Thursday, May 25, 2006


One last thing about warrantless wiretapping and data-mining that was referenced in the Salon War Room Blog that I linked to at the very top of my last post. It is nicely illustrated by this week's Tom The Dancing Bug (subscription, or watching a brief ad, required). This strip, by the by, is seriously the best weekly comic in the history of the world.

The following thing needs to be said. If you believe that the government is illegally spying only on The Terrorists, you believe something that is simply irrational. If you do not believe that the government is using warrantless wiretapping and data-mining programs to monitor its political enemies, you are holding to a precept that is not rational to hold. Sadly, if you do not think that every email you send is being data-mined for keywords by net-monitoring computers at the NSA, you are not thinking rationally.

At every revelation of the illegal monitoring program, the government has stated outright untruths about its scope. First they claimed they always got warrants. When it turned out they weren't getting warrants, they claimed it was only international calls. When it turned out it wasn't only international calls, they claimed it was only calls where at least one party was international. When it turned out it wasn't only calls where at least one party was international, they refused to acknowledge the program existed. If you don't think they're telling the truth right now, you are not paranoid. It is simply not rational to think otherwise.

Next: Sigh.
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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Seriously, what now?

I simply cannot read another story like this and, you know, stay sane. Here, apparently, are The Rules: you cannot criticize the government because that emboldens The Terrorists. You cannot limit executive power because the would inhibit the ability of the executive to fight The Terrorists. You cannot investigate the possible misuse of power by the executive because then The Terrorists will find out how we are fighting The Terrorists. Here's what you can do: shut the hell up and sit there while the executive does whatever he feels like doing.

I was reading the latest Dan Savage last night, in which he picks up the latest hit from the Religious Right, the War on Contraception (Second Americano's recent take is here). His thesis is basically this: "Okay, I don't agree with it, but I understand if you didn't want to all stand up for gay rights, because you're not gay. But straight rights are being trampled on as well, and I simply don't understand why everyone is taking it lying down." On this subject I want to say this: opposition to gay rights makes me insanely angry. The anti-choice movement makes me insanely angry. People who oppose contraception make me insanely angry. And it's not the fact of it that makes me insanely angry, people have a right to their religious beliefs and if they don't believe in contraception or abortions or that people should be gay, they don't have to use it/have one/be gay. What makes me insanely angry is that these positions aren't being taken as moral ones, they are taken as political stands that must be enforced on everyone.

I'm sure my model of the world and how it should work is riddled with hypocrisies that I just don't see because, well, I'm me. Maybe the only difference between the leaders of the Religious Right and me is that they're in positions of power and I'm not. Maybe all of their fears about liberals and liberalism are correct: if I were running the country, I'd probably want to have long talks with The Terrorists about their feelings while forcing everyone to have secular gay abortions after giving each other hand jobs while the Religious Right is taking a nap on the front porch. I do, after all, have True Belief that they are wrong and I am right. A fundamental tenet of these beliefs is that I don't get to legislate what they do with their lives and in their homes, and neither do they. But maybe this tenet is more mutable than I think, and that, like State's Rights, it's something one only has when one is not the party in power.

Anyway, the theme that these two things (objection to both religious intolerance and unchecked executive power) share is that I simply don't know what to do about them any longer, other than stand up and say that they're not okay with me. If you're waiting for a groundswell of popular opinion to force some kind of change and/or accountability, I gotta tell you: so am I, but I don't see it happening. If you're waiting to see what happens in the 2006 elections, I can save you the suspense. What will happen in the 2006 elections is nothing. The polls you've been reading that say congress has approval ratings lower than the President? Irrelevant. Voters hate pretty much everybody in congress except their own representative, whom they will happily re-elect. What voters want is for people in other districts to toss their own representative out. What will happen in 2006 is that the Republicans will lose a couple of seats in both houses, and the Bush administration will crow that since they didn't lose control of any branch of government, the nation agrees with them and their policies. The media will repeat this claim. And the slide will continue.

Somebody out there tell me what to do. Don't tell me to march or write or sign petitions or donate money or call my representative, because I've done all these things and they don't work. The only thing I can think of to do is go take a shower, because every time I blog about politics, I feel dirty.

