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.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Inevitable.

It would seem, based on the psychotic fervor in the news, that Saddam Hussein has just been executed.

In a sense this is a good thing, or at least not a bad one. Saddam Hussein was, any way you slice it, a pretty bad guy. He has quite a bit of blood on his hands and I doubt that in a fair world he deserved to live.

Yet, I don't feel any relief at this news. There is a difference between a fair trial and a kangaroo court. When thinking about Hussein's trial, how would you classify it?

Any fair trial would have reached the same verdict- but at least a fair trial would have left us with some kind of dignity.

Rot in hell, Saddam Hussein. I just hope the legacy of this fiasco isn't as bad as I fear it will be.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Respectable

Sometimes I think I work for the best cover of all times for an international crime organisation, like the ones you see in James Bond movies. It's all a little too politically correct, and people really enjoy enforcing the dress code. Moreover two of the main figures in the organisation are (non-medical) Doctors; they have faintly unlikely, decidedly foreign names, and somewhat bizarre mannerisms. There is a sprinkle of both dangerous and jaded blondes and sweet, innocent brunettes. There are two whole floors where no one ever goes and for which we have only the most general description available - the perfect place for a secret control room with a giant communications screen through which to threaten cowering world leaders.

Sadly, however, my employer is, in fact, entirely upright and non-criminal, not to mention a tad humourless. The desks are just desks, and there is no shark pool, though there is a vague attempt at a gym room. My job is mostly beneficial to the universe, in a small way, and my colleagues do not know how to operate nuclear submarines. My boss is nice, genuinly religious, and quietly unglamourous. And even if there were a giant screen somewhere, the Dr. in charge's son would probably be playing playstation on it.

Don't you hate it when that happens.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

In case you hadn't already guessed...

I am presently away from home visiting family and friends. Particularly I am visiting my Sainted Fiancee's family, including her mother, her father, and her little sister. While traveling my blogging will be, at best, spotty. Sorry about that but, hey, what do you expect? It isn't like I get paid for this. I don't even run ads.

I'll post when I can and look for regular posting to resume in early January.

Unless, of course, some of my illustrious co-bloggers post in the meantime.

No pressure.*


* No, seriously, I'm not trying to pressure you. Anything you want to contribute is great, but I maintain a pretty reliable schedule normally so a vacation every now and then doesn't make me feel guilty.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Yahweh or my way...

As a fairly substantial percentage of mankind would agree, today is the Christian-cum-Pagan holiday known as Christmas. This day, perhaps more than any other, is the focus of right-wing insanity and, as such, might be expected to generate a lot of ire from a devout atheist such as myself. However, as I spend a very ecumencial day with my parents, my sister, her husband, my Sainted Fiancee, and my future best man, I prefer to think of Christmas in its one universal meaning...

Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men. Give to others, and wash your hands before you touch that.

Happy Holidays, folks.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Too much.

Like many people, I get a lot of junk mail on a daily basis. This is not because I have the money to buy a whole lot of stuff so much as because I am, apparently, breathing and thus qualify as a legitimate target. Recently, my Sainted Fiancee and I received something in the mail that, frankly, defies description:



For those of you who didn't click on the picture above to see a bigger version it's a statue of a teddybear riding a motorcycle. This is a mixture of machismo and "cute" that strikes me as more than a little bizarre. What really makes it, though, is the fact that it is a breast-cancer themed item. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you can purchase this item as a way to both show your support for breast cancer research and to contribute to such an effort. Of course, if you really wanted to donate to the Susan G. Komen Foundation I'm sure there are more effective approaches but that's not the point. This way nets you a creepy bear suitable for display in the parlor of batshit crazy old women the world over.

It's not that I don't care about breast cancer- like many heterosexual men, I have a great appreciation for that particular anatomical feature- but this seems to have crossed the line into total absurdity. Hell, we've gone past odd and right into insulting kitsch. Like the Plain(s)feminist,* who has discussed this issue in some detail, I find the commercialization of breast cancer research a little hard to understand. Must everything be breast cancer themed? Moreover, is there a product that on a basic level can't be converted into a breast cancer fundraiser without becoming, itself, a mockery of the very objective?

And, perhaps most importantly, will all this ever reach it's inevitable conclusion:




When the first Susan G. Komen Fundraising breast implants roll off of the assembly line, we will truly have entered the age of the Charity-Industrial Complex.

So hurry up and purchase your horrid little bear- only $39.95 plus shipping, handling, and receive with it- absolutely free- a deep sense of shame. Supplies are limited, so order now!


* Who is a great blogger, but has quite possibly the most annoying blog handle (to spell) that I've ever encountered.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Maximum Likelihood Haiku

Ahem...

Numbers spinning fast
The iterating bird sings
Converge you bastard


Thank you. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An RPG only a geek could love

We began last week with a post discussing a role-playing game, so it seems appropriate to continue this week in a similar vein. I have recently come across a depiction of what I feel is the awesomest* RPG ever:



Seriously, check that out: an eighth-level positivist? I can't be more than a fifth-level myself (although I've been cross-classing with Rhetorician). This little faux RPG is honestly the funniest thing since philosophical action figures. I really do love this comic** and think you should too.

Obviously, this is not the entire comic. No, for that you're going to have to use the elegant and finely-crafted link above, or just click here. I'd reproduce the whole comic but (a) that would be a grievous violation of copyright and (b) it might stop you from visiting the site that this gem derives from: the superb Dresden Codak. There you will find all manner of wonders from a rather charming discussion of quantum mechanics, to a cameo appearance by Nelson Mandela, to an insightful discussion of American history, to the most convincing theology I think I've ever seen. There's even this lovely drawing that makes, I think, a very convincing point.

Go on over and take a look- the archives aren't very deep, but every comic is beautful, intelligent, and utterly hysterical. Well worth your time.

Although, that said, if you put a high premium on your time, you probably wouldn't read this blog in the first place.


* Definitely not a word.

** And they even have prints for sale. Anyone still doing Christmas shopping will find this the perfect gift for the over-educated asshole in the family.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Injustice.

In lieu of my planned post today, allow me to simply draw attention to the plight of the so-called Tripoli Six, six western medical professionals who have been held in Libya since approximately 1999. Why are they being held? Well, for allegedly deliberately infecting children with the HIV virus.

This case is a long and painful example of the intersection between politics, humanitarianism, and science. It has involved everything from accusations of a CIA and Mossad conspiracy to an attempt to use the trial to free the bomber of Pan Am Flight 103, to confessions obtained under torture.

What makes this whole trial so appalling is not simply the crime of which the Tripoli Six are accused or the incompetent nature of the proceedings, but that there is strong reason to believe that they are completely innocent. Most powerfully, recent research published in Nature strongly suggests that the children were infected long before the foreign medical workers arrived.* While dating the divergence of viral strains can be tricky, HIV's fast mutation rate makes it fairly easy and, indeed, it seems that the foreign medics cannot have been involved. Sadly, the Libyan government has chosen to ignore these findings.

