Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Fat Pack

1. The Rat Pack: Frank, Dino, Sammy, etc.

2. The Brat Pack: A bunch of guys whose names I forget.

3. The Frat Pack: Ferrell, Vaughn, Stiller, and the brothers Wilson.

4. The Fat Pack: Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill, and their Apatow sidekicks.

Favorite Rock Albums of the 2000s

I don't claim that this is a "best of" list. I don't buy the many hundreds, or thousands, of albums necessary to provide an accurate guide to all the best popular music of a decade, nor is my taste broad enough to encompass all the many niches and subniches that have evolved over the years. (If it were so broad, it would hardly be "taste" at all.) These are just some of the rock records from 2000-2009 enjoyed and recommended by We Wrenched Our Necks.

1. Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, PJ Harvey: Sublime suite of songs from the greatest female rocker of all time. A case study of how a "difficult" artist can achieve beauty and accessibility without losing integrity.

2. Turn On the Bright Lights, Interpol: The best neo-postpunk album of the decade: a perfect distillation of that early '80s vibe coupled with a distinctly contemporary shimmer and mood.

3. Hail to the Thief, Radiohead: Not as heralded as Kid A, but for my money a more attractive combination of Radiohead's fascinating electronica and rock-oriented songcraft.

4. Isolation Drills, Guided By Voices: The kings of lo-fi go full-throttle hi-fi, giving the stupendous pop more power than ever before.

5. Bachelor No. 2, Aimee Mann: Gorgeous melodies and crisply intelligent lyrics wrapped in ingenious soft rock arrangements. Only flaw is a degree of emotional monochromaticism.

6. Relationship of Command, At the Drive-In: You want over the top? You want a feast of crazy, roaring riffs and furious shouting? You got it.

7. The Obliterati, Mission of Burma: The sequel to the almighty comeback is even stronger, even more intense, even more packed with smart, blistering tracks.

8. Leviathan, Mastodon: The metal Moby-Dick is absolutely exhilarating, even for nonmetalheads (like me). Occasional Rush-style prog touches add spice.

9. Silent Alarm, Bloc Party: British neo-postpunk with strong Gang of Four influence. The superb first four songs justify the entire album.

10. Takk..., Sigur Rós: Slightly more song-oriented than the also excellent Ágætis Byrjun, but still blissfully, beautifully disorienting.

11. Veni Vidi Vicious, The Hives: Stomping Swedish garage-punk that breaks windows, kills cats, and enrages neighbors. And catchy, too.

12. Decoration Day, Drive-By Truckers: Southern rock rides again, but through a darker, more bitterly introspective landscape. Best country-style song title of all time: "Hell No, I Ain't Happy."

13. Kid A, Radiohead: The consensus critics' choice for album of the decade, this brilliant work is the rare experiment in which virtually everything works.

14. ONoffON, Mission of Burma: The reunited art punkers' first LP in 22 years, this surprised even the group's diehard fans with its potency. Greatest comeback album ever.

15. The Back Room, Editors: Interpol sound-alikes hit a similar sweet spot of textured guitar work, but with a slightly higher cheer-to-gloom ratio.

16. A Rush of Blood to the Head, Coldplay: Lessons learned from Radiohead and U2 backed with consistent songwriting and more energy than detractors would expect.

17. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, U2: The choice between this and All That You Can't Leave Behind is a toss-up; I find this one a bit more vibrant.

18. Elephant, The White Stripes: Frighteningly good guitar thrashing and blues belting from Jack White. With a real drummer, this could have been a masterpiece.

19. Is This It, The Strokes: Not the revelation it was first proclaimed to be, but still an irresistible collection of hipster ditties.

20. Bleed Like Me, Garbage: Swan song from slightly twisted mood rockers is actually the band's hardest-rocking effort.

21. Accelerate, R.E.M.: Not quite at the level of the group's mid-80s zenith, but close enough, for a change.

22. Antidotes, Foals: Somewhat freaky mix of dance punk and math rock. You can count to it!

23. Gozo Poderoso, Aterciopelados: Cool music from Colombia blends stylish beats with infectious tunes and spaced-out atmosphere.

24. Good Morning Aztlan, Los Lobos: Classic, genre-crossing Los Lobos, with composing and performing at a gratifyingly high level.

25. Real New Fall Album, The Fall: Another confounding bullseye from Mark E. Smith after several arrow-in-foot attempts. The U.S. mix of "Theme From Sparta FC," here called "Sparta 2XX," is probably the best Fall song of the 2000s or the 1990s.

Honorable Mentions: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco; Songs for the Deaf, Queens of the Stone Age; Electric Version, The New Pornographers

Friday, June 04, 2010

Djokovic: "Today, I Retire for Serbia"

WWON: The following is a tennis parody, just in case you are gullible or I'm especially convincing.

Star gives home fans the big quit they craved

BELGRADE, May 7, 2010 (AP) — When American baseball legend Joe DiMaggio was once asked why he played so hard in a meaningless, end-of-season game, the star replied, "There might be somebody out there who's never seen me play before."

Serbian tennis hero Novak Djokovic shares this sense of duty, this proud determination to give fans everywhere his very best. The lanky Serb has treated tennis lovers around the world to some of most spectacular mid-match retirements his sport has ever seen. Although still in his early 20s, Djokovic already has achieved retirements at three of the four Grand Slam tournaments — a Hall of Fame credential in the making. But until today, he had never managed to quit in front of his most loyal fans.

"I know the Serbian people want to see me quit," Djokovic explained in the afterglow of his Serbia Open retirement to countryman Filip Krajinovic. "Fans stop me in bars, on the street, and ask, 'Nole, you quit in Paris, you quit in Melbourne — why you not quit in Belgrade? It would make us so proud to see you retire,' they say to me. 'I am trying, I am trying so hard' — that is all I can tell them."

It takes luck to find the right opportunity to retire in a tournament you desperately want to retire in, but stars have a way of making their own luck. Djokovic sensed early on that this could be the year to make his fans' dreams come true.

"This morning when I get up, I feel sick, but I worry — am I sick enough? Maybe I can make it all the way through the match; that would be no good for me, no good for my fans. But when I leave hotel, a small boy calls to me, 'Quit for your people! Adje Nole! Quit for Serbia!'"

Djokovic needed no further inspiration. Trailing 4-5 in the first set, he converted his very first quit point at 15-30. The crowd seemed stunned at first, then erupted with joy. Many fans wept openly.

"Today, I show people what is in here," exclaimed Djokovic, thumping his chest with his fist. Today, I retire for Serbia!"

Serbian tennis fans can rest easy tonight. Their beloved quitter has come home.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

List of Great Rock Lists

If these rock lists aren't yet immortal, they should be.

Best Rocker Real Names (not made-up names)
1. DJ Bonebrake (drummer, X)
2. Madonna
3. Prince
4. Mark Sandman (singer/bassist, Morphine)
5. Johnny Cash

Most Anthemic Bands, by Subgenre
Classic rock: The Who
Punk: The Clash
Postpunk: U2
Alternative rock: Midnight Oil
Grunge: Pearl Jam

Greatest Women Rockers (rockers, not just pop stars or r&b singers)
1. PJ Harvey
2. Chrissie Hynde
3. Wilson sisters (70s only)
4. Debbie Harry
5. Sleater-Kinney

We Wrenched Our Necks Fave Albums of the 90s (limit one per artist)
1. Loveless, My Bloody Valentine
2. OK Computer, Radiohead
3. Rid of Me, PJ Harvey
4. Superunknown, Soundgarden
5. Nevermind, Nirvana
6. Girlfriend, Matthew Sweet
7. Live Through This, Hole
8. Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, Guided By Voices
9. Garbage, Garbage
10. Never Loved Elvis, The Wonder Stuff

Best Songs by The Jam
1. "In the City"
2. "All Around the World"
3. "That's Entertainment"
4. "The Modern World"
5. "Going Underground"

Russian Composer Names That Sound Best When Pronounced with a Faux Russian Accent
1. Dmitri Shostakovich
2. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
3. Modest Mussorgsky

That last list is a bonus track, obviously.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Rovesputin Denounces Obama for November Revolution

When We Wrenched Our Necks last spoke with Karl Rovevich Rovesputin, the noted Republican strategist/sorceror was exulting over the 2004 Bushkin electoral triumph, sharing both his thoughts and spittle liberally. This year's interview began with Rovesputin engaged in a curious ritual involving an antique chair, a sturdy cast-iron pipe mounted a few inches from the hovel ceiling, and a length of heavy rope, which the monk slowly uncoiled as he spoke.

We Wrenched Our Necks: Was it difficult for you to watch this election from the sidelines?

Rovesputin: Nyet, nyet, I was happy in my new role as a pundit. After giving Czpresident Gyorgy every drop of my blood, sweat, tears, and neurotoxins for so many years, I needed a vacation. And so did my beard. There were spiders in there whose names I didn't even know. You keep thinking the hectic schedule's just temporary, that you'll slow down soon, and then you turn around and the little ones are all grown up. Then you can only hope you raised them right ... nyet, I was definitely ready to take some time for myself.

WWON: Did you have any contact with the McCain campaign?

Rovesputin: Not much. Shortly after the convention on Bald Mountain -- er, Minnesota, I presented the McCainites with my 19-point plan for the Czpresident's magnificent intervention in the campaign, complete with glorious speaking events, many joint photo opportunities, and numerous Tupperware and incense parties. And Black Masses -- lots of Black Masses. But from the villainous McCain I heard nothing but sniveling excuses -- something about how my plan was doomed to fail because 19 is a prime number. Never trust a boyarin! Say, are you any good with knots?

WWON: Some of the GOP's "socialist" rhetoric was very reminiscent of tactics you have employed in the past. Did you have a hand in that?

Rovesputin: One day I ran into McCain at the steam baths, where he had reported for his decennial scalp buffing and cerumen harvesting. I was having my cobwebs laundered. Although he insisted to me between grunts of pain that "the Mac is back," I saw through his bluster and realized that his terror of losing had left him thematically bereft. I suppose I might have muttered something about socialism, communism, Bolshevism, or their blighted brethren, but however the idea entered McCain's head, he clearly regarded it as his salvation. Come to think of it, I do remember numerous kisses being placed upon the hem of my robe as we departed, so da, I believe I must have influenced him.

WWON: How has the outcome of the election affected you?

Rovesputin: It is bitter, bitter borscht. The vanquished John Kerry was a verminous Trotskyite princeling, but in truth Kerry was a mere Menshevik compared to the odious Obama, who is an accursed Bolshevik deceiver of the foulest kind. This November revolution will not stand. The American people will never accept a czpresident of color if that color is RED! I will not rest until every goat across the Motherland has been sacrificed to wash away the stench of Barack the Bolshevik! Aren't Obama's kids cute, though? So adorable.

WWON: What was Sarah Palin's impact on the race?

Rovesputin: Palina is a temptress! The first time I met her, she was wearing nothing but a towel, and then she removed the towel and snapped it at my nether regions. Now I must close my eyes and count to desjat' every time I hear her name. I remind myself that there is no "orgy" in "Gyorgy" -- well there is, but not that kind. Anyway, Palina is as dim as the Siberian winter. I am told she attended six different finishing schools before finally emerging with a degree in winking. And I do not think it helped McCain for her to shout "Cowabunga!" at Joe the Serf every time she saw him.

WWON: Thank you for your insights, as always. But about that rope -- don't you think you're overreacting? Surely there will be better years ahead for you.

Rovesputin: Don't worry, it won't work. I've already tried poison, knives, Vicious-Czpresident Cheney's beloved blunderbuss, and McCain's pacemaker hooked up to the St. Petersburg city dynamo. All I've done is ruin a few cassocks. Nothing works. You know, there are days when being a deathless demon encased in a carapace of human flesh gets a little old.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Let's Clone Michael Crichton!

Michael Crichton died yesterday. That means it should be possible to harvest his DNA still in excellent condition. With virtually complete Crichton DNA strands available, we won't have to resort to primate substitutes for missing segments. I foresee viable cloned embryos within a few years, so theme park planning and design should start immediately.

I don't know what Michael Crichton considered his greatest achievement. The Andromeda Strain? ER? His M.D.? Westworld? (OK, probably not that.) But I do know what he will be remembered for, without a doubt, long after his other books, films, television projects, and ideas have been forgotten: Jurassic Park.

Jurassic Park the novel had an enormous impact on me. I read the paperback on a plane returning from a business trip. It instantly rekindled the interest in paleontology that I'd had for much of my life, but that had been dormant in early adulthood after law school and related pursuits. I moved immediately to Robert Bakker's The Dinosaur Heresies and other contemporary scientific accounts of the modern understanding of dinosaurs. Within a short time I was a member, then a contributing author, and finally an editor for The Dinosaur Society, a paleontology advocacy, education, and fundraising group founded by Don Lessem.

I have never looked forward to a movie as eagerly as I did the first Jurassic Park flick in 1993. The Dinosaur Society was even thanked in the credits at the end of the film! Later that same summer we took a family vacation to Alberta, Canada, to visit Dinosaur Provincial Park and the Royal Tyrrell Museum. It was a dinosaur summer for millions around the world, ultimately thanks to Crichton.

Although JP the movie was a fabulous blockbuster, it was neither as frightening nor as scientifically compelling as Crichton's novel. But both works shared the truly ingenious premise about DNA-based resurrection. Kudos to Crichton for crafting a storyline that was merely extremely improbable, rather than absolutely impossible (i.e., outright prohibited by physical laws as we now understand them). I never expected to find an account of dinosaurs eating people that turned out to be hard SF. The stupendous commercial success of the novel, the movie, and their sequels partially obscured the remarkable fact that Crichton produced visionary science fiction that actually could be tested, not merely consumed. I still have my 1993 VHS tape of NOVA's The Real Jurassic Park two-hour TV documentary, which took Crichton's ideas very seriously indeed.

JP the book also had a great sense of mystery in the beginning -- something that was mostly absent from the movie version -- and wonderful, ceaseless suspense. However, reading other Crichton novels, such as the JP-clone Timeline (time travel instead of dinosaurs), makes it clear that he had a highly formulaic procedure for achieving these effects. For example, ending short chapters with narration along the lines of, "She screamed as he raised the axe," goes a long way toward creating the desired "page-turner" quality.

Despite his scientific ingenuity, cleverness, and skill as a thrill merchant, Crichton was prone to including lamebrained philosophy and speechifying in his novels, particularly the later ones. In Jurassic Park that plague was kept under reasonable control, and mostly took the form of Crichton's flawed discussion of chaos theory through the mouthpiece of Dr. Ian Malcolm. (Dr. Malcolm died in the book, so he can be forgiven some near-death ravings.)

1. Crichton basically asserted in JP that because chaos theory reveals that complex systems cannot be fully predicted or controlled, complete disaster must follow. In the other words, he thought chaos theory means, at the macro level we experience, that actual chaos is inevitable. But making system collapse a certainty wrongly negates chaos theory's emphasis on unpredictability. Crichton didn't seem to understand that, or he didn't care because he was too obsessed with arguing that there are some things "man was not meant to know" (or do).

2. Crichton was wrong to imply that the dinosaur park in JP was inherently unsafe and could not be improved. There were two obvious avenues of improvement: (a) prevent sabotage, and (b) use passive rather than active dino barriers.
(a) The park failed because the evil computer nerd, Dennis Nedry, sabotaged it out of greed. That need not be a routine occurrence. The fact that bank officers sometimes embezzle millions of dollars, and that banks sometimes fail spectacularly, doesn't mean that banks are a hopelessly bad idea and should be abandoned as economic institutions.
(b) Huge electric fences are obviously a dumb idea as a barrier against giant animals, because of the high probability of an eventual power failure. Passive barriers, such as enormous moats and walls, are much better. They are not always perfect if designed poorly, but they're clearly more reliable than fences that need to be plugged in.

