Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday music post: Wild Is the Wind

Sorry about the video on this, but the audio more than makes up for it. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Flying the friendly skies

You know, I guess I think I've always been a professional critic, you know, or some sort of professional appreciator or something. And I just wanted to, you know, do something new, put something new out into the world, you know, kind of really put my money where my mouth is.

This line from High Fidelity has always kind of bothered me. It seems to draw a line between evaluation and creation, and implies that ironic detachment is a hindrance to true artistic expression. I don't think that's true, and here is a letter that shows that biting criticism can, in itself rise to the level of art. A snippet:

Imagine being a twelve year old boy Richard. Now imagine it’s Christmas morning and you’re sat their with your final present to open. It’s a big one, and you know what it is. It’s that Goodmans stereo you picked out the catalogue and wrote to Santa about.

Only you open the present and it’s not in there. It’s your hamster Richard. It’s your hamster in the box and it’s not breathing. That’s how I felt when I peeled back the foil and saw this:

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it’s more of that Baaji custard. I admit I thought the same too, but no. It’s mustard Richard. MUSTARD. More mustard than any man could consume in a month. On the left we have a piece of broccoli and some peppers in a brown glue-like oil and on the right the chef had prepared some mashed potato. The potato masher had obviously broken and so it was decided the next best thing would be to pass the potatoes through the digestive tract of a bird.

Once it was regurgitated it was clearly then blended and mixed with a bit of mustard. Everybody likes a bit of mustard Richard.

By now I was actually starting to feel a little hypoglycaemic. I needed a sugar hit. Luckily there was a small cookie provided. It had caught my eye earlier due to it’s baffling presentation:

It appears to be in an evidence bag from the scene of a crime. A CRIME AGAINST BLOODY COOKING. Either that or some sort of back-street underground cookie, purchased off a gun-toting maniac high on his own supply of yeast. You certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying one of these through customs. Imagine biting into a piece of brass Richard. That would be softer on the teeth than the specimen above.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Notes from an unrepentant grammar nazi, redux

Clark's comment on Monday's post made me think I should clarify what I mean when I say I am a grammar nazi. I am a stickler when it comes to proper punctuation. I have special shortcut keys programmed into my computer to keep minute and second symbols from turning into inverted commas in Microsoft Word. I know that ¶ is called a pilcrow. I only use one space after a period because that's what the Chicago Manual of style says. I always use the subjunctive tense properly. I even use semicolons on a regular basis. So, yeah. you could say I am a grammar nazi (nb: this does not mean that you need to start pointing out my typos—I don't claim to be a good typist or a good writer of HTML code). But there are two grammar "rules" that I refuse to follow, and I will openly mock anyone who tries to tell me that they are rules: the split infinitives rule and the rule against preposition stranding. Let's take these in order.

As a review, an infinitive is the plain form of a verb, and it is invariably preceded by to—to be, to do, to live, to die, are all infinitives. These exist in other languages, too, except in most other languages infinitives are one word rather than two. Well, someone got it in his head one day that since infinitives are not split in Latin (not a surprise, since they are one word), they should not be split in English as well. This rule would declare that the Star Trek motto, "to boldly go where no one has gone before," is improper English, preferring "to go boldly where no one has gone before." Strict compliance with this rule leads to situations where it is necessary to play a verbal game of Twister to salvage the meaning of your sentence. For instance, try to recast this sentence without losing the meaning: We expect our output to more than double in a year. I like Bill Bryson's take on it myself:

I can think of two very good reasons for not splitting an infinitive. (1) Because you feel that the rules of English ought to conform to the grammatical precepts of a language that died a thousand years ago. (2) Because you wish to cling to a pointless affectation of usage that is without the support of any recognized authority of the last 200 years, even at the cost of composing sentences that are ambiguous, inelegant, and patently contorted.*

The second "rule" I openly mock is the rule against preposition stranding, or ending sentences with prepositions. Again, this convention comes from Latin; again, this rule bears no relationship with the way English is used; and again, following the rule strictly will lead to verbal Twister (see, e.g., What did you do that for?). To quote Churchill, this is errant nonsense up with which I will not put.

In the end, grammar and punctuation are all about communicating ideas effectively and artfully. There are no rules of grammar, only conventions that you can use to be understood by your audience. If I am called pedantic, at least let me be called pedantic in service of functional language.

* Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue 144 (1990).

