Saturday, November 29, 2008

Today in Great News Headlines

''Cardboard Cutout causes Standoff with New Jersey Police''

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Wanda Jackson - Funnel of Love

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The Trypilian Culture

The Trypilian Culture refers to an ancient society which existed in present day Ukraine 7,000 – 5,000 years ago. It was a sophisticated culture, ''known for creating the largest settlements anywhere in the world at the time, only to inexplicably disappear''.

The Royal Ontario Museum is holding an exhibition. ''With Ukraine’s First Lady, Mrs. Kateryna Yushchenko serving as honorary patron, Mysteries of Ancient Ukraine: the Remarkable Trypilian Culture (5400 – 2700 BC) is organized by the ROM in collaboration with [a number of other museums and archaeological societies]. The exhibition is based on artifacts first discovered by Ukrainian archaeologist Vikenty Khvoika in 1896, including tools, items of adornment, ceramic figures, earthenware portraits, and pottery. Trypilian pottery, with its sophisticated decorative schemes, attractive forms and fine execution, is generally recognized as second to none in the Neolithic world.''

I'll see if I can go.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Kids on Drugs

Hyperactive Child

I’m tired of kissin’ ass
I can’t sit still all day
You know I know your school’s a lie
That’s why you dragged me here
“You’re a hyperactive child
You’re destructive, you’re too wild
We’re going to calm you down
Now this won’t hurt a bit”
Drag me to the floor
Pullin’ down my pants
Ram a needle up my butt
Put my brain into a trance
“No more hyperactive child
Got too much of a mind
Wouldn’t you rather be happy?
Now this won’t hurt a bit”
Cameras in the halls
No windows, just brick walls
Pledge allegiance to a flag
Now you will obey...

(Song: Dead Kennedys, Album: In God We Trust, Inc.)
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Margaret Soltan points us in the direction of a Frontline episode on The Medicated Child. Her interest is in Joseph Biederman, a doctor who published an epochal paper, and later a book, claiming that a large number of ADHD kids were really bipolar, which in turn helped fuel a massive upsurge in bipolar diagnoses. Essentially, you have millions of kids taking drugs that were never tested on children for a disorder that they might not have. As the Dr. Spaceman character on 30 Rock once said, ''Well, medicine is not a science''.

The fear that some of us have that these people have no idea what they're doing is not helped by the fact that Biederman has since admitted that he failed to acknowledge over a million dollars in fees from drug companies whose antipsychotic medications he had promoted to treat bipolar disorder in children. Whoops! Soltan writes: ''It’s not easy to get a handle on how cruel people like Biederman are, and how complicit in that cruelty universities that retain faculty like Biederman are. People don’t want to believe that reputable institutions can be viciously crass and cynical.''

It's just as hard for me to understand parents who are relieved to discover that their child has a psychological disease because otherwise their hyperactivity or depression might reflect badly on life in the suburbs. About a month ago, I went off Prozac, partly because it wasn't really helping, and partly because I decided that, in light of the fact that I live in a shit-hole town with nothing to do and study at a university with no intellectual community whatsoever and a strong dedication to moneymaking above all else, I really should be cranky and depressed from time to time. Was I maybe right at age 16? Isn't this culture really kinda stultifying? Dissatisfaction drives human endeavour. So, aren't many of these psychological ''symptoms'' really a boon to human societies that we shouldn't be trying to wipe out? What's going on here?

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

To our friends in the US...

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!

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Mixed Use Urbanization

P1050578

I've been in cities that have gardens and parks and green zones and nature preserve areas. But until now, I don't think I'd ever been in a city with actual plowed fields.... Agricultural zones within the city limits. Does this even happen in America? Would Americans have a different relationship to land and the origins of consumables if it did? I suspect the answer to both questions is probably no.

However, none of that is why I took the picture. I was struck by the contrast... the bus stop in an industrial area, behind a cemetary. Everything was still and quiet in this direction, behind me, tank trucks were filling up with diesel at some kind of depot next to the railyard. The field had been plowed just this morning, apparently, steam was rising from the freshly gouged furrows.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

i wish you knew me

Local music, animation, and wallpaper. Of course I'll post it.

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The Department Conservative

So it's come to this: our department conservative has decided to leave for greener, less liberal pastures. I'm not sure if he was our department's only conservative; there's another professor who seems fairly conservative to me. But, he fancied himself to be the sole conservative in the department. And he acted the part: ranting about Hillary Clinton in his lectures, posting complaints about liberal academia on his office door, even wearing the bowtie. It's sad to see him go though. It's always sad to see your department lose one of its livelier characters.

He was unhappy for some time. Many of the older professors in the department are sixties throwbacks and he apparently had problems with four in particular. He hasn't named names, but I know who he's referring to. They're all great scholars but perhaps a bit stuck in the summer of '69. They'll probably be retired within a decade. You can never tell with academics though: they tend to stay on forever. Our conservative character, who is leaving to teach at another university, is 71. The younger academics are less interested in fighting the culture wars; actually, I think this is true of younger people in general.

Anyway, his complaints about the history department boil down to two main themes:
1. The emphasis here is on research instead of teaching. The irony is that the four older professors in question are also extremely dedicated to teaching. But, he's right. Our department has remade itself as a ''major research center''; what this means is that we pressure new hires to do research and not to focus too much on teaching. Professionalism over pedagogy. Those of us who are grad students take up the slack. In other words, the students are getting ripped off, not that they care. Most infuriating to me are the young academics who join our department, promptly take a research leave, return from sabbatical a year later, and leave the department for another university- never teaching a single class.

2. The leftward tilt of the department inhibits thought. This is, I think, a valid concern throughout academia. Let's face it- too many academics are unreflectively liberal. The point was hammered home to me listening to some of our grad students talk about the department conservative's departure. One of them actually said to me, ''Well, of course, conservatives aren't happy in history. Contemporary historiography has come to reject nationalism, and nationalism is the backbone of conservatism''. Sheesh. Burke wept.

Things came to a boil for the department conservative over two incidents. In the first, some sort of department ''statement against the Iraq War'' was posted on the department door for people to sign. He thought this was inappropriate. It sounds that way to me too, although this was before my time so I didn't actually see the thing. I probably wouldn't have signed it myself, mostly because you can say I'm not a joiner.

In the second incident, a fellow professor sent him a typed letter saying that they could no longer be friends at a time in which the United States had tipped over into soft fascism. I did see this one: our conservative scallywag posted it on his door. It struck me as a bit silly. If the United States is now a fascist country, why would the department character with the bowtie be your first target for resistance? I just chuckled at it, but apparently, our department conservative no longer felt comfortable in the department. I'm not sure how I might respond in a similar situation. People are entitled to be friends with whoever they want to, but after forty years in a department, it's got to hurt to be treated that way, especially if you already feel out of place.

He eventually responded by leaving for the other university and doing a long interview with the student newspaper detailing his complaints. We have a handful of students who really get off on the idea that academia is overwhelmingly liberal because it makes them feel like rebels for voting for McCain. It's all pretty infantile, but they were more than willing to humor the department conservative's persecution complex. In fact, they put him on the cover. They've published editorials in past years lauding him and saying how refreshing it is to have a professor who complains about Hillary Clinton in class. I'd imagine the fellow will be a guest on Fox News by the end of the month.