3. There's no reason to conclude that the dinosaur park was a total catastrophe simply because animals escaped and some people got killed. (This was even truer in the movie version of JP, because the death toll was lower.) People have been killed by animals at zoos and circuses for as long as these attractions have existed, yet we haven't banned them. Yes, animals can be dangerous. Yes, bigger animals are more dangerous. All that means is that a dinosaur park will have significant risks, not that such a park must be avoided at all costs.

Whatever his faults as a writer, there was a time when Crichton rivaled Stephen King as the most prolific and successful one-man idea factory in the entertainment world. You could count on his novels to become bestsellers, the bestsellers to become movies, and the movies to become hits. And for a short while 15 years ago, when Steven Spielberg & Co. brought the author's vivid speculations to the widest possible audience, Crichton was probably the most influential thinker on Earth. Yes, certainly worth cloning.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Realignment? Not So Fast

Before the election, conservative pundits and politicians were pushing the meme that the United States is a "center-right" country, and they have stuck to that spin even after Obama's convincing victory. According to these conservatives, no political realignment has occurred, merely a one-time reaction to particularly bad Republican governance. Well, they have a point, but it's not quite the point they intend. Realignment is not occurring as fast as many Democrats would like to believe, but the problem is not a fundamental center-right orientation of the entire nation; the problem is political stasis among conservatives themselves.

Part of what it means to be a conservative is to resist change. Thus, the right and center-right wings of the country always will be larger than justified by the zeitgeist. "Realignment" analyses tend to favor the Republicans, and support the existence of the "center-right country" meme, simply because rightists are less flexible, and realign more slowly.

If you consider the quality of the 2008 national tickets, the enormity of the problems facing our country, and the demonstrated ineptitude of Republicans in authority, Obama should have won by a much greater margin. I am convinced that millions of people voted for McCain simply because their thinking is trapped in 2004, or 2000, or even earlier. They simply cannot adjust rapidly enough to cast their votes based on current realities.

Since Johnson's defeat of Goldwater, which was pre-Southern Strategy (the GOP's infamous, coded race-baiting), there has not been a true landslide win for the Democrats in a presidential election. Democrats can point to nothing on the scale of Nixon's drubbing of McGovern or Reagan's destruction of Mondale. But that's because the right-leaning bloc is more immobile than the left-leaning bloc.

Imagine Sarah Palin running against Obama in 2012. Now, imagine that the Democrats managed to find a presidential candidate as untrained, ignorant, and extremist as Sarah Palin, and put that candidate up against an experienced, intelligent, and conservative-but-reasonable Republican. I think our hypothetical dumb Democrat would lose by a much bigger margin than would Palin, because more left and center-left voters would prefer a candidate who was ideologically dissimilar, but at least basically competent, to a candidate who waved the correct flags but was plainly an utter fool. Thus, Democrats' greater flexibility and grasp of reality make realignments in our favor appear less dramatic and decisive.

We All Win with Obama

Barack Obama's historic triumph is a victory for more than just African-Americans, biracial people, and disenfranchised minorities. It is a victory for more than just progressives, liberals, and the Democratic Party. It is a victory for more than just struggling but hopeful people across the globe. It is a victory for ... The Harvard Law Review.

Congratulations, brother!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Election Eve: The End of the Angry 8s

The last two presidential election years ending in 8 have been horrendous. 1968, of course, was the definitive election-year nightmare. Who could ask for more hell than the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the unsuccessful race-baiting campaign of the not yet semi-redeemed George Wallace, and the successful, and more subtle, race-baiting campaign of the disastrous Richard Nixon? 'Nuff said.

1988 was a picnic in comparison, although it was more personally painful for me. As a young member of the local "Lawyers for Dukakis" group, I was confident that the country was ready for a return to basic smarts and competence after two terms of Reagan. Bush was clearly a boob, and Dukakis knew his stuff. Heck, one of my professors from Harvard Law School was his issues adviser! In the bag, right? But Dukakis ran an exceedingly wimpy, passive campaign, and the perfectly fine-tuned ugliness of the Republicans' Willie Horton-based outreach carried the day. Obviously, "Lawyers for Dukakis" types don't expect a campaign to be determined by yet more race-baiting -- or by Pledge of Allegiance nonsense nonissues, for that matter.

On this election eve, 2008 looks to be a very, very welcome change from the last two angry 8s. Intelligence finally wins. Race-baiting finally is shown the door. It's been a long wait for the country.

Hello, I'm a Yuppie -- er, a Mac

I am not a Microsoft whore. How's that for an opening? It's important for me to establish my bona fides from the outset on this sensitive topic, so let me say that back in the 90s I was an avid OS/2 user. I spent years tinkering with OS/2 both at home and at work (unilaterally) before my love for the coolness of the operating system finally gave way to my frustration with the lack of applications for it. But I didn't migrate back to Gatesworld out of devotion to Windows.

With that out of the way, let me make this declaration: the Macintosh is a ripoff. Or at least the Mac notebook computers are a ripoff. How do I know this without ever having owned a Mac myself? Well, it's not that Macs don't work well, or don't provide significant benefits. The problem is that Apple's prices for Mac notebooks represent the old Yuppie value paradigm that makes no sense in the contemporary economy.

First, the background for my comparison. Until this past weekend, I was using a Sony VAIO notebook PC from 2001. It's taken a beating over the years, and I've had to adapt. I could put up with a screen that has been attached by only one hinge ever since I dropped the computer in Jan. 2004. I could put up with a touchpad so worn-out that I had to turn off taps every time I booted up, or else the pad would go crazy and read all movements as taps, leading to windows bursting open all over the place. I could put up with a battery that had a life of about 10 to 15 minutes when fully charged.

I could put up with the lack of built-in wireless connectivity, and with a wireless modem PC card that sometimes didn't connect the first time, requiring me to pull it out and re-insert it. I could put up with only 256MB of RAM and slow USB 1.0. I could put up with a severe shortage of storage space, since the 30GB drive is stuffed with iTunes files and I had to save the few GB left over for virtual memory. And I could put up with not being able to write DVDs.

But I could not put up with the complete lack of practical Internet access that resulted when I "upgraded" to Microsoft Internet Explorer 7, which proved (as it had in the past) completely unable to make any connection with the Web from my PC. This time, however, an apparent glitch in the installation process left me unable to back out of the upgrade by uninstalling IE 7 and reverting to IE 6. I could no longer reach the Net or download a solution from anywhere, although I suppose I could have found Firefox on a CD somewhere and installed that. That might have worked.

Eventually, however, every computer must be slapped with a DNR order. It may still boot and run OK, but as an actual tool or toy, it's no longer viable. Such is now my 2001 VAIO, so I've replaced it with a 2008 VAIO with the following specs:
  • 16.4" cinema-style HD widescreen
  • Intel Core2 Duo whateverhz (stopped caring about processor speeds long ago)
  • 320 GB hard drive
  • 4 GB RAM
  • Vista Premium 64-bit edition
  • Webcam
  • Bluetooth (though I have no Bluetooth devices at present)
  • Blu-ray drive! (read-only; writes CDs and DVDs)
This tidy little unit cost me $899 at Best Buy. Originally $1,399, it was marked down to $999 when a slightly newer model arrived, then marked down another 10% because it was the display model.

Try to find a comparably featured MacBook for anything near that price. Try to find one for twice the price. According to Apple's website, a MacBook Pro with similar specs would cost between $2,300 and $2,700, and you cannot get a Blu-ray drive on a Mac at any price.

But isn't the Mac much "better"? Isn't Vista a miserable excuse for an operating system? Aren't the cachet and superior design of the Mac worth whatever premium Apple wishes to charge? (Macs never seem to be discounted, which is a symptom of the problem.)

No. Not at those prices, they aren't. Not when I can buy two or possibly three well-equipped Sony VAIOs (which are attractively designed in their own right) for the price of a single MacBook Pro. The insanely un-great Apple marginal-multiple value proposition must be rejected.

