Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Is Art?

Denis Dutton rubs a lot of aesthetes the wrong way with his new book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Dutton invites readers to entertain the notion that art is shaped by aesthetic preferences buried deep in our evolutionary past. Postmodern bullshit artists worry that good science about what humans like and why might jeopardize their racket as the self-appointed arbiters of taste.

"Why, then, should we find art museums everywhere packed with modern art? Whence the profound sense of the artist's triumph in the presence of Duchamp's Fountain, if what we really want are quotidian depictions of bucolic landscapes reminiscent of our Pleistocene-era origins, as philistines like Dutton contend?"
It should be remembered that the vagaries of modern art are lost on the average art consumer. And it should come as no surprise also that the status of being able to truly appreciate the counterintuitive, often deliberately obscure ins and outs of modern art is one that signals an elite, cultivated, and altogether acquired sensibility, or skill. Art snobs even have a name for the art that's for "everybody else." Kitsch.

Dutton courts the worst from his critics when he speculates that Schoenberg's atonal symphonies, which any uncultured swine at the local WalMart would take for random noise, won't stand the test of time because the unconventional works don't jive with our inner caveman. Schoenberg fans get the message that evolutionary theorists have implied they are all under some mass delusion. But I do not believe Dutton is trying to make the point that it's impossible to appreciate dissonant compositions, only that innate preferences over the long run will tend to deplete the population of individuals available to pass on the very distinct language and vocabulary required to appreciate it as intended. I don't detect an attempt to disqualify atonality as an art form.

In the face of Dutton's claim, an explanation for inscrutable modern forms is demanded, and deserved. This is precisely where the New Zealand scholar positions a strong word of caution against the traditional aesthetic approach. Rather than try to come up with a definition of art that encompasses the "hard cases" like Piss Christ, Dutton suggests that we first work our way backward through clearer, more established examples, using what we can learn about how art has stimulated and even shaped us throughout our evolutionary history to explain how more recent departures from the norm could have been given rise.

But there's considerable resistance to the idea that reverse-engineering art through deep time is a fruitful endeavor. Every well-reasoned reconstruction of the conditions in which certain cultural elements must have emerged is sure to be met with the darling accusation of being nothing more than a "Just So" story. This clever move alone is enough for many detractors to declare the matter closed. Skeptics of the evolutionary approach to aesthetics (or language) should ask themselves whether evidence abounds of a common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees, or does it not? We have no such fossil. We haven't the animal's genome, but we have human DNA, and chimp DNA, and the ability to extrapolate from the available data that such a creature almost certainly existed. Is this a "Just So" story?

Dutton illuminates the kind of research that might support testable hypotheses, including studies which seem to outline some kind of shared, aesthetic sensibility which transcends cultural boundaries. The task is to isolate what may have fixed those values. Impossible, comes the charge, any attempt to assign cultural predispositions universally meets with the problem of cross-contamination. Still, one is unlikely to find an educated person making this argument who is also willing to reject the science of heredity because horizontal transmission of viral strains could fudge the picture.

The rear guard of social science has nothing to fear from maximalists aimed at synthesizing multiple fields of study in order to yeild predictive models of human behavior. The hard won gains of anthropology and sociology become more vital than ever in this new consilience, so that researchers from outside the discipline don't have to reinvent the wheel.

[Edit: Steven Pinker stands by his "auditory cheesecake" remark. Although an enthusiastic supporter of consilience, whose own views about evolutionary psychology have changed over the years, he maintains his position that art is not adaptive.]

Incoherent Term Finally Abandoned

The Secretary of State acknowledged publicly that the administration has distanced itself from the "War on Terror" phrase coined by President Bush after the horrific attacks of September 11th. It was an improvement at least on the word crusade, which the former President, in perhaps the most profound gaffe ever made, once used to describe the effort of the United States to engage violent extremist elements who just happened to be reactionary Muslims.

