Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Around and about.

If you're here looking for a fresh and interesting Total Drek post, you're pretty much fucked. If you want something written by me, however, you are still in luck. Today I'm guest posting over on Tom Bozzo's fine blog Marginal Utility. What am I discussing? Well, go see for yourself, but at various points I discuss atheism, evangelism, and social research that suggests that religion is a threat to society. But, then again, maybe it isn't- the story is a little more complicated than it might, at first, seem.

Have fun!

As a side note: I went hunting for pictures on Google images using the search term "economists" and came up with this. [Warning: not particularly work safe.] I just don't know what to say.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Deck chairs on the Titanic.

As far as I know, the image below is authentic. Read the caption, it's worth it.



For those who are too lazy to click on the picture for a larger version, it reads: "Mellisa Williamson, 35, a Bullitt Avenue resident worries about the effect on her unborn child from the sound of jackhammers."

And, ironically, I'm now convinced that she probably shouldn't be breeding in the first place.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Unanswered Questions

One year ago today Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the U.S. Gulf coast. Put in these terms, it sounds relatively clinical. In reality it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that Hurricane Katrina anally violated the city of New Orleans and surrounding states. The devastation was horrendous, the hardships imposed on residents unspeakable, and the response frankly shameful. Indeed, the entire nature of the response had a sort of hateful irony that is difficult to ignore or stomach.

This week President Bush is travelling to New Orleans, where he is expected to survey the progress that city has made. Commentators have also been expecting him to highlight the role of local government, rather than the federal government, in rebuilding. To his credit, I so far haven't seen any signs of this, but I remain skeptical. Bush has a track record of declaring something to be finished long before it's even half-over.

There's a lot I'd like to ask Mr. Bush about Hurricane Katrina and his response to it. Some of these questions will be asked by the press, many more will not. Some questions are seen as being just too disrespectful to a president- an attitude we can only be grateful was not entirely in force during Watergate. There is, however, one thing I really would like to ask our commander in chief. One thing I'd really like to know about his handling of Katrina.

How is Trent Lott's porch, Mr. President? I know you were concerned about it back then. I know your concern was very reassuring to me. Has it been fixed yet? What about all the other porches, Mr. President? What about all those others houses? What about all those other lives? Have they been rebuilt, Mr. President?

Have they?

Okay, in all honesty, no I don't think it's the government's job to rebuild everyone's lives. It is, however, the government's job to safeguard its own citizens. The Bush government has failed so thoroughly in that task that, frankly, I find it impossible not to lay those failures at the feet of the man himself.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Serpents on an Aircraft

As you might guess from the title of this post, this past weekend I had the opportunity to see the cinema masterpiece Snakes on a Plane. This movie has received quite a bit of attention on the internet and, as Slag has recently pointed out, on this blog.

This movie stars Samuel L. Jackson as Samuel L. Jackson, a trash talking toughguy with a heart of gold. Oh, I suppose there was a character there for him to play- some sort of badass cop- but if the characterization had been any more slight it would have burned off under the harsh lights of a movie set. This movie was not really about the characters, or at least not the human characters.

No, this movie was about the titular snakes which, as you might imagine, were indeed on a plane. We were treated to a lengthy film depicting all sorts of reptilian mayhem performed by a collection of movie serpents just a few steps up in quality from the toy snakes I used to throw at my sister when I was a kid.* In perfect honesty, these were some of the least realistic fake snakes I have ever seen in a major motion picture. They were also behaving in decidedly non-snakelike ways. For example: biting, and hanging on while the victim screamed and flailed like crack-smoking Jerry Lewis.

So, based on all of this, you might expect Snakes on a Plane to be a pretty terrible movie. And you'd be right. The thing is though, it crosses over the terrible line into the realm of utterly hysterical. This is a movie that actually has an understanding that it is named "Snakes on a Plane." It isn't named, "Snakes bring two people together through a stressful situation." Nor is it named, "Discovering the meaning of life through adversity." It isn't even named, "Crazy fucker just had to bring his work home with him." No, this movie is called "Snakes on a Plane," and it focusses on, well, what it might be like if a shitload of snakes were onboard a plane. Oh, and if the snakes all happened to be venomous (or deadly in some other fashion- there was at least one constrictor present) and suicidally homicidal. When you combine that with the line that I am sure is destined for infamy, "I'm tired of these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!" you have a real winner.

If you have some time, go check it out. If you don't, wait for it to come to video. Either way, it's well worth it.

And frankly, after having seen it, I think I'm much more interested in the ethnographic footage from "Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane." Who wouldn't like that during a slow day at the ASAs?

* I wouldn't feel too sorry for my sister, though. She's older and my tossing a snake at her would usually be followed by a thorough whupping. Doubtless this sequence of events is what has prepared me so well for the process of academic journal submissions.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Greenwald

While we're reviewing slim political monographs that people should read, let me put in a plug for my recent airplane reading: blogger Glenn Greenwald's How Would A Patriot Act? At least for now, I can assure you, it can be carried through airport security checkpoints without triggering those double secret full body cavity screenings.

For any of you who may not be familiar with his blog, Greenwald has been the go-to guy on the Bush Administration's war on U.S. civil liberties since opening up shop less than a year ago. So his indictment of the Bushies deals extensively with the cases of the U.S. citizens (Hamdi and Padilla) declared 'enemy combatants' by the WPE, and to a somewhat lesser extent with the warrantless domestic surveillance programs (news of which had been breaking around the time Patriot was being written).

