Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Navajo O

Dave Weigel noted a couple weeks ago that he doesn't pay much attention to the Birthers anymore, since they seem to be stuck in a feedback loop. Luckily, there's a new meme that's gaining currency on the right--Obama wants to give the U.S. back to the Native Americans:

The outrage began after the President announced on December 16 that the U.S. would reverse course and support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The Declaration was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 2007, but the U.S., under President Bush, opposed it.

"The aspirations it affirms -- including the respect for the institutions and rich cultures of Native peoples -- are ones we must always seek to fulfill," the President said of the Declaration at White House Tribal Nations Conference where he announced the reversal. He went on to describe efforts to improve health care, education, and unemployment rates in tribal areas.

...."Perhaps he figures that, as an adopted Crow Indian, he will be the new chief over this revived Indian empire," [Brian] Fischer [of the American Family Association] wrote. "But for the other 312 million of us, I think we'll settle for our constitutional 'We the people' form of government, thank you very much."

No less than John Bolton, George Bush's ambassador to the U.N., actually takes this seriously:

"It's a kind of feel-good document that has so many unclear phrases in it that nobody's really sure what it means when you agree to it," he told FoxNews.com. "It's wrong and potentially dangerous to sign onto a document that you don't fully understand the implications of."

I do sometimes wonder if Obama conspiracy theories are not some elaborate thought experiment on the outer limits of human credulity, gone tragi-comically awry.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Sokal Hoax Turns 15

Michael Bérubé notes the 15th anniversary of the Sokal Hoax. While defending the cultural studies which Sokal was attacking, he concedes the larger point:

But what of Sokal’s chief post-hoax claim that the academic left’s critiques of science were potentially damaging to the left? That one, alas, has held up very well, for it turns out that the critique of scientific “objectivity” and the insistence on the inevitable “partiality” of knowledge can serve the purposes of climate-change deniers and young-Earth creationists quite nicely. That’s not because there was something fundamentally rotten at the core of philosophical anti-foundationalism (whose leading American exponent, Richard Rorty, remained a progressive Democrat all his life), but it might very well have had something to do with the cloistered nature of the academic left. It was as if we had tacitly assumed, all along, that we were speaking only to one another, so that whenever we championed Jean-François Lyotard’s defense of the “hetereogeneity of language games” and spat on Jürgen Habermas’s ideal of a conversation oriented toward “consensus,” we assumed a strong consensus among us that anyone on the side of heterogeneity was on the side of the angels.

But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists, just as I predicted–and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind. Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of “experts” and “professionals” and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research.

The funny thing is it did not take long at all for this way of thinking to catch on among the Right. The first place I ever read about the Sokal Hoax was in (wait for it) Slouching Towards Gomorrah, by authoritarian would-be Supreme Court Justice Robert Bork, who mentioned it regarding the Left's penetration into academia as part of a "radical egalitarian" attack on elites.

Slouching was published in 1996, the same year as Sokal's coup. Sokal is mentioned on page 269; only 25 pages later Bork declares that "the fossil record is proving quite a major embarrassment for evolutionary theory" and goes on to quote Intelligent Design huckster Michael Behe as an authority. The juxtaposition speaks for itself.

'Law' is 'Wall' Said Backwards

The Obama administration is poised to enact some major regulatory changes regarding carbon emissions...

The Environmental Protection Agency announced a timetable Thursday to curtail greenhouse gas emissions from two major sources of the pollution scientists link to global warming: power plants and oil refineries.

The announcement was the latest step in an ambitious effort to begin taking action on climate change, and it is certain to draw fire from congressional Republicans and industry leaders who have promised to halt the agency's efforts.

..and end of life care.

When a proposal to encourage end-of-life planning touched off a political storm over “death panels,” Democrats dropped it from legislation to overhaul the health care system. But the Obama administration will achieve the same goal by regulation, starting Jan. 1.

Under the new policy, outlined in a Medicare regulation, the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.

I am sympathetic to the goals of both of these, particularly the latter, which was scrubbed from the health care reform bill thanks to an astounding mix of mendacity and cynicism on the part of Republicans. But while the ends are fine, the means are rough. The optics and ethics of executive action in the face of legislative failure suggest an approach that regards congressional action only as a formality. What good is Congress if it doesn't have any effect on whether or not a measure is implemented?

However, this is to only look at half the equation. Consider how Congress is going to treat the health care bill that did pass:

The second thing that Republicans need to do is to lay the groundwork for defunding any and all efforts to implement Obamacare. Thankfully, the American people delivered the House of Representatives into Republican hands, giving Obamacare opponents the power of the purse.

Americans expect the new Congress, bolstered by new members who made Obamacare repeal the hallmark of their campaigns, to oppose the legislation with every tool at our disposal.

Not only should Republicans in the House zero-out any Obamacare related item in the budget, we should further protect our efforts from Democrats in the Senate by including language in every appropriations bill we pass explicitly barring any money allocated therein from being spent on implementing or enforcing any part of Obamacare.