But no one ever really figured out what a "War on Terror" is. What does that mean? Is it a war on being afraid? Is it a war against methods, or actors, or both? There does seems to be consensus, however, that whatever the meaning of the phrase itself, the brand had become associated with the worst excesses of the post-9/11 era, from Abu Graib to secret detention camps and authorized torture.

So we've scrapped it. The new terminology will be "Overseas Contingency Operations". It has a nice sort of round feeling to it, like I could just give it a big hug.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Hard Sell

While an alarming number of people the world over seem ready to write the obituary for capitalism, our President goes to the G20 summit Tuesday trying to re-brand America as the leader of the global economy. Look at what we're doing, he wants to say, Get behind us. We've put our house in order. We've totallly blown our wad trying to spend our way out of this crisis, and now we're asking foreign powers to do the same.

Signs are not good. In the wake of the nation's banking collapse, world markets have plunged. Germany, Europe's largest and most solvent economy, has already committed a tremendous share of its GDP to meet charter obligations to bailout struggling EU member states. The trouble for Germany is that they are beset by profligate members France and the United Kingdom on one side, and formerly communist Eastern Europe on the other. The pressure for a yet bigger budget to further redistribute wealth across the continent has Spanish finance minister Pedro Solbes joining German Chancellor Angela Merkel in saying fuck no to a British proposal for a "global New Deal".

Barack, it's time to turn on the charm, brother.


Christopher Hitchens chronicles the long, sad history of Creationism's pathetic assault on evolution, which was dealt another blow in Texas this week when the Board of Education retired a state science curriculum which compelled instructors to pretend that evolution theory is the equivalent of a pretty good guess---giving blinkered creationist clowns their opening to suggest an alternative theory: Goddidit.

Had the geniuses in the vanguard of evangelical Christianity's "culture war" actually succeeded in upholding the guidelines, Hitchens points out, it would only have set the table for some serious blowback. What proponents of "equal time" for creation stories may be missing is that people who care about good science education are beginning to rally behind proposals from people like materialist philosopher Dan Dennett that indeed equal time be given to as many of the thousands of available creation myths as you can cram into a textbook.

During the seminal Dover, Pa trial a few years ago, a marvelous new meme was born when previously published "creationist" propaganda was discovered to have been repurposed as an "intelligent design" manifesto. Buried within the text was a typo resulting from the sloppy replacement of the word "creationist" with the slightly more scientific "design proponent". So much for the claim that "intelligent design" is anything less than creationism in scientific garb. Lawyers on the prevailing side of the case were able to herald that they had discovered the missing link between creationism and intelligent design. Behold, the cdesign proponentist.

It may have been the low point for a once-prominent political lobby whose demographic base is in swift retreat. "Victories" like the one they sought in Texas would only hasten their decline.

I Love Science

It's been used to help breast cancer patients grow their boobies back. Now it's being made available to women with healthy breasts who want to make the world more pleasant for me to look at. Stem cells from excess fat are used to enrich yet more fat cells for a natural enhancement result. Heroes at the London Breast Institute will be conducting clinical trials this May, and it may not be long before the treatment is available to the wider public.

Japanese women have been able to get the same treatment for several years already. No complaints so far from Japanese men.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I Want One Right Now

Nikola Tesla, pioneer of wireless radio, took to his vocation with an artist's sensibility. Inspiration came to him in blinding flashes, literally. He shot for the stars and fell miserably short, dying alone in a New York hotel without a dime to his name, eclipsed in life by rivals like Thomas Edison whom Tesla felt were undeserving of acclaim.

With backing from Silicon Valley billionaires, and new green technologies that have Big Three automakers paying attention, California startup Tesla Motors stands a good chance to score a bit of a posthumous victory for their namesake, who could be considered the spiritual father of the company's high performance, pure-electric motor.

Pictured above are the Tesla Model S and Roadster. The sporty Roadster can reach 60mph in less than four seconds, and tops out at 125mph, for safety. It can run for 244 miles on a charge at a cost of pennies per mile. This is an $80,000 vehicle. The cheaper Model S, just unveiled for $50,000, gives up little on performance while offering the conveniences of a four-dour sedan. A $30,000 model code-named "Blue Star" is next off the assembly line.

