Thursday, September 23, 2010

Defending the Indefensible: Part II

I regret, in a way, that Terry Jones did not go through with his plan to burn the Koran on the anniversary of 9/11.  I normally prefer to avoid provocative gestures, but the overreaction to his announcement was so thorough that I found myself rooting for him to complete it.  It was hard, I imagine, for liberals to condemn him in good conscience, since they have such an absolute ideal of free speech that includes, even promotes, provocative gestures against Christianity; nevertheless, they did so.  Conservatives have long advocated positions of "you have a right to say it, but I don't think it a good idea" (along with "I don't think the government should fund you"), so I wasn't surprised to see them objecting.  I was surprised, however, at seeing Jones condemned so uniformly in such drastic language.  National Review was all over him, including editor Jonah Golberg, who called it "stupid, irresponsible, and repugnant."

Let's think about it.  Repugnant?  It doesn't seem particularly Christian, at least by today's definition.  (Probably 17th century Europeans would have had a different idea.)  I have Muslim friends, and I would not want to insult their faith in this way.  Stupid?  How so?  If he aimed to draw attention to himself, he did a brilliant job of it.

Irresponsible?  There's the crux of the matter.  Would burning the Koran result in increased Muslim violence?  Petraeus said that it would endanger the troops in Afghanistan.  First of all, I seriously doubt whether burning a few Korans would significantly alter the battlefield picture.  I'm sure the Islamist terrorists are already doing everything they can against our troops already.  It might trigger a terrorist attack on civilians, which is a concern.  But should it be?  I don't want to be put in danger because of something a pastor in Florida is doing.  On the other hand, I don't want to have to restrict my activities because I'm afraid of a terrorist reaction.  It seems that our whole society is built on the idea that we can say whatever we want.  Jones is not advocating violent action against Muslims (as far as I know), which means that there is no fuzzy line here between acceptable and unacceptable speech (in a legal sense).  That's what Petraeus is over there fight for, in other words.  Far from urging Jones to stop his action, Petraeus should be defending his right to do it.  I realize that those two are not mutually contradictory:  he might defend Jones's right, but still wish that he wouldn't do it.  What we got, however, was all reticence and no defense.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Defending the Indefensible: Part I

I don't try to be disagreeable, but I seem to come out on the minority side of issues an awful lot.  Two such issues came up in the past week, so I thought I would give my side of the story in both of them.

The first is the article Portis voices ugliness in NFL culture by Dan Wetzel.  The issue concerns comments made by Redskins running back Clinton Portis about having a female sports reporter in the Redskins' locker room after a game.  After playing football for 3 hours and getting sweaty and dirty, the first thing players do in the locker room is get a shower and change into regular clothes.  Male reporters have been going into locker rooms for years to get interviews right after the game, but when female reporters started to enter the scene, some players objected.  This is not a new issue:  there was an incident back in 1990 involving the New England Patriots' locker room and tight end Zeke Mowatt.  Some Patriots' players complained that reporter Lisa Olson was spending more time observing naked players than interviewing, and Mowatt subsequently exposed himself in front of her deliberately.  She won a lawsuit against him and the Patriots.

I haven't heard much about the issue since then, but recently there were allegations that some New York Jets' players harrassed another female reporter.  When asked about the incident on a radio interview (Portis is not on the Jets and had nothing to do with alleged events; he was merely asked his opinion as a player, as far as I can tell), he expressed his discomfort with having women in the locker room:

“You know man, I think you put women reporters in the locker room, in positions to see guys walking around naked, and you sit in the locker room with 53 guys, and all of the sudden you see a nice woman in the locker room, I think men are going to tend to turn and look and want to say something to that woman.
“For the woman, I think they make it so much that you can’t interact and you can’t be involved with athletes, you can’t talk to these guys, you can’t interact with these guys.
“And I mean, you put a woman and you give her a choice of 53 athletes, somebody got to be appealing to her. You know, somebody got to spark her interest, or she’s gonna want somebody. I don’t know what kind of woman won’t, if you get to go and look at 53 men’s packages.
“And you’re just sitting here, saying ‘Oh, none of this is attractive to me.’ I know you’re doing a job, but at the same time, the same way I’m going cut my eye if I see somebody worth talking to, I’m sure they do the same thing.”
Wetzel called these comments "ugly," "ignorant," "pathetic," "insulting," and called Portis "a clown" for making them.  In his view, Portis "still assumes that female reporters are eager to look at the players’ 'packages.'"  Let me offer an alternate interpretation.

Portis clearly does not assume that female reporters are "eager" to look at naked players.  What he said was that, out of 53 naked men, it was normal that a woman would find at least one of them attractive and want to look at them.  Far from picking on females, he explicitly notes that he would behave the same way himself.  I don't fully understand his other comments about female reporters, how "they make it so much that you can’t interact and you can’t be involved with athletes, you can’t talk to these guys, you can’t interact with these guys," but he seems to be suggesting that it is uncomfortable to be naked in a locker room with women around.

Is that so unreasonable?  Is it bizarre in our society to suggest that men might not want to have women seeing their naked bodies?  Do you think female athletes might feel uncomfortable if they were forced to shower in the presence of male reporters?  I don't actually know whether men are allowed in the locker rooms of female athletes, such as those of the WNBA.  (I assume individual performers, such as tennis players, are allowed to shower in private.)  One of the Wikipedia articles I linked above says that women reporters are allowed in men's locker rooms by virtue of a Supreme Court verdict, and I would be curious to know if the same logic applies when the sexes are reversed.  I think anyone would have to be crazy to think that male reporters would not enjoy seeing female athletes undressed, but apparently it is offensive to suggest that women might be turned on by men.  Of course, women are not men, in spite of what some people would have us believe; we are different in many ways, including the degree to which we are aroused by visual stimuli.  But individuals also vary from the group, and if someone thinks there aren't many women who would be aroused by seeing naked, athletic men, they are almost as ignorant as those who think men would not be turned on by women.

Does this mean female reporters shouldn't be allowed in the locker room after football games?  No, I don't care to tackle that question.  What bothers me is self-righteous sportswriters who assume that anyone who disagrees with them is an ugly, ignorant, pathetic, insulting clown.  Maybe it would be just as well to try to see the other person's point of view before condemning it.  On the other hand, that probably doesn't attract as many clicks on the website, so why bother?


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wrestling

My eldest son, who is 10, has become extremely intereted in professional wrestling.  This is bad for so many reasons.  Even the good guys on wrestling make terrible role models for the most part, especially the constant bragging and trash talk.  Even worse is the false idea of violence that wrestling gives.  I'm not opposed to violence in principle, but I don't want my son to think that you can hit someone over the head repeatedly with a blunt object and he will still be able to get back up a minute later to keep fighting.  I fear that such a false impression might cause someone to do permanent damage under the impression that he is just doing normal wrestling stuff.

I also enjoyed professional wrestling when I was 10.  It's understandable at that age.  But when the camera pans around the audience and shows normal-looking adults in the audience, it concerns me.  I'm not sure which is worse:  that they think the fighting is real, or that, thinking it real, they still want to watch it.  Even if you didn't know anything about how fighting actually works, there are so many tipoffs to the real nature of what is going on.  Does anyone ever wonder where there is never so much as a bloody nose in wrestling?  Why do MMA and UFC fighters, who do much less hitting during matches, look like abuse victims, while wrestlers look as pretty as actors?  In our lawsuit-crazed society, does it ever occur to any wrestling fans that the promoters would be getting sued left and right for injuries, especially those that occur outside of the ring?