What do I mean by the "marginal-multiple value proposition"? Simply this: that a marginal increase in value can justify a multiplication in price by a factor of two or more. I am willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that Macs may be better than PCs in important ways. But Macs are not twice as good as nice PCs. They are not three times as good.

The marginal-multiple approach to pricing is often applied to relatively low-cost consumer items. Why buy an ordinary grapefruit from the supermarket when you can buy a grapefruit from a club that is slightly tastier but costs five times as much? Yuppies in the 1980s were notorious for pursuing marginal increases in quality at ridiculous markups, and this habit has been institutionalized in some sectors of the economy. But when the value proposition is applied to pricier goods, particularly technology products, it can quickly degenerate into emperor's new clothes lunacy. Haven't Mac enthusiasts ever heard of satisficing?

If you love your Mac, then love it. But don't pretend rationality is on Apple's side. Marginal-multiple snobbery is an 80s disease we really should have shaken by now.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

21st Century Postpunk

Postpunk, a tightly wound 80s rock genre, has enjoyed a surprising renaissance in the 21st century. The best neo-postpunk avoids being purely derivative while still capturing the coiled energy, shimmering atmospherics, and nervous angst characteristic of the style. This mix, which I originally posted to iTunes, presents a selection of the most compelling songs by the best of the new postpunk bands, along with startlingly good fresh material by some classic postpunk bands that remain active in the 2000s.

Slopes! Soon

Today in Pittsburgh it flurried furiously. My office is on the 57th floor of a skyscraper, and from that altitude it was a white-out. Of course, nothing really stuck, but the sight of snow was heartening nonetheless. The slopes season should be here in a month or two. (Let's agree not to notice the fact that out west, it's already there.)

Having a hobby that can be pursued in earnest only three to four months out of the year is hard. Imagine doing something that you really enjoy doing. Now, imagine yourself spending most of the year not actually doing it, but just waiting to do it. The hobby becomes a strange mix of anticipation and frustration. I have not been a snowboarder for very much of my life -- I took up the sport as an adult less than five years ago -- but already it feels that I've done a couple decades' worth of waiting.

You may have noticed something odd about this entry -- a curious, rectangular array of variegated pixels ... a photo? Obviously, We Wrenched Our Necks has been a writer's blog, not a personal scrapbook. But a little color now and then couldn't hurt, I think.

Photo: My snowboard at Brighton ski resort, Utah, 2007

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sarah Palin Swats Fruit Flies

We here in Pittsburgh recently had the pleasure of being the venue for Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's first major policy address, on "The McCain-Palin Commitment to Children with Special Needs." In her speech, Palin proposed that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) could be fully funded simply by eliminating that eternal McCain bugaboo, earmarks. After all, earmark money "goes to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good -- things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not." This was not an off-the-cuff remark by Palin; the gibe was part of her prepared text (except for the characteristically pseudo-sixpackish "I kid you not").

I suppose it was too much to hope that Sarah Palin would have been aware of the crucial role that research on fruit flies has played in biology, especially in the science of genetics. Still, someone on the McCain campaign should have known something about this subject; apparently, the urge to take yet another cheap shot against "elitist" science was too much to resist. Because anything can be ridiculed if you're dumb enough, or if you believe your audience is dumb enough, I look forward to the next set of Palin's policy pronouncements:
  • "Can you believe they're spending millions to try and look inside a buncha cells to find something called DMA or whatever? Letters of the alphabet!"
  • "Who came up with the idea of typing all kinds of numbers into some sort of electronic typewriter with a TV attached and hoping it'll tell us what the weather will be like in 10 years? They're stuffing Joe the Plumber's money down a rat hole!"
  • "These socialist liberal Democrats think we're too stupid to notice that they're taking our tax dollars and giving them to some nutty mad scientists who say they're building better windmills. Windmills! Like, are we Dutch?"

Nathaniel Hawthorne, GOP Campaign Strategist

According to a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among the favorite books of Ashley "Hoaxer" Todd is The Scarlet Letter. The classic tale of sin, hypocrisy, and negative ads (read between the lines!) is reportedly listed on Todd's MySpace page. Presumably, her fixation on Hester Prynne's badge of dishonor is one of the factors that compelled Todd to contrive an account of racial menace and political butchery to present her backwards B to the world. This may be the first time in 150 years that Nathaniel Hawthorne has had a direct influence on a presidential campaign.

Now that the GOP's Hawthorne connection has been exposed, perhaps other latent strategies will come to light. Just how many times did John McCain read Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" before choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate?
"Yes, poisonous thing!" repeated Giovanni, beside himself with passion. "Thou hast done it! Thou hast blasted me! Thou hast filled my veins with poison! Thou hast made me as hateful, as ugly, as loathsome and deadly a creature as thyself -- a world's wonder of hideous monstrosity! Now -- if our breath be happily as fatal to ourselves as to all others -- let us join our lips in one kiss of unutterable hatred, and so die!"

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Unsexy Kilometer

The mile has a place of honor in rock and pop song lyrics. Whether you are "Eight Miles High" (Byrds) or "A Million Miles Away" (Plimsouls), or just a measly "500 Miles" (Proclaimers) from the promised land, songs that mention the mile will get you there in style.

The kilometer is not so lucky. Where are the classic tunes about kilometers? It simply doesn't work as a narrative element: "I just can't take the pain/Of the kilometers between us, babe" -- no thanks. Of course, part of the explanation may be that pop music in the last half-century has been dominated by Anglo-American culture, and the mile makes sense to us. But I think it goes deeper than that. "Kilometer" (or "kilometre," if you prefer) is not easy to sing -- too many syllables. And it has a rather cold, technical quality. Its composite, inorganic nature -- 1000 individual meters, and no scrimping, please -- is too obvious for it to fit well in the world of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. The kilometer is just unsexy.

The Many Blogs Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

If this entry is unintelligible, do not be discouraged, because somewhere out there in the multiverse is another version of this entry that is scintillatingly clear. And if you missed NOVA's excellent Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives episode on Tuesday night, you have through Oct. 28 to watch it online on the PBS website, here. After that you will have to find a parallel universe with a later deadline, or rent the DVD.

The Parallel Worlds program is a brief exploration of the eccentric life and radical work of quantum physicist Hugh Everett, as seen through the eyes of his son, rock musician Mark Everett. The genially shambling Everett the younger is much more interesting here than in his role as "E" of the Eels, an understated and rather minor act. Everett knows zip about mathematics or physics, so he serves as a good host for the uninitiated viewer as the show explores the rudiments of the elder Everett's "many worlds" theory of quantum mechanics -- a theory that is much more popular today, to the point of becoming a pop culture lodestar, than it was in 1957, when it was published.

As a reader and viewer of popularizations of science (generally, the more challenging, the better), I've long been a fan of the idea of parallel universes. I don't think you need to understand the mathematics to appreciate that it seems to answer the fundamental question of why? in a way the rival "Copenhagen interpretation" of quantum mechanics simply does not.

The background Parallel Worlds website is an excellent complement to the program. You can read some original correspondence of Hugh Everett's (I highly recommend these papers; he is an excellent, lucid expositor of his ideas), and even the published version of his original dissertation. I have not tackled that yet, but I think I will try to get through parts of it. There is also a very good, illuminating interview with Hugh Everett's biographer, Peter Byrne. And don't miss the timeline that includes developments related to the many worlds hypothesis in both science and science fiction. There's even a reference to the famous "Mirror, Mirror" episode of the original Star Trek. Although that episode did indeed depict a parallel universe, a more appropriate reference would have been to the "Parallels" episode of Star Trek: TNG, which explicitly dealt with the quantum mechanical theory of infinite parallel universes, and even offered a tidy summary of it (thank you, Data).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tawana Joe

Twenty years ago, the sensational and racially charged Tawana Brawley rape case fell apart in spectactular fashion when investigators concluded that Brawley had invented her shocking tale and had fabricated the evidence of assault. Republicans and other right-wingers were quick to pounce, dismissing not only Brawley and her supporters, but also anyone who argued that Brawley's claims had symbolic significance even if they weren't actually true. There was nothing to learn from a phony story of a race-based crime, they insisted. The falseness of Brawley's allegations meant that regarding her as a symbol of a larger, real problem was invalid, maybe even corrupt.