You can get solar panels, too---for your home---so that the vehicle can effectively run 50 miles a day at no cost to the consumer. They also help to ensure that power grids don't take a shit when all the cars Tesla wants to put in driveways start sucking juice like OJ Simpson's cellmate.

Flabby Ford, which on Tesla's budget would be hard-pressed to produce a door handle, won't be left in the wilderness. They've got a pure-electric vehicle slated for 2011.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Finally, Prison Reform

It takes a bulldog like Virginia Senator Jim Webb to advocate for an overhaul of the criminal justice system without being stuck with the "soft on crime" label. A serious-minded effort is long overdue, and with the United States incarcerating a larger number of its own citizens than any other country, there is no better time than the present to tackle this issue. There is considerable resistance to any effort which might result in less misery for those behind bars because... well, they deserve it, right? Violent, anal rape is a punchline for many Americans, who forget that innocent people go to jail, too.

It's accepted that our nation's prisons be an amoral nightmare. Let them be a breeding ground for criminality, so long as the state makes sure the experience is unpleasant. It's punishment!

I happen to think that we can do better than that. We must. The punishment is a profound loss of freedom, not being cast into a years-long thug life boot camp. The process starts with honest dialogue about law enforcement priorities, and the laws which direct them. Then it moves to sentencing guidelines, and reclaiming a sense of proportion in that respect. As far as conditions in the prisons themselves, I look at this as an engineering problem.

Here, we have the most captive audience possible, and the means at our disposal to relentlessly counter-program against the various forms of pathology that landed them there in the first place. Some are probably hopeless cases, yes, but should we let those marginal figures control the fate of so many others? Now's our chance to bombard them with strategic information which might make inmates more resistant to the apparent short-term payoffs of adopting a soul-killing gang mentality. The technology will soon be available that would allow us to affordably broadcast a non-stop tide of video into every jail cell, constantly illustrating, educating, dramatizing. We can exploit their entertainment-starved minds in order to reduce their odds of recidivism. We could even reward them for internalizing lessons with family video chats, or even porn. Yes, porn. With constraints.

I don't see why we can't prohibit racial segregation in our prison populations either, if we took it upon ourselves to work out how it might be prevented. Perhaps that would make it hard on the guards. Hire more guards! And give administrators the tools to design and monitor integration initiatives. We have cameras mounted on street corners equipped with software that can differentiate between vehicle make and models, identify patterns of suspicious behavior, and even recognize license plate numbers, which can then be run against a warrant database to trigger action from law enforcement. I fail to see why the same ingenuity cannot be applied to the problem of inmate control.

We've grown up as a society in so many ways, but fossil traces of our pitchfork-wielding past remain. We no longer turn out to the public square for executions because it's the liveliest show in town, which was true not so very long ago. Instead, we've just turned a blind eye to the problems in our detention facilities, and let them fester. Why should we invest in those people? Because it's investment in crime prevention.

Or we could just send them all some soap-on-a-rope and call it a day.

State Department Seeking China Clout

The girl from (fill in Rustbelt hometown) wants a diplomatic third way for her State Department in dealings with China, a relationship which she describes as "the world's most important". Engagement with the burgeoning Communist superpower thus far has been dominated by a two-pronged military and economic approach led by the Defense and Treasury departments respectively. The military makes sure to stay on top of capabilities for sending China back to the Stone Age, while Treasury takes on most of the diplomatic burden, focused so much on commerce as that channel tends to be. So instead of Hillary Clinton wearing a funny hat and having her picture taken shaking hands, you get Timothy Geithner going out of his way to flatter a Chinese counterpart at his own expense, which he made a point of doing this week while considering the merits of a politically toxic proposal on changes to reserve currency.

