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 31, 2004

Facts and Fiction

I am a regular reader of the blog Pub Sociology. This blog, available in my blogroll, is frequently interesting, often entertaining, and has provided a refuge for that lazy-loser Brayden King. It's such a good blog, in fact, that I have sometimes been tempted to model Total Drek on it. Then, of course, I think about how much work that would be, and I go back to mainlining heroin.

Recently, one of the contributors to Pub Sociology, the spiky-haired Tina, crafted an excellent post on the tremendous quantity of misinformation running rampant through the American electorate. I was struck by this post because I have been experiencing similar frustrating encounters with inexplicable ignorance, even among those who are intelligent, informed, and should otherwise know better. There is clearly a dearth of accurate information among the general public, and such a lack can only hamper efforts to craft foreign and domestic policy based on something other than flawed assumptions about the world.

However, much as I liked this post, I must take exception to one thing included in it. Tina commented that:

I don't know what works against a misinformation campaign, but facts don't seem to work, and that really scares me.

Now, I agree that the apparent disinterest in facts present among the general population is of concern, but I don't agree that facts are not helpful in a battle against misinformation. People, indeed, seem to be powerfully concerned about whether or not they are being lied to. If you ask a random person, "Do you mind being lied to," they will likely answer, "yes." The prevalence of sensationalist talk shows in which men and women take lie detector tests to uncover infidelity shows that there is a powerful public interest in what is fact, and what is fiction. A battle between misinformation and facts is tantamount to a battle between lies and truths.

There are problems, however, in our ongoing effort to spread facts, and these problems are two-fold. First, the truth is often less pleasant than the lie. We don't like to believe that powerful authority figures do bad things. Such preferences helped shield Catholic priests from prosecution for pedophilia (Woohoo! Check out that alliteration!) for many years, and still conceals the petty infidelities of men and women the world wide. The problem is that, all too often, accepting the truth means accepting that one has been wrong about something. This is difficult for people to accept and, as I have argued before, it can be difficult to make someone realize the truth without backing them into a corner.

The second problem is that many people regard science and academic pursuits as boring, dull, disconnected from their lives, and essentially irrelevant. I've had personal experience with this and will always treasure the look on my father's face when his epithet, "You sound like a goddamned academic!" was met with my earnest, "Thank you!" The problem, however, is that this perception of us weakens the impact of everything that we do. As I have said before we need to dispel the illusion that science is some kind of Virgin Mafia.

Both of these problems are significant issues that must be dealt with. It is, then, appropriate that the solution to this ornery misinformation problem is contained with Tina's original post. She comments that: dad really likes Bill O'Reilly. "He's a jerk, but I like to watch him," he said.

Indeed! Bill O'Reilly is a jerk, but people watch him because he's entertaining. More importantly, he makes them feel like they're in on the joke. Our problem, we intelligent, enlightened academics, is that we make people feel as though the joke is on them. They feel like we are laughing at them, and never with them. This simply must stop if we are to reestablish the primacy of facts in the public sphere. We must make the act of learning facts more engaging, more entertaining and, most importantly, less insulting.

We are lucky, then, that the way has been pointed for us by none other than the comedy duo of Penn and Teller in their fantastic show, Bullshit! This program is dedicated to exposing misinformation and lies with the truth, and doing so in a way that is engaging and entertaining. Specifically, the show is described as follows:

By their own admission, Penn & Teller have been dying to do a show like this. Confirmed skeptics and pro-science atheists (they refer to God as "an imaginary friend"), these magicians are big fans of the art of debunking.

Whether demonstrating how history's most perplexing magic acts are performed in their sell-out Las Vegas show and TV specials, or producing their own series that pulls the wool off the public's eyes, Penn & Teller's mission is to expose the truth to an otherwise desperate and gullible public.

In Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, the crusaders utilize principles of magic and trickery, as well as good old fashioned "hidden camera" sting operations, to smoke out these nonsense peddlers and reveal how they operate.

They also call upon the scientific community for back-up. Penn & Teller have discovered that the evidence debunking bogus operatives exists in countless books, scientific papers and government-sponsored exposés - research that nobody else has presented to the public with such zeal, passion, and conviction.

As our increasingly anti-intellectual, anti-science culture moves on each day to new crackpot subject matters, Penn & Teller are there to aggressively shoot down whack-jobs and fuzzy thinkers, no matter where they originate.

Their attitude of serious, sober contemplation can be summed up in this quote about their current Las Vegas stage program: "We have been doing magic together for 25 years and are so sick of it we could spit. So, in the new show, we are moving into the field of religion and will be performing real miracles!"

No matter how popular a form of bullshit is - and regardless of what deep pockets or beloved figures support it - Penn & Teller are pit bulls for the truth, poised to tear down these myths in the most jaw-dropping fashion possible with their trademark wit and off-center comic sensibilities.

Beware faux miracle workers, yogis, dervishes, televangelists, zealots and cult leaders. Penn & Teller have you in their cross-hairs with a new series that strives to spark controversy, headlines and water cooler fisticuffs!

What we need is not despair, but facts. We need to learn to present facts in an engaging and compelling way. Will this be difficult? Of course. Will it be worthwhile? Without question. Penn and Teller are showing us the way.

It is up to us to follow.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Pragmatic Conservatism.

As I have mentioned before, I was raised in a conservative household by conservative parents. Now, I wouldn't read TOO much into that- we were always socially liberal, just fiscally conservative. My father has even told me that he is proud of having voted for Jimmy Carter. Then again, considering Carter was running against Gerald Ford, who made a better physical comedian than president, I'm mostly unmoved by my father's claims. Regardless, it wasn't that my family objected to equal rights, or women's liberation, or gay rights, or abortion- it was that it objected to expensive programs run by the government.

Despite the shrill rhetoric often emanating from the left, I think many conservatives fall into this category. Not all of them of course, I've had my own run-ins with conservatives who would like nothing more than to convert these United States into some sort of theocracy, but I do believe that many conservatives are not bad people. Quite a few of them are good people with worthwhile values who vote as they do out of genuine concern for this country and its citizens. Many individuals are what I would term "pragmatic conservatives." They vote conservatively because they are trying to defend the fiscal integrity of the country, not because they hate minorities or love an oppressive version of religious faith that should offend Christians, Jews, and Muslims everywhere.

So, you can imagine my lack of understanding when I discover that these people, including my own parents, have voted for Bush. Bush in many ways combines the worst of both the liberal and conservative worlds. He is socially conservative- even repressive- in his desire to force our laws to match the dictates of a millenia old religious faith that could not have foreseen the nature of the modern world. I do not necessarily mean that ancient religions cannot speak to modern problems, but rather only that fundamentalism is a bitter enemy of everything intelligent people hold dear. At the same time, Bush is fiscally liberal. He thinks nothing of spending vast quantities of money on highly dubious projects- which is itself an unpleasnt euphemism for a needless and thoroughly bungled war in Iraq. The debts that Bush has accumulated are so staggering that I have difficulty contemplating them without feeling nauseous. One might, of course, argue that liberal administrations have also accumulated mammoth debts, but there is a difference. Liberals have tended to accumulate debts through income redistribution within this country. While you may disagree with the act of redistribution, it is the case that the money at least stimulated consumption in a wide variety of industries. On the other hand, Bush's war is funneling titanic volumes of capital to weapons manufacturers, in essence revitalizing the military-industrial complex, which is nothing more than a back-channel implementation of trickle-down economics.

I am, thus, baffled by the adherence of these pragmatic conservatives to a Republican agenda that is conservative to the exclusion of pragmatism. They would seem to be voting an end to religious tolerance, to ethnic inclusion, and to sexual liberation. They would seem to be supporting an attempt to rewind the United States to look more like our sepia-tinged memories of the nineteen-fifties when men were men, women knew their place, and children were seen but not heard. Of course, the fact that the characteristics of this period are more an article of faith than an accurate recollection seems to matter little, much less that many of us prefer our men to be something other than mindless beefcakes, and our women to be more than decorative ornaments. Further, our pragmatic conservatives seem to be voting for this massive experiment in social engineering (And expriment it is, since the theocratic stance advocated by social conservatives is composed of untested, or previously invalidated, hypotheses about social problems) with the full knowledge that it will be expensive on a scale undreamt of. How can we possibly resolve the contradictions of pragmatism and conservatism?

Well, I can think of one way. To be pragmatic is not to be immune to temptation, and short-term gain is often more apparent than long-term loss. The Republicans have bought the support of many, and in the process the pragmatic conservatives have sold their souls. This may sound radical, or even overly-harsh, but the pattern is consistent, and I am hardly the only one to have noticed.

If this is what pragmatism truly means, the surrendering of principle to the lure of illusory gains, then I shall be proud to call myself a hopeless idealist.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

I'm just curious, is all.