And now, just today, we have received word that Libya has, once more, sentenced the medics to death:

A court convicted six foreign health workers Tuesday on charges of deliberately infecting 400 children with the AIDS virus and sentenced them to death, setting off shouts of joy in Tripoli.

...

The nurses and doctor have been in jail since 1999 on charges that they intentionally spread the AIDS virus to more than 400 children at a hospital in the city of Benghazi during a botched experiment to find a cure for the disease.

Western nations blame the infections on unsanitary conditions at Libyan hospitals and accuse Tripoli of using the six workers as scapegoats.


I am afraid we are very close to seeing these six individuals executed for, ultimately, public relations. And in response I frankly do not know what to say.

Sometimes injustice is so profound it simply strikes us dumb. This is one of those times.


* The truly interested in the audience can find the primary source here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Balance

Recently, a commenter brought a particular issue to my attention: that I am, perhaps, a bit unbalanced in my treatment of genitalia. Specifically, the commenter remarked in response to a recent post about penises:

I feel I must call you on your propensity to show actual pictures when discussing female sex organs, but not including pictures like this when discussing male sex organs. I think it only fair... - A Non-Impartial Reader [Link original]


Loathe as I am to admit it, I have to concede that this commenter has a point. I have, from time to time, written about parts of the female anatomy, and have lovingly provided links. Hell, I've even written about breasts on other blogs. As the commenter pointed out, however, I have fallen down on the job when it comes to the male anatomy. I wrote an entire post dealing with penises and barely provided any links.

Now, one might argue that my failure was an effort to maintain good taste but- as regular readers of this blog know- that can't possibly be the explanation.* The reality is I just don't have as much prurient interest in penises as I have in breasts. As a result, my "coverage" of this area has been somewhat lacking. I suppose it's also the case that, really, I thought that I was enough of a cock to suffice for the site. So, starting here, I will make an effort to compensate for this lack-of-balance by including a set of links in any given post dealing with the female body that point to images of men in various states of undress. This will, in all likelihood, prove to be quite easy as there are a variety of pictures of men and penises available.

For example, there are cartoon penises:



Comparative penises:



Comparatively large penises:



Comparatively small penises:



And even penises made out of cake:



I even discovered that a search on Google Images for "flacid penises" turns up some rather unexpected results. I rather think these are a consequence of what I now think of as the Shannon Elizabth Postulate.** namely, that virtually any search on google images will, given sufficient time, yield porn.***

So, ladies and gentlemen from here on in you can look forward to a greater abundance of penises than ever before.

I'm sure you can hardly wait.




* I mean, seriously, have you even read my blog?

** The name derives from the footnotes to this post.

*** There's an addition to this postulate that more or less reads, "Especially if this search is being conducted by Drek on behalf of his readers."

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Anatomy of Dislike

Regular readers of this blog know that I am not a big fan of Wild Bill Dembski. You might think that this is because I generally favor the theory of evolution over the doctrine of intelligent design, but that would be wrong. While I think intelligent design has little, if any, claim to being legitimate science, my mere disagreement with someone is not sufficient to make me dislike them. No, my dislike of Dembski emerges not from my disagreement with him, but rather from what is, in my opinion, a certain dishonesty about his manner of argument. I am not the first one to make such a claim, nor am I alone in it, but it is an opinion I hold: I do regard him as a dishonest and untrustworthy man.

An example of why this is so recently appeared, spread across two different blogs. The first is The Panda's Thumb, a pro-science group blog that is often in the position of defending evolutionary theory. The second blog is, unsurprisingly, Dembski's own Uncommon Descent. Both are linked in the blogroll here at Total Drek because I like to encourage a certain diversity in my readership. In any case, an examination of the "dialogue" between these two blogs, reveals a little something about Dembski's character.

Things began with a post on PT refuting an argument by both Dembski and Michael Behe that evolutionary accounts are little more than just-so stories. This is, of course, both ludicrous and ironic since (a) evolutionary accounts have logical implications that can be examined with evidence and (b) this is a great example of the pot calling the kettle black. ID simply argues that an intelligent designer MUST exist because (they claim) we have no natural explanation for certain structures. So, in essence, we exist "just because" some unidentified, unknown being with undefined abilities created us in mysterious ways for no apparent reason. Yes, indeed, Dembski and Behe are in a strong position to level the "just-so" critique.

The action surrounding this post didn't get interesting, however, until a ways into the comments. Specifically, until a man calling himself SteveB posted a comment essentially claiming that the extermination of ID advocates and creationists was an evolutionary imperative. More to the point, he was basically advocating that pro-evolution folks go out and murder the anti-side. Well, that's certainly a tried-and-true method, but not really one I think any of us are likely to support. In any case, his message read (more or less) as follows:

Roughly:

1) Evolution is objectively real.

2) IDists deny the reality of evolution which makes them unfit.

3) It follows that since IDists are unfit they should not survive because they hinder evolutionary progress.

(I think that We Need To Own This.)

Implementation:

A) How far is one willing to go to act on #3?

a) For the most part PT exists is to act on #3.

Example:

Participants on PT routinely use justifiably hateful and dehumanizing language to describe IDists or anyone who even suggests that TOE may not be correct.

Question:

With this much intensity why not advocate carrying our efforts to their fullest extent since doing so is consistent with the reality of evolution?


As you will doubtless expect, other commenters jumped on SteveB about this. Objections ranged from conflating science with morality, to questioning the sanity of a man advocating genocide, to debating the logical underpinnings of SteveB's position.

Meanwhile, demonstrating his catlike reflexes, Dembski reproduced SteveB's comment on his blog with the heading "Panda's Thumb: IDeological Genocide?" He also added, "Here’s a modest proposal posted at the Panda’s Thumb." This, initially, sparked some hostile responses, some sarcasm, and some paranoia. At the same time, however, the ID commenters rapidly started to clue in to some fishiness here. The fourth comment pointed out that SteveB was probably a troll, another commenter asserted it was probably satire and, finally, one commenter mentioned that he's pretty sure SteveB is an ID proponent. So, we have Dembski chucking some mud at the Panda's Thumb based on one commenter, who not only got hammered over there, but is discounted even by a number of the ID crowd.

Now, at this point, Dembski could have done a lot of things. He could have let the matter drop, he could have posted a sort of retraction/clarification, or he could have made some sort of concilliatory gesture acknowledging that the folks on the Panda's Thumb were ripping SteveB a new one. Dembski did none of these things- he instead renewed his attack by posting an addendum:

[Added 12.14.06 at 12:49CST:] Some commenters are upset that I have posted this because, they suggest, this is obviously the work of an ID-supporting troll creating mischief at PT. That may be. My interest is that PT allows such comments at all, regardless of whom they are from. PT does moderate its comments. So why do posts like this remain? Could it be that the moderators are sympathetic to what Steve B. is writing, hoping that it comes true, even if they are unwilling to say it themselves? I challenge you to find comparable statements about Darwinists in UD’s comments.


