Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Empty Rhetoric of Extreme Environmentalism

If one were to look for evidence to support the notion of memes, all-powerful ideas that infest minds like viruses, one would find a treasure trove in the extreme environmentalist movement. A perfect example of this is the empty rhetoric of people protesting the culling of the kangaroo population in Australia:

At the same time, an abundance of kangaroos has prompted the government to begin administering lethal injections to 400 of the animals.

Protesters have vowed to seek a court injunction to stop the slaughter of the eastern gray kangaroos, which are viewed as sacred symbols by Australia's indigenous people.

Scientists say the kangaroos' rapidly growing population threatens their survival, as well as that of some reptiles and insects that share their grassy habitat.

Police on Wednesday charged eight Aboriginal activists with trespassing on the Canberra site where the kangaroos are being killed. The activists hope to persuade officials to relocate the animals; the Defense Department says that would be too costly.

Canberra's local government leader, Jon Stanhope, said he understands that the killings distress many people. But he said more than 3.5 million kangaroos are commercially shot in the Outback each year. The meat is served in restaurants and is also used in pet food.

Pat O'Brien - president of the Wildlife Protection Association of Australia, whose patrons are the family of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin - said government leaders miss the point.

"Shooting millions of kangaroos doesn't make it right," he said. "The national capital has a chance to lead by example and show that Australia has moved beyond solving all our wildlife management problems with a gun."

Kangaroo populations are too high because Australia's native predators have been hunted to extinction. Therefore, in order to put the ecology back in balance man must step in to the predator role. Allowing the kangaroo herds to overpopulate will result in the painful starvation deaths of thousands of them, as well as stress the resources that other species need to survive. Predation is a necessary, essential part of the natural environment. Anyone who voluntarily goes by the title of environmentalist should have such basic facts down pat.

But not Mr O'Brien and the animal infatuationists. Compared to how kangaroos would be culled in a more natural setting, by being chewed to death, shooting is outright humane. But marry the knee-jerk opposition to two politically incorrect ideas, guns and human predation, and you get one monumental case of idiocy that is impervious to rational thought.

Can the environment possibly survive the onslaught of environmentalists?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Perfect Rock & Roll Song

One sign of genius is when an artist makes a performance seem effortless. In the world of rock & roll the group that pulled off that feat the most was the Rolling Stones, and the song that perhaps combines all the aspects of that the best, in the form of percussion, base, guitar and vocals is "She's So Cold" from 1980. This is the peak of the form. Each aspect is perfectly balanced, working together. It's been all downhill from there.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Way, Way out of the Office

My son and I are going on a 3 day backpacking trip with his Boy Scout troop.

We will be well beyond cell phones and the internet, so my blogging will become as minimal in activity as it has long been in content.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Adventures in Consumerism

For sometime now, stretching nearly to forever, I have been annoyed by the teeming horde of remotes required to do anything with the entertainment infrastructure. Clearly, I need a universal remote.

This, by the way, stands as a good example of a self-licking ice cream cone: consumption requiring even more consumption to service the original consumption.

Hellish, I know.

Anyway, I pooled all I know of universal remotes. Which amounts to [crickets].

Then headed off to Best Buy on account of, well, branding seductive despite its garish obviousness.

Based upon my aforementioned vast store of universal remotes, I looked for something that would remotely do everything, and cost around $50. My first contact with reality was not promising. The cheapest example of technological ecumenism at a distance went for $140. But, what the heck. It is a Mother's Day present that was going to be the best sort of surprise — something my wife had no idea she wanted.

So, having taken all of 30 seconds surveying the option$, I walked off with a Logitech Harmony 880 (sic).

The second head-on contact with reality was at the checkout counter, where the $140 remote rang up as $390.

My look, equally comprised of horror and incomprehension, was so graphic it — and just possibly the echoing thud of my jaw hitting the floor — immediately grabbed the checkout person's attention. After hearing my assertion that the thing was racked under a placard saying $137, he told me to stop by Customer Service. They would probably want to confirm my story, but if it checked out, they would refund $250 to me. On the way to Customer Service, I went back to the universal remote display and confirmed there was a whole bunch of what I was holding — which was, coming to think about it, suspiciously heavy for $137. There is no way one gets two pounds of high-tech for anything less than, well, $390.

Oh well. Off to Customer Service. On the way, I gave the package a closer look. The top flap, from which the WMD proof blister package hung, was folded over in such a way that the model number's second and third digits, written on a descending line, were partially obscured, making the difference between 880, under which price tag it hung, and 890, which was what I was holding, far from intuitively obvious.

Arriving at Customer Service, I diagnosed their problem for them, and presumed I would just return it, since there was no way they were going to give me a $250 price break for a racking error.

They insisted. In fact, they let me keep the original purchase receipt after refunding the $250. Which means, I suppose, I could have come back a few days later to return it for the original price. Hard to explain that one to the kids, though ...

Anyway, what I got was a bit of cosmocity that, through a USB cable melding the silicon minds of the remote, my laptop and the Internet, teaches the remote the language of virtually every remotely controllable device on the planet. That doesn't make it quite so smart as to be able to control the dog, but still. On top of that, it also has an RF receiver which will drive IR repeaters which, when stuck the respective device's front panel in front of the IR sensor, will allow control from anywhere in the house, as well as the ability to leave the stereometer cabinet closed all the time. I felt a certain amount of gratification here, as I was finally holding something I — along with just about everyone else with even a barely intuitive grasp on the glaringly apparent — had mentally invented at least twenty years ago. Most entertainment equipment of any stripe looks as if it was smacked hard and often with an ugly stick; I relished finally being able to slam the cabinet doors on those visual crimes.

My gratification was further spiced with relief, for the receiver's "remote" should have been termed a "proximate", as I had to get them so close together in order to obtain any results that I often pondered whether, in the interest of avoiding blowing any lurking aneurysms, I should use the receiver to smash the proximate, or the other way around.

The highlights of universal remote consumerism utopia so far: one button push to get the system jump whichever hoops you desire; e.g., the Digital Music button turns the receiver and dock on, while turning everything else off, and sets the receiver input to the dock. Very cool.

Also very cool was tossing all the other remotes into a gunny sack and dragging them out to the garage, where they will burden an out of the way shelf until forever.

Not so highlights. Telling the thing to tell the system I want to listen to, say, the cable's Adult Alternative channel works fine. Receiver and cable box on, everything else off, and receiver to cable mode. But there is no way, so far as I was able to determine during my short -- and sleep deprived -- stay at home, to program any macros into it*. In addition to that other stuff, I want the thing to automatically transmit channel 814 to the cable box. Heaven forfend I should actually have to push those buttons myself.

Also, the universal remote may have overhyped itself. At first blush, its control over the DVD player is less than complete. When trying to do something truly valuable with my time — watching season 2 of The Simpsons — it won't allow changing menu options. The only game in town is to select whatever option the DVD opens on, which in this case happens to be Play All Episodes. No big deal, unless I can't watch them all in one sitting. Otherwise, I have go resurrect a remote, thereby unlicking the self-licking ice cream cone.

This is probably a hint to upgrade my DVD/VCR player from cheap & old to expensive & new. And, no doubt, real shiny so as to highlight its hideosity.

See Consumerism, Self Licking Ice Cream Cone, Example of.

Of course, when I do, I will no doubt shop Best Buy. Customer Service really has embedded itself in most businesses. And, perhaps, is helping to reinforce civility in the broader culture.

Most importantly, though, my wife has finally come to understand how much she wanted a universal remote for Mothers' Day.

I think.