What, then, can we learn from "Joe the Plumber," the McCain campaign's newly anointed symbol of all that is wrong with Barack Obama's proposed tax policies? McCain claimed that poor Joe would be discouraged by Democratic taxes from purchasing a plumbing business that would thrust him into the $250,000/year bracket. Alas, as the facts sprouted into view, we learned that actually:
  • Joe is not a licensed plumber.
  • Joe is not even close to being able to purchase the plumbing business.
  • The plumbing business does not earn $250,000/year.
  • Joe's own annual income is far, far below the $250,000 threshold, meaning that he would benefit from Obama's tax plan -- he'd get a tax cut.
  • Oh, and his name isn't really Joe (unfortunate soul).
So, say goodbye to Joe the Symbol. No cutting corners, Senator McCain. Come back when you have a real victim of the Democrats' nefarious "socialism."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ten Commandments for a Conservative Opposition Party

It may be a little too early to start discussing the post-election political landscape, but I'm going to do it anyway. Many of us hope that an Obama landslide and lopsided Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress will result in the disintegration of the Republican coalition as we know it today. The national GOP of the 21st century is politically impotent, intellectually impoverished, and morally bankrupt. Like an inefficient, top-heavy conglomerate in the M&A-crazed 1980s, the Republican Party needs to be taken over, broken up, and sold for whatever the pieces can fetch.

But prolonged one-party rule would not be desirable for either the country or the Democratic Party itself. Corruption and complacency, perhaps to a staggering degree, would be inevitable. A decent, fair-minded opposition party is necessary -- if not as a coalition partner, at least as a check on harebrained ideas and a scold to warn against capitulation to the baser impulses. Conservatives may be lousy at governing, but they should be able to handle the role of Greek chorus.

Serving as the loyal opposition, however, requires political virtues that the national Republican Party has not demonstrated for ages. Republicans need to start from scratch. I am neither a conservative nor an ex-conservative, but I can offer some tips. To help the future Republican remnant adjust to their new role, I've compiled a list of the fundamentals, using a language they can understand: the Ten Commandments for a decent Conservative opposition party.

1. Reality is reality; you will have no other realities. Political good faith begins with agreeing that 2+2=4. Don't deny or ignore facts because they are unpleasant. Don't distort or denounce science because its discoveries are unpalatable. Apply your principles to the world; do not reshape the world to prove your principles.

2. Keep the holy out of government. You cannot participate in American democracy if you cannot respect the separation of church and state. A theocratic opposition party will not work. You can honor the traditional religious impulses of your members without injecting them into policy debates. Democrats can be persuaded by reason, but we will no longer be bullied by dogma.

3. Cast out your demons. If you attempt to make scapegoats out of gays, immigrants, minorities, Muslims, or any other group, we will not listen. We don't believe in demons, and neither can you if you want to have a say in the future of the nation.

4. You will not lie. Well, at least you will not lie all the time. Democrats are not naive about political dissembling, but government cannot function if almost every utterance is a falsehood. We will ignore future Cheneys who deny having made statements that are on video for all to see, and future Palins who read "guilty" and claim it says "innocent."

5. You will not reduce "values" to Puritanism. Democrats do not believe that the function of government in the 21st century is to enforce sexual rigidity across the land. You can promote the interests of American families without coercing abstinence or conventionality.

6. You will not profit unduly from government service. Corruption is a fact of public life, but it need not be a major factor in every public decision. Clean up your act, and help us keep ours clean as well if the temptations of power threaten to overwhelm us.

7. Argue positions, not labels. If you disagree with a policy proposal, explain why in clear language. Do not simply scorn it as "liberal," "socialist," or use any other cliched anathema. Your old coded vocabulary is useless now.

8. Abandon your economic fetishes. We understand that by nature, you are averse to taxes. Your role is to articulate that position responsibly, not to proclaim tax cuts the sole solution for every economic problem from a deep recession to runaway inflation. We laugh at Laffer.

9. Do not advocate on behalf of the rich alone. Democrats realize that a Conservative party will tend to favor business interests, and therefore the affluent, but you must keep that tendency in check. If serving large corporations and the top 1% of U.S. earners occupies your every thought, you will be useless to the country.

10. Do not covet our power to the point of paralysis. Yes, you will be plotting your return to power. Yes, you will occasionally resort to obstructionism. These are normal habits for opposition parties. But if you become obsessed with regaining what you have lost in a fair fight, or if you undertake an endless crusade to undermine the legitimacy of the new Democratic majority, you will reduce yourselves to complete irrelevance and harm the country along the way.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Forget 2008 -- Vote Atheist in 2108!

The United States will never be a truly free, just or tolerant society until an atheist is elected president. (I suppose we could settle for an agnostic.)

Why? Consider the converse: If an atheist cannot be elected president, the United States is not a truly free, just or tolerant society. Any religious test for citizenship or leadership, whether de jure or de facto, is a form of tyranny.

Notice that I did not say, "Until an atheist can be elected president." Political "can be's" are a currency that buys very little in the Wal-Mart voting booth aisle. Blacks have been full de jure citizens of the United States for about 135 years, and it's now been about 40 years since the civil rights movement opened the door for serious talk about how "anyone" could grow up to be president, but there has never been an African-American candidate on a major party national ticket. Similarly, American women have been full members of the polity for almost a century, but there has been only one woman on a major party national ticket, and that ticket was trounced. We will know that a Black, a woman or an atheist truly can be elected president when one actually is elected president.

So, perhaps 2108 isn't far enough away. The point is that the United States, along with other western democracies, is moving (more slowly in our case than in others) toward a bipolar religious world: on one side implacable fundamentalists and other determined dogmatists, and on the other a freethinking coalition of atheists, agnostics and watery, undogmatic believers of various stripes, such as Unitarians, ultraliberal Christians, largely secular Jews, Buddhists, neo-deists and the like. The moderate center will disappear. This does not mean that today's dominant sects will become extinct, only that people who may be nominally, say, Roman Catholics, will gravitate toward one pole or the other. They will become either religious reactionaries like today's fundamentalists, or quasi-humanists having much more in common with unbelievers than with the hardcore faithful.

The process of slow migration toward two opposing positions has been ongoing for centuries. Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment; Copernicus, Darwin, Freud. Every chink in the armor of the institutional church simultaneously accomplishes three things: (1) Reduces the pressure on people to be "conventional" church members who bow before social propriety and tradition more than an actual supreme being; (2) Liberates some disgruntled members of the flock, who become free to head for the hills of unbelief; (3) Encourages some worried believers to adopt more hardline positions out of fear that their rock is crumbling.

Today, the migration appears to be accelerating in the United States. Mainline Protestant denominations, such as the Episcopalians, are rapidly approaching schism over the issue of gay rights. In fact, however, the real fissure in these sects is along familiar conservative-liberal lines; even if an accommodation were reached on gay marriage, the groups would tear themselves apart soon enough on another issue similarly pitting the past against the future. Fundamentalists hold more power than ever and are increasingly able to drown out the voices of centrist believers in national debates on "morals" or "values." Nonbelievers, once a tiny, despised minority, are now merely a small, despised minority.

There are two main reasons for the current trend toward increasing polarization. The first is social and pragmatic: Moderation is an ineffective weapon against extremism. Gandhi's policy of nonviolent resistance ousted the British from India because the Brits, though imperialist to the core, were not prepared to launch a genocidal campaign to retain a colony. Similarly, the American civil rights movement succeeded because in 20th century America, for a variety of reasons, firehoses were an acceptable weapon for racist lawmen to use against demonstrators, but machine guns were not. But neither Gandhi nor Martin Luther King would have achieved anything but a speedy execution in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

In today's America, tolerant religious centrism is the ideological equivalent of passive resistance or civil disobedience. It is effective only if the fundamentalists have little power. Once the reactionaries have achieved a critical mass, centrism wilts. Ripostes such as, "Yes, we should follow God's law, but we shouldn't force it on others," or "True, Jesus said he is the only way to salvation, but he also said to love your neighbor," are useless against adversaries bolstered with the certainty of fundamentalism. Eventually, it becomes easier, and more powerful, to simply declare, "There's no such thing as God's law," or "I don't care what Jesus said and we are not going to run our country on it."