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Economics, explained

This is a lot better explanation than I got in my ECON 100 class. Enjoy, and prepare yourself for the pop quiz:

Monday, January 26, 2009

Notes from an unrepentant grammar nazi

Quotation marks are wonderfully versatile—not only can they denote direct quotations, they can also indicate irony or unusual usage, signal that the word, not the concept, is being referred to, or mark a title or nickname. What they do not, NOT, not, not, not, do, however, is indicate emphasis (which is fine, since I just demonstrated four ways that you can show emphasis). So, when I see things like the following pictures, I am a little irritated, but mostly amused at the unintentional humor. Behold:

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday music post: I Remember

A new feature on this blog—a little music to ease you into the weekend:

Thursday, January 22, 2009

How to tell if you love fetuses or just hate women

The other day I was listening to NPR in the car while I was going to lunch. The subject of the show was "What's Next For The Anti-Abortion Movement?" (transcript here). Abortion is a subject that I'm reluctant to get into, but after listening to the guests on that program, I feel compelled to make a couple of observations. Besides,today is the 36th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, so it seems like as good of a time as any to talk about the issue—or rather, talk about how we talk about the issue.

I understand the anti-abortion rights movement's argument: abortion is murder, and fetuses deserve protection from the State. I can respect that belief, even if I don't hold it myself. What's more, I think that I can have a productive dialogue with this person. But I don't think I can have a similarly productive dialogue with someone who is against abortion because women who have sex should be punished. This belief is diametrically opposed to life; a child is not a blessing, it is a divine punishment. I really don't have any common ground with anyone who believes this. The problem is that anti-woman people use pro-life rhetoric to sell their agenda. So, to all of you who are wondering whether you or someone you know is pro-life or anti-woman, here's a test:

1. Do you support the availability of birth control and comprehensive sex education?

The number one way that we can reduce abortions is to curb unwanted pregnancies. The way to do that is to make sure that women who have sex have protection and know how to use it. The argument that if you teach kids how to use protection, you're giving them permission to have sex is about as logical as saying that buying insurance for your child's car is giving them permission to get in an accident. Abstinence-only education has been shown over and over again to have no effect on the sexual activity of minors. It does, however, have a huge effect on whether they use protection. If you know all of this and are still against birth control and/or sex education, there's a good chance that you aren't pro-life so much as anti-woman.

2. Do you support demand-side measures to reduce the number of abortions?

Researchers have shown that there is little to no correlation between the legality of abortion and the incidence of abortion. However, there is a strong correlation between poverty and the incidence of abortion. I understand that it matters little to committed pro-lifers whether abortion being illegal would reduce the number of abortion. Their view is that society should send a clear message that abortion is murder, and so it should be a subject of criminal law. That's all fine and good. However, if you are interested in symbolic gestures only, and are not interested in actually stopping abortions from taking place by putting programs into place that make it easier for women to support and raise their children, it is difficult to imagine that you are actually pro-life in any way that is not darkly ironic.

3. Are you willing to admit that the pregnant woman is a life as well?

The thing that struck me about the program on NPR is that there was so little invocation of the word woman or mother. For those that believe that life begins at conception, the fetus is a life. It is odd that they frequently gloss over the other life that is in the equation: the mother's life. When we talk about a fetus being alive, it's important to recognize that this life is one that cannot exist outside of a woman. Having a pregnancy is hard: medically speaking, the woman and the fetus have a parasite-host relationship. The stress on the body from dealing with carrying a fetus to term is intense. Therefore, it seems a decision of some gravity to say to a woman even though she does not want to and it is medically possible for her not to, that she has to carry a parasite in her body for nine months. I understand that to pro-life people, the comparison between the life of a fetus and the suffering of a woman will usually fall in the fetus's favor, but it seems like there's a trade-off that should be acknowledged there. If you treat women as baby-carrying vessels in your arguments about abortion rather than acknowledging that women have interests in this equation that should be taken into account, you are probably anti-woman.

Now, I'm sure that some of you can come up with bad-faith arguments made by pro-choice people. We can get into that in the comments if you wish. I will even engage arguments about how my questions paint with too broad of a brush. I just that you be respectful—I have a delete key and I know how to use it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Aware of all internet traditions, vol. 1: Zero Wing

The internet can be a scary place, dear readers. Sometimes, a trip through the series of tubes can be like visiting a foreign country (why do these cats talk in broken English?). That's why I feel a certain obligation to you, my adoring public, to try to help you interpret and navigate the world-wide web. Without further ado, our first lesson:

And the techno remix:

For great justice . . .