I will have to say this for wrestling, though:  its promoters have created an enormously popular event.  Monday night wrestling is celebrating its position as the Longest running weekly episodic television series in historyEvery month or so, wrestling is able to convince a substantial number of fans to pay $45 for a three-hour pay-per-view show.  Can you imagine if football could charge that much for a single game for television access?  I'm not saying that wrestling is more popular than football, but it seems extraordinary to me that it can extract so much money from fans.

Part of the appeal of wrestling, I figure, is that it is so realistic in some respects.  Sure, those double-spin pile drivers off the turnstyles look as phony as they are, but wrestlers do an excellent job of pretending to be injured.  My wife, who already knew it was fake, thought that one guy might have been accidentally hurt.  The actors I admire the most, however, are the announcers.  They are not only completely deadpan in their delivery, but they sound exactly like regular sports announcers.  Perhaps, it just occurred to me, they don't even know what's going to happen, which would add authenticity to their surprise when unusual things happen.  They debate the relative merits of fighters, discuss upcoming matches, and feign indignity at various extracurricular activities just as though wrestling were a real sport.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Newspeak

One thing I look out for in politics is people saying something that makes no sense.  Okay, people say things that make no sense all the time, but I'm referring to an argument that becomes a stock political weapon in one side's arsenal.  To take an example, there is the idea that prohibiting gay marriage is contrary to the Constitution.

I want to make it clear one can make a strong argument in favour of homosexual marriage.  I'm against it, but I see an argument on the other side and I'm willing, even interested, to engage in debate about it.  But for a judge to rule, as Vaughn Walker did recently, that not allowing homosexual marriages is a violation of constitutional rights, is contrary to all reason.  Until recently, no state in America had ever recognized homosexual marriages.  Wouldn't that mean, by Judge Walker's logic, that the entire country has been in violation of the Constitution for the entire history of our nation?  Or at least since the 14th amendment was passed over a century ago?  Obviously, no one has understood the Constitution as requiring homosexual marriages until now, so it seems reasonable to me that it can't possibly have meant that.

It could be the case that a document might mean something that no one acknowledges, but it would have to be much more explicit.  Since there is nothing in the Constitution about marriage, the only way to make homosexual marriage a Constitutional right is to draw inferences, and if no one has ever drawn those inferences before, they clearly were not intended to be there.  One could also argue that standards have changed, and that what did not appear to be a right 200 years ago has become one now.  That kind of logic can make sense, but only if it is applied to obvious cases, e.g. if thumbscrews had been a common punishment in the 19th century, one could say that they are now "cruel and unusual punishment" because no one does it and the vast majority would find it cruel.  But to say that such a contentious issue as homosexual marriage has become a right by "evolving standards of decency" (in the notorious words of the majority Supreme Court opinion in Trop v. Dulles, 1958) is a way of depriving the Constitution of all meaning.  There clearly is no consensus on whether homosexual marriage is even permissible, much less a human right, so Judge Walker's ruling is nothing more than a judicial fiat that bears no relation either to the Constitution or to contemporary standards of decency.  Even if 80% of people thought that homosexual marriage should be a right, I would argue that it would still not count as such under the Constitution, but rather should be left for legislatures to decide.

The other problem with arguing that homosexual marriage is a Constitutional right without any historical framework is that it opens too many questions about what is really a right.  Judge Walker and his ilk justify the permissibility of homosexual marriage on the grounds that there is nothing necessary about marriage being defined as the union of a male with a female.  If you take a totally nihilist, ahistorical perspective, I suppose he is right:  I don't know that anyone has made a compelling moral argument for traditional marriage, and it would be difficult to convince everyone in any case.  But why stop there?  Why should a marriage be limited to two individuals?  There are plenty of people who would opt for polygamy if that were an option.  Or why limit it to adults?  Every state has a minimum legal age for marriage, usually around 16 with parental consent, 18 without.  Why should we prevent consenting children of age 14, or 12, or 10, or 8, from getting married?  Much of Hillary Clinton's policy thrust has been toward making children full legal actors, so it's not like this is an argument that would come only from people in the backwoods.  Why stop there?  Why not allow people to marry animals?  I'm sure there are a few nuts who would actually do that, and animals increasingly enjoy certain rights under the law anyway.

My point is not that homosexual marriage means we would have to allow polygamy or the marriage of children, only that there is no compelling reason why, once we declare "marriage" a generic term for a certain legal status between individuals, that we should limit the newly-minted right to get married to homosexuals.  There is, therefore, no basis for inferring a right to homosexual marriage where it has never previously existed.  Contrary to Judge Walker's logic, marriage is implicitly between one male and one female until someone makes a compelling argument that it is not -- and unless 99% of people agree with the argument, the only convincing way to create a new right is to pass a law, or a Constitutional amendment, that declares it.  That's what a democracy is all about, after all.  Not that the majority gets to oppress the minority, but that a group of people have come together with certain established principles such as the right to free speech and the right to bear arms, and have left other principles to be decided by majority decision.  The majority is constitutionally limited not to violate those rights commonly agreed upon, but it is not required to respect rights that some group of people decide they are entitled to.

I want to emphasize again that my argument here has nothing to do with the merits of homosexual marriage as such; that's a totally separate issue.  This is about a judge pretending that the right to homosexual marriage exists in the Constitution when it plainly does not, and could not if our legal system is to make any sense.  It is important not to present every argument that one's opponents make as absurd prima facie, but it is also important to point out those arguments that make no sense and draw attention to their absurdity.  Then we can get down to discussing the real issues.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Democrat Hate Speech of the Week

Since Democrats frequently accuse Republicans of "hate," I thought it would be appropriate to have a regular feature highlighting examples of Democrats demonstrating hate speech.  The qualifications are that the speech must use the word "hate" or some synonym, resort to non-political name-calling (i.e., calling someone an extreme conservative doesn't count, but calling him a jackass does), or wishing someone dead, injured, or humiliated.

The first award goes to Democrat Keith Halloran, a candidate for New Hampshire's state assembly, for saying that he wished Sarah Palin was on board Ted Stevens's plane when it crashed.  To his credit, the state Democratic party leader denounced the comment and called on Halloran to apologize, which he apparently has not done as of this writing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The problem with talk radio

Since I was in elementary school, I have liked talk radio.  I can remember listening to sports talk radio as my dad drove me to school in 5th grade.  I was disappointed when the station announced that they were going to move to more music and less talk.  I do listen to music in the car sometimes, but I am drawn to talk, which engages me more directly.

Unfortunately, there are two major problems with talk radio.  To become a talk show host, and spend hours every day telling people your opinion, you have to have a certain amount of ego.  (Arguably, this is true for blogging as well, but probably not to the same extent.)  Talk show hosts therefore tend to be insufferably self-centered.  I suppose that many people get into news because they, too, like to tell people what they think, but the dynamics aren't the same.  In news, you are basically paid to tell people what happened; you may do so in a very biased fashion, but you can't just give opinions without mentioning facts.  Besides, news is typically broken up into small segments, and one person is rarely talking for long about the same thing.  This brings up the second problem with talk radio:  repetition.  Because the host has to fill up several hours, he tends to repeat himself, and repeat himself, and repeat himself.  It's never enough to make a point and move on; he has to make a point, restate it, emphasize it, and then make it again several times.  This gets tedious very quickly.  Remember, a host is not only giving the audience the benefit of his opinion, but he is also often trying to stir up controversy to drive his ratings higher.  For instance, last week Jim Rome talked about Yoda as a mascot for the San Diego Padres.  He said Yoda was not worthy, because he was a coward.  Fine, he offended that part of his audience that cared, which is probably not many people.  But then he proceeded to expatiate on why Yoda was a coward and what he should have done for the next five minutes.  He seemed to forget that he was on a sports talk show, that this was really about the San Diego Padres.  Yoda might be worth a mention, but it is definitely not worth the trouble to hear a long discussion about his moral virtues or lack thereof.  At least, it wasn't worth it for me; I turned off the radio.