Which is pretty much when the wheels came off the wagon for me. The original post could possibly be interpreted as something other than insulting, but this is simply blatant. Clearly, Dembski argues, since the moderators permit even foolish people to post, the moderators must agree with those foolish people. It isn't possible, in Wild Bill's view, that the moderators just value free speech and protect moronic, but polite, commentary. Lovely. The kicker, however, is that challenge at the end to find a comparable comment at Uncommon Descent. The implication? Why, merely that since ID isn't populated by those nasty old scientists with their horrid evolutionary theory, it's a much nicer place to be!

The problem, of course, is that comparable comments are easy to find. Two contenders were posted within minutes of each other- one by trystero57 and one by your own lovable Drek. Mine, actually, was the subject of a blog post a while back.*

So what happened? Did Dembski at least acknowledge that his attack was somewhat unreasonable? Oh, hell no. After throwing nasty little implications at the Panda's Thumb, and then outright accusing them of harboring genocidal tendencies, after challenging the public to show similar behavior from his own commenters, and then having that challenge met, what does he do? What you'd expect from him: he makes an irrelevant defense and tries to change the subject. Despite the last effort of one commenter to introduce some honesty, Uncommon Descent is back to it's usual nonsensical ranting about the causal relationship between evolutionary theory and genocide.

So what do we take from all this? Well, for me, the point is clear: ID folks and non-ID folks often disagree. This is natural and, indeed, even healthy for inquiry. Disagreement will sometimes blossom into serious discord and name calling. This is less desirable but, to an extent, is inevitable and requires management. It is, however, the responsibility of authorities in such a debate to try and enforce some basic level of intellectual honesty- to recognize and admit when they have made a mistake or an error. This is doubly so when debates are as heated, and serious, as one about accusations of genocide.

And, as always, William Dembski has fallen down on the job. Even worse, he has fanned the flames and actively rejected anything approximating responsibility.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is why I don't much like him.



* Granted, the comment was about atheists rather than "Darwinists," but those who follow Uncommon Descent are aware that Dembski's crew rarely distinguishes between those groups.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Tales from the Office: I'd hate to see that edition.

The Scene: Drek and his Former Hypothetical Roomate (FHR) are in Drek's office. The FHR is grading.

FHR: Oh man.

Drek: Hmmm?

FHR: Well, I'm grading these papers, right?

Drek: Yeah.

FHR: And this guy is writing about the, "Salem Itch Trials."

Drek: Sounds uncomfortable.

FHR: The trials or the grading?

Drek: Yes.

FHR: Pretty awesome typo, though.

Drek: Definitely.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stuck in a Rutz.

As I was mentioning yesterday, readers of the blog occasionally send me little tidbits for future posts. Sometimes these are in line with my usual interests, other times they are totally random, and still other times they seem to be part of an ongoing dialogue with my previous writing. This last option seems to have been the motivation for Bookmobile to send me a rather charming little article titled: "Soy is making kids 'gay.'"* As you might guess, the main contention of the article (written by Jim Rutz or, as I like to call him, crazy old guy) seems to be that soybean products are the primary cause of homosexuality:

There's a slow poison out there that's severely damaging our children and threatening to tear apart our culture. The ironic part is, it's a "health food," one of our most popular.

...

The dangerous food I'm speaking of is soy. Soybean products are feminizing, and they're all over the place. You can hardly escape them anymore.

I have nothing against an occasional soy snack. Soy is nutritious and contains lots of good things. Unfortunately, when you eat or drink a lot of soy stuff, you're also getting substantial quantities of estrogens.

Estrogens are female hormones. If you're a woman, you're flooding your system with a substance it can't handle in surplus. If you're a man, you're suppressing your masculinity and stimulating your "female side," physically and mentally.


Still don't see the connection with homosexuality? Well, obviously it's rooted in this whole "estrogen" thing he's on about. Specifically:

In fetal development, the default is being female. All humans (even in old age) tend toward femininity. The main thing that keeps men from diverging into the female pattern is testosterone, and testosterone is suppressed by an excess of estrogen.

If you're a grownup, you're already developed, and you're able to fight off some of the damaging effects of soy. Babies aren't so fortunate. Research is now showing that when you feed your baby soy formula, you're giving him or her the equivalent of five birth control pills a day. A baby's endocrine system just can't cope with that kind of massive assault, so some damage is inevitable. At the extreme, the damage can be fatal.

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That's why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today's rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products. (Most babies are bottle-fed during some part of their infancy, and one-fourth of them are getting soy milk!) Homosexuals often argue that their homosexuality is inborn because "I can't remember a time when I wasn't homosexual." No, homosexuality is always deviant. But now many of them can truthfully say that they can't remember a time when excess estrogen wasn't influencing them.


So, to recap: soybeans contain estrogen, estrogen feminizes, therefore soybeans cause, "...a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality." Do they eat a lot of soybeans in India? If so, maybe we've got an explanation for yesterday's post. In any case, our charming author spends quite a bit of time ranting about the dangers of soybeans and how their consumption is destroying American civilization. In a way I'm reassured to hear this: at least he isn't blaming the atheists.**

Now, the interesting thing is that this rant, however nonsensical it may sound, does have a kernel of truth in it. While the soybean is thought to have some cardiovascular benefits, there also appears to be some genuine debate over its possible role in cancer. Additionally, it has been shown to suppress thyroid function and may indeed have some reproductive or feminizing effects via an estrogen precursor it contains- phytoestrogen. Taken together, this provides some possible factual support for Rutz's claims.

Hey, I don't like it either, but if I'm not honest about that I'm no better than Crazy Old Guy.

That said, can this hotly-debated research be taken as definitive support for the idea that soybeans cause homosexuality? Does soy spread "the gay," as it were? Well, I for one doubt it. Why do I doubt it? Well, here's a hint: (HINT)

Exactly: my doubt is rooted, at least in part, in the existence of lesbians, or female homosexuals. Now, if an overabundance of soy products was the primary cause of homosexuality, we might expect female homosexuals to be very uncommon. Women, as it happens, naturally have quite a bit of estrogen, so women consuming lots of soybeans should be, I suppose, really, really feminine. More importantly, if large quantities of estrogen make males prefer males as sexual partners, it stands to reason it would do the same for females. As it happens, however, lesbians seem to exist in roughly comparable numbers to male homosexuals. This rather strongly implies that homosexuality is not a result of an over-exposure to estrogen.*** If that weren't enough, it's probably important to note as well that being "homosexual" does not necessarily mean "identifying as the opposite sex." So, a male might prefer other males as sexual partners while still identifying as a male. Someone who both prefers the same sex as a sexual partner, and identifies as the opposite sex (i.e. a male who self-identifies as female and prefers males as sex partners) is more appropriately known as transexual.

What we have in Rutz's writing is a fairly common little mistake: taking a pastiche of research that is a long way from being conclusive, and putting it together in some bizarre fashion to support a point. Is it possible that soybeans consumed in large quantities may have a feminizing effect? Sure. Is that certain? No. If it was certain, would that mean that homosexuality is attributable to soybeans? Well, since homosexuality has been around for a looooong time, I'm going with "no." Rutz is trying to construct an argument out of a little of this, and a little of that, and ignoring the context from which it comes.****

Rutz's claims deserve to be mocked and, indeed, are receiving all appropriate mockery. At the same time, however, let's at least be grateful to see the ultraconservatives paying attention to research.