Having followed the cases via both the blogs and also traditional news sources, not much of the first two-thirds of the book was exactly news. I'd even dog-eared a page (in the seventies out of ~125) where George F. Will was quoted saying the obvious for what seemed like the first time — in effect, that only someone who'd flunked middle school U.S. history and never recovered academically could possibly think that the powers asserted by the Bushies were meant to be conveyed to the office of the president by the founders — while thinking Greenwald had buried his lede.

But really, he was just at that point getting to the meat of the indictment: with nice use of the Federalist, Greenwald shows that even if the plain language of the Constitution weren't enough for you, the founders made it abundantly clear that they did not mean to establish an elected monarchy — let alone hereditary monarchy, as in Judge Anna Diggs Taylor's recent opinion in ACLU v. NSA.

I see this as boiling down to a huge political problem stemming from the fact that we're forced to take seriously a legal theory of the U.S. presidency that makes 9/11 conspiracy nuttery look like general relativity (squandering of intellectual credibility to the contrary notwithstanding).

If you need a reason why it's worth getting the Republicans out of power in the legislative branch, Greenwald's book is an excellent place to start.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Snakes on a Planet

There have been a lot of posts here recently about Snakes (on a Plane). I could easily post about the Snakes (on a Plane), but alas, I shall not. Instead, I shall post about an important new development, not just for Earth, but for the entire Solar System.

Pluto is no longer a planet. As of yesterday, there are only eight.

The reason for this decision is the recent discovery of several large objects in the distant solar system, which were given the names Quaoar, Sedna, and 2003 UB313 Xena. Suddenly, Pluto didn't appear so special. In fact, Xena is even larger than Pluto. So, if Pluto is a planet, then why not Xena?

The decision was scheduled to be made at the meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Prague, Czech Republic. The IAU named a panel to come up with a definition of "planet" that would decide once and for all which planets were in and which were out. The panel's recommendation was to define a planet as an object large enough to form into a spherical shape under its own gravity. By this definition, Pluto was in, along with Xena, Ceres (the largest asteroid), and Charon (Pluto's moon). Smaller objects like Sedna would be defined as "plutons."

The proposal was expected to pass the general vote of all IAU members, but it was roundly criticized by two groups that wouldn't normally seem to have much in common: geologists and Italians. Geologists had first dibs on the term "pluton." Italians already refer to the planetish thing that we call "Pluto" as "Pluton."

So IAU members tried again. They went through a few definitions, but the one they settled on required a planet to be round and to have cleared out the area of its orbit. Under this definition, Ceres is out, because it is in the middle of the asteroid belt. Xena is out, because it is in the middle of the so-called Kuiper Belt. And Pluto is out, because its orbit overlaps with Neptune's. These objects will be classified as "dwarf planets." Science marches on.

I think this was the wrong decision. The decision of what is and what isn't a planet is far too important to be made for scientific reasons alone. And I think there is a hidden danger in demoting Pluto - Snakes on a Planet, if you will.

Whether we like it or not, people anthropomorphize the planets. Anthropomorphism, which scientists work so hard to avoid, is celebrated in the rest of the world. Each planet has a personality, and Pluto is the sad and lonely, but spirited, underdog planet. And now the mean old scientists have kicked it out of the planet club. So many people already believe that scientists are heartless, and I'm afraid that the IAU has encouraged that stereotype.

But now that the vote is taken and the matter is settled, here's what I think we should say. Pluto never quite fit in with the rest of the planets. It was way out there far from the Sun, orbiting at a weird angle. It didn't belong. But now that we know more, we've discovered so many other objects just like Pluto, out in the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is with its friends now. And furthermore, it's one of the biggest and most important objects in its part of the Solar System.

There's another lesson that we can offer from the IAU's decision. Science changes. We keep discovering new facts and putting them into new frameworks. We know this, but the public often doesn't. Far from being a planet-killing downer, science's constant change is what makes it such an exciting, vibrant field of thought.

Even the person with the most to lose from all this is still excited about science's new possibilities. Patricia Tombaugh, the widow of Pluto's discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, is still alive at 93, living in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She's understandably disappointed:

I don't know just how you handle it. It kind of sounds like I just lost my job.

But she adds:

But I understand science is not something that just sits there. It goes on. Clyde finally said before he died, '[Pluto is] there. Whatever it is. It is there.'

Science can never take Pluto away. But it can help us understand it in ways that Clyde Tombaugh, or even scientists a few years ago, could have never imagined.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Bad Design and WebCT

Look, I'm no stranger to technology, but I have never used WebCT before. I have to use it next year for my Intro to Sociology course, and I am lucky enough to get an assistant to design the site for me.

The trouble is that the standard issue icons that come with WebCT are really awful bits of clip art, and I cannot stand that something with my name on it is so bloody ugly. Call me shallow and vain if you must, but I'm wondering if you fine folks out there in the blogosphere can help me out. Are there any banks of icons, templates, color schemes and so on that I could send to my assistant to easily upload to WebCT? If you know of any, you would be making my life so much better.

Lead us not into temptation...

