Sunday, April 30, 2006

Where Wild Turkeys Come Home to Roost

... in Somerville?

Wild Turkey in a Tree

Wild Turkey in Dusk

Wild Turkey from Greg's Back Yard

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

What do YOU doodle? - Legals Placemat Edition

Legal Sea Foods Placemat
Originally uploaded by IVSTINIANVS.

This is the kind of thing I doodle when I’m bored: some poetry in Greek (Sappho and Homer), some English written in Tengwar (Tolkien’s invented script for Elvish -- I’m such a frakkin’ nerd!!), and the two scripts I most recently taught myself (which I will have to blog aobut later): both Japanese syllabaries, hiragana, and katakana.

At least this time I didn’t conjugate any verbs ...

Thanks to Legal Sea Foods of Kendall Square, Cambridge:

for the useful paper placemat!

I'm too tired to figure out how to get the Google Maps API to work in blospot even with the help of Ron Larson. I'll have to come back and fix it later...

UPDATE 04/28/2006

I have had to temporarily comment out my FeedMap-powered BlogMap in my sidebar: turns out that its javascript code was somehow preventing my Google Map from displaying... FeedMap is based on Microsoft's MapPoint; one would like to hope that the incompatibility is purely ... accidental. ;-)

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April 24-30 is TV Turnoff Week!!

Oops!  I completely forgot about this:  a campaign by  You may have seen the AdBusters magazine on the stands (at least if you shop at places like Whole Foods or similar places in "loony" liberal enclaves such as the Boston area).

The week is already nearly three days over but luckily, I haven’t watched anything on TV this week except for what was picked up on the TiVo prior to April 24, and I haven’t even watched much of that (only about an hour total). *whew* Anyway, it’s not too late to stop turning off those TVs tonight!

Make sure you see these rejected ads where you can also listen to and read the egregious rejections by the networks.  Fox, MTV, ABC, and most others refused all of their ads.  CNN appears to be the only broadcaster that accepted any of them.

The rejected ads are all public-service type ads addressing (at various levels of indirection) such issues as consumerism, obesity, bulimia and anorexia, Global Warming, etc.

You can also read and in some cases actually listen to the rejections themselves.

Most rejections were pretty forthright and honest: "our business model is selling advertising time; why would we run an ad telling people not to buy things or telling people our other sponsors’ products are bad for them?" You can’t blame them for taking that kind of position.

But some were a little less clear: I especially love the bits about how ABC rejected them not because of any "written policy" but simply because they said so.

Most egregious was the person at ABC said that they don’t accept anything that is "controversial about issues of public importance". I seeee. So, ads about drunk driving don’t count? Or drugs? But it’s too controversial to talk about obesity, or bulimia and anorexia? Or Global Warming? And the Swift Boat ads weren’t "controversial"?

These people are also behind an annual Buy-Nothing Day -- this year’s will be November 26.

Currently, AdBusters are suing a broadcaster in Canada, and are hoping to use this precedent as a stepping stone to "reclaiming our most basic freedom - the Human Right to Communicate."

You may also want to "Sign the Media Carta"

Oh, and by the way.  I don’t think that playing Sudoku on your TiVo counts.  (I found via Zatsnotfunny;  I’ve forgotten what led me there in the first place.  But it took about 2 seconds to get these apps running on my TiVo.)Technorati Tags:

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Sunday, April 23, 2006 Videoblogging! (The Vegas Twins play like idiots)

... and I test out! is another video-hosting service, only this one is more videoblogging-centric than YouTube or Google Videos. It's basically a videoblog host. You sign up and you basically get your own vlog there, though it comes with a feature to cross-post your vlog entries to:

  • your own blog (or whatever "other" blog you may already have)
  • Flickr (it sends a thumbnail to flickr)
  • ( gives you the option to tag your posts, and it will bookmark them with those tags [though they are not also Technorati Tags])

The cross-posting seems a bit buggy ( is still in Beta):

  • cross-posting is kind of slow (they sort of hint at this by giving you a page to check the status of your cross-posts), so it's clearly an asynchronous task
  • the status page doesn't work, since it said "completed" immediately, but the cross-posting to This Blog and to took about 10-15 minutes
  • as of 25 minutes, the thumbnail still hasn't shown up on Flickr

The cross-posting to another blog is also implemented as kind of an after-thought. Which may be deliberate. At least, they don't provide you with a way to embed your video in your "real" blog the way Youtube et al. do. They just generate a boring href link. But again, this may be a feature, not a bug. Maybe they are trying to encourage you to let go of your old blog and embrace the vlogging way.

I discovered through Zip Zap Zop, a videoblog that kind of has to be seen to be believed. It's produced by a very extroverted and exhibitionistic guy in the latter half of his 30s living in New York City who calls himself Clark Saturn. (It's kind of too good to be true to imagine that this is his real name, especially since he often pronounces it "Clark of Saturn" - though he sometimes seems to spell that "clarkovsaturn".) I definitely learned some interesting things from Zip Zap Zop:

  • You don't need to rehearse your "performances" - you can hem and haw and go "ummmm" a lot and basically think out loud.
  • In a sense, in fact, from the above, you might say that it's easier to vlog than to write regular blog postings. At least, the way I write them. No correcting yourself, no editing out mistakes, no efforts to achieve good grammar. It seems thoroughly liberating!
  • If you buy the right equipment, you can mix all sorts of things into your blog like bulleted lists or presentations or really anything that you can display on your computer.
  • You can be completely, utterly, and totally devoid of any spec of sanity, but someone will marry you anyway.

