Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Suffer the Little Chickens

I am an unapologetic carnivore. I have objections to veal, but then I don't find it particularly appetizing, so I'm sort of off the hook. I hold out hope that there are "humane" ways in which to conduct a livestock industry. I'm prepared to admit that I don't spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about it. While I'm ordering my Triple Whopper.

But I'm not convinced that vegetarian evangelists do, either. Not really. Consider the effect of selective breeding on the animals that we consume for meat, dairy, and other uses. It has been estimated that a mere 10,000 years ago, human beings, our pets, and our livestock accounted for about one tenth of one percent of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass. If it had a spine and lived on land, the odds were better than 99.9% that it was NOT an animal attended by us. Add up the humans living today with animals under our care and that share of the TVB is upwards of 98%. And most of it is bovine.

What is to account for this tremendous evolutionary success? Shepherds! Domesticating cattle, swine, poultry and the rest conferred huge benefits on ourselves, to be sure. But what a deal for the critters! They were able to outsource their most strenuous activities to us, such as acquiring food and mates. Consequently, their brains---no longer taxed by these biologically pressing demands---have shrunk. These animals are not their wild ancestors. They are not cut out for the world at large.

So what to do with them? As romantic as some may consider it to let them loose, that's obviously not an option. The environmental impact would be deep and far-reaching. Mother Nature is not nearly as compassionate as the (largely) well-intentioned folks who'd like to see done. In fact, she is a cruel bitch. There is no Eden waiting for ol' Bessie beyond those barnyard doors.

So what to do? I say we ponder the philosophical issues at hand, raise consciousness about the excesses of the livestock industry, and keep the hamburgers coming. I'll take mine with extra pickles.

The Cooking Apes

I was fortunate to finally get a hold of a copy of Richard Wrangham's marvelous study in human origins, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. It's a slim volume, and a recommended read for anyone interested in accounts of how we got here that do not include talking snakes. Whereas control of fire and the "civilized" custom of eating cooked food have long been held as the innovations of a clever primate that occured after we developed our big brains, Wrangham demonstrates why, in fact, the reverse is true---our big brains and civilized nature were made possible in the first place principally by just these two uniquely human activities.

"So what is this? More 'Just So' stories from the adaptionist peanut gallery?"

Hardly. The author assembles such an array of mutually reinforcing evidence from multiple fields of study that the reader is left with an impression that the core of his thesis should have been obvious all along. By the standard that the measure of a scientific proposition is the difference between what it explains and what is required to explain it, Wrangham's cooking hypothesis ranks among the best theories we have on what kindled the rapid rise of our species from a chimp-like ancestor, and makes us so different from living apes today.

Read this book.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

OMG, Twitter is Useful

Although I still haven't "got a Twitter", and have no plans for "tweeting" in the very near future, I have come to the conclusion that the entire enterprise is not an utter waste of time. I remain sensitive to the prospect that serial texting isn't necessarily the best thing that has ever happened to literacy, or socialization, or motor safety, but the evidence to date pulls in both directions, and often defies intuition.

What's obvious is that there's no amount of language policing or Luddism that can hold back the tide of communicators going about communicating their various communications however they damned well please to communicate them. One of the reasons for the "micro-blogging" portal's seeming overnight success is the very immediacy of it. Giants like Google that were able to organize the pandemonium of such widely dispersed web content that fills the intertubes into easily referenced chunks did so by extracting relevance from search patterns that take at least some appreciable time to develop. Twitter, with its constant flow of real-time updates on all matters large and small, has managed to become as much of "the pulse of the internet" as we've yet seen.

Forget Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. (Seriously, try.) Never mind the ceaseless waves of narcissism that crash upon the weathered beach of basic human dignity daily. The purest expression of Twitter's potential as a medium in its own right with any redeeming value must be when the State Department prevailed on the San Francisco-based social networking site to delay a scheduled update that would have thrown a wet blanket on thousands of brave Iranian protestors just as their arsenal of cell phone cameras and texting pads were landing some blows on the hirsute chins of the Islamic Republic's ruling elite.

It's a perfect demonstration of the futility any fascist regime must face when matching 20th Century tecniques for suppression against more nimble 21st century technology. Worse still, for an outfit dedicated to the prospect of arresting or even reversing cultural evolution in a landscape so fecund for just that. Clearly, this generation of young Persians won't be flinging themselves into Iraqi landmines.

The Reason I Didn't Vote

My state has just completed its first-ever gubernatorial primary for a Democrat to become Virginia's highest elected official. Republicans, committed to breaking a string of electoral defeats that have seen popular, progressive figures occupying the governor's mansion and other high offices in this traditionally conservative state, united early behind former state Attorney General Bob McDonnell. So there was no Republican primary.

But this is not the reason that I didn't vote.

Terry McAuliffe (right) as Dracula. Fail.

The reason for my not voting had nothing at all to do with a lack of enthusiasm for the process, or any candidate. I was full of enthusiasm last year, to the point of knocking on doors and making phone calls in support of one particular candidate, who nonetheless was able to win without my support at the ballot box.

To explain what kept me from the polls will require a little backstory, and a suspension of the general rule that I don't drag my personal life onto this page.

About ten years ago, a man from Tennessee named John McGaha came across a well-expired learner's permit, featuring a photo of Yours Truly at age fifteen. McGaha, who was a heroin addict in his twenties, tried using it to pass a bad check at Safeway. This landed him in the county jail. But there was a silver lining. While even the lowly grocer was able to spot a bogus ID when he saw one, the genius booking officer on duty that day took it for granted and processed the grizzled McGaha based on my very clean criminal record. A trial was conducted, guilty plea entered, and a short sentence served.

They only held him for three months, and he wasted no time on being released to head for hippie meccas like Eugene, Oregon and San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury District. I know this because these are two more places where he was able to duck charges by placing my good name into the line of fire.

There would be others. Thanks to the tireless efforts of my doppelganger, and the tiresome prevarications of a pitiless and wholly inert bureaucracy, I now have a rap sheet a mile long. It should only shrink, considering that he is no longer active. Whatsoever. The leech died a rapturous death at the end of a needle inside of two years from striking gold with his handy little get-out-of-jail-free card. But there is nothing free in this life. Someone, somewhere, must pay. The County of Henrico has made it very clear that it will not be them.

And there is a cost. Some of it can be measured in dollars. Some of it, loosely, in diminished career opportunities, and time lost that can never be recovered. This is not to mention the general existential problem that the very essence of my moral identity has been forever comprimised---as far as posterity is concerned---outside of a vanishingly small number of people familiar with the details. Being able to publish this account may help in some small measure, though you are obliged to take my word for it.

