. It's not my fault that they're dishonest. It's not personal. They cheated. I'll flunk them. End of story.


Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Golden Smack Down

Germaine Greer has administered the smack down to the Plain English Campaign, which awarded her the 'Golden Bull' award this year. Ideally, the award goes to those writers who use pointlessly confusing jargon. The Campaign is pushing for 'crystal clear English'. They had a problem with the following sentence by Greer:
'The first attribute of the art object is that it creates a discontinuity between itself and the unsynthesised manifold.'
They claim not to know what the unsynthesised manifold is, which is altogether likely, and blame Greer for being needlessly confusing. Greer's response is, basically, "look it up, dummies!" The concept of the unsynthesised manifold is commonplace in aesthetic criticism, and besides, there's no way to talk about the unsynthesised manifold and call it something else in plain English. As with a lot of Kant's ideas, once you absorb what he's talking about, you get why he's actually being as clear as possible. In other words, you can't just call it "the big shabang!"

So, her response is pretty amusing, and I think there is a big difference between pushing people to express their thoughts more clearly and pushing them to stick to thinking simpler things.


Monday, December 04, 2006

The Bitch Is Back

This is the time of the year that I generally get a little cranky. Up to my neck in unread books, shut in by the cold weather, and needing to relax, I get ultra critical about things that usually don't bother me. Like, for example, when CNN subtitles people who I have no trouble understanding! The other day, I got irritated by the new DVD section at our Video Store! By Christmas, I'll be a real bitch.

What I do for a living is not very social. This is an isolating profession. Reading is a solitary practice, and we do it for hours a day. The things that we love to talk about most people don't love to hear about. There aren't a lot of people in my daily life who would like to talk about Mediterranean trade in the 1800s for a few hours every day. We're like Trekkies really, largely isolated by our interests. When I go to seminars, I see people who come across as misanthropic during the working week light up. They're like idea junkies, huddled in their cold, dark seminar halls and getting their fix. But, after that, it's back to their closed offices.

There are a few interests that are generally widely accepted. Sports fans can always find other sports fans, for example. Talk about sex, alcohol, sports, or physical appearance and you're likely to find someone to shoot the breeze with. But, there are no 'History Bars', and even the History Channel is usually crap. And being as fragmented and hyper-specialized as academia is these days, there's no promise that even History scholars will have any ideas about what I study.

Even worse, you end up thinking in this way that is alienating to others all the time. Instead of being pragmatic, you become critical. Instead of being cut & dry, you obsess over nuances and try to make the nuances more confusing! Academics are often lonely people. I think that's why they complain so much about the 'dumbing down' of American culture. This is always a good way to strike up a conversation with them. Is American culture really any dumber than it used to be? I think American culture just plays dumb, probably to get laid. Is it any dumber than any other culture? Honestly, I have no idea.

But, catch me in about three weeks from now, and I'm guessing that I'll have some strong opinions about it.


Communications Breakdown

At SUNY Buffalo, they have decided to dismantle their School of Informatics. Why? Well, read the article and tell me if it doesn't sound like nobody involved can explain just what 'Informatics' means. A member of the founding committee tried to describe it in the local newspaper:

"The study of informatics goes beyond the technical aspects of information technology and focuses on human interaction with information and information systems," wrote Jeff Carballada in a July 1, 2006 opinion piece in The Buffalo News. "As these systems become more complex, it is critical that we deepen our understanding of the societal implications of how information is disseminated and utilized."

Um, okay. But, unfortunately the heavy-handed Provost Satish Tripathi didn't understand what that means, and nobody could explain it to him.

"(Tripathi) had repeatedly refused to free up resources, indicating he was not ready to invest more in the school when he felt its focus was unclear," Penniman said. "He consistently rejected arguments regarding the broader definition of informatics that took us beyond the computing domain into a broader perspective of informatics."

It could perhaps be defined by its parts, but that was a problem too.

"The School of Informatics was originally conceived as constituting three departments and one school: Communication, Media Study, Computer Science and Engineering and Library Studies. Subsequently, two of the departments (Media Study and Computer Science and Engineering) declined to merge to establish the school." he said.

Okay, so Communication and Library Studies? They decided at first to "focus on the 'intersection of human communication and information processes'." But, that was apparently too vague, and Tripathi investigated the school, as he describes in managereese:

"As a result of the school's strategic planning process, I gained a broad and comprehensive perspective from the faculty as to the efficacy of the school and the ability of the school to develop intellectual — academic and scholarly — synergies between the (Departments of Communication and Library and Information Studies)."