*According to the linked review, macros are there for the taking. Having done the initial setup after getting home via a redeye, I plead exhaustion. Stupidity, though, is still an option.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Out of office

Posting will be light this week. I'm in Phoenix, enjoying the 100+ degree heat and sunshine, visiting with my daughter and helping my ex-wife recover from hip surgery.

Monday, May 12, 2008

I Sense a Chunky Soup Commercial in the Making

LeBron James scolds mom during Cavs-Celtics game

By J.E. Skeets

In the second quarter of tonight's Cavaliers-Celtics game, LeBron James, on a breakaway dunk, was wrapped up by Paul Pierce. The two players became tangled and stumbled their way under the basket near where LeBron's mother sits. Gloria James, being the firecracker that she is, started yelling at Pierce for the hard foul on her son. Here's the video with LeBron's classic reaction — keep an eye on the woman in the white shirt:

Yup. That's LeBron telling his mother to "sit your (butt) down!" Happy Day-After Mother's Day, mom!

Are we supposed to believe this is real? This action smacks more of Vince McMahon Jr. than Dr. James Naismith. Lets face it, the NBA has become a giant snorefest. It's only a matter of time before they start scripting the action. It's a perfect time to bring retired college coaching legend Bobby Knight into the fold as a chair-tossing, powderkeg "special commissioner" charged with cleaning up the league. Bring back Dennis Rodman as a team manager who "don't play by the rules". Script some walk-on spots for superfans Spike Lee and Jack "Seven Iron" Nicholson.

You heard it here first.

One for the "Protest Too Much" file

The female ideal pushed by laddie magazines has become as smooth and lifeless as an iPhone
May 03, 2008 04:30 AM
Stephen Marche
Special to the Star

Megan Fox is the sexiest woman alive. Last year she wasn't sexy at all. In 2007, the 21-year-old starlet didn't even make the top 100 in FHM's annual ranking of the world's women. In 2008, she's number one. The obvious reason for her sudden rise up the charts is the popularity of Transformers and its key scene in which she appears in a short skirt bent over a 1976 Camaro. But she couldn't have entered the list at all if she hadn't made the wise career decision to change her last name from "Foxx" to "Fox." One more x and she's a porn star; one less and she's an object of aspiration – perfect for FHM.

For Him Magazine, and the other lad mags like Maxim and Umm, occupy a strange, liminal place in the territory of contemporary male desire. They exist to allow men to look at women's bodies sexually but not pornographically. With the emphasis on suggestion rather than revelation, the women in their pages are slick materialistic ideals, as current in their smooth plastic forms as the Prius or iPhone.

The downside to such manufactured people is that they're all the same. If you were mugged by any one of the women in the top 10, you couldn't pick the perpetrator out of a lineup. They're all white. They all have long hair and they're almost all blonde. They all have the same high cheekbones. They all have the same nose. Each woman is allowed exactly one deviation from the norm, and the deviation is immediately remarked on – her tattoos or her extra-dark eye makeup or her curves. The girls of FHM are obviously products of a fundamentally icky consumerist objectification, but their engineered homogeneity also reveals an incredibly limited imagination.

In some ways, it's a surprising development. If the lad mag is the latest chapter in the long, toxic and ancient book called "Men Staring at Women," it's very different than anything that's come before. The nude throughout the history of art offered a social expression for forbidden sensuality, which is why the women, sprawled on exotic beds or on picnic lawns, emerging from the bath or from the sea foam, are always sexually available. In FHM, the women are totally unattainable – "too good for you, buddy" – and their way of dressing, in the context of a world in which seemingly every celebrity has a home sex video on the market, is comparatively modest. The subjects of nudes were womanly – whether the plump nymphs cavorting in pastoral scenes of Rubens or the cubistic chest-thrusting models in Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon. Their womanliness reminded male audiences of their manliness. The women in FHM's top 100 are almost all rail thin, with whittled down bodies and faces. Every year there is less and less to them.

Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth complained that women in the media were "mock-ups of living mannequins, made to contort and grimace, immobilized and uncomfortable under hot lights, professional set-pieces that reveal little about female sexuality." She was right and she's still right. But the women in FHM are an equally false representation of male desire. FHM is not a men's magazine like GQ or Esquire. It's a magazine for lads – for 15-year-olds. It serves adolescent boys with the fantasy that there is something or someone out there who is the "sexiest," a comforting norm of male desire which does not exist and has never existed.

If only it were so simple. Men (as opposed to boys) know that male desire doesn't fit any pattern; it changes unpredictably, sometimes over years, sometimes over an afternoon. Male desire is particular – some men like women in tutus, others like women who are morbidly obese. Who can say what men are attracted to? It could be the second joint of the middle toe, or green eyes, or a certain ineffable way of walking.

Shakespeare found the world's sexiest woman in Cleopatra, but her sexiness was a shifting bizarre mass of contradictions and complications: "She makes hungry where most she satisfies; for vilest things become themselves in her." The appeal of FHM's list of sexy women isn't the women so much as the list: It imposes order on what is inherently chaotic. It's a false order of course, but the lads reading FHM can pretend for a while.

How this ranking of the parade of gleaming pneumatic women will affect young men isn't clear. Will it terminally limit their budding libidos or only provide a kind of temporary simple-minded refuge from the gathering deluge of sexual complications they're about to face? As with everything when it comes to male desire, nobody knows.

The great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, a man who spent half his life among pictures and sculptures of naked women, was nonetheless shocked to discover on his wedding night that his bride Effie had pubic hair. On coming into contact with a real woman, the poor man actually went into spasms. We can only hope there's a better fate for the lads whose first image of womanhood is Megan Fox with one x.

Come again?

This kind of overwrought, hyperverbalized denial might be understandable coming from a woman, but come on, Stephen! Noone's buying the act. You're obviously trying to make it with a feminist chick.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Definitive Debunking of the misuse of the Anthropic Principle to support Intelligent Design theory*

The Anthropic Principle is much used by Intelligent Design advocates to argue for the improbability that our existence can be explained except by the invocation of a Designer who fine-tuned the constants that govern the physical laws and properties that make our universe capable of supporting intelligent life.
A modern variation of the teleological argument is built upon the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle is derived from the apparent delicate balance of conditions necessary for human life. In this line of reasoning, speculation about the vast, perhaps infinite, range of possible conditions in which life could not exist is compared to the speculated improbability of achieving conditions in which life does exist, and then interpreted as indicating a fine-tuned universe specifically designed so human life is possible. This view is well articulated by John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986).

Some of the estimated proportions involved in cosmic "fine-tuning" are remarkable. John Polkinghorne, for instance, pointed out in 1985 that just one factor among many in the cosmos, the difference between expansive and contractive forces in the expanding cosmos according to then-currently accepted theory, depends upon an extremely fine balance of the total energy involved to within one in 1060 , a sixty-one digit number equivalent to taking aim from Earth and hitting an inch-wide target at the farthest reaches of the observable universe. George Wald, also in 1985, wrote in the same context that the conditions for something as fundamental as the atom depend on a balance of forces to within one in 1018. Proponents of the fine-tuned universe form of teleological argument typically argue that taken together, the various fine-tuned balances appear quite improbable, and hint strongly at something designed rather than accidental. And, of course, "designed" implies a "designer" of some kind.

In a debate with VoxDay on his blog, I wrote this reply to his contention that one cannot speak intelligently about probabilities without an understanding the basis upon which those probabilites are calculated.
This is a good point, and why I think the Anthropic Principle as an argument for god is so much rubbish. We are told that the physical constants that govern the formation of galaxies, planets, stars and living organisms are so finely tuned as to make the probability that they obtained their values from some random process to be astronomically small. Lets set aside the oxymoronic notion of a variable constant for now. All we know about the constants is the value that they have. If you are given a number, say 5, and are told that it was randomly generated, can you ascribe a probability to the result that it turned out to be 5 without knowing how it was generated? Was it generated using a six sided die, or a computer algorithm using a sixteen bit variable, or a 32 bit variable, or if it was drawn out of a hat containing twelve numbers? No, we can't.