It recently came to my attention that everyone's favorite neo-fascist retail outlet, Walmart, has decided to expand into the computer market by offering internet access as a product. Now, I have no real problem with this. Let's face it, I'm more of a fan of the free market and capitalism than most sociologists. So, if a company wants to diversify, and add to the competition in an area, the more the merrier. I do have two itty-bitty questions, though.

First, Walmart, when you offer "Great Content," does that exclude any websites that speak negatively of Walmart, or perhaps question the dominion of your brand of Christian extremism over the thoughts and knowledge of Mankind? Is that "service" included in the "family-friendly controls," you advertise? Because we atheists are, apparently by definition, not family-friendly in your book. To say nothing of homosexuals. Or minorities.

Second, and more important, I applaud your efforts to leverage your key business assets into a share of a growing market, but I'm unsure how exactly you mean to do that. So, in the interest of clarity, can you explain how you intend to use unpaid foreign child labor to provide internet access?

Maybe have them run on a huge hamster wheel to provide electrical power for the web servers?

Just asking...

Monday, December 27, 2004


By now, I'm sure you've all seen the news reports about the earthquake and tsunami that have devastated southern Asia. To review the events: on December 26th at 7:58 AM local time, a Richter scale magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck on the floor of the Indian Ocean, 250 km west of the island of Sumatra. See the U.S. Geological Survey earthquake report (in jarringly neutral scientific language) for more information on the earthquake.

The earthquake struck at the bottom of the ocean, and therefore triggered a disturbance in the water. The only place for the disturbance to go was on the water's surface, creating tsunami (a group of giant waves). When the tsunami hit shore, they broke into a series of waves, one after the other, up to 30 feet (10 meters) high. The waves killed people in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Thailand, and the Maldives. The death toll currently stands at 22,000. Folks, that's seven World Trade Centers worth of death.

And it's only going to get worse. Entire villages were swept out to sea, leaving thousands of bodies unaccounted for. And the tsunami has left huge areas without access to clean water, meaning diseases like cholera will kill thousands more people. I wouldn't be surprised if the total death toll, including unreported deaths and deaths due to resulting famine and disease, passed 200,000 to 300,000. That would make this Asian earthquake/tsunami one of the worst disaster events in recorded history.

Every person killed in this disaster has a face and a story. This excellent article from the Sydney Morning Herald (of Australia) tells the story of one disaster victim. Read it. Now. Imagine 21,999 more like it.

Speaking as an ex-geologist, major earthquakes and tsunami like this are absolutely inevitable. An earthquake of magnitude 9 or greater strikes one or two times a century, and large undersea earthquakes always cause tsunami. What was not inevitable, however, was the large loss of life. The Pacific Ocean has an extensive system of sensors and alarms, and nearly every coastal community in Japan and Hawaii has a tsunami alarm. But there is no such system for the Indian Ocean. Maybe after this disaster, a warning system will be developed - too late for this one, but useful in the future.

I considered blogging about the disaster yesterday, but I wanted to stick to my announced schedule for finishing the A.A. series. But it doesn't really matter when or if I blog about this topic. The only thing that does matter: the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent* is accepting donations to aid the disaster victims. Their site is a little slow, which is a good sign - lots of people are donating. But go there, give it time to load, and give generously.

*The Red Crescent is the sister organization of the Red Cross that operates in Muslim countries. Since many of the countries affected are Muslim (especially Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world), the Red Crescent is coordinating much of the relief.

The Insanity Parade: Electric Windmill Car Edition

Some of you have been clamoring for another episode in my series of posts, The Insanity Parade, in which I critique one or another of the nutballs that I find lurking on the internet. Well, "clamoring" might be too strong a word. Really, the requests for another episode have been more like the half-hearted moaning found in George Romero zombie films (braaaaiiiiinnnnnsssss....) but I like to imagine that I'm more important than I actually am. In any case, this series of posts has always been a crowd-favorite, and has been idle for too long- in this case, since August. So, today we're going to dive back in with a brief installment.

Last time, you'll recall, I went after one William Cooper's arguments that the Apollo moon landings were hoaxed. Now, I'm not saying they weren't hoaxed, though I have never seen any plausible evidence in support of such a notion, but Mr. Cooper's arguments violated basic physics so egregiously as to make them utterly ridiculous. That he, and others, apparently took them seriously makes me weep for the failures of our educational system. At the end of that edition of the Insanity Parade I promised that, the next time, we'd explore the work of a man who seems entirely unaware of the concept of friction. Indeed, that is what we shall do today.

Allow me to introduce Mr. Greg Buell, founder, CEO, and (so far as I can tell) sole member of the Light Year Conquest Corporation. We will be exploring his charming website which is, if nothing else, a warning to others about the misuse of animated banners.

Now, before we really get going, I think it's important to note something: Mr. Buell is insane. I don't mean that metaphorically either, I mean that he is totally bugfuck crazy. To say that this guy barks like a moonbat is, frankly, somewhat insulting to the moonbats. If he isn't currently receiving professional help, he should be, and if he is, he needs more.

With that out of the way, we can proceed to discuss the tremendous contribution Mr. Buell makes to the internet. And a tremendous contribution it is, too! He is to start with a prolific poet. His most recent masterpiece, regarding how he spent his 57th birthday, is simply magical. I am particularly fond of the line that reads, "Gravity spectrum goes from Mexicans to Aliens." Such a witty double entendre, Greg!

Indeed, as a poet Greg Buell's output is simply staggering, including other works of genius like: Famous Wives, Orwellian Hell of no sex and alone on New Years Day 2003, (Sing it brother!) "Do you want to have sex with me?," and, my personal favorite, She Said Lousy Lover He Hit Her With His Golf Club.

There is so much more to Greg than just the poet, however. He is also an astute political analyst, noting that a large portion of American policy is actually dedicated to preventing him from inventing "gravity control." Indeed, the U.S. government appears to be hard at work using clones of Greg's supposed paramour Leslie Coon, to torment him. And you thought these pictures came from Abu Ghraib. Greg's analysis even goes so far as to expose a conspiracy among Colorado lawyers, or, as Greg says:

Torture, repression, suppression in Boulder Colorado caused cops and kids to die burning in fiery car wrecks for more oil money. In this case Boulder, Colorado was following orders from DC - this is on video tapes!

Boulder Colorado lawyers who hang out at the Boulder Rock Club rape boys (and there probably are pictures in some observers digital camera scrapbook.) It's blatantly sadistic fag behavior but all the fags in Boulder Colorado know it feels good to ram it in boys - or men in Iraq. The worst is yet to come for DC and Boulder Colorado.

Simply charming.

Now, some of you are probably wondering why "burning in gasoline" comes up so frequently in Greg's writing. That is, simply enough, because Greg is the inventer of the Electric Windmill Car. What is this, you ask? Well, details are sketchy, but so far as I can tell it is an electric car that is covered in- wait for it- windmills! Doubtless one is expected to wear wooden shoes while driving it. The basic idea appears to be that as the car drives, the windmills will turn, generating electricity to recharge the batteries. Thus, one need only charge the car once and it will be able to drive forever more with the assistance of its windmills. Pretty neat, huh?

It would be pretty neat, except that it doesn't make any sense. The second law of theormodynamics, you know, entropy, tells us that energy tends to spread out, become less concentrated, and disperse throughout a given environment. Put more concretely, in the real universe we are subject to friction and, as a consequence, loss of energy. So, in short, the amount of power generated by those windmills will not equal he amount of power spent moving the car- especially when you consider that the windmills will increase drag, thus increasing the amount of power needed to move the vehicle. Yes, you read that right: you will have to spend power to get power out of the windmills, and the amount you spend will exceed the amount recovered by the windmills because of friction. So, far from eliminating our need for fossil fuel, the electric windmill car would actually increase it. Nice try, Greg. Keep working on it, though- I'm sure you'll invent that perpetual motion machine eventually. So long as "eventually" means "never in a million years" anyway.

But, even without the Electric Windmill Car, there are still many reasons to visit Greg Buell's home on the net. For one thing, he has a number of fine photo galleries that cover a wide variety of topics. These topics include, but are not limited to, geese, Greg's extensive collection of movies, aircraft carriers, the location of Greg's tent, ballerinas, raunchy topless shots, and astronomy. The careful visitor can even find pictures of the woman Greg loves with such disturbing obsessiveness, Ms. Leslie Coon.

Finally, and most importantly, this website hosts what I am prepared to say is the single most awesome mp3 anywhere on the internet. Get a broadband connection (because the file is huge) and treat yourself to a Greg Buell poem, actually read by Greg Buell! What could be better? No, seriously, check it out.