Piss poor attention, sure, but it's a start.



* I just have to say, I love the quotes around the word "gay." I suppose the author wanted to make sure that we didn't think he meant, "happy." Wow, thanks crazy guy! I woulda been confused otherwise!

** That said, we'll probably be up next week.

*** Not solely, anyway. I suspect that homosexuality is a complex phenomenon with multiple biological causes and consequences. I wouldn't rule estrogen out as a component in that, but I see no reason to jump to conclusions.

**** That is, where he isn't completely misunderstanding things. For example, I love his claim that, "In fetal development, the default is being female. All humans (even in old age) tend toward femininity. The main thing that keeps men from diverging into the female pattern is testosterone, and testosterone is suppressed by an excess of estrogen." Interesting. Sure, all humans start out as female, but after birth men aren't constantly fighting a war against their own femininity. Even if we had no testosterone production, feminization is pretty limited by our lack of ovaries.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Today on Total Drek: Penises!

Every now and then readers send me tidbits of news or interesting information that make it into a blog post. I generally rather enjoy this reader participation as it reminds me that I'm not just talking to myself here. In any case, a reader, who shall remain nameless because that's what he seems to want, recently sent me a rather fascinating article about penises. No, I'm not kidding. Specifically, this article is about the apparent revelation that Indian men have small penises:

A survey of more than 1,000 men in India has concluded that condoms made according to international sizes are too large for a majority of Indian men.

The study found that more than half of the men measured had penises that were shorter than international standards for condoms.

...

Over 1,200 volunteers from the length and breadth of the country had their penises measured precisely, down to the last millimetre.

The scientists even checked their sample was representative of India as a whole in terms of class, religion and urban and rural dwellers.

The conclusion of all this scientific endeavour is that about 60% of Indian men have penises which are between three and five centimetres shorter than international standards used in condom manufacture.


First off, I think we can all thank the celebrated English wit for that "length and breadth" remark. It's nice to see that the British have gotten over their colonial guilt enough to make subtle wang jokes at the expense of their former subjects. Indeed, bravo. If it makes you feel any better, India, the English were pretty hard on us after the Revolutionary War. They're just trying to distract us all from the terrifying headgear of their royal family. More importantly, however, while there is ample opportunity for humor here, it is at least somewhat misplaced.

Many societies are obsessed with the size, shape, or quality of certain bodily parts. Here in the U.S., for example, this is apparent in the form of breast fetishism, the consequences of which we've touched on before.* Similarly, penis size and girth are regarded as important issues speaking to a man's potency. A man with a small penis, it is thought, will be an unimportant man. Perhaps fortunately for men, our penises are less susceptible to casual evaluation** than are a woman's breasts, and so we are spared some of the more aggravating consequences of penis fetishism. How women put up with that shit, I'll never know.

In any case, as often as I object to breast fetishism*** it at least isn't likely to get anyone killed. Sadly, however, the current problem Indian men have is:

Doctor Chander Puri, a specialist in reproductive health at the Indian Council of Medical Research, told the BBC there was an obvious need in India for custom-made condoms, as most of those currently on sale are too large.

The issue is serious because about one in every five times a condom is used in India it either falls off or tears, an extremely high failure rate.

And the country already has the highest number of HIV infections of any nation.


So, yes, while obsession with breasts is certainly an issue, and it does impact many women's lives (not to mention produce some truly shitty jokes) it isn't likely to spread life-threatening disease. Unfortunately, however inclined we may be to crack jokes at the expense of Indian men and their tiny penises**** the issue is one of life and death.

Mr Puri said that since Indians would be embarrassed about going to a chemist to ask for smaller condoms there should be vending machines dispensing different sizes all around the country.

"Smaller condoms are on sale in India. But there is a lack of awareness that different sizes are available. There is anxiety talking about the issue. And normally one feels shy to go to a chemist's shop and ask for a smaller size condom." [link added for the sake of immature humor]


Which is sad and ironic considering that Indian men are only smaller in comparison to non-Indian men. Small is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. Fortunately, there is something of a solution to this problem:

But Indian men need not be concerned about measuring up internationally according to Sunil Mehra, the former editor of the Indian version of the men's magazine Maxim.

"It's not size, it's what you do with it that matters," he said.

"From our population, the evidence is Indians are doing pretty well.


Ah, yes, "it's not the size that counts, it's how you use it." Bold, new advice that has, indeed, served women well. For that matter, men have had and interesting time with it as well.

Seriously, if that's our public health solution to this problem, we're fucking doomed.


* Those of you who are laughing because I used "touched on" following the word "breast" really need to watch less Beevis and Butthead.

** A friend of mine, of course, would want me to comment here that men do show off their penis size, but in terms of what they do. So, for example, common wisdom is that a man who owns a certain kind of car must be compensating for a small penis. If that's true, then judging by my car, I must have a penis the size of a baseball bat.

*** Which is somewhat ironic given how eager I am to mention breasts on the blog at every opportunity. Not to mention provide links, as though you don't know what they are.

**** And, no, I'm not above it either. I've been trying, though.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tales from the Office: Dungeons and Dragons Edition

The Scene: Drek is chatting with one of his associates about a recent game of Dungeons and Dragons.*

Drek: So, anyway, we passed down this tight, dark, warm tunnel and ended up in this room.

Associate: Yeah?

Drek: And there we found an invisible chest.

Associate: Really? An invisible chest?

Drek: Yeah. Why, does that mean something?

Associate: No. No, it's just that I'm all of a sudden thinking about my ex-girlfriend.

Drek: ...

Drek: That's a little more than I needed to know, buddy.

Associate: Oh, sure, this from the guy who periodically links to tubgirl?**

Drek: Okay. Well I'm going to have to give you that one.

Associate: Yes. Yes you are.


* Yes, I do sometimes play a little of the old D&D. I long ago recognized and, indeed, embraced my utter loserdom. Hence, similarly, the blogging.

** For those who don't know, and are too chicken to click the link above, "tubgirl" is the most horrifying thing you will ever see outside of a warzone. If you're sufficiently stupid to want to see it, be my guest. Be advised, however, that this picture is so NOT work-safe that it boggles the mind.

As a side note: Yeah, I know, this post sucks and is really not the most tasteful offering ever. Sorry about that. I'm in a hurry and more or less wrote enough actual content last week that the idea of trying to say something smart right now is too much for me.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Warbler's bane

A few days ago Drek sent me an email with only the words “just trust me” and a link. I was confused. I trust Drek implicitly, but I’ve learned over many years of life not to trust anyone who says “just trust me”. I followed the link. DAMN him.

Now you have to understand. I’m a Tolkien fan. I mean, a huge one. My parents read me the Hobbit when I was little, and I was enchanted. Then we all read The Lord of the Rings together, and I was astounded. Awed. Invigorated. Hooked. I read it over and over. I memorized lines. I got into trivia contests with my friends. I know things I probably shouldn’t know. I consumed it.