On what basis can anyone say what potential values these physical constants can take, or whether they are variable at all?

* This correction was sponsored by Susan's Husband

Saturday, May 10, 2008

American Crime in Black and White

As a follow-on to our debate about the high US crime rate and how much of it is attributable to African Americans, I offer this essay by Heather MacDonald in the City Journal:
The race industry and its elite enablers take it as self-evident that high black incarceration rates result from discrimination. At a presidential primary debate this Martin Luther King Day, for instance, Senator Barack Obama charged that blacks and whites “are arrested at very different rates, are convicted at very different rates, [and] receive very different sentences . . . for the same crime.” Not to be outdone, Senator Hillary Clinton promptly denounced the “disgrace of a criminal-justice system that incarcerates so many more African-Americans proportionately than whites.”

If a listener didn’t know anything about crime, such charges of disparate treatment might seem plausible. After all, in 2006, blacks were 37.5 percent of all state and federal prisoners, though they’re under 13 percent of the national population. About one in 33 black men was in prison in 2006, compared with one in 205 white men and one in 79 Hispanic men. Eleven percent of all black males between the ages of 20 and 34 are in prison or jail. The dramatic rise in the prison and jail population over the last three decades—to 2.3 million people at the end of 2007 (see box)—has only amplified the racial accusations against the criminal-justice system.

The favorite culprits for high black prison rates include a biased legal system, draconian drug enforcement, and even prison itself. None of these explanations stands up to scrutiny. The black incarceration rate is overwhelmingly a function of black crime. Insisting otherwise only worsens black alienation and further defers a real solution to the black crime problem.

Racial activists usually remain assiduously silent about that problem. But in 2005, the black homicide rate was over seven times higher than that of whites and Hispanics combined, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. From 1976 to 2005, blacks committed over 52 percent of all murders in America. In 2006, the black arrest rate for most crimes was two to nearly three times blacks’ representation in the population. Blacks constituted 39.3 percent of all violent-crime arrests, including 56.3 percent of all robbery and 34.5 percent of all aggravated-assault arrests, and 29.4 percent of all property-crime arrests.

The advocates acknowledge such crime data only indirectly: by charging bias on the part of the system’s decision makers. As Obama suggested in the Martin Luther King debate, police, prosecutors, and judges treat blacks and whites differently “for the same crime.”

Let’s start with the idea that cops over-arrest blacks and ignore white criminals. In fact, the race of criminals reported by crime victims matches arrest data. As long ago as 1978, a study of robbery and aggravated assault in eight cities found parity between the race of assailants in victim identifications and in arrests—a finding replicated many times since, across a range of crimes. No one has ever come up with a plausible argument as to why crime victims would be biased in their reports.

Moving up the enforcement chain, the campaign against the criminal-justice system next claims that prosecutors overcharge and judges oversentence blacks. Obama describes this alleged postarrest treatment as “Scooter Libby justice for some and Jena justice for others.” Jena, Louisiana, of course, was where a D.A. initially lodged attempted second-degree murder charges against black students who, in December 2006, slammed a white student’s head against a concrete beam, knocking him unconscious, and then stomped and kicked him in the head while he was down. As Charlotte Allen has brilliantly chronicled in The Weekly Standard, a local civil rights activist crafted a narrative linking the attack to an unrelated incident months earlier, in which three white students hung two nooses from a schoolyard tree—a display that may or may not have been intended as a racial provocation. This entrepreneur then embellished the tale with other alleged instances of redneck racism—above all, the initial attempted-murder charges. An enthusiastic national press responded to the bait exactly as intended, transforming the “Jena Six” into victims rather than perpetrators. In the seven months of ensuing headlines and protests, Jena became a symbol of systemic racial unfairness in America’s court system. If blacks were disproportionately in prison, the refrain went, it was because they faced biased prosecutors—like the one in Jena—as well as biased juries and judges.

Backing up this bias claim has been the holy grail of criminology for decades—and the prize remains as elusive as ever. In 1997, criminologists Robert Sampson and Janet Lauritsen reviewed the massive literature on charging and sentencing. They concluded that “large racial differences in criminal offending,” not racism, explained why more blacks were in prison proportionately than whites and for longer terms. A 1987 analysis of Georgia felony convictions, for example, found that blacks frequently received disproportionately lenient punishment. A 1990 study of 11,000 California cases found that slight racial disparities in sentence length resulted from blacks’ prior records and other legally relevant variables. A 1994 Justice Department survey of felony cases from the country’s 75 largest urban areas discovered that blacks actually had a lower chance of prosecution following a felony than whites did and that they were less likely to be found guilty at trial. Following conviction, blacks were more likely to receive prison sentences, however—an outcome that reflected the gravity of their offenses as well as their criminal records.

Another criminologist—easily as liberal as Sampson—reached the same conclusion in 1995: “Racial differences in patterns of offending, not racial bias by police and other officials, are the principal reason that such greater proportions of blacks than whites are arrested, prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned,” Michael Tonry wrote in Malign Neglect. (Tonry did go on to impute malign racial motives to drug enforcement, however.) The media’s favorite criminologist, Alfred Blumstein, found in 1993 that blacks were significantly underrepresented in prison for homicide compared with their presence in arrest.

Read the whole article.

More Great Moments in Social Engineering

Giving a fresh take on the AIDS epidemic in Africa, epidemiologist Elizabeth Pisani writes in the Times Online about the nonprofit/NGO feeding frenzy that taps donor funds to combat AIDS in all the wrong places:
HIV is largely a sexually transmitted infection, so there must be something different about sex in Africa. Yet you can’t say that without appearing to be racist. So campaigners have come up with other reasons that HIV is worse in Africa: poverty, ignorance, men having more power than women. All politically correct, but not epidemiologically correct.

The truth is that a society in which many people have two or three partners on the go at any one time will produce a bigger epidemic than a society where people may have 10 partners in five years, but only one at a time. And it’s a fact that in parts of Africa, it’s more common for both men and women to have two or three simultaneous relationships than to have serial partners. Do people behave in this way because they are poor and ignorant? Not in Bangladesh, or Bolivia, or dozens of other countries where incomes and literacy are low. Indeed, in Africa, the incidence of HIV infection is highest in the richest households and the richest countries.

In east Africa, HIV spread first among people who had lots of partners – in other words, men and women who traded sex for money or favours. Had condom use in commercial sex been pushed to very high levels at the time – as happened in Thailand – the epidemic would have been contained.

But most African leaders played Three Monkeys. So a miner infected a prostitute, who infected another client, who went home and infected his wife, who infected her regular boyfriend. Suddenly, HIV was everyone’s problem.

In Africa. Outside the continent, most people infected with HIV are men who have anal sex with other men, people who inject drugs and people who buy and sell sex, as well as their lovers. Indeed, it was these groups that first surfed into public consciousness. Early in the epidemic, the virus was treated as a sign of wickedness, a black mark for bad behaviour. But voters don’t care for the wicked; ergo, politicians don’t care for the wicked. Ergo, no money for HIV.

God knows, we needed it. When I started out in this business in the mid1990s, the world was spending just $250m a year on HIV in poor countries. Later, as African infection rates soared, HIV was repositioned as an affliction of the innocent. The cash started to roll in and, last year, the world spent $10 billion on HIV in poor countries.