Uh, okay. Academic synergies. Very important.

Anyway, Tripathi still didn't know what was going on here.

Says another member of the Founding Committee:
"Provost Tripathi was always questioning the program and how it fit in with fields like computer science," he said. "In my opinion, the provost just didn't get it."

Yeah, old man! You just don't understand us! We're the future and you just can't handle it!

Anyway, the Provost claims that he couldn't figure the school out, so he decided to dissolve it, which solves the problem, I guess. But, since nobody is losing a job, they say they will surivive:
"We were strong before the School of Informatics, I believe that we were strong during the School of Informatics, and I think that we'll be strong after the School of Informatics."



Subtitled for the Lazy

I've been watching more television than usual lately (well, more than just the Simpsons), and I've noticed something weird on CNN. Maybe this isn't new, but I don't remember them ever subtitling so many English speakers before. Every time they have on a documentary in which we hear a non-native speaker speaking English they use subtitles. I also noticed this in An Inconvenient Truth, the Al Gore documentary about the horrors of global warming and the glory of Al Gore. When Al was talking to two Chinese industrialists, both of whom were speaking very clear English, they were subtitled. It was actually sort of annoying because they were both so easy to understand. Granted, they had accents, but by that point, we'd been listening to Al Gore's accent for over an hour!

I mean, it doesn't exactly offend me because there are some people whose English really is hard to understand. But, doing it for everyone who has an accent annoys me because it's just another step in accomodating the lazy minds out there who can't be asked to pay attention to other people when they are speaking. "What? Listen to an accent? That's too hard for me! When's lunch? I'm tired!" These are the people who can't be bothered to put down their cell phone when they're in the line at the grocery store. It's really not so hard to listen closely while other people are speaking, even though it means making the slightest bit of effort. When did people become so incredibly lazy, so unwilling to think at an adult level, or behave as adults? And why do we have to accomodate the militantly stupid?


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Barbarians at the Gates

One in 20 primary and secondary school teachers in the UK has experienced sexist bullying from their students. This is, of course, repulsive, and there's really no excuse for it being tolerated.

But alas.

Struggling mightily to say something stupider than "Boys will be boys", the National Union of Teachers' general secretary, Steve Sinnott succeeds in saying that such behavior is "completely unacceptable" but that schools could not "close society out at the gates".

Oh? And why not exactly? Isn't that what hierarchical cultural institutions tradionally do?


Good News About Universities

I complain a lot about universties; but it's because I genuinely love education, and I worry about how so many universities seem to have become these huge shopping mall bastions of Philistinism. What frustrates me about Mall University is that the administrators seem to believe that a University should follow the trends of the culture at large, with its love for 'one damned simplicity after another' as Philip Reiff phrased it. I remain firm in my conviction that universities should hang back from society at large, be a world apart that patiently studies those fixities that deserve to be fixities.

So, for once, let me note a trend in education that seems positive: "Dividing a large university into cross-sectional residential colleges..." The article is encouraging. Not only because a few of us actually went to small residential colleges and found the atmosphere to be intellectually exhilarating; but because a lot of students seem to be excited as well. For many of them, this reminds them of Hogwarts, and I'm guessing that part of the appeal of Harry Potter is that a lot of people wish they went to Hogwarts. And that's the irony here- this 'new trend' is basically a return to the old model of universities, some of which were the models for Hogwarts.

Note: I think the blogger's code requires me to add "Hat tip: University Diaries" because I saw this linked there.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Warning: Education Might Offend the Uneducated

A University of Idalo film professor is having his students sign a “statement of understanding” acknowledging the potentially offensive or repugnant content they’ll be viewing in class. Apparently, this is something new. Usually professors who are worried that people will be offended by course material put a note in the syllabus to that effect. This guy is the first to have the kids sign an agreement saying that they might be offended, and so they might want to take something else.

My opinion: So what! I know that people will complain that students should be challenged in University, and that this is giving in to the consumer mentality of education, and that life can sometimes be offensive. But, honestly, I don't see a problem here. He shows A Clockwork Orange, and, apparently, some students complain about that. So, he makes sure it's clear beforehand. Sure he's previously said this in a syllabus; but plenty of students don't read the syllabus. And since plenty of profs do warn about these things in their syllabi, I'm not sure that he's doing anything that unique.

Now, it could still be said that University pedagogy should be about challenging the perceptions of students and not placating them by refusing to challenge those perceptions. And actually a few people are quoted along those lines in the article. But, you know what? Maintaining the traditional role of the University, or determining it's new role (something they seem to do every two years now) should be the role of the administration, and I'm guessing, based on my experience with administrations, that the ones at U of O don't have that opinion of education at all. Therefore, they're likely not going to take up for the guy if Bratty McCrybaby calls for her lawyer after seeing a bare tit in a movie in class. I just don't think the guy should be the one to take a bullet for the standards of education.


