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.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Where the rules no longer apply.

Recently I have been troubled by a particular issue. This isn't a new thing for me; I'm often mulling over one issue or another, but usually this is little more than idle thought to keep me entertained when I'm otherwise unoccupied. How else can you explain things like this? My present thoughts, however, are not entertaining as I'm particularly bothered. To wit, I've been thinking about where morality stems from for atheists, and how to explain it to others.

My reasons for this are really two-fold. The first reason is that my Sainted Girlfriend is a regular participant in a Unitarian Universalist youth group (please note: UU youth groups extent to age thirty. Therefore the fact that I'm dating someone in a church youth group does not mean that I am a pedophile) and one of her fellow members seems to find me a little puzzling. I think this is because I am a materialist atheist and this knowledge has generated in him a burning desire to know more about my views. Specifically, this burning desire has manifested in a request (delivered via my Sainted Girlfriend) that I complete a homework assignment that amounts to, "Explain the basis of your epistemology and moral system." I suppose I'm game for this except for two major drawbacks. These drawbacks are, (a) I'm really not interested in explaining it and, (b) I know most folks find the basis of my ethical system to be rather unsatisfying. This doesn't bother me- after all, it really just has to satisfy me- but it does tend to result in lengthy, entirely pointless conversations with other people. A little like this blog, except that I can't just turn it off whenever I want. And remember, folks, life is really all about me.

The other reason this has been on my mind is because of a recent column written by two gentlemen who are collectively known as (and I swear I'm not making this up) the God Squad. Now, this particular entry was brought to my attention by everyone's favorite irrascible bad-boy, the Raving Atheist, and reads as follows:

Question: If there is no God, are morals and ethics still a good thing?

N.H. via e-mail

Answer: The brief answer is no. To quote Dostoevsky in "The Brothers Karamazov": "If there is no God, all things are permitted." Now it is true that there are many moral atheists and many corrupt theists. However, it's our view that moral atheists have some inner idea of absolute truth, which is the functional equivalent of a belief in God's moral law. Otherwise, depending only on one's personal point of view, Hitler and Mother Teresa could be considered morally equivalent. The point of ethics is that something must be universal to be true.

"Thou shalt not murder" must be morally correct for all, not just for anyone who decides it is true because of some personal intuition. Why murdering innocent people is morally wrong, if it is not wrong because God says it is wrong, depends solely on the ability of unaided human reason to set and defend the absolute truth of moral claims.

Some philosophers have asserted that this could be done (Aristotle, Kant and Hegel), and others have said that moral claims are essentially personal statements of culturally relative preferences (Nietzsche, Hume, Camus, for example).

Natural law theology (Aquinas, Maimonides) offers a compromise by stating that both unaided human reason and biblical revelation can take us to the same moral truths. The question of why a person should be good if there is no God remains one of the great and enduring moral questions.

Woody Allen's "Match Point," brilliantly presents the case for nihilism, the belief that there is no God, no justice and no governing moral law in the universe, only dumb luck that lets some guilty people go free and some innocent people suffer. If you can live with that dark, dismal and despairing vision of an amoral universe, well, then, God bless you.

This response to a simple question, frankly, annoys the ever-living shit out of me. Mainly because my response would begin with, "The brief answer is yes..." and move on from there. The God Squad (and I have a hard time using that term and not feeling like I'm mocking someone) takes the position that atheists, by definition, can't be ethical or moral unless they have some sort of deep-seated concept of absolute moral truth which is, itself, equivalent to a god concept. More likely they mean, "Unless, deep down, they really do believe in god." Yes, I am putting words in their mouth here but, in my defense, it isn't like this is the first time I've encountered this argument, even if they have gone to the trouble of dressing it up "nicely."

Now, the natural thing to do here would be to explain how atheists can be moral people without believing in god and, additionally, to expand on where atheists derive morality from. This is not, however, what I choose to do. I don't speak for all atheists and I suspect that if you got us all together, we'd have some serious arguing to do before we could settle on a common ethical system- even if such a settlement was possible, which I doubt. The aforementioned Raving Atheist, as an example, is staunchly pro-life whereas I, another atheist, am strongly pro-choice. So, hey, we're a diverse crowd.

No, what I choose to do is something else: to explain that the theists in the crowd don't really deal with a different situation when it comes to ethics than we atheists. Consider for a moment, if you will, the difference between theistic and atheistic ethical systems. The only fundamental contrast is this: theistic systems derive their ethics from god (i.e. the "will of god" or, more accurately, "do what you're told because God is bigger than you are") whereas atheistic systems do not. And, of course, if you don't get your ethics from god then you're left with the messy problem of deciding for yourself what is ethical and what is not. Certainly, these decisions are made using a guiding philosophy, but philosophies are a dime a dozen, and proving one to be superior to another is a rather elusive goal.

With me so far?

Okay, now to this point it sounds like atheists have the short end of the stick: we have to try and puzzle out ethics with a lot of thought and, in the end, may get it wrong, while the theists can rely on their infinitely powerful, all-knowing sky beast to sort the righteous from the depraved. The problem, however, arises when we note how poorly this derivation-from-divinity seems to work. Consider for a moment: how many religions have the same ethical system? Now, I don't mean "similar" ethical systems- I suspect most common sets of ethics have more to do with fostering pro-social behavior than anything else- I mean identical. After all, if ethics derive from god, then all theists should have the same ethics, right?


Okay, obviously we have a problem here. For Jews, god seems to have some peculiar notions about food which would certainly seem to be part of his ethics. Some of these notions seem to be shared with Muslims but, then again, their own system is also quite different. And don't get me started on the views of other systems, like Hinduism, that have rules about the treatment of livestock that are fairly intense. Clearly different religions don't agree on what the will of god is, even as it pertains to something as minor as eating habits. Within the same faith, we also find some problems with the idea that ethics come from god. Some branches of Christianity clearly believe that god forbids abortion but, then again, not all christians agree. So much is obvious from the GSS data, which shows that in 2004 approximately 34% of all those identifying as Christian (combined figure for Protestants and Catholics, although disaggregating them doesn't make much difference) reported that a woman should be able to obtain an abortion for any reason. If not all Christians agree on someting as serious as abortion, we can only imagine that things get even more dicey for moral issues that are more abstract. Fraud for example.

So, we're left with a situation in which theists don't all agree on what ethics are the "right" ethics, and even those theists who nominally believe in the same god don't agree. Apparently, determining god's will is a tough business. Which is, as you might have guessed, exactly my point. Those who believe in god have to decide what they believe is right the same way that atheists do. Each theist is attending to their doctrines, certainly, but at the end of the day, those doctrines do not fully determine a person's morality. If they did, then questions like abortion would be perfectly split by religious lines. As should already be apparent, they aren't. No, theists have the same messy task that atheists do- they have to think about the issues and decide for themselves. So what's the difference between theists and atheists then?

Simply this: for atheists, this decision making process is apparent, but for theists it's hidden. When a theist reaches an ethical decision, that decision is then attributed to god thereby removing the reasoning for it from view. Moreover, this attribution process doesn't just remove the reasoning from view, it transfers responsibility for that stance, and its consequences, away from the person. The theist can answer any question about the "why" of their ethics by simply answering that, "God says so!" But atheists have no such luxury. The difference isn't that the decision is made differently, but rather that the account of that decision is different.

In physics there is a thing known as a singularity. A singularity usually occurs in a region of powerful gravitational fields- like the center of a black hole and is remarkable in that it is a place where the normal laws of physics break down. In essence, the warping of spacetime is so extreme, that matter, energy, and the very elementary forces themselves can transmute into a diversity of new forms. Many, if not most, singularities are thought to be shielded from view by an event horizon, or a boundary that electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) cannot escape. So, information can enter an event horizon but having done so, and after encountering the singularity, it cannot leave. It's probably just as well that this is so, since singularities could theoretically wreak havoc with our physical models and make the universe a much less predictable place than it seems to be. Still, there is the persistent idea of a naked singularity- a singularity that is not cloaked by an event horizon and is, therefore, fully visible to the rest of the universe in all of its chaotic glory. One can only imagine the protean splendor of such an object, doubtless both majestic and terrifying in equal measures.

