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.