When there is a single host, as on Jim Rome's show, the egomania and repetition tend to take center stage.  I generally prefer shows with multiple hosts, because if one guy doesn't have something to say, he can be quiet for a while and let his partner talk.  Also, the differences of opinion between the hosts is often a source of insight for me.  I enjoy Mike and Mike, for instance, although Mike Greenberg often dominates the conversation so that they lose the benefit of having two hosts.  My favourite sports talk show host is Dan Patrick.  He came across as conceited on SportsCenter, but he is more likable on his radio show, and he doesn't exhibit the same ego as most hosts.  Also, even though he is the only host, he talks frequently with several other people in his studio, so one rarely has to listen to him drone on and on about some subject to fill up time.

I can't end this blog entry without mentioning political talk radio, specifically Rush Limbaugh.  I have to be honest:  I can't listen to Rush for long, for the reasons that are common to talk show hosts enumerated above.  I don't think he is particularly insightful.  On the other hand, I am grateful that Rush is broadcasting, because I am convinced that the so-called mainstream media is hopelessly, incredibly biased toward the left.  The only way to deny this is to compare American media to Swedish politics; compared to Sweden, a liberal might say, American media is really middle of the road.  Very well, but we are not in Sweden, and I see no reason for privileging Swedish politics (or those of any other country) over American; and the American media is undoubtedly far to the left of the American public on political matters.  Since newspapers and television stations seem intent on going bankrupt rather than changing their politics, Rush and his ilk are one of the only ways that conservative views get heard publically (outside of politicians, of course).  It's a lot better now because of the internet, but 15 years ago the situation was very different.  I am grateful that Rush has been carrying the conservative banner, and, even though I wish a more profound thinker occupied his position, I realize that such a thinker could probably never reach such a broad audience.

Ironically, now that there are liberal talk shows (chiefly in television), we have seen that Rush is not extraordinarily opinionated for a member of his profession.  In particular, Keith Olbermann is utterly insufferable as a loose cannon prone to the most absurd exaggerations and demonizing of anyone who disagrees with him.  I'm not surprised, since he was the same way as SportsCenter host (though thankfully with fewer opportunities to vent his opinions), and because it is endemic to the job.  I'll refrain from mentioning my favourite political talk show host  here; I'll save it for another time.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Orientated

I went to company headquarters for my new company for orientation today.  Does that mean I got orientated?  No, I got oriented -- for some reason we add an extra -at- to the root word in this case.  Admittedly, "oriention" would sound weird; is that the only reason?

I am adopted, and when I was young I used to speak of the "adoptiation agency."  For some reason, it didn't occur to me that I could have said simply "adoption agency"; but why do we add -at- to orient but not adopt?  (Okay, I threw in -iat-, and, again, "adoptation" would not sound nearly as good.)

Another word that adds -at- is preventative.  At the oriention this morning, I noticed they used the word "preventive" to describe certain kinds of health care that we employees are eligible for, so I thought maybe preventative was just incorrect, along the lines of adoptiation.  But, no, it appears to be a legitimate alternative, sometimes with a slightly different meaning (preventative is a noun describing a procedure in preventive medicine), but sometimes with the identical meaning.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Censoring music

People get worked up when music albums have warning labels to indicate their suitability for children (Tipper Gore's crusade), but music gets censored regularly on the radio without comment.  It's not so much whole songs that get left out, but individual verses, or offending lyrics are subtly altered.  I have noticed the following in country music:
  • Garth Brooks, "The Thunder Rolls" -- this song about a woman who shoots her cheating husband is usually only played through two verses, when she finds out about the infidelity but before she shoots him.  I didn't even know there was a third verse for years.  The fact that I have heard the full song on the radio makes me curious about the source of censorship:  do radio stations voluntarily refrain from playing the third verse?  It also interests me because there is no shortage of country songs about killing unfaithful spouses, e.g. "The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia," "Independence Day," and Garth Brooks's own "Papa's In the Pen."  The only difference I can see with "The Thunder Rolls" is that it is more vivid and powerful than the other ones.
  • Taylor Swife, "Picture to Burn" -- This song contains the lines

    So go ahead, tell your friends
    I'm obsessive and crazy
    That's fine
    I'll tell mine
    That you're gay 
    First of all, this isn't even particularly insulting to gays – it's just intended as a tactic to keep the guy from getting dates with members of the opposite sex, which is the kind he wants. Second, pop in the latest Eminem cd and tell me if he doesn't insult a lot of groups of people explicitly, yet some of his songs – even ones with foul lyrics – get on the radio. There really is a special class of protected people (actually, several: women, blacks, Muslims, gays) that gets preferential treatment.
  • Zac Brown Band, "Toes" -- This song begins, "I've got my toes in the water, ass in the sand..."  Unlike the other songs I've listed here, I'm just as glad for this one to be censored.  Not because it is evil, but just because I don't care to hear the word "ass" in the first 5 seconds of a song.  If you're going to use that word, at least bury it somewhere in the middle where it is possible to overlook it.  It also seems completely arbitrary to use such a word as opposed to one that, say, I wouldn't mind my kids hearing.  I find it curious that when he recorded a new version, he didn't choose an innocuous synonym like "tail" to fill in, but instead repeated "toes":  "toes in the water, toes in the sand."  Obviously this is not a matter of FCC censorship, because obscene words get played all the time on the radio; presumably radio stations are just reacting to complaints from their audience.
  • Toby Keith, "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue" -- this song made quite a splash when it came out because ABC first invited, then disinvited Keith from performing it on a show about 9/11.  When I recently attended the Independence Day celebration sponsored by the Air Force Reserve in Warner Robins, Georgia, this was one of the songs that they played during the fireworks -- but without the second verse than ends, "'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American Way."  No doubt they were thinking the same thing that Peter Jennings did:  they didn't want to stir up too much anger.  The use of "ass" is not the key point here, although I will point out that it is entirely within the context of the song.  I'm still not thrilled about my kids' hearing it, but at least there is a good reason for him to use such a word, and it is far enough along in the song that I could turn it off if I wanted to.
I wish I knew more about the stories of these cases of censorship (probably mostly self-censorship).  In two cases, "Picture to Burn" and "Toes," the singers seem to have recorded new versions of the songs, although it's hard to tell if that was under pressure or voluntarily in response to listeners' concerns.  I know that Charlie Daniels recorded a new version of his song, "Long-haired country boy," removing references to getting high and toking because he didn't want to promote drug use.  I also wonder if rock music ever gets censored like this, because there is never any news about this quiet censorship.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

TV

It is generally accepted that Americans have a short attention span.  I believe this to be true, and I think I am an example.  I have sat in numerous academic roundtables, where non-Americans take 10 minutes to make a point that Americans would make in 2.  Just give me the gist, and let's move on; a roundtable is not a place for definitive proofs, but for raising ideas.  While in Germany, I began reading a news magazine called Focus, and I remarked to a colleague that the articles in it were very long compared to its American counterparts such as Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report.  She said she was surprised, because the articles in Focus were shorter than those in other German magazines.