Madonna Music

Here is one of my favorite numbers from the Madonna special. This one made Claire and I very happy.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Serious Business

Claire and I have no computer, so I'm posting at her parents' house. Out of everything that's been happening in the world, and in my life, I think the most important thing to comment on is this:
The Madonna concert on NBC was absolutely great.

Best thing I've seen her do in some time. I mean, her new material is pretty strong; but lately, she's looked way too strained and stressed out. She's been dancing as fast as she can, poor thing. This evening, she looked like she was having fun. Okay, maybe the Dancing Queen of Outer Space motif got a bit tired at times. But, there was something exuberant about the show that hasn't been there in her last few videos.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Yesterday I was late to lecture because I lost my passport, and I need it to cross into the states. Actually, I missed the lecture entirely, having spent almost an hour tearing apart the house, desperately trying to find my passport, which it turned out was wedged between the passenger side door and seat of my car. By this point, my heart was pounding and I was covered in sweat. I hate losing things: it makes me feel helpless and frustrated.

And yet, I go through a variation on this ritual at least four times a week; if it's not my passport, it's my keys, or my wallet, or the book I needed to bring to class. Last week, I forgot to bring the graded exams to my recitation and had to tell them to wait while I ran back up to the TA office to find them. They were next to the coffee maker. I am what you might call a scatterbrain.

But, it's actually worse than that. People who get to know me usually call me 'the absent-minded professor'- to give an example, last week I started walking to the convenience store and suddenly realized that I had no shoes on! These sorts of things happen all the time to me. What people eventually realize is that it's quasi-pathological with me. I lose nearly everything I have to hang on to, and can remember whatever it is I'm currently studying, but have no idea what bills I need to pay, or where I need to be tomorrow. I often forget how old I am.

This used to drive my parents crazy; they would say that I was 'in my own little world', and sometimes, in desperation, moan that I was just 'totally lost'. And it never improves greatly. The worst thing I ever did was to leave $800 at a bar- as you can guess, I never saw it again. But, even the casual confusion that I suffer is debilitating. I have to stop everything I'm doing and spend an hour looking for a check, for example. Or I get into debt because I forget to pick up my paychecks for two months. My license got cancelled a few months back because I forgot to get the insurance straightened out.

When I lose something, it feels like the world has conspired against me- I understand the concept of fate- cruel mechanisms that can't be controlled or stopped by mere humans once they've begun! I've spent entire days looking for a book, for example. Today, I am at the library, where I forgot to go yesterday.

(Sigh) I can live with this, but I hate the thought that Claire will be living with me like this for decades. It would be worth suffering the forgetfulness of Einstein if I ever had a brilliant idea like Einstein's. But, alas, I'm usually thinking about something banal or to do with the cat when I lose the rent check! Anyway, just wanted to get this off my chest. You know, before I forget to.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Quote- Unquote

'Sublimity is the echo of a great soul.'
-Longinus, 1st century C.E.


All We are Sayyyiiinggg... is Take off Your Pants...

A group of peace activists is planning to all have an Orgasm for World Peace on December 22nd. The idea was founded by Donna Sheehan and Paul Reffel, the last remaining pair of hippies in the wild, and can be... uh, participated in by groups as well as lone activists. (Faking is not recommended, as it will likely prolong the war.) Immediately folllowing the Global Orgasm for Peace will be an International Nap Against Global Warming, and in some cases an Uncomfortably Dishonest Promise to Call a One-Night Stand Back Sometime Against Meat-Eating.


News from the Raw and Violent World of Genome Biology

Researchers this week announced that they have retrieved over 1 million of the paired chemical constituents of Neandertal - of an approximated 3 million. Researchers at the Max Planc Institute say they can now retrieve DNA from nuclei, which is news in itself, and plan to have the complete sequence within 2 years. Given the fact that we're now also figuring out how to carry out the 'program' contained in DNA code, will it be long before we have cavemen among us, trying to understand our strange ways, and clubbing us for taking their parking spaces?


Notes on Happiness in the Developed World

Studies suggest that young people in developed countries might be a lot less happy than their poorer counterparts in the developing world. Actually, the same generally proves true for adults as well. The poorest countries report the highest levels of satisfaction with life. Two possibilities on this:

1) There's an idea in sociology that societies with a dozen problems are often less troubled by them than societies that only have a few problems left. With subsistence and shelter taken care of, we have more time to worry about whatever problems we have left over. Woody Allen goes on about this idea in Stardust Memories.