In the unlikely event that Clark reads this, I mean all of the above in the nicest way. Honestly. [Insert Smiley-emoticon here]

Actually it was one of Clark's postings that pointed me to another Vlogger's site, the one belonging to a professor in Missouri, called The Richard Show (in all my life I never thought I would hear the place-name "Rolla" again since moving away from Columbia). ZipZapZop pointed me to a post here where Richard's wife is wished happy birthday by vloggers from here to Kathmandu, including the people who do They make copious use of the word "awesome". The name caught my attention, so I checked them out. The happy birthday post is very cute and sweet, by the way. And Clark appears in it. Inexplicably, with a Japanese fan. And, also inexplicably, naked. Well, at least what you see (basically just the shoulders).

Anyway. This is another video taken with my

Nokia 6256i (and uploaded to my laptop via Bluetooth) - note however that unlike my earlier videos which I uploaded to YouTube here, this video was not in any way "processed": it is still a 3g2 file. It plays for me in QuickTime and in Real Player. I'm not sure how it will play for you, but if it doesn't play automatically, QuickTime will definitely do it, though you may need to make sure that it is associated with the 3g2 file type.

OR: Go to to watch the video

The description I gave it at is:
Circe and Prospero rough-house at the new(ish) Off-Leash Recreational Area in
Somerville's Nunziato Park
I failed to mention that Prospero is trying to climb on top of Circe. Not to hump her at one end or the other, but actually to climb up, on top of, or over her. It's ... just weird.
So which video-hosting site will I go with? I'm not sure. (And I bet there are others besides the ones I've identified so far). If they get the bugs out, looks very cool, which its cross-posting and tagging and automatic bookmarking on On the other hand, YouTube and Google Videos have huge communities, à la Flickr. I doubt I will go for Google Videos, given the rather irritating waiting period you have to undergo as they decide whether to approve your video or not (presumably they want to avoid porn and stolen copyrighted material). I'm an instant-gratification kind of a guy, so that's just probably not going to do it for me.
Some more videoblogging/vlogging stuff I picked up since my last post on the topic:

Obviously I need to start either digitizing my analog camcorder tapes, or I need to get a DV camera.

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Book Acquisitions, late April 2006 edition

Sooooo, I was pretty self-controlled today. Didn’t spend too much. Not like the time when even the bookstore’s actual owner shook her head as she ran up my pile while saying “You went overboard again”. (And that was a bookstore in a town that’s 2.5 hours drive away which I only visit once or twice a year: Cunningham Books of Portland, Maine; but the bookstore owners there all know me.)

Today I just picked up a couple of remainders at the Harvard Book Store (unaffiliated with the University with which it shares an intimate propinquity), an independent book store in Harvard Square which I like to patronize (along with Porter Square Books , the best new indie bookstore around and totally the best thing to happen to my neck of the woods in years) in between shipments from Amazon. The store is also called Harvard New and Used.

Why these two books in particular? They actually weren’t the only books I thought about buying. Several others looked interesting, including The Helmet of Horror by a Russian author named Victor Pelevin (Виктор Пелевин). This book is a retelling of the Myth of Theseus, the Labyrinth and the Minotaur , and is part of the delightful Canongate Myths Series, which includes:

When I saw the Helmet of Horror at Harvard New and Used, I almost walked right over to Schoenhofs to see if they had the Russian original, Шлем ужаса, but I figured I’d look it up online. To my surprise and disappointment, they don’t seem to have it — at least not yet — though if it’s already had a chance to be translated into English you’d think they would have it by now (they have several other things by Pelevin). Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried about it, though: the text itself appears to be available online here. As you can see (even if you don’t read Russian), it’s quite an interesting-looking stylistic approach to both novel-writing and Greek mythology. I love the use of emoticons.

The Chronology book I got because I have been interested in Things Asian of late — I’ll have to post about that separately — and the Burns I got because, well, (a) I had no idea Burns was that prolific (I have several editions of Burns, but apparently not the complete works), and (b) he is supposed to be my great-great-great-to-the-Nth-degree grandfather, if my grandmother Sarah Burns of Dunoon was to be believed, so I figure I just should have it. Plus I love his poetry.

It is a pure coincidence — and in light of my discussing myth, an instance of fascinatingly Jungian synchronicity — that both the Robert Burns book and the Myths series are from the same publisher…

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Going for the Little Guy Again

So according to today’s NYT, the Bush Administration is cracking down on the companies that employ illegal immigrants, arresting seven managers of a “Houston-based pallet supply company”.  According to the article:

Company supervisors knowingly hired illegal immigrants, provided them with housing and transportation to and from work, and even reimbursed one undercover agent for the cost of obtaining fraudulent identity documents, Homeland Security Department officials said.

So far so good — I’m not in favour of a “guest worker” program that will just create a permanent underclass of non-voting workers:  workers that can’t vote Democrat.  So who do they arrest?

No senior corporate executives at the company were detained, but officials filed criminal charges against seven lower-level managers and a foreman from New York, Texas, Ohio and Massachusetts for conspiring to transport, harbor, and induce illegal immigrants to come to the United States, charges that carry maximum sentences of up to 10 years in jail.

“No senior corporate executives” … Oh, why am I not surprised?  No, throw the book at the little guy but don’t piss off your Republican Campaign Contributors!

Is it Getting Drafty?

I don't know how I could possibly be finding myself say this — though I was too young, myself, I still vividly remember when many of my friends’ older brothers were faced with the terrifying decision of deciding whether to run away to Canada or stay to get drafted for Vietnam — yet I find myself in agreement with today’s NYT op-ed contributor, Paul Kane, who proposes bringing back the selective service — i.e. the draft — only this time for both men and women, and without deferments.  His primary argument is that this will send a message to Iran and our allies that we’re serious and will actually make war less likely.  Personally, I’m not sure I buy that argument, though I am more sympathetic to this one:

But most important, America's elites and ordinary citizens alike will know that they may be called upon for wartime service and sacrifice.

And frankly, this is what appeals to me.  It is often said that Democracies are less likely to go to war than Dictatorships.  In fact, Bush himself — apparently unaware of the irony — made the same argument in the run-up to the Iraq war.  If the past six years has taught us anything, a Democracy without the reality of shared sacrifice is far too apathetic to care about whether our predominantly Black, Poor, and Southern volunteer army gets sent off to war.