But the State Department wants a piece of that action, and they're going to get it. Let's just hope there won't be too many cooks in the kitchen. Hillary's been a good role player in the Senate, when her own, ruthless ambition hasn't gotten in the way. If she can define her role her and be faithful to it, then all the better for US/China relations.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Nihilism of Russell Simmons

He's been called the CEO of hip-hop. He is certainly a shrewd businessman. Simmons never stands still. He's what they call a mogul. He's got his hands into everything. He's diversified. He's a pox on our society.

He doesn't have to be, and many of his charitable works are worthy in and of their own right. But as evidence mounts that the content of gangsta rap in particular does developing minds no favors, Simmons fiddles with pet causes while the ghetto burns. I suppose that as a black person is seven times more likely to be incarcerated in this country than a white one, we ought to take some solace in the fact that Russell Simmons follows a vegan diet. Suffer the little chickens.

For years the man has rolled out the same, tired excuse every time he's been challenged about the ABOMINABLE message his industry reinforces again and again. Well, he says, if not for these artists illustrating their struggle, young inner-city folks would have no voice at all. Please excuse me for saying that even if that were true, in that case they might be better off. Instead, a model for success is put forward promising that if you can sell enough crack, do a bit of time, and spit rhymes into a microphone about it, then you too can be ghettofabulous. Eric Deggans, over at the Huffington Post, puts it well:
Sooner or later, rap artists must learn how to preserve their creativity and vital spirit while chilling out on the more harmful messages. Once upon a time. gangsta rap opened the world's eyes to the desperae rhythms of impoverished neighborhoods the mainstream had forgotten; now it's a marketing tool that clocks millions for companies and artists which drench their product in violence and antisocial images.
Wherever Deggans expects this enlightenment to come from, it doesn't appear forthcoming from Simmons himself, who rather wraps himself up in a cloak of righteousness and keeps collecting stacks of money. Russell Simmons is fifty-two years old. A black man is President of the United States, for corn's sake. Maybe it's time to stop churning out this life-destroying poison and try being hip hop's Jiminy Cricket for a change.

Shitloads More to Afghanistan

Joe Biden may not consider thousands more American troops a full shitload, and I don't want to put words into his mouth, but it's certainly a shitload more than he was calling for according to Bill Gertz today, reporting from Inside the Ring. The Vice-President and Hillary's number two in the State Department weren't looking to scale up the effort in Afghanistan to any significant degree at all, it appears, beyond keeping it from becoming an al Qaida Magic Kingdom.

Although Mr. Obama made assurances he would place uncommonly high stock in Joe Biden's foreign policy advice, that did not appear to persuade him away from an ambitious nation-building agenda in this, his first deployment of military servicemen. The President must have been convinced by Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to the region, and David Petraeus, architect of restorative feats in Iraq, that a comprehensive, rehabilitative approach to what is widely considered Hell on Earth is preferable to periodic, low-maintenance policing. In other words, exactly the same argument that won over President Bush with respect to Iraq---unless you believe he went there for the earl, in which case take your head out of your ass.

Observers of the scene will remember how Democrats, including all of those mentioned above, made a lot of noise over the last several years about how Afghanistan was the good war, and if only Democrats were in power, we'd pull out of Iraq and "surge" in Afghanistan (because wild-eyed critics of the project in Mesopotamia are no slouches in the War on Terror since they'd gladly blow tons more goat herders into smithereens if only they got the chance). Well, now Iraq is stabilizing, but still requiring our commitment, Afghanistan truly does look like it's backsliding, and we're out of fucking money. So we're doubling down on our attempt to break a thousands of years long series of failures to tame a region which has been called, with good reason, "the graveyard of empires".

This is now Barack Obama's war.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Chick Tracts!

This will be a regular feature. All the credit goes to Chick Publications, who according to their website have been frightening child and childish minds alike for over forty years with cartoon tales of fire and brimstone. It's a wonderful window into how a not small and certainly evangelistic group of Christians choose to frame their struggle against the depredations of secularism, witchcraft, and evolution theory---any of which, by the way, will land you in hell. You'll be in good company, though, as every other sucker unlucky enough to find themselves outside the Southern Baptist Convention will be there, too, and then some.