Honestly, I'd find it more refreshing not to hear about other people's political opinions at every turn. You might notice that a theme in this whole story is that profs in my department can be a bit touchy with one another and could stand to handle their differences in a more adult manner. A sub-theme would seem to be the bizarrely American idea that all human life-forms can be divided into three groups: Liberal, Conservative, and Independent. Academia could use a lot less of profs being unreflectively liberal, but that doesn't imply that it needs more unreflective conservatives. Of course, you'll notice that many conservative critics of academia have actaully been calling for more apolitical professors for some time now. But, you'll also notice that conservative critics of academia have changed absolutely nothing in over four decades of criticising.

What academia could use right now, as the larger culture gets sucked into the mass delusion of popular politics, is people who are smart enough to see through the vacuous dogmas of right and left, most of which are infantile and anti-intellectual. To be honest, I can't stand Hillary Clinton or John McCain, and I'm increasingly convinced that academics should be of no real party or creed. After all, in the humanities we study the human soul, which takes myriad forms of expression, politics perhaps being the least significant and the most narrowing.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Money for Dummies

Writing in the Daily Beast, college sophomore Zac Bissonnette claims, ''The failure of the schools to teach kids about money has done more to perpetuate the status quo than any lobbyist in Washington could ever dream of.'' Uh-oh. He thinks that High Schools should offer, ''home economics class with a focus on finance and budgeting''. What could such a class teach? ''Resisting temptation would be a good start. From the time they turn eighteen, students are bombarded with credit card offers.'' He also suggests that the class teach how to save for the future and the basics of home ownership.


He makes the point, repeatedly, that high schools offer what he sees as less valuable classes, such as Latin, instead of teaching ''practical life skills''. Good point. Maybe when we're done the state can take up all the responsibilities of parenting. A culture of big babies can't be expected to teach their children mysterious and esoteric skills like not being idiots with their money. Oh, why doesn't somebody (else) do something?!

You know, honestly, I'm starting to think that this recession is the best thing that could have happened at this point.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Foundling

''Foundling'', a sculpture [commissioned?] by Patricia Piccinini from the show Related Individuals at the Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney, Australia. The show is on until Dec. 6th.

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Housing Bubble

Before he had even obtained his diploma Pascal Häusermann had designed his first house. He was twenty years old and immediately discovered his particular form of expression: the bubble. His father was his first backer, investing a modest 5000 Swiss francs for his first egg-house. Pascal scrawled out a sphere. He first conceived of an orb in wood and then with a metal armature. Christophe Montaucieux: ''It sufficed to use the most economical shape in nature, the sphere, in order to obtain the most expensive house.'' The coming bubble house was discussed in magazines and gossiped about throughout the region. A Time Magazine article from 1967 noted that visitors compared the houses to, ''a flying saucer, a giant clam or a monstrous white mushroom.''

The Häusermann sphere is, essentially, modular architecture, which grows by aggregations and accumulations, freely taking from its suroundings. It is designed to evolve. Häusermann once asked: ''Why adapt individuals to architecture when it is easier to adapt architecture to the individual?''

From the end of the 1950s, Häusermann and a handful of allies, including Chanéac and Ionel Schein, assembled coccoons and bubbles- restaraunts, a school and numerous houses throughout France and Switzerland. Their mottos extreme economy in general, ability of the habitat to evolve, and mobility. With Patrick Le Merdy, he launched a line of ''Domobiles''. Made of frothy polyurethane, they could be transported by truck. The cost, however, was prohibitive and they weren't exactly built to last. The authorization to construct them never arrived. Häusermann returned to traditional architecture, restoring the Clarté building, ironically enough with Le Courbusier, the master of collectivist architecture.

Jump ahead to 2005, and Pascal, now a musician and pilot as well as an architect, returns to constructing egg-buildings in India. This time, however, they are built to last- out of steel.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Castrating the Computer

I've castrated my computer- taken it in and had it ''fixed'' so that it will no longer run around the digital city picking up viruses from strange computers. It seems to be much better behaved now that it's a gelding, more placid and obedient.

It was very simple actually. When I brought my laptop in to have a virus removed, I asked our tech expert to completely disable the wireless access. I've tried doing it myself, but it's pretty difficult to actually disable the wireless in a way that you can't easily enable it when the fancy strikes you. Just about anything I could think to do was easy to undo. So, he's disabled it almost completely- there are fairly elaborate instructions to enable it, if I absolutely need to; but I haven't even seen them.

It's just too tempting to surf the net when I should be working on the dissertation; and for some reason, it's just too hard to find a good laptop without wireless access built in. I like to think that I have more self-control than I really do. For me, though, doing my work on a laptop with Internet access is like working at a desk in an office with a television set and free cable built in. Sometimes, I think you need to be bored when working, in order to work your way through some tough problem. With the Internet, it's easier to spend that time watching cats falling off things on Youtube. I have tried writing out all my notes in longhand, and still do drafts this way; but it's not exactly efficient.

So, I'm keeping the Internet-accessible computer in the basement and the neutered one in my office.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

HERMAN DUNE

I'm running the risk of posting too many videos here, but this one made me smile. So, let's see if it works.

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Appetite for Distraction

If you're so inclined, you can listen to the entire forthcoming Guns N' Roses album today on their Myspace site for free. If you need to find your bandanna and ripped jeans first, that's fine.

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Hide the Children!!

They're Coming to Your Town- sort of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers by way of Fire Island (Invasion of the Hot Body Snatchers?), this documentary from the Family Association of Families, or something like that, promises to tell you about what will happen when gays invade your small town. It focuses on one town in particular:

''Residents of the small Arkansas town of Eureka Springs noticed the homosexual community was growing. But they felt no threat. They went about their business as usual. Then, one day, they woke up to discover that their beloved Eureka Springs, a community which was known far and wide as a center for Christian entertainment--had changed. The City Council had been taken over by a small group of homosexual activists.''

Hey, Ma and Pa Kettle, the Christmas Pageant is cancelled!! Mwah-ha-ha!!!

''The Eureka Springs they knew is gone. It is now a national hub for homosexuals. Eureka Springs is becoming the San Francisco of Arkansas.'' [Formerly Little Rock]

Meanwhile, in the Meth Belt, otherwise known as the ''moral backbone of America'', good Christian Nebraska parents are apparently preparing for the coming gay onslaught. The state made the mistake, when offering ''safe haven'' to any parent looking to abandon their children at Nebraska hospitals, of not specifying what they meant by ''child''. The idea was to prevent ''dumpster babies'', but...

''Sure enough, 18 teenagers — five 17-year-olds, two 16-year-olds, six 15-year-olds, two 14-year-olds, three 13-year-olds — have been abandoned, along with eight children who were 11 or 12. Five of the children dropped off have been from out of state.''

Lest I remind you, this is exactly how Children of the Corn started...

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ruins of an Empire

To go with that story about Buffalo, here's a video of Detroit, a rust belt city that's declined in much the same way. What can we do with the ruins of a bygone industrial era? I wish I knew.

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Buffalo Modernism

The New York Times ran a pretty good article recently on the architectural marvels in Buffalo. It's long overdue. The city is a veritable architecture museum, with great buildings by some of the leading lights of the twentieth century.

''ONE of the most cynical clichés in architecture is that poverty is good for preservation. The poor don’t bulldoze historic neighborhoods to make way for fancy new high-rises.
That assumption came to mind when I stepped off a plane here recently. Buffalo is home to some of the greatest American architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with major architects like Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright building marvels here. Together they shaped one of the grandest early visions of the democratic American city.
Yet Buffalo is more commonly identified with the crumbling infrastructure, abandoned homes and dwindling jobs that have defined the Rust Belt for the past 50 years. And for decades its architecture has seemed strangely frozen in time.''