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

We are the ones we have been waiting for

We made it to Inauguration Day. I honestly was afraid to hope this would actually happen, but here we are. Now, I'll admit that there will be things President Obama will do that I won't approve of, but today, I don't care. I'm going to be an annoying fanboy and you can all just deal with it.

And for you republicans who read this blog, this one's for you:

Monday, January 19, 2009

The following post takes place between 9 am and 10 am

As 24 begins its seventh season, I thought I'd remind everyone that it is the most evil, immoral, and shameful show on television of all time. But then I remembered that Dalia Lithwick already wrote what I wanted to say, so I will encourage you to read what she has to say. Some highlights:

According to British lawyer and writer Philippe Sands, Jack Bauer—played by Kiefer Sutherland—was an inspiration at early "brainstorming meetings" of military officials at Guantanamo in September of 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial new interrogation techniques including water-boarding, sexual humiliation, and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer "gave people lots of ideas." Michael Chertoff, the homeland-security chief, once gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show "reflects real life."

* * *

If you're a fan of 24, you'll enjoy The Dark Side. There you will meet Mamdouh Habib, an Australian captured in Pakistan, beaten by American interrogators with what he believed to be an "electric cattle prod," and threatened with rape by dogs. He confessed to all sorts of things that weren't true. He was released after three years without charges. You'll also meet Maher Arar, a Canadian engineer who experienced pretty much the same story, save that the beatings were with electrical cables. Arar was also released without explanation. He's been cleared of any links to terrorism by the Canadian government. Jack Bauer would have known these men were not "ticking time bombs" inside of 10 minutes. Our real-life heroes had to torture them for years before realizing they were innocent.

But, you know, the rule of law is for wimps, so what do I know?

Friday, January 16, 2009

From the department of unfortunate metaphors

Compare the colloquy beginning at 1:05 of this clip with this paper by Lynn Wardle (pdf), in his paper explaining why gays will destroy marriage as a moral institution:

As to both the general moral norms and the specific moral precepts that are linked with conjugal marriage, the morality of marriage reflects the conjugal nature of the institution of marriage. It is designed to fit the conjugal relationship like a well-tailored glove, to support, liberate, nurture, enhance, and strengthen that particular kind of relationship. Inserting the entirely different hand of same-sex relationships into that “glove,” as it were, and trying to force the customized morality tailored for male-female, chaste, faithful, committed, etc., relationship of conjugal marriage onto the gay or lesbian couples hand of profoundly different dimensions, size, bulk, and structure is to invite frustration for same-sex couples, and distortion and tearing of the stitching and fabric of the glove created for an entirely different kind of hand.

Yes, this is the same paper where he talks about the "rubbing off" going both ways. Comedy gold...

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world

Allow me to take this moment to say, screw Mark Driscoll. Screw him, his hipster jeans, and his hipster church.

Now, dear readers, you're probably wondering what has brought about such intemperate expression from your humble blogger. If you are wondering, you probably haven't read this article in the New York Times Magazine last Sunday. You see, Mr. Driscoll is cool. He cusses. He dresses in skull t-shirts and watches UFC. Oh, and did I mention he's a preacher? You see, Mr. Driscoll is trying to save the world from what he refers to as "'a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,' a 'neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.'"

Mark Driscoll's Jesus

No, Mr. Driscoll's God is all man; he's said on occasion that he can't believe in a God that he could beat up. You see, Mark Driscoll is a neo-Calvinist, which means he believes in predestination. Nothing us mere mortals could ever do would change God's mind about who goes to heaven or hell—God decided that long before we ever got here. God not only cures your cancer, but he also gives you cancer. Mr. Driscoll's God is, in short, kind of a dick.

Of course, Mr. Driscoll (and his God) have no real use for women or gays, either.But that's not what gets me angry. Misogyny and homophobia, while dismaying, are not all that surprising when it comes to preachers. No, what really upsets me is that this guy is worshiping Tyler Durden from Fight Club. To read this guy's public statements and to watch his videos, it's like he read Palahniuk's book and missed the irony (not the first time that's happened—see, e.g., BYU's fight clubs). Quick lesson, boys and girls: Tyler Durden was not the hero of that particular story. While Tyler's critique of decadent, consumerist society may appeal to many (I think it is inspired), his solution was to destroy civilization. Likewise, Mr. Driscoll replaces Jesus with a badass cage fighter who doesn't let people choose hell, but actively chooses it for them, and randomly saves people because, f— you, he's God, he doesn't have to explain s— to you. This is just another example of post-modern nihilism and Christianism meeting around the flip side. Like I said in my earlier post on Armageddon, these people aren't Christians. They're wolves at the gates. I believe that the ideas of liberal civilization can defeat all comers, but we have to actively defend liberalism to succeed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Quiet Dignity

Utah's 3rd District must be so proud:

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us?