When the funding pie was small, HIV prevention meant doing helpful things for sex workers, gay men and drug injectors. Now that the pie has grown to 40 times its original size, and HIV has been painted as almost exclusively a matter of poverty, youth and “innocent victims”, everyone wants a bite.

The UN agencies were the first to jump on to the growing pile of funding, each finding a way to link the blood-borne virus to its own mandate. Other agencies dealing with children, development, economics, labour and agriculture all suddenly found that HIV was fundamental to their work. But the trail of funding hasn’t always taken them in the right direction.

It’s true, of course, that HIV has become a generalised problem in east and southern Africa, where, frankly, it is hard to know what to do about it except pray for better leaders. But what is true of those areas is simply not true for the rest of the world – where the “Aids is everyone’s problem” approach can do a lot of damage. A couple of years ago, I received an e-mail from Save the Children UK, asking for a reference for someone who had applied to be their HIV adviser in Indonesia. I asked why they needed an HIV adviser when only one in 22,000 of that nation’s children suffer from HIV – and most infections are in adult men. The charity would have been better off working on routine health services, education, even sanitation, I suggested. But no, Save the Children would do HIV in Indonesia, come hell or high water, because it was a corporate priority.

Donors are not supposed to cherry-pick (“I’ll have the orphans, please; thanks, but no junkies”). Yet (Red) has ploughed more than $100m into the Global Fund – and every penny is earmarked for drugs to prevent pregnant women from passing HIV on to their babies, for treatment of the sick and for support for orphans.

In other words, (Red) has chosen the projects that consumers of iPods and Gap T-shirts can feel good about. Because nearly everyone feels good about treating sick people – but preventing them getting sick in the first place: well, that’s a lot more controversial.

In east and southern Africa, two decades of denial and mismanagement have allowed the HIV virus to hollow out whole countries. In the rest of the world, HIV continues to threaten men and women who inject drugs, buy sex or sell it, as well as men who have sex with one another. The lovers of those people are at risk, too.

Together, they add up to tens of millions of souls – so we don’t want funding for HIV to evaporate. We just want to be able to use more of the money doing sensible things to prevent new infections.

I commend Pisani for telling the politically incorrect truth - culture plays a major role in why some areas of the world are harder hit than others, and it appears that is the case in East Africa. The thing that opened my eyes about the situation in East Africa is how simultaneous promiscuity is a norm among women as well as men. I had a more traditional, male dominated view of the situation, whereby men had multiple simultaneous sex partners while keeping a monogamous wife or girlfriend. It's no wonder that the disease has spread so quickly there.

However I take issue with other aspects of Pisani's approach, specifically her insistence on providing clean needles and condoms without making any attempt to change the behaviors that lead to the spread of the disease in the first place. From a purely medical standpoint this is probably the right thing to do, and I don't think it makes sense to hold disease prevention efforts hostage to behavior modification efforts. But a visit to her website, The Wisdom of Whores offers up evidence that she is actively hostile to policies that attempt to curb risky behaviors, expecially prostitution:

Tobias typifies the hypocrisy about prostitution which riddles the United States. He says he only paid Palfrey’s staff for massages, not for sex. And Palfrey says that to her knowledge her staff only provided massages. She said it in court. He didn’t have to. She was convicted of a number of crimes. He wasn’t. She is dead.

Tobias presided over a programme that aimed to end prostitution in the world. (I am not making that up. Check it out in the Box headed “Violence Against Women and HIV/AIDS”: “The Emergency Plan will also support interventions to eradicate prostitution”.) For a round-up of what people whose livelihoods is to be eradicated think of that, see the links to posts about Palfrey’s death on Bound, Not Gagged. The supporters of this policy argue that the willing buyer, willing seller principle which drives most of American life does not apply in the area of sex. They argue that prostitution is not a victimless crime.

This self-serving moralising, this craven hypocrisy about the trading of sex, is the real crime. It has just claimed it latest victim, in the form of Deborah Jeane Palfrey. May she now find peace.

Maybe in Pisani's ideal world prostitution is not a victimless crime, but in the real world that has yet to yield to Pisani's utopia prostitution has many victims:
WHAT do we know about the woman Gov. Eliot Spitzer allegedly hired as a prostitute? She was the one person he ignored in his apology. What is she going through now? Is she in danger from organized crime because of what she knows? Is anyone offering her legal counsel or alternatives to prostitution?

“I’m here for a purpose,” she said in a conversation with her booking agent after meeting with Governor Spitzer, according to the affidavit of the F.B.I agent who investigated the prostitution ring. “I know what my purpose is. I’m not a ... moron, you know what I mean.”

Her purpose, as a man who knew patiently explained, is “renting” out an organ for 10 minutes. Men rent women through the Internet or by cellphone as if they were renting a car. And now, in response to the news about Governor Spitzer, pundits are wading into the age-old debates over whether prostitution is a victimless crime or whether women are badly hurt in prostitution no matter what they’re paid.

Whose theory is it that prostitution is victimless? It’s the men who buy prostitutes who spew the myths that women choose prostitution, that they get rich, that it’s glamorous and that it turns women on.

But most women in prostitution, including those working for escort services, have been sexually abused as children, studies show. Incest sets young women up for prostitution — by letting them know what they’re worth and what’s expected of them. Other forces that channel women into escort prostitution are economic hardship and racism.

The Emperor’s Club presented itself as an elite escort service. But aside from charging more, it worked like any other prostitution business. The pimps took their 50 percent cut. The Emperor’s Club often required that the women provide sex twice an hour. One woman who was wiretapped indicated that she couldn’t handle that pressure. The ring operated throughout the United States and Europe. The transport of women for prostitution was masked by its description as “travel dates.”

Telephone operators at the Emperor’s Club criticized one of the women for cutting sessions with buyers short so that she could pick up her children at school. “As a general rule,” one said, “girls with children tend to have a little more baggage going on.”

Whether the woman is in a hotel room or on a side street in someone’s car, whether she’s trafficked from New York to Washington or from Mexico to Florida or from the city to the suburbs, the experience of being prostituted causes her immense psychological and physical harm. And it all starts with the buyer.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Well, Now that No One has asked ...

Here is how Senator McCain can put the election in the bag: Name Sarah Palin his running mate.

  • Got elected on her own merit
  • Prettier than Obama
  • Mother of five
  • Recently decided to complete fifth pregnancy, despite Down's diagnosis
  • non-denominational Protestant; fills the faith square without risking pulpit eruptions
  • Knows how to use a gun
  • will capture the women's vote
  • did I say she is prettier than Obama?

  • Minuses:
  • none

  • You are welcome, Sen McCain; really, it was my pleasure.

    You say reasonable, I say tomato

    Here's another example of the disconnect between British and American attitudes regarding what actions are reasonable to take in defense of oneself or others. This editorial in the Independent blog complains of the creeping "Americanization" of Britain in the wake of the police shooting of an urban gunman:
    The Chelsea and Stockwell police shootings: some questions

    By James Macintyre

    Questions are being raised in the Saturday papers over the Chelsea shooting by police of Mark Saunders earlier this week, and rightly so. One that doesn't seem to have been answered (or asked), is why did officers apparently spray him with bullets before throwing tear gas and stun grenades into his house, rather than the other way around? The Met, as ever, is behind the scenes heavily briefing its side of the story to the press. But the scrutiny it faces is notably enhanced since the last high-profile police shooting, that of the innocent Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes when he was mistaken for a suicide bomber in 2005.

    The repeated, point-blank-range de Menezes shooting is now being reported as the last by police before that of Mr Saunders. As it happens, one of the officers involved in the Stockwell station tragedy was reported to have shot and killed again. Either way, the Americanization of our streets, and the increasingly trigger-happy nature of our police, are justifiable matters for concern.

