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.