Now, do I bring all this up because I want to take cheap shots at an obviously sick man? Well... yeah, but that's hardly my only point. My real point here is that despite the obvious lunacy of this site, I'm actually glad it's here. Believe it or not, I'm totally serious about that.

I'm a stickler for scientific accuracy, and knowledge of basic physics. I honestly do not see how people can stand to go through their lives ignorant of such things- particularly given that we, as voters, are responsible for evaluating the products of science when we make decisions about pollution, global warming, product safety, and a host of other issues. So, on that level, I really don't like Greg's site because it demonstrates the sort of lack of knowledge that I find so peculiarly disturbing.

Yet, at another level, Greg's site says something positive about our society. Greg is a total nut, but he has the ability to exercise his right to free speech. He has carved out his little niche on the internet and has his own space in which to express himself and his ideas. I may think his ideas are stupid, and his poetry nonsensical, but that's okay. Greg's website, however nutty, is a testament to the power of that simple idea: that we should all be able to say what we think.

It also, however, serves a further purpose: I am a tremendous fan of free speech, as you all know, but I am also a staunch opponent of compulsory listening. The simple truth is that having the right to say what you want, does not mean you have the right to force other people to listen. People have to assess what they hear, judge if it is worth listening to, and then act on those judgements. As in so many things, when it comes to speech, it is a case where the "buyer" must beware. How does Greg's site figure into this? Well, most people who visit it probably decide not to listen to his speech, or not to take it seriously. This plants the basic germ of an idea: one must be an active, rather than passive listener. One must judge whether or not to believe something, rather than sitting dumbly and absorbing whatever comes through the nifty electronic box. Such blatant insanity provides a foundation for skepticism and critical awareness of the media. In short, by being crazy, I like to imagine that Greg is helping the rest of us tell what is nuts from what isn't.

Does this mean that I support the right of religious groups to segregate their children and teach them bad science? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, once all children receive some basic level of education in the sciences that allows them to function in society, I have no particular problem with such schools. On the other hand, I can't say that I approve of schools whose purpose seems to be the preservation of ignorance. If a religious doctrine indeed contains universal truth, it should have nothing to fear from exposure to other ideas. In my view, children should be exposed to a variety of different ideas and taught how to make decisions about them, not hidden away from dissent in a bubble of manufactured conformity. This goes for public schools as well as private schools; as I have said, I have no objection to the teaching of creationist ideas in public schools. I only object to the teaching of such ideas as science- creationism is no more science than my blog is a literary masterpiece.

Free speech and free listening are two sides of the same coin. To be allowed to say what one wishes is divine, but such a right must be accompanied by a healthy skepticism about the words of others. The presence of both in a society helps generate healthy, effective debate and, hopefully, useful solutions to problems. The constraint of speech, or the sheep-like acceptance of whatever is heard, combine to make a society corrupt and incompetent. Greg Buell, and others like him, do us a public service by helping us learn how to decide for ourselves what to take seriously, and what to ignore.

Well, that brings another episode of the Insanity Parade to an end. What will be up next for this series? Who knows? More importantly: who cares?

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Alcoholics Anonymous: Conclusion and Thoughts

For the past two weeks, I've been blogging about Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the world's great organizations. I've described the organization to you, and I've listed the organization's guiding 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. Now I'd like to say a little more about why I think A.A. is so important.

I first learned how A.A. operates in Phillip Yancey's book, What's So Amazing About Grace - incidentally, one of the best books I've ever read about the Christian faith. The book is about grace - an undeserved gift, an unexpected joy. Yancey's conclusion is that A.A. comes close to expressing God's all-encompassing love for all humans, accepting all and loving all.

Or, taking it out of theological language, A.A. is one of the few organizations that actively works at accepting all people. Of course, every group isn't accepting all the time, but A.A. is widespread enough that a new member can usually find a group he or she feels accepted into. And even though the organization can't always live up to its principles, I think it's admirable for setting up these principles to begin with.

We're living in a divided world. An organization that can bring people together for a common purpose is an important step in making the world a less divided place. An organization that brings people together with the consciously stated policy of accepting all is an even more important step.

And lastly, A.A. works. The organization has helped, and is currently helping, millions of alcoholics around the world. A.A. meetings are a central part of alcoholism treatment, as ordered by doctors and courts. A.A.'s model has been adopted by other organizations to help people struggling with other addictions: Narcotics Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, and others. A.A. is an organization that has received praise from many quarters, and deserves all the praise it can get.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Seasons Greetings!

For the Christians in the group, allow me to share the best two Christmas messages I have ever seen:

First, courtesy of Clan of the Cats we have this wonderful little non-denominational nugget.

And, second, from the bizarre, Pokemon-esque Alien Dice we have a message about the darker side of nativity scenes. I feel confident in saying that this is the best Christmas comic strip ever penned.

As for me... I'll be planning my Agnostica celebration for next year. I only wish I'd learned about this in time to set something up this time around!

Happy holidays, everyone. Now go away.

Friday, December 24, 2004

My lame Christmas gift to you, Total Drek readers

Merry Christmas to one and all! I had intended for my final post on A.A. to come today, but I've been caught up with wonderful* family obligations. So the post will go up on Monday.

As my Christmas gift to you, loyal readers, I finally updated my profile through Blogger. Click the link, or click the "Slag" link on the upper left of this page. Learn a little more about what makes Slag tick! Or don't. Remember, everything you see in this blog is strictly optional reading.

*and I'm not being sarcastic - I love my family

Ignore this post

Um.... ignore this post and read the newer one. I accidentally entered it twice, and I can't figure out how to delete it.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Live Blogging from Hell...

So a few days ago I was grading final exams and, as it happened, Britney Spears' cinematic debut "Crossroads" came on TV in the background. I decided that I might as well live-blog my sarcasm while I was grading because, shit, I wasn't doing enough already. Join me for this descent into misery...

7:00: They're burying a box! Britney won't say what's in it. I bet it's the body of her cat. Poor cat. First it had to live with Britney, now it has to spend all eternity in a shitty little box.

7:02: Her friends' names are Mimi and Kit? Merciful god.

7:04: Britney: "We wished that we'd be best friends forever." Yeah- and that your movie wouldn't be a crime against sentient species everywhere. Know what else? I'm betting wishes don't come true.

7:05: If my reception were better, Britney's underwear dancing would probably be more interesting. Wait, no, sorry, I was thinking of a more attractive actress. Crap! Did I say "actress?" That sure as hell ain't right either.

7:06: Oh, wow, we're in the south and the black woman is oppressing the white woman. Shazaam! Also: Bwahahahahaha! Britney looks like she can't wait to splash some kerosene on the old cross.

7:07: Oh god, I just realized Dan Akroyd is playing the Elder Spears. That poor, poor man.

7:10: So, they made a pact to dig up the cat wish box at midnight? If I'm lucky, they'll unleash some sort of zombie plague. Regrettably, I am almost never lucky.

7:11: What in the...? Spears-dancing-in-underwear and a Spears-stripping scene within six minutes of each other? Some high quality scripting here. Like friggin MacBeth.

7:13: Aaaaaand her boyfriend is reading a list of reasons why she should have sex with him. I wonder if he filed it in triplicate with her agent first. Evidently she's still a virgin- unless I'm misunderstanding this whole "Don't you want it to be special," bit. Seriously, show of hands, how many of us had a first time that could be safely described as "special?" Okay, good, now how about special in a good way? Right. I didn't think so.

7:17: Hey, a dramatic scene about teen pregnancy. No, not Britney. She's a virgin, remember? Britney and "Kit" are arguing about a flashlight.

7:18: Kit: "Gimme back my flashlight!" Such powerful dialogue.

7:19: Britney: "Wow... I don't remember what we put in here." Shit, you don't remember this morning.

7:20: The pregnant one (Mimi?) wants to go to LA and become a singer. Apparently, however, being pregnant makes this impossible. It's a bright day for women's lib.

7:22: Oooooh! Britney is searching for her lost mother. Well, the mother who abandoned her without any explanation. Poor Dan Akroyd. Poor Britney. Poor goddamn audience.

7:24: Enter "Ben," the love interest.

7:25: AAAAHHHHHHH!!!!! Backsteet Boys on the soundtrack! Christ, it burns! IT BURNS!!!!

7:27: Britney just pointed out that they're crossing the country on $486.00. I'm betting they stoop to prostitution by Montana.

7:28: And, Britney is in her underwear. Again.

7:30: Followed by a shower scene.

7:31: Apparently Ben has been in prison. For murder. I'm sure it's a misunderstanding, though. Still, I can always dream that this movie will stray into Kalifornia territory.

7:36: The baby just kicked. Mimi's baby that is. The father is named "Kurt." Goody. So glad I know all this utterly useless horseshit that has no bearing on the plot.