Health care reform is not the only legislation at which the incoming Republican House is taking aim (h/t Steve Benen):

The massive overhaul of food safety laws approved by Congress this week will take years to implement and could be undercut by Republicans who don't want to fund an expansion of the Food and Drug Administration.

Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, the ranking GOP member on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FDA , said the number of cases of food-borne illnesses in the country does not justify the $1.4 billion the new law is estimated to cost over the first five years.

The Republican party believes that Obama's legislation (and sometimes Obama himself) is illegitimate. They are willing to force a shutdown of the government in order to sabotage laws they don't like, in effect saying that the laws don't matter. Those are the facts.

Republicans, then, cannot complain about the President acting like Congressional approval is irrelevant when they are the ones who make it so.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Afternoon Stroll

There's not much to be said about my downtown walk on Christmas afternoon. I emerged from the L'Enfant Plaza Metro and made for the Capitol on Independence Avenue. It was conspicuously quiet, as I was hoping.

So was the Mall.

Ulysses S. Grant and his attendant lions were keeping it real.

There were more quite a few people gathered at the Capitol Christmas Tree.

I happened upon the Robert Taft Memorial, a tribute to the Senator son of President William Taft. He has a reputation as one of the most effective Senators the U.S. has ever had, and was notable for his opposition to the New Deal and American involvement in World War II before Pearl Harbor.

If we are to honor our most distinguished legislators, surely a Ted Kennedy memorial is someday conceivable?

I spent the evening watching the latest iteration of the original Star Wars trilogy on SpikeTV. In the next few day I'll try to post my thoughts on watching the two trilogies back-to-back. Surely something must come from such a colossal investment of late-night time.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Absent Friends

Hard though it is to believe, I only left Idaho a little over two months ago. I haven't $400+ to spare to get me home and back so soon, so I'm spending the holidays in DC on my own. With everyone gone and most everything closed tomorrow I won't be doing too much for Christmas. I'll go downtown as I did on Thanksgiving, a trip I will probably document, but I thought for the day I'd share something a little more significant.

I am not religious, but I enjoy churches. In an age when buildings of glass and steel and concrete are erected and torn down every day, churches perhaps more than any other structure provide a historic continuity in geography that's often missing in old cities, and often is by default completely absent in newer ones. Further, they were built to please the god of their congregation; they are very consciously the best buildings they can possibly be.

Washington's grandest church is of course the National Cathedral. Compared to St. Patrick's in New York and a likely great deal of the churches in London it is quite young, but its neo-Gothic style is true to form, and the 83 years spent constructing it are a reflection of that authenticity. I've wanted to check it out since my September trip out here, but it is a distance--not great, but still a ways from the Metro--and I have not had occasion to visit. My mother, generous soul she is, asked for Christmas only that I visit the Cathedral, as it is one of her favorites.

Well! I now had not only justification but an obligation to make the trek, and so I went. (I also got Mum a material gift as well.) I went on Wednesday at 12:30, for an organ demonstration. Artist-in-Residence Jeremy Filsell described the history of the organ, first built in 1938, when the cathedral was only 1/3 the size it is today. This is problematic now, as the organ's 10,500(!) pipes were designed for the acoustics of the original chamber's size, and now much of the sound doesn't carry to the rest of the Nave.

Filsell finished with a Christmas piece, "Variations on a Noel," a Bach-inspired work written by prolific French organist Marcel Dupre on a tour of the U.S. in 1921. Organ music sounds impressive just through its sound and varied textures, doubly so due to the virtuosity necessary to play such pieces. But hearing it live, awash in the jangle and hum of thousands of pipes, is something else entirely.

Afterward we were allowed to come and get a look at the organ console up close. It's a daunting construction, with over 300 mixing knobs and a claim to being the only console in the world with hydraulic pedal raisers built in, instead of an adjustable seat.

Shortly thereafter I was looking about the choir chamber, and I spotted the Bible at the Bishop's chair. I read the two open pages with interest; though I was raised in a Lutheran household and recall many of the Biblical episodes I was taught, I have not read much of the Bible itself. There is much that is ugly, hateful, and backward in its teachings, but so too is there taught beauty, love, and wisdom. The liberal branches of Christianity have the decency to compartmentalize the former away, and I read in hopes that I might find something to mull over going into the holiday.

Unusually, considering the time of year, it was turned to the Gospel of John's account of the Last Supper, beginning with the identification of Judas as Christ's betrayer. It was only toward the end of the second page, at the point when Jesus is commanding his disciples what to do when he is gone, that a passage, John 15: 12-13, piqued my regard:

"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.

Easily the most difficult part of moving across the country was leaving friends of often many years. I naturally stay in touch with them through Facebook and email and phone, and one of them (two of them, really, a couple) was kind enough to send me a Christmas card. Yet it remains, that only when the people with whom one has spent long hours speaking studying drinking dining laughing are physically separated, is their presence most appreciated. A band with whom one can grow at ease, establish a rhythm and rapport, and improvise symphonies of conversation, is neither easily earned nor lightly left behind. I am yet unsettled in such a group in DC, although there are promising signs. All the same, I, a devout atheist, am this year giving Christmas and the words of its namesake greater thought than ever before.