    But other worrying questions emerge from the two cases, too: after that of Mr de Menezes, it was reported as the aprehending of a suicide bomber and - after rampant spin by police - the now disproved myth, that the Brazilian jumped tube barriers, was running and wearing a bulky coat, prevailed not for days but for years.

    Later, Mr de Menezes was smeared over cocaine use - as if that somehow justified his death - in a fashion not completely different from the narrative about Mr Saunders's undoubted drinking problem. That the police is capable of spin is not in doubt, and it is worth remembering that certain leading Met bosses - apart from Sir Iain Blair who was kept in the dark - unquestionably lied to the media in an attempt to cover their terrible mistake. Should an off-the-record relationship between police and press be allowed? Perhaps.

    But there is another, crucial question here. By the way things are looking, the police will not get away with the kind of lies and spin they whipped up over Mr de Menezes. This is a good thing, despite the converse fact that the latter was entirely innocent, while Mr Saunders was, apparently, at the very least firing at neighbours's houses in his residential square.

    Certainly it takes a lot for the centre-right press to dare, as it has this week, to ask any questions of police officers, not one of whom - it should be remembered - has ever, despite everything, been held to account for the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.

    Could it be that in modern Britain the police killing of a white, middle class barrister in Sloane Square receives more scrutiny - and more justice - than a dark-skinned foreign electrician in south London?

    Macintyre's account gives few details of the situation that the police encountered outside Saunder's home that led up to their decision to storm the house. This article in the Guardian provides those details:
    Mark Saunders was shot dead by police when they feared that he would kill or seriously injure an officer or member of the public if he was not stopped, the Guardian has learned.

    Details of the reasoning by police when faced by the barrister who began firing indiscriminately after drinking came on the day an inquest heard he had been shot at least five times, and by more than one officer.

    Sources familiar with police decision-making say people had been still trapped in their homes in Markham Square, west London, when the 32-year-old opened fire on Tuesday afternoon. Officers considered trying to evacuate all the residents in the vicinity, but decided there was a risk that Saunders would open fire on anyone he could see from his window overlooking the square. They believed he would shoot any officer trying to get people out, and any of his neighbours.

    Saunders came across as drunk, the sources said, and he displayed a highly volatile mood while talking to police who were trying to convince him to lay down his shotgun and surrender.

    Experts say that three of the five shots - to Saunders's head, heart and liver - would have incapacitated him, and would have almost certainly proved lethal. These shots were fired as he and police were engaged in an exchange of fire for the third time, with Saunders holed up in his flat where he had fired from his second floor window three times over a 4½-hour period.

    The sources say the plan had been to wait Saunders out, after he first opened fire in the direction of his neighbours, and then again at armed police called to the scene just before 5pm.

    But that plan was scrapped when the former Territorial Army soldier fired at police from his window after 9pm.

    A senior source told the Guardian: "It was the strong belief that he would shoot someone, either a police officer or resident who was trapped and emerged from their house or flat."

    On Thursday his father, Rodney Saunders, questioned whether police had been obliged to use lethal force.

    A senior police source said that storming the flat and trying to take him alive would have been highly dangerous to the officers involved. After he took the fatal shots the flat was stormed by armed officers using stun grenades.

    Nine officers believe they opened fire during the siege; in keeping with police procedure the nine have been removed temporarily from firearms duties.

    Yesterday an inquest into Saunders's death opened at City of Westminster coroner's court. Coroner's officer Lynda Morris told the hearing that Saunders did not use his shotgun on himself: "The multiple gunshot wounds present are associated with severe internal damage to the brain, the heart, the liver and the main vein of the lower body. The external and internal gunshot-related damage is consistent with a minimum of five shots having hit the deceased." She was reading a preliminary report by pathologist Nathaniel Cary.

    The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating the incident. Investigators said they were looking at various lines of inquiry, and refused to rule out the possibility he was trying to commit so-called "suicide by cop".

    Somehow I think, given the circumstances of a drunk gunman firing at neighbors and police over more than a four hour period, that Macintyre's knee-jerk suspicions of foul play and the unreasonable use of deadly force are in themselves unreasonable. It is fine and proper to take the civil rights of a criminal into consideration, and to look for ways to resolve a situation without bloodshed, but never at the cost of putting the lives of the police and the public at undue risk. It is not like the British police have demonstrated a persistent pattern of deadly confrontations, yet their motives will be second and third guessed by people like Mcintyre, and they could quite possibly face charges.

    These are the attitudes that prompted my comment in Human Psychology 101 about a "legal philosophy which makes the law-abiding citizen responsible for the safety and well-being of the law-breaker." Based on the facts as presented in the article, I can't say that the police acted improperly or with undue force or recklessness. I think they did their job properly.

    If I were a homeowner in England who had to take drastic action to protect myself from an intruder, I would not feel in the least bit comforted if my jury were composed of people like Mcintyre. Not my definition of reasonable.

    Indigenous Shmindigenous!

    How many glasses of Pinot Noir must one quaff in order to begin to give a rip about this people's fate?
    Climate change plea from tribe of herders who face extinction

    By Emily Dugan
    Saturday, 10 May 2008

    Olav Mathias-Eira is a reindeer-herder. So was his father. And his father's father. He is a member of the Sami community, one of the largest indigenous groups remaining in Europe, and his family have been herding reindeer in the same stretch of the Norwegian Arctic since the 1400s.

    But, because of climate change, their lifestyle, unchanged for centuries, is now at risk. So Mr Mathias-Eira, 50, has travelled to Britain to issue an urgent plea in the hope that his people and livelihood can be saved.

    The atmosphere in the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else in the world, putting Mr Mathias-Eira and the Sami in the front line of global climate change.

    "Climate change is threatening our economy as reindeer herders," he said. "Because this is part of our traditional way of life, if the economy goes, probably the entire Sami culture would go with it.

    "Everything about climate change is happening too fast, much faster than we predicted. The [weather] is so unpredictable, so unusual. It can rain in the winter when it usually didn't rain before. The actions need to be fast too. World participation is most important now, but also our voices are not heard, and that's a pity. "

    The heavy winter rains and storms, previously unheard of, are making their ancient ice-roads treacherous. Because these thinning pathways are necessary to reach their reindeer, they turn herding into a life-threatening experience. Now only 10 per cent of the remaining Samis are herding reindeer, which means that a cornerstone of their traditional way of life is in jeopardy. "The reindeer [weighs] about 80kg, and it needs a good, solid ice when you are moving the herd," said Mr Mathias-Eira. "But traditional knowledge is no good any more, we just can't trust the ice."

    Two of his nephews were nearly killed after falling through while herding. "It was minus-30 degrees that day, and they were more than 100km from home," he said. "It was very scary. They managed to a phone and get shelter where they could get a fire, but they were lucky." The unseasonal rain caused by climate change also means an additional layer of ice forms over the snow, so reindeer cannot reach food. Mr Mathias-Eira has about 500 reindeer, but many herders have seen up to 90 per cent of their stock starve to death.

    Mr Mathias-Eira, who is married with three children, added: "To Gordon Brown I say, 'Cut the emissions, but also be aware that your ways of acting against climate change also affects indigenous people through the world'. We're paying a double price because we suffer all the climate change and also we're going to suffer all the actions Western states take to tackle it."

    In another threat, wind turbines and hydroelectric dams have sprung up in reindeer herding areas that had been protected, cutting grazing and forcing the Sami off their traditional land.

    The Sami live across northern Europe, in Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia. There are believed to be only 100,000 left.