The second reason is more theological: It is logically and emotionally difficult to maintain a somewhat mushy middle position against two adamant extremes. Disbelief is indeed corrosive, as the fundamentalists charge (though this is a good thing, not a bad one). As faith becomes undogmatic, it is often difficult to find a stopping point before reaching agnosticism or vague deism; for many people, the only alternative is to put a stop to the slide by prohibiting all skepticism and enabling dogma to reign supreme. It is a fairly well-known phenomenon that clergy from liberal denominations are sometimes much closer to atheism than their congregations would suspect. Years of study at places like Harvard Divinity School leave such preachers with the conviction that most of the traditional Christian edifice of faith is a mixture of myth, superstition and addled history, just as freethinkers have always maintained. For example, consider the teachings of controversial Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die and other works. His brand of "Christianity" rejects the divinity of Christ, may even reject the historical reality of Christ, and is just a small step away from asserting that the very notion of "God" is empty. His successors may have the courage to take that final step.

Note that I am not advocating an aggressive campaign to persuade religious moderates to leave behind the remnants of their faith as we prepare for the election of 2108. Each conscience must find its own way in its own time. Barring a catastrophic collapse of western civilization, or a furiously oppressive crackdown by the neo-feudal Bush administration and its fundamentalist partisans, people will continue to move in both directions of their own accord. However, there is certainly no point in Democrats' moving toward the center on religious issues in a misguided attempt to appease the hard right. The center is being slowly deserted; it will eventually become a ghost town. Better to make the freethinking zone as welcoming as possible to the citizens who will inevitably arrive.

Terrorism? Blame Alexander

Alexander the Great never conquered the Arabian Peninsula. He died of illness in 323 BC before he had gotten around to executing a campaign against Arabia.
But suppose he had lived a little longer, enough to invade and, in all likelihood, conquer Arabia? Let's do a quick alternate-history inventory of the possible long-term consequences:
  • An at least partially Hellenized Arabia brought into the orbit of the Mediterranean world
  • Arabia as a province of Egypt or another Alexandrian sub-state after Alexander's death
  • Roman control of, or influence over, Arabia as part of the Empire or a pacified ally
  • The introduction of Christianity into Arabia through the Roman Empire, filling the monotheistic vacuum among the Bedouins
  • No rise of Islam
  • No clash between Christian and Islamic civilizations
  • No 21st century Islamic grievances, or Islamist terrorism.
I admit that this is a stretch, but that's the fun of alternate history. Of course, I haven't sketched all the possible consequences of this change -- there's also a plausible "no Islam = no preservation of Greco-Roman learning = no European Renaissance" chain of reasoning that should discourage those of you with time machines from acting precipitously.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Share a Borscht with Karl Rovevich Rovesputin!

Bushkin campaign strategist/masseur/muppetmaster Karl Rovevich Rovesputin agreed to an interview with this reporter shortly after the concession from John Kerry. Clad in his customary flowing black robes, Rovesputin shared his thoughts while enjoying his noonday meal of borscht, turnips and a cat's head. Following are his observations on the campaign, the election results and what America can expect from the next four years of President Bushkin.

We Wrenched Our Necks: Tell us about the mood in the White House on election day when early exit poll results favored Senator Kerry.

Rovesputin: At first, Czpresident Gyorgy seemed a bit rattled by the reports, and it took three Secret Service agents and a dollop of Crisco to pull his head out of the Oval Office goldfish bowl. But the Czpresident quickly stopped sobbing when I explained my three-point plan for seizing victory: (1) Wait for the actual vote counts; (2) ritually slaughter a thousand black goats; (3) e-mail a software "update" to the voting machines.

WWON: What happened when the tide turned and Florida fell to President Bushkin?

Rovesputin: Jubilation naturally ensued. The Czpresident pulled a flask from between his shoulder blades and enjoyed a copious draught of the finest vodka, or perhaps lighter fluid. When he regained consciousness, I saw him reach for the Czpresidentina, but she demurred, noting that she had not yet recovered from her bad 1997 headache.

WWON: Was Vice President Cheney on hand for the victory party?

Rovesputin: Da, da, the Vicious-Czpresident was celebrating most furiously with a wet towel and one of my incense burners. Later, I found him in the White House kitchen dancing naked to the "1812 Overture," but he stopped when I denounced the composer of that scandalous work as a known deviant and harborer of serf-on-serf phantasies. At that point, the Vicious-Czpresident's wife, who had been luxuriating in the walk-in freezer, threw a rock-hard meatloaf at me and expressed her outrage that I had dared to speak of what should not be spoken of concerning Pyotr Ilyich. She then inquired whether I perhaps had his telephone number, which she might pass on to her daughter, who needed a man. When I replied that Tchaikovsky was long dead, she asked simply, "And?"

WWON: You've been accused of masterminding a dirty campaign against Senator Kerry -- lying about the issues, distorting his record, terrifying the electorate. Do you think those tactics are legitimate?

Rovesputin: America said nyet to Kerry because he is an accursed Bolshevik deceiver, not because of our lies, which were steadfast, resolute lies that showed the Czpresident's leadership in the war against truth. Americans respect a man who knows where he stands, even if he does not always know whether he is standing. Our campaign was based the values of the American heartland: death to deviants, death to infanticidal liberals, death to benighted atheists and death to those who would dare to stand against, or in front of, our holy guns. Excuse me, could you pass the tabasco sauce? I've got a hairball. Believe me, this was an exhausting campaign. I can't tell you the number of Black Masses I had to say just to win Ohio.

WWON: What is the Bushkin agenda for the next four years? Will the President continue to govern from the right, or will he move toward the center in an effort to heal the country's deep divisions?

Rovesputin: Czpresident Gyorgy will unite the American people by reaching out in a spirit of fellowship to all those who will prostrate themselves before him utterly. Of course, there can be no compromise with traitors, Bolsheviks or those who would read books in defiance of the Czpresident's example. The Czpresident prays daily for guidance in fulfilling his mandate, and when I'm not too busy combing out my beard, I answer him.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Seeking Solace in Soviet Music

Thoughts on the election result, number 2.

Springsteen, aging '80s bands, folkies and hip-hoppers are OK for firing up the base before the big event, but when the base is weeping post-event, stronger stuff is called for. Listeners looking for hope that the coming dark years can be endured can do no better than opening their ears to the great music written by Soviet composers during the era of totalitarianism.

Sergei Prokofiev is my favorite composer of all time, and Dmitri Shostakovich is in my personal top ten. These two Russian geniuses lived and worked through the hideous repression of Stalinism (and beyond, for Shostakovich; Prokofiev died the same day as Stalin). Somehow they managed to produce many sublime works that combine great abstract beauty with veiled yet deeply felt indictments of the murderous regime under which they toiled.

Both Prokofiev and Shostakovich made their share of artistic compromises in order to avoid the gulag -- Prokofiev's first wife, sadly, actually was sent away -- but the existence of their rabble-rousing works should not discourage anyone from exploring the profound sentiments of their acknowledged masterpieces. Listen to Prokofiev's tragic, ghostly Violin Sonata No. 1 or Shostakovich's savagely bitter String Quartet No. 8, for example. This is music that understands, that expresses, that feels the grief of an absurd, insane, violent world.

Both these composers were supremely gifted in the delicate art of musical satire. With just a few phrases, a single distorted traditional form, they could convey the raging stupidity of an oppressive bureaucracy. Shostakovich's specialty was the deranged waltz; Prokofiev's, the pompous march. No composer in history was more adept at musical mockery.

I also strongly recommend Prokofiev's War Sonatas (Piano Sonatas Nos. 6, 7 and 8) for their brilliant and beautiful depiction of a brutal, mechanized world. Although these works are commonly associated with World War II (hence the nickname), they were in fact begun before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, and are probably "about" the idiocy of Stalinism as much as, or more than, the horrors of the war.

