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.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Oh. So THAT'S what he's like.

Way back in my childhood when I was still Christian there was something that always bugged me. On the one hand my pastor was always talking about the dangers of living, and how we needed a strong relationship with Jesus Christ in order to survive and prosper. Without Jesus, it was said, we were damned to hell for all eternity- and that was if you were lucky! If you were unlucky, old Satan himself might just sodomize you before you were even dead.* Yikes! On the other hand, though, Jesus and his pals seemed manifestly inadequate for the task at hand.

I mean, seriously, let's consider our options. There's god himself, who is usually depicted as a bearded old guy. Probably not the dude you want in your corner for a showdown with big ugly. Then there are the angels who, more often than not, look like refugees from a Star Trek episode. Is that a problem? Well, leaving aside the fact that I question the judgment of anyone who sleeps with William Shatner, I just don't think I can be kept safe by anything that can be accurately represented in a porcelain figurine. Then there's Jesus who is depicted either as some kinda hippie or as being... you know... otherwise unavailable. Fairly clear he needs to sit this season out. Even when we get to the minor figures it gets shaky. There's Santa Claus, who has the ability to violate basic laws of physics, but probably wouldn't be that tough in a fight.** Even the Easter Bunny seems like kinda a weenie.***

Or, so I thought, until I encountered a recent documentary film outlining what the Easter Bunny really does in his free time:

Now, if I'd known about this shit when I was a kid, maybe I'd still be praising Jesus.

Yeah, probably not, but it's an interesting idea to think about...

See y'all next week!

* Think I'm exaggerating? Heh. You wish. This is not, of course, to say that all Christian churches are like this- I tend to think most aren't- but those that are make up for their infrequency with gusto. I often wonder why the more moderate churches aren't more active in opposing their radical kin. We expect moderate muslims to oppose radical muslims, so why do moderate christians get a free pass?

** Although there are dissenting opinions on this point. Download the clip and see what I mean.

*** Despite his rather exotic sexual tastes.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

'Nuff said.

Continuing our recent startlingly irritating political commentary* are two video clips that I think do a better job than I can myself. I'll start with the serious one, and then move on to the less serious, but more funny, one. Enjoy!

First, Keith Olbermann addresses what it means for a President to be responsible (if the embedded player doesn't work, try this):

And then, in a more uplifting bit, Jon Stewart covers the field of rhetoric. Well, rhetoric as practiced by George W. Bush (again, if the player fails, try here):

And, hey, that does it for me! I know it seems like I've been slacking a lot on the whole writing of blog posts lately but, for what it's worth, I'm going out of town on Wednesday afternoon. So I'm a smidge busy right now.

Which also explains why I'm using such a lame excuse- no time to come up with a better one.

* Of course, I mean "commentary" in the loosest possible sense since, for the most part, I've just been ranting incoherently.

Monday, September 25, 2006

I hate to say, "We told ya' so" but...

Over the weekend I became aware of a rather fascinating report released by U.S. National Intelligence Council. This report addresses a variety of threats faced by the United States and, as such, spends a fair amount of time discussing terrorism. One of the conclusions it draws, however, is rather provocative. I turn to a story from the Washington Post for more:

The war in Iraq has become a primary recruitment vehicle for violent Islamic extremists, motivating a new generation of potential terrorists around the world whose numbers may be increasing faster than the United States and its allies can reduce the threat, U.S. intelligence analysts have concluded.

A 30-page National Intelligence Estimate completed in April cites the "centrality" of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the insurgency that has followed, as the leading inspiration for new Islamic extremist networks and cells that are united by little more than an anti-Western agenda. It concludes that, rather than contributing to eventual victory in the global counterterrorism struggle, the situation in Iraq has worsened the U.S. position, according to officials familiar with the classified document.

Yes, you read that right: organs of the U.S. government are effectively indicating that our actions in Iraq have had opposite the effect they were intended to have. Now, as a critic of the current administration I, like many Democrats, have taken a lot of flak from the right wing. We've all heard the comparisons made between 9/11 and the Pearl Harbor attacks. We all recall the various remarks about how Democrats would have lost World War II.* This report, however, adds a certain amount of weight to what Democrats have been saying for a long time: it isn't that we don't want to deal with terrorism, it's that we'd really prefer to deal with it in a quasi-effective manner. So, to use the World War II analogy, after being attacked by Japan, it really doesn't help to invade Russia. Apparently the Republicans disagree with us on this point. So be it, but if we begin to reap what Bush has sown during a Democratic administration, I don't want to hear any shit from Republicans. Y'all have had your chance, and made quite a hash of it. I'd like to think that Republicans, with their talk of responsibility, would admit that but I doubt it'll happen:

"Many Americans . . . ask the same question five years after 9/11," he [President Bush] said in a speech in Atlanta earlier this month. "The answer is yes. America is safer. We are safer because we have taken action to protect the homeland. We are safer because we are on the offensive against our enemies overseas. We're safer because of the skill and sacrifice of the brave Americans who defend our people."

But "a really big hole" in the U.S. strategy, a second counterterrorism official said, "is that we focus on the terrorists and very little on how they are created. If you looked at all the resources of the U.S. government, we spent 85, 90 percent on current terrorists, not on how people are radicalized."

Indeed, Bush and his administration are already challenging the report's conclusions or, more accurately, the portrayal of them in the media. Maybe they're right, maybe the reports are unfair. After all, the National Intelligence Estimate has been wrong before:

An NIE drawn up in the fall of 2002 concluded that Iraq had "continued its weapons of mass destruction [WMD] programs," possessed stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons and "probably will have a nuclear weapon during this decade." All of those judgments, which provided the political and national security underpinnings for the Iraq invasion, turned out to be false.

But, on the other hand, it has also turned out to be remarkably prescient from time to time:

Even before the invasion [of Iraq], the NIC [National Intelligence Council, which draws up the NIE] warned, in January 2003, that the aftermath of a change in government could include long-term internal conflict. A July 2004 NIE outlined a range of possible outcomes to the increasingly difficult security situation there, with the best prospect a government with only tenuous control and the worst a civil war.

So, maybe we should set the ideology aside for a moment** and listen to the analysts. Maybe we should consider that, just maybe, the war in Iraq is hurting us more than the terrorists. Maybe we should consider some non-military approaches to the problem that can help shut off the flow of recruits and money. Maybe we can find a torch to help with this damned hydra instead of just hacking at it with ever-larger swords.

And hey, Republicans, if it helps you to get your thumbs out of your asses and your heads out of the sand, we won't even say we told you so. The stakes are too high for ideological games, and it's about time y'all realized that.

UPDATE: I'm not sure if this is related, but the guys over at Sore Thumbs have a comic that I think may be oddly relevant. Likewise, seriously, what the hell is up with the cover of Newsweek? Just scroll down- you'll see what I mean. Liberal bias in the media my ass.

* Yo, assholes: Democrats were in power during World War II and we WON that one. Same for World War I. Best come up with a different historical comparison, don't ya' think?

** I know, I know, not something this administration has ever been inclined towards.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Innovations in Vocabulary

The administration of President George W. Bush is remarkable to me in many ways. As I have observed previously the brazen quality of it is amazing but that's not where it stops.

Consider, for a moment, that an official of the Bush Administration may have threatened to bomb Pakistan after 9/11 if they had not cooperated with our invasion of Afghanistan. If this occurred it makes it all the more remarkable that Bush can compare himself favorably to terrorists. Oh, one might argue that one country applying pressure to another is simply politics but, in this case, what we have is a global behemoth threatening a small, isolated nation. Perhaps it isn't terrorism, but it absolutely reduces our moral authority.

Consider again this President's attitude towards the Geneva Conventions and torture. Never before, I think, have we had a president so strident in his advocacy of barbarism. Never before has it been necessary to argue this point for so long in government. And, in the end, it turns out that even veterans of his own party lack the courage to put a halt to Bush's behavior. In the end, the "compromise" will most likely leave administration officials free to trampel the Geneva Conventions, human dignity, and the honor of the United States.

