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.