Click here to see how it turns out for poor Tyler. Stay tuned for a look at what happened to the dinosaurs and what the Mormons are really all about.


Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told reporters at a Council on Foreign Relations event today that the United States is "open" to suggestions from China's top banker that nations take steps to extend the special drawing rights of the International Monetary Fund toward a new global reserve currency. The dollar tracked down by less than two percent before picking back up by the time the Secretary clarified the government's position, several minutes later. Bottom line: the adminstration wants to send very clear signals that a strong dollar is in America's best interest, and as the president himself pointedly assured during his press conference last night, the United States has no plans to see a "new global currency" replace the dollar.

Geithner, demonstrating a bracingly misplaced confidence in his audience, explained that his understanding of the Chinese proposal had to do with moving the dollar itself, in its own "evolutionary" progression, toward a reserve currency that is more responsive to the demands placed upon it by the global market. As he put it:

We’re actually quite open to that suggestion – you should see it as rather evolutionary rather building on the current architecture rather than moving us to global monetary union.

Of course the effective headline out of this foolhardy attempt at drawing a reasonable distinction has been "Bumbling Treasury Secretary Supports Dumping Dollar". That's the reward for intellectual honesty these days. I won't pretend to understand the full scope of this issue, but I for one am very happy at least to see some mental flexibility from Mr. Geithner. To his credit, he resists the temptation to paint every scenario as black and white.

You never know, keep treating people like adults and they might just start acting like it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I See Smart People

The MIT Media Lab has developed a prototype of a wearable device which further blurs the line between our brains and the meta-information on which we increasingly rely to shape our decisions. The project is called Sixth Sense. The demo is definitely worth a look.

Never Mind

The Chinese are going to buy up more US debt anyway.

It Was Bound to Happen

Is anyone even the least bit surprised to see a mainstream film focused on our randy ex-president's exploits in the oval "orifice"? I argue that it was inevitable, simply because the story is "too sexy" to ignore. Frankly, I'm surprised it took this long. In the fullness of time, I expect that we can look forward to endless alternative presidential dramas ranging in historical fidelity from HBO's acclaimed John Adams miniseries to Oliver Stone's caricature W. Was President Lincoln really a closet homosexual? Did JFK bury serious medical problems under a mountain of pharmaceuticals? What about Dick Cheney shooting that guy in the face? None of this territory is off-limits.

This points toward a rather more radical proposition I am fond of making that when it comes to narratives, virtually every story that can be told will. Virtually. This springs from the fact that the storytelling drive is a more or less universal human trait. As access to state-of-the-art technologies become more and more democratized, we'll see an explosion of full-scale productions aimed at even the tiniest niche. We can see this happening already. Now that digital video and editing software have become ubiquitous (and cheap), information networks are awash with a flood of original, independent material.

Even before this paradigm shift, relatively tiny, obscure "fan film" communities were able to support a shadow industry of unauthorized, clandestine franchise spin-offs for iconic series like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Even George Lucas, pioneer of studio independence that he is, made himself into a bit of a Darth Vader figure trying to litigate his most dedicated fans into submission before finally embracing the phenomenon. It's irrepressible.

This raises the prospect of a better Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, or a whole host of them, a flavor to suit every taste. (Anything but the steaming turd dumped on the public by Lucasfilm itself, please.) The imagination reels at the possibilities. I see Harrison Ford starring as Harrison Ford joining forces with Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and Jack Ryan as different possible selves each from their own alternate universe in which each is his own kind of badass. That's all I've got so far.

But wait a minute: isn't Harrison Ford like, kinda, yunno... not young? So what? Lawrence Olivier is fucking dead, and that didn't stop him from being in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow all of five years ago. It just takes a team of people with the right tools and a shared knowledge of what gives Harrison Ford his unique Harrison Fordiness to be the various homunculi behind every trademark smirk and jaunty physicality it would take to fool an audience, which is easier than you think.