Coming fast on the heels of the TDEC's recent religious experience an alert reader* forwarded this charming website to me. What is it, you ask, too lazy to click on a damned link? Well, I'll tell you- it's a company that sells pajamas for children. Not such a big deal, right? Well, mostly right. What sets this company apart is that it sells very special pajamas- godly pajamas. Or, perhaps more accurately, armor of godly pajamas.

Yes indeed, folks, this website literally sells pajamas for boys and girls that are styled to resemble some sort of weird crusader armor, but with less blood and bile smeared across the front. The pajamas even include a shield for the child to carry across one arm- presumably for warding off evil spirits in the night who also happen to be terrified to stuffed pillow-like objects. Since this whole idea is just too... um... unique for me to describe, allow me to reproduce the website's own explanation below:



Now, I could get well and truly snarky here but I'm going to attempt to refrain. This is at least in part because, when I was a child, I wore some truly ridiculous shit to bed,** and so don't feel like I'm in a position to criticize. More importantly, however, I hold back because I think I see a connection between this and something else I've been looking at recently- a book on evangelical christianity.

I refer to James Ault, Jr.'s book Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church. At this year's ASA meetings I obtained a copy of this book and have been reading it rather eagerly since- a fairly easy thing to accomplish given how many delays I've suffered during air travel of late. Ault has done something remarkable in this book- he has managed to produce an intriguing ethnography of a fundamentalist congregation that shows them, and their views, with nuance and no small amount of sympathy. As it happens, it appears that Ault's experiences in this project led him to develop religious belief. Be that as it may, he still does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting secular viewpoints with religious viewpoints, all within the context of lived experience. As such, I think his book warrants reading.***

One of the points that emerges from his narrative, however, is that these tight fundamentalist congregations seem to derive much of their strength not from the doctrine, per se, but rather from the social system. Congregants certainly develop strong doctrinal views, but in many cases what seems to produce the real commitment is the social support network. Of course, as Ault notes, this support network is a mixed blessing as the same tools that allow the congregation to work for you also permit it to work against you. So, the same tight social relationships that can help members over emotional and economic hurdles can also be used to enforce a substantial degree of conformity. Still, in an uncertain world, it's easy to see why people might want to take refuge in such tight relationships. It seems only natural, and most sociologists will not be terribly surprised.

It is this ability of congregations to provide a refuge that makes Ault's book and the godly p.j.'s stick together in my mind. It has more and more appeared to me that some branches of christianity- indeed of many different religions, but christianity is our focus du jour- thrive on nurturing fear. I don't mean fear of the world here, either. Being concerned that you might not make rent, or that you may get sick, or that your marriage might fail, is something many people have to deal with. A religion that can help people overcome such challenges isn't all bad, and is indeed serving a useful purpose in people's lives. No, I mean that some branches of various religions seem determined to actually create fear. Don't have enough material issues to worry about? Your personal life going good? Feel secure at home? Well, you shouldn't! There may be demons trying to steal your soul via the heinous power of the New York Times! The Devil is creeping into your bedroom window and poisoning your wife with ideas about equality! Your soul could, at any moment be damned by some inconsequential act and your only recourse is to pray as hard and as often as you can that god will forgive your sorry ass.

I exaggerate,**** but the point is valid. Much of religious rhetoric is saturated with efforts to create a need for the religious product, to create fear of things that are unobservable, unknowable, and whose effects largely won't be felt UNLESS there is an afterlife of the precise type spoken of by religious authorities themselves. It's almost like local news coverage***** but vastly more effective. As a former salesman, I really have to respect the success of this enterprise. We've long been amazed that product marketing can convince folks that they won't be popular if they don't own a particular thing, but popularity is in some way a real phenomenon. High schoolers and sociologists both understand the potential consequences of being unpopular. The fear bred by some religions, however, is a different and even more impressive animal because the faith is "sold" as protection from a threat that only exists if you believe in the religion in the first place. That's almost equivalent to buying hip waders to wear around the house to protect yourself from the venomous snakes that get delivered with the waders.

And I guess that's what is so fascinating to me about the pajamas. What is the real purpose of these things? To comfort children as they sleep? Or to remind them that they are in constant peril without the protection of the One True Faith?******

I'm afraid I know the answer to that already.

* Sorry Bookmobile, someone else beat you to it.

** Doubtless my Sainted Girlfriend would argue that I still do, since my sleepwear commonly includes shirts that are so old and frayed that they're an embarrassment to textiles everywhere.

*** Though, I must confess, I have not yet finished it myself.

**** The hell I do.

***** "Want to know about the common household product that can destroy the entire western hemisphere? What about devices your children use to see porn? Tune in at 8:00 and find out about this risk to YOUR family!"

****** Pick your own "one true faith." Don't worry, I'll wait. There are an awful lot of them, so take your time.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Deconstructing Playing with Katie...

