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, July 29, 2005

Formless Dread

As y'all know, I'm a pretty opinionated guy. I've pretty much always been this way- mostly because I've never felt it was moral to surrender my own judgment to someone else. So, it's pretty common to come by this blog and find me ranting about some notion or other that's crossed my mind. I like to think I'm right more often than not, but who cares? This is a blog for crying out loud, not the Sunday Times.

It may, therefore, come as something of a surprise to you that I don't really have a fully formed opinion about the subject of today's post. Not really. I more have a gut reaction, which could be described as "anxiety." What is the subject that inspires such a reaction?

In yesterday's Washington Post I read an article describing a recent study of female reproduction. Specifically, the study indicates that techniques for restoring fertility to women at, and beyond, menopause may be possible. Don't get me wrong- the research is preliminary, the findings may only apply to mice, and any potential applications are considerably in the future- but the possibility exists.

The thing is, I really don't know what to think about this. On the one hand, I could see this as a tremendous benefit for women. Many women are pushed between a rock and a hard place when it comes to their careers and their families. Having children early, at least for a woman, seems to signal to potential employers that she is not committed, but delaying children is only a somewhat viable solution since time, and eggs, eventually run out. Men have it considerably easier in that we remain fertile over the vast majority of our lives, even if many of us don't have the wisdom to make good use of that fertility. Then again, immature morons come in all shapes, sizes, and sexes, so I don't think men are alone in that regard.

In any case, I could definitely see this technology serving a useful purpose- helping to extract women from the career-family vice, and maybe provide us all with a few more options. I am, after all, generally pro-technology, and I largely approve of technology that gives humans more choices, and more control over their lives. Beyond those very sociological concerns, the ability to restore fertility might be a deep comfort for women who must undergo medical treatments such as chemotherapy, that can often include sterility as a side effect.

So why is it, then, that this possiblity leaves me with a sense of deep foreboding? Is it, perhaps, that I'm concerned about what it says about U.S. culture that we may be on our way towards developing techniques to extend fecundity, but that at the same time a vocal minority is working hard to eliminate our ability to responsibly limit childbearing? I somehow doubt that the religious right, with all of their "concern" for the unborn would bat an eye at a technique that increases the length of time in which women may bear children- even if that technology also increases spontaneous abortions. (I have no reason to think the techniques being developed at Harvard do have such a side effect, I just wouldn't be surprised by it. Being able to conceive past menopause, and being able to carry to term, are quite separable issues) I think what might be bothering me here is that a societal approval for techniques meant to extend the ability of women to have children, and societal condemnation of techniques that allow women to choose when they will have children, seem to add up to a global assertion that the only legitimate use for women is reproduction. A book I read many years ago (and that's about the best citation you're going to get, unfortunately) once praised the birth control pill, condoms, and other such prophylactics, for freeing women from their role as a "...decorative piece of reproductive hardware."

As a side note, what a wonderfully mixed assertion in terms of chauvanism and feminism. The paradoxical elegance brings tears to my eyes.

I find quite a bit of black humor in such a view. Given that among mammals females carry the young to term, nurse them during infancy and childhood, and generally are much more deeply involved in child rearing than males, it is my own sex that is biologically disposable. And don't even get me started on the whole "decorative" thing- among many species it is the males who are, for lack of a better term, "fancy." The reorientation of this order in our society is one of the most perversely humorous elements about the relations between the sexes. Yet, many buy into it, and such a view of women as little more than reproductive engines demeans us all- even as it may be driving our peculiar views of fertility control technologies.

In any case, I think my concern stems not from the technology itself, but from what the overall context says about us. I guess what it comes down to is that I think we can, and probably should, have all manner of technologies for managing our fertility. I'd like to see us fight for those rights in a manner that doesn't turn us all into hypocrites, true, but I don't think such a restriction will really limit us. We cannot, must not, have fertility enhancement, without the added boon of fertility control. If we're going to have the technology to extend childbearing beyond anything our species has known before, then we absolutely must have the tools to limit childbearing until it can happen responsibly.

And maybe that's just the question we need to ask the religious right: which would they prefer, a culture of "life," or a culture of responsibility?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Terrorist no more?

Ok, so I have been posting a lot lately.

Considering my fixation with Northern Ireland it is not surprising though that I should feel compelled to comment on the Historic Moment. In case you hadn't realised, the IRA is giving up its armed struggle.

Let me just repeat that statement above: the Irish Republican Army, the Provisional Irish Republican Army to be precise, is promising not to fight for the rights of the Irish people by any but democratic means.

That is amazing. Of course the Reverend Ian Paisley, the leader of the extreme unionst* DUP, after yelling "Hand in your weapons terrorist scum!" for ages is now screaming "Don't believe them!" or something to that effect. You'll excuse me for not being the Reverend's biggest fan. Mind you, it can be easy to get impatient with the unionists in general. You see, after years of negotiation the IRA finally hands in its weapons. The debate about decommissioning has caused innumerable crises and resignations in all sorts of governments. The unionists have been asking for it for years. It finally happens and what does the leader of the most mainstream unionist party say?

"People are so sceptical, having had...been burnt so many times before.
UUP leader Sir Reg Empey said people needed to be convinced
This is not simply whinging or being difficult about it, it's being simply factual that we've had so many statements before that haven't been kept.

And as far as the whole criminality is concerned, I mean, there are huge multi-million-pound smuggling rackets that have been run by the IRA, the bank robbery that was only recently held at the Northern Bank, which was the largest in British history, so, you know, people are going to take some time to see."


As my corporate self I teach a course in Communication and Negiotiation** and one of the things I tell people is "know when a win is a win".
Generally, in negotiations, when you get what you ask for, this is considered a win.

I am, of course, being deliberately unkind to the unionists. The truth is that they and other sceptics have a point. In fact, to be totally honest, I think even the Evil Reverend has a point in his reaction. I am not going to quote him, look for yourself, I don't want anything to do with that mad bigot. It is true that the IRA has failed to carry out commitments before, though their outstanding PR obscures that fact. You know what though? I believe them. I even believe that scary up-to-his-ears-in-blood demagogue Gerry Adams (mind the link, it is his own party). He has been keeping things quiet, and that is something to be grateful for. I'm sure everyone can appreciate that peace, too, is something to be grateful for. So let's enjoy it. Let's acknowledge this event for what it is: the proof that positive evolutions are possible in terrorist conflicts, and that sometimes terrorists can turn into politicians.

There's not too much of that around recently.


*unionists = people who wish to see NI as an integral part of Britain (=United Kingdom)
**which goes to show that big companies too have a sense of irony

In which we enjoy the return, however brief, of the Hypothetical Roommate

The Scene: Drek the Uninteresting and his Hypothetical Roommate (HyRo) are departing from the Fry's supermarket near Drek's apartment. This Fry's is, charmingly enough, referred to as the "Ghetto Fry's" for reasons that should not elude anyone who possesses more than three functional neurons. For those who are also interested, HyRo is not so much my hypothetical roommate, as my former hypothetical roommate who has access to a free storage unit in the form of my second bedroom until such time as he gets the rest of his shit out, I throw it out, or he starts paying storage fees. It is, however, much easier to type "HyRo" than "FHRwhAtaFSUitFomSBustahgtrohSO,ITio,ohSPSF."

HyRo: So the Fry's over where we live now is a Ghetto Fry's as well.

Drek: Oh, yeah?

HyRo: Yeah. We got this meat the other day? It was good for about a day and then it just got nasty all of a sudden. Just... UGH!

Drek: Well, that doesn't speak very well of its quality to start with.

HyRo: No. No, it doesn't. We've also got one of those... Wal-Mart Marketplaces. You know, the Wal-Marts that are just grocery stores?

Drek: Yeah, I got a mailing about that place. Which I promptly threw away.

HyRo: Well everything there looks good, and looks fresh, except the meat. The meat is just... SHINY. There's just this sheen to it.

Drek: Shiny? That's a little... odd. Meat generally isn't supposed to be shiny unless you've just cut it off of the animal.

HyRo: Or it's a really greasy cut of fish.

Drek: Right, yeah, or that.

HyRo: It's like... it's like they packed it in olive oil or something.

Drek: Okay, that's a problem on several levels. First, while olive oil is great and all, it really doesn't help with some recipes. I'd be pretty pissed if I always had to scrape olive oil off of my meat before I could cook it. Second, you've really gotta ask yourself WHY? Why is it necessary to pack the meat in olive oil? What purpose does that serve?