The article details the struggle by preservationists to save classic buildings in a city where, economically, nothing much is happening. Add to that Homeland Security's plan to demolish a historic neighborhood in order to expand near the Peace Bridge and Mayor Byron Brown's dream of demolishing several vacant buildings, and you get the feeling that Buffalo is some sort of high modernist stage setting for a play that has ended its run.

''The city’s rise began in 1825 with the opening of the Erie Canal, which opened trade with the heartland. By the end of the 19th century the city’s grain silos and steel mills had become architectural pilgrimage sites for European Modernists like Erich Mendelsohn and Bruno Taut, who saw them as the great cathedrals of Modernity. In their vast scale and technological efficiency, they reflected a triumphant America and sent a warning signal to Europe that it was fast becoming less relevant.''

Yet it is the parade of celebrated architects who worked here as much as the city’s industrial achievements that makes Buffalo a living history lesson. Daniel Burnham’s 1896 Ellicott Square Building, with its mighty Italian Renaissance facade, towers over the corner of Main and Church Streets. Just a block away is Louis Sullivan’s 1895 Guarantee Building, a classic of early skyscraper design decorated in intricate floral terra-cotta tiles.

Across town, Henry Hobson Richardson built his largest commission: the 1870 Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, composed of a pair of soaring Romanesque towers flanked by low brick pavilions. Light and air poured in through tall windows; spacious 18-foot-wide corridors were designed to promote interaction among the inmates, an idea that would be refined by Modernists in their communal housing projects decades later.


But it was Wright who made the decisive leap from an architecture that drew mainly on European stylistic precedents to one that was rooted in a growing cultural self-confidence. Wright built two of those great pillars of American architecture here, the 1904 Larkin Building and the 1905 Darwin D. Martin House.''

[Pictured- Wright's design for the Larkin Building]

''Although torn down in 1950, the Larkin Building, designed as the headquarters of the Larkin Soap Company, remains one of the most influential designs of the 20th century. Wright invented floor-to-ceiling glass doors, double-pane windows and toilets affixed to the walls for this monument to American business. Massive, forbidding brick piers anchoring the exterior signaled a break with classical historical styles. The light-filled atrium piercing its five floors, with managers visible at their desks at the bottom, turned the traditional office hierarchy on its head.''


[But it's not just the buildings that define Buffalo Modernism...]

This departure from recycled European precedents is reflected in the city’s late-19th-century urban planning as well. Buffalo’s original plan from the early 19th century was loosely based on Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington, an Americanized version of Paris’s system of radiating boulevards. Its civic core, dominated by a mountainous City Hall, reads as an isolated fragment of a City Beautiful plan that was never fully realized.
Olmsted, as much social reformer as landscape architect, had visited John Paxson’s Birkenhead Park near Liverpool, a pioneering project designed to better the lives of the city’s working class. When he returned to New York, he expanded on that vision in his designs for Central and Prospect Parks, which he conceived as realms of psychological healing that could also break down class boundaries.

In Buffalo he realized an even grander ambition, creating a vast network of parks and parkways that he hoped would have “a civilizing effect” on the “dangerous classes” populating the American city. Flanked by rows of elm trees, the parkways were broken up by a series of gorgeous landscaped roundabouts, slowing the city’s rhythms of movement into something more majestic yet distinctly democratic.


It didn’t last of course. By the 1950s Buffalo’s economy had already embarked on its long path to disintegration. The completion in 1959 of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which created a more direct route to the Atlantic Ocean, made the Erie Canal obsolete and deprived the city of its commercial lifeline. Economic decline was exacerbated by race riots in 1967 and white flight to the suburbs. By the mid-1970s the inner city was being abandoned.''

The slow bleeding out of Buffalo has continued. It's hard to know what to do with downtown, which is still gorgeous, but has an apocalyptic feel with so few people on the streets, aside from a few drunks and panhandlers. It would be a travesty to tear down some of the most beautiful buildings in American history in order to free up the real estate. When you tour these old Rust Belt cities, you get a feeling for how hollow promises to ''help Main Street'' ring here- a huge swath of the country hasn't been Main Street since the 1960s. It's a shame too, because wandering around these wonders of aesthetics and engineering, what you see is that cities like Buffalo still look like Main Street.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Upper 0.33%

I'd like to quantify one of my gripes about teaching recitations at Mall University. Today, the recitations were to discuss a classic book that they were assigned for this week. This means that my job was to spur a conversation and moderate it: make sure that they were understanding the reading. So, generally, their first assignment each week is to do the readings, and then to come to recitation with the book, ready to discuss it.

This week, as I have in the past, I did a poll of who had done the readings. I have a total of 66 students, but a handful have dropped out. So, of the about 60 who came to the three recitations, one student had done the readings. For two recitations, nobody had read anything, and one girl read in one recitation. Attendance was fairly high. However, the average per recitation was about 0.33% of the students having read.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Desolation Rows


There are many of us who are just curious enough to poke through piles of interesting-looking rubbish left on curbs for the trashmen to see what might be in there. Massachusetts diner owner Don Levy checked out a battered old suitcase to discover that it had unpublished photographs of Hiroshima after the bombing.

Design Observer has the whole fascinating story. Mr. Levy:

“We see death and disaster all over TV but these photographs are different, maybe because they are physical objects. They don’t represent the horror, exactly, because there are no bodies. They’re clinical. But the power of them is really intense. Why is that? I think it’s because I can’t help but place myself behind the lens. What was that guy feeling when he took the photos? He was clicking and whirling, clicking and whirling. These photographs seem real, connected to the event. They have a power in them. I never would have thrown away that suitcase on purpose.”

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First snowflakes

The skies have retained their grey cataract since my last update. I guess it's been a few weeks now. One consolation, however- it started snowing today. The first snowflakes of the year are always thrilling, no matter how many years you have lived to see them.

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Lazy Sunday Browsing

I'm guessing that you all like old photographs like I do; so, venture into the Francophone end of the Internet pool and check out this blog. The Galerie Lumière des Roses in Paris exhibits nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century photography and there are many great photos to be found on this, the galllery blog. Don't worry if you don't read French- just look around and enjoy!

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Just a mortal with the potential of a superman

My grandparents were people who believed in the ''Great Books'' program, and they were constantly encouraging us to read their handsome, leather bound, editions of the ''Great Ideas of the West'' or ''The World of Plato'', or their vintage National Geographics. I guess it must have taken- last night, I sat up reading Flaubert and Hesiod.

In a new book, Alex Beam looks at the Great Books movement and historicizes it. Wendy Smith reviews

''The postwar boom in higher education fueled by the GI Bill and the rise of a broad middle class with money to spend and pretensions to justify had something to do with it. Ads playing on their insecurities definitely helped: "The ability to Discuss and Clarify Basic Ideas is vital to success. Doors open to the man who possesses this talent." Quote Plato and impress your boss!

''The program had a good run before sales "fell off the cliff" in the 1980s. Beam marvels that Britannica and Adler, the only surviving member of the triumvirate, decided to relaunch the Great Books in 1990, "the very moment that the Western canon and 'dead white males' in particular were under siege."


It didn't go well. You have to wonder what happened here. I've always seen the 'dead white males' argument as something of a cop out, and besides, it came of age in the early 90s, after the fall from the cliff. I suspect that people used it to justify the fact that they weren't reading anyway. Is it possible, though, that the Great Books movement was tied to an older conception of work, and that, once that was gone, it no longer seemed worth the bother to read them? Was anyone really reading them in the first place?