Now, I've had a good decade to reconcile myself with the fact that none of this is likely to change, ever. Of course there are many possible futures, even ones in which the precise set of conditions are met to make up the difference and compensate for these losses. It could happen. I am hopeful. But at the end of the day, I find it necessary to prepare for the possibility that nothing will improve. Experience has taught me that there's no special reason to believe otherwise.

However. One area into which this fatalism does not extend is that of my civil rights. Here is at least one protection under the law that (you'd think) authorities have no choice but to honor.

But I tell you it don't come easy. A special injuction was required, for instance, in order to restore my voting privileges in the 2000 election, allowing me to vote for George Bush. You're welcome. The same privilege was upheld four years later when I voted in Fort Myers, Florida without incident. Not until Virginia came into play last year as somewhat of a battleground state in its own right did I experience any trouble. It was at this time that several key interest groups, vying for every advantage, placed intense pressure upon the state registrar to comb through the voting rolls with the aim of bringing them up-to-date.

Setting aside the likely ulterior political motives of those involved, the ostensible reason was making sure that any warm bodies which might be bothered to exercise their civic duty wouldn't be unnecessarily disenfranchised come Election Day. Although Virginia's constitution makes it one of only two states that indefinitely bar convicted felons from the vote, there is a process for offenders to get permission from the governor's office to have their rights reinstated. Step one of working within existing state law to empower as many of these individuals as possible was to find out who has been convicted of a felony. To do this, the commonwealth consulted not just the traditional State Police record, but also Federal District Court databases---in which case I was fucked.

So in the effort to extend the vote to as many Virginians as possible, I lost the right. I believe this meets the technical definition of irony.

More on this to come.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Break Out the Waterboard

A Christian terrorist says that he has personal knowledge of terrorist plots being planned around the country, but he's not giving details.

Would Torture, Inc be inclined to extend their enhanced interrogation techniques to a guy who targets an American citizen because abortions make baby Jesus cry?

Just asking.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Camel Jockey

Our president, Mr. Barack Hussein Obama, has made his most impassioned plea yet to the broader Muslim world with a landmark speech in Cairo yesterday, urging open dialogue about the relationship between the West, its allies, and the interests of the entire global community, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Moderate supporters of the Israeli state will find comfort in the president's evocation of an "unbreakable" bond between the United States and the Jewish homeland. At the same time, Mr. Obama takes pains to affirm his opposition to continued settlements in Palestinian territory, which according to his formulation make a peaceful resolution to the Arab/Israeli conflict all the more remote.

The president's words resonate with Arab audiences but also rise beyond the level of mere rhetoric as the administration has openly signaled that US aid to Israel may be conditioned upon settlement reform. The new Israeli government is left to whine that the previous American administration had made off-the-record assurances to the effect that making swiss cheese out of occupied territories would remain kosher for the foreseeable future. But the Zionist dream of "Greater Israel" has been repudiated by a new president who appears unwilling to allow religious zealots on either side to dictate the terms of the peace process.

None of which, of course, is enough for grief merchants, autocrats, and holy warriors of all stripes whose stock and trade relies almost exclusively on redirecting the shame and humiliation of being history's bitch onto external boogeymen like the United States and Israel. Media mouthpieces in the region had already sounded loud, advanced warnings not to be taken in by the charms of a charismatic, new world leader who at least doesn't look like the sort of guy to start passing out Bible tracts or making arrangements to have Pat Robertson rape your daughter with a crucifix.

Turkish protestor and remarkably sophisticated signage.

Back home, a blathering contingent just as endangered and paranoid was caterwauling about the shrewd leverage of his Muslim roots to appeal to a prideful, wounded, yet crucial demographic. According to these morons, anything approaching a conciliatory gesture is just further proof that Obama is a big, dumb pussy who probably beats off to pictures of Khalid Shiek Mohammed. But this is a group that will be satisfied by nothing less than bombing the sand niggers into oblivion.

The epic struggle in which we find ourselves with millions upon millions of disaffected and radicalized Muslims cannot be won by force of arms alone, though it can be lost on solely communicative grounds. The president's unique personal profile and oratorical brilliance are two of the chief reasons for my early support of his candidacy, which predates his actual run. It's the same powerful possibility that led Al Qaida's top leiutenant to release an awkward statement shortly after Mr. Obama's historic victory in which he accused the press corps of "deliberately confusing" his message by getting in the tank for a black guy with some semblance of a Muslim background.

There is no man alive as capable to do what this president is and must be doing. As the emo kid said to his girlfriend as they gobbled a handful of ecstasy pills: Let's roll.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Of Teeth and Torts

Barack Obama has tapped appeals court superstar Sonia Sotomayor to replace David Souter on the United States Supreme Court. She's catching shit over comments from 2001 in which she stated that a "wise Latina" should come to better conclusions than a white guy. Supporters shoot back that the quote was taken out of context. Whatever. She'll probably get confirmed. All I can think of are the choppers on that woman.

I want to know who does her work. I mean, that's some serious dentition! I've gone back over some older images, and they are not so impressive, to put it mildly. The new Sotomayor makes our toothy chief executive look positively British by comparison. Someone clearly is ready for their closeup, Mr. DeMille.

In spite of the background noise about Sotomayor's supposed racism, the nomination appears to be another thoughtful display of moderation by the White House which poses at least one difficult challenge for the opposition: How does the imploding Republican party appeal to the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country if they are caught arguing against the approval of the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice on what could be construed as racial grounds?

If Democrats are lucky, then Republicans will not apply the same standard to their nominee that was applied to the last president's nomination of Samuel Alito, when a group of Senators including Mr. Obama raised the threat of a filibuster based not on jurisprudence or any sort of blemish in his legal record, but general philosophical differences.

If Republicans are smart, they will keep their powder dry and avoid a losing battle. The ideological balance of the court will remain unchanged and the optics will increase considerably.

I just can't get over the teeth. Well done with the teeth, woman. Well done.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Zombie Chic

You may have noticed that zombies are really hot right now. Maybe not. But don't worry. You can't hurt their feelings. Zombies are unaffected one way or the other. Their only concern is to find fresh human brains for eating.

From the Norwegian zombie film, Dead Snow (2009)

That's the zombie of classic cinema, of course. There is also the snide fable of a creature which behaves like a normal human being down to the last observable detail, but has no inner life. This kind of zombie may appear to be offended that you are giving it the cold shoulder, but there would be no content to its inner experience.