7:38: Ben: "Hey, what are you writing there?" Britney: "Stuff." That's what Shakespeare used to say too.

7:41: Mimi and Kit are in a catfight. Britney is playing peacemaker. And oh-so convincingly, might I add. Britney also appears to be an automotive specialist. Is there nothing this little vixen can't do? Besides, you know, sing?

7:43: Hey, the radiator is cracked and they need money, is it time for prostitution? GODDAMNIT! They're going to compete in a karaoke contest! Sweet mother of all, they're gonna sing.

7:44: Britney: "Ooooh... lemme wear those feathers!" Maybe I spoke too soon about the prostitution?

7:45: Or maybe not. *sigh*

7:46: Ironically, the preggers girl has frozen up despite her stated intention to become a singer. I guess pregnancy DOES preclude a singing career. Fortunately, Britney is here to take over. Or, more accurately, the sound-tech is here to take over.

7:47: If we were showing this movie to the "enemy combatants" in Guantanamo we would have found Osama by now.

7:50: And Ben beats the crap out of a guy who is hitting on Britney. Well, that's not totally accurate. The guy wasn't so much "hitting on her" as "virtually raping her standing up." This movie does NOT go in for subtlty. Does this mean Ben is really a convict? Maybe he's just being chivalrous? More importantly, does anyone give a crap?

7:56: Now the girls are drunk and dancing in a hotel room. So, added to the list of things Britney can't do: dance. Not that I can, but I don't pretend to the ability either.

7:57: Aw, crap. They're playing truth or... truth. This is what would qualify as "characterization" in a movie with actual characters.

8:00: Wait, Mimi was date-raped? Crap, so she's been raped, is pregnant by the date-rapist, AND can't sing? That's gotta suck. But not as much as this movie.

8:02: And we get the answer to the age old question: How many teenage girls does it take to operate a convertible? At least three, by the look of things. In other news: Aw, crap. Shania Twain? I dunno about god, but I'm pretty sure the devil exists judging by this soundtrack.

8:06: And Ben gives a speech about how he doesn't want the girls to drive his car because it's the only thing that hasn't been taken over by chicks. Britney seems fine with this. It makes me want to stab myself in the face.

8:08: On the upside we discover that Ben didn't kill anyone. He just, technically, kidnapped his sister to keep his stepdad from beating the fuck out of her. Awwwwwww.

8:14: Mimi is teaching Kit how to fight. Yeah. Because so far this movie has been all about empowering women.

8:15: Aw, crap. Britney is reading her journal of poetry. Britney: "I'm not a girl, not yet a woman." Nor, sadly, fully sapient.

8:16: Kit: "Something bit my ass! It's a snakebite!" Suck out the poison! Suck out the poison!

8:17: And Britney gets rejected by her heartless absentee mother. Remember, folks: women are evil.

8:20: In a heartrending scene we discover that Britney's mother never wanted her. Much like music-lovers everywhere.

8:22: Oh, god, Ben wrote music to go with Britney's "poem." Amusingly, Britney can't seem to remember the words. Whoops- there she goes.

8:23: You know... there's such a long pause between "I'm not a girl" and "not yet a woman" that I start thinking, "Sex-change?"

8:32: We arrived in LA one minute ago and Britney is already in a bikini. And to think I expected a shallow plot.

8:35: Hey, Britney is losing her virginity with Ben, the slacker, ex-con musician. Keep in mind that she turned down her steady boyfriend who hasn't been seen since the first ten minutes. This just goes to, once more, demonstrate that women prefer losers as long as they play guitar. I wouldn't know anything about that...

8:36: And Kit discovers that her fiancee is cheating on her. Oh, and that he's an even worse actor than she is, which is saying something.

8:38: Holy shit. Kit's fiancee is the guy who date-raped Mimi! What are the odds?! I'm so shocked, so horrified, so incredibly bored.

8:40: And the shock of all this causes Mimi to have a miscarriage. Well, at least Counselor-Action-Britney is here to spring into action!

8:41: Dan Akroyd: "What were you thinkin? Runnin away? And with a pregnant girl?!" Yep, them pregnant women, they be dangerous. You gotta be right careful, you do.

8:47: Britney caves in to her "domineering" father and agrees to return to hickville. Ben is mad. Mimi is forlorn without her rapist's baby. Kit is sad. Drek is suicidal.

8:48: Mimi: "Doesn't it feel like we left home a million years ago?" Oddly, yes, this movie does feel about that long.

8:52: Aw, crap, she's singing the goddamn girl/woman song again. What the hell? Britney has changed into a midriff shirt with enough extra material in the sleeves to outfit the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Freakin Maria.

8:55: Hey! They're burying another cat! They're like feline serial killers!

9:00: Oh, hot damn! Credits! The pain is over.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did.

Though, that's actually a pretty mean thing to say.

And for any curious readers: my students are, so far, doing all right on their final exams. Who woulda guessed?

The 12 Traditions

Welcome to Part 3 of a 4-part series focusing on Alcoholics Anonymous. In my last post, I described how the 12 steps of A.A. help alcoholics overcome their problem. The 12 steps guide an A.A. member toward recovery. Similarly, A.A.'s 12 Traditions guide the A.A. organization as a whole toward being as effective as it can be. The 12 Traditions of A.A. are:

1. Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
2. For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority - a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
3. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
4. Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole. 5. Each group has but one primary purpose - to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
6. An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
7. Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
8. Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
9. A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
10. Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
11. Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.
12. Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.

Tradition 1 reminds A.A. members that their individual and collective struggle with alcoholism comes first. Nothing is more important than getting better. Tradition 2 addresses the leadership structure of A.A. - the only authority is the "group conscience," the consensus that a group reaches after input from each member. A group's monthly business meeting is called the "group conscience meeting." All decisions are reached by consensus. Although each group may elect officials like a secretary or a treasurer, and A.A. as a whole elects a president, no formal command structure exists on a local or national level.

Tradition 3 is the fundamental tenet of A.A. The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking. A.A. members span all races, genders, religious faiths (including atheism), and political leanings. It's against A.A. bylaws and traditions to evict any member for any reason. Tradition 4 preserves the autonomy of each group - the group is the fundamental and indivisible unit of A.A. Tradition 5 establishes the primary purpose of each group. To carry the hope of A.A. to alcoholics still suffering. Every other operation of A.A. is secondary to this primary purpose.

Tradition 6 is another deeply important tradition. A.A. will never lend its name to outside causes. The organization, and individual groups, should never support a political candidate or advertise for a treatment center, for example. The reason is clearly stated in the Tradition - endorsements from A.A. will automatically lead to problems of money, property, and prestige. All these things are not bad in themselves, but they distract the group from fulfilling its primary purpose, as described in Tradition 5.

Tradition 7 deals with A.A.'s finances. Every A.A. group is completely self-supporting, passing a basket at every meeting. Each member donates as much or as little into the basket as he or she feels able. Members with financial difficulties often contribute nothing. A.A. group expenses are so small that this pay-as-you-can methodology works well. And it's certainly a relief to members, given the choice between paying a few dollars to an A.A. meeting or paying hundreds of dollars a day to an alcoholism treatment center.

Tradition 8 keeps A.A. a nonprofessional organization. A.A. started as a nonprofessional organization - just two people who worked together to fight their alcoholism. Tradition 8 keeps the organization focused on its role, helping people of all walks of life help each other struggle with their addiction. Tradition 9 is another form of Tradition 2 - A.A. must never become an "organized" organization, with a top-down command structure.

Tradition 10 is another form of Tradition 6, but in a way it's even more powerful. Not only should A.A. not attach its name to any enterprise, A.A. should not even form an opinion about outside issues. Traditions 11 and 12 work together to maintain the anonymity of A.A. members. A.A. members do not acknowledge each other outside of meetings (unless they knew each other previously), and they refer to themselves only by first name inside meetings. Anonymity allows people to feel comfortable sharing the often difficult and painful revelations required to successfully fight alcoholism.

Coming on Friday: a summary of the series, and why I think A.A. is so important.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

This post is a waste of time

Seriously, why are you even reading it? Why don't you call your mother, or work on your dissertation, do something equally useful with your time?

Still here? Good. If Drek can spend an entire post complaining about two planks in Half-Life 2, I can write about my own primary videogame addiction: sports simulation games. In particular, I like the EA Sports series of games. The games provide a realistic depiction of your favorite sport, especially with modes that let you play one or more full seasons. You end up feeling like you're living in an alternate universe of real sports.

My favorite title comes from the NCAA Football series, which simluates the greatest sport in the world (possibly excepting World Cup soccer), college football. The specific title I own is NCAA Football 2001, the last one to be released for the original PlayStation (I am too cheap to buy a PlayStation2).

The game offers a true-to-life experience of college football, with a lot of the little details that make the sport so great. You can play as any of the 112 Division I-A teams, plus about 30 Division I-AA teams. The game includes real uniforms and stadium designs for all the teams, as well as real fight songs and cheers for the most popular teams. The NCAA's legal restrictions keep the game from using actual player names, but the game includes a "Name Players" feature where you can enter your own names for up to 8 teams. The names appear on the backs of players' jerseys, and the game announcer knows how to say the more common names.

The coolest feature of the game, though, is "Dynasty" mode, where you can create your own parallel universe of college football results from seasons 2000 to 2020. You become the coach of one team, play each game with the controller, and recruit new players as old players graduate.

I finished my first season (2000) of my dynasty using Northwestern University. (Why Northwestern? They have cool purple uniforms, a catchy fight song, and they play in the Big Ten conference, making it more likely I can play in the BCS national championship game someday.) I finished the regular season at 8-3 (good for third in the Big Ten), beat Texas A&M 21-7 in the Alamo Bowl, and finished #19 in the nation in the final poll. (USC finished #1.) All in all a very successful season. If you're interested in seeing full results for the season, click here.

I've started the second season (2001), and I'll make a similar waste-of-time post when that season concludes.

Coming late tonight: an actually useful and interesting post - part 3 of my 4-part series on Alcoholics Anonymous.

This post has been brought to you by the letters B, C, and S, and the number 2000.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Goodbye, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu...

Today, ladies and gentlemen, I depart for my parents' home in Florida, where I will remain until my sister's wedding. This, of course, means that I will be trapped in a house with my parents for about a month. Goody.

Still, I am not the only one who is departing for a time. Many of my friends here at Random University are also departing for family homes or points unknown. So, this is a time of goodbyes generally, rather than simply goodbyes for me. Some of my loved-ones may not be so sorry to see me go. My dog Casey, for example, may welcome this respite from my rather whimsical and bizarre sense of humor. Then again, if I leave the house for almost any length of time she responds to my return with almost pathological levels of joy, so I think it's safe to say she'll miss me.

The harder call in that department goes to my guy friends. In college I had mostly female friends which was charming, in its own way, but at the same time a bit strange. Since arriving at grad school my friendship network has come to be dominated mostly by men. This is nice, in that I have people I can go eat crappy bar food with, but it also means that I am once more enmeshed within the peculiarly illogical system of male relationships.

You men in the audience are aware of what I mean- male friendships can simultaneously be very close, and tremendously abusive. In fact, they seem to operate using a system of justice that is entirely different from that in all other areas of life. For example, in most walks of life good fortune is to be congratulated. Not so among men. No, among men good fortune is but an excuse to step up the normal, customary abuse. It is as though there is some sort of guy-karma that must be balanced through the assistance of friends.

Not that good fortune is the only reason why men abuse each other. Additional acceptable reasons include: being in a bad mood, someone else is in a bad mood, it's funny, he deserved it, being bored, the sun is shining, etc. My Hypothetical Roommate and I have elevated this casual cruelty to such a high level that our apartment has come to be known as the HostileHouse. Often, when he was living there, we would preface our statements to each other with various bits of obscenity, leading to comments like, "Hey, fuck-face, what do you want for dinner?" It is as though male friendship is strengthened by more and more extreme forms of moronic, juvenile torment.

So, given what male friendships are like, you can understand why departures like this one are a little strange. On the one hand, we might miss each other. On the other hand, to admit such would demolish the carefully-built facade of cruelty that binds us together. Okay, it's not really a facade, it's a fun and deeply valued aspect of friendship, but that isn't the point. As such, when a group of men splits up for a time, the scene is unlikely to be a treasured Kodak moment.

Yet, still, for all that my female sociological colleages might be muttering about "hegemonic masculinity" and "compulsory heterosexuality" at this point, guy-friendships have their tender moments. We may torture each other, but we also look out for one another. When the need is truly dire we have a way of being there for each other. At times like those, it becomes apparent what the cruelty actually means: first and foremost, that your friend actually cares. Most men I spend time with wouldn't spend energy on someone they didn't like. So, for men raised in a culture where expressions of affection between men are discouraged, faux-hostility becomes the only way to distinguish genuine friendship from simple ambivalence. Silly, I know, but true. There is another purpose, however: men and women rely on their friends for support when the going gets rough. Among men, this is sometimes expressed as someone "having your back," meaning guarding your back in a potential fight. Given this, what better way to reassure each other as to the value of one's support, than to show off one's deviousness through stupid pranks? Similarly, one demonstrates one's own value by enduring such pranks and responding gracefully. Once more, silly, I know, but meaninful just the same.

So, my guy friends, I will miss you during my extended absence. You're a good bunch of guys, even if most of you are so goddamned ugly you have to pay goats to screw you. Have a good break, take care, and I'll see you when I return.

And if some of you find yourselves signed up for an amputee fetish porn mailing list I... uh... don't know anything about that.

Happy Holidays, Fuckers.

Special thanks to Maritza Campos and her amusing webcomic College Roomies From Hell, which provided most of the visual aids for today's post.

Monday, December 20, 2004

The 12 Steps

Last week, I began a four-part series on Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that helps millions of people around the world win their fight with alcoholism. Tonight, I want to talk more about how individual alcoholics use the A.A. program to get better.

A.A. famously began the "12 step" approach to alcoholism treatment. The 12 steps are easy to find on the A.A. web site, but I think they're important enough to reprint here, in their entirety. The 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol--that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Everyone works through the same 12 steps, in the same order. Significantly, A.A. is very explicit about the fact that there is no set timetable for the steps. Alcoholics work the steps as quickly or slowly as they wish. In keeping with the free thinking bent of A.A., no one is required to follow, or even to read, the 12 steps. The steps are simply a set of ideas and techniques that have helped millions of alcoholics recover.

So how does it work in practice? When a new person joins A.A., he or she is assigned to a sponsor, someone who has been in the program for at least six months and has worked through at least the first few steps. Steps are usually done at home, but the member usually describes his or her experiences with the steps at regular A.A. meetings.

The first step is to recognize that he or she is powerless over alcohol. This can be accomplished by standing up in an A.A. meeting and declaring, "my name is _____, and I'm an alcoholic." But it has to come from the heart, and some people spend years working on the first step, trying to admit to themselves that they are powerless over alcohol. A.A. has a saying - "powerless but not helpless." The alcoholic can't conquer alcohol addiction under their own power - that's where the second step comes in.

Step 2 is for the alcoholic to believe that a Higher Power can restore them to sanity. "Sanity" means more than not drinking - it means committing to live a purposeful, responsible, and satisfying life. As I mentioned previously, for many people "Higher Power" means God, but many people find their Higher Power squarely in this world. Step 3 is making a commitment to this Higher Power.

Step 4 is one of the toughest ones. It requires taking a long, difficult look at one's self. Character defects can include traits like resentment, fear, jealously, or actions like criticism (of others or the self), or hatred. With careful, loving feedback from their sponsor, a member makes a "fearless" - that is, a completely honest, list of all character defects he or she possesses. In step 5, the member admits his or her character defects to themselves, to God, and to another person. The other person is especially critical - it's easy to pretend to discuss your defects to yourself, but it's harder - and more honest and real - to describe them to another person. In steps 6 and 7, the alcoholic humbly asks God to remove his or her shortcomings. This is one of the places where God enters most explicitly into the A.A. program - perhaps it would be better to state that the alcoholic appeals to his or her Higher Power. (This might be a place to criticize A.A. - just because I'm profiling them in Total Drek doesn't mean I think they're perfect.)

Steps 8 and 9 are the alcoholic's public reaction to the character defects recounted in steps 4 through 7. The alcoholic recognizes the harm that his character defects have done to other people, and promises to make amends to the people he or she has harmed. Often the process begins with writing letters to these people, apologizing for the harm they have caused. The more specific the letters - recounting actual events at specific times and places - the more likely the alcoholic will get better. Amends continue with promises to people to change behavior in the future. These promises also need to be specific - not "I will spend more time with my family," but "I will spend five evenings a week at home with my family." As I said, the more specific the amends, the more likely the alcoholic will get better.

Steps 10 through 12 might be described as "maintenance" steps - they help the alcoholic stay sober and stay in the A.A. program. The 12th step never really ends; having found recovery and a better life from the first 11 steps, the alcoholic spreads the message of A.A. for the 12th step. Even after completing the first 11 steps and working on the 12th, A.A. members still refer to themselves as "recovering alcoholics." Their work is never done.

In the course of my research for this article, I found this blog from a recovering alcoholic. I make no statements about the quality of the blog. I just wanted to point it out, to give you a way to see what A.A. is like from the inside.

Coming Wednesday - more about how A.A. functions as a group, on the local and national level.

Sweet, sweet irony

While you're waiting for me to finish my second post on A.A., check out this story from Yahoo! news that has just made my day a little brighter. I especially love the last sentence.

In the meantime...

Last week we were promised a series of posts this week on the good people over at Alcoholics Anonymous. Slag has, indeed, been working on this series and I can see some not-quite ready drafts in the backstage area. I can also see some empty pizza boxes, dirty pairs of underwear and old socks there too. I really need to clean up the old office.

In any case, it looks like the second of Slag's posts on AA should go up later today. In the meantime I just wanted to take care of some administrative business. Specifically I wanted to welcome two new blogs to the blogosphere and my blogroll.

The first of these is a group blog from the bounteous blogging fields of Wisconsin. This is a blog with so many authors, who all have so much authority, that the blog itself is like something out of an Anarchist's wet dream. Or, you know, Snow Crash. Things are so disorganized chaotic free-spirited over there that the blog's NAME isn't even consistent. It started as wisc-dot-edu, became dot-wisc-dot-edu, went back, went forth, and so on. For a while I was just mentally referring to it as "Doobie-doobie-doo-dot-edu" but that's because I'm insane. I shudder to imagine what the current name is. So, while I'm including this blog in the blogroll, it's unclear what I should call it. Since I don't much feel like updating the name in the roll to reflect the daily, nay, hourly changes made by its authors, I've decided just to make up my own name for this blog. So, New Wisconsin Bloggers, I dub thee Wisconversation.

The other blog I'm adding is the personal blog of one of the Wisconversants. I refer, of course, to J Autumn whose personal blog milchbubi gains the "priviledge" of inclusion based solely on its amusing writing, and the excellent post on man-tits. I welcome you to the blogging fun.

So, hail and well met. I look forward to a long and fruitful relationship which will mostly consist of me babbling and you pretending to care. Or not. Really, it's up to you.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Insomnia causes me to find strange web links

like this.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Disturbing News from Cornell

From a Cornell University press release, which received extensive worldwide coverage:

In a study to determine how much the public fears terrorism, almost half of respondents polled nationally said they believe the U.S. government should -- in some way -- curtail civil liberties for Muslim Americans, according to a new survey released today (Dec. 17) by Cornell University.

About 27 percent of respondents said that all Muslim Americans should be required to register their location with the federal government, and 26 percent said they think that mosques should be closely monitored by U.S. law enforcement agencies. Twenty-nine percent agreed that undercover law enforcement agents should infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations, in order to keep tabs on their activities and fund raising. About 22 percent said the federal government should profile citizens as potential threats based on the fact that they are Muslim or have Middle Eastern heritage. In all, about 44 percent said they believe that some curtailment of civil liberties is necessary for Muslim Americans.

The slightly encouraging news is that, while 44% of respondents believed that Muslim Americans should have their civil liberties curtailed, 48% believed that there should be no such restrictions. So at least there are more Americans who believe that America should remain the land of the free.

The disturbing news, beyond the obvious, is twofold. First, 29% of respondents think that "undercover law enforcement agents should infiltrate Muslim civic and volunteer organizations" - 29% of Americans want a secret police force, here in the U.S. Second, the study found a correlation between self-reported religiosity and support for restricting civil liberties. In other words, the more religious respondents were, the more likely they were to support restricting other people's freedom based on religion.

Friday, December 17, 2004

British Court Says Detentions Violate Rights

From the article:

Using perhaps the sharpest language of the nine British justices' separate opinions, Lord Hoffmann said the case was one of the most important decided by the House of Lords in recent years.

"It calls into question the very existence of an ancient liberty of which this country has until now been very proud: freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention," he wrote, and went on to say that the detentions posed a greater threat to the nation than terrorism.

"The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these," Lord Hoffmann wrote. "That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory."

Well said.

My name is Slag, and I'm an alcoholic...

...Not really, but I do want to use my position here at Total Drek to draw attention to what I think is one of the world's truly great organizations. By great, I mean both effective and morally good. The group is Alcoholics Anonymous.

Alcoholics Anonymous is currently helping more than 2,000,000 people around the world in their struggle with alcoholism. No one knows the exact number of members; AA has no formal command structure, and thrives on anonymity. But it's safe to say that AA makes a major positive impact on the lives of millions, and on the world at large.

Alcoholism is one of the biggest problems of modern industrialized societies, all over the world. Maybe some of you sociologists can figure out some reasons why it's such a problem. But nearly everyone has a family member, friend, or co-worker who is an alcoholic, so nearly everyone is aware of alcoholism's potential to destroy lives.

Decades ago, doctors thought severe alcoholism was basically incurable. Alcoholics went into hospitals, recovered and sobered up, and went back out to drink again. Then, in 1935, a salesman from New York met a doctor in Akron, Ohio. History has recorded their names, but A.A. members, keeping with their tradition of anonymity, still refer to them as Bill W. and Dr. Bob. Bill W. and Dr. Bob met regularly to discuss their common problem of alcoholism, and they both noticed that their temptation to drink lessened when they spoke to each other about their problem. They personally invited other alcoholics to join their meetings, and the movement began to grow. Groups started in Cleveland, New York, and other cities.

Four years later, the movement named itself Alcoholics Anonymous and published the Big Book, a guide to the organization's recovery program. Today, A.A. meetings happen nearly every hour of every day, all over the world.

Meetings vary a little in form and content, but the basic premise is always the same. The goal of each meeting, according to A.A. tradition, is for alcoholics to share the "experience, strength, and hope" they have found in their lives. Several people speak during each meeting. Usually, people don't respond to others' statements; each person's perspective is respected as both unique and applicable to all.

New A.A. members find a sponsor, someone who has been in the program for at least six months. With his or her sponsor, the new member works through A.A.'s 12 steps to recovery (I'll post more about those later). The A.A. program is definitely a spiritual program, relying on a "Higher Power" throughout the program. But - and this is the beautiful thing that separates A.A. from the many programs that are secretly religious recruiting tools - A.A. won't tell you what the Higher Power is. A.A. has helped Christians, Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists conquer alcoholism. A prominent A.A. brochure features a message from an atheist alcoholic whose life changed when he joined A.A., and who encourages other atheists to consider A.A. for what it is - an organization open to all, committed to helping people struggle with and overcome the problem of alcoholism.

I'll be posting about Alcoholics Anonymous in four parts. This is part one. Part two comes next Monday. I'll talk more about the 12 steps, and describe how millions of individual alcoholics have found recovery through the steps. Next Wednesday, in part three, I'll talk about A.A.'s "12 Traditions," and how A.A. groups and A.A. as a whole function. Next Friday, in part four, I'll give some of my own reflections about why I think A.A. is such a great organization, and such a positive influence on the world.

I'd love to hear your thoughts as well.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

My Big, Fat, Greek, University System.

I recently had the opportunity to read Alexandra Robbins' new book Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities. Now, I know that many of you probably think that I did so out of some sort of voyeuristic interest in the all-female wing of collegiate Greek life. After all, as a diehard GDI I was never deeply embroiled in hedonistic world of fraternities or sororities, right?

Well, you're partly right, and partly wrong. I was, indeed, a God Damned Independent in college. I was, in fact, the only person on my freshman hall of either sex who did not participate in Rush. (Well, okay, except for that one girl who tried to commit suicide in the first six weeks, but she's a special case.) Actually, not participating in rush gave me the opportunity to do something else quite special: wander bare-ass naked through my dorm while everyone else was at Greek rush. Now, how many of you can claim to have done the same thing?

In any case, despite my reluctance to rush I was not untouched by the Greek system. The local chapter of Alpha-Tau-Omega, a Southern fraternity that on our campus was known for comparatively gentlemanly behavior, tried to informally rush me for a while. I might have given in had I not objected to the culture of alcoholism and sexism promoted by even the best fraternities at my school.

As a side note: Sweet Jesus do I sound like a radical feminist. Why is it that in my blog I rarely come across as the misogynist bastard I really am? Or am I misperceiving my blog?

Beyond this flirtation with brotherhood, however, I also received an introduction to Greek life through the sorority system. Most of my friends in college were women and a number of them were Greek. As a general rule my friends were either members of Kappa-Kappa-Gamma (A middle-of-the-road sorority at my school), Alpha-Phi (the low-status, but diverse and interesting group), or Alpha-Phi-Omega (A co-ed service fraternity distinguished as much by its community service, as by its marked lack of mental stability and tendency towards inbreeding). I was partciularly treasured by my friends as a reliable and acceptably fun friend-date, who could be counted on as an entertaining and sober companion. As a result, I got to know quite a few sorority sisters, as well as their boyfriends. I also came to be familiar with some of the particular, and subtly disturbing, aspects of sororities, such as the KKG ritual that involves kneeling, clapping, floor-pounding, and singing in unison. This particular display of collective effervesence probably would not have been so disturbing had the sisters not been in evening gowns at the time.

So, despite my independent status, I did get a few lessons in the Greek system. Hell, come to think of it, I pimped one of my friends to Alpha-Phi- helping her meet sisters and get a spot-bid since she couldn't afford to participate in formal rush. Thus, I was not reading Robbins' book out of a voyeuristic need to peer into the sorority system, but rather in the hopes of getting some interesting sociological insights from a journalist's account. Hey, it worked pretty well on other occasions with a variety of different subjects.

Unfortunately, while voyeurism was not what I went in search of, voyeurism is all that I got. While Robbins does inject a certain amount of interesting background into her essentially ethnographic discussion of sorority life, her book is sadly lacking in analysis. It is, in almost every respect, merely a recitation of events in the lives of several sorority sisters, with relatively little attention paid to the social context, and next to no deep analysis of what was happening.

This superficial quality is most frustraing in two places: her discussion of hazing practices and her account of negotiations within a sorority over an abusive boyfriend. In the case of the former, Robbins does go into considerable detail about hazing, its history, and its persistence in the Greek system, but she utterly fails to ask the simple question, "Why is hazing so important to Greeks?" A barely competent social scientist could easily conjure forth accounts dealing with shared experiences for building group solidarity, and the need for rituals to mark life transitions. Durkheim could, doubtless, have discussed the topic at length. Further, the unpleasant aspects of hazing can easily be explained as emerging from the mechanism of cognitive dissonance: once one has survived the hazing experience, one must conclude that the organization is very important and worthy in order to justify tolerating humiliation at the hands of one's new "sisters." Harsh hazing emerged because it can often be a highly effective tactic for ensuring group solidarity. Unfortunately, for all her skill as a journalist Robbins is not even a barely competent social scientist, and fails to express anything but bafflement at the behavior of her subjects.

In the case of the abusive relationship, an opportunity to illuminate critical aspects of Greek culture was entirely missed. To explain, one of the book's focal women was involved in a somewhat violent altercation with her boyfriend, who was routinely verbally and emotionally abusive. The subject's friends within the sorority intervened and required the subject to sit down at a private meeting with them and the sorority "house mom" to decide on a course of action. The outcome of this meeting, however, was fascinating: the subject was prohibited from seeing her boyfriend at the sorority house, where she lived, and was compelled instead to see him at his off-campus apartment. This is fascinating to me in a particular sense: the subject had clearly been physically imperiled, although it was hard to tell how far the male in question might have gone. Her sorority sisters had intervened and required a meeting of her, presumably out of concern for her well-being. Yet, the conclusion of that meeting was a decision that protected the sorority itself from being publicly embarrassed by having a violent confrontation in its house, but in the process exposed one of its members to greater personal risk. One would have expected, if the sorority was truly concerned with its members, that the subject would have been advised not to see her abusive boyfriend anywhere BUT the sorority house, where a number of sympathetic allies would be close at hand. Instead, it appears that individuals became a resource for the collectivity, and that the collectivity is not a resource that can be drawn upon by members. Despite this fascinating example of social parasitism, however, "Pledged" simply rolls on uncaring and without any analysis.

Matters only go downhill when one at last reaches the concluding chapter where the author offers suggestions for the reformation of the Greek system. Of course, as there has been virtually no analysis to this point there has been no indication the author even believes that reformation may be necessary, and no case has been made as to why. So, the reader is caught somewhat by surprise. The suggestions themselves, aside from being poorly grounded in the text, are almost laughably absurd. One of the central recommendations is that hazing and pledging be eliminated- perhaps a good idea in theory, but not one that is likely to be successful. Groups need rituals to constitute themselves, and they need rituals to integrate new members. Calling for an end to those rituals is essentially equivalent to demanding that the sun cease its tireless movement through the heavens. Further, Robbins' repeated suggestion that responsible adults be more involved in Greek life is problematic in two senses. First, college students are already legal adults, who may vote, sign contracts, and go to war. As such, perpetuating the middle-class tendency to treat college students as big children simply reinforces their tendency to act as such. Second, one of the few nuggets of analysis provided by Robbins is that the national organization of many sororities, operated by older women, may actually drive them to more conservative, and destructive, places than the active college membership would go otherwise. As such, her call for more adult participation seems, at best, contradictory and, at worst, hopelessly naive.

"Pledged" had potential, but unfortunately falls far short. A chapter or two might be valuable as supplemental material for an undergrad class, but otherwise this book is of little use to the professional sociologist or the interested layperson. The time necessary to read it would be better spent elsewhere.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

If you love something, puke on it.

Or so I was told by an ex-girlfriend of mine who, by that criteria, was apparently very fond of me. I am grateful that this was not her only, or even preferred, way of expressing affection, but nonetheless never before or since has vomit carried such a meaning.

This comment has been on my mind the last few days because of an ordeal I've been going through with my dog. I've written about my wacky animal before, and have explained that she is a three-legged ball of fury. Indeed, this dog has an absolutely staggering amount of energy that shows no signs of abating as she ages. Like many other dogs, she also shows no particular tendency to be picky when it comes to eating. She is more than willing to consume several varieties of trash, vegetables, fruit, cooked meat, raw meat, week-old slices of pizza sitting in gutters, orange peels, and the occasional small rock. I have, in fact, never really observed a vaguely organic material that this dog will not eat, save, fortunately, for the feces of other animals. I am rather happy that my dog lacks that particular predilection. In any case, as a high-energy all-purpose garbage disposal I have to pay close attention to her during our morning walks, lest she eat something a little too questionable.

Alas, some of you can already see where this is going. I have unfortunately mastered the ability to walk my dog and sleep at the same time, and thus am not always aware when she slurps up some particular morsel. As a result, we sometimes have nights like last Saturday night. Whatever it was that she ate, my poor canine companion came down with a bad case of diarrhea. I spent the night being awakened every forty-five minutes or so by a whining, desperate dog who wished very much to be let out. This was, it goes without saying, more than a little disruptive to my sleep. Still, I didn't really get angry at this process: it was preferrable to let her out over and over, to waking up the next morning to a dozen or more oozing piles on the carpet. I am thankful that her housebreaking took such deep root that, even when she is sick, she does not have accidents.

Yet, my recent adventures in dog shit didn't end there. The next day and, believe it or not, for a few days thereafter I found myself paying special attention to her feces. I looked it over for consistency, color, and, especially, for signs of blood that might signal the need for a trip to the vet. As I'm writing I'm well aware of how acutely unappealing this sounds, and it wasn't a walk in the park, but as a dog owner it didn't really bother me to do it. My concern was with my dog and her health- unpleasant tasks and aromas were of relatively little concern.

I don't think this mindset is particularly unusual. When I adopted my dog there was a fairly lengthy period of adjustment. This included a period of severe separation anxiety where I might come home to discover that my sweet puppy had soiled herself in panic, and then rolled around in it within her crate. Needless to say, washing her and the crate was not a joyful experience. Yet, as I have grown to truly love my dog, these intermittent tasks have decreased in their unpleasantness. (For the record: she no longer has that particular problem, but dogs have a way of finding new and revolting messes to get themselves into.) I imagine a similar situation obtains among parents: we have all seen mothers and fathers aiding their progeny in personal hygeine tasks that seem, at best, disgusting. This includes the changing of diapers, but goes far beyond to the tending of sickness, the wiping of noses, and other tasks. Parents seem to perform these tasks with an easy and simple grace that betrays little, if any, disgust. This is not to say that parents wouldn't prefer not to handle their children's excrement, but merely that it doesn't seem to bother them all that much. When you love something, your tolerance for its bad qualities seems to vastly increase.

Interestingly, however, I think the true significance of love goes beyond a mere tolerance for unpleasantness. We are all familiar with the idea of loving someone in spite of their flaws. I'm sure many of us have even been there before, spending time with a special someone who had a few little... quirks, that annoyed the ever-living hell out of us. We may find ourselves sighing quietly and accepting that they simply were the way they were. Yet, I think true love goes beyond the level of mere acceptance. Those who truly love something do so not in spite of its flaws, but at least in part because of those flaws.

This is not to say that we stop seeing certain things as flaws, but rather than we become fond of those imperfections. Perhaps in an ideal world we might change those things that annoy us without changing the remainder of the person, but we do not live in an ideal world. If the imperfections were gone, then the person would probably differ in other ways as well. Something special and charming about the person, or the thing, might be lost in the elimination of an otherwise undesirable feature. I think we learn to love imperfections because without them the object of our affection simply wouldn't be that thing that we love.

On a basic level, I know that I feel this way about my dog. She's extremely active, and she can make a real pest of herself with hyperactive, over-protective barking, but part of what I love about her is her curious, optimistic exuberance. Could I train her to be calmer and more controlled without eliminating that boundless enthusiasm I so treasure? Maybe- but I don't know that I'm willing to take that chance. I love her for the imperfections that make her so goddamn annoying sometimes, because those same imperfections are part of what makes her uniquely her.

When it comes to other people, I think the same rule applies. However long we may live, we shall never find another person with whom we agree in every possible way. Any relationship with another human being will involve conflict, anger, and annoyance from time to time. Yet, to truly love someone is to love their flaws and their annoying features, because those are some of the very things that make that person special. If one would not change the other person's flaws, even if one had the power, then one at last knows the real power of love. All this is not to say that you should make yourself love annoying people, but rather that you will know the depth of your love when it is not in spite of, but rather because of.

This is a belief that I will be keeping in mind over the next month or so. As I travel home to see my family- predominantly conservative, religious, and Bush-supporting folk- I will be exposing myself to a considerable amount of annoyance. Yet, my family are the people that they are, and many of them are people that I respect and love. My parents' misguided support for Bush may frustrate me, but I love the deep commitment to personal responsibility and fairness that impels them to it. I do love them because they are independent people who make up their own minds, even if I don't agree with where those minds have taken them.

It is a worthwhile lesson for all of us in the holiday season, as we encounter people that we love, but may not always like. Without our imperfections we would be very different, and perhaps lesser, people. The same can be said of our friends and loved ones. Let us try to remember that, and treasure those imperfections for the precious gifts that they are.

And if that doesn't work, just spike the hell out of the egg nog.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

This would be annoying if I weren't a pathological liar to begin with.

In an apparent effort to discredit me, the American Red Cross has sent me a free CD. How does that discredit me, you ask? Well, some of you will recall that in a recent post I asserted that the Red Cross is an organization with religious roots that has evolved into a largely secular group. I should really have learned by this point that making such claims is a sure-fire way to lure fate into smacking me around.

So, sure enough, mere days after writing that post I received a holiday CD from the Red Cross with six holiday music tracks burned onto it. Not just any holiday tracks, though: we're talking some of the most agonizing lounge-singer versions of beloved christmas tunes ever committed to compact disc. Regrettably, this is an effort too amateurish to be committed to the CDDB, so I can't point you to it online. I can, however, assure you that it contains things like "Little Drummer Boy," "Joy to the World," and "Silent Night." Fine. Charming. There's just one small problem.

Why is all the music Christian? I mean, seriously, we all know that there are other holidays around this time of year. What about some good old fashioned Hanukkah music? (Or Chanukkah, or Channukkah, or Xaennuqiahe, or however the fuck it's being transliterated this week) I mean, would it have been too much goddamn trouble to put on the appropriate tunage so I could get my dreidel on? What about Kwanzaa music (if there is such a thing)? Would a single tune have been too much of a burden to deal with? Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't have listened to it even if it DID have Hanukkah and Kwanzaa music on it, seeing as how I'm not only non-christian, but also non-Jewish and non-... um... hmmm.... Kwanzoid? Whatever, since I'm not any of that stuff I still wouldn't have listened but I'm a fan of diversity. Just a thought, Red Cross, but a fair number of your donors are probably devoutly non-Christian. I appreciate the holiday thought, but seriously, put a little more thought into it next time.

Now, there are some Christmas and holiday CDs that are worth our time. For example, there's this fine title from Islamic Jihad Records. Then there's this excellent album featuring Mrs. Claus. Finally, there are even some Christmas CDs that are a little like trainwrecks: you don't want to watch, but you can't look away. Yes, there are many, many holiday CDs that I might bring myself to purchase.

Of course, to be honest, I DO own a CD of christmas music. Specifically, I own a copy of "Metal Christmas" an album of christmas music produced by heavy metal bands and guitarists. Yeah, it virtually screams "This fulfills our community service hours for that incident with the sixteen year-old and the donkey," but frankly that just makes it so much more fun to listen to. Besides, it's the only album of Christmas music that poses the vital question (And keep in mind that I am 100% serious about this lyric) I find myself asking every year:

"Whatcha gonna do when you see mommy touching Santa Claus?"


Monday, December 13, 2004

I swear, I didn't make this up.

Received from one of my students:


It's Jane from your sociology class and I just want to thank you for being a good teacher. You really made the subject as interesting as it possibly could be and I appreciated it. I know this was your first time teaching the class and you really did a wonderful job. I've recommended you to anyone I know who is thinking about this course and am truly grateful to have had you. This is my second year at the University and the first semester I've had any faith in the teaching staff, partly because of your class. Thank you for all your hard work.

Jane Doe

Names obviously changed to protect the guilty, and identifying comments removed, but otherwise this is what I received verbatim. Since "Jane" has an A as it is, I'm not too terribly worried that this is just an attempt to butter me up before final grades are submitted.

I didn't get into this racket because I wanted to be a teacher, but I do try to do my best with it anyway. It's really, really nice to hear that I'm not doing too badly at it.

Goddamn but I love my job!

A few more positive reviews like this and that community college post is as good as mine!

Friday, December 10, 2004

"Without us, Canada is like... uh... Honduras. Except colder, and less interesting."

I'm not one of those naughty Blue Staters that have asked to move to Canada, and I will admit that I've made jokes about Canada's military prowess, BUT I'm also one of the few Americans who seems to be aware that Canada has kicked our ass not once but twice.

Let me state that again: Canada, the peaceful nation to our north has dealt the United States military defeats in not just one, but two wars. In fact, every time we've fought them we've gotten our asses handed to us. Granted, I'm pretty sure we've got the resources to make the third time the charm (if we ever get them back from Iraq anyway) but what the hell is the point in fighting our best friend?

So, you can understand why I find this video clip of the indomitable (Wait, sorry, I think I might have meant "ignorant" there. I often get my words mixed up) Ann Coulter, and others, insulting Canada so goddamn appalling. Canadians: I'm really sorry about this. I swear, a large number of us are not so f-ing stupid.

Ann Coulter's Manifest Destiny





Thanks to Wonkette for bringing this to my attention, and double-thanks to the wacky Icelandic site that's hosting the video clip.

Ok, for the last time...

Seriously, people, we'll go through this one more time. After that, I'm cracking skulls. Recently I've heard several people, and a few t.v. shows, using the phrase: "Guess your synapses are firing." Okay, let me take this squiggley bag of snakes and lay 'em out straight for you: synapses do NOT fire.

No, no, really, they don't. I know many of you think they do, but they don't. A synapse is a term used for one of two things: either the entire arrangement of parts where neurons come together, or merely the empty space between two neurons. Yes, you read that right: empty space. Can empty space fire? Shit, can empty space do much of anything at all? No, obviously not. Now, that said, is it appropriate terminology to say that the entire arrangement of parts where neurons come together fires? NO! The pre-synaptic neuron fires. Whether or not the post-synaptic neuron fires depends on a number of factors. Further, synapses are one-way signaling terminals. So, if neuron A sends a signal to neuron B by firing, neuron B cannot send a signal back to neuron A through the same synapse. So, if the post-synaptic neuron fires, it doesn't make a goddamn bit of difference to the synapse. Nerves fire, synapses do not.

Don't believe me? Well then, by all that's holy, check this out:

Okay? Is that clear enough? If you haven't already, pay special attention to the label "synapse" that denotes empty-bloody-space. Seriously, folks, you're making me fucking nuts. It's like listening to someone say, "Gosh, your tools are hammering!"

This has been your public service message for the day.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Mmmmm.... cookies...

All those who are part of my department (whatever and wherever that might be, as I've said before I forget those little details) are hereby alerted that tomorrow, in keeping with tradition, I will be delivering two batches of holiday cookies to the office staff. If they stick to tradition, and they are traditional gals, they'll most likely throw the platter open to all comers.

So what's on the menu? Well, this year I decided to try two types of cookies I haven't made before.

The first kind are referred to as "Sandies" in my cookbook, but my family calls 'em "butterballs." If you like sugar and pecans, these are for you. They're also vegan, since I made them with vegetable margarine (A tip: when making cookies with margarine, make sure it's composed of at least 60% oil. Any less and it's too watery for proper baking. Mine is 80% vegetable oil, thank you very much) and the recipe doesn't require any eggs or shortening. Just look at these beauties!

The second kind are referred to as "Blondies" and are similar to chocolate chip cookies, save that they employ brown sugar rather than granulated sugar for more of a butterscotch flavor. They're also a regional favorite in the Southeastern U.S. Sorry, vegans- these do contain eggs.

Get 'em while the gettin is good. I usually arrive around 8:15 AM or so, the cookies will be given to the office ladies shortly thereafter.

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