And yet, hard to believe, but people are still reading them. The main assumption of the Great Books movement is that the best things written, said, or thought should not be off-limits for any person, and this argument is still suited to a populist society. There are still schools that teach on this assumption, people who track down the great books, and networks of fans. I am currently TAing for a course that teaches the great books from around the world. Hesiod still has something to say to me, at least.

And, ultimately, there's really not much to replace them out there. There are some great contemporary writers, but not enough to fill your reading schedule with; television is still formulaic and repetitive; looking for good material on the Internet is like diving for a pearl necklace in an Olympic size swimming pool of merde. This will become increasingly tiresome. I think these things go in cycles. There's no reason to believe that the people who are keeping the torch alive in the digital dark ages aren't doing exactly the right thing.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

'Five years, that's all we've got!'

Is the Mayan calendar right? Will the world end in 2012? Disinformation has put together a documentary in which all sorts of interesting people, like Douglas Rushkoff and Daniel Pinchbeck, discuss the possibility. Roland Emmerich also has a movie coming out, called 2012 and apparently based on the same idea. Here's the stunning trailer, complete with the music from The Shining. And here's David Bowie performing 'Five Years' back in 1972.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

Something to do over the weekend


Holly asked about anti Prop 8 protests. Apparently, there's a national protest tomorrow. People will be marching across the country and you can find out what's going on in your area by going here. My advice is to focus on the issue of licensing and the utter ridiculousness of the proposition, its radicalism, and its needless vindictiveness. Also, take some time to celebrate the love that makes people want to marry in the first place.

And best wishes from Canada!

Update: Some Canadians are protesting this proposition too. Apparently, they're meeting at US consulates tomorrow to protest. Because the US government should do what exactly?

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The Criminality of My Students

(...in which Rufus morphs into an angry old man in a Saul Bellow novel.)

I'm hitting the wall with instructing these classes. My motivation is at its lowest point and I'm ready to give up on these recitations entirely. There are only so many weeks that you can come in and explain the readings to people who haven't read them; who are in turn contemptuous towards you for trying to help them before the exams. It's demoralizing and irritating. Perhaps more irritating though. I don't worry if the students are happy or not, but as Lee Ermey said in Full Metal Jacket, this is my beloved corps. Academia must survive.

Grading the latest batch of essays, I think I know what's so dispiriting about these classes. It's not the thoroughgoing contempt they have towards us; after all, they come from a culture that views strenuous intellectual activity as ''elitist'' and ''effete''. They were raised to find us, and perhaps all authority figures, as an obstacle to be overcome. Also, they have just left a high school environment that amounts to state-run babysitting.

It's not the laziness either; teenagers are lazy, and especially when they've gone from a structured environment to a four-year, unchaperoned beer blast. I expect them to do very little work on their assignments, and sadly, to drop out of college in the startlingly high percentages that they do. In fact, I'd actually be much happier with essays that showed open laziness and indifference. I would admire the honestly.

Instead, I get papers and exams that are almost entirely dishonest. Some are plagiarized, others use any number of flimsy ruses to give the illusion that they did whatever was asked of them. I've actually gotten plagiarized papers in which they put more effort into the plagiarism than they would have had to in doing the actual assignment. More common is talking out their ass about things they have no idea about- the Sarah Palin school of answering questions.

With this assignment, they had to read a book and find passages that demonstrated how women were viewed in the society portrayed. Having read the book, I can say that the professor was clearly pointing towards certain passages in which the characters actually discuss how women were viewed in the society. This sounds easy, but the problem for these students was that those passages were not on the first five pages, so they never read them. Instead, the majority of them found random paragraphs in the first five pages that mention a woman, any woman, and pretended that there was some great insight there. Then they larded on some ridiculous pseudo-feminist claptrap since they assume we're all liberals. ''When she combs her hair on page 2 it shows how women were horribly oppressed in this society. They were like slaves!'' In other words, they talked out their asses. And that's the case for the 50 percent that didn't copy off the Internet.

I know that kids do this sort of thing. And I know that they do it to all of our instructors and professors, even the really brilliant ones. I don't take it personally. But, I think what irritates me is how deeply ingrained in them is this mentality that they should always manipulate people who are in authority positions. So many of them are so completely dishonest that the course becomes this sort of game every semester- you see how well you can fake it, and I'll see if I can catch you. Students will brag openly in the student newspaper about having never read one book in their four years of college. They'll get back exams and exclaim, ''I can't believe I got away with a C!'' I remember a student's tee-shirt last year ''It's only illegal if you get caught.'' I think that sums up the mentality. It's the idea that doing something the right way and cheating or deceiving your way through are ultimately all the same thing. I think it's their criminality that bothers me.

I think that's not too strong a word either. Without any sort of authority in their lives, no one has ever inculcated any sort of personal ethics or standards into them. Many of them have an attitude in which you try to see what scam you can get away with first, and then if that doesn't work, you do what was asked of you. Again, I know this will sound harsh, but I guarantee that most of my colleagues at Mall University will recognize exactly what I'm saying. A high percentage of our students simply have very little in the way of personal morality, ethics, or character; and we have no way to instill those things in them by the time they reach us. As Allan Bloom said- in a passage that most readers miss- when we get them in the university, it's already too late. Besides, like most other cultural institutions, the university is dead as Dillinger.

Their weak and fluid sense of ethics is also perfectly understandable. They came of age in a decaying commodity culture without any permanent values or authority. They are struggling to enter a professional world with high turnover and little to no company loyalty; an environment that fosters manipulative behavior in its harried employees. Many of them are from families split by divorce, an event experienced by children as devastating evidence that not even the home is safe from lying and betrayal. Many of them belong to vestigial versions of organized religions that have lost all power to compel.

And then remember that we teach in a rust belt county that has been in a depression for several years now, in which a large percentage of the adult population already takes part in the grey market, or even the black market. So some of these kids have relatives who are working labor off the books while collecting disability insurance; and others live in neighborhoods like the one I lived in for two years, in which three houses on the block were the branch offices of drug dealers. Crime and fraud is a major part of the local economy, criminality of the local culture. Their first lesson about employers was that their parents were abandoned and betrayed by the crown jewels of American capitalism. Of course, they're cynical.

Many of my colleagues, especially the TAs, complain about this and say, ''Wait until they get into the working world. They'll learn that you can't go through life doing as little work as possible and faking it as much as possible.'' But, of course, the punchline here is that this mentality- minimum effort and maximum presentation of self- comes directly from the corporate world. They're already ideal to work in most offices. Sure, they can't read or write; but they know how to ''play the game''. As Christopher Lasch pointed out, way back in 1979, the competitive corporate culture, ''creates the perception that success depends on psychological manipulation and that all of life, even the ostensibly achievement-oriented realm of work, centers on the struggle for interpersonal advantage, the deadly game of intimidating friends and seducing people.''

I think what's really depressing to me is this sense that I live in a culture that has no permanent values or reality principle. The economy is based in IOUs, the little black lie of economics, the number one export is debt that amounts to horseshit, the war is about projecting an image abroad, political discussions now just discuss the spectacle, and I feel like every other discourse amounts to a con. I can't be the only one who is tired of constantly being marketed to by snake oil salesmen. I'm sick of living in the society of the spectacle.

