Monday, September 29, 2008

Note on the note below

Just a note on that last article I linked to: Julian Gough is saying that David Foster Wallace should have avoided academia for the good of his writing; not for his mental health. Wallace was a long sufferer of clinical depression and it's impossible to know just what, if anything specific, exacerbated that. Gough is not saying that academia killed Wallace, just that it wasn't good for his writing.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

"A snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur"

In an interesting essay on David Foster Wallace's recent suicide, Julian Gough makes the case that Wallace should have avoided academia altogether. Gough: "He was an immensely gifted and original writer, with a brilliant, hyper-analytical mind. The two things such people should avoid are marijuana and universities."

I have no thoughts on that right now (I'm too busy preparing for classes!), but have often wondered about something else Gough talks about: why do so many intelligent people spend their time critiquing the more idiotic forms of mass culture? And is it worth it?


"Like so many academics, he became obsessed with the white whale (or pink elephant) of the authentic. He spent much of his time attacking forms of language of which he disapproved (pharmaceutical jargon, advertising, corporate PR). This was literary criticism disguised as literature—grenade attacks on a theme park.

Wallace was not alone in this; it happens to most American academic novelists... They waste time on America's debased, overwhelming, industrial pop culture. They attack it with an energy appropriate to attacking fascism, or communism, or death. But that culture (bad television, movies, ads, pop songs) is a snivelling, ingratiating, billion-dollar cur. It has to be chosen to be consumed, so it flashes its tits, laughs at your jokes, replays your prejudices and smiles smiles smiles. It isn't worthy of satire, because it cannot use force to oppress. If it has an off-button, it is not oppression. Attacking it is unworthy, meaningless. It is like beating up prostitutes."

I've often thought the same thing. It's probably why I've never been very interested in journals like Adbusters and their good fight against tripe. The problem is that writers are very often inclined to comment, overtly or obliquely, on the culture around them. They're a sort of anthropologist, and I can't imagine how you could capture the texture of modern culture without discussing the pop culture that so many people seem to be steeped in.

But how should intelligent people comment on meaninglessness without their comments becoming meaningless? Should novelists pass over this "industrial pop culture" in silence and get to the work of creating pockets of meaning in the world? I certainly know plenty of profs who do just that: they spend their days reading Latin or archaic French; meanwhile, they'd not be caught dead knowing the first thing about American Idol or Baywatch. Are they on the right track? Should we all be "dropping out" and "tuning in" to more meaningful things?


Hud - Hud's First Pass

Paul Newman was a great actor and a decent man, by all accounts. It's sad to lose another great actor; but it's downright tragic to lose a truly decent man. Here's a great scene with Patricia Neal from Hud. If you haven't seen this movie, rent it as soon as possible. It's a classic.



Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Debate

Claire and I watched the debate last night between Barack Obama and John McCain and, in general, thought that both men did well, with Obama doing a bit better, in expressing themselves and their vision for leading the country. Obama was a bit clearer in how he would handle the current economic mess, while McCain stuck to vowing to eliminate earmarks; a good start, but not much of a solution. On the other hand, the right answer to the question of how the economic crisis will affect either man’s plans as President is: “Well, pretty much everything I’ve been promising is now off the table. Sorry.” Nobody was willing to say that, however.

I want to note something that relieved me, which was McCain’s vow to outlaw the use of any sort of torture in our interrogations. His running mate said some criminally stupid things about Obama wanting to coddle terrorists during her inauguration speech, but it’s no surprise that McCain understands the worthlessness of information gained during torture. Torture is a tactical failure and a moral cancer; it puts our troops at risk and hands a propaganda victory to our enemies. It is very reassuring to hear that both candidates will outlaw torture if elected President, especially at a time when we’re finding out that the sitting President has authorized these practices.

In terms of foreign affairs, the two men were closer allied than they wanted to admit. The “time frame for withdrawal from Iraq” that Republicans bashed Obama for calling for has now been called for by the Iraqi government as well. And because the surge has gone better than expected (realism here seen as unpatriotic), McCain’s bluster about “losing” if the United States leaves Iraq to the Iraqis is beginning to sound delusional. Lastly, it’s hard to believe that either man would differ greatly in dealing with Iran or Pakistan if elected.

If Obama did well enough to “pass muster” in the debate, McCain wasn’t so far behind him. The main problem he had was that it’s clear that he despises Barack Obama. His attempts to repeat the claim that Obama “just doesn’t understand” were somewhat effective, until Obama spoke and demonstrated that he did understand whatever topic was at hand. McCain already gave up “foreign policy experience” as a talking point by electing a novice as VP, so he had to keep quiet on that, while Obama was free to make “judgment” a talking point, a good strategy given McCain’s bizarre and alarming diva posturing over the last few weeks.

Throughout, McCain was reduced to grumbling sullenly as the young hotshot demonstrated a semblance of gravitas that he lacked himself. Whenever Obama would give an answer and McCain would chuckle derisively or make snide comments, I was reminded of Hillary Clinton doing the same things during her debates with Obama; it didn’t work for her either.

I have a sense that the world is in the process of historical change- one could argue that the 21st century is just now beginning. I am doubtful that Obama is really the agent of change that he claims to be. But it’s hard to listen to McCain rehashing Reagan’s talking points and not hear the fading voice of the twentieth century.


Hospitality in the Iliad

Previously, I noted the importance of hospitality in early pastoral civilizations and how the theme of hospitality to strangers is important in the epic poem The Odyssey. It is also a major theme in The Iliad. In particular, the downfall of Troy is occasioned by the Trojan prince, Paris, being a lousy guest in the home of Menelaus, the King of Sparta. In one sense, Paris having stolen away Helen, the wife of Menelaus, is an understandable slight from a romantic perspective: who wouldn’t be hurt and offended in this situation?

But it’s also understandable as a violation of the laws of hospitality. In fact, Menelaus describes it this way on the battlefield, after having killed the Trojan soldier Peisander:
“That’s how you’ll be retreating from the Greek ships, you insolent Trojans, always spoiling for a fight! Not that you are amateurs in other forms of abusive and shameful behavior. Look at how you abused me, you dirty dogs, when you broke the laws of hospitality and defied the wrath of loud-thundering Zeus, protector of guests, who is going to bring Ilium tumbling down before long.” (translation: E.V.Rieu)

So violating the laws of hospitality is a transgression of the order of things and provokes the wrath of the gods. I think a similar thing takes place in the book of Genesis when Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed after the guests in the town are abused by the townsfolk without the permission of their host Lot, who is saved. In other words, I think the issue here is not homosexuality as much as hospitality.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Glimpse into the swinging 60s

Also a bit glam and kinky, Square America has an intriguing series of found photos from a late 60s "biracial, bisexual bacchanal". You'll wish you were there, if only to check out the clothes!

In general, Square America, which collects old found photos from the late 40s through the 70s, is the most diverting and fascinating site I've seen in a while. I recommend it, even though you'll lose hours flipping through it.


Not Safe for Earth

Need a break from the collapse of western civilization? Here's a site with "gritty snapshot" smut and party pics- also a glimpse into what my subconscious looks like: FLASH GLAM TRASH!


What is a Credit Default Swap?

