30 September 2009

We are In the Penal Colony

Kafka's story, "In the Penal Colony," is a remarkable parallel to our modern day and the conservative pundits.

This story, like most of Kafka's work, has an underlying theme of futility and despair. A Traveller is visiting a penal colony, and is instructed on the method of execution they use by an impassioned Officer, while an attendant Soldier holds a chained Condemned Man. As is Kafka's modus operandi, the place and people are named generically, to make them facelessly threatening and generic. The Officer raves about the efficacy of the monstrous method of execution and the system of justice, which he learned as an acolyte of the Old Commandant. The Old Commandant, who assumes the aspect of legend in the breathless awes of the Officer, is being superceded by a New Commandant. The Officer considers the New Commandant to be petty and obviously wrong-headed.

How like the Officer are our modern conservative pundits, with Limbaugh and Beck and Savage all yearning for the Old Reagan? And of course, they imagine that everyone is secretly on their side. In the story, the Officer believes that all the other soldiers secretly support the executions and the Old Commandant.
“This process and this execution, which you now have an opportunity to admire, have at present no more open supporters in our colony. I am its single defender and at the same time the single advocate for the legacy of the Old Commandant. I can no longer think about a more extensive organization of the process—I’m using all my powers to maintain what there is at present. When the Old Commandant was alive, the colony was full of his supporters. I have something of the Old Commandant’s persuasiveness, but I completely lack his power, and as a result the supporters have gone into hiding. There are still a lot of them, but no one admits to it."

The same attitude abounds among the pundits. All real Americans are conservatives who oppose health care reform, even if statistics say resoundingly the opposite. They are just in hiding, in fear of the New Commandant. But they really honor Reagan's legacy and all real Americans want to go back to that. No matter the facts.

The Traveller, for his part, listens and watches with what appears to be both intellectual interest and vague disgust. The environment is oppressively hot and bizarre, but he feels bound to listen to the fevered explanations and haranguing of the Officer. He is courteous and tolerant - even to a fault, feeling he has no right to step in even though he admits he is opposed to the entire process. How like a Democrat, unwilling to step in in the clutch!
The Traveller bit his lip and said nothing. For he was aware what would happen, but he had no right to hinder the Officer in any way. If the judicial process to which the Officer clung was really so close to the point of being cancelled—possibly as a result of the intervention of the Traveller, something to which he for his part felt duty-bound—then the Officer was now acting in a completely correct manner. In his place, the Traveller would not have acted any differently.

The part of the story that made me laugh the most when this rough analogy occurred to me was the end. The Traveller wishes to see the grave of the revered Old Commandant.
They pushed one of the tables aside, under which there was a real grave stone. It was a simple stone, low enough for it to remain hidden under a table. It bore an inscription in very small letters. In order to read it the Traveller had to kneel down. It read, “Here rests the Old Commandant. His followers, who are now not permitted to have a name, buried him in this grave and erected this stone. There exists a prophecy that the Commandant will rise again after a certain number of years and from this house will lead his followers to a re-conquest of the colony. Have faith and wait!” When the Traveller had read it and got up, he saw the men standing around him and smiling, as if they had read the inscription with him, found it ridiculous, and were asking him to share their opinion.

They wait for Reagan to return, while others laugh.

25 September 2009

Tampa, Seattle, Michigan, Korea, Japan, Italy, Spain, and Tunisia: 188 of my best pictures

Timeline of life

As measured in galactic years - one galactic year is the time it takes for our galaxy to make a complete revolution.

0 GY - Our sun is born.
4 GY - Oceans appear on Earth.
5 GY - Life begins in its simplest form.
7 GY - Bacteria appear.
10 GY - Stable continents develop.
16 GY - Multicellular life evolves.
19.999 GY - Homo sapiens sapiens evolves.
20 GY - Now.

24 September 2009

"Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote"

This amusing short story, by Jorge Luis Borges, anticipates and mocks reader response theory in literature - the notion that we should consider the meaning of a text to be changeable depending on the reader's experiences and interpretation. While I think reader response is very valuable (Stanley Fish walks the streets of Olympus) it is nonetheless a damn funny story.

It's written as if it were a literary review, and it highly praises the fictional Pierre Menard, who has "rewritten" Cervantes' Don Quixote. But all he has done was mimic the original text exactly - the only difference is how we supposedly must read the versions differently based on their authorship.
It is a revelation to compare Menard’s Don Quixote with Cervantes’. The latter, for example, wrote (part one, chapter nine):
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor. Written in the seventeenth century, written by the “lay genius” Cervantes, this enumeration is a mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
. . . truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor.