Our current president likes to characterize himself as a man of god. It is, in all likelihood, his greatest asset during election season. He has gone on at length about the role of religion in government and has even created an office to integrate religious organizations with national government more deeply. Yet his administration is currently attempting to crush at least one church who defies his party line.

We now have a president who believes it his right to spy on his own citizens whenever and wherever he pleases with little or no oversight. He seems to believe that due process is not a right, or even a good idea, but instead nothing more than an inconvenience. He even seems to think that the very right to dissent, the very act of disagreeing or questioning, is itself an offense:

I find that the English language is bereft of words to describe this level of madness on the domestic and international levels. I simply cannot identify a word or phrase that appropriately sums up a president who is determined not simply to make the United States the undisputed master of the globe, but to be the personal lord of our minds and hearts. So, I am forced to take a page from fellow sociologists and bloggers and, indeed, create a new word to encompass this new concept. In so doing, I find one word that seems to describe President George W. Bush perfectly:

Hegemoniacal: hej-uh-mon-nahy-i-kuhl (adj.) Obsessive and psychologically abnormal preoccupation with obtaining and maintaining hegemony. A thirst for power and control regardless of the consequences or hypocrisy.

Use it in good health.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

An open letter to SAS.

Dear SAS,

It's been a while since we've talked. How are you? Are you enjoying being a statistical package? How's your dad, Fortran? Is he still hanging in there? I know people have been predicting his death for some time now but, hell, he just keeps ticking, doesn't he?

Do you remember when we met, back when I began graduate school? I was so young then- not to mention innocent. I expected that in grad school I'd be using sophisticated modern quantitative analysis packages. Hell, at the time I didn't even think I'd be any good at statistics. Then I met you. It was an amazing meeting; my eyes locked onto your interface in the department computing laboratory and I knew- right then and there- that my life had changed. I could sense my dreams of elegant computing collapsing into a screaming pile of flaming debris with your very first words to me, "Syntax Error: Subscript out of bounds." Such magic. Some stats packages were ornery, some were difficult but you, SAS, you elevated difficult to the level of art.

What other package could produce such startlingly incoherent error messages? I can tell you, dear friend, that in years or working with statistics, I have yet to understand even a single one of your errors. Oh, I've figured them out, and solved the problems, but I'll be damned if I've ever actually UNDERSTOOD one of the damned things as it's written. It takes talent to accomplish that, SAS, and as always I am in awe of you. Then there's the actual nature of programming you, SAS: how baroque! How deliciously impossible! What other stats package would include a command so old, it actually refers to punchcard systems?* What other stats package would require a semi-colon after every line of code, if only to make it impossible to debug lengthy programs? What other software, SAS, would be so impossibly inconsistent as to only execute certain programs when they're called from a floppy disk? I must confess, I still appreciate that one. Indeed, SAS, my hat is off to you.

I didn't appreciate you at first, SAS. I thought you were clunky and painful to use- a veritable pestilence sent by a wrathful god to punish we mortals for daring to investigate creation. I cast you aside in favor of other newer and "better" stats packages- packages like Stata. Ah, Stata: I was smitten from the moment I received my first error. Not only was the message informative, it contained a link with which I could acquire more information! I even found that when Stata was unable to provide detailed error messages it generally APOLOGIZED for it! I cast caution to the wind and threw myself into Stata, seduced by a pretty (inter)face and an intelligible error code, forsaking your company.

But that was then, and this is now. I have finally been forced back into your cold embrace, SAS, by a difficulty that I simply cannot solve in Stata. Oh, I'm sure it's possible to do it in Stata but I just don't have the time to figure out how. Normally, this still wouldn't bring me back to you since solving a problem in Stata is about ten times faster than in SAS but I was seduced by the power of pre-written modules that promised a quick resolution.

How was I to know that they would be as insufferable as you? How was I to know that you would avenge yourself upon me by refusing to perform even basic commands correctly? I was stupid. I'm sorry. These past few months spent in the bowels of a laboratory working with you have been... special. My constant entreaties to you to process my data, followed by your resolute refusals, have been the stuff of legend.

Yet, all good things must come to an end. I have finally, it would seem, discovered the alchemical secret to extracting blood from this particular turnip. As we speak my commands are burrowing deep into your mind, like the weird worm thing from "The Wrath of Kahn," forcing you to produce my sweet, rich datasets. Soon I will be able to export this data into other programs that serve more willingly than you. Soon I will once more be able to abandon you to your miserable fate.

So, in conclusion, I hope you rot in hell you irrascible, uncooperative, pile of outmoded, inefficient horseshit. If you were a person I would gladly pay for the privilege or defecating on your face every night while you slept, solely for the joy of listening to your cries of disgusted anguish. I hope that during my lifetime mankind learns how to produce a version of SAS that is capable of actually screaming in torment, so that I may thank you properly for all of our good times. Eat shit and die you festering sore on the diseased ass of a post-modern "analyst."


Drek the Uninteresting

P.S: All my love to Lillian and the kids.

* Seriously, people, what the fuck did you think the CARDS command referred to?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Small mercies.

My grandmother Audrey, an immigrant to the United States, used to tell me that the amazing thing about the U.S. is that anyone can grow up and become president. In my youth I believed her, and in my early adulthood I regarded her perspective as a charming but naive ideal. Today, listening to the current U.S. President deliver a speech to the United Nations, I realize to my horror that she was right. Any idiot can become president.

It never ceases to amaze me that Bush is as brazen as he is. His address to the United Nations called on it to fulfill its role of promoting peace in the world. Yet, a few years ago, his administration was goading the United Nations to do just the opposite- to go to war. Moreover, that effort was a travesty on a scale that boggles the mind.

As if that isn't enough, we're actually having a heated debate in this country over whether or not to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. However many Republicans argue that tresting prisoners humanely hamstrings the war on terror, I must confess that I'm not that concerned about terrorists. I don't honestly believe that terrorist organizations have any intention of complying with the conventions and, as such, we certainly have little motivation to extend them the courtesy. However, I do think that our behavior towards the terrorists will be taken by other nations as an indicator of our probable behavior towards them and, as a result, I believe that ignoring the laws of war places our own servicemen and servicewomen in grave peril.

And if all that isn't enough, what about the mistakes that are inevitably made? What about the Canadian man who was wrongly identified as a terrorist? What about his wife who was likewise marked for surveillance? What about his pointless detention and torture:

Canadian intelligence officials passed false warnings and bad information to American agents about a Muslim Canadian citizen, after which U.S. authorities secretly whisked him to Syria, where he was tortured, a judicial report found Monday.

The report, released in Ottawa, was the result of a 2 1/2-year inquiry that represented one of the first public investigations into mistakes made as part of the United States' "extraordinary rendition" program, which has secretly spirited suspects to foreign countries for interrogation by often brutal methods.

The inquiry, which focused on the Canadian intelligence services, found that agents who were under pressure to find terrorists after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, falsely labeled an Ottawa computer consultant, Maher Arar, as a dangerous radical. They asked U.S. authorities to put him and his wife, a university economist, on the al-Qaeda "watchlist," without justification, the report said.


Arar, now 36, was detained by U.S. authorities as he changed planes in New York on Sept. 26, 2002. He was held for questioning for 12 days, then flown by jet to Jordan and driven to Syria. He was beaten, forced to confess to having trained in Afghanistan -- where he never has been -- and then kept in a coffin-size dungeon for 10 months before he was released, the Canadian inquiry commission found.

O'Connor concluded that "categorically there is no evidence" that Arar did anything wrong or was a security threat.


Since Sept. 11, the CIA, working with other intelligence agencies, has captured an estimated 3,000 people in its effort to dismantle terrorist networks. Many of them have been secretly taken by "extraordinary rendition" to other countries, hidden from U.S. legal requirements and often subject to torture.

Those renditions are often carried out by CIA agents dressed head to toe in black, wearing masks, who blindfold their subjects and dress them in black. The practice is generating increased opposition by other countries; Italy is seeking to prosecute CIA officers who allegedly abducted a Muslim cleric in Milan in February 2003, and German prosecutors are investigating the CIA's activities in their country.