It was the depth of the depiction of Middle Earth that got to me. I mean, I loved the story and the characters, but what made me read LotR over and over again was the amazing richness incorporated into its inception.

You see, the Lord of the Rings didn’t start as a story: it started as a language. JRRT was a philologist, and a contributor to the Oxford English dictionary as well as a professor of Anglo-Saxon languages and works--such as Beowulf, upon which he was a recognized expert. He had playfully written his own “faerie” language as a young man, and had created a lost race of what we now recognize as elves to speak it. He sketched out some history, and some topography, and elven myths and songs and gods and emblems, and the lineages of elven lords, all in a very high and epic style…but he left it at that. It was just an amusement of his own. Nobody would want to read such a thing, he thought. (By the way, these stories were published as The Silmarillion, after his death.)

Anyhow, quite independently of this pursuit, he’d written a cute little story for his own children, about a little “hobbit” named Bilbo Baggins (which had since been published to great acclaim and success), and he had been asked by his publisher to write a sequel. That’s what he set out to do: The Hobbit II; but somehow, along their way, his little hobbits strayed into his elvish land.*

A land with a past and a life. One that did not exist simply for the characters in the story -- one that existed independently, just as our own world does for us. The characters in LotR pass ruins and graves with unremembered origins; they meet ancient creatures, foe and friend; they hear graceful, melancholy elves speaking their own delicate language; they hear stories and songs about a sad and glorious past that they only barely understand; they walk roads that have been walked by unknown others before.

That, in my opinion, is the coup of LotR. Because it ends up making Middle Earth feel real in a way no other fantasy world ever has. A place you might be able to go and live, if you could figure out how. Escapism like nothing ever. If you get to pick your Heaven, then that’s where I’ll be.

Like every great Tolkien fan, I just always wanted more. I wanted to know what was over the next hill. There are places on Tolkien’s map of the area that his tale never visits: who lives there?

So, as you can see, I’ve long been passionate about this. Hell, I’ve written LotR POEMS (If I can find one, I’ll attach it below later…maybe you’ll enjoy it) . For most of my life this passion designated me as a geek, class 1. It got me into Dungeons and Dragons (=geek class 1A) as a teen to try to expand on the experience, and it sent me to read every Tolkien wannabe writer to publish in the 80s and 90s (always with disappointment in comparison). Nobody could ever match the richness of language, history, and geography of Middle Earth.

In the simplest terms, I’ve for been trying to get to Middle Earth for 30 years. I own a Middle Earth Atlas. I play Rivendell, by Rush, on my guitar. I get a Tolkien calendar every year and have 15 years worth of its pictures saved in a scrapbook. And, up until 2000, I dreamed of a live-action movie that would show me more of this place. Peter Jackson, of course, gave me a dream come true that year.

He also elevated my status from geek to enthusiast/expert. No longer do people look at me askance if I mention Gollum, Galadriel, or the Nazgul. I’ve never felt so vindicated. Everybody loves Tolkien. There are action figures, t-shirts, video games, jokes on Jay Leno, and of course the Academy award. And a vast multiplication of fans.

Which leads me to my doom. The doom that Drek sent me to. There it is, over the event horizon…It’s *beautiful*.

Yes, Middle Earth is about to appear online… in just a few months I can go. I don’t care about “playing” it, really, I just want to explore it. See the Misty Mountains and the Bay of Belfalas,…to take a left turn once or twice where Frodo took a right. But it occurs to me…it could take…months…. And after all…it’s frivolous, right? I’m a professional, with more important things to do. I know, I know. But it’s THERE. How can I save myself from this doom? “Warbler’s Bane,” they’ll call it when I’m gone over the hills and far away. If I stop blogging and disappear from this world, look for me at the Sign of the Prancing Pony in Bree or in the Halls of Mandos. Anyone want to join me?

* You can feel it happen as you read. The first book’s advertures are very episodic, just like The Hobbit was. (Tom Bombadil’s chapter, e.g., always seemed to me a lot like Beorn’s). But as the hobbits of LotR continue their adventure, their story takes a more serious, more worldy tone: one that Tolkien himself had no idea it would when he started (we know this because his early drafts and notes have, too, been published, and one can follow the creation of the story now from beginning to end in successive draft attempts). They characters meet some of the same people, but they seem more fully drawn, more serious, and more adult in this new perspective.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Wouldn't you know it?

Looking for a little distraction today? Well, head on over to Tom's Blog where I am guest posting.

What's the subject? Eh. Intelligent design cranks and the women who love them.*

Enjoy!



* Seriously, are there any women who love intelligent design cranks? Is that why they're so ornery?

And no, that joke was not beneath me, as I have effectively no shame.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Change

If there's any one thing that characterizes the universe it is change. Nothing, as the saying goes, lasts forever and this is as true for individual human lives as it is for galactic megastructures. People are born and people die, planets are born and planets die, stars are born and stars die, and so on up to the largest levels of existence. In such a maleable world we have all had to come to grips with the idea that the world does, in fact, flex and shift and generally go on about things without us.

Unfortunately, we as humans are somewhat limited in our perspective on change. We perceive the world at a particular rate* and for a limited duration. Things that change more rapidly than we can perceive we know only through their consequences. Things that change more slowly than we can perceive, in turn, seem eternal and unchanging. And so, because of our limited perceptual ability, we may fail to notice things that are, in many ways, staring us in the face.

I have been thinking about change as a consequence of three stories that have hit the news in the last few days. The first is that water may still flow on the planet Mars. When I initially heard this story I suspected that scientists had looked at some new canyon or plain and concluded that water still exists under the surface and has reached the surface sometime in the past century or so. For geologists, this is essentially contmeporary. I was only half-right. In fact, scientists have compared photographs of the same canyons taken several years apart and noticed new deposits that strongly appear to have been laid down by liquid water. So, in other words, within not just our lifetimes but within the past few years liquid water may have touched the surface of Mars. This is, to put it mildly, fucking exciting, and has substantial implications not just for the possible existence of native life on Mars, but also for eventual human terraforming of the Red Planet. In this case change over a short period arouses considerable interest. It is, after all, something we can see in pictures.

Then comes a second story: that here on Earth things may be changing as well. Specifically, our oceans are getting warmer. Why is this of concern? Well, because it seems to be killing off the photosynthetic critters that we depend on. How do we depend on them, you ask? Well, it's simple: we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon-dioxide. They inhale carbon-dioxide and exhale oxygen. It's a wonderful little cycle. Thing is, while terrestrial plants do this too, the role of oceanic algae in replenishing our oxygen supply is immense. The oceans have even been referred to as the lungs of the Earth. Without them, we're going to be in bad shape. This change is also one we can see, but over a longer time span than in the case of Mars. It's a little harder for us to grasp but it's still there in the data if you care to look.