And here comes Discover Magazine to abuse the term even more. They seem to think that the phrase "inner zombie" is a dandy hook for explaining a whole range of neural activity that governs behavior but does not rise to the level of "consciousness". So much that they mention it no fewer than twenty-four times in the course of one article. So much that they aren't concerned confusion with the foregoing philosophical term could misinform the reader. Zombies are just that hot right now.

I think maybe the reason that the zombie motif works so well is the problem of dead bodies. There's a deep-seated instinct about them that something must be done, both as vectors of disease and also out of tribute, perhaps, to the once-animated corpses of our friends and fellow travelers. Ritual burial is considered one of the halmarks of culture in early humans, and even other primates have been observed to apparently mourn the death of their conspecifics. Elephants may have discovered the same trick. The nightmare of mindless, flesh-hungry zombies turn all of this on its head.

There's something in the zeitgeist, too, about the deterioration of our humanity in the scientific age. It seems the soul has died and come back to life as nothing but a collection of drives and impulses apart from any appreciable idea of the transcendent self. The zombie, then, is a perfect mascot for our times.

The Jeezinator

A pair of hardened road warriors discover that "gentle Jesus meek and mild" was actually a fucking badass.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Nice Try, Morons

In the latest evidence yet that Islamic extremists are the stupidest enemies civilization has ever faced, a "homegrown" terrorist cell got busted trying to blow up Jewish stuff in New York---because of Afghanistan.  Or something.

The four Americans implicated in the plot became a target of FBI investigation last year, when undercover agents convinced these geniuses that they were climbing some sort of jihadist social ladder instead of walking into the most epic candid camera prank ever pulled. Surprise! The feds have a bunch of video featuring the would-be masterminds explaining their intentions and operational plans. They were supplied with bogus explosives and monitored continuously until they attempted to plant the devices, at which time authorities moved in.

One of the biggest post-9/11 mysteries has been why there have been no large-scale, domestic follow-up attacks. Some are content to believe that it's because "Bush kept us safe", and worry that things will change now that Obama won't be pulling people's fingernails off. I have a different theory: They are idiots. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It All Spends the Same

With plenty of rage on Main Street over the sort of exotic financial doohickeys dreamed up by Wall Street money managers that put much of the froth into the housing and trade bubbles, a few jeers are hardly out of place when video game junkies and their enablers start talking about trading "virtual" (read: fake) currency as if it corresponds to something of actual value.

Here is the guy who established the first open market for this type of commodity, making the case for his opposition in 2004:

"What I love the most, and the idea that gives me chills, is that I am buying nothing, and then selling nothing, for a profit. [H]ere I am, no virtual avatar running around and no virtual real estate, just skimming money off the top."
Somebody get this man a hedge fund! Of course, his Gaming Open Market venture didn't see the end of 2005. It wasn't for lack of interest. The vibrant exchange this fellow and his partner founded was deemed a runaway success at the time by people who gave a shit. In the end, it just didn't prove possible (or profitable) to control the risk of fraud and wild inflationary cycles which were endemic to the enterprise.

But the stuff isn't going away. Applications and controls for virtual currency will continue to develop. The initial conceptual problem of what exactly this liquid, purely digital medium of exchange represents can be easily overcome by recognizing how naturally we think of common bank notes as having intrinsic value. There was a time not so long ago when trying to pass a wad of paper in return for, say, produce or livestock would see that paper rolled up and crammed in your ass. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Do not stab that guy in the chest for selling your imaginary sword.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Abortion's Deep Bench

So David Souter is going to leave the Supreme Court and steal away to a quiet life in rural New Hampshire. Apparently satisfied that none of his colleagues would be making their exits either feet-first or otherwise in the very near future, the Justice has chosen his moment---and given Barack Obama a golden opportunity to piss off millions of women if he does not choose a gyno-American to fill the empty seat.

Identity politics typically surround any sort of high-level appointment, but in the case of our nation's highest court, the reproductive rights lobby pulls out all the stops. Although virtually no sign of any legitimate threat to the foundation of federal abortion law seems to appear anywhere on the horizon, groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood operate as if not a single woman can ever really be safe until there is a Supreme Court consisting entirely of nine progressive civil rights attorneys, all female, and preferably each an abortion doctor.

Chromosomal fetishists on the pro-life fringe ride the issue just as hard, but the gender of an appointee is far less important than judicial temperament, and the likelihood that if push came to shove, a prospective jurist would overturn Roe v Wade. Of course, there are conservatives who accept Roe as legal precedent, just as there are liberals who support abortion rights but think it was badly decided. The issue is more complex than absolutists on either side would have you believe.

A brand new Gallup poll shows that a clear majority of Americans favor abortion to be "legal under certain circumstances" (my emphasis). This accord settling around a moderate position has been remarkably stable ever since the agency started keeping track of figures in the mid-Nineties. For all of the money spent trying to recruit foot soldiers into a cosmic battle either against phallo-centric, patriarchal villains on one side, or godless, hellbound heathens on the other, most Americans appear able to appreciate that there is a great deal of moral reasoning to be hashed out with respect to reproductive rights, and the fate of the unborn.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

You're Not Fired!

When Carrie Prejean told famously fruity blogger Perez Hilton that she supports ghettoizing gay monogamy because "that's how [she] was raised", the 21-year-old beauty contestant became an overnight hero of the "opposite marriage" movement. Hilton, who traffics in celebrity gossip, did his own side no favors when he indecorously described the Miss USA runner-up and fellow Californian as "a stupid bitch".

Where in the hell anybody got the idea that beauty pageants---where women are paraded around like swine at a county fair---that these events might be an effective mouthpiece for the progressive agenda, I can't begin to understand. Hilton, whose real name is Mario Armando Lavandeira, boasts that it was his own controversial question from the judges panel which cost Miss California the national crown.

The ensuing publicity nearly stripped her of the state title.

No sooner had conservative talking heads coronated her Miss Heartland Values 2009 than a batch of topless photos materialized that gave organizers of the state competition an excuse to punish Prejean in part for her vocal opposition to gay marriage. Nobody should take the word salad that passes for extemporaneous speech at these events seriously. Giving a forthright answer to a difficult question should probably not have denied her the win. At the same time, pageant officials were not about to sit on their hands as paleo-conservative handlers tried turning their titleholder into Joe the Plumber with a vagina.