Once Upon a Once Upon a Time

Twenty-one years have passed since the Ayatollah Khomeini offered his bounty on Salman Rushdie, and twenty have passed since the publication of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie’s sly and writerly riposte to that deafening voice of silence. I point this out not only to get the subject of the fatwa out of the way, but because for once it is a relevant topic. Khomeini cast a shadow across every facet of Rushdie’s life during the writing of Haroun. Accordingly, Khomeini’s literary doppelganger Khattam-Shud, who separates from his shadow in order to wreak mayhem in absentia, was the driving machinery of Haroun’s quest to restore his father’s storytelling ability.

The follow-up, Luka and the Fire of Life, lacks such an immediate cause (outside of his second son also wanting a book he could read—Haroun was written for Rushdie’s older son Zafar). Credit goes to Rushdie, then, for turning the passage of time, including the unusually long spell between the two books, into the guiding force of Luka’s story. The world is fundamentally the same—religious terrorism if anything is more potent than it was before—but advances in technology have made it much more complicated, with people communicating, reading, entertaining ourselves, and waging war in ways barely conceivable in 1990. It is this new reality and its implications for storytelling, particularly with videogames, which Luka explores, though not nearly deeply enough.

Following sequel convention, Luka raises the stakes of its predecessor. While Haroun needed only to restore the storytelling abilities of the titular character’s father Rashid Khalifa, Luka must save his father’s life as well as imagination itself. After Rashid falls into a deep sleep Luka—his second son who seemingly turned back Time by being born—is approached by a translucent Rashid lookalike, Nobodaddy, who starts him on a journey to steal the legendary Fire of Life from the Mountain of Knowledge. He does this with the help of his pets, a dog named Bear and a bear named Dog, and many more allies to come.

The format is similar to Haroun, with a Wizard of Oz-like quality that overlays fantasy onto the world of its protagonist. The difference is in the issues it goes after. The threat to free speech, a subject central to Haroun, is here but an episode in the larger narrative. This is fitting; no longer a does single mad mullah attempt to control the conversation, but a proliferation of smaller, if no less potent, agitators, here represented in the Respectorate of I, populated by a multitude of rats, demanding adherence to ideas most ludicrous:

Do you believe two and two make five?
Do you believe the world is flat?
Do you know our Bossss is the Biggest Cheese alive?
Do you Ressspect the Rat?
O do you Ressspect the Rat?

The rat comparison is discomfiting, but only an axe-grinder would try to argue Rushdie is tarring Muslims. He is no demagogue, merely an iconoclast, as evidenced by his obvious admiration for the enemy of the Respectorate, the Insultina of Ott, and her army of ‘Otters’:

[T]hey are without question the rudest creatures in the world. But it’s an equal-opportunity impoliteness, the Otters all lay into one another without discrimination, and as a result they have all grown so thick-skinned that nobody minds what anyone else says. It’s a funny place, everyone laughs all the time while they call one another the worst things in the world.

Indeed, Rushdie would never deign to impose restrictions on imagination, for it would impoverish his Magic World, itself a creative cornucopia. The territories of the Badly Behaved Gods is the obvious example. A proliferation of dead deities across cultures and history, its inhabitants were once celebrated and homaged and now are reduced to “pretending they are still divine, playing all their old games, fighting their ancient wars over and over again, and trying to forget that nobody really cares about them these days, or even remembers their names.” Rushdie remembers, or at least Googles. The outright listing he occasionally lapses into—a whole page is devoted to various wind gods, for instance, before Luka himself objects to its (wait for it!) long-windedness—is exhaustive, and exhausting, but given the context of a Magic World it makes sense.

This inclusiveness leads to one of the key themes of the book, the increasing complexity and cultural heft of videogames. That this is one of the greatest transformations the world has seen in the past two decades, is noted early on:

[Luka] lived in an age in which an almost infinite number of parallel realities had begun to be sold as toys. Like everyone he knew, he had grown up destroying fleets of invading rocket ships, and had been a little plumber on a journey through many bouncing, twisting, bubbling levels to rescue a prissy princess from a monster’s castle, and metamorphosed into a zooming hedgehog and a street fighter and a rock star, and stood his ground undaunted in a hooded cloak while a demonic figure with stubby horns and a red and black face kept around him slashing a double-ended lightsaber at his head.

Luka’s adventure has all the tropes of a game. He dies often but has a number of extra lives, ludicrously stretched to 999 at the beginning. At each major juncture he has to hit save points, and he squares off against a variety of ‘level bosses’ of increasing challenge. The scope of the Magic World and the “this has never been done before” aspect of Luka’s quest for the Fire of Life is the stuff of many an RPG.