I like things to make a point, but I can't say that having a short attention span is necessarily good.  I admit that I would benefit from having a little more patience to read longer articles.  There is definitely a tradeoff between getting down to business quickly, and being superficial.

It is commonly accepted that television is in part responsible for our short attention spans.  Oddly enough, though, I find that I have too little attention for television.  Ad breaks are, of course, annoying, but what really bothers me is the fluff that goes into the average broadcast.  I occasionally watch SportsCenter, and I have grown utterly sick of the opening theme music.  I know why they play it so much (to build a brand), but I just want to hear the news.  Then, right before a commercial break, they tell you what is coming up...after the second following commercial break.  Again, it is an understandable tactic to keep you watching, but it drives me nuts.

The fundamental problem with t.v., or video of any sort, is that it is linear.  Often I don't want to watch a good portion of the news, but I'm stuck watching it anyway because you only get one part at a time.  This is what really turned me off to news broadcasts.  Liberal bias is everywhere and it is annoying, but Fox news is subject to the same limitations of linearity as the others.  In a newspaper, I can quickly scan the headlines and decide which articles I want to read; and I can stop reading at any point, if I have gotten the information I wanted.  (News is typically written in an "inverted pyramid" structure, with the most important information first, which encourages skimming (though probably not intentionally -- it's made to grad readers' attention).  It also leads to a lot of duplication as the article delves into details, as opposed to a more expository approach that reveals details in sequence.)

Hypertext is wonderful for facilitating skimming, but a plain old newspaper also works pretty well.  Video, whether on television or on the web, is inherently linear.  That's why I normally skip all video links that I see, even if the topic interests me.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

DMV

I had to go into the DMV last week to get a new driver's license and register my vehicles.  This is the ninth time I've had to get a driver's license, and the third time in Virginia.  I always dread it, because the DMV office operates according to different rules of time.  It's like the land of the Lotus-Eaters, only without the pleasant associations.  I do like the way they set up an information booth to perform a sort of triage on incoming customers.  That avoids the possibility of waiting in a long line, only to find out that you should have been in that other line the whole time.  It's also good that they give you tickets, so you can sit down rather than having to stand in line.  This hasn't always or everywhere been the case, and I appreciate it.

The tickets have letters and numbers on them, like a game of Bingo.  We were D73.  An LED display showed the numbers of the customers currently being served, and we had to wait quite a while before another D even showed up -- D68.  Meanwhile, other tickets being served started with A, F, M, R, and several other letters.  I was curious whether the letters actually stood for something, and I regret not asking (but I was undertandably too relieved to get my license at last to think about it).  It would make sense, especially since the letters were not simply consecutive from A to G (or whatever).  On the other hand, I wans't entirely sure.  It could be that they mix the letters up just so you won't know how many people are in front of you.  If they numbered the tickets consecutively, it could be demoralizing to find that you were 73 and they were now serving 15.  You might also get angry if someone with a higher number went ahead of you.  If the letters really do indicate different tasks, it would make sense that not all clerks were trained or equipped to perform all tasks.  If you happened to have a task that was able to be performed by few people, such as getting a license, you might have to wait longer than someone who needed to do something simple, like renewing a registration.

Anger management is certainly an issue at the DMV.  Each window has a security camera pointed at it, and I was curious enough to ask the clerk if these were for angry customers -- she assured me it was.  "No matter what happens," she told me, "it's always our fault."  It's true that people can be unreasonable -- very true.  However, people tend to be a lot more unreasonable after they have been waiting for an hour and a half.  If you've wasted that much time, you are certainly going to be disappointed if you can't even finish what you came to do, and you are going to blame the DMV.  So why don't they do something about the wait?

Actually, they've done about as much as they can do, having streamlined the process quite a bit.  The one thing they need now is more clerks (and possibly a bigger building), but that would cost money.  Any business swamped with customers would certainly spend the money to expand; they want the extra work, and they are going to lose people if they make them wait over an hour to get served.  But the government doesn't work that way.  People have no choice but to go to the DMV, so there is no danger of customers fleeing elsewhere (I doubt anyone ever moves to another state because of poor DMV service.)  The wait times do generate irate customers, but the people who have to deal with them are clerks, not high-ranking officials or members of the General Assembly.

Of course, the government could raise fees to finance improving DMV service.  I suspect, however, that fees are high enough to provide a much better level of service.  The problem is that it is very tempting for lawmakers to siphon money paid by motorists into other things, possibly transportation related, possibly not.  There is no direct correlation between revenue and expenditure.  This can occur in a large corporation, too, but a corporation risks losing customers.  Since the DMV doesn't have to worry about this, it is easy to cut service short and spend the money elsewhere.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Deadliest Warrior

When I was a graduate student in a military history seminar, a professor once told us about an undergraduate who wanted to do a term paper on how a Roman legion would fare against a Panzer division.  The idea sent me into hysterics as I imagined tanks running over guys armed with swords and shields.  It seemed silly on the face of it to want to make such a comparison; the odds were all on one side.

My professor was against the idea more on principle.  He did not think it was useful, or historically valid, to make diachronic comparisons like that.  I can't do justice to his reasoning, because I don't really understand it, and I do not share his beliefs.  I do think comparisons of historical phenomena across time can be useful, and I see no reason why military effectiveness should not be included.

Therefore, I was interested to discover the television series "Deadliest Warrior," which compares weaponry of various famous armies, from modern times (Navy SEALS, the FBI) to ancient history (the Persian Empire, Sparta).  They choose four weapons from each army -- long range, medium range, short range, and special -- and compare how much damage they can do.  They then run a computer simulation using their results to determine which side wins the majority out of 1000 combats, and declare the winner "the deadliest warrior."  They have, as far as I can tell, not made the mistake of pitting soldiers with modern firearms against those who have to fight with swords and spears.  Nevertheless, the series is silly in many ways.

The focus on weapons is understandable, as it is concrete and easier to quantify, but it still pretty much undermines any attempt to reach an overall conclusion.  First, they act as though every soldier carried all four weapons -- that's the only way the simulation can work -- which is very rarely the case historically.  Second, they evaluate the weapons in terms of one-on-one combat.  While there are some weapons for which this makes sense, there are others that it makes a mockery of.

As an extreme example, consider the pike, essentially a long spear.  One person with a pike is hardly a dangerous competitor.  His weapon is maybe 10, maybe 14 feet long, and the only dangerous part is the very tip.  Even if it wasn't very heavy -- which it was -- it still would have been virtually impossible to maneuver against a single opponent because of its length.  (If you want an idea of how difficult, take a laser pointer and aim it at a wall 14 feet away.  You will find that the light on the wall moves around as if you suffered from palsy, because every little move your hand makes gets magnified over the distance to the wall.)  You could easily get around the point of the pike, at which time he would be at the mercy of whatever shorter weapon you possessed.  Put a block of several hundred men with pikes together, however, and the situation is reversed.  Then your sword, no matter how large, will seem puny as a wall of pike points advances toward you.  If you get pase the first rank, you will face another rank of pikes, and another, and another.  Unless the pike square gets disorganized, it is virtually unbeatable by non-projectile weapons.

I haven't seen any pikemen on Deadlist Warrior -- no doubt for good reason -- but every comparison of weapons must suffer to some extent from the failure to consider how the weapons were employed tactically.  To pick an example, they recently analyzed a Comanche scalping knife against some kind of Mongolian bladed weapon.  It was totally pointless, as the scalping knife was never intended as a battle weapon, as they fully admit on the show.  It was apparently used to kill (not just to scalp), but it was a very small weapon used chiefly in raids and ambushes, not something to be wielded against a mass enemy.  They were debating whether the Comanche would be able to get in close against the Mongolian warrior, as though they would ever be facing each other armed just with those weapons.