And then we come to our last story. In this story we hear about how the outgoing Chair of the Senate Environmental Committee, James Inhofe, has spent years campaigning against the idea that Humans are partially responsible for global warming. He has, in fact, referred to the media's promulgation of the global warming idea as the "greatest hoax perpetrated on the American people." In his last hearing on the subject he brought in three witnesses who are skeptical of human responsibility for global warming to testify on the subject. Now, obviously, there remains disagreement on the issue of global warming, but by and large we have a scientific consensus: the Earth is warming, and Humans are at least partly responsible for it. We may be wholly responsible, though I have my doubts on that. Nevertheless, the change is occurring, and for industrialized nations dealing with this problem would be expensive and difficult. Thus- like a child arguing with its mother- we offer up a littany of excuses and equivocations so as to avoid punishment. Some of us take comfort in hiding behind a tiny sliver of scientific disagreement, hoping that it will stem the overwhelming flood of scholarly consensus. In this case scientists are extremely certain that we are presently in the midst of a massive environmental change brought about partly by our own actions, but this change is one that has been occuring slowly. So slowly that most of us don't even notice. The world we know is different from that of our parents, and the world of our children will be different from ours, but in the meantime things are happening so slowly they seem not to be happening at all. Yet, this is not the same thing as stability and, however slowly it may overtake us, change is in the works.

As a sociologist such long-term changes are nothing new to me. Societies change but, by and large, they do so slowly. Sexual mores are different now than they were fifty years ago and will doubtless be different in another fifty years. If the current trend continues, what will become acceptable casualwear will doubtless shock me as much as current standards shock my grandparents. So be it. Each generation makes its own world using the tools given by its predecessors. I see no reason why my children should not have this blessing, and curse, themselves. In any case societies, like the Earth itself, are always changing but are so slow in it that we often forget that our world is not constant and is not stable.

And so, perhaps, it is appropriate that these two slow-changing things are now locked in an embrace. Mr. Inhofe is being replaced in the chairmanship by a Democrat who is receptive to science and seems to recognize the peril we are in. Change is occurring on a short-span as well, a few years, and that change may have longer-lasting effects. If we as a society can change, we may be able to ride out the consequences of our behavior and become responsible stewards of our planetary environment. If we cannot change in this way, then change of another sort will still overtake us in its own time. As such our social world, and our physical world, are now one. Change to one may prevent change to the other- at least for a time- but we cannot hold it all back with sheer force of will.

Whether we want it or not, change is coming. So let's pick the changes we want and work for them while we still can.


* Sometimes known as a "chronometric," meaning the subjective experience of continuous time. So, for example, if I were to fire a gun in front of you, you would be unable to perceive the bullet in flight. This isn't because the light can't reach your eyes fast enough, or because the bullet doesn't traverse the intermediate space, but because your brain can't process that information rapidly enough for you to see the bullet. In essence the human chronometric is too slow to see the bullet. By contrast, we can see a much slower baseball just fine.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cha-Cha-Cha!

I'm really quite busy at the moment and don't have time to write a "real" blog post. However, for your procrastinating pleasure, allow me to direct you to this feature on the fabulous Something Awful. Today they're trying to take advantage of the search facilitators over on ChaCha by asking them to find really random or impossible things. A series of transcripts are posted. Among the funniest are these two:

Sounds about right to me...

Myrrh maid posted:

Status: Looking for a guide ...

Status: Connected to guide: JasonK

JasonK: Hi there. I will be helping with your search.

You: hi

JasonK: Hello

JasonK: You are looking for this image?

You: im after a pic i saw about 3 months ago in a google image search

You: an elderly farmer in a field with cows

JasonK: Do you remember what your search terms were

You: "stoat box" [This is the name of the guy who started this game. -Drek]

You: i think there was at least 2 cows

JasonK: I'm not entirely sure what stoat box has to do with the search

JasonK: Could you explain?

You: ok

You: it was the year 1967, a difficult time for farmers in the midwest

You: stoat boxing was common on farms

You: there werent any stoats in boxes in the picture though

JasonK: Ok

You: has anyone ever asked you do find them lesbian porn?

JasonK: I've never been quick enough to accept the search

You: right on.



It seemed like a good idea at the time...

Caffeine Wolf posted:

Status: Connected to guide: ChristineG

ChristineG: Hi there. I will be helping with your search.

ChristineG: Hello there.

You: Hello I am looking for a store in Texas that sells a number of different items

ChristineG: How can I help you today?

ChristineG: ok....

ChristineG: Let's start with one.

ChristineG: bin bags?

You: I am landscaping you see. I need a store that sells Shovels, Some sturdy bin bags to carry several hundred pounds...of dirt, some quicklime to disolve the damaged soil , some cutting apparatus for small bushes, I guess a meatcleaver would work best. Thank you

ChristineG: Ah....ok.

ChristineG: Is this mail order or do you need to pick it up?

You: Also I may need some rope for. trying up some of the bags

You: I would prefer to pick it up I would not like to give out my current living addess.

ChristineG: Where are you located?

You: I cannot say exactly but around Austin. I would prefer not to cross state lines to find this store if possible thank you christine

ChristineG: Sure...let me check that out for you.

You: If you cannot find 1 store that does all of that then dividing it between 2 stores that are very close to each other is fine.

ChristineG: ok....

ChristineG: Are you interested in a store like Home Depot?

You: yes something like that however the only place i have found only sold the shovel and rape

Christine: Pardon?

You: sorry i meant rope

ChristineG: First let me give you this page then I will search for the specific items

You: ok

You: ah that link I have found another of stores near me. I think this may do

ChristineG: Great...

ChristineG: I was checking to see what they had.

ChristineG: You might have to call them. But they usually have everything that you need.

You: I searched for austin texas in their box. They have everything i think

You: thank you so much for your help I wont forget your good deed ChristineG

ChristineG: Great!

ChristineG: Well ty for ChaChaing!

ChristineG: Thanks for using ChaCha! I hope you had a great search experience!



So, head on over to Something Awful and have a look-see. It's pretty funny and a good way to spend a few minutes.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Fault

Back when I was in college I met a girl. Now, to be totally honest, this was not the only girl I met as a college student. I actually met quite a few and had a circle of friends composed almost entirely of women- causing one friend to refer to me as a girl-boy.* However, the girl I am thinking of here, whom I will refer to as Leda, was special in that she was the first person I was ever really in love with.

We met at a friend's birthday party and at first I didn't really pay her very much attention. I only really noticed her when she, quite matter-of-factly, told me to "Just shut the hell up already." Believe it or not, this was essentially the beginning of my attraction to her. Amazingly, I managed to make a sufficiently good impression that evening and over the coming weeks that, with a little help from my friends,** I ended up going out with her. And then we went out again. And then, shortly thereafter, a third time. And pretty soon after that it's safe to say that we were "dating" or "going steady" or "in a relationship" or whatever. Leda and I were very fond of each other and, in many ways, had a very stable and genuine relationship. Our friends were generally quite pleased*** about the match and things were good.