By using videogames to form the narrative architecture of his story about stories, Rushdie grants them a legitimacy many other cultural critics deny. “No no, [it’s] never just a game. It’s a matter of life and death,” a character chides. Later on the narrator notes that “all of this never happened, except, of course, that it did.” These are echoes of a speech Nobodaddy gives early on:

Just a story?....Only a tale? My ears must be deceiving me. Surely, young whippersnapper, you can’t have made so foolish a remark. After all, you yourself are a little Drip from the Ocean of Notions, a short Blurt from the Shah of Blah. You of all boys should know that Man is the Storytelling Animal, and that in stories are his identity, his meaning, and his lifeblood.

High praise, but Rushdie only takes his framing device so far. Games are defined by their rules, which here are ill-defined. Problems are solved as soon as the solution (Itching powder! Three more dragons!) is presented, often by the Insultina, whose powers are apparently limitless. She rides Solomon’s magic carpet, which allows Luka to “skip four levels,” leaving us to only glimpse at some potentially fascinating locales (The Undiscovered Country, the Land Where Nobody Lives), prompting Luka to remark, “I wish I wasn’t in such a hurry.”

This candid admission is also true when applied to Luka’s cohort. Traveling with him or at least stopping to lend a hand are Dog, the bear, and Bear, the dog; Nobodaddy; the Insultana; two water Elephants, Duck and Drake; a shapeshifting dragon and her three sisters; a sneaking Coyote; and the original fire-bringer himself. It’s too many characters to sustain in 218 pages, and only the core four of Luka, Dog, Bear, and Nobodaddy get to fully come alive. The others more or less fade into the background when their purpose to the quest has been fulfilled, except for the super-powered Insultina, who can be anything at anytime. Haroun had a subplot onto which it shuffled its peripheral characters, but here the magic carpet just rolls itself out to try to accommodate them.

It’s refreshing to see among the cultural elite an alternative to the ‘kids these days’ grousing that afflicts even Roger Ebert. There is also much to appreciate in Luka and the Fire of Life’s central conceit of man, the Storytelling Animal, being revived by fire, another hallmark of humanity, as well as the book’s literalization of a race against Time, with “Magic…fading from the universe” amid “High Definitions and low expectations.” But with so much incident and so many characters packed within so few pages, the entire affair feels hurried. J.K. Rowling proved that kids are willing to take on several hundred page tomes, and Salman Rushdie has a fanbase that expects him to produce work of such length already, so this is hardly a far-fetched idea. In a book based on gaming, there ought be more play.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Rooster's Come to Snuff

Expectations are a killer. The Coen Brothers have been on quite a tear for a few years now, cranking out a new movie every November or December. Each has been wildly different but enormously successful with what it's trying to do. No Country for Old Men was a grim thriller, Burn After Reading a black-humored spy parody, A Serious Man a Book of Job tale played for mordant laughter. Pessimism has been one of the unifying characteristics of each film, as well as an unconventional ending that thwarts the audience's assumptions with a conscious effort bordering on contempt. A Serious Man in particular, the first time I saw it, left me thinking a reel was missing. True Grit, the Coens' latest effort, doesn't go nearly so far, and four hours later I still can't decide how good or bad that is.

I can't speak of the assumptions that come with the film as an adaptation of a book that was previously the basis of an acclaimed John Wayne piece, since I have not read or seen either, but there is plenty to be said just viewing the movie on its own terms.

Fourteen year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) comes town to claim the body of her father, recently slain by the outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who has fled into Native American territory. When she finds that law enforcement is going to do nothing to bring him to justice, she opts to hire the most ruthless U.S. Marshall she can find, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and sets off with him and a Texas Ranger already on Chaney's trail, La Boeuf (Matt Damon), to bring him to justice.

Right there we have a number of stock characters--the outlaw, the bounty hunter--in the stockest situation of all, revenge. There are patterns and tropes that we expect to see filled here, which as I said the Coens are seemingly eager to defy.

In the first place, Mattie is freakishly intelligent for a 14-year old. Articulate and insistently persuasive, she has none of the innocence nor awkwardness one associates with grieving adolescents; hell, she rolls Jeff Bridges a cigarette the first time she meets him. Part of it is the Coens' love for intentionally unnatural dialogue flourishes (see Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou? for earlier examples), but surely a great deal of it is an alienation effect: this is not your father's Western, and she is no faint southern belle.

Likewise Jeff Bridges, whom we first encounter offscreen using an outhouse, is not the badass we should expect him to be, instead wavering between an efficient killer and goofily drunken old fart, sometimes in the same scene. Perhaps the biggest example of this treatment is Josh Brolin's Tom Chaney; without saying too much, he is not at all the nasty motherfucker we glimpse in the film's deceptive trailer.

Wherefore all this ambiguous characterization? It stems primarily from the movie's ambivalence about its revenge theme. For a film with 'PUNISHMENT' and 'RETRIBUTION' in its advertisements, it is remarkably circumspect and coolheaded about vengeance. Mattie wants justice done, but throughout it is unclear what exactly she wants; she outright refuses to allow La Boeuf to take Chaney back to Texas to be tried, and it's not enough for her to able to degrade him. She is singularly obsessed with bringing him back home, dead or alive, but is remarkably stoic about it all. Her most emotional moments have to do with her horse.