    Sami culture

    *There are about 100,000 Sami remaining in northern Europe

    *Sami have lived in the same northern region of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia for more than 2,500 years

    *Their traditional livelihoods include fishing, trapping for fur and reinder herding

    *The Sami were previously known around the world as "Lapps", or Laplanders

    To start off, the Sami are not facing extinction. If they can't herd reindeer, they can move to town and get jobs. Everyone should have an opportunity to make a living, but noone should be guaranteed a livelihood in an occupation of their choice. Did anyone shed a tear over the extinction of the American programmer? I don't think so, other than the programmers themselves.

    But if you slap the adjective "indigenous" on a people, suddenly they become some priceless cultural treasure for which all the world is obligated to preserve. What exactly makes a people indigenous? The Swedish people are native to the land that they inhabit, yet they are not indigenous. Why not? Because they adopted foreign ways, like Christianity, technology and capitalism?

    Now a truly authentic indigenous people would need no outside intervention in order to survive in their environment. But like other endangered species, indigenous tribes like the Sami will need to be managed in some facsimile of their native habitat, not unlike a zoo.

    I, for one, think it is more respectful to treat people as free humans responsible for their own destiny rather than exhibits in a living diorama.

    Sunday, May 04, 2008

    Human Psychology 101

    Bad behavior is deterred by the real threat of consequences. This seems like a pretty obvious statement, yet in the context of gun control this simple truth is viewed by many as a paradox. Especially the British, who can't comprehend how the gun-crazy American society can manage to simultaneously be so civil:

    America's 'safety catch'
    By Justin Webb
    BBC North America editor, Missouri

    Despite the fact there are more than 200 million guns in circulation, there is a certain tranquility and civility about American life.

    Deepwater, Missouri has a motto: "A great lil' town nestled in the heartland."

    Deepwater considers itself to be an exemplar of the best of American life. A place where outsiders - if they ever penetrated this far - would find home-cooked apple pie and friendly, warm, hard-working folk.

    Among those folk, I have no doubt, is Ronald Long.

    Last month Mr Long decided to install a satellite television system in his Deepwater home. His efforts to make a hole in the outside wall came to nothing because Mr Long did not possess a drill.

    But he did have a .22 calibre gun.

    He fired two shots from the inside of the bedroom.

    The second killed his wife who was standing outside.

    He will face no charges. The police accept it was an accident.

    Gun control

    To many foreigners - and to some Americans - the tolerance of guns in everyday American life is simply inexplicable.

    As a New York Times columnist put it recently:

    "The nation is saturated with violence. Thousands upon thousands of murders are committed each year. There are more than 200 million guns in circulation."

    Someone suggested a few days ago that the Democrats' presidential candidates might like to take up the issue of gun control.

    Forget about it.

    They were warned off - in colourful style - by a fellow Democrat, the Governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer.

    "In Montana, we like our guns", he said.

    "Most of us own two or three guns. 'Gun control' is hitting what you shoot at. So I'd be a little careful about blowing smoke up our skirts."

    Democrats would like to win in the Mountain West this November. Enough said.

    Washington weapons ban

    On the anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting, all this will feel to some like a rather depressing, if predictable, American story. A story of an inability to get to grips with violence.

    Students hold candles during a ceremony at Virginia Tech (Photo: AP/Don Petersen)
    A ceremony marking the Virginia Tech shootings

    At the moment, there is an effort being made to overturn a ban on some types of weapon in Washington DC.

    Among those dead against this plan - those who claim it would turn the nation's capital into the Wild West - is a lanky black man (he looks like a basketball player) called Anwan Glover.

    Anwan peeled off articles of clothing for our cameras and revealed that he had been shot nine times.

    One bullet is still lodged in an elbow.

    His younger brother was shot and killed a few months ago.

    Anwan was speaking to us in a back alley in north-east Washington. If you heard a gun shot in this neighbourhood you would not feel surprised.

    'Gentler environment'

    Why is it then that so many Americans - and foreigners who come here - feel that the place is so, well, safe?

    I have met incredulous British tourists who have been shocked to the core by the peacefulness of the place

    A British man I met in Colorado recently told me he used to live in Kent but he moved to the American state of New Jersey and will not go home because it is, as he put it, "a gentler environment for bringing the kids up."

    This is New Jersey. Home of the Sopranos.

    Brits arriving in New York, hoping to avoid being slaughtered on day one of their shopping mission to Manhattan are, by day two, beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. By day three they have had had the scales lifted from their eyes.

    I have met incredulous British tourists who have been shocked to the core by the peacefulness of the place, the lack of the violent undercurrent so ubiquitous in British cities, even British market towns.

    "It seems so nice here," they quaver.

    Well, it is!

    Violent paradox

    Ten or 20 years ago, it was a different story, but things have changed.

    And this is Manhattan.

    Wait till you get to London Texas, or Glasgow Montana, or Oxford Mississippi or Virgin Utah, for that matter, where every household is required by local ordinance to possess a gun.

    Folks will have guns in all of these places and if you break into their homes they will probably kill you.

    They will occasionally kill each other in anger or by mistake, but you never feel as unsafe as you can feel in south London.

    It is a paradox. Along with the guns there is a tranquillity and civility about American life of which most British people can only dream.

    Peace and serenity

    What surprises the British tourists is that, in areas of the US that look and feel like suburban Britain, there is simply less crime and much less violent crime.

    Doors are left unlocked, public telephones unbroken.

    One reason - perhaps the overriding reason - is that there is no public drunkenness in polite America, simply none.

    I have never seen a group of drunk young people in the entire six years I have lived here. I travel a lot and not always to the better parts of town.

    It is an odd fact that a nation we associate - quite properly - with violence is also so serene, so unscarred by petty crime, so innocent of brawling.

    Virginia Tech had the headlines in the last few days and reminded us of the violence for which the US is well known.

    But most American lives were as peaceful on this anniversary as they are every day.

    I think you can attribute a lot of that tranquility to the fact that when people feel empowered to defend themselves, they feel safer. If I had to totally depend on the police to protect me from harm, even when in almost any situation where my safety could be threatened they could not be expected to arrive in time to defend me, I wouldn't feel so tranquil. Especially if I could expect to be subject to criminal and civil actions for any defensive actions I took on my own behalf. Why is this so hard for so many people to understand? It is basic human psychology.

    Friday, May 02, 2008

    Who needs Literature?

    I don't ask that to put literature down, but because I'm truly ambivalent about whether I should care that I rarely read fiction, let alone that class of fiction that can or should be classified as literature, anymore. I'm not alone. Razib at Gene Expression posts his own admittedly half-baked theory on why we have literature:
    Here's the argument: contemporary mainstream fiction is very different from the storytelling of the deep past because of a demand side shift. Women consume most fiction today, and their tastes differ, on average, from those of men. How do they differ? To be short about it men are into plot, while women are into character. This means that modern literary fiction emphasizes psychological complexity, subtly and finesse. In contrast, male-oriented action adventure or science fiction exhibits a tendency toward flat monochromatic characters and a reliance on interesting events and twists. Over my lifetime I've read a fair amount; but the vast majority of the fiction has been science fiction & fantasy. Many males outgrow this bias, perhaps as they become more psychologically complex and nuanced, but I haven't (though I don't read much fiction in general at this point). I know many other males who are similar; we aren't dumb, and not all of us have Asperger's. We just aren't interested into characterization or character. We are people of exotic ideas, novelty of story arc and exploration of startling landscapes. Contemporary mainstream fiction, high, middlebrow and low, does not usually satisfy these needs.