By the way, I'm not kidding.


A conservative group called Citizens United has seen its case rise to the Supreme Court, where Justices are hearing arguments from speech regulators---acting on the authority of McCain/Feingold campaign finance statutes---concerning whether or not a 90-minute "movie" that is critical of New York Senator Hillary Clinton should be subject to restrictions imposed upon other political speech, such as television "attack ads".

The rub came for backers of the film when they sought to position the content in key markets for television comsumption through "On Demand" services. That's when the Solicitor General's Office said, "Oh, no you di'nt". See the United States Supreme Court tied up in knots attempting to explain how the campaign finance law they have endorsed applies to increasingly homogenous methods of media delivery, which elude conventional classification.

Hot Actress to Play Ham-Hocked Senator

Julianne Moore will play Hillary Clinton opposite Dennis Quaid as Bill in a new film, "Special Relationship". Relationship will explore not only the former first couple's own, tawdry "special" relationship, but also how fallout from the Lewinsky scandal affected that other "special relationship", between the United Kingdom and the United States of America.

Michael Sheen, who played Prime Minister Tony Blair in two of Peter Morgan's previous political sagas, "The Deal", and "The Queen", will reprise his role here, in the last chapter of a political trilogy which chronicles the rise of Mr. Blair, his role in the royal response to Dianna's timely demise, and now his strained relationship with a lethario American president.

Sneaky Chinamen!

Zhou Xiaochuan, China's Ben Bernanke, has proposed a new, international monetary standard to replace the current model of a US dollar-dominated market. No, evangelicals, it's not the "one world currency" from your End Times adventure stories. George Will, in his ridiculous bow tie, reminds us that:

[China's premiere] has rightly noted the unsustainable trajectory of America's high-consumption, low-savings economy. He has also decorously but clearly expressed sensible fears that his country's $1 trillion-plus of dollar-denominated assets might be devalued by America choosing, as banana republics have done, to use inflation for partial repudiation of improvidently incurred debts.

So it could be that China, the single largest holder of American foreign debt, might just be a tad concerned about their investment. Or, we can believe that the head of People's Bank of China is working for... THE DEVIL!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Thank You for Hearing Me Out

Know that I am considerate of your short attention span, and recognize the fierce competition for a bit of space in your brain. Do you have a song in your head right now? Here. Electric Avenue, by Eddy Grant. You're welcome.

No, I'm not insulting you. One of the great things about the Internet is that it can be fun. Sure, it's every scratch of knowledge and wisdom ever recorded at the touch of a button, but it's also a damn fine place to piss away spare time, inasmuch as there is such a thing anymore. I use it for that. But it means so much more to me. I count myself lucky that in just such a time and place as this, I should find myself alive, and comprehending. I feel a tremendous responsibility to raise consciousness about the unique perils and opportunities of our age. I want to make sure that whatever happens, we remain a species which appreciates beauty and cherishes life.

Even if the machines take over.

Cultural and technological evolution have far outstripped the rate of algorithmic sorting which is responsible for all of the biological diversity we have inherited. We stand at the tipping point of human civilization. Technology tears at culture and "culture" bites back. It's what lies along the bleeding edge of this conflict that will be the focus of One More Asshole.

Starting tomorrow.

They Say That Everybody's Got One

So of course I'm well aware that my new blog, One More Asshole, is to the blogosphere what a fart is to a hurricane. Apparently, I'm bound to belabor people with my opinions because here I am doing it. All that has stopped me as yet from plunging into the blog new world of push-button publishing is a vague sense of embarassment I get whenever I may just happen to feel pushed into whatever hot, new "it" thing has come along. I'm not impressed by fads. TRENDS, on the other hand, I never ignore a good trend. Now that broadcasting your asshole opinion has gone mainstream, I declare that I am ready to be a very small fish in a fucking HUGE pond. I am ready to add one more brown star to the sky.

Shine on.