The film, for its part, is much more interested, perhaps too interested, in Rooster's manic quirks and how they bounce off La Boeuf's straight man persona, than it is in building up Chaney so we can delight in his destruction the way Tarantino did with the Nazis in Inglorious Basterds. There is a showdown, and there is revenge, but it's heavily dependent for its success on Barry Pepper's gang leader Ned Pepper and his utter nastiness. The climax also is violent but strangely devoid of the sadism one would expect in a Coen Brothers revenge Western. (The movie's PG-13 for chrissake!)

The extended denouement also comes as a surprise. Without spoiling anything, it takes the movie in a direction that is almost touching; but Mattie's character is so clinically intellectual, and the sadness is at such a remove, that it's hard to know what to feel. Without the outright audacity that the Coens' latest films have brought, the movie's overall effect is one of uncertainty.

I'm sounding like I didn't enjoy True Grit, which isn't true. The actors all bring their A-game, with Hailee Steinfeld doing particularly good work in bringing her peculiar and understated character to life. The Coens script and direction is typically sharp and assured, Carter Burwell's lovely score harkens back to Fargo's mixture of warmth and darkness, and Roger Deakins' cinematography, including shots of a light snowfall covering Mattie's father's body in the film's opening and a desert nightscape towards movie's end that looks positively lunar, is sublime. These go a long way in helping to smooth the edges of the movie's willful obstruseness.

The film dazzles technically, in order to more easily deconstruct and bewilder narratively. This is par for the course, I suppose. All of the Coen Brothers' latest films have taken time to digest, and I suspect this one will be much the same. They've never been easy, but always worthwhile.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Facebook Trying to Copyright the Words 'Face' and 'Book'

No joke:

Facebook, which has gone after sites with the word "book" in their names, is also trying to trademark the word "face," according to court documents.

But the social networking site has met with a familiar foe. As TechCrunch first reported, Aaron Greenspan has asked for an extension of time to file an opposition to Facebook's attempt. Greenspan is the president and CEO of Think Computer, the developer of a mobile payments app called FaceCash.

This reminds me of several years back when Metallica sued a band for infringing its copyright of the E-F chord progression.

Except that wasn't actually real. The story caught on, though, because of Metallica's high-profile lawsuit against music downloading service Napster. Napster, recall, spawned a horde of imitators in both function and name ("Friendster, Grokster, Aimster/Madster, Blubster"), but it didn't seem to mind.

The crucial difference, of course, is Napster was all but dead by lawsuit by 2003. Curiously, its founder, Sean Parker, also played a key role in the development of Facebook. If History doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes, it's been said. Failing that, it slant rhymes.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Bradley Manning and Treason

Julian Assange has dominated much of the ongoing Wikileaks coverage, in part because of his showboating persona, and in part because our more benighted elected officials and members of our commentariat have an unhealthy fixation on killing the messenger.

Thus comparatively little attention has been paid to Bradley Manning, the Pfc. suspected of providing several of Wikileaks' document caches. My initial response regarding him was that he was skirting treason, and that the only thing that could probably save him from such a charge is that he had the documents published instead of passing them onto a foreign government.

Glenn Greenwald notes that Manning considered this very matter:

Manning: i mean what if i were someone more malicious- i could've sold to russia or china, and made bank?

Lamo: why didn’t you?

Manning: because it's public data

Lamo: i mean, the cables

Manning: it belongs in the public domain -information should be free - it belongs in the public domain - because another state would just take advantage of the information… try and get some edge - if its out in the open… it should be a public good.

The indiscriminate release of the State Department's international communication network is likely going to do more harm than good. Doing so in order to give the diplomatic sector such a shock that it is rendered inoperable is premised on the assumption that the State Department is conspiratorial enterprise rather than an organization engaging in conspiracy. Julian Assange may endorse this view--he's expressed more moderate opinions elsewhere--but it's obvious Manning was acting out of a desire to expose very real wrongdoing, which is resolutely not a betrayal of his country.

Yet the Obama administration may very well dispute this. Their present disgraceful treatment of Manning dispiritingly suggests as much. If they do consider Manning a traitor, he will be in fact vindicated. If they do,

were fucking screwed (as a society) - and i dont want to believe that we’re screwed.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Blind Side

Oliver Sacks’ latest book, The Mind’s Eye, contains a chapter on the author’s development of a small tumor in his right eye and the radiation and laser treatment he underwent. The description of the side effects of his treatment makes for a surprisingly astute, and wholly unintentional, political allegory.

Sacks developed the effect of holding an image in his vision after closing his eyes:
At one point, after gazing at the bookshelves in my bedroom for a few minutes, I closed both eyes and saw, for ten or fifteen seconds, the hundreds of books arrayed on the shelves in great, almost perceptual detail. This was not filling in but something quite different—a persistence of vision similar to what I had experienced in the hospital eighteen months earlier, when I seemed to see the washbasin so clearly “through” my eye patch.