So in waddles Donald Trump, who owns the circuit, with his Solomonic compromise: Ms. Prejean would go on about the business of milking her newfound notoriety for all that it's worth, and everybody else would shut the fuck up about it. The photos weren't that bad in light of the fact that you can easily find racier fare in the grocery checkout line. Or as The Donald put it (several times), This is the 21st Century.

And so it is.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Alpha, Beta, Google

Later this May, a new software tool becomes available to the public at  If the wildest dreams of computer scientist and creator Stephen Wolfram come true, then his "computational knowledge engine" will rival the all-powerful Google as a place for people to find information on the internets.

The strength of Google at its inception was then and has since been the power of its patented pageranking system to obtain historically relevant results for search queries based on how many times a page has been linked by other websites, representing a "vote" for its content.  This proves orders of magintude more useful than simply scanning for documents in which a keyword or words appear most often.

Wolfram Alpha promises to distill values from user input down to an even finer scale, incorporating natural language software to catch out useful, correct and comprehensive replies to specific queries.  Alpha has been hailed as everything from "the next Google" to the next "next Google" to join the ranks of overhyped search competitors.  A great first look can be found at Danny Sullivan's search engine land.

Wolfram Alpha wasn't designed to make Google obsolete.  It's just one more step toward a more intelligent web.  If it does what other successful information systems have done---and that is to reduce the distance between meta-information and ourselves---then it is one more step toward a more intelligent us.

Friday, May 1, 2009

You've Been HADD

Religion is one of the halmarks of our species. For all of recorded history, religious behavior has been a part of the human condition, regardless of geography or culture. Children, without prompting, are apt to conjure up spirit worlds all their own, bearing out Voltaire's famous prediction that even if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

Which is plenty of examination into the nuts and bolts of religion for many of the religious among us, thank you very much. The explanation for this apparent hard-wiring is perfectly obvious to them: we are programmed by The Almighty Creator for a relationship with Heavenly Father.

So it's all very well and good to co-opt the language of science where it can be seen to edify supernatural claims. It's another thing when researchers go digging around in the biological underpinnings of religious experience with the aim to bring it down to earth.

But that's just what cognitive scientists are trying to do. Whether pinning orders of belief to particular brain states or identifying universal, systemic traits of religion and the cognitive devices to which they minister, experimentalists in the fields of neuroscience and behavioral study shed light on where religion may have come from, and why it persists.

One reason is that each of us comes equipped with what is called a hyperactive agency detection device (HADD). Anywhere in our environment that there is the first sign of causality, agency is presumed out of hand. That rustle in the bushes could be a predator, or the wind. False positives are a small price to pay for being able to quickly anticipate intentions that may pose a threat. So we let our imaginations run wild. Better safe than sorry.

A similar note of caution has been sounded by secular oppenents of religious research that is empirically based.  What if people
need religion, they warn, in order to be good, or to find any purpose in living at all?  Gallup polls have shown that countries where respondents claimed higher religious devotion tended to exhibit lower suicide rates, according to World Health Organization estimates.  Robbing the faithful of their illusions could rend the very fabric of society.  Better safe than sorry.

I happen to think the what if question is worth asking.  It's no use plunging forward blindly into a post-religious epoch.  Like it or not, a natural theory of religion is upon us and it's perfectly prudent to work out the implications of that as best we can.  If indeed religion initially flourished as a sort of moral bootstrapping trick, and vast numbers of people would cease being "good" without it, then that would be information worth having.

But it wouldn't be cause for despair.  There will still be a need for individuals to measure the moral character and fidelity of their fellows. Solutions have a way of presenting themselves just as they become necessary. As the belief in a judging God continues to decline in our post-industrial, information-based society, perhaps it is no coincidence that the technology driving social networking pushes people into realms of increasing, self-imposed cross-accountability.  Are you going to rob that bank, knowing that it could be all over Facebook tomorrow?

Better safe than sorry.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Human Dominance in Jeopardy

In 1997 (the same year, incidentally, in which the Terminator series projected that mankind would be wiped out by artificially intelligent machines), reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov met his match in IBM's Deep Blue.  The supercomputer beat him in six games, with two wins, a loss, and three draws.  Citing unexpected flashes of brilliance from his opponent, Kasparov accused IBM of cheating.  The pride of man, it seems, is not so easily beaten.

But chess is a game of finite proportions.  Raw computing power was bound to outpace the best efforts of human beings eventually.   Kasparov just happened to be the unfortunate bastard who was around at the time to prove it.  And yet, simulated virtuosity at chess is nothing compared to the pattern recognition feats of ordinary people doing ordinary things everyday, making everyday, ordinary distinctions.

IBM intends to encroach on that territory with its new system, "Watson", which is being prepared to compete against human contestants on the popular television quiz show, Jeopardy!  The show's format offers unique challenges for programmers to overcome, with its often obscure trivia categories wrapped up in riddles and puns.  Watson will be operating entirely on its own internal memory, and have less than a second to provide correct responses at least 85% of the time.

Good luck with that.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Speaking of Defection

Senator Alrlen Specter, who never fails to make me think of Casper the Friendly Ghost, nor rankle the sensibilities of his died-in-the-wool, red state Republican colleagues, has rocked the Washington establishment with news that he is defecting to the evil Deceptocrats, giving the opposition a filibuster-proof majority of 60 seats, including Minnesota's Al Franken.  The Republicanoids are livid.  Here's party chairman Michael Steele calling for blood:

Let's be honest: Senator Specter didn't leave the GOP based on principles of any kind. He left to further his personal political interests because he knew that he was going to lose a Republican primary due to his left-wing voting record. Republicans look forward to beating Senator Specter in 2010, assuming the Democrats don't do it first.
This means nothing less than Arlen Specter is unprincipled.  The alternative is that the Republican party has drifted outside of the mainstream.  So, to be very clear, according to the official party line, Arlen Specter has no principles because running on his record as a Republican would have placed him out of favor with primary voters in his state.  Rather than switch parties, Mr. Steele seems to suggest, the principled thing would have been to abandon his true policy positions strictly out of party fealty. Well.

Joe Lieberman defected from the Democratic party in 2006 to run as an Independent against a well-funded challenger from within his own party who made hay over the Connecticuit Senator's unswerving support for the war in Iraq.  Democrats were calling for blood.  If Joe Lieberman was able to secure re-election with suppport from the radioactive George W Bush, then Arlen Specter is certainly able to do it with the blessing of Barack Obama, as reports of White House support followed (but did not facilitate) the Senator's announcement.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Problem With Democrats

According to Jonathan Chait, in a piece titled "Why Democrats Can't Govern", the problem with Democrats is... Democrats. They're too independent minded, he argues in the recent New Republic, and it's just these flights of independent fancy that cause Democrats to defect when a Republican would be more likely to take one for the team.