Although details of the renditions and the destinations of those held are secret, President Bush has confirmed the existence of CIA-run prisons throughout the world. Some of the subjects of renditions have been held in those prisons.

Ultimately, if simple human decency (which, allegedly, separates us from the terrorists) is not a sufficient reason to refrain from such practices, then simple practicality is. By engaging in underhanded methods like these we generate poor to useless intelligence and risk destroying the lives of an unknown and, likely, unknowable number of innocent people. In a country where one is considered "innocent until proven guilty," such a risk seems intolerable. Finally, by treating our enemies well we ultimately protect our own citizens and soldiers. But none of that seems to matter anymore. Decency, practicality, and even ideology seem to have fallen before blind terror and sheep-like conformity.

I suppose all I can say is that I'm glad my grandmother isn't alive to see her beloved adopted country stoop so low.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The (Snakes on a) Plane of the Spirit

Recently one of my commenters, the mysterious Bookmobile, asked me a question. His question, phrased as a comment, read as follows:

Nothing to do with this post, which I hardly understand, but I just [read] this by author Gregg Easterbrook in Slate, and I thought you might be able to chew on it:

"Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised ....If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank."

The article in question is discussing a theory or, more appropriately, set of theories known as "string theory." String theory is regarded as a very, very promising new theory of physics that stands a good chance of unifying quantum mechanics with relativity. Why does this matter? Well, because right now we have two very well-regarded theories with substantial predictive power that do not agree with each other. At the very small scale, quantum mechanics provides the most useful description of the world we seem to live in. In fact, many of our microelectronics rely of quantum mechanical effects and, similarly, our grasp of them. Similarly, relativity accounts for phenomena at large scales and high energies and allows us to communicate with our satellites, among other things. In the middle, where you and I live most of the time, we more or less work with relativity again, though in a way that is essentially approximate to Newtonian physics.

The problem is that relativity and quantum mechanics don't interface well. This is, to put it mildly, disturbing as it's highly unlikely that the basic laws of the universe are inconsistent. If that were so, our ability to predict much of anything would be near zero, which is not the case. The problem, then, is not that the universe operates inconsistently, but that our understanding of it is imperfect.

This is where string theory enters the picture. String theory proposes an explanation for these inconsistencies that wraps quantum mechanics and relativity in with particle physics in a way that is exceedingly elegant... or so I'm told by the physicists. The math of string theory is a smidge beyond me and, even if it weren't, I lack the time to check it. Unfortunately, string theory also predicts, or is consistent with, a number of other things, including additional physical dimensions. In short, our universe may not consist of only the three spacial dimensions and one temporal dimension we're all accustomed to, but may really include 15 or more dimensions, most of which we can't readily perceive. More importantly, at the moment not only can WE not perceive these additional dimensions but, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, we lack any instrumentation that can do so.

Which is where we come back to the quote supplied by Bookmobile. The author is attempting to draw a parallel between string theory and its unobservable dimensions and spirituality and its unobservable... well... everything. Indeed, the author draws this parallel about as far as he can in the opening paragraph of the article:

The leading universities are dominated by hooded monks who speak in impenetrable mumbo-jumbo; insist on the existence of fantastic mystical forces, yet can produce no evidence of these forces; and enforce a rigid guild structure of beliefs in order to maintain their positions and status. The Middle Ages? No, the current situation in university physics departments. I just invented the part about the hoods.*

But, as Bookmobile asks, is this parallel appropriate? Is string theory essentially a religious position and on an equal footing with religious perspectives? Well, as you can probably guess, my answer is "no," although not to as unqualified an extent as you might expect.

The main issue here is that while many aspects of string theory are not currently testable there's no reason to think that they will be forever, or even for the forseeable future. String theory is attractive mathematically, and it accounts for many observed phenomena, but it remains a theory in its infancy. For the time being, I think the physics community is allowing string theory space to grow in the hopes that it will yield results sooner rather than later. When first proposed, many aspects of relativity were untestable, yet that theory has proven to be incredibly fruitful.

The second issue, summed up elegantly by Jason Rosenhouse, is that while string theory accounts for all the phenomena that more conventional models do, "spirituality" has, thus far, proven to be a rather sterile way of explaining the universe. There are no phyisical processes whose operation requires that we invoke the metaphysical. Despite thousands of years of effort, there are no confirmed cases of ghostly hauntings, of precognition, or of telepathy that lead us in any way to suspect an as-yet unknown metaphysical ether. Thus, to propose a theory that is not presently testable but relies on the principles of physical law seems at least reasonable. To propose the existence of a thing that has never been observed, has no measurable consequences for anything that can be observed, and has repeatedly been found to be unnecessary to explain anything we observe, is simply foolish.

Third, and this is a bit of a niggling point, the quote that Bookmobile supplies is simply in factual error. It does appear that Princeton University has both a Department of Religion and a seminary. This, in combination with the Philosophy Department, makes it very clear that numerous scholars at Princeton are quite free to espouse a belief in a "plane of spirit"** It is not that the metaphysical has no place in the academy, but that it has no place in science. Sadly, the invocation of "spirit" in science usually boils down to a "just because" argument and, thus, is extremely unhelpful.

And that distinction is, ultimately, what separates string theory from spiritualism. String theory will stand or fall in terms of its ability to account for, and predict, the observable world. It will produce for us, or it will be discarded. Spiritualism, on the other hand, is distinguished by the lack of necessity that it explain anything. People believe in it, or not, as they choose to and failure to produce results has, thus far, not proven to be much of a deterrent.

And that makes all the difference in the world.

Is string theory on an equal footing with other scientific theories? Absolutely not. As it stands now it has many attractive properties mathematically but, sadly, many wonderfully elegant theories have proven to be entirely wrong. So long as it remains untestable, string theory will remain little more than an interesting mathematical diversion that might develop into science. Yet, that potential is what keeps us interested, and it is a potential that the plane of spirit is lacks entirely.

And recognizing that difference is what separates the scientists from the superstitious cranks.

* Not so much, actually, since getting a Ph.D. is often referred to as "being hooded," and those loop things on our robes are, technically, referred to as "hoods."

** Whatever the hell that means. If this proposition were any more vague it would lack nouns entirely.

As a side note: This post is, in my view, unusually shitty, but for more on this see Jason's excellent commentary on the same article.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Ah, journalism.

In today's news I find two items that seem to be worth remarking upon.

First, as reported in the Mirror, two psychologists have demonstrated that men are smarter than women. Well, that their I.Q.'s are greater anyway. No, seriously! Does this mean that we at Total Drek were too hard on good ole Larry Summers for his speech a while back? My vote is no. See if you can figure out why:

MEN are more intelligent than women, new research claims.

Two leading scientists - both men - say male IQs are 3.63 points higher than females.

Psychologist John Philippe Rushton said this explains the "glass ceiling" phenomenon why men get promoted over women.

He said the study proves more men reach the top of their careers because they are smarter - and not because of sex discrimination.

Prof Rushton's team analysed 100,000 aptitude tests taken by 17 and 18-year-olds of both sexes.

And he said men were more intelligent "throughout the entire distribution of scores, in every level of family income, for every level of fathers and mothers' education, and for each and every one of seven ethnic groups".

He also claimed that girls only did better than boys at school because they "mature faster".

Got it yet? If you said "Because the magnitude of the effect is microscopic," you're right! See, IQ tests are normed to a mean value of 100, and most often a standard deviation of 15. If we assume that 1/2 of the 100,000 participants in the study were female, and calculate the mean of the female sample in relation to the population mean (100-3.63= 96.37) then we can determine the value of a z-score test* fairly easily. This yields:

z= (96.37-100)/0.067082039= -54.1128

This will easily pass even a stringent two-tailed test at the .01 level (cutoff= 2.58**) and so we can consider it to be a statistically significant difference. Of course, if we convert 96.37 into a z-score:***

z= (96.37-100)/15= -0.242

We find a VERY small z-score. As a result, we can tell using a simple z-score table that 9.48% of a normally distributed population (and IQ scores are normally distributed) exists between that z-score and the population mean. Put another way, 40.52% of all members of a population will have a z-score as small or smaller than -0.242. So, put bluntly, the difference is utterly miniscule and only appears significant because the sample size is godawful large. Speaking personally, I think it's a bit early to start talking about "explaining" the glass ceiling.