2) Teenagers in the developed world are overworked, having been drafted to do the psychic work of their parents' generation. Adults live through their children and require them to take part in these exaggerated pleasure-cruises that are never as much fun as the parents expect. The kids are required to experience all of the enjoyment that their parents are denied. It's grueling, this overemphasis on 'happiness'. Being happy makes it impossible to enjoy life.


Notes on The Fly (1986)

I just watched the director's commentary version of The Fly, which we recently discussed. A few things worth noting:

1) The film is definitely set in Toronto. notes here that most of his films are set in, and in some sense are about, the city of Toronto. This is fascinating to me because Cronenberg's films remind me of how I personally experience Toronto- intellectually stimulating, but socially and emotionally chilly.

2) A number of people speculated that The Fly is about AIDS when it was released. Cronenberg says that some of the people involved thought of the film that way; but he saw the transformation as a metaphor for disease, and mortality more generally. He says that it's much harder for him to watch now that he's twenty years older- the idea that we're slowly falling apart physically is much more real for him. It hasn't quite become real for me; but I suspect that my own love of horror films, and other sublime arts, is a way of mediating my own fears about decay and loss.

3) Of the constant videotaping that the characters do in the film, Cronenberg says that he was commenting on the increasing tendency of people to remove themselves from their own lives through technology, which incidentally I think could also apply to blogging.

4) Apparently, the film is being made into an opera. I noticed how operatic it is, with the tragic love triangle and its single set. The music in the film is similarly operatic.


Saturday, November 18, 2006



25 Greatest Science Books

Discover Magazine has listed the 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time. I guess if anyone should know... It surprised me how many of these I've actually read. They put Darwin at Number 1 and 2, which surprised me a bit. I would have put him right after Newton's Principia Mathematica, which I would have made number 1. Gallileo is, oddly enough, right above Copernicus at 4 and 5 respectively; I might have switched that around. Aristotle's Physics is number 6, which actually makes a lot of sense. It's not exactly the most accurate work; but it's the beginning of empirical science, so let's give Aristotle a hand for that.

They've also got Einstein's explanation of the special and general theories of Relativity, The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and a favorite of Claire and myself, The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The Feynman Lectures on Physics are here, which are pretty good reading, and they also include Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which was previously listed in that dreadful list of the Most Dangerous Books I made fun of a while back. So, it's pretty good stuff all the way around, although I suppose the geologists might well be pissed off a bit.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Notes on Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla warfare is a modern way of waging war against an army that is superior to your own. It dates back to the Napoleonic Wars, and was (perhaps) invented by the Spanish landowners and peasants who fought off the French Army. Remember that Napoleon lost a two front war: while his troops were fighting in Russia, they were also fighting in Spain. This is remembered today as the Spanish War of Independence, although Spain was only briefly 'dependent' on France, and it is where we get the word 'guerrilla' or 'little warrior'.

Guerrilla warfare was revived in the Twentieth Century by Mao's troops in China. Here, as well, these were peasant fighters acting against an urban army. Guerrilla troops have been compared to a slowly-tightening noose that comes from the rural area and closes in upon the urban.

Guerrilla warfare is worth understanding because it is largely the method that has been used against US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the US military is superior to any in the world in regards to traditional warfare (which is why they defeated the Iraqi military in a matter of days), they are generally not good at handling guerrillas. Neither are most traditional Western armies. The Spanish guerrillas defeated Napoleon, remember? The French were later mired and defeated by guerrilla fighters in Algeria, and the US by the same in Vietnam.

Guerrilla warfare is ideal for an army that cannot possibly win in face-to-face combat on a level field of battle. It is carried out in secret, often in the dead of night. It involves methods of ambush, booby traps, and snipers. The goal of guerrilla warfare is to force the superior army to expend their energy and resources. What makes guerrillas particuarly difficult for armies to deal with is that they blend into the surroundings so easily. Usually, but not always, indigeneous to the area, they have superior communications networks, and can hide themselves among the local population.

One reason that Western armies may fall prey to guerrillas so easily is that they see them as lowlifes and criminals, and expect civilians to think the same. This is not always the case.