Claire's father is an executive at Deloitte, and generally knows a lot more about economics than I do. Last night, we sat around the dinner table and he explained the current financial crisis to me, or at least attempted to. I'm sure that Claire was not thrilled about me keeping everyone up late to talk about failing investment banks and credit default swaps. He actually had a good way of explaining the latter though.

First, understand that they are already a big problem. From the Washington Post:

"Scarier than the bad mortgages are those unregulated credit default swaps that financier George Soros has been warning about. There are $45 trillion of those esoteric instruments sloshing around the global financial system. They were invented as a hedge against debt defaults, but even the financial smart guys don't fully understand their impact or how to price their real value."

So what are they?- I asked Claire's father. Here's how he explained it to me:

Imagine that Christine (my mother-in-law) borrows 100 dollars from Rufus. In exchange, she gives Rufus a bond pledging to pay back the 100 bucks.

But, Rufus starts worrying about it. Maybe Christine isn't so good with her money. How can he be sure?

So, Claire offers to insure the bond for 20 "basis points", or about 20 cents.

Rufus is still worried, so Claire offers to give Rufus 100 dollars and take the bond. So, now, she could well have $100.20 in the end, which is a decent profit (imagining that she has several of these bonds with the same basis points). Besides, Christine has never defaulted.

But rumors start circulating about Christine. Maybe she really can't pay back the loan. In the end, she has losses of 2%, so Claire is out $2.00 of her own money.

AIG wrote a lot of these policies apparently.

Another thing her father said that was interesting was to relate a comment that had been made to him about two years ago by a friend in the financial sector: "There is entirely too much liquidity sloshing around the world economy right now, and things are all out of balance. But we can be sure that the market will eventually right itself, and when it does a number of big names are going to disappear." That is coming to pass.

Lastly, he said something worth pondering- in most of our lifetimes on earth, there has not been a financial crisis in the western world equivalent to this.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Gurdjieff Movements - Enneagram

For those of you who could use a film of dancers and a fouth way enneagram right about now...


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"Charles Ponzi would be embarrassed"

"Last week, TMQ asked why no one was paying attention to the fact that the national debt ceiling was quietly raised by $800 billion during the summer. Well, toss that column: The White House just asked the national debt ceiling be raised another $700 billion, for the proposed financial-sector bailout. If that happens, in 2008 alone, $1.5 trillion will have been added to the national debt: every penny borrowed from your children and their children. Stated in today's dollars, in 1979 the entire national debt was $1.5 trillion. George W. Bush and Congress have in a single year added an amount equal to the entire national debt one generation ago. And the year's not over!

"It took the United States 209 years, from the founding of the republic till 1998, to compile the first $5 trillion in national debt. In the decade since, $6 trillion in debt has been added. This means the United States has borrowed more money in the past decade than in all our previous history combined. Almost all the borrowing has been under the direction of George W. Bush -- at this point Bush makes Kenneth Lay seem like a paragon of fiscal caution. Democrats deserve ample blame, too. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leaders of the Senate and House, have never met a bailout they didn't like: Harry and Nancy just can't wait to spend your children's money. Six trillion dollars borrowed in a single decade and $1.5 trillion borrowed in 2008 alone. Charles Ponzi would be embarrassed."

-Gregg Easterbrook.


"We're too big to fail, suckers!"

I know it's horrible to swipe Tom Tomorrow's cartoon like this... but I couldn't figure out how to post an excerpt. And I think it does a good job of summarizing things.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008










Monday, September 22, 2008

On the Road (to Serfdom) Again

Here's some more about this nutzoid "mother of all bailouts": aside from the fact that it will cost $700 billion, look what it does to the Treasury secretary...

The Economist:
"Mr Paulson’s plan is stunning in its brevity (two-and-a-half pages) and audacity. It would authorise him to purchase any “residential or commercial mortgages and any securities, obligations, or other instruments that are based on or related to such mortgages,” implying the right to take over derivative positions. A fact sheet later distributed by the Treasury broadened it to include “other assets, as deemed necessary to effectively stabilise financial markets.” The government could, in effect, buy anything it wanted: student or car loans, loans, equities, entire companies.

The Treasury secretary’s decisions “may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.” He would report to Congress three months after the programme begins and every six months thereafter. It is now conventional wisdom that recent events have guaranteed a heavier regulatory hand for government in the economy. Mr Paulson’s programme raises the prospect of it becoming a huge player in the allocation of capital as well. The ability to buy assets expires after two years, but its management of those assets would continue.

Mr Paulson said that the lack of oversight gives future administrations “flexibility to run this any way they would like to run it.”

Andrew Sullivan:
"In the last few years, we have seen the executive branch declare itself outside the law - in prosecuting a war on terror. The law against torture has been suspended. The balance between the executive and legislative branch has been dismissed by signing statements and the theory of the unitary executive. The executive has declared its right to suspend habeas corpus indefinitely, to tap anyone's phones without court warrants and to detain and torture anyone it decides is an "enemy combatant." In that sense, we have already left the realm of constitutional government in favor of a protectorate outside the law promising to keep us safe (but never from itself).

"But this new move to create a de facto dictator for the financial markets, to invest a Treasury secretary with unprecedented powers to buy and sell at close to a trillion dollar level - with no oversight or accountability: this is a new collapse in democratic life and constitutional norms."


Sunday, September 21, 2008


"Second, whatever else is true, the events of the last week are the most momentous events of the Bush era in terms of defining what kind of country we are and how we function -- and before this week, the last eight years have been quite momentous, so that is saying a lot....

"What is more intrinsically corrupt than allowing people to engage in high-reward/no-risk capitalism -- where they reap tens of millions of dollars and more every year while their reckless gambles are paying off only to then have the Government shift their losses to the citizenry at large once their schemes collapse? We've retroactively created a win-only system where the wealthiest corporations and their shareholders are free to gamble for as long as they win and then force others who have no upside to pay for their losses."

-Glenn Greenwald, in a blog post here.


A Crisis that Became the World

In order to stop Islamic extremists... we must do whatever it takes and we must not blink, Charlie...
-Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

In crisis situations, panic seems to override the constant feedback loop of interiority that we, rightfully I think, call the soul. Questions of survival are right-at-hand and get processed automatically. Thornier questions of identity and meaning are neglected- interiority is placed on hold. It is worth considering what long term psychological damage would result from living constantly in the immediate presentness of a crisis state. How is it possible to live for seven years in a crisis state? Has anyone in the west really been able to do so?

It seems that we're now asked to live in a crisis state quite frequently, and for a variety of reasons: I highlight this politician's statement simply because it's cogent; not because it's unique. One could easily find a politician on the left saying the same thing about "saving" our nation's identity- to wrestle the nation back from the right wing, we must act now! We must not blink!

We must be directed outwards and not inwards. The soul is on hold until a time of peace.

Similarly, television, movies, and other media seem to be populated by fictional beings who have no inner life whatsoever. There is a flattening out in how things are presented: death is presented is a way that would suggest it is nearly as important as Lysol. Liberty is roughly equivalent to easy credit, even if we've been turned down in the past. Free will is a good thing, although we have a speaker coming up who thinks otherwise, and it's probably not as important as fighting acne. There is a problem of scale. It's hard to distinguish what, if anything, matters.