The second piece of news that bears repeating is word from Columbia. Specifically that the wives and girlfriends of gang members are refusing them sex until they lay down their arms:

Gang members in one of Colombia's most violent cities face an ultimatum: give up guns or give up sex. In what is being called a "strike of crossed legs", supported by the Pereira mayor's office, the wives and girlfriends of gang members have said they will not have sex with their partners until they vow to give up violence.

"We want them to know that violence is not sexy," said Jennifer Bayer, 18, the girlfriend of a gang member. She and at least two dozen other women have said the sex strike will continue until their men hand over their weapons to authorities and sign up for vocational training offered by the mayor's office.

Now, I want to just come right out and say here and now that I am totally in favor of this. I mean, it's a Greek comedy made flesh. I think we can stand to bring other works of Greek theatre into the real world. In fact, I think it may have been going on for some time now. The Clouds have certainly appeared in the real world. I think that Plutus has been attempted, although there were some definite kinks to work out. I dunno about Oedipus the King, but this picture makes me wonder if we aren't on our way to a lesbian version. So, yeah, I think the world could be made much more interesting by a wider inclusion of Greek theatre.

On a more serious note, however, I am a little concerned about this story.**** Sure, the media is running it for humor value. Sure, I even did a little of the same but, lemme ask you this: given that these women are witholding sex from men who may be killing other men, how do we think that they (the men) will respond? More bluntly: how many of these women do we think are going to be raped and/or beaten for participating in this strike?

Answer: Entirely too many.

* Yes, technically a two-sample t-test would be more appropriate, but I don't have the sample dispersions.

** Approximately, anyway.

*** The difference (for those who don't know already) being that in the first case I'm comparing a sample to a known population and, in the second case, treating the mean as a single score in a known population.

**** And I'd lay dollars to donuts that Plains Feminist is having some of the same thoughts.

As a side note: This post was updated to correct a mistake in the cutoff value. It doesn't make a difference, but I do like to be accurate. Sorry it wasn't right the first time but, hey, I was in a hurry.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

All joking aside.

My Sainted Fiancee has been a little worried about me this week. After reading yesterday's post she looked me in the eye and asked, "Drek, are you okay? Did something happen this week?" Her concern stems from the tenor of my recent posts which she feels have been unusually inflammatory. This is, of course, one of the reasons I love her- she actually doesn't think I'm inflammatory the rest of the time. Granted, I think she may be right, they have been a little inflammatory, but there hasn't really been any single event that caused it. But, just for her, I decided to be a little more restrained today.

That plan then, promptly, flew out the window. While perusing the rhetorical stylings on Wild Bill and Denyse's blog Uncommon Descent, I came across a post with the odd title, "And who are your three favorite atheists?" As you might guess, Uncommon Descent is not what you might call "atheist friendly," and, indeed, the comments to the post reflect that- with several comments arguing that atheists* are incapable of comprehending morality or being, themselves, moral. In at least one case, this actually becomes definitional as one individual remarks:

I agree w/ you BenZ. Not only b/c not seeking God’s favor and your own instead is pretty much synonymous with sin, but to be so bold in your selfishness. I guess they help others only b/c they want to feel good themselves.

So, yeah, if failing to seek the favor of an entity that I don't believe in means I'm automatically immoral then, shit, I guess I'm immoral. I suppose all those platelets that I donate to strangers, and money I give to worthy causes are immoral acts too. Bad, Drek! Bad, bad, Drek! I suppose I might say the same about the commenter, who doubtless has been committing serious apostasy against the tooth fairy, but I'll spare her that banality.

No, the comment that really caught my attention wasn't the usual "atheists can't be ethical because they don't believe in a skybeast" crap. I've heard that an awful lot before and, besides being demonstrably untrue by any fair definition of "ethical," I've dealt with it previously. Frankly, I'm bored with trying to address that point** and have no interest in engaging with it again. Instead, let's take a look at this comment, written by a Mike1962, which is a joke of sorts that I thought I should share:

My favorite atheists are the dead ones.

Heh heh. Just kidding.

Ha! I think we can agree that Mike1962 has a singular wit and, as someone who likes to think he's capable of humor, I can't help but enjoy a good one-liner! But I'm forced to wonder, are there variations on this joke that might be equally funny? Hmmm... let's see.

"My favorite jews are the dead ones."

Well, that has an interesting sound but... no... it doesn't really roll off of the tongue. How about something else?

"My favorite blacks are the dead ones."

Maybe a little better but, no still not right. Maybe something topical?

"My favorite muslims are the dead ones."

Damn! No, that just isn't doing it. Okay, let's try it one more time:

"My favorite fags are the dead ones."

Hmm. Nope. This just isn't working out for me, is it? Well, I guess I'll just have to accept that I'm not funny the way Mike1962 is funny.

And that leaves me feeling very good about myself.

* I know they're specifically referring to "Darwinists" here but, on Uncommon Descent, this is almost always a synonym for "atheist."

** As a matter of fact, I was remarking to a colleague just yesterday that the worst part about being an atheist is that you just keep hearing the same damned weak arguments from theists over and over again. There may be a post on this eventually but, as a tip: Pascal's Wager and the argument from first causes really aren't that strong. Would y'all PLEASE stop bringing them up every damned time?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A very special message from my home state.

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I am from Florida. They may also, if they have been particularly attentive, realize that my family are, by and large, Republicans. Doubtless some of you have felt sympathetic about that but, really, you shouldn't. In any case, as a result of all that I have a sort of dark secret: that I, Drek the Uninteresting, am a registered Republican. What can I say? When I registered to vote I was much younger than I am now and, similarly, much less aware of the ways of the world. Since leaving high school I have learned that opportunities are not equal, and that rugged individualism works better in the movies than it does in real life.

In any case, since my initial registration to vote I have never bothered to change my party affiliation. This is partly because I am, to put it blunty, a lazy fuck and partly because from time to time the Florida Republicans are a better bet than the Florida Democrats. This is, of course, a little bit like saying that herpes is preferrable to ebola but that's not the point. Regardless, because my party affiliation remains Republican I, like Ken Houghton did before me, occasionally receive brief communiques from the Republican National Committee. Just yesterday I received one such message that, frankly, I feel compelled to share. It includes a letter from Jeb Bush, the current governor of Florida* and a man who is being positioned to follow his father and his brother into the White House. This letter is simply too "good" to miss and so I include the text below with my own special additions. Some are even marked in bold and/or in [brackets]. I also included a scan of the letter for good measure. Yippee.** If you look at the scan, pay special attention to the little boy running along a beach holding a flag like a cape. What the hell is that even about? Anyway, let's begin.

Dear Fellow Republican,

It has been my distinct honor to serve as your Governor for the past eight years. And I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your support.

Jeb, I know all the cool kids are doing it but, really, it isn't grammatical to begin a sentence with "and" or "but." I know I do that sometimes but I'm a goddamn blogger. YOU are Governor of a sovereign (sort of) state.

You have stood by me as we have faced tremendous challenges together. After a tough election loss in 1994, we came back with a sense of purpose and won a resounding victory in 1998. In the 2000 election we worked together again and witnessed the power of just one vote as Florida decided the presidential election by a mere 537 votes.

Yes, thank you for that. Four years of, "What the hell is wrong with your state?!" commentary. That was just awesome.

After the September 11, 2001 attack on our nation we saw a renewal of patriotism*** and Americans took pride in defending our homeland. Then, the hurricanes of the past two years tested our mettle, but we endured and grew stronger as a result.

Through it all, we remained focused on the job at hand. With your help we rescued our schools from mediocrity, expanded our economy, created jobs, protected our beaches and Everglades, cut taxes and controlled government spending.