For the guerrillas, the trick is to force the invading army to waste its time and resources trying to capture the 'banditos'. Guerrilla bands tend to be fairly decentralized, by necessity, which can make them more difficult to break. However, this can also work against the guerrillas; rival groups of guerrillas can start working against each other. Also, there will sometimes arise groups of bandits, essentially, who will take adavantage of the chaotic situation to better themselves. Some of these groups are simply opposed to any sort of social order being reimposed. They can force a breakdown in ethical standards throughout the society. Therefore, in guerrilla wars, violence can reach astounding levels of savagery.

Guerrillas tend to terrorize the local population to some extent- generally through targeted executions of 'collaborators' or those who wish to remain neutral. In reagrds to Iraq, we can see a general effort to make life unlivable for civilians. However, this can easily backfire, and I think it has in Iraq. Guerrillas have to terrorize civilians, but they also have to provide protection for loyal civilians, in much the same way as any organized crime network does. In Iraq, we see the danger that guerrillas face in 'overdoing' the use of force. The population, to the best of my knowledge, is still opposed to the 'insurgents' who seem to be indiscriminate in their use of force. Also, these guerrillas are often newcomers to the region. Local guerrillas can provoke nationalistic feelings (resisting the occupiers for the homeland), while the insurgents cannot do so in Iraq.

For the occupying army, the trick is to best protect the civilian population, including through the use of police repression, without turning the society into a prison camp. This is where the French failed in Spain and Algeria, and where the US has had the most trouble in Iraq. It is necessary to rid the population of guerrillas through military sweeps, or what the French called a ratissage (raking over) in Algeria. However, if force becomes excessive, or carries on for too many years, the population will turn against the occupying army. Understandably, they want protection; in a Hobbsian sense they want social order. But, they do not want to be unduly repressed by their protectors. One main reason to oppose the use of torture is exactly what we have seen in Iraq- civilians who still rely on the US presence for protection, but who have been horrified by images of torture. Torture can never be kept under wraps- not without 'disappearing' its victims. Moreover, it displays a lack of control, and a disloyalty to the civilian population. It acts directly against the interests of the army that uses it.

What the military that is fighting the guerrillas needs to do is maintain order, while still allowing for a relative amount of liberty on the part of the civilian population. They need to be allies of the civilians, instead of superior-minded invaders. What this means, especially in Iraq, is being aware of the local culture. In Spain, Napoleon's troops turned the conservative elements of society against their army by repressing the local Priests. The Revolutionary French were much more anti-clerical than the Spanish were. In Iraq, it is most important to work in concert with more conservative religious insititutions. For instance, protecting the mosques should be a top priority. And troops should be forbidden from using anti-Islamic interrogation techniques, which is as stupid as torture given our military goals.

Moreover, they should work to publicize the attrocities committed by the guerrillas, while also publicizing whatever areas they themselves have secured. Even something as benign as paving a road is a vital step towards restoring order, and should be treated as equally important to combat missions. In a sense, the scenes of troops giving toys to children helps. But, they also need to supply basic services to those childrens' parents. To this end, the US needs more troops than they have now, and may even consider the use of a draft.

Since this is a sectarian conflict in Iraq, the US should use groups of insurgents against each other. This may involve making deals with specific groups and using those groups to repress their rivals. Obviously, this will be ugly business, very ugly business, in fact. However, I don't think the US can put down rival groups of guerrillas while trying to stop a potential civil war from developing. At this point, the best hope they might have is in finding the least noxious group of guerrillas and deputizing them.

The situation in Iraq is quite-likely doomed for the US. However, I don't believe that an 'immoral' war can be made more moral by US troops leaving the region to fall into chaos. I think the US needs to take responsibility for the mess it's made, and try to leave a stable and functioning state. By any account, the situation is FUBAR. But, that is the cross that the US should bear. Here are my suggestions to fight the guerrillas in Iraq:
1) Secure all public services and keep them manned by troops for the indefinite future. Things like water and electricity must be kept functioning.
2) Try to get the support of every willing nation, including Iran, in securing the nation.
3) Secure the borders first, and then work inwards, tightening the noose.
4) Police sweeps are, unfortunately, necessary. Torture, however, is a quick way to convince civilians that we are the enemy.
5) All works that are usually done by the peace corps: such as road-building, bridge-repair, well-digging, and so forth, are critical here. Life must return to normal as much as is humanly possible.
6) For God's sakes, learn the damn culture! And be aware not to present yourselves as being against that culture. As occupiers, the best we can be seen as is protectors. The worst thing we can be seen as is the enemy of the average Iraqi.
7) Demonize the insurgents in the popular media- Propaganda is critical here.
8) Use insurgent groups against each other.
9) Accept the fact that a functioning Iraq state may well be run by Sunni Muslims and sharia law. This is preferable to Shi'ite rule in that Sunnis distinguish between the politcal ruler and the religious rulers, while shi'ite do not. A secular democracy in Iraq is not going to happen.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rent-a-cops Gone Wild