Next: Something somewhat happier!
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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Paradigm Shifts of Doom

for large values of 2
(on a t-shirt I saw in the halls at work this morning. There is probably nobody on earth who will think that's as funny as I do, on account of no one else is that much of a dork).

I'm rather skeptical of the word "paradigm" myself, though this is probably due to the fact that I work in corporate America where, as Sam points out, "paradigm shift" means, "change." (Really it's only to be expected from the universe where "functionality" was coined to replace that unwieldy and opaque word, "function"). Sam/Rebecca's paradigm post (link above) does, however, sequé nicely into some things I ran out of room in which to say last post.

This is what happens when we run out of a primary energy source - we switch to another one. And we don't know what the logic of the economy, the environment or world politics will look like in that new energy paradigm - because we aren't in it.
First, an interesting thing to note is that we actually haven't run out of a primary energy source before--at least not on the global scale that's likely approaching now. I gather that in the mid-nineteenth century it was starting to get dicey with whale oil, but then petroleum showed up and blah blah paradigm shift blah. Having only read half the book at the time, I also short changed The Long Emergency a little bit, because the author does speculate about what the possible paradigm shift is likely to look like: economies become local again, suburbanization ends, people migrate away from deserts as it becomes impractical to pump fresh water to them, etc. I also...uh...long changed him a little bit insofar as now I've gotten into the chapter about prions and mutating viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and have at this point concluded that I am reading a book whose thesis is, "JESUS FUCKING CHRIST! WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE!"

The other night L. was talking to Mr. L. (her Dad, not me), who pointed out that when he was growing up they were certain they were all going to die of polio, unless of course the world was annihilated in a nuclear conflagration first. It's not that I don't believe these things weren't or aren't terrible threats and that we shouldn't take whatever steps we can to deal with them; in this case I'm more interested in what one is actually saying to/about the world when one proclaims that therefore The End is Nigh. Not so much Eschatology as, I guess, Meta-Eschatology.

I have an OaO answer, of course, which is that it's about ones narrative needing to have onesself be, you know, the end result of things--the same phenomenon that I claimed earlier causes people to reject Evolution in favor of Creationism. If things keep going on after you're gone and 99.999999...% of creation doesn't really seem to notice, that narrative you're making for yourself right now has this rather gaping plot hole. On the other hand, that answer doesn't entirely click for me--there's something really primal, it seems to me, in this belief/creeping suspicion we seem to have that we are Living at the End of Days. I suspect, like the Redness of Nature's Tooth and Claw that I mentioned last time, it is related to something that helped us survive at some point. Maybe it's from our mammalian ancestors who managed to survive the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs (which, I guess, really was the End of Days for them).

Next: the odds are again one!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Pre-Millenium Tension

Before I dive in to my next intractibly large post that weighs in on themes to broad to possibly sum up in a single short essay, let alone some academic article, I would just like to say this: Freedom From Blog is fucking awesome. Take this post as one example. Put it on your list of daily things to read, so that you can say you liked them before they were cool.

I'm in the process of reading The Long Emergency, James Kunstler's apparent rebuttal to those Julian Simon-inspired Long Boom missives from the age of soon-to-be-realized global prosperity. If I am already sounding skeptical of warnings of coming doom and/or clarion calls of coming utopias, it's because the various histories of the future have proved to be invariably and utterly wrong. The whole bio-/eco-/socio-/whatevero- system in which we exist is a chaotic amalgam susceptible to infinite factors small and large, and you're likely to have as much luck predicting the future by observing the flap of butterfly wings as global peak oil production.

I do, generally, find Kunstler's arguments pretty persuasive: our way of life, in America and more generally the developed world, is based on the fact that oil is cheap and readily available. We can live in the suburbs, eat fruit from California, wear nylon, raise mega-cattle on mega-farms, and buy lots of cheap plastic things because power from burning fossil fuels is extremely easy to get. The second point is that running out of oil is not the problem so much as the fact that once we reach the point where we are pumping out the maximum amount of oil that will ever be produced, we're screwed. Demand will keep increasing, but supply will never again be able to catch up (this is the so called "Peak Oil" point). Kunstler goes on to argue that none of the current alternative energies will be able to take the place of oil. He further argues that, therefore, there will be a bunch of wars and terrible conflagrations as our societies, built upon fossil fuel burning, fight to the death over the dwindling supply of it (and all of this is, of course, quite apart from global warming).

It's not, then, that I don't believe in the dark nature and/or stupidity of humans to kill a whole bunch of ourselves in order to merely put off something that's going to happen anyway (and maybe I shouldn't call it stupidity--we have an animal nature and it's apparently hardwired to protect our own genes at the possible cost of all others, such that it should not be surprising when we try to kill a bunch of Them so that We can live long enough to reproduce again. Maybe that's just as far as we're capable of seeing). (Question: what has to happen so that this urge is bred out of us? Will the Red In Tooth and Claw parts of us always survive because, well, they are what made us survive in the first place? Discuss). It's more that I am highly skeptical of the argument that we are living at The End Of Days. This argument has always already been made, and it has always (already) been wrong. "Repent, the end is nigh" is oft repeated. So far, the end has yet to be nigh. I'm sure a recession is coming (GWB has made sure of that) and there's probably a depression right behind it, made more likely the longer we insist on trying to milk the petroleum lifestyle. And, if we elect our Red-in-Tooth-And-Claw nature into office again, there'll be some more wars. It'll probably suck. It probably won't be the End of The World.

Next: Less Gloom! More Doom!
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Posts Of The Damned

If I have a major problem writing OaO, it's that I start these entries on enormously weighty subjects and then don't know where to go with them. This, rather than any particular time pressures in my life, is the most frequent reason I don't post for long periods of time--I'm working on a particular post and I get stuck. I've got six or seven posts sitting in this unfinished, unpublished state. Today I've decided to drag them out in a sort of pastiche of things never to be blogged about, on account of how they are no longer timely. Maybe you and your reader-response can fill in the missing narratives.
  • Thought Experiments

    Emery says this:
    The eternal return thing is just strange. Clearly, the repetition of my consciousness is an impossibility, because if it happened again, it wouldn't be mine. Part of individual identity is the continuity of existence. I am me because I was me yesterday, and the day before, and back in 1985, and back in first grade, in 1975, and so on. If there was some physically identical-to-me person in three trillion years, that would be a physically identical-to-me person, not me.
    I made this same statement, although in a totally different context. Suffice to say I agree with the conclusion of the argument. I don't, however, agree with the a priori (that it's because of some sort of bodily or existential continuity). Most all of the cells that made up Emery in 1975 have died and been replaced, the osteoclasts and osteoblasts have torn down and rebuilt the matrix of his bones several times over, and that person was four years old or so and Emery is in his mid-30s (I have met Emery only once, and I didn't know Emery the person I met and Emery the blogger were the same person (and I will happily accept arguments that they still aren't) until last week). But this isn't why I reject the idea of continuity as being the key to our sense of identity. In fact I think that continuity is a complete illusion....

  • "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

    Seeing things on stage, for whatever reason, tends to often speak to the state of our (where, for the purposes of this sentence, "our" = "L.'s and my") existence. So it was at the end of last week, where the official and actual end of our epic real estate saga and seeing August Wilson's last play, Radio Golf at the Seattle Rep, coincided. Radio Golf is about a lot of things, but one of them is about "playing the game," so to speak. If you, e.g., believe that the process of politics in this country is in some way broken, should you run for office? Yes, you've thrown your hat into the same broken process you want to fix thereby further validating it, but at the same time, how else can you change things...?

  • Coastlines

    How would you measure a coastline? Do you walk along the waterline with a tape measure? At high or low tide? Or what if you took a piece of string and started winding it around each stone, or pebble, or each grain of sand? There is of course, no numerical answer to this question, but there is an interesting non-answer. For some abstract definition of the word, "interesting," anyway....

  • Camp

    When I was 18, I was in a high school production of Grease....

  • (Baseball + "The Zone" * Kant) / (Steve Miller)2 modulo Synchronicity = superposition(Randomness, God)

    It just seems so obvious that organisms or systems that are more "fit" would naturally survive, even if they emerge totally by chance, because...well, because they're more "fit." It's a hidden tautology. This is something I've long been meaning to blog about--maybe next post.