I bring all this up not because I want to raise physics literacy (although that's nice too) but because I think an analogy here is apt. The decisions that we make about what is right and what isn't comprise a sort of mental singularity. It isn't a special faculty, or a sense of god's will, but rather a process that underlies our moral senses- even if that process was given to us by our society. Moreover, in that our decisions are ultimately our own, this mental singularity has the power to transmute anything it comes into contact with. Good can become evil, and vice versa, with a stroke of the mental brush. The chaos of the singularity is contained within us all.

From this we understand that the difference between theists and atheists is not that one of us has a singularity and the other does not, but that some of us cloak that singularity with the event horizon known as god. God is inscrutable, he works in mysterious ways, and so he throws an impenetrable darkness around that which terrifies us- our own responsibility for deciding, and our own falibility in doing so. Atheists differ from theists only in that this shroud is unavailable- the moral singularity remains visible in its horrid magnificence.

Ahteists and theists are not so different. We both must confront the responsibility of being human. We all must grapple with the difficulty of trying to do what is right, when the very definition of "right" seems impossible to resolve for certain. For theists, this hardship can be wrapped up in pretty paper, tied down and given a name, a face, and an address that makes it seem less scary.

But atheists must always face that place where the rules no longer apply.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Special Guest Blogger: The Huntsman

Folks who read this blog are aware that I recently commented on Dick Cheney's accidental shooting of a hunting partner. In that post, I observed that both I and my Former Hypothetical Roommate have experience with firearms and, in his case, hunting. As such, I was in a position to be able to comment with at least a little authority on what happened.

Well, the FHR has been discussing this issue with some of his friends and one of them has given me permission, via the FHR, to post his thoughts on the hunting incident. I have edited them slightly for readability, because I think he typed the e-mail quickly, but otherwise have not changed anything. I have inserted some links for those who have little experience with firearms, hunting, or the American system of measurment. The gentleman we'll be hearing from is a long-time hunter from a rural area of the United States, and has plenty of experience with firearms and firearm safety.

So, please welcome today's Total Drek guest blogger: The Huntsman.

The Cheney thing is interesting. This administration has done a lot worse than this (domestic spying, touture). The hunting thing isn't as big a story as the media is making it. They need to get their priorites straight.

From a hunting stand point it is a big deal. What happened, from what I understand, is this:

The guy who got shot went to retrive a bird then got back in line without telling anyone. (When you hunt you stay in line so everyone knows where the other people are.) A bird went up and flew back through the line between Cheney and his hunting partner. Cheney shot, thus breaking one of the fundamental hunter saftey rules. Never shoot at anything coming back through the line of people. But honestly I feel safe shoting at something coming back at the line and so do the people I hunt with. [According to the FHR, the Huntsman has been going out with the same group of guys for the past dozen years or more, so this is a function of long experience.-- Drek] The thing is, and this is a more important safty rule, Always know where your hunting partners are.

I feel bad for Cheney. It was a legitimate huinting accident. And nobody can say it can't happen to them. Take this example: say you're grouse hunting and a bird goes up. You have a split second to make a shot. Now say some guy is up in a tree stand bow hunting in full camo and hasn't said anything to alert you because he doesn't want to scare any deer away. It would take extraordinary bad luck but it could happen. I've got to think Cheney feels horrible about it.

The gun people and lobbies who are saying it is no big deal are, I think, trying to soften the severity of what happened for the non-hunting public. The one thing I heard those people say is that you get hit with shot all the time when you're hunting. In reality, sometimes when you are hunting doves or ducks people are shooting UP into the air. The shot can rain down on other people hunting hundreds of yards away. By that time the shot has lost all its velocity and is harmless. This isn't what happened with Cheney.

Cheney way 30 yds from the guy (from home plate to first base). I can kill a turkey cleanly at 50-60 yds. Probably the only thing that saved the guy was this: Cheney was using a 28 gauge. That's a small shotgun, (good thing he's rich cause they're expensive) had he been using a 20 or 12 [gauge] the guy would probably be dead. Cheney was also using small shot, probally size eight for quail. Had they been hunting pheasants they would have been using size 6 or larger- and the guy would be dead. If it had happened in PA he [Cheney] would lose his liscence for 5 years. Also I don't know if you knew this, but neither guy had the proper licensing to be hunting. But the warden left Cheney off with a warning.

So, there you have it. From the Huntsman straight to you.

As a side note: Yes, I know calling him "The Huntsman" makes it sound like I have a superhero blogging. Get over it.

Friday, February 24, 2006

And so it begins.

The recent confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito has left many wondering when we can expect the first offensive against the Roe v. Wade decision and a woman's right to choose.

Well, it may not be the first, but we definitely have a decent candidate:

South Dakota moved closer to imposing some of the strictest limits on abortion in the nation as the state Senate approved legislation that would ban the procedure except when the woman's life is in danger.

The bill, designed to spark a courtroom showdown over the legality of abortion, passed 23-12 Wednesday. On Thursday, it was headed back to the House, where lawmakers already approved similar legislation.


Under the measure, doctors in South Dakota would face up to five years in prison for performing an abortion. The only exception would be for women who need abortions to save their lives.

"In my opinion, it is the time for the South Dakota Legislature to deal with this issue and protect the lives and rights of unborn children," said Sen. Julie Bartling, a Democrat and the bill's main sponsor.

So, by the sound of things, any trace of rationality has fled the state of South Dakota. The ban discussed above is, indeed, one of the most stringent to be attempted in years. Some of the representatives know it, too:

Some senators, including Republicans, were concerned that the legislation did not include exceptions for abortions in cases of rape or incest.

Republican Sen. Stan Adelstein said it would be "a continued savagery unworthy of South Dakota" to make a woman bear a child if she becomes pregnant as the result of rape. [Emphasis Added]

I think I can assert with confidence that this law is, in fact, vile. Senator Adelstein doesn't go far enough, though: to compel a woman to bring a pregnancy that resulted from rape or incest to term would be a savagery unworthy of a civilized species. However, what almost makes it worse is its intent. As reported on NPR, this law really isn't going to have a huge effect in South Dakota, per se, but is instead designed as an attempt to make a national push against abortion:

Lawmakers in South Dakota are poised to give final approval to the most sweeping ban on abortion in nearly two decades. The state's only abortion clinic performs about 800 procedures a year -- of the nearly 1 million done nationally. But backers of the bill say they intend for it to reach well outside the state's borders.


But her [Leslie Unruh, Anti-Abortion Activist] work will pay off when the South Dakota House gives expected final approval to a measure that would ban all abortions in the state except those needed to save the life of the pregnant woman. The state Senate, which approved the bill Wednesday, rejected amendments to allow abortions in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the pregnant woman's health.

Unruh says she's confident that Republican Gov. Michael Rounds will sign the measure. And she makes it clear she hopes the law will have a broader impact. "We've been very successful to chip away at the laws of Roe v. Wade in South Dakota, and we think the rest of the country should really be following us, and following the heartland... and this is definitely planned to go after Roe v. Wade," she said. [Emphasis Added]

I don't know if I'd say South Dakota is "the heartland," but I guess I should point out that it's a bad idea to get your ideas from portions of your anatomy other than the brain.

The thing that really drives me crazy about the Bush administration isn't the corruption, the stupidity, or the condescension. I mean, that makes me nuts too, but it isn't the real kicker. No, what really upsets me is the legacy. By the end of his presidency, Bush will likely have destroyed two foreign nations, caused thousands of pointless deaths, saddled the country with a staggering debt, potentially triggered a constitutional crisis over the powers of the presidency, championed cronyism, and burdened us with reactionary supreme court justices. His legacy is one of strife and discord. South Dakota is merely the first phase in what is sure to be a long, long war to preserve the virtues of this nation, and defeat its vices. It promises to be a long, heartbreaking, bitter struggle that I don't think any of us want. And to that I can say only this:

Some things are worth fighting for.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Fucking awesome.