As promised about a week ago, I am finally getting around to discussing something from this year's American Sociological Association meetings. I indicated then that I had the opportunity to attend a paper session hosted by the new Animals and Society section. Many of you in the Sociology community have heard of this section and, in many cases, have probably scoffed. What deep sociological insights, after all, can emerge from studying non-humans? Not merely non-humans either but, in virtually all cases, non-primates. Do we think that rats provide adequate models of human behavior? What about beavers? This scorn for Animals & Society, already prominent, has not been slowed by the kinds of papers we see emerging from these scholars. My favorite, to date, has to be the paper titled in part, "Deconstructing Playing with Katie," which is described as follows:

This paper presents written and visual data about play with the author’s companion dog. The research is an in-depth single case study employing the methods of ethnography, autoethnography and videography. The attempt is to display the intricacies and nuances of a common, mundane practice—playing with one’s dog. Data are reported about the routine of play, the structures (or motifs) of play, the inner states of players, the playing field(s), the contingencies of play and the use of language and vocalization during play. An ethnomethodological approach is used to explicate play as practices. The data are part of a larger study to be published later this year in book form.


This strikes many of us, including some rather prominent bloggers, as more than slightly ridiculous. Have we truly reached a place where playing with one's own dog is sufficent to produce not merely a paper, but a book? What will we do when Republicans in Congress happen upon this work and use it to shut down other sociological research projects- like those investigating the utility of virginity pledges, for example. I have been in this group, the animal nay-sayers if you will, and decided to go to a paper session purely to determine if my opinion was justified.

So, what is the verdict? Well, first, the good news for Animals & Society: I am now at least somewhat willing to concede that they may have something worth studying. While the explanation posted on their website is somewhat convoluted, the essence works out as follows: animals are important in society, even in modern societies, and are as-yet largely unstudied. On the surface, I'm relatively receptive to this argument. Animals, in their roles as companions, products, and co-workers, have important roles in human life. It is, in fact, one of the characteristic traits of the human race that we form long-term alliances with other species. Frankly, we do this to an extent that vastly exceeds that of any other species. We keep animals for food, we keep animals for company, and we keep animals to assist in a wide variety of occupations. In a real sense, human civilization is not limited merely to humans, but is a consortium of more or less symbiotic species. If we ignore how animals interface with human society, we may miss something critical. The key, of course, is may. So far the Animals and Society section has failed to convince me that there is anything truly unique about animal-human interaction and, as a result, I'm not certain that an entire section is warranted. But, that said, I'm at least willing to entertain the idea and see what the section can produce.

Now, we come to the bad news: the part about "what the section can produce." So far, that appears to be very little. Of the papers I saw, one was at best speculative, containing little in the way of useful data or interesting analysis. The second was even more lacking and actually focused so much on animals, that it neglected some very interesting behaviors on the part of human actors. Essentially, by elevating animals to the same level of importance as humans, the interesting details of human behavior were lost. Finally, the third paper was a theoretical diatribe against attending to human concerns and ignoring animal concerns. Given that sociology is defined as: "The study of human social behavior, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society, [emphasis added]" I'm okay with this. Granted, my ethical system is staggeringly anthropocentric, but that's beside the point.

Of even greater concern is the vague odor of shame that emanates from this section. The authors in my panel session each spent a substantial portion, if not a majority, of their time essentially trying to justify the importance of studying animals. Put another way, they tried to account for their participation in a section that many think is silly or worse. It goes without saying that this weakened their presentations but, on a deeper level, signals that perhaps even some of the presenters are not convinced of the need for their own research. In an odd way, however much I disagreed with the paper arguing for "animal concerns," I at least respected its lack of defensiveness.

So, what does the future hold for Animals & Society? Shit, what do I look like, Nostradamus?* It's hard to say what will happen, especially from one panel session,** but there are really two possible courses the future can take. In the first and, at present, most likely path, this section will flounder about for a while and then pass quietly into obscurity and death. This doesn't necessarily mean that the section will dissolve- when it comes to sections the ASA often seems to be like my aunt Gertrude who keeps old aquarium filters in the attic "just in case"- but rather that it will slip into a deep lethargy. The other path is more promising- after a period characterized by iffy scholarship and weird and/or creepy papers, the section will develop a genuine research agenda and start producing meaningful contributions to the literature. I find this second option less likely than the first but, by far, more desirable. The folks I met at the Animals & Society panel seem nice enough, and definitely well-intentioned. If there is a genuine subject matter for them to investigate, I do very much hope that they can use those investigations to inform the rest of our work.

So, I can only wish the Animals & Society section luck. Happy hunting, and I look forward to seeing what you can produce.

Unless, of course, we end up with "Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane." That would pretty much kill things for me.

* I don't qualify more because my predictions are actually clear and straightforward. In terms of accuracy, he and I are probably batting about the same.

** Some readers may observe that it is unfair to judge a section based on one panel session. To this I respond, "Why yes, it is, but this is only my own half-assed opinion, and is just a stupid blog."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Return

Well, good morning boys and girls. It is I, your host, Drek, and I am once more blogging. I hope you will forgive my absence since the end of the ASA's but, following a relatively straightforward trip home, I found myself with a chance to spend time with my only sister and her husband. Given that I haven't seen my sister since the wedding, and haven't spent much time with my brother-in-law since the bachelor party, I decided to spend as much time with them as possible. Now that they have departed, I can once more return to blogging.

So what can you look forward to in the future? Well, hopefully, actual posts. I've been very bad about updating of late but, with luck, my schedule should calm down from here on in. With the ASAs behind us, classes about to start, and my new laptop working out beautifully, things should begin to return to normal. Moreover, I've actually missed blogging rather a lot, so things look to improve.