Jeb, Jeb, Jeb: You do understand that "protecting" the Everglades does not mean, "Sold off vast chunks for use as sugar plantations," right?

But there is still so much left to do. We must remain committed to improving our schools by setting high standards and measuring results. [Okay, seriously, are you actually this dumb? Do you think we're this dumb? Improving schools isn't about setting standards and testing so much as it is about what happens in between those two things. Look, I can go into my classroom and I can set high standards and then test to see if those standards are being met but do you know what happens in-between? TEACHING you half-witted jackass! Maybe you should focus a little effort on giving teachers the resources they need to, you know, TEACH.] We must not let liberal politicians raise taxes or allow government spending to spiral out of control. And we must respect life and promote an environment that is friendly to Florida's families. [Just so long as they're limited to one man and one woman with children, right Jeb? Goodness knows we wouldn't want to be friendly to all of them single mothers and homosexuals, or nothin.]

Now, it is time for me to "pass the torch" and in less than 60 days you will decide whether the progress we have made over the past eight years will continue... or not. [Way to finish that sentence, Jeb. Really powerful... or not.]

I hope you will stand by our Republican candidates the same way you have stood by me and cast your vote for our Republican candidates for Governor, U.S. Senate, Congress, the Cabinet, the Florida legislature, and local offices.

I am confident the Republicans we have running for office in this election are committed conservatives you and I can trust. I am also confident the liberals on the other side will do all they can to dismantle the progress we have made if they are elected. [Jesus titty-fucking Christ, I hope so!]

Our Republican candidates need your vote. [Yeah, and kids need an education budget. I'll cough up when you do.] I urge you to use the form below to request a Mail Ballot [Oh, I will, rest assured.] to cast your vote and vote Republican from top to bottom.

Your right to vote is the very foundation of our freedom. [What, but not the freedom of speech, assembly, and religion? Those are optional or something? Fuck you and the Patriot Act you rode in on!] Please use the attached Vote by Mail Request Form- sign it, enter your date of birth, and mail it today- and make sure your voice is heard in this important election.

Eight years of progress can be erased if a handful of citizens do not vote. Don't let that happen in 2006. Act today and Vote by Mail!


Jeb Bush

I guess all I can say is, thanks, Jeb! I'll be sure and get that absentee ballot. Maybe then I can help vote all of your jackass colleagues out of office before they ruin the state, and the nation, that I love.

* Or, as I like to call him, "That suicidally-stupid, corrupt, carpet-bagging motherfucker from a state where hat size determines your fitness to hold high office."

** Some of you might be thinking, "Wow is this childish." To which I can only respond, "Yes. Yes it is." From time to time I DO engage in reasoned political analysis but this is not one of those times.

*** As a side note, I don't hate patriotism, but the current batch of Republicans wouldn't know patriotism if it were sitting on their faces. A true patriot doesn't defend her country by mutilating its most sacred institutions and freedoms.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Yesterday, as you might have noticed, was September the 11th. Five years ago on that date the World Trade Center was destroyed and the Pentagon seriously damaged. Thousands of people, most of them innocent, lost their lives in a terrorist attack. The aftermath of these events have shaped U.S. foreign and domestic policy for the past five years and, in all likelihood, will be seen by future generations as leaving an indelible mark on the present era. Whether this mark will be for the better or, as I suspect, the worse remains for the judgement of history.

Of greater interest to me at present is what those future generations are like right now. How are children, growing up in this paranoia-rich post 9/11 world doing? I am, apparently, not the only one wondering because 60 Minutes recently ran a story on how the children of 9/11 victims are doing. Now, I want it to be understood that I have nothing against these kids. They've gone through a very difficult and traumatic experience and deserve to be treated a bit gingerly for a while. To claim otherwise would, indeed, be unfair.


But, how long is "a while?" As it turns out there seem to be a number of organizations dedicated to taking care of these kids and they seem to have no intention of stopping. One organization in particular is named Tuesday's Children and sponsors summer camps, organizes regular meetings, and even recently took some of these kids (often young adults) to Costa Rica on a sort of thereapeutic trip. This is, of course, wonderful and is made possible by an outpouring of generosity that is a wonder to witness. Yet I am, frankly, a little disturbed by all of this.

My disquiet emerges at least partly from the length of time that has elapsed since that terrible September day. It has been five years. Is this a long time? Well, it's half a decade. It's nearly one-third of an entire childhood.* Yes, it's a good bit of time, and particularly so for young people. By the time five years have elapsed, we should probably expect grieving children to be, at least, beginning to get past their pain. Indeed, this does seem to be happening somewhat:

"Sometimes I remember from when my brothers put on his cologne I remember his smell but I don’t really remember him. I don’t remember what he loo…," Bridget Fisher [daughter of 9/11 victim] says.

Yet, all the same, why do so many of these children report that 9/11 feels like it was "just yesterday?" Is it because it was such a traumatic event, or because all of this attention is simply preventing them from healing? Indeed, a dulling of memory is a blessing when trying to come to grips with the loss of a loved one and, by the same token, working too hard to hold onto memory can make acceptance all but unobtainable. Is that taking place here? Well, you tell me:

Asked if she remembers her father's voice, Brielle [daughter of 9/11 victim] says, "I remember his voice because my mom keeps it on his voice mail."

"Do you remember what it is?" Pelley asks.

"Yes, he gets on the phone he says ‘Hi this is Victor. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Please leave a message, thank you.’ and then he hangs up. Sometimes it bothers me cause I know he won’t get back to me, sometimes. But, I don’t know. It’s the best we can do," Brielle replies.

It's as though we're seeking to keep the wounds open, rather than to allow them to heal. More than that, we're actually instilling wounds where, otherwise, they might never have existed. The youngest child in Tuesday's Children is four and a half. It's been five years since the event- that means that some of these kids are in a program meant to help them deal with a trauma that they can't have experienced:

"I forgot who said it, but they said that my grandpa went in after my dad," Jennifer remembers.

"Yeah, cause he knew that he might — he knew that my dad would go in there," Jacqueline adds. "And, even if my dad was home, he would have went because they called firefighters from all over the world. Even if you were on the other side of the world you would’ve came in you would have had to."

In these first five years, the 9/11 generation has been growing up. Some like Joseph Angelini III are in grade school with very few memories of that day.

I'm not saying that these kids wouldn't grow up wondering about their missing parent- without question they would- but is it healthy for them to be taught that it's such a big deal? Children have, after all, been losing parents at all ages for thousands of years. It's difficult, it's unpleasant, but it's survivable. Do we really think that the childen of 9/11 victims were somehow more deeply wounded than the child who saw his or her mother beaten to death? And where are all of those summer camps? Where are their trips to Costa Rica?

Where indeed. Treating the children of 9/11 victims as though they are made of glass doesn't end here, either. There are, it seems, plans to continue treating them as such for a long time to come:

"The youngest child in Tuesday’s Children is four and a half, which really begs the question how long do you go on?" Pelley [60 Minutes reporter] asks.

"Well we certainly go on to see that four and a half year old completely through college, for sure, and then into, you know, the job market," Murphy [Tuesday's Children representative] says.

So it appears that Tuesday's Children plans to continue their work for at least the next twenty years. How can a child who grows up with such attention not draw the conclusion that they should have a difficult time healing? How can this process not contribute to keeping those wounds open? I have a hard time seeing it.

Certainly, the children of 9/11 victims have a peculiar problem in that the events that took their parents' lives are so often discussed. These frequent reminders must make healing more difficult, as they indicate themselves:

"It feels like it was very recent. And, you know, it's buried there in your past. But at the same time, you have so many opportunities to see it all over again every time you pick up a paper, turn on the TV. There's always reminders there," says Zack [child of 9/11 victim].

Reminders come in the most unexpected ways. Like a receipt from his father’s desk that was found burned and blowing down a street in Brooklyn. An artist found it and framed it.

This is, however, no different from anyone who has lost a relative in a natural disaster. Perhaps it is felt more accutely for those who lost a parent in such a politically-relevant disaster, but it is nonetheless the same. Do we really expect that they cannot heal from this without twenty years of constant comforting?