For the astronomy buffs in the crowd, check this out:

Scientific American: Two New Moons--and Maybe Some Rings--for Pluto

Who knew? I, like Tom, am just excited as hell over the New Horizons mission. Who knows what else is waiting for us?

Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before

Some of the most recent reporting on the violence surrounding the bombing of a major Shia shrine in Iraq:

BBC, headline and 1st paragraph (current worldwide headline)

"Dozens die amid Iraqi shrine fury

Many Sunni mosques have been vandalised in BaghdadMore than 100 people have been killed in Iraq in the aftermath of a bomb attack on a key Shia Muslim shrine."

ABC, headline and 1st paragraph (1 hour old)

"Iraq forces on alert as sectarian killings mount

Iraq canceled all leave for the police and army and placed them on the highest alert as the death toll mounted on Thursday in sectarian violence that has swept the country after bombs wrecked a major Shi'ite shrine. "

By the way, ABC's first international headline is "Rice makes surprise visit to Lebanon", with "Sectarian Violence Increasing in Iraq" coming third.

ABC does cover the bombing itself in a somewhat older article - the most recent one I could find on the subject:

"Sectarian Violence Increasing in Iraq

Insurgents posing as police destroyed the golden dome of one of Iraq's holiest Shiite shrines Wednesday, setting off an unprecedented spasm of sectarian violence. Angry crowds thronged the streets, militiamen attacked Sunni mosques, and at least 19 people were killed."

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Washington will burn with them*

I came across this story on the BBC and as people keep pointing out that it is not being covered elsewhere I will put it up here for your reference.
A hundred deaths in custody, 8 to 12 of which may have been tortured to death. Not all of this is new, granted, but certainly this is worth knowing about?

*obscure reference

Worst. Name. Ever.

I'd just like to point out that there's a skater in this year's winter olympics who is named, "Slutskaya."

I have to be honest, I think that may be one of the most unfortunate names for a female figure skater that I've ever heard. It's a little like the feminist scholar who is named, "Cockburn." If you don't see the humor in that, then you know how the name is supposed to be pronounced- try saying it like a male chicken, and what happens when you light something on fire.

There ya' go.

Still, this is better than the last summer Olympics, where a commentator referred to a Chinese female gymnast (who looked all of six years old) by saying: "Uh-oh, I think she just broke the cute-meter." The inappropriateness of this remark was only surpassed by another commentator who asked the aforementioned gymnast, after her routine, "What's it like to be inside your body right now?"

Amidst her confusion, one of my buddies interjected, "Hot and squishy."

Indeed, a great day for sports.

So, you think this post is juvenile? Well that makes sense, as it is. Absurdly juvenile. I chalk it up to the fact that I'm really busy, and it was easy to write this. Oh, that, and because I'm a fucking child.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Well, hell, that was easy.

Jeremy is far too reasonable an individual to take credit for Lawrence Summers' resignation. Lucky for me, I labor under no such sense of false-nobility.


Eccentric Environmentalism

Today the Bush administration is rather prominent in the news for its environmental stands. I know, I know- you're expecting these stands to be along earlier lines when they wanted to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This idea has been widely condemned, including on this blog, and so I don't want to renew discussion of that idea. Despite expectations, however, the administration is actually on the pro-environment side of the fence- hypothetically.

In the first case, we find federal action against two men who are challenging the Clean Water Act on constitutional grounds. The reason? They want to build on wetlands. In one case the man seeking to develop the wetlands, John Rapanos, has the dubious distinction of having been convicted of violating court orders preventing him from developing land. In both cases the men are claiming that the Clean Water Act does not pertain to them, since their land is not itself a navigable channel and, in any case, that the clean water act is itself unconstitutional. The reasons for that latter statement are somewhat unclear to me but seem to revolve around the act's purported violation of states' rights, and of private citizens' rights to use their property in whatever manner they see fit. In the case of the former objection Rapanos and Company have a problem, since 34 states have sided with the Federal Government. In the latter case the argument is troubled for the simple reason that governmental regulation of the use of property is quite common. Regulations preventing the burning of leaves provide one innocuous example.

No, the stronger argument is that the land these men own is, indeed, far from a navigable channel and, so, the Act may not directly apply. Still, it's a hard call- since their property drains to a navigable channel, we're confronted with a de facto reality that doesn't match a de jure idea. So, I don't know what is going to come out of this case, but it is nice to see the Bush administration not interfering with environmental protection.

Even if their reasoning may be related to the Hurricane Katrina debacle- in short, if the government's power to prevent the development of wetlands is challenged, it may be very hard to keep people from building in areas that are, in a word, stupid.

Yet, if this environmental policy seems at least reasonable, the next one is not. Bush is at present out stumping for his new energy policy. In particular, in a recent speech he advocated the development of electric cars and ethanol as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. This is approximately enough to make my head explode. As we've discussed previously, electric cars are a dramatically stupid idea if you're interested in either pollution control or reducing fuel consumption. This is simply because batteries are a less efficient means of storing and delivering power than fossil fuels are. So, if we all had electric cars tomorrow, our consumption of foreign oil would actually have to increase in order to generate enough electrical power to operate those "clean" electric cars. Thus, from a national security standpoint, electric cars could charitably be referred to as "problematic." From an environmental standpoint they're probably stupid too, as the extra toxic byproducts of producing and disposing of all those batteries would likely exceed any pollution reduction resulting from centralizing the burning of fuel to large fossil fuel plants. Hell, it's fairly likely that the extra pollution generated by the need to burn more fuel would overwhelm any pollution reduction you gained from centralizing emissions to large plants- so, with the batteries added on top, you'd have a net increase in pollution. Oops. So how about the ethanol? That's a good idea, right?

Well, probably not. While Tom has made a convincing argument that some forms of hybrids may produce significant fuel savings over market alternatives, the problem with ethanol is that it takes more energy to manufacture it than the end fuel contains. It's a simple physics problem- you never get something for nothing, and a fuel cannot contain more energy at the end of refining than you spent in the act of refining it in the first place. So, what Bush is advocating is a set of initiatives that would actually increase our consumption of fossil fuels while not noticeably improving environmental quality. Double oops.

Bush is advocating other things, at least in theory, that could deal with these objections- like solar power and nuclear energy. If our power was generated by the sun, or by nuclear fission then yes, certainly, electric or ethanol powered vehicles might be practical. These all have problems, however: nuclear energy is not (however much I'd like to claim to the contrary) clean. It produces substantial amounts of waste that is more difficult to handle than standard fossil fuel emissions. Moreover while I actually think that solar power is, unavoidably, the future of mankind it's also a limited form of power. Even if our solar cells were vastly more efficient than they are, and even if we covered every available surface with them, the Earth only receives so much energy from the sun per square inch per second. In other words, there's a ceiling on how much solar energy we can collect, even if we ignore foul weather. There are ways around this problem, but at the moment they're largely impractical, even if they're likely to also prove to be inevitable if our population and technology continue to expand. The fundamental truth is simple: there is a limit to how much consumption we can sustain.

No, the only real option is to simply reduce consumption. Efficiency and a rational use of resources is the true solution to many of these problems. And, I suppose, at least in theory, Bush seems to be advocating for that. Sort of. The problem is, our attempts are eccentric at best. We propose spending more on alternative fuels that don't really help, and then give a tax break for luxury SUVs. We try to prevent folks from building on land that drains into a waterway, and then we consider drilling for oil in a protected wildlife refuge. Is it any surprise that our initiatives aren't working?

The Bush administration is more concerned with appearing to be responsible stewards of the environment than actually being such stewards and that's worse than just not caring in the first place.

If we recognize a problem, at least we know it's there. But if we pretend we've solved a problem that still exists.

Well, that's something else.

Monday, February 20, 2006

"Who is more the fool: the fool, or the fool who follows him?"