A few Republicans no doubt felt some qualms about supporting Bush's regressive, extreme pro-business agenda, but their most influential donors and constituents pushed them in the direction of partisan unity. Those same forces encourage Democrats to defect. That's why Ben Nelson is fighting student-loan reform, coal-and oil-state Democrats are insisting that cap-and-trade legislation be subject to a filibuster, and Democrats everywhere are fretting about reducing tax deductions for the highest-earning 1 percent of the population.
In other words, if the most powerful lobby in Washington DC was the Proletariat instead of Big Business, Democrats would be working together like a well-oiled machine. So when the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee stalls the president's budget because he wants federal payments to continue going to farmers in his state that gross over a half a million dollars, it's an aberration, a departure from the party line, which is otherwise scrupulously reform-minded.

So says Jonathan Chait.

Creationism 1, Evolution 0

A plucky university student takes on the Darwinist establishment in this Chick classic. Sure, you may be aware that evolution is a fraud perpetrated by the devil, but did you also know that it's Jesus holding the atoms together? (Seriously.)

Coquimus, Ergo Sumus

Richard Wrangham is a British anthropologist and primatologist who has been teaching at Harvard for 20 years. His new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, which comes out in May, makes a compelling case that the way to humanity was through the stomach. Wrangham noticed that chimpanzees, for instance, can range all day and find little of nutritional value. Indeed, much of their waking lives are spent chewing up really shitty food.

But once our ancestors got hold of fire, and cooked foods as a staple of their diet, less energy spent digesting made room for bigger brains, smaller teeth and guts, and the ultimate rise of the lean, striding animal that replaced chimp-like austrolopithicines. Wrangham evokes the image of communal cooking fires as centers of social development. It puts a whole new poignancy into telling tales around the campfire.

Another theory, the "running man" model---which has been treated on this page---also relies on nutrition as a key element, and finds no rival here. The two, in fact, could be viewed as complimentary. Wrangham's theory even purports to make a prediction of sorts. In order for his theory to stand, use of fire would have to stretch back nearly two million years, well beyond even the most remote archaeological estimates. Of sites that demonstrate earlier use, Wrangham says, "We'll get them."

I tend to think of language and art as early human technologies. Excellent theoretical modeling has been done to show how these innovations were not incidental but key to our evolution. The mastery of fire and developmental doors opened by cooking round the picture out nicely.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Freddie Mac CFO Checks Out

No "glimmers of hope" for this guy.  David Kellerman, who was the acting Chief Financial Officer for troubled lending giant Freddie Mac, has turned up dead in his suburban home.  His wife discovered the corpse of her late husband and made a call to authorities early this morning.  The death is being reported as a suicide.  Few additional details are being released at this time.  It is unclear whether the couple's five-year-old daughter was involved in the discovery of her deceased father's body.

Speculation surrounds the motive for Mr. Kellerman's apparent suicide, but I'm going to take a wild guess and say the fellow didn't want to be alive anymore.  The handsome, young executive took over the top post at Freddie back in September, assuming control of the company's financials. Recent filings have disclosed that the Justice Department, among other agencies, has placed scrutiny on accounting practices for which Mr. Kellerman has been responsible since even before his promotion last fall, which is being played like a death sentence.

Of course all kinds of people are pissed that Kellerman had approved millions in bonuses to be paid over the next couple of years to ensure that the same geniuses who brought us the current housing mess will be around to clean it up.  Perhaps the social pressure of such an unpopular position as much as any criminal liability explains what happened last night.  Maybe his wife did it.  Maybe she's just such a bitch that he couldn't take it any longer.  

The point is we don't know, and it would be wise to avoid depicting this story as an economic one simply because it fits so neatly into the "sign of the times" narrative.  Better to wait for the TV movie.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

On Susan Boyle

Tens of millions have marveled at the emotional impact of a seven-minute clip from a British talent show featuring a frumpy spinster who nevertheless brings down the house with a stirring rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables.  Loads of speculation has been lavished on the subject of what so captivates audiences (American, especially) about this bit of video. Now, here is one more asshole's opinion.

I reject the suggestion that Ms. Boyle somehow carries a banner for legions of unremarkable and perhaps underestimated people everywhere who are held back only by the cruel whims of an elitist, image-obsessed society.  The most obvious reason is that the woman is clearly remarkable herself.  This was recognized at least as recently as a decade ago, when she recorded the jazz standard "Cry Me A River" for a charity album.  And where does this leave the truly unremarkable, in terms of who is fit to go viral and who isn't?  I don't like where this train of thought leads.  I do sympathize with the complaint that there is something very smug and self-congratulatory about reveling in the performer's victory as our own.

I am also unimpressed by the attitude that there is something counterfeit about the seamless orchestration of content in the short video so as to produce maximum tearjerking power. Whether it's the seeming serendipity of song choice or just that shit-eating grin on Simon Cowell's face as his latest creation hits her crescendo, indications are that the entire event was just as canned as any other "reality" TV product.  To which, says I, so fucking what?  I suppose for true authenticity, the Scottish vocalist should have come from an actual French ghetto.

I prefer to appreciate the performance for what it is: a tidy, little modern fable that pushes all the right buttons.

I Wrote This

I believe in transparency. I love that phrase, the truth will out. I like to think that it is so true.

But solid, verifiable evidence, powerful as it may be, does not make up the whole of the arsenal there is to wage war between reason and unreason, to divide objective reality from... misapprehension.

Just as sure as there is a bullshit detector, there is a way to slip past or disable it. Just as sure as there is the scientific method, there is the art of apologetics. The arms race ever escalates, giving rise to new forms of subterfuge and cunning---but the tally becomes only more lopsided.

It's just increasingly difficult these days for bad ideas to make a living. Systematic nonsense belief as we've become accustomed to it in the First World comprises really only those articles which have been fortunate enough to acquire a certain set of highly-specialized, adaptive tools to fend off corrosion by skeptical inquiry. They are not without an ally in the human race.

We are selfish about our beliefs. We cherish and keep them. This can only be natural. We are made of our convictions.