HyRo: I was wondering the same thing, but then I started thinking and it occurred to me- maybe the guys that run the place just know that the kind of people who usually shop at Wal-Mart just LIKE shiny things.

Drek: laughs

Drek: Well hell, I know I do!

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Insanity Parade: Ram(th)a-Lama-Ding-Dong Edition

Well, ladies and gentlemen, despite the extremely long hiatus, it's time for another episode in our popular continuing series, The Insanity Parade. Of course this assumes that by "popular" you mean, "has never generated a comment ever." Speaking personally, I like to think that's exactly what you mean.

As you will recall, last time we discussed Mr. Greg Buell and his fascinating invention, the electric windmill car. Despite his claims that his invention will revolutionize transportation, and that it has been suppressed by an oil-dominated military-industrial complex, I'm fairly certain the adoption of the electric windmill car is being opposed by the basic laws of physics more than anything else. Regardless, I wish Mr. Buell well in his endeavours.

Today we're going to be tackling something a little more prominent than Mr. Buell. Indeed, we're going to be tackling something more prominent than anything else I've ever written about in The Insanity Parade. What is this monolithic foe, you ask? Simple: the surprise hit movie What the bleep do we know? If you haven't heard of this film before, let me just provide you with the synopsis that's available on the movie's website:

WHAT THE BLEEP DO WE KNOW?! is a new type of film. It is part documentary, part story, and part elaborate and inspiring visual effects and animations. The protagonist, Amanda, played by Marlee Matlin, finds herself in a fantastic Alice in Wonderland experience when her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality.

She is literally plunged into a swirl of chaotic occurrences, while the characters she encounters on this odyssey reveal the deeper, hidden knowledge she doesn’t even realize she has asked for. Like every hero, Amanda is thrown into crisis, questioning the fundamental premises of her life – that the reality she has believed in about how men are, how relationships with others should be, and how her emotions are affecting her work isn’t reality at all!

As Amanda learns to relax into the experience, she conquers her fears, gains wisdom, and wins the keys to the great secrets of the ages, all in the most entertaining way. She is then no longer the victim of circumstances, but she is on the way to being the creative force in her life. Her life will never be the same.

The fourteen top scientists and mystics interviewed in documentary style serve as a modern day Greek Chorus. In an artful filmic dance, their ideas are woven together as a tapestry of truth. The thoughts and words of one member of the chorus blend into those of the next, adding further emphasis to the film’s underlying concept of the interconnectedness of all things.

The chorus members act as hosts who live outside of the story, and from this Olympian view, comment on the actions of the characters below. They are also there to introduce the Great Questions framed by both science and religion, which divides the film into a series of acts. Through the course of the film, the distinction between science and religion becomes increasingly blurred, since we realize that, in essence, both science and religion describe the same phenomena.

The film employs animation to realize the radical knowledge that modern science has unearthed in recent years. Powerful cinematic sequences explore the inner-workings of the human brain. Quirky animation introduces us to the smallest form of consciousness in the body – the cell. Dazzling visuals reinforce the film’s message in an exciting, powerful way. Done with humor, precision, and irreverence, these scenes are only part of what makes this film unique in the history of cinema, and a true box-office winner.

Now, at first glance, this seems like a movie that I would adore. Its title shares the same sort of irreverent humor that I like to indulge in, and it's liberally sprinkled with physics, neuroscience, biology, and sociology. What's not to like?

Well... in short... virtually everything. This movie has the singular distinction of being a work of cinema that I consider to be- simultaneously- brilliant and irredeemably stupid. So, how can it be both? Simple- you can appreciate it, and understand it, on two levels.

On the first level, it is a staggeringly brilliant movie- not for what it says, but for how it says it. What the bleep weaves science fact, half-truth, and outright fabrication together into a stunning pastiche that audiences will adore for the simple reason that it sounds quite good. The movie makes the assertion, repeatedly, that we are all gods, that we manufacture reality for ourselves, and that we can control everything that happens to us. I can certainly appreciate the appeal in such a message, and as a sociologist I am hardly unfamiliar with the notion that we participate in the creation of our own reality but this movie crosses vastly further beyond the pale than even the most radical sociologist- verging on solipsism. For Americans in particular, who have been taught essentially from birth to be islands unto themselves, the message of this film has a tremendous appeal. The problem, however, comes when we dismantle that pastiche and see what's inside of it.

And that's what brings us to the stupid part- this is a movie that plays so fast and loose with facts and fiction that it can make your head spin. What do I mean by that? I'm glad you asked, because that's what we're going to talk about right now.

The first thing we need to discuss as we explore this film is what amounts to a thousand-pound gorilla. What I mean is that we need to discuss the party who actually made this movie. Actually, if you've seen the film, you've already seen its driving force. Remember the older blonde woman with the weird accent (Sort of like Kevin Costner's accent in his Robin Hood movie) who kept speaking with such authority? That's the person we're looking for. You wanna know who she is? Oh, it's pretty mundane, really: She's Ramtha, a 35,000 year old spirit-warrior from Atlantis who communicates through the body of former Tacoma, Washington resident J.Z. Knight. Let me repeat that again for those of you who weren't paying attention:

The movie is the project of a woman who claims to be channeling a 35,000 year old spirit who, in turn, claims to be from a place that never existed.

Now, I like to be tolerant of the various religions of this Earth, so I'm not going to say that this is entirely impossible, but can we all agree that such an individual is probably not the best source for information on physics, neuroscience, biology, or sociology? Can we at least all get together on not getting our science from a spirit-guide?

You might wonder what motivation a channeler would have for making such a movie if she wasn't really in touch with a more powerful force. Moreover, where is she getting the money? Well, ironically, the answer to both questions derives from the same place- the Ramtha School of Enlightenment, which in a handful of days can teach YOU TOO to manipulate the quantum froth for fun and profit. I am so not kidding here people: according to Ramtha's website, time with her will cost you anywhere from $50.00 to $1000.00 US, depending on what sort of event you attend. Sadly, the link to her biography seems to be broken, but for the curious there is an entry regarding her in the Skeptic's Dictionary. There is certainly the strong impression that Ramtha, or Knight, or whatever the hell this person calls herself, is little more than a swindler seeking to make a buck off of other people's credulity.

And what credulity it is, too. Some of the claims in this film are so extreme as to be totally laughable. There is, for example, the claim that Native Americans were initially unable to see the ships of Christopher Columbus until they had developed a concept of what a "ship" was. Actually, the movie identifies Columbus' vessels as "Clipper Ships" which is hardly reassuring since clipper ships weren't invented until the nineteenth century! For those who have a hard time with dates, that means sometime after 1801 AD. Since Columbus sailed, I am told, in 1492 AD, he was about 309 years, if we're being generous, too early for clipper ships. If the Native Americans couldn't see Columbus' clipper ships, perhaps that's because they (the ships) didn't exist, and Columbus was actually using a carrack and two caravels.

But I digress...

The movie claims that the Native Americans could see the ripples the ships made in the water but, at least for a time, were unable to see the ships themselves. That is, until a wise shaman finally realized the craft were there, and then told the others, at which point the ships appeared to one and all. This is unmitigated bullshit, and bullshit of the worst sort. What is happening here is the movie is deliberately conflating what we know as "sensation" with the related, but distinct, phenomenon of "perception."

When we sense something we register information about the world with our senses, or our data-input organs, such as eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc. When we perceive something, however, we organize that input into a coherent understanding about what those signals mean. These are two distinct, but related, processes in the brain, and should not be confused. What the movie might have said, and maintained technical accuracy, was that initially the Native Americans were unable to perceive the ships. This would have been true since Native Americans wouldn't have had an understanding of what a "ship" was. They still would have been able to see it, but assigning it to a mental category would have been a tad more difficult. If I had to guess, they probably would have decided it was a huge canoe and built on things from there, but that's sheer speculation. Indeed, unlike what the movie claims, it is possible to see something without perceiving it. Such a situation is exemplified by the medical condition known as agnosia.

In agnosia an individual, as a consequence of brain damage, can see objects, can realize that they are present and even describe them, but is unable to recognize what they are. Thus, a pencil becomes an object of so much length, with such a shape, and other characteristics, but is no longer simply a pencil. What has been lost is not the ability to see something, but the ability to apply a percept to it.