    So here it is, the next post. This thread has gone in all sorts of directions at this point, you can pick it up at Freedom From Blog, or Second Americano, or not at all if you choose.

    Some defender of ID, perhaps in the recent Pennsylvania court case, trying to envision an experiment which would support ID as a theory (which, of course, you can't do, but that's for the next paragraph) came up with observing some bacteria in a petri dish, get a number of generations going, and seeing if any of them evolved some sort of flagellum. His argument was that you wouldn't, because a flagellum is irreducibly complex, therefore ID is true (no word on why the Intelligent Designer wouldn't decide to intervene in the experiment and give all the bacteria flagella immediately--maybe his or her work is already done here?).

    The only problem with that example is that this experiment can actually be done, and it proves exactly the opposite, that a flagellum is very reducibly complex. This is what happens: you put, say 100 million immobile E. Coli in a agar solution and they sit there. Eventually, they run through the food that's around them and, since they can't move to a place where there's more food, they die. Or rather, 99,999,999 of them die. One of them has a mutation that makes a protein filament near its cell wall stick out a little bit, and when the cell is literally in its death throes, the filament wiggles a little bit, and it actually propels the bacterium a few millimeters to some available food, and it survives. That's the only one that lives to pass on its genes, and now the next generation has a little extra filament that helps it move. Soon that generation uses up all the food within a few millimeters, and so the only ones of that set that will survive have to be able to move a little bit farther. Repeat ad infinitum, for a billion years.

    Even among the evolution crowd the language used to describe this process is about "nature engineering a solution," or "adapting." That's not what happens--what happens is that everybody else dies. Survival of the fittest isn't about being fit at all. It's about being incredibly lucky. Given a very large number of organisms, someone might get lucky. Given a few billion years and the luck might pile up. You can tell this is true because, you know, it has already happened.

    Rebecca has nicely pointed out (Second Americano, linked above) that Intelligent Design isn't about God, religion, or faith--it's about politics. ID is, like just about every other model of God, about trying to put Him/Her in the gaps--the gap between the model and reality. Rebecca says this quite nicely:
    If there's anything that exhibits Derrida's point about nothing being outside the text, it's faith.
    What bugs the living crap out of me about ID is the fact that it tries to create gaps to fill (and, as Rebecca points out, those gaps are entirely political in nature). The guy giving the example above is not saying, "It's not understood how flagella were created, therefore it must be God," he's saying, "I can't understand how flagella were created, therefore it must be my God...."

Next: Who freaking knows?!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Holy. Living. Crap.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled musings on the nature of being to comment on Stephen Colbert's appearance Saturday night at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I doubt anyone reading hasn't already seen it, but if not, it's here (if you haven't seen it, watch it. Do it now). It's probably extremely telling that our first reaction upon watching this was, "How was this allowed to happen?" He rips apart everything the administration has tried to pass off as, you know, some version of reality, and he's standing ten feet from the President of The United States while he's doing it. It's not just that Colbert lambastes the President, the press, and pretty much everyone in between, it's that he never breaks character. He's Stephen Colbert, the television persona, the entire time and it's brilliant.

The second thing that's simply incredible is the way it's being covered by the major news outlets. Here, for instance, is the A.P.'s report. Reuters' take is here. Colbert was the featured speaker and he's barely mentioned in either story. The Reuters story states that he performed to "muted laughs," giving the sense that he bombed with his audience, rather than, as is clear from watching the clip, that his audience became increasingly uncomfortable as they realized he wasn't going to let them off the hook. Ever. Notice that in the first five minutes of Colbert's monologue, CSPAN shows a couple of reaction shots of GWB. After that, they stop and we never see him again. Try and guess why.

It's late Sunday night and I don't know if anyone will pick this story up come Monday--so far the only things I've seen written about this have appeared in left-leaning blogs. If, indeed, the news cycle these days is still determined by the major news services, then this already won't be in it, and that will be that. No doubt Colbert's scathing critique of the media in general has played and will continue to play a large part in that. But on the other hand, holy crap. It would be hard to sum up the state of the nation in 20 minutes or less better than Stephen Colbert did on Saturday night.

Next: Meaning of Life, Redux
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