I think a lot of people are. It's no wonder so many of them are talking about ''change''. But, for things to really change, it would require a maximum effort and a minimum of posturing. In other words, ''change'' has to be something more than another advertising slogan! Notice that most of the things I'm noticing here have been the gripes of ''paleoconservatives'' for the last century, and have more recently become the gripes of the left through the matrix of ''lost community''. But, the problem is still here- the shallow transience of contemporary life still creates damaged people whose personality veers from that of the narcissist to that of the sociopath. Even more worrying than the ''coming credit collapse'' is the ongoing psychic collapse.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

For Veterans Day and Rembrance Day

In Flanders Fields
the poppies grow
Between the crosses
row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By: Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918) Canadian Army

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Pata Pata by Miriam Makeba

What a sad time for music- the great Miriam Makeba has also passed away. Rest in peace, Mama Africa.

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Yma Sumac - Malambo nº 1

Terrible news- Peruvian five-octave singing goddess Yma Sumac has died in Los Angeles. Rest in peace, Yma. But hopefully not too much peace to mambo.

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Sexual and Administrative Harassment


From the intrepid University Diaries comes this shrewd column from a member of the faculty senate at Southern Illinois University Carbondale dismantling SIUC's new sexual harassment policy. As is often the case with sexual harassment policies, they're a bit heavy-handed.




''The procedures give almost unchecked power to the assistant chancellor for compliance. The compliance officer may ban anyone from campus who is merely accused during an investigation, if it is in the ''best interests'' of the university or may ''aid the investigation''. A security officer knocks on your door to escort you from campus because someone (unspecified) has accused you of something (unspecified).''

Furthermore, in the interest of ''protecting the accuser'', the actual accusations can be withheld from the accused, who is then expected to mount some sort of defense to protect their employment, without actually knowing what they're defending themselves from! ''How can you defend yourself against an accusation of having uttered an 'obscene comment' without even knowing what the comment was?''
[Nice question, pervert! The compliance officer will see you now...]

Also verboten is showing ''sexually explicit materials not related to the curriculum'' in class. Who would determine what is or isn't related to the curriculum? I'm guessing the mystery accuser, and since they would probably be a meek student vulnerable to the instructor's power, I'm guessing it won't necessarily be made clear just what offended who or why. Defending yourself from such accusations might be a bit like boxing while blindfolded.

And then consensual dating is forbidden ''where there is a material and direct power difference between the parties involved''. So newly hired junior faculty cannot date grad students. Luckily, we all know that never happens. It's just such a shame that people in their twenties and thirties cannot be trusted to make adult decisions about who they date without strict guidance from Daddy Compliance Officer. But, humans are flawed; luckily we have bureaucrats to protect us.
So, anyway, the Faculty Senate is a bit concerned. Hopefully, this is not the first time they've gotten the hint that university admins tend to see faculty as a nuisance to be ironed out through heavy-handed bureaucratic policies. I mean, we're not talking about coaches here! Some of these professors are real miscreants!

University Diaries notes:
''The crucial problem is that this campus is a dumping ground for local political hacks, and that these guys wouldn’t know a university if it hit them in the face. As the details of the proposed policy suggest, they just want to run things.''
When overkill sexual harassment policies are passed to cover administrative ass, people often call it ''political correctness run amok''. I tend to see it as the bureaucratization of everyday life. Maybe we're talking about the same thing. These policies are the wet dream of pencil pushing, graph paper-brained, office-dwellers who see the highest form of human society as the corporate world; and in turn want universities to be more like that world. Human interactions should be sanctioned by rule books. Academics are surly, socially-inept, weird- you have to start pushing them around early to make sure they realize that they're not being paid to think.

We all understand the problems involved when really creepy jerks make life miserable for their more vulnerable colleagues. There are certainly people who have no idea when they are being inappropriate, and there need to be ways to get them to knock it off. One suggestion: pulling them aside and saying, ''We've been getting complaints about your dirty jokes and comments. Cut it out or we're moving your office to the boiler room!''

But, I think sexual harassment policies rankle people because they reflect the administrative mindset- that we're all potentially creepy jerks who need to be kept on a short leash. They reduce all human sexual relationships to a short list of types. Even worse, they purport to tell adults which of those relationships are permitted and which are inappropriate. A gentleman does not come calling for a grad student!

Life in the university is not, at least ideally, like life in a corporation. If you put a bunch of bright, young things together, they will hopefully have intense, passionate, intriguing conversations, sometimes over beers- brain-sex, in other words. Some of them will have real sex. Some will form relationships. And, as with all human sexual relationships, there will be a danger that those relationships will go south. The idea that romantic love can be deranging is all throughout literature. Check out the Iliad: the Greeks send a thousand ships to a ten year war because some dude's wife schtups another man.

There's something creepy about regulating and regimenting people's private parts. It's infantilizing and insulting to treat adults like you're their chaperon to the junior prom. And, indeed, part of what's going on here is this tendency to see older and older people as ''children''. But, I suspect that, when people talk about ''political correctness'', what they're referring to is the technocratic urge to regulate all human expression. This is an urge that runs throughout a culture that is steadily becoming mindless, banal, and boring in other words, professionalized.

It is a genuinely immoral urge.

[Note: Incidentally, that statue, from Korea, really is immortalizing the act known as 'Kancho'- sneaking up behind someone and sticking your finger in their ass.]

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Actual Democracy in the Nation of China Still Forthcoming

Over at Rolling Stone (which I'm told used to be a music magazine instead of a cheesy lad rag), David Fricke has written the first review of the forthcoming Guns N' Roses album, Chinese Democracy. He likes it. That's a relief; could you imagine if the record got a bad first review and they decided that it needed more work?

To be honest, I'm more excited about the free Dr. Pepper promotion than the actual record. But, I'll probably wind up buying it anyway. The short version of the Guns N' Roses story: Appetite for Destruction was a great rock record, in my opinion, but nothing they released after that was nearly as good. Chinese Democracy probably won't be either, but there's something fascinating to me about the fact that Axl Rose has spent a full third of his life working on this album. He makes Brian Wilson look restrained.

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Boycotting the Mormons


Understandably, people are still pretty pissed about Prop 8, the constitutional amendment against gay marriage, passing in California, and some are taking it out on Utah. Apparently, the Mormon Church urged their members to bankroll the movement to pass Proposition 8, having very little sympathy for people being persecuted by the government for their non-traditional marriages.

Many Mormons are dismayed about this, including Steve Young, America's coolest Mormon. Gay rights groups have been protesting outside of Mormon Temples in California, terrifying them by dressing as large cups of coffee. Various people have been calling for a boycott of the Mormon Church, something I thought I was already doing when their missionaries come to my door. And then there are people who are apparently going to boycott Utah, a move that just smacks of cool, rational thinking, eh? Now, I'm going to have to tell people, ''No, I'm not boycotting; I just don't go to Utah because it sucks.''

Seriously, though, boycott whatever you want. Like I've said, Prop 8 strikes me as radical, unnecessary and stupid; and a Church focusing their energies on this political crusade seems like they're missing every other thing going on in the world. But, remember this, Utah boycotters- the people you are trying to persuade are those people who don't want to allow gay marriages to take place because they believe, wrongly I think, that such marriages are an attack on their religion. So, in response, you are organizing an attack on their religion. Please, think that one through.

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Historical Note: Kristallnacht

I just wanted to note that this is the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the massive pogrom carried out by the Nazis in Germany on November 9th and 10th, 1938. It was a significant indication of what was to come under the Nazi regime.


"Indifference is the first step towards endangering essential values," said Chancellor Angela Merkel at a memorial ceremony yesterday. From Ha'aretz article.