You might argue that the case of the Native Americans is different- after all an agnosic (someone with agnosia) has probably been exposed to an object before and may still recognize it on some deep level. This sounds good, but is wrong. It is wrong because an inability to recognize something does not mean the stimulus vanishes. There is a condition known as anterograde amnesia in which the sufferer is unable to form new memories. This was depicted dramatically, if inaccurately, in the movie Memento. If What the bleep were correct, than sufferers of this disorder would be entirely unable to "see" anything that they did not know about prior to their injury. The movie would have us believe that, since these individuals cannot form new concepts, anterograde amnesiacs should simply be unable to see things they aren't already familiar with. To the best of my knowledge, sufferers from anterograde amnesia are entirely capable of observing the presence of novel stimuli.

Of course, even if we ignore all of these substantial problems with the movie's account there remains the whopper: where does this account derive from? I've never heard of such a sensational report about Columbus' encounter with Native Americans, and it seems like something that would have been spread far and wide. If I had to guess, I'd say this account comes to us from 35,000 year old Ramtha himself- which is to say, is probably made up.

In short, it appears that in this case the movie is guilty of nothing less than outright falsification. How charming in a "documentary."

If we move beyond this issue, there are still more problems to deal with. Sadly, there are far too many issues to discuss here, so I will limit myself to two. The first has to do with what an "observer" is in quantum mechanical terms. The movie repeatedly claims that, according to quantum mechanics, humans can alter the state of reality. We can "observe" reality however we choose and reality will conform to our wishes. Such claims are not new, they have been staples of science fiction for decades, and they are most commonly rooted in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

There is a tendency to interpret the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as meaning that an observer can change reality. This is both true and untrue. It is true in the sense that measuring something is observing it, and measurement often changes the state of a thing, but in quantum mechanics this has nothing to do with consciousness. As the movie states in passing observation can be something as simple as one object bumping into another. Specifically, the movie claims that reality is constructed by the action of this bumping, or this interaction. Think about that for a moment. Let's say that there's a particle that doesn't interact with anything else. It has no mass, exerts no gravity, is non-magnetic, does not possess a strong or weak nuclear force, and passes through all other matter, energy, and spacetime fields. With me? Okay, now, is that particle real? While you're pondering that, consider something else: if a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around, does it make a sound? How about: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

The problem here is that whether or not such a particle could exist is irrelevant. Such a particle would exert no influence on our reality. For all intents and purposes it wouldn't exist, or would simply be imaginary. So, in a quantum mechanical sense, yes, reality is created by observation, but observation simply means interaction and has nothing whatsoever the fuck to do with intentionality or sentience. Moreover, the level at which quantum fluctuations (that are susceptible to this "observer effect") occur is very, very, very, very small. At the level at which we all live, quantum fluctuations average out- which is why Newtonian physics worked so well for so long.

Now, the movie does make this point in a single remark, in passing, but this doesn't really give it much credit. The film spends most of its time confusing interaction with consciousness, and claiming that quantum mechanics proves that consciousness is built into the structure of the universe. Quantum mechanics says no such thing, and by emphasizing this "interpretation," the movie is deliberately misleading its viewers.

This observer effect "logic" sounds good, however, because many of us are familiar with something else: the Hawthorne effect and the Placebo effect. In both cases human perceptions and behaviors can be altered in certain limited ways by belief, but these macroscopic psychological and sociological phenomena are entirely unrelated to the sub-microscopic physical events of quantum mechanics. They sound related, and indeed the expectations and beliefs of humans can powerfully alter their perception of the world, but at the end of the day there remains a distinction between what is sensed, and what is perceived.

Some of you may wonder why I feel comfortable contradicting the bevy of scientists who appear in the film. This is a fair question, and it has several answers. The first answer is that I find the presentation of their opinions to be suspicious. In most documentaries, a caption explaining the identity of a talking head appears at the bottom of the screen when they are speaking. This affords the viewer the opportunity to judge, for themselves, the extent to which this person may know what they are talking about. What the Bleep by contrast saves this information until the end, providing it in a series of captions one must be very quick-of-eye to read. This unfortunately, and in all likelihood deliberately, prevents one from actively judging their speech during the film. I find this tactic, in and of itself, to be highly disturbing. If the movie is truly presenting established, mainstream science from reputable scholars, why the deceptive presentation? I am not reassured by the content of those end-captions either, since at one point a chiropractor is holding forth on molecular biology, and one of the physicists in the film is also, and this is a quote from the website: "...Minister of Science and Technology of the Global Country of World Peace."

Say what?

This does, however, bring us to my second point on the "authority" of these scientists. If you want information on science, asking a scientist is a good way to start, but that doesn't mean all scientists are equal. Look at this another way: if you are a conductor, and you need a new piano player, you're probably going to have better luck in your search if you limit it to those who have been taught to play the piano, rather than just grabbing random people off the street. Does that, however, mean that all piano players are concert-level? Of course not. The same thing is true of scientists- the presence of a degree in a scientific field will, ideally, guarantee some minimum level of competence (how minimum, of course, being a subject for another post) but it says nothing about the integrity, dedication, and overall knowledge of the holder beyond that minimum. Scientists can be crackpots just as priests can also be pedophiles. In short, authority should derive from actions and knowledge, rather than from a sheet of paper in a frame. Whether these individuals are scientists or not, if their ideas contradict a wide area of established, validated scientific knowledge, it is perfectly reasonable to challenge them. If I am ultimately shown to be in error- great! That's the way it should be, a battle of wits and evidence, rather than of authority and image.

But, once again, I digress...

For our last criticism, we come to the work of one Masaru Emoto who claims to be able to effect the formation of ice crystals by taping Japanese characters for various emotions to their containers, or by thinking about them really hard. Once more, I am so not kidding here. I really, really wish I were. It's hard, really, to criticize this work- mostly because I can't find much detail about it. Despite the claims of the movie that Emoto was doing controlled scientific research, I find no reference to this "work" on Emoto's site. Speaking as a grad student in a scientific field I feel qualified to say that you usually don't have to work too hard to get a scientist to tell you about their research. Getting them to stop is usually the trick.

Unless, of course, that research is total horseshit.

It goes without saying that this odd silence makes me nervous about this research, but not nearly so much as the fact that the movie identified water as "one of the four elements." Yeah, you read that right- one of the four elements. I can only assume that the other three are Earth, Air, and Fire. Doubtless when all four elements are combined with the power of heart it unleashes the might of Captain Planet. Now, call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I like to think that any movie that claims to be discussing actual science will recognize that, at last count, the periodic table of the elements contains vastly more than four elements, and none of them are "air," "earth," "fire," or "water." Water, as it happens, is composed of two elements, hydrogen and oxygen, and earth, air, and fire are composed of such heterogeneous combinations of elements that they defy easy categorization.

Perhaps Emoto's research is solid, and perhaps he is on to something (though I doubt it) but the reference to a mere four elements, a giant leap backwards to Empedoclesian "chemistry," is a powerful signal to the contrary.

As I said before, I could go on and discuss the movie's other fantastical claims, such as that cells are conscious, that humans currently possess the technology for anti-gravity magnets, a combination of terms that makes my brain melt, and zero-point energy, but even I only know so many synonyms for bullshit. This is a movie so rife with incorrect information the mind boggles.

So what lesson are we to draw from all this? Well, in dicussing this movie with others it was suggested that, perhaps, we should forgive some of its faults because it did say some worthwhile things. This was in reference to the movie's urgings that we love ourselves. Now, I'm a fan of self esteem so I can see the logic here, but unfortunately I don't think this is a strong argument. This movie does give good advice about not hating oneself, but it embeds it in a ridiculous meta-philosophy that vastly over-emphasizes the healing power of "positive thinking." What do I mean by that? Well, at two points the movie implies that proper attitudes will arrest, or even prevent, aging (remember the scene where the protaganist is an old woman?) and depicts the main character throwing away her now-unneeded prescription medication. The movie's message is clear- all manner of physical infirmity and disease is susceptible to, and curable via, the power of Ramtha's positive thinking. Of course, the corollary to this assertion is that if you are sick in any way it is your own fault. What a devastating, and dangerous, message to be broadcasting. The movie is simultaneously encouraging people who may have very real problems to dispense with proven, demonstrated treatment in favor of positive thinking, and then blaming them when their conditions persist, or worsen.