Frankly, it seems to me that this may be the only thing that could wake up the White Suburban Middle-Class voter, too prone to vote their own selfish pocketbook.  Will it make wars less likely?  After all, the Vietnam War happened on a basis of lies and misinformation as well, and the middle class sent their kids to war and elected Nixon twice.  So maybe not.  But I do know that the Middle Class is so totally untouched by this war that it is no surprise that they have abdicated any responsibility for it.

The liberal blogosphere is certainly reacting negatively to this proposal:  Atrios asks “Who Let the Crazies Out” and links to a Matthew Yglesias essay entitled “War is Peace”:

Sending a giant conscript army to occupy Iran is a terrible idea. If you think our current troops lack the appropriate training for the occupation of Iraq, just wait until I'm the one doing it.

I don’t doubt it.  But the point isn’t to send drafted kids to war.  The point is to make voting parents think twice before pulling the trigger on arrogant chickenhawk incompetents who never served a day in their lives in the military.

Maybe these voters won’t be quite so gung-ho about “kicking some Ay-rab ass” if their own kids were the ones doing the kicking.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

MIT is Full Of Them

Temple Grandin today at Porter Square Books! Fantastic reading!! Biggest crowd I've seen yet. Of course I got there an hour early so I could snag a seat, but easily two thirds of the people there were standing.  Can't believe there's an independent bookstore this great within walking distance.

From her Wiki page:

Temple Grandin, PhD, (born August 29, 1947) is an associate professor at Colorado State University and arguably the most accomplished and well-known adult with 'high functioning' autism in the world. Grandin is also a world renowned professional designer of humane livestock facilities.

She’s doing readings of course to promote her book Animals in Translation , which just came out in paperback.  We picked up a copy at Porter Square Books a couple of months ago and were amazed to discover that the author herself was actually going to be speaking there.   She wrote the book because her autism gives her insights into how animals think:  i.e., non-verbally.  In her talk she mentioned many similarities between autistic people such as herself and animals:

  • An Attention to detail that “normal” people just “tune out” (this was vividly demonstrated during her talk when she lost her train of thought due to the espresso machine in the café at the far end of the bookstore;  the rest of us of course were tuning it out but she had to stop and ask us “what is that sound?”)  Her research with animals shows that they notice all sorts of details that to us seem important:  this is something that books on dog behavior also talk about (for instance, a dog may sit when you make a certain gesture that you’re not even aware of, and may not have learned the meaning of the word)
  • Savant behavior:  just as some autistic people are like Rain Man, some animals have extremely specialized talents:  an example she gave was birds that are able to memorize the thousands of miles of a migratory route in a single voyage.
  • Fear as the prime emotion

And of course, the lack of language in animals:  Dr. Grandin herself says she thinks in pictures, and without pictures she cannot grasp abstract concepts.  She says, and it is easy to believe this, that language covers up and hides a lot of details that animals are very aware of.

Her work has mostly been focused on making slaughterhouses and livestock facilities more humane.  She has worked with McDonalds and Wendys and Burger King and the USDA and put together a simple, objective rating system to grade slaughterhouses that the USDA now uses in its audits.

Some of the most important things she talked about were the difference between abstract and concrete approaches to the world:  for instance, she said she has often noticed that she sees the most extreme political views, on both the right, and the left, in “people who work in offices” and just “don’t know what it’s like out there in the real world, on the ground.”  Which is something I definitely agree with:  it would be a huge improvement if we had more leaders and politicians who dealt with the concrete realities instead of ideologies and abstractions.  A lot of damage has been done through idealism.

McDonalds was apparently one of the pioneers in demanding humane treatment of the animals in its “product”.  One of Temple’s most affecting topics was when she talked about how she brought executives from McDonalds who had never been in a slaughterhouse to actually see what happens there.  She took them to the better ones, and they were saying things like “well, this isn’t so bad;  it’s not as bad as I was afraid it would be”, but then when she took them to the more poorly-managed ones, she saw the eyes of one executive bug out when he saw an emaciated dairy cow, barely able to walk, being led to become hamburger:  and McDonalds has been on board ever since.

Another thing I was very gratified to hear was her when she discussed current animal breeding practices.  She didn’t mention the AKC by name — and indeed was also talking about horse-breeding and pig-breeding (apparently in the rush to breed more “lean” pigs for lower-fat pork, the breeders also inadvertently selected for much more aggressive pigs that fight one another a lot more nastily).  But she did also talk about dogs and how they are being bred for trivial matters of appearance and not for whether they are healthy or have good behavioral traits.  She mentioned a huge rise in knee-surgeries in dogs, for instance.  (The wrong that dog breeders (even the “good” ones, not the infamous and monstrous “puppy mills”) and the AKC are doing is covered very admirably by Stephen Budiansky in his book The Truth About Dogs , which I highly recommend:  one of the best things you learn from him is that one of the founders of the whole Kennel Club movement was also a eugenics nut whose notions about “purity of bloodlines” was part of the pseudo-scientific claptrap that the Nazi’s drew upon for implementing their racial programs, and that the kind of ideas about genetics and inheritance that the AKC breeders live by was discredited for human beings but still lives on in animal breeding.

Anyway.  Some other great highlights:

  • When talking about non-verbal traits that autistic people share with animals, she discussed dogs and how their minds are mostly focused on “smell images” instead of picture images.  She talked about a neighbor’s beagle who always wanted to stop at a transformer box in the neighborhood, but his owner would never let him stop and sniff his “pee-mail”.
  • She talked about the white matter in the brain and how this constitutes the broadband connections between parts of the brain.  In autistic people, these connections become limited, so she has connections to the Graphics Design Department, while Rain Man has connections to the Accounting Department.
  • She said that what to normal people is the “Freudian subconscious” is right there on the surface with autistic people:  “talk about rude pop-up ads”.  (Keep in mind that she always thinks in images.)
  • And, of course, the biggest laugh came when she talked about the spectrum from autism to aspergers (which is considered a milder form of autism), when she said “MIT’s FULL of THEM!”