David Harris:
''Kristallnacht reminds us of the lurking capacity for inhumanity that resides in the human spirit.

Kristallnacht reminds us of nations that prided themselves on advanced levels of civilization, yet had a capacity for barbarism that exploded in ways never before witnessed.

Kristallnacht reminds us of the dire consequences when a targeted people is utterly without recourse to any means of self-defense.

Kristallnacht reminds us of the fertile soil of anti-Semitism, cultivated for centuries by religious, racial, and political ideologies obsessed with murdering, exiling, converting, segregating, or scapegoating the Jews.

Kristallnacht reminds us that there is a slippery slope from the demonization of a people, to the dehumanization of a people, to the destruction of a people.''

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Now Entering the Grey Months

I could not shoot a video of the local environment akin to the one below- you would think it was in black and white! We have entered the grey months. It has been 'overcast' for the last three or four days straight and cold enough that our cat is not interested in being let outside anymore. One neat thing: we had about a week straight of thick fog right at that spooky time of year in which it seems most appropriate.

I hate the grey months though. My mood drops and I start thinking it's bedtime at about 5 in the evening! For my birthday, I asked for a fedora and a small sun lamp. The weather is depressing, but it sort of focuses one too- a bit like a challenge to us humans to defy the cold and gloom. I feel like sitting in my office, working, which is not generally the case during other seasons. In the north, we have had a number of brilliant thinkers with brains like glass-cutting diamond. I've noticed that they tend to be a bit gloomy, though. I'm not brilliant, but I do understand the gloom. We're as much shaped by our environment as vice-versa.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Autumn Leaves in Kyoto

I always like beautiful images of places that I can't visit right now. Hope everyone enjoys this too.

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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Not a Conservative or a Progressive

Brian brings up a good point in this comment:

''When you write something like this
..the state cannot change human beings- it cannot make us conform to other people’s religious beliefs. Social engineering is impossible and essentially totalitarian
are you sure you're really a progressive?''

No, I would say that I do not fit into the progressive movement. I do agree with them on a number of issues- abortion, gay rights, the failure of the drug war, the need to preserve the environment, and the belief that a gap between the rich and the poor can only widen so far before society collapses. When it comes to overarching goals, I think the progressives can still send me their mailings. If nothing else, we have similar gripes, and there's nothing more bonding than bitching about things.

Where I disagree with them, and it's sort of a big thing, is that I believe human beings are innately imperfect. I don't believe that putting people in an ideal environment will make them ideal people. We are irrational, and passionate, and flawed beyond belief- and I think this is a good thing. So I believe that we'll never get to a point in which people are universally just and giving, or in which we've ended racism, or in which all of our children see themselves as stewards of the earth. We will always have a few psychopaths pop up. And I believe that the effects of education are limited. Change will never be total, and for me, a world in which everyone thinks the same way is a nightmare, even if that means that we will always have bigots to argue with.

More importantly, I think that change has to come slowly from the ground up, by persuading enough people to want it. I don't think you can make people perfect, but I do believe you can convince them to want to do things in a better way. So, in terms of gay rights, I don't think we'll ever live in a world without homophobes, but I do think we'll eventually convince a majority of people that the laws should be fairer, even if they personally don't care for homosexuals.

Now, for the Conservatives. I've often had people tell me that I am a ''small-c conservative'' because of a number of things I believe: that the government can't make people better, that traditional ways of understanding the world worked as well as scientific reason and that losing them was the central tragedy of modernity, that cultural institutions like the university cannot function without a strong element of authority, that authority is valid while power is not, that culture is in decline right now, and ultimately that people are imperfect- in large-scale social situations I keep an eye on the door because I believe that civilization is a pretty flimsy hiding place, and chaos is always a possibility. I'm not a ''populist''. I'd probably be okay living under an aristocracy.

In terms of my job, I see myself as a steward of the best that has been thought, said, or written. I have noted before to my colleagues that we are the real cultural conservatives. So, in terms of high culture, I often sound like Alan Bloom; but conservatives need to remember that Bloom never saw himself as a conservative. Christopher Lasch, for example, said a number of things that would please conservatives, but from a place to the Left. Even Marx was a cultural conservative, because he believed that capitalism was anathema to traditional culture. I agree. And few conservatives have argued as strongly against the state's social engineering than Noam Chomsky, who sees himself as an anarchist.

[Incidentally, this fantastic article makes the same point- that ''conservative'' arguments have often come from people like Chomsky or Jane Jacobs who were not of the conservative movement.]

See, the state is a modern phenomenon. Traditionally, people's lives were ordered by smaller collectives: the tribe, the village, the church, the extended family, and so forth. With the rise of the modern state, these centers of traditional authority were replaced by the 'authority' of a bureaucratic, rational government. In many ways, this has been a blessing: disparate villages would never have been able to organize polio vaccinations, for example. Churches can indeed be irrational and psychologically-damaging.

But, the loss of these ordering, traditional ways of understanding the world and one's place in the world was, for most people, a tragedy. Sure, a Voltaire can dance over the abyss; but most people feel vaguely lost within modernity. The state can force people to conform in more malevolent and total ways than any traditional authority could- this was Foucault's argument. The conservatives describe this tragedy as a loss of traditional values, while people to the left bemoan the loss of community. And I'm still fond of the Enlightenment and science. But I'm not sure that anything science or the state provides can equal what was lost. Most importantly, I don't think the state has ever fully justified its existence.

I am as much a child of Romanticism as a child of the Enlightenment.

I differ with Conservatives in two ways here: I agree with Marx that capitalism is corrosive of traditional cultures; traditional values say that we must do what is good for our communities, capitalism says that the standard of value is our will- community is ultimately about the negation of the will. Incidentally, so is democracy. Capitalism profits from the breakdown of traditional authority. Just because Communism has been worse doesn't mean that Capitalism is a panacea

Secondly, and unlike many religious conservatives, I don't think we can, or should, go back to traditional structures of authority. They have crumbled, and we can't make ourselves believe in God in the way that the pre-moderns did. This was the point that Nietzsche- another cultural conservative- made. I agree with conservatives that the state should be chipped away at- I disagree that either corporations or churches should take its place as a center of authority, or of power. I am not a reactionary.

So, if traditional centers of authority have withered away, and one hopes the state will largely wither away, what should we have? To be honest, I'm all for small communities of like-minded people without anyone in a position of authority. David Mamet once made the point that everyone who has ever worked in a theatre troupe has felt at one time that plays would be better put on without any directors. Instead, groups of equals working together can avoid the problems that come with multiple levels of authority that distrust each other. Compare the response to Hurricane Katrina of small groups of activists and anarchists who drove in to help to the response of government bureaucracies- who do you think was quicker and more effective? One might note that these non-hierarchical groups might not be able to function with large groups of people- perhaps even anything more than 20 or so. I'm alright with that.

[Incidentally, I don't think Obama has ever gotten the credit he deserves for his own views about bottom-up change. His argument with Hillary Clinton about President Johnson's role in the civil rights movement was about exactly this: she argued that the state ultimately changes things, while Obama argued that groups of people working together at the ground level ultimately bring change. Similarly, he has supported ''faith-based initiatives'' with the argument that local churches can run things like soup lines better than the government- a conservative argument if I ever heard one. Lastly, he was recently vilified by republicans for saying in an interview that the courts are too flawed to force social change- but, if you actually listened to the whole interview, he was arguing that this is why change must come from the culture and not from the courts! Obama might be a liberal, but he's never been as statist as people like Hillary Clinton... or George W. Bush, for that matter!]