Even more bizarre is how hard it is to escape adverts and other external stimuli while in public places. Flat-screen televisions sprout up like dandelions- a friend reported seeing a television in the toilet stall at a bar she visited. I've encountered them on gas pumps, and in libraries. And nobody has ever explained to me why it's so hard to find a store that allows for quiet contemplation without the insipid soft rock of Cheryl Crow following you around the premises. Is this some sort of crowd control? Are shoppers more dangerous when they're directed inward?

Is interiority antisocial? Is it irresponsible in a civil society? Is it somehow dangerous? Why does everything I hear people saying in this society (North America) seem to come from an instinctual, gut-level, close-at-hand place? Are they living in a constant crisis state? What measures should we take to protect our soul? Should we start by blinking?


Saturday, September 20, 2008

"I wanna eat her Alaskan pussy from behind."

So says Margaret Cho, sharing some of her more... um, personal thoughts on Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Cho is not voting for McCain/Palin; but that doesn't stop her from being hot for Gov. Nanuck of the North.

[Note: This post is appropriately obscene, so be warned. Also, my mood has turned into a full-blown clinical depression, so I'm not my usual life-of-the-party self.]

I've avoided discussing Governor Mooseburger, who seems to be "kind of a big deal" around the mildewy blogosphere, for what I think is a logical reason: I don't really care about her. I understand why Republicans like her: she's smart, young, religious, down-to-earth, and somewhat libertarian- at least in terms of guns. I also understand why Democrats don't like her: she's a bit of a religious zealot who seems to have no problem with breaking the commandment against lying, and when she talks about "not blinking" she sounds like Bush.

But, I'm more than agnostic here- I've lost all interest in this endless stupid race, which seems to require me to follow things like "lipstick on a pig" and if Rush Limbaugh likes Spanish-speakers or not just to keep up. I can't keep up. Wake me up when it's over, or when any of these people are capable of just talking to Americans for five minutes at an adult level. I just don't have the respect necessary for any of the candidates or any of the voters to pay attention anymore- I had the same problem with pro wrestling.

Also, right now, I barely have the wherewithall to turn my head from right to left, much less worry about this American Idol-level election race.

Anyway, people weren't happy with Margaret Cho. Many were unhappy with a crappy joke she makes in the piece about John McCain getting shot down in Vietnam. I'm not going to defend that because it was insensate and stupid.

But, I've read a few things here and there where other people have called out Cho on the "sexism" of not treating Palin "with dignity" in her blog post, and I just don't get that. These are people who don't particularly agree with Mooseburger's politics, so give them some credit for taking up for her. They also say Cho is being "bloody unhelpful", "disappointing" and "unfunny".

Okay, well I agree it's not Wilde-level comedic prose. Margaret Cho's material has always been hit-or-miss for me. But I have no idea when wanting to fuck someone became "sexist".

Let's unpack this one, okay. Why would it be sexist to want to fuck someone?

1. You're not seeing them as a full human being? Why should this be so? Aren't we all sexual beings? And if so, why is sex an activity that somehow negates all other activities, so that seeing someone as a good sex partner means somehow not seeing them in any other way?

2. You're mixing sex and hate by disagreeing with their politics and still wanting to fuck them? I didn't get the "hate-sex" comment at all because Cho was specifically keeping the erotic and the political separate in the text- she doesn't want to talk politics with Palin, but wouldn't mind having sex with her. Do you have to love and adore someone to want to have sex with them?

3. You're not taking her seriously as a woman or a politician? Again, why does wanting to fuck someone mean not taking them seriously in other realms of life? Is there something so ludicrous about fucking that it demeans anyone who does it? I have more respect for Claire than any other woman in the world; I'm also fine with eating her Canadian pussy from behind, in front, or wherever.

4. You're treating her as a sex object? Well, or as a sexual being. What is so "dehumanizing" about sex? How does it turn the participant into a non-human? Seriously- I'm trying to understand the Puritan mindset here. Is it like looking at Medusa: do you turn to stone if someone thinks about fucking you? Do you go into a coma if someone fondles you?

Another example: I only think about my dentist in terms of working on my teeth: that's all I want out of him. Is this dehumanizing him? Reducing him to a dental object?

5. You're not treating her with dignity? Again, I think you have to have your own problems with sex to understand why it negates someone's dignity to think about having sex with them.

6. It's reducing her to a "patriarchal fantasy"? Should lesbians just stop having sex altogther? Why do people use this term "reducing" in terms of fantasy? Why not elevating her to the status of a fantasy?

I just don't understand why our fantasy lives are so often seen as dangerous or corrupting. Wilhelm Reich had the great line: When you control their genitals, you can control the world. Convincing people that their sexual fantasies are hateful, demeaning, degrading, sick, sinful, immoral, pathetic, or grotesque is like punching them in the psyche.

Anyway, what say you? Is it demeaning and sexist to want to have dirty, filthy sex with someone you don't know? Should Margaret Cho appologize to Alaskans or women everywhere?


Goddess of the Week: Hera

Hell hath no fury like a goddess scorned. Hera, the wife and older sister of Zeus, is immortalized in the Iliad and elsewhere as a jealous and vengeful wife, although Zeus is clearly no prize himself. They spend much of the story bickering between themselves.

Hera was the queen of the gods and the goddess of women and marriage. She was also associated with the sky and starry heavens. Her familiars included the lion, the hawk, and the cuckoo. The cow and peacock were sacred to her.

She was also the jealous wife of Zeus. Her children with Zeus included: Eris, Hebe, and Ares. But Zeus had Athena with Metis, and so Hera gave birth to Hephaestus without Zeus or any father. Later, Hephaestus (god of metallurgy like Vulcan) trapped her on a magical throne after being rejected by his parents for being so ugly. Clearly, this was a somewhat dysfunctional family.

Hera's main problem with Zeus was that he had a number of affairs and illegitimate offspring. When he impregnated the Titaness Leto, Hera sent the Drakon Python to torment her during the pregnancy. When she caught Zeus with Io, he turned the priestess into a cow, who Hera caused a gadfly to pursue across Europe. Zeus later turned the princess Callistro into a bear after seducing her, and Hera had Artemis shoot and kill the bear.

Of those myriad illegitimate offspring of Zeus, Hera particularly hated Heracles and sent two serpents to kill him while he was still a baby in the crib. He strangled the serpents in the crib. Hera tormented him for years after until, finally, he achieved immortality, and Hera forgave him. She also had a problem with Dionysos, another bastard child of Zeus.

Her life was not all fighting with Zeus and his bastard children. In the "judgment of Paris", Hera competed with Aphrodite and Athena for the prize of the golden apple.

When Ixion tried to rape Hera, Zeus had him tied across a wheel on which he was forever turned by the winds.

Hera did like Jason and assisted the Argonauts in the quest for the golden fleece.

The Samos Museum contains items from the Samos Herion, offered to Hera.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Office Hours

Once a week, I drive down to the university, walk to our department, station myself in the "grad student office", and read quietly for two hours in a windowless room constructed from the sort of white-painted cinder blocks that characterize these places without character: thinking spaces among thoughtless industrial architecture. I take notes, eat, wander the halls outside my door, and slowly give up hope on the idea that any of our students will visit my office hours.