    But ancient fiction; epics, myths, etc., do fulfill these requirements. I didn't seek out fiction in any form before I was 13 or so (I was assigned books in school of course); but I had read Bullfinch's Mythology as well as translations of the Iliad and Gilgamesh. In hindsight I suspect that my interest in these works is due to the fact that they are recognizably High Fantasy. Either they are explicit myths, or, they refer to peoples and places whose lack of banality is due to their distance in time & space (obviously I have never been to the Zagros mountains!). I also have read historical fiction which is sufficiently distant in time, e.g., the whole of Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series.
    If you read Isaac Asimov's biography, In Memory Yet Green, I think you get a sense of why his novels depict flat characters. Though Asimov seems to be a gregarious individual, he was very narcissistic and self-involved. I don't get a sense that he was a socially sensitive soul (though he did resent the anti-Semitism he had experienced or slights from strangers). Asimov wrote something of an apologia for science fiction as a genre of ideas, but I think it reflects the set of values which I've expressed above and which many science fiction oriented individuals embody; plots, not people. (if you want every stereotype of science fiction readers confirmed, check out William Sims Bainbridge's Dimensions of Science Fiction, which is based on surveys at science fiction conventions)

    I can identify up to a certain point with the plot vs character dichotomy, though I do enjoy psychological richness in characters, which is probably why I much preferred Philip Dick to Isaac Asimov. But certainly the strangeness and novelty of science fiction settings did much to engage my interest.

    But is fiction mainly about escapism and enjoyment? If so, why is it taught in school as a mandatory subject, one that most students have as much enthusiasm for as math. But math is recognizable as a very utilitarian subject, one that lifts careers and national economies. What is the utility of literature?

    This article by Brian Boyd reminds me of why the study of literature makes my head ache:
    Precisely because who will partner whom matters so much to us, love stories have always flooded the story pool. Any new romance therefore runs the risk of neglect through habituation, the fading of interest in repeated stimuli. But the passionate sexual love of a mature man for a girl is not an overfamiliar love story. As a novel about an unusual love and an unusual murder, Lolita appeals to immemorial interests but from unexpected angles. It surprised and shocked the public when it was first published, and it still does. At over 50 million copies sold, it is surely the most demanding novel ever to sell so well.

    Let’s dive into the details of Humbert Humbert’s story to see if they bear out the idea of art as cognitive play with pattern, and to see how Nabokov eliminates habituation and animates attention. Humbert begins:


    Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

    She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

    Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

    Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.


    I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of Jerome Dunn, the alpinist, and granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects—paleopedology and Aeolian harps, respectively. My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at the bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.

    No other novel that I can recall starts with more patterned prose than Lolita. And its initial patterns themselves form parts of other patterns, like Humbert’s self-projection as an artist, a poet, an adoring lover, or his aestheticizing Lolita. But pattern and tantalizing hints of pattern saturate the text. Humbert’s mother is “the granddaughter of two Dorset parsons, experts in obscure subjects—paleopedology and Aeolian harps.” That in itself may be coincidence, or perhaps meaningful pattern; what are the odds of these two subjects containing the adjacent letters a, l, e, o? Is that accident or design, and if design, why?

    Nabokov has been called the greatest prose stylist in English, and not, I think, for the likes of Humbert’s patterned prose, but for his mastery of the psychology of attention, his capacity to shift our imaginations so quickly. Lolita’s name supplies the first word of Humbert’s text, and the last; his attention is obsessively on her, and he cannot introduce her name without caressing each syllable with lips and tongue. But even as he lingers on her in the second paragraph, the sudden images of Lo with different names and in different circumstances flash her into our mind’s eye: “Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. . . . Lola in slacks. . . . Dolores on the dotted line.” Nabokov knows how to catch our attention and fire our imagination by unexpected details and shifts.

    Or notice the saccadic jump in attention, without sensory detail but with the surprise revelation of “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Or the shift again from summary to “I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture postcards.” Everyone sits up here, because Humbert suddenly breaks frame, as it were, and because of the sudden concreteness: the mere idea of passing around these polished postcards activates motor, tactile, and visual areas of the brain—as neuroscientists have only recently established.

    Along with Ulysses by Joyce, Lolita is one of those books that I tried to force myself to read on more than one occasion, only to throw down in either utter boredom or disgust. After asking myself why I should consider it my intellectual duty to comb a sordid tale about an obsessive pedophile for some rich treasure trove of meaning and coming up blank, I'm left with the options of either considering myself a dunce or writing off the whole puffed up literary enterprise as some sort of confidence racket.
    But pattern and tantalizing hints of pattern saturate the text.

    So its just about pattern recognition? Is that it? Is there any need for conveying meaning or truth in literature, or has it become merely an aesthetic exercise? It takes a well developed aesthetic sense to notice these intricate patterns of prose, and probably an even more developed sense to care so much about them, but my question still remains: what is the utility of such a well developed aesthetic sense? Does it improve me in any way? Given that there are so many other vehicles to indulge one's curiosity, is anything truly lost to the individual or to society when works like Lolita are ignored by the masses?

    To underscore the downside of an overly developed aesthetic sense, Rachel Donadio warns that it can create a divide between lovers:
    Some years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”

    We’ve all been there. Or some of us have. Anyone who cares about books has at some point confronted the Pushkin problem: when a missed — or misguided — literary reference makes it chillingly clear that a romance is going nowhere fast. At least since Dante’s Paolo and Francesca fell in love over tales of Lancelot, literary taste has been a good shorthand for gauging compatibility. These days, thanks to social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, listing your favorite books and authors is a crucial, if risky, part of self-branding. When it comes to online dating, even casual references can turn into deal breakers. Sussing out a date’s taste in books is “actually a pretty good way — as a sort of first pass — of getting a sense of someone,” said Anna Fels, a Manhattan psychiatrist and the author of “Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives.” “It’s a bit of a Rorschach test.” To Fels (who happens to be married to the literary publisher and writer James Atlas), reading habits can be a rough indicator of other qualities. “It tells something about ... their level of intellectual curiosity, what their style is,” Fels said. “It speaks to class, educational level.”

    Pity the would-be Romeo who earnestly confesses middlebrow tastes: sometimes, it’s the Howard Roark problem as much as the Pushkin one. “I did have to break up with one guy because he was very keen on Ayn Rand,” said Laura Miller, a book critic for Salon. “He was sweet and incredibly decent despite all the grandiosely heartless ‘philosophy’ he espoused, but it wasn’t even the ideology that did it. I just thought Rand was a hilariously bad writer, and past a certain point I couldn’t hide my amusement.” (Members of, a dating and fan site for devotees of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” might disagree.)

    Judy Heiblum, a literary agent at Sterling Lord Literistic, shudders at the memory of some attempted date-talk about Robert Pirsig’s 1974 cult classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” beloved of searching young men. “When a guy tells me it changed his life, I wish he’d saved us both the embarrassment,” Heiblum said, adding that “life-changing experiences” are a “tedious conversational topic at best.”

    Let’s face it — this may be a gender issue. Brainy women are probably more sensitive to literary deal breakers than are brainy men. (Rare is the guy who’d throw a pretty girl out of bed for revealing her imperfect taste in books.) After all, women read more, especially when it comes to fiction. “It’s really great if you find a guy that reads, period,” said Beverly West, an author of “Bibliotherapy: The Girl’s Guide to Books for Every Phase of Our Lives.” Jessa Crispin, a blogger at the literary site, agrees. “Most of my friends and men in my life are nonreaders,” she said, but “now that you mention it, if I went over to a man’s house and there were those books about life’s lessons learned from dogs, I would probably keep my clothes on.”

    OK, so I've finally stumbled on literature's utility - it helps men to get laid.

    What's next, free milk?

    Cows still charge for milk, but it's never been a better time to be a voyeur, or a worse time to try to make a living in the pornography trade.
    DVD sales are in free fall. Audiences are flocking to pornographic knockoffs of YouTube, especially a secretive site called YouPorn. And the amateurs are taking over. What’s happening to the adult-entertainment industry is exactly what’s happening to its Hollywood counterpart—only worse.

    On Friday, May 18, Steve Hirsch, founder of Vivid Entertainment Group, the world’s largest producer of adult videos, was expecting a mysterious visitor. But Stephen Paul Jones was late. When Jones, an unknown figure in the pornography world, finally arrived in the all-white reception area of Vivid’s Los Angeles offices at 2 p.m., he was apologetic. His private plane had broken down, he explained, and he was forced to fly commercial. Hirsch, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, found that excuse a little slick. But he was eager to speak with Jones, so he let it slide and introduced him to two Vivid colleagues. When the four men sat down in the company’s conference room, Jones got right to the point: He wanted Vivid to buy his website,

    As its name suggests, YouPorn lets users upload and watch a virtually unlimited selection of hardcore sex videos for free. The user-generated clips on YouPorn—like those on YouTube, the site it mimics—range from the grainiest amateur footage to the slickest professional product. Also, like YouTube, the site has far more traffic than income. Just nine months after going live, in September 2006, YouPorn was on pace to log about 15 million unique visitors in May, Jones told the Vivid executives, and its audience was growing at a rate of 37.5 percent a month. Today, YouPorn is the No. 1 adult site in the world;, a pay site, is ranked 5,061. According to Alexa, a website-ranking company, YouPorn’s overall rank is higher than (84), (114), and (195). (Those numbers are averages for the three-month period from mid-June to mid-September.)
    Vivid’s situation is grim but not unusual. DVD woes plague the entire Valley, from multimillion-dollar corporate operations to backroom bottom-feeders: Total sales fell 11 percent in 2006, to an estimated $3.8 billion, according to Adult Video News, the industry’s leading trade publication. Hirsch’s company shares the high end of the market with about 20 other studios that each claim more than $20 million in annual revenues. Outside of those are at least 100 small producers who bring in $500,000 to $5 million a year, estimates Paul Fishbein, president of Adult Video News. These companies shoot on shoestring budgets of $10,000 or less (sometimes much less) per film. “Those rinky-dink companies are struggling to get 1,000 to 1,200 DVDs out at $8 to $10 wholesale,” says Fishbein. “That barely pays for the cost of a cheap production.”

    And the decline of DVDs will only accelerate. “You’re going to see a precipitous drop now,” Fishbein says. “Hopefully for producers here in the Valley, that will be offset by internet sales. Hopefully.”

    As the portion of Americans with broadband connections (47 percent and growing) continues to rise, consumers are becoming increasingly addicted to the immediate gratification of Web video. But suddenly, there’s a chasm between porn consumption and porn sales. While sales of internet-based adult entertainment grew 14 percent last year, to $2.8 billion, that figure would be substantially higher if there wasn’t so much free competition, especially from the user-generated adult sites.

    So far, the Valley’s biggest players have tried to combat this by offering subscription sites, which give users access to a deep trove of content in exchange for a membership fee, usually paid monthly. is one of the more successful. With about 40,000 subscribers paying $30 a month, Hirsch says, the site generates roughly $15 million in annual revenue. Ali Joone, the founder of Digital Playground, charges the same monthly rate and says he has a comparable number of subscribers.

    Much like the TV networks, movie studios, and record labels on the other side of town, porn companies are also engaged in a frantic attempt to diversify their offerings, filleting their films into smaller pieces that can be easily sold via an ever-shifting variety of digital distribution channels. From the pay-by-the-minute model on video-on-demand sites such as Adult Entertainment Broadcast Network and, to the four- to six-minute clips edited for mobile devices, the industry is looking to take the 90-minute sex videos from its old business strategy and carve them into bite-size moneymakers.

    But for many companies, the sum of these new revenue streams doesn’t even come close to offsetting the decline in DVD sales. What’s happening in porn right now is directly analogous to what’s happening to the music industry—CD sales are down 16 percent since 2005, according to Nielsen SoundScan—but worse.

    “What you’re losing in the DVD market, you’re not making up on the paid internet side,” says Fishbein. “Instead of 99 cents a song on iTunes, these guys are doing 10 cents a minute for porn.”

    If these were steelworkers or low end assembly workers being displaced by overseas sweatshop labor I'd have some sympathy, but somehow the thought of porn producers or actors being forced into the unemployment line brings me little sorrow. But I am troubled by the thought that beyond being a society of voyeurs we are now also becoming a society of exhibitionists. Hoffman's article gives a very detailed view of the production end of the traditional porn business, but I'd be be more interested in finding out more about what's driving the amateur producers. That is the real story here.

    Our society is going through a very real, very troubling shift, one that I don't think anyone had on their radar, not even the sci-fi crowd. How can one even begin to imagine the future when you can't even understand the present?

    Payback's a Mother!

    Mother of a soldier, that is:

    When peace activist Medea Benjamin stepped to the podium at the annual New Jersey Peace Action dinner yesterday, she already was known as co-founder of the human rights organization Global Exchange and the women's anti-war group CODEPINK.

    Yesterday, Benjamin received another title: terrorist.

    "The original Medea murdered her children," read one protest sign outside The Regency House hotel on Route 23 in Pompton Plains, where the dinner was held. "Medea Benjamin is murdering ours."

    Some 18 people from groups that oppose anti-war protests as "anti-American" hoisted signs condemning CODEPINK as supporting terrorism.

    "I'm here to support our soldiers," said Beverly Perlson, founder of the group Band of Mothers. Perlson, whose son served four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, flew in from Chicago to attend the rally in Morris County. She said CODEPINK protesters, who have agitated for the closure of a military recruitment center in Berkeley, Calif., are not just "anti-victory," they are "pro-defeat."

    "They want to see us lose. I don't understand this," Perlson said, after a heated exchange with CODEPINK supporters. "I've been referred to as the mother of a terrorist. ... My son isn't a terrorist."

    "They are a very virulent anti-American group," Carolyn Van Zorge, of North Bergen, state coordinator for the group Gathering of Eagles, said of CODEPINK, which has regional offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington and New York.

    A driver entering the hotel told the protesters, "I feel sorry for you." A protester spat back, "Go to hell!" Another remarked, "Keep driving, communist!"

    Seated at a table in the hotel, Medea Benjamin, a San Francisco resident dressed in pink, listened to the list of accusations from protesters outside.

    An issue frequently raised by protesters was $650,000 raised by CODEPINK for humanitarian aid in Iraq. Protesters maintain the money made its way to Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah. Benjamin said the donations were used for medicine and goods given to Fallujah refugees, especially women and children.

    You've got to love the Band of Mother's Motto: "Warriors come from Warriors".

    Thursday, May 01, 2008

    The Future is Now

    Another icon of science fiction becomes science fact: the raygun.

    How It Works: The Flying Laser Cannon
    Boeing's new laser cannon can melt a hole in a tank from five miles away and 10,000 feet up—and it’s ready to fly this year
    By Eric Adams Posted 03.13.2008 at 4:48 pm

    Creating a laser that can melt a soda can in a lab is a finicky enough task. Later this year, scientists will put a 40,000-pound chemical laser in the belly of a gunship flying at 300 mph and take aim at targets as far away as five miles. And we’re not talking aluminum cans. Boeing’s new Advanced Tactical Laser will cook trucks, tanks, radio stations—the kinds of things hit with missiles and rockets today. Whereas conventional projectiles can lose sight of their target and be shot down or deflected, the ATL moves at the speed of light and can strike several targets in rapid succession.

    I know that I speak for the entire Daily Duck community when I say "cool!"