As for me, I would say that I'm not fit for the Progressive Movement or the Conservative Movement. I don't care for Big Mother or Big Brother. But, I've always said that Conservatives and Progressives are each right about 20 percent of the time. I think the trick is making use of their ideas in those few areas where they are right and ignoring them otherwise.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Correction: Mr. Sulu can probably stay married

It just occurred to me that the constitutional amendment in California will probably not be applied retroactively because it's generally hard to apply laws retroactively. So, gay couples who have gotten married in California should still be married. Trying to invalidate those marriages would open a whole other can of worms that I'm guessing nobody wants to open. I would imagine that California is going to have more than enough problems on its hand with this amendment as is. Good.

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California Rolled


In other news, Proposition 8 was passed in California, making it impossible, yet again, for gays in California to marry and have those marriages be validated by the state. Apparently, interpretation of the state constitution is now to be decided by popular vote. Mr. Sulu has to get divorced.

I’ve said before that the judiciary is not supposed to interpret the constitution based on popular opinion, but simply based in their own expert opinion. This is exactly why we have judges. So, when people push measures like Proposition 8 and say that they ‘want a strict interpretation of the Constitution and the laws’ they’re either stupid or lying: what they’re pushing for is an explicit attack on the ability of judges to make strict interpretations of the Constitution and the laws, instead turning judges into something like politicians or American Idol judges.

See, the California judges interpreted the existing laws and decided that gay marriages were only prohibited because the laws were not being correctly carried out. They weren’t creating a new law; they were better interpreting the existing laws in light of current information about homosexuality. So, there was nothing radical about what they did. What's radical is saying, "We need to amend the state constitution to force judges to submit to the current popular prejudices." This is using a vote to force a radical reinterpretation of existing law- creating a new law in order to force judges to bend to the popular will. Hey, perhaps we can open all court decisions to some sort of call-in vote. ''If you think the suspect is guilty, call 1-800-23-guilty; if he’s innocent…''

A lot of people are saying that they feel dismayed and depressed about the ruling, but I don’t know that my reaction would be the same. If the government said to me, "We’ve decided that your marriage to Claire isn’t valid. Why? Because your neighbors got together and decided that they don’t think your marriage is real because it does not correspond to their particular religious beliefs; so now they're using the power of the state to force their religious beliefs on you", to be honest, I wouldn’t be sad; I’d be so pissed off that I could hardly see straight.

That said, I differ from most "progressives" in that I think change is going to have to come from the bottom up, instead of the top down. Clearly, the people who want to force their religious beliefs on the rest of us will continue finding clever and subversive ways to do so. Therefore, if gays want their marriages to be valid in the eyes of their neighbors, they have to get out and talk to them. Convince them that their fears are unfounded and wrong. Remember that most people didn't even hear of gay marriage before a few years ago, and so they're confused and maybe a little irrational. But they're human. You don't force humans to be better people; you improve their ideas through persuasion, and also by being open to their point of view. Change their minds and their laws will follow.


And it won't take forever; after all, the arguments against gay marriage really are stupid. As someone who is married, what I find to be most "weakening" to marriage is the widespread cynicism about the institution that has metasized in the last few decades; I can’t tell you how many people my age I’ve encountered who think that marriage is naive, outdated, patriarchal, oppressive, or ridiculous. In contrast, what strengthens marriage is seeing people who are happily married and who still believe in all those sentimental, romantic ideas about marriage. If anything, gays have reminded society of how valuable marriage is as a cultural institution by their willingness to fight for it. The Mormon Church and other bigots are really attempting to weaken marriage by making it an institution based not in love and Eros, but in snobbish exclusivity and the power of the state.

In the end, they will lose because the state cannot change human beings- it cannot make us conform to other people’s religious beliefs. Social engineering is impossible and essentially totalitarian. Change will come, but only through gradual cultural change- not through the will of the state. Gays need to stop relying on the courts and get out the cultural message that romantic love should be validated in a thriving society. Write, march, discuss, and persuade. And the bigots need to realize that the culture really is changing and that trying to use laws to change culture is ultimately a doomed and totalitarian enterprise.

[Endnote- I realize that this argument is perhaps a bit too nuanced and sort of contradicts itself. I believe that the judiciary needs to be free from popular prejudice, on one hand; but that change will have to come from the culture up, on the other. Sorry if that's confusing, but what I'm getting at is that laws don't change people in a free society. Ultimately, all of the laws in the world won't validate gay marriage in the culture. However, since gay marriage really is becoming more widely accepted in American culture, the attempts to change the laws are ultimately rearguard, reactionary, and most likely doomed. I hope that helps.]

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Design Porn- The Dior Mobile


In previous posts, I've referred to the cell phone as a machine designed to turn people into rude assholes in public places, and an answer to our subconscious fears that the telephone, if left home alone, will answer itself and insult its callers. I've also compared them to the ''leprous distillment'' that Claudius pours into the ear of Hamlet's sleeping father.


So, clearly, I'm not going to buy a cell phone any time soon. But, as Jonathan Richman puts it, ''You can have a cell phone if you want, but not me.'' Maybe people really do need them. Perhaps people have close, personal relationships with their telephones and simply cannot stand to be separated from them. One could ask if the telephone feels the same way, or if this is a one-sided relationship. But, who are we to judge? Love is strange.
Anyway, it's nice to see that some sort of design is now going into these things, so that they'll be pleasant to look at while the idiot in front of you in the grocery store checkout line blithely discusses her herpes with her best friend. I like the look of the new Dior Mobile, which could be called the Cadillac of Cell Phones, if only because all the rest of them are shockingly ugly. I'm not going to argue that it's gorgeous, nor that it's worth the ludicrous 5,000 clams that they're asking for it; but I would say that it makes the other cell phones on the market look like they're made of cardboard by comparison.
So, hopefully, it will launch a trend. And cell phone addicts are nothing if not trendy.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Onion- Brilliant as Usual


Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are

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GSM Headline

Suck it, Europe!



[Dumb joke explained here.]

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Anti-Americana

Okay, now that this election is over, can we vow to never hear another politician talk about how some of us are ''pro-America'', while others are ''anti-America'' without throwing shovelfulls of manure at them?

Look, there are plenty of people who disagree with me about any number of things [a crime against humanity in itself], and who I disagree with about any number of things. But the vast majority of them are good people. And, honestly, I don't think I've ever met anyone who I could characterize as ''anti-American''.

As for myself, I am pro-America, but anti-Americana. Sorry about that, zydeco bands... it's just the way I feel.

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"Oui, Nous Pouvons!"

I just got an email from my friends Mélody et Laurent in Gardanne, France. I'm not actually sure how they tracked me down, but they sound overjoyed-
''vive OBAMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! congratulations comment vas-tu? big kisssssss Mélody et Laurent''

Okay, they are French, so it's highly likely that they are emailing while somewhat intoxicated!

But the French seem to be pretty excited. I've said before that the truth about 'French anti-Americanism' is just that the French are very passionate in all of their opinions. They don't dislike something- they detest it! They don't get happy- they are overjoyed!

Here are some French responses to Obama's victory from Le Monde:

''Bravo! Bravo! L'Amérique tourne la page Bush avec brio. Espérons que la France en face de même avec l'ère Sarkozy.'' [America turns the page on Bush with brio. Let's hope that France will do the same with the Sarkozy era.]