In February, as part of our mini-subscription this season, my wife and I will be attending a performance of the Pittsburgh Symphony that will include Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 and Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6. These are sorrowful, devastating works. The purpose of the program is to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII, but I will use the occasion as a lesson in how to wrest meaning from an era of absurdity. If those artists could work through Stalinism, we can work through Bushism.

Welcome Back to the Middle Ages

Thoughts on the election result, number 1.

Many historical comparisons have been made to illuminate our nation's dismaying slide deeper and deeper into Bushdom. The case for the religio-conservatives' takeover constituting a type of protofascism is plausibly made by Orcinus, among others. The transformation of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire, with its subsequent decline, is another common analogy.

My view is that America is in the process of changing from a modern, secular, information-age republic to a kind of anachronistic, high-tech medieval republic, and perhaps eventually to a high-tech medieval kingdom. Just consider all the elements from the glorious middle ages that, thanks to the G.O.P. and its fundamentalist base, we have reinstituted in the 21st century:
  • A society in which the throne, the church and the military are the most important institutions and are closely intertwined.
  • A ruler chosen by dynastic succession whose "legitimacy" rests not on his abilities or deeds, but on perceived divine anointing.
  • A small class of extraordinarily wealthy and powerful property owners -- the nobles -- who enjoy the favor of the ruler and who control the lives of the rest of the populace.
  • A huge group of subjects -- peasants, serfs, etc. -- who toil for the property owners, have little say over the way their lives are run, and face economic conscription to fight the ruler's wars, yet accept their lot willingly because they believe it is divine will.
  • A militaristic, crusade-oriented approach to foreign diplomacy.
  • Deep, unthinking religious devotion and a powerful disdain for rationalism and learning except when confined to cloistered corners of society.
So, welcome back to the middle ages! Time to start work on a cathedral, I guess. Need some stone?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

News From the Relativity-Based Community

The latest hard-won confirmation of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity came recently when physicists used careful measurements of satellite orbits to show that "frame-dragging" -- a localized twisting of space-time caused by the rotation of a massive body, such as the Earth -- really does occur. More details for those so inclined (which I hope is all of you). This effect is a direct prediction of General Relativity, and was first worked out in 1918, but has never been observed before.

Enjoy this triumph while it lasts, Einstein fans. If George W. Bush is re-elected, our government's attack on science may continue to the point that our cosmology jumps backward in time from relativity to Newtonianism to a pre-Copernican worldview. Maybe even Flat-Earthism! It's GOP elephants all the way down!

Friday, October 22, 2004

Philip Glass Gets Minimal on GOP Ass

Well, sort of. According to the New York Times, Glass is suing the makers of the pro-conservative "documentary" Celsius 41.11 for using his music without permission in TV ads for the film. Glass claims that the GOP propagandists lifted music from his soundtrack to Powaqqatsi for two different commercials.

The hidden irony here -- hidden from the producers, that is, but no doubt hilariously obvious to Glass -- is that it would be difficult to imagine a series of films more antithetical to the Republican view of the world than the three -qatsi documentaries that Glass scored for filmmaker Godfrey Reggio (the other two are Koyaanisqatsi and Naqoyqatsi). Virtually every image in the triology is an indictment of the smug, corporatist and violent way of life cherished by the right wing (though not only by them -- plenty of the rest of us are guilty too). Go Phil!

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Bush Voters Really, Truly In Denial

Opposing sides in hard-fought election campaigns tend to demonize each other. "Those people" can't possibly be so wrong on important issues, goes the thinking, unless they are ignorant, deluded or just plain stupid. (Or evil, but we'll leave Karl Rovevich Rovesputin out of this discussion.) Then some wise talking head will come along and suggest that no, it's unfair to conclude that one side is dumber than the other, and that sometimes the problem is that people simply disagree about fundamental issues.

Well, not this time. All the Democrats and apostate Republicans who wonder how any sane person could support a president with such a self-evidently dismal record of failure and ineptitude now have good, hard data to support their feeling that something is wrong with the Bushies. A stunning report from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) proves that when it comes to the most important issue in the 2004 presidential race -- the war in Iraq -- Bush supporters are just plain wrong about the facts.

I won't go into detail on the statistics generated by PIPA's survey of voters, but the bottom line is unambiguous. Here are some of PIPA's own statements of its conclusions:
Bush Supporters Still Believe Iraq Had WMD or Major Program, Supported al Qaeda
[Bush supporters] Agree US Should Not Have Gone to War if No WMD or Support for al Qaeda
Bush Supporters Misperceive World Public as Not Opposed to Iraq War, Favoring Bush Reelection

It doesn't matter how many exhaustive reports are issued showing that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no capability of making them; a majority of Bush supporters want to believe in the myth of WMD, so they do. It doesn't matter that there is zero evidence of a link between Iraq and al Qaeda -- that the absurdity of suggesting a link is so obvious that Dick Cheney felt compelled to lie during the VP debate and deny he'd ever claimed a link existed -- a majority of Bush supporters want to believe in the link, so they do.

PIPA apparently leans toward denial, rather than ignorance or stupidity, as the most likely explanation for the Bushies' persistence in holding false beliefs. Steven Kull, the director of PIPA, put it this way: "To support the president and to accept that he took the US to war based on mistaken assumptions likely creates substantial cognitive dissonance, and leads Bush supporters to suppress awareness of unsettling information about prewar Iraq."

This is not an election in which both sides have equally clear-eyed views of the facts, and just disagree on priorities or values. One side is mostly wrong about what it thinks it sees.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

If Jane Austen Wrote The X-Files

No, I'm not so mired in fangeek nostalgia that I'm still writing X-Files parodies in late 2004. This piece is actually from my glory days as a self-appointed X-Files humorist in the mid-90s. In that era I didn't have a blog, so everything I wrote was simply posted to Usenet, making it onto the Web only through the occasional intervention of an enthusiastic reader. "If Jane Austen Wrote The X-Files" was probably my most popular work, perhaps because there was a pretty substantial overlap between the Austen audience and the X-Files audience. You may call it recycling, but I prefer to think of it as stubbornly repeating myself until everyone gets the message. By the way, the parenthetical references below are part of the original piece.

Fox by Jane Austen [abridged version]

Fox Mulder, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly thirty-five years in the world with very little to distress or vex him, save the occasional disappearance or demise of a close relation or trusted confidant.

He was the oldest of two children of a most affectionate, indulgent mother, and had, in consequence of his sister's interplanetary elopement, been master of his house from a very early period. His father had left too long ago for him to have more than an indistinct remembrance of his presence, despite hypnotherapy, and his place had been supplied by an excellent man as guardian, who had fallen little short of a father in affection, though he tended to wallow in a fondness for tobacco that knew no satiety.

* * *

Pendrell was standing at one of the windows. Fox turned round to look at him in consternation and hastily said, "Have you any idea of Agent Scully's returning your affection?"

"Yes," replied Pendrell modestly but not fearfully, although his trousers were soiled, "I must say that I have."

Fox's eyes were instantly withdrawn; and he sat silently meditating in a fixed attitude for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making him acquainted with his own heart. A mind like his, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress; he touched, he admitted, he acknowledged, the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Pendrell should be in love with Agent Scully than with Deep Throat? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Pendrell's having some hope of a return? It darted through him with the speed of an arrow that Agent Scully must marry no one but himself!

How long had Agent Scully been so dear to him, as every feeling declared her now to be? When had her influence, such influence begun? When had she succeeded to that place in his affection which Deep Throat had once, for a short period, occupied? He looked back; he compared the two -- compared them, as they had always stood in his estimation, Scully a little shorter, from the time of the latter's becoming known to him -- and as they must at any time have been compared by him had it -- oh! had it, by any blessed felicity -- occurred to him to institute the comparison. He saw that there never had been a time when he did not consider Agent Scully as infinitely the superior or when her regard for him had not been infinitely the most dear, well, except perhaps for the occasion on which he had abandoned her to the wiles of the gentleman with the sharp stylus. He saw that in persuading himself, in fancying, in acting to the contrary, he had been entirely under a delusion, totally ignorant of his own heart -- and, in short, that he had never really cared for Deep Throat at all!