Sacks also developed a black, “Australia-shaped” blind spot that would show up whenever he used only his right eye. When focused on an object, it would fill in the void with the appropriate color or pattern:

I experimented with this visual spread one day by gazing with my right eye at the old tree with a particularly exuberant and brilliantly green mass of foliage. Filling in soon occurred, so that the missing area turned green and textured to match the rest of the foliage. This was followed by a “filling out,” an extension of the foliage, especially towards the left, resulting in a huge lop-sided mass of “leaves.” I realized how outlandish this had become only when I opened my left eye and saw the tree’s actual shape. I went home and looked up an old paper by Macdonald Critchley on types of “visual perseveration” which he called “paliopsia” and “illusory visual spread.”2 Critchley saw these two phenomena as analogous: one a perseveration in time, the other a perseveration in space.

The key to these passages’ political significance lies in the footnote:
Although Critchley coined the term “paliopsia,” most people now use “palinopsia.”

With this terminology we arrive at a wonderful encapsulation of Sarah Palin’s reactionary posture. When Palin looks at the Left, including green politics, instead of a liberal technocratic approach to problems widely understood by experts to be problems (climate change; Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; American health care; under-taxation and over-spending), she perceives only a “lop-sided mass,” a distortion of the reality. This perversion also affects her conservatism, such that the good old days she wishes to go back to have little basis in reality.The small-town “Real America” Palin so venerates, for instance, in fact only accounts for 18% of the United States’ population and has not been a majority in nearly a hundred years. Quite the “perseveration in time.”

Oliver Sacks’ closing thoughts on Palinopsia are further appropriate:

Here perhaps one has to use the word “pathological,” for one can hardly have a normal visual life if every perception gets extended and smeared in space and time; one needs restraint or inhibition, clear boundaries, to preserve the discreteness of perception.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

English Rulers

The often solitary nature of writing makes it sometimes difficult to gauge one's "progress." It's easy enough to look back at work from a few years ago and shudder at the scribbler one used to be--I giggled with horror at my early college writing from six years ago--but much more difficult to gauge one's present abilities. No one should allow themselves himself to be paralyzed with self-consciousness, but if there is no one way to write rightly, there is certainly a wrong way, often several, and reminders are useful. I went to William Strunk and E.B. White's Elements of Style, a ragged 1979 3rd edition, for just such a purpose. Yet while though much of the advice is still useful, a great deal of it is remarkably, if a little regrettably, obsolete in the information age.

The earliest material, concerning proper grammar, is the most valuable (EDIT: Some dispute this, vehemently.). While vocabulary, idiom, and phrasing has changed a great deal since this style guide was first published, the rules of English sentence construction have remained mostly intact. I still violate rule #1 (Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding 's), preferring to leave off the additional 's' in 'the the dress' seam.' Most of the others, however,dealing with comma placement and tense agreement, are duly observed and will not likely change. A sentence like "Being in a dilapidated condition, I was able to buy the house very cheap," will always be awkward.

Section II, on composition, is likewise sound, focusing on rules of thumb to keep writing concise and focused.

The third section, A Few Matters of Form, is well-heeded, but in many cases unnecessary. Word processing technology allows the writer to manipulate margins and numerals as he sees fit, while syllabication--figuring out where to put a hyphen when splitting a word between two lines--is a nonissue.

Halfway through the advice begins getting dicey. Section IV's list of "Words and Expressions Commonly Misused" is at its best when arguing, as earlier, for streamlining: "acts of a hostile character" is a dressed up way of saying "hostile acts."

But many of the words and misuses cataloged here have edged their way into acceptable usage. It is probably impossible to get a job today without using the words and expressions 'currently,' 'due to,' 'facility,' 'finalize,' or 'utilize,' on a resume or cover letter. 'Prioritize,' and 'finalize,' both "abominations" by White's reckoning, are among a list of action words I was given to use in my job application process. For the linguistic impotence of resume writing, I blame "professionalization" (notice that ugly '-ize' suffix grafted on and further deformed with the 'ation') as a means of screening an ever-growing number of applicants. It's regrettable, but on this front Strunk and White lost, and badly.

Some of their objections, though, amount to straight-up conservatism. I'll actually cop to being partial their arguments in favor of 'he' as the standard third person pronoun with a distributive antecedent:

The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the English language. He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. The word was unquestionably biased to begin with (the dominant male), but after hundreds of years it has become seemingly indispensible. it has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.

But goodness do Strunk and White get cranky:

If you think she is a handy substitute for he, try it and see what happens.

The objection to nouns being converted into verbs is perhaps what jars most with contemporary language. "Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs. Not all are bad, but all are suspect." Besides being slightly ahistorical (Shakespeare did this often: consider Edgar's "He childed as I fathered"), such a rule has no place in a world where Google, Facebook, and YouTube are commonly employed as verbs. Verbing today is not unusual, cliche, or even faddish: it's an unwritten standard.