Another dubious point is that they test the timing and accuracy of the weapons by having a modern Comanche descendant and Mongol use them.  While I am impressed with the skill these people showed with the bow while mounted, it cannot possibly compare to the ability of the actual warriors (on either side), who learned how to ride and shoot at an early age and, at least for the Mongols, spent virtually their whole lives practicing.

Having said those negative things (in brief:  don't believe any of the conclusions of the show, they are meaningless), I am still impressed with Deadliest Warrior in several ways.  First, they have assembled some experts capable of creating and evaluating some very interesting tests on these weapons.  I know something about modern attempts to test 17th and 18th century firearms, and it is very difficult to do.  It is great that they are able to do this; their experiments will become historical evidence, even if their conclusions are ignored.  I am interested in how they managed to recreate these weapons.  They might be using historical artefacts in some cases, but we certainly don't have any Mongolian bows from the 13th century left around.  Of course, this also opens up the possibility that the recreations are not entirely authentic.  Creating a Mongolian compound bow, which consists of layers of bone, sinew, and wood, was a complicated art, and I'm sceptical how easily we can do that today.

Second, I am surprised and interested to see ethnic relatives of the warriors who know so much about combat.  Some people take this stuff very seriously, and they obviously care about the outcome on more than a scientific level.  It's one thing to know about weapons, but quite another to be able to use them effectively.

Third, I have to say that this show is a great idea for attracting interest in history.  I'm always alert to ways to make history appealing to people, and this is certainly a striking one.  It is a little disturbing to see conclusions being drawn from just weaponry, but at least they are doing really interesting experiments with weapons, and I'm sure many people will be drawn to learn more about some of these armies through the show.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Human nature

I'm picky about language, but most things don't bother me seriously. I know people are going to quotation marks around random words and misuse expressions, and I know they do it innocently, so I tend to ignore it. But my rant for today really annoys me, because the people doing it should know better.

I have been listening to courses from The Teaching Company, courtesy of my father-in-law.  These are various series of lectures on specific courses, given by college professors, at a level suitable for college (but without the homework, grades, or credit).  In two of the courses I have heard recently, different professors have referred to the timeless desire to understand "the nature of human nature."

Just roll that phrase around in your mind for a moment.  I hope it should be obvious that what these professors meant was the desire to understand human nature.  If not, a few moments reflection should clear it up.  When we speak of human nature, what do we mean?  Surely it can only be "the nature of humans," i.e. what humans really are.  Therefore, to say "the nature of human nature" is to say "the nature of the nature of humans," which could possibly make sense in some abstract, logical way, but it certainly would not refer to the same thing as the nature of humans.  If Joe Schmoe made a mistake like this, I would totally understand, but we're talking about professors here -- and professors of philosophy, no less, who should be able to parse a phrase.  These are the best professors the Learning Company could find to deliver these lectures.  In short, they should know better, and it drives me nuts that they don't.

This particular phrase bothers me because it should be obvious on the surface -- you should hear the phrase and immediately think, "that can't be right, based on the meaning of the words in it."  Other mistakes, such as mispronunciations, are more understandable.  Even so, I was shocked to hear, in a different lecture series, a professor of Chinese history pronounce "fief" as "fife."  I'll grant that maybe the feudal period of Chinese history is not his specialty, but still, he does teach Chinese survey courses that cover that period, and he did mention the word several times.  If no one has ever corrected him, I suppose it is possible for him to have his misconception of the pronunciation, and I can't really blame him for not looking it up (I rarely bother to look up a word unless I hear someone pronouncing it differently, and I want to know whether I am wrong or he is).  Still, it is a matter of some astonishment that a professor at an Ivy League school of over 20 years tenure could have gone through life saying this word incorrectly and never have had his error politely pointed out to him.  Or never have heard anyone else pronounce it correctly, and have been curious enough to check for himself.  It's the kind of thing you just don't expect to see.

In this case, I think part of the reason may be that he teaches in a very obscure and difficult foreign area.  My experience is that people who do research in difficult languages -- Arabic, South Asian, or East Asian, for example -- tend to get a pass on a lot of what they claim.  The reason is simple:  very few people know enough to contradict them.  If your research area is Western Europe, there are going to be many more prying eyes; and if you research about America, you will be very unlikely to get away with anything.  (Of course, this is because we are talking about professors in American universities.  The situation would be reversed in China.)  Mispronouncing "fief" is not, of course, directly related to this same cause, but it seems symptomatic of the leniency provided to these obscure areas.  If you were a French historian and mispronounced fief, you would certainly be skewered.  (Incidentally, I don't mean to diminish the difficulty of doing research in difficult languages.  It is certainly a fact that people in these fields must spend a vastly greater proportion of their time mastering their research languages, which leaves them less time to learn other things.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Copycat Chains

I'd like to be a venture capitalist who specializes in founding chains that copy the business idea of other chains. Not too long ago, I was introduced to Cold Stone's, an overpriced ice cream shop (on the order of $4 for a cone) that hand-mixes toppings such as sprinkles, M&M's, and oreo cookies into ice cream. I just recently discovered another chain called Maggie Moo's that uses the exact same technique. I'm not sure that Maggie Moo's copied Cold Stone's directly (it was founded slightly later), but I don't think two stores came up with this same idea independently. Another case of mirror-image chains are Cici's Pizza and Stevi B's, both of which feature excusively fixed-price buffet meals. Stevi B's is a little more open about copying Cici's (well, they don't mention Cici's by name, but they admit to copying someone, and Cici's seems the most likely).

These little stores jump out at me because I have only learned about them recently, but the same goes for larger chains, such as Lowe's and Home Depot, or Staples, Office Depot, and Office Max. If you were led into one of these stores blindfolded and then had the blindfold removed, you would probably not be able to tell which one you were in until you eyes lighted on some reference to the store's name inside.

I'm not saying these copycat stores don't add value. Often they take the original concept and improve upon it, in the way that Papa John's consciously sought to create a better Domino's, or Ryder a better U-Haul. Ironically, the original chain often ends up copying some of the improvements of their competitors, with the result that the stores evolve in tandem and remain very similar. I'm just thinking that the original idea, and most of the implementation, are the most important components, and copying them would be easier than coming up with them in the first place. Of course, copying is no guarantee of success, but at least you know that the market is there.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the level

Frequently people use the metaphor of "levels" to describe different modalities of understanding. You have almost certainly hear someone say, "That is wrong on so many levels"? It is a cliché, and it is intended (usually) to be humorous, so I don't bother too much about what it means. But I am curious about the use of the metaphor of levels in general. It was nicely lampooned in one of my favourite scenes from "Friends." Phoebe was preparing to move out of the apartment with Monica, and Ross was telling her that she ought to inform Monica of her plans.

"I think on some level, she already does know it," Phoebe responds.

"How?" asks Ross. "She doesn't know that you've changed your mailing address. She doesn't know that you're sleeping at your grandmother's every night. She doesn't know that you already have a lease on another apartment."

"Well, maybe not on those levels," Phoebe admits.