So sayeth Ben Kenobi from the classic film Star Wars: A New Hope or, as kids today think of it, Star Wars: Episode IV. Mostly I remember it as "When Star Wars didn't suck," but I digress. Kenobi's point, of course, is that you probably shouldn't criticize someone you're following too sharply, as it reflects poorly on you. Doubtless this explains Fox News' relationship with the President, as well as lemmings.*

I bring his point up because our old friend from Harvard is back in the news again. I refer, of course, to President Lawrence Summers who suggested in a speech last January that, perhaps, the reason why males outnumber females in certain math and science-related fields is because males are smarter. No, I'm really not kidding. Exaggerating, yes, since he also argued that women are not choosing to work psychotic hours, but definitely not kidding. I'm not going to address this point myself as it's old news and others have pounded on Summers much, much, much, much, more thoroughly than I could.

What has Summers said this time? Well, as it turns out, he's got some more ideas about intelligence to share with us. Specifically, former Dean Peter T. Ellison reports:

Over lunch not long after Summers took over the presidency in 2001, Ellison said, Summers suggested that some funds should be moved from a sociology program to the Kennedy School, home to many economists and political scientists. ''President Summers asked me, didn't I agree that, in general, economists are smarter than political scientists, and political scientists are smarter than sociologists?" Ellison said. ''To which I laughed nervously and didn't reply."

So, hey, apparently Summers' own field rules the social-sciences roost. Now, I don't want to engage with this question. I think it's a pretty stupid one, on the face of it, since the inaccuracies in most methods of measuring intelligence are so great** that dealing with Summers' point would be like trying to gauge the size of a flagellum using a yardstick.

Instead of arguing about how smart Sociologists are*** I am, instead, just going to say this: maybe you should pick on a discipline that isn't getting plagiarized by your own.****

Who is more the moron, Summers? The moron, or the moron who steals his work?

* Yes, I know it's a myth that lemmings commit suicide en masse, but it's such a beautiful metaphor.

** Actually, the issue of IQ is so hazy that it has given rise to "Boring's Dictum" which reads, "IQ tests measure whatever it is that IQ tests measure." That's some rigor.

*** Answer: Pretty f-ing smart.

**** This is not to say that Economics isn't producing good work- just that, from time to time, they're a smidge behind the curve.

Friday, February 17, 2006

In case you need something else to read...

Have you seen Alan's recent discussion of the economics and practicality of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs)? If not, it's worth reading, especially if you happen to be interested in such things.

And, if you're looking for a laugh, try this. I think you'll like it.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

You're not serious.

Okay, seriously, what the fuck is up with this book title?

I mean, "Data Happy?" What does that even mean? It's like the textbook equivalent of Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. What's next? Doing Sociology with SAS: Data Hysterical?

I'm just saying there are some tasks that probably shouldn't be outsourced to India.

Like naming textbooks.

Special thanks to the Former Hypothetical Roommate for showing this to me. I also mean no offense to the author of this textbook. It's probably a perfectly decent textbook. It just has a bizarre name.

An open letter to the Kenmore corporation

To Whom it May Concern:

I am writing to make several small suggestions for your review. I recently received one of your automatic coffee makers from my dear sister as a gift. I have, for the most part, been quite pleased with this device. It does brew excellent coffee, as the manual claims, and the additional steep time for batches of coffee 4 cups or less does seem to make a difference. I have been so pleased with the quality of the coffee issuing forth from this device that I have discontinued my previous habit of having my morning coffee in the office, and instead have begun to drink it at home before going in. Additionally, the inclusion of a reusable filter, while complicating cleanup and maintenance, is impressively environmentally friendly. In short: huzzah.

In particular, however, I would like to commend you on your extremely intelligent, and sophisticated, timer technology. I was thrilled to discover that this coffee maker came with a clock, and a device that can activate the brewing process at a pre-set time. This is highly useful to me as I have taken to working out during the morning. The ability to pre-set the brewing of coffee is of great utility to me, so that when I emerge from the shower after my exertions, I find that warm, dark, elixir of life standing ready.

What I did not realize, however, is that the timing technology also includes certain discretionary capabilities. I have noticed, for example, that the timer, rather than activating the brew cycle, occasionally simply switches off the coffee maker entirely. This is doubtless a safety feature designed to prevent me from ingesting too much caffeine. It may, additionally, be a feature designed to encourage my spiritual development by allowing me to experience absence, and in so doing, appreciate presence all the more. It is no small feat to integrate Buddhist wisdom into a consumer appliance! To date, I must confess, I have not taken full advantage of these features- usually I have just activated the brew cycle manually- but it was highly thoughtful of you to include them.

It was only today that I realized that my coffee maker has additional unexpected features as well! I was delighted today to notice that, rather than shutting off before brewing, my coffee maker deactivated itself after only half-finishing the job. Even the warming plate shut itself down. How considerate! Clearly, this behavior can only have been intended to show me the virtues of delicious iced coffee drinks. Alas, there were two problems with this feature that you may wish to correct. First, there is an enormous difference between "iced" and "room temperature." Second, iced coffee is to tepid coffee what champagne is to bat piss.

I appreciate the innovative nature of Kenmore products, and would like to suggest some additional features for your customers to enjoy:

-A speaker that emits a constant sound while the coffee maker is active, perhaps the sound of an engine grinding at 300 decibels or two balloons rubbing together, to warn children away from the hot device. This would be especially useful for people who set their coffee makers to brew their beverage of choice before they awaken in the morning. We would not want someone who has recently awakened to touch the hot plate in the mistaken belief that it was cold, would we?

-A dispenser that randomly dissolves a psychedelic drug or, more interestingly, a mild toxin, into the coffee. The consumer would, therefore, not know if the result of their morning ritual would be an increase in their level of awareness, hallucinations, or even nausea and/or death. You could call it "Kenmore Roulette." This would be a particularly easy feature to include given that your product apparently already includes a random number generator to control the timer's "advanced features."

-A coffee maker that automatically sets its time to the Greenwich meridian and cannot be changed by the user. I believe that having to mentally translate to my own timezone would both make the user more aware of foreign cultures, and encourage basic mathematical competence.

-A coffee maker with an enlarged readout so that both the time, and an assortment of banner ads, can be displayed simultaneously. Nothing pleases me more in the morning that wondering if my penis is adequately large, and I'm sure women feel similarly about their breasts!

-The installation of an electrode into the decanter such that anyone grasping it will receive a harmless, but painful, electric shock. This will help discourage over-dependence on caffeine. Some might argue that this could be dangerous to those with poor cardiac health but, really, should they be drinking coffee in the first place?

I hope you find some of these suggestions helpful, and ask that you do not hold me liable for any of them.


Drek the Uninteresting

P.S: Also, if you get around to it, could you please make the decanters out of a stronger material? My Sainted Girlfriend, using her caffeine-enhanced might, has managed to break two already and I expect the third's days are numbered.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

And now for something completely different

I am sure none of you need to be reminded of what the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was like. I was in Granada, southern Spain at the time, and found the reporting extremely distressing, not just because of the content, but because of the slant, and the anti-islamic comments. There was one, lonely exception in the wide range of available papers - The Independent, a well-respected and popular British newspaper. Their correspondent and commentator for the Middle East was, and is, Robert Fisk.

Robert Fisk is a formidable presence in British journalism, with an unbeatable track record in political reporting. According to wikipedia (and do check out the link), he is the world's most decorated foreign correspondent. Not that I care if he is. I care that the man has a clear mind, the courage of his opinions (which require a lot of courage these days), and more knowledge of the situation than I have seen in anyone else. A tad polemic perhaps, but still easily the best thing out there. It works; and it works because he is that unlikely thing, a sincere left-wing intellectual in the field.

Someone stop me from drawing parallels with Orwell*.

I know, it's the US, and you are unlikely to be able to get your hands on an Independent - a crying shame that is too. Getting the online edition is neither as pleasant nor as flexible, so now what? Fisk has written a book; it's called The Great War for Civilisation. I am going to buy it, and, you know what, I'll review it here. If I like it I will try to convince you all some more that Fisk's is one of the most relevant voices in the debate. Meanwhile, try reading some of his articles**.