Then things got a little odd. Leda started sleeping more. She started taking long showers at odd times. She started skipping visits with friends for no good reason. It got worse, and worse, and worse and eventually I started pressing her to see a doctor. I was, to put it mildly, worried. Eventually she did see several physicians and we received a diagnosis: Leda was bipolar. I was witnessing her movement into a depressive cycle that included psychotic symptoms. Specially, she believed that supernatural forces were attempting to hurt her and could do so when she was showering or when she was near an open window at night. This explained her increasingly-lengthy showers. She was, in fact, giving herself a spongebath and merely running the shower so that I would not become suspicious.

Being the kind of person that I am**** I stuck by Leda for a considerable period of time. I tried to help her through the rough spots in treatment, when therapy wasn't going well and when the drug regimen wasn't calibrated right. I tried to keep her spirits up and make sure she continued to receive treatment, even when her moodswings motivated her to do otherwise. I did this for a long time and, while much of the woman I knew remained, I also watched the disorder worsen and, in many ways, devour the person I had known.

Eventually we ended our relationship. It was a mutual decision brought about not by a lack of affection for each other, but rather by the pragmatic realization that things just were not going to work out.****** We went our separate ways and I spent most of the next year trying to pull myself back together. Trying to help her for so long was probably the most emotionally draining thing I have ever done and it was quite a while before I was really myself again. I even ended up seeing a counselor myself to help come to grips with things. I had to, among other things, accept that much of her behavior was not "her," per se, but was the disorder and that realistically some of the person I had cared for was probably a direct result of the psychopathology. I had to really come to believe that, had I been more patient and more loyal, it wouldn't have made a difference. Leda had a disease and my will was not going to "make" her get better. Moreover I had to work through a bit of anger at Leda: the hardest thing about mental illness is that with so few physical symptoms it's hard to believe that the person isn't acting that way for the mere reason that they choose to.

Of course, I got over this relationship and, you know, myself and went on to become the charming asshat I am today. It is safe, however, to say that Leda was an important experience and played a significant role in forming my current personality.

I bring all this up because of a recent story on NPR about the U.S. Army's treatment of mental disorders.

To sum up:

Army studies show that at least 20 percent to 25 percent of the soldiers who have served in Iraq display symptoms of serious mental-health problems, including depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Administration officials say there are extensive programs to heal soldiers both at home and in Iraq.

But an NPR investigation at Colorado's Ft. Carson has found that even those who feel desperate can have trouble getting the help they need. In fact, evidence suggests that officers at Ft. Carson punish soldiers who need help, and even kick them out of the Army.


Now, none of us should really be surprised by this. The Bush Administration has done a wonderful job of screwing the troops when it comes to healthcare and I see no reason why this attitude wouldn't be reflected by the armed forces Dubya commands. However, what's especially interesting is that while we understand how devastating the psychological after-effects of combat can be, we are still apparently unwilling to treat them.

Jennings isn't alone. Other soldiers who've returned to Ft. Carson from Iraq say they feel betrayed by the way officials have treated them. Army files show that these were soldiers in good standing before they went to Iraq, and that they started spinning out of control upon their return.

Since the war in Vietnam, military leaders have said that soldiers who are wounded emotionally need help, just like soldiers missing limbs.

...

But soldiers say that in practice, the mental-health programs at Ft. Carson don’t work the way they should.

For instance, soldiers fill out questionnaires when they return from Iraq that are supposed to warn officials if they might be getting depressed, or suffering from PTSD, or abusing alcohol or drugs. But many soldiers at Ft. Carson say that even though they acknowledged on the questionnaires that they were having disturbing symptoms, nobody at the base followed up to make sure they got appropriate support. A study by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, suggests it's a national problem: GAO found that about 80 percent of the soldiers who showed potential signs of PTSD were not referred for mental health follow-ups. The Pentagon disagrees with the GAO's findings.


So, despite having formal mechanisms for providing aid... aid simply isn't getting to the people who need it. Why is this?

I'll give you three guesses:

Almost all of the soldiers said that their worst problem is that their supervisors and friends turned them into pariahs when they learned that they were having an emotional crisis. Supervisors said it's true: They are giving some soldiers with problems a hard time, because they don't belong in the Army.


More tragically, if you listen to the radio story itself you'll hear one soldier comment that he went to Iraq and came back fine, so someone else who came back with problems is likely just malingering. I don't doubt that in some cases this is true but, in many others, it is a logic on par with Othello's "Methinks thou dost protesteth too much!" Recently my Sainted Fiancee has been sick with a cold and I have been healthy. In all likelihood we were both exposed at about the same time and yet she sickened and I did not. Does this mean that she's "weak willed" or something? Nah. It just means that my immune system managed to succeed where hers did not.******* The situations could easily reverse at any time without any more judgement being placed on it. I imagine that most soldiers would accept this logic as well. Unfortunately, this reasonable perspective disappears when it comes to mental illness. Another person's susceptibility to PTSD or depression must, obviously, be a sign of a personal failing rather than something that is not their fault. And the solution must be to punish them rather than to help them.

I can understand why soldiers who are not suffering mental issues would react this way: it makes them feel better. In a profession characterized by a willing acceptance of mortal peril, it's necessary to convince yourself that you are not as vulnerable as you probably are. And so, acknowledging that a man has a mental disease, and is not simply a coward, is an acknowledgement that you yourself may not be as invincible as you like to think. The pressure away from such a recognition must be immense. I can also understand, and even support, the practical need to transfer soldiers who are suffering from serious mental problems. Call me crazy, but I suspect a man with a mood disorder probably shouldn't have easy access to automatic weapons.

Yet, in saying all that, we can't lose sight of something else. Whether we support the war in Iraq or not, the men returing from it are U.S. soldiers. They volunteered to serve their country, hazarding their lives when it was deemed necessary, and aren't particularly well paid or respected for doing so. In return for this service, do we not owe them support and care? Is it not our responsibility to repair whatever damage we can? Is it not the Army's responsibility to care for their own? I would answer that it is, and that it is our duty to do what we can for these men, and not simply reject them once they are not quite the untarnished heroes we might have thought them to be.

As I did with Leda, we as a culture must come to understand that vulnerability to mental illness is like vulnerability to disease. It is a disorder that can come on anyone, often unpredictably, and its presence or absence doesn't reflect on those of us who must stand and watch or the person suffering. To be mentally ill is not to be selfish or weak-willed; it is, instead, to be sick. Our veterans need help and it is time we put aside ourselves enough to provide it. If we shirk our responsibility for doing so then we will ultimately take on something else:

The fault for their pain.


* Not, in fact, what it sounds like.

** This assistance included everything from outright manipulation to subtle hints. Mostly, however, it consisted of utter linguistic fuckups of a sort usually reserved for sitcoms. My friends in college were wonderful people, but not by and large the most discrete types.

*** The exception being Leda's roommate, who disliked me for reasons that aren't important right now. This shouldn't concern you overmuch since, by the end of college, Leda's roomie and I would be good friends and even date for about 8 months.

**** i.e. a total idiot.*****

***** At this point I'll make the comment my Sainted Fiancee would almost certainly make in response to that: It's just that, while it can be difficult to get onto the list of people I like, once you're there I tend to be absurdly loyal.

****** Nope, I'm not going to be any more specific than that. Current post to the contrary, this is not some fucking emo site, okay?