A UCLA student got in trouble for being in the computer lab without his ID. Apparently, they walk around and check at some universities, which sounds fairly irritating. But, anyway, the kid didn't have it, and so he had to leave. While the kid is walking out, one cop grabs him, the kid yells at the cops, and they taser him repeatedly, all the time yelling the classic punch line (so to speak) "Stand up, or we'll tase you again!" And then the cops threatened to tase the witnesses! No word yet as to if the student, Mostafa Tabatabainejad (oh, like you expected his name was going to be Chad Smith!) is doing well. The taser incapacitates the person shocked with it, which made the cops repeatedly tasering him for 'refusing' to stand up after the initial blast all the more hilarious, in a cop sort of way.

It's usually these private police forces, like the Campus Cops, that tend to be the jackoffs, isn't it? I mean, state and federal police officers can be tough, but when you get the rabid dick-with-a-badge types, it's usually these private security guards. I've actually had very good luck with the federal officers. (Because I cross the border) But whenever I've been screamed at by some Robo-Thug for shopping too slowly or whatever, it's usually one of these private security officers. I wonder if real cops hate these guys.

One heartening thing about all of this: when a poster at the Hit & Run blog made the typical bedwetting authoritarian argument about cops being able to act like savages- basically something like "When a cop tells you to do something, you'd better listen and listen good Mister!", another responded with this absolutely great line:

"Strawman aside
, you speak as if the act of a police officer using reflexive, excessive force is simply a law of nature, unalterable and something only a fool would challenge. I think if people had taken that view throughout history, we'd all be a lot worse off."


Don't Ask

The Pentagon has given into pressure, and now no longer classifies homosexuality as a mental disorder. Now, they consider it a "condition" akin to bed wetting. I'm not making that up.

I'm actually surprised that they haven't changed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy yet. Especially since they have such a need for soldiers. I figured by now it would be: "We won't ask, and you don't tell. But, if you do tell, we'll pretend we didn't hear it. Just please stay in Iraq!"


Thomas Pynchon Vs. R.A. Wilson

Here Adam Kirsch sums up Thomas Pinchon's new book, and writing style in general:

"For the writer who lives by the list must die by the list, and Mr. Pynchon, in pushing the form to its limits and beyond, demonstrates what a list-like novel cannot do. Multiplicity, it turns out, is not the same thing as complexity: Complexity requires syntax, and syntax is just what the maker of lists must forswear. Human meanings — psychological, social, spiritual — require other kinds of structure than the infinitely repeated "and" of the shaggy-dog story. That is why Mr. Pynchon's meanings, in "Against the Day" as in his better books, are finally inhuman, Manichean, utopian, and dystopian. He believes in conspiracies, not histories, including the individual histories that the novel was invented to tell."

It's weird too because many of the things that I enjoy in Robert Anton Wilson's novels- the endless array of characters and events, the silly surrealism, the corny names, and complex physics and philosophy thrown in- annoy me in Pynchon's novels. And I think maybe it's partially because Thomas Pynchon is supposed to be a great novelist, and Robt. Wilson is a "stand-up philosopher". I definitely don't think of Wilson as a great novelist; but then again, I don't think of Voltaire as a great playwright either. It's the fun of watching a deeply humane gadfly tossing out ideas that I enjoy. Maybe the reason that I like R.A.W. more is simply that I've never felt any pressure to take his books seriously in any way, while the massively overestimated Pynchon has always been presented to me as A Great Writer.

I don't think of Pynchon as a great writer any more than I do Wilson. But, there's something deeply childish about Pynchon's novels that irritates me. They seem to have been written by someone with very little interest in humanity. Robt. Wilson is deeply humane, and I just don't get that with Pynchon, even with his sympathetic characters. Of course, a novelist needn't be humane- many of the best aren't! But, a pile of fascinating minutiae should add up to something aside from a paranoid/austistic tangle. And I'm not convinced that it ever does in Pynchon.


Another sign of my nerdiness? When I read the news today, I actually thought to myself:

"Oh my god! Milton Friedman is dead!"