On a frivolous sidenote, Osama bin Laden, whom Fisk interviewed three times, once (very) allegedly offered someone 50$ to run over the journalist. An unusual CV item for sure.

*If you have an interest in politics and haven't read his essays, can find them here
**Try this obnoxious looking site. I recommend "Telling it like it isn't" in the righthand column. The tone bothers me a bit, but he does have an important point.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Today is that day when we are all supposed to celebrate the power of love.

Yeah. Right. Sure.

Regardless of your views, however, please enjoy this fine selection of Star Wars valentines from the good folks at Something Awful.

I think you will find them most satisfying.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Things they don't teach in grad school.

As some of you may recall I was recently turned down for a grant. This is really not a new experience for me, as I have been turned down for numerous things including, but not limited to: dates, publications, sex, hikes, other grants, colleges, and grad schools. So, you might say I'm an old hand at rejection.

I don't like to wallow, though, so I've picked myself up and I'm working on a new grant application. How industrious of me, eh?

Nah, not really. This really falls under the heading of self-preservation.

In any case, while my Former Hypothetical Roommate as well as my Sainted Girlfriend often complain about my ability to write quickly (Woo-hoo, Blogging!) I do, fairly often, have bouts with the dreaded writer's block. It is, after all, difficult to come up with a delicate, yet assertive, way to beg strangers for money. (Hmmm... come to think of it- I should take a lesson from the experts.) My typical solution when I'm blocked is just to start writing, free-associating, and see what comes out. Often it's coherent, but it can take a while to circle around to useful material. In the meantime, though, I often end up with some fairly amusing stuff. This is one of those times.

And so, without any additional delay, I share with you the most awesome introduction to a grant application ever written:

I am a graduate student in sociology. As such, it is necessary for me to write grant applications and win funding with which to conduct research. Failure to win funding will result in a slow, languishing hell at the senior grad student levels, followed by the inevitable failure to obtain my Ph.D., the cutting of my stipend, and an eventual career at a community college. To avoid this fate, it is necessary that I somehow convince you, in ten measly pages, that I am a goddamned genius. This will prove difficult, as I am not a goddamned genius. I am, in fact, of rather modest intelligence and have come this far only due to my tenacity and my greater than average ability to communicate. So, in lieu of attempting to convince you that I am a genius, I choose a different path- I will attempt to convince you, in ten pages, that I will not stop sending you application materials until such time as you give me the money I require. Some might refer to this approach to grantsmanship as extortion, but I prefer the term, “committed.” My effort will proceed in several parts. First, I will explain the history of my time in graduate school and how I came to arrive here. Second, I will describe in great detail the tremendous hurdles that I currently face including, but not limited to, an advisor whose approach to our relationship can best be described as “benign neglect.” Third, I will describe the numerous ways in which I can express my need for funding to you. Fourth, I will present a credible argument explaining why I have the time and ability to harass you until you concede the necessity of granting me funding. Finally, I will conclude by summing up the existing arguments, and suggesting future directions for my efforts to secure funding including blackmail, racketeering, and graft. I hope that at the conclusion of this proposal you recognize the merits of this project and supply me with the requested funds.

So, whaddya think? Do I have a chance?

Friday, February 10, 2006

A bad joke made flesh.

I have no words for this, aside from: "Jesus titty-fucking Christ."

Israel plans to build 'museum of tolerance' on Muslim graves

Skeletons are being removed from the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem to make way for a $150m (£86m) "museum of tolerance" being built for the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Palestinians have launched a legal battle to stop the work at what was the city's main Muslim cemetery. The work is to prepare for the construction of a museum which seeks the promotion of "unity and respect among Jews and between people of all faiths".

Just... wow.

Possibly the dumbest thing I've ever done.

Recently there's been a lot of discussion of celebrity crushes on this blog. The TDEC got us started with a post detailing the men she finds appealing. This was, predictably, followed by Slag's attentive response, which gave us a look at his favorites. I'm sure we were all quite amused by their choices, as well as by trying to find a consistent pattern to them. Or, alternatively, we barely cared and largely refrained from any deep analysis.

In the process of all this discussion, however, an issue has been raised. Specifically, some interest has been expressed as to the names that would appear on my own list. This issue was first raised in a comment from my Sainted Girlfriend, who was amazed at the TDEC's ability to learn about Slag's preferred celebrity women. My Sainted Girlfriend then mourned that she was entirely ignorant of my preferences, due to my habitual reticence. When Slag responded to the TDEC with his list, my Sainted Girlfriend attempted to trick me into spilling the beans but was, indeed, thwarted.

Sadly, however, this has not ended the matter. My Sainted Girlfriend continues to probe me on the subject and, it seems, some of those poor souls who read this blog are also curious. So, I'm faced with a dilemma as to what to do.

To be honest, some of my reluctance to tackle this matter stems from what my Sainted Girlfriend has identified as my natural reticence. Despite my somewhat flamboyant nature when blogging, I do tend to be remarkably closed-mouthed about a variety of issues. This happens to be one of them since I've never thought people would be interested in my own creepy lusts. At the same time, there is a deeper reason for my reticence here: the impact such a disclosure might have on my home life.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think that my Sainted Girlfriend would get angry at me or anything. In truth, I think she's about as annoyed at my continuing success in keeping the information to myself as she can get. Moreover, despite her many virtues, she has a tendency to get... um... cranky first thing in the morning, so I'm rather accustomed to dealing with a certain amount of annoyance from my Sainted Girlfriend. Nor do I think that such a set of revelations would actually upset my Sainted Girlfriend. She has no particular worries (that I am aware of) about my fidelity, and so I don't think she would be threatened by my silly crushes.

No, my concern is this: my lovely, charming, Sainted Girlfriend has a bad habit of being very critical of herself. This tendency extends to her appearance, treatment of other people, treatment of animals, treatment of inanimate objects, work performance, phonecalls with her family, the loudness of her chewing, and so on. This habit leads my Sainted Girlfriend to be one of the most generous and giving people that I have ever met, but it also plagues her with a considerable amount of uncertainty and, from time to time, doubts about her own self-worth. I spend a small, but noticeable, amount of time trying to convince my Sainted Girlfriend that she does have a great deal of worth, and generally I think she does feel good about herself. If I should disclose the identities of my celebrity crushes, I worry that it might provide something new for her to obsess over. This something would, of course, be far worse than most since it would have its roots in my own stated opinions. I can foresee quite a bit of over-analysis that will do nothing beneficial for her, and will annoy the ever living shit out of me.

I am left with a dilemma: the devil I know (i.e. my Sainted Girlfriend's growing annoyance) or the devil I do not know (i.e. her potential frustration and anxiety). So, in the grand tradition of the internet, I'm going to do something very, very dumb. I'm going to let y'all decide.

There's a new poll in the sidebar (For those who are curious, my new professional name will be Dr. Drek Deathstrike. Thanks for helping!) where you can register your opinion. Vote early, vote often, and we'll see what happens. Your choice is simple:

(1) Spare my Sainted Girlfriend and I a whole lot of grief.

(2) Subject us both to a lot of unpleasantness to satisfy your own selfish need for entertainment.

Choose wisely.

Yeah, like I don't know already what you're going to pick. You egotistical fuckers.

Quasi-Confidential to Brayden and the FHR: I know what y'all are going to do, but would you at least restrict yourselves to one vote each?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

"For a movie about gay cowboys, there were an awful lot of boobs."

Which is more or less the exact reaction my Sainted Girlfriend had after we recently watched the thought-provoking film, Brokeback Mountain. Now, I know that this movie has been getting some attention, including some from my compatriots in the blogging world, so most of you probably already know what it's about. Hell, it has even been the target of a rather amusing spoof so it's safe to say the movie is widely known of. For those of you whose subterranean existence has left you ignorant, Brokeback Mountain is, indeed, a movie about gay cowboys. Specifically, it is a film that depicts a lengthy love affair between two men who lived in a time, and a place, where homosexuality wasn't particularly approved of.