******* So far, anyway.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Singing up a Storm

Have you ever listened to Tom Lehrer? Maybe the best novelty song composer ever. (although, I’m pretty partial to Stephen Lynch nowadays - ever hear “Kill a Kitten?”)

If you’re old enough, you’ll know Tom from his “Silent E” song on The Electric Company. Or you might know “The Element Song”, where he sings the names of ALL the elements to the patter tune from Pirates of Penzance: “I am the very model of a modern major general” He wrote most of his stuff in the 50s and 60s, and so occasionally it’s very dated. (He has one song about Hubert Humphrey!)

It always strikes me how amazingly topical some of his stuff still is.

Take “Send the marines”…

When someone makes a move
Of which we don't approve,
Who is it that always intervenes?
U.N. and O.A.S.
They have their place, I guess,
But first - send the Marines!

We'll send them all we've got,
John Wayne and Randolph Scott;
Remember those exciting fighting scenes?
To the shores of Tripoli,
But not to Mississippoli,
What do we do? We send the Marines!

For might makes right,
And til they've seen the light,
They've got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
Til somebody we like can be elected.

Members of the corps
All hate the thought of war;
They'd rather kill them off by peaceful means.
Stop calling it aggression,
Ooh, we hate that expression!
We only want the world to know
That we support the status quo.
They love us everywhere we go,
So when in doubt,
Send the Marines!

Sound familiar? Cowboy diplomacy through the ages.

But he hit’s the peaceniks just as hard. To wit: “The Folk Song Army”

We are the folk song army,
Every one of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice
Unlike the rest of you squares.

There are innocuous folk songs, yeah,
But we regard 'em with scorn.
The folks who sing 'em have no social conscience,
Why, they don't even care if Jimmy Crack Corn.

If you feel dissatisfaction,
Strum your frustrations away.
Some people may prefer action,
But give me a folk song any old day.

The tune don't have to be clever,
And it don't matter if you put a couple extra syllables into a line.
It sounds more ethnic if it ain't good English
And it don't even gotta rhyme... (excuse me: rhyne!)

Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs!

So join in the folk song army!
Guitars are the weapons we bring
To the fight against poverty, war, and injustice.
Ready, aim, sing!


But as witty and clever as this one is, the dismissiveness and deriseiveness has always made me uncomfortable. His point is obviously that singing “feels” good, but doesn’t accomplish anything. I just don’t think that’s true.

I’m writing this having just watched a retrospective on the career of Peter, Paul, and Mary, the folk group extraordinaire. Man, some of their stuff still rings. They were a rallying point for the counterculture of the 60s. And they were very activist, and still are. But do words and music make a difference? I suppose I think they can, but I don’t see it happening too much.

This is in contrast, I think, to the 60s. I saw P,P & M sing Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the wind” at the podium at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was about to make his “I have a dream” speech on the mall. And it made me think how much the well-turned phrase matters to our values. We remember Dr. King’s words and his artistry in stating them, and it moves us. Certainly, Mr. Lehrer would concede that Dr. King’s words mattered - that they inspired us, galvanized us, rallied us, impressed us, challenged us, changed us. What’s more, it’s deep within our consciousness. Once something is said in such a profound manner, it becomes as true as any gospel. No one can any longer disagree that we should judge people on the basis of their character, rather than the color of their skin. Even in many circles far distant from Mobile and Birmingham. The question has been settled, and is no longer up for debate.

Songs do the same thing. There’s something about a pithy, rhythmic rhyme or a well-phrased line that affirms the truth of the words.

It certainly works for the conservatives. Remember “Have you forgotten”, which questioned our memory of 9/11 given lackluster support for the president’s Iraq war. And there’s “I’m proud to be an American” which tells us we’re free and should go to war if asked. You just can’t deny it. At least not with anybody else in the room. Toby Keith and his friends remind us regularly that uninformed gut-level knee jerk opinions are just as meritorious as well-reasoned, researched logic. And I haven’t even mentioned all the sacred music and psalms that remind how great our god is.

So my question is… where’s the new age’s singers? Where are the words to inspire this skeptical, drifting, selfish generation and bring them together? Against the war…against AIDS…against global warming…for civil liberty…for community…for peace? Is it just that corporate radio won’t play them? Or are they not being written. I reject the claim that people are not interested. I think we’re a nation thirsty for something to work toward, a leader to follow, a cause to pursue. It may just take someone to get us to listen and convince us it’s so.

Of course, that’s only part of the equation. There does have to be action in addition to words. But as identity theorists and symbolic interactionists will tell you, the words determine the action. Words define our worlds. Literally.

But we live in a time where this process has gotten harder. When asked by an Australian newspaper about his silence since the 1960s and his legacy now, Lehrer commented that his particular brand of political satire is more difficult in the modern world. "The real issues I don't think most people touch. The Clinton jokes are all about Monica Lewinsky and all that stuff and not about the important things, like the fact that he wouldn't ban landmines. I'm not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn't figure out what sort of song I would write. That's the problem: I don't want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporise them." Maybe a song is just what we need to get us started.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Well that's... nice.

As most of you know already I am presently engaged and will be marrying my appropriately-named Sainted Fiancee in about a year or so. This means that we are already in the midst of the delightful quagmire of wedding planning. In some ways this is really fun, as we get to try and find a decent place to make our wedding cake. In other ways it's a pestilence upon our lives since we have to bring together two large families from two totally different parts of the country while remaining within our budget.

In the process of all this planning we've started to look at websites for florists, caterers, and so on. Often this is a very interesting experience- less for what these people say and more for what their sites seem to inadvertently reveal. Thus, for someone like me* this process is a bounty of unintended entertainment. For example, take this picture of a lovely bride:



Now I don't want to be mean** but what the hell is with her neck? I mean look at the length of that sucker! It's like someone mixed her genes with an ostrich! I know some people like that kind of thing but to me it just looks a little freakish.

Then, check out this offering from a florist:



Maybe I'm a traditionalist, but is a flower bikini really an appropriate fashion choice for a wedding? Come to think of it, is there ever a time when a bikini made of flowers is an appropriate choice? I really can't think of one off of the top of my head.

And then there's this:



I can actually hear what this bride is saying to her friend: "Gosh! I am so glad I decided to get married in 1987 instead of that icky 21st century! Also: We are so gay!" I'm just saying that when the picture you're using to advertise your floral services is obviously older than the medium you're using for advertising, you may have a problem.

Fortunately for me there are other people who find weddings as humorous as I do. I refer, of course, to Ugly Dress a website devoted to bridesmaids and the horrible offenses to fashion that they have to wear. Some of the "winners" include the 70's wallpaper dress, the fuscia horror, and whatever the hell it is that this woman is wearing. There's also a nice assortment of wedding cake debacles, including the cake made entirely out of Hostess products. Seriously.

Take a look, laugh a little, and reminisce about when you got married. Or, if you haven't gotten married yet, look forward to it with a heavy heart. Either way, I'm satisfied.



* i.e. a total asshole.

** As a side note, this statement almost always precedes my actually being unnecessarily mean.

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