The internet and its attendant technology, of course, made the bastard English language--a confection of Anglo Saxon, Norman French, Greek, Latin, and any other tongue it fancied--even more promiscuous. 'Refudiate,' 'tweet,' 'podcast,' 'grok,' 'fisk,' to say nothing of the hated acronyms like BRB and OMG that have started to creep into spoken conversation, have proliferated thanks to the abolition of geography that the internet, and especially blogs and social networks, have given us. I suspect White would have looked at blogging with especial contempt, given the ninth rule in the final section, An Approach to Style:

Do not affect a breezy manner

The volume of writing is enormous, these days, and much of it has a sort of windiness about it, almost as though the author were in a state of euphoria. "Spontaneous me," sang Whitman, and, in his innocence, let loose the hordes of uninspired scribblers who would one day confuse spontaneity with genius.

The breezy style is often the work of an egocentric, the person who imagines that everything that pops into his head is of general interest and that uninhibited prose creates high spirits and carries the day.

Though useful in brushing up on the mechanics of English and composition, a considerable amount of The Elements of Style's content is outdated and simply does not apply anymore. Thanks to the internet, the changes in attitude and approach to writing that would have taken decades if not hundreds of years to spread, now are part of a language currency that is constantly in flux. This is not in itself a bad thing: the rise of chatspeak and thoughts 140 characters long has come about in an era where people are writing more than ever before.

With so much rapid change, casting aside some of Strunk and White's pet rules was inevitable. Yet in a small way this is almost irrelevent. The true believer, after all, can now consult William Strunk's ur-text online at his (or her?) convenience.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

An Excuse to Write About Calvin & Hobbes

This is a mighty fine find, a collection of Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson's college newspaper cartoons.

It's fun, if a little circular, to find the seeds of that quintessential comic. The quasi-recurring Mr. Groobman character above, for instance, is an obvious Calvin prototype. The clip below is also kin with many a C&H strip:

One of the features of Watterson's art style that I, obliviously, never really picked up on before is his ink technique. He uses shadow not just to add depth, but to determine the shape of objects and figures, which is still fairly novel for newspaper funnies. Instead of a straight outlining of the different shapes, and then using shadows to fill the detail, the shadows are the shapes. The bike, the dark clothing and hair; the way the solid black guides the eye was, even in those early days, a treat.

Watterson later used these techniques to great effect. The C&H Tracer Bullet strips in particular are like a burlesque of Frank Miller's Sin City, before Sin City even existed:

The play of light and shadow even served as the basis of one of Watterson's most clever Sunday strips.

Watterson is famously reclusive, and so I wonder a little what he makes of the devoted fans who have tried to catalogue his artistic obscurities. I actually imagine he doesn't mind all that much; he did after all end Calvin & Hobbes at the height of his powers in order to keep its reputation untarnished. And I'm sure he much prefers his work being collected than anatomized by way of Lacan.

As Heard in DC

A guy, to a girl, on the Metro Center Red Line, 9:15 PM:
I'm a great schmoozer. I'll be at a party schmoozing, and people will say, 'Look at this guy!' They'll want to use my schmooze.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Work in Progress

Apologies for the scant content lately. There's been activity on the internship front, and things are starting to look up. It's kept me a little off-kilter, and as I'll actually start doing paid work again tomorrow on top of an internship, there may be some settling that has to go down here.

I've enjoyed having this as an outlet, and I hope to continue doing it. History, however, paints a different picture. Look that helpful right hand column that quantifies my monthly posting volume, and one will see a history of erratic posting patterns which can be roughly correlated to activity in the rest of my life. Essentially, this blog has given me something to do during previous periods of minimal obligation, be it unemployment, decompressing after finishing a show, or traveling. Finally getting back to work is obviously going to cut into an output that, let's be realistic, has at its best still been fairly moderate in terms of numbers.

But again, I've enjoyed this, even the times where I agonized for way too long on some stupid snarky punchline when I could have thrown up another post or two in the meantime. One of the most satisfying thing about doing this after taking a break from the theater world (and playwriting in particular) is seeing the audience grow. It's a limited audience to be sure, drawn essentially from real-life friends and the Golden Horde/Lost Battalion of Platonic Conversationalists/Team Commie over at Ta-Nehisi's place. But it has been heartening day after day, week after week, to put up a piece and post a notification, and see that people are actually interested. And a variety of people, too! From across the U.S., Brazil, Russia, Israel, and more.

I'm not really sure what else to say at this point; I wasn't planning on having this post go on a long as it has. Basically, posting will slow, but I hope to stave off the inconstant atrophy that has plagued this blog in the past. I like writing, so why should I stop?

I can't figure out any good way to end this post, so I'll just put it vanilla: thanks for showing an interest and reading, whatever happens.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Welfare Queens

It's an open secret that pork-hating red states receive more money in federal spending than their Democratic brethren (Sarah Palin's Alaska is a particularly bad offender). Shankar Vedantam now has an eyebrow-raising explanation for the discrepancy:

Buried in the fine print of Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America," Richardson found an income redistribution scheme. The proportion of government spending on groups that traditionally supported Democrats fell. The proportion of government income from groups that traditionally supported Democrats rose.