Okay, seriously, even I have a hard time writing that with a straight face given the existence of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. Just pretend that when I say " a time, and a place..." I'm not referring to, "right here, and right now."

In any case, Brokeback Mountain is a remarkable movie that deserves high praise for its dramatic presentation of male homosexuality which, to date, has largely remained a subject for either comedies or niche movies about homosexuality in the context of AIDS. So, it's nice to see gay men being treated as something other than comic relief or AIDS vectors. I'm not, however, here to discuss this new day for homosexual cinema. I fully intend to write a post discussing the actual message of Brokeback Mountain at a later date, but for the moment I want to return to the boobs.

Okay, people, I want to be frank here: there are a lot of boobs in this movie. I don't mean that it's on the same scale as, say, Showgirls, which had so many boobs in it that, by the end of the film, you had become totally desensitized to them. I mean, Showgirls was so mammary-encrusted that by the time the final scenes came around, you were really just hoping that Elizabeth Berkeley and friends would keep their damned shirts on and get some acting lessons. But I digress... It isn't that Brokeback Mountain has more boobs, in terms of total screen time than most other movies, but rather that there's very little, if any, narrative need for it.

Despite the fact that it cannot compare to some other films in terms of sheer quantity of breasts, Brokeback Mountain does manage to deprive both of its "leading ladies" of their shirts at one point or another. For those of you who are curious, I'm referring to Michelle Williams of Dawson's Creek fame, and Anne Hathaway who, in the same style as her former co-star Julie Andrews, seems to be trying to shed her tame kids' movie image. For those of you who are still more curious, here are the boobs.*

So, the question seems natural: why, in a movie about homosexual cowboys, do both female-leads end up topless? I mean, it isn't like it's a French movie, or anything. Moreover why, in a movie about homosexual cowboys, do we have relatively little male nudity? I mean, there are some up-close butt-shots of Jake Gyllenhaal and some longer-ranged versions of the same for Heath Ledger but, really, that's it. Considering that the dark territory of male full-frontal nudity was pioneered years ago by Kevin Bacon (Seriously. Shower scene in Wild Things.) there seems little reason not to include it here, where it would have been vastly more appropriate. This is particularly so given that the recent movie A History of Violence included a rather pointless bit of full-frontal nudity from Maria Bello. So, obviously, Brokeback Mountain would not truly have been breaking new ground.

Okay, in order to satisfy my Sainted Girlfriend's obsessive need to be precise, there is, perhaps, some long-range semi-frontal nudity from either Gyllenhaal or Ledger. I can't vouch for this, but she has been rather insistent that there was some, for lack of a better term, "dangling" during a swimming scene.

So, the question remains, why the women and not the men in a movie about gay cowboys? The answer, I suspect, is quite simple: because it was a movie about gay cowboys.

You see, our hopes and dreams to the contrary, there remains quite a bit of homophobia in these United States and, in order to make the movie a success, the producers had to do something to counter it. Now, if you get an allegedly-heterosexual man into a theatre to watch something like this, you have to be conscious of the fact that he knows he's watching a movie about gay cowboys. Moreover, he knows his asshole friends are going to heckle him about it later. So, what do you do to assuage his vulnerable male ego? Why, you toss some boobs in! Then, when his friends pester him, he can respond with, "Hey! I got to see some nice boobies, and my girlfriend thinks I'm a more sensitive guy because of it!" You can see how this logic would be appealing to the studio. Likewise, I suspect that more male nudity was not included so as to not push our poor male viewers too far, too fast. So, in an ironic twist, a movie whose very existence shows how much progress U.S. society has made in terms of gay acceptance, simultaneously demonstrates how far we have left to go.

Of course, there is another sad note about gender relations in here that I alluded to earlier. Specifically that Anne Hathaway may have gone topless in the first place as part of an effort to shed her clean "family image" and be taken more seriously as an actress. Yet, a willingness to go topless really has nothing to do with acting ability- as Claire Danes demonstrates in the recent Shopgirl. I daresay there are a number of actors who have gone topless and yet have demonstrated quite amply that they can't act their way our of a wet paper bag. So, this association between nudity and female acting ability is itself an indictment of the state of gender relations in the U.S. Here, however, we're at least not alone as media from other cultures sometimes shows a similar fixation on the imagined relationship between boobs and talent. For an example, take a look at the Japanese film Perfect Blue, which in many ways seems to take the stand that developing a sexual side ruins the potential for an actress' career- exactly the opposite of the U.S. case.

Is Brokeback Mountain a good movie? Well, I'll say that it is, yes, though you'll have to wait to hear my full thoughts on it. But, however good it is, there's a great deal in it as subtext that reminds us all how much has yet to be done before a person's gender is truly irrelevant to their treatment in life.

So what else is new?

And, in the meantime, I had an excuse to write largely about breasts. I know it still isn't a discussion of my celebrity-lusts (To date TDEC and Slag have been handling things in that regard) but, hey, it was good enough for me.

*Ha. Made you look.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The talking dead

Strange days indeed. Today's news, in the UK and in Belgium, is all of death; but not death as you know it. I want to mention two stories, one from my current home, and one from my future place of residence:

Budapest, Hungary:
"A renowned Hungarian theatre director with terminal cancer is to lie in state for a week while still alive so he can experience his own funeral."

Baltimore, Maryland:
The story is from a Belgian newspaper, but I will link directly to the blog in question
"I (Virginia Simmons) designed this blog to allow you to meet Vernon Lee Evans, the next person to be executed on Maryland’s death row."

As you can see on the blog, Vernon Evans' death sentence has been postponed. Peter Halasz' plans to lie in state alive still stand.

In both of these cases it is very obvious that it is the media (in the broadest sense) that allow us to experience, in close up, the deaths of these two men. Their respective motivations are, I think, clear: Evans' blog is questioning capital punishment from a human rights point of view. Halasz' plans are partly the desire of a performer to keep performing, partly the recognisable fantasy of attending your own funeral. Perhaps in dubious taste, but essentially a personal decision.

What I wonder about how these chronicles of a death foretold change the our perspective, as well as the person in question's. Does it make them feel better to know that people are watching? Do they care whether those watching are sympathetic or just voyeurs? What makes me want to go to the museum to watch this man die? Would it change my image of death? My expectations? Is it a good thing? Are either of these realistic representations of death? Most of all - what does it change?

In the cases of Vernon Evans (and again, I refer to the blog) it is obvious that his story changes people's minds about a whole range of things, and I believe that this is a good thing; moreover there is some hope in his situation. Peter Halasz on the other hand remains doomed in public viewing. Do you still want to keep looking?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Expansive Misrepresentation

Coming basically at the same time as the recent Bush budget, we find ourselves enmeshed in hearings over whether or not Bush's domestic wire-tapping is legal or acceptable. Interestingly, it seems that this issue is not merely of interest to Democrats or, you know, people who actually give a rat's ass about the constitution, but is proving to be divisive for the right as well.

This divisiveness is, indeed, rather dramatic as you can easily tell by listening to this story from National Public Radio. Seriously, if you have any interest in this at all, you should go to the story and click on the "listen" button underneath the title. Democrats and Republicans both are expressing their utter dismay, not to mention horror, at the bizarre expansion of powers the white house is seeking to achieve. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the precedent being set here could impact the nature of government in this country for decades to come. The executive cannot be permitted to simply decide for itself which laws apply to it any more than a police force can be allowed to simply decide that statutes prohibiting homicide or rape do not apply to them.

Yet, despite the gravity of the situation the Attorney General has been calmly insisting that the administration has done no wrong, and that it needs no Congressional approval. In this, Mr. Gonzalez is simply taking a cue from his boss, President George Bush, who has been pushing the program with the claim that he's done nothing wrong, and that claims to the contrary are preposterous. Given the number of folks in both parties who disagree, one has to wonder about Bush's rationale in offering such a bewildering defense. It seems almost impossible not to concede that Bush has no true leadership ability and is, instead, relying upon naked power and a twisted idea of his own importance. Indeed, given his performance over the past five years, one analyst has remarked that Bush's primary rules are:

...never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it...

This is exactly what Bush has been doing- keeping the public stirred up about terrorists, refusing to admit fault except in truly extreme circumstances, refusing to concede alternatives (i.e. his consistent claim that you are either with him, or with the terrorists), and, of course, that people will believe a big lie sooner than a small one. Our anonymous analyst does, indeed, seem to have a good handle on our current Commander-in-Chief.

There's just one little problem you should be aware of.

The quote from the analyst above is real, but he wasn't talking about President George W. Bush. As a matter of fact the analyst was a member of the World War II era Office of Strategc Services, and the quote is taken from a profile of Adolf Hitler.

Now, am I saying that Bush is as bad as Hitler? Oh no. Hell no. Hitler was orders of magnitude worse than Bush but what I am saying is that Hitler and Bush have something in common: the Big Lie. The "Big Lie" is a propaganda doctrine that argues, essentially, that telling the public a huge, preposterous lie, over and over, is more effective than trying to get away with little lies. This is for the simple reason that nobody can believe that someone would be so brazen as to tell such a huge lie, so it therefore must be the truth. Of course, such logic is rather poor, but that doesn't keep people from using it.

Bush is not a leader, he is not a great man, he isn't even a decent president. He is, in fact, a propagandist. He practices the Big Lie perhaps better than any other modern president and, as a consequence, has managed to wreak more havoc in the world than I think any of us would have believed possible. It is beholden upon all of us to resist his "vision" for the world, and we must fight his Big Lie, with the only weapon that can possibly contest it: the Big Truth.

Otherwise, the future we face is too terrible to contemplate.

As a side note: Woo-hoo, hyperbole! Just cut me some slack, okay? We all have our off days.

Monday, February 06, 2006

This just in... which is to say, "This just noticed."

Excerpts taken from an article in the Washington Post. Please note that any commentary is in bold.

President Bush today proposed a $2.8 trillion budget for fiscal 2007 that would cut billions of dollars from domestic programs ranging from Medicare and food stamps to local law enforcement and disease control, while extending most of his tax cuts beyond their 2010 expiration date.

Well thank god. Who needs disease control with AIDS, HPV, and the Bird Flu on the loose? Not us!

Under the plan, a budget deficit -- expected to reach $423 billion this year -- would fall to $183 billion by 2010, more than meeting his goal to cut the deficit in half by 2009. But it would rise again to $205 billion in 2011, reflecting the cost of the extensions in the president's tax cuts.

Nice shell-game there.


The budget, for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, is a tall order for a Congress facing a difficult election year. Defense spending would rise 6.9 percent, from $411 billion to $439 billion. Homeland security spending would rise by 3.3 percent.

It obviously costs a lot to torture civilians and eavesdrop on random American citizens.

But all other operations of government would fall by $2.2 billion, or 0.5 percent.

To accommodate increased spending in the president's favored non-security programs such as diplomacy and foreign aid, veterans health care and energy, other programs would face significant cuts. Agriculture spending would fall 6.5 percent and education spending would drop 3.8 percent. The Department of Transportation would lose 9.4 percent of its discretionary budget. The Army Corps of Engineers -- a congressional favorite that was highly criticized in the wake of Hurricane Katrina -- would be cut 11.2 percent.

Well that's okay. I mean, if there are any programs we don't need, certainly they include education, health care for VETERANS, and the guys who build dikes.

Please note: I mean dikes, not dykes which are, as far as I know, not manufactured.

But the biggest savings would come from entitlement programs, in which spending rises and falls according to complex formulas that Congress would have to change to meet Bush's demands. The president proposed cutting Medicare by $36 billion over five years, and $105 billion over a decade -- mainly by reducing payments to hospitals and other providers. Federal child-support enforcement payments would fall slightly, while Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program would lose $5 billion over five years and $12 billion over 10 years.

Indeed, no child is being left behind here! But wait! There's more!


And a slew of tax cuts, tax incentives and tax-cut extensions would cost the Treasury $1.7 trillion over the next decade, dwarfing the $172 billion in entitlement savings and proposed user fees in the budget.


So what's the Republican solution for too much spending? Hey, it's easy: spend MORE!

All totaled, his proposals for entitlement programs -- including cuts, tax hikes and Social Security partial privatization -- would actually increase spending by $551 billion. But those costs are not reflected in Bush's deficit projections, since the president did not deduct the Social Security costs from the bottom line.

Obviously that must be because Social Security isn't a very expensive program, right? Right? Why are you all laughing so hysterically?


"When it comes to protecting those who need it most, America has always had a moral compass," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "For the past six years, President Bush has read it upside down. After driving the nation into a fiscal mess, the president is asking our seniors, our students and our families to clean it up while the wealthy special interests reap the rewards."


Now, if y'all will excuse me, I'm going to go kill myself.

Special thanks to the FHR for bringing this to my attention.

Winter on the continent

It is winter in Budapest which means, quite simply, movies. It is way too cold to do anything else, and cinemas are relatively cheap, so I am catching up on both old and new (to Budapest) movies, with friends, with film clubs or on my own, and at any time of the week. In the last two weeks I have seen, in reverse chronological order, and as far as I can remember:

Walk the Line
Two Weeks Notice
Just Like Heaven
Jane Eyre (1996)
The Stepford Wives (2004)

The amazing thing is that of all these movies there hasn't really been a single one, not even Just Like Heaven, that was bad. I don't mean flawed - many of these are. I don't mean not great art - most are not. I just mean plain bad in the I regret paying the money sense. Obviously there are three options:

- My movie instinct has gotten better
- Movies generally have improved
- My taste in movies has become quite abysmal

Actually it was hard to focus on the content of Munich, as much of it was shot in Budapest and very recognisably so. There is one very bizarre shot where they are sitting by the river in what is supposed to be, I think, Paris. In the background you can recognise, out of focus but very visible, one of Budapest's landmarks, the Parliament. It makes it very hard to take the film seriously, and my suspension of disbelief crashed anytime they dressed Ándrassy ut up a Rome or Paris.

What I remember of the content...hmmm...I think it makes a good, important point and was relieved not to see Spielberg dissolve into sentimentalism. Having said that I am not sure it actually a good movie. Lots of good actors and all that but the whole thing is...the only simile I can think of is that it is a bit like The Untouchables in the wrong situation. Spielberg is not famous for his realism anyway I guess, but with a topic like this it is a flaw. Having said that, the movie does do a very good job of finding the middle ground between the two camps, and that in itself deserves some respect.

Of the list above, I would say Walk the Line and Secretary are my favourites, for very different reasons. Secretary - well - just watch it. I am not going to repeat my baffled comments on the subject. Walk the Line managed to interest me in Johnny Cash, to whom I was previously quite indifferent. Maybe if someone just makes a really good film about American football...
Then again maybe not.

Walk the Line is mostly just compelling for the oldfashioned reasons - great acting and a smashing soundtrack. And hey, who knew Joaquin Phoenix could sing so well?

Yet another random post from the TDEC...the next one will be about politics, I promise.

The Super Post

Happy Super Bowl Sunday to all ye Americans! I'm sitting here in my country estate in Slagistan, watching the interminable pregame show and learning how to fill out immigration forms. Since neither Drek or the TDEC cares anything at all about football, I will be the only Totaldrekwriter blogging about the Super Bowl (aside: no, I don't know why the TDEC is holding a whale).

Tonight's game features the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Seattle Seahawks. The Steelers (referred to by locals as the "Stillers") have played in 5 previous Super Bowls, going 4-1. The Seahawks (referred to by locals as "WTF, we have a football team?") have played 30 years in the league without reaching the Super Bowl.

Postgame Analysis

Final Score: Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10

That game was... odd. The Seahawks drove up and down the field, but kept dropping passes, letting the play clock run down, and missing field goals. The Steelers had hardly any offense in the first half, but still led 7-3 at halftime. Then, the second half started with "Fast" Willie Parker running a Super Bowl-record 75 yards to give the Steelers a 14-3 lead. The Seahawks scored to make it 14-10 and were driving to take the lead when QB Matt Hasselbeck threw a horrifying interception to Ike Taylor. Four plays later, WR Antwaan Randle El threw a tricky 43-yard touchdown pass, off a reverse, to WR Hines Ward. The Steelers led 21-10. After a few more Seahawks mistakes, the game ended. Ward was named MVP.