History, the mother of truth: the idea is astounding. Menard, a contemporary of William James, does not define history as an inquiry into reality but as its origin. Historical truth, for him, is not what has happened; it is what we judge to have happened. The final phrases—exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counselor —are brazenly pragmatic.

The contrast in style is also vivid. The archaic style of Menard—quite foreign, after all—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his forerunner, who handles with ease the current Spanish of his time.

Check it out.

23 September 2009

Masterpiece of Journalism

In the current New Yorker, reporter David Grann has one of the best articles I've read in some time, detailing the state's execution of an innocent man.

Obviously the article's content is important - the executed man, Cameron Willingham, appears to have been conclusively innocent. Accused of starting a fire that killed his three children, it has come to light that the original arson investigator was one of the old-school "mystic" types who went with their "instinct," and in the process misinterpreted virtually every clue that pointed to an accidental fire. Texas' clemency process is a joke; there is great pressure for a show of a process but cost-cutting yields nothing more than a facade. The state murdered Willingham, and it's appalling.

But even beyond the content, the article itself is masterful in its structure. It takes us directly into the case, walking us through the arson investigator's conclusions and all of the evidence that led him to conclude Willingham was guilty. At the end of the first part, we know he must be innocent (otherwise why would the article have been written?) but it's hard to see how. He clearly was lying about the fire and must have set it. He's obviously guilty.

The second part of the article introduces questions and doubt, as a woman on the outside begins to take an interest and investigate. The reader is brought along the trail of inquiries, as new problems arise and the pile of questions mounts. By the end of the second part, we doubt.

In the concluding third of the article, Willingham is exonerated. A brilliant expert examines the case and is shocked, and is joined with other experts to conclude Willingham must certainly be innocent. The evidence from the first part is walked through again, this time with a better eye and wiser thoughts. And in the end, the reader is left yearning for someone - anyone - in the appeals process to just pause and look at this. To stop the impending, looming murder.

Willingham dies, of course. It wouldn't be news and it wouldn't be a tragedy otherwise. Almost unquestionably, Texas falsely prosecuted, imprisoned, and executed a man who had just lost his three children in an accidental fire. His wife divorced him and shunned him to the end because she was told he murdered her babies. He died alone and in despair. And innocent. The article hammers home every ounce of the tragedy here.

It's a terrible, wrenching story. I was already firmly opposed to capital punishment (it's impractical and immoral), but if I hadn't been I assuredly would be now.

Read it.

The Making of Beck

If you've ever read this, you know I hate Glenn Beck. I always thought he was just some whimpering nutjob from Tampa who had been doing his little AM show for years (my stepmother loves him), but it turns out he has a whole long and filthy story.

A Salon series has just been released by Alexander Zaitchik, examining his past. Fifteen years of smoking weed every day and cranking out on whatever else, a brilliant career as a morning DJ in the "zoo" format that crashed and burned, and an adult convert to Mormonism (who the hell does that?) have shown me what led to the eye-bugging fearmonger we know today. And there are some goddamn disgusting stories.
The animosity between Beck and [rival DJ] Kelly continued to deepen. When Beck and Hattrick produced a local version of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" for Halloween -- a recurring motif in Beck's life and career -- Kelly told a local reporter that the bit was a stupid rip-off of a syndicated gag. The slight outraged Beck, who got his revenge with what may rank as one of the cruelest bits in the history of morning radio. "A couple days after Kelly's wife, Terry, had a miscarriage, Beck called her live on the air and says, 'We hear you had a miscarriage,' " remembers Brad Miller, a former Y95 DJ and Clear Channel programmer. "When Terry said, 'Yes,' Beck proceeded to joke about how Bruce [Kelly] apparently can't do anything right -- about he can't even have a baby."

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

21 September 2009

Old Drinking Song

I used to work in Chicago in an old department store
I used to work in Chicago. I don't work there any more

Oh, a lady came in for a chicken
A chicken from the store.
A chicken she wanted; my cock she got.
I don't work there anymore.

Oh, a lady came in for some cheddar
Some cheddar from the store.
Some cheddar she wanted; blue-vein she got.
I don't work there anymore.

Oh, a lady came in for some dentures.
Some dentures from the store.
Lowers she wanted; up her I got.
I don't work there anymore.

Oh, a lady came in for a camel.
A camel from the store.
A camel she wanted; a hump she got.
I don't work there anymore.

Oh, a lady came in for a carpet.
A carpet from the store.
A carpet she wanted; laid she got.
I don't work there anymore.

Oh, a lady came in for a flag.
A flag from the store.
A flag she wanted; my pole she got.
I don't work there anymore.

17 September 2009


In 1910, Congress decided they no longer wanted to follow the Constitution.

Well, it's actually arguable when exactly that decision was made, but in 1910, the size of the House of Representatives was frozen at 435. It had steadily increased since the founding, expanding from 65 as it tracked the growth of the population. This was in keeping with the second section of the first article of the Constitution, which says in part:
The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative.

This wasn't convenient to them, though, since increases in population with western expansion threatened the east's dominance. So they froze it, and it has stayed that size ever since.

This is why a voter in Delaware has a third again as much representation as I and other Florida voters do; the tiny states of the northeast each get a representative, whereas the rest of the country in the populous states has to divide the same-sized pie among a swelling number of voters.

A recent NYT editorial reminded me of this problem that had been bothering me for some time. But I don't see a solution. The House is already unwieldy and operates as a reflexive mob, so more than doubling or tripling its size to follow the Constitution would need to be accompanied by some kind of reforms to make it an effective body. What could those reforms be? I don't know.

EDIT: No doubt prompted by the same editorial, Nate Silver at 538 weighs in on the topic, sort of, arguing that instead an additional 50 Senate seats should be distributed based on population. It has some merit.
Right idea, wrong chamber.

Indeed, the better idea would be to push for a constitutional amendment not to eliminate the Senate, or even to make it exactly like the House, but to at least move it closer toward more equipopulous representation. For example, if we added another 50 senate seats, to be redistributed based on population above and beyond the guaranteed two each state already receives, that would bring it in somewhat closer proportion. We could even set an upper limit so that no state has, say, more than five as well as none having fewer than two. That would actually go some distance, however partial, toward remedying the grotesque disparities of the Senate--and yet still give smaller states a disproportionate share of the seats relative to their population shares, just not as disproportionate.

Former Evangelical on Fundamentalists

Goddamn, this guy hits pretty damn hard.
Schaeffer: We have a big slice of our population waiting for Jesus to come back, they look forward to Armageddon, good news is bad news to them.

When we talk about the Left Behind series of books that I talk about in my book Crazy for God, what we’re really talking about is a group of people who are resentful because they know they’ve been left behind by modernity, by science, by education, by art, by literature.

The rest of us our getting on with our lives; these people are standing on a hilltop waiting for the end. And this is a dangerous group of people to have as neighbors and they’re our national neighbors and this is the source of all these insanities that we see leveled at the president.

One way or another they go back to this little evangelical subculture… it’s a disaster.

Maddow: … How do you work to move people off of that position? It doesn’t seem like facts are relevant in trying to move people away from these beliefs.

Schaeffer: You don’t work to move them off this position. You move past them.

Look, a village cannot reorganize village life to suit the village idiot. It’s as simple as that, and we have to understand: we have a village idiot in this country. It’s called fundamentalist Christianity.

And, until we move past these people, and let me add as a former life-long Republican, until the Republican leadership has the guts to stand up and say it would be better not to have a Republican party than to have a party that caters to the village idiot, uh, there’s gonna be no end in sight.

The next thing they’ll do is accuse Obama of being the anti-Christ and then who knows what comes next? On and on it goes.

There is no end to this stuff. Why? Because this subculture has as it’s fundamentalist faith, that they distrust facts per se.

They believe in a young earth, six-thousand-years-old, with dinosaurs cavorting with human beings. They think that whether it’s economic news or news from the Middle East, it all has to do with the end of time and Christ’s return.

This is la-la land, and the Republican part is totally enthralled to this subculture, to the extent that there is no Republican Party.

(h/t: Friendly Atheist)

16 September 2009

Damn right.

General John Stark, hero of the Revolutionary War:
Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.

11 September 2009

Cruise pics

Pictures from the cruise are up in the most recent few galleries here.

Question with Boldness

Glenn Beck's favorite catchphrase of the moment is "question with boldness." It's from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote on April 21st, 1803, to his friend Benjamin Rush. But I always giggle when I hear it, since this is the whole quote:
"Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear."

You can't make this stuff up. I wonder when someone will tell Beck about this?