The obvious question is, what could Phoebe mean by saying Monica already knows it "on some level"? It can't mean she knows part of it; that wouldn't be a level, but a section. Levels cover the same area, but overlap completely. They are often used when dealing with literature, which can be understood literally or metaphorically. The story of Little Red Riding Hood is literally about a girl being attacked by a wolf, but it could be understood metaphorically as a story about sexual predators. (Actually, I don't know what it is a metahpor for, but let's just ignore that for a moment.) It makes sense to describe these as two different "levels" of understanding, because they both encompass the whole story, but they interpret it within an entirely different framework. If one wanted to apply a Marxist interpretation, that would be another level as well.

So it doesn't make sense to say that Monica doesn't understand that Phoebe is moving out "on the level of" she sleeps at her grandmother's apartment. That's not a level; it's an aspect. It isn't the complete story on a different layer, but rather a segment of the story on a very literal layer. Arguably, Phoebe could mean that Monica knows it on an intuitive level -- that she was aware of what was going on, but wasn't conscious of her awareness. That would be "knowing it" on a different level: fully grasping it, but not in a way that she could discuss it.

I'm not sure, but I suspect that most of the time people use levels in this metaphorical way, it doesn't make much sense. I am as guilty of it as anyone. The use of "levels" to describe knowledge has entered the popular idiom and it just sounds right a lot of times even when it isn't really the best word, just as people intuitively use "cool" to describe anything good. (I hope to write a future entry on coolness, which I think is a very interesting concept.) Of course, people understand its meaning in context, so, arguably, "levels" is just as good as, perhaps even better than, other word choices that are more logically consistent. I try to resist using popular idioms like this, and I often find myself struggling to express the concept in other words. Still, I think it's a good habit to get into. Using clichéd words is easy and can make one's meaning clear in the short run, but I think in the long run it tends to become so broad as to be meaningless. People who speak in clichés often end up saying nothing meaningful, the way corporate mission statements repeat business clichés without conveying any content. Besides, I like to give my mind the exercise of trying to think about what I actually what to express, rather than just letting the words fall out. That seems the right thing on so many levels.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Country Rap?

"Save a horse, ride a cowboy" is one of the most annoying country songs ever recorded. Not only are the lyrics insipid and the melody, if you can call it that, weak, but it advocates a completely self-centered, hedonist lifestyle. One person (who liked it) said it was country's venture into rap music, which is an insult to country and rap at the same time. I don't like rap (chiefly for the content), but one thing I am certain of is that this is not country's first rap-like song. In fact, on reflection, country has a long history of "rapping" its lyrics, although it is obviously not the primary mode of expression. Johnny Cash, for example, spoke the verses to "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," singing only the chorus. I would describe it as a failed attempt -- certainly one of his worst songs, in a musical sense. He used the same speaking voice in "One Piece at a Time," which is at least a far more interesting song.

Country rap (if I may describe it like that) hit the big time with "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" by the Charlie Daniel's Band. It was not only a #1 country hit, but reached #3 overall. Even though I generally don't like songs that are spoken, I love this song; it was popular when I was growing up, so maybe I wouldn't care for it so much if I heard it for the first time now. I also like Jerry Reid's "She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft," which I can't attribute to youthful exuberance, since I didn't even hear it until about a year ago. Obviously the chief interest in this song is the humour; musically, it is more like Johnny Cash's rap songs, and is not nearly as interesting as "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."

Then there is Shania Twain's "Honey, I'm Home," which is not just a spoken song, but more like a hip-hop song in feel: supporting music, especially in between verses, and a heavy emphsis on the rhythm of the spoken words. She also makes a lot of use of spoken words in her other songs, such as "Man, I Feel Like a Woman" and "That Don't Impress Me Much" -- and in a way that works, unlike Taylor Swift, who seems to lapse frequently into speaking in her songs but only in a way that detracts from them.

Memorial Interchange

Naming roads after people is a common way of honouring their memory. You can find stretches of interstate named after someone, such as Carl Sanders Highway, the name for part of I-20 in Georgia (called after a former governor of the state). One thing that I have only noticed fairly recently, however, is the naming of interchanges in memory of someone. It seems to be common in South Carolina, through which I have driven frequently in the past three years along I-20 and I-77.

For some reason, the one that sticks out in my mind is the F. W. "Billy" Caughman Memorial Interchange. It appears to have been so designated in 2003 in memory of the "community, civic, and political impact" that he made "on the city of Lexington and Lexington County." It has successfully preserved his name, although I have no idea who he was or what exactly he did -- the only person of that name that I found on the internet is a 15-year-old on MySpace, also from Lexington, SC, presumably a descendant.

There is something ludicrous about naming an interchange after someone, and it doesn't help that this particular one uses the person's formal initials along with his nickname in quotation marks. Would it have seemed disrespectful for them just to call it the Billy Caughman Memorial Interchange?

It is possible that the South Carolina legislature has resorted to naming interchanges because they ran out of more conventional things with which to memorialize people -- all the good ones were taken, in other words. This became something of an issue at the residential college where I lived while a student at the University of Virginia. At the time I stayed there, it was called "Monroe Hill Residential College," so named because James Monroe owned the plot of land at one point. Shortly after I graduated, someone donated a large sum of money to the university on the condition that it rename the location to Brown College. The university accepted -- who can turn down money? -- but tried to placate traditionalists (which means everyone in Virginia) by calling it "Brown College at Monroe Hill."

If this is a problem for the University of Virginia, it is an even bigger problem for Yale, which is more than a century older. I say "problem," but really it is an opportunity. Yale has adopted the practice of appending additional names to its buildings, such that many of them now have hyphenated titles. My favourite is Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona. Now that is a name that says, "We are a very old and very famous university. We have so many famous people to name buildings after that we have to stack them on top of one another. Moreover, our famous people have names like Sheffield, Sterling, and Strathcona, which are upper class names, not boring common names like Brown, Smith, and Jones." Compare this to the University of Illinois, a fine institution (from which I hold my Ph.D.), whose main library is still called...the Main Library. Surely there must be some person, either a famous graduate or a wealthy donor, after whom the university could name arguably its most important building? Or perhaps it resists giving it a specific name in respect to its egalitarian mission, one of the original land-grant universities whose motto is not some high-sounding Latin phrase but rather the simple "Learning and Labor."

I think we can all agree that a library would be a fine thing to have named after one. Interchanges, however, are a more dubious proposition, and I say this without wishing to cast any aspersions upon the memory of F.W. "Billy" Caughman, whatever he may have done. So if, after I die, someone comes up with the idea of preserving my name (a doubtful premise, I admit) on some interchange, rest stop, or weigh station, let me save them the trouble by declaring that it is an honour that I would be just as happy to do without.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Taylor Swift

My wife has a Taylor Swift album. I do, too. It's called "a radio."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

More church names

I was down in Georgia again this past weekend, where I discovered another interesting church name. (For others, see here and here.) Well, technically not a church, I guess; it is the Temple of Miracles Worship Center. What is a worship center, and how does it differ from a church? I presume the people who came up with this name had some reason for it. Probably they avoided the word "church" deliberately, since church can have negative connotations for some.

I have even less clue about the motivation behind the "Family Aquatic Center" in Charlottesville. Okay, it's more than a pool, but we always call it a water park, because it has many of the same features (lazy river, lots of fountains, water guns, etc.). It is smaller than what you would normally call a water park, but that still seems a more reasonable name than "aquatic center." This is the kind of name you get when a committee comes up with it.

I discovered another interesting church, although not for its name, but rather its type. It is a "biker church." Apparently there is a whole series of churches designed to minister to bikers. Ironically, I heard someone refer to a Christian biker gang last weekend as well, another new idea to me. I love the way Christianity reaches out to even the most unlikely of converts; and, although the rhetoric may use aggressive metaphors (I heard someone refer to "spiritual warfare" yesterday), the result is inevitably more peaceful than what proceeded it (so long as government is not involved).