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The attack of the cyborg cocroaches

And they said Dr. Frankenstein was a fictional character ...

(Or see the video with its comments at YouTube here.)

And just in case that didn't creep you out (it's kind of cute, actually), this guy's other work will give you nightmares:

Thanks to Kevin over at Tyler and Jack's Padded Cell for bringing this to my attention. I found Kevin's blog via a Technorati search for the Hallam Foe blog; turns out Kevin works at the hotel where the film is currently shooting, but is too professional to ask to have his Deathwatch See this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database DVD signed by star Jamie Bell (i.e. he doesn't want to get sacked). So near, and yet so far.

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Patently Ridiculous

I was pleased to read this article in the NYT about a certain Geoff Goodfellow who, it appears, invented the concept of wireless email back in 1982, but who never patented the idea and has never seen a penny of what the article says is a $612.5 million business.

Though it is heresy to voice such an opinion in my industry these days, as a software developer I’ve seen the kind of stuff that gets patented, and I know that the entire system of intellectual property law is broken. Not just with patents, but with Congress’s penchant perpetually renewing copyrights. This is not what the Constitution set out to accomplish with patents and copyrights. As the article says:

For legal and technology experts, the tale of Mr. Goodfellow's pioneering work is evidence of the shortcomings of the nation's patent system, which was created to reward individual creativity but has increasingly become a club for giant corporations and aggressive law firms.

It’s all about litigation taking the place of innovation. A company I used to work for was destroyed quite literally overnight by a patent law-suit based on a concept so obvious that it’s taught in every Computer Science 101 course; but the point is, your patent doesn’t really have to be able to stand up to scrutiny. The point is that most companies aren’t going to have the money to pay for the lawyers to prove it. They’ll either pay you off or they’ll go out of business (and if they do have the money, they’d probably rather just buy the patent off you so they can screw the next guy).

As Goodfellow says:

You don't patent the obvious. The way you compete is to build something that is faster, better, cheaper. You don't lock your ideas up in a patent and rest on your laurels.

What a concept.

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Monday, April 17, 2006

Cruel, but funny - Boston Columnists Edition

You’ll only get this if you live in the Boston area or are for any reason a reader of the Boston Globe. But if you are, you will certainly enjoy the post Fixing the Internet by “Gavin M” over at Sadly, No, skewering our resident tame conservative columnist nincompoop, Jeff Jacoby. In case you don’t know (and in the unlikely case that you want to), Jacoby is the Globe’s answer to David Brooks, only far more predictable (Brooks may be a moron, but at least he is creative about it and doesn’t always tow the party-line-du-jour).

I just had to add Sadly, No to my blogroll, and not just because it has a fun and clever name.

Don't miss the faux movie poster in their post on "David Horowitz in High Anxiety". Or the article How Can I Ever Have Sex Again When John Bolton Roams the Land? They seem to particularly enjoy trolling around the wingnut hemi-blogosphere and dredging up juicy examples of right-wing idiocy to put on display for public ridicule. For example, Gavin wrote a post entitled Or Maybe a Hydrox, in which he delicately investigates the charges of the latest example of Liberal Academia's War On Decency reported by a certain Wayne Perryman:

Yeah, that Rev. Perryman -- the favorite black clergyman of the conservative race-baiting set. And what titanic outrage has liberalism supposedly committed this time? It goes a little something like...

which he duly reproduces. I particularly enjoyed his subtle and understated reaction to this example of liberal perfidity:

Right. Aiee. Oh-em-eff-gee, three exclamation points. At long last, etc. Now, how many of these liberal-professor/details-unclear 'final exam' stories have turned out to be factual? In any case, this shows why no one with a brain is fooled when Michelle Malkin, John Hinderaker, and the rest of the WingNet bigots flap their arms and yell about liberal secret double-standard racist liberal in bla bla yonk ah-oogah.

"Bla bla yonk ah-oogah" indeed.

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Patriots Day

For those of you who stumble across my blog from outside of Massachusetts, you may enjoy this little bit of trivia.

Patriots' Grave in the Old Burying Ground, Arlington, Massachusetts

Today Massachusetts celebrates the Battle of Lexington and Concord — the famous “shot heard 'round the world” — generally considered to be the beginning of the American War of Independence.

It’s a holiday that doesn’t really exist in the rest of the country (except, apparently, Maine, according to Wikipedia), and brings blank stares from out-of-staters, and even from not a few in-staters. Seems kind of odd to me that people in this country wouldn’t want to celebrate the start of the Revolution, though I suppose the Fourth of July is considered to be enough in most states.

Every year on this day (celebrated on the third Monday of every April), a bunch of colossal history nerds re-enact the whole Old North Bridge in Concord

schebang, from Paul Revere’s famous ride, on a real horse, in real Georgian costume, up Mass Ave into Lexington, to battles complete with muskets on the Lexington Town Green and down by Concord’s Old North Bridge (Google Map). If you’re willing to get up at the crack of dawn, it’s quite a lot of fun to watch.

'Minute Man' statue by the Old North Bridge in Concord

Patriots Day is also the day of the Boston Marathon. Everybody’s heard of the Marathon. The attention given to the Marathon probably explains the lack of attention to the goofy re-enactments of Patriots Day itself.