I. Am. A. Nerd.

How much of a "nurd" am I? Well, let me tell you, I am excited for this weekend because I picked up a copy of a book called The Authoritarian State by Eric Voegelin and am going to start it tomorrow. Why is this exciting? Aside from it fitting into my reading topic, it's exciting because I am totally unfamiliar with Voegelin. The library has 24 volumes of his essays, and yet, I've never heard of him. So, I am positively quivering with anticipation to find out if he's any good. Does this sort of excitement make me a nurd? I think it probably does.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Tunnel of Oppression

I've recently gotten an email about a new program that Mall University is setting up for our undergraduates to undergo entitled The Tunnel of Oppression. At first, I childishly imagines a giant vagina. It's more like a museum tour that gives students a feeling of what it's like to be the target of hate speech. Apparently, they do these things at a number of universities. I've found webpages here, here, here, and here. And there are a number of critiques of them on-line, mostly by people who think that they are too "PC", or "therapeutic", or "multicultural". Paradoxically, they've also taken flack for being too graphic and shocking. Some of them sound like they're based in the museum model, and others sound like they're modelled after Halloween haunted houses.

Anyway, I've been thinking about why it is that university programs like this irritate me, and I've decided that it's not the projects in themselves that bother me. In fact, I think universities might as well keep them. I imagine that some students do get something out of these programs. And, as my social worker wife would point out, many of these kids will actually experience oppression in the outside world. So, I think it is healthy, or at least, not particularly unhealthy.

I think my irritation at these programs is that they're intended to make the students more well-rounded, and they could; but, it's not like most students come into university, or leave, overdeveloped in any particular area. In fact, they often have serious academic deficiencies, in addition to whatever insensitivities they might have. What I'd like to see is the continuation of programs like this, and the addition of academic programs that focus on those fundamentals that nobody seems particuarly interested in right now.

At our University, I've suggested a semester-long course in grammar, for example, because I'm constantly grading essays in which the student doesn't know what a paragraph is, or how sentences work. Often, they don't know what very commonly-used words actually mean. And I've seen very troubling problems with reading comprehension as well. But, when I suggest that we focus on these things, the administrators don't seem particuarly interested. I've been told that a grammar course would be insulting, or that students wouldn't sign up for it. And then, they usually complain that students should know these things already, but that they aren't taught them in High School! Which, apparently, is true.

But, I also see a real disconnect between the students and any sort of cultural tradition. And I don't point these things out to complain about the students, because they really aren't to blame. But, since so many TAs that I know see these things, and complain about them, I don't really understand why it's so easy to get programs like the tunnel of oppression off the ground, and funded, and not rigorous academic programs in the fundamentals going as well. I mean, maybe these things are generally run by volunteers and students can volunteer to go through them. I don't know. I know that ours is run by the University. So, maybe they figure that a Tunnel of Grammar wouldn't go over well with the students! Which is probably true.

But, I think that people who complain about "the PC University" might be missing the point a bit. Kids are going to test out new ideas, and political stances, and beliefs in university; they always have. And so what if they want to stage the Vagina Monologues, or chalk pro-gay statements in the parking lot, or stage a tunnel of oppression! Those things aren't the problem in themselves. The problem is, if they want to have these 'experiences', it should be in addition to the fundamentals that make up a university education, and in most cases they aren't as far as I can tell.


Flight Passengers are Frequently (not so) Secretly Fond of Each Other

A mid-40s North Carolina couple engages in "sex play" aboard a Southwest airlines plane and gets in trouble.

Two things I find funny about this:

1) The male nuzzles his face in his lady friend's 'vaginal area' while she smiles, and the other passengers get uncomfortable and ask the flight attendant to talk to them, and then the couple takes offense that they're being asked to stop! How rude of that flight attendant!

2) They have run afoul of the Patriot Act, a set of laws apparently designed to prosecute everyone except actual terrorists. Now, they will be on surveilance until their trial. I know I'm hoping that they don't turn out to be terrorists. I mean, it could go either way, right?


Monday, November 13, 2006

Film Notes: Protocols of Zion

Why do people hate the Jews? Even asking the question feels vaguely anti-Semitic: should we even look for the reason? Besides, what's fascinating, when we look at the history of this long-lived ideology of Jew-hatred is that we can talk not of anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitisms.

Medieval Jew hatred was based in Biblical beliefs reinforced by social structures. The Christians, as a Jewish sect, sought to distinguish themselves from Judaism proper, and did so by claiming that the Jews had Christ put to death. Supposedly, the Jews watching Christ's crucifixion cried out that his blood was on their hands, and this became the 'blood libel'. In the same way that Christ redeemed mankind after the fall of Adam, Christianity condemned those who had been deemed the Chosen People. This is an example of the anxiety of influence- the sons condemning the fathers.