As the professor's office is just down the hall from my own, I am aware that they do not visit him during office hours either. Oh, many of them make plans to come visit one of us, some of them claim that they are worried sick over how confusing the material is and desperately need additional help. I try not to seem overeager, but explaining this material is a joy and a pleasure to me. I would do it for free, and have made it clear that I will meet with them any time that's convenient for them.

It's never a secret who needs help. I've found that going through the course is like watching a car-wreck in extreme slow motion: you generally know from the second week who will fail, and they rarely prove you wrong. Nevertheless, I hype my office hours, try to scare the students into studying, and ask the students who seem to need help if they need help. Sure they do, they say, and they promise they will make time to go over the material that they're having trouble reading. They never come and I'm willing to bet they never read the material.

I'm not sure why it bothers me so much. Many students are astoundingly lazy, and the ones who fail are often the laziest. When I've asked, I've found that only about 5-10% of the students read the material anyway. I've stopped asking. If they don't read, they probably get by with taking notes in lecture. Nevertheless, it still bothers me. Learned helplessness is an ugly thing.

Probably fifty percent of the students have no trouble at all in these courses, and about twenty percent will make it through with effort. Maybe only ten or twenty percent will outright fail, and of those, very few will ever exhibit any signs of concern. In a semester, none will come to my office hours. In six semesters, I have had two visitors: one was a student who wanted a higher grade on an exam in which he blamed the fall of the Roman Empire on the Industrial Revolution, and one was a student who stated, without any embarrassment, "I don't read. Now how will I pass this course?" I have no anger or resentment, but it's hard to feel sympathy anymore. I have discovered in these courses that there is a difference between drowning and just not swimming.


Water Bears in Space

Tardigrades, or water bears, are an obscure group of invertibrates located between the nematodes (roundworms) and the arthropods (crustacea, insects, and ticks). They live underwater and shrivel into a cask stage when out of water, surviving in a state called cryptobiosis. These microscopic invertibrates feed on the fluid of plant and animal cells. They grow to a size of about 1 mm and can be seen with a microscope. They can live in extreme environments, from hot springs to solid ice.

They can also survive in outer space. It has been nearly a year since the ecologist Ingemar Jönsson, a researcher at Kristianstad University in Sweden, had some 3,000 microscopic water bears sent up on a twelve-day space trip. The aim of the research project, which was supported by the European Space Agency, was to find out more about the basic physiology of tardigrades by seeing if they can survive in a space environment.

The result?

"Our principal finding is that the space vacuum, which entails extreme dehydration, and cosmic radiation were not a problem for water bears. On the other hand, the ultraviolet radiation in space is harmful to water bears, although a few individual can even survive that," says Ingemar Jönsson.

This would make them the first animals on earth to survive exposure to the vacuum and radiation of space.


Underwater City

The sunken island that once held Cleopatra's palace and the Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse was done in centuries ago by earthquakes. But the bay of Alexandria is still filled with these submerged archaeological treasures; so far, they've found thousands of them there. As the site manager says:

"Sort of the whole ancient city of Alexandria is lying under the water, just meters away from the shore."

So the UN and Egypt have decided to look into the possibility of building an underwater museum- the first in the world. Instead of pulling these artifacts out, they would be covered, left in cleaner water, and connected to the mainland by huge tunnels. Visitors would be able to see archaeological artifacts in situo.
To throw in my two cents here: yes, yes, yes!


Tent Cities

Homelessness is a bewildering problem for most of us; and yet it also makes perfect sense in some ways. For instance, homeless rates seem to rise at times when rents go up, which seems fairly obvious. Add to rising rents, and a boom in foreclosures, a decline in good jobs and you wind up with the sort of tent cities you now see springing up across the United States.

"Nearly 61 percent of local and state homeless coalitions say they've experienced a rise in homelessness since the foreclosure crisis began in 2007..."
So, the tent cities might move on when the economy improves... whenever that happens. But I wonder if the answer wouldn't just be to establish no-rent apartments instead of having a myriad of different services provided by these cities. It would certainly be cheaper and it doesn't look like the tent cities are moving on any time soon. Unless someone calls the cops.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Plowing through Wittgenstein: Section 3

Okay, so far in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, we have the world...
1. "The World is everything that is the case."

Or The World= totality of facts. A fact = the existence of a state of affairs.
2. "A state of affairs is a combination of things."
We have thoughts that picture the world...

"Logical pictures can depict the world."

3. "A logical picture of facts is a thought."

Now, we get to language...
4. "In a proposition a thought finds an expression that can be percieved by the senses."

So, I suppose, this is how we get out the thoughts inside our heads- by expressing them in propositions. We've gone from a world of things to logical pictures of those things to propositions that express those logical pictures of things. All of this this seems fairly evident. But the idea that a thought is a picture of reality and a proposition is a model of reality allows us to see the two as similarly isomorphic in relation to the actual states of affairs that make up the world.

Now Wittgenstein gets at the limitations of words: "Objects can only be named. Signs are their representatives." Words point at things, without embodying or encapsulating them. Therefore:

"Propositions can only say how things are, not what they are."

"Only propositions have sense; only in the nexus of a proposition does a name have meaning."

A proposition seems to encapsulate all of the rules that govern its existence. Wittgenstein writes that "a proposition can determine only one place in logical space: nevertheless the whole of logical space must already be given by it." In some sense, a proposition "says" all of the "logical scaffolding" around it along with what it actually says- if you consider how grammar works, it is much the same way- we don't state the rules of grammar that govern our statements, but they're already given by every statement in a language.

This also suggests that a totality of propositions would say everything that could be said, logically, to picture the world. A logically-perfect language would also remove many of the problems of language- such as words having more than one meaning- that Wittgenstein believes have caused many of the problems of philosophy.

"A propositional sign, applied and thought out, is a thought."

5. "A thought is a proposition with sense."

Appropriately enough, I have to think about this one.


Today's French

This is a word that is dropping out of use in English, as is its equivalent in French...

Bruyère: (n.) Heath, heather.



The Master said: "Guide them by edicts, keep them in line with punishments, and the common people will stay out of trouble but will have no sense of shame. Guide them by virtue, keep them in line with the rites, and they will, besides having a sense of shame, reform themselves.
-Confucius, Analects 2:3

(I'm just about done with Confucius, but wanted to highlight this passage, which sadly sounds naive in today's world. Can you imagine our leaders guiding us by the example of their virtue, instead of relying on laws and punishments?)


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A parrot?

And Ralph Nader, meanwhile, is having a therapy session about how unfair the media has been to him... with a parrot. I don't think that David Lynch directed that video... but it's impossible to be sure.

I swear, if all these politicians equally hate the media, I'm siding with the media.


Journalists? Get a rope!

It's a bad time to be a journalist in the United States.

Seemingly everyone hates them. The Republican National Convention featured speaker after speaker complaining about the "liberal elitist press", this when they weren't bashing Barack Obama, community organizers, urbanites, or anyone who drives a Prius. Democrats, meanwhile, are equally convinced that the media is controlled by Karl Rove, Fox News, and some sort of mind-control ray held in a redneck compound on the grounds of Liberty College in Virginia; irritatingly, they see any legitimate question about their candidate as "swiftboating". In other words, conservatives are sure the press is controlled by liberals; liberals are sure the press is controlled by conservatives.

The campaigns have, shamefully, played off this essentially anti-democratic, anti-press animus: the Obama campaign has issued idiotic "action alerts" to get their supporters to harass a Chicago radio station that has given airtime to an anti-Obama author; meanwhile, the McCain campaign has stopped holding press conferences altogether and can't seem to get through a choreographed, telepromptered speech without whipping up anti-"media" frenzy. I remember hearing one fan claiming that, when McCain is elected, the government will "reform" the press- something that should never, ever happen in a democratic country.

My fellow Americans: grow up!

Ultimately, "the media" is us- they represent you and me. They ask questions on behalf of the populace. We should want them to be tough on all politicians. The fact that both parties are equally convinced that the media is against them should tell you something: they are doing their jobs.... at least, as much as they can in such a weird and hostile environment.

In other words, Republicans asking for "deference" for their moose hunting tyro or Democrats taking "action" against anyone who criticizes Mr. Hopey Change are all working for the same goal- a press that works in the interest of the government against the rest of us. The campaigns need to study the history of the free press in America; the electorate needs to accept that their "team" is not going to be coddled like the nobility; and the press desperately needs to "grow a pair", as the fake Hillary put it.


War in Pakistan?

Could be. The "staunch ally" of the United States has told its troops "to open fire" if US troops launch any more raids across the border from Afghanistan. I'd imagine this is a serious corner for them to be turning.

Will this mean war? Given that Pakistan has never been very forthright about tracking down those al-Quaida or Taliban fighters who are hiding within its borders, and that the US has good reason to believe that there are plenty such fighters hopping back and forth across the border to attack them, I'd say it would be pretty stupid to imagine that there couldn't possibly be war between the US and Pakistan.

Christopher Hitchens says that Barack Obama is serious about dealing with Pakistan. I don''t' know if it's fair to say "only Obama"- I'd imagine that McCain would also deal with Pakistan, although the US has pussyfooted around Pakistan for quite some time now. Bernard-Henri Lévy's book "Who Killed Daniel Pearl?", which I talked about here a few years back, made the same point about the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, being largely sympathetic to the Islamic terrorist organizations: "the most rogue of the rogue states", as he put it.

So, war with Pakistan seems more plausible than war with Russia, for example. And, actually, it makes a bit more sense than war with Iraq.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

More on Confucius and Silence

I found a bit more on diffidence in Confucius:

"The Master said, 'I am thinking of giving up speaking.' Tzu-kung said, 'If you did not speak, what would there be for us, your disciples, to transmit?' The Master said, 'What does Heaven ever say? Yet there are the four seasons going round and there are the hundred things coming into being. What does Heaven ever say?'"
-Confucius, The Analects, XVII: 19.


Tina Fey as Gov. Mooseburger.



The Master said: "When the Way prevails in the state, speak and act with perilous high-mindedness; when the Way does not prevail, act with perilous high-mindedness but speak with self-effacing diffidence."
-Confucius, The Analects, XIV:3

I find this passage fascinating. Is Confucius suggesting, with the term "self-effacing diffidence", that we should essentially 'drop out' of public discussions when truth does not prevail in the state? Should we continue to act, but avoid speaking? I think there is a certain logic to this- one of Confucius's frequently-made points is that we shape the behavior of others by acting in an upright way; not through edicts or legislation. But, would it be worth entering into public discussion in the ideal state, which he says will come after something like a hundred years of good rule? And do we "speak with self-effacing diffidence" now (essentially) to avoid getting caught up in the discussions of a world without truth, or just to stay out of trouble?


Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Northern Election

Psssst! Don't tell anyone, but Canada is about to have an election too! Elections here aren't a lot different than they are in the US; it's just the candidates don't talk about Jesus every three sentences and the electorate isn't convinced that it would be the end of all life on earth if the other guys won. Oh, and they're mercifully short- this one just started and it will be over in a few weeks. Meanwhile, the American electoral hostage crisis is entering its seventeenth consecutive year.
On the other hand, it's fairly easy to dissolve parliament here, so they can spring elections on you at any time. The scheduled election was for next year; but Stephen Harper basically called for a general election after the Liberals kept threatening to call for one. Basically, the Liberal Party in Canada is still a mess right now, but the Conservatives can't seem to form a majority government. If the election goes well for them, they will gain more seats. If not, they won't. Either way, Stephen Harper will complain about the opposition entirely too often to not be annoying.
This article in Slate makes it sound like Canada is swinging to the right, which it is; but largely because the Liberals can't get their shit together. The Conservatives are still to the left of American conservatives, but Stephen Harper really, really wants to live in America Junior, which gives the impression that he has some sort of right wing "vision". The Liberals just come off as wankers. Also remember that, because of the way the parliamentary system works here, it's basically as if there's just a legislative and judicial branch- the Prime Minister is more akin to Speaker of the House than a President. (At least, that's how I understand it.)
As for the "polarization" that the article talks about occurring in Canada... total nonsense. You still have to work really hard to locate a Canuck who gives a shit about Canadian politics. As a friend up here said to me recently, "I pay attention to politics in the states because it's just so boring up here". If you want to see "polarization" in Canada, go to a hockey game.


A Passage out of India

According to 20 Minutos, Spain, 92 year old Muslim artist Maqbool Frida Hussain has been cleared by a Grand Tribunal in India of the charge of "obscenity", and is free to return to Dubai where he has (understandably) lived since 2006.

Hussain was accused of obscenity by Hindu extremists who were upset over this painting, which represents the map of India as a nude red woman. Because, you know, Hindu art has always been so reluctant to show nude women...


Friday, September 12, 2008

Today's French

Vautour: A vulture.
Avanies: Snubs, insults.


Better late than never

Construction on the Iglesia de Santa María de La Asunción, in Aracena, Spain, has finally been completed- after 486 years!

According to 20 Minutes Spain, construction on the church was begun in 1522, "and has suffered different standstills, until the innauguration today in its official form." The work was initiated under Diego de Riaño in the town of Aracena, which today lies in the province of Huelva, Spain. The town, incidentally also contains the Gruta de las Maravillas (Cave of the Miracles), one of the most spectacular cave systems in Spain.

Anyway, I plan to print out a copy of this article and keep it for relatives to read if completion of my dissertation begins to stretch on longer than expected!


Today's English

Equitation: The art and practice of riding a horse.

"You my dear Tom who remember my want of horsemanship will imagine my ideas at the sight of a fine horse which I was to mount. Much as I dislike equitation, there was no declining."
-American traveler Nicholas Biddle in a letter from 1806.

Related Latin terms:
Equitare: To ride a horse.
Equus: Horse.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Seven Years into the Future

It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since the attack on the World Trade Center. Since then, I’ve found love, gotten married, finished college, become a resident of Canada, and completed four years of grad school. The United States has gone to war in Afghanistan and overturned the Taliban there, gone to war in Iraq and overturned that regime, and is currently trying to create functional democracies in both countries. I don’t know if any of this would have surprised me, if you had told me seven years ago that it would come to pass.

But, why haven’t we caught Osama Bin Laden yet?

Sometimes, when I am driving down the road, I will have the sudden urge to swerve the car into oncoming traffic and cause an accident, probably die, kill strangers… I think most people have these impulses- there is something so horrible about the fact of mortality that draws us to confront it, imagine it, yearn to enact it: I think this is what Freud was talking about with the “death instinct”. And yet, none of actually follow these impulses because they’re so horrible and insane, and on some level we desperately want to remain alive, as do nearly all living things.

So the act committed in 2001 is still unthinkable: to immolate oneself in the hopes of killing innocent strangers requires some sort of overwhelming death instinct, some hatred for the flesh and the world of the living, that just eludes me, and which I think should elude all living beings. We should want to remain alive. To take that comment as a critique on religion would be fair, but it’s also a very sad critique.

And, besides, the WTC massacre was a psychotic act; it was irrational and meaningless outside of a diseased mind. J.G. Ballard has noted something that has also occurred to me: the World Trade Center is now, after the destruction, remembered as a symbol of world finance; but for most of us it was just two big buildings in New York that were nicer looking on the inside than the outside. It didn't mean anything. It became a symbol as we tried to add sense to a meaningless act. But it was ultimately irrational. And, everything Osama bin Laden has said in the last seven years has proven to me that he is a psychotic. Clearly he is not a raving lunatic, but the bizarre connections he draws, the paranoid delusions, and the fact that his “strategy” is so far from reality- attack the nation with the largest army in the world and they will surrender to you- as to be funny. But you’d die trying to laugh.

So, why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden yet?

I remember, after the event, the nation mourning together. It is a strange thing this need for collective experience; people came together to mourn Princess Diana in much the same way. We forget that the “national community”, while it is a fiction, is usually a relatively benign one. People generally want to be part of a larger family; their empathy is fairly impressive among mammals. And in the shadow of two vanishing towers, their need for connection was understandable. This was before the nationalism really made itself felt.

But, some part of me understood by the evening of September 11th, that the jets were already being fired up. I understood that this meant war, especially after the Taliban refused to turn over al-Qaida. Yes, some of the kids at my university were opposed to any war ever; but most of us realized that it was retaliatory, at least in Afghanistan. I supported the war, quietly and with a sense that any war is a tragic last resort.

So, why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden yet?

I think, when I saw the towers melting like roman candles in the New York skyline, that I knew that these images would fuel wars, and that they would be long wars. But, I never really thought they would become stock images in campaign ads for the next seven years. I never really imagined that we would never really get around to discussing any of this seriously, instead talking about Britney and pigs in lipstick until we die laughing. I never thought that the wars themselves would become campaign ads- threaten Iraq, or Iran, or Russia, or whoever works whenever people ask about what the fuck happened in Afghanistan. Promise to chase Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, when you’ve already balked at chasing him into Pakistan.* Fail at waging war, fail at managing the economy, fail at governance or upholding civil liberties, fail at disaster management; so long as you still excel at running for office! It is unthinkable to me that any rational person could take any of these people seriously when they talk about this as “the defining crisis of our time”, but take their own responsibility so cavalierly.

And why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden yet?

Seven years later, the United States seems to be winning an unpopular war in Iraq and losing a popular one in Afghanistan. Bush has admitted that he really doesn’t think about bin Laden that much, seemingly the one thing he would be thinking about. The war in Iraq seems to have achieved its strategic goals: Bush was reelected, McCain will likely be elected. And, thanks to the miracles of medicine, far more of our soldiers are coming home, alive and crippled, than are coming back dead. This is a small blessing. But, when I consider whether or not any of this was worth it, what those soldiers who died and those office workers who died might have wanted, when I even wonder to myself if the last seven years was a measured response to an act of war, or a complete and total overreaction to an isolated act of lunatics, I still come back to the same question:

Why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden yet?

* (Update: Minutes after posting this, I found this news story revealing that the White House has indeed authorized military raids into Pakistan. After waiting nearly seven years. Anyway, it's good news, since this is where al-Qaida is most likely located.)


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Eeek! Giant mechanical spider!

From National Geographic comes this striking picture of a giant mechanical spider in the streets of Liverpool during the recent Capital of Culture celebration.

The spider, dubbed La Princesse, was created in France by a crew working under the artist Francois Delaroziere.
It weighs 41 tons, stands 50 feet tall and is operated by twelve people strapped to the spider's belly.
It's also really cool. I saw it back when I was in Nantes getting a test run at Machines de l'isle workshop.

These are some of the pictures that I took back in Nantes. They specifically asked us not to publicize pictures of the spider, which is why I didn't post them here. But, now that the cat's out of the bag, so to speak, I figure it's okay.

Basically, the spider is made out of steel and poplar, and each of the people strapped to the frame controls one leg. The person on the top controls the "jaws".
Like I said before, Delaroziere is creating some of the coolest stuff in the history of ever in his workshop.


Ludwig Wittgenstein 2

Hey, Wittgenstein fanatics (don't laugh- you should see how many visitors we had here for the last installment!), here are my notes on fumbling my way through part 2 of Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus.

In Part 1, Wittgenstein makes two major points:
"The World is everything that is the case."
Or The World= totality of facts. A fact = the existence of a state of affairs.

And: "A state of affairs is a combination of things."

Now, in Part 2, we get to those Objects (things).

Things/Objects: It is essential to them that they are possible constituents of states of affairs. They contain the possibility of all situations. Objects are what is unalterable and subsistent; their configuration is what is changing and alterable. Again, they are simple, but can be combined into more complex configurations, called 'states of affairs'.

"The totality of existing states of affairs is the world."

Okay, so we have the physical world. Now, let's move on to thoughts.

"We picture facts to ourselves. A picture is a model of reality."

A picture is a fact. It can be laid out against reality like a measure. It corresponds to what it represents. However, it cannot place itself outside of its own representational form. A picture depicts reality by representing a possibility of existence and non-existence of states of affairs.

"Logical pictures can depict the world."

Here, what I'm imagining is a map floating in the air above a landscape, with every point on the map extending into space to touch the place on the landscape that it depicts. But the map in this case would be language. And it's impossible for me, when reading this section, not to think of Alfred Korzybski's line, "The map is not the territory."

Wittgenstein's point here, however, is:

"A logical picture of facts is a thought."


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Wittgenstein, the "beery old swine"- 1

A grad student in one of our seminars once gave a droll reason for not wanting to study philosophy: "It's like math with words!"

Greg might agree that a quite a bit of math is math with words. But the description is perfect for most works of logic. Several philosophers have tried to create a logically perfect language using words- several mathematicians have tried to as well. And quite a few logicians were mathematicians. I can't say if anyone has succeeded in creating a language that can speak in unambiguous sentences. It sure isn't English.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's only book-length work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, is an attempt to explain how we could create a logically perfect language. It is rooted in the work of Bertrand Russel, particularly the idea of "logical atomism"- that the world is made up of facts that can't be broken down any further. Wittgenstein stated his goal in the often quoted, "What we can say at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot say must be passed over in silence."

Andrew Sullivan, who has been appropriately silent as of late, had this quote for today: "Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen." That got me thinking about old Wittgenstein and wanting to pull out this book, which has always bewildered me, one more time.

I am going to try to read this very short book, mostly because it has nothing to do with my dissertation, World Civ, or the shitty weather in this part of the globe. I will chart my progress here. I should note also that the book is very brief and to the point, so I'm probably writing more than Wittgenstein did!

Part 1 seems to have two main points:

"The World is everything that is the case."

So the world is finite- we can find its limits and define them in a logical way. The totality of this is not all of the objects in the world, but all of the "facts", or everything that is the case. Perhaps the easiest way of expressing this is:

The World = everything that is the case.

What is the case = a fact = the existence of states of affairs.

So the world is the totality of facts, or all that is the case.

"A state of affairs is a combination of things."

Again, a fact is the existence of a state of affairs. So, a thought is the logical picture of a fact, which is the existence of a state of affairs, which is a combination of things- of objects in some atomic sense.

I think Wittgenstein is trying to "break it down" here. Unless I am mistaken, a sentence like: "Plato loves Socrates" has two objects in one relationship- it is a single "fact". So, can we say that in our logical language? Stay tuned, Wittgenstein fans!


The Jean Genie (HI-QUALITY)

Well, doing the recitations is exhausting. I had one today that was great and one that sucked. Blah.

So, fuck work. Here's something that cheered me up.


Monday, September 08, 2008


The Customer is Seldom Right

Maybe I should stop posting these things.... but, here is yet another article about the declining intelligence level of higher education. I like it though because I have come to agree with two things that Thomas Benton is saying here: 1. that the internet might be a symptom, but it's not a cause of the general "dummying up" of the populace, and 2. that it's time for academics to start rebelling against the customer service mentality in higher ed. In other words, we- students and educators- need to be learning to live in each other's worlds.

Also interesting: the author, an English prof offers these examples of widespread problems that he encounters among students, all of which I can vouch for.

Benton: "I see too many students who are:

  • Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their "feelings" — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.
  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.
  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.
  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)
  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.
  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).
  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.
  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while "needing" to receive very high grades.
  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.
  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

Obviously, some of these fall into the 'twas ever thus category. And some are specific to the job- an English professor can easily establish that plagiarism is unacceptable. But it's interesting how many will need a sustained effort from the larger culture to ameliorate them.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Morrissey - You Have Killed Me (Accattone)

I've been plugging Pasolini's early film Accattone here as his best, and as the best place to start with his ouvre.

Apparently, Morrissey is also a fan of the film. He mentions it briefly in this song, which led a fan to make a video using clips from Accattone. Check out the great closeup at 2:10.

And there's a bit of synchronicity here too because for the last month I've been listening to the Smiths CD that my sister gave us.


A bit more on Medea

Well, I am glad to have finally seen Pasolini's take on Medea. It is certainly a strange and elegiac film. It takes a while to get used to the slow pace but, as with many slow-paced films, it soon takes on a dreamlike quality.

It's also interesting, considering Pasolini's other films, how often they have to do with social outsiders being oppressed by their social superiors. Does the film combine social realism and magical mysticism?

I noted once before that my working-class black students have been generally more receptive to the story of Medea than their working-class white counterparts. While nobody really responds well to Medea's murder of her children, they do recognize her plight- if Medea is insane, which she certainly is by the end, she has gone insane after what was done to her. The white students tend to just recognize that she is insane.

It's tricky to speculate about these things, but it is worth noting that Jason is the ultimate social climber. He brings Medea into a world where she is considered a "barbarian", and will always live with one foot outside the door; and then leaves her for a woman who is higher on the social ladder. The indignity of this is compounded by the fact that she is exiled- the locals have always been suspicious of her, and now she has absolutely nowhere to go. She must leave her children, her lover, and her new home, so that Jason can get in good with the King's daughter.

Holly notes the sense of place in the film. It's interesting how important it is that Medea is a displaced person- and I think Jason is too. I also agree that you need to know the story to watch the film. It probably says more about European cinema of the time that Pasolini assumes that his audience is familiar with the play and mythology.


Freak out in a moonage daydream, oh yeah

Walter Mitty was right- if you want to be a better thinker, get back to daydreaming!

"Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings - such as the message of a church sermon - the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we're able to imagine things that don't actually exist..."

The article also talks about Teresa Bolton, a researcher in England who got worried that children were losing their creativity, "as if the children were stuck with this very restricted way of thinking. Even when they were encouraged to think creatively, they didn't really know how." She eventually decided that parents should turn off the television set and encourage their kids to daydream.

I've said here before that my mind doesn't really wander when I'm online, even though I'm surfing all over the place. I wonder if Bolton and I are talking about the same thing.


Anyone up for a group read & discuss?

The most excellent author Neal Stephenson has a new novel that addresses the social issues of societal integration of new technologies. Sounds like exactly the sort of issues we like to talk about here. IO9 has some write-up and a brief interview.


Saturday, September 06, 2008

Open Question: What would your utopia look like?

You'll have to excuse my diminished interest in the Presidential race. From what I can tell, the Democrats are still building a personality cult around a smart and charismatic tyro, while the much more serious Republicans are now building a personality cult around a smart and charismatic tyro in lipstick. Again, I’m agnostic. Sorry.

But, I don’t want to become a total cynic. I do believe that we should be able to imagine a better world, even if we should never, ever let these particular people try to build that better world. So, an open question would be: what would you like to see in your imaginary utopia? Answers can be in any terms: cultural, political, economic, religious, etc.

My first thought is that I would like to see a world in which healthy food was much cheaper than soda pop and chips, instead of what we have now, which is largely the reverse. Can you imagine what it would be like if, when you made a working class salary, the best way to save money would be to walk to the convenience store and get a vitamin-rich green shake? But, if you were better-off, maybe you could afford to splurge on ramen noodles and Pepsi?

So, that’s my first suggestion. Anyone have any others? (Note: including the lurkers!)


Friday, September 05, 2008

A Really Brief History of the Universe

Our house-favorite and old acquaintance Mike Hightower composed this music and edited NASA footage for this short. It's beautiful and strangely calming.


Sgt. Hetfield's Loney Headbangers Musique Bande

Okay, someone has been raiding my dreams for ideas! I'm not making this story up, but I will take it slowly...

First, in news that is a dream-come-true for fans of Beatallica- the band that plays Beatles covers in the style of Metallica- the actual band Metallica is going to jam on British television with Sir Paul McCartney. No news as to if they're going to play "I Want to Choke Your Band".

Okay, so after you've accepted that weird image, they're going to be jamming with France's hot first lady Carla Bruni who will perform some of her own songs with the supergroup.

I have no idea what this says about US/British/French relations, but let me just say that, for all of the jokes that I and other yanks make about how twee and wimpy French pop culture can be, I cannot possibly imagine Laura Bush jamming with Metallica.


"EU wants to ban sexist advertising"

At first, I thought the headline said "EU wants to ban sexiest advertising." Given what most of the EU officials look like, that made sense.

But the idea that we can determine just what advertising is "sexist" in legislation- before we even see it- and then apply that definition to all of the cultures in the European Union? How does that work?
They are defining "sexist" as advertising that portrays women (but not men) as "sex objects" (as opposed to sexual beings?), and anything that portrays "gender stereotypes" (which are never fixed). So no more ads with Mom cooking while Dad works on the car. And won't legislating against one set of stereotypes just create new stereotypes? In twenty years, won't the eurocrats just be creating laws about ads that show Mom working on the car while Dad cooks dinner?

Or is all of this basically hopeless? As culture seems to be created through the sum total of billions of individual decisions, isn't it impossible to legislate it? Shouldn't the EU be, instead, spending the money to flood the market with images that they approve of, and hope that tastes change over time?

I would, however, be okay with banning this kinda creepy Orangina commercial that was shown everywhere I went in France.


Doing it in Public

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with a grad student in our department about the conservative problem in academia and the issue of public intellectuals.

To get to the first part, let's note that he is indeed a conservative libertarian in academia, so his take on the conservative problem is different than mine. I tend to be fairly libertarian too, but probably more left libertarian. When I hear of the "conservative problem in academia", I tend to think it's overblown. The mailings I get from David Horowitz describe a world that I don't live or work in and, as with anything else, the only ways I could imagine the situation changing are through: regulation, lawsuits, or slow steady pressure. Obviously, I think the first two are impossible and the third I would argue has barely been tried by the "reformers".

Anyway, my friend is more attuned to a sort of unspoken bias against conservative students that many professors have, in his opinion. Of course, this is a problem whose supporting data is necessarily anecdotal, and I don't think I could really verify it anyway- I'm not a crusader for any political viewpoint while in the classroom, so I can't say I've been penalized by professors for my political viewpoint. And I'm a fairly easy grader myself. I would say that the students whose viewpoints I really disagree with probably get higher grades because I tend to work a bit too hard to check my own internal biases. In the recitations, I don't really lecture so much as ask questions and we generally stay on topic- discussing the Ramayana as opposed to Bush/Cheney. So, again, this is not really my world. I am not a public debater. (Besides, I hear they moon you now!)

This gets to the second question- that of "public intellectuals". I have no interest in ever being a public intellectual, and my sense is that the American public has little use for them. His point was that some people would find my attitude selfish; we are paid, after all, by our neighbors to sit around and think about things (or, for me, to walk around thinking about things); therefore, it's not too much to ask that we weigh in on topics of public debate. Besides, the way that we get trained to think- hopefully slowly and patiently- is in short supply in public discussions, so we might have something to contribute.

I suppose my problem is that most "public intellectuals" don't strike me as very supple thinkers- you go to Noam Chomsky for a quote for the same reason that you go to McDonald's for a burger: you know exactly what you're going to get. This probably gets back to the first problem- there is a sort of collective intellectual laziness on certain topics that goes with the tendency of most academics to be to the left politically. So academics are trained to be very critical of certain assumptions and allowed to be indulgent of others. And, as we get older, we all, no matter our profession, get stuck in certain assumptions about how the world works.

For me, the older I get, the more agnostic I am on issues of public debate. In the west, we have a situation in which the "left" is only right about 20% of the time, and the "right" is only right about 20% of the time, and the trick is to make use of those areas where they're right and ignore them as much as possible. I think the increasing vulgarity of public discourse has to do with the fact that people try to limit themselves to living within that 20%, and indeed turning it into a worldview, in order to present themselves as decisively "conservative" or "liberal". We want to make firm decisions; there's something weak and sniveling in doubt or vacillation- I see this attitude among people who live on the right and the left.

For me, I hope to become more agnostic as I become more educated, not more "decisive". Life is difficult, and figuring out how we should behave in the public sphere is especially difficult. If academics have any responsibility in terms of public discourse, it should be to encourage others to be less decisive- to be more patient and slower to action. Quick "gut" decisions are appropriate on the battlefield, but unnecessary, and even dangerous in the polis; and we should do what we can to prevent the two spheres from bleeding into each other, as they seem to be wont to do lately.


Thinking More = Eating More

Apparently your brain demands a refill after a heavy think session. (Here's a lightweight article about the lightweight science behind this statement.) I did not realize that the brain uses blood glucose 2x faster than other bodily activity demands. That's kinda neat. Someone should develop a thinking-based fitness program. We'll be rich! ...


Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Dying Slave


Grad Student Madness Continued

In case anyone was wondering, it's been slow around here lately because the semester just started and I just started writing the dissertation. Whew!

Other than the madness of that, everything else is fine here.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Pasolini, Maria Callas - Medea (1969) 10/12

The king and his daughter die- this time it's more squalid than sorcery.

Things reach their tragic conclusion as Medea kills her children and sets their home on fire to burn within.


Pasolini, Maria Callas - Medea (1969) 09/12

Medea is banished. She sleeps again with Jason one last time and her revenge begins again, this time for real.


Pasolini, Maria Callas - Medea (1969) 08/12

Death by poisoned gown; Pasolini even makes this look like a religious ritual.

Medea is to be exiled.


Pasolini, Maria Callas - Medea (1969) 07/12

Ten years have passed and Medea is now a neglected wife. She secretly visits the city of Corinth where Jason is hound-dogging around. Summoning up her power as a sorceress, she vows to get revenge. From here, we are following the basic events of Euripides's play.

She sends the poisoned robes to Glauce, the King's daughter who Jason plans to marry.


Pasolini, Maria Callas - Medea (1969) 06/12

1. Check out the gorgeous cinematography.
We're now in Corinth and the local women are terrified of Medea. In this scene, she is stripped of her glamour garb by the locals and dressed for her new life as a Corinth housefrau. It's a step down to say the least. As she walks away with the ghost-like women singing behind her, the scene turns eerie.

But Medea's new life has its rewards, as we see in the scene in which she gazes adoringly at Jason's nude body as he sleeps.

In the last scene here, the centaur tells Jason of Medea's plight living in a world in which the sacred has been desecrated. He describes this as a reverse conversion and says that Jason cannot escape this spiritual realm, foreshadowing his eventual downfall.


Monday, September 01, 2008

Pasolini, Maria Callas - Medea (1969) 05/12

So, we're about halfway through the film and, judging by the blog's traffic counter, I'm the only one enjoying it! Oh well. I might just post the rest of it at once and be done with it. But today I'm posting #5 out of 10 (11 and 12 are extra footage that I'm skipping).

I'm enjoying it anyway. I don't know if Pasolini has made it entirely clear why Medea is so enamored with Jason, but you'll see in this sequence that leaving with him- and betraying her people in the process- is a mixed blessing at best. As you'll see here, she's realizing that these men are much less religious than her own people.

Pasolini was a Marxist and sometimes I think people look too hard to see that in his films. But there might be a parallel here to be made with the west and the 'third world' versus Jason's people and Medea's. At any rate, some critics have drawn the comparison.

I'd just like to note the costume design in this section. Remember that these tribes are people who were long gone when Euripedes was writing, so all of this had to be created by the filmmakers.


Someone tell me what's going on here?

Soldiers kissing
Originally uploaded by oferchrissake
I mean, I can see it's two soldiers kissing. But... what, now?

Local street art. Stencil on tile on bridge support.