This article just floored me. Apparently, and National Organization for Marriage California are suing in federal court trying to keep their donor lists private. They say that these disclosure requirements are unconstitutional. I'm pretty sure this challenge has less that no chance of prevailing, but it shows a tendency in this whole fight that I found rather surprising—it seems that religious supporters of Prop 8, and Mormons in particular, don't have the stomach for being a peculiar people that they once may have done.

Being a peculiar people was an important part of my identity growing up. Mormons didn't drink, didn't smoke, paid tithing, etc. The "world" thought we were crazy because we did this, and that strengthened our resolve to do it. We were in the world but not of the world, and we expected that we would be persecuted for our beliefs when we were out in the world. The persecution meant that we were right. And wow, were we good at feeling persecuted.

Only, it turns out that persecution for these beliefs never materialized. No one seemed to care that I didn't drink in college; it meant they had a designated driver without ever putting anyone out. My college was ranked in the top 5 for most likely to forget God, and I felt peculiar, but not persecuted. I would say that most Mormons have the same experience. A person's private decisions usually don't stir up resentment among others. Mormons had been used to being viewed as a harmless oddity. That was about to change.

Proposition 8 changed being a peculiar people from getting weird looks to having protesters outside of temples. Suddenly, Church headquarters, which had previously been pleased with taking the lead on the Prop 8 fight, now said that they were a small part of a coalition (a hard claim to make considering that LDS donations were estimated at over 50% of the total yes on 8 donations). Three LDS members resigned from their jobs in fairly high-profile ways. Being a Mormon changed from weird people who don't drink to anti-gay bigots.

It's totally understandable that people don't want to be called bigots. If a person believes that her actions are motivated out of love, she may feel confused and hurt that people believe that her acts are motivated out of hate. However, this is something that I actually thought Mormons would have anticipated and even looked forward to. After all of these years of indifference by the world, here was a chance for persecution to purify and strengthen the Church like it did in the pioneer days.

Before someone flames me, let me be clear: I'm not suggesting that Mormons should gladly bear persecution without complaint. Modern Mormons found out something that their forbears knew too well: it sucks to be persecuted. As far as I'm concerned, no one should be subject to harassment for holding a particular opinion, and no one should have to grin and bear it—that isn't American. However, at the same time I feel that there is a lesson in this. A persecution complex is all about feeling superior and self-righteous. When a person takes everything as a slight, it's easy to feel persecuted. Plus, that person never has to go through any of the real anguish that actual persecution brings. It's easy and cheap, and unhealthy. How much better it is to not seek to be offended nor to interpret the actions of others as persecution. Only then can we find ourselves as neighbors and friends.

Which brings me to the point: There's a difference between having your life threatened or your property vandalized and being boycotted or protested for something you did. The former is illegal and should be dealt with via the justice system. The latter is what one should expect in politics. When a person injects herself into a public controversy, she has to bear the consequences of that action, be they praise or protest. Donating money is one thing a person can do to inject herself into a public controversy. There is only one place in politics where a person is promised privacy: the voting booth. Every other venue of the political arena, one's actions are subject to scrutiny and criticism. People in a democratic society should welcome that dialogue. If a person believes that her ideas are right, she should be able to convince others. In time, the best ideas will win, if we are willing to defend our ideas, and to listen to others.

UPDATE: Brad's comment reminded me that I didn't do a very good job of defining persecution. Let me demonstrate:

The two axes are private beliefs or a person's identity vs. Someone's public advocacy of a particular policy. The other axis is a legal act in reaction v. an illegal act in reaction. My definition of persecution is illegal behavior against a person in reaction to that person's personal beliefs or identity. I assume that some legal behavior may rise to the level of persecution (insults, ad hominem attacks), but I'm squishy on that point. If someone wants to convince me one way or another, they can try in the comments.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Just a little note...