Just about everybody has also heard of the origin of the word “Marathon” in the legend of Pheidippides, the Athenian herald to ran the 26 miles to announce the victory of the Athenian army over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon, considered to be one of the great “hinge points” of history, especially as Persia was at the time the largest empire the world had ever seen. Oddly, the Wikipedia articles on this topic keep referring to the “Town of Marathon”. That’s news to me. Although there is certainly a town there now, and was probably a town there in ancient times (though whether it was there at the time of the battle is something I don’t know), but I always understood it to refer to the name of the field where the battle took place. Wikipedia also incorrectly defines Marathon (Μαραθών as the Ancient Greek word for “fennel” (which is presumably what the field was full of): the word for fennel was μάραθον, with the accent on the first syllable and a short ‘o’. Μαραθών is apparently an adjective meaning “overgrown with fennel” (“befennelled”?). Whether Marathon was already a real place-name, either of a field of of a town at the time of the battle is something I don’t know.

An apparently “official” site for re-enactors on Patriots Day:

WBGH did a very fun documentary on the Patriots Day re-enactors, which gets re-broadcast around this time of year on PBS stations.

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

We GODda talk

So I was driving home from work on Thursday night and I tuned in to Christopher Lydon’s newest show on PRI, Radio Open Source (in the Boston Area it’s carried by WGBH).

The show that night was a thouroughly engaging interview with Northwestern University’s History Professor Garry Wills, author of the new book What Jesus Meant.  The book’s title was inspired by the catchphrase “What Would Jesus Do?” [WWJD] – the answer, of course being not what the Republicans are doing, but in fact what Wills has to say is more interesting than that.

Religion and secularism has been on the radar screen even more than usual in the U.S. even since the 2004 elections, in which “moral values” were reported to be one of the top reasons people gave for going to the polls.  Democrats have been openly debating whether they should attempt to soften their secularist image and embrace God more in order to win over more swing voters.  (As if there’s ever been a Democratic Presidential Candidate who didn’t mention God in practically every single speech;  as if it was news that there has never been any chance of an avowedly atheist politician in this country winning an election for any major office.)

But Wills’s own opinion on the matter is a fresh and fascinating take on the issue, and is backed up with ample scriptural evidence.  His Op-Ed essay of April 9, entitled “Christ Among the Partisans” (behind the NYT’sTimes Select” firewall — unortunately so, as it should be required reading for all voters in this country:  and not just for “all thinking people” — as Adlai Stevenson put it, we need a majority!) begins tersely but thunderously, and without compromise:

THERE is no such thing as a "Christian politics." If it is a politics, it cannot be Christian. Jesus told Pilate: "My reign is not of this present order. If my reign were of this present order, my supporters would have fought against my being turned over to the Jews. But my reign is not here" (John 18:36). Jesus brought no political message or program.

Make no mistake:  these are the opinions of a deeply committed believer.

He goes on (I’m tempted to paste the whole thing in here):

This is a truth that needs emphasis at a time when some Democrats, fearing that the Republicans have advanced over them by the use of religion, want to respond with a claim that Jesus is really on their side. He is not. He avoided those who would trap him into taking sides for or against the Roman occupation of Judea. He paid his taxes to the occupying power but said only, "Let Caesar have what belongs to him, and God have what belongs to him" (Matthew 22:21). He was the original proponent of a separation of church and state.

Those who want the state to engage in public worship, or even to have prayer in schools, are defying his injunction: "When you pray, be not like the pretenders, who prefer to pray in the synagogues and in the public square, in the sight of others. In truth I tell you, that is all the profit they will have. But you, when you pray, go into your inner chamber and, locking the door, pray there in hiding to your Father, and your Father who sees you in hiding will reward you" (Matthew 6:5-6). He shocked people by his repeated violation of the external holiness code of his time, emphasizing that his religion was an internal matter of the heart.

The Romans did not believe Jesus when he said he had no political ambitions. That is why the soldiers mocked him as a failed king, giving him a robe and scepter and bowing in fake obedience (John 19:1-3). Those who today say that they are creating or following a "Christian politics" continue the work of those soldiers, disregarding the words of Jesus that his reign is not of this order. [emphasis mine]

(Matthew 6:5-6 was of course also the inspiration behind Magnificent Obsession, though in that book it’s almost reduced to a kind of Science Fiction or Fantasy concept.  (I think they sucked all the bizarre quasi-SciFi-quasi-Christianity out of the story for the 1954 movie  See this movie's record at the Internet Movie Database with Jane Wyman.)

It is difficult for a nonbeliever to judge much of what Wills says, particularly about the mysterious uniqueness of Jesus:

Some may think that removing Jesus from politics would mean removing morality from politics. They think we would all be better off if we took up the slogan "What would Jesus do?"

That is not a question his disciples ask in the Gospels. They never knew what Jesus was going to do next. He could round on Peter and call him "Satan." He could refuse to receive his mother when she asked to see him. He might tell his followers that they are unworthy of him if they do not hate their mother and their father. He might kill pigs by the hundreds. He might whip people out of church precincts.

The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs — accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.

He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates. No politician is going to tell the lustful that they must pluck out their right eye. We cannot do what Jesus would do because we are not divine.[again, emphasis mine]

My first reaction is to point out that history is full of prophets and sages who spoke and taught in paradox and whose morality seemed impossible to capture in easy-to-understand rules.  And it’s also fugll of organized religions packagine and tidying up the teachings of those prophets.  Nonetheless, I am confident that Wills’s interpretation is far, far closer to what is actually written about Jesus in the Gospels than anything the so-called “Christian Right” is saying.

Not that this should be news.  The hypocrisy and wrong-headedness of the conservatives’ appropriation of Christianity as their own should be clear, and not merely for such obvious examples as Jesus’s injunction about camels (or ropes) and needles regarding the Republicans’ wealthy donors.  The entire Gospel Story is one of Jesus’s enmity with the “fundamentalists” of his day:  the “Scribes and Pharisees” who put strict adherence to the letter of the law in its minutest details above all other considerations.  How the so-called “moral majority” can’t see themselves as the Pharisess is beyond me:  the Matthew / Grand Obsession quote above should be enough to tip them off, but they’re too busy worrying about following all the right rules so they can get into heaven to really pay attention.