Agent Scully and Pendrell! It was a union to distance every wonder of the kind. Such an elevation on his side! Such a debasement on hers! And yet it was far, very far, from impossible. Was it a new circumstance for a woman of first-rate abilities to be captivated by very inferior powers? Was it new for one, perhaps too busy to seek, to be the prize of a man who would seek her? Was it new, at least since Roswell, for anything in this world to be unequal, inconsistent, incongruous -- or for chance and circumstance and massive conspiracies to direct the human fate?

[the manuscript becomes illegible at this point]

Coming next: Sixth Sense and Sensibility

Monday, October 18, 2004

Elmer Fudd Endorses Bush

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania tossed Ralph Nader off the state's presidential election ballot last week because the nominating petitions submitted by the Nader campaign contained thousands of phony signatures, including those of Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone.

Not to be outdone, Bush campaign strategist/masseur/Muppetmaster Karl Rovevich Rovesputin announced today that the Bush/Cheney ticket has earned the endorsements of an impressive slate of cartoon characters.

"America's top toons recognize that George W. Bush is a resolute man of iron and that John Kerry is an accursed Bolshevik deceiver," said Rovesputin. "Even the celluloid community is backing the Czpresident over that verminous Trotskyite princeling. Oops, gotta run -- I've got a Black Mass at noon."

The cartoon characters endorsing President Bush include (with comments leaked by one of Rovesputin's disgruntled serfs):

Elmer Fudd -- Inspires Second Amendment true believers; no wascally Democwats will confiscate his 12-gauge unless they pry it from his cold, dead, three-fingered hands. Helps shore up W's low-IQ base. Stridently supports anti-gay marriage amendment in order to camouflage closeted attraction to wabbits in drag.

Brutus, a/k/a Bluto -- Fires up Big Energy as he roars in rage at anyone who would stand in the way of his lust for Oyl. Loves to launch sneaky low blows against sailors who eat their vegetables, but always pays the price in the end by absorbing savage paunch-pummeling.

Yosemite Sam -- A rootin' tootin' jingoist who will wholeheartedly and halfheadedly back any military misadventure. A staunch advocate of the Bush doctrine: "Shoot foot first, ask questions later."

Scrooge McDuck -- As key Bush economic advisor, helped develop master plan for deficit reduction, jobs creation and economic growth: Fill large room to ceiling with shiny gold coins. Invite wealthy friends over. Dive in!

Wile E. Coyote -- Support from this well-known supergenius and outdoorsman should increase the President's standing among both eggheads, i.e., those who can read, and cactus-hugging environmentalists. His "ACME Instant Desert Tree-Dissolving Bomb" touted by Bush administration as milestone in healthy forests management.

Dick Dastardly -- No need to endorse Bush; is already on the ticket.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Screamin' Jay Sells Jeans

Most advertisements for blue jeans are either moronically sexual -- e.g., a young, jeans-clad couple faces a herd of buffalo stampeding through the city -- or embarrassingly banal, e.g., people go for a hike or go fishing while wearing jeans! But I admit that my attention is always riveted when I see (or hear, more precisely) the new Levi's ad featuring the song "I Put A Spell On You" by Screamin' Jay Hawkins. The spot is mysterious, slightly creepy and slightly amusing at the same time, and even the fraction of the song heard is mesmerizing. Makes me want to add Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise to the Netflix queue for a reviewing.

Guide to Cool Contemporary Rock

Here is a guide to notable releases in the '00s by a selection of up-and-coming rock bands. What these groups have in common -- besides hype -- is a rejection of the evolving grunge/nu-metal/emo aesthetic of the '90s in favor of older styles from the '60s, '70s and '80s: garage, punk, new wave, and postpunk (and Southern rock in one case!). For purposes of comparison, I've also included ratings for three suddenly resurgent '80s bands: Mission of Burma, Sonic Youth and The Cure.

Exceptional, possibly great (time will tell)
Drive-By Truckers, Decoration Day
The Hives, Veni, Vidi, Vicious
Interpol, Turn On the Bright Lights
Mission of Burma, OnOffOn
The White Stripes, Elephant

Enjoyable and entertaining
The Cure, The Cure
Drive-By Truckers, Southern Rock Opera
Franz Ferdinand, Franz Ferdinand
The Hives, Tyrannosaurus Hives
Interpol, Antics
The New Pornographers, Electric Version
Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse
The Stills, Logic Will Break Your Heart
The Strokes, Is This It
The Strokes, Room on Fire
The White Stripes, White Blood Cells
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever to Tell

Forgettable or annoying
Hot Hot Heat, Make Up the Breakdown
The Rapture, Echoes
Spoon, Kill the Moonlight
Stellastarr*, Stellastarr*
The Vines, Highly Evolved

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Bush's Crusade Destroying Christians

If God sent George W. Bush to Iraq, as Bush and his fundamentalist Christian supporters believe, then God shot himself in the foot.

A report on CNN today makes clear that Bush's crusade in Iraq is having an unintended but disastrous side-effect: the destruction of the Christian community in Iraq, one of the oldest in the world. The recent spate of church bombings in Iraq is only one of the attacks against Iraqi Christians, who are being persecuted for their perceived closeness to Western culture and their non-Muslim dress and cultural habits. Christians are coming increasing pressure to renounce their religion. Now, I can testify from personal experience that renunciation of religion can be truly liberating, but being forced to give up one's faith is to suffer one of the worst crimes that our species can commit.

For many Iraqi Christians, it appears that staying in the country is no longer an option. People are just trying to survive long enough to emigrate. This is the hell that Bush's war has unleashed on his co-religionists. The fact that the bombers and persecutors are evil does not relieve Bush of his own responsibility for their crimes, since he chose to unleash the forces in Iraq that are now ravaging the country.

Bringing chaos instead of order, destruction instead of justice, persecution instead of tolerance -- these are the accomplishments of a leader?

Amphibian Armageddon

The most frightening news of the past week -- worse than the continuing calamity in Iraq, the lousy economic prognosis or the fact that millions of Americans still plan to vote for George W. Bush -- was the release of a study concluding that almost one-third of all known amphibian species worldwide are "threatened," i.e., going extinct rapidly or going extinct a little more slowly. They're all about to croak! Something in the environment has gone horribly wrong, and we have only the beginnings of guesses as to what it could be.

This is the kind of announcement that, if we had a decent government, would be met with a slightly panicky but resolute determination to get to the bottom of the problem and do what is still possible to reverse the decline. Too bad it's also the kind of announcement that elicits nothing more than a dismissive snort from the current administration. "Toads?! Ooh -- eye of newt!" Of course, biologists have been issuing warnings about amphibians' mysterious difficulties for 10-15 years but have never gotten any traction in Washington.

When most people think of the biosphere -- if they think of it at all -- they probably picture it as a sort of gigantic mosaic, with each species of animal, plant or microorganism represented by a single tile in an array of millions. If a species goes extinct, it just leaves a tiny hole. Even if a large group of species disappears, the only problem is an empty patch that's still relatively small compared to the picture as a whole. The mosaic still "works."

The terrible flaw in the mosaic metaphor, obviously, is that its simplistic representation of life fails to convey the huge degree of interconnectedness of species, and the chaotic nature of the biosphere. At some point, removing a species or a group of species does more than leave an unsightly but tolerable vacancy -- it causes many other neighboring species and groups of species to come tumbling down in a cascade of death and disaster. And we have no idea what that point is. The next salamander squished could be the salamander that breaks the biosphere's back, and takes us along with it.

Steal This Meme!

George Washington: Couldn't tell a lie.
Dick Cheney: Can't tell the truth.
George W. Bush: Can't tell the difference.

Actually, please give me credit since this is a brand-new blog that needs to find its way in the world, out among the "Internets."