"If it wasn't for Wicca, I wouldn' t be the person I am today." -some Wicca idiot.
So we should expect to see these biases being exploited by other biases, and they in turn exploiting us. We should all pay attention to the pinch of embarrassment that is deserved whenever we find ourselves sending up great clouds of obfuscatory bullshit in defense of one poor, vulnerable proposition or another that just happens to have come under assault, after the fashion of a squid's inky getaway. Who is in charge here? The defender of the proposition, or the design features of that particular strain of proposition that has managed to lodge itself in the brain of an accommodating host?

It would be interesting to find out whether it is simply a better bargain to rationalize or justify a wrongly-held belief than to adjust or totally reprogram. I wouldn't be terribly surprised, but is it that much a pain in the ass to reconsider one's point of view? Let's hope not. There is every sign that new ways of consuming media make the problem worse, not better. The insulation appears only to have gotten thicker that surrounds the echo chambers on left and right. More information just seems to fuel a desire for people to reinforce what they already think.

But I do believe it is a winning battle for sense. The many long shadows of human history are shrinking, as under a swiftly rising sun. I do believe the morning comes. For my part, transparency. Mystery is overrated, or inflated rather. One finds that the less of it there is, the more rare and fulfilling what is left seems to be. Making known is the highest virtue. In that spirit, a few disclosures about my intentions with public correspondence, and a motto.

First, I make no claims to special knowledge. My highest educational achievement is a "Good Enough Diploma". I have a biography that reads like an accident report. You probably couldn't trust me with your dry cleaning. But I'm a pretty good observer of the scene, and I can do some things well. Observing the scene, for instance. Actually, it seems that is all I can do. That, and correspond about it. Being an amateur, I will attempt to adhere to a few guidelines.

As a general rule, when making a fact claim, such as, "I wrote this," hypertext links will be accompanied for the reader's convenience. In sourcing material, established, credible, and (as much as possible) neutral publications will be preferred. The distinction will be made between opinion and everything else. I make generalizations at my own peril.

An imperfect list, to be sure, and one which is open to revision. I leave it to the very progressive words of our sixteenth president:

"I shall try to correct errors when shown to be error, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views."
Welcome to the Nose Pin Zone.

The Dog Ate My Homework

I haven't issued any updates for the last week on account of my life crashing down around me. 

End of excuse.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Across the Multiverse

Seed Magazine, IMHO the best popular science magazine in print today, explores the promise of the multiverse theory as a new way for thoughtful people to talk past one another.

The garden-variety understanding of the concept emerged out of the past two decades as an answer to the "fine tuning" argument, which holds that a universe with us in it is too improbable to have happened by accident (i.e., there must have been a designer).

Not so fast, say naturalists, If there is a problem with the odds, simply increase the number of universes. The theory follows that ours is just one tiny bubble in a great froth of universes coming into and going out of existence all the time, each with its own unique set of constants---some hospitable to life as we know it, others not so much. We happen to inhabit the sort that makes things like us. We know this is true because here we are.

But with science leaving very few places these days in which for The Designer to hide, whether it's in supposedly irreducible structures at the cellular level, or within the great fog of quantum weirdness, the plastic properties of the multiverse proposition are beginning to attract some favorable attention from theologians.

And so the God meme stumbles its way across the path of least resistance.

Here at last is a free range of the imagination where The One Who Is Greater Than That Which Can Be Conceived may finally flourish into, well, whatever we want. When it comes to the possibility of a multiverse, one feature of particular interest to professional and amateur theologians alike is a lack of falsifiability. There is no limit the extent to which brains can generate a never-ending froth of multiverse scenarios all their own. In fact it comes quite naturally to us, as neuroscientists are coming to see in their study of how we make what we call decisions. It turns out that the task of our massive prefrontal cortex in regulating behavior is not to simply issue orders from Central Command, but to imagine all of the possible outcomes at once and select for the ones we deem best suited to our advantage.

We are all multiverse theorists.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Scrambled Eggs

The Washington Times reports that the First Family have yet to settle on a church ahead of this upcoming weekend's Easter holiday. According to sources, a systematic effort is under way to divine just which congregation will be hosting the couple and their two young girls this Sunday when the president sets out to prove that he is not a raving, godless psychopath, but rather an upright figure of the highest moral fiber, with a healthy respect for certain forms of human sacrifice.

While a frighteningly ample percentage of Americans retain the idiotic belief that Obama is a Muslim, a similar portion connect the president's religious practice to the ridiculous antics of Jeremiah Wright. So now among considerations of ministry, a good Sunday school, and other factors a person would not be embarrassed to acknowledge, there is the question of whether there are enough or too many black people in the seats. You can bet that some poor West Wing staffer is bleeding out of his eyes right now watching endless hours of sermon video, sniffing out the slightest trace of controversy.

The president has not attended a church service since the week of his Inauguration, and it has been over a year since the Obamas have had a church to call their own. The press would have his balls if he tried to do something unorthodox (and prudent) like observe the holiday in a private service from inside the White House. But the president will not rob them of their big set piece, and the public will not be spared the expense of a hundreds-strong security entourage being mobilized to deliver the president into a wooden seat for an hour instead of doing any work.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Glenn Beck Must Give Up Now

These guys have so totally got his number. If I were Glenn Beck, this video would give me nightmares. I would pound an entire bottle of cough syrup after watching it if I were Glenn Beck. This video threatens the very existence of Glenn Beck as an actual thing.

America's Pirate Ninjas

A hardy group of American sailors has reportedly wrested control of a pirated vessel back from its captors. Details of the counterstrike at this stage are unclear, but it's safe to assume that at least some of the twenty crew members are, in fact, ninjas.

Piracy off the coast of Somalia continues in spite of heavy patrolling in that area. There is talk in some quarters of buying off the pirate networks with bribes, a return to the "tribute payments" collected by the Barbary states before Thomas Jefferson said, "Fuck that, we're going to kick your ass instead."

Thomas Jefferson: America's first pirate ninja.

Why Catholics Are Going to Hell

Somebody needs to warn Mel Gibson!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Good Luck, Huck

Will Mike Huckabee run for president in 2012? Does he take himself that seriously? Or, did he accomplish his true goal of keeping that muppet face on TV when Fox News booked him his own show? Perhaps he thinks that his talk show provides a good platform for his personality and views. Maybe he doesn't worry that working in the same milieu as Tyra Banks will diminish his stature. After all, Ronald Reagan was an actor.

Mr. Huckabee, I knew Ronald Reagan. I saw Ronald Reagan on television. You, sir, are no Ronald Reagan.