More insulting, Ramtha's "philosophy" insulates her from criticism in the same manner as tried and (un)true faith healers: if you're still sick, it's because your faith is weak. Or, as Ramtha might say, it's because you don't believe enough that you are a god. So, cases where her followers worsen as a result of her teachings are explained away as examples of failings in them while "successes," brought about by the Hawthorne and Placebo effects, are touted as demonstrating the correctness of her philosophy. And all the while she continues collecting a thousand dollars a head for her "retreats," to teach others the same "skills." Heads, she wins, tails, you lose. Finally, this entire logic of "the movie is okay if it tells you to do the right thing for the wrong reason," is problematic in itself. If advice is good, then it is good for reasons that are also correct. To justify good advice with bad logic and bogus information devalues both the advice and the worth of fact itself. Perhaps it is worth telling people that hating themselves is unlikely to help them, but doing so in the manner of this movie will likely cause vastly more harm than good.

What it all comes down to is that sometimes falsehood comes at you blunt and obvious, but all too frequently it comes dressed up nicely. Just because something sounds good, it doesn't mean it is, and you shouldn't be so open-minded that your brains fall out. In the final analysis, we could answer the eponymous question What the bleep do we know by saying, "Rather a lot, actually." Unfortunately, the movie asks us to ignore centuries of painstaking scientific advancement in favor of new-age handwaving covered in a thin lacquer of science. It is true that sometimes science decides that it was wrong, but such a decision only comes with the accumulation of evidence. As the late Carl Sagan was fond of pointing out, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What the bleep and, indeed, Ramtha herself, make extraordinary claims, but no matter how good it looks, slick computer animation and an expressive leading lady do not constitute evidence of any kind. At best this movie is a two-hour infomercial for Ramtha's philosophy and teachings which, I suspect, is exactly what it was meant to be in the first place.

So, that wraps up another episode of The Insanity Parade. What will be up next time? Well, stay tuned and find out. I don't know myself, but I do know one thing:

Tom Cruise has gotten me thinking lately.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Total (Drek) Request Live!

This blog is largely run without regard for the readers. This is not to say that I don't care about my readers, but rather that I usually just blog about whatever the hell I feel like with little concern for what my readers might be interested in reading. This, of course, explains why there have been such fabulous posts as the one about my dog, or occasional random conversations between myself and other people that don't have anything to do with anything.

Today, however, I'm making an exception. I am, indeed, taking reader wishes into account for today's post. Have I turned over a new leaf? Oh, hell no. I'm still the same disagreeable asshole I've always been. I know you would miss me if I suddenly got all nice. No, I'm making an exception out of sheer, unbridled self-interest. You see, a while back I wrote a post describing certain computer problems I was experiencing. For obvious reasons, this was not the most thrilling post of all time, but I wrote it all the same. It was cast into the internet as a message in a bottle might be cast into the ocean, and I fully expected to never hear from it again.

Not even a postcard. You know- just to say "hi."

Well, turns out I was wrong because during my most recent absence, about which I still have to blog, this post was discovered by another poor soul who, as it turns out, has the same bloody problem. He, or she, asked me in a comment to post the answer to this particular computer glitch. I have certainly been willing, but with my usual negligence haven't been in any real hurry to do so.

Turns out my anonymous commenter isn't so easily deterred. The same gentleman, or lady, who goes by "Gambit" or "Random" or some other fucking handle actually e-mailed me to try and provoke a response. I have to admire the persistence, really I do... which is about the only reason I'm not posting his e-mail address to fetish porn mailing lists.

Ok, seriously, I actually wouldn't do that, just like I wouldn't publish the contents of an e-mail without permission. A guy can dream, though, can't he?

So, in honor of my very persistent reader, who clearly will not stop bugging me until I bow to his demands, I will explain the solution to the infamous Cyclic Redundancy Check error.

Sadly, this won't take long, as there is no solution. A cyclic redundancy check is an error checking procedure used in Windows machines to validate that a file has been copied correctly. It's roughly comparable, in computer terms, to when a human photocopies something, and compares the copy to the original to make sure the reproduction was faithful. An error in this check indicates that the computer is unable to make an accurate copy. This is bad. Very, very bad. You see, if the problem was merely that a sector had been corrupted, then the data would be destroyed or degraded, but that destroyed or degraded file could still be copied. The degraded file, anyway. A computer that can copy destroyed files has metaphysical implications that I'm not prepared to grapple with. Leaving silicon theology aside for a moment, however, the fact that you're having cyclic redundancy errors points to a cascading failure in the drive itself- either the read/write heads have been damaged, or the drive platters are no longer in a vacuum and particles of dust inside the drive are gradually digging trenches through your data. This last possibility means progressive data loss, so I'd make sure I have backups if I were you.

If any of the above is occurring, the most likely end result is that you will need to replace your hard disk and, quite likely, much of the data it contained. If you're worse off, the problem isn't with your DRIVE but is in your mainboard- possibly a problem with the IDE or SATA controllers. This is, however, unlikely since that would probably prevent the OS from booting in the first place.

On the other hand, if you don't have any cyclic redundancy errors, you may simply have some bad sectors. If this is the case you need to find them so your computer will stop trying to access what amounts to an informational black hole. Use the error checking feature available through the properties menu for your hard drive and go from there.

In any case, even in the best case scenario, you have some sort of physical damage to your drive and/or mainboard. My advice: backup your data, pull the drive, and replace it with a fresh one.

Good luck.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Another post from the outside

I don't know to what extent this story reached the US. In brief, the Metropolitan Police in London shot a man suspected of being a Tube bomber last Friday.

When I read how the man had been shot, I got that unpleasant feeling, the vague nausea that tells you that something is not right:

"Stockwell passenger Mark Whitby told BBC News he had seen a man of Asian appearance shot five times by 'plain-clothes police officers'.
'One of them was carrying a black handgun - it looked like an automatic - they pushed him to the floor, bundled on top of him and unloaded five shots into him,' he said."

Sadly, the suspicion turned out to be right. Jean Charles de Menenez did not have anything to do with the London bombings. He was a Brazilian electrician living in London, by all accounts a law-abiding citizen and an amiable man. *sigh* There are now reports that his visa may have been expired - which might explain why he ran from the police (if he did).

London mayor Ken Livinstone has a sensible point for the angry people* - like me:

"Ken Livingstone described Mr Menezes as a "victim of the terrorist attacks".
He said: 'Consider the choice that faced police officers at Stockwell last Friday - and be glad you did not have to take it."

Strangely enough the whole appalling episode reminded me of something for which I genuinely admire the Brits: their willingness to make incidents like this part of the public domain and open to discussion. When it became clear that the shooting was a mistake, Sir Ian Blair, the chief of police, apologised to the family and honestly assessed the situation. The debate about this shooting rages on, in papers, on forums, on tv; and that is exactly as it should be. That is what the media and public opinion are for: to constantly question and challenge authority, to force the politicians to face the facts and to aid change where it is needed. I could go on and praise the BBC for being the wonderful institution it is, but never mind me, I am just homesick. All the same I am glad that I can rely on it as a source; glad, too, that there are still so many people ready to protest loudly when something goes wrong.


*It seems like there are a lot of things going on lately to make me angry - thanks for the clarification Drek, much appreciated; in fairness I was being a tad argumentative.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Er, and apologies for invading your blog

A footnote to the previous post:

I spent some time in the UK (inlcuding in Belfast, which yes, is legally a part of the UK) and I love it with all its mad contradictions. Above all, I love Northern Ireland with a passion, in spite of its horrendous weather and dubious taste in fashion. Maybe that is why it makes me angry to see someone write about the British government's "bitter campaign" against the IRA as a instructive parable for living with terrorism in dignity. Especially when mentioned in one breath with Churchill's "we shall fight on the beaches" speech.

So here are a few things I want to say about the "English" and their own struggle with terrorism:

I admire many qualities that the British have, but in the north they remember that "we shall never surrender" of Churchill's for all the wrong reasons. Cf Margaret Hilda Thatcher:
"Thatcher believed that resources should be concentrated instead on taking a much stronger stance on security policy in order to tackle paramilitary groups. A prime example of this came with Thatcher's uncompromising attitude to the Republican hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981."
Thatcher loved that Churchillian stance, that core staunch Englishness. Her years in power are some of the darkest in Northern Irish history - her position on security aggravated a situation that was virtually impossible anyway. Cheers, Maggie.

The changes towards the present day, relatively peaceful situation is to quite an important extent due to Tony Blair. I don't like Tony much these days, but credit where credit is due, he and Peter "Prince of Darkness" Mandelson (then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) were some of the better things to come to NI from Westminster. But when I say that credit is due, I mean only in British government. The real courage is not theirs. The real courage is that of of the politicians on the ground. Tony Blair's great inspiration was that the best people to talk to were the Northern Irish, all of them. I'm with the Nobel Prize Committee in believing that it is people like David Trimble and John Hume who deserve to be praised for talking to "the other side", including the terrorists, and keeping the talks going. But don't praise the English for dealing with the IRA. Don't praise them for their "no surrender" stance. The best thing the British government did in dealing with the IRA was reconsidering that infelxible stance.

To summarise, I guess this is why your post makes me angry:
1) The implication that the conflict in Nothern Ireland was something the English dealt with successfully, or with dignity (check out Amnesty's reports on the subject). This is nonsense. At best, the British govermnment guided local politics (British/Irish) with some measure of success.
2) As implied above, English does not equal British, and the English did not fight WW2 without the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish. Speaking of the English only in this context, as well as the Northern Irish context, is not an oversight, it is an insult.
3) To go against the rule of not introducing new content in a summary I would like to say that I resent the implication that the English courage was somehow superior during WW2. It is far easier (though never easy) to be defiant and brave when you are not occupied and in a good definsive position (that island thing again). Now try the same if you are, for example, a small, poorly armed country right next to Germany.

Finally, let me just say that I do see your point, and hear what you are saying. But it is a pity that in saying a very, very sensible thing, you somehow also get mixed up in the stereotypes and rhetoric which are not what make the Brits admirable. They may well be a good example in some of the things they do to deal with terrorists, but some nuance is in order here.


EDITORIAL ADDENDUM: New to the blog? Confused about what the hell TDEC is referring to? See the original post for deeper insight. -Drek

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Lessons learned.

A few weeks ago while listening to NPR my sainted girlfriend and I heard one commentator remark that terrorism is something we're probably going to have to learn to live with. My sainted girlfriend was quite displeased by this remark, considering it overly-negative or defeatist. For my own part, I was not happy about it, but thought it probably a realistic assessment of the situation. The materials that can be used to make bombs often have peaceful applications (Everyone remembers that the Oklahoma City bombing made use of a fertilizer bomb, right?) and so there's virtually no way to fully disarm a potential terrorist group. Even if you could, I think we'd very rapidly discover that there are a number of quite unpleasant things that can be done with simple things like cars and steak knives that would serve the purpose of terror.

So, given that it seems largely impossible to prevent terrorism if someone is sufficiently motivated, it would seem that the best defense is to try and deprive potential terrorists of the motivation to terrorize you. Don't get me wrong- there will always be people with the necessary motivation- but if we can keep their numbers in check, we can probably deal with the problem. It's a little like a contagious disease- in small concentrations, you can handle it, but when the numbers start increasing, epidemic-level emergent phenomena start to become a problem.

Sadly, it seems that we have received yet another lesson in the fundamental realities of terrorism. Events in London suggest that our current crop of terrorists aren't going anywhere fast, and the so called "War on Terrorism" is not producing the results we might have asked for. I do hope the Bush administration, among others, are paying attention today. The English are old hands at dealing with terrorism, having fought a bitter campaign against the IRA for long decades. With that experience, if they cannot protect their mass transit systems, I fear our own efforts are unlikely to be successful. We could make similar assertions about the Israelis who have been waging a "war on terror" for decades without real success. Their main successes have come from US-brokered negotiations with the PLO rather than military force.

There are, I think, two lessons to be taken from these events. The first of these lessons, I suspect, will be taught to us by the English. Though we Americans often make fun of the English for their supposed stodginess (I find that funny, given that thanks to my brother-in-law I've seen what Englishmen are like when they drink) we also admire them for their courage. The English are a people who endured a horrific bombing campaign during World War II, all the time promising to do never ending battle for their freedom. Their dedicated, and often drunken, Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered what may be the defining speech for English courage:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

A people capable of such magnificent determination will, I think, have much to teach we Americans about living with terrorism while retaining our dignity.

The second lesson is simply this: terrorism will be with us so long as there are terrorists. Terrorists, however, are not made purely by ideology, but also by economics, by legal practices, by governments. So long as there are people who feel that their only source of strength is violence, their only means to self-determination is terror, there will always be terrorism. And so, ladies and gentlemen, we learn a final lesson, this time from the great American skeptic and journalist Henry Louis Mencken. That lesson is simply this:

"If you want peace, work for justice."

UPDATE: The Total Drek European Correspondent (TDEC) slaps me around for writing this post. Go check it out! Then, if you really want to, read my response.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Beauty may be only skin-deep, but stupid goes right to the bone.

As a sociologist, nay, as an observant human being, I have long grown accustomed to a simple truth: people like to look good. Of course, by that I do not mean that people like to look good physically, although there is certainly a great deal of attention given to physical appearance at all ages, but rather that they like to be well thought-of. It is, as my sainted girlfriend never tires of reminding me, a classic case of impression management. I am forced to agree.

All the same, I am sometimes struck by the paradoxical absurdity into which people often stumble in their mad quest to achieve a positive image. I speak, primarily, of two articles that reached my attention recently.

The first article, courtesy of the Washington Post reports on a new study conducted by Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley that finds that the production of environmentally-"friendly" fuels such as ethanol may require 30% more fossil energy than the biofuel itself provides. The explanation for this is virtually identical to the environmental argument against meat production, which is based on the thermodynamic fact that producing one pound of beef requires more than one pound of wheat. Similarly, refining relatively energy-poor corn into energy-rich ethanol, like turning calorie-poor wheat into calorie-rich beef, requires the expenditure of more energy than the end-product actually contains. What can I say? Entropy can be a bitch. These findings are being disputed, of course, as all science is disputed at one time or another, but the logic is straightforward, the implications are fairly clear, and the consequences are disturbing. The development, and growing popularity, of biofuels may ease our consciences, but it may do nothing to preserve the environment. Worse still it may actually hasten environmental degradation and worsen global warming by requiring the burning of additional fossil fuels. If this study is correct, it seems that getting cleaner will require that we become even dirtier than we were before.

As if that weren't enough, it seems that many of us are not really interested in getting cleaner so long as we can convincingly appear to be doing so without sacrificing anything. I refer here to an article in the New York Times that describes a new use for hybrid automobile technology: improving performance. Indeed, it appears that some of the new hybrids being produced only improve gas mileage by a paltry mile or two per gallon. Rather than using the advanced technology of hybrids to generate more fuel-efficient cars, auto makers are producing better performing vehicles with comparable gas mileages to traditional internal combustion engines. This, by itself, might just be an example of product demand, and I do have to commend the car makers for at least not increasing the emissions of these vehicles, but there is clearly another force at work here:

Mr. Buford, a telecommunications analyst at Kraft Foods who works in the Chicago area, said he decided on a hybrid because he wanted to "go green," although he added, "I wasn't willing to make any of the trade-offs normally associated with a hybrid." He said he liked the way that the electric motor on his new car kicked in early during acceleration, at a speed range in which the V-6 gasoline engine is relatively weak. And its emissions of smog-forming pollutants are low, he said. (The Environmental Protection Agency puts the hybrid and nonhybrid Accords in the same emissions category).

So, we have an individual who purchased a hybrid to "go green," but was only willing to do so when it involved no trade-offs. Indeed, as the esteemed Robert Heinlein loved to point out, there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. In other words: you're going to have to make tradeoffs, all other things being equal. Yet, despite the fact that our brave hybrid owner has made no tradeoffs, and is not improving the environment to any noticeable degree, he still persists in arguing for his "green" status. He wishes to claim the desirable status of being environmentally friendly without surrendering the desirable status of being a man with a powerful car... or perhaps even without taking on the overall identity of an "environmentalist," which, after all, remains quite undesirable in many circles.

I think these two examples are instructive for a very simple reason: it demonstrates how one can be "green" more in form, than in content. More interestingly, this seems to hold true for both dedicated, and casual, environmentalists. Perhaps we can understand Mr. Buford's motivations, but what about proponents of biofuels that are (the fuels, not the proponents) actually less environmentally friendly than standard internal combustion (I.C.) engines? Certainly the technology was worth exploring, and there is likely room for further development, but biofuels suffer from the same problem as Mr. Buford's hybrid: you can't get something for nothing. Fossil fuels were concentrated by heat and pressure over millions of years; in other words, the energy necessary for their production was provided in small bits over a long period. We just aren't going to repeat the same trick in a short period without spending more energy.

Even if we leave the biofuel camp alone, recognizing that there may be some applications for the technology, how do we explain pushes for more "clean" electric cars? Even relatively cursory thought will lead one to the conclusion that electric cars are less environmentally friendly than I.C. powered vehicles.

Okay, some of you are sure to be howling at that one, so pay attention: electric cars use electrical energy stored in batteries to provide the motive force. So where does that energy come from? Right- the power grid. And the power grid gets its power from where? Right- power plants, which primarily burn fossil fuels. So, first off, electric cars still produce pollutants and deplete the fossil fuel supply. Secondly, however, let's consider a further problem: in power plants chemical energy in the fossil fuel is burned to generate heat. The heat is converted, first, to steam and, then, into mechanical energy (i.e. the steam drives a turbine). This mechanical energy is then converted into electrical energy (using a generator attached to the turbine). Now, as we all know since we remember our thermodynamics (right?) each transformation (chemical to heat to mechanical to electrical) involves a loss of energy. Some of the chemical energy heats the combustion chamber, rather than the water, and is lost, still more energy is lost to friction when the steam drives the turbine, etc. Further, since all electrically conductive materials have some amount of resistance, transmitting that electrical energy via the grid involves a further loss of energy, as does charging the car battery, and running the electric car. All of these losses accumulate into a significant reduction in the amount of work a given mass of fossil fuel can actually do.

Compare the preceding to the chain for an I.C. engine: chemical energy in the fuel is burned explosively, heating gas which expands and drives a piston. So the energy transforms from chemical to heat to mechanical. Even without the transmission/distribution issues with the power grid, we're shortened the chain, and reduced energy loss, considerably. Granted there are additional frictional effects in translating the piston's mechanical energy into forward motion, but these are more or less equivalent to similar problems in any sort of powered vehicle. There are, of course, much more sophisticated arguments on this point, and I'm simplifying because I'm a lazy bastard, but you get the point: pure electric cars require the consumption of larger quantities of energy than do I.C. vehicles. Sadly, since centralized power plants are somewhat less efficient burners of fuels than most car engines, I.C. vehicles generate proportionally fewer pollutants for the amount of fuel they use, though this does not control for the possible anti-pollution measures centralized power plants might take advantage of. This also doesn't speak to gas-electric hybrids which do not connect to the grid and of which I generally approve so long as the emphasis is on economy and not power.


Environmentalism is a good thing, but let's not forget that there must be a substance beneath the form if it is to do any good, and this goes for both environmentalists, and non-environmentalists. Just because something sounds good or sounds clean, it doesn't mean it is. And, let's be realistic, we very rarely get something for nothing. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. You probably can't get the same performance with more economy without making some sort of tradeoff, just like you probably can't get great taste that's really less filling.

Let's try to remember, even if only now and then, that appearances can be deceiving, but substance goes right to the bone.

UPDATE: For more on hybrid vehicles, economy, and environmentalism, go check out Tom Bozzo's interesting post on the subject.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Total Drek Reader "Appreciation" Day!

You've all noticed by now that I have a blogroll. Now, this blogroll more or less just contains links to blogs that I read semi-regularly, or daily. This is essentially because I want to avoid accumulating a list of blogs that vastly exceeds my reading ability. It's a little like not putting citations in your references section that you haven't actually read. You know... except that I think we all do that thing with the references.

Every now and then, however, my blogroll sparks a new question in my mind: who the hell is bored enough to be reading me? This spark may sometimes fall into fertile tinder in my mind and grow into a raging inferno of curiosity that can only be doused by the cool water of a web search, or an indulgence in shitty metaphors. Such attempts at discovery, which usually involve googling myself, traditionally involve a mixture of the amusing, and the bizarre.

Oh for the love of- are you still laughing at that "googling myself," line? Christ, you're a bunch of children.

This last time, however, my search skipped amusing and bizarre and just went right into confusing. I seem to have accumulated readers from places I can't imagine, and many of them seem to have no obvious connections to each other.

There is, for example, the blog A Stop at Willoughby, which is written by a novelist named Patrick living in Virginia. I seem to be the only blog from the greater Sociology-blogging world included in Patrick's blogroll, so that isn't an obvious connection. Seeing as how I am not, myself, a novelist, or a resident of Virginia, I'm not sure what to say.

Then there's the Chris Bauer Media Project, which has the unfortunate distinction of sounding like either a social studies assignment, or a Coldplay album. All joking aside, however, I know that Chris found me via our mutual interest in sociology, and I have been meaning to add him to my blogroll for some time. So, I'm not so much curious about how he found me, as mentioning him here to make up for my long silence about his existence. Hey, look on the bright side Chris: it might take me a while to get you on the blogroll, but at least I mention it when I do.

This brings us to the enigmatic Observador Sociologico. I've actually known about the link from the O.S. for a while now, but haven't known what to say about it since I can't understand a damned thing on the blog. I've attempted to translate it using a number of online tools but... well... we all know what that's like. I am, of course, aware that this just points to the deficiencies in my American, mono-lingual, education, but I guess that's just tough. I mean, hell, given what my blog is like, I imagine being mono-lingual is the least of my educational deficiencies. In any case, I frankly wonder what a foreign-language sociology blog is doing linking to me. Providing a cautionary tale about Americans, perhaps?

I could discuss Semiquark, but that would require having a goddamn clue what to say. As it stands now, given the length of the blogroll in question, I'm guessing I was included more or less accidentally in much the same way that a blue whale may inadvertently swallow a few fish while straining the ocean for nourishing krill.

I've apparently made the more restricted reading list of Gaderian, who may have heard of me via my associates in the Wisconsin Blogging Circle, but who can say? In any case I'm flattered to be included in such a short list on such a nicely designed blog- even if I have only the vaguest idea why.

Finally, weighing in with possible connections via Wisconsin and Sociology we find Sarah Elizabeth of Stories from LA. As I said, I think we are probably connected via Wisconsin, but perhaps rather than an additional tie through sociology, we are actually linked via the esteemed Tom Bozzo who hails from our sister discipline of Economics. Who can know?

So, what does all this mean? Eh. Nothing really. Some of you will find yourselves entering my own blogroll. Others... perhaps not. We'll see. Hell, it'll largely depend on whether I can remember my blogroll password. What can I say? I forget things.

In the meantime, I'd like to bid all of you welcome. I don't know where the hell y'all came from, or why, but there's one thing I do know.

You're here now. Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Goddamn I hope they don't have lions in Texas.

As you have no doubt guessed, I am something of an internet wanderer. As such I come across a lot of things. Some of these things are good and useful things, other things are bad, evil, hateful things. I bet a lot of you were expecting some illustrative links there, weren't you? Well... tough. Find your own damn porn if you want it.

In any case, I recently came across a very interesting blog through the help of everyone's favorite intolerant intellectual, the Raving Atheist. This newly-discovered blog chronicles the experiences of one Shirley Setterbo of Houston, Texas, who is "coming out" to her coworkers and clients. In this case, however, she is not coming out about homosexuality, or bisexuality, as some of you may have expected. Rather, she is coming out about something entirely different.

She's telling them that she's an atheist, and that she has been for thirty years.

This may not sound like a lot, but Ms. Setterbo is in the heart of the bible belt. Those of you who have some experience with the region have some idea of what this actually means. Despite what must be a constantly confrontational environment, however, Ms. Setterbo has managed to speak with considerable eloquence and wisdom. This is particularly evident when she responds to the common Christian concern that we atheists are going to hell merely because we are atheists:

You know, if I were sitting at the Lord's right hand, and knew someone good, and decent was in the firey pits of hell, I'd try to talk God out of it. You know, reason with him. "Lord, she was good. She never intentionally hurt anyone, she worked hard, she adopted homeless dogs. She just had a mind that was more suited to logic than faith. And Lord, you did create her. You made her that way. You should give her a break". If I'm wrong, hopefully someone will argue for me.

I find it endlessly interesting, and more than a little disheartening, that most of the atheists I know regard the god they don't believe in much as Ms. Setterbo does, while most Christians seem to regard the one they do believe in as a callous, foolish, wrathful being. I also have to admit that her explanation as to why she has chosen to "come out" to her associates resonates with me:

I honestly NEVER had anything against Christians. I liked Christians. They were nice, I was nice, everything was cool. Then everything changed a few years ago. It was the most casual thing, but it changed me forever. I was just watching the news, and there was some protest in front of the White House, and I can't even remember what the issue was, I really didn't care about things like that then. Some sort of seperation of Church and State issue. And I saw this poster some Christian was holding up. It struck a chord in me, that I don't think will ever stop ringing until the day I die. It changed my life. It said, "One Nation, Under God...get it?". I was frozen. The image of that poster, came into my brain, and was etched there forever. It was like I was stuck in a repeat mode, I just kept saying, over and over, what? what? what does that say? what? What does that mean? you mean... "If it's one nation, and it's under God... then if your not under God, your not in the Nation?" "holy shit...they're trying to run me out of my own country". And my eyes were opened. And I began searching for like minded individuals to help me figure out what to do, to stop the madness. I think our government has made many mistakes, but I also think that if we try, we can make it right.

What will happen in the future? There's no way to know, except to follow along and hope for the best. I wish Ms. Shirley Setterbo all the best, and will be following her adventures with interest. I urge you to do the same.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Conversations during dog-walking.

The Scene: Drek the Uninteresting and his sainted girlfriend (DSGf) are walking his three-legged dog. In the distance a helicopter circles, shining a spotlight on an unknown quarry.

DSGf: They're coming to get us. They're coming to get us because we have too many books.

Drek: Indeed. It's all part of the Bush Administration's "Knowledge is Bad" campaign.

DSGf: Hey, did I ever tell you about that movie we did when we were kids? The one about burning books? You know- Fahrenheit... um... Fahrenheit 411?

Drek: You mean Fahrenheit 451?

DSGf: Yeah! Fahrenheit 451!

Drek: Technically, I think Fahrenheit 411 only has information about burning books.

DSGf: laughs

DSGf: Or about Fahrenheit to Celsius conversion!

Drek: Could be.

It seems that I have returned.

Which, of course, means that the average quality of material available on the internet will once more decline- if only infinitesimally. I am still getting back on my feet following my whirlwhind trip- about which you will hear more sooner or later- and so have very little to post about today.

I suppose the most interesting thing I could comment on is that it seems that Talcott Parsons has found my blog. Of course, as we sociologists know, Talcott Parsons is quite dead so I suppose it isn't Talcott Parsons who has located my blog, so much as Zombie Talcott Parsons. Even more susprising, Zombie-Parsons hasn't just started posting comments on my blog, he's actually opened up a blog of his own. Will the undead leave nothing for the sole use of the living?

I suppose I might be concerned about my apparent zombie-following, but it just doesn't seem like that big a deal. In the first place, zombies seem to be primarily interested in eating brains and, as any longtime reader knows, I should therefore be of little interest to most zombies. As for the rest... well... I suppose their shambling advance might be a bit disconcerting, but I feel that I am AGIL enough to avoid them.

Thank you, thank you. You're too kind.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Oh, right, while I'm thinking about it...

I'm out of town until... um... Thursday? Yeah. Thursday. That sounds about right.

Hopefully Slag and the TDEC will keep you busy until then. Otherwise... well, I'll make it up to you somehow or other.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Well fuck.

The good folks over at Wisconversation (you know... back when people wrote in that blog) once brought up the issue of anonymity in blogging. The perspective over there seems to be that anonymity is a bad thing. Now, I disputed that point rather politely, but I really have no more authority on the subject than anyone else.

So, it is both a little reassuring, and a lot disturbing, that the Chronicle of Higher Education has provided a little commentary that, sadly, backs me up.

I guess all I can say is that maybe that whole "Public Sociology" thing ain't working out so well after all.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

TDEC report - couldn't call it unexpected

For the moment I am at my seaside rendez-vous with Slag. This means that I am not in England. Of course even if I weren’t here the chances of my being in London would be slim.

How come I’m so frightened?

Maybe the London Underground bombings are so terrifying because we all knew it could happen – the Tube is such an obvious target for terrorism, and ever since 9/11 people in London have been keenly aware of it. Plans were drawn up and rehearsed accordingly for this kind of contingency. But nothing could really be done to stop it. Now there are at least 37 lives we could not save.

Amid the flurry of reactions from all corners of the British Parliament, only the Member of Parliament for Bethnal Green and Bow (a London constituency), George Galloway stated the blatantly obvious:
’Respect MP George Galloway said the attacks were "despicable but not remotely unpredictable". ’

Galloway and his party are not the most reliable voices to be heard, nor is Respect quite what it claims to be (something of a pity, as they sometimes sound like the party Labour used to want to be; but not without hints of Animal Farm). All the same I am glad that somebody said it. This type of terrorism cannot be stopped, as we have known or suspected all along. For all of Tony’s shouting No Surrender, I don’t believe he, or Bush, or Ferenc Gyursány could stop this type of attack if it happened again.

Another reason why these bombings are frightening is because they happened in London. London is in so many ways culturally central to Europe, and of all its cities, this one is perhaps the one that most of us feel close to in some way. People will undoubtedly say now that Europe is under siege and forget that this implies the there is an „inside” where we are safe, city walls that will protect us. I say terrorism is being brought home to all of us in who live within these EU walls.

Perhaps the most threatening element in all this violence is how large scale and indiscriminate it is – Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London voices this view eloquently:

„This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. Indiscriminate slaughter irrespective of any consideration for age, class, religion, whatever. That isn't an ideology. It isn't even a perverted faith. It is just an indiscriminate attempt at mass murder.”

Politics will go on. The G8 will meet, Tony will have one more excuse to turn into Darth Vader and/or Margaret Thatcher, Bush will have one more reason to wage his war, these new fears will be used and abused, and most of us will try to get on with our lives and try not to think of the explosions, of why it happened and of where it could happen again.


Sadness and hope.

Four years ago, at a conference, I met a young Ph.D. candidate in Economics from Oxford by the name of Duncan. Duncan, as you might have guessed, was an Englishman, and we had a number of interesting conversations. Among other topics, we discussed the September Eleventh attacks, which were still fresh in our minds then. Duncan expressed the shock, and the horror, and the sympathy that he and his fellow English had felt for Americans that day. He said he had felt as though it was happening to him- as though that strike was a blow to all people the world over.

Today, sadly, I can only return the sentiment that Duncan expressed. The recent attacks in London are an offense against all mankind. Regardless of the ultimate toll in lives and property, my sympathy and hopes go out to the British.

Not that this means I'm about to get behind Bush's war-mongering, I just hate what has happened.

Still, in the midst of tragedy, there is almost always cause for hope. Even as some humans show the evil of which we are capable, others provide examples of heroism and self-sacrifice. That we possess both generosity and depravity in such full measures is what makes us the uniquely beautiful species that we are.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog-post...

Because I've just learned that I really need to get my fall book orders in ASAP. Since my department was nice enough to switch me to a new course at the last minute... again... I'm kinda harried just now.

Don't fret, however, loyal readers: I will provide for you some entertainment. In this case, far too much of it. People in my department often see me in my office, and it certainly appears as though I am constantly working. In reality, however, my day is peppered with 5-10 minute breaks. I work more than not, don't get me wrong, but I can only write so much STATA code before I need to mentally switch gears a bit. In any case, this habit means that I am constantly searching for new diversions that I can absorb in five minute chunks. For this, nothing is better than the internet.

As a consequence of this habit, and my internet connection, I have managed to do things ranging from researching Scientology, to reading through the archives of entirely too many web comics. Usually none of these things have kept me busy for more than a week or two.

Recently, however, I stumbled upon a website that has kept me busy for a solid month, and promises weeks more of brief, random diversion. What is this site, you ask?

Why, Orion's Arm of course. What is Orion's Arm? It's a collaborative effort to construct a more-or-less realistic future-history of the Human race for the next 10,000 years or so. As you might guess, there's rather a lot of material there.

So, hell, you may not have me for the day, but Orion's Arm has enough to keep you fascinated for the next few months. Have fun.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Buy me!

I see lots of things in my day-to-day life that are sociologically interesting. I suspect this is the case with sociologists in general, and is the phenomenon behind the so-called "sociological imagination."

As a side note: I think the phrase "sociological imagination," is one of the least-defined, and most over-used, in the inventory, but I digress...

Sometimes the things that tickle my sociological fancy are relatively subtle- like the interactions between shoppers at the grocery store. Others are a bit more overt- the political machinations surrounding Justice O'Connor's resignation. Few things have struck me more unexpectedly, however, than what I saw in an airport during my most recent trip to Washington, D.C.

I used to work in an airport and have long since grown accustomed to the extent to which they now resemble shopping malls. Gone are the days when all you could find was lousy pizza and a newspaper. Now, while you wait for your plane, you can buy gifts, a massaging chair, bath oils, or consume any of a variety of services. This is all the more striking to me, given that most of the things offered in airports I would never consider buying under normal circumstances, much less while trying to get from point A to point B. Yet, if such stores exist, they must be obtaining customers.