Yet, as George Lakoff (linguist, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant  and founding member of the Rockridge Institute) would say, the Right has “framed the debate” very effectively.  Everyone assumes that the choice is between grown-up, hard-nosed respect for the tough lessons of the scriptures, or some sort of wishy-washy, I’m-ok-you’re-ok, feel-good secularism.  Rubbish.  The hypocrisy, ignorance, and sheer intellectual dishonesty of the Right when it comes to their mis-use and mis-appropriation of the scriptures is trivial to expose.

For instance, it always makes me see red when I hear someone bleat on about how “the Bible forbids homosexuality” when even a beginner’s level of Biblical Scholarship should show what shaky ground they’re standing on — especially if you hear a Christian say it.  There are only three places in the entire Bible that make even the slightest mention of homosexuality:  the story of the Cities of the Plain, the one clear, unambiguous injunction in Leviticus (which is what most people are referring to), and some rather ambiguous comments in Paul.  Of these, the first must be dismissed immediately:  the story of Soddom and Gomorrha is about betrayal of trust and violation of the code of hospitality, not homosexuality, and as I will get to in a moment, the third is also pretty flimsy.  But in fact, the second, the Levitical “abomination” reference must be dismissed by any believing Christian, since it is universally accepted by all Christian creeds and confessions that the new covenant of Christianity nullifies the entire Jewish Law Code!  It is the hight of screaming hypocrisy to single out a single passage from a Law Code that also forbids eating pork or shellfish, or touching a woman who is menstruating, or mixing the wrong kinds of plants together in the same field.  In fact, unless you are an Orthodox Jew — where you really do believe that every single jot and tittle of Leviticus and Deuteronomy must be obeyed — Leviticus is shaky ground even for a Jew to rely on.  You can’t cherry-pick the parts of a Jewish Ritual Purity Code and decide that “God really meant this part, even for gentiles!” without the slightest evidence.  As for Paul, the only part of the Bible having to do with homosexuality that is applicable to Christians, his reference appears to be about male prostitutes, but even if it weren’t, unless you’re also willing to follow his advice regarding the subordination of women (that they should not be allowed to speak in Church, for instance), then again you’re cherry-picking.

Wills makes essentially the same argument regarding abortion, at least in the interview that you can listen to on the Radio Open Source site:  since there is not a single reference to abortion in the Bible, he says, all arguments must rely on “natural law” and “natural reason”.  And there, “reasonable people can differ”.  “The Bible Says So” is not something you can really argue (if it’s true), but “I gay sex revolts me” or “I believe a foetus is a human being” is.

As I said, this topic has been on the radar screen for some time, and before I sign off I’d like to leave you with two more references.

First, Slavoj Žižek’s NYT op-ed piece from March 12 which he wrote the wake of the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis and in which he declares that “Atheism is a European legacy worth fighting for”:

More than a century ago, in ''The Brothers Karamazov'' and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, ''Dostoyevsky in Manhattan,'' suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted -- at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the ''godless'' Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

Sadly, it’s another Times Select item, because I agreed with pretty much everything he said (of course I have a copy and can furnish it upon request).  It puts me in mind of the story of a Conservative Catholic guest at a dinner party who insisted that she could never vote for a Democrat since they are “against religion”.  Her argument?  “When has religion ever hurt anybody?”  Most jaw-dropping aspect of this?  The question was posed at the dinner-table of a Polish Jew. 

Actually, I was surprised at the time that his essay didn’t get whole hell of a lot more play in the blogosphere.  Oddly enough, most of the people who wrote the tiny trickle of letters and blog-comments in response to Žižek's essay back in March (at least the ones I found) seemed to have interpreted it as advocating some sort of weak-kneed, liberal “appeasement” for the Muslim rioters (it makes you wonder if some people even bothered to read the essay), something it most emphatically did not do:

While a true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy, he also refuses to reduce the problem of the Muhammad caricatures to one of respect for other's beliefs. Respect for other's beliefs as the highest value can mean only one of two things: either we treat the other in a patronizing way and avoid hurting him in order not to ruin his illusions, or we adopt the relativist stance of multiple "regimes of truth," disqualifying as violent imposition any clear insistence on truth.

What, however, about submitting Islam — together with all other religions — to a respectful, but for that reason no less ruthless, critical analysis? This, and only this, is the way to show a true respect for Muslims: to treat them as serious adults responsible for their beliefs.

Dare I say it?  Amen! 

But maybe I’m being a bit too hasty.  Two days after Žižek's essay, a certain Paul Myers, professor at the University of Minnesotta, and a self-described “godless liberal”, posted an essay to his “Science Blog” Pharyngula.  Though he made no reference to Žižek (and in fact I think his posting came out purely by coincidence), he seems to be following the advice of subjecting “all … religions … to a … ruthless, critical analysis”.  It was entitled:  No respect for Christianity…so stop demanding it.  It starts with another defence of atheism, which is fine:

I like Avedon Carol, but she just doesn't get it. Explaining that the Right has successfully portrayed the Left as "godless" and then talking about how wrong they are because the Left is full of good religious people and that there are atheists on the Right too is simply perpetuating the idea the Right wants spread—that atheists are bad, a taint on the culture, and that a good way to demean a movement is to mention that its got atheists in it. Thanks, but no thanks. Can we instead just try to get across the message that freethinkers are good people we aren't ashamed of for a change?

… but goes beyond that to insults:  “I will not hesitate to express my scorn every time one of my "allies" in this "coalition" thinks the way to better the country is to promote more belief in false fantasies.”

Although I do have some sympathy for this sort of argument (you may have noticed my slight tone of exasperation above where I start with "As if there’s ever been..."), I don’t think this kind of approach is likely to win any friends, and, frankly, I’m not quite so convinced of the rightness of my own beliefs as to belittle those of others.  I have to say that this guy hasn’t learned any more humility on the subject in the meantime:  witness today’s commentary, entitled Easter brings out the insipid:

Why, no, no sighs of pity here. The resurrection is a made-up story; it gives me no hope at all. It does give hope to con-artists everywhere, though, I'm sure.

I don't find the story particularly sublime, either. "Absurd" is a better word for it, and for that reason I don't find it moving at all. How does it tell us anything about the nature of this god? He's simultaneously omnipotent and human, killable and not killable, capable of creating whole universes yet unable to pull out a few nails. If Christians weren't so thoroughly indoctrinated into the whole mess from an early age, instead of being moved they'd be baffled.

Ouch.  No, I don’t see much value to the progressive movement in alienating every believing Christian, even the progressive ones.  Žižek did call for the “ruthless, critical analysis” to be respectful.  Doesn’t seem like much to ask.

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Two Roeper Zinger Reports for the Price of One

Roeper wasn't really on his game this week. In fact, Ebert produced the only really decent zinger of the day, about the new movie The Sisters:

It is possible to make a great modern version of Chekhov as Louis Malle did in
Vanya on 42nd Street. It is also possible to make unconvincing, pointless, and
unfocused version of Chekhov, and that would describe Sisters.

Sadly, Roeper's characterization of Joel Edgerton - saying that he "gives a Vanilla Wafer of a performance [in Kinky Boots] - can be applied to his own performance in this week's episode.

Last week's episode had a lot more: about On a Clear Day, which I want to see, and which is most decidedly not to be mixed up with On a Clear Day you Can See Forever, a guilty pleasure of mine, he had this to say:

'On a Clear Day, Billy Elliot and the Calendar Girls Can See the Full Monty. '
About once a year we get one of these heart-warming tales from across the pond
about a determined dreamer who sets out to accomplish an impossible and/or
controversial task.
Heh. Interestingly enough, he gave On a Clear Day thumbs up, despite the zinger. (He picked up on the same thread in this week's review of Kinky Boots: "Time for another quirky Brit-Com about working-class folks with a crazy dream!" - which he did not recommend.)

His best zinger from last week was for Antonio Banderas's newest venture, Take the Lead, based on a true story about a ballroom dancing instructor who volunteers to teach dance to a bunch of New York City schoolkids on detention: "I thought this movie was a Leslie Nielson away from being a pure parody of all these high-school movies." Nice one! Though I could tell that much from the previews. And actually, I thought the Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe did a much better job in his April 7 review, Missteps and questionable moves:

Teacher wants to teach. Students won't let him. Then he reels them in by speaking their language, or rather, he lets them speak their language all over the pastime he loves. Indeed, when he tries to play an oldie for the class, someone tells him, ''Yo, man, I need the remix!" So Sarah Vaughan is out in favor of mash-ups combining standards and new stuff.

Pierre Dulaine is a real-life ballroom dancer and instructor who has inspired scores of New York elementary schoolers to merengue and waltz. If I were Dulaine or any of his pupils, I'd find ''Take the Lead" distressing. Not because Dianne Houston's script leans on enough ancient movie formulas to qualify as a question in the math portion of the SAT; nor because director Liz Friedlander, a veteran of so-so music videos, doesn't meet a sequence she can't turn into a montage more appropriate for a Sprite commercial. The movie would bug me because its makers don't seem to think much of ballroom dancing, or learning.

I would probably have chosen "depressing" instead of "distressing", but that certainly summed up my reaction to the clips I've seen of this film.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

This is like Chocolate

... for a Language Nerd.

Pick a verb! Any verb! And get it conjugated for free!

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The Mystery Finally Solved ...

How the Daleks could be the most dangerous race in the universe without being able to climb stairs!

In the new series with Christopher Eccleston, now playing on the Sci Fi Channel, all is revealed. Search for "as it followed Rose and the waster up the stairs" here.

And if you don't, it's <a href="">appropriate audio</a> for you!

I can't quite decide what to make of the new series. I mean, I'm glad it's back on the air, though now that they're already up to a 10th doctor (and they never even used poor PaulSee this actor's record at the Internet Movie Database for more than one episode!), I don't know what they're going to do: this Gallifreyan is out of regenerations! But seriously. The original show (which is one of my absolute earliest memories of television: the earliest was something called "Bill and Ben the Flower Pot Men" which I watched in my attic bedroom of our thatched 300-year-old cottage in Bladon) had its wonderful charm, its special effects and production values that felt like the sort of thing a couple of teenagers could whip up out of stuff in their dads' garages. It didn't take itself too seriously, and it certainly hadn't the slightest hint of sex on screen (yes of course the sidekicks provided some sexual interest for the adolescent heterosexual male viewer but it was all kept to their imaginations); nor did it have much in the way of serious violence. I wasn't surprised to hear that there is going to be some sex (at least a kiss?) in the new series, and of course it's obvious that the new series would have better CGI effects (though they're still pretty lame; Babylon 5 had better CGI ten years ago), but what I can't figure out is whether the new series is just totally going for "kiddy series" or what. The End of the World episode had some delicious adult humour with Zoë Wanamaker but the pilot episode was up their with the cheesiest of the original series, and what was with all the farting jokes in World War Three?

Oh, well. They know they have me anyway, farts or not.

(Observant readers will remember when I mentioned my predilection for wanting to be waited upon hand and foot. It wasn't until Lisa saw her first Doctor Who episode and heard something a little bit like this:
<a href="">more audio</a> that she realized that I didn't make up that particular delivery. "So that's where you get it from!" Then she hit me.)

[ Update, April 15:

I forgot to mention two more cool things I liked (both of which are spoilers):

  • This was to my knowledge the closest look we have ever had of the Dalek life-form itself. I thought it was pretty cool. All tentacled and slimey, pulsating, and dripping with goo. I also enjoyed seeing that it was a cyclops, which I suppose makes sense, considering that it has only one mechanical eye.
  • I also enjoyed the self-destruct mechanism. Finally an explanation for those giant ball-bearings all over the Dalek's "battle armour"!

- end Update]

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    Thursday, April 13, 2006

    Metaphors ...

    So Lisa landed safely in Akron and called my cell phone while I was sitting down to lunch with my colleagues from work. Of course the inevitable question came "what are you going to do about Easter?"

    As I said in my preceding post, I am just not into Easter. I just don't have all those warm, comforting, childhood memories of the holiday like I do about Christmas.Twelfthnight Party January 2003 (DSCN0764) My parents were atheists, so going to Church on Easter was never something we did. They did, however, celebrate Christmas with all the trimmings and it's always been important to me to carry on that tradition:
    (Plus, green is my favourite colour, and red a close contendor for second place; Christmas's colours rock; pastels ... just don't.)

    Now, I do have a few scattered childhood memories of an egg-hunt here, or an egg-colouring party there. But they clealry didn't make that strong an impression on me for me to want to carry on the practice. Plus, I did have friends whose parents were serious at least about going to Church on Easter, even if they never went the rest of the year, so I did end up being invited a couple of times to what to me were interminably long, insufferably boring Services where I was expected to sit quietly and not laugh and wear uncomfortable clothes.

    Easter is very important to Lisa, however. She loves getting Easter Baskets full of all sorts of diabetic-coma-inducing treats. One of her funniest childhood memories is of the family dog, a gigantic German Shepherd, call in flagrante delicto standing all four paws on the dining room table with a startled expression on its face and easter grass hanging out of its jaws. Plus, Lisa is a huuuuge fan of roast lamb. I've made Lisa a few Easter Baskets in my time, of course, and we made one for her sister Gina when she got her new dog Salem:

    Easter Basket for Salem (DSCN1414)
    Of course this basket was full of dog-treats.

    Lastly, I simply cannot abide Peeps, though I admit I won't turn down a Chocolate Bunny. But as our colleague Ron pointed out, "
    you think the bunny is solid, then you bite into it and it's hollow".

    "A metaphor," said our colleague Helen "for life."

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    All by myself

    Sorry if that title gets an unbearably sick-making song stuck in your head.

    (I guess that apology is insincere since if the title didn't get the song in your head, this reminder will...)

    So Lisa's off to beautiful Akron for a week, to visit with friends and family over Easter. Myself, I've never been partial to Easter. I just don't like pastels ...

    I find that most people look at me funny when I call Akron "beautiful". Lord knows that I used to be the same way: most people, if they see Akron at all, it's from the interstate, and the view ain't pretty.

    Akron, or "Rubber City," is of course is famous for once having been the major centre of the tire industry (yes, I chose to spell "center" the British way and "tyre" the American way) in North America. It went through major economic decline as did the rest of "rust belt" America. I used to tease Lisa with calling her home town "Akrid" and saying things like "ah, yes: the best of both worlds: in the middle of nowhere and urban blight!"

    It wasn't until I visited in 2001 (Lisa's mother was diagnosed with lung cancer on 9/11/2001 and we went there for her [successful] surgery) that I realized how unfairly maligned the city was. Akron first of all lives up to its Greek name: it is definitely built on a "high" place, with sweeping vistas in all directions, affording views of heavily-wooded hilly countryside in all directions. The streets are lined with big, gnarled, old-growth oaks and maples and other trees, and the city is filled with huge rambling old Victorian houses with turrets and wraparound porches looking out on cobbled streets. The rubber industry was very kind to the city for many years and made a lot of people very wealthy in their time. So although most of the work has by now been outsourced to Mexico and elsewhere, and although Downtown Akron is still half boarded-up and could easily stand in as the location of a post-apocalyptic film where the neutron bomb has hit and left all the buildings standing but killed all living things, yet nonetheless there is still enough of a thriving economy to support some great restaurants and coffee houses and even some really great organic food markets.

    Plus, the city is surrounded by greenery: there is ample state parkland around the area, where we could take our dogs (we drove to Akron with Argus, and Lisa's sister Gina of course has her own menagerie) for hikes up and down hills and trails and past waterfalls and streams. And Akron is stunning in the autumn.

    Akron is of course also the home-town of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and of Devo.

    I was tempted to come along this time, not only because Akron is pretty, but because I really do want to try to make it to the Cleveland Museum of Art because they have my personal favourite pictorial representation of Medea (or, more pedantically, Medeia) in their collection on a Lucanian Calyx-Krater (Krater: the Greek word for a bowl used for mixing wine with water: the ancients never drank their wine neat). This is one of the two most famous ancient images of Medea; the other is in Munich (Munich 3296). (A third was a fresco on the walls of Pompeii.)

    It shows the witch Medea (wiki) escaping from the Corinthians (she has just killed their king and his daughter, who was about to marry her husband, Jason of Argonauts fame, and according to Euripides, she has also just killed her two children by Jason in order to punish him for divorcing her and leaving her and the kids in the lurch). She is in a chariot drawn by dragons; the chariot has rays coming out of it because it was provided by her grandfather: the sun-god Helios (wiki). (Her father, Aeetes, was also the brother of the witch Circe (or, more pedantically, Kirke) of Odyssey (Odusseia) fame, whom my female Siberian Husky is named after, not without cause, the bitch!) Another page on Medeia here.

    Alas, the museum happens to be closed for renovations at the moment, so I'll wait until the next time Lisa has a nostalgic moment.

    Well, that's that. Until Lisa comes back, it's just the dogs and the cats and me; and I promised Lisa I won't just duct-tape and cork the cats 'til she gets back. I'll even actually feed them, the bastards! *HEAVY sigh*.

    νῦν δ' ἐχθρὰ πάντα, καὶ νοσεῖ τὰ φίλτατα...

    Now I just have to get that song out of my head ...

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