Ultimately, my objection is not to providing these children with such resources. I would like to see all children who lose a parent have the same opportunities, granted, but I do not begrudge these children their comforts. Instead, I have the sense that these programs are not really about the children- they are about us. Many of us watched the television five years ago, and we saw the towers ablaze. We watched in horror as people jumped to their deaths, and as tons of concrete and steel rained to the ground below. I imagine that many felt as I did watching such a thing- utterly powerless.

And so, five years later, we have found ways to make ourselves feel powerful again. By intervening in the lives of these children we can feel like we are making a difference. We can tell ourselves that we're doing our part, and finally make our own peace with our limitations. There's nothing wrong with that, really, and much generosity is ultimately motived out of self-interest, but perhaps we should draw the line somewhere. Perhaps we should stop ourselves when our own "generosity" is making martyrs of thousands of children.

Perhaps we should acknowledge that by trying to help, we are only doing harm, and that continuing to do so is simply being selfish.

* i.e. in the U.S. we become legal adults at age 18 and 18/3=6.

As a side note: I really don't bear ill will towards these kids or the people who are trying to help them but, from time to time, I think we should question the methods if not the motives.

Monday, September 11, 2006


As you are sure to realize already, five years ago today the World Trade Center was destroyed by the suicidal actions of a few individuals. Like many others today (including the major media, the President, and in all likelihood a bevy of bloggers) I feel the need to say something about this tragedy.

Unfortunately, however, I find that the words simply won't come. Most of the time when I think about a blog post the point, and the approach, coalesce readily in my mind. I may not always feel that I am expressing it well, but I at least get to a point when I know what I want to express. This certainty has been denied me when it comes to September 11th.

On one hand, September 11th is an occasion when hate and foolishness triumphed. Certainly by this I refer to the hijackers, who felt so much loathing towards the U.S. that they sacrificed their own lives in order to strike at us- largely targetting civilians. Yet, I don't refer solely to the terrorists here. Since this national tragedy we have behaved in a reprehensible manner. We have established networks of secret prisons, lowered ourselves to engage in torture, an used national heartbreak as a pretext to invade a country that was, certainly not innocent, but at least uninvolved. Indeed, September 11th was a triumph for hatred, but much of it was not the hatred of religious extremists, but of a people who have proven too willing to sacrifice their dignity for base vengeance.

On the other hand, September 11th was also a triumph for love and basic decency. We often remember the images of the towers coming down but, more and more, I find myself remembering the smaller dramas. Not just the firemen struggling upwards in burning buildings, but the untrained individuals who stopped to help others at risk to their own lives. The men and women who ran into the dying buildings to do whatever good they could. I find myself remembering the generosity of New Yorkers who shared water, blankets, and safe places with the shell-shocked survivors of the twin towers. I remember that in the midst of the tragedy there was no hate yet, but rather compassion and decency. I wonder how many of these brave souls lost their lives that day, struggling to save the lives of those they had never met, and I know that we are the better for their sacrifice. They have shown us that within the most common person there may be a noble heart. I sometimes find myself wondering where that nobility has gone to.

Finally, in my darker moments, I think about these two sides of September 11th and wonder if they aren't the same one after all. Do I really think that it was only hate that motivated the hijackers? Do I think that they "hate freedom" as the President would have us believe? Or do I think that they came and killed us, at least in part, because they love their families, their countries, and their god? How different are we from them, marching into other countries and killing those we have never met for the same reasons? How different indeed, because we are also killing those who had nothing to do with September 11th. In my darker moments, I wonder if the world has fallen prey to rampant, unrestrained love that, itself, brings uncontrolled hate.

And so, in the end, I am left with only my memories. My remembrance of the hatred and depravity that we saw that day, as well as the nobility and charity that we witnessed in its shadow. Then, and since, we have seen both the beauty and the horror that is mankind and I find myself rejoicing and despairing in equal measures.

Today is September 11th.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Are you even serious?

Wow. After yesterday's absurdly lengthy post, did you really come back today in search of more? I appreciate the commitment, folks, but really, I only have so much time in a week!

Still, if you must have something to kill time with today, try these two gems.

First, quite possibly the most entertaining, and least educational, video ever produced about George Washington. Check it out as soon as you can.

And if that isn't enough, maybe spend a little time perusing this site that collects pictures of cats that look like Hitler. Here's a small sample of what they have to offer:

Now that's entertainment.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Deconstructing Playing with Snakes on a Plane: A Post-Modern Critique


The existence of gender as a social category is beyond doubt, and its relevance for determining life chances is impossible to overestimate. On a daily basis persons are assaulted, or not, hired, or not, respected, or not, entirely on the basis of their sex. Moreover, while men are granted the priviledges of power and authority, women are continually repressed.

In modern society, some authorities would claim that gains made by the so-called "Women's Movement" have helped to alleviate these conditions. They might claim that women enjoy increasing employment and pay equity, as well as improving working conditions. While some quantitative researchers might make such arguments, more valuable post-modern studies continually reveal the existence of subtle but devastating forms of sexism. The perpetuation and reproduction of these forms is facillitated not by "structure" but by culture. The ways that gender is constructed, reified, and interpolated inter-subjectively by cultural producers and consumers are highly revealing of the true sex-stratification. An illustrative example of the constant conflicts over gender and power has recently come to light: the film "Snakes on a Plane." Using the tools of critical, post-modern analysis, I will use this movie as a paradigmatic example of sex in an ex post facto world of declining U.S. global hegemonism. In the process I will demonstrate not simply the presence of gender stereotypes, but the superiority of post-modern techniques of social research.

Part I: Sex as higher level concept

In analyzing media and its reification of gender roles it is important to consider the substantial importance of gender itself. Given the extreme power of gender to define appropriate behavior, clothing, personal preferences, jobs, and so on, any story must, virtually by definition, be a gender story. That is to say, ipso facto, that symbols in a work of fiction always refer to gender relations even when they are not, ad hominem, intended to do so.

This simple truth is one that has often been overlooked by social scientists. Cultural sociologists have often analyzed various symbols in the hopes of finding their "meanings" or determining their "functions" not realizing that there is only one set of such functions. The rare exceptions to this general rule include the classical theorist Sigmund Freud, who recognized the central importance of all symbolism as referring to sexuality and sex roles, even if he took the flawed and patriarchical perspective that masculinity was, caveat emptor, superior to femininity. More recently, astute historian Dan Brown has provided a compelling account of the central role of the female, and female symbols, in western civilization in his "fictional" work "The DaVinci Code." However overlooked this reality may be, an understanding of the obvious truth of the centrality, indeed primacy, of gender allows all symbols to be used to understand gender relationships.

In the context of Snakes on a Plane we do not have far to look to find significant female/male symbols. They are, in fact, listed in the very title. Male symbols are the easiest to identify: the titular plane. In this case the word "plane" refers both to the technological artifact which, itself, represents maleness, and to the normative power given to masculinity. Something that is "plain" is "normal or common," as masculinity is constructed to be. The aircraft, on the other hand, is a long cylinder whose resemblance to an engorged male phallus is impossible to ignore. In fact, the plane used in this movie is a "747," which has a bulbous anterior segment that resembles the swollen glans of the male member. Even the number "747" has symbolic potency as adding all three numbers yields "18," the age at which a man gains his legal emancipation and is thought to be as his sexual peak. At a less obvious level, the aircraft is a product of engineering, science, and technology- patriarchical disciplines within which men are thought to exercise substantially more power than women.

The female symbolism is more subtle, as befits the forgotten or "subaltern" sex. While the plane is obvious and imposing, as a symbol of masculinity, the feminine iconography is relegated to the background. Yet, here too it is easy to discern in the titular "snakes." While a snake superficially resembles a phallus, an assumption that the snakes also represent males would be naive. In western civilization, so permeated with the story of "Adam and Eve," women are associated with serpents, usually in their untrustworthy and manipulative aspects. Snakes moreover move with an undulating rounded grace, not unlike the movements of a woman's hips when walking. Thus, the snakes themselves represent femininity in its simultaneously dangerous, and sexually desirable, respects. Finally, the venom of a snake and its fangs signifies the danger that femininity supposedly represents for men and, indeed, the "plain" normality that masculinity supposedly encapsulates. Woman's venom is construed as a danger.