How Stupid Do We Look?

The President of the United States thinks he can put mankind on the path to a world without nuclear weapons. Perhaps not in his lifetime, he says. Perhaps. But someday.

"I'm not naive," said the president, in what must have been the least accurate statement since I am not a carbon-based life form. He went on to describe how those with stockpiles would move toward multi-lateral disarmament while international cooperation would be strengthened to prevent the spread of new and existing technology.

The United States, of course, conveniently reserves the right to maintain a kick-ass deterrent capability until this nuke-free utopia makes good. And as long as there is a nuclear threat from Iran, we're going to keep that missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, thank you very much.

So it would appear to be an exercise in rhetorical excess, all this talk of total victory. The goal would be absolute non-proliferation. No sane person actually believes this can be achieved fully. One might as well try to rid the world of rainy days or backhanded compliments. Umbrellas can be distributed, early-intervention courses in etiquette conducted, but the fact will remain that rain falls and people are dicks.

Segway, GM Join Forces

General Motors and Segway, the company which revolutionized travel for mall cops, have teamed up to meet the public demand for new vehicles of marginal use. GM hopes to get its product into Ed Begley Jr.'s driveway by 2012, provided that GM exists in 2012. A prototype of the new two-wheeled transport premiered in New York today. It has a top speed of 35mph, and a range of about 35 miles. Do the math.

More impressive are plans to incorporate vehicle-to-vehicle technology which would prevent collisions. Pretty cool. Designers are also trying to work out how to enable the wee buggy to navigate its own way through the streets. Even cooler.

Obama Goes to Baghdad

The Commander in Chief showed up in Baghdad to praise the successful efforts of US troops and to kickstart his exit strategy: declare victory, then get the fuck out. But the US president remains prudent when it comes to staging the withdrawal. This follows from his steady performance in this respect as a candidate, which put moderates at ease and distinguished him from rivals within his own party whose timetable pissing contests churned out wildly irresponsible figures like Dennis Kucinich's 90 days. (Presumably Shirley McClane's UFOs would have played some pivotal role in the extraction.)

The president's timetable would see most US troops out by the end of 2010. Just as long as nothing goes wrong.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Israel Talks Peace Talk Talk

Israel's new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been sending signals that he seeks peace with the Arab world. He has accomplished this by saying I seek peace with the Arab world several times on record. That's about how far it goes. He has not said the magic words supporters of a negotiated settlement have been longing to hear: Palestinian state.

The official postition of Netanyahu's hardline Likud party is that Israel is not bound to recent accords which mandate the creation of a Palestinian state. Senior aids have let slip that the Prime Minister might soften this stance ahead of a planned trip to Washington DC. If so, it would surprise the shit out of a lot of people.

His chief diplomat is a man who has called for the nation's one and a half million Palestinians to swear an oath of loyalty to the Jewish State. Tony Blair is all po-faced about the whole situation, and lead Palestinian negotiators are broadcasting to the White House that the new Israeli government is not a partner in the peace process. These are very low expectations which Netanyahu can easily beat.

Then focus can return to the question of whether or not a Palestinian state can even stand, the sole industry of which is abject misery.

Chump Change for Quake-Torn Italy

The United States Embassy has pledged $50,000 in immediate aid following a devastating earthquake near the central town of L'Aquila. The sum, which by definition is better than nothing, precedes any additional support that Americans may find under their couch cushions.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Obama Lowers Sights on Fuel Economy

Can it be? Did our environmental hawk of a president just propose lower fuel economy standards for 2011 than the villain Bush, whose rapacious desire to destroy all that is good and green pales only beside that of The Dark Lord Sauron? Well, yes, that is exactly what happened. The Bush recommendations of 2008 were indeed a slightly more ambitious target, but they were put on the shelf until the scale of the auto bailout could be established.

Apparently, the administration is either making a concession to automakers, or else a quantitative judgement about their capabilities. Trade-offs like these are the wages of politics, the art of the possible. One of the most encouraging signs from the president's 2008 campaign was the candidate's willingness to put supporters on notice that even in the best of all possible worlds, tough decisions would have to be made that might not correspond precisely with the fondest wishes of every single last individual, or interest group.

But environmentalists will have none of it. The more or less blindlingly minute deviation from an otherwise uncompromising agenda represents a jillion tons of carbon waste belching into the atmosphere. Perhaps sensing that cap and trade will be one of the first casualties in the battle for sweeping health care reform, the green lobby is apoplectic. Where is the president's committment to reducing emissions? Something has got to put restraints on how much fuel is getting burned.

Exactly. Put that together with the removal of key revenue items from the president's budget by Congressional gatekeepers, and you are left with one thing.

Say hello to gas tax.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

It's Official

Video games are way healthy.

We've already seen that gaming can greatly improve visual acuity and make better surgeons. It can even erase the significant spatial awareness gap between men and women. Now a British study has demonstrated that fast-paced shooter games like Call of Duty make notable contributions to contrast sensitivity (in this case, differentiating shades of gray). This is important because the basic function is linked to night vision, among the first faculties to decline as individuals get older.

The day might come when elderly drivers are forced to endure a grueling Gears of War marathon in order to get decent car insurance. And I will be there to laugh my ass off.

What Are We Wrong About?

A few years ago science writer Steven Johnson wrote a book called Everything Bad is Good for You. In it, he challenges the conventional wisdom that certain forms of flashy, mass appeal media pose a public health risk. Instead, he argues, video games represent powerful problem-solving simulators and sleazy reality TV shows some kind of elaborate sociological experiment. He makes a good case.

In the same spirit, Slate's Jacob Weisberg has queued up a few sacred cows for slaughter as well, or at least a critical review. Nuclear proliferation? Not so bad, maybe. Global warming? Chill out. China the next ultra-superpower? Yeah, no.

Marathon Man

Seed Magazine considers the theory that endurance running is an adaptive trait hailing back to the period between australopithecines and modern humans. At some point around 2 million years ago, plodding, plant-munching Lucy developed into a fleet-footed bipedal locomotor, with springy tendons, powerful buttocks, and a mechanism for holding our head in place during rapid movement.

In other words, our ancestors was some runnin' fools.

New morphological evidence shows that shorter toes are also ideally suited to swift, long-distance trekking. Shorter toes, like those of Homo erectus, appear in the fossil record at about the same time as smaller, flesh-cutting teeth. Somehow, our predecessors had evolved to support a high-calorie diet of meat and fruits many, many thousands of years before the first spear tip, or bow and arrow. The theory suggests that we simply ran our prey to death, which is not so difficult, apparently.