Just in case you needed a way to ease into your workweek, here's a site that's sure to waste some of your morning. Some of my favorites:

Friday, January 9, 2009


Because it's Friday:

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

DDWFTTW: empirical observation v. intuition

DDWFTTW stands for "directly downwind faster than the wind," and it has been the subject of several heated debates over the internet in the last month or so. The question is this: can one travel downwind, faster than the wind, powered only by the wind, at a steady state? For such an esoteric question, this has spurred quite a bit of outrage among many on the internet, claiming that such a proposition would violate the second law of thermodynamics and basically amount to perpetual motion. The problem with this objection is that—it actually works.

For those of you so inclined, here is a place you can research on this phenomenon further, but the simple answer is that going downwind faster than the wind is pretty uncontroversial. See, for example, this:

A sailboat goes faster than the wind because it isn't getting pushed by the wind—the sail acts like a wing on an airplane and it is propelled by the air pressure differential. Likewise, the propeller acts as a wing and the air pressure pushes it along. Counterintuitive, but well within the laws of physics.

As a science question, this isn't incredibly useful. Due to friction, the practical applications for wind-powered carts is fairly limited, and this isn't exactly new technology. However it can teach us a good lesson about the limits of relying on our intuition. Too often we end up trusting instinct rather than our own eyes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

He had thought himself a hero, But now rides commuter trains

If you are afraid of heights, don't watch this video:

Full-size version here.

P.S.—If you haven't noticed by now, a lot of my titles are referential. Here is the source of today's title.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Armageddon as Anti-Christ

This holiday season, I had some time to spend doing essentially nothing. As I am wont to do when there's nothing else going on, I tuned into the History Channel. One of the programs was on "the end times." As the bombings in Gaza seem to be everywhere in the news, I have thought again about Millennial prophecies.

Growing up, I was taught the traditional stories of the Second Coming: natural disasters, wars, and the world getting more and more evil. Some of these descriptions were taught to me in gruesome detail in high-school seminary classes. I was also taught the traditional Christian belief about Armageddon—that all nations will be set against Israel, that Jesus will appear and set his foot on the Mount of Olives and rend it in two, allowing the Jewish people to escape from their persecutors and usher in the Millennium. At the same time I was told that a true follower of Christ should pray for and look forward to the Second Coming.

Sometimes, when you grow up with some idea, you miss the fact that the idea is horrible, frightening and illogical. Yet, that is exactly what I think the Second Coming prophecies are. If you'll allow me to horrendously oversimplify the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is two different peoples who each believe they were promised certain land by their respective Gods, and another large group of people egging them on to war with each other so that the third group's God will show himself. Evangelical Christian backing of Israel has been almost entirely motivated by the belief that Armageddon is necessary to bring about the Second Coming. The belief in Armageddon has motivated many pious Christians to become zealous agents in trying to bring the war about. Humble followers of Christ have been transformed into bloodthirsty warmongers in service of "the greater good."

This is why I think that, at its most fundamental, Armageddon is an anti-Christian belief. As I understand Christianity (and admittedly there are many understandings of Christianity), it is the ultimate humanism. Christ was God made flesh, taking upon him our infirmities and pains because he loved us. He gave us the new commandment to love one another. The doctrine of Armageddon provides a perverse incentive that overrides this commandment. By loving other people and trying to build a better, more just, and more peaceful society, one is delaying Jesus' Second Coming.

Now there are those who would say that I'm confusing is and ought. In their view, the work for peace and justice is a Sisyphean task—they do it because they are commanded to, even though they know it will fail. But let's ponder a moment on what Armageddon tells us about the nature of God. Armageddon will proceed the Second Coming either because a) God is a sadist, or b) the Second Coming is a sort of divine discontinuation of the human experiment, God stopping us because he's finally had enough. I can handle the second idea, but then why should we be hoping for the Second Coming? The whole thing strikes me as fatalistic. If we believe in free will for the individual, we can believe that we can change hearts and minds and make a positive difference in the world.

So rather than praying for the Second Coming, it seems to me that the true follower of Christ's prayer should be something like this: "Lord, give us power to promote peace and justice in this world. Soften hearts and let us create a better world. Spare us your vengeance, delay your coming, and give us one more day to create heaven on Earth."

Monday, January 5, 2009


In memory of the Japanese New Year festivities, here's your dose of Japanese culture:

Friday, January 2, 2009

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Day hangover cure

That is, if it doesn't make you puke all over your keyboard: