Thursday, August 31, 2006

Funny Post

The He-Man Novel-Hater's Club

Real men don't read novels. That's what Lakshmi Chaudhry says:

“When women stop reading, the novel will be dead,” declared Ian McEwan in the Guardian last year. The British novelist reached this rather dire conclusion after venturing into a nearby park in an attempt to give away free novels. The result?

Only one “sensitive male soul” took up his offer, while every woman he approached was “eager and grateful” to do the same.

Unscientific as McEwan’s experiment may be, its thesis is borne out by a number of surveys conducted in Britain, the United States and Canada, where men account for a paltry 20 percent of the market for fiction. Unlike the gods of the literary establishment who remain predominantly male—both as writers and critics—their humble readers are overwhelmingly female.

In recent years, various pundits have used this so-called “fiction gap” as an opportunity to trot out their pet theories on what makes men and women tick. The most recent is New York Times columnist David Brooks, who jumped at the chance to peddle his special brand of gender essentialism. His June 11 column arbitrarily divided all books into neat boy/girl categories—”In the men’s sections of the bookstore, there are books describing masterly men conquering evil. In the women’s sections there are novels about … well, I guess feelings and stuff.” His sweeping assertion flies in the face of publishing industry research, which shows that if “chick-lit” were defined as what women read, the term would have to include most novels, including those considered macho territory. A 2000 survey found that women comprised a greater percentage of readers than men across all genres: Espionage/thriller (69 percent); General (88 percent); Mystery/Detective (86 percent); and even Science Fiction (52 percent).

It takes a bizarre leap of logic to connect current school curricula to the reading habits of adult men. Moreover, there is no indication that men “hate reading”—women just read more fiction. Men out-read women by at least ten percentage points when it comes to nonfiction books—surely good news for the bestselling author of Bobos in Paradise.

To be fair, conservatives like Brooks are not the only talking-heads to resort to biological determinism in explaining the “fiction gap.” Psychologist Dorothy Rowe told the Observer that women like fiction because they have richer and more complex imaginations. “Women have always had to try to understand what other people are doing because women have always had to negotiate their way through the family,” she said. “They have always had to get their power by having a pretty good idea of what’s going on inside other people and using that knowledge to get them to do things.” Quite apart from the unintended implication that feminism is likely to fulfill McEwan’s worst fears—i.e., kill the novel—such arguments reproduce the worst kind of gender stereotypes: Women as sensitive, emotionally intelligent creatures; men as unreflective dolts.

Cognitive literary critic Lisa Zunshine, whose multidisciplinary field integrates the insights offered by cognitive science to better understand fiction, offers a more modest and nuanced hypothesis. Her book, Why We Read Fiction, argues that fiction as a literary form offers us pleasure because it engages our ability to mind-read, “a term used by cognitive psychologists, interchangeably with ‘Theory of Mind,’ to describe our ability to explain people’s behavior in terms of their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and desires.” Fiction, therefore, “lets us try on different mental states.”

Women are more likely than men to enjoy reading fiction, period (as opposed to just reading about “feelings and stuff”), because “they generally want more input for their Theory-of-Mind adaptations,” says Zunshine. “They want to experience other ‘minds in action’—which is another way of defining ‘empathy’—much more than men do.”

Zunshine underscores the fact that such cognitive research is based on “average statistical scores,” and offers no guidance as to what individual men or women may read. Moreover, the biological difference between male and female Theory-of-Mind is small, and likely only accounts for a “somewhat greater” predilection for fiction among women.

One frustration I have with many novels is the profusion of characters and relationships that I have to keep track of. I have the same frustration trying to follow the latest "core dump" from my wife as she relates the news from her siblings, acquaintances and all of their siblings and acquaintances out to five degrees of separation. I'm quickly lost. I either listen along with an occasional "uh-uh" to show interest while being totally confused, or I'll interrupt and say "Cathy who? Your sister Cathy or Justin's room-mate's cousin Cathy?" Relationship tracking is definitely something that females excel at and enjoy, and the novel offers endless possibilities for tickling this fancy. To me following relationship webs to any depth just results in a headache.

What I look for in a novel, and which I think most men look for, are situations of high drama where a character's fate is tested by extroadinary circumstances. Which is why we're driven to war epics and sci-fi. But non-fiction offers so many examples of such, whether in history or current affairs, that it is difficult to take the time to seek out those authors that can offer the same experience with fictional characters. I've enjoyed Neal Stephensons novels "SnowCrash" and "Diamond Age", and have several of his latest 1000 page epics sitting on my bookshelf waiting for the opportunity for me to tear myself away from other distractions to read them. Ah, there's another difference: men are more distractable than women.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

For of all sad words of tongue and pen

Pertinent to Oro's mid-life crisis-related post below, I recently happened upon this criminally-overlooked gem of a song by PG Wodehouse: The Rhyme of the Sitter-Out.

Joan, with an air of settled gloom,
Upon my mobile face
I see you dancing round the room,
A miracle of grace.
I note your partner smile with glee
While whirling you about
Alas, such joys are not for me,
For I’m a sitter-out.

I might have learned in days gone by
The waltz, its graceful swing
Had I consented but to try
But did I? No such thing.
Extraneous aid, though kindly lent
Consistently I’d flout
And mark the dreadful punishment
For I’m a sitter-out.

The scales have fallen from my eyes,
I see the vivid truth;
Fully at last I realise
The folly of my youth.
I might have learned when young and slim,
And now I’m old and stout,
I’m only fit in wind and limb
To be a sitter-out.

To watch my fellow-men and feel
That they’re enjoying life
Should be enough the wound to heal
And blunt Remorse’s knife.
I ought to be content, I know;
I should be soothed, no doubt;
But still at times one finds it slow
To be a sitter-out.

Oh, spare, I beg, a single glance,
Devotion’s only fee;
Eschew for once the mazy dance,
And come and talk to me.
Ah, shun me not; turn not away
With irritated pout,
But comfort for a space, I pray,
A luckless sitter-out.

Whatever subject’s to your mind
I’ll probe it with a will;
Yea, even, if you feel inclined,
Talk Education Bill.
I’ll range from China to Peru,
I’ll skim from golf to gout;
My brain shall be ransacked for you
When we are sitting-out.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Many of America's Overachieving Kids May Still Be Shy of Their Potential

At, Joanne posts this gem [all emph. add.]:

August 21, 2006
Stress at the top

I got back home today to find a copy of Alexandra Robbins' The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids on the breakfast table, apparently left by my daughter, a classic overachiever. It's the tale of overworked, AP-laden high school students in an affluent Maryland suburb.

The book paints a true picture for a few students, but most kids are coasting, writes Jay Mathews in a Washington Post column:

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national achievement test, reading and math scores for 17-year-olds have been stagnant the last 30 years. One of the reasons for this, many educators say, is that students, educators and parents have bought into the notion popularized by Robbins and other social critics that American teenagers have too much schoolwork and should be allowed instead to read for pleasure and watch the sunset and think deep thoughts.

Robbins' book focuses on students at a school in the top 5 percent in family education, affluence and academic ambition, Mathews points out.

Only about 10 percent of American high school students have Ivy League ambitions. For the vast majority, academic stress is pretty rare.

UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute regularly asks about 400,000 college freshmen how much homework they did in high school. About two-thirds say only an hour a night or less. Remember, these are the homework habits of students who went on to college. The one-third of high school graduates who weren't preparing for higher education were likely to have had an even lighter academic load.
And what of that overload of AP courses? Newsweek's annual high school rankings indicate that only 5 percent of U.S. public high schools have students averaging more than one AP test a year.

Teen-agers tell survey-takers that they spend only 42 minutes a day studying, compared to about 3 1/2 hours a day [watching] television, and online. Mathews also points out that Robbins' claims that elementary schools are cutting recess are wrong, [and that] the rise in teen suicides occurred in the 1980s and stabilized before the rise in overachievement, which Robbins says started about 10 years ago.

I completely agree with Mathews' conclusion: "Our real national problem is not that we ask most teens to do too much, but too little."


One of the comments on the post:

Perhaps the reason the pressure is so great on students that are interested in getting into the best colleges is precisely because expectations are so low in general. It's much harder to identify the very best people when you don't test for it. For instance, my kids went to a K-8 private school that does have very high expectations, but because of requirements, they also give standardized tests every year. By the time the kids are in 8th grade, all of the kids max out the test results. This doesn't mean that the kids aren't normally distributed on various measures of ability, just that the tests are too easy. [...]

At our local high school any "more advanced" course is forced to admit anyone who wants (really, anyone whose parents want them) to take it (because otherwise the parents with make a giant stink), and they can't flunk 95% of the kids (an even bigger stink), so the course isn't really more advanced. By now we don't have anyone to teach these classes anyway, because it's too discouraging, and as a result the upper limits on student achievement are bland AP courses, and 40+ kids a year end up with 8-10 such courses when they graduate. Since the school can't really stretch the best kids, there is this undifferentiated mass of overachievers. If the schools really sorted people by ability, everyone would learn more, and it would be okay to make a few mistakes, which would reduce a lot of the pressure.

Of course I don't know how to do this in practice, but I do know that it can't be done as long as we insist on combining "purely objective measures" with "preserving self-esteem". In the meantime, my oldest kid has dropped out of high school to avoid this nonsense, and is learning advanced undergraduate level material as a high school sophomore, and feels no pressure at all...

Posted by hardlyb at August 22, 2006


Well, I watched quite a bit of television as a youth, and did hardly any homework, but I also read an average of ten novels a week. As I got older and took a job, however, I ended up managing my shrunken free time by keeping the television habit, and reading a lot less.

I now think that watching that much television was a mistake, one that I regret - wasted time. I certainly enjoyed most of it, and did learn stuff too, but the information density is pretty low, even in "educational" programmes.

I'm not against watching television, but, like eating dessert, it's a practice best undertaken sparingly.

Perhaps I should note that in addition to watching too much television in the past, I've also eaten too much dessert. I was dimly aware that I was doing so, but didn't much care. I didn't get serious about food-related discipline until a few years ago. Actually, I didn't get serious about any discipline until a few years ago - money, time, food, excercise, health...
Before that I did just enough to get by.

Is that just me, or is it a common middle age thing, for the formerly self-indulgent to wise up and start paying attention ?

Saturday, August 26, 2006

But He's Still Not Leading, or Likely to Win the Tourney - Consistency Outweighs Luck Over the Long Haul

Over at Think of England last month, there was a discussion about whether getting a hole-in-one while golfing was more due to luck, or to skill: A golfing tragedy

Now comes a story which sheds some light on that question.

Miyazato Aces Two Holes in Same Round
Japanese Golfer First to Manage Feat on PGA Tour

RENO, Nev. (Aug. 25) - Japan's Yusaku Miyazato became the first golfer to make two holes-in-one in the same round of a U.S. PGA Tour tournament when he aced a pair of par 3s Friday at the Reno-Tahoe Open. [...]

Bob Tway had two aces in the same tournament at the Memorial in 1993 and Glen Day did the same at the Greater Hartford Open the same year, but Tour officials said they could find no record of any golfer on tour who pulled it off on the same day. [...]

[Miyazato] had one previous hole-in-one and was "very excited" when he holed out the first one on Friday. [...]
"But the second time, it was really unbelievable. I couldn't believe it," Miyazato said. [...]

Because of the undulating nature of the greens, he didn't see either drop in the cup. The crowd let him know the first was an ace.

On No. 12, the gallery was sparse so he was expecting it had hit the pin but bounced away.
"When I went to the green, I was surprised," he said. [...]

PGA officials had Miyazato sign the two Tour Stage golf balls he used, which they planned to send to the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida...

I read that as: Pros are far more likely to get aces than are casual players, so skill is definitely a factor, but it's still unusual, and therefore it's mostly luck.

C'mon Charlie Brown, kick the football

Carol Iannone replies to Heather MacDonald's call for an accomodation with secular conservatives with the cautionary rejoinder that "we tried that once, and we were taken to the cleaners":

I am following with some interest the ongoing debate on religion between Heather Mac Donald and her friendly adversaries at The Corner and today at NRO. Heather is dismayed to hear so many public expressions of religion from conservatives and believes that conservatism needs no religious basis but can rely soly on reason.

The irony is that this public expression of belief is actually a quite recent development. From what I can make out, and forgive this rather crude summary, a bargain was struck many years ago, certainly by mid-twentieth century, that religious believers would leave aside their beliefs when entering public debate. Any intellectual argument had to be handled on the basis of reason, just as Heather advances now. At a certain point, however, believers began to realize that this may have been a devil's bargain. The public arena had not become neutral territory given to reason but a place where atheism and materialism were aggressively able to ascend while believers remained tongue-tied. The Supreme Court decisions outlawing prayer in the schools were only the most visible example. Then, when the counterculture began destroying the traditional understandings that had held America together, even without necessarily mentioning God, conservative believers seriously started to question the old bargain. That's sort of where Father Neuhaus and his criticism of the naked public square and all that came in.

Say what?? Iannone's revisionist history is breathtaking in its cluelessness, but it is a perfect example of the religious conservative "litany", a well rehearsed shorthand view of history in which all was good in society until the radical secular agenda destroyed everything of value in American society. I'm reminded of other ideological litanies, such as the environmental litany propounded by Jared Diamond in his book "Collapse" whereby the collapse of dead civilizations can simplistically be blamed on bad environmental policies.

Can anyone point to any historical event that resembles the "bargain" she refers to? When, prior to 1960, did religious politicians and intellectuals forswear public religious language for the benefit of including secular people? Was it in 1954 when President Dwight D Eisenhower signed the Congressional resolution adding the words "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance? Was it during the 1950's Red Scare when atheism was publicly reviled as the ideology of our arch enemy, the Soviet Union?

And was this "bargain" somehow legally binding on religious people? Were they really constrained from injecting religious viewpoints as they watched radical secularists, to quote Iannone, "destroying the traditional understandings that had held America together"? Was it really the case that dismayed believers said to themselves "I really wish I could counter these atheistic arguments that are destroying the soul of America, but since I am a man of my word, I must honor my part of the bargain"?

She continues:

America seemed to be growing more undisciplined, hedonistic, materialistic, hyper-individualistic, self-indulgent, and so on. Divorce and llegitimacy arose alarmingly, family life was eroding, and one Supreme Court decision after another seemed to remove any vestige of traditional understanding from the conduct of life and of the individual. Believers realized that their bargain was a premature surrender and decided they wouldn't be silent anymore. They took off the white glove and entered the public arena. I remember the amazement I felt when I read that full-page ad some Christian group took out years ago listing the various pronouncements about the importance of religion in our system of representational government on the part of the Founding Fathers.

It wasn't easy because the rationalists, some of whom were great and brilliant people, did not welcome the encroachment. If William Buckley, say, wrote the merest half-sentence in an article suggesting that a society required a belief in something higher than itself, Sidney Hook would leap into print to stomp on any such notion, tear it into shreds, and scatter the shreds to the wind. Hook is mainly an admirable figure, a very early critic of the irrationalism that would overtake the American university and founder of the aptly named University Center for Rational Alternatives, but I believe he did a lot of harm with his single-mindedness and his aggressive and rather arrogant atheism. Asked what he would do if he found out after death that God does exist, he said He would tell God He hadn't provided enough evidence. Ok, it's cute, but it's also arrogant.

America may have been growing more individualistic and hedonistic, but you have to be intellectualy lazy and incurious to the point of being brain dead to attribute this social trend to the effects of an accomodation of secular thought in the public sphere. Somehow a court case that was decided in 1963 to ban prayer from public school had the effect of bringing about a slackening of individual and public morality that had its roots in such landmark events as the rise of Playboy, hipster & drug culture, rock and roll and the youth movement, the public respectability of divorce, all which began in the 1950s, and the birth control pill which was approved by the FDA 3 years before the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools.

Yet this is the popular litany that is repeated ad nauseum by religious social conservatives scapegoating athiests and secular minded people for everything that went wrong with American culture from 1960 on. Iannone's seeming lack of interest in providing facts supporting her analysis just shows how widespread acceptance of the litany has become through constant repetition. Iannone is probably of the younger set of conservatives too young to have experienced the 60's firsthand, and who has been raised on a steady diet of religious conservative commentary without the curiosity to actually fact-check the worldview she has inherited. But, as Orrin would no doubt approve, she gets extra credit for conformity, and that is what American culture is all about, right?

The reality of the situation is that America was predominantly religious before and during the Countercultural revolution of the 1960's, and remains so today. American culture was never under the control of an athiestic mindset. It was largely ordinary religious people who subscribed to Playboy, took advantage of no-fault divorce, took the pill, tuned in, turned on, dropped out, experimented with alternative lifestyles, and then largely settled down and went to work. The religous conservatives will point to a great revival of religion following in the wake of the 60's and 70's, and they are correct. But the inconvenient truth is that most of the alternate lifestyles of the counterclture period are still with us. We just don't notice it because the counterculture of then is the culture of now. Sexual promiscuity is a permanent reality of our culture. So is drug use. So is divorce. So is pornography. All this among the most religious "developed" population on the planet.

I'll inject one personal anecdote for your perusal. My ex-wife tells me of an acquaintance of hers who is a fundamentalist Christian who attends only the most fiery of fire and brimstone churches and who scolds her for buying into the lie of evolution. This person is also a confirmed bachelor and abuser of alcohol, marijuana and occasionally cocaine, who sleeps with women he has no intention of marrying and who frequents nudie bars. Now anecdotes do not prove trends, but it is also true that most people's experiences are generally not unique to them. What is noteworthy about this person is that he is not particularly noteworthy.

And yet the need to scapegoat athiests through the Litany continues, because although it is not news that people are contradictory animals, it is also true that people seek comforting and self-serving explanations to deal with those contradictions. Honest believers will deal with their own contradictions by admitting their own faults, as this article from Christianity Today does. Dishonest believers will scapegoat others by repeating the Litany.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Let's Play "Guess the Bottom"

MORE: A headline today: "Mortgage rates dip for a fifth straight week; 6.48% for 30-year loans"

That'll keep a floor under prices, for awhile.


"We conclude that a decline in house prices is underway [in America]," Grant's Interest Rate Observer recently remarked. "If the house market, like the stock market, were mean-reverting, the sell-off could carry a far way. A return to the post-1968 trend line would imply a drop of 22%."
Which, of course, for these real estate-centric United States, would imply disaster. "We do not predict disaster," Grant continues, "but we do expect a pullback severe enough to inhibit the leveraged American consumer and to stunt the growth of the U.S. economy..."

Real estate transactions – and related economic activities – have become a disproportionably large contributor to the overall U.S. economy. Therefore, we would miss them greatly if they took a sabbatical. "Between 1997 and 2004," Grant relates, "the value of these residential transactions amounted to 16.4% of GDP, almost double the median reading from 1968 through 2005."
This monumental real estate boom fostered "echo-booms" in all housing-related industries. Since the end of 2001, according to Northern Trust economist, Paul Kasriel, housing-related industries have produced a whopping 43% of the nation's total net private sector employment growth.

Obviously, therefore, any slackening of real estate activity could convert the nation's largest job-creator into a job-loser.

~ By Eric J. Fry


During the early-90s Southern California real estate bust, nominal prices fell by an average of 25%, and adjusted for inflation, it took a full decade for prices to recover. In Florida, there have been housing busts that, adjusted for inflation, took over twenty years to clear.
Except for London, (probably), real estate prices in Britain are headed for the cliff as well.

The good news is that the U.S. Fed has plenty of room in which to cut interest rates next year, to attempt a "soft landing". If this bust had come before the Fed had raised interest rates by over 4%, we'd be in a world of hurt.

Since We've Been Speaking of God, Might as Well Meet the Devil

This falls under "bad things happening to good people" and "the efficacy (or lack thereof) of prayer".

In my social circle, I'm regarded as being very laid back, quite mellow.* Over the years a couple of people have even said that I'm the calmest person that they've ever met.
However, this causes to arise within me a killing rage.

Austrian kidnap girl kept a diary

From Michael Leidig in Vienna
The Times

The Austrian girl who was snatched off the street and held captive in a cellar for eight years in Vienna kept a detailed diary of her ordeal, her family said today.

Natascha Kampusch was 10 when she was dragged into a white van as she walked to school on Rennbahnweg in Vienna, in March 1998 and was kept hidden by Wolfgang Priklopil underneath his house.

Rupert Leutgeb, a spokesman for the family, confirmed the diary was "hundreds of pages long" but said no details would be revealed until Natasha decided what she wanted to do with it.

Officers revealed today that Natascha managed to escape when Priklopil made her vacuum his car which was parked in the garden. He received a phone-call, but the vacuum-cleaner was too loud to have the conversation, so he walked away from the car, giving her the opportunity to flee.

She ran to a next-door neighbour and told her she had been held captive for eight years. [...]

Priklopil killed himself by jumping in front of a train soon after Natascha escaped. [...]

Natascha’s mother told a local newspaper that her daughter weighed only 42kg (6st 9lb) after her escape - less than she did before her disappearance, despite growing an extra 15cm (6ins) to 1.60 metres (5ft 3ins) in height.

From the dungeon into dad's arms

By Michael Leidig and Sean O'Neill
The Australian

EIGHT harrowing years had passed, but there was instant recognition between father and the daughter who had been held captive in an underground dungeon since they last saw each other. [...]

[Ludwig Koch, the father of Natascha Kampusch], said later that at their reunion his daughter simply said: "Dad, I love you."
"And the next question was: 'Is my toy car still there?' It was Natascha's favourite toy, I never gave it away in all those years," he told the Austrian daily Kurier. "I always put out of my mind the thought that she was dead."
On Thursday, Natascha was also reunited with her mother, Brigitte Sirny, for the first time since the morning in 1998 when she was snatched off a Vienna street as she walked to school. Police have taken the family to a "secure location" to allow them some privacy, but also to give detectives the chance to piece together the story of the most astonishing crime in Austria's post-war history. [...]

On Wednesday night, when he realised that she had escaped after eight years living in an underground room in his house, [Wolfgang Priklopil], 44, threw himself under a train. Austrian media reports say Natascha received the news of his suicide calmly. Natascha, who has reportedly told police that Priklopil sexually abused her, said he had warned her that he would never be captured alive.

She was held in a purpose-built 1.8mx3m cell beneath the garage of Priklopil's house in Heinestrasse in the village of Strasshof, near Gaenserndorf, 24km northeast of Vienna. The room was equipped with a bed, a cupboard and a few children's books. The only visible clue to its existence was a 50cm-wide hole in the cellar floor.
Priklopil forced Natascha to call him Gebieter, an old-fashioned term for "master" usually only found in fairy stories. Adolf Brenner, chief of police in the Deutsch-Wagram district, said: "He seems to have made great efforts to keep her away from the outside world. She was allowed limited access to the television and radio, and sometimes she was given videos." [...]
For more than seven years, Natascha never left her cell. But a few months ago Priklopil began to allow her to spend short periods in his garden and even took her on shopping trips. He warned her, however, that any attempt to escape or shout for help would not be a good idea.

At lunchtime on Wednesday, Natascha was allowed into the garden on her own and seized her chance. [...]
Aware that she had finally escaped, Priklopil climbed into his red BMW and sped away from his home. Details of his car were circulated to police patrols around Vienna and a chase ensued. Priklopil shook off the pursuing cars and abandoned his car in a shopping centre car park. Police say he called a friend and told him he needed help because he was being chased for a drink-driving offence. The friend took Priklopil away from the area.
At about 9pm, officers received a report that a man had jumped under a train at the Praterstern Vienna North station. A spokesman said: "We found BMW keys in the pocket and he was wearing the correct clothes. We have not yet performed a DNA test but we can say with certainty that this suicide was Wolfgang Priklopil." [...]

[On March 2, 1998, the day of her disappearance], [w]itnesses saw her being bundled into a white mini-van. The vehicle had the letter G on its registration plate, indicating that it was from Gaenserndorf, the area where she was found. The owners of all such vans, including Priklopil, were traced and interviewed. He was released after officers decided that he "seemed completely respectable". As the years passed without news, the scale of the police hunt was reduced. Mr Koch, however, never gave up hope and never stopped searching. [...]
Mr Koch said: "Natascha is emaciated, with a very, very white skin and bruises over her entire body. I cannot bear to think where they came from." [...]

Austria has also been soul-searching since Natascha's escape. Priklopil's neighbours have become a particular focus of attention. They described the self-employed communications technician as "a very calm and low-key" man who never seemed to miss a day's work. He lived in a house built by his father, and next door to his uncle, but seemed to never have guests, apart from an occasional visit from his elderly mother who would come around to make him lunch. Priklopil's house was bristling with security cameras and alarms and was known locally as "Fort Knox". One local resident said he told neighbours never to pop around unannounced because he had "built a number of surprises into my house and we don't want somebody innocent to get fried". Josef Jantschek said: "I know it sounds awful now, but we had a good relationship with Wolfgang." [...]

Max Edelbaucher, who led the investigation into Natascha's disappearance until his retirement last month, said he had received "the best retirement gift I could ever have imagined". Mr Edelbaucher added: "Nobody, not me nor any other policeman, believed that she could still be alive. This is a sensation. However, it is horrible that a girl could be held in our area for eight years while being unsuccessfully searched for by thousands of policemen..."

* Rather like how the monster's neighbors describe Wolfgang Priklopil, actually.

Silly and Self-flattering

Woods in Favor of Drug Testing
World No. 1 Wants PGA to be Proactive About Steroids

AP Sports

AKRON, Ohio (Aug. 24) - Tiger Woods said he would like to see testing on the PGA Tour for performance-enhancing drugs as soon as possible to make sure golf remains clean.

Despite the lack of evidence that any golfers are using steroids, Tiger Woods thinks that golf should have a drug testing policy. "I don't know when we could get that implemented," Woods said. "Tomorrow would be fine with me."

Woods did not say he thought anyone was using steroids, but said it could be a problem in the future.

"I think we should be proactive instead of reactive," he said. "I just think we should be ahead of it and keep our sport as pure as can be. This is a great sport, and it's always been clean."

Woods' comments came one day after PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said he saw no need for drug testing in golf without evidence that any players are using steroids.

C'mon now. While golf might be a very competitive game, it's hardly a physically-demanding sport. If there were any decisive advantage to be gained by being ripped, wouldn't we have seen massively large pro golfers by now ?
I mean, other than massively large around the middle.

When a fourteen year old girl can compete (although not win) at the highest level in men's golf, I think that it's safe to say that the PGA won't be in the middle of a doping scandal anytime soon, since there's little point in larger muscles in golf.
At least, not a performance-enhancing doping scandal. It's more likely that someone will get into legal trouble for abusing prescription diet pills, or actual dope.

Of course, if at some point in the future there was a league in which both men and women competed without concession for the females, then they'd probably want to have such testing, mainly to catch those women who needed an upper-body boost just to be as muscled as the sub-average man.
But that seems to me to be unlikely to occur.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

I couldn't have said it better myself

Heather MacDonald has been making a splash of late in conservative circles for her promulgation of a secular strain of conservatism. It started with this article on conservatism & religious belief in the August edition of the American Conservative. That prompted this reply from Michael Novak in National Review and FirstThings. Heather followed up with this reply to Novak today in National Review:
I have no doubt that a believer’s experience of God is powerful and transformative — indeed, that it is the most important reality in his life, as Novak so eloquently describes. I also know that no set of arguments can counter the force of that experience. But with all due respect, subjective experience is not always a guarantor of objective reality. It well may be that a Christian’s ecstatic awareness of God’s love is in fact caused by that love, but an outside observer needs something more to reach that conclusion.

He will likely evaluate the claims for God’s existence based on objective evidence. And here I have to revert to the question of why very bad things happen to good people, a topic which must be infinitely tedious to believers, because I find Novak’s arguments for God’s love more conclusory than evidentiary.

The most important characteristics of the Christian God, as I understand them, are his love of man and his justice. If one were to posit a god who is capricious, ironic, absent-minded, depraved, or completely unknowable, I’d be on board. Any one of those characteristics would comport with a deity superintending the world as I see it. But not the idea, as a Bush administration publicist put it to me, that every one of us is “precious in God’s eyes.”

Let me take a banal example. As I write this, the Los Angeles Times has a small item on a thoroughly unremarkable traffic accident. A 27-year-old man in Los Angeles misread a traffic signal, and drove his car into an oncoming Blue Line Metro Train. He and his sister were killed; his 7-year-old son and his grandmother were seriously injured.

Now imagine that a human father had behaved towards the occupants of the car as our Divine Father did. That is: a) He knew that his children would be mowed down by a train; b) he had the capacity to avert the disaster through any number of, for him, quite simple means; and c) he chose to do nothing. No one would call this father’s deliberate and possibly criminal passivity “love.” Instead, we would deem such a father a monster and banish him from our midst. Yet when God behaves in just this way, we remain firm in our conviction that he loved the occupants of that car, and that each was “precious” in his eyes.

How do I know that God could have averted the accident? Because believers tell me so. At the encouragement of their Church, Catholics regularly pray to saints to intercede with God on their behalf for the cure of sickness or protection from accidents. Such prayers would be nonsensical if God did not have the capacity to answer them. When a believer recovers from cancer, he thanks God for saving him. Ditto when an air passenger misses a flight which subsequently crashes — if he is a believer, he will likely thank God for keeping him off board (without wondering why he deserved a reprieve from death and the other passengers did not). If a hurricane misses a town, believers express gratitude to God for redirecting its course. As I mentioned in my American Conservative article, John Ashcroft credits God for keeping America safe since 9/11 (while holding him blameless from allowing the attack to go forward in the first place).

The traffic accident reported in the Los Angeles Times was quite trivial; such events happen on a daily basis in every town around the world. It is perhaps unfair to question God’s love for every “precious” last one of us on the basis of one measly car accident (which nevertheless was not insignificant for the car’s occupants). But it seems that there is simply nothing that will shake a believer from his conviction in God’s solicitude for man. This belief precedes worldly evidence; it does not grow out of it. Last year, National Review approvingly quoted Pope John Paul’s observation that God allowed “Nazism [only] twelve years of existence,” a statement intended to reassure us of God’s continuing love for individual human beings. A host of questions present themselves, including: Would 15 years have triggered a spasm of doubt? And if it’s acceptable for God to allow Nazism for 12 years, what about the Nazis themselves?

Perhaps when believers speak of God’s “love,” they use the term in a way that has nothing to do with ordinary usage. Novak maybe implies as much when he states: “What is difficult to believe is that any one of us . . . knows more than God does about His love for every individual.” God’s “love” is different from human love; it includes the capacity to foresee and watch the destruction of one’s children and not intervene. But then why not use a different word entirely — “callousness,” say. At the very least, if we are going to continue to use ordinary words in counterintuitive ways to refer to God, we should give them some sort of diacritical marker to let listeners know that the words they are hearing don’t mean what they ordinarily mean. One could speak of “G-love,” for instance, to distinguish it from ordinary human love.

This last paragraph from MacDonald eloquently makes the point that I have also made in past discussions on the Daily Duck saying that God has to either be judged by human standards of good and evil, in which he would be judged evil, or must be considered to be an alien, non-personal being following a different standard of good and evil that has no meaning or bearing for humans. He can't be personal and good, because as a person he is at best a cruel tyrant, at worst an unpredictable psychopath.

And MacDonald is dead on with these observations, which mirror the arguments that Harry, Skipper and I have been making in Pastor Kennedy's Deadly Hair:

Novak’s characterization of the Catholic Church strikes me as debatable. Perhaps today’s Catholic Church stands for “liberty,” but that phrase may be anachronistic applied to most of the Church’s glory years, even without reference to its reaction to the Reformation or the establishment of the Universal Inquisition. Even during the great explosion of Renaissance art under the patronage of Popes Julius II and Leo X, I don’t think that “liberty” was what the Church was about. Order, authority, grandeur, hierarchy — yes, and these are all extremely valuable traits. The uniting of temporal and spiritual power—that, as well, to magnificent result in Rome and elsewhere.

I also disagree slightly with Novak’s claim that Christianity conquered the world only “by argument and by personal example.” This may be true in the main, but early Christian emperors stamped out classical religion by destroying temples and outlawing pagan rituals. Pagans, Jews, and heretics were pariahs under the law. Justinian the Great shut down the Academy in Athens. These may have been necessary measures, but they go beyond argument.

You go, girl! MacDonald's summary is a perfectly reasoned response to the argument that conceptions of morality and justice are exclusively religious in nature and not derivable through secular principles:
Religious institutions and beliefs are, however, human creations. They grow out of man’s instinct for system and order, as well as out of the desire for life beyond death and a divine intervener in human affairs. Our striving for justice is one of the great human attributes. Far from imitating a divine model, man’s every effort to dispense justice is a battle against the randomness that rules the natural world.

It is probably not possible to determine whether the aspects of modern life that we most value today — including the rule of law, scientific exploration, or the free market — trace their origins ultimately to Christianity or to concurrent developments in the Western world. But America’s governing institutions stand on strong secular grounds, as well as whatever religious origins we may want to give them. And the arguments for conservative values can proceed on reason alone.

Make room, religious conservatives. The secular Cons are here! Deal with it.

Update: Razib Khan provides an excellent blow by blow commentary of the Heather MacDonald/National Review debates.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Roll over Betjeman (and tell Walt Whitman the news)

The Blogger’s Lament
by Brit

Upstairs in the unforgiving
World, the World must earn a living,
Stuggling 'gainst the time and tide,
'Til sun sets on that World Outside
And softly sweet the night is falling,
But the blogger’s lonely calling,
Keeps him to his basement tied.

For the blogger’s work is ne’er abated,
The newsfeed’s greed is never sated,
The blogosphere keeps getting bigger,
And RSI it cramps his trigger-
happy finger, ever-clicking,
Ever cutting, pasting, sticking,
And in the end for what? Go figure!

Is it of his own volition
He endures this strange war of attrition?
Perhaps for his own education?
Perhaps for folks in other nations?
For those whom ignorance has blinded,
Or for the like and unlike-minded?
Perhaps for future generations?

For who can doubt it’s his vocation
To surf this sea of information?
His skill: to find the perfect snippet,
To metaphorically paperclip it
To another view or bent,
Find the balance of the argument,
Then, with his pithy comment, tip it.

But beside his true goal this goal pales:
He hopes to tip the whole World’s scales!
For those who know the blogworld know
A snowball idea can grow and grow!
And in other basements, down below,
By the monitor light’s ghostly glow,
Other bloggers add their snow.
For the blogworld’s ever on the go,
A constant state of change and flow…

…But from himself he’ll try and mask
How great his Sisyphean task.
For the Outside World’s so big, so slow,
And jealously guards the status quo.

Ooh you Americans are so butch!

From the Christian Science Monitor:

CHICAGO – News readers in the Windy City this fall might be forgiven for thinking they've stumbled into California by mistake.

Last week the city council approved a far-reaching smoking ban; now, they're following in California's footsteps again as they consider outlawing another un-PC indulgence: foie gras.

If the bill passes, the world's hog butcher will become the first city to restrict sale of the delicacy (California's ban won't take place until 2012). It passed out of committee and could be brought to a council vote as soon as Wednesday.

The issue hasn't exactly taken Chicago by storm; most residents don't even know what the buttery tidbit is, much less care that it's threatened. But the debate surrounding foie gras (pronounced fwah-grah - French for "fatty liver") has picked up nationwide, and Chicago has become a battleground that pits restauranteurs against each other, and has gourmands facing off against animal-rights activists.

"Our laws are a reflection of our society's values, and our culture does not condone the torture of small innocent animals," says Joe Moore, the Chicago alderman who proposed the ban, though he acknowledges he hasn't visited a foie gras farm and isn't sure if he's ever eaten the food. "It's not a matter of personal choice."

A growing chorus of animal-rights groups has worked to make eating foie gras the ethical equivalent of clubbing baby seals, and the target of a small flurry of laws.

Massachusetts is considering a similar ban, and bills made progress in Oregon and New York this year before losing steam. The Illinois Senate has unanimously passed a bill outlawing production in the state (which has never had a foie gras farm), and a proposal will soon be introduced in Hawaii.

Can this really be the land of ‘guns, guts and God’ I see before me, kowtowing to a bunch of tree-hugging, veggie carrot-munchers?

Truly, the Discombobulation approacheth!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Pastor Kennedy's Deadly Hair

Dr. D. James Kennedy, founder of Coral Ridge Ministries, is funding a new multimedia program called Darwin's Deadly Legacy to delegitimize Darwinism by crediting it with all of the ills of the 19th and 20th centuries, including the Nazi holocaust, eugenics, abortion, atheism and bad hair. I normally don't troll the internet for anti-Darwinist drivel (okay, I really do), but I managed to catch the TV infomercial for Kennedy's slick oevure of lies while flipping channels this morning between the early Sunday basic cable fare of ESPN sports, local news "magazine" shows, evangelical preachers and paid promotional spots for get rich stock trading seminars and wonder mops (speaking of wonder mops, Kennedy's hair could probably absorb five gallons of spilt milk).

What first caught my eye about this disinfomercial was the creepy visage of Ann Coulter railing against the evil lies of Darwinism. I guess Coulter's slide to the bottom of the barrel is official. If you are going to position yourself on the far right wacko fringe, an alliance with someone like Dr. Kennedy will do the trick. Kennedy is arguably one of the most influential Christian voices on the rightwing fringe, that group of religious activist that truly represents Andrew Sullivan's overplayed accusation of "Christianist". The mission statement for Coral Ridge Ministries (CRM) states "Coral Ridge Ministries (CRM) is a television, radio, and print outreach that is touching the lives of millions -nationwide and overseas. CRM's three-fold mission is to evangelize, nurture Christian growth through biblical instruction, and act in obedience to the Cultural Mandate by applying the truth of Scripture to all of life, including civic affairs. He is closely aligned with the Reconstructionist/Dominionist movement, which seeks to impose Biblical law upon American citizens:
Kennedy is an active member of COR (Coalition on Revival), a Reconstructionist/Dominionist organization dedicated to a social gospel/activism agenda that proposes to impose Biblical standards (e.g., Old Testament law) on unbelieving peoples and institutions. Kennedy is also a Steering Committee member of COR, and was scheduled to be the moderator for the first phase of COR's 1994 Church Council on theology (held 7/25/94-7/30/94 at Campus Crusade's Arrowhead Springs Hotel in San Bernardino, California), which seeks to establish doctrine on 24 topics in nine major areas, one of which is "Unity of the Body of Christ in any city as non-optional." He was a signator to all of COR's founding documents. As an indication of what the people affiliated with COR believe, the following is from a recent brochure announcing the 12th Annual Northwest Conference for Christian Reconstruction. Does this not sound like a different gospel? (All emphases added):

"The Christian Reconstruction movement believes that the Bible contains not only a message of personal salvation through the blood of Christ shed on the cross, but also a comprehensive law structure which is alone able to provide a just basis for society. It is committed to the view that sovereignty and thus government belong to God, and that all delegated government, whether to family, church or state (civil government), is to be exercised in obedience to the law of God's covenant. Furthermore, salvation involves every aspect of man's life and thus also the relationships he sustains to the world around him. The exercise of dominion in accordance with the terms of God's covenant is therefore basic and vital to the Christian faith. To neglect this is to deprecate the extent of Christ's victory at Calvary."

One should note that the above accusations are from a Christian website, and not some secular site that is paranoid about impending theocracy (like this site). Among Kennedy's other heresies are his love for the "Roman Church" his belief in the "Gospel in the Stars", an occultic astrological theology, and Heaven forbid, Freudian psychology!

OK, enough about Kennedy and his unnatural hair. What about the charge against Darwin? Did Darwinism lead directly to eugenics and the Holocaust? This is a belief that is far more popular than the wacky, dangerous fantasies of a plasticized TV preacher from Florida. Even subterranean New Hampshire bloggers are known to fall for this fallacy.

Undoubtedly the principles of Darwinism were used to support the eugenics movement, but ideas about fit and unfit bloodlines and the segregation of society by racial characteristics predate Darwin, and indeed are supported by traditional religious sources, including the Bible:
The notion of segregating people considered unfit to reproduce dates back to antiquity. For example, the Old Testament describes the Amalekites – a supposedly depraved group that God condemned to death.

In the US the eugenics movement found strong support from some Christian organizations and was actively preached from the pulpit.
With the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust behind us, opponents of Darwinian evolution wish to rewrite history to absolve Christianity of any blame for the terrible legacy of eugenic philosophy. One trope that is commonly invoked is that eugenics is contrary to the Judeo-Christian notion that all people are born in the image of God and therefore of equal worth and dignity. But this seems to be a historically recent emphasis of Christian values, and not a permanent attribute. Christians in previous times have found ample support within their theological canon for the radically unequal valuing of human lives, whether in justification of the slave trade or the oppression of Jewish and non-Christian populations. Bad theology is hard enough on civilization. Lets not allow the religious fringe to inflict bad science on us as well.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

To London, to London, to see a dead pig..

is a refrain that you won't be hearing in the hinterlands of England nowadays, thanks to the folks at Newlyn Art Gallery and their philistine outreach program as they bring the cutting edge work of performance artist Kira O'Reilly, who boldly but sensitively explores the unknown in her performance piece "Inthewrongplaceness" where she cradles a dead pig while naked, to such culturally deprived, provincial cow towns as Penzance, and possibly even Bristol, in the future. James Green, the gallery's director, sees the program as an important cultural growth opportunity for the outlying regions, saying "In terms of the gallery's view, we feel very strongly that we should provide audiences in the region with opportunities to see the kind of works that they have to go to London to experience."

Bravo! No longer will those poor blighted souls, whose only crime has been to have been born outside London and to have been too poor and/or stupid to leave, be deprived of the rich, vital cultural experiences to be gleaned from crossing the barrier separating naked woman from dead pig, a barrier ignorantly imposed by our patriarchal and swino-phobic western cultural hegemon. To quote O'Reilly:

This work emerges from research with skin biopsies from newly dead pigs, cultivating the skin cells in vitro, in preparation to work from a biopsy of my own body’s skin.

The work left me with an undercurrent of pigginess, unexpected fantasies of mergence and interspecies metamorphoses began to flicker into my consciousness; making fiercely tender and ferocious identifications with the pig as stand in, double, twin, doll, imaginary self.

Lead the way, Kira, lead the way!

The Rules of Engagement

Continuing the Adult Themes here on the Daily Duck (and I dread to think what kind of Google ads we're going to atttract if we continue like this - although that might be good for revenues, but I digress), The Telegraph’s Oliver Pritchett amusingly skewers the modern predilection for shocking surveys about how much more fun today’s teens are having than we ever bloody did:

Teen sex surveys ruin your love life

A shocking new study reveals that, by the age of 15, more than 64 per cent of boys and girls have taken part in surveys about their sexual habits and attitudes. In Britain, the vast majority of girls have answered questions about their virginity at least six times by the age of 17. Many young people claim to be regularly taking part in two surveys a day, often with different research organisations.

A truly alarming number of young people questioned for this latest study admit that, on at least one occasion, they gave "casual" responses, ie they didn't know or care if their answers were accurate. Four out of five said they had been interviewed by a researcher when drunk. Some said they were so drunk that they had no idea whether they were being questioned about how many sexual partners they had had or how many lagers….

Elsewhere, Peter B gives us Tom Wolfe’s nice observation about changing sexual mores amongst today’s teenagers:

Only yesterday boys and girls spoke of embracing and kissing (necking) as getting to first base. Second base was deep kissing, plus groping and fondling this and that. Third base was oral sex. Home plate was going all the way. That was yesterday. Here in the year 2000 we can forget about necking. Today's girls and boys have never heard of anything that dainty. Today first base is deep kissing, now known as tonsil hockey, plus groping and fondling this and that. Second base is oral sex. Third base is going all the way. Home plate is being introduced by name.

Not being big baseball fans in England (we call it ‘rounders’ and view it as a game for Girl Guides and Boy Scouts too feeble-minded to attempt a proper game like cricket), we don’t traditonally break down what might euphamistically be termed ‘courtship’ in this fashion, but if we did it would of course go something like this:

First base: Formal introduction by a third party.
Second base: A series of awkward conversations, in the drawing room of a mutual acquaintance, about the weather.
Third base: Expensive but tasteful marriage ceremony in St Paul’s Cathedral, followed by the clumsy, never-to-be-repeated unmentionables of the wedding night.
Fourth base: Many thousands of hours pottering in the garden or knitting by the fire with the wireless on, and then, the peace of the grave.

That’s the middle-class version of course. The working-class version might be familiar to you from the famously classy ‘Carry On’ film sequence, and follows this pattern:

First base: How’s yer father?
Second base: A bit of what you fancy.
Third base: Slap and tickle.
Fourth base: Rumpy-pumpy.

Mind you, the French, being the experts at romance, do it best:

First base: Long, deep kissing in the most public place available, such as the fromage section of the local supermarket, or the entrance to the Sacre-Coer.
Second base: Full intercourse.
Third base: A post-coital cigarette and a turgid, inscrutable discussion about the meaninglessness of life.
Fourth base: Taking a mistress.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Just to Increase the Incestuousness of the Situation...

I'd like to refer you to this post over at Thought Mesh.

Some Interesting and Potentially Useful Information about America's Largest Employer

“I think at this point, with interest rates pausing and the market trading at its lowest ratio of market cap value over earnings in more than 15 years, it's time to look at some of the biggest value plays for safe bets.

First, Wal-Mart. It has increased book value per share every year for 10 years, including the recession year of 2001. At the end of 2000, Wal-Mart's book value was $5.80, with the share price hovering in the $50 range. Now, with book value at a much higher $11.67, the stock price is lower, at $45.

Wal-Mart's average price-to-earnings ratio in the past 10 years was in the 30s. Now, shares are at their lowest multiple-to-cash flows since the 1970s, at 17.”

- James Altucher
Financial Times

Feel free to sue me if this doesn't work out well for you.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

High Anxiety and Western Values..

are driving the Japanese crazy, according to this Times Online article:
THE rapid spread of Western business practices in Japan has caused widespread mental illness and is responsible for a deepening demographic crisis, government officials say.

Statistics indicate that 60 per cent of workers suffer from “high anxiety” and that 65 per cent of companies report soaring levels of mental illness.

Meanwhile, the size of the Japanese population is shrinking, and for the first time the Government has acknowledged that the falling birth rate is linked to job-related factors. Directors of the Japanese Mental Health Institute blame the same factors for rising levels of depression among workers and the country’s suicide rate, which remains the highest among rich nations.

Merit-based pay and promotion are of particular concern because they are at odds with the traditional system, built on seniority, that has reigned supreme in corporate Japan. In the harsh new atmosphere of cut-throat rivalry between workers, the Institute for Population and Social Security argues, young people do not feel financially stable enough to start families.

The trend is put down to Japanese companies’ attempts to globalise by adopting working practices more closely in line with US and British models. Larger numbers of temporary staff, a greater willingness to sack people and greater pay disparities are the downside.

A spokesman for the Mental Health Institute said that the emphasis on individual performance was driving Japanese workers — particularly those in their thirties — to mental turmoil. “People tend to be individualised under the new working patterns,” he said. “When people worked in teams they were happier.”

Now stop me if I'm wrong, but weren't the Japanese under an enormous psychological burden under the old system, as well? While guraranteed lifetime employment, workers were required to put in long hours and then required to socialize with the boss until the wee hours of the evening. They even coined a new term in Japanese to describe the early deaths brought on by this highly socialized industrial regimen: karoshi.

But I can understand the culture shock that such an individualized, competitive ethos can have on more traditional, collectivized cultures. I think that this shows just how radical Anglo-Saxon culture is in comparison to the rest of the world. The complaints from the Japanese workers don't sound much different than the wails from the brave French students standing up for their rights to lifetime security. I think that it is part of our evolved nature as a tribal species to expect a permanent place in the social sphere, which is not contingent on extra-social factors related to one's ability to adapt to some ever-shifting set of performance criteria, but to one's ability to establish and maintain social bonds in a group that will endure through one's lifetime.

Which is why I think socialism and other collectivist ethics will remain permanent players on the socio-political scene. Our nature is to derive economic status from social accomplishments, not vice versa, which is the capitalist way. There is something radically different about the way that we have de-linked economic potential from social factors.

Self Rererence Alert! Speaking of workplace anxiety, I underwent my annual performance review with my new employer today. The good news is that I'm on the high side of "meets expectation". The discouraging part about the whole review process is that it is just one more opportunity for the world to point out the flaws that you have had since birth and which you will not be getting rid of until your death.

The review is based on the flawed assumption that it is possible to mold employees into the coveted "well rounded person" in whom all personality traits are equally balanced. This is all just a farce perpetrated by the Human Potential movement and encouraged under the futile Human Resources practice labeled "personal development". Each of us is unbalanced by nature. We have a set personality which contains strong points and weak points, as viewed from the perspective of any particular job situation. No matter how well you do a job, employers will always see it as their duty to point out those particular traits that you posess that they think would make you a better worker if they were changed.

So every year I hear the same thing in my performance review: "could be more agressive". This is something I've been told since I was a young, painfully shy child. I'm by nature cautious and non-confrontational, but I've managed to build a successful career as an IT professional with a non-agressive, cooperative style. Heck, I was even a successful Marine officer, although they also told me I needed to be more aggressive. Just once I'd like to see a review that stated "isn't very agressive, but gets the job done in his own style". If I get the job done, does it matter that I'm not agressive? And just what do I have to do differently to be more agressive? Bang my shoes on the table? Would that really make people feel better? Or are we (as Americans) just so keyed into the idea that being aggressive is the single milestone for measuring success?

So even though I predicted that comment would be in my review, and that I would get a good review anyhow, I'm still bummed. It's just another jab into an old wound, all the more painful because it is such a rote exercise, as if the Human Resources manual stated "As part of every review, make sure to poke the employee in some old, sensitive wound".

That cheese revenue can't come fast enough.

My Very Easy Mnemonic Just Summed Up Nine Planets…erm and a Xylophone? Curses! Curses!

From the Telegraph:

Like membership of the European Union, being one of the solar system's planets used to be a matter of great prestige. But now it seems they will let any old lump of rock in.

Ceres, Charon and Xena may sound like this season's most popular chav baby names, but they are in fact two asteroids (and a moon) that within the week will be rebranded "dwarf planets". Next Thursday, 2,500 of the world's most eminent astronomers gather in Prague, and it is expected that the nine planets that orbit the Sun will become the 12.

It was previously thought that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) would instead downgrade Pluto, which since its discovery in 1930 has never really shone on the inter-planetary stage. This is hardly surprising, since it is not just 3,600 million miles from the Sun, but so tiny that its equator could quite easily be fully circled by plane without even time to enjoy an in-flight movie.

The threat of Pluto's expulsion led to a "Save Pluto" campaign by supporters, largely near the home of its discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh.

I wonder if Pluto cares.

The love letter: a write-off

This story popped up last year:

A flick through last weekend's newspapers should have been an illuminating experience for anyone interested in learning more about Tony Blair. Graphologists - handwriting experts - had been invited by some of the press to analyse a sheet of paper containing doodles by the prime minister during a meeting at last week's World Economic Forum.

Some of the results made alarming reading. According to a graphologist consulted by the Times, Mr Blair's use of triangles represented a "death wish", symbolic, she said, of "the risk to his political career".

Elaine Quigley, a graphologist consulted by the Daily Mirror, thought the scribbles showed "the Blair Flair at work without the overlay of public performance". The circling of words was, she said, a sign of the prime minister's "quick mind and ability to turn on the spot and come up with a fluent answer".

Conversely, graphologist Helen Taylor, quoted in the Independent, found the badly formed circles revealed "an inability to complete tasks".

The only blot in the copybook came later when Number 10 disowned the doodles. The scribbles of this reckless, struggling incompetent were actually the work of fellow delegate Bill Gates, who as founder of Microsoft is possibly the world's most successful self-made businessman.

All of which leaves an even bigger question mark hanging over the already controversial practice of handwriting analysis.

Graphology challenges homeopathy and astrology for title of most blatant pseudoscience con-job, but I do occasionally mourn the death of handwriting – or more specifically of my handwriting, which, even if it didn’t reveal much about my personality traits, did at least of itself form a significant part of my projected persona.

The trusty cartridge fountain-pen that saw me through so many examinations and milestone letters still resides in a box somewhere, but I fear the script that evolved over the years to achieve an optimum balance between speed, individual style and legibility is long gone. These days I can barely scribble a few spidery biro notes or fill in a form without resenting the manual labour and the subsequent writer’s cramp. Heck, it even annoys me if I can’t use the Autofill thing in online forms.

But it seems the wider implications for western society of this 21st century attitude to writing might be grave:

From the BBC:

One in five have never received a love letter, and half haven't had one for a decade, a government survey of 2,000 women suggests.

The survey from the Department for Education and Skills said 77% of women would prefer to receive a love letter to an e-mail or text. And yet just as the e-mail is inexorably killing the ordinary letter, so it seems its predations are dooming the love letter.

Love letters? How would a lad today even know where to begin with a love letter? He can’t even hold a pen.

Yet even though the carefully-crafted and perfectly-timed romantic letter has been the foundation of all the greatest love stories ever told, I’m doubtful that many men have ever really been able to write them without descending into clumsy and cringe-inducing cliché, and few blokes will miss the pressure of getting them right. Talk about a minefield.

Darcy’s knock-out efforts have Elizabeth Bennett swooning in Pride and Prejudice, but only because they were actually written by Jane Austen, a woman. Rudolphe keeps Madame Bovary on the boil with his secret notes, but Flaubert, a man, chickens out of showing them to us, and all we know is that they’re there, and they’re ‘shorter than she would have liked.’

That’s the essence of the love letter – they’re purely a female invention: women not only write the ones they want to write, they read the ones they want to read.

Oscar Wilde captured it in this exchange from The Importance of Being Earnest:

Cecily. Yes, you’ve wonderfully good taste, Ernest. It’s the excuse I’ve always given for your leading such a bad life. And this is the box in which I keep all your dear letters. [Kneels at table, opens box, and produces letters tied up with blue ribbon.]

Algernon. My letters! But, my own sweet Cecily, I have never written you any letters.

Cecily. You need hardly remind me of that, Ernest. I remember only too well that I was forced to write your letters for you. I wrote always three times a week, and sometimes oftener.

Algernon. Oh, do let me read them, Cecily?

Cecily. Oh, I couldn’t possibly. They would make you far too conceited. [Replaces box.] The three you wrote me after I had broken off the engagement are so beautiful, and so badly spelled, that even now I can hardly read them without crying a little.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Buddy, can you spare $1.47?

Never mind the crisis in the Middle East and the chaos at Heathrow, only one thought has been consuming my every waking hour since Duck returned: how to spend our money?

Admittedly, it took a while to come to terms with the fact that the lack of an ‘m’, never mind a ‘bn’ after the $1.47 as stated in the end-of-year accounts was not just another one of the Duckians’ all-too-frequent typos. And it is also true that now that we’ve turned professional here at the Daily Duck, there is a palpable extra pressure on us to ‘supply the goods’, blogging-wise, in order to justify and indeed maximise the online revenue streams that have suddenly opened up to us.

Nonetheless, while it’s there and the tax man still doesn’t know about it, it occurs to me that we may as well spend spend spend! I had thought about prudent investments and salting that little bit extra away for the long, long retirement that my grandchildren won’t be able to fund even with the crippling national insurance bills that await them, but then I thought: what the hell, let’s just blow the whole lot in one go. You can’t take it with you, as they say.

It only remains for us to choose the right object for this blow-out. Here are the most exciting things that the interweb can give you for $1.47…

Option 1: A personalised ‘Daily Duck’ finger mitt, in Royal Blue and Silver

Ideal for spreading the word about the Daily Duck’s exciting bi-weekly mix of anti-religious diatribe and speculation about oil prices! Get those finger mitts on and get clicking! (Nb, to get one at this price we’d also have to buy 9,999 others, which is worth bearing in mind)

Option 2: One square foot of Number 2 Select Knotty unfinished 3/4" Southern Yellow Pine.

Continual stamping in frustration at having your painstakingly-crafted sarcastic wisecrack deleted from the BrosJudd comments section takes its toll. Give that square foot of floor directly beneath your computer desk the makeover it’s been crying out for!

Option 3: One Albrecht Durer watercolour pencil

I'd go for Burnt Carmine 194 in honour of Orrin’s witches, or Light Yellow Glaze 104 in reference to what happens to M Ali’s eyes when reading our thoughts on the origins of morality.

Option 4: An ebook of Samuel Johnson’s The History Of Rasselas, Prince Of Abissinia

In forlorn hopes that it’s the only book left that Harry has yet to read.

Votes please!

Monday, August 14, 2006

What’s caveman for ‘Not tonight, dear’?

From the BBC:

A woman's sex drive begins to plummet once she is in a secure relationship, according to research.

Researchers from Germany found that four years into a relationship, less than half of 30-year-old women wanted regular sex.

Conversely, the team found a man's libido remained the same regardless of how long he had been in a relationship.

Writing in the journal Human Nature, the scientists said the differences resulted from how humans had evolved.

The researchers from Hamburg-Eppendorf University interviewed 530 men and women about their relationships.

They found 60% of 30-year-old women wanted sex "often" at the beginning of a relationship, but within four years of the relationship this figure fell to under 50%, and after 20 years it dropped to about 20%.

In contrast, they found the proportion of men wanting regular sex remained at between 60-80%, regardless of how long they had been in a relationship.


The study also revealed tenderness was important for women in a relationship.

About 90% of women wanted tenderness, regardless of how long they had been in a relationship, but only 25% of men who had been in a relationship for 10 years said they were still seeking tenderness from their partner.

Dr Dietrich Klusmann, lead author of the study and a psychologist from Hamburg-Eppendorf University, believed the differences were down to human evolution...

No comment.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Michael Novak doesn't understand atheists

Michael Novak, longtime Catholic writer & commentator, tries to get inside the atheist mindset in this post from the FirstThings blog:

Writers who call themselves atheists have often surprised me by their reasons for not believing in God. In the long history of humanity, of course, their unbelief is an anomaly, a distinctly minority position. Even Clarence Darrow once said that he certainly did not believe in the Jewish or Christian God, but any damn fool knows there is a force and an intelligence that has shaped the universe we live in. But a few others, oddly, do not even believe that much.

I remember once reading a book about atheism by an atheist, who after considerable study of the situation in the United States wrote that (I forget the exact number) something like 70 percent of those who call themselves atheists do actually believe in a force or energy or ordering intelligence within the natural order. If that is what “God” is, they believe in God. They say “atheist,” it seems, to distinguish themselves from being Christians or Jews.

For a similar reason, some call themselves “naturalists,” as if Christianity and Judaism mean “supernaturalist.”

"A force or intelligence" does not equate to the word "God". That's equivalent to saying "I believe that there's something out there that does something which causes things to be as they are". A computer has intelligence. You could say that an ant colony is intelligent. The question which must be answered in the affirmative to equate that force or intelligence with God is "is it a personal, singular intelligence". That rules out collective or non-personal intelligence.

You can confuse the God question in any number of ways. You can define "God" so broadly as to make it impossible for anyone not to believe in it. By doing so you will have emptied the word of any meaningful content. To me the most salient dividing line between belief and nonbelief is to consider whether the acknowledgement of this entity makes any real difference in how the believer lives his or her life. Does his God demand any personal recognition, worship or due? Does his conception of God change the way he would live his life from the way he would without that conception of God. Does his God "matter"?

One reason I have often encountered for not believing in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus runs like this: As long as there is even one orphaned child, who uncomprehendingly sobs alone in the dark, I will not accept a God who permits such a world to exist. I refuse.

Another reason I have heard is this: Any God who would throw human beings into unmitigated torture in hell for all eternity, just because of a minor infraction of some silly taboo, is a being to despise, not to accept.

Doubtless there are other reasons besides these two. A full inventory would make a marvelous anthropological study. Yet, the tribe of atheists worldwide is, after all, a small one. Check out the estimates for the religious beliefs of humankind published in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Despite the efforts of communist Russia and China to coerce people into atheism, the number and the proportion of atheists are still impressively small.

To return to the two reasons for unbelief given above: The first is a rather odd one. The inquirer assumes a position of moral superiority to God, as a person more intelligent, more pure, more noble, more compassionate. It suggests that the inquirer cares more about the child sobbing in the dark than that child’s Creator and Father does. That would certainly be odd.

It is not odd at all. It is just a recognition that the definition of what is good is separate from the definition of what God, or any other personal being, wills. This is where the religious, who pride themselves on the assertion of goodness and evil as objective, unchangeable truths, confuse their logic so thoroughly. If the good is whatever God wills, then either the good is subjective, or God is not a personal being. Conflating the two destroys the distinction between the two words. Either we focus on what God wants and ignore the question of whether He is good, since the word good has lost its meaning, or we focus on what is good, and not view God as a personal being, for He has become merely the manifestation of an objective truth, and thus has no "will", per se.

Caring about children sobbing in the dark, or more importantly about children dying senselessly, is either good or it is bad. Everyone with a conscience can agree on this, regardless of whether we are good enough to act upon it in the face of these realities. We recognize people who act in the face of the suffering of such children as good. If God is omnipotent we would expect him to act to prevent senseless suffering. If He does not He is either not good, or not in a position to act, therefore not omnipotent. Or doesn't exist. Logically you have to choose one of these three options.

The second objection, concerning hell, evinces a most primitive notion of hell, and also of what constitutes a sin. A sin, writes St. Thomas Aquinas, is an “aversio a Deo,” a turning away from God, a turning away from Light, a deliberate and fully considered turning away from the light, however dim, of one’s own conscience.

From this it follows that hell is the utter absence of God, made fully conscious to the unfortunate one who with full deliberation excluded God from his life. In his lifetime only dimly aware of the vastness of God’s love for and friendship toward humans, such a person recognizes too late that it is only by his own personal choice that he forever cut himself off from the presence of the Divine Lover. It was pride that led to his total isolation, cold and dark. Pride that led to a fully considered and deliberate choice to live as though there is no God.

No one can complain about being in hell. Hell cannot be entered inadvertently but must be deliberately chosen. The choice that constitutes it is to exclude deliberately the God of Love from one’s own heart. It is to push away the extended arms of the divine friendship.

Some choices, like diamonds, are forever.

This is nonsense on, as Skipper would say, stilts. This "primitive" notion of hell is the majority notion of Christians today. Novak is being obtuse in pretending that Christianity has risen beyond such primitive notions. As a writer on religious affairs he cannot be ignorant of the tremendous growth of evangelical Christianity both in the US and around the world in the last 30 years. Hell for disbelief is de-rigeur for the evangelical identity. Not just general disbelief, but disbelief in the very particular theological canon of the evangelical church. Novak himself is condemned to hell by this view.

But Novak's view is really just a way to have his sophistication and brimstone too. He makes it seem as if God's invitation to an embrace, or his mere existence, is a universally known reality, as obvious to every person as sunlight or air. I've not received any invitations whose source is obviously God. I've received many from mortal men with a notion that they speak for God. That doesn't cut it with me. How am I supposed to know which one really speaks for God, if any? I've not been presented with any choices to enter hell.

Novak, of course, is using the language of the heart. Since I don't feel the same in my heart as he does, then obviously I am deserving of hell. This is the real danger of religion - the reification of feelings. Not of feelings related to common experience, but spiritual feelings. I have plenty of room in my heart for my fellow human beings, none for imaginary beings. Religion places the love for imaginary beings above the love for real people. It is a brutal truth at the bottom of every religious impulse, which no amount of feigned sophistication can obscure.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A turgid, inscrutable dissertation on the meaninglessness of life

…is the last thing on a man’s mind if he has just spent an afternoon in the Louvre, gazing on the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and countless masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian and Rubens, followed by a gentle sunset stroll along the Seine and a full-bodied bottle of Cotes du Rhone, but I’ll do my best.

“When good Americans die they go to Paris” said Oscar Wilde.

Which might be hard to believe in the current climate of Franco-Yanko relations, but there are still plenty of living bourgeois Americans wandering open-mouthed around the place. (You can spot them a kilometre off, not just because on average they are three to four times heavier than all the other tourists (apart from the Brits – they’re only twice the size of us) and five or six times friendlier, but because the women wear squint-inducingly bright trouser suits in pink or lime and thinly-disguised expressions of disgust at the laissez-faire continental attitude to hygiene, while the men have enormous cameras around their necks and spend Euros like Disney Dollars.)

Tourist-spotting is as much a part of a European city holiday as ticking off the iconic monuments. All the cliches are true: the snap-happy Japs taking photos of everything that doesn’t move, the English patiently queuing in forlorn hopes of a tay au lay, sill voo play, while the beautiful Italians push in front of them and pay no heed to even the severest tuts.

But full marks to those Americans who do make the considerable effort to get a passport, get over and do the whistle-stop European tours. It’s an essential educational experience. Books, films and the internet are wonderful things, but unless you’ve been out of your timezone and walked around Paris, London and Berlin, seen what they were and what they’ve done with that, and consequently what you are and where you are now, you’re missing out on something.

Paris, London and Berlin are the crucial ones. Seriously, if you can afford it, go and visit them before you die. You could write many an essay on their competitiveness with each other; their intertwined histories; the differences that make them the essence of their respective countries in some ways; and the similarities that mean that in many important ways they have more in common with each other than with the nations they each represent.

The differences are what you’d expect: Paris values art and aesthetics above everything. The Louvre is a wonder of the world. The Eiffel Tower, unlike the Reichstag, Westminster or Buckingham Palace, is an iconic building with no practical use whatsoever. London’s interests are the most varied: the National Gallery, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the V&A. Berlin has thrown up extraordinary mea culpa monuments to its own shame: the Jewish Museum, the Checkpoint Charlie museum.

But the similarities are more striking, not just in the thrilling multicultural rush of travelling around on the metros (don’t even pretend you understand what European multiculturalism is about until you’ve been on the Bakerloo line). London has the Mall and Trafalgar Square; Berlin has Unter Den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate; Paris has the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe. Huge, hubristic, Freudian statements about victories over each other, now endlessly trampled by one other’s gawping tourists. What could be finer than the fact that French tourists emerge from the Eurostar at Waterloo Station?

History is what keeps these places rolling in Disney Dollars, and the cities sag under its weight: not least, the weight of its superstitions.

Notre Dame may as well have a neon sign above its gothic arches: Welcome to the Post-Religious World. In August there are so many tourists trudging through that you get carried round it in a sort of human conveyor belt. The Japanese snap away agape: just look at all these mountains of crazy stuff they built for Christianity! The experience is qualitatively no different to viewing Stonehenge. In the Louvre you walk through rooms full of sculptures of Hercules to rooms full of sculptures of Christ in the tomb, with no indication that there is an essential difference.

(I dropped into Bristol Cathedral recently, as I occasionally do: a literally awesome building. A begging sign claims that it costs £2 to keep it open for one minute. (York Minster, the largest gothic building north of the alps, costs £10,000 a day to run. They’re having to sell off stones on E-Bay.) In a chapel off the southern quire there was a sign saying ‘Service today – 11am. All welcome.’ I heard a clergyman murmuring so I peeped in. He was literally alone – no congregation at all. Talking wholly to himself, unless God was listening.)

That’s as close as I’m getting to a turgid dissertation on meaninglessness. Meaninglessness is in the eye of the beholder. Go to the Musee D’Orsay on the Left Bank, probably the most perfect art gallery in the world. Only 7 Euros to get in, and in the space of about three hours you can walk through a converted railway station crammed with all the famous, calendar-adorning works of Monet, Renoir, Manet, Rodin, Degas, Van Gogh, Pissaro, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat. Not a bad collection for a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Then go and share a bottle of Merlot with your favourite Mademoiselle and decide for yourself what is and what isn’t meaningless.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

So What ?

Alternate title: Good.

Hezbollah leader: Cease-fire plan unfair

He can't imagine how little we care.

"Hostage-taking Bank Robber: Police Being Unfair"


Mars Rover Inspects Beagle Crater

Leonard David
Senior Space Writer

Those industrious robots on Mars--NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers--remain on duty as they gather new science data from their respective spots on the red planet.

Opportunity has just concluded a survey of Beagle Crater, a relatively young feature, said William Farrand, a research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. He is also a member of the Mars Exploration Rover science team.
Farrand told that Beagle is named after the ship, H.M.S. Beagle, that naturalist Charles Darwin served on.
Over the weekend, Opportunity's Panoramic Camera was busy collecting a color sweep of Beagle Crater and its blanket of tossed out material. "So that should make for a pretty spectacular data product when all the full frame scenes are finally downlinked," Farrand said. In addition, Opportunity ground handlers snagged multispectral views of the scene. In addition, by using the robot's Miniature Thermal Emission Spectrometer (Mini-TES), data on the mineralogy of rocks and soils at Beagle was obtained, he said.

Opportunity will next be examining a banded ripple and then resume its drive towards Victoria crater, Farrand said. The 115-foot (35-meter) Beagle Crater and the rover are both about 1,837 feet (560 meters) from the rim of Victoria.Victoria Crater is nearly half a mile (800 meters) in diameter. That's nearly six times wider than Endurance Crater, the feature that Opportunity explored for several months in 2004 studying rock layers affected by ancient water. Victoria

"Everybody on the team is pretty excited about the prospect of getting to Victoria crater," Farrand added. When the robot pulls up to that feature, scientists are expecting to see something like 65 feet (20 meters) of stratigraphic section exposed on the walls within Victoria. "That will give us a deeper view into the past history of Meridiani Planum than we got at Endurance crater or any of the other craters examined to date on the mission," Farrand explained.


The rovers have been exploring Mars for just over 30 months.
They had a planned lifetime of 92 days. (90 Martian days).

While that's cool enough, that we're exploring another planet all Star Trek-like, and that the rovers are still going strong although they're the human equivalent of 700 years old, another thought did cross my nationalistic and Anglocentric mind.

America built, delivered, and safely landed two exceptionally reliable rovers to ANOTHER PLANET. In that we are not alone, as most large European nations, plus Japan, Russia, and Australia, could and/or have done similar feats, but it's a pretty small list compared to the world as a whole, and the U.S. are acknowledged by all to be # 1 on that list.

On the other hand, we are witnessing now in Israel the deployment of a related technology, Hezbollah's Iranian rockets.
Now, Iran has to be considered one of the Middle East's most technologically proficient nations, simply because they're widely considered to be capable of building atomic weapons, which while fairly simple to design, aren't easy to build.
(And perhaps I should note that although they're capable of executing assembly, they wouldn't be anywhere near to atomic weaponry except for the help, directly and indirectly, of China, France, and Russia).

And yet, the rockets that they've supplied to Hezbollah are stunningly ineffective. (Not unlike the Soviet-made Syrian anti-aircraft missiles that failed to bring down even a single Israeli aircraft during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in '82, although they did manage to kill several people on the ground when they fell back to Earth. But I digress).

Hezbollah has launched over 3100 rockets, and has managed to kill a mere 50 Israelis thereby, for a kill ratio of over 60 rockets/fatality. (That stinks out loud. Is Iran satisfied with spending at least a half-million dollars per random Israeli death ?)
These rockets are unguided, and of a design that was obsolete 40 years ago.
Poster "Susan's Husband" could design and assemble something similar in his backyard, given the materials and a deathwish.

So, that's the contrast. We are making science fiction into science fact, and the best that their best can do is to copy a design that was state-of-the-art during the Korean War era.

While there will continue to be turmoil day-to-day, and many people will die during the Arab societies' death throes, the ultimate outcome is in no doubt whatsoever, just like the British/Zulu conflicts of the 19th century.

The Arabs/Persians are toast, extra-blackened. Possibly literally, if the Iranians manage to light a nuke in an American city, or in Israel.