In combination, the incongruity of snakes on a plane represents the impossibility of blending the male and the female. The movie turns on the single idea that boxes of venomous snakes do not belong in the cabin of a passenger aircraft. Yet, this is a ruse meant to conceal the obvious symbolism: that femininity is too dangerously unpredictable to be permitted entry into a masculine world. These things, male and female, are not meant to be mixed, and their mixing is seen as disastrous. Maleness is vulnerable to "disruption" and "being crashed" by the snakes, but the possible impact of maleness on femininity, of the plane on the snakes, is ignored. While we are treated to multiple scenes featuring snakes burning out controls or damaging components of the plane, we are never shown the snake who is badly injured by exposed wiring, or made uncomfortable by the airline peanuts it swallowed. This priviledging of the plane's perspective over the snakes' simply reflects the societal obsession with male concerns to the exclusion of female concerns.

In summary, then, the concepts "male" and "female" are represented by the plane and snakes respectively.

Part II: Enacting roles amidst gender concepts

While the symbolism for male and female is comparatively obvious, the snakes and plane do not exist in isolation. Instead, they mutually share the "interpretive space" with "people." Specifically, depictions of actual men and women who are shown sharing space with, and interacting with, these overarching concepts. However, by contacting these objects our "people" are living their lives amidst the clash of gendered "realities," much as they routinely would in "real life." Thus, we are treated to a realistic, if metaphorical, depiction of the world as it is, much like a winter scene contained within a "snowglobe."

Initially, the passengers exist within the plane in relative comfort. Their presence is regimented, their options limited, and their freedom of movement curtailed, but they have peace and a modicum of nourishment- the ubiquitous peanuts. This clearly represents the message that in an overall environment of maleness, surrounding, supporting, and constraining, humanity produces comfort and security. This safe environment is disrupted when the snakes erupt into this previosuly masculine territory. The introduction of the feminine into the masculine produces mayhem and carnage where, previously, there was only tranquility. Thus, while maleness is depicted as bringing stability, femaleness is shown producng discord and rancor.

This impression of femaleness as dangerous is reinforced by the "biting" of the passengers by the snakes. If the passengers represent real men and women, then this "biting" is simply the wounding of people by femininity itself. The feminine is cast as a dangeorus force to be repressed or contained, as the snakes are to be repressed or contained, rather than something to be cherished. We are treated to many scenes of passengers lashing out at snakes with tray tables, luggage, bottles and, in one case, a small dog, but are never shown a passenger trying to soothe or comfort a snake that is, doubtless, terrified. Snakes are only a force to be feared and destroyed, and not one to be cherished.

Several human/snake interactions in particular are noteworthy. First, the snakes first prey upon a man and a woman who are engaging in flagrante delecto in an aircraft lavatory. This may appear, to some, to have been a cheap attempt by the movie makers to depict breasts but, in actuality, is a pointed metaphor. The woman enters the lavatory first, enticing her partner to follow. Thus, the woman's sexuality has led both to their doom- ironically by femininity itself. A woman's sexuality is thus linked symbolically to danger and, thus, the message is sent that women must be repressed sexually lest one is to be overcome and killed by venomous reptiles while in the bathroom.

Similarly, the movie depicts a pair of newlyweds, one of whom (the man) is afraid of flying. When his wife asked why he agreed to go to Hawaii, he responds, "Because it's where you wanted to go." Later in the movie, both man and woman are bitten repeatedly by snakes- harmed not only by femininity itself, but by his willingness to allow women to make decisions. If he had asserted his masculinity, the couple would have steered clear of Hawaii and, by extension, the plane full of snakes. Thus, in two ways, this couple represents the danger of femininity to both men and women.

There are a number of flight attendants on the aircraft, one of whom is older, while the other two are young. One of these attendants (the youngest) employs her sexuality in a clear attempt to win the affection of a male passenger. He, at one point, rescues her from being struck by a loose beverage cart covered in snakes, implying that protection from runaway femininity can only come from men. In other words, men must shield women from their own perverse natures. Similarly, the other younger flight attendant develops a sort of partnership with the movie's main male protaganist, Samuel "L." Jackson, over the course of the movie growing more submissive to him. She also survives the encounter with madcap femininity. Only the third flight attendant, an older woman, succumbs to the serpents. She is bitten while attempting to rescue an infant from the snakes. This scene accomplishes two things: first, the snake menacing the child is obviosly a conservative gesture meant to represent the "threat" posed by the pro-choice movement to "children." In other words, runaway, selfish femininity is poised to murder the helpless. Second, by being bitten herself, the older flight attendant stands as an almost "Christlike" martyr representing mothers who are rejected by a dangerously radical femininity. In total, a highly conservative message about gender roles is depicted in these scenes.

Finally, one of the two pilots is depicted from the beginning as a chauvanist who is unpleasant for women to work with. As one might expect, this individual is bitten by a venomous snake and falls into a compartment under the cockpit. Yet, unlike virtually every other character, this pilot manages to fight his way back to his post and continue flying the aircraft for a significant period of time. While ultimately this individual meets a gruesome fate, the message of this sequence is clear: only unbridled masculinity- nay sexism- can resist the excesses of unrestrained womanhood.

In conclusion, it is apparent not merely in the symbols for masculinity and femininity, but in the interaction of actual men and women with each other and those symbols, that femininity is a force to be dreaded and contained, rather than embraced.

Part III: Subversion of the gendered paradigm

Though the movie is overwhelmingly conservative in its orientation, gender roles are roles of conflict, not cooperation. To expect that all messages contained within this "movie" would reflect the "dominant" view of the "producers" is, pro tem, absurd. Instead, contrasting conflictual messages also find their way in, combatting the dominant views even as they are dominated by them.

The most obvious example of this combat comes in the form of the provocation of the snakes. As we are shown early in the film, the snakes are not naturally homicidal but are, instead, provoked to become so by a "pheremone" sprayed on a number of flower wreathes given to the passengers. This set of facts produces an interesting tension within the movie. On the one hand, the feminine symbol of snakes are "responsible" for "destroying" the aircraft. On the other, they were made to do so by what are, semper fi, symbols for manhood and decorative femininity. The pheremone spray represents the perversion of feminine nature by masculine science and thus its use in driving the snakes wild represents a critique of the patriarchy. At the same time, flowers are often thought of as stereotypically feminine. A woman's virginity is even, from time to time, referred to as her "flower," and flower metaphors are most often used for female maturation (i.e. "she is flowering into womanhood"). The wreathes, in that they hang around the neck, represent a sort of yoke around the necks of men and women alike- the yoke of restrictive gender roles. In combination, the pheremones on the wreathes signify the rage that both constraining gender ideals, and rampant masculinization, engender in both males and females. Ironically, if the snakes had been released without such preparations, they would likely have remained docilely in the cargo compartment signifying the placidity of the feminine when not oppressed by masculinity.

Interestingly, the conclusion of the movie is itself a prescription for eliminating gender tension. On arriving at their destination the surviving passengers and crew do not disembark the aircraft through the jetway but, rather, depart via inflatable escape slides. These slides, agnus dei, resemble the feminine vagina much as the airplane itself represents the penis. Thus, we find two messages embedded in this scene. First, that within the most masculine there is also the feminine- that a true separation of the sexes is impossible. Second, that the way to escape from oppressive masculinity and violently conflictual gender roles is through the feminine. By embracing the female we can resist and, indeed, balance the male, returning to a more healthful mix.

Despite the strong inclination of the producers of this movie to support traditional gender ideas, the presence of these conflicting messages leaves us with some hope. We have both witnessed the conflictual nature of gender in action, and have seen ways that dominant gender paradigms are challenged even as they seek to reproduce themselves.