''Merci à l'Amérique d'avoir donné une leçon de maturité démocratique au monde entier.''
[Thanks to America for having given a lesson in democratic maturity to the entire world.]

...Historique: oui! Emouvant: oui! C'est la meilleure nouvelle, et le plus grand message qui nous soit venu des Etats-Unis depuis J. Kennedy et M. Luther King; oui, pour reprendre un éditorial d'un ex éditorialiste du Monde, on peut affirmer aujourd'hui: "NOUS SOMMES TOUS DES AMERICAINS"! [A reference to the famous Le Monde editorial from 9/12/2001- 'We are all Americans'. Many others repeated this quote.]

I know there are plenty of people who would have prefered to see McCain get elected. If it's any consolation, I've been to a number of places today here in Ontario, and people have given me big, goofy smiles when they realized that I'm an American. That hasn't happened in the last five years that I've been living here. Tomorrow, there is a lot to fix. Today, people around the world are looking up to the United States in admiration. Even if you didn't vote for Obama, enjoy this moment.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

Here's a neat photo from a nighttime film shoot in Nord-Pas-de-Calais. It comes from Ludovic Maillard's photo blog, which I highly recommend, even if you can't read the French captions.

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Candyland

Wish I was here.

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Whither the Bradley Effect?

So, the election is almost over and the nation is in a state of nail-biting suspense; the Republicans because they're pretty sure their guy is going to lose, and the Democrats because they're pretty sure their guy is going to lose. It would amuse me to no end if Ralph Nader won.

By all accounts, Barack Obama is ahead and will be the next president. Democrats are still freaking out, per usual, and refusing to count their chickens before they hatch. Not that this is a bad idea- everyone I ran into in upstate NY four years ago was sure that Kerry would beat Bush, so prudence is definitely called for.

What really isn't called for is endless talk about the "Bradley Effect", the idea that some voters will tell pollsters that they are likely to vote for a black candidate, and then change their mind once they get into the voting booth due to their unspoken racism. By listening to the pundits, you'd think the Bradley Effect is a proven scientific law and we just have to see how severe it will be this time around. Even more irritating are the Republicans who are gloating about how the Bradley Effect will sink Obama, praying for racism.

So, is the Bradley Effect a proven tenet of sociology, stretching into the mists of time and deserving of all this axiomatic talk? Well, no- the Bradley Effect only goes back to the 1982 election in which Tom Bradley lost his bid for Governor of California to George Deukmejian by a slim margin after the absentee ballots were counted, even though polls taken at the election offices showed him winning. Eagle-eyed analytical types might note the obvious problem here- I'll get to that in a minute. After Bradley, there are about ten elections that have been supposedy affected by the Bradley Effect. The last was in 1992. So we're talking about a ten year stretch and a handful of samples.

The Bradley Effect is really more of a theory than an "effect". Moreover, it has never really been tested for a somewhat obvious reason- it's almost impossible to find anyone who will be interviewed before and after voting testifying that they changed their mind in the voting booth due to racial factors. In fact, it's seemingly an unverifiable theory, since it is based on a belief that interview subjects are lying about an issue that we can't find out if they were actually lying about! There are still no hidden cameras in the voting booths. Even if we could interview people, get their names, and then check their ballots- which is probably illegal- no one has done this. So we're comparing the numbers gathered by pollsters in one context to the numbers gathered by ballot counters in a different context and with a different sample group.

So, it's still completely theoretical that people really change their minds at the last minute, although we might assume some do. What may have happened in the case of Bradley is that voters at the booths favored him, while absentee voters did not. In the absence of some way of verifying that voters who: A- stated they would vote for the black candidate, B- did not, we have no way of knowing if the Bradley Effect even exists. And it doesn't really seem to exist in the case of Tom Bradley.

Also, the Bradley Effect neglects every other possible explanation for why a voter might have voted the way they did, aside from racism. Elections change on the turn of a dime, and yet we're asked to believe that, when whites don't vote for blacks, their motivations can be easily nailed down to race. It's amazing to me that so many people think so little of so many Americans.

Lastly, why does the Bradley Effect die out in the early 90s? And, if it is such a factor in the choices of white voters, why did Obama win traditional white states in his bid to become the Democratic candidate? Should we now believe that the Bradley Effect only applies to Republicans and Independents? This idea might make Democrats feel better about themselves, but why in the world would Republicans hope that their voters are racists?


Look, I don't think that Obama has this election in the bag either. I'm a relatively pessimistic person by nature. But, what I do believe is that most people who vote McCain will do so because they agree with his vision of the future, like what he has to say, and approve of his character; and not because they're closet racists. Similarly, I think that most people who vote for Obama will do so because they agree with his vision of the future, like what he has to say, and approve of his character; and not because they're dupes, cultists, or just want to vote for the black guy.


And I do have to wonder what standard of evidence people who talk about the Bradley Effect have? It seems more to me like a fantasy than a verified theory.


(Note: I do think that The Bradley Effect would be a decent name for an indie rock band.)

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Sotheby's Contemporary Art Auction: 11 Nov.

It's all probably too rich for our blood, but here is a video presenting an upcoming auction of contemporary art at Sotheby's.

It is interesting to see what art rich people are buying. We start with an Yves Klein piece that I find a bit freaky- like a nightmare moonscape. There's also a John Currin nude that I like- in general, I really like his weird-bodied nudes: I call them 'sexy E.T. women', and detest his "kitsch" phase. There's a great Lucian Freud piece that will surely sell, along with a Lichtenstein that's also a safe bet. Then we have a Philip Gustan painting that doesn't do much for me, another Lichtenstein, and a Rauschenberg that comes from 1955, but looks like it would have been outdated and boring in 1900.

People still paint, right? Apparently so; next we have a Richard Prince nurse painting. I find this series intriguing and wouldn't mind doing it myself to save the $5 million.; the nurses are ghostly and cool. There was actually a fashion show this year based on the nurse series, which I prefered to the paintings. Next, we have yet another idiotic painting by Jeff Koons. You have to wonder at what point "taking the piss out" will get old in the art world. The curator's commentary is worth watching, however, if only for the entertainment value.

Saving us from the con-art of Koons is an Alexander Calder construction that demonstrates how rare and simple beauty can be. Then a John Chamberlain that... ah, skip it. Next, we have a Gerhard Richter abstract that is breathtakingly beautiful, in my opinion. It's probably best to stop here and take it in. I do like the paintings that come after, but not as much.

So, in summary, if I had the money, I'd buy the Currin and the Richter, and maybe have someone make me a copy of the Price. And, if you do have the money, this is my advice.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

From the Battlefield to the Campus...

From the NYTimes:

“I thought, I’m so motivated, so intelligent — I am taking on the school,” says (Kevin) Blanchard, who now leads efforts at George Washington and nationally to bridge the gulf between combat and campus. “It didn’t happen that way at all. I was so lost.”

There are going to be a massive number of returning soldiers entering the nation's universities in the near future. Jim Webb has written a bill that greatly improves on the G.I. bill, extending benefits and making it easier than ever for veterans to go back to school; and many of them are planning on taking him up on the offer. Some are facing very tough transitions, like Mr. Blanchard, who suffered a crippling bomb blast that took a leg and left him with mild brain trauma. It won't be easy for them, or for their chosen universities.

All I can say is "Welcome aboard!" I've probably mentioned here before that I love teaching courses with enlisted men and women and veterans in them, and for a very simple reason: they don't like to fuck around. They're willing to give it their all, which is great to watch. So, if some of them have difficulties making the adjustment to academic life, I think we can make it work.

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