But, the Blood Libel was reinforced in Medieval Jew-hatred by a social structure in which Catholics were not allowed to handle money, and so relied upon Jewish "money-changers" and "court Jews". Jews were put in the horrible position of being legally restricted to working in areas of finance that they were then socially condemned for working in! Jews were considered parasites, partly because of their nation-within-all-nations status, partly because of Aristotlean and Biblical taboos about money, and partly because of their legal position in the principalities of Europe. Interestingly enough, many of them fled to the Ottoman Empire, where they were protected by the Sultans as 'people of the book', who are protected within Islam.

'Anti-Semitism' proper is a product of the 1800s and a response to the progress of liberalism in Europe. Hannah Arendt was right in arguing that the fate of the Jews was tied to the fate of liberalism throughout Europe. The ideas of religious tolerance and the universal rule of law protected the Jews and made their ghettoized existence an issue to be solved, a Jewish Problem. But, anti-Semitism is not of this mindset- it's more a rejection of these ideas in line with social-Darwinian ideas of struggle and the survival of the fittest.

Nationalists tended to be anti-Semites for two rather obvious reasons- How can a nation consider itself to be superior if another tribe is 'the chosen people'? And how can an order of nationally self-determined states allow the existence of a separate nation that exists in all nations? So, in the era of nationalism, Jews were the victims of nationalism, and paradoxically turned to nationalism in the ideas of Herzl.

So, the Jews are condemned for assimilation at the same time as they are condemned for not assimilating- charges that are incidentally made of 'illegals' in contemporary Amerca. They are condemned for being too clannish and not clannish enough- for being what Arendt called "parvenues and pariahs". Incredibly enough, they are supposed to be genetically inferior, but capible of the superhuman intelligence required to secretly run the world.

Enter The Protocols of the Elders of Zion- a product of the Tzarist secret police that claims to record the secret Jewish plans for world-domination. The book is a fraud, a lie, a myth- horseshit- and has been exposed as such over and over and over again. But, still it exists, and still it is taken as truth in many parts of the world. The question that Marc Levin hopes to understand in this documentary is why?

And I'll get right down to saying that he never does answer this question; but maybe it can't be answered. Instead, Levin shows us who believes the Protocols are genuine, and why they also tend to believe the contemporary blood-libel "The Jews stayed home on 9/11". We get the usual suspects- uneducated black Muslims, uneducated white supremicists, uneducated Arab Muslims, the Middle Eastern press, and briefly, the anti-War movement. Levin wimps out here a bit I think. We see briefly that the anti-War movement has siezed on the lie that Jews in power created the American war in Iraq, which Levin calls out as nonsense. But, he never interviews those members of the anti-war left who blame all of US foreign policy on the 'Zionists'. They can't be hard to find. I've encountered them coming from all backgrounds, and sadly often from the sort of progressive liberal backgrounds that should be the first to reject such horeshit. So, where are they in this documentary?

Levin also shies away from confronting the pro-Israeli warmongers. The salient point that Palestinian warmongers and Israeli warmongers are poisoning both cultures with their jingoistic 'we must kill them before they kill us' rhetoric is hinted at in the film, and then we move on. But I've found myself, in the last five years, alienated from both those on the left who "hate the Zionists" because I believe that Israel has the right to exist as a state and to defend itself, and from those on the Right who also support Israel because I believe that the Palestinians have the same rights, and that there will be no peace without a two-state solution. So, I've found that there are corners of the left that dabble in anti-Semitic crapola, and corners of the right that dabble in anti-Muslim crapola. But, where are the "partisans" of reason?

Levin, who is clearly a partisan of reason, answers the charge that the Jews who worked in the World Trade Center stayed home on 9/11- they didn't- and shows us Jewish communities rightfully terrified by the post-9/11 resurgence of jew hatred. He shows us a white power publisher who sells the Protocols and who thinks that Rupert Murdoch is a jew! And he shows us how prevalent anti-Semitism is in the arab media, including a horrifying interview with a three-year-old Palestinian girl who already sees Jews as the enemy of her religion. Like so many other documentaries of this sort, we come to realize how serious and widespread the problem of ethnic and religious hatred is in our culture, which can be taken as both a call to action, and a serious reason to become depressed!

But, Levin tends to interview liberals who agree with him and wackos who don't, which is sort of stacking the deck. Also, the documentary is quite rambling. We learn that anti-Semitism has had a Renaissance as of late, on the left and the right. We learn that many Arabs hate Jews, and vice-versa. But, many of us knew these things already. What needs to be asked is how the modern Enlightenment tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance (and state secualarism and scientific rationality!) can possibly be salvaged. All the other questions are irrelevant.