There are those who might argue that a detailed post-modern analysis of Snakes on a Plane is a waste of time. There are even those who might cite the confirmation bias, arguing that a determination to find support for gender theories makes actually finding such support less impressive. They might even use the familiar aphorism that, "When your only tool is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail." As my analysis has shown, these critics are, deus ex machina, wrong. The prevalence of gendered messages in Snakes on a Plane is fantastic. It is obvious that if such messages did not exist, I could not possibly have identified them with the rigorous post-modern analysis in this paper. One can only speculate on the sheer quantity of damage that this movie is inflicting on the vulnerable psyches of our children. To resist the patriarchy we must resist movies like this. We must not merely look at such movies as meaningless fluff, as a sort of adult "play," but rather as a serious business. To build a healthier society we must not merely play with snakes on a plane, we must take care to deconstruct playing with snakes on a plane.

Okay, so, by this point a number of people are likely getting ready to fire off some angry e-mails. That's fine- I'm more or less used to it at this point. Before you do so, however, I feel that I should make a few comments. You know... dig the hole a little deeper. First, to be honest, the idea for this post came to me while jogging one morning and I liked it so much I had to write it. As an exercise in creativity, writing a paper in the style of someone whom I would consider insane can't be beat. You should try it sometime just for fun. If the result of my whimsy seems like an over-the-top parody, that's because it was intended to be an over-the-top parody. Second, I'm frankly scornful of post-modern "analysis" and this style of argument rather than of feminist scholarship per se. If feminist work was the unfortunate substrate of my mockery then it is only because feminist work embraces post-modernism more than many other branches of the academy. Well, that and I got the idea from a magazine cover featuring a painting of Adam and Eve. Third, I feel the need to point out that I DO actually consider gender and gender inequality to be important realms of study. I'm also not what you might refer to as reactionary when it comes to gender, as I think I have shown several times before. So, in other words, if I mock it isn't because I don't think gender inequality needs to be addressed but, rather, because I DO think gender inequality needs to be addressed. Maybe I'm wrong, but I seriously doubt that very many articles with the word "deconstructing" in the title have ever contributed to that laudable goal.

And, that said, feel free to flame me to a crisp.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

"As if millions of voices cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced."

I can think of no better quote than Ben Kenobi's to preface what will be, to some in the audience, a grim announcement. Some of you have been regular readers of this blog for some time. I would say "many" of you but, to be honest, I'm fairly sure that most people who visit this blog on any given day are brought in by random google searches. Such is the life of a blogger. For the record, I really don't think there's anything on this blog about "free nude pics of Jessica Alba," but you're welcome to keep looking. Also, ironically, I'm pretty certain that just writing that sentence is going to substantially increase my daily traffic. I'll let you know.

In any case, many of you reading this are regular visitors and as a result are familiar with the cast of characters here at Total Drek. One of these characters is the woman who has previously been known as my Sainted Girlfriend. I have referred to her as "Sainted" for the simple reason that she has to date put up with all of my crap, and remained my girlfriend. You regular readers know exactly what I'm talking about here but, for the new visitors, let me make this easy: I am a real pain in the ass to be around. Seriously. Ask the Former Hypothetical Roommate. He'll tell you. I have also previously referred to her as my "girlfriend" for reasons so obvious that I frankly don't believe I need to go into detail.

Some of you may have noted that I am using the past-tense an awful lot in this post. If so, you are quite astute. I am, indeed, using the past tense because, like it or not, my sainted girlfriend is no longer my sainted girlfriend. In fact, she's no longer my girlfriend at all. We've had a lot of conversations about this in the past few months and, after a great deal of soul searching on both of our parts, we have decided that there's no reason for her to continue being my girlfriend or for me to continue being her boyfriend. So, I must announce that, as of this past Saturday the second of September, she is no longer my Sainted Girlfriend.

From now on, she will be known as my Sainted Fiancee.

Yes, it appears that Drek the Uninteresting has finally met his match and, in a year or so, will be a married man. There will be, so help me, a Mrs. the Uninteresting and, perhaps one day, little additions to the Uninteresting clan. And all it took was a little luck, a little ingenuity, and a small token of my affection:

Who knows? Maybe I'll mellow out once I'm all settled down and responsible.

But I wouldn't bet on it if I were you.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Any Stata gurus in the house?

So, I'm just wondering: is there anyone out there with some crazy strong kung fu when it comes to the matrix commands in Stata? I'm going a little buggo trying to produce a particular kind of matrix.

I'd offer cash incentives, but we all know I'm too poor. If you like, I'll offer a blogpost on a topic of your choosing.

If you want to try your hand, and win the "prize," send me an e-mail.

The turtle and the scorpion

One of my favorite parables is the story of the turtle and the scorpion. As the story goes, the turtle is ferrying animals across a river so they can get to high ground and escape a flood. The scorpion repeatedly asks to be taken but the turtle refuses. Finally all the animals are across except the scorpion who pleads his case one last time. He convinces the turtle by telling him that it would be foolish for the scorpion to sting him because then he would die as well. About halfway across the river, the scorpion indeed does sting the turtle. The turtle, dying, asks why since now they would both die. The scorpion responds that it was his nature to do so.

Some might take this as the “evil” scorpion tricking the turtle so he could kill him, even at the cost of his life. I choose to say that the turtle took the risk and really shouldn't have been surprised. I don't make any moral judgement of either one. It was an expected outcome of the situation. There's no need to hunt down all the scorpions and kill them.

On September 4, 2006, Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame was killed by a stingray while filming. I was quite fond of his work. It was entertaining and educational. Anything that gets people interested in nature and conservation is a good thing. I don't classify his death as an accident, but as an unfortunate event. This was an experienced individual with a proper support crew. Getting stung is to be expected, but having it pierce your heart is about as unlucky as you can get. Sometimes even with every precaution bad things will happen, but it's one of the risks of working in a dangerous environment.

On the other end of the spectrum we have Timothy Treadwell. He spent his last few years in close proximity with bears in Alaska without any means to defend against an attack. He knew it was dangerous, but he continued to be in close contact with these animals. His methods, while spectacular, were generally held to be reckless and dangerous. On October 6, 2003, his body and that of Amy Huguenard was found at their campsite by the pilot that was to take them home. They had been killed by a bear sometime during the previous 24 hours. He had been going on these trips for over a decade. Frankly I'm surprised it took that long. Being isolated, defenseless, and surrounded by potentially deadly animals is a recipe for disaster.

Then there are the people who don't know any better. Most wild animals tend to stay away from people. Interactions are unavoidable, but generally end with all parties walking away. Some people, however, think it's good to feed them. This desensitizes them from their natural wariness of people and the results are generally easy to predict. In Florida, the typical animal in this situation is an alligator. They might seem cute and harmless when they're couple of feet long, but when they're all grown up they can be a real hazard. It's illegal to feed a gator for this very reason; wildlife officials don't want to have to kill an animal for no fault of its own. I've had a couple of chances to talk to wild animal trappers. They say the most common reason for needing their services is environmental encroachment. When people and animals live in close proximity there are going to be incidents. It's almost unavoidable. The perceived danger is usually greater than the actual danger, but I support keeping the situation under control. The next most common one is dealing with animals that have become a problem after getting food near people. Sometimes its because they dig through unsecured garbage containers. Sometimes its because people feed them directly. These are the easiest to avoid. If people would only think about this a little, I think they would realize the animal's behavior is fairly predictable.

Scorpions, stingrays, bears, and alligators are not evil. I don't like calls for increased hunting of a particular animal following an incident where someone is hurt. Sharks are famously on the receiving end of that one. If you do something dangerous, do not be surprised when something bad happens. Occasionally something bad will happen even if you don't do anything particularly dangerous. These events are spectacular because of their rarity. It is unfortunate when they occur, but some of the blame should go to the humans. Sometimes, like lightning, no amount of precaution will stop it from happening. In most cases I think a small amount of common sense will go a long way though. For those that go against all reasonable advice, there's a group interested in you. Hopefully the damage will be limited to yourself. Like as not, however, innocent bystanders will take the brunt of it and that's the real tragedy.

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