It is, of course, the obtaining of customers that is most critical. As retailers seldom tire of noting, it costs substantially more to acquire a new customer, than to retain an existing one. Consider this the next time you're dealing with a disgruntled customer service representative. In any case, since acquisition of customers is so key, airports are now as littered, if not more littered, with advertisements and billboards than the busiest strip of turnpike. All of this I can deal with- it's the new innovation that freaks me out a bit.

While in Reagan National airport I happened to notice a pair of well-dressed people strolling casually down the concourse. They were remarkable for two reasons: (1) they lacked the harried scent of desperation that often surrounds those who travel by air and, (2) they were carrying no luggage whatsoever. One of them, however, was carrying a sheet of paper. I approached carefully, hoping to gain a look at the paper, assuming that the holder had lost a bet. Instead, I realized that the sheet said "Fashions provided by Brooks Brothers." Indeed, I had encountered a pair of living billboards, whose purpose was to show off a product, in the flesh, and quietly guide those who are interested in obtaining such a look to the appropriate retailer.

Being blessed with very little shame I approached these individuals and asked if I could take their picture, explaining that I was a grad student in sociology. They were quite obliging and allowed me to do so. You'll find their photograph here.

Now, I know there have been some fairly bizarre publicity stunts before- the woman who sold advertising space on her stomaching while pregnant, the man and woman who sold ad space on their chests, and the infamous contest that involved naming your baby "Turok" in order to win $10,000 and drum up publicity for Acclaim's "Turok: Dinosaur Hunter" game. These are all fairly unusual approaches to advertising, but that is their major draw- they are unusual. This move by Brooks Brothers, by contrast, is a natural evolution, and an interesting further step in commercializing identity. I'm not really sure what to make of all this, to be frank, but I think it suggests a penetration of corporate thought into our individual lives that is vastly more profound than even the cyberpunk cynics have alluded to. Our two brave living advertisements are not sending the message "buy these products," but rather, "Buy my identity! Buy my impression! Buy me!" Such a message, and whether it is wise to send it at all, is worth thinking about.

So, in the aftermath of our celebration of the birth of the United States, let's all just ponder a bit what our culture is becoming. Perhaps before long, we will all be saying, "Buy ME!" There is a difference between using products to project your identity, and making products your entire identity.

Or at least... there was.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Happy Independence Day!

Today, July Fourth, is the day that we citizens of the United States usually celebrate our independence. As a sop to the Bush administration, let's just all pretend for a moment that we don't know just how large a role the French played in this.

Okay, seriously, fuck that, to all French citizens the world over: thanks a bunch. For all that we keep giving each other statues and helping out in wars you'd think we'd be on much better terms.

In any case, today is the day that U.S. citizens commemorate our political division from England. And how do we do this, you ask? Well, we over-eat, we go to movies, we have carnivals, and we enjoy fireworks.

This year, however, that last practice is unusually impressive. Our brave little probe, Deep Impact, has ended its life by colliding with a comet in deep space. As a side note: anyone who is aware of the irony of naming a human probe that is crashing into a comet "Deep Impact" is probably as convinced as I am that NASA scientists have senses of humor. In any case, this impact has produced one of the most singularly remarkable fireworks displays ever.

Congratulations to the Deep Impact team on their stunning achievement.

And Happy Fourth of July to everyone! Much of the world may not be so pleased we won our independence right now but, like all democracies, we're a work in progress. We've just been enjoying a little less progress of late than we'd like.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Well shit.

I think that basically says it all.

After my own heart.

Hey folks. In lieu of a post half-heartedly composed by your own, loyal Drek, I've decided to give today's post over to reproducing a section of the "Reference Library" from the July/August 2005 issue of Analong Science Fiction and Fact. This section, written by Tom Easton, is dedicated to book reviews. The following review, I think y'all will find interesting:

A sad truth about the publishing industry is that not everyone who wants to be published can possibly get published. Not only do book publishers and magazines receive more submissions than they can possibly publish, but when their staffs start looking through the pile of possibilities delivered by the mail (a.k.a. the "slush" pile), they find that most are utter dreck. If anyone published them, no one would buy them. Well, maybe the author's mother, except that the author of course could be counted on to buy a few copies for Mom, Grandma, Sis, Aunt Betsy, and so on.

So the staff sends out rejection slips- sometimes polite, sometimes less so, but never as frank as the staff dreams of daring to send- by the basketful. And the hopeful wannabe slinks home to hide under the bed.

Well, not really, for there are many outfits out there that take a less critical view of the manuscripts that come their way. Vanity publishers will publish almost anything- for a price. Scam publishers tell their prey that real publishers (See paragraph 1 above) are a conspiracy designed to protect the interests of an elitist in-group and bar the doors of critical and financial success to everyone else. They say, pointing to the vanity press that the suckers are already familiar with, that everyone pays to get published. Then they add that published writers are really pretty bad, certainly much worse than the suckers.

PublishAmerica attacked professional, published science fiction authors, saying that "as a rule of thumb, the quality bar for sci-fi and fantasy is a lot lower than for all other fiction... [Science fiction authors] have no clue about what it is to write real-life stories, and how to find them a home." They are "writers who erroneously believe that SciFi, because it is set in a distant future, does not require believable storylines, or that Fantasy, because it is set in conditions that have never existed, does not need believable every-day characters."

PublishAmerica claims to be a real publisher. It does not ask writers to pay to see their books in print. It actually pays them an advance on royalties (just a buck, but the principle is there). Then it prices books high, asks authors for a list of friends and relations to send "Buy me!" pitches to, and tells the writer it's up to him or her to actually peddle the book. Bookstores refuse to carry PublishAmerica products.

Are they truly a "real" publisher? Since one of the distinguishing marks of a real publisher is selectivity (they take the considerable trouble to look at submissions and pick out the ones that they think have a chance to succeed in the market), a number of science fiction and fantasy writers (hereinafter "the crew") got together last year to write the very worst book they possibly could. Every chapter is by a different writer. One chapter is computer-generated garbage. Characters change names, moods, hair colors, races, genders, and motivations even before the hat drops. It is so bad that a blogger later said: "It's so bad it hurts. Your brain tells you to stop reading, but you can't take your eyes off it." It's worse than the infamous Eye of Argon.

Then they submitted it to PublishAmerica.

PublishAmerica, as if it were trying to prove itself as much a scam publisher as anyone had ever called it, promptly issued a contract. The accompanying letter said, "I am happy to inform you that PublishAmerica has decided to give 'Atlanta Nights' the chance it deserves... Welcome to PublishAmerica, and congratulations on what promises to be an exciting time ahead."

The crew promptly started crowing. As soon as PublishAmerica heard, they withdrew the contract, saying that when their editors looked at the manuscript, they saw problems. That is, they did not look at the manuscript before issuing a contract.

But the crew wasn't done. Atlanta Nights, by Travis Tea (say it out loud), is available as a trade paperback from (and as a free download from [Specifically, here. -Drek]), where publication is free (so is the preview). It would make the perfect gift for someone you suspect of never reading the books you give them. It would- nay, will surely- be the basis of a fannish parlor game called "Who wrote this chapter?" And even though I provided a cover blurb ("Unbelievable! Incredible! A real jaw-dropper!"), it is bad, bad, bad- so bad you have to see it to believe it.

Who's in the crew? Here are the names of the guilty: Michael Armstrong, Pierce Askegren, Andrew Burt, James D. Macdonald, Sherwood Smith, Adam-Troy Castro, Judi B. Castro, Mary Catelli, Brenda Clough, Shira Daemon, Sheila Finch, Charles Coleman Finlay, Sean P. Fodera, Peter Heck, M. Turville Heitz, Deanna Hoak, Ken Houghton, Tina Kuzminski, Ted Kuzminski, Megan Lindholm and Robin Hobb, Paul Melko, Catherine Mintz, Derryl Murphy, Vera Nazarian, Kevin O'Donnell Jr., Chuck Rothman, Jena Snyder, Allen Steele, Victoria Strauss, Laura J. Underwood, Brook West, Dancia West, Julia West, and Rowan West.

What they did has no chance at all of stoppin the depredations of the scam publishers of the world, but at least they had a great deal of fun in trying. And perhaps the publicity will warn off a few potential victims of the scammers.

Now that just makes me proud.

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