"Tax rates declined more for groups that tended to vote Republican. These groups include people with incomes in the upper tail of the distribution, such as small business owners, property owners, and investors accruing capital gains. … At the same time, expenditures fell more for programs directed toward people that tended to vote Democratic. These groups included welfare recipients, inner-city residents, and individuals in the lower tail of the income distribution."

There are some unsettling implications to this, hinted at towards the end of the article (emphasis mine):

In the public mind, Republicans became the party of fiscal rectitude, and Democrats became the group that raised taxes on hard-working Americans.

The term "hard-working Americans," as Hillary Clinton reminded us, is a dog whistle, the yin to the 'lazy black people' yang. Not only are Democrats accused of taking money from hard-working Americans, remember, they're also accused of doing so to redistribute it to social parasites. The post-1994 Republicans' grievances about unfair taxes, their attacks on welfare, and especially the current unemployment benefits hostage-taking when it comes to tax cuts for the rich, is not about balancing the budget, to say the least.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Party at the Newseum in One Paragraph

Standing amid the gnarled ruin of the North World Trade Center tower's antenna and a wall of 9/11 front page stories is made more upsetting than it should be by the background din of hundreds of partygoers and Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover." It's shrewd business sense, though. I have a reason to go again.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Unlike yours truly, Jack Shafer is breaking up with his Hotmail account of over twelve years in favor of Gmail:

Like all relationships, Hotmail and I had devolved into a love-hate-coexistence groove. I hated the fact that Hotmail put limits on how many e-mails I could store without paying. I hated the limitation on the size of files I could send. I suspect that Hotmail hated me because I wanted all she provided and more but wasn't willing to pay.

Be sure to read to the end to find out how Hotmail's taking it all in stride.

Straining for Sarah

Politico brings the hathos this morning, with a piece co-authored by Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist entitled "Sarah Palin has earned the right to run for president."

Even without reading it I knew something was terribly amiss. Sarah Palin has every right to run for president, as does any American citizen over the age of 35 who was born on U.S. soil and lived in the country for 14 years. One doesn't earn rights. That's why they're rights and not privileges.

But that's not what the op-ed is really about:

But if she decides to, Republicans of all stripes should applaud her decision. This isn’t an endorsement of her candidacy. It is, however, an endorsement of her right to participate in the process....

In other words: shut up and line up.

I doubt even Norquist fully believes that serving as the mayor of a town of under 10,000 and governing the biggest welfare state in the union before quitting after two years to become a celebrity, actually qualifies Palin for becoming the most powerful person in the world. But by gum, she has to earn her right to run, so he's got to mention something. Norquist thus eats his vegetables as quick as he can with an obligatory two sentences and then talks about other seeming losers and talks about their right to run, again, as if that were at all in dispute.

He also doesn't mention Palin's extraordinary unpopularity, that Independent voters prefer Obama 2:1, nor does he mention that she has accomplished nothing but self-promotion since she walked out on her governorship.

There is a waft of desperation about the whole matter, as Norquist badly strains to adjust reality to a candidate whose continued public existence is unbelievable.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Common Ground

I've been reading on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange the past couple days, to better wrap my thoughts around the latest info dump and its significance. It's notable that in his critique of the American state, rooted in a civil libertarian tradition, Assange sounds almost conservative:

So there is a lot of good that has historically come from the United States. But after World War II, during World War II, the federal government of the United States started sucking the resources to the center, and the power of states started to diminish. Interestingly, the First Amendment started overriding states' laws around that time, which I see as a function of increasing central power in the United States.

Perhaps this will dissuade fellow government critic Sarah Palin from calling for his unilateral assassination.

The Truthers Will Set You Free, From Employment

Van Jones was forced to resign his Green Czar position with the Obama administration last year, when it was discovered that he had signed a Truther petition (#46). It articulated such thoughts as,

[I]t's "hard for me to believe that" World Trade Center building 7 "came down by itself."


[T]wenty years from now, people will look at 9-11 the way we look at the assassination of JFK today. It couldn't possibly have been done the way the government told us.

Except those quotes aren't his. They belong to Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano.

I'm sure Glenn Beck will be demanding his scalp any minute now.

I'm positive.

Two Houses, Both a Like Indignity

The House will vote tomorrow on extending the Bush tax cuts for only the middle class. House Republicans are livid:

“This is nothing more than political chicanery and undermines the president’s ongoing discussions and efforts on tax rates,” House Republican Whip Eric Cantor said in a statement. The Virginia lawmaker called the measure “a non- starter.”

Speaking of non-starters:

According to a letter delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this morning, Republicans will block all debate on all legislation until the tax cut impasse is bridged and the federal government has been fully funded -- even if it means days tick by and the Senate misses its opportunity to pass DADT, an extension of unemployment insurance and other Dem items.

The Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for the rich, and the Democrats don't. Both parties want to extend the middle-class tax cuts. But instead of voting on what the two parties can agree on, the Republicans are insisting they get their way, even though they're (for a few more weeks at least) in the minority. They will do this at the expense of the unemployed.

When people accuse the Republicans of sabotage for political gain, this is what they are talking about.