Will these alleged posts be any good? Who knows? More to the point: who cares? The reality* is that most of y'all come here just to waste time anyway so the quality of my posts is largely irrelevant.

But, as often as I critique my own work, I suppose I do sometimes write something decent, so keep an eye out. I suppose it'll happen again sooner or later.

* As it happens, this is the number-one explanation** most people use to account for their readership of my blog. Oddly, I find this rather reassuring.

** For those who are curious, number two appears to be, "wanting to be around when someone finally kicks Drek's ass." Well, whatever floats your boat, I guess...

Lakoff

Some time ago I asked you all about George Lakoff's Don't Think Of An Elephant, and I said I would get back to you when I finished it. I did so yesterday, so here is my book report.

Don't Think Of An Elephant is a smart liberal* book, as well as one that takes conservatives seriously. Those two things alone would make it worth reading. Fortunately, however, it has a lot more to recommend it, not the least of which is the fact that it is a small, well-written and easily understood book. Full marks to Lakoff for managing it. It is also, at $10, a cheap book, which, with its format and style, increases the accessibility of the book enormously.

What else? Don't Think Of An Elephant is a battle plan for liberals. It offers an intelligent, non-polemic analysis of the success of the conservatives in the U.S. It shows the reader how and why things work as they do in politics. It cuts through the massive imcomprehension of the Democrats when faced with their defeats, and offers a way out.

The way out, as you may know, is in the framing of the debate - I won't go into that here; Lakoff is much more eloquent than I am at explaining, and undoubtedly more concise as well. I don't believe that the way forward which he offers is enough; but that said, I think it goes a fairly long way towards changing things around. Don't Think Of An Elephant is the optimistic and insightful manifesto that any party in trouble can use.

I recommend it.

*Do follow that link if you are interested in Lakoff's work - it is a great resource

Monday, August 21, 2006

The Dark Matter is the Raisins

Few things beat the Discovery Channel for public science. They have some amazing writers and teachers writing their news stories. For instance, today's announcement that astronomers have the first direct evidence of dark matter was accompanied by this description of how two colliding clusters of galaxies made it possible for the dark matter to be detected:

Visualize, for instance, a cosmic million-mph collision between of two vast wads of raisin oatmeal – with stars and dark matter comprising the raisins and oats representing the gases. The raisins would shoot through with few direct raisin-on-raisin hits, while the oats would get stuck in a patch the middle.


For someone dense like me, who still puzzles over the claim of my 11th grade chemistry teacher that between the electrons is just space (but what IS it?), the raisin oatmeal metaphor is easy to picture. Sure, you could quibble that the raisins can't represent both the stars and dark matter--surely, it should be raisin walnut oatmeal--but otherwise, this is a perfect way to make a complicated idea easy to understand.

Religion

As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Quaker meeting yesterday was interesting. An hour's meditation (I can't really describe it any other way) is a long time for anyone, especially without airconditioning, but meditation is good, and I had my moments. I can't really say that I felt any, er, Godliness around, but well, one musn't expect too much of a grown-up religion cynic.

Yes, there was lunch. Strange, actually, as people didn't talk to us (or make eye contact, or anything) for about 15 minutes and then all of a sudden started, ehm, socialising. All said and done, they were nice, and if I want to I can now join them on any number of Fun Excursions to knitting circles and local radio. Seriously, it sounded good. All the same, I don't think I am up for that quite yet, though I think I may go back to the Sunday meeting.

I can't help feeling relieved - relieved to find some sensible religious people; relieved that they weren't too intense; relieved, finally, that I feel no more of a Christian today than I did yesterday. I rather like being a heathen.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A personal decision

I was going to blog about Snakes on A Plane, of course, but mercifully, or not, as the case may be, another topic has presented itself. Note that I am blogging at 9 am on a Sunday. This is no coincidence. Sunday mornings - I used to wake up to the bells of the local catholic church. A nice way to start the day, especially if you are a lifelong heathen and church bells to you mean brunch, rather than religion.

Today there are no church bells, because people here seem less into bells (if more into religion) but I have somehow gotten to the point where I have consented to attend some type of religious...thing. That is to say, I have agreed to go to Quaker meeting with my Husband. Quakers are cool, they're all about peace and social action and meditation, and that's good, and frankly, if they didn't have that whole religion thing going on then I would have joined them months, nay, years ago.

They call themselves Friends, and that just befuddles me, because whose friends are they anyway? And they are Christians, even they are somewhat eccentric by Christian standards. Yet they are the only religious group I have ever considered joining, and the only kind my Nice Christian Husband could bring me to. I am then, a little of a lot of things - intimidated (by the sheer presence of religion), intrigued, resistent, frightened.

What if like this religion stuff?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

From the Train

Newly discovered use for the little camera that comes in my MacBook: putting on lipstick when no mirror is handy. All hail technology!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

ASA Impressions Redux

Well, dear readers, it is I, Drek! I have completed another two days at the ASAs and boy is my ass tired!*

These last days have, indeed, been eventful. The Belated Blogger's get-together took place last night, and I had the opportunity to meet quite a few new people. One of them, believe it or not, even managed to guess my mild-mannered real-life identity ahead of meeting me. I find this revelation both flattering, and disturbing, but feel confident that my secret is safe. I even, if you can believe it, went out to dinner with several of my esteemed fellow bloggers. I will never be able to express my gratitude at their willingness to put up with someone like me.