“Running an animal to heatstroke is something that most humans can do, and that other animals can’t,” says [anthropologist Daniel] Lieberman. “It’s a compelling explanation for why these capabilities evolved, and frankly, nobody’s come up with a better idea yet.”
Man, I can't even run to catch the bus. Shit. I'm not sure this theory is where it's at.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Let the Sun Shine In

The president is taking limited steps to loosen travel restrictions to the Communist paradise island of Cuba. Cuban girls everywhere shake their shapely posteriors in celebration.

Shitting Bull

Ward Churchill, caucasian and former ethnic studies professor, strode from the Denver County Courthouse yesterday a vindicated man. He had brought suit against his former employer for wrongful termination. Churchill, who enjoyed tenured status in spite of his thin academic credentials, claimed that the university forced him out in response to significant public outcry over an essay he had written making the case that certain victims of the World Trade Center collapse had it coming to them.

The university maintains that Mr. Churchill, who is of decidedly European descent, was fired due to his demonstrated history of fraud and questionable scholarly output. The jury didn't see it that way, and ironies abound how that came to be.

Churchill was granted tenure by the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1991, just one year after being instated as an associate professor and a full five years before the end of the typical six-year probationary period. The privilege came at the height of a political correctness mania that has yet to release its stranglehold on academia. So Churchill was granted his position in large part because of his self-identification as some kind of Native American.

I repeat: Ward Churchill is a white man. White.

In 1994, the school refused to act on complaints that Churchill had fabricated his Indian heritage. Race and ethnicity were "self-proving", they said. In other words, if a cynical white man wants to make a career out of further exploiting a protected minority by posing as one of their number, then that is his business. Besides, the university said with a straight face, they don't hire on the basis of ethnicity. For the ethnic studies department. A guy who'd worked as affirmative action officer for a dozen years. On the strength of scholarship propelled by a bogus personal narrative. Well.

It would appear that the only "chickens" that "came home to roost" as a result of Churchill's ugly 2001 screed were the university's, for failing to carry out their due diligence in the first place. By the time administrators had carried out a proper investigation, and reached the appropriate conclusion to fire him, the wily professor had already established that the only reason he faced scrutiny was the unpopularity of his remarks. The jury agreed.

At trial, Churchill insisted that it wasn't about the money. Jurists took him at his word. He was awarded one dollar.

It's not so bad. I hear McDonalds has added more items to their Dollar Menu.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Out of This World Advertising

In the grip of a funding shortfall, British astronomers at Leicester University have accepted an undisclosed donation from the Doritos corn chip company in exchange for blasting a 30-second promotional spot 42 light years into space at a star in the Ursa Major constellation. The star is thought to be similar enough to our sun to possibly harbor life.

Sending signals into space is nothing new. It happens all the time indiscriminately. Radio, television, and other signals are constantly spilling into outer space, but they are diffuse over large distances. The Doritos stunt, scheduled for interstellar broadcast this June, more closely resembles the work of NASA's Deep Space Network, which beamed the Beatles's Across the Universe directly to the North Star last year.

The Doritos ad that will be representing mankind on our behalf was culled from a crop of amateur YouTube videos as part of Doritos's "You Make It" challenge. For whatever buzz Frito Lay achieves with their ridiculous publicity gag, it will pale in comparison to the first lunar ad, when branding is projected directly onto the surface of the moon. With all that undercapitalized real estate up there, you've got to believe it's only a matter of time.

What Really Happened to the Dinosaurs

Creation "science" takes on evolutionist dogma.

WARNING! Do not read unless you are ready for your precious, Darwinist house of cards to come crashing down.

Big Red

President Barack Obama met Chinese President Hu Jintao for the first time Wednesday, prior to the pivotal G20 summit commencing today. Hu reportedly made reassuring noises to the US president about Chinese resolve to close the massive trade gap between the two countries.

"Ching chong bing bong," the Chinese president told Obama, "Ringa ringa ding dong."

For his part, the US president said his government will do what is possible to prevent the dollar from falling below the value of a single sheet of toilet paper.

"Sunshine, butterflies, baby smell," Mr. Obama detailed, "Puffy clouds and rainbows. Strawberry milkshake."

The two then shared an eggroll.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Look! A Gift for Horsemouth!

All this bellyaching about the trinkets exchanged between the White House and foreign dignitaries strikes me as silly. The president is said to have given British PM Gordon Brown a box set of American films on DVD which are not even compatible with UK disc players. Where, oh, where is the Prime Minister of England ever going to find a Region 1 DVD player? I suppose the president expects Brown to fly to the US every time he wants to see Raging Bull. What a lout!

Of course, it's not the usefulness of the gift that raises hackles, it's the perceived frivolity. The Queen just got an iPod, when reports are that she already has one. What's not being honored here, we are told, is the special relationship between our two countries. Maybe Germany deserves DVDs. They could use an extra copy of Schindler's List. The Queen should get a device which emits a high-frequency signal directing every quail within a fitfy-mile radius to fly into a large sack.

I want to suggest that modest gifts make a defensible statement about austerity in lean times. I'm also interested in what it says about how we commune more and more digitally as we move into the 21st Century. But if the White House sends Hugo Chavez a solid gold bust, I'm going to have my doubts.

Death, Blood, and Glory

Bibi Netanyahu, just hours before taking the helm of Israel's new coaltion government, told The Atlantic magazine that Israel might put a military stop to nuke production in Iran if the United States isn't going to do anything about it. Echoing my chief concern, the new prime minister said:

“You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs.”

No, Bibi, I sure as hell do not want that. That is the last thing I want. It is an actual danger. A mushroom cloud over Jerusalem courtesy of The Islamic Republic of Iran? Not so much. For once the religious miasma that hangs over the region sheds a bit of grace: although sacred to Jews and Christians, Jerusalem is far too holy a city in Islam also for any Muslim front to make it a glass parking lot, as one of Andrew Sullivan's readers points out. But Netanyahu, as if his remarks were not chilling enough already, goes on to say:

"When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran...

"Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they’ll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?”

The prime minister sends a message to the president that he's going to be a hardass, whatever accomodationist kabuki the White House is committed to carrying out. I say let the Israelis take care of business. It was hardly the end for US/Israeli relations when Ronald Reagan condemned our ally's action against nuclear facilities in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. It would hardly be the death knell if this president parted company on virtually the same issue.