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

July 4th

Few Americans actually refer to the holiday known as "Independence Day" by its name; to most of us, it is "July 4th." It is ironic, therefore, that we have lived in many places that do not celebrate on the fourth day of July. I mentioned yesterday the fireworks in Warner Robins, Georgia, which were on July 2nd. They are recorded and broadcast to American service personnel on July 4th. Columbus, Ohio hosts a large "Red, White, and Boom" festival on July 2nd, timed so as not to interfere with the smaller celebrations of its suburbs (my favourite of which is Reynoldsburg, which bills itself as "The Birthplace of the Tomato" for reasons that I have not yet figured out). And Detroit holds its celebration on the last Wednesday in June. It is called the International Freedom Festival, and honours Canada Day (July 1st) as well as Independence Day.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Independence Day

I didn't like fireworks when I was growing up. Sure, they look pretty, but the loud noises hurt my ears. I remember, well into my 20's, wincing every time I would see a bright flash indicating a particular loud noise was coming. I also don't remember hearing much about independence on Independence Day, and we didn't cook out, so July 4th was just another day off to me.

Now I think of it in very different terms. Independence means more to me as I get older. Several years ago I made a decision to take the holiday more seriously specifically because I wanted to celebrate American independence -- and personal freedom -- more. The rise of the Tea Party movement has made me even more interested in American exceptionalism and the threats to it. And, I outgrew my dislike of loud fireworks; either I'm more hard of hearing, or I just got used to the noise, I'm not sure which.

So I was glad to go see the fireworks put on by Robins Air Force Base this year. It took place in McConnell-Talbert Stadium, which is where the local high schools all play. I haven't been able to find seating information, but it is a very impressive stadium for a high school; I'm sure many colleges don't have one so nice. The field was packed with viewers, and the stands were about 3/4ths full. We were treated to the Air Force Reserve Component Band, which is apparently a pretty good band (I'm no judge of music, but I enjoyed it), followed by Diamond Rio. Then we got a very nice fireworks display, much grander than the one I'm used to in my hometown. I really liked the fact that they played patriotic music in the background during the fireworks. It inspired me and made me think of the bombs bursting in air, so much that I actually relished the loud bangs at the end. The music, which was mostly country, suited me perfectly -- so much so that when I created a patriotic mix album a few years ago, I used many of the same songs they played.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Georgia cities

I'm sure it's a coincidence, but Georgia has more cities that share names with other well-known cities than anywhere else I've been. There are Athens, Rome, and Sparta; Vienna, Milan, and Dublin; Albany, Boston, and Columbus; Dallas, Duluth, Decatur, Gainesville, Macon, Roswell, and Augusta. When in Georgia, you have to be careful to specify which of the above cities you are talking about. Actually, this is easy for some of them, because Georgians have their own special pronunciations: Vienna is vye-ENN-uh, Milan is MY-len, and the town of Lafayette is la-FAY-et.

Sure, every state has some towns that share names with cities in other states, but most of them are tiny towns of no importance. Augusta, Columbus, Athens, Macon, Roswell, and Albany are all among Georgia's top 10 largest cities, and Gainesville, Rome, and Dublin are among the state's top 20 metropolitan areas. Albany and Macon hold the dubious distinction of being among the country's 10 poorest cities. Duluth and Decatur are important Atlanta suburbs. Imagine my surprise when I first heard that a large Pokemon tournament that my kids wanted to play in would take place in Duluth.

Many of these towns were named after their more famous predecessors (Athens, Rome, Sparta, and Albany, for instance); others were named after the same person, such as Columbus and Decatur. Macon was named after a person of that name, not the city in France, and my home county of Houston (pronounced HOW-ston) was named after a governor of Georgia, not the famous Sam Houston who pronounces his name funny.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Georgia on my mind

Georgia is a lovely place to live. Apart from being hotter than Hell for 4-5 months out of the year, that is. But even the heat has its advantages: it's a wonderful place to go swimming, because between May and September you never need to worry whether the water is too cold.

Georgia is sort of the prototypical state of the Deep South in popular culture. You hear more about it in songs, I think, than Alabama or Mississippi (probably not than Tennessee, though): of course "The Devil went Down to Georgia," but also "Good Directions," "Meet in the Middle," "Toes," and many others. ("Georgia on My Mind" is also one of the most beautiful state songs.) It has even given rise to an expression, "Hell's broke loose in Georgia," that is widely used. (However, I have no idea where this expression comes from, and I would love to hear about if any knows.)

Georgia's iconic status was cemented, in a very bad way, by the movie "Deliverance." I avoided this movie for years because I thought I would hate it, but I finally gave in -- since I live in Georgia, I figured I ought to see it. I was right, I hated it. Actually, it was a very good movie apart from the one awful scene that everyone knows about, but that scene was really, really bad. One of my colleagues from South Carolina met James Dickey while he was teaching at the University of South Carolina, and asked him why he would write such a thing that portrayed Southerners in such a negative light. "Well," he said, "the money was good. Besides, it takes place on the other side of the river" (i.e., in Georgia rather than South Carolina). I was interested to learn recently that James Dickey was a pathological liar. Not that it makes any difference to the story (it is fiction, after all), but it was interesting to learn.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Health care

Kudos to Mona Charen in this article for a nice turn of phrase: she describes the health care bill as "oozing" its way through Congress. Will Brown's election stop the ooze? And how should Democrats react? If I were a Democrat, I might well be in favour of pushing the bill at all costs. This is based partly on my depressing assessment that major legislation almost never gets repealed, and usually, to the contrary, expand over time. It might mean a beating for the Democrats in November, but it would be a major advance for them in the long run.

Nancy Pelosi ("We will have health care one way or another") seems to be in favour of ramming the bill through, and I can't disagree with her logic. I do disagree, however, with these academics, who somehow conclude that "If there is a lesson in the Massachusetts vote, it is this: pass a bill." I understand what they are saying: a lot of Democrats are upset at the compromises that have been made on the bill, and that may have kept some of them away from voting. And I'm sure they're right that Scott Brown did campaign a lot on other issues. Nevertheless, it is not only implausible, but downright silly, to think that a liberal state like Massachussetts would vote for a Republican if the majority of liberals there wanted a health-care bill. That's not the way people work.

Democrats still control large majorities in both houses, so they have a reasonable chance of getting a bill through. There has been much talk of pushing the vote through before Brown is seated, or using other dubious tactics to ram something through. I am glad to report that Barney Frank -- whom I dispise in many ways -- has come out on the side of honesty, saying, "I feel strongly that the Democratic majority in Congress must respect the process and make no effort to bypass the electoral results."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Republicans in Massachussetts

While Republicans are obviously elated at Scott Brown's victory yesterday, many are already talking about the likelihood that he will lose the next election in 2012. I am a little surprised; I figure that if Brown can win once, he can win again, especially with the advantage of incumbency. Massachussetts has had Republican governors, so a Republican senator does not seem like too much of a stretch.

I once met a Boston-area radio talk show host (I'm sorry that I've forgotten his name). When I heard his profession, I assumed that he was a liberal, but he turned out to be conservative. I prodded him about what sort of audience he had, and he told me that people in Boston were quite conservative on many issues, in spite of being very pro-Democrat. This may seem incredible, but it is fairly well known that blacks, for instance, are conservative on a number of key issues -- abortion, foreign policy, crime -- in spite of voting around 90% for Democrats. I've forgotten what specific issues the talk show host mentioned to me, but I'm sure abortion was one of them. In any case, I think it is at least plausible that there is an undercurrent of conservatism in the state that could keep Brown in office in spite of his being a Republican. I don't deny, of course, that Democrats will put up a stronger candidate next time and run a better campaign, and there is always the possibility of a "macaca" moment that throws calculations off. I expect he will have a tough race, but I think he has a reasonable possibility to get re-elected.

I strongly disagree with Daniel Larison, who says that the election is all about anti-incumbent feeling. For one thing, there was no incumbent in this race. For another thing, I think pure anti-incumbent feeling is very rare; most often, it is "anti-party-in-power" sentiment. Considering the context of the election -- the health-care bill on the verge of passage -- I would be amazed if the voters were not voting in large part on the basis of Brown's promise to be against the bill.

I couldn't help myself from reading the Daily Kos, to see how extreme liberals were reacting to the vote. Activity was way down from the last time I checked (during the past election season, admittedly), and was basically what I expected: the world is ending, the voters were stupid, etc. One person said that it was sad when an election could be decided by not knowing which team a particular athlete was on, referring to Coakley's gaffe about Schilling being a Yankees fan. I have some sympathy for the idea that sports should play no role in elections, but a few thoughts. First, it is always a good idea to know some basic facts about the local sports teams, especially in Massachussetts where the Boston teams have such an avid following. (It would be a different matter in California, which has so many teams.) Second, if Coakley didn't care about Schilling's endorsement of Brown, she should have said so. Once she tried to label him as a Yankee's fan, she had bought into the idea that Schilling mattered, and opened herself up for the mistake. She could just have easily said that the endorsement of sports figures (or actors, singers, and the like) was not important, since they have no special insight into politics.

I also want to give credit to Obama for graciously commending Brown for a well-run campaign, and to Coakley for complimenting him on his election. Although this behaviour is still expected of politicians, it seems to be increasingly rare in the public debate (e.g. Keith Olbermann's insane rant against Brown), and I'm always happy when minimal standards are upheld.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why is there something rather than nothing?

"I'm afraid I'm a practical man,' said the doctor with gruff humour, 'and I don't bother much about religion and philosophy.'
'You'll never be a practical man till you do,' said Father Brown."

This quotation, from G.K. Chesteron, is compelling in his usual irreverent fashion. I find much to agree with in what he says, so I have been inclined to think that there must be some practical value in philosophy. Sometimes, however, I wonder if the chief purpose of philosophy is not simply to keep other people from making false claims on its behalf, in the same way that James Bryce claimed of history that its "chief practical use...is to deliver us from plausible historical analogies." I am speaking in this case of that basic philosophical question, Why is there something rather than nothing?

I was first introduced to this question by one of my college professors, Dante Germino. He said that some philosopher had posited two fundamental questions: why is there something rather than nothing?, and why are things the way they are and not some other way? I thought the second question was superfluous, since, if you could explain why there was something, you would know why it was the way it was.

I've forgotten who the philosopher was supposed to be. I thought it was some ancient Greek, but I see now that Martin Heidegger is famous for saying that the first question -- why is there something -- is the fundamental question of philosophy. I haven't seen any reference to the second question, so I'm not quite sure it was he to whom Germino was referring, but it seems a good bet.

I have always liked this question, partly as an endless source of pondering, and partly because it provides some basis for religion, or at least the limitations of science; because I am convinced that science will never be able to provide an answer. It brings our minds to the limitations of reason, because we cannot conceive of something without a cause, and yet, despite the paradox, something does indeed exist. It may have an explainable cause, but its cause must have a cause, and so forth in an infinite regression. St. Thomas Aquinas used this as one of his arguments for the existence of God: there must be an uncaused cause. In his "States and Empires of the Moon," Cyrano de Bergerac mocked this proof as akin to saving oneself from the rain by jumping into the river: how does positing an uncaused cause get us out of the difficulty at all? We're resolving a logical paradox by resorting to a deus-ex-machina, something that literally is outside of logic. We can't logically understand what an uncaused cause would be any more than we can resolve the issue within our logical framework. I suspect that Aquinas was more sophisticated on this issue than Cyrano gives him credit for; Aquinas probably realized that the need for an uncaused cause doesn't tell us anything about God himself, but rather points to the need for an explanation outside of human reason. I like to think of it as Soren Kierkegaard's paradox, "the thought that thought itself cannot think." He doesn't attach the paradox to any particular idea, but I think this is as good a candidate as any. Trying to conceive of the beginning of the universe is an exercise in the limitations of reason.

The Big Bang is, of course, no answer to this paradox. The Big Bang explains how matter was compressed down to a singularity and then exploded suddenly, setting off the processes which led to the formation of the universe. It does not answer the question, "why is there something rather than nothing?" I had an unpleasant shock from an explanation which seemed to circumvent this limitation, from a very smart friend whom I met in my first year of college. He explained how particles and anti-particles routinely come into existence and then annihilate each other almost instantaneously. Sometimes, however, they don't come back together, and there exists a tiny bit of matter (and its opposite) that didn't exist before. Given enough time, matter might accumulate in such quantities to create a whole universe, such as the one we live in.

I was very depressed about this at first, for it seemed to bring existence itself into the realm of science. Eventually, however, I realized the that it did no such thing. The scientific explanation may tell us how matter forms, but it can't tell us why it forms. Why should there be such things as matter and anti-matter in the first place? And why should they come into being in matched pairs? The existence of scientific laws that govern the universe needs explaining as much as matter and space.

I see now that some people are trying to finesse the problem of "why is there something rather than nothing" by asking, "why not?" This seems clever at first; why should we "privilege" non-existence as a more natural state than existence? Isn't it just as likely that existence is natural, and nothingness is what needs explaining? Personally, I still can't make this logical leap; I am trapped by the idea that nothingness naturally precedes existence (perhaps because it is correct). If we are wandering in the desert wilderness and come upon a house, and I ask, "I wonder why that house is there?", no one would be convinced by the answer, "Why not?" It is evidently the existence of the house that needs explaining, not its non-existence in every other part of the desert. Now, I realize that a house is not the same as matter in general, and that, while a house must evidently have to be constructed, it is not immediately obvious that matter has to be made. Still, I can't help seeing the circumstances as parallel.

But let's ignore that for a moment, and let's agree with the sceptics that existence is as natural as non-existence. The sceptics' argument is still very weak, because they are ignoring the other fundamental question: why are things the way they are, and not some other way? If you're going to say that being is as natural as, or even more natural than, nothingness, you also have to explain why things exist in one form and not in an infinite variety of other forms. And this is going to be difficult. When dealing with being and nothingness, it is possible to make a case that neither should be privileged over the other, but it certainly is difficult to make a convincing case why things should exist in one particular configuration over all other possible configurations.

One could make the case, as I believe some have done, that we exist in only one of an infinite number of parallel universes; therefore, there is no reason to think that our universe even is privileged, just that it happens to be the one that we are in. But this, I think, requires even greater credulity, and it has nothing whatever to do with science. It might be right, but we can't hope to test it; we can only take it on faith as seeming more likely that other explanations. I think most people, however, will find the idea of infinite universes to be rather less likely than alternate explanations.

Scientists have even tried to claim that there is no beginning to time; that there is no point at which things began, because time folds in on itself. I don't pretend to understand this idea (which I read in Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time"), but I do know that it is no more an answer to the uncaused cause than any other explanation. For, why should there even be such a thing as time? Science can push this matter very far, but I don't see how it can ever answer it.