I always feel a little weird after the ASA blogger's convention. On the one hand, I love it and wouldn't miss it for the world. On the other hand, actually meeting my readers, and realizing that many of them are skilled professionals, leaves me feeling like I should actually try to produce something other than total crap. Fortunately for me, this feeling never lasts particularly long.

Yesterday I also had the opporunity to attend the "Animals and Society" Session. So how was it? Well, lemme put it this way: keep your eyes open for a later post on the subject. They've convinced me of several things, not all of which they will like.

And finally, some last observations about the ASAs:

(1) Okay, I take it back. I'd rather you use powerpoint, even with mono-color slides, than just read your damned paper to me. This is especially true if you lack the ability to add inflection to your voice.

(2) Why do we have a presidential plenary, anyway? As far as I can tell, its main purpose is to separate those with sufficient creativity to produce an excuse for avoiding it, or sufficient confidence to just blow it off, from everyone else.

(3) Public or not, Sociology DOES have a wider audience. While attending a panel on evolution, I met one of the expert witnesses from the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. I thought about asking him to sign my head, but decided against it.

(4) There's a huge continuum between presentations that are "totally scripted" and those that are "winged." Either extreme can be bad, but the former is less painful. Particularly if the word "um" is a prominent part of your dialect.

(5) My paper was, believe it or not, a hit. This will doubtless disappoint the nay sayers or, as I like to call them: fuckers.

(6) I got to see Dr. Ruth Westheimer getting a perm. I felt like I should get her autograph as well, but anything appropriate for her to sign I am not going to show to a little old woman.

(7) I'm pretty certain I passed up a one-night-stand earlier. I'd also like to point out to my Sainted Girlfriend that I love her very much.

(8) My new laptop has truly heroic battery life, but it still has limits. Right now it is reading at one perce

* From sitting in chairs all day. Jesus! What is wrong with you people!

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Excellent!

Ah-ha! Finally, my luggage has arrived in Montreal! I can now at last fulfill my dream of presenting a paper while dressed in buttless chaps!

Hey: You have your strategy for dealing with questions, and I have mine.

ASA Impressions: Day One.

A while back the fair Tina suggested that I live-blog the ASAs. I was skeptical of the wisdom of this, and nothing has changed. I do, however, think that providing daily impressions is within reasonable bounds. I have, after all, done this before.

So what do I think of the ASAs so far? Well, let's see:

(1) Many of us lost luggage on our way to Montreal. This, of course, requires that we be more tolerant of people presenting in unconventional clothing. Do your best, however, not to seem too pleased about this situation. Your being in jeans doesn't make your paper any more convincing.

(2) Montreal is a nice city, but is anyone else vaguely disturbed by the ubiquity of strip clubs? Adds one of my colleagues: and the hussle outside is pretty aggressive!

(3) Along similar lines, there are interesting cabbies in this town. Mine commented that he doesn't know why women find him so difficult to deal with, all a woman has to do to keep him happy is, "Keep my stomach full, and my balls empty." Whatever his opinion of his own reasonableness, if a woman tried to kill two birds with one stone I'm betting he wouldn't be pleased. What makes this even more fascinating is that the realization that I am a sociologist is what provoked my cabbie to share this tidbit.

(4) Powerpoint is an amazing technology well-suited to punching up presentations. Given this, is there some reason for all of the pure white backgrounds and huge swathes of text? Next time, try adding at least two primary colors to each slide. The truly adventurous should, perhaps, try applying a theme.

(5) A monotone is not the appropriate type of voice control for presenting a scientific paper.

(6) What's with the themes at our conferences? "Transgressing boundaries?" What the hell does that even mean? Why do we even have these? Do physicists have themes at conferences? You know, like, "Transgressing Pulsars?"

(7) As it turns out, in Montreal, if you try to buy a dress shirt at a cosmetics counter, the saleswoman gets pissed at you. Also: profanity in French is still recognizable as profanity.

(8) Has anyone else noticed that some of the presentation rooms are freakishly long?

(9) Why is there no goddamn water at this confernece? And why does a coke cost $2.50?!

And that's where we are so far. I'll keep you posted.

Bloggy Drinks Tonight!

Don't forget the get-together tonight at 6pm in the lobby (bar?) of the Hotel Intercontinental. See you there!

Friday, August 11, 2006

It's usually not as bad as you think it will be

I successfully completed my trip to Camp Perry and was directed by Drek to submit the experience to the blogosphere. First I congratulate the winners – I'm nowhere near that good – and hope to see them again next year. It's a great bunch of people that show up there. Second I'll announce that I actually did well enough to get some points. I'm on my way to earning the big badge. I did better than I expected, in fact. On reflection, this reminds me of most other big trips. Like most other big trips, there's the plan and then there's reality.

The travel itself is a major consideration: you can either deal with airport security or other drivers. Pick your poison on that one. I've had enough of the illusion of airport security so I picked driving. I even timed it well to avoid rush hour through the big cities on my route. It probably went as well as could be expected. I did underestimate how tired you get driving at 3 AM through Ohio farmland. I definitely advise against it. A better plan would be to bring a friend so you can keep each other awake. Then again, maybe the problem was trying to stay awake 24 hours straight. Maybe.

Then there's the destination. It usually is simultaneously disappointing and surprising. The reality is usually not as good as the fantasy, though its “realness” is usually uplifting. It's not such a mythical place which is somehow reassuring. I think it's because if this place is so great but similar to where you came from, maybe home is not so bad after all.

The event you traveled for is usually fairly intimidating as it looms over you. When you actually get in the thick of it, it's not that bad. Most people dread public speaking – I'm not particularly fond of it myself – but once you get rolling it's fairly easy to keep going. This concept applies to most things I think. Showing up is he big step. If you can handle your own nervousness long enough to face the crowd the rest will work itself out. Certainly as the stage gets bigger the pressure increases. If you're good enough to be there though, I suspect your performance will be more than adequate. You are your own worst critic after all.

After it's all over – and you've completely destroyed your budget – it's time to go home. The grass seems greener and the sun seems brighter. The birds are singing and you're almost happy to return home. This lasts about 30 seconds until you find all the things you left waiting for you: bills, work, family, serial killers, etc. Reality pounds itself back into your head. At least you're left with a few good memories to get you through for a while.

If you're like me, memories fade fast. Bring a camera.

Addendum

For those who are curious after reading my last post, yes I have arrived in Montreal. You will not, however, see me at the conference in the immediate future as my luggage is apparently elsewhere. Given my unconventional day yesterday I rather expect it is on its way to Mars by now. My attempt to confirm this online was thwarted by an inept baggage tracking system, although it did possess the charming feature of being virtually impossible to find. Way to go! The automated phone system for checking the same information was slightly more helpful in that it at least provided a cheerful, "We don't know anything yet, so fuck you."

Yesterday ended fairly successfully with a cab ride to my hotel, shared with another stranded traveller from the U.S., and a delightful dinner composed of convenience store egg salad sandwiches.* Once the coffee finishes taking effect this morning I will probably venture out in search of a store where I can purchase things like underwear, pants, and a shirt. Oh, and a hairbrush. Right now I look like squirrels have been nesting.

I'll let you know if anything interesting happens.

Well, shit, interesting to me anyway.

* If you haven't had the pleasure, imagine soggy cardboard mixed with an odd sulphurous odor and yellow food coloring. After a day of eating almost nothing other than the aforementioned (in an earlier post) "Spinzels," however, I was pleased to have it. That realization alone is nearly sufficient to make me wish that my fellow passenger had honored my request that he stab me to death with my own pen.**

** Yes, yes, I'll stop bitching now. It's tiresome for us all.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The miracle of air travel.

There may be some of you, reading this right now, who are relieved to see that I am posting again. I doubt that this is so, after all my blogging has few enough virtues as it is, but I suppose anything is possible. Given the number of body parts that foolish souls have discovered are ripe for piercing, I think that the human appetite for pain and stupidity likely knows no bounds. And so, my blogging resumes.

I could answer inquiries about my recent absence with a number of excuses, but I think a trio of honest reasons will suffice instead. To be brief: I was forced to finish teaching a class, prepare for a conference, and deal with the senescence of my beloved laptop all at the same time. This, needless to say, consumed a greater than average amount of my time and forced me away from blogging. I apologize for not mentioning something about this earlier but each day I somehow thought that the next would bring a resumption of my normal schedule. As you have probably noticed, this was not the case.

Even now, as I write this, my hiatus technically continues. I have finished my class, yes, and phoned in my grades earlier today. I have prepared for my talk at the ASA’s- insofar as it was necessary for me to prepare a “talk” in any case. My participation in this year’s conference is, in all honesty, rather modest. Lastly, my aging laptop has been replaced with a fortuitously priced, and much nicer, model that was not manufactured by the South Korean equivalent of drunken gnomes. This is quite a step up for me. Alas, despite these successes I am not yet blogging again. Not really.

While this may appear to you as a fresh and “nutritious” post, it is in fact quite stale. I am, as we “speak,” lodged in the bowels of an aircraft winging my way towards Montreal. I have heard many good things about Montreal, and my disgruntled seatmate appears to be a charming gentleman who reflects well on his home city- doubtless he would reflect even more positively had we not spent close to two hours sitting on a runway in the United States prior to takeoff. As a side note, for those of you who haven’t tried it: this sucks.

Indeed, I have spent my day essentially caught in the grips of an air travel catastrophe. I don’t know the entirety of what has occurred- just rumors of a British crackdown on terrorists and the dreaded dihydrogen-monoxide. More within my knowledge are the thunderstorms that nearly made my earlier seatmate (an amateur astronomer named Andy) vomit and forced our flight to reroute. Then there was the freak spate of mechanical difficulties that grounded several planes at one of my numerous layovers. At my last stop, my flight was cancelled entirely. My presence on this aircraft is due entirely to my luck in being selected from the standby list. In retrospect, I am wondering if this luck was good or bad.

By the time I arrive in Montreal it will by close to… well… tomorrow. I will be arriving quite a bit later than anticipated, and on very little sleep. Assuming I can find my way to my hotel before I collapse in a stupor, I should be fine. Strike that: assuming I can eat something more substantial than airline pretzels* and get to my hotel before I pass out, I should be fine.