If you're especially interested in the game, here is the recap from If you're even more especially interested, here is the full play-by-play for the game.

Of course, the really important part of the Super Bowl are the $4,000,000-per-minute commercials. I find it strange that the only time Americans really pay attention to commercials is during the Super Bowl - even though commercials are all around us, every time we turn on the TV. I missed the first 7 minutes of the game, so I know I missed some, but it seems like the commercials were down this year. The best were the Leonard Nimoy ad for Aleve and the Sprint locker room commercial (videos linked on this page at iFilm, but I can't link directly to them). It seems that when the best commercial is for an arthritis medicine, it's not a good year for the advertising industry. (The most famous Super Bowl commercial of all time, of course, was Apple's "1984" commercial introducing the Macintosh.)

And so the 2005-06 football season comes to a close (except the meaningless Pro Bowl). Bring on the Winter Olympics!

P.S. On an unrelated note, I left an extremely important figure out of Friday's post.

Friday, February 03, 2006

No F-ing Way.

Y'all ready for this one? You know how the Republicans recently elected John Boehner as their new majority leader? A man who has been promising to "clean up" the party after its recent ethics issues?* Well, it turns out that matters are more serious for the Republicans than I had thought.

Turns out that they had to re-vote during the election because... wait for it... more ballots were cast than there were representatives present. I shit you not.

As pointed out over on semiquark, that means the Republicans can't even be honest with themselves!

For crying out loud, who is running this party?!

Wait, wait- I think I know.

Please note that this link isn't exhaustive. I don't have the kind of time necessary to actually list all of the Republican ethics violations.

In which Slag responds to yesterday's post by the TDEC

I had a serious and thoughtful post planned for today, but I feel I have to respond to the TDEC's post from yesterday. You know, the one where she reveals her random celebrity crushes. If she can make such a post, then I am morally obligated to make an equally silly symmetric post. So here it is, off the top of my head and in completely random order, the list of celebrities that I find attractive:

1. Keira Knightley: of course. In spite of her advanced Britishness and the fact that she's a bit too skinny for my taste, she is a very attractive woman. I first noticed her in Bend It Like Beckham (where most people first noticed her), and of course her career has since taken off. She has really beautiful eyes and is very shapely.

2. Kerri Walsh: U.S. Olympic beach volleyball star. I must admit to having a thing for athletes. Her teammate gets all the attention, but Ms. Walsh is much more my type. She has a very cute nose and a cute smile. And of course, she competes in a bikini. Very sexy.

3. Claire Danes: I didn't originally fall for Ms. Danes per se, but rather for her character of Angela Chase on the short-lived ABC series My So-Called Life. "Angela" was 15 and I was 16, and we both had the existential angst and self-doubt that most people have when they're 15 or 16. Angela was a beautiful girl that I could relate to and identify with at a time when I was still scared of girls. I've followed Ms. Danes's career since, and it's pretty much jumped the shark, but she's still a beautiful actress who seems humble enough to identify with.

4. Miranda Otto: somewhat obscure Australian actress who played Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2nd and 3rd movies). As with Claire Danes, I think my crush was more on the character than on the actress - an intelligent, self-confident queen who kicked a lot of Sauron ass.

5. Brigit Prinz: star of Germany's women's World Cup soccer team. See the above entry about my feelings for athletes. I think Ms. Prinz is a horrible person for scoring the final goal in Germany's 3-0 win over the U.S., but wow is she hot. As one would expect from a soccer player, she has great legs.

6. Kim Clijsters: Belgian tennis star. I guess that in addition to having a thing for athletes, I have a thing for Belgians. Actually, the TDEC and I disagree about Ms. Clijsters - she doesn't see what the attraction is. But it's obvious to me - she (I meant Ms. Clijsters, but this applies to the TDEC as well) is stylish, graceful, and sexy at the same time.

7. Ingrid Bergman, circa 1942: I wish I could jump in a time machine and meet Ms. Bergman around the time she made Casablanca. She had so much style and class, and just a trace of mystery behind her Swedish accent.

Will I now declare my undying love for the TDEC? Of course. I love her more than I ever imagined I could love anyone. But I think the point she made yesterday is absolutely right - if I can't tell her (and, er, the millions of you reading Total Drek) about a few harmless celebrity crushes, how can we ever survive the really difficult times in our relationship, when we'll have to be perfectly honest and open with each other? I should save my energy for the real problems that arise in any relationship, and my guilt feelings for things that I actually do to feel guilty about.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Sad Day.

Folks, I feel I should mention the passing of the honored blog, Pub Sociology. As announced by Tina earlier today, the demands of paid employment and rewarding relations with one's family members have finally crowded out blogging. Pub Sociology will, indeed, be missed. It was quite possibly the best Sociology blog out there, are represented the field exceedingly well. Out of respect, I will not move Pub Sociology into the "Dead Blogs" section of my blogroll until next week.

I can only hope that Brayden and Tina will continue to be a part of the blogosphere, commenting prolifically.

For any of you who are as sad about this as I am- please enjoy this new, and oddly erudite, blog.

Random objects of desire

Since I have gotten engaged, a number of people have expressed the opion that I should curb my expression (or feelings) of appreciation for, mostly, filmstars. I think this is very silly, and in fact quite amusing. In protest to this idea that in an engagement/marriage (as opposed to an "ordinary" relationship) one should be entirely blind to the esthetic merits of the rest of humanity, I am hereby posting a list, in mostly random order, of objects of my passing desire.

1. Sam West: of course. I love him unconditionally and in fact before hooking up with Slag had a conversation with a friend about the Slag vs Sam West merits. Slag won by a noselength.
2. Clive Owen: I'm not usually into manly men, but here is something special. Really very sexy, esp. actually, in Sin City, which I otherwise hate with a passion and never ever want to see any part of again.
3. Joaquin Phoenix: Not so much now, more at the time of Gladiator and Quills. I have something with fictional bad guys/repressed men.
4. James Spader: Because he is the perfect mixture of weird, nasty, repressed and sensitve. Oooh. Especially in Secretary and Sex, Lies and Videotape
5. Alan Rickman: Not just because I love Snape anyway (and I do) but because Rickman is a great actor, an intelligent man and apparently a nice. Very sexy and great in period dress or robes.
6. Jonathan Rhys-Myers: He is Irish. By the looks of things (and Irish men) he used up all the good stuff in the Cork genepool. He makes a wonderful bad guy.
7. Jake Gyllenhaal: Because of Jarhead. The man looks great naked.
8. Gary Oldman: Like Rickman, he makes being a fabulous actor look so damn good. And I started listening to Beethoven because of him.
9. Owen Wilson: I admit, I caved. Not handsome really, but really cute
10. Robert Downey Jr.: Puppydog eyes. What can I say?
And that's just off the top of my head.

Shall I lovingly declare that I prefer Slag to any of the above on any given day? Of course I do. Maybe not to combinations of the above. Alan Rickman and Jonny Rhys-Myers? Gary Oldman, Sam West and James Spader? Or even Robert Downey Jr turning up at my flat in a nice suit?
Well, I feel that these are sufficiently statistically unlikely not to be threatening.
The point is that I believe that the more repressed I have to be about my fleeting fancy for, say, Clive Owen, the less likely I am to be able to talk to my partner if there ever is any real issue. If my attraction to Joaquin Phoenix constitutes some weird kind of infidelity, then, man, the rest of my life is going to be very guilt-ridden. I think I'd rather save my emotions for the real problems any relationship and meanwhile continue to discuss Sam West (my side) and Keira Knightly (his side) with Slag.

And, er, Drek, yeah, I know this is a ridiculously girly post. Your fault for giving strangers access to your blog, especially women.

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