And what then? Will I be at the conference in the morning? Will it even be morning when I post this, or will “tomorrow” be, by then, in the past? Who knows?

All I know right now is that the captain is ordering me to shut down my portable electronic devices.

Woot, indeed.


* Okay, technically the packaging informs me that they are, in fact, “Spinzels” and follows up by proclaiming them to be “Braided Pretzels.” I would also add that they are better than normal pretzels, but the “braiding” thing is really kind of an exaggeration. This fine product hails from Bluffton, Indiana and has a whopping 55 calories per bag. So, basically, my “dinner” should keep me going for another 30 minutes or so. Yay!

As an additional educational side note: If anyone is wondering why I’m writing in this incredibly bizarre manner, I have an answer for you: because the only book I brought with me is a selection of writings by H.L. Mencken. Read that for a couple of hours, and then see how you write.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bloggers' Beverage at the ASA

Well, I know it is a late announcement this year, but fear not! We are in fact having a bloggers' get-together at the ASA. It will be Saturday at 6pm in the lobby of the Hotel Intercontinental. Sociologically-inclined blog writers and blog readers are welcome.

See you there!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Question

I have just started reading Don't think of an elephant: know your values and frame the debate by George Lakoff. It looks like the perfect book to me - liberal politics and sociolinguistics. My question now is do people actually know who Lakoff is and do people really read this book, or is that all just his propaganda? If so, has any of you read it and does anyone have anything to say about its influence? On a related point, has anyone read/seen any books on similar topics? I am woefully ignorant about all of this but am absolutely fascinated by this approach, and am convinced of its importance in politics.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Let's be frivolous today...

Like Brayden I have been known, from time to time, to listen to music. Granted, I tend to prefer heavy metal and classic rock to Brayden's own alternative but, hey, what do you want from me?

One of the modern bands I have developed something of a fondness for is Evanescence. The reasons for this are simple: I tend to prefer female vocalists to male, and like a rock sound. So, they end up being a natural fit for me.

Recently, I became aware that a clip from one of the songs on their new CD has been made available on their website. Curious, I went and had myself a little listen. Now, this sample gives me hope that the second CD isn't going to be a pox upon all mankind but, here's the thing: is it just me, or is Amy Lee sounding more than a little like Fiona Apple?

And man is that ever a bad sign.*

* For any Fiona Apple fans out there, gimme a break, okay? I like "Criminal" quite a bit and "Sleep to Dream," ain't half bad. I even purchased her first album for a car trip years ago. Sadly, that car trip felt ten times longer thanks to the remainder of the tracks, which were fairly... iffy.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The End of No Things Whatsoever...

Normally I try to get posts up on a more or less regular schedule- five days a week, Monday through Friday, with rare weekend posts if something truly remarkable happens. Today, however, I am not writing a post of my own. Instead, I am leaving that task to the Red-Faced Warbler who has written two excellent posts that are worth your time and attention. The first of these, I think, sums up many of my own reactions to the present horror in the middle east. More specifically, the Warbler manages to take on the reaction to it among some elements in the United States:

I just heard Libby Dole tell us that Iraq was the central battle in the "War on Terra". As any fan of science fiction or Latin knows, this is a frightening mispronunciation. On the other hand, maybe it's the one Bush has really been fighting all this time. In fact, the evidence supports this interpretation. The Bush cabal has usurped control of the U.S. military and has led the entire world deep into the first stages of global conflict. In many ways Bush really has taken on the world, too, by flaunting public opinion and human decency. Of course 30% of the American public still approves of Bush's foreign policy. Who the HELL are they? I have a guess.This brings me to this weeks hot topic: the end of the world. Pundits have all week been spuriously opining in response to questions like “Are we on the verge of WWIII?” People are starting to use the word Armageddon in the present tense. As if 'WWIII' wasn't scary enough. There's some hill in Lebanon that people are saying IS the place this word refers to. And of course, Israel is attacking near it. Aha! That was prophesied! Another little window to open on our "countdown to the apocalypse" Advent calendar.

Many are looking at the real-world death, suffering, and war and getting that "here we go!" feeling of being just barely over the edge of the roller coaster's first hill. Throw up your hands and scream. We're descending into the end days....wheeeeeee!

Sick.

And, even sicker, some of them believe they're so right(eous?) that they'll be 'raptured' and not even have to watch all the rest of us go through the foretold horrors. How nice. Convenient, even, I would say.

I'm starting to believe.

I mean, no - I don't believe for a minute that the authors of Daniel and Ezekiel and Revelation actually had foreknowledge of anything. Their "prophecies" read exactly like the horoscopes and cold readings of a million mystics and con artists since. "A beast with seven heads will arise" Oh, my! How...inexplicable. Could it be the G-7? No, now they're the G-8. Or maybe it’s the seven horses in the Preakness. Or the year 2007. Or the 6 people and one dog that attended my homeowners' association meeting last month.


Well worth a read.

The second post is one that answers a common question overseas: are Muslim lives worth less to Americans than Christian or Jewish lives? The Warbler answers no, but for a reason that will leave you humbled, and perhaps a little shamed.

In any case, when another blogger tackles a subject with more aplomb than I have, I can only bow to their superior work. This is one of those times.

Fortunately for me, however, I'm too much of a moron to recognize all such instances of superior writing, or else I'd never blog about anything.

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